Makarios asked a series of questions yesterday which, though I clearly could not answer in a comment, and cannot even answer completely in a post, I would like to give a partial answer to. For all practical purposes, Makarios asked, “How do you, Alonzo, know that your moral principles are correct?”
It is an important question for me. Every once in a while I discover a case of people actually applying the position that I defend. When I do, I get this sudden burst of anxiety and think, “Oh no! What if I am wrong?” I feel obligated to run through the arguments again to look for holes. Mostly, I go through the objections that others have raised and see if I have answers.
I do have reasons for thinking that I am not wrong, and it never hurts me to review them.
Another reason for this posting is that it is an important addendum to an earlier post where I criticized Richard Dawkins’ claims about morality. In “Richard Dawkins: Morality and the Selfish Gene” I complained that Dawkins may have made a case for genetic altruism, but he never did get around to talking about morality. In making this objection, I asked a set of questions that Dawkins’ theories do not even touch.
Can I answer those questions?
Success or failure here determines if one is working on a viable moral theory.
The Phenomena of Morality
A moral theory, like all theories, is to be judged according to its ability to account for the various elements of that which the theory is about. A theory of star formation best explains the phenomena of star formation and the types of starts that result. So, a theory of morality best accounts for the components of morality.
‘Ought’ implies ‘can’. It makes no sense to say that a person ‘ought’ to do something that is impossible. For example, it is not the case that a person ‘ought’ to teleport a child out of a burning building unless it is within his powers to do so. Many theories hold that this requires a force of ‘free will’ with which humans have the power to suspend the laws of physics. This solution is highly suspect. What is this ‘free will’? How does it work? Desire utilitarianism, on the other hand, suggests that this implication captures the fact that morality is concerned with molding malleable desires – those that social forces can influence. It says that it makes no sense to apply these social forces where they can have no effect.
‘Facts’ and ‘values’. Philosophers have generally held that there is a distinction between facts and values. Scientists deal with facts, and values are . . . what? Accounting for values as entities that affect the real world but are not facts is problematic. A better distinction is to say that ‘values’ are claims about relationships between states of affairs and desires, while ‘facts’ are about everything else. The reason we cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ is because we cannot derive a conclusion about how a state of affairs relates to a set of desires – unless our premises contain facts about those desires. Once we add desires to our premises, we can derive oughts.
‘Prohibition’, ‘Permission’, ‘Obligation’. There are three categories of morality as applied to action. All forms of act-utilitarianism say that there are only two; ‘obligation’ (that which maximizes utility), and ‘prohibition’ (everything else). All act-utilitarian theories fail here. Desire utilitarianism accounts for these three categories because they represent three different types of desires. There are ‘good’ desires that we have reason to promote everywhere. There are ‘bad’ desires that we have reason to inhibit everywhere. And there are ‘neutral’ desires that we have reason to promote for some people but not everybody. These ‘neutral’ desires – the desire to paint, to teach, to study astronomy, to design a building, to play football – is the source of our moral permissions.
‘Negligence’. Moral theories that base moral judgments on the intentions of agents cannot account for negligence. The negligent person does not intend to harm others. Yet, because of his inattention, he does so anyway. Desire utilitarianism defeats intention-based moral theories because it can account for negligence. The negligent person’s fault is that he lacks a good desire, or that good desire is not sufficiently strong. That good desire would have motivated him to take precautions to avoid causing harm to others.
The Bad Samaritan. The Bad Samaritan is the term used to represent the moral problem of the person who does the right action, but does it for a bad reason. He saves a drowning child because he wants to be seen as a hero (so he can win the next election). He turns in a notorious criminal for the sake of the reward. His actions are not wrong, but his desires do not allow us to classify him as a good person. Desire utilitarianism says that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. It does not care about the agent’s actual reasons. It is quite possible for an agent to do what a person with good desires would do, only do so for bad reasons.
Weighing Rights. Rights are not absolute. They have weight. The right to freedom of the press ends where the state has a legitimate interest in protecting national security. The right to freedom of the press ends does not extend to libel or slander. Desire utilitarianism classifies a ‘right to X’ to mean ‘people should have a strong aversion to depriving people of X’. , and in some instances one person’s rights are outweighed by duties to others. We must weigh the right to freedom of the press with the government’s obligation to provide for national security. The right to freedom from religion is not a right to force others to attend one’s church. Desires also have weight (or strength). Rights, understood as things for which people generally should have a particularly strong aversion, is compatible with the idea that rights have weight.
‘Mens rea’. In order to prove moral culpability, one must prove ‘mens rea’ (or ‘guilty mind’). Mens rea comes in four flavors; intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. Desire utilitarianism holds that moral judgment rests in determining whether agents have good desires or bad desires. Bad desires and the absence of good desires is the ‘guilty mind’ that culpability is looking for. All four of these moral categories can be understood in terms of evidence for the presence of bad desires or the absence of good desires.
‘Excuse’. When a person does something that, at first, appears to be wrong, he can sometimes save himself if he can offer a legitimate excuse for his actions. A driver runs over a pedestrian, but defends herself by showing that the car had an unforeseeable mechanical failure, or she ran over a terrorist who was about to detonate an explosive vest. There are several different types of excuse. What all of them have in common is that they break the implication from a prima-facie bad action to the agent’s desires. They prevent people from inferring that a person with good desires would not have done the same thing.
Moral Subjectivity and Objectivity. Values seem to be subjective. Desire utilitarianism can handle that. Values are relationships between states of affairs and desires. They cease to exist where desires cease to exist. Yet, at the same time, moral values seem to be objective. They do not depend on the agent wants. Here, desire utilitarianism holds that the value of a desire depends on its tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. It concerns whether people generally have reasons to promote a particular desire universally (a virtue) or to inhibit it universally (a vice). Moral virtue and vice depends on desires, but is substantially independent of the desires of the agent.
These are only some of the elements of morality that desire utilitarianism can account for. There are others that I have not mentioned. Other challenges for a moral theory include accounting for: (1) moral dilemmas (a rare state in which very strong desires one should have demand conflicting actions), (2) the moral education of children, (3) accounts for all value terms such as illness, injury, beautiful, useful, crisis, healthy, beneficial, fortunate, and the like (explaining not only what all terms have in common that make them value terms but also what makes each term different from another), (4) supererogatory actions (above and beyond the call of duty), and (5) the relationship between value and reasons for action.
All of this is superficial. The book listed up there on the right side of this blog, “A better place,” examines each of these issues in far more detail. For my purposes here, consistent with the space allowed, I can offer only a brief outline
Another way to evaluate theories is through the strength of its connections to other fields of study. A zoological claim has merit not only because it explains and predicts the behavior of the animal, but because the claim is consistent with what we know about chemistry, physics, climatology, geology, mathematics, logic, history, and the like.
Some of the reasons why I believe that the theory I use in these posts has merit is the strength of its connections to other fields of study.
Metaphysics. The theory only makes use of regular every-day phenomena. It talks about desires as propositional attitudes – a desire that ‘P’ is a line of brain code that motivates an agent to make or keep the proposition ‘P’ true. It talks about states of affairs. And it talks about the relationships between them: A desire that P is fulfilled in S if and only if P is true in S. There is no ‘free will’ that allows us to suspend the laws of physics, no intrinsic value, no God, no ‘categorical imperatives’, no meeting behind a veil of ignorance, no ideal observer, no social contract, no ‘man qua man’. There are desires, states of affairs, and relationships between them.
Action Theory: This theory employs the most widely used theory of intentional action. It is a theory that explains intentional action as the product of beliefs (a belief that ‘P’ is the attitude that the proposition ‘P’ is true), and desires (a desire that P is a mental attitude that the proposition ‘P’ is to be made or kept true). This produces intention, which (in the absence of a physical defect or restraint) produces intentional action.
Evolution. Evolution has certainly influenced our desires so that we tend to want those things that, in turn, tend to cause the replication of one’s genes. We tend to desire sex, to care for our children, the types of food that kept our biological ancestors alive, a particular climate, and an aversion to pain where pain tends to be caused by that which threatens our reproduction. However, evolution also gave us a brain that is molded by interaction with our environment. We learn, and through learning we acquire beliefs and desires that do not come from our genes. Clearly, there is no gene for believing that today is Thursday or that Saturn has rings. There are also no genes determining some of my desires. Morality is concerned with those malleable desires. Not only is morality about malleable desires, but it is concerned with how those desires can be molded – particularly through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. These facts also fit into evolutionary theory.
Economics. Value in terms of relationships between states of affairs and desires are easily translated into economic concepts of goods (ends – states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of one’s desires are true) and price (types of effort that go into creating those states of affairs).
So, why do I think that desire utilitarianism is a good theory? Because no other theory accomplishes so much (in terms of accounting for the elements of morality as well as connecting to the other branches of knowledge) with so little (uses only desires, states of affairs, and relationships between them).
If there is another theory that does as well, then we should use it.
Either way, the test is: Which theory provides the most efficient account of that which we know as morality?