Friday, September 30, 2016

Self Help Philosophy: Desirism

Can Desirism help a person to live a better life?

In my last post I looked at some self-help philosophies and tried to express them in more modern terms. This raised the question of whether desirism itself has any recommendations for living a better life.

One of the recommendations that it comes with is a way to improve the community in which one lives. This is to determine what desires and aversions people generally have reason to promote and ally with other members of the community to promote those desires and aversions. One can create a community in which people are more honest, kind, and helpful, less eager to see harm come to others, who repay their debts, keep promises, and try not to be an undue burden on others.

In other words, it helps to identify where to put the moral fence so as to improve the quality of life for those living within the bounds of that fence.

But that's moral-ought. Does desirism provide any advice on how one ought to practical-ought live their lives.

To start with, desirism can endorse the advice offered by the Buddhists, stoics, and Adam Smith in the previous post. Our desires give things value. However, it is possible to become so attached to a state of affairs that one simply cannot bear a world in which that state of affairs does not obtain. Yet, the universe promises us nothing. To avoid extreme disappointment, we have reason to temper our desires - to enjoy the time that we have to do what we want and with whom we want, but to brace oneself for the fact that things will change and what we have today may not be here tomorrow.

If your attitude towards another person is, "I couldn't live without you," then you have a problem. It is not only a problem for you in that the fates might not give you the company of the person you could not live without. You are also creating a problem for that person. If you find yourself in this type of situation, you should admit to the fact that it is not a good situation to be in and to take steps to temper those sentiments.

Another important piece of advice - and one that I gratefully followed even before I knew anything about desirism - is to avoid acquiring those desires that tend to thwart future desires. Smoking, drug addiction, and the like are desires best avoided. The best way to avoid acquiring these desires is to refuse to take up the activity that causes one to have them. Scientists know how these activities work on the brain to alter desires - and, science can tell you, with an increasing measure of accuracy, what you should avoid.

I did end up with an over-fondness for chocolate and computer games, but I have avoided acquiring some of the worst future-thwarting desires simply by avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs.

This leads to a third important piece of advice - to know and understand the world as it is.

A major cause of human misery has and continues to be "false belief". False beliefs cause people to devote time and resources to plans that do not produce expected results, and to fail to devote time and resources to plans that would produce exceptional payoffs. The range of activities that are adversely impacted by false belief range from investment and career options to health matters. False beliefs on climate change threatens countless lives and promises untold amounts of human suffering. Mistaken beliefs about vaccines, genetically modified foods, nuclear power, and alternative medicine cause significant harm.

However, understanding the world as it is involves more than acquiring correct beliefs, it requires an honest appraisal of how one acquires beliefs. Confirmation biases, cherry-picking, and tribal prejudices combine to motivate people to make judgments that are often far from the truth, and hijack an interest in doing good to produce behavior that does harm.

The value of true beliefs provides a substantial reason to come down particularly hard on those who lie - where a "lie" is understood as any communicative act that seeks to cause in others a belief that the communicator believes to be false. It also provides reason for the harsh condemnation of those who are intellectually reckless, because they do not exercise sufficient caution or concern over whether their claims are true or false.

It is also important to be modest in one's beliefs. All it takes is a casual look around at the numbers of people who have been absolutely confident that they were right who have, in fact, been dead wrong to draw the conclusion that one should be a bit anxious about one's own beliefs. The idea that one is to grab a belief, as a matter of faith, and hang onto it beyond all reason and allow no questioning has been a barrier to progress, good judgment, and respect for others throughout human history. Try to understand the world as it is. However, if your neighbor also tries to understand the world as it is and comes up with some different answers, certainly one of you must be wrong, but an impartial judge may not find it particularly easy to determine who it is.

Another piece of advice that I have illustrated in a recent post on weight loss comes from the fact that the way that a desire presents itself depends on its environment. In the case that I described earlier, desires that have motivated me to waste time playing computer games also motivated me to lose weight when I put them in a context where I could "keep score" regarding the number of calories I burned and consumed in a day. Along that same line of reasoning, one can take their desires as they are and try to change the environment so that the desires express themselves in useful and productive ways. This is a great deal easier than altering one's desires.

These are a few pieces of practical advice that come from desirism.

  1. Promote a community in which others keep promises, repay debts, and the like by praising/rewarding those who do and condemning/punishing those who do not.
  2. Avoid overly strong attachments to that which is temporary or that can be lost.
  3. Avoid desires that thwart future desires.
  4. Seek true beliefs; educate yourself about the real world and avoid the epistemic traps that lure people into false beliefs.
  5. Promote a community in which people generally respect the value of true beliefs (condemn lying and intellectual recklessness).
  6. Avoid arrogance in one's beliefs. In every dispute, somebody has to be wrong and it is not always "the other guy".
  7. Try to create a context in which your desires (interests) can express themselves in ways that are useful to yourself and others.
  8. Promote a community within which people generally are kind and helpful.

Well, that's a start.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Self-Help Philosophy

333 days until my first classes and, as promised, a blog post on self-help philosophy.

A couple of posts ago, I distinguished between moral philosophy (How moral-ought I to live my life?) from what I will call here self-help philosophy (How practical-ought I to live my life?).

The distinction rests on whether one is evaluating a life relative to the desires one ought to have (moral-ought) or the desires one does have (practical-ought). For the virtuous person there is no conflict between the two. For everyone else, there is. Yet, even for the virtuous person, moral-ought leaves a lot of room within which one can roam - and decisions to be made about how practical-ought one to live within those moral boundaries.

Recently, I have encountered three examples of philosophies that sought to give advice on how one should practical-ought live one's life.

Two appeared in the more recent episodes of the Philosophy Bites podcast: Graham Priest on Buddhism and Philosophy and William B. Irvine on Living Stoically.

Both of these episodes spent some of their time discussing how to handle disappointment.

Actually, "disappointment" is too mild of a term. One example they both used involved the parent's loss of a young child - in my opinion, one of the most painful events a person may have to endure. Yet it is still only one example among a great many possibilities. At the very least, old age and death bring the promise of forcing us to endure some loss, either of friends and family, or our own faculties.

The Stoics and the Buddhists also have similar ways of addressing these problems - solutions (or, at least, mitigations) that promise to remove some of the emotional pain out of life.

Buddhists, at least according to Graham Priest, state that this distress is caused by wanting that which one cannot have - or that one cannot have reliably. The world is constantly changing such that even if, at the moment, you have that which you want, it will not last. The more tightly one tries to hang on to things in this world, the stronger the sting will be when reality takes it away. Consequently, the wise person does not attach great importance to such things. They enjoy that which they have, but not in a way that they suffer greatly when it is gone.

Stoicism also tells us not to value something to such a degree that we are torn up by its loss.

Desirism would state this as, "Insofar as you have a reason to avoid great emotional pain and suffering, do not cultivate a desire that P that is so strong that one cannot endure a state in which 'P' is false."

William Irvine said that the stoic can, in a sense, immunize himself against the potential death of a child by taking the time each night to consider the fact that the child could be dead tomorrow. One should not dwell on this potential loss - that would be a recipe for misery. However, one should at least face the possibility. This gives the stoic a double blessing of being all the more grateful for having just one more day with that child should the fates allow it, and being psychologically prepared for the state in which the fates did not allow it.

I found the third example of this type of self-help philosophy in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Although Smith talked about the loss of a child, most of his discussion concerned the hypothetical loss of a leg by a cannon in a wartime battle.

Smith's suggested remedy to the problem of suffering some great disappointment or loss was to get out more - to meet people and share their company. Furthermore, the company that one is to seek is the company of strangers or, at least, more distant acquaintances. Friends and close family are going to be too sympathetic and indulgent of the person feeling sorry for himself. More distant acquaintances and strangers, on the other hand, have less of a tendency to be so indulgent.

More generally, Smith argued that the proper measure of the sentiment one should have to some object is that which "everybody" would have who is at such sufficient distance from the object so as to be impartial. Such a hypothetical agent would still carry a common amount of human sympathy, and thus will not be entirely unfeeling towards the person who has suffered such a loss. However, they would not allow their lives to be torn up over the fact. Through them, the agent can learn not to allow such a loss to destroy his own life.

I want to repeat that this is not a suggestion to join the company of people who care nothing about us. Smith argues that sympathy is a powerful and important sentiment - one that grounds all of morality - and one that "everybody" shares. Consequently, his advice to seek the company of others who are somewhat removed from one's loss is still advice to seek the company of people who have some measure of natural sympathy. However, it would be a sympathy that held the loss in its proper context - as one tragedy among many in a universe filled with tragedies and joys. Through their example, and with the benefit of time, one can learn to see their own loss in something near the same way.

Ultimately, the goal here is little different from that which the Buddhist and the stoic suggests - to temper one's 'desire that P' such that one can tolerate living in a world in which 'P' is false. It is to lessen the importance of 'P' being true, in order to lessen the pain that is consequent upon living in a universe in which 'P' may end up being false.

It is a type of advice that desirism, too, can recommend to anybody who has an interest in avoiding such pain.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Emerita Steinbock on "Designer Babies"

334 days until the start of class.

I tried to get a posting on self-help philosophy in yesterday, but I failed to finish it.

Not enough time.

I will likely post it later today.

One of the reasons I failed is because I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder to attend another lecture. Dr. Emerita Steinbock wrote on "designer (genetically enhanced) babies."

She began with some technical accounts that suggested that, with a few exceptions, genetic enhancement would be hard to come by. Genes do not have just one effect - they effect many different body functions. Altering a gene to bring an enchancement to one function may have detrimental effects somewhere else.

Similarly, few traits are controlled by just one gene. One may seek an enhancement by modifying Gene A, only to discover that Gene B has reversed the effect.

We can add to this the environmental and social effects on genes. Chemicals - from hormones to environmental toxins - can alter the way a particular gene expresses itself. Furthermore, social and cultural factors may have an influence. A child given the height and coordination to play basketball may discover that she enjoys philosophy instead.

There are some things that parents can select for - such as the sex of a child. And we do know of some genetic determinants of disease, such as Downs' Syndrome. In these areas, early tests allow parents to determine if the child has traits that the parent or parents value. We can expect that our ability to predict the effects of genetic manipulation will increase - though the above complications suggest that this will be slowly with great difficulty and potential for unforeseen consequences.

There is also the question of what counts as an enhancement. Steinbock brought up the fact that there are genetic factors that dispose certain people to extreme shyness. She spoke of this as a defect - something that a parent may wish to prevent passing on to future generations. As somebody who is extremely shy, I resent that description. Yes, being extremely shy has certain drawbacks (e.g., desirism would probably be the leading moral theory if I had a disposition to actually sell it and promote it), but, I believe, it also makes me sensitive to certain facts about the world that a less shy - and, in some areas, less observant - person would be. This speaks to the difficulty, in some cases, to even knowing whether a change actually counts as an enhancement.

Still, Steinbock thought it would be useful to examine the moral arguments concerning genetic enhancement.

She seemed to think that there were no good arguments against it. For example, the argument that it somehow violates the authonomy of the child can be set aside because being genetically entineered or having random genetic traits has no impact on a child's autonomy. It is not as if the parents are overriding the child's decision regarding its genes - the child lacks the capacity to make any decision.

On the matter of consent, the fact that a child lacks a vote in its genetic makeup also fails to provide an objection to genetic enhancement. Because the child lacks a voice, it is the duty of the parents to do that which is in the interests of the child. This actually provides an argument in favor of enhancement rather than against it. If there were a genetic enhancement that would give a child immunity from a particular disease (e.g., malaria), would that be any different than giving the child an immunization shot as protection against polio?

There was one objection brought up by a member of the audience that I had a particular interest in - and that became the subject of an email that I sent to Dr. Steinbock after the event. Writing this email was another reason I was unable to finish the posting on self-help philosophy yesterday.

As I understood the argument - and attempting to put it in the best light I can think of - it asked us to consider the psychological harm that may be done to the person who discovers that she is not a "natural" child but, instead, a genetically enhanced child.

Dr. Steinbock's answer to this objection was that there is no good reason to hate oneself for being a genetically enhanced child. The child who discovers this fact about herself, according to Steinbock, should just "get over it".

At this point I attempted to put the argument in a stronger light - as well as suggest an objection against even this stronger version of the argument - by pointing out that these types of arguments have been used in the past. People, trying to present their racism as altruistic, have argued against interracial marriage in virtue of the psychological harm that the child would suffer as a result of being a "mixed race" child. Similarly, people have used "psychological harm" as a reason to oppose allowing same-sex couples to raise (or to adopt) children.

I was attempting to imply that we can imagine a case in which a culture adopted the attitude that designer babies, though perhaps mentally or physically superior to most "natural" children, were still considered to have less intrinsic worth - as being less "human" in the moral sense. We could imagine "designer baby" becoming a cultural slur - an insult hurled with venom aimed at communicating that the genetically enhanced child was, by that very fact, worthy of contempt. In this way, a genetically enhanced child can come to suffer abuse and psychological harm.

After all, there are a lot of people who view "natural" as intrinsically more valuable than "artificial", and humans are disposed to attack and belittle minorities, as well as have an incentive to put down in other ways those who they may have to compete with for jobs and public acclaim.

Steinbock responded to these points by saying that research shows that there was no psychological harm that resulted from being a mixed-race child or being raised by same-sex parents. This implies that we can expect no similar harm to come from being the a "designer baby".

That may well be true (I later told her in an email), but it does not actually address the argument in its strongest form. What if there was psychological harm? Would preventing this harm count as a good reason to prevent an activity? Should the possibility that genetically enhanced children are the subject of ridicule and abuse in virtue of that fact could as a reason to condemn the parents who would bring such a child into the world or raise the child in such a way?

My argument is that, even if there is real psychological harm, the fault lies with the abusers, not with the parents of that child. The cultural or social denigration of mixed-race children would not count as a reason to condemn the mixed-race parents, it counts as a reason to condemn those who express bigotry towards - who, in a very real sense, abuse - the mixed race child in virtue of its being mixed-race. Similarly, if children were being harmed as a result of social ridicule for "having two mothers" or "having two fathers", the fault rests not with the mothers or fathers, but with the society that allows and inflicts that abuse.

Along these same lines, any abuse that a "designer baby" may suffer as a result of being targeted as something lacking the intrinsic worth of a "natural" human would be the fault of those who would have and express bigotry against such a child. It should not count as a reason to condemn the parents of a child.

I did not express in my email an objection to this argument that has always concerned me. Let us say that I knew that the man living up the street had a disposition to murder women. When my sister comes to visit, I send her up to the neighbor's house to borrow a tool, expecting that he she would be murdered. I can make the same argument that the fault rests with the neighbor who did the murder, and the decision to send my sister to get the tool is and remains a totally blameless activity. Yet, this seems not to be the case. Similarly, in each of the three cases above, we can, perhaps, hold out some measure of condemnation against the mixed-race or same sex couple bringing a child into the world where she will suffer abuse at the hands of bigots. We can extend this moral judgment to the couple bringing a "designer baby" into a world where people would condemn and denigrate that person.

An important difference between these two types of cases is that there are many and strong reasons for society to abolish this prejudice against mix-race children or children raised by same-sex couples. Those same kinds of reasons also apply to "designer babies". There is no similar argument to be made for tolerating murderers. In order to promote tolerance where intolerance is unjustified, we need to condemn the intellerant - and deny them a "heckler's veto" over that which they do not tolerate. This argues for giving a pass to the parents being discussed in this posting, but not to the man who sends his sister to barrow a tool from the murderer.

Well, now that this is behind me, I can get back to that posting on self-help philosophy. It is nearly done, and I anticipate no other interruptions - except work, exercise, family time, and some social obligations.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How Practical-Ought/Moral-Ought I to Live My Life?

The first day of class is now 335 days away.

The final episodes of Philosophy Bites exposed me to a pair of interviews that brought up the idea of "Self Help Philosophy". This is the idea that philosophy exists to improve the quality of one's life - to make life go better for those who engage in its practices.

I am going to divide this discussion into two parts.

First, I want to look at the idea that philosophy is supposed to answer the question of how we should live. Second, in the next post, I will look at how Buddhism and Stoicism attempt to answer one interpretation of this question.

I specify, "one interpretation of this question" because the phrase, "how one should live" contains an important ambiguity. The term "should" has two related meanings - "moral ought" and "practical ought". In other words, the question, "How morally-should we live" is distinct from "How practical-should we live."

Desirism distinguishes between these two uses of the word "should" by asking how the object of evaluation (possible lives) stands in relation to what an agent does desire (practical ought" versus what he should desire (moral ought). "Should desire" in this case looks at the desires and aversions people generally have reason to promote, not at the desires and aversions the agent actually has.

There is no inherent irrationality in immorality. In fact, the true villain is somebody for whom it is rational to do the immoral. Given his desires, the practical thing for him to do is that which fulfills his own desires in ways that thwart (harm) the interests of others. You cannot argue a person out of immorality. You can only threaten him, and try to change his desires so that immorality no longer tempts him.

Some do not see a distinction here. Plato and Aristotle, for example, seemed determined to show that living as one practical-ought is the same as living as one moral-ought. Immanuel Kant also sought to show that immorality is irrational.

G.E. Moore objected to John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism that it fails to distinguish between what we desire and what we ought to desire - which is exactly where I place the distinction between practical and moral ought. This is not true. Mill wrote, for example, that the love of virtue does not come naturally. It must be taught, and we have reason to teach it that is grounded on its good consequence. Insofar as one acquires a love of virtue, practical ought comes into alignment with moral ought.

There is only one type of person where the answer to the question, "How practical-ought I to live?" and "How moral-ought I to live?" are in harmony, and that is in the case of a person with perfect virtue. It is the person for whom what she desires and what she ought to desire are the same.

Yet, the boundaries of morality encompass a large territory where morality says nothing about what an agent should do in any sense of the term. The choice of career, of friends, of a mate, of what to eat and what to wear, within limits, are not determined by morality. The agent is free to make choices, and to find separate answers to the question, "What practical-ought I to desire?"

Even if one lives a life entirely within the boundaries of morality, one is bound to suffer hardship. Personal injury or illness, the loss of livelihood or property, the suffering of cold, thirst, hunger, and the want of good company, becoming the victim of wrongdoing or injustice, or even receiving just punishment, can threaten to knock an agent off of her feet. At the very least, age guarantees some upset.

This is where self-help philosophy comes in. This is where the question, "How practical-ought I to live?" takes on a measure of importance. I will address that in a future post.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Recent Encounters on the Purpose of Punishment

336 days until classes start.

I have finished Philosophy Bites podcast.

The last podcast episode that I listened to was Gregg Caruso on Free Will and Punishment.

Caruso argued that free will does not exist; consequently, moral praise and condemnation are illegitimate - as is moral reward and punishment. Nobody has a choice over what they do - they are merely acting on the effects of their environment on their genetic material. Consequently, what they do is not to their credit, and they cannot be praised or deserve any reward. Nor can a person be blamed or punished for what they did wrong.

Caruso argues that there are two legitimate reasons for punishment. One is deterrence - to prevent a person from doing that which is harmful to others by threatening them with a cost. The other justification for punishment, which is the primary focus of this podcast episode, is to treat a wrong-doer as somebody who has an illness that makes that person a threat to society. He compares the confinement of prisoners as comparable to putting a patient under quarantine - something that can be done to a person without their consent, but which carries no implication of blameworthiness or being such as to deserve this harm.

This episode, posted on April 16, 2016, still makes no mention of the possibility that praise and condemnation, reward and punishment, might have a purpose. That is to say, the reason we have selected rewards as a response to some activity (and use praise as a type of reward), and punishment as a response to others (with condemnation working as a type of punishment), is because these activities have certain effects on the human brain, and people generally have reasons to create those effects.

That idea still seems to be unique to the philosophy that I present here in this blog.

On a related note, I am now about half way through Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. He, too, fails to see that praise and condemnation have a function - an effect - that explains and justifies their use. Smith wrote that gratitude is the natural response to benevolence and resentment the natural response to causeing harm. The impulse to reward comes from the attitude of generosity and to punish comes from resentment. Specifically, these responses are appropriate when impartial observers (not the agent who is actually harmed, and not the agent doing the harm) would have this response under normal circumstances to an act of benevolence or resentment.

Smith, however, does not investigate why it is the case that resentment and punishment is an appropriate response to wrongdoing as opposed to, let us say, clucking and flapping one's arm as a chicken. We look simply at the descriptive fact that people are disposed to respond to wrongdoing with feelings of resentment and an impulse to punish and judge, from this fact alone, that it is appropriate that they do so.

Where philosophers do look for the reason to reward or punishment only in their effects, they see this as providing an incentive or a deterrant to the evil action. That is to say, they are to enter into the agent's calculations before the fact as reasons to do that which will earn a reward, and as reasons to avoid that which will be punished. Yet, as Smith argues, we hold the agent who acts for the sake of reward much less favorably than we would hold the agent who provides a benefit out of simple generosity or a desire to help somebody in need. Similarly, Smith argues that the agent who acts like a properly motivated person would act merely to avoid punishment will get his wish in being undeserving of punishment, but one who warrants no praise either - as a person who acts in the pursuit of justice or forbears from some action because it is wrong.

Oh . . . I should mention as an aside . . . one of the provessors at the University of Colorado that I hope to study under, David Boonin, has a book out on The Problem of Punishment which may serve as an opening for presenting some of these ideas. I should add that book to my reading list.

Too little time!

And too little money. This book costs $110.00.

Okay, where was I before I digressed? Oh, yes, with the idea that reward and punishment work on the brain to alter desires and, thereby, to cause people to do that which is good or refrain from that which is evil, even when no actual reward/praise or punishment/condemnation can be expected.

NOTE: John Stuart Mill has this idea in his writing, in Utilitarianism, as I recall, though I cannot find the precise reference at this moment.

I have been giving thought recently to papers I may write in order to introduce some of my ideas to the philosophy department. Reading Boonin's book with an eye to writing a paper on the idea that reward and punishment - praise and condemnation - have a purpose in reorganizing the mind/brain to promote desires for that which is useful and aversions to that which is harmful - could be one of those papers.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"Dieting" and Evaluating Desires in Context

339 days until classes start.

This morning, I listened to the nautical philosopher Jimmy Buffett - a collection of works on The Good Life of beach-combing, sailing, and the drinking of margaritas.

Actually, I was celebrating the fact that, after months of hard work, I got my BMI number from 31.6 (Obese) to 24.9 (Normal).

That took work.

It also provides a case study concerning reasons for intentional action.

I have long had many and strong reasons to lose weight. My weight thwarted many current desires (mostly regarding appearance to others). However, it mostly threatened to thwart future desires. Unfortunately, a future desire (a desire that does not currently exist) cannot motivate current action. Current action depends on the desire that my future desires not be thwarted. This desire and the desire to look better could not outweigh the current desire for another slice of chocolate cake.

What tipped the balance was that somebody gave me a Fitbit Blaze activity tracker.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my interest in computer games - an interest I called a vice because it motivated me to waste time in unproductive activity such as talking my avatar Hedgerow Shrewburrow (former clerk to the mayor of Michel Delving in the Shire - Lord of the Rings Online) and accompanying a group into The Rift of Nûrz Ghâshu - only to suffer defeat at the hands of the troll boss Barz.

Well, the activity tracker turned weight management into a computer game. The rules are easy. I needed to record everything that I ate (at least its calorie value). The object of the game was to burn more calories than I consumed. I could accomplish this objective in one of two ways - by reducing the number of calories I consumed, or by increasing the number of calories burned, or (ideally) a combination of both. Every day in which I win, I lose a little fat. The high my score (the higher the difference between calories burned and calories consumed), the more fat I lost.

There are a few other technicalities to consider to maintain good health - see your doctor for details.

I have played this game every day since I got it, and I have won this game every day for 143 days in a row now (except on my birthday). Currently, I have a string of victories where my score has been greater than 1000. Last night, my score was I win with a score of at least 1000. Yesterday, my score was 2683 - but that required spending nearly 3 hours on an elliptical. (There are reasons not to recommend keeping such a high score for an extended period of time.)

This brings up something about the value of desires that perhaps does not get the attention that it should. Desires are not good or bad in themselves. They are good or bad in terms of their tendency to fulfill other desires. Their tendency to fulfill other desires depends on their context - the situations that occur in which they are relevant. We cannot simply say that a desire is good or bad. We have to look at the situations that the agent will likely find herself in, and the way that the desire will manifest itself in those situations.

This stands at the root of my objections to Trolley problems. They take the sentiments that are engineered to work in situations where people are likely to find themselves, and puts them into a highly unusual (in fact, an impossible but imaginable) situation, and looks at the results. Whenever I hear a trolley problem, I simply roll my eyes and wait for the topic to turn to something relevant.

This fact is also relevant to the many counter-examples to act-utilitarian theories. Desires that produce good consequences in the normal situations in which we find ourselves will not produce good consequences in all situations imaginable. Counter-examples to act utilitarianism almost always (always?) involve cases where sentiments that produce good consequences in everyday situations produce anti-utilitarian consequences in some unusual situation. These are effective arguments against act-utilitarianism, but they are explained by the fact that we cannot completely divorce any act from the motives that caused it, and we have to look at what consequences those motives will produce in normal circumstances.

In an earlier post, I argued that my interest in computer games counts as a bad desire, because it motivates me to waste my time. However, by modifying the context, I have changed the consequences of this desire to produce a personal benefit - weight loss. There is probably a consequence in which this same desire could produce good consequences - something that is generally useful for others. If this is the case, others may not have as much reason to condemn the desire as they would to alter the circumstances in which the desire operated.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Blood Oil" and the Real-World Implications of Moral Philosophy

339 days until I am sitting in my first class.

I am down to eight (8) Philosophy Bites podcast.

One of the recent set of podcasts that I listened to, Leif Wenar on Trade and Tyranny discussed changing international law to prohibit the purchasing of raw material from sources where the resource was not controlled by the people.

Wenar identified four criteria for determining if the people controlled the resource.

(1) Were the people able to discover what is happening with the resource?
(2) Were the people able to talk freely among themselves about what is happening with the resource?
(3) Were the people able to petition those who controlled the resource to change what is happening?
(4) When the people petitioned those who controlled the resource for change, were those wishes carried out?

Wenar's proposal was that, where these conditions were not met, trade with that entity would be prohibited.

He compared this to the project of ending the slave trade and ending colonization. In both of these cases, entrenched instances were up to their neck in an activity that was determined to be immoral and unjust. A difficult political struggle resulted. However, the result of that struggle was finally to change international law and to end the immoral activity.

He gave a specific example in which this was actually done concerning blood diamonds. Blood diamonds were diamonds from mines that criminal warlords controlled in Africa. Their purchase was being used to finance these criminal overlords. Through public pressure, companies that market diamonds developed a system for registering diamonds and to restrict their purchase from places that these criminal organizations controlled. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme has been criticized for its failure to guarantee that diamonds do not come from a prohibited source, but it does increase the costs and difficulties of selling those resources.

Wenar wants to apply the same system to "blood oil". "Blood oil" refers to oil resources controlled by warlords or terrorist organizations, as well as by tyrannical governments. Each oil well has a unique chemical fingerprint that can be used to determine the source of oil, allowing us to set up barriers to the sale of oil by organizations such as ISIS, which are using it to fund violent and oppressive regimes. Wenar would also include the government of Saudi Arabia in his list of sources of "blood oil", since it fails to satisfy the four crtieria for a legitimate source of oil outlined above.

Interviewer Nigel Warburton asked about how this is a philosophical topic. Wenar answered by identifying many political philosophers in history who took on important political institutions of their time; Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau. He could have added Socrates and Aristotle - both of whom antagonized the government of Athens to the point that they had reason to fear for their lives. Socrates was executed. Aristotle fled Athens to avoid the same fate several years later.

That part of the interview has made me wonder about the degree to which I have applied my political philosophy to the issues of the day - and what it would look like if I took on a more activist role.

I have used it to criticize the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both campaigns were built on a foundation of hate-mongering bigotry, identifying a social group as "them" who are the source of "all of our problems" and, thus, legitimately made the object of hatred. Trump targeted Muslims and immigrants, while Sanders targeted billionaires, but the logic of their arguments was identical.

I have also spoken repeatedly against the derogatory overgeneralizations of atheists who fail to distinguish between "criticizing an idea" versus "promoting hatred of a people". These are atheists whose tribal instincts are such that it blinds them to the difference, so that they convince even themselves that their instances of promoting hatred of a people is actually criticism of an idea.

If I were to identify an issue that I think I should devote more time and effort to, it would be the issue of intellectual recklessness. It is a meta-issue that has implications to everything from climate change to the shooting of unarmed black men because they are "perceived" to be dangerous. We live in a society that allows Republican nominee Donald Trump to lie repeatedly with impunity while unfounded accusations against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are embraced with the flimsiest of evidence. It supports "alternative medicine" and other forms of pseudo-science that do more harm than good, and is the foundation for the types of derogatory overgeneralizations that I mentioned above.

Intellectual recklessness, of course, is not, "You disagree with me; therefore, you are guilty of intellectual recklessness." It is an evaluation of whether the conclusion actually follows from the given premises. Donald Trump lied when he said that the Clinton campaign was responsible for the Birther movement. It was a false claim, and Donald Trump had to have known that it false because he, in fact, made his reputation as the spearhead of the Birther movement. This actually goes beyond intellectual recklessness - this is intentional wrongdoing.

Yet, it does not draw near the condemnation it deserves.

If we can build up some degree of intellectual responsibility in our communities, we may be able to get a better handle on some of the other issues that we confront.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Desirism and the Duty to Keep a Promise

One of the recent Philosophy Bites podcasts that I listened to interviewed David Owens on Duty..

Desirism has some specific things to day about duty. Namely, that duties have to do with aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to create, using the tools of praise and condemnation. Specifically, the duty to keep promises means that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to breaking promises by praising those who keep promises and condemning - perhaps even punishing - those who break promises.

Near the beginning of the episode, Owens mentions the two dominant theories for the justification of duty. The first is the intrinsic value theory - it is "just wrong" to break a promise. The second is an instrumental account that holds that the institution of promise keeping provides certain benefits, and the benefits justify the institution.

I hold that there is no such thing as intrinsic value. I understand intrinsic value to imply intrinsic end-reasons for intentional action, and no such entity exists. Desires exist, and can be expressed in the form "agent desires that P". In this case, the desire gives the agent a reason to realize any state of affairs in which "P" is true. Those states of affairs have no intrinsic merit, they just happen to be something that the agent has come to value.

This leaves us with an instrumentalist account of promise keeping. However, we are not talking about the instrumental value of an institution. We are talking about the instrumental value of promoting a particular desire or aversion. In this case, it is an aversion to breaking promises.

We can see some of the importance of looking at desires and aversions rather than institutions by looking at objections that Owens raises to traditional defenses of the duty to keep promises.

First, Owens examines the idea that there is a duty to create promises because other people build expectations on our promises - they make plans expecting us to act in certain ways (keeping our promises). Consequently, when we break our promises, we harm others. Harming others is a bad thing to do. Consequently, breaking promises is a bad thing to do.

Against this argument, Owens brings up the fact that not all cases of promise keeping harm others. It may be the case that the other person has forgotten the promise and, consequently, has made no plans based on that expectation. Alternatively, it may be the case that the other person never believed that one would make good on the promise and made no plans on that account. This defense for promise keeping says that if others do not believe that one would keep a promise, then one has no obligation to keep a promise. This odd result raises flags for the "harm" argument.

Next, Owens mentions an argument that states that the institution of promise keeping produces good benefits. Thus, there are reasons to bind ourselves to and obey the requirements of this institution. Failure to keep a promise damages the institution - which, in turn, would deprive society of the benefits that the institution would otherwise bring about.

However, it is clearly not the case that every act of breaking a promise causes the institution of promise keeping to utterly collapse. Breaking a promise to meet somebody for lunch, for example, will not imply that every contract and agreement currently in force will become worthless.

Owens says that we should see promise keeping as good for its own sake - and not for its instrumental value. He also links the moral value of promise keeping to desire by saying that it is something we care about for its own sake. It matters to us that others keep their promises. Because we care about our duties, we have reason to care about controlling our duties. The institution of promise keeping gives us this control. We decide what duties we have by deciding what to promise and what not to promise. We decide what duties others have by deciding whether to keep others bound to a promise or to release them from their promise.

In linking the morality of promise keeping to "reasons to care", Owens says something that desirism would certainly agree with. What we are after is making people care about keeping their promise - promoting desires in people to keep their promises and aversions to breaking them.

Owens does not mention the fact that this interest in creating certain desires and aversions to others explains why we praise and, in extreme cases, reward those who keep their promises while we condemn and sometimes punish those who break promises. These rewards and punishments reinforce the desire to keep promises and the aversion to breaking promises respectively. They work not only on those rewarded or punished, but on the community generally - even where the story of the reward or punishment does not even describe a real event.

To say that people have an obligation to keep their promises - even where it would do no harm to the person who was given the promise, or to the institution of promise keeping - is to say that people have many and strong reasons to condemn those who break promises, even under these circumstances. They have many and strong reasons to condemn the breaking of promises because they have many and strong reasons to establish a general aversion to breaking promises - an aversion that will motivate agents to keep promises even when they have other reasons that would motivate them not to, and when they could get away with it.

However, people generally have no reason to motivate others to keep promises under conditions where changed circumstances or new information means that the person to whom the promise was made does not want it kept. That is to say, we want our aversion to breaking promises to dissipate when the promisee releases the promise. Owens is correct to argue that we have reason to seek this level of control. Consequently, we have reason to build it into the desires and aversions we create through praise and condemnation - refusing to condemn the person who fails to keep a promise that he was released from.

This, then, is how desirism handles the institution of promise keeping.

341 Days Until Classes

341 days until the start of classes.

I am assuming, of course, that I will have a class on the first day of classes. This is certainly not guaranteed, but it does admit to an error bar in my calculations.

The latest London School of Economics public lecture broadcast was a waste of time. in Signals and Social Consequences from Shrinkflation to Fighter Jets, Dr. Pippa Malmgren argued for using "narrative" and "signals" in economic analysis, as opposed to math-driven economic models and more empirical evidence. She draws significant conclusions from the price of fish or a shipment of olive oil. All of this predicts the end of civilization as we know it.

The problem is - as is always the problem with this type of evidence, one can always find the signals that one wants to find. I have endured advice to prepare for the coming economic collapse for over 40 years. There is no way to remove confirmation bias, cherry picking, and "just-so" stories from this type of work.

To top it all off, she adds a layer of conspiracy theory - of the form, "Officials are hiding the truth from you but you can figure it out for yourself if you just know how to read the signals." Yet, she accompanies this with self-promoting claims about how she seems to be the only person on the planet looking at the right signals and drawing the right conclusions. She literally said at one point that the number of people in the world watching one of her signals and drawing the relevant conclusions is, "just me".

It is true that economic modelling is a seriously flawed business. When it comes to people making predictions as to whether the stock market will continue to go up, go down, or flatten, I substantially ignore all of them as being nothing more than throwing darts at a distant dart board. However, we know how cognitive biases corrupt less rigidly defined evidence, and we have know reason to believe that an amateur looking at "the signals" can do a better job than an expert looking at hard numbers - even if the expert cannot do very well.

On the Philosophy Bites front, a new episode showed up. I am now down to 12 episodes left.

There are several episodes recently that I would like to comment on. There is an episode on epistemic responsibility, an episode on duty (using an example the duty to keep promises), and episodes on Buddhism and stoic philosophy. Each one of these raises an interesting subject of discussion, so I intend to devote a separate post to each.

I also ventured into the Philosophy department site for the University of Colorado at Boulder and found some class materials for the graduate level Ethics Proseminar. The department has a requirement that all incoming PhD students take certain general classes in ethics and metaphysics that will give them a common history regarding these subjects. The ethics courses involved taking some classical readings in ethics and discussing them.

I had a thought of adding a project of reading some of these assignments in advance. However, I do not have any reason to believe that the course I am required to take will be taught the same way by the same people, and there is far too much potentially relevant literature for me to have any hope of getting through it all. Therefore, I will wait until the course descriptions are posted next spring and spend the summer months trying to get a head start on those materials.

A specific note of disappointment was that the readings on Henry Sidgwick did not include Book III, Chapter XII of the Methods of Ethics, "Motives or Springs of Action as Subjects of Moral Judgment". This, clearly, would be a chapter that I would like to write a paper on. If, per chance, when I take this course it involves the same reading assignments, I wonder if I will be able to get away with petitioning to include this chapter so that I can give a presentation on it. Chapters II, III, VIII, and IX are also not on the reading list. Being chapters devoted to virtue, they would certainly be ways of entering into a discussion of motives (desires) as subjects of moral judgment.

Perhaps I will write a separate paper and turn it in anyway.

Too much to do. Too little time. I think I have said that before.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Adam Smith on Moral Approval and Disapproval

342 days until the start of class.

I am continuing my reading of Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments..

Part II of the book concerned "Merit and demerit: The objects of reward and punishment" - or, in other words, praise and condemnation.

Smith's view, as I wrote yesterday, is substantially intersubjective. What is praiseworth is what impartial judges in a community are disposed to praise, and what is worthy of condemnation is what people in a community are disposed to punish. This means that if a community of individuals are disposed to execute somebody like you, then you deserve to die. In fact, he discusses self-hatred and remorse as a sentiment that comes from the recognition of how others are disposed to see the person.

However, his account continues and, for a time, it runs along a track parallel to desirism.

For example, what people are disposed to condemn are actions that cause harm - or, as desirism would understand it, the thwarting of desires. This is what arouses our sense of sympathy for those harmed and, in turn, gives rise to the sentiment of resentment (the foundation for condemnation and punishment) of those who caused the harm.

However, this is only a part of the story. We must also look at the motives of those who caused the harm. If the motives are bad, then the resentment that the harms inflicted on others finds a proper object. However, if the motives are good, then there is resentment for the harms done. Thus, the harms inflicted by the judicial punisher under the direction of the courts acting to preserve the public order gives rise to no resentment.

In short, as Smith tells us, we must look to two measures to determine if condemnation is warranted. First, there must be a harm done - something that would give rise to our sympathy. Second, the harm done must not come from a good motive. If both of these conditions are met, the proper response that all of mankind would have is resentment for - an impulse to condemn or even to punish - the transgressor.

Technically, there is one more element we need to look at in our judgment. Smith acknowledges that it is possible for a person to perform the right action, but to do so from the wrong motives. He acknowledges that a person can go through the motions of gratitude, for example, without feeling any gratitude. When this happens - when a person performs a right action from a wrong motive - so long as they go through the right actions - they deserve no punishment. They deserve no great praise, either, but they are not to be punished.

I did not see in Smith's treatment how to evaluate actions that cause no harm but which are of a type that would tend to cause harm. He does not describe how attempted murder relates to murder. However, I suspect that Smith would have no problem qualifying his judgment to be of actions of a type that tend to cause harm, rather than those that actually cause harm.

Then, desirism and Smith's theory diverge again on the question of how we determine whether the motive is a good motive or a bad motive. According to Smith, we evaluate a desire according to whether people generally are disposed to approve of or disapprove of the motive. According to desirism, we evaluate a motive according to whether it tends to bring about the fulfillment or thwarting of other desires if universalized.

At this point, what Smith's account of reward and punishment is missing - what all of moral philosophy seems to be missing and what may count as one of my contributions to the discussion once I get to graduate school - is the idea that praise and condemnation are not mere reflex reactions to a good or bad act. Praise and condemnation exist for a reason. They serve a purpose. On the basis of this, we can evaluate their use according to how well or how poorly they serve that purpose.

That purpose is not merely to provide incentives and deterrence. Incentives and deterrence exist well outside of morality. I can provide an incentive for my neighbor's child to rake the leaves in my yard by offering to pay her. Yet, this transaction exists far outside of the realm of morality. Similarly, I may refuse to pay for half of the gas when my co-traveller asks for a detour to see a historic site without suggesting that there is anything morally objectionable in wanting to see this historic site.

Rewards and punishments only take on a moral dimension when they include an element of praise and condemnation. The soldier who is given a medal at a public ceremony that consists, not only of the medal, but a heaping dose of praise for the actions that prompted the award, is being provided with a moral assessment of his actions. The cost - the fine or imprisonment - that comes with condemnation (a claim that the punishment is deserved) makes a statement that the action was wrong.

But why is it that we meet some actions with praise and others with condemnation?

The answer is because these things do work. They act on the brain, not only on the person praised or condemned, but on others who may even contemplate being praised or condemned, to mold their characters along certain lines. Dispositions to approve of that which is praised are reinforced, and aversions to that which is condemned are weakened.

This, then, gives us reason to ask, "What should we praise?" and "What should we condemn?" - which is the same as asking, "What do we generally have the most and strongest reasons to praise?" and "What do we generally have the most and strongest reasons to condemn?"

Smith, as is the habit of moral philosophers generally, treat praise and condemnation as a mere reflex action. It is simply that which marks its object as morally good or morally bad - and nothing more.

In short, I am finding many of the elements of desirism in Smith - or, at least, accounts that are quite similar to those of desirism. Actions are evaluated according to their disposition to cause harm (thwart desires). Even here, we must also look at whether the action is motivated by a good sentiment (desire) or a bad sentiment (desire). A right action is still a right action (in the sense of not deserving punishment) if it is something that a person with good motives would do, even if the agent is not acting from the same motives.

However, insofar as Smith does not recognize the work that praise and condemnation are meant to do, he has us evaluating motives on whether impartial judges would unanimously approve or disapprove of them, rather than evaluating them on whether people generally have many and strong reasons to strengthen or weaken them.

Monday, September 19, 2016

David Hume and Adam Smith

343 days until the start of class.

I am down to 17 Philosophy Bites podcast episodes. There has not been an episode posted since early August so I think this may be the end of it. It has given me a good overview of current philosophical concerns - and enough information to know that (1) there is a lot I do not know, but (2) I can make a useful contribution to the discussion.

Over at iTunes U, I am finishing up a course on Hume. I actually only have one lecture left.

And through my LibreVox app, I am going through Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Yes, that Adam Smith - the author of The Wealth of Nations.

[Note: One advantage of studying philosophy is that a lot of the material one might want to draw upon is in the public domain.]

For somebody who thinks that desires (sentiments) are the proper object of moral evaluation, and that they are to be evaluated according to their consequences, this is a useful resource.

And he was a good friend of David Hume's - which makes the study of Hume's theory of knowledge and of morality along side Smith's theory of moral sentiments particularly interesting.

Smith substantially has been giving me - at least so far - a guide to English culture in the late 1700s. I cannot read it without imagining a 17th century English court, or a 18th century street in working-class London, depending on what part of society Smith is writing about at the moment. If I were going to create a movie - a period piece set in the 1700s in England - I would require all of the actors to read Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Of course, I have no comparison with which to judge its accuracy. It is not as if I have lived in 18th century England and could see by observation that Smith's descriptions correspond to reality. However, it does provide fodder for the imagination and it is interesting enough to note that Smith (and others) at least respected this account as an accurate description of the moral sentiments of the time.

I wonder how much of David Hume's philosophy I see in Smith - who certainly knew Hume and had read Hume's earlier works during the writing of this book. And I imagine how much of Smith appears in Hume. That is to say (or to ask), "Can we gain some understanding of Hume's moral theory through Smith's interpretation and application?"

It may just be an idle question.

When it comes to evaluating the sentiments, there are elements in Smith's writing that I find necessary to reject.

According to Smith, we judge whether a sentiment properly fits its object or its cause by judging whether it would agree with our own sentiment in relevantly similar circumstances. Another's anger is proper if it would arouse a similar anger in us. Their grief is proper if a similar event would grieve us as much.

This may be descriptively true, but it does not answer the question of what emotional response and to what degree an agent should have. It is also descriptively true that we judge another person's belief true if we, also, believe it - and false if we do not. Yet, this psychological fact is distinct and separate from the question of whose belief is true in fact. Accordingly, we may judge the emotional response of another unfit or inappropriate if it does not agree with our own under similar circumstances, but the question of what is, in fact, the appropriate response is a different question entirely.

And Smith does allow that individuals can judge their own moral sentiments to be inappropriate. He writes about how envy can get in the way of our experiencing joy at the success of another person - that we may secretly harbor resentment while we give the outward appearance of support and applause. And that we may judge ourselves harshly if we cannot be as happy for our friends as their good fortune would warrant. So, we cannot say that Smith holds that we judge ourselves infallible in our emotional responses - that we are not subject to correction.

Relevant to this blog is the question of the degree to which Smith is willing to evaluate the molding of a sentiment according to its consequences - that the strength and the object of a sentiment can be judge by the degree to which a sentiment of that strength and with that object is socially useful. I have seen hints, but no strong evidence of this yet - though I am only a quarter of the way through the book.

Oh, and for those who may want to know, Smith is no great fan of the pride and arrogance of the wealthy, or of selfishness.

With Philosophy Bites and the Hume lectures coming to an end, I will have an opportunity to turn to new projects. One object will be to find papers written by the professors at the University of Colorado in Boulder and make comments on them before classes start. I wish to understand their interests and their philosophical positions before class starts.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Declawing a Cat

Earlier, I wrote about the intrinsic value of an animal's life.

Here, I want to apply those ideas.

Let me take the moral issue of whether it is permissible to declaw a cat.

The declawing of a cat involves the amputation of each "finger" at the first knuckle. If somebody did that to you, you would lose your claws.

Is it wrong to do this to a cat?

Well, we need to look at the reasons that exist for declawing a cat - and the reasons that exist against it - and the quality of those reasons.

We also need to set aside reasons that do not exist.

For example, there is the "unnatural" argument. It is natural for a cat to have claws and removing the claws is unnatural - it is simply wrong. There is an intrinsic "ought not to be doneness" in the act that us the reason not to do it.

These types of reasons do not exist. It is like saying that it is wrong to declaw a cat because doing so would cause extraterrestrial aliens to destroy the earth. Because the claim is untrue, it does not provide a reason for action. A person who believes it may believe that he has a reason for action, and he may choose to act. However, he would be mistaken, and acting for no good (of real) reason.

Consider spaying or neutering a cat. This, too, is a painful medical procedure that utterly destroys a natural function of some part of a cat's biology. An "unnatural" argument would be just as applicable here as well. Yet, we see sufficient reason to have the cat "fixed" to create a harmonious home environmentnn

The cat's interest in avoiding pain certainly provides a real reason for the cat to avoid being declawed. This is a reason that exists. Any human with an aversion to thwarting the desires of others - such as avoiding a cat's desire not to be in pain - has a reason to avoid declawing a cat.

At the same time, an owner's aversion to pain and potential infection - particularly the pain and infection that may come from being clawed by a cat - are also real reasons for action. They are reasons for the human to have the cat declawed.

With respect to the aversion to thwarting the desires of others - the aversion to causing a cat pain - this reason enters into the realm of morality. This is a reason - an aversion - that people generally have reasons to promote. Each of us is safer in a community of others averse to causing pain then we are in a community of individuals indifferent to the pain of others. This gives us many and strong reasons to promote this aversion - specifically by condemning/punishing those who demonstrate indifference to the suffering of others and praising/rewarding those who demonstrate an interest in helping others avoid pain.

Of course, this compassion should also extend to the owners seeking to avoid the pain and possible infections that could result from cat scratches. On this matter, the person with an aversion to others being in pain would be torn between the pain of the cat and the pain of the human.

At the same time, the human's aversion to pain stands outside of morality. Praise and condemnation cannot alter this aversion. Therefore, an assertion to the effect that agents (morally) ought not to be averse to personal pain would be absurd.

Owners also have reasons to be concerned with the well-being of their furniture, clothes, and other things that may be damaged. These are reasons - they are real. To say that such reasons do not exist is to ignore reality. To say that such reasons should not exist - that individuals concerned with the condition of their furniture and clothes deserve condemnation and perhaps punishment - would be a difficult case to make.

Another set of reasons that both the cats and humans have is in a harmonious relationship.

The state of affairs between a cat and its owners is inherently one of conflict. The cat, acting on its natural desires, engages in behavior that thwarts the desires of the owner. The owner, seeking fulfillment of her desires, has reason to act in ways that thwart the desires of the cat. The best way to resolve the conflict is by creating a state of affairs within which each can act on their own desires without disturbing the other. Once the cat is declawed, such a state of affairs obtains.

Cats are going to naturally seek to sharpen their claws. A declawed cat can go through the motions without any reason for stress or interference from the adult. A cat with claws is in a position where acting on this natural desire creates conflict with the owner, requiring discipline, which the cat cannot understand. Similarly, the destructive behavior creates anger, which puts the cat at risk of physical harm.

Now, the aversion to pain is reason to look for less painful alternatives that serve the same wants. Capping the claws seems to be an alternative to declawing. There ought to be reasons to prefer claw caps to declawing - thus fulfilling the desire that others not be harmed.

The Intrinsic Value of an Animal Life

Classes start in 346 days.

I am nearing the end of my project of going through all of the Philosophy Bites podcasts - about 25 to go. I still think that I can make a contribution. I find philosophers saying things that I take to be mistaken.

Let's consider Christine Korsgaard on the Status of Animals.

Korsgaard holds a Kantian theory of value. This is an intrinsic value theory that holds that some acts or states of affairs are good in themselves - independent of desires.

She accepts the idea that all good is good for some conscious creature. It seems that she would deny that a waterfall in a mountain valley surrounded by forest vegetation, but devoid of animals, has any value. It would have value for any animals that lived there, so long as the environment was compatible with their living a long and healthy life. For Korsgaard, an animal living a healthy life has intrinsic value - it is a good that provides all people with a reason for action. Thus, it is morally permitted to act in a way that denies an animal a healthy life - to do something that is not good for the animal, such as to kill it and eat it.

In other words, using Kant's model, it is wrong to treat an animal as a means only and not, at the same time, as an end in itself. One must always consider what is good for that animal. In other words, it is wrong to kill an animal and eat it.

Korsgaard provided a useful analogy between her view and Peter Singer's preference utilitarianism. The usefulness of this analogy is found in the fact that people often compare and confuse the theory that I defend with Peter Singer's preference utilitarianism. I received a question on that issue just a few weeks ago.

Korsgaard reported that Peter Singer expressed the view that there would be no moral difference if one animal (one's pet dog) died and another animal stepped in to replace him. There would be just as much doggie desire satisfaction in the world, and that is what determines moral value.

The view I defend is different from both of these. Desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional action and, only then, they are reasons only for the being that have the desires. They are reasons to use tools such as praise and condemnation to mold the desires of others - thus giving others different reasons to act and, thereby, causing them to behave differently. The desires of the cat living in the scene described above gives the cat reasons to act in particular ways - even if the cat does not know this.

Against Korsgaard, no end-reason for intentional action can be found that is intrinsic to a state of affairs in which an animal is living a healthy life. Against Singer, no end-reason for intentional action can be found merely in the fact of a satisfied preference. The animal has reason to seek its own healthy life; in fact, a "healthy life" is simply a life in which one's physical and mental functioning is such as to fulfill the desires of the creature living it. Similarly, the animal's desires provide the animal with reasons to act so as to fulfill those desires. That is as far as it goes.

Intrinsic values do not exist. Korsgaard and Singer are "making things up" - the way that one may make up the commands of a god that does not exist in order to get people to do what this imaginary god requires them to do. This is not to say that they are being deceptive - they sincerely believe that these entities exist, just as many people sincerely believe that a god exists. The fact is, they do not.

One of the ways to see that these types of entities do not exist is to look at the relationship between an animal predator and prey. The antelope's long and healthy life does not create any type of intrinsic reason for the lion to refrain from hunting the antelope. Nor does the antelope's preference satisfaction create such a reason. The lion's reasons for action have to do entirely with the lion's hunger and other interests, such as feeding and caring for her young.

The main point of this illustration is to point out that there is no reason to believe that

The standard respose to this is that lions are not moral agents - but that response is not applicable here. We are talking about the existence of a reason. When we observe what is happening in nature with respect to the lion or the antelope, we see no reason to believe that an "intrinsic value property" (what J.L. Mackie calls and intrinsic "ought to be doneness" or "ought not to be doneness") is anywhere in the picture. We can understand everything that happens without inventing such an entity.

Animals do have reason to cause us to behave in ways that are compatible with their interests. Unfortunately, they do not know how to do this. Evolution takes care of this to some extent by making them "cute" to us, or useful to us, but these poorly track their interests at this point. However, animals lack the capacity to intentionally take actions for the purpose of molding our desires in such a way that will consider their interests. Only other humans have the capacity to do that.

Humans do have reasons to cause other humans to be concerned with the interests of others - including others who cannot defend themselves. We want other humans to be concerned with our interests and the interests of those we care about, even when those people cannot defend their own interests. We have reason to consider cruelty to animals to manifest itself also as a lack of interest in the harms that other people may suffer - which gives us reason to morally condemn those who display a lack of interest in the well-being of animals (or even an actual interest in harming animals). Animals have many and strong reasons to morally condemn us, but they lack the capacity to do so.

It would be a mistake to consider this merely an instrumental account of a concern for the welfare of animals. A purely instrumental account says that the only reason we have for promoting a concern for animals in others is because it will tend to cause people to behave in ways that benefit us (or avoid behaving in ways that harm us). This would deny that we have any reason to be concerned for the welfare of animals themselves.

What we would be promoting is an aversion to that which causes suffering in others. Once a person has such an aversion, that person has a reason to avoid anything which causes suffering in others for its own sake - not as a means to some other end, but as an end in itself. This aversion is justified on account of its instrumental value (in virtue of the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote such an interest). However, once established, the aversion provides a reason for action - not the desires and aversions that give reason to create such an aversion.

The intrinsic reasons for intentional action that Korsgaard and Singer believe in simply do not exist. This is a metaphysical claim. It cannot be disproved by looking at our intuitions. Our intuitions will tell us what we wish to be true, not what is true in fact. We live in a universe that does not contain such entities and, to the degree that we want to live in the real world, these are the facts we have to live with. There is no intrinsic prescriptively dictating human behavior towards animals, there are only the reasons that people have in virtue of their desires, and the reasons they have reason to modify by promoting some desires and aversions and inhibiting others.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


347 days until my first class, and I sent the university my money to confirm that I will enroll in 2017. I seem to be committed.

Yet, there are Philosophy Bites podcasts that frighten me. They tell me not only how little I know, but how little I can know, even about subjects that are relevant to my main interests.

This morning, I listened to Lucy Allies on Forgiveness

It seems that I should be able to say something about forgiveness. To say something about forgiveness, I would need to find out what other people have said. There is a body of philosophical and psychological literature on the subject that I really should read before offering an opinion. Yet, that raises the question of how to fit my reading this body of literature into the set of other stuff I really should read. I will never be able to catch up.

I have offered opinions on some related issues.

I have written a series of posts on the subject of "excuses". Specifically, I have written on accidents, on false belief, on denying harm, on consent, on the greater good, and on deserved punishment. All of these things can - in certain circumstances - excuse an act that, at least on the surface, looks like a wrongdoing. They all show that what appears to be a wrongdoing deserving of condemnation is deceptive, and there was no wrongdoing deserving of condemnation.

I have written on apologies, which seem closely related to forgiveness since a common response to an apology is a forgiveness.

Forgiveness seems to have something to do with condemnation, and condemnation is a central focus of the theory that I use in these posts. Condemnation is a tool that is used to mold desires - most often to promote aversions (desires that not-P) that inhibit people from performing certain types of actions (e.g., lying, breaking promises). If I were to take a first guess on forgiveness, it is a decision to no longer condemn. However, if this is what forgiveness is, then forgiveness is a decision not to use the tool of condemnation to mold useful aversions. How can forgiveness ever be justified?

There are some other important things we can say about forgiveness.

First, forgiveness requires a wrongdoing. If you say, "I forgive you," then you are implying "You did something that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have done." You are implying that the person you are talking to has done something wrong - something to be forgiven.

If a driver should strike your parked car legally parked in front of your house because he was excessively tired as a result of helping people who were victims of an accident up the street, you may forgive him. However, if the driver should strike your car because of a manufacturing defect that locked the steering wheel, then there is nothing to forgive. Or, at least, the driver of the car has done nothing to forgive, because even a person with good desires and lacking bad desires could not have turned the car at that moment.

Furthermore, only the victim of a wrongdoing can forgive a wrongdoer. I have no legitimate authority to forgive the person who hit your car. I can only forgive the driver if the driver has wronged me in some way, and only for those things where I was wronged. In fact, third-party forgiveness is an insult to the person who was wronged - a claim that they lack moral significance.

Can forgiveness be justified? If forgiveness requires a wrongdoing, a wrongdoing is an act that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn, and forgiveness is a decision to stop condemnation, then it seems we have a contradiction.

Divine forgiveness is a forgiveness of wrongs done against God (assuming there was a God that one could wrong). However, even God cannot forgive the wrongs that a person inflicts on another person. After pummeling an individual in a bar, the claim "god forgives me" does not imply that the victim pummeled either does or should forgive the assailant.

Lucy Alles provides a paradigm example of a justified forgiveness. This happens in a case in which one person is in a long-term relationship with another; a family member or a friend. All of us are wronged in various ways by those around us. None of us are perfect, and each of us steps out of bounds from time to time with respect to others. Maintaining a state of condemnation against somebody for prior wrongs (holding a grudge) would poison those relationships over time. There comes a point at which a prudent thing to do is to "put the past behind us" and carry on.

In other words, forgiveness tells us that, even though morality is important, it is not the only thing that is important. Sometimes the concerns of morality have to give way to other concerns, such as our concern to have and maintain long-term relationships. Having and maintaining long-term relationships requires forgiveness. Yes, a wrongdoing was done. Yes, it was a type of thing that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.

However, people also have many and strong reasons to form long-term commitments and there are circumstances where this outweighs the concerns of morality and we are well advised to put aside our condemnation and carry on.

This account also has something to say about "asking for forgiveness".

Because forgiveness implies a wrongdoing, asking for forgiveness is, at least in part, an admission of wrongdoing. It is an admission of the fact that people generally have reason to condemn - even perhaps to punish - those who have done what the agent asking for forgiveness has done. One can only ask for forgiveness from the person wronged. And it is asking a lot. It is asking the person wronged to withhold condemnation when she is perfectly justified in that condemnation. However, in asking for forgiveness, one does signal that one is wanting a long-term relationship, without the corruption of perpetual condemnation. Forgiveness is essential in long-term relationships. However, some things cannot be forgiven.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Definition: "Good Desires"

I have been asked to provide a definition of "good desires".

The short answer is that a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires.

To fulfill a desire means that, for a desire that P, to create a state of affairs in which P is true. Thus, to fulfill a desire that one's children are healthy one must create a state of affairs in which the proposition "my children are healthy" is true.

However, this is a simplified definition. What it leaves out is the fact that the desires it is being evaluated against themselves have to be evaluated according to their capacity to fulfill other desires - including the desire being evaluated.

This will tend to bring charges of "circularity".

However, this is a type of circularity that philosophers consider virtuous. It can be found elsewhere.

For example, in the interpretation of language, the meaning of a word is determined by its relationship to other words. The meaning of those other words is determined by their relationship to still other words including the word that is being defined.

In epistemology, coherentist theories of epistemology argue that a belief is justified according to its coherence with other beliefs. Those beliefs are further justified by their coherence with still other beliefs, including its coherence with the original belief being justified.

Consequently, there is nothing particularly problematic with the claim that a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, where those other desires are evaluated according to their capacity to fulfill still other desires including the desire being evaluated. These types of virtuous circles create no overwhelming difficulty for interpreting language or justifying belief, and it should create no special problems for morality.

The State of Philosophy and Atheism Regarding Evolution and Morality

Classes start in 348 days.

Actually, it seems that there are no current obstacles - just potential setbacks (like being hit by a bus and suffering brain damage). So . . . Yeah . . . 348 days from today I will be nervously anticipating the start of my first class.

On the department website yesterday I saw an invitation to perspective graduate students to visit the department, contact the professors, and attend presentations. I had been assuming that those options were not available until I was enrolled and paying my tuition. I will be taking advantage of that in the weeks ahead.

One of the issues where I was thinking I could be making a contribution was concerning the relationship between evolution and morality. One of my current themes has been the criticism that evolutionary psychologists have discovered the evolutionary foundation for moral beliefs. My complaint has been that an evolved moral belief is a contradiction in terms. It simply makes no sense to day, "I have evolved a disposition to kill you and feel justified in doing so; therefore, you deserve to be killed."

Well, as I have gone through the Philosophy Bites podcasts, one thing that has become clear is that moral philosophers already know these things.

Take, for example, Amia Srinivasan on Genealogy.. Srinivasan talks about using the genesis of an idea as a justification, and specifically about linking moral arguments to evolved beliefs. She specifically mentions the points that I have made on the illegitimacy of those types of inferences. We need some type f independent verification that our evolved beliefs are true. Where is that independent verification to come from?

Previous episodes also addressed these concerns - enough for me to now conclude that the objections that I have raised are already generally known among philosophers.

In terms that I have used in the past – evolution perhaps can explain why we have a certain amount or a certain kind of altruism. However, I am still waiting for the evolutionary justification for the claim “altruism is good” and for evolution to justify claims about how much and what kinds of altruism we SHOULD have.

I am not surprised that moral philosophers are already aware of these concerns. The objections are actually quite obvious to any who are concerned enough to have their beliefs grounded on reason to look for them. There has to be some psychological need to believe that evolution justifies morality to gloss over these concerns.

In ignoring these objections, atheist tribes are behaving in substantially similar ways as the religious tribes they ridicule. They have a favorite belief that they are comfortable with (evolution explains morality), and the simply shut out objections to a favorite belief. They do not ask whether these beliefs are reasonable, and if they happen to encounter an objection to a favored belief their eyes glaze over and brain stops until they get beyond the objection, and they can continue with their favored beliefs intact.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog posting, atheist tribes like to blame religion for things that are actually the fault of human psychology. Consequently, atheist tribes fall into the mistake of assuming that, in virtue of being atheists, they are immune to the cognitive biases that afflict “lesser” (theist) humans. That is a mistake.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Threat of Atheist Tribes

In 349 days, I start my first day of classes.

On September 11, somebody took a lighter and set fire to the clothing of a Muslim woman - a dentist - while she was shopping.

Atheists need to concern themselves with the question of how much of their rhetoric is actually criticism of an idea, and how much of it is promoting hatred of a group of people that causes innocent people to fear for their lives, which they cloak behind a veil of "criticizing an idea".

One of my hobbies has been, for the past several years, listening to podcasts made of public lectures at the London School of Economics. I like this series because of its international focus - looking at issues as diverse as that of failed states, economic development in Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the so-called BRIC countries), global issues such as Climate Change, the European Union, and a view of the United States from the outside. I make it a point to listen to lecturers from diverse backgrounds (e.g., Senator Rick Santorum, the CEO of British Petroleum, and a number of Muslim speakers) as a way of stepping out of my social and political bubble.

I do this because I think that morality has to have relevance to real-world problems. If a moral philosophy has nothing to say about real-world issues, then that should be taken as evidence that t really is not talking about morality at all.

This week, they posted a lecture, Professor Yehuda Bauer on Anti-Semitism in the Modern Age."

This topic is related to that of Islamophobia - which was mentioned in the lecture.

The Holocaust tells us how powerful and destructive tribalism can be - about the costs of identifying a group of people as "the enemy" and making them the scapegoat for all problems. So does slavery, the subjugation of women, the near-genocide of Native Americans, the Crusades, the 30 Years War, and countless other examples of human history. However, the Holocaust now serves as our go-to example.

Yesterday was also the 15th Anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. As has become traditional, Atheist sites I monitor filled up with Islamophobic memes and rhetoric - claims that are not substantially different from those that contributed to the Holocaust 80 years ago. These are memes and statements whose purpose was not to criticize an idea, but to promote hatred of a whole population.

There seem to be a lot of atheists who seem to think that they represent some sort of superior form of life - whose beliefs are entirely checked by reason - and who are immune to the cognitive biases that afflict lesser humans. As such, we can expect that merely because they are atheists, they are not going to fall victim to the type of tribal psychology that gave us the Holocaust and these other ills. They tell us that it is "religion" that is responsible for all of these evils and, if we can only rid the world of religion, we can rid the world of these evils.

But - where does religion come from? What is it that makes a religion successful and causes those beliefs to become widely accepted in a community? Atheists speak of religion as if it is something outside of humanity - something given to us as if from a divine or supernatural source. Those who accept it are responsible for all the social ills, while those who reject it are the virtuous "we" that represent the best of humanity.

The way many atheists speak and write, they may be surprised to learn that religion did not come from a divine source. Humans invented religion and humans decided which religious interpretations they are going to adopt. Religions are a product of human psychology and atheists - those who are not religious - are still human. They are still subject to the same cognitive biases and still prone to creating the evils that they want to blame on religion.

It often goes without notice that act utilitarianism - the most popular secular moral system - also justifies stoning people to death, torture, terrorist attacks, killing civilians, even genocide whenever it brings "the greatest good for the greatest number". Hitler justified the Holocaust more on utilitarian grounds than on religious grounds. Moral relativism, social Darwinism, Marxism, Libertarianism, moral nihilism - all non-religious philosophies - have all been used to justify their share of evil.

This represents the types of cognitive bias found in tribalism. It includes a disposition to cherry-pick data - to focus and embrace those claims that denigrate the target group while ignoring anything that would draw attention away from the target group.

Representative of the types of facts that the atheist tribes are likely to ignore is a three-day international conference in Marrakesh earlier this year on the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. (See, Morocco Hosts Conference on Protecting Religious Minorities in Muslim Countries.

At this point, extremists on both sides of this debate try to draw us into a false dichotomy.

On the one side, there are those Muslims and multi-cultural liberals who take the arguments that I have given so far and carry them to one extreme. That extreme says that any criticism of anything that a Muslim might do and claim to be a part of his religion constitutes promoting tribal hatred and must be condemned. Honor killings, the killing of apostates, terrorist acts, death threats and executions of those who violate Islamic rules, acid-attacks on women, throwing homosexuals off of buildings and burning non-Muslims alive, must not be criticized. Any criticism is attacked as promoting tribal hatred of all Muslims, which cannot be permitted.

On the other side, there are those that say that since the criticism of such things as honor killings and throwing homosexuals off of buildings must certainly be legitimate, that the most blatant examples of hatemongering must also be permitted. Anybody who criticizes those statements that clearly aim to establish a tribal hatred of all Muslims is taken to be a defender of honor killings and terrorism and, consequently, their criticism is set aside.

What is missing is the possibility of objecting to honor killings and murdering apostates while, at the same time, also objecting to the type of tribal rhetoric that has resulted in the worst atrocities in human history. As soon as one criticizes tribal rhetoric, one is painted as a defender of honor killings and the murder of apostates. As soon as one objects to honor killings and the murder of apostates, one is accused of propagating the type of tribal rhetoric of a style responsible for the worst atrocities in human history.

This is a rhetorical trap, it is not basing conclusions on the best evidence. Somebody who knows that humans are disposed to these types of cognitive biases and wishes not to be deceived by them

There is a distinction between criticizing an idea and promoting hatred against innocent people. There are those who try to confuse the two. There are those who try to characterize any criticism of their beliefs as an attempt to promote hatred against them. At the same time, there are those who try to promote hatred against a people and try to give themselves cover by calling what they do "criticism of a belief." Decent people try not to confuse the two.

Friday, September 09, 2016

The Failure of Desirism

The Failure of Desirism

353 days now until classes start. There is still a question of whether I will have a part time job that will allow me to go to graduate school. (No part time job - no graduate school.) But, I have hope in that area.

Last night's "Philosophy Bites" episodes included a particularly interesting episode, John Skorupski on Normativity. Normative statements - as opposed to descriptive statements - are statements that refer to reasons. To say that something should or ought to be the case is to say that there are reasons that it be the case.

Desirism says that desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional action. However, there are other types of reasons. There are reasons to believe something and causal reasons (flipping the light switch should have caused the light to turn on). Still, what Skorupski says about reasons is interesting. The first 2/3 of the episode went along almost as a defense of desirism - but Skorupski ultimately asserts that there are reasons to do or avoid some action that are not grounded on desires.

Much of the talk recently - about podcasts and creating a Wikipedia page on desirism - there is a question as to why desirism has not reached an audience or level of respect that "it deserves".

Even if one adopts the position that desirism is totally flawed and unworthy of serious belief - there are a great many totally flawed belief systems in existence that seem to get along quite well. Desirism, even if not perfect, is still better than most.

Of course, the responsibility is mine. I like to think about and write about ideas - I am not much into selling a movement.

However, there is more behind it.

What is needed for desirism to become a movement is the development of a desirism tribe. This requires a spokesperson who is entirely unapologetic and confident in their belief in desirism. It is an attitude of "I have found the one and only true system in the entire universe and everybody else is not only wrong, but either foolish or malicious in their devotion to a false system of beliefs."

Once such a tribe is set up, it will acquire followers. These followers seek a sense of community and of belonging. A part of the price of membership is to accept the tribal doctrine - to accept its core beliefs and, more important, to accept them as true beyond question. The very quality that distinguishes members from non-members is their devotion to the tribal doctrine. Even the most absurd and irrational belief systems can gain acceptance once a tribe forms around it. Once established, its core beliefs are beyond question.

This clearest example of this can be found in organized religion. Religions are tribes that give its members a sense of belonging - of membership. To be a member, individuals have to sign on to the core religious beliefs (or, at least, the core beliefs of their sect). Once embraced, the costs of giving up those beliefs include the costs of being excluded from the tribe. That psychological cost is tremendous - far greater than the cost of embracing an absurdity.

However, this form of tribalism is not limited to religion. Atheists who say that the problem is religion fails to recognize that atheism is its own tribal community - which, like all tribes, excludes anybody who fails to embrace its core beliefs. To the degree that atheism form a tribe, atheism creates the same tremendous psychological costs with rejecting its core beliefs and, as a result, being forced out of the tribe. "You are no longer one of us."

None of this implies that beliefs themselves are entirely subjective. It is quite possible that there is a fact of the matter and that the core beliefs of some tribes are closer to these facts than the beliefs of other tribes. However, one of these objective facts is that once a person becomes a member of a tribe, that person must recognize that he may well lose the ability to hold that tribe's core beliefs up to the light of reason.

And, as with any tribe, to be a considered a leader of the atheist movement one has to be an uncompromising advocate of the atheist core beliefs. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, and Christopher Hitchens all have been able to acquire a large following based in part on their success into tapping into these tribal dispositions.

Political movements also succeed when they form a tribal identity. Marxism and Libertarianism are examples of political tribes. Each of them have their unapologetic spokesperson who had the arrogance to tell the world, "I have discovered the one true and accurate way of looking at the world and those who disagree are either fools or are maliciously pursuing selfish ends." These political tribes became movements with a great deal of political weight and influence.

The success of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can also be found in their success in establishing tribal identities. Both of them have divided the world up into "us" and "them" - tribal members and the "others" who are responsible for all of their problems. In the case of Trump, the tribal "other" are immigrants, Muslims, and "the establishment". In the case of Sanders, the "other" are "the establishment", billionaires, corporations, and the global poor who are taking away their jobs by agreeing to work at lower wages.

In fact, we can even explain Clinton's struggles in the fact that there is no Clinton tribe. She is constantly attacked by the members of the tribes she does not belong to - Republicans and Progressives - without having formed a rival tribe to rally to her defense. This leaves her vulnerable.

So, what desirism needs in order to become a movement is an unapologetic, arrogant defender who is willing to present the ideology as a contest between "us" who know the one true way and "them" who are denying this truth either because they are fools or are engaged in their own selfish program of malicious deception.

Of course, once this happens, then in order to be a member of the desirism tribe one must embrace its core beliefs. Because of the severe psychological costs that would then be associated with abandoning those beliefs, the beliefs will be as far beyond rational criticism as the beliefs we find in any other religious or political tribe.

I am simply not that person.

Ironically, I think that desirism would not have good things to say about such a person. Arrogance and the type of tribalism that it spawns has been responsible for a great deal of human suffering. Whereas many atheists like to blame religion, tribalism is the true culprit and tribalism is something that can afflict atheist and political groups as easily as it can afflict religious groups. Religions are just one type of tribe. Desirsm looks at tribalism and sees it as something that people generally have many and strong reasons to respond to with condemnation.

The irony comes from the fact that desirism probably can never become much more than just a local discussion unless its practitioners embrace the practices that desirism itself condemns. (Though, this would not be the first time that tribal psychology has allowed the members of a tribe to ignore the internal incoherence of their own beliefs.)