An issue has come up regarding the qualities of a "right act" according to desire utilitarian theory.
In light of current discussion, I am going to argue that there are two distinct concepts of 'right action' and that something can be a right action in one sense and not a right action in another.
A member of the studio audience writes,
Your exact words are usually something along the lines of "The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed." On the other hand, it seems to be possible for two different agents, both with good desires, to choose to do two different acts.
One of the implications of desire utilitarianism is that moral dilemmas are possible. Moral dilemmas are situations in which an agent has a choice to make, where both options are morally impermissible. That is to say, there is no 'right action'.
A classic example from literature is Sophie's Choice. Sophie was a Jew in Nazi Germany where a Nazi gave her an ultimatum. "You tell me which of your two children I am to kill, or I will kill both of them."
Morality, as I said, has to do with the day-to-day situations. It is a world in which far too many children suffer from abuse and neglect. It is a world in which we do not expect people to be asked to choose which of their children will be killed - so it is a world in which we have little or no reason to prepare people for that type of circumstance. It is in a world in which we say, "if we promote these desires then, in that type of situation, they will be trapped." The answer to that problem is then to say, "Well, then, let's see what we can do to reduce the numbers of people who find themselves in that type of situation."
As such, we have many and strong reasons to promote and to augment parental care for one's children. Obviously, the sentiments that nature has given us are not sufficient for the task. If they were, we would not have the abuse and neglect that is a part of our world. So, we bring morality to bear to bolster and strengthen this natural affection.
By the way, the paragraph above was a direct attack on those who hold that morality is found in our innate biological dispositions. Natural parental affection - the affection that we have as a result of evolution and is written into our genes - is not a moral quality. People do not deserve praise or blame on the basis of innate qualities - qualities that are not subject to the influence of social forces. This would be akin to giving somebody an achievement award for having a particular genetic sequence, something which the agent has by chance and not by choice.
Morality has to do with the augmentation of good desires and inhibition of bad desires through social forces. People who study these natural forces are not studying morality. They are studying the pre-moral foundation that serves as the starting point for morality.
Anyway, back to our story . . .
Generally, we have many and strong reasons to promote parental affection as a way of reducing the total amount of abuse and neglect that children would otherwise suffer. Sophie, unfortunately, is in a position where, no matter how she acts, she is going to do something that will thwart this particularly strong desire for the well-being of her children. She will not only be acting contrary to a mother's natural inclination to protect her children. She will be thwarting a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote - a morally praiseworthy desire.
This type of choice would be psychologically devastating to a good person. It could ruin her. And, in fact, the quality of the book Sophie's Choice is that it well illustrates the psychological damage suffered by a person who is forced to make these types of choices.
One might say that the right act is clear. The right act would be to name a child to be killed so that one child is spared rather than none. This is the act that best fulfills the morally praiseworthy desire for the welfare of one's children under these circumstances.
However, a good parent simply is not prepared to hand over a child to be killed - to point to her own child (who looks to that parent for protection) and say, "Kill that one." A good parent would have a particularly strong aversion to such an act. This, being forced to do something that one does not wish to do, this act of deciding actually choosing a child for death, this act that was not foreseen by the morality that shaped her malleable desires, cannot help but haunt and torment th good mother for the rest of her life.
It is a torment that can, perhaps, only be ended by taking one's own life.
In cases where an act is the right act in the sense of being the act that a person with good desires would perform, but a wrong act in that it thwarts a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, we have reason to morally demand that the agent be seriously troubled by the choice. The person that we have true reason to condemn is the person for whom it is an easy decision.
Desire utilitarianism is comfortable with the prospect of moral dilemmas - situations where a good person would have a particularly strong aversion to all permissible outcomes. These are actions where people generally (and 'generally' is important here) in the real world in which we live have many and strong reasons to condemn that type of action.
There is an important social function to be served by a morality that allows for the possibility of moral dilemmas. In gives people an incentive to avoid those situations where they would have to make these types of choices. People do not always succeed. However, the incentive to avoid these types of situations means that there are fewer incidents like this than there would have otherwise been.
The moral question is, what would the good person's reaction be to that type of act? Would a good person have a particularly strong aversion to performing that act? Do people generally have reason to promote a particularly strong aversion to that act? If so, then there may well be a sense in which the act is the right thing to do. Yet, under desire utilitarianism, it would not qualify as something good. It would at best qualify as a necessary evil - a forgivable wrong.