Today’s discussion of moral theory is inspired by a posting in a thread called “Sam Harris On Morality” at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board.
Sure, a saying like the one above can be a great foundation to build a coherent system of morality. But what's objective about choosing that one? Why not "Might makes right.", or "God's Will be done.", or something else? Anything else? The possibilities are practically endless. If the choosing of a moral foundation is subjective, the moral system built on it must be subjective as well, as much as we'd like to pretend otherwise.
I have encountered this argument quite often. Typically, it takes the form, “Why should I choose to be a desire-utilitarian? Why can’t I choose to be something else?”
My answer is that seeing moral theory as a “choice” in this sense requires a set of questionable or question-begging assumptions.
This question invites us to view ‘choosing’ a moral theory to be like ‘choosing’ what movie to go to. Naturally, people choose their movies based on individual tastes. One person may choose a romantic comedy, while another may choose an action adventure. The same person may choose one type of movie one week and a different type of movie a different week, to fit his changing mood. The important point about making such choices is that they depend on the mood of the chooser. There is no ‘objectively right’ choice except that choice that fits the mood of the user.
I would like to compare this to a different model for choice – the choice one uses to pick a theory. Consider, for example, that there are two theories as to the origin of mankind. One theory suggests billions of years of evolution. The other theory suggests the actions of a God something less than 10,000 years ago. How do we choose?
We choose according to which theory best fits the evidence. Really? This may be a great foundation for a coherent system of scientific investigation, but what is objective about choosing that one? Why not “the theory that best conforms to what is written into my Holy Book?” What about “the theory that postulates the most exotic entities?” The possibilities are endless. Have I now proved that science is subjective?
In arguing about whether morality is objective or not, my real purpose has always been to argue that it is as objective as science. Questions about the objectivity of science then become irrelevant. So, I do not need to answer these questions about science. I only need to show that these questions do not generate any special problem for moral theories. We can find them everywhere.
I can give an objective reason to throw out any divine command option – because no God exist and all claims that a particular action is favored by God is (objectively) false. I can also give an objective reason to throw out any intrinsic value option – because intrinsic values do not exist and all claims that a particular action has intrinsic merit is false. I can even give an objective reason for throwing out common subjectivist morality – because it requires an inference from one person’s sentiments to what others ought or ought not to do that is invalid.
As for the greatest happiness principle, I can give objective reason to reject that as well.
The greatest happiness principle either says that happiness is the only reason for action that exists; or it says that other reasons for action exist, but happiness is the only one worthy of consideration.
The second option is incoherent – saying, in effect, ‘other reasons for action exist that are not reasons for action.”
(1) There is no more reason to assert that we have one value from which all other values are derived than there is to assert that we have one belief from which all other beliefs are derived.
(2) Happiness theory cannot explain options in which people report that they would sacrifice happiness.
(3) Happiness theory cannot explain how two people with identical beliefs can still perform different intentional actions without adding a third and so-far unexplained variable.
(4) Happiness theory cannot account for peoples’ refusal to enter an experience machine.
(5) Happiness theory cannot account for the incommensurability of value – the sense of loss associated with “the road not taken.”
As the referenced posts argue, desire fulfillment theory can handle all five of these issues. Desire fulfillment theory says that a desire for happiness is one of the reasons for action that exists – and one of the things that one can point to in order to recommend for or against doing some action.
The greatest happiness principle requires the assumption that happiness is the only reason for action that exists, and this turns out to be objectively false.
Might makes right turns out to have a similar problem. ‘Might’ can give a person the power to ignore certain reasons for intentional action that exist (particularly those that exist on the part of the victims). However, ‘might’ does not change the fact that those reasons for action do exist. Regardless of how powerful the slave owner becomes, reasons for intentional action exists for overturning the institution of slavery – and will continue to exist, so long as there are slaves. “Might makes right” tells us to live in an imaginary world in which we pretend that a set of real-world reasons for action do not exist.
Why choose desire utilitarianism?
This was the original question.
Desire utilitarianism does not ask that anybody chooses anything. It is a theory about how choices are to be made – that they depend on reasons for action that exist and that reasons for action that do not exist are not reasons for action that are relevant to any choice.
Desire utilitarianism states that choices must consider the more and the stronger of the reasons for intentional action that exist, that desires are the only reasons for intentional action that exist, that desires are propositional attitudes – mental states that identify a proposition as something that is to be made or kept true, and that desires provide reasons for action for bringing about particular states of affairs in which a proposition is true to a degree proportional to the strength of the desire.
I might be wrong in any of these claims – but these are claims about the structure of the universe in which we live. These are claims about what exists and what does not exist, and about how they work. As such, they stand or fall in the same way that claims made in any scientific theory stands or falls.
Mostly, I would like to know where there is anything in this theory that leaves anything up to arbitrary choice. Furthermore, I would like to know how anybody can make a choice except by citing “reasons for action that exist” for making that choice, or what evidence exists for “reasons for action that exist” other than (or in addition to) desires.