Monday, 23 August 2010

Philosophy - Morality

And now finally, the point. The entire purpose of philosophy, of thought in general, is to determine what we should do. The key problem is the famous is-ought gap. Thus far I have talked about what is, firstly my perceptions, then theories about them. And then the world reviled by these theories. So now we have to find a way to talk about “ought”. No amount of statements about what is can tell us what we should do. This is because the word “should” is not yet defined. So we need some way to jump the is-ought gap. I'm going to try this by defining the word “should”. This is a definition so cannot be wrong in a logical sense. The only question is if other people agree with me. Other people choose different definitions for should, others will choose to define ought statements in other ways. Many choose not to define ought statements at all, saying the is-ought gap exists so we cannot jump it at all and must live in a haze of intuitive notions when talking about moral ideas.

So far I have talked about the world in almost exclusively physical terms. I've talked about humans and people in terms of objects. But it's important to recognise an aspect of my perceptions. Happiness. For me perceiving the taste of a ham sandwich is fundamentally different from the taste of porridge, far more different than the foods themselves. I enjoy ham sandwiches far more than porridge, this is a definite observed perception, it's not something I'm just saying to myself. How do I know it's not just a thought with no real significance? My actions. 6

I have never actively sought out porridge. I dont put effort into going to find it, I do however put effort into making a nice ham sandwich. We act to achieve those perceptions that bring us most happiness, this is the definition of happiness. Endless tomes can and have been written on happiness so I'll just point out a few obvious features.

  • More than one kind of happiness exists. Different things make us happy at one and the same time. So being happy that I am at a fine university doesn't stop me being happy that I am eating a cheese sandwich.
  • Happiness is not the same as physical pleasure. It is said that rats can be wired to electrodes that stimulate the orgasm section of the brain, it is also said that if given a button to activate this they will stave themselves to death pushing it. If this is true human happiness and rat happiness is different. There are many examples of so-called sex addicted people, but I have yet to encounter a story of people starving themselves to death from sex-induced neglect. So people at some point stop having sex (or masturbating), the do this to gain some other kind of happiness. This cannot be physical pleasure, no higher or stronger form of physical pleasure exists than orgasm. So we can conclude that non-pleasure forms of happiness, (self preservation, loyalty, friendship, knowledge, art, appreciation, the happiness of others, accomplishment etc etc etc) can overpower physical pleasure, so happiness and pleasure are not the same.
  • We benefit others and this makes us happy. I dont give money to Africa to help them. Well, I do, but if I'm a little more honest with myself, the reason that I do this is that I like to think of myself as a charitable person, and donating whatever nominal sum I give will have a much greater effect on boosting my own self image (or my image in the eyes of others) than it will actually helping people. This is not to say that donating money to Africa is bad or that we should stop doing it, or that we should change ourselves so we dont act on these selfish motives. I simply note that the concept of acting on our desires only is not always the same as the idea of selfishness as normally understood.
  • We often do things that make us unhappy in the short term but happy in the long term, or vice versa. We balance the strength of our desires to conclude which of the two happinesses is more important to us.
  • You can be happy in awful situations, the history of martyrs tells of countless people who have voluntarily withstood unimaginable physical and emotional suffering. People exist who have actively chosen torture. These people choose their principle or friends or religion or whatever else over relief from pain. The principles that drive them obviously make them more happy than would freedom from pain.
  • We can, with a lot of effort, change what makes us happy. Ask any ex-addict, the drug used to make them happy, no longer. It's a hard process but it can be done. Of course there are a number of short cuts, sudden road-to-demascus type conversion from one thing making you happy to a fundamentally different form of happiness exists, often it's religious in nature, but similar things can happen in the context of animal welfare or their world aid say.

There is one big observation though. Theory of mind, I said above, is a scientific theory that suggests that others have a mind (ie all those perceptions that aren't sense data, thinking, feeling etc), and this includes desire. So we conclude others have desires, the question is what are they? This we have to work out by a slightly more complex route than simply asking them. I say this because people have an astonishingly strong tendency to deceive themselves and others. But it can be done.

We can notice a number of things in common with people's desires. Almost all people have basic desires, the act to preserve their own life, their family, they desire sex, a fulfilled life, the praise of their peers, full Maslow's hierarchy of needs stuff. We can then have a fairly good guess at what a random stranger would be like. For instance, they would be happy if you complimented their dress, unhappy if you stabbed them, happy if you gave them money, unhappy if you suggested their momma was so fat that something improbable resulted.

Of course, there are going to be exceptions to this because what we are asking here is scientific in nature. The question is “what kinds of things will this organism seek to bring about using its knowledge of cause and effect?”. And please note I said organism, but that isn't the most general thing. Humans have desires clearly, they act in a purposeful way, but so do all animals, they act in a way that their knowledge of cause and effect leads them to suspect will make them happy. But plants also can be said to act in some very very limited sense, turning to face the sun, growing roots towards better soil etc. This idea of desire is so general we can talk of robots or computer programs having desires. The problem with these last two examples is that their determinism is far more clear to us, our best scientific theory of how animals act is not neurological, it's behavioural, we understand animals best as minds with bodies rather than just as bodies with brains. This is either fundamentally correct or will eventually be overturned by far better neurology. Either way the question is of our best theory.7

So I would like to suggest a definition of the word should. “An individual should perform an action to the extant that it fulfils all desires that exist”. Things to note are:

  • This is continuous. Should and should not are spectral, it's not the case that you can put things that should be done in one self contained set.
  • This is consequentialist, virtue, duty, commands, intents etc matter in this theory, but only as tools. You should (as I have defined it) desire the happiness of others, but this is only a tool to making them happy, simply desiring it is not enough. Likewise rules can be (and will be) proposed that aim to make people do what they should, and these should be obeyed if and only if they achieve that. Just laws should be obeyed because they are just, not because they are laws.
  • I've not said how we compare desires. This is something (like the problem of time) that is key to my philosophy that needs vastly more care and good thinking than I have the ability to give it. For now as a patch to allow this to continue I will use the idea of the veil of ignorance. In this theory an action that prevents one desire while allowing another should be done to the extent that one would prefer one desire over another if one didn't know which of the effected people one was going to be. I'm not convinced this is satisfactory, if anyone has suggestions please offer them.


6)My body acts, for the sake of not having to do linguistic acrobatics I'm going to say it's because I choose to do something using free will, but this is a metaphysical idea nothing more.

7)See my point about speaking in terms of free will? You can say all that in deterministic terms, but it's clumsy and unclear.

1 comment:

  1. Hullo againnnnn Rebelkid, this is Anarchyland from Twitter, taking a look at your stuff like I said I would.

    This is something I can get and relate to.

    I don't believe in the existence of "oughts" and "shoulds" because I believe this language is meaningless except from a theistic viewpoint.

    Your argument /presupposes/ that morality exists.
    In reality, of course this is just something subjective that you imagine
    and you then want to define.

    Luckily, the only value is subjective value, and there is no other imperative beyond that.

    If you want to do nothing but stay inside and play videogames all day, that's okay.

    As a moral nihilist I don't live in a "moral haze" by not defining oughts, I simply bunk out the argument altogether in the same way atheists don't argue about the colour of gods beard.

    I don't recognise the existence of "right" and "wrong",

    However I recognise that certain actions are aggregately preferable
    and others aren't, (Ie, theft, killing, stealing, blah de blah, are not preferable for the victim or for me, because of destruction of empathy, etc).

    "oughts" are things you believe in, but "is" is something that is there.

    You /objectively/ have preferences. You get pissed off at one thing and happy by the next. "Oughts" are the product of the inter-subjective consensus

    So the is/ought gap is really one between reality and imagination.

    "Oughts" and "Shoulds" are derived from a belief in morality, and as I keep banging on about on twitter, morality does not exist.

    What I mean by this is that the is/ought gap cannot be bridged without using theism as a keystone.

    Just to look at the linguistics:

    "I want X to happen." (Expression of preference).
    "I think X is moral/immoral" (Claim of "is")
    "I think X should/n't happen" (Claim of moral imperative derived from "is").

    Of course no such magical force exists. The only way to bridge the is/ought argument is "Because god", where god is a cosmic force with superpowers that makes things the opposite of what you want to
    happen if you don't do as you "Should."

    The nature of god gives us a direction to find out what's really going
    on -

    "Why "ought" I do X?"
    "Well, if you don't do X, then God will destroy your corn that you
    subjectively value."
    "Oh. I do not want my corn destroyed, so I better do X."

    Give it a few generations:

    "You should do X!"
    "Because God."

    So to sum up - We derive moral imperatives from the claim of existence of superpowers that adjust reality to change our relative subjective preferences.

    From there it's quite easy to rearrange:

    We derive moral imperatives from subjective preferences -
    Then someone claims that superpowers exist.

    And this is where we see that morality doesn't exist, because morality
    is the claim of the *higher* imperative, and is inherently theistic.

    Otherwise you end up with this:

    "Morality comes from God because he gives us what we want."

    "But god doesn't exist."

    "Oh, okay. Morality comes from what we want."

    "So why call it morality?"

    And that's the blank out.

    Oh, sorry for this argument being chaotically arranged, my browser window is tiny

    Hope this helps.

    Anarchyland =]


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