Sunday, January 14, 2018

Street 06: Acquired Ends

In my last posting, The Value of Individual and Species Survival I argued that it is unlikely that our ancestors evolved to have a natural "desire that I survive" or "desire that the species survive". This is unlikely because, until very recently, humans did not have the ability to recognize their own death, or species survive, in order to recognize the relationships between means and those ends.

We might have started to evolve such a natural end since we acquired the ability to recognize these ends. However, even if this is the case, these are two ends among many - such as the desire to eat, desire for sex, aversion to pain, concern for the welfare of our offspring - all of which can come into conflict with the desire for survival at any time (and often do). Observations show that the desire for survival, if it exists, seems to be quite weak then this end conflicts with the others.

Having said that, it is clear that among humans and among, at least, complex mammals, natural ends are not the only ends we have. We have the capacity to acquire new ends - new desires and aversions - as well as experience some modification to our natural ends (e.g., food preferences) based on our interactions with our environment. We can come to want things, not because wanting them helped our ancestors maintain biological fitness, but because of experiences we had while growing up in a particular environment.

This possibility of acquired ends adds some complexity to my discussion of Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value" that I have been presenting in this series of posts. In those posts, I divided Sharon's Street's "evaluative judgments" into two sets: (1) desires-as-ends or "Y is good in itself" judgments, and (2) desires-as-means or "the end Y is a reason to do X" judgments. I argued that Street's Darwinian Dilemma applies to Type (1) judgments. Type (2) judgments have a truth value and it is useful that we evolved a capacity to track those truths. However, Type (2) judgments still depend crucially on Type (1) judgments so the Darwinian Dilemma applies to Type (2) truths indirectly. Evolution provides the set of ends Y that provide the reasons for doing X.

The possibility of acquired ends means that there is a set of Type (1) goods that do not come to us through evolution.

However, they do come to us through a mechanism that, itself, evolved. Because evolution shaped this mechanism, we may assume that evolution has selected a mechanism that takes experience with one's environment and converts them into learned or acquired ends that tend to promote fitness. For example, eating a particular type of plant makes one sick. After eating such a plant, one associates even the smell of that plant with the nausea and comes to dislike the smell itself. The animal does not smell the plant and think, "I had better not eat the plant with that smell because that will make me sick." Indeed, that requires far too much mental work. Instead, the animal dislikes the smell itself and, upon experiencing the smell, goes someplace else to eat - just to get away from that smell.

The existence of acquired ends blurs the distinction between Type (1) judgments and Type (2) judgments. On the one hand, they are ends. The animal in this example sees the state in which it does not experience the smell of that plant as an end in itself - it has reason to prevent the realization of such a state simply in virtue of the fact that it does not like it. At the same time, since acquired ends are learned, we can ask whether - in a Type (2) sense, there are reasons to acquire or to prevent the acquisition of these ends.

Assume that the consumption of a particular plant causes one to have a particularly strong Type (1) desire to consume more of that plant. This new acquired end is so strong it quickly overwhelms other desires such as the desire for sex or the desire to eat, threatening the survival of the animal. In such a case, the fulfillment of these other ends provide a reason not to acquire, as an end, the desire to consume this particular plant.

If one exists in an environment containing other beings with the capacity to acquire learned ends, then this is something that individuals can exploit. An individual can create in others dispositions that are useful, either to the individual, or the species to which the individual belongs. A bee sting may kill the individual bee who delivers the sting, but it creates in beings that have the potential for acquired desires a disposition to avoid those entities that are like the bee giving the sting. If a member of a pack responds to the behavior of another with snarls and a swipe across the nose, that will tend to cause that other animal to form an aversion to the type of act that brought about this response.

This technique is more effective in a community that can learn from the fortunes and misfortunes of another. Swipe and snarl at the creature that performed the obnoxious action, and others who witness it may also form an aversion to the type of action that caused the agent to get the swipe across the nose.

More sophisticated creatures, to the degree that it comes to realize that it is within a community that has acquired desires, can begin to ask, "What sort of desires should I cause others to have?" This points to the existence of Type (2) reasons to bring about - or to prevent - the acquisition, of certain Type (1) desires. Furthermore, even though it makes no sense to ask this question of fixed Type (1) desires insofar as they are fixed, it does make sense to apply this question to Type (1) desires if they have some flexibility.

Consider the following possibility:

There is a community where the following is true:

(1) Each member of the community has a natural, evolved, Type (1) aversion to its own pain.

(2) Each member of the community can acquire an aversion to causing pain to others as a result of interactions with its environment. Specifically, by rewarding and praising those individuals who avoid causing pain to others, and punishing or condemning those who cause pain, one can create in others an aversion to causing pain to others.

Each being in this community has a motivating reason - their own aversion to pain - to use these tools to bring about, universally, an aversion to causing pain to others. This aversion to causing pain to others is an end - a Type (1) value. However, it is a value where the individuals in the community have discovered a truth-bearing fact about its relationship to other desires, such as each individual's aversion to pain, which gave them reason to create and promote this aversion to causing pain.

Such is the nature of acquired desires, at least among the types of animals that we are familiar with.

This is consistent with Street's claim:

The widespread consensus that the method of reflective equilibrium, broadly understood, is our sole means of proceeding in ethics is an acknowledgment of this fact: ultimately, we can test our evaluative judgements only by testing their consistency with our other evaluative judgements, combined of course with judgements about the (non-evaluative) facts.

We can ask whether people generally have reason to bring about certain changes in the desires-as-ends of others in the community universally. However, this question never steps outside of the realm of evolved ends. It is these evolved ends that provide the reasons to promoting or inhibiting the formation of acquired ends.

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