In comments to yesterday’s blog, one commenter, ADHR, gave a particularly sophisticated set of responses to my position. I want to take advantage of this opportunity to address these concerns.
Yesterday, ADHR pointed out that a statement that I made, When people act so as to make the lives of others worse off than they would have otherwise been, and uses poor reasoning to defend their action, it is perfectly legitimate to condemn them for it. could not be taken as literally true. There are countless cases, rising from ignorance to a lack of options, where people act in ways that make the lives of others worse off without doing anything worthy of condemnation.
I made this statement in the context of a discussion as to whether somebody who owns a pharmacy should be permitted to refuse to sell birth control for religious reasons. I argued that such a decision deserves private condemnation but not violence (whether in the form of private violence or criminal penalties).
The objection is entirely accurate. As written, my statement above fit into a theory of morality that evaluated actions according to their intrinsic merit – that making another worse off is not only intrinsically wrong but deserving of condemnation. It is not a theory that I hold to.
I wrote too quickly.
It would have been more precise for me to say that the desires of others (the desire to have more ready access to prescription drugs they want) gives them reason to evaluate the attitudes of those who could easily fulfill those desires, but who refuse to do so. These thwarted (legitimate) desires gives them reasons-for-action for condemning, so as to inhibit, the owners.
This justification for condemnation comes from the fact that a person of good moral character would have presumed in favor of providing his or her neighbors with what they want, and would have accepted the need to thwart those desires only after receiving proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the owners are using religious arguments, no proof beyond a reasonable doubt is being offered.
When it comes to doing harm to others, “Because I have faith that my God would be pleased by the harm that I do to you,” does not qualify as proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the harm is necessary.
However, I argue that these reasons-for-action for condemning this owners’ attitude do not justify physical violence in the form of criminal penalties. I argue that, for the sake of keeping the peace, there should be a strong presumption in favor of liberty that is only outweighed by evidence beyond reasonable doubt of significant harm to others.
ADHR’s first example does demonstrate that the original expression, taken literally, does fail. Indeed, all moral theories that base morality on the intrinsic value of actions will fail, because intrinsic value does not exist, and actions are caused by desire.
ADHR goes on to raise objections against introducing desires to solve this problem. And, I have to see if I get this right, because it is a sophisticated set of objections.
If a good desire is defined in terms of fulfilling the desires of others, what is it that defines the desires others have?
I cannot tell if ADHR is familiar with other posts that I have written that addressed this question. I regret that, as this post gets longer, I tend to write as if my readers are familiar with everything else that I have written, which is certainly a false assumption.
Either way, a ‘desire that P’ is a propositional attitude such that the agent with the desire is moved to make or keep P true to a degree determined by the strength of the desire. We explain and predict intentional action by postulating a set of beliefs (attitudes that a particular proposition is true or false) and desires (attitudes that a particular proposition is to be made or kept true or false) assigning different strengths to desires until we have the best explanation and can make the best predictions about an agent’s intentional actions.
Desires are the only reasons for intentional action that exist.
Desires are the only reasons that exist for or against condemning a particular (type of) person. Condemnation makes sense as a tool for inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.
An agent acts to fulfill the more and stronger of his desires, given his beliefs – and seeks to act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his desires.
Since the bad desire only causes actions that generally prevent the fulfillment of the desires of others, and the good desire only causes actions that generally fulfill the desires of others, it follows that the good desire can cause an action that, in a particular case, prevents the fulfillment of the desires of others (and vice versa for a bad desire causing a beneficial action).
Yes, it is true that on this theory a person will sometimes act in ways that thwart the desires of others. This happens when the desires that will cause an agent to behave differently in the current situation would tend to cause agents to fulfill more and stronger desires in other actual situations. If it is the case that condemnation followed actually acting so as to make the lives of others worse off, then under these conditions condemnation would be appropriate.
Yes, I know that this is what I said in the quote above.
I miswrote. I was trying to come up with a statement that was close enough to the truth to work in a post without getting too technical.
So, ultimately, we are looking for what people generally have the more and the stronger reason to condemn. They have the more and the stronger reason to condemn where condemnation will inhibit attitudes (desires) that tend to thwart the desires of others. In the case of the pharmacy owners who choose not to fulfill prescriptions to birth control, this clearly thwarts the desires of others. This gives others a reason to condemn the attitudes responsible for this choice, so as to reduce the incidence of these desire-thwarting attitudes.
Note that in desire utilitarianism a desire is fulfilled if the proposition that is the object of a desire is made or kept true, and thwarted if the proposition that is the object of a desire is made or kept false. Desires that have as their object a proposition that cannot be true (e.g., “I serve God’s will) cannot be fulfilled. Therefore, nothing in the real world can be judged negatively by saying that they interfere with the fulfillment of such a desire. If the owners of the pharmacy are desiring to fulfill God’s will, nobody can interfere with that result, because no person can, in fact, ever fulfill the will of a God that does not exist.
Anyway, condemnation may inhibit attitudes that thwart the desires of others even where those attitudes, in some rare circumstance, actually fulfill desires.