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.

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