Saturday, April 01, 2006

Praise, Condemnation, and the Value of Desire

I have received a couple of questions from a reader relevant to the underlying “desire utilitarian” moral theory that serves as the foundation for the posts in this blog.

The Basics of Desire Utilitarianism

Desire utilitarianism holds that “good” exists in the form a relationship between a (possible) state of affairs and desires.

A desire is a propositional attitude – a piece of mental computer code that takes a proposition (e.g., “my child is healthy and happy”) and says, “Make (or keep) that proposition true.”

If that proposition is made or kept true, then that desire is fulfilled. If, however, something happens to prevent that proposition from being true, then the desire is thwarted.

All true value claims are claims about a state of affairs are claims about whether and to what degree that state of affairs will lead to the propositions that are the objects of a set of desire will be made or kept true. The more desires that are fulfilled (the more of those propositions that can be made or kept true by a state of affairs), the better that state of affairs is.

This is just a very rough outline of the theory. For more detail, you may check out an article that I wrote on my web site called, “Desire Utilitarianism”, or the book that I have written on my web site called, Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist’s Guide to Moral Truth.

Praise, Condemnation, Reward, and Punishment

Anyway, the first question that I got was this:

Can I explain the following:

If a scientist were to give a subject an injection, and that injection causes the subject to want to rob banks, and the subject robs a bank, we are inclined to blame the scientist but not the subject.

However, if a set of parents were to give their child a “moral” education saying that it is okay to rob banks. When that child grows up, he robs a bank. We are inclined to blame both the parents and their child.

Does that make any sense? Are we being inconsistent?

Actually, I think it does make sense.

Morality, I have argued, has to do with the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment as tools for molding desires. Its purpose is to make a desire for some things stronger, and to establish aversions to other things. By praise and reward, we make people more willing to help others who are in need or to strive to be honest. By condemnation and punishment we seek to make people adverse to taking the property of others, doing them harm, or lying.

In the first case above, in the case of the scientist, we are lead to assume that using these tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment on the student would do no good. The subject is under the influence of this drug. If these tools are impotent, it makes no sense to call for their use.

On the other hand, we are allowed to continue to assume that these tools will have their normal effect on scientists. It is still possible, in this scenario, that society can create an aversion to giving subjects injections that will cause them to want to rob banks, and it makes sense for us to do so.

In the second case above, our assumption that praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are still useful tools. The child is not immune to their effect. Indeed, the second case allows us to assume that the parents used these tools to give the child a desire to rob banks to start with. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to assume that by our use of that tool, we can counteract the parent’s perverse “moral” lessons.

The source of a desire is not relevant. Evolution may have given us a disposition towards certain desires. Morally, that is not relevant. If the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment can influence the desires we have evolved a disposition to possess, then we need to ask how best to use these tools.

These blog entries are, in effect, theories that aim to suggest that if we were to direct our praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in a particular direction, we can make the world a better and safer place for all of us.

I call for the condemnation and punishment of those who would use the government to eavesdrop on others without judicial oversight, because they are almost certain to see anybody who threatens their hold on power as “the enemy” and, without oversight, will direct these powers towards the end of holding onto power.

I call for the condemnation of those Muslims who would call for the execution of a person who converted to Christianity. There can only be peace among the different religions to the degree that each religion insists that it is wrong to execute those who are or become members of a different religion.

Robert Adams on Ethically Good Desires

The second issue that this reader brought up was an objection raised by the philosopher Robert M. Adams against the idea that desires themselves only have extrinsic value (value in relation to their ability to fulfill other desires.)

Robert Adams provided a significant influence on my thinking when I read an article of his, “Motive Utilitarianism”, in the Journal of Philosophy (1976).

The email that I received concerned the following quote from Adams’ book Finite and Infinite Goods

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the ethical goodness of motives can plausibly be seen as resting solely or primarily on the value of their consequences. Certainly the value of motives is not in any simple way a function of their utility. The value of a love of art, for example, cannot be explained very well in terms of its utility. A pure love of art is a good motive in a way that healthful tastes, such as a taste for exercise or a distaste for fatty foods, are not, though the consequences of the latter may well be at least as good as those of the former.

"The known utility of a motive does not of itself suffice to make the motive a credit to its possessor. Your distaste for fatty foods may speak well for you if it reflects an interest in good health, or a responsiveness to other people's benevolent interest in your health. But apart from such connections with other characteristics, it says little or nothing about what kind of person you are, ethically speaking. If it is a matter of taste, a distaste for fatty foods is no better a motive ethically speaking than a distaste for green clothing, despite it's greater utility.

...Still the value of the end is an essential determinant of the excellence of the motive. Good motives seek good ends and not bad ones.

The problem that I have with any claim that something has intrinsic value – value independent of its ability to fulfill (or, in the case of badness, thwart) desires is explaining how an entity such as intrinsic value can exist in the real world. I have not heard even so much as a plausible hint as to how such an entity can exist.

There are three ways that I can answer cases such as the one that Adams presents.

First, the love of art (or culture) may indeed have utilitarian value. After all, the more devoted a society is to sculpture, literature, architecture, and performance arts, the less devoted it is to the destructive art of war. There are those who like to build works of art, and those who destroy them. Of these, the first is clearly the more useful.

Second, do we view love of art as such a good motive? I do not see it as having any great value. Rather, I tend to put it in the category of, “If you love art, that is fine, as long as you are not hurting other people.”

Third, even if we accept that the love of art has value – and that value cannot be found in the usefulness of a desire to love art – then this only suggests that we have a desire to love art. It would suggest that we find the type of value in the love of art as we find in art itself.

Desire utilitarianism draws a distinction between direct value and usefulness.

Direct value fulfills a desire directly. If a person has a desire that his child is healthy and happy, then any state of affairs in which his child is healthy and happy (in which the proposition ‘my child is healthy and happy’ is true) directly fulfills that desire. We do not need to inquire into how useful it is that the child is healthy and happy. It is desired for its own sake – it is the object of desire itself. I do not need to inquire as to the usefulness of the pain in my tooth to have motivation to get rid of it. It may be a totally useless pain. It is, nonetheless, something to which I have an aversion. The proposition, “my tooth hurts” is a proposition I have a motive to make false.

Usefulness, on the other hand, is the value that something has in virtue of its ability to bring about something else, which may bring about something else, which is desired for its own sake. Taking aspirin is useful because of its ability to make the proposition “my tooth hurts” false. A concerned parent – a parent with a desire to make or keep his child healthy and happy – has an incentive to give that child an aversion to the use of drugs. He has an incentive to give his neighbors an aversion to doing things that are harmful to children.

Art itself has direct value. Art is not useful. Insofar as it is art, it fulfills our desires directly. The painting on the wall or the play or movie that we see is not to be praised (insofar as it is art) for its ability to end global warming. Insofar as it is art, it is evaluated on its ability to fulfill desires we have for certain types of experiences.

If Adams is right, and we see that the “love of art” has value independent of its usefulness, then “the love of art” itself is something that we desire directly. We simply have a desire that we have a love of art.

This is a far, far easier way to account for the value of a “love of art” than postulating some sort of intrinsic value. The intrinsic value option simply raises too many questions. What is it made of? How can we perceive it? How can we determine whether we perceive it correctly as opposed to seeing a mere illusion of intrinsic value?


Explaining value in terms of (direct and indirect) relationships between states of affairs and desires bypasses all of those questions. We know what desires are – they are lines of programming code written into the brain by evolution and experience that say, “Make or keep these propositions true”. States of affairs themselves are simply descriptions of the real world around us – a real world that we have the power to shape through our exactions.

One of the things we have the ability to shape are desires themselves. Through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment we can create people who are adverse to doing harm to children and desire to protect them from harm. We can create people who desire to protect and defend the Constitution – more, even, than they value their own lives. We can create people who desire to live in peace with people of other religions.

We can also create people who care nothing about the Constitution and will write off its principles the moment he finds them to be inconvenient. We can create people who love to execute or otherwise harm those who do not accept their religion.

It all depends on how we use these tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Thanks for your answer.