Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Should I Accept Desirism?

Why should you adopt desirsm?

Answer: If I am right, you already have.

You may have a favorite account of how you think you do morality. And, from time to time, you may actually appeal to it to answer a moral question. However, for most of the moral judgments we make and the actions that we perform, desirism provides the best account of what we are doing - whether we recognize it or not.

Have you ever been blamed for something and answered it by giving an excuse? I would bet that the excuse fit the model of a claim that blocks the inferences from a prima facie wrong action to the conclusion that you did not have the desires people (believe) they have reason to promote or inhibit. The criminal law already employs mens rea (or "guilty mind") in a way that is best explained in terms of whether the accused actually lacked the desires that people have reason to promote or inhibit. We already recognize a distinction between moral prohibition, obligation, and non-obligatory permission - and we defend our claims by asking about the overall effects on objective desire satisfaction that we could expect if everybody had the same sentiment. We already use praise and condemnation to mold desires.

People have been doing these things for thousands of years without even hearing the word "desirism".

If you are a religious person who thinks you get your morality from scripture. First, scripture was invented by human beings who already had a long history of interaction with other people - testing moral systems in the real world. The results of these thousands of years of trial and error is what they wrote into their scripture. Different people wrote different scriptures and offered different interpretations of the scriptures they adopted. In all of this, different versions were "tested" by their ability to promote the objective satisfaction of the desires of those who did the testing.

As it turns out, the authors of these religious moral guidebooks did future generations a huge disservice. They claimed that these were the words of an all-knowing perfectly good deity incapable of error, rather than the best current understanding of substantially ignorant group of mortals still struggling to understand the world around them. Consequently, moral progress in some communities came to a grinding halt.

About 400 years ago, areas dominated by the Christian religion threw off some of this dead weight when people began to suspect that they could independently investigate and understand God's universe. This included its moral universe. Thus, we got the moral writings of the enlightenment. Natural rights theories of morality emerged next to Newtonian physics. Neither got the facts exactly right, but both made progress over centuries of dogma that had been written into scripture and made the unerring word of a supernatural creature.

There are still throwbacks who want to bring primitive morality into the 21st Century. However, a substantial number of Christians have embraced moral progress. Rather than using biblical interpretation to drag civilization back into the dark ages, they use modern moral progress to (try to) interpret scripture.

Finding property rights, women's rights, democracy and opposition to slavery in the Bible is like finding an account of the use of penicillin as an antibiotic in the writings of Hypocrates. However, with a loose enough interpretation, mentally blocking out the passages that do not fit and loosely interpreting those who do, it is certainly possible. I suspect in a couple of decades we will learn that the Bible never meant to condemn homosexual marriage - it only meant to condemn a few types of deviant sexual practices that some people had engaged in over 2000 years ago and are no longer important.

This is a trick that more Muslims are picking up - finding modern moral discoveries in their ancient text, thus modernizing Islam in the process.

While philosophers debated moral theories, non-philosophers continued to practice morality. The practice of morality no more depends on the philosophy of morality than the practice of science depends on the philosophy of science.

Some noticed that moral claims tend to be justified by appeal to what people want. In the 1800s, they had not fully figured out the concept of objective desire satisfaction, but they found close proximations of what fit this description in "happiness" and "pleasure and freedom from pain". Pretty close is good enough for practical work - engineers still design using Newtonian physics rather than the more precise calculations of Einsteinian relativity. These people became utilitarians and began to try to justify everything in terms of its effects on what people want.

Yet, even Utilitarians do not always maximize utility. They show favoritism to their own friends and family out of proportion to overall universal happiness. They are reluctant to convict an innocent person even if it will bring pleasure to others, and they do not ask if the person who abuses a child actually enjoyed it more than the child who was abused will suffer. They still practice desirism while they preach utilitarianism.

Recognizing these discrepancies, some people promoted a system of natural rights and duties. The things the utilitarian was reluctant to do even when it maximized utility was just wrong, they said. Yet, they had a hard time deciding what things to put into that category and, when they entered into a debate on that subject, utilitarians were quick to point out that they were using utilitarian arguments. "What are the effects of adopting this principle universally on what people want?"

Kantians recognized that part of morality concerned with asking about the consequences of promoting certain desires and aversions across the whole community and interprets that as, "Act on that principle that you can, at the same time, will to be a universal law." When put into practice, as John Stuart Mill noticed, it typically turned into, "Act on those principles that, if everybody adopted them, will do the best job of getting the most people what they really want."

Some notice the significant role that praise and condemnation play in the institution of morality and conclude that moral claims are nothing but expressions of emotion - praise and condemnation - lacking a truth component. Yet, they continue to use and defend moral claims as if they are propositions having a truth component - offering evidence for and against various claims in terms of people want. While their theory denied that claims had a truth component, their practices were still those of desirism where there is a truth component as to what people have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit using praise and condemnation.

Other forms of subjectivists noticed that people based their moral claims on their own likes and dislikes. Desirism is confortable with this - but added that there was a second step to moral reasoning where people ask what they should like and dislike - and they defend claims about what people should like and dislike based on the effects that those likes and dislikes, if made universal, have on others. However, ignoring that part of morality, the subjectivist tells us that morality is subjective while she continues to engage in those second-level practices. She never actually accepts the inference from somebody else that, "I would like you to have sex with me; therefore, you are obligated to have sex with me" as valid, in spite of her subjectivism.

It is almost amusing to listen to the hard determinist make moral claims that he himself asserts are necessarily grounded on a false premise that we have free will. When confronted with the inconsistency, they shrug and say, "I can't help it. I am determined to act this way."

Saying that people already practice desirism does not imply they practice it well or that they are conscious of what they are doing. This is true in the same way that all people currently use logic without knowing the terms, "modus ponens" or "disjunctive syllogism". However, some use logic better than others, and an education in logic helps one to do so. We all practice medicine - taking care of our own maladies and those of people around us. However, a few years of education and focused experience dealing with medical issues will help one do a better job of practicing medicine.

Similarly, an acceptance of desirism should help a person do a better job of answering questions about right and wrong - praise and condemnation - obligation, prohibition, and non-obligatory permission. This does not change the fact that people have, more or less, been engaged in the practice for thousands of years without being fully conscious of how the parts fit together.

Why should you adopt desirism?

Actually, for the most part, you already have.


kevin said...

Just stumbled onto your blog. I think I agree with you in saying that every ethical system is a failed attempt to contain desire. But isn't this a point of departure for religion? Isn't desire about the future, and aren't questions about the future inherently questions about faith?

Michael said...

What annoys me is that desirism is so clearly self-evident that I had never simply figured out a way to put it into words. Thank you so much for your audiobook, it's fantastic. The only frustration I have is that when I talk to religious people they have a one sentence answer: "God/the Bible said it, thus it is moral". My frustration with desire utilitarianism is in trying to explain it quickly, but the concept of desire, thwarted desire, rewards, why things don't have intrinsic value, etc takes so long to explain. Do you know of a way that doesn't take less than an hour to explain it so that someone who is... shall we say... not studied on the subject outside of going to church can understand it?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Always be suspicious of things that are clearly self-evident, but which others seem not to understand. Maybe it is not as self-evident as one appears.

I have always taken the fact that others question desirism to imply, "Maybe I got something wrong."

Anyways, some things are not easy to explain. Ask Einstein to explain relativity in 25 words or less. His inability to do so does not disprove his theories.

Thirdly, I am not really into "selling" desirism. I don't want it to be a movement (like Ayn Rand Objectivism) to which people are converted. I want it to be a theory that is explained to those interested in theories as the best explanation of moral phenomenon - of excuses, apoligies, mens rea, prohibition, obligation, non-obligatory permission, praise and condemnation, consent, rights, and the like.