I regret that I am getting way behind in answering questions from the studio audience, and I promise to make a concentrated effort to remedy that lapse.
Fortunately, I think that I have a chance to address several questions at once – though it will take me two posts to do so.
In an email, DC said:
[T]here are some elements of your exposition that could use shoring up. The most important . . . is a clearer exposition of that paragon, the Person Of Good Desires. . . . I keep hearing the voice of a troubled person saying, "I just don't know what to DO," and the wise ethicist replying, "Just do what the POGD would do." "But--what would that be?" the troubled person asks.
Atheist Observer asked in a comment:
Do you think desire utilitarianism is precise enough to actually use as a prescriptive tool, that everyone attempting to apply it would come to the same moral conclusions, or that it could be interpreted in different ways, so that “what a person with good desires would do” or “the desires that fulfill other desires” are sufficiently general that a great variety of moral conclusions is possible?
And Eneasz asked in a comment:
These sorts of problems are fascinating, but it almost goes without saying that the 1000 Sadists are always morally wrong. Seeing how a particular theory explains this (or fails to) can be very informative, but it's fairly irrelevant on a practical scale. I'm interested in how a more contemporary issue would be tackled. For example, pornography (of the legal variety).
So, let’s apply this system to the issue of pornography, and see what we get.
Ease of Use
Before getting in to actual application, I need to present an important meta-principle. The philosophy of science says that, all else being equal, the simplest theory is the best theory. However, this does not imply that the best theory is necessarily simple. It only implies that the best theory is simpler than all of the other theories that can handle the same set of observations.
In morality, the same principle applies. The best moral theory will be the simplest moral theory. However, it is not a sufficient reason to reject a theory that it does not give easy answers to all moral questions – that it takes some effort. There are many theories that can give a simpler account than the one I will give here. Yet, all of them will fail one crucial test – they will postulate ‘reasons for action’ that do not exist, or they will deny ‘reasons for action’ that do exist. These theories will always fail when held up against a theory that gets the issue of reasons for action that exist right.
We would hardly accept, in science, that Newtonian physics wins out over Einsteinian physics merely because it is simpler. If the two were equally potent in handling physics, then the simpler explanation would win. But the more complex defeats the simpler where it better handles the subject matter.
’Should’ questions are questions about reasons for action that exist.
Any question about what we ‘should’ do is a question about what reasons for action exist for doing or for forbearing from some course of action. In this post, we are going to look at ‘reasons for action’ for the manufacture, distribution, consumption, and criminalization of pornography. The main focus of my attention will be, “What reasons for action exist for a criminal prohibition on the manufacture, distribution, and consumption of pornography?”
Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.
Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Therefore, answering the question of, “What reasons for action exist for and against a criminal prohibition on pornography?” means answering the question, “What desires would be fulfilled or thwarted by a criminal prohibition on pornography?”
Some people will try to bring other ‘reasons for action’ to bear on this debate. For example, some will assert that God has commanded them to round up all pornographers (manufacturers and consumers) and imprison them. This ‘reason for action’ has much in common with the claim some people make that God commanded them to walk into a restaurant and blow themselves up. In fact, the suicide bomber does far less harm – because the blast radius from a suicide bomb is far smaller than the blast radius of a criminal statute, and does not last as long.
At the same time, there are also crucial differences. It takes far more effort and cooperation to construct a statute than it does to construct a bomb. We have a far greater opportunity to disrupt the plans of those who think that God commands them to do harm to their neighbors through statute than we do to disrupt the plans of those who think that God commands them to do harm to their neighbors with bombs.
Also, I must insert the principle at this point (though its defense will come later) that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, and the only legitimate response to a campaign in an open society is a counter-campaign. Nothing in what I write justifies a violent response when people in an open society attempt, and even succeed, in doing harm to their neighbors in the name of God through statute.
Note that ‘intrinsic value’ claims do not need to depend on God. An atheist can also claim that the manufacture or sale of pornography is intrinsically bad, stating that this intrinsic badness is an emergent property (like consciousness). Or, he might claim that pornography is intrinsically good – or that a right to liberty is intrinsically good, and that these argue against such a prohibition. ‘Intrinsic values’ do not exist. Therefore, when we look at ‘reasons for action that exist’ for and against a prohibition on morality, we can dismiss intrinsic value claims on both sides of the debate. They are making reference to ‘reasons for action’ that do not exist.
People Seek to Fulfill their Desires
People act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. When a person views pornography, it is because this fulfills the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. In the absence of evidence that a person is acting on false or incomplete beliefs, then we may conclude that viewing pornography fulfills the more and stronger of a person’s desires. A prohibition on pornography is a prohibition on people fulfilling the more and stronger of their desires.
People also act so as to ban pornography because this fulfills the more an stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. In the absence of evidence that a person is acting on false or incomplete beliefs, we may conclude that viewing pornography fulfills the more and stronger of that person’s desires.
As it turns out, we can already dismiss many claims in favor of a prohibition on pornography on the basis that the agent for prohibition is acting on false or incomplete beliefs. A person may think that banning pornography fulfills his desire to do God’s will or to realize a state that has intrinsic value. However, the fact of the matter is that this is not the case. A desire to do God’s will cannot be fulfilled except in a state of affairs in which the proposition, “I am fulfilling God’s will” is true. A desire to realize something of intrinsic value cannot be fulfilled unless the proposition “I am realizing something of intrinsic value” can be made or kept true. Neither proposition can be made or kept true. Neither desire can be fulfilled.
However, there may also be people who simply hate the idea of others viewing and distributing pornography. His reaction to pornography may be like a reaction to a bad smell – it is simply in his nature to have an aversion to such a state. He does not have any false beliefs about that state – it just stinks. In this case, the person who acts so as to ban pornography will be acting so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his desires, given his beliefs.
Now, one aspect of the ‘bad smell’ analogy is that if a bad smell can be confined to a place where the agent it offends cannot smell it, than no harm is done. We can respect the interests of those who have a ‘bad smell’ reaction to pornography by simply confining pornography to certain locations and situations, and clearly identify them as places where those who have a bad smell reaction to pornography should stay away from.
Desires For and Against Existence
Recall that a desire that P (for any proposition P) is fulfilled in any state of affairs where P is true. A parent can have a desire that his child is happy. That desire is fulfilled by any state of affairs in which the proposition ‘my child is happy’ is true. The parent does not have to experience that happiness. The parent might even believe that the proposition is false. However, what ‘really matters’ to the concerned agent is that the proposition is true. Everything else is a separate and distinct concern.
Consequently, it is possible that an agent can simply have a desire that graphic depictions of sexual acts not exist – or that a state in which somebody is viewing such a depiction not exist. This is not the same as a desire not to experience such a state. The agent might also have an aversion to such a state. However, like the mother who desires a state in which her child is happy, the anti-pornography agent mist simply desire that no pornography exist.
I have a suspicion that, because I am talking about pornography, some liberals will immediately dismiss these ‘desires that a state not exist’ as irrelevant. They would probably assert that there is something intrinsically wrong with considering such desires. However, liberals have very similar concerns. The nature of the desire does not change; only the object of the desire changes.
For example, many liberals have a desire that certain wilderness areas exist. They know that they will never experience those wilderness areas. They do not wish that the area exists as wilderness because they wish to experience that area. They know that this will never happen. (Think: Antarctica, or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). Yet, it is sufficient to motivate their activism that they desire that such a state exists.
At a very important level, there is no difference between these two cases. In one case, the agent seeks to prohibit people from obtaining the fulfillment of desires that pornography provides because he has an aversion to the mere existence of such a state. In the other case, the agent seeks to prohibit people from obtaining the fulfillment of desires that would come from using the resources in a particular area because he has a desire for the mere existence of a state of wilderness. An argument that desires that a particular state exist or not exist are automatically irrelevant would apply to both cases.
More importantly, such an argument requires postulating the existence of intrinsic values. Either that, or they need to provide us a ‘reason for action that exists’ for excluding these desires. Since desires are the only reasons for action that exist, the appeal to a desire not to include an particular desire as justification for not including it is somewhat lame.
This will then lead us to a discussion of the value of different desires. I will discuss these considerations tomorrow.