4

The Crime of Being Poor

This post is a departure from my usual style, but I wanted to write this because of common themes I read in news debates. There are a lot of talking points out there that casually condemn the poor for being poor – including, but not limited to: calling welfare recipients “takers”, believing minimum wage workers are lazy, and repeating the theme that if people simply work hard they can bring themselves out of poverty. These are primarily conservative talking points, but liberals share the same problem. Many people, regardless of political ideology, have no problem judging Walmart or Mcdonalds employees.

The problem, as I see it, stems from the just-world hypothesis. Basically, many people believe the world works as a just system – criminals get punished, good people are rewarded, and success follows hard work and dedication. This worldview is necessary to condemn poor people for being poor. If all it takes is hard work and dedication to rise out of poverty, those still in poverty must not be working hard or very dedicated. The ensuing debate (do people in poverty genuinely have a chance to escape) is often misguided. Personal responsibility gurus can find anecdote after anecdote of people working their way out of poverty. Social liberals, in response, often describe the poor as being trapped in their circumstances. Both sides have some truth to them, so these debates usually go nowhere.

Roughly 50 million Americans live below the poverty line. I don’t believe people are completely trapped, where nothing they could possibly do would bring them out of poverty (after all, it’s not logically impossible to win the lottery every year for the rest of your life). The shred of truth behind the personal-responsibility argument is that people in poverty can potentially work or find their way out. The problem is twofold: how many of those 50 million could simultaneously escape poverty, and how much more difficult is it individually for the poor than for those who are raised with money?

The first problem frames the debate differently than usual: even if I grant that every person in poverty is individually capable of finding their way out, is it possible that all 50 million of them could? Not all 50 million can win the lottery, there aren’t enough decent-paying jobs for all of them, and neither of those facts are going to change.

The second problem is usually the focus of debates: how difficult is it for poor people to achieve success? These debates ignore the lottery because the odds of winning aren’t good enough to be realistic, but the same problem applies if alternative solutions also have unrealistic odds. Almost any person in poverty could start a successful online company and become rich through it (I see points like this all the time), but the odds of doing so are very small.

Combined, the two problems raise the point I want to address: if only a limited number of people in poverty can escape due to our economic system, and it is more difficult to achieve financial success coming from poverty, then we cannot judge the poor with the same standards we use to judge those with more fortunate backgrounds. This seems like common-sense, but it isn’t that common – consider the anecdotal arguments again, particularly from those who use personal experience (I was able to achieve X this way, so why can’t other people do so with my amount of hard work?).

Also consider these common talking points: “people with iphones don’t deserve welfare”, “I could manage that budget by just cutting back on frivolous things like TV and going out”, etc. This line of thought uses the same problematic reasoning – if I hold myself to a certain level of financial responsibility, I’ll be okay, so if you hold yourself to a certain level of financial responsibility, you’ll be okay.

Ultimately, my point is simple: don’t assume people live in similar or just situations, and don’t base judgments of character on those assumptions. I wanted to write this post because, for whatever reason, I see people so casually condemn the poor for being poor.

8

Sharon Street’s Darwinian Dilemma

Street argues against value realism, or the view that values are an objective part of the world (values exist independently of human desires). Most moral realists are value realists, though ambitious versions of moral constructivism offered by Korsgaard or Street herself can have moral realist traits while rejecting value realism.

The Darwinian Dilemma asks value realists: is there a relationship between the evolutionary forces that guided our evaluative views and the values that exist independently of those views? To set up this dilemma, Street only assumes that our evaluative views have been influenced by evolutionary forces, an assumption I believe is undeniable. Near universal evaluative views (murder is wrong, don’t steal from others, cooperate with neighbors, etc.) have a clear advantage over the alternatives (murder is obligatory, steal everything, etc.). The alternative beliefs may be realized throughout our history, but it’s not surprising that people with cooperative beliefs had greater reproductive success than those who isolated themselves from others.

Value realists have only two options in the dilemma: either there is a relationship between evolutionary forces and evaluative truths, or there is no relationship. If there is no relationship, it is highly unlikely that our evaluative views have evolved to correctly identify objective values. Evaluative views persist if they are compatible with survival and reproductive success, and it is a matter of chance whether those views mirror objective evaluative truths. Given the vast number of alternative evaluative views, the likelihood of evolutionary forces guiding us to objective evaluative truths with no relationship to those truths is similar to the likelihood of hitting a target when shooting in the dark with no knowledge of the target’s location.

Value realists who choose the other horn of the dilemma (there is a relationship) face a different problem. These realists accept that our evaluative views have been influenced by natural selection, but believe that value realism is part of the evolutionary explanation. Perhaps people with the ability to track objective values had a reproductive advantage over those without the ability. Street considers this approach to be a scientific approach (using a theory to best explain observable data) and critiques it as such. Using scientific standards, the tracking theory fairs poorly compared to the standard evolutionary story. Both theories agree that our evaluative views evolved because they aided reproductive success and survival. The tracking theory claims that our evaluative views aid survival because they track truths (and learning truths aids survival), while the evolutionary story claims that our evaluative views aid survival because they cause people to respond to their circumstances in evolutionary advantageous ways (those who avoid danger because they value survival are better able to survive, those who refrain from harming others are better able to avoid harm from others).

The evolutionary story offers a far simpler explanation for the evolution of our evaluative views and does not unnecessarily add unobservable entities to the equation. The tracking theory, as well as any other evolutionary story that includes objective values, cannot offer a comparably simple explanation and requires an unnecessary assumption about objective values. Given these choices, the evolutionary story meets scientific standards far better than the tracking theory.

Street discusses different replies a realist could offer (there are plenty of replies since realism is the predominant view in metaethics). One of these replies claims that rational reflection plays an important role in the link between evaluative views and objective values. Perhaps our initial views are guided by evolution (and have no direct link to objective values), but we are able to use rational reflection to adjust those views to match the objective values. Street offers a decisive counter – rational reflection is not an emotionless tool (where we can cooly reflect and judge our evaluative views). When we reflect, we must have some starting point to judge our options. Without initial values, we cannot make any comparisons between our options. Rather, when we reflect, we must already have certain evaluative views that we use to judge other views (such as using the view that all humans are equal to judge the view that Americans have natural rights that foreigners do not). If rational reflection leads us to objective values, then the values used by rational reflection must already mirror those values, bringing up the original problem of the dilemma.

I admire Street’s argument because it clearly frames the debate: value realists can only take one of two stances in response to the evolutionary story, and both stances entail major problems. Street’s argument is empirical (focusing on the likelihood of value realist theories being the correct explanation of observable data), and I believe it adds nicely to other anti-realist arguments, such as the argument from queerness (a metaphysical argument about the nature of values) and my own argument from authority (a practical argument appealing to our decision making process).

 

0

Storytelling as a Moral Fictionalist

Moral fictionalists pretend there are certain moral rules they have to live by, even though they believe there are no such rules (fictionalists are error theorists). Fictionalists pretend there are moral rules because there are benefits to doing so. Fictionalism initially sounds a bit cheap – error theorists can’t refer to moral laws (a perceived weakness of the view), so some of them pretend rather than believe.

The best interpretation of moral fictionalism (derived from Richard Joyce’s work) is selective. Fictionalists accept the moral rules that benefit their life, but have no reason to live by moral rules that are harmful. They don’t need to commit to an entire moral system.

Two reasons fictionalism is useful: 1. It’s easier to talk about normative issues using moral language, and 2. It’s easier to regulate passing desires. The second reason is more interesting to me. Joyce describes a good example (it’s easier to exercise if you pretend you have to reach your goal), but it works in a wide range of cases. I use moral thoughts like “I have to get this draft done by tonight” all the time.

Those particular examples aren’t standard moral cases, but the same reasoning works applies. I’d rather say “I must not murder” than “It is irrational for me to murder”.

The criticism of fictionalism might be that it uses an egoistic justification for pretending to act morally since it depends on personal benefits. But fictionalism is not committed to an egoistic account of practical reasoning (the way we determine what we should do, or what is rational for us to do). I have no issue making moral claims on myself for the benefit of others (like “I have to help them move”).

Storytelling as a moral fictionalist loosely describes the process of being a fictionalist. The story you invent (moral language you use) is up to you, since fictionalists can reject any moral language other people use that they do not agree with.

 

0

The Argument from Authority

Goal: in any universe where people are capable of forming their own normative beliefs about what they have reasons to do, it is impossible for there to exist objective reasons that necessarily apply as normative reasons for all people.

-In the real world, we have sufficient freedom of the will to form our own normative beliefs about what we have reasons to do. Moral realists argue that objective moral reasons override these normative beliefs (if they conflict, our formed beliefs about what we have reason to do are false).

The Argument from Authority:

1. A reason applies to me only if it is capable of at least partially explaining why I acted the way I did. (A -> P)

2. A reason is capable of at least partially explaining why I acted the way I did only if it is consistent with my nature to act for that reason. (P -> C)

3. A reason necessarily applies to all people only if it is necessarily consistent with all people’s nature to act for that reason. (*A -> *C)

4. A reason is objective only if it does not depend on people’s nature. (O -> -N)

5. A reason that does not depend on people’s nature is necessarily consistent with all people’s nature only if the normative beliefs that partially constitute people’s nature cannot be changed to be inconsistent with the reason. [(-N & *C) -> (-B)]

6. If the normative beliefs that partially constitute people’s nature can be changed to be inconsistent with any reason, reasons that do not depend on people’s nature cannot be necessarily consistent with all people’s nature. [(B) -> -(-N & *C)]

Therefore,

7. If the normative beliefs that partially constitute people’s nature can be changed to be inconsistent with any reason, reasons cannot be both objective and necessarily apply to all people. [(B) -> -(O & *A)]

(Side note: The argument’s meaning translates better into predicate logic, but I doubt most people who read this blog would understand it and I have no idea how to create universal quantifiers with my keyboard. As it is, I believe the argument is valid in sentential logic and the lost meaning does not significantly change the argument.)

Since I am arguing that objective reasons of this type are impossible in universes with normative freedom, the argument fails if there is a single possible universe where the initial conditions are met and there are these objective reasons.

I am willing to grant any strange, ridiculous ontology moral realists can conceive. I am not requiring physicalism (where only physical things can possibly exist), so talk of Platonic forms/abstract objects/fictional characters existing is fine.

A Moral Realist Position: Derek Parfit argues that moral reasons exist and constitute what we objectively have reasons to do.

-Standard error theorist arguments would claim that these reasons (or values) are metaphysically “queer”, or that it is hard or impossible to understand how they would exist. This reply doesn’t show that the reasons are logically impossible, however, so I want a stronger argument. Also, I am willing to grant any ontology, so I’ll grant that these reasons could exist.

Hypothetical Universe-M: Parfitian moral reasons exist. They are objectively part of Universe-M, and they constitute what people have objective reasons to do.

-As a moral realist, Parfit wants these moral reasons to be both objective and apply to all people. I argue that it is impossible for reasons to be both objective and apply to all people in the same universe where people can form their own normative beliefs.

-What Parfit needs to prove me wrong: a single universe, Universe-M, where the moral reasons that exist are both objective and apply to all people without causing people to be incapable of forming their own normative beliefs about what reasons they have.

1. Necessary condition for moral reasons to be objective: the existence of moral reasons does not depend on people (they would exist in Universe-M whether or not people existed).

-Initially, no necessary connection between moral reasons and our perceptions/beliefs/actions. Parfit has no problem with moral reasons existing and us having the wrong perceptions/beliefs/actions.

-Possible analytic, necessary connection between moral reasons and people: moral reasons constitute true reasons statements for all people.

2. Explanation for how moral reasons apply to all people: moral reasons are necessarily action-guiding.

-But, what does it mean for a moral reason to be action-guiding?

-Cannot be that moral reasons necessarily guide actual actions. Parfit wants people to be capable of acting wrongly in Universe-M.

-Cannot be that moral reasons semantically contain commands that may or may not guide actual actions. If I write “Don’t scratch your arm” on the wall, the writing on the wall semantically contains a command that may or may not guide actual actions. Parfit does not want moral reasons to be action-guiding only in the sense that random commands written on the wall are action-guiding.

3. Parfit needs moral reasons to have greater action-guiding force than random commands written on the wall but not so much force that they necessarily guide actual actions.

3a. Possible condition: moral reasons are action-guiding because they are capable of having enough force to guide actual actions in a sense that random commands on the wall are not capable.

-Capability cannot depend on perception (moral reasons guide actual actions whenever they are perceived), because Parfit allows for people to act immorally despite perceiving moral reasons in Universe-M.

3b. Possible condition (revised): moral reasons are action-guiding because, when perceived, they form normative beliefs that may guide actual actions.

Key question: When we perceive moral reasons, do we necessarily form a corresponding normative belief about what we have reason to do?

Reason to say yes:

-Analogy to perception of objects: If I perceive a table, some think I necessarily have a corresponding belief that the table is there. Perhaps if I perceive a moral reason to X, I necessarily have a corresponding belief that I have a reason to X. 

Problem with saying yes:

-If perception of moral reasons necessarily causes us to form certain beliefs about what we have reasons to do, then we are incapable of forming our own normative beliefs about what we have reasons to do. Moral reasons would, just by being perceived, have sufficient force to override any freedom the will has to form its own normative beliefs. This violates the initial condition of Universe-M that Parfit needs for the argument.

Reason to say no:

-We seem to able to distinguish our perceptions from our beliefs. I can perceive a table but, due to extreme Cartesian inspired skepticism, form no beliefs about what is really there.

Problem with saying no:

-There are going to be people in Universe-M who form normative beliefs corresponding to moral reasons and people who form normative beliefs that do not correspond to moral reasons despite both groups perceiving the same moral reasons.

The Comparative Problem: In order to be a moral realist, Parfit needs some way to show that those who form normative beliefs corresponding to moral reasons are more rational/correct than those whose normative beliefs conflict with what moral reasons they have (especially if both perceive the same moral reasons).

Analogy to Epistemology: if we both perceive the same table, but I form a belief that there is a table and you form a belief that there is an elephant, I seem more rational because my epistemic beliefs conform to the evidence.

-I seem more rational because, in epistemology, there is an implicit principle that is plausibly accepted: we should form our epistemic beliefs in accord with our perception of the evidence.

Analogy back to moral reasons: if we both perceive the same moral reason not to kill, but I form a belief that I have a reason not to kill and you form a belief that you have no reason not to kill, Parfit needs to say that I am more rational/correct because my normative beliefs conform to moral reasons.

-But, consider the analogous implicit principle for moral reasons: we should form our normative beliefs in accord with our perception of moral reasons.

Comparative Problem cannot be solved: In order to describe those who form normative beliefs in accord with moral reasons as more rational/correct than those who don’t, Parfit needs an implicit normative principle that tells people how they should form their normative beliefs. However, there will be people who form normative beliefs according to the principle and people who do not. In order to describe those who form normative beliefs according to the principle as more rational/correct than those who don’t, Parfit needs another implicit normative principle that tells people which principles they should use to form their normative beliefs. The same problem applies for this new implicit normative principle, resulting in an infinite regress. The infinite regress is detrimental to Parfit’s view because moral reasons are only action guiding for those who already accept that their normative beliefs should conform to them. For those who do not conform their normative beliefs, moral reasons have no more action-guiding force than random commands written on the wall.

Implications of Universe-M case: Even if I grant any crazy ontology he wants, Parfit is incapable of explaining how moral reasons can be objective and apply to all people without making people incapable of forming their own normative beliefs. Although this does not prove the Argument from Authority’s conclusion, I believe the inconceivability of the reasons Parfit needs gives good evidence that those reasons are impossible.

Possible Objection from Parfit: The only type of connection needed between moral reasons and people is the analytic connection posited earlier: moral reasons constitute true reasons statements for all people.

Short version of my reply: the only reason statements that can follow from the meaning of moral reasons are distinct from the reason statements that people use to judge what they should do. (see following argument)

The Argument from Authority applied to our universe:

1. Like Parfit, I believe the statement “I know I have a reason to X, but why should I X?” is untenable. Asking “why should I X?” just is asking “do I have a reason to X?”. The original question translates to “I know I have a reason to X, but do I have a reason to X?”.

2. The sentence “I know I have a reason to X, but do I have a reason to X?” is only untenable if there is no equivocation between “reason”s. It is perfectly defensible to say “I know I have a financial reason to X, but do I have a hedonistic reason to X?”.

3. Practical reasoning is the only faculty/system/algorithm that cannot be defensibly questioned. Questioning practical reasoning itself asks for a reason to use reasons, so the question uses practical reasoning to question practical reasoning.

4. All other faculties/systems/algorithms that output candidates for reasons can be defensibly questioned. It is perfectly plausible to say “I know X increases aggregate utility, but why do I have a reason to X?” or “I know there is a moral reason to X, but why do I have a reason to X?”.

5. Since it is defensible to say “I know there is a moral reason to X, but why do I have a reason to X?”, “reason” and “moral reason” cannot have the same meaning.

*The “Authority” part of the argument*:

-Note that the claim in premise 3 means that only our own practical reasoning is capable of finishing the “why” question. Basically, practical reasoning is the only faculty with sufficient authority to settle a normative question beyond defensible questioning. When someone in the real world (or Universe-M) asks “I know there is a moral reason to X, but why do I have a reason to X?”, she is asking for a practical justification for following moral reasons that can settle the “why” question.

-Parfit might object that moral reasons and practical reasons are different, but moral reasons are fundamentally more important. But this claim falls into the same Comparative Principle trap (when deciding what to do, people should follow moral reasons over practical reasons).

2

From Political Philosophy to an Argument for Moral Error Theory

Consider this political view: governments should not restrict their citizens from pursuing a vast number of different, beneficial causes. 

Few people would deny the previous claim (they just disagree on particular causes they think should be restricted). Society, as a whole, is better off when people are free to pursue different goals from each other. This includes morally important causes: animal protection, food donations, emergency relief funds, etc.

Imagine that Marcus volunteers at an animal shelter due to his deep concern for animals. He is a vegetarian because he thinks animals are too valuable to kill for food, and it is morally important to Marcus to be a vegetarian. Lucy, a volunteer at a food bank, often provides meat as food to people who need it. While Lucy likes animals too, she thinks it is far more important to take care of people so she has no problem with eating meat.

Marcus and Lucy’s case is similar to the standard argument from disagreement used in moral error theory. As Mackie puts it, moral error theory offers a better explanation for these cases (different views and backgrounds lead to disagreement) than moral realism (at least one side is imperfectly perceiving moral truths). The standard reply to this argument is that lack of agreement to an answer does not prove there is no objective answer. This reply is necessary — for moral realism, there has to be an objective answer even if it is too vague for us to conclude.

Consider the political view’s implications again: when talking about society as a whole, we easily endorse people pursuing different causes because they have different values. Applied to Marcus and Lucy’s case, we shouldn’t criticize either for their views even though they are incompatible with one another. However, if the moral realist is right, either Marcus or Lucy is wrong about whether people have a moral obligation not to eat animals. Further, one of them might be obligated to choose a different lifestyle (perhaps Marcus could help people a lot more by leaving the shelter, or Lucy is aiding the unjustified murder of animals).

The easiest way to consistently endorse both Marcus and Lucy’s lifestyles is to be a value pluralist (there are different intrinsic values that do not derive their worth solely from independent ends). Both people and animals are valuable for different reasons, so it is easy to empathize with someone who heavily commits to one of those values.

The easiest way to be a value pluralist, especially in the context of this case, is to be a moral error theorist. A moral error theorist denies that there are objective moral values that obligate us toward them. If values are solely subjective, it is easy to explain why some people pursue one cause over the other. It is even easier to explain why we endorse both of their moral characters despite them having contradictory views, since neither is “right” and we value both of their causes.

Of course a moral realist could offer a different interpretation of the case. Perhaps Marcus and Lucy both are justified in living good lifestyles and are not obligated to do the “best” option. Whether eating animals is justified is vague because what is important is promoting the good, and animals have a vague instrumental relation to that good.

My argument isn’t that the case, or subsequently value pluralism, proves that moral error theory is correct. Similar to Mackie, I am arguing that moral error theory just offers a more plausible explanation of the case than moral realism.

-This argument is for people who are more comfortable with political philosophy than metaethics. I tried to work my way from an intuitive political principle to moral error theory because it helps some people start from a position they’re comfortable with. I’ve found that often when I talk about moral error theory, people have a hard time understanding the approach metaethicists take. So hopefully this works as a way to relate to a mostly obscure theory.

 

4

Comparing Ethics to Taste

My views on metaethics can be roughly summed up with the following four claims:

1. Moral error theory is correct. (Common moral discourse consistently asserts the existence of objective moral values, and those objective moral values do not exist)

2. Our subjective values still give us reasons to preform or refrain from certain actions.

3. We are capable, to some degree, of changing our subjective values.

4. It is often rational to have more subjective values because they make life more meaningful.

I like using personal taste (particularly for food) as a comparison to understand how this concept of ethics is supposed to work. The similarity is in form, not content — the reasons we have to maintain or change our subjective values are not the same as the reasons we have to maintain or change our tastes.

The similarity in form between values and taste lies in the process I advocate for each. We enjoy our food more if we enjoy how it tastes, so our tastes help us choose which foods to eat and which to avoid. However, we are capable to some extent of changing or developing our tastes. We may not like a food the first time we eat it but can develop a taste for it if we keep trying it. I’ve personally experienced this with a lot of foods I currently like — avocado, beer, wine, onions, peppers, etc.

When choosing what foods to eat, we have more options and a higher possibility of enjoying our food if we like many different tastes. Developing new tastes expands our options — when I started enjoying onions I was able to have more types of food and more flavors within foods I already liked.

Our tastes often change without our direction, as the way we taste food changes as we get older. But there are still some times when we are capable of liking a new food that we would not like without effort. When these options are available, you should try to expand your tastes in order to get more enjoyment out of eating.

I believe our subjective values help us choose which actions to perform. Further, as with taste, I believe we are capable of changing or developing our values. When choosing what action to do, we have a greater number of meaningful options and a higher possibility of preforming a meaningful action if we have many different subjective values. If you care about a lot of things, your actions will be more meaningful than they would be if you are apathetic and care about very little.

The process for changing subjective values is difficult to understand. I don’t know if it’s possible to value something solely through a decision — if I’m sitting on my couch and decide that rocks in Asia are very valuable, are they really valuable to me? If my actions do not change and I am not moved at all by the prospect of acquiring rocks from Asia, I do not seem to genuinely value those rocks.

The reason why it is difficult or impossible to decide to value rocks in Asia is because our subjective values depend on our biology to some extent. Our biology makes it easy to value pleasure more than pain and to value our own species more than exotic insects. We are social animals with certain needs and chemical structures, and we cannot simply choose to change those facts. This holds true with our taste for food — our biology and the chemical structure of foods explain why sugar tastes sweet and salt does not. We cannot just choose to have everything taste sweet regardless of what it is made of.

However, as with taste, there seem to be methods to expand your subjective values in ways that are not determined solely by your own biology. It is much easier to care about the educational needs of children if you are involved in the effort to improve education. By becoming involved, you enable yourself to care about something that you might have been unable to care about otherwise.

The reason why I stated that the content of each is different despite their similar structure is because the value of tastes seems to depend on the pleasure they provide. It makes sense to enjoy more food because it is good to enjoy things, so the expansion of tastes is instrumentally valuable in promoting the intrinsic value of pleasure. For subjective values, there is no independent intrinsic value that all your subjective values derive their worth from. If there were such a root value, there would be no real expansion of subjective values — we just find new ways to achieve pleasure or some other psychological reaction. I use the term “meaning” to describe the motivation behind adopting new values because it captures the concept of value that I want. It is not, however, any particular psychological reaction.

The comparison of ethics to taste hopefully shows that we might have a reason to expand our subjective values when possible. I can keep trying dark beer in order to like the taste; I can get involved with the local community in order to really value helping those around me. Moral realists might think this comparison trivializes the importance of moral values, particularly if they hold an authoritative concept of moral law (Kantians/Divine Command Theory). I personally argue that there is no possible way for values to be more important (building objectivity into it adds nothing). However the comparison is really aimed at moral error theorists — I want to show that subjective values can do a lot of work, and we can maintain some useful moral concepts without committing to problematic objective values.

0

My Argument for Atheism (Directed towards Agnostics)

I’ve argued before that the problem of evil is unsolvable for a God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent (http://fensel.net/2011/10/17/why-the-common-conception-of-god-is-impossible/ and further explained in http://fensel.net/2012/04/17/two-logical-notes-on-debates-about-god/).

To get around the problem of evil, a theist or agnostic might not be fully committed to all three omni traits. Maybe God is imperfect, and would rather us suffer from our own choices than have a perfect world. Or perhaps God is perfectly good, but doesn’t have the omnipotent power many theists believe in.

The question is then: what evidence is there for the existence of this type of God? I believe it is plainly obvious that no such evidence exists. I assume most theists believe there is some evidence, though that is a different debate than the one I want to focus on. For agnostics, the general stance is that there is no evidence for or against God. I argue that, if you accept this claim, atheism is the only logical conclusion.

To be clear, atheism is not committed to the view that there is a 0% chance of any type of God existing. We have imperfect minds and very limited knowledge of the universe. It is logically possible that some type of God exists (just not one that has the omni traits). All an atheist needs to argue is that the probability of God existing is very small, and that it is irrational to believe in such a small probability.

Take the agnostic’s starting position: there is no evidence for or against the existence of God. The first issue is that it is impossible to find evidence of a being’s non-existence when that being is not confined to a certain location (Zeus can be disproved by going to Mt. Olympus, God has no such home to be investigated). So, we should be looking for evidence of existence, not non-existence.

If no such evidence is found (as the agnostic starting position holds), the question is then what the chances are that the being exists. It is a huge mistake to think that, since there are two possibilities, there is a 50/50 chance of existence. Take any 4 made up beings: Xenu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Ra, and Galactus. If we conclude from the lack of evidence that each has a 50/50 chance of existing, then there is over a 90% chance that at least one of them exists (chance of non-existence: .5 ^ 4). But this is clearly wrong.

The agnostic might just claim that there is no way to determine the probability of God existing. But we do not need to be able to define an exact percentage chance to have a judgment — all we need is a general ballpark for the probability.

Here’s a simple way to think of the probability of God existing. God is a possible entity that could or could not exist. Without any evidence that makes God more likely to exist than other possible entities, God has the same chance of existing as any other possible entity.

So, what are the chances for a possible entity actually existing? In the most basic form, the chances can be defined as: (total number of actual entities that exist)/(total number of possible entities that could exist). To see why this works, imagine somehow being able to see a complete list of all possible entities. You throw a dart and it hits the name “Entity X”. The odds of that entity existing can be determined by figuring out how many of the names on that list actually exist, and dividing that number by the total number of names on the list.

Although we clearly do not know the number of actual or possible entities, we can understand the ratio. The amount of possible entities is at least close to infinite. The number of actual entities, while it may be much larger than we currently can comprehend, will not come close to the infinitely large number of possible entities. The ratio of actual to possible entities is thus incredibly, incredibly small.

The argument for atheism can thus be summarized as:

1. There is no evidence for God’s existence.

2. Without evidence, God is no more likely to exist than any other possible entity.

3. The chance of a randomly selected possible entity existing is very, very small.

Therefore,

4. The chance of God existing is very, very small.

Although this seems like a bold conclusion, it really is intuitive once you remove the unjustified “a lot of people believing in it makes it more likely to be true” intuition. Imagine a being that is like a jellyfish, has telepathic powers, and flies around bringing justice to criminals in some very distant galaxy. While this being is possible, the chances of it actually existing are incredibly small. Same for God — if you make up an entity without evidence, the chances of it actually existing are incredibly small.

Responses to two possible moves made by the agnostic:

1. Distinguish between “logically possible” and “compatible with the laws of our universe”. Perhaps God is not just logically possible, but falls into the more exclusive category “compatible with the laws of our universe”. Does this make the chances of God existing significantly higher?

-While it is a more exclusive category, “compatible with the laws of our universe” is still an almost infinitely large group. So, even if God falls under this relatively smaller category, the chances of God existing are still very small.

2. The “multiple paths up the same mountain” approach. What if God is not just one possible entity, but a multitude of possibilities? Ie, God exists if any one of these thousand versions of God exists.

-Making the term “God” denote a multitude of possible entities multiples the chances of God existing by the number of possible entities God covers. But, even if you multiply it by thousands or even millions, the number is still incredibly small — to think otherwise vastly underestimates the number of possible entities that could exist.

0

The Basic Problem of Direction of Fit

The problem of “direction of fit” concerns the different relationships beliefs and desires have to the actual world. The justification for a belief depends on its correspondence to the real world — if a belief does not accurately reflect the real world, the belief has a defect. Conversely, the justification for a desire does not seem to depend on correspondence to the real world — if I desire a certain state of affairs that is not realized in the real world, I take the view that there is something less than ideal about the real world, not that there was a defect in my desire.

This distinction between desires and beliefs is Humean in nature, and I generally accept the Humean account. Beliefs cannot motivate without a corresponding desire (and thus information about the state of the world cannot motivate without a corresponding desire).

Given a certain desire, I believe the point is correct: failure to actualize the desire does not show that it was wrong to have the desire in the first place. The point I want to elaborate on is how we choose between desires, and whether this process has any “correspondence to the real world” elements in it.

Consider the desire to ride dragons through the air. In most cases, there is no reason to abandon this desire — it is fun to imagine riding dragons, and we could even modify the desire to “if there were dragons in the world, I would want to ride them”. However, there is a problem if this desire is one of your fundamental (or most important) desires, one that you would consider character-defining. Imagine waking up each day with the hope of riding a dragon, and each night going to bed devastated at your failure to do so. In such a case, I argue that there is a defect in the desire that is directly relevant to its failure to correspond to the real world.

The crucial point is whether or not desires are “given” in the context. If I cannot choose what I desire (as many people believe), then there is no point to call the desire to ride dragons defective. It is unfortunate that my desires cannot be realized in the real world, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

On the other hand, if I can choose what I desire, perhaps it is more rational to choose desires that could be realized. Choosing a desire can mean multiple things: creating a desire (I now desire to eat salad where I previously did not), creating a value (I value eating salad, so I want to be motivated to eat salad even if I do not desire it), or identifying with a desire (I both have a desire to eat salad and a desire not to, I identify with the desire to eat salad because it is what I, on reflection, believe I should do). I do not believe the first sense is possible, we do not seem to have the power to desire whatever we want. I argue that the latter two senses are possible: we can choose what we value, and we can choose a desire to identify with among our existing desires.

My claim is that it is more rational to choose to value (or identify with) a desire that has the possibility of being realized in the actual world. Desires that can be realized have a capacity for value that is directly relevant to your choice. When choosing what to value, the capacity for realization is one consideration (among others) that is directly relevant to determining how rational it is to adopt a certain value.

-The argument for my claim depends on a much longer argument I’ve previously discussed. In effect, the argument is: when choosing an entire system of values, the most rational thing to do is choose the system of values that has the highest capacity for value realization. This follows from the claim that the rational perspective is one that necessarily values what it values, and thus the rationally optimal life is one that can achieve the highest amount of this value. The capacity for value is determined by a combination of your individual nature, which values you are capable of adopting, and the state of the actual world. In normal language, the argument is: life has more meaning when you care about things, and the more you care about the more meaning you can find in life. This relationship is determined by what you naturally care about, what you are capable of caring about, and whether the actual world can be changed to fit what you care about.

 

6

Rationalism in Morality through Practical Reasoning

In an older post I criticized rationalism for failing to capture the emotional force of our moral judgments (http://fensel.net/2012/07/03/the-main-problem-with-rationalism-in-ethics/). If immoral actions are solely a failure of reasoning, then a person who can’t figure out the right thing to do is analogous to someone who gets a math question wrong. When we make moral judgments, I believe there is a stronger charge than irrationality. Our sentiments play a large role in why we believe certain actions are wrong, and these sentiments strengthen the degree of judgment.

I do, however, believe that rationalism has a role in ethics. In “The Myth of Morality”, Richard Joyce notes that our system of practical rationality is uniquely capable of providing normative authority over actions. Practical rationality defines what we have a reason to do. You cannot coherently question “why should I do what I have a reason to do” because the question itself asks for a reason — therefore presupposing that you already accept the system of practical rationality. Every other system/mode of thinking (utilitarianism, biblical morality, appetites, emotional impluses) can be coherently questioned for a justifying reason — even if I have an appetite for cake, I can coherently question whether I have a reason to get cake. For every moral system, I can coherently question what reason I have to follow its commands. (Side note: Joyce argued for error theory, claiming that morality could only work if the system of practical rationality yielded categorical commands. However, since practical rationality can only create hypothetical commands, no moral commands truly exist)

In order to justify moral “ought” statements (in the form of “you should do X”), I believe it is necessary to use our systems of practical rationality. Ought statements are true only if the agent has a reason in support of the action, and the reason must be internally connected to his or her individual rationality. Like Joyce, I believe it is impossible to create categorical/necessary commands through practical rationality. However, I do not think morality requires categorical commands. Instead, I think morality can be sustained by two claims: people who value others have a reason to act morally, and it is rational to value other people.

These claims can be defended by describing practical rationality as a reflective system, distinguishing desires from values. On a first-order level, we have desires and appetites to do things. However, I do not think I have a reason to do everything I desire — if I desire on an impulse to crash into an obnoxious driver, I can coherently claim that I do not have a reason to do so. This distinction is possible by distinguishing our reflective selves as a second-order system. I have second order values that define which desires give real reasons to act. These values constrain my desires — they provide the normative authority over my desires by defining what I should do. (This picture of practical rationality is derived from a combination of theories, notably Christine Korsgaard, Gary Watson, and Harry Frankfurt)

This system explains the first of the two claims I believe are sufficient for morality: that people who value others have a reason to act morally. If you value other people, promoting the well-being of others gives you a reason to act and your value provides normative restraints on potentially self-interested desires. Since it is your own value, you give yourself the answer to the “why should I act morally” question — your own system of practical rationality decides that helping others is a reason to act.

My defense of the second claim (that it is rational to value others) is how I distinguish my view from moral relativism. I do not believe all value systems are equal (the humanitarian has a better system than the egoist), but I cannot impose this judgment on the egoist using my own values. Saying “you should value people because I value people” gets nowhere, anymore than the egoist would by saying “you shouldn’t value people because I don’t value people”.  To criticize the egoist’s values, I believe it is necessary to introduce a third tier of reasoning-the tier that structures the values that structure our desires.

It is impossible to distinguish between “good” and “bad” values, since that distinction already presupposes values that define what is good. However, I believe our system of values is necessarily structured by a rational principle: a higher amount of value is more rational than a lower amount of value. When competing actions are weighed against one another, our reflective self determines which action will promote more of what we value. This presupposes a principle that it is rational to do what results in more value (this may sound obvious, but its important). If it is rational to do actions that result in more value, it is rational to structure your values in such a way that will enable your actions to achieve more value. Thus, we have a way of critiquing systems of values — those that are able to actualize their values to a higher degree are more rational than those that have a smaller capacity.

Due to the language, these claims may sound robotic or odd. However, they make more sense in regular terms: expanding your tastes enables you to get more out of life. A person who only cares about him or herself finds less meaning in life than someone who cares about other people.

If my understanding of morality through practical rationality is justified, then I believe we can accept a form of rationalism while maintaining the strong emotional force of moral judgments. When people sufficiently value others but act immorally, they act irrationally. They do not act in the way that promotes their own values, and the charge of irrationality seems sufficient to capture the force of our moral judgments. Conversely, when people who do not value others act immorally, we can judge their character. We judge them for having insufficient values, and this can entail a strong emotional judgment that goes beyond the charge of irrationality.

-It is important to note that the three tiers of reasoning are not actual spaces of our brain or thoughts that can be discovered. Rather it is a way of structuring our thoughts to make sense of the differences between values and desires. By making values the second tier, I am deciding that my values have authority over first tier desires (as I identify more with them than my desires). When I describe a rational principle as a third tier, I am claiming that my values are subject to that principle.

-I have been trying to find ways to justify making the third tier of reasoning more than a single principle. I would like to claim that values are subject to the principle of “must actually exist”, so that values that correspond to reality are more rational than those that don’t. However, I have not thought of a way to justify this on its own — I can only think of ways that it might fall under the scope of the main principle (perhaps values that correspond to reality have a higher capacity for actualization).

2

Taking a Second Look at Nietzsche’s Philosophy

When I first studied Nietzsche (The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals), I found it difficult to understand/accept his arguments. The language is difficult, and the arguments are often left unexplained. I especially rejected what appeared to be an extreme form of moral nihilism and a bleak description of what morality amounted to (particularly his description of morality as a herd mentality).

Bernard Williams, an admirer of Nietzsche’s work, admitted he had a similar reaction the first time he read Nietzsche. Williams understood and accepted Nietzsche’s philosophy once he started studying further and had a better understanding of what Nietzsche believed.

I’ve been curious if I would have a similar experience revisiting Nietzsche’s work. Due to the difficulty of Nietzsche’s language, I tried to find simpler explanations of his core ideas. A short, easy article I found explains Nietzsche’s idea of an “Overman” well: http://www.highexistence.com/friedrich-nietzsches-guide-to-conquering-your-existence/

An Overman is someone who has “superseded the bondage of the human condition and reached a liberated state — one of free play and creativity” (quoted from article). Notably, an Overman is someone who has rejected external authorities and creativity defined his or her own existence and values.

What I find especially interesting is how many points the author’s interpretation of Nietzsche shares with my own view. Nietzsche’s rejection of external authority is an endorsement of a reasons internalist view (which, not surprisingly, I learned through Bernard Williams). True normative statements, in the form “I should do X”, must come from your internal psyche — they must be reasons you endorse or can rationally be led to endorse, rather than imposed by an external authority. Nietzsche describes a challenge people must overcome as the dragon of “Thou Shalt” (part of the second metamorphoses described in the article). The dragon symbolizes the external authorities imposed on people through traditions, religion, governments, and other people. It subjugates the person with its commands, and must be overcome to reach the Overman state.

Nietzsche also notes that people face a choice upon realizing that there is no universal system of morality or virtue: nihilism, or “create your own meaning and virtue”. In my first reading of Nietzsche, I had interpreted him as endorsing moral nihilism. Interestingly, the author’s interpretation of Nietzsche is quite the opposite — in the absence of a universal system of morality, we must create our own values. This view is identical to my own view, which was largely drawn from Kant and Korsgaard’s theory of the individual will setting its own ends. Unlike Kant and Korsgaard, I do not believe this method can establish universal or necessary moral laws. Rather, my view is that it can only explain why it is rational to have values, and further why it is rational to legislate your own moral laws in accordance with those values. Nietzsche’s Overman state, described also as a child’s state, is strikingly similar to my view. The child state is creative, willing its own ends and determining its own values.