Monday, November 14, 2011

Distilling Morality

I have been asked to respond to the following comment:

Wait so your assertion about not doing evil basically distills down to "Because I want to be a good person and not do harm." How is this anymore valid than "Because I want to be bad and do evil."? If you can answer this without using a social construct and only natural law i would love to here your Answer. (Don't bother quoting Locke he does not answer this question, or Mill, or Bentham)

Well, the first part is wrong.

A person acts to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their belief. There is certainly room for a desires to be a good person and an aversion to causing harm - accompanied by beliefs that a good person has certain qualities and that certain states constitute harm. However, these will always be a small part of any person's motivational structure.

The first part is actually an empty statement. It says that a good person acts because "he wants to be a good person." Which means he acts because he wants to be somebody who wants to be a good person. Which means that he acts because he wants to be somebody who acts because he wants to be a good person. And so on, ad infinitum. It doesn't say anything about what a good person is.

Another problem with this statement can be illustrated by the fact that a good person seldom acts from a desire to be a good person. A classic example is that of visiting a sick friend in the hospital. A person motivated to come to the hospital because, "I want to be a good person and this is what good people do," has already failed the good person test.

The good person goes to the hospital because, "I care about you. I want to make sure you are doing well, and see if I can help - not because I want to be a good person, but because I am your friend. I don't care about being a good person. I care about you."

The parent who shows up at a child's school play out of a sense of duty just isn't as good a father as the one who is there because he is genuinely interested in his child's activities and enjoys the opportunity to watch his child participate on those activities.

Perhaps I am not interpreting the comment correctly. I could interpret it as saying, "I want to be a good person - which is to be understood as somebody who does not do harm." Taken this way, the comment can be more economically written as, "Wait. so, your assertion about not doing evil basically distills down to, 'I want not to do harm.'"

I agree that a person with an aversion to doing harm will avoid some evils - though he will have no reason to avoid or prevent harms caused by others. However, this will still only be one desire among many. It will live in the brain in the company of hunger, thirst, preferences for and aversions to particular food and drink, an aversion to pain, desires for certain sex acts, special affections for family and friends, and a whole host of interests from space studies to stamp collecting.

You will never, ever act solely on a desire not to do harm. And, given the mass of desires most of us have, the aversion to doing harm will seldom play the deciding role.

To avoid doing evil, you need more than a desire to be a good person. You need good desires. Good people and evil people both act to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. Beliefs aim at reporting what is true in the world. If our two agents both had true beliefs, they would agree on all matters of fact. That would not explain their different actions. Those differences are explained by differences in desires. If you want to get the evil agent to avoid doing evil, you change his desires.

What makes a desire good? Well, it's a desire that people have reason to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation. And the desires that people generally have reason to promote using praise and condemnation are those that would fulfill other desires. Whereas, desires that thwart other desires are desires that people have reason to inhibit through social forces.

Which is why morality is all about praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Take the desire for sex, for example. If you put this desire up against the aversion to doing harm, then the desire for sex will likely win out at least some portion of the time. However, if the desire for sex is actually "a desire to make love to a willing adult partner whose welfare is important to me", then a general aversion to doing harm is not even necessary.

So, people generally have reason to use social forces such as praise and condemnation to mold the desire for sex into "a desire to make love to a willing adult partner whose welfare is important to me" - by praising (so as to strengthen the relevant desires for) this form of sex, and condemning (so as to promote aversions to) those forms that do not fit this mold.

So, it is not the case that desirism, which I employ in these posts, says that "not doing evil basically distills down to "Because I want to be a good person and not do harm." Not doing evil distills down to having those desires people generally have reason to promote, and not having those desires people generally have reason to inhibit. This probably includes a desire to be a good person - with non-empty account of what a "good person" is, and an aversion to causing harm. But these will always be two desires in a long list of desires that agents have - natural and learned. Since agents always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of all of their desires given their beliefs, you cannot distill morality down to just one or two.

6 comments:

Diane said...

How about "avoiding stress" as a reason for being inherently "moral"?
Being a "good" person (empathically choosing to not personally generate turbulence outward into one's social circles) decreases personal stress.
Being a "bad" person could isolate one from social inclusion. For a human primate, exclusion is a painful, stressful situation. One's prefrontals can figure that out in advance, and make appropriate, troop-enhancing choices.
I doubt it would be useful to try to construct an answer that did not involve a (biologically congruent) social construct, in that as human primates we usually are hugely stressed about potentially not having the security and safety of a large enfolding "troop" to be able to disappear into, and that approves of us, or at least does not disapprove.
Just a thought. Apologies if this stray thought is offtrack.

Jesse Reeve said...

Diane--

Take bullying as a moral case study. Sometimes being a "good" person decreases stress (trading freely rather than bullying), and sometimes it increases stress (standing up to bullies). Sometimes being a "bad" person increases stress (being a bully) and sometimes it decreases stress (standing by doing nothing while bullies act).

If avoiding stress was an adequate reason to be moral, then we should expect that a person whose moral sensibility was removed and replaced by stress aversion would be no worse morally, and possibly better. But that doesn't seem right. I certainly wouldn't trust a person whose only desire was to avoid stress to do the right thing about bullying.

Any project to justify human morality based on one or a few simple principles is doomed to fail (or so it seems to me). Human morality is not simple or reducible, because it did not arise from a simple, reducible system.

Stress aversion does have an important role in desirism because it suggests one route of negative reinforcement: inflict stress on people with undesirable desires. If the offender is not stress averse, negative reinforcement will simply be applied in other ways-- fines, prison time, and so on.

marcellus said...

What makes a desire good? Well, it's a desire that people have reason to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation.

So, 'good' desires are the desires dictated to us by the people around us.

So, if they think that, say, having your daughter circumcised is a good desire, then it is?

Your whole desirism philosophy/theory always comes back to 'doing what other people think we should do'. I'm not sure that Rosa Parks would think much of it. Or (the historical) Jesus. Or Buddha. Or, for that matter, anyone who sees a majority oppressing a minority.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

marcellus

So, 'good' desires are the desires dictated to us by the people around us.

So, if they think that, say, having your daughter circumcised is a good desire, then it is?


False.

Thinking that having your daughter circumcised is a good desire does not make it true - any more than thinking that the earth is 6000 years old makes it true.

A community might think that, without an aversion to homosexuality, some deity will come and do them great harm. They believe that an aversion to homosexuality is a good desire. But it's not true - because their belief in a diety that will do them harm is not true.

Your whole desirism philosophy/theory always comes back to 'doing what other people think we should do'.

Again, this is false. People can and do make mistakes. There are moral facts that people can - and often do - get wrong.

marcellus said...

What makes a desire good? Well, it's a desire that people have reason to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation.

So, if they think that, say, having your daughter circumcised is a good desire, then it is?

False.


Alonzo, I'm simply taking your words at their face value. There's no contradiction between your words and the example I derived from them. Try simple substitution into your text above:

[Female circumcision] "is a desire that people have reason to promote using social forces such as praise and condemnation".

Millions of East Africans praise female circumcision and condemn resistance to it. Therefore, by your logic, it is a good desire. Neither of us agree with that, but your theory - your own words - support it.

Thinking that having your daughter circumcised is a good desire does not make it true

Tell me: how do you know that it's not a good desire? Hell, hundreds of thousands of teenage girls are pinned to the floor by their relatives and subjected to this barbaric process every year 'for their own good'. What makes your opinion righter than all those relatives? No arm waving and hyperbole, now. Just run me through your calculation. Make it concrete, personal and real.

Start with, "I, Alonzo, think female circumcision is a bad thing because..." and go from there.



Again, this is false. People can and do make mistakes. There are moral facts that people can - and often do - get wrong.

My point exactly. Alonzo, you give no basis for determining whether a moral fact is right or wrong, or a desire good or bad, other than the majority opinion and current beliefs, and, as you just admitted, people get that wrong.

How do you know that they've got it wrong?

The whole scheme is based on subjective beliefs and desires moderated by intersubjective pressure. That is no way to define whether one moral choice is better than another, because is no objective grounding to it.

Desirism works for me as a description of how moral decisions are arrived at in practice within societies. Peer pressure, might-makes-right, browbeating, bullying, threats, cash inducements, medals, employee-of-the-month certificates, promises of sex, denial of sex... these are just some of the tools of desirism in action.

But there is no underlying principle for deciding if one option is better than another other than current majority opinion under the current majority's belief system, and we all know that that's no way to determine what's right or wrong. Mob rule anyone?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Alonzo, I'm simply taking your words at their face value. There's no contradiction between your words and the example I derived from them.

No. You are conflating what people actually have reason to do with what they would have reason to do if their beliefs were true.

If people have false beliefs about female circumcision, then they may falsely believe that they have a reason to promote the practice. There will be a difference between what they actually have reason to do and what they believe they have reason to do.

Millions of East Africans praise female circumcision and condemn resistance to it.

Millions if people believe that the earth is 6000 years old. That does not make it true. Why are they praising female circumcision? What are their beliefs about it? Are those beliefs true? You can't infer from the fact that people praise something that they actually have reason to praise it. You can only infer that they would have reason to praise it if their beliefs are true. But are they true?

Tell me: how do you know that it's not a good desire? Hell, hundreds of thousands of teenage girls are pinned to the floor by their relatives and subjected to this barbaric process every year 'for their own good'.

Tell me, what good do they think they are doing? Is it true? A lot of people take homeopathic medicine because they think it fights disease. Can I know that it does not fight disease? Of course I can. They may think that female circumcision pleases God. Can I know that they are wrong? Yes, I can. They may think that sex is intrinsically wrong. Can i know that this is false? Of course I can.

They might think that it prevents disease. We can test that. They might think that it wards off evil spirits. Yes, I can know that this is false.

I also can and do know that it thwarts the desires of the people subjected to the treatment. It causes pain and thwarts the ability to experience certain pleasures. So, I already know of a lot if reasons that exist to oppose the practice. Are there any reasons for it that are true?

My point exactly. Alonzo, you give no basis for determining whether a moral fact is right or wrong, or a desire good or bad, other than the majority opinion and current beliefs, and, as you just admitted, people get that wrong.

You will not find a role for "majority opinion" in my premises. The reasons that exist do not appear or disappear based on majority opinion. A whole population can believe that homosexual behavior causes hurricanes, and it will still be false.

Do me a favor and identify one of these subjective propositions that you sat appears in my argument. Just one is all you need.