Tuesday, August 14, 2018

RoME 2018 08: Non-Identity Problem

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 08. Timothy Campbell
‘The Bullet-Biting Response to the Non-Identity Problem’
Commentator: Michael Tooley (University of Colorado Boulder)

Abstract: According to the bullet-biting response to the non-identity problem: Given a choice between creating a well-off child, A, and a different child, B, that is significantly worse off than A, it is not wrong to create B. David Boonin has presented an argument for the bullet-biting response. He claims that although the conclusion of his argument is implausible, the rejection of the argument is even more implausible. But Boonin’s argument is more implausible than he realizes. Three specific premises, together with what I call the existence requirement—that creating a child cannot make that child better or worse off than she would otherwise have been—jointly entail that it is not wrong to create children whose lives contain only pain and suffering. This is a damning objection. It can be avoided by rejecting the existence requirement, but this would undermine two other premises of Boonin’s argument.

This is an issue that I have written about a few times recently.

It concerns a woman, Wilma, who is given a choice between conceiving a child (Pebbles) now who will be born blind, or taking a tiny pill for two months and giving birth to a child later, Rocks, who will be a healthy child capable of leading a regular life.

Many have a moral intuition that for Wilma to conceive Pebbles now, rather than taking the pills and conceiving Rocks later, would be immoral. As I interpret it, it means that she would be deserving of condemnation.

For me, when I hear this argument, I am treated to memories growing up when I was told that I would deserve condemnation if I were to marry a black person and conceive a mixed race child, rather than marry a white person and give birth to a white child. The arguments that I heard growing up were the same arguments used here. I was told that my decision to bring the disadvantaged person into the world rather than the person who has all of the advantages of white privileged was selfish. I was, for all practical purposes, expressing a willingness to harm a child for the sake of what I want.

Of course, I would not be harming anybody. I would give that mixed-race child the best life I could, under the circumstances. If the quality of her life is less than the quality of life Rocks would enjoy, that is not my responsibility. So long as Pebbles would have, in the end, decided that she would have rather lived than not lived, then I could be content that, in giving her as much and as good as I could have given her (Pebbles), I have given her enough.

Timothy Campbell wants to reject this line of reasoning and argue for the condemnation of the Pebbles' parent - whether it be Wilma in Boonin's story, or the mixed-race child in my own.

Campell's line of reasoning is to come up with a rule that would allow us to condemn the person who wishes to parent the child that will have the lower quality of life. However, he is concerned about a parallel case in which a person is faced with a choice in which he must choose between (1) saving an existing child with the quality of life of Pebbles, or (2) replacing Pebbles with another child that will have the quality of life of Rocks. Campbell thinks that he can find the difference in the fact that failure to save Pebbles will be a "significant cost" that the would-be parent of the would-be child with the lower quality of life does not inflict on their child. Campbell's would-be rescuer is prohibited from inflicting that cost.

One objection to make here has to do with asking whether one is inflicting a cost or providing a benefit. In fact, rescuing Pebbles may be better understood as providing her with a benefit. That benefit is a continued life of a particular level of quality she can obtain in the face of her disability. Now, if we assume - as we must - that the quality of life of Pebbles rescued from the fire is identical to the quality of life of Pebbles conceived by not taking the pill, then we have no way to distinguish the two cases. If one is permissible, then so is the other.

In another part of the argument, Campbell drew a bar graph on the blackboard that indicated Pebbles' quality of life. He then drew a dotted line identifying the minimum morally respectable quality of life. However, he drew this line above that which Pebbles would enjoy. This is in spite of the fact that Pebbles would, ex hypothesi, consider her life worth living. Against this, I asked by what justification does Campbell draw the line for the minimum level of an acceptable life ABOVE where Pebbles would have drawn it for herself. Campbell at least needs to give an assumption in Pebbles' favor, that she knows the minimum acceptable quality of her life better than Campbell does, unless Campbell can override this presumption with superior evidence.

For these reasons, I conclude that Campbell has not given any good reason to condemn the parent who would intentionally choose to have a mixed-race child that would have a lower quality of life than the pure blood child he could have otherwise fathered.

Moral Realism

Another post from the Desirism page on Facebook that I wanted to stash here for safe keeping.


I claim that Desirism is a realist moral theory.

This is dangerous. When people see the terms “moral” and “realism” together they are prone to draw two quick implications, neither of which are true.

(1) Intrinsic value
(2) Mind independence.

Value realism is assumed to mean realism about intrinsic, mind independent values.

Desirism denies both of these. Values are relational properties (not intrinsic), and they relate objects of evaluation (states of affairs) to desires, which are certainly NOT mind independent.

So, can I justify using the term “realism” in this way?

First, I cannot simply switch to using the term “anti-realism” because this contains its own mistaken implications. People who see the terms “moral” and “anti-realism” together assume that morality is merely a matter of opinion. They assume that what it takes for something to be right or wrong is that the agent “feels” a certain way about it.

None of these are true either.

So, I am forced to decide which set of false assumptions I want to deal with, and those are the false assumption associated with the word “realism”. They are easier to deal with because, outside of morality, “realism” implies neither of these things. Outside of morality we are realists about relational and mind-dependent property.

Relational Properties

We are lunar realists. Moons are real. Nobody is required to be anti-realists about moons. Yet, nothing is a moon in virtue of its intrinsic properties. To be a moon, an object in space must stand in a particular relationship with something else. It must “orbit” that thing. And that something else cannot be a star. If it were a star, the object would be a planet or asteroid or comet, not a moon.

Similarly, we are realists about comparisons. We are realists about “taller than”, “more massive than”, “three feet away from.” These are real properties that can appear in any scientific paper without anybody questioning the fact that the author is describing reality.

So, “realism” does not require “intrinsic property”. One can sensibly assert that values are relational properties, but relational properties are real. Reality is filled to the brim with relational properties. Some of these relational properties are “orbits”, some are “values”.

Mind Independence

The visual cortex is real. That is the part of the brain at the back that the eyes are attached to. A scientist can include the term “visual cortex” in a scientific paper, and nobody would object that what the scientist is studying is not real. Of course it is real.

However, there can be no “visual cortex” without minds. That it is a “visual” cortex requires that there be perceptions obtained through the eyes. Perceptions require minds.

Indeed, if “realism” requires mind independence, then neuroscience cannot be a science. Any attempt to study the brain and how it functions - any attempt to study the mind - cannot be studying anything real if realism requires mind independence. The very phrase, “minds are real” would be a contradiction because “minds are real” can never be true in a universe where minds do not exist.

We can add to our list of real mind-dependent entities that are real certain illnesses or disabilities such as Parkinson’s Disease and blindness. You cannot talk about these things without talking about minds, yet we hold that they can be legitimate objects of scientific inquiry.

Do you think pain is not real? Put your hand on a hot stove and then tell me with a straight face that the pain is not real. Try doing anything with a straight face - one not distorted by the contortions of a person who is experiencing real pain.

So, mind-dependent properties are real.

Too Broad?

Have I now defined “realism” so broadly that it has lost all usefulness?

Not at all. I am not at all a realist about the meanings of terms. In English, the fact that the term “nova” means “exploding star” is not a fact of the world. It is true only because people who speak English have adopted a particular convention. In a different culture, "nova" could mean something different, like "new". In a different culture at a different time, "atom" could mean "without parts" and "malaria" could mean "bad air". It all depends on the arbitrary attitudes adopted within a culture at a time.

Scientists did not discover in a laboratory that Pluto was not a planet. Scientists, instead, have a linguistic custom of preferring to classify like objects with like. Evidence suggested that Pluto has more in common with objects in the Kuyper belt than it does with the set {Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune}. So, they sought a new set of definitions that lumped like with like. How did they settle the issue? Answer: They took a vote.

Here, one might object, "But are you not arguing that you have the one true and correct definition of 'realism'? Are you not treating realism as if it has an objectively correct definition?"

No, I am not. All of the arguments that I used made reference to conventions and practices. We have a convention, everywhere outside of morality, of taking relational properties as being real properties. We have a convention of treating the mind itself as real and as something about which we can make objectively true and false claims. I am arguing for doing the same thing to "moral realism" that astronomers did with the term "planet" - adopt a new convention that lumps like with like - that respects the fact that relationships between states of affairs and desires are real in the scientific sense.

Morality is not like this. One can make slavery legal or illegal by taking a vote, but one cannot make it right. One can adopt a social convention of


So, when I say that desirism is a realist moral theory, I should be understood as saying that I am going to use the term "realism" when we talk about morality as we use it everywhere else in science. According to this use, minds and relational properties are real. Consequently, statements describing relationships between the properties of minds (desires) and objects of evaluation are real. Moral properties are real. Somebody may believe that people generally have many and strong reasons to sacrifice the virgin in the volcano, and it may be a cultural tradition to do so, but, in both cases, they are wrong. Objectively wrong.

Monday, August 13, 2018

RoME 2018 07: Moral Reasons

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 07: Anne Jeffrey
How to Get Metaphysical About Moral Reasons Without Losing Your Mind Dependence”

Commentator: Michael Bukoski (Florida State University)

Abstract: This paper proposes a way of being serious about the metaphysics of moral reasons (as serious as the robust realist) while embracing the thesis that moral reasons are mind dependent (usually forwarded by the quasi- and anti-realist). The view I introduce to do this work is what I call Moral Reasons Hylomorphism. According to Moral Reasons Hylomorphism, moral reasons are objective entities whose existence and persistence conditions are determined by certain of an agent’s mental capacities, and whose contents—that is, what they count in favour of or against—depend on certain of an agent’s mental states. I defend the hylomorphic account by showing how it uniquely solves a familiar puzzle arising from metaphysical and conceptual assumptions about moral reasons while avoiding pitfalls of other mind-dependent accounts.

I had difficulty understanding this presentation. Allow me to try to explain it as best as I can.

The first problem I had is that I had no idea what "Hylomorphism" is, and the author did not explain it. Perhaps she suspected that we all already knew what it was - and perhaps I should have already known what it was. But, I did not. Fortunately, about 5 minutes into the presentation while being totally lost, I remembered that had come to the presentation with Google, so I asked Google what this was.

Google told me, "Hylomorphism is a view that physical objects result from the combination of matter and form."

A statue exists not only in virtue of the matter which makes up the statue existing, but with the statue having a particular form. The same is true of a particular person - who is made up of certain organs, but also depends on those organs being structured in a particular way.

It would seem, then, that Jeffrey wants to argue that moral reasons can be understood as some sort of combination between matter and form, and this would solve some problems that people are thought to have with respect to moral reasons.

Those problems have to do with moral reasons having two properties:

(1) Moral reasons must be action-guiding or motivating.

(2) Moral reasons must be objective.

The problem with these two properties is that they seem to not be compatible. In order to guide or motivate action, a moral reason must be one or more of the agent's mental states - a state that is capable of causing an intentional action and, at the same time, still allow that the intentional action is the agent's intentional action. Whereas objectivity seems to require that the moral reason exist as something outside and independent of the agent's mental states. As can be expected, it is difficult for something to be both one or more of the agent's mental states and independent of the agent's mental states.

And . . . that is about as far as I could go with this presentation. I cannot explain how Jeffrey thought that Hylomorphism about moral reasons would solve this problem. I cannot even say how Jeffrey thought that moral reasons were hylomorphic.

I am sorry that I could not do better.

I will add a comment about how desirism handles this issue. Moral reasons are not action-guiding. Moral reasons have to do with the desires and aversions that other people have - specifically, reasons that they have to praise or condemn conduct in order to create mental states in the agent. Morality is not concerned with the mental states an agent has, but with the mental states the agent should have. Naturally, if the agent had those mental states they would motivate her action. In the absence of those mental states, the agent lacks reason to do what is right (or, at least, lacks the right reasons), and that is what makes her evil.

However, this does not pay any attention to the concept of "hylomorphism". So, I regret, I cannot really even provide a summary of Jeffrey's views on this matter.

RoME 2018 06: Praise

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 05: Nathan Stout
“I Have To Praise You Like I Should”

Commentator: T.M. Kwiatek (Cornell University)

Abstract: In recent years there has been an explosion of philosophical work on blame. Much of this work has focused on explicating the nature of blame or on examining the norms that govern it, and the primary motivation for theorizing about blame seems to derive from blame’s tight connection to responsibility. However, very little philosophical attention has been given to praise and its attendant practices. In this paper, I identify three possible explanations for this lack of attention. My goal is to show that each of these lines of thought is mistaken and to argue that praise is deserving of careful, independent analysis by philosophers interested in theorizing about responsibility.

The main focus of this paper is to argue for a study of praise as something distinct from the study of blame. Praise has not gotten much analysis at a time when many people are talking about blame. As such, Stout is going to present many interesting facts about praise. Over the course of the discussion he will be saying some interesting things about blame as well.

In advance, I want to note a bit of what desirism has to say about praise. Praise is an action. As such, the reasons for praising are the same types of reasons that provide reasons for other types of actions - to fulfill the desires of the agent who performs the praising.

I also wish to note that Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder in the book In Praise of Desire uses a different set of distinctions than Stout does, and I think those distinctions make sense. Specifically, Arpaly and Stout deny that praise is the opposite of blame. Blame, they argue, is an attitude, while praise is an act. I can blame a co-owner of my business for the decline in profitability last year without doing anything, but if I praise her I must perform an action. The true opposite of blame, according to the authors, is credit. That is to say, I can credit my co-owner for an increase in profitability last year without doing anything. And the true opposite of praise is condemnation, which is also an action.

This may have an impact on some of Stout's arguments.

Stout attempts to demonstrate that there are several ways in which praise is not the opposite of blame.

Stout argues that a person is blameworthy for doing the wrong thing for bad reasons, but it is not the case that a person is "praiseworthy" for doing the right thing for right actions. Many right actions are not praiseworthy. However, this may be a result of the failure to draw proper distinctions as mentioned above. Act-types are typically divided into three categories, not two. These are: obligatory, permissible, and prohibited. If Stout puts the sole category of "prohibited" and sets it up to match "blameworthy", then sets both categories of "obligatory" and "permissible" up against "praiseworthy", then this could account for the lack of parallel structure. We would need to ask whether the parallel structure could be preserved by matching "praiseworthy" with "obligatory" and "blameworthy" with "prohibited".

Strictly speaking, this does not seem to raise any objections. The parallel structure is broken in part because "the right and the good" contain a category of supererogatory actions (praiseworthy actions that are not obligatory), whereas there is no similar category on the blameworthy/prohibited side. That, itself, suggests a distinction.

Stout also mentioned that blame always has an affect (emotional component) but praise does not. That is to say, when we blame somebody, it seems to always be the case that there is some form of contempt lurking in the background. However, praise can be heartless.

There is polite praise but not polite blame. Everybody who asks a question in a presentation must begin by praising the speech. This called into my mind the custom of tipping. It seems obligatory to give a tip, even in some case regardless of service, where tipping in one sense seems to have been meant at as a way of expressing praise. I can gratuitously give people something good, but may not gratuitously harm them. I can freely give somebody $100, but not so freely take $100 away.

Stout further argues that blame suffers from a problem of hypocrisy that does not apply to praise. We disregard blame when it comes from somebody who does what he condemns, but bit praise when one does what the praise giver does not do.

Finally, a lack of capacity reduces blame, but seems to expand praise. A child may escape blame due to a lack of capacity, but the praise of children is not limited due to lower capacity. Indeed, children seem to get extra praise. Indeed, children are praised for actions expected from adults. However, we expect these actions from adults on the assumption that they received proper moral education as a child.

Note that desirism sets praise and condemnation on a foundation of molding desires. The use of praise and condemnation is to trigger the reward system. However, praise and condemnation are also actions that are themselves governed by reasons, and the reasons to praise and condemn is not limited to molding desires. Other interests also motivate (provide reasons to do or forbear) praise and condemnation. This is an example where it is tempting to argue (falsely) that there is only one morally relevant reason to praise or condemn. This is as false here as it was in Session 01.


This is another post taken from the Desirism group site on Facebook


This is a sticky subject.

Desirism is not a tolerant moral system. It is all about using rewards and punishments, including praise and condemnation, to alter how others think. Punishment and condemnation are not polite actions.

At the same time, desirism pays attention to psychological facts. Indeed, the fact that people have a reward system and that this gives us the ability to influence others through the use of rewards and punishments is central to desirism.

Please note, rewards and punishments are not being used here to provide incentives and deterrence. That is a possible and, sometimes, legitimate use. However, desirism concerns the use of these tools to alter sentiments (desires) themselves.

Condemn the racist, the sophist, and the thief and the hope is not only that people will refrain from acts of racism, sophistry, and theft as a means of avoiding condemnation. The hope is that people will adopt an aversion to racism, sophistry, and theft. The goal is to cause people to have an attitude of contempt and disgust towards such people.

It is hoped that this will motivate people to refrain from performing these types of acts even when they can otherwise benefit, and when they can avoid getting caught. “I hate these types of people and I certainly do not want to be one.”

Desirism is intolerant of racists, sophists, and thieves.

It is tolerant of homosexuals. But this is not because. “Tolerance is good.” It is because homosexual acts - and being constituted so as to find value in such relationships - is not bad. There are no reasons to find it intolerable.

Having said this, we must recognize some other relevant facts about human beings.

First, humans are self-centered. They are prone to condemn “that which I do not like” rather than “that which people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.” Consequently, people are disposed to condemn things that are not wrong. To fight against this danger, we have reason to promote a certain type of tolerance. This type says, “Just because you don’t like it, that does not imply that it’s wrong.” People must be taught to tolerate that which they merely dislike. This does not imply tolerance towards what people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.

Second, people are arrogant. People tend to think of themselves as paradigms of wisdom and virtue. This s a main cause of sophistry, drunk driving, and other forms of recklessness. “I do not need to be careful. I have super powers” this arrogance causes people to be too quick to condemn and punish. Pay attention to the misplaced condemnation you encounter and you will often find yourself squinting against the speaker’s glaring ego and arrogance.

Third, humans are tribal.

This element is particularly important and needs some more detailed development.

Condemnation works as advertised when two people belong to the same tribe. This likely has an evolutionary foundation. The brain structures that make condemnation effective evolved in an environment where people lived in small tribes. Tribal members primarily used these tools on each other.

Research suggests that condemnation by a member of one tribe against members of another tribe not only fails, it produces the opposite effect. It reinforces the attitude one is condemning, and it drives the members of the other tribe together and binds them on this trait that is being attacked.

In fact, the members of this other tribe views condemnation as an attack. They view the person condemning them, and the tribe that person represents, as hostile and as a threat. They huddle together for usual ai and support against this threat. The very quality that one condemns becomes the very quality that distinguishes friend (ally) from foe. The effect tends to be to motivate the whole tribe to rally around an even more extreme version of that for which they are being attacked.

Ironically, condemning a tribe for extremism tends to cause them to become adopt even more extreme ideas.

And don’t think that you are immune. If you are a human being, then you embrace some attitudes more strongly because other tribes have attacked your tribe on those grounds and you are using it to bond with others in your tribe.

Me, too.

So, how are we to engage in inter-tribal condemnation, for certainly members of other rival tribes are sometimes wrong.

Answer: Don’t. You will just make things worse. Or, more precisely, do not turn it into an inter-tribal conflict.

Condemn the individual as an individual and the specific act type as an act-type deserving condemnation. You criticism will automatically universalize to anybody who fits that description, regardless of tribe.

Condemn the Muslim terrorist for being a terrorist, not for being a Muslim. Condemn the Republican racist for being a racist, not for being a Republican. That is, unless you want more terrorism and more racism, in which case, you’re doing fine.

This, then represents another type of tolerance. This argues for tribal tolerance and respect, but not act-type or attitude tolerance and respect. It argues for addressing wrong act-types and bad attitudes effectively, rather than using methods tha5 actually make the situation worse.

In short, we actually have reason to condemn the practice of expressing condemnation as attacking a tribe, rather than attacking an act-type or attitude. indeed, our justification for condemning wrongs in inter-tribal terms is grounded explicitly on the idea that one out not to encourage the types of act and attitudes that deserve condemnation.[/I]

Saturday, August 11, 2018

RoME 2018 05: Good Reasons for Action

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 05: Keshav Singh
“The Right “Right Reasons” Theory of Rationality”

Abstract: According to an influential way of thinking about the rationality of actions, beliefs, and other rationally evaluable responses, rationality is a matter of correctly responding to one’s reasons. Relevant theories of rationality hold that when one acts or believes (etc.) for reasons that are in some sense the ‘right reasons,’ one is thereby rational. In this paper, I argue that several recent versions of this ‘right reasons’ approach fail because they are committed to too thin a conception of what it is to correctly respond to reasons. Whether they hold that rationality consists in responding to objective normative reasons, or merely apparent reasons, such theories all take responding to reasons to consist in having a range of reasons-sensitive dispositions. I argue that because such dispositions can’t ground creditworthiness, they can’t explain why responding rationally is a way of being creditworthy for one’s responses. I conclude that we need a more robust conception of responding to reasons that involves the representational capacities of the agent.

Rationality is correctly responding to the right reasons for action.

This invites us to ask two questions: (1) What is a right reason? (2) What is it to correctly respond to such a reason?

Singh is interested in the first of these questions: what counts as the "right reasons"? In this, he examines two potential answers to this question:

One family of responses says that the "right reasons" are objective facts, and that correctly responding to right reasons involves correctly responding to those objective facts. If the forecast calls for rain tomorrow, then rationality involves correctly responding to this objective fact by wearing a raincoat.

As a counter to this, I would like to note that I often go out without a raincoat simply because avoiding getting wet is not worth the bother. More generally, wearing a raincoat is only a correct response to the objective fact of a forecast for rain if one had a reason to avoid getting wet, one had no other option for avoiding the rain (staying inside until it was over), and the burden of getting wet was greater than the burden of dealing with a raincoat. So, now, what is the correct response to an objective reason?

The objection to objective reasons accounts that Singh discusses is known in the literature as the "new evil demon objection". This asks us to imagine a world that is much like ours - at least from the agent's point of view - except that everything is being manipulated by an evil demon. An agent in this world is responding to a evil demon's manipulation to generate a forecast of rain, rather than an objective fact of rain. All of the agent's decisions are made from the same kind of evidence, but the agent is not responding to objective facts.

Another option was a set of theory that defined rationality in terms of competent response to reasons. However, this seems to simply push the questions concerning rationality back a bit - as we now have to determine what counts as competence.

Much of the discussion of this topic centered around the question of whether to call an attribution of rationality a statement of praise.

One argument in favor of the credit/blame approach is that it handles the new evil demon problem. Because the person in the real world and the person in the demon-run world are coming to the same conclusions based on the same reasons, there would be no sense in claiming that one deserves credit while the other deserves blame. Their levels of creditworthiness and blameworthiness seem identical. Though this does cause me to ask whether we may be begging the question. Perhaps we now need to ask what makes some forms of reasoning creditworthy and others blameworthy.

Mark Boespflug, who commented on the paper. Commenter Mark Boespflug tried to separate rationality from creditworthiness by identifying a number of cases in which rationality exists but creditworthiness does not exist. For example, beliefs formed from perception are rational, but the agent who forms such a belief does not deserve any praise or credit for this.

Against Boespflug's objections, it was brought out that many of our intentional actions (e.g., my correctly spelling the word 'word' on this example) are not praiseworthy either. This is because it is a morally neutral act. However, it is still within the realm of intentional actions and, while I deserve no praise if I were to correctly spell a word, I would deserve some condemnation for incorrect spelling (unless it was done for some other purpose such as to make a point). Analogously, an agent may not be praiseworthy for adopting a belief based on perception, but may be blameworthy for failure to do so.

A credit/blame theory of rationality would require - as Singh himself argues - that rationality be attributable to an agent. It must, in some way, be "me" forming the beliefs before somebody can sensibly be crediting or blaming me with attributions of rationality or irrationality

On the desirism account, backed by some research that appeared in In Praise of Desire by Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder, a trait is attributable if it is linked in some way to the reward centers of the brain (the center of desires). That is to say, the consequence must, in some way, be influenced by desires. The empirical research shows that people who perform actions not mediated by the reward center (e.g., Turrett Syndrome) do not experience the actions as "theirs" or attribute it to themselves, but as something that happens to them. If we follow this model, then rationality properly so called must be based on dispositions that are, at least, capable of being influenced by activity in the reward system. This is not to say that the belief comes directly from desire, but that the belief comes from habits or dispositions that can be influenced (improved upon or changed) as a result of desire-dependent actions. Arpaly and Schroeder provide evidence that deliberation itself is an act - often an intentional act - and the motivation to perform such acts comes from the reward center.

There seems to be some merit to this credit/blame conception of rationality. However, I have no opportunity to go into this topic further at this time. It is something worth keeping in mind.

RoME 2018 03: Perfectionist Bads

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 03: Gwen Bradford
“Perfectionist Bads?”

Abstract: Pain, failure, and friendlessness, all make a life intrinsically worse. In spite of the obviousness of their badness, it is difficult to explain. There are many theories of wellbeing that give accounts of our good, but it is a challenge not just to name what is bad, but also to explain why it is bad and how it is related to what is good. Perfectionism has particular difficulty in accounting for bads. Otherwise, it is a theory that has quite a lot in its favour. This paper explores some ways that perfectionism can potentially account for bads. Ultimately, a new framework for perfectionism is proposed: tripartite perfectionism. In the end, perfectionism has more resources than previously acknowledged, and can explain bads in its own terms.

Perfectionism is a theory that states that there is a number of things that have intrinsic value such as knowledge, friends, health, and that the quality of life is determined by the accumulation of these ends. To explain these ends, the perfectionist looks at aspects of human nature. We are rational , knowing creatures, so knowledge is a perfectionist good. We are social creatures, so friendships are good.

Gwen Bradford notes that perfectionist theories have problems accounting for badness. Badness is more than just the absence of goodness. The badness of pain, for example, is not the absence of some good-making function.

Bradford examines and rejects a number of attempts to deal with this problem:

Option 1: Instrumental Bads. One way to attempt to account for badness in the perfectionist system is to say that, while there are no intrinsic bads, there are instrumental bads. Nothing is bad in itself - it is only bad in virtue of its consequences. Pain, for example, is bad because it prevents one from doing studying, or from getting around, or from doing many of the things that a person pursuing the things made good by her nature would pursue. However, it seems simply false to say the only thing wrong with pain is its instrumental badness. Besides, some pain is instrumentally good. In fact, we evolved to have pain precisely because it is useful - it directs the agency with a disposition to behave in ways that avoid pain, which helps it to avoid states that are detrimental to the being's success.

Option 2: Intrinsic Bads. This option adds a list of intrinsic bads to the list of intrinsic goods grounded on human nature. However, this option has problem coming up with a foundation for badness. All good things are thought to have a common type of foundation - a human capacity - for knowledge and understanding of the world, for friendships, for health. If one adds intrinsic badness to the list, then this must somehow find its foundation in some aspect of human capacity, or it seems arbitrary and ad-hoc.

Option 3: Inhibited capacities. In the attempt to link badness to capacities, this tries to link badness to states that inhibit the exercise of the capacities. (I find it difficult to see how this is distinguished from the instrumental bads option.) The inhibition of a capacity should not be confused with the absence of a capacity - the latter would have neutral or no value. A capacity is hindered or blocked by facing actual opposition. not like this option because, in part, some challenge is good. The person who overcomes a challenge to climb a mountain or to acquire an understanding of some difficult field of understanding in fact obtains more good by exercising that capacity in the face of difficulties.

Having rejected these options, Bradford offers her won proposal. She suggests a "Tripartite View." The exercise of a capacity can result in (1) success, (2) a null result, or (3) failure. For example, in exercising our capacity to acquire knowledge, we can either succeed (acquire knowledge), obtain a neutral result (no new knowledge), or fail (acquire a false belief). These negative results of exercising our capacities are the things that are bad. She calls this "malfillment" of a capacity.

The test case for perfectionist theories seems to be that of pain. Bradford seeks to argue that we can understand the badness of pain as a failure of exercising the capacity of practical rationality. An end of practical rationality includes the avoidance of pain. The malfilment of practical rationality is pain.

But, what is it that makes pain a failure of practical rationality? As I see it, we have to identify pain as bad - as something to be avoided - before we declare that one of the goals of practical rationality is to avoid pain. The experience of pain is not bad because it is a failure of the exercise of the capacity of practical rationality. The experience of pain is a failure of practical rationality because it is bad.

Furthermore, if we need an account of why pain is bad, this is sufficiently well understood in terms of our biological history - the theory of evolution. We evolved to have an aversion to pain because this aversion to pain causes us to live longer and have more and healthier children. Pain has further evolved to become a part of the learning system - pain is processed in a way that it creates dispositions for behavior so that agents avoid, for its own sake, those things that come to result in pain.

I am also going to object, of course, that a perfectionist cannot account for the goodness of exercising a capacity. In one sense, we can defend the goodness in virtue of the fact that the capacity serves some evolutionary purpose or we would not have acquired it. (A proper understanding of evolutionary theory implies that this is not strictly true - but it is true in general.) But, then, the ends of evolution are not good in themselves - they are the unintended side effects that have influenced natural selection. They are not intrinsic values.

I am going to stick with the desire fulfillment theory of goodness and badness. X is good = X is such as to fulfill the desires in question. X is bad = X is such as to thwart the desires in question. All else is neutral.

Friday, August 10, 2018

RoME 2018 02: Hedonism and Monism

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 02: Adam Shriver (Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics)
“Is Hedonism a Version of Axiological Monism?”

This presentation concerned the issue of whether hedonism is a monistic theory of value. More specifically, it asked whether pleasure and pain were tow versions of the same overall value, or two different types of value. It asked whether hedonism was a monistic or dualistic theory of value.

Just for contrast, desirism is a pluralistic theory. It holds that each desire identifies its object as an end. This is why a person can feel regret if they find themselves in a situation where fulfilling one desire results in the thwarting of another. That other desire still identifies a separate end, which has its own value, and a reason to regret being unable to realize that value. If the choice between realizing different desires were realizing different intensities of the same value then, like having to choose between $10 or $5, one does not regret the choice of $10 because one lost out on the ability to obtain $5.

Be that as it may, Shriver argued against hedonistic monism, arguing that pleasure and pain are two different things. Desirism, of course, holds that the desire for pleasure and the aversion to pain are two different mental states.

More specifically, Shriver argues that we need positive and negative value.

An objection to hedonistic monism is that there appears to be an asymmetry regarding pleasure and pain. It is more important to avoid intense pain than to obtain intense pleasure. People are more strongly motivated to avid pain than to obtain pleasure.

As an example of our different regard for pleasure and pain, Shriver brings up an example that we consider it a particularly bad thing to bring a child into the world that will suffer extreme pain, but not to fail to bring a child into the world that will experience great pleasure. This particular example does not work, I think, because it seems to assume that the pleasure or pain of another person has an intrinsic value property. It assumes pleasure and pain to be intrinsic values to be maximized or minimized, rather than agent-centered reasons for action. I wish to dismiss these types of concerns because of a false assumption of intrinsic merit. Still, the first accounts are applicable to pleasure and pain as agent-centered reasons. However, the agent-centered reasons still show that we do not adopt parallel attitudes towards pleasure and pain, suggesting that they are two different kinds of values.

Furthermore, an examination of the scientific findings of pleasure and pain show that they are processed in different ways in different parts of the brain. The idea that there are higher and lower pleasures has run into the problem of discoveries showing that what are considered higher pleasures and lower pleasures are processed in the brain the same way. The idea that they are distinct types of pleasure seems not to hold up. Yet, pleasures and pains show up as having different processes, which at least refutes one possible argument that they could be the same.

Shriver also mentioned the distinction between wanting and liking - the distinction between motivational force and affective response. In the realm of pleasure, we can motivated by things we do not like, and like things we are not motivated to bring about. Shriver argues that this does not seem to be the case with respect to pain. We hate pain, AND we are motivated to avoid it. These two seem to be linked. (NOTE: I am not entirely sure that this is the case. As somebody who has experienced pain that I did not mind - that I had no aversion to - as a result of being given certain drugs for pain when I was a child, I think it is quite possible to separate pain from motivation.)

This still leaves the problem of how to combine pleasure and pain to get a single overall result - to motivate a single action when one facts options of acquiring pleasure and avoiding pain.

Desirism already has an answer for this. It uses the analogy of forces. We know how to add together different forces - electromagnetic, gravitational, etc. - without being a force monist. We can still allow that these are different forces. Each desire and aversion has a direction (the realization of that which is desired) and a magnitude (motivational force). We can combine these force values as we combine the values of physical forces to get an overall motivational vector. This no more requires monism in desires/aversions than it does in physics.

The Wrongness of Slavery

I posted this on Facebook. I thought I would put a copy here for future reference:

[I]From the dawn of civilization until about 150 years ago, people widely approved of slavery.

Yet, slavery was always wrong.

Slavery was always wrong because it was always the case that people generally (including the slaves, including any who may be enslaved, including anybody who cares about somebody who may be enslaved, including anybody concerned by those harmed by the harmful effects of approval of slavery, had many and strong reasons to promote a universal condemnation of slavery.

This view does not require that everybody has overwhelming reasons to promote an aversion to slavery. Some people may have more and stronger reasons to support slavery - the slave masters, for example. Yet, in such a situation, it would also be true that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who approve of slavery - to condemn the masters. It s still the case that slavery is wrong.

Furthermore, the wrongness of slavery does not depend on people believing it is wrong.

The fact that a particular view is held within a society - even if it is unanimously held - does not make it right. A society can believe that they have reasons to sacrifice a virgin by throwing her in a volcano. They can unanimously agree that they have such a reason. Yet, they can still be mistaking.

Similarly, the reasons that people generally have to promote an aversion to slavery exist regardless of whether the people believe that they exist. There is a fact of the matter - a fact to be determined if we were to look at the implications of living in a society where people had an aversion to impose such harms on other people for their own benefit as is represented by the institution of slavery.

Indeed, one piece of evidence that suggests (though does not prove) that slavery is wrong is that, if there were a single person to emerge in that society who were to claim, "slavery is wrong," and to give those reasons, then he would be correct and everybody else would be mistaken. This is not true unless it is the case that everybody was still mistaken even if this person did not exist.

Now, the next question that comes up is the culpability for slavery in those times and places where it was considered permissible. Are those people living in societies that endorsed slavery morally blamable for being supporters of slavery?


There are non-culpable errors. We cannot blame Ptolemy for having a false belief that the Earth was the center of the universe.

However, blaming and praising are actions that we perform. This means that we have to look at the reasons we have for performing them to determine if they are justified or not.

This means that the question of blame is a question about whether we are justified in condemning.

On that measure, we have many and strong reasons to make it clear that the attitudes that those people had towards slavery were attitudes are to be shunned. People ought not to adopt to those attitudes. To fail to blame the slave owner is to say that, under those circumstances, slavery is permissible. One is not saying, "slavery is wrong but they did not know it". To fail to blame them is to say "slavery was not wrong - and they were correct to their judgment."

Thomas Jefferson regularly raped his young teenage slave Sally Hemmings. Do we say that such actions deserve no condemnation - that it is morally permissible to rape young teenage slaves in the situations like those that Thomas Jefferson was in? Even if we note that others at Jefferson's time, would have condemned the action as adultery, they did not condemn it as rape.

Furthermore, if we are not to blame them for their faults, then consistency demands that we not credit them for their virtues. We praise them for their virtues as a way of promoting those virtues today. For the same types of reasons they deserve our condemnation for their vices - to promote the idea that having such attitudes makes one worthy of condemnation.

One final consideration to throw in here is that we praise and condemn fictional characters. It is absurd to think that our moral judgment of fictional characters depends on the thought that we can change - or they could have had - a different attitude than the author assigned to them. We praise and condemn fictional characters as an expression of - and as a way of promoting - certain attitudes among living people. The praise and condemnation of historical characters follows suit.

So, then, this is how desirism handles the wrongness of slavery, and the culpability of slave owners.[/I]

RoME 2018 01: Resisting Oppression

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 01: Tamara Fakhoury (UNC Chapel Hill)
“Forbidden Projects and Harm Independent Grounds to Resist Oppression”

Abstract: Oppression is a serious injustice and everyone ought to resist it if they can. But what are the moral grounds of this obligation for oppressed persons, and what does fulfilling it entail for each one of us, given that we are differently situated in our means, abilities, and knowledge of oppression? On one consequentialist view, the only reason people morally ought to resist oppression is in order to lessen its unjustifiable harms. For them, only acts that are reasonably likely to lessen the harms of oppression count towards fulfilling the obligation to resist. I argue that we should recognize additional grounds to resist oppression that are independent of reducing its harms. Insofar as relationships of love might also generate obligations to resist, victims of oppression can fulfill those obligations through acts that do not aim to primarily to reduce oppression’s overall effects and that may even increase the oppressiveness of their individual situation.

From the point of view of desirism, the very claim that, “the only reason people morally ought to . . . “ is problematic. No person exists with only one desire - one motive. So, there is no possibility that an agent can ever act on only one reason.

The closest we can get to this is for our many and various reasons to motivate us to adopt a rule that has only one criterion. In making investments, a person can adopt a rule that says, “Invest only in that mutual fund that has the highest 10-year rate of return.” Such a person can still be motivated by such things as care for the environment, love for her spouse and children, a fondness for pumpkin pie, and still judge that this principle is the best expression of her desires. These provide the motives for adopting a rule that examines only one criterion. These motives include concerns over the efficient use of her time, and evaluation as to the effectiveness of researching other options as opposed to using her time elsewhere better fulfilling those other desires. All of these may recommend, in a specific case, a rule with only one criterion.

However, the only way in which this can justify the thesis that the only morally legitimate reason to resist oppression is reduction of harm, it must be the case that, for each person, a consideration of all of his or her desires suggests a practical rule having only one criterion. Even then, this is a practical rule, not a moral. rule.

Even if we further qualify the input to consider only morally legitimate reasons, those reasons concern not only good desires and bad desires but morally neutral desires - the desires that motivate optional choices such as what to eat, what to read, where to shop, who to befriend, and what to do for entertainment.

All of this goes to say that the thesis that Fakhoury is arguing against is an implausible thesis to begin with, so she begins with a significant advantage.

Fakhoury argues that a love for a forbidden project also provides a morally praiseworthy reason to resist oppression. This is true, she claims, even if it is not likely to be effective in reducing material and psychological harms.

I could apply this to a case of somebody such as David Hume, who studied moral philosophy in a culture where his disregard for religious morality had a negative impact on his ability to get a job at a university. One can embellish Hume's case and make it one where official retaliation against him for his work could have brought about even greater harms to others as well, as it increases the diligence of enforcement. Consequently, his pursuit of this passion would not reduce the harms of oppression. Yet, somebody like Hume may continue to pursue the project precisely because he has a passion for understanding morality.

Please note, I am not saying that this Humesque person is acting out of a project of maximizing social utility. It is his love for moral philosophy that motivates his action, not any concern for the public good. This is his project.

The position that this is not morally permissible - that the only motive that is morally permissible is to reduce the harm of oppression - implies not only that the agent must not act on such a passion, but is not permitted to have such a passion. To even have a desire to understand morality is to be in a state where, if the harms of pursuing the project versus the harms of not doing so are nearly balanced, but the harms of not pursuing the project are slightly greater, the love of the project will tilt the motivational scales in favor of engaging in the forbidden project anyway. The only way to prevent this type of situation from arising is to have no interest - no passion - for anything other than the reduction of harm from oppression. This conclusion seems to reduce the original position to absurdity.

Once again, I want to make clear that I am siding with Fakhoury against the harm-minimizing ethicist.

Another part of the thesis that Fakhoury argues against states that one ought to weigh one's own interests equally to those of others. Fakhoury accurately claims that this is not possible. For my part, an agent can only act on his or her desires. Insofar as an interest or desire that is not one's own causes an intentional action, then that action belongs to the person whose interests motivated it. If I were to hook up a machine that allows me to control your body through remote control, the actions that your body engages in would be my actions, not yours. I would be culpable for any wrongdoing committed by your body, not you.

So, to consider all interests equally would require that an agent himself have only one desire - a desire to fulfill all interests impartially considered. This is an unreasonable conclusion for any moral theory.

In her response to the paper, Amy Berg (Rhode Island College) argued that a consequentialist can understand consequences in terms of the fulfillment of any desire, and not just a desire to reduce the harms of the oppression. Thus, the thwarting of a project would, itself, count as a harm, and the pursuit of the project would count as reducing the harms of oppression.

To be fair, this objection was not applicable to Fakhoury, who was arguing against a specific view identified above. However, this does not imply that it lacks merit.

Yet, this would still require that the agent have only one project - a project of maximizing desire (project) fulfillment. For this to be the only motivating force is for this to be the only desire or interest or project that the agent has. This is not only a non-human ethics, it is not even coherent.

So, in short, the motivation to fight oppression can come from any morally legitimate desire. Hatred of oppression, love for one's children and a desire to secure a better future for them, and even a desire for fame and reputation. The latter, though not the most noble of desires, is still legitimate.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Bad Theories, Good People

Having a bad moral theory does not make somebody a bad person.

In other words, there are a lot of people who, in trying to understand morality, adopt some odd moral theories. Moral nihilism, subjectivism, act-utilitarianism, relativism, Ayn-Rand objectivism, Christianity, Islam . . . all of these are incorrect moral theories. They are mistaken, in some way, about the nature of right and wrong, good and evil. However, the person who adopts them is not necessarily a bad person.

This is because morality (and immorality) is grounded in our sentiments – our desires and aversions – and not in our beliefs.

I don’t think you could even find a real act-utilitarian. A real act-utilitarian would have to have only one desire – a desire to maximize utility. If the agent had any other desire – even so much as an aversion to pain, a concern for her own children, a preference for butterscotch over chocolate – if she had any other desire at all, then there would be circumstances where she would fail to do the act-utilitarian. There would be some set of circumstances where the desire to maximize happiness would be nearly balanced between two near equal options, and the aversion to pain or preference for butterscotch will tilt the balance in favor of the side with the lower overall utility.

And people with only one desire – a desire to maximize happiness – do not exist. The act-utilitarian (regardless of her devotion to this moral theory) is constantly acting on a whole set of desires – including her aversion to her won pain, culturally provided aversions to lying and breaking promises, desires to repay debts, aversions to killing the innocent, affection for friends and family members, and a whole host of other interests constantly pulling them away from performing the act-utilitarian best act.

There isn't a Christian who reliably follows the Bible. Indeed, any who did would be in jail. And few people (though not few enough) who profess the selfishness ideology of Ayn Rand are genuinely selfish.

The same is true of the moral subjectivist, the moral relativist, and the moral nihilist. No matter what they claim to be true about morality, their behavior is still governed by these innate and socially constructed preferences, motivating them to tell the truth, repay debts, to refrain from taking the property that belongs to others without their consent, against murder, and against rape.

We see the same among people who claim to get their morality from scripture. They claim that their morality comes from god as expressed in whatever book they use for scripture. However, when you watch their behavior, you see them counting as “wrong” things that scripture does not prohibit, and refusing to follow commands found in scripture we have since learned to be wrong. They either reinterpret scripture so that it fits the moral facts, or simply ignore it and focus only on the parts that seem right.

This is not to say that bad theories are harmless.

Bad theories are harmful in several ways.

First, we acquire (through culture) a desire to do that which is right and an aversion to do that which is wrong. A false belief that X is right (when it is in fact wrong) motivates people to do X – to do that which is in fact wrong. False beliefs about the permissibility of slavery provide an example.

Second, bad theories serve to motivate praise for that which the theory says is right and condemnation of that which the theory says is wrong. This praise and condemnation, in turn, acts on the sentiments. This praise and condemnation brings about desires and aversions that people with an understanding of the facts (unhindered by the bad theory) would realize they have no good reason to promote. The bad theory causes them to praise what they should condemn, and to condemn what they should praise. When this praise and condemnation acts on the reward system, it produces effects that people generally have reason to avoid.

Third, not only does a bad theory motivate praise for things that are bad, it sometimes causes people to refrain from praising things that are good. An Ayn Rand Objectivist fails to motivate the praise of charity and kindness that helps people to survive and get along in the world when fortune turns against them.

So, bad theories are not harmless. There are reasons to try to get the moral theory right.

I have often used the analogy of riding a bike. Many people who can ride a bike - and do so quite well - cannot accurately explain what it is they do when they ride a bike. They think they keep their balance by shifting their weight back and forth. In fact, they keep their balance by turning the front wheel slightly and allowing momentum to carry them back and forth over the center of gravity. The fact that they have a bad theory does not prevent them from being a good bike rider. Similarly, a person with a bad moral theory might - just might - do a very good job of identifying and promoting good desires, have those desires that a people generally have reasons to promote, and lack desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

Any direct inference from, "Your moral theory is mistaken," to "You are evil and worthy of condemnation because you have the moral facts wrong," is not necessarily valid.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Praise and Condemnation 06: Side Constraints

In the pursuit of that which is good, there are certain things you are not supposed to do.

The classic example discussed in the philosophical literature is that of a doctor who has an option to carve up a healthy patient and use his organs to save five other patients who would otherwise die. Five lives for one. It sounds like a utilitarian good deal. Yet, it is considered morally impermissible.

This impressibility is found in the "side constraint" against killing - the idea that it is wrong to kill even if killing one person will save five lives. It is wrong to tell a lie even if telling this one lie will prevent five future lies.

Arpaly and Schroeder discuss the moral status of side constraints in Chapter 7 of their book In Praise of Desire. They wish to know whether it is possible for a desire-based morality can account for this phenomenon.

Before discussing their answer, I want to explain how a previous objection that I have made to their theory comes into effect here. I have claimed that the authors were mistaken to use the term "desire" to that which can serve as a reward or punishment. Instead, I have argued that a "desire that p" refers to the importance that p being true has for an agent. As it turns out, what is important to an agent can usually be used as a reward or punishment, but it need not be. Furthermore, malleable desires are desires that can be altered through the use of rewards and punishment.

Anyway, to get to the point, the authors use the term "desire" to refer to that which can serve as a reward or desire, whereas I argue that a desire is the importance of a proposition being true - something that rewards and punishments can change.

However, this distinction is not going to be relevant in this discussion. Instead, this discussion will illustrate that the claims that the authors make about intrinsic morality can survive a shift in reference from that which can be used in rewards or punishments to that which is influenced by rewards and punishments.

In ancient chemistry, when "atom" changed its meaning from "that which cannot be further divided" to "that which is the smallest piece of an element recognized as such", many of the old claims made about atoms in the original definition could still be used under the new definition. We did not need to throw out everything written under the old definition.

(Similarly, many of the scientific claims made about Pluto remained true even though we quit calling it a planet, and many of our claims about malaria remained true even after we recognized it was not "bad air".)

A desire to maximize happiness or to minimize deaths produces no side constraints. What must a desire look like to produce side constraints?

On the accounts I have been arguing for, I have defended the idea that morality is concerned with promoting, for example, an aversion to killing. This translates into an aversion "that I kill" - a desire that the proposition "I am killing" be made or kept false - preferably kept false.

Arpaly and Schroeder express this as an intrinsic desire that "I not kill now". Or, in the case of lying:

A better approach would be to include the present moment in the sense (conceptualization…) of Lucien’s desire. Suppose Lucien intrinsically desires that he NOT LIE RIGHT NOW, meaning that his concept NOW is deployed in desiring what he does. Then his desire can motivate him in the future even if he tells a lie in the present, and his desire will never motivate him to tell one lie to prevent more lies from being told by others or by himself on other occasions.

The authors argue that my conception would not prevent a person from killing one person now to avoid killing 5 people in the future. It is for this reason that they argue that the aversion to killing be understood as an aversion to not killing now.

The relationship that exists between the aversion to killing and the aversion to letting five people die is different than the relationship between the aversion to killing one person now and the aversion to killing five people later. I would argue that our aversion to letting people die must be weaker since there are so many people dying each minute. We would be an emotional wreck if we considered each and every death from any cause as comparable to us killing that person. It is for this reason that we promote a particularly strong aversion to killing.

In contrast, the idea of trading off a lie now for five future lies, or a killing now in exchange for 5 future killings, seems odd. In any real-life situation, my natural response would be to not lie now or in the future - to not kill now or in the future. There may be some bizarre circumstance that one can imagine which would make the future lies or killings unavoidable. However, we did not handle morality to deal with bizarre circumstances, but with the types of circumstances we deal with every day. In the every day world, we have many and strong reasons to promote a universal aversion to lying or killing, and that is it.

Because Arpaly and Schroeder are dealing with this odd concept of "good will" or "ill will", they see another type of problem. If I have an aversion to killing, this gives me no reason to be concerned about the fact that other people kill. On their account, my "good will" requires another intrinsic desire - an aversion to killing - that gives me reason to prevent other people from committing murder.

However, we do not need that.

Take, for example, the type of case that I have been using as illustrative of desirism. This is a community in which each individual has an aversion to their own pain, and each person has a reward system whereby each individual can promote in others an aversion to causing pain. One does not need an intrinsic desire that others not cause pain in this case. Each person's aversion to their own pain gives them reason to use praise and condemnation to promote in others an aversion to causing pain. A second, intrinsic desire that others not cause pain would be redundant.

This, further, feeds in to the question of what counts as a good or bad desire. The aversion to causing pain to others is a good desire BECAUSE people generally have reason to promote such an aversion (and the means to do so - through praise and condemnation). The aversion to causing pain to others is not a good desire BECAUSE people have an intrinsic desire that others not cause pain. We can completely eliminate this intrinsic desire that others not cause pain, and people would still have reason to condemn those who cause pain to others.

Again, we see that we can do without Arpaly and Schroeder's "epicycles" of good will and bad will.

Praise and Condemnation 05: Negligence and Moral Indifference

From the very first days of desirism, I have argued that one of the things that gives it a unique advantage is the way that it handles moral negligence.

This springs from reading The Methods of Ethics by Henry Sidgwick. Sidgwick argued against desire-centered theories of morality that an act cannot get its moral value from the value of the desires from which it springs. To argue against this thesis, he provided examples of a person with a bad desire performing a right action (a prosecutor who performs her job flawlessly while motivated by a desire to see the accused person harmed for reasons having nothing to do with guilt). He provided examples of a person performing a wrong action from a good motive (a person who commits perjury out of a desire to protect his parent from the harm of a criminal conviction). And he provided examples of a person who commits a wrong action while acting out of perfectly normal motives - the drunk driver who simply wanted to get home.

Desirism began when I responded to Sidgwick that his arguments are not applicable to the thesis that the right action is the action that a person with good desires would perform (regardless of his reason for performing it). So, the prosecutor still did what a person with good desires would do and perjurer did something that a person with good desires would not do.

In the case of negligence, the act is also something that a person with good desires would not do because the person with good desires would have had a concern for the welfare of others that the immoral agent did not have. In other words, a person can be blamed for an action that displayed the absence of a good motive.

Arpaly and Schroeder provide a similar action in Chapter 7 of their book In Praise of Desire where they discussed moral indifference.

Moral indifference is a lack of good will. A person is more morally indifferent the less good will she has.

Okay, there's that idea of "good will" that the authors use . . . the concept that I think we should do without. While the authors consider moral indifference to be the absence of a desire for the right or good properly conceived, I would call it the absence of a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally using the social tools of reward and punishment. The wording is different, but the ideas are quite similar.

What Arpaly and Schroeder's "good will" argument lacks is an explanation as to why agents are (or, more accurately, should be) condemning this absence. This is because they have many and strong reasons to promote a concern for others (or, at the very least, an aversion to causing others to come to harm), and condemnation works on the reward (punishment) systems of the brain to create and promote this aversion, not only in the agent, but in others through sympathetic learning. That is, people can learn by observing the condemnation of others, even when that condemnation occurs in a parable or story.

The authors take this issue a bit further. They also argue that a certain amount of ill will is natural to humans. In desirism terms, this translates into people having desires that people generally have reason to inhibit in others universally - desires to harm others or desires to favor one's race. A person can have "negative moral indifference" if she lacks a bad desire that people share. The authors use an example of a person who is not inclined to snap back at somebody who unjustly accuses her of some wrongdoing.

We can, in fact, praise a person who does not seek to get even or get revenge - somebody who is willing to forgive or simply is not bothered by behavior that others would typically find an imposition. People, indeed, have reason to promote in others around them a decreased drive to "get even" or "retaliate" against wrongdoing.

Furthermore, in just the same way that a person can be overcautious in preventing harm to others - refusing to perform even ordinary every-day actions out of the off chance that she might inflict unwanted harm on others, a person can be "too forgiving". A person can fail to promote justice by failing to condemn those that people generally have reason to condemn.

The issue of moral indifference supports the thesis that praise and condemnation have a purpose - to act on the reward system to change what people value. They seem to think that the having or lacking of certain intrinsic desires (a "good will") intrinsically warrants praise or condemnation. However, we respond to moral wrongdoing with condemnation for a reason. This is the correct response precisely because we have reasons to perform actions that act on the reward system in particular ways so as to produce particular results.

Praise and Condemnation 04: Side-Stepping Good and Ill Will

I am I am trying to avoid filling this blog with content that will make a reader's eyes glaze over as they eagerly seek somewhere else that they would much rather be.

This goal is in conflict with a tradition in philosophy to present an opposing view in the best possible light before criticizing it. A philosopher can go through some extraordinary, and extraordinarily clever maneuvers to protect a theory from criticism. Explaining how the philosopher has covered these issues can require a lot of difficult, confusing, and complex work.

And for what? Only to tell the reader that she can toss away those arguments in defense of a simpler way of doing these things?

I can illustrate this with a historic example.

Ancient astronomers decided that the earth was at the center of the solar system and the other heavenly bodies orbited the earth in perfect circles.

Only, those other heavenly bodies did not cooperate. They moved faster at sometimes, slower at others, and sometimes appeared to move backwards when compared to the distant stars (a phenomenon referred to as apparent retrograde motion).

To handle these situations, ancient astronomers did not move the sun to the middle of the solar system. Instead, they added epicycles - circular orbits within circular orbits that helped explain a motion that was closer to that which was observed.

However, this still did not fit perfectly well, so they added epicycles within epicycles, coming up with this extremely complex set of movements, in order to get theory to match up with observations.

The tradition that I mentioned above would have us explain this theory in details - explaining how each epicycle handled objections to the simpler theory, creating a system that was closer and closer to observation. However, in the end, the proposed alternative was just to put the sun at the center of the solar system and everything else orbiting the sun.

Do we really need to explain the epicycle theory (geocentric theory) in such painful detail before saying, "But, hey, this is all much more complicated than it needs to be. Let's go for something simpler."

In order to explain their theory of desire, Arpaly and Schroeder introduce the concepts of "good will" and "ill will'. These are meant to handle cases of an agent desiring that which is good (or bad) "correctly conceived". They then go through this concept to get it to fit our observations of desire.

What I am wondering is whether I need to go through their account in painful detail to show how it handles objections, only to say in the end that we can dismiss these complexities and simply shift the focus of our attention. Instead of putting praiseworthiness and blameworthiness at the center of the moral psychological universe, we should put the intentional acts of praise and condemnation at the center.

These are intentional actions. Like all actions, they are done for reasons. The rationalizing reasons for praise and condemnation are the same types of rationalizing reasons for other actions, the "intrinsic desires" (or final desires) of the agent. The relevant facts about praise and condemnation rests in their effects. Their primary end is to act on the reward system to alter the importance of particular states (or, more specifically, of a proposition p being made or kept true) for the agent and, thereby, to alter behavior.

We do not need concepts of "good will" or "ill will" on this conception, just as a heleocentric theory of the solar system does not need epicycles. We simply need desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally using the social tools of reward and punishment - including praise and condemnation.

On this account "praiseworthiness" and "blameworthiness" become "that which people actually have reasons to praise or condemn".

No mention of "good will" or "ill will" is required.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Praise and Condemnation 03: Pro Tanto Reasons

A "pro tanto reason" has nothing to do with favoring the Lone Ranger's partner (slightly misspelled).

I have a pro tanto reason to take the money that I know my co-worker keeps in her desk drawer. (Actually, I have no co-worker who keeps money in her desk drawer that I know of, but just play along. Okay?)

It is a fact that I could use that money to fulfill desires that I have. If somebody were to hand me a comparable amount of money, I would not shrug with indifference. I have a reason to take the money.

However, I also have pro tanto reasons not to take the money. I have an aversion to taking other people's property without their consent. I have reasons to avoid many of the likely consequences that would follow upon getting caught. However, one must be careful when considering that set of reasons. If I can get the money without being caught, then those reasons - the reasons associated with the consequence of being caught - do not exist. Those reasons only exist if I can get caught.

Many moral philosophers argue for a type of pro tanto reason that I do not defend. Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder describe it in Chapter 7 of In Praise of Desire.

[M]any moral philosophers hold that there is a pro tanto reason to relieve any given person’s suffering, though they disagree about the defeaters for such reasons (and their ultimate origins). Many moral philosophers hold that there are defeasible pro tanto reasons to tell the truth, to keep promises, to distribute goods equally, to help people achieve their life projects, and so on.

Notice that, in my discussion, I wrote about the reasons that people had. I have a pro tanto reason to take the money my co-worker has in her desk. Arpaly and Schroeder are concerned about moral reasons. There exists a moral reason to refrain from taking money from a co-workers desk. We are not talking about the same thing. I hold that there are desires that people generally have reason to promote universally, and that these desires include such thing as a desire to tell the truth, an aversion to breaking promises, and a desire to see goods distributed equally. Because they are desires, they have a weight. Because they have a weight, they can be outweighed by more and greater concerns piled up against them.

The question to answer is whether an aversion to breaking promises that can be outweighed by more and greater concerns - that exists because people generally have reasons to promote universally such aversions - counts the same as a pro tanto reason as Arpaly and Schroeder discuss the term.

They assert that a utilitarian may need to deny the existence of a pro tanto reason not to lie because it is at least possible that a given act of lying might not bring any unhappiness to anybody.

Desirism does not allow for exceptions like this. If there are reasons have more an aversion to lying, then there a good person always has a reason not to lie. However, it is possible with respect to any one person that he may not have a reason not to lie. He should have a reason not to lie, but he may not have the reasons he should have. This is the way desirism defines an evil person - or at least a less good person. It is a person who does not have the desires he should have, or has desires he should not have. More specifically, he does not have desires that people generally have reason to promote universally, or has reasons that people generally have reason for it to be the case that nobody has.

So, my final verdict is that pro tanto reasons as Arpaly and Schroeder have been using the term do not exist. They refer to a type of intrinsic value reason always exists, though it can be outweighed. Desirism does not say that such a reason does exist, but that it should exist. That's not the same thing.

Praise and Condemnation 02: Three Distinctions

In our last exciting episode, we looked at the three dichotomies that fall under the general idea of praise and condemnation.

They are:

Praise and condemnation

Credit and blame

Praiseworthiness and blameworthiness.

This is according to Chapter 6 of In Praise of Desire by Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder, which is called "Credit and Blame".

"Praiseworthiness" is the odd term here. In order for this set of terms to make the most sense, what is called "praiseworthiness" should be thought of as "creditworthiness" - but the latter term already has a meaning that has something to do with a person's qualifications for buying a home or getting a credit card, and little to do with credit in the moral sense. This is demonstrated by the fact that many of the people who are the most creditworthy in the economic sense are the least praiseworthy in the moral sense.

Furthermore, Arpaly and Schroeder gave us a definition of praiseworthiness and plameworthiness

To be praiseworthy for a right action is to act out of good will (an intrinsic desire for the right or good), or out of indifference to the lure of the wrong or bad; to be blameworthy for a wrong action is to act out of ill will (an intrinsic desire for the wrong or bad), or out of indifference to the lure of the right or good.

Now, what is this "good will" or "ill will"?

Complete good will is an intrinsic desire for the right or good, correctly conceptualized . . . Partial good will is an intrinsic desire for some part of the right or good, correctly conceptualized.

Ill will is to be understood as having the same relationship towards the wrong or bad.

I am not finding this helpful. What is "an intrinsic desire for the right or good"? What is involved in desiring the whole of the right of the good as opposed to some part? And, what is involved in conceptualizing the right or good correctly versus incorrectly?

I would like to present an alternative account of being praiseworthy or blameworthy in desirism terms, and then see how well this fits with what Arpaly and Schroeder have in mind once we untangle all of these entanglements.

To be praiseworthy for a right action . . .

Well, first, we need a concept of a right action.

A right action, in desirism terms, is that action which a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would have performed in the circumstances.

However, a person can perform a right action for bad reasons. The person who saves a child so that he can collect a reward has done what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would have done (saved the child), but not for the right reasons.

To be praiseworthy, an agent must not only perform the right action, but for the reasons that a good person would have done so. And the right reasons are the reasons that people generally have reason to promote universally in virtue of the effect that praise and condemnation have through the reward system.

Well, this is the competing desirism formulation . . . we need to look at Arpaly and Schroeder's formulation.

Correctly Conceptualized?

Spare Conativism holds that the sense required for perfect good will is to be determined by normative moral theory: the concepts deployed in grasping the correct normative moral theory are the concepts through which one must intrinsically desire the right or good in order to have good will.

By the way, "Spare Conativism" is the name that Arpaly and Schroeder give to their theory.

Anyway, the difficulty here is that Arpaly and Schroeder do not want to take sides regarding a correct normative theory. They think that there is a correct normative theory out there, but they do not want to say what it is. They want to leave that question to others. Without taking sides, they simply want to understand "correctly conceptualized" in terms of "as conceptualized by the correct normative theory."

In my first readings of this, I gave a false interpretation to this phrase that I should warn against. I originally thought that the authors were saying that all normative theories were equally valid. One could be a Kantian or a Utilitarian or some other sort of theorist, and that no theory was better than any other. I have since formed the opinion that this is not their view at all. Instead, they hold that there is a correct theory, but they do not want to go into a huge digression discussing which theory (if any) is correct.

Desirism differs from Spare Conativism in that it is both a meta-theory and a normative theory. It stands in opposition to both Kantianism and Utilitarianism.

The main difference here is that Spare Conativism allows for the possibility that intrinsic values exist. That is to say, there is (or could be) a "right" or "wrong" or "good" or "bad" - a "value property" - that is intrinsic in nature. The authors want to think of a good or ill will in terms of the appreciation of this intrinsic value. This is something that desirism has no room for.

In short, Spare Conativism relates being praiseworthy and blameworthy in terms of valuing the right thing or wrong thing, whatever they happen to be. Desirism says, "I'll tell you what the right thing and wrong thing is." At this point, there is no conflict between the two accounts. One is simply a more specific version of the other.

However, since desirism sees praise and condemnation as tools for molding desires, there is room for conflict.

It is possible that a person can value the wrong thing, and yet still not be blameworthy.

On the traditional free-will doctrine, this may be the case where the agent did not choose to perform the action. In this case, the action is not blameworthy because it is not an action. Being praiseworthy or blameworthy for a right or wrong action requires that the action be an action.

Desirism says that a person can perform an action, and yet not be blameworthy, because the action comes from a desire that praise or condemnation cannot influence. A person, out of a severe aversion to pain, may give her captors the location of the hidden rebel base. This could be a genuine action (and not just the blurting out of syllables outside of the agent's control that happen to be the location of the hidden rebel base). Yet, the agent is not blameworthy because praise and condemnation have no effect on the aversion to pain - at least not at this level.

If we look at the actual practice of morality - at the way people actually do it - governing the use of praise and condemnation based on where they can actually have an effect seems to be a part of that practice. And this is a point in favor of desirism.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Praise and Condemnation 01: Introduction

Praise and condemnation play a significant role in desirism.

Because of that, I want to pay some close attention to Chapter 6 of In Praise of Desire by Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder, which is called "Credit and Blame".

Perhaps I should say a couple of words about the title.

I have used the terms "praise" and "condemnation" because I wanted to focus on the actions that people take that I take to be kinds of reward and punishment. However, you can blame somebody without condemning him. You can take the attitude, "It's Jim's fault," and yet you may also decide to keep your feelings to yourself and not to condemn Jim for his actions. Perhaps it would be dangerous to do so - as is the case when one blames a political leader that it would be dangerous to condemn. Praise is also a type of action. So, praise and condemnation belong together as a natural pair.

The natural counterpart to blaming is "crediting". Where it is reasonable to say that a person is to blame for the death of the child, we can say that it is to somebody's credit that the child did not die.

That explains the title of the article I am commenting on. "Credit and Blame".

Carrying these facts a bit further, we see that the natural opposite of "blameworthiness" is "Creditworthiness". Unfortunately, as the article points out, we already have a widespread term "Creditworthiness" that means something different - but not different enough - that using this term would cause confusion.

So, we use the term "praiseworthiness" as the opposite of "blameworthiness" even though "praise" is not the opposite of "blame". "Praise" is the opposite of "condemn".

See, we are confused already, and we are only talking about the title.

These are just some facts about how our language developed. Perhaps we could improve the language. However, considering the huge amount of effort that would be required to change our language - change the linguistic habits of more than a billion people - this, perhaps, is not the most cost-effective use of our time.

This gives us "praise" vs. "condemnation"; "credit" vs. "blame"; and "praiseworthiness" vs. "blameworthiness".

I hope that does not confuse folks. If you are a native English speaker, you can probably grasp this because these are the rules built into English. If you are not a native speaker of English, then this is one of the confusions of language that you are going to have to learn to navigate. You have my sympathies.

But, with these distinctions set out on the table where we can look at them and try to prevent them from getting us confused, we can take a look at morality. Specifically, Arpaly and Schroeder want us to look at praiseworthiness and blameworthiness.

Here, the authors state:

To be praiseworthy for a right action is to act out of good will (an intrinsic desire for the right or good), or out of indifference to the lure of the wrong or bad; to be blameworthy for a wrong action is to act out of ill will (an intrinsic desire for the wrong or bad), or out of indifference to the lure of the right or good.

For me, this does not help much. I do not know what a "good will" or a "bad will" is. Furthermore, I am concerned about the roles that "right action" and "wrong action" play in this account. Are right actions always praiseworthy? Or do we need to distinguish between praiseworthy right actions and right actions that are not praiseworthy? If there can be right actions that are not praiseworthy, can there be wrong actions that are not blameworthy?

"Wrong action" and "blameworthy" seem to go hand-in-hand. While, on the other hand, many right actions are not praiseworthy. They are "to be expected" - the agent did what others expected him to do. A worker gets up and shows up at work on time ready to start her shift. It is a right action - but not a praiseworthy action.

I assume that we will be looking at these concerns in the postings to follow.

Friday, August 03, 2018


I fear that I have been accepting an idea that I really should question - the idea that there is this position called "centrism" that is to be taken seriously, and that it makes sense to criticize others for being "centrist".

There are, in fact, a wide variety of views that are called "centrist". I am concerned here with an understanding of the term that has come into politics within the past three years, and seems to be the dominant sense in current mentions.

This villain called a "centrist” apparently believes that, in all matters, the correct answer is always the midpoint between two extremes. So, if the Nazi were to say, “Let’s exterminate all the Jews,” and the anti-Nazi were to say, “Let us exterminate no Jews,” there is somebody out there called the “centrist” that would say, “Let’s exterminate half of the Jews.”

Of course, centrism is an absurd position. It is like saying that, if one person says that the Earth is 10,000 years old, and another says it is 4.5 billion years old, then the correct answer - and, by this, I mean the actual correct answer - is that the earth is 2.255 billion years old - the mid point between the two extremes.

The real world does not work that way.

More importantly, I don't know of anybody who thinks it does. The "centrist" - at least this type of centrist - does not exist.

Aristotle's ethics are the closest I can come to actual centrism. Aristotle held that a virtue sat between two extremes. Courage is between cowardice and foolhardiness. Generosity is between selfishness and complete selflessness. Pride sits between self-loathing and vanity.

However, Aristotle was talking about character traits, not policies. Honestly, I cannot think of a non-question begging virtue that allows for extremism. Somebody can argue that one cannot be an extremist for justice or for moral goodness. However, these ae what I would identify as question-begging virtues. They simply transfer the question of value from the virtue to the concepts of "justice" and "moral goodness". If the centrist position is just and morally good, then extreme justice or extreme moral goodness would, in fact, be centrist.

I frequently see the “centrist” fallacy used in conjunction with what Martin Luther King called the “white moderate” that he identified as potentially the most significant enemy of black equality.

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice . . .

But the “white moderate” in this context was not a "centrist". The “white moderate” did not dispute the value of ends. The “white moderate” did not claim that the correct position was a middle ground between slavery and equality. The “white moderate’s” disagreement with King was a disagreement over means, not ends.

The "white moderates" in this case were not people who said, "We should adopt a position half-way between slavery and equality." They agreed fully with equality. They disagreed with how best to bring about this state of political equality. They condemned King for choosing the wrong means to a legitimate end.

On this matter, I hold that King had the better argument - as he presented it in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. But he did not present an argument against centrism. In fact, he defended centrism. He simply said that the center line allowed non-violent protest, and that if this provoked violence on the part of others then those who resorted to violence were to be condemned, not those who defended justice.

King, most certainly, did not say, "Nothing done in defense of black equality can be considered wrong. The ends justify all means, no matter how violent or destructive."

On the question of compromise and negotiation, there are certainly those who compromise when theyCe should not. And there are also people who refuse to compromise when they should. Reasonable people can disagree over where, between the extreme positions of "always submit" and "never compromise" to make the centrist stand. Yet, almost everybody argues that there is a line somewhere between these two extremes that represents the correct attitude. This is not a dispute between centrism and non-centrism with centrism being the villain. This is a dispute between Centrism-A versus Centrism-B. If there is an argument to be made, it is not an argument against centrism.

Centrism does not exist. It is not a legitimate position. If somebody makes an appeal to centrism in an argument, he is creating a straw-man interpretation of his critic's position. When he defeats this straw man (which, certainly, is extremely easy to defeat), he is creating the illusion that he has answered his critic. In fact, he has not even addressed the critic's objection.