Bargaining

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 19, 2011 in Ethics,Guest Post

Today’s post on ethics is written by 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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You are an intentional agent with desires that motivate you to act so as to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true.

You are surrounded by other intentional agents.

However, desires only motivate the agents that have them. Therefore, the fact that you have a particular desire that P does not automatically give anybody else a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which P is true.

Informing them that you have this desire that P might actually be the information that they need to realize not-P. If they hate you, for instance, and have a desire to do your harm, informing them that you have a desire that P may well tell them how they can effectively fulfill their desire to do you harm.

Given these facts, what are your options for dealing with these other intentional agents in order to get them to realize P, or, at least, to refrain from realizing not-P?

One option is to bargain or trade.

You find somebody with a desire that Q where that person can realize Q more efficiently with your help, and you say, “If you perform these acts for realizing P, then I will perform these other actions for realizing Q.”

With this, you give that person a reason to realize P – by turning it into a means for realizing Q where he already had a motivating reason to realize Q.

This does not work in every case, of course. However, with a sufficiently large group of people with a sufficiently large variety of desires, you should be able to find some people that you can make these types of bargains with.

You would need to look for people with a desire that P that meets certain criteria. For example, “P and Q” must be possible. Furthermore, you must have some capacity to increase the likelihood to bring about Q – otherwise, the other agent will have no reason to enter into the bargain.

Unfortunately, under the assumptions we are making here, a substantial percentage of potential bargains are doomed to fail before they are even made. These are bargains where one agent fulfills his terms before the other one does.

As soon as you complete your side of the bargain, and Q has been realized (or you have done what you can to bring about realizing Q), then his acting to realize P ceases to have any instrumental value. It is no longer a means for realizing Q. So, his motivation to bring about P vanishes.

Unless there is some other factor in play, that other agent will, in fact, cease to act to realize P the instant you have completed your side of the bargain. Which means it would be wise for you to look, in advance, at whether that “some other factor” exists before entering into the bargain.

One “other factor” to look at would be the motivational power provided by a concern for reputation. If that other agent wants to enter into bargains in the future, he has reason to become known as somebody who completes his side of a bargain. Becoming known as somebody who fails to relize P as soon as Q has been realized means that others will see the foolishness of entering into bargains with him.

However, this only applies if (1) the other agent has a reason to enter into future bargains, (2) you have the ability to threaten his reputation, and (3) you have the will to use that ability (which might be hindered by threats of violence or just a general aversion to causing trouble). Remove any of these elements, and your bargaining partner no longer faces the motivation of reputation.

Another potential motivator is an aversion to breaking promises. A person with a strong aversion to breaking promises will be strongly disposed to choose actions that will keep the proposition “I have broken a promise” false. This is true in the same way that a person with a strong aversion to pain will be strongly disposed to keep the proposition “I am in pain” false.

The person concerned solely with reputation will break a promise when he can get away with it. The person with an aversion to breaking promises will not break a promise even when he is the only person who will ever know about it. For him, the idea of breaking a promise and getting away with it will make as much sense as suffering great pain and getting away with it. There is no “getting away with” something he just does not like.

Now, when you enter into a bargain with such a person, his “desire that Q” becomes his motivating reason for entering into the bargain. However, his aversion to breaking promises becomes his motivation for realizing P even after you have done what you agreed to do to realize Q.

To the degree that you can reliably detect this aversion to breaking promises in others, it makes the most sense to bargain with people who have this quality over those who do not. Furthermore, it would be in your interest to become a reliable detector of the aversion to breaking promises in others.

Now, you should also realize that, what is true of you in this case is true of others as well. Those other intentional agents that exist in the world around you also have reasons to enter into bargains. They have reason to prefer to bargain with people who have an aversion to breaking promises. And they have reason to work on improving their capacity to reliably detect who has this aversion – just as you do.

To whatever degree they are successful at becoming reliable detectors of those who have an aversion to breaking promises, to that degree you have a reason to acquire this aversion to breaking promises. This will allow you to enter into bargains leading to the fulfillment of desires that would otherwise be blocked to you.

Here, I will not get into the question of whether it is possible to cultivate a desire or aversion. I simply want to argue that your own desires give you a motivating reason to become such a person under the conditions I specified above. So, if there is a way to cultivate such an aversion, you have a reason to employ it.

I mentioned that you have reason to become a reliable detector of those who have an aversion to breaking promises.

This is true of other agents as well.

This means that you have a reason to enter into a system with others that will flag those who keep promises (and flag those who break promises). And you have reason to improve your relationships with those who prove to be reliable at flagging promise-keepers and promise-breakers. You might want to use terms like “liar” and “con artist” as flags in this project.

These flags might serve another purpose as well. You may discover that the other agents with which you surround yourself have a “reward-learning system.” That is to say, certain states of affairs act as a “reward” or a “punishment” that alters their dispositions to act. Among such individuals, “rewarding” those who keep promises and “punishing” those who break promises will have the effect of promoting dispositions to keep promises and weakening or reducing dispositions to break promises.

The mere fact that you have a reason to bargain with promise-keepers and avoid bargaining with promise breakers may serve as a reward and punishment. You may also find that the act of flagging somebody as a “liar” or “fraud” or a “con man” works as a punishment in some cases, while praising his honestly serves as a reward, which inhibits lying and fraud behavior while promoting the aversion to breaking promises.

Where these systems exist, it makes sense to put them to work.

Now, in this post, I have not said anything about morality. We can go ahead and assume that morality does not exist, or that it is a nonsense term that doesn’t refer to anything real. We can define “morality” however we want. We haven’t even used the term, so it does not matter how we define it. The question of what “morality” is – or whether this identifies something that can be called “a moral system” isn’t even worth debating.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan May 19, 2011 at 5:41 pm

A person with a strong aversion to breaking promises will be strongly disposed to choose actions that will keep the proposition “I have broken a promise” false.

Statements like this are simultaneously tautological and meaningless, and they are why people get turned off by philosophy. Is anyone surprised by this brilliant piece of semantics?

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cl May 19, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Dan,

Is anyone surprised by this brilliant piece of semantics?

Ha! Nope, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Consider:

However, desires only motivate the agents that have them.

Not necessarily semantics, more like flat-out false. Or:

You are an intentional agent with desires that motivate you to act so as to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true.

Now we’re talkin’ semantics! Why not simply, “The more you bargain with people who honor their own word, the more likely you are to get what you want?” I mean, that seems to summarize the entire post in a single sentence. All this bloated verbosity tends to obscure things, IMHO. Why use 745 words when 21 will do? That sort of thing.

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mojo.rhythm May 20, 2011 at 3:22 am

Thoughtful article, but a little too abstract. I think some concrete examples and applications would have added a refreshing touch.

Cl,

How can desires motivate anyone but the agent who has them? Seems almost tautologically obvious to me. Btw, just because something is tautologically obvious doesn’t mean that its very mention is redundant and pointless. Certain tautologies, when precisely articulated, can snap concepts into relief that otherwise seem murky.

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Adito May 20, 2011 at 10:48 am

Interesting post, I’m beginning to see how desirism could be applied on a large scale.

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antiplastic May 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Cl,

How can desires motivate anyone but the agent who has them? Seems almost tautologically obvious to me.

Try telling that to The Generally People.

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mojo.rhythm May 21, 2011 at 8:31 pm

What do you mean antiplastic?

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antiplastic May 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm

What do you mean antiplastic?

In Fyfism, “should” conceptually analyzes (and no one is fooled that conceptual analysis isn’t what the argument’s been based on for years) to the attempt to influence someone’s behavior by pointing out there is a reason for them to do so, and a “reason” conceptually analyzes into the fact that such behavior would realize that person’s desires.

But, by a kind of conceptual alchemy, moral criticism such as “you should be more tolerant of other cultures” transmutes into a statement utterly divorced from whether the person it is directed at has the relevant desires, but rather becomes a vague reference to some inchoate Generally People, as in “generally, people have reason to avoid this.”

The Generally People are a strange folk. Even though any given member of them may lack the relevant desire — even though a majority of them may lack the relevant desire if the minority’s desires are “strongly felt enough,” whatever that means — this is no barrier at all to declaring to Billy that he, specifically, should or shouldn’t do something. The Generally People are possessed of the miraculous gift of being motivated “collectively” by desires any number of their individual agents lack.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 23, 2011 at 8:43 am

In Fyfism, “should” conceptually analyzes . . . to the attempt to influence someone’s behavior by pointing out there is a reason for them to do so . . .”

False.

There is a distinction between claiming that there exists a reason for an agent to do something and the agent has a reason to do something. “Should” is analyzed in terms of the former, not the latter.

As for influencing somebody’s behavior, there are two ways to do this. Agents will choose those actions that would have fulfilled those desires in a world in which their beliefs are true and complete. The two methods for altering an agent’s actions are to change their beliefs, or to change their desires.

You only mentioned one of those options “pointing out that there is a reason for them to do so”. This “pointing things out” is a matter of changing beliefs.

However, morality is a matter of changing desires. You do not change desires (or, more precisely, you do not change “desires-as-ends” by pointing things out. You alter desires by using the reward-learning system – by offering rewards (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation).

Praise and condemnation are built into moral-should statements. “You (morally) should not have done that,” is a statement of moral condemnation – aimed at using the reward-learning system to alter desires. It does not “point out” that an agent has a reason to do something. It seeks to create (through the reward-learning system) a reason for the agent to do something.

and a “reason” conceptually analyzes into the fact that such behavior would realize that person’s desires.

The reasons that a person has relate to that person’s desires. Reasons that exist relate to desires that exist.

But, by a kind of conceptual alchemy, moral criticism such as “you should be more tolerant of other cultures” transmutes into a statement utterly divorced from whether the person it is directed at has the relevant desires, but rather becomes a vague reference to some inchoate Generally People, as in “generally, people have reason to avoid this.”

True. Moral criticism says that “people generally have many and strong reasons to use praise and condemnation to cause you to have the requisite desires and aversions.” It does not say that you actually have the desires and aversions, but that people generally have reason to use the reward-learning system to cause you to have the requisite desores.

The Generally People are a strange folk.

Regular people, actually.

The Generally People are possessed of the miraculous gift of being motivated “collectively” by desires any number of their individual agents lack.

This is no more miraculous than the fact that air blows in the direction and at the speed that its molecules generally are travelling. At any given moment, it is possible that no molecule is travelling at 10 kph to the southwest, and yet the wind is blowing to the southwest at 10 miles per hour.

In the case of actions, people’s actions are mediated by beliefs. False and incomplete beliefs cause people to act in ways other than they would act if their beliefs were true and complete. What a person has reason to do is not a measure of what they do, but a measure of what they would do if their beliefs were true and complete.

So, morality is not concerned with the praise and condemnation people actually give, but with what they would give if their relevant beliefs were true and complete. It is not at all difficult to determine that there are some desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit – as demonstrated in the post above.

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cl May 26, 2011 at 6:23 pm

mojo.rhythm

How can desires motivate anyone but the agent who has them?

Symbiosis.

Alonzo Fyfe,

Regular people, actually.

Oh give it a rest. Just how are you defining “regular people” here? I ask because I know plenty of people I would consider “regular” who make their living in, say, the sports or entertainment industries. Your post Trivial Hobbies would have us believe that “people generally” — and by extension these “regular people” — have reason to condemn spectator sports and reality television. Beside the fact that you didn’t support your claim with any empirical evidence whatsoever, why should people who support their families via the sports and entertainment industries share your moral outrage? Do they have reason to condemn that which is their very lifeblood?

I mean, think this crap through before you go on your crusades. As it is, you’re simply projecting your values onto this mysterious entity called “people generally,” which seems to be the very blunder desirism ostensibly seeks to avoid.

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