“Why should I, who for purposes of this question hate everyone, wish to fulfill the desires of others?”
Craig Ewert asked this question in a comment to my post, “First, Kill All of the Teachers” a couple of days ago. I should save my answer for theory weekend. However, this is an important question, and Craig tells me, “I've been surveying your blog for a while, but I haven't come across a clear explanation of that issue…”
I wish to correct that deficiency and, since this is my blog, I can do whatever I wish.
First, Craig, I have to ask you a question. What do you mean by ‘should’? What, exactly, are you asking me? Clearly, I cannot answer a question unless I first know what the question asks, and ‘should’ is a very slippery concept.
We’re going to have to get back to this problem.
Desires, Desires, and Desires
Second, I need to make an important distinction that has extremely important implications with respect to how I describe desire utilitarianism.
You asked why you should “wish to fulfill the desires of others.” Desire utilitarianism does not say that you should “wish to fulfill the desires of others” – at least not in so many words. So, you are asking me why you should do something that I’m not so sure that you should do.
Let me make this distinction clear.
It is a three-way distinction.
Let me first draw a distinction between (1) a desire to fulfill the desires of others, and (2) a desire that the desires of others be fulfilled.
We can see this distinction at work by talking about, for example, the difference between having a desire to clean the toilet, versus a desire that toilet be clean.
A desire to clean the toilet means, “I wanna do it! Pick me! Pick me!” On the other hand, a desire that the toilet be clean is quite compatible with having an aversion to cleaning the toilet – enough so that one is willing to pay somebody else to do it, or to assign the job to one of the kids as one of their weekly chores.
In addition to these two applications of the word ‘desire’, I would like to add (3) a desire that tends to fulfill the desires of others.
To illustrate this distinction, imagine a person with a strong desire for frequent unprotected sex with multiple partners. We can assume that this person does not (1) desire to get a sexually transmitted disease. It is also highly unlikely that he (2) desires that he have a sexually transmitted disease. Yet, it is still the case that his desire for frequent unprotected sex with multiple partners is (3) a desire that tends to result in the desirer getting a sexually transmitted disease.
Now, Craig, your question contained a Type (1) desire; a desire to fulfill the desires of others. Yet, whenever I write about desire utilitarianism, I tend to write about Type (3) desires; desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others.
Examples of the types of desires I write about include a desire for true belief, an aversion to deception, an aversion to sex without consent, a desire to keep promises, an aversion to seeing people cry, a fondness for the sound of a child’s laughter.
With this distinction in mind, I am going to change your question a little.
“Why should I, who for purposes of this question hate everyone, have desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others?”
Having a Reason
Here, I want to address what I think is the most commonly made false assumption about what I write. This assumption is built into what I think would be the most common interpretation of Craig’s question.
That interpretation turns the question into a challenge.
“Using reason alone, I challenge you to convince me – somebody who hates everyone – to want to fulfill the desires of others.”
Apparently, desire utilitarianism is supposed to answer that question.
Not only is it the case that desire utilitarianism cannot answer that question, desire utilitarianism says that the challenge can never be met, anywhere, by anybody.
Desire utilitarianism is built on the assumption that each person will always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his own desires, given his beliefs. This means that the person who "hates everybody" – where this is the strongest of his desires with no other desires to outweigh it – will always act like somebody who hates everybody. Every act he performs will be motivated by hate.
Reasoning with him will not change that. Reason has no effect on desires. The only thing reason does is match means to end. This means that the only thing this agent can gain from reason is information that will help him more efficiently act on his hatred.
I am going to repeat this, because I think that this false assumption represents the most serious problem people have with this theory. They assume that I am claiming to have discovered an argument that will inevitably cause the listener to do what this argument says he 'should' do. They shake their heads and think, "Poor, Alonzo. He just can't see how stupid it is to say that we can come up with an argument that will invariably convince people who understand it to do the right thing."
Ironically, the thing that I am often challenged to do, by people who assume that I have claimed to be able to do it, is something that I say cannot be done – by me or anybody – which is to change desires by reason alone or, through reason alone, convince somebody to perform an action that does not aim to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires given his beliefs.
They continue to think this, no matter how many times I insist that a person with a particular set of desires will act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of those desires given their beliefs and the only thing reason alone can teach him is how to be more successful at fulfilling the desires he has.
If a person has only one desire – a desire to destroy the Earth and every living thing on it – then reason alone will only serve to better inform him how to go about destroying the Earth and every living thing on it.
The child rapist, for example, alone with a child with no chance of being caught or punished, will rape that child. Reason alone will not be able to prevent that rape.
So, Craig, if your question is, "If I am someone who hates everybody, how can you, through reason alone, convince me to fulfill the desires of others," my answer is that it cannot be done.
Anybody who says that it can be done is making stuff up. Anybody who says that I claimed to be able to have the argument that can meet this challenge is making stuff up about me.
Reason and the Power of Change
The fact that reason alone is ineffective at changing other peoples' desires does not imply that we are powerless to bring about changes in those desires.
The way I put this point in my book,
You can reason all you want with your flat tire on your car without it changing places with the spare in the trunk, but this does not imply that you are powerless to get the flat tire changed.
More importantly, reason does have an important role to play in telling you how to go about changing the tire. It will tell you what will work, and what will not work. Reason itself is what tells you that trying to persuade the flat tire to change places with the spare in the trunk is not a good plan. It tells you to get some tools – the right tools – and how to use something other than reason to get the job done.
In the case of getting Hateful Craig to fulfill the desires of others, reason tells us that reason alone is not the tool to use. Reason tells us that Hateful Craig is a human being (I will assume). As such, he has an aversion to pain and a desire for pleasure. He desires his freedom because a lack of freedom is a lack of opportunity to act so as to fulfill his desires. He also desires money, because money is a useful tool for the fulfillment of many desires.
Consequently, reason tells me not to use reason to get Craig to refrain from thwarting the desires of others. Instead, reason tells us that we can use threats to thwart Craig's other desires as a way of modifying his behavior. We can go to Hateful Craig and say, "If we find you thwarting the desires of others (in particular ways), we will act so as to thwart these other desires you have. We will take away your money (through fines), we will take away your freedom (through imprisonment), and we may even take away your life. You may not have a desire to fulfill the desires of others. However, we – those others whose desires you do not care about – have reasons to set up institutions to make it the case that fulfilling the desires you do have is best accomplished in ways that do not thwart the desires of others too much."
However, reason tells us that this method has an important weakness. We have to actually catch Hateful Craig thwarting the desires of others in order to punish him. If Hateful Craig finds a way to act on his hate and avoid the penalties, then the penalties cease to be a deterrence. Reason tells us to look for another way to influence Hateful Craig's behavior.
The Hateful Craig Conference
Okay, now, folks gather around. We need to come to discuss the Hateful Craig problem.
Hateful Craig has dispositions that cause him to thwart the desires of others. We have threatened him with penalties if we catch him causing serious harm. However, threats have important and significant limits. We have to catch him in the act. However, Craig's hate will simply dispose him to find ways to act without getting caught. We need suggestions for how to deal with the Hateful Craig problem that can work even when we have no hope of catching Craig in the act.
One person in our meeting raises his hand. "Oh! Oh! Mr. Alonzo! I know! I know! Let's tell Craig and everybody else that we have this big invisible friend that sees everything. This big invisible friend will see to it that Craig suffers horribly in a life after death if Craig does anything wrong. Even if we do not catch him, our big invisible friend sees all. This will give him a reason not to do mean things."
In the interest of space, I will list only two of the problems with that option.
First, it's not true. One of the things that we want people to have is a love for the truth and a dislike for deception and for careless reasoning. Both of those traits tend to thwart the desires of others. Both of them are traits we would have to promote and encourage if we are going to depend on this story of the big invisible friend to keep Hateful Craig in line.
Second, what if we make a mistake? We can claim that this big invisible friend tells us what these moral truths are, but we still have to decide what this big invisible friend is going to tell us. What are we going to do if, for example, we say that the big invisible friend condemns homosexuality because it is a threat to the traditional family – only to discover that it is no threat at all. In fact, given the importance of intimate relationships, we may get no benefit at all from such a rule, and would instead be driving a lot of good young people into suicide. What do we do then? We can't say, "Sorry folks, it looks like our big invisible friend made a mistake." We might be locking in some evil for centuries – even millennia to come.
The first point also rules out the 'intrinsic value' proposal. This option says that we are going to tell people that certain types of acts have 'intrinsic merit' or are 'intrinsically wrong'. This option also depends on false premises and sloppy thinking. Besides, it will not work unless we give people a desire for that which they believe has intrinsic value. If we are going to do that, we might as well just give people a desire for something that actually exists – such as kindness and honesty itself.
The proposal that I go with does just that.
Fact: Some of our desires are malleable. Things that happen to us have effects on what we like or do not like. By controlling the 'things that happen to people', it is possible to control what they like or dislike. To reduce the amount of hatred in the world, we produce those ‘things’ that experience tells us reduce the amount of hatred.
Two sets of things that affect what people like and dislike are praise and condemnation.
With the tire – reason alone cannot change the tire, but can tell us what tools to use and how to use them to get the tire changed. Reason alone cannot change Hateful Craig's dispositions. However, it can tell us what tools to use that will change his dispositions, or to help ensure that some child born today will not grow up to be like Hateful Craig. Reason tells us how and where to use our tools of praise and condemnation.
Naturally, reason tells us that people have reason to use these tools to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that thwart other desires, where it is possible to do so. Reason tells us to use those tools against hatefulness, and in favor of kindness and generosity.
So, Hateful Craig asks me:
Why should I, who for purposes of this question hate everyone, have desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others?
I return to the question, "What do you mean by 'should'?"
What I am going to answer is, "The claim that you should have these desires that fulfill the desires of others is the claim that people generally have reason to use the tool of praise on those who exhibit such desires, and the tool of condemnation and, in the worst cases, punishment, on those who act are hateful. It would be nice to be able to get you to want to fulfill the desires of others through reason alone. Unfortunately, reason cannot be used for that particular job – it is ineffective. But reason tells us what tools we can use; praise and condemnation. The claim that you should have desires that fulfill the desires of others is the claim that reason tells us to use the tools of praise and condemnation to help bring it about that people generally have such desires."
That's my answer.
I think, if you look around, you will find this answer in much of what I write. However, many people do not see it, because they are assuming that I am answering a question on how to use reason alone to change people's desires. That is something that cannot be done. But that does not mean that we are powerless to change desires, and to do so in ways guided by reason.