Monday, January 26, 2009

Only Desires Have Moral Value?

A member of the studio audience has asked me whether, in, desire utilitarianism – the moral theory that sits at the foundation of this blog – it is the case that "only desires have moral value."

I am not comfortable with this characterization. It sounds like an intrinsic value claim – a claim that there is this entity or essence called “moral value” and, if you break open desires, you can find this essence within. Since desire utilitarianism holds that there is no such thing as intrinsic value, this characterization would be a mistake.

Let me look at the issue by looking at value in general.

Anything can have value. Movies, pictures, television sets, hammers, knives, sex, reports, schools, laws, and presidents all have value.

In order for something (S) to have direct value it must be the case that there is a desire that P, and P is true of S. S has indirect value if S has a tendency to bring about T, there is a desire that P, and P is true of T.

All desire utilitarianism does is take the two ways in which something can have value – direct value in terms of being such as to fulfill a desire, and indirect value in terms of being such as to bring about a state that fulfills a desire – and applies this method to desires themselves. Desires also have value in virtue of the degree to which they are desired, or the degree to which they are likely to bring about states that are desired.

Moral values can also apply to actions, laws, institutions, and even movies and books.

Moral value applies to actions insofar as they are the actions that a person with good desires would perform. It applies to laws insofar as they are the laws that a person with good desires would support. It applies to a movie insofar as it is a movie that somebody with good desires would want to watch – and to books insofar as the book is one that a person with good desires would want to read.

It makes no sense to apply moral concepts to fixed desires because fixed desires are desires that cannot be changed. It makes no sense for anybody to ask what an agent’s fixed desires should be – any more than it makes sense to ask what the mass of the Earth should be. It makes sense to ask what something should be only insofar as it is within our power to affect that thing.

Actually, I argue that morality is primarily concerned with reasons for action. It turns out to be the case that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. As a result, true value claims have to be claims that refer ultimately to desires. Any value claim that refers to a reason for action other than desires is a value claim that refers to reasons for action that do not exist. If it is a claim that says, "There are reasons for action that calls for bringing about X," and the reasons for action it refers to are imaginary or mythical, then the statement is false.

So, why can’t moral value be assigned to other things like apple pie?

This is like asking why the term "monkey" cannot refer to an elephant. Obviously, we can use it to refer to anything we want. Language is an invention, and there is no law of nature dictating what things are called. In saying that moral values refer primarily to desires I am merely saying that, if we look at the way that moral terms are used, the claim that they refer primarily to desires makes the most sense of that use.

We can apply moral concepts to anything. However, in doing so we have no power to create reasons for action out of thin are, or to dismiss reasons for action that are real.

We can use moral terms to refer to happiness and claim that morality requires that we act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, this claim can never invent reasons for action for promoting happiness. Those reasons for action either exist or they do not exist, and are not at all dependent on what we call things.

Yet, we are free to change our language however we would like.

Yet, in doing so, we are not free to change what is objectively true of what we name. We can use the term "monkey" to refer to an elephant if we wish to re-define our terms. However, what is objectively true of elephants does not change.

We can choose not to apply moral value to malleable desires. Yet, it will still be true that we have malleable desires, that we have reasons-for-action for promoting and inhibiting malleable desires using social forces such as praise and condemnation, that we have reasons for action to promote desires that tend to fill other desires and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

These claims remain facts regardless of how we decide to define the term "morality".

6 comments:

Luke said...

Let me see if I've got this right yet.

You are arguing that things have value insofar as they are desired, and there is no other way for a thing to have value. Something cannot have value due to intrinsic value, because intrinsic value doesn't exist. And it can't have value through any other means. Things only attain value when they are desired, because that's what we mean by the word "value."

Things can have direct value, by being desired. Also, something can have indirect value, if it has a tendency to bring about something that is desired.

So, "good" means "such as to fulfill the desires in question," because it is desire that gives something value. And "bad" means "such as to thwart the desires in question."

But we are not yet talking about moral value. For example, if the "desire in question" is the desire to rob a bank, it is "good" to bring a gun for the robbery, and "bad" to have so much compassion that it will thwart the desire in question: the desire to rob a bank. But that doesn't mean it is MORALLY good to bring a gun to the robbery.

Now then, what type of value is "moral" value? Morality is concerned with "reasons for action." So, for something to have moral value, it must both (1) be desired or have a tendency to bring about things that are desired, and (2) be a reason for action.

Many things have value because they are desired, but only desires themselves are "reasons for action." A hammer is not a reason for action in itself. A desire to use a hammer IS a reason for action. A state of human suffering does not have value by itself. A desire to avoid suffering has value, though.

So, desires are the only things that both (1) have value (because desires themselves can be desired, and can have tendencies to bring about things that are desired), and (2) are also reasons for action.

So, it follows that desires are the only things that have moral value. That is why we must evaluate the moral value of desires.

So, a "morally good" desire is a desire that fulfills and tends to fulfill other desires. And a "morally bad" desire is a desire that thwarts and tends to thwart other desires.

Now, other things can have moral value INDIRECTLY so far as they are related to the moral value of desires. A morally good law is the law a person with good desires would enact. A morally good action is the action a person with good desires would perform. A morally good book is the book a person with good desires would read. Etc.

Have I got you right?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

This is substantially correct. I offer only a little bit of fine tuning.

Things only attain value when they are desired, because that's what we mean by the word "value."

Things only attain value as an end when they are desired because desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Something cannot attain value as an end for any other reason, because there are no other "reasons for action".


So, "good" means "such as to fulfill the desires in question," because it is desire that gives something value.

Well, "good" actually means "there are reasons for action that exist for keeping or preserving it". However, since desires are the only reasons for action that exist, it turns out that "good" is "being such as to fulfill the desires in question."

If other reasons for action exist, they are relevant to questions of goodness. But no other reasons for action happen to exist.

Luke said...

Things only attain value as an end when they are desired because desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Something cannot attain value as an end for any other reason, because there are no other "reasons for action".

Wait, so value (all value, not just moral value) comes only from reasons for action (a set for which the only member happens to be desire)? I don't think this fits how we use the word "value..."

Maybe I should ask it this way. BEFORE you formulated desire utilitarianism, what did "value" mean to you in a general sense? What is value?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Luke

Well, before I forumlated desire utilitarianism I had was on a quest to make the world a better place, and I needed to know what "better" was.

"Better" had to be something that there was the most and strongest reasons to bring about.

Which caused me to study moral philosophy and to ask the question, "What counts as a reason for bringing something about?"

Luke said...

Harumph. Then, I still don't have you right.

You seem to be saying that value comes to something only by being the object of a reason for action (and it just so happens that desires are the only reasons for action that exist).

This is slightly different than traditional definitions of value. Why should we accept your redefinition?

Also, you seem to be saying that moral value is the type value that can be directly evaluated because it is BOTH the object of a reason for action AND a reason for action itself: and only desires fit both criteria.

Is that it?

faithlessgod said...

Luke

"This is slightly different than traditional definitions of value. Why should we accept your redefinition?"
Of course it but do those others work in reality. Do they describe practically what occurs. IMV, this model does.

The deep mistake of many is over the false dilemma of intrinsic value or subjective value. Everyone has been asking questions impossible to answer satisfactorily. The problem was over the question itself not over the answers - both moral objectivists and moral subjectivists mistakenly agree that the quesion permits of two answers, they just disagree on which answer is correct. DU says neither and proposes a third alternative.