Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Terms of Evaluation

General Account

Our language has a huge set of evaluative terms. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. Obligatory. Prohibited. Permissible. Virtue. Vice. Evil. Beautiful. Ugly. Ought. Ought not. Should. Should not. Health. Illness. Injury. Useful. Pleasant. Benefit. Harm. Generous. Helpful. Dangerous. Warning. Obnoxious. Rude. Welcome.

We could really use a system that explains what all of these terms have in common, and what makes one different from another.

All of them - at least when they are used in a true statement - relate an object of evaluation to a set of desires in question.

How they differ depends on the specific relationships they describe.

There are four major questions to ask regarding any evaluative Term.

(1) What kinds of things does the term typically evaluate?

(2) What are the relevant desires is that the term refers to?

(3) Does the object of evaluation fulfill or thwart those desires?

(4) Does the object of evaluation fulfill or thwart those desires directly or indirectly?

The Meanings of Evaluative Terms

Before I get to some examples, I want to say a few words about the meanings of moral terms.

When I offer these definitions, I am not saying that this is the meaning that we have adopted in our every-day language. In our everyday language, "good" = "there is a reason to bring about or preserve". But it doesn't say anything about what those reasons are. They could be intrinsic values. They could be divine commands. They are simply "reasons". In this theory, I take this definition and I add the empirical fact that desires are the only reasons that exist. As a consequence, either the sentence containing an evaluative term relates an object of evaluation to a set of desires, or it is false.

Below, I will give some examples of evaluative terms and how they relate states of affairs and desires. A reader may be able to think of examples where we do not use the term in the way described. However, those will be cases where we use the term under an assumption that there exists a type of reason for action that does not come from desire. That assumption is false. The use of the term in that way still makes sense - since the term actually refers to reasons and not just desires. It is just false.

In other words, these examples slightly reform our use of evaluative terms and make them more precise. The same is true of the terms I have already defined such as "good" and "right". It is an account of how the terms must be used when they are used in true statements.

So, let us look at some examples.


(1) This term can potentially be used to refer to anything - battles, potato peelers, people, parsnips. You need to look at the context in which the term is used to determine what is being evaluated. Usually, it is the subject of the sentence such as, “I think this old box could still be useful.”

(2) The desires in question is also determined by context. A ski mask is useful if one wants to rob a convenience store without being recognized. A military drone is useful for assassinating suspected terrorists.

(3) A useful thing fulfills the desires in question. If it does not fulfill the desires in question, then it is useless.

(4) Insofar as it is useful, it only fills the desires in question indirectly. This does not mean that it cannot fulfill desires directly. It is just that, insofar as we are talking about it’s usefulness, we are talking about it’s ability to fulfill desires indirectly.


This is a fun one.

(1) The objects of evaluation are changes in mental and physical functioning or deviation from the norm. The fun part is the distinction been injury and illness. An injury has a cause that somebody living a few centuries could detect - being trampled by a horse, falling off a roof, being stabbed or shot. An illness is something that, to a pre-scientific mind, had a mysterious cause - a virus, cancer, poison, diabetes.

(2) The desires in question are those of the patient.

(3) Injuries and illnesses thwart the desires in question. There are reasons to get rid of them or avoid them.

(4) They can thwart the desires in question directly (pain, discomfort) or indirectly (disability).


(1) I do not know why, but we decided to use the term “beautiful” only to things heard or seen.

(2) With respect to the desires in question, the term is ambiguous. There is one understanding of the term that finds beauty in the eye/ear of the beholder. Another finds it in the eyes and ears of the aristocracy - the people of “refined taste”. I think that the second definition is grounded on a mistake - the false assertion that the aristocracy has a capacity to perceive true value. In fact, this is the aristocracy saying, “We are superior to the common folk and what we like has true value, while they are too crass and base to understand such things.” So, I go with the first option.

(3) Beauty, of course, fulfills desires.

(4) Beauty fulfills those desires directly. The beauty is found immediately in the direct perception of the object of evaluation.

A Good Knife

We are all interested in a good knife, a good movie, a good job, a good place to live, a good school for one's children. This account applies to all versions of "a good X" - even a good person or a good desire.

(1) The object of evaluation is whatever object one is evaluating; a knife, a movie, a job, a place to live, a school.

(2) The desires in question are those desires that the object is generally built to fulfill. Note that we are not evaluating the knife relative to the desires of the agent. That agent may have a great many desires that are not even relevant to the object of evaluation being a knife. The term "knife" is a term in the common language. To speak about a good knife is to examine those qualities that have made the object a "knife" in common speech. These qualities are meant to perform a particular function - to cut things. A good knife is something that cuts things particularly well - and something that cuts things well is something that cuts things that tend to fulfill the desires of people who want things cut.

(3) A good knife, of course, is something that is such as to fulfill the desires in question. If the good knife did not tend to fulfill those desires that are relevant to calling something a knife, than it is not a good knife.

(4) A good X can fulfill those desires either directly or indirectly. If we are talking about a good tool, then we are talking about something that tends to fulfill desires indirectly - by pounding in a nail or getting the dishes clean. If we are talking about, for example, a good painting or a good movie, then we are talking about something that tends to fulfill its characteristic desires directly. Now, if you are looking for a good X, you can determine more precisely what it is you are looking for. You need to find out which desires X typically serves - the desires in virtue of which it is called an X, and see if the object of evaluation fulfills those desires well, whether directly or indirectly as appropriate.


If this is correct, then all evaluative terms should be reducible in this sense. If something is dangerous than it is something that has the potential to thwart the desires of question unless agents are careful with it. If something is harmful, then it tends to bring about the thwarting of desires, whereas if a person has been harmed than that person has had a particularly strong and stable damage thwarted. An act is wrong if it tends to thwart good desires or fulfill bad desires overall and a person is a bad person if he is the type of person who tends to thwart other peoples' desires in virtue of his own character traits - those actions that spring from his own desires. All evaluative language should be reducible in this sense.

If any of it isn't, please let me know.


Anonymous said...

Hello! I am just curious, what are your views on Natural Law Ethics? Those espoused by Thomists and Catholic Philosophers?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

That is a hard question to answer briefly. It is a large subject and . . . I agree with some, and disagree with some.

I have written somewhere . . . Peter Abelard (1079–1142) is the first proponent of desirism. He substantially makes the case that actions cannot be the primary object of moral evaluation but can only be evaluated as a sign of an individual's mental states. Those mental states are the proper object of moral evaluation.

Another part that I particularly agree with - and is a part of my admiration of Martin Luther King and Ghandi - is the principle that obligations are tied to moral facts and not human law. Human law must conform to the natural moral facts or, at least insofar as obligations and motivation is concerned, they are "no law at all" (there is more reason to disobey them than to obey them).

And, indeed, I hold that there are moral facts, and you can't discover those moral facts by searching your feelings. Morality is not found in what you feel, but in what you ought to feel.

I disagree with the claim that these moral facts come from divine law. However, this is not a significant difference, as I see it. If you allow that God created the universe, then God created a universe in which desires exist and desires relate to each other the way they do.

I also disagree with the claim that there is a proper "teleos" (end, goal, purpose) that defines the good for which all things aim. Specifically, this relates to sexual morality. There is no "proper end" of sex. There are only desires that tend to thwart other desires and desires that do not.