Friday, February 20, 2009

Right Actions Defined

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

10 comments:

Christian Apologist said...

So are you defining wrong action as that which puts others at risk?

Even if you are what is the definition of right action?

David said...

So are you defining wrong action as that which puts others at risk?

No, I think you got stuck on a tangent about recklessness. He said "The right action is the action that a person with good desires would have performed." The actions are a by-product of desires, but they may tend to be pleasant anyway if the desires they spring from are right.

David said...

For the record (and I am certain that Kevin understands this) the "subjectivist interpretation of DU" is identical to the "objectivist interpretation of DU."

I think you're talking past Kevin now. He's not saying that DU gives different conclusions if you're subjectivist or objectivist. In my terms, the subjectivist interpretation says "I ascribe to DU because it's the most useful or consistent system (of ethics)", whereas the objectivist interpretation says "I ascribe to DU because it's the right system (of morality)". The facts don't change, but what significance DU has to you does change.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The propositions that make up desire utilitarianism are either true or false.

I consider it senseless to "ascribe" to any theory unless the propositions within that theory are true.

Having said that, the proposition, "I have an aversion to pain" is a proposition that is capable of being true or false. When true, it is objectively true. When false, it is objectively false.

We can make objectively true and false claims about beliefs and desires (and relationships between states of affairs and beliefs or desires) in exactly the same way that we can make objectively true and false claims about height, weight, age, hair color, location, blood pressure, blood alcohol content, or any other property of an individual.

Christian Apologist said...

No, I think you got stuck on a tangent about recklessness. He said "The right action is the action that a person with good desires would have performed." The actions are a by-product of desires, but they may tend to be pleasant anyway if the desires they spring from are right.

So right action is based on right desire and right desire is based on right belief. So what is right belief based on?

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo wrote: "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."

Desire Utilitarianism sounds an awful lot like it boils down to rule utilitarianism. Alonzo, how close do you think DU is to RU?

The problem with this is the problem with jurisprudential "rational man" theory: what people think are desires that should be "universally promoted" (or what a "rational man" would do) varies from person to person and group to group.

How does Desire Utilitarianism address differences between groups or individuals varying visions on what types of desires we should work to promote or thwart?

If the rightness or wrongness of actions is determined by whether the action promotes (or thwarts) desires that the actor likes (or disapproves of), then desire utilitarianism is utterly incapable of resolving moral disagreement or making moral pronouncement of any kind. (As long as groups/individuals differ in their visiosn of what desires are good or bad, then all can justifiably claim that their actions are right and the others' are wrong.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kevin Currie

I have written a couple of times now . . .

Desire utilitarianism is rule utilitarianism with the additional element that the rules are written into the brain in the form of desires.

Desire utilitarianism is rule utilitarianism where the rules exist in the real world as natural entities - namely, affective brain states.

Friar Zero said...

I know this has nothing to do with the above conversation (you need to get threaded comments Alonzo, I recommend IntenseDebate)but the definition of right action reminds me of something I read by Mark Twain once. In "What is Man?" the character of the older teacher says to his pupil, "Diligently train your ideals UPWARD and STILL UPWARD toward a summit where you will find your chiefest pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon your neighbor and the community."

Eneasz said...

Hello Kevin

If the rightness or wrongness of actions is determined by whether the action promotes (or thwarts) desires that the actor likes (or disapproves of)

Again, the rightness or wrongness of actions has nothing to do with that. You never determine if desires are good or bad by looking at the actor. You discover if they are good or bad desires by seeing if such desires generally fulfill or thwart all other desires in general.

Christian Apologist -

So what is right belief based on?

Humankind has found exactly one way to gain useful knowledge about the world. It is a method that is objective, self-correcting, and universal. It is how we've gained all important knowledge in our history, and is responsible for our success as a species. Currently it's referred to as the Scientific Method.

Emu Sam said...

I think the way to determine if a desire tends to fulfill more and stronger desires or tends to thwart more and stronger desires - that is, if a desire is morally good or bad - would be a series of large-scale social experiments. Of course, we have those going on all the time. Some desires we're pretty sure are good or bad because they have undergone centuries of testing on a daily basis. More subtle desires may need a more controlled test - and may turn out to be morally neutral.

For example, suppose ten thousand years ago I wasn't sure if people generally (that is, most people at most times)(yes, this does turn out to be rule by the majority) had reason to advance the desire to kill, or to prevent it (using praise, reward, condemnation, and punishment). I decide to test it to find out whether I and all others find our desires promoted or thwarted by that desire. I watch the actions of people who have a desire to kill - namely, many killings. And then I look at the results of those actions. Most people killed have relatives who mourn their loss. All the relatives' desires regarding the person killed have been thwarted. There are business deals that will never be fulfilled. Some people may get out of trouble, because the person punishing is no longer alive to punish.

The desire to kill has been fulfilled, but many other desires were affected, in either a way that thwarts them or advances them. In the course of the experiment, I look at all these desires, whether they are fulfilled or thwarted, and how strongly the desires are held. Then I write up a paper that tries to show whether killing is morally good or morally bad.

Others would read my paper and perhaps conduct similar experiments. If their findings agree with mine, we can be relatively confident that our conclusions about this existing state is correct.

The more we test, the more certain we can be that what we think is true corresponds with reality. I am very confident when I say that the desire to kill thwarts many, many more strong desires than it fulfills. This is objective fact.

A single person's reaction may be subjective - but we can be sure that they have that reaction. The fact of the reaction is that it exists or does not exist. A person can say, "I miss my mother," and whether they are telling the truth can be verified.

When we can verify one person's reaction, we can look at more and more until we have a statistically relevant sample, for example, that most people who have had a relative killed would like to do an activity with them, and that this desire will never be fulfilled. We can look at more and more desires that are affected by the actions that result from a desire to kill, and discover that people with a desire to kill thwart desires more than fulfill them.