Thursday, January 03, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0005: Practical Ought

I am looking at the ways in which the British Ethical Theorists (BETs) of 1850-1950 sought to eliminate all concepts of "ought" except the Kantian categorical imperatives. In my previous post I argued that their attempt to eliminate hypothetical ought and have only a categorical ought was exactly backwards. We need to eliminate the categorical ought and leave only the hypothetical ought.

Another type of ought that the BETs are going to try to eliminate or explain away is the practical ought.

Practical and Moral Ought

Actually, I cannot think of any better way to explain what is at stake here than to express the distinction between moral and practical "ought" in desirism terms.

Desirism relates all objects of evaluation to desires. When we use the term "ought", we are evaluating actions. When we say that something ought to be done, we are saying that doing that thing is "such as to fulfill the desires in question."

Of course, the phrase "desires in question" is ambiguous. We can talk about a wide range of "desires in question". What this means is that we have a lot of different kinds of "ought". What all oughts have in common is that they relate some action to some set of desires. Where "ought" terms differ is on what counts as the "desires in question".

When we make "ought" claims, we usually have one of four "desires in question" in mind.

(1) A specific desire. This is the case when we say, "If you do not want to be recognized on the video when you rob the store, then you ought to wear a mask." The "desires in question" is the desire not to be seen in the video. The "ought" relates wearing a mask to fulfilling the desire in question.

(2) The current desires that the agent has. "When you go to the store, you ought to pick up a package of cigarettes." This is something that the agent ought to do in this case because "picking up a package of cigarettes" is such as to fulfill the agent's current desires.

(3) The agent's current and future desires. "You ought to give up smoking." Why? Because giving up smoking is such as to fulfill the agent's current and future desires. It may not satisfy the agent's current desires given the strength of the desire to obtain a nicotine fix. But, when we add in the future desires that will be thwarted, the weight shifts in favor of not smoking. Unfortunately, future desires cannot reach back in time to motivate current action, so an agent can know that he should give up smoking, and still find it difficult to find the current motivation to do so.

(4) The desires that people generally have reason to promote universally. This is where desirism places the moral ought. The statement that you morally ought not to murder your uncle relates the act of murdering your uncle to the desires that a person with good desires (desires that people generally have reasons to promote universally) and lacking bad desires (desires that people generally have reason to extinguish universally). It would thwart those desires, so murdering your uncle is something you morally ought not to do. Now, you may not have good desires or not be lacking in bad desires, which means that you may murder your uncle even though you morally ought not to do so.

Actually, options (1) through (3) account for different types of practical "ought". This complicates the BETs challenge of eliminating or reducing practical ought, since there is more than one ought for them to eliminate or reduce.

Practical Ought and the British Ethical Theorists

According to Thomas Hurka, as presented in his book British Ethical Theorists, the BETs only recognized a moral ought, they focused on the question of whether it is morally permissible or even morally obligatory for an agent to advance his own interests.

Henry Sidgwick linked what an agent ought to do with what it is rational for an agent to do. According to Hurka, the closest that Sidgwick got to a practical "ought" was the moral "ought" applied to the subject matter of one's own happiness. Hurka noted that Sidgwick included egoism among a set of possible moral theories - egoism being the pursuit of one's own good. This is because egoism concerned answering the question "what ought I to do," and a sensible answer is for the agent to promote his own happiness. In fact, Hurka argues, prudential and moral oughts had to be the same ought or they could not conflict. However, I am uncertain what "conflict" means in this sense. It could refer to the two oughts recommending different ends in the way that two forces can conflict (which is true). Or it could means that if one "ought" says "do X" and another says "do not-X", then there is a formal logical contradiction of a type that cannot exist in nature.

When Pritchard and Ross said that a person did not have a duty to pursue their own pleasure, they meant that they had no moral duty. They did not even mention the possibility of a rational or prudential duty to do so - since the only duties that exist are moral. Carritt, Broad, and Ewing argued that a person did have a duty to pursue his own pleasure but, consistent with the idea that there is only one kind of ought, they held that this was a moral ought and not a distinct and separate rational or prudential ought. Pritchard held that the general moral duties to promote knowledge and virtue including promoting one's own knowledge and virtue with no reason to distinguish these cases.

Because these people did not believe in a prudential "ought" but only a moral "ought" regarding oneself, they could not make sense of the question, "Why be moral?" To them, "Why be moral?" meant "Why are you obligated to do what you are obligated to do?" The very nature of morality is to discover what one ought to do, so "why ought I to do what I ought to do?" did not make much sense to them.

Imagine an agent whose prudential ought says to kill the person who is running against him for public office under conditions where he can get away with it, but where the moral ought says not to kill his opponent. Hurka himself says that there is an "unqualified ought" that answers the question of what the agent ought ultimately to do and that the goal of morality is to determine what this unqualified ought happens to be.

Desirism is going to have to deny the existence of Hurka's unqualified ought just as it denies the existence of categorical imperatives. There is simply the conflict between the practical ought and the moral ought. In fact, when these two come into conflict, the practical ought will win insofar as determining what the agent will do (at least, if we add the additional condition that the agent has all of the relevant true beliefs and no relevant false beliefs). But the whole point of morality is to create agents where the practical ought and moral ought are in alignment. What practical-ought serves the agent's interests is also what the agent moral-ought to do.

Desirism makes sense of the question, "Why should I be moral?" because an agent can ask, "Why practical-ought I to do what I moral-ought to do?" This question translates into, "How does this act that stands in a particular relationship to good desires stand in relationship to my own desires?" Of course, given this way of understanding the question, the answer may well be "nothing". That is to say, the fact that something is such as to fulfill good desires does not imply that it is such as to fulfill the desires of the agent, since the desires of the agent might not be good.

It turns out, for desirism, a good person need never ask this question. A person with good desires and lacking bad desires will practical-ought do what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do. It is only the agent who lacks good desires or has bad desires that will notice a break between the two oughts.

None of this denies that people can have a moral permission - or even a moral obligation - to consider her own interests. Remember that for a desire to be good, it must be a desire that people generally have reason to promote universally. People generally have reason to promote universally a permission to promote one's on interests. People generally also have reason to promote universally a variety of interests on a number of subjects. For example, we are made better off if each of us have different interests relevant to our preferred occupation. We have reason to have it be the case that some people want to be teachers, some people want to be doctors, some people want to be engineers, some people want to study the stars, some people want to be actors, and some people enjoy running a corner grocery store. This involves a desire to consider one's own interests.


So . . . there is a distinct practical ought and a distinct moral ought. There is a distinct "such as to fulfill the desires that the agent has" and a distinct "such as to fulfill the desires the agent should have - the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally." There is no necessary connection between them such that it is quite possible that the act that fulfills good desires fails to fulfill the desires the agent has. Consequently, there are cases where it is not the case that a person practical-ought to do what he moral-ought. However, if this is the case, we can say that this particular agent is immoral and that, if he were to do what he ought not, people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn, and perhaps to punish, people like him. A person who does what he morally ought not is not a morally good person.

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