Saturday, April 08, 2006

Desires and the Definition of "Good"

Old Business: Leaks

The news this week contained reports that Bush himself authorized that information be leaked from classified pre-war assessment of Iraq. His staff are insisting that these leaks were in the national interest. However, in light of this argument, I would like to resurrect a posting that I made on March 5 called "Subverting Democracy." It explained the moral implications of selective leaks. It forces news sources to try to somehow distinguish between leaks that the President wants to get out and those the President does not want to get out, with criminal penalties applied to those who get wrong.

Old Business: Wiretaps

My argument against wiretaps has never been that the government should not engage in wiretaps. It is that, without oversight, this power can easily be abused. The President can too easily claim that anybody who challenges his policies is a "suspected terrorist" and start an investigation.

Two news items this week relate to this issue.

First, in hearings before the Senate, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that the President can wiretap any American's communication without a warrant.

Second, Crooks and Liars put me onto a statement from a former AT&T Employee about NSA equipment installed at a telephone office.

Based on my understanding of the connections and equipment at issue, it appears the NSA is capable of conducting what amounts to vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the internet -- whether that be peoples' e-mail, web surfing or any other data.

So, the question comes up again, given that this group believes the President can do no wrong, and has already authorized torture until death, extraordinary rendition, imprisonment without trial, and deceived the country into a preplanned war, how much trust should we have that they are not abusing this power?

How ironic that an administration elected on a platform of returning morality to government does not know how to tell the difference between right and wrong.

New Business: Desires and the Definition of 'Good'"

I had a very nice discussion this week with the people over at at on desire utilitarianism. In the face of some very good questions I encountered there, I came up with ways of presenting the main points of desire utilitarianism that I had never used before. I thought it may be useful to bring them over here to give readers an idea of how I think.

Thwarting Desires

A reader there reported interpreting desire utilitarianism as saying that desire fulfillment must be consonant with the desires of others or at least not be at odds with the desires of others.

That is not the case. A desire can be at odds with the desires of others and still count as a good desire. The desire to punish wrongdoers, for example, certainly thwarts the desires of the wrongdoers who would be punished. Yet, if we were unwilling to punish wrongdoers, we would end up with more wrongdoers. Where "wrongdoing" itself is defined in terms of actions that fulfill bad (desire-thwarting) desires, we end up with more desire-thwarting, not less.

To understand what this means, imagine that you are sitting in front of a control panel with dials for all of society’s desires on it. On this control panel, there is a dial for the desire to torture children.

Clearly, if you take this dial and turn it up, you will be increasing desire-thwarting. Either the person with a desire to torture children will have his desire thwarted, or the child being tortured will have his desire thwarted. Either way, desires will be thwarted.

If, instead, you turn the desire to torture children down, there will be fewer desires thwarted. There will be fewer instances in which either a child is being tortured or a desire to torture children is being thwarted. The best setting we can have for "the desire to torture children" is zero.

The same applies to other necessary wrongs. If you turn the desire to have slaves up, then either the desires of the slave owner are being thwarted, or the desires of the slaves. If you turn this dial down, then fewer such incidents arise. The best setting for the "desire for slaves" to have is zero. This is also the best setting for the desire to execute Jews, the desire to rape, the desire to execute converts from Islam, and the aversion to homosexual marriage.

Now, on this control panel, there is a second dial for a desire that those who torture children be condemned/punished. This dial is linked to the dial for the desire to torture children. Turning up the desire to condemn/punish those who torture children has the effect of generating condemnation and punishment, which turns the desire to torture children down. Would-be child torturers acquire these social or cultural norms and end up acquiring more of an aversion to torturing children than they would otherwise have had. The net effect of increasing the desire that child torturers be condemned/punished is positive.

Again, the same applies to would-be slave owners, Nazis, rapists, and the like.

The fact is, each of us does have a control panel sitting in front of us. We have the capacity, each time we talk to others, to turn the dials of society’s desires up and down by how we affect others. In what we say, and in what we do, we have the ability to turn up the dial for "aversion to torture", "aversion to rendition", "aversion to unlimited executive power without judicial oversight", "aversion to executing converts from one's religion," "aversion to school rituals that teach children to view those not 'under God' as bad Americans," and the like.

In this blog, I try to do a little bit more. I also try to explain to my readers why it is that a particular dial ought to be turned up or down. If I am right, I hope that readers will walk away with an interest in helping turn that dial a little further.

However, in each case, I could be wrong. Turning a particular dial may have affects that I have not realized, or its effect may not be as strong as I have suggested. In these cases, I thank those readers who bring those instances to the surface through their comments.

The Unimportance of a Definition of Good

Commenters at also immediately raised the idea that problems in ethics were difficult/impossible to answer because so much depended on the definition of 'good'.

In fact, absolutely nothing depends on the definition of 'good'. Anybody who thinks so has already gotten off to a bad start, at which point it is no wonder that they find that going any further.

To see how unimportant the definition of 'good' is, consider this:

The International Astronomical Union is currently debating the meaning of the word 'planet'. It used to be the case that Pluto was considered a planet -- mostly because of its size. Now, we have discovered another body, larger than Pluto, further out. The problem is, this new body has more in common with the Kuiper Belt Objects than it does with planets. In fact, Pluto has more in common with KBOs than it does with planets. So, do we call this new body a 'planet' and say that we have ten planets? Or do we classify it (and Pluto) as KBOs and knock the number of planets down to eight?

However the IAU decides this issue, one thing is certain. There is no scientific test that one can perform to determine whether Pluto is a planet or not -- at least, not until after we have decided on what the term 'planet' means. The definition of a planet, whatever it turns out to be, will be the arbitrary and subjective choice of a group of people sitting around expressing their own subjective preferences, and the arbitrary and subjective decision by a bunch of scientists to go along with whatever the IAU says.

Yet, this has absolutely no effect on the fact that Astronomy is now and will remain a hard, objective science.

This is because, regardless of whether you call Pluto a planet or a KBO, it will not affect Pluto's size or its chemical composition. It will not cause Pluto to shift its orbit or to acquire more or fewer moons. Pluto will remain the same, no matter what it is called.

It is well within the realm of possibility that we might have two astronomers with different definitions of "planet" -- one with a definition that includes Pluto and one with a definition that excludes it. Yet, this will still have absolutely no effect on the objectivity of astronomy as a science. It will affect the way that each astronomer presents his results, but it will not affect the results.

As soon as somebody can understand why astronomers do not sweat the definition of the word 'planet', one can understand why an ethicist need not sweat the definition of the word 'good'. If somebody says, 'good' = 'happiness', or 'desire fulfillment', or 'species survival', or 'in accordance with God's will', it has no effect on what is objectively true of happiness, desire fulfillment, species survival, or God's will. The definition of 'good' does not matter. What is objectively true of happiness, desire fulfillment, species survival, God's will, and the like are what matter. These things do not change, no matter what we call them.

If somebody approaches a discussion of ethics with the mindset that the definition of 'good' is in any way significant – that ‘happiness’, for example, can somehow be made to change by giving it a different name, he starts off with a mistake. From this mistake, no further progress is possible. Such a person needs first to look at the definition of ‘good’ in the same light that astronomers look at the definition of ‘planet.’ Once he can do that, he can see that any talk about the definition of ‘good’ is really irrelevant. Those discussions are a waste of time.


Hume's Ghost said...

Heh. I just finished a post about the leaks where I quoted heavily from your Subverting Democracy post.

You're right. People seem to forget that the foundation of our country was based around the idea of NOT trusting people with power.

Anonymous said...

You say:

Turning up the desire to condemn/punish those who torture children has the effect of generating condemnation and punishment, which turns the desire to torture children down.

This looks like a huge unproved assumption to me. I agree that there's evidence that it turns actual child torturing *behavior* down. But how do you know that it isn't just leading to the frustration of the desires of the would-be child torturers? Lack of expression of the desire does not equal lack of the desire itself.

To take an obvious example, centuries of condemnation and punishment of several human sexual behaviors have not extinguished desires to engage in those behaviors; it has merely thwarted those desires with varying degrees of success.

Furthermore, even if desires can be suppressed this way, what prevents someone from turning this argument on its head? If society instead condemned children who refuse to be tortured, wouldn't that (by the same logic) lead children to no longer desire to avoid torture and the total amount of desire-thwarting would go down in the same way? Nearly all humans agree *intuitively* that this solution is worse than the other one, but can you explain why and justify it by reason?

It seems to me that you still have some work to do on distinguishing the desire to torture children from the desire to avoid being tortured. They are clearly incompatible; but is the incompatibility symmetric or asymmetric, and why? Why should society favor thwarting/suppressing one desire and satisfying the other over vice versa? The combination of two incompatible desires leads inevitably to one of them being thwarted; but even if you have the ability to turn them down, how do you choose which one to turn down?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You first ask a question of the form, "how do we know that P", and then come back with an example that assumes that we can know that P.

There are limits to the degree that social conditioning can strengthen or weaken certain desires. However, this is accounted for within the theory. This identifies the line to be drawn between 'evil' and 'illness'. Though, still, to count as an 'illness', a desire that deserves the name must still be one that thwarts other other desires. without this, the concept of 'illness' would be misplaced.

With respect to "turning the argument on its head", it is not logically possible to turn torture into something that does not thwart desires. Why is it not the case that taking a kid to a movie is 'torture'? Well, it could be if there were aspects of the game that sufficiently thwarted strong enough desires.

Theoretically, there may be instances where there are two incompatible desires, both of which are equally susceptible to social conditioning, and both are equally useful, where it would be an arbitrary choice as to which one to inhibit. It is theorietically possible, but real-world unlikely.

Anonymous said...

It seems you forget statements made about your own theory. You've made quite a point in posts lately explicitly rejecting the notion of any intrinsic good. This must mean, among other things, that there is nothing even in an act such as torture which "tends to thwart more desires than it fulfills" that makes it an appropriate candidate for condemnation, and thus by your own insitence provides an observer with no reason to accept your condemnation.

This is what happens when you take evaluative properties and redefine them to mean something purely descriptive. This is what I believe the commenter above is trying to point out: not that there might be circumstances when performing or refraining from an action would be of equal utility, but that even when something like torture is clearly desire-harmful there is no reason for anyone to prefer one outcome over another, except when as a contingent matter it intersects with desires that person already has. Ex hypothesi, there is no reason anyone who supports positions contrary to your own on immigration, wiretapping, or foreign policy to accept your criticisms as legitimate or authoritative, except insofar as you show that their views are contrary to their own prudential as opposed to "moral" interests.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

There is no such thing as intrinsic value means that there is no way that something can have value "in itself" -- independent of its relation to other things.

This does not prevent us from inventing words that identify specific extrinsic relationships. "Torture", by definition, refers to states that thwart very strong desires of the person being tortured. This is not an 'intrinsic value' claim. This is a 'definition of torture' claim.

Now, your statement about "provides an observer with no reason" is problematic.

What is typically meant, in a moral context, by "providing one with a reason" is to provide somebody with motivation. The only type of motivational force that exists is desire. So, we end up with a claim about what provides a person with a desire.

Indeed, you allude to that interpretation with your claim, "no reason for anybody to prefer" -- or "desire."

Desire utilitarianism holds that no set of factual propositions entails a desire. There is no set of fact statements that can be given to a person that entails that the agent's desires must change in any way.

Reason does not alter desires. So, any interpretation of desire utilitarianism as a theory that claims to identify a propositions that can be known through reason that entails a change in desires does not understand desire utilitarianism.

The only way to appeal to a person's motivational states is to either (1) appeal to the desires he already has, or (2) alter his desires.

You have spoken of the first option. A person with a desire to torture children is going to continue to have a desire to torture children regardless of any set of facts that I may give that person. This is true.

However, there is also option (2) -- to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment (rather than reason) to change a person's desires. Moral claims are not to be understood as claims of the form, "You do not wish to do this." They are claims of the form "People in society have reason to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to inhibit the tendency of people to wish to do this."

Indeed, when a person says, "I did nothing wrong," this is how his claim is commonly interpreted. He is not saying, "I had no reason not to torture the child." He is saying, "You have no reason to use your tools of condemnation and punishment against people such as me."

It is also consistent with the fact that when a parent scolds a child, for example, she does not say, "You are ashamed of yourself." She says, "You should be ashamed of yourself." The parent is not making a claim about how the act relates to the desires (reasons) the child already has. The parent is making a claim about how the act relates to the desires (reasons) that the child should have, and is using condemnation and punishment to affect a change in those desires.

Claiming that a moral argument must, through reason, alter the recipient's desires is a mistake. A moral argument is a justification of society's decision to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment against such a person.