Monday, February 29, 2016

Michael Smith: Responses to Mackie's Error Theory - The Instrumental Approach

Mackie argues that we cannot have any type of "objective value" without having some sort of non-natural property, which doesn't exist.

I know that I said that I would use the term "intrinsic prescriptivity" to describe the types of values Mackie was arguing against. This is because of a confusion often generated between two types of "objective" - intrinsic prescriptivity vs. objectively true statements about relationships between objects of evaluation and desires.

However, in this case, "intrinsic prescriptivity" is going to beg some questions against the argument at hand.

Michel Smith aims to show - and effectively does show - that it is possible for the statement, "we would each desire ourselves to maximize happiness and minimize suffering if we formed our desires in the list of full information and the requirements of rationality." (Smith, Michael, "Beyond the Error Theory," in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, (Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin, eds.), 2010.)

I have already argued that rationality has nothing to say about desires-as-ends. It is only relevant when we look at desires-as-means and, there, only because desires-as-means includes beliefs that can be subject to rational evaluation.

Yet, that is exactly the point that Smith wants to draw from. His argument here is that it is at least possible that an agent - regardless of his ends, who considers the case in the light of full information, would come to see that they have an instrumental reason to maximize happiness and minimize suffering.

NOTE: Smith is only using the happiness principle as an illustrative example. A reader may object that this may well be false with respect to happiness, but may hold that it is true with respect to some other good such as health or education.

Let me repeat, this is not an argument that shows that happiness (or some other good) has "intrinsic prescriptivity". It is an argument that shows that a good may have a "instrumental prescriptivity" - be something that every person has instrumental reasons to promote - no matter what they desire. There can be no set of desires whereby promoting such a good would not have instrumental value.

However, Smith then asserts, there is no such good.

Unfortunately, however, the alleged empirical fact – the fact, given our simplifying assumption, that maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering is an all-purpose means to the satisfaction of whatever desires anyone happens to have – seems to be no empirical fact at all. . . . For whatever we are in fact obliged to do, it seems not to be an empirical fact that our doing that is an all-purpose means to the satisfaction of whatever desires we happen to have.
In fact, for many of our obligations, we seem to have no trouble at all coming up with scenarios where doing what an agent has an obligation to do is not at all instrumentally useful - no matter what the agent's actual desires are.

As a result, no true real-world moral claim can claim that something is a universal means. It also remains the case, as Mackie explicitly argued, that no true real-world moral claim can claim that something has intrinsic prescriptivity. Consequently, Mackie's main conclusion - that all moral claims are false - would still hold up even if we consider universal means along with intrinsically prescriptive ends.

One final caveat before I go . . . I reject Mackie's claim that all moral statements are false. I reject it, not because I deny his view on intrinsic prescriptivity. I reject it because I deny that "intrinsic prescriptivity" is built into the meaning of each moral claim. And even if that happens to be true, it will turn out that - for reasons that Mackie himself provides - it is a relatively unimportant truth.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Michael Smith Presents John Mackie's Error Theory

I am going to be going through Michael Smith's article, "Beyond the Error Theory," where Smith examined four responses to J.L. Mackie's famous argument against intrinsic prescriptivity. (Smith, Michael, "Beyond the Error Theory," in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, (Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin, eds.), 2010.)

Before looking at the responses, Smith gives us his interpretation of Mackie's main argument - the one that the responses are responding to. It is fitting that we look at the argument before looking at the responses.

Mackie's argument has two parts. The first part is a claim that intrinsic prescriptivity is built into the very meaning of moral terms such that all moral claims are understood to be claims about intrinsic prescriptivity. The second part is that intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist. This leads to the conclusion that all moral claims are false.

Of this argument, the part that I want to explain a bit more clearly is the claim of what this "intrinsic prescriptivity" is. What is it that Mackie is saying does not exist?

Mackie presents a number of different ways of understanding his claim about intrinsic prescriptivity. Smith simplifies this by looking at one in particular - that of the early 20th century moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick.

In Sidgwick's terms, Mackie's claim that our concept of moral value is the concept of an objectively prescriptive feature of things amounts to the claim that to conceive of (say) happiness as a moral value is to conceive of happiness itself as having the feature of being an end that is absolutely prescribed by reason.
From my own perspective, Mackie is correct. There is no such thing. There is no rationality of ends, there is only a rationality of means. We can only speak about a rationality of ends in the sense that an end is also, at the same time, a means to the fulfillment or thwarting of other ends, allowing us to rationally determine the means-potential of an end. (I am not so sure about the claim that intrinsic prescriptivity is built into the meaning of moral terms - nor of the consequence that all moral claims are false. However, on this part, I hold that there is no such thing as intrinsic prescriptivity.) See my previous post: 

I draw a close distinction between ends and desires. Specifically, I take the view that desires are propositional attitudes - a desire can be expressed in the form of "desire that P" where P is a proposition. A desire that P motivates the agent to realize P - to create a state of affairs where P is made or kept true. The "end" is that state of affairs where P is made or kept true.

So, a person can have a desire to be happy. A person with that desire has a reason to pursue happiness as an end. However, happiness in this sense is an end that is prescribed by the desire to be happy. It is not an end prescribed by reason.

Michael Smith put it in the following way:
Ends are the sorts of things that each of us has, insofaras we aim at, or desire, different things.
Two facts that are relevant here are:

(1) A state of affairs in which P is true is an end in virtue of the agent having the desire. If the agent's desires change, then the agent's ends change. This way of looking at ends does not have room for any end being recommended by reason alone.

(2) Nearly anything can be an end. In this article, Smith is looking at happiness being an end. Yes, a person can have a "desire that P" where "P" = "I am happy", in which case the agent has an end of being happy. But the agent can also have a desire that his children are healthy, that he is eating a steak dinner prepared in his favorite way, or that he is not in front of a large crowd giving a speech. With these desires, the agent acquires other ends, and happiness becomes one end among many.

However, the claim that happiness is intrinsically prescriptive says that the value of happiness does not require a desire that "I am happy", that it is an end "absolutely prescribed by reason" independent of the agent's desires.
But while it is . . . true that some of us have happiness as an end, as some of us do desire happiness, the claim that happiness has a feature of being an end absolutely prescribed by reason, "the same for all minds," would have to be made true by some further fact about happiness, a fact beyond this purely descriptive psychological fact.
Here, we get to Mackie's claim that these prescriptive properties that reason tells us about that an object of evaluation may have independent of desire is such a queer thing that we have reason to doubt its existence. And even if they did exist, we would have no way to know about them.

Admittedly, there really is not much to this argument. I see it more as a challenge to those who wish to claim that intrinsic prescriptivity is real to tell the rest of us what, exactly, they are talking about. However, this challenge is backed up by the assertion, "And as you try to tell us what this intrinsic prescriptivity is, you will come to discover that it is such a queer thing - such a bizarre thing - that there is no sensible way in which such a thing can be a part of the real world."

Thus, again, all moral claims are false.

I want to add again, because it is glossed over so often, that this is a problem for objectivity in the form of intrinsic prescriptivity. It is not a problem for objectivity in the form of objectively true statements about the relationships between objects of evaluation and desires. If the argument stands, it tells us that we have to throw out the former type of objectivity, not the latter.

Well, Mackie tells us that intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist,.that all moral claims are claims about intrinsic prescriptivity, and that all such claims are false. Smith is going to examine four responses to Mackie. We will take a look with him in future posts.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Michel Smith's "Beyond the Error Theory" - Notes Prior to Discussion

Reason and deliberation may tell you that you have a need to change that flat tire on the car tonight. However, you can reason and deliberate until your ears are blue and it will not get the tires changed.

How is this even relevant?

The next article to discuss in this series on J.L. Mackie's Ethics is Michel Smith's "Beyond the Error Theory". In this article, Smith will look at four possible ways of answering Mackie's claim that there is no intrinsic prescriptivity.

In much of that discussion, Smith talked about reasons for action again. He presents what he calls the "Williams-Korsgard Thesis" or "WK" for short.

WK: If an agent has a reason to φ then she would want herself to φ if she engaged in a suitable course of deliberation.

This is a thesis that he attributes to Bernard Williams and Kristen Korsgaard.

Williams' contribution to this definition of "has a reason" came from the article "Internal and External Reasons" which we have discussed in four parts: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV .
Christine Korsgard's contribution is taken substantially from the article "Skepticism About Practical Reason" (Journal of Philosophy 83, 1986).

If we are going to be discussing about this topic, then there are some things I wanted to say about "agent has a reason to φ" at the start, to avoid conclusion.

And this will take us to the statement that I used at the start of this post.

Our "reasons to φ" come in two flavors - ends and means.

There is no reasoning about ends.

Smith writes, "a suitable course of deliberation is simply one in which the deliberator is maximally informed and then forms his desires on the basis of that information in accordance with the requirements of rationality."

This makes perfectly good sense when we talk about what the agent desires as means. That is to say, what an agent has reason to choose as a means can reasonably be said to be what the agent would choose when maximally informed and who chooses the means on the basis of that information in accordance with the requirements of rationality.

However, there is no sense to be had of choosing ends in accordance with the requirements of rationality. There is no reasoning that is to be done that says, "This end - not that one".

Our brains have formed with a disposition to desire certain things and to have aversions to other things. Evolution then got its hands on those dispositions and put an end to line of those with dispositions to have desires that brought about behavior that was detrimental to genetic replication. At the same time, it promoted those whose desires motivated actions that supported genetic replication.

Note that we do not have a desire to procreate. We have a desire for sex - in an environment set up in such a way that those who had sex tended to procreate and those who did not, did not (unless they could find some other way to contribute). We do not eat to sustain our health, we eat because we desire to eat, and, as a result, we eat even when we know it is not healthy to do so.

Our brains are also plastic - so the ways in which we interact with the universe can impact the things we desire or to which we are averse. Get stung by a bee, and one acquires an aversion to bees. If a particular type of action results in the acquisition of food, then the agent who begins to perform the action as a way to obtain food (or to avoid punishment or the wrath of others in the community) comes to value the action for its own sake, even when there is no reward to be had (or punishment to be avoided).

None of this has anything to do with deliberation. These are substantially mechanical processes that have, as an effect, the creating and molding of certain desires and aversions in intentional agents such as human beings. 

There is a type of exception, but it turns out to be no exception at all. Every end is also, at the same time, a means. That is to say, it can contribute to realizing or it can interfere with realizing other ends. A person's desire for high-calorie foods in large quantity can interfere with the agent's desire for a healthy body, and his fear of public speaking may interfere with his ability to take a particular job that would otherwise allow him to accomplish things he finds very important.

So, when we look at the means value - the instrumental value - of desires-as-ends, we can identify desires that the agent would choose when maximally informed and who chooses the desires on the basis of that information and in accordance with that rationality. She may choose to be rid of the desire for fatening food or the fear of flying. The alcoholic may have reason to eliminate the craving for alcohol, and some individuals may choose not to have a desire for sex.

There are two major points to make about this choice.

The first is that the decision is based entirely on the ways in which this desire or aversion either fulfills or thwarts other desires or aversions. Reasoning about a desire on matters other than its relationship to other desires yields nothing.

The second is that the choice to get rid of a desire (or to build or strengthen a desire if that is the case) puts one in the same position as the person who has reasoned that she needs to change the flat tire on the car. At this point, she can reason until her ears are blue, it will do nothing to actually bring about the relevant change in desire. One's options at this point look to such things as desensitization training, pharmaceutical options, and reinforcement or extinction strategies - but not deliberation.

Deliberation is about means, never about ends. And when deliberation is about ends, then it is about the role a particular happens to play, in virtue of its relationship to other ends, as something that helps to realize to prevent the realization of those other ends.

I simply wanted to get this on the table before we begin looking at the details of Smith's discussion of responses to Mackie's argument against moral objectivity.

And I will try not to mention again that there are two different types of moral objectivity that we need to keep distinct as well.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Trump and Torture

With Presidential candidates supporting the use of torture, it is worthwhile to to take another look at what types of people these are, and the types of people they want us to be.

I wrote an article on the moral question of torture over 10 years ago when the Bush Administration sought to defend it.

Much of the argument states what we are actually looking at is whether or not there are reasons to support an aversion to using torture and how strong that aversion should be.

Donald Trump seem to hold that there should be no aversion to torture. He has shown no interest in discouraging it and, in fact, seems to suggest that it is something to be encouraged - as if its use on those suspected of having information, or being guilty of a crime, is a positive good. I would be interested in asking Trump if he thought that a torture chamber should be installed in America's prisons so that convicts can be sentenced, say, to a day on the rack or having their balls electrocuted three times per day.

I digress.

Off the top, the main reasons that exist for promoting an aversion to torture is because we are likely to discover that we and those we care about are going to be a lot safer if we are surrounded by people who are kind and averse to causing pain, then we will be in a community filled with people who can inflict pain without a shrug or a care. To speak personally, I would like the person I meet on the street to be somebody who actively dislikes the thought of causing me pain. I do not want him to be indifferent and I certainly don't want him to be the type of person who has been raised to view the act of inflicting pain as something to look forward to.

To the degree that we can make the psychological barriers against inflicting pain on others stronger, to that degree we are at a lower and lower risk of discovering that we or those we care about have been made to suffer pain. Insofar as we have reason see to it that those we care about are not made to suffer pain, to that degree we have reason to be promoting an overall aversion to causing pain.

A part of creating that aversion to causing pain is to use our moral language - our language of praise and condemnation - to praise those who would be reluctant to cause pain, and to condemn and view with contempt those who are indifferent or actively joyful at the prospect of causing pain.

On those grounds, I hold Donald Trump and those of his followers who agree with him on this - and even those who disagree but are substantially indifferent about filling our society with those who enthusiastically support causing pain, are despicable human beings worthy of a great deal of contempt.

The defenders of torture argue that the motivation behind their embrace of torture is that it will keep the company safe.

At this point, one might expect a standard response identifying some reasons to believe that this is not the case - that torture will not help to protect us. Indeed, it doesn't - but there is ground to be covered even before we get there.

First, Trump, at least, is not talking about using torture as a way of extracting information. He is talking about torture as a form of punishment.

The enemy is cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind.
We will ignore the implication that cutting off the heads and drowning non-Christians seems to be a perfectly legitimate activity that does not warrant any type of response at all. Those who cut off the head and drown Christians deserve a response in kind. It is for retribution.

We are going to have to ask what responding "in kind" means. We are talking about torture - waterboarding or worse. Apparently, this is a response "in kind" to cutting off the heads of Christians or drowning them. Technically, responding "in kind" would mean that we round up and chop the heads off of Muslims. However, let's not pretend that Trump's language is ever intended to withstand too much detailed scrutiny.

Let us simply accept that waterboarding and worse involves responding "in kind" to these types of atrocities. The implication that follows from adopting these policies is that we will, in effect, be saying that what they are doing is perfectly legitimate. In fact, one of the things they already say is that, given the use of American bombs and economic sanctions that by performing these actions they are the ones who are making the choice to respond "in kind".

If we want to send a message to the world that a certain type of behavior is wrong and that decent - respectable - civilized - moral human beings do not do such things is . . . 


By engaging in these practices, particularly if we present ourselves to the world as decent - respectable - civilized - and moral human beings is to say that decent, moral human beings do these things. This teaches a lesson to the world that there are no moral limits here.

Now, when we get to the claim that torture is being embraced as a way of keeping innocent people safe, we can raise the objection that lifting the moral prohibition on torture will do nothing but make it much more widely practiced - something that cannot be condemned or contained - thus something that a great many more innocent people are going to end up enduring.

This brings us to another, practical issue about torture.

If America is the type of country that engages in these types of activities - if it is the type of country that not only engages in torture but who, by doing so, sends the message to the rest of the world that torture is a morally legitimate practice - why should people help us? Why should people try to get word to us that they suspect a friend is engaged in an activity that will blow up an airplane or set off a bomb at a sporting event? I can see people around the world being far more interested in helping to protect the people who condemn those who torture (who, then, condemn those who may have tortured or might torture them or somebody they knew) than they would be in helping those who campaigned and, thereby, encouraged the world to adopt more torture and worse.

A specific example of this principle applies to the United States Military in specific. If we engage in torture or worse, then we are telling the people of the world that engaging in torture or worse is a legitimate activity. If we are telling people around the world that the use of torture or worse is a legitimate activity, then we are telling those who capture American soldiers that the use of torture or worse is a legitimate activity. This means that such a commander in chief is, at the very least, putting American soldiers at risk that anybody who captures an American will treat their American prisoners the same way that America treats its prisoners.

Now, below, you will find a presentation on torture that may provide you with an idea of some of the facts about Donald Trump and his pro-torture followers simply ignore.

A Clarification on the Argument from Moral Experience

The Argument from Moral Experience argues from the observation that we appear to experience morality as objective to the conclusion that we are justified in at least presuming that there is an objective morality. The burden of proof is on those who tell us that this observation is an illusion - a mistake.

In my discussion of this argument, I distinguished two types of moral objectivity.

(1) Objective intrinsic prescriptivity - the type of objective values that J.L. Mackie was talking about when he says that objective values do not exist.

(2) Objectively true or false moral statements. In my own case, I hold that moral claims are claims about the relationship between desires that can be molded through rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) on the one side, and the desires that give people reason to reward/praise or punish/condemn on the other. However, this is a version of this type of objectivity, and there are others.

And I hold that a great deal of unnecessary disagreement takes place because people do not distinguish the two. Because this failure, those who see the significant problems that exist with the first type of objectivity end up asserting that the second type of objectivity does not exist either. Those who see the ways that the second type of objectivity makes sense asserts that the first type of objectivity must exist as well.

I agree that the first type of objective value does not exist, but the second type of objective value does.

What I need to clarify is the fact that, though I believe that the second type of objective values exist, I do not defend these types of objective values using any type of Argument from Moral Experience.

That is to say, Don Loeb's objections to the Argument from Moral Experience are applicable to both types of objectivity. If one wants to defend the second type of objectivity, one must find arguments other than the Argument from Moral Experience.

That there are objectively true statements to be made about the relationships between desires that can be molded by reward and punishment and the reasons to reward and punish actually seems to be beyond dispute.

At the same time, there are objectively true statements to be made about the amount of blood a person can lose before dying and the population densities of the various countries on Earth. There are a great many objectively true statements that can be made that are not moral statements.

The real question is: Are there objectively true statements that deserve to be called moral statements and, if so, are those statements "relationships between desires that can be molded using reward and punishment and the reasons to reward and punish."

For this task, I use the claim that moral statements can be reduced to statements about these relationships and function the same way.

In other words, looking at these relationships, one can distinguish between the three categories of action (prohibition, obligation, and non-obligatory permission), supererogation, the concept of excuse, the use of reward and punishing - and praise and condemnation - in morality, mens rea, culpability, "ought" implies "can", the types of evidence people bring to moral arguments, and the like.

I include the fact that moral statements seem to be objectively true and false, and statements about the types of relationships being discussed here are objectively true or false.

However, this is not an argument from moral experience. If it were an argument from moral experience then, if somebody were to find inconsistencies between moral statements and statements about these relationships among desires, we would still have a presumption of moral objectivity but a side belief that these relationships do not describe that reality. As it is, however, if such inconsistencies came to light, there would be no grounds for a continued presumption in an objective morality.

So, in short, the fact that I distinguish between two types of objectivity has no implications for Don Loeb's argument. It works with equal effect against both types of objectivity, even though morality is not actually objective in the first sense and is fully objective in the second.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Don Loeb: Wide Reflective Equilibrium

How Does a (Moral) Belief Get Warrent?

This is the last of my posts on Don Loeb's discussion on the the Argument from Moral Experience. This is an argument that infers from the fact that we experience morality as objective that there is reason for at least a presumption that there actually is an objective morality. This puts the burden of proof on those who would like to argue that morality is not objective (a burden that J.L. Mackie, for example, took seriously).

In the first posting we looked at Loeb's claims that the claim of experiencing morality as objective is not itself on rock solid footing.

In the second posting we looked at the idea that there are two different types of moral objectivity; intrinsic prescriptivity and objectively true moral claims. This is a distinction that J.L. Mackie himself makes clear in his book Ethics. When Mackie says that there are no objective values, he is looking only at the first type of objectivity, and allows that the second type of objectivity can and does exist.

Then, in the third posting, we looked at weaknesses in three of the ways one can try to get from an experience of moral objectivity to a presumption in favor of moral objectivity.

Now, to look at a fourth candidate for going from the experience of moral objectivity to the presumption of moral objectivity: Wide Reflective Equilibrium.

We appear to have no choice but to start off with the beliefs we have, not all of which cohere with one another. Our aim, it is often thought, should be to bring our beliefs into a coherent organization after careful consideration. Arguably, such an organization provides the best sort of justification available to us. (Don Loeb, "The Argument from Moral Experience," in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory: 114 (Philosophical Studies Series))

In other words, all beliefs that go into this process of balancing and weighing, have at least some initial warrant. "How could beliefs that nave no warrant, even when made coherent upon reflection, produce beliefs that are warranted?"

Yet, Loeb wants to continue to reject that idea that a belief, merely in virtue that it is a belief, has warrant.

So how does a belief get warrant?

I find that a very interesting question - but I want to put it aside a moment while we continue with Loeb's argument.

Anyway, the line of reasoning being used to bolster a presumption of objectivity says that all our initial beliefs, including our belief in moral objectivity, get initial warrant. Consequently, if any belief ends up failing to survive wide reflective equilibrium, then there must be some reason found for getting rid of it.

However, the claim that all of our initial beliefs are "presumptively true" is just two strong. And without this overly strong presumption it does not follow that a belief is to be removed only when we discover a reason to remove it - that the burden of proof is on the side of the anti-objectivist.

Loeb then looks at whether the argument can work at the level of theory. "held, perhaps we have no alternative but to treat as warranted certain theories that unify and accommodate those beliefs." Yet, he concludes that a presumption that a theory is valid just because it is held is no better than a presumption that a belief is true merely because it is believed.

Yet, again, we come to the question: How does any belief (or theory) get any warrant?

[T]he strategy should hold that the reflective process itself (or at least, the availability of such a process) is what confers warrant on some, but only some, of those initial beliefs.

I would like to entertain the possibility that the warrant comes from the connections - the number and the strengths of the threads - that link beliefs. No belief has warrant on its own. No two beliefs have warrant. But, when somebody starts to make connections, then there is reason to start to get excited. "This might work." Remember, we are talking about warrant here, not truth.

Moral objectivity has no warrant on its own. It starts to acquire it once people start making links between these beliefs and others. Alternatively, warrant is immediately lost where we find moral objectivity to be in conflict with other beliefs - such as Mackie's Argument from Diversity and his Argument from Queerness.

Mackie uses these arguments to try to override a presumption in favor of moral objectivity - a presumption he thinks it has because it is written into the meanings of moral terms. However, the presumption, according to this argument, is ungrounded. Moral objectivity sits as a proposal, ready to be adopted or dropped according to the reasons that can be found for adopting or dropping it. Mackie shows us that there are reasons for dropping it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Alliance of the Just

Much of my interest in morality has sprung from practical considerations. It largely had to do with mobilizing whole populations to maim and kill each other and to feel good about it - or, more precisely, with how to prevent it.

With Donald Trump, we are being given an opportunity to observe, as it happens, the growth of a political movement that can easily embrace the idea of slaughtering and maiming of whole populations, and feeling good about it.

We already have Trump talking about rounding up and exporting, en masse, 11 million people in the United States, building walls, preventing any Muslim from entering the country, and putting under suspicion of criminal violence every Muslim within the country. He also jokes about killing reporters, and encourages his followers to engage in private violence where public violence against target groups might seem indiscreet - such as encouraging the violent physical assault of protestors.

It is important to note that individual behavior proves irrelevant here. Nobody is asking, "What did you do to deserve this treatment?" Therefore, there is nothing the agent can do to prevent it.

This contagion has been picked up by other candidates trying to syphon off Trump's support by, among other things, carpet-bombing parts of the Middle East.

And the crowds cheer.

Ironically, those who support these measures declare that the reason they are supporting these strong-man authoritarian tactics is out of a fear that they it somebody near to them might be unjustly killed or otherwise harmed by a malevolent "other" - by one of "them".

It takes but a moment of thought to realize that their program gives others a justified reason to fear that, whether they are innocent or guilty, they face a real risk of being or of having somebody they care about being killed, maimed, or otherwise unjustly harmed regardless of the quality of their individual behavior.

At the same time, they are being shown that the proper way to deal with this type of fear and injustice is to unite and support a strong man who promises to treat all of us - the innocent and the guilty, as equally guilty - the same standards we have adopted towards them. That is the leader who says that all Americans are legitimate targets - just as we assert all Muslims are legitimate targets. It is as legitimate to blow up a sports stadium as it is to carpet bomb a village.

Is there a way out of this?

Well, one way is to say, "We are going to distinguish those who are causing the problems from those who are not. We will struggle to let those who are not the cause of these difficulties live in peace. We will not presume your guilt, but will presume your innocence and act only on evidence of guilt. If you think that these are good rules upon which to build a community, please join with us in opposing those who would advocate or adopt the strong-man tactics that refuse to distinguish the guilty from the innocent.

"Trust me - we are not so naive as to think that those who would preach injustice in our group will vanish. We must continue to oppose them - as we expect you to oppose the unjust in your group.

If we do this, we have changed the nature of the conflict. It is no longer a case of the unjust in our group leading the whole of our group into indiscriminately harming the just and the innocent alike in the other group, while the unjust in the other group seek to maim and kill the unjust and innocent in our group. It is now a case of the just in both groups going up against the unjust in both groups while, in the name of justice, seeking to let the innocent live in peace.

On our part, it means recognizing that there is a difference between the innocent and the guilty, between the Muslim and the terrorist, and between the Mexican and the rapist. It also means showing the world that there is a similar difference between a Trump supporter and an American.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Don Loeb: From Moral Experience to Moral Objectivity

Can moral experience justify a presumption in favor of moral objectivity?

After Don Loeb argued that our moral experience is not as objective as objectivists assert, he went on to argue that, even if it were (or even if we looked at the seeming objectivity that does exist), it cannot support a presumption of objectivity. (Don Loeb, "The Argument from Moral Experience" in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (eds.))

I want to remind the reader that I have distinguished two different types of objectivity. There is the type that J.L. Mackie argued against when he said that there were no objective values - objective, intrinsic prescriptivity. And there is the form of objectivity that concerns the objective truth or falsity – the ability to bring in evidence and to debate the truth of – moral statements. Morality does not have to be objective in the first sense for moral statements to be objective in the second sense. Not all properties are intrinsic properties. 

Just to add a bit of specificity, I hold that moral claims are claims about the relationships between desires that can be molded using rewards (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation) and other desires. This type of claim is objective in the second sense, but not the first.

Even though I defend the objectivity of moral value in the second sense (and reject it in the first sense), I do not think I have used an Argument from Moral Experience in its defense. The argument from moral experience is an argument FROM moral experience TO the conclusion that there is something real out there - or, at least, we have reason to presume that there is something real out there. I am suspicious of such an argument at the start.

Considering such things as the Argument from the Experience of Alien Abductions, the Argument from the Experience of the Effectiveness of Homeopathic Medicine, and the Argument from Religious Experience are strong counter-examples to this line of reasoning.

Loeb examines four possible routes from moral experience to a presumption in favor of moral objectivity. Three of them seems to fall victim to the type of counter-examples expressed above. I wish to discuss those three in this post. The fourth route is sufficiently different from these first three that I wish to discuss it separately.

Loeb identifies the first of these three routes from moral experience to a presumption in favor of moral objectivity as an argument from the best explanation. The claim is that the best explanation for our experiences of moral objectivity is moral objectivity itself.

On its surface, this argument does not get us very far. We may also assert that personal experiences of angels, miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and effective homeopathic medicine create presumptions in favor of the existence of angels, miracles, alien abductions, ghosts, and homeopathic medicine.

If the only thing this argument can do is put intrinsic prescriptivity on the same level as these other fictions, then that does not accomplish much. At the very least, somebody needs to provide reason to believe that moral experience is more real-seeming than the others.

The same type of problem can be found with the second and third ways in which one may try to derive a presumption in favor of intrinsic prescriptivity from moral experience.

Loeb identifies the second option as “epistemic conservatism”

Many philosophers have felt that, other things being equal, we should favor the theory that requires us to give up as few beliefs as possible.

However, this seems to suggest that our beliefs are self-justifying, at least to some extent.

Suppose I believe that the next Lotto number will be even, but suppose further that I have no actual evidence for that hypothesis. I should believe that the odds are 50/50, in spite of the fact that I find myself with the ungrounded belief that they are not. That I do believe the number will be even gives me no warrant whatsoever for believing it.

Loeb discusses a restricted form of conservatism where warrant comes from the possibility that our belief is liked to the thing believed even if we do not know how – the way that a person can know the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 without remembering the evidence for that claim. However, this requires a presumption that there is some connection between intrinsic prescriptivity and our beliefs of the same type that exists between the Battle of Hastings and our beliefs.

The third route to moral objectivity that Loeb examines is the Principle of Credulity.

The Principle of Credulity holds hat we are entitled to presume that things are pretty much as they seem to be, unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary.

This is used as a defense against extreme skepticism – the claim that we cannot know that we are not a brain in a vat or being fooled by a Cartesian demon and that everything around us is purely imaginary. However, we have no more reason to apply this principle to more mundane beliefs such as moral objectivity than we do to beliefs about ghosts, angels, and effective homeopathic medicine.

Loeb discusses a fourth route from moral experience to a presumption in favor of moral objectivity – a route known as Wide Reflective Equilibrium. This route is significantly different from the first three. I wish to devote more attention to this route, so I will postpone that part of the discussion until a future post.

Bernie Sanders' Electability

People who look to evidence to confirm their biases rather than tell them about the world are at risk of making some very foolish decisions.

I have seen a number of postings the show the results of current polls and use that data to conclude that Bernie Sanders is electable.

The problem is that nobody is voting today. The election is 8 months off.

These polls are not telling us what the world will be like in 8 months. They are doing nothing but confirming the biases of those who want to believe what the polls can be thought to support.

In fact, one plausible reason for the current poll results may well be that a number of voters have heard a lot of unfavorable things about Trump, Cruz, and Clinton over the past few months. However, the only things they know about Sanders is that he is white, he is male, and he seems friendly. The odds are excellent that he is also a good and devoted Christian. Of course he is to be preferred over the others.

Between now and November, people hostile to Bernie Sanders will spend a billion dollars to make sure that people "know him" better. With "know him" intentionally in quotes because it is certain that this campaign will contain a number of falsehoods and distortions.

That billion-dollar campaign will be well supported by surveys and focus-groups designed to identify which messages will work best and where those messages can be most effectively delivered.

Those messages will be targeted with a great deal of precision. The opposition will use massive databases that tell them what each voter cares most about, and send them mailings and place advertisements and articles in the media that those people come into contact with explaining how Sanders is a threat to their most cherished values.

"He will not keep America safe."

"He simply does not understand the world. He has no idea what to do about North Korea, Russia, China, ISIS."

"He refuses to use the military. He thinks if he does nothing the enemies of the United States will leave us alone."

"He does not understand the economy. He will bankrupt the government with his free gifts and destroy business and innovation as entrepreneurs go elsewhere to make money."

"He believes that a bureaucrat in Washington knows how to spend your money better than you do, so he will take your money and give it to the bureaucrat. That bureaucrat, of course, will use your money for his benefit and not yours."

"A lot of your hard-earned money will be taken from you and handed over to lazy blacks and Mexicans."

"He is not a Christian; he may even be an atheist. He never sets foot inside a church. Does he pray? If we elect a President that abandons God, then God will abandon us."

Messages that are not fit for public use, but still effective, will still find their way to the target audiences using more obscure channels - a conversation over lunch with a talk-show host or a Facebook post placed in a target group by somebody with no direct ties to the campaign.

Yes, of course, some of those messages are bigoted and ought not to be used - but they will be used.

You and I may protest that the Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office. Those protests on our part will not prevent people from considering these factors when they cast their votes, and will not prevent those votes from being counted.

I fear that the nice campaign between Sanders and Clinton today is doing Sanders a disservice. He may be better off if he were being subject to brutal attacks now so that he will be better prepared if he should make it to the championship round. Otherwise, he simply will not be ready when he steps into the ring against the Republican champion. They will brutalize him.

They will poor over every vote, every speech, every relationship he ever developed, looking for anything they can put in a damaging light. We simply do not know what they will find.

Sanders' electability cannot be determined by polls that ask people who know nothing more than that Sanders is an old, white male. Sanders' electability is determined by whether he can survive a $1 billion focus-group backed campaign against him. Current polls say nothing about that.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Next American Civil War

I got my crystal ball off the shelf last evening and asked it about the future of the United States.

I posted earlier about the increased polarization in the country.

Yesterday, I read that both major political parties are adopting new campaign strategies in light of this polarization.

The old strategy was to find a candidate that could appeal to the base, but successfully rush to the center to capture the votes of moderate, non-partisan Americans.

But moderate non-partisan Americans are becoming rare. As the nation splits into rival tribes, moderates are taking sides.

The new strategy is to select more extreme candidates who can energize the base - and thus motivate more partisans to go to the polls than the opposition.

So. . . candidates become more extreme, more partisan, and less compromising.

This political polarization also has a geographic dimension. The South, Rocky Mountain states, and Plains states become increasingly conservative. The Northeast and West Coast become more liberal.

The population grows in its hatred and contempt for the population of the other, and more so when each uses the federal government to force its ideology on the other.

Think of India before the Partition of 1945, when it was split into three regions. The central region we now know as India, and the outer region we now know as Pakistan (in the west) and Bangladesh (in the east).

Also note that about 1 million people in India died in cultural conflicts before the Partition. Their conflict was religious, but Americans may soon discover that the Republican and Democratic tribes can function very much as religion, including their capacity to motivate young men (mostly) to violence.

The fact of the matter is that my crystal ball has never been particularly accurate.

Well, actually, I do not have a crystal ball. I am drawing inferences from my study of history in a field that is so complex that it is extremely difficult to make any predictions from available evidence. That is a weakness.

Yet, societies have fallen into internal conflict before and will again. It happens enough to suggest the road to civil conflict is easily taken - more easily than some people may think.

The first necessary ingredient to this type of conflict is to have two (or more) factions that are extreme in their position and contemptuous of the opposition.

We've got that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Principle of Charity Applied to Politics

I would like the people within eyeshot of this blog to introduce an improvement to public discourse this political season (or any political season anywhere in the world for that matter).

What I would like to ask you to do is to make an effort to make sure that candidates' positions (particularly the positions of candidates other than the candidate you support) are presented fairly and accurately.

Case in point: In a speech on July 8 in New Hampshire, Republican candidate Jeb Bush said, "people need to work longer hours".

Critics took this to mean that Bush was saying, "You lazy workers out there, you need to go out and work harder and longer so that our economy will improve."

In fact, he was making reference to the fact that, in our slow economic recovery, there are a lot of people holding down part-time jobs who were seeking full-time work. The claim to "work longer hours" referred to the need to create the full-time jobs that these part-time workers can then move into.

Mind you, these are workers who want full-time work and cannot find it. Bush was calling for creating the full-time jobs these workers want to move into.

Of course, this is a specific instance of a call for people to make honest and epistemically responsible claims generally - which people should strive for. I mention this specifically because social media seems to be particularly heavily flooded with distortions of candidates views.

In cases where claims are actually ambiguious, one should apply a "principle of charity".

Accourding to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The principle of charity governs the interpretation of the beliefs and utterances of others. It urges charitable interpretation, meaning interpretation that maximizes the truth or rationality of what others think and say.

In other words, if you are going to criticize a position, you should criticize the strongest and most rational expression of that opinion. It is not legitimate to create a weak straw-man interpretation, defeat it, and then assert from this that you have defeated the actual position.

This principle is strongly impressed upon philosophy students. However, I argue here that society would benefit if this were made into a general principle - if it were more widely applied than it is today. In other words, we have many and strong reason to use the principles of morality - praise and condemnation - to promote an aversion to presenting a distorted interpretation of a candidate's position.

An effectively way to help to make it the case that this principle is more widely applied is for those who think this principle has value to put it to use - to seek out cases in which it is being ignored and then offer a correction or improvement.

Put it to use. If you see a gross distortion of another person's position, call people on it. Tell them that people should be basing their vote on an understanding of the facts of the matter. Tell them that a candidate who can only advance his or her candidacy through lies and distortions - who couldn't win on truth and reason - probably does not deserve to be elected.

Even if this improvement is made in only one small corner of the body politic, it would still be an improvement.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

J.L. Mackie's Shmoral Realism

It has come to my attention that I have not posted my argument for holding that J.L. Mackie, in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, was defending "shmoral realism".

I would have sworn that I had posted this argument long ago, but I have not been able to find it. So, here it is - or, at least, the first half of it.

The term comes from Simon Blackburn who, in "Errors and the Phenomenology of Values" (in Morality and Objectivity, Ted Honderich (ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul (1985)) reported that it seemed odd that Mackie would argue that there are no objective values, that all moral claims are false, and then go on to engage in the practice of moralizing as if there was nothing wrong.

According to Blackburn, Mackie should have isolated this error, developed a new practice free of this error (calling it "shmorality", to coin a term), and then go on to show how "shmorality" is better than our error-filled morality.

In reading Mackie, it seems to me that Mackie did exactly this.

Well, almost exactly.

Mackie did not invent a new term. Instead, he sought to reform the existing terms. To justify this move, he gave an example of reforming an old term for a new purpose, using the term "atom".

The word "atom" originally meant "without parts" - something that cannot be divided any further. By the 19th century, scientists were busy researching oxygen, hydrogen, lead, and gold atoms. However, it was then suggested that these smallest pieces of an element did, in fact, have parts. They were made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons.

**The fact that the word 'atom', as used in nineteenth-century physics, had as a part of its meaning 'indivisible particle of matter' did not in itself, even in the nineteenth century, compel anyone to believe that there are indivisible material particles. One could either refrain from using the term 'atom' in affirmative statement or, as physicists have subsequently done, use the term with other parts of its meaning only, dropping the requirement of indivisibility. (Mackie: p. 100).

Scientists could have preserved the original meaning of the term - asserting that these smallest bits of oxygen, hydrogen, and the like were not 'atoms'. However, what they decided to do instead was reform the term. They dropped 'indivisibility' from the meaning of the term, and continued to use it to refer to the smallest bits of oxygen, hydrogen, lead, and gold.

This is what Mackie tried to do to morality. He dropped 'intrinsic prescriptivity' from the meaning of the term, and he looked at what was left.

What was left after 'intrinsic prescriptivity' was removed was universalizability. Moral prescriptions are supposed to be universal.

Here, he distinguished three stages of universalizability. The two that concern us here are the second and third stage which, properly understood, describe the difference between 'morality' and 'shmorality' or, in Mackie's way of presenting things, the difference between error-filled morality and reformed error-free morality.

The second stage of universalizability universalizes across such things as race, gender, and economic status. However, the error of intrinsic prescriptivity results in it being the case that people do not universalize across interests. People take their interests to be signs of an intrinsic moral property - something that all properly functioning people should react to in the same way. Those who do not respond properly are condemned and otherwise put down.

In this second stage of universalization, we look for prescriptive maxims that we are prepared not only to apply to all persons (groups of persons, nations, and so on) alike as things are, but also to go on applying no matter how individuals change their mental and physical qualities and resources and social status. And we must allow not only for changes which may, as a matter of practical, causal, possibility come about, starting from where we are, but also for differences of condition and inversions of role that could not possibly occur, and which it may take a considerable effort even to imagine. (Mackie: p. 90)

However, once we realize that this intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist, we recognize that there is no justification for the inference that all people ought to react the same way to the same values. This leads to a third stage of universalizability, which not only universalizes across gender, race, and social status, but also across interests. At this state, individuals are no longer taking their sentiments as signs of an objective truth to be forced on others, but admit that different people have different interests grounded on their own subjective states.

In this third stage we are taking some account of all actual desires, tastes, preferences, ideals, and values, including ones which are radically different from and hostile to our own, and consequently taking some account of all the actual interests that anyone has, including those that arise from his having preferences and values that we do not share . . . We must . . . look not for principles which can be wholeheartedly endorsed from every point of view, but for ones which represent an acceptable compromise between the different actual points of view. (Mackie: p. 93).

At this third stage of morality . . . under the practice of shmorality, to borrow Blackburn's turn . . . the moral (shmoral) project is to seek the best compromise across a wide variety of interests.

This second sort of universalizability is linked with the fact . . . that moral judgments commonly include a claim of objectivity. The claim that some difference is objectively morally relevant in a certain context is not easy to reconcile with the admission that, while it appears relevant from one interested point of view, it does not appear relevant from the point of view of someone whose situation and qualities are different. By contrast, the claim to objectivity has no tendency to support the third stage of universalization. Quite the reverse. It is all too easy to believe that the objective validity of one's own ideals provides an overwhelmingly strong reason for taking no account at all ideals that conflict with them, or of interests associated with including rival ideals (Mackie: pp. 96-7).

This leaves open the question of whether "shmorality" - to borrow Blackburn's term - is real. That is a long and difficult question to answer in its own right. I would argue that it is, but I do not have the space to do so here.

For the purposes of this post, I simply wanted to demonstrate that Mackie did not think we were doomed to live forever in error-filled morality. This is no more true of us than it was true of scientists who discovered that what they had been calling "atoms" actually had parts. We gave the option to reform moral terms - to invent a new moral langauge - one that is free of error.

Don Loeb and the Types of Objectivity

Don Loeb: Types of Objectivity

In his article, "The Argument from Moral Experience", Don Loeb begins by presenting evidence that our moral experience is of an objective morality. He will go on to argue that one cannot easily get to objective morality from here. (David Loeb, "The Argument from Moral Experience" in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (eds.))

However, before we look at those arguments, there is something to say about the types of evidence used to support moral objectivity - and the types of objectivity they show. 

I discussed one of these two types of evidence in an earlier post (Don Loeb: Against the Argument from Moral Experience) - evidence from the phenomena of morality, the way it "seems" and "feels" to us. Regarding this family of experiences, Loeb provided reason to believe that morality does not seem as objective as some objectivists assert.

The second type of evidence is evidence about moral claims. This was actually the first type of evidence that Loeb presented - the phenomena of morality discussed earlier being the second type he presented.

The first involves the traditional idea that moral experience – especially our dispositions to use the moral vocabulary in various ways – is among the best evidence we have about what it is we are (thinking and) talking about when we talk about morality: We are, it is claimed, talking about a realm of (putative) fact.

Specifically, Loeb is referring to the fact that moral claims are taken to be true or false. People bring evidence to support their moral claims as they do to other objective matters.

This family of evidence will bring up the question, "In what way is morality 'objective'?"

Here, what I would like to note is that the statement, "Jim prefers butterscotch to chocolate" is a statement of (putative) fact. It is capable of being true or false - and its truth value does not depend in any way on anybody believing that it is true. Even for Jim, the truth of his preference for butterscotch over chocolate is as objective as his height, weight, and age. It is a statement about how his brain is structured.

If two of us were in disagreement over whether Jim preferred butterscotch to chocolate, we could summon evidence to our defense. I would point out how Jim ate two bowls of butterscotch pudding at the family reunion and never touched the chocolate.

In other words, when we talk about Jim's preference for butterscotch, we are talking about something as real - as capable of influencing the motion of matter in the universe (and as sometimes necessary to explain and predict real-world events) - as objective - as Earth's mass and an atom's electrical charge.

Of course, "Jim prefers butterscotch to chocolate" is not a moral claim. This example merely establishes that claims reporting relationships between objects of evaluation and desires are declarative statements, capable of being true or false, and the types of statements that people can defend and refute by summoning evidence.

Elsewhere, I argue that moral statements are statements like these. One of the relevant differences is that the objects of evaluation are malleable desires - specifically, those desires that people can mold using reward and punishment (with praise working as a type of reward and condemnation working as a type of punishment). Another relevant difference is that moral claims relate objects of evaluation to all desires within a community, not just Jim's.

These relationships between malleable desires and other desires exist. They are real.

In other words, there are desires and aversions that people generally have reason to promote. These facts are substantially independent of personal opinion or of any one person's preferences. To support or refute a claim that people generally have reason to promote a given desire or aversion, people can bring forth evidence. That evidence would look at, among other things, what would happen within a community if everybody had - or everybody lacked - a particular desire or aversion. Examples of the types of desires and aversions under consideration include aversions to taking property without consent, desires to help those in dire need, and desires to keep promises and repay debts.

When it comes to these relationships, the relevant question is not, "Are they real?" The relevant question is, "Do they deserve to be referred to using moral terms?"

When answering this type of question, it is perfectly legitimate to bring into the argument evidence about how moral terms are used. Specifically, it is legitimate to report that moral terms and reports about these relationships are propositions whose truth is independent of the beliefs or desires of the speaker. It would also be relevant to point out that moral claims are used to praise or condemn. It is even relevant to note that people defend their moral claims with statements like, "What if everybody had that attitude?" It would offer further support if it could account for the different moral categories for action (obligation, prohibition, non-obligatory permission) and moral concepts such as "excuse" and 'supererogatory'.

In saying this, we should not lose sight of the fact that, here, we are talking about an entirely different type of objectivity than the type that J.L. Mackie was concerned with when he wrote, "There are no objective values" in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. By "objective values", Mackie was writing about intrinsic prescriptivity. The "objective values" I am writing about here concerns the objectivity of propositions that describe relationships between states of affairs and desires. There is no intrinsic prescriptivity to be found here.

In summary, the Argument from Moral Experience can be divided into two types sets of claims. One set of claims concerns the nature of moral claims, while the other concerns the phenomena of moral experience. These two sets of claims support two different types of objectivity. The first set is compatible with the objectivity of statements about relationships and desires. On the other hand, the second set is used to try to argue for some type of "intrinsic prescriptivity" or value that exists in the world.

These represent two different types of objectivity, supported by two different types of argument. I think it would be useful to keep them separate.