Where I Cram My Ideas

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Hiatus

My job has been very constraining on my time lately and I have been (to everybody's great disappointment, to be sure) unable to write here.

Hopefully I can get back on it soon; there is plenty to respond to.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Why Be Nice?

Rhology and Calvin have unwittingly prompted me to write a little bit on this topic. Why should a person be good and why, in particular, should one be 'good' in a desire utilitarian sense?

Rhology listed a few reasons here as to why he acts nice, beside the threat of Hell:
1) I love Jesus b/c He saved me.
2) Jesus lived a morally pure life and commanded me to do the same for a variety of reasons.
3) So I try to.
That's the distillation. Others:
4) Living like Jesus is what God created me to do. I don't want to live against my operational specifications. Don't want to use a hard drive as a baseball bat.
5) It makes the Good News of Jesus that I tell to others more credible.

Rhology wants to act like a Christian (according to Rhology's understanding of how a Christian should act). Others can make a nearly identical list of reasons and use them to explain a set of behavior starkly in contrast with Rhology's own.


Reasons for Action
First of all, it doesn't really make sense to ask whether or not we should encourage people to see morality through the lens of desire utilitarianism. What makes sense, according to Alonzo Fyfe, is to ask whether reasons for action exist for promoting certain desires, and whether they are more and stronger than the reasons against promoting those desires.

But why prescribe the actions and desires that desire utilitarianism suggests we prescribe? Mr. Fyfe has explained that desire utilitarianism is a description of how prescription works.
"As such, desire utilitarianism is to be adopted or rejected on the same types of criteria that any other descriptive theory is to be accepted or rejected. Are the claims that desire utilitarianism make about prescription true or false?

For example:

All prescriptions are recommendations to bring about or avoid a particular state of affairs.

A prescription brings to bear the ‘reasons for action that exist’ that recommend bringing about or avoiding a state of affairs.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist."

Another proposition I'd like to add is this:
An agent will act to fulfill the more and stronger of its desires, given its beliefs.

That being the case, all we can do to prescribe a particular action is try to convince the person that acting in a particular way will, in fact, fulfill his or her desires. We cannot argue someone out of their desires. Nothing I can say will convince a person who enjoys lying not to enjoy lying. This should be pretty apparent.

What we can do, however, is several things.

Adjusting Malleable Desires
First, we can apply social rewards and sanctions/praise and condemnation to make it the case that certain desires are given precedence. For instance, if somebody desires to be dishonest and manipulative, if we apply enough condemnation and sanction, at some point it will benefit the liar to behave honestly, and he will thus desire to do so.

Perhaps more importantly, though, we can apply these tools to our children from a young age. We can raise them with an aversion to dishonesty. Then, when they approach a circumstance in which it may be personally beneficial to behave dishonestly, their aversion to dishonesty may make it the case that they desire to be honest anyway.

Do reasons for action exist to promote honesty and to cultivate an aversion to dishonesty in others, and do those reasons for action outweigh those that recommend promoting dishonesty and discouraging honesty? Yes they exist, and they certainly outweigh the opposing reasons.
"If it is true that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then the desires that we have the most reason to promote are those that best fulfill the more and stronger of our desires.

Some desires (the aversion to lying) tend to fulfill other desires, while some desires (the desire to rape young children) tend to thwart other desires."
What reasons do we have to encourage a desire utilitarian outlook on morality? Well, none; it's not an important question.

What reasons do we have to encourage or discourage different desires based on their general tendencies to fulfill or to thwart other desires?

All the reasons in the world. The only reasons for action are desires. Promoting desire-fulfilling desires in others is something which every single person has all the reason in the world to do.

Now, at this point everybody has a particular set of desires. Some are good and some are bad - this goes for me and everybody else. It's next to impossible to adjust those desires now - neither we nor anybody else can reason us out of our desires. However, they can be outweighed by other reasons for action. This is what we provide when we condemn bad actions and praise good behavior.

Calvin posted some thoughts here which I'd like to try to (briefly) address. Of course, he wrote a lot, so I'll probably have to follow up on this.

"I can’t find any reason why I should board in the first place."
_I hope I at least began to address this. Nobody can change your desires - only give you other reasons for action that outweigh them.

"I don’t see why I should value the fulfillment of another’s desires"
_No specific desires are intrinsically 'supposed' to be fulfilled. That's not the point. The point is that acting on good desires - not those that fulfill specific desires, but those that tend to fulfill the desires of others - is what we should encourage.

"But is reaping pragmatic future rewards the extent of society's interest in morality? Or is there another component?"
_I'm not sure what the other component would be. All people act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires - it is in our interest to encourage others to act on particular desires (those that tend to fulfill the desires of others). Pragmatic future rewards are a particular type of 'reasons for action' that exist for us. There's no way to cause people to act in opposition to their desires. We can simply shape those desires.

"Let's say you have someone who just doesn't care about the fulfillment of others' desires... What does morality say to/about such a man?"
_He's evil. He acts on a set of bad desires, and exhibits disregard for the wellbeing of others. He's worthy of condemnation.

"I need to know whether or not human desires matter, and why they matter, to decide whether or not I have any obligations towards them."
_They matter because they're all that matters. All that is important or means anything to mankind is tied up in desires. To respect, empathize, or mean well toward another human being, you must acknowledge and, in most cases, respect his/her desires.

"That truth, that underlying meaning I’m searching for can either be the soul, or it can be firing neurons."
_How to put this... If there is a soul which provides empathy and other good feelings, then we can assume it also provides the more negative entities of hate, bigotry, callousness.

You can argue that those exhibiting the latter set of traits are simply not in their original state. However, it could just as easily be the case that the former set of traits (such things as empathy) are the real aberrations, and the intrinsic state of the soul is hateful and bigoted.

In fact, we find that people's tendencies toward empathy or callousness are profoundly influenced by upbringing. We're born essentially tabula rasa.

"It’s preposterous to think I should care in the slightest about firing neurons that don’t affect me.
_For one thing, you don't have to. Desire utilitarianism never says that you *should* care about others. It simply says that some desires are to be encouraged and others discouraged; this for objective reasons we all have. One of these good desires, it can be argued, is the aversion to thwarting the desires of others (firing neurons) unless there is good reason to do so.

For another, you're using loaded language here. It may be the case that 'firing neurons' is the extent of what our thoughts and feelings are. Calling it a 'soul' does nothing to increase the worth of that phenomenon; calling it firing neurons does nothing to increase that worth.

"DU may not be moral relativism, but it offers no challenge to it."
_On the contrary, it stands in stark opposition to moral relativism.

"If your pure reasoning, truly free of ideology & emotion (and free of the poisonous influence of fanatics like Hitchens & Harris), honestly leads you away from God, so be it."
_Thank you for being so respectful. I have yet to read anything by Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris, so I can't comment on the poisonousness of their influence. Yes, my reasoning leads me to the conclusion that, while I cannot disprove the existence of God, and no evidence points toward or against such a being, it is rather unlikely that it exists.

Yet the conclusion a particular line of reasoning takes me to is that there is, in fact, reason for morality in a godless world.

A Little Further Reading:
Alonzo Fyfe has some essays which may help address the topic:
Why Worry About Morality?
So, you want to be a desire utilitarian
Promoting Desire Utilitarianism
Evaluating Moral Theories
The 1000 Sadists Problem

Thursday, August 2, 2007


Recently I've been hearing the same line of thinking from a couple of sources - one from Sye, who has been patiently indulging in a little comment war here on my blog, and one from Rhology, who has been patiently indulging in little comment wars on his own blog.

This line of thinking has appeared to me to be circular and invalid, but Sye in particular has brought the point right to me: How do I know I can trust my reasoning and logic?

One answer
These gentlemen have postulated that unless there is a God, we cannot know that our reasoning and logic is trustworthy, because we have no foundation for them. Before I philosophize further, I want to examine that claim. It's a premise:

1. Unless there is a God, we cannot trust our reasoning and logic.

Essentially, it then goes like this:

2. We can trust our reasoning and logic

3. Therefore, God exists.

Yes, it begs the question. If we accept Premise 1, when we are approached with Premise 2 we are free to say 'Uh uh uh, can we? You haven't yet proved that God exists. Until you've reasoned that God exists, I apparently can't trust your ability to reason that God exists...'

The real question at hand
is Premise 2. Can we trust our reasoning and logic? If Premise 1 is true, then we cannot know if Premise 1 is true, and we thus cannot use Premise 1 to lead into Premise 2.

The only way we can know whether or not Premise 1 is true is if Premise 1 is, in fact, false.

That's because it takes reasoning to come to the conclusion of Premise 1. Only if you can trust your reasoning without there being a God can you come to the conclusion that only if a God exists can you trust your reasoning. It's a mess.

The issue here, as the title of the post indicates, is justifying beliefs. Doing this, one often runs into the problem of an infinite regress: I know it's Thursday because yesterday was Wednesday, which I know because the day before was Tuesday, ad infinitum.

Typically, there are three options for attempting to justify beliefs. The first is that there is an infinite regress, as described above, which is incapable of actually justifying anything. The second is foundationalism. Foundationalists believe that this infinite regress is halted when it settles upon a belief that is justified without being justified by other beliefs. The third option is that beliefs are simply justified by other beliefs which are, in turn, justified by others in a circular fashion - and circular reasoning is, of course, incapable of justifying a belief (as I hope Sye and Rhology realize at some point).

Coherentism is usually represented metaphorically as a web of beliefs, which is made strong and self-supporting by the relationship each belief has with the other beliefs, all of which are tied together.

I have to thank Sye for bringing up the issue. My core beliefs are brought into question practically every day, and I am quite often made to doubt them - or, at least, to strongly reconsider them - and I have to read up on or think about them with a great deal of concern.

I hadn't previously thought about how I justified my trust in human reasoning and logic. My first reaction was 'well, it corresponds to reality.' Truth is, it's a little something more. If I must use logic and reasoning to justify logic and reasoning, have I not engaged in circular reasoning? If I must start with the reasoned premise that God must exist for reasoning to exist, have I not begged the very question?

I trust my perception of reality. I trust it because it forms a very coherent web. No one belief has to lean on another in a linear fashion - they work together holistically. I am an empiricist through and through, so I believe that what we perceive as real is what is really real. I also trust what reliable people have observed under reliable circumstances. These observations begin to form a web, part of which is that logic and reasoning conform to reality, and that illogic and unreasoning does not. These beliefs and observations are tied to the observations others have made. Overall, it makes a web coherent enough that I am willing to let it support my weight.

When a little fly catapults into my web and destroys a strand or two, I'll just have to rush over and try to repair or replace the strands. I think that's all we can do.