Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Foundational Oughts versus Virtuous Circles

In a comment to a recent post, George W. asked:

Can man not desire that which is immoral? When you answer that objection, you answer your own objection to Ken.

Well, yes a person can desire that which is immoral.

This is because desires, in addition to being the only reasons for action that exist are, at the same time, means for the objective satisfaction or frustration of other desires.

As I have said, some desires are malleable - they can be molded through social forces such as praise and condemnation. This gives us reason to ask what reasons exist for using these social forces to promote some desires and inhibit others - to the degree that it is within our power to do so.

Desires are still the only reasons for action that exist. I would like to see a demonstration of the existence of any other type of reason for action. And the only sensible answer to a "should" question (as in, "Why should I perform this action?") is to provide a reason for action that exists.

These facts apply as much to the act of promoting or inhibiting particular desires in other, to the degree that desires are malleable, as they do to every other type of action. There are reasons for action that exist for promoting certain malleable desires and inhibiting others, but the only reasons for action that exist are other desires. The only sensible answer to the question of, "should we be promoting this desire or inhibiting that one" is to refer to reasons for action that exist - and that means appeal to its relationship to other desires.

Some might complain that this is circular - and it is. However, it is a form of circularity that philosophers call a virtuous circle - to distinguish it from the vicious circles we hear so much complaint about.

This response applies the same solution to desires that coherentist theories apply to beliefs. There is a question in epistemology (the study of belief) that asks how beliefs can be justified. The dilemma is that either we face an infinite regress of justification - justifying one belief on the basis of other beliefs that are, in turn, justified by appeal to still other beliefs. Or there are certain foundational "self evident" beliefs on which others can be built - such as the belief that a God exists and God created humans in his image.

Coherentists answer this problem with respect to beliefs by talking about a web of beliefs. What justifies a belief is its membership in a large and complex web of mutually supporting set of coherent beliefs.

This type of response is circular, in a sense, but philosophers recognize it as a virtuous circle - quite distinct from the vicious circles we have been warned against.

We are surrounded by virtuous circles. Not only are they used in coherentist epistemologies, they are found in language. A word gets it's meaning from the words that surround it, which get their meanings in part from the word being defined. Temperature effects evaporation rates, which effect atmospheric humidity, which effects temperature. Logicians and mathematicians employ virtuous circles in what they call recursive functions.

In the case of morality, malleable desires are evaluated by their relationship to other desires, which are evaluated by their relationship to still other desires, including the desire one is justifying. This works in the same way that beliefs are justified by their relationship to other beliefs, which are evaluated by their relationship to still other beliefs, including the belief one is justifying.

If somebody wants to reject this option, they are going to have problems far outside the field of ethics. They are going to have problems accounting for the possibility of justifying any belief, including mathematical and scientific claims.

Somewhere in this, I am supposed to discover the answer to my objection to Ken.

I suspect that George W. was expecting that I would either identify desires as those self-justifying foundational oughts, or I would evaluate desires according to some other standard, which would be justified in virtue of still some other standard, until I ended this infinite regress by appeal to some foundational ought (comparable to a foundational belief).

But these are not the only two options. There is a third option - one that is very widely used and accepted - of the virtuous circle. This virtuous circle allows for the possibility that we can desire that which is evil, just as we can believe that which is unjustified. This is true even though the only thing we can use to evaluate a desire is by appeal to other desires, in the same way that the only way we can justify a belief is by appeal to other beliefs.

So, I can account for a distinction between what we desire and what we ought to desire - the desires we have and the desires that we have reason to promote using social forces where the only reasons for action that exist are other desires.

However, Ken does not even address, let alone account for, the distinction between the instincts and intuitions we have versus the instincts and intuitions we ought to have. He is stuck with the instincts and intuitions we have, treating them as foundational oughts - a move which the Euthyphro question exposes as problematic at best.

Let me use this to give a direct answer to George's question.

Yes, people can desire that which is evil. That is, they can have malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires. Those desires thwarted are reasons for those others to act to inhibit the desire in question - to bring social tools to bear to make the desire-thwarting desires less common or weaker. Among those social forces are praise and condemnation. And the act of calling something evil is an act of condemnation.


George W. said...

I am really enjoying this dialogue, though my exposure to philosophy is self taught and not institutional.
Forgive me if I misstep.

I agree that your position of looking at desires is an improvement on Ken's instinctually grounded morality. To me though, it seems to be better by virtue of generalizing motives, and only seems to add a teaspoon of reason to his concoction of instinct, intuition, and social construct.

To me, morality is an expression of the triumph of our social instincts over our selfish ones; by forcing Ken to include all our instincts under the umbrella of morality, you seem to create a dilemma where none exists. I took issue with you ducking your obligation to deal with a similar extension in your own argument.

I don't have a problem with the Euthyphro dilemma if it is expressed in light of the subject at hand: Do we value social behaviors because we are a social species, or are we a social species because we value social behaviors.

I must be missing something.....

Anonymous said...

Alonzo — I like how you compare epistemology w/ ethics, here. I was wondering… would a "non-malleable" desire be comparable to a "foundational belief"? If so, then would morality would be comparable to a sort of "foundherentism" epistemology?

SS400 said...

Hello again. I'm curious about the distinction you make between virtuous and vicious circles. I can't quite grasp what exactly the difference is between the two and why one is okay while the other isn't. It seems kind of arbitrary to me because I can't see what exactly the important distinction between the two is. At the same time, I recognize recursive functions are circular in a sense and yet I wouldn't be willing to say they're therefore illegitimate. Would you mind helping me out with this problem in my understanding of circularity?

Jesse said...

It does not seem to me that Mr. Fyfe had such an obligation to duck. Although my case too will require patience - I am only a philosophy minor :P

What I meant was that, to Desirism, all Desires can (and indeed, must) be considered if we hope to discern the moral truths of a situation. Each citizen must maximize their own desires. By extension, each society must maximize its citizens' desires. Instincts, on the other hand, have no equivalently objective, and frankly delightful way of relating and extending - not without appealing to these other systems. Social instincts, to Desirism, are "morally good", but it deems them so because they further other desires, not because they are instincts.

In a similar tune, perhaps I can answer your last question: for it is the case that many of us value social behaviours, and also that we are a social species, because of our brains! Facts about brains are what matter to morality. Not just facts about what people think is worthy of the word (although that is interesting) - but Desirism says "Hey, I'm a system that cares about facts regarding what brains value, and how conflicting values can be reconciled, be they across your inner "community" of past and future selves, or actual community of different individuals."

To the extent that that is Desirism, I like it. Mostly because I am sold on Sam Harris' science of morality.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

George W.

Your "question" does not follow the pattern of a Euthyphro dilemma.

The Euthyphro dilemma follows this pattern.

What is good?

Answer: Good is X.

Response: X is ambiguious. It could mean X1 or X2.

X1 leads to absurd conclusions, so we must reject X1.

X2 does not answer the question.

Both options for X can be rejected. Therefore, we can reject X.

As in:

Answer: "What is good is that which is loved by the gods."

Response: Are you saying that it is good because it is loved by the gods, or that it is loved by the gods because it is good?

If the former, then anything that is loved by the gods would be good. If the gods loved the torture of young children, it would be good. Because of these absurd implications, we can reject this option.

If the latter, then you haven't told me what good is. You have told me that good things are loved by the gods, but you haven't said what it is for something to be good.

Both options can be rejected, so we can reject your answer that what is good is that which is loved by the gods.

I argue that you can do the same with the claim that what is good is that which is loved by our genes (or what evolution has disposed us to like).

If it is good because we have evolved a disposition to like them, then anything we evolved a disposition to like - the painful torture of young children, if that were to happen - would be good.

If we have evolved to like them because they are good, then this does not answer the question of what makes them good.

So, we can reject the gene-command theory just as we reject divine command theory.

But your question, "Do we value social behaviors because we are a social species, or are we a social species because we value social behaviors," does not fit this pattern.

Can you show me how one option must be rejected because it leads to absurd conclusions, and the other fails to answer an important question?

Another serious problem is that it doesn't address the answer that I give to what is good.

What is good, in the moral sense, is that which a person with desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote through the application of social forces such as praise and condemnation - and that lacks those desires people generally have reason to inhibit - would pursue.

The suggestion that this can lead to absurd conclusions - such as the conclusion that the torture of young children can be good - is blocked. Any horrendous conclusion that you can come up with is a conclusion that thwarts desires - otherwise it would not be horrendous. But if it thwarts desires, then it is something that people generally have reason to bring their social forces against. And it would not count as "good" on this model.

As such it escapes the Euthyphro problem through the X1 gate - a gate which divine command and evolutionary ethics theories cannot pass through.