Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Desirism and Objective Values

There are no objective values.

However, there are objectively true moral claims whose truth is substantially independent of the speaker's moral beliefs or sentiments.

This apparently paradoxical statement is a result of the very confusing way the term "objective" is used in moral discussions. Furthermore, to add to the confusion, the term "objective" used in discussing morality is significantly different from the same term used in science. If we use the scientists' definition of "objective" then there are objective values – but not in the sense that the ethicist means when the ethicist uses the term.

Let's get through this maze of definitions and try to make some sense of the objective nature of morality.

There are no objective (in the ethicist’s sense) moral values.

When people discuss morality, they often mean by this that value is not an intrinsic property of that which is being evaluated. Objective values in this sense would require something like a state whereby certain arrangements of matter emit a form of value radiation that we can perhaps think of as waves of "goodon" particles or "badon" particles. The brain, in turn, has a goodon and badon detector. When this faculty is operating properly it can accurately detect sources of goodon and badon radiation. Furthermore, the very nature of this radiation is such that goodon detection demands that those who sense it act to increase goodon emissions, whereas badon radiation detection compels people to avoid whatever is causing or will cause those emissions.

We see evidence of people treating value in this way when people claim that particular states deserve a particular type of appreciation “just because”. For example, a patron of the arts demands that a particular work of art is good, and insists that those who do not appreciate the art as she does is somehow defective. In this case, she is treating the art as a goodon emitter and treating those who do not appreciate the art appropriately as people who have defective goodon detectors. They are tone deaf, or have poor taste, or simply have failed to cultivate the appropriate appreciation of things.

In another example, homosexuality is often talked about as if it is a badon emitter. Anybody who has an interest in a homosexual relationship is “perverse” in that he lacks the appropriate response to the value properties – to the badness - that is intrinsic to homosexual relationships. A person with a properly functioning badon detector would be repulsed at the thought of entering into such a relationship. We certainly should not encourage this defect by accommodating those who have this problem. Instead, we should be driving them through social condemnation to seek a cure for – or at least resolve to not act on – this defect.

As a matter of fact, no such property exists in the real world. Any statement to the effect that an object of evaluation contains such a property is false. Any moral claim that treats the object of moral evaluation as a goodon emitter or a badon emitter is false. There are no objective values in this sense.

If we add to this the proposition that this form of objectivity is built into the very meaning of our moral terms we get a view of morality called "error theory". This view, defended by the philosopher J.L. Mackie, holds that all moral claims make a claim of objective intrinsic prescriptivity, and that this type of claim is always false.

Mackie also provides two major arguments against this type of “objective values”.

One of those arguments is his "argument from strangeness." Read through the description of goodon and badon emitters above. There is absolutely no reason to hold that anything like this is a part of the world. Scientists have not discovered anything that functions anything like a goodon emitter, and nothing in the brain that can fill the role of a goodon detector. We have photon detectors (eyes), and sound wave detectors (ears), but nothing that we can point to as a goodon detector. Furthermore, we can’t even come up with a clear idea of what such an organ would look like or how it would work. This issue is made worse by the fact that the detection of the moral property is to somehow compel behavior - to motivate an agent to do that which is good and avoid that which is bad. The strangeness of these properties makes it unlikely that we will find anything like them in the real world.

Though Mackie and others do not actually speak in terms of goodon emitters when talking about "objective values", they have to be something like this to work the way people claim that they work.

Mackie’s second argument is his "argument from disagreement". Though some people are blind, and some suffer from hallucinations, people are substantially in agreement concerning what they see and hear. Our photon detectors and sound wave detectors give us common experiences with respect to what we see and hear. When we compare them, we see the similarities and we find differences to be extremely rare and at the limit of resolution. However, our alleged goodon detectors give us nothing like a common set of experiences. People detect different values in the same thing. Furthermore, the value they detect is heavily influenced by culture.

This way of understanding Mackie's argument from disagreement protects it from a common response to that argument. People often answer Mackie by saying that scientific disagreement does not prove the subjectivity of science. Therefore, moral disagreement does not prove the subjectivity of morality. This objection may be true, but it does not touch Mackie's argument as described above. A lack of agreement does give us reason to doubt that there are goodon emitters in the universe and reliable goodon detectors in the brain. If our vision and hearing were as varied as our sense of value, we would have reason to call into question our theories of photon detectors and sound wave detectors as well.

A third objection - one that does not come from Mackie - is an "argument from evolution".

Assume that there were goodon emitters. How could we possibly evolve an ability to detect them and respond to them appropriately?

To illustrate the problem, assume that the act of killing one's own offspring was a powerful goodon emitter. If this were the case, then any creature that acquired a functioning goodon detector would quickly go extinct. On the other hand, creatures that acquired the capacity to detect this goodon radiation and respond to it with revulsion instead of compulsion would have a chance at survival. Consequently, we would be the evolutionary consequence of this disposition to react to goodon emissions with revulsion.

Yet, we would never have any way of knowing whether evolution has selected an appropriate reaction to a goodon emitter, or a perverse reaction to a badon emitter. Both would have the same real-world implications and be indistinguishable.

There is no "appropriate behavioral response" to photon and sound wave detection. Consequently, we do not need to ask questions about whether and how we acquired the correct behavioral response. We simply detect them, and let evolution guide their effects on our behavior. In other words, our faculties for photon detection and sound wave detection do not suffer the same problems as an alleged faculty for goodon detection. Evolution would tend to treat goodon detection the same way it treats photon detection and sound wave detection. It would strip from it any sense of “appropriate behavioral response” and, instead, select a behavioral response that makes the organism biologically fit.

There are no objective values.

However, this is true using the ethicists' definition of "objective". If we adopt the scientists' definition of "objective" instead, then we are surrounded by objective values. The thing is, they are not anything like goodon emitters. They are relationships between states of affairs and desires. These relationships exist in the real world in such a way that scientists can discover them and describe them in statements that are testable and knowable. Moral values, in this sense, are real.

I will have more to say on this option tomorrow.


Eli said...

You're right so far! I'm interested to see where you go from here, though, because it's very hard for me to see why I should care about other people's desires in a morally fundamental way. From what I can see, desire fulfillment is only (at best) a secondary good that's parasitic on something more basic for its value. But maybe you can show otherwise.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eli Horowitz

I can't establish that you "should care about other people's desires" (at least to the exclusion of everything else). Nor can I establish that desire fulfillment (or objective desire satisfaction) is a fundamental good. It is not - and I will argue that it is not.

However, the mistake is in thinking that one has to go that route. This is the traditional route that people travel - and it always leads to a train wreck. So, we'll be taking another route instead.

I wanted to warn you of this. If you are looking for proof that you should care about other people's desires and that desire fulfillment is some sort of primary good, you are not going to find it. But I am still going to get to objectively true moral claims.

Eli said...

Yeah, sorry, "care about" was poor phrasing - simple laziness on my part. But the fundamental thing was good phrasing, so it's very interesting that you're pushing that away as well. This doesn't make any difference to your definition of objectivity, of course - the objectivity thing you're going for still seems to be spot-on. But I'd question whether it's still a moral claim as such once you make it not fundamental. So yeah - still interested to see where this is heading.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eli Horowitz

Whether it still counts as a moral claim will depend on how you define "moral claim" - the same way that whether Pluto is a planet will depend on how you define "Planet".

If two people adopt two definitions of planet, then "Pluto is a planet" will be true for one person and false for the other. None of this will have any impact on Pluto's mass, shape, orbit, chemical composition, and the like.

If two people adopt two different definitions of "moral claim" then "C is a moral claim" will be true for one person and false for another. None of this will have any impact on what is objectively true of C.

What I will argue for will make sense of such things as the three moral categories (obligation, prohibition, and non-obligatory permission), excuse, supererogatory action, the four levels of culpability (intentional, knowing, reckless, and negligent), the role of praise and condemnation, "ought" implies "can", and the like. I would hold that this would qualify it as a moral theory.

However, if somebody else insists kn a different definition - for example "a moral theory is able to motivate somebody to do the right thing merely by making them aware of the relevant facts" or - as mentioned in this posting "a moral theory is a theory about goodon and badon emitters", then I will not be providing a moral theory. In dact, I woukd be a moral nihilist - arguing that nothing in the real would fits these definitions.

Yet, even though it is not a moral theory under those definitions, it will still make sense of such things as the three moral categories (obligation, prohibition, and non-obligatory permission), excuse, supererogatory action, the four levels of culpability (intentional, knowing, reckless, and negligent), the role of praise and condemnation, "ought" implies "can", and the like.

Eli said...

You can just use "Eli" if that's easier, I don't stand on ceremony or anything like that.

Anyway, I agree that what you describe sounds like a moral theory (maybe you're even going a little overboard, if anything). I just don't know how to get something like obligation (let alone permission or prohibition [which is just another sort of obligation] or supererogatoriness) from a value that's parasitic on something else, is all.