Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Response to Comments at Pharyngula

PZ Myers at Pharyngula honored me by mentioning my book at his site a couple of days ago. A number of people there took the time to make comments – not so much about my book (since none of them could have possibly read it yet), but about morality in general.

Even though this is not ‘theory weekend,’ I would like to respond to those comments in a timely fashion. I posted a response at Pharyngula. However, owing to the possibility that others might have similar concerns, and since [name] thinks that I am not pushy enough in promoting my book, I would like to post an expanded version of those responses here.

Besides, Joe Otten yesterday wrote in a comment to yesterday's post that I was not pushy enough.


Taylor Selseth: I'm a Utilitarian myself, though my views are more similar to JS Mill's.

John Stuart Mill’s rule utilitarianism has two significant problems – both of which I discuss in the book.

(1) It collapses into act-utilitarianism.

What should you do if faced with an act that (a) is in violation of a rule-utilitarian rule, but (b) will produce better consequences (more utility) than obeying the rule?

If we assume that maximizing utility is all that matters, then this should imply that we ignore the rule and do the act-utilitarian best act. And even when we obey the rule, that act is still right because it is the act-utilitarian best act. Either way, we should do the act-utilitarian best act.

The only way to argue that we should obey the rule is to say that following the rule has value independent of the utility it creates. However, if we say that following a rule has value independent of utility, this throws utilitarianism out the window.

(2) Mill bases his theory on the intrinsic value of happiness.

Mill builds his theory on the assumption that happiness (and the absence of sadness) has intrinsic value. This concept of ‘intrinsic value’ is at least as strange as the concept of ‘God’ or ‘The Loch Ness Monster’ or any of a number of fictitious entities people invent to explain things. In short, intrinsic value does not exist – not in happiness, not in serving God, not in any of the countless things people try to attribute intrinsic value to.

In addition, people themselves often sacrifice happiness for other goods – such as for the sake of their children, even under conditions where their own happiness cannot be effected. This is a topic I covered in a blog post, “Happiness vs. Desire Fulfillment

Happiness does not have intrinsic value. Desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value either. Both claims are in conflict with the theory that I defend here. Desire fulfillment is not a ‘thing’ having value, it is a term that refers to a relationship between a desire and a state of affairs – that is all. In fact, desire utilitarianism holds that there are no intrinsic values. All that exists in the realm of value are relationships between states of affairs and desires. And that is all we need.

Also, desire utilitarianism is a form of rule utilitarianism that is not subject to the problem of collapse to act utilitarianism, because desires are rules that are written into the brain that do not allow for exceptions (except in a special sense that I discuss in the book). We are never faced with the question of what to do when we have the option of acting contrary to the rules because it is physically impossible to act contrary to the rules.


Hiero5ant For starters, his "desire utilitarianism" is not original, but basically just a poorly digested rehash of preference consequentialism, which has been formulated elsewhere and more rigorously by others, like Peter Singer and R.M. Hare.

Try as I might, I have not been able to find such a ‘well formulated’ presentation of preference consequentialism that answers basic questions such as, “What is a preference?” “What does it mean to ‘satisfy’ a preference?” “How do ‘preferences’ fit into action theory and the philosophy of mind?”

I can answer these questions. A ‘desire that P’ is a propositional attitude – a mental state that motivates the agent to make or keep a proposition true. A ‘desire that P’ is fulfilled in any state of affairs S where S is true. Desires fit into a general theory in the philosophy of mind that explains human action in terms of the propositional states ‘belief’ and ‘desire’ such that (beliefs + desires) -> intention -> intentional action.

Singer is correct insofar as he uses ‘preferences’ to signify the fact that the object of people’s actions are true states of affairs. However, there are still a lot of differences between Singer’s claims and my own.

For all practical purposes, Singer is an act-utilitarian. He believes that the right act is the act that produces the greatest utility. Utility, in turn, is understood as, what he calls, ‘preference satisfaction.’

In my book, I reject all act-utilitarian theories. Act utilitarianism is an impossible moral code. Desire utilitarianism is not an ‘act-utilitarian’ type of theory, but a ‘rule-utilitarian’ type of theory.

I go to great pains to make this distinction in the book, because it is the most common mistake that people make when they discuss desire utilitarianism. They take it to mean, “Do that act that produces the greatest desire fulfillment.” This is not “Desire Utilitarianism”, this is a different (and fundamentally flawed) theory that I call “Desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism.” This is the theory that is most similar to Singer’s “Preference utilitarianism,” and I explain in the book why I reject it.

Richard M. Hare’s theory comes closer to desire utilitarianism than Singer’s.

In saying this, I want to note that when Hare talks about his “language of morals” – and making moral decisions considering everybody’s preferences as if one had everybody’s preferences because this is what the logic of ‘ought’ requires – he is very much defending preference satisfying act utilitarianism – and suffers all of the problems that Singer suffers.

On the other hand, when he talks about his two levels of decision making – that of the ‘prole’ and the ‘archangel,’ he gets nearer to desire utilitarianism. A ‘prole’ (in Hare’s terms) who has acquired good desires does not need to worry about complex utilitarian calculations in choosing the right act. He simply needs to do what he wants. An ‘Archangel’ in the desire utilitarian sense uses utilitarian calculations to determine what desires ‘proles’ should have. (Note: We are all archangels and proles. This distinction identifies two levels of moral thinking, not two classes of people.)

The problem here is that Hare never attaches his moral theory to a theory of action. As such, Hare’s theory never answers the question – or even considers the question – “How are we going to get people to do the right thing?” On this, Hare is an internalist – one who believes that “to know the good is to do the good.” As such, all we need to do is convince him that our conclusion says, “X is good”, and once he sees the conclusion he will accomplish the task. This bit of magic is actually quite contrary to how the real world functions. It is a serious lapse in his theory that desire utilitarianism knows how to fill.


Rienck: [H]owever, another great book on this subject is on the list too and I recommend it to everyone . . .Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 202pp, $20.99 (pbk), ISBN 0521607841.

Greg Peterson: Wielenberg has here provided a highly cogent foundation for secular morality and meaning that is perfectly satisfying.

Wielenberg claims that moral properties are transcendental unanalyzable ‘ought’ properties that cannot bear any relationship to the ‘is’ universe even though they are supposed to govern and be applied to actions that can only occur in the ‘is’ universe.

Any mention of transcendental properties causes me to hesitate unless one can prove that they are absolutely necessary. When comparing two theories – one of which argues for transcendental properties that are incompatible with the ‘is’ universe, and one which does not need such properties, there are good reasons to go with the latter theory, which is where my arguments go.

Weisenberg can give us very little (no) information on what these properties are. He can tell us what they are not (they are not ‘is’ properties) – which makes no sense, as I explain in the book. He tells good stories that suggest that certain things could not possibly be wrong – but he tells us nothing about what they are and why they cannot be wrong. Indeed, Weisenberg’s transcendental moral properties are at least as mysterious as any God concept.

hoody: He does nothing to show how those moral behavior originated, a major sticking point.

This objection (falsely) assumes that value in general, and morality in specific, is a thing and as a thing I need to somehow explain how it came into existence.

I deny that morality is a thing.

Value is a relationship between states of affairs and desires, and moral value is a relationship between malleable desires and other desires. We do not need to explain the ‘origin’ of a relationship. It would be like answering questions like: Where did ‘closer to’ originate? Or ‘taller than’ or ‘faster than’?

All I need are two things:

(1) Malleable desires as propositional attitudes (desires that can be affected by the environment – specifically, by praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment). We have that. This came about through evolution.

(2) Possible and actual states of affairs. We have had these since the day that the universe began.

From this, to get to value, the only question we need to concern ourselves with is whether a proposition ‘P’ that is the object of a desire is true in a particular state of affairs. That’s it. If an agent has a desire that ‘P’, and ‘P’ is true in state of affairs ‘S’, then that agent has a reason to act so as to bring about (or preserve) S.

This is a general account of value. Moral value is just a specific type of general value (the way that horses are a specific type of mammal).

There is no need to make things more complicated then this.

2 comments:

D. Martin said...

Didn't Hiero5ant already debate you on the topic of morality?

Craig Ewert said...

This explanation makes it much clearer what desire utilitarianism is, and how you derive it. Thanks.