Monday, May 21, 2007

Morality at the Moment of Decision

As my project to catch up on answering questions from the studio audience, I have a follow-up question.

Your response to question 4 does not seem to address the problem of making "real time decisions". How can we use desire utilitarianism as we go about our everyday lives, making decisions mostly without thinking about them? For example, if we are walking through the train station, and a woman asks us for $3 to buy a ticket, how can desire utilitarianism help us to make an on-the-spot decision, when there is no time to think about it?

Okay, I can see that. My defense of desire utilitarianism that, “No other system does a better job,” does leave open the question, “Better than what?”

The Moment of Action

At the moment of action, a person will perform that act that fulfills the more and stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. If there literally is no time to think about it, then there is no sense in asking what answer an appeal to desire utilitarianism will generate. I must assume that we have at least a little time to think about it.

Let us say, somebody has 1 minute to ask himself, “What morally-should I do?”

What this means is that the agent will act in about 60 seconds. At the time he will do the act that best fulfills his desires, given his beliefs. One of his desires is a desire to “do the right thing.” Finally, he is a desire utilitarianism, which defines a ‘right act’ as ‘the act that a person with good desires would perform’.

Establishing Context

This decision is going to take place in a particular context, and the context will be important. So, I need to spend some time establishing the background conditions before actually looking at the problem.

In most cases of moral decision making, we do not think about it. A person sees an expensive camera sitting on a wall at a zoo with no discernable owner in site, she picks it up, and she takes it to Lost and Found. The thought of taking the camera does not occur to her, or it occurs to her only as something that some other person – some moral degenerate – might do.

[Note: I will return to the case of giving the $3.00 to somebody asking for money for a ticket. That case is more complex. Before adding complexities, I want to illustrate some important elements with an easier case.]

In fact, most of our moral behavior is carried out without a thought to doing the alternative. We tell the truth without giving a thought to lying. We pay our debts without giving a thought to defaulting on them. We keep our promises without thinking about breaking them.

Because we always act to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires, given our beliefs, this is best explain by such things as an aversion to taking what belongs to others, an aversion to deceiving others, a desire to get one’s debts paid off, and a desire to keep promises, and so on. With such desires and aversions, we are no more likely to select the wrong action than we are to select food we do not like at a buffet.

We all have reasons to promote in others a desire to reunite people with their lost property because, the more and stronger this desire, the better the odds that each of s will be reunited with our lost property. We also have many strong reasons to promote an aversion to deception, a desire to pay off one’s debts, and a desire to break promises – precisely because it makes others more prone to behave in these desire-fulfilling ways.

Here, I would like to note that taking the expensive camera to Lost and Found requires more than an aversion to taking property that belongs to somebody else. This aversion would inhibit the agent from taking the camera. However, it will not cause the agent to go to the effort of taking the camera to Lost and Found. This requires an actual desire to help reunited people with their (valuable) property.

Also, I want to eliminate the option that the agent is motivated by a desire to take lost property to Lost and Found. It is a desire to reunite owners with their property. Assume that, the next day, the agent finds a wallet on the sidewalk. She looks through the wallet, finds a driver’s license with an address that is just up the street. Delivering the wallet to the owner would, in this case, best fulfill a desire to reunite people with their lost property. It would not fulfill a desire to take lost property to a Lost and Found.

This is just some quick notes about what desires are and how they work in situations such as this. Now, let us apply this to the case in question.

The Question to Ask

So, now, somebody is asking for $3.00 for a train ticket. “Should I give this person the money?” I am going to act within the next 60 seconds. What should I do?

Question: Do people generally have more and stronger reasons to praise or condemn those who would give the money?

Note: I am not asking, “Will people generally praise or condemn such a person?” I am asking whether they have reason to. It may be the case (e.g., homosexuality) that people will condemn others when the beliefs behind their condemnation are false, or the desires that motivate the condemnation are bad desires. Sociologists study the question, “Will people condemn . . . .” Ethicists are concerned with the question, “Do people have good reason (true beliefs, good desires) to condemn?”

The answer appears to be ‘Yes’ at first glance. Any person is at risk at finding herself in a situation where a small amount of aid from others could produce a huge benefit. We have reason to have others ready to provide that assistance when we need it – as they have reason to make us ready to provide that assistance.

Note the similarities here between desire utilitarianism’s, “Act on those desires that you can will to be universal desires”, compared to Kant’s categorical imperative, “Act on that maxim that you can will to be a universal law.” Only, desire utilitarianism does not have the messy metaphysics of a Kantian categorical imperative.

However, once we answer, “Yes,” then, the parasites come out. These are people who lie to us, claiming to need money for a ticket that they have no intention to buy. (Note: I am using the term ‘parasite’ specifically for people who misrepresent their situation in order to exploit this disposition to help others.) If we reward deception with cash, then we will simply reward (and, thus, foster) deception.

We have many and strong reasons not to reward dishonesty and similar practices of taking advantage of those we are trying to give a desire to help.

Now, our agent faces two conflicting desires – a desire to help somebody in crisis, and an aversion to promoting deception. These desires would motivate the agent to look the situation over carefully. Does this person asking for money appear to be somebody who is in genuine need of a bus ticket, or is she being deceptive and taking advantage of my good nature?

In other words, desire utilitarianism says that a good person would feel some anxiety at this point, caused by the fact that two important values are in conflict.

By the way, this is significantly different from the outcome that the ‘moral claims are arbitrary’ thesis would generate. If the decision is truly arbitrary, then it does not matter which option one picks – both are equally good or bad. Anxiety comes from the fact that it does matter, and our good agent wants to get the answer right.

If this is a person in crisis, he should give her the money. If she is a deceiver, he should not reward her. He then looks for signs that will tell him which option is the most likely.

If the person asking for $3.00 has a business suit on, talks about an important meeting downtown, and claims that she lost her wallet, we have reason to infer that this is a person in general crisis, and offer assistance (if it is at a small cost).

If the person asking for $3.00 has dirty clothes on and has not washed in a while, we have reason to question whether she is in an immediate crisis. Here, we have reason to direct this person to some institution built to care for the homeless and destitute, where a number of her needs can be cared for at once. They can make an assessment of her need for a train ticket.

I am not talking about being ungenerous here. I would argue that these institutions should be well funded and competently staffed. I am only saying that the aid is best provided through such institutions, than through handouts on the street.

In some cases, it is going to be difficult to tell. These are the cases that, in a good person, would cause the most anxiety – causing him to worry, even for a considerable amount of time after he acted, whether he did the right thing or not.

So, this is what the agent should do. If the likely legitimate benefit to the recipient is high, the likely cost is low, and the likelihood of deception is small, then one should give the money. If, on the other hand, the likely benefit is small, the cost high (you need that $3.00 to get to work), or the likelihood of deception is high, then you should not give the money. There is no easy way to determine whether these factors apply.

Easy Answers

This is not an ‘easy answer’ in many cases. However, where is the rule that says that there must be a clear and easy moral answer to all situations? As I wrote yesterday, I consider it a mark in favor of this theory that it can account for, explain, and predict the fact of difficult moral choices.

Sometimes we have to make an important choice in a situation where we have limited information. This does not imply that the choice is arbitrary. Arbitrary choices imply no difficulty in weighing different options because one can’t get the answer wrong. Difficult but impossible to determine means that it will take effort to determine the right option, and one still has a chance of getting it wrong.

Investments provide a good case study for difficult choices under limited information where the right answer is not arbitrary. An arbitrary choice would be like choosing between two Certified Deposits, both paying identical interest rates over identical time periods. Difficult choices under limited information concerns which mutual fund one should invest a whole company’s pension money in.

The only thing you can do is the best that you can do. However, different options really are better, or worse, than others, and there really is a best you can do.


Unknown said...

Thanks for your response, Alonzo. I've been reading your blog for a number of months and find your work enlightening and thought-provoking.

I'm interested in the relationship between desire utilitarianism and virtue ethics. It seems to me that the idea of promoting "good desires" and thinking about "the act that a person with good desires would perform" is like saying "act in the way that a virtuous person would act". Of course, desire utilitarianism defines what a good desire is, whereas this seems to be a limitation of virtue ethics approaches.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Desire utilitarianism is a virtue ethics in the Humean (reference: David Hume) sense.

Hume argued that morality is primarily concerned with character traits, and character traits are to be evaluated in terms of:

(1) pleasing to self
(2) useful to self
(3) pleasing to othres
(4) useful to others.

Desire utilitarianism says that the primary object of moral evaluations are maleable desires, and that the criteria for evaluating desires are:

(1) Directly fulfills the desires of self.
(2) Indirectly fulfills the desires of self.
(3) Directly fulfills the desires of others.
(4) Indirectly fulfills the desires of others.