Desirism: The Is/Ought Gap

In the last post, I gave a brief and partial description of Desirism’s analysis of value, which led us to an account of moral value. There, it was given that a morally good desire-type is one which, based on certain considerations regarding how it relates to other desire-types, yields a net positive value. A morally bad or evil desire-type yields a net negative value. But so far this only explains the proper descriptive application of moral terms, whereas the point of such terms supposedly rests in their prescriptivity. For a fully satisfying moral theory, the Desirist has to explain how to parlay his description into statements with normative force. Or, to put this problem in a common expression, Desirism must explain how to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.
What follows are quotations of Alonzo Fyfe’s online book, Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist’s Quest for Moral Truth, which I take as my source for the Desirist response to this issue. The section on “The Is/Ought Gap1 opens with Hume’s challenge..

David Hume proposed that there was a distinction between value and fact. He stated that ‘is’ premises (factual premises) cannot yield an ‘ought’ conclusion (a value conclusion). This is because ‘is’ and ‘ought’ describe two different types of relationships, and any who holds that the latter relationship can be derived from the former needs to explain how this is done.

Okay, so how is this to be done? Fyfe points us towards an example of how this may work in the guise of hypothetical imperatives. These come in the form “If S wants X, then S ought to do Y”: for example, “If you want to get good grades, you ought to study hard”, or “If low-impact strength training is your desire, then you should get a Stairmaster”. Often the ‘ought’ or ‘should’ is only implied, e.g. “If you wish to get to heaven, then give your heart to the Lord”. Such imperatives are unproblematic because the link between the action prescribed and the agent’s desire is clear: doing the prescribed action will fulfill the desire cited. Fyfe thus deduces a simple argument schema by which ought statements can be derived..

(1) Agent desires that D
(2) Action A will bring about D

Therefore, the agent ought to do A

Hypothetical imperatives play a huge role in our practical reasoning. Yet, as Fyfe notes, the real world is much more complex than this kind of statement would suggest. Each of us has a multitude of desires, and every one of the multitude counts toward determining what is the practically rational thing to do. So, to show what one ought do, on the whole, an argument or deduction would go something like..

(1) Agent desires that {D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}
(2) Action A will bring about max{D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}

Therefore, Agent ought to do A.

.. where “D1S1” represents a desire of some particular strength, “{D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}” represents a set of more or less strong desires belonging to the agent, and “Action A will bring about max{D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}” tells us that a particular action will maximize the value realized, relative to that set of desires. Our conclusion states just what we would expect: the action which best serves the agent’s interests (i.e their desires) is what the agent ought to do.
The above argument form works, not just for actions, but for states of affairs which bring about the desired result. For example, if one desires (on the whole) an overseas vacation, then one ought bring about the state of affairs in which one has the funds to book the trip. But states of affairs include one’s own desires too, and if the above form of argument is valid, so too is a special case of that form..

(1) Agent desires that {D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}
(2) Desire DxSx will bring about max{D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}

Therefore, agent ought to desire DxSx.

.. assuming, since ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, that bringing about the desire is within the power of the agent. Finally, Fyfe generalizes the argument form..

Not only do we have the ability to choose our own desires, we can choose (or, at least, influence) the desires that others have. We learn many of our desires through interaction with the external world. That external world includes other people — and we are a part of the external world for those others. As a part of their environment, we have the ability to influence the desires that they acquire.

The formula looks something like this:
(1) Agents desire that {D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn} for all desires.
(2) If everybody has desire DxSx, then max{D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}.

Therefore, everyone ought to desire DxSx.

These moral ‘ought’ conclusions are derived entirely from ‘is’ premises, and in this they are as objective as any proposition in any science can be. It may be difficult to know if a universal desire that DxSx will lead to max{D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}, but ‘difficult to know’ still presupposes an objective truth that is difficult to know.

So, there we have it: an argument form that appears to allow us to derive a moral ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, a moral prescription from a description. The questions is: does it fulfill its promise?

Evaluation of Fyfe’s Schema

The above argument presents a couple of interpretive difficulties. The first of these is whether anything significant rides on the term “Agents” in (1), as opposed to “everybody”/”everyone” in (2) and the conclusion. I’ll return to this issue later on.
The second difficulty concerns the interpretation of the desire-set in premise (1). Is this set to be understood as agglomerative, each desire-token of the ‘Agents’ counting as a seperate member of the set? Apparently not, for Desirism evaluates desire-types against other desire-types2. It therefore seems that the best interpretation of the desire-set is that each member of the set specifies a (tokened) desire-type, and that the strength of the type specified is an average of the strength of desire-tokens3. A corollary of this view is that the members of the desire-set do not belong to any specific agent.
That’s a problem. Why? Because if the interpretation is correct, then the argument takes us from a premise concerning a description of a whole to a conclusion concerning the various parts that make up the whole. The worry is that Fyfe’s argument commits a kind of fallacy of division.
It might be instructive to look it an example here. Surprisingly, Fyfe offers one in the same book as I’ve taken his argument from4:

We all make mistakes from time to time. In a recent debate I complained that the Bush budget deficit means that every taxpaying household faced $12,000 worth of additional personal debt. It is as if the government ran up $12,000 worth of charges on each family’s credit card and gave the taxpayer’s children the bill to pay, with interest.
In reality, this is an unfair argument. Each family will not be asked to pay back an equal portion of the debt. Some will pay back more than others, and the poorest will pay back none at all. I do not know what the actual breakdown is. However, for the point that I have to make here, that does not change the fact that dividing the debt equally among the people is fallacious reasoning. It is used by demagogues to frighten average-income people into thinking that their personal situation is worse than it really is. It is a piece of intellectual recklessness that I recently caught myself using. Once I recognized it, I resolved that I would not repeat it.

Here, Fyfe had taken an average of the budget deficit over households and assumed the figure to be applicable to each individual household. The argument is unfair because what is the property of a whole – the budget deficit for households describes a property of a nation – is assumed to be a property of the parts – a personal deficit for individual households. Now take Fyfe’s argument:

(1) Agents desire that {D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn} for all desires.
(2) If everybody has desire DxSx, then max{D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}.

Therefore, everyone ought to desire DxSx.

Ostensively, “Agents” refers to a group of people, and we can infer from the sketch in the previous post that the group is to include all those with desires. We’ve decided that the desire-set picks out (tokened) desire-types with average strengths, and these are plausibly taken to be those of the group of all desirers. Thus, (1) states a property of a whole: it states which desire-types are tokened and at what average strength by the group of all those with desires.
In contrast, premise (2) and the conclusion mention members of the group, every single member to be exact. So, in order for the argument to be valid, a premise is needed to link the group to its members, the whole to its parts. A version of the argument modified in this way would look like..

(1) Agents desire that {D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn} for all desires.
(A) (So) everybody desires that {D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn} for all desires.
(2) If everybody has desire DxSx, then max{D1S1, D2S3, D3S3,… DnSn}.
(C) (Therefore) everyone ought to desire DxSx.

.. with (A) being deduced from (1), and then combining with (2) to yield (C). But the move from (1) to (A) is just the same as the move from a whole to a part, from the budget deficit for households to the deficit for individual households. Thus, on this interpretation the argument commits the fallacy of division. It does not support the significant claim that everyone ought to desire a good desire5.
Having uncovered one untenable interpretation, we’d be well advised to look for another. As mentioned earlier, “Agents” may or may not be treated as synonymous with “everybody”/”everyone”, and so one might think that Fyfe’s argument is sound on the assumption that these are synonymous. If so, then one is looking at an argument containing (A), (2) and (C). However, (A) is false. It is not the case that everybody desires as the desire-set describes, for the desire-types in the set are averages of what everybody desires at the strength they desire it. Perhaps nobody is properly described by the desire-set, for they may be no such man as the ‘Average Man’. This interpretation doesn’t work either.

A final option would be to replace reference to “everybody”/”everyone” with “Agents” throughout, so that the conclusion prescribes a particular desire for all desirers as a whole, rather than the individual members. But whilst there’s some sense in saying that a group of persons ought to do something (e.g. “The U.S. ought to keep out of the Middle East”), there is no sense in saying that a group of persons ought to have a particular desire, since groups qua groups do not have desires.

I conclude, then, that on no interpretation is Fyfe’s proposed deduction of a moral ‘ought’ from ‘is’ premises sound. This is not to say that the description Desirism gives of moral terms is wrong, in fact i think it is on the right track, but certainly the claim to moral prescriptivity cannot be sustained on the grounds above.

1 Section III: The Is/Ought Gap
2 See my previous post.
3 In order to obtain a useful average, I’ve in mind that someone who lacks a given desire could be counted as having that desire at nil strength.
4 Section VI: Other Fallacies.
5 There’s another problem, too. If the argument which Fyfe gives has a valid form, then similar arguments which refer to odd sets of desirers will be valid too. So, the sets “Saudi Arabians”, “Miley Cyrus fans” and “The Lovely Couple” should each have an associated desire-set, which certain desires may bettter fulfill than others, and from which an ‘ought’ statement can be extracted. These won’t, by the Desirist’s lights, count as a moral oughts, but there seems to be no reason not to take them seriously as some kind of oughts. Supposing that we do, how can we give the moral ought the special normative force over and above the arbitrary oughts that it intuitively has?

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28 thoughts on “Desirism: The Is/Ought Gap

  1. Yair says:

    Good analysis.

    I think that the reason that the first derivation “works” is because we interpret “ought” to mean “taking this action will advance his aims” or something like that; and that is an unproblematic causal statement. What gives the “ought” its ”force’ is the added assumption that agents will want to advance their aims, so (barring error or ignorance) the agent will adopt the prescription once he’s become aware of its truth. This is how you derive an ought from an is – indeed, this is how Hume derived an ought from an is. It is not a mere formal derivation, it is a description of real-world consequences and reliant on real-world assumptions.

    However, the derivations of desirism don’t allow this interpretation. There is no average agent that will want to further the average aim or can realize what will further it, so the prescription is pointless and does not amount to an “ought”. The formal similarity between the derivations is misleading – the real assumptions about reality that underly the validity of the “ought” derivation in the first case do not apply to the derivation of the “moral ought” of desirism.

  2. Charles says:

    As far I can tell, Alonzo does not make this exact argument in his book.

  3. TaiChi says:

    Yair,
    Thanks. I think you’re basically right: just as ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, ‘ought’ also implies ‘is in your interest’.

    Charles,
    Does he make a different argument, or a variation on the same one above?

  4. TaiChi says:

    Umm… I possibly turned off comments for awhile there, but it’s back on now. I was trying to change my settings so that I didn’t have to approve new commentators for them to post.

  5. faithlessgod says:

    Hi TaiChi

    First note that this chapter is old and Fyfe in his many later blog articles on this makes no reference to maximising desires, since he later discovered how this can be misread and so now indeed explicitly rejects this – calling this desire fulfilment act utilitarianism and not DU or desirism.

    I, possibly, go further than him in this regard since the distribution of desires among agents and the strengths with which they hold such desires is part of what is being determined and so is an output of the analysis not an input. So I do not address maximising, averages or aggegates in what follows, these are misleading in my opinion. (However let us see how Alonzo develops his quantification of value arguments that he is currently blogging about in response to Carrol’s criticism of Harris).

    Really addressing a question in your previous post but relevant here too:

    Now with regard to the unrestricted scope – one sense of the universal or generality – the reason to include all desires is that is what is implied by the practical usage of moral terms across cultures. Indeed it is in virtue of this feature that anthropologists can identify what is regarded as moral within cultures. The practical usage meaning is the cross-cultural context of morality whereas the cultural values are the content of that moral systems (and can clearly vary across cultures).

    That is a key feature of moral claims is that they apply to everyone who is in a suitably similar situation. And a key consequent feature is that these claims are about how anyone who is in such a situation should act, which implies that they may not so act. (Since we can only modify intentional actions that leads back to influencing desires and so the desires they should have)

    Finally there may be sound, strong and valid arguments to restrict the scope of desires but these need to be established against a default background or null hypothesis – which is unrestricted scope – which is what results when one makes the fewest possible assumptions about the background.

    Now back to your issue over is/ought and your question over the fallacy of division.

    1. People generally inhibit desires that tend to thwart their desires
    2. An Agent A has a desire that P
    3. The desire that P tends to thwart the desires of people generally
    4. People generally have reasons to inhibit the desire that P (from 1 and 3)
    5. People generally have reasons to discourage A from having the desire that P (from 2 and 4)
    6. A desire that people generally have reasons to discourage is a desire that an agent should not to have (definition of course)
    7. Agent A should not have the desire that P (from 5 and 6)

    Now, where is the fallacy of division?

    “A fallacy of division occurs when one reasons logically that something true of a thing must also be true of all or some of its parts.”
    This is not what is being argued here. Instead we are making a prediction under all-things-being-equal conditions that there is an all-things-considered reason to inhibit the desire in that agent. To the degree that that society approaches all-things-being-equal conditions this is likely to be an accurate prediction. To the degree that this society does not, then this can be developed further as a critique of that society – where, unless they can come up with sound, strong and valid arguments to justify this not-all-things-being-equal difference, their cultural based “morals” are built on false justifications.

    Finally is/ought is not being ignored here since the arguments are based, as were Hume’s moral system too, only on what “is”, not on what “is not”. It has long been understood that if one has an ought premise one can derive ought conclusions. Desires and reason to act are such ought premises. They are part of “is” and not “is not” – provided the reason to act exist of course, which desires are.

  6. TaiChi says:

    First note that this chapter is old and Fyfe in his many later blog articles..” ~ Faithlessgod

    Hi. Yes, I realize it’s old. But I thought it was Fyfe’s clearest statement on how his theory could count as prescriptive, which is why I chose it. Those from his blog that dealt with the topic were, to my mind, impressionistic rather than rigorous. That is why I chose to critique the e-book, but if you’d like to advance some particular post as canonical, I’ll have a go at that.

    Fyfe.. makes no reference to maximising desires” ~ Faithlessgod

    If you mean that he’s substantially changed his mind, then point me in the direction of some post of his or yours I can take as canonical, and I’ll see whether I think it makes sense.

    Now with regard to the unrestricted scope – one sense of the universal or generality – the reason to include all desires is that is what is implied by the practical usage of moral terms across cultures. ” ~ Faithlessgod

    I think this is a reason for the same moral code to apply to everybody, yes. But it is not a reason to consider all desire-types in deciding what that moral code should be. It is perfectly consistent with the universality of morality that only certain desire-types count, so long as the output, as you might call it, is a prescription for all.

    1. People generally [have reason to] inhibit desires that tend to thwart their desires
    2. An Agent A has a desire that P
    3. The desire that P tends to thwart the desires of people generally
    4. People generally have reasons to inhibit the desire that P (from 1 and 3)
    5. People generally have reasons to discourage A from having the desire that P (from 2 and 4)
    6. A desire that people generally have reasons to discourage is a desire that an agent should not .. have (definition of course)
    7. Agent A should not have the desire that P (from 5 and 6)

    Now, where is the fallacy of division?” ~ Faithlessgod

    Firstly, this is a different argument from the one Fyfe gives above, so I’m not obliged to find it guilty of the same fallacy to stand behind my post.
    Secondly, I don’t see why I should accept 6, which needs explanation – I’ll not let you get away with citing it as a definition (of what?), or as a matter ‘of course’.
    But to further my disagreement, here’s a counterexample: People generally believe in belief – they think that belief in God is a good thing, and that desire that members of society should have it. I, TaiChi, desire to be able to produce a disproof of God. Suppose that my desire to do so would lead me to formulate such a disproof, and that this disproof would lessen belief in God generally. Thus, people generally have reason to inhibit my desire to disprove God, and so by 6, this is a desire that I should not have. But I think I’m perfectly entitled to my desire.

    This is not what is being argued here. ” ~ Faithlessgod

    Please. It’s not what you think should be argued, perhaps, but it is what Fyfe argues in his e-book. Again, if you want to point me to single piece on this topic which you think is the desirist view, I’ll be happy to do a “take 2″ on the is/ought gap. Otherwise, I’m quite happy to take up other topics, leaving this one until I find something substantial I can get my teeth into.

  7. faithlessgod says:

    Hi TaiChi

    “That is why I chose to critique the e-book, but if you’d like to advance some particular post as canonical, I’ll have a go at that.”
    Fair enough. Unfortunately blogger is irreparably broken, and one cannot use google to seach blogspot blogs anymore (it use bloggers search which is sh*t) and the closest article I could find, not the one I had in mind, is
    Description and Prescription

    “I think this is a reason for the same moral code to apply to everybody, yes. But it is not a reason to consider all desire-types in deciding what that moral code should be. It is perfectly consistent with the universality of morality that only certain desire-types count, so long as the output, as you might call it, is a prescription for all.”
    Your third sentence is correct as far as it goes, however your question in the second sentence could be surely better asked the other way “But this a reason to consider all relevant desires in deciding what that moral code should be, what reasons are there for some desires to be ignored?”

    “Secondly, I don’t see why I should accept 6, which needs explanation – I’ll not let you get away with citing it as a definition (of what?), or as a matter ‘of course’”
    It is the best definition of what moral should/ought practically means as used generally, in terms of an external referent, if you have a better one what is it? And of course it is a definition, you can ignore 6 if you want, it makes no difference to the model.

    (One can insist that moral oughts only refer to categorical imperatives and since they do not exist then there are no moral oughts. However one has then has just defined the away the possibility of answering the question and turned the distinction into an a priori unfalsifiable dualism. The challenge in philosophy is to ask the right question, and not make a question unanswerable. I am not saying you are doing this, this is just some musing on this issue).

    Still people use moral oughts (with or without mistaking them for categorical imperatives) and this explains how this a plausible explanation of how this is possible.

    “People generally believe in belief – they think that belief in God is a good thing, and that desire that members of society should have it. I, TaiChi, desire to be able to produce a disproof of God. ”
    The usage of “people generally” is not how it is being used here, this has a specific meaning where “generally” means time- and place-transcendence. The “belief that God is a good thing” is a false belief and people generally have reason to inhibit the promotion of false beliefs, since false beliefs are more likely to leads to them to failing to achieve their ends and have unfulfillable ends..

    PS It would be good to have a preview function

  8. TaiChi says:

    Description and Prescription” ~ faithlessgod

    Cool, I appreciate that. I’ll put it on my list.

    ..what reasons are there for some desires to be ignored?” ~ faithlessgod

    I want to leave open this possibility. As I said in the ‘Sketch’ post, I think “morally good” refers to types of desires, but these could be, say, other-regarding or empathetic desires rather than all desire-types.

    It is the best definition of what moral should/ought practically means as used generally, in terms of an external referent, if you have a better one what is it? And of course it is a definition, you can ignore 6 if you want, it makes no difference to the model.” ~ faithlessgod

    I don’t have a better one, I just think yours is false.

    One can insist that moral oughts only refer to categorical imperatives and since they do not exist then there are no moral oughts” ~ faithlessgod

    I’m not staking out any postion here. But, for the record, nor am I opting for nihilism in case Desirism fails. I think it might be possible to extract a moral should from a group of desirers if the agent takes themselves to be a member of that group, where identifying oneself as a group-member involves taking the good of the group to be something they desire. So, one could construct a moral system on the foundations of group psychology in this way. It’s all a bit vague at the moment, but that’s the kind of idea I have in the back of my mind as a possible alternative realism.

    The usage of “people generally” is not how it is being used here, this has a specific meaning where “generally” means time- and place-transcendence. ” ~ faithlessgod

    Don’t people believe that belief in God is a good thing, regardless of time and place?

    The “belief that God is a good thing” is a false belief and people generally have reason to inhibit the promotion of false beliefs, since false beliefs are more likely to leads to them to failing to achieve their ends and have unfulfillable ends.” ~ faithlessgod

    I’m not talking about the belief that ‘God is good’, but the belief that ‘believing “God exists” is good’, or better, people’s having the desire that others should believe in God on the basis of this belief.
    Yes, belief in God is false belief. But all I wanted to show was that your 6 entailed that I should not desire to disprove God, it matters not whether the reasons which are input are poor reasons.

    PS It would be good to have a preview function” ~ faithlessgod

    Yup. For reasons I don’t understand, WordPress consider having such a function to be a security risk, so I don’t have an option for it. (Oh, and sorry for taking awhile to get to this comment).

  9. faithlessgod says:

    “Ought” necessarily involves reasons to acts and their relations to states of affairs. (If you deny that you are using an arbitrary and idiosyncratic meaning of ought). However I think what you are disputing as to whether my 6 is a moral ought (as was tacitly implied) not that it is an ought simplicter ?

    If so, nothing depends on such a requirement of calling this (explicitly or otherwise) “moral” or not, that is what I meant by you not accepting 6 and that the model works anyway. It is still the case the one could explain 7 via 6.

    Now maybe I was incorrect to state 6 as definition, as it is not so much a definition but just an application of “should” e.g. “Why should .the Agent not Desire that P?” “Because people generally have reasons to inhibit that desire”. Either the agent acts on that desire and can expect adverse responses from people generally or the agent does not act on that desire and does not get adverse responses from people generally,.

    “Don’t people [generally] believe that belief in God is a good thing, regardless of time and place?”
    Good question. Lets is grant that this statement is true for the purposes of argument.

    Now beliefs have a brain (or mind) to world direction of fit, the brain must fit the world and the belief is correct, failing that the belief is incorrect . Desires are the other way round, they have an opposite direction of fit, they have a world to brain direction of fit, the world must fit the brain in which case the desire is fulfilled, failing that the desire is thwarted.

    Clearly regardless of how many believe it “God [exists] is a good thing” it is still a false belief. The truth of a belief is not democratic, it is not made true by popularity or majority even across places and times.

    Now in this analysis we are endeavouring to determine what desires agents should have since it is already well known how to establish the correctness of beliefs. Asking the same questions of beliefs is answered by establishing whether the belief is true or not works the other way around except where we are examining what types of beliefs they should desire. It is in the latter sense I was addressing your argument. This does not make any a priori preference based on the content of a belief, equivalent to not making any a priori preference based on the content of a desire – both are unjustifiable especially as it the justification that is the question. Hence my statement ” people generally have reason to inhibit the promotion of false beliefs…”

  10. TaiChi says:

    However I think what you are disputing as to whether my 6 is a moral ought (as was tacitly implied) not that it is an ought simplicter ?” ~ faithlessgod

    No, my worry is that you haven’t managed to derive an ought at all. What people generally desire, and generally have reason to actualize does not tell me what I desire, and so does not tell me what I have reason to actualize. Other people’s reasons for action are not my own, therefore other people’s reasons for action do not provide me with a reason to act as they would wish.
    That point should be obvious, but it’s obscured in Desirist literature. Talk of ‘reasons for action’ rather than ‘desires’ at crucial junctions hides the point. Fyfe’s distinction between ‘having reasons’ and ‘there being reasons’ recognizes it, but doesn’t help – if ‘there are reasons’ which are not my own, then there’s no sense in saying I ought to act on the basis of them. And talk about what pressures people would “bring to bear” on miscreants is beside the point – sure, the fact that other people will punish you for not doing what they wish gives you a reason for action, but it does not thereby legitimate the inference from what people desire generally to what you ought desire. If you have the ring of Gyges, what people desire in general will often be irrelevant to what you ought to do.

    Either the agent acts on that desire and can expect adverse responses from people generally or the agent does not act on that desire and does not get adverse responses from people generally,.” ~ faithlessgod

    This is an example of just what I’m talking about. The adverse responses may give an agent a reason for action, but equally they may not – perhaps he doesn’t care about the reactions of others, whatever they are. I think Fyfe’s response to this is to say that we can, as a group, impose our will on such a person. That’s true, but it wildly misses the point – the fact that there can be people for whom the desirist inference fails is sufficient to show it is invalid.

    Clearly regardless of how many believe it “God [exists] is a good thing” it is still a false belief. ” ~ faithlessgod

    Sure, but I was interested in people’s having the desire that others should believe in God. Yes, it’s probably based on a false belief, but I fail to see why that should matter – it is still an example of a widely held desire which, by your 6, generates a universal prescription against desiring to disprove God.
    This example doesn’t seem to be helping, but I’ve put my reason for offering it above, so I think we might ignore it.

  11. faithlessgod says:

    TaiChi

    Lets leave the God example aside, as you said it is not helping and we do not really need to address it for this post.

    “No, my worry is that you haven’t managed to derive an ought at all. What people generally desire, and generally have reason to actualize does not tell me what I desire,”
    Of course it does not. It is not meant to! It tells you what you should desire granted that in society one needs to know how others could respond to your actions.

    “and so does not tell me what I have reason to actualize.”
    No the social forces work non-cognitively, that is they are motivationally non-cognitive. Yes you can rationally understand what others have reason to promote, but that recognition on its own does not necessarily motivate you. Describing reasons is cognitive and is, in itself, motivationally inert. Still that does not prevent a successful rational and empirical analysis of those reasons (which is in the adumbration or explicit expansion of an ought and is tacitly in the ought itself. This is motivational externalism.

    Moral language and its equivalents have dual meanings both cognitive (descriptive) and non-cognitive (prescriptive). (They can come apart but lets examine that later).

    “Other people’s reasons for action are not my own, therefore other people’s reasons for action do not provide me with a reason to act as they would wish.”
    Correct. However if one is properly socialised one can emotionally respond to acts of praise and condemnation, as well as observe and learn from such social acts applied to others (real or fictional) and so these reasons can become your own. If they do not, then reward and punishment give you other reasons to act.

    There is no other way to internalise reasons to act except through motivationally non-cognitive application of social forces. And we already do this all the time to influence each other. There could be no group (non-moral) oughts and there are, otherwise anyone could successfully work in any team in any sport etc. And this is what any moral ought could possibly do and no more. To demand more is to demand the impossible.

    “The adverse responses may give an agent a reason for action, but equally they may not – perhaps he doesn’t care about the reactions of others, whatever they are.”
    This is again correct but I fail to see how this is an objection. This is expected and accounted for within desirism. Moral oughts are not over-riding and do not imply motivational internalism.

    Your complaint seems to be that since (some) moral oughts (the one’s not already internalised by an agent) are external to the agent, then these are not moral oughts, but it is exactly this that qualifies them as moral and not practical oughts! That is the whole point and what desirism explains.

    PS It would be great if you could provide a per post comment rss feed.

  12. TaiChi says:

    Sorry, faithlessgod – I seemed to have missed this reply in responding to the 747 comments.
    I’d like to get something clear here. On the one hand, you say ..

    This is motivational externalism.” ~ faithlessgod

    .. where I take it that the point of committing to motivation externalism is to allow the Desirist to ascribe moral ‘shoulds’ to subjects for whom a practical ‘should’ does not apply. But on the other hand, you argue..

    It tells you what you should desire granted that in society one needs to know how others could respond to your actions.” ~ faithlessgod

    .. which appears to be an attempt to show that moral ‘shoulds’ are a species of practical ‘shoulds’. That is, there are desires we ought to have because having them is beneficial to ourselves, and the consideration of the desires of others turns out to be a rough guide to which desires will benefit us, given that we are forced to compromise with others. So which is it? Are moral prescriptions a subset of practical prescriptions, or are they something different, though they often overlap?

    However if one is properly socialised one can emotionally respond to acts of praise and condemnation, as well as observe and learn from such social acts applied to others (real or fictional) and so these reasons can become your own.” ~ faithlessgod

    I grant that, once Desirism has established that a subject ought to desire something, there are ways to set about nurturing the desire. What I’m interested in is whether Desirism can actually establish the ought in the first place.

    “Your complaint seems to be that since (some) moral oughts (the one’s not already internalised by an agent) are external to the agent, then these are not moral oughts, but it is exactly this that qualifies them as moral and not practical oughts! That is the whole point and what desirism explains.” ~ faithlessgod

    I think, yes, I am saying that. I disagree that Desirism explains it, as the most I have seen on this is the assertion of motivational externalism coupled with the suggestion that we must be motivational externalists if we are going to have a moral theory at all. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  13. faithlessgod says:

    Hiya TaiChi

    “… where I take it that the point of committing to motivation externalism is to allow the Desirist to ascribe moral ‘shoulds’ to subjects for whom a practical ‘should’ does not apply. ”
    Motivational Externalism happens to be true, so if a moral theory ignores this fact, that would count against it. Desirism is not so much committed to this, but that the theory is partly the result of incorporating this fact.

    You then complain, as if this in the opposite of motivational externalism, that “. which appears to be an attempt to show that moral ‘shoulds’ are a species of practical ‘shoulds’.” saying ” That is, there are desires we ought to have because having them is beneficial to ourselves, and the consideration of the desires of others turns out to be a rough guide to which desires will benefit us, given that we are forced to compromise with others.”
    This is roughly correct but I do not see how this negates motivational externalism. You are providing arguments as for why someone should have a desire that they lack, but, even if they agree with these arguments,this is insufficient for them to change their desires, hence motivational externalism. It is motivational cognitivism that influences their desires, that above just provides the ratio-empirical justifications.

    ” So which is it? Are moral prescriptions a subset of practical prescriptions, or are they something different, though they often overlap?”
    There does not seem to be a dilemma that warrants resolving AFAICS.

    “What I’m interested in is whether Desirism can actually establish the ought in the first place.”
    I think you are applying some mysterious implication of “oughts” that I am unaware of. Oughts are just recommendations, it is inherent of the usage of moral ought that it is a recommendation from the social, allocentric or universal point of view. Desirism provides a rational-empirical grounding to reason from that point of view, and a better one that alternatives. Maybe if would help if you would show me what your alternative is, even if you think that it (your alternative) still fails, that if fails less than any other?

    I said:”Your complaint seems to be that since (some) moral oughts (the one’s not already internalised by an agent) are external to the agent, then these are not moral oughts,… ”
    You replied “I think, yes, I am saying that”.
    I think this is what you are agreeing to.

    Well if you think that moral oughts do not exist, that is fine. However, AFAICT this is how people use what they think are moral oughts, even if you think they do not exist (they might vary as over the grounds for what desires someone lacks, but not that someone lacks a desire that warrants the usage of such an ought). If you think that moral oughts are something else what on earth can the be, you argue they are not practical oughts so they must address desires external to the addressee, if they do not what on earth are they? Then again please explain how all other non-practical oughts used elsewhere are mean to work, e.g. relationship, family, company, team and other group oughts? Indeed without them, how could society function?

    “I disagree that Desirism explains it, as the most I have seen on this is the assertion of motivational externalism coupled with the suggestion that we must be motivational externalists if we are going to have a moral theory at all. ”
    Now this is getting very confusing. Do you accept that a moral ought is a sub-species of group oughts that are about desires (or equivalents) that people lack or should not have?

    Really it would be better if you could explain what you think a moral ought is and as to whether it exists or not.

  14. faithlessgod says:

    BTW Motivational externalism is not key to your last quoted comment, I am mystified as to why you think it is.

  15. TaiChi says:

    Motivational Externalism happens to be true, so if a moral theory ignores this fact, that would count against it. ” ~ faithlessgod

    Well, I asked you for an argument for this, and you haven’t given me one. I have no reason to agree with you.

    Desirism is not so much committed to this, but that the theory is partly the result of incorporating this fact.” ~ faithlessgod

    Earlier you tell me that the externality of oughts to an agent is what makes them moral oughts, and yet here you say Desirism is not committed to motivational externalism? Really?

    This is roughly correct but I do not see how this negates motivational externalism.” ~ faithlessgod

    It doesn’t. But I’m trying to establish exactly how you mean to derive moral oughts – whether moral oughts are a species of practical ought, or whether they are something different. It’s frustrating that you’ll not give me a clear yay or nay here.

    There does not seem to be a dilemma that warrants resolving AFAICS.” ~ faithlessgod

    It’s not a dilemma, it’s a straightforward question.

    I think you are applying some mysterious implication of “oughts” that I am unaware of. Oughts are just recommendations, it is inherent of the usage of moral ought that it is a recommendation from the social, allocentric or universal point of view.” ~ faithlessgod

    Call them recommendations if you like, but if they can be correct or incorrect, then they do not float free of reality. They are grounded in some fashion or other, and what I want to know is: what is it they are grounded in? Are they grounded in an agents own desires, so that moral oughts are essentially self-serving? Or are moral oughts only accidently self-serving, being grounded in the desires of others only?

    Well if you think that moral oughts do not exist, that is fine.” ~ faithlessgod

    I think motivational externalism is false, which is not the same as saying that moral realism is false.

    However, AFAICT this is how people use what they think are moral oughts, even if you think they do not exist” ~ faithlessgod

    I think if that were the case, nobody would worry about what we might say to the amoralist. But they (and I) do worry, not because nothing could be said to change the behavior of such a person, but rather because our prescriptions do not seem to apply.

    If you think that moral oughts are something else what on earth can the be, you argue they are not practical oughts so they must address desires external to the addressee, if they do not what on earth are they?” ~ faithlessgod

    I think that moral oughts, if they are to be oughts at all, are a subset of practical oughts – thus I can deny motivational externalism. I think what singles them out as specifically moral is that they in turn depend upon the desires of others, in the same sort of way that “Tom desires whatever Sally desires” expresses Tom’s desires whilst simultaneously depending upon Sally’s desires for its content. More generally, I think this dependency idea can work for groups (“I desire whatever the group desires”), and that taking oneself to be ingroup will involve taking on the interests of the group. This would explain moral oughts. As for moral good and evil, I think it would be reasonable to allow that these terms have wider scope than moral oughts – they apply to the outgroup as well as the ingroup. So, on this view, the amoralist’s behavior could be described as ‘evil’ (as not being in the interests of the group), but it would not make sense to say that the amoralist ought to behave in the interests of the group.

    Do you accept that a moral ought is a sub-species of group oughts that are about desires (or equivalents) that people lack or should not have?” ~ faithlessgod

    I think that moral oughts apply to behavior, as well as to desires – both can be assessed against group interests. I’d hope to retain some of the ambivalence which Desirism has toward moral dilemmas in this way.
    But I don’t intend to give a full moral theory here. For one thing, I haven’t constructed one, for another, my being able to give an alternative account isn’t required for my rejection of Desirism. If we’re at the stage of the argument where you’re just testing me to see whether I’ve got any better ideas, I think I’d prefer to end the discussion by conceding that Desirism is the best we’ve got so far, whilst committing to working on my own ideas which I think may turn out better.

  16. faithlessgod says:

    TaiChi

    I will work back through your post rather than forwards, it makes more sense of our confusions – I hope.

    “But I don’t intend to give a full moral theory here. For one thing, I haven’t constructed one, for another, my being able to give an alternative account isn’t required for my rejection of Desirism. If we’re at the stage of the argument where you’re just testing me to see whether I’ve got any better ideas, I think I’d prefer to end the discussion by conceding that Desirism is the best we’ve got so far, whilst committing to working on my own ideas which I think may turn out better.”
    I was not testing you in that way, just trying to understand your issue. For example, some regard that moral oughts= categorical imperatives and they might regard that as “better” than what is on offer here. AFAICT you agree that categorical imperatives do not exist AND you do not regard that or its alternatives as “better”. That is good. If you come up with something that is tentatively better than desirism I will be all ears.

    “I think that moral oughts apply to behavior, as well as to desires – both can be assessed against group interests. I’d hope to retain some of the ambivalence which Desirism has toward moral dilemmas in this way.”
    I am not sure this is about moral dilemmas but otherwise we, I think, agree. The emphasis on desirism over desires (and beliefs) versus behaviours is that that the only non-coercive way to affect behaviours is through influencing desires and correcting beliefs, as the only behaviour that can be modified is the result of intentional action, which is the result of intentions and those are the results of beliefs+desires. That is it is based on the currently best supported psychological models, whereas other theories are either ignorant, disregard or even go against such models, weakening their support.

    Now the existence of the amoralist is evidence in support of motivational externalism. They are perfectly capable of rationally understanding the moral facts, but are not motivated accordingly (not at all, not just about the moral facts failing or being to weak to over-ride other facts). That is purely rational knowledge – beliefs alone – are motivationally inert. In general someone can well know that what they are doing is wrong and even agree with the arguments that support this being wrong and still act against this anyway.

    Now if a moral ought refers to external reasons (other’s desires), motivational internalism would say, that when the correctness of those claims is recognised then it would automatically become motivational, if not over-riding, for the agent. I find that absurd. In this way Desirism does not require motivational externalism and motivational non-cognitivism, rather it is the theory that results from noting that motivational internalism and motivational cognitivism are not supported by the facts. (Now, importantly, if these facts were not this way this would still not alter the more fundamental grounding point discussed below, this would remain the same).

    If you disagree please explain how a belief, and merely recognising the correctness of a belief, can motivate? Or what is that you are arguing supports motivational internalism and motivational cognitivism?

    “Call them recommendations if you like, but if they can be correct or incorrect, then they do not float free of reality. They are grounded in some fashion or other, and what I want to know is: what is it they are grounded in? Are they grounded in an agents own desires, so that moral oughts are essentially self-serving? Or are moral oughts only accidently self-serving, being grounded in the desires of others only?”
    They are grounded by what people generally and trans-culturally have reasons to promote and inhibit, namely that their desires tend to be fulfilled or thwarted respectively by such desires under examination.

    Of course others might propose different groundings and we can compare and contrast different claimed groundings, most fail requiring fictional entities which make them actually ungrounded. Now what is fictional here with respect to desirism’s approach?

    Further, granted this desirist grounding, any such claims or recommendations might be incorrect, if one derives invalid conclusions based on, say, incomplete or selected evidence, as to what desires people generally and trans-culturally have reasons to promote and inhibit. That is such knowledge is provisional and defeasible.

    “But I’m trying to establish exactly how you mean to derive moral oughts – whether moral oughts are a species of practical ought, or whether they are something different. It’s frustrating that you’ll not give me a clear yay or nay here.”
    Moral and other group oughts specifically address motivations and reasons that may not be or are not in one one’s internal set of reasons – reasons that they should have. You seem to be denying that such oughts exist by asserting they are a sub-set of practical oughts! In which case, to quote Alonzo “If it were true that the only ‘ought’ in common English were the form of prescription defined in this objection, then all native English speakers should agree that it is true by definition that a child-rapist with 1 year to live trapped alone on an island with a child morally ought to rape that child any time the urge strikes him. Yet, native English speakers do not so readily agree to the conclusion that this is true by definition.”

  17. TaiChi says:

    AFAICT you agree that categorical imperatives do not exist AND you do not regard that or its alternatives as better”” ~ faithlessgod

    Yes. I don’t find categorical imperatives intelligible.

    The emphasis on desirism over desires (and beliefs) versus behaviours is that that the only non-coercive way to affect behaviours is through influencing desires and correcting beliefs..” ~ faithlessgod

    I don’t understand why you are mixing your theory with practicality here. So what if there are constraints on how to bring about a more moral world? Why should that dictate the content of a moral theory, whose purpose is only to delineate the correct application of moral terms?

    Now the existence of the amoralist is evidence in support of motivational externalism. They are perfectly capable of rationally understanding the moral facts, but are not motivated accordingly” ~ faithlessgod

    That’s up for debate. If you take moral facts to be essentially reason-giving, then you’d have to think that the amoralist would have reason to act despite not being motivated to act. But that sounds incoherent. The alternative is to jettison the original assumption that moral facts always provide reasons-for-action, and this is what I would do. I’d openly pursue a descriptive account of moral language, and supplement this with an explanation of why the descriptions often correlate with certain prescriptions (e.g. by defining moral terms in the right way, it could be shown that most people have a practical interest in the good).

    Now if a moral ought refers to external reasons (other’s desires), motivational internalism would say, that when the correctness of those claims is recognised then it would automatically become motivational, if not over-riding, for the agent. I find that absurd.” ~ faithlessgod

    If a moral ought refers to [merely] external reasons… but moral oughts never refer to [merely] external reasons – this is what I’m saying! I agree that once we assume that moral facts are essentially reason-giving, it follows that motivational internalism is false. But I deny the antecedent here, as I suspect other motivational internalists would.

    Now what is fictional here with respect to desirism’s approach?” ~ faithlessgod

    Nothing, but I think I have my answer – moral oughts are not essentially practical under Desirism.

    Moral and other group oughts specifically address motivations and reasons that may not be or are not in one one’s internal set of reasons – reasons that they should have. You seem to be denying that such oughts exist by asserting they are a sub-set of practical oughts!” ~ faithlessgod

    Yes, I am denying moral oughts as you conceive them, but I do not deny moral oughts simpliciter.

    If it were true that the only ‘ought’ in common English were the form of prescription defined in this objection, then all native English speakers should agree that it is true by definition that a child-rapist with 1 year to live trapped alone on an island with a child morally ought to rape that child any time the urge strikes him. Yet, native English speakers do not so readily agree to the conclusion that this is true by definition.” ~ Fyfe

    I disagree, since no moral ought applies to this amoralist (i.e. he has no interest in the welfare of others). The moral term ‘evil’ does, but it does not folllow from the description of this person as evil that he has reason to refrain from rape. Indeed, the fact that he does not partly explains why he rapes.
    Interestingly, there is a parallel question here about whether English-speakers would agree to saying that the child rapist practically ought rape the child, given the scenario. For my own part, I feel uneasy about committing to even this practical ought because it connotes an endorsement of the act. But, clearly, it is true that the child rapist practically ought rape the child (this, after all, is what makes it a useful example to Fyfe). The lesson I draw from this is that English-speakers may not be reliable when you present them with a scenario that they abhor.

  18. faithlessgod says:

    This is an interesting dialogue. I would Not call it a debate yet, as it is unclear to me yet as to what you are defending in contrast to desirism.

    “I don’t understand why you are mixing your theory with practicality here. So what if there are constraints on how to bring about a more moral world? Why should that dictate the content of a moral theory, whose purpose is only to delineate the correct application of moral terms?”
    But I was addressing the normative not meta-ethical facet here! As I already noted in my previous comment a stance here does not alter the “grounding” argument – which is the meta-ethical basis.

    “…If you take moral facts to be essentially reason-giving…”
    I do not. Please show me how they are. AFAICS moral facts have dual meanings, descriptive and prescriptive. They are not essentially either and so often the two meanings can diverge (prescribing something that is descriptive false). Cognitivists and non-cognitivists both suffer from hast generalisations, it is not either or but both and.

    “…you’d have to think that the amoralist would have reason to act despite not being motivated to act. ”
    No, we are talking at cross purposes.They recognise reasons to act, but that these are not their reasons to act, they are not reasons to that agent. Anyone who has reason to act, is motivated to act, the issue is for the agent to identify with some reason to act, directly or indirectly (such as by the social forces), as to become their own. It is the transition from one to another that is being addressed here.

    “moral oughts are not essentially practical under Desirism.”
    Surely they are not “essentially practical” under any moral theory! (By “practical” here, I assume a narrow practical – that is prudential and egocentric – under a broad conception of practical reason they are practical of course but that is a trivial point and not the one I thought you were making). Or do you deny that there is a difference between reasons-to-act-that-exist versus reasons-to-act-to-the-agent?

    “Yes, I am denying moral oughts as you conceive them, but I do not deny moral oughts simpliciter.”
    Then, as I have asked before, what on earth do you think they are ? Secondly even if you think moral oughts are different to what I have described, these other oughts still exist and are what need to be addressed.

    “If a moral ought refers to [merely] external reasons… but moral oughts never refer to [merely] external reasons – this is what I’m saying! ”
    Then what do you call oughts that refer to only external reasons?

    “I disagree, since no moral ought applies to this amoralist (i.e. he has no interest in the welfare of others). ”
    But on what basis can you call him an “amoralist” given that there are only the (narrow) practical oughts exist, according to you. There is only him and the child on the island, and why could it not be that maximising the welfare of both leads him to finding the rape permissible, with your limited practical oughts? You may intuitively disagree with this prognosis, but without introducing some additional notion through the backdoor, I fail to see how you can call him an amoralist. That is since I have a more expansive notion of oughts I do not have a problem showing that he is an “amoralist” as you put it, but you do.

  19. TaiChi says:

    But I was addressing the normative not meta-ethical facet here! As I already noted in my previous comment a stance here does not alter the “grounding” argument – which is the meta-ethical basis.” ~ faithlessgod

    I don’t see why you raise it – all we’ve been arguing over is the meta-ethics. When you bring something like that up without signalling that you’re doing applied ethics, of course I think you’re trying to explain the grounding of moral facts. Hence, why I bother to ask whether moral prescriptions are a subset of practical prescriptions.

    I do not [take moral facts to be essentially reason-giving]. Please show me how they are.” ~ faithlessgod

    Oh dear. Yes, you do. You just think that the reasons given are not necessarily reasons the agent takes as his own – that is all I mean, and it is clear from the context.

    AFAICS moral facts have dual meanings, descriptive and prescriptive.” ~ faithlessgod

    Understood. By saying that moral facts are essentially reason-giving, I describe a necessary feature, not a sufficient one. I wasn’t ruling out descriptivity.

    They recognise reasons to act, but that these are not their reasons to act, they are not reasons to that agent. ” ~ faithlessgod

    My fault: I’ve used the word “have”, when I should’ve said “there are reasons”. So: according to Desirism, there are reasons for the amoralist to act, but these reasons are, for the sake of example, motivationally impotent. This I find incoherent. A reason which is motivationally impotent is not, by definition, a reason to act.

    Or do you deny that there is a difference between reasons-to-act-that-exist versus reasons-to-act-to-the-agent? ” ~ faithlessgod

    Yes, I deny that. All reasons belong to agents, and such reasons are only properly predicated of those agents to whom they belong. (Caveat: there is a use of “reasons that exist” versus “reasons for the agent” that I accept – contrasting reasons of which the agent is not aware, but would be motivational for him/her, versus reasons the agent is aware of and is motivated by.)

    Then, as I have asked before, what on earth do you think they are ?” ~ faithlessgod

    I’ve told you – moral oughts are a species of practical oughts which depend for their content on the desires of others.

    Secondly even if you think moral oughts are different to what I have described, these other oughts still exist and are what need to be addressed.” ~ faithlessgod

    They don’t exist – they’re based in a misdescription of reasons for action as applying to someone to whom those reasons do not belong. You must’ve known I’d disagree.

    Then what do you call oughts that refer to only external reasons?” ~ faithlessgod

    “Incoherent”. These would only make sense were the phrase “He ought to do A, but he has no reason to do A” to make sense. But it doesn’t – it sounds self-contradictory.

    But on what basis can you call him an “amoralist” given that there are only the (narrow) practical oughts exist, according to you.” ~ faithlessgod

    Because, as I said, he has no interest in the welfare of others. He has no desires which positively depend upon the desires of others for their content.

    There is only him and the child on the island, and why could it not be that maximising the welfare of both leads him to finding the rape permissible, with your limited practical oughts?” ~ faithlessgod

    Odd question. If the action truly does lead to the maximization of the child’s welfare, and if the action is undertaken because of that, then yes, the action could be moral. But (1) it is hard to see how that could be the case, and (2) he would not then be an amoralist, since some desire of his would depend upon the child’s desires. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood the thrust of this question.

    I do not have a problem showing that he is an “amoralist” as you put it, but you do.” ~ faithlessgod

    I’m afraid I don’t see the problem – I don’t deny that there are moral oughts, and what I’ve said about them would entail that they did not apply to the person in your scenario.

  20. faithlessgod says:

    Some interesting points, lets explore some more.

    “. When you bring something like that up without signalling that you’re doing applied ethics, of course I think you’re trying to explain the grounding of moral facts.”
    No, not applied ethics, just normative ethics and it was you who brought it up! Remember you flagged or questioned the difference between promoting behaviour versus behaviour which is a normative not meta-ethical question and which I answered. Not really worth exploring that more at this time surely?

    Extending your point on conditions inspires me to say that descriptive and prescriptive meanings are jointly necessary and sufficient to comprise a (purported) moral fact (it has to be descriptively true as well of course t be a fact). So both are necessary , but, in isolation are not sufficient. However that is why I rejected your “essentially” claim, reading it that you thought prescription was alone the necessary and sufficient condition for a moral fact.

    Now I agree when you say “You just think that the reasons given are not necessarily reasons the agent takes as his own”. Of course! This is the real crux of our disagreement but it seems so obvious that people do this all the time to one another I find it difficult for you think to that this is incoherent. Must be missing something.

    “So: according to Desirism, there are reasons for the amoralist to act, but these reasons are, for the sake of example, motivationally impotent. This I find incoherent. A reason which is motivationally impotent is not, by definition, a reason to act.”
    Not quite and this applies to any agent, not just “amoralists”. There are others who have reasons for the agent to act but these are not the agent’s reasons. It should be no surprise that those reasons could be motivationally impotent for the agent indeed it would be incoherent to assert that they are! That purely in virtue of being reasons to act, such reasons are automatically motivationally potent for the agent. I find it bizarre that you argue the opposite and that your position is quite incoherent. This clear is the heart of dispute or confusion.

    Maybe this is the key “All reasons belong to agents, and such reasons are only properly predicated of those agents to whom they belong. (Caveat: there is a use of “reasons that exist” versus “reasons for the agent” that I accept – contrasting reasons of which the agent is not aware, but would be motivational for him/her, versus reasons the agent is aware of and is motivated by.)”
    No it is not about awareness at all. But the issue over morality is as to what reasons should belong to agents, as to what reasons to give to agent, reasons that they do not currently posses!. But is not just morality, it is just about any social intercourse between two or more agents that one agent may have a reason for the other agent, that other agent does not have and vice versa and they use social forces to influence each other to install and remove reasons from each other. So your claim denies most all social intercourse and you need to explain that.

    “Odd question. If the action truly does lead to the maximization of the child’s welfare, and if the action is undertaken because of that, then yes, the action could be moral. But (1) it is hard to see how that could be the case, and (2) he would not then be an amoralist, since some desire of his would depend upon the child’s desires. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood the thrust of this question.”
    Yes this is where you reasoning takes you and that is your problem!

    It seem that you are espousing some form of egoism as far as I can see, this is the only way I can make sense of your position and puzzling stance over reasons. Is that correct?

  21. TaiChi says:

    Remember you flagged or questioned the difference between promoting behaviour versus behaviour which is a normative not meta-ethical question and which I answered. ” ~ faithlessgod

    I can’t see where you get this. The last time I talk about promotion of behavior was regarding the desire to disprove God, which we agreed to drop. No, not really worth exploring.

    However that is why I rejected your “essentially” claim, reading it that you thought prescription was alone the necessary and sufficient condition for a moral fact.” ~ faithlessgod

    Right, fine. ‘Tis usual to use “essential” in the way I’ve used it, though.

    This is the real crux of our disagreement but it seems so obvious that people do this all the time to one another I find it difficult for you think to that this is incoherent.” ~ faithlessgod

    People use moral language all the time, yes. And they do base it off of the interests of those affected rather than the interests of the protagonists. So far as it goes with terms like “moral/immoral”, “duty/right”, “good/evil”, I think that’s perfectly kosher. What I deny is that the applicability of these descriptive terms straightforwardly entails any particular prescription. If people use them to influence the behavior of others, it is not because moral terms are by their nature prescriptive, but because what they describe is of significance for how a normal person would choose to act. We expect other people to have an interest in acting morally – this is why we expect that pointing out the moral should influence their actions.
    Such expectations are defeasible, and they obviously do not apply to an amoralist. An amoralist who describes his own behavior as “evil”, but who nevertheless denies that he ought refrain from that behavior is not making a linguistic mistake. It is perfectly reasonable for him to question the grounds for the charge that he ought refrain from misbehavior, and to stand firm when no reason relevant to his own motivations is produced. On the other hand, were he to (mistakenly) accept that he ought not misbehave, then it would be self-contradictory for him to go on to say that he has no reason not to misbehave, for the ought statement implies the opposite: “I ought not do X, but I have no reason not to do X” is self-contradictory. Knowing that one ought not do x, and doing X anyway violates practical rationality, and yet, ex hypothesi, it is practically reasonable to do X given the desires the amoralist has to do X. I don’t find these consequences acceptable.

    Not quite and this applies to any agent, not just “amoralists”. There are others who have reasons for the agent to act but these are not the agent’s reasons. It should be no surprise that those reasons could be motivationally impotent for the agent indeed it would be incoherent to assert that they are! That purely in virtue of being reasons to act, such reasons are automatically motivationally potent for the agent. I find it bizarre that you argue the opposite and that your position is quite incoherent. ” ~ faithlessgod

    Ha. I’m using the idea that reasons for action must be motivationally potent to argue that we should only describe reasons for action as being for those they would motivate, and you interpret me as extending motivational potency to all your external reasons. Look: I don’t think your external reasons for action are reasons for an agent’s action at all. I deny that they are on the grounds that a reason for action is commonly understood to be motivationally potent for their prospective actor, and your external reasons are not (necessarily) motivationally potent.

    But the issue over morality is as to what reasons should belong to agents, as to what reasons to give to agent, reasons that they do not currently posses!. ” ~ faithlessgod

    . The only reasons that should belong to agents are those which can be inferred from the reasons they have already. You’re just throwing your assumptions back at me here.

    But is not just morality, it is just about any social intercourse between two or more agents that one agent may have a reason for the other agent, that other agent does not have and vice versa and they use social forces to influence each other to install and remove reasons from each other. So your claim denies most all social intercourse and you need to explain that.” ~ faithlessgod

    See my earlier discussion in this comment – I don’t deny that moral language can be action-guiding, I just deny that the prescriptivity is part of the meaning of moral terms. What we do with a language-string isn’t necessarily the same as what that language-string means.

    It seem that you are espousing some form of egoism as far as I can see, this is the only way I can make sense of your position and puzzling stance over reasons. Is that correct?” ~ faithlessgod

    No, not in any interesting sense of egoism. I take it that we only ought to do what is in accord with our interests, but these interests may be other-regarding. Egoists usually make the stronger (and radical) claim that one ought only act on self-regarding interests. (This does raise the question of whether we can seperate self-regarding from other-regarding desires cleanly, but this is not my problem, as I’m inclined to be inclusive).

  22. faithlessgod says:

    Hi TaiChi

    Lets start with a point of strong agreement
    “No, not in any interesting sense of egoism. I take it that we only ought to do what is in accord with our interests, but these interests may be other-regarding. Egoists usually make the stronger (and radical) claim that one ought only act on self-regarding interests. (This does raise the question of whether we can seperate self-regarding from other-regarding desires cleanly, but this is not my problem, as I’m inclined to be inclusive).”
    Great! From this I read the issue could be over other-regarding desires such as, say, “the desire to be morally good” is inherently an other-regarding (it might be self-regarding too we do not need an clean separation here or we look for an inclusive rather than exclusive view, I think you might agree).

    Now this does not make sense ” I don’t deny that moral language can be action-guiding, I just deny that the prescriptivity is part of the meaning of moral terms. ”
    If it is not action-guiding then it is not prescriptive, if it is action-guiding then it is prescriptive, these are two labels for the same thing! Then you add “What we do with a language-string isn’t necessarily the same as what that language-string means.” Well the argument I develop is based on usage rather than what people think they mean by these terms.

    (We use all sort of grammatical rules without knowing what they are. If forced to explain them we might get the meaning – that is explanation – quite wrong, but still use them correctly – consider the ongoing dispute between syntax–before-semantics versus semantics-before-syntax linguistic theorists, one is probably right and the other wrong but this does not alter language usage or application one iota. Or a another way, different mathematicians have different view s on the foundations of mathematics: platonism, nominalism, congnitivism etc. (that is explanations or meanings of mathematics) yet they all balance their chequebooks the same way. The debate here is about balancing chequebooks – yes this does lead to meta-ethics, but driven by pragmatic usage first)

    “The only reasons that should belong to agents are those which can be inferred from the reasons they have already. You’re just throwing your assumptions back at me here.”
    Maybe we are reaching an impasse. You appear to be throwing your assumptions back at me!

    I am still waiting for a justification as to why you add this additional constraint on the notion of reasons to act. Looking at from above, where there are two or more agents in a situation (or a universe) different agents can have different reasons to act and these can beneficially or adversely affect other agents, that is there are external-to-the-agent reasons-to-act that the agent needs to respond to one way or another. AFAICT denying such external reasons is denying the whole fabric of society and denying much more than morality but also denying any social and institutional facts such as money, marriage , presidents and football scores. You position seems to be quite incoherent.

    Now we are trying to get beneath the language of oughts – to what they refer to . The way I see it and, to seek clarification, the debate seems to be revolving around prudential versus social oughts, both of which are part of practical rationality. You are denying the latter exist – that (one or more) others can have reasons – external to you – to promote or inhibit your reasons and vice versa. This is far broader than just the sub-set of social oughts (a better term than group oughts I used before) called moral oughts (which I read as universal which is built into the usage of such terms) . And it appears blatantly absurd to deny that this is the case. This is what you appear to be doing but you have not given any reasons as to why this must be denied.

    One aspect of your additional constraint is to assume that “I’m using the idea that reasons for action must be motivationally potent”. But then you are defining away a priori and without justification the, what I would have thought was obvious issue, that others do have reasons to act that do are not my reasons to act and so do not motivate me but can affect me – and vice versa. Much of society and the agents within it revolves around negotiations, explicit and tacit, coercive and non-coercive of this landscape of reasons to act. You appear, in explicably, to be denying there is any such thing.

    You think what supports your case is that “: “I ought not do X, but I have no reason not to do X” ” is incoherent. Well you are assuming what you are trying to prove, this is circular reasoning.

    But is it true even only allow prudential oughts (as I am reading you denying social oughts, not just moral oughts)? Is this incoherent even in this more limited case? That is “I prudentially ought not do X, but I have no reason not to do X” well since your prudential ought appears to be your reason this looks incoherent. But hang on a sec, one can can innocently equivocate over reason here between prudential reasons-to-the-agent versus actual reason-to-the-agent (such as a current desire). Consequently it is quite coherent to say “I ought not to smoke, but I have no desire to stop.” In this sense the agent’s prudential ought is addressing a desire they <should have but lack! In the same sense but widening the scope beyond the agent’s own reasons to act, (which by definition makes this a social ought and not a prudential ought) any form of social ought (not just “moral”) is addressing desires that one (or more agents) should have but lack.

    Given that I am completely puzzled as to how you can even hold your position – it appears quite incoherent to me – I do not know if the above will help or hinder our discussion but the intention is to keep the focus on the crux of our dispute and everything above should be regarded, at a minimum, as pedagogical or illustrative, to ensure we are no talking across one another, rather to be treated, at this stage, than as full arguments in support of my case.

    Or is this all pushing hands? ;-)

    Back to you. :-)

  23. TaiChi says:

    “the desire to be morally good” is inherently an other-regarding” ~ faithlessgod

    Yes. Actually, perhaps it might be useful to differentiate anyway. So, by ‘other-regarding desires’ I mean to pick out those desires which depend upon the desires of others for their content. All desires not like this I contrast with the label “self-regarding’.

    If it is not action-guiding then it is not prescriptive, if it is action-guiding then it is prescriptive, these are two labels for the same thing!” ~ faithlessgod

    I take action-guiding to be wider than prescription. For example, someone may say that Brazil’s winning the World Cup is a “safe bet”, where its being a safe bet may guide future behavior (obviously actual betting of money, but betting of other kinds too). But nothing is being prescribed here. There’s no insinuation of what one ought to do with this fact. So something’s being action-guiding is not the same as its being prescriptive.
    I’ve had the thought the what may make a term action-guiding, rather than merely descriptive, is that the common factor for what falls underneath it is determined by what would make a certain action or range of actions appropriate. So, a “safe bet” applies to indefinitely many varied situations, but what they all have in common is that betting behavior of various sorts is broadly appropriate where they hold. This does not amount to a prescription, as the term applies where these actions are unavailable or hold no appeal for individual prospective actors, but for the behavior to be broadly appropriate in the way I describe it must be the case that people generally have the desire to act and are able to do so.
    Perhaps moral terms are the same: you might pick out praise, condemnation, punishment, reward, and so on as the actions which moral terms allude to, and so explain the diversity of situations to which moral terms apply. It would explain why, as a general rule, we can infer what one ought to do from a moral fact, whilst allowing that the rule does not always apply.

    Well the argument I develop is based on usage rather than what people think they mean by these terms.” ~ faithlessgod

    I don’t mean to deny arguments from use, just the slogan that “meaning is use”. I think meaning is determined by truth-conditions instead. (And yes, I agree: we do use grammatical rules without knowing what they are.)

    I am still waiting for a justification as to why you add this additional constraint on the notion of reasons to act. ” ~ faithlessgod

    I gave you one, in terms of common usage: we commonly suppose that the prospective actor and the subject in whom the reason is grounded are one and the same person.

    ..there are external-to-the-agent reasons-to-act that the agent needs to respond to one way or another.” ~ faithlessgod

    Or the agent can ignore them, or just not respond to them because he doesn’t know of them – that is allowed by the fact that they are external. But that aside, I’m not at all denying that people have desires regarding the conduct of others. I’m denying that these are aptly described as reasons for action in your external sense, and more importantly, that any ought follows from these desires. I fail to see how I’m denying “the whole fabric of society” by these linguistic claims.

    You are denying ..[social oughts].. exist – that (one or more) others can have reasons – external to you – to promote or inhibit your reasons and vice versa. ” ~ faithlessgod

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘social oughts’. Nevertheless, if moral oughts are social oughts, then I have already unambiguously told you that I don’t deny they exist. I just don’t agree with you about the form they take – I require that the agent to whom they are applied have the requisite other-regarding desires, and I would define moral oughts in terms of other-regarding desires.

    ..you are defining away a priori and without justification the, what I would have thought was obvious issue, that others do have reasons to act that do are not my reasons to act and so do not motivate me but can affect me – and vice versa.” ~ faithlessgod

    Yes, others have reasons to act which are not mine. But they are not reasons for action for me, but reasons for action for them. Such reasons (on both sides) are grounded in desires, and it is these which I would likely point to to play any explanatory role you think external reasons-for-action play.

    You think what supports your case is that “: “I ought not do X, but I have no reason not to do X” ” is incoherent. Well you are assuming what you are trying to prove, this is circular reasoning.” ~ faithlessgod

    I offer that sentence in the same vein as “I believe X, but I don’t think X is the case”. It sounds contradictory to my ear, and I would’ve thought it would to yours as well. That it sounds contradictory seems a reasonable indicator of its actually being contradictory.

    one can can innocently equivocate..” ~ faithlessgod

    This probably isn’t your point here, but yes, my sentence could be ambiguous between different sense of ‘ought’. However, being the sense-makers that we are, when we hear a sentence we tend to hear it as a coherent sentence if such an interpretation is available (you don’t hear “I withdrew money from the bank” as incoherent, though it might be if you interpreted “bank” as a river-bank). So I still think it’s good evidence. In any case, I think “I morally ought to do X, but I have no reason to do X” sounds just as bad.

    Consequently it is quite coherent to say “I ought not to smoke, but I have no desire to stop.” In this sense the agent’s prudential ought is addressing a desire they <should have but lack! ” ~ faithlessgod

    That’s a little tricky. Ok, let me start by pointing out that to have no desire to stop smoking is to lack the desire to stop smoking, not to lack any desires which would be served by cessation of smoking. So, for example, your sentence could be sensibly uttered by a smoker who desired good health, more money in their pocket, to be rid of the smell of stale smoke, etc., because it would still be true of them that they lacked the desire to stop smoking. (I’m sure you can imagine may well-informed smokers uttering your sentence).
    Next, I’d point out that for such smokers it just isn’t true that they have no desire to stop smoking. They do have the desire, for they are mostly rational people who desire what instrumentally brings about more basic desires. What they then mean to say by “I have no desire to stop” is not that they literally have no desire to stop smoking, but that they lack the motivation to stop smoking, presumably because the counter-motivation to continue smoking is overwhelming. Of course, my recommended translation “I ought not to smoke, but I have no motivation to stop” is not something I’d deny sense to.
    But I wonder about the consequences here for Desirism. If the smoker really does not have any desires which ground the ‘ought’ claim, then what desires could the Desirist cite as their grounding? Those of the general populace wouldn’t seem relevant, for this is not a moral matter. But then it looks as though no desires are suitable, and the Desirist has to give an interpretation like mine above.

    I think that’s long enough. Let’s see if it helps.

  24. faithlessgod says:

    An interesting conversation but I think it is time to wind it down. Now doubt points here might lead you to future posts and we could address those issues as and when they come up.

    Anyway;

    Other-regarding desires are not just those that “depend upon the desires of others for their content”. They simply have something else as the main recipient of the desire as opposed to oneself. This can include the environment or whatever. Still one can always trace such desires back to self or other-regarding desires (or a combination) of the form you note. The issue is not the desires the agent has but the material and physical affects of its conditions of fulfilment on other desires (or rather their conditions of fulfilment). Whether the desire in question is self- or other-regarding it needs to be evaluated as a means with respect to other desires. So it is quite possible that a specific self-regarding desire tends to fulfil other desires better than an alternative specific other-regarding desire.

    The point is whilst we both reject the narrow egoist unfalsifiable reduction of other-regarding to self-regarding desires-as-ends, morality, according to desirism, is not directly about other-regarding desires either (which maps, consequently, to the false dichotomy between egoism and altruism), since although having them certainly helps, the desirist approach destroys the sacrifice argument of egoists, as you can have all the self-regarding desires you like providing they tend to fulfil and tend not to thwart other desires.

    The issue over prescription is possibly semantics. As I see it all action-guiding is prescription, it just varies in force and confidence. Note also that all prescriptions are also predictions about states of affairs, from how others respond to how one might do in a situation without others’ involvement at all. So saying something is a safe bet is still a prescription, it is still a recommendation, albeit weaker than a should or a must. This is supported by your point over ” certain action or range of actions appropriate”, “appropriate” is a basis for what is normal, that is a norm.

    ” This does not amount to a prescription, as the term applies where these actions are unavailable”
    I disagree, if the action is actually unavailable but could be then it is still a prescription. since we can learn from or be inspired by both fictional and real circumstances we may never be in. “…or hold no appeal for individual prospective actors,” a recommendation might have no appeal to an actor but, if the recommendation is correct, the actor has to take account of the consequences regardless. (yes if he can get away with it he will try to, or even knowledge of such a recommendation might help him to get away with it, such is the world we live in).Hence the reward/punishment second clause in the general label for social forces praise/blame, reward/punishment, if praise/blame does not work i.e. has no appeal to agent, which is quite common – then reward/punishment comes into play (and this depends on how accurate, coherent and consistent these are applied of course).

    The mapping of moral terms to desires, states of affairs and their relations is a truth-conditional and intensional argument. Most other models fail both the truth-conditional and intensional tests. (The dispute within this framework primary revolves around which desires to take account of the agent’s alone, his in-group, culture or everyone and so on – but those are dealt with by eliminating unsound, weak and fallacious reasoning, that is anyone who limits to the scope being less than everyone has to provide empirically sound and rationally secure arguments to justify that, it is possible but most fail such tests and, also note that such tests do not require any special moral suppositions or logic).

    Still many people try to provide explanatory meaning to moral terms by asserting the supposed foundations regardless of how they use them, it is that distinction I was addressing by talking about usage and drew the analogy to mathematicians and chequebooks.

    “I gave you one, in terms of common usage: we commonly suppose that the prospective actor and the subject in whom the reason is grounded are one and the same person”.
    I disagree, surely we see all the time people making recommendations to others, that are in the speakers not the hearers interest. Look at politicians, bankers, and marketers as well as religious leaders and so on. Indeed anyone in many social and work interactions too. Of course they try to couch it in terms that is of relevance to the hearer but this is often secondary to the speakers intentions Further they often appeal to the hearer using fears, threats or lies – using explicit or tacit coercive and manipulative methods. For example many argue from a position of authority or power “do this or else”. (the else often being implied). This is particularly so with religious believers. Your apparent disregard or rejection of this common feature of human social discourse is surprising, particularly as it is one of the main issues that drives an interest in ethics, at least I would expect.
    .
    “Or the agent can ignore them, or just not respond to them because he doesn’t know of them – that is allowed by the fact that they are external”
    Obviously but that does no deny that they exist but you do deny these exist in spite of you saying “.. I’m not at all denying that people have desires regarding the conduct of others. I’m denying that these are aptly described as reasons for action in your external sense, and more importantly, that any ought follows from these desires.”

    Now you appear to have defined ought in a restrictive fashion and contrary to popular usage. Well you can do that but there still remains common human communication that uses a less restrictive ought whether explicitly or tacitly. if you want to restrict ought this way that is a semantic issue which I have no interest in pursuing. However one still needs to account for other usage and that is what was being addressed by Alonzo’s formulation. Don’t call it an ought if you wish, but such speech acts occur and are used and are the meat of what moral claims are. You appear to be defining away the underlying topic under consideration.

    For example, it is quite typical to tell A “not to X” or “you ought not X” and when they ask “why?” reply “well B will not like it”. Regardless of whether A says “I don’t care about B” or not (and the dialogue can easily be expanded based on either response), this is a recommendation, a prediction of another’s response in this case, due to another’s desire or aversion, used a reason for the recommendation, that is an ought based on an external reason. If you don’t want to call this an ought don’t, but this still is a key process that needs to be understood and addressed in any moral theory. And this is a typical example of a social ought, not necessarily a moral one of course.

    “. But they are not reasons for action for me, but reasons for action for them. ”
    Of course, which is why there is a difference between reasons-for-the-agent and reasons-to-act that exist! But then you say “it is these which I would likely point to to play any explanatory role you think external reasons-for-action play.” But this is the same thing! Now you are agreeing with me! An external reason-for-action is one or more other agent’s reasons-for-action, what else could they possibly be? Above you seem to want to deny that there are external reasons, other agent’s reason-for-actions, and here you appear to acknowledge that they can be indeed a contributory influence in an agent’s motivation. This is the point I have been arguing for all along.

    This comment is long enough but the underlying issue seems to be you having a restrictive conception of ought as in only prudential and personal oughts exist whereas social and moral oughts (which relate external reasons to the agent) do not.
    in which case whatever you think social oughts really are, needs to be accounted for in your moral approach. (One cannot define them out of existence, something exists regardless). How do you do that? (I am not asking for a complete theory better than or otherwise to desirism just an account of this process which should i hope be quite clear by now).

    I will address the other portion of your comment later.

  25. faithlessgod says:

    In reply to your second part I re-affirm my previous view of your claim that ““I ought not do X, but I have no reason not to do X” is incoherent” is question begging. You are assuming what you are trying to prove.

    Now your explicit locution might be a bit odd (at least as I use it) but the there are numerous examples that are coherent within it. It all depends on what is meant by “reason” and “ought” in that prototypical sentence. If you mean by reason no external reason then it can be quite consistent, but this requires allowing that an agent can recognise external reasons built implicit in the “ought,” ones that fail to motivate the agent so that the agent has no reasons-for-the-agent. Of course if you stick to your definitions of “ought” and “reason” it is inconsistent but that is a reason to find the most charitable reading which can make it true and that is not your restriction of ought.

    It does not work wiht prudential oughts either. But then, as previously discussed, it is then about different types of internal reasons – between prudential and actual reasons.

    Expanding on our existing example, for a smoker the whole point is however much they rationally and correctly think they should lack a desire to smoke or should have a desire to stop (with the latter outweighing the former) – due to a negative and prudential evaluation of their desire to smoke against their other (internal) desires – this is insufficient for them to have such desires. One cannot use reason to change desires, it is a start but it is not sufficient. This is why self-help books are so popular (not that many of them work) since they are primarily addressed at such problems of akrasia (although they can often mislead on what is prudential valuable too – such as unhealthy diets)

    Now a desire is, by definition, the umbrella term for all motivational brain states, so your move to motivation does not help. Remember a desire is one of two propositional attitudes, an attitude to make or keep true the proposition whereas the other type a belief is the attitude to the proposition that it is true.

    “But I wonder about the consequences here for Desirism. If the smoker really does not have any desires which ground the ‘ought’ claim, then what desires could the Desirist cite as their grounding?”
    You now seem to be missing the fundamental insight of desirism. The prudential grounding is in the affected desires and their relations to the desire under question. In the case of the smoker this is the relation between the desire to smoke and their other affected desires – desires for health, money, clean clothe, better sex etc. The simplicity of desirism is that it requires nothing more than the same method of prudential evaluation but applied with a broader scope of desires (people generally when it comes morality). That is desirism in one sentence!

  26. TaiChi says:

    Faithlessgod,
    Regarding those other-regarding desires: I stipulated how I was using these terms for the purpose of explaining my position, so I’m not sure why you feel the need to correct me. Nevertheless, I find your defintions unnatural, and am unconvinced.

    The issue over prescription is possibly semantics. As I see it all action-guiding is prescription, it just varies in force and confidence. Note also that all prescriptions are also predictions about states of affairs, from how others respond to how one might do in a situation without others’ involvement at all. So saying something is a safe bet is still a prescription, it is still a recommendation, albeit weaker than a should or a must. This is supported by your point over ” certain action or range of actions appropriate”, “appropriate” is a basis for what is normal, that is a norm.” ~ faithlessgod

    There’s alot to untangle here. Yes, the issue is semantics, but that hardly makes it irrelevant, since what we’re doing here is conceptual analysis. No, prescriptions are not always predictive – that would assume the universal rationality of agents. No, a safe bet is not a recommendation, it is only a descriptive ground for a recommendation, and besides, you haven’t given me any reason here to think that a recommendation amounts to a prescription. Yes, “appropriate” does depend upon the general interests people have, but no, normalcy does not imply a norm in the prescriptive sense: (i) prescriptive norms can recommend behaviors which are uncommon, if not entirely absent from a population (e.g.”Always proportion your belief to the evidence”); and (ii), various facts about what is normal in a population have nothing to do with prescription (e.g. the normal number of toes a human has).

    I disagree, if the action is actually unavailable but could be then it is still a prescription. since we can learn from or be inspired by both fictional and real circumstances we may never be in. ” ~ faithlessgod

    Well, I think your notion of prescription is absurdly broad here – indeed, I think you’ve ruined the word. In any case, I take it you understand that my use is much narrower, that you understand my contrasting it with action-guiding terms, and that you understand what I am saying when I write of moral terminology being action-guiding but not descriptive.

    I disagree, surely we see all the time people making recommendations to others, that are in the speakers not the hearers interest. Look at politicians, bankers, and marketers as well as religious leaders and so on.” ~ faithlessgod

    We do see this. But the prescriptions they make are false. I need not suppose they are true in order to explain why they are employed (lies are usually to the lier’s advantage), or why they are effective (they are parasitic on the victim’s presupposition that the recommendation does, in fact, align with their best interests (easily explained in my view – the presupposition is based in the fact that true prescriptions are based in the interests of those to whom they apply)).

    Your apparent disregard or rejection of this common feature of human social discourse is surprising, particularly as it is one of the main issues that drives an interest in ethics, at least I would expect.” ~ faithlessgod

    Everybody lies. I’m quite bewildered that, having noted that the prescriptions are used to manipulate others, you think we should presume these manipulators honest.

    Now you appear to have defined ought in a restrictive fashion and contrary to popular usage.” ~ faithlessgod

    I think people make the sort of ought claims you say they do. But people also suppose that these ought claims have a particular force, akin if not identical to that of practical oughts which have their antecedents satisfied (less cumbersomely: they take their moral ought claims to be categorical imperatives). So, one way or another, the folk are wrong, and revisions need to be made. In my view, it is less upsetting to folk theory if we say that some of their ought claims are in error (remember, only some – the bulk will be true, given that moral terms are based on what people generally desire), than if we revise the meaning of their oughts so that they carry no real force. I doubt you agree with me that you are revising the terms, but I’d ask you to take note of the usual “misunderstandings” which arise concerning Desirism, and see whether or not many others make the assumption of force I do.

    For example, it is quite typical to tell A “not to X” or “you ought not X” and when they ask “why?” reply “well B will not like it”. Regardless of whether A says “I don’t care about B” or not (and the dialogue can easily be expanded based on either response), this is a recommendation, a prediction of another’s response in this case, due to another’s desire or aversion, used a reason for the recommendation, that is an ought based on an external reason.” ~ faithlessgod

    Sure, there’s recommendation, even prescription here (prediction is going too far – there’s not that much semantic content in an ought). But why suppose the reason given is external? Just because otherwise there’s the possibility that the speaker might be wrong? That seems less a sound philosophical policy than a fetish.
    But suppose that the potential actor in your example continues to ask “why?”, what happens then? I predict that the moral advocate will attempt to give reasons which are quite obviously in the actor’s interest, perhaps culminating in a threat of punishment. In my view, the original reason is intended to be in the actor’s interest too, and the advocate continues along the same line of thought. Under your interpretation, the advocate abruptly switches from external reasons to internal reasons, and slides with equivocation from justifying a social ought to justifying a practical ought.

    “. But they are not reasons for action for me, but reasons for action for them. ”
    Of course, which is why there is a difference between reasons-for-the-agent and reasons-to-act that exist!
    ” ~ faithlessgod

    You’ve missed the point. “Reasons for action for them” are reasons for them to act, not me.

    But then you say “it is these which I would likely point to to play any explanatory role you think external reasons-for-action play.”” ~ faithlessgod

    And here I’m talking about desires. As in: if desires are what you are constructing your external reasons for action out of, then I can explain any state of affairs just as well as you by using desires rather than these external reasons for action you think I need.

    ..here you appear to acknowledge that they can be indeed a contributory influence in an agent’s motivation. This is the point I have been arguing for all along.” ~ faithlessgod
    ” ~ faithlessgod

    Of course other people’s desires can play a role in an agent’s motivation. They do so when the agent’s desires depend upon what other people want (e.g.”I want what Sally wants”). If you’ve been arguing that point all along, then you haven’t been paying much attention to what I’ve been saying.

    How do you do that? ” ~ faithlessgod

    I’ve told you. You know, the desire dependency other-regarding desire thing?

    your claim ..is question begging” ~ faithlessgod

    This is getting really frustrating. I’ve explained how it was intended, not as an argument, but as a sentence which, since it sounds contradictory, we should take as that. Once again, you seem to have just ignored what I’ve written.

    If you mean by reason no external reason then it can be quite consistent..” ~ faithlessgod

    I don’t mean that. In fact, I’m happy to leave the statement just as it is – as implying that the speaker has reasons of neither kind. If it sounds self-contradictory as it is, then this is evidence that “I ought not do X” entails that the speaker does actually have reasons of some kind. Of course, by the very nature of external reasons the agent cannot have them, so it must be internal reasons which the ought claim entails.

    ..the whole point is however much they rationally and correctly think they should lack a desire to smoke or should have a desire to stop.. this is insufficient for them to have such desires” ~ faithlessgod

    I think you’re treating a desire as a feeling here. I disagree. Feelings are fleeting, desires are stable.

    Now a desire is, by definition, the umbrella term for all motivational brain states, so your move to motivation does not help. ” ~ faithlessgod

    Fine. Then substitute for “motivation”, “motivational feeling” – I intended to make the point that smokers do desire to quit, but that they feel no motivation to quit.

    The prudential grounding is in the affected desires and their relations to the desire under question.” ~ faithlessgod

    Ah, so you deny my antecedent, that the smoker really does not have any desires which ground the ‘ought’ claim. But, of course, that’s just what I’m doing too. So I guess you’d agree that “I ought not to smoke, but I have no desire to stop” does not entail the speaker’s having no reason not to smoke, and so is not an instance of the general form “I ought not do X, but I have no reason not to do X”. Well, good.

    An interesting conversation but I think it is time to wind it down. Now doubt points here might lead you to future posts and we could address those issues as and when they come up.” ~ faithlessgod

    Your bedside manner is impeccable, sir. Sure, by all means, sum up if you like. I’ll resist the urge to continue the debate by disagreeing.

  27. cl says:

    Tai Chi,

    I realize an answer to the following question might be too long for a quick blog comment, but I was just wondering where you’re at concerning desirism these days? I’ve lost quite a bit of respect for the theory over the past months, for varied reasons, but mostly Alonzo’s refusal to take tough questions seriously, and his refusal to give explanations for certain claims he makes.

  28. TaiChi says:

    Hi Cl.

    I’ve basically come to the conclusion that Desirism doesn’t offer a prescriptive theory of morality as promised. The external reasons-for-action (other people’s desires) which are supposed to support moral ‘oughts’ fail to do so, or at least, they fail to support moral ‘oughts’ on the supposition that moral ‘oughts’ are akin to the ‘oughts’ of practical rationality – that is, supposing that when you say someone morally ought to do X, you have given them a reason which interacts with their beliefs and desires to make doing X rational, and doing X irrational. I take from Faithlessgod that this isn’t supposed to be a problem for the Desirist, that moral ‘oughts’ are not after all like practical ‘oughts’, but I find the explanation of what they are to be far enough removed from my conception of a practical ‘ought’ that I don’t think the Desirist has managed to identify a kind of prescription at all.
    On the other hand, I’m still attracted to something like the Desirist account of moral terms. So, supposing that this account of moral terms were correct, but that it wasn’t a prescriptive theory after all, where to from here? I’m still not sure – perhaps Desirism or something like it should be retained as a descriptive moral theory, and we should say that the idea of the inherent prescriptivity of moral terms is unsatisfiable. Or perhaps the prescriptivity of a moral theory is its point, and so we should adopt an error-theory rather than continue with a jejune moral realism. To work that out, I’ve started to blog my way through Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality, which argues from the categorical nature of moral imperatives to their falsity. If I had to pick, I’d say I incline toward error-theory at the moment.

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