The presented the first draft of this post as an answer to an anonymous comment to yesterday’s post. I have since decided that an expanded answer should be given a more prominent place in this blog to help explain how desire utilitarianism works.
So your argument is that it is absurd to suppose, in any given instance, that it can be determined whether one act will fulfill more desires than another…
Actually, my position is that it does not matter whether or not this supposition is absurd. My position is that an agent can do very little with this information regardless of how easy it may be to come by.
People always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires, given their beliefs. They always seek to act to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires; however, false or incomplete beliefs may prevent them from accomplishing their goal.
This does not imply that everybody is selfish. A person may well devote his whole life to doing others, and do so because he wants nothing more than to see others safe and happy. The claim that he acts only on his own desires is the claim that only his brain is connected to his muscles in the right way to cause action, and no action can be properly called “his” if it did not originate in his brain, among his desires.
Such a person can have perfect knowledge as to which act will fulfill more desires overall than any other. However, he will still act so as to as to fulfill only the more and the stronger of his own desires. This knowledge is important only to the degree that one of his desires is a desire to do that act that fulfills the most desires. A person can have such a desire, but it will always be only one small desire among many, often outweighed by other concerns.
Now, I take this and I add the principle ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’ By the rules of logic, this implies that ‘cannot’ implies ‘it is not the case that one ought’. This, in turn, proves that the proposition, “A person ought to do that act that fulfills the most desires regardless of whose they are,” is often, if not always, false.
Others often interpret me as claiming that people ought always to maximize desire fulfillment. Here, once again, is my proof (which seems quite solid as far as I can tell) that this proposition is false.
In fact, I hold that this argument is sufficient to defeat all moral theories that focus on actions, rather than desires, as the ultimate object of moral attention, such as the theory that we ought to maximize happiness. No action-based theory can stand up to the fact that people will always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires.
…but that nonetheless humans are blessed with a knowledge of what sorts of things tend to fulfill more desires than others across an indefinite number of cases.
For example, I have an aversion to pain. I think that it is quite reasonable to infer that if everybody else had an aversion to causing pain, that it is far less likely that they will act so as to cause me pain, and my desire to avoid pain will be better fulfilled. At the same time, I think it is quite reasonable to believe that if I was placed in a community of individuals with a particularly strong desire to cause pain, that my desire to avoid pain will likely often be thwarted.
It is not at all uncommon to be able to predict the results of a large number of events where any one event is difficult to predict. For example, I cannot say with much precision where I will be 10 years from now. However, I hold that I can identify what the center of population will be for the United States 10 years from now, and have a 99.9% chance of being right within a very small range. Barring a catastrophe such as a meteor strike, or bringing in a new or allowing the secession of a state (both extremely unlikely), the center of population is not likely to move more than a few kilometers from its current location.
So it is that any particular act of causing pain may bring less pain in the long run, it is still reasonable to trust my desire to avoid pain to a community adverse to causing pain, than a community that is fond of causing pain.
The same is true for my desire to live – and those desires that are best fulfilled by my continuing to live (which is a substantial portion of my strongest desires). I have reason to believe that these desires are better fulfilled in a community of people with an aversion to killing, than in a community of individuals who love to kill.
The question then becomes, “Is there anything I can do to cause others to have a stronger aversion to killing, or to causing pain?”
Yes. Clearly, our desires are molded by our experiences. I have the ability to provide others with experiences whereby they may acquire an aversion to causing pain or killing others. I can do this, in part, by using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Giving experiences of praise and reward to those who refuse to cause pain or to kill, and giving experiences of condemnation and punishment to those who cause pain or kill, will generally promote an aversion to causing pain and killing in others. An individual’s desires can be affected even when he is not the one receiving the praise or the condemnation. The praise or condemnation of one person can serve as an example for others.
Consequently, I have this blog – a medium for creating experiences of praise and condemnation and for advocating reward and punishment in the hopes of promoting desire-fulfilling desires and inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.
Now, if I give the situation a bit of thought, I realize that promoting an aversion to killing may not be the safest society for me to live in. If my neighbors and I all had a complete aversion to killing, we would be at the mercy of any tyrant who has no such aversion. Therefore, promoting an aversion to killing except in self-defense (or an aversion to killing anybody who is not willing to initiate deadly violence against another) would be better than a simple aversion to killing. Consequently, I bring the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear on creating this aversion within society instead.
Just as I have reason to promote an aversion to killing and to causing pain in others, they have reason to promote in me an aversion to killing and to causing pain. So, as I act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of my own desires, those desires will likely include a growing aversion to killing and to causing pain. This means an aversion to encouraging others to kill and to cause pain, and an even stronger desire to promote in others an aversion to killing and causing pain.
Notice that I have not said anything that contradicts the initial assumption that each person acts so as to fulfill his own desires. Each person’s aversion to pain directly motivates the social customs for creating an aversion to causing pain. Each person’s desires that would be thwarted upon death motivate the social customs for creating a social aversion to killing. Their natural affection for the welfare of their children motivates them to cause in others a particularly strong aversion to causing harm to children and desire to protect children from harm. Their acquired desire not to cause pain or to kill and their desire to protect children from harm further motivates them to increase the strength of these desires in others.
Each Post I Write
So it is that with each post I write (with the exception of ‘theory’ posts such as this one), I seek to apply condemnation to those who have desire-thwarting desires, and praise at those who exhibit desire-fulfilling desires.
I also seek to better determine which is which. It is a matter of objective fact whether a particular desire is desire-thwarting or desire-fulfilling. I put effort into explaining why I put particular desires (such as the affection for a government running under a system of checks and balances) where I do. In doing so, I try to explain to others why they have reason to direct their praise or condemnation at these same targets (e.g., at those who seek to create a government without a system of checks and balances over arbitrary executive authority).
Hopefully, together, we can work to promote a stronger desire for truth and aversion to deception, desire for fair trials and aversion to show trials, desire for a system of government with checks and balances and aversion to arbitrary and unchecked executive power, and similar aversions and desires. We can do this through a system of giving praise and condemnation where it is due, and explaining why it is the case that praise or condemnation is due in these particular circumstances.
So, tomorrow, I think I will explain why certain Supreme Court Justices (the minority in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld) do not have the appropriate aversion to arbitrary executive power, why their claims that their position will provide better for our security are false, and why they, and, in particular, those who cheer and support them, are deserving of condemnation.