Monday, August 24, 2009

The Thwarting of Desires

As I mentioned at the end of last week, I am going to leave on an extended vacation at the end of this week, leaving those of you who are interested free to talk amongst yourselves. A recent post on desirism seem to have started something of a discussion.

Chris responded to my statement, If nobody had a desire to torture children, then no child would need to fear being tortured, and nobody would have reason to regret this fact, by saying:

It seems trivially true that if no one desires X, then no one would regret the fact that we do not have X.

It is trivially true. However, the fact that it is a premise in the argument warrants saying it in spite of the fact that it is trivially true.

This point was made with respect to the badness of a desire to torture children. Chris was making the point that if we eliminated the desire for homosexual acts, or the “desire for socialized medicine” then nobody would regret the fact that we did not have these things either.

One important difference to note is that, with respect to a desire to torture children, it is necessarily the case that if somebody has this desire than desires will be thwarted. Either the desires of the person who wants to torture children will be thwarted, or the desires of the children tortured (and those who torture children) will be thwarted. This is not true of either of these alternatives.

If, by some act of magic, we could create a child who enjoys pain, this will not allow us to fulfill the desires of those who seek to torture children. If the child likes pain, than inflicting pain on the child would not be torture. By the very definition of the word, a person is not being tortured unless he or she has a particularly strong desire (e.g., an aversion to pain, an aversion to the sensation of drowning) that is being thwarted.

Where two desires appear to come into conflict, the next question to ask is whether it is true that two desires have come into conflict. In the case of homosexual acts, these acts can and often do fulfill the desires of homosexuals. However, many of the claims that these acts also thwart desires are suspect.

Some people claim that God condemns homosexual acts and that one’s aversion to homosexual acts is really an aversion to that which goes against God. Because there is no God, there is no way for a homosexual act to thwart a desire that God’s will be obeyed.

The same argument applies to the claim that homosexual acts are intrinsically bad. There is no such thing as intrinsic badness, so a desire to reduce as much as possible the amount of intrinsic badness in the world is a desire that no act can fulfill or thwart.

So, people who engage in homosexual acts are not, in fact, thwarting the desires of others in many cases. The claims that people make about having a reason for action to condemn homosexual acts are simply mistaken.

Yet, if there were a true aversion to homosexual acts, an Eneasz pointed out, our next question to ask would concern the question of which desire is most easily changed.

Let us assume that, whenever a couple engages in homosexual acts, it causes extreme discomfort (pain) to a certain segment of the population. For example, let us assume that homosexual acts released a certain type of radiation that had the effect of causing extreme pain on others – a type of radiation that could go through walls.

In this case, there would be real reasons to condemn homosexual acts, even if people only engaged in such acts in private. Yet, even here, those reasons would only give us reason to restrict those acts to particular resorts whose boundaries were clearly marked – unless the range of this radiation was too great even for this.

Even here, it would be reasonable to put restrictions on homosexual acts only to the degree that this was the best way to deal with the pain that those who had such an unpleasant reaction to the radiation emitted from those homosexual acts. If, instead, the effects of the radiation could be prevented with a simple arm patch on an extremely small subset of the population that had this reaction, then that would be the preferred option.

These are the types of things that desire utilitarianism (or desirism, if you prefer) would invite us to look at.

7 comments:

josef said...

If, by some act of magic, we could create a child who enjoys pain, this will not allow us to fulfill the desires of those who seek to torture children. If the child likes pain, than inflicting pain on the child would not be torture. By the very definition of the word, a person is not being tortured unless he or she has a particularly strong desire (e.g., an aversion to pain, an aversion to the sensation of drowning) that is being thwarted.

What about a child who likes pain, but not torture?

This would appear to restore the desire to cause pain to children as holding a valid place in society's network of desires. There admittedly remains something absurd about this, and there is probably an easy case to be made that there are indeed still desires being thwarted (such as that of the parents that their child lead a normal life and not run the risk of being ostracized).

The game I'm playing is to see if there is a way to set this up such that a desire is apparently horrifying and yet doesn't thwart other desires.

As I've observed both here and at Luke's Common Sense Atheism blog, it appears that when cases like rape or violence or robbery come up, it is by fortunate turn of circumstance that we recognize their thwarting of other desires and condemn them on that basis.

But, at least in my observation, there is nothing in principle preventing certain like-minded people from setting up their own settlement where they practice any number of behaviors an "average person" would find abhorrent, but are able to fit them together so as to not thwart one another's desires (for example, raising children to desire, or at least tolerate violent things being done to them).

I don't think, for example, that it can be resolved by identifying abhorrence with "desires that tend to thwart other desires," because I can think of desires that thwart other desires without having the character of abhorrence. For example, a law requiring everyone to play checkers once a day would certainly thwart desires, but not be abhorrent.

My intuition is that seemingly abhorrent acts are abhorrent for a reason other than the fact that they thwart other desires. And with what I understand of desire utilitarianism so far, I don't feel that it empowers me to condemn suffering for the sheer fact that suffering is wrong.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Josef

You are correct in that there is still an absurdity with respect to a child liking pain since, if the child liked it, it would not be pain. (I know there is some conflict on this, but this is a semantic question not a moral question.) And it would not fulfill the desires of those who would cause children to suffer.

More importantly, we are talking about a desire to torture children. If there were a single child that enjoyed pain, it is still the case that we need to promote a strong aversion to causing pain to children because of the huge number of instances we need to prevent that involve the torturing of children who are not this child. We cannot fine-tune our sentiments so precisely.

You wrote: My intuition is that seemingly abhorrent acts are abhorrent for a reason other than the fact that they thwart other desires.

Your intuition requires the existence of things that do not exist. We tend to think that the badness of certain desires is intrinsic, or that it comes from God, or has some other source completely independent of desire. However, relationships between states of affairs and desires are all we need to explain events in the real world. Even your intuition can be explained - it is an error programmed into your brain by the culture in which you live where there is a strong cultural tradition of (falsely) treating value as desire-independent properties.

Zedge said...

As fun as it is to think about; we could never develop a sociality in which no desire would ever be thwarted Even if we all developed a greater desire to fulfill the desires of everyone else. There would be too many Catch22 problems, i.e. I desire sex with your girl friend. She of course wouldn’t want to thwart my desires but, you desire is to have her all to yourself. Your desire to have your girlfriend all to yourself would also be in direct conflict with your desire not to thwart my desires. My desire for your girlfriend is in direct conflict with your desires and so all three of us are now in conflict with one another and ourselves; Psychotherapy anyone? Since many desires are well hidden the whole thing is a moot point.
I’m assuming this is just a fun logic exercise.
Zedge

Kip said...

Alonzo> "You are correct in that there is still an absurdity with respect to a child liking pain since, if the child liked it, it would not be pain. (I know there is some conflict on this, but this is a semantic question not a moral question.)"

So, removing the semantics, let's say a child could be programmed to like the sensation of being burned (for example). This would be good for the person who likes burning children, since now they can burn a child while at the same time fulfill the child's desire to be burned. Win-win.

(Of course, I'm just volleying this ball to you to spike. I think this is one of the questions josef is getting at.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kip:

First, the assumption would have to be that children generally can be programmed to like the sensation of being burned. One or two exceptions would not change the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to burning children for the sake of the vast majority who would suffer.

And the burning of children generally produced no desire-thwarting side-effects (infections, increased risk of future diseases such as skin cancer, paralysis, desire-thwarting psychological effects).

Then we would have little or no reason to inhibit the desire to burn children. We would have no reason to condemn it.

In fact, we could imagine an extraterrestrial race of intelligent beings that evolved in such a way that the burning of the skin produced a chemical reaction that provided the body with essential nutrients. This race evolved to 'like' a certain type of burning and its children are regularly burned - for fun.

Or, we can even go further. Let us say that these children DO NOT like being burned. However, the burning of skin produces chemicals that are essential to healthy growth. In such a case, these children may be subject to burnings AGAINST THEIR WILL in the same way that we force children to eat their vegetables and brush their teeth.

And parents who did not burn their children in these circumstances would be guilty of a moral crime of neglect.

Zedge said...

@ Kip
If a child could be programmed to like pain; the desire to torture a child would in no way be satisfied (therefore thwarted) if, the would-be torturer was aware that said child enjoyed such treatment.
Zedge

Chris said...

Alonzo said, "One important difference to note is that, with respect to a desire to torture children, it is necessarily the case that if somebody has this desire than desires will be thwarted. Either the desires of the person who wants to torture children will be thwarted, or the desires of the children tortured (and those who torture children) will be thwarted. This is not true of either of these alternatives."

Two points. First, socialized medicine is an example of something where real desires come into conflict. Any socialized medical system (which I do support) would place many restrictions on things people would like to do and many requirements on things people do not want to do. There would be both fines and real restrictions on freedom for those who fail to follow the law. On the other hand, failure to have socialized medicine brings real pain and suffering to millions of people, which obviously is something people desire to avoid.

I agree that most people do in fact overstate to the point of absurdity their own "suffering" because of homosexual behavior, but to simply state that this is not real pain and hence the desire to end it is not real, is a tad too much.

But secondly, while much of your analysis seems to be in pointing out areas where there is no "real" conflict (and I am not sure that these situations are always examples of "no" real conflict), I am still not sure how your analysis provides an epistemically justified way of knowing which desire is OK to eliminate when there is a real conflict (This is a flaw no matter what analysis you use to decide this.)