Monday, July 23, 2012

Desirism and the History of Moral Philosophy

Back to the Desirism Wiki - today, I would like to add some detail to the historical context if the theory.

David Hume

Many of the elements of Desirism can be found in the writings of David Hume.

Hume wrote that we find the wrongness of something like murder in ourselves. It is not in the act itself, it is within us. On this matter, desirism disagrees. We actually find the wrongness in whether the motives behind the murder are those that people generally have reason to condemn.

However, after getting past this bit of subjectivism, Hume agrees with this assessment. He writes that the primary object if moral evaluation is character traits. Furthermore, traits are to be evaluated according to whether they are useful or pleasing to oneself or others. In other words, they are to be evaluated according to whether people generally gave reasons to promote or to inhibit such a trait.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism is often evaluated as being rule-based. A good rule is a rule that maximizes utility, and the right act is the act that follows the best rule.

This is nothing that Mill explicitly defends. It is an interpretation of Mill's writings made popular in an article by J.O. Urmson in 1953 - approximately 100 years after Mill's original publications.

Rule utilitarianism has a well-known and significant problem. What do you do when the act that has the best consequences violates the best rules? If it is true that utility is the only thing that matters, then this argues for performing the act that produces the best utility and ignoring the rule. Thus, rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism seems to require that something other than utility matters - namely, following the rules.

One way to avoid this objection is to deny that it is even possible to break the rules. What if the rules were written into the brain as propositional attitudes - as desires, and human agents always act to objectively satisfy the most and strongest rules? Now, whenever an the best act violates the best rules, the option of performing the best act simply does not exist. Because "ought" implies "can" (and "cannot" implies "it is not the case that one ought"), an inability to perform the act-utilitarian best act implies that it is not the case that one ought to perform the act-utilitarian best act. Rule utilitarianism (or, in this case, desire utilitarianism) does not collapse into act utilitarianism.

Desire utilitarianism is an older version of desirism.

Mill actually says quite a bit about desires. He notes, for example, how we may begin by doing things so as to obtain a reward or avoid a punishment - but that it eventually becomes something we want for its own sake. At the turn of the century, G.E. Moore, writing against Mill, considered it an important objection that Mill fails to distinguish between what is desired (that which has value is that which objectively satisfy a desire) and what ought to be desired (the proper subject of morality). This, too, is an objection that Mill can answer simply by saying that what ought to be desired is that which, in being desired, would tend to objectively satisfy other desires.

James Martineau and Henry Sidgwick

At the end of the 19th Century, James Martineau developed a theory that held that the moral quality of an act depends on the quality of the motive from which it sprang. We determine the quality of a motive by simply reflecting on it. God himself has written these moral facts into our brain and we can determine which is the greater motive by holding them side by side in our minds and drawing a comparison. By knowing the relative value of each motive, and knowing which act is recommended by each, we can know what to do in a given situation.

Henry Sidgwick argued against Martineau that this account fails on two significant grounds.

First, it fails to account for negligence. An act of negligence does not spring from bad motives. The negligent person does not set out to do any harm, and generally regrets the fact that harm resulted from his actions. The drunk driver only wants to get home. The farmer who fails to secure the load he is carrying only wants to deliver the material. The harm that comes from their actions is entirely unintentional.

Second, it fails to account for the possibility of performing a right action from less-than-noble motives. A vicious neighbor who wants to harm the neighbor who mowed his grass early on a Sunday morning tells the police that his neighbor molests children. He has known about this for quite some time, but did not care to act until he wanted vengeance for this Sunday disturbance. It is certainly the case that he ought to have reported his neighbor, but his act does not spring from any good motive.

Desirism differs from Martineau's theory in that it understands a right action to be the action that a person with good desires would have performed. It does not look at the actual motives behind the action. A person with good desires has a level of concern for the welfare of others that motivates to prevent harms. This interest keeps him from driving while drunk, and motivates him to properly secure the load on his truck before driving into town. Also, a person with good desires would have reported the neighbor who molests children. He would have done so out of a proper level of concern for the children, rather than to avenge a Sunday morning of disturbed sleep. However, the person seeking revenge is still doing something that a person with good desires also would have done - only for a different reason.

R.M. Hare

In the middle of the 20th century, R M Hare proposed a modified version of Mill's rule utilitarianism.

Hare was a prescriptivist. He denied that moral claims were truth-bearing. Instead, he argued that they were commands like "Close the window," or "Get me a bowl of ice cream." Commands are neither true nor false.

Furthermore, he divided morality into two levels of moral thinking. At the most basic level - the level that most of us use to make our snap moral judgments and to guide our actions - those actions are judged by their conformity to certain rules. We do not have the capacity to judge an act by its consequences. Instead, we learn particular guidelines for action and, at the moment of decision, follow the guidelines.

However, when we have more time to think about an issue, we have time to engage in a second level of moral thinking. This level looks at the guidelines - the fundamental moral principles - and asks which of them, when followed, produces the best consequences. This is the realm of moral debate and moral philosophy - not the realm of snap moral decisions and every-day action.

Desirism holds that, when we act, we choose the action (or inaction) that will fulfill the most and strongest of our actions, given our beliefs. The vast majority of our actions are not performed with some massive moral calculation. A person does not need to do a heavy utility calculation to determine whether to take the money a co-worker has in her desk. We simply do what we like and not to what we dislike. We do not measure consequences so much as we measure what we are comfortable with. For many of us, this includes a strong aversion to taking the property of another person - it makes us uncomfortable.

Yet, we also have an opportunity to evaluate the desires that motivate our day to day action and to judge whether they are desires we have reason to promote or to inhibit. These moral calculations take a lot more effort, which are then used to determine what types of actions we have reason to praise or condemn. When we engage in moral debate, our debate is not about what is comfortable but, instead, about the consequences of "what if everybody did that?" At this level, we wonder whether we should rethink what people are - or should be - comfortable with.

J.L. Mackie

Later in the 20th Century, J.L. Mackie wrote an influential book in which he defended a view that came to be known as Error Theory.

Error Theory holds that our moral language contained an assumption that certain act-types contain an objective, intrinsic property of prescriptivity. This is built in to the very nature of the act that is to be avoided (if it is bad) or one is obligated to perform (if it is good). However, this objective, intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist. Because it does not exist, all claims that an act type contains objective, intrinsic prescriptivity must be false.

However, we are not stuck with these definitions. The word 'atom' originally meant 'without parts'. When scientists discovered that what they had been calling atoms actually had parts - nutrons, protons, and electrons - this meant that all of their previous talk about atoms was false. However, they had an easy solution to their problem. All they had to do was drop the notion of indivisibility from their concept of an atom, and they could continue doing chemistry much like they had been.

Similarly, ethicists can drop intrinsic prescriptivity from the meaning of moral terms. When we do this, we get a notion of value as being something that serves particular interests or desires. These claims can be objectively true. Desirism follows this model by arguing that we can make objectively true and false claims about the desires that people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote using social tools such as praise and condemnation.


Now, I need to crack open some books and find some references for all of this stuff. Well, that'll be my project for the week.

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