Sunday, February 04, 2007

Missing: One Goalpost

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It is a response to SPOM, spom, Spom, SPoM....


If I understand your goal in introducing a "Shared Paradigm of Morality" (SPoM), you are trying to establish a framework that would allow us to compare "moral theories" and determine when one theory is superior to another. In particular (if I understand you) we would use the "means" of "our cognitive, perceptive ... and evaluative faculties" to evaluate moral theories according to a chosen metric, with "maximize happiness and minimize suffering" being an example which is probably not ideal, but at least illustrative and not too far wrong.

Unfortunately, I fail to see how this helps us.

The primary reason that I do not believe your SPoM will help is that, from my perspective, the metric defines morality. I do not have a separate moral theory that can be evaluated against the metric. The metric defines what is good and what is bad. Sure, we can construct derivative theories about what kinds of actions best satisfy the metric, and such theories have practical significance. But since they are derivative, they cannot challenge the metric itself, except perhaps to demonstrate that the metric has undesirable properties that might lead to a revision of the metric.

What you appear to be proposing are what I would call derivative theories. Yes, we can evaluate various derivative theories according to the metric. Suppose we could demonstrate that the best response to anger is love and forgiveness. Fine. That would be good to know (if it were true). However, so far as our dialog is concerned, such a finding helps little to not at all, because nothing in either the metric or the derivative theory demands that God exists or that Christianity (in any meaningful form) is true.

You could even demonstrate that some particular action is good under the metric, given Christianity or even just deism, and bad otherwise. But that does not help either, because the truth of Christianity or even just deism is just what is in question.

You might try to demonstrate that the moral precepts of Christianity satisfy the metric so well that they must have divine origin. This would be a different sort of argument, one that perhaps has some chance of traction. You would have to account, though, for various highly sub-optimal precepts in the Bible. And of course, you would actually have to demonstrate, not just assert, that the moral precepts of Christianity are really superlative in relation to the metric.

From my perspective, I think there exist sufficient grounds for objective moral truths without ontological dependence on God. Those grounds are established by defining morality in terms of metrics applied to other objective truths. What those moral truths are may depend on whether or not God exists and other related questions that are objectively true or false, but the existence of moral truths by itself is insufficient to require a deity. I do not see how further discussion on the subject can help us make any progress, unless we independently establish sufficient reasons to believe or disbelieve that God exists and has particular characteristics. Or do you question that sufficient grounds for objective moral truths can exist without ontological dependence on God?

I will give brief answers to the five questions that you raised:

  1. If moral principles are not absolute, then what are they relative to? If they are relative to something which differs among potential observers, then in what sense are they objective?
  2. Do we accept that emotions are a valid way to perceive reality? If so, do we only include "positive" emotional states like empathy, or also "negative" emotions like anger or hatred?
  3. Why do people fail to act morally? Is moral failure primarily intellectual, emotional, or volitional? And how can it be prevented/corrected?
  4. Is there a unique solution which globally maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering? Or are there multiple local maxima which maximize the happiness of one particular population at the expense of others?
  5. Is it it our moral duty to choose an Operative Depiction of Reality that maximizes our motivation to do good, even if that conflicts with an ODoR that better fits the available evidence? Or is it possible -- within our existing paradigm -- to prove that no such conflict exists?

I am going to answer these from the perspective of Desire Utilitarianism (DU), as I understand it. According to DU, desires that promote other desires are good and desires that thwart other desires are bad. Actions can be evaluated in the same way. Also, desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

So, to answer (a), moral principles are relative to (the interconnected network of ) desires that exist. They are also relative to environmental factors which affects how some desires and actions affect other desires. For instance, gaining the technological capability to prevent some undesired consequences can affect the moral evaluation of desires and actions that might otherwise lead to those consequences. The moral evaluation of pouring CO2 into the atmosphere would change if a cheap and effective method for later capture and sequestration of CO2 were found.

Since we have experiences of emotion (and these experiences are real), we are perceiving a small part of reality when we experience emotion. This is true regardless of whether the emotions are "positive" or "negative"; labeling them as such is irrelevant to their reality. The reality of emotional experience is relevant to DU both we have desires to experience some emotions and not others. They are also relevant because they may cause, reflect or amplify desires to promote or thwart the desires of others.

Why do people fail to act morally? Alonzo suggests the following "formula":

Desires + Beliefs -> Intentions -> Intentional Actions

So, immoral actions can result from either immoral desires (desires that tend to thwart other desires) or false beliefs. Of course, in some cases moral actions can result from immoral desires combined with false beliefs, but only by accident, as it were. Similarly, moral desires and false beliefs can still lead to moral actions. However, moral actions will result most reliably when one has good desires and true beliefs.

How one prevents or corrects failure to act morally depends on whether the failure was rooted in bad desires or false beliefs (or both). If rooted in false beliefs, the beliefs need to be corrected (replaced with true beliefs). If rooted in bad desires, either the desires must be modified (if possible) or the action must be physically prevented. Alonzo argues that reason is ineffective at modifying desires, and that other tools like praise, condemnation, reward and punishment are needed.

Your question (d) is an interesting one, one that I have thought about. Under DU, the question would be stated a bit differently, but the same general flavor to the question would remain. I do not know what the answer is. It seems possible that either a single global maximum could exist, or multiple local maxima. Possibly, the existence of multiple local maxima might be reason to adjust the metric we use. Or, it may simply be a feature of reality.

Question (e) is also interesting. Before I answer, please recall the formula relating desires and beliefs to actions above and the subsequent discussion. The process by which desires get translated into intentions and then to actions is mediated by beliefs about how those desires will be fulfilled by various actions. An ODoR that conflicts with available evidence may change our expectations about the outcomes of various actions (and so, in effect, increase our motivation to do good), but the false beliefs (or at least probably false beliefs given the evidence) could corrupt our understanding of what is in fact good. Additionally, the false beliefs may interfere with our ability to bring about the good we desire.

Suppose my ODoR contains the notion that that Christianity is true and that we are all going to spend eternity either in heaven or hell. Because I desire happiness and lack of suffering both for myself and others, my desires and my beliefs would combine to create a strong motivation to do whatever is required to reach heaven and avoid hell, both for me and others, even if it meant enduring net suffering in this life. If this ODoR is false, this suffering will never be countered by eternal happiness, and what was thought to be good (and what would have been good if the ODoR was true) was in reality evil.

The issue is more complicated than that, but I hope you can see that motivation alone is not the only important factor.

Here is another way to look at the question. I have various desires with varying strengths. These desires will combine in various ways according to the expected outcomes of various actions, which I evaluate according to my beliefs. One of my desires is to know the truth, and this particular desire is strong, strong enough that I am not able to choose an ODoR that conflicts with my understanding of truth. Even if the desire were not quite so strong as that, promoting a desire for holding this ODoR would thwart my desire to believe truth (making it morally objectionable under DU). While not quite a proof that no conflict of the sort you describe exists, I think this hints at the approach such a proof might take.

I hope those answers are sufficient to help you understand where I am coming from.


1 comment:

Heart_Man said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.