Saturday, September 23, 2006

Description and Prescription

In response to an earlier posting on “Choosing a Moral Theory,” made the following comment:

I'm not sure that the point here is as clear to uninformed readers as it could be. It should be recognized that Desire Utilitarianism is a *descriptive* statements about the way people *do* make choices, it is not a *prescriptive* theory telling people what they should (not) do and why.

Describing and Prescribing in Desire Utilitarianism

Actually, I deny that there is a sharp break between what is “descriptive” and what is “prescriptive.” I hold that it is possible for some statements to be both, at the same time, “descriptive” in that they report some fact about the world, and “prescriptive” in that they tell people what to do.

If it is true (as a matter of description) that a state of affairs S is such as to fulfill desire D, then it is also true that this state of affairs S is to be prescribed for those people who have desire D. That is to say, people with desire D have a “reason for action” for choosing S (barring the existence of more and stronger desires that would be thwarted by choosing S).

The previous paragraph is purely descriptive. It contains a set of propositions that I am willing to defend as objectively true. Furthermore, these statements describe when it makes sense to prescribe a state of affairs.

Now, if we say of some state of affairs S that, “S is such as to fulfill desire D”, then we are describing S. And, at the same time, with the very same sentence, we are prescribing S for those with desire D.

Looking at the other side of the coin for a moment, when we say to a person with desire D, “You should bring about S,” this statement is true (and objectively true) whenever “S is such as to fulfill desire D” is true (barring the existence of more and stronger desires that would be thwarted by choosing S).

So, we have two types of statements. We have statements that are descriptive only (e.g., “The car is red.”). We have statements that are both, at the same time, descriptive and prescriptive (e.g., “You should get a red car.”). This is a statement that describes a state of affairs of the agent having a red car as a state that would fulfill the more and the stronger of the agent’s desires.

Note: Here, I am talking about ‘should’ in the practical sense, not ‘should’ in the moral sense. Moral ‘should’, as I suggested yesterday, includes a consideration of the desires of people other than the agent. Yesterday, I described some of the elements that go into thinking that moral ‘should’ ultimately has to do with what ‘reasons for action’ (desires) we all should have so that people generally stand a better chance of fulfilling their desires. In this posting on the relationship between description and prescription, the simpler “practical ‘should’” is sufficient.

The Biggest Problem with the Descriptive/Prescriptive Distinction

The biggest problem that I have with the Descriptive/Prescriptive distinction is that it smacks of metaphysical dualism.

The ‘description/prescription’ distinction ties in with the so-called ‘fact/value’ distinction and the ‘is/ought’ distinction. I have the same problem with all of these. However, it is easiest to explain the problem by looking at the ‘is/ought’ distinction.

This distinction says that there are two types of entities; ‘is’ entities, and a completely separate set of ‘ought’ entities. Each set of entities is captured by its own language. We use ‘is’ language to talk about ‘is’ entities, and ‘ought’ language to talk about ‘ought’ entities.

These two types of entities are supposed to be completely separate from one another. We can never use ‘is’ language to talk about ‘ought’ entities.

Yet (and there is where the problem comes in), these two types of entities are supposed to interact. We are told that these ‘ought’ entities have the power to influence the motion of matter in the real world. They can cause a person to tell the truth, to give money to charity, to save a life, or to repay a debt.

This is where I have my problem. In order for something to have an effect in the real world – in order for it to be a part of our understanding of the motion of atoms through space, then it must be a part of the real world.

There is only one distinction worth talking about, and that is the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is not.’

‘Ought’ either fits into the world of ‘is’, or it fits into the world of ‘is not.’

Ultimately, it does not matter to the structure of the universe whether one categorizes morality as an ‘is’ or an ‘is not’ – any more than it matters to the structure of the universe whether Pluto gets categorized as a ‘planet’ or as a ‘dwarf planet.’ Pluto’s orbit, size, and composition do not change.

Similarly, if somebody wants to define ‘morality’ in such a way that it falls within the category of ‘is not’, it does not affect the structure of the universe. Desires still exist. Desires are still reasons for action. Relationships between states of affairs and desires still exist. Desires still function to motivate people to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of their desires. It still makes sense to strengthen desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others and inhibit desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. We still have the capacity to modify the desires each other has (to some extent) through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. All of these things remain a part of the world that ‘is’, even if somebody wants to claim that morality must be assigned to the category of ‘is not’.

I recommend (and this is just like recommending a definition of ‘planet’ that excludes Pluto) that ‘values’ be understood as a subset of ‘facts’, that ‘ought’ be understood as a subset of ‘is’, and that ‘prescription’ be understood as a subset of ‘description.’

Specifically, a value is a relationship between a state of affairs and a set of desires. ‘Ought’ = ‘is such as to lead to the fulfillment of the desires in question’. Describing a state as being one that fulfills a desire is the same as prescribing that state to those people who have the desire (barring the existence of more and stronger desires that would be thwarted choosing that state).

I do not like dualism. I particularly do not like theories that say that I have to postulate things other than what 'is' - entities that are supposed to have relevance in the world that 'is', even though they are separate and distinct from that world.

Moral Theory

Another atheist ethicist also wrote:

I think from the comments I've read here that readers want reasons to select a prescriptive moral theory.

This is a ‘want’ that can never be fulfilled. There is a difference between a moral theory and a set of moral principles. A moral theory (or, more accurately, a ‘value theory’ which would have to include as one of its parts a theory of moral values), like any scientific theory, is descriptive in nature. Its purpose is to describe the phenomena of prescription. That is to say, “a theory of value” and “a theory of prescription” are two ways of saying the same thing.

Once we have a (descriptive) theory of value – a theory of prescriptivity - we can use it to look at prescriptions themselves, and we can evaluate them as strong or weak, sound or unsound. We can apply it to prescriptions as to which car to buy, which college to go to, what job to accept, and who to marry. We can also apply this theory of prescriptivity to look at prescriptions as to what desires to promote or inhibit in a community. This has important implications on prescriptions for praising or condemning individuals (that is to say, for determining when we should praise them, and when we should condemn them).

Before we can do any of this, we need a theory of prescriptivity. We need a descriptive theory that tells us what ‘reasons for action’ actually exist and how they work.

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