154 days until the first class.
The class paper is going poorly. I am not at all happy with my writing on the section that discusses anger and its implications for agent-centered sentimentalist moral theories. The actual problem is, I think that agent-centered sentimentalist moral theories are so wrong that the paper sounds mean.
I mean . . . according to agent-centered sentimentalism, if I say that your act is wrong, then I am saying that I am disposed to be angry with you for doing that act. But . . . look at that from your point of view. Is it the case that for you to say it is wrong is to say that I would be disposed to be angry at you for performing the act? No. It means that you are disposed to feel guilty for performing the act. And the two need not be at all related. I can be disposed to be angry at you for something you are not disposed to feel guilty about. Thus, I can say that your act is wrong, and you can say that it is not wrong, and both of us are right.
One of the more disturbing implications of this is . . . do you want your act to quit being wrong? Well, then quit feeling guilty about it. If you can quit feeling guilty about lying, about rape, about murdering your noisy next-door neighbor - then it is not wrong. I need to find a way to take this view seriously so that I can criticize it . . . and I am having difficulty. My arguments sound like mockery - the type of claim that one would find in a twitter comment. But, it is really easy to mock agent-centered sentimentalism.
I introduced a couple of arguments that I actually have not experienced elsewhere in discussions of the subject.
Argument 1: If there is a negotiation between one person whose basic needs are at risk (by which I mean having enough food to eat, shelter, medical care, the well-being of one's children are threatened due to lack of income) and another whose basic needs are secure, then this cannot be considered an example of a voluntary contract. The person whose basic needs are at risk is negotiating under duress. It's much like taking a cattle prod and waving it over one of the children and saying, "Agree to my salary proposal or the child gets it." That contract is not freely entered into.
This is an answer to the libertarian argument that there is something intrinsically wrong with interfering with a voluntary agreement among two individuals. Rather than argue that it is sometimes permissible to interfere with such agreements - this answer says that it is not a voluntary agreement between two individuals. One of the parties can turn down the offer and continue to live a good life with his basic needs met. The other cannot turn down the offer without facing drastically unpleasant circumstances. One of the parties can act voluntarily, the other cannot.
The other argument looks at the consequences of having a minimum wage versus not having one.
One of the standard arguments against increasing the minimum wage is that it increases unemployment. In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office produced a report on the effects of a law that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
Now, I know a lot of people believe that raising the minimum wage does not cause unemployment. However, the evidence on this matter is uncertain. There are some professional economists who believe that this is the case, and some who do not. Until economists have reached a consensus, the only rational and responsible position for us amateurs to take is to hold that raining the minimum wage creates a risk of unemployment. And this risk is not borne evenly. The people who are at greatest risk of losing their jobs are those with health issues, family commitments that make it difficult to maintain a decent schedule, suffered from a low quality education or have language barriers, or suffer the effects of implicit and explicit biases. The CBO report said that raising the minimum wage would reduce the number of jobs available to such people by 500,000. That's a heavy cost for raising the minimum wage.
But, to use this as a reason against raising the minimum wage - think about this implies.
This means that we are going to adopt a policy to protect these jobs that places the entire financial burden on the poorest workers by an accumulated total of $17 billion. This is the difference between the income that would be earned by the poorest workers if the minimum wage is raised compared to if the minimum wage is not raised. Our policy to protect these 500,000 jobs leaves this group $17 billion poorer than they would have otherwise been.
Furthermore, the "no raise in the minimum wage" option puts $17 billion in the pockets of the very rich. They get this money because they are able to make higher profits by paying a lower wage rate. So, this is a money transfer of $17 billion from the poorest Americans to the richest - those who, according to the CBO, make 6 times or more the poverty level.
If we are going to protect those 500,000 jobs - or those people with the employment handicaps who would lose those jobs - it makes little sense to adopt a program that (by analogy) we fund with a tax on the poorest Americans. The people we should look to for protecting those 500,000 Americans are the very wealthy - the people who can most afford it. Either the wealthiest corporations, or the wealthiest individuals, or both.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
154 days until the first class.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:22 PM
Friday, March 24, 2017
157 days until class.
My job in the last 24 hours has been to write up a position proposal for the Party of Reason and Progress. I originally thought they wanted a short paragraph that they could post - a brief description - which I did not like to do because I like details. What I wrote ended up being three paragraphs and I feared it was too long.
I discovered that they want a description of the policy complete with statistics and references. This was more to my liking.
What follows is my first draft.
I must admit, I felt some sense of pressure to come up with a liberal document - not because of anything everybody said, but just because I felt it would be received better. However, what I presented was a proposal that I think is grounded on the evidence. The minimum wage issue is one in which I judge people on the left and right both to argue about poorly - embracing evidence that supports their position and ignoring conflicting evidence. It was not written to try to secure votes, and we will see what PORP does with it.
I had this draft finished before I came here and saw faithlessgod's recommendation attached to yesterday's post. One will see in this provision a recommendation to provide assistance to those who are have employment difficulties for such reasons as health and education/training. The options that faithlessgod pointed to provide ways of dealing with that.
Anyway . . . let me repeat . . . I am not speaking for PORP at this point. They claim to be a party that wants evidence-based positions, so this is my proposal for an evidence-based position on the minimum wage and earned income tax credit.
A Living Wage
In a society as wealthy as the United States, if somebody is willing to pull their weight by working the equivalent of a full-time job (e.g., two half-time jobs), they should earn enough to cover the basic needs – food, clean water, clothing, basic medical care, transportation, and some entertainment. Several policy options exist to try to achieve that end.
Two of these are the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit (EITC).
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, with state minimum wages minimum ranging from $5.15 (Georgia) to $11.00 (Massachusetts, Washington state).1
The EITC is a wage subsidy that effectively adds a tax refund payment to earned income to produce a higher overall household income. A single mother with two children with a full-time job throughout 2016 earning the current Federal minimum wage will have $15,080 in earned income, and qualify for an earned income tax credit of $5,572. This would be a combined income of $20,652 – the equivalent of 9.92 per hour.2
The Minimum Wage
The standard argument against a minimum wage appeals to a standard principle of liberty. If one person is willing to receive $5.00 for an hour of work, and another is willing to pay it, then it is intrinsically wrong to come between them. One could respond that this intervention comes in the name of exploitation – coming from the fact that the worker is being forced by desperate circumstances (e.g.,
starvation) to accept $5.00. However, this option is blunted by the employer’s option to pay nothing, whereby the intervention makes the worker even worse off. In the name of preventing exploitation, the intervention forces the worker to accept the desperate circumstances she was trying to avoid – but at least she is not being exploited.
A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco estimates that the effect of a 10% increase in the minimum wage would result in a 1% to 3% loss in employment for the target population.3
If we assume a 2% loss of jobs among minimum-wage workers with a 10% increase in the minimum wage, it follows that an increase would help 98% of the workers in that range. Those workers would not be forced to accept the desperate circumstances they were trying to avoid – they would be helped to further distance themselves from those desperate circumstances. But for the other 2%, the results would be catastrophic. Furthermore, this 3% will be made up of people who already have employment disadvantages such as implicit and explicit bias, health issues, insufficient or low quality education, and family commitments that interfere with work schedules.
Even if total employment does not decrease, there is an issue with job transfer. A higher minimum wage makes these jobs more attractive to the voluntarily unemployed in middle-income households seeking additional income. These workers are generally more highly skilled and tend to suffer from many of the employment disadvantages of current minimum-wage workers. Consequently, businesses have an incentive to replace their current minimum-wage employees with these alternative employees – providing its benefits to middle-income households rather than the poor.
Up until 1994, there was a consensus among economists that an increase in the minimum wage would decrease employment. The vast majority of households with minimum-wage workers would benefit from the increase, but some households would suffer potentially catastrophic economic results from those who lost their jobs.
At that time, David Card and Alan Kruger published a study that compared the employment effects in one state that increased its minimum wage, with an economically similar state that did not increase its minimum wage. By using the former state as a study group, and the latter state as a control group, they could control for some confounding variables. Their study showed a slight increase in employment, rather than a decrease.4
Possible explanations for this include (1) lower-income households tend to spend their additional income on goods and services which, in turn, create additional jobs, and (2) employers generally would be willing to pay the higher wage but do not do so because the economic power they have over potential workers desperate for a job.
Attempts to replicate their findings have produced mixed results. More importantly, they have produced no consensus among economists as to the employment effects on employment. In 2014, 600 economists including 7 Nobel Prize winners endorsed an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.105, while 3 Nobel Prize winners joined 500 economists in opposing the increase.6 In 2014, when the Congressional Budget Office was asked to estimate the effects of an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, they estimated that it would reduce total employment by 500,000 jobs.
Some economists who think that a higher minimum wage produces a job loss still support a higher minimum wage because – overall – it increases the purchasing power of the poor. The CBO estimated that a $10.10 minimum wage would give households below the poverty line an additional $6 billion, and households between the poverty line and three times the poverty level an additional $12 billion.7 This additional income produces the side effect of stimulating those businesses that provide goods and services to lower-income households, as opposed to businesses that cater to the very wealthy.
PORP rejects the traditional practice of embracing studies that support a favored result and ignoring other data. Until economists come to a consensus on the effects of a minimum wage, PORP considers it to be irresponsible for non-economists to declare one side or the other the victor in this debate purely because if that side were right it would support a favored policy.
What we do know is that an increase in the minimum wage will help a significant percentage of those households earning less than what would be the new minimum wage. However, there is a risk (though it is not certain) that a percentage of low-income households will suffer catastrophic economic hardship through loss of employment, and that these costs would fall on workers who have employment disadvantages.
There are good reasons to support a higher minimum wage. However, this program should be considered alongside programs that would provide assistance to those who have employment disadvantages. One option, for those employees, would be to provide wage subsidies to employers who
hire such individuals.
Recently, several states and municipalities have increased their local minimum wage. This will provide fertile ground for research.
Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
The EITC answers several of the challenges made to the minimum wage.
(1) The benefits go exclusively to low-income households, whereas much of the benefit of a higher minimum wage goes to middle class and even upper class households with members seeking a second source or independent source of income.
(2) It does not give employers an incentive to fire workers since the cost of employment to employers remains constant. In fact, it has been argued that the EITC provides a subsidy to employers who hire workers from low-income households because a part of their wages is paid through the wage subsidy rather than the business.
(3) It does not give the voluntarily unemployed in middle-class households an incentive to enter the labor force seeking additional income – taking job opportunities from poorer heads of household.
(4) The financial burden can be placed entirely on the very wealthy individuals and corporations through direct taxation, rather than burdening smaller and struggling businesses.
The EITC, as it is currently being implemented, has two significant problems.
One disadvantage with the earned income tax credit as currently designed is that those who qualify get a lump-sum payment when they file their taxes after a year of hardship. Some low-income households lose a percentage of that assistant by borrowing against it in the year of living on low wages. Or they have to put off important purchases, such as medical care or home repairs, until the money comes in.
Another disadvantage comes from the bureaucratic red tape associated with the program. A worker needs to know that she is eligible to apply for the assistance. The IRS has an online "EITC Assistant"8 to help people decide if they qualify and for how much. Because of this, many poor people do not acquire benefits to which they are entitled. In addition, government reports show that much of the money is paid to individuals who, strictly speaking, do not qualify for the benefit (or as much of the benefit as they receive). Some of this is fraud. However, the General Accounting Office attributes much of this to the complexity of the law and difficulty in determining eligibility.9
The EITC has another disadvantage over a higher minimum wage, though this is entirely cosmetic. The EITC shows up in the government budget in terms of tax revenues received and benefits paid out. With the minimum wage, the money transfer goes directly from employer to employee and the amounts do not show up on the government ledger. A money transfer is required in both cases. This makes it politically easier to oppose the EITC in spite of its advantages, and easier to support a higher minimum wage in spite of its flaws.
The EITC is not an alternative to a higher minimum wage. In fact, the EITC and minimum wage can work together. An increase in the minimum wage provides households with additional earned income, which, when combined with the earned income tax credit, provides the household with greater overall income.
If the single mother at the start of this entry received a pay increase due to a higher minimum wage to $10.50, she would still qualify for $4,806 earned income tax credit for a total income of $26,646 - an income equivalent of $12.81 per hour.
In principle, PORP supports the objective that anybody working the equivalent of a full-time job earn enough to cover basics needs. We support the use of both an increased minimum wage and increased earned income tax credit to accomplish these ends. We also support wage subsidies for people who are unemployed due to employment disadvantages such as implicit and explicit bias, health issues, and education/training. We support improving the EITC by arranging for qualifying workers to get their benefits throughout the year, and simplifying and expanding the eligibility requirements.
1 Labor Law Center, State Minimum Wage, https://www.laborlawcenter.com/state-minimum-wage-rates/, retrieved 03/23/2017.
2 Internal Revenue Service, “EITC, Earned Income Tax Credit, Questions and Answers”, https://www.irs.gov/creditsdeductions/
individuals/earned-income-tax-credit/eitc-earned-income-tax-credit-questions-and-answers, Retrieved 03/23/2017.
3 Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, "The Effects of Minimum Wages on Employment", http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2015/december/effects-ofminimum-
4 Card, David; Krueger, Alan B. (September 1994). "Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania". The American Economic Review. 84 (4): 772–93.
5 Economic Policy Institute, “Over 600 Economists Sign Letter in Support of $10.10 Minimum Wage, http://www.epi.org/minimum-wage-statement/ retrieved 03/23/2017
6 “A Statement to Federal Policy Makers,
ion=0&alloworigin=1, retrieved 03/23/2017
7 Congressional Budget Office, The Effects of a Minimum-Wage Increase on Employment and Family Income,
February 18, 2014.
8Intrnal Revenue Service, "Use the EITC Assistant", https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/individuals/earnedincome-tax-credit/use-the-eitc-assistant, Accessed 03/24/2017.
9 U.S. Government Accountability Office, "Improper Payments: Inspector General Reporting of Agency Compliance under the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act ", http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/667332.pdf,
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 11:31 AM
Thursday, March 23, 2017
158 days until class.
I am trying to get into a new lifestyle.
In terms of my use of the internet, this site is to be used as a journal and where I sketch sketchy ideas.
The brand new desirism site is where I post (or work on) more formal presentations of ideas. I have just posted a new blog post describing the basics of desirism as applied to the morality of lying. As mentioned before, I post my papers as I work on them. I am considering moving the desirism wiki site here if I can figure out an easy way to do it.
This is continuing to work out well for writing discipline as I try to update the "in progress" item every day. I put the most recent draft up there last night. I am continuing to work on the thesis that moral instruction provides a reason for adopting the position that morality is concerned with molding sentiments and not with the expression of the sentiments one has. I think I can finish that section tonight and, tomorrow, begin on another section that tries to understand the emotion of "anger" (perhaps including a distinction from "hate").
There's also the desirism facebook group - which seems a good place for discussion.
I have also been trying to position myself to do some work for the new Party of Reason and Progress. This will allow me to make a contribution that, at least in its initial intent, seeks to promote evidence-based policies. I am entirely in favor of this option.
A member of their platform committee has asked that I provide a draft of policy proposals governing the minimum wage and college tuition. The minimum wage is an issue that I have researched - and I think I can produce a quality evidence-based product. I hope they like it. My intent is to turn around this assignment quickly.
If anybody wants to point me to some relevant evidence for drawing an evidence-based conclusion about either of these issues, I would be grateful for that.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 2:10 PM
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
159 days until first class.
My accomplishments in the past 24 hours include continued work on "Bigotry and the Immorality of Sentimentalism".
The part that I am currently working on aims to show that the evidence Prinz points to in his argument from moral instruction not only fails to support moral sentimentalism - it directly contradicts the theory.
Prinz defines a wrong act as the act that one would be disposed to morally disapprove of under conditions of perfect information - dismissing those biases the agent herself judges to be irrelevant. (In other words, something is a bias if and only if the agent judges it to be a bias.)
One of the arguments he uses in defense of this thesis is the fact that a parent's moral instruction of a child involves emotional conditioning. It involves reward and punishment and ostracism in order to link the misbehavior to a negative emotion. This demonstrates that emotions are central to morality.
It may do this. However, my argument is that the use of techniques of emotional conditioning such as praise and condemnation - techniques that aim to change the sentiments the child has - demonstrate that the sentiments can be out of alignment with the moral facts and must be brought into alignment. This, in turn, implies that there are moral facts independent of the sentiment of the assessor - and that those sentiments, if used as a guide to right and wrong action, can give a false reading. To make the sentiments more reliable, they need to be properly calibrated.
Yet, Prinz argues that there can be no such thing as an improperly calibrated sentiment. It is like saying, no matter where the compass points, that direction is north by definition. "North" simply means "the direction the compass points when I look at it."
As I will try to always do, I will be posting my most recent drafts on the brand new, ugly, but utilitarian Desirism website as I write them - updating them nightly with that day's changes.
What a wonderful incentive to write.
In other news, I have been putting in effort to become active in the newly forming Party of Reason and Progress. I have mentioned here that I am interested in my ideas being put to practical use to making the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. Some work in improving the real world seems in order.
In this, I have been posting comments on some discussions arguing for getting involved in the primary process in both major political parties in order to select science-friendly candidates.
My argument is that, let us assume you have a group in a legislative district with 100 members and each person can bring in the political support of 10 more (on average) for a voting block of 1000 voters.
You have two options.
Option 1: You run your own candidate and draw 1000 votes away from the most science-friendly major party candidate, giving the office over to the least science-friendly major party candidate.
Option 2: You get involved in the selection process of the dominant party in the district - the one that will likely select the candidate that, due to party voting, will win the general election - and make sure that major party selects a pro-science candidate in the primaries.
Your 1000 votes are going to be a lot more effective pursuing the second option than the first.
I hope I have successfully planted the idea in at least a few heads.
I received a message from their new head of policy formation to contact him - which I have done. We'll see where that goes.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:10 AM
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
160 days until classes start.
Accomplishments yesterday include more work on "Bigotry and the Immorality of Moral Sentimentalism".
I am posting the drafts of this paper as I word on them on the in progress section of my Desirism website. If anybody is interested in seeing what I have so far, they can take a look. You will see that it is clearly a work in progress. I am posting it as I write it. It will improve and change over time.
I was also involved in a discussion yesterday that brought up a distinction between anger and hate.
Anger is sometimes justified. If I were to discover that somebody had taken or done harm to property of mine for no good reason, I would be angry. That anger would provide me with motivation to engage in some moral instruction - in the form of punishment and condemnation - of the responsible parties. Yet, anger can be justified when it is directed to an actual wrongdoing. It may even be necessary and good insofar as it actually motivates the moral instruction. It may need to be tempered, though, as anger runs a risk of inflicting more harm than is morally justified, which - in turn - promotes anger on the part of the other party - who then retaliates - and we end up in a war.
Hate, on the other hand, has the effect of encouraging people to invent things to be angry about.
The type of hate that I am referring to is one that emerges in tribal psychology. This concerns the human disposition to divide the world into "us" and "them". They then promote injustice by allowing "us" to get away with things that, when those things are done by "them", result in condemnation. Examples of us versus them tribal thinking include racial prejudice such as white supremacy, nationalism, religious and anti-religious bigotry, factionalism such as that found between political parties, and sexism.
Trump is a champion of tribalism with his unjust treatment of Mexicans, Muslims, and other immigrants.
Bernie Sanders in the 2016 campaign also championed tribalism, targeting "billionaires" and "establishment democrats" as "them" to be hated.
A part of the effect of tribalism is that it creates a bond among members of the "us" group, creating fierce loyalties and, as mentioned, unjust preferential treatment of members of the in group to go along with the unjust hatred of all members of the "them" group.
Hate, as I am using the term here, is an integral part of tribalism. The "us" group is united - and, unfortunately, strengthened - by its unjust hatred of the "them" group.
This is where the distinction between "anger" and "hate" comes in. One can be justifiably angry at another for wrongs done, but anger does not apply to groups. At least, righteous anger does not legitimately apply to groups. It applies to the individuals who have done the wrong. Applying it to innocent members of the group who have done no wrong is unjust.
What "hate" does is inspire members of the "us" group to invent reasons to hate members of the "them" group. If they cannot think of reasons to be angry, they invent those reasons. They come up with conspiracies, re-interpret events (communications and actions in particular) to give them the most sinister interpretation, and otherwise manufacture what they need to give their hatred of "them" an appearance of legitimacy.
This "us/them" psychology, left unchecked, is that which motivates wars between nations and civil wars between peoples within a nation. It is that which made slavery possible, and produced genocides such as the Holocaust. In less severe forms, it gave us such things as Jim Crowe laws and discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.
The Tea Party is a tribal group of this type - motivated by and strengthened by hatred.
As if to make up for lost time, tribalism is coming to dominate the Democratic Party as well. You can see it in the hate-filled rhetoric, the imagined wrongs, and the eagerness to misinterpret words and deeds targeting "establishment Democrats".
This is not something new or unique. It is common. It explains much of human history. The rise of hate-motivated factionalism in the Democratic Party, in fact, is to be expected, given human nature.
Yet, while it is something to be expected, it is also something to be lamented.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:16 AM
Monday, March 20, 2017
161 days until the first class.
I am taking additional steps to preparing myself for a new, more academic, lifestyle. In 148 days, I will switch to being a part-time employee, providing me with 20 extra hours per week to devote to academic pursuits.
This weekend - on an impulse, I bought the desirism.com domain name and set it up as a website. I will be doing some blogging there, and that is where I will be posting my papers for people to read and comment upon.
So, here's the new the new desirism website.
As some have already pointed out . . . the aesthetics is terrible. I am not a designer.
I have a theory of aesthetics that fits in with my overall theory of value. All value relates objects of evaluation to desires (defined broadly to include emotions, sentiments, and the like). Morality evaluates malleable desires according to their relationship with (tendency to fulfill or thwart) other desires. Beauty - or aesthetics - evaluates that which is seen or heard according to their tendency to fulfill desires directly.
It actually takes some knowledge about these relationships to be able to do aesthetics well - and this is something I never studied in any detail. I have been interested, instead, in the relationships between malleable desires and other desires. Consequently, my ability to do aesthetics, or even to judge aesthetics, is poorly developed. And one can see that on the website.
A person who is good at aesthetics has determined, through training and experience (and perhaps a bit of talent) the relationships between those things that are heard or seen and human sentiments or desires. They have acquired an understanding of what will generally cause human approval or disapproval, and they put that knowledge to use in the creation of art, theater, movies, music, buildings, parks, and web sites. It is simply not the case that something that an amateur like myself can put up and have it be done well. As is obviously the case by looking at the desirism site (at least as it exists today).
A person concerned with aesthetics also has to be concerned with usefulness. In my writings, I do devote some effort to those aesthetic elements that help to improve understanding. For example, I have rules that require avoiding large paragraphs. One could ground this on the fact that big, blocky paragraphs look ugly. I ground my decision on the fact that the human brain needs bite-sized pieces of information to digest. I try to create reasonably sized bites to put on the page.
I am generally more concerned with content than appearances, but I do have an interest in aesthetics when it influences the content - or, at least, the user's ability to understand that content.
I am not denying that appearances matter. In fact, I would deny that appearances do not matter. When one creates valuable content, it is still the case that one needs to get eyes onto the content before it can do any good. It's the aestheticist who gets the eyes on the content.
We are told not to judge a book by its cover. However, how else are we supposed to judge a book? We certainly do not have time to read every book and then judge after reading them which are worth reading. We need a way to determine the quality of the book before opening and investing too much time in it. The same is true of a web site or a philosophy paper. (Now you see why I have given short descriptions of my papers on the web sites - so that people can judge whether the content seems worth reading without a huge investment of time.)
If somebody wants to give me aesthetic advice, then I would be pleased to get it. This would count as one of those cases, such as those I discuss in my writing, concerning a harmony of interests. In my writings, I frequently illustrate my points with a reference to the harmony of desires between Alph, with a desire to gather stones, and Bett, with a desire to scatter stones. These desires work well together, and provide an argument for the conclusion that, in some areas at least, we do not want everybody to value the same thing.
There could be a harmony of desires here between me - with my interest in content - and somebody else - with an interest in aesthetics.
I am not that person - and doubt that I have the time or inclination to become that person.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:54 AM
Friday, March 17, 2017
163 days until the first class.
I am feeling the tug between moral theory and practical moral philosophy.
I have a strong sense that moral theory, though interesting, is of limited practical value. All of the various theories floating about have had little impact on the way that people actually debate moral issues. To have an impact on substantive issues one has to actually apply the theory to those issues. Yet, the very tension I feel is the tension between working on the theory and working on the practical application.
Those who look through the desirism group see the difference when I post something on a substantive moral issue. I generally preface these posts with something like, "This is an application of desirism. However, if this posting contains any errors, this does not necessarily imply that there is a problem with desirism. Making this inference would be like claiming that, because somebody made a mistake in adding a column of numbers, that this calls the whole practice of addition into question. A better explanation can likely be found by looking at whether the author applied the principles correctly."
There are two issues of practical value that I would like to write on. One is the bigotry exhibited by the Trump administration. This is embodied in his hate-mongering; giving emphasis to crimes committed by immigrants in order to promote a hostility towards (hatred of) immigrants to make unjust and bigoted legislation against them "feel" legitimate. The other is on the topic of intellectual recklessness, using as an example the Trump Administration's attitudes towards climate change.
But now I have an additional time constraint since I want to get a paper done for this Philosophy pseudo-class I am taking written on time. And that, as it turns out, is a paper on moral theory. Though I am trying to squeeze some practical moral philosophy into it by applying the theoretical elements under discussion to bigotry in general and the American civil war more specifically. The way this paper is starting to turn out, it is almost shaping up to be addressing the question, "Could moral knowledge have averted the Civil War?" Or, "Was the Civil War caused by a moral mistake?" Or, "Was the Confederacy objectively wrong?"
The answer to all of these questions is "yes," by the way. The Confederacy was objectively wrong. An understanding of moral facts in the Confederate states and a willingness to do what was right would have saved a lot of lives and prevented a lot of slavery.
At the same time, the Union was not as objectively right as it could have been.
Still, I am bothered by the fact that I do not have the time to write up a couple of practical moral issue papers on the Trump Administration's bigotry and intellectual recklessness.
On the issue of intellectual recklessness, we have the decision to stop all efforts on stopping or even studying climate change as a waste of money.
Imagine being a passenger on the Titanic. The lookouts have just shouted, "ICEBERG! DEAD AHEAD!" Upon hearing this, the Captain says, "You're fired! Get down off of there." He then commands, "Full speed ahead."
This is the type of negligence that, in the world of everyday people, would be declared criminal. Those who practice such negligence would be deemed deserving of punishment - and harsh punishment at that. It is only in the halls of political power that a person can engage in this level of negligence without facing legal ramifications. But this does not mean that the rest of us will not suffer the harms that the laws of physics dictate will follow from their actions. Cities will be destroyed. People will die. Others will suffer greatly. And those who cause this will pocket billions of dollars. This time, we're not going to lose a ship load of passengers. We are putting a planet at risk. Some of us may survive in lifeboats, but a number of us are going to perish because of the intellectual recklessness of those in charge.
It is truly a sickening state of affairs.
This actually relates to the issue of slavery as discussed above. I discussed this issue in an earlier post where I compared the intellectual recklessness of the Trump administration with the "theories" of pro-slavery doctor Samuel Cartwright. (See EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, and the Perversion of Science.
On the issue of bigotry, the Trump Administration practice of scapegoating immigrants is perhaps the most morally objectionable public policy since the Jim Crow laws. Trump's executive order commanding the government to focus attention on the crimes committed by immigrants is like a government order commanding law enforcement officials to draw additional attention to crimes committed by blacks - only to justify laws, policies, and even private attitudes that are detrimental to their interests.
The relevant term here is "hate mongering".
A site that focuses on the crimes of a particular group can be readily identified as a site belonging to a hate group by this fact alone. Thus, the Trump Administration has turned the U.S. Government websites into those of a hate-group, containing and promoting hate-mongering bigotry.
These are two points that I would be anxious to develop and write about in more detail if I had the time.
But, currently, I am facing a restriction in that I MUST get a paper done on "Bigotry and the Immorality of Moral Sentimentalism" written and polished by May 11.
But, at least I will be posting that paper on the Desirism site.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 11:14 AM
Thursday, March 16, 2017
165 days until the first class.
One of the things that I enjoy doing is imagining possible futures for humanity.
Before I start, I would like to comment that many readers may not like this vision of the future. And, admittedly, I consider it a possibility, not because I consider it ideal, but because I consider it likely. Yet, I do think that such likes and dislikes are cultural and malleable - what we dislike future generations may learn to value. Our likes and dislikes determine our own preferences for our own lives - it is a mistake to think that they identify something of intrinsic value.
As I have written about before, I think that this future involves the colonization of space. I have written about how the material in the asteroid belt, if converted into space cities, can create the equivalent surface area (not land area, but surface area) of 30,000 earths. Of course, this would not be 30,000 space cities the size of earth, but a cloud of millions of space cities orbiting the sun - most of them in the region of the asteroid belt out to the orbit of Jupiter. Jupiter's moons can be harvested to create several million more.
But . . . we actually do not need to go into space to do this. In some of my imaginings, I imagine something similar being done on Earth.
Think about taking 25 square kilometers of desert - largely unused land. Consider adding a second level onto this - a second floor. It can be rather high up; say - 30 meters up (100 feet) with pale blue lighting. And a third floor. And a fourth.
The top floor has a glass roof. It could be used for a recreational park, or for farming, or for a little of both. After all, any of the lower floors could also be used for farming. Compartmentalized, climate control, and free from pests (thus no need for pesticides), it would allow for perfect growing conditions year round. The productivity of 25 square miles of cropland built within the city would be substantially higher than a comparable amount of farmland open to the atmosphere and subject to the natural variations in weather.
Long distance travel - both vertically and horizontally - could be carried out using a type of subway. Seriously, if we can have a town that takes up 25 square miles horizontally, then we can also have a town that can be 25 kilometers high, as long as we provide vertical forms of travel that are approximately as efficient as horizontal forms of travel. That would be over 800 "floors" tall at 30 meters per floor - for a total surface area of nearly 21,000 square kilometers - about the size of New Jersey (which has a population of about 9 million).
This would be a community that fully recycles its water and waste. That's not to say that it would be entirely self-contained. It will still engage in trade - and its participants would engage in travel. There will be a need for imports from other communities and an interest in exporting goods and services.
Ultimately, the one thing that this community would need from the outside is energy - and the best source of energy would be the sun. With respect to space cities, one imagines large solar power stations providing these cities with power from direct, uninterrupted, unfiltered sunlight. Plans exist for solar power satellites beaming their power down to earth.
One of these disadvantages of building such a self-contained city on earth rather than in space is the existence of gravity. The structures on the lower levels would have to hold a great deal of weight. This would be a significant engineering problem. On the other hand, the space city will have to deal with creating artificial gravity and with keeping out cosmic radiation and small asteroids.
In space, the relevant engineering problem could be solved by the use of counter-rotating city sections built inside of an enclosed stone shield about 1 meter thick that would stop cosmic rays and small asteroids. On earth, this would require engineering the structure to support these weights.
Admittedly, gravity also provides advantages - sufficient advantages to justify creating artificial gravity in an orbiting city.
There will be wealthy districts and poor districts, of course - and some parts of the community will be parts that one would be reluctant to visit.
I do wonder about the effects of homelessness. Since the whole city is enclosed and climate control, I wonder if there will be people who are voluntarily homeless in the sense that they have a bed somewhere and little more than that. They would not need to worry about freezing in winter or having rain pour down on them as they struggle through a night. The reason for a home is to have a place to store one's possessions - and some may well decide that they do not have that much to store, or can store what they have in a locker.
I am not actually predicting or advocating that such a thing be built. Instead, I would argue for a transition to something much like this. The next step comes from noticing that, when we have two large sky scrapers next to each other, we can - for much less money than was spent in the construction of either building, create a third building between them that unites the floors on each. Instead of four sky scrapers on each of four city blocks, we get a sky scraper that covers four city blocks. Eventually, we cover eight, twenty, and a hundred.
If there is any lesson to be drawn from this, it is to question the assumption that the future needs to be much like the present. It is a mistake to think that we are confined to conventional cities, conventional farming techniques, and conventional methods of transportation. There are a lot of options available to us. Constraining our imaginings of the future to simply different-looking models of what we say today will almost certainly be inaccurate.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 1:39 PM
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
166 days until the first class.
I have gotten permission from Professor Iskra Fileva on the topic I wrote about in a previous post.
As a reminder - in " "The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments," Jesse Prinz sought to defend "agent-centered sentimentalism" (also known as assessor-relative moral theory) - the view that to say that something is good is to say that the assessor approves of it, and to say that it is bad is to say that the assessor disapproves.
One of the arguments he used was the claim that the moral instruction of children "...conditions the child to experience negative emotions in conjunction with misdeeds."
But, when the parent tells the child that hitting her brother is wrong, the parent is NOT saying, "If you have no aversion to hitting your brother, you would be using moral terms incorrectly if you then said it was wrong." Rather, the parent is saying, "You OUGHT TO have an aversion to hitting your brother; failure to have this aversion makes you a bad person."
So, I am going to write a paper that argues that the arguments Prinz uses in defense of "agent-centered sentimentalism" work much better as arguments in defense of the thesis that praise and condemnation are used to mold sentiments - promoting sentiments (desires and aversions) that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote.
If I can pull this off . . . it could be a substantial defense of a key part of desirism. And I will get the feedback of an academic philosopher who is an expert in the relevant information.
By the way . . . to David Jacquemotte . . . this class has heavily discussed the relevance of empirical psychology to morality. It will include a discussion of some relevant research in the realm of psychology. This is one of the reasons that I asked to be involved in the course, even though I am not a real student yet. Another one of my objectives in this paper will be to address some of the empirical research that the authors we discussed have considered relevant - such as the research of Jonathan Haidt that shows that people use sentiment as a gauge of right and wrong. I know that you have been wanting that . . . at least, if I have interpreted your comments correctly.
In a related issue, as a part of this paper, I want to address the idea of moral internalism versus externalism.
There is an argument in favor of Prinz' form of moral relativism that claims that a person does not use moral terms correctly if he claims that something is wrong but lacks an aversion to performing that action, or says that something is obligatory without being motivated to perform that action.
This is one of the points that I am going to address in the paper.
You see, it may well be the case that a person will not say "X is obligatory" unless he has a reason to encourage people to do X. However, this does not imply that, "I have a reason to encourage people to do X" is a part of its meaning.
It is also the case that a person will not sincerely say, "Y is true," unless the speaker believes Y. However, this does not allow us to draw the conclusion that "I believe that Y" is a part of the meaning of "Y is true". It does not prove that it is not possible for Y to be true in the absence of the agent's belief that Y is true. If I were to sincerely assert Lincoln was president of the United States from 1861 to 1865, it is necessarily the case that I believe that Lincoln was president of the United States from 1861 to 1865 - and I could not sincerely use the claim that this is true if I did not believe it. However, it does not follow from these facts that we do not know what the claim "'Lincoln was president of the United States from 1861 to 1865' is true" means independent of the fact that I believe it. Its truth is independent of my belief in spite of the fact that I could not sincerely assert that it was true unless I believed it.
Similarly, if I were to say "X is obligatory" it may be necessarily the case that I approve of people doing X. However, this does not allow us to draw the conclusion that "I approve of people doing X" is a part of the meaning of "X is obligatory". It does not prove that it is not possible for "X is obligatory" to be true in the absence of my approval of people doing X. If I were to tell my nephew that hitting his younger sister is wrong, it is almost certainly the case that I would not do so unless I disapproved of my nephew hitting his sister. However, it does not follow from the fact that I could not utter the statement sincerely unless I had such a sense of disapproval that my disapproval is a part of the meaning of "hitting your sister is wrong." The truth is independent of my disapproval in spite of the fact that I could not sincerely assert that it is true unless I disapproved.
The reason that disapproval is a part of the sincere claim is that the claim itself is an intentional act. Like the decision to go for a walk, or a decision to have the last slice of chocolate cake, the decision to condemn my nephew is something that I do on purpose. As something that I do on purpose, I must have a reason for my action. Since my action is clearly an action that aims to dissuade my nephew from hitting his younger sister, I would only utter the statement sincerely if I had an attitude of disapproval with respect to my nephew hitting my younger sister. But that does not mean that this attitude is a part of the meaning of "It is wrong for you to hit your younger sister."
In fact, this is also applicable to truth. Stating, "Lincoln was President of the United States from 1861 to 1865" is also an intentional act. As an intentional act, I cannot sincerely assert it unless I had a reason to do so - doing so must serve an interest that I have. In this case, it serves my interest in illustrating a fact about moral internalism versus moral externalism. Yet, the fact that I cannot utter the statement without having a sincere reason to do so, it does not follow that my having such a reason is built into the very meaning of the phrase, "Lincoln was President of the United States from 1861 to 1865" - or that its truth depends on my having a reason to say it.
In short, if we are interested in knowing the meaning of a term or phrase, we are not going to find it in the reasons that people have for expressing it. These types of arguments are not going to support internalism or externalism. The motivations one may have for sincerely uttering a phrase, whether it be "X is obligatory" or "Y is good", are not a part of its meaning.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:46 PM
Monday, March 13, 2017
168 days until the first class.
First . . . I posted "Morality from the Ground Up" on the Desirism site in Facebook over the weekend. For anybody who wants to know the basics of desirism, this is the document for you.
Second . . . I spent the weekend starting my next paper, "Bigotry and the Immorality of Sentimentalism". 2500 words so far.
I am getting to a new point in my work where I am wanting to read and take notes, and this is difficult to do while I exercise. In order to maintain some semblance of physical fitness, I do my philosophy studying while working out on an elliptical exercise machine. Have you ever tried taking entering information into an iPad while elipticalizing at 140 steps per minutes? It isn't easy.
I thought about using a microphone, but I worry about others in the gym looking at me funny.
I am also continuing my studies on the Civil War . . . and noticed an interesting parallel.
When the head of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt denied that CO2 was the cause of global warming, he reminded me a lot of Dr. Samual A. Cartwright.
Dr. Cartwright lived before the civil war, and one of his main contributions to the field of medicine was his presentation of the illness drapetomania. Draptomania is an illness that afflicted black slaves. See, the natural state of a black person was to be in a state of servitude (slavery) to white. However, some blacks had a mental affliction that caused them to want to run away. This was entirely contrary to the nature of blacks and not in their best interests. Cartwright argued that the disease could be prevented by keeping the slave warm, dry, and properly fed, and allowing them to have families. However, once a slave became afflicted with Draptomania, then the only way to cure the disease was to whip the slave was to whip him until he was restored to a proper sense of servitude.
Cartwright's story represents the perversion of science to serve an economic interest. In the years before the civil war, those who profited from slavery subverted the science of medicine to argue that the proper role of the black was to be in a state of servitude. This allowed plantation owners to feel good about the fact that they were, in fact, treating whole populations (about 4 million people) as little more than animals. Indeed, the types of prescriptions that Cartwright argued for were little different from those that one may defend to keep sheep and pigs healthy.
In the case of Scott Pruitt and those like him, we have the perversion of science to allow them to carry on with actions to argue for the legal permissibility of actions that will inflict significant harms on future generations - and even present generations - by poisoning them, destroying their property, and putting them at risk of injury and death. To do this they advance absurd claims, but they use their money and threats of economic hardship to get these views adopted. And, as with Dr. Cartwright, there are always a few scientists who are seduced into adopting the premises that would cause them to see diseases like "draptomania" and the denial of climate change as making sense.
One of the claims that I have often heard from those who defend this perversion of science by those who profit from harmful activity is the claim that, "We are not that evil. How dare you even suggest that we might do such a thing?"
Yet, the history of slavery tells us that human beings - otherwise quite moral and benevolent - can be seduced by perversions of science that protect their profits. It allowed them to enslave millions of blacks 170 years ago, and allows them to poison and otherwise kill and maim humans today and destroy their property - putting whole cities and whole nations at risk of destruction for the sake of a few dollars.
One of the best forms of evidence that one can provide that something is possible is to show that it has actually happened - and the perversion of science in defense of harms as severe as chattel slavery actually happened.
We can also draw parallels to the perversion of science that the tobacco industry paid for - embracing a perversion of science that made them psychologically comfortable with actions that killed and sickened hundreds of millions (billions) of people for the sake of a few dollars.
Indeed, while we may be tempted to identify wars as the greatest cause of human misery, in the last 200 years it has been substantially the perversion of science to protect activities that harm countless individuals profitably as doing far more harm than any war.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 11:58 AM
Saturday, March 11, 2017
169 days until classes start
In my Phil 5100 course, the current reading assignment was Jesse Prinz, "The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments." In this article, Prinz argues for agent-centered moral sentimentalism.
To believe that something is morally wrong (right) is to have a sentiment of disapprobation (approbation) towards it.
However, one of the arguments he uses does not actually support this thesis. It actually does a better job of supporting a rival thesis:
To believe that something is morally wrong (right) is to believe that one should have a sentiment of disapprobation (approbation) towards it.
The argument in question is:
Unlike language, children need a lot of training to conform to moral rules, and parents spend a lot of time giving their children moral instruction. Interestingly, the three main techniques that parents use to convey moral rules all recruit emotions (Hoffman 1983). One technique is power assertion (physical punishment or threat of punishment), which elicits fear. Another technique is called induction, which elicits distress by orienting a child to some harm she has caused in another person (‘Look, you made your little brother cry!’). The third technique is love withdrawal, which elicits sadness through social ostracism (‘If you behave like that, I’m not going to play with you!’). Each technique conditions the child to experience negative emotions in conjunction with misdeeds. This does not prove that emotions are necessary for moral development, but it is suggestive.
None of these techniques teaches the child to look to her own sentiments to determine what is morally right or wrong. That is, they do not teach her that she uses moral terms correctly by looking at her own feelings of disapprobation or approbation.
Instead, they teach her that, to discover the difference between right and wrong, she needs to look for something that is independent of and external to her own sentiments. In one case mentioned in the quote, she needs to look at the fact that her actions made her little brother cry. The mother does not say, "You made your little brother cry, and you have a sentiment of disapproval towards making your little brother cry, and that makes it wrong." The message is, "You made your little brother cry, that makes the action wrong, and you SHOULD HAVE a sentiment of disapproval towards making your little brother cry."
This message is also conveyed in the admonishment, "You should feel ashamed of yourself." The claim is not, "You do feel ashamed of yourself" or - more to the point - "because you feel ashamed of yourself the action was wrong - and that you should not call it wrong unless you have this feeling of disapprobation."
Indeed, why should it be the case that "children need a lot of training to conform to moral rules" if it is the case that "to believe that something is morally wrong (right) is to have a sentiment of disapprobation (approbation) towards it." Children do not need a lot of moral training to have feelings of disapprobation (approbation). They need a lot of moral training to have THE CORRECT feelings of disapprobation (approbation).
Moral training presumes that there is a range of possible sentiments that a child can have - that a child can develop. The job of moral training is to try to direct the set of sentiments that the child acquires towards a set that the child should have.
The techniques that Prinz mentions suggests that we can mold the child's sentiments using reward and punishment, evoking empathy, and ostracism (which is actually a form of punishment) - suggest that we should look to rewards, punishments, and evoking empathy as the proper tools for molding a child's sentiments (shaping a child's character). If what the child suffered from was a defect in belief, we could correct the child's beliefs through more traditional forms of education. However, if what the child suffers is a defect in sentiment, then the relevant forms of instruction would be those expected to have a greater impact on shaping desires, rather than beliefs.
All of this is consistent with Prinz' claim that emotions are necessary for moral development. In order to mold a child's sentiments, the child must have sentiments that can be molded. An inability to alter the child's sentiments would make moral instruction pointless. However, it is not the type of necessity that grounds moral judgments on the sentiments the child or later adult actually has. It is a type of necessity that grounds moral judgments on the sentiments that the child and later adult can have and, of these, a way of determining that some possible sentiments are to be preferred over others.
The next question is: if morality is concerned with having the correct feelings of disapprobation (approbation), how is it that we determine correctness? How do we determine the sentiments a child and later adult SHOULD HAVE, so that we know towards what ends to direct this moral education? This is a future question.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 2:47 PM
Thursday, March 09, 2017
171 days until classes start.
With respect to finishing the long paper, "Morality from the Ground Up," I am on page 31 of 37 in editing. I am in good shape to meet my objective of having this paper formatted and posted by the end of this weekend - even though I will be ROBBED of a whole hour with this daylight savings time absurdity.
At which point I will begin the paper, "Racism and the Immorality of Moral Sentamentalism". Technically, the class syllabus says that the papers are due on May 11.
On this issue of the dispute between rationalism and sentimentalism, I have had a question about the use of "atresia" or "amoralist" as an argument in this debate.
The idea is that it is conceptually possible for somebody to hold that an action is wrong and not be at all moved to perform that action. Is this true or false? Philosophers often refer to David Hume's "sensible knave" - the person who judges that he can obtain some benefit through an immoral act (e.g., murder), who knows murder is immoral, but who feels no reluctance to murder.
Something that I always see clouding this discussion is the possibility of a person who simply has a desire to do the right thing.
Somebody with such a desire will always be moved to do what he judges to be the right thing, but this does not imply that he looks at what he is moved to do to determine what he judges to be right.
Consider, for example, a person with a desire to please God. Such a person will always be moved to do that which he believes would please God. However, this does not imply that he uses what he is moved to do to determine what pleases God. This may be a very common practice. That is to say, we may discover that people look to their own motivation to determine the best interpretation of scripture and, through that, to determine what God commands. Yet, regardless of how widespread this practice is, it still would not follow that what God commands is necessarily that which one discovers one is motivated to do.
In other words, it is not just the conceptual possibility of the sensible knave that the internalist has to worry about. The internalist also has to worry about the possibility of the true moral externalist - the person who has a desire to do the right thing (and, thus, is always moved to do what he thinks is right), but who judges what is the right thing to do from an external source. The moral internalist has to deal with the conceptual possibility of the pious who is always motivated to obey God, but does not look to his motivation to determine what God wants. He must deny the conceptual possibility of the act utilitarian who has a desire to do that which is right, and judges what is right according to what maximizes utility.
Imagining the sensible knave may be quite difficult in a community where people generally do have a desire to do the right thing (or an aversion to doing that which is wrong). However, I do not find it nearly as difficult to imagine the truly devout individual or the sincere act-utilitarian who has a desire to do the right thing (or an aversion to doing that which is wrong), but who looks at something other than their own motivation to decide what the right (or wrong) thing is.
It does not help to point out that the morality of doing what is right is determined by sentiment - the desire to do what is right - because it has no content. A person who has a desire to do that which is right without knowing what is right is like a person looking for a kalmot without knowing what a kalmot is. It does this person no good to define "kalmot" in terms of what the agent is looking for.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 10:18 AM
Wednesday, March 08, 2017
172 days until the start of class
And the philosophy department is starting to post its course offerings for the fall semester. One course posted so far.
PHIL 5240/ENVS 5240: Seminar in Environmental Philosophy: Professor Hale: This course is structured to address underlying theoretical concerns of environmental scientists and policy analysts, as well as to bring environmental philosophers “back down to earth.” As such, it aims to strike a balance between the abstract and the practical. Because of its unique student composition -- approximately one third environmental scientists, one third environmental policy and law students, and one third philosophers -- discussions tend toward “on the ground” issues. They follow a trajectory away from big picture views toward more nuanced analytical philosophy. Nevertheless, all of the readings are firmly rooted in environmental philosophy.
For somebody with some experience in the science of climate change and the economics of negative externalities, this may be an interesting class. We will see what other options are available.
In addition . . .
For the 3rd section on the Philosophy 5100 class, I have done something slightly different. I went through all of the articles assigned for that section to get an overview of the subject matter, then went back to the beginning to study each of the articles in the light of that context.
This next section has to do with the difference between moral rationalism and moral sentimentalism. The first paper in the readings ("Moral Rationalism vs. Moral Sentimentalism: Is Morality More Like Math or Beauty?", Michael B. Gill, Philosophy Compass 2/1 (2007): 16–30) attempted to distinguish between these two sets of moral theories by the analogies they use.
Moral rationalists compare morality to mathematics, where certain truths (e.g., that 2 + 2 = 4 or that it is wrong to kill an innocent person) are known intuitively and must necessarily be true in all cases. There are simply these self-evident moral facts.
Moral sentimentalists compare morality to beauty. They hold that moral claims express the sentiments of the person making them the way that aesthetic claims express . It may not express their immediate sentiments, but the sentiments that the agent would have if fully informed of the matter. However, even in this case, rightness or wrongness depends on the sentiment that the assessor would have in those circumstances.
I object to both of these views.
The moral rationalists postulate a type of reason that does not exist. There is nothing in the real world that commands that we do it - there are only the likes and dislikes that evolution has given us or that we learned through an interaction between our (malleable) brains and our environments.
And the sentimentalist idea goes contrary to the idea of morality. On the sentimentalist view, if I have an attitude of approval of slavery, then slavery is morally permissible. If my brain is so organized that I am comfortable - or even feel obligated - to torture young children then the torture of young children would be permissible, or even obligatory. I object that, while the sentimentalist may well be talking about something that actually happens, it is not something that we would identify as "morality".
I prefer an analogy that is different from each of these. Instead of an analogy to math or to beauty, I compare morality to location.
In virtue of having an aversion to pain, I stand in a particular relationship to states of affairs in which the proposition, "I am in pain" is true. My desire provides me with a reason to prevent the realization of such a state. This relationship - and others like them - are real. One cannot accurately explain or predict the behavior of physical matter in the universe without reference to these relationships between desires and states of affairs. For example, this is the best way to explain the fact that I tend to behave in ways that will prevent the realization of states of affairs in which I am in pain.
Not only are these relationships real, propositions that state that I stand in a particular relationship to such states of affairs are objectively true or false. This is a cognitivist theory of value.
In the case of location, I can know the location of something relative to me. However, I can also know its location relative to something else - or somebody else. I can know where Denver is relative to where I am, and relative to where my brother is. I am not limited to making reports only relative to myself.
The same is true with respect to value. I can know the states of affairs that I have reason to create or prevent - but I can also know the states of affairs that others have reason to create or prevent. Armed with this knowledge, I can purchase my father a gift, or I can prevent my neighbors from inflicting damage on my property. Relationships between states of affairs and desires not my own are very important, in many cases.
Also, when we talk about location, we can talk about the position of aggregates of things. We can talk about such things as the center of mass, the geographic center of the United States, or the barycenter of a solar system. Similarly, when we talk about relationships between states of affairs and desires we can talk about all of the desires of an individual, or the desires of a group of individuals. We can, for example, decide which vacation is the best for the whole family, or come to an agreement as to the toppings to put on a pizza.
In seeing value as a real property concerning the relationships between states of affairs and desires which we can talk about using objectively true propositions, we can further note that we can talk about the value of having particular desires. We can make objectively true statements about the desires that we have reason to promote or to discourage.
This, in turn, allows us to talk about relationships between states of affairs and the desires we should have - the desires that people generally have reason to promote. These claims would also be objectively true or false.
The location analogy gives us what we want from both the math analogy and the beauty analogy. From the beauty analogy, it draws the fact that value claims depend on desires or the affective states of individuals. From the math analogy, we get objectively true or false moral claims that are knowable and can be debated rationally.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 3:27 PM
Tuesday, March 07, 2017
As somebody who cares about rational argument, I dislike it when people use stupid arguments - even when they are defending something that I believe in.
One such stupid argument is a response to this objection against space exploration:
The objection to space exploration goes as follows: "NASA gets $100 million to land a robot on Mars. Please explain to me how that helps the sick and the poor on Earth?"
The stupid response (often delivered in a condescending attitude) is: "Don't you realize that the money is being spent on earth?"
So, responder, are you really telling me that you see no difference between spending $100 million to provide children in impoverished countries with basic nutrition and medical care and spending $100 million to put a rover on Mars?
In both cases, the money gets spent on Earth. However, in one case, in addition to spending $100 million on earth, we also get $100 million spent on feeding children and providing them with basic medical care. And, in the other case, we get a rover on Mars. Do you truly think that these things are equal?
I support space exploration. However, I try not to use stupid arguments to defend it.
A part of my argument is this:
The first is that, of all the things we waste money on, space exploration is pretty far down the list. Let's look at the $600 billion we spend each year on sports, on creating television sitcoms, on jewelry, on island cruises, on eating out in restaurants, on playing computer games. If we spent that money providing food and medical care to sick and starving children, we would have run out of sick and starving children long ago.
And it does no good to complain about the "lost jobs". The jobs lost in the sports, entertainment, jewelry, and restaurant business would be transferred to the "getting children enough to eat and basic medical care" business. And that is not a bad thing.
The second part is that providing poor children with food and basic medical care is not the only thing that matters.
Understanding the effects of our actions on Earth also matters. Any scientist worth his salt will tell you that you can learn little if you only study one example of a planet in trying to determine what planets are like. That is like studying just one child and claiming that one can know everything there is to know about children, or studying just one plant and claiming one can know everything there is to know about planets. To understand the Earth, we have to compare it to other planets - and the planets in our own solar system provide the best source of comparison (though the list of possible comparisons is growing).
Furthermore, the survival of the human race also matters. Right now, we suffer from the "all eggs in one basket" problem. Prudence dictates putting our eggs in multiple baskets. Of course, this implies learning something about possible alternative baskets.
Now, it is my view that a planet is a poor place to build a civilization. I favor cities in space. The material floating in the asteroid belt, if converted to space cities, can build cities equal to 30,000 earths. And since, by far, the most important material needed for building these space cities is mass (as a shield from radiation), almost nothing in space will get wasted in this instruction. However, there are merits to putting some of those eggs on Mars and, from this, there is a reason to study Mars.
These are my arguments. But these arguments do not defeat the claim that providing poor children with food and basic medical care is important - and may be a better use of the money. Yet, there are huge pools elsewhere that there are far more reasons to draw from. How about . . . the next time a city puts up a bond to build a $300 million sports stadium, they put out a bond to provide poor children with food and basic medical care instead.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:07 AM
174 days until classes start.
I thought of the opening sentence to my Phil 5100 paper.
"If sentimentalism provides the correct account of morality, we can aspire to the day in which morality ceases to exist - when we have rooted it out of every corner of civilization and eliminated it."
Of course, the absurdity of such a statement will be my argument that sentimentalism is not the correct account of morality.
The title of the paper will be, "Racism and the Immorality of Sentimentalism." I will use racism as an example of how sentimentalism fails. Sentimentalism provides an easy defense of racism such that, for the same reasons we have to eliminate racism, we have similar reasons to eliminate sentimentalism.
Specifically, using racism as an example, I want to argue that there is a difference between the sentiments one has and the sentiments one should have. When I tell my neighbor that racism is immoral, I am not saying that he has a sense of the injustice if treating the different races differently. In fact, I am willing to admit that it might not be true. He likely has a sense that his race is superior - that the other race is inferior.
I want to draw some support for this from my studies of the South before the civil war.
The Southern sentiment prior to the civil war was that slavery was a perfectly legitimate institution and that white supremacy was the natural order of the universe. In nine states in the 1860 election, Lincoln got 0 votes. The south was outraged to the point of war that northerners would try to impose on them a level of equality between whites and blacks.
These types of facts, I would hold, create significant problems for sentimentalism.
There is a similar question regarding morality and motivation. There is a view called "moral internalism" that holds that a person does not use a moral term correctly unless they are moved to do that which they say is required, or moved not to do that which they say is prohibited.
This view runs across two problems. One of these is that it leads to the conclusion, "If I am not moved to do X, then it is not required," and "If I am not moved to avoid X, then it is not prohibited." As in, "Since I am not moved to free black slaves or to give them a measure of social equality, then the claim that I am obligated to do so is mistaken."
Yet a third related view is moral rationalism. "To say that it is wrong for me to do X is to say that it is somehow irrational for me to do X." Doing X, on this account, is contrary to reason. Yet, here, too, it follows that, "If it is rational for me to do X then it is moral for me to do X" or, at least, "If it is not irrational for me to refrain from doing X then it is not immoral for me to refrain from doing X." As in: "If it is rational for me to be a plantation owner with a few hundred slaves, then it is morally permissible for me to be a slave owner with a field full of slaves."
This leads to the same conclusion. If sentimentalism (moral internalism) accurately describes morality, then we have reason to aspire to the time when sentimentalism (moral internalism) has been eliminated.
However, an objection grounded on these facts might be accused of being circular. Does my argument not presume the objective wrongness of slavery?
I need to provide an alternative account that does a better job at explaining the observations that does not beg any questions. That "better alternative" holds that morality is not determined by the sentiments one has, but on the sentiments that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause one to have.
The fact that somebody lacks a reason to give blacks equality does not prevent it from being the case that blacks have many and strong reasons to give him a reason to grant equality. The way to "give somebody a reason" to do something or to refrain from something is to use the tools of reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation).
We have many and strong reasons to aspire to the day when sentimentalism has been rooted out and eliminated from all corners of human society. However, by definition, we do not have many and strong reasons to aspire to the day when reward and punishment are no longer used to give people reasons to refrain from activities harmful to others, or to engage in activities beneficial to others.
Sentimentalism is not the correct view of morality. A view that looks, not at the sentiments a person has, but at the sentiments that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause a person to have, does a much better job.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:04 AM
Monday, March 06, 2017
175 days until the first class.
I am pushing to finish “Morality from the Ground Up”. Currently, the document is 22,000 words. (Typed, double space, with standard margins, this means about 88 pages.) I promised to have this formatted and posted by the middle of March, and I think I am on track to do this. I am about 70% of the way through editing the document, after which I need to add title pages and a TOC and I can put it up on the Desirism site.
Then I focus my attention on my next such project – for the Contemporary Moral Theory course that I am somewhat taking this semester.
The reading assignments that I went through over the weekend have sharpened my focus on what this paper will be about. The title will be, “The Immorality of Sentamentalism”.
Sentamentalism is a type of moral theory that states that moral judgments are expressions of an agent’s sentiments. Basic sentimentalism asserts that there is little more to a moral assertion than a claim about an agent’s sentiment that an action is right or wrong. More complex versions of sentimentalism hold that rightness or wrongness is determined by the sentiment that an agent would have towards an object of evaluation under if one had full and accurate information and employed sound reasoning.
David Hume provides examples of both types of sentimentalism.
The following is an example of basic sentimentalism:
When you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.
Here, an expression of rightness or wrongness is nothing but an expression of one’s attitude towards it.
However, Hume elsewhere presents us a more elaborate idea of wrongness. In order to accurately judge something as wrong, one must:
Learn all of the relevant facts about that which one is evaluating. For example, it may appear to be the case that one person struck another but, on examination, one may discover that the blow came accidentally or from another person entirely.
Use the imagination and remove any harm or benefit one may obtain from a verdict one way or another. For example, one may be able to step into a job that would be left vacant if a competitor is declared to be a wrongdoer, but one should not allow their potential benefit to cloud one’s judgment in this or any other case.
Use the imagination to remove any thought of harm or benefit to others one cares about – such as to one’s children or one’s close friends. These two might cloud an individual’s judgment.
Include all relevant facts about human nature such as what a person can normally be expected to know or conclude from a set of evidence.
On this account, to judge something wrong is to judge that one would have a sentiment of disapproval if one had performed all of these tasks responsibly even if, before doing so, one’s initial attitude was something entirely.
In my paper, I am going to argue that the claim that this accounts for the meaning of moral terms is false. It is, in fact, a bit arrogant to think that one’s own sentiment determines what is right and wrong for all of humanity – as if everybody on the planet has a duty to appease the sentiments of the assessor.
Furthermore, even if this were an accurate account of the meaning of moral terms, this would only imply that the practice of morality is something that people generally have many and strong reasons to abandon – and to condemn anybody who engages in the practice of ‘morality’.
Yet, the absurdity of claiming that morality is something that people generally have reason to condemn is so internally inconsistent (yet, it is true of sentimentalism), that sentimentalism cannot possibly provide an accurate account of morality.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:29 AM
Friday, March 03, 2017
178 days until first class.
I am currently working on editing "Morality from the Ground Up" - my attempt to provide a primer for desirism.
My goal is to have a draft posted on the Desirism group in Facebook on or before March 12.
Then, I am going to focus my attention on the pseudo-paper that I am writing for the Phil 5100 class that I am pretending to take this semester. I am currently planning on the role of emotion (desire, passion, sentiment) in moral belief.
The relationship is somewhat complex.
The practice of determining the morality of an action directly from emotions is flawed. It does not follow from the fact that "I have an averse emotional reaction to the thought of a homosexual relationship" that "homosexual relationships are wrong", any more than "I have an averse emotional reaction to the thought of interracial relationships" implies "interracial relationships are wrong". Regardless of how common this line of thought happens to be, it is not a valid form of moral argument.
At the same time, emotion (desire, passion, sentiment) is an essential component of intentional action. Whenever we act, we do so by measuring our emotional attachment to the two actions and their consequences, and this determines what we want most to do.
There is, of course, a distinction between appealing to one's emotions to determine what to believe and appealing to one's emotions in deciding what to do.
The problem is that, when we asked a moral question, that question can come to us in two forms.
We could interpret the question as asking, "What would you do in this circumstance?" Answering this question requires an appeal to emotion - it is a question that is answered by answering the question, "Which option do you like the most?"
We could also interpret the question as asking, "What do you believe people should do in this circumstance?" Beliefs, of course, should not be grounded on emotion. Though a belief can, in contrast, be a belief about emotions.
However, all of us . . . or . . . most of us . . . like to believe that what we would do in a given circumstance is what a person should do in that circumstance. If somebody believes that he is a good person, then she will believe that she can get an accurate reading on what a person should do in a given circumstance by looking at what she would do in that circumstance. This practice appears to be fairly common.
In fact, if somebody actually is a good person, then determining what she would do in a given circumstance will actually tell her what a person should do in that circumstance. Looking at what she would do would be an accurate thermometer. There would be no problem in claiming that she knows the truth of the proposition "what should a person do in these circumstances" by knowing what she would do in those circumstances.
This relates to another complexity regarding the relationship between emotion and moral truth. A true statement about what a person should do in a given circumstance is a statement about what a good person, examining her emotions, would do under those circumstances. It is, in part, a belief that takes emotions as their object - a belief that is, in part, a belief about the emotions that will guide a good person's actions.
Given these relationships between true moral belief and emotion-based intentional action, it is little wonder that there is a lot of confusion about these relationships. There is little wonder that people, who often appeal to emotion to decide what they would do in a given circumstance, confuse this with determining the truth of a proposition about what a person should do in a given circumstance. These are not the same thing. Though, in a good person, they would yield the same answers.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 11:17 AM
Thursday, March 02, 2017
179 days until the first class.
Last Thursday, February 23, I was able to attend one of the Philosophy 5100 class sessions. In that session, two topics came up that interest me. The professor asked our opinion of what we thought of the relationship between neuroscience and moral philosophy, and we discussed the distinction between "harming and not-helping".
Well, I have decided to write a lengthy email answering those topics - one that presents some of the core ideas of desirism.
I have included a copy of that email below. Or, at least a first draft. As is usually the case, once I think about it some, I may make some changes, but this is how things stand so far:
[I]At the last class I was able to attend, you asked two questions. I would like to give a somewhat detailed answer to both of those questions, as my answers are related.
One question concerned the relevance of neuroscience to moral philosophy.
I think that neuroscientists are looking in the wrong place. Instead of looking at the causes of our moral judgments, they really should be looking at the effects. In this, they should be focused specifically on the effects of reward and punishment, and praise and condemnation.
I have answered this question about the relevance of the studies we have examined in this course in an earlier email. There, I argued that, if I were to take some random people off the street and ask them to give their opinion on whether human activity increased greenhouse gas emissions and the effect of those emissions on global climate, I would likely learn quite a bit about how the brain works. However, I would be making a significant mistake if I were to call myself a climatologist and claim that my research allowed me to actually help answer the question, "Does human activity contribute to global warming?"
Similarly, brain scans concerning the formation of moral beliefs are not relevant to whether those beliefs are true or false.
A critic could complain that I am being rash in assuming that that moral claims can be true or false in the same way that climate claims can be true or false. However, I would counter that my opponents are being rash in assuming that they are different. Their investigations beg this very question; they assume that the study of the formation of moral beliefs is the same the study of morality itself.
I do not want to claim that neuroscience is irrelevant. In fact, I believe that it can be relevant. However, the neuroscience that we have been discussing is looking in the wrong place. The useful information that neuroscience can provide does not come from the study of the causes of moral judgments, but from the study of their effects (or the effects of their expressions).
I hope to get away with simply asserting that reward and punishment are core components of morality. This relationship becomes stronger if I can make the additional assertion that praise functions as a reward and that condemnation functions as a type of punishment. The question, “What is morally right/wrong?” is at least overlaps with the question, "What do we have reason to reward or punish; to praise or condemn?"
Neuroscience can provide us with useful information about the effects of reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation) on the brain and, from there, on behavior. This, in turn, can be used to determine what we have reason to reward or punish.
Philosophers and others have focused a lot of attention on one of the affects of reward and punishment. This concerns the use of rewards to provide incentives, and the use of punishment to provide deterrence. In a situation where Agent1 has a "desire that P", and Agent2 has a "desire that Q", Agent1 can offer Agent2 a bargain of the form, "If you help me realize P, then I will help you realize Q.” Alternatively, Agent1 can say, "If you do not help me in realizing P - or if you interfere in my attempts to realize P - then I will prevent you from realizing Q."
I think it is important to note that these types of bargains often have nothing to do with morality. They include such things as, "I will give you $20 if you will let me have that book," and "If you do not give me $20, then I will not let you have this book." If we are going to characterize morality in terms of this use of reward and punishments, then we are going to have to find what distinguishes standard bargains from morality.
I think that neuroscience can be relevant in the study of another set of potential effects of reward and punishment. This involves their use in molding the desires and aversions of agents - in creating reasons to perform certain actions and avoiding others for their own sake, and not for the sake of obtaining a reward and avoiding a punishment.
Rewards and punishments activate the mesolimbic pathway. Briefly, the mesolimbic pathway begins at the ventral tegmental area, transmits to the nucleus accumbens, and from there to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, in turn, seems to be responsible for conforming behavior to social norms. Damage to this area tends to interfere with an agent's ability to conform behavior to social norms.
The idea here is that this system takes rewards and punishments (and praise and condemnation) and uses them to extrapolate a set of social rules of behavior and provides the motivation to conform one's behavior to those standards. This function can be compared to the way the auditory system takes sounds and, from them, extrapolates the meanings of terms and rules of grammar – and conforms writing and speech (more or less) to those meanings and rules.
If this is accurate, it invites us to ask the question, “What social norms do we have reason to cause people to have?"
This, in turn, invites the question, "What do we have reason to reward or punish – or praise or condemn?"
For example, I think that it would be easy to argue that people generally have reasons to promote aversions to act-types such as lying, breaking promises, taking property without consent, vandalism, assault, rape, and murder. People generally have many and strong reasons to prefer to be surrounded by people who have these attitudes, meaning that people generally have many and strong reasons to use rewards and punishment (including praise and condemnation) to create and shape those attitudes.
At this point, I want to look at the points raised in the class discussion on Krum mentioned in “Moral Intuitions, Cognitive Psychology, and the Harming-versus-Not-Aiding Distinction.”
Before examining the distinction between harming and not-aiding, I would like to look at a more mundane attitude - the aversion to personal pain as distinct from the aversion to the pain that others experience as their own.
Imagine that some sort of omnipotent being were to use its powers to cause a person to feel everybody’s pain as if it were theiri own. That is not to say that it would have the same qualia, but that it’s relief would generate the same sense of urgency. One would be as concerned about the person with third degree burns over 70% of its body as one would be about third degree burns over 70% of one’s own body. At the same time, one would feel the same urgency to end the pain of the dissident in a distant prison being tortured, each and every person passing a kidney stone, and every hunger pang of every starving child.
Ultimately, it would be unendurable. We are clearly dealing with an unrealistic “science fiction” story – and a situation that will find no place in real human societies.
The suggestion that we adopt the same attitude towards killings – whether natural or human-made – that we would have to our own acts of killing is as unrealistic as the suggestion that we have the same attitudes towards pains as we have towards our own pain. The same can be said about adopting the same attitude towards all broken promises as one would adopt towards breaking a promise, or towards the punishment of an innocent person that one would adopt towards punishing an innocent person. In all cases, we can expect the sense of importance in not being the author of such an event to significantly exceed the importance of preventing such an event.
To tie this discussion in with the previous discussion, I would like to ask about the use of reward and punishment to promote an aversion to the existence of lying, as opposed to an aversion to lying.
The latter aversion can be brought about by punishing (which includes condemning) the person who lies and praising those who are honest. In contrast, the former aversion would require punishing everybody for every lie that is told. We can follow the first prescription easily enough. However, the latter would have every one of us under a cloud of permanent condemnation and punishment. Human societies are too large and complex to expect that we can bring about a state of affairs in which, in spite of our best efforts, there are not lies to condemn people for.
One could object that the condemnation and punishment would be applied only to killings (pains, lyings, punishings of the innocent, breaking of promises) that one can prevent. However, it does not work this way for one’s own pain. I do not just have an aversion to those of my own pains that I can prevent (though I have sometimes wished this were the case).
The aversion to all pains provide motives to research ways to prevent in the future those pains that cannot be prevented today. In fact, it is the aversion to pain itself that motivates the hunt for ways to prevent it. if I only had an aversion to pains that I could not prevent, this would likely motivate me to engineer an environment in which I lacked the ability to prevent many pains – thus ridding myself of my aversion to them.
We would need a comparable aversion to the pains of others, including those we cannot prevent, to motivate us to look for ways to prevent those pains with the same urgency that we hunt for ways to avoid our own. Similarly, we would need an aversion to all killings, lyings, punishings of the innocent, and breaking of promises that is comparable to our own aversion to killing, lying, punishing the innocent, and breaking promises to motivate us to hunt for ways to prevent these other sources of harm.
To make a long story short, I think that the neuroscience would show that the capacity to use rewards (including praise) and punishments (including condemnation) to create aversions to killing, lying, breaking promises, and causing pain to be significantly different from our capacity to use these tools to promote aversions to killings, lyings, breakings of promises, and pains everywhere.
If neuroscientists were to focus on the effects of moral judgments (particularly the use of reward, punishment, praise, and condemnation), they may find some of the reasons why we have gotten into the habit of using some moral judgments rather than others.[/I]
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:50 AM