Friday, January 06, 2017

G.E. Moore on The Limits of Moral Knowledge Regarding Duty

Classes start in 233 days.

I have just posted a new article over at the desirism group in Facebook. This concerns Hume's Is/Ought distinction.

After posting a response to the claim that desirism commits the 'naturalistic fallacy', I thought that one of the things that people may want is a response to the claim that desirism violates the is/ought distinction. It does not - because the is/ought distinction is not applicable to hypothetical imperatives.

A hypothetical imperative contains one or more desires in its premises, and an 'ought' conclusion that can be translated into an 'is' statement - "is such as to fulfill the desires in question". The "desires in question", of course, are the desires written into the premises. There is no fallacy here because the conclusion is actually an "is" statement, and deriving "is" from "is" creates no difficulty.

The paper, of course, goes into much more detail.

Note that this is a first draft that I will likely be rewriting it in the near future. However, I thought I would still post the draft to get feedback that I can incorporate any comments into the rewrite.

In writing that draft, I found myself admitting to a fact that I have been ignoring. The one thing that a defender of desirism needs more than anything else - the one thing I have not adequately provided - is that "opening move". If we are going to continue to imagine the discussion to be like a card came, and the game being played is "desirism", then the person defending desirism needs a first move.

I have actually started that document - which I have named "morality from the ground up". But I need to create a priority to finishing it.

Consequently, I am going to truncate my document on "A Template for a Rebellion" - give it another round of quick edits, and get it posted for comments. Then, I will turn my attention to "Morality from the Ground Up" and get a draft of that posted on the discussion group.

On the subject of what I am reading, I have moved on to W.D. Ross The Right and the Good. I will not be able to do as much as I would like with this book because, try as I might, I have not been able to find an electronic copy. It seems only to exist in book form. I would rather have something that I can search electronically.

Meanwhile, I still have things I want to say about G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica, particularly its Chapter 5 on the ethics of conduct. Moore has a long argument where he points out that we can know very little about the consequences of an action. Those consequences go on into the indefinite future. Not only do we need to know what the consequences of an action are, but we need to know the value of those consequences. And we need to know this not only with respect to the act being evaluated, but with respect to all of the alternative actions since we need to make a judgment as to which action would produce the best overall consequences.

The most we can know, according to Moore, is that a particular type of action generally produces good consequences (or bad consequences) in the short term.

When we identify these "types of actions that produce the best consequences in the short term", Moore thinks that we identify our duties. We can know that telling the truth, keeping promises, and helping those in dire need generally produce good consequences over that period of time where we can know and attribute those consequences. The claim that there is a duty to tell the truth, keep promises, and help those in dire need generally recognize that, so long as people abide by these rules, we can expect to produce more good than if we abandon these rules.

Desirism would use this fact to argue that, if a type of act generally produces good consequences, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a desire to perform acts of that type. And if an act type tends to cause harm than people generally have many and strong reasons to create in people generally aversions to performing acts of that type.

Moore does not talk about creating motives. However, he does talk about adopting rules to perform good types of actions and not performing bad types of actions - rules that we should not break even if, in a given case, we judge that breaking the rule would produce more good. The reasons include the fact that we do not want to get into a habit of breaking the rules when we think it will produce the most good because we are disposed to think that breaking a rule will produce the most good for everybody when it, in fact, only produces the most good for ourselves.

Desirism would argue for creating an aversion to that which Moore would say that we should have a rule against. The aversion will keep people from performing an act of that type even if it would otherwise benefit oneself, the same way that a person with a fear of flying will avoid flying even when it would be useful, or a person may avoid going to the dentist even when going to the dentist would produce more good than harm. Similarly, a person with a desire to help others would do so even when it fails to produce an overall benefit to oneself in the same way that a person with a desire to eat chocolate cake will eat chocolate cake even when it produces no overall benefit for oneself.

None of these considerations end up in Moore's discussion. However, he does provide a strong argument to the effect that the most we can know is whether a type of action generally produces good or bad consequences. Fortunately for desirism, that is all we need to know.

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