Friday, May 18, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 09: The "Admirable" Demon

This commentary on Graham Oddie's paper is turning out longer than expected. Still, I have come to value the technique of creating commentaries.

For reference, so that you do not need to go hunting for it, the previous nine posts have all had to do with: Oddie, Graham (2017). "Desire and the Good: in search of the right fit". In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds.), The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

In a universe apparently filled with demons, Oddie postulates that, “an evil demon threatens the world with some terrible outcome unless you admire him.” In this case, there is a sense in which you ought to admire him, but that the demon is not admirable.

This creates a problem for “Deontic FA”, which Oddie defined as:

(Deontic FA) X is V if and only if one ought to take attitude F(V) to X.

Because, here, one ought to admire the demon (to prevent the terrible outcome), but the demon is despicable. The right side of the biconditional is true, but the left side false, so the biconditional does not hold.
Oddie identifies a similar problem for “Axiological FA” where, “the demon threatens to bring about the worst outcome unless you desire that outcome,” thus, “it is clearly better for you to desire the worst outcome than not.” Yet, it is still the worst outcome.

To answer these problems, Oddie considers a type of response that comes from Olson (2009) and Ewing (1959) that suggests that there are multiple definitions of ‘ought’. It is like the claim that “Georgia is one of the United States” is true when talking about the region north of Florida, but false when talking about the country on the east side of the Black Sea bordering Russia. The biconditional does fail under the definition of “ought” that appears in the objection, but there is another definition where the biconditional still holds.

Ewing presented some additional detail by claiming that one sense of “ought” refers to what people generally have reason to condemn (they have reason to condemn the person who fails to admire the demon). He distinguishes this from the ‘ought’ that is fitting to admire. It is in the first sense that the biconditional is false, while it remains true in the second.

As Oddie argues, “Representational FA” does not have this problem since, regardless of the merits of what an agent ought to do or it would be good for the agent to value, it remains true both that the demon is not admirable, and that it is not representationally accurate for one to take the attitude of admiring the demon (though it may be prudent or even obligatory to do so).

However, I still do not know what “representational accuracy” is.

We could be working under an assumption that representational accuracy requires representing the admirable quality as an objective, intrinsic property of “deserving-admirationness”. This could make the most sense of how we use the term, but it could lead us straight into an error theory. All claims of admirability would then be false since we are representing things as having a property that nothing actually has.

The tension found in Deontic FA and Axiological FA would be minor compared to this error.

I am not saying that representational accuracy requires this and that we must reject Representational FA as a result. I am saying that this is one way it can go. Another alternative is that representational accuracy is found precisely in Deontic FA – that to accurately represent admirability one represents it in terms of what people ought to admire.

Furthermore, I do not see reason for concern in the responses from Olson and Ewing mentioned above. The fact that the word “Georgia” refers to both a state and a country may generate some confusion, but it does not provide a reason to prefer a theory of “Georgia” that holds that some propositions are true of “Georgia” in the one sense and false of “Georgia” in the other. That is not a problem – it is simply a fact about the language we have invented.

Given uncertainty over what “representational accuracy” consists in and that the ambiguity of a term like “ought” need not be much of a problem, I would like to look more closely at what Oddie called “Deontic FA”.

In the previous section I described a community containing individuals who all had an aversion to pain and a capacity to create in others an aversion to causing pain by using rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation. The members of this community have reason to call “admirable” those who go out of their way to avoid causing pain to others, and to call “deplorable” those who do not. These are terms of praise and condemnation and, as such, are useful in creating a community where individuals have this aversion to causing pain that people generally have reason to promote universally.

Let us add the admirable demon to this community. He apparently has a desire to be admired. To get what he wants he is threatening to harm others unless they admire him. Given that others have an aversion to pain, he threatens to cause others pain unless they admire him (and not necessarily limit that pain to those who do not admire him).

This demon does not have a trait that people generally have reason to promote universally. To admire this demon is to promote universally the trait of being willing to harm others unless he is admired. In fact, the agent (not the demon) in holding that such a trait is admirable would have to also believe that she herself should adopt this trait – that she should also be disposed to cause pain if she is not admired. The same can be said of all her neighbors.

At this point, I need to admit to a shift in what I have called “admirable”. In the original example, we were talking about admiring a demon who wishes to inflict pain if he was not admired. Here, I am talking about admiring a trait. More precisely, we can combine the two by saying that one is admiring a person in virtue of a trait. We cannot simply admire the demon. We must have a reason to admire him – something we admire him for.

The demon’s demand, if not carefully worded, would leave us with a loophole. While the demon is deplorable in virtue of his being willingness to inflict pain unless he is admired, perhaps he is also an extremely gifted painter who can be admired for what he can put on a canvas. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and raped Sally Hemmings repeatedly – her non-consent being grounded both on the fact that she was a slave and, at the start of the affair, a young teenager. Insofar as this was true, Jefferson was not admirable. Yet, he may still be admired for his skill at eloquently presenting principles of and enlightenment.

In terms of examining Deontic FA, this would be cheating. The counter-example assumes that there is no other trait for which the demon can actually be admired. However, the fact that our admiration is focused on traits, and on individuals only in virtue of the fact that they exhibit admirable traits, does require that we specify what is going on with the demon.

With these considerations, I would offer an alternative to Deontic FA as follows:

(Deontic FA) X is V in virtue of X having trait T if and only if people generally ought to promote universally T by taking attitude F(V) to X in virtue of X having T.

To have a genuine counter-example to this version of Deontic FA, one would need a case in which the demon exhibited a trait that would not be counted as admirable, and yet for it to be a trait that people ought to promote universally by praising those who exhibited it and condemning those who did not. The demon’s trait of being disposed to cause pain unless he is admired is both despicable, and not a trait that people ought to promote universally. It is not a counter-example.

This defense of a form of Deontic FA does not defeat Representational FA. Recall that the objection raised against Representational FA concerned its lack of specificity when it came to cashing out “representational accuracy.” We can now cash out representational accuracy in terms of representing a person as having a trait that people generally ought to promote universally using praise and condemnation. The demon is deplorable, and it is representationally accurate to deplore the demon.

We can apply the same analysis to “delightful.” There are things we have reason to want people to take delight in – the laughter and the accomplishments of one’s children. There are things we do not want people to take delight in – the suffering and failure of one’s children. People generally have reason to encourage delight in some states and not in others.

At the same time, people sometimes use the term to refer to things that people do not have reason to promote delight in – a delightful meal or concert where there is no fault in others who not only take no delight in the but find them horrible. The use of “delightful” in these cases generally represents an error. In some cases, it may be an exaggerated compliment, “This is so good that those who do not delight in it are somehow defective.” In some cases, it is snobbery and prejudice, “Though there is no reason to promote a delight in this universally, those who do not delight in it are inferior beings – defective in some way.” These uses of the term do not obligate us to come up with a theory in which these uses report facts.

Oddie ends his discussion by drawing some lessons for the theory of the good.

This delivers a constraint on fitting attitudes (namely that they be capable of being representationally accurate) that will narrow the range and nature of the fitting responses to evaluative attitudes in general and to the thin evaluative attribute of goodness. The fitting response to a state’s being good must be a presentation of that state as good.

I have not given any reason to reject Oddie’s analysis of goods for which there is a fitting response – a response that people generally have reason to encourage universally. However, I am including under the concept of “goodness” those states that fulfill desires – the aversion to pain, hunger, thirst, certain food preferences, basic environmental comfort (temperature preferences), and the like – that evolution, environment, and experience have planted in our brains. In fact, I am using these desires as the foundation for the fittingness of such things as the aversion to causing pain.

, and that evolution and experience has planted in the brain. am using a broader definition of desire, and of good, than Oddie. I am including as desired the value chips planted in our brains by evolution and the regular course of biological development. In my description of the community of individuals with an aversion to pain, the evolutionarily acquired brain chip of aversion to pain, the admirability of honesty, and the delightfulness of a child’s achievements.

In the sample community seeded initially with people who have an evolutionarily acquired aversion to pain and a reward system, these are what make the aversion to causing others pain admirable. Without the evolutionarily acquired aversion to pain, promoting admiration of those who avoid causing pain would be pointless. Without a reward system, it would be useless.

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