Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Trump and the Loss of Virtue

I fear that one of the biggest long-term costs of the Trump reign as President is going to be the loss of virtue.

The moral foundation of our society had to have some serious cracks in it anyway for Trump to have even been considered for the office of President.

Many people predicted that Trump's campaign would be over at several points in the primary. When they showed Trump's lies, they thought that this would cause people to reject his campaign. When they showed his fundamental ignorance of facts that it would be important for a President to understand, they though this would be the end of his campaign. When he engaged in bullying, they thought that this would cause American voters to reject his campaign. When his history of sexual assault and recordings of him embracing and defending sexual assault as a legitimate practice came to light, many thought that this would spell the end of his campaign.

In all of these cases, pundits grounded their predictions on assumptions regarding the virtues of American voters. All of these predictions that the voters are going to reject Trump were built on the assumption that the number of good and decent American people so greatly outnumber those that are so lacking in virtue and good character themselves that they would vote for Trump.

I am not writing here about a distinction between the "virtuous Democrat" and the "vicious Republican" - which is a display of tribalism that itself goes contrary to virtue. I am talking about the view of the Republican party and the Republican voters themselves. The error was in assuming that there was enough virtue among those who vote Republican to keep the likes of Trump out of the office of President. Trump's continued success - the fact that he repeatedly proved that these pundits were wrong - means that he repeatedly proved assumptions about the virtue and moral character of American voters (or the strength and distribution of virtue among American voters) were inaccurate.

Not only did Trump prove that this assumption made by several pundits was mistaken, he also proved that this assumption - held by people around the world about the American people - were wrong. Those who held the American people generally in high regard now have to confront the falsifying evidence that people who deserve to be held in high regard would not have voted the likes of Trump to be President. The possibility of Americans electing such a person is no longer merely a hypothetical. It is an established fact. There is no way now to deny the conclusion that the moral character of Americans is such that they would elect somebody like Donald Trump. If any American would want to deny that this is true of Americans, they now only need to point at the White House.

But, to make matters worse, Trump is like a seed that has found its way into the crack in the wall or foundation of a building. Now that it has taken root, it grows. In growing, it pushes the walls of this crack further apart - doing further damage to the foundation.

Future generations are going to have to deal with a group of teenagers who grew up in this environment of blatant dishonesty, disregard for fact, racism, and injustice. Attempts to tell children that they should be honest are countered every day by a President who refuses to tell the truth and who is not condemned for his dishonesty. Attempts to tell children that they should treat others with dignity and respect are countered every day by a President who is celebrated for his indignant disrespect for others. Attempts to teach children to be morally responsible and to consider the consequences of their actions on others are countered each day by a president who is morally irresponsible and fails to consider the consequences of his actions on others even to the point of nuclear war.

So, the cracks in the moral foundation of American society are made worse by those who learn from Trump that honesty, decency, justness, respect for others, and moral responsibility are mere words to be ignored when inconvenient or, worse, to be tossed out in favor of dishonesty, indecency, injustice, contempt for others, and moral irresponsibility. People who find themselves in a society filled with these type of people cannot expect to live nearly as well as those who are surrounded by honest, decent, just, respectful, and morally responsible individuals. There will be a cost to pay.

Now, one of the vices that Trump promulgates - one of the vices he is promoting among the American people and, in particular, among its teenagers and young adults (particularly those who are being raised in a culture that supports and celebrates trump) is a disregard for women.

Fortunately, on this front, enough women - and enough people who care about women - are saying, "No. We will not accept this. We will not let this happen and suffer the consequences ourselves, nor allow our daughters, nieces, and friends' children and grandchildren suffer the effects of this change in attitude. While Trump effectively promotes a sexist disregard for women - an attitude that they exist to be used and manhandled - women are pushing back with the #metoo movement - spreading the message that this is not alright and that those who promote or engage in this type of behavior deserve contempt, not admiration. In this one area, we see a well deserved and overdue pushback, bringing home that future generations will be less likely - not more likely - to adopt Trump's vice.

Granted, I have not conducted an empirical study on this matter, but I have not seen the same level of pushback on several of Trump's other vices. Perhaps this must be the case. There is only so much "attention" bandwidth, and if that attention is now on the poor treatment of women by men with power, then perhaps some of these other vices need to wait their turn.

However, if it is true, it does not bode well for future generations. Because while decent people counter vices one at a time, the likes of Trump continue to promote a whole battery of vices all at once. How do we get the children growing up today to learn that such things as dishonesty and moral irresponsibility are not good things? How do we get them to acquire the virtues of honesty, to treat others with dignity and respect, and morally responsible in a world that gives the absence of these virtues a nearly free pass?

Our children will not fare well in a culture that lacks these virtues.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Economics: Wealth Without Money

Economics is also known as "the science of value". However, it fails miserably.

Before I explain that statement, I should let you know that my current project is taking the six Darwinian Dilemma posts (Street 01-06) and turning into the paper that I intend to post on the Documents page of the Desirism website.

While I did that, I wanted to step out of the realm of theory here for a moment, and into the realm of practice or practical application.

These ideas on wealth have been with me for quite some time, and I have simply decided to put them down.

Economists tell us that we need to determine a person's wealth by the total cash value of everything that he owns - its cash value being what other people are willing to pay for them. A person's income is the total amount of money he gets a year from all sources - gifts, wages, interest, realized capital gains (or losses).

Each week, I consume a huge quantity of goods for which I am not charged a cent, and I am only asked to pay what I wish. At the same time, I produce a number of goods for which I have obtained no money myself except from the sale of A Better Place back when I named the theory I defended here "desire utilitarianism".

An honorable mention for those who have provided me with valuable goods and services for the price of a donation:

Mike Duncan for his History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts.

Rick and Tracy, who provide the Civil War podcast.

Russ Roberts of Econ Talk

The London School of Economics for podcasting the school's Public Lectures and Events.

And, of course, there is Wikipedia and a huge amounts of information found on government web sites.

Because a huge amount of my week is spent on these activities in which I receive no pay and ask for nothing from others for what I produce, I am not a part of "the economy". This effort shows up in no government statistics on wealth or income.

And this is just an illustrative example.

Spend one day, going through your day, and consider the wealth you create for others, and the wealth provided to you by others, for which no money has changed hands.

This blogpost (I hope) is an example.

Indeed, this fact shows how to become wealthier without money. Acquire a desire for states of affairs that you can realize without spending money - which is pretty much what I have done. I can go for days without buying anything but the necessities . . . and, I would admit, a somewhat higher quality of those necessities - food, clothing, shelter (with heat), internet connection.

If the rest of your desires are those that require money, then you are going to be in for a bit of a struggle.

If, instead, they are desires for things that one can get without money, then one can be quite wealthy (in terms of having one's strongest desires fulfilled) without a great deal of cash.

The economists are going to tell you that you cannot be wealthy unless you have assets that can be converted into cash money. This is the only type of "wealth" that an economist can see. But you should not let this corrupt your thinking. If you read this and take from it the attitude that, "I am poor . . . I am not well off . . . my life has less value . . . because I have not accumulated that which can be turned into cash," you are doing yourself a disservice.

The economists are going to tell you that other people cannot be wealthy unless they have "stuff" - that which can be converted into cash. But that is not the actual measure of wealth - of value. Value is found in that which fulfills desires. Desires are malleable, and there are a great many desires out there that one can fulfill at very little expense.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Street 06: Acquired Ends

In my last posting, The Value of Individual and Species Survival I argued that it is unlikely that our ancestors evolved to have a natural "desire that I survive" or "desire that the species survive". This is unlikely because, until very recently, humans did not have the ability to recognize their own death, or species survive, in order to recognize the relationships between means and those ends.

We might have started to evolve such a natural end since we acquired the ability to recognize these ends. However, even if this is the case, these are two ends among many - such as the desire to eat, desire for sex, aversion to pain, concern for the welfare of our offspring - all of which can come into conflict with the desire for survival at any time (and often do). Observations show that the desire for survival, if it exists, seems to be quite weak then this end conflicts with the others.

Having said that, it is clear that among humans and among, at least, complex mammals, natural ends are not the only ends we have. We have the capacity to acquire new ends - new desires and aversions - as well as experience some modification to our natural ends (e.g., food preferences) based on our interactions with our environment. We can come to want things, not because wanting them helped our ancestors maintain biological fitness, but because of experiences we had while growing up in a particular environment.

This possibility of acquired ends adds some complexity to my discussion of Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value" that I have been presenting in this series of posts. In those posts, I divided Sharon's Street's "evaluative judgments" into two sets: (1) desires-as-ends or "Y is good in itself" judgments, and (2) desires-as-means or "the end Y is a reason to do X" judgments. I argued that Street's Darwinian Dilemma applies to Type (1) judgments. Type (2) judgments have a truth value and it is useful that we evolved a capacity to track those truths. However, Type (2) judgments still depend crucially on Type (1) judgments so the Darwinian Dilemma applies to Type (2) truths indirectly. Evolution provides the set of ends Y that provide the reasons for doing X.

The possibility of acquired ends means that there is a set of Type (1) goods that do not come to us through evolution.

However, they do come to us through a mechanism that, itself, evolved. Because evolution shaped this mechanism, we may assume that evolution has selected a mechanism that takes experience with one's environment and converts them into learned or acquired ends that tend to promote fitness. For example, eating a particular type of plant makes one sick. After eating such a plant, one associates even the smell of that plant with the nausea and comes to dislike the smell itself. The animal does not smell the plant and think, "I had better not eat the plant with that smell because that will make me sick." Indeed, that requires far too much mental work. Instead, the animal dislikes the smell itself and, upon experiencing the smell, goes someplace else to eat - just to get away from that smell.

The existence of acquired ends blurs the distinction between Type (1) judgments and Type (2) judgments. On the one hand, they are ends. The animal in this example sees the state in which it does not experience the smell of that plant as an end in itself - it has reason to prevent the realization of such a state simply in virtue of the fact that it does not like it. At the same time, since acquired ends are learned, we can ask whether - in a Type (2) sense, there are reasons to acquire or to prevent the acquisition of these ends.

Assume that the consumption of a particular plant causes one to have a particularly strong Type (1) desire to consume more of that plant. This new acquired end is so strong it quickly overwhelms other desires such as the desire for sex or the desire to eat, threatening the survival of the animal. In such a case, the fulfillment of these other ends provide a reason not to acquire, as an end, the desire to consume this particular plant.

If one exists in an environment containing other beings with the capacity to acquire learned ends, then this is something that individuals can exploit. An individual can create in others dispositions that are useful, either to the individual, or the species to which the individual belongs. A bee sting may kill the individual bee who delivers the sting, but it creates in beings that have the potential for acquired desires a disposition to avoid those entities that are like the bee giving the sting. If a member of a pack responds to the behavior of another with snarls and a swipe across the nose, that will tend to cause that other animal to form an aversion to the type of act that brought about this response.

This technique is more effective in a community that can learn from the fortunes and misfortunes of another. Swipe and snarl at the creature that performed the obnoxious action, and others who witness it may also form an aversion to the type of action that caused the agent to get the swipe across the nose.

More sophisticated creatures, to the degree that it comes to realize that it is within a community that has acquired desires, can begin to ask, "What sort of desires should I cause others to have?" This points to the existence of Type (2) reasons to bring about - or to prevent - the acquisition, of certain Type (1) desires. Furthermore, even though it makes no sense to ask this question of fixed Type (1) desires insofar as they are fixed, it does make sense to apply this question to Type (1) desires if they have some flexibility.

Consider the following possibility:

There is a community where the following is true:

(1) Each member of the community has a natural, evolved, Type (1) aversion to its own pain.

(2) Each member of the community can acquire an aversion to causing pain to others as a result of interactions with its environment. Specifically, by rewarding and praising those individuals who avoid causing pain to others, and punishing or condemning those who cause pain, one can create in others an aversion to causing pain to others.

Each being in this community has a motivating reason - their own aversion to pain - to use these tools to bring about, universally, an aversion to causing pain to others. This aversion to causing pain to others is an end - a Type (1) value. However, it is a value where the individuals in the community have discovered a truth-bearing fact about its relationship to other desires, such as each individual's aversion to pain, which gave them reason to create and promote this aversion to causing pain.

Such is the nature of acquired desires, at least among the types of animals that we are familiar with.

This is consistent with Street's claim:

The widespread consensus that the method of reflective equilibrium, broadly understood, is our sole means of proceeding in ethics is an acknowledgment of this fact: ultimately, we can test our evaluative judgements only by testing their consistency with our other evaluative judgements, combined of course with judgements about the (non-evaluative) facts.

We can ask whether people generally have reason to bring about certain changes in the desires-as-ends of others in the community universally. However, this question never steps outside of the realm of evolved ends. It is these evolved ends that provide the reasons to promoting or inhibiting the formation of acquired ends.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Street 05: The Value of Individual and Species Survival

This post in the series does not need a lot of background, because it makes a stand-alone point.

I am going to argue that animals generally - probably (though not certainly) including humans - do not have a natural desire for personal survival or, even less likely, a desire for species survival. Personal survival have value mostly as a means to other ends. In order to realize the other things that we value, we need to continue living, in the same way that we need money. The well-being of our children, which for them will require the well-being of their children, and so on, come to imply an interest in the survival of the species. Neither of these are identical to valuing survival or the continuation of the species for their own sake.

In order to evolve to have a desire for (or aversion) to something, the being in question has to be able to detect when such a state of affairs obtains. A creature knows when it is in pain and when it is not, and because of this can acquire an aversion to pain. It knows about different things that it can eat, and thus can acquire a preference to eat come things and an aversion to eating others. It can sense the temperature in its environment and adopt a preference for certain temperatures and aversions to others.

However, no animal other than human has the ability to know when a creature is a dead. It cannot acquire a desire "that I survive" because it does not understand the possibility of not surviving.

The case is even worse when it comes to the end of "survival of the species." It is not unreasonable to expect that humans acquired the ability to recognize individual survival or death long before it learned to identify the possibility of the continued existence or extinction of a species. Even if there has been enough time in human evolution for us to have acquired an aversion to death, there has been much less opportunity to acquire an aversion to extinction.

The implication is that for all non-human animals and, unless we have evidence to the contrary - for humans as well, survival of the individual and continuation of the species are not ends. These are the unintended side-effects of other ends.

They are important unintended side effects because these unintended side effects determine whether the species exists today for us to look at. That is to say, we only see species whose evolved desires-as-ends promote genetic fitness. However, all that is required for evolution is the production of these effects, not that the agent consciously aim for what it cannot even recognize.

Clearly, it is not the case that we eat in order to survive. Obesity and a tendency to eat things that will shorten our life tells us that. We have evolved to have a desire to eat and, in this, to have a desire to eat that would have tended to bring about the genetic fitness of our ancestors in their environment. If eating was a means to the end of survival, and not an end in itself with survival as an unintended side effect, then we would not have people overeating, or eating in ways that do not promote survival.

Similarly, our aversion to pain tends to keep us away from things that are harmful to us and threaten our survival. However, there are situations in which pain contributes to death, as when a painful injury to one's leg prevents one from escaping a predator. The end, with respect to pain, is the absence of pain, not survival.

The same is true of sex and procreation. We do not have sex in order to preserve the species. We have sex as an end in itself. This is why there is so much non-procreative sex. However, the fulfillment of these desires - plus other desires such as the interest in the welfare of one's children - have, as an unintended side effect, the continuation of the species.

Simple plants and animals, from bacteria to algae, also tend to behave in ways to promote their survival. Yet, clearly it would be absurd to attribute to them a desire to survive, or a desire for the survival of the species, and a belief that the activities they engage in are useful means to this end. Street mentions the Venus fly trap, which reacts to insects in its leaves with trapping and digesting the animal.

As I alluded to above, in the time that humans acquired the capacity to recognize death, we might have began to have inherited a desire for survival as an end in itself. However, since these other ends - hunger, thirst, aversion to pain, desire for comfort, concern for our offspring - have kept us and our species alive without this desire for survival itself, there is no need to postulate that we have evolved such an end. Some sort of evidence is required - evidence of behavior that cannot be explained in terms of these simpler desires and aversions. If there is a desire for survival, it seems to be a particularly weak desire when it comes into conflict with desires for food, for sex, or the aversion to strenuous activity. We simply are not all that good at promoting our survival when some other interest comes in conflict with it. We clearly seem to have no interest in the survival of the species.

It is also the case that, with our advanced intellect, we have acquired the capacity to recognize that individual survival or the survival of the species has instrumental value. While we may not have a desire for survival itself, we have acquired the ability to recognize that the fulfillment of our desire to take care of our offspring, or to enjoy the company of friends, or to have whatever experiences we have not yet had, all of us reason to live a little long. Consequently, we see survival as a most important means. We may not eat in order to survival. However, if we do not survive, we will not be able to have that meal we are looking forward to tomorrow.

However, as it turns out, ends are not only acquired through evolution. Humans and other more complex animals have systems that alter our desires depending on our interactions with our environments. This system - or, at least, the most important system - is the reward system. With this system, if an activity or experience produces a reward (e.g., pleasure) or a punishment (e.g., pain), we begin to acquire a desire for or an aversion to that activity or experience respectively. The possibility of learning new ends and shaping ends introduces some additional considerations. I will address those considerations in my next post.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Street 04: Desires-as-Means

I know what you're thinking.

"We're already well into this discussion. There's no way I can make any sense of this. I had best go away and do something else."

I will try to catch you up quickly.

Sharon Street wrote a very good article called, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value."

In Part 01: Evolution and Desires-as-Ends, I argued that (1) this isn't really an objection to "realist theories of value". It is an objection to the theory of intrinsic values. Values can be real without being intrinsic properties. Furthermore, I thought I could make some refinements to the theory - to improve upon it.

My main suggested improvement is that, where Street asserted that evolution worked on "proto-evaluative judgments", I wanted to argue that evolution worked on desires-as-ends.

In Part 02: What Are Desires-as-Ends?, I explained what desires-as-ends are - in case you could not guess.

In Part 03: Proto-Evaluative Judgments, I pointed out how desires-as-ends can fill the role of Street's proto-evaluative judgments in that they were basic dispositions likely subject to evolutionary forces. They include such things as the aversion to pain, hunger, thirst, preferences regarding the taste of food, concern for one's off-spring, and the like.

And, now, I am going to look at desires-as-means.

I have refined Sharon Street's argument in, "Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value" to argue that it is unlikely that our desires-as-ends are desires for states of affairs having an intrinsic value quality. Applied here, Street's argument holds up. Desires-as-ends They are simply desires for things, the desiring of which resulted in the genetic replication of our ancestors and was passed down to us. This includes such thing as the aversion to pain, hunger, thirst, preferences regarding the taste of food, concern for the well-being of our offspring, desire for sex, and the like.

However, Street presented us with two types of evaluative judgments:

(1) an unreflective, non-linguistic, motivational tendency to experience something as 'called for' or 'demanded' in itself, and

(2) to experience one thing as 'calling for' or 'counting in favor of' something else.

The desires-as-ends that I have already discussed are Type (1) evaluative judgments - except they are simply desires that a particular state of affairs is realized and does not require that anything is "called for" or "demanded". It simply requires that certain states of affairs be liked or disliked.

In the case of the second type of "evaluative judgment", we have two options:

Option 1: This type of evaluative judgment is simply a way to rephrase the first type of evaluative judgment. The first type of judgment says, for example, that one simply wants to survive for its own sake - survival itself is something the agent wants. To value survival for its own sake includes within it the attitude that survival "calls for" or "counts in favor of" not jumping off of a tall cliff. In other words, to say that survival "calls for" and "counts in favor of" not jumping off of a cliff is to say that survival has value in itself, and counts as a reason to avoid jumping off of a cliff.

Option 2: Experiencing survival as something that has value as an end or in itself is one thing. Experiencing survival as a calling for, or counting in favor of, not jumping off of a cliff is another, completely separate judgment. This is consistent with holding that survival has a positive value, but that the agent at the same time may lack the second judgment that survival counts as a reason for not jumping off of a tall cliff. Pointing out the mere fact, "If you jump off of the cliff, you will not survive," would still draw blank stares from the person who has determined that survival has value in itself, but lacks the second judgment that survival counts as a reason for not jumping off of a cliff.

I am going to reject Option 2 because, if we accept that option, then we are going to need a great many Type (2) judgments just to survive. We will need a separate, additional, Type (2) judgment for anything and everything that might contribute to or threaten survival. It is far simpler and easier to hold that if a person has a desire for survival in itself, then the mere fact that something else contributes to survival would "count in favor of" that something else, and the mere fact that something else threatens survival would "count in favor of" avoiding that something else.

On this account, there is no second type of evaluative judgment for "desires-as-means". Instead, a "desire-as-means" is simply a "desire-as-end" combined with recognition of the fact that the means either will realize or threaten the realization of that end. Once something becomes an end, it becomes a reason for anything and everything that will contribute to realizing that end, and for anything and everything that will thwart the realization of that end, regardless of what it may be, and without the need for a second type of judgment that the end serves as a reason counting in favor of a given means, for each and every different type of means available.

So, we have Street's Darwinian Dilemma showing us that Type (1) evaluative judgment - desires-as-ends - are subject to evolutionary influences and, consequently, unlikely to point to things that have an intrinsic worth that is independent of our disposition to like or dislike them. Furthermore, we do not, in fact, have Type (2) evaluative judgments. Instead, we have a true or false belief that something is likely to bring about - or threaten to prevent bringing about - something that has Type (1) value.

Furthermore, we can give a Darwinian account for acquiring a faculty that allows us to adequately discover the truth of the matter concerning whether a means will tend to realize, or prevent the realization, of something that has Type (1) value. In other words, we can provide a Darwinian account for the development of the capacity to more-or-less accurately determine whether a means will tend to realize or prevent the realization of a state of affairs to which the agent has a desire-as-end.

If an agent is generally mistaken in what realizes these desires-as-ends (i.e., fails to realize that jumping off of a tall cliff is a threat to survival, or that such a planet is poisonous, or that her offspring is in danger), then that agent will fail to realize the relevant end. If evolution has selected that end, then failure to realize that end is a threat to genetic replication. Genetic replication, instead, depends on success at recognizing such relationships, and there is a success to be had.

So, it is at least not unreasonable to expect, pending verification from other types of evidence, that we evolved a capacity to recognize the relationships between means and ends. This could well develop into a capacity to recognize causal relationships generally, which allows us to discover causal relationships that have nothing to do with the relationships between means and ends.

This does not refute Street's thesis. Street is arguing against the existence of a type of value that does not depend on our evaluative judgments. Means-ends judgments, even though they have a truth value, also depend on other evaluative judgments. They are judgments about the relationships between means and ends, where evolutionary forces have had an influence in shaping those ends. If evolution had gone differently - if we would have evolved a different set of ends, then the means-value of other things would have likely changed as well.

Actually, I want to argue that we do not have a desire-as-end for survival at all. The value of survival is as a means - as something that is useful to the realization of other ends. The same is true for survival of the species. Instead, individual survival and species survival is, for almost all of the animal kingdom and for humans until recently, an unintended side effect of seeking the other things we have come to value, not an end in itself.

This is going to lead to a discussion of the fact that ends are, at the same time, also means. So, there will be a truth-value to claims about the value of ends insofar as they tend to realize or prevent the realization of the fulfillment of other ends. Combine this with the thesis that our interactions with our environment shape our ends, and that each of us is a part of the environment of others, and we come up with questions about what ends people generally have reason to promote. This will tie in with a discussion of reflective equilibrium as Street describes it, discussing the value of some ends in virtue of its relationship to the fulfillment or thwarting of other ends.

Street 03: Sharon Street's Proto-Evaluative Judgments

Context: In my readings, I am currently going through Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value."

In this posting, I want to argue for using "desires" as I defined them in Part 02 "What Are 'Desires-as-Ends'? to play the role that Street gives to "proto-evaluative judgments" in her Darwinian Dilemma. “Desires-as-ends” are propositional attitudes that can be expressed in the form "[agent] desires that P" where “P” is a proposition and the desire provides a motivating reason to make or keep this proposition true. So, a "desire that I not be in pain" (aka an aversion to pain) is a motivating reason to make or keep the proposition "I am not in pain" true.

I am not seeking to refute her Dilemma. I am seeking to refine it.

Towards that end, I also want to repeat - as I argued in Part 01 Evolution and Desires-as-Ends" that her argument does not actually provide an objection to realist theories of value. It is only an argument against theories that suggest that value is an intrinsic property.

Values are real. They simply are not intrinsic properties.

To construct her Darwinist Dilemma, Sharon Street recognized that she needed to distinguish between the "reflective, linguistically-infused" evaluative judgments we are familiar with and a more basic type of evaluative judgment that animals can make and that evolution could have acted upon.

Street expressed a first approximation of her first premise as:

The forces of natural selection have had a tremendous influence on the content of human evaluative judgements.

She noted that this initial formulation had a couple of problems. Specifically, it is not reasonable to believe that “reflective, linguistically-infused capacity to judge that one thing counts in favor of another” (1) have a genetic basis, or (2) that it emerged early enough for evolutionary forces to choose winners and losers.

Instead, she suggested that evolution acted upon "more basic evaluative tendencies" that “may be understood very roughly as an unreflective, non-linguistic, motivational tendency to experience something as 'called for' or 'demanded' in itself, or to experience one thing as 'calling for' or 'counting in favor of' something else.”

Please note that Street is describing two different types of evaluative judgments here.

There is:

(1) an unreflective, non-linguistic, motivational tendency to experience something as 'called for' or 'demanded' in itself, and

(2) to experience one thing as 'calling for' or 'counting in favor of' something else.

These are the two types of judgments that Street argues that evolution could have acted on.

At this point, I want to limit the scope of the discussion to Type (1) judgments. I will have more to say about, "one thing as 'calling for' or 'counting in favor of' something else” in my next posting. In a later posting, I will argue that Type (2) judgments have a truth value and the Darwinian Dilemma would not be applicable. However, the Darwinian Dilemma still is relevant with respect to Type (1) judgments.

The refinement that I am offering is to say that those basic Type (1) evaluative judgments that evolution could have acted upon are desires-as-ends. The "as-ends" portion of this desire type corresponds to the "in itself" phrase in Street's account. In this category, I place hunger, thirst, the desire for sex, the aversion to pain, comfort (e.g., in terms of temperature), the preference for the company of others, concern for one’s offspring, food preferences, and the like.

It is easy to see how such things as a “desire that I not be in pain,” a desire to eat, thirst, to feed and protect one’s offspring, to climb a tree or to take flight when frightened, to prefer a particular temperature range, and the like could be subjected to evolutionary selection in the ways Street described.

Consequently, Street's Darwinian Dilemma is applicable here. For the reasons that she provides, it is unreasonable to expect that the objects of our desires-as-ends have a value that is independent of our having it as an object of a desire-as-end. Biologists can explain our acquisition of these desires-as-ends, such as the evolution of the aversion to pain, without ever once mentioning intrinsic value properties.

However, desires-as-ends do not have quite the structure that Street attributes to her “proto-evaluative judgments”. To describe basic “desires-as-ends” as a “tendency to experience something as ‘called for’ or ‘demanded’ in itself, or to experience one thing as ‘calling for’ or ‘counting in favor of’ something else,” over-complicates these basic drives. They are simply motivations to realize some state of affairs in which the proposition “P” is true.

The primary issue that I have with characterizing it as a “judgment” is its implications for how other people should respond to such a state. To “judge” a state in which I am in pain as something that calls for or demands avoiding for its own sake comes uncomfortably close to suggesting that it calls for this from everybody, and not just me. There is something in the state in which I am in pain that is doing the calling or demanding. But if it is doing the calling or demanding, why is it that I am the only one who can hear it? Or the only person with a reason to answer it? Other people should be able to hear this calling as well. They cannot - not because they are deaf or that I am the only one standing within earshot of this state. They cannot, because it is not a calling or a demand, it is simply something that I want to avoid - perhaps very badly.

If there is a “perception” that the object of evaluation “calls for” or “demands” something of the agent, it is the same type of perception as the perception that the earth is the center of the solar system, or the famous rabbit-duck illusion where the same image can be seen as a rabbit or a duck. In seeing that certain ends are attractive, we need to mentally fill in the gap as to whether we are being pulled to that state by something in it, or pushed toward that state by something in us. We cannot actually see the force, so we mentally fill in the gap. However, those who see it - or experience it - as a pull have, when we consider the evidence, made a mistake. In fact, the agent simply wants it to be the case that it is not in pain, that it is eating or drinking, that it has a safe place to sleep, that it’s child is not being attacked.

In summary, Street's Darwinian Dilemma gives reason to believe that desires-as-ends to not identify states of affairs having an intrinsic value property.

We also need to look at Street's Type (2) evaluative judgments. It will turn out that they have a truth value, and the ability to track the truth in these matters, as in matters such as knowing whether there is a cliff or a fire or food in the area, could be beneficial to intentional agents. So, for these judgments, Street's Darwinian Dilemma is not applicable. However, because these judgments depend crucially on desires-as-ends, it is not the case that this represents the discovery of a type of intrinsic value that would bring down her thesis.

I will discuss means-ends judgments in the next post.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Sam Harris: Deriving "ought" from "is"

Allow me to briefly interrupt my critique of Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value" to critique Sam Harris on deriving "ought" from "is".

Sam Harris has made another failed attempt to derive “moral ought” from “is”.

His attempt fails at exactly the same spot utilitarian attempts have failed at for 200 years. There is nothing new here.

Still, a legion of his followers will praise and share it.

So, I would like to go through his argument in detail, show exactly where it goes off of the rails, pick up the pieces, and see where we can go.

Harris: 1/ Let’s assume that there are no ought’s or should’s in this universe. There is only what *is*—the totality of actual (and possible) facts.

Alonzo: Technically, this is a bad assumption, since we are going to prove that there are oughts and shoulds in the universe. This assumption would lead to a contradiction. But, it plays no role in the argument.

Harris: 2/ Among the myriad things that exist are conscious minds, susceptible to a vast range of actual (and possible) experiences.

Alonzo: I am not too certain that consciousness exists. Regardless, consciousness is not what is important here. What matters is that, among the myriad things that exist, there are intentional agents. These are agents who act based on beliefs and desires. There is some dispute over whether beliefs and desires exist. However, until scientists acquire some sort on consensus on an alternative model, we go with the best we have.

Harris: 3/ Unfortunately, many experiences suck. And they don’t just suck as a matter of cultural convention or personal bias—they really and truly suck. (If you doubt this, place your hand on a hot stove and report back.)

Alonzo: Desires are mental states that attach value to states of affairs. Almost all of us have an aversion to pain - a desire that assigns a negative value to the state, “I am in pain”. This fact explains the observations typically associated with many of the effects of putting one’s hand on a hot stove. However, the fact that I have an aversion to my own pain does not imply that pain is bad in some transcendental, supernatural sense. All we have established is that each person dislikes the state in which they are in pain.

Harris: 4/ Conscious minds are natural phenomena. Consequently, if we were to learn everything there is to know about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, etc., we would know everything there is to know about making our corner of the universe suck less.

Alonzo: If an agent had true beliefs, he would know how to prevent the realization of a state in which he is in pain. For example, if you knew that the stove was hot, and that putting your hand on the hot stove would realize a state in which you were in pain, and you have an aversion to being in pain, then you can reliably conclude that you can avoid realizing a state in which you are in pain by not putting your hand on the hot stove. But this does not say anything about putting somebody else’s hand on a hot stove.

Harris: 5/ If we *should* to do anything in this life, we should avoid what really and truly sucks. (If you consider this question-begging, consult your stove, as above.)

Alonzo: There is a sense of “should” or “ought” that says that if you have a motivating reason not to put your hand on a hot stove (e.g., an aversion to the pain that would result), then you “should not” or “ought not” put your hand on a hot stove. This is called the “hypothetical ought” because it depends on the hypothesis that one has an aversion to pain. If this aversion to pain were to vanish, then the reason not to put one’s hand on the hot stove vanishes. This is not a "moral ought". It is consistent with this that if I have an aversion to pain, and I can prevent the smallest amount of pain by putting your whole body in a hot fire, then I practical-ought to put your whole body in a hot fire. It is consistent with this that if I desire to live in a community without Jews, and I can identify a course of action that will kill all of the Jews, then I practical-ought to kill all of the Jews.

We see here the beginnings of where Harris' train starts to derail. He uses the word "we". This term is ambiguous in a way that makes it easy to commit the fallacy of composition. Take, for example, the fact that each carbon atom has 6 protons. It does not follow from this that a whole lump of coal contains 6 protons. Instead, the lump of coal is made up of carbon atoms each containing 6 protons. The "we" in this premise means "each of us individually". However, Harris will soon equivocate and start to make (false) claims that - he says - are true of all of us collectively.

Harris: 6/ Of course, we can be confused or mistaken about experience. Something can suck for a while, only to reveal new experiences which don’t suck at all. On these occasions we say, “At first that sucked, but it was worth it!”

Alonzo: This is actually a footnote or a caveat - not a premise in the argument. As a matter of fact, we each have more than one desire, and we have to weigh them against each other. I have an aversion to pain. I also have a desire for future experiences. Because of my desire for future experiences I may need to endure some short-term pain (e.g., surgery). It is true that the situation is more complicated than described. However, in the same way that physicists can deal with massless strings and frictionless surfaces, and chemists can deal with electron orbits, we can deal with beings having only one desire for the sake of simplicity.

Harris: 7/ We can also be selfish and shortsighted. Many solutions to our problems are zero-sum (my gain will be your loss). But *better* solutions aren’t. (By what measure of “better”? Fewer things suck.)

Alonzo: And, now, the train has gone off of the rails. I have an aversion to pain. I can avoid a small amount of pain if I throw you into a fire. I can be selfish. Why "ought" I not to be selfish? Everything written so far has brought us only to the point where I practical-ought to throw you in the fire to prevent the slightest pain. Now, Harris wants to leap to a definition of "better" that is completely at odds with what I have a practical-ought or hypothetical-ought reason to do. This is the is-ought gap that Harris claims to be able to cross. Yet, he crosses it by twitching his nose or blinking his eyes and magically teleporting us across it.

Harris: 8/ So what is morality? What *ought* sentient beings like ourselves do? Understand how the world works (facts), so that we can avoid what sucks (values).

Alonzo: The Nazi ought to kill all of the Jews, the dictator ought to torture and kill anybody who threatens his power, the drug dealer ought to get as many people as possible hooked on his drugs, the the rapist ought to understand how the world works so that he can rape while avoiding what sucks (going to prison). If this is morality, it is not the morality as people typically understand it.

So, let's pick up the pieces and see if we can move a little further down the tracks.

What survives the train wreck are individual practical-oughts grounded on desires.

I want to add a few more facts:

(1) Assume that you, with your aversion to pain, find yourself in a community filled with other intentional agents who also have an aversion to pain.

(2) Assume further that desires are malleable - interactions between an agent and its environment will change what a person comes to desire. More specifically, each agent has a "reward system" such that rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) can ultimately come to result in changes in its desires and aversions.

(3) Each of us is a part of the environment for other agents. Thus, each of us have the power to use rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) to alter the desires of other agents.

(4) There exists a set of rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) that will create in others an aversion to causing pain to others. By rewarding/praising those who refrain from causing pain to others, and punishing/condemning those who cause pain to others, we can create a community of individuals that, at least to some degree, will be substantially made up of individuals who, in addition to their own aversion to pain, will also have an aversion to causing pain to others.

If we add these facts to the fact that survived the trainwreck, we can conclude that each person has a practical-ought reason to use these tools of reward/praise and condemnation/punishment to promote - universally (in the whole population, or as much of the population as possible) an aversion to causing pain to others.

For this case, we do not need to assume that these reasons to create this aversion are themselves universal. We can simply focus in the possibility that people generally - for the most part, but to a large degree - have reasons to promote (to whatever degree they can promote it) a universal aversion to causing pain to others.

When I say that an act-type is morally wrong I am going to mean by this that people generally have practical-ought reasons to promote, universally, an aversion to performing acts of that type using the tools of reward/praise and condemnation/punishment. So, in the situation described above, causing pain to others would be morally wrong.

I would argue that, in the real world, I can make a case for promoting a universal aversion to lying, breaking promises, taking property without consent, physical assault, murder, rape, and the like.

Here, I will argue that I have a moral-ought derived from facts. However, moral-ought in this case is not identical to practical-ought. It is a sub-species of practical-ought. It is that subset of practical-ought concerned with the desires that people generally practical-ought to promote universally (or as close to universally as possible) using the tools of reward/praise and punishment/condemnation. All of the other practical oughts are non-moral oughts. There is no mystery in deriving practical-ought from is.

Some people may now complain that this is not what they mean by moral-ought. They mean a particular type of ought that cannot be reduced to a type of practical ought. However, my response to them is that their oughts do not exist. They are fictions. Because of this, all of their moral-ought statements are false. At least some of the moral-ought statements defined above are true, and that gives this account a distinct advantage over competitors.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Street 02: What are "Desires-as-Ends"?

This post is going to repeat some information I presented just a few days ago. I am repeating it because, in my revised revision of Sharon Street’s “Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” this is where the information becomes relevant.

(And, for those who care about such things, I intend this Street series to make it into my thesis.)

In Part 01, I stated that I wanted to limit the application of Street’s argument to desires only - and, to be more specific, desires-as-ends only, excluding desires-as-means.

Note: I also objected to her assumption that value realism requires intrinsic value realism. I interpret her argument as targeting intrinsic value realism, allowing that values (including moral values) can be real even though they are not intrinsic properties.

Remember, I distinguished desires-as-ends from desires-as-means. I used the distinction between wanting to build a shelter so that one can stay warm in the winter, and wanting to stay warm for its own sake. “Desires-as-ends” refers to what we desire for its own sake.

Here, I want to state more precisely what I mean by “desires-as-ends”.

Desires - and beliefs - are propositional attitudes. They are mental states that we can express in the form:

[Agent] [attitude] that [proposition]

So, we have examples like:

Jim believes that Joan went to the movies.
Mira hopes that the weather remains good through the weekend.
Tully thinks that it is going to rain.
Zach loves that they will all be together for the holidays.

We can divide propositional attitudes into two main camps – beliefs and desires.

The primary difference between the two is the “direction of fit”. If Agent believes that P, and P is false, then Agent should change her belief. However, if Agent desires that P, and P is false, then Agent has a motivating reason to change the world.

By way of example, if Alice believes that she owns a red car, and her car is blue, then she should change her belief so that she believes that she owns a blue car. However, if Alice owns a red car and wants to own a blue car she has a motivating reason to buy a blue car, or get her car painted.

A “desire that P” is fulfilled if and only if the proposition “P” is made or kept true. In other word, the motivating reason is to make or keep the proposition true. Alice’s desire to own a blue car is fulfilled in any state of affairs where the proposition, “Alice owns a blue car” is made true – by buying a blue car, getting her car painted, or obtaining one as a gift.

If an agent has a “belief that P”, and P is true, then the belief is true. If an agent has a “desire that P” and P is true, then the desire is fulfilled.

This is fundamentally a Humean theory of motivation. It supports, for example, Hume’s thesis that:

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

By this I mean that desires pick out the ends or goals of intentional actions, and it is reason’s job to discover how to realize those ends.

Reason is not to be envied. It serves multiple masters with competing agendas, sometimes actively working to thwart other desires as the desire for health conspires with the desire to look good to thwart the desire to have more chocolate cake. And reason has to constantly be looking for ways to keep all of its masters happy.

On this Humean model, while beliefs can be true or false, desires cannot be. There are no “correct” or “incorrect” desires.

The value of Street’s argument, properly modified, is that it provides support for this part of the thesis. Her "Darwinian dilemma" provides a reason to accept the claim above - that there are no "correct" or "incorrect" desires-as-ends - is true. She shows that what we know about evolution supports the hypothesis that there is no external evaluative “truth” for desires to correspond to in the way that beliefs correspond to an external reality. The “ends” of our desires-as-ends do not have intrinsic value. They are simply those things, the desiring of which, caused our ancestors to have offspring who eventually had us.

In my next post, I will show that Sharon Street knew that she needed a distinction like the distinction I drew between desires and evaluative attitudes. However, she described the distinction she needed as between advanced evaluative attitudes and primitive, proto-evaluative attitudes. When I put desires-as-ends into the role of her proto-evaluative attitudes. They are not a precise fit. Claims she makes about these proto-evaluative attitudes are not true of desires-as-ends. However, I am going to counter that she over-intellectualizes these attitudes.

Then, I am going to draw a connection between Street's "evaluative attitudes" as she describes them and "desires-as-means". (I told you that these two sets belong together.) From this, I will show that Street's evaluative attitudes can be true or false and do correspond to an external reality. However, that external reality depends critically on desires-as-ends. Consequently, this will not be a refutation of Street's thesis. It will be a revision.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Street 01: Starting Over - Evolution and Desires-as-Ends

I am starting over.

I found my attempts to present Sharon Street's arguments in, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value" to be confusing.

Consequently, I devoted some time to coming up with a way to do a better job of presenting my position on her argument. This post is the first post in this starting-over series.

First, the major thesis:

Facts about the theory of evolution imply that there are no intrinsic values.

Street did not express her thesis this way. She expressed her argument as an objection to realism about values. Equating value realism with intrinsic value realism requires the false assumption that values must be intrinsic properties to be real. I don't think that this is right. There are a lot of properties in the real world that are not intrinsic properties and, I would argue, value is one of them. Street provides a strong argument against intrinsic value realism. However, her argument does not actually show that realist theories of value are mistaken simply because real values are not intrinsic values.

However, that is a debate for another time and place. Here, it is sufficient to note that I am applying Street's argument to the more limited subject of intrinsic value realism. You can find a more detailed writeup of my objections to Street's terminology in Moral Objectivity and Moral Realism.

Street's argument against intrinsic value realism is that evolutionary forces have shaped our evaluative attitudes. Intrinsic values, if they exist, must either be related to what produces evolutionary fitness in humans, or unrelated. The thesis that they are related to evolutionary fitness fails because scientists have been able to advance the theory of evolution quite well without adding “intrinsic value properties" to the explanation. The thesis that they are unrelated implies an unreasonable coincidence between what we have evolved to like and dislike and what has intrinsic value. Either way, there is no reason to believe that there are intrinsic value properties.

The first point where I want to add some refinements to Street’s thesis is to this concept of “evaluative attitudes” that Street says is under the influence of evolutionary pressure. She wrote:

Evaluative attitudes I understand to include states such as desires, attitudes of approval and disapproval, unreflective evaluative tendencies such as the tendency to experience X as counting in favor of or demanding Y, and consciously or unconsciously held evaluative judgements, such as judgements about what is a reason for what, about what one should or ought to do, about what is good, valuable, or worthwhile, about what is morally right or wrong, and so on.

I want to take “desires” out of this list and set the others aside and deal with them later. The thesis that I want to look at states that desires have been subjected to evolutionary pressure and, as a result, it is unreasonable to believe that what we want has intrinsic value.

The term “desires “ is ambiguous. We use it to refer to both that which we value as an end or for its own sake and what we value as a means to that end. We want a hammer so that we can use it to pound nails. We wish to pound nails because we wish to build a shelter. We wish to build a shelter so that we can stay warm in the winter. We wish to stay warm in the winter because . . . well, we just do.

The first three desires (wants, wishes) for the hammer, to pound nails, and the shelter are desires-as-means - we want something for the sake of something else. The last item on the list is a desires-as-ends. We want it for its own sake, and not for the sake of something else. The desire-as-end (comfort in winter) provides the motivation for all of the other actions. Take away the desire for comfort in winter, and you take away the reason to buy a hammer and use it to pound nails to build a shelter.

When I claim that desires are subject to evolutionary forces, I am interested only in desires-as-ends. I would like to separate these from desires-as-means and leave the latter type of desire in the same bin with the other "evaluative attitudes" discussed above. I will argue that they actually belong together.

In the mean time, the thesis that I want to defend using Street's argument is the thesis that desires-as-ends have been subject to evolutionary pressure and, consequently, are unlikely to be desires-as-ends for something that also, at the same time, has an intrinsic quality of ought-to-be-desired-ness.

Desires-as-ends include the aversion to pain, desire for sex, hunger, thirst, our preferences for particular foods, comfort (in terms of not too hot or not too cold), friendships, and the well-being of one's offspring.

However, it is not the case that all of our desires-as-ends have a genetic basis. Humans have a "plastic" mind - meaning that our interactions with our environment work to shape our beliefs and desires-as-ends, to change them. Yet, even this mechanism for acquiring new desires-as-ends and reshaping or refining existing desires-as-ends went through evolutionary refinement. Nature has built us to learn to want that which contributed to the genetic replication of our ancestors and to learn to want to avoid that which threatened their genetic replication.

So, the first part of this argument is to specify that I am only concerned with desires-as-ends and wanting to show that they are under evolutionary pressure.

The second step in my argument - tune in tomorrow - will be to specify more precisely what I mean by "desires-as-ends". On that account, desires-as-ends are incapable of being "true" or "correct" in the way that beliefs can be. In the posts that follow, Street's argument will provide a defense of that provision. Come back tomorrow for that part.

The third step in my argument - for those who like to think ahead - will be to show that Street is not adverse to a distinction like the one I am making. She recognizes the need to distinguish between complex evaluative judgments and the simpler "proto-judgments" that evolution could have acted upon. I am simply specifying that her "proto-judgments" are desires. But there are important differences between desires-as-ends and Street's proto-judgments, and we will need to look at those.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Desires vs. Evaluative Judgments: Critique of Darwinian Dilemma - Part 02

This is a Critique of Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma for Moral Realism" - Part 02

You can read Critique of Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma for Moral Realism" - Part 01, but it should not be needed to understand the argument below.

I know that the fact that something is not biologically useful, or could have been done much more efficiently, is not a reason to object that there is such a thing. However, when we are considering two possible explanations for a set of events, I think that there is reason to suggest that the simpler and easier explanation has merit simply in virtue of its being simpler and easier.

Sharon Street argues that evolution has had an influence on our "evaluative judgments" - causing us to "judge" as good or ought-to-be-done that which also happens to promote human genetic replication. Clearly, a being that saw "ought-to-be-done-ness" in killing its offspring will not have offspring around today to carry on that tendency.

But my question is: Why "evaluative judgements"?

Nature does an excellent job of getting us to do that which promotes our genetic replication and avoid that which is detrimental to our genetic replication by using simple desires. The pain that causes me to favor my foot when I twist my ankle has nothing to do with making an "evaluative judgment". Nor does my going for a second slice of chocolate cake as my wife and I snuggle on the couch in the evening. In fact, neither does the snuggling. With respect to the chocolate cake, I may well give a negative evaluative judgment to eating a second piece of chocolate cake, but do so anyway. I am acting on a desire - one that, at times, seems to be stronger than any motivation that may be associated with an evaluative judgment.

This becomes more obvious when we look at the behavior of animals. I throw a toy mouse for my cat, who runs off, grabs it, and brings it back to me. In explaining and predicting his behavior, I have never resorted to "evaluative judgments". Instead, all I need for my explanation are simple desires. It also explains why he eats his catfood, uses his kitty liter box, and crawls up on my lap and goes to sleep when I watch television. I suspect that his thoughts have never held an evaluative judgment. Yet, he has no trouble engaging in the type of behavior that caused his ancestors to be evolutionarily successful.

When it comes to taking care of our young, no "evaluative judgment" is needed to cause a bird to build a nest, keep her eggs warm until they hatch, and bring the fledgling birds food until they are able to fly on their own. I feel confident that, at no time, no bird ever made a judgment that taking care of her young had some type of "ought to be doneness" associated with it. The bird did what the bird wanted to do, and in wanting to do it she contributed to the genetic makeup of the next generation.

There is no reason to believe that the care of birds for their young is caused by one type of mental operation, and that human care for their young is substantially different - any more than there is to think that animal pain is substantially different from human pain. They all motivate without resorting to the complexities of "evaluative judgments".

When Street writes about "evaluative judgments", she is including desires in what she is talking about. Yet, I hope that one can recognize a difference between judging something to be good or bad, and having a desire for or an aversion to it. Street herself wrote that she was interested in "basic behavioral and motivational tendencies" and "unreflective, non-linquistic motivational tendencies." This speaks more of desires than it does of evaluative judgments. On this matter I agree. Our desires - our aversion to pain, desire for sex, hunger, thirst, comfort, the simple pleasure of taking care of a child or of the company of a friend - have been subjected to evolutionary selection. But these are desires as distinct from evaluative judgments.

Recognizing this distinction, we should recognize that we have reason to take a look at evaluative judgments and see if we can make any sense of what they are.

Critique of Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma for Moral Realism" - Part 01

I intended to examine the difference between my thesis:

The right act is the act that a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have done in the circumstances:

And Rosalind Hursthouse's thesis:

An act is right iff a virtuous person would have characteristically (acting in character) done in the circumstances.

I found that Hursthouse "virtuous person" is a person who rationally pursues certain "naturalistic ends" - these being (1) survival of the individual, (2) survival of the species, (3) experiences of pleasure, pain, and emotions characteristic of the species, and (4) actions characteristic of the species.

I, on the other hand, believe that there are no "naturalistic ends" - that there are no ends but that desire makes them so. "Good motives" are motives that tend to fulfill (other) desires, and "bad motives" tend to thwart other motives. This fulfillment or thwarting of other motives is what provides people with reasons to promote or demote other motives.

I intended to use Sharon Street's 2006 article, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” to argue against Hursthouse's "naturalistic ends" (Street, Sharon. (2006). "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value". Philosophical Studies. 127. 109-166.). However, I discovered that, before I could use Street's argument, I needed to make some adjustments.

Specifically, Street's first premise is that our evaluative judgments are subject to evolutionary pressure. The realist about value either needs to assume an unrealistic coincidence between what evolution has caused us to value and what has intrinsic value properties, or make a scientifically unsound claim that these intrinsic value properties actually help to explain and predict the course of evolution. Neither option seems reasonable. The reasonable conclusion is that what we value does not actually have anything to do with real value properties.

On the surface, I agree with Street's argument, which is why I sought to use it against Rosalind Hursthouse. However, when I looked at the argument in detail, I noticed some problems that I need to take care of before I actually use it.

Specifically, when Street argues that evolutionary pressures have shaped our "evaluative judgments," I find that the concept of "evaluative judgments" she uses is far too broad. She includes things in this definition that are not, actually, best understood as being under evolutionary pressure.

Terminological Dispute

To complicate matters, I also have to dispute Street's use of terminology. In "Moral Objectivity and Moral Realism" I express my objections to her terminology. Street provides an argument against theories of value as intrinsic properties. However, this is an argument against realist theories of value only if we equate realist theories with intrinsic value theories. I deny this assumption. Relational properties are real, desires are real, and relationships between states of affairs and desires are real. Propositions describing those relationships are as real as any property discussed in physics and chemistry - which often deals with relational properties. For these reasons, I reject the idea that Street provides an argument against realist theories of value.

However, what matters here is her argument against the existence of intrinsic value properties. I agree with Street, they do not exist. However, I think that Street makes some mistakes in establishing that conclusion.

Street's first expression of her premise is:

the forces of natural selection have had a tremendous influence on the content of human evaluative judgements.

In defense of this, she notes how unlikely it is that a creature that acquired a dispositon to judge that it ought to kill its offspring will have Darwinian fitness, compared to an alternative creature with a disposition to judge that it ought to care for and protect its offspring.

Having said this, Street points out that she is aware of some of the complexities in this account.


(1) Her presentation suggests that evaluative judgments came first, and then evolution acted on those judgments to select those for evolutionary fitness.

This is not accurate. As Street admits:

the capacity for full-fledged evaluative judgement was a relatively late evolutionary add-on, superimposed on top of much more basic behavioral and motivational tendencies.

(2) The next problem is that, for evolutionary pressures to act on a judgment, they must be genetically inheritable. Yet, it is unlikely that a full-fledged evaluative judgment has this quality. Instead, she argues that these evolutionary forces have acted on:

unreflective, non-linguistic, motivational tendency to experience something as ‘‘called for’’ or ‘‘demanded’’ in itself, or to experience one thing as ‘‘calling for’’ or ‘‘counting in favor of’’ something else.

I would like to argue that the "basic behavioral and motivational tendencies" and the "unreflective, non-linquistic motivational tendencies" that evolution works on are basic desires. When one gets to more complex judgments, the idea that evolutionary pressures have influenced them becomes less plausible. However, this does not change the basic fact that our evaluative judgments are based on desires subject to evolutionary influence, and it is implausible to believe that those basic desires pick out some type of desire-independent reason for action.

Street includes in this set of evaluative judgments that are subject to evolutionary influence moral judgments. She includes the following items as examples:

  1. The fact that something would promote one’s survival is a reason against it.
  2. The fact that something would promote the interests of a family member is a reason not to do it.
  3. We have greater obligations to help complete strangers than we do to help our own children.
  4. The fact that someone has treated one well is a reason to do that individual harm in return.
  5. The fact that someone is altruistic is a reason to dislike, condemn, and punish him or her.
  6. The fact that someone has done one deliberate harm is a reason to seek out that person’s company and reward him or her.

My alternative thesis is this:

These "more basic behavioral and motivational tendencies" that evolution has worked on . . . these genetically inheritable "unreflective, non-linguistic, motivational tendency," are basic desires or the mechanisms by which basic desires are learned. That is all. Evolution has shaped our likes and dislikes, and the likes and dislikes we are disposed to acquire through interaction with our environment. Other evaluative judgments - particularly moral judgments - are not on this list.

It is going to take a few posts to lay out this argument.

Please bear with me.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Mill on Motives and Right Action

I have objected against Henry Sidgwick that the criterion of right action is not utility. It is whether a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have performed that action. I combined this with the standard objection - which Sidgwick agrees with - that a person whose sole motive is utility is not a person with the right and best motives to conclude that the standard of right action is not utility.

The standard of the right and best motives may be utility. (I argue that it is not.) But the standard of right action is the right and best motives.

John Stuart Mill addressed the same issue with similar results.

Mill wrote:

[Some objectors to utilitarianism] say it is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of society.

In response, Mill, like Sidgwick, asserted that utilitarianism does not declare that utility be the sole motive for action.

It is the more unjust to utilitarianism that this particular misapprehension should be made a ground of objection to it, inasmuch as utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for his trouble: he who betrays the friend that trusts him, is guilty of a crime, even if his object be to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations.

Mill’s claim seems to be that the right act is the act that maximizes utility. It does not matter what the agent’s motive is, as long as the act maximizes utility.

The problem is that if an agent is motivated by something other than utility, then there are inevitable circumstances in which the agent is going to sacrifice utility for the sake of this other end. If the agent has a particularly strong affection for a friend or his child, he will choose the lesser suffering of his friend or child to the greater suffering of a stranger. If he has an aversion to lying or to taking property without consent, then he will choose to tell the truth or not to take property even where the greater utility can come from it. Sooner or Jager, the person not motivated solely by utility is going to perform the utilitarian “wrong act”.

Of course, Mill would allow you to perform a wrong action from a good motive if having that motive and acting on it would generally produce more utility than the motive of maximizing utility. For example, even though the motive of parental affection may motivate an agent to act to bring about the lesser happiness of one’s own child to the greater happiness of a stranger on the other side of the world, parental affection is responsible for such utility in the world that we must overlook the wrongness in these actions. On the standard of utility, these acts are still wrong, but we are not going to condemn you for them because there is negative utility in the condemnation.

But what do you say of a wrong act (buying your own child a toy instead of buying medical care for a sick child on the other side of the world) that is a utilitarian “wrong act” done from one of these utilitarian “good motives”?

The Utilitarian seems to have a convoluted answer. “You act was wrong on the Utilitarian standard, but we are going to call it permissible and expect you to treat it as permissible - to regard it in all ways as if the claim that it is permissible is true - even though it is not.”

Furthermore, we are to take this as the common meaning of moral terms.

It makes no sense - particularly the part that says that we all know as a part of the regular meaning and use of the terms “right” and “wrong” that we are to know and believe that some wrong acts are permissible, some obligatory acts are prohibited, and some permissible acts are wrong.

No . . . It makes more sense to come up with a theory of right and wrong that allows us to say that a wrong act is wrong, a permissible act is permissible, and an obligatory act is obligatory.

This means that an obligatory act is that which we have reason to condemn people for not doing.

A prohibited act is one we have reason to condemn people for doing.

A non-obligatory permissible act is one we have no particular reason to condemn a person for doing or not doing.

Which means that it is the act that a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have done, would not have done, or might or might not have done depending on the agent’s other interests.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Moral Objectivity and Moral Realism

In the paper that I am writing on Rosalind Hursthouse's theory of right action, I am going to disagree with her on what she calls a second spring of human action - reason or rationality.

I am going to side with David Hume. Desires provide the only "spring of action" - nothing is an end except that desire makes it so. The second type of spring that she writes about does not exist.

However, the thesis that such a spring does not exist - at least in the way that I say it does not exist - has been equated with the denial of the existence of moral values altogether - moral anti-realism or moral subjectivism.

I disagree with the use of these terms.

It is not that I disagree with the thesis. I simply think that expressing the thesis in these terms generates unnecessary confusion.

So, I am going to want to say that my denial of the existence of this "second spring" is compatible with the objectivity of morality and moral realism. It is simply a denial that moral claims are claims of intrinsic prescrptivity.

Specifically . . .

In saying that a second type of “spring of action” does not exist I will be following a path much like that of J.L. Mackie in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Mackie starts his book with the proposition, “There are no objective values.” In place of Mackie’s “Argument from Queerness,” I intend to substitute Sharon Street’s, A Darwinian Dilemma for Moral Realism.”

However, in doing this, I am going to reject their terminology. What the phrase, “There are no objective values” and the term “moral anti-realism” means on the street is something quite different from what it means in the philosophy lecture hall, and I think this difference is quite destructive.

On the street, these terms imply that one cannot legitimately criticize the racist or the terrorist or anybody whose views are different from one’s own because all such views are merely differences of opinion - with no opinion being objectively better than any other. Protests on the part of philosophers that this is not what they mean are irrelevant - not unless they want to fund a massive public duration campaign to make their special meanings a part of the common use of moral language.

Morality, unlike the special and specific terms of some sciences, cannot be effectively limited to the classroom or laboratory. It is a public practice. It is unwise to use a private jargon that, when released on the public, is more likely to generate confusion and error than to serve any useful purpose.

I have described a case in which the proposition, “People generally have strong reasons to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others” is objectively true. In that world, the proposition was true before any agent was born, remains true regardless of the beliefs and desires that the agent may acquire in life, and will remain true after the agent dies. Even if a particular agent would lose the aversion to pain, the proposition that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a universal aversion to causing pain remains true.

This is not an appeal to some sort of fictionalism where we must all embrace a falsehood as if true to realize some social good. The proposition that a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires is an objectively true statement. Its truth depends on the existence and content of those other desires. It might be true in the context of one set of desires and false in the context of a different set. However, these facts do not prevent the statement from being true. The fact that, in certain circumstances, the statement, “I am in Colorado” could be false does not change the fact that it is true, at least as I write this.

In short, I am going to agree with Mackie and Street. However, while Mackie says that there are no objective values, I am going to say that there is no intrinsic prescriptivity. While Street claims to be offering a Darwinian dilemma for moral realism, I am going to say that she is offering a Darwinian dilemma for intrinsic moral prescriptivity realism. But I will hold that moral values are objective, and that some actions really are wrong. I am simply not going to ground their objectivity or reality on intrinsic prescriptive properties.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Summary of Thesis Project

I have finished Hursthouse’s book On Virtue Ethics. My next project will be to write a commentary on it, using the research notes that I wrote into the previous 18 posts.

The key difference between my proposition . . .

The right act is the act that a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have performed in the circumstances

. . . and her thesis . . .

An act is right iff it is the act that the virtuous agent would characteristically (acting in character) do in the circumstances

. . . focuses on the proposition

There is no end but that desire makes it so.

I hold that this proposition is true.

Hursthouse holds that it is false. Hursthouse builds her theory on demonstrating the existence of four "naturalistic ends," and then adds the distinctly human trait involving the capacity to apply reason to determine if a state conforms to these ends (which no plant or animal can do).

So, this is going to become the second chapter of my Master's Thesis.

The first chapter will deal with the proposition:

The right act is the act that a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would do in the circumstances.

This will be a rewritten and more detailed version of my Ethics Proseminar paper: Sidgwick on Motives and Right Action. You can find the most recent version of that paper on the documents page of the desirism site.

But that will lead to a discussion of good and bad desires, which will have to do with ends, where . . . in Chapter 2 . . . I will defend the thesis that there are no ends but that desire makes them so. That will discuss desire as a propositional attitude - a motivational reason to make or keep true the proposition that is the object of a desire state.

More specifically, the chapter will:

(1) State the proposition to be defended: "There is no end but that desire makes it so."
(2) What is a desire? (Desire as propositional attitude.)
(3) Good desires: Desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Desires that people generally have reason to promote universally.
(4) Argument from evolution that our desires evolved, not to perceive some natural end, but to serve fitness. (Sharon Street's argument, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Moral Realism")
(5) A terminology aside - a dispute over the terms "objective morality" and "moral realism".
(6) Rosalind Husthouse's "naturalistic ends".
(7) Conclusion: My thesis of right action is better than Rosalind Hursthouse's thesis of right action

This should be a basic defense of desirism. Let's see if I can get it approved as a thesis.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Naturalistic vs. Manufactured Ends

It turns out that, in the last chapter of her book, On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse responded to the Darwinian objection to her theory.

In her response, she seems to see only three options:

(1) Darwinian theory underwrites the idea of a characteristic human nature that is the foundation of Aristotelian virtues.

(2) Darwinian theory provides a different set of naturalistic ends.

(3) Moral nihilism - humans evolved into an incoherent mess for whom flourishing is impossible since the different parts of our that which is characteristically human are in perpetual conflict.

In other words, either there is something in being “characteristically human” that provides the ends that we need to flourish, or we are doomed to the type of misery and suffering that has dominated human history.

This is a false dichotomy.

Our brains are “plastic” – meaning that we have the capacity to manufacture ends. Because of this, we do not need to depend on nature to provide us with harmonious ends, we can manufacture them. Of course, we have reason to manufacture ends that tend towards a harmonious whole. We certainly have no reason to create in others ends that conflict with our own. Insofar as we have an end – e.g., an aversion to pain – we have reason to manufacture in other people ends that are compatible with these natural ends – e.g., an aversion to causing pain to others.

What Darwinism gives us is not a set of naturalistic Darwinian ends. It gives us reason to believe that there are no ends but that desiring makes them so. There is reason for the belief-forming systems of our brain to aim for truth and, of these, more useful truths over those that are useless. False beliefs – e.g., that one can float when jumping off a cliff – can get one killed.

However, belief alone will not tell us what to do. To turn beliefs into actions we need desires. And there is no “truth” to desires – no natural ends to perceive. There are only desires that lead to genetic replication and those that do not. Yet, even genetic replication is not an end. It is an unintended side effect. Of course, only those whose desires produced this unintended side effect are with us today (with, perhaps, a few individual exceptions). But this fact does not make genetic replication an end.

Hursthouse does not deny this claim of plasticity in our ends. In fact, she argues for it. It plays a major role in her discussion of the moral education of children. You cannot train a child to be virtuous (or vicious, as depicted in her discussion of racism) unless there is a plasticity to the brain. She also points to cultural variation as proof of the placticity of ends. What she has apparently failed to recognize is that this plasticity of ends allows us to have a robust moral realism without the naturalistic ends of Aristotelianism or Darwinism. The plasticity itself is enough to give us morality.

The fact of plasticity, combined with our ability to determine how to use this to mold the ends of others, gives us reason to ask, “What ends should we mold?” Even accepting as true that there are no ends but that desiring makes them so, we still get the conclusion that the ends we have reason to manufacture universally are those that, when manufactured universally, tend to fulfill (rather than thwart) the desires of others. We have desire-based reasons to manufacture a harmony of ends.

It would be irrational to manufacture conflict, in the same way that it would be irrational for a person with an aversion to pain to put his hand in a hot fire.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The Neurathian Procedure for Moral Justification

The Neurathian Procedure applies to attempts to answer the question of how we can know something to be true. If "It is wrong to lie under oath" is true (or, more precisely, under conditions where it is true), the Neurathian Procedure gives us a way of demonstrating that it is true.

The example gets its name from the fact that Otto Neurath invented the following simile:

Imagine you are on a boat at sea. You depend on your boat for survival. Some of the planks on the boat are rotting and in need of repair. In addition, you can well imagine improvements that you can make. However, you cannot dismantle the boat entirely and build a new boat from scratch. Your only option is to make your improvements one step at a time - removing a plank (for example) and putting a new plank in its place, fastening it to the old frame that, itself, will someday need to be replaced.

The same is true with knowledge. We cannot build a new system of knowledge from scratch. The best that we can do is to replace one belief at a time, attaching it to our existing beliefs which, themselves, may ultimately need to be replaced. We can, over time, improve our overall system of beliefs, but we can only do so one step at a time in a way that can never ignore the fact that we are making changes to a larger system that, at each step, is left substantially intact. Eventually, over time, we may turn our rowboat into a 21st century cruise ship - but it will take time.

Rosalind Hursthouse wants to use this procedure to defend her theory of virtue ethics. She argues that we cannot build an ethics from scratch. Instead, all we can do is to take our existing ship of moral beliefs and start looking for ways to improve upon it. The objection that we are not able to completely leave an ethical system to build a new ethical system from scratch is no objection. The Neurathian Procedure represents our best way of proceeding. This admits to the fact that we are going to continue to have some moral statements in our argument. We are not going to build our ethics from pure, value-free, scientific facts.

My question, regarding this way of proceeding, is, "Why are we building two boats?"

Why are we building a science boat and a completely different ethics boat?

If this is, indeed, the correct procedure, then it seems that we should be building one boat, and we need to find some way to secure the normaltive/moral planks onto a frame of objective scientific fact.

In her defense of virtue ethics, Hursthouse defends a number of naturalistic ends. She starts with the evaluation of plants, where she states:

So, in the evaluation of individual plants, we find that we evaluate two aspects - parts and operations - in relation to two ends. A good x is one that is well fitted or endowed with respect to its parts and operations; whether it is thus well fitted or endowed is determined by whether its parts and operations serve its individual survival and the continuance of its species well,
in the way characteristic of xs.

I deny the existence of any "naturalistic ends," and I further hold that a proper understanding of evolution will provide a powerful argument to explain why no natural ends exist.

My view is that there are no ends but that desiring makes them so, and no plant desires the continuation of its species. In fact, no plant desires anything, so no plant has an end of any type. When we evaluate plants, it is our ends that we appeal to - not the plant's ends, or any "naturalistic end" that can be discovered by pure reason.

The continuation of the species, where it exists, is not an "end," it is an unintended side effect. Indeed, when humans have sex, pregnancy is not the end or goal of that activity. It is often an unintended side effect. This is even more obvious when sex results in spreading a sexually transmitted disease.

As it turns out, the plants that we come across are those that happen to have characteristics that - at least in their past environments - resulted in species survival. If they didn't, we would not be finding their species in the world today. To say that species survival is an end is to add something to this state that is quite literally false.

Hursthouse also states that if an animal or plant must act in a characteristic way for that species.

There is no sense to being attached to saying that polar bears would be better fitted to flourish in a characteristically polar bear way, to live well, as polar bears, if the males were different, or indeed, if males and females banded together to hunt. Polar bears just don't act that way and thereby cannot - unless they mutate - and that is all there is to it.

The first point to make is that we do have an account of a genetic defect. What if a genetic change happens to result in a polar bear acting in a way uncharacteristic of polar bears - forming pair-bonds with its mate, for example, the way eagles do. We must remember that every species-wide mutation began with a mutation in a single member of the species and spread over time, as those with the mutation survived and those without it died out (or those with the mutation became isolated from those that did not, etc.). In no case in evolution was the "survival of the species" a reason for a particular mutation. That mutation either brought about the survival and genetic replication of those who had it, or the mutation ceased to exist, but genetic replication never was an end.

The second point to make is that her statement could be wrong. Bear cubs learn certain aspects of their behavior from their parents. It may well be the case that, if the parents were to behave differently, so would their cubs. However, due to blind chance, bears just never happened upon a form of behavior built around males and females hunting together - because females kept driving off the males and the males, so isolated from their cubs, came to see the cubs as potential food. Hursthouse can give us no reason to insist that a characteristic polar-bear behavior could not have been different.

The third and most important point to make is that, if one understands evolution, one would see that the ends that any creature adopts is a matter of random genetic selection and contingent interactions with one's environment. There may be a characteristically polar-bear way of behaving, but you cannot get from this statistical norm to the conclusion that all polar bears ought to behave that way. If a polar bear behaves differently, even if it should fail to genetically reproduce and die off, no naturalistic moral ought has been violated. This is just a fact about how the real world works . . . nothing more.

Evolution has given us desires, and dispositions to learn new desires based on our interactions with our environment. In this sense, each of us has ends. The ends we have acquired are, in themselves, neither "correct" or "incorrect". They merely exist as they do as a result of random and contingent facts.

There is, in the real world, no ends but that desiring makes them so.