Friday, June 30, 2006

Moral Conclusions

The presented the first draft of this post as an answer to an anonymous comment to yesterday’s post. I have since decided that an expanded answer should be given a more prominent place in this blog to help explain how desire utilitarianism works.

So your argument is that it is absurd to suppose, in any given instance, that it can be determined whether one act will fulfill more desires than another…

Actually, my position is that it does not matter whether or not this supposition is absurd. My position is that an agent can do very little with this information regardless of how easy it may be to come by.

People always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires, given their beliefs. They always seek to act to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires; however, false or incomplete beliefs may prevent them from accomplishing their goal.

This does not imply that everybody is selfish. A person may well devote his whole life to doing others, and do so because he wants nothing more than to see others safe and happy. The claim that he acts only on his own desires is the claim that only his brain is connected to his muscles in the right way to cause action, and no action can be properly called “his” if it did not originate in his brain, among his desires.

Such a person can have perfect knowledge as to which act will fulfill more desires overall than any other. However, he will still act so as to as to fulfill only the more and the stronger of his own desires. This knowledge is important only to the degree that one of his desires is a desire to do that act that fulfills the most desires. A person can have such a desire, but it will always be only one small desire among many, often outweighed by other concerns.

Now, I take this and I add the principle ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’ By the rules of logic, this implies that ‘cannot’ implies ‘it is not the case that one ought’. This, in turn, proves that the proposition, “A person ought to do that act that fulfills the most desires regardless of whose they are,” is often, if not always, false.

Others often interpret me as claiming that people ought always to maximize desire fulfillment. Here, once again, is my proof (which seems quite solid as far as I can tell) that this proposition is false.

In fact, I hold that this argument is sufficient to defeat all moral theories that focus on actions, rather than desires, as the ultimate object of moral attention, such as the theory that we ought to maximize happiness. No action-based theory can stand up to the fact that people will always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their own desires.

…but that nonetheless humans are blessed with a knowledge of what sorts of things tend to fulfill more desires than others across an indefinite number of cases.


For example, I have an aversion to pain. I think that it is quite reasonable to infer that if everybody else had an aversion to causing pain, that it is far less likely that they will act so as to cause me pain, and my desire to avoid pain will be better fulfilled. At the same time, I think it is quite reasonable to believe that if I was placed in a community of individuals with a particularly strong desire to cause pain, that my desire to avoid pain will likely often be thwarted.

It is not at all uncommon to be able to predict the results of a large number of events where any one event is difficult to predict. For example, I cannot say with much precision where I will be 10 years from now. However, I hold that I can identify what the center of population will be for the United States 10 years from now, and have a 99.9% chance of being right within a very small range. Barring a catastrophe such as a meteor strike, or bringing in a new or allowing the secession of a state (both extremely unlikely), the center of population is not likely to move more than a few kilometers from its current location.

So it is that any particular act of causing pain may bring less pain in the long run, it is still reasonable to trust my desire to avoid pain to a community adverse to causing pain, than a community that is fond of causing pain.

The same is true for my desire to live – and those desires that are best fulfilled by my continuing to live (which is a substantial portion of my strongest desires). I have reason to believe that these desires are better fulfilled in a community of people with an aversion to killing, than in a community of individuals who love to kill.

The question then becomes, “Is there anything I can do to cause others to have a stronger aversion to killing, or to causing pain?”

Yes. Clearly, our desires are molded by our experiences. I have the ability to provide others with experiences whereby they may acquire an aversion to causing pain or killing others. I can do this, in part, by using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Giving experiences of praise and reward to those who refuse to cause pain or to kill, and giving experiences of condemnation and punishment to those who cause pain or kill, will generally promote an aversion to causing pain and killing in others. An individual’s desires can be affected even when he is not the one receiving the praise or the condemnation. The praise or condemnation of one person can serve as an example for others.

Consequently, I have this blog – a medium for creating experiences of praise and condemnation and for advocating reward and punishment in the hopes of promoting desire-fulfilling desires and inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.

Now, if I give the situation a bit of thought, I realize that promoting an aversion to killing may not be the safest society for me to live in. If my neighbors and I all had a complete aversion to killing, we would be at the mercy of any tyrant who has no such aversion. Therefore, promoting an aversion to killing except in self-defense (or an aversion to killing anybody who is not willing to initiate deadly violence against another) would be better than a simple aversion to killing. Consequently, I bring the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to bear on creating this aversion within society instead.

Just as I have reason to promote an aversion to killing and to causing pain in others, they have reason to promote in me an aversion to killing and to causing pain. So, as I act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of my own desires, those desires will likely include a growing aversion to killing and to causing pain. This means an aversion to encouraging others to kill and to cause pain, and an even stronger desire to promote in others an aversion to killing and causing pain.

Notice that I have not said anything that contradicts the initial assumption that each person acts so as to fulfill his own desires. Each person’s aversion to pain directly motivates the social customs for creating an aversion to causing pain. Each person’s desires that would be thwarted upon death motivate the social customs for creating a social aversion to killing. Their natural affection for the welfare of their children motivates them to cause in others a particularly strong aversion to causing harm to children and desire to protect children from harm. Their acquired desire not to cause pain or to kill and their desire to protect children from harm further motivates them to increase the strength of these desires in others.

Each Post I Write

So it is that with each post I write (with the exception of ‘theory’ posts such as this one), I seek to apply condemnation to those who have desire-thwarting desires, and praise at those who exhibit desire-fulfilling desires.

I also seek to better determine which is which. It is a matter of objective fact whether a particular desire is desire-thwarting or desire-fulfilling. I put effort into explaining why I put particular desires (such as the affection for a government running under a system of checks and balances) where I do. In doing so, I try to explain to others why they have reason to direct their praise or condemnation at these same targets (e.g., at those who seek to create a government without a system of checks and balances over arbitrary executive authority).

Hopefully, together, we can work to promote a stronger desire for truth and aversion to deception, desire for fair trials and aversion to show trials, desire for a system of government with checks and balances and aversion to arbitrary and unchecked executive power, and similar aversions and desires. We can do this through a system of giving praise and condemnation where it is due, and explaining why it is the case that praise or condemnation is due in these particular circumstances.

So, tomorrow, I think I will explain why certain Supreme Court Justices (the minority in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld) do not have the appropriate aversion to arbitrary executive power, why their claims that their position will provide better for our security are false, and why they, and, in particular, those who cheer and support them, are deserving of condemnation.


Anonymous said...

I am curious. Why can one command have exclusions while another should not?
Why is
'general aversion to theft'
better than
'aversion to theft unless saving lives' while
'general aversion to killing'
is inferior to
'aversion to killing unless preventing of tyranny'
when you previously said
'liberty is of greater value than life'
(many people chose to die in its defense)

Why not simply have prioritized rules without exceptions?
Liberty is most valuable
Life is second most valuable
Truth is third most valuable

Security in one's possessions and so forth are n-th most valuable

The result should be no stealing unless to actually save lives, and no killing unless to actually prevent tyranny. And no attempts to set up circumstances where it looks as if killing or theft were justified.

Wouldn't this be better?


Alonzo Fyfe said...


The justification for the distinction between "exceptions" and "weight" comes in part from the nature of desire and the complexity of the rules.

There is simply no way to teach a single, complex desire with a huge amount of complexity. It is far easier to teach a multitude of desires, allowing that they will sometimes weigh in on different sides in complex issues.

As for your heirarchy of values, there are a number of complications.

People are willing to give up their life for liberty -- but only for A LOT of liberty. We can (and should) accept minor limitations on liberty without complaint. In fact, we certainly need to accept a limit on our liberty to freely going around killing everybody.

Then, there is the law of diminishing returns. Most people freely accept the loss of some of their life for things such as a bag of potato chips. Knowing that their eating habits will bring about an earlier death, they continue to engage in those habits. Yet, it would be foolish to say that food is always more important than life so that "obtaining food" always is a justification for killing another person.

Another issue of concern is: How are you going to motivate people to act on these "rules"? I argue for an intimate relationship between morality and motives for action. Morality, I argue, is directly concerned with promoting good motives and inhibiting bad motives. Desires themselves provide the motivation for praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Desires themselves are the motivation for actions.

Some of our desires cannot be modified. Other desires can be modified, but only within certain limits. Some of our desires are natural appetities (e.g., hunger and sex). Appetites are desires that grow stronger until fulfilled, then weaken again -- so we grow hungry, we eat, then our desire to eat diminishes, and we do something else, until we get hungry again.

All of these considerations, and others, will thwart any attempt at a "morality" that says, "Here are the rules. Everybody follow them."

Anonymous said...

Ok, I understand prioritizing is a problem. Still, why dose the aversion to killing have an exception while other's do not?

There is simply no way to teach a single, complex desire with a huge amount of complexity. It is far easier to teach a multitude of desires, allowing that they will sometimes weigh in on different sides in complex issues.

The above statement means many separate generalized aversions/desires are more effective than one full of exceptions and exceptions to exceptions. Correct?

By this line of reasoning:

'aversion to killing.'
'Aversion to being killed.'
'Aversion to forced denial of freedom.'
Weighed one against the other for every person and every complex case individually.

Would be more effective than:

'aversion to killing unless in self defense or in defense of liberty, but only a lot of it, provided there is no other way to achieve these goals.'

We agree exceptions are difficult to handle, yet you propose a desire with an exception, namely: ‘aversion to killing unless in self defense.’ Why aren’t you consistent with your own logic? Why dose this one aversion have an exception? Am I missing something here?


As for motivation, I have the same strategy you do: selfishness in disguise paired with peer pressure.

People don't like when they or their dear ones are being harmed, so they would ahave a motive to create a general dislike of harmful things using the same tools you would, provided the tools actually work on such desires. If they do not people would search for other tools, those that do work.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, I do not believe that "killing has an exception while other wrongs do not." Other wrongs such as lying and taking property also have exceptions. In fact, they have the same exceptions as killing.

Note that I said that the exception to the prohibition on killing applies to violent aggressors. It is permissible to kill an aggressor. It is also permissible to lie to or take property from a violent aggressor.

An aversion to "killing except when necessary to save a life" would create too much unresolvable conflict as to who gets killed and whose life is saved. So, other than the killing of violent aggressors, we leave killing up to fate.

A person may kill to non-aggressors to save lots of lives or to protect an institution, but this is an example of a "moral weight," not a case of "moral exception."

When the Nazis come to the door asking about some neighborhood Jews who disappear, it is permissible to lie. If you have been kidnapped and are looking for a way to save yourself, you can go ahead and use the kidnapper's cell phone without his consent, if he leaves it available.

Also, I have explicitly denied that it makes sense to call my strategy for motivation "selfishness". My desires motivate my action, and an action is not mine unless it springs from my desires. This is not "selfishness" in any sensible sense of the term. "Selfishness" means that I only have self-regarding desires. I explicitly deny that all desires are self-regarding. An individual can (theoretically) value the well-being of others more than his own life. It would be absurd to call such a person 'selfish.'