With this posting, we will have a foundation on which a moral system can be built. We will have all of the essential elements and all of the necessary tools. The next step, then, will be to actually build a moral system on this foundation.
At this point, our universe contains two people, each with one desire. There is Alph with a desire to gather stones, and Bett with his desire to scatter stones.
I also want to stipulate that both Alph and Bett are so constituted so that praise can create new desires, while condemnation can create new aversions. For example, if Bett condemns Alph for scattering stones, Alph will acquire an aversion to scattering stones. In our hypothetical universe, Bett has no reason to do this (since Alph has no reason to scatter stones to begin with). However, the power exists if a reason to use it should appear.
I also want to add the stipulation that this feature is not very precise. Creating an aversion to scattering stones is easier than creating an aversion to scattering red stones. This, in turn, is easier than creating an aversion to scattering a red stone after one has already scattered a blue stone.
In other words, the propositions that this system will select to be the objects of its new desires and aversions will tend to be simple and general propositions. It would be possible to create an aversion to scattering red stones - it will only require more work as one condemns the scattering of red stones only and praises the scattering of stones that are not red until the brain figures out the rule.
With these stipulations in place, we have a world in which Alph is spending all of his time gathering stones, and Bett is spending all of his time scattering stones. Both are making or keeping true the propositions that are the objects of their desires. It is the best of all possible world.
Now, I am going to give each person a second desire - an aversion to their own pain. This may be described as "a desire that I not be in pain."
At this point, neither participant cares about the pain of the other. Thus, Alph can be fully aware that an act of his will cause Bett pain. However, so long as Bett continues to scatter stones, Alph has no reason to refrain from that action. It is true that Alph has reason to avoid injuring Bett or doing anything that would prevent Bett from scattering stones, but he has no reason to avoid causing Bett pain.
Similarly, Bett has no reason to avoid causing Alph pain.
However, Alph's aversion to pain does give him reason to cause Bett to acquire an aversion to causing pain to others. Alph can create this aversion in Bett by condemning Bett whenever Bett performs an action that causes pain. Once Bett acquires this aversion, then Bett will seek to create states of affairs in which both propositions, "I am scattering stones" and "I am not causing pain to others" are true at the same time.
Everything said here about Alph is also true of Bett. He has a reason to cause Alph to have an aversion to causing pain to others. He can accomplish this by condemning Alph whenever Alph performs an action that causes pain.
The next thing to note is that both Alph and Bett can become aware of these relevant facts. They can both come to realize that they live in a world in which "everybody" (that is, both Alph and Bett) has a reason to promote a universal aversion to causing pain by condemning anybody who causes pain to others.
If we want, we can imagine a world with 100 Alphs and 100 Betts. It will still be true that everybody has reason to promote a universal aversion to causing pain by condemning those who cause pain.
With this, we have all of the makings for a proto-moral system.
I call this a proto-moral system because it is still just a foundation on which a moral system can be built. We still have a lot of building to do. However, all of the basic elements are here.
If we were to come across this community, we would see a group of people who habitually condemned those who caused pain to others. In doing so, they would not ask those who they condemned, "What were you trying to do?" or "Would that have been an effective means to accomplishing your own ends?" These do not matter to the assessment. Seeing their behavior, we would almost certainly translate their linguistic utterances into the English phrase, "It is wrong to cause pain to others," with all of the relevant behavioral characteristics.
We would even discover these people defending themselves from condemnation by claiming, "It wasn't my fault," meaning, "Even with an aversion to causing pain to others, that pain you want to condemn me for could not have been avoided. Condemning people under these circumstances simply does no good - it is not something that people have any reason to do."
In other words, this community would have a fully compatibalist concept of free will and responsibility.
I am going to get into each of these details and more in the posts to come. More specifically, the next step is to discover what can be said about this community of people who each have two desires (a desire to either gather or scatter stones and an aversion to pain) and the capacity to create new desires in others using praise and condemnation.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
With this posting, we will have a foundation on which a moral system can be built. We will have all of the essential elements and all of the necessary tools. The next step, then, will be to actually build a moral system on this foundation.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:24 AM
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
George Will has left the Republican Party in protest over Donald Trump.
That's the wrong thing to do.
Really, the only thing George Will has accomplished in leaving the Republican Party is to take the party one step closer to being the Trumpublican Party. And the Trumpublican Party will be the party that is in charge of picking the next round of candidates in the next election. Many of those candidates will be in "safe" Trumpublican districts - guaranteeing that we will find Trumpublicans in the House and Senate.
This is simply not a smart thing to do.
The right thing to do is to stay in the party and to use one's influence as a member to improve the quality of the candidates that the party is putting on the ballot.
One of the principle ways we have gotten ourselves into the mess we are in is that moderate and sensible people - fed up with the stupidity and extremism of the Democratic and Republican parties, have left the parties. The parties themselves are being left more in the hands of arrogant extremists who shun compromise and see themselves as incapable of error.
This system is not working to give us effective government.
Whether we like it or not, the real world in which Americans live is one in which the two major political parties choose the candidates for the general election in almost all cases - one of whom will become President. If you, the reader, happens to live in a region where this is not the case, you may consider yourself lucky. However, what I describe here is the accurate real-world situation for the vast majority of voters.
This means we are turning the process for selecting candidates over to the most extreme, narrow-minded, uncompromising elements in the country.
The government that we see is the government that results from this type of behavior.
What we need to do to reverse this problem is to get into the position to influence who actually gets selected for public offices at the stage where those decisions are actually being made.
One of the things that this means is that, in a district where one of the major parties is dominant, one should join that party and become a part of that party's selection process. If one lives in a region where whoever the Democratic Party selects for an office is the one who will win, one should join the Democratic Party and work for the candidate (with a chance of winning) that most closely represents one's views. Even if one prefers a Republican candidate, if the Republican candidate has no chance of winning, one has a reason to support, instead, the most Republican of the Democratic candidates.
This applies to a Democrat living in an area that the Republican Party (or Trumpublican Party) dominates. One should join the party and at least support the most Democratic candidate among those available. At least in this way one has a voice in who wins the election.
Even as a member of the dominant party - with sympathies to the minor party - once the dominant party has selected the best candidate - one can still vote for the other party's candidate in the general election. However, given the fact that this candidate will almost certainly lose, the winner from the dominant party will not be as bad as he would have been without your input.
Or, we can continue along the same road we are travelling - allowing both major parties to become increasingly extreme and averse to compromise.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:30 AM
We have an imaginary universe in which one occupant (Alph) has only one desire (to gather stones) in a world where the number of stones is limited. Because of this, Alph has to spend half of his time scattering stones so that he can gather stones again.
We have introduced a second person, Bett.
Alph has a reason to cause Bett to scatter stones. By doing so, he can cause Bett to scatter the stones so that he can spend all of his time gathering them.
Three posts back, Alph had a serum that, when injected into Bett, would cause Bett to scatter stones. He also had a reason to give Bett the injection - so that Alph could make and keep true the proposition, "I am gathering stones".
This time, we will give Alph a slightly different means for creating the same effect.
We are going to create Bett in such a way that, when Alph praises him for scattering stones, he will acquire a desire to scatter stones. More specifically, Bett will acquire a desire "that I am scattering stones".
In this universe, we will get Bett started in gathering stones by making Bett so that he also responds to simple instructions while they are being given. As a result, Alph can instruct Bett in the act of scattering stones. It is important in this example that Bett not be understood as performing an intentional action in this case. Bett is acting on no belief or desire of his own. He is an automaton, specifically obeying Alph's instructions.
However, when Bett successfully completes an action, Alph can praise him. As a consequence of this praise, Bett acquires an actual desire to scatter stones just as, three posts back, he did when he was given the proper serum. He acquires a desire "that I am scattering stones".
We must be careful to understand how praise is being used here. Praise is not being used as an incentive. In this universe, Bett has no desire for praise that motivates him to scatter rocks so that he can realize a state in which "I am being praised". Bett has no initial desires at all - thus no reason for action. When Bett begins to scatter stones, it does not even make sense to say that the actions are his - any more than the actions of a toaster are those of the toaster.
The effect that we are looking at in this case is the effect of causing Bett to have a desire to scatter stones for its own sake. Instead of being motivated by a desire for praise (a desire "that I be praised"), the praise causes Bett to acquire a desire to scatter stones (a desire "that I am scattering stones"). This is the proposition that Bett wants to keep true. I this universe, he acquires this desire as a result of Alph's praise. Alph, in turn, has a reason to praise Bett for scattering stones based entirely on Alph's desire to gather stones and the fact that he keeps running out of stones to gather.
In our language, praise tends to use value-laden language. Alph may say that Bett is a good person for scattering stones, and that he is doing a good thing by scattering stones. However, we should not allow these linquistic habits to the conclusion that Alph is trying to convince Bett that scattering stones is good. We should particularly avoid the interpretation that, Alph is trying to motivate Bett to scatter stones by convincing him that scattering stones is good. Even if Bett acquired such a belief, it would not motivate Bett to actually scatter stones unless Bett also had a desire to "do that which is good (in the relevant sense)". Bett has no such desire, and we are leaving the idea that a belief that something is good is inherently motivating on the shelf until we need it. We do not yet need it.
For our purposes, where praise uses value-laden language, Bett will merely understand "good" in this case to mean, "that which Alph has reason to praise." Alph's claim that Bett is a good person, and his claim that scattering stones is a good thing to do, are perfectly true statements. Alph does, in fact, have a reason to praise Bett for scattering stones. However, because Bett has no desire to be a good person or to do good deeds, these beliefs fail to motivate action directly.
I am also not ruling out these desires - any more than a physicist discussing mechanics in a universe with frictionless pulled and massless strings rules out friction and mass. I am excluding them at the moment to simplify the model and focus on the relevant elements.
The relevant elements are that when Alph's praises Bett for scattering stones, this has a material (causal) effect on the structure of Bett's brain such that Bett acquires a desire "that I am scattering stones". Praise, in this case, has the same effect as the serum in an earlier post. It is merely a fact of Bett's biology that this type of interaction with the environment alters his body in this particular way.
Human brains (and animal brains) have a feature something like this - the reward center. It takes rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) and uses them to create new desires and to mold existing desires. In the same way that Alph has a reason to use praise to cause Bett to desire to scatter stones, we have reason to use reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation) to cause those around us to have certain desires and aversions.
This is the system that I will build on in the posts ahead, with the expectation that I will arrive at something so similar to what we call the institution of morality that it will be difficult to tell the difference.
However, we are not there yet. Scattering stones is hardly an obligation, particularly in a universe where half the population has no reason to scatter stones and nobody has a reason to get that half of the population to scatter stones. In fact, half the population has reason to cause the other half to gather stones instead.
We must introduce a few more elements into our imaginary world to get a moral system.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:00 AM
Friday, June 24, 2016
Through several postings, we have had a universe with one person (Alph) with one desire (to gather stones). This is a universe with a limited number of stones, so Alph needs to spend half of his time scattering stones so that he can gather them again.
Recently, we introduced a second person (Bett) with no desires.
In our first model, we gave Alph two syringes. One had a red serum that would give Bett a desire to gather stones, and the other had a green serum that would give Bett a desire to scatter stones. I argued that Alph's one desire gave him a reason to give Bett an injection of green serum. This will cause Bett to scatter stones, allowing Alph to spend all of his time gathering stones.
In our second model, Alph tried to use incentives and deterrance to influence Bett's behavior. However, these tools are ineffective on a being with no desires. Bett had first to be given a desire - any desire. Furthermore, Alph needed the power to fulfill or thwart that desire. Then, Alph could agree to fulfill Bett's desire if Bett would scatter stones, or threaten to thwart Bett's desire unless Bett scatters stones. Again, the motivation to scatter stones came from Bett's desire.
In this third model, Alph will try to cause Bett to scatter stones by causing Bett to believe that scattering stones is good.
A belief does not need to be true to motivate action. A person who believes that there is a dragon outside that will eat him if he leaves his house will be motivated to stay inside. Similarly, Alph does not need to worry about whether the proposition “scattering stones is good” is true. As long as Bett believes it, he will scatter stones.
Or will he?
In order for the false belief about the dragon to keep our agent above inside, the agent also needs a reason not to be eaten. The belief that there is a dragon outside - by itself - motivates noting.
Similarly, for Bett to actually be motivated to scatter stones, he not only needs to believe that scattering stones is good, he must have a desire to do that which is good. Without that desire, the proposition “scattering stones is good” is just data - like the proposition that there is a dragon outside. It sits in the databank and does nothing – until it becomes useful for some end, to realize some desire.
There are those who claim that merely giving Bett the belief that something is good would be enough to motivate Bett. However, this view is filled with such metaphysical and ontological mystery that we should set it aside unless something compels us to pick it up. We can bring these metaphysical and ontological mysteries to the fore by asking, “What does it mean to say that ‘scattering stones is good’ is true, such that it can motivate an agent into acting just by believing it?”
Once we set this idea aside, we will discover that we never have a reason to pick it up again. We can simply let those metaphysical and ontological mysteries sit on the shelf. We can understand everything we are trying to understand using desires that determine the ends or goals of intentional action, and beliefs that select the means for those actions.
There is still a question of what it takes for the proposition “X is good” to be true.
In this set of postings, I am going to try to avoid talk of something being “good” or “bad” for a while – simply because it brings a lot of confusion into the story that we do not need just yet. I will be talking about it being the case that certain states of affairs fulfill desires. It will talk about facts where an agent has a desire that P and there is some state of affairs S where P is true in S. In this case, the agent has a motivating reason to realize S. In other words, S has value to the agent, grounded on the fact that the agent has a desire that P and P is true in S. I will also be speaking of this type of situation by saying things like S has value to the agent.
However, I will come to a point where I will be using the term “good” to refer to some of these relationships. But today is not that day.
For today, I will simply assert that we are sticking with the idea that desires provide the motivational force. Beliefs simply guide that force. Desires select the destination for intentional action, and beliefs choose the route. For Alph, merely causing Bett to believe that scattering rocks is good will not have any effect.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:26 AM
Thursday, June 23, 2016
I am not a citizen of Great Britain, but I do have an opinion regarding Brexit - Britain's referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.
First, I want to object to the idea that, "Simply because you are not a citizen, you are not entitled to an opinion on such a matter."
The fact is, I am entitled to an opinion on the moral concerns that are relevant in this decision. This is true in the same way that I have a reason to be concerned about a country that is rounding up and killing all of the Jews, or refusing to give voting rights to its black citizens, or practicing slavery, or systematically discriminating against its women. Moral concerns - insofar as they are moral concerns - do not end at national borders.
Furthermore, people are entitled to an opinion on matters that effect them. There is reason to believe that Brexit will have an effect far outside of England. It will certainly effect the European Union. In particular, it also has a lot to say about how nations are going to interact with each other. This, in turn, will have implications for international relationships elsewhere in the world. This, in turn, will have implications for human interaction and cooperation on a global scale - a scale at which important decisions have to be made.
On the moral side of the equation, one of the primary reasons being given for Brexit is, in effect, an appeal to tribal psychology. This is the psychological comfort that people find in dividing the world into "us" versus "them" and attributing to one's own group all of the good qualities, while seeing "them" as the victimizing and dangerous "other".
It is a part of human psychology, but it is not one of the good parts. It is the seat of a great deal of injustice, hatred, fear, and violence. It is something that each of us needs to fight against at all times if we are to create a peaceful and just society.
Brexit is both built on and feeds tribal bigotry. It grows from this disposition to hate "the other" and then feeds back on itself to further promote and nourish a fear and hatred of "the other". It is not a legitimate reason for England to leave the European Union. Instead, it is a reason for England to put some effort into tamping down these tribal sentiments and the ill effects that come from them.
Many of the other reasons for Brexit are, in effect, rationalizations by people who, being human, have bigoted sentiments that they do not want to admit to in public, and may even want to hide from themselves.
Much of the money Britain pays as dues for membership in the European Union is returned to England directly, and others come back to England in terms of economic and political benefits.
The European Union regulations that people in Britain complain about will still be in effect once Britain leaves the EU, and will still apply to British exports to the EU. British manufactures will still have to meet European Union standards for the same reason that car manufacturers who ship cars to the United States must meet American standards regarding safety, gas mileage, and pollution.
The weakness of these arguments suggest that there is some other motivation that is driving people into seeing them as having merit. It is not unreasonable to hold, at least in many cases, people are motivated to seeing these as strong arguments because they provide a useful cover to emotions and reasons they do not wish to admit they have.
On the side of international relations, it is no longer the case that we can pretend that we are a planet of isolated and independent tribes. From greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions that damage the ozone layer, to deforestation, to pollution that crosses national borders and enters the sea and air, to joint and universal responses to global economic problems, to preventing international corporations from playing one country off against another by forming a joint bargaining position against them, there are reasons for nations to work together.
The isolationist, "build a wall and pretend that we are somehow not connected to the rest of the earth" attitude is irrational - and dangerous.
Of course, every country that enters into an international organization is going to want to be the one and only dominant member that gets to dictate policy to all the others. This is true in the same way that anybody who enters into a civil society with others is going to want to be the dictator of that society. They will likely see themselves as a good dictator - unable to understand why others question their perfect wisdom and generosity. Yet, they will be disposed not to trust others to govern them.
This, too, is a part of human nature.
These psychological facts, like the bigoted tribalism discussed above - is another part of our psychology that works against our interests. We need to replace these attitudes with attitudes of cooperation and consideration, and with institutions built on negotiations that "will not always go our way". We need to recognize that it is, at best, immature to pick up one's ball and go home just because one did not get their way in their dealings with others. The mature country, like the mature individual, stays and tries to work things out.
Our global interdependence is growing. The number and size of issues that will require an international response will grow with it. We need to admit to this future and start to plan for it - not run from it and pretend it does not exist.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:04 AM
In my last post, I introduced Bett - a person with no desires - into a world that originally contained Alph with his one desire to gather stones. I also gave Alph the ability to give Bett a desire - either a desire to gather stones or a desire to scatter stones.
I then claimed that Alph's one desire to gather stones in a world with a limited number of stones to gather gave him a reason to cause Bett to scatter stones. Bett's stone scattering gives Alph the opportunity to spend all of his time keeping true the proposition, "I am gathering stones."
In this post, I wish to give Alph a new set of ways to influence Bett's behavior - incentives and deterrence.
In order to have the option to use incentives and deterrence, Bett first has to have some desires of his own.
Alph would be providing Bett with an incentive by offering to fulfill one of Bett's desires if Bett would, in return, perform some action that fulfills one of Alph's desires.
So, for example, let us give Bett a desire to eat chocolate and give Alph control over a supply of chocolate. Alph can then say to Bett, "If you scatter some stones, I will give you some chocolate." Bett's motivating reason to make the proposition, "I am eating chocolate" true becomes a motivating reason to scatter stones.
Similarly, Alph would be providing Bett with a deterrence by threatening to thwart one of Bett's desires unless Bett performs some action that fulfills one of Alph's desires.
In this case, let's give Bett an aversion to pain or, in other words, a "desire that I not be in pain." Alph threatens to make true the proposition, "Bett is in pain" unless Bett scatters stones. Bett's reason to avoid a state in which he is in pain becomes a reason to scatter stones.
These exchanges work the other way as well. Bett can refuse to scatter stones unless Alph gives him some chocolate, or unless Alph refrains from any action that causes Bett to experience pain.
Even if it is the case that the only desire Bett has is a desire to scatter stones, this can be used to create incentives or deterrence if Alph ever comes up with a reason to do so. Assuming that Alph controls the pile of stones that has been gathered, he can tell Bett, "I will give you access to these stones to gather if you will do something for me." Similarly, assuming Bett already has access to the stones, Alph can threaten to take away Bett's access unless Bett performs some action that will fulfill one of Alph's desires.
There is no morality in this system. These tools of incentives and deterrence belong to the realms of law and economics, not morality. They are the instruments of coercion or of trade. However, without morality it is not even possible to determine which is which.
We must also take care at this point not to sneak any morality into our understanding of this relationship. Alph's control of the pile of stones he gathered does not depend on any type of natural right which Bett feels a reason to respect. It can only mean a physical ability to keep Bett away from the gathered stones. Similarly, Bett's desire to scatter stones would give him a reason to kill Alph if he could, and by doing so he can get to the gathered stones that Alph is protecting.
Still, in the case where Alph has a desire to gather stones and Bett has a desire to scatter stones, they have no reason to engage in these types of exercises. It is enough for each to leave the other alone, leaving Alph to gather the stones that Bett will scatter, and leaving Bett to scatter the stones that Alph will gather.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:53 AM
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
We have a universe with one person (Alph) and one desire (to gather stones).
Recall that his desire to gather stones is a motivating reason for him to make or keep true the proposition "I am gathering stones."
Let us assume that there is a limited number of stones such that Alph has to spend half of his time scattering stones so that he can gather stones again (return to making true the proposition "I am gathering stones").
Now, I am going to plop a second person down on this world - Bett.
Bett has no desires.
However, we are going to give Alph two syringes; a syringe of red serum, and a syringe of blue serum. The red serum will cause Bett to have a desire to gather stones – making Bett like Alph. The blue serum will cause Bett to have a desire to scatter stones.
I would like to repeat that Alph has only one desire – a desire to gather stones. Furthermore, we are using Williams’ concept of reasons:
There is a reason for A to φ iff there is some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing.
This means that Alph has a reason to give Bett the red serum if and only if this will serve his desire to gather stones. The same is true of injecting Bett with the blue serum.
Alph’s desire to gather stones provides him with no reason to inject Alph with the red serum. The red serum will actually put Bett in competition with Alph for gathering stones – effectively leaving Alph with half as many stones to gather. When it comes to scattering stones, both Alph and Bett will have a reason to wait for the other person to scatter stones and then gather the stones the other scattered.
On the other hand, Alph’s desire to gather stones does provide him with a reason to give Bett the blue serum, giving Bett a desire to scatter stones. Under this arrangement, assuming that both work at the same speed, Alph will no longer have to spend time scattering stones in order to gather stones again. Bett will be scattering stones for him, allowing Alph to spend all of his time gathering stones. In other words, Alph will be able to do a better job of keeping the proposition “I am gathering stones” true if he gives Bett the red serum.
There is an important fact here that I want to shine a light on.
Alph has no sense of altruism or fellow feeling. Alph has no interest in Bett's welfare or the quality of Bett's life. Nor does Alph has any interest in cooperation for its own sake, no love of fairness, and no sense of duty or obligation. Alph's interest in Bett is limited to Bett's usefulness - his ability to scatter stones so that Alph can gather them.
Nor is it the case in this example that Alph is giving Bett any sense of empathy or sympathy, no interest in Alph's welfare, nor any sense of duty or obligation.
Yet, Alph's desire alone is enough to give him a reason to establish a cooperative system with Bett whereby Alph gathers the stones, and Bett scatters them.
It will turn out that empathy, sympathy, communal interests, and altruism, and distinctly moral sentiments are all unnecessary when it comes to establishing a system of morality. They may be put to good use where they are present. However, morality can exist even where they are absent.
Those who equate the discovery of altruism or empathy or a sense of fairness or justice in humans with the discovery of the foundation of human morality are mistaken.
I am going to continue to leave these types of sentiments out of this equation for a while, just to show what we can accomplish without them. I will eventually come to argue that the only things necessary for morality are (1) intentional agents with (2) some malleable desires where (3) those desires can be molded through rewards and punishments.
I also want to note that, while Alph is, in a sense, treating Bett as a means only (which is all he can do), he is not forcing Bett to do anything that Bett does not want to do. That is to say, he is not sacrificing Bett's interests for his own ends. He is, instead, giving Bett ends that compliment his own ends.
We do not have a moral system yet. At this point, Alph’s action of giving Bett an injection of blue serum more comfortably fits under the institution of medicine. No praise or blame, no rewards or punishments, are due to Bett in virtue of his lack of interest in either gathering or scattering stones. Instead, Alph merely has a reason to give Bett an injection.
Even here, one may argue that we do not even have a reason to claim that Bett has any type of illness, for which the injection of red serum may be thought of as a “cure”. However, we will discover that in our own larger and more complex society we will tend to talk about situations much like this in medical terms.
However, my interest is in morality. In the next post on this subject, I will take another step in that direction.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:43 AM
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
I am about to add a second person to this imaginary universe. Before I do, I would like to review what we have.
We have a universe with one person (Alph) who has one desire (to gather stones).
Desires are propositional attitudes. That is to say, they take as their object a proposition - a sentence capable of being true or false.
A desire is a motivational force directing the agent to make of keep true the proposition that is the object of the desire. So, for example, Alph's desire to gather stones motivates him to act so as to make or keep true the proposition, "I am gathering stones."
Note that this is different from a desire that the stones be gathered. With respect to Alph's actual desire, having a large pile of stones is merely an unintended consequence of the desire to gather stones. It bears the same relationship to the desire to gather stones as getting or causing pregnancy has to having sex. It may be a cause of the action, but it is not the reason for the action.
I am using Bernard Williams' account of what it means to have a reason.
A has reason to φ if and only if A has some motive which will be served or furthered by his φ
On this account, Alph has a reason to gather stones. He has a desire to gather stones that would be served by gathering stones. If he runs out of stones to gather, then he has a reason to scatter stones, since that is the only way he can make true again the proposition, "I am gathering stones." Alph also has a reason to avoid a crippling injury or death where these would prevent him from making or keeping true the proposition, "I am gathering stones."
These other goods - scattering stones if the supply of stones to gather runs out, avoiding crippling injury or death - are instrumental goods. They provide or preserve the means necessary to make or keep true the proposition, "I am gathering stones." They are not valued for their own sake, but for their usefulness.
There is no intrinsic value. A state in which, "I am gathering stones" has value for Alph in virtue of his desire to gather stones. However, nothing in this state generates a reason for anybody else (if they should exist) to realize or preserve such a state. A reason to realize a state in which a desire is being fulfilled requires a desire that desires be fulfilled, or some other desire made true in a state where a desire is being fulfilled.
Note that not even Alph is motivated by desire fulfillment. Alph is motivated by a desire to gather stones to realize a state in which, "I am gathering stones" is true. It is, "I am gathering stones" that has value for Alph, not "My desire that I am gathering stones is fulfilled."
We should also note that Alph, in this case, has no reason to enter a Nozickian experience machine that will stimulate his brain and feed him the illusion of gathering stones. Such a machine cannot make or keep true the proposition, "I am gathering stones." Similarly, a parent who cares that his children are safe and happy cannot settle for an experience machine feeding him the illusion that his children are safe and happy. His desire motivates him to seek the actual safety and happiness of his children.
If the reader thinks that Alph is wasting his life pursuing a meaningless end, then this would be because the reader is appealing to her own desires. The reader is saying, "I would not want to life that life." This is true, but it is a separate issue. The fact that Alph is content gathering stones does not imply that the reader - with the reader's own set of desires - would be or should be content with a life of gathering stones.
Nor does the reader's discontentment imply that Alph has a reason to shun a life of gathering stones. Such inferences are mistaken.
There is no morality in this world. There is one end - Alph's end of gathering stones, a number of means, and some unintended consequences.
I am about to drop a second person into this world. When I do, we will look at what is required for a rudimentary morality - though not right away.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:44 AM
Monday, June 20, 2016
[Author;s Note: This is intended to be inserted between posts 0010 and 0011.
It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Section III)
The nature of beliefs and desires that I am using in these postings owe a great deal to David Hume.
Given what we have already discussed, we can make sense of Hume's claim noted above.
We have been postulating a universe with only one being (Alph) having only one desire (to gather stones). To understand Hume's quote, let us change this one desire to an aversion to being in pain. This is all the agent cares about.
In this, I have already provided an example very much like that of the second claim that Hume made above. I have discussed a case in which Alph has only one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora B (a planet that will contain only plant life; no animals) come into existence.
In a situation where Alph could bring this planet into existence by pushing a button that would destroy himself, he has a reason to push the button and no reason not to. In this case, Alph is choosing his own destruction to realize a state of affairs in which the planet Pandora B exists.
To explain the first claim that Hume made, let's put Alph in a situation where he has two options. He knows that he is about to get a scratch on his finger. However, he can avoid this scratch by an action that will bring about the destruction of the world.
We will need to stipulate that the destruction of the world will cause Alph no pain - and Alph knows this. If it did, then Alph's aversion to pain would give him a reason to avoid the destruction of the whole world.
It is also important to add that Alph, in this case, has no desire that can only be fulfilled if the world continues to exist. If he had such a concern, then that would give him reason to avoid the destruction of the world.
We must even take from Alph the desire to gather stones since, if the world was destroyed, Alph would no longer be able to keep or make true the proposition, "I am gathering stones." Thus, having such a desire gives him a reason to avoid bringing about the destruction of the world.
All we have is Alph with an aversion to pain, and pain that can be avoided by (painlessly) destroying the world.
In such a situation, Alph has no reason to prevent the destruction of the world in order to prevent even a mild pain that would result from a scratch on his finger.
There are, according to Hume, only two roles for reason in directing action.
First, When a passion, such as hope or fear, grief or joy, despair or security, is founded on the supposition or the existence of objects, which really do not exist. Secondly, When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the designed end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it.
Let me put this quote into the language I am using for these posts.
First, reason can tell an agent with a desire that P whether P is true in any state of affairs S. If it is, then reason informs the agent that she has motivation to bring about S.
For example, let us assume that the destruction of the world would, in fact, cause Alph to experience pain, at least for a short while. When reason informs Alph of this fact, Alph would come to be averse to destroying the world - but only because Alph has an aversion to the pain that he would experience as a part of that destruction.
Second, reason can tell an agent with a desire that P that an act Q will realize S, where P is true in S. When this happens, then reason informs the agent that she has motivation to realize Q.
In other words, reason can inform Alph that the pain that would come from a scratch on his finger can be avoided if he performs an action that will (painlessly, in this case) destroy the world. If this is the case, the agent will wish to perform that action. Yet, here, too, it is the agent's aversion to pain that provides the motivation.
I will argue later that, contrary to Hume, there is a third sense in which a passion can be judged unreasonable. However, this will only happen when passions come into conflict, and agents have the capacity to choose whether or not to have (or to create in others) various passions. Consequently, it is not a fitting discussion for our current situation where we have an agent with only one desire. We will return to this possibility after we have introduced more desires, more agents, and the possibility of choosing desires.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:02 AM
Sunday, June 19, 2016
In "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" (The Philosophical Review Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), pp. 305-316), Philippa Foot identified three relationships between doing the right thing and the motives of the agent.
Two of these relate to the traditional distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. The former involved performing the right act because it gained the agent some benefit or advantage - because it was, in a sense, "profitable" for the agent to do so. The latter involved performing the right act because it was the right act - because it was the right thing to do.
The third option that Foot introduced to this discussion was performing the right act for its own sake. It involved performing an act of charity because one actually cared about the person who would benefit and telling the truth because one simply wanted to deal honestly with others. These count as hypothetical imperatives because it is the concern for others or the desire to deal honestly with others that provide the motivation for the action. However, in some cases, we judge such a person as being more moral than the person who acts on duty.
However, there is a question still left unanswered. What OUGHT we to desire?
In spite of all that has been urged in favor of the hypothetical imperative in ethics, I am sure that many people will be unconvinced and will argue that one element essential to moral virtue is still missing. This missing feature is the recognition of a duty to adopt those ends which we have attributed to the moral man. We have said that he does care about others, and about causes such as liberty and justice; that it is on this account that he will accept a system of morality. But what if he never cared about such things, or what if he ceased to care ? Is it not the case that he ought to care?
We should not that it is clearly the case that not everything an agent DOES desire is something the agent SHOULD desire - something that gives the agent moral credit. An agent may desire to play computer games, or even value belittling and bullying others. That he values these things does not make them moral. There are only certain types of desires - concern for others, aversion to deceit, aversion to taking the property of others without their consent - that gives a person moral credit.
What distinguishes the desires an agent does have from those that provide moral credit?
After asking the question, Foot does not provide an answer. It is sufficient for her purposes to note that a person does not have these desires "because they ought to". A parent who cares for a child does not care "because he ought to" - he simply cares about the child. A person who values honest dealings with others does not value honest dealings with others because he ought. It is one thing to say that an agent ought to engage in honest dealings with others because he ought - quite another to say that he ought to engage in honest dealings with others because he values it for its own sake, which is because he ought.
This blog goes a bit further than Foot did in this article by providing an answer to the question, "What ought a person to desire?"
On the account defended in this blog, there are certain desires that people generally have reasons to promote. These are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. They promote these desires through a system of rewards and punishments, where praise works as a type of reward and condemnation as a type of punishment.
To the degree that agents act so as to obtain the reward or avoid the punishment, this is outside the realm of morality. This fits more in with law and economics. Morality enters into the picture when this system of rewards and punishments causes people to value things for their own sake. Culture - in praising some and condemning others - promotes in people an interest in the well-being of others for its own sake - as one of the agent's ends. The aversion to deceit or to taking the property of others without consent becomes internalized so that the aversion overrides any reasons that may emerge to engage in deceit or to take the property of others without consent.
Morality is, then, a system of hypothetical imperatives. It is that system of hypothetical imperatives (desires and aversions) that people generally have reason to promote using rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:00 AM
Saturday, June 18, 2016
In his address to supporters, Bernie Sanders listed some objectives for his followers to work on in the years ahead. Many have merit, but a few deserve some second thought.
One of these is to abolish the system of super-delegates.
In the Democratic Party, about 85% of the delegates assigned the task of selecting the Party's next Presidential candidate are elected by people in primaries or caucuses. The remaining 15% are super-delegates - people who have been given a vote based on the fact that they have won an important public office (House of Representative, Senate, President, Governor), or a high-ranking position within the Party.
The primary argument against super-delegates is that they are undemocratic. They have the power to override the will of the majority as they have expressed it in their vote.
Yet, right next door, in the Republican Party, we have a living example of the merits of super-delegates. They provide a check against a wholly unqualified candidate getting the nomination - one with a potential to not only inflict significant damage to the Party, but who might get elected and inflict significant harm to the nation and the world.
Because the Republicans did not have a system of super-delegates, the nation itself is in peril - as is the global economy and world peace - with the potential election of Donald Trump.
We should note at the beginning that, in a vast majority of the cases, the super-delegate system will be a system not worth worrying about. If the super-delegates were ever going to decide an election against the will of the voters, it would have done so in 2008. There, the establishment candidate could have made the argument that she was the best, most qualified candidate, and she arguably even had a majority share of the popular vote. Yet, the super-delegates went with the popular choice.
In that case, the popular choice was a good choice.
What matters would be a case in which the popular choice is a Trump-like candidate; an entertainment figure adept at public manipulation but unfit to be President.
The idea that the popular vote should always prevail has long been known to have a significant problem - a tyranny of the majority. The majority is not always right. Sometimes, if is important to set up some sort of system to review the majority's decisions and judge if they actually make sense.
A principle that has been put into place in American politics is a system of checks and balances. No "branch" is given unbounded control over everything. Instead, each branch has an ability to nullify the work of a different branch. For example, the Supreme Court is an unelected, undemocratic check on the tyranny of the legislative and executive branches.
Super-delegates are not all-powerful. They have the ability to overturn a popular vote only if the popular vote is close. If the popular vote shows sufficient strength, then the super-delegates may not be able to override the will of the majority. They are useful only in a case of a relatively close election, and only to the degree that the super-delegates themselves are united.
Furthermore, the people have the power to influence and even select the super-delegates. As I have already mentioned, these are the people who have their status in virtue of having won a popular election or have been elected into a position of responsibility in the party. If the people wish to replace them, the people have the power to do so.
This has all of the earmarks of a system of checks and balances. Neither of the two groups - popularly elected delegates or super-delegates - has absolute power. Either can be checked and balanced by the other, under the appropriate circumstances.
This does not imply that the super-delegate system as it exists is perfect. We still have reason to ask some questions.
Is 15 percent the right size? Is it too big or too small? Remember, the 15 percent will often be divided - it does not vote as a solid block. If the popular elected candidates are supporting a Trump-like candidate, it would take substantial agreement among the super delegates to put a quality candidate in his place.
Is the selection criteria for picking super-delegates the best available? Perhaps, rather than draw super-delegates from the pool of successfully elected Democrats and office holders, a pool of super-delegates should be drawn instead from typically marginalized groups as a tool for protecting minority rights. It is, after all, one of the purposes of a system of checks and balances to protect from a tyranny of the majority.
Well, these are some thoughts. In short, I do not hold that Sanders and his supporters will be making any significant progress by ridding the Democratic party of super-delegates. Furthermore, if it does wish to rid the party of undemocratic institutions that not only have the potential but have the proven capacity to distort the will of the voters, it would focus on caucuses instead. Evidence abounds that this is the area where the will of the majority of the voters is most likely to be overridden by rules that keep a substantial number of potential voters from participating.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 5:44 AM
Thursday, June 16, 2016
Typically, in discussions regarding the relationship between right action and motives, we encounter a contrast between two types of reasons.
There are those who do the right thing because they find it useful, like the person who makes a charitable contribution because others will praise him and speak well of him.
And there are those who do the right thing because it is the right thing to do - the person who makes a charitable contribution because he ought to make a charitable contribution.
Philippa Foot, in "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" (The Philosophical Review Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), pp. 305-316), adds a third type to this list.
Foot is responding to Kant's claim that morality is a system of categorical imperatives. Kant's distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives matches the first two of these three types of reasons. Hypothetical imperatives depend on having a desire for something - doing something because it is pleasurable (and having no reason to do it if it is not pleasurable). Categorical imperatives are to be done regardless of what the individual desires. They are to be done because they are right, not because they bring the agent pleasure.
Foot's third type of relationship is one in which an agent tells the truth, for example, not because it is useful, and not because it is the right thing to do, but because the agent wants to tell the truth. The agent values honesty for its own sake, or has an aversion to dealing with others dishonestly.
In my own writings, I rely heavily on this third type of reason - arguing that morality is primarily concerned with using rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) to promote such things as a desire to interact honestly with others and an aversion to deceiving others.
If we bring in the fact that desires are propositional attitudes, we can distinguish these three types of reasons by the propositions that are the object of each desire.
First, there are selfish desires - a decision to make a charitable contribution as a way of obtaining the praise of others, or a decision to turn in a wanted criminal merely to collect a reward or bounty. Such a person is acting on a desire like a desire, "that I acquire wealth" or "that others speak well of me." This type of agent loses the reason to do the right thing when it does not bring him wealth or improve his reputation.
Second, an agent may do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. This agent has a desire "that I do the right thing" and a belief that charitable acts and honest dealings with others are among the right things to do. These types of actions make the proposition, "I am doing the right thing" true.
What Foot introduces is a third option whereby an agent makes a charitable contribution, for example, because he wants to help others.
But what reason could there be for refusing to call a man a just man if he acted justly because he loved truth and liberty, and wanted every man to be treated with a certain minimum respect? And why should the truly honest man not follow honesty for the sake of the good that honest dealing brings to men? Of course, the usual difficulties can be raised about the rare case in which no good is foreseen from an individual act of honesty. But it is not evident that a man's desires could not give him reason to act honestly even here. He wants to live openly and in good faith with his neighbors; it is not all the same to him to lie and conceal.
This third type of person is acting on a desire "that others not suffer," and performs the charitable act because it will make the statement that another is suffering false. Similarly, a person can tell the truth because he wants to be honest with his dealings with others and has an aversion to deceiving others. This requires no belief that telling the truth is the right thing to do or that lying is something one ought not to do - any more than choosing butterscotch ice cream over chocolate requires a belief that eating butterscotch is the right thing to do and eating chocolate is wrong. Charitable actions, honest dealings with others, and eating butterscotch ice cream are simply among the things the agent likes.
We are disposed to say that the person who performs an action for selfish reasons is not a good person. On the other hand, a person who performs an action because it is the right thing to do is a good person. What about the person who is charitable because he is adverse to the suffering of others or honest because he values honesty?
In some cases, we are disposed to think that this type of person is more moral than the person acting "because it is the right thing to do."
Assume that you are in the hospital. Somebody you judge to be a friend comes to see you. You ask him why he came. Now, compare these three answers.
(1) "Because people will think more highly of me when they know that I have come to visit you. They will speak well of me and they will smile and treat me well as a result."
(2) "Because it is the right thing to do. People have a duty to visit their friends in these types of situations, so, I came here because it is my duty to do so."
(3) "Because I care about you. I was worried. Besides, I thought of you laying here with nothing to do so I thought I would stop by and maybe we can play some chess or something. It's a lot better than laying in bed watching soap operas."
I think a lot of us would think more highly of the person who visits because he wants to over one who visits for selfish reasons or out of a sense of duty. In fact, if our visitor gave either of the first two answers, we may just tell them to go away and not bother visiting in the future.
However, this third type of reason is a hypothetical imperative. One tells the truth because one wants to tell the truth. One deals honestly with others because one wants to deal honestly with others. It is the desire that provides the reason to act.
Yet, there is still a distinction to be addressed between what we want to do and what we ought to want. We do not say that a person may lie if he has no desire to tell the truth, and may deal honestly with others if he is inclined to do so.
I will address that third question in Part 3.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:14 AM
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
In this post I want to present my understanding of the position that the Obama administration takes on the use of rhetoric regarding the conflict against ISIL and al-Quida.
First, Obama asserts that ISIL and al-Quida wish to frame the conflict as a battle between Islam and The West.
To the degree that they are able to accomplish this, to that degree they can an increasing portion of 1.6 billion Muslims to participate in the conflict on their side. They will obtain access not only to potential volunteer soldiers, but to the money and the resources that its portion of these 1.6 billion people have access to.
If ISIL is completely successful, they would control a force capable of fighting a world war on multiple fronts.
Furthermore, many of these potential soldiers are living among us - those that ISIL says is the enemy. These people could inflict significant harm if they could be recruited.
Second, anything said on our side that suggests that our enemy is Islam and that targets all Muslims supports the enemy claim that this is a battle between America and The West on one side and Islam on the other. The winner will continue to exist, and the loser will be eliminated; in other words, either America or Islam must perish.
Consequently, such statements aid ISIL in its goal to unite Muslims in a war to defend their religion.
To block ISIL in this attempt, Obama argues that we must make it clear that America and Islam can co-exist - that this is not a battle for the survival of Islam. It is only a battle against a faction within Islam that refuses to live in peace with others.
That, then, are the two main points of Obama's argument. ISIL wishes to frame the conflict as one in which either Islam or America must perish, and Obama wishes to frame the conflict as one in which America and Islam can co-exist peacefully, though we must work together to eliminate those who cannot accept peaceful co-existence.
That is Obama's argument, as I understand it. As a moral philosopher, I would like to add a bit more.
The moral principle at play here says that those who do nothing wrong shall not be subject to any burdens not imposed equally on all other free and morally responsible individuals. Only those with murderous intent (in this case) or who provide direct aid to those with murderous intent will be dealt with as enemies.
In contrast, Donald Trump's moral message is, "I care nothing about your actions or attitudes as individuals. I will treat you as guilty merely because I know you are Muslim."
Obama warns of the consequences of inflicting harms on all Muslims around the world, even those in the United States, regardless of who they are as individuals. Here, we must imagine creating or encouraging pockets of anti-American Muslims anywhere that there are Muslims - from Morocco to the Philippines and from California to Florida. The whole Muslim world will have stories to tell about people suffering harms merely because they are known to be Muslim - stories of innocent people being treated unjustly - if Trump's policies are adopted. Those stories will provide reason for anger, and specifically anger directed at America because of its injustices.
On the subject of morality, "injustice" is an appropriate term here. To prejudge a person as guilty and treat that person as guilty without evidence against them is unjust. If America were to adopt policies that harm innocent Muslims as if they are guilty, regardless of whether they are guilty, then it would be perpetrating injustices. Regardless of whether these injustices result in the types of anger that Obama warns about, it is still accurate to call them unjust.
Insofar as America and Americans value justice - in order for America to be deserving of the support of those who value justice - we would condemn harming the innocent or prejudging individuals as guilty. Insofar as we wish to be treated justly by others - and not to be prejudged ourselves - it seems practical to cultivate the aid and cooperation of those who love justice and who have formed an aversion to injustice. Yet, this is only possible - among those who love justice - to the degree that America is a just nation with just policies.
In addition to earning the anger of otherwise potentially friendly Muslims for our unjust actions, and weakening the support of those who value justice and are averse to injustice, there is a third cost associated with this policy.
To the degree that America promotes injustice and condemns and, in a sense, spits upon justice and those who defend it, to that degree America will be teaching the rest of the world a moral lesson. We cannot perform injustice without asserting to the world that it is good and that it is something that they may - perhaps should - do themselves. We cannot spit upon justice without sending a message to the world that everybody should spit upon justice and hold the defenders of justice in contempt.
This is the nature of morality. We - all of us - teach by our example. That which we do, we teach others that they may do. That which we condemn, we teach others to condemn. With Trump, what commit acts of injustice - and teach the world to be unjust. We condemn and belittle those who defend justice, and teach a contempt for justice to the rest of the world as well.
That is the situation as I understand it.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:17 AM
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
There are people who tell me that I need to "find God" or seek religion if I am going to understand morality.
However, I do not see how that is going to work.
For this discussion, let us assume that there is a god and that the God wants us to do what is right.
Question: What does god want us to do?
Where does one even start to answer this question?
Some may suggest that I find the answer in scripture.
And even if I had a scripture to choose, how do I discover what it actually tells me to do?
This option presupposes that one can trust scripture. However, there is nothing in "God exists" and "God wants us to do good," that implies "Trust scripture." You need to add more premises to this to get to that conclusion.
One could assert that, if there is a god, and that God also wants us to do good, then that God would give us a clear set of instructions, and that is what we will find in scripture.
However, that clearly did not happen. We see before us a huge array of opinions regarding what god wants us to do, with no clear way to choose among them.
At best, it seems, one can take a random guess - like drawing a card out of a massively large deck and hoping that one happens to draw the one and correct card.
Actually, there is an option. If there is a God and this God wants us to do good, then there exists a way to choose which scripture - and which interpretation of that scripture, is correct. One determines what is good or evil, then one looks at scripture, and determine whether it is commanding one to do good or evil. If it commands what is evil or prohibits what is good, then it can be tossed aside as a poor account of what God wants us to do.
Let us use slavery as an example.
Slavery is wrong. Consequently, a good God would not want us to practice slavery. With this in mind, one can turn to the various religions and ask, "Does it command us not to practice slavery?" If it does not prohibit us from owning slaves, then we may conclude that it does not provide us with an accurate account of what God wants us to do. This means that we have reason to look elsewhere - for something that tells us that God wants us to prohibit slavery.
Or, let us consider the act of killing homosexuals. Again, this is obviously wrong. Consequently, we can use this to help determine whether any religious text or tradition is actually and accurately telling us what God wants us to do. If it commands killing homosexuals, then it is obviously a poor guide as to what God wants, and one needs to search elsewhere.
Does scripture say that the victims of rape are morally obligated to marry their rapists? Well, that's obviously not telling us what a good God would want us to do. A morality that makes this claim is clearly the one that comes from a morally imperfect being - a human mind - that has somehow convinced people to accept his beliefs as those of a God.
To some, this might suggest the question, "How we are to know what is right or wrong if God does not tell us?"
However, that represents a poor understanding of the problem. the wrong question. This question forgets the initial observation that God has not provided us with a clear set of instructions.
The real question is, "How are we going to determine what is right or wrong?" Then, to anybody who tries to tell us to find it in scripture, we can raise all of the problems identified above - problems that tell us that we do not even know which scripture to get the answer from without prior knowledge of what is right and wrong.
Do you want to try faith? All one needs is a casual glance at history - and current events - to see how often those who rely on faith get the wrong answer. If, as a morally responsible person, you are looking for a reliable method, faith obviously doesn't work.
Finally, while you are looking for a reliable way to determine what God actually wants you to do, I would like you to keep another question in mind. "Is it not possible for somebody who does not believe in God to use the same method and get the same answers?"
This is the situation that I find myself in. As somebody who genuinely wants to know what is right and wrong - good and evil - I do not see how "finding god" or religion is any help at all. I would not even have a hint as to which god to believe in or which religion to adopt unless I already knew what was right and wrong - and used that to choose the correct religion. If I have already answered the questions of right and wrong, then the need to turn to religion to find these answers disappears.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:23 AM
Monday, June 13, 2016
There are voices, some of them liberal, who assert that liberals do not have a proper attitude towards Islam. These critics accuse (other) liberals of being warm and welcoming of those who slaughter homosexuals, kill blasphemers and apostates, and abuse women while, at the same time, those same liberals criticize and condemn the people who would object to slaughtering homosexuals and abusing women. Their specific target is those liberals who would assert that their criticisms are bigoted and prejudicial.
I assert that their criticisms are bigoted and prejudicial.
Furthermore, those bigoted and prejudicial tendencies are not only targeting Muslims. These people are also applying their bigoted and prejudicial tendencies to the liberals who would criticize them.
It is true that there is a liberal ideology that refuses to condemn different cultures, regardless of the practice. Whether we are discussing the Holocaust or slavery or the abuse of women and children, they assert that right and wrong is determined by one's culture. They deny that there is any (objective) basis for raising objections against another culture. If one tries, then the only thing one is doing is using one's own culture to condemn the other - imposing one's own (groundless, subjective) attitudes on people who have their own (groundless, subjective) attitudes.
The view is incoherent at the start. People who hold this view condemn others for the practice of condemning others. Their attitude effectively boils down to a moral commandment that there are no moral commandments, a prohibition on prohibitions, the condemnation of condemnation. Those who hold this view want to assert that the holocaust, slavery, and the subjugation of women cannot be condemned because condemnation is always wrong, and on the basis of this condemn those who would condemn other cultures.
In saying this, I want to put a spotlight on the fact that what I am engaging in here is the practice of "criticizing an idea." I am taking the attitudes of moral nihilism and cultural moral relativism and I am asserting that using these as a foundation for a universal moral prescription against condemning others is, at best, incoherent. When the targets of my criticism respond that I am claiming that it is wrong (racist or bigoted) to criticize an idea, I would like the reader to note that they are making this accusation against an individual who knowingly and self-consciously wrote this article with the understanding that it involved criticizing an idea.
Criticizing an idea is not wrong - but, as with all things, it can be done incorrectly.
The second type of liberal - the type that the bigoted and prejudicial target of this essay fails to distinguish from the first - is the type that claims that accusations of wrongdoing must be precisely targeted against those who are actually guilty. Sweeping the innocent and the guilty together in a large group, then using the wrongs of the guilty to promote hatred and distrust of the innocent, is itself a moral wrong. It is something decent people would try to avoid doing.
Again, please note that I am not arguing that it is wrong to criticize an idea or a practice.
Nor is it the case that the fact that I am condemning this particular bigoted practice implies that I somehow cannot, at the same time, condemn those who would slaughter homosexuals, slay infidels and apostates, and abuse women. There is no rule in morality that says that one thing and only one thing is worthy of condemnation. In fact, there is a long list of things that deserve condemnation. This includes not only the slaughter of homosexuals, slaying of infidels and apostates, and the abuse of women. It includes making broad derogatory overgeneralizations that use the wrongs of the guilty to promote a hatred and distrust of the innocent.
Against this type of liberal, the accusation of incoherence and inconsistency is going to be harder to support.
But, then, we are dealing with a group of people who demonstrate a diminished capacity to make distinctions among individuals - to separate the guilty from the innocent.
Those who cannot recognize the distinction see a criticism of overly broad derogatory statements - a criticism of bigotry and prejudice - as a defense of slaughtering homosexuals, the killing of infidels and apostates, and the abuse of women. They take the position of, "If you criticize me, then you must be a defender of these practices." Yet, in terms of logical consistency, this response is like saying that anybody who objects to Trump's claim that Mexicans are rapists must be defenders of rape.
If one can understand how it can be the case that a criticism of Trump's characterization of Mexicans as rapists is not a defense of rape, then one should be able to understand how it can be the case that the characterization of Muslims as terrorists is not a defense of terrorism.
When an individual then asserts that, "I am not saying that all Muslims are terrorists," this still must be held up against the fact that Trump did not say that all Mexicans are rapists. Yet, in the same way that Trump still promoted the attitude that one should fear and hate Mexicans as if they are all rapists (because we cannot clearly know who is not), the critics of Islam are still promoting an attitude of fear and hatred of all Muslims because we cannot tell them apart.
On the idea that criticizing an idea is not an element of bigotry or prejudice, I covered that idea earlier. You can find my response to that argument in the post Criticizing an Idea."
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 3:51 PM
In an earlier post I discussed how much of the law is concerned with transferring wealth from the poor and middle class into the pockets of the wealthy.
Climate change provides a useful illustrative example of this process.
There is no major moral system in existence that condones the act of putting things into the air that harms the life, health, or property of others without them at least agreeing explicitly to the risk in a voluntary non-coerced transaction, and potentially obtaining some compensation in exchange.
Specifically, neither capitalism nor libertarianism allows this.
Libertarianism prohibits acts of aggression - understood as the initial use of force or violence against another. Putting something into the air that destroys the life, health, or property of others is an act of aggression. As such, libertarian principles prohibit such acts unless and until one has secured a permission to do so by those who would be - or who are put at risk of being - harmed.
Capitalism, for its part, allows only voluntary transactions or trade. Forced transactions distort the market and prevent the free-enterprise system from functioning as it should. Whenever one person performs an action that harms the property, health, or life of another without their consent, then this is a violation of market principles - a market distortion.
However, because of the political influence of money, wealthy people can - and some do - obtain a legal permission to harm the health and property of others, and even kill them, for the sake of improving the corporate bottom line and the personal bank accounts of those who order and execute these actions.
Meanwhile, poorer people, whose activities are far less harmful to humanity as a whole (and generally far less beneficial to those who commit them), are imprisoned - placed under a threat of death if they should try to resist.
This is no minor injustice. This is not the case where one can argue that the system is nearly balanced but still requires some tweaking. This is a system where some wealthy people have purchased a government-provided immunity against destroying whole cities and even a few countries while poorer people tend to lose years or decades out of their lives for the crime of taking a few dollars.
The people who commit these greater harms and do so on a such a grand scale are also the most richly rewarded, enjoying among the largest accumulations of wealth. This gives them instant access to those with political power - those who are able to give them legal immunity from punishment for the vandalism, assaults, and murders that they commit for the sake in the name of increasing their wealth.
Even when it comes to mitigating these effects - building seawalls to protect cities - these costs do not come from those who are making them necessary. They come from "the general treasury", to be paid for by all of us.
It would be little different, though on a smaller scale, if your neighbor were to perform some action that would destroy the paint job on your car unless you personally accepted the expense of protecting your car from these harms. In fact, morally, you would be within your rights to demand that your neighbor NOT engage in these actions unless your neighbor first compensates you for the harm done or pays whatever costs are necessary to prevent the harm from occurring.
All of these harms can be accurately described as a transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to people who already have a great deal of wealth. The poor and middle class suffer a reduction of wealth - an uncompensated loss either in the form of destroyed property, health, or loss of life. Meanwhile, those with money are permitted to pocket even more money. They are made wealthier precisely because they have purchased a legal immunity against compensating others for harms done.
Let me be clear - I do not accept the "natural rights", "intrinsic value" basis for libertarianism or capitalism. There is no intrinsic value. These principles, if they are to be justified at all, can only be justified in terms of their social utility - their capacity to fulfill desires and, thus, provide individuals with reason to adopt them (and no further). These injustices not only violate the philosophies of libertarianism and capitalism, they also violate all moral philosophies that base the legitimacy of policies on promoting the overall social welfare.
In this case, we do not need to provide the poor and middle class with extra government benefits to improve the quality of their lives. We simply need to protect the rights they already have - to end the government immunity that some wealthy people have purchased, giving them legal permission to destroy the property, assault their health, and even take their lives for no reason other than self-enrichment.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:50 AM
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Are you seeking to use the massacre in Orlando to promote a hatred of and hostility towards people who would not engage it even condone those activities?
If so, you are not the defenders of peace and goodness that you may think yourself to be. Quite the opposite, in fact.
One thing on which we can blame a great deal of injustice is the inability to distinguish the innocent from the guilty.
It us a common story. A member of Group A inflicts an unjust harm on some set of people in Group B. The members of Group B are outraged. Unable to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, they attack members of Group B indiscriminately - not asking who is innocent and show us guilty.
Now, the members of Group B have cause to be outraged. Now they have their own examples of injustices inflicted on innocent members of Group B by members of Group A. Now they are the ones who think that they are justified in inflicting some sort of punishment against Group A.
Similarly lacking the capacity to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, they indiscriminately attack members of Group A. Consequently, Group A now has another set of injustices to blame on Group B, which they use for another round of indiscriminate attacks.
As this back-and-forth grows, both sides acquire an ever-growing list of atrocities that they can use to justify attacks on the other. The lists are genuine. Neither side needs to make anything up. There are read injustices. A bombing of a nightclub over here, a drone strike on a family sitting down to dinner over there. Every item on the list justifies the next attack.
The only hope for ending this game is for one side or the other - of both - to learn to tell the difference between the innocent and the guilty.
Every post I see making over road accusations - that promote hatred of people, many of whom would refuse to condone the activities that others use as reason to hate them - is a post by somebody who is actually responsible for feeding the violence.
Members of Group A will want to assert that Group A is the paradigm of virtue and all guilt rests with Group B. Group B will say the same of Group A.
The real culprits are the members of both groups who, failing to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, add one line of injustice after another to the list. The real people wanting to put and end to this cycle are those who assert that they will not condemn the innocent but, instead, assert that they will only condemn those which evidence links to the crime.
If you are looking for the ideology most responsible for such atrocities - then that is where you will find it. You will find it among a group of people who share a common belief - that they need make no effort to distinguish the guilty from the innocent, and are eager to use opportunities such as this to promote a hatred against guilty and innocent alike. People who follow that ideology are setting the groundwork for the next act of unjust violence, and it will be members of that group who will carry out that act.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:21 PM
I am beginning to suspect that a proper understanding of our moral life is going to require room for something like a "moral club".
A moral club is not to be understood as a club that is moral, or even a club that concerns itself with the discovery and practice of that which is moral. In fact, a "moral club" should be understood as a derogatory term, since it refers to a club (and its members) whose practices with respect to morality are flawed in an important way.
A moral club is a group of people who adopt a moral stance for no apparent reason other than the fact that the club has adopted it. The moral principles that we find in a moral club might be (and perhaps are by definition) completely incoherent. However, that does not matter. What matters is that the club has adopted them and, for that reason alone, individuals in the club insist on cheering for those principles.
What brings this thought to mind is a set of attitudes that I find among many who support Bernie Sanders.
Towards the start of the Sanders campaign, there was a time when the members of this club feared that Sanders would win a majority of the popular vote, and even a majority of the delegates, yet lose the nomination. This is because the Democratic Party has a component called "superdelegates" who, early in the campaign, were lining up in great numbers behind Hillary Clinton. Consequently, it was conceivable that Sanders could end the primary with more than a majority of the committed delegates, but have the super-delegates award the nomination to Clinton instead.
Claiming that this violates the principles of democracy, the members of this club raised objections to the superdelegate system, claiming that it would be immoral for the superdelegates to take the election away from the candidate who won the most popular votes and/or committed delegates.
Yet, when the campaign ended, it turned out that Clinton had won the primary in terms of both popular vote and committed delegates. At this point, Sanders began to campaign for the superdelegates to overrule the will of the majority. Yet, at this point, Club members raised no moral objections. The moral wrongness of overruling the majority simply vanished.
Also, under the banner of defending democracy, the members of this club asserted that closed primaries are unfair. It prohibits those who register as independents from having a voice in selecting the Democratic Party candidate for President.
It should come as no surprise that, in exit polls, independent candidates tended to prefer Sanders over Clinton. At the same time, actual Democrats preferred Clinton over Sanders.
The incoherence of moral views within this club are such that it is reasonable to expect that, if Democrats preferred Sanders and Independents were voting for Clinton, that this moral club would have argued that the Democratic Party candidate should be selected by Democrats. After all, no other organization in existence allows non-members to come in off the street and choose the club's officers and representatives.
At the same time that these club members are protesting against closed primaries because they are undemocratic, they are raising no objections against the caucus system, which is even more undemocratic.
The caucus system requires that candidates gather, discuss the various candidates, and take a vote. The caucus system takes a considerable amount of time and is only available to those who have the time, have the ability to travel, and are healthy enough to participate. Many people who are busy, lack the ability to travel, or are not healthy enough to participate are excluded from the electoral process. They are not permitted to help select the party's candidate.
In three separate cases in the 2016 primary we saw how undemocratic this process was.
Two states held both a caucus and a primary.
On March 5, the Democratic Party of Nebraska held its caucus. Sanders defeated Clinton by a vote of 57% to 43%. However, on May 10, Nebraska held a (non-binding) primary. In that primary, Clinton defeated Sanders by a vote of 53% to 47%. Sanders won a state that would have gone to Clinton if not for the excessive burdens that the caucus system placed on eligible voters.
On March 26, the Democratic Party of Washington held its caucus. Sanders defeated Clinton by a massive 73% to 27%. However, on May 24, Washington held a (non-binding) primary. In that primary, Clinton defeated Sanders by a vote of 54% to 46%. Again, in spite of showing massive support for Sanders, the caucus failed to report the will of the voters. Sanders won, again, by using a system that kept those who would have otherwise voted for his opponent away from the polls.
On June 7, North Dakota held a caucus, while geographically similar South Dakota held a primary on the same day. Bernie Sanders won the North Dakota caucus 64% to 25% with only 394 votes cast. At the same time, Clinton won in South Dakota with 51% of the vote to Sanders' 49% with 53,000 votes cast.
With all of this evidence piling up showing how undemocratic the caucus system is, the Sanders club raises no objections against the caucus system.
One conclusion that we can draw from this is that the Sanders Club has no interest in democracy. It simply uses the term as a rationalization for those things that it supports for other reasons.
However, what is more significant here - and what deserves to be pointed out - is that there is nothing that makes sense of this particular set of views. This is particularly true in light of the incoherence of both, at the same time, being against the use of superdelegates on the grounds that it can be used to overrule the will of the people while, at the same time, supporting a candidate whose only chance to win the nomination requires using the superdelegates to overrule the will of the people.
There has to be something else at play to make sense of these incoherent views. One hypothesis that comes to mind is that of the "moral club" that I mentioned above. Club members simply check their capacity for reason at the door and adopt whatever principles the Club advocates, without even a thought towards coherence and rationality.
The goal here - the desire that is driving behavior - cannot possibly be any type of moral principle. Instead, the best explanation in this case seems to be a blind reason-numbing decision to follow the moral club - an attitude that comes with a refusal to even question the ideas that the club might put forward and blind oneself even to inconsistencies and incoherence that are floating right on the surface.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 10:56 AM
Friday, June 10, 2016
[Author's Note: This is intended as an insert between Parts 3 and 4 - handling what I think may be a distraction for folks at that point.]
I fear that my example in the previous chapters might bring to mind a potential objection that will prevent the reader from putting their mind to the ideas that follow until this objection is set aside.
The account that I gave of Alph doing nothing but gathering stones may cause the reader to call to mind the fate of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned to spend eternity rolling a large boulder uphill, only to have it roll back down the hill as he got it near the top. Importantly, this was described as a form of punishment. At best, it would be hard to see this as a significant way to spend one's time.
In order for this to actually be punishment, we will have to describe the case in a particular way.
It cannot be the case that Sisyphus has a desire to push the rock up hill. If this were the case, then as soon as he got it to the top, then he himself would push it off the hill so that he could push it uphill again. Pushing it off the top would be the best way available to him to make the proposition, "I am pushing this big rock uphill" true again. It would be a necessary means to the end of pushing the rock uphill.
Instead, we must describe Sisyphus' situation as that of a person whose desire is to have the rock at the top of the hill. More precisely, Sisyphus has a desire that the rock is at the top of the hill. He pushes the rock up the hill in order to make the proposition, "The rock is at the top of the hill" true. The punishment comes from the fact that, just before he realizes such a state of affairs as he desires, supernatural forces cause the rock to roll back to the bottom of the hill, requiring that he start over. His desire is never fulfilled.
Still, many readers may look at even the Sisyphus with the desire to push the rock uphill, and Alph with his desire to gather stones, with pity. These certainly are not lives that many readers would wish for themselves. They seem so empty . . . worthless.
This, I argue, is because the reader is writing his or her own desires into the story. The reader his imagining herself as Sisyphus, content to push the rock up the hill and then push it off the hill so that he could repeat the experience, and saying, "That is not for me."
However, this is because the reader has interests in things other than pushing the rock uphill. If the reader was Sisyphus - the version of Sisyphus with the desire to push the rock uphill - then the reader would, in fact, be content with that life, and find any other life to be worthless.
In other words, even the aversion to being Sisyphus is a desire - a "desire that I not be like Sisyphus". It is a desire that can only be realized in a universe in which the proposition, "I am like Sisyphus" is made and kept false.
However, it is a mistake - an implication for which there is no justification - to leap from the fact that the reader has a reason to avoid being like Sisyphus to the conclusion that there exists a reason independent of the reader's interests that Sisyphus has to not be like Sisyphus.
Similarly, in the chapters that follow, as the reader encounters Alph gathering stones, and thinks, "I would not want that for oneself," rest assured that nobody is suggesting this for you. All that is happening here is that we are describing a world with one being (Alph) who has one desire (a desire to gather stones), and looking at what would be true in that world.
In that world, Alph has no reason to seek anything other to gather stones.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:11 PM
Philippa Foot's article, "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" should be listed as one of the most important articles in philosophy. (The Philosophical Review Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), pp. 305-316).
Before this, as she reports, philosophers took for granted Kant's claim that moral command represented categorical imperatives, distinct from the the hypothetical imperatives of practical reason. After this, the possibility of morality as a system of hypothetical reasons could not be easily dismissed.
To understand the issue, we must first understand the distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives.
Hypothetical imperatives are contingent on the wants of the individual.
Foot notes the advice we may give a traveler and its relationship to his interests.
Suppose, for instance, we have advised a traveler that he should take a certain train, believing him to be journeying to his home. If we find that he has decided to go elsewhere, we will most likely have to take back what we said: the "should" will now be unsupported and in need of support. Similarly, we must be prepared to withdraw our statement about what he should do if we find that the right relation does not hold between the action and the end-that it is either no way of getting what he wants (or doing what he wants to do) or not the most eligible among possible means.
Moral claims, however, seem to lack this hypothetical nature. If we say that a person ought not to take money from a co-worker's desk, we would not retract the statement if we were to learn that taking the money will allow him to buy the television he wants and he doesn't like the person whose money he is taking. Regardless of how it serves his interests, he should not take the money.
It seems clearly the case that Kant is right on this, and the task that remains for moral philosophers is to figure out the nature of these categorical imperatives.
Then Foot pointed out that moral rules are not the only rules that are independent of an agent's interests - that act like categorical imperatives.
She argued that the rules of etiquette as an example.
For instance, we find this non-hypothetical use of "should" in sentences enunciating rules of etiquette, as, for example, that an invitation in the third person should be answered in the third person, where the rule does not fail to apply to someone who has his own good reasons for ignoring this piece of nonsense, or who simply does not care about what, from the point of view of etiquette, he should do.
When presenting the rules of etiquette, we do not start by asking the agent what his interests are the way we ask for a destination when giving advice on which train to take. The rules of etiquette are independent of these types of considerations. They are, in this sense, much like categorical imperatives.
Foot also mentions club rules, where a person does not ask the agent (at least not in a way that suggests genuine interest) what his intentions are before he reminds the member that the rules require that men wear a suit and tie.
Foot suspects that many moral philosophers would want to classify the "should" of etiquette and club rules as types of hypothetical imperatives. The challenge is for them to do so in a way that does not also make the "should" of morality hypothetical imperatives - since they have so much in common.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:51 PM
Thursday, June 09, 2016
It would be a good thing if the Clinton campaign offered Sanders and his supporters some concessions. Not for the sake of party unity or winning the November elections. For the good of the country.
I fear, however, that Sanders and his supporters are going to waste time instead on trivial matters of no real-world significance. Like "super-delegates". Clinton obtained no benefit from super-delegates. If the election had been for committed delegates only, the election would be over as of Tuesday. It is only Sanders' potential use of super-delegates to override the popular vote that is keeping options open.
If super-delegates were ever going to take the election from the person who won the most committed delegates it would have been in 2008 when an upstart Barack Obama defeated the established Clinton, who arguably also won the popular vote. If anything needs to be changed, it's the elimination of the caucus system and winner-take-all primaries - and a winner-take-all electoral college - both of which cause significant political distortions.
Anyway, as for something that would actually be useful and benefit the country . . .
It is a fact that there are corporations and individuals who have been using their wealth and influence to rig the political system to transfer wealth from the poor and middle class to the very wealthy.
Really, this is possible for any rational person to deny.
As I argued in a previous post, this will not be fixed by overturning "Citizens United." This political issue is a diversion - getting people focused on a meaningless gesture rather than solutions. There are simply too many routes that wealth can take into politics. Block one channel, and money will flow through others.
Furthermore, there is and always will be a diverse set of beliefs in our country. People dreaming of the day that "the people will all wake up and agree to our unqualified brilliance in all things political, which will bring in a golden age" will have to keep dreaming. The rest of us will accept and acknowledge that different people have different beliefs - and that decent people with good intentions without being villains and get to work.
Respecting these facts, perhaps a good place to start is with a regulatory watch-dog. This is an agency charged with finding regulations, interpretations, and government manipulation that aim to identify, publish, and correct manipulation so far the system that most clearly redirects wealth from the middle-class and poor to the wealthy.
We know this is happening. We know that it does not serve the public interest. Therefore, there is reason to set up an agency whose job is to deal with this problem.
Certainly, it, too, will be lobbied by the wealthy to turn a blind eye to government manipulations that benefit certain groups that can afford lobbyists. Similarly, it will seek to have the agency target regulations that serve the public interest but harm its company or organization as bad. However, with this as its only goal, it will need to demonstrate some overall benefit.
This is something that some Republicans can be convinced to buy into. After all, it's goal is to eliminate regulations that distort the free market - regulations that effectively amount to welfare for the wealthy. They cannot easily argue before the voting public that they support those regulations and market distortions.
It can even be billed as something that saves money and cuts the deficit. It will do so because the government will cease to collect billions of dollars from taxpayers that it then puts into the pocket of those who are using their wealth to manipulate the system.
Indeed, there will even be members of the the Tea Party who would see reasons to back such a proposal. After all, the major motivation for founding the Tea Party was anger over a large government handout to the wealthy banks.
In other words, the idea respects the fact that the nation is and always will be made up of people with diverse opinions, respects those opinions, and looks for ways to bring them on board to support policies that promote the public well-being.
It is an organization that those who support Bernie Sanders should not only be able to get behind but to push that it does its job effectively. It is a way of clipping the wings of those corporations and individuals who are using this power to manipulate the system to gain an unfair advantage - specifically targeting those who do the most harm.
In fact, the only people I can see who would be opposed to such an agency are those who might fear losing the money they are receiving through these sorts of government manipulations.
It would require a lot more thought to determine whether such a proposal will actually work. I present it here as an example of the type of thing that the Clinton organization may adopt to appeal to Sanders supporters - not because (or not solely because) it is politically useful, but because it will help the country. It is this type of thing that should dominate negotiations between the Sanders and Clinton camps in the weeks ahead.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 11:00 AM