Sunday, 7 September 2014

Heuer's Argument Against the Humean Theory

In his paper, “Reasons for Actions and Desires”, Ulrike Heuer attempts to cast doubt on the Humean account of practical reasons (in the sense of justificatory reasons for action). Heuer describes the Humean account as the claim that “all practical reasons are based on a person’s given motives, or desires” (p. 43).  Moreover, he takes the Humean to be committed to the following two claims:
(H1) Anything can be the object of a desire. 
(H2) Actions can be justified (at least in some rudimentary sense) by showing that they are suited to lead to the satisfaction of a desire. (p. 52)
I will put aside the question of whether the Humean is necessarily committed to (H1) and (H2) for the time being. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that she is.  This, Heuer argues, makes the Humean account susceptible to the following counterexample, due to Warren Quinn: 
Imagine that I had a disposition to turn on every radio within my reach, but not because I want to listen to music or news; as Quinn puts it: ‘Indeed, I do not turn them on in order to hear anything’. (p. 51)
The preceding case is supposed to present us with a scenario in which an agent has a desire, but in which the desire fails to justify the actions that would lead to the satisfaction of that desire.  In order to constitute a genuine counterexample to the Humean account, the Humean must be committed to saying that the agent in Quinn’s example does in fact have a desire.  In order to establish that the Humean is so committed, Heuer notes that “most Humeans rely on” a functionalist conception of desire, according to which an agent desires some end just in case she is disposed to perform actions that would lead to achieving that end (p. 51).  Since the agent in Quinn’s example satisfies the right-hand-side of the preceding biconditional, it follows that he has a desire.

One immediate problem with the preceding argument is that Heuer fails to establish that the Humean must be committed to a functionalist (or some relevantly similar) conception of desire.  He only claims that most Humeans “rely” on a functionalist conception. However, it matters little if most (or even all) Humeans rely on a functionalist conception of desire.  What Heuer needs, if he is to establish that the counterexample has force against the Humean, is that the Humean is necessarily committed to a functionalist (or some relevantly similar) conception of desire, given her other theoretical commitments. But, as we shall soon see, the Humean need not be saddled with a functionalist conception of desire.

Perhaps it is Heuer’s recognition of the above point that leads him to stress the Humean’s commitment to (H1).  The idea seems to be this: since the Humean is committed to the claim that anything can be the object of a desire, it follows that she has no basis for denying that the agent in Quinn’s example has a desire to turn on every radio within reach. If this is supposed to be Heuer’s line of argument, then it appears to rest on a mistake.  Specifically, Heuer appears to conflate two very distinct claims: the claim that (i) there is no formal constraint on the content of a desire, and the claim that  (ii) there is no formal constraint on the nature of a desire. While (H1) plausibly entails (i), it does not entail (ii).  That is to say, a Humean need not be committed to saying that every attitude that has the function of disposing an agent to act is a desire (i.e., the functionalist conception of desire). For example, a Humean may consistently subscribe to the following hybrid of a pleasure-based and action-based conception of desire:

Pleasure-Action-Hybrid View (PAH)
S desires P iff S is disposed to take whatever actions S believes necessary to bring about P, and S has this disposition in virtue of the fact that S is disposed to take pleasure in the thought that P and displeasure in the thought that not-P. 

According to PAH, an agent counts as having a desire only in those cases in which she is disposed to perform actions in a specific way; namely, in virtue of being disposed to take pleasure in the thought of the desired outcome obtaining, and displeasure in the thought of the desired outcome failing to obtain. Significantly, this is not a formal constraint on the content of a desire.  It is formal constraint on what constitutes a desire.  Admittedly, it may turn out that, as a matter of fact, a given agent may be disposed to take pleasure or displeasure in the thought of only certain outcome’s obtaining and not others. But his is an empirical and contingent matter. Not a formal one.  It remains true that, in principle, anything may be the object of desire, even if it turns out that some things seldom or never are.  Hence, PAH is perfectly consistent with (H1).

Moreover, PAH allows the Humean to adopt the following more nuanced reply to Quinn’s example.  According to PAH, the agent in Quinn’s example has a desire to turn on every radio within reach only if he is disposed to satisfy the desire in virtue of a disposition to take pleasure in the thought of every radio within reach being on and displeasure in the thought of every radio within reach being off.  But once we substitute PAH for a functionalist conception of desire, Quinn’s purported counterexample seems much less compelling.  If, on the one hand, the agent in Quinn’s example is disposed to take pleasure in thought of the radios being on, it seems less obvious that her desire to do so fails to provide her with some (even if rudimentary) justification.  After all, the fact that she is disposed to take pleasure in the thought of the radios being on does seem to provide her with some (even if rudimentary) justification for acting so as to satisfy her desire.  If, on the other hand, the agent in Quinn’s example is not disposed to take pleasure in the thought of every radio within reach being on (which seems truer to Quinn’s original intention), then the Humean may consistently deny that the agent has a desire.  She may, instead, hold that the agent merely has a pathological urge or some other motivational state distinct from desire. In short, the Humean need not be saddled with the view that all states that dispose an agent to act so as to satisfy them are genuine desires.

Finally, there seems to be a fatal flaw in the overall structure of Heuer's appropriation of Quinn's example as an argument against the Humean account. Recall, Heuer defines the Humean account as the theory of rationality according to which “all practical reasons are based on a person’s given motives, or desires” (p. 43).  The Humean is therefore committed to the claim that having a desire is a necessary condition for having a practical justification. However, the claim that all practical justification is based on desire does not entail that all desires provide practical justification.  The former specifies a necessary condition for practical justification, while the latter specifies a sufficient condition. Hence, the Humean may grant that the desire of the agent described in Quinn’s example fails to provide him with a reason.  However, it does not follow from the fact that some desires fail to provide practical justification that all desires fail to provide practical justification or that all practical justification is not based onn desire. In short, Heuer has not provided us with a valid argument against the claim that all practical justification is based on desires.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Heathwood's Disagreement Argument Against Hedonic Tone Theory

In his paper, “Desire-Based Theories of Reasons, Pleasure, and Welfare”, Chris Heathwood impugns the hedonic tone theory of pleasure in favour of an attitude-based approach.  According to the former, what makes an experience count as pleasurable is the fact that it exhibits a certain distinctive felt quality.  According to the latter, what makes an experience count as pleasurable is the fact that we desire to continue having the experience as we are experiencing it.  I find Heathwood’s overall case against the hedonic-tone theory compelling.  However, in this post, I wish to focus on his very first argument against hedonic tone theory, which I found to be less than compelling. Here is the argument in Heathwood’s own words: 
I believe the attitudinal approach to be more plausible. The cases that most clearly support it over the hedonic tone theory (the superior version of the felt-quality approach) involve sensations that some people like and others don’t, and sensations that bother some people but not others. The sound of fingernails scratching on a chalkboard is extremely unpleasant to many people, but not at all unpleasant to others. If unpleasantness is intrinsic to unpleasant sensations, as is maintained by the hedonic tone theory, then one of these groups of people has to be mistaken. If this sound really is intrinsically unpleasant, then those whom it doesn’t bother and who therefore judge it to be not at all unpleasant, are wrong. That is hard to swallow (Heathwood (2010: 91). 
Let's call the argument limned in the preceding passage the "Disagreement Argument". We may reconstruct Heathwood’s Disagreement Argument as follows:

[P1]:  The hedonic tone theory is committed to the claim that if a sensation, S, is pleasant, then S is intrinsically pleasant, and if S is unpleasant, then S is intrinsically unpleasant.

[P2]: Some sensation, S, may be found to be pleasant by some people and not found to be pleasant by others, or found to be unpleasant by some people and not found to be unpleasant by others.

[C]: The hedonic theory is committed to saying that if some sensation, S, is found to be unpleasant by some person, X, and not found to be unpleasant by some other person, Y, then either X or Y must be mistaken.

Given that it is not plausible that X or Y must be mistaken if they disagree about the unpleasantness of some sensation, S, it follows that the hedonic tone theory has implausible consequences.  

However, the defender of the hedonic tone theory may plausibly deny [P2].  Recall, Heathwood describes the hedonic tone theory as “the superior version of the felt quality approach”.  This suggests that the notion of a sensation at play in the preceding argument may be identified with the felt quality of an experience.  Moreover, if anything qualifies as subjective, then the felt quality of an experience certainly does. However, by treating a sensation (i.e., the felt quality of an experience) as something shared between different people, the preceding argument fails to take seriously their subjective quality.  Once we do, then a straightforward response to Heathwood’s argument immediately becomes apparent.  Heathwood assumes that the person who finds fingernails scratching on a chalkboard unpleasant, and one who does not, share an experience with the same felt quality.  But this is controversial, to say the least.  It seems to me that the hedonic tone theorist may consistently hold that while the felt quality of X’s experience of fingernails being dragging on a chalk board is intrinsically unpleasant, the same is not true of the felt quality of Y’s experience of fingernails being dragged on a chalk board, since the felt quality of X’s and Y’s experience are different.  This is just part of what it means to say that the felt quality of an experience is subjective.  Moreover, saying that the felt quality of an experience is subjective is not at odds with saying that it has intrinsic properties. For example, if I see a red after-image as a result of a flashbulb going off, the redness associated with the after-image is an intrinsic property of my experience, despite the fact that there is no objective red spot present and my experience of the red after-image is entirely subjective.  Hence, saying that an experience has a certain intrinsic property is consistent with saying that it is subjective. If this is right, then the hedonic tone theorist may consistently accept [P1] and yet reject [P2]. 

Furthermore, if we take the subjective character of an experience’s felt quality seriously, then [P1] should be reworded along the following lines:

[P1*]:  The hedonic tone theory is committed to the claim that if a sensation, S, is pleasant for some person, X, then S is intrinsically pleasant for X, and if S is unpleasant for X, then S is intrinsically unpleasant for X.

In short, given that the felt quality of an experience is subjective, it should always be understood as being relative to an experiencing subject.

Friday, 1 November 2013

On Kripke's "Identity and Necessity"

In this blog post, I will like to consider the implications (if any) of the intelligibility of the following scenario for Kripke’s claim that identity statements involving rigid designators are necessarily true.  Suppose that the Messenger space probe were to send back pictures revealing that “Venus” is actually a binary planetary system—two planets orbiting around a common gravitational midpoint.  Moreover, as luck would have it, when viewed from the northern hemisphere on any given morning, one of the twin-planets (let’s call it V1) would stand perfectly in front of the other (let’s call the second V2), so that only V1 could be seen.  But in the evening, the planets would switch positions so that V2 would obscure V1 such that only the former would be visible.  The upshot of this is that the heavenly body that was visible (from Greece or Italy) in the morning and that was “tagged” with the name Phosphorus would actually be distinct from the heavenly body seen in the evening and which was “tagged” with the name Hesperus.  Now such a scenario is clearly fictional and may, given what we know about the laws of planetary motion, even be physically impossible.  However, it certainly strikes me as intelligible and I wish to consider what follows (in anything) from the simple fact that it is intelligible. 

Suppose, after considering the above scenario, I were to say something to the effect: “If Phosphorus and Hesperus turned out to be different heavenly bodies, then Kripke would be left without a cogent illustration for his identity thesis.”  Presumably, Kripke would hold that it is impossible for the antecedent of the above counterfactual statement to be true.  Moreover, the kind of impossibility that Kripke would have in mind would be logical and not merely physical.  In brief, Kripke holds that both names, Phosphorus and Hesperus, are rigid designators.  Even so, this does not impugn the intelligibility of anything said thus far since we do often employ counterfactuals in which the antecedent is logically impossible (such as in reductio arguments). 

In Kripke’s version of the Phosphorus-Hesperus scenario, the gravitational influence of a passing comet causes Venus to be moved from its normal position and Mars to take its place.  He then suggests that under such circumstances, the thing to say would not be that Phosphorus is not Hesperus (i.e., the two names designate different heavenly bodies), but that Phosphorus has been moved so that it no longer occupies its normal position in the night sky.  Now, it does not seem to me that this reply works in the case as I have described it.  This is because in the binary-planet case we are not simply imagining a case in which another heavenly body, say Mars, is occupying the position we once thought was occupied by Venus.  Rather, we are imagining a case in which what we took to be a single object, Venus, actually turns out to be two distinct objects.  What would Kripke say in response to the above example?

In attempting to answer this question it may be helpful to consider the following question:  “In the aforementioned counterfactual, which of the two heavenly bodies, V1 or V2, should we identify with Venus?”  Given the parity between the two cases (we can suppose that in astronomical observations V1 was identified as Venus just as often as V2) it would seem arbitrary to say that one, and not the other, ought to be identified with Venus.  Since both could not be Venus (personally I’m not convinced of this, but it seems like the position that Kripke would hold) then the only available option would be to say that neither heavenly bodies are to be identified with Venus.  If this is right, then the proper name “Venus” would cease to refer to anything.  (This conclusion seems to jive with Russell’s requirement for successful reference.)

Let us suppose that in the binary-planet example, the proper name “Venus” ceases to refer.  What about the status of the proper names “Phosphorus” and “Hesperus”?  Stated in the terminology of possible worlds, a rigid designator is defined as one that designates the same thing in all possible worlds in which it designates.  Suppose that the names “Phosphorus” and “Hesperus” are both rigid designators, and that “Phosphorus is Hesperus.”  (Strictly speaking, there is no need for imagination here, since this is what Kripke takes to be the case in the actual world.)  Since they are rigid, they each designate the same thing in all possible worlds in which they both designate. That is to say that “Phosphorus is Hesperus” is true in all possible worlds in which “Phosphorus” and “Hesperus” both designate, and hence that “Phosphorus exists & Hesperus exists → Phosphorus = Hesperus” is true in all possible worlds, and is therefore necessarily true.  This, according to Kripke, is all we mean when we say that “Phosphorus = Hesperus” is a necessary truth. 

In my binary-planet example, the antecedent of the conditional (Phosphorus exists & Hesperus exists) is true and the consequent (Phosphorus = Hesperus) is false.  It therefore appears to represent a counterexample to Kripke’s claim that Hesperus and Phosphorus are rigid designators.  Now, I have already conceded that the situation described in the antecedent may be impossible.  Moreover, perhaps Kripke should be interpreted as allowing that even a rigid designator may designate different things in impossible worlds.  If so, then perhaps there is also an expectation on Kripke’s part, that we restrict ourselves to counterfactuals with possible antecedents whenever we unpack the definition of rigid designator in terms of possible worlds. 

However, on pain of circularity, such a move seems illegitimate at this stage.  Kripke is supposed to be offering us an argument for necessity of identity from his definition of rigid designation.  But if Kripke’s definition of rigid designation already required us to omit impossible worlds, it would be to argue for the conclusion that a certain identity is necessary from the starting assumption that the identity failing to hold is impossible.  But that would be to settle before hand the position one wished to achieve by argument.  If Kripke’s argument is to be cogent, it must be possible to begin with the initial supposition that the antecedent it possible.  Then if the argument is successful, we would be led to reject our initial supposition.  But once we grant that the antecedent is possible (i.e., that Phosphorus is not Hesperus), it is not clear that any argument can be given to show that the possibility that has been assumed for the sake of argument should be rejected.  In sum, without some independent argument showing that the binary-planet counterfactual, in which the names “Phosphorus” and “Hesperus” designate different objects, is impossible, it is not clear that Kripke’s argument that the names are rigid designators gets off the ground.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Nietzsche on Good and Evil/Bad

Since today is Nietzsche's birthday, I thought it would be a good idea to compose a blog post in his honour.  

In his essay, “‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad’”, Nietzsche describes the evolution of two different sets of moral codes: the “knightly-aristocratic” or “master” morality and the “priestly” or “slave” morality.  He takes as his point of departure the genealogical accounts of the “English psychologists” who he criticises as lacking the “historical spirit.”  As Nietzsche describes them, the English psychologists claim that our concept of “good” is actually derived from our concept of the “useful”, though we eventually forget this initial association.  By Nietzsche’s lights, the psychologists’ account is unhistorical in at least two respects:  First, it projects the psychologists’ own preoccupation with “utility” unto the subject of their enquiry, giving rise to a theoretical anachronism in their history of morality.  This prompts them to mistakenly conceive of the goodness of a deed as originally determined from the point of view of the recipient of the deed rather than that of the doer.  (Nietzsche, by contrasts, argues that the goodness of an action was initially defined from the perspective of the actor, a novel and fascinating idea I will not take up at present.)  Second, by ignoring the historicity of their own preoccupation with utility, the psychologists give the impression that the moral concept of the “good” is unilateral, singular and fixed.  By contrast, Nietzsche argues that moral codes are fluid, so that what was once considered “good” may literally come to be considered “bad” (or “evil”). The upshot of Nietzsche’s analysis is that our present evaluation of what is good is historically contingent, and a story needs to be told about how and why we have the particular moral code that we do.

Nietzsche sets out to tell just such a story.  To this end, he argues that our present moral code is actually a product of Jewish ressentiment, or resentment.  This claim presents a two-pronged challenge to Nietzsche’s German audience.  First, it implies that the morality that pervades modern Europe is the morality of the slaves and the weak; hardly a flattering indictment.  Second, the claim that the values in question are of Jewish origin is a remonstrance against Christian anti-Semites who tend to think of their own values as distinct from, and even opposed to, that of the Jews.   

Even if one were sympathetic to Nietzsche’s overall goals, one might have some reservations about the rhetorical manoeuvres Nietzsche employs towards achieving them.  For one thing, Nietzsche’s distinction between the morality of the weak the morality of strong seems racist in the most literal sense of the word.  That is, Nietzsche seems to depict the various groups of human beings as different in some essential sense, akin to the difference between a bird of prey and a lamb.  This observation, if accurate, amounts to a criticism of Nietzsche, not because racism is inherently problematic (i.e., it violates our contemporary standards of political correctness), but because it seems uncorroborated by the bulk of recent scientific work on the subject. 

However, it is not clear that it is mandatory to attribute to Nietzsche such strong racial essentialism.   According to the anti-essentialist, we can imagine a state of affairs in which the Jews were the masters and the Romans were the slaves.  In such a case, Nietzsche may well insist that the Jews would be the ones exhibiting the master values.    Thus, the fact that it was the Jews that played the part of representatives of slave values is a matter of historical accident.  Of course, Nietzsche seems to think that the Jews were specially equipped to accomplish this task in that they, unlike other oppressed groups, were willing to take on the task of supplanting the master values.  But again, this may simply be a function of the level of hatred the Jews had for their masters (which in turn was a function of there singularly oppressed position), rather than a reflection of some essential trait of the Jewish race.  Thus, it seems as if Nietzsche’s position may be divorced from any type of empirically implausible racial essentialism.   (There is a further and equally interesting question, which I will not get into here, of how the above anti-essentialist reading of Nietzsche relates to his thought that there are only deeds but no doers.)

There is an additional problem with regards to the self-consciousness with which Nietzsche seems to suggest that the Jews went about the task of overthrowing the values of their Roman masters.  This is most clearly brought out in his discussion of Jesus’s crucifixion as the event that clinched the deal in the overthrow of the master values.  One is left with the impression that the crucifixion was just the final step in some masterfully orchestrated conspiracy in which the Jews got their enemies to appropriate their (i.e., the Jews) values by making it appear as thought it wasn’t really their (i.e., the Jews) values.  The suggestion that the Romans were basically duped into accepting priestly morality via a clandestinely orchestrated bit of historical reverse psychology seems, to say the least, a stretch.  However, perhaps we may remove the initial implausibility of this idea by taking these events as purely descriptive of what actually happened, without suggesting that the Jews arranged for things to happen as they did.  On this purely descriptive account, the crucifixion, though not a premeditated strategy in an elaborate ideological chess-game, was just the sort of event needed to distance Jewish priestly values from their original source, thereby bestowing them with a certain faux neutrality, ahistoricity and authority. 

Significantly, even if we did accept the conspiracy reading of Nietzsche, one would need to exercise some caution in attributing belief in such a conspiracy to Nietzsche himself.  Given Nietzsche’s rhetorical goals, it may very well be that Nietzsche deliberately leaves room for (even if he doesn’t explicitly advocate) the conspiracy interpretation.  The suggestion that the values which Nietzsche’s German readers have embraced may be the product of a Jewish conspiracy would serve to heighten their discomfort since it further underscores the possibility that they may have been duped.  The upshot of Nietzsche’s analysis may be put as follows:  not only is the fact that we have the values we have a matter of historical accident, and not only are our values that of the nebbish, weak and insipid, but we have all been bamboozled into accepting them. 

This reading of Nietzsche’s rhetorical goals offers an interesting spin on his often disparaging remarks about the Jews.    By belittling priestly values and emphasising their Jewish origins, Nietzsche infuses his criticisms of his complacent (and in some instances anti-Semetic) German readers with even greater force.  If you believe a morality born of weakness and resentment is inferior, then how much worse must be those who have been hoodwinked into accepting such a moral code by the very one’s described as weak and nebbish. 

Significantly, the reading of Nietzsche adumbrated above fails to take a stand on whether or not he was personally opposed to priestly morality.  For all that has been said, it may very well be the case that Nietzsche himself thinks of master and priestly moralities as simply different, with neither inherently better than the other, or he may view priestly morality as deeper and therefore superior to master morality.  However, by adopting a rhetorical stance against priestly morality and then showing how priestly morality has been blindly embraced by his German audience, Nietzsche attempts to challenge their self-gratifying smugness.  One suspects that it is German complacency, rather than priestly morality per se, that constitutes the real target of Nietzsche’s criticisms.