Category Archives: Ethics

Free Will Part 3: Moral Responsibility and Luck

Taking into account what I’ve said about Harris on free will, I want to look at what I take to be a credible threat not to free will, but to moral responsibility; this is the problem of luck. I will try to offer some reasons for why moral responsibility can be preserved even while taking into account the extent to which luck undermines control and moral responsibility.

Aside from the belief that libertarian free will entails mind/body dualism and contra-causal powers, the most pervasive confusion gripping this area is the conflation of free will and moral responsibility. To Harris’s credit, he does see how they come apart, and offers us a consequentialist based notion of moral responsibility that he claims is sufficient to preserve a criminal justice system and holding each other accountable. Although seeming to contradict his whole book, this tension resolves once we understand that there are a plurality of justifications for incarceration. Most frequently appealed to and understood is retribution. Retribution is the practice of bringing about an intrinsic good by harming another to the extent that they are responsible for a proportional harm. Less commonly, we restrict the freedom of or directly harm others for reasons such as rehabilitation or protection of the public. I agree with Harris that this is all we really need to preserve our norms of quarantining and penalizing the more dangerous and less trustworthy members of society. This shouldn’t be foreign to anyone, given that this is exactly how we justify the harm parents and educators bring on young children, and to a lesser extent, teenagers and young adults. It’s only at a particular, but indeterminate stage of development that the robust sense of retribution seems appropriate, where you are punished precisely because you deserve it.

Theories of moral responsibility can broadly be distinguished as forward-looking and backward-looking. The former justifies both holding people accountable and society’s response (the enhancing  and restricting of the population’s freedom) based on their ability to avoid harms and produce goods. A desert based form of moral responsibility is committed to the idea that were justified in holding people responsible because they’ve demonstrated themselves as good or bad in a way that is under their control and exemplifies their genuine character. Harris doesn’t think anyone really is deserving of reactive attitudes (e.g. praise and blame)  because he takes desert to require the sort of control he thinks is impossible.

I share some of Harris’s skepticism over our capacity to exemplify a desert based notion of moral responsibility. There is a something inarguably true that our character/nature is not of our own making. We don’t have control over our parents, genes, culture, history, upbringing; all of which shape and constrain our mental and moral capacities. This is the problem of luck. Luck being just whatever is causally and morally relevant to your behavior that you don’t have control over. Almost all of the causal conditions behind our capacities and dispositions are outside of our control, and given that these are the principal sources of our action, how can we be held responsible for them?

I can see four strategies for reconciling constitutive luck and desert:

1. Argue that there are control-compensating features intrinsic to human agency  

2. Reject moral responsibility altogether

3. Revise moral responsibility by substituting desert with an alternative justification

4. Qualify our notion of desert

(1) is the route of most free will affirmers, be they compatiblists and incompatiblists, (2) is endorsed by free will skeptics and hard determinists, (3) is accepted by  Harris, Pereboom, and Vargas,(4) is my own proposal.

The qualification I have in mind consists of making explicit what one is responsible for and what one is deserving of, but first I’d like to clarify the folk conception of desert. The basic conditions for desert are free will and moral competence. Roughly speaking, moral competence consists in an agents capacity to understand and react to reasons (moral and otherwise). Moral competence explains how we respond differently to agents that interfere with our desires. We typically don’t react to a violent dog the same way we do to a violent person, or a drunk bar attendant, or an overly critical coworker. We expect these different classes of agents to be more or less (or not at all) understanding of why their behavior is unacceptable. This is grounded in their ability to understand moral reasons plus the availability of such reasons. For example, this is exactly what is expressed when someone says “they should have known better” in justifying their indignation at another’s behavior.

The central problem with desert is that we can only be justifiably blamed for what we can control, but much of our behavior is a result of our character, which we don’t control. We are born with a set of genetic dispositions, some of which are inexorably expressed, others can be nurtured or stifled. The extent and direction of these latter dispositions is largely dependent on our environment. We have little to no control over these influences, but especially as a child; and this is exactly when the majority of our character development takes place. For the most part, these factors are going to determine whether we’re hot-headed or easy going, depressive or cheerful, ambitious or content, curious or uninterested, stoic or sensitive, prone to addiction or not, etc; all of which can influence our moral competence  

The challenge is whether it even makes sense to blame someone in light of these facts. I think the majority of this problem resolves itself once we understand desert as being explicitly restricted to the aspects of behavior that morally competent agents have control over. This sounds obvious, but most of our retributive practices ignore this, leaving its justification  under-articulated. The result is the fusion of metaphysical freedom and moral competence, leading to the incoherent notion of having metaphysical freedom over one’s moral competence. This seems to be what is going on in the variety of retribution behind our criminal justice system. The attitude behind sentencing is often that the guilty individual choose to become the sort of person who is disposed to steal, kill, abuse, lie, etc. Their behavior expresses who they really are, which they alone determined.  

While acknowledging this as impossible, I think we can preserve a desert based conception of moral responsibility. Praise or blame being justifiable in instances where a morally competent, metaphysically free agent is caught in a torn condition and chooses to act either in pursuit of what is just or what is merely prudent. Consider the following example. Dave is selling his truck out of desperation. He recently accrued severe gambling losses and will suffer worse if he doesn’t immediately settle his debt. A friend of his informed him of an especially credulous, undiscerning, and moderately wealthy coworker that’s been looking for a similar truck. He’s told that he is nearly guaranteed a sale, even while exaggerating the vehicles worth up to 50%. Also of note is that Dave was raised by gambling addicts that actively encouraged him to gamble. He started young and continued to do so until he fell into a set of drug habits. Eventually his health was in danger to the extent that he was desperate to do anything he could to distract himself from drugs. Finding gambling especially effective, he spent most of his free time at the casino, but having an addictive personality, was unable to stop himself. Finally, when showing the truck to his friends coworker, he’s met with enthusiastic response he expected. As tempted as Dave is to sell the truck at an exaggerated price, this is in conflict with his central desire to do what is right. He finds himself in the torn condition of being equally motivated to what is right and what is expedient. In the end, he sells his truck for far more than it’s worth.

I think it’s fair to say that Dave is blameworthy for his action because he choose to pursue what was convenient while knowing it was wrong and having the capacity to do otherwise. Though as we saw, Dave’s nature was largely shaped by features outside of his control. There were elements of luck involved in his nature, his circumstances, and the success of his actions. Since you can only be justifiably held responsible for what you can control, this severely limits the extent of his blameworthiness. There was constitutive luck involved in his genes and upbringing, circumstantial luck in the opportunity to sell his truck, and consequential luck in his loses and buyers acceptance. If any of these features would have been otherwise, he would very likely never scammed the man. Knowledge of these facts should incline us to restrict the extent of our reproach. In the same way we restrain our blame when dealing with children and the mentally impaired, we ought to modify our reactive attitudes in light of the way luck functions in life of all moral agents.

Blameworthiness can be undermined in a variety of ways. Luck is just one. It will be useful to situate luck within the general structure of limiting blame (1). Take some seemingly blameworthy act: out of nowhere, Mac pushes Jack. We naturally ask why he did it. There’s three strategies available to get Mac off the hook. That is, he can be justified, exempted, or excused, all of which can be mitigating or exculpatory. Justification means Mac had morally compensating reasons for pushing Jack. Perhaps if Mac hadn’t pushed Jack, he would have been hit by a brick. Alternatively, Mac could be criminally insane. Mac sometimes lashes out in a way that he can’t control. This would render Mac exempt from blame because he is not equipped with sufficient moral competence and self-control to function as the proper target of praise and blame. Finally, maybe Mac was pushed by Zach, so he couldn’t help but push Jack. In this case, Mac is excused from blame because didn’t have the opportunity control his action in this precise circumstance. These three are examples of exculpatory pleas. They are sufficient to wholly relieve one of blame.

However it doesn’t always work this way. Often when investigating a harm, we’ll discover  context that partially relieves one of blame. For example, if Mac was being intentionally intimidated and threatened by Jack, we’ll find Mac not quite as at fault for pushing him. Since Jack hadn’t yet physically harmed him, Mac wasn’t fully justified in pushing, but perhaps he was to some degree. Next, assume that Mac has a severe anger problem. It doesn’t take much to upset him, and he only has so much control over this. Mac’s limited emotional stability ought to limit the degree to which we hold him responsible. This doesn’t mean he’s not sufficiently morally competent; it just entails that is somewhat diminished in self-control. So when Mac pushes Jack as the result of Jack teasing Mac, we might be not so severe in our condemnation of him. Finally, assume Mac is typically good-natured and exhibits self control, although recently he has been working two jobs (both of which he might lose), getting little sleep, as well as having severe marriage and financial problems. Jack tells a tasteless joke at Mac’s expense. Upon hearing the joke, Mac pushes Jack. Though it’s difficult to hold Mac entirely responsible given the number stressors, he has an excuse for his behavior (to an extent). In these three cases we have instances of discovering information that partially diminishes the extent of Mac’s blameworthiness. A partial justification, a mitigating exemption, or a mitigating excuse.

To review, one’s blame can either be exonerated or mitigated. This can either happen by way of having sufficient warrant to harm (justification), lacking the capacity to grasp and apply moral reasons and to govern one’s behavior in light of such reasons (exemption), or being deprived of the opportunity to properly exercise one’s capacities (excuse).. Whereas Harris seems to think of constitutive luck as exonerating, I take it to function as a universal mitigating exemption. Assuming we sometimes have the opportunity to do otherwise and possess the requisite moral competence, we can still be blameworthy for our actions, but this must be measured against the degree to which we lack control.

This mitigation applies as much to praise as it does to blame, but that’s not nearly as significant. What’s important is proportioning the extent to which we hold people blameworthy to the degree that they exercise control. On any plausible theory of free will and moral responsibility, whether it entails basic desert or not, the current criminal justice system is unjustified. This simply follows from the fact that we don’t include all of the possible mitigating and exonerating features in our assessments. In order to do so, one would have to have perfect moral knowledge as well as access to all of the facts relevant to the how control and luck have factored into anyone’s behavior. This is impossible. For this reason we can’t structure our criminal justice system around people possessing free will in the sense required for basic desert. This doesn’t mean we won’t have one. We simply must appeal to alternative justifications when dealing with those who harm (i.e. protection of the public, rehabilitation), which if performed consistently will inevitably lead to more humane treatment of the incarcerated.

The upshot of all this is that we can still make sense of basic desert in light of the ubiquity of luck, but just not without qualification. No one is praiseworthy or blameworthy simplictor , but this remains consistent with being praiseworthy or blameworthy in the deontic sense. This conception of desert has the advantage of preserving the notion that we exemplify the control necessary for moral responsibility, as well as making us sensitive to the relevant factors that are not in our control.  However this case is dependent on us sometimes being able to make metaphysically free decisions. If Harris turns out to be right that we don’t have this capacity, then I think we would have sufficient reason to conclude that humans are never morally responsible in the basic desert sense.

  1. Franklin, Christopher Evan. ‘A Theory of the Normative Force of Pleas’Philosophical Studies 163:2, (2013): 479-502.

Hedonism and Cardinal Utility

Recently, I have decided to embrace preference-based theories of welfare over hedonism. I had two reasons for doing so. First, due to the difficulty of assigning cardinal utilities to mental states. Second, because I no longer feel as though there are any grounds for claiming that preferences that do not supervene over mental states are irrational—and if they are not irrational, then we ought to respect them when it comes to moral decisions. In this post, I will expand upon the first point.

Before talking about ethics, it would be beneficial to briefly review the decision theory necessary for understanding the notion of cardinal utility. For more detailed discussions of these topics, see Schwarz or Peterson (do note that the former is open source). Put simply, according to orthodox decision theory, every individual has a utility function, which intuitively measures “how good” outcomes are for that individual (according to their preferences—we’re not yet concerned with making any substantive claims on what those preferences should be). Formally, the utility function is a function from the set of possible outcomes to the real numbers; outcomes with higher numbers assigned to them are preferred by the agent. The utility function does not just describe the individual’s preference ordering; it also captures the magnitudes of their preferences. Let’s say A, B, and C are outcomes, and say A has utility 0 and C has utility 1.  Suppose further that I prefer C to B and B to A. Then the utility of B should be somewhere between 0 and 1. But it matters where between 0 and 1 the utility of B is—the mere ordering of these numbers is not all that matters. If the utility of B is, say, 0.6, then in some sense my preference for B over A is “stronger” than my preference for C over B. If the utility of B were 0.4, this would not be so. Because relative magnitudes between preferences matter, we call the assigned utilities cardinal utilities. This is distinct from mere ordinal utilities, which only capture the order of one’s preferences.

According to expected utility theory, if an agent is faced with a choice between two gambles, she should choose the one with a higher expected utility. A gamble is an assignment of probabilities to possible outcomes. If the possible outcomes of a gamble G are o_1, o_2, ..., o_n, each of which will yield with respective probabilities p_1, p_2, ..., p_n, then the expected utility of G is given by \mathrm{EU}(G) = \sum_{i=1}^n u(o_i)\cdot p_i, where u is the utility function assigning real numbers to outcomes. As an example, consider the above situation with outcomes A, B, and C which have respective utilities 0, 0.6, and 1. Let the gamble G1 denote getting outcome B with certainty, and let G2 denote the gamble which gives A with 70% probability and C otherwise. G1 has expected utility equal to 0.6. G2 has expected utility 0*0.7+1*0.3 = 0.3. G1 has a higher expected utility, so I should choose G1. Expected utility can be thought of as the average yield of a gamble; if I were to partake in G2 over and over, on average I would get 0.3 utility. Notice that the assigned cardinal utilities are crucial to what decision I make: if the utility of B were 0.2, my preference ordering of outcomes would be the same, but I would have to choose G2. So, knowing how my preferences order the outcomes isn’t enough to tell me how I should make choices under conditions of uncertainty.

So far, I have only described cardinal utilities as representing the “strength” of a preference. However, this is quite a weak basis for expected utility theory. For sure, people do often have some sense of the relative magnitudes of their preferences (this used to be a standard way of defining cardinal utility—see Harsanyi 1955). But basing cardinal utilities on this intuitive sense would not be anywhere near precise enough to serve as a foundation for expected utility theory. One would not be blamed for concluding that there is no fact of the matter regarding the relative magnitudes of preferences—that the only real facts are about one’s preference ordering of outcomes. In fact, this position, called ordinalism, was argued for in the beginning of the 20th century (Schwarz). Schwarz calls this the “ordinalist challenge”: to give a basis for assigning cardinal utilities to preferences.

How, then, can the expected utility theorist respond? On what basis can we actually compare the relative strengths of preferences, in a way that doesn’t just rely on some vague intuition? The answer is to look at the agent’s preferences under conditions of uncertainty, and to try to use these preferences to define their utility function. Here’s a rough example: as above, I prefer B to A and C to B. Let Gp denote the gamble which yields A with probability p and C otherwise. I thus prefer G0 to B and B to G1, since G0 just always yields C and G1 always yields A. Moreover, in some sense, the “value” of the gamble Gp seems to increase continuously with p. It stands to reason, then, that there must be a unique value of p such that I’m indifferent between B and Gp—if I start at Gp where p = 0 and increase p, eventually the value of Gp will have to “cross” that of B. Let’s say this value for p ends up being 0.6. The expected utility of Gp is just p; since I’m indifferent between B and Gp where p=0.6, we should take the utility of B to be 0.6. This method can be used to assign cardinal utilities to all outcomes.

Two things should be addressed. First, the fact that I was only able to assign a utility to B because I had already assigned utilities to A and C. How, then, am I supposed to get these utilities? As it turns out, you can just choose them arbitrarily. Choosing the utilities of A and C just specifies my choice of the units with which we measure utility. This is similar to measuring temperature, for example. It doesn’t matter what number you assign to any particular temperature; what matters is how these numbers relate to one another. I can choose any numbers I like for two temperatures—say, the freezing and boiling points of water—and I get a valid way to measure temperature just as long as all other temperatures are consistent with the first two. Likewise, I may arbitrarily choose A to have utility 0 and C to have utility 1, just as long as all other utilities are consistent with this choice.

The second thing to address is that the above reasoning likely seems circular. The original challenge was to assign numbers to outcomes so that we can tell agents that they should maximize expected utility. I showed a method for assigning such numbers by reasoning backwards, and assigning the numbers which would make the agent’s preferences consistent with expected utility theory. Is this not circular? A utility function is said to represent an agent’s preferences provided that she prefers a gamble G1 to G2 iff the expected utility of G1 is greater than that of G2, with respect to that utility function. The expected utility theorist merely wants to say that there exists some utility function that represents a given agent’s preferences—if the agent has rational preferences. A representation theorem is a theorem which guarantees the existence of a utility function representing an agent’s preferences, provided that her preferences satisfy certain axioms. Arguing that agents should be expected utility maximizers, then, comes down to arguing that their preferences should satisfy the axioms of some representation theorem. This eliminates any circularity. One example of such an axiom is transitivity: if you prefer G1 to G2 and G2 to G3, then you should prefer G1 to G3. Another example is continuity: if you prefer the outcome A to B and B to C, then there should be some probability p such that you’re indifferent between B and a gamble that yields A with probability p and C otherwise. These two axioms are found in von Neumann and Morgenstern’s representation theorem, which defines cardinal utility by looking at preferences between gambles. Another is Savage’s representation theorem, which not only provides a utility function but also a probability function assigning probabilities to events.

 

Preference utilitarianism holds that total (or average, but that’s beside the point) utility should be maximized, where an agent’s utility function is just constructed from their preferences as above—or, from what their preferences would be if they were rational (see Railton 1986 for a discussion how this notion of welfare can work). It should be noted that although decision theory generally does not place substantive constraints upon agents’ preferences (merely formal constraints, given by axioms such as transitivity and continuity), preference utilitarians may hold that there are reasonableness constraints which should be taken into account (Harsanyi 1977). These may take the form of substantive constraints on the content of preferences.

Hedonistic utilitarianism disagrees with preference utilitarianism in how it defines an individual’s welfare. According to preference utilitarianism (as I have described it), an individual’s welfare is measured by the utility function that represents an idealized version of that individual. According to hedonism, cardinal utility is an objective property of mental states—some mental states just are intrinsically better to experience than others, and by a certain amount. In referring to the utilities of mental states as objective, I mean this: whether a mental state in better than another, and by how much, only depends on properties of the two mental states, and not explicitly on any other factors, such as the individual’s desires. In particular, these utilities are the same for different individuals. An individual’s welfare at a certain time, according to hedonism, is thus given by the utility of the mental state they are experiencing at that time. Hedonistic utilitarians seek to maximize the sum (or average) of these utilities over all sentient beings.

The fact that for the hedonist cardinal utility is taken to be an objective property of mental states, and not a mere result of an individual’s subjective preferences between those mental states, is crucial. This is also the aspect of hedonism which, in my view, makes it untenable. There are no such facts intrinsic to mental states, and even if there were, they would be in principle impossible to know, even approximately. Any attempt to define the cardinal utility of mental states in terms of something knowable (whether observed from the outside or by introspection) inevitably leads to a notion of utility too subjective to be suitable for hedonism.

Effectively, I am making the claim that hedonists do not have any way to meet the ordinalist challenge described above, whereas preference utilitarians do. A natural proposal is for the hedonist to respond to this challenge the same way expected utility theorists do. Recall that in decision theory, an individual’s utility function is determined by their preferences under uncertainty. A hedonist may likewise attempt to base the cardinal utility function on an individual’s preferences between mental states under uncertainty—call this the “preference approach”. As a matter of fact, I think this is the only option for hedonists. The older approach, in which agents simply judge the relative strengths of preferences of mental states, is basically equivalent to this approach (although it is less precise). This is because, if the individual in question is rational and therefore cognizant of the fact that they should be an expected utility maximizer, judgements about the relative size of utility increments are equivalent to preferences between gambles whose outcomes are mental states. Thus it suffices to focus on the preference approach in judging whether hedonism can meet the ordinalist challenge.

There are two natural ways hedonists can use the preference approach as a basis for assigning cardinal utilities to mental states. First, they can define the utility of mental states according to agents’ preferences between mental states under uncertainty. Second, they can claim that utility is a more fundamental property of mental states, of which preferences are an approximate expression. The first does not seem to work, because different agents may disagree about which gambles are better than others, even if they agree on how they order mental states. Since utility is just defined using preferences, we have no basis by which to resolve this disagreement1. It follows that cardinal utility would not end up being an objective property of mental states. Thus, I imagine most hedonistic utilitarians would prefer the second strategy, and that’s what I’ll focus on for most of the rest of this post. My problem with this position is that, if it is true, then it is in principle impossible to measure the posited properties of mental states, even approximately. This is because there would be no reason to think that preferences between mental states track the actual goodness of those mental states. Thus, the utilities of mental states can vary while one’s preferences between mental states change to “cancel out” the changes in utilities, thus causing these changes to be unobservable. I hope my argument will also motivate the stronger claim that there are no such facts about mental states, but as we will see, this stronger claim is not necessary to refute hedonism.

If hedonists want to claim that our preferences track the objective utilities of mental states (at least approximately), they need to provide some explanation as to why this is so. For example, they can argue that having preferences track the value of our mental states is evolutionarily beneficial. Put very simplistically, the reason why some mental states are preferable to others is to motivate us to act in ways that are beneficial for our survival—the good mental states result from beneficial behaviors, thus incentivizing us to behave that way. For example, getting punched is more painful than getting poked because it’s more important to avoid the former than the latter, since it causes more damage to one’s body. But this can be achieved just as well if an individual’s preferences are “out of sync” with the objective value of that individual’s mental states. This is because any “error” in how objectively good or bad a mental state is can be corrected by another “error” in the agent’s preferences between mental states. We, then, cannot expect the utilities of mental states to be tracked by anything observable, or anything available to introspection.

Here’s an explicit example to illustrate the above point. Let’s say that it’s “twice as important” to avoid getting punched than it is to avoid getting poked (relative to the status quo), in the sense that it is optimal that we are indifferent between getting poked and a 50% chance of getting punched. How is it that our biology makes us exhibit this behavior? According to the hedonist’s story, this is accomplished by having some resulting mental states feel better or worse than others. Say M1 is the mental state had after getting pinched, and M2 after getting punched. Assuming the status quo has utility 0, agents will exhibit the desired behavior if i) the utility of M2 is twice that of M1 (with both being negative), and ii) agents’ preferences are represented by the utilities of these mental states. Thus, we have an explanation for why our preferences should track the objective utilities of mental states: if they didn’t, then in situations like the above, agents would not exhibit optimal behavior.

But there’s a flaw in the above explanation. There are many ways we can get agents to have the “right” behavior when it comes to getting punched and poked. For one, we could do as above, and assign M1 and M2 utilities of, say, -1 and -2, and have agents’ preferences represented by these utilities. But we could also do the following: assign M1 and M2 utilities of, say, -1 and -4, and have agents’ preferences fail to reflect these utilities, and instead acting as though M2 had utility -2. Agents like these can be thought of as experiencing more pain when punched than those in the first case (or perhaps less pain when poked, or some combination of these), but also dispreferring larger amounts of pain to a lesser degree, so that their behavior is the same.

More generally, say Smith is rational according to hedonism, so that the utilities of her mental states represent her preferences. Let M be the set of possible mental states, and f: M \to \mathbb R the function which assigns the correct utilities to mental states. Now suppose Jones differs from Smith in the following two ways. First, in situations where Smith would experience a mental state with utility u, Jones experiences a mental state with utility u^3. Second, Jones’ preferences are not represented by f, but rather by f^{1/3}. Jones is irrational, according to hedonism: she doesn’t take more “extreme” outcomes as seriously as she should. But outcomes are in general more extreme for her than for Smith, so that the two end up having the same behavior.

Given that Smith and Jones will exhibit the same behavior in any given situation, why would evolution make us like Smith (as is required for hedonists) instead of making us like Jones? It seems that the only causal role played by the utility of mental states is acting in conjunction with one’s preferences in order to produce certain behaviors. But as we saw above, one’s utilities and preferences between utilities are underdetermined by behavior. In other words: if I observe that someone prefers a state A to a state B by a factor of two (relative to the status quo), this can be explained in two ways. First, by saying that the mental state associated with A is actually twice as good as that associated with B and that the intrinsic goodness of these mental states are reflected by her preferences. Second, by assigning arbitrary utilities to the mental states associated with A and B and stipulating that the agent’s preferences are not represented by these utilities. We have no reason to think the former is happening instead of the latter.

Obviously the above evolutionary story is simplistic, but it illustrates my point. Moreover, I think the same reasoning can be used to undermine any story the hedonist tries to give for why our preferences track objective utilities.

I would go so far as to say that this sort of underdetermination shows that mental states have no such properties. No doubt, this sort of argument will remind some of arguments made against phenomenal properties of consciousness more generally, such as Dennett’s attacks on the concept of qualia using the considerations like inverted spectrum thought experiment (Dennett 1988)2. The idea is that, assuming color qualia exist, there is in principle no way to tell whether yours are different from mine—that is, no way to tell whether you actually see what I call “blueness” when we look at something green, and vice versa. Dennett uses considerations like that to argue that the concept of qualia doesn’t refer to anything real. I’m basically telling a similar story about utility, replacing the inverted color spectrum with an “inversion” of preference and utility.

I happen to agree with Dennett’s conclusion, but no doubt many people find this too counter-intuitive, and still assert that there is a fact of the matter about whether your color spectrum looks the same as mine, even if it is in principle impossible to find out. Should these individuals reject my argument here on a similar basis? I think there’s good reason to accept my argument as damaging to hedonism, even if one isn’t convinced by eliminativism about qualia. Because even if one still wants to assert that mental states have objective utilities, I have shown that these utilities are unsuitable to serve as the basis for a normative theory. If hedonism is to be nontrivial, it has to tell us what to do in some situations where ordinal values of outcomes are not sufficient to make a decision. Hedonism tells us to base these decisions off objective cardinal utilities of mental states. But, as I have shown, there is no basis by which to resolve disagreements about these objective utilities—thus, agents do not have access to the information required to make (even approximately) correct decisions according to hedonism. In other words: even if one wants to assert that mental states have objective utilities, one must admit that it is impossible to use them as a basis for decision making. Thus hedonism fails to be actionable in any cases which require comparisons of cardinal utilities. Imagine I had a normative theory which treated as absolutely crucial interpersonal comparisons of color qualia—the theory says you should do one thing if our color qualia are the same, and another thing if our spectra are inverted with respect to one another. Even if you’re committed to believing in color qualia and that there is a fact of the matter as to whether our spectra are inverted, such a theory should nevertheless be seen as defective, as it requires us to act according to information that we in principle cannot have access to. But hedonism is just as bad. It is in principle impossible to know whether we are like Jones or like Smith, but hedonism prescribes different actions in each case.

To summarize the above point: in order to assign cardinal utilities to mental states, hedonists appeal to our intuition that some preferences between mental states are stronger in magnitude than others. But all that is immediately apparent is that these preferences track a subjective attitude towards gambles between mental states, not recognition of some objective property of them. Hedonists have to provide some justification for the claim that these objective properties exist, and why our attitudes track them. I have shown that even if they do exist, they are causally inert (because any change in objective utility can be “cancelled out” by a change in preferences between objective utilities, keeping everything observable constant), so there is no reason to expect our preferences to track them, even approximately. This undermines any story the hedonist provides for why our preferences track objective utilities of mental states.

There’s one more point I should address. Above, I stipulated changes in mental states without corresponding changes in agents’ preferences. That is, I assumed that it is possible for individuals’ preferences between mental states to not be represented by the utilities of those mental states. Could the hedonist then claim that it is in principle impossible for this to happen? Lazari-Radek and Singer in passing make the ordinal version of this claim in their book when discussing future-Tuesday-indifference. When considering the rationality of someone who doesn’t care about anything taking place on future Tuesdays, they stress the importance that this only applies to future Tuesdays by saying “If I am now experiencing a sensation that I have no desire to stop, then what I am feeling could not be agony” (p. 46) So, they’re basically claiming that it is in principle impossible to be wrong about whether agony is worse than the status quo—if someone thinks a feeling is better than the status quo, then it wasn’t agony to begin with.

Could hedonists make the same claim, but about cardinal utilities? That is, could hedonists claim that it is impossible for agents to really disagree (to a large extent) about the values of gambles between mental states, and argue that there would have to be some difference between the mental states in questions to account for any disagreement? This view is really problematic. Say I’m trying to figure out my preferences between gambles G1 and G2. At a first pass, my choice as to which I prefer will depend on three variables: properties of G1, properties of G2, and the properties of myself when I am making this decision. To use this defense, then, the hedonist needs to claim that the outcome of this decision process actually doesn’t actually vary with the third variable. This is a substantive claim which would need justification. Moreover, it seems to be clearly false. One cannot just magically output their preferences given G1 and G2; the brain has to have some process by which the outcome is determined given the necessary information about G1 and G2. But then a person could just be re-wired so that this process works differently, and the outcome is reversed even when G1 and G2 stay the same. Maybe such a re-wired individual would necessarily be irrational, but they would still be a counterexample to the claim that preferences in principle must reflect objective properties of mental states.

 

All of the points I’ve made warrant further elaboration, but this is getting a bit long for a blog post, so I’ll conclude here. To summarize, I disagree with hedonism on the basis that there isn’t any suitable basis for assigning cardinal utilities to mental states, even granted the existence of objective ordinal values of mental states. Any attempt to define the utilities of mental states in terms of preferences (or, equivalently, introspection about those mental states) leads to a notion of utility too subjective to be suitable as a basis for hedonism. Any attempt to claim cardinal utility as an objective property of mental states leads to skepticism about utility, because there is no way to derive the utilities of mental states unless we assume our preferences between them are (at least approximately) rational, and there is no basis for making such an assumption.

I welcome any feedback. I’m not horribly well-read, so it’s not unlikely that someone has made arguments similar to the above. If they have, let me know.

 

Endnotes:

  1. When talking about disagreements about gambles whose outcomes are mental states, I rely on the assumption that interpersonal comparisons of mental states are possible. This assumption is innocent here, since hedonistic utilitarians assume such comparisons are possible anyway.
  2. In fact, Dennett briefly argued against the idea of pleasure and suffering as intrinsic qualities of mental states in Consciousness Explained.

 

References:

Schwarz, Wolfgang. “Belief, Desire, and Rational Choice”, 2017.

Peterson, Martin. “An Introduction to Decision Theory”, 2009.

Harsanyi, John. “Cardinal Welfare, Individualist Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility.” 1955

Dennett, Daniel. “Quining Qualia”, 1988

Lazari-Radek and Singer. “The Point of View of the Universe”, 2016.

Railton, Peter. “Facts and Values”, 1986

Scholarly, All Too Scholarly

One can find philosophers everywhere and nowhere. The title has no firm content. At best, it’s rhetorical, carrying with it status and authority. One’s proclamations have weight wielded as weapons and tools if one only calls them philosophical. But the real philosopher doesn’t wield claims: she only stutters them. The real philosopher is mild and dispassionate. She is scholarly, all too scholarly. And so philosophy is status for the sake of status. Philosophy does nothing. Philosophical claims are not weapons. Philosophical claims are not tools. One can do no harm with a philosophical claim. And one can neither give aid.

And so philosophy is vulnerable. Status approximates value, and without value, status can be revoked without warning. The scent of our uselessness may one day rouse History, stirring its hunger. And we philosophers serve a much more useful role as nourishment than as company. Everyone implicitly understands this: defenses of philosophy are meagre and peripheral. Philosophy produces effective lawyers, effective entrepreneurs, effective doctors, and so on. But this is no defense of philosophy. This is a call to improve law schools and business schools and medical schools. Philosophy improves scientific discourse. But only because scientists are not taught to evaluate concepts. They are too busy robotically collecting data. Philosophy inspires literature and art. But only because artists find inspiration in everything. None of this supports philosophy. It indicts the other domains of academic education. Philosophy makes no special claim. It collects together all those areas of inquiry that have henceforth remained unclaimed by the other sciences but which the other sciences ought to claim. And this is not good enough: philosophy is not good enough. It must do more.

Philosophy, however, has its status for a reason. It was once threatening and useful, powerful and productive. Cities and states trembled in awe of its majesty and its honey-sweet phrases. The bastard child of science and sophistry, philosophy comes from a noble but troubled pedigree. Both of its parents emerged from the Greek contests of wisdom that had come to form one pillar of political legitimacy in the Archaic period, and the Classical period found them pregnant with a solution to new troubles. Let us then examine this pedigree to uncover philosophy’s noble blood.

The contest of wisdom was a central pillar of Greek political life during the Archaic period. Elite families and patrons earned status by allying themselves with those who won these contests. Their peculiar structure in comparison with other societies placed important emphases on what wisdom meant for the Greeks that are represented both in science and in sophistry. Greek contests of wisdom are judged by the people. Those same people served as the economic and military backbone of the Greek poleis and hence their approval meant something quite significant. This over time became more and more enshrined in law and in custom, but it is also the significance of this public concern that shaped science and sophistry, for both embody distinct strategies to contest different types of opponents.

Science reflected the demand for transparency in reason. It emphasises public reason and observation distinct from the kind of private, privileged inspiration that is claimed by poets such as Hesiod and others. While the method differs, the explanandum remains the same. The Theogony for instance proclaims a genealogy of the world from its origin in Uranus and Gaia. The history of the gods is seen as an explanation of natural phenomena. The gods, however, are not public. Their works and their pedigree cannot be verified by the common man. And so the scientist attempts to provide an alternative account of natural phenomena by appeal to those elements that his audience can verify and understand for themselves. So where Hesiod explains nature as the unfolding of the incontrovertible divine will of Zeus, Thales explains it as the unfolding of the “will” of water, and Anaximander as the unfolding of the “will” of the unlimited, and so on. Unlike Hesiod, the claims of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and so on, while strange, are simple and easily evaluated by ordinary people. And if those people see the reasons for an account, they are liable to vote for it over an account for which the reasons are private. The Greek public may have been devoutly religious, but they were not stupid enough to believe everything anyone says about the gods just because it was said about the gods. Indeed, the Greek public stressed novelty. The same old explanations became tired. It did not take wisdom to regurgitate old explanations for natural phenomena. Instead, wisdom was demonstrated by finding the limits of old explanations and proposing new ones that overcame those limits.

Sophistry reflects a different but somewhat similar strategy. The sophist did not so much care for public reason or experience: he cared more for drawing himself toward the audience with bonds of identification and sympathy. He spoke in prose instead of verse, but nevertheless seasoned his words in order that they taste as sweet and as powerful in the ear as they do upon the tongue. This art of persuasion, of giving to words a distinctive and pleasant flavour, required study of its own sort. The sophists became experts in the meanings, the histories, the sounds, and the connotations or words, and they used that knowledge to their advantage even as others, such as Pindar, dismissed them as lowly, squawking crows–which was precisely the desired effect!

These strategies and others over time mixed and mutated in tandem with broader Greek society. Eventually full-fledged democracies were enfranchised and both science and sophistry were used by the elites in different ways as they attempted to respond to their eroding power. These responses in many cases barely concealed the contempt that wise elites held for common Greeks. Their situation was not altogether different from our present. The common Greek did not so much understand or care what these contestants said. They were in it for the spectacle and the validation of their own opinions and lifestyles. Hence in the contests, wisdom and study were quickly reduced to a jester’s farce for those who could scarcely learn from the wise.

Just as they do today, accomplished scientists and sophists came to resent the ignorance and the power of the common person. And like today, it is evident that this resentment is unwarranted. The wise were scarcely wiser than the average Greek. They were afforded important privileges in Greek society in virtue of the situation of their birth, but even despite these privileges, the wise were little better than the fools they derided. No Greek scientist or sophist could reasonably claim to know more than any common Greek, and in many cases, the common man knew much more. It is not the common man who we today ridicule for his absurd theories and his inability to accurately observe what stands immediately in front of his eyes. Indeed, there is at least some evidence that the common man could do this. He toiled and suffered to support himself and his kin, after all. There is no evidence, however, that the wise need ever do this, let alone were capable of it.

But this resentment is unwarranted for another reason as well. The common people grew in power over the nearly three centuries of the Archaic period until the emergence of the first real democracies, but they did not do so by simply taking power from the elites. It was the elites themselves who in their struggle against other elite rivals gradually gifted the common people greater status and power. And in many cases, this was not even power and responsibility that the common people always wanted. They for centuries threw their support behind elites who distinguished themselves from the unwashed masses for one reason or another just as poor whites do this today. But of course, no one really controls the tides of history, and it serves no one to resent it but those who lack the privileges of birth and wealth. Elites, of course, have never lacked these privileges.

Yet the elites persisted in their undue resentment of the common Greek. As the contests of wisdom gave way to people’s assemblies and people’s courts, many of their former contestants retreated from the public to private enclaves in which they religiously pursued their science and their study. They became absurd objects of public ridicule, ranting about Being and the power of the Vortex, the one and only god, all while speaking in tongues, refusing to utter the word “is.” Others did not retreat, but instead assaulted the common people. These elites invaded the people’s courts, often to cheers and applause, while they attempted to pass off their interest as that of the many. And they claimed some success at this. They commanded wealth and prestige. They commanded armies and economies. They claimed to shake the demos with every utterance, failing still to realise that their own tics and tremors had their source in the people to whom they remained servants.

And through all this, there was no serious improvement in political life. The Archaic period was violent and volatile. The Classical period too. Neither elites nor the people had the wisdom to rule. And as great poleis experienced their peak and began to decline, everyone, elite and commoner alike, cried out in anguish. And this time, science could not help them. Sophistry could not either. The comics were implicated and the tragedians, the last vestige of a dying, corrupt generation, abdicated their responsibility. The poleis needed something new, something capable. That something was philosophy.

Philosophy began with the followers of Socrates as they attempted to come to terms with their mentor’s trial and execution. But it was Socrates himself who first saw the demand for it. It was he who sacrificed his own interests for that of his polis, attempting to inspire his countrymen to pursue virtue and therefore achieve peace, order, and good governance. The object was to employ scientific reasoning in the public sphere to guide public decisions. But this science was in the tradition of Antiphon, Parmenides, Gorgias, et cetera, who largely reduced being to the self. Natural study was primarily study of one’s own psychology and its phenomena. It was from here that the science of ethics drew its first breath. For unlike Gorgias, Socrates was unsatisfied with the good being reduced to that which fulfilled fleeting desires. Echoing Antiphon and Parmenides, Socrates objected that desires provide only what seem good, and not what is good. But demonstrating this distinction remained the most difficult challenge that science faced: scientific norms are foreign and strange, just as Socrates’ ethics was. And so the people rejected it despite Socrates’ best efforts. They saw it as a threat to their sovereignty and their customs, but also to their well-being.

Rightly or wrongly, they lashed out at Socrates and extinguished his science, leaving his followers searching for solutions. Some gave up the effort, retreating to their houses, their barracks, or their barrels. Others sought solutions beyond Socratic science. This was primarily Plato’s doing; it was he who united Socratic science with a kind of sophistic drama that was sure to attract and enchant the public while also challenging it to improve. And in this, found success where his mentor found failure. Plato challenged the Athenian orthodoxy on every conceivable dimension of their worldly existence while nevertheless cultivating for himself a fine reputation. For it was Plato who realised that while one’s science may bestow upon its bearer untold riches and prestige, it is worthless while it appears degenerate and diseased. Gone were the days of the shoeless wisemen; a new era of philosophers in dyed fabrics and fine estates had commenced. The people must see with their own eyes the value of the preacher’s science.

But Plato was not so careless that he forgot his modesty; he did not follow the sophists in their luxury and their ostentation. Though of noble blood, his skin was middling. He was attractive yet not flashy. For the public can see success, and they can also see corruption. It is better not to rouse suspicions in the philosophers’ line of work.

Armed with the image of Socrates, the martyr for a better Athens, and his own talents for beautifying an assault on the common mores, Plato elevated the philosopher to a place of nobility in the minds of the public, a place that it has since remained. He did this by engaging directly with those who held the power in the polis: the common man. He placed his dialogues in the public consciousness alongside those of the great tragedians and comics, and he outshone them all. His strategy was simple: exhort the public to care about an issue, to put aside their jest and their passion while enticing them with those very things, and then hit them with the serious matter at hand. Plato employed all of the comics’ tricks–irony and mockery and schadenfreude–while elevating discussion with the gravity of tragedy. In this way, Plato not only demonstrated the costs of vice and benefits of virtue, but also a method of eliminating vice and cultivating virtue: critical self-examination.

Yet the actual success of philosophy at solving social strife is difficult to demonstrate. Plato’s philosophy existed during a time of unprecedented domestic stability in Athens. But Athens was then no longer the dominant superpower that it once was and faced few of the same threats. The apparent success of philosophy then may be mere coincidence. Despite his popularity, Plato may have had no serious effect on the political life of the average Athenian. Indeed, his philosophy itself may be seen as an expression of a common Athenian exasperation with the turbulence that preceded his generation. Had Plato more time in the sun, we could quite possibly discern more closely his effects; but as it stands, Athens itself came to an end as an independent polity soon after Plato’s death, succumbing to historical contingency. Philosophy has no place in empire; the public there is too massive, too diverse, and too disparate to have any serious effect on policy. Hence philosophers retreated within the self once again, dulling their claims and rendering them useless.

But today we need them again. We need the sharpened tools of Old Aristocles. The people have risen up! The people have seized back power! The democratic republics of the liberal age were a meagre compromise, only changing the shape of empire. But today matters stand differently: instant communications and near-infinite access to information have shrunk empires and rebirthed the polis. Athens lives today online. And just as Plato’s generation, ours cries out in anguish at a rudderless world. Should we not then recapitulate philosophy, shock the academy until its atavism is complete? Let us return to our workshops to sharpen our claims, philosophers! Let us excise evil and cultivate virtue! And though we have no guarantee of success, no certain precedent upon which to stand, let us find courage in our effort to find the better.

Wiccan Ethics as Discontinuation of Indo-European Pagan Ethics

The religion of Wicca is one of the largest and most widely represented new religious movements within what is variably called the New Age, Earth-Based, or (neo-)pagan communities.  Like most of these new religious movements, Wicca is difficult to pin down, and many who identify as Wiccans or witches may eclectically adopt a variety of New Age or other spiritual practices.  However, one thing that Wiccans have contributed to New Age spirituality, and specifically religious ethics, is the so-called Wiccan Rede.  The Rede variously goes something like this: As long as no harm is caused (by your actions), do what you will.

I should note that it is called a rede, which is an archaic way of saying “a piece of advice”.  As such, the Wiccans and other neo-pagans adhering to it are not necessarily accepting a moral proclamation.  It may be called good advice instead of a moral mandate, e.g., like the “Golden Rule” in ethical religious systems like Christianity and rabbinical Judaism.  I see no problem with the Wiccan Rede at first glance.  It certainly does seem like good advice, even if it doesn’t claim to be some moral truth about the nature of ethics and moral behavior under Wiccan neo-paganism.  However, this kind of religious ethic is unknown in the Indo-European Pagan religious systems from which Wicca (and much of the New Age movement) derives its mythos, aesthetics, and claimed pseudo-historical lineage.

The Rede doesn’t represent Indo-European paganism from an ethical perspective.  By far the greatest ethical lesson taught in all Indo-European mythological systems and epics is this: hubris will be the downfall of everyone.  In Indo-European myths, whether Celtic, Greek, Hittite, Vedic, Avestan, Norse, Slavic, or Baltic, hubris kills humans and deities alike.  The exalted are humbled through cunning by their enemies, and through guile the humbled make themselves exalted.  The weak find strength and the strong are made weak, the good perish with the evil, and death swallows all life as winter swallows summer and night swallows day.  The real rede or advice derived from Indo-European pagan spirituality and myth is this: always keep your wits about you, stay humble and don’t ask for trouble, do not trust gods or men or seductive women or beasts, and know that everything comes with trials and sacrifice, even for the very goddesses and gods themselves.

Indo-European religious ethics are not so consequentialist as the Wiccan Rede would have us assume.  Sometimes you can do all the good things in the world and unpleasant things will result anyway.  It is haughtiness to assume that you ever know what your actions will ultimately cause, even if it is admirable to try not to harm anyone or anything in your comings and goings.  To elaborate further, Indo-European paganism would give us this ethical advice instead of the Wiccan Rede: know that you are most often powerless in a universe full of powerful forces, and make propitiation to them for the sake of the Cosmic Order.  Treat everyone as a goddess or a god, a fairy or a spirit, because they could be, and their wrath could come back to haunt you.  Be humble, be kind, choose sides wisely, and make sure that you never have to answer for any wrongdoing by not committing any in the first place.  The Indo-Europeans recognized honor and expected to be honored.  The narrative of “As long as your actions are victimless, then they are ok” that is proffered by the Wiccan Rede is not consistent with the ethical lessons of Indo-European myth, nor with the ritual action of Indo-European religion.  You can dishonor the deities simply by not offering proper homage to them, and thus you can incur their wrath.  It doesn’t matter whether or not they are harmed by your inaction; you have to have respect anyway.

As such, Indo-European religion is more accurately described as a system of virtue ethics, not consequentialism.  The moral lesson is to be humble, hospitable, and kind because such characteristics are personal virtues that will be counted favorably to your credit and the Powers of the Universe will give you your just desserts for it (if fortune favors you, and as such there is no guarantee).  Whatever ends that come about from your actions, good or bad, be you virtuous so that the deities and heroes themselves mourn the demise of someone so righteous should events turn against your favor.  This is the best one can hope for in an Indo-European pagan worldview.

The Wiccan Rede comes from either a fundamental misunderstanding or a rejection of the same Indo-European mythos, cosmology, and ethics it often claims to represent in renewed or continued form.  It is in fact a discontinuation of the religious purposes of the Indo-Europeans.  Wiccans see themselves as agents of magical or mystical power to enforce their will rather than accepting that it is one’s virtue, not one’s good will, that earns favor with the pagan Powers.  The virtue of your character and the heroism of your deeds are the ethical mandates of the Indo-European pagan.  Neither is this message a piece of advice for the Indo-European pagan.  It is cosmic law.  Good things happen to you because you are favored by powerful beings and deities who are pleased with you in light of your virtues.  Sometimes these virtues may even be shallow, like the virtue of simply being born beautiful and as such being favored by the deities.  Often these deities are even depicted as being enticed by the virtuous beauty of mortals.

If I am to make a guess, I assume the motivation for Wicca’s discontinuation of pagan religious ethics may have more to due with its determination to be anti-dogmatic.  Many Wiccans and neo-pagans I have met have expressed their appreciation for the consequentialist ethics of the Rede as opposed to the often oppressive religious morality of the more mainstream religious alternatives.  The Wiccan Rede serves to replace the equally demanding religious ethics of the Indo-European religions from whence Wicca takes much of its inspiration.  Indo-European religion is about virtue and religious purity as much as the Abrahamic religious morality that usually permeates the cultural ethos in which New Age practitioners are operating.  The Wiccan, in trying to escape more conventional religious systems, may be equally burdened by the Indo-European mandate to act with dignity and humility, keep herself pretty and clean and ritually pure, honor others with humility, make propitiation to the Powers, and sacrifice to please her patrons (whether deities or humans) so that she can have their protection.  It is an uncomfortable pagan dogma to accept that our goodness, fairness, beauty, and generosity is what make us worthy pagans, and not the mere consequences of our wills.

The Wiccan discontinuation of paleo-pagan religious morality is a novel effort to reinvent Indo-European religious practice, and it frames neo-paganism as an alternative to more conventional religious ethics.  I conclude by suggesting that this is not necessarily wrong or inauthentic as a genuine neo-pagan religious practice, especially since Wicca and neo-paganism do not usually claim to represent paleo-paganism or traditional Indo-European religions, per se.  However, I think it is important to hash out where Wiccan neo-pagan ethics fit (or do not fit) into the traditions they are claiming to emulate or otherwise continue.

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