Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sex, Desire, Goodness, and Duty

An anonymous member of the studio audience has declared, “I thought I understood desire utilitarianism up to now.”

If there is confusion, I wish to deconfusify the situation.

This specific situation began with a claim of mine that I can find no “desire for sex” that that is morally good (virtuous). By that I mean that there is no desire for sex that people generally have reason to promote in others. Rather, some desires for sex are morally neutral (there is no reason to object to the fact that people have such a desire), while others are morally bad (vicious), in that people generally do have reason to inhibit the formation of those desires.

Anonymous is questioning my claim that his desire to have sex with his wife is not virtuous. I make this claim because it is not the case that people generally do not have a reason to promote an overall desire for everybody to have sex with his wife. That his wife may have an interest in promoting such a desire, but what one person has an interest in promoting does not qualify what is being promoted as a virtue.

Anonymous writes:

I understand the distinction that says a morally good desire is one that tends to fulfill desires generally - so you seem to be saying that if the fulfillment is too specific and limited, this is no longer a moral question. It is hard to see why.

To explain limited value is no longer moral value, I have the good fortune to be able to refer to a recent controversy in astronomy over the definition of a planet. The International Astronomical Union faced the question of whether Pluto was a planet. This is analogous to the question of whether specific and limited relationships between states of affairs and desires are moral values.

The International Astronomical Union settled the question with a vote. Whether Pluto is a planet or not was substantially an arbitrary decision about how we were going to define terms. However, nothing of substance depends on the language that we choose to express it.

An individual can say, “I understand the distinction that a planet is something that orbits a star, is massive enough to be made spherical by its own gravity, and that has substantially cleared its orbit of other bodies, and that something that has not cleared out its orbit of other bodies is not a planet,. It is hard to see why.”

If one is looking for an experiment or some sort of experimental evidence to support the claim that a planet must clear out its orbit, there is nothing. Yet – and this is important – nothing of consequence depends on how this vote turned out. Pluto’s properties – it’s size, mass, orbital dimensions – are unaffected by whether we classify it as a planet or not.

The same is true in morality. The definition of value-laden terms are just as arbitrary as the definition of ‘planet’. However, nothing of consequence depends on how we define these terms.

It is a very common mistake in ethics (though every other field of study I know does not make this mistake) to think that the arbitrariness of terms has some sort of significant theoretical or metaphysical implications. No set of definitions will change the desires that exist, or the relationships between states of affairs and desires, or the relationships between desires and other desires. In the same way that facts about ‘Pluto’ are independent of our definition of ‘planet’, what is true or false about the relationships between states of affairs and desires are independent of the language we use to talk about them.

For these reasons, I have often said (when confronted with somebody who asserts that the arbitrariness of moral terms is in some way significant) that I will use whatever set of terms somebody may want me to use. Changing definitions will not affect the substance of the theory one iota. It will only change the language used to express that theory.

Having said all of this – having said that it is fruitless to look for some piece of data that compels the use of one term over another, there are still reasons for using a term like ‘moral’ one way or another. One of those reasons is that a particular use best fits the way people have been using the term, so it generates the least confusion to use a term in a particular way. There is no law of nature that prohibits me from using the term ‘oxygen’ when talking about atoms with 6-protons, but most people who read the term will expect me to be talking about atoms with 8 protons.

Moral terms are used to refer to universal principles – principles that apply to everybody. If a person says, “It is wrong for A to do X,” he is understood to mean, “It is wrong for anybody who is in a situation like A’s to do anything like X.” Somebody who says that lying is wrong is saying that nobody should lie. Somebody who says that capital punishment is murder is understood to mean that no person should engage in capital punishment.

In fact, this is how we distinguish ‘morality’ from ‘culture’. If people in a society who say that people should do X hold that there is nothing particularly wrong with not doing X, but we simply have a tradition of doing X, then doing X is considered an aspect of culture. However, if those who hold that doing X is something that everybody should do – that there is something wrong with anybody not doing X – then that is taken to be a moral prescription.

Even if Anonymous desires sex with his wife, we can imagine a couple where neither one has a desire to have sex with the other. Imagine a couple where the man received a war wound that castrated him (thus significantly reducing his desire for sex) while the woman simply never acquired much of an interest in the activity. This couple can still be very much in love – concerned for each other’s welfare and dedicated to a life together – without sexual desire.

The fact that we can imagine such a case, and that there is nothing wrong with such an arrangement – that it is simply an alternative lifestyle – suggests that it is more appropriate to put the desire for sex is permissible – neither good nor bad in the moral sense, but not a moral virtue. The couple in the example above is not vicious (lacking virtue), they are just different.

Please note: this is not a test for whether something is, in fact, right or wrong or whether a trait is virtuous or vicious. We cannot reliably measure the moral quality of an act or trait through these types of intuitive tests. What these intuitions measure if the fact that we are in the habit of using the term ‘moral’ when applying it to universal traits, and withholding its use when violations are not ‘wrong’, but only ‘different’.

Anonymous also comments:

If I asked instead whether a general desire to love one's wife was a good desire, it surely would be - it would tend to fulfill the desires of most wives. Hurrah for people who love their spouses and boo to people who neglect them! So why does it stop being a good desire in a specific instance?

First, I need to distinguish between ‘to love one’s wife’ with ‘to have a desire for sex with one’s wife’. Many people love others that they have no desire to have sex with, and have desires to have sex with others they do not love. To avoid confusion, we must keep these two attitudes distinct. I wish to continue to focus on the desire to have sex. There is a distinction between the statement, “Hurrah for people who love their spouses,” and “Hurrah for people who desire sex with their spouses.”

Consider, for example, the difference between the statements, “Hurrah for the parent who loves his child,” and “Hurrah for the parent who desires sex with his child.” Clearly, the statements are not equivalent.

Certainly, it makes sense to say, “Hurrah for the couple who love each other,” but even here, for this to be a moral requirement, we would have to say that there is something vicious (not just different, but evil) in those who simply have no interest in being a couple. Some people may view the life of the confirmed bachelor or spinster to be missing something and have pity on them (a pity, I hold, is misplaced if the individual never had desires left unfulfilled in the absence of such a relationship), but this is not the same as calling such a person evil.

Finally, I want to discuss Anonymous’ claim, But celibacy would be less good by this standard..

Celibacy is certainly something we have little reason to promote as a national standard. This merely means that celibacy is not a virtue. It does not imply that celibacy is a vice. We can certainly get along quite well if some people are celibate. In fact, with the growing population problem, celibacy may well become a growing virtue as time goes by – something we have more and more reason to promote. Unless we have a reason to prohibit all sex, celibacy will not be a moral virtue. However, it could be supererogatory – something we have reason to promote through praise in the sense of saying that those who refrain from sex are acting above and beyond the call of duty.

Desire utilitarianism states that morality is substantially concerned with the malleable desires that we have reason to promote or inhibit universally – desires such as an aversion to lying and a worry over doing harm to others that keeps us vigilant against potential harm. There are lots of different relationships between desires and states of affairs in the world. We speak of some of them using terms like ‘rights’, ‘duty’, ‘obligation’. ‘virtue’, ‘prohibition’. ‘responsibility’, and the like.

However we have other terms that we tend to use when referring to other relationships between states of affairs and desires. ‘Useful’, ‘pretty’, ‘dangerous’, ‘disease’, ‘broken’. Some of these terms are used to refer to things that are good, without claiming that they are a moral virtue or an obligation where those who do not share the characteristic may be condemned.

We have divided the value universe up into different types of goods, just as we have divided the solar system up into planets, asteroids, moons, comets, and the like. The distinctions are arbitrary, but the study of the things that we apply these terms to are not.

1 comment:

astutebee said...

No set of definitions will change the desires that exist...

Wait a minute. Isn't that what advertising is all about, arranging words and changing connotations to manufacture desire for particular products and brand names?

Or am I misunderstanding your technical definition of "desire"?