Friday, June 08, 2018

On Desires 2018 - Supplemental: Desire, Ought, Good, Right, and Normative Reasons

I want to step away from philosophical commentary for a bit and say a few things about the relationship between desires, goodness, oughtness, rightness, and normative reasons.

I have just finished an article in which the author, Frederico Lauria, discussed two conceptions of desire - "guise of the good" conception, and a "guise of the ought" conception. In the course of his article he also mentioned the criterion of evaluation of "consonance". Under this concept, we want to understand how desire relates to other things. In this case, the "other things" I want to relate it to are goodness and oughtness.

I am going to start with the relationship between "ought" and "normative reasons".

A ought to do X implies there is a normative reason for A to do X.

How do I know this?

Tell somebody that they ought to do X. She asks you, "Why?" The only answer that makes sense is to provide him with a reason for doing X. Of course, it has to be a genuine reason for doing X. If you give him a reason, and that reason does not exist, then it fails to support the conclusion that he ought to do X.

Now, I want to relate normative reasons to desires. In this, I am going to use a refined version of the Humean thesis. This thesis has two parts.

(1) A has a reason to do X iff A has a desire that would be served by his doing X.

(2) There is a reason to do X iff there is a desire that would be served by his doing X.

This simply recognizes the distinction between the reasons a person has and reasons that exist - which is the same distinction as the distinction between the desires a person has and desires that exist.

This now allows us to relate "ought" to "desire". It tells us that there is an ambiguity in the term "ought" just as there is an ambiguity in "normative reason". This springs from the ambiguity in talking about reasons that exist and reasons that an agent has.

So, we have two conceptions of ought.

(1) A ought to do X implies A has a normative reason for doing X. This means that A has a desire that would be served by his doing X.

(2) A ought to do X implies there is a normative reason for A's doing X. This means that there exists a desire that would be served by A's doing X.

Note that I have written here about what an agent "ought to do". This relates to another ambiguity with the word "ought", the distinction between what an agent "ought to do" versus what "ought to be the case." The phrase "ought to be" - when distinguished from what an agent "ought to do" (that is, what an agent ought to bring about) tends to speak about an intrinsic property of "ought to be ness" - an oughtness that exist in certain states of affairs independent of all desires. Such a thing does not exist, so I will not be writing about them here. I wish only to note that this refers to reasons for action that are independent of desires. If these types of reasons existed, they would be relevant to determine ought-to-beness. However, they do not exist, so they are not relevant. Their irrelevance does not depend on the meaning of the term "ought" (which refers to all reasons for action), but on their non-existence.

The term "ought" has still more ambiguities. All "ought" statements relate actions (things to do) to desires. However, there are a great many different desires - and sets of desires - to consider. Still, certain sets of desires - certain sets of motivational reasons - tend to be important to us that they are counted among the most popular uses of these terms.

We typically deduce the conception of ought that is relevant in a given case from the context.

We have an "ought" that relates an action to a specific desire. This is typically written as a hypothetical imperative of the form, "If you want to rob the convenience store without getting caught, then you ought to wear a mask." That is to say, wearing a mask will tend to prevent the realization of the state of affairs in which one is caught robbing the convenience store.

is an "ought" that relates a person's actions to his current desires - all of them, all things considered. This is a sense in which one might say, "While you are at the store, you ought to pick up some cigarettes." Smoking may well fulfill the most and the strongest of an agent's current desires (the desires that the agent has at the moment).

If we look at the agent's present and future desires, then we could get a different ought judgment, "You ought to quit smoking." The problem with future desires is that they have no backwards causation. Thus, even though an agent ought to do something with respect to a future desire, one may have no current motivation to do so. This would require something like a current desire that future desires be fulfilled. However, this does not prevent us from evaluating present actions relative to a set of desires that includes those future desires.

We do not only use the term "ought" when we examine the actions of an individual. It would also make sense to say something like, "The family should go to the mountains for our vacation." A decision about what toppings to put on a pizza is generally a question of what toppings "we" should ask for. In these types of cases, the "ought" of the decision relates the object of the evaluation to the desires of all of the participants, and remains ambiguous as to whether one is considering future desires as well as present desires.

There is a further question concerning what we ought to desire. We have the capacity to promote certain desires and aversions through social conditioning - mostly through praise and condemnation. Consequently, there are desires and aversions that we ought to promote. When I say "we" here, I am relating the objects of evaluation (malleable desires) to the reasons that people generally have. A group of people with an aversion to pain ought to promote in others, to the degree that they are able to do so, universal aversions where those universal aversions will reduce the likelihood of people suffering pain.

Finally, this leads to an "ought' that relates actions to the reasons for action that people should have - the reasons for action (desires) that people generally have reasons to promote universally. Without going into a long argument at this point, I will simply stipulate that "right action" seems best understood as "the action that a person with good desires would have performed in the circumstances," where "good desires" are desires that people generally have reason to promote universally.

This last definition of "ought" is where we get the understanding of right and wrong action. Specifically, it is where we get the terms "obligation", "prohibition", and "non-obligatory permission".

The morally right action is the action that the person with good desires and lacking bad desires would have performed in the circumstances.

That act is obligatory if a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would have performed the action.

That act is prohibited if a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have performed that action.

That act is permissible but not obligatory if a person with good desires and lacking bad desires might or might not have performed the action, depending on other interest. This last category refers to such things as choosing what to eat, what to wear, one's profession, where to shop - those things where people with good desires and lacking bad desires might choose different options.

Finally, I want to add the concept of "good" to this set.

To say "X is good" is to say "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question."

I am not asserting that this is an a priori claim. It is not true in virtue of the very meaning of the term "good". Indeed, "good" could be used to say that something is commanded by God, has intrinsic value, and the like. Goodness refers to any type of reasons for action that exists. If intrinsic prescriptivty existed, it would be relevant to the question of whether or not something was good. The limitation, in this case, of good to what would fulfill the desires in question comes from the fact that desires alone provide reasons for intentional action that exist. Because of this, there is no reason (there exist no reason) to call something good except in virtue of its ability to fulfill the desires in question.

This phrase, "desires in question." concerns the fact that "good", like "ought", is ambiguous. We may relate an object of evaluation to a single desire, all of an agent's desires, the desires of the group, or the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally. We usually pick up the relevant desires from the context within which the speaker made the claim.

There are four criteria used to distinguish different evaluative terms.

(1) What are the relevant objects of evaluation? The terms "illness" and "injury" evaluate physical and mental functioning. "Beautiful" evaluates what is seen or heard.

(2) What are the relevant desires in question? Are they the current desires of the agent? The current and future desires of the agent? The desires that people generally have reason to promote universally?

(3) Does the object of evaluation fulfill or thwart those desires? This determines whether we are using a positive term (goodness: fulfills the desires in question) or negative term (badness: thwarts the desires in question).

(4) Does the object of evaluation fulfill or thwart those desires directly or indirectly? The term "useful" looks at what fulfills desires indirectly - by bringing about something else that fulfills desires (something else that is what makes the object of evaluation useful). The term "beautiful" refers to what fulfills desires directly when it is seen or heard.

So, here you have it. An account that relates the evaluative terms "ought", "normative reasons", "good", "right", and "desire". Here it is, all in one convenient location.

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