In my last post, I gave reasons for rejecting moral intuitions as a reliable source of moral knowledge.
This, then, raises the question: How would I respond to a case like this, from Shmuel Warshell:
Let's say there's a world where 1000 people desire that a child be tortured. Desirism says that we should act on the desires that someone with good desires would have and a good desire is that which tends to fulfill other desires and not thwart desires. Now the desire to torture the child fulfills many desires- the desires of all the sadists. You could then say that the desire to torture the child is a bad desire but that would seem to lead to an infinite regress.
Rather than respond just to this specific example, I would like to take this opportunity to explain how I would generally handle cases like this.
First, there is a technical issue to tend to just to make sure that it does not cause future problems.
Technically, desirism does not say "we should act on the desires that someone with good desires would have done." In fact, I do not even know how it is possible to act on a specific desire. I can choose to give money to somebody in need, but I do not know how to give money to somebody in need out of a desire to help others, as opposed to doing so out of a desire to do the right thing, which is different from acting on a desire to impress others with my generosity. So, I want to make sure that desirism is not interpreted as arguing for "should act on the desire". Instead, it says that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. The actual motivation of the agent who does what a person with good desires would do is not relevant.
In addition, it is the case that desirism says that a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires - in virtue of which the people with those other desires have reasons to promote that desire universally using the social tools of reward/praise and punishment/condemnation.
Second, we need to make sure that we define the situation precisely.
The case mentions a "desire that a child be tortured". Is this a specific child - Fred? Is this a desire that one child be tortured, without regard to which one? Is this a desire for the torturing of children generally?
One distinction that often trips people up is the distinction between "a desire to" and "a desire that". In our current case, we can distinguish between a desire to torture a child and a desire that a child be tortured. A "desire to" can generally be reduced to a "desire that I". So, a desire to torture a child is a "desire that I torture a child". In contrast, a desire that a child be tortured is a desire that does not care who carries out the deed, as long as the child gets tortured.
In Warshell's question above, I am instructed to explicitly deal with a "desire that" - specifically, a desire that a child be tortured. Such a desire can be fulfilled by a state in which somebody other than the agent does the torturing.
I am not raising an objection to Warshell's example here. I am simply taking this opportunity to specify a distinction that has, at other times, caused problems as authors slipped from "desire to" to "desire that" and back again without noticing.
In this case, I also want to look at the concept of "torture". Torture is a value-laden term. In other words, it has the thwarting of desires built right into the meaning of the term. Something will not count as torture unless it thwarts desires. In fact, it needs to thwart some very strong and stable desires; a mild thwarting of a weak desire is not torture. In other words, a desire to torture (or a desire that somebody be tortured) is a desire to thwart some very strong and stable desires (or to have some very strong and stable desires thwarted). A desire that a child be tortured is a desire that a child suffer the thwarting of some of its strongest desires.
I argue that moral intuition is a poor source of moral knowledge, but linguistic intuitions are reliable when it comes to the meaning of terms. We cannot use moral intuitions to reliably determine the morality of slavery - the vast majority of humans who have lived have found it acceptable. However, we can use linguistic intuitions to tell us that morality is concerned with universal principles or attitudes. Consequently, insofar as the torture of a child is a moral concern, we are dealing with the relationship between the torture of a child and universalized desires.
Third, once we properly understand the concepts involved in a case, we can look at the details.
If we are going to look at the morality of an act of torturing a child, we have to look at whether the desires that would motivate an agent to torture a child are desires that people generally have reason to make universal throughout the community.
One of the ways to ask this question is to ask, "If a community had no desire to torture a child, do they have reasons to create such a desire and to make it universal within the community?"
Another way in which I have approached this question is to assume that there is a knob. Turn the knob to the right and the desire becomes stronger and more widespread within the community; turn it to the left and the desire becomes weaker and less common. We then ask what reasons people generally have to support turning the knob to the right or to the left.
At this point, it seems we are asked to make another stipulation in this imaginary case. It seems that we are being asked to assume that the desire that a child be tortured is widespread and immutable. Not only is it very common, but it cannot be changed. If it could be changed, then we can ask about the reasons for turning the knob controlling the desire that a child be tortured to the left or the right.
On this measure, there are many reasons to turn the desire that a child be tortured down - or even off. There is the desire-thwarting of those being tortured and the desire-thwarting of those who care about those being tortured.
There are no similar reasons for turning the knob to the right. Remember, we are looking at the question of whether the desire that a child be tortured fulfills other desires - not at whether the act of torturing children fulfills other desires. If the desire that a child be tortured increases - this itself does not bring about the fulfillment of other desires.
Furthermore, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a general widespread aversion to having the desires of others thwarted. This is because each of us is an "other" relative to everybody else. A tolerance towards the torturing of a child requires a tolerance towards the thwarting of the desires of others, and nobody has reason to seek out a community filled with people indifferent to the suffering of others. This aversion to it being the case that the desires of others are thwarted gives people a reason to turn the knob governing the desire that a child be tortured to the left - to turn it all the way off.
However, it seems that we are being asked to examine a case in which this is not possible.
At this point, we can confidently report that we are not dealing with human beings. In fact, at this point we might want to block the hazard of unconsciously importing assumptions about human nature into this example by imagining that we are talking about a race of creatures on an alien planet which have six legs and six eyes, scales, stand 4' tall, and have an entirely different evolutionary history from humans. It would have had to have been a history that would have fixed a desire that children be tortured. Perhaps the torturing of children at a young age released hormones that, ultimately, promoted genetic fitness - that cause sexual maturity, for example. Or perhaps torture released hormones that made the child immune to certain fatal diseases. Science fiction writers could have a field day inventing such a race and examining its implications.
Note that, to fit our description, this would not be a case in which adults tortured children in order to cause sexual maturity or prevent disease. Rather, this is a community where the effects of torture in causing maturity or preventing disease brought about an evolutionary change where adults desired to torture children - or a desire that children be tortured.
Note that, even here, it would be a community where people also have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to having the desires of others thwarted (because they are the "others" and they have a reason to have everybody else concerned about the thwarting of their desires). This would be a community that is both, at the same time, averse to the thwarting of the desires of others and having a desire that children be tortured. It would be a conflicted society, to say the least.
This would still be a community that would have reason to reduce the desire to torture children if it could. However, we are being required to assume that they cannot. Because torture is intrinsically desire-thwarting (that is, desire-thwarting is built into the definition of the term), there are necessarily reasons for turning the dial on this desire down, and few if any reasons to turn it up. It is still not a good desire - it is a bad but unmalleable desire.
It is a desire that, I suspect, our imaginary community will come to have reason to regard as an illness. If reward and punishment cannot "turn down" this desire, community members would have many and strong reasons to look to medicine to do what morality cannot.
Yet, even here there would be room for a moral component - an obligation to seek treatment and to stick to any treatment regime that prevented people from acting on a desire that children be tortured. Remember, this is being motivated by a general aversion to having the desires of others thwarted that everybody has reason to promote - an aversion that would translate into an aversion to acting on this desire to torture children.
I cannot imagine a case in which people will not have reason to promote a general aversion to the thwarting the desires of others. This does not mean that such an aversion will always win out - that there will never, at the same time, be reason to thwart the desires of others such as the desires of criminals or the desires of individuals with non-malleable desires to harm others. However, this will not argue against the reasons that people generally have to promote a universal aversion to the thwarting the desires of others.