Monday, March 10, 2008

The Unsupported Fundamental 'Ought'

Today’s posting takes off from my responses to a couple of that people have recently left to a couple of recent postings. They concern the fundamentals of the desire-utilitarian theory I use as a foundation for all of my writings.

When I speak or write about desire utilitarianism, a lot of readers make an assumption about what I am talking about that simply is not true. They assume that desire utilitarianism means, “Do that act that will fulfill the most desires.”

That is not desire utilitarianism as I defend it. That is a closely related theory that I call desire-fulfilling act utilitarianism. It is an act utilitarian theory in that it is focused on evaluating actions, and does so according to their consequences.

Desire utilitarianism is not an act-utilitarian theory. It does not primarily evaluate actions. It primarily evaluates desires. It evaluates actions only in a secondary or a derived sense. A ‘right act’ is that act that a person with good desires would perform. But we cannot know what a right act is until after we know what good desires are.

It is common, ever since Hume presented his ‘is/ought’ argument. Hume is typically understood to have said that we cannot derive ‘ought’ statements from ‘is’ statements. This meant that all moral arguments (all arguments that ended in an ‘ought’ conclusion) had to contain at least one fundamental ‘ought’ statement that could not be reduced to anything in the ‘is’ universe. These fundamental ‘ought’ entities are basic. They cannot be proved or disproved. We can really do little more than assert their existence.

I deny the existence of such entities. I deny Hume’s entire is/ought distinction. The universe is made up of only one kind of relationship – and that is ‘is’ relationships. ‘Ought’ relationships either must be reduced to a subset of ‘is’ relationships or ‘ought’ statements refer to something that does not exist. Either option is fine with me as it turns out. If a reader does not want to reduce ‘ought’ to an ‘is’ statement, we can eliminate ‘ought’ entirely, and I can still capture all of the parts of ‘ought’ in the ‘is’ universe of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

We can compare moral theories the same way that we compare scientific theories. One of the ways we can do so is by asking whether the theory requires any strange entities, or whether it can explain and predict a wide range of relevant moral facts.

In saying this, I am not speaking of moral facts of the form ‘abortion is permissible’ and ‘homosexuality is a sin’. I am speaking about the following types of moral facts:

(1) ‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ implies ‘it is not the case that one ought.

(2) Actions fall into three moral categories; obligation, permission, and prohibition.

(3) The moral quality of an action does not depend on the reasons that the agent had for performing it.

(4) ‘Negligence’ is a type of moral wrongdoing.

(5) Moral judgment requires that the agent, in some sense or another, have some type of ‘free will’ in that an agent does not deserve praise or condemnation unless there is some possibility that the agent could have done otherwise.

(6) Intrinsic value properties (or true fundamental ‘ought’ properties) do not exist. Any moral argument that appeals to a fundamental ‘ought’ as a reason for action has is grounding morality on a fiction.

Desire utilitarianism handles moral facts like this without the difficulty that other theories have.

In my earlier post, I compared desire utilitarianism to Ayn Rand style Objectivism and to happiness theory. Ayn Rand Objectivism theory fails because it postulates entities that are as fictitious as God – an entity called ‘man qua man’ from which all value can be derived. First, there is no such thing as ‘man qua man’ other than the completely arbitrary decision to use the term ‘man’ to refer to beings with certain qualities. No normative statements follow from this. The fact that we have a term that refers to a set of qualities does not imply any type of normative or prescriptive force. If we were to use the term ‘reddles’ to refer to red marbles, this does not imply anything about any moral obligation to realize ‘reddles qua reddles’.

A theory that postulates desires, states of affairs in the real world, and relationships between them where a desire that P motivates an agent to realize any state of affairs in which P is true, has a distinct advantage over a theory that postulates strange entities such as ‘god’ or ‘am qua man’.

I reject happiness theory precisely because it fails to explain and predict real-world phenomena. Specifically, it fails to explain and predict why it is the case that when happiness is separated from truth, people tend to prefer truth over happiness. Happiness theory implies that under conditions C, where the agent must choose between happiness and truth, many (most) agents choose happiness.

Desire utilitarianism, as I argued, does not allow us to separate value from truth. A state of affairs has value only to the degree to which propositions that are the object of agent’s desires are true in that state of affairs. If those propositions are not true, then the state of affairs loses its value.

So, desire utilitarianism explains and predicts real-world events better than happiness theory. Desire utilitarianism, unlike Ayn Rand Objectivism, does not postulate strange entities such as ‘man qua man’. There is nothing in it that is not ordinary – ordinary desires, ordinary states of affairs, and ordinary relationships where a proposition that is an object of a desire is true within a state of affairs.

These are ordinary ways of criticizing theories. The fact that I am writing about ethics does not justify, nor does it require, a different kind of thinking when it comes to comparing one theory to another to determine which is best. A theory can be rejected for postulating entities that are as mysterious (or more mysterious) then they thing they are being used to explain. And a theory can be rejected because it makes explanations and predictions that simply fail to correspond to observation.

The idea that morality requires an unsupported foundational ‘ought’ that is distinct and separate from ‘is’ is so widely accepted that few people think to question it. The instant that somebody starts writing about a moral theory, the mind starts searching for the author’s unsupported foundational ‘ought’. Typically, the searcher then declares that “Your unsupported foundational ‘ought’ is just as unsupported and just as foundational as everybody else’s unsupported foundational ‘ought’”.

In fact, this objection has weight. All unsupported foundational ‘oughts’ are equally suspect. Actually, all unsupported foundational ‘oughts’ are alike in being nonsense.

We scarcely hear anybody say that there is no such thing as an unsupported foundational ‘ought’. Yet, why not?

The idea of an unsupported foundational ‘ought’ is, really, just a religious concept – a ‘god of the gaps’ for secular ethics (or for religious ethics, for those who say that the unsupported foundational ‘ought’ comes from God). It is distinct and separate from the world of ‘is’, yet can somehow interact with it. We can say nothing about its structure or composition. We know nothing more than that it exists (at least, this is what the advocates of an unsupported foundational ‘ought’ claims to know) and that it is the source of all value in the universe.

It doesn’t exist.

Desire utilitarianism does not have unsupported foundational ‘oughts’. It has desires (propositional attitudes written into the brain – attitudes that a particular proposition is to be made or kept true – that are encoded into the mental computer), states of affairs, and relationships whereby the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true or false in any given state of affairs.

That’s it.

There is not an unsupported foundational is-independent ‘ought’ to be seen.

Or heard.

Or felt.


Anonymous said...

I sometimes have ethical discussions with Objectivists, though these discussions never bear any fruit. If you don't mind me asking, what is your post called in which you wrote about Objectivism's ethics, as you mentioned in this post?

Richard said...

"(3) The moral quality of an action does not depend on the reasons that the agent had for performing it."

Check that. Do you mean a *human* action, or any action? To include the latter would be an absurdity.

"man qua man" has a certain meaning within the broad meaning of man. It speaks to the core nature of human beings, regardless of the vagaries of individuals. Sure their is no such man as the 'average man', but average does demarcate the center of a certain range. "Man qua man" demarcates the essentials of what Man is. It is certainly not a name of something, such as you imply with the term "Reddles" for red marbles.

Check that too, by re-examining its usage and meaning in context.

Rarus vir said...

Act Utilitarianism has always baffled me anyway. How can you judge an act based on its intended consequences if you have to act before you get any consequences?
I would rather you support Desire Utility with out reference to Ayn Rand though. It’s almost equivalent to a straw man fight, or comparing apples to oranges. I consider objectivist ethics to be ‘philosophy in a bubble’ like Christianity. You can justify anything as long as you stay in that bubble.
I would rather hear what Desire Utility is, on it’s own without comparison. If you could expound on that it would be great.

Rosangela Canino-Koning said...

Nit. Did you mean:

(1) ‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ is implied by ‘it is not the case that one ought.

You really need a proofreader. Sometimes these little errors can make it very difficult to read your otherwise excellent work.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Rosangela Canino-Koning

Let's try that again . . .

I am total agreement in my need for a proofreader.

However, there is a rule of logic that states:

(A implies B) implies (not-B implies not-A)

Or 'ought implies can' implies 'cannot implies it is not the case that one ought'