Friday, April 29, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0011 - Socrates, the Pig, and the Unbiased Observer

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question. (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism)
As I continue to examine what is true in a universe with one person (Alph) with one desire (to gather stones), I want to turn my attention to another famous example from the history of philosophy. This is John Stuart Mill's quote provided above.

In the full context of this quote, Mill was arguing that some pleasures were better than others - intrinsically better.

To determine this, we need to only ask those who can experience both which they would prefer. This is how he came to the conclusion that poetry is better than pushpin as discussed in an earlier post.

Here, the question is asked of somebody capable of experiencing a life as Socrates dissatisfied and imagining the life of the fool which he would prefer. Clearly, such a person would select the life of Socrates dissatisfied over the life of the happy fool, suggesting that the happiness of the fool is of a lower quality.

The account we are looking at here will deny this claim in a particular sense. I am not going to argue that the life of the fool is to be selected. I am not going to argue that it is a tie. I am going to argue that the question is incomplete - like asking if Jim is taller. Taller than whom?

I am going to start by comparing a world that contains Alph, where Alph has a desire to gather stones, and Alph is gathering stones to a world containing Alph with his desire and no stones. Which world has the greater value?

We can't answer the question without answering "to whom?"

The first Alph prefers his universe - the universe within which Alph has is gathering stones. It is a universe within which the proposition, "I (Alph1) am gathering stones" is true.

The second Alph is indifferent between the two worlds. In neither world is, "I am gathering stones" true, so he has no reason to choose one over the other.

What about some impartial observer? If an impartial observer truly was impartial, she would have no reason to choose one world over the other. If, instead, we give this impartial observer some desires, then we look for the world within which the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true.

Now let us look at two world where one contains a human dissatisfied and the other contains a pig satisfied.

Here, too, we need to identify the desires the agent has, the strengths of those desires, the propositions that are the objects of those desires, and whether those propositions are true in either world. we will identify the universe she has the most and strongest reason to choose by identifying the one that fulfills the most and strongest of those desires.

The same procedure applies to determining if it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied or a fool satisfied. I think it is safe to assume that if we take the desires of Socrates as our starting point, such a person would have many and strong reasons to choose against being the lucky fool. Even the fool may have more or stronger reasons to be Socrates dissatisfied, but, being a fool, incapable of figuring this out.

Once again, the decisions of an impartial observer will depend on the desires we give this imaginary person, in which case the world to choose in the world in which the propositions P of the most and strongest desires will be made true.

This, then, is how these comparisons among possible worlds are to be made. What matters are the desires of the person making the choice. The desires that the being the chooser becomes are relevant only to the degree that they directly or indirectly make true the propositions that are the objects of the chooser's desires.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Well-Being and the Resonance Constraint

I have been doing some homework recently . . . some advanced reading.

Tomorrow (Friday, April 29) I intend to go to the University of Colorado and attend a lecture by Chris Heathwood on "The Resonance Constraint". I'm using this as an excuse to scout out the philosophy department where I hope to be studying as of August of next year.

In preparation for the lecture, I have been doing some reading.

"The Resonance Constraint" is one of three main arguments against the idea that well-being involves meeting some set of objective criteria. It is used to argue that well-being is subjective in some sense - depending on the likes and dislikes of the individual.

We will start with a basic fact that some lives go better than others. Each of our lives could have gone better than it did. For my part, simply being handed $50,000 would be the difference between possibly going to graduate school and definitely going - with a clear impact on my well-being.

But what is well-being exactly?

A hedonist account of well-being says that the quality of a life is determined by the amount of pleasure one experiences and the pain one avoids. We can evaluate lives by making a simple hedonistic calculation.

Here, right at the start, I often make a mistake, and I want to warn readers to watch out for it. I slip into the assumption that all value can be reduced to well-being - as if well-being is the only thing that matters. I am not the only one who makes this mistake. Sam Harris bases all of morality on "the well-being of conscious creatures" as if nothing else could matter, or at least have moral significance.

When I step back and think of it, that is not true.

Because I make this mistake, when I read about a hedonistic theory of well-being my first instinct is to reject it. After all, I reject a hedonistic (and any brain-state) theory of value. If all value reduces to claims about well-being, and I reject a brain-state theory of value, I would have to reject a brain-state theory of well-being, right?

Then I remind myself that it is a mistake to reduce all value to well-being. If it were true that well-being is the only thing that matters, then a person would never be able to sacrifice their well-being for some other good. A scientist could never sacrifice her health to acquire new scientific knowledge. A parent could not make himself worse off in order to benefit his children, and a soldier could never sacrifice his well-being for the benefit of his fellow soldiers.

One could say that all value involves well-being for somebody. After all, when a person sacrifices their own well-being, they do so for the well-being of others.

There's two arguments against this response.

The first is that it is not the case that all sacrifice is for well-being. Consider the case of the scientist who sacrifices her well-being to acquire knowledge. The knowledge need not be useful - though still valued for its own sake.

The second is that, when a person sacrifices their well-being for another, in many cases the sacrifice is greater than the benefit of the other, and yet still done willingly. Many parents would not hesitate to make a sacrifice for their child even where the benefit to the child is less than that which is sacrificed.

The concept of well-being represents a subset of that which is important. So, I remind myself, why can it not represent the amount of pleasure experienced and pain avoided in a person's life? This is clearly something the scientist, the parent, and the soldier can give up for the sake of others when they sacrifice their well-being.

The Resonance Constraint is said to provide an argument against this thesis.

What is intrinsically valuable for a person must have a connection with what he would find in some degree compelling or attractive, at least if he were rational and aware. It would be an intolerably alienated conception of someone's good to image that it might fail in any such way to engage him. (Railton, P. (2003). ‘Facts and values’, in facts, values, and norms: Essays toward a morality of consequence (pp. 43–84). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

In this light, we are invited to ask whether we can sensibly talk about the well-being of a person who has no interest in pleasure - but who does have interests in other things (e.g., in raising his children or building water purification plants in poor parts of the world).

Chris Heathwood - the person who will be speaking at the lecture tomorrow - argues that a hedonist can handle the Resonance Constraint by adopting an attitude-based theory of pleasure. The attitude-theory (or propositional-attitude theory) identifies pleasure with a propositional attitude rather than a sensation. Thus, according to Healthwood, "the life of the desirer of peace and quiet over sensory pleasure very well may be filled with pleasure, though none of it sensory." In other words, there is a type of pleasure inherent in the fulfillment of all desire - or, at least, in the desires that are relevant to well-being, whichever they may be.

How about this. Instead of equating well-being with pleasure (and the absence of pain), we equate it with the fulfillment of self-regarding desires. A person can still sacrifice well-being for others (the fulfillment of other-regarding desires). A person who cares noting about pleasure can still have a good life. It is still true that some people are better off than others, even though what makes one person better off may not make somebody else better off.

Please excuse me for a while - I have some reading to do.

Desirism Book - Part 0010 - GE Moore's Beautiful World

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful....And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other.... [S]till, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance. G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica

I sped past imaginings of this sort in an earlier post. Here, I want to pause and spend some more time with them. It will help us with an understanding what is true in our universe in which there is one person (Alph) and one desire (to gather stones).

These imaginings can serve a couple of purposes.

In one purpose, this serve as an argument against the idea that the only thing humans seek is the establishment of a particular brain state - be it happiness, satisfaction, or a surplus of pleasure over pain. It shows us that there are things that humans will choose - such as the realization of a beautiful planet rather than an ugly planet - even were the options do not include changes in brain states.

We see this interpretation particularly when we focus on the phrase, "Would it not be well to do what we could to produce it rather than the other?" Moore is asking about what we have reason to do.

On this measure, Moore's example describes something real, and the account that I am presenting here can make sense of it.

In a previous post I gave Alph a desire that the planet Pandora B exists - a planet that may well fit Moore's description of an exceedingly beautiful world. This desire is fulfilled in any universe where the proposition "Pandora B exists" is true - even a universe where the propositions "Alph is experiencing Pandora B" can never be true.

In fact, we imagined a case in which Alph could bring the planet into existence only by destroying himself. Yet, given our initial assumptions, he had reason to bring the planet into existence, and no reason not to.

All of this matches one interpretation of Moore's famous example.

However, there is another interpretation of the argument. It may be interpreted to mean that the value of the beautiful planet exists within the planet itself. In a universe where no being capable of experiencing it even exists, it would still be better - in some impersonal observer sense - that the universe with the beautiful planet exist rather than the universe with the ugly planet.

Our model of Alph and his one desire does not support this.

One point to be made against the example interpreted this way is to ask, "Which is the beautiful world, and which is the ugly world?"

Moore asked us to imagine a world "of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us".

Note the phrase, "to us".

Let us imagine another creature - one that evolved from the dung beetle. Imagine the ugly planet being a huge ball of dung. To us, certainly, we may have reason to bring about the world that is beautiful to us and not the dung world. However, the dung beetle creatures have reason to bring about world that is beautiful to them - the big ball of dung - rather than the clean world of our imaginings.

This creates a problem for the idea that we can completely remove the idea of some type of creature with desires and interests in determining what is beautiful. If we cannot make a judgment of which planet is beautiful without having a subject and knowing something about them, we cannot make a judgment as to which world should exist even if could never be visited or seen.

Now, let us return Alph to his original state - the one where he has one desire, a desire to gather stones.

Now, ask him which planet should exist.

At best, he would answer with a shrug, though he has no reason to do even that much. Both options have the same relevance to making or keeping the proposition, "I am gathering stones" true. Because they have no relevance, they give Alph no reason for action - not even a reason to choose to answer the question.

To choose a planet to continue to exist is an action - but not one that he has any reason to take.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0009 - Pushpin and Poetry

Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either - Jeremy Bentham (Jeremy Bentham, from The Rationale of Reward, excerpted and reprinted in: The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill, ed. John Troyer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), p. 94.)

I agree.

Not about the pleasure part, but about the relative merits of pushpin and poetry.

Pushpin is a game requiring two players, so it is not suitable for our imaginary world that contains just one person (Alph). However, we can make the same point by substituting the act of gathering stones for pushpin.

Prejudice apart, the act of gathering stones is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. What gives a state of affairs P any end-value is that it is the object of a "desire that P", which gives states of affairs in which P is true end- value to those who have it.

Please note that "pleasure" is not a part of the equation. Humans in the real world may have a desire to experience pleasure and the capacity to do so. Alph, in this model, may have the capacity to feel pleasure (depending on how pleasure is defined) but, under our assumptions, has no desire to experience pleasure - thus no reason to do so.

It does not matter whether P = "I am gathering stones" or P = "I am reading poetry", what gives P its value is that it stands in a particular relationship to a "desire that P". Those with a "desire that P" have a reason to realize such a state. There is no value to be given to gathering stones or to poetry - no reason to prefer one over the other - independent of their relationship to desires that exist.

In a more complex universe - ones with more people and more desires, there may be elements that give more value to one over the other. Poetry promotes the ability to read, which provides instrumental value by aiding communication. Poetry may also give people a better understanding of the emotional states or of other points of view. There may be a simple second order preference that the population have more people who desire to read poetry and fewer who value gathering stones. All of these would count as additional reasons to read poetry - and to promote a desire to read poetry.

These types of situations may alter our value judgment. However, none of these conditions exist in a world with one person and one desire. Nothing else exists in that world that can give poetry more value than gathering stones.

I also want to say something about the strength of a desire. An agent who has a weak desire to gather stones and a strong desire to read poetry has a stronger reason to read poetry. He would prefer reading poetry under conditions where he could do either. However, this also does not apply to our current situation where Alph has only one desire. In the future, I will introduce a second desire and examine some of its implications - but there is still more to say about a single agent with a single desire.

It is said that we have some sort of intuition that poetry is better than push-pin or gathering stones. However, that judgment comes from our own likes and dislikes. We are the ones who prefer that Alph spends his time reading poetry rather than gathering stones. Consequently, the world in which Alph is reading poetry has more value to us.

However, we – and our preferences - do not exist in this model, at least not yet. This model contains Alph and his one desire to gather stones. Alph has no reason to read poetry – not unless the poetry includes a clue as to where he might find some more stones to gather.

There is nothing in poetry that generates a reason or a natural command that it be read – by Alph, or by anybody else.

There is no good or bad, better or worse, best or worst, that does not relate an object of evaluation to a set of desires. In a world where only one desire exists (e.g., Alph’s desire to gather stones) then all of the goodness and badness that exists relates the object of evaluation to that desire. In that world, at least.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How Bigotry Works - Presidential Edition

There are people who say, "I will not vote for a black person" or "Women are not fit to be President."

However, this is not the way bigotry works in most cases.

Bigotry also and often works by making a person feel uncomfortable about certain things. When they feel uncomfortable, they look for a reason for the discomfort. Of course, they want a socially acceptable reason - a reason that they can use in front of others without being embarrassed. So, they don't want to explain their attitude in terms of race or gender. Instead, they seek something nebulous like, "I don't think he's smart enough to handle the job," or "I think she is scheming and dishonest."

These are perfectly legitimate reasons if true, but they are not always true.

This is not at all done consciously, by the way. A person gets the uneasy feeling, and immediately jumps to "she strikes me as a scheming liar" or "he's just not ambitious enough to do a good job." They are not consciously rejecting a racist explanation; they never admit to themselves that their brain works that way.

I have admitted to having my own prejudices. Intellectually - in the realm of belief - I know that they are not only unfounded, but they are wrong. However, I did not learn my prejudices simply as a set of beliefs. I learned them at an emotional level. I can change my beliefs by a careful evaluation of the facts. However, even a perfect understanding of the facts often has a limited impact on emotions.

I would like to be able to turn these emotions off. However, it is no more possible to turn off a gut-level prejudice than it is to turn off a fear of spiders or an aversion to the taste of liver and onions. One simply cannot reason a person either into or out of these types of attitudes.

Since I am aware of these dispositions, I can take steps to make sure that they do not cause me to act in ways harmful to others. When examining a perspective candidate, I know to ask whether I have solid evidence for any derogatory beliefs, or if I am going merely on "gut feeling" which may be tainted by an underlying learned emotional response based on race or gender.

(NOTE: This is one reason why I favor affirmative action and even quotas. In issues such as hiring and promotion there is a subjective element - an element based on feeling. This is a perfect opportunity for prejudice to appear, even from a person who - on the level of belief - condemns bigotry.)

In this election, there are certainly people who will not vote for Clinton because she is a woman - who will knowingly and openly declare that to be their reason.

However, there will be a much larger set of people who will simply feel uncomfortable at the thought of a woman in that position. The idea of a female President - a female leader - a woman exhibiting the characteristics of ambition and planning that are essential to enter such a position. A man can show those tendencies and characteristics without generating more than a shrug in response - but a woman? It's not proper for a woman.

Many of these people will look around for reasons for this discomfort. In doing so, they are going to rule out reasons that go against social convention or might even go against their own beliefs. They will not accept the idea that they are the type of person that they believe ought to be condemned for their bigotry. They will settle on reasons like, "She's dishonest," or "She's too ambitious and only interested in herself," or they will assume her guilt in this or that "scandal" because it feels right to think of her as guilty..

However, the next question to ask is, "Can I find actual, solid evidence in favor of these judgments? Or am I just basing them on a gut feeling that, itself, could be being fed by an underlying prejudice?"

Here is the time for anybody who thinks it is actually important to cast a vote that is warranted and not a vote based on bigotry to do some research. Here is the time when it is important to go to the effort to look at the facts and determine whether one's attitude is based on evidence, or just a feeling itself tainted by prejudices learned, not on the level of belief, but on the level of emotion.

And be careful . . . emotion also has the power to cause one to see evidence where not exists - to give extra emphasis to testimony that supports the prejudice and find some excuse to dismiss the evidence that challenges the prejudice. For anybody who takes this challenge seriously, it will involve some hard work. But it could be useful.

Desirism Book - Part 0008 - Desire (Preference) Satisfaction

In the model I am using, we have one person (Alph) with one desire (to gather stones). This means that there is only one reason for intentional action that exists (to realize a state in which Alph is gathering stones), and only one kind of state that has end-value (a state where "I am gathering stones" spoken by Alph is true.

Some may see this as a desire-satisfaction theory. In one sense, it would be correct. However, in another sense - or a couple of other senses - this would be wrong. To prevent future confusion, I want to clarify the exact type f desire-satisfaction theory this is.

One popular form of desire satisfaction theory focuses on the felt sense of satisfaction. In this sense, satisfaction serves the same role that "pleasure" dies in traditional hedonism. "Pain" is replaced with the felt state of  "frustration".

However, on the theory being advanced here, the felt sense of satisfaction or frustration has no value. As we did with pleasure, pain, and unhappiness, we can look at satisfaction and frustration in two ways. Either (1) it is a felt sensation alone, where the agent can have an independent desire for or aversion to that sensation, or (2) the term refers to a type of sensation for which the individual has a built in desire or aversion.

If it is the former, then satisfaction and frustration can exist in this model, but the agent lacks the independent desire or aversion. Thus, the agent lacks an end-reason to seek satisfaction or avoid frustration.

If the latter, then satisfaction and frustration cannot exist within our model. We are assuming that out agent has only one desire - and that is a desire to gather stones. There is no desire for a felt sensation of satisfaction, and no aversion to a felt sensation of frustration.

Another popular form of desire satisfaction theory imagines that desire satisfaction is a thing in itself having intrinsic value. As such, it is that thing to be maximized in utilitarian theories. "The right act is the act that maximizes desire satisfaction."  Peter Singer's moral theory seems to follow this model.

An agent is to consider the preferences of a close family matter as being equal to those of a total stranger.

This is not that theory. Intrinsic value does not exist.

On this model, Alph seeks one thing - to be gathering stones. He is not seeking desire satisfaction. He is seeking a state in which he is gathering stones. Desire satisfaction, as something distinct from gathering stones, does not exist.

We can use the phrase, "desire satisfaction" to refer to the fact that Alph has a reason to realize a state in which he is gathering stones founded on a desire to gather stones. However, this phrase introduces nothing new. It is a description of what already exists.

In order to put some distance between this theory and theories that refer to the felt sense of satisfaction, I tend to use the term “desire fulfillment”. A desire that P sets up a set of condition to be realized. As soon as P is made or kept true, the condition has been met and the desire that P has been fulfilled. There is no need for a felt sensation of satisfaction. This does not imply that such a sensation cannot exist or that a person cannot desire “that I am experiencing a felt sense of satisfaction”. It simply is not necessary and is not a part of our model at this point.

It may help to see the difference between desire satisfaction and desire fulfillment if we imagine Alph with a different desire. Let us give Alph a desire that the planet Pandora B come into existence. The only way for Alph to bring Pandora B into existence is to press a red button labeled “Create Pandora B”. However, pressing the button will destroy Alph. He will cease to exist as Pandora B comes into existence.

For the sake of this example, Pandora B will come into existence without any form of life – without any creature capable of having desires and without the possibility that a desiring creature can evolve on Pandora B. We do not want to confuse the issue by adding additional desires.

If we look at the reasons for action that exists, Alph has a reason to press the button. Alph has a desire that P where P  = “The planet Pandora B exists”. Consequently, Alph has a reason to press the button.

Alph has no reason not to press the button. Certainly, doing so will end his existence, but Alph has no desire to continue to exist. Nor does he have a desire that requires his continued existence as a means. He has this one desire – that Pandora B come into existence – and the fulfillment of that desire requires that he live no longer than needed to press the button.

So, he presses the button.

He ceases to exist, and Pandora B springs into existence.

The desire has been fulfilled. That is to say, the check box “Pandora B exists” can now be checked – this has been made true.

However, there is no desire satisfaction. In fact, there is no desire at all. The one and only desire that did exist no longer exists. All that exists is Pandora B.

Some people may want to refer to this as a desire satisfaction theory, and streatch the definition of “satisfaction” to include cases in which the object of a desire has been realized even though it generates no felt sense of satisfaction. There are those who write about “objective desire satisfaction” that covers situations in which a desire is fulfilled or thwarted without the agent knowing about it.

However, I fear that the term will confuse some, so I will stick with the term “desire fulfillment”. A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs where P is made or kept true.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0007 - Reasons

A has a reason to φ iff A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing.

This is Bernard Williams’ theory of reasons, and it fits quite snugly in the current account. (Williams, B., 1979. “Internal and External Reasons,” reprinted in Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 101–13.)

We have created one person (Alph) with one desire (to gather stones). In order for a reason to exist, it is going to have to be in service to satisfying this one desire – the only desire that exists. There is no reason to do anything else.

As a reminder, serving this desire is to be understood to mean making the proposition “I am gathering stones” spoken by Alph true. It is not to be equated with generating any type of psychological sensation such as pleasure or happiness.

On the question of pleasure, happiness, or the psychological sensation of being satisfied, in this imaginary universe either these things do not exist, or they exist without there being a reason to bring them about. The question of existence turns on whether a desire for pleasure, happiness, or satisfaction is built into the meaning of the term. If what we call pleasure is a physical sensation that, by definition, people desire for its own sake then there is no pleasure in this hypothetical universe.  This is because there is nothing that agents desire for their own sake other than Alph’s desire that he be gathering stones.

Later in this series I will be giving Alph more desires. I will also be adding more people, each with their own desires. Consequently, more reasons will come into existence. Yet, they will be coming into existence only because there will be more desires. They will not emerge from nothing.

If Alph has gathered all of his stones together, he will then have a reason to scatter stones. Having all of the stones gathered means that the proposition, “I am gathering stones” is now false. The only way to change that from “false” to “true” would be to scatter the stones. Then, they can be gathered again. That is the reason for scattering stones – to restore a state in which “I am gathering stones” spoken by Alph can once again be made true.

Alph also has a reason to preserve his own life. He cannot make or keep the proposition, “I am gathering stones” true if he should die. So, he has a reason to avoid walking off of a cliff as he gathers stones. If he needs food and water in order to survive, he has reason to eat and to drink – and to grow food and discover water. However, he has no motivating hunger or thirst. These would require the addition of new desires. He eats and drinks only insofar as these are essential to making or keeping the proposition, “I am gathering stones” true.

Alph may or may not have reason to look in the next valley for more rocks to gather. He has a reason to look in the next valley just in case there are rocks in the next valley to gather. If there are no rocks to gather, he has no reason to look into the next valley. We may assume that he does not know whether there are rocks in the next valley. This means that he does not know whether he has reason to go into the next valley for rocks. He knows that there is a possibility that there are rocks in the next valley to gather. This means that he knows that there is a possibility that he has a reason to the next valley. The possibility of rocks generates a possibility of a reason. It does not generate an actual reason.

Consequently, a person who knows that there are no rocks in the next valley can honestly report, “You are wasting your time looking for rocks in the next valley. There are none.”

We can illustrate this another way by looking at an example where a thirsty person reaches for a glass that contains what she thinks is clean water, though it is in fact poison. An observer can tell her, “You don’t want to do that.” When she asks why, he reports that it is poison. The point here is that his original statement, “You don’t want to do that,” is true. The agent may not know that she does not want to do that, and may think that she does want to do that insofar as she is thirsty and thinks that the glass contains clean water. However, in fact, she does not want to drink from the glass. She has no reason to drink from the glass.

Let us assume that we give Alph a choice. He may choose that a beautiful planet exists, or that an ugly planet exists. He has no reason to choose one or the other. There exists, in this simple universe, no reason to choose one over the other. There is nothing about the nature of the planets that creates a reason – a demand – that it be chosen.

In fact, in our simple universe, there is nothing in either planet that generates a reason to call it beautiful – unless it turns out that one contains a number of rocks to be gathered and the other contains no rocks. Now, if we assume that Alph can get to the planet with rocks in order to gather them, now he has a reason to choose one planet over the other. But insofar as choosing that a planet continue to exist does not serve his desire to be gathering stones, he has no reason to choose that planet, or any planet.

I will have more to say on beauty in a future posting. My purpose here is to discuss reasons for intentional action. In our imaginary universe which consists of Alph with his desire to gather stones, there is only one reason for intentional action that exists. Alph has an end-reason to gather stones – and has an instrumental reason, and means-reasons to do those things that will help to make or keep the proposition “I am gathering stones” true. No other reasons for intentional action exist. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Discovering" Morality in Personal Advanage

Because Bernie Sanders lost the primary election in New York on April 19, there are people declaring that independents have a moral right to vote in party primary elections.

The relationship between those two facts comes from the observation that independents who tend to support Sanders tend to vote in the Democratic primary where they are able. Consequently, Sanders would have been able to pick up a higher percentage of the vote if New York had an open primary than he received under the closed primary. From this it apparently follows that closed primaries violate a fundamental voting right of those who are not members of a political party.

This is clearly not a valid argument. However, it does illustrate how people often approach moral issues. What is asserted to be a fundamental right is something that the individual "became aware of" because it provides them with a personal advantage.

We can well imagine what those who are making this claim would have discovered about morality if it were the case that independents tended to vote for Clinton rather than Sanders. In this case, Sanders would have been collecting a higher percentage of the votes among Democrats. However, when independents were allowed to have a say, Sanders' share of the votes would have dropped.

In this case, it is not difficult to image that Sanders and his supporters would have "discovered" the moral principle that an organization has the right to choose its own leaders and representatives. Nowhere else - or almost nowhere else - are people who do not belong to an organization allowed to come in and help decide who the organization selects as its leaders and representatives. If an individual wants a voice is the decision of a group, a minimum requirement is to join the group.

In other words, the moral principles being embraced in this case are those of convenience, with no reliance on any type of impersonal standard.

Further evidence of this comes from Sanders' attitude towards the use of a caucus to select a candidate.

Sanders has tended to do well where states select their delegates during a caucus system.

To vote in a caucus, a voter must devote a considerable amount of time out of their day, on a specific day, to go to a common location with other caucus voters, to engage in a long discussion and debate and, from there, to select delegates.

This is an exceptional burden for many people. Those who have family and business commitments, those who are ill, and those who find it difficult to travel tend to be excluded from the caucus system. The decisions are made, instead, by those who are younger, healthier, and with fewer commitments to family or work.

In this election, the type of voter who could make it to a caucus tended to support Sanders, whereas the rules tended to provide excessive burdens on those who supported Clinton. Consequently, Sanders received more votes (and, thus, more delegates) in a caucus system than he would have received if the state had selected their delegates in a primary - whether open or closed.

Yet, Sanders failed to become aware of any moral problems with a caucus system that tended to prevent even registered Democrats from having a say in the selection of their group's representatives.

This suggests a highly selective sense of moral awareness, tuned quite closely to what provides the individual with a personal advantage.

In effect, the caucus system has the same practical effect as voter ID laws. Republicans claim to support voter ID laws because it limits voter fraud - even though there is almost no voter fraud to limit. As a matter of fact, Republicans tend to favor voter ID laws because it places an extra burden on certain types of voters, and those types of voters tend to vote for Democrats. In other words, they favor the law for its practical effect at preventing eligible voters who would otherwise have cast their votes for Democratic candidates from voting.

Democrats tend to object to voter ID laws - again, claiming that it interferes with a right to vote, though we would have to ask if they would find voter ID laws so objectionable if it were the case that such a law would tend to reduce the number of Republican voters from voting. A disposition to discover moral principles promoting acts and policies that provide the discoverer with a material advantage is clearly not confined to members of the Republican party.

Indeed, the practice of "discovering" moral principles that provide one with an personal advantage is very common. These simply provide some clear illustrations of the practice. Yet, the fact that it is common is not an argument in favor of continuing or even promoting the practice. It is a practice that ought to be uncommon - even rare. It is a practice that we have reason to criticize and condemn.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0006 - Nozick's Experience Machine

To the regular readers of my blog, I am sorry. I addressed Nozick's experience machine in a post outside this series just a few days ago. However, I have come to realize that it has a place in this series, right about here. Much of what I say here will repeat what I wrote about a week ago, altered slightly to fit into the context of this series.

We have one person (Alph) with one desire (a desire to gather stones or a desire "that I am gathering stones".)

I have just mentioned that what matters for a person with a desire that P are states where P is true. Insofar as Alph desires to gather stones, Alph has a motivating reason to realize states where the proposition, “I am gathering stones” is true.

Robert Nozick has asked that we consider the option of an experience machine – a machine that will artificially generate the impressions of any given state of affairs. If Alph were hooked up to this experience machine, it would be impossible for Alph to distinguish in virtue of sensation between actually gathering stones and having the machine-generated sensation of gathering stones.

So, would Alph choose to be hooked up to the experience machine?

We may assume, to provide extra incentive, that the real world has a limited number of stones, requiring that Alph spend some of his time scattering stones so that he can gather them again. However, the experience machine world will have an unlimited amount of stones, allowing Alph to have the permanent sensation of gathering stones.

On the model we are establishing here, Alph would respond to the offer of the experience machine by saying, "No, thank you. Your experience machine provides nothing of value. I have no reason to accept your offer."

The reason for this response comes directly from the fact that Alph’s desire to gather stones is a desire that the proposition, “I am gathering stones” be made or kept true. The experience machine cannot make it the case that the proposition, “I am gathering stones” is true. In fact, as long as Alph is hooked up to the machine, the proposition, “I am gathering stones” is false – and thus a state of affairs Alph has no interest in.

We can see this distinction better if we take a different example.

In this example, Betty has a desire that her children are healthy and happy. She is given a choice between entering the experience machine where she will get impressions that her children are in perfect health and happy – while their children are, instead, taken to a torture chamber.

Or, she can choose to enter the experience machine where she will be given impressions that her children are tortured mercilessly while, in fact, her children are healthy and happy.

Insofar as Betty truly desires that her children are healthy and happy, she has reason to choose the second option, and no reason to choose the first option. The second option is the only available option that makes the proposition “my children are healthy and happy” true.

There are some desires where their objects are such that the experience machine can make them true. Insofar as we focus on these desires, an agent will have reason to enter the experience machine.

The person who enjoys the experience of eating a steak, but wishes to avoid the cholesterol, calories and other possible health effects or wishes that no cow be killed to provide the steak, will have reason to enter the experience machine.

In fact, all of these caveats after the word “but” are optional. They can be stricken from the example. As long as the agent has a desire “that I am having the experience of eating a steak” rather than a desire “that I am eating a steak”, the agent has a reason to enter the experience machine. The reason the experience machine is successful is because it has the capacity to make the proposition, “I am having the experience of eating a steak” true – so it fulfills the desire in question.

The idea that a desire that P is a motivational attitude that the proposition P is to be made or kept true is to be understood literally. This is going to play a significant roll in what follows.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0005 - Intrinsic, Instrumental, and End Values


Let me put some of my cards on the table so people can see where this is going.

We have one person, Alph, with one desire, to gather stones (or, expressed as a propositional attitude "a desire that I am gathering stones" (spoken by Alph).

When he has gathered all of the stones in one place, he can no longer make or keep the proposition, "I am gathering stones" true. So, he spends some time scattering stones, so he can once again make the proposition true.

Let me relate these states to some value terms.

"Good" is "is such as to fulfill the desires in question."

This is a reduction of a value property to a natural property - something that G.E. Moore argued cannot be done. When we add that what is good is what ought to be done - at least in some sense of 'ought' - we will then make possible the deriving of 'ought' from 'is'. This is something that the philosopher David Hume said cannot be done. We will get to these concerns in later postings.

To fulfill a desire is to make or keep true the proposition that is the object of the desire.

Thus, Alph's desire "that I am gathering stones" is fulfilled in any state where the proposition "I am gathering stones" is true.

Alph can say of the state in which he is gathering stones that it is good.

Let me set that aside for a moment and look at the state in which Alph is scattering stones.

That state is instrumentally good. It has no value for its own sake. It only has value as a means to an end - as a means to creating a state where the stones are scattered, where Alph can make the state, "I am gathering stones" true again.

What of the state of, "I am gathering stones"?

Our habit is to contrast instrumental good with intrinsic good. Alph does not gather stones for the sake of some other end. He does it for its own sake. It's value does not depend n something else. Many would say that this means that it is intrinsically good.

However, the concept "intrinsic value" is ambiguous.

The strongest meaning of the term - that is, the meaning most likely to arise in those who hear the term, is that "intrinsic value" means that the goodness of "I am gathering stones" is built into the state itself, and depends on nothing outside of it. If it is intrinsically good in this sense, then this means that if we were to change Alph's desires so that he now desired to scatter stones, the state in which Alph is gathering stones would still be good. We might even classify Alph's desire to scatter stones as a perversion - as a desire for that which lacks true value.

However, none of this is true. The state in which Alph is gathering stones has value - to Alph - precisely because Alph has a desire "that I am gathering stones". If Alph's desire changes to one in which he desires to scatter stones, then the state in which Alph gathers stones loses all value, and the state in which he scatters stones has value.

Still, with this change in desire, it will become true that he scatters stones for its own sake and not for any other reason. His final end, the ultimate purpose of his actions, is to be in a state of scattering stones.

These considerations will raise questions of whether value in general or moral value in particular are "objective" or "subjective". I will invite the reader not to make any snap judgments because what appears to be the case superficially may not be true once we look at the situation in detail. For now, it is best to just set those considerations aside and look at exactly what is being claimed

To avoid the problems raised by the term "intrinsic value," I tend to say that intrinsic value does not exist and that the type of value being mentioned here is end value or "value as an end." Gathering stones is good as an end, good for its own sake. But not intrinsically good.

There is also no moral goodness here. We will not see moral goodness until we have two or more people and at least one desire that can be molded - strengthened or weakened or have its changed - using rewards and punishment. As long as we are stuck in this universe with one person, we have no moral value.

However, we do have instrumental value, and we have value as an end of value for its own sake. This is a start.

Monday, April 18, 2016

If I Were a Senator: Honesty in Politics

I have a long standing fantasy of being a legislator.

Since I was quite young, I have wanted to do good in the world - to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been.

This little blog that I run in my own dark corner of the internet hardly suffices to fulfill that particular desire. Not when I compare it to something that I could have been doing - such as serving as a legislator, where I would have the chance to vote on things with the potential to do real good to real people.

I do not have the temperament to be a politician.

However, I do have the temperament to fantasize about being a politician. A politician who wants to do good.

In my fantasies, I often ask myself how I would handle certain controversial issues. There are a lot of issues in the world where I have held that it is reasonable to believe that my personal opinion on a matter, if I were to use that to decide my vote, would get me removed from office. This would mean giving up the opportunity to continue to do the good that I did elsewhere.

What should I do in these types of situations?

To begin with: To imagine myself to be an atheist legislator is already to imagine that I am a liar.

The majority of Americans automatically reject the idea of an atheist in public office. Consequently, no open atheist sits as a legislator in the United States. Certainly there are atheist legislators. However, all of them are liars to one degree or another. They are at best being deceptive regarding their attitudes towards religion and the existence of a god. If I were to be an atheist legislator, then I must imagine that I am being similarly deceptive.

This fact strongly informs my opinion regarding honesty in politics.

However, I have also had a concern with more specific issues.

For years, one of those cases was the issue of gay marriage. I have viewed marriage as something of a contract - as an important social contract which the government has reason to support and strengthen. There is no moral case to be made against a man entering into a contract with another man or a woman entering into a contract with another woman. In this sense, "If we let men marry men then we would also have to allow them to marry children or animals" was utter nonsense. Children and animals cannot enter into valid contracts of this type. Men can.

Anyway, for quite a number of years it was the case that to express this opinion meant being excluded form public office. "I could either state that my opinion is that I see nothing wrong with gay marriage, or I could deny that this is the case and serve in the legislature where I can do a great deal of good."

My choice over the years has been the former. But not because I consider it a morally superior option. In fact, I consider the latter to be the morally superior option but judge that I simply lack the traits of character that would allow me to pursue that option.

Without changing anything about my character other than eliminating the unease I would have at going up to total strangers and asking for their vote and their contributions, I would choose to be the legislator who deceives others about my beliefs when they are unpopular, and who would sometimes vote against my own moral opinion.

Admittedly, in those fantasies of being a legislator, I often imagine that I can seek some middle ground. I imagine myself campaigning on the platform, "Look, as your representative in the legislature I see it as my job to represent you. I am not there to represent myself. I see the situation as being much like that of being an agent to a Hollywood movie star. I can give you my recommendations as to what you should do but, ultimately, I work for you and my job is to execute your will."

Then, on matters of homosexuality, I would declare that I see nothing wrong with homosexual marriage - that I find it wrong to prevent competent adults from entering into those agreements if they wish. However, "I work for you and it is my job to execute your will" would mean that I would vote against homosexual marriage until such time as the people I represent tell me that it is their will to allow me to vote in favor.

But that is my fantasy world. In the real world, where voting in favor of homosexual marriage was the political equivalent of signing a letter of resignation, in the same way that I had no intention of signing a letter of resignation, I would likely have voted against homosexual marriage.

Another case in which I spent a lot of time considering the difference between my own moral opinion and the public will had to do with the invasion of Iraq.

I was against the invasion of Iraq. My main argument had to do with the principles of the trial by jury. Effectively, Saddam Hussein was being convicted of a crime (violating UN sanctions with respect to stockpiling weapons of mass destruction), and, as a result, the American government was calling for violent action against him.

The proper attitude to take in this situation, I argued, was to present the evidence to an impartial jury and to abide by its verdict.

To the best of my ability, the Bush Administration had presented its case to our political allies - most notably, the members of NATO, and they returned a near unanimous verdict of "Not Guilty". This meant that, if the Bush Administration were to go ahead with the invasion (as it did) it would be comparable to a police officer - after a not-guilty verdict in a trial - pulling out a gun and killing the accused out of the conviction that he was, in fact, guilty. That would be murder.

However, at the time, the public sentiment strongly favored invasion.

The public sentiment was not consistent across the whole country. There were parts of the country where a Senator could have voted against the invasion without risk of being thrown out of office. However, there were other parts of the country where voting against invasion was the political equivalent of signing a letter of resignation.

What if I were to sign that letter of resignation or - what amounts to the same thing - voted against the invasion? Well, then I would either be giving my seat over to somebody who actually and honestly favored the invasion and was blind to the moral objections against it, or I would be giving my seat over to somebody who also objected to the invasion but was willing to sacrifice her principles to stay in office. Neither option would make the global situation better - and one option would make the global situation worse.

It is crucial to remember that this vote was taken before we knew that Saddam Hussein actually had no weapons of mass destruction. When I was mulling over in my mind, "How would I vote if I was a Senator," I did so while believing it was extremely likely that somebody like Saddam Hussein would try to get away with hiding weapons of mass destruction somewhere. Consequently, a vote against the invasion, after the invasion had found such a stockpile, would be interpreted as a failure to remove a significant threat. This is certainly something the Bush Administration itself was counting on.

In this sense, President Obama was extremely lucky. If weapons of mass destruction had been found, he never would have become President, and might not have long remained a Senator.

Weighing all of these factors - I cannot actually tell how I would have voted with respect to the invasion of Iraq, even given my moral opposition to the invasion. However, I can well understand how a politician who was not ready to sign a letter of resignation and leave public life would have been tempted to vote for it.

I did say at the start of this blog that I do not have the temperament to be a politician. A part of that is because I have such a strong aversion to lying. But, because I have that aversion, I am not going to hold public office. Of those who do hold public office, I would much rather that office be held by somebody more like me but a willingness to lie about unpopular beliefs than a candidate who honestly asserts, advocates, and promotes harmful policies.

Closing a Factory

There is a significant moral difference between shutting down a factory in a wealthy country which has the resources to take care of those who would be harmed, and shutting down a factory in an impoverished country which has nothing to draw upon to help those who have been harmed.

Let's close down a factory in a wealthy country.

This is going to harm some people - they will be made worse off. Some will be made significantly worse off.

However, this is a wealthy country, and so it has a huge reserve of resources that it can draw upon to aid those who are harmed. They can be provided with unemployment and other benefits while they rearrange their lives. They can be provided with education benefits - vouchers for returning to school, free tuition and training. Their meals and housing can be paid for while they make the transition.

Let's close down a factory in an impoverished country.

That's it. The people in the factory are reduced to squalor. This is the type of poverty where children do not get enough to eat and suffer parasitic infections and other diseases because people cannot afford even the best medical care. The nation has no resources that it can draw upon to ease their transition to a new life. The nation does not even have a new life for them to transition into.

In the case of the wealthy country, there is a question, of course, of whether the country would actually take steps to help those who are harmed by the factory's closing. However, I am investigating this question on the assumption that we are looking at a nation that IS willing to do something. We may assume that there are politicians running for public office that want to punish companies for closing factories and for moving them overseas. If this is our assumption, we may include among the list of options of "things that can be done" allowing the factory to close and providing assistance to those who are harmed.

Now, there are candidates who are arguing for closing down the foreign factory in an impoverished part of the world and moving those jobs back to the United States.

(This option, by the way, is a pipe dream. See, "Manufacturing Jobs are Never Coming Back". Even when companies do close down foreign operations to build factories in the United States these days, those factories tend to be highly automated and actually create very few American jobs. However, we can set that aside for the moment and assume that there is an actual option to close a foreign factory in an impoverished part of the world and then to "create jobs" in the United States.)

Closing down the factory means returning the people who used to work in that factory to absolute squalor of the type described above.

Not only that, this will have a ripple effect through the local economy. No doubt, there will be others in the community who did not work within the factory for wages but, instead, sold goods and services to the company. The workers in the company would use their additional wages first to purchase food and medical care. Local businesses that provide food and medical care would benefit. If the company does not hire a janitorial crew directly, they may contract out with a business in the community to provide janitorial services. If it does not maintain its own vehicles, it may send them to a local garage when they need maintenance or repair.

When the factory closes, its workers will not be the only ones who suffer. All of the businesses and all of the individuals that have been providing goods and services to the company and to its employees will suffer.

Of course, the same is true when a factory closes in the wealthy country. However, the wealthy country has the means to mitigate these harms. Merely the fact that it is a wealthy country, it can pay to relocate people within the community to places where they can prosper. Or they can provide tax and other incentives for new businesses to step in and fill the gap. The wealthy country can pay for a renewal project. The impoverished company does not have the resources to do anything.

In this country, we tend to do little for those made worse off by the closing of a factory. That creates avoidable hardship. Where the company profits by moving the jobs, the company itself should share at least a portion of its anticipated profits with those employees who will be harmed by its actions. Additional help can come from the general treasury. After all, the American public as a whole is going to benefit from the lower-cost goods (allowing their existing salaries to go further). They can kick in a portion of that benefit to the general treasury, which can use the money to benefit those harmed.

However, the fact that we do not provide these benefits (or do not do so to the proper degree) is not an argument for returning poor people elsewhere in the world to absolute squalor. This will be like saying, because I refuse to pull Jim up as he is hanging off the edge of a cliff, it is morally permissible to push Juan and Chan off that same cliff.

To the degree to which we are concerned with human suffering, these things matter. To the degree to which we care only about our selfish interests and care nothing about the suffering elsewhere that might result from our actions, they become less significant.

Desirism Book - Part 0004 - Ultimate Ends

We have, in our imaginary world, a person with the name of Alph with a single desire - a desire to gather stones. This desire, expressed in terms of a propositional attitude, is a "desire that I am gathering stones".

The desire provides Alph with a motivating reason to gather stones - to make or keep true the proposition "I am gathering stones". If Alph should be asked, "Why are you gathering stones?" Alph's desire would be, "Because I want to." In this imaginary world as so far constructed there is no other reason to gather stone - no other reason exists.

One of the most widely held views today is that the ultimate end of human action is happiness. This is the only thing that is or can be an end in itself - and everything else is a means to this end if it has any value at all.

This would be the case if all humans had only one desire - a desire to be happy (or, to put it in the terms of a propositional attitude, a 'desire that I be happy'). This, then, would be a desire that provides the agent with a motivating reason to make or keep true the proposition, "I am happy". Everything else is just a means to this end.

There is no reason to believe that the proposition, "I am happy" is or can be the sole proposition capable of being the object of a desire. In fact, there is no reason to set any limits on what can be the object of a desire.

Recall that beliefs are also propositional attitudes. A person who believes, "I am happy" has the attitude that the proposition "I am happy" is true. There is no limit to the propositions that can be believed. A person can believe, "I am Napoleon Bonaparte", or that water is made up of H2O, or that humans are the product of a long history of change brought about by random mutations to DNA combined with a process of natural selection.

There is no reason to hold that the ultimate objects of desire cannot be just as broad. Of course, a person can have a desire to be happy (a "desire that I am happy") - and all or almost all of us have this desire. Yet, there is no reason to rule out the possibility that an agent can also have a desire to gather stones. A person can have a desire to be having sex, or a desire to eat, or a desire not to be in pain, that they desire directly independent of their effect on happiness.

Nor is it the case that a desire must necessarily take the self as an object. One can desire that their children are happy, or desire that no person go hungry. A person can have an aversion to any person entering into a sexual relationship with somebody of the same gender (a desire that no person engage in homosexual activities) or a desire that a particular wilderness be preserved even though no person will experience that wilderness.

I will come to argue that morality depends heavily on the diversity of desires. Morality will be concerned primarily with promoting or inhibiting certain desires. It will be involved in creating in people a desire to repay debts, and aversions to telling lies. Morality will involve promoting the desire that no person go hungry and a desire to accurately distinguish fact from fiction.

In fact, unless somebody brings reason to the contrary, I suspect that the set of propositions that can become the object of a desire is no more limited than the set of what can become the object of a belief. Anything that can be believed can be desired. If a person can adopt the attitude that P is true, then a person can adopt the attitude that P be made or kept true.

In our hypothetical universe, at this point, we have one person with one desire - a desire to gather stones. In this universe, the state in which "I am gathering stones" is true is the end of all intentional actions. It is the one sole state that all beings in this universe - which, importantly, consists of Alph alone - aim. It is not happiness, or eudaimonea, or pleasure and the absence of pain, it is "I (Alph) am gathering stones" - and nothing else. And the reason it is "I (Alph) am gathering stones" is because Alph - the only intentional agent that exists - has a desire to gather stones.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Pitfalls in the Defense of Freedom

The claim that one is fighting for freedom sounds like a noble claim - which is probably why people use it a lot.

However, it is far too easy to claim that one is fighting for freedom when one is, in fact, not fighting for freedom at all.

Before the French Revolution, the King of France had the authority to create "Lettres de Cachet". These were the epitome of arbitrary rule. A lettre de cachet could be an order to arrest somebody and hold them in prison - without any trial or even any reasonable evidence of wrongdoing. French nobles would sometimes ask (pay) the King to have their wayward children arrested as a way of getting them under control or out of the way. People could also be send to convents or to asylums in this way.

When the call was made to end the practice of "lettres de chacet", one of the arguments that could be made is that to take this power away from the King is to take away the King's freedom. A person or group could make the claim, "We are the defenders of freedom, fighting against those who would end freedom by prohibiting . . . restricting . . . removing as an option . . . the King's ability to create such a letter."

Every action in defense of freedom necessarily has the effect of limiting freedom someplace else. To claim that Congress shall pass no law limiting the press is, in a sense, to deny Congress the freedom to regulate the press. To prohibit cruel and unusual punishment is to deny Congress and the courts the freedom to inflict cruel and unusual punishment. In both cases, it is open to somebody to claim, "I am a champion of freedom - for I seek to preserve the freedom to regulate the press and inflict cruel and unusual punishment that the enemies of freedom would take away."

We saw with the challenges to slavery in the early to mid 1800s that there were those who described this as the act of a tyrant taking away a person's freedom to own slaves. It was a tyrannical move on the part of a government that has grown far too powerful in that it could take away a person's property without their consent and without just compensation - depriving slave owners of their basic human rights.

Similarly, Jim Crow laws can be described as attempts to protect the freedom that business owners had in serving their customers. Ending these laws meant denying businesses the freedom to refuse service to blacks or to give their white customers better service or service where those customers did not need to worry that they might encounter blacks in any role other than as servants to be commanded. Jim Crow laws ended a long list of freedoms.

Today, we are facing a call to protect what some people call "religious freedom".

In effect, "religious freedom" as it is being used is quite similar to the King of France's freedom to use lettres de cachet, and the freedom that southerners had before 1865 to own slaves, and, in particular, the type of freedom once protected by Jim Crow laws. It is a freedom to discriminate and to inflict harms and injustices on others.

This can be clearly illustrated by the fact that a prohibition on burning suspected witches is a restriction on religious liberty. We do not allow the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion to imply that the government may not prevent a group of people from burning a suspected witch at the stake. Nor do we accept the argument that interfering with a person's attempt to behead an apostate constitutes a violation of the beheader's religious liberties.

Religious liberty, as the term is currently being used, represents a "freedom" to coerce people into attending religous events by placing those events where others cannot leave without costing them a significant non-religous value. Putting a religous event in a government meeting, for example, means that people are forced to choose between attending that religious event and participating as a citizen in the affairs of government.

When a religious event is placed in a school setting, coercion does not even involve a choice. Children are required to go to school. Consequently, if religious events are written into the school activities, children are directly coerced into attending and even participating in a religious event.

Nonsense claims to the contrary, a Pledge of Allegiance to "one nation under God" is a religious activity. The claim that it is a political event simply ignores the fact that an event can be both political and religious - which is exactly what happens when one mixes church and state. The coronation of a king by a bishop was, in its day, both a religious and a political event meant to symbolize the union of church and state - and a pledge of allegiance to one nation under God does exactly the same thing.

"Religious liberty" is currently being used to deny individuals their right to be considered equal citizens before the law. If government officials can use "religious liberty" to deny government services to certain people, then we effectively have a religious test for who may receive and who may be denied government assistance. A person's standing before the state must first pass a test of having the religious-based approval of the government agent assigned to his or her case.

As far as refusing service to a person for religious reasons, we need only to consider the essential nature of our interactions with business. Our interactions with business is how we get food, medical care, energy, shelter, and clothing. Taken to its extreme, the capacity to put barriers between individuals and the providers of such goods and services is nothing less than the power to kill. While we cannot expect that any individual would be so cut off that their life is in danger because of the religious attitudes of others, it is still the case that these barriers cause harm. Thus, "religious liberty" in these cases is still a liberty very much like the liberty to refuse service to blacks.

If one wants to argue that racial segregation was not founded on religious principles, we simply need to ask, "What if it had been? What if a religion comes into existence that declares one race as God's chosen and all lesser races are to be shunned lest the master race become contaminated physically or culturally. Would they have a "religious liberty" right to refuse service to blacks? If the answer is "no", then the fact that segregation did not happen to be religiously motivated is irrelevant.

If somebody wants to claim that they are defending freedom, they need to take care that what they are defending is not, in fact, the freedom to deny freedom to others. One needs to take care that they are not defending a modern equivalent of a freedom to own slaves, or a freedom that in some other way is, in fact, a privelege to deny freedom to others. Every place freedom is defended, somebody else is being denied the liberty to take away those freedoms. This leads to a potential for confusion where a "defender of liberty" might not actually be defending liberty at all.

Desirism Book - Part 0003 - Means, Ends, and Unintended Consequences

In my previous post in this series, I imagined one person (Alph) with one desire (to gather stones) alone in the universe.

Almost immediately, I had to supply Alph with a set of beliefs so that he could act on this desire. His desire to gather stones describes what he wants - he wants to be gathering stones. However, in order to do this, he needs to have a set of beliefs that will tell him where the stones are, how to transport them, and where he is gathering them at.

Today, I want to say something more about Alph and his one desire, to give a clearer understanding of what we are talking about.

For example, Alph's desire to gather stones should not be confused with a desire that the stones be gathered. These are two different and distinct desires. A desire to gather stones is a desire that the proposition, "I am gathering stones" is made or kept true. A desire that the stones be gathered is a desire that the proposition "The stones are all collected in one location" be made or kept true. "I am gathering stones" is not the same as "the stones are all collected in one location."

The state in which the stones are all collected in one location is an unintended effect of gathering the stones. The fact that something is an outcome of fulfilling a desire does not imply that it is wanted. In fact, it may be unwanted.

One of the potential consequences of having sex is that of catching a sexually transmitted disease. The relationship between catching a sexually transmitted disease and having sex is the same as the relationship between having a large pile of stones gathered together and gathering stones.

In fact, once Alph has created this large pile by gathering all of the stones, Alph has a problem. He can no longer make or keep the proposition, "I am gathering stones." true. It becomes false - and remains false. Alph, with his desire to gather stones, immediately has a reason to look around for a way to make the proposition, "I am gathering stones" true again.

One of the ways in which he can do this is by, now, scattering the stones.

Note here another way to see the difference between a desire to gather stones and a desire that the stones be gathered. For the person with a desire that the stones be gathered, once they are gathered, he would sit back in contentment. He has what he wants - all of the stones gathered together. However, the agent with a desire to gather stones is facing a problem - how to return to a state in which "I am gathering stones" is true.

One of the ways that Alph can do this is by scattering the stones again. He can plant a large explosive charge in the middle of his pile of stones, hide behind a wall, and scatter the stones all over the valley again. Now, once again, he can make true the proposition, "I am gathering stones."

Or, if he lacks explosives or some other way to scatter the stones quickly, he can scatter the stones in the same manner he gathered them - carrying them away from the gathering spot and tossing them around the valley. Once done, he can once again fulfill his desire to be gathering stones.

In this case, scattering the stones is work. It is a task that allows us to bring up the distinction between "instrumental good" and "good in itself."

Here, I am introducing value-laden terms. Over the course of these postings, I hope to show that these definitions capture substantially the way that the terms are actually used - at least when they are used in true propositions. As I continue these postings, I will use the phrase "good in itself" simply to refer to realizing the proposition P for an agent with a desire that P. Similarly, I will only be using the term "instrumental good" to refer to something which itself is not P but which has the power to bring about or realize P for agents with a desire that P.

For Alph, the only thing that is "good in itself" is gathering stones. Having a large pile of stones is not good in itself - it is not good in any sense at all. It is just a consequence of gathering stones. Scattering stones, also, is not good in itself. It's work. It is a chore that one must do - even though one may wish not to be doing so - in order to get back to a state in which one is gathering stones.

That is to say, scattering stones has instrumental value. It has no value for its own sake. However, it does have the ability to create a state in which Alph can once again realize the proposition, "I am gathering stones".

We have here, then, a distinction between means, ends, and unintended consequence - all related to Alph's desire to be gathering stones. A "means" is something not desired for its own sake but which can help to realize a state in which there is something valued for its own sake. An "end" is that which is valued for its own sake. And an unintended consequence is something that results from realizing an end but which is not, itself, the object of a desire.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

What Is An Obligation?

What does it mean to say that a person has an obligation to do something?

Alph has borrowed $50 from a co-worker. Alph has promised to pay her back the next day. Alph has an obligation to go to work the next day with $50 that he will hand over to his co-worker, as promised.

What is this obligation?

Desirism recognizes three main categories for intentional action.

An obligatory act - a morally required act - is that act that a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would perform.

A prohibited act is that act that a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would not perform.

A non-obligatory permission is an act that a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) might or might not perform based on the agent's non-moral interests. If the agent prefers coffee to tea then the agent has a non-obligatory permission to drink tea, instead of coffee.

Now, Alph asks, "What is this to me? You have this imaginary person with good desires and lacking bad desires who, if he were in my position, would be motivated to take $50 to work and give it to my co-worker. Fine. So what?"

Well, good desires are those desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote using social tools such as praise and reward (e.g., for those who repay debts) and condemnation and punishment (e.g., for those who fail to repay debts). Bad desires are desires that people generally have reason to inhibit or suppress using those same tools.

The reason why people may have reason to praise some actions is that the praise acts on the brain to strengthen desires that bring about that which is praised. At the same time, condemning an action promotes in people generally an aversion to performing that action. Some desires are malleable, and this represents how they are molded.

So, if Alph is the type of person who would take $50 to work the next day and give it to his co-worker, then Alph is the type of person that people generally have reason to praise and, even, to reward. However, if Alph is the type of person who neglects to repay the money, then Alph is the type of person that others have reason to condemn and even to punish.

Alph does have reasons to acquire rewards. In fact, nothing counts as an actual reward if it is not something that people generally have reason to acquire. And Alph has some reason to avoid condemnation and punishment. However, insofar as rewards and punishments are acting to motivate Alph directly, we still do not have anything that would justify saying that Alph has an obligation to pay his co-worker $50.

After all, an individual might purchase a Picasso painting in the hopes that he can sell it the next year for twice as much money. The prospect of doubling his money provides the reason to purchase the painting. However, the prospect of earning a profit - of collecting a reward - does not generate an obligation to purchase the painting. In order for there to be an obligation, something more has to be going on.

What we are saying in this case is that people generally have reason to promote in others a desire to repay debts - or an aversion to failing to repay a debt. This describes a different motive for repaying the debt. Alph may repay the debt because social praise and condemnation has caused in him a desire to repay the debt or an aversion with failing to do so. In other words, Alph repays the debt, not for the sake of obtaining praise and avoiding condemnation, but because he wants to. He desires to repay the debt - or, at least, an aversion to not paying the debt motivates him to do so.

Please note that the initial statement - the obligatory act is the act that a person with good desires would do - does not distinguish between repaying the debt to collect a reward from repaying the debt because one wants to. The obligatory act is to repay the debt, not to do so for a particular reason. The right action is simply the action of repaying the debt - because that is what a person with good desires would do.

Let's look again at the fact that society has reason to use the tools of praise and condemnation to promote a desire to repay debts and an aversion to failing to do so.

In part, I want to say that this is a part of what the claim that Alph has an obligation to repay the $50 means. It not only reports that people generally have reason to praise those who repay debts and condemn or punish those who do not. It is, at the same time, a statement of praise for those who repay debts and a statement of condemnation of those who fail.

So, to say that Alph has an obligation to repay the $50 is to say that people generally have reason to praise those who pay back the money and condemn those who do not. It also contains the praise and/or condemnation that the truth-bearing component of the sentence says is justified. It is praising Alph, should Alph be the type of person who pays back the money. Similarly, it is condemning Alph should Alph be the type of person who refuses to repay the loan.

Alph has an obligation to repay the $50. This is a claim that says that people generally have many and strong reasons to praise those would repay the money and condemn those who do not. At the same time, it is a statement that praises those who repay their debts and condemns those who fail to do so. That is to say, it does what the truth-bearing component says that people generally has reason to do.

Finally, this brings up a third way in which Alph might repay the money owed. I mentioned that he may do so in order to collect a reward or obtain praise, or to avoid punishment and condemnation. I also mentioned that he may repay the money because he wants to - because praise and condemnation has formed within him a desire to repay debts and an aversion to failing to do so.

This third motive for repaying the debt is "because it is the right thing to do". That is to say, the agent might have a desire to do the right thing, a belief that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform, and a further belief that the person with good desires would repay their debts. In desiring to do the right thing, and believing that repaying the debt is the right thing, Alph may be motivated to repay the debt.

In fact, when it comes to morality, we see all three of these types of motives in play. We also see people arguing as to which motive is the correct motive. I can say more on that issue, but this is not the place. It is enough for now simply to note that this theory provides an account of the three ways in which a person may be motivated to do the right thing.

My original question asked, "What is an obligation?" A person has an obligation to do that which a person with good desires would do. This means that people generally have reason to praise those who perform the action and condemn those who fail to do so. They have reason to praise or condemn based on the effects that praise and condemnation have on molding desires, thus creating people with good desires and eliminating those who do not.

Desirism Book - Part 0002 - One Person, One Desire

To explain desirism, I want to begin by looking at a simple case involving one person with one desire. This will give us an idea of what a desire is and how it works.

There is no morality in a society that contains only one person. One person, isolated from everybody else, cannot wrong anybody. He can make a mistake. That is to say, he can do something "wrong" in the sense that he does something that harms himself, such as over-watering the crops or making his shoes too small. But he cannot do anything immoral.

Still, by looking at the case of a single person with a single desire, we can have an idea of what is going on before we introduce a second person. We can acquire an understanding of what things are like in this pre-moral state.

My story involves Alph. I will give Alph a single desire - a desire to gather stones. In our initial, imaginary world, this is all Alph cares about. He picks up a stone, carries it to a gathering place, sets it down on the pile of other stones, then heads out to get the next stone.

What can we say about this situation?

If we give Alph a desire to gather stones, and we put him out in the field, he is simply going to sit there. He is going to have no idea what to do. He has this desire to gather stones. However, he has no idea of what a stone is, how to transport a stone, or where to take it.

This is what we get with one person (Alph) and one desire (a desire to gather stones). We get a person in a field doing nothing.

If we are going to get anything out of this we are going to need something more than one person with one desire. We must also give Alph a set of beliefs that will allow him to act on his desire. These beliefs allow him to identify the things in his environment that are stones. They allow him to know how to transport the stone. And they tell him where to place the stone - where the gathering point is at.

Intentional actions require beliefs in addition to desires.

So, what are beliefs and desires?

Beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes. That is to say, when we talk about beliefs, we can express them in terms of attitudes towards propositions.

A proposition, in turn, is the meaning of a sentence. That is to say, two different sentences can express the same proposition. The sentence "La casa est blanca" and "the house is white" are two separate sentences expressed in two different languages. However, so long as we assume that they are both talking about the same house, the two different sentences identify the same proposition. They both mean the same thing.

So, a propositional attitude is an attitude towards - not "a sentence", but towards whatever it is that the sentence means.

Let us call this proposition, "P".

A belief that P is the attitude that P is true. If Alph believes that the house is white, then Alph has an attitude that the proposition, "the house is white" is true - that the proposition reports a fact about the universe. When making his plans, he can make his plans under the assumption that the house is white.

In our case, Alph would not care about the house being white. He would not care about the house at all.

However, Alph has reason to care that, "this is a rock". If Alph believes that this is a rock, then Alph has the attitude that the propositon "this is a rock" is true. If it is a rock, then it is a thing to be gathered. It is a thing to be lifted up and carried to the gathering spot.

A desire that P, on the other hand, is NOT an attitude that P is true. It is an attitude that P is to be made or kept true.

In our case, Alph's desire to gather stones can be expressed as a desire "that I am gathering stones". "I am gathering stones" is a proposition. A "desire that I am gathering stones" on the part of Alph is a desire that the proposition "I (Alph) am gathering stones" is made or kept true. The desire motivates Alph to act so as to make or keep this proposition true. That is to say, it provides the motivating force - the motivating reason - to go and gather another stone.

As long as he has the requisite beliefs, Alph knows what he wants (to gather stones), he knows how to go about doing it, and he has the motivation to carry out the actions. This is enough to make it the case that Alph goes out into the field and gathers stones.

This is where we start - with Alph, a desire to gather stones, and a requisite set of beliefs to tell him how to do this. Consequently, we start with Alph in the field making or keeping the proposition "I am gathering stones" true.

What I am going to try to do is to exhaust our understanding of this situation - or, at least, the relevant components of this situation. Then, I will bring in a second person. Before we get to that, in our next post, I want to make sure we understand what is happening with our one person and his one desire.

Sanders, Trump, and the Consequences of Scapegoating

I have criticized Bernie Sanders for conducting a "scapegoating" campaign for President.

A scapegoating campaign works as follows.

First, the candidate identifies a target group of individuals.

Second, the candidate tells his target audience that the target group is substantially responsible for their woes. If not for the evil being done by the target group, those who are in the target audience could be living the quality of life they deserve.

Third, the candidate tells the target audience that if they give him power, that he will deal with the target group the way they deserve to be dealt with, and thus give the target audience the quality of life they deserve.

Of course, the paradigm example of a scapegoat campaign was that of Adolph Hitler - blaming the Jews and the Communists for the woes of the German people.

Donald Trump is running a paradigmatic scapegoating campaign. In this case, it is the Mexicans - branded rapists and murderers - and the Muslims, who are all terrorists or should at least be assumed to be terrorists - who are being scapegoated. Vote Trump into office, and he promises to deal with these groups as they deserve to be dealt with. Then, the members of the target audience can have a safe and secure life.

An important part of scapegoating is that the candidate does not distinguish between individuals within the target group. He identifies the target group by name, and vilifies them as a group. In effect, his message to the target audience is, "Those who are members of the target group are your enemy. They are malevolent. They know that they are the causes of your suffering but they do not care - or they actively seek your suffering."

It would be different if the candidate were to choose as their target group, "rapists" or "terrorists" or "those engaged in the selfish pursuit of individual power and wealth". By definition, the members of these groups engage in some sort of malevolent activity and saying so violates no principle of reason or justice. However, the members of these groups are difficult to identify. The scapegoat prefers a group that is easier to identify - Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, or, in the case of Bernie Sanders, "Millionaires".

Both groups also scapegoat "the establishment" - a broad group of people who are apparently involved in a conspiracy to victimize the target audience.

It is important to note that the message that the scapegoating politician delivers to the target audience is that, "Those people are morally inferior. You are good, decent, people. They, on the other hand, are beneath you. You - by nature of your superior virtue - have earned a place among those who rule and who obtain the benefits of government. They - by nature of their viciousness - are to be ruled." It is a message of division, of "us" versus "them".

President Barack Obama, during his terms in office, has epitomized the denial of scapegoating. He has gone out of his way to make sure that no group is scapegoated. He draws sharp lines between the individuals who perpetrate injustice and other evils and the larger groups that those perpetrators may be assigned to. Even with regard to the Republican party, his message has been, "They are as much interested in the well-being of the United States as I am; we simply disagree over the best way to realize those ends." This is not a message that is soft on terrorists, murderers, rapists, and the politically corrupt. It is, instead, a message that targets those who are in fact terrorists, murderers, rapists, and the politically corrupt.

Scapegoating comes with an unfortunate side-effect.

Ultimately, the candidate engaged in scapegoating is telling his target audience to hate the members of the target group. He sells hate - which the target audience buys and pays for with campaign contributions and votes.

The side-effect of marketing hate is that the target audience begins to treat all members of the target group as morally inferior. As such, members of the target group are not owed the types of respect and consideration that would be owed to a regular human being.

On the Republican side, Indiana delegates have received threats from Trump supporters claiming that they are being watched - clearly implying that something ominous could happen to them if they did not support Trump at the national convention.

On the Democratic side, superdelegates who have said that they would support Hillary Clinton get similar treatment. The Chicago Tribune reports of a web site that published a "hit list" - accompanied by an image of a donkey shot with arrows - of superdelegates to "pressure" into supporting Sanders. That pressure has included threatening emails and phone calls and late-night harassment.

The question is: Why are we seeing this type of behavior from the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns?

What they have in common is that both are using the "scapegoat" campaign strategy. Both are, effectively, delivering a message of hate that claims that the target group is morally inferior. They are villains - and the members of the target audience are their victims. It is not at all surprising that the target audience will come to view members of the target group as undeserving of the kind of respect one would give to moral equals.

I have criticized the Bernie Sanders campaign (and the Trump campaign - only, in this case, I have had a lot more company) for scapegoating precisely because this is what scapegoating does. It divides the country - designating a target audience that is fit to govern and a target group fit only to be governed. By identifying the target group as villains - as "them" - as those who are morally inferior and who are victimizing the target audience - it invites disrespect.

Ultimately, it invites violence. That violence can get quite out of hand as events in Nazi Germany and "The Terror" in France - and, actually, countless events that make up the bulk of human history - abundantly illustrate.