As I mentioned in my last post, I am writing about the relationship between Desire Utilitarianism on the one hand, and egoism and free will on the other.
In my last post, I explained how desire fulfillment theory is not compatible with egoism. Desire fulfillment theory allows us to have a variety of different types of desires. This includes caring about the welfare of other people, and wanting to see them better off – or having an aversion to the suffering of others.
Still, the idea that each person acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his or her own desires leaves little room for free will. Our actions are determined, on this model, by the combination of an agent’s beliefs and desires.
It’s true – there ain’t no such thing as a free will.
Desire utilitarianism is not only compatible with determinism, it requires determinism. It requires the assumption that our actions are caused by our beliefs and desires, and the assumption that are desires can be molded, at least in part, by the environment. The parts of the environment that are particularly relevant are social forces – praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.
If something like contra-causal free will actually exists, I would not know what to do with it. This force that allows a person to violate the laws of cause and effect simply by ‘willing’ something to happen – it is so bizarre that I do not even know how to make sense of it, let alone work it into a theory of ethics.
As one of the anonymous member of the audience put it:
How is a moral system not useless in determinism? If I can't make a choice between alternatives then how can I be held responsible for my actions?
You can be held responsible for your actions simply because you are responsible for those actions – or, more precisely, your desires are responsible for those actions.
I have often heard the claim that the only way praise or condemnation can make sense is if the person praised or condemned has free will. Without free will, praise or condemnation would not be legitimate.
However, one of the questions that I have had for quite some time is this: How is it the case that the existence of free will makes condemnation and punishment the appropriate response to wrong action, and makes praise and reward the appropriate response to virtuous action? Why is it not the case that the appropriate reaction to wrong action is to run around in a circle clockwise, and the appropriate response to right action is to run around in a circle counter-clockwise?
Desire utilitarianism has an answer to these questions. Praise and condemnation have the effect of molding desires. A wrong action indicates that a person has bad desires – desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. Condemnation is a tool for inhibiting bad desires. So, the appropriate response to a sign that a person has bad desires is condemnation.
However, the claim is that free will is necessary before we can legitimately ‘blame’ somebody and impose condemnation or punishment.
Why is this? What is the relationship between free will and condemnation?
There is a sense, when we blame somebody, that it must have been the case that he ‘could have done otherwise’. In fact, whenever we condemn somebody for doing the wrong thing we can identify a right thing that the agent ‘should have done’ instead.
However, desire utilitarianism has a place for this kind of language. In order for condemnation to be legitimate, it must be the case that the agent ‘could have done otherwise’ in the sense that, if he had a different set of desires, he would have done otherwise. The condemnation is intended to help the agent get the correct desires.
More importantly, condemnation is meant to help others acquire the right desires. We do not have to be punished ourselves for wrongdoing in order to acquire an aversion. We only need to experience the hostility that people have for those who would commit murder. In this way, many of us acquired an aversion to the groundless killing of other people without ever having been condemned for killing, or praised for deciding not to kill. We learn these rules vicariously, through the experiences of others.
Those ‘others’ do not even have to be real. They can be characters in a story. Or they can be expressions of wrongdoing leveled at purely hypothetical wrongdoers – expressions of the level of condemnation that a person would receive if he were ever to be caught doing such a thing.
Let’s look at another part of Anonymous’ response.
Even if we accept your ideas on controlling desires through praise, condemnation, and punishment isn't it thus useless to even discuss the subject since it will occur regardless in a determined world?
Computers have shown us how choice can be relevant even in a determined system.
A chess-playing computer goes thorough a set of possible moves, measuring the outcome of each option, and then deciding on the outcome with the highest value. It evaluates the different moves available to it as if each move were a genuine possibility. It evaluates KP2-KP4 vs QP2-QP4 as if it really does have the power to move either piece – as if the move it ends up making actually does depend on the calculations it makes weighing different options.
As the computer goes through its calculations, both options are available to it. The move that results is not determined independent of the weighing of options on the part of the machine. It is an outcome of the completely determined act of weighing consequences and going with the option that has the highest value.
It makes no sense to say that the computer need not go through these calculations – those in which it seems to ‘assume’ that all legal options are actually available to it, since its final outcome is determined. It is determined by the process of going through and evaluating options.
Since humans also go through and evaluate options, and select the option that has the highest value (fulfills the most and strongest of the agent’s desires given his beliefs), we can influence the decisions that a human makes by influencing the process it goes through in making those decisions. We can alter the value that humans give to different outcomes, by strengthening the desires for some outcomes, and programming them with aversions to other outcomes.
Yet, in all of this, the fact that humans go through a decision-making process, and it decides on its actions by processes that can be influenced through social conditioning is vital.
Morality is not only possible in the absence of free will. In fact, morality requires the absence of free will.