Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ought and context

Brian has a nice little post on a paper written by MacFarlane and Kolodny on 'ought'. He favors a kind of contextualism on which the truth-conditions we assign to a speaker's assertive utterance of 'S ought to X' in a context is going to capture the idea that:

KD: What you oughta do is relative to what is known.

Whose knowledge do we make reference to in KD? That's where the trickiness comes in. Suppose some miner's went down into mine A when it starts to rain. They radio up to the ground and say:

(1) You ought to close off shaft A.

Doing so would ensure that the water all goes down into shaft B where the miners know that no one is working. Doing otherwise will lead to disaster. Meanwhile on the ground, the guy at the switchboard doesn't know where the miners are. It's not his fault. The radio transmission didn't make it out of the mine. The board that is supposed to tell him where the miners are has been stolen. He knows they have to be in mine A or mine B without knowing which. He can choose to close off A entirely or B entirely, but in doing so all of the water would wash into the other mine shaft killing any miner that happens to be working below. He can press a C button that will close off most of the opening and that should allow most of the miners to survive. Unfortunately, he knows enough of the water will wash down the shaft to drown one of the ten that are in the mines working.

There's a strong intuition that the guy ought to cut his losses. If the guy at the switchboard thinks it over, he'd think:

(2) I ought to press the C button rather than close off A or B completely.

While that seems true (or, not obviously incorrect), we have a problem that it seems some version of contextualism is well-suited to solve. We think (1) is true because relative to what is known to the miners that seems optimal. We think that (2) is true because relative to what the guy at the switches knows, pressing the C button will maximize expected utility.

Here's what bothers me. I haven't been reading enough of the literature on contextualism. I thought (but could be mistaken) that the standard contextualist attitude towards, say, 'knows' is something like this. There will be certain claims about the connection between, say, knowledge and the elimination of counterpossibilities that will be true in every context. So, in every context it will be true that knowledge that p requires eliminating all possibilities in which ~p. What varies from one context to the next is _not_ the connection between knowledge and counterpossibility elimination. What varies are the counterpossibilities that need elimination. In normal contexts, the possibility that I'm demonically deceived into thinking I have hands will not be a possibility I'll need to eliminate. In sceptical contexts, I'll have to eliminate that possibility.

If this is right, it suggests that while we might have variation from one context to the next in terms of whose knowledge matters (the miners' knowledge? God's knowledge? the switchboard operator's knowledge?), there will not be contexts in which KD is false. The link between doing what you oughta and knowing will remain constant. Yet, that seems false. I think there are situations in which we use 'ought' where the truth of knowledge ascriptions doesn't matter. If I'm right about that and right that KD will be one of the fixed points in a contextualist account of 'ought', the contextualist account is in trouble.

An Example
* Imperfect self-defense. In cases of imperfect self-defense, one uses force on another in the belief that such force is necessary for self-defense when the party you harm is not an aggressor (e.g., mistaking a jogger with a flashlight for a mugger with a club and macing the guy).

Cases of imperfect self-defense are often offered as cases in which the agent's actions were all things considered wrong, but excusable. The agent's ignorance is an excuse. I don't see any straightforward way of accommodating the claim that ignorance often constitutes an excuse with KD since we typically think that:

DW: What you oughta do is avoid acting against undefeated reasons, excusably or not.

Now, maybe I'm just wrong to think that the contextualist cannot accommodate this. Maybe DW is true in some contexts and KD is true in others. That seems very much unlike the proposals I've seen put forward for 'ought' and seem structurally quite different than the accounts put forward for 'knowledge'. I think Goldman is right that there is a use of 'knows' on which 'S knows p' is acceptable if S believes truly that p. However, I wouldn't have thought that someone who took the relevant form of acceptability to involve true assertion to say that we ought to say that in only some contexts knowledge requires evidence, justification, the absence of Gettiering conditions.

Maybe we have a case of ambiguity. Maybe there's an 'ought' that the contextualists are right about and an 'ought' that the invariantists are right about. I really don't like that idea for reasons Thomson adduces in Goodness and Advice. (Note to self: I should really rethink those reasons since that's the book that messed me up in the first place.)

I think we're not making much progress on this problem.


Michael said...

Hi Clayton,

I’m not a philosopher and I haven’t read any of the contextualist literature, so the following stems largely from my own ignorance. But perhaps you can explain what is wrong with the following seemingly straightforward analysis of the example you raise.

Distinguish, first, between what one objectively ought to do and what one subjectively ought to do. Someone objectively ought to do what would in fact bring about the best outcome in a given situation. Someone subjectively ought to do what they have most reason to believe would bring the best outcome in a given situation, based on what they know.

In your example, the guy at the switchboard objectively ought to close off shaft A, since that would bring about the best outcome. (Note that this has nothing to do with the fact that the miners know this, or that they attempted to communicate this fact to the switchboard guy; it is just an objective fact, given the situation.)

What the switchboard guy subjectively ought to do of course depends on other aspects of the moral theory, namely those which say which outcomes are best, and how probability ought to be weighed. But I think most people would say that the most rational thing for switchboard guy to do, given what he knows, would be to partially close off each shaft, since on average this will kill one person, whereas closing off either shaft entirely will on average kill off five people.

Why can’t we just say that the switchboard guy objectively ought to close off shaft A, and subjectively ought to close off each shaft partially? And likewise with the case of self-defense: objectively, one should not mace harmless joggers, but subjectively one ought to, provided one has ample reason to think they are a serious threat (and this explains why we would consider such an action excusable, although objectively incorrect.)

Perhaps one would object that this gives no answer to the question of what a person in such a situation ought to do simpliciter. I am not personally inclined to think that there is always something we ought to do simpliciter; but in any case it does not seem difficult to accommodate the desire that it be so. For instance, one kind of moral theory could say that what one ought to do (simpliciter) is what one ought to do subjectively, while what one ought to do ‘objectively’ is just what it would be the case that they ought to do if they had all the facts.

I have a feeling this doesn’t address your central concern, but I’d be curious to know where you think it falls short as an analysis.

Clayton said...

Hey Michael,

I think that the primary reason people resist this move is precisely the reason you mention at the end. It seems to deny that there's something one ought (no qualification) to do. I think the way Judith Thomson would put it is this. Suppose I'm called in to advise you and you're at the switchboard. If you ask 'What button should I push?' I'm not doing my job as an adviser if I say you ought-1 to do one thing but ought-2 to do some other thing. Surely there's just the one sense of ought that you had in mind when you asked the question 'What should I do?'

So, if I _can_ answer that question (and not some other question) then even if there's a whole lotta oughts out there, there's only one you were interested in and that's the one that my advice should address. Unfortunately, it seems that the ought you have in mind is the objective ought which suggests that the adviser would speak correctly only if the adviser advises you to do what would in fact bring about the best outcome. And that conflicts with the intuitive judgment that someone in the advisee's shoes ought to cut their losses. It's a mess, I tell you. The reason that I don't go in for the objective/subjective ought move is that I think it could only be a first step towards a solution. Proliferating the oughts, as it were, doesn't change the fact that there's one and only one ought in mind when you try to settle the question 'What ought I do?' either as an advisee or an adviser. Unfortunately, that ought seems both objective and subjective.

Michael said...

Hi Clayton,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my post. Once again, I’m not an ethicist by any means. My amateur interest in philosophy focuses mainly on metaphysics. But lately I’ve been reading Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, and some of what he says seems applicable here. Of course, I’m sure much has been said in the past quarter-century that goes beyond this, but that’s exactly what brings me to a blog such as yours – to get the more up-to-date view.

That said, let me try to be a little more clear about what I am trying to do with the subjective/objective distinction (I’m going to try to put this somewhat in terms of the contextualist framework you’re addressing, but I probably won’t do very well). It seems that your central hangup in the original post had to do with cases where a person’s actions seem wrong but excusable. The subjective/objective distinction, as introduced by Parfit, can address cases like this. The idea is that actions are ‘wrong’ in the sense of blameworthy only when the actor subjectively ought not to have done them.

To this extent the S/O distinction appears useful, since it can account for our intuition that people can act blamelessly even if it would have been better for them to act differently. In other words, the distinction seems to do justice to our sense that we can in fact simultaneously act rightly in one sense and wrongly in another – and that both of these sense are significant. But as you point out, there is what looks like a problem: the proliferation of the oughts. We want to think there’s just one thing that we ought to do in a situation – the example of the adviser brings this out.

As I said in my original post, I think this can be accommodated as well if we dispense with one of the oughts while retaining its explanatory power. The easiest way I can see to accomplish this is to get rid of the objective ought. I said before that someone objectively ought to do what brings the best outcome. But it’s not clear why we need to use the word “ought” here. Can’t we just say that taking a certain action would have a better outcome, and leave it at that? If so, then to analyze your case we would say something like “well, the switchboard guy ought to close off both shafts partially, although it would be better if he closed off shaft A entirely.” Is there something wrong with this?

So far we have not gotten to the main question of your post, which is: whose knowledge counts for determining what someone ought to do? It seems to me that the most straightforward answer to this is that what someone ought to do depends on their knowledge and no one else’s. So the switchboard guy, in his ignorance, ought – ought simplicter – to push button C, and that’s that.

I suppose you will object that we cannot possibly recommend this course of action, since according to *our* knowledge of the situation things will turn out worse if this recommendation is followed. But here I think we need to acknowledge that there is a difference between the denotic judgments we make and what we would do if we were actually in the position of making practical recommendations. That is: for us to say that the guy ought to take one course of action is not to say that we would actually recommend that course of action to him if we were in a position to do so. On the contrary, if we were in such a position then, knowing what we know, we would no doubt try to persuade him to close off shaft A.

Would we then be advising him to act as he ought not? No – or at least not if we were good advisers. If we were good advisers we would not simply make didactic recommendations. Rather, we would try to provide him with the additional information he needs to make the right decision. We would not say “listen, I’m telling you, you ought to close off shaft A”, for what practical use would what a statement have? Shouldn’t we better say “I just heard some screams, and I’m telling you, all the miners are in shaft A”? If we do this, and if the switchboard guy has enough reason to believe that what we say is right, then we will not have advised him to do what he ought not; rather, by giving him additional information we will have changed what he ought to do, and hence what he will do.

Sorry for the long post, and thanks again for your response.


Clayton said...

Hey Michael,

I think I agree with much of what you say---but I don't want to get rid of the objective ought. That's going to get its own post soon.