Tuesday, January 08, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0010: Intrinsic Rightness

In Thomas Hurka's book British Ethical Theorists, Hurka has the British Ethical Theorists (BETs) presenting an impressive argument against the idea that doing one's duty is intrinsically good.

To be clear, we are talking about an argument against a particular interpretation of this intrinsic goodness, but it is an important interpretation. This is the view that promise keeping, for example, can have a type of agent-neutral intrinsic value.

It is important to note that if something has intrinsic value, then this value does not depend on its relationship to anything else. The intrinsic value of something - like its mass - is the same no matter who encounters it. The standard method that I have used to deny the existence of these types of things has been to use an "Occam's Razor" approach. I have no use for them - they do not exist. The argument that I am going to consider here says that, at least in the case of ought, they fail to make sense of our use of moral terms.

To illustrate this point, let us assume that I have promised to pay you $100 by next Tuesday. Don't get excited, this is just a thought experiment - it isn't real. Because I made this promise, I have an obligation to pay you $100. Paying you $100 would be be a good thing. My not paying you $100 would be a bad thing.

Is this goodness or badness an intrinsic value property?

Hurka presented this view in discussing a point of debate between Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore. Sidgwick held that obligations could be agent-relative. Egoism held that each person could pursue their own good - that each person's good was of particular value for him. Moore thought this was absurd - that if something is actually, honestly good then it has agent-neutral goodness.

It is hard to see how an object can have this kind of property ‘for me’ but not ‘for you’, or ‘from my point of view’ but not ‘from yours’. Surely it either has the property or not. Compare being square. An object cannot be square for one person but not for another; it either is square or not. (It can look square to one person but not to another, but looking square is different from being square.) The same is true of goodness if that is unanalysable, which means the only duty to promote the good must be agent-neutral. (p. 57)

However, if this were true, then my obligation to keep my promise would have this agent-neutral value that would be the same no matter who was viewing it. If it has this agent-neutral value, then my obligation to pay you $100 would correspond to Agent3's obligation to make sure that I pay you $100, which would correspond to Agent4's obligation to make sure that Agent3 made sure that I paid you $100 (because Agent 3's obligation would also represent an agent-neutral value).

However, these implications seem quite absurd.

By the power vested in us by the rules of logic, if A implies B, and B is false, then A must be false as well. If the murderer had red hair, and Agent5 does not drive a red car, then Agent5 cannot be the murderer. Applying this principle to the argument above, if obligations have agent-neutral intrinsic value, then everybody is obligated to see that they are carried out. It is absurd to hold that everybody is obligated to see an obligation carried out. Therefore, obligations do not have agent-neutral value.

This means that obligations must be agent-relative. As Hurka put it, "my keeping my promise is a greater good from my point of view than it is from other people’s." (p. 57).

Desirism has no problem with agent-relative duties. The right act is the act that a person with good desires (the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally) and lacking bad desires (desires that people generally have reason to inhibit universally) would have done in those circumstances. One of the relevant circumstances is the circumstance, "I have made a promise." If a person makes a promise, a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would keep it. However, there is no reason to promote universally a desire for everybody to keep their promise that would be nearly as motivating. This would be overkill and overburden everybody. It is best that those who made the promise take the responsibility for ensuring that it be kept.

The main point of this essay has been to dispute the claim that keeping a promise has agent-neutral intrinsic value. I hold that such things do not exist. Even if they do exist, we clearly are not talking about such a thing when we discuss obligations as we typically understand the term in English. Certainly, when I make a promise to give somebody $100, I am not thereby creating an agent-neutral good that suddenly binds everybody to the commitment of making sure I pay that $100. If that were the case, we would quite quickly loathe anybody who ever made a promise.

No comments: