I came across an article recently, on a study relating biology to behavior, (Economist: “Money Isn’t Everything”) that was conveniently set up to allow me to explain some of the key elements of desire utilitarianism.
The behavior part of the study goes like this:
The researcher gives Person A $40.
The researcher then gives Person A two options.
Option 1: Offer Person B $5 (and keep $35)
Option 2: Offer Person B $25 (and keep $15).
However, if Person B does not accept the offer, then you have to give back the $40.
Often, this experiment is performed as a type of repeated game. In a repeated game, it makes sense for Person B to refuse the $5 offer because it tells Person A “You had better be offering me $25 if you want to keep any of the money for yourself.”
However, this experiment was different. This will only happen once, so there is nothing to be gained (in terms of influencing future iterations) by refusing the $5.
Still, in this study, there were many people who still refused the $5.
Here is where the biology part comes in. The researchers took swabs of saliva from the subjects and discovered that those who refused the $5 had higher significantly higher levels of testosterone than those who accepted the $5.
One quick conclusion that one can draw from this – which many people might have asserted without the experiment – that high levels of testosterone turns the brain into mush and people into idiots. It is irrational, on this view, to refuse the $5.
However, the researchers point out that this conclusion is much too quick – because it is wrong. Testosterone does not cause these people to be irrational. Instead, it gives them a different set of ‘values’ to be rational about. The testosterone causes an aversion to differences in status. We may assume that the individual values having $5. However, his aversion to the other person getting $35 is stronger than his desire for $5. In other words, he will pay (lose) $5, to obtain the value of depriving the other person of $35.
At this point, “biology of value” people would say that this is the end of the story. We now know that people with high levels of testosterone has these particular values. We can write that down in our book of findings and move on. It confirms the hypothesis that values are grounded in biology, which is what the “biology of value” people are interested in, so the work is done.
Desire utilitarianism suggests asking a few more questions.
A desire utilitarian can take everything that was reported in this study at face value. Assuming that there are no flaws in the study, a desire utilitarian can say, “Ahhh, data. I love data. Now, let’s see what we can do with it.”
What is the value of having people in society who would pay $5 to deprive others of $35?
We know that there are people like this. We know how it happens (or, at least, we know one of its causal influences). However, we have another question to answer: Is it good that things are this way, or do we have reasons to prefer something different?
An evil person, within desire utilitarianism, is a person for whom it is rational to do harm to others. An evil person is a person with desires that tend to result in thwarting the desires of others or, at least, lack desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. An evil person acts so as to fulfill his desires given his beliefs (just like everybody else), and seeks to act to fulfill his desires (just like everybody else). The difference is that the desires that the evil person seeks to fulfill are desires that thwart the desires of others, so the rational evil person does harm to others.
One implication of this is that, if you feed an evil person more information and a better capacity to reason, then what you get from this is the ‘evil genius’ – the person whose evil is executed with greater efficiency (like a Karl Rove or a Dick Cheney). You cannot reason somebody into goodness. You need to change their desires, and desires are not changed through reason. They are changed through social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.
Here, for example, are two stories that might describe the value of this particular value – the goodness of this particular desire.
A researcher can never fully remove a subject from the social circumstances of his actions. It may be useful, as a general social rule, to promote a general love of fairness within a society. There may not be a second iteration of the game in the context of the experiment where it pays Person B to teach Person A to make a more fair offer. However, refusing the $5 option in the context of the game may have the effect of promoting a stronger love of fairness in Person A that will carry through outside of the research environment. It may be a part of a general (and useful) plan to promote fairness in all context, in order to create a more fair society.
Or, it could be that testosterone turns people into assholes who actually come to value depriving others of gain. We can see how this would work in competition, where a person ‘sacrifices’ five points in a game to prevent an opponent from scoring 35 points, or in a battle where a company commander sacrifices 5 men to set up a trap that kills 35 enemy soldiers. If life were a competition measured in ‘points’ like this, then this type of attitude might make sense. However, what we are talking about is units of well-being. These individuals are destroying 40 units of social well-being because, by destroying 5 units of their own well-being, they can destroy 35 units of well-being for others.
If the first story best describes the situation, then we have a case in which this desire may be a good thing, and one that should be encouraged. Whereas, if the second story is the most accurate, then this desire may be a bad thing, and seek to discourage it.
The desire utilitarian can fully accept that we have a base desire which is heavily influenced by biological factors. However, the desire utilitarian needs would ask additional questions to determine whether and how social factors can influence these options.
For example, it may be the case that people with high levels of testosterone causes people to refuse the $5 offer because, in a particular social environment, people with high levels of testosterone acquire that disposition. However, in a different social environment, people with high levels of testosterone could be raised to adopt a different disposition. For example, it may be the case that one social environment causes people with high leels of testosterone to adopt the ‘competitive value’ described above; whereas, in a different social environment, they would adopt the ‘fairness value’. Or, in a third social environment, they will come to see that allowing 40 units of social utility (even if he gets only 5 of those 40 units) will score him a certain number of moral points, thus giving him a moral victory.
All of these options have one thing in common. They are examples of taking a particular value (a particular desire) and asking, “What is the value of that particular value? Is it something that people generally have reason to promote, or to discourage?”
When it comes to looking at moral questions, the desire utilitarianism does not ask, “What is the value of torture?” He asks, “What is the value of an aversion to torture?” He does not ask, “What is the value of homosexual relationships?” He asks, “What is the value of a desire for, or an aversion to, homosexual relationships?” In the latter case, the desire utilitarian will distinguish between the value of, “I have an aversion to engaging in homosexual acts,” to “I have an aversion to having anybody who engages in homosexual acts.” Recognizing that these are two different desires, they can have two different values. A person can have an aversion to eating spinach, without having an aversion to the fact that there are people who like and eat spinach.
So, now that researchers have linked high levels of testosterone to a particular set of values, the desire utilitarian can take the data and ask, “What is the value of having people around to having these particular values? What are the limits of social forces in molding these values? And, finally, which option, within these limits, does society have the most and strongest reasons to promote?”
Here is an example of the general desire utilitarian framework applied to a specific finding on the relationship between biology and value.