Friday, February 01, 2008

A Response to Rob Schebel on Is/Ought

Rob Schebel has written a long comment on my post "Moving from 'Is' to 'Ought'." Before responding to him in this new post, I will begin by quoting his entire comment.

"The only justification you give for the good being the desirable is that Aquinas said so. It would seem that you are trying to skirt the 'is/ought' distinction by simply appealing to the most overarching 'ought' possible: that we ought to follow what is desirable. But this does not overcome the 'is/ought' problem because you simply pick one notion of the overarching good, that the good is desirable, without further justification. If you were to examine this notion further, you would continue to run into the 'is/ought' problem.

"Also, it is difficult to agree with your definition of the good as the desirable, especially considering that 1) people disagree as to what is desirable, 2) the universal desires Brown lists are only universal on a general cultural scale, not for individuals, 3) you pick and choose certain universal desires, and ignore 'negative' desires such as the desire to do violence to others, cheat on our partners, kill our own children, make war, and wield power unjustly, 4) you give insufficient weight to environmental and cultural traditions that contribute to each individual's personality and sense of happiness, and 5) the constellation of human desires can itself be altered through biotechnology.

"So my questions would be:

"1) How can you use the desirable as a standard when there is no universal agreement on what is truly desirable? Also, at what level are we considering the concept of 'desirable'? The individual? The group? The species? All living things? The answer to this question could lead you to highly divergent ethical domains, from ethical egoism to preference utilitarianism.

"2) How do you account for the lack of universality of Brown's universals on an individual scale, especially if your theory is supposed to help individuals make moral choices?

"3) By what standard have you picked the twenty desires over any of the others? It seems you would have to use a standard outside of the 'desirable,' considering you are making a kind of meta-level choice about the desirability of desires themselves.

"4) Even if we agree that the general constellation of desires is partly a product of evolutionary inheritance, environmental factors still play a great role in the moral make-up of any individual. You give weight to tradition and culture in Darwinian Conservatism, but how do we weigh competing political claims within a culture, especially when opposing factions use differing definitions of human happiness? If two factions disagree about happiness because they give weight to differing universal desires, how do we resolve their conflicts?

"5) Lastly, in light of the revolution in bioethics, by what standard do you choose desires when human nature itself is up for grabs? How does Darwinian natural right assist us in deciding whether or not to alter what is naturally desirable? By an appeal to what is currently desirable? Why is the currently desirable superior to the potentially desirable?"

I have raised and answered these questions in Darwinian Natural Right (DNR) and Darwinian Conservatism (DC). So here I will only briefly indicate the answers that are elaborated in those two books.

1) Yes, Schebel is right, "people disagree as to what is desirable." As I have indicated, there are four sources of moral disagreement: fallible beliefs about circumstances, fallible beliefs about desires, variable circumstances, and variable desires (DNR, 44-49). Because of these four sources of moral uncertainty and imprecision, morality depends on the exercise of prudence, which is the practical wisdom for judging how to satisfy the variable desires of human beings in the variable circumstances of action. We need prudence to judge the appropriate expression of each desire as varying according to the social and physical conditions of particular individuals in particular societies. We also need prudence to judge how best to resolve conflicts among the natural desires. In my Aristotelian emphasis on prudence, I reject the common assumption of many contemporary philosophers that the purpose of moral philosophy is to find universal normative principles--Kantian, utilitarian, or whatever--to resolve all moral conflicts in some abstract way. I believe that moral judgment lacks the precision and certainty of mathematics or formal logic because of the contingency of moral circumstances. In many cases, moral problems produce tragic conflicts that cannot be perfectly resolved by appeal to universal, formal rules. Much of my writing studies such tragic conflicts--for example, differences between men and women (DNR 123-60) and the debate over slavery (DNR 161-210).

What's Schebel's alternative? Does he have a set of universal normative principles from which he can logically deduce the resolution of moral conflicts? If so, what are those principles? And how would such principles logically resolve our conflicts?

2) Schebel questions me about the individual variability of the universal desires. This is something that comes up a lot in my writing (DNR, 29-44). In the case of each desire, I speak of what human beings "generally" desire, because I am speaking of general tendencies or proclivities that are true for all societies but not for all individuals in all circumstances. There can be individual exceptions for every natural desire. A few individuals might have little or no sex drive, for example. There is great fluctuation in sexual interest across the human life span. And in extreme cases of physical deprivation and suffering, all people might find their sexual appetite suppressed by other appetites. But this does not deny the fact that the desire for sexual pleasure is a natural desire for most sexually mature people under the normal conditions of life, which is why every human society must have rules for the proper expression of this desire.

What's Schebel's alternative? Is he suggesting that given such individual variability, the general tendencies of human nature are morally irrelevant? Is he suggesting some kind of moral solipsism?

3) I don't understand what Schebel means when he says that I ignore the "negative" desires--"such as the desire to do violence to others, cheat on our partners, kill our own children, make war, and wield power unjustly." Much of my writing is devoted to elaborate studies of such desires. I identify war as a natural desire (DNR 34). I consider the circumstances for infanticide (DNR, 38, 40, 119-21). I comment on the problems of sexual promiscuity and infidelity (DNR, 123-37, 149-60). I have a chapter on psychopathic desires (DNR, 211-30). And I comment extensively on how the desire for dominance can lead to tyranny and slavery (DNR, 137-43, 161-210; DC, 68-84). If Schebel can explain specifically where I have gone wrong on these various topics, then I can respond.

What's Schebel's alternative? How would he deal with "negative" desires? Does he have some way to manage these desires through a universal logic of moral principles? If so, how would that work?

4) Schebel asks, "how do we weigh competing political claims within a culture"? Well, again, that's what I have tried to do in surveying various moral and political conflicts--such as debates over slavery, property, and familial arrangements (DNR, 89-210; DC, 46-67). If he can specify where he thinks I have gone wrong on any of these topics, then I can respond.

What's Schebel's alternative? How would he resolve such competing claims?

5) Schebel objects that I have not considered the possibility that biotechnology could change our natural desires. But I have a chapter on biotechnology (DC, 130-42). If we keep in mind the adaptive complexity of human nature, I argue, we can foresee that biotechnology will be limited both in its technical means and in its moral ends. It will be limited in its technical means, because complex behavioral traits are rooted in the intricate interplay of many genes interacting with developmental contingencies and unique life histories to form brains that respond flexibly to changing circumstances. Consequently, precise technological manipulation of human nature to enhance desirable traits while avoiding undesirable side effects will be very difficult if not impossible. Biotechnology will also be limited in its moral ends, because the motivation for biotechnological manipulations will come from the same natural desires that have always characterized human nature (for example, the desire of parents to have healthy and happy children). Does Schebel disagree with this? If so, how?

What is Schebel's moral alternative for handling biotechnology? Does he think we can appeal to some abstract logic of morality that is not rooted in human nature? If so, how exactly would that moral logic constrain biotechnology?

[Pertinent to this points is my later post on moral reasoning through hypothetical imperatives.]


Anonymous said...

Do keep in mind that I advanced my questions in the context of the is/ought problem. Because you have created a theory of natural right grounded in what you regard as facts of human nature, you must necessarily bridge the is/ought gap before you can build specific answers to moral and political problems using those facts. I am questioning the details behind your equation of the good with the desirable, and you are answering my questions as if you have already established that the good is the desirable. In other words, I’m addressing the first step of your chain of reasoning, but the arguments you advance here and the details you reference in your two books have already assumed that you’ve cleared that first step.

I am asking how you can make desirability the standard for the good in order to bridge the is/ought gap. But you are outlining the specific nature of desires aligned by prudence in the latter steps of your theory, not in the initial step. So my question still stands. How can the desirable be the good? If you’re going to bridge the distinction between fact and value, you’ll need to appeal to concepts under general agreement. Because you have so many qualifications about which desires are appropriate, and because your theory depends upon prudence to muster a balance among desires, you inadvertently show that desire is weak as an undergirding concept in your attempt to bridge the is/ought gap. What’s more, your response shows that you really regard prudence as the basis for the good, and not desire.

Remember that Aristotle himself attempts to bridge the fact/value distinction (without explicit knowledge of the distinction, obviously) by appealing to the “ergon” argument – that the good for human beings can be determined by speculating on man’s “function,” which is to reason. You make no such appeal, and instead use a modern notion of desirability as a standard.

But on what basis? How are you going to prove that the desirable is the good? Can you even show that such a claim is falsifiable? How would a person know a priori if the desirable is not the good? Wouldn't such a priori knowledge about desires be required if you're going to use desirability as an overarching principle to establish the good and to bridge the is/ought gap?

I’m not asking, “how do you account for differences in desires in your general theory,” I’m asking “how do you account for differences in desires when you attempt to bridge the is/ought gap by claiming that the good is the desirable?”

The same goes for my question on Brown’s universals. I’m not asking how Brown’s universals are used in the context of your overall theory. I understand how you do that in DNR and DC. I’m asking instead, how you can justify this equation of the good with the desirable as an overarching moral principle when the desires, under Brown’s description, are not applicable to everyone? Why should a person who does not possess one or another of Brown’s universal desires agree with your overarching principle here? It would seem to me that filling the is/ought gap would require a universal appeal (e.g. “All human beings have rights”), and Brown can’t assure that for you.

I’m not making the claim that you ignore negative desires in your overall theory of political right, I’m claiming that you ignore them when you say that “the good is the desirable” clears you of the is/ought problem. How can the good be the desirable when the desirable can be wicked? Every qualification you need to add to your general statement shows that the general statement does not fulfill the role of a broad, relevant fact to inform ethics and politics.

You ask if I think that “the general tendencies of human nature are morally irrelevant?” The problem as I see it is that you assume incorrectly that they are. Why should current human nature determine an ethical system? This is a dangerous assumption. This leads to reasoning such as, “Women have been in charge of domestic duties in the past, and it’s part of their nature, so they belong in the kitchen today.”

I noticed that you did not respond to my 3rd argument, which is to question the very nature of how you pick which desires are good. You would have to engage in a deeper meta-ethical discussion to show which desires are greater than others. You could not appeal to desire itself. And on those grounds, once again, you fail to clear the hurdle of the is/ought problem.

You say that technological enhancements will not affect what we consider desirable traits. I submit that they already do, in the form of anti-depressants, behavior-changing drugs like Ritalin, sedatives, and now neurological manipulation. Even in the present tense, we are not consistently using our supposed universal natural desires to make clear decisions about these technologies.

As for the majority of your questions, I see no relevance in my personal philosophies for the questions at hand. Why would a statement of my beliefs about ethical naturalism be relevant in a discussion about whether your published ideas hold merit?

-Rob Schebel

Larry Arnhart said...


You've lost me.

I have responded to each of your five questions. But you dismiss my responses as irrelevant to your concerns.

I have written about the fact-value dichotomy--for example, DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT, pp. 7, 11, 13, 21-22, 28, 69-83, 158-60, 207--in which I explain why I reject the Kantian conception of an "ought" that belongs to a transcendent realm of pure logic separated from the natural realm of human desires. But apparently that doesn't satisfy you.

It's hard for me to understand what you're saying. Perhaps this comes from a fundamental disagreement about the character of moral judgment. You seem to think that moral judgment is a matter of logical proof or what you call "a priori reasoning." By contrast, I think that moral judgment is a matter of psychological experience that cannot be reduced to purely logical proof or "a priori reasoning."

Consider, for example, the moral judgement of parents that medical treatment for their child is good. As parents, their parental desire to care for their child's well-being is a primary cause of their parental conduct because it sets the goal. In pursuing that goal, their beliefs about what is essential to their child's well-being and about the best means to that goal will decisively shape their moral conduct towards the child: believing that good health is one element of the child's well-being and believing that a certain kind of medical treatment would promote the child's health will contribute to the parents' resolve to seek such treatment. But still the parents' desire to care for their child is the ultimate motivating force for that conduct.

Here then the good is the desirable, with reason judging how best to satisfy the desires. Judging what is good conduct for parents with their children is not a matter of logical proof or "a priori reasoning."

By contrast, you seem to assume a Kantian view of morality as belonging to a transcendent or "noumenal" realm of "ought" known through a pure logic of categorical imperatives, which is separated from the empirical or "phenomenal" realm of "is" known by the natural experience of human desires and instrumental reasoning.

Larry Arnhart said...

In short, that the good is the desirable is not the conclusion of a logical proof. It's a generalization of psychological experience.

Anonymous said...

Professor Arnhart,

If you don't understand my last post, I would guess that I'm not expressing my ideas clearly. I'm sorry.

Maybe if I start with a simple question, that will help.

Is your statement "the good is the desirable" an axiom for your theory, or a conclusion of your theory, or neither?

-Rob Schebel

Anonymous said...

Professor Arnhart,

Would it be helpful to point out your argument that the human good is teleologic in the biologic sense (without relying on a cosmic teleology)?

Memetic Warrior said...

The good is the desirable because psychologically it is so individually. this is so because the darwinian evolution made our psychology (the teleological argument above) In this sense, there is no objective social good, but many. Even the exact aggreement in desires is the source for maximum conflict, for example, when two of us desire the same unique thing.

Besides the political scale, in which I am in agreement with Mr Arnhart, in a micro scale perhaps it would be useful to consider some concepts of game theory applied to human behaviour in society:

Positive-sum games (also called non-zero sum games) are the interactions where both sides gain after the game: any kind of voluntary exchange enters in this group by definition.

Negative-sum games are the opposite. They are called zero-sum games in game Theory but robbery rape and theft are negative sum games, not zero sum games. After them, one of the sides decrease in satisfaction more than the increase of satisfaccion in the other side.

true Zero sum games appear when two or more men figh for the same good without degrading its quality, for example, love for another person, political elections, competition for a job etc.

Once the possible human interactions are classified in this way, then the criteria of the SOCIAL good -not the personal good- is: to permit positive sum games, to ban negative sum games and to regulate the 0 sum games.

However, some games that are positive sum games in the short term produce negative outcomes in the long term. For example, consented poligamy, a positive sum game, increase man-to-man competition to the level of violence, a negative sum game. On the other side, competition, a 0 sum game, enhances collaboration, a positive sum game.

Because we don´t know all these side effects, prudence is absolutly necessary, and here I return to the main conservative argument of Mr Arnhart.

Anonymous said...

No matter the conclusions of game theory, nor whether Darwinian Natural Right is teleological or biological, the theory must still answer the problem all naturalistic ethics must answer, which is how to move from is to ought.

Professor Arnhart addresses this in DNR, however, he spends most of his time there trying to convince the reader that Hume didn't mean what everyone thinks he said. But even if Professor Arnhart were right on that account -- which is highly arguable -- the problem still exists, as taken up by G.E. Moore and others.

--Rob Schebel

Anonymous said...

If you accept the "biological teleology" then nature is the standard, as in Aristotle, and the "ends" fill your requirements. The Is/Ought problem exists only from the standpoint of non-teleologic materialism. Doesn't it?

(not to mention that, epistemologically, our knowledge of ourselves as moral/political animals precedes any knowledge of non-telologic materialism - which causes a problem with any theory that cannot adequately explain the ethical realm)