Thursday, June 18, 2009

Desire Utilitarianism: A Few Details

So, a member of the studio audience writes:

So, desires are the only reason for action that exist. And "good" is 'that for which there are reasons for action that exist to realize'. So, "good" is that for which there are desires to realize. Hmmm... interesting.

Well, yep, that’s the crux of it. Would you mind if I added a couple of details just for flavor?

For example, this is an account of generic goodness – not moral goodness. It applies not only to the case of the person who rescues a child from a raging river at the risk to his own live, but to the man who climbs out of the basement after torturing and killing his most recent victim, collapses on the couch, and explains, "Now, that was good!" There are reasons for action that exist for realizing the state in which he was torturing the victim in the basement. However, we would be hard pressed to say that torturing the victim was morally good (obligatory) or even permissible.

So, once we have a generic account of goodness we need to start splitting it up into the different species of goodness. One of those species would be the species of moral goodness.

Whereas goodness is that for which there are desires to realize, moral goodness are malleable desires for which there are more and stronger desires to realize.

The time-honored test of a moral theory is to test the theory against our moral intuitions. The degree to which a theory calls moral that which people generally call moral, and calls immoral that which people generally call immoral, is widely used as the definitive test to determine whether one has a good moral theory or not.

I reject that test. Our moral intuitions tell us nothing but the prejudices and concerns we have at the moment. A moral intuitions test in Georgia in 1800s could only be passed by a theory that defended slavery, and a moral intuitions test in France in the 1500s would require a defense of the divine right of kings.

The proper test for a moral theory is not a moral intuitions test, but a moral practices test. It must make sense of the elements of morality, not its conclusions.

Why are praise and condemnation such an integral part of our moral practices?

Answer: Because praise and condemnation are two of the greatest social tools available for molding desires.

Why are there three moral categories for action – obligations, prohibitions and non-obligatory permissions?

Answer: Because there are desires that people generally have reason to promote universally (e.g., charity, honesty), desires that people generally have reason to inhibit universally (e.g., rape, killing), and desires that people have reason to promote in some people but not in everybody (e.g., the desires associated with being a teacher, engineer, writer, or doctor). Also, in some areas such as food preferences and mate preferences diversity reduces competition and helps to ensure that more individuals are able to fulfill their desires.

What accounts for the moral category of negligence?

Answer: Negligent acts are acts that that show evidence of the absence of a desire that people generally have reason to promote – namely, a concern for the welfare of other people. A person who cares about what happens to the clock her father made for her will take steps to ensure that it is not damaged. If she throws the clock around, she shows that she lacks a concern for what happens to the clock. A negligent person shows that he lacks a concern for the effects that his actions might have on other. This absence of a desire that people generally have reason to promote is what makes negligent acts deserving of condemnation.

What is an excuse and how do you account for its role in moral claims?

An excuse is a statement that breaks the link between an action that looks wrong on its surface and the desires of the agent apparently responsible. A car crashes through a crowd of pedestrians. A person would good desires would take pains to avoid such a state. The agent offers the excuse that a vehicle malfunction is responsible for the accident. This means that even a person with good desires could not have prevented the state in which the car plowed into a group of pedestrians. Yet, we can still ask whether a person with good desires would have done a better job maintaining the car.

These are some examples of areas in which desire utilitarianism explains, no our moral intuitions but our moral practices. It does so without inventing exotic entities such as such as divine commands, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, social contracts, or impartial observers.

The list of moral practices that desire utilitarianism can account for is actually quite lengthy. Other examples can be found in Luke Muehlhauser's Desire Utilitarianism FAQ.

9 comments:

Kip said...

I'm concerned about some comments you made in this post: http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2009/06/two-types-of-moral-relativism.html

Specifically, these:

Alonzo> "If reasons for action other than desires are shown to exist, they would be immediately relevant to value claims."

Either 1) You are unnecessarily complicating DU by allowing for possible other reasons for action that exist (when you have said there aren't any), or 2) If other reasons for actions do (or might) exist, then DU would need to be scrapped. If anything else besides desires are needed for the moral calculation, then I don't see how you're going to make DU work.

And then you made this comment:

Alonzo> "Kip wrote: "On your website you write: "'Good' means 'is such as to fulfill the desires in question'. If there are no 'desires in question', then there is no 'good'."

Alonzo> "Let me start by saying that this is one of the things about desire utilitarianism that I have changed over time as people convinced me that I was mistaken."

Alonzo> "'Good' does not mean 'is such as to fulfill the desires in question'. It means 'that for which there are reasons for action that exist to realize.'"

You really should update your website with this new information so as not to continue to spread the mistake. I've been studying your theory, assuming the information you presented on your website was accurate. Now I find out it's not.

I'm also reading your book, and I think you propagate that same mistake. It's quite aggravating, actually. I feel like I've been wasting my time trying to learn your theory.

Eneasz said...

Hello!

Either 1) You are unnecessarily complicating DU by allowing for possible other reasons for action that exist (when you have said there aren't any),

It is better to be complete, in case reasons-for-action other than desires are discovered in the future. That way we won't be locked into continuing a mistake that was made ages ago when it was believed desires are the only reasons-for-action that exist.


or 2) If other reasons for actions do (or might) exist, then DU would need to be scrapped. If anything else besides desires are needed for the moral calculation, then I don't see how you're going to make DU work.

I don't see how this follows. One would simply amend the statement. For example, it has been argued before that beliefs are also reasons-for-action. If this was actually the case, the statement would read "Good desires & beliefs are those that all people generally have reasons to promote, and bad desires & beliefs are thsoe that all people generally have reasons to discourage." And, of course, the reasons they have to promote/discourage those beliefs & desires is because those beliefs & desires tend to fulfill/thwart other beliefs & desires.

(yes, that last statement doesn't completely make sense, but that's because beliefs aren't actually reasons-for-action)

Kip said...

Eneasz: If beliefs & desires were reasons for action that exist, then what happens when a desire tends to thwart more and stronger desires, but tends to fulfill more and stronger beliefs? We can compare the relative weights of desires to find what "more and stronger" is, but we cannot do that with multiple objects of evaluation -- it would require comparing apples & oranges (so to speak). DU would then fail (not to mention it would have to be renamed to "Desire & Belief Utilitarianism".

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kip wrote: "Either 1) You are unnecessarily complicating DU by allowing for possible other reasons for action that exist (when you have said there aren't any), or 2) If other reasons for actions do (or might) exist, then DU would need to be scrapped."

DU would need to be scrapped. At best it could be made a part of a larger theory that encompassed this larger set of "reasons for action that exist", but I cannot even imagine what modifications would be required to shuffle DU into this larger theory.

Ultimately, one can falsify DU by showing it is not the case that desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

Eneasz seems to have some ideas as to what route to take if it were to be shown that some other type of reasons for action exist. My preference would be to leave that investigation with him. I do not want to go there myself. For may part, if it is ever shown that some other type of reasons for action exist, all bets are off. I can't say, from here, how desire utiltiarianism would fare in those alternative universes. I have trouble enough investigating how the theory fares in this universe.


"I'm also reading your book, and I think you propagate that same mistake. It's quite aggravating, actually. I feel like I've been wasting my time trying to learn your theory."

It is simply not possible to go through the whole body of everything I have written and update it each time I change my mind. Throughout history, readers have had to deal with the fact that writers change their mind over time and that there is a body of works out there that was written before the author discovered some error.

I hope that I will continue to grow and to learn and to change my mind.

That is one of the reasons why I switched from the web site to the blog - is the blog makes it easier to date text.

Everything on the website predates the blog.

Kip said...

Kip> "Either 1) You are unnecessarily complicating DU by allowing for possible other reasons for action that exist (when you have said there aren't any), or 2) If other reasons for actions do (or might) exist, then DU would need to be scrapped."

Alonzo> DU would need to be scrapped. At best it could be made a part of a larger theory that encompassed this larger set of "reasons for action that exist", but I cannot even imagine what modifications would be required to shuffle DU into this larger theory.

Alonzo> Ultimately, one can falsify DU by showing it is not the case that desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

Then, I think my #1 still holds. You are unnecessarily complicating the theory. Just have that "desires are the only reasons for action that exist" as one of the premises (axioms, presuppositions).

You said you were mistaken when you said that "'Good' means 'is such as to fulfill the desires in question." You "corrected" that to be: "[Good] means 'that for which there are reasons for action that exist to realize.'".

But, if the only reasons for action that exist are desires, or at the very least that DU necessitates that to be the case, then there is no reason to obfuscate the definition like you did.

Kip said...

Alonzo> It is simply not possible to go through the whole body of everything I have written and update it each time I change my mind.

Perhaps you should have a central place where you put the core tenets of the theory, and update those as you are refining the theory? If you think your theory will help make the world a better place, then this would be much more helpful than having someone read the entire history of your blog to try to understand your theory.

Just a suggestion, for what it's worth.

Luke said...

Kip,

If other reasons for action exist, then desire utilitarianism is false, and I think both Alonzo and I would immediately include these reasons for action in our moral calculus.

Re: spreading the mistake. Unfortunately, it would take thousands of hours for Alonzo to edit every post and page. Thinkers of all types change their minds about things over time, and they do not go back and destroy all of their old work or modify it.

And frankly, the revised statement is merely a more general form of the original. If it remains true that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then the original statement is still true.

Kip said...

Luke> If other reasons for action exist, then desire utilitarianism is false, and I think both Alonzo and I would immediately include these reasons for action in our moral calculus.

I'd love to see how you compare multiple types of objects of evaluation to determine which is "more and stronger".

Luke> Re: spreading the mistake. Unfortunately, it would take thousands of hours for Alonzo to edit every post and page.

Of course he wouldn't and shouldn't update everything he's ever written. That's a strawman, and not what I am recommending.

I suggest that if Alonzo wants to make the world a better place, and thinks that DU would help do that, then he should have a central place where he maintains an up-to-date description of the theory. That way, people can learn what he really thinks, and not waste their time reading outdated material.

Obviously you have much time and energy invested in this, so be aware that you may tend to be emotionally invested.

Luke> And frankly, the revised statement is merely a more general form of the original. If it remains true that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then the original statement is still true.

Indeed. And "more general" is "less specific". If it's not necessary, then it's only serving to obfuscate the theory. And if there are more "reasons for action that exist", then DU has to be completely revised, anyway. As Alonzo alluded to, that's not going to be an easy revision. You cannot compare desires & something else on an equal basis.

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe said...

I agree with Kip here. Alonzo's blog has over a thousand posts, and I tend to get scared of reading material that's years old (since he never mentions updating any of them). I think there should be some place somewhere, where he keeps updated the core of his theory, a place he'll promise to keep updated.