Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Beliefs and Desires in Moral Claims

It is time, once again, for another Atheist Ethicist episode of “Responding to Atheist Observer.”

In our previous episode, I had written a posting called “Considering Alternative Ideas” about reading only what one agreed with, or reading what one disagreed with under the mindset, “Obviously, this is wrong. I simply need to find the error.”

[Note: In case this introduction should sound derogatory, or in case its meaning may be ambiguous, then please note that I choose to respond to AO’s comments because I consider them worthy of responding to. Not because I am somehow being coerced into something that has no merit.]

Atheist Observer wrote in response:

I was wondering if you still took seriously any alternatives to what seems like almost a mantra for you, “The tools for changing desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.”

Well, there are some obvious additional ways to change desires, such as drugs (e.g., chemical castration for sex offenders) and surgery (e.g., physical castration). One thing about these methods, though, is that they tend to be considered non-moral. It may be the case that a person has a moral obligation to undergo treatment of one type or another (to alter desires through one of these systems). However, this ‘moral push’ to undergo treatment falls under the rubric, again, of using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment as incentives to get people to undergo treatment. The use of these incentives are an inherent part of morality. Desire-changing options that lie outside of this system are considered non-moral.

I would not argue that these are not tools for changing desires, although I would argue in many if not most circumstances they have limited effectiveness, and in fact they may often be counter productive, bringing about desires and behaviors that may be even more objectionable than those we were trying to change.

These types of points would be relevant to the question of how to use the tools. It does impact the question of whether morality is concerned with their use. To the degree that morality is concerned with their use, then, of course, it would be a part of morality to say, “The rational use of these tools involves using them where they are effective and productive. Do not use these tools in circumstances in which they would be ineffective and counter-productive.”

Prescription drugs are sometimes abused and used in circumstances that are ineffective or counter-productive. This is hardly an argument against the practice of using prescription drugs to treat illness and injury. It is only an argument against using those tools in ways that are ineffective or counter-productive.

But is seems to me that for whatever reasons you choose to give beliefs an unreasonably small role in the development of desires. . . . On the other hand, I have not seen any evidence in your discussions, or in my personal experience, that most desires are not in fact desires as means. These consist of some desire as ends and a set of beliefs about how to achieve those ends. To the extent the means depend upon beliefs, the subsequent desires are susceptible to change by changing the beliefs.

I sharply distinguish between beliefs and desires-as-ends. These are distinct entities. Beliefs, on the other hand, are an integral part of desires-as-means. It is essential that a desires-as-means consist of both a set of desires-as-ends (goals, purposes), and beliefs about the best way to realize desires-as-ends.

In a sense, it will always be the case that ‘most’ of our desires are desires-as-means. If beliefs are represented by blue marbles, and desires-as-ends are represented as red marbles, and desires-as-means are the different possible combinations of red marbles and blue marbles, then the set of desires-as-means must necessarily be significantly larger than the set of beliefs or the set of desires-as-ends.

However, because desires-as-means are always a collection of beliefs and desires-as-ends, we do not need to talk about them as separate entities. We can talk about desires-as-means while still talking exclusively about beliefs and desires-as-ends. A desire-as-means is still nothing more than a particular collection of red and blue marbles.

Furthermore, allow me to repeat, desires-as-means necessarily contain beliefs. One very effective way of changing desires-as-means is to change the person’s beliefs. Switch one blue marble out for another, and you no longer have the same set of red and blue marbles (the same ‘desire as means’) as you started with.

You have a desire to bring others to your view about what the tools are for changing desires. I desire to bring them to mine. We could attempt to condemn each other into changing our desires, but there is virtually no chance that will happen.

Well, I hope that my desire is not to ‘bring others to [my] view.” I propose a theory, but I hope that people would reject the theory if it happens not to be true. However, I believe that the things I write are true (or, at least, they make sense and have a reasonable chance of being true), so they are what I defend.

Now, I am not saying anything against altering people’s behavior by altering their desires-as-means, or by altering their desires-as-means by altering their beliefs. This is a perfectly legitimate activity – and one that we engage in all the time. I have no objections to that practice. In fact, as you point out, I engage in that practice all the time. A great many of my posts are devoted, not to changing desires, but to changing beliefs. A great many of my posts are devoted, for example, to defeating the belief that morality can be a genetic disposition, or that morality is ‘subjective’ in the sense where ‘I want people to do X and am willing to use violence against those who do not do X’ implies ‘people have a moral obligation to do X.’

However, I deny that when people are engaging in these practices that they are working within the tradition called ‘morality’. These types of discussions are not ‘ethics’ per say, they are discussions in the field of ‘meta-ethics’ (or ‘theories about ethics’) – which is an entirely descriptive (belief-centered) field of study. It is my meta-ethical theory that ethics is primarily concerned with the alteration of malleable reasons for action that exist (desires as ends) by the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

For example, let us assume that you are in the hospital and discover that the nurse is about to give you some blood – only, it’s the wrong blood type. Naturally, he believed that she was giving you the right blood type and you can change his behavior by pointing out his false beliefs. However, the next question we want to answer is whose moral fault is it that he was about to give you the wrong blood type.

Is this your nurse’s fault? To answer this question we have to look at how the nurse to give you the wrong blood type. Assume that this is what the doctor had requested. In this case, the nurse was not at fault. Fault (or moral blameworthiness) is not associated with false beliefs.

The doctor, it turns out, had your blood typed, was told your blood type, and ordered that you be given blood of that type. The doctor, in this case, is not at fault. The doctor’s false believes does not make her morally blameworthy.

Where is it that we find moral blame?

We do not find moral blame where we find false beliefs. We will, instead, find moral fault where we find somebody whose desires deviated from those that we have reason to want people to have. We will find moral fault in the careless lab technician, whose problem is not that he suffers from a false belief, but from an insufficiently strong desire to avoid deadly mistakes. Or we find in the patient who used an opportunity to alter your records because he is a competitor for a job that you are applying for.

Blameworthiness is not found where we find false beliefs. Blameworthiness is found where we find bad desires. The only time that a person even appears to be condemned for having a false belief, is when a more careful or concerned person (a person with good desires) would not have been tempted to adopt such a belief based on the available evidence.

However, through evidence, logic, and reason I could be convinced my position is in error, and thus I would no longer desire to get others to adapt that position. Given what you state in your post, I would assume you would do the same thing.

Of course I use this method – when I am dealing with what I think is an otherwise good person who has made a factual error (the nurse who is about to give somebody the wrong blood type). Whenever I find somebody whose actions can be improved upon merely by correcting his beliefs, then moral concepts do not apply. This is a situation outside of morality. Moral concepts do not come into play until the method for correcting a person’s behavior comes from correcting his desires-as-ends.

If it is true that desires are the only motivating forces, and that your tools are the only way to change them, we have virtually an Old Testament approach to morality, where all we can do is run around constantly rewarding and punishing people to get moral behavior. To me this is a narrow and generally inaccurate picture of moral behavior in real life.

First, it is important to distinguish between using punishment as a way of altering desires, and using punishment as a way of altering behavior directly (to name one example). The field of law, not of morality, is the field that uses ‘deterrence’ as a method for altering behavior directly. It tries to get people to do the right thing by threatening them with vile consequences if they should get caught doing something else.

Morality is the use of social forces to affect desires, not the use of social forces to affect behavior by threatening to thwart the desires an agent already has. The purpose of morality is to create a person who will not take money that belongs to others, even when the thief has no chance of being caught. This is not accomplished by threatening the individual with consequences of what would happen if he is caught. This is caused by giving the agent an aversion to theft that will inhibit him from taking what belongs to others even when he will not get caught.

“Old Testament” morality is more the morality of a law giver and threats of punishment to alter behavior and an omniscient policeman who sees all and whose punishment is certain. It is modeled after the concept of a law-giver and a law. It is not ‘morality’ in the sense of creating people who do not want to do evil.

This is a significant difference.

In my experience most people have generally benign basic desires, and we encourage moral behavior most effectively for most people by helping them see where they have belief errors that lead to desire-thwarting behaviors and creating societies and institutions that maximize the opportunities for learning beliefs and behaviors that lead to general desire fulfillment.

If a person does, in fact, have basic good desires, then we do, in fact, alter their behavior by changing their beliefs. If the desires are good, than false beliefs is where the error lies. However, the very assumption that a person has good desires takes the discussion outside of the realm of morality. It places ‘desire-thwarting behavior’ in the same category as that of the nurse who is about to innocently give a person a wrong blood type. If the desires are good, then the desire-thwarting behavior qualifies as innocent mistakes where moral praise or condemnation is simply not appropriate.

We will find that where moral blameworthiness, or moral credit, is appropriate it is where the defect is not traced to good desires and bad beliefs, but to bad desires (with or without false beliefs). Since we find moral concepts applied only where we find bad desires, and not where we find bad beliefs, then even though bad beliefs are a serious problem, it is still the case that this problem is not a moral problem.

In no way am I understating the role of beliefs in desires-as-means. Nor do I deny the power of getting a good person (a person with good desires) to do the right thing by altering his beliefs. My claim is that when we look for moral fault - when we seek to apply the concepts of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness, we are not concerned with beliefs or desires-as-means. We look to the ends - that which is actually desired - by those we consider worthy of moral condemnation or praise. Other considerations definitely exist. They simply are not a part of that which we know as morality.

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