Monday, August 06, 2012

Desirism and the Naturalistic Fallacy

The Naturalistic Fallacy stands as an objection to all attempts to reduce moral terms such as "good" to natural terms such as 'happiness'. G.E. Moore argued that any such inference is a mistake.

Desirism may be accused of resting on this fallacy and, on that basis, it can be rejected. Specifically, desirism reduces 'good' to a set of natural properties - relationships between states of affairs and desires. This is exactly what Moore says cannot be done. If Moore is correct, then this is a fatal flaw for desirism.

What Moore is attempting to argue for is the idea that 'good' refers to a basic, unnatural property. We cannot reduce this term and further. We cannot reduce it to 'pleasure', for example; or of 'happiness'. Interestingly, we cannot reduce it to non-natural properties either. For example, we cannot reduce 'good' to 'that which is pleasing to God'. That, too, would commit the naturalistic fallacy.

This type of move is shown to be a mistake is shown through the Open Question Argument. According to this argument, we can show that a reduction from Term 1 to Term 2 fails by showing that competent users of he language can question the relationship.

For example, let us look at an attempt to reduce the term 'bachelor' to 'unmarried male.' we then ask a competent speaker of English a question like, "John is a male who is not married, but is he a bachelor?" The competent speaker of English who understands the meanings of the terms would consider this an open question. "Certainly he's a bachelor. That's what 'bachelor' means."

This marks a successful reduction.

When we attempt to reduce 'good' we get nothing like this type of success. If we try to reduce goodness to pleasure, a competent speaker who understands the terms can still sensibly ask, "Bullying that kid was pleasant, but was it good?" It even works on non-natural properties. "Releasing a plague that killed all first-born children was pleasing to God, but was it good?" in both cases, the answer might be "yes". Then again, it might not be. This is an open question. Consequently, these two attempted reductions fail the Open Question test.

Desirism also fails the Open Question test. Any attempt to reduce 'good' to some relationship between states of affairs and desires will fail the test."X stands in the proper relationship to the relevant desires, but is it good?" this will remain an open question regardless of how we flesh out 'proper relationship' and 'relevant desires'.

Reduction of Good

The claim that desirism reduces 'good' to relationships between states of affairs and desires would be false. Desirism reduces 'good' to reasons for action that exists. The fact that desires are the only reasons for action that exist is not true by definition. If categorical imperatives, intrinsic values, divine commands, social contracts, and the like were real, they would provide reasons for action relevant to whether something is good. The fact that they are not real is not something that can be learned from a conceptual analysis of the word 'good'.

Ambiguity of Good

Another confounding fact that bears on Moore's Open Question test rests on the fact that 'good', even when referring to relationships between states of affairs and desires is ambiguous. One can always ask the open question, "Which desires?"

Consider the following:

San Francisco is closer to the north pole than Los Angeles, but is it north of Los Angeles?

This is not an open question. Competent speakers of English who understand the terms will answer, "Of course. That's what 'north' means."

However, if we change the wording slightly, we get:

San Francisco is closer to the north pole than Los Angeles, but is it north?

North of what? North of you? I don't know. Where are you?

The question becomes an open question. However, its openness is not due to any inability to reduce the term 'north'. It is due to the fact that 'north' is a relational term and the thing that we are relating San Francisco to has been left unclear.

Relationships between states of affairs and desires suffer the same effects as relationships between objects. We need to clearly state which relationship we are talking about. The act that something stands in a particular relationship to one set of desires does not eliminate the possibility that it stands in a different relationship to other desires. Consequently, "This is the best tasting chocolate cake on the whole planet, but is it good?" remains an open question. Is it good for you? Absolutely not.

The Masked Man Fallacy

Another reason we can dismiss the Open Question argument s because it is an instance of another fallacy, the Masked Man Fallacy.

Imagine yourself in London in the late 1800s. There is a robber about, known only as “the Masked Man,” who has been stopping carriages on dark roads at night and robbing the passengers. One day, while you are at a party, an inspector from Scotland Yard comes in. He walks up to the host of the party and says, “We have arrested your brother. We believe that he is the Masked Man.”

Your host answers the Inspector, “That cannot be true. Yesterday, I was talking about the Masked Man with some dinner guests. At the time, I certainly knew the name of my brother James. However, I did not know the name of the Masked Man. In other words, the question, 'James is my brother, but he is the Masked Man?' was an open question. It still is, for that matter. Therefore, inspector, you have arrested the wrong man."

The inspector can dismiss this objection as bogus. Certainly his claim that the Mayor's brother and the Masked Man are the same person does not depend on what the Mayor was aware of the day before.

Similarly, the fact that, “X is good, but is it such as to fulfill the desires in question?” is an open question does not prove that ‘good’ and ‘is such as to objectively satisfy the desires in question.’

We look to see whether James is the Masked Man by looking to see if there is anything true of James that is not true of the Masked Man. If we learn, for example, that James was attending an important business meeting at 10:00 yesterday night – the same time that the Masked Man robbed a carriage on the corner of Wadsworth and Main, then we know that James could not be the Masked Man.

To be fair to Moore, it is not clear whether he was referring to this type of reduction. Moore's argument may be interpreted as being fixed on the issue of reducing one definition to another, not one phenomena to another. However, several critics of desirism raise this objection.

We see similar objections raised in other fields of study. A person may attempt to describe a toothache in terms of decomposition of a tooth resulting in the firings of a signal to the brain that is processed in a particular way, causing the agent to put his hand to his face and say "Ow!". Against this, somebody may argue that he can fully be aware of all of these physical facts and still not know whether the agent is in pain. So, we cannot, in fact, reduce a toothache to a set of physical interactions.

However, using the agent's ability to question whether the person is experiencing actual pain as reason to deny the reduction follows the masked man fallacy. The Mayor's ability to know all he did about the masked man and still be able to question whether the masked man was his brother is not a valid objection to the claim that the masked man is the Mayor's brother. Similarly, the ability to question whether an entity experiencing all of the physical qualities of a person with a toothache without feeling pain does not disprove the thesis that toothaches can be reduced to that set of physical interactions.

The Correct Test

The actual test for whether a particular relationship holds is not found in Moore's open question argument. The test for whether desirism provides an accurate account of morality is not found in an open question test. It is found in the fact that the terms actually make sense of a great many of our moral practices.

For example, equating a wrong act with an act that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn (in terms of promoting aversions that would aid in the fulfillment of many and strong desires) explains the moral practice of "excuse". An examination of excuses shows that everything that counts as an excuse is a claim that denies the proposition that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn somebody who performs such an act.

It makes sense of the practice of incorporating praise and condemnation in our moral statements - since these social tools work on the reward centers of the brain to mold malleable desires.

It makes sense of the principle that "ought" implies "can" because using praise and condemnation where malleable desires cannot affect action is a waste of time and energy.

These are the tests that a moral theory must pass. The Open Question Test is not a legitimate test of a moral theory.

1 comment:

Emu Sam said...

What is your argument against the existence of social contract(s)? I understand them to be a society-wide understanding that people may or may not buy into to ease social interactions.

From that definition, I suppose a major problem would be the fact that they are not explicit, and thus no two people ever have the same idea of what they are. But that's not really a problem, is it? Language suffers from the same sort of issue, even though it is made fairly explicit by means of such things as dictionaries.

Another issue might be that within a society are many subcultures with different understandings. By writing that, I begin to suspect that I'm using social contract as a synonym for culture, or for the values and laws side of culture.