Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Passionately Pursuing Causes of Dubious Value

What should we say of a person who passionately throws himself into promoting a cause that, in fact, produces little harm or benefit? Should we condemn them for wasting time and resources on something trivial? Or should we leave them alone since they are not really hurting anybody?

The discussion so far has suggested leaving them alone. There are more important fish to fry. We should save our own efforts to fighting those who passionately throw themselves into causes that do genuine harm. Global-warming denial, the tobacco lobby, violent religious fundamentalism, attempts to establish a theocracy, the abolition of checks and balances, the public indifference to sophistry and dishonesty, the denigration of atheists in the public school system. These ‘causes’ are far more worth our time and energy than those that produce no real harm or benefit.

However, there is more to say on the issue, from a desire utilitarian perspective.

This situation invites us to ask the question, “Do these people realize that the ‘cause’ they are passionately devoting themselves to produce no real benefit?”

If they truly realize that the cause they are devoting themselves to have little value, then it would be hard to explain their passion. We certainly will not be able to explain it in terms of a passion to bring about that which is good (that which there are the most and strongest reasons to bring about). In fact, if they knew that their aims were relatively worthless we would have to conclude that they do not care much (if at all) about doing that which is good. If they had such a desire, then they would abandon that which has no merit in favor of doing good.

In this case, we can condemn these people for the lack of a desire to do that which is good. We certainly have no reason to promote indifference to the value of the causes one devotes time and energy to. We have reason to demand that those who devote themselves passionately to a cause at least believe that the cause is worthwhile, and to abandon it otherwise.

The other option, then, is that the agents have a desire to do that which is good and falsely belief that promoting this particular cause counts as doing good. Somehow, they have acquired false beliefs about the value of the cause they are promoting.

Consider: Members of group A are passionately opposed to people X-ing. Does the fact that people engage in X-ing thwart A’s desires?

Not necessarily.

It may be the case that the members of group A desire to decrease the total amount of intrinsic badness in the universe, and believe that X-ing contains intrinsic badness. Or, alternatively, they are averse to a state in which God is displeased, and believe that people X-ing displeases God. In these cases, it does not matter how much X-ing that people in Group B do, it will not change the total amount of intrinsic value nor will it create a state in which God is displeased. There is no sense, in these types of cases, that the desire to X can be condemned for being desire-thwarting.

These errors may, in turn, be culpable errors, or non-culpable errors. One of the principles that I have argued for is that when a person makes a mistake, we can often trace the fact that he has made a mistake to the desires of the agent. The agent with a false belief, in many cases, is believing what he wants to believe, rather than what the evidence suggests is true.

Where false beliefs give us insight into a person’s desires, we can use that information to determine whether they give evidence of good desires, or bad desires.

For example, somebody who truly wants to do good in the world should be worried about whether the causes he devotes himself to are actually promoting good in the world. If the agent is dismissing evidence to the contrary without giving it due consideration, we can conclude that the agent really doesn’t care about whether he is doing good or not. If he does not care, then we can still condemn him for lack of caring. Whereas the person who truly worries about arguments against his position shows that he actually does care about doing good.

We can also learn something about a person’s character by his willingness to embrace propaganda when it supports a cause that he favors. We have seen evidence of this type of behavior recently in Rush Limbaugh’s eagerness to embrace a hoax that purported to disprove the claim that humans caused global warming, the willingness of conservatives to embrace the ‘swift-boating’ of a 10 year old boy who spoke in favor of government health care for children, the willingness of democrats to embrace a rhetorical sophistry of dividing the cost of the war in Iraq among all Americans equally, even though they do not all pay an equal amount in taxes. I have found it in Representative Dana Rahrbacher’s eagerness to engineer false beliefs about global warming.

Where we see this type of behavior, we have reason to conclude that those individuals do not truly care about whether they are doing good or evil – because such people would have double-checked these reports and been averse to spreading lies and disinformation.

In these types of cases, we still have no reason to condemn the person for passionately pursuing a cause that has no real value. We do have reason to condemn him for his lack of interest in whether his cause has real value and for his willingness to lie or to engineer false beliefs in order to manipulate others.

Let us say that the agent has made an honest mistake. They passionately devoted themselves to a cause that they sincerely and responsibly came to believe was good, but which in fact had no real-world merit, but produced no real-world harm.

Any of us can find ourselves in that position. I admit that I may be in that position with respect to this blog. Each and every post may well be a passionate defense of attitudes that produce no real harm or benefit. In some cases I might be wrong, passionately arguing in defense of some attitude that, in fact, does far more harm than good.

We do not have reason to condemn such people – as long as they are willing to listen to alternatives and do not dismiss arguments against their position lightly. In fact, in these types of cases, it would be hard to say for sure that they are wrong. These people would be in the same position as a parent who fills a prescription for their child that ends up killing the child. They had good reason to believe that the prescription would help rather than harm the child. These are victims of an unfortunate accident (or a doctor’s negligence). These are not bad people themselves.

However, these people have still wasted their lives. A desire is fulfilled in any state of affairs where the proposition that is the object of the desire is made or kept true. A desire to keep one’s child healthy is fulfilled only if the child is kept healthy. A desire to keep one’s child healthy cannot be fulfilled by making the child sick. The parent who falsely believes that his child is healthy is like the person who lives inside an experience machine, falsely believing the images the machine feeds him. In spite of his ignorance of the fact, his life is wasted.

The person who passionately pursues a cause that has no real merit is in the same situation. His desire to do good is left unfulfilled. He has wasted his life, because he has not spent it doing what he wanted to spend it doing, which is pursuing something that has real value. He got distracted, and ended up wasting his life on a delusion.

In all of this, we must remember how difficult it is in many cases to know what is good, and how easy it is to make mistakes. The doctrine that I have defended in this blog that it is only legitimate to respond to words with words and private actions, and that a political campaign may only be met with a counter-campaign, respects the fact that there is a supreme amount of arrogance in violently forcing one’s views on others.

If somebody has devoted himself to a cause that has no real merit, but he truly wants to do good and is not guilty of any type of intellectual recklessness, then it follows by definition that nobody can easily prove him wrong. He might as well be right. Using violence (rather than words, private actions and political campaigns) pretends to a level of certainty that the individual is wrong that the evidence does not support.

It is a common affliction among humans to arrogantly presume one’s own infallibility. A right to freedom of speech and the press is the rational person’s way of making sure that this all-too-common tendency towards arrogance does not turn into a bloodbath among competing factions foolishly convinced of their own infallibility.

At this point, there is no just condemnation and criticism. These people can and should be left alone, not because the accuser has better things to do with his time, but because the accuser does not have sufficiently strong evidence that the accused is guilty of pursuing a trivial cause. Since it is the agent’s life, and we are assuming a strong desire to do good, we have to leave the agent in the position to decide what that good is. This is not to say that whatever he decides is right. It is to say that the agent has the best incentive to make sure that his beliefs are true and accurate, and he is less likely to corrupt his own actions by twisting it to some other ends.

Provided, of course, that the agent has a genuine interest in doing good – the type of interest that manifests itself in him double-checking his work, objectively studying the data, and considering seriously the possibility of error.


Anonymous said...

i havent followed the previous few posts so i might be commenting something uv already answered...
ur argument seems solid to me. the premise does hover bother me. u say we should always try to do the good. That's even more exacting than what jesus wanted us to do (when acting, act with love)!! I think u are expecting too much of us poor humans. isnt "do no evil" a good enuf compromise, wouldnt that work with desire util (we desire 2 do wtever doesnt cause us harm).
the problem is indeed also that which u point out, namely that we dont always know very well wt is good. but doesnt this also imply that we dont know if "not doing anything" might not also be good? or that the best thing to do is to stop trying to calculate the best thing to do?
im worried ur desire utilitarians are going to turn into goodaholics and burn themselves out, trying to justify all they do, including all they "dont do".

id argue that ur theory is too systematic, not leaving room for intuition. u want to fit everything into it, like a kant or a hegel i think we need a few holes to let us breathe.

Anonymous said...

on another note: itd b greatly appreciated if ur posts were prefaced with a short abstract... i dont have time to read em all, but then miss out on the conversation.

of course, i realize this is more work for u and might result in no one reading the entire posts anymore...

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You can find an answer to your objection in the posting, The Hateful Craig Problem

I explicitly deny that "we should always try to do the good". I do not even think that such a demand makes any sense.

My claim is that, insofar as people always act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires, that we have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

There is an important difference between:

"A desire that I fulfill other desires."

"A desire that other desires be fulfilled."


"A desire that X," where this desire tends to result (as, in some cases, an unintended side effect) in other desires being fulfilled.

Desire utilitarianism is focused on the third option, not the first two.

Cameron said...

I think I'm having a problem with DU, but I’m having an extremely difficult time articulating it.

Here is my line of thinking:
If I were omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, then according to DU, the way for me to make the world the best place it possibly could be would be by magically waving my hand and giving everyone desires that fulfill the more and stronger desires of others. Furthermore, because desires have no intrinsic value (other than by being fulfilled), these desires I magically instill could be anything. If everyone's strongest desire (to the exclusion of all other desires) was to sit, smile, and watch other people sit and smile, that world is just as "good" as the real world in which our desires for justice and freedom and security and community are fulfilled.

I have no magic wand. I only have the tools of logic and reason at my disposal. So if I, as I am now, truly desire to make the world a better place, I need to do it to the best of my ability using the best tools I have available. If I have examined an issue and determined to the best of my ability that people having a desire for X is bad (or good), then I should do what's within my power to promote an aversion to (or desire for) X.

The obvious thing that we've already discussed is that I should focus on the things that have the most potential. That is, promote aversions to the worst things, and desires for the best things (where worst is that which thwarts the more and stronger desires of others, and best is that which fulfills the more and stronger desires of others).

So, I've decided to go about making the world a better place. According to DU, it doesn't matter which desires people have, so long as at the end of the day, the more and stronger desires of people are fulfilled. Knowing, however, that there are some desires I can't change (are not malleable), the best course of action would be to take those "static" desires into account when I pick what I'm going to do.

One option would be to promote an aversion to having an evil dictator in power. That sounds like a pretty good option. Since oppression thwarts desires, the fewer evil dictators we have in power, the more and stronger desires of people will be fulfilled.

Another option would be to promote a desire to be a good steward of the planet. This also sounds like a good idea. The more people that are taking care of the planet, the more desires of those that are living on it will be fulfilled.

Now which option has the most potential for good (which option will fulfill more desires)? Given that either has the potential to affect billions of people, I'm going to say that they're probably both worthwhile and important, and because it's difficult to assign any sort of rank of one over the other, I could morally spend my time doing either (or both), whichever seems more important to me.

Herein lies my problem. With DU, there's no intrinsic difference between promoting good desires and promoting an aversion to bad desires. In fact, there's as much if not more potential good in getting many people to have a little bit more of a good desire as there is in getting a few people to have a lot of aversion to a bad thing. What’s the point in doing x (which fulfills the desires of others), which I can better spend my time trying to alter society to get lots of people to do x?

What’s to stop someone from going around and attempting to instill in people the best desires he can come up with? What’s to stop someone from starting a DU “church” where every week people get together and talk about the best ways to change society to fulfill the more and stronger desires of all people, and then going out and implement those things? What’s to stop those people from being wrong (even with the very best of intentions and methods)? Finally, is the only reason that the idea of people doing that because I have a (malleable) aversion to the whole idea of someone else knowing what’s best for me?