Today I turn to the studio audience once again for another question.
On a desire utilitarian theory, can’t a good person ever relax and watch some mindless television? Does he have to
spend every waking moment doing good?
I am paraphrasing what I take to be the heart of an issue that Cameron raised to my posting, "Berlinerblau on Living Large vs Living Right": ,
Cameron points out (correctly) that I have said that we have neither reason to promote nor reason to condemn ‘neutral’ desires – desires that neither fulfill nor thwart other desires. Cameron argues instead that we have reason to condemn neutral desires because the person who is fulfilling neutral desires is not doing any good. He is sitting in front of the television guzzling a beer while he watches American Idol when he could be doing something productive. At the very least, he could be sitting in front of the television guzzling beer watching the Science Channel.
Now if I, as a moral person, truly want the world to be a better place than it otherwise would be, it seems to me that these so-called "morally neutral" desires, ones that don't directly help or hinder the desires of others, should be the subject of condemnation. Since many of these "neutral" desires have to do with personal well being (relaxation, health, etc), there's some flexibility. As a moral society, should we not direct that flexibility towards everyone's benefit? For example, if both watching TV and planting trees are relaxing, should we not condemn those that choose to watch TV when they could be out planting trees?
By the way, ‘flexibility’ (or what I call ‘malleability’) is important here because we are talking about desires that can be modified through social forces. It makes no sense to use social forces to alter a desire that cannot be altered.
However, let us look at our agent with a desire to relax. Let us assume that both watching television and planting trees are equally relaxing. Under these assumptions, why is this person watching television instead of planting trees?
A person acts so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. If this agent had a desire to relax (that both activities fulfilled equally), and even a smidgen of a desire to provide society with any of the benefits that come from planting trees, then he would be planting trees. The fact that he is not planting trees suggests either that (1) he lacks a desire to provide the community with any of the benefits of planting trees, or (2) planting trees does not fulfill the desire to relax as well as watching television.
The first option leaves the agent open to condemnation. Desire utilitarianism holds that a person can be condemned, not only for the bad desires that he has, but for the good desires he does not have. This is the key difference between desire utilitarianism and motive-based theories of the past.
Previous motive-based moral theories held that an act inherent its moral value from the quality of the motives from which it sprang. These theories could not account for the moral crime of negligence (which does not spring from any desire to do harm; but merely exhibits no particular interest in preventing harm). Desire utilitarianism condemns a person for the absence of good desires. This, it condemns those who negligent for lacking a proper level of concern for the consequences that his actions may have on others.
However, the second possibility – that the desire for relaxation itself motivates people to sit in front of the television all day and watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island or Seinfeld when they could be doing something productive with their lives – still exists. Is this not reason enough to condemn the desire for relaxation.
“Get off your fat, lazy ass and do something with your life.”
Not only do we have reason to condemn those who desire things that do not help others, we actually do condemn them. We do not condemn them enough, as far as I can see. Americans spend far too much time watching television and, when they are watching television, they are watching mind-numbing television with no socially redeeming qualities whatsoever. Americans alone spend over $300 billion per year on sports products. Over the past 20 years, they could have built 60 space stations with the money that they spent on sports.
Does this not contradict my claim that we have no reason to promote or inhibit neutral desires?
To answer this, please note that I express the distinction between a neutral desire and a bad desire using the concept of ‘harmony’. Two desires are in harmony to the degree that both desires can be fulfilled at the same time. For example, a desire to eat and a desire for the company of good friends can both be fulfilled by going out to eat with good friends. To desires are in conflict if an agent must choose between the fulfillment of one desire or the fulfillment of the other. A desire to smoke and a desire to enjoy a long and healthy life are in conflict since smoking thwarts the desire for a long life (and many of the desires that a long life would otherwise help to fulfill).
The so-called ‘neutral’ desire that pulls resources away from activities that would otherwise tend to fulfill other desires is not a neutral desire at all. It is a bad desire. It contributes to the thwarting of other desires by pulling resources away from acts that would fulfill other desires.
Those are desires that we have reason to condemn.
In addition, I would like to note that the question of condemnation also faces a cost-benefit tradeoff. It is not worthwhile to go after limited transgression in the face of more serious transgressions. This, too, would be an example of wasting scarce resources on projects other than where they do the most good. Somebody who does good can be allowed a little time to relax and enjoy himself; he is still better than the person who does nothing.
Let us look at the example of sitting down and watching television. To somebody who generally spends a fair amount of their time doing things to help others, I see no objection against allowing him a little bit of free time. Military planners in particular know the value of a little rest and relaxation from time to time – pulling units off of the front line so that they can fight more effectively when they return to the front line. This leisure is not contemptible unless it becomes excessive. The person who cares about nothing but catching the next episode of his favorite television show is a pathetic (and morally repugnant) individual.
Cameron provides other examples:
Since both eating vegetarian, and eating meat can provide nutrition requirements, should we not condemn those that eat meat (due to the massive additional inputs required to produce it) instead of vegetables?
This is a more potent argument in a region where people were starving due to lack of food. The problem of starvation in many parts of the world is not a lack of food (indeed, governments – including the United States – still pay farmers NOT to grow food. However, if it were the case that the person eating beef caused was taking food out of the mouths of those who were starving, then the person eating beef could be condemned. This would not be a neutral desire – it would be a desire that tends to thwart the desires of others.
Since both donating to church and donating to a local homeless shelter ostensibly fulfill a desire for charity, should we not condemn those that choose to donate to church instead of the homeless?
One of the complications that this brings up is the issue of what it takes to fulfill a desire. A desire that ‘P’ (e.g., a desire that I serve God) can only be fulfilled in a state of affairs in which P is true. Many of the desires that motivate a person to donate to a church rather than a homeless shelter are NOT desires that can be fulfilled. There is, at least, ‘reason for action’ to correct this error to the degree that want the homeless to acquire real-world benefits.
If we go further and discover that the agent does not care about the truth of his beliefs, then we have reason to condemn him for his lack of interest in producing real-world benefits.
So, we have a case of laziness where the desire is not neutral because it tends to thwart other desires. We have a case of where the behavior in question does not thwart desires and would condemn the person if it did. We have a case in which desires cannot be fulfilled because of false beliefs and, potentially, room for criticism for the person who does not care about whether he has false belief or whether he produces real-world benefits.
We do not have examples of a neutral desire itself worthy of condemnation.
We will not have such an example, though the reason for this may be considered ‘cheating’ in a sense. The instant a desire tends to thwart other desires – the instant we have reason to condemn it – at that instant it ceases to be neutral.