bookmark_borderMorality does not depend on the existence of God

Some people believe (or claim to believe) that if God does not exist, then there are no objective moral truths (e.g., truths about what we are morally obligated to do or refrain from doing). This claim is false as the following argument shows:
(1) Torturing a child causes the child to experience severe suffering.
(2) Torturing a child violates the child’s consent (that is, it is not possible for the child to rationally consent to being tortured).
(3) That torturing a child causes severe suffering is a reason to not torture children.
(4) That torturing a child violates the child’s consent is a reason to not torture children.
Thus,
(5) There are reasons to not torture children
(6) Torturing a child would cause severe suffering even if God does not exist.
(7) Torturing a child would violate the child’s consent even if God does not exist.
Thus,
(8) There would be reasons to not torture children even if God does not exist.
(9) These reasons are so powerful as to be overriding (that is, they are stronger than and cancel the force of any other reasons that might exist that count in favor of torture).
(10) These reasons also concern the welfare and autonomy of persons.
Thus,
(11) There are overriding reasons, concerning the welfare and autonomy of persons, to not torture children, and that exist even if God does not exist.
(12) If there are overriding reasons, concerning the welfare and autonomy of persons, to not engage in some action, then this action is morally wrong.
Therefore,
(13) There are some actions that are morally wrong even if God does not exist.

bookmark_borderDo our reasons depend on our desires?

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 
I have been writing about reasons, what they are, and what they do. This is an important topic because, as I have argued, reasons play a central role in issues of morality and the meaning of life. The reason for talking about such issues in a philosophy of religion blog is that many religious apologists have argued that, if there is no god, there are no objective moral truths and that if there is no god, life is meaningless. Both of these assertions are false but understanding why they are false requires a good understanding of the nature of reasons and the connection reasons have to morality and meaning.
In a previous post, I argued that at least some reasons are objective. One consideration that is commonly relied on to argue that reasons must be subjective is that reasons are dependent on desires. David Hume famously said, “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”[1] Exactly what Hume intended to be saying here about the nature of reasons is a matter of some controversy. He has, however, been widely interpreted as claiming that reason is only a matter of selecting the best means of satisfying our ends. On such a view, reason can recommend no ends. We have our ends on the basis of our desires and passions, but these ends are not rationally evaluable. We have reasons only once we have chosen an end, and then the reasons that we have are to do the things that effectively satisfy that end. This view, regardless of whether it is Hume’s real view, is consistent with a position that I have previously called the Desire-Based Reasons Thesis (DBR):
DBR: For a person, P, to have a reason to engage in some behavior, Φ, P must have some desire (or desire-like state) d, such that Φ-ing tends to promote the satisfaction of d.
I strongly suspect that DBR is false and I want to provide some examples that serve to undermine it. First, though, I think we should acknowledge the intuitive appeal of DBR. DBR fits in very nicely with a certain conception of rationality that is often called “means-ends-rationality.” This conception can be well illustrated via the following example:
Pizza: Sue wants to have a pizza delivered to her house. Given that calling the local pizza place, Pizza Yurt, and ordering a pizza will efficiently promote the satisfaction of Sue’s desire, Sue has a reason to call Pizza Yurt to order a pizza. Further, she only has this reason given that she has this desire. A person who does not have the desire for pizza to be delivered to their home does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery.
This seems right, at least at first glance. Despite this appearance, I will later argue that the above account of why Sue has the reasons she does is completely wrong. Now, though, I want to acknowledge the way in which the account is intuitively appealing. It seems true that anyone who does not want a pizza does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery. Thus, the natural conclusion is that Sue’s reason for calling Pizza Yurt is that she wants to have a pizza delivered. Certainly, if we assume (i) that Sue wants a pizza, (ii) that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying this desire, and (iii) that Sue knows that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying her desire, it seems clear that if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational.
It is important to note that we now have before us two different claims: One is that Sue’s reason to call Pizza Yurt is dependent on her desire; the second is that, given this desire plus her belief that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient way of satisfying that desire, if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational. I think that the second claim is true, but the first is false.
It is important to distinguish claims about what reasons an agent has from claims about the agent’s rationality. These claims are different as can be revealed by a common example:
Snake/Rope: I am walking through the desert; I look down at my feet and see a snake-like object coiled in the path immediately next to where I am walking. I immediately form the judgment that there is a snake in my path. My pulse quickens, I immediately feel fear, and quickly leap away. In reality, the object is not a snake but a coiled length of rope.
Now, let’s ask whether I had any reason to fear and whether I had any reason to jump away. The natural response to such questions is that, given that it was not a snake, I had no reason to fear. Similarly, my daughter has no reason to fear the non-existence monsters under the bed even though she firmly believes in them. Further, I had no reason to jump away in fear since there was nothing to be afraid of. However, given that I believed that there was a snake on my path, my fear-response and avoidance behavior was completely rational. The Snake/Rope example shows that we can behave rationally even when we are not responding to reasons.
In this post, I will be making claims about reasons rather than rationality. In particular, I will argue that reasons are not dependent on desires. I will not be defending any view about rationality. However, the view that I find attractive is that, as Derek Parfit has put it, our reasons are provided by the facts, what is rational for us to do depends on our beliefs.
While DBR seems to make sense of Sue’s reasons in the Pizza example, I think that this appearance is deceiving and that a proper understanding of Sue’s reasons show that they are not at all dependent on her desires. To understand why, I need to explain why I doubt DBR. Let’s look at three cases that present possible counterexamples to DBR.
(1) Gin/Petrol
This example comes from Bernard Williams who is a defender of DBR [2]. Williams’ view is that the reasons that an agent has are dependent on the agent’s motivational set. Your motivational set includes your desires, intentions, positive attitudes, etc., (henceforth, I will use ‘desire’ to refer to all of these kinds of states) which have the tendency to motivate you to act. Importantly, this entails that the existence of a reason for an agent requires the presence of an appropriate desire.
Williams presents the following example as a reason to amend his view: Suppose Jim is sitting at a table on which is a bottle of clear liquid. Jim wants to have a gin and tonic and believes that the stuff in the glass on the table is gin. Suppose, though, that the stuff in the bottle is not gin but gasoline. Does Jim have a reason to mix the stuff in the bottle with tonic and consume the concoction? Williams points out that we are pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, it seems natural to say that since the stuff in the glass will make Jim sick, he does not have a reason to drink it and has a reason to not drink it. On the other hand, if Jim does drink the gasoline, there is a natural explanation for why he did so: Jim thought that the stuff in the bottle was gin.
Williams’ conclusion is that we shouldn’t think that the fact that we would have an explanation for why Jim would drink the stuff entails that Jim would have a reason to do so. In fact, according to Williams, even though he believes that the stuff is gin, Jim does not have a reason to drink it. This requires that Williams amend his view. He does so by claiming that an element, d, of an agent’s motivational set will not provide a reason to the agent if d is based on a false belief (see Williams, 293).
Williams is right, in my view, that Jim does not have a reason to drink the stuff in the bottle despite the fact that he has a desire to drink it.  However, I think that the example poses a bigger problem for his view than he realized. The problem is that it is difficult to square the claim that desires that are based on false beliefs do not generate reasons with the view that desires generate reasons.
Williams’ view seems to be that some desires generate reasons and some do not. But, having asserted that all reasons depend, for their existence, on desires, his view provides no basis for claiming that some desires do not generate reasons. Let’s call the capacity to generate reasons, which, on Williams’ view, at least some desires have, “reason-generating power” (or “rg-power” for short). On Williams’ view desires have rg-power unless those desires that are based on false beliefs. But what is it about this class of desires that makes them impotent to generate reasons? Why would a false belief interfere with a desire’s rg-power? Why does a desire lose its reason-generating capacity just because it is based on a false belief? Williams provides no answer.
This example does not refute DBR, but despite Williams response, I think it should cast some doubt on the thesis. Unless we have some basis for thinking that desires that are based on false beliefs cannot generate reasons, the Gin/Petrol example suggests that desires do not generate reasons.
(2) Agony
This example is inspired by Parfit’s Agony Argument.[3]
Suppose Sally want to experience excruciating pain. She realizes that stabbing herself in the eye with a metal fork will satisfy this desire. Does Sally therefore have a reason to stab herself in the eye with a fork? I don’t think she does. The fact that Sally will experience horrendous and needless suffering is a reason for her to not stab herself in the eye with a fork regardless of her desires.
Suppose that Ryan does not have a desire to experience excruciating pain but also does not want to avoid it. Does Ryan have a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a metal fork? On a view according to which an agent only has reasons to engage in actions that satisfy his desires, Ryan does not have such a reason. This is implausible. Ryan has a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a fork (and to avoid any activity that will cause horrible suffering) regardless of whether he has any desire to avoid pain/agony.
(3) Radio
This example is an adaptation of one originally provided by Warren Quinn in his paper, “Putting Rationality in its Place.” [4]
Suppose you have a friend, Tom, who engages in the following behavior: When Tom enters a room with a radio that is turned off, he immediately turns the radio on. He does not tune the radio to a specific station; he seems content merely to have the radio on, even if it is playing static. Tom does this consistently. When you ask him why he does this, he says that he wants radios to be turned on. He does not cite a desire to hear music or sound of any kind. He merely says that he wants that radios are turned on.
Does the presence of such a desire make Tom’s behavior reasonable?  I think it is natural to say that Tom’s answer to the question of why he is always turning on radios makes his behavior seems even more unreasonable since the desire itself is irrational. Quinn’s point, I take it, is that the mere presence of this desire cannot give Tom a reason for turning on radios. What would rationalize Tom’s behavior, according to Quinn, is Tom’s belief that by turning on radios, he is achieving something good. If Tom was turning on the radio to listen to good music or to hear the news, this would make his behavior reasonable. But the mere presence of a desire that radios be turned on does nothing to make this action reasonable.
 
These three examples, taken together, cast a great deal of doubt on the DBR thesis. I will not claim that they effectively refute the thesis, but merely that they strongly suggest that it is false. There are many other arguments against DBR. If you are interested, I highly recommend Jonathan Dancy’s book, Practical Reality, which mounts a sustained criticism of DBR.
Let me return, briefly, to the Pizza example. If we reject DBR, how are we to account for Sue’s reasons? More importantly, if we reject DBR, how are we to account for the fact that Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but a person who has no desire for pizza (apparently) does not have such a reason?
Here is my answer: Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but this reason is not generated by and does not depend on her desire to have a pizza delivered to her home. What gives Sue a reason to call Pizza Yurt, I believe, is the following collection of facts: Sue is hungry, eating pizza is a good way of satisfying that hunger, Sue likes the taste of pizza, and calling Pizza Yurt is an efficient way of getting a pizza delivered to her home. What about those who lack a reason to call for delivery? For such people, it (currently) will not be good to have a pizza. Either such people are not currently hunger or do not enjoy the taste of pizza or else having a pizza delivered would in some other way be bad.
What reasons we have depends only on what is good and what is bad. It does not depend on our desires.
 


[1] Hume, D. A Treatise of Human Nature (2.3.3.6)
[2] Williams B., “Internal and External Reasons” reprinted in Shafer-Landau and Cuneo (eds.) Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).
[3] In Parfit, D. On What Matters, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). See pp. 73-82 for Parfit’s Agony Argument.
[4] Quinn, W. “Putting Rationality in its Place” in his Morality and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
 

bookmark_borderThe sense in which pain is objectively bad

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 
It is not uncommon for defenders of the objectivity of moral value to point to the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain. But it is also not uncommon that the claims that pleasure is objectively good and pain is objectively bad to be ambiguous and thus misunderstood (see, for example, this Twitter thread from Sam Harris and this video response to Harris’s argument). I think such ambiguity and misunderstanding can be avoided if we are careful and so I want to carefully explain the sense in which pleasure can be thought to be objectively good and pain objectively bad.
Good, Bad, and Reasons
The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do not have single meanings; they can be used in several distinct ways to indicate different things. For example, we might say that some object is good in the sense that it satisfies some set of criteria, as when we say of a particular bloom on a rose bush that it is a good specimen of its variety. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ can also be used to merely express one’s own approval or disapproval, as for example when we say something like “This wine isn’t very good” merely as a means of expressing our dissatisfaction with the selection. But neither of these senses has any direct relevance to morality. The morally significant sense of these terms is normative in character. The normative sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is equivalent to what Derek Parfit calls the reason-implying sense. In this sense, something is good when there are reasons to want it, pursue it, preserve it, etc.; something is bad when there are reasons to want that it not occur, to avoid it, etc. A more careful account of what Parfit means by good and bad in the reason-implying sense is as follows:
To say that something Φ (an object, event, state of affairs, state of mind, etc.) is good in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond positively to Φ (i.e, to want that Φ occur, to try to bring Φ about, to preserve Φ, to choose Φ, etc.).  To say that something Φ is bad in the reasons-implying sense is to say that something about the nature of Φ gives us reasons to respond negatively to Φ (i.e., to want that Φ not occur, to try to prevent it from coming about, to try to eliminate it, to avoid it, etc.). [Parfit discusses this sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in volume one of On What Matters (see esp. pp 38-42).]
It is in this sense that pleasure is good and pain is bad. The nature of pleasure gives us reasons to pursue it and to want that it occur. The nature of pain gives us reasons to avoid it and want that it not occur. Importantly, this does not imply that we can never have reasons to avoid pleasure and want that it not occur or reasons to pursue pain and want that it occur. This is because something can have both intrinsic value and instrumental value. Something is intrinsically good when we have reasons to want it for its own sake. Something is instrumentally good when we have reasons to want it, not for its own sake, but because of the things it brings about. Something is instrumentally bad when we have reasons to want that it not occur because of what it brings about. When we want pleasure, at least typically, we want it for its own sake. We don’t want pleasure, again typically, because of the effects that pleasure has; we want it just because of what it is. Since the nature of pleasure gives us reasons to want it for its own sake, pleasure is intrinsically good. Money, on the other hand, is good because it is useful, i.e., the goodness of money consists in the fact that with money we can acquire other things that are good. We have reasons to pursue money because it allows us to achieve these other good things.
The Badness of Pain
Pain is intrinsically bad. It is a bit odd to say that it is for its own sake that we want that pain not occur. Perhaps more intuitively, we can say that pain is intrinsically bad because its nature gives us reason to want the cessation of pain for its own sake. Nonetheless, at least in some circumstances, pain is instrumentally good. Pain plays an important role in the motivational architecture of biological creatures; it motivates us to avoid damage to our bodies. Because pain has this effect, we have reasons to want that pain occur. This is shown via the phenomenon of congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP). People born with this condition do not feel physical pain and as a result, many of them are seriously injured, some fatally, in childhood. This example shows that it is bad if a person cannot feel pain. So, due to the role that pain plays in protecting us from bodily harm, pain is instrumentally good. Notice that the proper conclusion here is that the nature of pain gives us reasons to not want to feel pain but that we also have reasons to want that we can feel pain. This is not a contradiction.
There are other reasons that we might want pain. Pain is sometimes an indication of healthy physical developments, as in the case of the pain associated with exercise. If you go running and experience no physical discomfort, then chances are good that you will not be making much progress toward your health goals. Intense or prolonged experiences of pain can also result in the release of endorphins into the body, which can induce a state of euphoria. When we want pain because of its association with progression toward our health goals or for the euphoric effects it leads to, we want pain not for its own sake but because of its effects. So, the fact that some people sometimes have reason to want pain does not conflict with the claim that the nature of pain gives us reason to want that it not occur. Notice that when pain is instrumentally good, our reasons are not to pursue pain for its own sake, but to pursue things that bring about or are associated with pain. When a runner goes for a long run pursuing a runner’s high, she is not pursuing pain for its own sake. What she wants, for its own sake, is the euphoria that accompanies the rush of endorphins.
Though the reasons run in opposite directions, there is no contradiction in saying that, in some circumstances, there are both reasons to pursue pain and reasons to avoid it. Think, by way of analogy, about making an important decision, for example, whether you should move across the country to take a new job. When you carefully consider what you should do, you will weigh the factors that count in favor of moving (higher salary, e.g., or a more rewarding position) against the factors that point in the opposite direction (not wanting to be far from friends and family, e.g.). So, we can have reasons for some course of action (or for having some desire) and reasons that count against that same course of action (or against having that same desire). The upshot is that there is no contradiction involved in claiming both that there are reasons to avoid pain and also that there are, in some circumstances, reasons to not avoid pain (and maybe even reason to pursue it). Nonetheless, it remains true that, since pain is intrinsically bad, we always have reasons to want that it not occur and to avoid it. It is just that, in some circumstances, these reasons are overridden by other reasons that we have to pursue things that are painful.
Is the badness of pain objective?
If the badness of pain is subjective, then the badness of pain constitutively depends on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of a subject or subjects. And if the badness of pain is objective, then it does not constitutively depend on the goals, interests, beliefs, desires, reactions or attitudes of subjects. To say that something, F, constitutively depends on X is to say that X at least partly constitutes F. In other words, part of what it is to be F is to be X. Suppose we think, plausibly, that our taste preferences are subjective. Then part of what it is for something to taste good is for a subject or subjects to have certain kinds of reactions, desires, or attitudes toward it. [Michael Huemer, whose work introduced me to this notion, has an excellent discussion of constitutive dependence (and how it differs from other kinds of dependence) in his book, Ethical Intuitionism, which I highly recommend.]  For the remainder of this article, when I talk about dependence, I will be talking about constitutive dependence.
Since we are talking about the reason-implying sense of ‘bad,’ if the badness of pain is subjective then the reason we have to want that pain not occur depends on the goals interests, beliefs, desires, or attitudes of subjects. Is this true? Let’s begin answering this question with the following observation: It is certainly not the case that the qualitative character of pain is subjective. By ‘qualitative character’ I mean to indicate the feeling of pain, considered in isolation of its causes, effects, or value. What I am saying is that the qualitative character of pain is completely independent of any person’s beliefs, desires, attitudes, interests, or judgments about it (or anything else, for that matter). When you stub your toe, you have an experience that has a certain qualitative feel to it. That experience, which we call pain, would exist even if no person (including yourself) had any beliefs, desires, attitudes, etc. about it. No person’s beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. in any way makes up or constitutes the experience. So, the experience is completely objective.
[A subtle complication. A painful experience is always an experience of a subject (it is my pain or your pain or her pain, etc.). But this does not make the existence of pain subjective in the relevant sense. This is because the conscious experiences of a subject are still objective in the sense that they are not dependent on the goals, interests, desires, etc. of subjects. If I am in pain (or in pleasure, for that matter), my pain does not depend for its existence on the beliefs, desires, judgments, etc. of any subject. States of consciousness (which are states of subjects) are objective in the relevant sense.]
So what about the claim that pain is objectively bad in the reasons-implying sense?  If the badness of pain is subjective, this means that the reason that we have to want that pain not occur (and to avoid it, want it to cease, etc.) depends for its existence on the beliefs, desires, goals, interests, or judgments of subjects. This seems implausible. That I have a reason to avoid pain depends on the qualitative character of pain. The nature of the experience gives me a reason to want that it not occur. This seems true regardless of my (or anyone else’s) desires. Even if I wanted it to occur, for its own sake, this would not change the fact that I have reasons to want that it not occur.
Suppose you meet a person who tells you that he wants to jab a metal fork into his eyeball. When asked, he admits that he expects that doing so will cause tremendous pain and that he will intensely dislike the experience, but nonetheless he still wants to do it. Should we say about such a person that he has no reason to not stab himself in the eye with a metal fork? Should we say that he has a reason to stab himself? It seems to me that the answer to both questions is no. Since stabbing himself in the eye will cause intense pain, he has a strong reason to refrain from doing so. And he has this reason regardless of what he wants.
There are philosophers who argue that all reasons depend on desires (or desire-like mental states). Such philosophers defend a version of what I have previously referred to as the DBR (desire-based reasons) thesis. This is not the place for a full examination of the DBR thesis. In a future article, I will offer some reasons to think that the DBR thesis is false. For now, I will only note that, if DBR is true, then we only have reasons to avoid pain if we have some desire the satisfaction of which requires (or is furthered by) our avoidance of pain. If DBR is true, we have no reason to avoid pain for its own sake.
One final point: The claim that goodness and badness in the reason-implying sense (which is the morally relevant sense) are objective is just the claim that there are reasons to respond positively to pleasure (by wanting that it occur, pursuing it, etc.) and reasons to respond negatively to pain (by wanting that it not occur, avoiding it, etc.) and that these reasons do not depend on the goals, interests, desires, beliefs, or judgments of any subject. The existence of such reasons does not seem to have any bizarre metaphysical or epistemological consequences.