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?