Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Role of Reason in Morality

It's a rainy night, you are out on some back road with no cell phone coverage, and you have a flat tire.

Reason and a few true beliefs will tell you how to change the tire so that you can continue the trip. You will also need a few tools - a tire iron and a jack, as well as an inflated spare tire, or something that can serve each role.

You can try to reason with the tire. You can tell the tire how much better off you will be if it would just inflate itself and stop this leaking. You can inform the tire that it is placing an unfair burden on you, forcing you out into the rain and, perhaps, putting your life at risk. However, I predict that this will do little good.

The role of reason in morality is much like the role of reason in changing a tire. Reason will not turn a wicked person into a good person. Reason will only tell you how to use the tools that you have available to help make it the case that there are more good people and fewer wicked people, or that most people are a morally better than they otherwise would have been.

The tools relevant to changing the character of people, at least within the institution of morality, are reward and punishment - including praise and condemnation.

These tools alter behavior in two ways.

One way they modify behavior is to serve as incentives and deterrents. People act so as to obtain a reward and avoid a punishment. To be an effective reward or punishment, these tools must act on existing desires, offering something the agent already has a desire for or an aversion to, or by giving or taking away something that is useful as a means towards those ends.

However, morality is not concerned with these effects. This system applies more to law, sporting events, and games.

Morality is concerned with the effect that reward and punishment has on desires themselves - altering behavior by strengthening particular desires and aversions.

One of the main difference in these effects is that they are active even when the agent is not being watched. A threat of punishment for taking the property of others is effective only if the agent believes that he has a chance of getting caught and punished. In contrast, a sufficiently strong aversion to taking the property of others will prevent the agent from taking property even when he has no fear of getting caught.

This is the realm of morality.

It is relevant to add that praise functions as a reward in these matters, and condemnation acts as punishment.

It is also important to note that rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation work not only on those being rewarded or punished, but on those who witness the reward or punishment - even if the person rewarded or punished is a fictional character.

Desires are immune to reason. You cannot reason a person into having an aversion to taking property any more than you can reason a person into liking the taste of spinach. However, we can change a person's desires by rewarding that which we want to encourage and condemning that which we want to discourage.

Note that you can use reason on somebody who has good desires and is missing some relevant piece of information. If somebody has a desire to help the poor, then providing a reasoned argument that a particular policy will not help the poor should convince the person to abandon the policy. If it does not, then we have reason to question whether the individual's desire for that policy is actually grounded on a concern for the poor.

However, rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) are what we use to mold desires themselves.

Reason tells us how to use these tools of reward and punishment to alter desires the same way it tell us how to use a jack and a tire iron to change a flat tire. Desires provide the motivation for praise and condemnation just as they provide the motivation for using the jack and tire iron. Reason tells us how to use the tools efficiently.

Here, then, briefly, are the roles of reason in morality.

• To get a good person to do the right thing.

• To govern the use of reward, punishment, praise, and condemnation to make people morally better.

Here is something reason cannot do:

• Make a wicked person good.

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