Thursday, February 04, 2010

Objections Considered: Hidden Prescriptions

I am sorry for my absence. I have been ill for the past couple of days. I am feeling better now.

While I was ill, I have been given some thought to this charge of arbitrariness that some have leveled against me. Specifically, the concern is that I have some something illegitimate and unjustifyable by liking the value of a maleable desire to all other desires. People object that this is an arbitrary assertion, not grounded in fact, that people may accept or reject as they please.

Furthermore, as I have argued, it has to go beyond the arbitrariness of assigning meanings to words. People in all branches of learning arbitrarily assign meanings to words. Chemists, physicists, logicians, and mathematicians do it. There is no scientific law that dictates the meaning of the word 'planet'. And the logician's use of the term 'argument' - a set of two or more propositions where one proposition, the 'conclusion', is said to follow from the other proposition(s), the 'premises', defies all common usage.

Yet nobody accuses the chemist or the logician of any illegitimate forms of 'arbitrariness'.

The charge is that when I assert that morality has to do with the evaluation of desires relative to all other desires, I am engaged in a different type of arbitrariness - one not found in chemistry and logic.

I believe that if we cut through the rhetoric, I am being accused of prescribing a particular sort of attitude to the relationship between maleable desires and all other desires - an attitude that I cannot objecively defend. When people get to this part of my ethics, they think I am saying, "You ought to look at relationships between maleable desires and all other desires in a particular light - seeing them as defining your rights and duties, and conforming not only your beliefs but your attitudes in general to their primacy."

They then assert that I cannot defend this call for having a particular attitude towards malleable desires and other desires objectively, and that this is where desirism fails. They reject this attitude towards malleable desires and other desires and, in doing so, they think they refuse desire utilitarianism.

The problem is that this assumption is mistaken. Desire utilitarianism does not call for having any particular attitude towards malleable desires and other desires. I have meant it when I said that one can drop all of the moral language entirely from desire utilitarianism and stick with the cold, objective facts about relationships between malleable desires and other desires without changing the theory one iota. Take this attitude that you think I may be prescribing for relationships between malleable desires and other desires out the window. You will discover that the theory does not need them.

Go ahead, chuck that arbitrary and objectively indefensible attitude towards these relationships out the window. Get rid of them. Look at what is left. THAT is desire utilitarianism.

People like to make up science-fiction stories to test moral theories. Here is one.

Imagine a society where there is a group of people who have the power to do something harmful (that thwarts the desires) of some other group. Group A does not care one iota about the harm that they do to Group B, and, even though Group A's desires are malleable, Group B lacks the intelligence or the power to choose any course of action that would alter Group A’s attitudes towards Group B.

Is it the case that what Group A does that is harmful to Group B evil? Group A has no reason to refrain from harming Group B. Group B has many and strong reasons to change the attitudes of Group A but lack the ability to even conceive the thought of doing do.

Desirism states that, in such a state, members of Group B are destined to suffer at the hands of Group A. The only way that Group A's desires are going to change is if somebody, somewhere, starts to put into motion the social institutions that would help mold those desires. Ex hypothesi there is no reason for action that is going to be put into place to mold those desires. Group A members do not have a reason for action. Group B members have many and strong reasons for action but lack the ability to form a plan that would alter the desires of Group A.

I would hold that, in a complex society such as ours, people do have reasons to promote a consideration for the desires of those who cannot express their wishes. We have reason to praise those who consider the desires of those who cannot defend their own interests, and reason to condemn those who ignore the interests of others who cannot defend themseves in the moral arena. We have reasons grounded on our own interest in their well-being, and the recognition that we (and those we care about) may end up in such a state.

However, these are contingent facts that could be different, at least in some hypothetical imagined universe.

Desirism does not necessarily prescribe an attitude towards the members of Group B. Desirism recognizes that in the situation, as described, with no opportunity to change things, Group A will continue to perform actions harmful to members of Group B without remorse. They will do so until somebody with a reason to promote the interests of Group B gets introduced into the world and begins the process of changing Group A's malleable desires.

Another science fiction story that sometimes works its way into the discussion is: What is there is a large and powerful group with a particularly strong fixed desire that A and a weak group with a desire that not-A? What does desirism say about this case?

First, note that, because the story concerns fixed desires, desire utilitarianism (as opposed to desirism itself) says nothing about this. Desire utilitarianism has to do with the molding of malleable desires and, where desires are not malleable, desire utilitarianism does not apply. However, desirism says that if the weak group's desire that not-A is malleable they are advised to get rid of it. If it is not malleable, then they are doomed to suffer, and no amount of moralizing will change things.

We are a species with a multitude of malleable desires. We have reasons to promote desires that fulfill other desires. This generates a feedback loop where the "other desires" we have reason to promote desires to fulfill are, more and more, the "desires that tend to fulfill other desires" that we are promoting.

We may not have, and may never have, sufficient reason to consider the interests of animals. And they may never have sufficient capacity to mold our desires so as to promote in us desires that tend to fulfill their desires, and inhibit in us desires that tend to thwart their desires. In this case, animals are going to tragically continue to suffer preventable harms just as they suffer harms from disease and illness that they could avoid if they only had the intelligence to do so.

The fact is that we are not going to go to the effort of moralizing about the welfare of animals unless we have reason to do so. That's a brute fact about how the universe works. Even if we can be made to have reasons to better consider the welfare of animals, we will not be made to do so unless people discover that they have reason to promote those desires.

Desirism does not deny these facts. In fact, these facts are also a part of the theory of desirism.

A lot of people are in the habit of looking for fundamental 'oughts' at the foundation of any moral theory. This habit has paid off, because the traditional moral theories start with some set of foundational oughts and build from there. But desirism is not that type of theory. There are no foundational oughts. There are relationships between states of affairs and desires and objectively true and false statements that one can make about those relationships. And that is it. If you see something else in desire utilitarianism, you put it there.

1 comment:

Kip said...

Alonzo, I'm glad you're feeling better.

We still aren't on the same page as far as my question / objection was, but we are getting there.

To start, can you answer the question you posed: "Is it the case that what Group A does that is harmful to Group B evil? "


Alonzo> We may not have, and may never have, sufficient reason to consider the interests of animals. And they may never have sufficient capacity to mold our desires so as to promote in us desires that tend to fulfill their desires, and inhibit in us desires that tend to thwart their desires. In this case, animals are going to tragically continue to suffer preventable harms just as they suffer harms from disease and illness that they could avoid if they only had the intelligence to do so.

So, moral-should we consider the desires of non-human animals?

Morality is concerned with promoting desires that tend to fulfill more and stronger desires. Would promoting the desire to consider the desires of non-human animals tend to fulfill more and stronger human desires?

If not, and if those are the only desires that are able to shape my desires, then I don't see where any prescriptivity would come from for changing human desires to consider non-human animal desires.

I know you wrote:

Alonzo> I would hold that, in a complex society such as ours, people do have reasons to promote a consideration for the desires of those who cannot express their wishes. ... We have reasons grounded on our own interest in their well-being, and the recognition that we (and those we care about) may end up in such a state.

So, I presume you'd argue that non-human animals fit in that group. But, I disagree. Humans will never be in non-human states. Unless you believe that people might be reincarnated as non-humans, I guess. So, it doesn't seem to me that this argument would work, since we could accomplish the same thing by just promoting the desire to consider the desires of humans.