what is desert-basis and how does it work?

[CONTINUING A BIT OF THE MTSP ZOOM DISCUSSION OF CH. 1 OF SHER’S DESERT]

I had developed a view of desert-basis (the fact or facts in virtue of which a deserver deserves something) and how it determines desert that went like this: (a) true desert basis, at least in a certain important sense, is the full set of conditions that make it such that the deserver deserves something, (b) in the standard formula (from Kleinig, adopted by Sher), “M deserves X for A” (or “M deserves X because of A”), the ‘for A’ (or ‘because A’) part functions like ‘the cause’ does in our language specifying the cause of events, viz., by picking out a salient (cognitively, pragmatically, conversationally salient) element from the full set of determiners that stands in for the full set, (c) this is evidenced by the case of my wronging you making it such that you deserve an apology because the cited property is different from the sorts usually cited (and not, not in the relevant sense of ‘property’, a property of the deserver, the thing that the standard view takes to be the sole or special determiner). I now think that all of this is basically wrong: [a] if true misses the point, [b] is flat-out wrong, and [c] is also wrong.

In the Zoom discussion of Sher’s chs. 1-2 with David, Irfan and Roderick, I presented this view, leading off with presenting [c] and framing it as a counterexample to the standard view that the desert-basis is always (or has to be) a property of the deserver (boom! counterexample! catnip for philosophers…). But Roderick (and Irfan earlier, in correspondence) insisted that, taken literally and using a standard philosophical sense of ‘property of an individual’, my counterexample simply fails. The property of your being wronged by me is a property of you. Anticipating this move, my counter-move was to fall back on some more-restricted idea of what a property of an individual is. But I never really fleshed that out. And here, I think, is what my partially-unconscious intuition-driving thought-process was: the property of being wronged by me is unlike other common desert-bases like (roughly) having some desirable property, achieving something or being virtuous. This is correct, but the standard view that I was attacking need not (and perhaps typically does not) deny this. Ultimately, my self-diagnosis here is something that sometimes worries me about how people theorize about desert: I got fixed in my mind one important or paradigmatic sort of desert and desert-basis (roughly, desert on the accomplishment/reward model) and confused it with the entire phenomenon. So my whole line here is a total flop — made worse by attempting the old definitive-counterexample mic-drop. Ugh. Sort of embarrassing.

In a way, I made a similar mistake regarding [b]. Sometimes our language of cause or determination works in the way that I was fixed on (as with ‘the cause’ being used to specify an element of the total cause that is salient to us in some context, thus in part reflecting facts about us, not just facts about the world) — but not always. Sometimes, instead, it is used to reference things that fill particular, metaphysically distinctive determining roles. (David strongly pressed a view like this, in distinguishing metaphysically distinct difference-makers and background conditions. Though I’m skeptical about this precise distinction doing the right work, especially in the fire/match-striking/oxygen-present case, I had no ready answer for this objection; and this, as much or more than Roderick’s and Irfan’s objections to my [a], prompted this post.) For example, if I say that being morally virtuous makes someone admirable, I seem to be specifying a special metaphysical role for those features in determining the admirability. This role need not be, and in this case probably is not, a total determiner (as is commonly claimed, I think falsely, regarding the supervenience of the normative on the descriptive). If this is right, and if desert is like admirability, then my analogy with ‘the cause’ sorts of causal expressions would be all wet. 

As would be my metaphysics of the determination relationship, what I assert in [a]: in addition to the total set of determination conditions, there is a special metaphysical role (and this is what the language of ‘for A’ and of desert-basis would be getting at). In our discussion, I gestured toward allowing such a special role, as a free-standing thesis, suggesting that being-a-human or being-a-moral-patient or some such, rather than being-wronged-by-me might play a special determining role, a role similar to that of desirable features or accomplishments in other, perhaps more paradigmatic, cases of desert. That is all fine and well in one respect, but it just doubles down on the error of taking all cases of desert to fit the accomplishment/reward model. Perhaps a nice stroke, but still swimming in the wrong direction. 

And guess what? All along, my best guess about being deserving has been that it is very much like being admirable! So I’m just going to switch sides on the metaphysics of desert-basis to line myself up with my tentative view of the nature of desert. But there is substantive work to do here: just what is the special determining role (beyond the formal characterization given)? Here is what I think now. Consider being admirable. Being virtuous is what is specified as (i) the input or response-demanding condition (ii) for a standard that (iii) exists, (iv) applies and (v) is (or functions) normatively. I suspect that these standards are naturalistically-kosher proper-functional (or functional-aim) standards that are hooked up to our psychologies (most especially to our motivations) in the right way. In any case, for desert, it might go like this: for being-wronged type (or more generally wronging-related type) desert, the deserver having been wronged plays the input or response-demanding role for a standard that demands a certain output. I suspect that the relevant (functional-cum-normative) standard applies to everyone and demands some positive attitude-type response to the deserver getting what she deserves (you getting your apology from me). 

All of this requires a ton more specification and defense. But I think I’m on the right track now, regarding desert-basis, the metaphysics of how desert-determination goes and how the relevant bits of language function in picking this out. Much thanks to y’all for challenging my all-too-confident assertions of [a], [b] and [c]. I was wandering down the wrong road.

8 thoughts on “what is desert-basis and how does it work?

  1. I actually found this “autobiography of error” post very helpful, despite the fact that it wasn’t my error. It nicely models how to work through an error. It’s actually something I do a lot at work–commit errors, then sit down and troubleshoot my own thinking by laboriously writing it all out. My co-workers find it daft.

    Anyway, I agree with your self-critique, but there are still some elements of it I find unclear–elements of your original thought (and the remnants of it that remain). On desert bases, you say:

    And here, I think, is what my partially-unconscious intuition-driving thought-process was: the property of being wronged by me is unlike other common desert-bases like (roughly) having some desirable property, achieving something or being virtuous.

    I had two questions about this, one of which, I guess, you’ve already answered. One was: why would you think that being-wronged is unlike other desert-bases? Your first line answer is that you were over-generalizing from cases like achievement or virtue, taking those cases to be exhaustive, and regarding those desert bases as ontologically different from being victimized.

    I get that as a first-line response, but I guess my follow-up question is: why think that? In other words, you felt the need to employ a narrower conception of property, intended to exclude the broad sense that makes “being victimized” a property. But what drove you to think that there was so clear-cut an ontological difference in the first place?

    I ask because I hadn’t really thought of myself as deploying any philosophically sophisticated move, or philosophically special sense of “property,” when I insisted that “being-victimized” is a property of the victim. I took it as nearly self-evident that both being-victimized and being-virtuous are properties of the agent, ontologically on par with each other. (It could be that my philosophical training has brainwashed me in this respect.) The only thing that seems to differentiate achievement from victimization is that the first is active and the second is passive. Other than that, why would anyone draw a sharp ontological distinction between the two categories?

    My deep ulterior motive in asking this is that I regard the distinction you were implicitly drawing as a residual influence of Objectivism. Despite the fact that Objectivism has no real metaphysics to speak of, I think Objectivism systematically accords a privileged ontological status to “active properties” which it denies to “passive properties” of agents. Objectivism, in my view, is systematically confused on how to conceptualize the latter. Hence the absurd opening of IOE: “consciousness is an active process, not a passive state,” along with Rand’s inability to give a coherent account of “sensation” wherever she discusses it (a passive-yet-conscious state). I’m merely speculating here, but I wonder if this rings any bells for you.

    For years, I insisted on calling myself an Objectivist because though I rejected many common applications of Objectivist principles, and many “lower-level” principles (in politics, aesthetics), I held on to this David Kelley-inspired belief that there was nothing wrong with Objectivism that couldn’t be fixed by Objectivism, in other words, that Objectivism’s higher-order principles could correct its lower-level ones, even if the result was extremely heterodox by ordinary Objectivist standards. I’ve always been politically to the left of Objectivists, but I didn’t regard “left-leaning Objectivism” as a contradiction in terms. What really did it for me was re-reading IOE and “The Objectivist Ethics,” and realizing that that they were (or Objectivism was) systematically wrong at the highest levels (and so was I). When it occurred to me that Objectivism basically goes wrong from the first sentence of IOE, I was done.

    I have another query, on causation, but let me put that in a separate comment.

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    • I don’t think that particular Objectivist premise of privileging so-called “active” properties (of consciousness, of persons) was at work. As an aside, I think the interesting thing in this ballpark is things that happen (in consciousness, in persons) at the personal level but not necessarily the level of agency. Getting this right seems pretty important to getting normativity and rationality (and hence reasons) right.

      There were two things going on for me, I think, in reaching for a true version of a facially false premise. First, ‘you being wronged by me is not a property of you’ just had a vague ring of truth to it. My speculation was: pre-philosophical-training, there is a sense of ‘property of a person’ that refers, roughly, to some sort of non-relational or intrinsic properties of a person and hence does not include being acted upon by other persons (actually, I put this in terms of a particular sense of ‘property’, not ‘property of a person’, but the latter might be more plausible). I’m not sure if this is right, but it might be. Second, the desert-bases for wronging related and reward (for achievement or for having some desirable characteristic) related cases of desert are different and, plausibly, if you take the latter to be perfectly general (to subsume the former) then the property of you having been wronged by me gets the desert-base wrong (it is not anything you accomplish nor is it a desirable property of you). I think this is right. But neither really supports a criticism of the received view that desert-bases are always properties of deservers.

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  2. Here’s what you say on causation:

    Sometimes our language of cause or determination works in the way that I was fixed on (as with ‘the cause’ being used to specify an element of the total cause that is salient to us in some context, thus in part reflecting facts about us, not just facts about the world) — but not always. Sometimes, instead, it is used to reference things that fill particular, metaphysically distinctive determining roles. (David strongly pressed a view like this, in distinguishing metaphysically distinct difference-makers and background conditions. Though I’m skeptical about this precise distinction doing the right work, especially in the fire/match-striking/oxygen-present case, I had no ready answer for this objection; and this, as much or more than Roderick’s and Irfan’s objections to my [a], prompted this post.)

    I found your resistance to David’s criticism extremely puzzling. David basically took the words out of my mouth when he made that criticism. I was going to say exactly what he said.

    I guess what I find puzzling about your account of causation is that you seem to be reasoning as follows:

    (1) Either we adopt causal realism or we adopt causal anti-realism.
    (2) In specifying the cause, C, of some effect, E, if we don’t. identify C with the entire universe of determiners of E, then we are pushed to causal anti-realism.
    (3) But causal anti-realism is false; we must adopt causal realism.
    (4) Hence for any E, the cause of E is the full set of determiners of E.

    The rationale for (2) seems to be that the introduction of any pragmatic element entails anti-realism. Our only reasons for focusing on specific features of C rather than the full set of determiners is pragmatic; once we introduce pragmatic factors into the explanatory equation, we’ve abandoned causal realism, which is a no-no. Hence we must identify every cause with the full set of determining factors, including ones that have very little bearing on explanation.

    To me, the strange thing is that you insist on (2) with respect to causes but not effects. You have no trouble identifying effects on a pragmatic basis, and treating that as compatible with realism about effects. It’s not as though you say that if we identify the cause with the full set of determining factors, we likewise have to identify the effect with the entirety of the universe after the cause does its work. Your claim is that the cause of the lighting of a match is the full set of determining factors of the lighting. But why focus on the lighting or the match at all? Isn’t that a pragmatic factor? Why not just say that the total state of the universe determines its next state, and leave it at that? Forget matches and flames.

    The irony is that I think you’re abandoning a useful Objectivist insight that happens to be relevant here. The insight is that both (2) and the rationale for it are false. There’s no need to infer from “our explanations pick out explanatory factors relative to our interests” to “our explanations are merely pragmatic, hence require an abandonment of causal realism.” When it comes to visual perception, we happen to see middle-sized objects (middle sized, relative to us) for reasons that are (evolutionarily) explained by our interests as organisms. It doesn’t follow that we’re forced to adopt anti-realism about perception for that reason, as though the sheer introduction of pragmatic interests into the equation somehow entails anti-realism about the thing in question. Our pragmatic interests could just track reality, or track the truth, in certain cases.

    I think that’s true when it comes causation and explanation. When we diagnose a disease, or investigate a traffic accident or a computer failure or whatever, we’re picking out certain parts of the causal story at both ends, as regards causes and effects. We’re not pragmatically concerned with the rest, so we filter it out. But filtering things out on pragmatic grounds doesn’t entail that what we’re focused on isn’t real.

    That was one of Rand’s hobby-horses, and she was right about it. Her claim about “measurement omission” as the basis of concept-formation is relevant here. When you form a concept, you omit the measurements involved in doing so, but omitting them doesn’t imply that you’re treating them as literally non-existent. If I form the concept “desk,” I omit the differences between various desks and focus on what desks have in common as desks. But if I’m buying a desk, or moving one, I “re-introduce the measurements”: it matters what color the desk is, what shape it is, how big it is, how expensive it is, etc.. There’s no reason to think that my initial omission or my re-introduction requires anti-realism about desks. Mutatis mutandis, I’d say the same about causality and explanation.

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    • As a postscript to my comment: it does happen to be the case that if you read IOE very carefully, you’ll find Rand slipping into some odd constructivist language about concept formation. I can’t find it offhand, but I’m pretty sure it’s there. I regard those as lapses, not as indicative of anything deep. But regardless, I think the point I just made stands, independently of what’s going on under the surface in IOE.

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    • I took myself to be presenting (and agreeing with) the received view of the semantics of ‘the cause of event E’ (and the metaphysical upshots of this) — but not particularly arguing for it.

      I take the view not to be that ‘the cause’ does not refer to anything, but rather that it refers to a causal determining element that is salient to our interests (perhaps just to our understanding of why E happened — to explanation in the epistemic sense) that “stands in for” the totality of the causally determining elements (or the totality of proximate causally determining elements; the relevant set of things here is not the set of things that has to include God or the Big Bang, etc.). However, if we take ‘the cause’ to refer to conditions sufficient for the event to occur (i.e., the total cause), we are making an error analogous to the error of thinking that colors exist in objects (or rays of light), just as they naively appear to be, independently of us. If we take ‘the cause’ — or ‘red’ — to have this meaning, then the terms do fail to refer. We might put this in terms of anti-realism about “sufficient singular causes” or “intrinsic redness in objects” (or something similar), but I’m not sure putting things this way is super-helpful.

      I suppose a principled argument for this view would begin with a good, detailed account of how we use ‘the cause’ in various contexts. And then some careful mapping onto the correct general ontology and the bits of it that are particular to causal determination? And maybe some formal semantics for ‘the cause’? I accept the received view of the meaning/use of ‘the cause’ (and the metaphysical upshots) because of cases like this: the cause of the car accident could be either the sharp braking or that the road surface was wet. Suppose the relevant context is simply understanding why the accident happened. We might cite either the wet surface or the sharp braking, depending on which is most helpful to our understanding. And there might well be a fact of the matter in an intuitive sense: it might be a fact that the cause is the sharp breaking (because the sharp braking is a causal factor and because citing it is uniquely best in achieving understanding of why the accident happened).

      Maybe there are other, different cases and I overgeneralize from cases like these (and give too much weight to respected folks taking the truth of this view for granted)? That is certainly possible.

      If one accepts this standard view, one does not have to say that there are no important distinctions between types of causal factors. Perhaps there is a real, metaphysical distinction between causes and background conditions for their operation! If you substitute in ‘triggering causes’ or ’causes that directly produce the event’ for ’causes’, this metaphysical description becomes more concrete and more plausible to me. Applying this kind of distinction to the car accident, it makes perfect sense to say that the triggering or productive cause was the sharp breaking, while the wet road simply allowed for this factor to do its work (and in this sense is merely a “background condition” for the operation of the other factor). But that is consistent with the propriety of our citing the wet road as the cause relative to the aim of understanding why the accident happened (given the right sort of cognitive context).

      I realize that I have responded by saying more about the view rather than explicitly replying to or answering your specific questions or objections. That is because so much depends on how these issues are framed, what the right questions are, etc. My hope is that what I have had to say here provides sufficient materials for more explicit answers or replies.

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  3. Pingback: Need and Desert | Policy of Truth

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