Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
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faithlessgod
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Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe

Post by faithlessgod » Wed Nov 20, 2013 8:23 am

Introduction

This is the peanut gallery for those interested in following the debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo Fyfe. We are trying to have an online debate not dissimilar to those old debates on freeratio.org and accompanying those was a parallel thread called the "peanut gallery" where onlookers - but not the participants - could discuss the debate whilst it was ongoing. The participants could join in once the formal debate was over.

Background
Some background. I was an early participant in this forum arguing for Desirism versus other utilitarian frameworks. There is now a Facebook group for desirism https://www.facebook.com/groups/339818486099401/ (please feel to join if you are interested in Desirism). Another member - and more recently active - of this forum, Peter Hurford is also a member of that group and discussion between Peter and Alonzo evolved over which is the better form of utilitarianism. They wanted to have a formal online debate but debate.org did not allow them to do this with the rules that they had agreed. Given my knowledge of this forum I suggested that they do it here, and I am pleased (and I hope you are ) to see that hey have agreed and as you can see from the preceding sister thread - viewtopic.php?f=7&t=1024 - it has already started.

Rules

The Debate

1, The number of words for the arguments and responses (2000)

2. The number of rounds (4 - Alonzo starts)

3. The time period within which the debate operates. (First post November 18 - every 10 to 14 days thereafter in turns until finished.)

Managing the debate

I am the nominal moderator of the debate however I have no moderator powers here (nor am I asking for them). To make this work I request that no-one else intervenes in the main thread of the debate except for the participants themselves (and myself if necessary due to say a late submission). ( I request any forum moderator here to please monitor that thread (if they are not already interested anyway) and move any interloping posts to the peanut gallery (this thread) where the rest of us can debate the arguments as and when they occur). Similarly the debate participants can, of course, read this thread but should not themselves respond in this gallery until after the debate has been completed.

Notes
I have been away for a while but now we have a far better defender of desirism than myself as well as being the original discoverer of desirism participating here which I believe the forum founders always wanted and I am glad to have facilitated this.

Whilst I might have missed this if it has occurred recently, this might become a suitable template for future formal online debates in this forum. If this works maybe the moderators could consider creating a new sub-forum just for this purpose.

I hope you enjoy the debate!
Do not sacrifice truth on the altar of comfort

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Re: Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo

Post by kipkoan » Wed Dec 04, 2013 4:52 am

Two of the biggest problems I see with Peter's argument:
"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."
Rules (in the abstract) don't motivate people. Desires do.

"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."
How can we maximize something if we don't even know what it is?

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Re: Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo

Post by Arepo » Fri Dec 06, 2013 2:40 pm

kipkoan wrote:How can we maximize something if we don't even know what it is?
Not knowing with perfect precision isn't equivalent to having no information. We could, for eg, assign (equal?) weight to all values in the relatively small class of things that might be utility, and try to maximise their sum.
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Re: Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo

Post by Arepo » Tue Dec 31, 2013 1:26 am

Just catching up with this now. I don't want to be too critical, since I disagree on some fundamental issues with both, so it might not be constructive in the time I have to spend on it. I would like to emphasise this point by Peter:
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.

(the principle of meta-utilitarianism)
I think this point is frequently lost by critics and even supporters of utilitarianism, who often refer incongruously to utilitarianism as 'a useful too' or similar - it's nothing if not an ultimate theory. We shouldn't be calling this idea 'meta-utilitarianism'; this is utilitarianism simpliciter, and any argument which treats it otherwise is doomed to miss the mark.
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Re: Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo

Post by Arepo » Tue Dec 31, 2013 3:42 pm

It occurs to me now that, while I liked Alonzo's first post on the whole as an example of clarity, I didn't understand his argument for how desirism determines 'what counts as utility'. The key sentence, I think, is this: 'Every desire that P, for some proposition P, provides an agent with a motivating reason to realize states of affairs where P is true. '

If I'm reading Alonzo right, then he believes that in that sentence is the key to identifying the nature of utility. But I'm not sure what he means by 'provides an agent with a motivating reason', since he doesn't describe how that happens. What is the precise relationship of a desire to 'a motivating reason'?

I suspect answering this question is made trickier by the point made by Peter (via Luke Muehlahuser), that we don't know what desires are or even whether the concept usefully maps onto any particular brain state. So I'll translate the phrase for now into 'a desire entails a motivating reason...'

But I'm still not sure what a 'motivating reason' is. Is it different from 'motivation' or 'a reason'? This is underspecified. I'd like to hear Alonzo distinguish it from the sort of 'reason' that makes an apple fall to the ground or an atom cohere - ie unconscious physical law, which we don't credit with valence - without invoking any spooky metaphysics. And having done so, he'll need to justify the implicit claim that having a motivating reason to achieve some state S lends valence to S, distinct from the associated brain state of realising (or believing) that S has come to pass.
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"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.

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Re: Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo

Post by peterhurford » Tue Dec 31, 2013 7:34 pm

Arepo wrote:I don't want to be too critical, since I disagree on some fundamental issues with both
I'd be interested in hearing what fundamental issues you have with my side of things, because I think chances are good that I'm missing something and some things need to be polished.
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Re: Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo

Post by Arepo » Thu Jan 02, 2014 8:04 pm

Mainly on preference vs hedonism. I would really like to write a proper essay on the subject, but have been saying that for ages, and the more I talk about it in shortish posts, the less time I'll ever have to do it properly. Actually maybe two essays - my arguments for accepting hedonism vs rejecting preference don't seem to overlap that much.

Maybe also on the concept of 'two-level'. It feels far more likely that there's a continuum of types of thinking running from mathematical calculation through to reacting physically, with no significant dividing line between them,
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Re: Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo

Post by Arepo » Thu Jan 02, 2014 8:58 pm

Onto Alonzo's second post:
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.
I think Alonzo has slightly mis-stated Peter's position here. Peter asked what makes one utilitarian theory better than another, not a moral theory in the more general sense.

Possibly Alonzo's question makes more sense, on precisely the reasoning Peter gave - once you've agreed that you're trying to maximise utility, the rest is mostly empirical detail. You might still dispute what constitutes utility, but barring that, for any given definition, whether you think rule-following, frequent calculation or other strategy works best, you're still agreeing on the underlying theory.

But I also think Alonzo's answer is a bit naive, since at the fundamental level, truth is a much murkier concept than we're used to. My own view is that it and ethics/motivation are not discrete concepts, and that if anything, truth is a subset of the latter. I believe that's a highly controversial view even among utilitarians, so I can hardly criticise anyone for not embracing it here, but even without asserting that much, I do think Alonzo's terms are vague enough as to not be very useful.

After all, it becomes recursive, even if truth is well defined. If Alonzo's answer to 'why is theory X better?' is 'because it's true', we can ask 'why does being true make it better?' - and then we seem to be back in the realm of ethical questions.

***

I wonder if it would be a fair characterisation of Alonzo's argument in the 'Desirism vs. Two-Level Utilitarianism' section that 'desires' as he conceives them are basically what Peter has in mind by 'rules', but with a better mapping to physical processes in the brain?

***
The question of what is moral or immoral is the question of what people generally have reason to reward/praise or punish/condemn.
Hm, this is not a claim I like. It appears to be a restatement of a common claim that what is moral is best understood as what's 'praiseworthy' or 'blameworthy'. But I find it very unconvincing, since it just seems to be redefining the claim - ie it doesn't map any element of it onto the physical world (or at least, no element that wasn't already mapped), or recursing it. What do people have reason to reward/praise or punish/condemn, if we're not allowed to invoke value in our answer?

I can't think of anything, or see anything in Alonzo's post that could break this recursion. The impossibility of doing so is part of the thesis of John Broome's essay, 'Can there be a Preference-based Utilitarianism', so I'm in good company here.

***

My last concern with Alonzo's argument is a general one, about how he views personal identity. His repeated invocation of 'agents' makes me wonder what his views on personal identity are. The relevance of agents seems almost totally eliminated by a deflationary theory of identity, which seems so ineluctable given either modern neuroscience or prejudice free reductionistic reasoning, that any theory which relies on its falsity looks dead in the water.

So I'd be interested to know whether Alonzo rejects the deflationary theory, or the claim that desirism contradicts it, or both.
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"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.

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Re: Peanut Gallery: Debate between Peter Hurford and Alonzo

Post by Arepo » Fri Jan 03, 2014 2:30 pm

Just finished Peter's second reply. I'd say I'm more on board with his arguments than Alonzo's, but would quibble a few points in his challenge:

1) All this talk of oughting and shoulding makes me anxious. I think norms are a false start for secular ethics (or religious ethics, come to that), which sometimes do more harm than good, eg by making the interlocutor sound like they're sanctimoniously imposing their own intellectual preferences. In the philosophical discourse I've seen, there seems to be an explanatory gap without them, so again I can't condemn anyone for leaning on them provisionally. But in technical discussion I would rather see their provisionality recognised eg with remarks like 'if we believe X matters then Y', rather than 'Y matters'.

Alonzo, I imagine, would simply deny the existence of the norms that Peter claims he's 'missing the point about', and Peter hasn't really given him reason to go beyond that. In fact, his claim that 'mattering' must entail 'mattering to someone' entails just such a denial.

2) In ‘Desirism vs. Two-Level Utilitarianism’, Peter’s broad use of the concept of rules gets a little tenuous, and it occurs to me now, that he’s never really said what he means by a rule (to be fair, I don’t think Alonzo’s really said what he means by a desire, but, in terms of human activity, it does seem better implicitly understood). Here Peter seems to mean a habit, as in something we do repeatedly (or rather, closely analogously).

That makes sense in the context he uses it, and I otherwise found this section quite convincing, but ‘go to the gym every weekday’ seems rather differently motivating from ‘don’t kill people’. It’s true I habitually don’t kill people, and arguably had someone with my genetics been born in a different time they would have done, but the actual mental process in my brain that sends me to the gym feels wholly unlike the perceived absence of mental process that means I don’t have a place on Britain’s Most Wanted list.
"These were my only good shoes."
"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.

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