Debate Between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
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Debate Between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Post by peterhurford » Tue Nov 19, 2013 4:22 pm

This thread is for Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe to debate the following. The debate will be moderated by Martin Freeman. All posts by other people here will be deleted. Instead, please post in the discussion thread.

Subject under discussion: Which is a better theory of utilitarianism -- Alonzo Fyfe's desirism or Peter Hurford's two-level utilitarianism?

Time period: Entries in the debate will be posted no sooner than 10 days apart and no longer than 14 days apart. The first entry will be on 19 Nov.

Rounds: There will be four rounds.

Word length: Entries will not exceed 2000 words.
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Re: Debate Between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Post by peterhurford » Mon Dec 02, 2013 1:41 pm

Introduction

I want to first spend some of my precious word count mentioning how much of an honor it is to be engaging with Alonzo Fyfe on this important issue. In many ways I owe Alonzo a lot for where I am today. In 2011, I was a huge fan of desirism. I learned many aspects of moral philosophy from reading Fyfe and became interested in ethics due to following Alonzo’s journey to figure out the right thing. Perhaps ironically the first place I learned about the “two level utilitarianism” was from Fyfe himself.

In this debate, I offer “two-level utilitarianism” as a better view of utilitarianism. However, I agree with Alonzo that this is more of a friendly discussion than a debate. I must admit it might be hard for Alonzo to give up desirism after spending so much of his life defending it, just as it would be hard for me to give up utilitarianism after having a blog called “The Everyday Utilitarian”. But I rest assured that we are both beholden to the truth more than our particular brands of utilitarianism and believe we can be trusted to update our beliefs in the face of new arguments.

~

What is “Two-Level Utilitarianism”?

In 1981, R. M Hare wrote a book called Moral Thinking: It’s Levels, Method, and Point, in which he defends preference utilitarianism in theory, but argues that the human condition requires two levels of utilitarianism in practice – an intuitive level of rule utilitarianism and a critical level of act utilitarianism.

Hare notes that throughout much of our life we operate at an intuitive level where we don’t have the time to think through a situation and we have to act on habit and internalized thinking. At this intuitive level, we implement rule utilitarianism, where we internalize a set of rules and follow them.

However, Hare argued that, as often as is possible, we should re-evaluate these rules for ourselves and engage in full and deliberate reflection. At this critical level we implement act utilitarianism and perhaps resolve a particularly difficult moral problem and figure out ways to update our moral rules so that they better guide us to maximize utility in our intuitive moments.

~

What Makes One Utilitarianism Better Than Another?

In this debate, we seek to find the “best” version of utilitarianism. But, in doing so, we need some method to make judgments about what makes a theory of utilitarianism better than another. Alonzo did not overtly outline any specific criteria, so I thought I would suggest one: if the best utilitarian act is the act that maximizes utility and the best utilitarian rule is the rule that maximizes utility, I suggest that the best version of utilitarianism is the version that maximizes utility.

This principle of meta-utilitarianism makes sense – utilitarianism should not be self-defeating when followed, so we therefore should adopt whatever theory actually accomplishes utilitarian ends.

~

What is the Case for Two-Level Utilitarianism?

I call “stereotypical act utilitarianism” the naïve strawman theory of utilitarianism that we should, in practice, be straightforward utilitarians exactly as described in the textbook – from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we should analyze every option available to us and choose only that which maximizes utility.

Many theorists have pointed out that stereotypical act utilitarianism doesn’t work because of problems like how difficult it is to calculate utility for everything and how we will often suffer from imperfect information. Faced with these methodological and motivational problems to utilitarianism, I suggest we abandon stereotypical act utilitarianism in practice while keeping it in theory.

Kahneman (1973) points out that we only have a finite amount of energy to allocate to each decision in our life. Research in psychology has put forth “dual processing theory” where we have a “System I” style of thought that is quick, reflexive, and intuitive and a “System II” style of thought that is slow, reflective, and analytical. This dual processing theory fits two-level utilitarianism perfectly.

If we’re realistic, we have to be comfortable with the fact that many of our decisions will be intuitive. Indeed, making an intuitive snap decision without fully calculating out all the options will actually be the act utilitarian thing to do when we account for the fact that these calculations drain our energy and take time away from our ability to focus on other things.

However, that doesn’t mean we should stop there. In fact, I think that while we shouldn’t strive to be act utilitarians at all times, the vast majority of people would become better at producing utility if they were more reflective and self-aware, not less. When we have time to reflect, we can deliberately engage in “System II” processes (or operate at the critical level, as Hare calls it) and reflect upon our rules to sharpen them.

This divide provides us with the need for a two-level utilitarianism in order to fit it pragmatically. It’s also this divide between situations that prevents rule utilitarianism from collapsing into act utilitarianism, which was a worry of Alonzo’s.

~

What Makes Rules Better Than Desires?

Desirism asks us to desire that which we have many and strong reasons to desire. From a moral standpoint, this means adopting desires that help satisfy the desires of others. However, it is far harder to alter your desires on a fundamental level than it is to maintain a desire to follow the best rules (out of a desire to be moral, perhaps) and then alter the rules you possess. There’s also a concern that desires do not exist, while rules certainly do exist.

Moreover, desirism does not elaborate on the role of reflection like two-level utilitarianism does. What process are we engaging in when we decide what desires to adopt? How do we change our own desires? In answering these two questions, how is desirism different from rule utilitarianism?

~

What is Utility? Don’t Know, But Not Intrinsic Value.

One area where our moral systems seem to diverge is in attitudes toward utility. Alonzo is fond of how desirism need only operate on desires and does not need any “intrinsic value” or “value-laden term”. I agree with Alonzo in his critique of brain-state theories of value. Personally, I have not yet found a satisfactory reduction of utility that is sufficiently rigorous and resolves moral dilemmas in a way that satisfies me.

Luckily, for now, the utilitarian choices are pretty clear pragmatically without a robust theory of utility. What’s important for the sake of this debate is that, like desirism, my version of two-level utilitarianism also does not rely on any “intrinsic value” or spooky stuff in order to work. Instead, utility matters because people (and other beings capable of experience) matter, and these lives matter to me simply because I have a desire to make their lives better. I consider myself to be a moral anti-realist and have therefore constructed an anti-realist version of utilitarianism.

~

What Ought We Do in an Exotic Situation?

Another possible divergence is the “10000 Sadist Problem”. Because this situation is so bizarre and unlike situations we encounter in everyday life, it’s likely that our normal rules and intuitions might fail to maximize utility. Therefore, we should go to the critical level if time allows.

First, I’d like to mention that the better utilitarian theory is the one that maximizes utility, not the one that gives the response to hypothetical scenarios that satisfies people’s intuitions. This is what Luke Muelhauser calls the wrong test for moral theories, precisely because we don’t have a reason to expect the correct moral answer to always be the intuitive one.

That being said, I don’t think two-level utilitarianism would have you give up the kid to the 10000 sadists. Many people think that utilitarianism suggests that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. This isn’t precisely right, because utilitarianism also takes the strength of the need into account. In this case, the need of the kid to avoid being tortured is intensely strong. So strong, I’d suspect, that it still outweighs the satisfaction that the 10000 sadists get. Generally, pain hurts a lot more than pleasure satisfies both in intensity and duration, and therefore can be expected to dominate in this calculation.

~

Just How Utilitarian is Desirism, Anyway?

Does Desirism Actually Maximize?
Alonzo suggests that desirism resolves the 10000 Sadists by suggesting we look at the desire to torture and ask if we need that desire. Because we don’t possess reasons for a desire to torture, we can safely discard it.

However, who possesses the reasons for having or discarding desires? The 10000 sadists themselves certainly have many reasons to keep their desire to torture – they get satisfaction from doing so. The “10000 Sadists Problem” attacks utilitarianism’s maximization process, arguing (naïvely) that the utility gained by the 10000 sadists outweighs the utility lost by the tortured kid. In order to discard the desire to torture, desirism must go against this grain of maximization and do something else. I’m not sure what this process is.

Why Does Desirism Not Count Future People?
Secondly, from a theoretical standpoint, I worry that desirism does not take desires into account that do not yet exist. Perhaps Alonzo feels this is a feature and not a bug, and certainly “person-affecting” theories of utilitarianism are held among many theorists. However, most utilitarian theories believe that future people matter just as much as present people, and we shouldn’t discriminate against them in our analysis just because they don’t yet exist. I don’t know what Alonzo’s reasoning is for making this distinction into a morally relevant one.

Also, while I don’t believe matching intuitions is important, this desire to help future people does match our intuitions – think of the desire to curb global warming or tackle large social challenges that will only benefit people several generations from now. The very desire to leave a better Earth for future generations presupposes that future generations matter.

Does Desirism Hear The Strongest Needs?
Lastly, from a pragmatic standpoint, I worry that desirism does not do a good enough job identifying which desires are the most numerous and most strong. Right now, I believe one of the most pressing needs is extreme poverty in the developing world. Two-level utilitarianism explicitly states we should evaluate needs objectively, and therefore brings extreme poverty to our attention. However, the desires of these people to be free from extreme poverty don’t speak very loudly and don’t weigh much on the minds of us Americans. When we Americans think of desires we have strong reasons to support, we think of those desires that speak to us loudly and end up supporting many first-world causes. I think this is a utilitarian mistake and would hope the utilitarian theory we adopt guides people easily to this understanding.

~

Conclusion

I offer two-level utilitarianism as the utilitarian theory that is better suited to maximize utility when implemented in practice. I’ve argued in favor of two-level utilitarianism because it (a) fits with findings in psychology that we have two processing systems and limited attention to allocate to every event in the world.

This theory is more practical than desirism because (b) rules are more malleable than desires, (c) the role of reflection in desirism is less clear, (d) desires may not exist, and (e) two-level utilitarianism makes it clearer impartial attitudes matter when considering what problems ought to be prioritized morally.

Additionally, I’ve argued that desirism falls short of utilitarianism because it (f) has a strange attitude toward maximization and (g) does not take the welfare of future people into account.

Lastly, I’ve answered Alonzo’s problem with utility by agreeing with him and arguing that two-level utilitarianism also only relies on entities that exist. I also answered Alonzo’s 10000 Sadist Challenge by arguing that it is the wrong test for a moral theory. And I answered Alonzo’s concern that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism by showing the impossibility of being act utilitarian all the time.
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Re: Debate Between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Post by Alonzo Fyfe » Mon Dec 16, 2013 2:50 pm

Introduction

I find great value in exchanges such as this. I learn a great deal. Whole sections have been deleted from the first drafts of this essay because I found some of my criticisms of Peter's work unsupportable, and I have made some adjustments to desirism to accommodate those elements. So, let's see what the theory looks like now.


Testing for a Moral Theory

Peter brought up the important question of how to measure the quality of moral theories. His proposal is: Which theory best maximizes utility?

I do nor share that standard. Instead, I want to use the standard of which theory contains true premises. It may be the case that false claims maximize utility. If that should happen, I will go with truth and forsake utility.


What Are "Rules"?

Peter and I are both presenting two-level systems. Peter prefers rules to desires at the top level. What is a "rule"? How do rules fit into the world in such a way that they can be changed and can influence the movement of objects through space? How do they cause a person to stop at the site of an accident and render aid? How do they cause the lips to move so that the agent utters a truth instead of a lie?

I concede the claim that we are capable of adopting rules and having them guide our behavior. From making investment decisions, to playing games, to caring for our cars, we adopt rules and follow them. Dollar-cost averaging is a widely recommended investment strategy. Many poker players adopt the rule, "Never draw to an inside straight". Change the oil in your car every 3,000 miles. The rules spare us from the need to go through a lot of effort to calculate precise costs and benefits at every moment to optimize effect - something we simply cannot do.

The adoption of a rule is a type of action. This is why, as Peter says, they are often so easy to change. A person can adopt a new rule in the light of new information in the same way one can choose a new route to work upon hearing that there was an accident in Highway 36. As information changes, we change the rules.

However, as an action, adopting a rule is something people do to fulfill their own desires. What other motivation can a person actually have to adopt a new rule other than the agent's current desires?

Rules about exercise and diet, about drinking, smoking, and the use of other drugs, about finally writing that book or keeping the house cleaner, all tell us of an important limit we face in our ability to alter our behavior by altering our rules. When the new rules help us to get what we want, we adopt the new rules easily. We can replace one investment strategy with another the instant we come to believe that it generates a higher rate of return - provided it does not thwart some other desire such as an aversion to poisoning children.

However, when the new rules thwart our current desire - such as desires for sex, fattening foods, a state of drunkenness, to sit on the couch and watch television, to gamble or watch pornography, to seek entertainment while others starve, we find it is no longer easy to adopt a new rule. Countless New Year's Resolutions will be dead before January is half over.

Consequently, you can explain and even convince somebody that his adopting a rule will increase utility, but that will not convince him to adopt it unless he wants to maximize utility either as and end or as a means. Our desires motivate us to act, and motivate us to adopt or reject new rules.


Desirism vs. Two-Level Utilitarianism

Rather than dispute Peter, I want to construct a bridge between his two-level account and desirism.

At one level there is the level of intuition where we "don’t have the time to think through a situation and we have to act on habit and internalized thinking."

This describes every act we take, in fact. I assure you, I made no detailed calculations on the use of my time working on this text. As a rule, I use the time I spend commuting on public transportation working on essays such as this. In writing these paragraphs (while taking the bus home) I am acting "on habit and internalized thinking".

At the higher level, we have a capacity to evaluate these habits and "internalized thinking" - to judge them and, where they are found wanting, try to change them.

We cannot only question the habits and desires we have - our own motives or rules - but the habits and desires we have reason to promote in others. Similarly, we can also ask about the rules others have reason to promote in each other, and in us.

Desirism holds that the upper level of moral reasoning concerns the evaluation of desires. We evaluate desires as Peter would have us evaluate rules. While we act on our current desires, we have the capacity to step back and make a separate evaluation of those desires, judging some to be desires people have reason to promote across the community.

Furthermore, we have tools that effect desires. Rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) act on the reward center of the brain to actually change what a person wants. Consequently, the second level of moral reasoning, according to desirism, is reasoning about the application of rewards/praise and punishments/condemnation.

Evaluating desires involves looking at the tendency a desire would have to fulfill (objectively satisfy, or make true the propositions that are the objects of) other desires if generally adopted. We change desires by using rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation, which affect the reward centers of the brain and change what other people want. Usually, the desires that people generally have reason to adopt are desires we have reason to adopt as well.

Standard utilitarianism treats reward and punishment as just another act to be evaluated according to its consequences. Desirism treats reward and punishment as central to the institution of morality. The question of what is moral or immoral is the question of what people generally have reason to reward/praise or punish/condemn.


Desires Do Not Exist

The biggest threat to desirism comes from the direction of Peter's objection that desires may not exist. The argument is that desires are like phlogiston, aether, and demons - primitive ideas that will eventually be replaced as our understanding improves.

However, we do not know what form this updated theory will take. Will a new model of behavior (to call it a model of 'intentional action' would beg certain questions) have a place for rules? Will it have a place for 'reflection' or 'adoption' or make sense of 'calculating utility'? We are talking about a theory of behavior that is not even proposed yet. It seems premature to judge that it will have a place for rules.


Future People

Peter asks, "Why Does Desirism Not Count Future People?" Specifically, he states, "Most utilitarian theories believe that future people matter just as much as present people, and we shouldn’t discriminate against them in our analysis just because they don’t yet exist." Desirism apparently denies this.

Recall that the test I am using for a moral theory is whether or not the propositions that make up the theory are true.

There is only one type of "mattering" that exists - that allows for true statements. If Agent A desires that P, then realizing P matters to A. The proposition "M Matters" requires that we ask the question, “matters to whom?” This, in turn, takes the form, “Which current desires that P are fulfilled or thwarted in a state of affairs that realizes M?"

The present generation will only act in ways that consider the interests of future people only if the desires that do so exists or can be created in the current generation. They can only be created in the current generation if a motivation to do so exists in the current generation. These are the facts of the matter.

Notice: It is not the case that desirism says that future desires do not matter. It says that they do matter to the degree that the fulfillment of future desires is (1) something that people presently want, or (2) something that is useful in bringing about things that people presently want, or (3) something that people presently have reason to cause people to want. It could be something that matters a great deal, or something that people have many and strong reason to cause others to care about. But, whether or not this is true depends on the relationships that exist or can be made to exist between future states and current desires.

I think that some of the resistance to this comes from an error of thinking desirism prescribes that people care nothing about the fate of future generations. This is a mistake. When I claim that the negative value of a state where one's hand is burning in a bed of hot coals depends on an aversion to pain and the usefulness of a functioning hand, I do not imply that such a state does not matter. For most of us, it matters greatly.

When we look at relationships between states of affairs and desires that will exist the truth is that we are looking at what will matter, not at what does matter. If there is a future person B with a desire that P, then whether P is true in S “will matter” to B. This will matter to B when B comes into existence and acquires a desire that P. It will continue to matter to B as long as B desires that P. It will cease to matter to B when B ceases to desire that P. The fact that something "will matter" does not imply that it "matters" any more than the fact that something "will die" implies that it is currently dead.

For people like Peter and I - who cares about future generations - it is important to respect the fact that there are only three ways in which the interests of future generations can matter. (1) People today have a direct concern for the interests of future generations. (2) People today have concerns that can best be fulfilled by means of fulfilling the interests of future generations. (3) People today have concerns that provide a motivating reason to promote in each other a concern for the interests in future generations. Anybody who looks for another type of mattering is going to likely be less effective at actually getting people today to act in ways that consider the interests of future generations.

There is another way. We can convince people today that they have concerns that are best fulfilled by securing the interests of future generations. We could tell them that failure to consider future interests will anger a god who will punish (thwart the desires) of those who neglect these interests. Or we can give them a concern to do that which is intrinsically good and tell them that respecting the interests of future generations is intrinsically good. These propositions, if widely believed, may maximize utility. However, this will not make them true.


Conclusion

There is little in this that directly disputes Peter's two-level utilitarianism. It answers the question of what "rules" are - how they exist in the material world, how they influence intentional action, and how they can be changed. This yields certain facts about the nature of these "rules". Specifically, only current desires can influence current behavior. If we want current behavior to change for any reason - e.g., to respect the interests of future generations - we must find or create the reason to do so in the current generation.

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Re: Debate Between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Post by peterhurford » Mon Dec 30, 2013 11:36 pm

Introduction

Welcome to my end of Round 2. The more Alonzo and I discuss here, the less I actually think there is much of a difference between rule utilitarianism and desirism after all. However, after some reflection, I think I’ve identified four related disagreements that Alonzo and I have.


Practicality vs. Normativity

The first disagreement between us is our biggest. I want to look at Alonzo’s claim that “what is moral or immoral is […] what people generally have reason to reward/praise or punish/condemn”. Here, Alonzo does not seem to separate pragmatism (“what is effective at getting people to desire things”) from normativity (“what people morally ought to desire”), while I do. Alonzo seems to discuss “morality from a sociological standpoint” rather than a “morality from a normative standpoint”. I think morality is more than just what we are using our social tools on, but what we ought to use our social tools to change.


Slavery and Future People
For an example, consider slavery. People today generally recognize that slavery is wrong. More importantly, people today generally believe slavery was always wrong. However, there once was a time when people generally believed slavery was morally good. At that point in time, these people did not have reason to condemn slavery or reward emancipation. However, that didn’t mean slavery was morally correct at the time. These people were just mistaken about what is moral.

This can also be seen in Alonzo and my discussion about future people. Alonzo thinks that future people can only matter if people who currently exist care about future people. I, however, think that people morally ought to care about future people, just like people morally ought to care about slaves, regardless of whether anyone currently does.

Does Desirism Hear The Strongest Needs?, Reprise
This also fits in with my general concern about impartiality from before. If practicality is the sole standard of morality, then the loudest desires win the day. Typically, this means more focus on first-world problems and less focus on issues that have much larger consequences, like developing world poverty and animal rights, because the extremely poor and nonhuman animals lack the ability to speak up to themselves, especially compared to rich and successful people. While this may be the case in reality, it ought not be the case, and that’s an important distinction that I think Alonzo misses.

Alonzo vs. Me on Meta-Ethics
This concern is based on a different meta-ethics than the one Alonzo offers. On my meta-ethics, when someone says something is morally right or wrong, they are invoking a particular moral standard and holding people to that. When I say we morally ought to care about future people, I’m invoking my utilitarianism and saying that people who don’t care about future people are not following my view of utilitarianism because they are not maximizing utility by being callous towards the happiness and suffering of future people.

In doing so, I’m separating what is moral from what people feel motivated to do, a view called moral externalism. Alonzo proposes a simple theory of motivation that says people only do what is consistent with their desires. This theory may be complicated by self-defeating actions and may not be well grounded in actual psychology, but I think it is good enough for our purposes. Similarly, Newtonian physics isn’t technically correct, but it’s good enough for most physics. So I’m willing to accept this theory of motivation.

However, I don’t think what we are presently motivated to do has anything to do with what we morality ought to be motivated to do – morality. So Alonzo would be right to retort that people might not be motivated to care about future people because they may lack the desires. And Alonzo would be right to point out that in order to actually protect future people, it would be best if we worked on getting people to start having those desires. But while Alonzo is correct on both of these things, I think Alonzo is missing the point about what morality is really about.


Praise / Condemnation vs. Other Methods of Behavioral Change

Another disagreement is practical instead of normative. I’m concerned with putting reward, praise, punishment, and condemnation in the front-and-center – they’re not the most effective ways of achieving social change. Moralizing certainly works in some cases and guilt can be a powerful motivator. But this only works to enforce causes currently in the mainstream. Guilt may make people think more about recycling, but it doesn’t seem to do much to prevent people from eating meat or donating much of their income – two social problems I see as particularly important today from a utilitarian standpoint.

Additionally, most of the time, we seem to have an easier path to social change by offering non-moral reasons and making things easier. Recycling behaviors at my school never changed much with campaigns to shame non-recyclers or praise recyclers, but the needle did move in a big way once more recycling bins were placed around campus and the recycling bins were better labeled. Likewise, others have found that moralizing about animal welfare did little to change people’s meat-eating habits, but discussing health benefits has.

In many cases, we might want to talk about “effectiveness” more broadly and eschew talk specifically about social tools. While talk of social tools is helpful when the sociology and evolutionary development of morality, I think social tools are just one part of a larger basket of approaches we could consider when looking to actually make behavior change happen.

Alonzo says that “[s]tandard utilitarianism treats reward and punishment as just another act to be evaluated according to its consequences [but that Desirism treats reward and punishment as central to the institution of morality”. I hope that my broadening of tools of effectiveness shows that standard utilitarianism should be preferred here.

There doesn’t seem to be any reason to single out reward and punishment as anything special when it comes to morality. Instead, we should pursue what maximizes utility. Instead, we should praise when praising maximizes utility and refrain from praising when it doesn’t; we should condemn when condemnation maximizes utility and refrain from condemnation when it doesn’t. If, for example, condemnation would only make someone feel guilty and not inspire behavior change, then it makes sense not to condemn the person and instead do something that actually would create the behavior change.


Desires vs. Rules

A third disagreement Alonzo and I have is whether rules or desires should be the primary object of moral evaluation. Alonzo and I both want people to change their behavior to be more benevolent. But, practically speaking, is this goal best accomplished by getting people to change their rules, getting them to change their desires, or something else entirely?

Actually, I think this disagreement is a difficult one to resolve and I don’t think rule utilitarianism is a clear winner here. In fact, this might be an empirical question and perhaps we should try both rules-focused and desires-focused techniques and observe which one is the most effective, and then go with that. It will be awhile until we have this data, however, so I’ll tell you why rules might be better after all.

Let’s come back to the simple theory of “motivation as desires”. We can apply this analysis to New Years Resolutions, as Alonzo mentioned and note that people generally have a desire to be healthy and generally understand that regular exercise will accomplish this desire. But the desire to be healthy will typically only get people to the gym for two weeks in January, if any time at all. This is because we also have a desire to not spend too much effort, or we get caught up in the moment of other activities involving other desires, etc. Our desire to be healthy gets lost among all our other desires.

Rules can punch through this problem with desires. First, some wisdom from motivational blogs (see here and here) suggests that by making an action like exercise something you “must” do rather than “should” do, you’re more likely to do it. Additionally, we’ve long known the power of precommitment, especially public precommitment, as a motivator where you declare in advance you will stick to a rule. Yes, this is pretty weak and circumstantial, but it is some preliminary evidence in favor of rules.

More importantly, rules seem more malleable than desires. I may be speaking from only my experience, but when I sought to begin to exercise, I wasn’t able to motivate myself by meditating upon my desire to be healthy and try to amp it up – instead, I made exercise a “must” and precommitted publicly.

I agree with Alonzo that someone won’t adopt a rule that’s contrary to their desires and it is desires that motivate when we look all the way at the bottom. No one is going to adopt a rule to exercise every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday no matter what if they don’t also have a desire to be healthy. But, as I mentioned earlier, once the desire to be healthy is in place, further praise and condemnation doesn’t seem to get people into the gym – it only makes them feel guilt.


Truth vs. Utility

The last disagreement we have is much more minor than the other three and I put it here mostly as an appendix to be thorough. I proposed that “the best version of utilitarianism is the version that maximizes utility” whereas Alonzo thinks instead the best version of utilitarianism is the version that “contains true premises”. Alonzo says that he will “go with truth and forsake utility” if the two conflict.

Alonzo has a good point. We decide which hypothesis best explains the origin of the moon by looking at evidence, not utility. So why not do the same with which hypothesis best explains morality?

My concern is that I don’t think facts about morality work in the same way as facts about the moon. Specifically, I think there are lots of moral standards we can choose from. Each one of these successfully explains what we can and cannot do and works to guide behavior. However, we still need to choose which theory we want to personally like best. Therefore, we need desiderata for picking one theory among all the possible true theories, as truth isn’t enough to limit ourselves.


Conclusion

So where are we now?

My Critique of Alonzo
I’ve renewed my argument from before that (b) rules are more malleable than desires and now also claim that (b2) internalizing rules are more effective at creating self-change than internalizing desires.

I still think that (c) the role of reflection in desirism is less clear, but haven’t pursued this issue as important.

I’ve dropped my concern that (d) desires may not exist, as Alonzo has successfully convinced me in his rebuttal not to worry about this.

I’ve bolstered my argument that (e) two-level utilitarianism makes it clearer impartial attitudes matter when considering what problems ought to be prioritized morally, (f) desirism has a strange attitude toward maximization and (g) desirism does not take the welfare of future people into account by making a more general argument that (e2) desirism casts aside an important divide between normativity and practicality.

I’ve added a new practical concern that (h) desirism over-emphasizes the use of social tools relative to other methods we could pursue to create social change.

Alonzo’s Critique of Me
In this round, I’ve answered Alonzo’s concerns that rules are not able to motivate people by suggesting that while desires are the ultimate motivator, it is easier to add rules to a general desire than to adopt new desires.

I’ve addressed Alonzo’s bridge between desirism and two-level utilitarianism by questioning why social tools like reward and punishment should be singled out relative to other tools for behavior change.

Lastly, I also addressed Alonzo’s question about “matters to who” by suggesting a different type of mattering – what one ought to matter, rather than actually matters.
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Re: Debate Between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Post by Alonzo Fyfe » Mon Jan 13, 2014 10:34 pm

Welcome to the third round in the discussion. Let me just jump right in.

Desires and Morality

Before responding to Peter, I will like to address a question from the peanut gallery.

What do I mean by a desires?

A desire is an entity in the belief-desire theory of intentional action by which desires provide the ends or goals of intentional action, and beliefs identify the means.

Beliefs and desires are encoded in the brain as propositional attitudes. A 'belief that P' is the attitude that 'P' is true of the world. A 'desire that P' is a motivating reason to make it be the case that 'P' is true in the world.

The question, “Why should I do X?” is an appeal for reason to act in a particular way. Such an appeal requires an answer in the form of a reason for intentional that exists.

Desires are the only things in the real world that provide end-reasons for intentional action. A desire that P motivates an agent to the end of making or keeping true the proposition 'P'. Nothing else in the universe yet discovered fills this roll. Consequently, either the answer to a 'should' (or 'ought') question relates the action to the objective satisfaction of some set of desires or it fails to provide a reason to act.

Desires are malleable (to some extent). Rewards strengthen the desires that motivated the behavior that brought about reward. Punishments strengthen aversions - or negative desires - that would have averted the punishment.

I am using 'reward' and 'punishment' here in their biological sense - as reinforcers. Moral praise serves as a 'reward' in this sense, and moral condemnation works like 'punishment'.

Desires motivate the people who have them. The fact that A has a desire that P does not imply that B has a reason to help bring about P. However, it does imply that A has a reason to act so as to mold B’s desires in such a way that B has a reason to help bring about P. A can do this by using reward and punishment.

There are some desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reason to promote. The subject matter that identifies desires to be promoted through reward/praise and aversions to be promoted through punishment/condemnation is 'morality'.


Adding Rules

Let me make explicit the change I have adopted based on Peter Hurford's first posting.

In the past, I have not mentioned rules other than the claim that desires are rules written onto the brain and allow no possibility of exception. Peter has correctly pointed out that we adopt rules and use them to guide intentional action. These rules exist and they have effects. We need to consider these facts in evaluating actions.

We have reason to be concerned with the rules that other people adopt - to encourage them to adopt rules that will tend to help in the realization of our own desires, and discourage rules that would thwart our own desires.

However, people still adopt those rules that would fulfill their own desires in a world where their beliefs are true. We cannot evaluate rules independent of the standard of what a person with good desires would adopt.


Practical vs. Moral Rules

In a discussion on condemnation and other methods of behavioral change, Peter points out, "[O]thers have found that moralizing about animal welfare did little to change people’s meat-eating habits, but discussing health benefits has."

I have no reason to dispute this. It does not create any problems for desirism. It simply is not a part of morality.

A prescription not to eat meat because of its health effects is like a prescription to lose weight, or a prescription to "take one pill four times each day for the next two weeks." These types of prescriptions are certainly used and sometimes effective. However, they are not moral commands.

On this matter, Peter and I may be in a situation like that of two biologists entering into a discussion about cats. After one biologist describes a cat as a carnivorous, flightless, land predator, the other protests, "I do not understand why you are excluding zebras, which are not carnivores; bats, which can fly; or whales, which are not land animals."

My answer would be, "Because they are not cats." I am not diminishing the importance of these other mammals or declaring illegitimate any claim made about them. I am simply asserting that a theory of cats need not include facts about zebras, bats, or whales.

The very difference I find between 'practical ought' and 'moral ought' is that the former relates the recommended action (or rule) to the desires of the agent has, while the latter relates the recommended action (or rule) to the desires that an agent should have.

The trick, then, is to come up with an account of the desires an agent 'should' have. Insofar as 'should' relates the object of evaluation to reasons for intentional action that exist, the only way we have to evaluate desires in the real world is according to the reasons that exist for promoting or inhibiting desires. These are grounded on the capacity of the object of evaluation to objectively satisfy or thwart other desires.

If asked to defend the claim that 'morality' excludes prescriptions based on the desires of the agent, my defense would be structurally the same as my defense of the claim that 'cat' excludes zebras, bats, and whales. Native speakers have simply adopted a particular set of conventions. They do not speak of zebras being cats, and they do not speak of prescriptions based solely on the desires of the agent as moral.


Contrasting Theories

Ironically, Peter accuses me of failing to distinguish between the practical and the 'normative' - though I think he has a different distinction in mind.

Under desirism, moral claims still contain a strong element of practicality. In essence, a moral ought relates actions (and rules) to desires that people generally have practical-ought reasons to promote or inhibit.

Peter appears to be arguing that there is normative property - independent of practical ought - attached to the moral value of rule-generated utility.

My position remains that this type of normative property simply does not exist. I respond to the prescription that I ought to realize a Hurfordian normative states by asking, "Why?" This is a request for a reason to act so as to realize a Hurfordian normative state. Peter, in saying that we 'should' realize this state, either needs to relate this normative state to a reason for action that exists (desires), or the statement is false.

What do we know about a Hurfordian normative state?

We know that Harford has a desire for such a state. This gives Harford a motivating reason to cause others to realize such a state. Harford finds it easier - and it is indeed easier - to get people to realize this state when he can link acts that realizes the state to the desires of the agent.

We have not heard much about how Harford would handle the possibility of a state in which an agent's desires would motivate them to thwart the realization of such a state. Desirism recommends using rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation to mold desires - promoting desires that would motivate agents to realize such a state and inhibiting desires that would thwart realizing such a state. I do not think that it is a coincidence that Peter uses moral language to frame his overall objective. Praise and condemnation are built into the very meaning of moral terms and follow this model.

Nowhere in this do I need to add to this account some type of normative property intrinsic to the Hurfordian normative state. While we need to postulate Hurford's belief in such a state to explain some of Hurford's behavior - the same way we must postulate a belief in ghosts to explain the behavior of some people. However, we have no reason to hold that the belief is true.


Slavery and Other Evils

Peter also suggested that desirism holds that there is a close association between what people believe they have reason to bring about, and what they actually have reason to bring about.

Peter wrote, "[T]here once was a time when people generally believed slavery was morally good. At that point in time, these people did not have reason to condemn slavery or reward emancipation. However, that didn’t mean slavery was morally correct at the time. These people were just mistaken about what is moral."

The thesis that "these people did not have reason to condemn slavery or reward emancipation" is false.

Simply look at the arguments presented for and against slavery at the time in question and discover whether their claims were true or false.

Aristotle's defense of slavery involved claims that nature contained people who, with strong bodies and weak minds, were simply meant to be slaves. There was a natural moral permission to enslave such people. These claims were false.

Similarly, a look at slavery in the antebellum American South, we see claims that blacks were the descendants of Ham who, according to scripture, were given dark skin and cursed by God to be the slaves of those who did not have dark skin. Slavery was also defended on the premise that blacks lacked the mental capacity of adults and were better off under the paternal supervision of a mentally competent white owner. Neither argument had any basis in reality.

Let's look at a couple of other issues.

The defense for the subjugation of women was grounded in part on the claim that women were emotional and incapable of rational/practical decision making. For this reason, the rational and practical male was the proper master of the house. These claims about women were not true.

In defense of monarchy, it was argued that God meddled in human affairs to put the correct person into the position of king, so obedience to God implied obedience to the king. Again, this was false. No matter how many people believed it, and no matter how many people obeyed the King because they thought that God had determined who would be king, it never became true.

On a more contemporary issue, desirism is not committed to saying that, 10 years ago, people had reasons to condemn homosexual marriage that are fading. Ten years ago, I was arguing in defense of homosexual marriage. I argued that the reasons people thought they had to object to those unions were not reasons for action that existed.

Homosexual relationship did not have an intrinsic 'ought not to be doneness' derived either from God or from nature. Nor was there a God who will attack the country with hurricanes and earthquakes if it allowed gays to marry. Homosexuality did not cause aids and homosexual marriage would not destroy heterosexual marriage. All of this was embedded in a challenge to, "Give me a REAL reason to condemn homosexual marriage."


Conclusion

In Round 3, I argue that some of the dispute between Peter and I are semantic. I am arguing that Pat is a boy, while Peter is arguing that Pat is a girl, without realizing that we were talking about two different people.

I will plead guilty to Peter's assertion that I make no room for a Hurfordian normative state - because those types of states are not real.

And I deny Peter's claim that desirism is committed to the view that there is a close relationship between what people believe they have reason to praise and condemn and what they - in fact - have reason to praise or condemn.

All told, this has been a very good exchange. I look forward to Peter's responses.

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Re: Debate Between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Post by peterhurford » Mon Jan 27, 2014 6:06 pm

It’s now time for me to bring an end to Round 3, which means the next entry from Alonzo will be his last in this debate, though, we definitely can still continue this conversation elsewhere.


What is “morally wrong”?

Earlier in this debate, I was defending “rule utilitarianism”. But now that Alzono and I have discussed further, it seems that where we really disagree is on meta-ethics. I believe in what Alonzo has characterized as a “Hurfordian moral state”, whereas Alonzo does not. Let me tell you a little about what this moral state entails.

Both Alonzo and I want an account for what we mean when we say that something is “morally wrong”. Alonzo believes that the phrase “X is morally wrong” is shorthand, whether we know it or not, for “X is something a person would not do if they possessed only desires that people generally have reasons to promote”. I believe the phrase “X is morally wrong” is a bit simpler – I think it’s shorthand for “X violates a standard of mine that I am using to judge X”.

There’s another phrase similar to “morally wrong”… sound. When someone asks “if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Some people say yes and some people say no. This seems like a real debate until we realize that the “yes” people all believe the word “sound” refers to “acoustic vibrations in the air” and the “no” people all believe the word “sound” refers to “auditory perceptions”. So they’re both right!

The same is true with the word “morality”. So when philosopher Immanuel Kant walks into the bar and asks us if it’s morally okay to lie, we have to ask Kant to clarify what he means by “morally ok”. Once he clarifies he means in reference to “something being willed as a hypothetical universal law”, we can recognize that lying would not make sense when willed as such a universal law and let Kant go on his merry way with his definition of morality.

Similarly, if we run into Bentham and he wants to know if he can make a white lie to his wife and say that her dress doesn’t make her look fat, we can eschew Kant and instead evaluate morality based on utilitarianism – the predominance of pleasure over pain does perhaps seem most satisfied with this white lie, given prevailing social conventions.

Either of these standards, and many more, can be used to evaluate actions.

“Morality” is similar to “sound” -- it can mean different things to different people. The same is true with morality – the phrase “morally wrong” does mean different things when you’re talking with different people. No wonder ethics is confusing! This very fact probably explains why so much of Alonzo and I’s dispute is semantic.

People aren’t mistaken about which definition is correct; there are just multiple definitions. Sure, some definitions just don’t work -- I agree with Alonzo that we can’t base morality on what would be endorsed by a just and loving God if no such God exists. But there’s nothing incoherent about theorizing about what maximizes pleasure and what can’t be willed as a universal law.

This view is called “end relational theory” by some philosophers, but is probably better known to Alonzo and people who read LessWrong as “pluralistic moral reductionism”, which Alonzo’s friend Luke Muelhauser has called it. For those interested, I’ve written a lot more on this elsewhere.


But why care about what is “morally wrong”?

So now that we know what “morally wrong” refers, we can ask what is morally wrong. The answer, however, depends entirely on what standard you choose. I personally have been using some sort of rule utilitarianism as my standard.

However, in reaction, Alonzo asks “Why?”, noting that Alonzo has “not heard much about how Harford would handle the possibility of a state in which an agent's desires would motivate them to thwart the realization of such a state.”

My reaction is that there is no such practical reason. This appears to be a category error -- Alonzo is looking for a practical reason where I’m giving a moral one. I’m not postulating some ghostly magic realm that somehow compels people to morality -- I agree with Alonzo that no such realm exists. Instead, I’m saying that when Alice robs a bank, I personally find her action morally wrong regardless of her desires, based on my application of utilitarianism. Alice has a moral reason to avoid robbing the bank -- that of utilitarianism, or Kantianism, or desirism -- but perhaps no practical reason.

Alonzo says that my normative state doesn’t exist. But it does -- it exists as a logical evaluation of “robbing a bank” by the standards “utilitarianism”, similar to how we can evaluate “1 + 1 = 3” using the standards of math. Perhaps we can think of it like a conditional imperative -- “If you want to follow utilitarianism, you should generally not rob the bank.” This is a true statement, regardless of whether or not you want to follow utilitarianism. It’s also an interesting and useful statement to the many of us who want to follow utilitarianism.

Postulating normative states should be no more controversial than postulating laws of mathematics. Asking “why should I care about what utilitarianism says?” doesn’t defeat utilitarianism, because utilitarianism never intended to issue you a practical reason.

Alonzo may confine morality to practical desires, but I don’t have to. Alonzo may think that there’s an advantage to having desirism linked with the practical, but I see this as a disadvantage, because it quickly leads to confusion. Instead, I find it much easier to think about the two worlds separately. First, ask what is moral; what you care about seeing in the world and how you wish the world was different. Then, once you know what actions you care about, next ask how to accomplish that world and how to give other practical people reason to act with you. Any moral system -- from utilitarianism to desirism to Kantian deontology -- may follow this pattern and achieve practical success from non-motivating moral claims.


So where does desirism fit in?

I agree with Alzono about his definition of desire. I agree with his analysis that desires alone provide practical reasons to act. I agree with how Alonzo is now talking about rules. I think desirism makes many true claims. However, I’m still a bit confused about where desirism comes down when splitting between the “practical” and the “normative”.

I personally see two different worlds. In one world -- the moral world -- we want to know “Ok, regardless of what Alice wants, is her action of robbing a bank morally bad?” Here, since we’re personally doing the evaluating, we must ask ourselves what moral standard we care about. We then pick that moral standard, compare the action to that standard, and evaluate. (Note that I don’t believe there is “one true moral standard” that we must pick.)

In another world -- the practical world -- we want to know “Ok, since we know robbing banks is bad, how can we get Alice not to rob the bank?” Alonzo suggests that we should use praise and condemnation to mold Alice’s desires until she no longer wants to rob a bank. I think this is great -- however, when we’re asking solely about the pragmatic work of convincing Alice, I wonder why Alonzo has excluded other very useful social tools, like appealing to Alice’s self-interest, adding more security guards to the bank, adding more police surveillance on Alice, etc. There are many times when mere praise and condemnation won’t be enough.

Alonzo is correct that desires are important. Just as desires dictate what rules we pick for rule utilitarianism, desires will also dictate what moral standards we pick. But I think Alonzo confuses the issue by blurring these two worlds together.

Alonzo is really interested in praise and condemnation and making sure people have a practical desire-based reason for changing their behavior. However, if Alonzo is speaking about the first world -- trying to assess the morality of Alice’s action -- he shouldn’t be interested in what Alice has practical reason to do. Instead, he should just be interested in what is and is not moral according to his preferred moral standard, and issue such an evaluation.

And if Alonzo is speaking about the second world -- trying to convince Alice not to rob the bank -- he should admit the existence of other important social tools that go beyond praise and condemnation. He shouldn’t dismiss them as the “zebras” and “giraffes” when he wants to talk about “cats”. When asking about social tools, there’s nothing special about talking about praise and condemnation. It’s like going to a zooology conference and getting confused when they talk about animals other than cats.


Where are we now?

Heading into the final round, I want to make sure I’ve done my best to be clear and carve out misunderstandings and miscommunications so that we can focus on our core disagreements. Nothing is worse than spending an entire round of the debate arguing based on something you misunderstood because the author wasn’t clear enough about what they said. But being clear is very hard, and in my experience it often does take multiple rounds to even figure out what the debate is really about, let alone to debate it.

Previously, I asked Alonzo about desirism’s evaluation of slavery, and what that evaluation for slavery would have been back in the antebellum south, when there didn’t seem to exist at the time much motivation to eliminate slavery. Alonzo’s response is well-taken and I agree with what he says and concede that point.

Nearing the end of the day, there’s not much I disagree with desirism. I accept Alonzo’s definition of desire. I accept Alonzo’s claim that desires are ultimately what control our motivation. I think desirism is a workable way of assessing what is in and is not moral. I’m very sympathetic to Alonzo’s claim that objective desire fulfillment matters more than subjective desire satisfaction (believing one’s desire to be accomplished when in fact it is not). Also, I agree praise and condemnation are important social tools for altering malleable desires.

However, I will rest my third round on two core disagreements:
  • From a practical perspective, there is nothing special about praise and condemnation, and desirism would do better to consider the full range of ways to change people’s behaviors. (h)
  • From a normative perspective, there is nothing special about practical reason and desirism would do better to admit the existence of a plurality of moral views not based on providing such a motivation. (e2)
I may have some other disagreements if I thought about desirism some more, but in the interest of firmly cemented goalposts, I admit only these two considerations as why I reject desirism. To win me over, Alonzo would have to…
  • ...(1) unconfuse the practical-normative issue
  • ...either (2a) see desirism as one moral theory among many in the end-relational model (as he has tepidly accepted elsewhere) or (2b) poke a hole in the end-relational model
  • ...and (3a) either admit more than just praise and condemnation to his suite of social tools or (3b) explain what makes praise and condemnation special.
I recognize that there’s a lot of pressure heading into the final round. Anything Alonzo says, he wouldn’t be able to clarify any more in the debate. I get the last word and any confusions I make remain here forever. I hope I have made it as easy as possible for Alonzo to identify confusions and disagreements and I invite him to continue to do the same for me.
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Re: Debate Between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Post by Alonzo Fyfe » Tue Feb 11, 2014 3:12 pm

Peter is a most admirable person.

If one looks at the projects that Peter has adopted, one can see many reasons for people generally to promote similar interests. He is heavily involved in a project called "effective altruism" which seeks to identify the most efficient charitable projects - having the greatest impact per dollar spent. To help ensure he is doing real good, he subjects his beliefs to public scrutiny. His participation in this discussion may be seen in that context.

Very few people adopt such worthy projects - myself included.

Tools

In my last post, I attempted (and apparently failed) to correct a misapprehension Peter has of desirism.

One again, he wrote as if assigning the term 'morality' to the use of reward/praise and punishment/condemnation somehow denigrates other ways of altering the behavior of others - such as practical reason and deterrence.

Let me try again.

I have a toolbox with hammers, pliers, and screwdrivers. The fact that I apply the term 'pliers' to only a subset of the tools does not imply that people should toss out their hammers and screwdrivers. All of these tools are useful. They just have different names.

I distinguish morality from practical reasoning and deterrence. I am not denigrating or refusing to recognize the usefulness of practical reason or deterrence (law). I am simply giving them different names.

Pluralistic Moral Reductionism

Speaking of naming things, in his last post, Peter justified attributing normativity to the project of maximizing utility through rules by appeal to Luke Muehlhauser's "Pluralistic Moral Reductionism." However, I think he misrepresents the theory.

As Peter reported, Luke illustrates Pluralistic Moral Reductionism using the term "sound".

If a tree falls in the woods and there is nobody around to hear it, does it make any sound?

Well, that depends. If by ‘sound’ you mean ‘percussion waves that would be able to vibrate the eardrums so as to create an audible sensation in a normally functioning human,’ the answer would be, “Yes". However, if you mean ‘the actual experience generated by those percussion waves striking an eardrum’, the answer would be "No."

And both participants would give these answers. What appears to be a disagreement is not a disagreement in fact.

Similarly, two people using different definitions of 'morality' may also only be having an apparent disagreement and not a disagreement in fact. They may be using different definitions of 'moralty'.

We can resolve these apparent disagreements by "replacing the symbol with the substance". When two agents find themselves in a dispute over whether a tree falling in the woods generates any sound, they should respond to this apparent disagreement by replacing the symbol 'sound' with the substance. In one case, that substance is the percussion waves and, in the other, it is the audible sensation.

Suddenly, the dispute vanishes.

Applying this to morality is an invitation to each participant to replace the symbol of moral terms with their substance. All semantic disputes will disappear, leaving only disputes over matters of substance.

I will do this as much as space allows in the next section. However, this practice comes with a hazard.

Pluralistic <Term> Reductionism respects the fact that a term can have a number of different meanings. However, it does not empower a person to alter the properties of a thing simply by changing its name. I can call my laptop 'a zepplin' if I wish. However, doing so does not magically transform it into a helium-filled balloon capable of carrying passengers.

Accordingly, we can attach the term 'morality' to maximizing the total number of paperclips or counting the grains of sand on the beach. However, doing so does not generate a reason to actually bring about these ends or perform these actions. Those reasons exist (or not) as a matter of fact - independent of the words we use. If there is a reason to do either of these things, it will be found in their relationship to desires.

In replacing the symbol with the substance, Peter's 'normativity' will turn out to be a symbol without a substance.

Applying Pluralistic Moral Reductionism

Here, let me replace a number of 'symbols' used not only with respect to morality but with respect to all value, with the substance.

Desirism accounts for what all value-laden terms have in common - that which makes them value-laden terms, and for their individual differences.

All value-laden terms relate objects of evaluation to desires. Specifically, they identify whether the object of evaluation objectively satisfies or thwarts a set of desires, and whether it does so directly or indirectly. To 'objectively satisfy' a desire that P, the state of affairs must be one in which P is true.

Value-laden terms differ in terms of their standard objects of evaluation, different desires, and different relationships between them - objectively satisfy or thwart, directly or indirectly (or both).

• A useful object or state is one that can fulfill desires indirectly - by bringing about a state that fulfills desires directly.

• A situation is dangerous if it has the potential to create a state that thwarts several or strong desires.

• A person is harmed when her strong and stable desires are thwarted. A person can be harmed without knowing it, as when an envelope of cash sent to a person without her knowledge gets intercepted by a thief.

• An injury or an illness is a change in physical or mental functioning that directly (pain, discomfort) or indirectly (disability, death) thwarts the desires of the agent whose functioning has changed. An injury has a cause that can be seen (trampled by a horse, stabbed, shot). An illness has a cause that cannot be seen (bacteria or virus, cancer). An injury has a cause that can be seen (being shot, stabbed, or trampled by a horse).

• Beauty applies to things seen or heard according to their ability to fulfill desires directly - through the mere experience of the sight or sound.

Desirism explains the three categories of action:

• Obligatory - what the person with good desires would do.

• Prohibited - what the person with good desires would not do, and non-obligatory permissions - what a person with good desires would not do.

• Non-obligatory permissions - What a person with good desires may or may not do.

When a person does what is prohibited, people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn him where condemnation serves generally to promote those desires that will motivate people to avoid that which is prohibited. When a person does that which is obligatory, people generally have many and strong reasons to praise him to reinforce in him and others those desires that motivate similar acts.

In fact, moral terms not only describe the act as one that people generally have many and strong reasons to praise or condemn, they contain the praise or condemnation that they claim people have reason to give. “You were wrong to release that information” not only reports that a person with good desires would not have released it, but condemn the person who did.

In some areas, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote diverse interests. Desires regarding what to eat, what to wear, what type of work to do, where to live, the qualities of a mate - these are desires where diversity reduces conflict and fits people into a variety of useful roles. This explains the realm of non-obligatory permissions.

A “supererogatory” action is generally understood as one that goes above and beyond the call of duty. In desirism, this symbol is reduced to the substance where a person acts in accordance with desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, but which are stronger than what people generally can expect to be able to promote in most people.

What is an ‘excuse’? Answer: An excuse is a claim that breaks the inference from an act that people generally have reason to prevent through condemnation and the desires of the agent. A car goes through a red light, causing an accident. People generally have reasons to promote an aversion to going through red lights. The agent claims that somebody with such an aversion still would not have been able to stop because of a mechanical failure. By implication, the accident is not the driver's fault - the driver is not deserving of condemnation - because there is no evidence that the driver's desires (or the desires of people in the same situation) do not need molding.

What is ‘negligence’? Answer: Negligent wrongdoing represents an inadequate level of concern for the wellbeing of others. A person concerned with the well-being of others is always asking themselves if their actions will cause harm, in the same way that a person with an aversion to pain is always asking himself if his action will result in pain. If a person is not trying to prevent such a state we can infer that the person does not have the proper level of concern with preventing such a state. This level of concern can be promoted using punishments such as condemnation against those who are negligent.

What is "mens rea"? Answer: Moral culpability generally requires proving that the accused has 'mens rea' (or a guilty mind). A person at an airport walks away with a bag that is not his. Is he a thief, or was this an innocent mistake? Wrongdoing is not found in the physical act itself - it is the same in both instances. Nor is there any culpability in the belief that the suitcase belongs to somebody else or to oneself. The difference between the thief and the person making an innocent mistake is found in the differences in the desires of the two agents - in the states they are differently motivated to realize.

Practical 'ought' has, as its object of evaluation, a potential action and relates it to whether the act will lead to states that - directly or indirectly - fulfill the desires of the actor (regardless of whether those desires are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote/inhibit).

Before I close, I want to make one more claim about the pluralistic moral reductionism and desirism. If a speaker were to make the substitutions that desirism recommends, people generally will be able to understand what desirism is saying with very little need for translation. In other words, it accounts to a substantial degree to how people are actually using the terms. However, nothing of substance actually depends on this fact.

Conclusion

Since Peter brought up pluralistic moral reductionism, I invite him to replace the symbol with the substance. Speak of what is literally true if acting on rules that, if generally adopted, would maximize utility - what would be true under any other name.

It would not include a property of normativity.

It would, however, be true that people generally will have many and strong reasons to promote an interest in such a project, and to do so using praise and condemnation. It will also be true that, sometimes, purely practical considerations will command the same actions - though not always. It is objectively true that people in future generations will have reason to be grateful, but those desires have no power to reach back in time to mold current desires or influence current action. This depends on people today having reason to promote present interests that will secure the interests of future generations. In the same way, it depends on people today having reason to promote interests that will secure the interests of animals that will secure the interests of animals.

It is not the only interest people generally have reason to promote (even if they could), but it is on the list.

Replace the symbol with the substance, and nothing that is true will conflict with desirism.

However, hold to the belief that one can alter the properties of something (e.g,, create a property of ‘normativity’) by changing its name, and there will be problems.

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Re: Debate Between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Post by peterhurford » Wed Mar 05, 2014 5:13 am



Hello, there. You didn’t think this was over, did you? Sorry for the delay. And thanks for the compliment, Alonzo.

Well, this is the final round, and I get the last say. So I have a lot of pressure to offer some sort of tidy conclusion here.

Previously, I argued two things:

…First, from a practical perspective, there is nothing special about praise and condemnation, and desirism would do better to consider the full range of ways to change people’s behaviors.

…Second, from a normative perspective, there is nothing special about practical reason and desirism would do better to admit the existence of a plurality of moral views not based on providing such a motivation.

Let’s dive into each one in turn, and then we’ll see what we can do about concluding things.

~

Praise, Condemnation, and the Practical

Alonzo accuses me of writing as if “assigning the term ‘morality’ to the use of reward/praise and punishment/condemnation somehow denigrates other ways of altering the behavior of others - such as practical reason and deterrence”. Instead, Alonzo counters with a toolbox analogy, suggesting that all tools are useful at what they do, yet have separate names.

So, essentially, Alonzo agrees with me that there’s a time and place for advocating one’s view via praise / condemnation, and a time and place for using different tools, like appeal to self-interest, etc. Indeed, it’s likely that in any given situation either praise or condemnation is more useful, but rarely would both work equally well.

So, we’re done on this point. I won’t belabor it too much, but I do think Alonzo could take this agreement more to heart, and reflect in his own writings where social tools other than praise and condemnation would be useful.

~

Pluralism, Reductionism, and the Normative

On the other side of things, I argued that the world “moral” can refer to many different, mutually exclusive, concepts (pluralistic moral reductionism). In response, Alonzo asks me to “replace the symbol with the substance”, or to take out the world “moral” and replace it with what I think “moral” means.

Bob and Alice might debate over whether a tree makes a sound when it falls in the forest with no-one nearby to hear. The two are then invited to replace their “sound” symbol with the substance. Bob progresses to argue that a tree makes an acoustic vibration when it falls in the forest, only to find that Alice agrees with him completely, but argues that a tree fails to generate a audio perception when it falls in the forest. To Alice’s surprise, Bob in turn agrees and the two find that they don’t disagree on any actual empirical fact. Their dispute vanishes.

Likewise, perhaps Alonzo and I debate over whether “morality” is best represented by desirism or rule utilitarianism. Then we’re invited to replace our “morality” symbol with the substance. Alonzo progresses to argue that people generally have a practical reason to do that which a person with good desires would do while Peter mentions that he values following a set of rules that maximizes utility.

Alonzo argues that morality is about what people have practical reason to do whereas Peter argues that morality is, for each individual, about what they value and how they will evaluate the actions of others by reference to those values.

Did our dispute vanish? If so, I hope Alonzo will admit rule utilitarianism as another plausible substance behind the symbol “morality”, just like virtue ethics, deontology, etc.

~

Is Normativity a Zepplin?

In response, Alonzo argues:
However, it does not empower a person to alter the properties of a thing simply by changing its name. I can call my laptop 'a zepplin' if I wish. However, doing so does not magically transform it into a helium-filled balloon capable of carrying passengers.

Accordingly, we can attach the term 'morality' to maximizing the total number of paperclips or counting the grains of sand on the beach. However, doing so does not generate a reason to actually bring about these ends or perform these actions. Those reasons exist (or not) as a matter of fact - independent of the words we use. If there is a reason to do either of these things, it will be found in their relationship to desires.

In replacing the symbol with the substance, Peter's 'normativity' will turn out to be a symbol without a substance.
…Let it not be said that Alonzo doesn’t care about reasons for action. However, this kind of “reasons for action” substance is not the only substance that one could care about. Instead, as I’ve offered before, my normativity is about normative reasons, not practical ones.

Previously, I gave the example of the bank robber. An example familiar to Alonzo is Hateful Craig, the person who says “Using reason alone, I challenge you to convince me – somebody who hates everyone – to want to fulfill the desires of others.” Alonzo says it can’t be done, making a distinction between what Craig has practical reason to do and what Craig has moral / normative reason to do.

Unfortunately, Alonzo did not address this. Normative reasons, independent and distinct from practical reasons, have been a cornerstone of ethics for hundreds of years.

~

…And Now, the Conclusion

Good debates are hard. It’s hard to maintain focus and not talk past each other. I think Alonzo and I were successful in some respects and not in others. Originally, the core focus of the debate was whether desires or rules made for a better object of evaluation, though what was meant by “better” was never made clear.

Both Alonzo and I outlined our two theories well. We even changed our positions some, which is unique for a debate. To Alonzo’s credit, I got him to admit rules as a notable component of behavior, though still one subordinate to desires. I also got him to admit the existence of social tools other than praise and condemnation. To my credit, I conceded that desirism was a workable moral theory, though still one among many. We ended with much agreement on many issues.

Previously, I rested my third round by charging Alonzo to…

...(1) unconfuse the practical-normative issue
...either (2a) see desirism as one moral theory among many in the end-relational model (as he has tepidly accepted elsewhere) or (2b) poke a hole in the end-relational model
...and (3a) either admit more than just praise and condemnation to his suite of social tools or (3b) explain what makes praise and condemnation special.

It seems like Alonzo did take (3a). Hovever, (1) remains unachieved as the practical-normative issue is left unclear, with the associated (2a) / (2b) route still not resolved. We also end without having much progress on the key question about desires vs. rules or the meta-question of how we might make progress on that question.

All’s well that ends well, I guess. Not bad for our first debate.

Now I just need to figure out how to donate my remaining 821 words to poor debaters in developing world countries that still don’t have 2K word limits…
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