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.