Thursday, March 29, 2018

Interpreting the Bill of Rights

A member of the studio audience . . . well, not really, it was really my Philosophy of Law professor . . . asked a question regarding the interpretation of law.

It concerned an email discussion concerning Justice Paul Stevens' editorial calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment. After I posted some comments suggesting the difficulty in doing this and the reasons why some may oppose it, he responded with the following set of questions:

In light of our class in jurisprudence the question is where to look for guidance. In Natural Law, Legal Positivism, Legal Realism or where? Are any of these theories any good when it comes to the Second [Amendment] at least with respect to those who want it out and those who see it as sacred?

My answer was:

Positive Law vs. Natural Law

In discussing morality, I discover that people often confuse what I call an anthropological/sociological concept of morality with a philosophical concept.

The anthropological/sociological concept is descriptive - it asks what people believe to be right or wrong in a particular culture at a particular place and time.

The philosophical concept asks, “What is the right answer, if any?”

For example, was slavery morally permissible in South Carolina in 1850? The answer using the anthropological/sociological concept is “Yes.” The answer using the philosophical concept is, “No.” (NOTE: This is not to say that all philosophers would agree with that answer, but I would defend it. I hold that there are moral facts, and this is one if them. Yet, this moral fact does not change the correct anthropological/sociological answer.)

These are not conflicting answers. They are two different answers to two different questions.

We see this same distinction even in the hard sciences. We talk about ancient Egyptian astronomy, Medieval medicine, and Newtonian physics. In Newtonian physics, “Force equals mass times acceleration is true” is true. In Einsteinien physics (and in the real world, so it seems) it is false (but close enough for almost all practical purposes). Again, the statement that F=m*a is true in Newtonian physics but not in the real world is not a contradiction. The two statements are talking about two different things.

I see the dispute between legal positivism and natural law theory as being similar.

Legal Positivists are looking at the social/anthropological question of what the law is believed to be in a particular culture at a particular place and time. Legal Realism is an extreme form of Legal Positivism. It attempts to predict and explain whether (for example) the accused would be convicted or acquitted in a particular culture at a particular place and time, the way that a moral anthropologist might try to predict if a person in a culture would be praised or blamed.

The Natural Law theorist asks, “Should the accused be convicted or acquitted?” Or even, better yet, “Should the accused have even be put on trial? Should there even be such a law?”

These theories are not in conflict. They are addressing different questions. They only appear to be in conflict when people confuse the anthropological/sociological concept of law (positive law: what the law is believed to be) with the philosophical concept (natural law: what the positive law should be).

Natural Law theorists particularly contribute to this confusion when they identify what the law is and what the law should be, insisting that law that deviates from what the law should be is not law. It is still law in the anthropological/sociological sense even if it is false, just as “F = m * a” is true in Newtonian physics even if it is not true of the world.

The Separation Thesis
An important question in the philosophy of law concerns the Separation Thesis. This thesis holds that there is a fundamental distinction between what the law is and what the law ought to be. This thesis is often presented as a conflict between legal positivists (who say that an unjust law is still law) and natural law theorists (who say that an unjust law is no law at all).

If we recognize the distinction above, we see two types of separation thesis. There is a separation thesis that exists separately within either positive law or natural law itself, and there is a separation thesis concerning the separation of positive law from natural law.

Imagine a judge who must decide the case before her. Let us assume that the judge is a legal positivist who thinks that she ought to judge the case according to the law and that she ought not to let her moral opinions influence her decision.

The judge fails before she even begins. Her first decision involved answering a moral question – whether she morally ought to apply the law as written and morally ought not to allow her moral principles to impact her decision. In answering this question, she has already allowed a moral opinion to impact her decision.

In fact, I find it difficult to see how anybody who is not a moral nihilist (who rejects the very idea of morality) can prevent moral principles from impacting a decision. The decision constitutes an action. As an action, it is governed by moral principles. There is an “ought” and “ought not” applicable to what she does.

Of course, on the natural law side, there is no problem linking natural law to natural morality. Natural law is simply an expression of natural morality.

So, on the anthropological/sociological descriptive side, we have a positive law (the descriptive law at a particular place and time) linked to positive morality (the descriptive morality of a particular place and time). On the natural law side we have a natural law linked to natural morality.

Then there is the question of a “separation thesis” between positive law/morality and natural law/morality. In this case, the answer is, “Of course there exists a separation, just as there is a separation between Newtonian physics and the physics of the real world, Ancient Egyptian astronomy and the real-world facts concerning the stars and planets, and Darwin’s theory of evolution and evolution as it exists."

Bridging the Gap
Having said this, there is a way to bridge the gap between positive law and natural law. I will argue that we find an example of this in the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights contains phrases such as:

  • The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed (Amendment II)
  • The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. (Amendment IV)
  • No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation (Amendment V)
  • Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. (Amendment VIII)

These terms: “right”, “unreasonable”, “due process”, “just”, “excessive”, and “cruel” are value-laden terms. They require a judgment of value.

The question to be answered here is whether these terms are best understood as using the sociological/anthropological sense of the term (the beliefs about value that exist at the time), or the natural law sense of the term (the moral facts).

The doctrine of “originalism” seems to prefer the anthropological/sociological concept. Under this interpretation, the person interpreting the amendment is invited to try to discover, through an examination of history, what the term “right”, “unreasonable”, “just”, etc. meant to the people living at the time that they were writing the amendment. This requires a study of history, anthropology, sociology, and the culture at the time the Constitution was written. In a sense, this “freezes” the Bill of Rights in a certain era and keeps it in that era until some deliberate act (e.g., an additional amendment or revision) applies a new set of anthropological/sociological facts.

The alternative to this is that these terms use the natural law sense of the term. Under this interpretation, the Amendment refers to a moral fact that exists in the world independent of anybody’s beliefs or opinions. There exists, in the real world, a right to be secure in one’s persons, houses, papers, and effects. There exists, in the real world, an objective fact of the matter as to whether a search is reasonable or unreasonable. On this interpretation, it does not matter what the founding fathers believed. They could very well have been wrong. What matters, instead, is what the moral facts – the natural law – say to be right, to be reasonable, to count as due process, to be just or excessive or cruel.

As I see it, even the legal positivist would have to come to the conclusion that the value-laden terms in the Bill of Rights (and other parts of the Constitution) refer to the natural law - to the moral fact of the matter, not to the beliefs of the founding fathers.

This is because, as a matter of anthropological/sociological fact, when the founding fathers made moral claims, they assumed the existence of independent moral facts and they were using moral terms to refer to those independent facts. They were not using those terms to refer to their beliefs about those facts. So when they wrote about “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” they assumed that there was, in the world, a thing called a “right” and that this thing, whatever it is, is that which the people had. They did not have this right in virtue of the fact that the founding fathers believed it. Nor could one infallibly determine its size, scope, or limitations by examining the beliefs of the founding fathers. The person who wanted to see the size, scope, and limitations of this right had to look at the right itself and determine what these limits were in fact.

This view of morality is blatantly obvious in looking at the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . .

This is not talking about a right that exists only because the founding fathers believed that it exists. This is talking about a right that exists in fact – and the purpose of governments is to secure rights that exist in fact. Consequently, to determine what the right is that the government needs to secure, one needs to look, not at the beliefs of the founding fathers, but at the right that exists in fact.

Of course, all of this assumes that there are rights that exist in fact. If there are no such rights, then this would imply that the Bill of Rights is empty. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects cannot be abridged by any law if there is no right to abridge. The right to bear arms cannot be violated if there does not exist, in nature as determined by natural moral law, a right to bear arms that can be abridged.

And, of course, on this interpretation, judges are being commanded by the Constitution to apply – not their own moral opinions to the case – but the moral facts insofar as they can determine what those facts are.

The Second Amendment
This comment emerged in the context of a discussion of repealing the Second Amendment. On this view, if we look at the intentions of the founding fathers the amendment says that there exists in nature a genuine right to bear arms, and its size, scope, and limitations exist in nature as a matter of fact. We then need to investigate that right to determine its size, scope, and limitations in fact. If there is no such right in fact, than the Amendment is empty. No law can infringe on a right that does not exist in nature. The assertion in the Bill of Rights that such a right exists does not make the assertion true. And if it does exist, we still need to look at the right itself to determine its size, scope, and limitations - whether it applies to the private ownership of thermonuclear bombs or whether there is no such right.

We get to this answer regardless of whether we follow the path given us by the Legal Positivist or the Natural Law theorist, on the grounds that the authors of the Second Amendment themselves were Natural Law theorists.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Here is yet another episode in the continuing drama of "moral philosophers wasting their time."

I know . . . it's still too harsh.

This is a problem with much of my writing. I have an idea of what "sells" - what attracts readers - what would boost popularity. However, I tend to find it substantially immoral. Appealing to tribal loyalties, for example, would probably tend to members of the tribe promoting my work. Instead, I argue against tribalism and write against those tribes that would otherwise likely adopt me as one of their own.

People also seem to prefer arrogant and condescending writers. They can certainly generate a lot more comments. But I can only be arrogant and condescending if I immediately apologize for it. That doesn't work.

Anyway, the issue that I want to discuss today is supererogation.

Supererogation are praiseworthy acts that go above and beyond the call of duty. It happens when there is some act that there are moral reasons to do - e.g., donate a substantial portion of one's income or one's extra kidney - to others, yet doing less than this is morally permissible.

Katie Steele presented the dilemma as follows:

(1) If there is more moral reason (it is more praiseworthy) to do act Y as compared to do act X, it is not permissible from the moral point of view (it is blameworthy) to do X. (I have an obligation to pay you $50. If I pay you $40 instead, I still owe you $10 and can be blamed for cheating you out of $10 if I do not pay it.)

(2) There is more moral reason to perform supererogatory acts compared to non-supererogatory acts. (There are moral reasons to give more of your wealth to those in need than less, or to give your unused kidney to somebody who needs one than to keep it for yourself.)

(3) It is permissible, from a moral point of view, to do (some) non-supererogatory acts. (It is morally permissible to give less to charity or to keep your kidney to yourself.)

(4) There are some supererogatory acts (e.g., donating a substantial portion of your income or donating a kidney).

I am not going to go over Katie's suggestion for dealing with this dilemma . . . I believe that the terms of the workshop would not allow me to share her position as it is a work in progress.

However, I can give the desirist answer.

Praise and blame exist to do work. They aim to perform a function - to mold the desires of character, promoting desires and aversions that people have reason to promote.

The effect of praise and blame are not going to be uniform across the population. As with most things, we can expect a bell-shaped distribution curve. They will be more effective on some than on others. There will, in fact, be a segment of the population that they will be particularly effective on. These people will acquire the desired preferences to a particularly strong degree.

It makes no sense to blame people for failure to reach a level of virtue that only 1% of the population is capable of reaching. That would require perpetually condemning 99% of the population where that condemnation would be ineffective. In fact, these unreasonable demands could potentially weaken the effectiveness of blame, reducing its ability to encourage people to adopt good desires and aversions to the degree that a more rational use of this tool would make possible.

On the other hand, there is certainly good reason to praise the top 1% - because we do have reason to encourage these traits to the degree that we are able to do so. We have a reason to invent the term "hero" and apply the term to those who go "above and beyond the call of duty."

These, then, are the supererogatory actions - those that it makes sense to praise, but where it does not make sense to blame or condemn those who fail to perform them.

In the previous argument, this calls into question Premise 1. There are actions that there are more moral reason to perform (praiseworthy) where the failure to perform those actions are not blameworthy. These are the actions of the top X% of what the tools of praise and condemnation make possible.

Oh, I wrote Katie Steele and offered my suggestion above.

Her response: Thanks for this. I think your account sounds here sounds plausible. I think it is roughly compatible though with one of the options that I was suggesting – the idea that the ‘permissible set’ (of non-blameworthy) options represents what is ‘morally decent’, where that may merely be a matter of social convention. Amongst these options, some are still recognisably morally better. You offer a potential story for why these two sorts of judgements might be socially useful…

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Against Any Intrinsic Life-Value

Welcome to another episode of "Moral Philosophers Wasting Their Time".

Okay . . . that's too harsh and condescending.

But, it is the case that a lot of work being done in moral philosophy seems to be grounded on false assumptions, meaning that a great deal of work is being done to no useful end.

I spent all day Monday attending a workshop on "Formal Value Theory". Two of the presentations concerned moral theories that are built on false assumptions of intrinsic value.

One of the two presentations concerned another version of what, in moral philosophy, is known as The Repugnant Conclusion.

For all practical purposes, the argument goes as follows:

Assume that you have a population of, say, 100 entities each of them are having a quality of life that we shall arbitrarily assign a value of 100 units. Such a life is going twice as well as a life that has 50 units of value. These numbers are merely for illustrative purposes. All we really need to know is that one life can go batter than another. The life of a person in constant pain is better than the life of a person who only infrequently experiences pain. If you imagine your own future, I am confident that you see some possible futures as being better than their alternatives.

So, we have our community of 100 people each with a life that has 100 unites of value.

If we lower the value and add numbers of people, we can create a community that has more overall value than the one we have. So, let us say that we cut the value of each life in half (to 50 units), but we add another 101 people. Where the previous world had 10,000 units of value, this new world has 10,050 units of value. The latter is better. On the hypothesis that we should maximize total life-value, we should bring about the latter world.

Now, let us cut the value of each life in half again - to 25 units. And, again, we double the number of people in the world and add one. Now, we have a world with 10,075 total units of value. This is a better world still.

If we keep doing this - if we keep reducing the quality of life but increasing the number of people experiencing life at that level of quality, so long as the overall value remains positive, we can make the world a better and better place. One billion people with a quality of life of 0.000011 will have 11,000 total life value units - or 10% more than that of the world with 100 people experiencing 100 life-value units each.

Of course, all of this is premised on the idea that life-value units are to be maximized.

Desirism denies that there is any type of intrinsic value to be maximized. Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. And the value of the state of affairs in which people have particular desires is evaluated according to its relationship to other desires. The Repugnant Conclusion gives us reason to reject the idea that there is an intrinsically good "life value" to be maximized and, in so doing, gives us a reason to reject alternatives to desirism.

How does desirism see this problem?

Ask people, what type of future do they desire for their - say - great grandchildren. If they had to choose between a society in which their great grandchild were 1 of 100 people with a life value of 100, or one of 1 billion people having a life value of 0.000011, which would they choose?

I strongly suspect that few would select the repugnant conclusion. Indeed, people will tend to find that option repugnant.

Yet, a lot of moral philosophers are still pushing this idea that there is something like a life value to be maximized - the assumptions that lead to this type of conclusion. Usually, they are talking about maximizing happiness, or well-being, or pleasure over pain. There is even a desire satisfaction version that argues that desire satisfaction has intrinsic value to that the goal of morality is to maximize desire satisfaction. This means creating more people with more desires to be satisfied. This is supposed to be an intrinsically good thing.

These moral philosophers could spend their time more productively if they could accept that arguments such as these refuse the thesis that there is an intrinsic value to be maximized and, instead, looked at value not as an intrinsic property, but as a relational property. Value relates states of affairs and desires. The repugnant conclusion is simply not a conclusion that people have many (if any) reason to desire.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Is and Ought Revisited

A useful Facebook discussion . . .

Yes, such creatures apparently do exist. Don't interrupt.

A useful Facebook discussion has given me to revisit the derivation of 'ought' from 'is' and examine some of its elements with a bit more care.

Here is the standard derivation that I have given to a hypothetical 'ought'.

P1: Agent desires that P
P2: Doing A will realize P
C: Therefore, Agent ought to do A.

Now, in order to make this into a valid argument, we need to specify some of the details.

First, let us examine the premise: Agent desires that P

Agent desires that P

Agent desire that P implies that Agent has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which P is true. This is what it means to have a desire. Desires provide motives to act. An aversion is a desire that not-P, so aversions also provide reasons to act - reasons to prevent the realization of states of affairs in which P is true.

Doing A will realize P

The Facebook discussion made me realize that I was hiding an implicit assumption in this. In order for this inference to work out, we must define realize in this context to mean that doing A will realize a state of affairs in which P is true, and not doing A will prevent the realization of states of affairs in which P is true.

You see, if we stick with a concept of realize where it simply means creating a state of affairs in which P is true then there will be cases when the premises are both true and the conclusion is false. These are cases where doing A will realize a state of affairs in which P is true, but not doing A will also realize a state of affairs in which P is true. That is to say, P will be made or kept true no matter what I did. I desire that the sun will come up in the morning . . . this is true. It is also true that, if I do a chicken dance, the sun will come up in the morning. It does not follow from this that I ought to do a chicken dance because it is also true that if I do not do a chicken dance, the sun will come up in the morning.

So, lesson learned: We must understand doing A will realize P to mean that doing A will bring about a state of affairs in which P is true and not doing A will bring about a state of affairs in which P is false. Now the agent has a reason to do A.

Therefore, Agent ought to do A

This part has always been something that I needed to be clear about.

The sense of ought that I talk about here is prima facie ought. It is a sense of ought that means nothing more than has a prima facie reason to do A. This is a reason that can be outweighed by other reasons that the agent has. It is a kind of reason that should be outweighed by other reasons that the agent should have. It is not a moral ought. It is not an all-things-considered ought.

Here is a same argument presented in this discussion - modified somewhat to eliminate some confusing elements.

P1. (premise) You have a desire to have money.
P2. (premise) Taking your friend's money will satisfy that desire.
C. (conclusion) Therefore, you ought to take your friend's money

Now, of course this argument is not valid if we take the 'ought' in the conclusion to be a moral ought or an all-things-considered ought.

In the case of the all-things-considered ought the argument only considers one thing, not all things.

In the case of moral ought, I have argued elsewhere that moral ought is not grounded on the desires the agent has. It is ground on the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally. So, these premises do not justify a moral-ought conclusion.

I can illustrate the prima facie reason easily enough by imagining that the money turned up missing. Now, as the crime investigation team, we need to determine who took it. We ask, "Who has a motive?"

Well, in fact, everybody has a motive to take the money in that everybody has at least one desire that can be better fulfilled by taking the money. Our list of suspects starts off being quite large - and it is large precisely because the argument above is valid for everybody. The conclusion is true in the sense that . . . yeah, you have a reason to take your friend's money. But, this is not an all-things-considered ought which would also consider your aversion to harming your friend or with damaging your friendship. Nor is it a moral ought that considers the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an aversion to taking the property of others.

With these elements in place, we can see how we can derive an ought from an is. From this foundation, we can build more complex oughts, such as practical oughts and moral oughts.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Hume on Causation

I have heard from multiple sources that all conversation concerning causation starts with Hume.

In An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume defined causation as follows:

We may define a cause to be an object followed by another, and where all the objects, similar to the first, are followed by objects similar to the second. Or, in other words, where if the first object had not been, the second never would have existed.

The first half of this quote is quite similar to the idea of pragmatic causation that I have been suggesting in the previous posts: A cause is that which we have reason to manipulate in virtue of the fact that, through it, we can bring about that which we desire or prevent the realization of that to which we have an aversion.

Note, however, that this account of practical causation differs from Hume's definition in that it includes an element whereby manipulating the cause is a means of manipulating the effect. Hume's definition is binary; A either is or is not followed by B. The account of practical causation says that we can manipulate B by manipulating A. Now, either bringing into existence or denying existence of something is one form of manipulation. However, the account of practical causation at least makes clearer the fact that, for example, we can turn a dial to make the music louder or quieter, or make the light in a room brighter or dimmer.

One of the criticisms of Hume is that his theory of constant conjunction seems to identify certain things as causes that we typically do not accept to be causes. A standard example is the fact that night always follows day. Indeed, all "objects" (it would make more sense to use the term 'state of affairs') similar to a day are followed by objects similar to night. Yet, we do not say that day causes night or night causes day. Rather, we say that day and night have a common cause - the fact that the earth spins on its axis.

The pragmatic account of causation, in that it includes an element that looks at what we can manipulate in order to change the effect, avoids this objection. If we look at that which we can manipulate to bring about a change in the effect we discover that there are things that we can manipulate that will bring about a similar effect in both day and night. We can increase the length of the day (and the night) by slowing the spin of the Earth. We can eliminate the day and create a permanent night by eliminating the sun.

So, the practical view of causation respects the fact that the day and the night have a common cause - that which we can manipulate in order to influence both of them.

Off of the top of my head, I fear that this account of causation is going to be considered circular. After all, "that which we can manipulate" seems to be assuming causation, and thus it is assuming that which we are trying to explain. How do we account for the fact that the manipulation of A brings about a change in B? This "bringing about a change in" is the very subject of causation that we are trying to understand.

If we look to Hume for an answer to this question, we acquire this knowledge from experience. We learn that the conscious manipulation of A brings about a change in B in regular ways that we can observe and understand. By experience we learn that the manipulation of A brings about a change in B.

Note that this still contains a significant difference with respect to Hume's account of causation. Hume describes causation in terms of the regular connection between events, while the pragmatic view of causation looks at the conscious manipulation of A to bring about a change in B. Or, at the very least, it is something where we have reason to expect that if we could manipulate A (e.g., slow down the rotation of the earth), then we could bring about a change in B (the length of the sun). This is information we acquire through observation.

This also provides us with a way of acquiring a more precise definition of "objects similar to" the cause and the effect. Objects "similar to" the cause are those that we can manipulate that will bring about a change in the effect. Objects "similar to" the effect are those that are changed by manipulating the cause.

Experience tells us that by changing the color of a light switch we do not change the capacity of the light switch to turn the light on and off. Thus, the color does not cause the light to go on or off. It is not something that we can change to manipulate the effect. Similarly, something is "similar to" the light going on if it is something that will illuminate when switch is turned on. A different light bulb, a heating lamp that fits into the same socket, or a heater plugged into the same socket, are all objects similar to the light in that they are things we can manipulate by turning the switch on and off.

By defining "similar to" as that which we learn through observation that we can manipulate in order to bring about changes in the effect, then this is not circular. This is empirical. It fits in with Hume's basic empiricist assumptions.

Note that I have written this entire post concentrating on the first half of Hume's quote. I have said little about the second half - "where if the first object had not bee, the second never had existed". Though it follows from what I have said that this is a poor restatement of the first premise. The first statement allows for the manipulation of the properties of the second object by manipulating the first. The second statement is entirely black and white, 'exists' or 'does not exist'. I do not think that causation is as binary as this second statement seems to require.

Philosophers' Communication Problem - Causation

Philosophers seem to have a pathological dislike of having their claims be comprehensible to real people.

I am going to add “cause” to my list of examples. Here, "cause" joins terms such as “realism” and “anti-realism”, and “objective” and “subjective”, as terms that philosophers use in a way that is destined to confuse more people than it helps.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the Philosopher David Lewis distinguishes “causation” from “explanation”.

He defines “causation” as that which occurs in nature independent of intelligent thought. For example, a collision between a Mars-sized planetoids and an early Earth caused the moon to form.

Explanation, he claims, applies to what Humans do as we look for “the cause” of accidents, wars, famines, good harvests, and economic prosperity.

The problem is that what Lewis calls “explanation”, the rest of the world calls “cause”. The term “explanation” can be used to talk about a relationship between cause and effect. However, when we ask for an explanation we are usually asking for a description. For example, “Explain the meaning of ‘We the People” as it appears in the Constitution", or, "Explain the process for determining the velocity of an unladen sparrow."

Lewis' application of terms to the issue of causation would be like deciding to use the word “ball” to refer to a tendency to bounce off solid objects and using the term “red” for the spherical object thrown against solid objects to demonstrate its 'ball'. We already have perfectly good English terms for these things: ‘ball’ = elasticity and ‘red’ = ball. The rest of the world would find what this person says a lot easier to understand if he - and those who commented on his work, would simply use the terms in their standard English way.

We invented (and are continuing to modify) language language primarily to use as a tool for realizing our desires. It would only make sense that our language would have a convenient way to refer to, "that which we can manipulate that will help us to realize that which is important to us." The word we use is “cause” as in “the cause” or “a cause”. Since knowing what we can manipulate in order to realize what we desire is useful to us, I suspect that we will continue to use the word 'cause' primarily in this way.

Of course, we have the capacity to recognize that there are relationships between one state of affairs and another in the sense that, "If we did have an interest in realizing or preventing the relation of the effect, we would manipulate the cause." Conequently, we have a way of applying this term for what we have both the ability and a motive to manipulate to that which we may only hypothetically want to manipulate. Consequently, even though no person was around to witness the formation of a moon, we can still ask and answer the question, "If we wanted to create a moon, what would we have focused our attention on that could have realized the formation of a moon?" We can ask the same question concerning the extinction of the dinosaurs, the formation of the milky way galaxy, the death of a star, or the fact that ice floats on water.

So, we do have an expanded sense of the word 'cause' that goes beyond what we actually care about. However, it is built on a concept of 'cause' that is concerned with realizing what we do, in fact, care about.

The bulk of philosophical discussion seems to be focused on this expanded concept of 'cause'. However, discussions keep getting derailed by linguistic intuitions concerning how we would actually use the word 'cause' - and those intuitions cannot be divorced from actual or hypothetical human desires.

So, it seems, not only are these philosophers good at confusing us, they are just as good at confusing each other.

I intend to use the word 'cause' to refer to 'that which we can manipulate in order to realize that which we desire or to prevent the realization of that to which we have aversions." I will sometimes extend this usage to ask about things that would have been good objects of manipulation if we had wanted to realize or prevent some state of affairs.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Responsibility for the 2016 Presidential Election

Who can we blame for the fact that Trump became President in 2016?

In my previous post, I presented an account of practical causality. It states that the cause of something is the type of thing that we can we can influence to bring bout a type of state that we desire or prevent a type of state to which we are adverse.

At least, that is the cause we have reason to care about. There is another, broader type of causation - but that alternative type includes a lot of things we do not care about (excluding a very small number of scholars and a few others).

So, I want to look at this account of practical causation with respect to a real-world causal problem.

Who can we blame for the fact that Trump became President?

The first thing to note is that, even though we look for "the cause", it is often not the case that there is one and only one cause. The only time that there is one and only one cause is if there is one and only thing of a type that we could have changed to have prevented the realization of a state of affairs in which Trump became President.

Many people use this linguistic convention as a rhetorical trick to avoid moral responsibility. In conditions where more than one wrong action contributes to an avoidable bad state of affairs, each person who contributed to realizing that which ought not have been realized points a finger at the other causes and cries, "It's their fault!" The embedded assumption that there is one and only one cause then allows the individual to draw the false conclusion, "If they are the cause, then I cannot be the cause."

However, in the real world, it is often the case that there is more than one cause. Each cause is a type of event that we can influence which, if we influence that type of event in the right way, will prevent the realization of types of states of affairs such as Trump becoming President.

As it turns out, anything that would have brought about a shift of 6,000 votes in Michigan, 22,000 votes in Pennsylvania, 11,000 votes in Wisconsin and was morally culpable can be listed as being "to blame" for Trump winning the 2016 election.

Of course, there is a large obvious set of candidates of who is to blame - including Trump, the Republican National Committee, and those who rallied behind, worked for, and contributed to the Trump campaign. But, let's look a bit beyond the obvious into some of the potentially controversial causes.

Sexism - particularly implicit bias: This was certainly to blame for the election results. A person suffering from implicit bias did not vote against Clinton because she was a woman. Instead, this voter found some other excuse to vote against Clinton. One likely source is that the thought of voting for a woman gave the voter a general feeling of uneasiness. Without realizing that their uneasiness resulted from sexism, they interpreted their sentiments as, "I don't trust her" or "I just don't like her" or in attributing certain wrongs to her where they would not have drawn the same conclusion about a male candidate based on the same evidence. In short, they used make-believe or exaggerated reasons other than sexism to reject a candidate that sexism made them feel uneasy about.

Bernie Sanders. Yes, Bernie Sanders is to blame for Clinton's defeat. It is not just that he weakened her as a candidate. A greater harm came from his "us" versus "them" tribal rhetoric. Humans are built to respond to this way of thinking with increased polarization and hatred - even intolerance - of "the other". Tribal thinking, once it is established, closes the mind to reason and evidence. This is why you find groups (tribes) with such absurd beliefs - this is tribalism dominating reason. It does not matter that Sanders endorsed Clinton later. He created a tribe whose members simply took his later endorsement as a betrayal of the tribe. Sanders' tribalism had another effect - it worked hand-in-hand with the Russian campaign to tip the election in favor of Trump. Sanders plowed the ground and planted the seeds. The Russians tended the crops and harvested its fruit.

The Russian meddling. Russia selected America's president. Putin looked at the candidates, pointed to Trump, and said, "I want that one," then invested several million dollars in a campaign of mostly illegal activity to get his preferred candidate elected. Saying that Putin selected the US President is to be interpreted as simply restating this causal relationship. Putin's contributions to the Trump campaign likely flipped more than 40,000 voters in the states listed above, which gave the election to Trump.

Of course, sexism itself worked with Putin and Sanders to give the election to Trump. Implicit bias made people more willing to embrace Sanders' tribal rhetoric and more eager to see merit in what has since been shown to be Putin's campaign rhetoric.

Post-Fact Thinking: Many people simply do not care whether their political rhetoric is true or false. The speed at which false claims spread on social media is proof of this. People share false and misleading information at the drop of a tweet. If it supports a conclusion that they like - they accept it, they share it, and they endorse it. While there is no condemnation given to those who spread misinformation, those who attempt to correct misinformation are attacked. A greater general aversion to false beliefs and deception would have meant less misinformation on social media, and more people basing their votes on the facts.

This lack of interest in the truth was, of course, also useful to Putin and his team. Their campaign largely consisted in filling social media with lies and distortions that those who have no interest in the truth were more than eager to share on social media, freely helping the Russians to harm America and its interests and its people.

Let me return to the purpose of this post - to give a practical application to the practical theory of causation. These are all causes in the practical causation sense in that they represent the types of things that are under our control that we can change to prevent the types of harms that we have suffered from happening in the future.

The things we can do to make things better in the future:

(1) Recognize and work on eliminating or correcting for - or at least preventing the worst outcomes of - our implicit biases.

(2) Shunning and shutting down "us" versus "them" tribal political rhetoric.

(3) Setting up defenses against Russian style political meddling - at the very least warning others what to expect and how to fight back. (Something the Trump administration and leaders in the current legislature seem quite unwilling to do.)

(4) Worry a lot more about whether the claims that we are spreading on social media are true - or whether we just want them to be true because they fit our political narrative.

This represents how to put the theory of practical causation to practical use.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pragmatic Causation

Yesterday, I mentioned that philosophers distinguish between the causation that occurs when there are no people (e.g., the meteor that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs), and the causation that people are interested in (whether Russian meddling was responsible for Trump being elected President).

On the surface, they seem quite similar.

However, when we look at the first type of cause, we tend to include things that people are not actually interested in. In earlier posts I mentioned the case of saying that the house fire was caused by the existence of oxygen in the room. This is true in the metaphysical-causal sense in that if there had been no oxygen in the room there would have been no fire. However, this is not the cause we are interested in. Consequently, it is not the moral/responsible cause of the fire.

We could also say that building the house itself caused the fire. If the house had never been built, it never would have caught fire. Yet, again, this is not the type of cause we are interested in. Thus, though building the house was, in one sense, the cause of it burning down, it was neither the cause in the moral/responsible sense or in the useful sense.

In considering this broader sense of cause, I must say that I have no interest in the causes that people generally have no reason to be interested in. This means that I find it hard to find the motivation to investigate this type of cause other than the need to create a paper for class and turn it in.

Yet, I am drawn to the thesis that this type of cause would not even exist except that people have a need and a use for a more pragmatic sense of "cause".

If we look at cause through a pragmatic lens, it seems to me to take something of the form, "things like A tend to cause things like B" means "if you want to control things like B, then you should look for ways to control things like A."

Of course, "wanting to control things like B" comes from the motivation to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of our desires are true.

One of the things I have noticed about pragmatic causation is . . .

In the general discussion of causation, people like to link specific causes to specific events. Whereas in pragmatic causation, people link "things like the cause" to "things like the effect". They are more general. While we may look at the cause of the Great Depression, we are actually more interested in the kinds of things that have effects like that of the Great Depression. When we look for the cause of an automobile accident we are looking for the types of things that tend to cause things like automobile accidents.

We do this because our interest in avoiding economic depressions and automobile accidents cause us to wonder what we can do - what actions we can take - to prevent economic depressions and automobile accidents. This causes us to look for types of causes that we can act on - that we can influence - in our quest to manipulate effects.

Even causes that we seem to be able to do nothing about are susceptible to pragmatic consideration. When we look for the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs we are looking for things the likes of which can bring about a mass extinction. In finding that "the cause" is an asteroid impact, we learn that if we wish to avoid our own mass extinction, we should look for the possibility of an asteroid impact. If the cause of the dinosaur extinction was disease, it causes us to look for the possibility of preventing a human extinction by our study of diseases.

In other words, we are looking to control something that is like the asteroid impact or pathogen that could have an effect that is something like the extinction of the dinosaurs - namely, human extinction.

Our interest in looking for the cause of the automobile accident is to find out whether there is "something like that which caused the accident that we can act on or manipulate" which can be the cause of "something like that accident." This way, we can act on that which seems to be the cause of the accident (e.g., drunk driving) in order to reduce that type of effect (automobile accidents).

This, to me, simply seems to be a more sensible concept of causation.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Causation versus Explanation

It turns out that the ideas that I posted yesterday - my "pre-study" ideas of causation - turn out to be philosophically . . . um . . . wrong.

I want to remind the reader that I have never studied theories of causation outside of the realm of moral responsibility. I am learning as I go. And, mayhaps, I can help you to learn as I go as well.

Recall that I postulated that we adopted the idea of "cause" for practical reasons. We have an interest in making certain propositions true or false (that which is the objects of our desires). We invented the idea of "cause" to identify those things, the manipulating of which, can bring about or avoid that which we desire or towards which we have an aversion.

Problem: Causes (and effects) would exist even if we did not exist with our desires to identify them. If I make causes dependent on our desires then, in the absence of our desires, there would be no causes. Yet, this conclusion seems to be false. This gives us reason to reject the original assumption.

Logic can be so annoying sometimes.

David Lewis distinguishes between 'causation' and 'explanation'. He understands explanation as being dependent on us. Indeed, the explanation of something is the cause that we care about. So, the presence of oxygen in the air may be a part of the cause of the house burning down, but it is not a part of the cause that we care about (since we are not going to start building houses without oxygen). The cause that we care about (the short circuit, the stove set on high and the owner falling asleep, the arsonist) is what 'explains' the fire. It is through this concept of explanation that we can assign moral responsibility.

However, there is still this 'cause' that we may or may not have reason to care about. That is 'causation' itself - what the philosophers are interested in.

This leads to a potential source of confusion.

If there are causes that we care about, then there is at least a possibility of causes that we do not care about.

This leads to a problem since one of the ways we evaluate theories of causation is by testing them against our linguistic intuitions. Somebody proposes a theory of causation, we imagine how it would work in specific instances, and we check whether we would, intuitively, call that a cause or not.

For example, Tom places a bomb that would kill Susan if it goes off. Pete notices the bomb and disarms it. Pete, we may say, saved Susan's life in that if Pete had not disarmed the bomb, then Susan would have been blown up. Fortunately, Pete had a pair of wirecutters in his pocket because he had been working on some home repairs. If Pete had not put the wire cutters in his pocket, he would not have been able to save Susan's life. So, we can say that one of the causes of Susan's life being spared was Pete's having a pair of wirecutters which, in turn, was caused by his doing home repairs.

However, it is also the case that if Tom had not placed the bomb, that Pete would not have been able to save Susan's life. So, Pete's saving Susan's life was caused, in part, by Tom placing a bomb. So, do we credit Tom with placing the bomb in virtue of the fact that, "If you had not placed the bomb, then Pete would not have been able to save Susan's life."

That seems odd, right?

However, we must distinguish between the causes and explanations. Tom's placing the bomb may have caused the event that resulted in Pete's saving Susan's life. However, Tom's placing the bomb did not save Susan's life. This is because Tom's placing a bomb, though a part of the cause, is not a part of the cause that we care about. So, it is not a part of the 'explanation' for how Susan's life was saved. Tom gets no moral credit.

So, we are going to need to keep this distinction between 'causation' and 'explanation' in mind as we look at the philosophy of causation.

And note that what I wrote yesterday may be more of a theory of 'explanation' than a theory of 'causation'.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Thoughts on Causation and Responsibility

The next section on my Metaphysics and Epistemology course is "causation".

As I have reported earlier, I have studied value theory - without much emphasis on metaphysics and epistemology. However, on the subject of causation, there is an area of overlap.

That area concerns moral responsibility. To say that Agent A is responsible for an accident is to say that, in a sense, he caused it. So, it seems, having a theory of responsibility requires having a theory of causation.

Before getting into this study of causation, there are two preliminary points worthy of consideration.

(1) Free Will

In discussing moral responsibility, one of the first topics to come up is that of free will. We cannot hold a person responsible for an action unless, in some sense, he "could have done otherwise". This is often taken to assume that the agent has some strange contra-causal power that allows him to break the laws of physics and cause matter to go one way or another - to perform one action instead of another - regardless of what would happen under the determined laws of physics.

Desirism is unique, I think, among moral theories in that it not only denies the existence of free will, it denies that the free will hypothesis has anything to do with morality. Morality was invented in a determined universe and it was invented so that it works in a determined universe. Those thinkers who postulated some sort of free will were wrong from the start.

Typically, philosophers distinguish positions regarding free will having to do with different positions on two different questions:

Question 1: Do humans have free will?

Question 2: Is free will required for moral responsibility?

Libertarianism (not to be confused with the political view, with which it has no necessary connection): The position known as "libertarianism" says that the answers are "yes" (humans have free will) and "yes" (free will is required for moral responsibility). This is considered the standard or default view of morality as it is practiced. We hold people morally responsible for actions when they could have done otherwise and, because humans have free will, they could have done otherwise - unless compelled to act by some outside force.

Hard Determinism: The position known as "Hard Determinism" says that the answers are "no" (humans do not have free will) and "yes" (free will is required for moral responsibility), which means that there is no such thing as moral responsibility. This whole practice of holding people morally responsible for their actions is a mistake. We are all only doing that which prior historical events cause us to do and to say that we are to be condemned because we could have done otherwise is a mistake.

Soft Determinism/Compatibilism: The position known as "soft determinism", also often known as "compatibilism," effectively argues that the answers are "no" (humans do not have free will) and "no" (free will is not required for moral responsibility). What is required for moral responsibility is that one's actions are caused by one's character or the type of person one is - by one's own beliefs and desires. When the action is caused by the type of person you are - with who you are as a person - then you are responsible for that action even though you are the type of person you are as a result of the determined laws of nature.

Desirism is a particular kind of soft determinism. One of the problems with compatibilism is that it says that A is compatible with B - that the two can exist side by side in moral harmony. It allows that a type of "free will" is compatible with determinism because it defines "free will" in terms of acting on one's own beliefs and desires - with auctions being caused by the type of person one is. Desirism is a particularly harsh form of compatibilism because it dismisses free will entirely. It does not want to live in peace and harmony with "free will". It wants to dump "free will" entirely - kick it out of the house and be rid of it. It was a bad idea at the start and it remains a bad idea.

Instead, desirism holds that the actions that one is responsible for are those that come from one's character, and that character itself is under the influence of praise and condemnation (reward and punishment). We hold people responsible for their actions because, in a determined world, holding people responsible (reward and punishment; praise and condemnation) has effects on people's character, and we have reason to value those effects.

(2) Practical Responsibility

So, fine, a person is morally responsible for an act when it comes from a part of his or her character that is susceptible to change through praise/reward and condemnation/punishment.

This still does not give us a theory of causation.

On this matter, I have tended to adopt a pragmatic view of cause. To say "A causes B" is to say, "Hey, as a matter of practicality, if we want to control B, then the best way to do this is to find some way to control A."

So, a house burns down. The fire marshal is interested in what caused the fire. It wasn't caused by the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere - we certainly are not going to start building oxygen-free houses. It was caused by faulty wiring, since we can change wiring codes and install safety measures (e.g., circuit breakers) that reduce the chance of fires due to wiring.

And, so, a person is responsible for an action when the action is caused by a part of his character that we can influence using reward/praise and condemnation/punishment. We hold people morally responsible for actions - and apply reward/praise and condemnation/punishment to the action, precisely because it was caused by a type of character trait vulnerable to reward/raise and condemnation/punishment.

Cause by Absence

I think one of the merits of this type of account of causation is that it makes sense of the possibility of the absence of something being a cause.

What caused the fatal accident?

Answer: A callous disregard for the interests of other people on the part of the machine operator.

Most competing theories of causation require that, to make sense of A causing B, there must be an A that causes B. They have no place for the possibility that the absence of A can cause B.

However, on this practical cause model, we can make sense. If the absence of A is something that we can influence - something that we can change - in order to prevent further occurrences of B, then "the absence of A" is a perfectly reasonable cause of B. It simply means that we have the power, in the future, to make it more likely that there will be an A. In the example above, we need to promote a regard for the well-being of others, which we can do (in part) by registering condemnation or punishing those who display a callous disregard for the interests of others.

Friday, March 09, 2018

A Better Voter

A recent facebook conversation brought up what seems to be a logical error with a current political strategy.

The claim is that, if we provide people with better political candidates, that people will vote for them, and that this will improve the quality of our legislators.

The problem with this view . . . .

It assumes that voters have not had better political candidates in the past.

When we realize that voters have had an opportunity to select better political candidates in the past and rejected them, then we have to question the idea that the best way to get better legislators today is to invest our time and effort into presenting them with better political candidates today.

In fact, what we should be expecting is that voters are going to do the same to the new and improved political candidates we offer that they have done to the old but better political candidates in the past and reject them - putting into office the same type of bad legislators that they have preferred in the past over the higher quality candidates otherwise available.

This suggests that, if you want to get better legislators into public office, you are first going to have to create a better quality of voter.

Then the question becomes: How do we do that?

Here's a strategy . . . you go to everybody who disagrees with you and denigrate and belittle them, shout them down and insult them every time they try to make a point, and "block", "ignore", or otherwise silence them so that you do not need to listen to them and their pathetic, stupid ideas.

Do you think that would work?

I'm suspicious that this is not the best strategy either.

In fact, if I were to take a look at what I would consider an effective strategy, I would have to say that the model that has historically shown to be the most effective is that of the religious missionary. That is, you go into the neighborhoods of "unbelievers", dress up well, be polite and courteous, and say, "I would like to talk with you about rational voting."

It is significant to note that I said, "talk with" and not "talk to" - because an important part of this conversation is listening, finding out what the speaker actually and sincerely cares about, and addressing those concerns.

The process requires taking into consideration certain facts about human psychology. One of the most important facts is that people need to be a part of a community. Ripping an individual out of their community by putting them into conflict with that community is not only an impractical plan, it doesn't show much concern for the people one is talking to.

Again, religious missionaries provide the best model in that it has largely involved talking to whole communities at once. It did not seek to turn neighbor against neighbor. Instead, the missionary recognized that the only way he was going to reach the mother in a family was to reach out to the father, children, parents, siblings, and others in that person's community as well. Towards this end, they often moved into the community, sought to concern themselves with and advance the interests of the people that they aimed to serve, and to make themselves a part of the community as a whole.

History is also filled with other models. These are the models of crusade, inquisition, jihad, genocide, and holocaust. One cannot deny that they existed. Though I would hope that anybody reading this would be of the opinion that those options are morally unavailable. In looking for ways to create a better voter, we are looking for morally permissible ways - and those ways involve respect, concern, consideration, and kindness.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

What Are Desires?

A member of the studio audience asked a number of important questions.

Alonzo Fyfe states that a desire is a proposition that attaches a value to a state of affairs. This resonates with my intuitions very deeply - I remember first reading it and feeling a sudden clarity. It can go a long way to disabusing one of the supposed "fact/value" distinction that befogs minds that might otherwise be very perspicacious in ethical thinking. But as I consider this statement longer, I find that I don't really know how to interpret it. What does it mean to say that a desire "is" a proposition? Wouldn't it make more sense to say that a proposition *describes* a desire? Or that this desire is in some way analogous to a proposition? Or do you really mean that a desire is in some manner a linguistic object- that desires are composed of words? But then again, what else would a desire be composed of? Neurological impulses? Either way, assuming this is an empirical fact, how would we go about proving it, scientifically? Is it falsifiable? Is there an experiment we could perform to *prove* that a desire is a proposition that attaches a value to a state of affairs?

NOTE: I like questions from the studio audience. They force me to consider things I would not have thought of on my own.

First, a caveat. There is a lot of literature on the philosophy of mind. When I encountered this idea of propositional attitudes I realized that if I were to study these issues, I would have no time to do ethics. Therefor, I decided that I would have to trust the philosophical consensus on such matters, rather than participate in that particular debate.

Second, a caveat to the caveat. Almost all of that philosophical work concerns beliefs. When it comes to the philosophical study of desires, there is little to go on. In fact, the previous two posts focused on a case where theorists put a great deal of thought into beliefs. They then waved their hands in the direction of desires and said, “The same is true over there.” My response in those two posts was, “No, it’s not the same over there, and I can prove it.”

Now, let’s see if I have learned anything in the past few years. I think I can now give a better definition of what a desire is.

A desire is a brain state that assigns a motivational value to a proposition being true.

Let me say a few words about the parts.

Desire is a brain state: When we talk about beliefs and desires, we are talking about the structure of the brain. The claim, “Jim prefers chocolate to vanilla” is a statement about how the matter between Jim’s ears is organized. Such a hypothesis can be verified or falsified by looking at Jim’s intentional actions.

A proposition being true. This is more precise than talking about “a state of affairs”. If a desire assigns a truth value to a whole state of affairs, and that state of affairs changes (states of affairs are constantly changing), how does that relate state of affairs changes to the desire? A change is relevant (relative to that specific desire) only insofar as it is relevant to the proposition that is the object of the desire being true or false.

Motivational value: Clearly, assigning a value to something is insufficient to motivate action. Assigning the value “less than 80kg” to “my weight” does not provide a reason for action. However, assigning a motivational value (a to-be-ness) to the proposition “my weight is less than 80kg” being true gives me a reason to realize a state in which my weight is less than 80kg. However, I can also have a desire that I be eating another slice of that chocolate cake and, if the motivational value is higher, then my desire that my weight is below 80kg gets thwarted.

So, that is a desire, as I currently understand it.

So, now on to the questions:

What does it mean to say that a desire "is" a proposition?

It isn’t. It is a brain state.

Wouldn't it make more sense to say that a proposition *describes* a desire?

Try this: A proposition being true is the object of a desire. The desire is a gun. The proposition being true is the target.

Or do you really mean that a desire is in some manner a linguistic object- that desires are composed of words?

The propositions that are the objects of desires (and beliefs) cannot be words. Animals have propositional attitudes (an aversion to pain), even though it has no words.

What an animal does have is concepts. A dog has a concept of a ball. It also has a concept that refers to the same thing we would refer to by the word "owner". The dog, of course, does not have a concept of "owner" but a concept that refers to the same person. This happens in the same way that the concept of "Clark Kent" is different from the concept of "Superman" even though they both refer to the same person.

We can form relationships among concepts. I can relate the concept of "I" to "weigh less than 80kg". An example of a belief is a relationship between "I", "weigh less than 80kg" and "is true". An example of a desire is a relationship between "I", "weigh less than 80kg" and "is to be made or kept true".

I want to repeat, concepts came before words. A dog can relate the concepts of "ball", "bring back to owner", and "to be made true" without having any words.

But then again, what else would a desire be composed of? Neurological impulses?

There are probably over a hundred books and thousands of articles written on this subject. I tend to favor a view called "functionalism" which states that a desire is an arrangement of matter that relates input to output, where the output is intentional action. It is like a line on a computer program that says, "Assign to the relationship of concepts 'I' and 'weigh less than 80kg' the motivational value (strength) M"

Is there an experiment we could perform to *prove* that a desire is a proposition that attaches a value to a state of affairs?

The theory being presented here would be a metatheory - like the theory of evolution. We cannot test the theory of evolution directly. Instead, we test it by its ability to fruitfully generate other claims that can be tested - e.g., claims about the relationships between fossils and the ages of rock layers. Evolution produces a lot of testable hypothesis.

We are constantly using belief-desire theory to create hypothesi that allow us to predict and explain the behavior of other people. The ability to be able to explain, predict, and to modify the behavior of others (this being particularly important for desirism as a moral theory) by using belief-desire theory (which all of us do, all the time) is the best evidence of its truth. If the theory ever becomes replaced, it will need to be replaced by a different theory that allows us to do an even better job of explaining, predicting, and modifying behaviors.

Until people come up with a better way to explain, predict, and modify behaviors, we need to stick with the best theory we currently have. Even when people knew that there were problems with Newton's theories of motion, for 300 years, until Einstein came along, they had no choice but to continue to use Newtonian physics. Even after Einsteinian physics came along, it was of no use for every-day purposes. We still use Newtonian physics, since it is still good enough (and simple enough) of all practical purposes.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Beliefs, Desires, and the Nature of Value

I am wondering about whether the claims made in yesterday's post can ultimately defeat one of the larger branches of moral philosophy.

This branch equates a "desire that P" with a "motivational belief that P is worth pursuing". Certain moral realists prefer the "motivational belief" option because it would make moral attitudes objectively true or false. They adopt this way of talking specifically because they dislike the option of grounding moral value on desires.

My traditional objection to this view goes as follows.

Fine, let us take the view that we can analyze "P is good" in terms of a "motivational belief that P is worth pursuing."

A "belief that P" is true iff P is true. That is to say, a belief that Denver is the capital of Colorado is true if and only if "Denver is the capital of Colorado" is true. So, "motivational belief that P is worth pursuing" is true if and only if "P is worth pursuing" is true.

Now, we can make sense of "Denver is the capital of Colorado", so we can tell, independent of having the belief, whether the the proposition that is the object of the belief is true.

Now, the person who proposes a motivational belief theory has two problems.

Problem 1: The proponent needs an account of what it takes for "P is worth pursuing" to be true. Furthermore, this truth is independent of people having the belief. In short, this view does not answer any questions about morality. It simply moves them. All of the unanswered questions about morality become unanswered questions about "P is worth pursuing". These include answers to questions such as, "What is this worth-pursuingness really?" and "How did P acquire worth-pursuingness?" and "How can we tell if P has worth pursuingness or not?"

Problem 2: How can a proposition - true or false - provide motivation? That is to say, she not only needs an account of what it is for "P is worth pursuing" to be true, but also that believing it to be true motivates the agent to act in a particular way. "Denver is the capital of Colorado" does not recommend any particular action. In fact, it is difficult to identify any purely factual proposition - believed or not - that recommends any particular action. Even, "that would be painful" does not recommend an action unless we also introduce the independent fact that an agent has an aversion to pain.

That was my original response and still a response that I think worth making.

However, that response really just asks questions. It does not provide an objection per se.

This new response is an actual objection - one that demonstrates that a belief that P is worth pursuing and a desire that P are not the same thing. A belief that P is worth doing involves a reference shift. For example, Lois Lane believes that taking Superman with her is worth doing, but does not believe that taking Clark with her is worth doing.

However, the value of taking Clark Kent/Superman with her is the same regardless of the reference. Taking Clark with her is worth doing iff taking Superman with her is worth doing because they are the same people.

In other words, the actual value of taking Clark Kent with her follows the pattern of a desire - in that it does not have a reference shift (treats Clark Kent and Superman as the same). It does not follow the pattern of a belief - which would have a reference shift (treats Clark Kent and Superman differently).

Admittedly, this confuses me. The confusion is caused by the fact that it is so easy to slip from talking about the value of something to the agent's belief about its value. Yes, Lois does not believe that taking Clark with her has value. Yes, she is likely to reject the claim that "taking Clark with you has value." But it is also the case that she believes that Clark is clumsy and is likely to reject the claim that Clark has super powers. The fact that she believes and would say such things does not make the things she believes and are likely to say true.

We simply have to separate the cases in which, "Lois believes that P" and "Lois is likely to assert that P" are true from cases where P is in fact true. The truth of "worth doingness" claims do not have a reference shift. They are not beliefs.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Frege's Reference Shifts for Propositional Attitudes

What follow is the first draft of a paper I am writing for a philosophy course.

It concerns propsitional attitudes.

Readers familiar with my work know that I place a lot of weight on desires as propositional attitudes. The very name 'desirism' stresses the weight that desires carry in this theory. Desires are propositional attitudes. I have known that I have needed to discuss propositional attitudes in more detail. This philosophy course has given me an opportunity to do so.

I must confess that I am not well versed in the philosophy of language. I am interested in value theory. However, that interest has included an interest in desire as a propositional attitude.

So, I was interested in the optional paper topic:

Fully but succinctly reconstruct Frege’s account of reference shifts in attitude reports. Exactly what’s the role of substitutivity and context in the account? And why must such shifts be shifts to the customary senses of the relevant expressions rather than to whatever other entities? Is the account satisfactory? Why or why not?

My plan was to use ‘desires’ rather than ‘beliefs’ as the token attitude report.

Unfortunately, I could not find a way to make this work. When I tried to apply Frege’s account of reference shifts to desire reports, I could not see a reference shift. It appeared to me that Lois Lane desired that Clark Kent accompany her on a dangerous mission if and only if she desired that Superman accompany her on a dangerous mission.

At first glance, what I wrote above may appear to be mistaken. After all, Lois Lane would deny wanting Clark Kent with her on a dangerous mission and not deny wanting Superman with her. However, it would be a mistake to confuse what Lois Lane says that she desires with what she desires. Her statement about what she desires expresses a belief, which subject to reference shifts. The presence of a reference shift in her beliefs does not imply a reference shift in her desire.

In this paper, I want to explain this thesis in a bit more detail, beginning with an account of reference shifts in belief reports.

Since I am not a parrot, I try to avoid repeating what others say (thus, my interest in using ‘desires’ rather than ‘beliefs’). However, I think it would be best to do so in this case since people are familiar with these illustrations.

The standard description of the problem of reference in attitude reports begins with the hypothesis that, in any regular sentence, one can replace a term with a co-referent and not change the truth value. Thus (assuming a world where Superman exists as described in the comic), the following sentence would be true:

(1) Superman is not human,

In this sentence, we can replace ‘Superman’ with its co-referent ‘Clark Kent’ and get a statement that is still true.

(2) Clark Kent is not human,

In fact, every statement about Superman is true if and only if that statement is also true of Clark Kent, since Superman and Clark Kent are the same person.

However, this is not the case when we talk about Lois Lane’s beliefs about Superman.

Assuming that we are looking at the period before Lois Lane discovered Superman’s identity, the following would be true:

(3) Lois Lane believes that Superman is not human

However, if we replace ‘Superman’ with its co-referent ‘Clark Kent’, we get a statement that is no longer true:

(4) Lois Lane believes that Clark Kent is not human

This seems to leave us with two options:

Option 1: Give up the idea that replacing a term with a co-referent preserves truth value, or

Option 2: Hypothesize that terms in propositions that are the objects of belief reports refer to the same thing as those terms in regular sentences.

Frege preferred the second option. He argued that attitude reports – not just belief reports – involved a shift in reference from Superman or Clark Kent to Lois Lane’s senses of the terms ‘Superman’ or ‘Clark Kent’ (i.e., what the terms meant to her). Since ‘the sense of the term Superman’ and ‘the sense of the term Clark Kent’ are not co-referents, we need not expect – under the principle that substituting co-referents preserves truth value – that replacing one term with the other will preserve truth value.

Intuitively, this response makes sense. After all, when I am talking about what Lois Lane believes I am not talking about Superman or Clark Kent. I am talking about the organizational structure of Lois Lane’s brain and how it influences her behavior. There must be some difference between Lois Lane’s beliefs about Superman and her beliefs about Clark Kent that explains and predicts the different ways she may respond with respect to each term. Specifically, they must explain why she would answer, “Yes” to the question, “Did Superman come from another planet?” and, “No” to the same question asked about Clark Kent.

However, I could not get this to work when talking about Lois Lane’s desires.

To evaluate desires, we first need to distinguish belief statements from desire statements. This is not an easy thing to do. If Lois is asked whether she desires to take (desires that she take) Clark Kent with her on a dangerous assignment, she can sensibly answer, “No. I will have enough to worry about without worrying about Clark.” But, is this a desire claim, or a belief claim?

When Lois makes the claim, “Superman is human,” we do not take the phrase, “Superman is human” as being true merely because Lois asserts it. In fact, we know that it is false. Similarly, we need to ask whether we should take Lois’ assertion that she desires that Clark stay behind as proof that the proposition, “Lois desires that Clark stay behind” is true.

Let us assume that Jimmy Olson has accidentally discovered that Clark Kent is Superman, and Clark has sworn him to secrecy. When he learns that Lois is about to go on a dangerous assignment, he tells Lois, “Take Clark with you.”

Lois responds as above by saying that she does not want to take Clark with her, that the assignment is dangerous enough already.

It would make good sense for Jimmy to respond, “You want to take him with you. Trust me.”

Here, Jimmy is saying that Lois’ statement, “I desire that I go without Clark” is false. Furthermore, it is false in the same way that her statement, “I desire that I go without Superman” is false. Jimmy’s statement about Lois’ desires treat the terms ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’ as co-referents – referring to the same person, not to Lois’ attitudes about those people.

So, let’s take the statement:

(5) Lois desires that Clark not go with her on the dangerous assignment

The question to answer is whether this is true or false. Kripke’s theory says that the statement is true, since, in virtue of being the object of an attitude, “Clark” refers to Lois’ sense of Clark Kent, who is clumsy and would make the assignment more dangerous.

Jimmy’s theory says that the statement is false, given that Clark is Superman and Lois does desire that Superman go with her on the dangerous assignment. If we listen to Jimmy, Lois falsely believes that she desires to go without Clark because she falsely believes that Clark is clumsy and would make the assignment more dangerous.

Who is right?

I would like to call forth another example. This one comes from Bernard Williams, who asks us to consider the case of a person he identifies only as the Agent who orders a gin and tonic. In this case, Jimmy is also in the bar, and Jimmy sees that the bartender actually filled the glass with gasoline (in Williams’ example) or with a deadly poison (to make our story more interesting). As the Agent goes to take a drink from the glass, Jimmy puts his hand over the glass and tells the agent, “You don’t want to do that.”

Here, I want to note that the Agent’s response is not necessarily to assert that Jimmy is obviously mistaken. Instead, it would be perfectly rational for him to ask, “Why not?” Note that, in asking this question, the Agent is asking for reason to believe that the proposition, “I do not desire that I take a sip of what is in this glass” is true. This admits to the possibility that the proposition could be false, and the Agent knows that it could be false.

In fact, the proposition, “I desire that I take a sip of what is in this glass” could be false is due precisely to the fact that the Agent’s representation of “what is in this glass” does not match what is in the glass. On Frege’s account, to determine whether the statement is true we should look at the Agent’s representation of what is in the glass – which is gin and tonic. However, in fact, even the Agent recognizes that the truth of the claim depends on what is actually in the glass.

Once Jimmy points out that he saw the bartender add a deadly poison to the drink, the Agent recognizes that the statement, “I do not desire to take a sip of what is in this glass” is true. It did not become true once Jimmy gave him the new information. It was true before Jimmy told him, and Jimmy simply provided the Agent with a reason to believe what was already true. The Agent did not want to drink what was in the glass.
Let me try a third case.

On this dangerous assignment, Jimmy is left behind to help a local mechanic repair their damaged vehicle while Clark and Lois go on ahead to the villain’s stronghold. The mechanic tells Jimmy to hand him a 10mm socket. However, the 10mm socket is too small. The bolt actually requires an 11mm socket.

There is a couple of ways that this can play out.

One way is to say that Jimmy knows that bolt in question requires an 11mm socket. He has worked on this vehicle before and happens to remember that fact. Therefore, he hands the mechanic the 11mm socket. Yes, the mechanic asked for the 10mm socket. However, Jimmy really knew that the mechanic was asking for the socket that would work on that bolt, and “the socket that would work on that bolt” is co-referential with the 11mm socket. The mechanic’s representation of what would work on that bolt is not relevant to what the mechanic wants.

Or we could have it that Jimmy handed over the 10mm socket. The mechanic tries it, finds out that it does not work, and hands it back, saying, “That’s not the one I want. Give me the 11mm socket.” The mechanic, in discovering his mistake, will say that, just a minute ago, he believed that he wanted the 10mm socket, but he had been mistaken. The only way that a belief that P can be mistaken is if the agent believes that P, and P is false. So, the only way that the mechanic’s belief that he wanted the 10mm socket to have been mistaken is if the proposition, “I wanted the 10mm socket” (I desired that I had the 10mm socket) was false.

Either way, desire-based propositional attitudes do not experience anything like Frege’s reference shift. That seems to be a feature of belief attitudes only.

Friday, March 02, 2018


"This submerging superyacht is said to be the world’s most expensive private object"

If this is what fulfills a person’s desires, rather than, say, feeding hungry children or providing them with basic medical care, then that person is worthy of contempt and condemnation.

In this post, I am building on remarks I made in yesterday’s post regarding the five giants of human welfare: housing and urbanisation, education and skills, health and social care, the future of work, and the challenges of poverty.

People act to fulfill their most and strongest desires, given their beliefs. Some desires are malleable - molded by people’s interactions with their environment. There is little reason to believe that our biological ancestors evolved a hardwired desire to spend money on these types of goods - nothing comparable to hunger, thirst, or the aversion to pain. These are learned desires. However, these are not desires that people generally have any reason to teach.

In fact, quite the opposite is true. These are desires that we have reason to mold using our tools of criticism and condemnation. We have reason to view people whose desires are fulfilled by states of affairs like these in the same way we view people whose desires are fulfilled by the rape and torture of young children - or even much worse - because if the numbers of young children whose lives would be improved by people with different desires.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development spends $31,000 on a dining room set while it is cutting benefits to the poor, and the nation is up in arms. Yet, there is a question as to why a private individual who spends as much on a dining room set when they could be doing something with the money also deserves an answer.

We can argue that the very wealthy have a moral permission to spend their money as they please. However, this "moral permission" is an ambiguous term. There are two types of moral permission. There is the moral permission that is free from condemnation and criticism, and there is the moral permission that may be criticized and condemned, but which does not deserve punishment or any type of violent response.

The right to freedom of speech is like this. The right to freedom of speech says that there are many things that one can say that deserves neither condemnation nor punishment. There are other things that, though deserve condemnation and warrant holding those who say them with contempt does not justify a violent response. And there are things that one can say (e.g, fraud, libel, slander) that warrant a violent response.

The claim that one has a moral permission to spend money as one pleases may be taken as comparable to the claim that one may say or write what one pleases. It prohibits a violent response to the things that one spends one's money on, but it does not protect the affluent person from condemnation, criticism, and contempt because they care more about having a string of pretty rocks wrapped around their neck than the fact that nearly 500,000 people will die from malaria this year.

So, when somebody produces an article or story about the fanciest houses, expensive clothes, lavish parties, large yachts, glorious penthouse apartments, expensive vacations, and other expenditures of extravagance, rather than looking at them with awe and wonder, we should read them as we would read a story about somebody who had been discovered with a den of kidnapped children in his basement that he used at his pleasure. At the very least, the quality of his desires are no different.

And, in closing, I want to repeat, the person with good desires does not sacrifice anything to do that which benefits others. The person with a desire to feed the hungry and provide medical care to the sick gets what he wants by contributing to these ends just as the person with a $3 billion yacht gets what he wants. The only difference is that one wants to feed the hungry and provide medical care for the sick, and the other wants to sail around in a $3 billion yacht.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Five Giants of Human Welfare

I want to start using my philosophy of value to create some lessons about life.

An important way of dealing with global problems is to manage global desires.

For the past several days, I have been listening to a number of podcast episodes concerning five “giants” of human welfare: “housing and urbanisation, education and skills, health and social care, the future of work, and the challenges of poverty.”

I want to say something about each of these issues that came up in these presentations: sustainability.

I wish to note that desirism does not recognize ‘welfare’ or ‘well-being’ as ‘the correct value’. Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. A person with a ‘desire that P’ has a reason to realize a state of affairs in which ‘P’ is true. However, P may not have anything to do with welfare.

This is not to deny that many of our desires are concerns about welfare, such as our aversion to pain and to the discomforts of illness and injury.

One reason that this is important is because one way in which we can handle these five giants is by managing our desires.

Think of “poverty” as an example. What we want has a lot to say about how wealthy or poor we are. A person who wants things that cost a lot of money is going to either have to (a) find a way to acquire a lot of money, or (b) suffer the thwarting of many and strong desires. In contrast, the person who wants that which is relatively inexpensive can be wealthy with a far lower income.

We can fight poverty by increasing the total amount of stuff we build. However, that creates problems for sustainability. If we can come to value things that do not require resource-extensive production, we can get what we want without destroying so much of the environment.

In my own case, I value reading and writing. That does not require a lot investment. I live quite well without a lot of wealth.

The issue of income (poverty) relates to the issue of work. What is work? There are the chores that I do for money, plus there are the chores that I do without getting paid. I read and study lots of stuff and write reports for others on what I have read. I like to think that my unpaid work provides a much better social benefit than my paid work, but my paid work pays the rent.

This applies to the problem of housing as well. A person does not need a lot of room to live. The housing problem would be significantly reduced if people were simply content to live in smaller and less expensive houses.

If you do not have expensive tastes, then you do not need to worry about having a lot of money. Furthermore, if you have a taste for helping others, you can have just as good a life as the person who has expensive tastes and a lot of money, and a much better life than the person with expensive tastes and little money.

This is an important thing to remember and easily overlooked: The person who has a desire to feed the starving and care for the sick does not perform an act of self sacrifice. The person with a desire to feed the hungry and who feeds the hungry is no different than the person who desires to live in a large fancy home and buys a large fancy home. They both get what they want. The difference is that one gets a world in which some otherwise hungry people are fed, and the other gets a world where he owns a large fancy house.

Now, on issues of health care and extreme want/starvation, there are limits to what we are capable of wanting. These are areas where we need to find way to fulfill the wants we have, rather than adjust our wants to that which we can fulfill.

The one giant that I have not covered is education and skills acquisition. As a “giant” of human welfare, this one seems to be nothing more than a means to the others. It is a way to get s job to acquire food, medical care, a place to live, and the money to fulfill basic wants. It s the iPhone “giant” that has no necessary value for its own sake, though t is certainly useful. Consequently, I am not certain that it belongs among the other giants,. Instead, it is one means among many for dealing with the other giants. The relevant difference is that this giant only has value as a means.

The ultimate moral of this story concerns the fact that we can deal with these problems of housing and urbanisation, education and skills, health and social care, the future of work, and the challenges of poverty to a large degree by molding our existing desires. This does not mean sacrificing what we want. It means changing our wants - and wanting those things we can have that do not harm, and perhaps even helps, other people.