Thursday, November 15, 2007

More Issues with Desire Utilitarianism

Cameron has raised some more issues with desire utilitarianism.

One of those issues began with:

If I were omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent . . .

I do recognize that this type of perspective is common in moral philosophy. However, I do not see how it makes any sense.

Imagine a group of people on a sinking ship in the middle of the Pacific. While they look at their situation and try to decide what to do, one of them says, "If I was omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent . . . ."

Stop. You're none of those things. We have a real-world problem here and we need a real-world solution.

Morality, at least as I discuss it, has to do with real people living real lives where they are confronted with real-world human limitations. Those limitations preclude omniscience and omnipotence.

The whole case concerning the promoting of 'good' desires is that, if I desire X, then I have reason to cause you to desire that which will contribute to bringing about X. And if you desire Y, then you have reason to cause me to desire that which will bring about Y. There is nothing magical or mysterious about this relationship. If you want something, then you have reason to act so as to bring about that which you desire - as do I. This includes reason to cause others to have those desires that are useful to us - and for them to cause us to have desires that are useful to them.

If everyone's strongest desire (to the exclusion of all other desires) was to sit, smile, and watch other people sit and smile, that world is just as "good" as the real world in which our desires for justice and freedom and security and community are fulfilled.

Yes, if everybody desired only to sit and smile and watch others sit and smile, then they have no reason to do anything but to sit and smile and watch others sit and smile.

If you do not like this state, then it is because you desire something other than a universe in which people sit and smile. However, if you desired only to sit and smile and watch others sit and smile, you would have no reason to complain about this state either.

If you wish to argue that such a state is intrinsically bad then you need to present me with some type of evidence that intrinsic badness exists. An argument to the effect that you have an aversion to a certain set of propositions being true is not evidence that they are false.

Herein lies my problem. With DU, there's no intrinsic difference between promoting good desires and promoting an aversion to bad desires.

Actually, the claim is that intrinsic values do not exist. There is no real-world entity corresponding to intrinsic value. Any who claim that one state is intrinsically better than another is making a false claim. The only true claims that one can make (at least regarding value or 'reasons for action' is that a state tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than an alternative state.

Questions about what does and does not exist are simply not the types of questions to be settled by determining whether we like or dislike conclusions. They are determined by asking whether theories that contain those entities better explain real-world observations than theories without those entities. The claim that desires are the only reasons for action that exist is a claim that no other entity is needed to explain real-world events. It is not a claim that everybody who thinks about such a universe will find it more pleasing to them than any other universe in which they can imagine.

Now, even though there is no intrinsic difference between promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires. However, there may well be an important practical difference. Perhaps it is simply easier to promote a good desire than to inhibit a bad desire. Perhaps are desires are more malleable in the direction of promotion than inhibition. In these cases, we are well advised to put more emphasis into promoting good desires than inhibiting bad desires.

What’s to stop someone from going around and attempting to instill in people the best desires he can come up with?

Why stop him. If he is instilling people with good desires, then he is instilling people with desires that tend to fulfill other desires - which includes our desires. What 'reason for action' would we have to stop him if desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and he is bringing about that which we have the most and strongest reason to see brought about?

What’s to stop those people from being wrong (even with the very best of intentions and methods)?

Nothing at all. Of course, this fact is taken into consideration in the theory. One of the reasons that I argue that words should only be met with words and private actions, and that campaigns in an open society should only be met with campaigns, is because of the possibility of error and of corruption. To the degree that I control my own life, I will act so as to best fulfill my desires, given my beliefs. To the degree that you control my life, then you will be directing me to act so as to fulfill your desires given your beliefs. Even if you had a desire that my desires be fulfilled, this will be one desire among many, in competition with others, and cast aside when those other desires outweigh this one.

The best option for fulfilling the most and strongest desires is to allow each individual to decide how best to run his or her own life - to promote an aversion to one person directing the life of another, except in those rare instances where one person is clearly incapable of rational decision making (e.g., young children)

Finally, is the only reason that the idea of people doing that because I have a (malleable) aversion to the whole idea of someone else knowing what’s best for me?

I am not really sure what you intended to say in this sentence. However, in fact, for the vast majority of competent adults, we can direct our own lives more efficiently than others can direct our lives.

This is John Stuart Mill's argument for liberty in On Liberty. Decisions on which options to take should be made by those who have the best information and face the best incentives to making sure that the relevant desires are fulfilled. The person who knows most about how to fulfill your desires is you (again, unless you are suffering under some real significant mental impairment). You are also the least corruptible agent that can be found - the agent most interested in making sure that your acts fulfill your desires. For these reasons, desire utilitarianism argues for a desire for liberty, and an aversion to tyranny and oppression.

13 comments:

Cameron said...

Let me start by saying: I'm really not trying to be daft, here.

Secondly, thank you for taking the time to respond.

I have to just one final question (maybe by the time I'm through, I'll have it right):

Here's a question I might try to answer with DU: If I want to make the world a better place, should I set about trying to instill the best desires in others?

If the answer DU gives me is No, then DU isn't really a useful theory of morality. It can't tell me how to make the world a better place because it says I shouldn't do anything about the only thing with any moral significance (desires).

If the answer DU gives me is Yes, then that seems to violate my desire to generally be free from other people running around and attempting to instill desires in me (especially considering how fallible people can be).

That leaves me with an answer of "Yes, but focus on the really important desires, the desires you can actually change, and then only those desires that you're as sure about as you can be so that you avoid doing more harm than good."

That's my restatement of the answer I think you've been giving all along.

That doesn't feel like a very satisfying answer. It's sort of like climbing the fictitious mountain with the wise man on top to ask him "What should I do?" and then receiving an answer of "What do you want to do?" My guess is that as I give myself time to digest that answer, though, it's one that will probably prove to be useful and meaningful.

Thank you for your patience as I struggle along with this in public.

martino said...

Cameron:If I want to make the world a better place, should I set about trying to instil the best desires in others?
As I understand it DU will show you which desires you have that are worth pursing and which desires you should chose to change, to develop your virtues and discourage your vices. Similarly it is a guide as to how to evaluate and so deal with others that you interact with and in general. Importantly it focuses on the desires you and others do have and how to deal with them.

A good person will keep, let us say, a persistent and background desire to encourage desires that fulfil or tend to fulfil others desires and discourage desires to thwart or tend to thwart other desires however generally this is never their primary desire in any specific situation. It ensures they will not be avoidably negligent, intellectually reckless and so on.

Of course can chose to make one's primary desire to be to instill the best desires in others if is the more and strongest of your desires. However I doubt that it is possible to do this all the time and DU does not assert that one should - as I understand it. (This is a restatement of the impossibility of Act Utilitarianism which DU avoids)

If the answer DU gives me is Yes, then that seems to violate my desire to generally be free from other people running around and attempting to instil desires in me (especially considering how fallible people can be).
The reality is we live in a world where we are surrounded by politicians, marketeers, salesman, advertisers, snake oil salesman, alt med, religion and so on all of whom are trying to instil desires in you. That is the real world. Given that surely it would be preferable if we encourage those who instil good desires and discourage those those who don't and show others how to do the same?

Or you can become a hermit and live in the wild if this desire if yours is the more and strongest of your desires...

Cameron said...

Martino: Of course can chose to make one's primary desire to be to instill the best desires in others if is the more and strongest of your desires.

I don't see how this is a leap:
1) I want (desire) to make the world a better place.
2) According DU, the world is a better place when the more and stronger of people's desires are fulfilled.
3) Therefore, according to DU, I should (so as it fulfills the more and stronger desires of mine) set about fulfilling the more and stronger desires of others.
4) A society that has many people with desires that fulfill the more and stronger desires of others is more virtuous than a society that has just few of those people.
5) Therefore, the most effective way to fulfill my desire to make the world a better place is to instill in others desires that fulfill the more and stronger desires of others.

If I have a strong desire to make the world a better place, the logical conclusion I would come to is that the most effective way to do that is to encourage good desires in others.

Now obviously I can use DU to evaluate my own desires. I can say, "I desire x," does doing x tend to fulfill or thwart the desires of others? If it fulfills, I should keep desiring x. If it thwarts, I should try to find a new desire (all within the bounds of how strong my desire is). But that's not really the point. The question I'm struggling with is, if I desire to make the world a better place, what is the best use of my time?

The reality is we live in a world where we are surrounded by politicians, marketeers, salesman, advertisers, snake oil salesman, alt med, religion and so on all of whom are trying to instil desires in you. That is the real world. Given that surely it would be preferable if we encourage those who instil good desires and discourage those those who don't and show others how to do the same?

No argument there.

Makarios said...

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

Cameron said...

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

I'll see you there... You'll be there as soon as you're done commenting on blogs, right?

martino said...

Cameron I don't see how this is a leap:
1) I want (desire) to make the world a better place.
But is this your only desire or the more and strongest of your desires at all times?

Very unlikely not unless you are some sort of "saint" (really need a better word). You have many desires that vary in intensity over time due to circumstance e.g thirst and hunger (although these are mostly non-malleable). DU deals with all of the malleable ones (including eating and drinking to excess - hence the above two are also partly malleable).

It does not dictate what any individual's primary desire should be this is the significant difference between DU and Act Utilitarianism. Rather than maximise pleasure or happiness or an equivalent - which one can analogously think of as one dimensional - here we want to maximise the fulfilment of desires and there are many desires - so this is multi-dimensional - and these desires are not reducible to one master desire - similarly we have many beleifs but they are not reducible to one belief.

This is where I think you are struggling - there is no one master desire. Each individual based on their genes, environment and personal history has a possibly unique combination of desires. Even if you want to make the world a better place as you primary life time goal and primary desire, again it is possible that every individual - certainly you, me and Alonzo! - would find different - but harmonious - ways to achieve this.

Please bear in mind that I do not claim (yet?) to be a desire utilitarian I am just trying on the philosophy for size and learning as I go by, in this instance, debating with you. I am sure Alonzo will enlighten me as well as you if I am mistaken.

martino said...

CameronThat leaves me with an answer of "Yes, but focus on the really important desires, the desires you can actually change, and then only those desires that you're as sure about as you can be so that you avoid doing more harm than good."

That's my restatement of the answer I think you've been giving all along.

I fear I may have merely been restating your above concern in my last comment.

The question then is why That doesn't feel like a very satisfying answer.. Think about it. Do you want to be dictated to in some form or another and for everyone to want the same thing or do you want to exercise your liberty and freedom in you own way, as everyone else can too? Yes the onus of responsibility and accountability is higher on you than other simple-minded (and false) systems but I think if you dwell on this it is preferable. This is a more likely correct system than most (if not all) existing ones that enables you to be both moral and an individual.

Cameron said...

I don't see how this is a leap:
1) I want (desire) to make the world a better place.
But is this your only desire or the more and strongest of your desires at all times?


Of course not, but if I actually desire to make the world a better place, I still need to know the best way to go about doing it. Even if I only have the desire between 12:00 and 2:00 on Saturdays, I still wouldn't want to waste my 2 hours a week doing something less than what I could be doing, given my desires.

This is where I think you are struggling - there is no one master desire

Of course there isn't. That still doesn't mean I would want to waste my time. If I want to make the world a better place, I might still want to know the best thing I could do to make the world better. Then I can decide how feasible it would be for me to do that thing, and how much of it, given my desires.

Maybe the absolute best thing I can do doesn't fit within my desires at all. Well, one of the implications of being able to find the best thing is being able to find the second-best thing. Maybe I can do that. If not, maybe the third-best thing.

Let's take it from another angle. Maybe I've decided I want to volunteer. How should I decide which organization to volunteer for? One thing I could do is just pick the organization that is most in line with my desires (maybe I like kids, so I'll volunteer to mentor). But if one of my desires is to do the most good, how do I evaluate what to do? Should I work at a soup kitchen or for volunteer for a political caucus? Maybe I'd like (desire) to do both equally, but I only have the time to do one. If I want to do the most good, which one do I pick?

I think that this is a very important question for any theory of morality to be able to answer: "If I want to make the world a better place, given all of the options available to me, how do I choose what to do?"

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Cameron

If I were an investment advisor, and you had money to invest and no desire to waste it, it would still be unreasonable to demand that I tell you the one thing that will make you the most money over the given year - or to assert that my financial advice is worthless because I cannot guarantee your results.

I can give you principles and guidelines that seem to work over the long run, but I can offer no guarantees.

Investing in making the world a better place is like that. I can give you a long list of options that will tend to do more good than harm. The real world does not do any better than this.

Yes, it would be nice to have a fool-proof system that guarantees your results. However, it is not a criticism of any real-world system that this fool-proof system would be better. The fool-proof system does not and never will exist. So, we have to go with the best real-world system we can find (or make).

Cameron said...

If an investment advisor gave me list of investments that would make me more money, my response would be "Why do you think these will do better than any other investments?"

A response of "because I think they will" would do nothing other than encourage me to find a different advisor.

A response that talks about betas and required rates of return and r-squared values and some explanation of where those values come from and what they mean would give me some assurance that even though my results are not guaranteed and anything can happen, at least this advisor has some sound reasons for recomending this list of investments over any other.

With DU, the "money" is fulfilling desires. I'm asking how to decide between two investments. That is, given the limitations of the real world, what framework should I use for deciding which investment of my time is most likely to fulfill the most desires?

Also obviously, DU suffers from some real-world problems that investment advising does not. One of those major problems is that we don't have any proven way to quantifiably measure desires. Given that, it's virtually impossible to quantifiably say that any given action is universally better at fulfilling desires than any other action.

But, we are able to develop a list of actions that are more likely to fulfill desires, are we not? If we can generate a list, shouldn't we be able to explain how we decided which itmes to put on it?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Cameron

You wrote:

DU suffers from some real-world problems that investment advising does not. One of those major problems is that we don't have any proven way to quantifiably measure desires. Given that, it's virtually impossible to quantifiably say that any given action is universally better at fulfilling desires than any other action.

For centuries, humans lived with the inability to quantify differences in temperature. Yet, this did not imply that we had no way to determine the difference between hot and cold. The invention of thermometers did not give us a way to determine hot and cold; it only gave us a greater degree of precision.

Certainly, you can tell the difference between, say, a nuclar blast in a distant city and somebody in that city getting a paper cut. Which is the greater disaster?

If a person with good desires had to choose between two actions - one that would result in the nuclear disaster, and another that would result in a papercut, the claim that he would have to sit there lost in confusion because he could not answer the question does nothing but reduce the assumptions that lead to this claim to an absurdity.

Cameron said...

I understand what you're saying. I think my only real response is that our degree of precision for measuring desires seems inadequate when evaluating actions on a large scale.

For the political leader that must decide how to allocate scarce resources between hundreds of initiatives, say when deciding how much to invest in environmentally friendly initiatives and how much to invest in education, the lack of precision multiplied over society potentially leads to very big impacts.

Practically, that may not matter very much right now, as we have political leaders that are making very obviously wrong decisions. Hopefully one day the debate will turn to the finer points of two similarly good initiatives instead of trying to prevent the outrageously bad ones.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Cameron

However difficult it may be to discover the correct course of action in some cases, it is made all the more difficult by the sophistry and outright lies that are used to muddy the waters in many cases.

Yet, lies and sophistry are tolerated in this culture. Very seldom is it the case that people are held morally accountable for epistemic negligence or deception.

Morally, deceivers and sophists in the news media should fear for their reputation and their jobs. In politics, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to systematically remove sophists from political office - far more so than removing Senators who seek voluntary homosexual acts in airport bathrooms.

We may have some disputes over the best way to educate children, but there should be no dispute over the need to institute a love of truth and an aversion to deception. Children should be taught just how contemptible liars and sophists are.