Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Is Immoral Value Possible?

In a comment to my previous post, David raised a very interesting question:
I'm curious: Do you think that my argument shows that consequentialists need to deny that value can depend on immorality? If so, that alone is an interesting result. For one thing, it may mean that consequentialists are committed to deny that a person can value immorality for its own sake. I wouldn't have expected that result.

I'm finding the entire discussion very interesting! But I agree that this result, if valid, sounds very surprising.

Firstly, I should point out that the problem only gets off the ground if we accept an objective desire-fulfillment theory of value. More subjective accounts, such as hedonism, would avoid these problems. So denying DF is an easy way out for consequentialists. To make things interesting, I will make two assumptions for the sake of this post: (1) that value can be identified with desire-fulfillment; and (2) that the morally right action is that which maximises value (desire fulfillment). But for the record, I do not subscribe to (2) exactly as stated. Now...

Thinking back to the liar paradox, it seems to have precise rather than general consequences. That is, there are certain self-referential sentences we must not allow, but other forms of second-order statements - even claims of falsehood - are unproblematic (e.g. "The statement 'grass is blue' is false").

I think the same applies to desires. It's fine to desire that other desires be thwarted, so long as you don't include the present desire. Recall the 'Adolf' example I presented as a (desire-based) variant of the liar paradox:
Adolf desires that more desires be thwarted than fulfilled. [A 'desire that P' is 'fulfilled' if P is in fact true, 'thwarted' if P is false.] Further suppose that - apart from this desire of Adolf's - there are in total an equal number of fulfilled and thwarted desires in the world. It follows that Adolf's desire is fulfilled if and only if it is not fulfilled.

The problem with Adolf is that he was put in a context where his desire became self-referentially paradoxical. This situation could potentially arise whenever you have a desire that refers to 'all desires'. But it's logically impossible that a desire could have its own thwarting as a fulfillment condition - that's equivalent to a statement having its own falsity as its truth condition! So I think we must hold all such desires to be impossible. (It would seem odd to say they are possible some times but not others, depending on the external context. Why should the existence of an internal desire depend on the external world? But maybe this could be argued as an alternative solution. [Update: I do so here.])

One might plausibly claim that morality is about all desires. If this were so, then the above considerations suggest that desiring immorality would be impossible. But perhaps this is not so. We can avoid self-referentiality by having a desire that refers not to 'all desires', but rather to 'all other desires'. So we might refine our understanding of morality so that, if appealed to in the content of a desire, it is instead understood to be about all other desires. This would solve our problems. According to this definition, we can value immorality without fear of logical contradiction.

If you don't like to redefine morality in such a way, then let us refer to my new (restricted) concept as 'schmorality'. I would then conclude that it is possible to value schimmorality, but logically impossible to value unrestricted immorality. This latter result sounds surprising, but I think it is actually fairly insignificant, because schimmorality is so similar that it can do all the work we previously required of immorality.


  1. Or, to re-iterate, one can DENY that any action must be wholly good or wholly bad, but can easily express aspects of both.

  2. I am afraid that the modification you suggest may be problematically "ad hoc." There are smooth and compelling arguments for the view that one ought to maximize fulfillment of all desires. I suspect that an argument for the view that one ought to maximize fulfillment of all desires, except the desire for immorality, will not be as smooth and compelling. If so, then to modify desire-fulfillment consequentialism in this way may be to undermine its rationale.

    At any rate, Richard, thanks again for this discussion. Your counterarguments, in this discussion and in others, have been extremely challenging and thought-provoking.

  3. Hang on... I never suggested that "one ought to maximize fulfillment of all desires, except the desire for immorality". My claim was not about morality as such, but rather, about the content of desires (and particularly those that invoke morality). The meaning of morality is changed only when appealed to in the content of a desire. Really what I'm changing is the desire, not morality itself. (As I note at the end of the post, we need not alter 'morality' at all, but we then require that desires can refer only to schimmorality, and not to unrestricted immorality.)

    The restriction simply recognises that we cannot possibly have desires whose fulfilment potentially depends upon their own thwarting. Again, this is a claim not about morality, but the propositional content of desires. It is no more ad hoc than denying that "this sentence is false" has any meaning. (Perhaps both are ad hoc, but how then do you deal with the liar paradox? I think the solution, whatever it is, will also apply to self-referential desires.)

  4. I don't think we're going to be able to support the view that the meaning of morality changes when it appears in the content of a desire. That seems even more ad hoc to me than before. Do meanings of words typically change when they appear in the content of a desire? If I say "The Statue of Liberty is in New York," don't I mean the same thing by "Statue of Liberty" as you do when you say "I wish the Statue of Liberty were in Los Angeles?"

    At any rate, I don't know how to resolve the liar paradox, but here are some considerations that might problematize your analogy with the liar paradox.

    It appears to me that "This sentence is false" is problematic in virtue of the meanings of the words which appear in that sentence. That is: If I know what "sentence," "false," etc., mean, I have all the tools I need to see why there's a problem in believing that this sentence is false. If I think "this sentence is false" is not problematic, then I probably don't mean the same thing by "sentence" or "false" as most people do.

    On the other hand, I think that when a non-consequentialist speaks of "morality," she refers to the very same thing as does a consequentialist when she speaks of morality. In other words, I think consequentialists and non-consequentialists have different beliefs about one and the same thing, i.e. morality. But I think we have seen that, for the non-consequentialist, there is nothing incoherent or problematic about a desire for immorality. You need to add the assumption that consequentialism is true in order to generate the problem. (In fact, you probably need to add the assumption that *a particular kind of* consequentialism is true; the problem under discussion might not appear for all forms of consequentialism.)

    What does this mean? If non-consequentialists mean the same thing by "morality" as consequentialists do, and a desire for immorality is not problematic for non-consequentialists, then probably, a desire for immorality is not meaningless or problematic solely in virtue of the meaning of "desire," "immorality," etc. To get the problem, I think you need to say something like this:

    "Someone desires immorality, and (a particular kind of) consequentialism is true."

    This is less like "This sentence is false" than it is like

    "Sentence S is false, and sentence S is this sentence."

    To resolve the latter problem, we can either say there are deep problems with saying sentence S is false, or we can deny someone's theory that sentence S is *this* sentence. Likewise, to resolve the former problem, we can either say that there are deep problems with a desire for immorality, or we can deny someone's theory that (a particular kind of) consequentialism is true.

  5. David, I more or less agree with you. On your first point, if we adopt my 'schimmorality' response the meaning of morality is unchanged. It's just that a desire for unrestricted immorality is, technically, impossible. This is unproblematic because the almost-identical concept of 'schimmorality' can be the content of desires. So whenever we would attribute a desire for immorality, what it really is is a desire for schimmorality. (Though for practical purposes we might as well just keep calling it 'immorality'. That's the point of my 'change the meaning' response - it doesn't make any deep claims about the nature of morality, it's just a technical stipulation made for pragmatic reasons.)

    Getting to the more important point, I agree with you that we are dealing with an indirect version of the liar-paradox-analogue (i.e. the Adolf paradox). This has been my point all along, that consequentialism works as a translation tool to convert desires-for-immorality into Adolf-paradoxes.

    To quote a comment I made in the previous post: "Imagine a moral theory called Alethism, which claims that it is always and only wrong to speak falsely. Now imagine someone says 'this speech-act is immoral'. This gives rise to a contradiction. But the problem lies not with Alethism, but with the liar paradox. Alethism is merely the translation tool which allows the given [statement] to be turned into the liar paradox. In exactly the same way, consequentialism is merely the tool with which you've turned the painter scenario into (something very close to) my Adolf paradox."

    Now, the Liar paradox (and the Adolf paradox) are independently pre-existing problems. So I don't see how appealing to them could be an objection to any other theory. Denying consequentialism won't make the paradoxes go away. It would just mean that the paradoxes don't apply to morality-talk, since we can't translate it into desire-talk (which is where the Adolf paradox applies). But this is no remarkable gain. So the paradox gives us no reason to abandon consequentialism. (Of course you're right that we could avoid the immorality-paradox by denying consequentialism. But we have no intrinsic reason to prefer this option. It wouldn't make the Adolf paradox go away.)

    Lastly, you suggest that "non-consequentialists mean the same thing by 'morality' as consequentialists do", but this isn't clear to me. There's a sense in which we're all discussing the same concept, but there's another sense in which very different conceptions of 'morality' are being offered. So if consequentialists are recommending we adopt a particular understanding of the meaning of 'morality', it would beg the question against them for you to claim that the paradox does not arise because of the meaning of 'immoral', 'desire', etc. For that's precisely what's being disputed. (But I think we agree about the indirectness of the paradox, so this point may not matter.)

  6. Alethism seems to me to be a slightly different case. The following two claims are problematic:

    (a) "This speech act is immoral, and alethism is true."

    (b) "Someone desires immorality, and (a particular kind of) consequentialism is true."

    In both (a) and (b) we should deny one or the other of the conjuncts. But in case (a), we have no good reason to want to affirm the left-hand conjunct. In case (b), I claim, we do. People have reported desiring immorality. I take Augustine, for instance, to claim that he at one time desired immorality, and I think that we should want to take him at his word. So there's a cost associated with affirming the right-hand conjunct of (b) which is not associated with affirming the right-hand conjunct of (a). I'm not saying this cost cannot be paid, and I acknowledge that having to pay that cost does not put our "particular kind of consequentialist" into a completely untenable position. Certainly, no decisive refutation of consequentialism is going to come out of this. But I think that, since we do have some good reasons for thinking the left-hand side of (b) is true, we have those same reasons for thinking the right-hand side of (b) is false.


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