Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Honoring the Dead: In Theory

For the liast couple of days I have been writing about honoring the dead. I have discussed its relevance to the tragedy for Scaled Composites, and the Bush Administration’s abuse of this principle to defend “stay the course” in Irag.

Today, I would like to expose some of the theory that sits under these remarks – the way that my statements about honoring the dead fit into the overall theory of desire utilitarianism.

First, a refresher on some of the fundamentals of desire utilitarianism.

People act so as to fulfill their desires, given their beliefs – and they seek to act so as to fulfill their desires. Consequently, false beliefs tend to get in the way of fulfilling one’s desires.

A desire is a propositional attitude that can be expressed in the form, "[Agent] desires that [proposition]". A desire motivates an individual to create a state of affairs in which the proposition that is the object of a desire is true. In a state of affairs where that proposition is true, the desire is fulfilled. In a state of affairs where that proposition is not true, the desire is thwarted.

This theory makes sense of the possibility of self-sacrifice. If we assume that a rocket scientist, for example, has a desire to better secure the survival of the human race, then this desire is fulfilled in a state of affairs where the proposition, “The survival of the human race has been better secured,” is true. If making this proposition true means risking one’s own life testing rocket engines, then – unless the agent also has other desires to continue living that outweigh the concern for the survival of the human race – he will be motivated to take these risks.

The same is true of the soldier motivated to protect the people and institutions of his or her country, and to protect fellow soldiers in the field of battle. Such a soldier will be motivated to risk his own life, where that risk can be seen as a useful way to make or keep the propositions, “The people and institutions back home, as well as my buddies on the field of battle, are more secure.”

In addition, we can honor the sacrifices of these people by making or keeping true the propositions that were important for them to make or keep true. The parent who dies to protect his children did not die in vein as long as his children are protected. He does die in vein if, in spite of his sacrifice, his children are not saved. Yet, even this does not argue that he should not have made the attempt because – motivated as he was to protect his children, and recognizing a possibility of success, how could he not act?

The Value of Desire

In saying this, something needs to be said about the value of the ends for which a person sacrifices his or her life. Desire utilitarianism does not say that we should honor the death of the person who dies (and kills) to defend the institution of slavery, or of Ayrian supremacy, or a tyrannical leadership, or a religious theocracy. In honoring a person who has sacrificed his life it must be the case that he made the sacrifice for something worthy of a human life.

Desire utilitarianism holds that all things have value in virtue of how they stand in relationship to desires. Every state of affairs is to be evaluated according to the degree to which that state of affairs fulfills or thwarts desires.

Does this mean that all desires themselves are equal – that no desire is better than any other, and we must count the desire of the slave masters or the tyrants equal to their victims?

Not at all.

States of affairs in which certain desires exist are among those states of affairs that we can evaluate according to their ability to fulfill (other) desires. On this standard, some desires (those that tend to fulfill other desires) clearly are better than others (those that tend to thwart other desires).

A malleable desire is a desire that can be influences – created, strengthened, modified (in terms of altering the proposition that is the object of the desire), weakened, or eliminated – through social forces. Those social forces include praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. To the degree that people have the capacity to influence the desires of others, they have reason to use these social forces to promote malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit malleable desires that tend to inhibit other desires.

Morality is the language used not only to identify desires that people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit using these social forces, but are a part of the use of those social forces. A moral statement not only identifies a target of that which people generally have reason to condemn, but also delivers that condemnation.

The Quality of a Country and Its People

So, to determine if an act where a person who sacrificed his life is to be praised or condemned, we must look at the quality of the desires that motivated that sacrifice and determine if they are desires that tend to fulfill other desires, or desires that tend to thwart other desires. We must also look to whether the agent lacked desires that tend to fulfill other desires – desires that people generally have reason to promote. It is difficult to promote desires we have reason to promote if we praise those who lack these desires, or condemn those who have them.

For the soldier, sacrificing his or her life for the people and institutions of his or her country, the question has to be asked whether those institutions are worthy of such a sacrifice. To answer that question, we must ask whether good people (people with desires that tend to fulfill other desires) would support or condemn those institutions.

Are the people in that country good people – people with desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others – people that others generally have reason to praise and promote? Are the institutions in that country institutions that good people (people with desires that tend to fulfill other desires) have reason to support?

The Quality of a Soldier’s Sacrifice

In order to morally ask people to make these types of sacrifices, we must make or keep our country worthy of such a sacrifice.

Anything we do as a nation that good people would not do – any institutions we adopt that good people would not support – cheapens that sacrifice that others making it the case that they made their sacrifice for something that is not worthy.

This does not imply that only a perfect nation or a perfect people are worthy of sacrifice. Quality does not come in black and white, but in shades of gray. Desires that tend to fulfill more and stronger desires are better than those that fulfill fewer and weaker desires. We may be worthy of the sacrifice even if we have our failings, as long as we make ourselves sufficiently better than any alternative. As long as we make ourselves a people and a country that those with good desires have reason to praise and promote, rather than a country that those with good desires have reason to condemn and inhibit.

Religious Sacrifice

There are some who make sacrifices, sometimes sacrificing their lives for religious reasons. These include (some) suicide bombers, crusaders, jihadists, and martyrs. They include people who forego life-sustaining medical treatment in order to abide by religious scripture, or who undergo religious rituals that result in their own deaths.

Because there is no way to make true the propositions that are the objects of these people’s desires, there is no way to honor their sacrifice. These truly are wasted deaths, just as they were wasted lives, spent in the pursuit of things that existed only in the mind.

In order for a death to be honorable (in the sense of capable of being honored), a person must sacrifice his or her life for something that is capable of being made or kept true in the real world. In order for a death to be honorable (in the sense of worthy of being honored) the agent must have been trying to make or keep true something that a good person would make or keep true.

Honoring the Dead

A person performs a deliberate act that increases his chance of injury or death. He obeys the orders of his military commander, or he tests a rocket engine on the Mohave desert. He rolls the dice, and the fates turn against him. He has died.

If the desires that caused him to take this risk are good, then we have reason to honor his death by promoting those same goals. We have reason to ask, “Have we done enough, or are we just riding on the coat tails of those who are better than us? Are we worthy of the price that they were willing to pay?” Humans are not perfect, and such an event gives us an opportunity to decide to do better – to make ourselves more worthy – and to help realize the noble ends of those who have died, when they are noble ends.


Anonymous said...


You have discussed the fallacy of devoting your life to bringing about a proposition that cannot come true, such as I will believe Jesus and will live forever.
Is that any different than devoting your life to developing a mode interstellar travel, if physics shows there is no way the technology you are working on could ever provide a viable means to cover the distances required?

olvlzl said...

There is no way to make the lies that the invasion of Iraq were sold to the American People with, true. They weren't the real reason for the invasion, that, as always with the Bush Crime Family and its associates, is about money and the power necessary to steal more of it. Anyone who went to Iraq and died believing the lies died for something that didn't exist.

Instead of thinking about honoring the dead keeping there from being fewer of them in the future makes more sense. In fact, if it was me, I'd think that was a better means of honoring than continuing a futile invasion until Bush can foist it on to his successor.

In your list of ways to give up your life on the basis of religion you left out a few things. Being killed while a medical worker in a war zone, Catholic sisters targeted for teaching peasants, priests murdered for speaking up for the rights of peasants not to be murdered by a fascist government, and we haven't even left El Salvador of the 1980s yet. Since those who died based their adherence to these causes on their religion, you would classify them as futile. Odd way to run a system of ethics, that.

Sheldon said...

I rarely post comments simply to give kudos to somebody, but I will today. Olvlzl makes an excellent point in noting various religious humanitarian workers who are in part motivated by religion. And to think that I had forgotten about that when I was rather intimately involved in those issues in the 1980s.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I will be posting answers to some of these issues tonight (Friday, August 3).

Anonymous said...

A couple of editing notes:

"vein" should be "vain"

"Ayrian" should be "Aryan"