Saturday, April 24, 2010

Increasingly Subjective 'Oughts'

Consider the following variant on Parfit's Mineshafts case. Suppose ten lives are in danger, and an agent is presented with five options (A - E), with the following information. Exactly one of options A and B will save all ten, while the other will cause all ten to die, and the agent has no way to discover which is which. Option C is guaranteed to save nine and kill one. Option D is guaranteed to save one and kill nine. Option E is guaranteed to save five and kill five.

I take it to be clear that the agent ought to opt for the safe option C, so as to save 9/10 lives. The standard concept of 'ought' (the one that's relevant to deliberation, etc.) is thus evidence-sensitive. We can stipulate a technical usage according to which the agent 'objectively ought' to choose option A (supposing that that is the one that will actually save all ten lives), but that doesn't seem as central as the evidence-sensitive 'ought'.

Let me add some further details to the case. Suppose that our agent was raised to believe that happy lives are bad whereas pain and death are good. (He finds this just as subjectively 'obvious'-seeming as we find the opposite claims.) Should this affect how we are to evaluate the agent's options? I'm inclined to think not. The agent should (in the standard, evidence-sensitive sense) still choose option C, but because he's so morally misguided he likely won't realize this. His messed up upbringing might excuse his error when he instead chooses D, but it sure doesn't justify choosing to bring about eight extra deaths.

Some philosophers - let's call them 'subjectivists' - respond differently. They say that, although the agent objectively (or with respect to the facts) ought to do A, he subjectively (or with respect to his beliefs) ought to choose D (not C), killing 9/10 people. This seems a serious cost to their view: surely we should not be attaching any positive normative status to such poor decisions. Objectivists can (and should) insist that it isn't rational to take the means to irrational ends like this.

The prospects for subjectivism look even worse when we add a further detail to the case. Let's suppose that the agent is logically, as well as morally, confused. So although he aims to cause as much death as possible, he confusedly believes that this end is better achieved by causing five deaths than by causing nine. Does this then mean that the agent rationally/subjectively ought to choose E?

Here the subjectivist faces a dilemma. If they endorse ever-increasingly subjective norms, then their view becomes empty -- it fails to accommodate the obvious datum that people can be irrational without realizing it. So suppose they instead draw a line in the sand, and insist that our logically confused fellow is irrational to choose E, and what he really ought to have chosen is D. But why stop there? Once we appreciate that people can be irrational without realizing it (maybe even blamelessly so), isn't it overwhelmingly more plausible to favour option C (saving 9/10 lives) as what any reasonable agent really ought to choose in this case?

(Note that there's a principled stopping point here at option C. The agent lacks access to the empirical evidence that could ground a reasonable belief that option A is better than C. But no such evidence is needed to appreciate fundamental moral truths, which are presumably a priori knowable if they're knowable at all. See also: Expecting Better of the Ignorantly Unreasonable.)


  1. I'm not sure appealing to apriority helps. Suppose you had a variant of the case where A saves 10 if some very complicated but a priori knowable mathematical claim is true, B saves 10 if it is false, C saves 9 for sure. (The claim is so complicated that you'd get it wrong about 50% of the time if you were forced to guess repeatedly.) Do you want to say that A is what you ought to choose? That sounds bad (but it may be the least painful option, I admit.)

    The other issue is this. Is it possible to have good evidence for a false normative theory? If so, should your misleading evidence justify you in taking certain courses of action that would otherwise be unjustified? (Were you thinking being raised by people with bad values was a case of this kind?)

    Maybe the view that you should choose A in this variant is the least painful way to go (especially if you hasten to add that it is excusable to choose C). I'm sort of inclined to go that way, but not comfortably. I just don't find any way out of this especially congenial. Though I wonder what the conditions for excusability are...

  2. So of course I agree with everything Nick says. Richard -- may I get you to say something in support of the claim in paragraph 4 that begins "surely..."? When you say that we shouldn't be attaching any positive normative status to acts like D, I assume you're not just saying D isn't objectively right or evidence-relative right. You're saying that there's some notion of positive normative valence that is presumably common to all things that are right in any of the "legitimate" senses, and that isn't had by D. I don't share this intuition. I think there are things to be said about D -- it is the best action qua response to the world as the agent sees it; it is the best action qua "try" or "attempt" to do what's right. I could flesh these out more, but I just want to hear your argument on this score.

    Secondly -- the second thing is just not true. As I argue in my dissertation, what you're calling subjective norms are best understood as norms of local rationality. So suppose my credence is divided among different normative theories. It is, or so I claim at least, most locally rational relative to these credences to do the action with the highest expected objective value. But suppose your credence is divided among different theories of rationality. Suppose the most rational action to do relative to these new credences is the action with the highest expected RATIONAL value. It is perfectly consistent for a) these to be different actions, and b) for the action that's locally rational relative to the credences regarding first-order rationality to be IRrational relative to the credences regarding the moral theories. That is to say, whatever else we say about the agent's rationality, what is locally rational relative to the credences regarding the moral theories depends ONLY on what the actually correct theory of rationality says, NOT on what the agent believes.

    I'm typing this quickly, but you're more than welcome to look at Ch. 7 of the dissertation where I make room for the possibility you're saying "the subjectivist" can't accommodate. (That said, many of the positive views in that chapter are wrong, and I'm presently in the process of replacing them with what I hope are the right views.)

  3. Nick - right, there's definitely more that needs to be said here in terms of "non-ideal" theory. One option would be to distinguish between the varying "obviousness" of various a priori truths (maybe relative to the general intelligence / rational capacities of the agent). Here we're talking about very obvious moral truths, that any minimally non-crazy agent ought to appreciate; you can contrast these with highly complex (and practically unknowable) a priori truths, which might need a different treatment. The point of my final paragraph was really just to flag that no matter how much we idealize the agent's rational capacities, we're never going to get beyond option C (all the way to option A) as the rational thing for them to do in this situation. But there's definitely more to say about whether we should sometimes stop sooner (i.e. slightly further back in the subjective direction), which is more plausible in more complex cases.

    Andrew - what is this "second thing" you speak of, that you think is not true?

    On the lack of any genuine justification (or positive normative valence) for D, we may just have a clash of intuitions. When I think about this case, I find myself with a very strong aversion to praising or commending in any way the agent's murderous choice. I grant, of course, that the agent believed promoting death to be what he ought to do. But it doesn't seem to me that there's anything necessarily commendatory about acts with this formal property of being non-akratic. That's just too 'thin'. It seems to me that you've really got to be on the right track, in terms of normative substance, before you qualify for any commendations at all. With really incompetent agents, making really atrocious decisions, I want to be able to say that their decision was simply mistaken (on any level that counts).

    To get a better sense of your view: do you think there's a genuine sense of normative justification according to which the logically confused agent truly ought to choose E?

  4. Sorry - by "the second thing", I meant the "obvious datum that people can be irrational without realizing it". What it's locally rational to do relative to a set of credences is utterly independent, on my view, of the agent's credence distribution REGARDING what it's locally rational to do relative to them. Separate questions: what's it locally rational to do relative to the second set of credences? and what's the local rational status of actions relative to all of these credences taken together? (It's my answer to this last question that I screw up in Ch. 7. I'm now developing a new view.)

    Re: your final question -- the simple answer is "yes". I don't want to treat logical confusion differently than I'd treat any other kind of confusion. But again, this does not mean that I think that the rules of deductive inference that govern my thoughts are just whatever I believe they are, or anything like that. Also, there's pressure to say that certain very basic logical errors are just impossible. If you tell me that Bob inferred ~P from P, and my first inclination is to deny that that's what went on; rather, Bob's inferring A(P) from P shows that Bob's A(*) concept is not the negation concept.

  5. Sorry, sorry -- by the second thing, I meant the fact that the subjectivist can't accommodate this obvious datum. I need to think more before I post...

  6. Ah, I see. I was thinking of the paradigmatic subjectivist as someone who took each increasingly subjective 'ought' to replace our old rational 'ought'. But I guess you could embrace a kind of pluralistic "proliferation of oughts" view instead. That may be less bad. (But what are we going to do with them all?)

  7. I hope my comment won't interrupt the ongoing discussion. As I understand it, the subjective/objective distinction is orthogonal to the internalist/externalist distinction.

    By the first distinction, what I have in mind is the same as Parfit's I believe. Take instrumental oughts for instance. The means that S objectively ought to choose is what, as a matter of fact, would satisfy the end that S ought to pursue. The means that S subjectively ought to choose is what, given S's beliefs, would satisfy the end that S ought to pursue, if those beliefs are true.

    By the second distinction, I have in mind the following. If one holds either reasons internalism/externalism, and the commonly held view that ought claims can be derived from reason claims, then there is the resulting distinction between internal/external ought.

    The two distinctions diverge, for one could be a Humean internalist about e.g., the ends that one objectively ought to pursue. Namely, the ends that one objectively ought to pursue are set by those states of affairs that one's passions and desires favor. But a Humean can admit that one can have false beliefs about such ends, for instance, by self-deception, or by ideologically twisted upbringing. Also, what (de dicto) S wants in any particular case, may not in fact be what (de re) S wants, because of the referential opacity of mental attitudes. (E.g., S's wanting the "gin and tonic" in front of him when in fact it is poison.)

    I don't think anyone seriously denies that there is a distinction between subjective/objective oughts, even "subjectivists" like the Humean internalist. Take Huck Finn and his sympathy-driven decision not to report Jim to the authorities. He believed that he was doing something wrong by helping Jim escape, but that is the result of a false ideology that doesn't mesh with Huck's strongest and truest feelings. Humean internalism gives the right results here, and will claim that Huck objectively ought to help Jim escape.

  8. Two further comments:

    (1) Psychopaths are perhaps exceptions, and even those with autism. They are deficient in certain psychological abilities, which makes it hard or impossible for them to be convinced by certain reasons we ourselves find convincing. It seems psychopaths lack empathy (or perhaps they can place themselves in other people's shoes but have low to no affective response to other people's suffering), and so do autistic persons (perhaps for different reasons, they seem to be deficient in the ability to imagine themselves in situations not their own... but I don't know much about these issues). I've also read anecdotal accounts of how psychopaths act impulsively, often to their own long-term detriment. This suggests to me that they lack the ability to keep commitments, an important psychological device in enabling coordination of action over time and with others. In these exceptional cases, the Humean internalist will say they really have no (or not much) reason to be considerate of others, to conform to their commitments, etc., though we ourselves have such reasons. So here the Humean internalist will have to "bite the bullet" though not in cases of false ideological upbringing, and the Humean stance here seems plausible enough for me to put "bite the bullet" in scare quotes.

    (2) Concerning the supposition that S is logically confused, so that he chooses Option E. Then S subjectively ought to choose it, but the Humean can certainly accept that S objectively ought not to choose it, for reasons explained in earlier. And if logic is concerned with validly deriving true propositions from other true ones, then the Humean has an explanation for why S objectively ought not to choose Option E, given the different direction of fit that beliefs have from desires.

  9. Oh... I should really read blog posts more carefully before firing off a response. On a second reading I see you agree that subjectivists maintain that there are both subjective and objective oughts. Then, in response to your critique of subjectivism I will side with Williams and say that subjective ought claims that are objectively false are simply false claims. One has no internal reason to do what one subjectively and falsely ought to do. But now I admit your criticism is forceful. If someone believes in an objectively false subjective norm, then it would be hard to convince him by his own lights that he ought to act otherwise, so Williams's browbeating argument doesn't work well here.


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