Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Moral Analogies: to Math, to Beauty, and to Location

172 days until the start of class

And the philosophy department is starting to post its course offerings for the fall semester. One course posted so far.

PHIL 5240/ENVS 5240: Seminar in Environmental Philosophy: Professor Hale: This course is structured to address underlying theoretical concerns of environmental scientists and policy analysts, as well as to bring environmental philosophers “back down to earth.” As such, it aims to strike a balance between the abstract and the practical. Because of its unique student composition -- approximately one third environmental scientists, one third environmental policy and law students, and one third philosophers -- discussions tend toward “on the ground” issues. They follow a trajectory away from big picture views toward more nuanced analytical philosophy. Nevertheless, all of the readings are firmly rooted in environmental philosophy.

For somebody with some experience in the science of climate change and the economics of negative externalities, this may be an interesting class. We will see what other options are available.

In addition . . .

For the 3rd section on the Philosophy 5100 class, I have done something slightly different. I went through all of the articles assigned for that section to get an overview of the subject matter, then went back to the beginning to study each of the articles in the light of that context.

This next section has to do with the difference between moral rationalism and moral sentimentalism. The first paper in the readings ("Moral Rationalism vs. Moral Sentimentalism: Is Morality More Like Math or Beauty?", Michael B. Gill, Philosophy Compass 2/1 (2007): 16–30) attempted to distinguish between these two sets of moral theories by the analogies they use.

Moral rationalists compare morality to mathematics, where certain truths (e.g., that 2 + 2 = 4 or that it is wrong to kill an innocent person) are known intuitively and must necessarily be true in all cases. There are simply these self-evident moral facts.

Moral sentimentalists compare morality to beauty. They hold that moral claims express the sentiments of the person making them the way that aesthetic claims express . It may not express their immediate sentiments, but the sentiments that the agent would have if fully informed of the matter. However, even in this case, rightness or wrongness depends on the sentiment that the assessor would have in those circumstances.

I object to both of these views.

The moral rationalists postulate a type of reason that does not exist. There is nothing in the real world that commands that we do it - there are only the likes and dislikes that evolution has given us or that we learned through an interaction between our (malleable) brains and our environments.

And the sentimentalist idea goes contrary to the idea of morality. On the sentimentalist view, if I have an attitude of approval of slavery, then slavery is morally permissible. If my brain is so organized that I am comfortable - or even feel obligated - to torture young children then the torture of young children would be permissible, or even obligatory. I object that, while the sentimentalist may well be talking about something that actually happens, it is not something that we would identify as "morality".

I prefer an analogy that is different from each of these. Instead of an analogy to math or to beauty, I compare morality to location.

In virtue of having an aversion to pain, I stand in a particular relationship to states of affairs in which the proposition, "I am in pain" is true. My desire provides me with a reason to prevent the realization of such a state. This relationship - and others like them - are real. One cannot accurately explain or predict the behavior of physical matter in the universe without reference to these relationships between desires and states of affairs. For example, this is the best way to explain the fact that I tend to behave in ways that will prevent the realization of states of affairs in which I am in pain.

Not only are these relationships real, propositions that state that I stand in a particular relationship to such states of affairs are objectively true or false. This is a cognitivist theory of value.

In the case of location, I can know the location of something relative to me. However, I can also know its location relative to something else - or somebody else. I can know where Denver is relative to where I am, and relative to where my brother is. I am not limited to making reports only relative to myself.

The same is true with respect to value. I can know the states of affairs that I have reason to create or prevent - but I can also know the states of affairs that others have reason to create or prevent. Armed with this knowledge, I can purchase my father a gift, or I can prevent my neighbors from inflicting damage on my property. Relationships between states of affairs and desires not my own are very important, in many cases.

Also, when we talk about location, we can talk about the position of aggregates of things. We can talk about such things as the center of mass, the geographic center of the United States, or the barycenter of a solar system. Similarly, when we talk about relationships between states of affairs and desires we can talk about all of the desires of an individual, or the desires of a group of individuals. We can, for example, decide which vacation is the best for the whole family, or come to an agreement as to the toppings to put on a pizza.

In seeing value as a real property concerning the relationships between states of affairs and desires which we can talk about using objectively true propositions, we can further note that we can talk about the value of having particular desires. We can make objectively true statements about the desires that we have reason to promote or to discourage.

This, in turn, allows us to talk about relationships between states of affairs and the desires we should have - the desires that people generally have reason to promote. These claims would also be objectively true or false.

The location analogy gives us what we want from both the math analogy and the beauty analogy. From the beauty analogy, it draws the fact that value claims depend on desires or the affective states of individuals. From the math analogy, we get objectively true or false moral claims that are knowable and can be debated rationally.

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