Monday, September 14, 2009

Beliefs, Desires, and Happiness: Responding to Carrier

I am taking advantage of a vacation (at the time of writing) to Germany to address some substantive comments concerning desirism (desire utilitarianism) as an ethical theory.

In late May of this year I received a series of comments from Richard Carrier. There were actually quite a few comments so I am going to ignore what I think are side issues and focus on what I see as more significant differences.

As I see it, the main difference is that Carrier appears to be an act utilitarian, whereas I am a desire utilitarian. Carrier’s writing suggest, at last to me, that he holds actions to be the primary object of moral desires, whereas I hold that morality is primarily concerned with the evaluation of desires. Also, Carrier seems to hold that actions are to be evaluated in terms of the maximization of happiness. Whereas I hold that desires are to be evaluated according to their tendency to fulfill other desires.

Another point that must be made is that Carrier takes our differences to be small and possibly non-existent. If the above description is correct, I would disagree with that assessment. However, this claim on Carrier’s part suggests that the above interpretation is not correct.

In actual fact, humans operate on a system of dispositions . . . which have causal consequences on the whole gamut of their decision making, which in turn has an aggregate effect on the conditions of their life . . . which in turn affects their baseline of happiness.

First, do not know what a "baseline of happiness" is supposed to mean.

A person may be able to make the case that such things as, “[W]hat sorts of friends they believe they have, and whether they believe the cops are hunting them down” might have an effect on happiness. A person’s happiness can be dramatically affected by what they believe is true about the world around them. Assume that somebody has just won a major lottery but has not yet been told about it. The change in happiness does not come when they win the lottery. It comes when they find out about it.

Yet, a person can want to win the lottery, even if she knows that the lottery drawing will take place after she has died and the news has no ability to affect her happiness. What she wants, in this case, is not happiness. What she wants is whatever will be made true by the fact that she has won the lottery.

With respect to imaginary cases such as this, Carrier asks:

[D]o we want to know (a) what people will do in this or that situation (imaginary or real), or (b) what they would do if they were fully informed and thought everything through?

Actually, as far as I am concerned, the best theory of intentional action can handle both cases. It can handle the case in which a person acts on full knowledge, and with limited knowledge.

Carrier says that the answer to the first question will give us descriptive ethics, but the answer to the first question will give us prescriptive ethics. I would argue that the answer to this question will tell you what the agent practically ought to do (what is prudent), but it will not tell us anything about morality.

First, these questions have an answer even if the universe has a single person. Yet, I hold that there is no morality unless there are multiple agents with potentially conflicting desires. A lone person, no matter what they do, can act imprudently, but not immorally.

Second, what a person would do, even if fully informed, is fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. A "fully informed" person who loves to rape and mutilate children who has "thought everything through" and figured out a way to rape and mutilate a child with no chance of getting caught will rape and mutilate a child. Yet, it would be difficult to count such an act as moral.

The question that I hold needs to be asked and answered to give us prescriptive ethics is, "What malleable desires to people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote in people generally?" It is also relevant that the tools for promoting or inhibiting desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Where there is no social need for these practices, there is no institution of morality.

People, if they wish, can assign the term “morality” to the selection of desires that are useful in relation to their other desires. This is a semantic question, like the question of whether the term ‘planet’ should be defined in such a way that includes Pluto. No astronomical facts are affected by whether or not we are going to call Pluto a planet, and no moral facts are affected by whether or not we call the choice of desires by an agent alone in the universe relative to his other desires is called 'moral'.

Where it comes to right action, I do not ask what a person would do if fully informed. I ask what a person would do if fully informed and having those desires that people generally have reason to promote and not having those desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. The person with the desire to rape and torture children, then, would not count as moral even if he discovers a way of acting on his desire with impunity. He would still be immoral in virtue of having desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

8 comments:

karim said...

A valuable post on happiness

Thanks,
Karim - Mind Power

Richard Carrier said...

Act Utilitarianism?

Alonzo Fyfe said... As I see it, the main difference is that Carrier appears to be an act utilitarian, whereas I am a desire utilitarian. Carrier’s writing suggest, at last to me, that he holds actions to be the primary object of moral desires, whereas I hold that morality is primarily concerned with the evaluation of desires.

I’m not sure what you mean to be the difference. I am a results utilitarian, thus neither exactly an act nor desire utilitarian--or both, depending on how you look at it: acts are of concern only in respect to results, and results are of concern only in respect to desires. I see no separating the two. That's why I say we are not really arguing for very different theses.

Carrier seems to hold that actions are to be evaluated in terms of the maximization of happiness. Whereas I hold that desires are to be evaluated according to their tendency to fulfill other desires.

You are saying there are desires that can override the desire for happiness (even in the presence of perfect knowledge and reasoning).

Insofar as you define happiness as a pleasure-state, that would be factually correct. But I define happiness as a contentment-state. It is freedom from perturbation: the feeling that nothing is left undone or wrongly done and the consequent satisfaction with self and state.

By that definition, it is impossible to have desires that override the desire for happiness except desires that are the consequence of false beliefs or invalid reasoning (and are therefore desires that ought to be corrected, in the sense that if you knew better, you would correct them). And even those desires only override solely because of the false belief that fulfilling them will produce the contentment-state that is the aim of every desire.

This conclusion follows from the analysis of any desire: of any desire, ask why we desire to fulfill that desire (rather than something else).

You can pursue this inquiry along the lines of biology, in which the inquiry would end at "because it produced differential reproductive success for your ancestors." But no one cares about their differential reproductive success above all other things. That's why most of what people want and choose has nothing to do with furthering their differential reproductive success.

Instead, you must pursue this inquiry along the lines of cognition, in which the inquiry will end at "because fulfilling that desire will content me more than anything else will." When people choose their own pleasure (or political or other goals) instead of their differential reproductive success, the reason is the cognitive one, not the biological one (biology made this defiance possible--it is still its cause--but people regard themselves as cognitive agents now, not as genomes, and thus the goals they seek are no longer the de facto goals that produced their desiring apparatus, except collaterally).

When you pursue the cognitive line, you always end with "because I desire happiness" in the sense of happiness = state of maximal contentment. In practice, this will mean the maximum attainable in the situation, but in abstract aim it means the maximum possible. Hence we always desire better situations when the situation limits our pursuit of maximal contentment.

This is demonstrable. The fact that "I desire most to x, because fulfilling that desire will content me more than anything else will" will always cause you to x (because you will, as a matter of physical fact, always do what you most desire: it is mechanically, even conceptually, impossible to do otherwise). You can never say "I desire y more" unless "fulfilling y will content me more than anything else will," in fact, these are synonyms: to say "fulfilling y will content me more than anything else will" is literally to say "I desire y more than anything else." Because desire analyzes to this in neurobiology, it is what a "desire" physically is in the brain.

I hold that actions only derive value from desires.

Richard Carrier said...

The Relation between Immediate and Expected Effects...

A person’s happiness can be dramatically affected by what they believe is true about the world around them.

But if those beliefs are false, then their consequent desires and actions will be incorrect. Thus, if you labor to merely be told you won the lottery, you labored against your actual wishes (and will only learn of this error after the fact, when no money is forthcoming, or you may never learn of your error, but you still hypothetically could have, particularly had you been more epistemically diligent to begin with). Thus, to say in advance of your labor that "you ought not bother" would be a true imperative fact, because that statement follows from the true facts of the world. In real world application, "you ought not buy into some Nigerian lottery you learned of through email." Thus, my theory is proven in practice.

Yet, a person can want to win the lottery, even if she knows that the lottery drawing will take place after she has died and the news has no ability to affect her happiness.

Only because it contents her to be assured her relatives will benefit (or whomever she expects to benefit--if no one, I contend, then the scenario is contrafactual, i.e. such behavior will never rationally obtain). The act of buying into the lottery is what will content her more than the act of not buying in. There is no other physiological explanation for her behavior. Buying in does involve loss: the labor and money to buy in; and therefore, involves cost-benefit analysis, which entails weighing competing desires, in which contest the strongest desire will always prevail. And since "strongest desire" means "desire whose fulfillment it is believed will produce the greatest contentment of all desires whose fulfillment are competitively attainable," it is happiness again that she is pursuing, even in the act of buying a ticket whose outcome she'll never know. Were it not so, she wouldn't buy it.

What she wants is whatever will be made true by the fact that she has won the lottery.

But why does she want "whatever will be made true" by that act? You keep failing to take the next step in explaining her behavior. She doesn't just want that outcome for no reason. She wants it for a very notable reason: because it makes her feel good to know it will occur (or, as in any gambling scenario of course, may occur). If it did not make her feel good, she wouldn't do it.

This is so even in cases that involve greater loss, e.g. allowing herself to be gangraped and bludgeoned to death to prevent the same occurring to her well-hidden daughter. Obviously it does not make her "feel good" in the absolute sense to be raped and beaten to death, but of the two options available to her--divulging the location of her daughter and thus witnessing (or knowing) her daughter's consequent fate, or submitting to torture and death--one does make her feel better than the other. It makes her feel more content than the other choice would (or so she believes, and I venture to say for many, that belief would not be in error)--not anywhere near as content as she'd like to be, but as content as it is possible to be, given the extreme limitations of her situation.

But therein is a clue to the whole point: not anywhere near as content as she'd like to be. That fact exposes the reality: what she actually desires is to be perfectly content, and had she the means, she'd dispatch her would-be rapists and murderers and live happily ever after with her daughter in some pleasant paradise. The only reason she chooses being raped and beaten is because her options are limited. But she's still choosing happiness--as much of it as her situation allows--and she would in a hot second choose far more if she could.

Perfect contentment in her case would be to avoid being raped and killed and saving her daughter from that fate. That that is what she most desires even when she can't have it is exactly what proves my point.

Richard Carrier said...

Defining Morality...

I would argue that the answer to this question will tell you what the agent practically ought to do (what is prudent), but it will not tell us anything about morality.

I contend there is no difference. This is therefore a false dichotomy.

A difference only arises if you can demonstrate a true moral imperative that overrides a prudent imperative, without also itself being a prudent imperative. I have never seen any such demonstration and challenge anyone to present one. Be aware: you muse demonstrate that it is true, not merely that it coheres with some moral system or other, because that begs the question of whether than moral system is true. And answering that question always ends up at prudence, no matter what moral system you attempt thus to demonstrate the truth of (even if it's theological).

I've said enough about this in my book (Sense and Goodness without God).

I hold that there is no morality unless there are multiple agents with potentially conflicting desires. A lone person, no matter what they do, can act imprudently, but not immorally.

That can only be the case by arbitrary semantic fiat. I discuss this in my book (defining-conventions). Sure, you can arbitrarily restrict the word "moral" to any classification of behaviors you want to. That's fine. But that's just semantics. There will still be, in every situation, some imperative that factually overrides all others, so if you dispense with arbitrary vocal sounds like "moore-il" and simply ask "what ought I do?" your arbitrary distinction fails to have any relevance. Even for a lone person, there are things they ought to do, and things they ought not do, in accordance with what they most want and other corresponding facts of the world. "I ought not smoke" and "I ought not fall asleep in the fire pit" being two obvious examples (one that is applicable in our present reality, and one that would be applicable to the last man on the planet, respectively).

It is also relevant that the tools for promoting or inhibiting desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Where there is no social need for these practices, there is no institution of morality.

Consider smoking and not sleeping in fires: even were we away from all other people, we would praise ourselves for doing the right thing and condemn ourselves for our errors and bad decisions, and thus self-congratulation and self-reprimand would mold and habituate our behavior toward what we as individuals ought to do, even alone (as long as, again, we base this all on true beliefs and valid reasoning). And even in society, it is still our own conscience that provides the most important system of praise and blame disciplining our behavior, and the most important observer for us to train well so it will guide us well.

And reward and punishment are direct: smoking and sleeping in fires will punish you right and good. Looking after your own good health will reward you just as much. There are also the rewards and punishments of personal experience: doing fun and rewarding things will reward you with pleasure, doing depressing and futile things will punish you with dissatisfaction. The only difference in society is that society introduces an even more complex environment you have to negotiate and adapt to, which thus provides whole new avenues of praise, blame, reward, and punishment. But conceptually, it's just more of the same.

Richard Carrier said...

Child Rape and Alien Morality... A "fully informed" person who loves to rape and mutilate children who has "thought everything through" and figured out a way to rape and mutilate a child with no chance of getting caught will rape and mutilate a child. Yet, it would be difficult to count such an act as moral.

Except they cannot be fully informed and conclude that this is what they most want in the world, so the scenario is contrafactual. A fully informed person would want other things more. Even apart from the obvious facts of the attendant external risks of committing a crime and internal risks of mental well-being, a person who knew all they needed to know would find other things in the realm of things they can have that they would be happier getting than the opportunity to rape a child. This is particularly obvious in psychological interviews with child rapists: their rationalizations and worldviews are rife with startlingly false beliefs. Thus, they are not fully informed, and had they been, they would not have those beliefs, and had they not, they would not have even wanted to rape a child.

Such is the state of things in the actual real world. Now, we can posit purely hypothetical scenarios, such as a true psychopath (actual psychopaths actually aren't true ones, as I explain the science shows in my book, but true ones are conceptually possible and there can be extraterrestrials who qualify). For example, a person for whom all they most want in the world is to cause torment in others, this brings them more contentment than anything else. This person would actually have a different morality than us (if you were to stumble on a civilization of these people, you would find them debating a completely different moral theory than any you've seen on earth). But relative to us, they would be a monster, with whom no negotiation or reliable common ground is possible. We should react to them accordingly (I recommend killing them outright).

But that there is a different morality for hypothetical (or even actual) monsters is irrelevant to us, as we are not those monsters. We ought to do what we ought to do, not what they ought to do.

Richard Carrier said...

So What’s the Difference?

I ask what a person would do if fully informed and having those desires that people generally have reason to promote and not having those desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

The question is useless if that person has no desire to care about any of this. "Why should I care about what other people generally have reason to promote or inhibit?" If you cannot answer that question, you don't gain any advantage over my position. And if you can answer that question, you'll find the answer is the very one I've been articulating.

The person with the desire to rape and torture children, then, would not count as moral even if he discovers a way of acting on his desire with impunity. He would still be immoral in virtue of having desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.

In what respect then is his behavior governed by desire utilitarianism? This is simply public condemnation--in no relation to his own desires whatever. You thus have nothing to say to him. In other words, your own desire utilitarianism holds no meaning, or no discernible truth value, for him, and thus cannot in any intelligible way be said to govern or command his behavior. I see no advantage of this over my position. In fact, it appears quite identical.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

"But relative to us, they would be a monster, with whom no negotiation or reliable common ground is possible. We should react to them accordingly (I recommend killing them outright)."

Right on!

Eneasz said...

An outsider's perspective on this argument:

The bulk of this seems to be a non-argument. It is pretty clear that by "happiness" Mr Carrier means "the state in which the greatest and strongest of one's desires are fulfilled". Over half of this debate could be cut out if, whenever he saw "happiness" Alonzo would mentally replace it with "the state in which more/all desires are fulfilled"; and whenever Richard saw "fulfillment of desires" he would mentally replace it with "happiness." At this point it's just a choice of words that both express the same thing.

I think the much more interesting debate is Carrier's position that no fully-informed agent would ever have desires that people have reasons to inhibit (like a desire to steal, or to rape). I don't understand how this could possibly be the case. It seems somewhat naive. It also implies that anyone can be reasoned into doing what is right with enough argumentation, whereas DU explicitly states that this is impossible.