Monday, July 11, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0025 - Insufficient Reasons for Act-Utilitarian Morality

In the previous post, I looked at the proto-moral system we have constructed through the lens of basic act-utilitarianism.

Our proto-moral community has a number of people called Alphs, each with a desire to gather stones. It has other people, Betts, with a desire to scatter stones. Both have an aversion to pain and all have the capacity to promote in others an aversion to causing pain by condemning those who cause pain. Our proto-moral community uses the phrase "It is wrong to cause pain to others" both to report the fact that people generally have reason to condemn causing pain to others (in order to create the aversion), and as a statement of condemnation itself.

Technically, the linguistic habit of saying that causing pain to others is wrong reports the belief that people generally have reason to condemn that which causes pain to others. However, in these examples, the belief is taken to be true. Please not that there is an objective fact of the matter - people can be mistaken about what people have reason to condemn. However, for the moment, we are assuming that the belief is true. We will discuss false beliefs in the future.

Basic act utilitarianism holds that the right act is the act that produces the most utility. The best act is obligatory - and all others are prohibited. It makes no sense, in basic act-utilitarian terms, to say that one should perform an action other than the action that creates the most good.

However, basic act-utilitarianism applies to everything we do. It applies to deciding what cereal to buy, what clothes to wear, who to marry, whether to visit a sick friend in the hospital. In all things, the overriding moral question is whether the act will maximize utility.

In contrast, our proto-moral society has both moral prohibitions (it is wrong to cause pain to others) and non-obligatory permissions (agents may either gather or scatter stones as they please).

I have not strictly established that the use of moral terms in this proto-moral world actually corresponds to our use of moral terms. However, we can still say that this describes a difference between the use of moral terms in this proto-moral world compared to a basic act-utilitarian world.

However, there is a deeper difference between our proto-moral community and a basic act-utilitarian community.

The difference comes to the surface when we ask, "Why perform the act that maximizes utility? What reason does any agent have to do that?"

In our proto-moral community, the answer is "none".

The Alphs gather stones because they have a desire to gather stones. The desire creates their reason to gather stones. Betts scatter stones because of their desire to scatter stones. Both Alphs and Betts avoid pain because of their aversion to pain. This aversion to pain, accompanied by their ability to promote an aversion to causing pain to others through acts of condemnation, and the fact that people with such an aversion would avoid causing pain to others, all argue for a condemnation of causing pain for others as a way of promoting a universal aversion.

They have no particular reason to do that act which produces the most utility.

They may perform the act that produces the most utility. However, when this happens, it is simply an unintended effect of doing other things for other reasons. Alphs end up creating piles of stone - but the piles of stone are the unintended consequence of them acting on the desire to gather stones.

So, when the basic act-utilitarianism tells them to "do that act that maximizes utility", the citizens in our proto-moral world have no reason to do anything but shrug. Instead, Alphs should (that is to say, they have reasons to) gather stones, avoid pain, and promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others by condemning such actions. Betts should scatter stones, avoid pain, and promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others by condemning such actions. Both Alphs and Betts who acquire this aversion to causing pain to others should avoid causing pain to others. Nobody has a reason to do that act that maximizes utility.

Let's take this proto-community more complex, with a set of desires comparable to our own.

In this case, there may be reason to promote a desire to "do that act that maximizes utility". One can do this by condemning acts that fall short of maximizing utility, and praising acts that succeed at maximizing utility.

However, even in this case, the desire to maximizing utility would still only be one desire among many - in constant competition with the other desires that agents have. There will be times when, in weighing the desire to maximizing utility to the aversion to causing pain to others, an aversion to lying, or even a desire for sex or thirst or hunger, the weight of other desires will outweigh the desire to maximize utility. Consequently, these other desires may motivate an agent to perform an act-utilitarian wrong action.

Let us imagine, for a moment, an Alph in a situation where the only way in which she can gather stones is by painful activity. Let us say she sprained her ankle, and gathering stones is now painful. She cannot make true both propositions, "I am not in pain," and "I am gathering stones". Any situation where one proposition is true is one where the other is false.

Here, the agent will weigh the two desires against each other. If the pain is mild, then the aversion is weak and not sufficient to outweigh the stronger desire to gather stones. The agent limps along gathering stones as best she can. However, if the pain is sufficiently strong, then she gives up gathering stones simply because it hurts too much.

If she had a desire to maximize utility, it would function in the same way. It would be weighed against the aversion to pain and the desire to gather stones. If there is a case where a great deal of utility can be brought about by temporarily forgoing some stone gathering and enduring some pain, then the agent may be expected to maximize utility. However, if the gain in utility is small, and the Alph is being asked to give up a significant amount of stone gathering or endure a great deal of pain, then the other desires would outweigh this interest in maximizing utility.

There is only one way to create a population that always acts so as to maximize utility. This is to create a population that has one and only one desire - a desire that utility be maximized. This creatures can have no aversion to pain, no preference for the taste of chocolate over vanilla, no desire for sex, no other interests at all.

If the agent had even one other interest, then situations will arise (at least theoretically) where the other interest will conflict with and override the desire to maximize utility - motivating the agent to do that which the utilitarian says is morally prohibited.

Ironically, a community where everybody had only one concern - to maximize utility - is a community where there is no utility to be had. There is nothing else that people want. Simply imagine a community where nobody wants to do anything but whatever other people want to do.

A basic act-utilitarian has nothing to say to our proto-moral community that the people in that community has any reason to listen to. A somewhat more complex society might have reason to promote a desire to maximize utility. Yet, even here, it will be one desire among many - constantly outweighed by other concerns.

There is, in short, insufficient reason to adopt basic act-utilitarianism.

3 comments:

David Jacquemotte said...

Just one critique, Alonzo. It should be noted that your statement "Our proto-moral community uses the phrase "It is wrong to cause pain to others" both to report the fact that people generally have reason to condemn causing pain to others..." is a bit misleading. The community is reporting their *belief* that people generally have reason to condemn causing pain to others, not a fact. In other words, they may be mistaken about the actual state of affairs in regards to other's desires and are stating their own desires as a truth about people generally. This will be important later when talking about intent based on factually false beliefs. I believe most errors in moral judgments are based on ignorance of the actual state of desires of others.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

You are right. I added a paragraph for clarification.

I am not sure about your claim about "most errors in moral judgment", but it certainly describes a common occurrence.

David Jacquemotte said...

Looks good! Thanks.