Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 2, 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.)

cloud_break

In the last couple of posts, I have shown how desirism provides a framework for:

  1. …constructing a theory of the moral concept of ‘negligence.’ Negligence consists in acts that people generally have many and strong reason to condemn because it demonstrates a malleable lack of concern for the effects of one’s actions on others.
  2. …constructing a theory of the moral concept of an ‘excuse.’ An excuse is a claim that breaks the inference from a prima facie wrong act – an act that a good person would have wanted to avoid doing – to the desires of the agent.
  3. …constructing a theory of the institution of thanking people. A “thank you” is a statement of praise that tends to strengthen or promote those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others.

I would like to note that all three of these institutions existed long before anybody invented the term “desirism.” In fact, elements of these practices can be found in the earliest recorded histories.

I am often asked, “Why should I adopt desirism?” One of the answers I could give to this question is, “Why did you?” Desirism is a theory that aims, in part, to explain and predict our current moral practices. These practices include making negligence claims, offering moral excuses, and acts that exist within an institution of giving thanks.

Once we understand what these institutions are and why it makes sense to have them as a part of our moral practices, then we can begin to look at how to use them more efficiently.

We can determine more precisely whether a particular negligence claim is justified. (Does the accusation of negligence actually identify a token act that demonstrates a lack of concern for the welfare of others that can be molded through social forces?)

We can determine if an excuse is valid or invalid. (Does the excuse claim actually block the inference from a prima-facie wrong action to the malleable desires of the agent?)

We can determine if a “thank you” is deserved. (Did the agent perform an act that a person with good desires would have performed?)

Today, I would like to take a closer look at the concept of “excuse” and apply this thesis that desires are the primary object of moral evaluation (desirism) with the thesis that a valid excuse breaks the inference from a prima facie wrong action to the conclusion that a person with good desires would have avoided that action.

Accident

I have described one type of excuse already – the accident. A good person would have kept a promise to meet another at a given time. However, an unforeseen event – an accident on the road that tied up traffic – made it impossible for the agent to keep the appointment. “Even if” – or, ‘even though’ – I had wanted to arrive on time, a person with good desires would still have been caught by surprise by the traffic situation and still could not have made it.

Being late counts as the prima-facie wrong action – one that a person with good desires would have wanted and been motivated to avoid. The ‘accident’ excuse makes the claim that a good person would not have been able to make the appointment, so “you cannot make a valid inference from the fact that I did not make the appointment to the conclusion that I did not want to.”

Notice that if a person has a reputation for being on time, the accident excuse is easy to accept. The prior successes demonstrate that the agent is motivated by a concern to keep her promises. Whereas when a person seems to encounter one ‘accident’ after another, we have reason to grow suspicious that the agent really is not all that interested in keeping her appointments.

Greater Good

Another form of excuse that we can offer is the excuse of serving a greater good.

In this case, somebody misses an appointment and you ask, “Why? What is your excuse?”

“Well, on the way here I came across an accident. It was a pretty bad accident, I was the first one on the scene, so I stopped. There were people hurt, so I gave what help I could until the police and ambulance showed up.”

The key difference between the “greater good” excuse and the “accident” excuse is that, in this new case, the agent could have made the appointment if she wanted to, but she did not want to. Or, more precisely, if the agent was a good person, she wanted to make the appointment, but she had a stronger want to give aid to those hurt in the accident.

Furthermore, people generally have many and strong reasons to prefer that people have a stronger desire to help those in need in an emergency situation than in keeping lunch dates with their friends downtown. In this case, the person who would have driven past the accident to keep the lunch date would have been condemned because the lunch date ought not to have been more important than helping in an emergency.

Stopping to help people at a traffic accident is a good excuse for missing a luncheon appointment. Attending a luncheon appointment is not a good excuse for refusing to help people at the site of an accident.

Consent

Another set of statements that break the link between a prima-facie wrong action and condemnation is to make a true consent claim.

Typically, it is wrong to take your neighbor’s car. However, you can avoid the accusation of blameworthiness by responding that your neighbor gave his consent.

Why does “consent” work as a form of excuse?

As I mentioned in a separate posting on consent, if a person consents to some action or state of affairs – seriously consents, and is not forced to consent by somebody putting a gun to his head – we may assume that the best informed and least corrupted agent for determining if that state will likely fulfill the desires of the agent is the agent herself. Who are we to disagree?

If I tell my neighbor, “Go ahead. You and your friends can take your baseball bats to my car. Just go ahead, tear it apart,” we may assume that my desires are best fulfilled by a state of affairs in which my neighbors are destroying that car. Maybe I hate that car and plan on getting a new one, plus I have a desire to help my neighbor fulfill his desires. Maybe my neighbor is a rock star filming a video and they have paid me $50,000 to destroy the car. They did not buy the car – it is still mine. But they did buy permission to destroy it.

The consent claim means, “You cannot infer that I did not care about the interests of the person who owned the car from the fact that I destroyed the car. I reliably determined that my actions would fulfill the most and strongest desires of the owner.”

As I pointed out in my article on “consent”, desirism not only explains why consent claims provide valid excuses. It also explains the situations where consent claims fail to provide valid excuses. These are conditions of duress or incompetence where we do not have reason to believe that the agent giving consent can accurately declare whether a state will fulfill his or her desires.

Justified Mistake of Fact

Another excuse that we can offer when we are accused with a prima-facie wrong action that a good person would have avoided is that we are the victim of a justified mistake of fact.

Somebody points a gun at you. You have a gun with you so, in self-defense, you shoot this other person. However, you then discover that this other person had a toy gun and was no threat to you. Your excuse for shooting this person who posed no threat to you? “I made a perfectly justified mistake of fact – a mistake that a person with good desires would also have made given the same evidence.”

However, an unjustified mistake of fact makes for a poor excuse. “The way he looked at me. He had his hand in his pocket. I thought he was holding a gun. I felt that he was going to kill me, so I shot him.” That’s not good enough. A person who is actually has the level of concern with the welfare of others that people have reason to promote through social forces would not rashly jump to those types of conclusions. She would want better evidence than that which was available.

Summary

So, here we have four different types of excuse, all of which make sense if the concept of excuse is understood in the terms that desirism provides. People generally use social forces to promote those desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires. Certain actions provide strong prima-facie evidence that an agent lacks desires we have reason to promote or has desires we have reason to inhibit.

However, if that agent can offer a valid excuse, then she tells us that the act in question does not, in fact, allow us to infer that the agent lacks good desires or has bad desires. Four types of claims that accomplish this end are (1) unavoidable accident, (2) greater good, (3) consent, and (4) justified mistake of fact.

Desirism also explains when excuses work, when they fail, why they work, and why they fail. All of this becomes comprehensible when we look at morality as primarily concerned with the evaluation of desires, at acts according to whether or not they are acts that a person with good desires would perform, and at excuses as claims that take the form, “Just because it looks at first glance like I performed an act that a person with good desires would not have performed, you can’t infer that I did not have good desires.”

- Alonzo Fyfe

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

cl December 2, 2010 at 11:42 am

Negligence consists in acts that people generally have many and strong reason to condemn because it demonstrates a malleable lack of concern for the effects of one’s actions on others.

I agree. For example, because most of us have a desire for maximum clarity in sophisticated ethical and philosophical issues, “people generally” have many and strong reasons to condemn negligence in the presentation of theories that purport to be about the real world, i.e. allowing contradictory statements to persist, and increasing the unassuming querant’s burden by expecting them to know an undated article was written five years ago. That’s negligent.

An excuse is a claim that breaks the inference from a prima facie wrong act – an act that a good person would have wanted to avoid doing – to the desires of the agent.

I agree. For example, “I lost the password to my website” is an excuse that a good person would have wanted to avoid using. It would be really easy to include a simple disclaimer alerting unassuming querants to the substantial differences between the various iterations of desirism on the internet. That you lost the password to your website does not absolve you of the responsibility to promote clarity, nor is losing your password a valid excuse for inaction.

A “thank you” is a statement of praise that tends to strengthen or promote those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others.

I agree. Conversely, “thanks for nothing” is a statement of condemnation that aims to create an aversion to desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. As such, I’d like to extend a hearty “thanks for nothing” towards Luke and Alonzo for allowing contradictory iterations of desirism to persist and then having the audacity to blame others for their misunderstandings, and also for attacking the moral character of persistent querants by denigrating their moral character [1], or labelling them “trolls” [2] and “shotgun philosophers” [3] without any evidence whatsoever. Especially in America, where people are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, “people generally” have many and strong reasons to condemn the bearing of false witness against others.

Sorry, but I just cannot take your writing on negligence and excuses seriously, at least until you actually take responsibility for these things, and especially while you’re out there condemning trivial hobbies like spectator sports. False accusations and attacks on the moral character of earnest individuals are far more a threat to society than spectator sports. It just comes across as terrible hypocrisy.

Notes:

[1] Alonzo Fyfe, Morally Permissible Slavery, comment October 19, 2010 at 7:53 am

[2] Luke Muehlhauser, The Science Of Morality, comment December 1, 2010 at 3:31 pm

[3] Luke Muehlhauser, Morality in the Real World Episode 6, comment November 16, 2010 at 7:37 am

  (Quote)

cl December 2, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Luke,

Though you haven’t apologized for being negligent, at least not that I’m aware of, I do extend a hearty “thank you” for adding a simple disclaimer to your e-book. That was certainly a step in the right direction IMHO. It might also behoove you to specifically identify key tenets that no longer apply, i.e., something like an errata page for desirism. That way, all the relevant emendations could be contained in a single, easy-to-handle reference. In fact, the Wiki would be a great place for this.

If Alonzo will follow your lead and apologize for being negligent, I’ll stop bringing this up entirely.

  (Quote)

orgostrich December 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm

What you’re presenting here, and in the Morality in the Real World series, seems to be an interesting psychological or sociological theory for predicting/molding behavior. But, I still don’t see how it relates to morality. I’m not convinced that a person with desires that tend to fulfill other desires is a “good” person.
I know you keep saying that you will explain in the future, but could you do it soon? I think it would help a lot of people understand.

Thanks!

  (Quote)

Hermes December 2, 2010 at 5:29 pm

I’m patient Luke. It’s clear that you have a plan for presenting things and are carefully following it so as to not introduce problems. The word ‘desireism’ itself seems to garner quite a bit of confusion, though you seem to apply it in a clear and methodical manner showing that it is similar to the root word desire. Even if I get nothing out of the final explanation, I think the method of providing it carefully should be a model for philosophical illustrations that are similarly complex.

Many conversations that don’t include the proper foundations tend to waste time in the long run; either assumptions against or for an idea are made, or assumptions about the idea itself are made that are simply not correct.

For example, I had someone on another blog lecture me on what atheists are. I patiently outlined very basic points showing that some of the presumptions the writer made were not supported. These points were ignored, and the other writer concentrated on telling me what I must (!) think and how I was wrong to think it. At one point I was even called a postmodernist, though I think that was intended as a parting insult.

  (Quote)

Ignostic Morgan [ Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth] December 2, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Luke and other inquirers, Google the presumption of humanism- covenant morality for humanity to see how it covers our humanism, and then note here how it can involve desireism.
For another keel-hauling of the fine-tuning argument as well as far all teleological ones and all with intent, see my post under #2, fine-tuning generalized.
Luke, thanks for this blog. Check out mine.

  (Quote)

Amoralist December 3, 2010 at 3:02 am

“The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism.”

When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible ethical theories, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

  (Quote)

Luke Muehlhauser December 3, 2010 at 8:29 am

Amoralist,

I dismiss other ethical theories because they refer to things that do not exist: intrinsic value, divine commands, categorical imperatives, and so on.

But desirism refers only to things that exist.

So… what is the reason you reject desirism?

  (Quote)

Amoralist December 3, 2010 at 9:11 am

But desirism refers only to things that exist.So… what is the reason you reject desirism?  

Go to your Desirism FAQ , replace each instance of the word desire with neuron activity/C-fibers firing, and then reread it. You also presuppose that human are rational agents.

  (Quote)

Godless Randall December 3, 2010 at 9:52 am

Amoralist: Luke calls him a troll but i’ve heard Cl make the same point so i wonder if you guys might be on to something

  (Quote)

Hermes December 6, 2010 at 5:30 am

Godless Randall, Cl’s a troll because once given an answer Cl ignores it and then re-asks the same questions incessantly. The proper thing to do would be to engage the answer and address that. When the answer is ‘wait — I’m building up to that point’ the demand of ‘no, now! answer me!’ isn’t conducive to actual communication. The cake is still being baked.

Now, in this one instance Luke and Alonzo may have a responsibility to address Amoralist’s specific questions more fully, but that doesn’t make Cl’s troll behavior un-trollish.

Personally, I have had no problem going head to head against the vaporous one, but I have no skin in the game Cl wants to play so have no compulsion to engage Cl. If there was something that I could learn that was positive from Cl, I’d be glad to slog through those discussions. Nothing has formed over the span of months, so I’ve lost interest in Cl’s combative and dismissive attacks. I’m sure Luke and Alonzo have to and they’ve said as much as have others who no longer talk with Cl.

  (Quote)

Hermes December 6, 2010 at 5:39 am

“have to” ==> “have too”

  (Quote)

Godless Randall December 8, 2010 at 2:50 pm

@Hermes: been there done that with ya buddy a troll is someone who comments just to start shit and if anything thats you. don’t say you have ^no compulsion^ for Cl i’ve seen you on threads with Cl before where you just trashtalk and don’t even say anything about the post. shit you pretty much did it again in this thread. they don’t answer Cl’s questions in the podcast and other people make the same objections over and over again

  (Quote)

Hermes December 8, 2010 at 4:38 pm

He evaded responsibility for his own words and comments. That got my attention, and he got the response that he deserved then. Now, he’s getting my current response.

But, let’s say I’m nothing but a troll IRT Cl. Let’s call me guilty with no other motivation but to troll Cl.

Does my guilt make Cl all the sudden not-guilty of his own behavior?

There’s a reason why people don’t talk with him anymore.

  (Quote)

Godless Randall December 8, 2010 at 10:11 pm

^Does my guilt make Cl all the sudden not-guilty of his own behavior?^

no but it does make you l0ok like a hypocritical ass when you whine about ^trolling^ but actually do it yourself. what ^behavior^ are you talking about? like i said whenever i come on here i see the same basic pattern: Cl asking legit questions and people like you just talking a bunch of trash as if there’s something wrong with asking quesitons. or Luke running the ol ^i don’t have time to answer you question but i’ve got time to call you names^ gambit. try to see outside the party lines and be a little more objective ‘cuz that’s more in line with evading than anything i’ve seen from Cl and of course you don’t call your boy Luke on it. its as if your so about trying to paint Cl as a troll that you aren’t even acknowledging the validity of the points being made or realizing that you come off as way more a troll

  (Quote)

Hermes December 9, 2010 at 4:50 am

I accept you don’t like my tactics, yet I don’t apologize for addressing immoral/dishonest question dodgers as they should be addressed and with as much respect as they have earned.

If you can identify a single legitimate question I have not addressed, I’ll be glad to answer it.

Can you say the same about Cl? Specifically;

1. Have you seen Cl answering all legitimate questions posed to them?

2. Have you seen Cl accepting the answers of others and then addressing those answers or the answer Cl chooses to answer?

I’m not talking sometimes, or even a vague judgment on most, but consistently.

This is why Cl is largely ignored. The intent of Cl is to engage is battle, not consider ideas thoughtfully. I returned the same instead of putting up with it. Now, I see no value in what Cl offers, so I’ve disengaged. I consider that a loss because Cl seemed to have some good ideas, though they weren’t worth slogging through while the immorality/dishonesty just negated the vast majority of them. Good riddance to dead wood. His reputation over months was well deserved.

  (Quote)

Hermes December 9, 2010 at 4:59 am

Note the difference between Cl and Ayer. Ayer does not do 1 or 2.

I don’t agree with Ayer on much, but you can tell there is a growing awareness by Ayer about issues they did not consider many months ago. *That* attitude gains respect. When Ayer gets called on what’s seen as crap, he returns a reasonable or a potential answer even if it’s not satisfactory. I can see why he gave an answer from his perspective even if I disagree on the reasons and/or the perspective. Cl, it’s always tactics and tear down with no back-and-forth. I’d rather have Ayer on a jury if the two of them were my only options. At least he’d talk about things with the rest of the jury.

  (Quote)

Hermes December 9, 2010 at 5:37 am

Hopefully, a final set of comments to drive this home…

Irt the last couple posts, an example of others complaining about Cl, though both Luke and Alonzo have told Cl directly why they don’t engage Cl as well; http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11431#comment-76414

Yet, I have tried to engage Cl. Patiently and directly. I even asked others to hold off while we awaited Cl’s responses. Cl did not engage my comments but did try and bait me a few times. Thin skin I guess. One example of many; http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11303

Here’s what I see is the core problem with Cl;

Alonzo Fyfe wrote (posted today): I want to point out, the question of negligent belief is not a question of whether somebody agrees or disagrees with your own beliefs. If they are supporting their beliefs using arguments that are clearly flawed, then this demonstrates epistemic negligence – a lack of concern over whether they are right or wrong – regardless of what conclusion they draw.

I’ve confronted Cl multiple times where they were not just epistemologically negligent but where they were intentionally ignoring the best available evidence. They did so on the issue of morality; they acted immorally so as to bash someone else’s morality. Alan Sokal said it well;

If you are sloppy about evaluating evidence, then you are ethically liable for the mistakes that you’ve made. [ ~45:00 mark ]

The main point is … it’s important when you make claims about factual matters in the world, to understand clearly what is the evidence on which those claims are based and to and try evaluate that evidence as impartially as possible. [ ~45:50 mark ]

Source: http://colinmarshall.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=404357

You can judge me anyway you see is fit. If you see me not holding my own comments up to the same standards that I’ve insisted that Cl crawl up to, then you are free to identify my failings. Be specific.

If it’s just my attitude, or my ripping through and deflecting a dodge to get back to the core issues — some of which I’ve listed above — then consider you already have your answer of why I acted as I did.

  (Quote)

Godless Randall December 9, 2010 at 10:41 am

wow three comments in a row and you say you have no skin in the game. its as if your fixated on Cl.

^Have you seen Cl answering all legitimate questions posed to them?^

^Have you seen Cl accepting the answers of others and then addressing those answers or the answer Cl chooses to answer?^

nobody bats 100 but in general yes. like i said, i read here. i’ve read here a while. go look at any thread on desirism and tell me Cl doesn’t answer questions. or Cls blog

^the immorality/dishonesty^

oh please will you stfu already? there’s nothing wrong with asking questions you have no idea what other people’s intents are. your just coming across as a typical judgmental atheist and im getting really sick of all this atheist judgment of immorality around here. live and let live

^an example of others complaining about Cl, ^

so kip whines about Cl and its automatically valid? by that logic should we just character assassinate on whoever another commenter whines about? you might wanna think that through

^Cl did not engage my comments but did try and bait me a few times. Thin skin I guess. One example of many; ^

that doesn’t even go to a comment from Cl it goes to the top of a post

^I’ve confronted Cl multiple times where they were not just epistemologically negligent but where they were intentionally ignoring the best available evidence. ^

yeah you say that all the time then when asked for an example you choke like you did here. another commenter whining isn’t a valid argument that Cl is immoral and dishonest. thats totally invalid. neither is linking to the top of a post. agree or disagree but Cl comes with dated references and academic source citations that lead the reader to ^exactly^ what was said. so yeah you aren’t holding your comments to the same standard at all and worse is your condescending and smarmy about it. don’t waste my time unless you have a ^REAL^ evidence for your slander that someone else is dishonest or immoral. all you gave was an invalid argument and a link that goes to nothing in particular. thats the real negligence afaics

  (Quote)

Hermes December 9, 2010 at 11:02 am

Godless Randall, I’m addressing you, not Cl. As I have no additional requests for you, feel free to investigate this topic on your own. As a tip, you can do a site specific search of CSA using Google with the following command; site:commonsenseatheism.com.

Note that I have made specific commitments in the previous messages to you. If you wish, you or anyone else may take me up on those commitments. If you do not want to take me up on those offers, I’ll be glad to let you have the last word and then stop monitoring this thread.

  (Quote)

Godless Randall December 9, 2010 at 10:29 pm

^If you do not want to take me up on those offers, I’ll be glad to let you have the last word and then stop monitoring this thread.^

i took you up: you’re full of shit. you said be specific i was: you 1 slandered someone else as ^immoral^ and ^dishonest^ then 2 choked on evidence and 3 that AFTER including smarmy quotes about ^If they are supporting their beliefs using arguments that are clearly flawed, then this demonstrates epistemic negligence – a lack of concern over whether they are right or wrong^ — uh — you’re kidding right because i’m about to call poe’s here. this isn’t about Cl this is about your lack of logic. you gave me a link to some commenter talking shit about Cl and then sent me down another link that went nowhere in particular. that doesn’t justify your claim that Cl is ^immoral^ and ^dishonest^ so you are supporting your claim with arguments that are clearly flawed. as you just said this ^this demonstrates epistemic negligence^. are you even concerned whether you’re right or wrong? like i said i have a hard time believing you can’t see this and so i’m calling poe’s. either that or total hypocrisy

  (Quote)

Hermes December 10, 2010 at 5:23 am

I want to be fair and live up to my offer, but I’m uncertain if you are expecting a response. If not, I thank you — honestly — for the feedback.

  (Quote)

Hermes December 12, 2010 at 9:30 am

Godless Randall, I am no longer monitoring this thread as it has been a couple days with no new activity.

If you want to continue this conversation or have me account for my own commitments, please let me know elsewhere in more active threads and I will be glad to hold to my commitments.

  (Quote)

cl December 13, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Ha! Never fails. Merely mention me, and haters come out the woodworks.

Hermes,

If you want to continue this conversation or have me account for my own commitments, please let me know elsewhere in more active threads and I will be glad to hold to my commitments. [to Godless Randall]

I can’t speak for Godless Randall, but I would be absolutely enthralled to have you hold to your commitments. Since the previous links you provided clearly do not make the cut, where is the evidence of my “dishonesty” and “immorality,” kind sir?

Godless Randall,

Hey thanks. At least someone’s paying attention. Thanks for going to battle with the Son of Zeus for me, too. You did as good or better than I would have. I like that, instead of swallowing vapid claims, you demand evidence. That’s exactly the same strategy I’ve been using, and, as I’m sure you can probably see, it works. Note that of who-knows-how-many allegations of “dishonesty” and “immorality” thus far, the Son of Zeus is still batting zero. Hell, I’d be more skeptical of the person making the allegations without evidence to support them, but that’s just me.

Amoralist,

Right on. Although I couldn’t find the comment where I said exactly what you said – “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible ethical theories, you will understand why I dismiss yours” – I’ve asked Luke the same kind of questions, to no avail, and that’s despite the fact that even one of my most vocal critics expressed support for the questions [see comment from Kip, October 12, 2010 at 5:08 pm].

Note how Luke’s response to you fails: lollypops exist, too. Does that mean an ethical theory founded on lollypops is worthy of our credence? Of course not. So, I’m going to need something more than “desires exist” before I assent to this so-called “theory” of morality.

Luke,

So? Do you understand why we reject your morality yet? Take the bull by the horns; you might just come out on top.

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }