Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Morality is a physical process

I have been testing out my ideas in online forums particularly the Internet Infidels and the Center For Inquiry (where my nickname is faithlessgod - I also use martino in blog comments - must get more consistent about this). I use these forums to test new ideas, make discoveries, make mistakes and learn from them and so on, then, and only then, I will create a blog post as I am doing now. What is becoming apparent is how my approach to ethics seems to be orthogonal to most others conceptions. By orthogonal I mean we are not just talking over or across but at right angles to each other - so to speak. That is "they" are looking at the problem horizontally and I am looking at it vertically (or the other way round as you so chose). So points I make are not just mistranslated by rotating through 90 degrees - they disappear. Now I am aware of this, so I am aware of the danger of such rotations but my opposition, in my opinion, fails to see this, hence me creating this post, for clarification.

The Map is not the Territory
Another way of putting this is there is a confusion between the map and the territory, I am seeking to understand the territory and others thinks there are only maps - the subjectivists, relativists, emotivists, expressivists and so on. In my view, if there is no territory then there is nothing to talk about that I can see and nihilism follows. I disagree since in this sense “morality” is a physical process - of certain interactions between agents, now we can describe it and have beliefs about it but these are maps and the maps are not the territory. The territory just is the interactions between agents and this territory exists. I fail to see that others who seem to insist that morality is just an idea with no referent are not, in fact, nihilists - regardless of how much they deny this.

Are objective evaluations possible?
The challenge here as for any other physical model is to be able to objectively evaluate these interactions without question-begging. I presume that all of my opposition would say this is not possible yet at the same time they mostly deny supporting normative relativism - an incoherent position, but not substantive to my argument! Nonetheless this is exactly what normative relativism claims - that there is no independent means of evaluation, one is always coming from one moral cultural code or another - however objective it is claimed to be - and there is no rational justification in privileging it over any other. I need to answer this and my answer, I realize now, is exactly the same as my approach in analyzing the Enlightenment 2.0 concepts. That is to take a content-free approach - to look at the organization and structure of these interactions of agents - the context - without relying on specific contents. And this is why I have chosen Desire Fulfillment because this is exactly what is provides (there may be other and better models and if you know of any please tell me, I will be all ears).

A content-free analysis
So how does such a content-free analysis work? An agents acts to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires (note I have not said nor require what the specific desire is) and this has material and physical effects on other agents' desire fulfillments (again not needing to specify what those desires actually are). The objective evaluation is whether the fulfillment of the desire in question - versus it absence - thwarts or fulfills or tends to thwart or fulfill these other agents' desires.In short some desires are desire thwarting and others are desire fulfilling. Aha is this not a value judgment! No it is a statement of the facts of the matter or the states of affairs that occur or could occur - it is all entirely objective, that is all, at this point in the argument. Let us first extend this in a content free manner.

Harmony and Dissonance

One can classify these interactions of desire fulfillments. A desire is fulfilled
  1. with no significant effect on others
  2. which fulfills others.
  3. which tends to fulfill others.
  4. dependent upon other desires being fulfilled
  5. which thwarts others.
  6. which tends to thwart others.
  7. dependent upon other desires being thwarted
There are other levels and detail of classification but these are the relevant ones for out argument here. This first three are unproblematical, trivially if only the first 3 classes exist there would be no problem of morality at all, one could say.The last three are problematical if they exist as they, by definition, prevent certain agent's desires being fulfilled - someone's desires are thwarted. And note this is all context free.

The interesting one is class 4. I will expand on this more in future posts but what I mean here is that the fulfillment of the desire is mutually dependent on other desires being fulfilled. This is easier to see with some content such as in trade transactions . In a trade each agent acts to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires and if successful this leads to a mutually agreeable price between a buyer and a seller and both desires are fulfilled. This is harmonious. If however a mutually agreeable price is not set then both agents are unfulfilled (each could buy/sell at later time so they are not..yet..thwarted). If however the buyer then decides to steal the object of the transaction then that desire is fulfilled and the seller's is thwarted - this could be a type 7 interaction and it is an example of dissonance.

Having briefly derived the ideas of harmony and dissonance we can then revist the central question of ethics as the study of the interaction of two or more (human) agents in terms of harmony. Are the interactions harmonious or dissonant and can we identify and classify them as such? The popular use of morality is as the name for various codes of conduct, which, in my terms, may or may not lead to harmonious or dissonant outcomes. That is some moral codes overall will be more harmonious compared to others which are overall more dissonant - and we can objectively evaluate such codes this way.

Is desire thwarting loading the dice?
All very well you might am I not biasing questions of ethics over prefering desire fulfilling desires over desire thwarting desires? Well at this stage all that has been provided is a material, physical, empirical and so objective analysis of scenarios. Whatever values one ascribe to the results, the facts of the matter remain the same. It is entirely optional to add "moral speak" and to make good and bad refer to desire fulfilling desires and desire thwarting desires, however if I do chose to do so at least I am providing consistent and reliable referents and no other model of moral good and bad appears to be able to do so. However even if I do not apply what I call optional moral speak, I and anyone else are still able to evaluate cultural moral codes in terms of the amount of harmony and dissonance they impose on agents mutual interactions. Now you may not like that, especially relativists, but that is not an argument.

The distraction of content
Finally in order to emphasize the benefits of this approach and the distractions of content, compare the above trade model of transaction with the following which has identical structure. In a sado-masochistic scenario each agent acts to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires and if successful this leads to a mutually agreeable game (?) between the sadist and the masochist and both desires are fulfilled. The contextual details are the same but the different contents can evoke different reactions. This approach distinguishes between context and content. Given identical contexts, additional arguments need to be made to disapprove of trade (say if you are a marxists) or ot disapprove of sado-masochistic acts (say if you object to private mutually consenting sexual acts between adults). I argue this approach helps isolate the issues and identify where the problematic interactions are.

This is not the be all and end all of ethics. It, in the form presented above, is an objective that is empirical, provisional and refutable framework and I argue something like this or better - if anyone can suggest it - can be used in resolving debates in ethics.

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Mark C. said...

Would it be possible for you to use the term "descriptive" instead of "objective"? The latter has several different meanings, and it can be unclear as to which is meant.

Otherwise, I'm liking your posts on ethics. I think that DU provides a very good description of the ethical landscape. Of course, it specifies no particular moral system.

Mark C. said...

Although, you do describe DU with the phrase "discourage desire thwarting". I can understand DU as a descriptive, meta-ethical theory, but I haven't been able to comprehend how one gets normativity out of it.

martino said...

Hi Mark C.

Yes objective is overused I prefer empirical BTW. Note that I do try to define it as I use it as in the last paragraph. A blog post on this soon :-)

Anyway see Are there ethically substantive principles? - my previous post for an initial analysis of the naturally prescriptive elements of DU. Specifically I would call this Desire Fulfillment Virtue Consequentialism, yes DU is simpler to say :-)

I do not like calling this utilitarianism if you check my first post on A Brief Introduction to Desire Fulfillment on my point over "demographic bias".

martino said...

Hi Mark C.

I would like to add that as a theory of value one refers to desires which are the value generating or imposing capacities of human agents.

However this is a description of certain prescriptions - that exist - and therefore also a theory of prescription. Since if a theory of prescription is about "reasons to act" , well here desires are the (only) reasons to act.