Monday, January 07, 2013

Moral Superiority: To Know the Good Is to Do the Good

Last week, I talked about moral superiority and the fact that some people, as a matter of fact, are morally better than others.

Some people already have the desires people generally have reason to promote using rewards (such as praise), and do not have the desires that people generally have reason to condemn and to punish.

This invites the question, "Am I morally superior to others?"

This question relates to the philosophical position, "To know the good is to do the good," - formally known as motivational internalism. "The good", on this view, is that which, if you can convince somebody that something has it, then that person is motivated to realize that good. A person never says, "Yes, I fully agree that it is good, but I care nothing about it and do not really care whether there is more of it or less."

Since I claim to know the good - the mere fact that I am writing this blog says that I have something to say on the issue that others would benefit from learning, if it is the case that to know the good is to do the good, it follows that I claim to be a morally remarkable person - morally superior to a great many others and able to provide them with moral instruction so they can be more like me.

Well, it would follow if motivational internalism was true. But it is not.

Desirism holds that a right act is the act that a person with good desires would choose to perform. To know that people have an obligation to do X is to know that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote those desires that would motivate a person to do X, and to inhibit those desire that would motivate an agent to do something else.

However, it does not follow from the proposition, "I believe that the desire that D is a desire that people generally have reason to promote" that "I have a desire that D:" A person can conceivably find a huge gap between the desires he has and the desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit.

For example, I waste a huge amount of time on computer games. When I am engaged in these activities, I accomplish very little of value. I do little that fulfills the desires of others, and becaue of this others have little or no reason to praise the desires that contribute to such a waste of time.

At least I am not motivated to perform actions that cause others harm. In this, what can be said about my time spent on these activities is that, in doing them, I am dead to the world. I provide the world with as little good as I would provide if I did not exist.

I often imagine what the situation would have become if the hours that I have spent manipulating states on a computer - the real-world effect of playing a computer game - had been spent instead in efforts to manipulate states in the world. There are fields of knowledge where advancement would do a lot of people a lot of good. People generally have many and strong reasons to praise those who have those interests. A person with those interests, rather than those that I have, are morally superior (at least in that aspect of their lives).

Yet, knowing the good itself provides little motivation to doing the good. At least, it has not prevented me from sitting down for a session of manipulating the states in a computer in ways that I find satisfying - creating a state that, in the fiction created in the context of the game, counts as an "advancement" or "winning".

Desires are not subject to reason. Provide a person with all of the evidence that exists that a desire is one that people generally have reason to promote. Hypothetically, you can get that person to agree that it is, in fact, a desire people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, it does not follow as any type of causal necessity that he will acquire that desire. Desires are not created or destroyed through reason.

Actually, to be more precise, "desires-as-ends" are not vulnerable to reason. "Desires-as-means" can be modified by a reasoned discovery of the correct relationship between means and ends.

Changing desires does not require reason, it requires the application of rewards on the reward system of the brain - the use of social tools (such as praise and condemnation) to provide those rewards and punishments. Even then, there is little immediate effect.

This is true in the same sense that reason will tell you how to change a flat tire on your car. However, the application of pure reason alone will not change the tire. You will need to get out the jack and the tire iron and the spare tire and get your hands dirty.

Similarly, reason will tell us which desires people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. However, reason alone will not automatically change desires for the better. That requires getting out the moral tools - rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation - and getting one's hands dirty.

So, it is not the case that to know the good is to do the good. Nor is it the case that a person who claims to know the good also claims, in doing so, to have some sort of moral superiority. This simply does not follow from the premises.

No comments: