Normative Truth: Good and Bad Reasons. (Parfit)

(apology–I haven’t proof read this yet)

Yo, check it.  I think I might actually have my paper topic for metaFX.  Stop.  That would be the best DJ name for a philosopher ever, DJ metaFX.  Anyway, I is going to talk about whever der is such ting as normativity in reasons–that is, whether there’s such a ting as a good, bad, right, or wrong reason for axion.  

Parfit’s Preamble on Disagreements
This is an intensely personal section where Parit shares his personal reasons for his quest to determine what matters in life.  The main point, however, is that if we find ourselves in disagreement with someone over a moral issue, the standard assumption is that there is some sort of asymmetry.  Maybe the person with whom we disagree doesn’t have sufficient cognitive capacity to see the correct answer, or maybe they just don’t have all the right facts.  But, those types of disagreements can be explained away.  

The difficult disagreements are with those that we consider our epistemic peers.  The people who are also on a whole. nuva. level. wif us.  Aaaand they have all same facts as us.  In cases of epistemic symmetry there is no rational reason to suppose our belief is any more correct than our friend’s.  What do?  The only thing we can do is to assume that there is an asymmetry in knowledge or capacity somewhere.  But how do we know it’s not us that is in the weaker position? Answer: we don’t.  Oh! Snap! 

An example of one of these beliefs is retributive justice.  Parfit doesn’t think anyone deserves to suffer ever.  To support his view he has to find the asymmetry responsible for his epistemic peers’ views to the contrary.  To support his position Parfit suggests that belief in retributive justice may be a case “in which an evolutionary explanation helps to undermine what it explains”.
His argument goes that evolution explains why people have reactive attitudes and the desire to inflict harm.  But the fact that these emotions and reaction arise out of the evolutionary process demonstrates that such attitudes are not responses to reasons.  They are simply reactions.  In other words, just because we have an impulse, doesn’t mean the action for which we have the impulse is a right action, or that an emotional reaction isn’t justification for an action’s being right.  Something akin the naturalistic fallacy is going on up in hur. 

The upshot of the section is that he has deep disagreements with some of his epistemic peers so in order to determine whether his view is correct, rather than his peers, he needs to discover the asymmetries between them. 

Parfit on Williams

Parfit has great reverence for Williams and it disturbs him that their moral views are so divergent.  A central issue between them is whether there is such a thing as an intrinsic good.  An intrinsic good is something that isn’t good because of any consequences derived from its acquisition rather it is good in itself.  A standard example would be happiness.  We don’t pursue happiness for any other reason than happiness itself is good.  Contrast that with money.  We don’t pursue money just to have it, but because it allows us to obtain other things we might value like Ed Hardy shirts–which are intrinsically ugly.

So, why is Parfit so pre-occupied by Williams’ rejection of the notion of intrinsic good?  Because, without this notion Parit doesn’t think we can answer the first question of philosophy: Are we human or are we dancer?  Not only that, but we also can’t answer the “other” first question of philosophy, “how ought we to live our lives/which kind of life do I have the most reason to live?”  

You see, if we have nothing with absolute value to pursue, then not only can we not know at what we should aim our own actions but there will be no grounds by which we might judge the actions/life choices of others.  If all values are relative, then the person who pursues a life of causing suffering for others is on equal normative footing as someone who spends their life pursuing justice, happiness, knowledge, and love.   For Parfit we need some objective normative truths in order to know what reasons should count in favour or against engaging in an action.

For Williams the notion of an intrinsic good is inexplicable.  If something were to be intrinsically good– that is, its essence was goodness–then its goodness should be explainable in advance of human valuation.  This is close to my position.  I don’t understand how something is intrinsically good, devoid of any context.  I understand the notion if we say something like “justice and happiness are intrinsically good for humans“.  Without humans would justice and happiness be good?  Are justice and happiness also good for ants and bacteria?  It seems that these values are only positive in relation to the benefits they bring to humans (in a community). 

Someone like Parfit might reply that bacteria and ants don’t have the capacity for happiness and goodness, so my counter-example is irrelevant.  That’s an objection I’ll have to reply to.    

But enough about me, lets go back to Williams’ argument which is very similar to my own thought, but obviously more sophisticated!  He says that if something has intrinsic goodness then we should not be able to explain its goodness by saying we value it.  So, I can’t say that love is good because I value it.  It has to be the other way around;  I must say of something that has intrinsic value that I value it because of its intrinsic goodness.  In the case of love, I need to say that I value love because it is good.   In essence we are saying that something (e.g. love)  is good because it is good.  This seems a little tautologous. 

The suggestion might be that we should value things such as virtue, justice, and happiness because of the other properties that make them good.  Plato says justice is good because it creates harmony.  But just like Palin, Williams refudiates this view too.

Before we get into Williams’ argument there, lets return to Parfit’s view of reasons.  He says:

When we call something intrinsically good in the reason-implying sense, we mean that this thing has intrinsic properties that would or might give us or others strong reasons to respond to this thing in some positive way, such as wanting, choosing, or trying achieve this thing. 

The basic idea is that certain facts about the world will give us reasons to act in a certain way.  For example, it is a fact that helping an old lady across the street will make her happy and will be kind.  Both of those things are intrinsically good–those are facts!  Those facts give me reasons to act.  If there were no facts about the intrinsic goodness of happiness and kindness, I’d have no reason to act one way or the other.  A central idea is that facts create reasons for a determinate action.

Reasons Internalism Vs. Reason Externalism
Williams thinks this is all claptrap.  He adopts the “Humean” model of action.  The basic idea is that I have a predetermined set of desires, dispositions, character traits, etc called the motivational set…the only way we can explain action is by reference to my motivational set.  If I say I want to study, but I procrastinate on facebook instead, then my dominant desire was to make witty comments on facebook. Every time I ask “why did I do x” the answer will be “to satisfy some desire in my motivational set”.  A consequence of this view is that, logically, we can’t act in a way that isn’t in accordance with something our pre-existing motivational set. 

Parfit sees things differently.  He says that facts about the world give us reasons to have new desires (if we are sufficiently rational and reflexive).  For example, maybe I see an old lady trying to cross the street on my way to work.  For whatever reason Zeus (the one TRUE god) gave me a motivational set that lacks the desire to help her across the street.  My friend sees that I didn’t help her then explains to me why it’s good to help old ladies across the street.  He states facts about kindness and compassion that give me reasons to include the desire to help many old ladies across many streets.  And I dedicate the rest of my life to helping old ladies across streets.  The end.  

From Parfit’s position Williams’ view is tragic for humanity.  If all that can motivate action are pre-existing desires, then it is pointless to ask what kind of life we ought to live.  All we can do is internally reflect on our motivational set and decide which desires we weigh more than others.  There is no point in asking what things are important or what we should care about.  It is a sad state of affairs indeed. 

I have to say that while my philosophical sympathies are with Williams, Parfit paints a much nicer picture.  Those in the Williams camp can claim that they are simply doing psychology.  It doesn’t make sense to say that someone acted in a way that didn’t accord with one of their desires.   Note that Williams’ view doesn’t necessarily imply profligate behaviour.  Most people have in their motivational set the desire to act in accordance with whatever they consider to be moral.

Moral Disagreement
But I want to set that debate aside and turn to another issue.  This notion of normatively–of intrinsic value.  It’s all fine and dandy to say that this and that are intrinsically good or bad, but what do we do in cases of disagreement?  Certainly there are cases where people disagree.  Some people think allowing individuals to end their own lives is a good thing, others think it’s baaaaaaad.  Because Parfit believes in intrinsic values, in such cases someone must be wrong.  It’s not a matter of, “well, for person A’s community it’s ok and for person B’s community it’s not”.  Nope.  Someone is wrong.  And it ain’t me!

Lets suppose Parfit is right and there are objective moral values.  What do we do in cases of disagreement, especially when er’body has all the same facts?  It seems that the only way to choose between the two positions, given equal epistemic positions, is to presuppose a meta-theory of value.  In other words, suppose I give the reason “dignity is da best” for my position and you give yours “suicide is the da worst”.    Now we need a theory of value to determine which values to value more.  But then someone comes along and gives a contrary theory of how we should weigh values.  Now we need a meta-meta theory to adjudicate between those two theories.  

The bottom line is this: once we say there is objective normative value, in a moral dispute given epistemic parity, there is no way to decide which reason for action we should prefer unless we further presuppose a meta-theory of values.  

I didn’t really explain that too well but I hope you get the point…

Wacky Mackie and Wile E. Coyote 
Ok, one last thing.  What’s the solution to this?  I think Mackie’s error theory is the solution.  Here’s what he says.  When I say this is good or this is bad, I mean what I say but my statements are false.  There is no such thing as good and bad.  Oh! Snap! The world is going to end! Er’body hide your wife, hide your kids, hide your husband cuz they b rapin’ er’body up here!  

Hold on.  Ain’t nobody gong b climbin’ in ur windows.  Here’s Mackie’s idea.  Just because moral statements are all false doesn’t mean that we need to throw away morality.  Morality and moral concepts serve a very useful purpose.  Just cuz there’s no such thing as objective good or bad is no reason to go rapin’ er’body in here.  Think of it like this.  (Some people might disgree with this example but I’ll try to come up with others later).  Numbers.  What are they?  Can you touch them?  Do they exist?  No.  They are concepts.  Very useful ones at that.  We don’t stop using them just because they don’t exist in any real sense.  We can do the same with moral concepts like “good”, “right”, “bad”, and “wrong”.  Nothing is really intrinsically good or bad, but these are certainly useful concepts.

One interesting consequence of this view is that we are a little like Wile E. Coyote before he realized he’s run off a cliff.  We act as if these concepts are real and so long as we don’t look down, we should be fine!

Any and all criticisms are welcome as it will give me content for my paper.  Thank you for reading.  

One thought on “Normative Truth: Good and Bad Reasons. (Parfit)

  1. Thanks for taking the time to read my rambling! I'll try to edit it in the next few days. If you see any major mistakes, msg me, that way i can take credit for the correction! (kidding)


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