Theft

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 21, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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There are no property rights in a state of nature.

I say that because this posting is on the moral category of “theft”. Theft is the taking of property – taking something that belongs to somebody else and treating it as your own – without their consent.

But what is this “belongs to somebody elseness”? How does this or that particular lump of matter acquire this property, and what type of instrument do we wave over it to detect that property? We need to know these things to know whether or not our taking of that property counts as theft.

Natural rights theorists tell us that “belongs to somebody elseness” is a natural property (no pun intended). It occurs in nature and can be found originally in the bodies of every rational being, and extends throughout the body of each individual. Your body has a natural property of “belongs to youness”, my body has “belongs to meness”, and Alph’s body has “belongs to Alphness”.

As such, there is a reason for action, intrinsic to human bodies themselves, that compels each of us to refrain from actions that involve using the body of another person without the consent of its owner.

When each of us mixes our labor with material in the real world, some of our “belongs to meness” leaks out and gets all over that with which we have labored. If I should plant a seed and water it then my “belongs to meness” leaks all over the resulting tree and can be found in the fruits of that tree. This means that you may not use the fruits of that tree without my consent any more than you can use my body without my consent.

Of course, the mixing of labor only works on material that does not already have “belongs to somebody elseness” mixed in with it. If I plant the tree in my neighbor’s yard, I don’t get to claim that the tree has acquired “belongs to meness” because, in planting it and growing it, I used property with “belongs to somebody elseness”. This “belongs to somebody elseness” acts as a kind of barrier that keeps “belongs to meness” out of that object, even if I do mix my labor with it.

One of the questions that arise against this theory is: Exactly how for does this “belongs to meness” leak out when I mix my labor with something?

Let’s say I build a machine whose function is to terraform Mars by giving it a thick atmosphere rich in greenhouse gasses that will keep the place warm, and that is also breathable. I build my machine, hire a ride on a rocket, and sucessfully land it on Mars, where it works for 6 hours pumping out a trace amount of greenhouse gasses, then stops.

Can I then claim all of Mars as my rightful property? I have mixed my labor with Mars. It would seem, then, that it is now mine. If not, how do we discover how far this “belongs to meness” now extends?

Another set of questions arise when we ask, “What actions should I take if my intention is to preserve the natural beauty of some part of nature?” How do I mix my labor with something in order to spread “belongs to meness” all over it when mixing my labor with it will ruin that which has value?

Does the fact that I am willing to fight anybody who would dare step foot on the ground I wish to preserve count as mixing my labor with it? If so, can I then claim that the whole universe, other than that which has has contaminated, now has “belongs to meness” because I hereby express my willingness to do battle against anybody who dares to spread the contamination of humanity anywhere off of Earth?

For a third type of problematic case, assume that a small fire starts in your back yard near your propane tank. Your neighbor’s garden hose is nearby. You can quickly run over, turn on his faucet, and put out the fire with the hose. However, your neighbor is not home. Is there, in fact, a natural property of “belongs to meness” that provides an overriding reason for action that exists that prohibits you from using your neighbor’s hose to put out the fire?

I have used a similar case often in my writings. That case involves a father whose child gets stung by a bee while out on a fishing trip and starts to have an alergic reaction. His car will not start, but another car sits nearby – keys in the ignition – no owner to be found. An absolute prohibition on taking what has “belongs to somebody elseness” says that you are to watch your child die.

Notice, in this third type of case, we are not disputing the range of “belongs to meness” but its implications. I am not disputing the fact that the hose belongs to my neighbor or that the car belongs to the person who left it. However, I am saying that the hose and the car has a “belongs to somebody elseness” that prohibits others from using the property in dire circumstances.

The fact is, there is no natural property of “belongs to meness” that requires that the father watch his child die or that you watch your entire home be destroyed in a propane explosion. There is no natural property that leaves us unable to preserve an area in its natural state or to claim whole planets or the whole universe simply by mixing one’s labor with it or declaring a willingness to fight whoever else might try to use it.

It is useful to think of a property of “belongs to meness” that resides in the body and extends out to that which we mix our labor with. However, this is useful in the same way that it is useful to think of atoms as a nucleus with electrons in orbit around the nucleus like planets in orbit around a star. It does not describe reality, but it provides a useful way of thinking about it.

We have the capacity to use social forces to create an aversion to taking things that possess “belongs to somebody elseness”. We have many and particularly strong reason to assign this “belongs to somebody elseness” to their physical bodies.

We have learned that it is useful to promote the growing of food and the production of tools that we have reason to conceive of this “belongs to somebody elseness” to extend to the products of their labor – the food they grow and the tools they make. Giving others the power to take their food and their tools takes away from the grower or manufacture any incentive to produce food or tools to be taken.

However, our tools for promoting this aversion to taking what belongs to others are imperfect, and we have people in the community who lack this aversion. For those people, we must find some alternative form of persuasion – ones that involve well-armed individuals locking those who lack this aversion in cages or chopping off their hands.

This involves taking a minimum percentage from those who produce food and manufacture tools to establish and maintain a system of police and courts to use on those who have avoided acquiring the appropriate aversions.

“You may not have an aversion to taking our property. However, trust me, you still have aversions and we’re going to make sure that something you are averse to gets realized if we catch you stealing.”

You don’t get to claim all of Mars because you built a greenhouse gas emitter than you landed on the planet and ran for 30 minutes. We have no reason to allow this flow of “belongs to somebody elseness” to flow so far with so little effort. And, remember, it is not a natural property whose flow is determined by the laws of nature. However, if you were to land a habitat on Mars and build a reasonably close-in fence around it, there might be many and strong reason to allow that this plot of land is now yours.

We also have many and strong reasons to allow that there are other ways for property to acquire “belongs to somebody elseness” without “mixing their labor with it.” Where people value the wilderness provided by some section of land, and they are willing to pay or persuade others to give up a claim to it, then this works as well as “mixing one’s labor with it” to acquire property.

Finally, this aversion to taking that which has “belongs to somebody elseness” is always going to be one desire among many. It will never be the sole desire, so the moral prohibition on taking that which has “belongs to somebody elseness” will never be a moral absolute.

We can also expect good people to have a desire for the welfare of their children. Furthermore, we have reason to expect – even to demand – that a good person’s desire for the survival of their child will exceed their aversion to taking that which has “belongs to somebody elseness”.

So, the parent whose child is having an alergic reaction to the bee sting will be averse to taking the stranger’s car to get their kid to the hospital. But they’ll do it, because he has (and should have) an even stronger aversion to the alternative.

Because of this aversion he will feel rotten about having to take the car. He will apologize to the owner and offer compensation. The owner may well forgive the parent, but we have reason to look for these signs that the parent actually has the proper aversion to taking what belongs to others – that this truly was an exceptional case of a lesser evil.

We have reasons – grounded on our reasons to promote an aversion to taking what belongs to others – to see to it that the agents follow through with this ritual of asking for and receiving forgiveness.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe October 21, 2010 at 6:24 am

I was enjoying reading this in the beginning, but the post is needlessly long for the point you are making. I guess you just enjoyed writing it?

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MichaelPJ October 21, 2010 at 7:25 am

If you’re interested in a different take on property rights, try this:
http://tomkow.typepad.com/tomkowcom/2010/08/the-retributive-theory-of-propety.html
which I found quite thought-provoking. In particular, he disagrees that there are no property rights in a state of nature, given how he understands rights, and works up from there.

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dh October 21, 2010 at 7:56 am

“Natural rights theorists tell us that “belongs to somebody elseness” is a natural property (no pun intended). It occurs in nature and can be found originally in the bodies of every rational being, and extends throughout the body of each individual. Your body has a natural property of “belongs to youness”, my body has “belongs to meness”, and Alph’s body has “belongs to Alphness … As such, there is a reason for action, intrinsic to human bodies themselves, that compels each of us to refrain from actions that involve using the body of another person without the consent of its owner.”

I’m curious about the nature of this origin in bodies … because I think that’s right. How do we make the leap from the intuition that it has something to do with bodies to putting ‘rational’ and ‘human’ in the definition? This is at the foundation of Francione’s work in abolitionist animal rights. He questions the logic that denies other animals the same rights to their bodies, the logic by which we consider them “property” in so far as “property” is functionally synonymous to “thing” or that which either can’t consent (tree, car) or from which consent has been, by cultural norms, deemed unnecessary (slaves/animals).

It reminds me of a scene from a philosophy documentary in which Judith Butler was talking to another woman who had some condition that left her in a wheel chair. They’re strolling/rolling along pondering the danger of being differently bodied. IIRC, the example Butler was using was of a gay man being seized upon and brutalized because he walked with a particular gait. That different expression of embodiment (walking differently) was, to the brutalizers, sufficient justification for disregarding the sense in which the subject (owner of the body?) had a right to not have its body violated. I found myself nodding along and then realized Butler was wearing a leather jacket while she was pondering the dangers of being differently bodied.

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mkandefer October 21, 2010 at 8:40 am

Hey Alonzo (or Luke),

Moral reasoning interests me, and I used to hold a number of incorrect beliefs about moral reasoning before reading some of your work. I try to discuss it when topics of morality come up, but try not to extend my claims beyond what I’m comfortable making. This is one of those tricky spots. Someone claimed that one cannot get an “ought” from an “is”, and I started to respond as follows:

Fyfe thinks that “oughts” are actually part of the “is”. The reason why is that “oughts” are reasons for (or against) actions, and desires are the only things that give us reason to act (or not act). Desires are probably in the realm of “is”, because we study them scientifically and objectively in cognitive psychology.

However, I stopped replying here as I was uncomfortable with what I see as a disparity between the uses of “reason” here. When I use it in the first sense, I see it as rational justification for something, in this case action. When I use it in the second case, I mean it causally, as in desires (in combination with our beliefs) form intentions which cause us to act. These are different things and some justification is needed to connect the two.

Am I misinterpreting what Fyfe has said about bridging the “is” and “ought” gaps? Am I misinterpreting something else? If not, then how do you answer this disparity between uses of the word “reason” here?

Off topic, but when will you publish in a journal or conference?

Thanks!

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lukeprog October 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

mkandefer,

Alonzo has written several times about how reasons are both descriptive and normative, but I suspect our upcoming coverage of the issue in the Morality in the Real World podcast will be even clearer. Stay tuned!

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Jeff H October 21, 2010 at 12:26 pm

It is useful to think of a property of “belongs to meness” that resides in the body and extends out to that which we mix our labor with. However, this is useful in the same way that it is useful to think of atoms as a nucleus with electrons in orbit around the nucleus like planets in orbit around a star. It does not describe reality, but it provides a useful way of thinking about it.

Okay, so Alonzo, you say that we’re allowed to use concepts that don’t actually “exist” in the real world, but are useful for engaging in moral decision-making.

But in other places, you defend desirism because things like “categorical imperatives” and “social contracts” don’t exist.

My question is, what if the concept of the social contract is useful for engaging in moral decision-making? Alonzo, how do you defend “only things that exist” in one place and “useful fictions” in another? This seems to be special pleading to me. If you are to be consistent, it seems that you cannot even entertain the idea of this “belongs to meness” property, regardless of its usefulness, and thus your whole article here is moot.

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cl October 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Huh. While I agree with Tshepang Lekhonkhobe that the post was extremely verbose and could have been summed up in a paragraph, I had a hard time reconciling the post’s central claims with it’s opening claim [that there are no property rights in a state of nature]. If there are no property rights in a state of nature, then, on what grounds can we declare that our body has “belongs to meness?” It seems to me that the rest of the post argues that there are in fact property rights in nature – something like intrinsic property rights that each individual has with regard to his or her own body, and by extension to the labors of his or her own body.

The point Jeff H raised is even more problematic in my opinion: Like he does with “people generally” and the generic “we,” Alonzo appeals to a “mysterious property of belongs-to-meness” when it serves his purposes, but then, when other people do the same, he condemns them for “using fiction,” and this directly after an emphatic declaration that there are no property rights in a state of nature. So I agree Jeff H: without emendation from Alonzo, this seems like another case of special pleading.

Personally, I think the world works much better if we cultivate an attitude of “belongs to all-of-us-ness.” Now, I’m not saying this is justification to go out and take what you want from the store without paying. Rather, I’m saying I think the entire concept of one person hoarding the fruits of the Earth and then charging others money for them seems wrong. It certainly seems inconsistent with the message Jesus preached, and, in a purely naturalistic context, as far as I know, we have no corollary amongst the lower animals. So what makes us special?

Perhaps I was a Native American in a past life.

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Alonzo Fyfe October 21, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Jeff H

Okay, so Alonzo, you say that we’re allowed to use concepts that don’t actually “exist” in the real world, but are useful for engaging in moral decision-making. But in other places, you defend desirism because things like “categorical imperatives” and “social contracts” don’t exist.

It is the same as the answer that I gave in the Question and Answer episode (Episode 5) to Morality in the Real World in talking about Alph and Betty and their lone desires, and in thinking in terms of electrons having orbits around an atomic nucleus. These techniques are routinely used to explain or conceptualize Physics in the Real World and Chemistry in the Real World. There are more sophisticated and more accurate ways of describing the event, but the simplified version is useful in understanding particular concepts.

Furthermore, it is often better (more efficient) to look at a system that yields approximate answers than at systems that yield precise answers because the latter takes far too many resources to compute.

If you are going to have a problem with this, you are also going to end up having a problem with a substantial amount of the work done in any hard science. Similarly, I have not said anything against the option of using “categorical imperatives” or “social contracts” as approximations of the right answers yield by desirism – fully respecting the fact that they are merely ways of generating rough approximations of a right answer (and not right themselves).

In fact, this is the procedure that I have applied to the concepts of moral “rights” generally – proposing that a moral “right” is something “that there are many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to violating”.

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cl October 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

In response to concerns over appealing to things that don’t exist to make his case, Alonzo responds to Jeff H,

It is the same as the answer that I gave in the Question and Answer episode (Episode 5) to Morality in the Real World in talking about Alph and Betty and their lone desires, and in thinking in terms of electrons having orbits around an atomic nucleus.

I disagree. In the case of an atom, the language has a referrent in reality. In the case of “belongs-to-meness,” we have no such referent. Further, why should Homo sapiens respect this mysterious property of “belongs-to-meness” when other members of the animal kingdom apparently have no regard for it? Does a bear consider the “belongs-to-meness” of your car when she’s going after that box of Cheez-its? Should the rules change simply because we have bigger brains?

…it is often better (more efficient) to look at a system that yields approximate answers than at systems that yield precise answers because the latter takes far too many resources to compute.

That’s why an omniscient, omnibenevolent God would be the best possible grounding for desirism.

If you are going to have a problem with this, you are also going to end up having a problem with a substantial amount of the work done in any hard science.

Again, not true. Scientific language describes things that have a referent in reality. This mysterious property of “belongs-to-meness” has no referent in reality – at least not that you’ve demonstrated. It seems to me you’re comparing two different things.

Similarly, I have not said anything against the option of using “categorical imperatives” or “social contracts” as approximations of the right answers [yielded] by desirism – fully respecting the fact that they are merely ways of generating rough approximations of a right answer (and not right themselves).

Okay then, why was your former stance so adamant against using “things that don’t exist” to approximate moral claims? As you yourself wrote, and Hermes has adopted as his newest flamethrower against me,

If you are not talking about facts, then you are talking about fiction. If, in making a moral claim, you are not talking about something real, then you are grounding your life on myth and superstition. Those are the only two options. [Alonzo Fyfe, Sam Harris: Science and Morality]

Is there a third option we’re missing?

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mojo.rhythm October 21, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Cl,

I disagree. In the case of an atom, the language has a referrent in reality. In the case of “belongs-to-meness,” we have no such referent. Further, why should Homo sapiens respect this mysterious property of “belongs-to-meness” when other members of the animal kingdom apparently have no regard for it? Does a bear consider the “belongs-to-meness” of your car when she’s going after that box of Cheez-its? Should the rules change simply because we have bigger brains?

Usually you come across as someone who is trying to parse out the details, but there are times where you polemicize in a Coultergeist fashion just for the sake of it. This double-faced modus operandi of yours is confusing to say the least.

In natural rights theories, properties of “belongs-to-meness” are ontologically independent; they stand on their own as autonomous entities just hanging out there in the abstract twilight.

If I have understood Alonzo correctly, “belongs-to-meness” does not assume this privileged status in desirism, because these kinds of spooky abstractions don’t exist. However, due to certain desires and their relationship to certain real world states of affairs, we can conveniently postulate these entities to make moral reasoning a little bit simpler. But these entities are only convenient tokens of a model that makes sense of the complex interplay between certain desires and states of affairs. Without these desires and states of affairs, “belongs-to-meness” properties would not be used to describe anything, and therefore a desirist would not include such terms in his discourse.

Take an analogous situation. We could describe the economy in terms of atoms, quarks, wave-functions and the uncertainty principle, but it would be so superfluously complicated, technical and abstruse that it would be simply useless as a model for describing the economy and predicting its movements. In the same way I can assert that “that computer belongs to you” instead of asserting “people desire to have the security of being able to obtain the things they need to live and prosper without the fear of having those things seized off them on a capricious whim; I have an aversion to taking things off people which they worked hard to obtain. Therefore if I desire to take the computer, my overriding aversion to taking things off people which they worked hard to obtain prevents me.”

Moreover, Homo sapiens don’t have to respect the properties of “belongs-to-meness”, but we do have reasons for action to promote such a respect!

Talking about members of the animal kingdom having no regard for “belongs-to-meness” properties is simply a red-herring and completely irrelevent. Animals are not part of the moral domain because they do not have malleable desires. My blanket does not have regard for these “belongs-to-meness” properties either, yet that is not somehow a devastating refutation of the argument.

Postulating entities that don’t exist is the biggest problem ultimately when doing so makes the world a worse place instead of approximating the right answers.

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Steven October 21, 2010 at 9:51 pm

I’ll just suggest that natural property rights aren’t inherent, but out of necessity. The body has no will to consent that the mind can govern it, therefore, by default, the mind necessarily governs it. No “meness” spreads into our labor. Rather, because none of us want our labor to go to someone who means nothing to us or who we feel doesn’t deserve it, out of necessity we developed property rights. That is, morality should only be viewed on the basis of goals (subjective) and what is necessary to bring those goals about. No inherent rights. Just necessity.

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Jeff H October 22, 2010 at 10:50 am

Alright, Alonzo, so you’re essentially positing this “belongs to me-ness” as only a useful heuristic for a more complex moral theory. Fine, that’s fair enough, and I’ll accept that. But that did not come across clearly at all in this article. You consistently use the “belongs to me-ness” concept, even mixing it with desirism:

We have the capacity to use social forces to create an aversion to taking things that possess “belongs to somebody elseness”. We have many and particularly strong reason to assign this “belongs to somebody elseness” to their physical bodies.

But now my question becomes, how would you translate “belongs to me-ness” into desirist terms? We can use the model of electron orbits to approximate a more complex reality, but eventually we need to translate our approximations into this more complex system. So how would you translate the useful fiction of property rights into a desirist statement without continuing to say anything about property? You do mention something about “mixing one’s labour”, but without any a priori concept about property, I don’t see how one would decide that labour is a relevant concern here. You seem (to me, at least) to be using a definition of property to derive your conclusions about desirism and theft, rather than using desirism to derive the “useful fictions” of property.

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woodchuck64 October 22, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Jeff H,

So how would you translate the useful fiction of property rights into a desirist statement without continuing to say anything about property?

Territory marking/defending is a trait that is extremely ubiquitous in the animal kingdom, so I would suspect the ability to think of property as mine has a strong biological component to it that would be manifested as a desire.

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cl October 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm

mojo.rhythm,

…there are times where you polemicize in a Coultergeist fashion just for the sake of it. This double-faced modus operandi of yours is confusing to say the least.

I agree that you’re confused: here you’ve mistaken an attempt to parse the details for “Coultergeist” polemics.

Let’s try this another way. Previous questions temporarily aside, here’s what I took from Alonzo’s post:

No “mysterious entity” called “belongs-to-meness” exists in the real world, but reasons for action to promote an aversion to taking other people’s property without their consent do exist. Alonzo uses “belongs-to-meness” merely as a linguistic aid to communicate a concept, and the fact that “belongs-to-meness” doesn’t actually exist is a moot point. Right?

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mojo.rhythm October 22, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Cl,

I took roughly the same thing from the post, but I would probably phrase it differently. You have snuck the word “property” in there, which seems to me to be begging the question if your trying to analyze the concept of “belongs-to-meness”.

I will admit that actually trying to define “belongs-to-meness” as an emergent property of desires and states of affairs is a right pain in the arse (you have to be careful to use no possessive nouns and avoid terms like “property” “possession” and so on), but it is possible, and if it is possible I don’t see what your objection is.

Just because other members of the animal kingdom cannot rec0gnize these conventionalist devices that humans have agreed upon, does not make them erroneous.

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cl October 23, 2010 at 11:51 am

Mojo.rhythm,

Before we continue, I’d like to ask you a question about this term, “malleable desires.” Generally, I would say an organism can be said to “have malleability of desires” if either of the following conditions can be met: 1) we can introduce a desire the organism doesn’t already have; or, 2) we can reduce, increase or even eliminate the strength of a desire the organism already has.

Will that work for you?

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mojo.rhythm October 23, 2010 at 9:30 pm

I take malleable desires to mean we can use social forces such as praise and condemnation to change them. You can change the desire of animals using things such as training, selective breeding over many generations and domestication; but I don’t know if that can be described as morality.

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Michael October 24, 2010 at 9:07 am

A couple thoughts.

1) It’s easy to mock the idea of property rights over nature arising from mixing labor with nature, but I think the ridicule looks ridiculous if the conclusion is pulled-back a little. If you take material from nature (m1) and re-work it into a different material (m2), then the difference in the value of the materials ( V(m2) – V(m1) ) is the result of your effort and should belong to you. Neither the original material itself nor the new material should belong to you, but the value of the difference between the two materials should.

This argument is easy to see in the context of intellectual property. Poetry, paintings, theorems, processes, formulas, designs, blogs, and models are made of natural materials worth next to nothing. The reworked sheet of cellulosic fibers or the LCD screen with these ideas on it is worth many many times the cost of the raw materials. That value of the intellectual property belongs to the inventor, the creator, the author, the chef, the blogger, the thinker, the architect. There is an obvious, perhaps even “natural” attachment between the human being who made the thing and the value of the thing itself.

In any case, it seems to me a “natural” extension from the right of an individual human person to the material that constitutes their body to the product of their effort. If I spit on the Moon, of course that doesn’t give me ownership of the Moon, but I think most people would make me responsible for the difference in value between the Original Moon and the Spitooned Moon.

2) I have been playing with localization in ethics/morality. I haven’t gotten very far and it isn’t much, but…

Human persons are situated within space-time and contexts. You are here. Rights to our bodies and over decisions which affect only ourselves are generally uncontroversial and seem, for me, to be necessary components of any moral scheme. The set of moral choices we face daily are local and each of us has ethical decisions and issues which are unique to the situations and space in which we find ourselves.

It isn’t some sort of radical localization, though: just this body, these decisions, at this moment, here and now. We are extended through time and move through space and across situations. So any rights, obligations, and responsibilities we have aren’t radically localized either. Contracts and promises and obligations for future selves and tomorrow’s spaces seem like “natural” extensions of localized ethics.

We appear to be evolved in a manner consonant with localization. At any given moment, we look out at (and listen to) the world from the volume of our skulls. As individuals we live a brief time in a small neighborhood. And then are no more: only memories of us, the perturbations of our actions, remain. Existence localized: here you are but not for long.

Rights, obligations, responsibilities, values and the good ought at least to respect at least this of the fundamental aspects of our existence: our localization.

Well that’s as far as I have gotten. Not much, I know. Sigh…

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cl October 25, 2010 at 1:55 pm

mojo.rhythm,

I take malleable desires to mean we can use social forces such as praise and condemnation to change them. You can change the desire of animals using things such as training, selective breeding over many generations and domestication; but I don’t know if that can be described as morality.

Well, your original claim was, “Animals are not part of the moral domain because they do not have malleable desires.”

However, Homo sapiens are animals, and most people seem to think Homo sapiens are part of the moral domain. We are animals with malleable desires, and, as you note, we can “change the desires of animals” – both other Homo sapiens, and some of the lower animals. Further, we can use praise and condemnation to do this. In fact, at home, we use praise and condemnation to influence our housecats. So, I reject your claim, and I disagree with you that “Talking about members of the animal kingdom having no regard for “belongs-to-meness” properties is simply a red-herring and completely irrelevent.” Since many other animals clearly have malleable desires, I think you need something else to sustain your claim.

As far as the other part of our discussion, well… when I summarized Alonzo’s post as,

No “mysterious entity” called “belongs-to-meness” exists in the real world, but reasons for action to promote an aversion to taking other people’s property without their consent do exist. Alonzo uses “belongs-to-meness” merely as a linguistic aid to communicate a concept, and the fact that “belongs-to-meness” doesn’t actually exist is a moot point.

…you said,

I took roughly the same thing from the post, but I would probably phrase it differently. You have snuck the word “property” in there, which seems to me to be begging the question if your trying to analyze the concept of “belongs-to-meness”.

I will admit that actually trying to define “belongs-to-meness” as an emergent property of desires and states of affairs is a right pain in the arse (you have to be careful to use no possessive nouns and avoid terms like “property” “possession” and so on), but it is possible, and if it is possible I don’t see what your objection is.

I’m not trying to analyze the concept of “belongs-to-meness.” Rather, I wonder: If it’s okay for Alonzo to refer to things that don’t exist as a means of improving communication, then I don’t understand the big deal about categorical imperatives, social contracts, intrinsic value, etc. not actually existing. In the same way “belongs-to-meness doesn’t actually exist” is a moot point, Alonzo’s “categorical imperatives, social contracts and intrinsic value don’t actually exist” also becomes a moot point. Yet, he seems very adamant about emphasizing that those things “don’t actually exist,” and it just seems odd to me.

No major disagreement, just trying to parse out the details :)

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