Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Moral "Ought" and Prescriptivity

I would like to address this comment:

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".

Could you explain what elements of moral "ought" might be missing from this description.

It is commonly understood that description and prescription are mutually exclusive categories. I disagree with this.

Ultimately, I hold that it is a very strange view that seems to assume that the universe is made up of two different types of things that can somehow interact with each other - things that can be described and not prescribed, and things that can be prescribed but not described.

Ultimately, I hold that "prescriptions" are a subset of "descriptions". All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. All prescriptions are descriptions, but not all descriptions are prescriptions.

So, what does a prescription describe?

It describes a relationship between some possible state of affairs and desires.

There are two types of ought - practical ought and moral ought.

If Agent has a desire that P, and action X can improve the possibility of P, then A ought to do X (unless A has more and stronger reasons - desire that Q - that are incompatible with P).

For moral ought, I propose that is a description of the case in which people generally have many and strong reasons act (desires) so as to apply rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) in order to promote or inhibit particular desires or aversions.

My question would then be - what aspects of conventional "ought" as used in practice is not captured by this claim?

"It's wrong to lie."

People generally have many and strong reasons to apply rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) so as to promote an aversion to lying.

What is there that is found in the actual use of moral "ought" and "should" that is missing from this account?

Ultimately . . . let's say you don't want to use moral "ought" in this case. You want to insist that moral "ought" requires some kind of categorical imperative or a command from God.

I answer . . . Fine. Then moral "ought" does not exist. We quit using "ought" statements in all real-world decision making. Desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit using rewards and condemnation still exist.

Or, let's say that you want to apply moral "ought" to . . . day, the greatest good for the greatest number.

Again, are you limiting yourself to that which is objectively true of "the greatest good for the greatest number?" If you are, then I am going to agree with everything you say. But, if you are assigning qualities to "the greatest good for the greatest number" (e.g., that it has some sort of intrinsic prescriptivity or that people are always justified in condemning those who do not promote the greatest good for the greatest number), then I am going to accuse you of making things up.

When I apply moral "ought" to "that which people generally have many and strong reasons to apply rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) so to promote those desires that would motivate such an action," am I saying anything about this subject that is not objectively true?

If I am, then I would also be guilty of making stuff up. So, I try to avoid that. But if that is your accusation, I need you to specify, exactly, what I am saying about these desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote that is not true. What is it, exactly, that I am making up or leaving out?

7 comments:

marcellus said...

I've been trying to parse your definition of 'ought' into Plain English.

"that which people generally have many and strong reasons to apply rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) so to promote those desires that would motivate such an action,"

--delete the auxiliary '(...)'s

that which people generally have many and strong reasons to apply rewards and punishments so to promote those desires that would motivate such an action

--assume that 'so to' should be 'to, to'.

that which people generally have many and strong reasons to apply rewards and punishments to, to promote those desires that would motivate such an action

--eliminate 'generally', 'many and strong'.

that which people have reasons to apply rewards and punishments to, to promote those desires that would motivate such an action

--reduce 'rewards and punishments' to 'feedback'

that which people have reasons to apply feedback to, to promote those desires that would motivate such an action

--substitute 'have reasons to apply feedback to' with 'want'
--substitute 'to promote those desires that would motivate such an action' with 'you to want to do'.

that which people want you to want to do.

--reduce 'to want to do' to ' to do'.

that which people want you to do.

--reinsert emphasis of 'many' and 'strongly'

that which many people strongly want you to do.

Hence, an 'ought' is 'that which many people strongly want you to do'.

Is this a fair reduction of the long version?

Austin Nedved said...

marcellus said:

--assume that 'so to' should be 'to, to'.

No, 'so to' should be 'so as to'.

marcellus said...

Yes, that reads much more naturally in the original context, Austin.

I don't think it changes the basic precis, though:

'ought' = 'that which many people strongly want you to do'

So, for example, 'You ought to tell the truth' = 'Many people strongly want you to tell the truth'.

Is it fair to say that practical oughts boil down to physics (you ought to put gas in your car if you want to drive somewhere), while the moral oughts, such as telling the truth, are simply peer pressure?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Marcellus

The main error you make is that you take the primary object to be "do" rather than "want".

Desirism is not primarily concerned with what you should do. It is primarily concerned with what you should want. Questions about what you should do are then derived from answers to the question of what you should want. You should do that has those desires people have reason to support, and which lacks those desires people have reason to inhibit, would do.

Thus the name . . . "desirism".

What is objectionable to 'that which many people strongly want you to do' is the very fact that some of these wants are better than others. We have reason to include some wants and exclude others. And desirism is concerned primarily with evaluating those wants.

The very object of desirism is the evaluation of desires, yet you provide a reduction in which wants are accepted without question or evaluation. Thus, what you end up with could not actually be further from desirism.

The next objection that usually comes up involves using desires to evaluate other desires. Yet, we use beliefs to evaluate other beliefs. The dominant theories in epistemology are coherentist (beliefs are justified by their coherence with other beliefs, where the best beliefs are those that are coherent with the largest interrelated web of beliefs). Desirism simply does to desires what coherentism does to beliefs.

The second error is that your reduction from what people generally have "many and strong reasons" to "want". While desires-as-ends are the only reasons for action that exist, "want" is far more ambiguous. It applies not only to what people desire as ends but also to what they desire as means - and even to what they falsely believe they desire as means. Thus, "want" includes a great many things in the equation that "has many and strong reasons to" excludes.

marcellus said...

Want vs. desire

In episode 8 of the podcast, when Alf is asked why he 'wants' to gather stones, he replies, 'because that's what I want.' Want and desire are used interchangeably through out the podcast, though desire-as-means and desire-as-end are used, rather than want-as-means and want-as-end. The difference in use between the two words seems to arise in the podcast when plain english conversation is being simulated ('if we ask Alf why he wants to gather stones') and when technical analysis is taking place.

What is objectionable to 'that which many people strongly want you to do' is the very fact that some of these wants are better than others. We have reason to include some wants and exclude others. And desirism is concerned primarily with evaluating those wants.

Again, desirism framed in terms of 'wants'.

The very object of desirism is the evaluation of desires, yet you provide a reduction in which wants are accepted without question or evaluation. Thus, what you end up with could not actually be further from desirism.

I don't see how adding a level of indirection changes whether or not we can question desires, wants or actions. The 'wants' in 'that which many people strongly want you to do' are just as open to questioning as 'desires in 'that which many people strongly desire you to do' or 'that which many people strongly desire you to desire to do.'

More importantly, when it comes to evaluating desires/wants isn't it the resulting consequences of the actions - the doing bit - that we have to assess?

In, say, using praise and condemnation to deter people from drink driving we worked backwards from the consequences of drink driving, i.e. people getting killed, to laws against the practice, which were often flouted, to desire influencing TV campaigns that shamed those who drank and drove.

When it comes to ourselves we go from desire to action, but when it comes to other agents we work from actions to desires.

I don't subscribe to beliefs being justified by other beliefs unless the beliefs are based on real world experience. The whole religious thing is a complicated web of interrelated, unjustified beliefs and can go straight out the window as far as I'm concerned. On the other hand, physics is an interrelated web of beliefs that are grounded in the real world, and I'm all for that.

Desirism is going to have to come up with a justified grounding for its evaluation of interrelated desires. It's the apparent grounding in 'many and strong reasons', i.e. peer pressure, that I have a problem with.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Marcellus

That particular use of the word "want" occurs in a podcast which is a part of a series which goes into detail on the roles played by desires-as-ends, desires-as-means, and the relationships between beliefs and desires.

Your reference here counts as taking a statement out of context and, in doing so, changes its meaning.

At best, you can assert that this is an example of my making the same mistake. Even the best you can do would not change the fact that it is a mistake.

The 'wants' in 'that which many people strongly want you to do' are just as open to questioning as 'desires in 'that which many people strongly desire you to do' or 'that which many people strongly desire you to desire to do.'

Yes, this is what I am saying. Furthermore, I explain how to do the questioning. The reduction that you proposed presents "wants" without questioning.

More importantly, when it comes to evaluating desires/wants isn't it the resulting consequences of the actions - the doing bit - that we have to assess?

On what basis can a "consequence" be assessed? Desires are to be evaluated according to whether they are disposed to fulfill or thwart other desires. When we look at the consequences of an action, we look at whether the act creates states of affairs that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires - the desires themselves are what give consequences their value.

If you were to evaluate an action according to its consequences, you need to look at the effects of the action and the effects of those effects. The fact that you are evaluating "an effect of an effect" does not change the fact that what you are ultimately evaulating is the action.

When you evaluate a desire, among its effects will be the actions that the desire will motivate an agent to choose under various circumstances. Evaluating the effects of those actions is just another example of "evaluating an effect of an effect" and is no more of a problem for evaluating desires than it would be for evaluating actions.

I don't subscribe to beliefs being justified by other beliefs unless the beliefs are based on real world experience.

Well, now that we have your vote, do you want to justify it with any particular reason?

And what is this claim that "beliefs must be based on real-world experience"? Is this not a belief? How is this belief to be justified?

The claim that there are self-evident beliefs (beliefs that are true without proof - without a need to infer anything from other beliefs) sounds suspiciously like faith. These are propositions simply taken as a given because they are their own proof. I think that this is going to prove to be far more problematic than a coherentist epistemology.

marcellus said...

Your reference here counts as taking a statement out of context and, in doing so, changes its meaning.

The podcasts are pretty consistent in using 'wants' when talking informally and 'desires' when formally analyzing agent interaction. I reported that observation. I have no problem with swapping vocabulary when moving from formal to informal. When I translated the long, formal phrase into a short informal one my use of 'want' was consistent with your podcast. I don't see either of us as making a mistake. Using 'wants' is such a natural way to talk about what people want that it takes some effort to do otherwise.

This phrase...

"that which people generally have many and strong reasons to apply rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) so to promote those desires that would motivate such an action,"

...says nothing explicit about questioning. The fact that my simplified translation of it also says nothing explicit about questioning shouldn't come as a surprise. Nevertheless, if formal desires-as-ends and desires-as-means can be evaluated in terms of fulfillment and thwarting then informal wants can also be evaluated by the same criteria.

On what basis can a "consequence" be assessed?

As I explained, drink driving came before dead people in cars. New technology can often result in new consequences which then feedback into new laws and moral codes. The US is the only country to have used nuclear weapons on people. The results were so hideous that a network of anti-nuclear proliferation treaties came out of the experience. A new-born baby thrashes around in its cot and, inevitably, pokes itself in the eye. This hurts - pain... don't like it! The baby learns not to poke itself in the eye. Action -> consequence -> desire, and desire, as you say, then feeds back into modification of actions. Now, a knowing parent might try and impart a desire not to poke oneself in the eye to their child, but until they've reached a certain age, it ain't gonna work. When my daughter was about three she wanted to know what I was doing when I was shaving. I explained it and told her very carefully that the razor was sharp like a knife and that she shouldn't touch it. She said, very earnestly, 'yes daddy'. A couple of minutes later she came running down the hall and announced to me, 'it hurts'. She'd climbed up on the sink, grabbed the razor and had a go at shaving. Now her top lip was bleeding. She left my razor alone after that, because of the consequences.

I don't subscribe to beliefs being justified by other beliefs unless the beliefs are based on real world experience.

Well, now that we have your vote, do you want to justify it with any particular reason?


If I let go of this apple I believe it will fall, because every other unsupported heavier-than-air object that I've held off the ground and let go of has fallen. You can verify this independently if you like :)

And what is this claim that "beliefs must be based on real-world experience"? Is this not a belief? How is this belief to be justified?

Beliefs that are not based on real world experience are, sooner or later, falsified. Do you still believe in Santa? Me neither.

The claim that there are self-evident beliefs (beliefs that are true without proof - without a need to infer anything from other beliefs) sounds suspiciously like faith.

Er, not sure what that has to do with anything I said. Unless you want to assert that my belief that this apple (core) will fall if I let go of it is merely an act of faith?