I received the call just the other day from somebody with a moral question. (By the way, I do take requests. Just send me an email with a question and I will try to give a reasoned answer.)
This caller asked about promises to dead people – particularly in the context of desire utilitarianism. Dead people have no desires, so breaking a promise to a dead person cannot thwart their desires. So, can we have any obligations to dead people?
First, I'm not inclined to accept any theory that suggests that there is some mysterious supernatural 'ought' force that reaches out of the grave that binds our actions to the wishes of the deceased. Those types of entities fall well within the classification that I call, "reasons for action that do not exist."
Morality has to confine itself to reasons for action that do exist -- and the only reasons for action that exist are desires.
Dead people have no desires. They have no pulse, they have no sense of humor, and they have no desires. So, they cannot be the source of reasons for action.
What does exist is the reasons for action of those who stay alive. Those of us who are alive have reason to support institutions that will execute certain of those wishes after we are dead. True, once we die, the desire to execute those wishes do not exist -- but there will be others (living) who will have an interest in maintaining the institution. Maintaining that institution requires executing those final wishes.
However, there are some caveats. If a person dies, leaving his estate to Al Quieda, so that it can better finance its terrorist activities, we do not have to execute the final wishes of this person. Our right to refuse the execution of these wishes in death is no different than our right to refuse the execution of these wishes in life. Bad wishes – evil wishes – are not wishes of the dead that the living have any reason to execute.
Wills, Trust, and Desire Utilitarianism
Before I go further, I would like to address a point of possible confusion. I have built this blog on desire utilitarianism. However, some people get desire utilitarianism confused with a different theory that could best be described as desire-fulfilling act utilitarianism.
(1) Desire-fulfilling act utilitarianism: Do that act that will fulfill the most desires.
(2) Desire utilitarianism: Do that act that a person with good desires would do, where good desires are those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others.
The type of 'desire utilitarianism' that I am talking about is the second type. I reject all 'act-utilitarian' theories regardless of whether they are ultimate founded on pleasure/pain, happiness/unhappiness, eudemonia (ancient Greek happiness), preference satisfaction, desire fulfillment, number of rocks sitting at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or any other consequence.
Note: In this, the start of my second year of blogging, I am confining detailed discussions of moral theory to the weekend posts. This weekend, I will discuss this distinction between two “desire utilitarian” conceptions in detail. I will also address the question, “Of all of the types of moral theories available, why should I choose desire utilitarianism and not some other theory?" This is a rhetorical question that is supposed to “prove” moral subjectivism, because it has no objective answer.
For purposes of this post, I will skip over those details and say that desire utilitarianism argues for promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires – that is to say, promoting desires where there exists reasons to promote those desires.
People have reasons to promote a desire to execute the last wishes of the dead. In promoting such an aversion, we can help bring it about that people will execute our last wishes after we die. While it is true that our desires will cease to exist when we die, they still continue to exist when we live. Those who are living establish and maintain these institutions – and, in this case, the reasons for doing so are reasons that actually exist.
So, what about promises to the dead?
A wife, visiting her dying husband, might promise him that she will visit his grave every day. After he dies, her life goes on. Eventually, she finds the daily visits to the cemetery to be a burden. What is her duty with respect to her earlier promise?
Desire utilitarianism says that we as a society have reason to promote an aversion to breaking promises to the dead. It gives us a sense of security that our final requests will be obeyed. However, one desire or aversion needs to be weighted against others. We also have reason to promote an aversion to lying (lying is wrong). Yet, we permit, and perhaps even require, the person to lie to the Nazi or the slave catcher and say, “I do not know the location of any Jews/escaped slaves,” while Jews or escaped slaves are hidden in his cellar.
There should be a reluctance to break promises to the dead – but a reluctance that can be outweighed by other concerns. One of these concerns is a consideration of what the deceased would want if the deceased were a good person.
“If you, my former husband, truly loved me, then you would have wanted me to have this happiness in the life I have remaining. You would have given me permission to revoke the promise. I am going to assume that you were a good person, and you would not want me to keep this old promise where it was the source of such misery and loss in my remaining years. If you did value my suffering and hold me to that promise for this reason, then you are evil, and my obligation to suffer that evil is no less than the German citizen’s obligation to tell the Nazi guards where the Jews are hiding.”
The Estate Tax
This model has important implications over the debate with the estate tax. There are those who hold that there is something inherently immoral with a 'death tax.' These people are making reference to a type of bizarre metaphysical force that reaches out to us from beyond the grave that, frankly, does not exist. The only reasons that do exist for having or not having a death tax are existing desires. We have reason to support the honoring of the last wishes of the dead. However, we also have reason to weigh that desire with the desire for the good that can be done with the money that the person who has died no longer has any use for.
To balance these concerns, we set a limit -- that we will respect the wishes of the deceased to a certain extent, but we will not completely ignore the well-being of the community that provided the context in which the deceased was able to acquire great wealth.
Ultimately, desire utilitarianism supports Warran Buffett's view of the estate tax. Buffett recently donated over $30 billion of his personal wealth (at a rate of 5% per year for 20 years) to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
His view of the estate tax is that it should be maintained. However, it is not for the purpose of transferring money into the government treasury from those who have had prosperous lives. It should exist, instead, as an incentive for people with great wealth to set up or contribute to private donations. Buffett believes (and is accurate, I think) that governments do a poor job of spending money wisely. They collect money and then hand that money back to the highest bidder (in terms of campaign contributions and votes). The highest bidder is seldom the person who can do the most good with it.
By setting up or donating to private charities, those with great wealth prevent their money from entering into the public trough, and give it instead to those who, they think, can do the most good with it. It’s not the case of having the government spend the money. It is the case of having private charity spend the money, and an incentive to see to it that private charity gets money to spend.
A wealth person should have a desire to establish some sort of foundation that helps others anyway. Society clearly has an interest in promoting in all people, including the rich, a desire to contribute to the well-being of others, through its tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. The desire to establish foundations that one thinks would be useful is clearly a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and one that society has reason to promote.
An unwillingness to contribute excess wealth to the well-being of others my be viewed like the wish to have one’s wealth inherited by Al Queida; a bad desire that society has no obligation to execute.
The estate tax is merely a reflection of these values.