Saturday, January 06, 2007

Belief, Evidence, and the Justification of Harm

I consider subjectivism to be a particularly pernicious doctrine – because it basically boils down to, “If I wish you dead, then you deserve to die.” If Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et al., are going to campaign to convert the world to atheism, I would prefer it if atheists were not holding onto a view of ethics that was at least as prone to irrationality and abuse as scripture.

To help understand a little of why I hold this position, and the position itself, I wish to address some comments that Atheist Observer made to yesterday’s post. Atheist Observer wrote:

While one can work out a logical objective relationship of ethics based on the "encouraging desires that fulfill other desires" it would seem the desires that are being thwarted or fulfilled may be in some respects subjective.

Take cooperation and competition. I may desire to see competition be promoted in society because I think it brings out the greatest effort in people. You may think cooperation should be promoted because you desire society to accomplish great things and you feel the greatest accomplishments are achieved through cooperation.

We could both see our positions as best to fulfill others' desires, but have quite different views of what should be encouraged.

I'm in no way arguing from the "everything is subjective" perspective, but that in the desires we have, and how we see them fulfilling the desires of others we can't totally escape some degree of subjectivity.

Before I go on to use these comments to explain some of my own views, I want to state that my interest in using this quote is to create a ‘Rosetta stone’ of sorts that compares the statements that Atheist Observer wrote to statements that I would write. It is a translation from one language into another that I hope will better make the one language understandable. Towards this end, I thought it might be useful to present an account of what goes through my mind as I read a comment such as this.

At the end of the first paragraph, I read the words “…the desires that are being thwarted or fulfilled may be in some respects subjective.”

The word subjective has multiple meanings, and I wonder which meaning the author has in mind. There is one sense of the word in which I insist that all value is subjective – this being the sense that says that value terms are irretrievably about mental states. Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Desires are mental states. Anybody who asserts that value exists in a form independent of mental states is mistaken. All value is subjective in this sense. Is this the sense that the author has in mind?

I am presented with an example. There are two agents. Agent one has “a desire to see competition being promoted.” This is because the agent “thinks it brings out the greatest effort in people.” The other agent has “may think that cooperation should be promoted.” This agent’s reason is because the agent “desires society to accomplish great things” and “feels the greatest accomplishments are achieved through cooperation.”

So, Agent 1 has a belief that competition “brings out the greatest effort in people.” Agent 2 has the belief that cooperation brings about great accomplishments.

What does it take for an effort, or an accomplishment to be great?

‘Great’ is a value-laden term. For an effort to be great, there must be many and/or strong reasons to promote that effort. The only type of ‘reasons’ that exist are desires. So, a ‘great effort’ must be one that, directly or indirectly, fulfills many strong desires. Any other evaluation of an effort either does not make any reference to reasons for action at all, or makes references to reasons for action that do not exist. In these cases, there are no real ‘reasons for action’ for promoting the level of effort. The speaker’s suggestion that something for which there is no real ‘reason for action’ to promote is ‘great’ is nonsense. That is, unless, we define ‘great’ to be synonymous with ‘ordinary’, ‘unimportant’, ‘insignificant’, or any other term indicating that which we have no reason to be concerned about.

Now, the author does not say that greatest effort is the product of competition, but only that Agent 1 ‘thinks’ that this is the case. Agent 2 “feels [that] the greatest accomplishments are achieved through cooperation.”

Well, another agent may ‘think that’ an eye could not exist unless it had a designer, or ‘feel that’ God is present in a beautiful sunset. That a person ‘thinks that’ or ‘feels that’ something is the case, does not imply that it is the case. I dismiss anybody’s claim that Agent 2 “feels that” cooperation brings great accomplishments for exactly the same reason that I dismiss anybody’s claim that he “feels that” God is present in a sunset.

Feelings are not to be trusted. Only facts.

If it is not possible for cooperation to bring great accomplishments to be true in fact, then feeling that cooperation brings great accomplishments is a hallucination. If it is not possible for competition to bring out the greatest effort in people is true in fact, then ‘thinking that’ it does involves believing a fiction.

Building social policy on hallucination and fiction is not a very wise plan. I will admit that hallucinations are subjective – they exist only in the mind of the person who is having them. And one person’s hallucinations may not coincide with the hallucinations of another. However, I also hold that these hallucinations are to be ignored. They deserve as much respect as sources of knowledge as faith. And that one person ‘thinks’ is the case is to be weighed in decision making only to the degree that he can demonstrate that it is true.

Next, I come to a paragraph that states, “We could both see our positions as best to fulfill others' desires, but have quite different views of what should be encouraged.”

Of course, people are going to have different views on what should be encouraged. We clearly have an example here of two people who are in disagreement. There is disagreement, for example, over the existence of God and what happens to a person after death. Some ‘think that’ there is no life after death, and others ‘feel that’ there must be something of a person that survives death.

However, the claim that subjectivists defend is that a person can ‘think that’ something is the case and use that ‘something’ as a basis for deciding who lives, who dies, who remains free, and who goes to prison, even though he has no evidence supporting what he thinks and, in fact, no evidence is even possible. Because what he ‘thinks’ is the case is the type of thing that does not allow for evidence or proof – it is ‘true’ merely because the person ‘thinks that’ it is true.

The problem is not one of disagreement. It is one of disagreement based on beliefs with evidence – belief in things that lack evidence, or even the possibility of evidence.

If there is a mere difference of opinion, that is fine. Let us try to evidence for or against the various option. However, if there is a difference of opinion about something for which there is not and can never be evidence, I have to ask, “Why have those opinions? And, more importantly, why insist that they play a central role in determining who to kill and who to let live?”

Now, I am not at all inclined to condemn a person who ‘thinks that’ or ‘feels that’ something is the case without evidence – without anything to be said for making that case that what he ‘thinks’ or ‘feels’ is the case is in fact the case. However, I do hold that these beliefs that are immune to evidence are the last things to be weighed in any question of who is to be harmed, and to what degree.

That is to say, people generally have more and stronger ‘reasons for action that exist’ (desires) for giving these beliefs-in-things-that-can-never-be-proved-or-disproved-because-they-exist-outside-the-realm-of-proof the least consideration in its deliberation, then the high status that they enjoy today.

Atheist Observer, I value your comments. Please do not take this posting as harsh criticism. In a context such as this, it is hard to provide the inflection and tone that would communicate that my intention here is only to explain how I deal with some of the concepts that I find in your post. Yes, it is true, I think that you are giving ‘beliefs that cannot be proved’ more weight than they deserve. I hope I have explained the nature of this disagreement. I also hope that you take this explanation in the spirit that I intended it.


Anonymous said...

To the extent I follow your post, I don’t detect any substantial disagreement between our positions. The basic subjectivity of values does come from the mental states you define as desires. With no objective measure of these states we can hardly define them otherwise.
As to the significance of the terms “thinking” and “feeling” without supporting evidence I concur they have no particular consequence.
Had I been more careful I would have said something along the lines of, “Based on the evidence of more and better products produced more cheaply in businesses with robust competition, and that these fulfill desires of both people in those businesses and their customers, you draw a conclusion that competition is a positive tool for an ethical society and should be encouraged.” To be followed with something like, “Based on the evidence that the most successful businesses (again defined as fulfilling the desires of those in the business and the customers) show a high degree of cooperation between individuals and departments within the business and between the business, its suppliers, and its customers, I draw a conclusion that cooperation is a positive tool for an ethical society and should be encouraged.”
Neither position is a subjective assertion without supporting evidence. And of course the positions aren’t mutually exclusive. But with the same goal of encouraging actions which best fulfill the desires of others, we may end up with contradictory positions. I think you addressed this as a difference of opinions.
In a given situation I would assert we should collect as much objective data as we can, and to the extent we can agree on the utility of an outcome in fulfilling desires, we refine our perspective on the efficacy of a particular strategy in that situation.
As an ardent supporter of the scientific method, and a dedicated opponent of those who would say ethics are purely subjective, or handed down from a nonexistent entity, I would support every effort to bring as much objectivity into our ethical system as possible. If this constitutes a significant difference from your system, I’m afraid I don’t yet see it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

Your claim that we have no objective measure of desires does not prove subjectivity, at least in any strong sense.

Our situation is like that which we had to temperature, before the thermometer was invented. The fact that we could not assign a number to the temperature of something does not imply that it had no temperature - or whatever we called the temperature of something was automatically correct. Rather, it had a temperature that we did not yet know how to measure.

Desires are entities that control our intentional actions. They are real entities with a real strength that we can not yet measure precisely. We might not ever be able to. However, this does not imply that any assignment we give to the strength of any desire is automatically correct, simply because we do not know of a more precise way of figuring these things out.

Yes, two people can come up with different conclusions. In that case, one or both of them is wrong. Similarly, two doctors can look at a patient's health records and disagree about the effects of a possible treatment. In the light of these conflicting opinions, the patient still has to make a decision. There is nothing subjective in any strong sense in this - there are still 'facts of the matter'. Here, too, we are simply dealing with the problem of ignorance, not a lack of objectivity.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you could clarify your definitions. I’m having trouble distinguishing between what you call subjective and what I would call arbitrary. The statement, “Strawberries taste good to me” is a subjective statement because it refers to a subjective experience rather than an objective truth about strawberries apart from my reaction to them. It is not an arbitrary statement, because I if I am truthful cannot choose any statement about my reaction, I can only report my experience.
One can apply the same principle to ethics. Our desires and feelings about things are subjective experiences, but that does not mean our statements about these feelings and their relationships to the world can be arbitrary. Nor does it imply objective realities and relationships do not exist.
If your view is that we could theoretically objectively measure these subjective experiences, therefore they are objective rather than subjective, then any remaining definition of subjectivity becomes nonsensical.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

As I said in the post, ‘subjective’ is an ambiguous term that allows for many meanings.

You use the proposition, “Strawberries taste good to me,” as an example of a subjective statement. This is one definition of the term.

However, this does not change the fact that, even though the proposition does not refer to a subjective truth about the strawberries apart from my reaction to them (specifically, their taste), it still refers to an objective fact. “Strawberries taste good to me” is as capable of being true or false as any statement in any science.

If I were to assume that you like the taste of strawberries, then it is an objective fact that you like the taste of strawberries, as much as an objective fact about you as your hair color, location, height, weight, and age. I would use this fact to explain and predict your behavior. For example, if I knew that you liked the taste of strawberries, and that you did not like the taste of bananas, I can use this to predict what you would choose if I offered you some strawberries and a banana. We use desires to predict and explain behavior just as we use electrons, electromagnetic force, gravity, and other theoretical entities.

The fact that desires exist in the brain does not make them any less real. After all, brains are real.

Consider this: the proposition, “Strawberries taste good to Atheist Observer” is entirely independent of my reaction to whether you like or dislike strawberries. From my point of view, is the proposition “Strawberries taste good to Atheist Observer” objective or subjective?

If this plays havoc with our ‘traditional’ definition of subjectivity, I can live with that. Language is a tool that we invent and design to serve our purposes. In this case, we built a flaw into our invention. We built it on assumptions that turn out to make no sense – the idea that there is this mutually exclusive distinction between what is ‘objective’ and what is ‘subjective’. Because this is a false assumption, it is best that we redesign our language to eliminate this flaw.

Anonymous said...

"Desires are entities that control our intentional actions. They are real entities with a real strength that we can not yet measure precisely."

What justification do you have for this empirical claim? In fact, this is a very naive statement that is contradicted by the empirical evidence. "desire" is an element of folk psychology, our heuristic for modeling a very complex interaction of behavioral dispositions, but these attributed desires do not represent actual brain states -- certainly not ordered brain states that satisfy some "strengh" measure.

Likening desires to temperature does not make it a fact that desires are like temperatures; that's a rather intellectually dishonest form of rhetoric. It's similar to what intelligent design proponents do when they refer to scientific theories that were originally rejected, as if the mere stating of a parallel established the parallel. The best response is Carl Sagan's: "... that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hmmm. It is also the case that because some people who are laughed at are not geniuses, that no genius has ever been laughed at.

Your writing is almost exclusively question-begging ad hominem and assertion, with nothing in the way of argument or evidence.

There are many theories relating desires to brain states; from type-type identity to token-token identity to functionalism to computational theories.

I am somewhat torn between functional and computational theories. However, both of these allow desires to have a quality of 'strength' - a measure of what a person is willing to give up to produce a particular outcome.

One measure of the relative strength of particular desires is an individual's willingness to pay to realize a particular state of affairs. Higher willingness to pay (assuming that income is held steady) gives reason to argue for a stronger desire (once one controls for other variables).

Kristopher said...

to resolve the dispute of languge i think and M and Alonozo would both agree to the following about objectivity and subjectivity

the proposition "strawberries are dilicious" is a proposition without a truth value. it depends on the subjective experience of each individual strawberry eater

the proposition "M found strawberries to be delicious" has a truth value, M either did or did not. this is an objective proposition

M has a desire to eat strawberries is an objective proposition and form such propositions one can build an objective theory of ethics

the cuase of M's desire is his subjective experience of the strawberry being pleasureable. but the fact that m found it pleasureable is an objective truth
even if the experience itself was a subjective experience (potentially different for everyone)

thus morality is based only on objective facts and some of those facts are influenced by subjective experiences.

if nobody had a pleasureable experince with strawberries no one would desire them and thus nobody need worry about destroying all strawberries on the planet with an anti-strawberry gun (though there might be other reasons not to do so, other desires for plant diversity or some such which i will ignore for this example)

however because of the subjective experience of strawberry eating some people desire them. thus the use of the ani-strawberry gun would thwart these desire the existance of these desires is an objective fact.