Monday, May 09, 2011

Should Questions and Reasons for Action

Many people reading my postings on desirism do so under the assumption that it must start with a set of fundamental moral commandments. With this in mind, they then search for an interpretation that is consistent with this assumption. They find their commandment, then set about to criticize it.

However, their fundamental assumption is wrong, which means that their interpretation is incorrect. Consequently, the theory the criticize is not the theory that I wrote.

"Desires are the only reasons that exist" is not a commandment. It is a fact about the world. I do not see any evidence to support claims for the existence of any type of reason for action other than desires.

Also, desirism holds that "should" questions can only be answered by appeals to reasons for action. "Why should I do X?" No answer makes sense that is not a reason for action, or a fact that ties some consequence of the action to a reason for action.

If we tie these two claims together, we get the conclusion that all answers to "should" questions must, directly or indirectly, reference one or more desires. Where those claims appeal to facts, those facts are made relevant (or irrelevant) to the degree that they relate (or fail to relate) some state of affairs to desires.

This still is not a commandment. This is still a statement about what is true or false – though it is a statement about what is true or false regarding “should” statements.

Somebody who wants to dispute these claims either needs to explain how something other than a reason for action or facts that tie consequences to reasons for action can answer a "should" question. Or they need to show evidence of reasons for action that exist other than desires.

A third possible response, of course, is to show that there is a third option that I am overlooking. Between these three, this should exhaust the total set of possible answers.

On the other hand, if this position stands, the next question to ask is: “What follows from these facts that “should” questions are answered by appeals to reasons for action that exist and desires are the only reasons for action that exist?”

But this is a different set of questions. I could be wrong about the implications of these two claims – without being wrong about the claims themselves. So, objections raised to the implications that I draw from these claims do not imply that the claims themselves are false.


J. W. Gray said...

Isn't your argument almost exactly the same as Hume's? Why do you insist that moral realism is true when Hume seems like a clear example of an anti-realist?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

J.W. Gray

Hume says it is impossible to derive 'ought' from 'is'. I say that 'ought' is not fact, then it is fiction.

Martin Freedman said...

J.W Gray

1. Hume can also be read as a realist.
2. Hume says that an argument must be made to derive "ought" from "is" and he himself makes such an argument in his writings. He criticizes those who just assume given "is" that "ought" follows without any provided argument.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, Hume can be read as a realist or an anti-realist.

I think that it is probably more accurate to say that Hume is inconsistent on this matter.

On the is-ought distinction, he holds that with respect to such an inference "a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable". He also says that to make moral judgments we see nothing in the object itself but we turn our attention inward to our own sentiments.

Take any action allowed to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.

Both of these I hold to be false.

At the same time, Hume says that desires (or sentiments) are facts from which moral claims can be derived. In the quite above, he says that there is no OTHER matter of fact but the passions. And he begins the next sentence after this with:

Here is a matter of fact, but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object.

So, is Hume saying that we can derive values from facts - "should" from "desires" (or "sentiments") which, after all, are just as real as planets, rocks, and people?