Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Concessions and recapitulations

Referencing my earlier post on ideal agents, and my first posts on philosophy, here are a few concessions.

1. My earlier criticism of free-standing value stands. It is a very queer object. I ought not to rely on such in order to build my ethical theories
2. Consequentialism is not totally nonsense. Given that X is valuable, it is irrational (everything else being equal) to choose a situation B which has less of X over situation A. 

That said, of course everything else is not equal, and there may be other types of value/ reasons. So, the most general statement that we can make is that there are reasons to act (P1). It is almost tautological to say that these reasons are such that if a person properly motivated by reason were aware of these reasons, everything else being equal, they would be motivated to act appropriately. But this merely highlights the fact that not everybody is motivated by reason. Sometimes (in fact, quite often), people are motivated by biases, half formed feelings etc. This can lead them to perform actions which they in fact have sufficient reason to perform or to actions which they do not. Hence, most of us are imperfect agents.

Can these reasons conflict? Consider weight loss. I have reasons to stick to my diet and go for morning jogs. (I have reasons to be healthy, to keep to fitness standards demanded by the military, I don’t want to go for remedial training etc) I also have reasons to eat lots of ice cream and not exercise (The ice cream is really nice and running is exhausting and unpleasant). There is no reason why, in general these reasons do not qualify as reasons. Yet, the answer is not indeterminate. We presume, generally that there is a right answer to at least some of these questions, perhaps I, all things considered, have better reason to exercise more and eat more healthily because it makes me healthier and allows me to avoid remedial training by the army. And the displeasure from not exercising probably outweighs the displeasure from exercising such that I should prefer exercising. However, not all dilemmas revolve around the same type of reasons (pleasure in both cases). In fact, many dilemmas revolve around different sorts of reasons. Should I return money lent to me by a friend, or should I donate the money to charity where it will make more people happy? This dilemma involves promoting happiness on the one hand, and promise keeping on the other. Any way in which we resolved the dilemma would involve limitations being placed on the scope of these reasons. i.e. particular reasons may only apply under certain conditions, or certain reasons are over-riding etc. 

And then of course, certain issues are indeed indeterminate. Whether or not one buys chocolate or vanilla ice-cream is certainly dependant on which flavour I prefer, but it is certainly inconceivable that there be any overarching reason to prefer one flavour over the other. Another way in which things could be indeterminate is if there is no good reason why certain reasons should be given prior consideration over others. And of course things are also indeterminate when the same types of reasons happen to weigh equally on both sides of the issue.

How would we actually evaluate reasons?

The first consideration is about whether an action is appropriate to the agent, or the reason (Or any other possible combination). For example, there is no reason that would motivate a rational agent to contract himself into slavery. Slavery involves the negation of the agential capacity. The act of consigning oneself to slavery is invalidated the instance it is performed. This suggests one criterion of fittingness. Actions and reasons are fitting to the extent that they increase agential capacity/activity (P2). A schema of reasons where everything was indeterminate would not be very fitting, as agents will then lack decisive reason to do anything. This would presumably invalidate what it means to be a rational agent who has reasons to act. (refer to P1) Therefore, all things being equal, we should prefer schema which are more tidy and defined properly than those which are poorly defined. Lets call this the coherency principle (P3)

This leads us to the second consideration. The reasons and principles that regulate them should be as coherent as possible. i.e. maximally coherent. If there were strange entities that provided these reasons, coherency would naturally be a requirement, but having eschewed saying anything definite about queer objects, the previous paragraphs, I think, give some reason as to why we should prefer coherent and neatly defined sets of reasons. It is also worth noting that there seem to be some things that all agents will desire. All agents desire the satisfaction of at least their higher order desires*. (This we can call happiness, if for no other reason than lack of a better term. Some argument may be needed to satisfactorily conclude that this is indeed what we commonly mean when we talk about happiness. However successful that argument, desire satisfaction is what I mean when I talk about happiness from now on.) Therefore, internal coherency requires not just some arbitrary set, but must include all goals/ ends that agents a priori have.(P3 restated)

Now we arrive at the third consideration. I have previously rehearsed the more generalised and raw form of the argument at Chappell’s blog, Philosophy etc. I will reproduce it below

My argument for such would be along the lines of the following.

A1. Reasons for acting are such that an idealised agent would be aware of them and act on them.

A2. From A1, any and all idealised agents could possibly act on such reasons

A3. A society of idealised agents is conceivable

A4. From A3, such a society is logically possible (even and especially (from A2) when all agents are acting on those reasons)

C: From A4, Genuine reasons to act should be such that all agents in this idealised society could respond to them. i.e. such reasons should be universalisable.

The above argument is unsatisfactory. A4 especially sneaks in the premise that there are very determinate ways in which these reasons play out. But that is cheating if I want to say that there are categorical reasons (moral reasons) that demand certain things out of certain people, and that these moral reasons are rationally required. In order to do a more complete justification, I will have to justify my move A3. Now, it is the case that A3 is true, but I haven’t adequately explained why I made the move and whether or not it is too stringent.

One reason to consider a society of agents is that often reasons for acting involve reasons about how we treat other agents. How we treat non-agents is also important, and the question may suffer from being ignored with all these agent-centred considerations, but that does not invalidate that agent centred considerations are an important aspect of morality. Consider also that Jesus was crucified, Krishna was shot (accidentally) and Rama was exiled by his step-mother, Kaikeyi. Bad things often happen to good guys. While rationality at least in part involves using reason to survive adverse conditions, it is not any guarantee of survival. However, a minimum requirement of rationality is that rational agents should be able to co-exist with other rational agents. We, often with our multitude of irrationalities manage to co-exist. It shouldn’t be a barrier to fully and ideally rational agents. This would be true even if the reasons for acting are thoroughly heterogeneous.

Now, to justify A4: Considerations P2 and P3 narrowed down the list of possible reasons for acting. However, it is not necessarily the case that all these candidates are actually reasons to act. i.e. those considerations are not necessarily sufficient to determine what right action is. It is even possible, that one particular set of reasons may be the only game on the table, though it is not certain that this is the case. But even if it were to be the only available set, being a candidate for REAL reasons to act would require that it be possible that everyone adopt those reasons.(P4) (This post is getting long and talking about parasitic, mutualistic and independently universalisable schema would make it even longer)

It should be noted that P3 and P4 yields the categorical imperative: Act only on the maxim that you can will to be universal law. P3 requires that we be able to will it (not just conceive it) and P4 requires that we be able to conceive that it become universal law.

Just some more on how this principle works. Here, I quote from my response further down in Chapell’s post.

Let's try egoism for a start. The egoist's maxim is "do what is in your own self interest" (even if it involves sacrificing the interests of other agents)

Under universalising conditions, that would contradict the egoists ends (which are to promote his own self interest) as there would be many other agents who would sacrifice his interests of theirs. i.e. each agent in the ideal polity would have difficulty satisfying their own ends.

Therefore, the egoist has to modify his maxim to "do what is in your own self interest, but only so far as it allows others to pursue their own interests similarly" i.e in addition to a duty to himself, the egoist has also added a duty of non-maleficence to his list. But once he has done that, he has ceased to be an egoist.

The CI, I think, is not so strong as to yield things like never lie, or never kill (like Kant envisioned), but may yield something like the weaker Rossian prima facie duties (which include things like promoting people's well-being etc, duties of fidelity, gratitude etc).
deontological intuitions (as well as our consequentialist ones) can be explained adequately by reference to the categorical imperative. I believe that you see our deontological inclinations as springing from the decision procedures we commonly use to promote the good. (but I'm not very comfortable with that)…

…If you notice, the CI doesnt actually provide the reason why an egoist should embrace non maleficence or why we should abandon value monism, only that we should. (the CI seems to give a criterion of the fittingness of reasons, not the reasons themselves) But we can actually bootstrap these reasons in, in order to comply with the CI.

The interesting point is the last part, which I seem to be exploring, but may discard at a later date. It seems to me that the duties derived from the categorical imperative do not so much as give reasons for moral facts, but more like give the shape of what moral facts look like.

Also note that the categorical imperative, without further assumptions gives us duties to one’s own happiness which are limited by duties of at least non-maleficence towards others. Furthermore, if you notice, I arrived at this conclusion without having to posit the definite existence of categorical reasons, only their logical possibility. This I think demonstrates that morality, i.e. categorical, universal, authoritative reasons are rationally required.

*This may or may not seem tautological, and while according to Kant holy wills lack sensuous aspects and so cannot desire, I take desire to mean to seek as an end. Agents who have no ends to seek are not really agents after all. This leads to an unrelated discussion about God. Namely, that an omniscient and omnipotent being which lacks for nothing is not very agent like at all. All that leaves (as per Spinoza) is that God is Being or simply Is and barely has a tenuous resemblance to agents.

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