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.

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