Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Naturalistic Moral Realism

Yesterday I started a brief comparison of Daniel Fincke's naturalistic moral realism to my own.

(For Fincke's account of value, see Camels Without Hammers Deriving a Naturalistic, Realistic Account of Morality)

I drew a distinction between the question "What has value?" and "What is value?" I illustrated this distinction by pointing out the difference between telling us what has a liver and what a liver is.

I then looked at Fincke's answer to the question "What has value?" and raised some objections to his answer.

Today, I wish to address the question, "What is value?"

It seems to me that a naturalistic, realist account of morality needs to offer an account what value is in naturalistic, real terms.

I cannot criticize Fincke's answer to this question because, as far as I can determine, he does not offer one. He provides us with an account of what HAS value without telling us exactly what it has. Often he assigns value to things as a means - they are useful for realizing some further state that has value. However, means necessarily borrow their value from the ends that they serve. Yet, Fincke does not provide us an account of what has value as an end - of what it is from which means borrow their value.

For my account, I describe value as a relationship between states of affairs and desires such that a true statement that some state of affairs S is good is a claim that there is at least one desire that P and P is true in S. Consequently, any agent with a desire that P has a reason to realize S. When this is true, then the agent with the desire that P has a motivating reason to act in ways so as to bring about S. This does not rule out the possibility that A may also have other desires that provide reasons to act so as to avoid S, or that others have an obligation to allow A to realize S. It only implies that S has a motivating reason to realize S.

Note: I am not saying that these relationships themselves have value. In fact, I will deny that they have any type of intrinsic value (intrinsic value does not exist). I am merely stating that an agent with a desire that P has a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs S where P is true in S. That is all - nothing more. I do not need anything more than this.

This account is consistent with the fact that "good" is an extremely ambiguous term. A good steak may be one that fulfills certain desires regarding taste, temperature, and texture. Yet at the same time it may be bad for me in that it realizes states if affairs (weight gain and other adverse health effects) that tend to be desire-thwarting. A movie can be good in the sense that it is entertaining, yet bad in the sense that it lacks those qualities that would tend to promote the cultural fitness of those who experience it. A can-opener can be good in terms if its capacity to open cans, but ugly in appearance - meaning that the observer is averse to experiencing the physical appearance of the can opener. However, the agent may say, "As long as it works, it doesn't have to be pretty."

Instrumental value, by the way, is the value that something has in virtue of its tendency to realize a further state of affairs S where P is true in S. A can opener may not fulfill any desires directly, but it is a useful tool in that it can be put to use realizing a future state of affairs (one in which an agent is eating the contents of the can) in which P is true.

Moral value is a subset of value (in the same way that such things as utility, beauty, and health are subsets of generic value). Ultimately, moral value evaluates malleable desires - those desires that can be molded through social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. It evaluates them according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires.

A desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote is a virtue, a one that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit is a vice. If it is a virtue, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote it using the social tools mentioned above. A vice is one that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit. Something can be a virtue (vice) without it being the case that people believe it to be a virtue (vice) - they may be unaware of the ways in which a trait would realize states of affairs in which a particularly large set of propositions P, themselves the objects of many and string desires, would be true (false).

Desires themselves evolved. We are disposed to desire those things where the desiring served the biological fitness of our ancestors. However, we evolved a plastic brain. We learn.

Our beliefs are molded by the impact of the physical world on the structure of our brain. A belief the P accurately describes the world when P is true.

Our desires are also subject to external influences. A desire that P is a motivational force urging the agent to act so as to realize a state of affairs in which P is made or kept true. Rewards tend to strengthen the disposition to behave in ways that brought the reward, while punishment tends to inhibit behavior that brought punishment. In the case of a reward, it does so by strengthening desires that tend to motivate agents to behave in ways that brought the reward, and weaken desires that would motivate competing options. Whereas a punishment tends to strengthen aversions that motivate agents to against those actions that brought the punishment and strengthen desires for alternatives.

In a community lime a colony, social rewards and punishments become ways of molding the desires if others. Grooming, sex, and food-sharing became the tools for promoting desires, and the desires to promote overall are those that tended to fulfill other desires. Violent attacks and non-lethal threats such as snarling, snapping, and growling serve as punishment in a community, inhibiting behaviors that (at least in the primitive understanding) tended to thwart other desires.

Mirror neurons gave us the ability to experience the rewards and punishments of others as our own. Rewarding - or punishing - one community member has an effect far beyond that of the individual rewarded or punished.

Even fictional depictions of rewards and punishment have an effect on our moral character. We can imagine what the people in the story are going through - we can create a simulation of the event in our brains and experience the effects as our own. Thus, stories and parables become an important part of developing moral character.

However, there is a difference between what is believed to fulfill or thwart desires and what fulfills or thwarts desires in fact. A community can make a mistake and praise as a virtue that which actually thwarts desires (e.g., intellectually reckless 'faith') or condemn as a vice that which they have no real-world reason to condemn (e.g., homosexuality). There is a fact of the matter that is independent of what people believe.

All of this fits in with the natural world. It requires no mysterious entities. That gives it a point in its favor when compared to other theories.

This theory also can account for a number of features found in moral institutions.

Here, I am not talking about whether the theory agrees with certain pre-theoretical prejudices such as the wrongness of rape or of slavery (pre-theoretical prejudices that many pre-theoretical cultures do not share), but its ability to account for the phenomenology of moral institutions.

Desirism accounts for the role of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in moral institutions. It accounts for the principle of "ought" implies "can" - since it makes no sense to apply praise and condemnation where they cannot have any effect. It explains the use of stories and parables in moral communication. It accounts for the common form of argument, "What if everybody behaved that way?" It explains the type of facts that are brought up in moral debate and how they are used in the support of moral conclusions.

One may object that people are not consciously follow desirism. However, that is not a requirement. Few bike riders can tell you the processes that allow them to stay balanced on two thin tires. However, it is no objection to the theory that they do so by turning the front wheel left and right and allowing their inertia to carry them back and forth over the center of gravity to say that they do not consciously realize that they are doing this.

One may also raise as an objection the so-called "Naturalistic Fallacy" of G.E. Moore or "Hume's Law" that one cannot derive an "ought" from and "is". These arguments take morality out of the natural world and put them in the supernatural world. Thus, the type of morality they describe does not exist. However, the fact they do not exist does not change the fact that malleable desires differently disposed to fulfill or thwart other desires and subject to the influence of social tools such as praise and condemnation do exist.

Third, one may object to applying the term "morality" to this account. Against this, I hold that language is an invention, and what we call something has no bearing on what it is. Pluto exists, and its properties are unaffected by whether or not we decide to call Pluto a planet. These malleable desires subject to social forces such as praise and condemnation exist as well, and will continue to exist, regardless of what we decide to call them.

I could go on for a long time here adding details to this. However, this blog post is already overly long. However, I hope it provides at least a little illumination on a naturalistic, realist account of what value is.
Tomorrow, I wish to apply this account to answer another question from the studio audience, a question about the morality of torture.


Justin said...

Fantastic, you've addressed several dilemmas that I've been struggling with and have created a workable structure for a solid system of morality. This read like a strong introduction to a book that I very much hope you will, one day, write.

josefjohann said...

Fincke has a post with a pretty comprehensive listing of his various moral arguments here:

Scroll down until you see a bunch of links.

One post where he gets more precise about what goodness consists in is this post:

He seems to relate goodness to effectiveness, with the kernel being "any being’s intrinsic good is to function effectively according to that function that the being is." A good heart is good at being a heart, and, I guess, a person is good at personing. And from this I suppose you can look at human biology to dig up certain essential facts about what people are and what we like and base a sense of good on that.

I bring this up because it's a different account of good than the one you seem to be answering in this post, and I'd be interested in more commentary on Fincke.

josefjohann said...

I seemed to have linked to the same post you were referencing. I did not realize this! I had bookmarked the same Fincke post earlier and assumed it was older than the piece you were replying to.