Monday, February 21, 2005

This Desire Is Thwarted

David at E.G. suggests a potential objection to consequentialism. Suppose that a painting, based on stolen photos, is considered a great work of art because of its immoral origin. That is, its aesthetic value depends upon the immorality of its creator. Great aesthetic value outweights the disvalue of petty theft, so according to consequentialism the creation of the painting was not immoral after all. But we have assumed the immorality to be an essential component of the painting's value; if it were created in a moral fashion, it would lose this value. Absent this resulting value, the theft is immoral. (So the value returns, and we spin round the circle again.) We are left with a contradiction: the painter is immoral iff he is not. This is impossible, so one of our assumptions must be false.

David suggests we hold consequentalism to blame. But I think this is a more general problem to do with second-order values. For imagine the following: Nasty Adolf desires that more desires be thwarted than fulfilled. 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 iff it is not fulfilled. Again we have a contradiction, but this time without any mention of consequentialism. [Update: see also my post on contextual impossibility.]

So what is the real problem? It seems a lot like the liar paradox. A more direct analogue might be "I wish that this wish won't come true", or equivalently, "I desire that this desire be thwarted". But it should be clear that Adolf's desire is problematic in the same self-referential way, though by a more indirect route. The same is true of our painting's aesthetic value. (We might re-describe the situation as follows: The collectors are desiring that the painter thwarts more desires than he fulfils, where this is the deciding desire!)

It seems we must conclude that such desires and values are impossible, much as the statement that "this statement is false" is impossible. (A little voice objects: "But you just made that statement, so it mustn't be impossible after all!" But no, all I did was write some words, there's no guarantee that the sentence had any meaning. If it is just so much gobbledegook masquerading as English, then it does not in fact state anything at all.) This response is awfully ad hoc, of course. It sure seems possible to make such a statement, or for such desires and values to exist. But denying this possibility is one (possible) solution, at least.

Anyway, my main point is just that David's scenario reduces to the value-based variant of the liar paradox. The problem can be restated without appeal to consequentialism at all. So it cannot work as an objection to consequentialism. The problem lies elsewhere.


  1. I don't agree that the problem can be restated without appeal to consequentialism. For suppose consequentialism is false. For instance, suppose that it is wrong to steal photographs, even if doing so would result in a painting of great value. In that case, there's no paradox and no contradiction. The painting would have great value, and it would be wrong to steal the photographs. So, it seems to me, you do need consequentialism to generate the paradox.

    I agree something "slippery" might be going on here. However, I don't think the scenario, as described, is self-contradictory; I don't think there's any contradiction in saying a thing's value depends on its immorality. Another way to put this point is to say that I don't see any contradiction in the possibility of "radical evil." If I'm right, then there might be a contradiction somewhere in my argument, but I don't think there's any contradiction in the scenario as described.

  2. Sorry, I was unclear. It's true that without consequentialism, your exact scenario won't go through, because the meaning of "immoral" would be different. However, it seems to me that we could replace "immoral" in the scenario with the appropriate consequentialist synonym, quite regardless of whether consequentialism is true (if it is not, then the aesthetic value of the painting will not rest on 'immorality' as such, but 'the thwarting of desires' instead).

    Basically, you've described a scenario that, if consequentialism is true, has an equivalent problem as my Adolf scenario does.

    You write: "I don't think there's any contradiction in saying a thing's value depends on its immorality." However, if (my version of) consequentialism is true, then that simply reduces to "I don't think there's any contradiction in saying a desire's fulfilment depends on desire-thwarting." Now, I agree that it seems odd. Adolf's desire strikes me as a possible one to have. But, at least in specific circumstances, it does give rise to a contradiction.

    You've used consequentialism to redescribe the Adolf paradox in terms of morality. That makes for a more interesting example, I'll grant, but not one that says anything about consequentialism.

    Perhaps an analogy will make things clearer. 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 scenario 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.

  3. That will teach you for holding to the law of the excluded middle.

    If you accepted that there was a bit of yin in every yang, then you could see that there need not be a contradiction in saying that something can be both good and evil.


    p.s. Richard, you might like to see my latest post, as I think it might prompt some of your thinking about human motivation, and what things we do for their own sake...

  4. Richard,
    I'm curious: Do you think that my argument shows that consequentialists need to deny that value can depend on immorlity? 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.

  5. So this is a problem because we can assume that something immoral might be justified? That's nothing new, I think it is the main argument against consequentialism. The problem I have with the example is that as a consequentialist, I would not have to agree that stealing the painting would have a lower value than the artistic value. This assumption seems to make no sense.

    If anyone here has read Nietzsche, I think he has already given clear arguments how terrible things are necessary for good things. If you want to live in denial about it, you'll probably end up with some pretty terrible consequences. For example, The human race would have never evolved intelligence without a destructive and challenging environment.

    So, if you make our lives safe and help keep sickly people alive you will degenerate the human race. Does that mean we are justified to kill sick people? No. You'd have to have an adequate way to know what values are the most important to be sure. The consequentialists are pretty much involnerable to criticism, because of how impossible it is to measure values.

  6. "... all I did was write some words, there's no guarantee that the sentence had any meaning."

    Your painting conundrum and Adolf's desire problem and "this sentence is false" have the same structure, and I think the quote above is at the heart of the problem. You seem to deny that "this sentence is false" is a statement. I think you are resolving the conundrum the wrong way. Presented with a statement like that, which resembles many other fine statements in structure and content, but which resists being either true or false, I suggest you instead drop your implicit premise: "Each statement is either true or false." Plainly the evidence is against you.

    Once you do that, and accept the existence of pathological statements, similarly pathological desires and moral judgements (and barbers) will be unsurprising.

  7. James, no, the problem isn't about immoral things being justified. Rather, the problem is more metaphysical, namely, that we seem stuck with the existence of a true contradiction, rather like saying "this sentence is false."

    Craig, the law of bivalence is a serious one to give up. And I'm not even sure it would help. What do you say of "this sentence is not true" - if it is neither true nor false, then it is 'not true', just as it says, so it IS true! Perhaps we could instead give up the law of non-contradiction, but this is an even more serious concession. Do you really think it is possible for there to be a barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves?

  8. "Craig, the law of bivalence is a serious one to give up."

    I never said it wouldn't hurt. And I don't think replacing "false" with "not true" makes things any worse. I'm not proposing that there is a 3rd value "other", to add to "true" and "false". I'm proposing "some statements are true, some are false, and for some statements you just can't say whether they are true or false". Sure, it's nasty, but it seems to be the situation. I say "Just live with the paradoxen; you've lived with the crabgrass all these years."

    The barber case was always weaker, because you can reply to "there is a barber who ..." with "no, there isn't". But "barber" is just an illustration; change it to "there is a set that ..." and you are back to "I deny that this thing which closely resembles a set is really a set" because it breaks the "in/out" property that all the polite sets have.

    All that said, I've always loved the paradoxen. And the true ones, like these, are the best. Attempts to fix them by declaring "that's not a statement" or equivalent will always provoke me to reply "Ha! Ha! Paradox wins again!"

    More seriously, maybe we should give up bivalent logic entirely. Like so: true/false is all very well in mathematics and similar childrens games, but in the actual world, neither ever happens. Instead, we deal with likelyhoods in the open range (0%,100%). No statement has either 0% or 100% likeliness, but some other value..

    It's an ambitious project, I know, but you were planning to spend your life in academia anyhow. (I state without knowing anything about your actual plans.)



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