Cameron has provided me with one further question on desire utilitiarianism.
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?
And Martino is doing a good job of answering them in the comments. The post that follows is an alternative phrasing, not a correction, for Martino's answers.
Cameron: There is a prior question to be asked here.
“Should I want to make the world a better place?”
Many people come to desire utilitarianism with a set of assumptions that lead them to think that this is what I am saying – that everybody should instill the ‘best desires’ in others, where ‘best desires’ are desires that tend to fulfill other desires.
This is because they come to the theory focused primarily on actions (What should I do?).
Desire utilitarianism challenges that. It says, “You will do that which fulfill the more and stronger of your own desires, given your beliefs.” Nothing will change that fact. So, the proper focus on morality is not, “What should I do?” but “What should I desire?”
Should you, or anybody, desire to make the world a better place?
There arguments against having such a desire.
One of the key arguments is that it is extremely difficult to determine what counts as ‘making the world a better place’. I have given my ideas in this blog. However, those ideas come from spending a lifetime studying this issue – 12 years of college in moral philosophy, and all of the effort I have put into it since college. Most people do not have that kind of time. They’re too busy being computer programmers, research scientists, parents, engineers, actors, and the like to put this type of energy into trying to come up with answers to such questions.
Compare this ‘desire to making the world a better place’ to ‘an aversion to deception’. The latter is simple. On the whole, we can do a far more efficient job determining when somebody is lying or engaging in sophistry in order to mislead others than we can of determining whether an act ‘makes the world a better place’. When we do, we can react to condemn the speaker immediately, and say with a great deal of confidence in most cases, “That person is lying!” For these reasons, an aversion to deception has much to recommend it over a desire to make the world a better place does not.
What it has to recommend it is that an aversion to deception tends to fulfill other desires. Since people act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs, and false beliefs is quite commonly a barrier to desire fulfillment, an aversion to deception will help to eliminate the false beliefs that prevent desire fulfillment.
However, the motivation for a moral campaign to crack down on deception is not ‘a desire to make the world a better place’. The motivation for such a campaign comes from the fulfillment of all of those desires that a campaign for greater honesty would help us to fulfill. One of those desires would be a desire to make the world a better place (where it existed). Other desires include desires for food, clothing, and shelter; for the well-being of one’s friends and family; for health and long-life with less pain and discomfort.
Even if a person does want to make the world a better place, that desire will naturally sit in a brain that is wired with other desires. That person will also likely have a desire for sex, an aversion to pain, a desire for food and water, a desire for a comfortable environment – not too hot or too cold, a desire for the well-being of one’s children. Every act one performs will be the act that best fulfills the more and stronger of the agent’s desires, given his beliefs. Therefore, every act will weigh these other desires against the desire to make the world a better place. Depending on the relative weights of these desires, the desire to make the world a better place will often lose anyway.
It is far better – and far more efficient – to simply mold these other desires so that, while fulfilling them, one happens to bring about (as a side effect) the fulfillment of other desires, rather than expect people to be able to aim for that end directly.
You are walking down an icy street after a blizzard and you come across somebody stuck on the side of the road. How do you decide whether to help him? You do not stop to calculate the sum benefit of your actions on human history. You can never have enough information to answer that question. For all you know, this person is about to meet with his girlfriend where they will conceive a child that will become the next Hitler. But, you help push his car out of the snow bank because you are kind, and you desire to help others. If enough people promote enough kindness and helping others, then we do not need to worry about the next Hitler. People will simply have too strong of an aversion to that type of person for him to get power.
(Which is why I am particularly alarmed that there is not nearly enough of an aversion to the political aims of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. A strong aversion to those types of policies is essential to preventing the next Hitler.)
I do not think that a desire to make the world a better place is a bad desire. I do not see much of a reason to condemn those who have this desire. It might even be a good desire in limited doses – for a small number of people interested in studying moral philosophy. It is just too awkward and unwieldy for general, public use.
However, Cameron, I do not want to be accused of avoiding your question – which was, to the degree that one desires to make the world a better place, should one set about trying to instill the best desires in others.
There is only one way in which something can actually, honestly, in a real-world sense, be ‘better’ than something else. That is if the something fulfills more and stronger desires than the alternative. If you are making A better, then you are making it into something that fulfills more and stronger desires than it used to. To make the world a better place, you make it into a world that people like more than the like the world as it exists today. Making it into a world that people dislike more would be counter-productive.
Promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires seems like a perfectly sensible way into making the world a place that people like more – a world that fulfills more desires. Promoting desires that tend to thwart other desires, I suspect, would have the opposite effect – generating states of affairs in the world that people do not like.
In a different comment, you stated the question quite differently.
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?
I would say that the best use of your time would probably be participating in a campaign against dishonesty and sophistry – so that liars and manipulators are despised rather than rewarded in this culture. Campaigning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or discovering how to use embryonic stem cells to cure a range of diseases from Alzheimer’s to spinal cord injuries (if, indeed, this is even possible) are also good uses of your time.
Donating food to the food bank is a viable option.
When it comes to answering the question, “What should I do?” the desire utilitarian answer is, “Do what a person with good desires would do.” A person with good desires is a person with desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. A good person is not, necessarily, a person with a desire to fulfill the desires of others. He may simply have an aversion to dishonesty. However, this aversion to dishonesty is a desire that tends to fulfill the desires of others.
When you go to visit your friend in the hospital, do not visit him because you have calculated that, in your quest to make the world a better place, you have decided that visiting him is the best use of your time. Visit him because you care about how he is doing and you want to cheer him up – cheer him up; forget about the rest of the world.
Desire utilitarianism takes a step back. It reconizes that a desire to cheer up one’s sick friends is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and certainly not a desire that we have any reason to try to reduce or eliminate (or condemn). It is, instead, a desire we have reason to promote and nurture.
When we question the quality of the desire to cheer up one’s friends in the hospital, that is where we consider the rest of the world, and we judge the desire to be good. When it comes to visiting one’s friends in the hospital, the desire that one is acting on is the desire to cheer up a sick friend – a desire to say, “I’m here for you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Finally, I want to restate Martino's final comment:
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?
Desire utilitarianism says that there are some things we have reason to make universal desires. However, in a lot of cases, it simply does not pay for everybody to ‘want the same thing’. If everybody wanted to be a teacher, who would build the buildings? Who would cure disease? Who would examine questions of right and wrong in detail?
It is quite useful that we have some people who love teaching, some who love architecture, some who love medicine, and some who love moral philosophy.
My question to you is: Do you want this ‘freedom and liberty’ that you value to include the liberty to grab children off the street to be raped, tortured, and killed? Does it include the ‘freedom’ to command one’s armies to invade other countries for the purpose of taking control of their oil fields? Does it include the purpose of destroying whole cities because for the sake of adding a few billion dollars to the corporate bottom line?
Desire utilitarianism says that a love of liberty is a good desire for everybody to have. Since each individual is the most knowledgeable and least corruptible agent for directing the life of that individual (with the exception of young children and severely mentally handicapped), that a love of liberty puts decision-making capability of each life into the hands of the most competent and least corruptible agent.
However, it also says that it it is good that everybody love liberty - that those who would act to curtail liberty deserve condemnation and contempt. There is no room in this system for a love of tyranny – the exercise of ‘liberty and freedom’ does not include the liberty and freedom to arbitrarily harm others.
Desire utilitarianism explains where this boundary can be found.