Wednesday, May 02, 2018

On Objectivity and Theories of Value

I wrote this in response to a facebook inquiry.

However, I do not think you will need the context to understand the claims being made. It concerns the objectivity of value and the measure of theories of value.

I tend not to use terms like “objective” because they are ambiguous in a way that leads to confusion.

Objectivity is not a property of things, it is a property of propositions. A proposition is objectively true or false, or subjectively true or false (as in “true for me”).

Or you can talk about something being an object. Objects in this sense are distinguished from such things as events, states of affairs, and properties.

Actually, I do not think that anybody denies that value is a property. Objects, states of affairs, and events are good or bad. Value is a property they have.

There are intrinsic properties (mass, size), and relational properties (heavier than, larger than). There are also "functional" properties - properties that relate input to output. Evolution, erosion, digestion, and intention are functional properties.

All of these types of properties are real - including relational properties. Location is a relational property. So is time (age). Velocity is a relational property (as is acceleration). You cannot talk about these things without talking about A in relation to B.

Not only are relational properties real, they can be a part of scientific inquiry. “Orbits” is a relational property, but we can have a scientific theory of orbits.

Desirism holds that value is a relational property - a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Morality is a specific type of value property - the relationship between malleable (capable of modification using praise and condemnation) desires and desires that people generally have.

Propositions describing relational properties are objectively true or false. “Jim is taller than Sally” is objectively true or false. “People generally have many and strong reasons to reward/praise those who keep their promises and punish/condemn those who do not” is objectively true. But it is an objectively true statement about a relational property, not an object.

Now, let us talk about theories.

We have two theories of planetary movement. We have the “angel” theory and the “gravity” theory.

Comparably, we have two theories of morality, an “intrinsic prescriptivity” theory and "desire modification" theory.

The “angel” theory really does not explain anything. It does not explain why some planets move faster than others. It does not explain why the angels pushing Venus and Mercury will push their planets only so far from the sun, then turn around and head back to the sun again. It does not explain the retrograde motion of a mars, Jupiter, and Saturn near opposition.

The “intrinsic prescriptivity” theory does not explain anything about value. It does not explain the wrongness of breaking a promise, or why it is appropriate to respond to wrongdoing with condemnation.

The "desire modification" theory does have an explanation. Condemnation for breaking promises acts through the mesolimbic pathway to encode behavioral rules in the prefrontal cortex to create an aversion to breaking promises - making it less likely that the agent will break promises in the future. In fact, it works the same way also on people who learn about the punishment, helping to promote a universal aversion to breaking promises. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote this universal aversion to breaking promises.

One of the implications of the "desire modification" theory is that if, for example, a railroad worker whose behavioral rules tended to conform well to that which people generally praised and condemned were to have a metal rod blasted through the prefrontal cortex of his brain, this would likely impair his tendency to act in conformity to social rules. (See the case of Phineas Gage.)

What if another theory were to come along that was as good as the "desire modification" theory?

Well, what if another theory were to come along to explain the motion of planets that was as good as the gravity theory? If the theory has the same conclusions then, for all practical purposes, it is the same theory, and there is no reason to choose. If, instead, it produces different conclusions we look at those differences and see if they provide reason to favor one theory over the other. We may look to see if the theory makes predictions that we can test. We may evaluate the theories based on which is simpler - or what fits better with theories in other disciplines. Desirism scores advantages due to its fit with neuroscience and evolutionary theory as well as its fit with observations such as the Phineas Gage case (not to mention the advantage it scores because it actually explains things).

Note that condemnation will function through the mesolimbic pathways to create or modify rules of behavior coded in the prefrontal cortex whether we believe it or not. In this case, it is like global warming. Skepticism or doubt will not stop prevent it from happening.

Again, why not condemn the sun for causing cancer? The reason is because the sun does not have a reward system that would allow us - through condemnation - to get the sun to acquire behavioral rules such as acquiring aversions to act in ways that cause cancer.

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