Friday, July 21, 2017

Praise, Blame, and Matters of Character

I need to add a bunch of brief notes to catch up on things I have learned.

(1) I have been praising Rosalind Hursthouse's defense of the thesis that a right act is the act that a virtuous person would perform. On the negative side, Hursthouse apparently links virtues to the survival of the species - as if species survival has intrinsic value. My own view is that nothing has intrinsic value. What gives a character trait (desire) it's value is its tendency to fulfill other desires.

(2) I have learned that there is a philosopher, Julia Driver, who defends "virtue consequentialism". However, she seems to hold the view that the relevant consequences consist of maximizing "intrinsic value". Here, too, since there is no such thing as intrinsic value, a virtue cannot be that which maximizes something that does not exist. I need to read her book and discover more details.

(3) The book, Questions of Character, edited by Iskra Fileva (my faculty advisor) contains an article,

(4) This book contains another article, "Character and Blame in Hume and Beyond" by Antti Kauppinen. Kauppinen discusses the idea that blameworthiness concerns a defect in character. A part of this discussion is on the idea that blame, condemnation, and punishment aim at improving the character. However, Kauppinen focuses solely on changing the attitudes of the agent. There is no mention of the use of punishment to promote attitudes generally.

It may be more accurate to sat that Kauppinen attributes to Hume a concern with changing the attitudes of the person blamed. I need to go back to Hume and see if this is correct - if Hume made any claims about changing the attitudes of people generally. This possibility suggests that there will be cases where condemnation has little effect on changing the character of the one condemned, but can still be justified by its more general effects.

Kauppinen raises three problems for a thesis that bases blameworthiness heavily on having a defective character.

(4a) Voluntariness. People are only blameworthy for that which is under their control. Their character is not under their control. Therefore, it is inappropriate to hold somebody blameworthy on the basis of their character.

Desirism (and Hume, according to Kauppinen) simply deny that "voluntary control" is relevant to blameworthiness. In fact, the only sense that we can make of "voluntary control" is that the action springs from the person's character - from the person. Desirism goes further and argues that the reason to be concerned with what comes from a person's character (malleable desires) is that condemnation and punishment (as well as reward and praise) aim to alter the character traits. We see what springs from a person's character, determine whether the character needs modifying, and then modify those traits using reward and punishment (and praise and condemnation).

(4b) Moral luck. The degree to which we praise or blame somebody depends not only on their character traits but on consequential moral luck. A paradigm example involves two people who leave a bar to drive home. Both are intoxicated. Both drift off of the road. One happens to hit and kill a child, the other does not. We blame the person who hits the child more than we blame the person who did not.

For a long time, I held to the view that we should take the average risk of an action and judge the character trait on the basis of this average risk - and blame all people equally. However, then I came to the realization that luck happens. Two people are equally concerned with planning for their retirement. They both invest the same percentage of their income, they both get the same income. However, as it turns out, the investments that one makes does better than the investments that another makes. Because of compounded interest, a small percentage difference each year turns into a significant difference over time. One person ends up $400,000 wealthier than the other. Or, in another case, two people are diligent about protecting their health. They both eat well, exercise, and avoid harmful activities such as smoking. Yet, one gets cancer and the other does not.

Luck happens. If condemnation takes into consideration moral luck, we will still end up with an average condemnation that is the same as it would be if we were to try to go through all the math and condemn all people equally. Furthermore, this "luck" method will automatically include changed consequences due to changed circumstances. It will automatically lower condemnation for an activity that becomes less harmful due to advanced technology, and increase condemnation for actions that become more harmful. We still have the effect of impacting the relevant desires/sentiments/character traits to a degree proportional to its tendency to produce benefit or harm.

(4c) Out-of-character actions. We blame people for actions that are out-of-character. A person is tired, and she snaps at a neighbor for what was a slight irritation that she would normally let pass - that a good person would normally not raised such a fuss about. We still blame her. She still owes the neighbor an apology. If her actions caused actual harm, she would owe compensation for harms done and be subject to some level of punishment. Yet, this is not how she characteristically behaves.

Here, the argument will be that the disposition to fly off the handle when one is tired or stressed is one of their character traits. People have many and strong reasons to promote in others a disposition to control their tempers even in times of stress or distraction. Consequently, we have reason to condemn people for whom this threshold is rather low and to encourage them to make it higher. This is still a case of condemning and potentially punishing people based on their character - with a dash of moral luck thrown in.

This last point is relevant to another objection being raised against all moral theory, which is situationalism. Researchers have shown that people are disposed to behave more or less morally. For example, ask somebody for money when there is the smell of fresh baked bread in the air and they will tend to be more generous. Conversely, have a person make a judgment about an action when they are in a room littered with junk and they will tend to give a harsher judgment. Our behavior - even behavior commonly attributed to "character" - is under the influence of outside forces.

Again, this does not change the fact that we have reason to use reward/praise and punishment/condemnation to promote more charity in those circumstances. There is still a difference between the person who will give $5 when there is no smell of baked bread in the air and $10 when there is, as opposed to the person who gives $10 when there is not and $20 when there is. These are the types of facts that determine the reasonableness of rewarding/praising and punishing/condemning.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Korsgaard: Two Value Distinctions

The decision to return to graduate school has paid another dividend.

A graduate student at the University of Colorado, Zak Kopeikin, pointed me to "Two Distinctions in Goodness" by Christine Korsgaard.

This article identifies the same distinction that I wrote about in A Test for Intrinsic Value.

She defines "intrinsic value" as something where the value is found entirely in that which has value - as a property that supervenes on its natural properties. She contrasts this with what she calls "final value" which is the value that something has as an end. Final value or end value is distinguished from instrumental value or value as a means. Intrinsic value is contrasted with extrinsic value.

If we adopt Korsgaard's terminology, then I would argue that intrinsic value does not exist.

"Final values" (or "ends") exist, but our ends have been subject to a few hundred million years of evolutionary pressure. We are disposed to have those ends that tended to promote evolutionary fitness in our ancestors.

Here is another dividend from returning to school. Shannon Street developed this argument in detail in Street, S., 2006, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies, 127: 109–66.

However, there are two problems with Street's argument.

First, she took herself to be arguing against "realism". This would be true if one is talking about "realism" with respect to intrinsic values.

However, this leaves one with the mistaken belief that values themselves are not "real" - that we must be an anti-realist about value. This is not the case. One can, instead, be a "realist" about non-intrinsic values. That is to say, one can still be a "realist" about final values. And, in fact, that is what I am and that is what I defend.

The second problem with Street's argument is that she took moral values to be - in effect - genetic. They are dispositions that we have evolved to have. I have taken this to be a contradiction. To talk about a moral value grounded on genes is like talking about round squares or married bachelors. It is the very nature of moral language that it has to do with what is learned - what is acquired through interaction with the environment.

We have also evolved to have malleable brains, which means, in part, that interaction with the environment can alter out ends. Yet, even the mechanisms by which experience alters ends is subject to natural selection, disposing our interactions with the environment to alter our ends in ways that promoted the genetic replication of our ancestors in their environment.

Each of us is a part of each other's environment. As a result, each of us has the capacity to influence the desires of others - the "ends" of others - the "final values" of others. The tools for doing this are reward and punishment, praise and condemnation.

At this point, we can introduce claims that Jesse Prinz made about "emotional conditioning" - social institutions that cause individuals to acquire certain emotional sentiments with respect to certain states of affairs. In effect, this is the teaching of moral value. But, here, Prinz makes a mistake - stating correctly that morality is a socially conditioned response, but neglecting the fact that people have reasons to promote certain emotionally conditioned responses and discouraging others. We can take certain responses and say, "It would be a good idea of everybody had this one." There are others where it makes sense to say, "It would be a good idea if nobody had that one." And there is a very large set where it makes sense to say, "Well, we have no particularly strong reason to promote this universally or to promote its extinction." This gives us an objective account of moral obligation, prohibition, and non-obligatory permission.

I like how the various parts of these readings are coming together into a more developed philosophy. Soon, this may even grow into a book.

Well, in that book there may be an opportunity to talk about these "tests for intrinsic value". This is the discussion with Zak Kopeikin, who is interested in assessing a couple of tests for intrinsic value. I do not believe that intrinsic value exists. Therefore, I do not believe that we can have a test for intrinsic value.

I am wondering if the tests that Kopeikin wants to examine are actually tests for "final value" or for the ends of particular agents. It is possible - even likely - that we have some common ends - particularly ends that contributed to the evolutionary sense of our biological ancestors. It would be interesting to examine those tests as tests of final ends to see how far that trail can take one.

Just to draw this back into desirism - these "ends" or "final values" are what I have traditionally called that which "desired-as-end" (to distinguish it from that which "desired-as-means"). A desire is a propositional attitude that can take the form "agent desires that P," which gives "final value" to any state of affairs in which 'P' is true. Realizing a state of affairs in which 'P' is true is the "final value" that is created by any given desire.

This easily handles something like G.E. Moore's case in which a person may choose that a beautiful planet exists even if there is no person who can enjoy it. This can be accounted for by a desire that a beautiful planet exist (or that a beautiful thing exist). This desire assigns a final value to any state in which a beautiful planet exists - and provides the agent with a reason to act (and with motivation to act) so as to realize such a state.

It does not matter that nobody will actually experience the beautiful planet. A "desire that somebody experience a beautiful planet" is not the same desire as the desire that a beautiful planet exists. The latter assigns an end value to any state in which a beautiful planet exists. The former only assigns value to a state in which a beautiful planet exists and there is somebody who is appreciating it as a beautiful planet.

So, all of this, with some tweaks, sanding, and polish, can me shown to fit into a coherent defense of desirism.

Things are looking good.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Action Guidingness: Virtue Theory vs. Desirism

Rosalind Hursthouse defines a "right action" as:

P.r. An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances. Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 355-356). Kindle Edition.

Desirism, I dare say, has a more complex account of "right action". Desirism recognizes that actions are generally placed in one of three categories; that of obligation, prohibition, and non-obligatory permission. With this three-part dichotomy in mind, desirism categorizes actions as follows:

(1) An act is obligatory iff it is what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would characteristically do in the circumstances.

(2) An act is prohibited iff it is what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would characteristically not do in the circumstances.

(3) An act is permissible but not obligatory iff it is what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires neither would nor would not do in the circumstances depending on the agent's other interests.

There are some things worth noting on the desirism account.

Originally, my idea is that a wrong action was the action that a person with bad desires would do under the circumstances. That seemed to have a type of symmetry about it. However, that simply is not correct. A person can perform a wrong action even if she has no bad desires. The prime example I have used is that of negligence. The truck driver who drives when she is too tired has no bad desire. She just wants to get to her destination. It is her lack of a good desire - a lack of concern for the welfare of other people on the road that she might harm if she falls asleep behind the wheel - that makes her action immoral. To handle this type of case, wrong action is not that which a person with bad desires would do. It is that which a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not do.

Second, there are some desires that people have little reason to make universal. In fact, there are some desires where people generally have reason to promote and encourage a variety of different tastes and attitudes. This is because a population with diverse interests in these areas have less competition and conflict. When we eat chicken, my wife likes the white meat while I like the dark meat. Our interests are in harmony. Each of us gets what we like, and there is no conflict. In matters ranging from what to eat, what to wear, what to do for entertainment, who to love, what to read, and what profession to go into, there are few reasons to promote a common interest, and many reasons to promote a variety of interests. This, then, accounts for the category of non-obligatory permission.

In On Virtue Ethics, Hursthouse has a narrower conception of non-obligatory permission.

She brings up the idea of a "positive moral dilemma". A regular moral dilemma is a case where a person must make a choice where both options are those which a moral agent would reject. A positive moral dilemma is a case where virtue theory does not give the agent a clear choice among two or more positive outcomes.

Hursthouse uses the case of a mother who is obligated to buy a present for her child. Virtue does not give her any reason to choose among two possible options. Let us say that she is making a choice between present A and present B. The mother cannot determine what present to get by looking at virtue theory. The virtuous person would not necessarily choose A over B or B over A. Consequently, the agent, according to this objection, is left without action guidance. This, then, identifies a defect with virtue theory - it cannot guide action.

Maybe it is odd to say that they both do what is right-neither action, after all, is required or obligatory-but certainly each acts well. Note here that saying only that each does what is permissible fails to capture that fact, and thereby fails to do justice to our two agents. What they do merits more in the way of assessment, for they do not do what is merely permissible, but act generously and hence well. Rosalind Hursthouse. On Virtue Ethics (Kindle Locations 882-884). Kindle Edition.

This seems a bit excessive.

A mother has an obligation to take care of her children - to feed them. She goes to the store. There are shelves filled with various options regarding what to feed the child. It would be odd to describe each and every trip to the store to be an instance of a positive moral dilemma. She must choose clothes for them, and decide on a doctor. She must decide on a career for herself. Life seems to be filled with positive moral dilemmas on this account.

Desirism would simply describe these options as morally permissible. Now, these morally permissible actions exist in an environment where are are also impermissible options. Refusing to feed one's children is morally impermissible, as is refusing to take care of their health. Killing them and eating them are also morally impermissible. The fact that there are morally impermissible options does not imply that all permissible options constitute a positive moral dilemma. They are cases where the parent is permitted to appeal to desires that need not be universalized across a population in deciding among several options.

One of the merits of desirism, I would argue, is that it makes sense of the fact that we have such a large number of morally permissible actions. Nearly everything we do in the day is one of several morally permissible options. My writing this blog post is simply one of a large set of morally permissible actions available to me that includes spending some time playing a computer game, watching television, listening to a podcast episode, writing a novel, or taking a nap.

It is odd at best to argue that a moral theory is not action-guiding if it is not telling an agent what to do every moment of every day. If this is what virtue theory (or desirism) must do to prove that it is sufficiently action-guiding, then I would argue that a failure to be action-guiding in this sense is not a serious defect. In fact, it is no defect at all.

A Test for Intrinsic Value

A recent email exchange with a fellow graduate student has caused me to look at the idea of "intrinsic value".

This graduate student presented an argument concerning G.E. Moore's test for intrinsic value. In response to this, I asked the question "what kind of intrinsic value are you testing for?"

There are two types of intrinsic value that one can be concerned with.

Type 1 intrinsic value is best described as what J.L. Mackie called "objective, intrinsic prescriptivity". It is a power, within certain states of affairs, that inherently calls people to realize that which has this value.

The problem with any test for this type of value is that it does not exist. Testing for intrinsic value of this type is like testing for angels or ghosts. Whatever it is one is testing for, it is not "objective intrinsic prescriptivity". Instead, one has, at best, found something real that one then misdiagnosis as "objective intrinsic prescriptivity".

Type 2 intrinsic value comes from Aristotle and is best understood in relationship to "instrumental value". One wants money so that one can buy some water. One wants water because one wants to quench one's thirst. And why does one want to quench one's thirst? Well, it is the nature of being thirsty that it motivates the agent to realize a state where this condition no longer exists - it motivates the agent to get something to drink. Why quench one's thirst? There is no answer to this question. "I am thirsty and that is all there is to it."

We may understand this type of intrinsic value as the ends of intentional action. The previous acts - the buying the bottle of water and even drinking from the bottle of water are both means to an end. The end is to quench one's thirst - to bring about a state in which "I am thirsty" is no longer true.

This type of intrinsic value exists. However, there is no good reason to divorce this state from the mental states of the actor.

G.E. Moore rejects the idea that we value only those things that give us pleasant experiences (and dislike unpleasant experiences). When Henry Sidgwick said that nothing beautiful can have value independent of somebody's contemplation of it, Moore objected that this was not true.

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful. Imagine it as beautiful as you can; put into it whatever on this earth you most admire—mountains, rivers, the sea; trees, and sunsets, stars and moon. Imagine these all combined in the most exquisite proportions, so that no one thing jars against another, but each contributes to the beauty of the whole. And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. Such a pair of worlds we are entitled to compare: they fall within Prof. Sidgwick’s meaning, and the comparison is highly relevant to it. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other. Well, even so, supposing them quite apart from any possible contemplation by human beings; still, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance.

Now, we are often faced with a false dilemma, and I think Moore presents his case in this way. We have two options. Either the existence of this beautiful planet has objective, intrinsic prescriptivity, or the existence of the planet without anybody to contemplate its beauty has no value whatsoever.

There is a third option.

An agent can desire that a beautiful world exists. This desire would be quite distinct from the desire that a beautiful world exist and that there is some person who can enjoy the contemplation of it. The person with a desire that a beautiful world exists quite simply has nothing more than an internal disposition to realize a state of affairs where "a beautiful world exists" is true. This proposition can be true without it also being the case that there is a person around to contemplate it. Consequently, this desire can motivate an agent to choose to realize such a state. It is not at all irrational for such an agent to hold that it is better that such a world exists - that they would choose the realization of such a state - over the available competitor.

However, these desires that provide for the ends of intentional action need not be the same for each and every individual. In fact, they are not. Even when it comes to the aversion to pain, each person seems to have a stronger aversion to "my own pain" than for anybody else's pain. "Relieving my pain" for agent A is not the same interest as "relieving my pain" for agent B. So, here we have an example of two different agents having two different ends for their intentional actions.

Consequently, if we are looking for a test for intrinsic value, we are looking for one of two things.

Option 1, we are looking for a test for objective, intrinsic prescriptivity. Any test of this type will fail since it is testing for something that does not exist.

Option 2, a test for the ends of intentional action. However, there is no reason to believe that every agent seeks the same ends. In fact, we have reason to believe that different agents seek different ends, as each person has a specific interest in avoiding a state in which they are in pain. Here, our tests will not necessarily - or even probably - discover something that is common across all individuals.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Punishment and Wrong Action

I had dinner with Jonathan Spelman yesterday. He's the graduate student whose PhD dissertation, Moral Obligation, Evidence, and Belief that I read about a month ago. Our conversation concerned points of disagreement about his paper.

However, there was a point of agreement that seemed to surprise Dr. Spelman. There is a chapter in which he defends the association of "wrong action" to "deserving of punishment". He actually seemed surprised that I accepted his claims here.

Today, I sent him an email explaining my support for his thesis here.


I valued our conversation last evening. I had not been able to do that in quite some time. It seemed to have gone well.

In terms of follow-up, you seemed surprised at me comment that I agreed with your claims that blameworthiness and punishment were associated with wrongdoing. I thought I would explain that position.

By way of background, recall that I present moral reasoning in terms of a moral syllogism.

(1) The moral principle.
(2) The agent's beliefs about the current situation.
(3) The right action.

I claim that right action depends on the agent's beliefs, but the moral principle does not.

Take, for example, honesty.

(1) One should tell (what one believes to be) the truth.
(2) Tim believes that Tony took the tokens from the till.
(3) The right thing for the Tim to tell the police is that Tony took the tokens from the till.

If Tim's beliefs change, then the right action changes. If the agent instead believed that Thaddeus took the tokens from the till, then the agent should say that Thaddeus took the tokens from the till.

Other examples include:

(1) Care for one's patient.
(2) Belief that drug A will relieve symptoms and B and C each have a chance of killing the patient.
(3) The right action is to give drug A.


(1) Care to prevent childhood illness.
(2) Belief that vaccines cause - and do not effectively prevent - childhood illness.
(3) The right act is to campaign against vaccinations.

NOTE: Care to prevent disease also implies that right action includes being concerned to make sure that one's beliefs are well founded. Intellectual recklessness resulting in death demonstrates a lack of compassion.

My roughly described my views at the level of principle as motive utilitarianism. Honesty and care for others are good motives - motives we have reason to encourage in virtue of their consequences.

It turns out that praise and rewards (awards) promote or strengthen desires, while condemnation and punishment promote or strengthen aversions. To create an aversion to lying, we condemn and punish the liar. To promote compassion, we praise and reward the compassionate.

However, we cannot read a person’s motives directly from their action. To determine their motives, we have to also look at what they believed at the point of action. If their beliefs and actions indicate they acted from good motives (e.g., honesty, a doctor’s concern for her patient, a person’s concern for the health of children), then we have reason to judge that the motives are those we have reason to promote (or, at least, not to inhibit). If, on the other hand, their beliefs and actions indicate that they acted from bad motives, then we have reason to respond to those actions with condemnation and punishment.

Consequently, I would agree that there is a connection between wrongdoing and reasons to condemn/punish. This is because I tie both wrongdoing and reasons to condemn/punish to bad motives.

Wrong action comes from bad motives. Bad motives are motives that tend to produce bad consequences for others. Those bad consequences are what give others reason to mold or modify those motives in the agent and other people. Condemnation and punishment act on the limbic system to mold or modify motives. Wrong action is action that people generally have reason to respond to with condemnation and punishment.

So, I am quite comfortable with linking wrong action to punishment.

In fact, if I should have reason to write on this topic, I will certainly reference and draw upon your chapter.

Richard Alonzo Fyfe

Monday, July 10, 2017

Virtue Ethics - Moral Residue

In my studies of Rosalind Hursthouse's virtue ethics, I have moved on to her 1999 book On Virtue Ethics.

In this book, Hursthouse goes into significantly more detail on what she calls "resolvable moral dilemmas".

I have written about these types of cases often. To illustrate this type of case, the examples I have relied on the most are:

A doctor is on her way to meet her father for lunch, as she promised to do, when she witnesses a child on a bike getting hit by a car. She has an obligation to give aid to the injured child. However, doing so requires that she break her promise to her father.

A parent and child are in the wilds fishing when the child is stung by a bee and begins to have an allergic reaction. The adult's vehicle will not start, but there is another vehicle parked nearby with the keys in the car. To get the child to the hospital quickly the parent needs to take the car without permission.

I have presented these in terms that Hursthouse would call "resolvable dilemmas". In the first case, the doctor ought to stop and help the injured child, even if it means breaking her promise. In the second case, the parent needs to get the child to the hospital, even if it requires borrowing the stranger's vehicle without consent. There is a right thing to do, but the right thing involves doing something that is, at the same time, wrong.

Is this a problem?

I have been arguing that desirism can handle these types of cases better than the major moral theories. This is because desirism makes sense of what Hursthouse calls "moral residue".

The doctor in the first case should have both a desire to help the injured child and an aversion to breaking her promise. These desires would cause her to want to find an option that will fulfill both obligations - to make it the case that she provides the child with whatever care she can and keep her promise. However, the situation is one in which both desires cannot be fulfilled. A morally good person - according to desirism - would have a stronger desire to provide the child with aid than to keep the promise (assuming that this was a standard lunch meeting and not, itself, vitally important to the life and health of innocent people).

The doctor would aid the child, but still feel anxiety over not being able to fulfill the desire to keep the promise. She would acknowledge this failure by apologizing for breaking the promise and offering the need to tend to the injured child as an excuse and hope for (expect) to be forgiven for the transgression.

The same story can be told of the parent who took the stranger's car to get the child to the hospital. Again, the parent would owe an obligation to get the car back to the owner as quickly as possible, or otherwise limit the inconvenience that the owner would otherwise suffer. The parent would likely owe the owner some compensation (which the owner is free to - perhaps even encouraged to - reject on the recognition that the parent did what the parent had to do).

According to Hursthouse, a majority of moral philosophers think that it is a sign of a weakness of a moral theory that it cannot provide a determined answer to all moral questions. You should be able to plug the inputs into an algorithm, crank the handle, and out on the other end comes "the right thing to do". To some degree, she does this by showing how virtue theory creates a set of "v-rules" that agents can use to crank out "the right thing to do".

However, in the realm of "resolvable dilemmas", she argues that virtue theory can - I think that the right phrase to use is "be comfortable with" - a moral residual caused by the virtue (e.g., keeping a promise) that the agent cannot honor.

I think that desirism can say a lot more about this. These "virtues" are desires, and a thwarted desire does not simply vanish. A thwarted desire persists, providing the agent with motivation to try to find some way to fulfill it. It leaves behind regret, remorse, and a sense of loss.

In this case, it is the failure to account for this moral remainder - the theory that codifies morality such that one can simply input the relevant information and crank out "the right thing to do" that fails to properly account for morality. It is inventing something that will not exist and cannot exist among humans.

Hursthouse further mentions that some deontologists and utilitarians have seen merit to this objection and have presented versions of both of these theories that can make room for a moral remainder.

Deontologists make it the effect of conflicting moral rules. Though I think there may be problems with this. If we consider, for example, the rules of a game, if the rules come into conflict, there is no "regret" over the rule not followed. We simply build an exception into the rules and continue with the game.

Utilitarians have some room to maneuver. A utilitarian can talk about how a disposition that leads to regret in a given circumstance can promote utility overall - how a disposition that creates moral remorse when a promise is broken can make promise-keeping more reliable overall. I have sympathies for this view, as can be found in the fact that my original name for desirism was "desire utilitarianism." However, I was later forced to admit that desirism is not a utilitarian theory - or even a consequentialist theory. The value of a sentiment is not found in its capacity to 'maximize utility' or in any list of consequences, but in its harmonious relationship to other desires.

Desirism, therefore, can explain some of the features of virtue theory that Hursthouse can only describe.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Global Poverty: Against Economic Empires

The global poor, and anybody who cares about the global poor, has many and strong reasons to condemn those global wealthy whose goal is to build massive economic fiefdoms.

To direct this criticism to the "top 1%" or "billionaires" would make it a bigoted assertion. Criticism of a named group is only legitimate if one is criticizing a defined characteristic of the named group. (See: Criticizing an Idea.) Many people in the named groups "top 1%" and "billionaires" are decent people. They are taking active steps to direct their large stockpiles of accumulated wealth to help the global poor.

However, there are some - morally contemptible people - in this class who are more interested in preserving and expanding their economic empires. They seek to accumulate as much wealth as possible. They regard the life, health, liberty, and well-being of other human beings as having little or no significance when held up against the opportunity to accumulate personal wealth.

People generally have many and strong reasons to morally condemn these economic emperors.

According to desirism, a vice is a character trait that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn. This refers to actual reasons - not mere beliefs, fictions, or figments of the imagination. The aversion to pain is a real reason. Hunger and thirst provide real reasons for intentional action - reasons to praise and condemn, and to reward and punish. The value of shelter and security and the well-being of those one cares about are also real-world reasons. To please an imaginary god, or to serve an imaginary intrinsic value, are not real-world reasons for intentional action (including reward/praise or punishment/condemnation).

The vice of hoarding huge quantities of wealth and using it to establish an economic empire is a vice that there are many and strong real-world reasons to condemn and to punish. It is a vice that people generally have many and strong real-world reasons to call immoral - and a trait of character that justifies calling those who possess it evil, contemptible, moral monsters.

There is, seriously, more and stronger real-world reasons to adopt an attitude of condemnation towards these people than we have for an attitude of condemnation towards drunk drivers, rapists, and thieves. These economic emperors do far more real-world harm - are responsible for far more real-world suffering.

They tend to avoid the condemnation they deserve by using their wealth to promote attitudes other than those that real-world reasons would say are warranted. They like to cause us to believe that they have a right to their wealth (to cause suffering among others) and fill our environment with a condemnation of those who would criticize them for the harms that they cause. Thus, they fill people's heads with imaginary reasons not to condemn them that obscure and replace real-world reasons for condemnation. However, the fact that they are effective at promoting these fictions does not prevent them from being fictions.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Hursthouse's Virtue Ethics - Part 2

I am continuing with my commentary on Rosalind Hursthouse, “Normative Virtue Ethics,” from Roger Crisp,
ed., How Should One Live? (Oxford University Press, 1996), 19-33.

The last two sections of this article have to deal with conflicts and moral dilemmas.

The question being addressed is whether a virtue theory can answer the question, "What should I do?" In other words, can it be action-guiding?

Hursthouse is arguing that it can be, using the principle:

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

One problem with this answer concerns conflicts. There are many situations where different virtues can yield conflicting answers. The type of case that Hursthouse discusses involves those in which honesty would imply telling somebody the truth while kindness would suggest lying. A prime example involves the white lies that we tell to prevent hurting another person's feelings for no good reason.

A type of example I often bring up in my own writings is that of a doctor who promised to meet her father for lunch who witnesses an accident. The virtue of being trustworthy says to meet her father. The virtue of kindness says to help the people in the accident.

Another example I often bring up involves a person whose child is stung by a bee and is having an allergic reaction. His car will not start. Another car sits nearby with the keys in the ignition. Care for his child will say to take the car and get his child to the hospital, while concern for the property of others says not to do so.

Hursthouse offers a suggestion that conflicts could simply be an illusion caused by an insufficient wisdom - that a wise and experienced virtuous person would be able to make a choice and others who understood virtue would be able to determine what a virtuous person would do. She argues that this is not the option she would want to defend because she thought that genuine moral dilemmas was possible.

Desirism offers a different answer. It acknowledges that conflicts would exist and, what is more, that conflicts should exist. The behavior that agents are to perform in times of moral conflict acknowledge the conflict and the unfortunate fact that the agent could not satisfy both (or all) obligations.

For example, even the virtuous agent will experience cases when a desire to keep an appointment will clash with a desire to provide help to somebody in need. I consider a mark in favor of desirism that it accounts for cases in which conflict is actually to be expected. In this type of case, desirism says that the individual who cannot make the appointment should still be motivated to tell the person waiting for her that she cannot keep her promise. She should apologize and explain why this is the case. These actions indicate that the agent was aware of competing obligations and felt motivated to fulfill those obligations, even though she failed to do so.

A theory should not only account for the existence of conflict, but account for the ways in which conflicts can sometimes be resolved. If the amount of aid one can offer is relatively slight (e.g., emergency crews are already at the scene of the accident) and the meeting is important (her father is dealing with a significant personal tragedy and at least needs comfort and support), then the obligation to keep the promise may carry the greater weight.

If, on the other hand, the need for aid is slight (the accident victim has suffered severe injuries and there is nobody better qualified to give aid available) and the meeting is not important (she meets with her father daily), then the conflict may be settled with helping the victim. Note that virtue theory still answers the question "What should I do?" in this case - but it does not let the agent off the hook for the conflicting obligation that is left unfulfilled.

Of course, there are cases where the two virtues will be in a more balanced conflict. If it is a minor conflict than the agent can settle the difference on non-moral grounds (based on a personal preference). If it is a major conflict than it may approach the level of a genuine moral dilemma. This would be the case in a Sophie's Choice type of situation where a mother is told, "Choose which of your children you will have me kill or I will kill both."

Hursthouse fends off an objection where, in the case of a moral "tie" between virtues, the agent can casually flip a coin to make a decision. She asserts that a truly virtuous person would not be so casual about such an important decision. Desirism goes further and argues that a true moral dilemma would be one that threatened severe psychological trauma. It would be a case in which an agent had to choose between two extremely strong desires/virtues. She would be desperate for an answer and wrought with grief over the desire/virtue that was thwarted.

As I wrote above, if the conflicting virtues are not of great significance, then an individual can flip a coin or decide the case using non-virtue considerations such as personal preference.

A Definition of Moral Realism

Through a round-about series of links, I was made aware of a video that reports to be the first in a series discussing moral realism.

The video, Moral Realism Defined, does a good job of defining the term as the term tends to be used by moral philosophers.

However, I do not think that the definition is useful. Recall, language is an invention, and we should adopt those definitions that aid in the ends of communication. The current philosophical definition of "moral realism" is one that generates a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding. It should be abandoned or reformed - one of the two.

The standard definition of moral realism holds that moral values are real if they are independent of human beliefs and desires.

On this definition, I can make an easy case against moral realism. All value exists on desire. Moral value is a type of value. Therefore, moral value depends on desire. Things that depend on desire are not real. Therefore, moral value is not real.

The problem I have is with that statement that says, "things that depend on desire are not real".

Desires are real.

We use them to explain and predict the motion of bodies in the real world.

In an oft-repeated story, I put my hand on a hot metal plate when I was young. This formed second degree burns that blistered the palm and fingers on my hand. The pain that this caused explained, in party, why I put burn ointment on my hand and wrapped my hand in a bandage. It explained why I took pain relievers. There are many things that happened in the real world that would be hard to explain without reference to that pain.

Yet, "realists" want to say that this pain - the hurtfulness of this pain - was not real.

I think this is an absurd account of reality. A decent definition of realism has to account for the fact that pains such as this - that desires and aversions themselves - are as real as height, weight, age, location, blood pressure, core body temperature, and any of countless additional facts about me. Scientists can examine my pain just as they can examine my digestion. We need a better account of realism that can account for these very real entities.

I hold, as many long-time readers know, that morality consists of relationships between malleable desires and other desires. Specifically, it applies to malleable desires that can be molded through activation of the reward system - through rewards and punishments, including praise and condemnation. These relationships are what provide people with reason to praise and condemn, to reward and punish. There are desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally, and these are the core of morality.

These relationships are real. They are as real as the orbital relationship between the moon and the earth. They exist as a matter of fact. They are facts about which whole societies can be mistaken.

Yet, relationships between malleable desires and other desires depend on the existence of desires for their own existence. They are not independent of desires. The realist wants to tell me that, because of this, they are not real.

That strikes me as utter nonsense - and shows that we have need for a new definition of moral realism.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Hursthouse's Virtue Ethics - Part 1

I should start keeping track of the number of days until my Master's Thesis needs to be finalized. I do not think there is a hard due date, but I will set a date of May 15, 2019 - or 380 days from today.

In 1996, Rosalind Hursthouse defended the notion that:

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

I am going to start there.

Consequentialism, Deontology, and Virtue Ethics

The first point that Hursthouse makes is that all three types of moral theory - consequentialism, deontology, and virtue theory - can be understood as an argument consisting of three premises.

The first premise describes the nature of a right action. In the case of consequentialism, right action is action that produces the best consequences. In terms of deontology, right action is action in conformity to deontological principles. In the case of virtue theory, she argues, right action is linked to good character.

In the same way that consequentialism must then specify what counts as good consequences, and that deontology must specify what counts as the correct principles, virtue theory must then specify what counts as a virtuous agent.

What Is a Virtue?

When it comes to what counts as a virtue, Hursthouse lists the following options:

This second premise of virtue ethics might, like the second premise of some versions of deontology, be
completed simply by enumeration (‘a virtue is one of the following’, and then the list is given). Or we might, not implausibly, interpret the Hume of the second Enquiry as espousing virtue ethics. According to him, a virtue is a character trait (of human beings) that is useful or agreeable to its possessor or to others (inclusive ‘or’ both times). The standard neo-Aristotelian completion claims that a virtue is a character trait a human being needs for eudaimonia, to flourish or live well.

Of course, I am going to choose the "Hume" option. Hursthouse, in contrast, seems to prefer the Aristotelian option. Specifically, desirism says that a virtuous person is a person that has those desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote in people generally, and that lacks those desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit in people generally. Consequently, the overall theory that I defend will be different from Hursthouse's, but the definition of a right action as the action that a virtuous person would perform is the same.

Obligation, Prohibition, and Permission

Hursthouse adds a little detail later in her article.

The above response to the objection that fails to be action-guiding clearly amounts to a denial of the oftrepeated claim that virtue ethics does not come up with any rules (another version of the thought that it is
concerned with Being rather than Doing and needs to be supplemented with rules). We can now see that it comes up with a large number; not only does each virtue generate a prescription — act honestly, charitably, justly — but each vice a prohibition — do not act dishonestly, uncharitably, unjustly.

On this issue, desirism would have a dispute. Desirism produces an account of all three categories of action - obligatory, prohibited, and non-obligatory permission (or liberty).

• An individual has an obligation to do that which a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would do.

• An individual is morally prohibited from doing that which a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would not do.

• An individual has a moral permission to do that which a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) may choose to do or not do depending on other interests. Examples of non-obligatory permissions include what to eat, what to wear, where to shop, who to marry (if anybody), what profession to enter into (if any), what to read, and when to go to bed.

Knowing What a Virtuous Person Would Do

Hursthouse also brings up the question of how a person who is not already virtuous know what a virtuous person would do. If an agent cannot figure this out, then the principle, "Do that which a virtuous person would do" is of no use to her.

Desirism has no problem with this requirement. Knowing what a person with good desires would do is just a branch of knowing what a person with any given desire would do. Can we predict what a person with a fear of spiders would do? Perhaps we cannot predict her behavior with perfect precision (since her behavior will also depend on her beliefs and her other desires, some of which may be unknown to us). However, we can predict a general tendency to make an effort to avoid spiders. The stronger the aversion, the stronger the tendency to avoid spiders. Similarly, we can predict the tendencies of a person with an aversion to assaulting others, taking or destroying their property without their consent, or lying. Similarly, we can at least predict the tendencies of a person who is concerned for the welfare of others and prefers to repay her debts.

Moral Education

The next objection that Hursthouse considers against the idea that virtue theory can be action guiding is the idea that what she calls "v-rules" are not a part of the moral education of children. Deontology handles the simple rules of do not lie, do not cheat, do not take what belongs to others, share, and "wait your turn". The v-rules of virtue theory - such things as "be honest" and "be kind" - are beyond the grasp of young children.

Hursthouse answers this objection in part by reminding us that children are told not only to obey certain rules but to acquire certain virtues. "Don't be mean" and "don't be selfish" are among of the moral instructions given even to young children.

I will need to look into the relevance of the instruction of older children, but I know from experience that the boy scout law is a list of virtues: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, brave, clean, and reverent.

Desirism, however, actually gives another advantage to Hursthouse's virtue-based concept of right action. If all we do is give children rules, we leave open the question, "Why follow the rules?" From whence comes the motivation to do what the rule asks us to do? Some may argue that the type of act in question has some sort of built-in motivation that compels action. However, this account is magical and cannot be understood easily as a part of the real world.

A virtue is a rule with motivation behind it. The virtue of honesty manifests itself as a motive - a preference or desire - for truth-telling. The virtue of trustworthiness manifests itself as the rule to keep promises and repay debts that is backed by a motivational disposition to do so. Being courteous, kind, and helpful combine a rule to help others with an internal reason - a motivation - to do so.

Desirism also allows us to provide the answer to the question of the how and why of moral education. Moral education consists of using reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation), acting on the reward centers of the brain to attach motivational force to what may be considered a deontological rule. The why comes from the desires of agents that can be fulfilled if others acquire the motivations that turn these deontological rules (do not lie, keep your promises, repay debts, help those in need) into virtues (honesty, trustworthiness, and kindness).


Here, then, we have an outline of some of the topics that can be brought up in a discussion of the action-guidedness of virtue. Hursthouse's general defense comparing the action-guidingness of v-rules compared to utilitarianism and deontology are applicable without modification. Desirism can provide further answers to the question, "What is a virtue?" It can also address the issues of the three different types of action (obligation, prohibition, and permission) as well as the nature of moral education (reward and punishment to attach motivational force to deontological rules).

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Good Character and Right Action

It seems that all I needed was to confront my concern about a thesis topic, and I got my answer.

In 1993, when I was considering the basics of what is now called desirism, I came up with the notion that a right action is that action that a person with good desires would perform.

Research reveals that in 1996 Rosalind Hursthouse defended the following thesis:

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

She wrote this in "Normative Virtue Ethics" from Roger Crisp, ed., How Should One Live? (Oxford University Press, 1996), 19-33.

Since then there has been a discussion of whether a virtue ethics (or a motive ethics) can be action-guiding in the sense of telling a person what to do. Basically, virtue ethics tell a person what to be - what types of motives to have. It does not tell a person what to do. In fact, it is difficult to see how a virtue ethics can even suggest a course of action. After all, it is not like a person can simply choose to acquire a particular character trait. Consequently, the fear is that a virtue ethics is useless as a guide to answer. It cannot help a person answer the one question a morally concerned person constantly confronts. "What (morally) should I do?"

Of course, one of the questions that comes up in defining right action in terms of that which a person with good desires would perform, one has to answer the question, "What counts as good desires?"

I have an answer to that question.

I also have an answer to the question of why rewards such as praise, and punishments such as condemnation, are the correct response to right and wrong actions respectively. They are the forces that mold desires and either strengthen the good desires or counter the bad desires.

Ultimately, it is a paper topic into which I can fit in a number of the key elements of desirism and see how they sit among professional philosophers. Desirism gives me potential answers to these questions that others writing in the field have not already tested.

It is also a topic that I can start working on immediately. I have my own ideas on the topic. In addition, I can start with Rosalind Hursthouse's article and make comments on it - seeing how I can write a paper around it. Discovering other comments on and references to her article will help me to identify a body of literature that I will need to show an awareness of for the thesis. I already know ways in which the subject ties into the writings of David Hume and Henry Sidgwick - two historic philosophers with a strong reputation. I suspect I may have to say a word about Aristotle's virtue theory as well - even though I do not see much in Aristotle's writings that would be relevant.

My first step will be to write a commentary on Hursthouse's article. The next step will be to review comments on the article - criticisms and support. I will be creating the paper as I go through the research, posting it as a "work in progress" on the documents page of the desirism site. Do not look for it yet - I have some initial reading to do and before I start posting notes.

According to Google Scholar, this article has been cited over 200 times. It is obviously an important subject.

In about 700 days I hope to have a masters' thesis passed on the topic of, "The right action is the action that a person with good desires would perform."

Oh, the working title for the paper: "What Would the Virtuous Person Do?" I performed a google search and could not find any reference to a publication with this title in existence.

Monday, July 03, 2017

The Union Station Test of Philosophical Relevance

When I think about moral philosophy, one perspective that I like to adopt is something I tend to call the Philosophy of Union Station. In downtown Denver, Union Station is a major hub for public transportation. The light rail, and a great many of the Denver busses serving not only the city but surrounding communities, meet there. It has a lot of different kinds of people. Union Station is often quite crowded.

When I think about various philosophical ideas, I like to look around at the people and ask, “What does it matter to them if this is true or not?” Another way of expressing the same question is to ask, “If I were to approach these people and tell them these ideas, would they have reason to care?” I am not asking whether they would actually have reason to stop and listen, as if I was a corner preacher telling them to repent because the end of the world is near. I am talking about them having a reason to care – even if their other reasons (to get to work, to meet with their friends, to get to the Denver International Airport to catch their flight) might make them too busy to listen.

John Rawls “Veil of Ignorance” thought experiment – whereby people choose the rules of justice by imagining themselves being ignorant of the actual station they have in society – fails this test spectacularly. Everybody in Union Station is aware of their position and their relationships to other people, and they are not choosing to ignore these facts in evaluating the merits of their actions. In fact, a great many of their actions depend on these relationships. Their duties to their employers and their families, the promises they have made, their relationships to the people they are with and those they meet, all are relevant in determining how they are going to interact with those people. A morality of union station is going to have to tell them how they can make better, more moral choices in that life and as people who are aware of those relationships.

There are two types of "reasons to care" that are relevant to answering these questions. There is the reason to care because they could put the information to use in making their own lives better. However, there is also the possibility that if I were to walk up to them and present them with a technical discussion of the results of recent research in the treatment of diabetes, they may not have any particular reason to listen to my presentation. However, they do have reasons to care - reasons that are grounded on the fact or the potential that they or somebody they care about could have diabetes. Consequently, an idea does not pass or fail the Union Station test merely because it is not something that people at Union Station can find immediately useful.

I have mentioned in my last post that I am going through the episodes of the New Books in Philosophy podcast. One of the things that strike me is the way in which many books are simply contributions to a conversation that involves, perhaps, a couple dozen people - those who are studying the specific subject that the book is about. I listen to the podcast while walking through Union Station, or standing there waiting for my own bus, and the subject matter does not pass the Union Station test. Whether true or false, is not saying anything that the people in Union Station have reason to care about - either directly or indirectly.

As I have been thinking about my return to graduate school, I have started giving thought to the question of what I will choose as a Master's thesis. One of the questions that I have been having is whether my Master's thesis will be something that can pass the Union Station test.

My counter says that I will be attending my first class in 56 days and 6 hours (as I write this).

I have come to realize that, from the first day of class until I get my MA in philosophy – if I go according to schedule – will be 1 year and 9 months. That is a longer period of time than the time from when I started my application to graduate school until the first day of class. We can make a round number out of it and call it 700 days from today. In those 700 days I need to pass 10 classes, write, and defend a Master’s thesis. Can this be done in 700 days?

I will have next summer off – working half time and taking no classes. That will be the summer of writing my Master’s Thesis. I will do my frequent editing and rewriting during the next school year.

So . . . what to choose as a topic?

A bold and reckless part of me wants to just put desirism on the table in front of my committee and say, "See what you can do to this?" My worry here is that it is too big of a topic for a Master's Thesis. I would need to pick something narrower that I can actually cover in some detail in a document the length of a master's thesis.

However, when it comes to the more narrow focus, I fear that the paper would not pass the Union Station test. I could say some things about the subjective/objective distinction, about the fact that motivating beliefs do not exist and that all value relates desires to states of affairs, that morality cannot be concerned with evolved dispositions, and that not only is free will not required for morality but that determinism is required. The people at Union Station have little reason to be concerned about these things - either directly or indirectly. These are topics of discussion within the ivory tower that have no impact on the lives being lived outside the tower.

On this matter of things that pass the Union Station test, I hope to be done with a draft of "Criticizing an Idea" this week and get that posted. This is a set of instructions regarding the distinction between the legitimate criticism of an idea on the one hand and bigotry on the other. This is something that the people in Union Station have reason to care about. I want it done and on the web site before classes start.