Friday, June 17, 2011

Enlightened Self-Interest

A member of the studio audience wrote:

[I]n support of the role of prescriptivity in moral language one might point out that the facts you're pidgeonholing as "moral" look like they fall more naturally under "enlightened self-interest" or somesuch.

Actually, no.

"Enlightened self-interest" is an ambiguous term - having two possible meanings.

One of these meanings makes claims about enlightened self-interest trivially true - true in a very uninteresting and unimportant way. The other makes claims of enlightened self-interest false, though not so trivially false.

The distinction here is between interests OF the self versus interests IN the self.

Those who suggest that claims about enlightened self-interest are both true and important usually equivocate between these two meanings. They start off with speaking as if all interests we have are interests IN the self. They all aim for the benefit of the agent. When they are backed into a corner by arguments that show this to be false they switch the second meaning of self-interest - interests OF the self. This version of the theory is true, but does not have any of the implications of the version they began with. When their opponent gives up attacking this second (trivially true) claim, the advocate of self-interest theory declares victory and switches back to the first (false) definition of self-interest.

The trivially true version of self-interest (interests OF the self) states that an agent's actions are motivated entirely by the agent’s own desires. The desires of others may affect his actions - but only insofar as he has a desire to fulfill (or to thwart) the other person's desires.

This is true in a biological sense - only my brain is hooked up to my muscles in the right way. My choices have to come from my brain - meaning my brain states (my beliefs and my desires). They do not come from outside my brain.

More importantly, though, this is logically true. Let us say that you were to hook up a remote control device such that you could control my body remotely. Now it is your beliefs and your desires that control this body. If that is the case, then the actions that this body now performs are no longer my actions. They would be your actions. Actions belong to (are the responsibility of) the brain whose brain states (beliefs and desires) are the proximate cause of the choices controlling those actions.

That is to say, all interests that motivate an agent's action are interests of the self - the agent's own beliefs and desires. If they do not come from an agent's beliefs and desires, then they are not his actions.

When people talk about enlightened self-interest they tend to want to be saying something more robust than saying, "The desires that cause my intentional actions are the desires in my brain."

Now, the claim that all actions are motivated by desires OF the self is quite different from the claim that all actions are motivated by desires IN the self.

A desire IN the self is a desire that P where the self ("I") is the object of the desire - "I desire that I...". I desire that I experience pleasure. I desire that I have more money. I desire that I am admired by all.

While the claim that the desires that motivate an agent's action are desires OF the self is trivially true, the claim that the desires that motivate an agent's actions are desires IN the self is sometimes false. The range of possible desires that an agent can have is as broad as the range of possible beliefs that an agent can have.

An agent can have a desire that no child suffers, or a desire that a particular piece of wilderness remain untouched by humans. He can desire that humans (or their descendents) exist far into the indefinite future and desire that the SOB that kidnapped and raped that child be made to suffer for his crimes. Just as he can believe that a God exists, he can desire that a God exist. And just as he can believe that the claims made in the Bible are true, he can desire that the claims made in the Bible are true.

The desires that Jim might have that would give him reason to condemn bank robbers almost certainly includes some self-interested desires (he desires that his money be safe), but it could also include desires in things other than the self. he may desires the well-being of others for its own sake - not for any benefit it may provide to him. He sees a society where bank robbing is rampant as one of widespread suffering and condemns bank-robbery as a way of reducing that potential for suffering.

Desirism says that Jim's reasons for actions that exist for condemning bank robbers must necessarily be his desires - desires OF Jim. But it not necessarily be desires IN the self - desires of which Jim is the object.

Perhaps more importantly, the desires that agents have reason to create in others are often not desires IN the self. In fact, praise and condemnation are more reasonably used to inhibit or reduce desires in the self (selfishness) and to promote desires OF the self that are desires IN the well-being of others, or desires in things that tend to lead to the well-being of others, or aversions to things that tend to thwart the desires of others.


MichaelPJ said...

I see you've split your response to me into two posts, which makes sense. I'm just going to respond entirely here, if you don't mind, just to avoid repeating myself and so on.

Firstly, I think you're strawmanning me a little bit. In particular, moral anti-realism is a philosophical position. I'm not sure it means anything much at all to most people, and in the philosophical context it *certainly* doesn't indicate the loss of all restraint. It may indeed indicate the loss of *some* restraints, but in particular anti-realists certainly don't deny the existence of desire-based reasons to act, or even of the higher level reasons that you're calling "moral". Moral anti-realists *do* often deny, for example, that there is anything that can give us a reason independent of our desires; something which you agree with!

(By the way, I've remembered about this, which although it's a review, lays out a lot of the anti-realist's points pretty well. In case you're interested.)

Now, the fact that desirism, say, actually *does* a lot of what we expect from morality is again *precisely* what you often see as a kind of "second phase" of anti-realism: pointing out that there are reasonable substitutes for morality such that most of what we do still makes sense.

Even if you don't accept the position, I'd like to persuade you that the claim that "morality" doesn't exist, but that there's something very close, but lacking the categoricity is very similar to your claim that morality exists, it just never involved categoricity in the first place.
(Compare: "phlogiston doesn't exist, but we have something almost as good in terms of oxidation"; vs "phlogiston does exist, it's just that we were talking about oxidation all along")

Lo, my comment is too long; more following.

MichaelPJ said...

A lot of this comes down to whether you think categoricity is a part of morality or not. You say not, but I'm not all that clear of your argument. You have a just-so story:
"Morality was adopted and embraced as a technique for fulfilling desires. At some point some theorists came along and asserted that its principles are categorical, but that never made it into the meaning,"
but that's all it is; a story. If your argument is:
1. Morality is real.
2. Categoricity is not real.
3. Therefore morality cannot involve categoricity,
then we seem to have a case where one man's ponens is another man's tollens; we either accept 1 and reject 3 or vice versa.

Of course, you claim not to be that interested in the meaning of moral terms. I maintain you have to be; the meanings of words aren't up for grabs like that! But if you're serious, why not just drop the word "morality" altogether. If you're right, and desirism was really what people were using all along, then talking about "desires that people have strong reasons to change" etc. will convey exactly what you need to convey, with no ambiguity. However, I strongly suspect that most people will just give you funny looks and go, "Yes, but is it right?"

As for the content of your second post; I apologise, I think the fault lies with me being unclear. I didn't mean "enlightened self-interest" in the sense you seem to think I did. It wasn't meant to be a *theory* of any kind, rather a category in which we place certain kinds of reasoning. What I had in mind was rather the following: granted that the only reasons that people have are desires, often people acting in "self-interest" (where this just means according to their desires, but I would say also perhaps in conflict with any moral imperatives; of course, you would disagree...) can be quite short-sighted, and ignore complex interactions that may nonetheless be relevant to the fulfilment of their desires. For example, the high-level facts that desirism talks about. When we explain why someone performed an action that doesn't obviously lead directly to something they desire, then we often say they acted in "enlightened self-interest", that is, they realised their aims could be furthered by, say, helping others, even if that was not one of their aims itself. And that kind of reasoning seems to include the kind that desirism would count as "moral".
Whereas, in fact, moral reasoning seems to be a quite different category of reasoning.

Apologies for the long posts!

paul said...

Unless a person is a sociopath it is impossible to cleanly separate interest IN self from interest OF self. People do not live in isolation. Even the most selfish among us realize we have needs in common with others. To deny this is mental illness. Even if only a small number of your desires mesh with society in general anything that benefits you benefits all. You can draw a line between "Enlightened" and "self interest" but it is an irrational self destructive line. Society can exist without me but I can not exist without society.