Thursday, April 30, 2009

For the Love of Freedom

Recent discussions by members of the studio audience has brought forth the following question about desire utilitarianism (or “desirism” as one member has proposed).

It seems that DU is not a moral calculus at all. Instead, it tells me how to create the moral calculus that will best fulfill my own desires (including my altruistic desires and urges of my conscience). If I’m a slave-owner with a desire to continue reaping the benefits of slavery (an no contrary desires), DU will probably tell me to espouse a moral calculus that disregards the desires of slaves.

The first point to take is that the question is set up to be about a science-fiction universe filled with creatures that are difficult to imagine. We are supposed to imagine a creature with a desire to continue reaping the benefits of slavery, and no desires that could be thwarted by slavery.

I have to ask, does this agent have an aversion to pain? The aversion to pain could well become a “contrary desire” if others have a reason to act so as to cause pain to those who endorse slavery. The slaves themselves, for example, have reason to inflict pain on those who would enslave others, as does anybody who cares for the interests of those who would be slaves.

Does our agent have a desire for material wealth or anything that material wealth can help him to acquire? Does he have a desire for social status? Both of these desires can be thwarted by anybody who has reason to act so as to interfere with his interest in having slaves.

The creature with no desire that can be thwarted by a desire to own slaves is a creature of science fiction. It may even be an inherent contradiction – no such creature exists. Because, certainly, our agent has no desire to become a slave himself. Yet, if he does not promote an aversion to slavery in society at large, then he can potentially be made a slave. His own freedom is better secured by a universal aversion to enslaving others – which would make his own freedom a desire contrary to his desire in having slaves.

The real moral question is whether or not people generally have reason to give him a reason not to have slaves.

As I have argued before, it does not matter whether one wants to assign the word 'moral' to these properties. What matters is what is true about these properties. It is true that people generally have reason to use the social tools of condemnation and punishment against those who do not show sufficient aversion to depriving others of freedom. This is because their own freedom, and the freedom of those they care about, are better defended in a society with neighbors who love and respect freedom, than in a society where neighbors have no aversion to depriving others of freedom.

Even the slave owner himself has many and strong reason to promote, overall, an aversion in people generally to depriving others of freedom. However, a neighbor who has a love of freedom is a neighbor who has an aversion to slavery. The very method by which our agent would promote freedom in others is by condemning those who willingly take the freedom of others. Which means . . . by condemning those who would embrace and endorse slavery.

However, it is not necessarily the case that the slave owner has reasons for action to promote an aversion to taking the freedom of other people. It is still the case that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who have no aversion to taking the freedom to others, and this is enough to support the moral claim that slavery is wrong. It is simply the case that our agent might not care that it is wrong.

Ultimately, moral questions (assuming that it makes sense to use the word 'moral' here) are not questions that are answered by looking at one’s own likes and dislikes. They are questions answered by looking at what people generally have reason to cause one to like or dislike. They are not questions answered by looking at the sentiments one does have, but at the sentiments one should have.

Should, remember, requires a relationship to desires. However, in this case, the desires are not one's own. The relevant desires are those of other people – the people in a position to praise, condemn, reward, and punish.

If one refuses to attach the word 'moral' to these relationships, it changes nothing. These are still desires that people generally have reason to promote using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, regardless of their name.

6 comments:

Kevin Currie-Knight said...

"The first point to take is that the question is set up to be about a science-fiction universe filled with creatures that are difficult to imagine. We are supposed to imagine a creature with a desire to continue reaping the benefits of slavery, and no desires that could be thwarted by slavery."

I am catching this discussion in the middle, but this should not be difficult to imagine. Prior to the Civil War, such a view was quite commonplace.

And whether it is difficult to imagine is actually beside the point, which seems to be that DU seems a theory that is compatible with just about any moral vision one could have. If my desire is fulfilled by owning slaves, then DU can be used to justify that (even if in a utilitarian fashion which says that more desires are fulfilled by ownership of slaves than not).

"The creature with no desire that can be thwarted by a desire to own slaves is a creature of science fiction."

But you are acting like all desires are created equal. What if the slaveholder's strongest desire is to have free labor for his planation, and only secondarily has concerns about whether slaves might revolt (which he figures can be easily met with the weight of then-in-place slave laws outlawing rebellion)?

You don't offer any persuasive reason for DU to take an anti-slavery stance except for a very strange assumption that you know the slaveowner's desires better than he.

"The creature with no desire that can be thwarted by a desire to own slaves is a creature of science fiction."

I would suspect that the creature with completely non-contradictory desires is a creature of science fiction. Take for instance the environmentalist who has a strong desire to have a car (which indirectly damages the environment), or the person who wants to donate time to a charity but also has a desire to sleep in? Are you saying then, using the same reasoning, that since they have desires that thwart other desires, that their desires are somehow wrong?

"The real moral question is whether or not people generally have reason to give him a reason not to have slaves"

One of the biggest problems with moral theory is the realization that giving a person reason to do x means finding a reason that would be persuasive to that particular person. I am not sure any of the reasons you are giving would be persuasive to the slave-owner (especially if he were living in a country that was slave-owning).

"Even the slave owner himself has many and strong reason to promote, overall, an aversion in people generally to depriving others of freedom. "

Do you think this would be persuasive to ta slave-owner living under Plessy v Ferguson? The "others" you talk about would have then been quickly written off as unequal to slaveowners, and thus, unworthy of freedom. In fact, the argument at the time was that slavery was a good thing for blacks because they were thought to be savages that couldn't handle freedom.

Obviously, we know that this view changed, but I am not sure that your statement that people generally have reason to want others to be free does not jibe with the facts that many nations at many times did not see this as reasonable.

The general point of this, though, is that DU and its talk of what promotes desire seems quite malleable enough to disqualify itself as a moral theory. Whatever one's desires are, it seems that one can mold a DU justification for it (as I daresay the slaveholder would do, and you have done in your defense.)

RichardW said...

Well said, Kevin.

Alonzo is living in a land of wishful thinking where, if only people would truly follow all their desires, they would treat everyone equally.

But his make-believe doesn't stop there. He insists that this somehow makes the claim that people should treat others equally into an objective moral truth.

It doesn't. Even if his wishful thinking scenario were true, it would only make it rational to treat everyone equally, not moral to do so.

His confusion is so severe that he calls himself both a moral realist and a moral anti-realist at the same time!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

RichardW

It was nice of you to visit and attempt to engage in intelligent debate for as long as it lasted. It is sad that you have decided to descend into insults and personal attacks such as this.

Anyway, I addressed Kevin's remarks already in:

Giving People (Moral) Reasons

Alonzo Fyfe said...

And, RichardW, for clarification:

You wrote, "Alonzo is living in a land of wishful thinking where, if only people would truly follow all their desires, they would treat everyone equally."

I believe that people who follow their own desires can treat people quite cruelly. This is one of the reasons why I deny that morality has to do with people following their own desires.

Morality is about giving people desires where, if they were to follow them, they would treat others well. If they already had those desires, there would be no need for morality.

Everything else in your post were the absurd implications of an absurd assumption that I do not share.

Eneasz said...

Alonzo beat me to it. But yes, you misunderstand. Please don't state that DU is something that it's not, especially if what you're saying is the OPPOSITE of what it is.

Kevin Currie-Knight said...

Alonzo wrote:
"I believe that people who follow their own desires can treat people quite cruelly. This is one of the reasons why I deny that morality has to do with people following their own desires."

I unerstand that you qualify DU by saying that the desires that count are GOOD desires. I think that this is begging the question and, to my eyes, collaspses DU into a tautology of sorts (Good acts are thsoe which promote good desires," which states the obvious but leaves completely open what a "good" desire is.

This is why I think many people (like RichardW) see DU as so malleable that it can be used to justify anything. Any desire you like can be called a "good" one and any act that you don't like can be somehow "found" to be based on a "bad" desire.

I will read your most recent post now.