Thursday, March 05, 2009

Morality, Drugs, Surgery, and the Altering of Desires

Another one of a set of questions from the studio audience:

3. Why is morality concerned with affecting malleable desires with praise, reward, condemnation, and punishment? Why not, say, genetic engineering or brain surgery, too? Surely these would be effective techniques for "turning down the knob" on bad desires and turning UP the knob on good desires.

Let me start with two propositions that I think are quite certain.

Proposition 1: Desires are getting more malleable all the time

As scientists get a better and better understanding of the brain, this brings with it a larger and larger set of options on how to alter desires. Particularly in the realm of pharmaceuticals, we have far more options available when it comes to altering desires than we have had in the past.

One major example of these is the use of drugs to inhibit sex drive. These drugs are mostly used to inhibit the desire for sex in sex offenders. However, they will have the same effect on, for example, homosexuals.

For those who assert that homosexuality should be permitted because the homosexual has no choice with respect to his sexual desire, this is actually not the case. They have the option of using drugs to significantly inhibit their sexual desire. The question then comes up as to whether they ought to (or ought to be forced to) do so.

The decision to take or not take this option is a choice.

More importantly, it is a choice drawn on the fact that the desire to have sex (or not) is far more maleable than it has ever been in the past.

Proposition 2: There are reasons for action that exist for using or for refraining from the use of these options.

According to desire utilitarianism, the only reasons that exist are desires. However, it is still the case that if there are reasons for action that exist for using praise and condemnation to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires. Then there are reasons for action that exist for using drugs and surgery to promote good desires and alter bad desires.

Any argument built on an assumption of intrinsic value or on “God’s will” is a bad argument because it contains a false premise. Those reasons for action do not exist and cannot be used to support the conclusion that, in the real world, we ought or ought not use these tools in particular ways.

Question: Should the concept of morality include or exclude these options

The question from the studio audience asks whether the use of these techniques should or should not be covered under the term “morality.”

The answer is: It doesn’t matter.

The question of whether or not to apply the term “morality” to these options is very much the same as the question of whether or not to apply the term “planet” to Pluto.

We are faced with a choice.

Option 1: Limit the term “morality” to questions about how to use the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment and use some other term (e.g., medicine) for methods that involve drugs or surgery.

Option 2: Expand the term "morality" to include all tools that are available for altering the desires of others.

The fact of the matter is, no matter which option we choose, we are not changing any of the answers that we get when we examine the relationships between the object of evaluation (the use of one of these tools) and reasons for action that exist. Those relationships are unaffected.

So, it would be a mistake to think of this as voting for or against a particular set of right answers. We would only be voting for or against the use of a particular language in expressing those answers – in exactly the same way that astronomers are voting for or against particular definitions of the word 'planet'.

My vote is for the narrower definition of 'morality'. That definition fits common usage better. As a result, it is less likely to generate confusion and promote arguments of equivocation. And it fits a distinction that we actually seem to find in nature. We can recognize the use of praise and condemnation on the one hand, and the use of drugs and surgery on the other.

This is the same type of vote that I would cast if asked for a vote on whether to apply the term 'planet' to Pluto. The current usage generates confusion, asserting that Pluto has more in common with the other eight planets than it does with the hundreds of thousands of objects in the Kupyer Belt. In fact, it has more in common with Kupyer Belt Objects than with planets, and our language would better reflect that fact if Pluto were removed.

However, just as the latter vote does not affect what is true about planets, the former vote does not change what is true about the relationships between desires, the tools available for modifying desires, and the reasons for action that exist for or against using those tools.

8 comments:

Luke said...

Yeah, I have no problem with this. My question is: "Ought we to use drugs, surgery, transhumanist brain chipsets, etc. to alter desires, when such alterations would maximize good desires (or bring about a harmony of desires, however you'd like to say it)?" I can't see why not. And if we want to call this medicine, we could at least recognize that these are moral choices, and perhaps call various choices "moral medical practice" and "immoral medical practice" based on whether or not they are practices a person with good desires would perform.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Since desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then there is no way to answer the question, "What reasons for action exist for or against using these procedures" other than by a reference to desires. We certainly cannot expect to answer the "ought" question by looking for intrinsic values or a message from God.

Now, note the moral question is whether X will maximize desire fulfillment, but whether a person with good desires would choose X. So, it may be the case that we are better off promoting an overall aversion to using these methods to alter desires because, without the aversion, we risk creating a world in which a few wealthy people with access to the resources for changing desires uses that power to bend the rest of us to their will.

laurele said...

Actually, Pluto could be said to have far more in common with the larger planets than with the majority of Kuiper Belt Objects. This is because unlike most of those objects Pluto is in a state of hydrostatic equilibrium. This means it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity, a characteristic of planets and not of most asteroids, comets, and Kuiper Belt Objects. Pluto is an object that should be seen as having dual designation: it is both a small planet and a Kuiper Belt Object. Narrowing the definition of planet too much blurs the critical distinction between spherical and non-spherical bodies. We can adopt a broad definition of planet favored by many scientists, which is that a planet is any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star. To distinguish between types of planets, we can use subcategories such as terrestrial planets, gas giants, ice giants, dwarf planets, etc. This is similar to the broad definition of "mammal," which includes creatures as diverse as whales, bats, dogs, monkeys, and humans. The differences among the wide variety of mammals are expressed through the use of multiple layers of subcategories.

faithlessgod said...

A very interesting post a number of questions

1: You say at the end of Proposition 1 " Desire are getting more malleable all the time" (a point I have made previously)
"More importantly, it is a choice drawn on the fact that the desire to have sex (or not) is far more desirable than it has ever been in the past."
This is an odd thought, I do not see that it follows from Proposition 1, where did you get this idea from and is there evidence to support it?

2: More importantly this goes back to a point I have made on this blog in the past, does this mean that what was wrong (right) in the past can become right (wrong) in the present due to the changing malleability of desires?

3: What about the epistemology of malleability not the (progressive) ontology (as in my question 2), discovering a desire is fixed we thought was malleable or vice versa. How does this alter the moral status of desires and acts in the past and present?

4. I too vote for the narrower conception of 'morality'. However
There are reasons for action that exist to promote or inhibit the use of drugs and surgery to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires. The question is can we identify what these universal reasons are or if they are universal? If not, presumably this can be answered in with a particularist analysis? Certainly I see the use of drugs and surgery for whatever purpose can be morally evaluated like anything else. I think this is what you are also saying but it did not appear clear in what you had written.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

faithlessgod

(1) Typographical error. Should read: "More importantly, it is a choice drawn on the fact that the desire to have sex (or not) is far more maleable than it has ever been in the past."

(2) Yes

(3) It does not. Only our knowledge of the moral status has changed, not the status itself.

(4) I need more time to think on the issue.

Eneasz said...

Faithless God -
The question is can we identify what these universal reasons are or if they are universal? If not, presumably this can be answered in with a particularist analysis?

I fear that it is unlikely that we'll be able to think our way to the right answer. Much like the ancient greek philosophers tried to think their way into figuring out how nature works, but never did the actual experimental work to find out.

I hope this isn't the case, but I suspect that the only way we'll truely answer this question is to have a large variety of allowable applications of drugs/surgery across many societies, and then observe the results. Much like the wide variety of economic systems over the past several centuries has finally shown that communism and corporate fuedalism are untennable.

Yes, millions will die during this process, or be made to suffer in ways that could have been avoided if we'd known the truth at the beginning. But we didn't, and learning is hard.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Millions have already died.

It would have been nice if some perfectly wise omnibenevolent entity would have given us the answer 2000 years ago as well.

Alas, there is no evidence that is the case either.

Instead we get the ramblings of a bunch of primative illiterate sexist bigots and 2000 years of people telling us that they had perfect moral knowledge.

Luke said...

"Instead we get the ramblings of a bunch of primative illiterate sexist bigots and 2000 years of people telling us that they had perfect moral knowledge."

Lol! and Yes!