In today’s post I want to address the third of three excellent questions from the studio audience that I received over the weekend. This one, from Tom Freeman, says:
Don't many desires presuppose certain beliefs, though? A desire to serve the will of god (whether through preaching, charity or the slaying of unbelievers) goes straight out the window once one loses the belief in god's existence.
Actually, a desire to serve the will of God does not go out the window when one loses the belief in God’s existence. The desire remains, causing many people a great deal of anguish because they have come to realize that something they want very badly is something that they can never have.
The whole psychology of grief is based on the fact that, sometimes, some very strong desires continue to exist even when the object of that desire ceases to exist. Imagine that an atheist parent, who believes that there is no life after death, loses her child in an automobile accident. All of the desires that the parent had for the future of that child, all of the things that parent wanted to see and do in helping that child grow up, now can no longer be fulfilled. The child has ceased to exist. However, the desires remain, causing excruciating pain in some instances.
The idea that the desire ceases to exist when belief that it can be fulfilled ceases to exist cannot handle these types of very common cases.
In fact, if you can tell somebody that something that he claims to have valued does not exist – that it was destroyed, or it never existed to start with, and he does not experience a period of grief over the discovery, you can reasonably assert that he never cared about that thing to start with. If a father learns of his child’s death, shrugs his shoulders, and casually makes adjustments to his calendar, then this is not a sign of a desire that depended on a belief. It is a sign of a desire (a concern for the child) that simply did not exist.
Desires, Ends, and Means
Now, this does not refute the claim that there are desires that presuppose certain beliefs. It only counters a particular example of such a desire.
As it turns out, the term ‘desire’ is actually an ambiguous term, and one of the meanings of desires includes beliefs. Another does not include beliefs.
The distinction that I am talking about here is the distinction between ‘desires-as-end’ versus ‘desires-as-means’.
We often use the term ‘desire’ to refer to something that we value, not for its own sake, but for its usefulness. If I were to say, “I want go to the dentist this afternoon,” one can rest assured that I have no desire that I be at the dentist. Instead, I have a desire that I not experience future pain, and a belief that being at the dentist will help me to avoid future pain. In other words, my visit to the dentist is a means of avoiding future pain, while pain itself is something that I seek to avoid for its own sake – simply because I dislike pain.
In other words, a ‘desire-as-means’ is a shortcut way of taking about a collection of desires-as-ends and beliefs and talking about them without using so many words. Every desire-as-means statement can be scratched out and replaced by desire-as-end statements and beliefs. Only, it would result in some very long-winded statements. It is much easier to say, “I want to stop by the store on the way home,” than it is to say, “I want steak for supper and I believe that the store has steak and I believe that the store will give me the steak if I allow them to take a certain amount of money out of my bank account and I believe that I have at least that much money in my bank account.”
When I speak about desires in desire utilitarianism I am concerning myself only with desire-as-ends and beliefs. I am not ignoring desire-as-means. I am not cutting out and calling them irrelevant. I am saying that everything that is true about desire-as-means is true of bundles of desire-as-ends and beliefs. By talking about the latter, we include the former.
When it comes to desires-as-means, changing beliefs can change what a person desires. If I say that I want to purchase 1,000 shares of Company X, somebody can instantly kill that desire by causing me to believe that Company X will soon be filing for bankruptcy. This is because my desire to purchase shares of Company X was not a desire-as-end. My desire-as-end was to make money. Purchasing shares of Company X was a desire-as-means. As soon as I cease to believe that it will serve as a desire-as-means, my desire-as-means ceases to exist. However, my desire-as-end of making money remains.
Let is say that I have a desire to own famous pieces of art. I cherish a Van Gogh painting that I have in my study. In this case, I value the painting because it participates in a set of things that I value – a set of famous paintings.
However, let us assume that this is not a Van Gogh painting. It is a forgery – the tpe of forgery that can have no real value. The instant that my beliefs about this painting change – the minute I go from believing that it participates in the set of famous paintings to believing that it does not participate in that set – at that moment my ‘desire’ to hold onto this painting vanishes. I might even immediately destroy it.
Participatory value is another case in which the we use value to refer to a combination of desires-as-ends and beliefs. The desires-as-ends in this case is to own famous artwork. The beliefs that are relevant here are my beliefs that this painting participates in the set ‘famous art work’.
In changing my beliefs in this case, an individual would not be changing my desires-as-ends. My desire-as-end of owning famous paintings continues. I would continue to value this painting if it was a famous painting.
In both of these cases, changing a person’s beliefs will change the way they behave, and it will change what a person claims to desires. However, it does not affect an agent’s desires-as-ends. Nor does it affect a person’s moral character.
Consider a mother who wants to feed her child. There prepares some baby formula, believing that the contents are healthy. Unfortunately, as a result of product tampering, the formula contains poison. If we change this person’s beliefs about the formula (warn her that formula with lot number N has been poisoned and that this container is from lot number N), she then decides not to feed it to the baby. By changing this person’s beliefs, you have changed her behavior – preventing her from doing a bad thing. However, you have not improved her moral character. This is because moral character is not affected by changes in beliefs. Moral character is only affected by by changes in desires-as-ends.
Now, before she learns that her container belongs to a poisoned lot, she may have well said something like, “I want the bottle of baby food over there.” She would use the language of desires. However, in this case, she is referring to desires-as-means, not desires-as-ends.
The same is true of the man buying what he thinks is a forgery. He says, “I want that painting.” Convince him that it is a forgery and he will admit that his statement, “I want that painting “ was false. He will no longer try to buy it. By changing the person’s beliefs you have changed his attitude towards that painting, but you have not affected his moral character. His improved beliefs leave him just as virtuous or just as vicious as he once was.
The Homosexuality Example
Thayne presented an example a couple of days ago that is supposed to refute my claims.
I had a friend who, to name just one example, despised homosexuals. He supported Amendment 2 here in Colorado (an amendment to the state constitution that basically made it okay for employers and landlords to discriminate against homosexuals). Why? Because his conservative religion told him to.
After debating and discussing issues with him for quite some time, he is now not religious and believes homosexuals should be free to be homosexuals without facing discrimination. His change in belief had many other effects that I think Alonzo would deem good as well.
I did not use the tools Alonzo suggests. I appealed to reason. Heavily.
Let me present a theory of what was going on here. The value (or disvalue) that this friend placed in homosexuality was due to his beliefs about its participatory value. My guess is that the friend had a desire to promote that which is good and inhibit that which is bad, a belief that scripture contained reliable information about what was good and what was bad, and that scripture identified homosexuality as bad. Consequently, he believed that homosexuality participated in the set, “That which is bad.”
Reason would be an appropriate way to convince this person that homosexuality does not, in fact, participate in the set of ‘that which is bad’.
However, Thayne’s use of reason did not affect his friend’s moral character. His friend’s moral character was reflected in the desire-as-end of promoting that which is good and inhibiting that which is bad. This was an example of using reason to prevent a good person from doing bad things, not a case of using reason to prevent somebody from being a bad person.
It is patently absurd for anybody to claim that you cannot affect a person’s behavior by affecting his beliefs. In fact, the formula that sits at the foundation of all that I write, “People act so as to fulfill the most and the strongest of their desires, given their beliefs,” points to the role that beliefs have in behavior. Also, beliefs are governed my reason. False beliefs prevent the fulfillment of desires. People have reason to promote those desires that promote true beliefs and inhibit those desires that promote false beliefs. All of this points to an important role that changing beliefs have in changing behavior.
However, changing beliefs has nothing to do with morality. Teaching a child that all squares are rectangles is not the same as teaching him virtue – though teaching him to love math could well be.
So, I am not downplaying the role of beliefs in changing behavior. Every post that I write is an attempt to use reason to affect beliefs. Whether I am arguing that ‘genetic morality’ is an oxymoron, or that people generally have reason to promote an aversion to harming innocent people that implies presumption of innocence and proof of guilt, I am appealing to reason. If I downplayed the role of reason, then why do I use so much of it? Or, at least, I try to.
No, what I argue is that a person’s moral character is not tied up in what he believes. Beliefs are important, but ‘ought’ and ‘should’ refer to reasons for action, and the only reasons for action that exist are desires. Desires are what identify the ends of human action; beliefs only pick out the means.
Furthermore, when it comes to changing desires-as-ends, beliefs are irrelevant. No belief entails a desires-as-end. Beliefs are certainly relevant to desires-as-means and desires-as-participant. However, changing desires-as-ends requires tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.