Monday, November 19, 2007

The Genesis of Desire Utilitarianism

A member of the studio audience has suggested that I explain how I arrived at some of the ideas that I defend in this blog. The suggestion ties in with answering Makarios’ comment:

Or you could just donate food to the Food Bank on a regular basis and stop all the idiotic "intellectual" posturing.

Please keep in mind that there is a significant difference between the genesis of an idea and a defense of that idea. Even bad ideas have a genesis, and the fact that a good idea originated in a mistake is not an objection against the idea itself. In fact, the mistake of criticizing the origin idea as if this says something about its truth has a name – it is called The Genetic Fallacy (which has nothing to do with biology, by the way). The genesis of desire utilitarianism – the ‘idiotic intellectual posturing’ to use Makorios’ phrasing – came substantially from the fact that I found the problem of determining how to make the world a better place to be a more difficult question to answer than Makarios seems to think it is.


I have often claimed that atheism is not a moral theory – that it carries no moral implications. However, my atheism plays a significant role in the genesis of my beliefs about morality.

I have always been an atheist. There was probably a time, back when I believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, that I also believed in God. However, as I grew up, I found that ancient civilizations had lots of different stories about gods and monsters. They could not all be true, so I came to the conclusion that they must all be false, in spite of the fact that whole civilizations have been built by people who believed them.

There is a slim – a smidgen next to zero - possibility that one of them is true. However, since nobody has a way of determining which one, selecting any of them is almost certainly a mistake. I have compared this to guessing what card somebody drew from a deck that has 1 billion suits and 1 billion and three cards in each suit. I may not be able to prove that the agent selected the King of Hearts, but I can prove that it is laughably absurd to assert confidently that he did.

I remember a very specific day when I was a junior in high school, sitting in an American History class, pondering the fact that my life will end, and nothing of me will survive my death. I pictured my own grave in my mind, with a tombstone having my name on it, and I asked “So, now what?”

Even though I have no chance of survival, the things that I create or that I contribute to creating have a chance of surviving my death. Even if no future person can link the effects of my actions to me specifically, those effects will still be real. Any links they bear to my efforts will still be real. These things do not depend on somebody actually knowing about them.

Even the most massive object in the universe must undergo at least some change (in direction or velocity) in response to the smallest force. Every force has an effect, however miniscule it happens to be.

So, my question was, “Will the effects of my life that survive my death be good, or will they be bad?”

Contrary to Makarios’ proposal that all I needed to do was donate food to some food drive, I saw the issue as being broader than this.

The Civil War

The day that I was thinking about this question was a day in which the class lecture was on the civil war. The teacher wrote on the board that there were 350,000 people died on the side of the Union, and 250,000 died on the side of the confederacy. This does not include the incalculable amount of pain and suffering for those who were wounded, those who survived the loss of loved ones, and the destruction of property.

I went to high school at a time when the world appeared on the brink of yet another ‘civil war’ on a planetary scale. This World War III – the fight between the communists and the capitalists – would likely involve nuclear weapons. I find it surprising that Bush has been able to generate so much fear on the possibility of a terrorist strike that might do some damage to a city, when I grew up under the cloud that in 15 minutes every city in the country could be destroyed.

In that context, I asked the question, “Who should I side with? How was I supposed to know where my efforts should go?”

Makarios’ simple answer of sending some food off to a food bank and being done with it does not even begin to answer the questions that I was seeking answers to. Even the most horrendous people defending the most horrendous regimes can soothe their conscience with a gift basket to a hungry neighbor. Many southerners were quite charitable during the civil war – some of them even showing a bit of charity to their slaves. Good German and Japanese citizens supporting the reigns of conquest launched by their political leaders were often quite willing to endure great hardship to benefit a neighbor. Many young Japanese men (and boys) were not only willing to donate a little surplus food, but to give up their lives flying airplanes into American ships.

How does Makarios’ suggestion to ‘just donate food to a food bank on a regular basis’ answer these types of questions?


I decided on that day in American History class that I needed to know what ‘better’ was. I had no easy answer.

Of course, a lot of people insisted that no atheist could hope to understand ‘better’ – that it required a belief in God.

This idea is so obviously wrong and mean-spirited that we have good reason to condemn any person who actually uses it. The claim should have the effect of using the word ‘nigger’ or any similar display of blatant disrespect.

An atheist cannot tell the difference between being tortured and spending the evening comfortably at home with a good book? He cannot understand the difference between a healthy body and one riddled with disease or mangled by violence? He cannot understand the usefulness of knowledge or the value of having enough food to eat and a warm place to live?

No person not consumed by an unreasoning hatred (itself a diet fed to him by religious leaders) would entertain such an absurd thought. When public opinion leaders express such unreasoned and unfounded hatred, this should be considered sufficient to call for those people to be replaced by individuals who realize that hate-mongering bigotry is not worthy of even the most casual embrace.

Yet, the fact that I knew there to be a difference between ‘better’ and ‘worse’, that this distinction was a distinction to be found in the real world, and that it did not require a belief in any god, did not tell me anything about what it was.


Perhaps the most important implication from this view is to distinguish between the reasons that people offer for and against various policies that are reasons that do not exist. Whenever people speak in defense of or in opposition to a policy by talking about pleasing God or about realizing something of intrinsic value, they are talking about reasons for action (reasons for adopting or rejecting a policy) that simply do not exist. To the degree that we can cut reasons that do not exist from our civic discourse, to that degree we can do a better job basing those decisions on reasons that do exist.

Even here, it is not always easy to come up with right answers. However, people who clutter discussions with reasons for action that do not exist are not helping matters in the slightest.

1 comment:

Chris Green said...

I enjoyed reading your post, I'll be back to check out your other work.