Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What ought a person to do?

I have a question from the studio audience.

I've only just discovered your desire utilitarianism, and it seems to have a lot of promise. How is it used, though, to make decisions in today's world?

So, you are a desire utilitarian and you have a decision to make in today’s world.

The first thing to note is that these types of questions are ‘should’ or ‘ought’ questions. They take the form, “What should I do?” or “What should somebody who is in this type of situation do?”

“Should” questions are questions about ‘reasons for action that exist’. The question, “Should I do X?” is a question that is asking, “What reasons-for-action exist in favor of, or in opposition to, my doing X?” So, we are going to make our decision about what to do in today’s world by looking at ‘reasons for action that exist in favor of, or in opposition to’ various options.

The first thing that I would recommend is clearing off of the table and getting rid of the things we can’t use. Specifically, we need to clear away all of the reasons for action that do not exist. If we were going to discuss the motion of body through space we are going to be looking at the forces that exist and that are acting on the body. Forces that do not exist are irrelevant. In the same way, reasons for action that do not exist are also irrelevant.

The set of reasons for action that do not exist are any reasons for action associated with a God. God does not exist, so reasons for action that are linked to God do not exist. Even if God did exist, He would have just one set of desires, and there would be no ‘reason for action that exists’ for giving his desires greater weight than those of any other person.

Intrinsic values or ‘fundamental moral oughts’ do not exist either. These fundamental moral oughts are basic moral entities from which all of the more complex moral duties and obligations that we see in the world come from – in the same way that fundamental physical properties explain the complexities of stars, living organisms, and universities. Postulating the existence of fundamental moral oughts that exist in a realm distinct from the physical universe but which can interact with it (at least so as to make us aware of their presence) represents a form of dualism that we should accept only if the evidence forces us to.

Subjective values also do not exist. An ‘ought’ that can spring into existence or disappear merely by thinking of it is a work of fiction. An imaginary dragon that I think lives outside of my house and will eat me if I decide to leave may be ‘true for me’ in the sense that I will act as if it exists. However, it is still an imaginary dragon – it is not a dragon that exists. Similarly, an ‘ought’ that exists only because I have thought it into existence, and that disappears the instant that I quit thinking about it . . . an ‘ought’ that is only ‘true for me’ while I believe it – is in the same state as the imaginary dragon.

We are looking for reasons for action that are real – that are actually put to work explaining and predicting real-world events. The only reasons for action that exist are desires. All other reasons for action can be cleared off of the table and thrown away – they do not exist.

When we look at real value we are going to look at the propositions that are true of a state of affairs and look at the propositions that are the objects of various desires. Whenever a proposition is true of a state of affairs that is the object of a desire, we are going to say that the state of affairs fulfills that desire. People seek to act so as to fulfill their desires – to create states of affairs in which the propositions are true. These are the type of ‘reasons for action’ that desires are. These are the types of ‘reasons for action’ that exist.

When we compare a state of affairs to reasons for action that exist (desires) we determine if people have reasons for action to bring about that state of affairs. We answer the ‘should’ question by determining the degree to which there are reasons for action that exist for realizing a state of affairs. Reasons for action exist to the degree that propositions that are true within that state of affairs are propositions that are the object of the most and strongest desires.

This is where the desire-fulfilling act-utilitarian stops. This is where act-utilitarian theories make their mistakes. Those theories say that there is nothing we can do to evaluate ends. Unlike beliefs, where our belief that a proposition is true can be compared to whether or not the proposition is true in fact, we cannot compare our desire for a state in which a proposition is true with the intrinsic value of that state. Intrinsic value does not exist.

Desire utilitarians go from this fact to the conclusion that we cannot evaluate ends. They are mistaken.

We cannot evaluate ends as ends. However, every end is also, at the same time, a means to the fulfillment of other ends. We can evaluate an end as means in the same way we can evaluate everything else, in terms of the degree to which having a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires.

The desire-fulfillment act-utilitarian only looks at whether an act fulfills the most and strongest desires. If it does, then the act is permissible – even obligatory. However, we can imagine an act such as rape fulfilling the more and stronger desires – the rapists desire rape more than the victim is adverse to being raped. So, in these cases, desire-fulfilling act-utilitarianism seems to justify rape.

But desire utilitarianism does not. Desire utilitarianism not only compares states of affairs to desires (to see if the state of affairs would fulfill or thwart those desires), it looks at the desires themselves to determine if people generally have reason to inhibit or promote those desires.

The desire to rape is a desire-thwarting desire. It is a desire that people generally have reason to get rid of.

We can see the problem with the desire to rape by imagining that we have control over a knob that will generally increase or decrease the intensity and spread of a desire to rape throughout a community. To the degree that we increase this desire to rape, to that degree we increase the desires that will be thwarted. Either the desires of the rapist will have to be thwarted, or the desires of the victims will have to be thwarted. The more and stronger the desire to rape, the more and stronger the desires that will be thwarted.

The best place to turn this knob is down to zero – so that there is no desire to rape. If this were the case, then no victims will have their desires thwarted through rape, and there would be no rapists who would have to go through the frustration of having a desire to rape go unfulfilled. This is a desire that people generally have reason to weaken or to eliminate.

So, we are going to condemn the rapist, and we are going to use the existence of any particular rape as evidence that we are dealing with a somebody who is not a good person – somebody who has good desires. We have reason to condemn rape, not to permit it, as a way of teaching children to acquire the aversion to rape that will keep all of us safe. It does not matter whether a given rape will fulfill more desires than it thwarts.

The mere fact that a particular rape fulfills desires is enough of a problem. We would be better off if a given rape fulfilled more desires, and we have reason to create a society where this is the case (as much as possible). Which means that we have reason to act so as to inhibit any desire to rape, which means condemning any person who has the desire as a way of discouraging its formation and growth.

So, briefly, this is how desire utilitarianism is applied to a problem in today’s world. Examine the states of affairs that would be produced by some actions (according to the best of one’s ability to predict). Determine the desires that would be fulfilled by that state. Determine whether the desires will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. Encourage people to act to bring about states that a person with good desires would bring about, and discourage them from bringing about states that a person with good desires would avoid bringing about.

1 comment:

kpharri said...

I do not believe the above analysis is sound.

You say:
"The desire to rape is a desire-thwarting desire. It is a desire that people generally have reason to get rid of."

However, the desire to avoid rape is also a desire-thwarting desire. It thwarts the desire to rape. The two desires are symmetrical in this sense, each one thwarting the other, so there is no way of distinguishing one as better than the other.


You say:
"We can see the problem with the desire to rape by imagining that we have control over a knob that will generally increase or decrease the intensity and spread of a desire to rape throughout a community. To the degree that we increase this desire to rape, to that degree we increase the desires that will be thwarted. Either the desires of the rapist will have to be thwarted, or the desires of the victims will have to be thwarted. The more and stronger the desire to rape, the more and stronger the desires that will be thwarted."

This is not the case. It we turn the desire-to-rape knob, then only the desire to rape is going to increase, not the desire to avoid rape (we’re not turning both knobs). Thus, as the desire to rape increases, only the desire of the rapist has a greater potential to be thwarted. Does this really mean that the desire is bad? Well, let’s compare the outcome to what happens if we turn the other knob instead, i.e. the aversion-to-rape knob. If we turn up this knob, there will be no affect at all on the rapists’ desire to rape (because that is controlled by a separate knob). Thus, the only desire that has a greater potential to be thwarted is the desire to avoid rape. The aversion to rape is therefore just as much of a “desire thwarting” desire as the desire to rape. The symmetry of the problem is not broken by the knob-turning approach, which boils down to a sleight-of-hand.


You say:
"The best place to turn this knob is down to zero – so that there is no desire to rape. If this were the case, then no victims will have their desires thwarted through rape, and there would be no rapists who would have to go through the frustration of having a desire to rape go unfulfilled. This is a desire that people generally have reason to weaken or to eliminate."

Yes, but exactly the same thing can be said of the aversion-to-rape knob. If we turn that knob down to zero, then there is no desire to avoid being raped, and no rapists will have their desires thwarted, and there would be no victims who would have to go through the anguish of being raped, because they would have no aversion to it.

The stalemate in this problem can only be broken by introducing a third desire that has a different relationship to the original two. Realistically, there will be a plethora of desires involved, but for the sake of argument, let us simply add the desire to avoid pain. Let both the potential rapist and the potential victim experience this desire. In this new set up, we now observe that the desire to rape thwarts two desires: it thwarts the aversion to rape and the aversion to pain. On the other hand, the desire to avoid rape thwarts one desire (the desire to rape) and fulfills another (the desire to avoid pain). Clearly, then, the desire to rape now ranks lower than the desire to avoid rape, because it thwarts more desires. No knobs necessary.