Saturday, October 06, 2007

A Harmony of Desires

A member of the studio audience, eenauk, made a comment recently on a subject that I was surprised to discover I had not yet talked about in this blog. I was surprised because it is a core part of the moral theory I use in writing this blog, and I have defended it often. Apparently, just not here.

Eenauk said:

Where things get difficult is when we try to decide which desires are desirable. Of course, you will probably introduce a "coherence theory of desires" to solve the problem; but you can only justify it by referring to a desire to be coherent. It might seem obvious that we _should_ desire that our desires be coherent, but that is nonetheless an obvious _moral_ truth and no longer a matter of fact. Let me know if I'm wrong.

This is a particularly precise comment. If it is the case that I have build this theory entirely on facts, then I need to come up with a way of accounting for the fact that ‘we ought to have this desire rather than that one.’. Otherwise, I am smuggling desire-independent morality distinct from fact in the back door, which would create a significant problem for my theory.

Eenauk is also correct to point out that the answer depends on some sort of ‘coherence’ – some way of evaluating desires by evaluating their agreement with each other. This is the only way to evaluate desires without bringing in some external fact – some sort of desire-independent value. The question then is, “Why should our desires be coherent?” Can I answer this question while remaining true to the other claims that I have made about this theory?

In order to show how this is done, I ask you to imagine a universe with one being. I call this being “Firs”. Firs has only one desire – a desire to gather stones together. Now, it is important to note that this is not a desire that the stones be gathered. I am not saying that he has a desire to see all of the stones in a nice big pile, and that the work he does gathering stones is ‘work’ – in the sense of being labor that is only valuable as a means of bringing about the end goal of a stack of stones. Rather, the gathering of stones is the end. Once all of the stones are gathered, this entity must then scatter the stones again before he can continue his desired activity of gathering stones.

Now, let us change Firs’s universe slightly. We are going to give Firs a partner; let’s call him ‘Sec’. We will also give Firs two pills to give to Sec. The yellow pill will cause Sec to have a desire like Firs’s desire – a desire to gather stones. The blue pill will cause Sec to have a desire to scatter stones.

Now, let us look at the reasons for action that exist – which, for the moment, is simply Fris’s desire to gather stones. There is only one reason for action in this universe, and it is a reason for action for giving Sec the blue pill.

If Fris gives Sec the yellow pill, then both Sec and Fris will have a desire to gather stones. They would be in competition for the stones that exist. Furthermore, once all the stones are gathered, either Fris or Sec or both will have to do work (undesired labor performed as a means of realizing a state that one desires) of scattering stones so that they can be gathered again.

However, if Fris gives Sec the blue pill, the Sec will immediately go to work scattering stones. Meanwhile, Fris can go back to gathering stones. Assuming that both Fris and Sec work at the same speed, Fris will be able to spend all of his time gathering stones without ever having to pause and do the work of scattering stones. The scattering is being done for him. The same is true of Sec, who will be able to spend all of his time scattering stones, as Fris provides stacks of stones for Sec to scatter.

Another way of saying the same thing is to say that Sec’s desire to scatter stones is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires (in this case, helping Fris to spend more time fulfilling his desire to gather stones).

When I speak of this state where there are different desires that work well together, I say that the desires are in ‘harmony’. It is like the coherence theory of belief. However, desires fit together differently than beliefs. A desire to gather stones fits harmoniously with another’s desire to gather stones together. Whereas a belief that gathering stones has intrinsic merit while scattering stones is a waste of life does not fit coherently with another’s belief that scattering stones has intrinsic merit and gathering stones is a waste of life.

This is one of the problems with ‘intrinsic value’ theories of value. It gets in the way of establishing harmonious desires. It says, “Either (1) you must value (desire) what I value, (2) you are evil for intentionally bringing about that which is intrinsically bad, or (3) you are sick in the sense that your desires are perverse and realize things that have no intrinsic merit.” Rejecting intrinsic values means that we have an opportunity to set up harmonious desires where different people desire different things – things that tend to fulfill the desires of others – without being denigrated for their differences.

Eenauk’s objection is that in order to recommend that Fris give Sec the blue pill, I need to introduce a (moral) principle of ‘should create a state of harmony among the desires’. This moral principle is what recommends to Fris that he give Sec the blue pill. Without this moral principle, Fris would not know what to do.

I hold that this principle is entirely unnecessary. Fris wants to gather stones. If he gives Sec the blue pill, he will be able to spend all of his time gathering stones. If, on the other hand, he gives Sec the yellow pill he will continue to be able to spend only half of his time gathering stones. He has more and stronger reasons to give Sec the blue pill than the yellow pill. A state of harmonious desires is what results from this decision. However, I do not need a moral principle of ‘thou shalt bring about a state of harmonious desires’ to bring this about.

All I need is the reasons for action that exist.

Let us imagine that this society has grown. There are now some large number of people with a desire to gather stones, and a large number of people with a desire to scatter stones. Now, we introduce yet another person in this society and we give the community the option of feeding this new person a yellow pill or a blue pill. How difficult would it be for this community with countless desires to decide which pill to feed this person?

It would not be difficult at all. All we would need to do is to look at the community and ask, “Is there more work being done gathering stones, or scattering stones?” Assume that, in this community, most of the stones are gathered together and, as soon as a stone gets scattered, there is a fight to see who can gather it. This suggests that the community needs more stone-scatterers, which means giving the newcomer the blue pill. If, instead, almost all of the stones are scattered and as soon as two stones are gathered together there is a fight to see who scatters it, then this suggests that the community needs more stone gatherers.

In the former case, the community has more and stronger reasons to give the newcomer a desire to scatter stones (feed him the blue pill). In the latter case, the community has more and stronger reasons to give the newcomer a desire to gather stones (feed him the yellow pill).

I still do not need a moral principle that says, ‘thou shalt bring about a state of harmonious desires in the community’. The members of this community do not even need to have a concept of harmony to know that there are more and stronger reasons to give the newcomer the blue pill (in the first instance) or the yellow pill (in the second). This concept of ‘harmony’ is simply some word that somebody eventually invents when he wants to talk about a state where the desires to gather stones are in balance with the strengths of the desires to scatter stones – when stones are gathered and scattered at nearly equal rates.

In fact, this system can even be applied to a group of animals. A new pup is born into this community. Assume that this pup is born into a community with more stone gatherers than stone scatterers. As the pup attempts to gather stones, he is hissed at and snarled at by others who are competing for the few rocks that there are to gather. On the other hand, when he scatters stones he gets none of this negative feedback. In fact, the stone gatherers reward and encourage him. This community is, in effect, feeding the young pup the blue pill.

Yet, this community does not even have a concept of ‘thou shalt’ – let alone the capacity to let it influence their actions.

When the question comes up, “Can there be a moral system among animals,” I answer that there can be. All it takes is a system of ‘rewarding’ those who fulfill the desires (with grooming, sex, the sharing of food, play) and the ‘condemning’ of those who thwart the desires of others (through snarls, hisses, a swipe across the nose, and other threats). Animals can very well ‘promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires’ in this way without having even a concept of good and evil.

In fact, I would suggest that this is where morality came from. I would suggest that humans had a concept of morality long before they were able to even dream up the concept of God because, even as animals, they were using praise and condemnation to promote desires that tended to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tended to thwart other desires. They converted this practice into language by adding the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Then, much later, they added the concept of ‘god’ and mucked the whole thing up.

However the historical concept works out, it’s still the case that I do not need “a desire to be [harmonious]” or a moral principle, “thou shalt create a harmony of desires.” I only need the reasons for action that exist. Those reasons for action themselves are enough to motivate acts that tend to their fulfillment, which means that they are sufficient to generate acts that establish a harmony of desires.

4 comments:

eenauk said...

ok, i think that does answer my objection: you can avoid having to justify your system from the outside by replacing the "we should seek harmonious desires" with an self-regulating system. This, however, does not allay my fundamental worry, which is precisely that your system is indeed complete.

Perhaps i can formulate it on an explicitly meta-ethical level. (To be clear: i am not trying to introduce a "mystical foundation" of morality; i am however uncomfortable with _reducing_ morality to facts alone: i am worried that putting "desires" at the foundation of ethics introduces unwanted metaphysical assumptions.) Here is a reformulated objection:

Why are desires so important? On one level they are important by definition: we do, after all desire them. But on another level, there are certainly other important things in our moral lives. Kant also came up with a "closed" ethical theory that was however based on "reason alone". Why are desires more important than reason? Why reduce homo moralis to desires alone?

What happens in Desire Utilitarianism Land when a saint appears who suppresses her own desires in order to further everyone else's desires? Will she not irreversibly prove by her actions that Desire Utilitarianism is now selfish? Morality can never be satisfied with itself. Of course, this saint can be said to have learnt to "desire to suppress her desires". However, this is a new type of desire that did not previously exist and that now requires a new moral theory.

Desire Utilitarianism will only be a _good_ moral theory when it includes a means of improving itself by doubting of its own goodness.

Juno Walker said...

Alonzo -

“Can there be a moral system among animals,” I answer that there can be. All it takes is a system of ‘rewarding’ those who fulfill the desires (with grooming, sex, the sharing of food, play) and the ‘condemning’ of those who thwart the desires of others (through snarls, hisses, a swipe across the nose, and other threats). Animals can very well ‘promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires’ in this way without having even a concept of good and evil.

I completely agree. I've always argued with people who claim that morality is a uniquely human (or divine) invention, and I try to point out the other animals have basic moral systems as well. As an animal trainer, I see this all the time. It's basically operant conditioning, and it's how all animals - including humans - learn.

I like how you extrapolate up to the human level and show that an objective/intrinsic or divine foundation isn't needed.

Best,
Juno

Ganapati said...

If the only desires, in the hypothetical universe, are either to gather the stones or to scatter them, where would actions like encouraging others or discouraging others spring from? Why would an individual in this universe prefer to discourage others from competition rather than do the opposite of what it desires when needed? What would cause it to prefer one type of 'work' over the other? It cannot possibly be minimising the time/effort spent in doing work, because such a desire does not even exist.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

If the only desires, in the hypothetical universe, are either to gather the stones or to scatter them, where would actions like encouraging others or discouraging others spring from?

They would come from the desire to gather or scatter stones.

Your question is like asking, "If the only desire is to gather stones, then where would actions like walking to the stone to be gathered come from? Where would the act of picking up the stone, or carrying the stone to the pile where they are gathered come from?

The desire to gather stones would motivate the agent to eat, as long as he realized that the eating would be useful in maintaining the energy to gather stones. A desire-as-end to gather stones, and a belief that a starving person cannot gather stones, will generate a desire-as-means to eat.