Archive for November, 2009

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Moral Realism

November 25, 2009

Tom Gilson published a piece about the consequences of atheism for moral realism.  In the comments section I rambled on a bit about how it doesn’t seem possible for objective moral values to exist without God.  The full text, prompted by a question from someone who is an atheist but believes objective moral facts exist, is reproduced here:

Are you saying that, under atheism, moral realism can’t be true, since every moral proposition would have been false prior to the existence of moral agents? But what about propositions like, “When moral agents exist, it is wrong for one moral agent to kill another without justification”?

What I’m saying is that there are good reasons to think that if atheism were true, then these propositions would either not have any meaning, or would not exist (and maybe there’s no difference between those two). My previous comments to you were an attempt to understand what you take to be the true nature of these objective propositions. I think I’ve got it, but could be wrong.

Think about the concept of a moral fact. What are some essential properties of such a thing? The following come to mind:
1. It is about an agent that is both conscious, and free (these are two independent properties).
2. It is a command to such conscious and free agents about what they should and should not do.

The typical atheist I encounter believes in naturalism, which is something a bit stronger than atheism. For on naturalism there is no immaterial realm. Everything that exists can be reduced to a physical phenomenon. Now I think if naturalism is true, not only do objective moral facts not exist, but things like free agents don’t exist either.

But you seem not to be a naturalist, due to your belief in these objective moral facts that exist irrespective of whether moral agents exist, or could even possibly exist. For if these propositions exist, they must exist in some immaterial realm, because it is possible for moral agents not to exist in the physical realm. The propositions cannot be some kind of emergent property of complex physical systems. You yourself have said that their truth value, their meaning, does not depend on the existence of actual persons.

At this point we can see that if you are not a naturalist, and believe in an immaterial realm, then you are on the same metaphysical footing as the theist who postulates God (who is an immaterial being) as the source for moral values and duties. Any objection you may have to the existence of God cannot be rooted in the disbelief of immaterial entities.

Moving on, how is it that the moral facts, with the attendant properties described above, exist without God? What kind of conscious-less process can produce the “consciousness property” of a moral fact? What kind of purposeless process can produce the “command property” of the moral fact? It seems to me that a conscious-less, purposeless process is not the sort of thing that is even capable of producing a thing with the properties of a moral fact. Thus, if there is no God, objective moral facts do not exist.

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Where for art thou, choice?

November 17, 2009

There’s a great conversation going on over at Common Sense Atheism regarding naturalism and the grounds for morality.  As an aside, Luke has fostered an environment that welcomes many different viewpoints – check out his blog when you have a chance.

That discussion dovetails nicely with the Angus Menuge article I read recently in Philosophia Christi, Is Downward Causation Possible?  I was particularly intrigued by Menuge’s discussion of brain remapping and therapies for OCD.  Quoting a summation of Jeffrey Schwartz‘s work:

Schwartz’s results provide evidence that purely mental events, such as conscious attention, actually change the physical structure of the OCD circuit.  Given the powerful arguments from the philosophy of mind that consciousness does not itself reduce to physical processes in the brain, this result is not plausibly interpreted as one part of the brain gaining control of another, which could be explained as the result of materialistic, bottom-up processes.  Rather, Schwartz’s work is best explained by theorizing that consciousness has a downward causal influence on the brain, that attention can actually reconfigure the brain’s structure.

I had never heard of Schwartz before – his work is probably worth a read!

[Edit: Tom Gilson has a related post]

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Letter 2 to faithlessgod

November 11, 2009

faithlessgod has posted a second letter in our ongoing discussion on desirism.

First, as I alluded to in the comments area of his blog, I wholeheartedly endorse his position that honest and constructive debate is the only way to go.  In my opinion, there is a high heat-to-light ratio on the blogosphere, and I am determined to do my small part to change this.  It sounds like faithlessgod is committed to this as well.

In his most recent letter, faithlessgod takes time to correct my misunderstandings of some desirist concepts.  Specifically:

  • Desires are good if they tend to fulfill other desires, not if they promote the fulfillment of other desires.  I will incorporate the correction.
  • We need to calrify what it is that I called the “root” of morality for the desirist.  It is not really “what kind of desires should I have”.  Rather, the root of morality is to determine what is praiseworthy and blameworthy.  I will incorporate the correction.  I was trying to emphasize what the desirist might consistently and most commonly ask himself in everyday situation.  Perhaps my phrasing did not make this clear.

Thanks to faithlessgod for these corrections!  Now onto the discussion regarding my three objections:

1. The theory is internally contradictory; it is possible for a desire to be both good and bad

faithlessgod comments:

Nothing in Reid’s response makes it clear that he accepts that he is not talking about morality at all here…There does not seem to be anything else to say on the matter except that Reid has failed to show a desire can be both good and bad morally – that is where people generally are concerned.

faithlessgod has failed to point out that this type of objection is always solved by trade.  I provided the example of two people burning each other’s house down (ceteris paribus), acts which seem to very clearly carry a moral component.

Unless the desirist is indifferent as to whether or not overall desire fulfillment increases (and I don’t see how he could be, afterall why commit yourself to developing desires that tend to fulfill other desires unless you want to see the most that you can fulfilled), then it seems like the act stated in my objection can indeed be labeled “good” and “bad”.  For in both instances, overall desire fulfillment will increase.

2. The theory cannot be used to condemn those who do not abide by the theory.

From faithlessgod:

It has already been explained that human nature is the set of dispositions and capacities to believe, desire and act and, as Reid knowledges, that morality can only be focused on those that are malleable, that is sensitive to the environment these occur in, what else are the means to effect this “human nature” than is via the social forces as a key part of this environment? There seems to be nothing else that needs to be done.

Very simply, given the premises of desirism, one cannot reason towards an obligation to do what desirism labels “good”.  Indeed, faithlessgod has not attempted to do this.  Rather, he states that desirism employs social forces to create an obligation.

But of course this is inadequate.  For suppose social forces were such that they obligated us to develop desires that tend to thwart other desires.  The desirist would protest that this is a bad form of government or other social institution.  But so what?  If the desirist claims that only social forces are what obligate us to do anything, then it must follow that we are obligated to develop those bad, ie thwarting, desires.  Put it another way: how can the desirist show that we wouldn’t be obligated to develop thwarting desires?  On faithlessgod’s explication, he cannot.

3. Third Objection: Given the inputs to decision-making, it is possible for DU to define any act as “good”.

faithlessgod is mystified by how it is that the other desires (those which we are attempting to fulfill, and not thwart) change.  But certainly this concept should be very easy to accept.  After all, the ability for desires to change is a fundamental tenet of desirism.  Maybe they change by persuasion, brainwashing, death by way of war, or something else.  There are many possibilities.  So I assume it is no problem understanding that desires can change (individually, amongst a group, amongst an entire population, whatever).

More importantly, faithlessgod brushes off this objection by saying that it is irrelevant to desirism.  Rather, it is an objection to “act utilitarianism”.  In response, I will attempt to be even more direct.  First, quoting faithlessgod from his most recent letter:

What is praiseworthy is what any person with good desires – that is desires that overall tend to fulfil more than thwart all other desires – would have and act upon and what is blameworthy is what any person with good desires would not have and not act upon – desires that overall tend to thwart more than fulfil other desires.

Secondly, recall my previous letter where I supposed that the desire to exterminate the Jews tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts.  This is a plausible scenario, given the proper composition of desires overall (see my first paragraph above for how this can be done).  Contrary to faithlessgod’s assertion, the evaluation of all other desires that contributed to acts that resulted in just this particular composition of desires is indeed a red herring.  The point is, what does the desirist say of this desire given the set of hypothetical data?

Our syllogism is as follows:
1.  Good desires are those that overall tend to fulfill more than thwart all other desires.
2.  The desire to exterminate the Jews overall tends to fulfill more than thwart all other desires.
3.  The desire to exterminate the Jews is a good desire.

This example applies to anything we intuitively sense as right or wrong.  Hopefully I have cleared up whatever misunderstandings may have existed that caused faithlessgod to think I was erecting a straw man.

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Response to "faithlessgod" regarding Desire Utilitarianism

November 7, 2009

faithlessgod has posted some rebuttals to my objections to Desire Utilitarianism (“DU”, or “desirism”).  In this post I will respond to his (I’m assuming “his”, please correct if I’m mistaken!) remarks.  I encourage readers to go to the links to read the complete text, as I will only be posting snippets here.

First, faithlessgod says he has “quibbles” with my understanding of the theory, but is satisfied to leave my synopsis as is.  I appreciate his review for any errors on my part.  Hearing no specific problems I’ll assume I’ve got a workable understanding of DU and proceed from there.

First Objection: The theory is internally contradictory; it is possible for a desire to be both good and bad.

This objection pertained to the fact that it is possible for DU to pronounce the same desire to be both “good” and “bad”:

Suppose that if A’s desire for X is thwarted, then B’s desire for Y will be fulfilled and B’s desire will be stronger than A’s.
Suppose also that if A’s desire for X is fulfilled, then B’s desire for Y will be thwarted and A’s desire will be stronger than B’s. In each case, A and B influence only each other’s desire.

Using the DU principle of good desires are those that tend to fulfill other desires, we can reason that A’s desire is both good and bad.

faithlessgod responds:

The issue here is that Reid was looking at something that is often (but not always and not necessarily fairly – but this is not the issue here) solved by trade. Regardless this is not a moral issue at all. That is this is not a ceteris paribus and all-things-considered situation applicable to everyone or people in general. It would become one if Albert was so unhappy with the result of the auction that he stole the car, but that is a different issue entirely and outside Reid’s criticism here.

Perhaps my premise that “A and B influence only each other’s desire” was not clear enough: let my example be such that all else is the same.  This should alleviate any concerns that there are other desires I’m not considering that could change the conclusion.

Also, I agree that my example can be one involving trade, but it’s certainly not exclusive to trade.  If it is only “often…solved by trade” (to quote faithlessgod), how else would it be solved?  I’m having trouble seeing why this couldn’t be a moral issue, like burning each other’s house down (ceteris paribus!).

For these reasons then, it seems then that this objection still stands.  Interestingly, faithlessgod says that he at one time also made this objection, but that he “worked it out” for himself.  It would be helpful to know if faithlessgod worked out this problem for himself using the responses he offered to my post, or others.

Second Objection: The theory cannot be used to condemn those who do not abide by the theory.

Here I attempted to show that, from within the confines of DU, it is not possible to reason towards any personal obligation to do what a person with good desires would do (which is, have desires that tend to fulfill other desires).

…what obligates us to develop good ones? DU is silent on this issue. It needs to show that the obligation comes from some aspect of human nature itself. In other words, there is something in his own nature that requires man to mold his desires into good ones. It can’t derive its sense of obligation from anything else, because then that something else would be the true (or at least the more accurate) moral theory.

faithlessgod’s first point is to explain that “moral obligation” is a sub-species of “obligation”.  I don’t see yet how this point is relevant to the discussion.  However, I will say that “moral obligation” seems almost redundant.  I’m using “obligation” in the sense that saying “we are obliged to do Z” is equivalent to saying “we ought to do Z”.

Moving on, his second point is to question why I use the term “nature” to represent what I think should be the grounds for that which obligates us to develop desires that tend to fulfill other desires.  I’m using that term (actually I’m using “human nature”) simply to represent whatever properties are essential to us, or that which makes us human.  Now the reason our nature must serve as the grounds for obligation is because there seem to be no alternatives for DU – no divine commands, no immaterial intrinsic goods, etc.  There must be something essential to humans such that we should mold our desires appropriately.  But what is it exactly?  For the purposes of this discussion I will accept faithlessgod’s definition of human “nature”:

…nature is adumbtrated as the beliefs, desires and dispositions (dispositions to beleive as well as desire and act) whether this applies to a particular (token) person or over the capacities that any human (type) is capable of exhibiting.

What the desirist needs to show is that one can reason from those basic concepts of human nature to a requirement that, lest we risk not being “human”, we mold our desires such that they tend to fulfill other desires.  Can this be done?  Until it can, the DU claim that we ought to do this still seems to be merely an assertion.

faithlessgod’s third point:

…what desirism already employs is how people are obliged (and not) by the effect of the social forces on their desires and dispositions…The “something in his own nature that requires man to mold his desires into good ones” is the human emotional the capacities to respond to the social forces.

Again, just because we are capable of altering our desires based on the influence of social forces, why should we?  I fail to see how emotional capacities to respond to social forces serves as any kind of justification that we ought to act in any way.  The obligation is not warranted by the assumptions of the theory or any conclusions inferred therefrom.

Moreover, both social forces and our emotions are notoriously fickle and irrational.  For instance, what happens when bad behavior is imposed by social forces? Or again, since our emotions are simply facts about ourselves, much like our desires, relying on them to induce certain behavior is just as likely to produce wrong behavior as good behavior. Indeed, one of the very reasons we need ethics is to overcome what our emotions would have us do in certain situations!  If these phenomena are fallable then, the desirist would need another precept to guard against their misuse, something like: “respond to social forces with your emotions such that good desires are produced only when the social forces and your emotions align to oblige you to develop good desires”.  But of course this is making no progress against the objection; desirism is still at a loss to defend why we should abide by that precept.

It seems that unless the desirist can reason from the assumptions of the theory to an obligation, this objection still stands.

Third Objection: Given the inputs to decision-making, it is possible for DU to define any act as “good”.

Here I attempted to show that by changing the composition of desires in general, any desire could be defined as “good”.  I used the example of defeating all those whose strongest desire was not the extermination of the Jews.  faithlessgod responds:


Unfortunately for Reid this then begs the question over these other desires. These, in turn, need to be the subject of a (moral) evaluation and so the same method can be applied to them. The evaluations are independent. Simplifying, with no loss of accuracy, to one other desire, yes they can both be evaluated in parallel. One result could be be the case that both are bad (where the scope is everyone), mutually thwarting each other. In that case both would be inhibited. And so on.

It can beg the question of those other desires, and a moral evaluation of them is to be expected.  But that evaluation is a red herring.  The objection is grounded in the definition of a desire as either good or bad once those other desires change (maybe they no longer exist, or are altered).  faithlessgod continues:

…if the Nazis’ religious crusade to exterminated all the Jews had succeeded, this would still have been an extremely and directly desire-thwarting desire and morally bad (or evil) and this remains the case regardless of its success or failure

The problem is the desirist must arrive at the exact opposite conclusion if it is true that the desire to exterminate the Jews tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts.  This is easily achievable given the right composition of all desires.  Finally, quoting faithlessgod:

The means of adjusting the population by extermination is, trivially, according to desirism, morally evil. It still remains evil, wherever and whoever considers this as a solution in the present and the future, that is people generally would still have (and do) reason to condemn such actions and contemplations of such actions.

Now of course genocide is evil.  But why is it trivially evil, or evil at all, according to desirism?  Is it because a single desire would be thwarted?  Certainly not, because then virtually any desire could be construed as evil.  It seems then that the desirist is committed to making a calculation of the number of desires that would tend to be fulfilled versus the number of desires that would be thwarted given the desire in question.  Thus, all that is required to characterize desires as good or bad is to adjust the ratio of other desires.

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Desire Utilitarianism

November 2, 2009

The Atheist Ethicist, Alonzo Fyfe, is developing and promoting an ethical theory he calls “Desire Utilitarianism“.  He has a fan in the Common Sense Atheist, who is compiling a Desirism F.A.Q.

In this post I will present a brief synopsis and then some objections to Desire Utilitarianism (DU).

Brief Synopsis

Here I attempt to present only what is essential to understand DU.  Refer to the links above for expanded explanations.

According to Fyfe:
A desire is “a mental attitude that the proposition P is to be made or kept true”, as in “I want to eat a hamburger tomorrow”.
belief is “a mental attitude that proposition P is true”, as in “I will eat a hamburger tomorrow”.

Some desires are malleable, while others are not.  Malleable desires can change based on external influences.  For example, it’s possible for a teenager to lose his desire to drive at breakneck speed if he knows he will lose the privilege of using the family car, or if he knows that his chances for dying in a car crash increase while speeding, etc.

Now, Fyfe labels “good” anything that fulfills a desire in question, and labels “bad” anything that thwarts the desire in question.  But so far he only means “good” in the sense that something facilitates the fulfillment of a desire.  Using Fyfe’s example, when a psychopath cuts up his victim, he can reflect that it was “good”, meaning that his desire fulfilled.  We’re hardly at the moral sense of “good” yet.

The key is to consider whether a malleable desire promotes the fulfillment of other desires, or thwarts them.  If it promotes their fulfillment, then it is “good” in the moral sense, and “bad” in the moral sense if it thwarts them.

All intentional action is motivated by desires and beliefs.  Presumably, by “intentional action”, Fyfe means something like “all acts that are free”, or “all acts that are worthy of moral evaluation”.  Unconscious breathing surely is exluded from the scope of intentional acts.

So, what makes an intentional act right or wrong?  According to DU, we evaluate acts based on the value of desires, not the acts themselves.  So, an act that someone with good desires would perform is a “good” act, or, what we ought to do.

So the typical conscientious Desire Utilitarian would evaluate act X based on whether or not someone with good desires would do act X.  Since good desires are those which promote the fulfillment of other desires, in practice we should be asking ourselves: “what kind of desires should I have?”  That is the root of morality for the Desire Utilitarian.

I think I understand the basic structure of the theory, but welcome comments pointing out the error of my ways.

Objections to Desire Utilitarianism

1.  The theory is internally contradictory; it is possible for a desire to be both good and bad.

Suppose that if A’s desire for X is thwarted, then B’s desire for Y will be fulfilled and B’s desire will be stronger than A’s.
Suppose also that if A’s desire for X is fulfilled, then B’s desire for Y will be thwarted and A’s desire will be stronger than B’s.  In each case, A and B influence only each other’s desire.

Should A’s desire be fulfilled?

If A’s desire for X is thwarted, then total desire fulfillment will increase.  Therefore A’s desire for X bad, that is it ought to be thwarted.

If A’s desire for X is fulfilled, then total desire fulfillment will increase.  Therefore A’s desire for X is good, in the moral sense.

So is A’s desire for X good or bad?  DU would seem to tell us “both”.

2.  The theory cannot be used to condemn those who do not abide by the theory.

Why should we develop good desires?  It seems irrefutable that humans have all sorts of desires.  However, what obligates us to develop good ones?  DU is silent on this issue.  It needs to show that the obligation comes from some aspect of human nature itself.  In other words, there is something in his own nature that requires man to mold his desires into good ones.  It can’t derive its sense of obligation from anything else, because then that something else would be the true (or at least the more accurate) moral theory.

Until DU incorporates some component of obligation rooted in man’s nature, it serves only as a roadmap for suggested behavior.  It remains incomplete as a moral theory, which needs to tell us what we should do.

3.  Given the inputs to decision-making, it is possible for DU to define any act as “good”.

DU tells us that good desires are those that promote the fulfillment of other desires.  It tells us also that we can mold our malleable desires to make them good.  But one could also make them good by adjusting the composition of the other desires. In this way, DU permits at least two paths to the definition of “good” and “bad”.

For example, suppose the Nazis’s strongest desire is the extermination of the Jews, and suppose also that the Nazis are successful in defeating all others who oppose this view. Then the extermination of the Jews will move from “bad” to “good”.  One need not adjust one’s malleable desires to make them “good”, one could also adjust the population.

All comments are welcome.