Desirism: More Questions Answered (part 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 8, 2009 in Ethics

I’ve answered four more questions on my Desirism F.A.Q. Here they are:

{3.02} Values can’t be objective, because if you eliminated all sentient beings, value wouldn’t exist.

I happen to agree that if you eliminated all beings with desires, value would not exist. But this is a poor argument against the existence of objective values.

If planets didn’t exist, then moons wouldn’t exist. Does this mean that moons do not objectively exist? Of course not. Because the fact of the matter is that planets do exist, and so do moons, and we can research their properties and relations and make objectively true claims about them. The same is true of values.

{6.02} What’s wrong with relativism?

Moral relativism is the position that moral statements are not objectively factual, but instead are relative to individual and cultural concerns; there is no universal standard by which we can assess the truth of a moral claim.

But if moral statements are relative to something, does this mean they are not objective and factual? Certainly not. Consider the following statements:

  1. I live in California.
  2. I’m taller than most people.
  3. Seven is greater than two.
  4. The earth is 93 million miles from the sun.

Relationships and relative states are facts. They are objectively true or false.

So maybe relativism is just a descriptive claim about human societies: that different cultures consider different things to be right and wrong. That’s obviously true. But it doesn’t mean all those cultures are right. Different cultures believe different things about the origins of the universe, too, but there is an objective fact of the matter, and some cultures believe something closer to the truth than others.

So maybe relativism is just moral nihilism, the view that objective moral values do not exist. That’s a reasonable default position. After all, if someone claims that objective moral values do exist, he ought to show some evidence for it. In this case, the problem with moral relativism is that I do provide good evidence that objective moral values exist.

{6.03} What’s wrong with subjectivism?

There are many types of moral subjectivism.

One type claims that moral sentences like “Murder is wrong” are statements not about some fact “out there in the world” but about the speaker’s opinion. “Murder is wrong” really means “I have the opinion that murder is wrong.”

Let’s test this theory. Ask people what they think about murder. They will say, “Murder is wrong.” Then ask them if they really just mean that they have the opinion that murder is wrong. Most of them will say, “No, it’s not just my opinion. Murder is wrong!”

Now these people may be incorrect that murder is wrong. But it is false to claim that they’re just saying something about their own opinion. So that kind of subjectivism fails its most obvious test.

Another type of subjectivism claims that there are facts about people’s moral opinions, but that there are no facts about whether murder really is wrong or whether charity really is right. And this is a sensible default position. Someone who wants to say that certain things really are wrong should give some evidence that “rightness” and “wrongness” exist. The problem with this type of subjectivism is that I do provide good evidence that these properties exist.

A final type of subjectivism claims that moral facts exist, but they are relative to states of mind. Murder is wrong because God’s mind disapproves of it, or because an ideal observer would disapprove of it, or because it would thwart lots of desires. Desirism agrees with this type of subjectivism, because desirism states that moral values are relative to desires, which are brain states.

But that’s not usually what people mean by “subjectivism.” Subjectivists often try to say that someone cannot be wrong about morality. We can each invent our own morality, because everything is “subjective.” This is where desirism disagrees with subjectivism. Desirism claims that moral values exist as relations between desires and states of affairs. And it is certainly possible to be wrong about those relations. For example, it is false to say that the desire to rape tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it fulfills.

{6.04} What’s wrong with error theory?

Error theory argues that (1) morality is centrally committed to X, and (2) X does not exist.

For example, Mackie argued1 that morality is centrally committed to intrinsic prescriptivity, and that intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist. I agree that intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist, but I don’t think morality is centrally committed to it.

Another example. Joyce argues that morality is committed to the queer notion of moral inescapability, that people are bound by morality even if they make no moral judgments at all. He then argues that moral inescapability does not exist. Depending on what it means to be “bound” by morality, I might or might not agree that moral inescapability is false. But I do not agree that morality is committed to moral inescapability.

In The Error in Error Theory, Finlay writes that:

For centuries, water was almost universally assumed to be an element rather than the compound it actually is. But we do not take seriously the analogous proposal that until Lavoisier, thought and talk about ‘water’ was systematically false because there was no such stuff–and we would not even if the assumption had been universal.

Fyfe offers another example, atoms:

…the fact that the word ‘atom’ means ‘without parts’ {plus the fact that atoms were once universally thought to be without parts} does not, in fact, force us to view the universe is one in which these smallest pieces of gold, carbon, lead, and oxygen are not made up of parts. Whether or not these smallest pieces of each element can be further split into parts is not a matter for the linguist to decide. And when it is discovered that these smallest pieces can be divided into parts, we simply need to revise our language.

And I’ll give one more example. It seems plausible that at one time most moral systems were intimately tied to the idea of transcendent obligations – obligations to a god, for example. At that time it would have seemed sensible to argue that morality is “centrally committed” to transcendent obligation. Does this mean that ethical naturalists – whether their theories are correct or not – are not even talking about morality, because their theories do not include the transcendent? I think not.

Desirism agrees with error theory that the vast majority of our moral discourse – about God’s commands, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, and so on – is in error. But desirism says, “Just as with water and atoms, we’ve discovered what morality really refers to, and we don’t have to abandon moral terms just because they don’t actually refer to God’s commands or intrinsic values.”

Furthermore, desirism accounts for a great many things that appear regularly in moral discourse: the three categories of moral action (obligatory, forbidden, permissible), actions “above and beyond the call of duty,” mens rea or “guilty mind,” moral dilemmas, and so on. That’s why it makes sense to keep using moral terms even though they don’t actually refer to God’s commands or intrinsic values or categorical imperatives – just as water isn’t actually an element, and atoms aren’t actually indivisible.

  1. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong []

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

TK August 8, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Let’s test this theory. Ask people what they think about murder. They will say, “Murder is wrong.” Then ask them if they really just mean that they have the opinion that murder is wrong. Most of them will say, “No, it’s not just my opinion. Murder is wrong!”
Now these people may be incorrect that murder is wrong. But it is false to claim that they’re just saying something about their own opinion. So that kind of subjectivism fails its most obvious test.

The problem with this rebuttal is that “people claim that their beliefs regarding X are not mere opinions” is not inconsistent with the statement “people’s beliefs regarding X are opinions”. Consider any debate about aesthetics–say, a debate about which bands are good and which ones are bad. Many people deny that their beliefs are mere opinions–they’ll assert “No, Tool is objectively a great band!”–but it doesn’t follow from this denial that their beliefs really are not mere opinions, and it certainly doesn’t follow from this denial that there really is some objective truth about which bands are “good” and which ones are “bad”.

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lukeprog August 8, 2009 at 3:07 pm

TK: Many people deny that their beliefs are mere opinions–they’ll assert “No, Tool is objectively a great band!”–but it doesn’t follow from this denial that their beliefs really are not mere opinions

Of course not. Which is why I added:

Another type of subjectivism claims that there are facts about people’s moral opinions, but that there are no facts about whether murder really is wrong or whether charity really is right. And this is a sensible default position. Someone who wants to say that certain things really are wrong should give some evidence that “rightness” and “wrongness” exist. The problem with this type of subjectivism is that I do provide good evidence that these properties exist.

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toweltowel August 8, 2009 at 4:24 pm

On 3.0.2, I think the moon-planet example won’t work. Objectivity is commonly treated as a matter of mind-independence, with other forms of independence being irrelevant. And so the dependence of value on sentient beings (a form of mind-dependence) would cast serious doubt on the objectivity of value, whereas the dependence of moons on planets (not a form of mind-dependence) would cast no doubt on the objectivity of moons.
 
On 6.0.4, I don’t think you address error-theory itself, but only certain arguments given in defense of error-theory. And so I think an error-theorist could agree with everything you’ve written.

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lukeprog August 8, 2009 at 5:09 pm

toweltowel,

If by “objective” you mean “mind-independent,” then that’s fine, and desirism is not objective by that standard. But then, neither is the statement, “6 people were injured in a school shooting in Stockholm this morning.” So that is a very restrictive definition of “objectivity,” and not one in common use.

Re: error theory. Obviously I can only respond to a few paradigmatic cases of error theory in such a small space. But what major error theorist defends error theory without using Mackie’s two-step strategy, which I have rebutted above?

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toweltowel August 8, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Luke: No, I’m quite sure that mind-independence is the standard account of objectivity. Search the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for ‘mind-dependence’ and ”objectivity’ if you’d like some evidence. I’ll give one example, an excerpt from Richard Joyce’s article “Moral Anti-Realism”, where he uses mind-dependence as the difference between ‘moral subjectivism’ and ‘moral objectivism’:
 

To deny both noncognitivism and the moral error theory suffices to make one a minimal moral realist. Traditionally, however, moral realism has required the denial of a further thesis: the mind-dependence of morality. There is no generally accepted label for theories that deny both noncognitivism and the moral error theory but maintain that moral facts are mind-dependent. Here I shall use a term as good as any other (though one used not infrequently in other ways): “subjectivism.” Thus, “moral subjectivism” denotes the view that moral facts exist and are mind-dependent, while “moral objectivism” holds that they exist and are mind-independent.

 
I’m not sure why you think your example statement doesn’t fall under the category of mind-independent. After all, the scenario described is real regardless of anyone’s beliefs or desires about it. By contrast, if a thing’s value consists in its being valued by someone, then this value is no more objectively real than the e.g. sensible ideas and objects of Berkeley (“their esse is percipi“).
 
On error-theory, I wasn’t complaining that you were focusing on certain cases of error-theory and ignoring other cases of error-theory. My complaint was that you were focusing on the arguments for the view and ignoring the view itself. After all, a view might well be true even if the common arguments for it don’t work, which means a successful critique of those arguments doesn’t cast any doubt on the view itself.

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Yair August 8, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Desirism claims that moral values exist as relations between desires and states of affairs.

I think the core of my problem with desirism (a far better name than desire utilitarianism!) is that I don’t agree that the specific relations it counts as moral values are indeed moral values. They do not compel any action, and if they do they don’t do so as secondary facts (so they aren’t the values, they’re facts – just like suffering isn’t a value even though it motivates action). They are not what we intuit as the good.
As far as I am concerned, you have not established that there are any objective moral facts. All you’ve done is shown that there are objective facts about desires. The gap to moral facts, to what we “ought” to do, remains as large as ever.
And on the contrary, I do think neuroscience (and common sense) shows that subjectivism is true – the moral values that guide us are within us, and therefore are a priori individual (even if, in practice, they would be  completely uniform across the human species, that’s still a posteriori, and subjectivism would be true, albeit empty).
What we have is a difference of opinion about what “moral” means. Which is ultimately a semantic difference that cannot be resolved. I’m interested in what humans would ideally (without ignorance, delusion, or muddled thought) want to do, whereas you seem to be interesting in … well, I don’t know what, exactly, but to me it seems like “what would be a happy la-la world if everyone acted as if they desired this”. You’re not interested in what humans desire, but in what some abstract agent would desire. Since you’re not an abstract agent, I find this irrational. If you’re rational, you should be acting to further your own desires.

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Jeff H August 9, 2009 at 5:26 am

toweltowel: Question for you, although it’s a little off-topic. If something is “mind-independent”, does that mean it’s independent of all minds, or just the mind of the person in question? Like, if morals are determined for society, for example, is that still objective because it is independent of my own mind? Or if God determines morals, is it still objective for me because it only has to do with God’s mind, and not mine? Or would those be classified as subjective? Just curious.

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Jeff H August 9, 2009 at 5:27 am

Yair: You’re not interested in what humans desire, but in what some abstract agent would desire. Since you’re not an abstract agent, I find this irrational. If you’re rational, you should be acting to further your own desires.

Interesting point. Saying “you should do what a person with good desires would do” would actually be more accurate as “you should do what a person with perfectly good desires would do”. And since such a person (presumably) does not exist, he is a hypothetical. Luke, didn’t you say you defended this theory because it only talked about things that exist?

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Yair August 9, 2009 at 5:49 am

Jeff H: since such a person (presumably) does not exist, he is a hypothetical.

Very much so. But even if he did exist, that should not matter to Luke (or anyone else), since he isn’t him…

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lukeprog August 9, 2009 at 6:37 am

toweltowel,

I’m aware that the standard definition of “objectivity” among moral philosophers involves mind independence, what I’m saying is that this definition has some unusual consequences that moral philosophers have not considered. For example, it places value-laden terms like “injury” outside the realm of “objective” fact. “Injury” is defined as “undesired damage done.” For example, you can damage your body with an ear piercing but this is not called injury because it was desired. But getting a tiny piece of your ear get cut off by a robber is called “injury” because it was not desired. So injury is a value-laden term. So under the moral philosopher’s definition of “objective,” a news report about so-and-so being injured is not “objectively” true.

Fyfe suggests a three-tier understanding of the terms objective and subjective, which is quite useful, here.

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lukeprog August 9, 2009 at 6:48 am

Yair: I don’t agree that the specific relations it counts as moral values are indeed moral values. They do not compel any action, and if they do they don’t do so as secondary facts (so they aren’t the values, they’re facts – just like suffering isn’t a value even though it motivates action). They are not what we intuit as the good.

But what we intuit as the good – intrinsic values or the commands of God, for example – does not exist. We also intuited that water was an element, but that happens to be false. So I’m suggesting we tweak our understanding of morality a bit so that it makes true claims about things that exist. Since the theory still accounts for the three categories of moral action (obligatory, forbidden, permissible), mens rea, actions “above and beyond the call of duty,” and several other common features of moral theory, I think it is worth referring to desirism as a theory about morality, even if it does not refer to intrinsic value or transcendent value. It is far better that it refers to value that actually exists.

And that is why this particular subset of facts about desires deserve to be studied under “moral philosophy.”

As for compelling us to action, you seem to be demanding that desirism account for motivational internalism. Desirism does not account for motivational internalism, but neither do many other moral theories.

As for values not being facts, I don’t see what you mean. If values are not a subset of facts, then how do they move matter in the real world? My values seem to have a causal relationship with matter in motion. So do yours. The value of ice cream to me right now has a causal effect on matter in motion. So I think it’s a probable inference that values are part of the world of fact. Indeed, value seems to be a relationship between desires and states of affairs. And both desires and states of affairs exist in the physical world. So values are facts, and always have been.

You say I’m interested in what some abstract agent would desire. Certainly not. In fact, under one interpretation, this statement is incoherent. If you mean I’m interested in what an “impartial” agent would desire, this is incoherent. An impartial agent has no desires. Once you give him desires, it is no longer impartial. But maybe that’s not what you meant.

Anyway, desirism is a theory about desires that DO exist and how they tend to fulfill or thwart other desires that DO exist. At no time does desirism invoke a non-existent agent.

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lukeprog August 9, 2009 at 6:54 am

Jeff H: Saying “you should do what a person with good desires would do” would actually be more accurate as “you should do what a person with perfectly good desires would do”. And since such a person (presumably) does not exist, he is a hypothetical. Luke, didn’t you say you defended this theory because it only talked about things that exist?

Ah, I see where you guys are getting the “abstract agent” from.

Fyfe and I use this “what a person with good desires would do” as a shorthand – a metaphor – for something else. This phrase is a more accessible way to talk about the theory, but I can explain desirism without referring to a hypothetical agent. I can just say that “You ought to act on good desires.” But it is often helpful for people to conjure an image of “a person with good desires,” because our minds have an easier time imagining concrete agents than staying in the abstract.

So “acting like an agent with perfectly good desires” is a metaphor for something that does exist – simply, acting with good desires. In contrast, something like a social contract is a metaphor for… what? I’ve never heard of a social contract theory in which the metaphor of the social contract stands for something that really exists.

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lukeprog August 9, 2009 at 6:55 am

BTW, these are all great questions, and ones I’ll have to add to the FAQ!

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Yair August 9, 2009 at 9:36 am

lukeprog: But what we intuit as the good – intrinsic values or the commands of God, for example – does not exist. We also intuited that water was an element, but that happens to be false. So I’m suggesting we tweak our understanding of morality a bit so that it makes true claims about things that exist.

We don’t intuit that the good is what God commands – that is a later rationalization. We intuit the good as desirable, and the evil as repulsing. This exists. That’s subjectivism. Your wrong refers to something else, you explicitly remove the emotional moral sense from consideration, and therefore you’re just not referring to the same thing. You’re hijacking moral language. I might as well argue that serving my own interest defines a range of morality (permissable, laudble….) and and is real and therefore serves as a good basis for morality. No, it doesn’t, because it doesn’t refer to the thing that we intuit when we speak about morality.

Desirism does not account for motivational internalism, but neither do many other moral theories.

Sure they do. Hedonism is founded on our attraction to pleasure and aversion of suffering, utlilitarianism furthers this by incorporating our desire for justice, categorical imperatives a founded on fairness, and so on. Desirism is almost alone in not claiming to be motivational, which I find removes it from the game.

As for values not being facts, I don’t see what you mean.

I mean that the things that desirism counts as values are actually mere facts about desires. I don’t recognize them as values, only as facts. We agree that they are facts, we don’t agree that they are values.

Anyway, desirism is a theory about desires that DO exist and how they tend to fulfill or thwart other desires that DO exist. At no time does desirism invoke a non-existent agent.

In talking about whether they tend to fulfill or thwart other desires, you are running hypothetical scenarios with hypothetical agents. More importantly, however, you are basing your moral decisions on hypothetical agents rather than yourself – instead of saying “what do I desire?” you are asking “what would an agent with desires that tend to fulfill desires desire?”. The point isn’t that you’re using hypotheticals,  it is that you are trying to base your decisions on desires other than your own – which is irrational.
 
Let’s accept (I’m far from certain of this) that rape tends to thwart more desires than it fulfills. Desirism says you should avoid this, and calls it immoral. Harmism says you should support this, and calls it moral. Why do you think desirism is the right theory? Harmism also talks about real desires, results in a spectrum of moral degrees, and so on.
 
You said you want to be moral. But you insist this means desirism, and I beg to differ. You want to do what feels right to you, which is subjectivism. You’ve locked onto desirism because you think it represents what you feel is right, but you’re wrong – it merely points out some roughly-true facts about desires, your own desires do not coincide with its standards.

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Antiplastic August 9, 2009 at 11:19 am

“Desirism does not account for motivational internalism, but neither do many other moral theories.”
Isn’t this a pretty damning indictment? One would have thought that the most important thing a metaethical view could do to thwart moral skepticism would be to show the necessary connection between apprehending moral truths and adopting the requisite moral stance.  You might as well have a theory of gravity that can’t tell you which way rocks go when you drop them.
I would say upwards of 80% of all critical comments and questions you get on this site are trying to press you on this very issue of internalism; if you admitted upfront you don’t know how to answers it, there would be a lot less confusion (and probably, a lot less interest in DU.)
P.S. what’s wrong with Expressivism?

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lukeprog August 9, 2009 at 11:28 am

Yair: We intuit the good as desirable, and the evil as repulsing. This exists. That’s subjectivism.

How is the inference from “I desire X” to “X is good” valid? Please explain.

Are you a subjectivist. What kind? Please explain your theory so I can explain why I think desirism is superior.

Yair: you explicitly remove the emotional moral sense from consideration, and therefore you’re just not referring to the same thing.

I fully admit we have an emotional moral sense. I just deny the inference from “I have emotional distaste for X” to “X is morally wrong.” The fact that people have different feelings about right and wrong is trivially true, but if we accept the inference above we get contradictions, which is an argument against that version of subjectivism.

Yair: You’re hijacking moral language.

Were scientists hijacking chemical language when they discovered that water was not an element, but kept calling it water, or when they discovered that atoms were not indivisible, but kept calling them atoms?

Yair: “Desirism does not account for motivational internalism, but neither do many other moral theories.” Sure they do. Hedonism is founded on our attraction to pleasure and aversion of suffering, utlilitarianism furthers this by incorporating our desire for justice, categorical imperatives a founded on fairness, and so on. Desirism is almost alone in not claiming to be motivational, which I find removes it from the game.

I know that moral theorists often claim their theory is internally motivating, but I do not think they meet the requirements of motivational internalism. Motivational internalism requires that all moral beliefs provide (defeasible) motivation toward action in accord with those moral beliefs. If motivational internalism is true, then the amoralist – someone who is not motivated by his moral beliefs – is impossible. And yet I think we have many real-world examples of amoralism. Many people have beliefs that some X is moral, and yet this provides them with no motivation to do X – either because X is not something they personally care about much, or because X is something of which they are easily capable, or because they have adopted the aesthetic style of life rather than the moral style of life, or for other reasons. So, I think amoralism does exist, and therefore motivational internalism is false. Thus, any moral theory that claims to provide motivational internalism is wrong about that claim.

And I will add to the FAQ shortly some answers which make the case for considering desirism as not just a theory about desires, but a theory about moral value.

Yair: I mean that the things that desirism counts as values are actually mere facts about desires. I don’t recognize them as values, only as facts. We agree that they are facts, we don’t agree that they are values.

What is a value, then, that it cannot be a fact about relations between desires and states of affairs?

Yair: it is that you are trying to base your decisions on desires other than your own – which is irrational

Yes, desirism is not a theory of morality grounded in practical rationality. As Joyce argues in The Myth of Morality, practical rationality cannot successfully ground a system of ethics. (See his example of Mary and the poison, starting on page 53.) I don’t think this threatens its status as a moral theory at all. Practical rationality is a rather recent grounding for moral theory, and it is flawed.

Yair: Why do you think desirism is the right theory? Harmism also talks about real desires, results in a spectrum of moral degrees, and so on.

What is harmism? Please outline the theory so I can tell you what my disagreements are.

Yair: You said you want to be moral. But you insist this means desirism, and I beg to differ. You want to do what feels right to you, which is subjectivism. You’ve locked onto desirism because you think it represents what you feel is right, but you’re wrong – it merely points out some roughly-true facts about desires, your own desires do not coincide with its standards.

I want to do what I desire; that is trivially true. Part of what I want to do is to become a person with morally good desires. There are many theories about the grounding of morally good desires, and which ones are good. All those theories have false premises or fallacious logic, except for desirism. I did not choose desirism because I like it. I chose desirism because it is the only moral theory without false premises and fallacious logic. Desirism alone makes true claims about which desires are morally good desires, as far as I can tell.

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lukeprog August 9, 2009 at 11:50 am

Antiplastic: One would have thought that the most important thing a metaethical view could do to thwart moral skepticism would be to show the necessary connection between apprehending moral truths and adopting the requisite moral stance. You might as well have a theory of gravity that can’t tell you which way rocks go when you drop them.

I must admit I never saw internalism as requisite for moral theory, before or after I began philosophical study. Obviously there are people who just don’t want to be good, and they won’t be motivated to do good. I don’t think this is a problem for moral truth, it’s just a problem with individual people. I would have thought more people would complain about desirism’s rejection of intrinsic value.

That said, desirism has a LOT to say about how to motivate people to do good. In fact, that’s the core of the entire theory.

Antiplastic: P.S. what’s wrong with Expressivism?

See {6.01}.

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Antiplastic August 9, 2009 at 2:59 pm

I must admit I never saw internalism as requisite for moral theory, before or after I began philosophical study. Obviously there are people who just don’t want to be good, and they won’t be motivated to do good. I don’t think this is a problem for moral truth, it’s just a problem with individual people.

What is the question “why be moral” about if it isn’t about some internal connection between understanding a moral truth and acting accordingly?
Reading this and your rejection of internalism above, I can’t help but become more confused.  In an abortive attempt to get a debate going with your fellow-traveller faithlessgod on DU, he was preparing to use it to defend internalism. Both of you can’t be right on this. Either DU accepts internalism or it doesn’t.
And if you are right and he is wrong about what DU entails about internalism, then things become even more confusing. In my experience of the first two or three robo-slogans DU defenders tend to whip out is almost always “DU is about ‘reasons for action that exist’” or “desires are the only reasons for actions which exist”. This is obviously intended to imply that they’ve found some natural property which is going to give us those motivations to behave properly simply by apprehending its presence. But now (if you are correct and he is wrong) I can’t help but feeling like the target of a bait-and-switch.

That said, desirism has a LOT to say about how to motivate people to do good. In fact, that’s the core of the entire theory.

But if externalism is true, then by definition Alonzo Fyfe has nothing unique to say about it. If externalism is true, then motivating people to act against their self-interest to conform to one behavior pattern is as arbitrary and irrational as motivating them to act according to any other randomly chosen behavior pattern. The advertising techniques for cigarettes and for vitamins are one and the same, after all.

Antiplastic: P.S. what’s wrong with Expressivism?
See {6.01}.

Well, that addresses the most primitive emotivist or prescriptivist views (BTW Hare was a prescriptivist, and his normative theory was preference-utilitarianism, which ought to be a giant red flag that something’s missing), but it doesn’t address expressivism per se; certainly not any of the expressivisms that have developed over the last 30 years which allow for moral claims to be true or false. And I can’t resist pointing out that you are entirely arbitrary when you criticise noncognitivism saying it “just isn’t true about the way 99% of people use moral sentences” but when Yair points out that that you’re running roughshod over the plain meaning of words you insist it’s no big deal. If you would just admit that you are proposing a redefinition of moral terms through legislative fiat I suspect there would be a lot less confusion about the content of the view in question.

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toweltowel August 9, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Luke:

First, I’m not sure if you’re right about the English term ‘injury’. I don’t think ‘injury’ necessarily connotes facts about desires, because I see nothing linguistically odd about saying someone desired to injure themselves and then, sure enough, deliberately injured themselves. Also, one can’t move from “‘injury’ connotes facts about desires” to “‘injury’ is a value-laden term” without begging the question in favor of desirism and against those who think facts about desires are value-neutral.

Second, instead of defending any particular account of the mind-independence I take to be definitive of objectivity, I’ll ask: if mind-dependent facts don’t count as subjective, what are some examples of the subjective? The tasty? The chic? The gross? The funny? Can these be reported on by objectively true news reports? And what, according to desirism, distinguishes these from the valuable? If I said the funniness of a joke consists in (or is otherwise determined by) people’s amusement at the joke, would I be giving funniness an objectivist treatment or a subjectivist treatment? Hopefully these questions shed some light on our disagreement.

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toweltowel August 9, 2009 at 4:18 pm

Jeff H: Theories on which morality is determined by social attitudes or divine attitudes are frequently (typically?) classified as subjective. Often the term ‘intersubjective’ is used for the former.

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toweltowel August 9, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Antiplastic,
 
Doesn’t the “Why be moral?” question pose a problem for internalists, not externalists? After all, the question seems to require a person who judges that she morally ought to phi and yet has no corresponding motivation to phi, or at least a person who judges that she morally ought to phi and yet sees no normative reason to phi. The former kind of person is a counterexample to motivational internalism, and the latter kind of person is a counterexample to internalism about reasons (aka moral rationalism).
 
As a moral rationalist myself (just in the sense that I think that morality is supposed to be intrinsically normative, so that moral judgments are judgments about normative reasons), I think the question “Do I have any good reason to act morally?” is deeply confused.

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Antiplastic August 9, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Doesn’t the “Why be moral?” question pose a problem for internalists, not externalists?

That internalism is integral to the practice of what anyone would recognize as morality I take as inarguable; the problem for internalists is trying to combine this with any sort of descriptivism. And all realists are descriptivists, so this is a rather serious problem for them.  But if you take moral claims to be expressions of noncognitive psychological stances of approval, internalism “comes for free”.

After all, the question seems to require a person who judges that she morally ought to phi and yet has no corresponding motivation to phi, or at least a person who judges that she morally ought to phi and yet sees no normative reason to phi. The former kind of person is a counterexample to motivational internalism, and the latter kind of person is a counterexample to internalism about reasons (aka moral rationalism).

I assume by “require” you mean “preclude”, and yes, there are very good reasons to suppose that such persons can’t exist.

As a moral rationalist myself (just in the sense that I think that morality is supposed to be intrinsically normative, so that moral judgments are judgments about normative reasons), I think the question “Do I have any good reason to act morally?” is deeply confused.

On some level I suspect we both believe this is going to be revealed as a tautology, but the problem comes when people try to propose some naturalistic vocabulary as a reductive base for normative vocabulary. As an expressivist I can say that there is no deeper reason for acting contrary to your self-interest above and beyond our collective hopes for making the world a better place. But an internalist descriptivist still has all his work ahead of him if he thinks he’s going to make either a synthetic reduction of reasons-giving truths with natural truths or an analytic identification of them.

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Dace August 10, 2009 at 4:59 pm

I agree with many above that there is something odd, perhaps infelicitous, in someone saying “I believe X is morally good, but have no reason to perform X”. However, I think that can be explained away without adopting motivational internalism – if one grants intuitions a role in the selection of moral theory.
The idea is this: We begin with our moral intuitions, and we (epistemically, not ontologically) base our uses of moral terms on these intuitions. A theory comes along which matches our moral intuitions closely, and extends them in ways which seem appropriate, such as Desirism. Since we base our selection of a moral theory on our intuitions,  amongst other things, then any judgment of the good is almost bound to be backed up by moral intuitions, and since moral intuitions are motivational, we explain why, ordinarily, anyone who offers a moral judgment is going to have a reason to perform actions appropriate to that judgment. So, our judgments of moral value do (usually) come with motivation, but that motivation is not overriding of other interests (motivational internalism of that strength is almost certainly false).
It seems to me that this strikes the appropriate balance. We explain the internalist’s association of moral judgment with motivation, but we also honor the externalist’s claim that moral knowledge need not motivate. It leaves everything as it was, as Wittgenstein preferred.

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toweltowel August 10, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Antiplastic, I think we’re speaking at cross-purposes. I meant “require”, not “preclude”.
 
To put it very crudely: Taking “Why be moral?” seriously goes with externalism. Dismissing “Why be moral?” as misguided goes with internalism. This is why you see externalists like David Brink insist on taking the question seriously.
 
Here’s a step-by-step argument, just to make it explicit:
 
1. Anyone who takes “Why be moral?” seriously thinks there could be an action which is morally correct but not supported by any normative reasons.
2. If it is possible for an action to be morally correct but not supported by any normative reasons, then internalism about reasons is false.
3. Therefore, anyone who takes “Why be moral?” seriously is (in some sense) committed to externalism about reasons.
 
I presented it for internalism about reasons, but Brink endorses it for motivational internalism as well.

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toweltowel August 10, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Dace, it sounds to me like you’re just defending internalism. To see what room you make for externalism, I’d like to know under what conditions moral judgments might fail to be accompanied by at least some corresponding motivation. (Of course, I recognize that you allow for moral judgments whose corresponding motivation fails to override competing motivation, but that’s no compromise with externalism, that’s just being sensible.)

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Dace August 10, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Sure, toweltowel. Some ideas:
1 – Moral judgments might fail to be accompanied by motivations when the theory which matches our intuitions closely differs from those intuitions in a particular case. For example, a racist may strongly feel that having African Americans in positions of power and influence is morally deplorable, but might nevertheless judge against his intuitions on the basis of a moral theory which otherwise fits his intuitions.
2 – Another case where we have judgment but no motivation is with the amoralist, or the anti-social. This kind of person has to learn from others which moral judgments to make, and cannot learn from intuition, but since others use moral terms in consistent ways, learning is possible. Such a person has moral knowledge, but lacks moral motivation.
3 – Similar to the first case, we might have a moral theory which extends moral judgments to areas which we would otherwise be uncertain of. One might feel no compulsion to animals as morally significant, yet one’s moral theory may call for the relevant judgments.
All three of these cases require that theory goes beyond intuition. So in answer to your question, the room for externalism is found when we take our intuitions seriously and build a theory on their basis, a theory which goes beyond the data we personally have, and is useful precisely for this reason.

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Yair August 11, 2009 at 12:00 am

Luke – I’ll answer not in order, and rather quickly.

Harmism is the mirror image of Desirism. Harmism maintains that we should support and promote desires that tend to thwart other desires, and call them good. Conversly, we should oppose and squash desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and call them bad. It is desirism’s evil twin.

The point of Harmism is that there is no deductive line from the fact that some desires tend to fulfill desires to the conclusion that we should support them. It is, in a round-about way, relying on Moore’s naturalistic fallacy/open question: you cannot derive ought from is in this way.

You said that you
1) Want to fulfill your desires
2) Want to be moral

There are only two ways to reconcile these. Either “moral” means “my desires”, in which case desirism appears very ill-suited to exploring what is moral (neurology, psychology, and soul-searching seem apt), or else “moral” is a subset of your desires. I’d note that in the latter case, in a sense, the distinction between moral and non-moral desires shouldn’t really matter as such – you should, by (1), act to fulfill all your desires, not just an arbitrary set of them. It’s wrong to put moral desires on a pedestal a priori.

When people talk about something being right, they feel the same sense of “rightness” as when talking about maths (and, neurologically, the same disgust with errors in math and in morals). I believe, and can’t firmly support, the notion that the standard that things feel right against is a gestalt of our deep desires. It is psychologically impossible for a person to think his desires are morally wrong; people always think they’re right.
People think they’re wrong when they have conflicting desires. But when something fulfills all desires, or most strongly, it *feel* right.

Anyways, there is a lot more to morality. Like the struggle between personal desires and fairness. This is not to be thought of as a struggle between good and evil, since again there is no evil desire in you – there is nothing evil about loving your daughter, nor is there evil in wanting everyone to be treated equally, but the two are in conflict. Conflicts in time are also important, and building our mental fortitude (virtues) is a way to handle them. And so on.

At any rate, I don’t really have the time to devote to a proper discussion of this at the moment – I have a baby to feed, and work to do… I hope to talk about this in the future,

Yair

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lukeprog August 11, 2009 at 5:42 am

Yair,

Desirism suggests that I change my desires so that I am acting morally when I act as I want to.

Harmism appears to be identical to desirism except that we switched the words being used to fulfill and thwart desires. I could fully sign on to desirism, with understanding that “good” now means that which tends to thwart desires (rape them, steal from them, etc.). But I think that would just be confusing.

Yes, we’ll talk more about all this in the future… probably as I post more answers to the desirism FAQ.

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antiplastic August 11, 2009 at 8:58 am

Here’s a step-by-step argument, just to make it explicit:

1. Anyone who takes “Why be moral?” seriously thinks there could be an action which is morally correct but not supported by any normative reasons.

OK, I think I see what you were getting at. And this is the premise that I think goes in the wrong direction. To “take it seriously” just means to be in a psychological condition of wondering whether to continue setting aside one’s own desires in favor of some abstraction called morality, or to be concerned about the psychological state of a person who expresses those kinds of doubt. Taking the question seriously is an emotive stance instead of an epistemic one.

2. If it is possible for an action to be morally correct but not supported by any normative reasons, then internalism about reasons is false.

Again, let’s be careful not to run together epistemic, logical, metaphysical, and psychological “possibility”. We wouldn’t want the mere existence of people who claim their position is conceivable to count as conclusive evidence that the contrary position is not “necessarily” true.

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antiplastic August 11, 2009 at 9:43 am

Sure, toweltowel. Some ideas:
1 – Moral judgments might fail to be accompanied by motivations when the theory which matches our intuitions closely differs from those intuitions in a particular case. For example, a racist may strongly feel that having African Americans in positions of power and influence is morally deplorable, but might nevertheless judge against his intuitions on the basis of a moral theory which otherwise fits his intuitions.

I have to say that over the last few years I’ve become more and more suspicious of talking about “theories” in philosophy. It makes it sound as though there is some subject matter “out there” that philosophers are trying to “model” in the way a climatologist “models” weather patterns to make more accurate predictions. It gives the impression that Meta Physics is really a Super Science. I don’t have any objection to the word “theory” to describe a philosophical view as a sort of honorific, but I can’t make much sense of someone’s moral code being a model of some mind-independent truth that our intuitions capture more accurately or less accurately.
As far as I can see, “adopting a moral theory” like consequentialism just means resolving yourself to behave in a certain more or less coherent fashion, like to be more assertive, or less aggressive, or whatever. So the motivation is right there in the beginning, in that first act of making up one’s mind. The externalist can’t get away from it.

2 – Another case where we have judgment but no motivation is with the amoralist, or the anti-social. This kind of person has to learn from others which moral judgments to make, and cannot learn from intuition, but since others use moral terms in consistent ways, learning is possible. Such a person has moral knowledge, but lacks moral motivation.

I think these are pretty clearly examples of “inverted commas moral judgments”, and not real moral judgments at all. The SEP article I linked to above has a great bit on this.
 

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JMauldin August 11, 2009 at 11:51 am

“If planets didn’t exist, then moons wouldn’t exist. Does this mean that moons do not objectively exist? Of course not. Because the fact of the matter is that planets do exist, and so do moons, and we can research their properties and relations and make objectively true claims about them. The same is true of values.”

Values are not physical objects and exist only within the mind of a sentient being. Since planets do not “appreciate” or “love” their moons and neither would they “miss” them if they were gone I don’t see how you can reach this conclusion without further evidence.

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Dace August 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Antiplastic,
I’m not advocating for any particular person’s moral code to be elevated to the status of a theory, but I do think that we can have theories of just the sort you describe. My idea of a moral theory does make predictions, predictions about the use of moral language, and the point of philosophical thought experiments is to test these predictions. All of this makes sense when you recognize that moral intuitions are not arbitrary, that they are responses to salient features of a moral agent’s environment, and that therefore should be able to construct from the reports of moral intuitions a description of those features which stimulate the intuitions.
You make the point that adopting a theory is motivating in itself, but I think you ultimately beg the question, since you describe the adopting of a moral theory in terms of motivation. I can’t see a way to resolve this – any example I bring up won’t be a true scotsman. The amoralist is case in point.
Which part of that SEP article is relevant? I’m not inclined to read the whole thing, but I’d like to look at the support for your view.

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Antiplastic August 11, 2009 at 7:39 pm

I’m not advocating for any particular person’s moral code to be elevated to the status of a theory, but I do think that we can have theories of just the sort you describe. My idea of a moral theory does make predictions, predictions about the use of moral language, and the point of philosophical thought experiments is to test these predictions.

I used to think (until about 3 or 4 years ago) along pretty similar lines, until I started taking Quine seriously. When he speaks out against “The Myth of the Museum” — in which words are signs on glass cases and the meanings are the things “in” the cases — he is saying, along with Wittgenstein, that meaning is use, not some special thing “behind the words” that philosophers have analytic access to.  Meaning is what you are able to do with words, and what you are able to do with words depends on what your fellow word-users allow you to do with them. “Making predictions” would be just endless iterations of what the folks at Merriam-Webster do all day, collecting definitions and stating them clearly. Whatever philosophy is, it certainly isn’t that.
If Philosophy is good for analyzing things, it’s good for analyzing the functions our words serve, and then making suggestions about how we might use them differently, or suggesting that certain language games aren’t really worth playing. Where I used to think of thought experiments like the Trolley Problem as making predictions about our intuitions in order to “figure out what’s in that glass case”, now I’ve come to think of them as simply another genre of literature with a very tight focus. You make a movie that’s a thinly veiled allegory about the evils of the Bush administration, and then invite people to vent their emotive responses in ways that further your political purposes. You write a story about a trolley switch and pump up someone’s moral outrage to gain support for your consequentialist program etc.

All of this makes sense when you recognize that moral intuitions are not arbitrary, that they are responses to salient features of a moral agent’s environment, and that therefore should be able to construct from the reports of moral intuitions a description of those features which stimulate the intuitions.

And every day in creative writing departments in schools across the land, you can learn rhetorical techniques for how not to bore people with an overlong plot, or how to tug on their heartstrings etc. Sure, we can make catalogs and lists and formulas for what stimuli elicit what reaction. But the choice of what reaction the author wants to elicit is always inescapably his choice. I have a (rough) idea of what kind of upbringing makes a person want to fly planes into buildings in my country while thinking his is the most righteous and moral of all possible acts. That doesn’t tell me anything in itself about whether that’s a good idea.

You make the point that adopting a theory is motivating in itself, but I think you ultimately beg the question, since you describe the adopting of a moral theory in terms of motivation. I can’t see a way to resolve this – any example I bring up won’t be a true scotsman.

I’m sensitive to the concern, and tautology lurks, but if you take some broadly expressivist or pragmatist view seriously, you can’t help but spill over from the meta-ethical into the ethical (and I don’t think there’s any real distinciton to be made out there either). But I can show you how my view is 1) internally consistent, 2) consistent with observation, 3) helps alleviate the psychological distress of moral skepticism and 4) furthers your purposes and mine. I don’t know what else to do to make a philosophical “theory” more plausible to someone. I would just ask you to ask yourself: given that meaning is praxis, what practical difference does it make to adopt (for example) a libertarian outlook instead of a socialist outlook, or a belief that cruelty to the outgroup is hilarious and builds needed solidarity instead of a belief that it is better to die than to torture? What is the difference, at the level of observation or practice, between adopting one moral view over the other, or one meta-ethical view over the other?

Which part of that SEP article is relevant? I’m not inclined to read the whole thing, but I’d like to look at the support for your view.

It’s all good, but use ctrl-f and start reading from the first appearance of ‘amoralist’ and read through the end of the section. It’s an absolutely first-rate example of what the best in philosophical writing can be.

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Dace August 11, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Antiplastic,
I’m not sure what consequences you suppose “meaning is use” to have for my view. I don’t subscribe to an entity theory of meaning, and I don’t see what I have said to make you think that I am committed to it. Further, the identification of meaning with use should lead us to expect that those who know the meaning of a word know when and where to deploy it – but this just means that they can predict those circumstances in which the usage would be correct, according to the norms of their linguistic community. So far from conflicting with a Wittgensteinian view of language, it agrees with it. As for Quine, he was a meaning-nihilist, so you appear to have misrepresented him by throwing him in with Wittgenstein.
I’m not sure what to make of your skepticism about thought experiments – surely the point of the Trolley Problem and others is that people have this intuition rather than that one, and so your comparison with a political show is suspect precisely because the methods used could influence people in either direction. That seems to me why the Trolley Problem is philosophically significant and the politicking is not – but perhaps I’m missing your point?
I’m afraid I don’t really understand what the import of your questions are either. The adoption of a particular moral theory obviously makes a practical difference, since to adopt a moral theory is to adopt a set of beliefs about the world, and people act on their beliefs. In the case of the amoralist and the other ones I’ve mentioned the practical difference is to be found in the prediction of the attitudes and behaviors of others, or perhaps to one’s future acction, given that adopting a moral theory tends to develop intuitions which accord with it.
Thanks for the SEP tip. I’ll take a look.

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antiplastic August 12, 2009 at 10:15 am

I’m not sure what consequences you suppose “meaning is use” to have for my view. I don’t subscribe to an entity theory of meaning, and I don’t see what I have said to make you think that I am committed to it.

It’s this whole notion that there can be “theories” in philosophy that “make accurate predictions” about some (lowercase-p) platonic ideal meaning, and that these meanings are “out there” waiting to be discovered by our empirical models like trees or clouds. This is the anti-essentialism that LW and WvoQ came to adopt. There are no “essential facts” about what morality “really is” or what causality “really is” or what the scientific method “really is”.  At a certain point in history, certain primates started acting and talking in certain ways to fulfil certain purposes and I see it as more useful to analyze these functions and suggest better ways of talking and acting to fulfil them, instead of trying to discern some quasi-scientific truth about their essences, which is what all this talk of theories seems to lead to.

Further, the identification of meaning with use should lead us to expect that those who know the meaning of a word know when and where to deploy it – but this just means that they can predict those circumstances in which the usage would be correct, according to the norms of their linguistic community.

You won’t catch many people saying that lexical definitions — i.e. predictions about use — are pointless, and of course communication depends on some threshhold of agreement. But 1) meaning will always be underdetermined by observation and 2) especially on matters of morality, I am not inclined to change my views on what is right or wrong if 51% of my countrymen disagree with me. “Predicting” what they disapprove of is neither here nor there with respect to deciding what I should do.

As for Quine, he was a meaning-nihilist, so you appear to have misrepresented him by throwing him in with Wittgenstein.

I’m no Quine scholar, but I’m quite sure he’s no nihilist. He’s pretty clear in e.g. Two Dogmas that empirical meaning at least is indentical to conditions of confirmation or disconfirmation, and this links up with his confirmation holism elsewhere. He’s only a “nihilist” in the sense of his anti-essentialism.

I’m not sure what to make of your skepticism about thought experiments – surely the point of the Trolley Problem and others is that people have this intuition rather than that one, and so your comparison with a political show is suspect precisely because the methods used could influence people in either direction. That seems to me why the Trolley Problem is philosophically significant and the politicking is not – but perhaps I’m missing your point?

I’m not at all skeptical of their utility. I’m only skeptical of the notion that the intuitions they elicit are “evidence” of some essence or form or mind-independent reality or whatever. I just don’t share the notion that political activism, or writing a novel, are “philosophically insignificant”. I’m all pro-science and everything, but I don’t think moral arguments in particular or philosophy in general need to be “elevated” to the status of science in order to be culturally legitimate.
 

The adoption of a particular moral theory obviously makes a practical difference, since to adopt a moral theory is to adopt a set of beliefs about the world, and people act on their beliefs.

And I think that when you look at what moral “beliefs” amount to, it’s not anything with any empirical or descriptive content. It looks like the difference is just in what they’re prepared to praise or condemn. Finding out that 51% of people disagree with you is not supposed to count as a refutation of your belief in the way that finding out rocks don’t fall in the way you thought is supposed to be a refutation of that belief.
 
 

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antiplastic August 12, 2009 at 11:02 am

[S]urely the point of the Trolley Problem and others is that people have this intuition rather than that one, and so your comparison with a political show is suspect precisely because the methods used could influence people in either direction.
 

quick postscript: don’t rival thought “experiments” do just this?
“You’re a deontologist? Never ever lie? Oh yeah, well what about lying to Nazis?”
“You’re a consequentialist? Oh yeah, well what about hanging an innocent man to stop a mob?”
etc.

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lukeprog August 12, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Notice:

Comments that include the phrase “You’re a fucking idiot” will be (and have been) deleted.

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Dace August 12, 2009 at 8:37 pm

antiplastic:   At a certain point in history, certain primates started acting and talking in certain ways to fulfil certain purposes and I see it as more useful to analyze these functions and suggest better ways of talking and acting to fulfil them, instead of trying to discern some quasi-scientific truth about their essences, which is what all this talk of theories seems to lead to.

So you analyze the functions of words in terms of use – what does that leave you with? Surely it leaves you with an account of the meanings of these words, even if it doesn’t resemble the analytic philosopher’s tidy necessary and sufficient conditions. And surely an account of the meanings of these words allows you to predict their acceptable use, else how could you presume your account to be correct? And that would be a theory of language.

antiplastic:    1) meaning will always be underdetermined by observation…

I think it’s underdetermined by observation alone, but I find it hard to believe that it is underdetermined by observation coupled with knowledge of how humans learn and process language – their innate ‘language modules’.  If we accept that children can learn what words mean (how to use them), then I fail to see what barrier there could be to a theorist.

antiplastic:   2) especially on matters of morality, I am not inclined to change my views on what is right or wrong if 51% of my countrymen disagree with me.

Sure. But I’m not proposing to build up a theory of morality by cobbling together the consensus on particular moral issues. What I’d be looking for are the deeper principles that cut across all moral judgments. These have a chance to carry some authority, whereas individual judgments don’t.

antiplastic:   I’m no Quine scholar, but I’m quite sure he’s no nihilist. He’s pretty clear in e.g. Two Dogmas that empirical meaning at least is indentical to conditions of confirmation or disconfirmation, and this links up with his confirmation holism elsewhere. He’s only a “nihilist” in the sense of his anti-essentialism.

You’ll find it in his Ontological Relativity. The argument goes like this: No amount of observation determines a unique theory of meaning; so, meaning is indeterminate; therefore, there are no meaning facts, which is to say, there is no such thing as meaning.

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antiplastic August 13, 2009 at 8:12 am

So you analyze the functions of words in terms of use – what does that leave you with? Surely it leaves you with an account of the meanings of these words, even if it doesn’t resemble the analytic philosopher’s tidy necessary and sufficient conditions.
 
 
I’ve never claimed to be indifferent to meaning. I’m simply trying to say that philosophy is not a passive accumulation of things we look up in dictionaries, but rather an active enterprise. Think of the relation of therapeutic psychiatry to neuroscience for a rough idea.
 
 
And surely an account of the meanings of these words allows you to predict their acceptable use, else how could you presume your account to be correct? And that would be a theory of language.
 


Sure, anyone who knows the meaning of anything can “predict acceptable use”. But it’s hardly a penetrating philosophical insight if I learn to accurately predict which shaker you will pass me when I ask you to pass me the “salt”. And the extensions of referential concepts change as our theories change (e.g. turns out whales aren’t fish), and our nonreferential, normative concepts shift as our interests and plans and purposes shift. If philosophy is useful at all, it’s in pushing them towards our plans and purposes (or in the case of great philosophers, inventing new plans and purposes and dragging us along for the ride). Sure, you hope your lawyer is good at predicting what judges consider “acceptable”. But sometimes, you want a lawyer who can take your casse to the supreme court and *change* what is acceptable.
 
 
I think it’s underdetermined by observation alone, but I find it hard to believe that it is underdetermined by observation coupled with knowledge of how humans learn and process language – their innate ‘language modules’.  If we accept that children can learn what words mean (how to use them), then I fail to see what barrier there could be to a theorist.
 


Didn’t you read the Quine article you cite below? ‘Gavagai’ is the classic example of this. Could it be that you’re illicitly equating concepts like “indeterminate” and “relative” with “imaginary” or “no facts of the matter at all”? Just because ‘gavagai’ is underdetermined with respect to <’rabbit’ and ‘undetached rabbit part’> doesn’t mean it’s underdetermined WRT <’rabbit’ and ‘pickup truck’.>
 


Sure. But I’m not proposing to build up a theory of morality by cobbling together the consensus on particular moral issues. What I’d be looking for are the deeper principles that cut across all moral judgments. These have a chance to carry some authority, whereas individual judgments don’t.
 


I’m struggling to understand the difference between enunciating “principles that cut across moral judgments” and “principles widely held” (unless maybe you’re putting the emphasis on the “all” and taking some Kantian constructivist approach of discerning transcendental preconditions for moral judgment or something.) But I especially don’t understand how something can “carry authority” if it’s not the authority if some person in conversation, or how there could be some free-floating “authority” that’s not contingent on my at least implicitly consenting to it. By all means, let’s make better generalizations which will be more rhetorically effective in convincing people across a broad range of cases. I’m just questioning whether even if someone has a true descriptive *theory* that says I’m implicitly committed to some broader principle tells me anything about whether I have an obligation to continue being committed to it.
 


You’ll find it in his
Ontological Relativity. The argument goes like this: No amount of observation determines a unique theory of meaning; so, meaning is indeterminate; therefore, there are no meaning facts, which is to say, there is no such thing as meaning.
 

Even apart from whether the exegesis is accurate, the “therefore” simply doesn’t work — “no facts” doesn’t follow from “indeterminate”, or else casinos would be out of business.

And he opens the essay (going off the google books version) on the first page by declaring his allegiance to Dewey’s pragmatist naturalism according to which “knowledge, mind, and meaning are part of the same world that they have to do with, and are to be studied in the same empirical spirit that animates natural science,” and then again citing Dewey to the effect that “[m]eaning…is not a psychic existence, it is primarily a property of behavior.” He even contrasts this with the Tractarian, pre-pragmatist Wittgenstein, whom he also cites favorably. Then on pp.27-28 (paraphrasing), he lists the two parts to knowing a word 1) knowing the sound and 2) knowing when to use it. And then again on p.29 “When we realize with Dewey that “meaning…is primarily a property of behavior,” we recognize that there are no meanings, nor likenesses nor distinctions of meaning, beyond what are implicit in people’s overt dispositions to behavior.” In other words, meaning is use.

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Dace August 14, 2009 at 5:22 am

I’ve never claimed to be indifferent to meaning. I’m simply trying to say that philosophy is not a passive accumulation of things we look up in dictionaries, but rather an active enterprise.
And I’m pointing out that doing philosophy correctly will leave you with theories.
Think of the relation of therapeutic psychiatry to neuroscience for a rough idea.
I could, but why should I? Don’t we need an argument for this conception of philosophy? And wouldn’t justifying such a view round out into a theory, constrained by the usual semantics of the word “philosophy”?  I think we’re at the stage of rhetoric, but since we’re there, I don’t mind saying that I’m not terribly impressed with a Wittgensteinian inspired pessimism about theorizing – exactly the work that would justify such a view would vindicate analytic orthodoxy, and that just means that the view is unjustifiable. A great philosopher no doubt, but I think he was wrong about this. Certainly those who have taken on his ideas have left this one on the table.
But it’s hardly a penetrating philosophical insight if I learn to accurately predict which shaker you will pass me when I ask you to pass me the “salt”.
It is to say why, and that is what I have in mind with a moral theory. We don’t just collect an inventory of ‘the right things’, we analyze that inventory, and we come up with a rule which would explain that inventory. The accurate prediction comes when we test the theory against reality. Referential change presents the challenge that our theory has to accomodate it when it occurs – desirism at least has some resources to do that, since desires change.
Didn’t you read the Quine article you cite below? ‘Gavagai’ is the classic example of this.
That’s not very charitable. Let me put it this way: the Quine example relies for its cogency on the reader understanding the difference between certain concepts: ‘rabbit’, ‘rabbithood’, ‘undetached rabbit parts’, and so on. But the fact that these are different concepts, and that we can talk with our fellow English-speakers about them and agree about the differences suggests that, contra Quine, the meanings of terms within a linguistic community are not indeterminate, or at least, their indeterminacy is negligible since no disagreement in concept results in a disagreement in use (and what then could lead us to deny determinacy? A difference must make a difference).
So, how do we explain this fact given that Quine gives a powerful argument that meaning is underdetermined by observation? The obvious answer is that we can explain by nature what is not explained by nuture. And this is just what evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker have pointed out – the acquisition of language by children follows a remarkably regular pattern, certain kinds of meaning are guessed before others at a given stage of development, and this suggests an innate language module which gets them up to speed with other language speakers in no time. This all suggests that, when we grow up in a linguistic community we have the right to assume that we share our ideas of the meanings of words with others, since we learn them in the same way they do, and since the collective agreement of the meanings of arbitrary symbols is all there is to meaning itself, then meaning is not indeterminate. Translation between languages is obviously tricky, and perhaps there are difficulties here that don’t attend the interpretation of those who speak the same language, but I’ve already said enough to show that the difficulties don’t generalize to interpretation of our fellow language-speakers.
I’m struggling to understand the difference between enunciating “principles that cut across moral judgments” and “principles widely held”
I don’t think I made that distinction.
But I especially don’t understand how something can “carry authority” if it’s not the authority if some person in conversation, or how there could be some free-floating “authority” that’s not contingent on my at least implicitly consenting to it. By all means, let’s make better generalizations which will be more rhetorically effective in convincing people across a broad range of cases.
That’s pretty much what I mean by ‘authority’ – principles that would be persuasive because they fairly successfully predict moral intuitions, but also persuasive in giving what seem to be the correct reasons for the intutions. I’m saying: wait and see, for you might find that a theory developed on such lines is one you’d be willing to accept.
I’m just questioning whether even if someone has a true descriptive *theory* that says I’m implicitly committed to some broader principle tells me anything about whether I have an obligation to continue being committed to it.
You want to be motivated. That I can’t guarantee.
Even apart from whether the exegesis is accurate, the “therefore” simply doesn’t work — “no facts” doesn’t follow from “indeterminate”, or else casinos would be out of business.
Well, you can take it up with Quine (I admit, I only know the argument in sketch). I think the general idea is that Quine finds meaning facts too unruly to admit into his ontology, and probably went for a meaning eliminativism for the same reasons he went for an eliminativism of mental states, endorsing behaviorism.
In other words, meaning is use.
http://books.google.com/books?id=kNNQUzfuFz0C&pg=PT85&lpg=PT85&dq=Quine+“there+are+no+meaning+facts”+”indeterminacy+of+translation”&source=bl&ots=1Jrwc2Ge7f&sig=yXQesCCaCUv32apTw-C0-kW_SBo&hl=en&ei=-2GFStSiAZHusQOit62tBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5#v=onepage&q=Quine%20%22there%20are%20no%20meaning%20facts%22%20%22indeterminacy%20of%20translation%22&f=false



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toweltowel August 14, 2009 at 4:26 pm

lukeprog: Notice: Comments that include the phrase “You’re a fucking idiot” will be (and have been) deleted.

What about self-referentially paradoxical comments?

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lukeprog August 14, 2009 at 6:50 pm

lol

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Antiplastic August 16, 2009 at 8:55 am

Don’t we need an argument for this conception of philosophy? And wouldn’t justifying such a view round out into a theory, constrained by the usual semantics of the word “philosophy”?
 

 
The primary argument (or one should say, family of arguments) is just the anti-essentialist stance that recurs through the generations from Rorty and Quine all the way back to the presocratics. It’s there to be found in the texts if you look for it. And a good anti-essentialist will have to allow that making theories about things is one valid way of trying to squeeze some usefulness out of those texts and the techniques they embody – it’s just that some of us are skeptical that there’s anything useful going on in Meta-physics qua Super-Science of essences and meanings. No matter how airtight your necessary and sufficient conditions for what constitutes art or music or science, someone will always come along and make Warhol’s mock-up soup cans or Cage’s 4:33.
 
 
 
So one other way of phrasing my objection to metaethical realism is as an objection to the idea that future generations can be bound by the beliefs and practices of the past. And one other way of phrasing my objection is to say if sitting on a chair and “intuiting the essences of words” gives Alonzo Fyfe privileged access to The Good which gives him and his follwers a special right to tell us mere mortals what we may and may not do, I’ll eat my hat.
 
 
 
We don’t just collect an inventory of ‘the right things’, we analyze that inventory, and we come up with a rule which would explain that inventory. The accurate prediction comes when we test the theory against reality.
 
 
 
I’m not sure that anything in philosophy constitutes testing a theory “against reality” except in the trivial sense of testing what we believe other people believe about certain things. But this is just opinion-polling. In contrast I have no idea what it would mean to “test” the notion that actions we think are wrong are “really” wrong, “in reality”. However I do think I know what it means to test our resolve about what we are prepared to praise and what we are prepared to condemn against our own experience. I don’t know what would count as evidence that we “really, in reality” have free will, but I know what it means to test our resolve about who we are prepared to hold responsible for their actions in light of new evidence about how the brain works.
 
 
 
Let me put it this way: the Quine example relies for its cogency on the reader understanding the difference between certain concepts: ‘rabbit’, ‘rabbithood’, ‘undetached rabbit parts’, and so on. But the fact that these are different concepts, and that we can talk with our fellow English-speakers about them and agree about the differences suggests that, contra Quine, the meanings of terms within a linguistic community are not indeterminate, or at least, their indeterminacy is negligible since no disagreement in concept results in a disagreement in use (and what then could lead us to deny determinacy? A difference must make a difference).
 
 
 
You’re leaping back and forth between English and the native’s language in an example that’s specifically supposed to be about translation. Just because language A has one word for which language B has three or four distinct concepts doesn’t mean that A’s word is determinate with regard to any or all of the B’s subconcepts. For all anyone knows, the practical reasons for B’s subdivisions may never have come up in the A-speakers’ history.
 
 

The obvious answer is that we can explain by nature what is not explained by nuture. And this is just what evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker have pointed out – the acquisition of language by children follows a remarkably regular pattern, certain kinds of meaning are guessed before others at a given stage of development, and this suggests an innate language module which gets them up to speed with other language speakers in no time. This all suggests that, when we grow up in a linguistic community we have the right to assume that we share our ideas of the meanings of words with others, since we learn them in the same way they do, and since the collective agreement of the meanings of arbitrary symbols is all there is to meaning itself, then meaning is not indeterminate.
 
 
 
I really have no idea what linguistic nativism has to do with anything, but if you just are using it to reassert that “we have the right to assume that we share our ideas of the meanings of words with others” then I’ll have to point out again that you’ve misunderstood Quine’s thesis of *under*determination” as “not determined in any way, shape, or form”. You argue as though his thesis entailed that observing people pointing at rabbits and saying “rabbit” tells us nothing at all, or that “words have no meanings”.
 
 

That’s pretty much what I mean by ‘authority’ – principles that would be persuasive because they fairly successfully predict moral intuitions, but also persuasive in giving what seem to be the correct reasons for the intutions.

 

 
And what are these “correct” responses? How do you check to see if a response is “correct” without reference to some prior normative framework? To say that usage is “correct” in some atemporal, ahistorical sense is just the same as saying that some non-human, free-floating “authority” is out there waiting to be discovered – and be discovered, natch, through the technique of analyzing people’s language-use.
 
 
 
I’m saying: wait and see, for you might find that a theory developed on such lines is one you’d be willing to accept.
 
 
 
I’m more than willing to “accept a moral theory” in the sense of adopting a recommended code of conduct that is more or less explicit. But adopting a code of conduct and acquiring certain emotive dispositions doesn’t (from where I stand) bear much of any useful analogy to what I do when I adopt an empirical model of a physical system. It’s not observations moral theories have to worry about, it’s the willpower of their adherents.
 
 

Well, you can take it up with Quine (I admit, I only know the argument in sketch). I think the general idea is that Quine finds meaning facts too unruly to admit into his ontology, and probably went for a meaning eliminativism for the same reasons he went for an eliminativism of mental states, endorsing behaviorism.
 
 
 
I thought this was pretty well dealt with in the passages I cited in the last post, where he explicitly accepts mental facts and meaning facts. His view is that, qua naturalist, he believes that mental facts and meaning facts are not *separate* from behavioral facts. Once again, to say that something is *underdetermined* is not the same thing as saying that it is “random”, and being an eliminativist about the mental is not the same as saying there are no minds, only that there is no *special category* of “mental facts” or “meaning facts” over and above behavioral facts.

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