Update to the previous post on Churchland and Fyfe

Alonzo Fyfe from Atheist Ethicist was kind enough to pen a clarifying post about the comment i left on his earlier post attacking Churchland (i was not defending her). If i can summarize all this in a three sentences paragraphs, i’ll be doing well:

Alonzo described Churchland’s claim that since the degree of monogamy in voles “(fuzzy little mole-like mammals)” appears to be dependant upon certain biological features it cannot be considered a moral issue. This Alonzo rightly countered with the objection that even if tendencies to violent behavior are linked to biology, we will still continue to deem them wrong. He then suggested a solution to Churchland’s mix up along the lines that we can come up with good reasons to influence the oxytocin levels in other people/voles in order to get them to do what we think they ought to do.

In my comment i countered that it seemed like Alonzo was simply pushing the moral dillema one step back and not solving the problem. I suggested we follow Hilary Putnam and admit that facts and values are fundamentally intertwined. However, i didn’t explain what i thought were the consequences of such a position.

In his comment to my comment and in his new post, Alonzo clarifies what he meant, shows that i was wrong in worrying that he was falling into an infinite regress of oughts and states his position – a coherence theory of the good and a harmony theory of desires – which is not far at all from my Putnam suggestion.

And now a little more meat. I like Alonzo’s coherence theory of the good because it doesn’t try to base all of morality on one single fundamental or transcendental principle, but is content to take all our oughts and simply try to fit them together. That is an eminently practical and useful approach that avoids the eerie and rather unnatural properties some ascribe to notions of the good. However, i am not so sure about how he links his desires with his oughts.

In this web of all desires, the more a desire comes into conflict (destroys harmony with) other desires, the more and the stronger the reasons that exist to act so as to inhibit that desire. At the same time, the more a desire tends to fulfill other desires, the more and the stronger the end-reasons are for promoting that desire.

There is no mystery as to why a person with a desire that P has an end-reason to influence the desires of others in this way. It is a part of the desire that P, where desires are the only reasons for action that exist, that it gives him an end-reason to seek harmonious desires in others.

(Now a standard objection to desire-ethics (‘emotivism’ is the terminus technicus) is that some desires are just plain wrong. Of course, Alonzo’s coherence theory disposes of this objection effortlessly: wrong desires are possible, but can also be shown to be so inasmuch as they cause too much disharmony/incoherence in the rest of our oughts/desires.)

Alonzo’s reduction of oughts to end-reasons that follow from desires seems fundamentalistic in another sense (perhaps a higher one?). Even if we are not looking for a foundational principle upon which to erect our ethics, we nevertheless have found a foundational concept with which to construct it. I have myself toyed with the idea of reducing ethics to a theory of ‘what we want’, which is not very different from what i am objecting to here – except that it doesn’t sound as emotional as the desire version. So i am in effect here also objecting to myself.

Could we not perhaps expand the coherence theory and make it a coherence theory of ethical theories? We could then claim that all the ethical theories (the deontological, utilitarian, emotivist, virtue, etc.) are simply rules of thumb that apply in different situations and from differing perspectives, but that should all in the end be coherent with one another. This way we would have a theory that eschews both principal and conceptual foundations but remains robust thanks to the coherence structure.

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One Comment to “Update to the previous post on Churchland and Fyfe”

  1. Well, a slight technical point. ‘Emotivism’ is not the terminus technicus, because emotivism is a non-cognitivist theory and what I defend is fully cognitive. Propositions describing relationships between desires and other desires are truth-bearing propositions. They are not merely expressions of emotion.

    As for how to link desires to oughts, you are the third person to bring that issue up in a few days. So, i’ll be writing on that in the near future.

    By the way, thanks for the analysis. I enjoyed the read, and I like trying to figure out if I can answer questions such as this.

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