Friday, June 30, 2017

The Moral Syllogism

I have read Jonathan Spelman's dissertation on moral objectivity and subjectivity and wrote a commentary that I have published in the "Commentary" section of the documents page of the desirism web site.

Spelman's dissertation argued for subjectivism on moral obligation.

In my commentary, I argued for two types of subjectivism. Spelman argued quite strongly that the beliefs of the agent are important in determining an agent's obligation. The primary case involves that of a doctor with a patient who has a non-fatal skin condition. The doctor has three options - drug A, which will treat the symptoms; drug B, which will cure the illness; and drug C, which will kill the patient. The doctor knows the effect of drug A, but - in spite of her best efforts to find out - could not determine which of drugs B or C will cure the disease and which will kill the patient.

This example demonstrates that the doctor's beliefs are relevant in determining her obligation to give the patient drug A.

Spelman uses a number of cases like this to argue that the agent's beliefs are relevant to the agent's moral obligation.

In the article, I introduce the concept of a moral syllogism. A moral syllogism can be expressed as:

(1) A prescriptive premise that reports generally what agents ought to do.
(2) A descriptive premise that presents the relevant facts in a specific case.
(3) A conclusion that tells the agent what to do in that specific case.

Understood in this way, Spelman's argument shows that the agent's beliefs are relevant in (3). However, Spelman wants to draw the inference from this to the conclusion that the agent's beliefs are relevant in (1). I argue that this inference is invalid.

Specifically, what Spelman's argument shows is that the moral syllogism actually has the following form:

(a) A prescriptive premise saying an agent with belief B ought to do A.
(b) A descriptive premise that includes the fact that the agent has belief B.
(c) A conclusion that the agent ought to do A.

The conclusion in this case depends on the agent's beliefs - depends on premise (b) being true. However, one cannot infer from the fact that the truth of (c) depends on the agent's beliefs that the truth of (a) depends on the agent's beliefs.

This is good news for desirism.

Desires are expressed as dispositions to act, given an agent's beliefs. An agent seeking his keys, who believes his keys are in the bedroom, has a reason to go to the bedroom to get the keys. If, instead, he believes that they are in his coat pocket has a reason to go get his coat.

If the prescriptive premise concerns what the agent ought to desire, and the actions that an agent performs depend on an interaction between desires and beliefs, then we need to look at the agent's beliefs to determine what an agent with those desires would do. Desirism, then, explains and predicts that the prescriptive premise is relativized to the agent's beliefs.

Yet, we still have room for epistemic responsibility. It may be the case that what an agent should do given her desires is to find more information. If the medical profession has a common reference book that would tell Jill which of drugs B and C will cure the disease and which will kill the patient, Jill would have an obligation to consult that reference book. The idea that the agent's beliefs are relevant to her obligations does not imply that we have to accept whatever the agent believes, no matter what it is. Instead, the perfectly objective prescriptive premise dictates what an agent with a given set of beliefs ought to do.

I think that I will be using this moral syllogism idea quite a bit in the future.

I worked these issues out in more detail in the paper.

In other news, my top project is still getting my head into philosophy mode. In 59 days, I will be class. I have caught up on the History of Philosophy podcast, and I am now going through the New Books in Philosophy podcast. This is helping me to get a surface understanding of various issues in epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, as well as different aspects of social and political philosophy. Hopefully, it will help me sound less like a novice when I get to school.

I have finished my course in basic formal logic, to refresh my memories on that topic.

I really need to do more in the area of practical moral philosophy. In particular, I think the one area that needs the most work is the nature of public debate on issues that are - literally - a matter of life and death for some people. Too many people are too comfortable with bad arguments. In the realm of politics, the art of the day is to interpret what the other party says in the worst possible light so as to present them as both extremely foolish and malevolent. It is extremely difficult, these days, to find a case where the public is discussing the relevant facts in an intellectually honest manner.

And, finally . . . it makes me nervous to think that before 2 years are out I need to write and pass a Master's Thesis. I really think that I should get started on that - even though my first day of class is still over 8 weeks away. I hate waiting until the last minute. I would really like to have my Master's Thesis written and on the shelf by next Tuesday. That way, I no longer need to worry about it.

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