Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Reassessment: Desire Utilitarianism Ideology

I have been going through one of those self-assessment phases where one looks at what one has done with one’s life, what one is going, and what one wants to do in the future.

Of course, all of this assessment takes place in the backdrop of that childhood goal to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been.

Am I doing that?

Could I do more?

I think that this type of self-assessment is a good thing. Desire utilitarianism recommends it. A person who makes these types of assessments cares about how things are going, and has at least some motivation to move in the direction of improving them.

Somebody who never asks is either exceptionally arrogant and thinks himself incapable of needing a mid-course correction in his life, or simply doesn’t care. We have good reason to condemn those who do not care.

I find a bit of a dilemma here. I think I can make my best contribution in the way of moral theory. However, moral theory doesn’t matter all that much. People don’t live their lives according to a moral theory.

Here, I want to distinguish between a theory and an ideology. There are lots of ideologies out there that tell people what to do. People join ideological groups, and they come with a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

At one time, I joined the libertarian tribe. As a member, I was culturally prohibited from supporting any type of government program. No matter what the government did, the free market could do it better. In addition, the world contained these natural rights and duties, as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and as defended by that great master of all wisdom in the universe Ayn Rand.

As a member of the tribe I was required to subscribe to these things. One thing we could always trust that if anybody was introduced as a member of that particular tribe, that he subscribed (at least publicly) to those basic core beliefs and values.

What I gravitated to . . . desire utilitarianism . . . is quite different from all of that.

Desire utilitarianism is not an ideology with a set of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’. Desire utilitarianism explains how to answer moral questions, but does not tell you what the answer is.

I have, over the course of this blog, argued for a number of moral positions. I have argued that there is a right to freedom of speech. This right to freedom of speech, I have often claimed, is not a right to an immunity from criticism.

Some people speak as if the right to freedom of speech is a right to freedom from criticism. They make a claim and, as soon as it meets with protest, they assert that those who condemn them are violating their right to freedom of speech. In a sense, they condemn those who condemn them by saying that condemnation is always wrong, so that those who condemn must be condemned.

On the other hand, a right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence. No person shall respond to words alone by threats of violence to the speaker, or to the speaker’s property, or the like. The only legitimate form of punishment comes from private actions – refusing to vote for the speaker, or to hire the speaker, or to support those who hire the speaker, or to refuse to deal with the businesses that sponsor the speaker’s radio show, and the like.

I have defended this particular set of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’. However, they are not integral to desire utilitarianism. It is quite possible that desire utilitarianism yields a different result – a result that says that it is permissible to do violence to others based on their words. A person could object to these claims and still call himself or herself a desire-utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism is concerned with how these claims are defended or rejected, not with what they are.

In fact, there are principles that allow us to respond to words with violence from time to time. Obviously, revealing military secrets can justify a violent response. Libel and slander are examples where words can invite violence. Can we justify these exceptions? Desire utilitarianism does not guarantee an answer one way or the other.

So there is no desire utilitarian ideology. Becoming a desire utilitarian is not like becoming a communist or a libertarian or a Christian. Becoming a desire utilitarian is like becoming an evolutionist or a heliocentrist or an atomist. It is a theory that describes the reality of value. The quality of the theory depends on the quality of those descriptions.

In fact, I left graduate school in part because I did not see the pursuit of moral theory as being worthwhile. I found college the realm of moral philosophy to be filled with very intelligent people, the bulk of which were doing nothing of any particular purpose. They were people sitting in an ivory tower talking about the nature of value – an ivory tower surrounded by human beings making human decisions that affected real lives in the real world.

With almost no interaction between the people in the tower and the people outside.

So, I sought to leave the tower and go outside, trying a number of options to try to make the world outside a better place.

Including the writing of this blog.

And I still have to ask.

Is there something else I should be doing?

27 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

With regard to you joining the libertarian tribe I am of the firm conviction that joining any group requires a sort of "group thinking" to remain part of the group. It also operates among atheists. To be a true freethinker is not to align yourself with any group, or, I can say it this way: To the degree you are part of a group and seek to be recognized as a valuable member of that group you will be forced into more and more group thinking.

I wish I knew more about you to suggest what you should be doing next. But if ethics is your forte help us debunk Christian ethics.

BJ said...

What you could do is a huge question, but I'm not sure what the context is. What goal(s) do you want to focus on? Answering that question should help narrow the scope of the "what to do" question.

Kip said...
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Kip said...

If your theory is important, then it needs peer review. You should get published.

If it's not important, then stop spending so much time talking about it and defending it. Move on to what is important.(*)

Politics & Religion -- two of the biggest things that affect us in this country. Learn how they work, and how best to change them in order to make the world a better place.

Teach people. Write more books. Make podcasts and videos. Help other people make the world a better place -- it's going to take all of us to do it.

(*) I think it's important -- and useful -- but am no longer convinced that it has the prescriptive power that I once thought.

Marc said...

Interesting question. I partly agree with Kip. You say you wanted to leave that ivory tower, but part of you is still in there. Your current activities only reach a very limited number of people and I'm afraid the impact of your work is rather small. Which is a pity, because I think the theory is important enough to get your ideas 'out there'.

To change this there are 2 major projects you can start as far as I can see: get peer reviewed and get published. While getting published scientifically may take some time, you can start by writing a book for the 'popular' market. You have enough material on this blog and in your earlier work to fill 3 books at least, so that shouldn't be a problem. So... Get a good editor (or use your regular readers as one) and start this project.

If you really want to help make the world a better place then you have to start making sure that your ideas get noticed by a bigger audience.

@Kip
The part I disagree with is the lack of prescriptive power you're worried about. Prescriptive power is highly overrated. A lot of people seem to think that any sound ethical theory will automagically make them lead moral lifes. This is simply a mistake. A theory can only (try to) determine what you ought to do, it doesn't give you the necessary desires to actually do it.

Kip said...

@Marc:

> A lot of people seem to think that any sound ethical theory will automagically make them lead moral lifes. This is simply a mistake.

True; but I don't. That's not what I was referring to.


> A theory can only (try to) determine what you ought to do,

Here's the thing, though: what you ought to do, is relative to a set of desires. Alonzo asserts that moral language refers to all desires that exist, such that when you just said "what you ought to do", he would say you meant "what you ought to do relative to all desires that exist". I don't think you meant that, and I don't think people in general mean that when they are using moral terms. How do we know which desires should be considered in the moral calculus? We don't.(*) There are no moral laws of the universe that tell us to consider all desires that exist. That is just Alonzo's assertion. Therefore, if one group (say humans) have no desire to consider the desires of another group (say non-humans), then there is no objective way for one of the humans to tell all the other humans that they should consider the desires of non-humans. That is, there is no objective prescriptivity in desire utilitarianism -- there is only objective descriptivity into which prescriptivity is injected based on the desires of the agents doing the prescribing.

(*) Actually, I'm simplifying things a bit. The truth is that if we do not consider the desires of a group in our moral calculus, and that group has the ability to affect our desires, then by not considering their desires, we create a situation of disharmony where that group will likely act to change or thwart our desires in order to keep us from thwarting their desires (e.g. war). In other words, it would have been better for us to have considered their desires. Note, though, that this only applies if that group has the ability to affect our desires. If they don't, then not considering their desires will not hurt us.

Marc said...

Sorry for the misunderstanding.

How do we know which desires should be considered in the moral calculus? We don't.(*) There are no moral laws of the universe that tell us to consider all desires that exist. That is just Alonzo's assertion.

I disagree with this. It's not Alonzo's assertion, it just follows from the theory. If you agree that morality is about reasons for action and that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then it follows that desires should be the objects of evaluation. In physics, if you want to determine the movement of bodies in space, you should ideally consider the influence of all other bodies in the universe. That being a bit impracticable, we use approximations based on the task at hand and the required precision. The same goes for our evaluation of desires. Theoretically we should evaluate desires against all other desires that exist. Well, you get the picture of course.

The outcome of this evaluation of desires leads to the insight that certain desires tend to fulfill other desires and some desires tend to thwart other desires.

When doing moral calculus for specific cases, you don't 'decide' whether to include the desires of some group of people in your calculation, you only ask what a person with good desires would do. These 'good' desires have been determined in the aforementioned way, thus considering 'all' desires.

Kip said...

> If you agree that morality is about reasons for action...

I think morality is about a group of agents using social tools to harmonize their reasons for action.

>... and that desires are the only reasons for action that exist,

Yes, as far as I know.

>... then it follows that desires should be the objects of evaluation.

Sure -- the desires of the agents using the social tools. But, not all desires that exist.

If there are some agents on another planet, or in another universe with desires, should we consider those desires? If plants have desires, should we consider those desires? What about computers? Or bacteria? Or viruses? What do we mean by "desire" such that we ought to consider "all desires that exist"?

> In physics, if you want to determine the movement of bodies in space, you should ideally consider the influence of all other bodies in the universe. That being a bit impracticable, we use approximations based on the task at hand and the required precision. The same goes for our evaluation of desires. Theoretically we should evaluate desires against all other desires that exist.

I'm not saying you can't consider all desires that exist. Of course, you can (if you're omniscient). And you'd have a very detailed description of said desires. But, whether or not you should consider all those desires is another question. (This is David Hume's Is-Ought gap.)

> The outcome of this evaluation of desires leads to the insight that certain desires tend to fulfill other desires and some desires tend to thwart other desires.

It may be the case that certain desires of group A tend to fulfill desires of group A, but thwart desires of group B. If group B lacks the ability to affect group A's desires (using the social tools of morality, or force), then group A will call those desires "good". Group A may not even know they are thwarting Group B's desires. (Let's presume they don't, for now.) So, if you are a member of Group A, should you have this desire that they call "good"? I think so. And any theory that says that you shouldn't is not going to be of much use in the real world.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

There are no moral laws of the universe that tell us to consider all desires that exist. That is just Alonzo's assertion.

Yes, it is Alonzo's assertion - but it is not a prescription. It is an assertion without consequence that a person can reject without changing the moral theory one iota.

This is true in the same way that chemists the definition of 'planet' or 'atom' is 'just an assertion'. However, it is an assertion without consequence. Scientists can change the meanings of these terms if they wish. Astronomy or chemistry will not change. The only change we will see is a change in the language used to report astronomical or chemical facts.

A lot of people are in the habit of reading something more into this type of assertion, to read it as saying that, "It is intrinsically wrong to fail to consider all desires that exist." They then assert that this "something more" is not justified and that the theory itself is subjective on the basis of this unjustified "something more."

But there is no "something more".

If you think that there is an unjustified "somethign more" in the assertion that morality is concerned with evaluating desires relative to all other desires, then you do not understand the theory. And what you are criticizing is something that you invented and inserted this flaw into, not what I wrote.

Kip said...

Alonzo> This is true in the same way that chemists the definition of 'planet' or 'atom' is 'just an assertion'. However, it is an assertion without consequence. Scientists can change the meanings of these terms if they wish. Astronomy or chemistry will not change. The only change we will see is a change in the language used to report astronomical or chemical facts.

False analogy. What will change in this case is the moral prescriptions -- the oughts and ought nots that result from the moral calculations. If all desires that exist are considered in the moral calculation, then one set of oughts will result. If a subset of all desires that exist are considered (what I am arguing is actually considered in the institute and practice we call "morality") a different set of oughts will result.

Kip said...

Alonzo> If you think that there is an unjustified "somethign more" in the assertion that morality is concerned with evaluating desires relative to all other desires, then you do not understand the theory.

I don't think there's "something more", but I reject your assertion that morality is concerned with evaluating desires relative to "all other desires that exist".

I think morality is about a group of agents using social tools to harmonize their reasons for action.

I think my definition more accurately reflects the real world.

anton said...

Hi Alonzo,

I have been using the "pay it forward" approach as I left the "tower". I go out of my way to make certain that I make at least one child smile every day. It means that I have remembered how to communicate what really matters. And, if I am successful, they will pass on "feeling good" to another and the tide of "good feelings" will eventually make it impossible for the "shit heads" to find an audience.

Good luck!
.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kip

I don't think there's "something more", but I reject your assertion that morality is concerned with evaluating desires relative to "all other desires that exist". I think morality is about a group of agents using social tools to harmonize their reasons for action. I think my definition more accurately reflects the real world.

Fine.

Reject it.

It doesn't matter.

If you think it does matter, then whatever it is that makes this matter is the 'something more' that I reject. In rejecting the reality of any type of 'something more' I am also, at the same time, and in the same way, rejecting 'it matters'.

You can choose one definition of planet that includes Pluto. I can choose a different definition of planet that excludes Pluto. We can debate how much each definition accurately reflects the real world - which I take to mean accurately reflects the way people actually use the term.

Yet, nothing in our debate - nothing at all - will affect the mass, orbit, chemical composition, or history of Pluto. What we choose to call things is not at all relevant to the question of what things are.

There is a set of objective facts concerning the relationship between maleable desires and other desires. There is a set of facts about how to use social tools to harmonize reasons for action.

Insofar as they are objective facts, there is no reason for disagreement.

And, I assert, anything that is not an objective fact is objective fiction, and can be discarded.

All of this is independent of the additional fact that I also think that morality is concerned with using social tools to harmonize reasons for action that exist. However, desire utilitarianism explains how this is done - by the use of praise and condemnation (and similar social tools) to promote desires that tend to fulfill (harmonize with) other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart (create disharmony with) other desires.

Kip said...

Alonzo> We can debate how much each definition accurately reflects the real world - which I take to mean accurately reflects the way people actually use the term.

No, that's not what I mean. I mean how moral agents will behave -- how they will use moral tools to shape the malleable desires of other moral agents. These moral agents do not (and I could even argue that they could not) incorporate "all desires that exist" into their moral calculations, nor do "all desires that exist" have an effect on them. "All desires that exist" are not "reasons for action" for them (those moral agents).

BJ said...

Kip: I think morality is about a group of agents using social tools to harmonize their reasons for action.

I think I missed something and am seeking some clarification here. To what are "their reasons for actions" being harmonized: to all the various reasons; to all the various actions; to the social tools in use; or to something else?

- BJ

Alonzo Fyfe said...

To identify morality with "how moral agents will behave" is as much of a mistake as identifying logic with "how agents in a debate will behave."

Agents in a debate will use all sorts of fallicies and rhetorical tricks to try to persuade people they are right. Moral agents make appeal to all sorts of fictitious entities such as gods and intrinsic values.

In both logic and morality we need to make some distinction between legitimate and illegitimate behaviors.
I mean how moral agents will behave -- how they will use moral tools to shape the malleable desires of other moral agents.

I agree that desire utilitarianism does not fully describe what moral agents do because desire utilitarianism rules as illegitimate any appeal to entities that do not exist such as divine commands, intrinsic values, social contracts, categorical imperatives, impartial observers, decisions made behind a veil of ignorance, and the like. All of these are a part of moral agents do - but they have no place in desire utilitarianism.


These moral agents do not (and I could even argue that they could not) incorporate "all desires that exist" into their moral calculations, nor do "all desires that exist" have an effect on them.

Yes. This is true.

It is also the case that agents do not (and I could even argue that they could not) incorporate all of the evidence that exists in drawing a particular conclusion, either.

Yet, this does not change the fact that the best answer is the answer that considers all of the evidence. It simply means that it is difficult for individuals to determine what the right answer is.

The same is true in morality.

theories do not and cannot consider "all of the evidence that exists" either. Yet, that does not change the fact that the best conclusion is one that is most compatible with all of the evidence that exists.

All desires that exist" are not "reasons for action" for them (those moral agents).

This is true.

And desire utilitarianism says this very thing. It is a part of the theory. It says that agents act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires given their beliefs and seek to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires. Agents do not act so as to fulfill the desires of others except insofar as they have a desire to fulfill the desires of others, a desire that the desires of others be fulfilled, or a desire that tends to fulfill other desires as a side effect.

This is why it is reasonable for people to have an interest in what desires other people have, and to call for the use of social forces to promote some desires and to inhibit others. My desires is not a reason for you to do anything. However, it is a reason for me to promote in you those desires that will tend to fulfill my desires and inhibit in you desires that tend to fulfill my desires.

And when I get together with a community it is reasonable for us to get together and make plans to promote those desires that tend to fulfill our desires and to inhibit those desires that tend to thwart our desires.

All of these aspects of morality are grounded on the fact that "All desires that exist" are not "reasons for action" for any given individual. In fact, it is because 'all the desires that exist' are not 'reasons for action' for them that morality exists.

Kip said...

Alonzo, please answer this question:

Group A is promoting desire X that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires for Group A, but at the same time, tends to thwart more and stronger desires of Group B. Group B has no way to affect the desires of Group A (e.g. social tools or force). As a member of Group A should you have desire X?

Kip said...
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Kip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kip said...

Kip> I think morality is about a group of agents using social tools to harmonize their reasons for action.

BJ> To what are "their reasons for actions" being harmonized?

To all of the reasons for action that exist within that group.

At least, that's what I say -- and I think that's pretty evident.

Alonzo would seem to say that all the groups are wrong (in the way that someone who is being illogical is wrong) if they are not harmonizing their desires with all the desires that exist (in the entire uni/multiverse even). I think that's impossible, and have no desire to even try, and can see no "reason for action" that would lead any rational person to try.

Luke said...

Well, you know what I think.

PUBLISH IN A PEER-REVIEWED JOURNAL.

I would be happy to help.

I wouldn't start with a defense of desirism. That's too huge. Argue for some of the assumptions of desirism. For example, you could develop a line of argument against incoherentism, as defended in Don Loeb's recent work, and explain that a variety of uses of moral terms do not lead to moral incoherentism, but rather a strategy more akin to Brandt and his 'reforming definitions.'

Eneasz said...

I would also, in an ideal world, like to see peer-reviewed publishing. However we are dealing in this world. Such publishing isn't possible when one is trying to hold down a job in the real world. It would require a return to that ivory tower environment for what's likely to be years, with no source of income.

I'd contribute to such a project, but I don't have a great surplus of income either. The most I could commit is $100/month. :/ Not even close to enough to live off.

Charles said...

I'm with Kip. The best thing you can do is get your theory into the peer-reviewed literature so it can be "tested". (You may also want to bite the bullet and think about "branding". I'm not crazy about "desirism", but calling it "desire utilitarianism" continues to confuse a whole lot of people).

After you have an article (or two) under your belt, consider writing a popular book with a good publisher. If your desire truly is to reach people, self-publishing just won't do. (Here is where the article comes in handy. In your query letter, you will be able to say you have these articles published and they have been cited X may times.)

If you're just too busy (because you have to work to put food on the table), consider forming a non-profit so others can help fund your work. (Maybe this will help with the article since it shows you are serious. I don't know.)

MOJO said...

Yes,

In order to take your moral theory to the place that it truly belongs, somewhere along your journey you must submit Desire Utilitarianism for peer review by professional moral philosophers.

Also, Desire Utilitarianism needs a Wikipedia page

BJ said...

I recall comments about needing a proofreader. I would be more than happy to proofread any material you would like me to.

MOJO said...

Alonzo,

I have a favour to ask you.

If Oxford Dictionary called you and asked you to provide them with a dictionary definition for Desire Utilitarianism, how would you sum it up?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Desire utilitarianism is a moral theory that holds that desires (not actions) are the primary object of moral evaluation. A desire is good to the degree that a desire tends to provide the greater utility, and bad to the degree that it provides lesser utility.