Where I Cram My Ideas

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Addressing some questions from last summer

It's time to clarify a few things. Last August, Rhology and Calvin had a few questions in response to my post "why be nice?"

Re: Rhology,

Rhology asked this: What reasons do we have to encourage a desire utilitarian outlook on morality?

My answer was "none." He asked why I even wrote the post, then. The thing is, someone does not need to believe desire utilitarianism describes morality, or have anything resembling a "desire utilitarian outlook" on things to be a good person (in desire utilitarian terms). Presumably most Christians look at things the same way - as long as you value brotherly love, kindness, charity etc, you're being a pretty decent person. Having different reasons for action don't give the actions themselves a different merit.

Rhology then wanted to know why we *should* encourage others to have desires that fulfill other desires. The answer is simple. We all have real-world reasons to do so. If I'm surrounded by people who have desire-fulfilling desires (these would include compassion, respect for human rights, love, some degree of patience etc), I am certainly living in an environment that is beneficial for me. I have many, many real-world reasons to bring about this sort of environment. It is better for me and for my family.

Rhology then had a big series of questions: "How do you define "bad" desires? How do you define the wellbeing of others? What does condemnation mean and what are the consequences? What *should* the consequences be? Why should they be so?"

These were in response to my discussion of an evil person (acting on a set of bad desires) who exhibits a strong disregard for the wellbeing of others.

Bad desires are those that tend to thwart the desires of others. Desires, like other objective entities, can be evaluated on their tendency to fulfill other desires. When we see which desires tend to fulfill or thwart the desires of others, we begin to learn which desires are good for people generally. Wellbeing is part of a continuum of fulfilled vs thwarted desires. Someone with a marked disrespect for the wellbeing of others would not hesitate to harm them (act in ways that thwart others' desires).

Condemnation involves verbal or physical action toward others. Were we alive at the time, we could express our condemnation of Hitler's actions by our public outcry and by international action - whether restricting trade or whatever - in order to adjust his desires. Condemnation and praise are tools we can use to discourage or encourage desires.

Re: Calvin,

Calvin asked, "So you’re basically agreeing that DU doesn’t account for no-strings-attached altruism? That’s what I want to know most of all: does DU hold that somebody is objectively right or wrong to do or not do any given action, irrespective of the material effects to him personally?"

I'm not quite sure what the first question is asking. Desire utilitarianism does hold that somebody is objectively right or wrong to do or not do any given action, irrespective of the material effects to him or her personally.

HOWEVER - desire utilitarianism does not hold that certain actions are always right/wrong. Right action is that which a person with good desires would do in that situation. In extreme circumstances, this could include killing, lying, etc. The objective part is desires. Desires are universally good or bad; what action an agent takes is good or bad by merit of which desire/s drove the action.

Calvin said, "the question remains: 'Fine, then I’m evil. If it works for me, why not be evil?' (keep in mind my example accounts for his being able to avoid great hardships and his being comfortable w/ lesser inconvenience)."

We run into this problem all the time. Unfortunately, everybody knows what happens when you try to reason a person out of this stance. Whether you're saying "God doesn't like what you're doing" or "you're causing real harm to others," you begin to realize that rationalizing won't give somebody a reason not to be evil. However, social condemnation (see above) DOES give an evil person reasons to stop being evil. Threatening Hitler with armed resistance if he takes action can beging to curb his evil actions.

Calvin: "No, DU certainly does not stand in stark opposition to moral relativism. I’ve yet to see a single reason why, in a secular existence, DU shouldn’t be regarded as simply one of several competing views."

Moral relativism, typically, is the view that "it's good if it's good for me." Desire utilitarianism strongly differs from this, because the theory claims that good and evil exist independent of individual preference. People who accept DU do not need to get others to adopt that understanding, of course - they simply have the same reasons for action to encourage good desires and discourage evil desires that everybody else has. Often, people who think "it's good if it's good for me" can justify operating on desires that are bad for others. Where this happens, those who accept the premises of desire utilitarianism - along with everybody else - have reasons to condemn those actions.

As any scientifically structured theory, desire utilitarianism should be regarded as one of several competing views! However, that does not rob it of its truth value.

Calvin: "Absent an absolute moral authority independent of fallible humans, the only meaning “wrong” can have (pertaining to conduct) would be “in opposition to X,” and “falling short of X’s standards,” which are only persuasive to those who have already accepted X."

I disagree. Wrong behavior is that which a bad person would do - a bad person being someone who operates on bad desires.

Calvin: "You still have the fact that certain conduct will always be counterproductive or dangerous to one’s own desires, and the ability to persuade as many people as possible of that fact. If that’s enough for you, go for it. I hope it bears fruit. But just be aware that one’s senses of self-interest (persuading them to practice “benign manipulation,” if you will) is not the same as morality."

People can easily confuse "desires" with "self-interest." This is not necessarily the case. I may have a desire to sacrifice all of my personal belongings and wealth for the benefit of others. In that case, my desires have little to do with self-interest. Sometimes our "interest" is in the wellbeing of our family and friends.

Regardless, there are bad desires (disregard for human rights, desires to take what belongs to others by force, desires to harm others generally) that we all have reasons to discourage in society. This is true whether you want to call it morality or not. However, as most competent English speakers consider morality to be a code of right and wrong behavior, desire utilitarianism is what you come to if you're looking for such a code based on objective reasons for action.

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