Monday, November 12, 2007

Neutral Desires

Today I turn to the studio audience once again for another question.

On a desire utilitarian theory, can’t a good person ever relax and watch some mindless television? Does he have to

spend every waking moment doing good?

I am paraphrasing what I take to be the heart of an issue that Cameron raised to my posting, "Berlinerblau on Living Large vs Living Right": ,

Cameron points out (correctly) that I have said that we have neither reason to promote nor reason to condemn ‘neutral’ desires – desires that neither fulfill nor thwart other desires. Cameron argues instead that we have reason to condemn neutral desires because the person who is fulfilling neutral desires is not doing any good. He is sitting in front of the television guzzling a beer while he watches American Idol when he could be doing something productive. At the very least, he could be sitting in front of the television guzzling beer watching the Science Channel.

Now if I, as a moral person, truly want the world to be a better place than it otherwise would be, it seems to me that these so-called "morally neutral" desires, ones that don't directly help or hinder the desires of others, should be the subject of condemnation. Since many of these "neutral" desires have to do with personal well being (relaxation, health, etc), there's some flexibility. As a moral society, should we not direct that flexibility towards everyone's benefit? For example, if both watching TV and planting trees are relaxing, should we not condemn those that choose to watch TV when they could be out planting trees?

By the way, ‘flexibility’ (or what I call ‘malleability’) is important here because we are talking about desires that can be modified through social forces. It makes no sense to use social forces to alter a desire that cannot be altered.

However, let us look at our agent with a desire to relax. Let us assume that both watching television and planting trees are equally relaxing. Under these assumptions, why is this person watching television instead of planting trees?

A person acts so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. If this agent had a desire to relax (that both activities fulfilled equally), and even a smidgen of a desire to provide society with any of the benefits that come from planting trees, then he would be planting trees. The fact that he is not planting trees suggests either that (1) he lacks a desire to provide the community with any of the benefits of planting trees, or (2) planting trees does not fulfill the desire to relax as well as watching television.

The first option leaves the agent open to condemnation. Desire utilitarianism holds that a person can be condemned, not only for the bad desires that he has, but for the good desires he does not have. This is the key difference between desire utilitarianism and motive-based theories of the past.

Previous motive-based moral theories held that an act inherent its moral value from the quality of the motives from which it sprang. These theories could not account for the moral crime of negligence (which does not spring from any desire to do harm; but merely exhibits no particular interest in preventing harm). Desire utilitarianism condemns a person for the absence of good desires. This, it condemns those who negligent for lacking a proper level of concern for the consequences that his actions may have on others.

However, the second possibility – that the desire for relaxation itself motivates people to sit in front of the television all day and watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island or Seinfeld when they could be doing something productive with their lives – still exists. Is this not reason enough to condemn the desire for relaxation.

“Get off your fat, lazy ass and do something with your life.”

Not only do we have reason to condemn those who desire things that do not help others, we actually do condemn them. We do not condemn them enough, as far as I can see. Americans spend far too much time watching television and, when they are watching television, they are watching mind-numbing television with no socially redeeming qualities whatsoever. Americans alone spend over $300 billion per year on sports products. Over the past 20 years, they could have built 60 space stations with the money that they spent on sports.

Does this not contradict my claim that we have no reason to promote or inhibit neutral desires?

To answer this, please note that I express the distinction between a neutral desire and a bad desire using the concept of ‘harmony’. Two desires are in harmony to the degree that both desires can be fulfilled at the same time. For example, a desire to eat and a desire for the company of good friends can both be fulfilled by going out to eat with good friends. To desires are in conflict if an agent must choose between the fulfillment of one desire or the fulfillment of the other. A desire to smoke and a desire to enjoy a long and healthy life are in conflict since smoking thwarts the desire for a long life (and many of the desires that a long life would otherwise help to fulfill).

The so-called ‘neutral’ desire that pulls resources away from activities that would otherwise tend to fulfill other desires is not a neutral desire at all. It is a bad desire. It contributes to the thwarting of other desires by pulling resources away from acts that would fulfill other desires.

Those are desires that we have reason to condemn.

In addition, I would like to note that the question of condemnation also faces a cost-benefit tradeoff. It is not worthwhile to go after limited transgression in the face of more serious transgressions. This, too, would be an example of wasting scarce resources on projects other than where they do the most good. Somebody who does good can be allowed a little time to relax and enjoy himself; he is still better than the person who does nothing.

Let us look at the example of sitting down and watching television. To somebody who generally spends a fair amount of their time doing things to help others, I see no objection against allowing him a little bit of free time. Military planners in particular know the value of a little rest and relaxation from time to time – pulling units off of the front line so that they can fight more effectively when they return to the front line. This leisure is not contemptible unless it becomes excessive. The person who cares about nothing but catching the next episode of his favorite television show is a pathetic (and morally repugnant) individual.

Cameron provides other examples:

Since both eating vegetarian, and eating meat can provide nutrition requirements, should we not condemn those that eat meat (due to the massive additional inputs required to produce it) instead of vegetables?

This is a more potent argument in a region where people were starving due to lack of food. The problem of starvation in many parts of the world is not a lack of food (indeed, governments – including the United States – still pay farmers NOT to grow food. However, if it were the case that the person eating beef caused was taking food out of the mouths of those who were starving, then the person eating beef could be condemned. This would not be a neutral desire – it would be a desire that tends to thwart the desires of others.

Since both donating to church and donating to a local homeless shelter ostensibly fulfill a desire for charity, should we not condemn those that choose to donate to church instead of the homeless?

One of the complications that this brings up is the issue of what it takes to fulfill a desire. A desire that ‘P’ (e.g., a desire that I serve God) can only be fulfilled in a state of affairs in which P is true. Many of the desires that motivate a person to donate to a church rather than a homeless shelter are NOT desires that can be fulfilled. There is, at least, ‘reason for action’ to correct this error to the degree that want the homeless to acquire real-world benefits.

If we go further and discover that the agent does not care about the truth of his beliefs, then we have reason to condemn him for his lack of interest in producing real-world benefits.

So, we have a case of laziness where the desire is not neutral because it tends to thwart other desires. We have a case of where the behavior in question does not thwart desires and would condemn the person if it did. We have a case in which desires cannot be fulfilled because of false beliefs and, potentially, room for criticism for the person who does not care about whether he has false belief or whether he produces real-world benefits.

We do not have examples of a neutral desire itself worthy of condemnation.

We will not have such an example, though the reason for this may be considered ‘cheating’ in a sense. The instant a desire tends to thwart other desires – the instant we have reason to condemn it – at that instant it ceases to be neutral.


Martin Freedman said...

Alonso: We do not have examples of a neutral desire itself worthy of condemnation.

This makes me wonder is there, in fact, a category of "neutral desires"? Your argument above implies that could DU fall victim to the impossibility claim we would make regarding Act Utilitarianism, (that no-one is really capable of maximising the good for all, based on pleasure or whatever).

I think it is important that there are neutral desires but could DU imply that there is no such thing since good desires are being thwarted by pursuing "neutral desires" which by being "sins of ommission" are only pseudo-neutral?

Martin Freedman said...

And to add to this, any relaxing "neutral desire" that is effective in recharging your batteries for you to pursue good desires is also not really neutral. They would be indirect, as in in desires that tend to fulfil other desires.

That is the issue of selecting which relaxing "neutral desire" to fulfil - given one's beliefs, interests, means, responsibilities. abilities and so on - that is to select the most suitable means of relaxing still implies that this is evaluated against one's ability to fulfil other desires.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Technically, it would be difficult to find a truly neutral desire.

Practically, the value of some desires - positive or negative - are not worth the effort to change - or even to find out what their value is, exactly.

The fact that we have limited resources means that those resources should be devoted first to where they will do the most good. Promoting aversions to rape, wanton violence, theft, lying, sophistry, and the like are simply more important than promoting aversions to watching television sitcoms.

Yes, the person who sits at home watching sitcoms is not doing himself or anybody else any good. But, he's not hurting anybody either. That's reason enough to simply cast a sneer in his direction and go on to the people who are doing real harm.

Cameron said...

I'm going to use one of my earlier examples to ask a question. Bear with me, I'll get there.

One of the things that I think is both interesting and good about the world in which I live (which I realize is probably not universally true for everyone on the planet), is that people are free to identify an issue that is particularly important to them and then set about trying to make a difference in that area. In other words, I think some special interest groups and do real good, even though many of these special interest groups eventually lose their way and sometimes do more harm than good.

PETA is one example of a special interest group that has identified their "pet" issue (no pun intended), and then set about trying to make a difference in that area.

Now obviously, many people feel that PETA's methods are extreme and do real harm, but that's not really my point for the time being. In fact, PETA in this example is a completely imaginary PETA that does no harm.

Assuming the following:
1. Through whatever methods it uses, PETA successfully promotes an aversion to eating meat.
2. One of the consequences of eating meat is additional environmental pollution (that is, fewer people eating meat would result the desire for a cleaner planet being fulfilled)
3. PETA does no harm to people, nor thwarts any other desires (this is an imaginary PETA in my example)

Should we then condemn PETA for wasting their time? That is, given that this imaginary PETA promotes an aversion to a negative desire that is very close to neutral, and that the members of PETA obviously have an extremely strong desire to prevent harm to animals, do we as a society have a reason to try to mold their desires to encourage them to spend their time on more useful endeavors? Put another way, is fulfilling my very strong desire to champion a cause a strong enough reason to leave me be if that cause is to change an effectively neutral desire in others?

Martin Freedman said...

Alonzo I think we mostly agree. There may be no such thing as a pure neutral desire but pragmatically some desires cause more harm than others and this gives a priority to what desires to focus on.

Cameron (I think) I know what you are saying but don't like your example not just your imaginary PETA but meat eating (at least excessive, which seems to be the norm now) is not a good example. Many, many more people could be fed without land, food, energy and government subsidies needed to supply meat.

Actually I find it difficult to imagine a campaign to modify a neutral desire given my view on this (neutral desires that it). Certainly many people are passionate about inconsequential issues - lets say sport and the like, reality TV or celebrities/celebrity magazines? Lets stick to (spectator) sport as that seems the most neutral to me.

I think your question then becomes something like should we condemn them for encouraging support for one team over another when they could be applying themselves to more worthy issues?

Yes with the proviso of what I have resolved with Alonzo, some things have a higher priority than others. That is the more neutral the issue is the less incentive there is to condemn them? Otherwise we are wasting our time by condeming them for wasting their time? :-)

Cameron said...

I don't think that PETA's motivations and your average Football fan's motivations are the same. PETA is fulfilling a desire to "do good." I root for my home team, while at the same time thinking to myself what a waste of resources professional sports really are.

As I understand desire utilitarianism, insofar as the desire of animals goes, using animal products is morally neutral. From this perspective, the anit-furs backlash of the previous century was a waste of time. Certainly, some people have strong desires to protect animals, but the end result of promoting an aversion to wearing furs doesn't actually do anything to fulfill the more and stronger desires of members of society as a whole.

Assuming I haven't made a logical error then, and that the wearing of furs is morally neutral, should we call out the anti-furs activists for wasting their time and encourage them to redirect their efforts towards something more useful, or is the fact that their advocacy is fulfilling strong desires of theirs enough to let them be?

Lets say any group raises $1 M for their morally neutral cause. That much money is enough to do a lot of meaningful good, if it were only redirected. What about $10 M, or $100 M?

Put another way, how much potential good do you have to be squandering to be worthy of condemnation?

Martin Freedman said...

Cameron: OK I get your point. That is PETA campaigning against the unnecessary killing of animals for fashion (lets ignore the meat issue and football).

Whilst there are plenty of things we all do for rest and relaxation that are pragmatically neutral desires therefore morally neutral according to DU, when it comes to any form of campaign, such as this, I am having difficulty as seeing any as morally neutral. That is a campaigns idea of "doing good" may in fact be doing good or doing harm according to DU. We certainly have reason to commend the former and condemn the latter (allowing for priorities and amongst others financial implications).

So my difficulty now is the premise of your example since it is not morally neutral. Your key phrase to look at is Certainly, some people have strong desires to protect animals, but the end result of promoting an aversion to wearing furs doesn't actually do anything to fulfill the more and stronger desires of members of society as a whole.

We have two choices here. (1) We can ignore Peter Singer like arguments and say the desires of animals do not count (2) We can say they do count. I will pursue only (1) here, although PETA is presumably taking choice (2).

So we can imagine two groups of people. (A) PETA supporters whose desires are thwarted whenever animals are killed for fashion (B) Fashionistas whose desires are thwarted if they cannot wear fur. I just tried to make A and B look similar but there is a substantive difference.

(i)In a world where fur is not a fashion item, group B still have plenty of ways of fulfilling their desires without thwarting the desires of others. And group A are having their desires fulfilled too - although there would be no motivation for them to exist as such a group in such a world.
(ii)In such a world where fur is a fashion item then group (A) desires are being thwarted and group (B) are being fulfilled - but only by thwarting the desires of others namely group (A).

So DU would prefer world (i) over (ii).

Now one could expand this and discuss a third group the fur trade and so on. But that is too much detail for the argument here. The real point is I cannot see how one can have a morally neutral scenario, as you attempted here, without some such analysis as I just attempted. The burden on you is to find a better example?

Cameron said...

martino: Unfortunately, I was using a very bad example to get at my central point. The "neutralness" of the desire doesn't really matter for the point I was attempting to extract from my rather thick skull.

Since Alonso adressed the comments on his latest post, I've actually commented there, and hoepfully expressed it better. My apologies for the delayed response.