Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Death of Desire Utilitarianism

Friends, readers, lurkers, lend me your ears, for I have come not to praise desire utilitarianism, but to bury it.

Desire utilitarianism was the name I originally gave to the theory that I defended here. A few people talked me into changing the name to Desirism because too many critics wrongly assumed that "desire utilitarianism" meant "desire fulfillment act utilitarianism." They were tired of explaining to people that this is not the case.

It turns out that they were more right than they knew (or that they let on).

Desirism is not a utilitarian theory.

Let me explain . . .

There are several utilitarian theories - identified to the different answers they gave to two questions.

(1) What is the proper object of moral evaluation?

Act utilitarianism says that the proper object of evaluation is acts. The right act is the act that maximizes utility. It's leading competitor on this measure has been an interpretation of John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism called "rule utilitarianism". The right act is the act that conforms to the best rules, and the best rules are those rules that maximize utility. (Note: I hold that this interpretation of Mill is incorrect.)

The difference is that act-utilitarianism will command an agent to kill an innocent person if it produces more overall utility. The rule utilitarian would argue against killing an innocent person because the rule, "Do not kill innocent people" maximizes utility.

(2) What is "utility"?

Hedonistic utilitarians say that people should maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Other utilitarians say to maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness. Preference utilitarians say to maximize preference satisfaction.

A preference satisfaction act utilitarian says, "Do that act that satisfies the most preferences." Hedonistic rule utilitarianism says to perform that act that conforms to the best rules, and the best rules are the rules that produce the most pleasure and the least pain.

Desire Utilitarianism.

Desire utilitarianism said that the right act is the act that conforms to the best desires, and the best desires are desires are those that produced the most utility.

People kept confusing this with a thesis that said that the right act was the act that produced the most desire fulfillment. Desire fulfillment act utilitarianism says that if killing an innocent person fulfilled a lot of desires, then he should be killed. Desire utilitarianism would argue against killing the innocent person because a general aversion to killing innocent people would maximize utility.

Defenders grew tired of defending desire utilitarianism against counter examples aiming to describe cases where fulfilling the most and strongest desires (e.g., desires of those who wanted to have a child tortured) were objectionable. Because a desire to torture children is not a good desire, desire utilitarianism does not recommend torturing children regardless of the number of people desiring it.

Desirism is not Desire Utilitarianism

Desirism quit being a utilitarian theory when I realized that there is no utility to be maximized. When one evaluates desires, desires are not, in fact, being evaluated according to their ability to bring about the most desire fulfillment. Desires were being evaluated according to the degree to which they fit in with other desires.

A common case that I use to illustrate desirism imagines a person (Alph) with one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora B exists. He has a button in front of him that will cause the planet Pandora B to come into existence. It will utterly destroy Alph at the same moment. Pandora B, we will assume, is a planet that has no being capable of having desires.

The state that would be created if Alph pushes the button is a state in which no desire fulfillment exists. In fact, it is a state in which no desires exist - let alone a desire that is fulfilled. Alph, the only creature with desires, ceases to exist so there will be no desire fulfillment in the state after the button is pushed.

Strictly speaking, a desire utilitarianism account that says to create as much desire fulfillment as possible would have to conclude that pushing the button produces a state with no value. Consequently, it concludes that there is no reason to bring about such a state. This problem applies regardless of whether we make acts the object of evaluation (the right acts are those that produce the most desire fulfillment) or desires (the best desires are those that produce the most desire fulfillment). Making desires the primary object of evaluation does not protect it from this conclusion.

On a desirism account, Alph's desire that Pandora B exists is a reason to realize a state in which Pandora B exists. The state that would exist upon pushing the button would be a state in which Pandora B exists. Therefore, Alph has a reason to push the button. Alph is not pushing the button to create a state where desire fulfillment exists. Alph is pushing the button to create a state in which Pandora B exists. That is what he wants. That is what he has a reason to do.

We can see the same point in another common example that I use to describe desirism. In this account, there is one person (Alph) with one desire (to gather stones). Alph lives on a planet where there is a limited number of stones. We introduce another person to this world (Betty) and we tell Alph that he can either give Betty a desire to gather stones or a desire to scatter stones.

We can tell from Alph's desire to gather stones that he has a reason to give Betty a desire to scatter stones. With Betty spending her time scattering stones, Alph can work full time on gathering stones. Here, too, I would like to note that Alph is not doing this to maximize desire fulfillment. Alph has no desire to maximize desire fulfillment. Alph only has a desire to gather stones, and he gives Betty a desire to scatter stones for no reason other than it allows him to spend more time realizing a state in which "I am gathering stones" is true.


So, Desire Utilitarianism was a nice theory while it lasted. However, it did not last. It carried with it too much dead weight from traditional utilitarian theories. It took me a while - and several discussions with people I could not hope to name - for me to come to realize that the theory does not, in fact, fit the utilitarian mold. There is no state of "utility" to be maximized.

Dr. Neil Sinhababu's Epistemic Argument for Hedonism

We are now at 362 days until the start of classes.

As a part of my continuing project to worm my way into the philosophical community, after attending Dr. Neil Sinhababu's presentation, The epistemic argument for hedonism, I sent him an email offering comments on his ideas.

I could reproduce that email here, but I fear that it lacks context that would make my points comprehensible. I assumed in the email that Dr. Sinhababu is familiar enough with his own arguments that I do not need to restate then, but that would not be true of readers here.

So, here, I will embed my comments in some context.

Dr. Sinhababu wanted to argue for hedonistic utilitarianism, the classic view that pleasure is the only good, pain the only bad, and morality requires maximizing the former and minimizing the latter. Of course, there is not enough time to do all of this in one lecture, so the lecture focused primarily on the thesis that that pleasure is an objective moral good.

He admits that this view is counter-intuitive, referencing, for example, Robert Nozick's Experience Machine argument. Nozick argues against the idea that pleasure is the only good by asking if one would choose to enter a Matrix-type experience machine (where all other characters are computer simulations) that will generate illusions that the user would find pleasing. The fact that a person would not choose a life of pleasant illusion implies that that person values something other than pleasure. She values true experiences.

To counter this, Sinhababu develops an argument against moral intuitions that I discussed in previous posts - an argument that I find quite strong, but will not repeat here.

Regardless of the merit of that argument, they do not apply to Nozick's experience machine argument. Nozick is not giving us a test of moral intuitions. Nozick is testing our preferences - giving us options that we can use to decide what people like or dislike. It is like taking a person who claims to only like chocolate, giving her a set of choices where chocolate is available along with other options, and noting that she never actually chooses chocolate. This discredits the thesis that she only likes chocolate - unless we can come up with some other explanation for her choices. Nozick's experience machine argument discredits the idea that we only want pleasure.

In fact, I use Nozick's experience machine to support the hypothesis that an agent with a desire that P has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which "P" is true. To the degree that the experience machine can make "P" true (e.g., P = "I am experiencing pleasure") an agent has reason to enter the experience machine. However, if the experience machine cannot make "P" true (e.g., P = "My children are healthy and happy") that person has reason to stay out of the experience machine and find a way to make or keep "P" true.

I - like Dr. Sinhababu - do not trust moral intuitions, but I do take an agent's choices when presented with hypothetical options to be evidence (not proof, but at least evidence) of that agent's interests.

Well, back to Sinhababu's argument or the moral value of pleasure.

Still, pleasure can be (actually, it is) good and it might be an objective good. I wish to look next at Dr. Sinhababu's argument that this is the case.

I am going to accept Sinhababu's argument that phenomenological introspection shows us that pleasure is something we have reason to pursue. In fact, I take this as being true by definition. We do not call a sensation "pleasure" unless it is something that we have a reason to pursue. A sensation that is not good - at least in this immediate sense - is not pleasure.

Whatever theory of other minds one adopts, one can infer that other people also experience pleasure and that it is something that they have a reason to pursue.

Dr. Sinhababu argues that this proves that the goodness of pleasure is an objective, morally relevant goodness. The agent must admit through phenomenological introspection that his own pleasure is good. He infers that the pleasure of others is just as good. He seems to suggest that it follows directly that this goodness is something that we should be maximizing generally.

I think he is drawing far more from the evidence than rationality allows.

In listening to Dr. Sinhababu's lecture, I acquired an impression that these things are easier to understand if it is expressed in terms of reasons.

I can see through phenomenological introspection that I have a reason to pursue my own pleasure. However, nothing in the phenomenological experience tells me that I am experiencing something that anybody else has reason to pursue.

I can also infer that other agents have reasons to pursue their own pleasure. However, I see no reason to infer that their pleasure is something that I or anybody else has a reason to be concerned with.

The attempt to raise pleasure up to the status of an intrinsic moral good is an attempt to go from the fact that I have a reason to pursue my own pleasure, and others have a reason to pursue their own pleasure, to the conclusion that we all have reason to maximize pleasure generally. This leap is entirely without warrant.

It was brought up in discussion - I must learn some names so that I can make proper attributions in reporting on these discussions - that this is a problem only for a moral internalist. A moral internalist is one who links morality to reasons that a person has. An externalist, on the other hand, separates morality from the reasons that an agent has. Something can be morally good, according to the externalist, yet still be something that the agent has no reason to pursue. Consequently, an externalist can say that the pleasure that others pursue is a moral good, but not necessarily something that I or anybody other than agent has a reason to pursue.

I am a moral externalist - but this response still fails.

As an externalist, I hold that there is a distinction between what an agent has a reason to do and what an agent should have a reason to do. Morality is concerned with what an agent should have a reason to do. In other words, the fact that I do not have a reason to consider the pleasure of others does not prove that it lacks moral relevance; it has moral relevance if I should have such a reason.

However, the externalist still needs to make good on the concept of "should have such a reason". Without this, nothing has been proved. I can just as easily say that agents should have a reason to maximize the number of paperclips. If somebody should challenge me that people have no reason to maximize the total number of paper clips, the response that I am an externalist who distinguishes the reasons an agent has from the reasons an agent should have is not sufficient.

Dr. Sinhababu's argument from phenomenological introspection is not sufficient. It shows that I have a reason to pursue my own pleasure, and allows me to infer that others (probably) have reasons to pursue their own pleasure, but it does not prove that I should have a reason to be concerned with the pleasure of others, or that they should have a reason to be concerned with my pleasure.

NOTE: I do have an argument for "should have a reason to" derived from the fact that others have reasons to use reward and punishment to cause people generally to have a reason to. However, that is not relevant at this point.

In conclusion, Dr. Sinhababu had a very good argument from moral disagreement that we should not be too confident in our own moral judgments that I discussed in earlier posts. He does not have a good argument for dismissing arguments such as Nozick's experience machine against the idea that pleasure is the only good. Nor has he proved that agents should have a reason to be concerned with the interests of others.

As a final note, I fear that in writing this I may have improved upon the arguments that I sent to Dr. Sinhababu. I wonder if he will mind getting a follow-up email that uses the improvements that I put into this blog post. Well, what's the worst that can happen? He hits the "Delete" key and makes it his life goal to destroy me and anybody who knows me. Nothing to worry about.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Desire that a Child be Tortured

In my last post, I gave reasons for rejecting moral intuitions as a reliable source of moral knowledge.

This, then, raises the question: How would I respond to a case like this, from Shmuel Warshell:

Let's say there's a world where 1000 people desire that a child be tortured. Desirism says that we should act on the desires that someone with good desires would have and a good desire is that which tends to fulfill other desires and not thwart desires. Now the desire to torture the child fulfills many desires- the desires of all the sadists. You could then say that the desire to torture the child is a bad desire but that would seem to lead to an infinite regress.

Rather than respond just to this specific example, I would like to take this opportunity to explain how I would generally handle cases like this.

First, there is a technical issue to tend to just to make sure that it does not cause future problems.

Technically, desirism does not say "we should act on the desires that someone with good desires would have done." In fact, I do not even know how it is possible to act on a specific desire. I can choose to give money to somebody in need, but I do not know how to give money to somebody in need out of a desire to help others, as opposed to doing so out of a desire to do the right thing, which is different from acting on a desire to impress others with my generosity. So, I want to make sure that desirism is not interpreted as arguing for "should act on the desire". Instead, it says that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. The actual motivation of the agent who does what a person with good desires would do is not relevant.

In addition, it is the case that desirism says that a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires - in virtue of which the people with those other desires have reasons to promote that desire universally using the social tools of reward/praise and punishment/condemnation.

Second, we need to make sure that we define the situation precisely.

The case mentions a "desire that a child be tortured". Is this a specific child - Fred? Is this a desire that one child be tortured, without regard to which one? Is this a desire for the torturing of children generally?

One distinction that often trips people up is the distinction between "a desire to" and "a desire that". In our current case, we can distinguish between a desire to torture a child and a desire that a child be tortured. A "desire to" can generally be reduced to a "desire that I". So, a desire to torture a child is a "desire that I torture a child". In contrast, a desire that a child be tortured is a desire that does not care who carries out the deed, as long as the child gets tortured.

In Warshell's question above, I am instructed to explicitly deal with a "desire that" - specifically, a desire that a child be tortured. Such a desire can be fulfilled by a state in which somebody other than the agent does the torturing.

I am not raising an objection to Warshell's example here. I am simply taking this opportunity to specify a distinction that has, at other times, caused problems as authors slipped from "desire to" to "desire that" and back again without noticing.

In this case, I also want to look at the concept of "torture". Torture is a value-laden term. In other words, it has the thwarting of desires built right into the meaning of the term. Something will not count as torture unless it thwarts desires. In fact, it needs to thwart some very strong and stable desires; a mild thwarting of a weak desire is not torture. In other words, a desire to torture (or a desire that somebody be tortured) is a desire to thwart some very strong and stable desires (or to have some very strong and stable desires thwarted). A desire that a child be tortured is a desire that a child suffer the thwarting of some of its strongest desires.

I argue that moral intuition is a poor source of moral knowledge, but linguistic intuitions are reliable when it comes to the meaning of terms. We cannot use moral intuitions to reliably determine the morality of slavery - the vast majority of humans who have lived have found it acceptable. However, we can use linguistic intuitions to tell us that morality is concerned with universal principles or attitudes. Consequently, insofar as the torture of a child is a moral concern, we are dealing with the relationship between the torture of a child and universalized desires.

Third, once we properly understand the concepts involved in a case, we can look at the details.

If we are going to look at the morality of an act of torturing a child, we have to look at whether the desires that would motivate an agent to torture a child are desires that people generally have reason to make universal throughout the community.

One of the ways to ask this question is to ask, "If a community had no desire to torture a child, do they have reasons to create such a desire and to make it universal within the community?"

Another way in which I have approached this question is to assume that there is a knob. Turn the knob to the right and the desire becomes stronger and more widespread within the community; turn it to the left and the desire becomes weaker and less common. We then ask what reasons people generally have to support turning the knob to the right or to the left.

At this point, it seems we are asked to make another stipulation in this imaginary case. It seems that we are being asked to assume that the desire that a child be tortured is widespread and immutable. Not only is it very common, but it cannot be changed. If it could be changed, then we can ask about the reasons for turning the knob controlling the desire that a child be tortured to the left or the right.

On this measure, there are many reasons to turn the desire that a child be tortured down - or even off. There is the desire-thwarting of those being tortured and the desire-thwarting of those who care about those being tortured.

There are no similar reasons for turning the knob to the right. Remember, we are looking at the question of whether the desire that a child be tortured fulfills other desires - not at whether the act of torturing children fulfills other desires. If the desire that a child be tortured increases - this itself does not bring about the fulfillment of other desires.

Furthermore, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a general widespread aversion to having the desires of others thwarted. This is because each of us is an "other" relative to everybody else. A tolerance towards the torturing of a child requires a tolerance towards the thwarting of the desires of others, and nobody has reason to seek out a community filled with people indifferent to the suffering of others. This aversion to it being the case that the desires of others are thwarted gives people a reason to turn the knob governing the desire that a child be tortured to the left - to turn it all the way off.

However, it seems that we are being asked to examine a case in which this is not possible.

At this point, we can confidently report that we are not dealing with human beings. In fact, at this point we might want to block the hazard of unconsciously importing assumptions about human nature into this example by imagining that we are talking about a race of creatures on an alien planet which have six legs and six eyes, scales, stand 4' tall, and have an entirely different evolutionary history from humans. It would have had to have been a history that would have fixed a desire that children be tortured. Perhaps the torturing of children at a young age released hormones that, ultimately, promoted genetic fitness - that cause sexual maturity, for example. Or perhaps torture released hormones that made the child immune to certain fatal diseases. Science fiction writers could have a field day inventing such a race and examining its implications.

Note that, to fit our description, this would not be a case in which adults tortured children in order to cause sexual maturity or prevent disease. Rather, this is a community where the effects of torture in causing maturity or preventing disease brought about an evolutionary change where adults desired to torture children - or a desire that children be tortured.

Note that, even here, it would be a community where people also have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to having the desires of others thwarted (because they are the "others" and they have a reason to have everybody else concerned about the thwarting of their desires). This would be a community that is both, at the same time, averse to the thwarting of the desires of others and having a desire that children be tortured. It would be a conflicted society, to say the least.

This would still be a community that would have reason to reduce the desire to torture children if it could. However, we are being required to assume that they cannot. Because torture is intrinsically desire-thwarting (that is, desire-thwarting is built into the definition of the term), there are necessarily reasons for turning the dial on this desire down, and few if any reasons to turn it up. It is still not a good desire - it is a bad but unmalleable desire.

It is a desire that, I suspect, our imaginary community will come to have reason to regard as an illness. If reward and punishment cannot "turn down" this desire, community members would have many and strong reasons to look to medicine to do what morality cannot.

Yet, even here there would be room for a moral component - an obligation to seek treatment and to stick to any treatment regime that prevented people from acting on a desire that children be tortured. Remember, this is being motivated by a general aversion to having the desires of others thwarted that everybody has reason to promote - an aversion that would translate into an aversion to acting on this desire to torture children.

I cannot imagine a case in which people will not have reason to promote a general aversion to the thwarting the desires of others. This does not mean that such an aversion will always win out - that there will never, at the same time, be reason to thwart the desires of others such as the desires of criminals or the desires of individuals with non-malleable desires to harm others. However, this will not argue against the reasons that people generally have to promote a universal aversion to the thwarting the desires of others.

Against Moral Intuitions

363 days until I will be attending my first graduate school class.

I finally managed to get to a presentation at the University of Colorado: Prof. Neil Sinhababu (University of Singapore), “The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism.”

In addition to the speaker, there was 12 to 14 other attendees – philosophers and graduate students from the Department of Philosophy. They all seemed to know each other. I wonder what they thought of this stranger in their midst. I did not get a chance to impress them with my deep, thought provoking Socratic questioning. I did not say a word – as is my custom. I had a question ready to ask. However, before I got the nerve to ask it, one of the professors asked the same question – and most of the others judged it to be a good criticism.

In all, I did not feel at all as if I was behind the curve.

I ended the night by sending an email to Dr. Sinhabubu with my comments on his presentation – which I will also post here.

In fact, the first half of his talk concerned an issue I was questioned about a few posts back.

I do not like or trust the use of moral intuitions in moral philosophy.

Moral intuitions merely describe the prejudices of a culture. Thousands of years of slavery did not bother the sensibilities of whole cultures. Many morally sensitive people failed to intuit the status of women as persons. Moral intuitions still ignore the suffering of animals.

I have a specific event that I recall that sparked my skepticism of moral sense and moral intuitions. A friend of mine and I were collecting signatures for a ballot initiative in front of a grocery store. Be both liked political discussion, and got into a discussion with what may be politely referred to as a “white nationalist”. He was against interracial marriage – though he denied being a racist. When he saw a mixed race couple leaving the grocery store and said, "See, that's the kind of thing I am talking about."

I could tell that he could just "see" the wrongness in that relationship - it was as obvious to him as the color of the man's shirt. He drew the lesson from this – what was actually an emotional reaction – that he was reacting to wrongness and that any properly functioning person looking at the same site would see the same wrongness. He expected us to just see the wrongness as well.

What he saw was a projection of his own prejudices and emotions. He did not see wrongness in the interracial relationship because there was no wrongness to see.

This is true of moral intuitions and moral perception generally – they are nothing more than the projection of one’s own emotional reactions mistaken to be a wrongness in the world to be perceived.

A few posts back I used these arguments against the claim that we have an evolved “moral grammar” – a sense of right and wrong that evolution has put into our brains.

I objected that evolution certainly has the power to give us likes and dislikes – we like fattening food, sex, and care for our young, and dislike the smell of a rotting corpse, pain, and temperatures outside of a comfortable range. This is enough to guide our behavior towards evolutionary fitness. To claim that we have a moral sense requires something much more than this, and this something more is both evolutionarily unnecessary and philosophically unjustifiable.

In short, perhaps, evolution can explain some human altruism, but it cannot be used to generate the conclusion that altruism is good. Evolution can also explains some of our disposition towards tribal prejudices, rape, and gluttony. However, to find the goodness and badness of these things, we have to look outside of evolution.

In response, I received an anonymous comment concerning the value of moral intuitions.

From what I can tell, the majority of philosophers begin with some "common sense" moral intuitions, and try to develop a theory which accounts for and explains our most plausible or obvious moral intuitions whilst not conflicting with other obvious intuitions. In other words, they offer an explanation of "what makes X right/wrong", and argue whether this explanation is correct or incorrect based on conceptual analysis with respect to some "obviously justified moral beliefs".

I agree that this is what a majority of philosophers do - but they are wrong to do so.

This disposition among philosophers has only increased with John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, where he described a system of moral justification he called "reflective equilibrium." This is a type of coherentist rationality where a thinker goes from specific moral judgments to universal principles and from them back to specific judgments measured by the use of those principles. According to this system, we are to tweak the principles and the specific judgments until we have a coherent whole.

So, what is wrong with this?

The general problem is that we cannot limit this coherence to moral principles and specific moral judgments. There is a broader set of facts that this must also cohere to.

Among these facts is the fact already mentioned - that a great many people at different times, trusting to moral intuitions, get substantially different results. Other facts concern the role of beliefs and desires on intentional behavior and the non-existence of a god or any type of objective intrinsic prescriptivity. When we examine moral intuitions in the light of this broader coherence, we see that they are, as I said above, nothing more than the prejudices of a given culture or individual.

In The epistemic argument for hedonism Neil Sinhababu devotes the first part of his paper to what he calls an argument from disagreement for moral skepticism. It is a very well laid out argument.

To be accurate, Sinhababu is not a moral skeptic. He is a moral realist who, like Rene Descartes, begins by casting doubt on our existing moral beliefs. This includes an argument that we cannot trust our moral intuitions.

His argument from disagreement must be distinguished from John Mackie’s in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Mackie argued that because there is moral disagreement, there are no objective moral properties. This argument is problematic in the same way that, “There is disagreement concerning the age of the Earth so there is no objective right answer” would be problematic.

Sinhababu argues that because there is widespread disagreement, we cannot trust our beliefs. When people disagree on things, then some of them must be wrong. If there is a great deal of disagreement, then there is a great deal of error. If we look across cultures and across time, we find a great deal of moral disagreement. Consequently, there must be a great deal of moral error.

To show the unreliability of our current systems, he uses the same types of points that I made above - the bad moral intuitions people have had.

Human history offers similarly striking examples of disagreement on a variety of topics. These include sexual morality; the treatment of animals; the treatment of other ethnicities, families, and social classes; the consumption of intoxicating substances; whether and how one may take vengeance; slavery; whether public celebrations are acceptable; and gender roles. Moral obligations to commit genocide were accepted not only by some 20th century Germans, but by much of the ancient world, including the culture that gave us the Old Testament. One can only view the human past and much of the present with horror at the depth of human moral error and the harm that has resulted.

By analogy, he argues from the fact that empirical observation supports the claim that each person has an appendix to the conclusion that he, too, has an appendix. Similarly, the moral disagreements above show that people generally have unreliable procedures for justifying moral beliefs, from this, each person should conclude, "I, too, probably have an unreliable method for justifying moral beliefs."

The world is filled with moral error and, unless we have some particularly good reason to believe otherwise, each of us should accept the possibility that we could be the ones who are wrong.

This is a question I often ask myself. "How can you possibly think that you have the right answer when there are people smarter than you who disagree?"

This is what started me on my quest to find a more reliable foundation for moral claims.

However, in finding that foundation, moral intuitions are not to be trusted. Given that so many moral intuitions are in error – and my own may be among them – to rely on moral intuitions is to rely on beliefs where many of them are probably in error. That does not serve as a good foundation.

Can we have a reliable way of discovering moral facts?

Well, science seems to be reliable. I suggest we try looking there.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Free Will and Moral Responsibility

364 days from today and I will be sitting in my first class. I hope. There is still some uncertainty about that. If somebody wants to just give me $2 million - we can put all of this uncertainty to rest.

This afternoon at 3:30 pm local time I hope to be attending a lecture at the University of Colorado: Prof. Neil Sinhababu (University of Singapore) on The Epistemic Argument for Hedonism. I have downloaded a copy of his paper on the subject that I have gone through - and hope to go through once more before the lecture - so that I can be prepared.

As a side note: one of the interesting things I found in the paper is an argument against the use of intuitions as a foundation to moral knowledge - an argument relevant to a comment I received a few days back. I want to find some time to address that issue in the near future.

Time . . .

I have been writing recently on the issue of time - and how I sometimes waste time on computer games. It is a disposition that I argued is morally objectionable; there are more important things to be spending time on.

This lead, in turn, to a discussion of free will and its relationship to moral responsibility. I asked in my last post about what it is we are supposed to find in "free will" that is worth having. In the universe as it exists, I can do what I want because I want to do it. That is to say, my desires (combined with my beliefs) are the proximate causes of my intentional actions. What is it, then, that this "free will" is supposed to offer? The option to do something that I have no interest in doing? Why is that important? It is still the case that if I had wanted to do them, I could have. I did not do something else because I did not want to do something else.

Quite by coincidence, in my current project of going through all of the episodes of Philosophy Bites, I came to an episode interviewing Daniel Dennett on Free Will Worth Having.=.

Dennett argued that philosophers are looking at the free will issue all wrong. They are looking at the issue of free will at the level of atoms, when, in fact, it is simply not relevant at that level. Dennett argued, by analogy, that one cannot explain why giraffes have long necks by explaining it at the level of atoms. This product of evolution requires a level of explanation at which organisms compete in nature where the acquisition of favorable genetic adaptations traits promotes reproduction. Similarly, he argues that free will is not a fit subject to talk about at the level of atoms. It is a subject fit to be used at the level of intentional agents - beings driven to act by their beliefs and desires (intentional states).

I think that I need to be paying more attention to Daniel Dennett. If an opportunity comes up in graduate school to do this, I will latch onto it.

Dennett appears in this podcast episode to be arguing that we have free will because we have the capacity to be unpredictable. Furthermore, we evolved the capacity to be unpredictable as a defense against being exploited. I am not inclined to follow Dennett down that road. I think that free will can be captured quite nicely using the compatibilist definition that it consists in the power to have done otherwise if one had wanted to.

This ties in with the link between free will and morality in that morality then adds the claim, "And you should have wanted to". This, itself, leads to the proposition that people generally have many and strong reasons to use its powers of reward and punishment to cause people generally to want to do or refrain from certain types of actions.

This, now, leads to another interesting coincidence - a podcast episode on Philosophy Bites interviewing Fiery Cushman on Moral Luck.

The reason that this episode is important is because Cushman is a research scientists who has been studying the psychology of reward and punishment.

I have generally found it difficult to find reliable information on the psychology of reward and punishment. I am grateful to have found this lead. (I like data. I do not think that philosophy can be done only from an armchair - though I also think that research scientists need to spend more time in the armchair thinking about what they are doing. I am more than happy to add the armchair work for others who are doing the research work - if only they are willing to listen to the guy in the armchair.)

First, let me link the subject of free will to moral responsibility. The claim seems to be that, without free will, we have no reason to reward or punish people - no reason to claim that they are responsible for their actions. After all, there are documented cases linking criminal behavior with brain lesions such that treating the lesion eliminated the criminal impulse. If there is a cause, then there is no moral responsibility.

However, this common claim does not correctly identify the phenomena. If there is a cause independent of intentional states that we can manipulate using reward and punishment, then we hold that reward and punishment are not applicable. This makes sense - it simply says that the tools are not relevant where they have no effect. But this is fully consistent with the fact that there are other cases where reward and punishment are effective tools.

Here is where we can bring in Cushman's research on moral luck. Cushman's was interested in the fact that we punish people at different levels based on consequences of their (wrongful) behavior that is out of the agent's control.

They use an example where two people share some drinks, then each get in their car to drive home.

One agent drives off the road. The cops come and they arrest him for drunk driving. He is fined a few hundred dollars.

The other agent also drives off the road - only he hits a couple of pedestrians on the sidewalk, killing them. He is convicted of vehicular manslaughter - and punished much more severely. Yet, the difference in punishment does not reflect a difference in moral character. In terms of character, our two agents may be identical. (Honestly, I sometimes shudder at the thought of how easily a life can take a wrong turn based on moral luck - how somebody morally no different from me could have had a much worse life simply because I was lucky that my mistakes have not resulted in others getting hurt.)

In Cushman's research, he found a disconnect between our moral judgments and our intuitions about punishment. People hold that the two agents deserve different levels of punishment, but they do not judge the person punished more severely to be a worse person. Moral luck does not seem to influence our judgments of people.

Cushman also reported on studies showing that people learn more quickly when rewards and punishments are based on consequences rather than intentions. They had people throw darts at a dart board, announcing their intended target before throwing. Before starting the experiment, the researcher picked some "good" numbers and "bad" numbers. Some subjects were rewarded or punished based on their announced intentions, and others based on their results. In this research, the subjects rewarded and punished based on results learned to distinguish between good numbers and bad numbers more quickly.

This research illustrates the principle that there are still reasons to reward or punish in a determined universe - reward and punishment alters mental states and, consequently, influences behavior. Unfortunately, this research focuses on belief acquisition rather than on the use of reward and punishment to alter desires. When it comes to belief acquisition, I can think of a much more efficient method to alter a person's beliefs about good numbers and bad numbers than rewarding or punishing a person throwing darts. Just tell that person what the good numbers and bad numbers are.

Research on the influence of reward and punishment on desires still seems scarce. The only area where I have found this subject discussed in any detail is in discussing addictions - the acquisition of desires that thwart future desires. The researchers in that field say that addictions hijack a system that has a common use - but they say almost nothing about that common use. I would not mind seeing some improvement in this area.

The moral of our story is that, yes, it is the case that brain lesions and the like provide a defense from moral culpability. This is only because (and when) they place those mental states out of the range of normal reward and punishment. It does not matter how much you yell at, condemn, or punish an individual, it will not shrink a brain tumor. However, as long as reward and punishments have effects, then people will have reason to use them, even in a determined universe - particularly in a determined universe. The fact that desires are caused is no defense against reward or punishment, as long as reward and punishment are counted among those causes. The fact that desires are caused is no threat to moral responsibility. The fact that my own interest in computer games was caused is no defense against the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who waste their precious time playing such games.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Free Will

368 days until the first day of classes.

My recent discussion about the fact that I have interests that a person with good desires would not have – interests that motivate me to spend time playing computer games – brings up the issue of free will.

Can I choose to play (or not to play) a computer game? Or is it the fact that the forces of nature have conspired to put me into a state of playing a computer game?

Neuroscientists looking inside my skull, at least hypothetically, can follow the electrical signals as they travel around my brain until they send a signal down my arm to my hands as I log into my game, and be able to say, “I knew he was going to do that.”

Judging from the Philosophy Bites podcast, there seems to be a great deal of concern among philosophers that advances in neuroscience will threaten belief in free will. The worry is that this, in turn, will undermine moral responsibility. How can an agent be held responsible for an action that he did not “freely choose?”

Or, perhaps more accurately, Nigel Warburton, the interviewer for the Philosophy Bites podcasts, has these concerns, since he brings them up often in his interviews.

Or, perhaps even more accurately, Nigel Warburton thinks that his audience has this concern (and he may be right since Philosophy Bites does have a fairly large audience).

For my part, I do not think that people have “free will” in the sense that many people seem to be worried about. However, to be honest, I cannot even imagine what they are talking about when they talk about free will. What is this thing supposed to be?

Certainly, as I write this blog post, I am making a choice. The forces that motivate that choice are my desires. The term “desire” describes something about how the neurons in my brain are structured and how electrical signals travel along that maze of dendrites and axons – just the types of things that neuroscientists (at least hypothetically) would be looking at. Furthermore, those desires are the cause of an interaction of genetic material with its environment – a mixture of “nature” and “nurture”.

There is no room for “free will”.

But what is it that is supposed to be missing? How would things be different if I had this capability called “free will”?

I have the power to do what I want to do. Indeed, it is precisely my desires – my desire to write a philosophy blog post or my desire to play a computer game – that is causing my actions. If “free will” were to exist, then is it supposed to be the power to do something that I do not want to do – and would choose not to do even if I could? If this is what free will is, then I do not understand why it is important. I do not understand why I would even want a capacity to do that which I would not want to do – an ability to choose what I would not choose.

I have already admitted that I believe I would be a better person if I wanted to play computer games less and write philosophy posts more. However, this fact does not change the fact that when I do play computer games – when I log in to take the role of Bounder Reisenbread patrolling the bounds of the Shire – that I am doing what I want to do. Not only am I doing what I want to do, but I am doing it BECAUSE I want to. It is my desire to log in and play the role of Reisenbread that makes it true that I have logged in and am playing Reisenbread - which is what I was doing a short while ago.

Or, as is currently the case, it is the fact that I want to write a blog post on free will that I am currently writing a blog post on free will. I am doing what I want to BECAUSE I want to.

I can’t think of anything that a person would want from “free will” other than that, and I already have that.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Reasons, Motives, and Doing the Right Thing

372 days until the first day of classes.

I have been writing about time - that I do not have enough of it, and I waste some of it playing computer games. The playing of video games, I argued, is something that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn unproductive time-wasting activities such as this.

Yet, I do what I argue ought not to be done.

This may sound somewhat odd. Is it not the case that, merely by acknowledging that playing computer games is the wrong thing to do that I am admitting to having a reason not to do it? And if it is something I recognize that I should not do, why is it that I do it anyway?

I think that the way of thinking about ethics that leads to these problems is filled with mistakes.

It is not the case that believing that something is the wrong thing to do means that I am asserting that I have reasons not to do it. It means that there exists reasons to cause me to have reasons not to do it. It means that I acknowledge that people generally have reasons to condemn – to some extent – those (like me) who waste their time on such things rather than spending their time on something more productive. However, all of this is consistent with it being the case that I do not, in fact, have a reason to avoid playing computer games.

In fact, I believe that linking morality to what an agent has a reason to do is not only wrong, but dangerous. If we tell somebody that the claim that he ought to do X implies that he has a reason to do X, then the people we are talking to can respond, “Since I do not have a reason to do X, then it must not be the case that I ought to do X.” For example, tell a person with an obligation to keep a promise that this means that he has a reason to keep that promise, and the agent can respond, “Since I do not have a reason to keep that promise, then this must mean that I have no obligation to do so.”

However, if we say instead that the obligation to keep a promise means that an agent ought to have a reason to keep a promise – that is to say, ought to have a desire to keep promises or an aversion to breaking promises – then the agent cannot argue from the absence of such a desire or aversion that there is no obligation. “Ought to have a reason”, in turn, means that people generally have many and strong reasons to reward and praise those who keep promises and punish and condemn those who break promises. These facts remain true of promise keeping regardless of the agent’s specific desires.

Accordingly, I ought to desire to do something more productive with my time than playing computer games. This means that people generally have many and strong reasons to praise those who spend their time on something more productive and to condemn those others to the degree that they waste their time playing such games. These facts remain true no matter what I, as an agent, believe or desire. The moral facts of the matter are, at least relative to my own beliefs and desires, completely objective.

As it turns out – and as is true in my own case – having a belief that one ought not to be wasting their time playing computer games does come with some motivation to set the game aside and work on something more productive (such as this blog posting). This motivation is not built into the belief itself. Instead, it comes from two moral desires.

One of these desires is a desire to do the right thing. Insofar as I have a desire to do the right thing, and I believe that writing a blog post on moral philosophy is the right thing to do, I have a reason to work on a blog post on moral philosophy.

Please note – there is an important distinction to keep in mind that I fear I have often gotten wrong in the past. This is a distinction between having motivation to do X and a reason to do X. If an agent has a desire to do the right thing, and a belief that X is the right thing to do, the agent has motivation to do X, but may not have a reason to do X. This is because the belief that X is the right thing to do may be false. An agent has a reason to do that which actually serves his desires, but he has motivation to do anything that he believes serves his desires. People are often motivated to do things they have no reason to do.

Another of the moral desires that may motivate a person to do the right thing is the desire to be a good person.

Being a good person is a lot more work than doing the right thing. It requires going through the effort of actually changing one’s likes and dislikes – to the degree that one can do so. Typically, this involves doing something until one learns to like it – making the effort to act like a good person until “it comes naturally”.

Consequently, it is true that the belief that X is the right thing to do almost always comes with motivation to do X. However, the motivation does not come from the belief. It comes from the desires that would motivate a good person to do X. It may also come from a desire to do the right thing and a desire to be a good person. Beliefs do not motivate. Desires motivate.

This makes it possible for a person to know that they ought to be doing something else, but yet not having any motivation to do it (or being too weakly motivated by the desire to do the right thing or the desire to be a good person). This makes it possible for a person to continue to do what they know they ought not to be doing, such as wasting time on computer games when they should be writing on moral philosophy instead. (Under the perhaps rash assumption that writing the philosophy blog is actually a good use of one’s time.)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Computer Games, Hypocrisy, and Demagoguery

373 days until the start of class as I return to graduate school.

In yesterday's post, I lamented that shortage of time. I reported wanting more time each day to read, to write, and to prepare for graduate school.

Yet, I spend a fair amount of time playing online games. Actually, one online game: Lord of the Rings Online. On the Landroval server, my current main characters are the hobbits Alphred Trout and Hedgerow Shrewburrow.

I have raised repeated objections to spending time on on useless activities such as sports, movies, and computer games - resources that could have been spent on other things such as food and medicine for the global poor. Yet, here I am wasting time and resources on a computer game. I mostly protest what could be done with the $600 billion spent each year on sports - lamenting what could be accomplished if that time and money went to something more productive.

Yet, I spend time in computer games.

Am I a hypocrite?

Technically, no. A hypocrite is somebody who applies a different moral standard to other than he does to himself. If I were to condemn such time-wasting activities in others, but not in myself, then I would be vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy.

However, I will be consistent and insist that I would be a better person if I had no interest in such activities and, instead, found just as much enjoyment in doing something more productive. I am not as good of a person as I could have been. I wish I had been that person. However, I am not.

I acknowledge that people have reasons to condemn those who are like me in this respect - people who waste time on games. When they protest those wastes of time, I do not get defensive and try to come up with some rationalization that it is a good use of time. I don't argue that it improves my hand-eye coordination or my reading skills or any such thing. I admit to the soundness of the protests and the legitimacy of the reasons that motivate that protest.

Nor do I engage in these activities free of guilt, but often with the knowledge that there is something else I should be doing - that I should want to be doing. And, indeed, I do find motivation to spend less time on games than I would otherwise enjoy spending, and putting that time to work instead studying philosophy and writing blog posts.

These points are relevant to a class of argument popular in public debate. The examples of this class that I am most familiar with involves somebody who is strongly anti-gay being discovered soliciting same-sex partners. A common response is to call this person a hypocrite and assert that this discredits everything that person has said on the subject.

Using myself as an example, these claims are false. The agent is not a hypocrite if the agent sincerely condemns the activity even in himself - if he accepts the objections to homosexual activity and applies them equally to himself and others.

Nor is it the case that arguments against an activity suddenly lose their validity (assuming they had any to start with) simply because the agent commits an act that the argument condemns. In fact, to use the agent's activity as a reason to condemn the argument is an example of the "ad hominem" fallacy.

Ironically, we can find genuine hypocrisy (as opposed to the misapplied charge of hypocrisy described above) in those who shamelessly use these fallacious arguments to score political points since, when others use fallacious arguments against them, they condemn the practice. So, while being gay cannot be reasonably condemned, being a demagogue and a hypocrite certainly can be.

I want to make this clear that I do not think that there are any good reasons to object to homosexual relationships. However, the reader who gets fixated on that matter misses the point. There are legitimate arguments to be made in defense of homosexual relationships and illegitimate arguments. The false claim of hypocrisy and the "ad hominem" fallacies used in the cases I described above are not legitimate responses.

While there are no good arguments to be made against being gay, there are good arguments to be made against being a hypocrite and a demagogue. The homosexual does nothing harmful to society as a whole. Hypocrites and demagogues are responsible for a great deal of harm and prevent a great deal of social progress by cluttering up discussions with nonsense claims and unfounded assertions. We do not have good reason to demand that people be straight, but we do have reason to demand that people check their facts, and their logic, and put some effort into making sure that their arguments are strong and their conclusions well founded.

Just as there is reason to criticize the hypocrite and the demagogue, I must admit that there are reasons to condemn the waste of time and resources that go into playing computer games. I see no way to refute those arguments that are not simply rationalizations (and, thus, cannot be adopted without violating the interests in strong arguments and well-founded conclusions).

I should add that, if this was an activity that I performed alone, then I would find it easier to give up. However, this is an activity that I engage in with others, and that makes the thought of quitting so much harder. I would miss the people. And, I suspect (hope) that they would miss me. Relationships are hard to give up. Relationships ought to be hard to give up.

Time - Addemdum. Philosophy Bites Podcast Notes

Speaking about needing more time (the subject of my last post, today's list of Philosophy Bites podcast episodes while I exercised left me with a great deal that I would want to write about - if I had the time.

J.L. Austin and the Philosophy of Language

Today's podcasts included Guy Longsworth talking about J.L. Austin and Ordinary Language Philosophy.

According to Longsworth, Austin believed that humans had spent a considerable amount of time into developing its language, and consequently had built a lot of insights into language itself. A precise understanding about the use of language would provide important insights into the things that people were talking about.

I am afraid that I disagree with the premise. Language is a tool invented by committee designed to serve a number of purposes - including purposes of manipulation and deception. It is filled with the myths and superstitions of folk belief such as - if we look precisely at the meanings of the terms - the idea that the sun rises, malaria is caused by bad air, atoms do not have any parts, and planets are a variety of star.

Furthermore, no two of us actually speaks the same language. We can see this immediately in the fact that no two of us have the same vocabulary. However, more to the point, we learn our language through experience - and no two of us have exactly the same language experience. Consequently, even for the terms we know, we can expect to find small variations in the understanding of the terms from individual to individual. This is the mechanism through which meanings drift over time and through which isolated regions slowly adopt different ways of speaking.

Being a slave to language as it exists is like being a slave to a computer that exists. If a better tool can be constructed, we should not hesitate to construct it. Similarly, if we can make language more efficient by modifying the meanings of terms, there is no good argument to be had against doing so.

Melissa Lane on Plato and Environmental Sustainability

In another episode, Melissa Lane talked about Plato and economic sustainability. Now, one may ask, "What to heck does Plato have to say about economic sustainability?" Lane brings out of Plato the fact that he considered the relationship between the state and the individual to be one in which the state shapes the character of the individuals. A part of what the state does is mold the character of individuals so that they fit into a functioning community. Applying this to our modern problems means that the state should be concerned with molding individuals to live a sustainable lifestyle.

In fact, the ideas that I defend - that morality itself is devoted primarily to molding the characters of individuals by molding the desires that will motivate their action, combined for the reasons that exist to create a community capable of sustaining themselves over time, argue for promoting those desires and aversions that would be a part of a sustainable community.

Ronald Dworkin and the Unity of Value

In one of the episodes, Ronald Dworkin argued for the "unity of value". Dworkin was reacting to the idea, for example, that liberty and equality are in conflict. He objected to the idea that, to bring about equality, a society must restrict liberty in that it must restrict people from doing things that break equality. Correspondingly, if one were to promote liberty, one would have to sacrifice equality.

Ultimately, Dworkin argued that there is a right answer to moral questions. It might not be easy to discover, and he might not know what it is, but all of morality is built on the assumption that there is a right answer. There is a point at which we can have the most liberty compatible with the most equality. At any point where morality deviates from this point, then we are not trading one good for another. We are, in fact, giving up something that is good for something that is bad.

I argue that values are, in fact, incommensurable. We can know this because of the phenomenon of regret. If I offer you a choice between taking a $10 bill on the one hand, and between taking that same $10 bill plus another $5 bill on the other, these are commensurable values. You take the $15 without regret. It is absolutely worth more than the $15. This is what happens when we are talking about commensurable values.

However, the young person who has to make a choice between moving out of state to attend a prestigious school and staying at home with her friends and family is not making a choice comparable to that between taking $10 or the same $10 plus $5 more. Even if the individual clearly prefers to go to the prestigious school and get the degree, what she gives up to do so still hurts - still comes with a great deal of regret. The fact that one good can outweigh another, but cannot actually substitute for another, is what I mean by the incommensurability of value.

This does not deny the possibility that one can have the best possible combination of both liberty and equality. Nor does it deny that anything that deviates from the best possible combination of liberty and equality is a worse option. One does not need a "unity of value" to get these results.


These are three posts I would write in more detail if I had the time. As I go through my day, I usually find a dozen things to write about. But, the time is not there - and I generally prefer to write more detailed arguments than the snippets I have placed here. It's a bit frustrating, really.

More time! Must have more time!

Friday, August 19, 2016


374 days until the first day of classes.

Time! I need more time!

Not “time” in terms of days, but “time” in terms of hours within a day.

I need time to comment on a blog post a few posts on universal moral truths that discusses the relevance of moral intuitions that I want to respond to. It lends itself to no quick answer. Given the history of people "just knowing" that some things (e.g., interracial marriage) are wrong and others (e.g., slavery, the subjugation of women) are permissible causes me to cast a skeptical eye on any type of moral intuitionism.

Plus, I will need to explain a distinction that I use between linguistic intuitions and moral intuitions. It is one thing to rely on intuitions governing the meaning and use of a term such as "excuse" or "obligation", and intuitions governing the reference for these terms. I am comfortable with intuitions about meaning - under the caveat that I can stipulate a new and more precise meaning if intuitions yield a standard use that is too imprecise, confusing, or contradictory. But this is not the same as intuiting what counts as a valid excuse or an actual obligation.

Writing all of that up will take some thought, and some time.

Oh, and regarding my distrust of moral intuitions, there are some new studies out that shows that even people who claim to find interracial marriage morally acceptable have an unconscious aversion to these types of relationships. Some people can easily take this aversion as a moral intuition that these relationships "are just wrong."

I also need time to get back to the anthology on well-being - something I want to finish before graduate school starts so that I can talk more intelligently on the issue with Dr. Heathwood.

I am working through my Philosophy Bites podcasts to give me a stronger general background knowledge, mostly on those branches of philosophy that I tend not to go in too deeply such as epistemology, philosophy of language, and metaphysics.

This is an exercise day. This means a bit more than an hour spent on an elliptical at the gym listening to Philosophy Bites podcast episodes. Topics for this session are: animal beliefs, "Homer and Philosophy", Moral Relativism, Systems of Belief, "The Enigma of Reason", and Consequntialism. These episodes will inevitably generate thoughts that I will want to - but lack the time to - develop and post on.

The podcast on animal beliefs turns out to be relevant in that, when it comes to the treatment of animals, I note that animals have no desire that future desires be fulfilled or even desires for future states of affairs, nor do they have an aversion to death (because they do not understand death). However, they do have current aversions to pain and can experience current comfort and discomfort.

The podcast on moral relativism concerns the incoherence in the belief, "All morality as relative; therefore, as an absolute moral fact it is wrong to impose one's moral beliefs on others."

In "Systems of Beliefs", Jonnathon Glover argued that epistemology should teach people to be more tolerant of the belief systems of others given that no belief system has an absolutely firm foundation.

In the "Enigma of Reason" podcast, Dan Sperber argues that our capacity to reason did not evolve to discover truth but to persuade others - a hypothesis that needs to answer the question of why would we want to persuade others? Or, "persuade others of what, exactly?"

And Phillip Pettit's take on consequentialism is that the consequences that determine whether an act is right or wrong are not limited to pleasure and avoidance of pain, or happiness and the avoidance of suffering. Rather, the consequences that matter include integrity, respect, honesty, and compassion. This is a view of consequentialism that gets near to my own view where "what matters" (or, more precisely, "what ought to matter") are those things that people generally have reasons to make matter (promote a desire for or an aversion to).

As I illustrate above, several items come up in these broadcasts that I would like to write a post on, but time is limited, and most things go unsaid.

I tend to fit my writing in while riding on the bus to and from work - and thinking about (often reconsidering) what I wrote (or will write) while walking to and and from the bus stop. This explains why I do less writing on the weekends. I am not travelling on the bus.

On all of these things, I need time to write up ideas since it is in the writing up of my posts that I do the most learning. I cannot count the number of times I started a post on something that I thought I understood in an article or podcast episode, and ended with an entirely new understanding of what I was writing about. The writing is essential to my understanding, but it takes a great deal of time.

Speaking about writing, I need to add a few more sections to the Desirism posts.

Holding down a full-time job takes a huge chunk of time out of the day - not only the time spent at work but the time spent going to and from work. There's the time I spend with my wife, time socializing with others, and some time devoted to recreation.

And there's sleep. I consider the need for sleep to be an illness - a physical defect that robs people of about a third of their life. Given the huge costs associated with the need to sleep, I would think that researchers should be putting a lot more effort into finding a cure or, at least, an effective treatment - granting people more hours each day in which they can be living their lives.

374 days to go until the first day of classes.

I need those days to be longer. I figure about sixteen more hours in a day ought to do it.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Epiphenomenalism and the Challenge of Original Ideas

375 days until the first day of classes.

As I mentioned yesterday, the primary way in which I hope to offer compensation for an opportunity to attend the graduate program at the University of Colorado in Boulder is by making some original contrbituions while I am there.

Unfortunately, one of those potential original contributions has turned out to be less than totally original.

A while back, I was listening to a podcast episode on epiphenomenalism: "Philosophy Bites: What Mary Knew"

Epiphenomenalism is the view that there are properties that are caused by physical properties, but which themselves have no causal effect on the physical world.

The theory generally comes up in the philosophy of mind to explain the association between physical states of the brain and mental states - thoughts, beliefs, sensations, and the like. It says that physical events (e.g., photons of a particular wavelength striking the retina of the eye and sending a signal to and through the brain) cause mental events (e.g., the sensation of seeing red). However, these mental entities have no capacity to do such things as alter the course of an electron in the brain. Atoms in the brain are still governed in their motions and states by the laws of physics alone.

In my earlier encounters with epiphenomenalism, I always had a question come up in my mind. If epiphenomenal properties cannot alter the movement of matter in the physical universe, then how can we talk about them or write about them? Talking and writing involve the movement of atoms through space. If they are not being caused, at least in some sense, by these epiphenomenal properties, then how can the writing or the speaking be about them?

Honestly, I never developed these thoughts in any detail, and I did have some worries as to whether they would hold up to scrutiny. Instead, I filed them away as something I would investigate if the opportunity came up.

Well, in the episode of Philosophy Bites that I listened to on Tuesday, Dr. Frank Jackson gave that argument.

Dr. Jackson actually invented one of the original arguments in favor of epiphenomenalism. He invented a thought experiment in which Mary - a brilliant neuroscientist who knew everything about the physical properties involved in perceiving red - was nonetheless raised in a black and white environment. Consequently, she had never seen red herself. She is then presented with a tomato and, for the first time, has a sensation of redness. Jackson's claim was that Mary learned something new that she could not have learned from a detailed understanding of all of the physical properties associated with seeing red.

Jackson then claimed that he, himself, ultimately rejected this very famous argument for the same reasons that I mentioned above. He could not explain how he could be writing about and giving presentations about a property that, itself, had no power to cause him to influence either his writing or his speaking.

So, that is no longer something that I will be able to offer as an original idea on my part.

The question then becomes: What about the other ideas that I have?

This was one of my worries when I sent that email to Dr. Heathwood - the one that suggested that "desire fulfillment" not be understood as getting as much desire fulfillment as possible, but as fulfilling the most and strongest of one's desires. I worried that he would respond by saying, "Oh, that's been tried. Read this for a refutation." I was relieved not to get that answer.

But I still have this worry that attempts on my part to contribute something useful and original may be thwarted.

At least, in the case of this argument against epiphenomenalism, I can draw some small comfort from the fact that Jackson found the argument convincing. It is not as if I thought of something that was fatally flawed.

I worry more about discovering that somebody had already written a devastating objection to one of my brilliant ideas.

Yet, if that devistating objection is out there, I would rather know about it sooner rather than later, so that I can avoid thinking that I know something that more learned people already understand to be clearly false.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Ethics of an Older Student Attending Graduate School

376 days until the first day of classes....

I wonder what it will be like, introducing myself to the department as a new graduate student, with my gray hair and obviously more years behind me than ahead of me.

The Philosophy Department website contains a list of graduate students. Searching through the list, the closest comparison I can find to my own situation is a graduate student who got a BS in 2000 and started the MA program in 2015. Since it is a two year program, that student will likely not be there when I show up, unless he was aiming (like me) to get into the PhD program.

The next two closest examples got bachelor degrees in 2001 and 2003, but have been in the PhD program since 2008 and 2005 respectively. They will be off writing their PhD dissertations.

So, I wonder what others will think of the obviously older student in their midst, just starting the program.

Don't get me wrong. In a practical sense, there is a part of me that does not care. I am going to graduate school for a chance to learn and, hopefully, to contribute to moral philosophy. That is my reason for going, and no worries about what others may think will get in my way. However, it is not inconsistent to be both, at the same time, concerned about what others think and resolving not to let it become a deterrence.

We are often told, in fact, not to concern ourselves with what other people think.

I tend to associate a lack of concern with what others think with rudeness, aggression, and selfishness. These are not qualities that people generally have any reason to promote.

On the other hand, complete deference to others implies thinking of oneself as merely a tool for others to use. It involves denying one's position as an equal member of the community - as somebody whose interests matter as much as any other.

Navigating between these two extremes involves considering the opinions of others - evaluating their merit - and accepting those that are legitimate while tossing out the rest.

In considering what others may think when I introduce myself in graduate school, one of my imaginings is of a person saying, "What are you doing here? You're going to be dead soon - or your brain will be too feeble for rational thought. You should not be here. You should leave that spot for somebody else - somebody younger who can make a career out of it."

Of course, there is no actual person saying these things. This is a tool that I use to consider the moral implications of what I do. This is a possible opinion that somebody may have. The task is then to consider this opinion and determine if there is anything legitimate behind it, and to form a reasoned response.

The argument is particularly relevant since I intend to use my two years in the master's degree program to convince the professors that they want to keep me around for a few more years and give me some money so that I can afford to do so.

When I apply for funding, I will by taking an opportunity away from the next person in line - probably somebody younger, who can put that education to work for a longer period of time.

Is that of moral significance?

There are those who consider age discrimination to be wrong in itself. However, as somebody who does not accept that there is such a thing as "wrong in itself", I cannot make use of that claim. It does matter (in that it is relevant to the reasons that others have for their actions) that I have fewer expected future years than that of the person who would have otherwise been given the assistance.

I could pass the buck - and leave it up to the department committee that reviews the applications to make that decision. After all, it is their money. If they choose to give it to me, then this must imply that they think that it is the best available use. Who am I to disagree?

However, there is a principle that, even though one can delegate authority, one cannot delegate responsibility. The choice about whether or not to apply is still my choice to make.

One response that I considered giving to that imaginary challenger says, "Imagine that the next person in line is 27 years old, but has a degenerative disease that will likely kill him in about 30 years (equal to my expected remaining life expectancy). Would you tell that person to step aside and leave the opportunity to a healthier individual with a longer expected life span?"

However, I do not see how this answers the question. Instead, it draws on prejudices that still need a justification. One might ask, "Imagine that the next person is black, should that person step aside in favor of a white student?" One cannot simply assume that the answer one gets from asking that type of question tells us anything about what ought or ought not to be done.

Instead, I can say on my own behalf that I am not stepping into this as a complete novice. My initial training in philosophy might be a few decades back, but I have continued to think and write and read about these issues. I have also spent some time and effort studying related fields - history, economics, and world affairs. I will be bringing that history with me.

My history in reading and writing about philosophical matters is not the only thing that is relevant. As I study philosophy, I tend to see a disconnect between what some philosophers say and the community in which they live. A moral theory has to fit into the lives of secretaries, truck drivers, accountants, lawyers, construction workers, and school teachers, research scientists, actors, bureaucrats, firefighters, and janitors. I think that there can be some benefit to having somebody who has lived in the "real world" to bring philosophy - particularly moral philosophy - down to earth.

Both of these pieces of evidence relate to a common question: Can I make a contribution?

When a professor teaches a graduate level class on David Hume, or well-being, or the philosophy of mind, and I turn in my paper at the end of that semester, will I be able to put into that paper an idea that the professor would find interesting and useful, as partial compensation for the professor's efforts?

I am not talking about presenting the professor with some grand theory that solves all of the problems in that person's field of study. That would be grand, but it would not be reasonable to expect. I am talking about simply presenting an option within the field that the professor had not considered before.

Something like suggesting to Dr. Heathwood that a desire satisfaction theory of well-being should understand desire satisfaction, not as getting as much desire satisfaction as possible, but as fulfilling the most and strongest of an agent's actual desires.

Something like suggesting, in a course on moral psychology, that performing brain scans on people answering moral questions and calling that the study of morality is a bit like performing brain scans on people answering questions about stars and planets and calling that the study of astronomy.

Something like suggesting that John Stuart Mill was not, in fact, suggesting that we evaluate actions according to their conformity to rules that are then justified on utilitarian grounds but, instead, suggesting that we evaluate actions according to their conformity to desires that are justified on utilitarian grounds.

Something like suggesting that punishment aims not at retribution, and not just at deterrence, but at providing moral lessons that mold the sentiments of individuals, forming a set of likes and dislikes within the community that themselves provide benefit.

I think I can do that. I think I can do a better job of it than many of my competitors. I think that my age and experience gives me an advantage in this. And I think it is a reason for the school to accept me as a PhD candidate and fund my education.

Now, all I need to do is convince them of that.

John Makhail on Universal Moral Grammar

377 days until the first day of classes - my return to graduate school at a ripe age of 57.

I have been putting a lot of effort into brushing up on my general understanding of philosophy. Recently, this has involved going through the Philosophy Bites podcast - a series of 15 to 20 minute episodes interviewing a philosopher on some interesting topic. There are over 250 episodes in the podcast, but I have been easily going through 25 per week. Many are review, but some present new ideas - at least to me.

In the first episode on today's set, John Makhail discussed universal moral grammar. This is the thesis that we are born with a set of moral codes - a set of attitudes common among humans the world over.

This has always frustrated me because I consider this a clear waste of time, yet I never hear anybody ask some fundamental questions that should quickly demonstrate these problems.

One of the pieces of evidence that Makhail presented was a nearly universal agreement on what to do in "the Trolley problem".

For any who have not encountered this thought experiment, it involves a runaway train that is about to run into and kill five people. However, the agent can pull a switch, sending it down a different track where it will only kill one person. Is it permissible to pull the switch?

The punch line is that there is almost universal agreement that this is permissible.

Almost universal agreement.

Ninety percent agreement.

Here's my question.

Are the 10 percent wrong?

If they are wrong, why are they wrong? What is it that makes them wrong?

What if 90% were reluctant to pull the switch and were more comfortable just letting nature take its course. Would they still be wrong? Is it the case that morality is always right?

If the majority is always right, then whatever the majority feels comfortable about is moral. If they are comfortable executing all of the homosexuals or enslaving blacks then, under these assumptions, homosexuals would deserve to die and blacks deserve to be slaves - these would be the right thing to do. If men were comfortable with rape and limiting women to domestic chores, then women should have no right to refuse sex and a duty to perform domestic chores.

If, instead, the rightness and wrongness of actions depend on other things, then the trolley problem is useless in answering moral questions. It tells us what people believe, but not what is right. Surveying people about trolley problems is as irrelevant to answering questions in ethics as a survey on the origins of life would be to questions in biology.

This latter is my view. The Trolley Problem is a waste of philosophical space, like taking a survey on whether ghosts exist or whether humans have actually landed on the moon.

Makhail is comparing the making of moral judgments to the making of grammatical judgments. However, there is a significant difference between moral judgments and grammatical judgments - the matters of life, death, and suffering that are at stake. Whatever grammatical judgments we make and mutually agree to - that determines what is right and wrong with respect to grammar, and no serious consequences come of the decision. It is like the decision as to whether to drive on the right side or the left side of the road. The result does not matter, as long as everybody agrees.

However, in morality, what if our moral grammar tells us to commit rape, to favor people of our own race (as a sign of genetic similarity) and to - where possible - kill and take the resources of different races (as a sign of genetic difference), to kill and/or rape our stepdaughters. In morality, is it truly the case that our moral grammar does not matter so long as we all agree (or, at least, all of those with the power to enforce their decisions agree) on the principles involved?

In other words, the Trolley Problem, and a "Universal Moral Grammar" are irrelevant when it comes to determining what is right or wrong as a matter of fact. We need a way to determine what is right and wrong as a matter of fact to even know whether this universal moral grammar is giving us right or wrong answers.

I have yet to hear anybody ask those who show enthusiasm for these ideas, "Are they right? Are the people who answer the question this way to that way right or wrong? And what is it that makes that answer the right answer or the wrong answer?"

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Trumpism - Trump as the Personification of Social Media

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump is the candidate for our time.

If social media - Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and the comment sections of articles and blogs - were to be given human form, it would be Donald Trump.

Statements without thought, lying, bullying, name-calling, misrepresentation, threatening or inciting violence, the rapid "sharing" of nonsense - often without even taking the time to look at what was shared, and never - ever - admit to being wrong.

It is no wonder that Trump cannot comprehend the error of his ways. He goes onto Twitter and sees everybody else doing exactly what he is doing. Perhaps those people have different sympathies - liberal versus conservative, for example - but the methodology is the same. Hatred, bullying, and a total disregard for truth and evidence.

A person (like Trump) can well wonder, "What the heck is wrong with that?"

Yet, in Trump, we see a living example of the costs of the misuse of social policy.

In fact, taking Trump as the most visible and universal representative of this culture, we would not introduce much error to simply call it "Trumpism."

The characteristics of Trumpism include:

  • Asserting anything one hears or reads that one is comfortable with as fact.
  • Straight-out lying.
  • Sharing anything anybody else says that one is comfortable with as if it is fact.
  • Bullying, name-calling, and insults in place of substantive conversation.
  • Incitement and threats of violence against anybody who disagrees or protests what one says.
  • Never admitting that one has made a mistake.

Trumpians have a lot in common with trolls. However, "trolls" are typically understood as people who are knowingly uncivil. They are the social equivalent of vandals who recognize that their behavior is disruptive and wrong, but get enjoyment out of being disruptive.

Trumpians, on the other hand, do not recognize any wrongdoing. They engage in this type of behavior as a matter of course - without intention or even much thought. This is, to a Trumpian, "standard operating procedure". If one sees something that supports a desired conclusion, they share it. If somebody questions or criticizes what they share, they respond with more nonsense, or with insults and abuse. If others do not back down or bow down, this abuse becomes increasingly violent. Rather than appeal to reason, the Trumpian appeals to a stick.

Trumpians are the social media equivalent of reckless drivers - rude, agressive, angry, believing that the rules of the road are meant to restrict other drivers but do not apply to them. They are far more common than trolls while completely oblivous to the costs that come from their attitudes and behaviors.

With Donald Trump serving as the personification of this type of attitude, I think we have an opportunity to recognize some benefit from his campaign.

In looking at Trump, many people are, in fact, learning the costs of this type of behavior. What we need to do next is to get them to recognize when they, themselves, are behaving like Trump. This could have two effects. The one we have reason to avoid is to have people think, "Trump isn't all that bad after all, if he is like me." The other, socially beneficial option is for Trumpians on social media to realize that they should perhaps cut back on that portion of their own behavior that follows the Trumpian model.

One of the things I have been doing online is identifying when those who oppose Trump engage in distortions and misrepresentations of Trump. These people may be expressing opposition to Trump, but they are doing so by mimicing his attitudes and behavior towards the truth, and towards other human beings. Consequently, they legitimize Trump by saying, in effect, that his practices are legitimate.

This is built on the fact that universalizability is one of the defining characteristics of morality. In a moral context, whatever we do, we say that others may do. Whenever an individual engages in dishonest or intellectually reckless behavior in social media, whenever they respond with threats of violence, whenever they lie, they are telling everybody else in the world to engage in the same type of behavior. To perform an act type is to tell the world that performing that act type of a legitimate activity.

When people engage in Trumpian behavior in social media, they are telling the world that Trumpian behavior is legitimate.

Perhaps, in seeing Trump as the personification of these attitudes, some people can be brought to realize that Trumpian behavior is a bad thing - that this is something that they should be discouraging.

One way to discourage this type of behavior is to each by example. An anti-Trumpian is somebody who at least tries to abide by the following practices:

  • Checking to make sure that what one asserts is true before passing it along to others.
  • Refraining from outright lies - do not say what one does not believe to be true.
  • Refraining from malicious misinterpretations - make certain that what one is criticizing is a reasonable interpretation of what was actually said.
  • Refraining from attacking other people and, in particular, never - ever - threaten or advocate violence against another. Criticize the ideas all one wants, but focus on the ideas, not the person.
  • Admitting to being wrong when one is wrong.
  • Promoting these rules among others who use social media, pointing out examples that follow the rules, and explaining why responsible people refrain from that type of behavior.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Clinton, Trump, and Trade

One of Hillary Clinton's recent and frequently used attacks against Donald Trump is entirely wrong-headed.

Granted, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump should be allowed nowhere near presidential power. However, this does not mean that everything said against him is beyond criticism.

In her speech accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party for the office of President, Clinton said,

He also talks a big game about putting America First. Please explain to me what part of America First leads him to make Trump ties in China, not Colorado. Trump suits in Mexico, not Michigan. Trump furniture in Turkey, not Ohio. Trump picture frames in India, not Wisconsin. Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again — well, he could start by actually making things in America again.

Again, in a speech in Michigan, she said:

He’s made Trump ties in China and Trump suits in Mexico instead of here in Michigan. He keeps saying it’s not possible to make these things in America anymore, and that’s just wrong. So we created a website — — on it we list a hundred places across the United States that already producing similar goods. Now one positive thing Trump could do to make America great again is actually make great things in America again.

Here's the problem that I see with this. There is a factory in, say, Mexico that is manufacturing suits. If those suits are made in America, then those Mexican workers lose their jobs. This isn't like in America where we have unemployment insurance, food stamps, aid for dependent children - where we can afford to provide the displaced workers with education and training to find new jobs and provide them with housing, food, and medical care while we do so. Those people are thrown into squalor . . starvation . . . their children dying from easily preventable diseases because their parents cannot afford even the most basic medical care.

The fact that we do not properly care for those displaced by trade is not the fault of the global poor - and there is no justice in making them suffer for it. The correct solution is to let them work, and to take proper care of those Americans that are displaced. We can afford it.

Yet, to Clinton, and Trump, and Sanders, and those who cheer these statements and say, "For this reason, I am voting for her, they simply refuse to even consider these facts. It does not matter how much human suffering comes from their actions - they end up slightly better off, and that is all that matters. That is all that anybody ever talks about. That is all that they even think about.

I find few things in American politics more objectionable than the utter disregard that many voters show for the global poor.

Furthermore, I would argue that Clinton actually knows better. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders displayed a distressing inability to understand economics - and Trump quite likely does not care. However, Clinton likes to surround herself with experts - real experts. She seeks their actual opinions on matters, and does not think that she knows everything there is to know.

Almost certainly, those experts are telling her that global trade is good for America, but it is particularly important for the global poor. Billions of people are now able to afford food and basic medical care who could not have afforded it earlier because of American jobs that have been shipped overseas. Unlike Trump, I suspect that she cares.

However, for political reasons - because the American voters are preferring candidates that embrace the myth of "made in America" - in spite of the harms that she knows will come from these policies. Whether, when she gets into office, she will do what is right or what is popular, is yet to be seen.

Having said this, there is a legitimate concern regarding the treatment of the global poor - the concern of exploitation.

Some of those who bring up the problem of exploitation seem to think that the appropriate solution is to say, "In order to prevent you from being exploited by the big, evil capitalist, we are going to force you to remain in squalor and watch your children die of starvation and easily preventable disease. We can't let you possibly have a job where you can afford food and medical care. That's just wrong."

One of the ways that American companies can actually exploit foreign workers is by using their influence to deny those workers other options - to leave them no options but to accept whatever the American company offers. This can be done by buying influence in the government - buying officials or promoting regulations and restrictions that will prevent others from competing for the same laborers. Once the workers' other options are eliminated, the worker is left with no option but to accept whatever the exploiting company offers.

Where this happens, a proper concern for the plight of the global poor would be to take action to prevent those barriers. This means allowing companies to compete for this inexpensive labor and, in doing so, bid up the wages and benefits. In this way, the workers who start off making 50 cents per hour and no benefits, in a few years time, are making $3.00 per hour with basic medical care. A few decades later, they are earning $5.00 per hour with family leave and company-funded child care.

Hourly wages in China were about $0.60 per hour in 2003, and are now nearing $3.00 per hour in 2014 - a 500% increase. Now, $3.00 per hour is not a lot of money, but it's a significant improvement. More importantly, the global poor are likely merely passing through this level on to salaries that would allow them to do much better for themselves.

As those foreign workers acquire more wealth, they will be able to afford more things. As they purchase more things, the opportunities open up for others to get the jobs that make those things.

Consider this: Are the people in Los Angeles suffering from the fact that there are people in New York who can afford to purchase movie tickets? Is New York somehow worse off because people in Los Angeles buy banking services? Is the future of Los Angeles to be found in impoverishing New York, or of New York to be found in impoverishing Los Angeles?

I rather doubt it.

In fact, much of the prosperity we find in the United States is because we have a large country where goods and services cross borders without impediment. If it were possible to make a state wealthier with trade barriers and banning the "export of jobs" to another state, we would have reason to allow states to engage in these practices. However, we have no such reason. If those barriers went up, they would contribute to poverty, not prosperity. What is true between states is also true between countries.

Hillary Clinton does have an unfortunate disposition to follow the current, even when the current goes in an ultimately self-destructive direction. In a democracy, the best way to change the course of government into a more useful and beneficial direction is to get the voters to push it in that direction. I hope this post makes a contribution towards that end.