Friday, June 10, 2011

Implications of a Moral Should

In my last post I suggested that moral statements have two main components.

(1) A truth-bearing component that says, "People generally have many and strong reasons to apply the tools of reward (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation) to the reward-learning system of others so as to promote those desires and aversions that would cause people to choose that which is called good, and refrain from choosing that which is called evil.

(2) an emotive component - the very act of praise or condemnation that the truth-bearing component says that people generally have many and strong reasons to employ.

Also, desires are the only reasons for action that exist. The many and strong reasons I mentioned in (1) turn out to be many and strong desires. Desires, in turn, are propositional attitudes. A desire that P is a mental state that motivates an agent to choose those actions that would realize P in a universe in which the agent's beliefs are rue and complete.

People, when they make moral claims, actually make all sorts of references to reasons for action other than desires. Divine commands, categorical imperatives, intrinsic values, social contracts, impartial observers - all are offered up as reasons to offer rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation. Yet, all of these claims are false. None of these reasons exist.

Others offer the suggestion that the truth-bearing component only refers to the desires of the speaker. It merely states, "I have a pro or con attitude towards you doing X" yet, they consistently deny that merely having a pro or con attitude justifies the implications that moral claims have. Is it morally permissible to kiss somebody based on the fact, "I have a pro-attitude towards killing you"?

It is true that people never sincerely assert, "P is true" unless they believe that P is true. however, this does not imply that, "I believe that P" is a part of the meaning of "P is true." similarly, a person does not generality "P is good" (or, what amounts to the same thing, "P is good" is true) unless they have a pro attitude towards P. But this does not imply that ir is a part if the meaning.

But if you want to use the term "moral should" to refer to something else - a red flower, for example - you are free to do so - so long as you limit yourself to making objectively true claims about those red flowers. Everything else I would put in the category of "make-believe".

So, what is objectively true about these components - when combined with the fact that desires are the only reasons for action that exist?

(3) The truth of the truth-bearing component is independent of the sentiments of the person making the claim.

It does not matter what you believe, or what your opinion is, or what you feel - there is a fact of the matter as to what sentiments people generally have the mist and strongest reasons to promote or inhibit. Any assertions you make about thus fact could be completely wrong.

(4) Whole societies can be mistaken about what is right and wrong.

The beliefs and sentiments, even those that dominate a society, are not necessarily the right one's for that society. People may think that they have reason to promote or inhibit certain desires, only to be totally wrong.

A clear example would be a society under the grips of a primitive superstition. Such people might think, for example, that some busy-body dirty with nothing more useful to do with its time will visit suffering on a community that tolerates homosexual activity. Even if everybody agrees with thus, they would all be wrong. No such reason for action exists. It would be a mistake to appeal to the sentiments of the majority to decide right and wrong.

(5) A person can know that something is wrong and not care.

There is nothing about the fact that people generally have reason to employ punishment events to the reward-learning systems of others that would inhibit their dispositions to perform certain acts that implies that a particular agent has a reason not to perform those acts.

The purpose of morality is not to keep people from doing what they already have reasons to refrain from doing. It is to give them reasons they might not already have to refrain from those actions.

Some of those reasons take the form if incentives and deterrence. These incentives and deterrence act on the desires the agent already has - desires to be fulfilled by the incentives or thwarted by deterrence. But these are not the reasons that morality speaks of.

The reasons of morality involve the creation or strengthening of some desires, and the weakening and extinguishing of others. It does not appeal to the reasons the agent has, but those that reward and punishment have the capacity to cause.

Some will continue to protest that this is at odds with the fundamental definition of morality. However, against those protests, I remind the reader that you cannot define things into existence. Decide how you want to define the word 'Pegasus', defining it as a winged horse will not allow winged horses to come into existence.

You can define morality as what appeals to the sentiments of the speaker. Even under desirism, "the sentiments of the speaker" are real, and we can make objectively true claims about them. Any objectively true statement about the sentiments of the speaker has to be one that desirism agrees with – otherwise, desirism is in error. Otherwise, the implication is that desirism contradicts a fact about the sentiments of the speaker.

However, when you go outside if what is objectively true of the sentiments of the speaker, or draw implications that do not follow from these facts, you have left reality behind and entered the realm of make believe. It is said that you cannot derive 'ought' from 'is', and that there us a gap between 'fact' and 'value'. I have a better term for what stands outside of the realm of 'fact' and it is not 'value'. It is 'fiction'.

Complain, if you want, that this does not capture your perfect super-dictionary definition of moral 'should'. But take care - your quest for the best definition may well define morality right out of existence.


Christof Jans said...

> Is it morally permissible to kiss
> somebody based on the fact, "I have a
> pro-attitude towards killing you"?

Well, I dunno. If you have a pro-attitude towards killing me and all you end up doing is kissing me it may not be that bad ... I think.

Bradley said...

Moral evaluations serve another point as well. They convey information to listeners about whether or not they are likely to benfit or suffer as a result of associating with the individual who's actions are being evaluated.

MichaelPJ said...

Okay, I've been following your blog for a while, and I just have one question:

How is this not simply a metaethical error theory (there are no moral facts, strongly construed), combined with an attempt to reconstruct something "almost as good" as morality?

And if it is, then is this not just one of the standard metaethical anti-realist positions?

For example, someone who held this position might say that there are no moral facts as people generally construe them, since there are no categorical prescriptions, and that is an ineliminable part of standard moral discourse. However, insofar as we form a community of people who care about other people's welfare, there are certain "moral-like" imperatives that apply to us because of that fact.

So you might, say, be convinced by Peter Singer's arguments that you are actually somewhat inconsistent in how you value other people's lives, and so you should donate more money to developing countries... and not take this to be a moral argument, but merely an argument conditional on the things you personally value.

Tom of the Sweetwater Sea said...

I am not sure I understand. I think I agree with you that people act from desires and influence others to implement those desires. To me this describes the situation as it is and does not imply a moral "should" or "ought."

Tom of the Sweetwater Sea