Thursday, August 09, 2012

More on the Definition of "Should"

I am letting the discussions in the desirism facebook group guide my writings here to some extent.

One of those discussions involves a post from a few days ago where I described three uses of the word "should". They were (1) basic "should" relating an act to a specific desire, (2) practical "should" which relates an act to all of an agent's current and future desires, and (3) moral "should" that relates the act to the desires of a good person -a person with those desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote.

The debate is over what to do with option 3.

Debates about the meaning of words do not lend themselves well to argument. Even proof that people use a word a particular way is not proof that they should continue to do so. When astronomers changed the definition of "planet" it was not because they discovered that the traditional use of the word was one that excluded Pluto. Nor was it because they took precise measurements and discovered by means of scientific proof that Pluto did not fit the traditional use. It was because they thought - or some thought - that a new definition would be more efficient.

Some argued against changing the definition - for some very unscientific reasons. People - particularly children - wanted Pluto to continue to be a planet and many astronomers were happy to sacrifice efficiency for the sake of pleasing a child - or to include in their definition of efficiency the fact that the traditional definition was pleasing to children.

The question over what to do about moral "should" likewise has to do with what would be more efficient, less confusing, more traditional, and the like.

One caveat is that changing definitions does not change the world. You cannot make Pluto bigger by calling it a planet. You cannot make slavery intrinsically good by calling it moral.

As I have described it, moral statements are both truth-bearing and emotive. "You have no right to do that," reports an alleged fact of the matter - it is either true or false. Specifically, it states, "The act is of a type that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn." Claims about the effects of praise and condemnation on molding desires and aversions further refine the claim about what people generally have reason to condemn. At the same time, the statement is also emotive. It contains within it the condemnation that it claims that people generally have a reason to give.

One objection to this is that moral 'should' actually refers to intrinsic prescriptivity in some form. These claims are always false (intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist), so we should drop all use of moral terms when we talk about real-world acts, policies, or institutions. We can still continue to talk about desires that people generally have reasons to promote. However, using moral terms confuses people into thinking that these malleable desires are intrinsically good or bad. Regardless of the fact that desirism explicitly denies this claim, people who hear moral terms applied to desires will still instantly draw the assumption that one is making a claim about intrinsic prescriptivity. To avoid this confusion, we should drop moral 'should'.

A problem with this option is that dropping moral 'should' leads to another type of confusion - this one potentially fatal. If nothing is wrong, then everything is permissible. If it is not wrong to rape or abuse children (meaning that it contains no intrinsic badness - even though the desires are those that people generally have reason to respond to with condemnation and punishment), then it must be permissible to rape and abuse children.

We have many and strong reasons to avoid giving people an opportunity to make this mistake. Not only would it be dangerous for children, it would also be an avenue by which people would make fallacious objections to the theory itself. "Desirism says that it is not wrong to rape and abuse children." Well, yes, in the sense that it is not intrinsically wrong - but not in the sense that people lack reason to respond to such acts with condemnation and punishment.

Another option, closely related with the previous suggestion one, is to drop the factual component of moral claims but to keep the emotive component. On this option, we recognize that a statement of moral outrage is an act of condemnation, but we remove all attempts to relate the act of condemnation and outrage to any fact, such as what people generally have reason to condemn.

A potential source of confusion that this would create arises from the shift of moral terms to all expressions of moral outrage. The parent who beats a child for spilling a glass of milk, or a man who rapes a woman claiming, "You deserve this," would be making moral statements no different than that of the person who condemns the abusive parent or the rapist. We would have to treat the rapist's statement, "You deserve this" as a legitimate claim, though not one that draws implications of what people generally have reason to promote or inhibit.

Technically, this change in language would not change the fact that there are some sets of acts that that people generally have many and strong reason to praise or condemn. It would not change the fact that people have many and strong reasons to condemn parental abuse or rape. All that would change is the way we use moral language. However, the shift of moral language to these brutal acts would invite a confusion over what people have many and strong reasons to condemn, with some potentially harsh conseqeunces.

Another option for shifting the meaning of moral "should" is to drop the claim of intrinsic prescriptivity, but shift to the closest truth-bearing alternative. This is the option that JL Mackie argues for in the book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. He used the word "atom" as a model. This term originally meant "without parts". When scientists began to suspect that atoms had parts, they could have dropped the term "atom". However, what they did instead was drop "without parts" from its meaning and keep the rest.

One potential objection to this is that moral 'should' is not like the others. Other types of 'should' relate the action to the desires of the person one is talking to. Moral 'should' relates the action to the desires of the good person - the desirs that people generally have many an strong reasons to promote. These desires may differ from those that the person one is talking to actually has.

Though the previous posting made it easy to draw such a conclusion, it is not true. We use 'should' in a number of ways that refer to desires other than those of the agent. For example, a person may tell her friend, "You should let your daughter go to the concert." In a case like this, she is not referring to a practical 'should' of what the mother wants. Nor is she claiming that the mother has an obligation and is worthy of condemnation for refusing to allow her daughter to go to the concert. It is simply an invitation to give the daughter's own desires more weight. Advice routinely given on "what you should give your father for father's day" are "should" statements that focus primarily on desires other than those of the person one is talking to.

All "should" statements - or, at least, all that are true - relate the action to some set of desires somewhere. This is because "should" relates actions to reasons for action, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist. However, it is not at all uncommon to use "should" statements to describe relationships between actions and desires other than those of the agent. Consequently, using "should" statements to relate actions to desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to support is actually not unusual.

On the other hand, the claim that this ambiguous use of the word "should" - having no clear meaning - is easily a source of confusion is well justified. It is not at all unusual for two people in a dispute, where one says, "You should do X" and another says, "You should not do X" to both be making true claims. The appearance of conflict is because they are using the same term while talking about two different relationships. Their dispute is like that of a person in San Francisco talking on the phone to somebody in Hong Kong, where the first person says, "Oakland is not very far," and the second person says, "Are you insane? It's half way around the world!"

The charge of confusion and the suggestion that we can be well served by coming up with a more precise language are both well founded.

There is no easy answer to this question. Each option would eliminate some confusions and provide some clarifications. At they same time, they invite new confusions and imposing some costs. Furthermore, we suffer the problem in that nobody has the ability to impose a new definition on all of society. To a certain extent, in communicating with others, we must accept the language that people generally seem to have adopted, even with its imperfections and confusions.

In these posts, I use 'should' in a sense that is both fact-bearing and emotive. It describes an act as one that people generally have reasons to praise, and it praises the act, both at the same time. It uses terms that are also used with other relationships between acts and desires - generating some confusion and inviting some equivocation. However, that is less dangerous than some of the alternatives.

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