Sunday, February 25, 2018

Reasons to Be Moral

I assert that you have an obligation to act in an epistemically responsible manner.

The principles that I associate with this include:

(1) Tell the truth. Do not assert something as true if you do not believe it yourself. If you do, then you are a liar.

(2) Avoid error. This means: strive to avoid asserting something false. This is different from asserting something that you believe to be false. Here, I am saying that you have an obligation to avoid asserting things that are, in fact, false. This is like the claim, "Avoid killing other people as you drive your car." It is an obligation to use caution, to keep a proper distance between you and other vehicles, watch for pedestrians and bicyclists, and do not drive while drunk. In the realm of epistemic responsibility, strive to make sure that the claims you make are true. You may want to believe the meme that somebody is sharing on facebook, but do not share it without first verifying that the claim it makes is true.

(3) Say exactly what you mean. A common rhetorical trick is to use language loosely - to exaggerate or downplay relevant facts. Have a good idea of what such terms as "treason", "theft", "racist", and "slavery" actually mean and either use those terms in a way that is consistent with the standard shared meaning of the term or explicitly state that you are stepping outside of the received meaning and using the term in a special way.

(4) Put your opponent's position on its best possible foundation before criticizing it. Do not create a straw man and then assert (falsely, violating either item (1) or (2) above) that this represents your opponent's views. That is dishonest and contributes nothing to the discussion. Instead, make you opponent sound as intelligent and as rational as you can, then criticize this "iron man" version of his claim.

In saying that you morally ought to do these things, am I saying that you "have a reason" to do these things?

Many writers in moral philosophy seem to think that it is at least odd to say that you ought to do something that you do not have a reason to do.

This is true if I were talking about practical reason. In fact, it is built into the very concept of a practical reason. If I were to tell you, "If you want to get take something for your headache, you should take some aspirin that I have in my cupboard," then I am certainly telling you that you have a reason to take the aspirin only insofar as you want to take something for that headache. This is true for all practical reasons. "If you want spaghetti for supper then you should stop by the store and pick up some spaghetti sauce," or "If you want to retire comfortably you had better start saving for retirement as early as you can and save as much as you can." Again, you have a reason to do these things only insofar as you want spaghetti for supper and you want to save for your retirement.

However, when I say that you morally ought to act in an epistemically responsible manner, am I saying something about what you "have a reason" to do?

Assume that you were to respond, "I have no reason to engage in an epistemically responsible manner. In fact, I can get more of the things that I want - fulfill more of my desires - by lying than by telling the truth, and by engaging in rhetoric than in intellectually honest debate."

The claim that you must have a reason to do what is right either implies that (1) you are mistaken, and you actually have a reason to engage in these actions that you are not aware of, or (2) I was mistaken and you do not actually have an obligation to be epistemically responsible. Either it is necessarily the case that lying will always cause you more harm than good in every case where lying is immoral, or you do not have an obligation to lie in those cases where you can actually get away with it.

These are the two options that associate "morally right action" with "that which you have a reason to do."

I deny this connection, of course. When I say that you have a moral obligation to act in an epistemically responsible manner, I do not look at what you have a reason to do. I am making a claim about what you should have a reason to do. You might not actually have a reason to tell the truth. However, if you do not have a reason to tell the truth, then that makes you a bad person worthy of our condemnation.

This is the thing that distinguishes a good person from an evil person. A good person has the reasons that he ought to have (and does not have the reasons he ought not to have). The evil person, in contrast, does not have reasons he should have or has reasons he should not have. This gap between the reasons the evil person has (and does not have) and should have (and should not have) are what makes her evil.

Praise and condemnation - and reward and punishment - are the tools we use to cause people to have the reasons they should have. Why do we praise the honest person and condemn the liar? Why do we reward the person who tells the truth even when it would otherwise profit her to lie, and punish the person who lies? It is because we want to create a culture in which people have an aversion to lying - in which people have a reason to tell the truth. The reason we want to give people a reason to tell the truth is because each of us will be better off in a community filled with those who are honest with us than with those who lie to us.

So, it is not that each of us has a reason to do that which is right, but each of us has a reason to use reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation) to create a society in which each of us has a reason to do what is right.

This takes me back to the statement I made earlier. Doing the right thing is not doing that which the agent has a reason to do. It is doing that which the agent should have a reason to do.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Moral Authority

I came across an interesting and useful article on the debate over internal and external reasons.

Wong, David B, "Moral Reasons: Internal and External", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LXXII, No. 3, May 2006.

I am going to spend a few days looking at this article in detail.

Wong starts with an "Introduction to the Internalism-Externalism Debate," which will be useful in the discussion that follows.

He provides the following definition of externalism.

Externalism locates the authority outside the agent in holding that she can have a duty while having no reason or motive

So, that raises a question in my mind.

What does "authority" mean?

I think it refers to the "ought to be doneness" of that which ought to be done. It is that which creates the duty to obey.

However, this seems to be a magical and mysterious way of talking. I am not sure that it actually says anything. I would prefer to use a more sensible language if at all possible.

Perhaps Wong's definition of internalism will be easier to grasp.

Internalism locates [the authority] inside the agent in holding that she has a reason or motive that necessarily accompanies duty.

Nope. I'm not finding anything useful here either. We have, here, an "authority" of a duty that is found in the reasons or motives that the agent has (internalism), or an "authority" that duty can have independent of the reasons or motives an agent has (externalism).

Yet, I am inclined to say that this "authority" is simply a nonsense term. It doesn't point to anything real. This would explain why philosophers have such difficulty making sense of it.

I just do not see a need to be talking about this "authority".

The desires that an agent has do not work on any type of authority. I have an aversion to pain. That simply means that I am disposed to give a negative value to states of affairs in which "I am experiencing pain" is true. This negative value gives me a reason to prevent the realization of such states. There is no "authority" at work here. There is aversion creating a reason to act . . . period.

I do distinguish between the reasons/motives that an agent has and the reasons/motives that exist. The latter includes the reasons/motives that other people have which are reasons/motives to mold the desires of the agent in particular ways. Yet, these relationships continue to exist without any talk of "authority". Desires/motives create reasons for those who have the desires/motives.

We really don't need to get any more complicated than that.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Freedom of Speech and Employment

I have long defended the right to freedom of speech.

I have called it a right that creates in others a duty to not respond to words and communicative actions with violence or threats of violence. It does not create a duty on the part of others not to criticize my claims or even to condemn me for making them. Criticism and condemnation are speech, and thus are protected by the right to freedom of speech, not prohibited by them.

However, the line between what does and does not count as violence is sometimes not easy to draw.

Many people these days lose their jobs when they say things that others think ought not to be said.

Before taking off for a trip to Africa, Justine Sacco tweeted, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" The tweet generated an internet firestorm and, by the time she had landed, she had been fired from her job.

If the proper thing for Company A to do in such a case is to fire a person, then it must be assumed that the proper thing for every other company to do would be to not hire her.

However, somebody who is put in a position where she cannot be hired, then that person's life is effectively over. Perhaps not literally, but there is no denying the fact that a person put in a position where she can have no job - obtain no employment - then she has suffered a significant harm. There are many alternative acts of violence that are far less harmful. Insofar as this type of reaction is significantly more harmful than violence, then there is at least a prima-facie case that suggests that, if the right to free speech prohibits violence or threats of violence, then it must also prohibit other harms that are worse than those inflicted by violence.

Yet, the business that employed her - and other types of business - have to worry about another type of harm. Assume that it is discovered that the owner of a local business is a Nazi. As a result of this revelation, people refuse to patronize his store. He goes out of business. This is another significant harm - perhaps more significant (to the owner, at least) than if somebody had simply torched the building insofar as, in the latter case, he would be able to collect the insurance.

Yet, it would seem clear that the right to freedom of speech would protect a boycott of a business as a type of legitimate protest.

We can combine the two cases if we imagine a business that is discovered to have an employee who is a Nazi. As a result, many in the community band together to boycott the business so long as it employs such a person. The right to freedom of speech seems certainly to allow this type of protest. Yet, it still creates a situation in which the employee, if it is declared that nobody may employ him, suffers a harm that is far worse than many types of violent harm as a consequence of his words and communicative actions.

I have presented an example where the business owner is a Nazi, and one in which the business owner employs a Nazi, in my two examples. However, we may reverse this situation and say that the community itself is largely antisemitic and the business owner (in the first case) or the employee (in the second) is a Jew. For the sake of these examples, we should imagine that the term "Jew" is not being used to identify people from a particular region or with a particular genetic makeup, but people who adhere to the Jewish religion. So, now we have a situation where the antisemitic community is effectively - not by law but by social pressure - prohibiting any Jew from owning a business or from being employed by any business.

Is there a way of claiming that the boycott of the Nazi owned business or business with the Nazi employee is permissible in the first set of cases, but the boycott of the Jewish-owned business or business with the Jewish employee is prohibited in the second?

I am actually asking this question because it puzzles me, and I cannot offer a clean and simple solution.

At the top of my list of legitimate answers is that the protest against the Nazi-owned business or business that employs Nazis is legitimate, and the protest against the Jewish-owned business or the business that employs Jews is illegitimate, because Nazis are evil and Jews are not.

It would not be a legitimate response to this to say that the Nazi disagrees with the claim that Jews are not evil. The Nazis are mistaken. This response makes the legitimacy of protest depend on being right about the moral facts, and the moral facts are that the Nazi is evil. The Jew might be evil, too. However, this is not guaranteed.

However, this runs contrary to the idea that the right to freedom of speech is a right to have and to hold and to express a contrary opinion. It allows antisemitic individuals to express the opinion that Jews are evil even if they are mistaken. Consequently, this response seems to have its limits.

On the bright side, one of the reasons why I hold that desirism is the correct moral theory is grounded on the fact that sometimes it correctly identifies a difficult moral problem as being difficult - a fact that many competing moral theories sometimes miss. This, I think, is one of those situations.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Epistemic Responsibility

It appears that a lot of what I have written about recently have to do with being morally responsible for what one believes and the beliefs one tries to transfer to others.

I have called liars parasites who seek to feed others false beliefs that will cause them to act in ways that sacrifice their interests and support the interests of the liar.

I also stipulated a term "trumpster" as a less vulgar version of the term "bullshitter" to indicate somebody who only cares about whether a belief is useful, not about whether it is true. A trumpster cannot be said to be lying. The liar knows that what he says is false and does not care. The trumpster does not care whether his claims are true or false - only whether they are useful.

I have also wrote of that version of trumpster who likes to share internet memes without concern over whether they are true or false - only whether they support the conclusions that the person wants others to believe.

I have also objected to the practice of messing with the definitions of words - changing a definition to a non-standard use while pretending that one is offering its standard definition.

Along with this, I reiterated the standard obligation of communication - the principle of charity. This is a principle that requires that one interpret an opponent's claim in the best possible light, rather than create a straw-man interpretation easily dismissed.

Imagine what our society would be like if we made this the common practice?

Of course, one way to move society closer in that direction is for each person to resolve for themselves to act responsibility when it comes to promoting the truth and sharing information.

Another is to stress the fact to others that these are moral requirements, and that there are many and strong reasons to condemn those who act in an epistemically irresponsible manner.

Think about it . . . a society filled with people who care about whether what they say is true, who desire to tell that which is true and hate to say that which is false, who do not try to manipulate others with misleading or false information, who actually want to know what the truth is and who hates the idea that they may be living a lie (or a fiction), and treats the ideas of others with respect even as they may disagree with those ideas.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Principles of Communiction: Definitions, Stipulations, and Charitable Interpretations

There are rules governing the use of words in an honest discussion.

I was involved in a couple of debates recently involving the principles of communication. One involved the term “atheist” while the other involved the term “capitalism”.

Use Standard Definitions or Stipulate Otherwise

In the first discussion, I argued that one ought to either use a word with its standard meaning for a given linguistic community, or announce that one is using a non-standard definition.

For example, let us assume that you call me asking for directions to my house and I say that there is a tree in the front yard. However, I opt to use the word “tree” in a non-standard way such that a rose bush counts as a tree.

When I say “tree”, I set you up with a set of expectations based on the common understanding of the term. If those expectations are not correct, it is not your fault that you failed to intuit my non-standard use of the term. The fault is mine. I broke the rule against using a term in a non-standard way without declaring that this is what I was doing.

I hold that the common meaning of the term “atheist” in English is “One who believes that the proposition ‘at least one god exists’ is certainly or almost certainly false. If one wants to use the word in a non-standard way (e.g., one who lacks a belief in A god), one is obligated to stipulate one’s non-standard use. If one generates confusion by using the term in a non-standard way without stipulating this fact, then the speaker/writer is the one guilty of causing the confusion, not the reader/listener.

Principle of Charity

The dispute regarding capitalism involved an article that gave a distorted sense of the term “capitalism” in order to discredit it.

[T]here’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital, and do it more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment we depend on. Because let’s be clear: That’s what capitalism is, at its root. That is the sum total of the plan.

Let’s be clear, I do not know anybody who would defend capitalism who would accept this definition.

That’s the rule - if you are going to attack a position, then attack that which the defenders of that position would seek to defend.

What capitalism is at its root is a prohibition on aggression. It states that only voluntary agreements among people are legitimate, and that the first person to bring violence into a discussion acts immorally. All interaction is limited to the free, voluntary, non-violent interaction among individuals. People have a moral right to private property in virtue of mixing their labor with it since taking a property by force or fraud is to take - by force or fraud - a part of the life of the person who mixed his labor with it. This is an act of violence.

The point here is not to defend capitalism but to point out the requirement to present an opposing view in its strongest light. This interpretation is certainly much more sturdy than the straw man constructed above even though, ultimately, I think it fails. Still, one has to recognize that, in defeating it, one has to argue for the use of violence for reasons other than self-defense. Against the, the capitalist can argue, “Once you claim the right to violence for reasons other than self-defense, you have opened Pandora’s Box.”


I have argued in two posts about the malevolence of liars and trumpsters - two types of people who live parasitically by infecting others with false beliefs. This post follows the same theme.

One has an obligation to either use a word in its standard sense for the particular linguistic community one is talking to, or to stipulate (announce) that one is using a non-standard definition. Any confusion that results from a failure to do so is not the fault of the listener, but the fault of the speaker/writer.

And, when criticizing a view, one has an obligation to present the view criticized in the strongest light, and not create a straw man to discredit the view with what are, for all practical purposes, lies, misrepresentations, and distortions.

These are moral values. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to these types of acts, because the confusions and errors that are caused by these practices are those that people have reason to avoid and prevent. To the degree that people adopt these practices - which means, to the degree that people are willing to condemn those who do not - the better off our society will become.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Social Media Trumpsters

In my last posting I proposed the term "trumpster" as a less vulgar alternative to "bullshitter". I argued that a trumpster is a type of parasite that infects others with false beliefs to get them to behave in ways that thwart the ends of those infected, causing them to behave instead in ways that serve the interests of the trumpster.

A more common version of the trumpster is common on social media.

Remember, a trumpster is similar to, but not exactly like, the liar. The liar is a parasite who infects others with beliefs he knows to be false. The trumpster, in contrast, does not care whether his claims are true or false. He only cares whether they are useful. He may even believe them - but he does not believe them on the basis of evidence. He believes them on the basis of convenience. If convenience should change a day or two later, so will the beliefs of the trumpster, and so will the beliefs that he tries to inflict on others.

On social media, we see these same type of people spreading lies and information to their "friends".

When a trumpster finds something that he likes on social media, he shares it. He spreads it far and wide. In true trumpster fashion, he does not care whether it is true or false. He only cares whether it serves his interests. If it does, then it must be shared. If not, then it must be condemned.

To the degree that people are rational and know what is good for them, they will realize that they need to take action to reduce the total number of trumpsters in the communities in which they life.

Recall that the problem with false beliefs is that they cause people to act in ways that set back their own interests. I illustrated this with consideration of a person who is thirsty who wants a drink of water. The person with the false belief that a glass contains clean water when, in fact, it contains poison risks setting back her interests in continued life when, what all she wants is to quench her thirst. To prevent from making these types of mistakes we all need true beliefs - we all need a better understanding of how the world actually works. Trumpsters, instead of filling society with true beliefs and accurate understanding of how the world works, fill people with false beliefs so that they will act in ways that thwart their own interests, but fulfill the interests of the trumpster.

On social media, they spread these false beliefs and misunderstandings by spreading memes they find useful.

So, we all have reason to condemn these creatures. We all have reason to use our tools of condemnation and contempt to try to reduce the overall number of trumpsters in our community - as a way of reducing the total number of false beliefs and misunderstandings of the workings of the world that cause us so many problems.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Liars, Bullshitters, and Trumpsters

I remember a time, not too long ago, when lying was considered a bad thing. We subjected those who lied to condemnation. They were not the type of people we wanted around. It is not that we demanded that liars leave the community. Rather, we demanded that they cease to be liars. Though, if they refused, some sort of social ostracism was in order.

Perhaps I am simply longing for the good old days, but I think that the condemnation of lying and contempt for liars was a good idea. If I had a choice of moving into a town filled with liars, and a different town filled with people who had a strong aversion to lying, I would prefer the latter.

A liar is a type of social parasite.

He lives and feeds off of your intentional actions, causing you to act in ways that serve his interests while you ignore or even thwart your well-being, your health, your friends and family, and perhaps your own life. The parasite does not care what happens to you or what you care about, so long as it profits.

Among some species of ants, there is a type of fungus that take over the ant’s body. It causes the ant to climb some plant, grab onto the bottom of a leaf, then the fungus grows and matures, dropping its spores onto the ants below.

The liar, like the zombie fungus, takes over the victim in a sense. Because of the lie, the victim thinks she is advancing her own interests. However, this is not the case. She is serving the liar’s interest instead.

Let us assume that I am this sort of parasite. I want you to give me money. To get you to give me money, I tell you that will the liquid in the vial, which is tap water, will cure your cancer, cause you to lose weight, reverse baldness, or stop aging. By putting this belief in your head, you act in ways that you think advances your interests, but you actually serve mine.

When I was young, society was trying to exterminate these types of social parasites. We did not seek to exterminate them by killing them, but by getting them to refrain from lying. We tried to teach our children and others that lying was wrong and something no decent person would do. They did not always learn, but that was the goal.

The liar parasite knows that he is planting false beliefs.

There is another type of social parasite that does not care if his statements are true or false. He only cares if they are useful. When he asserts that something is true, he is pretty much saying, “It would benefit me if you believed this.” We cannot call him to be a liar because he does not believe that it is false. He does not care about that. He only cares whether your believing it is useful.

Our common term for this type of parasite is “bullshitter”.

The bullshitter parasite is just as harmful as the liar parasite. He does the same thing to you for the same reasons. The only difference is the state that the parasite is in when he engages in this parasitic behavior. The liar knows he is infecting others with a false belief. The bullshitter doesn’t care.

I fear that the vulgar nature of the term means that it is not used when it should be. Our ability to exterminate - or at least combat - this form of parasite is hindered by the fact we don’t identify them when they exist. Consequently, they grow and proliferate to our mutual harm.

We would benefit by using a new term that is not vulgar.

People often call bullshitters “liars”, but this charge often does not stick because of the requirement that the parasite know that the beliefs are false.

Historically, we have used terms such as “film-flam man” or “used car salesman.” However, bullshitters are not always male, and it is not permissible to stigmatize those who sell used cars.

I propose calling such a person a “trumpster”. He is a paradigm example of this type of parasitism. We have precedent for using a person’s name in this way.

There is precedent for names becoming words. Elbridge Gerry gave us the term “gerrymander” because of his practice of drawing legislative districts to manipulate elections. Vidkun Quisling gave us the term “quisling” to mean “collaboration with the enemy”.

A trumpster, then, is a type of social parasite that - like a liar - causes others to serve his interests by filling the victim’s head with false beliefs that the trumpster finds it useful for others to believe, without regard to whether the claims are true or false. The term originated before 2020 in reference to the politician Donald Trump.

Friday, February 09, 2018

What Is a "Constitutional Crisis"?

What is a “Constitutional Crisis”?

Generically speaking, a "constitution" consists of all of the formal and informal rules under which the government functions. In the United States this includes the literal written Constitution. It also includes the informal rules whereby the written Constitution is put into effect.

A constitution requires the voluntary choice of individuals to abide by its rules and principles. Clearly, if everybody were to ignore the Constitution, then it would simply be a piece of paper with no force or authority. It only has force and authority to the degree that people generally grant it force and authority.

A constitutional crisis occurs when some individual or group puts their own interests above the Constitution (denying it force or authority), and those whose interest in that constitution lack the means or the will to force their compliance. In other words, a constitutional crisis exists where there is a problem that the constitution cannot solve or where the people lack the will and the power to enforce a solution.

A rule does not have to be explicitly broken to undermine the Constitution. It is enough that one acts so as to make the constitution impotent in some regard.

Though President Donald Trump says, “America first,” in fact it has always been “Trump first” In fact, it is “Trump first, last, and only.” There is no evidence of him putting anything above himself, except perhaps his children. Even in this latter case, Trump’s interest seems to be in the Trump dynasty and not in his children as persons.

The Constitution means nothing to him. He does not even know what it says.

So, we have a President who lacks an interest in conforming his behavior to the Constitution.

This becomes a constitutional crisis when the Constitution gets in the way of what Trump does value and others lack the power and will to protect the constitution.

To defend the Constitution, power and will must reside in the same body.

If those with the power lack the will - if, indeed, they are a party to the President’s disregard for the Constitution because they see that following him gives them (unconstitutional) power as well, then the Constitution will not be enforced.

If those with the will lack the power then, quite obviously by definition, they cannot mount an effective defense of the Constitution.

We have good evidence that David Nunes (California, District 22) has allied himself with Trump against the Constitution. His decision to push through a “memo” filled with misrepresentations and half-truths to undermine an investigation that aims at protecting and defending the Constitution shows that he does not see defending and protecting the Constitution to be a priority.

While Nunes may have mouthed the words promising to protect and defend the Constitution, in his heart he seeks instead to protect and defend Trump (or, more likely, to protect and promote Nunes, where he expects adequate compensation from Trump for his decision to side with Trump rather than the Constitution).

It is also the case that the vote to release the memo was among party lines, meaning that accomplices to this action include Peter King (New York - 2nd District), Frank LoBiondo (New Jersey - 2nd District), Thomas Rooney (Florida, 17th District), Chris Stewart (Utah, 2nd District), Michael Conaway (Texas, 11th District), Eric Crawford (Arizona, 1st District), Trey Gowdy (South Carolina, 4th District), Will Hurd (Texas, 23rd District), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida, 27th District), Elise Stefanik (New York, 21st District), Michael Turner (Ohio, 10th District), and Brad Wenstrup (Ohio, 2nd District).

While, for these other committee members, it takes some courage to go against the crowd and be a lone dissenter, when it comes to being a Representative and standing up for the Constitution over political expedience, courage of this type is to be expected. Consequently, there is no justification for leniency on this account.

Will Hurd (Texas, 23rd District) wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post, "Why I voted to release the Nunes memo" where he attempted to justify his actions on the grounds of a "duty to inform the American public".

However, a duty to inform is a duty to supply true and accurate information on which others can make informed decisions. One does not fulfill such a duty by manipulating people with misleading half-truths whose purpose is to undermine an investigation that aims to protect and defend the Constitution. The FBI released a statement expressing "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy." This is a long-winded way of saying, "lying by omission."

So, we have an immoral act (lying by omission) for the sake of defending Trump rather than the Constitution. Consequently, Hurd has placed himself in second place behind Nunes among the committee members going to extra effort to precipitate a constitutional crisis.

Meanwhile, we are still searching for people with the will and the power to defend the Constitution.

There is an election coming up. In the United States, power ultimately rests in the hands of the people as voters. So, as a last resort, we must see, in 2018, whether those with the power to defend the Constitution have the will to do so.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Morality and Moral Justification

I do not have time to read the whole of Derek Parfit’s on What Matters. So, in answer to a suggestion to compare and contrast my views with his, I have been looking for more convenient sources.

I found a podcast at Oxford University entitled, Prioritarianism, Leveling Down, and Welfare Diffusion where Professor Ingmar Persson (Gothenburg University) gave a presentation on something Parfit wrote, where Parfit was the commentator.

My view is that the whole discussion was off track, since both disputants appeared to share assumptions that I would reject.

The primary assumption was that moral value was some property that could be quantified. The two philosophers disputed over ways in which the moral value of outcomes for different (possible) people could be totaled in both an absolute and a weighted sense, averaged, equalized, and the like.

This discussion substantially concerned whether the principles governing the distribution of moral value units lead to the “leveling down problem”. The idea that moral value units should be equal suggests that, if 1 person had 100 moral units and another had 1 moral unit, then taking 99 moral units away from the first person would be good because the situation would be more equal. In other words, the principle of equality may need to be rejected because it implied that we should approve of a situation in which some people are made worse off and nobody better off because the distributions were more equal. They called this the Leveling Down Problem.

Parfit presented a view he called "Prioritarianism" that apparently avoided the leveling down problem. It said that the assignment of a unit of moral value to somebody who has lesser moral value (giving the person with 1 unit of moral value s second unit) was worth more than giving that unit of moral value to the person who already had 100 units. There was no "leveling down" on this option since it only concerned the distribution of additional units, and did not involve taking anything away.

I can well understand why somebody might think that such a discussion was a useful part of morality. It did seem to at least be talking about the right sort of subject and presenting solutions that seemed, in some sense, intuitively plausible.

However, I hold that the whole idea of moral values that can be summed, averaged, or weighted is false.

Compare and contrast what Parfit and Persson were debating with the way that desirism discusses choices.

Recall the thought experiment that involved Alph, with a desire to gather stones, deciding whether to give Bet a desire to gather stones or a desire to scatter stones. In assessing these options, I never spoke about moral value as some type of quantifiable entity to be maximized, averaged, or anything similar. Alph, with his desire to gather stones, had only one criterion to use in evaluating these two actions: "Which option would allow me to make or keep the propositions 'I am gathering stones' true?" And the answer was (under the assumption that there were a limited number of stones to gather) to give her the desire to scatter stones.

As I watch myself live through an average day, from going to the gym to going to work to buying flowers for my wife to not stealing or lying to anybody or vandalizing property to taking my proper place in line when I had a line to get into to doing the various tasks that meet my responsibilities at work to choosing a blog post topic and writing it and publishing it . . .

. . . in a whole days' activity a principle of distributing moral values to those who had the least did not influence any action.

I do argue for this at times. In fact, I have often defended the principle of Parfit's prioritarianism. However, I have not done so on the basis of asserting that there exists moral value units that have greater significance when they are provided to those who are the least well off. My arguments have followed the same pattern as used in the discussion of Alph and Bet - people generally have reason to promote universally an interest in helping those who are the least well off. What motivates the drive to promote this interest? It is the strong desires of those who are least well off that would otherwise be thwarted, balanced against the weak desires on those who have a great deal to add even more to their surplus.

In the mean time, in the real-world lives of real-world people, this remains one desire among many - and must be set aside the aversion to taking the property of others without their consent, aversion to lying or breaking promises, acts of affection and concern particularly for those who are important in one's life such as one's spouse, children, and friends, opposition to hate-mongering bigotry (which was the topic I selected to write my post on yesterday).

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Analytic Reductionism

Recently, I have been reading up on Derek Parfit’s “triviality objection to naturalist reductionism.” Desirism reduces true value claims to claims about natural properties, so it is a proper target for Parfit’s objection.

Desirism hold that true value claims describe relationships between states of affairs and desires.

However, it DOES NOT hold that this is true by definition. It does not say that the very meaning of the word “good” is to be understood as “stands in such-and-such a relationship to desires”. The meaning of “good”is broader than this. However, an attribution of goodness is never true unless such a relationship e it’s.

When it comes to the meaning of value terms, they all assert that there is one or more reasons to realize or preserve a state of affairs (in the case of goodness) or to prevent or end a state of affairs (in the case if badness).

For example, somebody says, “You ought to do X.”

You ask, “Why?”

The answer to that question will be a reason for intentional action. What else can you possibly be asking for when you ask, “Why” but for a reason to do what somebody said you ought to do? That reason for action will either be an end-reason, or a means-reason justified in virtue of its ability to contribute to some further reason that is an end. Ultimately, the answer to every “Why?” question regarding what one ought to do is an end-reason for intentional action.

However, these terms do not require that the reasons be natural properties such as desires. These reasons may be intrinsic values, divine commands, categorical imperatives, the dictates of an impartial observer or of a committee behind a vail of ignorance. It does not tell us anything about these reasons, other than that there are reasons.

In technical terms, I reject analytic natural reductionism. This is the view that, in virtue of the meaning of value terms, those terms refer to natural properties.

In virtue of the meanings of value terms, value terms refer to end-reasons for intentional actions regardless of whether they are material or immaterial.

However, desires provide the only end-reasons that exist. Consequently, all TRUE moral claims are claims about the relationships between states of affairs and desires. If anybody says that the reason to realize, preserve, prevent, or end a state of affairs is a non-natural reason, that claim is false.

The point is, it is a mistake to interpret desirism as saying that it’s naturalistic reduction is an account of the meaning of moral terms - a type of analytic reductionism. It is not. It is a claim about which moral propositions are true.

The Moral Wrong of Hate-Mongering Bigotry

No decent, just person would endorse the sentiment expressed in this Trump tweet:

So disgraceful that a person illegally in our country killed @Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson. This is just one of many such preventable tragedies. We must get the Dems to get tough on the Border, and with illegal immigration, FAST!

Social media has tended to be a platform for outrage without explanation or justification. To begin to counter this, let me explain why morally decent people would hold anybody who expressed or endorsed such a statement with condemnation and contempt.

In simple terms, people who say these types of things are trying to promote unjustified hatred of innocent people belonging to a group they hate in order to make harming the members of that group appear justified.

It is true that the driver of the vehicle who killed Jackson and the Uber driver Jeffrey Monroe deserves condemnation. Trump seeks to use this to “sell” hatred of people in the country illegally. This is in spite of the fact that there are many people in the country illegally who are not drunk drivers, and many people who are drunk drivers who are not in the country illegally.

Trump does not want us to be angry at drunk drivers and, thereby, take steps to combat drunk driving. He wants to use this to sell hatred of people in the country illegally, and thus, motivated by this hatred, endorse or demand actions harmful to all such people.

These attitudes are unjust on two accounts.

First, they are used to promote hatred of and harm to innocent people. While some may argue that those who are in the country illegally are not innocent, almost all of them are, in fact, innocent of the charge of drunk driving or vehicular homicide. Yet, Trump’s motives in writing such a tweet is to promote a hatred of others as if they were all guilty of these crimes.

Second, these types of tactics let other people who are guilty off of the hook. If a citizen had driven drunk and killed Jackson and Monroe, Trump would not have thought it worth mentioning. A drunk citizen killing other citizens is not “disgraceful” or a “preventable tragedy” worthy of government action. It is only despicable when a non-citizen causes such a death.

The two injustices – the injustices that no morally decent person would accept or condone – are the injusticies of promoting a hatred of people who are innocent of the crime in question and the injustice of ignoring others who commit the same wrong. The basis of this injustice is the speaker’s desire to “sell” the hatred of a target group so as to appear to justify treating the members of that group as sub-human creatures rather than human beings.

This is the type of argument Hitler used to promote hatred of the Jews to make his “final solution” appear justified. By associating Jews with activities deserving contempt, Hitler successfully sold such a hatred of Jews that he was able to arrange the slaughter of over 6 million of them.

NOTE: There are some who think that as soon as Hitler gets mentioned, they have a moral permission to ignore the argument. This makes things quite easy for somebody advocating Hitler-like policies. I once considered writing a short story in which Hitler steps into a time machine and appears 100 years in the future. He advocates the same policies in the same way yet, whenever anybody says “This sounds like something Hitler would do,” he declares that it is inappropriate to compare somebody to Hitler and, thereby, shuts down all objections. To the degree that we have an interst in preventing Hitler-like policies, we need to have a permission to say, “This is a Hitler-like policy, and we should prevent it.”

Setting Hitler aside, this type of hate-mongering was also used in defense of chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws and other forms of segregation, Japanese internment, and the slaughter is “savages” (a.k.a. Native Americans). Earlier in history, this type of thinking was the root cause of inquisitions, crusades, violent jihads, civil and international wars of “us” against “them”.

Morally decent people refuse to be a party to these types harms and injustices. They see these as morally wrong, and as something that no good person would participate in or contribute to. To prevent them, a morally decent person recognizes the need to condemn those who have such attitudes where they appear and view such people with contempt. The morally decent person certainly will not give hate-mongering bigots political, police, or military power. They keep these institutions out of the hands of such people.

Trump is speaking in the way that hate-mongering bigots have always spoke. Is goal is to promote a hatred of a target group in order to “justify” policies that are harmful to them – to get others to embrace those policies by getting others to absorb the bigoted hatred that he feels. No morally decent person would make or embrace hate-mongering bigotry. In fact, a morally decent person would condemn hate-mongering bigotry and any who practice that particular form of reasoning. Trump, and anybody who endorses the sentiments he wrote into this tweet, qualifies as the type of person deserving of this type of contempt and condemnation.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Antonin Scalia and Derek Parfit: The Limit of Rules

It is interesting how a potential insight might come from the order and timing with which one reads a pair of articles.

In my last post, I mentioned Antonio Scalia’s article on “The Rule of Law and the Law of Rules.” It mentioned two important facts about rules:

(1) the usefulness of general rules applicable to a wide range of circumstances rules in making the application of laws predictable, and

(2) the limitation of rules in that they will never be able to apply to every imaginable circumstance.

Today, I read a review of Derek Parfit’s “On What Matters” - recalling some things that Parfit had said in other writings.

I am inclined to read Parfit as an intuitionist who holds that certain propositions describe intrinsically valuable actions. These are “rules” in a sense-descriptions regarding what to do if one wants to do that which fulfills some intrinsic “ought”.

At the same time, Parfit was famous for his ability to come up with thought experiments that challenged the application of those rules.

In short, observing Parfit’s attempts to discover what is morally right and wrong was surprisingly familiar to what Scalia described as the judge’s task of discovering what is legally right and wrong.

The difference is that Scalia was well aware of the fact that he was dealing with human constructions built (roughly) to serve human ends, and Parfit thought he was dealing with the discovery of non-natural properties that existed in nature itself. Consequently, Parfit saw these far corners where the rules did not fit as philosophical puzzles (as did many of the philosophers he interacted with), while Scalia accepted them as a fact of life.

I would hold that Scalia had the better view of the matter.

We have invented morality to serve a useful purpose in the vast majority of every-day occurrences in our life. Like the law, we did not build morality to handle every conceivable situation. When people test their moral intuitions in examples that have little or nothing to do with the every-day decisions that we have designed morality for, then they are applying moral concepts where those concepts do not fit.

If an actual life enters one of these dark corners where morality does not apply, she has to make it up as she goes along. Judges work the same way whenever they confront a case where the law provides no clear guide. He has to say something, so he presents the best decision that he can - recognizing that he is not actually applying the law but creating it. There is nothing else for him to do - he has to say something.

The point is that we can come up with perhaps an infinite set of imaginary settings where morality provides no clear answer. The proper way to think of these is not to think that morality must be providing a clear answer that we could discover if we understood morality correctly. The proper way to look at it is that we have built morality to give us the best answers in the cases we regularly encounter, and it has nothing to say about these bizarre never-actually-encountered cases that the philosopher can imagine.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Antonin Scalia and The Law of Rules

Concerning: Scalia, Antonin, 1989, “The Rule of Law and the Law of Rules,” The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 4, pp. 1175-1188.

Warning: I am going to agree with Justice Scalia.

In this article, Antonin Scalia provided an analysis to the rule of law focusing on how to resolve a case - to reach a particular decision.

The best description of his thesis is found in a quote that Scalia provided from Aristotle.

Rightly constituted laws should be the final sovereign; and personal rule, whether it be exercised by a single person or a body of persons, should be sovereign only in those matters on which law is unable, owing to the difficulty of framing general rules for all contingencies, to make an exact pronouncement.

On the first instance, a case should be decided by appeal to the law - which, Scalia would argue, is a set of general rules applicable to a large number of like cases. It should not be decided on the basis of facts unique to the individual case.

This, according to Scalia, is the “Law of rules.”

The main reason for this is that the law must be predictable. A law built on set of particular, specific, and unique judgments gives a person no sense of what the law says in any new case. The only hope that an individual has at being able to predict whether his action would be found legal or illegal would depend on his ability to correctly determine some pattern of judgment from the history of previous judgments, and hope that the judge did not see fit to change his mind in the mean time.

People have many and strong reasons for a system of laws that allows them to reliably determine what is or is not illegal. Not only does the ability to do so help to provide individuals with security, it is necessary for people to be able to plan their future actions with some measure of confidence.

Of course, we can agree with Scalia on this matter and still disagree with Scalia on what he, in his role as judge, decided on in terms of rules in actual cases. That would be a separate question.

So, the rule of law requires a law of rules - rather than a law of specific judgments.

Still, Scalia argued that we cannot get into every corner of the law. Consequently, there is still room for particular judgments not grounded on the law of rules. When this happens, not only is it false to believe that there is a unique legal answer to the question, but higher courts should accept some variation in the decisions of lower courts. The only time the upper court should get involved is when it can introduce a new rule or clarify an existing rule applicable across a large number of cases.

Scalia thought that it was important to stress that he was not so naive that he thought that every case had an answer strictly determined by the law, and that the judge did not have to sometimes use some judgment in making decision in a specific case. Humans simply cannot design general rules applicable to every imaginable case. This sometimes happened and, Scalia mentioned, he expected to be required to do some of this himself.

On these matters, I can find little to disagree with.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Paper Proposal: The Reasons We Should Have

Well, I am going to see if I can present my objections to the entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to a body of concerned professionals.

The Rocky Mountain Ethics Conference has asked for abstracts for possible papers to potentially present.

How does this sound?

The Reasons We Should Have

In the Stanford Encyclopedia for Philosophy entry, “Reasons for Action: Justification, Motivation, Explanation”, the desire-based theory of normative reasons is expressed as:

Roughly, someone’s having a reason to act requires their having some motivation that would be served by acting in the way favoured by the putative reason.

When the discussion changes to criticisms of the theory, the language changes from talking about “having a reason” to “there is a reason”.

But desire-based accounts fare less well in accommodating another central claim about normative reasons. For it seems equally plausible that there are reasons (for instance, moral reasons) that apply to agents regardless of their motivations.

This is more explicit in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External”.

Humean Theory of Reasons (revised): If there is a reason for someone to do something, then she must have some desire that would be served by her doing it, which is the source of her reason.

This implies that a desire-based theorist cannot talk about “reasons there are” that are distinct from “the reasons she has.”

This problem is associated with the criticism that desire-based theories cannot handle moral reasons.

But desire-based accounts fare less well in accommodating another central claim about normative reasons. For it seems equally plausible that there are reasons (for instance, moral reasons) that apply to agents regardless of their motivations.

I, as I desire-based theorist, hold that I am not the only person in the world. The set of “reasons there are” is significantly larger than the set of “reasons I have”. There are the reasons that other people have.

Your aversion to pain is one of the “reasons there are” for me to refrain from actions that will cause you pain. When I say this, all I am saying is that your reason exists and that I can avoid bring about the state you have reason to avoid if I refrain from causing you pain.

Under this definition, we can update the Humean Theory of Reasons as follows:

HTR (further revised): If there is a reason for someone to do something, then there must be a desire that would be served by her doing it; and if she has a reason for someone to do something, then she must have some desire that would be served by her doing it, which is the source of her reason.

In saying that this reason – your aversion to pain – exists I am not saying that it has any automatic relevance to my rationality or motivation. If, for example, I have a desire of putting you in a situation that you have a reason to avoid being in, then the fact that you have an aversion to pain means that I have a reason to cause you pain.

However, your aversion to pain means that you have a reason to get me to avoid actions that will result in you being in such a state.

One of the ways you can do that is to offer to reward me (promise to bring about a state that I have reason to see realized if I refrain) or threaten to punishment me (promise to bring about a state I have reason to avoid if I do not refrain).
I, the desire-based theorist, know that you have this reason to reward or punish.

Your aversion to pain also means that you have reason to cause within me a reason to avoid actions that would result in you experiencing pain.

Creating in me an aversion to causing pain has an important advantage over threatening punishment. Threats of punishment give me no reason to avoid causing you pain if I can cause you pain without getting caught.

However, if you can create in me an aversion to causing you pain, then I have a reason not to cause you pain even when I can get away with it. This is true in the same way that I have a reason to avoid being in pain myself even if I could get away with it.

One of the principle ways to create such desires and aversions in others is by using reward and punishment - including praise and condemnation. Consequently, when I recognize that there are reasons to promote a universal aversion to causing pain, I recognize that there are reasons to praise and reward those who refrain from causing pain and to condemn and punish those who do not refrain.

So, there are the reasons that I have (and do not have) for performing some action. And there are the reasons that people generally have reason to cause everybody to have or not have by using rewards and punishments, praise and condemnation.

When the SEP presents objections to desire-based theory, it states:

Arguably, we all have reason to do what morality dictates, whether or not we are (or would be, if we reasoned consistently from our current motivations), motivated by those reasons.

Without getting into a discussion over “what morality dictates” consists in, the desire-based theorist can still claim to know, as a fact, that there are a lot of reasons to promote, universally, an aversion to causing pain to others, an aversion to breaking promises, a desire to pay one’s debts, and several other reasons for action universally.

We do not, in fact, all have reason to do what morality dictates. However, we all should have those reasons in that there are reasons to give us those reasons. This accounts for the fact that when the discussion shifts from what an agent rationally or practically ought to do to what the agent morally ought to do, the language shifts from “she has reasons” to “there are reasons” – the latter language refers to the reasons that others generally have reasons to (that “there are reasons to”) encourage or discourage.

Ultimately, what I wanted to show was that the desire-based theorist can and should reject the reduction of all “reasons there are” to “reasons she has”. The desire-based theorist knows that there are other reasons out there and that they provide reasons to praise and condemn.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Having Reasons: M. Schroeder

Regarding the following article:

Schroeder, M., 2008, “Having Reasons”, Philosophical Studies, 139: 57–71.

Some philosophers seem to be having a debate as to how it can be the case that a belief or a fact can be a reason for action.

To me, the answer is simple. They can’t. Desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional action. A person with a desire that P has a reason to realize any state of affairs in which P is true. Next question.

Well, let’s look over the debate in more detail.

The test case concerns Bernie. He has asked for a gin and tonic. He is served gasoline on ice. The assertion is that he has a reason to take a sip out of the glass. After all, he wanted a gin and tonic. He believes that the glass contains gin and tonic. If, under these circumstances, he does not take a sip out of the glass then he is being irrational. So, how can it be that he has a reason to take a sip out of the glass.

My answer, in more detail, is that he does not. He believes that he has a reason to take a sip out of the glass. However, his belief, like the belief that the glass contains a gin and tonic, is false. The same evidence that proves that the glass contains gasoline on ice also proves that Bernie has no reason to take a sip out of the glass.

Now, there is another kind of reason that applies to all states of affairs that can answer the question, “What is the reason for X?” If a house catches fire, and the fire marshal asks, “Why?”, the answer can sensibly be, “Because the owner set a can of gasoline near the heater.”

In this same sense, if the agent does take a sip out of the glass, and we were to ask why this happened, “Because he believed that it was gin and tonic” is a perfectly sensible answer. Beliefs have effects, so they are sometimes a part of causal explanations. However, this is not the same thing as “having a reason” to take a sip out of the glass. After all, the house with the gasoline next to the heater does not “have a reason” to catch fire.

A person has a reason to do X in the relevant sense if and only if he has a desire that P and the action would realize P.

The next question to answer is, “Why do people make this mistake?”

I would suggest that this is caused by an earlier assumption that value can be intrinsic to states of affairs. This assumption invited us to adopt a language in which reasons that reside in states of affairs, and where motivation resided in our awareness (beliefs) about those states of affairs, actually took place. It is like the assumption that atoms were the smallest bits of matter, so we adopt a word to describe the smallest pieces of an element that assumed that they could not be split into smaller parts. "Atom" means "indivisible".

However, the fact that we built these assumptions into our language does not prove that they are true. We cannot take the fact that our language contains these assumptions as proof that these kinds of reasons exist. They do not exist.