Sunday, December 31, 2017

Does Virtue Benefit the Virtuous?

A key claim of Aristotelian virtue is that virtue benefits the virtuous. Indeed, the very reason to become virtuous is to live a good life.

I find a curious inconsistency in this way of talking. Is one being virtuous for the sake of virtue: Honest for the sake of honesty? Kind for the sake of kindness? Repay a debt because it is owed? Or is one being virtuous for the sake of living a good life? The two are not the same.

I want to put that discussion aside until my next posting.

The question is whether a virtue benefits the agent.

Let's go back to the beginning and look at Rosalind Hursthouse's proposed theory of right action as compared to my own, and look at the question of whether right action benefits the agent.

Hursthouse’s thesis is:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

My thesis:

An act is right if and only if it is the act that a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances.

From here, the question becomes: Does a right act benefit the agent?

Hursthouse is keen to agree that this is not the case with respect to every specific action. The question is whether the disposition tends to allow the agent to live a better life. She compares virtuous behavior to smoking - or, more precisely, the absence of smoking. The person who gives up (or never starts) smoking cannot be guaranteed a long and healthy life - but does improve their odds.

Hursthouse further argues that, when parents teach their children to be virtuous, it is not with the idea that the child will then miserable. Instead, the parent realizes that the virtuous child can also expect to have a better life than a vicious child. It is with full regard for their interest in their child's well-being that they teach the child to be virtuous. This at least suggests that living virtuously benefits the agent.

Actually, Hursthouse makes a stronger claim than merely to assert that virtue benefits the virtuous. This is true nearly by definition. A virtue is a character trait that benefits the virtuous.

Now, what does my thesis say? Does a good motive benefit the person who has it?

A good motive is a motive that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally. They have reason to promote the motive universally because it is a motive that tends to fulfill other desires. Insofar as the desire tends to fulfill other desires, people generally benefit as the good motive becomes universal.

However, we need to be careful here about the word "benefit". A good desire is a desire that tends to full other desires. But the fulfillment of a desire is not always and automatically a benefit to the person whose desire is fulfilled. It is not the case that everything we want is a benefit to ourselves.

I have used the example of a person with one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora exist. He has a button in front of him. Pressing the button will bring the planet Pandora into existence. Pressing the button will also kill him. The agent has one reason to press the button - to bring the planet Pandora into existence. He also has no reason not to press the button. His only interest is in bringing the planet Pandora into existence. When he presses the button he will get what he wants. However, it is a mistake to say that when he gets what he wants he has obtained a benefit.

So, a good desire is a desire that, if universal, will tend to fulfill other desires. And, among humans, it happens to be the case that many of our desires are self-referencing. We have an aversion to being in pain or being uncomfortable. We have a disposition to sadness and frustration - traits to which we are also averse - when our other desires are thwarted.

So, a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. And it happens to be the case that a desire that tends to fulfill other desires tends largely to benefit the people whose desires are fulfilled. However, it is not entirely true, and it is not necessarily true, that the universalization of a good desire benefits people.

I have a standard, simple example of such a good desire.

A community of individuals, each of which has an aversion to his or her personal pain, has a reason to promote universally an aversion to causing pain to others. As this desire becomes universal, agents within the community acquire two desires instead of one. These desires may sometimes come into conflict. An agent may find himself in a situation in which he must choose between inflicting a large amount of pain on others or a little pain on himself. The agent with this good aversion will accept the minor pain for himself.

Has he obtained a benefit?

Not really. He has realized something that he values - the absence of pain for others. But it has come at a cost - the minor pain he then experiences.

However, because of this universal aversion to causing pain to others, each agent can expect to experience less pain than he otherwise would. So, people obtain benefits from the universalization of a virtue, but not from exercising the virtue itself.

So, why become virtuous?

That's not the right question.

Why promote a virtue or good motive universally?

Because the good motive is, by definition, is one that, when universal, tends to fulfill other desires, and the fulfillment of those other desires provides the reason to promote the motive universally.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The "Morally Correct" Emotional Response

Rosalind Hursthouse devotes Chapter 5 of her book On Virtue Ethics to explaining how virtue ethics gives the best account of the moral importance of emotions.

A part of her defense rests on claiming that a particular emotional response is simply intrinsically good - or, more accurately, intrinsically correct given a particular state of affairs. A part of what it means to have a particular virtue is to be disposed to have that particular response.

We should note too that the claims in combination give some cash value to the view that the feeling of certain emotions on certain tain occasions has intrinsic moral value, rather than merely instrumental mental value or some other sort of intrinsic value. Feeling this emotion then could be said to have ‘intrinsic moral value’ simply in so far as it is the manifestation of virtue.

She further states that a particular emotional response is simply "right" or "correct". . . as in "The right answer to 'What is the capital of New Zealand?' is 'Wellington'."

So, to have a particular virtue is to have a particular emotional response to relevant states of affairs. To lack the appropriate emotional response means that one lacks the relevant virtue. There is, then, an intimate link between emotion and morality; one is not moral unless one has the "correct" moral response.

The first point that I will challenge is the claim that there is a "correct" moral response - such that those who do not respond in a particular way are "doing it wrong."

The emotions that we are disposed to have are, in part, the result of millions of years of evolution. Evolution, in selecting the emotional responses we would have, did not care about any type of intrinsic "correctness" - evolution favored reactions that produced evolutionary fitness. It is useful, in the biological evolutionary sense, for the antelope to be afraid of the lion. It is also useful for the antelope to grow anxious and alert when something happens - something it might not even have consciously noticed - that would indicate a lion in the area, such as some birds suddenly taking flight or a subtle scent in the air. A different creature - one not subject to being eaten by lions, perhaps because there are no lions, or who - because of the randomness of genetic mutation - simply never acquired such a disposition and could not have evolution select for it - would not have this reaction. They do not react "incorrectly" - just differently.

You can find a detailed account of this argument in: Street, Sharon (2005). A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value. Philosophical Studies 127 (1):109-166, and which I commented on previously here. While I think that Street presents a good argument, I think she presents her case in a seriously misleading way when she claims to have an objection against moral realism rather than simply intrinsic-value realism. Her theory leaves open the possibility that real moral properties exist, but not as the type of intrinsic properties that Hursthouse's "correct" emotional responses would require.

We also have the capacity to learn certain emotional responses. Hursthouse does not deny this - and goes into a long (and largely accurate) discussion of the nature of learning to be a racist and trying to unlearn racism. What she ignores is that the systems that allow us to learn and unlearn emotional responses have also been subject to evolutionary pressure, disposing us to adopt those attitudes that kept our ancestors alive and allowed them to have children. In the case of beliefs, truth is generally important, as we have reason to know whether there is a cliff ahead or whether there is a lion in the brush is true.

However, with respect to motivational force, there is no external "correctness" to latch onto. There is only that which will dispose us to act in ways that will lead to our evolutionary success.

However, if emotions are learned due to an interaction with one's environment, and each of us is a part of each others' environment, we have reasons to promote certain emotional responses in others. Insofar as each of us have an aversion to pain, we have reason to cause others to dislike - to emotionally recoil from the thought - of causing pain to others. We are, after all, the others that they would otherwise cause to be in pain. We have reason to use our power as a part of their environment to make it the case that the "correct" response to the thought of causing pain to others is revulsion.

This is not any type of intrinsic correctness. This is a correctness that comes precisely from our aversion to pain, giving each of us a reason to create an environment in which we are less likely to experience pain, which gives us reason to cause others to acquire an aversion to causing pain. We have this power to the degree that we can understand how environmental factors might cause others to acquire an aversion to causing pain (e.g., praise those who tend to avoid causing pain and condemning those who tend to cause pain). Ultimately, the value of an emotional response is found in the usefulness of promoting that response universally, not in any type of intrinsic correctness.

Having said this, we can use an agent's emotional reaction as evidence of whether or not an agent actually has a particularly useful desire or aversion. This means that we can use the presence or absence of a particular emotional response as reason to praise or condemn an agent. We can expect that if a person breaks an important promise because something more important comes up that the agent will feel some level of regret over having broken a promise to us. If they come to us and merely report that something more important came up - with total indifference to the fact that they broke a promise, that they do not have the aversion to breaking promises that people generally have reason to promote in others. This part of what Hursthouse argues for is defensible. What is not defensible is her claim that the "correctness" of a response is an intrinsic value property that we can, in some cases, learn by reason alone and is not concerned with useful ways of fulfilling certain desires.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Hursthouse's Virtue Theory and Non-Obligatory Permissions

As I read through Rosalind Hursthouse’s account of virtue ethics, I am not seeing much in the way of a theory of non-obligatory permissions.

This subject is relevant to her discussion of “positively pleasant dilemmas” - an idea she borrows from Philippe Foot.

But, in the context of the abstract discussion cussion of whether there are such things as irresolvable dilemmas, Foot has nicely raised the possibility that there may be positively pleasant ones. We may be faced with a choice between goods where not having either is no loss, and `there are no moral grounds for favouring doing x over y'.

She creates an example where:

Suppose I must give my daughter a birthday present; it would certainly be very mean not to, given our relationship, her age and hopes, my financial circumstances, and so on. But I am faced with an embarras de richesse; giving any one of a whole range of things is equally desirable and acceptable. So there is an irresolvable dilemma-not one that worries us, not one where the final decision matters, but there all the same-providing a clear case where practical rationality simply runs out of determining moral grounds.

Why is this an irresolvable dilemma?

She describes it as follows:

Virtue ethics directs me to find the answer to this question by finding the answer to another: 'What would a virtuous agent characteristically do in my circumstances?' But the supposition tion that the dilemma is truly irresolvable is tantamount to supposing ing the possibility of the following. We have two virtuous agents, each of whom (let us suppose, rather unrealistically) can give her daughter just one of two things, a or b, for her birthday; there are no moral grounds for favouring one over the other (for if there were, each agent, being virtuous, would go for the one that the grounds favoured). And one does x, giving her daughter a, and the other does y, giving her b. So virtue ethics does not give me action guidance here-which is just what we want, if we want our normative mative ethics to embody the fact that there are such irresolvable pleasant dilemmas, in which there is nothing that counts as the morally right decision.

But this is exactly what we expect in the case of non-obligatory permission. Different agents can choose different actions.

Assume that I had to make a choice regarding which of several $10 bills to give to a co-worker who paid for my lunch the day before. Different virtuous agents may choose a different $10 bill. “There are no moral grounds for favoring one over the other.” However, it is odd at best to call this as”positively pleasant dilemma”. This is a case of non-obligatory permission.

The alternative that I am seeking to defend has a place not only for the morally obligatory and morally prohibited, but also for non-obligatory permission.

An act is morally obligatory if and only if it is the act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would have performed in the circumstances.

An act is morally prohibited if and only if it is the act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have performed in the circumstances.

An act is morally obligatory if and only if it is the act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires may or may not have performed in the circumstances.

The category of “morally permissible” concerns those area where people generally do not have good reason to promote a universal common motive. What to eat. What to wear. Where to live. What profession to go into.

Which bill to use to pay a debt.

Which present to buy one’s daughter.

The verdict of morality is, “Pick one, for Pete’s sake. It doesn’t matter.”

The ultimate point here is that, on those matters where people generally have little or no reason to promote a universal common motive using the tools of praise and condemnation, they have little or no reason to call one option “right” and another “wrong” (since these are, in fact, statements of praise and condemnation generally used to promote universal common motives).

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Role of Rules in Motive-Based Morality

I have extensively argued that morality is primarily concerned with the evaluation of motives - and of molding motives (desires and aversions) through the application of praise and condemnation.

I have shunned the idea of moral rules.

Yet, a morality of motives has a couple of significant weaknesses over a morality of rules.

(1) Motives cannot be as complex as rules. Indeed, rules can have nearly infinite complexity (e.g., no parking from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm except on weekends).

(2) We can easily change the rules as situations change (e.g., Football 2017 Rule’s change: 4-2-2l Specifies that the ball is declared dead if a prosthetic limb comes completely off the runner.) Motives, on the other hand, once learned, are difficult to unlearn.

However, rules do not come with their own motivational force. We still need to answer the question, “Why follow the rules?” How do we get people to obey the rules?

We accomplish this by adding a motive that says, “Follow the rules.” This allows us to combine the complexity and ease of change we have with rules with the motivational force of the morality of motives.

There are three primary areas of morality where we combine these elements of rules and motives.

(1) We have the rules of a game, combined with a moral prohibition on cheating. This moral prohibition is an aversion - taught using praise and condemnation as moral rules are generally taught - against breaking the rules even when one can get away with it.

(2) We have the rule of law, combined with a moral aversion to breaking the law. We understand this moral aversion in terms of an obligation to obey the law - to be a law-abiding citizen.

(3) We have a system of duties and obligations, combined with a desire to do one’s duty. This distinguishes the person who has a desire that her neighbor be better off from the person who cares nothing about her neighbor’s well-being but helps “because it is the right thing to do”.

I am going to set aside the first example for now. Though cheating is immoral (in that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a universal aversion to cheating), it does not raise as many serious moral issues as the other two cases. The examples it does raise will be easier to present when we discuss the relevant and more important issues of the other two systems.

The Obligation to Obey the Law

When we turn to the second system - the system of law - this way of framing the issue gives us a way of addressing the question of whether, and to what existent, there is an obligation to obey the law.

The answer to this question is going to be the answer to the question, "Do people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, a desire to obey the law (or, correspondingly, an aversion to breaking the law). Unsurprisingly, this is going to depend greatly on whether the law is one that fulfills the desires (or prevents the thwarting of desires) generally, or whether it instead thwarts the fulfillment of many and strong desires in order to fulfill the desires of the few. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (or any law endorsing chattel slavery for that matter) is not a law that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a universal desire to obey. In fact, people generally (though not universally - there is a reason why I use the term 'generally' in this context) have many and strong reasons to oppose this law. The same can be said about the Jim Crow laws that followed slavery. The same can be said for laws against homosexual relationships.

The desire to obey (the aversion to breaking) the law can allow a limited form of complexity. We can argue for disregarding a set of bad laws (e.g., Jim Crow laws, the Fugitive Slave law) while still promoting "the rule of law" as a general virtue. So, the question of whether or not there is an obligation to obey the law does not come with a simple yes/no answer. The answer may well be, "'Yes' for the vast majority of laws, but 'no' to those laws over there." Yet, the fact that this list cannot be infinitely complex - that it must, in fact, being founded in a motive, be relatively simple - does not allow us to create a long and complicated assessment of laws to obey or disobey.

One possible position to take is to say that all of the laws worthy of obeying are also moral restrictions, so there is no obligation to obey the law that is distinct from the obligation to do that which is right. However this, as I stated above, ignores the advantages of law in being potentially complex and easily changed. We cannot expect people to adopt a separate desire or aversion respecting every one of the traffic laws - e.g., a desire to use one's headlights from one-half hour before sunset to one-half hour after sunrise or when visibility is less than 1000 feet or when using windshield wipers to clear rain, snow, or sleet. In fact, it is not even possible to create such a desire using the social tools of praise and condemnation. What is possible is to create a general desire to obey the law (aversion to breaking the law) combined with the belief that traffic law has these requirements.

Doing the Right Thing

We also have the capacity to take advantage of the complexity and the ability to make changes to rules by giving people a desire to do that which is right (aversion to doing that which is wrong) as well as a complex set of principles respecting what is right and wrong. This represents the difference between refraining from lying because it is lying, and refraining from lying because one has an aversion to doing that which is wrong and a belief that lying is wrong. In this system, if we wish to have people alter their behavior, we simply alter their beliefs about what is right and wrong. The desire to do that which (the agent believes) is right and aversion to doing that which (the agent believes) is wrong then takes care of the motivation to obey the updated rules.

This leaves open the question, "What does it take for the proposition 'this action is right' and 'that action is wrong'" to be true. If we can convince a person with an aversion to doing that which is wrong that writing with the left hand is wrong, we can motivate that person to refrain from writing with his left hand. But what does it take for the proposition, "it is wrong to write with the left hand" to be true?

However, we are still going to have to answer the question, "Why create a rule against writing with the left hand? What reason is there to make such a rule?" This is going to go back to the question of motives - and it will have to refer to motives other than the motive of obeying the rule (that is to say, the motive to do that which is right). We still have to ask whether those motives for making an action right or wrong in this sense are motives that people generally have reason to promote universally. So, "right action" in this sense is still "the act that a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have done in the circumstances."

There is nothing particularly noteworthy about acting from duty in this sense. It is merely a backup system - a reserve motivation for when the regular good motives are absent, or bad motives are present, that may still provide the motivational power to get the agent to do the right thing. An agent might not have the concern for the well-being of her child that she should have, but an aversion to doing what she ought not to do, and a belief that she ought not to neglect the health of her child, may motivate her to do what a properly motivated mother would do out of natural inclination.


In short, the idea that morality is primarily concerned with promoting good motives does not eliminate the possibility of a rules-based morality. We can harvest some of the advantages of rules - their complexity and the ease with which they may be changed - by combining them with a motive to follow the rules. These motives include an aversion to cheating (where cheating is defined by the rules of the game), an aversion to breaking the law (where the rules in question are the rules of law), and the desire to do one's duty (where one's duty is still that which a properly motivated person would have done from inclination).

Next, we can take this distinction between acting from duty and acting from inclination and apply it to the ongoing discussion of Rosalind Hursthouse's theory of right action. It supports the conclusion that "acting from duty" does not have the moral priority that Hursthouse, Kant, and Aristotle attribute to it, and that right action still follows the Humean model of that which a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have done in the circumstances.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Children, Animals, and Adult Virtues

Rosalind Hursthouse defends her theory of right action in part on the basis that it provides an account of the difference between the application of moral concepts to children and animals as distinct from adults.

I wish to argue that desires provides a better account.

I want to start with a lengthy quote from Hursthouse giving her view.

In the Eudemian Ethics Aristotle says, with the other animals the action on compulsion is simple (just as in the inanimate), for they have not inclination and reason (logos) opposing one another, but live by inclination; but man has both, that is at a certain age, to which we attribute also the power of action; for we do not say that a child acts, or a brute either, but only a man who does things from reasoning'. So, in Aristotelian terms, we could say that the happy philanthropists, supposing them to have 'Humean' benevolence as described, do not act in the strict sense of the term at all. They live kata pathos, by inclination, like an animal or a child; their `doings' issue from passion or emotion (pathe) not 'choice' (prohairesis). And here is the sense an Aristotelian may attach to the Kantian claim that their 'actions' (in the broad sense) lack genuine moral worth because they act from inclination not from duty. It is actions proper, which issue from reason, that are to be assessed as virtuous or vicious), but their 'doings' are not actions, and thereby cannot be said to be, and to be esteemed as, virtuous ones.

In short, the difference between children and animals on the one hand and adults on the other is that children and animals act on inclination (passion) alone, and morally responsible adults act on both passion and reason.

In contrast, I have argued for a Humean conception of motivation whereby the passions alone provide motivational force and reason simply selects the means to these ends. The passions are sovereign - determining the ends or goals of intentional action. Reason, in Hume’s words, is the slave of the passions. Charged with realizing an end or goal, reason determines the best way to reach or hold this objective.

How can this Humean account handle the difference between children and adults?

First, the adult has a better capacity to select the appropriate means to ends. A child can carelessly inflict unnecessary harm - for example, with brutal honesty or choosing ineffective or even counter-productive ways to help. Animals lack the capacity to even understand the distant effects of its behavior.

Second, the passions and of a child are not the passions of a mature adult. An element of growing maturity is the adoption of cultural norms. Among these are @ willingness to share, an aversion to the use of violent assault, an aversion to taking the Roberts of others without their consent, and aversions to damaging the property and to inflicting unnecessary distress on others. In shot, the adult, like the child, continues to act on passions. However, through social conditioning, the adult has acquired better passions - passions that, in Hume’s terms - are pleasing and/or useful to self and/or others.

F course, we combine these two elements to give the agent the capacity to select better means to the ends established by these improved improved

We can combine this with the fact that adults also have an improved capacity to recognize that a passion is or is not a passion that people generally have reason to promote universally. It is not the case that adults somehow magically acquire these new and improved passions. Instead, we are taught these new and improved passions by others, who have reasons (based on their own passions) to cause us to have these interests - aversions to deception, aversions to taking property without consent, desire to help others in need. So, in addition to having adult as opposed to childish passions, and an improved capacity to recognize the relationships between actions and the fulfillment of those passions, there is a recognitioin of the passions that people generally have reason to promote universally (in virtue of being useful and agreeable to self and others).

This view is quite different from the view that Hursthouse seems to be arguing against - the idea that the passions of the child (or the animal) are the only possible passions, and that the alternative to her theory is one that adds means-ends rationality to the fulfillment of childish (or animal) passions. That view definitely deserves criticism, but it is not a view that fully appreciates the complexities of Humean morality.

I have included in this "passions that people generally have reason to promote universally" a desire to do one's duty. This is still a special kind new and improved passion. I want to talk about it in my next post.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Acting from Inclination

In recent posts, I have been examining a distinction that Rosalind Hursthouse draws from Aristotle that she describes in terms of "acting from inclination" versus "acting from duty".

"Acting from inclination" can best be understood as doing what one wants.

"Acting from duty" often means going against one's desires to do that which is right.

In recent posts, I have been arguing that all actions are examples of "acting from inclination". The distinction is actually between those who have an inclination to do that which is right (a desire to do that which is right) and those who have other desires. I draw a distinction between, for example, an aversion to taking that which belongs to other people without their consent, and an aversion to doing that which is wrong accompanied by the belief that it is wrong to take the property of another without consent.

Here, the issue gets a little confusing because Hursthouse does not talk about acting from desire - but acting from emotion. While it is the case that emotions can be connected to action, I would argue that this happens when the emotion is associated with a desire - which provides a reason for action.

Hursthouse writes:

In short, the emotions of sympathy, compassion, and love, viewed simply as psychological phenomena, are no guarantee of right action, or acting well. (Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 1254-1255). Kindle Edition.)

Of course, this is true. It is also true in the desirism account. There is nothing in the desire to tell the truth, or the aversion to causing harm, or the aversion to taking the property of others without consent that guarantees that one will perform a right action. One of the reasons for this is precisely the issue that Hursthouse discusses - the act that one seeks to perform is unreasonable. She brings up the example of a person for whom, "compassion misguided by a misconception of 'good' may prompt someone to lie rather than tell the hurtful truth that another needs to know."

A more stark example would be the case of a parent who kills a child to protect the child from a demon, or who tries to "beat the devil" out of the child. We may include in this the person who, apparently out of charity, opposes globalization - unappreciative of the fact that globalization has resulted in a substantial decrease in extreme global poverty.

The examples listed here are examples of failure of means-ends rationality. The failure to tell a truth that a person "needs to know" is a failure to select the appropriate means to acting compassionately - assuming that the person "needs to know" this truth because it would ultimately be best if she knew it. Killing a child to protect it from (non-existent) demons or destroying the best tool for reducing global extreme poverty out of "compassion" are examples of selecting - due to ignorance - an inappropriate means to a good end.

So, Hursthouse is correct when she writes:

There is nothing about [the emotions of sympathy, compassion, and love, viewed simply as psychological phenomena], qua natural inclinations, which guarantees that they occur 'in complete harmony with reason', that is, that they occur when, and only when, they should, towards the people whose circumstances should occasion them, consistently, on reasonable grounds and to an appropriate degree, as Aristotelian virtue requires. (Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 1254-1256). Kindle Edition.)

When a person selects the inappropriate means to an end, we often have reason to suspect that the agent does not have the particular end in question. A parent who does a poor job of protecting her child from harm - who does not take reasonable steps to determine what threats are real and which are imaginary, and whether a certain action will cause harm or prevent harm - we may suspect does not really care about whether the child is safe. A parent who refuses to vaccinate a child or to seek medical care for an easily treatable disease, we may suspect, cares about things other than the health of the child.

We have no direct access to a person's ends. We only have a means to infer the ends that best explain and predict observed behavior. If observed behavior is behavior that puts a child at significant risk of harm or cause actual harm, then this is to be taken as evidence that the agent does not have a sufficiently strong aversion to her child suffering this harm. This gives us reason for moral condemnation.

The implication that "having good desires and lacking bad desires" has on beliefs implies that, even with the standard of right action in use - an act is right iff it is the act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances - we are not going to simply accept an agent's beliefs without question. An agent with good desires and lacking bad desires are going to be inclined to do research and to form responsible beliefs. Consequently, desires alone do not determine right action. Desires combined with the beliefs that an agent who has good desires and lacks bad desires would adopt are what determines right action.

Types of Reasons vs Degree of Difficulty

In her comparison of Aristotle and Kant on virtuous action, Rosalind Hursthouse seems to confuse a pair of distinctions. One is the distinction between acting from inclination and acting from duty. The other is the distinction between performing an act easily or performing it with difficulty, the idea seems to be that performing an act from inclination is easy or pleasurable, while acting from duty is difficult and painful.

I described this distinction in Humean terms since I hold that Davis Hume’s account of motivation is basically correct. We act in accordance with our beliefs to fulfill our desires.

So, the first distinction is a distinction between the desires one acts on. The person who visits a sick friend in the hospital because “you are my friend; I care about you,” acts from inclination. He gives only a passing thought to duty or right action. Instead, he does that which he values for its own sake.

This is to be held in contrast to the person who visits a sick friend from a desire to do that which is right, and a belief that visiting a sick friend is the right thing to do.

Hursthouse would object to this way of drawing the distinction. She would count the first as acting from desires, and the second type as acting from reasons other than desires - acting contrary to desires. This may be why she confuses this distinction with the distinction between easily performing a right action (acting according to desire) and performing it with difficulty (contrary to desire).

Consider the case of the student trying to decide between pursuing a passion - e.g., philosophy - versus learning a useful skill such as computer programming or database management. These are matters to of inclination, but that does not imply that it is an easy decision.

On the other side of the coin, consider the person who follows a religious commandment. He chooses what to eat based on an interpretation of scripture - foregoing bacon, for example. This is a case of acting from duty (though the belief that duty prohibits eating bacon may be a false belief), yet the devout individual may have no difficulty at all following this prescription.

The phenomenon of ease versus difficulty has nothing to do with the type of reason one is acting on, but on the presence or absence of counter-weighing desires - with reasons to do otherwise. The person who is struggling to decide on a career has conflicting desires - pulling her in two directions. The person who refuses bacon without difficulty has a interest in doing what her religion commands of her and no particularly strong interest in eating bacon. After all, there are a great many other foods that taste just as good.

This confusion colors Hursthouse's discussion of the virtues of courage and charity.

Courage, it seems, is a term that is only applicable when there is a conflict between competing desires. There must be a threat to the life or well-being of the individual being outweighed by a more important concern. The parent's aversion to pain, injury, or death - however important they may be - become outweighed by their interest in saving her child from a fire. The soldier's devotion to his country (though, in fact, soldiers tend to be more concerned with protecting their brothers in arms than their country) outweighs his own interest in life and limb. These are the standard examples of courage. If no self-regarding counter-weighing desires are in play, then the concept of 'courage' does not apply.

This distinguishes courage from honesty or charity. Though honesty and charity often will require overriding self-regarding interests, this is not necessarily the case. A person can be honest when no self-regarding interests are at stake, and she can be charitable even when she has pleanty - or she has little but also does not want much. The person who is content to get by with some small amount of wealth and give the rest to charity - simply because she wants nothing more than to help others (once her own basic needs are taken care of) is a prime example of a charitable person. With courage, conflicting self-regarding desires are a necessity. With other virtues, they may exist, but not necessarily.

At this point, I need to mention that I have difficulty with the idea that courage is a virtue. Crimes from terrorism to rape to armed robbery require courage. Whether courage is a virtue depends on whether the ends that one is courageous in advancing are those that a virtuous person would advance. The person who advances a good cause where a less timid person would not is the virtuous-courageous person. The reason for praise is because "courage," in this case, demonstrates the strength of her good motives . It is for the sake of strengthening those good motives that we praise her courage. Whereas courage in the heart of an immoral person - a person who fails to pursue good motives or who does so in ways that require courage but which a good person would not pursue - warrants no praise.

So, let's look at charity instead. Who is the most charitable - the person who contributes to helping others out of inclination (a desire that others be well), or out of duty (a desire to do what is right combined with a belief that helping others who are disadvantaged is the right thing to do)?

Hursthouse compares several types of charitable actions, in order to intuitively measure their moral worth.

The first is the person who helps others out of a desire to help others - an interest in their well-being. This is a person who acts "from inclination" as it were - in the Aristotelian sense (though Aristotle did not argue that charity was a virtue).

The second type is the person who helps others out of a sense of duty. She doesn't care about others. However, she cares about doing the right thing and believes that donations to charity are the right thing to do. Perhaps she is following a religious tradition and mechanically - unthinkingly - gives 10% of her income to charity as a rule. However, when she hears about the suffering of others due to a natural disaster, poverty, disease, or injury, she really could not care less.

Among these two, it seems that the first person better embodies the virtue of charity. Charity is concerned with having an interest in the well-being of others, not an interest in "doing the right thing".

Then, Hursthouse brings in the Kantian philanthrope - the person who is suffering her own set-backs and is in a state of depression or sadness. She is more focused on her own problems - an ailing parent, the death of a child, or her own life-threatening illness - which fixes her attention so that she "has nothing left emotionally" to spare for others. Yet, she continues to help out. Hursthouse argues that the Aristotelian should agree that this person displays the virtue of charity.

Yet, I see this as confusing the question of whether the charitable act is difficult with the question of whether it is done from inclination or duty. It may well be that the sorrowful philanthrope had gotten into a habit of making a contribution to charity out of duty as described above, and the change in her situation simply does not motivate her to change her habits. Or she could have been somebody who gave to others because she cares about their welfare and, when her own situation turns bad, says, "It's not their fault that my situation has changed - and they should not suffer the lack of charity because of it. At least some good will come from my actions." The change in the agent's circumstances may give us reason to evaluate the strength of the agent's concerns, but it does not eliminate or override the distinction between acting from concern for others and acting from duty.

Hursthouse also confuses the distinction between types of reasons and degree of difficulty when talking about the merit of returning a purse one has found full of money. In her evaluation of this case, Hursthouse's conclusions are correct. The wealthy person who returns the money does not display as much virtue as the poor person who returns the money. This is because we are looking at whether the action displays that the desires are present in the required strength. The rich person who returns the money does not give us much evidence of this (though the rich person who refuses to return the money does tell us a great deal about her level of averice). The poor person who returns the money - who is struggling to feed her family, provide medical care, and the like - does show us that her interest in returning the lost money is sufficiently strong to outweigh these other concerns. Yet, even if she fails to return the money, and blows it instead on some personal luxuries, this would give us added reason for condemnation.

All of this is perfectly compatible with the desire-based theory of value mentioned above. It still provides no evidence for people acting on different types of reasons - desires versus some type of rationality-based reason. The desire-based theory can handle these types of cases without complicating the metaphysics.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Acting from Duty or Acting from Inclination

In our previous postings

For those who do not care to go back and read what came before (and I do not blame you - your time is precious), I offer a brief context for this discussion. Those who have read the earlier posts can skip to the section on morality and the emotions.

In my previous post, Virtues, Right Actions, and Reasons, I identified what I see as a key difference between my own thesis and Rosalind Hursthouse's virtue theory. It is also a key difference between my own thesis and Kantian deontology.

Hursthouse identified it in the following quote:

We should not forget that Kant and Aristotle significantly share a strongly anti-Humean premise about the principles or springs of movement (or `action' in the broad sense of the term). According to Hume, there is only one principle of action, the one we share with animals, namely passion or desire; according to both Aristotle and Kant there are two, one which we share with the other animals, and one which we have in virtue of being rational.

In this dispute, I am a Humean. That is, I side with the Humean model of intentional action. Desires provide the motivating force behind intentional action, and beliefs merely select the means. There is no "second reason" for intentional action.

In the previous post I defended the thesis on the grounds that it makes the most sense given human evolution. We evolved a disposition to learn to like that which - in liking it - our ancestors were disposed to have fit offspring. The aversion to pain, tastes for food, thirst, the desire for sex, parental affection - we came to like these things because it allowed our ancestors to successfully reproduce.

We also inherited a "plastic" mind that can learn new desires based on our interactions with the environment. However, even this learning process became molded by evolution to dispose us to acquire preferences that made us fit for survival.

And what makes a population fit for survival is a contingent fact - based in part on the environment in which one's ancestors evolved, including the other types of animals, plants, and diseases that inhabited the region. Whatever it is we have come to value - or are disposed to learn to value - it could have been otherwise.

That is one line of argument. The other is that such a theory can explain and predict how people actually behave.

To make good on this idea, I would like to look at some of the claims that Hursthouse made in defense of Aristotle and Kant (in defense of the virtue theory and deontology account of reasons for intentional action) and show that the Humean system can handle these just fine without all of the metaphysical complications.

Acting from Duty or Acting from Inclination

Hursthouse presents a dispute between Kant and Aristotle regarding the moral value of acting from duty.

She begins by presenting an interpretation of Aristotle that goes as follows:

At the end of Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle introduces a distinction between the `continent' or `self-controlled' type of human being, (who has enkrateia) and the one who has full virtue (arete). Simply, the continent character is the one who, typically, knowing what she should do, does it, contrary to her desires,' and the fully virtuous character is the one who, typically, knowing what she should do, does it, desiring to do it. Her desires are in `complete harmony' with her reason; hence, when she does what she should, she does what she desires to do, and reaps the reward of satisfied desire. Hence, `virtuous conduct gives pleasure to the lover of virtue' (io99aiz); the fully virtuous do what they (characteristically) do, gladly. (Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 1131-1136). Kindle Edition.)

Her interest in discussing this topic is to investigate an apparent contrast between Aristotle and Kant. According to the standard view, Aristotle believes that acting from "full virtue" (arete) is the morally superior individual. This is contrasted to Kant's view that moral merit is to be assigned the 'continent' or 'self-controlled' person - the agent who acts from duty.

It is in the context of this discussion that Hursthouse brings up the idea that on one point where Aristotle and Kant agree is that it is possible for an agent to act from something other than desire - that there is a second type of reason for intentional action, namely, rationality itself.

What I want to do is to show how desirism can handle this distinction without mentioning a "second type of reason" for intentional action.

Before going on, I would like to present what desirism says about this distinction.

Let us take an example of a person who finds a wallet with some money laying in the curb laying in a parking lot. One who "has full virtue" in the sense described above has a weak interest in keeping the wallet. She has desires, and knows that the money in the wallet would help to fulfill those desires, but the desire to return to others what they have lost is sufficiently strong that she does not give the idea of keeping the money a second thought. She would not even accept a reward from the owner of the wallet when she returns it for she has done nothing other than what any decent person would have done. Her desire is to return the property to its rightful owner.

I would like to compare this to a person with a different desire. This person has no interest in returning things to their rightful owner. Instead, she has a desire to do the right thing, accompanied by a belief that returning the wallet is "the right thing". For her, the question, "How can it be the case that 'returning lost property to its rightful owner if possible' is true?" can be a perplexing question - one that might drive her study moral philosophy.

Both of these agents are acting from desire. In one case, it is a desire to return lost property. In the other case, it is a desire to do that which is right (that which is in accordance with duty) and a belief that one has a duty to return lost property.

However, the relevant difference here is that, when returning the wallet "because it is the right thing to do" is different from returning the wallet from a simple desire to return property to its rightful owner.

In the terms that Hursthouse uses, the first person "acts from inclination". The second person "acts from duty". Neither agent acts from duty alone. If not for the motivational force provided by the relevant desire, neither agent would act.

It is possible for each agent to act rationally or irrationally. Each agent, wanting to return the wallet (either to fulfill a desire to return the lost property or the desire to do what is right) could decide to go up and down the street asking each person they met if they lost a wallet. Or they could open the wallet, find some identification, search for a phone number for the person identified in the wallet, and try to contact the owner that one. One option is more rational than the other. But they are more or less rational in terms of matching means to ends, not in terms of selecting ends by reason alone.

So, using the Humean system we have an account of the two types of character - distinguished by having to different desires, and a concept of more-or-less rational action given those desires. We have no reason to over-complicate things by adding a second type of reason for action.

Those other types of reasons do not exist. And those who call an action right or wrong - or an agent virtuous or lacking virtue - based on these "other types of reasons" are grounding their conclusions on a false premise. Their system for determining which moral attitudes are true or false is unsound.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Virtues, Right Actions, and Reasons

I believe that I have found the cornerstone in any disagreements I may have between Rosalind Hursthouse's concept of "right action" and the one that I propose.

Hursthouse’s thesis is:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

My thesis:

An act is right if and only if it is the act that a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances.

The key difference is to be found here:

We should not forget that Kant and Aristotle significantly share a strongly anti-Humean premise about the principles or springs of movement (or `action' in the broad sense of the term). According to Hume, there is only one principle of action, the one we share with animals, namely passion or desire; according to both Aristotle and Kant there are two, one which we share with the other animals, and one which we have in virtue of being rational.

On this matter, I side with Hume. Desires provide motivational force and reason is only relevant where it is used to discover such things as whether a particular action will fulfill a set of desires or whether those desires are actually fulfilled in a particular state of affairs.

This question is a question of metaphysics. The types of values - or end-reasons for intentional action - that can be discovered by reason alone simply do not exist.

There is a difference between humans and animals, but this difference does not generate a second "spring of movement". It merely allows us to have a more sophisticated understanding of the one spring of movement that exists - desires. We are capable of understanding something that animals cannot understand. We are capable of understanding that desires themselves have consequences - have effects that are relevant to the fulfillment of still other desires. Thus, there can be reasons to promote particular desires, and to judge a desire as one that people generally do (or do not) have reason to promote universally.

An example I often use is that of a community in which each member has an aversion to personal pain. That is to say, everyone has a "desire that I not be in pain" - with each agent talking about his or her own pain. We then assume that the individuals in the community have the capacity to create additional desires in others using the tools of praise and condemnation. In this case, each person has a reason to promote a universal aversion to causing pain - namely, the fact that giving others an aversion to causing pain means that one will not be as likely to suffer pain.

Animals lack this kind of understanding.

In other words, humans can do a better job of determining what counts as a universal (or harmful) desire or aversion - thus do a better job of identifying desires that people generally have reasons to promote. It is no different than our improved capacity to identify better and worse tools of all sorts.

However, this does not introduce a second "spring of movement". The spring in this case is still the aversion to personal pain and nothing more. Reason tells such a person that it would be useful to use praise and condemnation to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others. This is a means to an end, in the same way that avoiding getting burned is a means to an end.

It is, of course, difficult to prove that something does not exist. The only thing one can do is provide an exhaustive account how one can account for all of the observed evidence without referring to this non-existent entity. To prove that ghosts do not exist, one needs to provide an exhaustive account of every piece of evidence that people use "ghosts" to explain and show that there is an alternative explanation that makes reference to ordinary forces such as wind, shadows, a human disposition to "see faces" and to interpret sounds as voices where no face or voice exists.

So, if I were to actually prove that these "springs for movement" do not exist, I would need to go through all of the instances in which people assert that there is such a spring and show that they can be explained with a simple reference to standard desires (which determine the ends of intentional action) and beliefs (which are important when it comes to selecting the means to those ends).

Yet, in the case of ghosts, we can make some general claims that can shed some doubt on the proposition. We can point out the ways in which seeing requires photons striking a retina and transmitting a signal to a physical brain, and hearing requires an eardrum, middle ear, auditory canal, and that a particular section of the brain is properly functioning. Speaking requires the passage of wind through vocal cords, and movement requires muscles. Of course, the person who believes in ghosts can imagine an alternative system for performing each of these things. However, the implausible ad-hoc nature of these explanations gives us reason to say, "Maybe we should just go with the option that no ghosts exist."

Against the idea that reason alone can provide "springs of movement" is to use Sharon Street's, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value," Philosophical Studies (2006) 127:109-166. The better explanation for our disposition to value certain states of affairs is that we have come to it through a process of evolution. Evolution will dispose us to desire that which will promote our evolutionary fitness. And there is no one correct thing that will promote evolutionary fitness. This depends on one's environment - on the other types of creatures that are in it (from bacteria to predators) and how they behave in an environment in which agents pursue particular ends. If, in one universe, a particular type of action promotes the spread of a particular disease and, in another, it promotes a particular immunity suggests that, in one world, the agents will come to acquire an aversion to that action and, in another, a desire to perform it.

This is a more sophisticated version of J.L. Mackie's "Argument from Queerness" (Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin Books.).

There is no such thing. Any theory that attempts to evaluate right action, and that claims that the right action gets at least some of its value from "springs of action" that can be discovered by reason alone is building its conclusions on a false premise. Such a person can still get true conclusions, but it gets those true conclusions by accident and without justification. The alternative thesis that I propose only looks at the one type of "spring of action" that exists.

One more quick note before I leave . . . I reject Sharon Street's claim that this defeats "realism" about value. Have you ever suffered a severe burn or a broken bone? You know that pain that you experience? It comes from the fact that you have evolved to be disposed to have an aversion to such things. We could have evolved into a different type of creature, but we did not. There is no "intrinsic badness" here. However, the assertion that the pain is, as a result, "not real" is absurd. It is quite real. The claim that intrinsic value properties are not real is not to be taken as a claim that the badness of pain is not real. It is a claim that it's realness is not bound up in its having an intrinsic value property of badness. Sharon Street provides a Darwinian dilemma for theories of intrinsic value, but she provides no good objection to realist theories of value.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Resolvable Dilemmas

In my study of the differences between Rosalind Hursthouse's conception of right action and the one I defend, I have now turned to Hursthouse's book, Hursthouse, Rosalind (1999). On Virtue Ethics. Oxford University Press.

The second chapter of her book concerns "resolvable dilemmas".

Just to recap, we are working on two different conceptions of right action.

Hursthouse’s thesis is:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

My thesis:

An act is right if and only if it is the act that a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances.

Hursthouse's objective is to show that virtue ethics represents a third option to the traditional theories of utilitarianism (an act is right iff it promotes the best consequences) and deontology (an action is right iff it is in accordance with a correct moral rule or principle). She is not intent (or even aware of) the option that I am presenting.

I am not even certain that she would classify my alternative as a virtue theory.

However, the relevant point here is that in her effort to show that virtue theory provides this third alternative, she examines how virtue theory, utilitarianism, and deontology handles what she calls "resolvable moral dilemmas".

What she means by this is a choice where the option not chosen still has a "moral remainder". That is to say, there is a clear right action, but the right action still violates a moral requirement, which puts the agent in the position of having having moral regret or distress, owing another person some type of retributive payment or at least an apology.

I have typically used two types of cases that I think would qualify under Hursthouse's description.

One is the case of a parent away from town with a child who gets stung by a bee and is having an unexpected allergic. The parent needs to get his child to a hospital. His own car fails to start. Another car, parked nearby, has the keys still in the ignition. The owner is nowhere in sight. The parent takes the car and rushes the child to the hospital. We may clearly say that this is the right thing to do in the circumstances. However, we would still say that the parent owes the owner of the car at least an apology, and perhaps some compensation for the borrowing the car.

Now, oddly enough, we may also expect the owner to dismiss the moral debt - to tell the father, "You don't owe me a thing. I would have done the same thing in your place." Yet, the apology and offer for compensation is still owed.

This would be a case where the two options are still considered morally wrong.

This is in contrast with the view that one act is, in an unqualified sense, the right thing to do and the other act, in an equally unqualified sense, is wrong.

The way that desirism handles these types of cases is by noting that desires and aversions do not simply vanish when they are outweighed. A young adult is torn between leaving to go to a distant university to pursue a degree or staying in her home town where her friends and families live. There may be a clear choice . . . it is time to move on, say good-bye to her childhood friends . . . and make a place for herself in the world. Yet, even where there is a clear choice, it does not eliminate the pain of parting with the people and places that one leaves behind.

It is no less the case when one's obligations to care for one's own child comes into conflict with the aversion to taking the property of another without his consent. The fact that there is a clear option does not eliminate the regret that one feels about not fulfilling both desires at once - the desire to care for one's child AND the aversion to taking property without consent.

The purpose of the need for an apology and the offer of compensation is to stress the fact that the agent has this second aversion and acknowledges its moral status. If he can simply shrug it off without regret, then we may be suspicious that he does not have the aversion to taking the property without consent that he should have. This is true in the same way that the teenager who heads off to a distant college without tears of regret really does not care about the town and people she leaves behind - and may well be happy to be rid of them.

Desirism, then, does not only account for the fact of a moral remainder, it says that such a moral remainder is sometimes required. We expect it of people. We, in fact, condemn it of people and count as a "wrong action" the failure to offer the apologies and compensations that a person who regrets doing that which a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have been adverse to doing.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Knowing a Right Action

In “Normative Virtue Ethics,” Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition. Edited by Russ Shafer-Landau. © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Rosalind Hursthouse discusses whether a virtue ethics can provide a person with knowledge as to what is the right thing to do.

Recall, her thesis is similar to the one I defend. Hursthouse’s thesis is:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

My thesis:

An act is right if and only if it is the act that a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances.

In defending her thesis, Hursthouse brings up the suggestion that only the virtuous agent can know the right action.

But virtue ethics yields only the prescription "Do what the virtuous agent (the one who is honest, charitable, just, etc.) would do in these circumstances." And this gives me no guidance unless I am (and know I am) a virtuous agent myself (in which case I am hardly in need of it). If I am less than fully virtuous, I shall have no idea what a virtuous agent would do, and hence cannot apply the only prescription that virtue ethics has given me.

At least in the case of the thesis that I am defending, one can certainly know what counts as a right act without actually having the good motives (or lacking bad motives).

This can be demonstrated in two different ways.

An agent with a bad habit - smoking, drinking, gambling, dispositions to anger, a particularly strong introversion, or any of countless other dispositions, can well know that he or she would be better off without that disposition. She can quite easily determine how she would act if she did not have an addiction to tobacco or alcohol. Similarly, she can well see herself acting as a person without her temper or fear of speaking to others would act. There is nothing about failing to have a particular good motive, or having a bad motive, that prohibits an agent from imagining how one would act without it.

Furthermore, it is possible to demonstrate, at least theoretically, what counts as a good motive or a bad motive that does not at all depend on having such a motive.

I simply need to return to my tried and true example of a community of individuals who have an aversion to personal pain. In my standard example, the members of this community also have a capacity to cause others to have certain motives by the use of praise and condemnation. Each person in this community has a reason to promote in others an aversion to causing pain to others. In this example, they promote this aversion by praising those who choose options that reduce the chances of others suffering pain and condemning those who choose options that put others at risk of experiencing pain. These facts do not, in any way, require that the person looking at them - you, the reader, for example - have a particular attitude towards causing pain to others. That is irrelevant to the fact that people generally actually do have reasons to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others.

If one can know that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an aversion to causing harm to others, and they know how such a person would behave, they should be able to identify, even if all they currently have is their own aversion to pain, those actions to praise or condemn. That is to say, they should be able to identify those actions that deserve, on this model, the name "morally right" and "morally wrong".

So, the objection that a person cannot know a right action unless one already has good motive and lacks bad motives is mistaken.

Flourishing and Desire Fulfillment

The next issue that I want to discuss concerning the difference between my theory of right action and Hursthouse concerns the fact that she rests the value of character traits on the “flourishing” of the agent who has them. A character trait is good to the degree that it contributes to the agent’s flourishing.

The next task is to explain how honesty, courage, kindness, and the like contribute to flourishing.

The distinction between flourishing as the root of all value and the desire fulfillment theory that I use will take us fully into competing theories of value. Instead of repeating all that I have written on this subject, I will invite the reader to check out Morality from the Ground Up.

However, for the sake of those who do not wish to follow the link, I will give you the highlights.

All value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. An agent with a “desire that P” for some proposition P has a motivating reason to act so as to realize a state of affairs in which “P” is made or kept true.

Proposition P need not have anything to do with flourishing. We can imagine a person, Alph, with one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora exists. That person stands before a button which will bring that planet into existence. At the same time, it will cause Alph to cease to exists. Alph, with his one desire, has a motivating reason to press the button and no reason not to.

This is not a theory of moral value. (A desire is a virtue if it is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally.) It is a theory of general value, from which moral value is derived. But this theory of general value does not give flourishing any type of necessary worth.

I use the example of Alph, who has one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora exist. He stands before a button. If he presses the button, then the planet Pandora will exist., but he will cease to exist. Alph has every reason to press the button, and no reason not to. Flourishing counts for nothing.

For most of us, we have desires that count for flourishing. That is a little more than coincidence, since we are evolved beings disposed to value a life in which our evolutionary fitness is being served well. However, it is a mistake to make too much of this and think that flourishing has a built in “ought to be ness” that is the root of all value.

So, to return to the main point, one difference between Hursthouse’s thesis and mine is the theory of value that it is built on - a difference that makes Hursthouse’s virtues that contribute to flourishing significantly different from motives that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally.

This is not to say that flourishing lacks importance. It is just that a being that is flourishing tends to be in a state where many of its desires are being fulfilled, or to have the means to fulfill many of its desires.

Of course, there is the issue that plants can flourish even though a plant has no desires.

On this issue one has to make a choice about value. Does value have anything to do with reasons for action that exist?

People have reasons to consider the flourishing of a plant only where and to what degree that those people have reasons to act this way - which depends on their desires. Plants, however, have no capacity to engage in intentional actions. Consequently, they have no reasons to act. We can speak hypothetically about wha5 a plant would have reason to do if it could perform intentional action. However, would have reason to do does not imply “does have reason to do.”

The other option is to divorce good from reasons for action, in which case we can ask, “What does it matter that something is good?” This option literally says that what is good is irrelevant to the question of what one should do. This means we need another word to describe states that people have reason to bring about or avoid - and we need to get people into the habit of using this new language.

The option that I would argue for is to keep the concepts of “good” and “bad” tied to reasons for action. This means that flourishing is not valuable in itself, but is valuable in terms of being either a state that fulfills desires or is useful to the fulfillment of desires. It provides no independent grounds for intentional action.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Uncharacteristic Behavior

In comparing Rosalind Hursthouse's theory of right action to my own, one would notice that she includes a clause that distinguishes between characteristic and uncharacteristic behavior. I do not.

Hursthouse’s thesis is:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

My thesis:

An act is right if and only if it is the act that a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances.

Hursthouse is responding to the observation that a person can be generally virtuous. However, take a generally virtuous person and deprive her of sleep for a night due to noisy neighbors. This lack of sleep makes it difficult to concentrate. She nearly gets in an accident, causing a rush of adrenaline. She struggles at work and, facing a deadline, turns in a product that others find reason to criticize. At home at the end of the day, she drops down on the couch, leans back, and hears a crash of shattering plates from the kitchen where her child knocked knocked a filled glass of milk onto the floor. She snaps at the child, showing uncharacteristic anger and frustration.

Hursthouse wants us to note that the right action is what the agent would characteristically do - not what she would do under these extreme circumstances when "she is not herself".

Yet, we do hold that people are morally responsible even for their uncharacteristic actions.

Let us assume that, in her frustration, she strikes and injures the child.

When a person adopts virtues - or adopts good desires and suppresses bad desires - these traits are not expected to be limited to a person's "characteristic" actions. People are expected to be aware of the fact that they may face situations in which they suffer from a lack of sleep or frustrations or other events that play with their emotions. These facts are to be counted among the "circumstances" that determine an agent's action. The description of what a virtuous person or a person with good desires "would do in the circumstances" includes circumstances of lack of sleep or frustration or other emotional stress.

Consequently, we have no need for a clause about what a person would "characteristically" do. We look at what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would actually do. If the actions of the individual do not correspond to this, then the actions of the individual are counted as wrong.

This is going to relate to the fact that the concept of "right action" and "wrong action" are tied to praise and condemnation, whose purpose is to create and reinforce good motives. It is a part of this theory that the concept of "right action" and "wrong action" is that they are statements of praise and condemnation. Furthermore, desirism accepts the claim that praise and condemnation are justified, in part, on their effects - and it is their effects on motives that matter most. If the uncharacteristic actions are beyond the reach of an agent's motives (good and bad desires), then praise and condemnation (and, with them, the use of the terms "right action" and "wrong action") become irrelevant. If, instead, they are under the influence of praise and condemnation, then even what an agent may uncharacteristically do - or do in these extreme circumstances - must be included in a general account of right action.

The aversion to striking a child to the point of causing injury, or risking injury, or - according to some very good evidence - for any reason at all - should be strong enough that it does not come to the surface even when "the circumstances" are ones of lack of sleep, intoxication, frustration, emotional distress, or any other circumstances that may cause one to act uncharacteristically. These types of actions ought to be beyond the realm of even uncharacteristic behavior.

So, I just see no reason to include a clause on characteristic behavior in this concept of right action

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Virtues and Vices versus Good and Bad Desires

Let us try this new project.

I wish to begin by examining Rosalind Hursthouse’s thesis as described in “Normative Virtue Ethics,” Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition. Edited by Russ Shafer-Landau. © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Hursthouse’s thesis is:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

My thesis:

An act is right if and only if it is the act that a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances.

The big difference, of course, is the difference between “a virtuous agent” and “having good desires and lacking bad desires.”

Hursthouse, in talking about virtues, has in mind the classic list: kindness, honesty, charity, justness, and the like. We may question whether some traits - for example, bravery, curiosity - count as virtues. A terrorist can be brave, and a gossip can be curious.

When I talk about good and bad desires, I talk about propositional attitudes. These are mental states that can be expressed in the form “agent desires that P.” Pete desires that his children are healthy and happy, Mary desires to be spoken well of by others, Susan desires that she become an astronaut.”

Aversions, on this model, can be expressed as “agent desires that not-P”. Pat desires that he not be in pain, Molly desires that she not speak in public, Sam desires that he not eat spinach.

Furthermore, desires provide agents with motivating reasons to realize states of affairs in which the proposition that identifies the object of the desire is true. A person with a desire that their child be healthy and happy is a person with a motivating reason to realize any state of affairs in which the proposition, "my children are healthy and happy" is true.

These differences may be superficial only. That would be the case if one of these systems could be reduced to the other. If "honesty" could be reduced to "an aversion to telling lies" and "parental affection" to "a desire that one's children are healthy and happy", and the same can be provided for all of the virtues, then the two systems lack any substantive difference. They are two ways of saying the same thing.

If this is the case, then every problem that has been identified for Hursthouse's thesis is a problem for my thesis as well.

There is, I think, one important difference between Hursthouse's virtues and vices and my own. This concerns the way in which a trait is identified as a virtue or vice on the one hand, or a good or bad desire on the other.

A good desire, I argue, is one that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote as a universal desire. To illustrate this concept, I take an example of a community of beings who each have an aversion to their own pain - and no other desire or aversion. They also have the capacity to create desires and aversions in others using praise and condemnation. Each person in this community has a reason to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others - and to do so by praising those who refrain from those actions and condemning those who engage in such actions. They have reason, in other words, to call actions that tend to cause pain to others "wrong" and painless alternatives "right" (since "wrong" and "right" are statements of condemnation and praise respectively).

Virtue theorists tend to identify the virtues as having some type of intrinsic value - an inherent "ought to be ness". Another view, perhaps attributable to Aristotle, is the view that a virtue has value as a means to contribute to the agent's own eudaemonea or flourishing - which itself has intrinsic value.

The theory that I am defending has no place for intrinsic values. The aversion to personal pain in this example is an evolved disposition - caused by a nervous system that evolution has engineered to produce a particular structure that has kept one's ancestors alive and reproducing - producing offspring that are themselves capable of successful reproduction. It has nothing to do with "intrinsic value". In my example, the evolved disposition to avoid pain provides the motivating reason to create in others an aversion to causing pain to others. "Intrinsic value" plays no role.

Yet, none of this argues for an essential difference between Hursthouse's virtues and vices and my own good and bad desires. It does not argue against the thesis that one can reduce "honesty" to "having an aversion to lying to others" or "friendship" as "having a desire for the company of another and an aversion to their misfortune."

And, as I said above, if such a reduction is possible (or to the degree that it is possible) any enemy of Hursthouse's is an enemy of mine.

"Enemy" may be too strong a word . . . but you get the point. I will likely have to answer objections to her thesis as if they were objections to my own.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Semester Ended

My first semester is over.

It did not go as I had wanted - particularly in terms of writing. I got bogged down in homework and, as the semester progressed, had less and less time available to write.

So . . . we try again . . . with a slightly different structure.

I need to start work on my master's thesis. I produced a paper on Sidgwick, Right Action, and Good Motives in the semester that can serve as the start of such a thesis. Next semester, I will be taking a course in the Philosophy of Law. I think I will be able to work on a paper I had already written respecting David Boonin's book on punishment. I should be able to combine the two into a larger work.

In the case of my paper on Sidgwick, I wrote from the point of view of motive utilitarianism. I argued that Sidgwick's own claims supported motive utilitarianism because statements of right and wrong are statements of praise and condemnation, and statements of praise and condemnation are used to promote good motives. Sidgwick himself argued that praise and condemnation are to be evaluated according to their usefulness, and that their usefulness is in promoting good motives. I simply added the premise that statements of right and wrong action are statements of praise and condemnation.

For the Philosophy of Law course, my paper on Boonin's book concerns a motive-utilitarian theory of punishment. This ties in quite closely to a motive-utilitarian theory of praise and condemnation - particularly given Boonin's own claim that condemnation is a necessary part of punishment. An act of punishment is an act of condemnation.

The semester is over. I have 4 weeks until the new semester begins. I will try something new.

During the break, I am going to be looking at Rosalind Hursthouse's thesis, "An act is right if and only if it is the act that a virtuous person would characteristically do in the circumstances." It is a proposition very much like the one I defend. My objective is to see if any of the objections to her version applies to my version.

Monday, December 04, 2017


I have come to the realization that someday, somehow, if humanity continues to exist, we will run out of something - something important.

I have, for a long time, thought that this thing would be energy as the universe slowly cools. However, I came to the realization recently that an eventual shortage of water seems far more likely.

For my Environmental Philosophy course, I have been studying, among other things, the mining of asteroids.

One of the value propositions concerning the mining of asteroids is the mining of water. It currently costs about $22,000 per liter to deliver water into space from earth. It may be possible to harvest water from an asteroid and deliver it to near-earth space at a much lower price.

Water makes one of the most valuable rocket propellants. You pass an electric current through water (using solar power to generate electricity) and split the water into oxygen and hydrogen. You separate them and cool them, and you have the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen that you can use to fuel rockets.

The rockets in question include not only probes - and perhaps colonization transport to Mars - but satellites. Communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit must burn fuel to hold their position. Small changes in the gravitational influences on a satellite serve to eventually pull it out of alignment, and a boost of an engine is needed to return it to position. There is also the fuel needed to get to the asteroid, mine the water, and return the water to earth orbit.

Water, when it is used as rocket fuel, (or anything used as rocket fuel, though other forms of navigation through space do exist) is a non-renewable resource. Whatever is lost out of the nozzle of a rocket is widely dissipated through the solar system, and may leave the solar system entirely.

I am not talking about some immediate short-term crisis whereby we must stop using rocket fuel immediately or we will run out by the end of the century. There are whole moons made substantially out of ice, as well as comets and asteroids. At the moment, this is not a practical concern. However, it is not at all difficult to imagine that we could burn through those resources in a lot less time than it will take for the sun to go dark.

Which invites the question, "How much time do we have?" and "What can we do to extend our life expectancy?"

We will eventually have to stop mining iron, nickel, and copper. Even asteroid mining merely postpones the inevitable. The thought that humanity (or whatever form of life we evolve into) may last far into the indefinite future may not be as likely as some of the more optimistic of us have wanted to believe.

And, ironically, it seems that the one thing that we can count on to last for billions of years, even though huge amounts of it is wasted every second, is energy. Energy is not a long-term problem, so long as the sun shines. Everything else, however, seems to be much more limited.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Non-Identity Problem

My thoughts about graduate school recently have been thoughts about how I am doing it wrong. I have been focusing too much on the student aspect. That should change.

In the realm of learning . . .

I do not think I have written on the "non-identity problem". The problem, at least in the way we are discussing it, goes as follows:

Wilma wants to conceive a child and goes to her doctor for a checkup. The doctor tells her that she has a rare condition whereby, if she were to conceive a child, the child would be born blind. However, he can provide her with a prescription that will cure the disease. After about two months on this medication, she will be able to conceive a child that would - all else being equal - have normal eyesight.

This example comes from David Boonin's book, [I]The Non-Identity Problem and the Ethics of Future People{/I] (who is also the professor who is teaching the ethics class during this three-week period).

Wilma decides not to take the pills and to have a child without waiting, even though the child will be born blind.

Did Wilma do anything wrong.

The vast majority of the people say that her actions are immoral. She did something wrong.

However, Derek Parfit noticed a problem with this.

Who did Wilma harm with her actions?

We will assume for the sake of argument that her choice puts no additional burdens on other people. This means that no other people have any reason to condemn her for her actions.

It is also the case that her choice did not harm her child (whom Boonin names "Pebbles"). If she had taken the pills and waited, Pebbles would have never been born. Instead, some other child (Boonin names "Rocks") would have been conceived two months later from a different sperm and a different egg. So, Pebbles will be born blind and will have to deal with the handicap. But, as Pebbles gets older she should come to realize that there was no way in which she could have been born without being blind - she was destined either to be blind from birth or to not be born. All things considered, she judges that her life is worth living. It would have been a lot better if she could have seen the world, but what she had was better than nothing.

Of course, Rocks has no claim on Wilma. To say that Rocks had a right to be born would be to say that it would have been wrong for Wilma to go childless.

So, why is Wilma's act wrong if nobody was harmed?

Actually, desirism does provide an account of how Wilma's act can be wrong, if certain additional facts hold.

Desirism states that an act is wrong iff a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have performed that act in those circumstances. (Good desires tend to fulfill other desires, while bad desires tend to thwart other desires. A desire is fulfilled iff the proposition that represents the object of the desire is made or kept true; thwarted if the proposition that is the object of the desire is made or kept false.)

Wilma's actions may be that of a person who has a callous disregard for the happiness of those around her. In fact, we are often invited to think that it is the case that Wilma made her choice merely because she did not want to be bothered by the inconvenience of taking the pills. She has no interest in whether the people around her are happy or sad, whether they are fulfilling their desires or struggling. She just doesn't care about these things. She is indifferent to having a daughter who must struggle with blindness versus a son who would be able to experience the pleasures and conveniences of sight.

If it must be the case - if a person who cared about the happiness and successes of those around her would never have opted to have a blind child over a (different) sighted child - desirism would say that her act was wrong. A person with good desires would care about whether those around her are happy and successful in achieving their ends, or struggling with a serious handicap such as blindness, and thus (except in some extraordinary circumstance) would have taken the pills in order to have a child that she could experience as being happier and more successful in realizing his ends.

But, is it the case that a person with good desires would necessarily have selected to have a child that lacks a certain benefit when that person could have had a child that had the benefit?

Consider Fred.

Fred is white. Fred has a choice. He could either marry a black person and have a mixed-race child, or he could marry a white person and have a white child. The mixed-race child will be missing all of the advantages of white privilege. This will effect everything from how the child is treated by others, whether his accomplishments in school will be properly recognized, the ability to get into a good college, his ability to get a job (particularly a higher-level management job) and to have his contributions and abilities respected and recognized. The white child, in contrast, would have these advantages.

So, if it is wrong for Wilma to have a child that lacks the advantages of sight instead of opting to have a child who can see, it seems we must also declare that it is wrong for Fred to marry a black person and to have a mixed-race child that lacks the advantages of white privilege rather than to have a white child that has white privilege.

Yet, in this comparison case, not only do we declare that Fred's actions are not wrong, we turn our wrath on those who would condemn Fred.

I have never been a fan of moral intuitions, so the fact that intuitions conflict does not concern me. The fact that is relevant here is that the existence of white parents in mixed-race relationships tells is that the claim that only a person with a callous disregard for the interests of others would have a child that lacks certain advantages. I know of no evidence that white parents of mixed-race children demonstrate a strong lack of interest in the degree to which others are happy and successful.

There are, I argue, two ways in which somebody can be interested in the happiness and success of others.

One way of showing this concern is by surrounding oneself with happy and successful people and shunning all others. In this way, Wilma is being told to bring Rocks into the world and to shun Pebbles, as her handicap and the struggles and unhappiness that come with it goes counter to the plan of surrounding oneself with happy and successful people.

The other takes people as they are and tries to add some happiness to their lives. This is the type of person who would volunteer to work in a soup kitchen or in a hospital, or even travel to parts of the world where people need help in order to provide goods and services. This is the type of person who becomes a doctor or a social working - people who are not in the business of surrounding themselves only with others who are happy and successful. The white parent of the mixed-race child simply accepts the child, and then works to raise that child - whether blind or sighted, white or of mixed-race - as well as possible.

The intuition seems to come from a hidden assumption that Wilma must be showing a callous disregard for the happiness and success of those around her. This is an unwarranted assumption in the case of white parents of mixed-race children, and we have no call to make this assumption about Wilma either - not without additional evidence to the contrary. Even if we find this evidence, the specific act of choosing to have Pebbles rather than Rocks is not "an act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have done". Instead, we can well imagine the person with good desires and lacking bad desires thinking, "The only options for Pebbles are to be born blind or not at all. I am going to give her a chance at life. It may not be as good a life as the life a sighted person would have, but I will do what I can to make sure that it is a life she will consider it worthwhile to have lived."

Friday, October 27, 2017

Social Engineering

Our readings in Environmental Philosophy this week were largely examples in which the author proposes a plan for how to save the planet. All of the plans under consideration seem to follow the same two-step approach.

Step 1: Identify a model set of beliefs and sentiments.

Step 2: Make them universal

These views are common enough. More precisely, the author thinks we all need to value something (e.g., nature) a particular way way and, once we all adopt this particular attitude or point of view.

Another way of describing these sets of proposals is as social engineering projects. The author proposes re-engineering society, creating a type of person in a type of culture that the author suggests will produce or realize some sort of ideal (or at least significantly better) state. The suggestions that we are considering here are particularly concerned with engineering a new relationship between humans and nature. This seems to require also engineering new relationships between and among humans.

Social engineering has certain similarities with geoengineering. The geoengineer wishes to deal with environmental problems such as climate change by rebuilding the physical world. An example of a geoengineering project is to deal with climate change by creating some type of solar shade that blocks or reflects back some of the solar radiation reaching the surface of the earth, rather than converting that energy into heat. Social engineering seeks to produce less global warming by re-engineering humans (and, with them, human society) so that we produce less climate change.

By means of illustration, note that the following two policies also aim to change behavior. However, they do not seek to re-engineer humans.

A "carbon tax" would seek to cause humans to behave in ways that produce fewer greenhouse gasses. However, it does so by recognizing the fact that humans have they are tend to look at the personal costs of performing an activity in determining whether to engage in that activity. By increasing the cost of engaging in activities that produce greenhouse gasses, a carbon tax seeks to provide people with an incentive to consider other non-greenhouse-gas producing alternatives.

Also, investing in new technology such as more efficient solar power systems is not a social engineering project. Neither is it a geoengineering project. It is simply the opposite of a carbon tax. Where a carbon tax makes greenhouse-gas-generating activities more expensive, subsidies and investments in solar power aim to make non-greenhouse-gas-generating activities less expensive (and, thereby, more attractive).

Social engineering, in contrast, aims to change people - to change their values and dispositions of behavior.

Unfortunately, social engineering projects face a dilemma. They seem to be limited to two possible futures.

Possible Future 1: Only a very small fraction of the people adopt them. There are countless social engineering suggestions in the market of ideas, and different systems appeal to different people. While the proponents of any particular social engineering ideal speak of the global benefits we would harvest if everybody adopted this ideal of beliefs and sentiments, it is not realistic to expect that people will actually adopt any one of the countless competing ideals of beliefs and sentiments.

Possible Future 2: Hope for a Constantine. The only times in human history in which large populations have made a unified cultural shift of this magnitude has been when a powerful leader has commanded the shift. The paradigm example is when the Roman emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion on the Roman Empire. In more general terms, an individual embraces one of these social engineering projects, makes himself a virtual dictator over a large population, and then tries to impose this social engineering project on that population. Examples of this kind of change include Lenin's attempt to form a communist Soviet Union and Mao Tso Tung's "Great Leap Forward" in China. The results have been less than ideal. One of the significant problems is that people, on their own, tend to adopt a number of different and competing projects, and the Constantine figure needs to force them to adopt his favorite.

Those who oppose geoengineering on the basis of the possibility that they could produce a large disaster should, given human history, be just as suspicious of attempts at social engineering.

This is not to say that it is impossible to argue for some type of global standard.

To illustrate the possibility, I would like to suggest imagining a community made up of people who have only one concern - an aversion to their own individual pain. Let us also imagine that these creatures can also adopt new concerns if they are praised for actions consistent with that concern and condemned for actions inconsistent with that concern. Consequently, if these people are praised for actions that tend to avoid causing pain to others, and condemned for actions that tend to cause pain to others, this will cause them to create an aversion to causing pain to others. This aversion becomes an end in itself. That is to say, people come to avoid causing pain to others "because I do not want to" and not because it serves some other end.

In this society we can see that people generally have a reason to use praise and condemnation to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others. The motivation behind this project rests with each individual's aversion to personal pain, giving them a reason to cause in others an aversion to causing pain. This, given the facts of the case, give them reason to praise and condemn behavior accordingly.

By means of this method, we can argue that we have reason to promote such things as aversions to lying, breaking promises, failing to repay debts, assaults, taking property without consent, rape, and murder. The case needs to be made whether these authors can defend their own projects using the same type of argument. They do not seem to make many steps in that direction.