Monday, August 20, 2007

Reasons as a Related Topic

Miguel Picanco made the comment recently,

Thanks for clearing all that up.. I can't wait for you to move on to a new, unrelated topic!

I have been feeling increasingly anxious about the need to switch to a new topic. After all, I created this blog in part because one of my frequent critics at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board challenged me by saying something like, “That’s all fine in theory, but how does it work in practice?” So, I created the blog to apply theory to practice, while still showing enough theory to give regular readers an idea of the foundation on which my arguments are built.

This has been an excellent opportunity to look at some of the features of that foundation in detail.

Yet, in moving one, I would not be moving on to an “unrelated topic”. Anything I wrote on would be very much related to what I have written in the last few days.

In fact, one of the common views that I am very much opposed to is the idea that moral theory is unrelated to moral practice – that when people start talking about the nature of value they cease to say anything of practical importance.

Perhaps the most important practical implication to draw from this is that, when evaluating arguments for or against a particular policy, arguments that relate the anticipated states of affairs to good desires are the only arguments that are sound.

If you look at an argument, and you see premises that speak about divine reasons, those premises are false, and cannot legitimately support any conclusion about policy. Any premise suggesting that we should support the policy because it will bring about a state that has intrinsic value can also be dismissed. If somebody argues, “There are reasons to support X not based on any desire, but on motivating beliefs that X is worthwhile,” I would argue for rejecting those claims as well, since they are also false.

On the other side, we may hear people argue, “Everything is just a mappter of personal preference, and there is no basis on which we can judge some preferences or desires to be good and others bad.”

This is also false. Yes, it is true that all real value relates states of affairs to desires, but this still allows us to evaluate desires according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. Using the same standard that we use to determine if everything else is good or bad, we can determine whether desires themselves are good or bad. Once we know the quality of different desires, we can make truthful statements about what a person with good desires (desires that people generally have reason to promote) would do.

While the advocates of divine and intrinsic value and motivational beliefs are throwing fictions into the decision-making process, the ‘all desires have equal value’ crowd is ignoring an important part of the real world – the reasons that people have for promoting or inhibiting certain desires.

So, this theory has a great many practical applications when it comes to evaluating policy – particularly in terms of telling us which premises to accept and which to throw away for being false.

Internal vs External Moral Evidence

One widespread practice that I want to argue against is the practice of turning one’s attention inward in order to make a moral evaluation – invitations like, “Let your conscious be your guide,” or “You must do what you feel is right.”

When a person turns his attention inward, this does not give him access to any special sort of moral truth. He is actually turning his attention on his own desires, and basing his moral conclusion entirely on what will fulfill his desires. If he gives any concern at all to the desires of others, it is only because he wants to.

Morality requires turning one’s attention outward, and may result in conclusions that ‘feel’ wrong to the agent because the agent was raised to have a warped sense of value. There is no doubt that interracial marriage ‘feels’ wrong to a racist. When he ‘lets his conscious be his guide’ he will discover conscience telling him to do what he can to put an end to these types of relationships, spreading the word as far and as wide as he can while setting up an environment to discourage these types of relationships. I am confident that Hitler and Stalin both let their conscience be their guide, as do most people who engage in criminal and violent behavior.

God does not exist, so where do the commandments come from that have been attributed to God? Mostly, they came from people who said, “I cannot get people to stop doing something I don’t like just by saying that I don’t like it. They will ask why my desires matter so much. Ah, but if I were to say that God doesn’t like it, and describe what God will do to those who disobey, that should work, if I can get them to believe it.”

The other systems that I criticize here also serve the same function. They are used to give the agent’s desires additional weight – additional (and imaginary) reasons to condemn others or, at least, to protect oneself from condemnation. “These are not my desires, they are God’s desires (as determined by me by cherry-picking an incoherent piece of scripture)” serves this purpose.

“These are not my desires; these are states of affairs having intrinsic power – a special worth-doingness that is built right into their nature,” also functions the same way So does, “These are not my desires that motivate me; they are special motivational beliefs in the worthiness of an object. And, finally, “These are my desires; but I have my desires and you have yours and there is no basis on which my desires can be evaluated as good or bad.”

In fact, none of these people have ever been motivated to act by anything other than their own desires, and nothing about desires makes them immune to evaluation relative to other desires. Desires that people generally have reasons to promote or inhibit are real. But we can’t know what they are by turning our attention inward. We can only learn what they are by turning our attention outword – at what people generally have reason to promote is not something we have any special capacity to learn by looking inside ourselves.

These facts, about which premises that we see in evaluating policies are true and relevant, and which are false or irrelevant, are not an ‘unrelated topic’. They are very much related to every argument about any specific policy. Yet, it is also not productive to spend all of one’s time discussing the foundation, without spending any effort trying to build something on it.

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