Saturday, April 15, 2006

Moral Prescription: Whose Reasons Matter?

In a comment about a week ago, an anonymous commenter used a common objection to those who say that morality is objective.

He disputed the theory by claiming, in effect, that somebody else can listen to all of my arguments, and they will not have any effect on his preferences one way or another. If he prefers to torture people, nothing I can say will give him any reason to change those preferences. In his words,

Ex hypothesi, there is no reason anyone who supports positions contrary to your own on immigration, wiretapping, or foreign policy to accept your criticisms as legitimate or authoritative, except insofar as you show that their views are contrary to their own prudential as opposed to "moral" interests.

The Isolated Man and Child Example

The example that I have used elsewhere to illustrate this point involves a case of two people – an adult and a child – who have become isolated. They are somewhere where nobody else can physically reach them or interact with them. There is, however, two-way radio communication, so you can talk to them. The adult, it turns out, has a desire to torture the child and has said that he is going to do it. Nobody can stop him, and he is not going to be made to suffer for his acts. Your job, as the man on the radio, is to talk him out of it.

No matter what you say to the man in isolation with the child, he can simply answer by shrugging his shoulders and saying, “I don’t care.” If, in fact, he does not care, then you are stuck. You will not be able to persuade him not to torture the child.

The Anonymous Commenter is correct. Your reasons will have to appeal to the desires he already has. If those desires include a desire to torture the child, and this desire outweighs all of the adult’s other concerns, then he is going to torture the child. Nothing you can do or say will stop him.

Similarly, reason alone cannot change a person’s desires with respect to immigration, wiretapping, or any of the other wrongs that I have written about in this blog.

However, where the Anonymous Commentator has made his mistake is in thinking that this matters in any relevant way.

Theist and Atheist Ethics

Religious ethics claims to have an answer to the problem of motivating the man on the island. Whatever the man in isolation with the child wants, he certainly does not want what God will do to him in the next life if he harms that child. Thus, the theist claims that we always have a reason not to do that which is wrong. Thus, he has more and stronger reason not to torture the child than to torture the child.

However, this depends on getting him to believe that there is a God that will punish him. If there are atheists about who are willing to tell him that God does not exist and that he has nothing to fear of the afterlife, the man in isolation will loose his incentive not to torture the child. This is where atheism is seen as such a threat to morality.

[Note: This does depend on one’s brand of theology. The theology that claims that access to heaven depends on believing in God and not on good deeds offer this man no reason not to torture the child. The theology that claims that God rewards those who torture children (the way some theologies claim that God rewards those who blow up civilians, execute converts, block important medical research, turn a blind eye to the earth’s environment, or fight for legislation that inflicts great harm on others) also would give him no reason not to torture the child. For the purpose of this posting, however, we are talking about a God that will punish those who torture children.]

If it is permissible to lie to the man to keep him from torturing the child (which it is), then the atheist is just as free to make up stories as the theist. The story does not have to say that there is a God who will punish him in the afterlife. It could be that the man will break out in an extremely painful rash where he will feel as if he had been skinned alive and dipped in salt water. This does not give us any particularly compelling reason to make it a ‘religious’ story about gods and demons and heaven and hell.

More importantly, the theistic claim that they have a useful fiction, even if it is true, is quite different from the claim that they have the moral truth.

In fact, one of the problems with the religious story is that it is just as good at getting people to do things that are evil as it is at getting them to do things that are good. History shows us how it has been used to motivate tribes and countries into attacking and slaughtering or enslaving their neighbors, burn witches and scientists at the stake, fly airplanes into buildings, blow themselves and dozens of civilians up on busses and trains, release chemical weapons in subways, and pass hate-based “marriage-protection” legislation.

Time and time again demagogues have stood before crowds and used religious speech to convince the people that they are a part of a great army that must unite to fight battles that should have never been fought.

Desire Utilitarianism

I have mentioned these propositions before, but let me repeat some of the basic claims that serve as the foundation for desire utilitarianism.

Beliefs are mental states that describe how the world is. The person who believes that he is going out with Jenny believes that the universe is so constituted that the proposition, “I am going out with Jenny” is true.

Desires are mental states that describe how the agent wants the world to be. The person who has a desire to go out with Jenny does not necessarily believe that “I am going out with Jenny” is true. In fact, he can believe that it is false. But he would prefer the world in which “I am going out with Jenny” is true. He will be disposed to act so as to make or keep the world in a state where “I am going out with Jenny:” is true.

People always seek to make or keep true the propositions that fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires. They always act to make or keep true the propositions that fulfill the more and stronger of their own desires given their beliefs. In this way, false beliefs can get in the way of their fulfilling their desires.

Desires cannot be ‘true’ or ‘false’. The propositions that are the objects of the desire can be true or false. A person who has a desire has a motivating reason to make or keep the proposition that is the object of the desire true. However, the desire itself is not true or false. The desire merely exists. As a result, there is no way to get on the radio and convince the adult who is in the isolated environment with the child that his desire is mistaken.

However, this is not a valid test for an objective morality. An objective moral system can be perfectly comfortable with this fact. Indeed, an objective moral system has to be comfortable with this fact.

Morality is not concerned with what to say to a hypothetical man in isolation with a child who can only be reached through radio contact. Morality is concerned with the lives we live in fact, which involves a great deal of interaction and within which no person is truly isolated.

In the real world, “wrong” refers to that act that it makes sense for society to respond to with condemnation and sometimes punishment.

Implications for the Man on the Island

So, what does Desire Utilitarianism tell us about the isolated adult who wishes to torture the child?

It says that we cannot use reason to change the man’s desires; reason has no necessary connection to desires.

However, there are a great many things that reason cannot do. Reason does not grow food. However, it tells us how to use the tools we have to grow more food. Reason does not measure the distance to the sun, but it tells us how to figure this out. Reason does not change peoples’ desires. However, it tells us how to use the tools of social conditioning – praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment – to change those desires.

Our inability to accomplish a great many things through reason alone – our need to use other types of tools to accomplish tasks that are outside of the reach of reason – does not change the fact that statements about how to use those tools are objectively true or false. Astronomy remains an objective field of study, even though no person can accomplish anything in astronomy using reason alone.

Ex hypothesi, the isolated man is outside of the reach of our tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Therefore, we are powerless to help the child in this hypothetical case. The only help we can provide is by convincing the man that torturing the child will not ultimately fulfill the desires he has. It is a claim that may well be false.

We may try to manipulate the man with a lie, claiming that torturing the child will harm his interests in some way, such as bring about eternal torture in hell or cause him to have a disease. However, these manipulative stories do not suddenly become ‘true’ because they are useful . . . if they are useful.

Yet, it is still a perfectly true and accurate statement to tell the man that torturing the child is wrong.

If he told us his act was not wrong, we would not think that he is making a claim about his own motivation or reasons for action. We would take him to be claiming that we, people in general, have no reason to bring the tools of condemnation and punishment to bear on people like him.

He would be mistaken.

This is the same sense in which the person who says, “Homosexuality is not immoral” is not making a claim about his own desire to engage in homosexual acts. He is saying that society in general has no reason to bring its tools of condemnation and punishment to bear on people like him. The reasons that society does offer are all flawed.

In the same sense, our telling the man on the island that his act is wrong is not meant to be a claim that he has no desire to torture the child. We are not talking about what will fulfill his desires. We are talking about the fact that people generally have reason to bring the tools of condemnation and punishment to bear against people like him.

That claim is either objectively true, or objectively false.

The isolated man with the child might not care about this truth, but he can do nothing about the fact that it is true. He can do nothing to change the fact that his act is wrong.

Those who claim that we have reason to bring the tools of condemnation and punishment against homosexuals, however, are mistaken. We look at their reasons and discover them all to be flawed – to be grounded on false premises or drawn through invalid arguments.

All of this argues for a state in which we are quite prone to shout in frustration at the isolated man through the radio, “If you touch that kid you son-of-a-bitch I swear, when I get my hands on you . . .”

The mistake that rests at the root of the isolated man case is in thinking that our moral claims are paying attention to the reasons that the would-be torturer does or does not have for torturing the child. That is not the case. Our claim is about what reasons society has for using its tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Once we recognize this fact, we can see how we can have an objective morality without claiming that reason alone can cause the isolated man not to torture the child.


Anonymous said...

So, if I read you correctly, you are saying something like:

"Morality rests in persuading an individual that his (performed or contemplated) action is blameworthy, and that he should feel shame. Morality is social; it is necessarily imposed by the perceived actions of other people."

I also wonder about the distinction between moral and practical considerations. It seems blurry at best. The fallacy of the "is-ought" dichotomy isn't apparent to unsophisticated thinkers; consider how many people use the word "unnatural" as if they meant "immoral." I have a sneaking suspicion that it may not even be a fallacy with respect to in every circumstance. Casuistry shows that one can't apply a moral stricture equally in every case, and the only reason this can be possible is if you are forced to derive your "oughts" from the facts of the matter.

If I was in a walled city during a siege and the populace was forced to eat domestic animals for food, to use a very contrived example, would it be more moral for me to eat my own cat or to steal my neighbor's? What if you know my cat is like my child to me? (Gross, I know, but it's the best example I've been able to come up with to point up the differences in thought among a group of people discussing the issue.) I suspect that an honest man would have to throw up his hands and say he couldn't blame me for doing whatever I felt I had to... but I somehow never get that response when I bring up the thought experiment.

Also, I don't know if it wouldn't be appropriate to place the locus of morality in the individual actor after all. Like I said above, there exists a perception of the attitudes and actions of others, and this perception may be true or false. Regardless of its truth or falsity, it's that perception that guides our morality. No matter how "absolute" a person thinks morality is, their actual morality changes if their perception changes.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Hi. Short-time reader, first time commenter here.

This is in response to the phrase "hate-based 'marriage protection' legislation", which implies you advocate marriage for homosexual couples.

Morality is arbitrary, yet it is that by which people advocate keeping marriage a heterosexual deal, minus those true homophobes whose opinions don't count. The best argument I've heard is that marriage is and always has been designed to create a family; it's a sexual contract by which men claim women as their property for breeding with, in effect.

Lately (that is, the past fifty years), this traditional definition of marriage has been eroded by progressive social change that has liberated women and sex and separated the act of having children from marriage. That is, people no longer get married then have children as a matter of course, and many have children out of wedlock without shame. Now folks get married because they're in love, which is the "wrong reason", by virtue of being opposite to the traditional one.

I don't believe in marriage, yet I affirm that it should be kept heterosexual; morals are arbitrary, so it can go either way and not much matter. Still, I would rather protect the "sanctity" of an arbitrary institution in order that the popular myths concerning love and happiness be fought in some way. If gays can marry, then marriage is meaningless in fact; nothing but a government-endorsed friendship. I believe heterosexual marriage is as much anyway these days, which is the problem. Protecting it is a symbolic act, then, but since most social constructs are symbolic, I don't feel remorse for fighting for the protection of something intangible and arbitrary.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I will have more to say about the most recent comments later. However, before I head off to work, I want to make a couple of brief preliminary comments.

(1) Morality is not arbitrary. The idea that one can pull a rule out of a hat -- like 'thou shalt not wear plaid with stripes,' and by that act alone make those who do so evil or deserving of punishmet is absurd. "Deserving of punishment" is a state that requires reasons, and requiring reasons means it is not arbitrary.

(2) There is a difference between morality and beliefs about morality. Beliefs about morality change with a wide variety of sociological and psychological factors. But, then, beliefs about the age of the earth or the number of planets in the solar system also change with a wide variety of sociological and psychological factors. We sometimes use the term 'morality' to mean 'the moral beliefs of an individual or group,' but that is not the sense in which I use the term.

I use the term in its philosophical sense.

A belief that snow is white is true if and only if snow is white. A belief that abortion is wrong is true if and only if abortion is wrong. If it is not possible for the belief that abortion is wrong to be true or false, then it is nonsense for anybody to have the belief that abortion is wrong.

In general, a "believe that X" is a mental attitude that 'X is true'. A 'belief that X is wrong' is a belief that 'X is wrong' is true. If it is not possible for 'X is wrong' to be true, then it is irrational to have the belief that X is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo --

Surely changing beliefs can and does change behavior. Reason and evidence can change beliefs. And, if that's true, then that seems to be the best way to get good behaviors out of people (I'm thinking largely about rearing kids here) because a person with a good understanding about the truths of life will be able to handle novel situations that someone merely conditioned to behave a certain way may not. Also, what if our kids are conditioned through praise, condemnation, etc. to respond to us (their parents) the way we'd like when we happen to be in a position to evaluate them, but are really not that interested in the good behavior per se (perhaps because they don't understand the merits of such behavior).