Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Desire Utilitarianism vs. "Common Utilitarianism"

I am starting the year with a series of blog postings about my basic moral philosophy, in answer to a set of questions that I have recently received.

I started by explaining desire utilitarianism - the idea that malleable desires are the fundamental object of moral evaluation. We have reason to use those social forces to promote malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

I also explained objective moral relativism – the thesis that moral claims are not claims about intrinsic moral properties, but claims about relationships that exist in the real world. These relationships are real and can be studied as scientifically as any relationship in nature.

The next question is:

3 - How is your position distinct from common Utilitarianism, like the one Bentham invented, with the whole "greatest amount of pleasure for the greater number of people" and "hedonic calculus" which could lead to someone killing an innocent person to save 2 of his better-liked fellows, or robbing my food to feed more people, etc..

I have partially answered this question in the first posting on desire utilitarian theory.

Desire utilitarianism is a theory that holds that desires are the fundamental object of moral evaluation, and that desires are to be evaluated according to the utility they produce. The rightness or wrongness of an action does not depend on maximizing utility. The rightness or wrongness of an action depends on whether it is the type of action that a person with good desires would perform.

I have answered this question in more detail in a posting that I called The 1000Sadists Problem. What if the televised torture of a young child will fulfill the desires of 1,000 sadists? Does desire utilitarianism say we should torture the child?

No, it does not.

The first thing we must do is to evaluate the sadistic desire itself. Let us assume that nobody has a sadistic desire. In this case, no desires are being thwarted. No victims are being tortured to fulfill the desires of the sadist, and no sadists are having their desire to witness torture thwarted by the fact that nobody is being tortured.

However, the instant we introduce a person with a sadistic desire, then somebody’s desires are going to be thwarted. Either the sadist is going to suffer the thwarting of his desire for sadistic torture, or the sadist’s victim is going to suffer the thwarting of desires that is a part of being tortured. The desire for sadistic torture is a desire that people generally have reason to inhibit – it is a bad desire.

Note that it is not a bad desire because it is intrinsically bad. It is a bad desire because of the relationship it has to other desires – the desires that other people have to avoid pain and for the well-being of their loved ones. Intrinsic value does not exist. Only relationships between objects of evaluation (sadistic desire) and (other) desires exist.

This does not imply that a desire utilitarian would be opposed to a redistribution of wealth through such methods as taxation. The fact of the matter is that if there are 10 hungry people, one would fulfill more desires by distributing the food among all 10 people than by giving the food to one person (who may have no interest in sharing it with others). We have many and strong reasons to promote in people a desire to share that which they have with those who have less, or even to force him to hand over the food if he does not want to.

This is an issue that I have discussed in several postings, using the example of an airplane that has crashed in a desert, far from any help, but near to an isolated mansion where the wealthy owner is running millions of gallons of water through his fountains, with no possibility for help to come for days or weeks.

Desire utilitarianism holds that the person who would selfishly refuse to share his water in this case has desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. That is to say, he is a bad person. A good person, on the other hand, would seek to redistribute the water wealth, allowing the passengers to survive. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote desires to help those in need and aversions to those who selfishly stand by while others suffer and die.

Though it is not guaranteed, it is at least plausible that the good person, in this type of case, will forcefully redistribute the water wealth from those who have more water than they need to those who need water to survive.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with redistributing the wealth. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with anything - intrinsic values do not exist. However, objective values exist. It may well be a matter of objective fact that the desires that the good person would have are desires that would see to the redistribution of the water wealth.

I will have more to say on this topic in my next post.

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