Pleasure is very good indeed

7 januari 2010 | In Hedonism Meta-ethics Self-indulgence | Comments?

Hardly anyone denies that pleasure is good. ”Because it is pleasant” is an excellent answer to the question ”why do it?”, even if some people find it a slightly to self-indulgent one. But so what? Pleasure is good, but so are a lot of things. Justice is great. Knowledge is just excellent. Excellence to has a lot going for it. And True Friendship and Self-knowledge and Health and Success are all good. At least we talk as if they are, and a good theory of goodness, or of any common sensical concept, should respect the objects that we group under the term that expresses that concept. Right?

If we respect our actual evaluations, then, something like pluralism seems to be right.

We could perhaps think up a concept that would cover the things we usually value, and such a concept would probably chime well with our ordinary language (good luck finding such a concept that cover an uncontroversial set of things, however). But when I say that Pleasure is Good, I say something slightly different from when I say that friendship, knowledge or excellence is good. Pleasure has some more intimate relationship to goodness than any of those things. Pleasure is not only one of the things that we value, it is the basic means by which we value. To experience pleasure is already to pass an evaluative ”judgment” on whatever object that happens to be saliently in our mind at that moment.

I believe this means that pleasure should be given a foundational role in the theory of value. The value that accrues to it is much more fundamental than the ”value” we might want to assign to other objects. The scope of the common sensical concept ”value” has probably evolved to extend beyond its humble origin in hedonic processes, but its origin is still relevant to that concept. Pleasure, I say, is not only good, it is very good indeed.

Now, about this response-dependency thing

3 december 2009 | In Emotion theory Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Naturalism | Comments?

I am a fan of keeping options left open, and of not leaving open options left undeveloped.  When we find ourselves with conflicting intuitions in situations where intuitiois our only ground for theoretical decisions, it is basically an act of charity to develop a theoretical option anyway, in case someone will find it in their heart to – as we so endearingly say in philosophy – entertain the proposition. (My attitude here, you might have noticed, is a bit counter to my lament about a certain trope in the post below.)

Store that in some cognitive pocket (memory, David, it’s called ’memory’ ) for the duration of this post.

Response-dependency. Some concepts, and some properties, are response-dependent. That means that the analysis of the concept, and the nature of the property, is at least partly made up by some response. To be scary, for instance, is to have a tendency to cause a fear-response. There is nothing else that scary things have in common. Things are different with the concept of danger: Dangerous things are usually scary too, but that is not their essence. Their essence consist in the threat they pose to something we care about,  or should care about. Fear is usually a reasonable response to danger; fear is usually how we detect it. Danger might still be response-dependent, but then fear is not the crucial response.

Response-dependency accounts have been developed for many things. Quite sensibly for notions such as being disgusting. Famously by Hume for aesthetic value. And arguably first and foremost under the name ”secondary qualities” by Locke, and unceasingly since by other philosophers, for colours.  Morality, too, has been judged response-dependent , and a great many things have been written about whether this amounts to relativism or not, and whether that would be a point against it.

Response-dependency accounts of value and of moral properties has a lot going for it. Famously, beliefs about moral properties are supposed to involve some essential engagement of our motivational capacities. And if the relevant property is one our knowledge of which is dependent on some motivational response, say an emotion, this we’re all set. Further, if these concepts/properties are response dependent, it would account for many instances of moral disagreements – we disagree on moral issues when our moral responses differ, and when the difference is not accountable by a difference in other factual beliefs and perceptions. If we accept that responses are all there is to moral issues, we might have to learn to live with the existence of some fundamental disagreements between conflicting responses, and moral views. Relativism follows if there is nothing that moral respones (for the most part, the moral response involved is some kind of emotion) track. What the account gives us is a common source of evaluative meaning in located in the fact that we all share the same basic type of responses. We just disagree in what causes those responses, and about what objects merit the response.

If we insist on locating the value (moral or otherwise) in the object/cause of the response (note that the object and the cause might be different things – we might project an emotion of something that did not cause it. This happens all the time), the response-dependency account results in a form of moral relativism. If one finds relativism objectionable, and there is no way to provide firm moral properties in the cause/object structure of typical moral responses, one might therefore  want to reject response-dependency wholesale. I think this is mistake. If we agree that there is such a thing as a moral/evaluative response, and this response is something that all conceptually competent evaluators have in common, we have our common ground right there, in the response. It is not the kind of relativism where we find that seemingly disagreeing parties are actually speaking about different things altogether. In fact, there is a common core evaluative meaning, and that meaning is provided by the relevant response.

So, to the suggestion then, our theoretical option left open for development: that moral/whatever value is in the response, not in the object of the response. This seems to be the obvious solution once we’ve established that the value is metaphysically dependent on the response, and there is no commonality to what causes the response. If the responses themselves can is something that seemvaluable, and emotions usually do, we should develop that option, and disregard the fact that we tend to project value to the object of mental states. (If we keep on, as I do, and argue that the evaluative component of any emotion consists in it valence, and valence is cashed out in terms of pleasantness – unpleasantness, we have a kind of hedonism at our hands, but this option is open for any response you like).

Nothing is metaphysically more response-dependent than the responses themselves, and yet, this move avoids any objectionable form of relativism, while explaining the appearance of relativism. And, given that the response is motivationally potent, we have an inside track to the motivational power of moral/evaluative properties/beliefs. This, I’d say, makes it a theoretical option worth pursuing.

So, it’s correct but not funny, that’s what you’re saying?

11 oktober 2009 | In Comedy Meta-ethics Neuroscience Self-indulgence | Comments?

The day before  yesterday, I made my first proper venture into the unchartred waters of neuroscience. For reasons too interesting for words, my debut took place at a department for clinical neurophysiology in Gothenburg. I delivered a talk called ”Value-theory meets affective neuroscience – and then what happens?”. (”Not much” is disappointingly often the answer). This talk, a version of which I gave to a mostly empty room at the Towards a Science of Consciousness conference in Copenhagen back in 2005, argues that these disciplines should colloborate of key motivational concepts. The amount of ignorance in each discipline of the work done in the other is nothing short of embarrasing, and in dire need of rectification (enter: not so petit moi).

The talk is also notable (yes, I think like that about my own writings) because it contains my ”no-Cinderella” argument about  reference: If you have a concept but no natural event or property that perfectly fits the concept, you go for the event/property/step-sister on which/whom you have to cut of the least amount of toes. It’s basically the ”imperfect derserver” theory, but more cute, by far.

Anyway: in the talk, I’m intrducing some key arguments in ethical theory and meta-ethics. The fact-value distinction is backed up by an outline of Hume’s Law: You cannot derive an ’ought’ from an ’is’. There are cases when we seem to do precisely this, however. Like when I say that your pants seem to be on fire, and you conclude that your really should put it out. But, Hume’s law dictates, there is always a hidden ’ought’-clause hidden in these cases. That you ought not to wear burning pants after labour-day, for instance.

Hold for laughs 2-3-4. It is not happening, is it? No.

It might not be as funny as I think, but there might be another problem to, to which I cling desperately: I’m talking philosophy to a bunch of non-philosophers, and for a non-philosopher, it is not that easy to distinguish the jokes from the real thing.

Duelling Processes

6 oktober 2009 | In Meta-ethics Moral Psychology | Comments?

On Thursday, I’m supposed to summarize and criticize a draft for a paper called ”the Methods of Ethics” (yet contains no reference to Sidgwick) with the subtle subtitle ”conflicts built to last”.

The paper (intersting and very nicely written) reflects on the philosophical importance of the ”dual process” model for moral judgments and points out that having two processes influencing our moral judgments is useful since each process can correct the mistake that the other leads to on its own. In vague and possibly misleading terms, the ”emotional” process is in place to make sure that the ”cognitive” process does not run away with us (getting us stuck in prisoners dilemmas and repugnant conclusions. Also, one presumes, to keep us from making biased calculations), the cognitive process is there to make sure we don’t get stuck in emotionally reinforced prejudices.

One important role for the emotional process is to tilt the actual and perceived utilities of an option so that, for instance, a seemingly rational breach of promise becomes less tempting, due to expected guilt. (It’s a choice-archictural device, to speak with the nudge people.) The two processes are commonly held to be representative of two different moral theories. The cognitive process is broadly ”utilitarian”, and the emotional is broadly ”deontological”, spurring some philosophers to say that the dual process model is a perfect diagnosis of the history of moral philosophy. The relation between the two processes, then, is essentially a conflictual one.

It’s an interesting speculation, but there are complications.

First: there might be several decision procedures at play; the ”dualism” is merely a handy simplification with a long history, reaching us from Plato via Hume, and Jane Austen, for crying out loud.

Second: there is no reason to think that the cognitive process as such is utilitarian – there are other reasoned ways to reach a moral decision.(The empirical work on these issues is just getting started). Nor is there any reason to believe that our emotions are essentially deontological, especially seeing how our emotional systems are among the most complicated, interconnected and plastic in the brain. One can easily imagine an agent whose emotions are always targeting the utilitarian option, who is an intellectually convinced deontologist, for instance.

Third: even if our deliberation can occasionally go against our emotional reactions, what that deliberation is about, what consequences to take into account, has to be established somehow, and emotions certainly play a central role in that process.

I believe it is a mistake to see these processes as being essentially in conflict, rather than in cooperation. We are probably best of when we get the same verdict from both processes (which, admittedly, might require some negotiation) and we usually get into trouble when they don’t.

The paper proposes that the take home lesson from these findings is that we should not be that concerned with reaching the moral truth, but with reasoning correctly, i.e. using both processes. But if we have no moral truth to strive towards, or to use as a corrective tool, how do we know when we have reasoned correctly? Especially seeing how the outcome of each process depends on a number of contingent circumstances. There are infinite possibilities when it comes to what sort of a balance is struck between the two processes, so are they all equally valid?

It’s noteworthy that when considering the Prisoners Dilemma case, the way the author determine that emotional processess help us reach the right decision is by showing that it leads to the best overall consequences. It is good that we have two processes, but that goodness must somehow be assessed, and that calls for one criterion of rightness, not several.

Who likes short shorts?

26 september 2009 | In Hedonism Meta-ethics Naturalism Self-indulgence Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Lately, the question ”what is your dissertation about” has become somewhat more frequently asked of me. Forthy-five minutes later, I usually get the impertinent question if I’d mind making the answer a bit shorter. Well, I do mind, but allright. So I end up experimenting with different short-versions, none of which is unqualifiedly true. But then again, to be unqualifiedly true is pretty much to ask of any theory. After all, my argument is that hedonism is true enough. Anyway: I’d thought I’d give it another go, and to give you in less than, say 200 words, the gist of my theory of value. Ready? Here we go:

What’s good? Opinions diverge, so we turn to the more basic question: What do we say when we say that something’s good? What would make that statement true? Theories are wildly at odds with each other. What to do? It seems we are dealing with different uses of the term ’good’, and we must decide how to treat this problem. The first decision is to look for their common origin, so we can say that these uses are variations on a common theme. The other decision is to treat goodness as a natural property.

Whatever value is, it must correspond to what we believe about it. We might be mistaken about it, but cannot be totally wrong. Value should fit with our beliefs about value and be part of the causal explanation of those beliefs. I argue that pleasure fits with many of our value beliefs, especially regarding how value relates to motivation, and it is universally believed to be valuable. Hedonic processes, are also a key part of the causal explanation of our evaluations, and evaluating abilities. This means that the common beliefs that the theory does not make true, it can explain away. Pleasure is value.

How did I do?