Friday, December 21, 2018

"Should" and "Ought"

"What should I do?"

This question seems to dominate the day, from when I wake up in the morning (should I get up or should I try for another hour of sleep?) to its end (should I finish up some chore before going to bed?).

Plus, there seems to be this gap between what I should do and what I want to do. I would like to be playing my computer game. I should do dishes, but I don't want to - though I do want the dishes to be clean and doing the dishes may be a necessary means to that end. And I should publish a blog post today on the nature of "should" and it's cousin "ought".

"Should" and "ought" are intimately tied to reasons for action. If I were to tell you, "You should help to promote a correct understanding of 'should' and 'ought'" you may ask me "Why?"

There is only one legitimate response to that question. I need to provide you with a reason for action - and a good reason at that. This is the only type of claim that implies, in normal conversation, a 'should' or an 'ought'.

As I argued in those earlier posts . . . there are two types of good reasons for action, corresponding to the distinction between "I have a reason" and "There exists a reason."

If you have a good reason to do X, then doing X must serve some desire you have where that desire is of a type that tends to fulfill your other desires.

This then gives you a practical reason - since it concerns only the desires of the agent and nobody else. You have a good reason to exercise because exercise serves desires (for health) that tend to fulfill other desires. You do not have a good reason to smoke. Smoking serves a desire that tends to thwart other desires.

Good practical reasons answer the practical-ought question. You should quit smoking or, if you do not smoke, you should avoid acquiring the desire to smoke (which empirical research suggests is a desire you can avoid acquiring by not smoking).

If there is a good reason for you to do X, then doing X would serve a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, regardless of whose desires they are.

This type of reason for action answers the moral-ought question. You should keep your promises and repay your debts. It does not matter that you do not want to keep your promises or repay your debts. The desire to keep promises and repay debts is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. This fact, and the fact that reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation) tends to promote the strength of such desires in others, means that people generally have many and strong reasons to reward (including praise) those who keep promises and repay debts and punishment (condemn) those who do not. So, even if you do not have a desire to keep promises and repay debts, you should have a desire - which, in this case, means that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause you to have the desire, just as you have reasons to promote such a desire in others.

Here is a problem - it seems to be so often the case that what I should do - either practically or morally - goes contrary to what I want to do. I want to be playing that computer game I enjoy playing. Furthermore, I want to go to the refrigerator and find something that is both fattening and filling to eat. I should not do either of these things. The desire to play the computer game fulfills no other desires (and takes resources away from activities that do fulfill other desires), and the weight-gain from giving into the urge to eat something fattening will tend to thwart other desires as well.

But . . . desirism says that desires are the source of all value. If desires are the source of all value, then how can it be the case that what I should do is so often at odds with what I desire?

Answer: Because your current desires are not the only desires that exist. Only the desires you have right now are motivating your current actions. However, you will likely have future desires - desires that are not motivating your current action - such as the future desires that would be thwarted by poor health. Plus there are the desires of other people - desires that you do not have but which still exist because other people have them. Of course, other people also have future desires, and future people have future desires. For these reasons, "what I want to do" given my current desires and "what I practically ought to do" given my present and future desires sometimes pull apart. Furthermore, what I practically ought to do may pull apart from what I morally ought to do since the moral ought also include the present and future desires of other people.

However, for a person with good desires, this does not happen. If Agent1 has good desires (and no bad desires), then Agent1 has those desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and lacks those desires that tend to thwart other desires. Consequently, Agent1 wants to do what Agent1 should do, so Agent1 experiences no conflict. Ultimately, I am writing this blog post because I want to. It's not the only thing I want - and those desires to play that computer game and to get something filling and fattening to eat are still pulling at me. However, I am doing what I want and I think I can make a case for saying that I want to do in this case is what I should be doing - both practically and morally. Now. (I did spend a couple of hours in that computer game before I came here.)

You are always going to do what you want most to do. (This is not, strictly speaking, true. You will do what you want most to do so long as your relevant beliefs are true and complete and you are not suffering from some irrationality - but as a slogan, this statement is generally correct.) So, the trick is to want to do what you should be doing - to have those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. We will discuss how to cultivate those desires in future postings.

The List

I would like to illustrate the relationship between "should" and "ought" on the one hand and "reasons for action" on the other my modeling a particularly important and complex decision.

Assume that you are required to make a difficult decision. You are trying to decide whether you should quit your job, or to ask somebody out on a date, or to get a divorce, or to have children, or to start a new business, or to buy a new house or a new car. Let's make this one of those important decisions where there is a lot of stake.

One common piece of advice is to make a list. On one side of a piece of paper you put the reasons for. On the other side, you put the reasons against.

What are you doing?

Well, are writing down your reasons for action. If what I have been saying in this post is true, everything that appears on your list should relate, directly or indirectly, to some set of desires. Look over your list and if you see anything on the list that is not serving a desire then cross it off. Those reasons do not exist. They are the unicorns and ghosts of the realm of reasons. I would argue that these would include "serving God" and "realizing something that is intrinsically good". Since there is no god, I would argue that you cannot make the proposition, "I am serving God" true. Because you cannot make this proposition true you cannot fulfill a desire to serve God. If you believe you are serving God, you are mistaken. This does not imply that the action cannot be good for other reasons (that it cannot serve other desires). However, if it is actually good for other reasons, then those are the reasons that should appear on the list. I could be wrong on the "God" issue (though, in addition to believing that such a god exists, one also has to accurately determine what serves God, and that is a notoriously difficult question to answer itself).

"Should appear on the list". Well, here's an example of one of those "should" statements. In this case, the "should" concerns serving actual desires rather than non-existent goods.

In the "Reasons For" column you may put down, "I will have more free time." Free time is useful for fulfilling other desires. In the "Reasons Against" column, you may put down, "I will have less money." Money, like time, is also a useful resource for fulfilling other desires. These, then, are legitimate reasons.

Some of those reasons will concern serving your own future desires. Those are practical reasons. Good practical reasons may not be something you particularly want to do . . . but they do serve desires you do not have yet (and, thus, are not motivating your current decision). If you are deciding whether to go on a diet or start an exercise program, the reason to do this is to improve your health. The desire to improve your health is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. This is not only a practical reason to go on a diet or get more exercise, it is a good practical reason. This is, in fact, a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. And you should be concerned about your health.

Plus, there are moral reasons. Moral reasons fulfill desires that tend to fulfill other desires regardless of whose they are. On the "Reasons For" side of the equation, you may want to add that the action is a charitable action that will aid those who are in desperate need. On the "Reasons Against" side you may need to add the moral reason, "Because I would have to break a promise." The desire to help those in desperate need and the aversion to breaking promises are desires that, to the degree that they are universal, to that degree they tend to fulfill more and stronger desires that would not otherwise be fulfilled. That is to say, these are desires that people generally have reason to promote universally. We could call them "virtues" and promote them in our society - making them stronger and more common - by rewarding (praising) those who exhibit them and punishing (condemning) those who do not. We will discuss these features of morally good reasons in future posts. For the moment, it is enough to note that these reasons, when they show up on your list, are the moral reasons for taking or not taking some action.

Here is some technical language.

Each specific reason that appears on your list on either side of the equation is a "prima facie reason". A prima facie reason is a genuine reason to do something. However, the fact that it is a reason does not imply that it is a good enough reason in these circumstances. It may be outweighed by even more and stronger reasons piled up against it. The fact that I have a reason to go get another slice of chocolate cake (because it would serve my desire to eat a delicious chocolate cake) is a prima facie reason to go get some chocolate cake. However, when I weigh this against the prima facie reasons of concern for my health and the fact that I promised my wife that I would leave her the last slice of chocolate cake (and there is only one slice left), my prima facie reason is not a good enough reason to get some chocolate cake.

All of these prima facie reasons come together to yield an all-things-considered judgment about what I ought or should do.

"Prima facie ought to do X" means "There is a reason for you to do X."

"All-things-considered ought to do X" means "The total weight of all of the reasons for and against doing X are in favor of doing X."

This, then, is the relationship between reasons for action and "Ought" or "Should". If you really want to know what you ought to do or should do, this should get you started on figuring it out.


Now that I am done with this posting, I should get back to my game. After all, I promised some friends that I would meet them there.

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