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.

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