Friday, June 19, 2009

Reasons for Action that Exist

There is no mutually exclusive 'is – ought' distinction. The only mutually exclusive alternative to 'is' is 'is not'. This means that 'ought' either needs to find a comfortable home in the realm of 'is', or needs to be tossed into the realm of 'is not'.

A person comes to me and says, "Alonzo, you ought to do X."

I answer, "Prove it."

That person then says, "Well, as you know, an 'ought' statement cannot be derived from any set of 'is' statements . . . .”

"You can top right there," I say. "We're done. You have just told me that your 'ought' statement is a work of fiction – an artifact of the realm of make-believe. If your claim that I ought to do X is false, then why are you telling me I ought to do X?"

The person may try to say, "Well, no, there is a realm that is distinct and separate from the real world – the world of 'is' – that is the realm of 'ought'. This separate way of being that is separate and distinct from the 'is' universe. However, it is still relevant to the 'is' universe. In fact, it is only by infusion with this 'ought' power of the 'non-is' universe that things actually have significance.”

"You have a lot of work ahead of you if you want to convince me that a story like that is true. Your job will be made all that much harder because, even though you want me to accept this as true, you are asserting that 'true' does not actually belong in the realm of 'ought'. The realm of 'ought' is concerned with value, and 'true' only fits into the concept of fact. All things considered, this is sounding more and more like a work of imaginative fiction."

At this point, I can imagine my frustrated guest saying, "Okay, you try it. I've read your blog. Your blog is filled with claims about what we should or should not do. Prove to me that your claims about what I ought and ought not to do."

"Well, when I say that you morally ought to do something I mean that people geneally have many and strong reasons for action that exist to condemn those who do not do that thing. Note, I say the have many and strong reasons. I am not talking about the reasons they think they have, or they claim to have. I am talking about the reasons they have as a matter of fact."

I then continue, "I can prove this by showing that not doing X means the presence of a maleable desire that people generally have reason to inhibit, or the absence of a desire that people generally have reason to promote. One of the key tools that people generally have for promoting desires they have reason to promote, or inhibiting desires they have reason to inhibit, is the tool of condemnation. So, people generally have many and strong reasons for action that exist to condemn those who do not do X."

My opponent answers, "Yes, but you still can't get from an 'is' to an 'ought'. You can't get from, 'people generally have many and strong reasons for action that exist to condemn those who do not do X' to 'I ought to do X'. How do you justify that one final step?"

I would tell my opponent, "I have no need for that 'last final step' that you're talking about. If I can demonstrate that people generally have many and strong reasons for action that exist to condemn those who would not do X. That's all I need to do. Why would I want to go further? Why would I want to carry my 'ought' statement into your realm of fiction and make-believe?"

My critic presses, "Then you haven't really derived an 'ought' from an 'is'. All you have derived is a 'people generally have many and strong reason to condemn those who do not do X' from an 'is'. That's not the same thing."

My answer, "The rest is just semantics. 'People generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who do not do X' functions exactly like your 'ought', except it exists in the real world. If it walks like an 'ought', and it quacks like an 'ought', and it flies like an 'ought', it's an 'ought', for all practical purposes. This difference - the fact that my 'ought' is a real-world claim and your 'ought' is a work of fiction and make-believe only serves to make my 'ought' truly relevant in the real world, and your 'ought' that cannot be derived from 'is' irrelevant.

My critic continues, "Well, that's just arbitrary. I could say 'you ought to sit in that chair' and assert that when I say this I mean that I want you to sit in that chair.' It wouldn't follow that you have an obligation to sit in the chair."

I shrug and say, "Well, if you define 'obligation' in terms of 'doing what you want me to do' then I would have an obligation to sit in the chair in that sense. However, I think you have to admit that the implications of the literal truth of the claim, 'I want you to sit in that chair' and the claim 'people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who do not do X' are somewhat different.

I continue, "Ultimately, it doesn't matter what you name things. All that matters is the objective facts that surround the things being named. It turns out that the objective facts surrounding, 'People generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who do not do X' are substantially the same as those that surround the term 'obligation' the way that people use the term. And it doesn't require all of that mumbo jumbo about a realm distinct and separate from both the realm of 'is' and the realm of 'is not' that gives value to all things in the real world.

If you don't want to call it an obligation, that's fine. However, what is objectively true of 'people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who do not do X' remains objectively true, no matter what you call it.


Anonymous said...

Alonzo, one of the tenets of DU is that desires are malleable & persistent. Can you discuss and expound on these concepts?

Particularly, I think you have said that not all desires are malleable. How do we know which are which? And you have said that morality is concerned only with the malleable desires. Why? If someone has a desire that is not malleable, but it is causing the thwarting of a lot of other desires, shouldn't we be concerned with that? We can't use our "moral tools" to change that desire, but we can use force to stop it. And isn't that a moral consideration -- whether or not to use force to stop someone from acting upon a desire, even if that desire is not malleable?

You have also said that desires are persistent -- and this seems to be the crux of why desire fulfillment act utilitarianism fails. But, it seems to me that not all desires are persistent; in fact, some are very fleeting. And, obviously, if desires are malleable, then they can't be very persistent. Yet, if desires are not persistent, then it doesn't make much sense trying to promote particular desires, since they won't last very long, anyway.

So, this definitely seems to be a bit of a quandary for DU -- for DU to work, desires must be malleable, yet persistent -- but not too persistent, lest they not be malleable, and not too malleable, lest they not be persistent.

יאיר רזק said...

That's all nice and well, but you muddy the waters by then jumping to the conclusion that DU represents well what people have good reasons to do. People are not actually moved by the desire to maximize the harmonicity of desires. They have more specific and diverse desires. While their collective, negotiated, actions will indeed often result in something like DU, they sometimes won't. Most importantly, as a descriptive theory, you need to empirically establish that in fact societies will tend to promote harmony - and you haven't done any empirical research to back that up, only armchair speculating.

You are not basing your DU on real empirical research on human nature. We seem to have a sense for fairness and a sense for empathy, but the idea that all desires should be fulfilled equally ignores their separate nature (so that one sense can overcome the other), the existence of other intuitive desires (so that the DU conclusion may collide with, say, our sense of respect), our innate irrationality (so that we won't deduce the "correct" ramification from the two senses), and assumes we want to influence desires rather than other things (like actions) without demonstrative empirical proof.

For example, people have respect for other people's autonomy. They don't want to change their desires arbitrarily, forcefully. If a Mad Scientist would come along with a device that would make everyone generous (and, in practice, they did come up with similar things), people would not want to use it, even though it would greatly promote harmony of desires, and even though it is a virtue we want to encourage.

If it is demonstrated that keeping women in-doors is harmonious (tending to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts), it would still be wrong - because we value the freedom of women, not just the average desire fulfillment, and am willing to sacrifice desire fulfillment on the altar of freedom and autonomy.

Real humans are complex things, that cannot be summed up in single-sentence descriptions. Their desires and reasons for action are more complex than that, and are ultimately a matter for psychology to uncover, not philosophers. DU oversimplifies human nature.

Furthermore, you seem to deny your the descriptive nature of your theory. If all you're doing is describing a common should, then there is no "universal" should, in the sense that your "should" is not prescriptive. DU doesn't, cannot, say that I or you "should" not torture a child - rather, it merely points out that society at large will tend to exert social forces opposed to child torturing. [Which is at best a rough heuristic, as it's based on the false assumption that stronger and more common desires dominate, that people are rational, and so on; in practice, things are more complex.] DU therefore poses no guide to our own actions, merely another constraint on them.

We are the ones making the moral decisions, not some abstract society. We don't want to allow rape not because it is will lead to disharmony, but rather because the fact that it leads to social disfunction has bred us to despise it. You are confusing the distal cause with the actual one, and placing a description of game-theoretic optima of idealized (and hence, non-human) agents above the real-world reasons for action, our own subjective individual desires (not the global sum of all desires; that's just a datum).