Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Objections Considered: Reasons for Action That Exist

In considering an extremely common family of objections to desire utilitarianism, there is one point where, as I see it, all objections fail. I can carry many objections up to this specific threshold, but cannot carry it across that threshold. Thus, I see no option but to drop the objection.

The form of the objection goes as follows:

• If we take the propositions of desire utilitarianism and follow their implications, we see that they reach conclusion C.

• C is false.

• Therefore, we must reject at least some of the propositions of desire utilitarianism.

This is, at least, a valid form of criticism. If it is true that the propositions of desire utilitarianism yield C, and if it is true that C is false, then it follows necessarily that at least one of the propositions in desire utilitarianism must be rejected. However, it leaves two ways in which one can respond to this type of criticism. One is to argue that it is not the case that the propositions of desire utilitarianism imply C. The other is to argue that C is true.

It is useful to note that the form of the objection given above is very close to the following:

• If we take the propositions of desire utilitarianism and follow their implications, we see that they reach C.

• I (we) do not like C. In contemplating C, we are made to feel uncomfortable.

• Therefore, we must reject at least some of the propositions of desire utilitarianism.

In this case, the response is, "Not necessarily." The fact that you do not like a particular conclusion or that it makes you feel uncomfortable is not good enough reason to declare that the conclusion is false. It may well be the case that you just have to get used to living in a universe that does not conform entirely to what makes you comfortable.

In fact, this is the type of objection we often see made to desire utilitarianism. Whereas the author must assert that C is false in order to have a sound objection, the best we get is the assertion that C makes some people uncomfortable.

That simply is not good enough.

We need to take seriously the fact that the objection requires that C is false, and what this actually means.

The defining proposition for desire utilitarianism (aka desirism) is that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. To say that this is false is to say that there must be some other type of reason for action that also must exist.

But what is this other type of reason for action that exists? What does it look like? How does it work? How does it interact with matter in the universe to yield a state of affairs of not-C? Can you tell me anything at all about these reasons for action that supposedly exist and support the conclusion of not-C, where desires, if desires are the only reasons for action that exist, support C?

The various proposals that people put out - divine command, intrinsic value, categorical imperatives, social contracts drawn up behind a veil of ignorance, the wishes of an impartial observer, genetic oughts . . . they are all imaginary entities. These are cases in which what is real yields a conclusion that the speaker does not like, so the speaker invents some entity that allows them to reject a conclusion they do not like - that makes them feel uncomfortable.

This is the big stumbling point for me. The author raising the objection tends to simply gloss over the fact that they are asserting that some other type of reason for action . . . something other than desires . . . must exist. They ignore the fact that they have a lot of very heavy questions that they need to answer if they are going to make that type of assertion.

When the person raising that objectin can provide answers to those questions, I will start to take seriously the possibility that C is false.

For me, the weight of those questions are such that I answer, "No. If I have to choose between accepting conclusion C as true, or that there is some other type of reason for action out there that exists other than desires even though nobody can answer any of these questions about what those reasons are and how they exist, I think embracing C as true is BY FAR the least problematic option."

There is another option that is sometimes the case. The person making the objection may be mistaken in their claim that the propositions of desire utilitarianism yield C. That is to say, the first premise in their objection may be false, rather than the second.

That is sometimes the answer that I provide - to argue that the propositions of desire utilitarianism do not yield the conclusion that some people claim that it does.

This is the case when people confuse desire utilitarianism (desirism) with desire fulfillment act utilitarianism and object to conclusions that are true within act utilitarian theories. They assert that this theory says to do the act that fulfills the most and strongest desires - a conclusion that I hold to be simply impossible for any real-world creature.

And since 'ought' implies 'can', it follows that 'cannot' implies 'it is not the case that one ought'

My response in this case is that desirism is not the same as desire fulfillment act utilitarianism, and the conclusions that the latter theory may reach are not conclusions that come from desire utilitarianism.

Yet, even if the author is right in claiming what desire utilitarianism implies C, I am still going to challenge the person making the objection to demonstrate that C is false, and to explain what other reasons for action they are going to propose in order to support the conclusion not-C.


יאיר רזק said...

It is not accurate to maintain that "desires are the only reasons for action that exist". Rather, desires are the only reasons for action that exist for the person with these desires. Desires, as such, are not reasons for action, as such. One's own desires are the reason for one's own actions. This is the cardinal mistake of desirism - it classifies desires in the abstract as "good" or "bad" according to arbitrary criteria, instead of addressing the real desires of real humans.

Also, Carrier has already provided a very good account of reasons for action that are not desires - predispositions, character, and so on. These work hand in hand with desires, but cannot really be reduced to them.

Doug S. said...

If I can show that desire utilitarianism implies that all acts are right acts, is that a bad enough "C" to reject some of the propositions of desire utilitarianism?

Emu Sam said...

It would be enough to demonstrate that desirism is useless in identifying a wrong act. However, desirism could still be an accurate explanation of the facts.

On the other hand, I believe that desirism states that there are objectively wrong desires. I'm not sure what the definition of a wrong act is. It's not enough to take the inverse of the definition of a right act (that act which a person with good desires would perfrom) because a person with bad desires can still perform a good act. They would just use the wrong reasons.

There's another definition that I personally have trouble with and have to keep reminding myself of the definition Alonzo uses: "people generally." This is shorthand for "Most people have more and stronger reasons." I often run into the shorthand version and misinterpret it. For that matter, the longer version I provided here is not intuitively clear.