Sunday, January 27, 2019

Metaethics 0011: Michael Smith's Convergence of Ends

In my previous post, Metaethics 0010: Michael Smith's Moral Realism, I took issue with Michael Smith's claim that ends are subject to rational evaluation. I identified a number of different types of value - instrumental value, participatory value, contributory value, evidential value, and symbolic value. All of these can be rationally evaluated. This is because each of these consist of conglomerations of beliefs and ends, and the belief component can be rationally evaluated. There is no evidence in this that ends can be rationally evaluated.

Smith's moral realism contained another element. He argues that, if we were all rationally assess our attitudes, that we would come to some sort of convergence. However, since ends are not subject to rational assessment, and all rational assessment that does occur relates objects of evaluation to those ends, convergence requires that we already have the same ends. We all want the same things.

This requirement for convergence is false on its face. We can start with basic, biologically evolved ends such as aversion to pain. I have an aversion to my pain, and you have an aversion to our own pain. Insofar as I have an aversion to your pain, this is, at the very least, a different end from my aversion to my own pain. My aversion to my own pain has to do with the fact that my sensory nerves are connected to my brain (and, thus, those parts of the brain that process my aversion to pain) in a particular way. If there is any connection between your sensory nerves and my brain, it is clearly not the same type of connection, and it is not processed the same way.

Furthermore, in the same way that you and I did not evolve to have the same eye color, height, facial features, and the like, it is unlikely that we evolved to have identical aversions even to our own pain. I may have a stronger aversion to pain than you do, or a dislike for certain types of pain that do not bother you nearly so much. I may find bright lights and the scraping of fingernails on a chalk board to be painful while you shrug them off. You may find cold temperatures to be painful, while I am comfortable.

To make matters worse, our desires and aversions - much more than our physical features - are not genetically determined. We each have a reward system - a mesolimbic pathway. Because of this, our experiences shape our ends. You have great experiences with your family where you go to sports games and watch sporting events on television and root for the same team and enjoy your time together. My family, on the other hand, went camping, creating in me a love for the outdoors.

In fact, in many instances, we have reason to prefer it if ends do not converge. This is one area where ends are significantly different from beliefs. With respect to beliefs, while it is impossible for two people to have a complete set of beliefs (nobody can know that much), their beliefs should agree. However, when it comes to desires, it is not a convergence of desires that we are looking for, but a harmony of desires. I often use those desires that are relevant to choosing a profession as an example. We have no reason to want to create a society where everybody would put the same job at the top of their list of most preferred job, have the same second preference, and so on all the way to the bottom where everybody identifies the same least desired job. We are much better off in a society where some people value being teachers, others like being engineers, some want to be philosophers, others are historians, some build houses, and others produce sculptors and paintings. A rich diversity of desires pays dividends in the way that a rich diversity of beliefs do not.

So, against Smith's idea of a convergence of ends, we have: (1) ends are not subject to rational deliberation, (2) the sources of ends guarantees that we will have different ends, (3) to the degree that we have different ends we are - even if we are all equally and perfectly rational - going to be differently motivated by that which, relative to our different ends, have instrumental, participatory, contributory, evidential, and symbolic value, and (4) we have reasons to prefer a diversity of ends while we have no such reason to prefer a diversity of beliefs.

I think we can do without Smith's convergence of ends.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Metaethics 0010: Michael Smith's Moral Realism

Michael Smith is concerned with a tension that we see in our use of moral terms.

First, we seem to be using moral terms to express facts. When a person makes a moral claim such as, "You should tell him the truth," or "Abortion is morally permissible," we seem to be making regular every-day statements. This is captured in the Frege-Geach Problem discussed earlier in Metaethics 0005: Mark Shroeder - The Frege-Geach Problem. The problem is precisely that we treat moral statements like any other declarative sentence. We do not treat them like commands or expressions of attitude or any other type of non-cognitive entity. They fit, for example, perfectly well in structured arguments relating premises to conclusions.

Second, we seem to be using moral terms to express attitudes. The way Smith describes it: "We seem to think, other things being equal, to have a moral opinion simply is to find yourself with a corresponding motivation to act."

Well, I don't think this. Since I take "X is wrong" to mean "people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn and, perhaps, punish those who do X," and I know that the truth of such a statement is independent of my desires and beliefs, I recognize the possibility that people can have many and strong reasons to punish me for things I have no interest in refraining from doing. It is a conceptual possibility. This does not mean that there are any real-world instances, but it involves no contradiction.

Smith makes the additional claim that desires are subject to rational criticism. He uses the example of a person who is has a desire to never be near a spider because, "I come to believe, falsely, that spiders give off an unpleasant odor."

Contrary to Smith, ends are not subject to rational criticism. Means can be subject to rational criticism because means are nothing but combination of ends and beliefs - and those beliefs (like the belief that spiders can give off unpleasant odor) can be subject to rational criticism. Technically, this is true of more than means. It is also true of contributory value, symbolic value, and evidential value.

Contributory value is the value that something has in virtue of being a part of something else. For example, take a single square inch of the Mona Lisa painting. It has value in virtue of being a part of (contributing to) the Mona Lisa painting. Contributory is a type of value that can be subject to rational criticism, because the belief that something is a part of a larger whole that has value can be subject to rational criticism.

Symbolic value is the value that something has in virtue of representing something else that has value. A commemorative statue, or mother's ashes in the urn over the fire place, can have symbolic value. Again, symbolic value can be subject to rational criticism in a number of ways. The object one may not be what one thinks it is. Last December when Cousin Joe brought his kids over, one of them knocked the urn off of the mantle over the fire place and, without telling anybody, Cousin Joe cleaned up the mess and replaced the contents of the urn with ashes from the fireplace. Or the symbolic piece of the original cross is nothing but a sliver taken from a nearby tree.

Evidential value is the value that something has in virtue of being evidence of something else. Children's laughter is a sign of their happiness and has value in virtue of the fact that it is evidence of their happiness, which has value. Evidential value can be questioned on the grounds that, "Hey, the fact that those children are laughing does not, in fact, mean that they are happy. They were told to laugh by a cruel master so that the nosy child protection investigators will go away and file their report."

So, we can rationally criticize instrumental, contributory, symbolic, and evidential value precisely because these forms of value consist, in part, of beliefs. Those are beliefs about how the object of evaluation stands in relation to some end - as a means to bringing about, a part of, a symbol of, or evidence of an end. And we can rationally criticize the beliefs. There is no evidence that we can rationally criticize ends.

Though we could rationally criticize the end insofar as it has its own instrumental, contributory, symbolic, and evidential belief-containing value where we can rationally criticize those beliefs. To the degree that a person can decide what ends to have, one can base that decision on beliefs about these other types of values. One can make a choice as to whether or not to acquire a nicotine addiction (though cannot so easily choose not to have such an addiction after one has acquired it). The instrumental, contributory, symbolic, and evidential value of a nicotine addiction can all enter into the decision. The individual can be rationally criticized for failing to have true beliefs about the relationships between nicotine addiction and other ends. However, none of this argues that the nicotine addiction can be rationally criticized in any other way.

Anyway, Smith does not give us any reason to believe in the rational assessment of ends as ends.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Metaethics 0009: Peter Railton's Moral Naturalism

Peter Railton is what, among moral philosophers, is a naturalist. He holds that moral properties can be reduced to natural properties.

Of course, desirism also holds that value properties can be reduced to natural properties - relationships between states of affairs and desires.

Consequently, a defender of desirism has a reason to be interested in Railton's five elements for a naturalist, reductionist moral theory.

A word of warning: in discussing these elements, Railton was talking about "a person's good" or what others might call a person's well-being, as opposed to value in general. However, it takes only some slight modification to get value in general.

He identifies the following five elements:

(1) Identificatory Reduction: Locating a (possibly complex) property that is claimed by an identificatory reduction to underlie the cognitive content of discourse.

Railton describes this and all of his elements using "hedonism" as the model. The hedonist identifies, according to Railton, "a distinctive experiential state: happiness". The point of this element is that it properly identifies the things that that people call good or bad. Against this thesis, Railton notices that people seem to value a variety of things other than happiness. In response, Railton argues that this is true, but happiness (or pleasure) is the element that determines how strong those desires become. A desire that produces happiness tends to be reinforced, suggesting that happiness is the actual end and desires are promoted or demoted according to their ability to produce happiness.

In contrast, desirism holds that relationship between a state of affairs and a desire. The desire is expressed as a proposition taking the form "agent desires that P" where "P" is a proposition. The object of evaluation is a state of affairs. That state of affairs is good if P is true and bad if P is false. This thesis embraces the pluralism that hedonism tends to shun. One key argument for preferring the pluralist version has to do with Nozick's experience machine. Given a choice between being put into an experience machine and given nothing but happy experiences, or living in the real world where there is a chance of making true the propositions that are the objects of one's desires, many people prefer the latter. A parent having to choose between happily (but falsely) believing that their child is doing well, and unhappily (but falsely) believing that their child is being tortured mercilessly, would prefer the former, showing that her child's well-being is more important to her than her happiness.

When we talk about some complex states of affairs the truth or falsity of certain propositions that are the objects of desires can combine to make them more or less good - or more or less bad - depending on their on-balance fulfillment.

(2) Explanatory Role: Providing evidence to the effect that this property plays an explanatory role of the appropriate sort to warrant saying that the property is both (potentially) empirically accessible and actually exemplified in our experience.

Here, we are looking for reasons to believe that the item that value is being reduced to actually exists and plays a causal role in the universe. We have evidence that there really is something called "happiness". We seem to be able to identify it where it occurs. We can leave it up to the psychologists to fill in the details of where it can be found an.

Desires, as propositional attitudes that explain and predict behavior, also seem clearly to exist. When we want to know why somebody did what she did, we typically explain their behavior by postulating a set of beliefs and desires. The use of desires to explain intentional actions is like the use of atoms to explain the properties of elements and molecules. It's vindication is found in how well it works.

(3) Normative Role: Providing an account of how this property, given its character, could come in a non-accidental way to play a significant normative role in the regulation of human practices corresponding to the normative role played by the concept of good.

Why does the natural property work as a source of good? Railton points out our interest in pursuing happiness and avoiding unhappiness. As Railton points out, " is psychologically (or perhaps even metaphysically) impossible for a person to have the peculiar experience that is happiness and not be drawn to it." Railton denies a tighter connection, but I think that an argument can be made in support of a tighter connection. A sensation would not be called "happiness" if it did not come with some quality that draws a person towards it. Given a particular sensation, we recognize it as "happiness" in part by recognizing that people use the term to refer to something they are drawn to, and we are drawn to the sensation. Happiness is a value-laden term, and it is not happiness if it is not desired.

Desires play a significant normative role in that "ought" applies to actions, and identifies those actions as actions that tend to realize the propositions P that are the objects of the relevant desires. Thus, "you ought to do X" means "doing X will tend to fulfill the desires in question."

(4) Tolerable Revisionism: Developing an argument to the effect that the account this property affords of a person's good is, if revisionist, at worst tolerably revisionist.

To see the significance of this point, we can look at the standard reduction of the term "water" to "H2O". Once scientists made this connection, this did require some revision to our concept of "water". It was originally taken to be an element - one of the primary elements. These discoveries showed that water was not an element at all but a combination of two elements - oxygen and hydrogen. Thus, the reduction was "revisionist" to some extent, but it fell well within the limits of "tolerable revisionism." Railton illustrates the case of intolerable revisionism by taking, for example, the case of "good" = "cholesterol laden". This would require such a significant departure from how "good" is actually used that it would fail the "tolerably revisionist" test.

One of the biggest problems that hedonism has in this respect is with the incommensurability of value. If all value can be reduced to a single currency, then there should be no regret in choosing between one option and another. If you had to choose between making $500 or $100, you choose the $500 and be done with it. However, many of our choices involve incommensurable goods. In choosing between going off to college in some other state and staying in one's home town with one's friends and family, there is genuine regret over the loss of the one not selected. There is no such regret in having an investment that pays a 12% rate of return that one does not have money invested in a second option that pays 4%.

With these considerations in hand, we actually need to revise this element from Railton. It must not only be the case that the revisionism is "tolerable", it must be the case that the revisionism is the least revisionary option.

(5) Vindication upon Critical Reflection: Developing a further argument to the effect that recognizing this property as underlying discourse about value would not undermine the normative role of such discourse.

On this element, we are wondering whether awareness of the reduction would change people's attitude. Here, we may consider the way that, for some people, if humans are an evolved creature then our life has no meaning. This is not the type of life that those who have been raised with the idea that they were serving God could find valuable. Similarly, if we reduce "good" to "happiness", it may well be the case that some people would find a life devoted to happiness to be a waste. "Is that it? Is it truly the case that the only thing I live for is the maximum stimulation of the pleasure centers of my brain?"

Some people may find the same problem with desirism. They may ask it. "Is this all life is about - making or keeping true the propositions that are the objects of our desires?" Such a thought might depress some people and be seen to poorly capture what they count as "valuable". However, desirism can well handle these types of cases. If a person comes to desire (value) serving God, or realizing something of intrinsic significance, or permanence, then that person is going to dislike any theory that says that the fulfillment of these desires is unattainable. Yet, the theory can still handle the fact that people find value in these things - in virtue of the desires he has.

Besides, certain of our ends are not going to change simply because our beliefs about them change. Coming to realize that our aversion to pain is due to an evolutionary chain of events that paired certain sensations to avoidance will not make pain any less painful or change the fact that we have a reason to avoid it. A person may lament, "Is that all there is to avoiding pain - preventing the realization of a state of affairs that we have evolved a disposition to try to prevent?" But that will not allow him to put his hand in a bed of hot coals with total indifference as to the outcome.


These standards provide a useful way to evaluate desirism as a naturalistic moral philosophy. We needed to amend one of them - element 4 - adding the relative claim that a reduction must not only be tolerably reductive but the least reductive option. With that revision, we can see how desirism defeats hedonism on a number of measures. It better explains choices and value, normative (ought-driven) elements, and incommensurability of goods. Though some people may not like the idea that life aims at making real the propositions that are the objects of one of our desires - the fact that they do not desire such a life is not an argument against the thesis. The fact that one finds a description of the world undesirable does not prove that the description is false.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Metaethics 0008: Peter Railton's Naturalism

Peter Railton, "Naturalism and Prescriptivity," Social Philosophy and Policy, 7 (1989) has what is considered to be a substantial objection to G.E. Moore's open question argument (which I discussed in Metaethics 0007: G.E. Moore's Open Question Argument.

For a refresher, Moore's Open Question argument says that for any natural property one can identify ("good" = "pleasure"), if one were to ask the question, "This is pleasurable, but is it good?" this is an "open question". That is to say, the answer to the question is not as obvious as, "This is pleasurable, but is it pleasurable?" would be. Yet, if "pleasure" and "good" were as closely related as this thesis suggests, then the question should not be open.

This argument was extremely influential in the first part of the 20th century, convincing a great many good philosophers that moral properties cannot be natural properties. At least, this cannot be true by definition.

Peter Railton argues that, even though a relationship is true by definition, it can still yield an "open question." This happens when the speakers are not entirely clear about the relationship. To illustrate this point, Railton refers to the relationship between the terms "water" and "H2O". The statement, "water is H2O" is true by definition. And yet, if we were to subject this to Moore's test, we see that, "This is water, but is it H2O?" is an open question. This happens because the fact that what people call "water" is made up of molecules of hydrogen and oxygen is something that people need to learn. It is not obvious. In fact, until this discovery takes place, "water" clearly does not mean "H2O". However, once people acquire this type of knowledge, they decide, "Hey, we can make our language a bit more precise if we simply come to mean H2O when we talk about water." Thus, they revise and update their language to take this fact into consideration. Yet, it is still the case that a person can grow up in a culture, learn to use the term "water" the way people typically use the term, and remain ignorant of the basic fact of chemistry that identifies "water" as H2O".

It's one thing to argue that there is an (another) type of statement that is immune to G.E. Moore's "open question argument".

Of course, this cannot be end of it. The fact that there are certain types of identities that can survive Moore's open question test does not prove that any and all identities can survive the test. If one wants to reduce to "good" to some sort of natural property, one still needs to find an identity that actually works. PLUS it needs to survive Moore's open question test.

Desirism faces the same constraint. As I showed in Metaethics 0007: G.E. Moore's Open Question Argument, the argument fails against identities that contain an ambiguous reference such as "the desires in question". However, it is not the case that "good" can be reduced to any old identity that has an ambiguous reference. One needs to go to the effort of showing that one has identified the identity that works best. "Good" = "Is such as to fulfill the desires in question" still requires a lot of work.

Parfit makes this point by using the example of "good" = "being cholesterol-laden". This, in fact, corresponds to very little of what the term "good" is used for. It fails to describe paintings, political institutions, poetry, and promise keeping. None of these things can be described - or are even the type of entity that can be described - as "cholesterol-laden" in any sense. Therefore, we have to reject this reduction.

Similarly, one would have to reject "good" = "such as to fulfill the desires in question" if it should fail to account for substantial uses of the term "good". Fortunately, this identity can refer to paintings, political institutions, poetry, and promise keeping. If there are things out there that such an identity has trouble with, it would count as a substantive objection against the theory.

Parfit is going to argue that "good" is "pleasure". I am going to argue that "good" is "is such as to fulfill the desires in question". The contest between them will be fought on the grounds of what can best account for the standard uses of "good". But that will have to wait for a future post.

Friday, January 18, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0017:Sidgwick, Desires, and Goodness

Whatsoever is the object of any man's desire, that it is which he for his part call Good, and the object of his aversion, Evil.Thomas Hobbes, Leviathon

Henry Sidgwick, in The Methods of Ethics, Book I, Chapter IX, objects.

To be clear, at the start, Sidgwick objects to this as a definition of "good", and on that score I would agree with Sidgwick. I hold that "good" is to be understood as "that which there is a reason to bring about." It is merely a matter of empirical fact that the only reasons that exist to bring about (or, for that matter, to prevent) are desires and aversions. If some other types of reasons existed, then those reasons would allow us to call other things good. But they do not exist.

However, I wish to set that question aside and simply take up the challenge of answering Sidgwick's concerns that are applicable to the proposition: "Good" = "Is such as to fulfill the desires in question." Against this proposition, many of Sidgwick's objections are relevant. It is time I stepped up and addressed them directly.

Desires and Expectations

Sidgwick wrote, "We have first to meet the obvious objection that a man often desires what he knows is on the whole bad for him."

This is easily addressed, for what is it that makes it bad for him? That would be the case that the realization of that which is desired also realizes states to which he has aversions - where, in some cases, that to which the agent is adverse is more strongly disliked that that which is desired. The point to be made here is that this is an observation, where we do not need to postulate anything other than desires and aversions to explain this observation. A person likes to eat chocolate cake, even though it causes him to gain weight, and the weight gain thwarts all sorts of desires.

Sidgwick also commented, "but that these bad effects, though fore-seen are not fore-felt". This is something that desirism has fully addressed. Future desires have no capacity to reach back in time and motivate current action. I know that, in the future, I will hate the fact that P. However, that future hatred will provide future motivation. The only way that it can motivate current behavior is if I have a present desire that my future desires be fulfilled. Other than that, the future desire is known but not felt.

The same is true of future good effects, such as the effects of saving for a retirement, which cannot motivate any current savings, unless the agent has a current desire that future desires go satisfied.

However, the very reason that those future states are bad (or good) is in virtue of their relationship to the agent's desires. It is still the case that there is no good other than that which fulfills a desire, and no bad other than that which will thwart a desire.

Unfulfillable Desires

Sidgwick also argues that, "a prudent man is accustomed to suppress, with more or less success, desires for what he regards as out of his power to attain by voluntary action---as fine weather, perfect health, great wealth or fame, etc.; but any success he may have in diminishing the actual intensity of such desires has no effect in leading him to judge the objects desired less `good'."

Here, it is important to see exactly what Sidgwick is saying, because it is not obvious. If we accept that "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question," then it should not be possible to adjust the strength of a desire for something without changing its goodness. However, according to Sidgwick, the prudent man weakens his desire for things that are beyond his control. Yet, in weakening his desire, he does not weaken their goodness. Therefore, goodness is independent of the strength or object of an agent's desire.

One way to conceive of an agent weakening his desire for something is by lowering what the agent would be willing to give up to get it. Let us assume that perfect health - one of the things on Sidgwick's list - is something that the agent would be willing to spend $10 million to acquire. However, he does not have $10 million. According to Sidgwick, if he were prudent, he would lower his desire for it. Lowering his desire would translate into, for example, being willing to pay $1 million for it. This translates into saying that, if the price were dropped to $5 million, he would no longer buy it, because he does not want it that badly.

We have two options. On one option, he truly does not care about perfect health with the intensity that he used to. In this case, we should draw the conclusion that its value has diminished - that it is no longer as good as it once was. On the other option, while he has learned to deal with the unpleasantness of the unfulfilled desire, he still desires the good as much as he used to. In this case, he is still willing to pay the original $10 million, and it would be wrong to say that perfect health has any reduced value. Either way, the value of perfect health is still tied to how strongly it is desired.


As I mentioned at the start, I do not take this to be the meaning of "good", simply an account of what it takes for value statements to be true. This is because desires provide the only reasons that exist. If we change the desires, then we change the reasons that exist for realizing some end. Consequently, there is little option but to say its value has changed. But the value may not be what the agent believes it to be. An agent have a desire that P, and either falsely believe that he will find P in S or be unpleasantly surprised by finding P in T. It is still the case that the value he unexpectedly found or the badness that he failed to avoid depends on his desires.

British Ethical Theorists 0016:Some Notes 01

This will likely be one of several posts in this series that just jot down some random pieces of information that I encounter in my reading.

Sidgwick on Motivational Internalism

Sidgewick wrote that the judgment that X ought to be done gives an impulse or motive to action and that it must at least be possible that this impulse to action conflicts with the agent's other motives. Sidgwick seems to be arguing that the "ought" of morality is something that does battle against other inclinations - where, in some cases, the other inclinations win out and where moral ought wins out in others.

Specifically, Sidgwick wrote in Methods of Ethics, Part I, Chapter 3, Part 3 that:

Further, when I speak of the cognition or judgment that `X ought to be done'---in the stricter ethical sense of the term ought---as a `dictate' or `precept' of reason to the persons to whom it relates, I imply that in rational beings as such this cognition gives an impulse or motive to action: though in human beings, of course, this is only one motive among others which are liable to conflict with it, and is not always---perhaps not usually---a predominant motive. In fact, this possible conflict of motives seems to be connoted by the term `dictate' or `imperative', which describes the relation of Reason to mere inclinations or non-rational impulses by comparing it to the relation between the will of a superior and the wills of his subordinates. This conflict seems also to be implied in the terms `ought', `duty', `moral obligation', as used in ordinary moral discourse: and hence these terms cannot be applied to the actions of rational beings to whom we cannot attribute impulses conflicting with reason. We may, however, say of such beings that their actions are `reasonable', or (in an absolute sense) `right'.

Desirism, of course, would deny this. A judgment that something is a duty is a judgment that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do it. However, it is at least possible that the agent has other ends and none of the ends that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would have. In fact, this should be said - to base morality on one's own ends is to conceive of the world in which the agent himself is a master and all others are mere servants. Granted, this way of thinking is consistent with each agent being a benevolent master - they may still care about others. Still, it only allows the interests of others to be morally relevant if the agent has a relevant motivational pro-attitude towards those interests. If not, the agent is not rendered evil. Instead, the interests the agent is not moved to consider are rendered - by that fact alone - irrelevant.

Moore on the Usefulness of Virtues

G.E. Moore, in seems, denied that virtues had intrinsic value. His main argument stated in Principia Ethica, Chapter V, convincingly enough:

Nevertheless I do not think we can regard it as part of the definition of virtue that it should be good in itself. For the name has so far an independent meaning, that if in any particular case a disposition commonly considered virtuous were proved not to be good in itself, we should not think that a sufficient reason for saying that it was not a virtue but was only thought to be so.

As written, this is one of the features of desirism. A desire is good insofar as it tends to fulfill other desires. No desire is good in itself. If it were discovered that a particular character trait were to do more to fulfill the desires of others than was originally thought, then tha is a reason to promote that desire as a virtue. If it tends to do harm, then we have reason to condemn it. If it were the case that selfishness produced vast amounts of wealth that made even the lives of the poorer individuals better off, then that would be a reason to call it a virtue. If, instead, it results in a few families hoarding the vast majority of wealth and the rest of us being merely their serfs and servants, then this gives most of us reason to condemn selfishness.

Broad, Sidgwick, and the Role of Reward and Punishment

C.D. Broad, in his book Five Types of Ethical Theory, he devotes Chapter 6 to the study of Sidgwick. In this, he presents Sidgwick's argument that the concept of right is findamental and basic - that it is unanalyzable. To make his case, he looks at various proposed analysis and dismisses them.

One of the possible forms of analysis is: "other men will feel approval towards me if I do X and will feel disapproval towards me if I omit to do X".

This is near enough to what desirism states that one should comment on the difference. A good desire, according to desirism, is one that people have reason to promote using praise (of those who exhibit it) and condemnation (of those who do not). However, good and bad desires are not identified by actual praise and condemnation, but on the praise and condemnation people have reasons to inflict. The objections that Broad applies (in Sidgwick's name) to the former theory do not apply to the latter. For example, Broad has Sidgwick objecting that it certainly seems possible for it to be the case that the people praise some form of conduct that is still not right, or condemn some conduct that is not wrong. So, what people actually praise and condemn cannot determine what is right or wrong. This is true. This is because there is sometimes a difference between what people have reason to praise and condemn on the one hand, and what they do praise and condemn on the other. So, Sidgwick is correct about this reduction of right, but he did not say anothing about the more reasonable alternative.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Revising Gibbard's Planned

This posting is a reworking of an original post where I commented on the metaethical theory of Allan Gibbard. It is such a significant rewriting, that I am opting to post it separately.

Allan Gibbard seeks to explain “ought” in terms of the realization or expression of a plan, then tries to use this to explain how disputes can be consistent with a non-cognitivist (or quasi-realist) account of value.

He has us consider Jack, who has an interest in drawing water from a well at the top of a hill. However, there is a chance of falling and breaking his crown. Ought he to try for the water? In Gibbard’s discussion, one observer (Agent1) says that Jack should - the need for the water makes it worth the risk. Another observer (Agent2) says that Jack should not - better safe than sorry. They disagree about something. Gibbard tells us that they disagree about plans or, more precisely, at how fetching the water will fit into the plan. Gibbard tells us that this is the type of disagreement we find in the case of moral disagreement.

I see plans as the paradigm of means-ends reasoning. If you want to make an apple pie, follow a recipe - a plan. Plans provide a course of action that, when followed, realize some end or goal. The value of the plan depends importantly on the value of the end or goal. However, plans do not give ends their value - that is a separate question. The apple pie recipe tells me how to make an apple pie, but it does not give me a reason to make it. A plan to win the state fair blue ribbon for best apple pie may give me a reason to make an apple pie, but not a reason to seek the ribbon. In all cases, there seems to be something just out of the reach of the plan's "ought" - the reason for the plan itself.

Let us admit that we are creatures that plan. Jack creates a simulation. In this simulation he places a character, Sim Jack. Sim Jack has his beliefs and his goals or ends. Sim Jack’s world also runs by the same laws of nature as the real world. We may imagine Jack running these simulations, using different action-options, and trying to determine which one will realize more of his ends. He uses this to create a plan. Please note that this takes a lot of time and effort, so Jack will typically use shortcuts instead that are less reliable but take less time and energy.

Agent1 and Agent2 also have the ability to construct their own version of Sim Jack. For Agent1, for example, Sim Jack is Sim Agent1 with Jack’s beliefs and Jack’s ends. Agent2 can also create a Sim Jack. Once constructed, they can each run Sim Jack through their iPhone simulations testing different actions. Our Agents can test their simulations by using historical data and determining if the simulation correctly predicts historical results. In doing this, note that one or both simulations can be mistaken - the agent's can be wrong. In other words, there are points here of genuine disagreement.

Gibbard may object to the very idea of these simulations predicting Jack's behavior. Gibbard seems to suggest that Jack has a capacity to make choices that go outside of the laws of nature. He states that science has always seemed to fall short at capturing what is "exceptional" about humans, and this seems to include something that goes into our "plans". He also wrote, "Moore thought that moral facts somehow lie outside the world that empirical science can study. We can broaden this to a claim about the space of reasons as a whole, which, we can say, lies outside the space of causes." We may be forced to go in that direction, but I do not think that should be our first option. We should at least look at what we can do without taking such extreme steps.

Assume Agent1 runs Sim Jack using an action that Jack did not think of and discovers it will realize more of Jack’s own ends. Is there an English sentence he can use to report this to Jack? I would recommend something like, “Jack, you should try this.” In saying this, Agent1 is reporting a fact about the relationship between “this” action and Jack’s ends that is true (or not) regardless of what Agent1 believes or endorses. “Should” is being used to report relations between actions and ends, though not necessarily the ends of the speaker.

Once our Agents have built and tested their simulations, they can then see what happens when they adjust certain variables. The variables I am interested in are: (1) the world, (2) Jack’s beliefs, and (3) Jack’s ends.

Gibbard considers why we would contemplate plans from another person’s perspective and appears to settle on the answer that it is a kind of useful playing - like reading fiction - helpful in improving our ability to make our own plans. These simulations are not just useful games. We use them to predict how others will act. We have reasons to care about whether others will interfere with or help realize our own ends. We can also use them to determine how we may influence whether their action will realize or thwart our ends.

Examples that involve altering the world variables include applying physical restraints (locks, imprisonment) and offering incentives or threatening punishments. Agents may also be interested in the case where the world actually corresponds to Jack’s beliefs. Jack is assuming this is the case when he runs his own simulations, but our Agents may recognize that some of Jack’s beliefs are mistaken. They can still run their own versions of Sim Jack under the assumption Jack is right to see the results.

Examples that involve changing belief variables can include, “Which action would best realize ends if beliefs were true in the sense that they accurately describe the world?” Here, instead of changing world variables to agree with Jack’s beliefs, our hypothetical Agents change the belief variables to match the world. This may be mistaken for the “informed desire” approach. However, I side with Hume in holding that a change in beliefs do not imply a change in ends. Our ends come from evolution/biology (aversion to pain, desire for sex, hunger, thirst, concern for one's offspring, comfort), activation of the mesolimbic pathway, drugs, and physical change - e.g., having a railroad tamping rod driven through one's prefrontal cortex in a railway construction accident. Agents may also have an interest in running Sim Jack through iterations where they change the belief variables to beliefs that are reasonable given Jack’s evidence. An epistemologist can help us in this task.

Ends may be immune to reason. However, they are not immune to praise and condemnation (and other forms of reward and punishment). Consequently, our Agents may want to run Sim-Jack iterations while adjusting Jack’s ends to those that are within people’s power to bring about using praise and condemnation. By comparing the results to the ends of other people, these iterations tell us something about the ends that people have reason to promote using praise and condemnation. These simulations would also need to include relevant real-world facts; for example, that ends persist and will influence a large number of actions. A particular end (e.g., to keep promises) might produce some bad consequences in a given instance and still be an end that people generally have reason to promote through praise (of those who keep promises) and condemnation (of those who do not).

People who run simulations under these terms can have genuine disputes on a number of grounds. For example, they may disagree about the ends that people generally have reasons to promote through praise and condemnation. They may also disagree over what a person with such ends would do in a given circumstance. These are genuine disputes over matters of fact – not the pseudo-disputes that Gibbard generates.

Gibbard might still object to this on the grounds that it implies motivational externalism. Simulations that agents run based on ends other than their own only contingently reveal facts that will motivate those agents. However, that issue will have to be addressed elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Metaethics 0007: G.E. Moore's Open Question Argument

This posting is inspired by Michael Ridge's article, "Ecumenical Expressivism: Finessing Frege," Ethics, Vol. 116, No. 2 (January 2006), pp. 302-336. However, that article is not substantially about Moore's open question argument. It discusses the argument and its relationship to non-cognitivist theories of value. Ridge's article is about the theory of value he proposes, "ecumenical expressivism". But, in doing so, he discusses the role that Moore's open question argument has in motivating non-cognitive theories.

In this post, I seek to take a look at that foundation as Ridge described it.

The open question argument aims to show that the meaning of "good" cannot be reduced to any natural property.

In all honesty, I agree with this conclusion. I argue that "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question". However, it is a mistake to argue that this is what the term means in standard English. To call something good is to say that there are reasons to realize that thing. It is an a poteriori fact - a fact learned from experience - that the fulfillment of desires are the only reasons for intentional action that exist. Consequently, Consequently, "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question" is not an a priori truth (true by definition).

Still, the open question argument has diverted a lot of philosophical labor-hours down some very unfruitful paths. Even if I were to offer "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question" as being true by definition, Moore's open question argument would fail to show that this is mistaken.

So, what is the open question argument and how is it supposed to show that moral claims cannot be reduced to natural facts?

Let me borrow Ridge's characterization:

Take any proposed naturalistic analysis N of a moral predicate M. Moore’s open question argument maintains that it will always be possible for someone without conceptual confusion to grant that something is N but still wonder whether it is really M. If, however, N really was an accurate analysis of M then the question “I know it is N but is it M?” would not be conceptually open.

Moore used his open question argument against Sidgwick's claim that pleasure is the only good, so let us try it there. We take Sidgwick's claim, "good" = "pleasurable". We apply Moore's open question test and translate Sidgwick's hypothesis into a question: "Drug induced highs are pleasurable, but are they good?" You do not need to find an example where the conclusion is clearly "no". Any example will do. The point that Moore wants to make is that, no matter what example you take, the question, "X is pleasurable, but is it good?" has no obvious answer. The question, "X is good, but is it good?" would be taken to have an obvious yes answer. Indeed, we can ask why anybody would even ask such a question. If "good" = "pleasurable", asking the question, "X is pleasurable, but is it good?" would be like asking, "X is red, but is it red?" or "X is in Denver, but is it in Denver?" However, "X is pleasurable, but is it good?" is not like these other examples. This shows that "pleasurable" cannot be the same as "good".

The argument then takes one further step. It claims that there is nothing natural or material that you can test in this way and come up with a closed question. Pick any natural property you want, it will fail the open-question test. If all natural properties fail the open-question test, them "good" must refer to a non-natural property.

That's the argument.

The problem is that the open question argument does not work when you are dealing with ambiguous terms. Terms that refer ambiguously to two or more natural properties generate open questions when they are subject to the open question test.

So, let's take the proposal, "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question."

Let us subject this to the open question test and ask, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question, but is it good?"

Well, that depends. Are the "desires in question" the same in both cases?

The question could be asking, "X is such as to fulfill Agent1's desires, but are they such as to fulfill Agent2's desires?" This is an actual open question. The answer may very well be "no".

If we look at what desirism says about morality, we find that people quite often ask the question, "X is such as to fulfill those desires that people generally have reason to promote universally, but is it such as to fulfill Agent1's desires?" This is the way desirism understands the question, "Why should I be moral?" The answer may well be "no". There is no guarantee that doing the right thing will fulfill the desires of the agent. In fact, desirism understands most wrong action - most cases of people doing what they ought not to do - as cases where the agent does something that fulfills his desires, but does not fulfill the desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally.

In fact, things get worse for the open question argument when we introduce the idea of "conventional implicature". Conventional implicature is what happens when the perceived meaning of a term or phrase differs from the literal meaning. An example would be my wife shouting down to me as I work on a philosophy blog posting, "Honey, it's ten to six!" What she says is literally true. However, in this particular context, it means in this context is: "Quit working on that stupid blog posting and get ready for work!" We know what a term or phrase "really means" when we can imply that meaning from the conversational context.

Conventional implicature allows us to recognize rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions are questions with an obvious answer that tells the hearer to take this obvious answer and run with it. When we deal with an ambiguous question, conventional implicature typically allows us to judge when the agent is asking a rhetorical question (with an obvious answer) and when she is asking a serious question. A rhetorical question will be one that uses the same definition of the term in both parts of the sentence. A serious question uses different definitions in each part of the sentence.

Conventional implicature tells us to interpret the question, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question, but is it good?" as a serious question. This means to interpret the question as, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question, but is it such as to fulfill those other desires in question?"

This, indeed, is an open question - a question to which the answer is "no". This is because people do not ask questions like this if the answers are painfully obvious - and the answer would be painfully obvious if it referred to the same desires in question in both cases. Consequently, conventional implicature tells us to look for a different "desires in question" in each case. When we do, the question is a genuine open question.

So, I do not think that "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question" tells us the standard English-language meaning of the term "good". However, even if it was, you would not be able to use Moore's open question test on it. Ambiguous terms generate open questions by default.

British Ethical Theorists 0015: Moore's Isolation Test

One of the things that G.E. Moore is noted for is his "isolation test" of intrinsic value.

As Hurka reported in British Ethical Theorists, Moore ultimately defined intrinsic value in terms of what has value in isolation. "By saying that a thing is intrinsically good [our theory] means that it would be a good thing that the thing in question should exist, even if it existed quite alone" (Moore, Ethics, p. 27).

Of course, desirism denies that anything has value "in isolation". Rather, the value of any state of affairs depends on how it stands in relation to one or more desires. However, there is still an argument to be made that Moore's isolation test is helpful in finding out exactly what it is that the agent desires. We have a state of affairs S, and Agent1 finds value in S. This means that Agent1 has a desire that P and P is true in S. It seems as if Moore's isolation test may be a good test for making sure that Agent1's desire is a desire that P and not something else.

The most famous application of Moore's isolation test involved his comparison of two planets.

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful....And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other.... [S]till, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance. G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica.

First, of course, the value of each world depends on how what is true of the world stands in relation to certain desires. We may imagine that the first world is a pristine, safe, and healthy Earth-like world with green meadows, fresh water falling into a clear pool, and healthy animals flittering about or grazing. While we imagine the disgusting world as a huge ball of dung. We encounter an alien species that evolved from a type of dung beetle. They may well agree with us that it is better that a beautiful world exist. However, their idea of beauty is realized in the world that is a big ball of dung. Indeed, they may not be able to imagine a world more beautiful.

This illustrates that the value of the world is determined by how it stands in relationship to desires.

However, we are still left with a question. Do we find value in the beautiful world existing, or is it just the case that our experience of the world is that in which we find value?

This really is the question that Moore was trying to answer. He was responding to Henry Sidgwick's thesis that nothing has value but pleasure. This can be translated in desirism terms to mean that we have only one desire that P, and that is the desire where P = "I am experiencing pleasure". Moore's isolation test is an attempt to prove that this is false. He attempts to do this by asking us to make a choice where, in both cases, "I am experiencing pleasure" is false. Yet, Moore argues, we would choose. In desirism terms, it means that we must have a desire that P that is true in which the beautiful world exists but nobody experiences it. We must have a desire that the beautiful world exist such that we have reason to realize the state of affairs in which "the beautiful world exists" is true.

So, Moore's isolation test may do a poor job of picking out what has intrinsic value. However, it may be useful in picking out more precisely what are the objects of our desires - what states of affairs will actually fulfill our desires.

British Ethical Theorists 0014: The Values of Parts and Wholes

I, and others, typically speak as if there are two major types of value - means and ends. Within desirism, desires themselves provide the ends. If Agent1 has a desire that P (e.g., a desire that "I am not in pain"), then states of affairs where P is true (e.g., where "I am not in pain" is true) are states that have value to Agent1. That is to say, Agent1 has a reason to prefer states where "I am not in pain" is true over those where "I am not in pain" is false.

Other states, objects, actions, laws, institutions, and the like have value insofar as they can contribute to realizing such a state. So, if I have a headache (that is to say, I am in a state where "I am not in pain" is false), and I take some aspirin, I can realize a state in which "I am not in pain" is true. As a result, taking aspirin has value.

Some philosophers refer to those states that fulfill our desires directly as "intrinsically desired". I do not like this term since it implies that the state has value "intrinsically" rather than in virtue of the fact that somebody has a desire that is fulfilled in that state. I prefer to call such a state as being "directly desired", while anything that is valued as a means is "indirectly desired."

However, as Hurka points out in British Ethical Theorists, this is an oversimplification. If we look at this situation in a bit more detail, there are more relationships between objects of evaluation and ends than the ends themselves and the means towards those ends.

For example, G.E. Moore devoted a great deal of effort to understanding the relationship between parts and wholes. This is his famous "principle of organic unities".

The standard example that I use to discuss this is: take any part of the Mona Lisa painting (10cm by 10cm) and ask, "What is its value?" If we assume that the Mona Lisa painting has value, then that section has value. However, it is not valued for its own sake. Remove it from the painting and set it aside and it would have little value on its own. It may have value as a historical artifact, but not as a painting. It also does not have value as a means to an end. That is to say, it is not being used as a tool for realizing something else that has value. It's value is, instead, as a part of a whole.

Elsewhere, I have called this "contributory value". Hurka reports that W.D. Ross called it "contributive goodness." However, since it is also possible for something to contribute to something bad, I prefer "value" to "goodness".

For another example, consider each individual word in this tremendously valuable blog posting. Each word alone has no value. Furthermore, the value of the blog posting cannot be determined by adding up the value of each particular word. In fact, if we determined the value of the blog posting that way, then it would still end up with 0 value because the sum of the all of the 0 value words would be 0. It is only when all of those 0-value entities come together - and are put together in a particular structure - that you have value.

Speaking of which, we can go back to the Mona Lisa painting and consider the value of each atom - which is 0, except insofar as it is a part of the painting.

This illustrates an important fact - one that Moore focused on heavily - the value of a whole is not the same as the value of the sum of its parts.

I often speak about fulfilling the most and strongest of an agent's desires. However, if Agent1 has two desires - a desire that P and a desire that Q - then it is a bit simplistic to think that a state of affairs in which P and Q are both true satisfies those those desires. Agent1 may want to listen to some classical music. He might also be in the mood to listen to his Johnny Cash album. However, a state of affairs in which both Johnny Cash and Beethoven are playing at the same time will not likely fulfill either desire. (Though, in this case, when we combine the sound waves of both pieces of music we get a collection of sound waves that, we can say, is neither "classical music" nor "Johnny Cash", so - in a sense, neither P nor Q are realized in that state of affairs.)

Another example that I use involves putting butterscotch topping on a casserole. One may like a salad. One may like butterscotch topping. But butterscotch topping on a casserole is a state of affairs in which neither "I am having butterscotch topping" or "I am having a casserole" is true. One is, instead, eating a strange concoction that cannot be truly described - at least for desire-fulfillment concerns - as both "having casserole and having butterscotch topping".

Hurka describes Moore's position as follows: "[Moore] 30) assumed a ‘holistic’ interpretation, on which if a whole’s value differs from the sum of the values of its parts, that is because alongside the unchanged values in those parts there is a further value in the whole ‘as a whole’ that must be added to the values in its parts to determine its value ‘on the whole’ (PE 213–22)."

Restating this principle in desire-relative terms, if an agent has a desire that P and a desire that Q, and the state "P & Q" has a value that is different from the value that P and the value that Q, then there must be a third desire that R that explains that change in value. Though it could be, as is the case when playing two songs at the same time, that a state that may, in one sense, be described as one in which both P and Q are true (Beethoven and Johnny Cash music is playing), in fact, for desire-fulfillment purposes, the combination of sound waves is neither Beethoven nor Johnny Cash.

When the value of wholes is different from the value of parts, these two options seem to be required to explain it. Either there is some additional "desire that R" that is true in the state P & Q, or either P or Q or both cease to be true in the state that - in one sense - may be described in terms of a whole made up of those parts.

Note that, in writing on this topic, Moore was writing about intrinsic goodness as its own non-naturalistic property, not goodness in terms of being such as to fulfill (directly) the desires in question. So, he took himself to be talking about a thing in the world independent of desire and was trying to figure out what was true of that thing. Consequently, Moore needed to explain changes in value in terms of the emergence or destruction of this intrinsic property when parts united into wholes. Perhaps we should take a look at how Moore's intrinsic value might differ from "is such as to fulfill the desires in question."

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Metaethics 0006: Allan Gibbard - Plans

Choosing is about making plans, according to Allan Gibbard.

G.E. Moore's Mistake

As has been the case with non-cognivist, Gibbard starts with Moore's mistake. He did not see it as a mistake, of course, that is my characterization. However, there are few mistakes in philosophy that have gotten so many people chasing off in the wrong direction for things that are not there.

The mistake is to think that Moore's "open question argument" supports the thesis that morality must be outside of science.

Let me quickly interrupt this posting to repeat my standard best argument for thinking that morality must be a part of the natural world. It has the ability to change the direction and velocity of carbon atoms. When human beings act, carbon atoms move in a particular direction at a particular time. If a "reason" has anything to do with that action, then that "reason" must have the ability to cause carbon atoms to move in a different direction or at a different velocity. It must have the ability to cause a person to tell the truth, repay a debt, punish a villain, or aid a person in need. If it has no ability to change what is happening in the world, then why even think that there is such a thing? If, on the other hand, it can influence behavior in the real world - even if we are only talking about the power to engineer a particular thought such as, "I have a reason to do X", then it must be something in the material world.

Some may accuse me of scientism. I cannot answer the charge, because I have never understood what "scientism" is. I will grant that, if all else has been tried and there is still reason to believe that there are causes of motion that are outside of scientific study, then I would agree that we must go with their existence and transcend scientific study. But if we do not need to go there, we have good reason not to.

With those caveats in mind, let us look at what Gibbard says of Moore's open question argument. The open question is to be used on any theory that tries to reduce value to a natural property. It always generates an open question. If somebody says, "goodness is pleasure", Moore would respond with the claim that goodness cannot be pleasure because, if somebody were to ask, "X is pleasurable, but is it good?" would be an open question. It is not clearly obvious in the way, "X is good, but is it good?" would be obvious.

Gibbard follows other non-cognitivists in thinking that this fact gives us reason to think that value properties cannot be reduced to physical properties (in spite of the fact that they have the power to cause physical substance to move). Gibbard attributes to Moore, "Moore thought that moral facts somehow lie outside the world that empirical science can study. We can broaden this to a claim about the space of reasons as a whole, which, we can say, lies outside of the space of causes."

As another aside, desirism does not have this problem. Desirism says, "Good" = "Is such as to fulfill the desires in question." When somebody such as Moore says, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question, but is it good?" is an open question, desirism says, "Of course it is an open question. We don't know if the "desires in question" in the right-hand side are the same "desires in question" in the left-hand side. It is quite possible that something can be "such as to fulfill the desires of the agent" but not "such as to fulfill the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally?" Until we can be certain that the "desires in question" are the same on both sides, it is quite possible that something can be "such as to fulfill the desires in question on the left hand side" but not "such as to fulfill the desires in question on the right hand side."

In a sense, expressivism does not have this problem either. If moral claims are the expression of an attitude, the attitude is the cause of the expression and, in addition, may be said to be the cause of the action - the agent doing that which is judged to be good or ought to be done. But, then, this answer needs to ask the question of whether (or why) this starts with Moore. If reasons are tied to attitudes, and attitudes are natural entities, then reasons are not non-natural entities. Moore seems to be a poor place to start regardless of the road one is travelling down.


Gibbard's focus is on how to handle disagreement. He uses the example of Jack, going up the hill to fetch a pail of water, falling down, and breaking his crown. He looks at the question of whether Jack ought to have gone up the hill. He imagines two people coming up with different answers, and asks how they can be in disagreement. Even with both of our investigators having access to all of the relevant facts, it is still possible for one to come to the conclusion that going up the hill was worth the risk, and the other to deny it. This is the sense in which the "ought" is outside of or beyond scientific investigation. This is the sense, according to Gibbard, in which I can think that Jack still should have gone up the hill, and you might think he should not have.

He denies that A.J. Ayer or C.L. Stevenson has a way of accounting for disagreement. If I say Jack ought to go up the hill, then I am expressing an attitude in favor of Jack going up the hill. If you disagree with me, then you must be saying that I am not in favor of Jack going up the hill. Yet, that does not seem to capture your claim that Jack ought not go up the hill.

I wish to offer a different account of this disagreement.

You and I both run a "Jack simulation" in our brains. We input Jack's beliefs and his ends (desires) and we run the simulation to determine if simulation-Jack goes up the hill. We can then test our simulation for accuracy by measuring its results against the real-life results of Jack's behavior. If our Jack simulations come up with different answers, then we disagree. But there is a right answer, made right by Jack's actions. If both of our Jack simulations are accurate, then we will both predict that Jack will go up the hill, or that he will not, and Jack will do what we predict he will do.

Predicting what Jack will do is not the same as making a claim about what Jack should do. Towards this end, we can run the simulation and see if the actions will realize Jacks' goals or ends. Since the laws of nature are the same within both of our simulations, we should still get the same results. If the results are different, one of our simulations needs adjusting. If Jacks ends are not realized, then Jack ought not to go up the hill. If we replace Jack's beliefs with true beliefs, Jack himself will agree that he has ought not to go up the hill - not if he is just going to fall and break his crown. The important point here is that there is still one answer and whoever gets the wrong answer needs to adjust their Jack simulation. There is, then, an answer to what Jack should do, given his ends, and that is whatever would realize his goal in a universe where he had true and accurate beliefs about the relevant facts.

This is not an informed desire account. An informed desire account assumes that if Jack had more accurate beliefs, he would have different (better informed) desires. Here, we are denying this. Giving Jack more accurate beliefs does not change his desires at all. It simply allows him to make plans that would allow him to more successfully reach those desires. What Jack "should do" in this situation is what a person with accurate beliefs but the same ends or goals would do - what will actually, in fact, realize those ends.

We could also run the Jack simulation by substituting different ends. However, in this case, we are no longer asking what Jack should do. We are asking what somebody else with different ends should do if that person were in Jack's place. A common example would be to ask what we would do if we were in Jack's place. In this case, we remove Jack's ends and insert our own ends in their place. If you and I both do this, then we should not be surprised to discover that Jack's situation plus my ends yields different results from Jack's situation plus your ends. This does not count as disagreement.

We can also run the Jack simulation using ends other than Jack's, yours, or my actual ends. We can evaluate the ends themselves and determine if they have any merit. There is a sense in which our ends are under our voluntary control. We cannot decide, at a given moment, to have a particular end or not. However, we can still decide whether we ought to cultivate (or not) certain traits. This is the same type of control that we have over our weight. I cannot decide, on a moment's notice, to weigh 10 pounds less than I do now. However, this inability to instantly choose to weigh less does not prevent me from making sense of the claim, "I ought to lose a few pounds" and to create a plan to realize that end. Similarly, we can wonder whether we "ought to desire that P" and see if we can make a plan to cultivate a desire that P.

In one type of case, this is easy to do. For example, a person can choose whether or not to have a desire to smoke. Somebody wishing to acquire a desire to smoke can typically do so by smoking and allowing the nicotine to impact his brain in such a way so as to create a strong desire to smoke. He can choose to avoid having such a desire by not smoking. Other desires are not so easily acquired or extinguished, but there are still things an agent can do to acquire, strengthen, weaken, or extinguish many of them. A person who answers the question, "Ought I to desire to smoke" with "No" can take steps to help to ensure that she does not acquire a desire to smoke.

We can ask similar questions about, for example, a desire to deal honestly with others, an aversion to taking property without consent, a desire to help those in desperate need, and an aversion to breaking promises. We can count these among the desires that agents ought to have. Here, we should consider not only the ends that Jack has reason to cultivate in himself, but the ends that others have their own reasons to cultivate in Jack (and everybody else, perhaps) such as the aversion to breaking promises.

Now, we have the option of running the Jack simulation where - in the relevant cases - we substitute Jack's ends with the ends that Jack has reason to cultivate in himself and that people generally have reason to cultivate universally. What Jack would do in that case, given his beliefs, gives us another answer to the question of what Jack should do. We can also ask about what Jack, with good desires, lacking bad desires, and having true and relevant beliefs would have done.

When we ask what the Jack with good desires and lacking bad desires would do, we may disagree because we may disagree on what the good and bad desires are. This is still a case of genuine disagreement. We are asking if this is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally, and we may find ourselves having a difference of opinion on that matter.

What I have done here is created a whole set of "should" or "ought" statements. I see no problem with that. "Ought" is am ambiguous term. We get these different answers given the different inputs. Any time two people plug the same belief and desire inputs into the Jack simulation, they should get the same response. If they do not, one of them is mistaken. If, instead, they each plug in different belief and desire inputs, they should not be surprised if they get different answers. That is not a sign of disagreement. Disagreement comes from getting different results using the same beliefs and desires, or in determining which beliefs and desires meet a particular selection criteria.

In this way, genuine dispute is possible.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Metaethics 0005: Mark Schroeder - the Frege-Geach Problem

What follows is, in my view, one of the most powerful arguments against the claim that moral statements are not capable of being true or false.

The argument is that they certainly act like statements that are capable of being true or false.

Peter Geach (and, independently and less famously, John Searle) presented this argument in the 1960s against non-cognitivist moral theories like that of R.M. Hare. As discussed in Metaethics 003: R.M. Hare's Prescriptivism, Hare held that moral statements are commands much like the instructions in a cookbook or an order to "close the door." These types of statements do not have a truth value, and (according to Hare) neither do moral statements. Emotivism and expressivism similarly assert that moral statements are not truth-bearing. They are expressions of emotion (e.g., slamming one's fist on the table) or of other states (expressing a preference), none of which have a truth value.

Against the idea that moral claims are not statements, Geach - drawing from Gottlob Frege's distinction between what a statement means and its "assertoric force" (or force as an assertion) - provided an argument that they certainly act like regular statements. Indeed, they do not act like the types of claims (expressions) that the expressivists said they are.

Note that, in the false dichotomy that currently rules moral philosophy, if moral statements are not expressions then they report facts, and they cannot report facts unless intrinsic values exist. Intrinsic values certainly must exist. Consequently, we need to go back to these expressivist theories and figure out a way to fix the Frege-Geach Problem. Indeed, if I thought that the only alternative to expressivism was intrinsic value theory, I would be frantically searching for a way to fix expressivism as well. Fortunately, I do not have to do this.

Let's look at this problem in a bit more detail. The objection notes:

[T]here is no linguistic evidence whatsoever that the meaning of moral terms works differently than that of ordinary descriptive terms. On the contrary, everything that you can do syntactically with a descriptive predicate like ‘green’, you can do with a moral predicate like ‘wrong’, and when you do those things, they have the same semantic effects.

What the heck does this mean?

One example: you can turn a moral statement into a question. We can take the statement "lying is wrong" and turn it into a question: "Is lying wrong?" We cannot do this so easily with a command. "Do not lie" does not translate well into "Is do not lie?" We could, perhaps, turn the statement, "This is good" into "Is this good?" However, asking "Is this good?" is not the same as asking, "Do I commend this"? Since we can turn evaluative statements such as "lying is wrong" into a question but not imperatives like "do not lie", this suggests that moral statements actually are not imperatives. If they were, then they would behave the same way.

As an aside, let me quickly say that we can take the statement, "Lying is an act type that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to using praise and condemnation" and turn it into the question, "Is lying an act type that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to using praise and condemnation?" So, desirism is immune to the Frege-Geech problem. It only applies to desirism's non-cognitivist rivals.

Anyway, back to the argument:

The statement "This is green" has truth conditions. It can be true, or it can be false. If it is true, then "this is not green" is false. If it is false, then "this is not green" is true.

The statement "this is good" according to expressivism does not have any truth conditions. It is neither true nor false. However, it certainly looks as if it is the case that "this is good" behaves the same way as "this is green". That is to say, we certainly treat "this is good" as if it is capable of being true or false. If it is true then "this is not good' must be false. And if it is false, then "this is not good" can be true. How can it be the case that "this is good" works the same way as "this is green" if the latter can actually be true or false and the former (according to the theory being challenged) has no truth value?

As Schroeder reports, there is no argument that the non-cognitivist cannot answer the challenge of providing a semantic that handles these types of cases in the way a descriptive statement handles them.

This is true not only for questions, negations, and conditionals, but also for quantifiers, modals, tense, attitude-verbs, generics, adverbs of quantification, intensifying adverbs like ‘very’, and so on. Noncognitivists believe that moral terms have a different kind of semantics than ordinary descriptive terms, but somehow every complex-sentence forming construction manages to do exactly the same sort of things with them that it does with ordinary descriptive terms.

The challenge is that it would be a complex and difficult job - towards which I would argue, "Why go through all that effort if you do not have to?" Following the principle that the easiest course of action is the best, we should go for the easiest option of taking moral statements to be truth-bearing statements. Once again, those who do not think that this is the easiest option tend to think that the only other option is an unreasonable form form of realism.

The Higher-Order Solution

Simon Blackburn tried to solve this problem using higher-order disapprovals. He sought to make sense of the following argument form:

(1) Stealing is wrong.
(2) If stealing is wrong, then murder is wrong.
(3) Therefore, murder is wrong.

Remember, validity has nothing to do with the truth of the premises. In logic, this argument forms the pattern that logicians call "modus ponens" and is recognized as a valid argument type. Generalized, it takes the form, "P", "P -> Q", "Therefore, Q". The problem for the expressivists as discussed above is that "if stealing is wrong" in (2) does not express an anti-attitude towards stealing. So, it does not have the same meaning as "stealing is wrong" in (1). Blackburn wants to provide a way of expressing (2) that preserves this con-attitude.

Blackburn's answer is to claim that (2) expresses a con-attitude towards condemning stealing but not murder.

However, Mark van Roojen pointed out that this is not the only way to express a con-attitude towards both stealing and murder. He replaced (2) with

(2') It is wrong to both disapprove of stealing and not disapprove of murder.

However, (1), when combined with (2'), does not in fact yield (3). One cannot infer that murder is wrong in this case. The problem is that Blackburn did not provide the type of incoherence that we find in believing that P and believing that not-P. His incoherence is the type found in believing that P and believing that one does not believe that P. All higher-order solutions will have this problem and can be rejected for the same reasons.


I am going to end this here. The problem that the non-cognitivist are trying to handle does not exist. Since moral statements are descriptive statements, we do not need to worry about why moral statements act like descriptive statements.

Metaethics 0004: Simon Blackburn - Quasi-Realism

Expressionism holds that moral statements express attitudes - much like slapping one's hand on the table top expresses anger. And, like slapping one's hand on the table top, moral statements do not have a truth value. Such expressions are neither true nor false. They just are. Though, also like slapping one's hand on the table, such expressions can be justified or unjustified.

Expressivism is the view that Simon Blackburn has defended.

Expressivism and Truth

Desirism can accept some of this. After all, desirism holds that a moral statement is, in part, a statement of praise or condemnation. That is to say, it expresses praise or condemnation. It does so in an attempt to trigger the reward centers of the brain in others to generate a behavioral rule in favor of doing acts like those that were praised, or to avoid doing acts like those that were condemned. In this sense, desirism is an expressivist moral theory.

However, desirism holds that moral statements do this by adding expression to a proposition that can be true or false. In the same way that slapping one's hand on the table can be used to express a particular emotion, the utterance of a certain type of truth-bearing proposition can express an attitude as well. It may do so as a matter of evolutionary fact, or it may do so as a matter of social convention, but, either way, the slapping of a hand on the table and the use of a certain truth bearing proposition says more than is found in the literal meaning of the action.

Furthermore, desirism holds that the truth of the proposition and the praise or condemnation being expressed are linked in a particularly important way. If the proposition is unjustified, then the expression is justified. For example, if a stranger were to pick up what I think is my backpack and start to leave the room, I may shout, "Hey, that's mine!" My statement expresses a particular attitude. It is also a truth-bearing proposition. Furthermore, if the person who is the object of my attitude were to demonstrate that the proposition is false (e.g., that the bag he picked up has his stuff in it), then he has not only showed that the proposition is false, but also (and at the same time) that the condemnation was unjustified.

Blackburn's expressivism does not work that way. Or, more precisely, Blackburn never states explicitly that truth-bearing propositions can be used to express an attitude and that the justification for the attitude depends on the proposition being true.

Direction of Fit

There is an often used slogan that describes the difference between beliefs and desires. "If what is true in the world is not the same as what you believe, then change your beliefs. If what is true in the world is not the same as what you desire, change the world."

Blackburn, following Elizabeth Anscombe, notes that morality is about "changing the world". Consequently, he considers relating morality with desires. He considers the prospect that moral claims are claims about what we desire - but clearly what we desire is often quite different from what is moral. Furthermore, this view does not make sense of disagreement, since it is certainly possible (indeed, quite common) that one person can like one thing and another person like something else.

Blackburn looks at the desire to desire thesis. However, here he would have been better served if he had noted a distinction. There are second-order desires that take the form "I desire that I desire that P". And there are reasons to desire that take the form, "If I were to desire that P then this would help to fulfill my other desire that Q, desire that R, and desire that S". These are different situations, though, ultimately, both of them fail. Desirism fails because, even though morality is grounded on desires, they are not grounded on the desires of the agent. This also counters a third option that Blackburn considers, the most central and core desires of the agent with which the agent most identifies - also a view that wrongly focuses on the desires of the agent.

There is a reason why moral philosophers tend to focus on the desires of the agent. There is the view that moral statements are intimately tied to the agent's motivation. For an agent to call something good is for the agent to be motivated to realize that which the agent says is good. Because the agent must be motivated to realize that which the agent says is good, there must be some link to the agent's desires.

Here, I fear that some authors may be ignoring the fact that all speech acts are actions. As such, they all have a motive. However, it is a mistake to bury the motive for the action into the meaning of the term. A teacher may tell his students in a history class, "George Washington was the first President of the United States." His motive may well be so that he could get a paycheck and pay his rent. Yet, the motive of getting a paycheck and paying the rent is not a part of the meaning of the phrase, "George Washington was the first President of the United States."

Similarly, it may always be the case that an agent is always motivated to bring about that which he calls "good". However, we may be being a bit rash if we were to import this into the meaning of the phrase. It may well be the case that, by calling something good, I will tend to bring about, so I should limit my use of the term 'good' to that which I have a reason to bring about. Or, at least, that I not use the term when I do not want to bring about the end. Imagine that somebody were to hook up a light so that the light turns off every time I say the word 'snail'. Observers would not that I never used the word 'snail' in conditions where I wanted the light on. Yet, they would be making a mistake if they thought that this told them something about the meaning of the term 'snail'.

Desirism holds that moral terms offer praise and condemnation, which trigger the reward system so as to generate mental behavioral rules to do that which is praised and avoid doing that which is condemned. Consequently, people tend to use moral terms when they want to promote such rules and negative terms when they want to inhibit such rules. But it does not follow from this that the meanings of the phrases themselves are linked to the agent's desires - simply because the motive for making the statement must be.

The Appearance of Realism

One of the reasons that I have for adopting motivational internalism - the view that "X is good" if and only if "I have a reason to do X" is because it goes against some of what we understand about morality - mostly, its objectivity.

Blackburn expressed the idea this way:

We also recognize that moral truth is often ‘mind-independent’. Our thinking something is right or wrong does not make it so. Our responses have to answer to the moral truth. They do not create it.

Indeed, since desirism holds that "X is wrong" means "people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an aversion to doing X by condemning those who do X and praising those who refrain," and since whether or not this is true is entirely independent of the mental states of those who are praised or condemned, desirism has no interest in making a moral claim "about" the mental states of the agent. It is not about the states that the agent has, it is about the states the agent should have - the states that others have reasons to cause him to have.

Blackburn mentions the question of whether women should have the right to vote. He reports that we consider the proposition within different possible worlds and it invites condemnation. Therefore, we condemn it. Certainly, we condemn it within a particular moral framework, but that is all that we can hope to do. According to Blackburn, "One cannot pass a verdict without using those parts of one's mind that enable one to pass a verdict." However, this is fully consistent with there being a community that denies women the right to vote, who imagine women having a right to vote and being repulsed by the idea. They would not be mistaken.

If moral terms concerned the attitudes that a person should have - that people generally have reasons to cause others to have - then an individual could, in fact, be mistaken. By giving votes only to men, the interests of women tend to be subjugated. Women have a reason to promote an aversion to denying them a vote, and a reason to use praise and condemnation to promote such an aversion (praising pro-suffrage individuals and condemning anti-suffrage individuals).

Regardless of the attitudes a person has, there may be many and strong reasons to cause him to have a different attitude - thus legitimate reasons to praise or condemn him. He cannot deflect that criticism simply by asserting, "I do not wish it to be true."

Study Questions

Why does Blackburn think that non-cognitivists were the real beneficiaries of Moore's open question argument?

G.E. Moore's open question argument establishes a distinction between facts and values. As Blackburn wrote, "But the Open Question Argument asserts that people might take all the empirical and scientific facts as settled, but still have room to doubt whether a particular moral judgment, or judgment of Goodness, is the one to make in the light of those facts." Because the evaluation is outside of or external to all of the known facts, it can be neither true nor false.

Specifically, Moore's argument created a dilemma. If moral statements were truth-bearing propositions, then they violated the is/ought gap and fell victim to the open question argument. If, instead, then they seem to have no connection to reality (dealing with "particular types of entities" that we can know about through a "particular faculty of intuition". Blackburn's response is to say that the way out of this dilemma is for moral statements to be expressions of attitude.

What is the main difference between expressivism and emotivism?

Expressivism, as Blackburn describes it, "leaves open what is expressed". Emotivism may be understood as a species of expressivism where one expresses one's emotions. The example of a person slapping a desk in anger would qualify as emotivist. Expressivism could, for example, include the expression of a desire or wish, one that is relatively free of emotion. The choice of chocolate over butterscotch ice cream for desert need not be associated with expressing any particular emotion . . . it simply expresses a preference.

What is quasi-realism?

Quasi-realism refers to a form of non-cognitivism that has the trappings of realism. People can have debates, see certain issues as right or wrong, and even asserting that there is only one correct answer to a question. For an example to the latter, if one person wants X and another wants not-X, they simply assume that there is only one correct answer to the question and they keep debating the question until there is only one winner. The principle of "only one right answer" is a principle of practical guidance.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Metaethics 0003: R.M. Hare's Prescriptivism

Richard M. Hare held that moral claims are not sentences at all. They are commands. The statement that "lying is wrong" is like the statement "do not lie."

Is the statement "do not lie" true or false? No. It makes no sense to attach terms like "true" and "false" to commands. If a Sergeant tells a Private to dig a hole, the private cannot say that the order is false. He can say it is a bad idea. He can say that no sensible person would issue such a command. But he cannot sensibly say that the command itself is false. Similarly, if somebody were to say "lying is wrong," somebody can object that the command not to lie is a bad idea. He can say that no sensible person would issue such a command. But he cannot sensibly say that the command itself (understood as "do not lie") is false.

This is a rough account of Hare's position in R.M. Hare's, The Language of Morals.

For me, the very idea that Hare's thesis implies that moral claims cannot be true or false is enough to defeat the theory. At least, it shows that Hare is not talking about something that the rest of us are talking about when we talk about morality. When we are talking about morality, we are talking about something that has claims that are capable of being true or false. So, if Hare is talking about something that cannot be true or false, then he cannot be talking about morality.

Be that as it may, let me at least address the study questions associated with Hare's account.

How do imperatives acquire their meaning?

For the sake of the reader, let me be thorough in this.

Hare considers the option that imperatives are like statements. For example, if I tell you "close the door," what I am really saying is "I want you to close the door." However, imagine that I were to say "close the door" and my identical twin cousin was to say, "do not close the door". If these were statements of preference this would be like my saying, "I want you to close the door" and my identical twin cousin saying "I want you not to close the door." The two expressions of sentiments do not put you in a bind the way that the two commands would. Similarly, Hare argues that imperatives such as cooking instructions, "Take four eggs . . ." hardly express the desires of the author of the recipe, "I want you to take four eggs . . ." Now, in this case, I do not think that Hare makes a strong point.

Certainly, instructions do not express the desires of the author. Instead, they express a hypothetical, "If you want to make this type of omelette, first, take four eggs . . ." This is a statement which, if false, means that the individual isn't going to be making that type of omelette. We can make the same claim about the two commands to close the door. The do not express the wishes of the speaker, but they do tell the hearer, "If you want to be spared my wrath, you will close the door." Meanwhile, my identical twin cousin is saying, "If you wish to be spared my wrath, then you will not close the door." Now, we have an account that puts the agent in a bind - assuming the agent wants to avoid everybody's wrath.

I think that if we want to take the commandment, "do not lie" and convert it into a statement, we can do quite well by saying, "if you do not want to be the type of person that people generally have reason to condemn and, perhaps, to punish, then do not lie." Insofar as moral statements are commands, then it seems that it is not entirely clear that we cannot express them in terms of declarative statements that link the behavior commanded to some implicit or explicit consequence related to the agent's desires.

Of course, I deny that moral statements are commands. I hold that - among other things - moral statements are meant to have an effect on the brains of others regardless of what those others may think. This is a relationship of pure cause and effect. If I were to tickle you, then you would laugh (involuntarily) - but my tickling use does not have any type of propositional content that entails you laughing. If I were to condemn you, this would cause your brain to form an aversion to doing that for which you were condemned, but this does not imply that my condemnation has some sort of propositional content that entails you forming that aversion.

Mind you, moral claims do have propositional content, and they can be proved true or false, but that is because they are complex.

Hare also considers the thesis discussed in the entry, which I discussed recently under Metaethics 0002: C. L. Stevenson - Emotivism that moral claims were meant to "effect causally the behavior or emotions of the hearer". I agreed with Ayer on persuade or to change behavior. I agree with this, though Stevenson argued about producing a more immediate effect regarding a specific act, and I argued for producing a long-term effect by altering a person's desires and aversions.

However, Hare needs to reject the thesis that this is also true of commands. We can see this in the case of the command to "take four eggs . . ." if one wants to make an omelette. This instruction is clearly not meant to cause the hearer to take four eggs. That is to say, it is not a command to make an omelette. It is merely the instructions for doing so. Consequently, would be a mistake to interpret commands or instructions as efforts to change behavior. As I see it, this is another strike against Hare's prescriptivism. Moral claims do aim to change behavior and, if commands fail to do so, moral claims are not commands.

Hare objected that the persuasion theory made it difficult to distinguish moral claims from propaganda. However, in the case of desirism, moral statements are also, at the same time, propositions capable of being true or false. Much of what counts as propaganda is false. Hare also objects that the persuasion theory cannot separate moral claims from "threats, bribes, torture, mockery, promises of protection, and other expedients." To the contrary, it distinguishes between incentives and deterrence (which plays on the desires and aversions an agent already has) and tripping the reward system to create new rewards and aversions that the agent ought to have. Of course, this does not help to defend Stephenson from Hare's criticism.

The final answer to Hare's instructions is that moral commands are instructions. However, I see this as problematic, since instructions generally aim at a goal (such as building an omelette), and it is difficult to determine the end or goal of moral imperatives in Hare's account.

According to Hare, what is the difference between prescribing and convincing?

This question has been answered in the passages above. Prescriptions are instructions. A cookbook does not aim to "convince" somebody of anything, it simply announces how to get from having a pile of ingredients to having a particular prepared meal. Hare distinguishes between "telling a person to do something" and "getting them to do it". The cookbook tells a person what to do (if the reader desires a particular end), but does not give him a reason to do it. As I wrote above, I think this is a flaw with Hare's prescriptivist account - moral claims aim at getting people to behave in a particular way by altering their desires and aversions. They are more than mere instructions.

What points does Hare believe are established by the case of the missionaries and cannibals?

One purpose seems to be to show that value is not a secondary quality such as redness. It is possible that two people, speaking two different languages, each knowing what the term "good" means, can still use it to refer to two different things. However, it is not the case that two people, each knowing what the term "red" means, can use it to refer to two different things. If the people of one language were to see the people of another language pointing only to what he sees as "blue" and calling it "red", he would draw the conclusion that "red" in their language means "blue" in his. However, if he seems them pointing to a group of things that he thinks is bad and calling it "good", and - this is important - commending it to others - he would say that they find such things to be good.