Friday, September 01, 2017

Motives and Ends - Why There Are No Act Utilitarians

Each motive determines its own end. To promote a particular motive is to promote a particular end.

The reason that this is important has to do with the way that utilitarians such as Henry Sidgwick handle motives. Sidgwick asserts that there is only one legitimate end - general or overall happiness. Yet, Sidgwick argues for promoting particular motives. He argues in defense of these motives in virtue of their tendency to promote happiness. Yet, insofar as they are motives, they introduce ends other than happiness into the calculation. A hypothetical community of Sidgwick utilitarians may start off with one sole end (e.g., happiness). However. as soon as they introduce another end, they introduce another motive that may, at times, conflict with happiness.

I can explain this using an example that has become common in my most recent writings. I introduced it in a paper I wrote criticizing Jesse Prinz' moral relativism (see "Jesse Prinz on Moral Conditioning" on the documents page of the Desirism web site.

Imagine a community of beings with one desire - an aversion to their own pain.

Imagine that the beings in this community have malleable brains such that it learns other ends based on interaction with its environment.

Each being is a part of the environment for all other creatures.

Each as a reason to promote in others an aversion to causing pain. And others have reasons to promote that aversion in him.

They engage in this project of promoting an aversion to causing pain in others because of their own aversion to personal pain. However, once this project is underway, each being no longer has one end. Each being has two - an aversion to personal pain, and an aversion to causing pain to others.

These ends may sometimes conflict. An agent may be forced to choose. At one time, she may need to choose between causing a trivial pain to another to prevent a significant pain for herself. She chooses the former. A few days later, she must choose between a significant pain for others versus a trivial pain for herself. She will be more strongly motivated to avoid the significant pain for others.

The point of this is that, where we started with beings having one end, we now have beings with two ends - sometimes in conflict with each other, where there will be times when the original end will have to yield (or be sacrificed) for the sake of the new end.

The same is true of a community where people begin with only one desire - a desire for general happiness. These utilitarians may argue for including other motives (e.g., love) for the sake of promoting the general happiness. However, what the utilitarians fail to recognize is that, when they do this, they seek to be utilitarians. It is no longer the case that the community is being motivated solely by the desire for general happiness. By introducing another motive, the people have introduced another end. Now, the ends of this community are general happiness and love.

Any new motive that the utilitarian might want to introduce - a love of justice, an aversion to harming the innocent, and aversion to telling lies, a desire to keep promises - introduces a new end - an end that will, at times, compete against utility itself as a dominant concern. As agents become motivated by ends other than general utility, they move further and further away from being utilitarians.

Insofar as utilitarianism is true, people have only one end or only one motive - which is the general happiness. To the degree that they have motives other than the general happiness (e.g., an aversion to personal pain, hunger, thirst, a love of learning, significant relationships with other people, etc.), to that degree they are no longer utilitarians.


Emu Sam said...

So Utilitarians promote only a single end, whatever end the particular ethicist or particular brand of Utilitarianism is promoting, as having any utility? Is that part of why you changed the name from Desire Utilitarianism to Desirism?

If this isn't useful, please tell me, and I won't do it again:
they seek to be utilitarians --> they cease to be utilitarians
choose between causing a trivial pain to another to prevent a significant pain for herself --> choose between causing a trivial pain to another and accepting a significant pain for herself

Alonzo Fyfe said...

To be more precise . . ..

In the paradigm case of utilitarianism, there are two ends - pleasure and freedom from pain.

JS Mill put it in terms of "happiness" - but then happiness could be divided up into many parts. A part of Mill's philosophy is that something (e.g., a love of virtue) can start out as a means to happiness and end up being a part of happiness - whatever that means.

Ultimately, what utilitarian theories have in common is that their end, whatever it is, can be computed using a hedonic calculus. A "hedon" is a felt unit of pleasure, happiness, good feeling of some sort and the goal is to maximize hedons.

There is a related view called "consequentialism". A consequentialist holds that consequences are all that matters. A utilitarian is a type of consequentialist - where hedons are all that matter. G.E. Moore - who objected to utilitarianism - was still a consequentialist. He held that the right act was the act that realized the most of an undefined "good".

What I argue is that each motive identifies its own end. If a person is afraid of heights, then "that I not be in a high place" is an end. If a person wants to end world hunger then "that there not be any hungry people" is an end. If a person wants wine with supper, then "that I have wine with supper" is an end.

So, desirism is a pluralist theory - hedons are not the only thing that matters, nor is happiness.