Harm, Desirism, and my relationship to the “objectivity” of ethics (or ethics at all)

(Originally published at Loyal Opposition to Modernity when it was my personal blog in 2010)

Recently I have a blog debate with Alsono Fyfe, the Atheist Ethicist, in which I took issue with his framing of the Occupy Wallstreet (or more specifically Anonymous’s threat) in a post he made in which he equated the implied physical harm–read violent suppression and murder–and property violence through Anonymous deletion of the stock assets. 

Now, let me say, that morally, I am a pluralist, but a radically different kind of pluralist that a simple relativist or even a liberal pluralist like Isaiah Berlin.   I am a believer that ideologies are largely, but not consistently, generated from material conditions and individual biases.   Note that here I am actually in both a tradition of thought in sociology that really begins with Marx and Weber while reconciling it with modern individual psychology on cognitive biases and rationalization.  In other words, one looks at cultural and political ideologies and sees them manifest in individuals according to preconditions: the differences in manifestation are, largely, based on individual experience, but the supra-structure of the ideology itself is often totally environmental (cultural and class based).    Like Fyfe, I actually sort think the entire nature/nurture debate is irrelevant here.

What this has let me to, however, is radically different from most skeptics: I do not treat all ideologies as equal because ideologies have different affects, but I do see that if one takes the values directed from such ideologies and their material conditions.  Ethics becomes something akin to virtue ethics. The idea there there are several premises that could bring about human flourishing and these can be “objectively” mimicked, but the values themselves are not and cannot be objective in any real sense of the term.  Furthermore, I see most of what passes for “objective” ethics as a way to mask ideologies in a cloud of either neurology, evolutionary psychology, or logic.

This was the first thing that really pushed me away from the “Skeptic’s movement” was an insistence morality was objective as was claimed by Sam Harris.   Now, I have critiqued Harris’s claim from the beginning before his recent book on the subject for basically assuming his premises.  P.Z. Meyers run down of the debates between Sean Carroll and Sam Harris get to this.   This rejection of the naturalistic fallacy and the attempt to bridge is ought is not new.  Harris’s book doesn’t prove its premises and doesn’t even attempt to in actuality as many have noted.

But Harris’s neurological bait-and-switch to justify what is essentially a naive scientism and a meta-ethical utilitarianism in a bunch of studies isn’t the only way to try to make a totalizing system of ethic’s objective. (Before you accuse me of being a left post-modernist, let me say what I mean by scientism. I mean expanding the language of science into areas that are NOT clearly on a demarcation of what can be scientific. It’s the use of scientific concepts and language in areas that are not falsifiable, not experimental, and not even truly comparative such as the privileging of one set of values over another). While Fyfe’s desirism is not as popularly parroted on the internet sites by new atheist comment trolls as Sam Harris, Fyfe’s theory is far more sophisticated philosophically and more honest. Still it’s goal is to end a line between normative ethics and descriptive ethics.

So when I rejected to Fyfe’s framing of the issue with “To equate property violence to physical violence is laughable, Alonso. The implicit threats of the tea party were against persons, not property. The actions are not the same. Well, it may be morally questionable to commit acts of property violence–although this is debatable even under desirism in political debates. Framing the question in terms of equivocalness is misleading.”
I got a whole post on my supposed error.  

Now, I don’t thing Fyfe’s position hold EVEN IF I accepted desirism per my original critique.  I’ll get to that in a moment.   But first you need to know what Desirism, or Desire Utilitarianism is. In its most basic form, Fyfe states that Desirism is  “the idea that morality involves using praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.” This is premised to end the naturalistic fallacy because the naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy and to give one a way to bridge the is/ought gap. (Note:  But the man-masked fallacy that supposedly refutes the naturalistic fallacy and the naturalistic fallacy are informal fallacies.  They have nothing to do with the structure of an argument and do not invalidate an argument automatically.  They are merely heuristic guides to thinking).
Before we go one while desire utilitarianism is not ethical egoism, part of the reason I reject it is that it seems solely concerned with atomized individuals and their interaction. It does not take into account groups as whole, but only as an aggregate.  (You might say that this sounds like four-cent word commie talk, Skepoet. Speak English).  It also assumes that desires are both know and knowable because they would have to be for the theory to be objective.

But let’s assume desirism premises for a minute.  To my original comment, which admittedly was hastily worded, Fyfe gave me this dilemma:

Let’s say I give you a choice. Your options are, (1) I make a small, clean cut on the side if your hand, or (2) destroy your home and everything in it.

Or (1) I yank out three of your hairs, or (2) I take the whole of your savings.

Which do you choose?

Notice that Fyfe admits the problem of scale, which even if I assumed desirism premises, would have made his original moral equation laughable. Fyfe equated a death threat to property violence and then uses the fact that both are violent–in the sense that they thwart others desires.  But the original scale doesn’t hold and Fyfe’s analogy actually admits this:  The Tea Parties implied threat was a gun, which in common parlance is death threat.  That does not only thwart immediate desires, it thwarts ALL desires forever.  Even if I take away every bit of a person’s property, I have not ultimately thwarted their desires.  It is laughable to compare the two by framing them as equivocal.

My next objection to Fyfe is that the reason–the descriptive reason, why most people realize that property damage is indirect physical harm, particularly to those who have marginal incomes.  Fyfe accuses me of psychological minimization which I actually think he is also guilty of as well but for different reasons.   Fyfe was minimizing the implied threat of the Tea Party to make it sound like left and right were equivocal.  A tactic I have seen from the “ethical center” for a while now. One can remember John Stewart’s milquetoast’s rally for sanity last year.

But let’s go back to Fyfe’s argument:

This pretense that there is a difference between the two is simply a rationalization that some people use to give themselves permission to cause harms of a particular type.  It is a technique called “minimization – the pretense that one us not doing harm to avoid the psychological costs if doing home.

The position does not have any legitimacy. Yet, some people find the belief in certain fictions to be useful or comfortable.

This is interesting since I think Fyfe’s use of an extreme example to draw them as equal sets of violence was itself a belief in a certain fiction.  I have to accept that Fyfe’s premise for it hold: if I start looking at the moral of this based even on just damage done to the individual: direct physical damage does more lasting harm than just the thwarting of desires.   I have crippled a person in ways that not only thwarts their desires but shortens their lives.   Desirism can’t address that.  Fyfe wouldn’t claim it good.  But saying that my moral frame is illegitimate and a form of minimization is either circular, in that it assumes I accept Fyfe’s initial premise or its  special pleading, in the since that Fyfe has exempted the need for acceptance for his framework but requires it of mine.

While I do actually respect Fyfe, this is my issue with most liberal frameworks for “objective” or “naturalistic” ethics, they almost always are circular and hollow out their positions to maintain  (I am using liberal, by the way, in more than just a political sense, but in a sense of in the liberal tradition of philosophy of the Enlightenment).

So to recap: Why do I think Fyfe’s logic circular, like most naturalistic meta-ethics, one has to agree with Fyfe’s premises–one that desires are the roots of all human ethics because they are the roots of all human action and, two, one must accept primacy of the individual for it whole.  These postulates are not objective in the normal sense:  these principles are not obvious to all in all societies even secular ones and two confuse normative and descriptive distinctions.   Or, another way of putting it, it sneaks it both its value premise and its ontology as given and then says that its framework proves itself through application.  Since it is objective if one concedes desire is the focus of ethics, and if through consistent application of this premise I have proven it’s objectivity.  But perhaps I missed something as Desire Utilitarianism doesn’t use language in the ordinary sense as it is a technical argument from Utilitarian origins.
Let’s look at some of Fyfe’s distinctions in Desire Utilitarianism:  “A desire is an attitude that a certain proposition (e.g. “I am having sex with Sam”) is to be made or kept true.”  Fyfe there rules out desires that can’t be made true and the holder of them accepts that.  This technical use of the term is interesting.   Fyfe MUST do this so his binary logic holds: As he states, “beliefs can be either true or false. A desires can be either thwarted or fulfilled.”    Now Fyfe says that knowledge of the desires don’t have to be known–in the sense that it is thwarted or not regardless of knowledge of the holder–but it would have to conscious for a attitudinal part of Fyfe’s definition to hold.

Notice, however, that we are moving further and further away from the every sense of the term desire and the way it is used in most of the scientific fields.  In fact, this doesn’t even sound like a theory of ethics in the standard sense.

Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision. Any theory that claims that it DOES have something truthful to say to an agent at the moment of decision can be thrown out because what it has to say is false. -Alonzo Fyfe, Short List Theories of Morality, September 3, 2010

So this doesn’t have anything to say about moral agency at the moment of decision.   Odd?  That doesn’t even seem like what is used meant by ethics in the everyday use.  So desirism has a definition of the generic good, which goes like this:

Desire utilitarianism holds that an object, event, or state of affairs is ‘good’ to the degree that ‘reasons for action exist for bringing about that object, event, or state of affairs’. Similarly, an object, event, or state of affairs is ‘bad’ to the degree that ‘reasons for action exist for avoiding or ending that object, event, or state.’

So distinction of good and bad are predicated on their “reasons existing”–now from a formal linguistic analysis, this too is circular.  It’s similar to the way Neo-classical economicists define rationality to mean an actor with always act in accordance with his/her desires, desires being defined as what causes one to act. As rubric it doesn’t really lend judgment.

Also, as others have pointed out, wouldn’t use expect a meta-ethical theory that is objective to avoid having to make judgments to justify it since the meta-ethical theory goal is to give a guideline to make judgments in the first place?

So remember, I am an ethical pluralist: this means that I reject the idea of a unified meta-ethics predicated on unified notion of what good is because I think all singular notions are circular.  Furthermore, I wonder if ethics is even useful as a category as it is something a bit apart from morality as we use it.   After reading Badiou’s Ethics, I developed a philosophical hostility towards the concept. As Sam Gillespie’s review and critique of Badiou’s Ethics points out:

Badiou' s   strike  against ethics  is  two-fold.  On  the  one  hand,  he  argues
that  ethics  simply  presumes  a  vague  foundation  on  which  judgements
concerning  singular  situations  are  to  be  made.  Since  it  always  operates  at
an  indeterminate  distance  from  the  situation,  ethics  can  only  ever    be
limiting  or  restrictive.

Or in even simpler terms:  Because ethical discourse only deals with individuals in singular situations, ethical decision making always favors the status quo. For me, Desirism does this even more so since it does not take into account, in fact cannot take into account the legitimacy of any desires other than the way the individual desire interacts or thwarts other desires.

Now this may sound like I am paint Fyfe with a brush like he is an arch-conservative against all change:  He’s not.  He more or less supports the “moral legitimacy” of Occupy Everything movement.     But his framing of desires means that any desire to keep things the same must be seen as legitimate unless weighted against other people’s desires.  This effectively makes any radical critique of the legitimacy of those desires irrelevant.    Badiou looks right in this case, and so far most other ones too.

Note: While I write this Occupy Movements have been facing police violence in several cities, the severest of which appears to be in Boston and other protest movements in the Arab World are spreading.  There has been little violence on the part of the protesters so far, but arrests have been mounting.  While this is an abstract blog battle about morality in some severely academic contexts, I have not forgotten that very real actions are going on in a very real world, that I hope, will have very real consequences beyond merely shifting electoral politics.

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