Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Carroll v. Harris: Quantifying Value - Part IV

In his criticism of Sam Harris' suggestion that we can have morality-as-science, Sean Carroll states:

If there is no way in principle to calculate precisely how much well-being one person should be expected to sacrifice for the greater well-being of the community, then what you’re doing isn’t science.

This requirement is immediately going to clash with desirism because, according to desirism, morality is not about 'sacrifice'. In fact, desirism states that a good person gets to spend his life fulfilling his desires without any moral qualms. Right acts are those acts that a person with good desires would perform, so a person with good desires never needs to concern himself over the possibility of doing anything wrong. He sacrifices nothing.

However, let's set the idea of sacrifice aside for a moment and talk about this idea of moral calculation.

According to desirism, morality is about the value of malleable desires relative to other desires. It is about the reasons for action that exist for using social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires (to the degree that it is possible to do so), and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires (to the degree that it is possible to do so).

In other words, the calculations that we need to perform are not calculations about the amount of sacrifice to impose on people. Instead, we examine a possible desire-that-P (for some proposition P), and we look at the possible states of affairs {S1, S2, . . ., Sn} that would come about if everybody had this desire-that-P. We look at the propositions {P1, P2, . . . Pn} that are true of these states of affairs, and we compare them to other desires and aversions. We determine whether or not the malleable desire will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. To the degree that it fulfills other desires, others have reason to use social forces to promote the universal desire-that-P.

The claim that we do not have the capacity to determine whether a malleable desire will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires is nonsense. We might not have perfectly crafted fine-tuned instruments that can give us an answer own to the fourteenth decimal point. However, we make a rough measurement of what a society would be like with a universal aversion to lying or , for example, can get a good idea of what society would be like without an aversion to lying, or violence, or to the autocratic authority of a despotic monarch.

This is a formula that we use in moral debate constantly. "What would happen if everybody felt the way you do?"

Look at any moral issue currently being debated, from capital punishment to obeying the will of Allah, and we see the same sort of arguments. "What states of affairs can we expect to result if everybody adopted this attitude? What propositions are true of those states of affairs? How do those true propositions relate to the other things that we want?

It is important to note that we are looking at those propositions that are true of the states that would result from the adoption of a particular attitude. It will not be the case of any state that "Allah is pleased," or "We have acquired unprecedented quantities of intrinsic merit." Neither Allah nor intrinsic merit exists. Beings that do not exist cannot be pleased, and entities that do not exist cannot be had in any quantity.

People also make false claims about states of affairs in which one is spending eternity in hell, or in which God has lifted his protective hand sparing us the evils of hurricanes and earthquakes, or meeting one's dead relatives in a perfect society in heaven. These states of affairs are NOT the real consequences of adopting any particular attitude, so are not a part of the measure of the real-world value of adopting that attitude.

What are the REAL consequences of people generally having a stronger desire that P (or desire that not-P)? How do those REAL consequences relate to other desires that exist?

Notice that this simply is not a theory of calculate precisely how much well-being one person should be expected to sacrifice for the greater well-being of the community. It is a theory of "calculate the value of a malleable desire by looking at how many and how strong the reasons-for-action-that-actually-exist are for using social tools to strengthen or weaken that desire in a community."

I recognize that there are a lot of rough edges in this proposal. I am not unaware of them. However, there are still two different attitudes we can take to those rough edges. Either we can work them out with some effort, or the process is fundamentally flawed and doomed to failure.

Once again this takes us to Carroll's core argument in defense of the "doomed to failure" option - the argument he repeats over and over again as if it is all that needs to be said.

Those are my personal reasons for thinking that you can’t derive ought from is. The perceptive reader will notice that it’s really just one reason over and over again — there is no way to answer moral questions by doing experiments, even in principle.

And how does he know this? What proof does he offer?

Ultimately, the only defense of this he offers is an argument that ultimately reduces to the form:

"I cannot imagine that P; therefore, not-P"

Reduced to its basic form, we can see that Carroll is putting a great deal of load-bearing weight on a very weak foundation.

Such as, "I cannot imagine life springing from inanimate matter; therefore, life must have an intelligent creator."


"I cannot imagine a universe without a God in it; therefore, there must be a God."


"It is inconceivable to me that the eye can come into existence as a result of a series of random mutations; therefore, the eye had an intelligent designer."

If this is the best form of argument one can come up with, then this alone suggests that there must be something wrong with the position one is trying to defend.

If Carroll's position actually had some merit, then one would suspect that there would be a better argument out there lending support to that position. Particularly if it is a position that is as extraordinary as postulating a whole realm of relationships - ought relationships - completely independent of is relationships and impossible to prove or disprove but still relevant in the real world.

Extraordinary claims such as these require extraordinary proofs - and "I just can't imagine an alternative" is not an extraordinary proof.


Martin Freedman said...


Although I have to add since you started on an equal wealth/complete and true beliefs basis for inter-personal comparisons via willingness to pay for states of affairs with respect to generic values, I was expecting you to extend this argument to moral values...

dbonfitto said...

Wasn't it Galileo Galilei who said, "My telescope is crap and I can't see a damn thing. Screw astronomy. I can't measure, observe, or record anything with perfect precision! I quit! The pope is right and I'm going home."

It was much simpler than improving methods, constructing better instruments, and advancing science in the face of adversity.

When you reach a stopping point for improving your theory because you can't measure more precisely, you've got to turn your eye on improving your instruments. If anything, Carroll's argument should be seen as a call to devise better experiments to measure factors in moral questions.