Friday, 23 April 2010

Letter to a Lapsed Pagan II

[See Letters to a Lapsed Pagan - Index for full list of our correspondence]

Hi Tim

I think a better way to move forward is for me, in this second letter to you, is to directly answer your "WTF is desirism?" question from your first letter.

Given your second letter, although you did not intend it as a second letter as such, I do not think it right to give you homework or require you to look up unfamiliar terms (within reason). Apart from anything else, I hope our correspondence can be a standalone reference to these ideas.
So lets proceed.

Moral Language

First I want to add a point omitted from my first letter and one that nicely dovetails into the following explanation.

One of my concerns, as a sceptic, was the misuse and abuse of moral language, specifically and most often by those who presumed best qualified to use it, religious leaders.

I must emphasize that I am not only concerned with them, as the issue is broader than religions and not all religious leaders (and followers) are culpable. This is an important point but I will not repeat it. Please take it as read.

The issue is that all too often moral language is used to support immoral actions, such as prejudice, bigotry and violence. However too many critics seem to be disabled from using the same type of language, due to their interpretations of what they Moral Inquiry actually is, that, at the very least, they consider Morality not to be objective. They concede much by doing this and this has concerned me for quite a while. Such critics, if nothing else, still concede to religious claims taht thiersis the only basis for moral objectivity, even as any sensible person knows and argues that such theistic-based moral claims are,with respect to objectivity, at least false (or in my view, incoherent, and not even false). 

For a while my approach took to pointing out the many incoherencies and ignorance that no intellectually responsible person would endorse, let alone promote. To use their own supposed morality against them. The classic being “bearing false witness” which many of the theists I was concerned over committed, when they repeatedly misrepresented atheists as communists and immoral and so on. However, those and similar arguments. were either wilfully misunderstood or consistent with their view that we are not their neighbours!

Then I undertook a study of ethics, all of the classics through to much of the work of the present day. Here I was very surprised, as far from there being little to support objective approaches to morality, there were many and from different bases and assumptions. Indeed this is, as I often repeat, where all the action ethics seems to be nowadays. Part of the surprise was I did not get this from many scientific and other critics, who were more concerned to base their views on their own take of morality, including negative or nihilistic ones. Whilst quite a few are quite objective in their approach (as Sam Harris is), there are far too many who are not and either way, none communicated how much is really going on in ethics. The last few years has seen dramatic changes in public awareness but there is still much that has not been covered.

Anyway I sought to find the most empirically adequate explanation of the phenomenon of morality, one that explained more with less, had fewer errors and mistakes than competitors and this is where I discovered and challenged Desire Utilitarianism. Part of testing became for me to, reluctantly I must say, to become an advocate of this theory.

My experience has been that there are about 5 or 6 common criticisms (some from theists, the others from subjectivists and non-cognitivists) and it is clear to me, however often they are repeated that desirism can deal with them. There are many other criticisms and I too still have some but I am not going to second guess you. Lets see what you come up with.

Anyway the underlying goal was is to rehabilitate moral language, so none of us has any qualms about using it, as and where required, particularly and most often, to those who misuse and abuse such language.
In order to do this we need to get behind the language and see what it means. To see if there are empirically adequate referents for these terms,to reduce such terms to their references and analyse the implications of these references without recourse to moral language.


So what do “ought”, “ought not”, “should”, “should not”, “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong” mean?

If one says “you ought not to X” and you ask “why?”, they might reply “because doing X is wrong” or “because X is bad”, These do not really answer the question. In fact these are three different ways of saying the same thing, that is expressing the same proposition. This proposition is a recommendation, it is action-guiding, or, to use the parlance, it is a prescription. This is the real answer to any of the three above responses.

Note at this stage we are not looking at just “moral” usage but in general. For example the same knife might be “good” in one context “sharp enough”, bad in another “dangerous to children” and “bad” in a different way in another context “too blunt to use”. The use of “good” and the two different “bad”s are all prescribing the usage of a knife, such that there are reasons to use it in situations when it is “good”, and reasons not to use it in situations when it is “bad”. And, note, the prescription is often implicit or tacit and inferred from the situation. Regardless of how implicit or explicit it is stated, there is a prescription being expressed.

So what are prescriptions? As hinted above, a prescription is a description of objects under evaluation, the reasons to act and the relation between them – as to whether the reasons to act are to realise or prevent the state of affairs that is the object of the evaluation.

Clearly many descriptions are not prescriptions, since if they do not describe objects of evaluation, reasons to act and the relations between them, they have necessarily failed to provide the components of a prescription. However descriptions that do contain these three components are prescriptions.

Like descriptions in general, prescriptions can be true or false (or cognitive), whether they are, or not, depends on the propositions stated by the prescription.  So the description of an object of evaluation, the reasons to act and the relations between them can be false, if either the reasons to act do not exist, or the relations between the reasons to act and the objects of evaluations are incorrect. If a prescription describes both reasons to act that exist and correct relations between these and the object of evaluations, then it is true.

If “good” does not express such a prescription then it is not a prescription and in contrary to general, common and typical usage, that is redefining good not to be a prescription does too much violence to any pragmatic meaning of the term.

Now if instead, one defines generic good to be about reasons for action to stop or prevent a state of affairs, one has inverted the meaning of good (and bad) and again has done too much violence to any pragmatic meaning of the term.

Given this, saying that a prescription that has reasons not to act (or refrain from acting) or reasons to prevent a state of affairs is good is a false prescription, since one has inverted the relation between reasons to act and the state of affairs for which those reason to act are about.

In short, a prescription is a way of describing value. So this gives us a robust, general, consistent but pragmatic definition of value or generic good to mean  “there are reasons to act of the kind to keep or bring a state of affairs in question” and disvalue or generic bad “that there are reasons to act of the kind to stop or prevent  a state of affairs in question”. These definitions are pragmatic in that this describes how the terms are used, as opposed to what they users think they mean.

Desires as reasons to act

The other way for a prescription to be false is if it refers to reasons to act that do not exist. That is in order for a prescription to be true it is necessary to refer to reasons to act that exist.

The only reasons to act that exist, as far as we know with our current state of knowledge, are desires. Desires are a type of brain state and the only brain states that motivate the agent to keep or bring about the state of affairs that is the object of the desire.

Desires themselves are neither true or false (cognitive) rather they are fulfilled or thwarted (or neither) depending upon whether the state of affairs that is the object of the desires is made or kept true; stopped or prevented from occurring, respectively. By contrast the only other equivalent brain state beliefs are cognitive, they are capable of being true or false (or undecided)

If a prescription contains any other reasons to act, these reasons to act do not exist and the prescription is false. If someone proposes a reason to act that is not a desire, it is up to them to show that it exists, if they cannot, then any prescription based on it is false.

Based on desires being the only reasons to act that exist, we can add a derivative definition of value to mean “such as to fulfil the desires of the kind in question” and disvalue to mean “such as to thwart the desires of the kind in question”.

Note in either form, that value is not intrinsic to any objective feature of the world, nor is intrinsic to any subjective feature of the world (such as a desire). It is extrinsic to both,that is value is relational not subjective nor objective. Nothing here stops us performing an objective examination of these relations as in any other empirical endeavour which can be mostly considered as finding and describing relations between different features of reality. It is this objective examination that I will pursue here.

Agent Reasons

Now my desires are my reasons to act. Your desires are your reasons to act. If I desire a state of affairs and you act, knowingly or inadvertently, directly or indirectly, to prevent or stop that state of affairs, the thwarting of my desire gives me a reason to dissuade you from so acting. And vice versa, if my actions thwart your desire. And so on for everyone else. 

Indeed knowledge of others’s beliefs and desires are very useful as they enable us to predict how others are going to respond to our actions. That is, these prescriptions, whether one to one, one to many, many to one, or many to many, are all predictions.

For example, if you tell me that Alice will not like it if I phi, you are giving me a prediction as a prescription, one based on your (accurate or not) understanding of Alice’s beliefs and desires (their reasons to act) as to how they are likely to respond if I phi. More explicitly you would be saying “Alice has a  reason to dissuade me from doing X, those reasons being that me phi’ing thwarts (what you believe are) one or more of Alice’s desires.”

Social Forces

So how does one go about dissuading someone from an action that thwarts your desires?

What we are trying to do is change actions, but the only actions we can change are voluntary or intentional actions and these are the result of intentions. An intention is, at a minimum, a combination of a belief and a desire, but it is only desires that motivate, so in order to influence actions, one has to influence desire.

Still when people act to fulfil their desires, they do so given their beliefs and, if they have false beliefs, then one could address those false beliefs, using reason and argument. As we know this may or may not work (even if you are correct, and it sometimes works even if you are not!) mostly because their desire to believe overwhelms their desire for truth. Whether you succeed or not in addressing their beliefs, you cannot use reason to alter their desires.

However we can directly influence each others desires using rhetoric - emotive language - through social tools employing commendations and condemnations, praise and blame, honours and demerits, reward, penalties and punishments and behind these are physical tools such as of power, threats and violence, economic tools such as financial rewards and penalties, the legal tools such as (including threats of) civil actions and so on. Everyone, to various degrees, employs some of these and similar tools in their day to day and longer interactions amongst friends, families, colleagues, peers, businesses, strangers and so on. These all serve to change the social environment within which we seek to fulfil our desires, such that our desires are mutually and reciprocally moulding each other.

Now one can only mould desires that are malleable, those that can be modified by the environment. If they are not malleable, then they are unaffected by changes in the environment. So social forces can only be used to influence malleable desires.

Universal Prescriptions

As noted in my previous letter, morality is specifically to do with the  employment of the social forces such as praise and blame, reward and punishment in institutions of morality. What makes moral prescriptions different to prudential, familial, team, work and other prescriptions is, that regardless of how anyone does or does not define moral terms, they are universally prescriptive, they are universally applicable to everyone.

If these were not universally prescriptive, then one could imagine anti-abortionists saying, “we think abortion is murder and so will not have abortions, you do not think it is murder, so go ahead if you want to”. Similarly we do not say “We think bigotry is wrong, you do not, so go ahead and be a bigot” . Clearly this is absurd. It is inherent in usage that moral terms are universally prescriptive.

So given our definitions of value in general and that moral value is to do with universal prescriptions, what are moral values in this same framework?

Since the issue is universal applicability, we are looking at the  value of a desire with respect to everyone. That is a universally good (bad) desire is universally  good (bad) to the degree that it tends to fulfil the desires of everyone’s desires.  Remembering that prescriptions are also predictions, one could say that a universally good desire is one that, all things being equal, generally people have reason to encourage, (these reasons being their desires that this desire tends to fulfil). And a universally bad desire is one that, all things being equal, generally people have reasons to discourage, (these reasons being their desires that this desire tends to thwart). The means of encouragement and discouragement being the social forces, as employed by people generally. If such a prescription is true, it would be an accurate prediction of how people would in fact react.

All things being equal

Of course, in the real world, to various degrees, the distribution of desires in a population and the acceptable and unacceptable usages of the social forces, show that often things are not equal, that many institutions of morality are no operating on a level playing field.

However we both agree on one naturalistic fallacy (there are at least four others), that what is the case does not mean it ought to be the case. So there is no reason to justify things based on the way they are. So how can we  evaluate them?

Well we can evaluate any and all distributions of desires and variable usages of the social forces by comparing this to the all things being equal general situation. So we can say, that in comparison to that scenario, what the individual or group ought and ought not do – whether they listen to us or not (that is up to the effectiveness of the social forces, which we can discuss in a future letter, maybe).

We now have a means of evaluating any individual or group independent of matter of opinion, employing only matter of facts based, of course, only on still provisional and defeasible prescriptions as accurate enough predictions of what people want, all things being equal.

One last point, in this already long letter, is over whether there an implicit “should “ in comparing any scenario to an all things being equal  (or level plain field) scenario.

Actually there are two opposite questions here: one is “why should there be a level playing field?”(even if such universal prescriptions are accurate of it), the opposite question is “why should there not be a level playing field?” . On purely rational and objective grounds, there is no prior basis to prefer one unlevel playing field over another, so the level playing field is the natural default or null hypothesis to engage in such comparisons.

This is not to say that some apparently unlevel playing fields can be rationally and empirically justified, but such justifications must presume a level playing in order to make such successful argument. What I have found is that all the justifications for unlevel playing fields rely upon additional and unsound assumptions and/or formal and informal fallacious reasoning. That is I have only seen unsound, invalid and poor arguments to justify unlevel playing fields, in other words they are not rationally and empirically justified.


Ok this letter is longer than planned and reflects some issues that I have been debating elsewhere. I could have provided a short paragraph description of desirism as I have done elsewhere and might do again if you request. Still there is enough meat here for you to get your teeth into and examine sceptically. Please fire away!


Timmeh! said...

My response, although it's more a series of questions than a response, is here

Ichthus said...

The is-ought fallacy is a real fallacy, and is why knowledge is justified, true belief. In order to be knowledge, a belief must both be justified by the evidence, and true by correspondence. If we consider justified a belief that only corresponds, we commit the is-ought fallacy. If we consider a belief true merely due to evidence in favor of it, we commit the ought-is fallacy. Related to moral truth--if a justified (answering the question of Ethics--"How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?") moral standard doesn't describe anything in reality, to consider it "true" commits the ought-is fallacy. If we take something from reality and call it moral truth, neglecting to consider whether it is justified (answering the question of Ethics), we commit the is-ought fallacy. In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics). Its correspondence is not its justification (is=/=ought), and its justification is not its correspondence (ought=/=is).

faithlessgod said...

Hi Icthus

You are looking at my long neglected blog. Thanks for waking me up.

You say: "The is-ought fallacy is a real fallacy, and is why knowledge is justified, true belief."
This looks like a non-sequitur as it appears you are confusing the an ontological point in the antecedent, with an epistemological point in the consequent. Lets examine your argument:

"In order to be knowledge, a belief must both be justified by the evidence, and true by correspondence."
This is the tripartite theory of knowledge which has been challenged by Gettier and others. Still I now see your knowledge point is meant to be the antecedent in your original statement and you are trying to argue from this to proving that the is-ought fallacy is a "real fallacy". However I do not deny that many do commit this fallacy, and I only dispute that it is always the case.

Now whilst I do not accept the tripartite theory of knowledge, so your argument is unsound, lets accept it for the purposes of debate and see if your argument is valid.

"If we consider justified a belief that only corresponds, we commit the is-ought fallacy."
Huh? This makes no sense.

"If we consider a belief true merely due to evidence in favor of it, we commit the ought-is fallacy."
Neither does this. Do you understand what this is-ought distinction actually is? This is a question of ontology not epistemology.

"Related to moral truth--if a justified (answering the question of Ethics--"How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?") moral standard doesn't describe anything in reality, to consider it "true" commits the ought-is fallacy."
Rather weird terms but taking this charitably you are now confusing moral ontology with moral justification. Anyway I did give an argument as to what moral terms could refer to in the real world - corresponding to what people generally have reasons to promote and inhibit, so, according to you I have not committed the is-ought fallacy.

"If we take something from reality and call it moral truth, neglecting to consider whether it is justified (answering the question of Ethics), we commit the is-ought fallacy."
Again weirdly put and again trying to understand this charitably this does make sense against, say, theistic-based morality. Theists do think, controversially, that a god exists and so is part of reality - but whatever such a god wills or commands, whether due to its eternal nature, omniscience and/or due to being the creator of everything, is insufficient and so unjustified to be a moral ought, anyone who argues otherwise is indeed committing *an* is-ought fallacy.

"In order for there to be moral truth, it must both correspond to (a) real being, and it must be justified (answering the question of Ethics)."
And theism fails wrt to your latter premise. As for the first premise that is also unsound there need be no "real being" for their to be moral truth, if you mean this substantively as some form of god. Anyway since your argument is most easily used against theistic-based morality and you are, apparently an Christian apologist, your rather confused as you are producing arguments that refute your own position!

"Its correspondence is not its justification (is=/=ought), and its justification is not its correspondence (ought=/=is)."
And this,as already noted, is quite mistaken.

So your initial confusion in your original statement over ontology and epistemology still stands and you have not only failed to make a argument but have also refuted your own position! No mean achievement but Christian apologists never surprise me any more :-)