Reasons to Act as Prescriptions
It is argued here that a theory of prescriptions is a theory of reasons to act. Simply if there are no reasons to act that exist, then prescriptions do not exist. A classic prescription such as an ought or a should is a reason to act. To ought to do something is a reason (to act) to do that something. The challenge is to find reasons to act that exist that are the basis not just of any ought but of moral oughts. Like the theory of value developed yesterday, where moral value was implied as a sub-set of or type of value, today we want to develop a theory of prescriptions where moral prescriptions are a sub-set or type of prescription.
Desires are the only reason to act that exist
So what is the connection between the theory of value - the" desire fulfillment" theory of value and the theory of prescriptions - the "reason to act" theory of prescriptions? We established that desire is the basis of value, where value is the relation between desires and the states of the world that are the target of such desires. Further, unless demonstrated otherwise, all other values do not exist - they are fictions. Now how do we obtain reasons to act from desire? This was indicated yesterday in the solution to the type 2 is-ought distinction, which reasons from evaluative premises to evaluative conclusions. To repeat
P1: Person A has a desire that X (evaluative premise)Now P3 is explained since the theory of prescription - of oughts - is a theory of reasons to act. So the connection is that a desire is a reason to act, and further given the desire fulfillment theory of value that is that desires are the only reasons to act that exist. So unless other reasons to act can be shown to exist, desires are the only reasons to act. It is important to note that these are not synonyms. A theory of prescription deals with reasons to act, and is based only those that exist and the desire fulfillment of value shows that the only reasons to act that exist are desires.
P2: Action Y is the only way to achieve X (descriptive premise)
C0: A has a reason to Y (evaluative conclusion)
P3: "a reason to" means "ought to" here (descriptive premise)
C1: A ought to Y (evaluative conclusion)
Now how do we get to moral oughts? First let us combine our theory of value which looked another way just is the theory of prescription and take an two intermediate steps, the first by looking at prudence.
When anyone intentionally acts one can say two things about these actions, one seeks to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires and one acts to fulfill those desires, given one's beliefs. However are such actions (hence desires, hence reasons) prudent, is a valid question. The desire, say to smoke - which is the reason to smoke - is evaluated against its effect on the the valued states of the world of all other desires of the person. (Now there are two versions of prudential reasoning, another includes future desires, we will ignore that here, it is not relevant for the point at hand). So if a person has a desire to smoke a cigarette and acts on and fulfills that desire we can still ask if it was prudent. We can evaluate the effects of this desire (which results in smoking multiple cigarettes over time) against all other desires (reasons) the person has such as a desire for health, money, young skin, saving money and so on and find that prudentially the person has a reason not to smoke, that the person prudentially ought not to smoke.
Going back the other way now, to ought not to smoke is to have a reason not to smoke which is to desire not to smoke. Please do not get confused between the broad technical definition of desire used here and the narrower common usage version. This might clearer by saying somewhat tortuously, to prudentially ought not to smoke is to have an attitude to prevent or make false the act of smoking. Still unless this prudential reason is consistently strong enough, the person will continue to act on the more and stronger of their desires and might continue smoking. This approach shows there is a difference between acting on the more and stronger of one's desires and acting prudently, they can and often do diverge and this explains a familiar feature of real human behavior.
External Reasons to Act
Now what about the smoker who denies their smoking is imprudent? This could be due to false beliefs, that they can stop any time (likely false - there are exceptions though), that it won't effect their health (difficult to hold nowadays - but many convince themselves they will be the exception to the rule) and so on. These are likely false beliefs and are often difficult to deal with since they have a desire to believe these falsehoods. That desire to believe is valuable to them as an excuse to carry on smoking. The issue here is that they lack this prudential reason. The reason to act exists but is external to them.
The same analysis as applied yesterday to the Universal Evaluation of Desires can be applied to the Prudential Evaluation of Desire, specifically the independent desire to smoke. There is higher prudential value to them lacking such a independent desire given its affect on that person's other dependent desires. And this is really what the prudential ought - that they actually lack - is saying. That one prudentially ought not to smoke is ultimately a reason not have the desire to smoke.
The externalist says that one lacks desires one (for now prudentially) should have or that one has desires that one prudentially should not. But a person can only act on the more and stronger desires that they do have. So the externalist challenge is encourage desires they lack and discourage desires that they have, given the relevant oughts. And this is achieved by social conditioning praise, condemnation, reward and punishment - that has been covered at length in recent posts.
There are two possible positive results - both lead to the person stopping smoking. First they acquire the prudential reason not to smoke - the social conditioning has worked. Now they have a (basic, unconsidered) reason to smoke and a (prudential, considered) reason not to smoke. They have probably found the desire to believe no longer valuable. They smoke but accept they should not (have prudential reasons to stop). The two cases where they finally stop are either where the desire not to smoke always trumps the desire to smoke and by seeking to fulfill their the more and stronger desires they do not smoke again. The second case leads to them having no desire to smoke and by seeking to fulfill their the more and stronger desires they do not smoke again - it no longer occurs as an option to consider at all. Hopefully you can see that the second case is preferable to the first as less work is required to keep this so. Finally in either case no desire is thwarted because only desires that are acted upon can be thwarted.
Well if we are going to evaluate desires why stop at the person's own desires. There is no in principle reason to prevent this, we already examined desires in conjunction with evolutionary success in the past and after all the prudential argument above showed how desires that someone lacks can be changed. With a group it is quite likely that an individual might lack a certain desire or reason to act that might benefit themselves as well as the group.
Consider a team sport such as football. Here the manager wants to create a team of 11 players that can work as a team not 11 individuals to win games. A manger who achieves this might beat a team with more skilled players but who fail to work well as a team. A prima donna player might want to score all the goals themselves but to the detriment of the team winning matches. They lack a reason to work as a team player and without this, their skill - however great - could be detrimental to the team's performance. The manager needs to account for all the desires of the players - hopefully all want their team to win - generally - but different players might have clashing desires as to how this is achieved. A few or many might lack a reason to act that for the team they ought to have, such as to pass the ball to an unmarked player in a better position or to someone they do not like, rather than try (and often fail) to achieve the glory all by themselves. The manager succeeds if he can implant all the relevant players the reasons to act - the desires - that they otherwise lack to make the team work and win matches and cups.
Universal Evaluations and Moral Oughts
This is just one example out of many possible scenarios. Now we are finally able to revisit the universal evaluation of desires scenario from yesterday. Indeed most of the hard work is now already done! This, it is argued, is the moral scenario without biased and preference to one group over another but to consider all - anyone who is affected, everyone's interests (desires) - equally. A person whose desire reduces the global value for everyone is acting to everyone's detriment and a person whose desires increases the global values is acting to everyone's benefit.
As the Stanford Encyclopedia summarizes in the Definition of Morality (normative section)
The following definition of morality incorporates all of the essential features of morality as a guide to behavior that all rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents. “Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.”Here the - descriptive - desire fulfillment theory of value, captures the value-laden concepts of "evil or harm" in desire thwarting (or tending to thwart) desires. That is harm/evil is measured by its consequences on the ends of all other desires - the decrease in global value - and it has been argued that this method is a better way of specifying this than other models of value. Similarly benefit/help is measured by the increase in global value. Secondly the reason to act theory of prescription, shows what reasons to act (desires lacking or desires to discard) to prescribe via the means of social conditioning, so that the person at fault, in future has the valued (desire fulfilling) desires and lacks the disvalued (desire thwarting) desires and so does not want to fulfill such desire thwarting desires. That is such desire thwarting desires are not themselves thwarted, since they are either not acted upon or have ceased to exist for that person.
The Main Objection
One objection is that in comparison to personal, prudential and, especially by contrast to group values such as the team sport example, no-one has signed up to or is obliged to follow such a universal means of value. First of all, many people are concerned about morality, and even as they proffer their own solutions, if they are genuinely committed to finding the currently best solution, they could voluntarily chose something like this. Secondly, many who take a humanist stance, whether explicitly as a secular humanist or just tacitly - and they could believe or not in god - would reason to something similar and, for them, this approach could provide a firmer and more objective foundation. This also provides a theoretical explanation for how the Golden Rule works - but you also need a reactive rule not just a proactive one and some other revisions - which this approach provides. Finally no-one is required to subscribe to a substantive principle such as to have desires for desire-fulfilling desires and and have aversions against desire-thwarting desires. All that is required, whether one is fully aware of this process or not, is that given everyone will fulfill the more and stronger of their desires and, that if the moral education provided by social conditioning is successful, they would not want and mostly would not consider, in the process of fulfilling their desires, to pursue harmful desire-thwarting means to achieve their ends.
So a moral ought statement such as "it is bad to do X or you ought not do X", means that you have a reason not to X, which means you have a reason to not want to X, the reason being doing X increases desire thwarting - harm -for everyone. All this is achieved via social conditioning specifically moral education, so that everyone fulfills the more and stronger of this desires, and these desires, if the conditioning is successful tend not to be desire thwarting desires. Of course, we do not live such an ideal world (and never will, even if everyone consistently applied desire consequentialism but it would be a better world than now...) still what do we do about people who fail to acquire this social conditioning? That is, when if at all, are we justified in thwarting the desires of those with chronic or severe desire thwarting desires? This is where the relation to to the law comes in and we deal with that in the next post.