Monday, May 30, 2005

Coherence and Rational Desires

In recent times, my position has been that our ultimate values are beyond rational criticism. Rationality can assess a potential 'means' against some presupposed 'ends', but it cannot recommend one end over another (except in relation to some further end). But perhaps I've neglected an important further role rationality can play. We might also assess the consistency and overall coherence of our values or desires, just as we do our beliefs.

As Michael Smith writes in The Moral Problem, p.159:
Suppose we take a whole host of desires we have for specific and general things; desires which are not in fact derived from any desire that we have for something more general. We can ask ourselves whether we wouldn't get a more systematically justifiable set of desires by adding to this whole host of specific and general desires another general desire, or a more general desire still, a desire that, in turn, justifies and explains the more specific desires that we have. And the answer might be that we would.

It might help to offer an example. Imagine someone who thought three foods all tasted equally good, but he only desired to eat the first two. This desire set makes little sense. We require some explanation for why the third food is different, so as to justify its different treatment. If no such explanation is forthcoming, then the desire set is open to rational criticism for making arbitrary distinctions. It would make more sense for the agent to desire all the good-tasting foods (again, assuming there was no hidden reason for treating some differently). [M. Smith, 'In Defence of The Moral Problem' in Ethics and the a priori, p.269.]

Moreover, our desires ought to cohere not just with each other, but also with our evaluative beliefs. Suppose we believe that we have normative reason to Φ (that is, on Smith's analysis of normative reasons, "we believe that we would desire to Φ if we were fully rational") and yet we fail to desire to Φ. Then we are irrational "by our own lights. For we fail to have a desire that we believe it is rational for us to have." (TMP, p.177)

Now for the crucial question: does the amoralist's desire set suffer from incoherence? We've already established that he rationally ought not be purely egoistic, i.e. he must see at least some other people as having intrinsic worth as ends in themselves. But why should he desire the well-being of some people but not others? Unless he can draw some principled distinction between the groups, then the amoralist's desires are unacceptably arbitrary. The moralist's universal concern shows greater coherence and unity, and thus is less open to rational criticism.

I should note that this ties in nicely with Nagel's dissociative argument for agent-neutral reasons. We all recognize that pain is bad. But by denying agent-neutral reasons, the amoralist is committed to the view that no-one else actually has any reason to relieve his pain. This seems implausible, assuming we have reason to do anything at all.

Once we recognize that our own interests matter, and that other people are relevantly similar to ourselves, then consistency would seem to require us to conclude that the interests of other people matter too. As Christine Korsgaard notes, when we are asked to put ourselves in the position of a victim of our cruelty, we do not respond, "Someone doing that to me, why that would be terrible! But then I am me, after all." ['The Sources of Normativity' in Darwall et al. (eds.) Moral Discourse and Practice, p.400] We all recognize that something is no less terrible merely because it happens to someone else.

So we are now in a position to respond to the amoralist. It seems that someone could fail to care about others without making any empirical or logical mistake. But they show a degree of arbitrariness and incoherence in their values which is open to rational criticism. The amoralist must retreat to a form of rational nihilism, denying that there are any agent-neutral reasons for action. ("My pain isn't really bad. It's just bad to me.") But this position squares poorly with our intuitive judgments about the badness of pain and the impersonal reasons that it gives rise to. If we're right to hold that there can be agent-neutral reasons, then it follows that the amoralist is irrational in failing to recognize and act on these reasons. But even if we grant reason-relativism, we can still fault the amoralist for drawing arbitrary distinctions by caring about some people but not others who are relevantly similar. They could make their desire set more coherent by expanding their circle of concern to cover everyone (perhaps gradually 'fading out' as more 'distant' people would be slightly different in ways that justify having slightly less concern for them). So, either way, the amoralist is open to rational criticism.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly that our ultimate values are beyond rational criticism.

    However, our own interests matter to us, supposing other people are like us, consistentcy would require us to conclude that the interests of others matter to them too.

    I don’t see how this gives me reason to care about other people’s interests, assuming that this is not in conflict with any of my first order desires or principles. What reason do I have to agree to Nagel’s value of the ‘wrongness of pain’?

  2. But don't you think that your pain is really bad, and not merely bad "to you"? If we reflect on the quality of our pain, trying to see it from an impersonal or objective standpoint, isn't it most plausible for us to judge not merely that we want it gone, but also that it should be got rid of?

    Otherwise, you must hold that there is no reason for anyone else to alleviate your pain. It must be a puzzlement when anyone helps you - you must wonder, "why did they do that?" You mustn't ever feel resentment at others - they cannot wrong you, because you are in no way entitled to their help; they have no reason to help you unless it happens to suit their whim.

    This is not a position that many people could live with, I don't think. It certainly is not a very attractive position.

  3. No I don’t think pain is ‘really’ bad. A masochist, sadist or sadomasochist is going to have quite a different view on pain that I do. And whilst I want to always avoid pain myself that doesn’t even entail that I won’t to ‘get rid of pain’, such a thing would be a real problem in my view. (Imagine a population of morphine addicts.)

    But regardless of that, when reflecting objectively on pain all I can deduce is that I don’t want it. That other people may experience pain and dislike it is an empirical fact, and one that I can only grasp through the process of empathy.

    When I empathize, I’m imagining what it would be like to be someone else, with their interests and their discomfort etc. All morality is based upon empathy, (I’d argue), it is the categorical imperative, the golden rule. It is also born out of emotion and desire not reason. If I just don’t care what other people are going through then I’m not going to empathize with them. This inability to empathize is often called a trait of psychopathy, but that doesn’t make it irrational.

    I might hold that other people should alleviate my pain simply because it is my pain, or I may not care what they do. If I only care about my interests then it is consistent to want other people to serve them (eg. in the alleviation of my pain). That I wouldn’t do the same for them is hypocritical, self-centred and unsympathetic, but it’s not irrational.

    I agree that it is not a position that many people could live with, and almost no-one would ‘choose.’ And it may be that the people that do hold this position have severe psychological defects that make them inhuman in some sense. But as I see it the defect is in their emotional reactions and desires and not their reason.

  4. I would say that if someone enjoys an experience then it is, ipso facto, not pain. If have different intuitions here, perhaps we could use "suffering" instead - I take it as analytic that nobody enjoys suffering. But anyway, that is something of a nit-picking point. More generally, it seems that you are willing to bite the bullet and admit that there is no reason for anyone to relieve your suffering. If you can accept that, then okay.

    There still remains the issue of the coherence of one's desire set. To quote from the essay I'm working on:

    We have already established that self-interested reasons would force the amoralist to develop an intrinsic appreciation of at least some other people as ends in themselves. But it would be arbitrary to recognize only some people as having intrinsic worth, or even agent-relative worth to him. We can ask the relativistic amoralist why others do not also have worth to him. It seems plausible to hold that his overall desire set could be made more unified and coherent by adding in a more general desire for human well-being. This would contribute to explaining and justifying the more specific values the amoralist holds in valuing himself and his friends. We thus have rational grounds to criticize his desire set, in that it fails to exhibit such a degree of internal coherence. Given the rational pressure towards coherence, we may thus conclude that even the amoralist has reason to care about morality.

  5. I agree with your distinction between pain and suffering.

    I think the amoralist would think there is no objective ‘reason’ for anyone to help him just as there is no objective ‘reason’ for him to help others, but that doesn’t mean he can’t desire others to help him, even if he has no desire to help them. Unless you are a Kantian, I don’t see the irrationality, just the hypocrisy.

    You say you have already established that for self-interested reasons the amoralist would be forced to develop an intrinsic appreciation of at least some other people as ends in themselves. Isn’t that conclusion contingent on the desire of the amoralist to maximise the good? Even if that good be his own pleasure as in the case of the hedonist. I’m having trouble seeing the force of your argument here.

    Your argument is centred upon the idea of consistency of desires. However, Hume said that so long as a desire is not based on false beliefs then it is not rationally criticisable. If I think hurting people is ‘right’ because I believe “most people want to be hurt”, then my moral judgement and my desire to hurt people is irrational because it is based on a false belief.

    Is it irrational to love dogs and not cats? No, it is just a desire, an emotional preference. So too is the amoralists preference that others car about his suffering, whilst not caring about theirs. Given the nature of reciprocal altruism, I think it is right to say that these desires are not a prudent way to achieve his own happiness, but that only means amoralism is not prudent, it doesn’t mean it’s irrational.

    You say that the amoralists desires cannot be arbitrary or inconsistent, because that would be irrational. This is probably the part of your argument I’m having most trouble with, I don’t see it.

    As I see it, you can’t suppose both that morality is ultimately derived from values that are beyond rational criticism and that the amoralist is rationally criticisable for not being (or attempting to be) moral. The only way you are going to do that is to suppose that morality is a duty formed out of reason such as Kant’s categorical imperative.

    But you do say “assuming we have reason to do anything at all.” I don’t think we do have a priori reason to do anything at all. I only have reason to survive if I want to survive. It begins with desire.

  6. You're right that I assume the amoralist is self-interested, in order that self-interested reasons would then apply to him. Given that everyone is self-interested to at least some degree, I don't see this assumption as problematic.

    "Hume said that so long as a desire is not based on false beliefs then it is not rationally criticisable."

    Well then, Hume's claim (which I shared until reading Smith) is precisely what this post was arguing against.

    I'd still agree that one cannot hold a desire to be intrinsically irrational (except insofar as it would necessarily cohere poorly with any desire set - e.g. a desire that most of one's desires be thwarted). But the point is that coherence within a desire set gives us grounds for criticising those desires quite regardless of whether they rest on false beliefs. Re-read the first half of this post, or - probably better - the latter portions of my essay, to see how that goes.

  7. You're right that I assume the amoralist is self-interested, in order that self-interested reasons would then apply to him. Given that everyone is self-interested to at least some degree, I don't see this assumption as problematic.

    The problem I see with this, is in making distinction between prudence and rationality.

    If the amoralist is self-interested (lets say he wants to be happy) and he thinks disregarding other people’s interests, (lets say chopping their heads off) is a good way of going about this, because he doesn’t expect to be imprisoned or executed for such behaviour then he is acting irrationally. (False belief)

    If the amoralist wants to be happy, and its happy to go around chopping people’s heads off, knowing full well that he will suffer the consequences if caught, then he isn’t acting irrationally, though we might say he is not being prudent in achieving his self-interest in the long run

    If the amoralist doesn't want to be happy... I'm not sure how realistic it is to imagine a person who doesn't want to be happy. (I'm criticising my own train of thought here) Happy might not be a word that some people would use in describing their motivations, but if they are motivated to do anything at all, it must be because they 'want' something, some desire is being fulfilled. So you are probably right to make the claim that everyone is at least in part motivated by self interest.

  8. My view is that our ultimate values are not beyond rational criticism. However, they can only be evaluated in terms of 'rational as means'. 'Rational as ends' remains impossible (because there is no intrinsic value). However, we can still ask if any particular value (e.g., drug addiction) conflicts with other values.

    As for desires cohering with our normative beliefs, any belief of the form "X is good" which cannot be translated into the form, "X is such as to fulfill the desires in question" is a false belief. Again, grounded on the idea that there are no intrinsic values, and the only motivating reasons that exist are desires themselves.

    To tie this in with Hume's claim that a desire not based on false beliefs is not rationally criticizable -- a "desires as end" is not grounded on any beliefs. It merely exists. Only "desires as means" are grounded on any type of beliefs (specifically, beliefs about the relationship between means and ends). So, Hume's quote is consistent with the claim that "desires as means" are rationally criticizable, while "desire as ends" are not.

    Yet, it is still possible to criticize "desires as ends" on their tendency to fulfill or thwart other "desires as ends". In other words, to evaluate the usefulness of a "desires as ends."

    As for the comment, "Once we recognize that our own interests matter, and that other people are relevantly similar to ourselves, then consistency would seem to require us to conclude that the interests of other people matter too," your statement is ambiguous.

    Of course their interests matter -- to them. However, what justifies the conclusion that their interests desire to me?

    I can desire to climb a mountain. I can believe that you desire to climb a mountain. How does that entail that I have a desire that you get to the top of the mountain? I assert that there is no such entailment.

    The primary counter-example that I have against this is to consider the relationship between the predator and the prey. Is the pain that the antelope suffers of interest to the lion? Grant the lion and the antelope intelligence, and there is still no reason to believe that the antelope's pain contains some type of agent-neutral reason for the lion not to hunt it.

    Now, there is a type of incoherence in ignoring the interests of others when making moral judgments. However, that simply springs from the fact that moral judgments are, by definition, justments that consider everybody's interests. Moral statements are, by definition, universalizable. It is incoherent to hold that a universalizable principle applies to "me and no other".

  9. If the universalizability of moral judgments is merely definitional, then that leaves open the question: why be moral?. More specifically: ought we to be moral? Are there reasons that count in favour of this option? Is egoism somehow unreasonable? I want to answer 'yes' to these questions. If we can't, then showing a concern for morality is simply arbitrary -- it's just a "preference" like any other: I happen to care about human well-being universally, the Klansman cares about white supremacy, and there's nothing to be said for the one value-system over the other. It's a merely linguistic fact that "morality" happens to be about the former sorts of values. But they're not superior in principle or reality. So, it seems, you have to say. But this is an unappealing position. We should try for something better.

    And, indeed, we can achieve something better. As I argue in the main post, we can fault the egoist or Klansman for a lack of coherence in their desire set. The Klansman desires the wellbeing of white people, let us say. But there is no relevant difference between white and black people that could justify treating them so differently. It is arbitrary to care about the one group but not the other.

    I agree with you that this does not entail that the Klansman actually has a desire for black people's wellbeing. Of course not. Rather, what it shows is that he ought to have such a desire (or else, perhaps, lose his desire for white people's wellbeing -- either move would resolve his inconsistency).

    As for your predator example, non-rational animals have no moral capacities, so I don't see the relevance. Conversely, if we imagine that both animals had human-like intelligence, then the antelope's pain would provide the lion a reason not to hunt it. (This might be outweighed by the lion's own needs, however, if it had no other means of survival.) Intelligent beings hold that the pain and suffering of their friends and family is bad, and it would be unreasonable to arbitrarily stipulate that pain suddenly stops mattering when it occurs to some other group. There must be a relevant difference to justify such different treatment. I take this principle to be a general requirement of rationality. It offers us the power to provide a genuinely normative foundation for morality, without appeal to any 'spooky' metaphysical entities. Win-win :)

    (Of course, there are some differences. Being closely related can be a reason to care more about someone. But it is a matter of degree, and won't justify any strict cut-offs. Though you should care *more* about your immediate family, your neighbours and distant relatives are still similar enough that it would be most consistent for you to still have some concern for their wellbeing also. Then your more distant countrymen are slightly more different again, thus a slightly lesser concern would be rationally justified, and then again for people overseas, then sentient animals, etc.)


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)