“Not really,” is the response that I imagine.
Okay, pretend that you are somebody who wants to be a desire utilitarian. A natural follow-up question seems to be, “Okay, I’m ready. What do I do next?”
This seems to fit into the theme of this week. A lot of people seem to be asking – in email and in comments, “What do I do?”
Well, here’s what you do. You pick up the tools of praise and condemnation. You apply praise to those who exhibit malleable desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. You apply condemnation to those whose malleable desires tend to thwart the desires of others. In this way, you nudge people into having more and stronger malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and nudge people into having fewer and weaker desires that tend to thwart other desires. In doing so, focus particularly on the young.
One example of people that fit into the category of people with desires that tend to fulfill other desires is the scientist – particularly those who are working to cure or treat disease or forewarn us and mitigate the effects of natural disasters.
One example of people whose desires tend to thwart the desires of others are those who are intellectually reckless when it comes to subjects that can cost people their lives, health, and well-being. Obviously, these people do not care enough about the welfare of others to take the task of considering these issues seriously. If they did, they would show some contempt for those who use weak arguments to support conclusions potentially harmful to others.
In the former case, it is not enough to say, “I agree with your hypothesis.” Devoting one’s life to defending us from these harms warrants more than agreement, it warrants praise and honor. We certainly have reason to try to persuade more people to adopt the same lifestyle.
In the latter case, it is not enough to say, “Your arguments are weak.” It is more important to add, “How dare you treat this subject so recklessly that you offer this sorry excuse for reasoning when lives and health are at stake! The world would be a far better place with fewer people like you in it, in the same way that it would be a better place without drunk drivers. Please show the moral decency to deal with the subject responsibly.”
Being a Desire Utilitarianism
We are in a habit of treating moral theories like religions. Each moral theory is seen as a sect, looking for followers to sign on and become members. One is a Kantian, or a Marxist, or an (Ayn Rand) Objectivist, or a Utilitarian. This is not much different than being a Christian or Hindu or a Zoroastrian. Each of them, in fact, even tends to have its own sacred text.
One thing that I do not want is to be thought of as providing a sacred text. I am offering a theory of value – a theory that, even if it is the best theory around today, will be replaced by a better theory some day.
[Note: I fear that it sounds a bit arrogant to suggest that desire utilitarianism is the best theory around today. However, it would sound even stranger for me to say that I am defending desire utilitarianism, while holding that it is inferior to some other theory that I have decided not to defend. Of course I think that the propositions that I defend are true and that propositions that contradict them are false. If I did not have those beliefs, then I should not be defending them.]
Anyway, nobody has to actually join a desire utilitarian club.
Here you are, a person with desires. You have a desire that P, a desire that Q, a desire that R (and others). As such, you will seek to act to create states of affairs in which P, Q, and R are true. You will act so as to make P, Q, and R true given your beliefs. However, false beliefs can thwart your efforts to make P, Q, and R actually true.
If you can’t make all of these propositions true, then you will seek to fulfill the more and stronger of your desires. If you want P and Q more than you want R, you will choose actions that (given your beliefs) will lead to states of affairs in which P and Q are true, while foregoing (regretfully) R. If you value R more than P and Q, then you will choose actions that (given your beliefs) will lead to states of affairs in which R is true, forsaking P and Q.
I suspect that it would come as no surprise if I should tell you that you live in a universe in which there are other people, and that they also have desires. As it turns out, though some of those desires are fixed by nature, you have the power to mold and modify those desires to some extent. Specifically, you can influence their desires with the judicious use of such tools as praise and condemnation.
You desire P, Q, and R – which means that you have reason to act so as to bring about states of affairs where P, Q, and R are true. By molding the desires of others, you can cause them to act in ways that will be more likely to make P, Q, and R true. You can do this either by causing them to desire P, Q, and R, or by causing them to desire things that will bring about P, Q, and R as a side effect, or by inhibiting desires that will interfere your attempts to realize P, Q, and R.
At the same time, they also have desires, and your desires are as malleable as theirs. If your desire that P is malleable and tends to thwart the desires of others, others have reason to use the tools of condemnation to inhibit the desire that P in you and others. If, at the same time, a desire that S is malleable and tends to fulfill the desires of others, then they have reason to offer praise and reward to encourage in you the growth of a desire that S.
Of course, if a desire that P tends to thwart other desires, then you also have reasons to inhibit in them a desire that P. And if a desire that S tends to fulfill other desires, then you also have a reason to promote in them a desire that S.
These desires that all of you have reason to inhibit in others we can call ‘vices’. These desires that all of you have reason to promote in others we can call ‘virtues’.
Regardless of what club you belong to, you have reason to promote those desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and reason to inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires. You will still seek to act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of your desires, and be confounded in their attempts to do so by false beliefs, giving you reason to promote an aversion to false beliefs and the intellectually reckless and dishonest acts that promote them.
Which Beliefs? Which Desires?
Now, this still gives us only a vague answer to questions such as, “Which beliefs are true? Which desires do we have the more and stronger reasons to promote, and how do we promote them? Which desires do we have the more and stronger reasons to inhibit, and how do we inhibit them?”
Even if two people agree fully that desire utilitarianism is the best theory of value, they can still disagree on the answers to these questions.
I have attempted to argue for some desires we have reason to promote or to inhibit. These include:
An aversion to intellectual recklessness. A person should feel (and be made to feel) humiliated to be caught engaging in intellectually reckless behavior. Of course, all of us will make mistakes from time to time. I have made some in this blog. However, a mistake should still be a source of embarrassment, and a redoubling of efforts to be less careless in the future. This particular virtue should be made a key criterion for public office. One thing we do not need is policy makers who are intellectually reckless themselves or who embrace (or lack the ability to detect) intellectual recklessness in others.
An aversion to the use of violence (legal penalties or private violence) as a response to words, or as a response to a political campaign executed in an open society.
A desire to reunite lost property with their owners (proportional in strength to the value of the property – let us not get carried away with returning a penny found in a parking lot to its rightful owner).
A desire to understand those force of nature that threaten to thwart desires on a wide scale, to understand them, and to take action to either prevent them or defend ourselves from the harm they can potentially do. This includes entities such as climate change, viruses, asteroid impacts, and tsunamis.
We have some moral questions that are difficult to answer, where reasonable people can disagree. However, we also have a foolish tendency to ignore what are easily demonstrable wrongs and harms that they cause. In these cases, I think it is time to do a far better job of picking up the tools of praise and condemnation and putting them to work.