Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Unified Basis of Desires and Beliefs

This is the third and final part of a series posts the other two being The Evolutionary Basis of Desire and Beliefs and The Cultural basis of Desires and Beliefs.The focus here is on showing that although the origins of desires and beliefs are both due to evolution and culture, desire can be used as the proximate basis to evaluate both genetic and cultural factors themselves.

Th evolutionary and cultural bases of desires and beliefs

Both evolution and culture contribute to the desires and beliefs we have. Without evolution we would not have modifiable beliefs and malleable desires, and without those we could not have created and operate within culture in the way we do. However both beliefs and desires are not guaranteed to be accurate and the same tools that can decrease errors in these can also be used to increase errors in these. We can evaluate beliefs using the tools of logic, critical things and the cross-disciplinary Bias and Heuristics Research Program. We can evaluate desires by treating them as means to evaluate against other significant desires. We will specifically investigate this below but first we can now state how evolution and culture combine within desires and beliefs.

The Unified Basis of Desire and Beliefs
Everyone seeks to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires and acts to fulfill those desires, given their beliefs. Clearly there are many possible factors that can contribute to having the current set of desires and beliefs that one does have. These could includes age, health, looks, money, power, status, education, work, hobbies, family, friends, peers, colleagues, relationships, enemies, (exposure to one's own and other) cultures, religion, travel, location and so on. However these have influenced one, these are already included in the first sentence of this paragraph. A shorter and comprehensive way of summing this up is to say that these are all the result of two primary factors which one could call both biology and culture or genes and environment or evolution and society or an equivalent set. So when one seeks to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires and acts to fulfill those desires, given one's beliefs the contributions of biology and culture are already included.

Creating value through social forces.
Value is the relation between desires and the states of the world that are the target of those desires. We value states of the world that fulfill those desires and those states of the world are valued. We disvalue states of the world the thwart those desires, those states of the world are disvalued. What is valuable are means to realize one's values. Given a desire, if an action will fulfill the desire, we have a reason to perform that action and the action is valuable, given the desire. Similarly, given another action that would thwart that desire, we have a reason not to perform that action. By the same reasoning, if someone else performs that action and so thwarts our desire, we also have a reason to discourage this other person from performing that action, again given the desire. And again by the same reasoning they have a reason to discourage us from performing actions that would thwart their desires. The means of doing this are the emotionally expressive forces of commendation - to encourage - and condemnation - to discourage. A second tier is provided and reinforces the first tier by various material means of reward and punishment. And this is what everyone already does to each other, differences occurring because of the numerous factors listed in the previous paragraph that can imbalance the success and failure of individuals in realizing their values.

The Institution of morality
This is where the institution of morality comes in. It utilizes those same social forces that already exist but, by definition, treats everyone equally and impartially - all desires count the same. Descriptively any particular situation can be determined, at least in theory, as to whether the desire fulfills or tends to fulfill all other desires - whoever has them - or the opposite, thwarts or tends to thwart all other desires - by treating the desire in question as a means to the end of those other desires.The evaluation is to select whether the desire or its absence increases value for everyone over the alternative, which decreases value for everyone. (More detail on this in the next post, but this is sufficient for here). The prescription is to use the relevant and existing social forces to encourage the desire - if it increases value - or discourage the desire - if it decreases value.

Externalism and the Law
Clearly someone who has an undesirable desire or lacks a desirable desire has no reason to act otherwise unless and until the use of social forces can change that person's set of desires so they do have the desirable desire and/or do lack the undesirable desire, since after all they can only act on the more and stronger of their desires they do have, that is this is an externalist approach, it differentiates between desires that someone has versus desires that exist,- that are external to that person, that they might not (yet or ever) have. Should these social forces fail - to make these external desires internal - then eventually the legal system will step in. The institutions of morality and the law are different although related (this too will be explored in a future post). We can call this approach is desire consequentialism, since both the consequences evaluated are desires and the resultant prescriptions work to discourage morally disvaluable desires and encourage morally valueable desires.

Evaluating Genes Ethically
Sociopaths: Whatever the real medical basis and understanding to how they occur, for now we will grant that some people, due to genes, are incapable of responding to social forces such as through the negative emotional reactions of embarrassment, shame and guilt - which serve in others to modify and change their set of desires and relative strengths. So if social conditioning fails for them, should we give up? Not if everyone is still held responsible for their desires and whilst sociopaths might not respond directly to such social conditioning, they might both respond to the second tier legal threats/sanctions and to meet consensus social approval, even if they are impervious to disapproval, since the lack of approval could prevent them achieving their ends. The sociopaths who fail in this regard would sooner or later be caught by the legal system and that is a different although related question as to how to deal them there. None of this would argue against an institution of morality but rather, plausibly, for a more coherent and consistency applied one, more likely to keep more sociopaths on the straight and narrow and more likely to find quickly those who cannot.

Aggressive Genes: Again the actual data and scientific knowledge of how this works is controversial, but let us accept for now that some people are genetically more aggressive than others -hence more likely to revert to desire-thwarting desires - such as violence - compared to most others. This time they do have the capability of responding to social conditioning but it would be expected that there would be variable responses. Again, surely this is plausible argument for having a coherent and consistent institution of morality and related legal system. This both increases the chances of those with such a gene to learn to behave better and control their aggression and for those who fail to acquire the more and stronger desires not to be violent and equivalent to be found more effectively by the legal system.

Evaluating Culture Ethically
Incoherent and Inconsistent Institutions: Of course in both cases above and probably most if not all gene based behaviors, culture has a part to play in encouraging or suppressing such behaviors hence desires. It also has a part to play in those how are not "afflicted" with such genetic variations. One can evaluate a culture in terms of the internal coherence (of reasons) and consistency (of application) of its institutions of morality and law and the external coherence and consistency between these institutions - "just" law and so on.

Unethical cultural values: Whether a culture's institution are coherent and consistent or not, these can also be evaluated against increasing or decreasing value for everyone. The cultural value under question can be treated as a means to be evaluated against all significant desires as ends. So if a cultural value, directly (via institutions) and indirectly (via personal opinion, actions and (dis)agreements) endorses desire-thwarting behavior or suppresses desire-fulfilling behavior, it can be evaluated accordingly and those who directly or indirectly support this can be condemned.

This three part series sought to establish, albeit in only the broadest strokes, that the desires and belief approach is both based on evolution and culture and, via desire consequentialism, can be used to evaluate genetic factors and cultural values.