Friday, 13 June 2008

A sense of right and wrong

How do we know what is right and what is wrong? Is this just a feeling? Is it just an opinion or can we show an empirical and rational basis for what is right and wrong? If there is not a rational and empirical justification, then how do we know that our sense of right and wrong be better than anyone else's or maybe it is not or we cannot know? I want to expand upon some issues raised in Are there ethical substantive principles? and Science and Ethics 2: A Theory of Prescription. In particular I would like to clarify what I stated at the end of the second post, with new emphasis added:
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.
Desire Utilitarianism
This blog has been developing the approach of Desire Utilitarianism. This consists of two strongly related theories the Desire Fulfillment Theory of Value and the External Reasons to Act Theory of Prescriptions.

Desire Fulfillment Theory of Value
This argues that certain values exist, that is they are natural and real. These values are the relation between desires and the states of the world that is the target of the desires. When such a valued state of the world is realized, the desire is fulfilled, instead, when this valued state of the world is prevented, then the desire is thwarted. The means that bring about or prevent these valued states of world are valuable (or not) to the desire. The ethical question asks is a desire valuable to everyone? This is done by treating the desire as a means and determining whether is valuable or desirable according to its material effect on everyone's desires - does it bring about or tend to bring about states of the world that fulfill these desires, or if it prevents or tends to prevent states of the world that fulfill these desires, then it tends to thwart those desires. So a desire is ethically valuable or desirable because it enables the fulfillment of desires - it is helpful , whereas it is disvaluable or undesirable when it prevents the fulfillment or thwarts desires - it is harmful. An action can be called right or wrong according the desire that brought it about, so an action that is the result of an helpful desire is right, an action that is the result of harmful desire is wrong.

External Reasons to Act Theory of Prescriptions
This argues that all prescriptions are reasons to act. To ought to do something is to have a reason to act to do that something. The theory uses only reasons to act that exist. However individuals may lack such a reason to act, have it but it is outweighed by other reasons, or only have other reasons that conflict with the absent reason to act, in all such cases the relevant reasons to act are external to the individual, they exist but not in that individual. Prescriptions have a dual purpose, to state as a matter of fact what the reason to act is and to serve to help internalize those reasons to act. Now coupling this with the Desire Fulfillment theory of value shows that desires are the only reasons to act that exist. Now one cannot use reason to change desires, the only way to internalize a desire that someone lacks, or to remove a desire that someone has, is by means of persuasion - such as expressive and material methods. Questions of ethical actions - right and wrong acts - is then about encouraging helpful desires and discouraging harmful desires. If this succeeds, then the individual simply would not want to act unethically.

Lets distinguish between two features of life in human communities - call them "social" and "cultural". Here "social" is the universal feature that operates across all communities and "cultural" is specific that that community - it is not universal. Socialization is partly constituted by the child learning to internalize the cost of material reward and punishment - as a feeling and one that takes away the inner satisfaction from the external fulfilling of desires that adults deem bad - so that only expressive and emotive methods need to be used, without, eventually, even the threat of material benefits and penalties being required. This is a universal feature of living in communities, however cultures will use such expressive methods as praise and condemnation to different ends, depending on the differential values of those cultures. Once one has been socialized this way, it is beneficial if one could predict whether one's actions are likely to be praised or condemned and this becomes a factor in making effective a desire and acting upon it. When it comes to ethics this is how the sense of right and wrong comes about. One can then participate pro-actively, praising and condemning adults and socializing children to instill this sense of right and wrong in others. Of course, for any individual might still act against this sense but they still know what is right and wrong.

An ideal world
In a world where everyone is a desire utilitarian, there would both be a coherent means of evaluation of what is right and wrong and consistency in application of praise and condemnation. This does not mean there will be situations and type of situations where it is either unclear or there are disputes over the key factors - desires - that affect the situation or are affected in the situation. Nor does this mean that some will behave not unethically and worse, some certainly will (the point it is conjectured that this would be far less than our world and see the next paragraph). Nor will it mean that everyone is able to verbally justify their sense of right and wrong, although this approach does make this possible as it is cognitive - there are facts of the matter. It does mean that everyone has had a decent chance of being properly socialized, so knows how to behave well and that biases and distortions have been minimized or eliminated. We do not live in such a world.

Cultural Biases and Distortions
These are brought about by political, economic and religious ideologies and cultural specific values (lets call these collectively cultural values) that can subvert the sense of right and wrong in properly socialized adults and disrupt the process of socialization itself - since moral education becomes more incoherent and inconsistent. One bias is preferring one group over another by arguing one's own group is innocent and others are guilty and so having different standards to apply. One distortion could be altering the basic sense of right and wrong, say it is only the individuals or group's desires that count, not everyone's. Both work to alter to the sense of ethical right and wrong - so that it is not based on everyone's interest. All such cultural values can serve to justify unethical conduct.

Ethically Substantive Principles
Now we can address the question implied at the beginning of this post. Are there "ethically substantive principles"? There are two senses of this and Desire Utilitarianism supports one sense but not the other. However the other is what is usually or typically understood as an ethically substantive principle. This in Desire Utilitarian terms could be stated as to have a desire to fulfill or tend to fulfill all desires. This is an impossible demand, indeed this is Act Utilitarianism not Desire Utilitarianism, and this makes no such demand, instead everyone pursues their own values, their own desires, just wanting to choose valuable (ethical) and not undesirable (unethical) means to fulfill those. Now the other sense of "ethically substantive principles" applies. It is possible to explicate and justify one's sense of right and wrong in terms of analyzing whether a desires does, in fact, fulfills or tends to fulfill, thwarts or tends to thwart other desires. It can be used when one wonders whether a potential action is right or wrong and one is unclear if one's sense of right and wrong is accurate or not. It can be used to judge others and cultural values - to provide reasoned argument as to what is unethical about them.

We can now address the emphasis in the quote from the previous post. It may very well be the case that the person who is being admonished and prescribed to has no interest in the welfare of everyone - this is certainly the case, at least initially, with children. So how can one instill the reason to act if they have no interest in everyone's welfare, no interest that their actions cause harm? Well for those the fall back is prudential interest. They do not want their satisfaction in fulfilling desires being taken away, and for certain of those desires it is. It is to their prudence that one initially not so much appeals but affects. So the reason to act provided externally - this action causes harm to others and this harm is a reason not to do it, may be quite different to the reason to act installed internally in the recipient, this action causes admonishment and disapproval and this is a reason not to desire it. Eventually if one is to be able to successfully predict which of one's future actions could cause disapproval and worse, it becomes simpler to develop a internal sense of right and wrong, to know that certain acts that cause harm are wrong and acts the help are right. So eventually it does become the case that "you ought not to X", means you have a reason to not want to X, and this reason is that doing X increases harm for everyone.