Sunday, June 03, 2007

Becoming a Better Person

Today's posting comes via another question from the studio audience.

A person with good desires has it made. When she asks the question, “What should I do?” the answer comes back, “Whatever you want to do.” The person with good desires is somebody who wants to find a cure for diabetes, or wants to prevent the suffering caused by malaria, or wants to teach children about the real world. This is their passion. In pursuing their passion, they also tend to fulfill the desires of others.

The person with good desires can still experience certain frustrations in attempting to make particular propositions true. A person who desires to bring peace to the Middle East may be as successful in fulfilling that desire as the person who desires to accumulate more wealth than any other person. Yet, still, insofar as the good person is doing what she wants, she is also doing what she should.

It’s the rest of us who have to worry, to greater and lesser extents, about the gap between what we want to do and what we should do.

In writing about desire utilitarianism, I tend to focus on one person’s ability to mold the desires of other people through praise and condemnation. This seems to suggest that my own moral character is dependent on what others have done to me, and not something that I could be accountable for.

To a certain extent, this is true. It is true in the same sense that I did not choose my native language – it is the language taught to me when I was growing up. I am not responsible for my initial beliefs, these are the beliefs that I acquired while I was still too young to acquire beliefs. Similarly, my initial learned desires (to be distinguished from genetic desires such as hunger, thirst, aversion to pain, and sex) were acquired by experience and, in part, by what I was condemned/praised for as a child.

Yet, we have the ability to learn new languages. We eventually acquire the ability to re-evaluate our beliefs. And we acquire the ability to choose, to some extent, our own desires.

An easy example of choosing one’s desire is the choice not to engage in activities that are potentially addictive. The decision not to smoke or to use other drugs known to be addictive is, at least some times (as in my own case), a decision not to acquire particular desires.

As I have said before, people act so as to fulfill their current desires, given their beliefs. Their future desires are fulfilled only insofar as they have a present desire that future desires be fulfilled, or present desires that tend to fulfill future desires as a side effect. An addiction is a desire that thwarts the fulfillment of future desires – that is what makes an addiction bad. A present desire that future desires be fulfilled, therefore, translates into a present aversion to acting in ways that could lead to addiction.

Another way that a person can mold their current desires is by acquiring a habit. For example, it is easier to maintain one’s health if one likes to exercise. One way to acquire a desire to exercise is to simply force oneself to exercise on a regular basis. At first, the motivation to exercise might come from a desire that future desires be fulfilled. However, over time, exercise will often become something desired for its own sake. Eventually, the agent will prefer exercise to other things she could be doing.

This, by the way, is also relevant to raising children. You do your child a great favor if you can give your child desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and if you help your child avoid acquiring desires that tend to thwart other desires. One way to do this is to help your child acquire good habits – eating habits, exercise habits, saving habits, and learning habits. What a person does as a child (in order to please one’s parents) is far more likely to be something that a person does as an adult (because she now has acquired a desire to do these things for their own sake).

The same tools that one uses to acquire desires that will tend to fulfill future desires are also available for acquiring desires that tend to fulfill the desires of other people. The same goes for avoiding desires that tend to thwart one’s own future desires – they are useful in avoiding desires that tend to thwart the desires of other people.

In many cases, these will be the same. A person with desires that will tend to thwart his future desires will also often thwart the desires of other people who care about him. It will also often make him less able to fulfill the desires of others he cares about.

At the same time, the person who has desires that tend to thwart the desires of others is at risk of having his future desires thwarted by others. Clearly, this is not a inviolable moral law. It is a tendency, made more or less true in part by whether the society one exists is more or less just.

Guilt, Shame, and Pride

I have written about using the tools of praise and condemnation of others as a way of molding their desires. We can, in fact, use these tools on ourselves. Guilt, shame, and pride are emotions that can be put to good use inhibiting some desires and promoting others.

Now, I am not saying that guilt and shame are intrinsically good things – something that we should desire for its own sake. There seem to be some moral traditions that take this position, that one is not a ‘good person’ unless one is wallowing in guilt and shame. I am saying that guilt, shame, and pride can be made into useful tools that serve productive purposes.

We seek to avoid guilt and shame. One of the ways we do so is to engage in rationalization – we tell ourselves that the wrongs we commit are not that bad and, as such, are not worthy of guilt. Sometimes, if we look at the issue more honestly, we can see that we are lying to ourselves. Admitting the wrong – admitting the guilt-worthiness of a particular pattern of behavior – can have the effect of weakening the desires that promote that behavior. In the same way, admitting, when it is reasonable to do so, “Yeah, I did good,” is a way of reinforcing the desires that caused the praiseworthy behavior.

Guilt and shame, properly applied, will motivate us to make amends. We apologize and see if we can do something to 'make it up' to those we have wronged. These are also forms of self-punishment, that inhibit bad desires in ourselves. We do not want to go through that again.

Acting Virtuously

Even if a person discovers that he has desires that a good person would not have, he can still act like a good person. The key word here is ‘acting'.

I could, for example, act as if I sprained my ankle, even though I have not done so. I would do so by simulating the behavior indicative of a person with a sprained ankle – an unwillingness to walk, a tendency to rub and care for my ankle, and a tendency to limp when I do walk. I do not even have to lie. I can honestly report that my ankle does not hurt when asked, while still simulating the behavior.

Similarly, a person with some bad desires can use other desires (e.g., a desire to do the right thing) to motivate acting like a person with good desires. For example, he may have no inclination towards charity – no concern for the suffering of others. Yet, he can know that a person with good desires would be charitable.

I want to repeat that this is not an example of a good person. This is an example of somebody acting like a good person for one reason or another. This is the case of a rich person who builds a hospital because he wants public approval, rather than the rich person who builds a hospital because he wants to improve the health of a community. This is the case of an actress who associates herself with feeding the poor because her publicist said it would be good for her career, as opposed to the actress who feeds the poor because she has an aversion to others being hungry. It is the case of a person passing up an opportunity to murder because he fears God’s punishment, as opposed to the person who refuses to murder because he has such a revulsion to the idea of taking an innocent life.

This is acting like a person of virtue. It is not true virtue.

However, for some neighbors who lack true virtue, a willingness to act like somebody of true virtue may be the best we can hope for. It is certainly better than dealing with a person who cannot even act as if he is virtuous.

Professional Help

Finally, if one wishes to acquire good desires and get rid of bad desires, one tool that a person to use is to obtain professional help. The more and stronger the desires that tend to thwart other desires (your own future desires or the desires of others), and the more and stronger the desires they tend to thwart, the more and stronger is my recommendation to obtain professional help in dealing with those issues.

Of course, an agent will accept this advice only if he believes it will fulfill the more and stronger of his current desires. The more evil a person has become, the less likely that this is to be true. However, there is an important difference between desiring that P, and desiring that one desires that P. A person can easily have a desire to get high or drunk or to smoke a cigarette, while also having an aversion to having a desire to get high or drunk or to smoke (or rape, or mutilate, or kill). This second-order desire can be drawn upon to motivate an agent to take action against a first-order desire.

It is said that before a person can change he has to want to change, and desire utilitarianism is consistent with that observation.


We are not stuck with the desires that we have. It is not impossible, nor is it nonsensical, to take steps to improve the quality of one’s desires. It is possible to become a better person. People do it all the time. It might take some work, but it can be done.


BlackSun said...

Alonzo, the more I read about desire utilitarianism, the more I like it. I'm going to get your book.

I have a couple of questions, though:

1) Why does it make it less virtuous if a person does good deeds for the sake of their reputation? Good reputation conveys advantages, and furthering it seems to be a perfectly valid desire. (It's the basis for reciprocal altruism, one of the prime evolutionary motivators).

2) If a sociopath has desires, even if these desires thwart others' desires, how is this covered under DU? Isn't the sociopath fulfilling his desires? Asking the question another way, doesn't DU presuppose a value system of virtuous vs. non-virtuous actions? How would DU derive this code internally?

Thesauros said...

From the perspective of a retired counsellor, this is the best post of yours that I've read to date. Great insight!

"It is possible to become a better person. People do it all the time. It might take some work, but it can be done."

I'd probably see this as more accurate if it read, "It is possible to become a better person. Some people experience some success at this. Most people couldn't care less, regardless of how much or how little work it take."

Anonymous said...

“It is said that before a person can change he has to want to change, and desire utilitarianism is consistent with that observation.” – This appears to directly conflict with some of your earlier statements that by punishment and condemnation we can create aversions through conditioning whether the individual consciously wants to change or not. One can be conditioned to have a particular response or feeling with no intentional component involved. A traumatic experience can cause radical psychological changes that the individual may not only not want, but fervently wish did not happen.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

Actually, I was talking about the "to change" as an action - to act so as to bring about change. I was not using the passive sense.

Of course a person can be changed by outside influences in circumstances where he wants to or not. At the very least, just shoot him - right between the eyes.

(This is not a recommendation, just an illustration.)

My point was that no person will attempt to act so as to bring about change in himself until he wants to change.

Thesauros said...

Have you read "Control Theory" by William Glasser? He is the founder of Reality Thereapy. If you have read it, how are your thoughts different / same?