Friday, March 06, 2009

Right Actions and Modifying Desires

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?

Answer: No.

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?"

No.

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.

11 comments:

Luke said...

If you ever have time or interest, I would love to hear your thoughts on the views of various contemporary ethical philosophers.

Or perhaps one day you could write a history of ethical philosophy, if that interests you. :)

Or, more easily:

What books would you recommend as an introduction ethical philosophy? Sometimes primary sources (Nicomachean Ethics, Principles of Morals and Legislation, Inventing Right and Wrong, etc.) are not the best way to get started.

Salazar said...

Hi.

Some questions for Alonzo, and anyone that feels qualified can take a stab at it:

In desire utilitarianism:

1 - define Utility (is it desire fulfillment)?

2 - Define Moral Good (I know you define good in terms "such as to fulfill the desires in question", but that is mere ends-means rationality. What makes the good, a moral good? Is it like, "Such as to fulfill the desires that tend to fulfill other desires" ?

3 - You say an ought implies a can. I think I read in one of your articles that you do not find free will very feasible. Me neither. But that said, if desire utilitarianism is deterministic, how can one say that one could have done otherwise? Or how do we account for the "ought implies can" from a deterministic point of view? What does the "can" mean?

4 - You frequently say, when referring to good desires, that, these desires tend to fulfill "other desires", but sometimes, in particular recently, you rephrase that to "fulfill the desires of others". It seems to me that "other desires" is a broader expression, that could include other of MY desires, or someone else's. I just want to understand what is the correct phrasing. Do you really mean desires of other people exclusively, other of MY desires, or BOTH?

Thanks for now. Peace to all.

Eneasz said...

Salazar -

This was actually just covered in some depth in the past few weeks. If you were to read the posts starting in mid/late Feb (maybe around Why Desire Fulfillment Matters?) and go forward from there, I think the majority of these questions will be answered. Please scan through the comments as well, since a lot of follow-up discussion usually takes place there to help fill in the details.

Luke said...

I know you'd like to return to applied ethics, but I've always thought applied ethics was a weak discipline because it does not (in practice) follow from any particular meta-ethical theory. Obviously, your writings on applied ethics DO follow from an integrated and coherent meta-ethical theory, but it's important that the foundations of your theory are understood, because that will greatly affect issues in applied ethics.

So:

I'm still unclear on why desires should be the object of moral evaluation. On page 22 of A Better Place, you simply assert that desires are the proper object of evaluation, but never give an argument for that position. And I haven't seen you argue for it anywhere else.

Why are desires the ultimate object of moral evaluation? Is it because they are the reasons for action that exist? I'm not sure it follows from that that desires are the ultimate object of moral evaluation.

Eneasz said...

Hai!

I do not wish to dispute anything you said. However, I have always thought of it the other way around in the practical vs meta arena. Meta-anything is built after discovering the practical first. There was no meta-physics before the practical principles of basic physics were discovered. You cannot argue about WHY C is 300,000km/sec until you first KNOW that C is 300,000km/sec. If it wasn't for basic practical astronomy - the work of looking through a telescope and writing down measurements - there would be no meta-physics asking why the strength of gravity is what it is and not something else. As such, I consider the practical to be foundationary, and a pre-requisite for the meta.

Since we derive the meta-ethical principles from the practical facts, it seems pointless to ask "Why are these the meta-ethical principles?" without invoking the practical applications that led to the meta-analysis. So - in the real world - observe the answers and you will discover the rules.

Salazar said...

I have read every single post, including comments, for about 2 months now, and I feel very frustrated that I am unable to find the specific answers I have left here, and that none of you (specifically Alonzo) can take a few minutes to clearly define or at least provide specific URL to the posts where my questions are answered. I don't want to stop calling myself a desire utilitarian out of inability to find the answers I'm looking for. I have been doing videos on youtube, and I frequently read from Alonzo's posts, and wish I had more cooperation from Alonzo, and you guys also, when I try to narrow it down. Just consider it. I'm still interested in knowing the answers to my questions.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hey Salazar, give me a break. I didn't even take my laptop out of its bag until Sunday night. Can't I take a weekend to spend time with my family?


1 - define Utility (is it desire fulfillment)?

There is a definition of utility and where one can expect to find it, just as there is a difference between the definition of value (pertaining to reasons for action) and the reasons for action that exist.

Happiness and preference satisfaction utilitarians, for example, do not disagree on how utility is defined. They disagree on where utility can be found.

Desire utilitarianism actually holds to a pluralistic theory of utility. Desire fulfillment itself does not necessarily have any utility. Rather, if A has a desire that P, then P has utility for A.

This is a restatement of the claim that desire fulfillment has no (necessary) value. If A desires that P, then A has a reason-for-action to realize states of affairs in which P is true. That is the basic fundamental fact.

Some people question whether such a theory can actually count as "utilitarian". I ask these people to simply use and defend an alternative term if they like. It does not matter to me. The issue of labels does not challenge the theory itself, only the terms used to describe it.


2 - Define Moral Good (I know you define good in terms "such as to fulfill the desires in question", but that is mere ends-means rationality. What makes the good, a moral good? Is it like, "Such as to fulfill the desires that tend to fulfill other desires" ?

One of the things I dipute is the idea that we should be disputing definitions. I use the astronomer's dispute over the definition of "planet" as an example. Protracted disputes among moral philosophers on the definition of "good" is as useless and irrelevant as a protracted dispute among astronomers over the definition of "planet".

If I were an astronomer, I would say, "Pick a definition. I don't care. Your definition does not alter Pluto's orbit, size, density, or age. It is not relevant to the science of astronomy, only to the language being used to report those findings.

This is the position I take with respect to disputes over definitions in moral philosophy. Choose your definitions. I do not care much. The definitions you pick will not change the fact that desires are the only reasons for action that exist or the relationships that exist between reasons for action and states of affairs.

Having said that, I deny that there is a "rationality of ends". Even when it comes to evaluating desires, the only form of evaluation that we have is to evaluate desires as means (according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires). If we want to define morality in terms of the evaluates of ends as ends (rather than ends as means), then there is no such thing as morality.

Yet, even if (under such a definition) morality doesn't exist, the ability to evaluate ends (desires) as means still exists, under a different name, with all of the qualities I describe in this blog.


3 - You say an ought implies a can. I think I read in one of your articles that you do not find free will very feasible. Me neither. But that said, if desire utilitarianism is deterministic, how can one say that one could have done otherwise? Or how do we account for the "ought implies can" from a deterministic point of view? What does the "can" mean?

I use the compatibalist definition of "could have done otherwise" which means "would have done otherwise if he had wanted to, and could have wanted to." By "could have wanted to" I say that the desire is maleable - can be shaped by social forces such as praise and condemnation.


4 - You frequently say, when referring to good desires, that, these desires tend to fulfill "other desires", but sometimes, in particular recently, you rephrase that to "fulfill the desires of others". It seems to me that "other desires" is a broader expression, that could include other of MY desires, or someone else's. I just want to understand what is the correct phrasing. Do you really mean desires of other people exclusively, other of MY desires, or BOTH?

Technically, "other desires" is the correct phrase - it should include the desires of the agent. However, in practice, there is little or no difference between the two. The agent's desires are one set of desires among 6.5 billion sets of desires.

If you measure the average height of people in the United States, and you measure everybody but yourself, you are not going to get a result that is substantially different than you would get if you included yourself.

I use the phrase "desires of other people" to draw the reader's focus on that aspect of the theory.

Salazar said...

Thanks a lot for your replies, Alonzo. I confess I was a bit worried that you wouldn't answer because I had previously sent (at least some of) these questions via mail, over 3 weeks ago :)

That said, I really really think you have a lot to gain in establishing a sort of "glossary of desire utilitarianism". I realize why you feel the way you do, your reservation/resistance toward defining/labeling, but I really think it would make things a lot smoother and easier to more people, trying to get into DU. At least consider it. Most of the world's most significant philosophers throughout history have defined their terms. Me and/or Luke could try to do it for you, but it would hardly be as trustworthy as if it were done by you.

See you tomorrow :)

Luke said...

Salazar,

Alonzo has done a REMARKABLE job of writing individual, accessible posts in plain language regarding dozens of aspects of his ethical theory. It is quite easy to get your questions about DU answered with a little research.

Compare this to the difficulty of getting your questions answered about Railton's theory of ethical realism, or Brink's, or even Carrier's.

Eneasz said...

Well, in fairness, we are talking about over 1,200 posts across ~4 years. That is a LOT of reading. Perhaps it would be a good idea to put together a sort of starter page for new people that lays out the bare-bones basics in a few paragraphs and provides links to a dozen-ish posts?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eneasz

Perhaps it would be a good idea to put together a sort of starter page for new people that lays out the bare-bones basics in a few paragraphs and provides links to a dozen-ish posts?

Luke Muehlhauser has just recently done that, and I have put a link to his work in my side bar for easy reference.

Desire Utilitarianism FAQ