Ron from Houston, in a number of comments, has been bringing up a test for moral acceptability that he calls "The Reasonable Person Test."
I keep bringing up the reasonable man standard because I think it applies in these situations. Grilling hamburgers at my local park is something a reasonable man would do and is therefore acceptable. Grilling hamburgers outside a Hindu temple is not something a reasonable man would do and therefore violates boundaries.
I have objections to the 'reasonable person' test. Namely, if we are going to try to determine what the reasonable person would or would not do, what we need to do is to look at the reasons. We then evaluate the reasons for soundness (or, at least, plausibility), and judge from that.
However, if we are making our evaluations on the plausibility of reasons, we do not need a reasonable person test. We simply need a 'good reason' test. The 'person' part becomes superficial. We need to look at whether the reasons for or against an action have merit, or not.
There are two types of reasons – beliefs and desires. Desires identify the ends (or goals) of human action, while beliefs pick out the means (or the methods of establishing or maintaining those goals). To look at whether an agent passes a “good reason” test, we must look at the reasons and see if they are any good.
Beliefs are judged to be good or bad based on their justification. Abelief is a mental state – having a belief that P means being in a state where one treats the proposition P as being true. (Even though the belief might be false.) Believing that there is a dragon outside of one’s door that will eat the agent as soon as he leaves the house means behaving as if the proposition were true.
Desires are judged good or bad according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. We have reason to promote beliefs that tend to fulfill other desires because we have other desires that need to be fulfilled.
So, what reasons are there for cooking hamburgers in a park as opposed to cooking hamburgers in front of a Hindu temple? What can we say about the quality of those reasons?
We do not need a "Reasonable Person Test" to judge an act like PZ Myers' alleged plan to desecrate a consecrated communion wafer. We need to look at Myers' reasons themselves, and to judge whether those reasons have any merit.
I hold that the proposition that the crackers were not obtained by theft is an unreasonable belief. Property acquired through fraud or stealth is still the property of the person who was defrauded. We can be quite certain that, if Myers has a consecrated communion wafer, then it was taken from the church through fraud (by falsely presenting oneself as a Catholic participating in the ritual of communion), or by stealth (sneaking out with a wafer).
We can argue that Myers also presents another bad reason for action (or demonstrates the absence of a good reason, which also counts on this model). He does not show any compassion for the feelings of Catholics who are offended and bothered by his action. Sympathy is a good desire – one we have reason to promote and to promote. To the degree that Myers does not exhibit sympathy, we have reason to condemn him.
However, the ‘sympathy’ ply is cluttered by the fact that the Church promotes policies and laws detrimental to the well-being of others. As such, we have to measure sympathy for the members of the Catholic church against sympathy for the well-being of those who are made to suffer and, in some cases, die as a result of Catholic church doctrine.
I am not going back to the Inquisition, Crusades, and 30-Years War to make this point. I am talking about current policies that block research into stem cell medicine, early-term abortions, family planning (through the use of birth control), and homosexual marriage. We need to measure compassion for people who hold an absurdly false set of beliefs, with compassion for the people that those who uphold an absurdly false set of beliefs harm.
Given that real value requires real relationships between states of affairs and desires, we have good reason not to respect false beliefs. What this means is that a state of affairs S has value to the degree that there is a desire that P and P is true in S. No consecrated cracker has ever been the actual body of Christ. So, much of the value that people see in a consecrated value is not real. Whereas the interests harmed by public policies that the Catholic Church defends are real.
Real goods trump imaginary goods.
In the case of the Hindu temple, this applies. If the Hindu position regarding the eating of beef resulted in widespread starvation – where tens to hundreds of millions of people starve to death – it may well be time to open up a barbecue in front of the nearest Hindu temple. Once again, it makes no sense to give preference to invented harms over real harms.
One objection that may be raised against this is the assumption that starvation, survival through medical breakthroughs involving stem-cell research, and freedom from sexually transmitted disease, are all real goods while the sacredness of cows and the value of the consecrated communion wafers are imaginary goods. In making these claims, I may be accused of begging the question against religious beliefs.
However, the possibility of error is captured in the principles surrounding freedom of speech. I am not advocating violence against those who hold these absurd beliefs – in fact, I have argued against the use of violence. I have only argued in favor of debate, which means allowing the critics of these views to speak their mind in whatever way they think best communicates their ideas.
The desecration of the consecrated communion wafer is meant to communicate that the consecrated wafer is still just a cracker. The barbecue outside of a Hindu temple at a time of starvation communicates the fact that e can use cows to feed people. No violence is being offered against the church (at least on the principles I am defending here). That is as far as respect for other beliefs requires us to go.
Desire utilitarianism does have something like a 'reasonable person' test. It is a 'person with good desires’ test. A right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong act is the act that a person with good desires would not perform. And a permissible act is an act that a person with good desires may or may not perform, depending on other interests.
A right act is not necessarily done for good reasons – sometimes they are done for notorious reasons. A person might turn in his brother, the child rapist, so that he can be sole heir to the family fortune. Yet, he still performed the act that a person with good desires would have performed.
However, 'good desires' is rather precisely defined – as is 'justified beliefs'.
One of the problems of imagining a 'reasonable person' test without fixed definitions is that people are going to imagine the 'reasonable person' doing exactly what the agent wants to do. It is an invitation to examine one’s own prejudices and then project those prejudices onto the world. One person may claim that a reasonable person can simply see that homosexuality is unnatural and that we must promote religion in order to promote morality.
What standard does he use to determine if these views are correct?
I would argue that the only standards that make sense in the light of this model is to test the beliefs and desires themselves for reasonableness – beliefs in terms of whether or not they are justified, and desires according to whether or not they tend to fulfill other desires.