Sunday, January 06, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0008: The Ought vs. The Good

What is the relationship between what an agent ought to do and what is good?

I have already reported on Thomas Hurka's thesis that the British Ethical Theorists (BETs) he discusses in his book British Ethical Theorists were conceptual minimalists. devotes a section to the moral language of those British Ethical Theorists (BETs).

Ultimately, these theorists spent most of their time discussing two basic, core terms: ""Ought" and "Good". Some of these BETs thought there was only one basic term. For example, Moore, at least in his book Principia Ethica, said that what a person ought to do is bring about the most good. W.D. Ross in his famous book The Right and The Good argued that these two basic concepts were both exactly that - basic - and it was not possible to reduce one to the other. In a third type of case, A.C. Ewing defined "good" in terms of "that which you ought to bring about" or "that which it is fitting for you to bring about."

Hurka noted that, for the BETs, "good" referred to just about anything, but "right" (or "what one ought to do") tended to refer to actions or things under voluntary control. Something can be "good" or "bad" even though we lack the ability to influence it. For example, last year's "good" or "bad" harvest. However, when we use the term "ought", at least in the moral sense, we are talking about something that is within an agent's power. If you ought to repay a debt, this implies that you are able to repay the debt. In fact, there is a famous principle in moral philosophy saying "ought" implies "can" (and, consequently, "cannot" implies "it is not the case that one ought")

Desirism defines "ought" in terms of "good". Good is that which is such as to fulfill the desires in question. "Ought" refers to actions that one can perform to create states of affairs that fulfill the desires in question. It holds that "right" and "wrong" are, in part, statements of praise and condemnation. Their function is to act on the reward system of the brain to encode certain behaviors. This is the way in which "right" and "wrong" are concerned with voluntary actions. "Voluntary" here does not require any type of special free will. It only implies that the action is a consequence of the agent's desires. Thus, changing the desires will be an effective way of changing the actions. "Right" and "wrong" through their actions on the reward system aim to alter the desires - to produce motives to do that which is called right and to avoid that which is called wrong.

In summary, since right and wrong are statements of praise and condemnation, since praise and condemnation are used to act on the reward system to encode rules of behavior, and since rules of behavior influence action, right and wrong applies to actions that can be so influenced.

Ought To Feel

There is a use of "ought" that seems to contradict part of what was said above. It is the claim that a person "ought to feel" a certain way. As Hurka wrote, "English usage certainly allows remarks such as, 'you ought to care more for others'". Yet, we cannot choose at a particular moment to feel one way or the other. I cannot simply decide to be sad that my neighbor lost his job or happy that a co-worker is expecting a child. Yet, we claim that we "ought" to feel a certain way. How can these things be squared?

It is true that we cannot "will" a certain feeling at a given moment. However, recall that "right" and "wrong" are statements of praise and condemnation that are to act on the reward system so as to encode certain rules of behavior. These rules of behavior, in some cases, take the form of attitudes. The praise and condemnation may not be able to bring about the desired attitude immediately upon application. But they can bring about a shift towards a certain goal. It makes perfectly good sense to say that the goal is what the agent "ought" to feel. It is not what the agent "ought" to feel because the agent can choose it at the moment, but it is what the agent "ought" to feel in the sense that praise and condemnation can help to bring it about through repeated cultural application that agents tend to come to feel that way.

We also say, for example, "I ought to lose about 10 pounds." In saying this, I am not saying that I can choose at this moment to weigh 10 pounds less. I am saying that I can choose a course of action that, over time, will result in my weighing 10 pounds less. I ought to choose to go that route. We do not need to limit our "ought" statements to objectives that we can realize at the snap of a finger, but can use it to refer to all states that we can choose to bring about, even if they take a great deal of effort over time.

I can explain this in more detail by drawing upon a distinction that William Alston (1985, 1988) used in his analysis of epistemic justification. We clearly do not have the ability to choose our beliefs in most cases. As I sit here and write this, I cannot simply choose to believe that there is or is not a glass of Diet Dr. Pepper on my desk - not in the way that I can choose to take or not take a drink out of that glass. Like the BETs with respect to desires, Alston denied that we have a capacity of direct voluntary control over our beliefs. He asked, “Can you, at this moment, start to believe that the U. S. is still a colony of Great Britain, just by deciding to do so?” (Alston, 1988, p. 263).

However, Alston did say that we have a capacity for what he called “indirect voluntary influence” of our beliefs. He looked at the way in which our voluntary action has an influence on what we believe. Alston wrote, “I have voluntary control over whether, and how long, I consider the matter, look for relevant evidence or reasons, reflect on a particular argument, seek input from other people, search my memory for analogous cases, and so on.” (Alston, 1988, p. 279) With respect to the BETs, they failed to recognize that we have control over the amount of effort we put into cultivating a particular character trait or disposition.

Furthermore, when it comes to dispositions, the BETs also failed to consider the degree to which our dispositions are under the control of others - specifically, under the control of cultural conditioning, or the methods by which this conditioning takes place. The voluntary nature of many of one's sentiments have to do, not with what the agent herself has a reason to choose or develop, but the traits that others have reason to cause the agent to have.

For these reasons, where "ought to feel" may, at first glance, appear to contradict the case that "ought" pertains to that which is under voluntary control, it really does not. "Ought to feel" is as much under our voluntary control as "ought to weigh" or "ought to learn". We may not be able to bring about the state - either in ourselves or others - with the snap of our fingers. But, with some effort and some time and the correct application of the proper tools, it is under our control.

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