Monday, May 14, 2012

Desires and the Well-Being of All Conscious Creatures

In last week's discussion on torture, a couple members of the studio audience brought up general points that would like to address. Some of these I addressed in comments, but a blog posting gives me more room.

Luke Hinsenkamp raised a number of issues that I will address, before moving on to other comments.

Item 1 on Luke's list concerned the possibility of a valid and objective measure of well-being.

There's no question: Neuroscience is advancing at such a rate that we will surely have various truly valid & objective measures of "well-being" for individuals in the very near future, despite the slipperiness, or near-emptiness, of that term today.

I raised the objection against Sam Harris' moral theory that Harris defines good in terms of well-being. However, this is empty. Harris is defining one value-laden term in terms of another value-laden term that is equally vague.

Luke appears to have taken this as an objection that we cannot have a fully worked-out account of well-being. However, I do not think this is true. I think we can have a fully worked-out theory of well-being. However, when we do, we will discover that it does not support Harris' moral theory. There is no justification for making "the well-being of conscious creatures" the sole end of all action.

Specifically, desirism provides us with a way of deriving a work-out objective theory for all value-laden terms, including well-being.

All objectively true value-laden terms describe relationships between states of affairs and desires. It contains four components:

(1) The types of states of affairs that the term is used to evaluate.

(2) The desires relevant for making that evaluation.

(3) Whether the state of affairs fulfills or thwarts the desires in question (or both).

(4) Whether it fulfills or thwarts those desires directly or indirectly.

For example, the terms "illness" and "injury" are used to evaluate changes in the functioning of a person's mind or body. The term "illness" is used when the change has a micro-cause (such as bacteria or a genetic defect). The term "injury" applies to macro-causes such as falling off a ladder or being stabbed. Injuries and illnesses are to be evaluated according to the desires of the person whose health we are assessing. Insofar as we are talking about an injury or illness we are talking about something that thwarts desires. Both direct and indirect thwarting are relevant. Illnesses and injuries are things people generally have reason to avoid.

As another example, a useful item (e.g., a good knife) can be used to evaluate just about anything. You generally have to look at the rest of the conversation to discover what the speaker was talking about. You also often have to look at the context to discover the desires that are relevant in making the evaluation. An assassin may identify a poison as a good poison one to se when one wants the victim to suffer. The relevant desires in this case include the desire to cause suffering and do not include the desires of the victim. Useful things, insofar as they are useful, always fulfill the desires in question (though they may thwart other desires). Insofar as they are useful, they fulfill Desires indirectly. Where a desire that P is relevant, P itself is not true of the useful object. Instead, the object can be used to realize P. A can opener is useful in realizing a state in which one is eating the contents of the can.

Applying this model to well-being, I think it is quite easy to come up with objectively true statements about well-being.

Well-being is used to evaluate one's overall state. It includes health (the absence of injury and illness) but goes beyond it. It includes elements of wealth and power - tools for realizing states that one desires. It includes having good friends and being a part of a supportive family. These things are not only useful, but are typically desired.

Well-being tends to fulfill desires ( insofar as we are talking about an agent being well). It fulfills some desires directly (insofar ad the term refers to a state that the agent desires) and indirectly (insofar as the agent has the means to realize other states that the agent desires).

On this model, one of the things that we learn about well-being is that much of its value is instrumental - it borrows its value from the ends that it serves. In these cases, it is a mistake to confuse means with ends. It is entirely invalid to argue that, "X is useful for realizing Y; therefore, X is worth pursuing independent of Y." Yet, this is an inference that we find in all theories that take something that is useful (e.g., life, health, well-being) and declares it the only thing that is morally worthwhile.

Another thing we learn (though this is related to the first) that it represents a subset of our concerns. A desire that P provides an agent to realize states of affairs S in which P is true. However, there is absolutely no reason to limit the set of propositions P to those that have to do with states of being. There is no reason to argue either that it is limited (that nobody in fact wants anything other than a particular state of being), or that it should be limited (that states of being are the only things that have the type of value that make it worthy of pursuit). Neither of these propositions can be supported - but one or the other must be true to make well-being the only legitimate aim of all moral calculations.

For example, a scientist, for example, may crave knowledge. That thirst for knowledge may lead her on a course that puts her health - even her life - at risk. Well-being includes the faculties and tools to pursue knowledge. However, this does not make well-being the one and only goal in her life. The pursuit of knowledge is the goal. Well-being only has value in this context to the degree that it is useful for the pursuit of knowledge. However, if the scientist reaches a point where she needs to risk her well-being to make the next step in her discovery, she may well find that the knowledge is worthwhile.

I want to stress - I am not denying that we can have a worked-out theory of well-being.

Instead, I argue that we can have a worked-out theory that allows us to make well-being claims that are objectively true. However, it does not support Harris' moral theory. Harris wants to make the well-being of conscious creatures the sole end of all human action. A worked out theory of objectively true claims about the well-being of conscious creatures will not support that conclusion.

Instead, what is the object of moral evaluation? Well, I hold that moral evaluation has to do with the evaluating of malleable desires according to the degree to which they tend to fulfill other desires. Desires that tend to fulfill other desires are those that people generally have reason to promote through social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Desires that tend to thwart other desires are those that people generally have reason to inhibit.

There is no single end of all human action, there is no reason to believe that there should be a single end to all human action, and all theories that seek to invent a single end for all human action are to be discarded.

In the next few posts, I will be addressing a number of concerns like this.

In my next post, I wish to address Luke Hinsenkamp's concerns about the moral category of non-obligatory permissions. Act-consequentialist moral theories have no room for this moral category. The act that produces the best consequences is the required act (ought to be done), while all competing acts are morally prohibited. Some allowance is made for morally permissible actions based on ignorance. Agents often cannot know which act would produce the best consequences, so she is free to choose among those that might. Desirism, I will argue, provides for a robust set of permissible actions - non-obligatory permissions that do not depend on ignorance.

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