One last question from the studio audience on moral theory before I return to issues of moral practice.
4. Can the question "What ought I to do?" ultimately be answered with your knob metaphor?
What is the knob metaphore?
This is a metaphore that I use to explain the concept of good and bad desires.
The instant that some people see the word "utilitarian" in the theory that I use in this blog (desire utilitarianism) they assume that I am susceptible to a common objection to utilitarian theories. I call this the "1000 sadists problem".
Specifically, if there are 1000 sadists who would find pleasure or happiness in the torture of 1 child, then utilitarian theories would have to recommend that the child be tortured for the pleasure of the sadists. Because this is an absurd result, it is argued, we must object utilitarian moral theories.
Desire utilitarianism says that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform, and a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. The child ought not to be tortured because the desire to torture the child does not count as a good desire – it tends to thwart, rather than fulfill, other desires.
To explain this, I suggest imagining a knob that controls the number of people who have a desire to rape and the strength of the desire. The more you turn the knob to the right, the more desires will have to be thwarted. Either the desires of the rapists will be thwarted, or the desires of the victims (and those who care about the victims) will be thwarted.
The desire to rape is a desire that we have many and strong reasons to “turn down” (preferably down to zero). If nobody had a desire to rape then no rapist would have to endure the frustration of not raping, and no victim would have to endure being raped.
So, we have reason to bring the social forces of morality to bear in inhibiting any desire to rape.
Now, is it the case that the question, "What ought I to do?" can always be answered by, "Turn the knob on desires so that good desires are promoted and bad desires are inhibited?"
What you ought to do is that which a person with good desires would do. But a person with good desires is not always going to be spending his time turning knobs on other desires. He has other concerns in addition to this one.
The father who reads to his child before bedtime has a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. But it is not a desire to "turn knobs" on other desires. Instead, it is a desire for the welfare of his child, and a love for the child that motivates him to spend time with the child. Because of these desires, he is likely to spend time with his child instead of performing some other activity that would qualify as "turning the knob" on other desires.
In fact, the recommendation turns out to be incoherent. What would it mean to spend time promoting parental affection that would cause fathers to spend more time with their children, if one is not permitted to act on that desire and spend time with one’s children for no reason other than one desires to do so? The practice of promoting desires has to be made consistent with moral permission to act on those desires.
Remember, the ultimate moral question really is not, "What should I do?" The ultimate question is, "What is it good for us to want?" Answers to the former question are derived from answers to the latter question.
The father’s love and concern for the welfare of his child gives him a reason to act so as to promote in others desires compatible with protecting the welfare of his child, and inhibiting in others desires that would tend to produce behavior harmful to the child. It is one of the sets of actions he has reason to perform. It goes along side other actions such as child-proofing the home (securing poisonous liquids, plugging sockets), feeding the child a healthy diet and promoting the child's physical and intellectual fitness.
Every one of these things is something that a good father ought to do. Only a subset of them involve turning knobs.