I have been asked a question by a member of the studio audience that is going to touch off a series of posts.
The question that would decide it for me (and for the record, I take the subjectivist interpretation of DU) is this: In any moral case - say, acting to inhibit the desire of someone to engage in insider trading - what decides that rightness or wrongness of the action? Is the rightness or wrongness up to whatever subject is opining on the matter, or is the rightness or wrongness of the action independent of any subject?
For the record (and I am certain that Kevin understands this) the "subjectivist interpretation of DU" is identical to the "objectivist interpretation of DU." This is true in the same way that DU, spoken in Spanish, should be identical to DU spoken in English. The difference that Kevin is referring to is not differences in interpretation, but differences in languages.
Now, on to the issue of right actions.
The right action is the action that a person with good desires would have performed.
This is in contrast with the theory that says that right actions are the actions that fulfill the most and strongest desires. This competing theory is a theory that I call “desire fulfillment act utilitarianism” – and is quite close to the more popular theory “preference utilitarianism” (the right act is the act that satisfies the most preferences).
However, desire utilitarianism is a rule-utilitarian theory, not an act-utilitarian theory. The right act is the act that conforms to the best rules (where the rules, in this case, are written into the brain in the form of desires), and the rules are evaluated according to their (utilitarian) consequences.
An agent always acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires. To say that an agent ought to have done something different is to say that the agent ought to have had those desires that would have caused him to do something different.
This then requires us to ask whether it would really be a good idea to universally promote those particular desires. If those desires would do more harm than good, we retract the statement about what the agent ought to have desired. This, in turn, requires that we retract the statement about what the agent ought to have done. Either that or we declare than agent is obligated to be in an inconsistent state of performing an action in violation of the laws of nature.
The right act is not necessarily the act that fulfills the most and strongest desires – not if that act requires desires that are either impossible or that will generally do more harm than good.
This concept of right action is also in contrast to the view that holds that the right act is the act motivated by the best desires (or intentions).
James Martineau presented such a theory about 100 years ago where he said that, in order to judge an action, we must look at the motives from which the action sprang. If the motives were good, then the action was good. On the other hand, if the motives were bad, the actions were bad.
A contemporary of Martineau, Henry Sidgwick, specifically attacked Martinau’s theory, providing a number of counter-examples. One of his counter-examples was that of negligence or recklessness.
The example that I use comes from a real case. I had just pulled onto a freeway and ended up behind a truck with a large load (for that truck). I noticed that the load looked unstable and immediately moved to back away. I had just started to slow down when a part of the load fell off of the truck. Because I was already slowing down I was able to avoid a serious accident.
The driver of that truck had no malicious desire motivating his actions. He simply wanted to get his load from Point A to Point B. Yet, his actions could be legitimately condemned. He was negligent in securing his load and, as such, he put others at risk.
This, then, describes the desire utilitarian account of right actions. In the rest of this series, I will apply this account to a number of moral concepts and show how the desire utilitarian concept of right action provides the best fit.
(1) Right Actions Defined (this post)
(2) Right Actions and Negligence
(3) Right Actions and the Bad Samaritan
(4) Right Actions and Non-Obligatory Permissions
(5) Right Actions and Excuses
(6) Right Actions and Mens Rea
(7) Right Actions and Moral Dilemmas
(8) Right Actions Above and Beyond the Call of Duty