Saturday, November 17, 2007

Practial Morality

Cameron has provided me with one further question on desire utilitiarianism.

Here's a question I might try to answer with DU: If I want to make the world a better place, should I set about trying to instill the best desires in others?

And Martino is doing a good job of answering them in the comments. The post that follows is an alternative phrasing, not a correction, for Martino's answers.

Cameron: There is a prior question to be asked here.

“Should I want to make the world a better place?”

Many people come to desire utilitarianism with a set of assumptions that lead them to think that this is what I am saying – that everybody should instill the ‘best desires’ in others, where ‘best desires’ are desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

This is because they come to the theory focused primarily on actions (What should I do?).

Desire utilitarianism challenges that. It says, “You will do that which fulfill the more and stronger of your own desires, given your beliefs.” Nothing will change that fact. So, the proper focus on morality is not, “What should I do?” but “What should I desire?”

Should you, or anybody, desire to make the world a better place?

There arguments against having such a desire.

One of the key arguments is that it is extremely difficult to determine what counts as ‘making the world a better place’. I have given my ideas in this blog. However, those ideas come from spending a lifetime studying this issue – 12 years of college in moral philosophy, and all of the effort I have put into it since college. Most people do not have that kind of time. They’re too busy being computer programmers, research scientists, parents, engineers, actors, and the like to put this type of energy into trying to come up with answers to such questions.

Compare this ‘desire to making the world a better place’ to ‘an aversion to deception’. The latter is simple. On the whole, we can do a far more efficient job determining when somebody is lying or engaging in sophistry in order to mislead others than we can of determining whether an act ‘makes the world a better place’. When we do, we can react to condemn the speaker immediately, and say with a great deal of confidence in most cases, “That person is lying!” For these reasons, an aversion to deception has much to recommend it over a desire to make the world a better place does not.

What it has to recommend it is that an aversion to deception tends to fulfill other desires. Since people act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs, and false beliefs is quite commonly a barrier to desire fulfillment, an aversion to deception will help to eliminate the false beliefs that prevent desire fulfillment.

However, the motivation for a moral campaign to crack down on deception is not ‘a desire to make the world a better place’. The motivation for such a campaign comes from the fulfillment of all of those desires that a campaign for greater honesty would help us to fulfill. One of those desires would be a desire to make the world a better place (where it existed). Other desires include desires for food, clothing, and shelter; for the well-being of one’s friends and family; for health and long-life with less pain and discomfort.

Even if a person does want to make the world a better place, that desire will naturally sit in a brain that is wired with other desires. That person will also likely have a desire for sex, an aversion to pain, a desire for food and water, a desire for a comfortable environment – not too hot or too cold, a desire for the well-being of one’s children. Every act one performs will be the act that best fulfills the more and stronger of the agent’s desires, given his beliefs. Therefore, every act will weigh these other desires against the desire to make the world a better place. Depending on the relative weights of these desires, the desire to make the world a better place will often lose anyway.

It is far better – and far more efficient – to simply mold these other desires so that, while fulfilling them, one happens to bring about (as a side effect) the fulfillment of other desires, rather than expect people to be able to aim for that end directly.

You are walking down an icy street after a blizzard and you come across somebody stuck on the side of the road. How do you decide whether to help him? You do not stop to calculate the sum benefit of your actions on human history. You can never have enough information to answer that question. For all you know, this person is about to meet with his girlfriend where they will conceive a child that will become the next Hitler. But, you help push his car out of the snow bank because you are kind, and you desire to help others. If enough people promote enough kindness and helping others, then we do not need to worry about the next Hitler. People will simply have too strong of an aversion to that type of person for him to get power.

(Which is why I am particularly alarmed that there is not nearly enough of an aversion to the political aims of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. A strong aversion to those types of policies is essential to preventing the next Hitler.)

I do not think that a desire to make the world a better place is a bad desire. I do not see much of a reason to condemn those who have this desire. It might even be a good desire in limited doses – for a small number of people interested in studying moral philosophy. It is just too awkward and unwieldy for general, public use.

However, Cameron, I do not want to be accused of avoiding your question – which was, to the degree that one desires to make the world a better place, should one set about trying to instill the best desires in others.

There is only one way in which something can actually, honestly, in a real-world sense, be ‘better’ than something else. That is if the something fulfills more and stronger desires than the alternative. If you are making A better, then you are making it into something that fulfills more and stronger desires than it used to. To make the world a better place, you make it into a world that people like more than the like the world as it exists today. Making it into a world that people dislike more would be counter-productive.

Promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires seems like a perfectly sensible way into making the world a place that people like more – a world that fulfills more desires. Promoting desires that tend to thwart other desires, I suspect, would have the opposite effect – generating states of affairs in the world that people do not like.

In a different comment, you stated the question quite differently.

The question I'm struggling with is, if I desire to make the world a better place, what is the best use of my time?

I would say that the best use of your time would probably be participating in a campaign against dishonesty and sophistry – so that liars and manipulators are despised rather than rewarded in this culture. Campaigning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or discovering how to use embryonic stem cells to cure a range of diseases from Alzheimer’s to spinal cord injuries (if, indeed, this is even possible) are also good uses of your time.

Donating food to the food bank is a viable option.

When it comes to answering the question, “What should I do?” the desire utilitarian answer is, “Do what a person with good desires would do.” A person with good desires is a person with desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. A good person is not, necessarily, a person with a desire to fulfill the desires of others. He may simply have an aversion to dishonesty. However, this aversion to dishonesty is a desire that tends to fulfill the desires of others.

When you go to visit your friend in the hospital, do not visit him because you have calculated that, in your quest to make the world a better place, you have decided that visiting him is the best use of your time. Visit him because you care about how he is doing and you want to cheer him up – cheer him up; forget about the rest of the world.

Desire utilitarianism takes a step back. It reconizes that a desire to cheer up one’s sick friends is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and certainly not a desire that we have any reason to try to reduce or eliminate (or condemn). It is, instead, a desire we have reason to promote and nurture.

When we question the quality of the desire to cheer up one’s friends in the hospital, that is where we consider the rest of the world, and we judge the desire to be good. When it comes to visiting one’s friends in the hospital, the desire that one is acting on is the desire to cheer up a sick friend – a desire to say, “I’m here for you. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Finally, I want to restate Martino's final comment:

Do you want to be dictated to in some form or another and for everyone to want the same thing or do you want to exercise your liberty and freedom in you own way, as everyone else can too?

Desire utilitarianism says that there are some things we have reason to make universal desires. However, in a lot of cases, it simply does not pay for everybody to ‘want the same thing’. If everybody wanted to be a teacher, who would build the buildings? Who would cure disease? Who would examine questions of right and wrong in detail?

It is quite useful that we have some people who love teaching, some who love architecture, some who love medicine, and some who love moral philosophy.

My question to you is: Do you want this ‘freedom and liberty’ that you value to include the liberty to grab children off the street to be raped, tortured, and killed? Does it include the ‘freedom’ to command one’s armies to invade other countries for the purpose of taking control of their oil fields? Does it include the purpose of destroying whole cities because for the sake of adding a few billion dollars to the corporate bottom line?

Desire utilitarianism says that a love of liberty is a good desire for everybody to have. Since each individual is the most knowledgeable and least corruptible agent for directing the life of that individual (with the exception of young children and severely mentally handicapped), that a love of liberty puts decision-making capability of each life into the hands of the most competent and least corruptible agent.

However, it also says that it it is good that everybody love liberty - that those who would act to curtail liberty deserve condemnation and contempt. There is no room in this system for a love of tyranny – the exercise of ‘liberty and freedom’ does not include the liberty and freedom to arbitrarily harm others.

Desire utilitarianism explains where this boundary can be found.


Anonymous said...

May I suggest and the blog for practical advice on "how to make the world a better place"?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

doug s.

A preliminary look at the organization you mentioned looks promising. It appears to be the case that they are working on finding cost-effective ways of achieving secular (real-world) goals.

However, contributions to charity is only one morally relevant area to deal with. Morality is also relevant to choosing of a profession - and to how one conducts oneself in one's profession.

It is relevant to how we treat our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and strangers living half way around the world.

It is relevant to the political causes we support, to the political contributions we make (in terms of time and money) and to how we vote.

Most of the harm done in the world has been done by people who thought that they were 'making the world a better place'.

Most suicide bombers consider themselves to be heroes. Most Nazi and Japanese soldiers in WWII were doing their duty to God an their country. The Bush Administration and its cohorts are, I am sure, confident that what they are doing is right and good.

Many global warming denialist, tobacco company employees and those who aid that industry, people who preach that we need to base modern society on the myths and superstitions popular among 1st century tribesmen, believe that they, too, are making the world a better place.

The question of morality is much larger than the question of where to donate some percentage of one's disposable income.

Cameron said...


I have not devoted my very much of my life to studying philosophy or morality. Although I try to be logical and reasonable in the things I do, I am not particularly practiced at logical argument. I realize that this lack of practice has led me to be somewhat disjointed in the questions I'm asking. I also realize and apologize for how much harder that makes it to respond to me. Understand that I am reading the responses carefully and weighing them in my own mind before I write.

Below is what I'm currently having difficulty with.
Q: What would a moral person do?
A: He would do what a person with good desires would do?
Q: What are good desires?
A: Desires that tend to fulfill the more and stronger desires of others.
Q: How do I determine which desires tend to fulfill the more and stronger desires of others?
A: ...

Not being able to determine which desires tend to fulfill the more and stronger desires of others affects my ability to try to be a better person (have better desires), to determine what should be praised or condemned in others (instill desires in others), and make the world a better place.

I have a list of things I think are likely to fulfill more and stronger desires. You obviously have a list as well (you've named several things on it). How should I evaluate something to decide if it actually fulfills more and stronger desires or not?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


How do I determine which desires tend to fulfill the more and stronger desires of others?

You look at what those desires are (according to what desires best explains and predicts human behavior). Those desires take the form of propositional attitudes. Desires are fulfilled in states where those propositions are true, so look for the desires that tend to produce those states.

In many cases, this is not at all difficult. It is particularly easy when it comes to certain welfare goods.

A welfare good is a universal means - something that is useful regardless (or nearly regardless) of whatever else a person desires.

Money (or, more precisely, purchasing power) is a welfare good. The person with more money can fulfill more desires than the person with less money.

Rational people will fulfill the more and stronger desires each. Additional money is used to fulfill fewer and weaker desires. Take money away from somebody who is fulfilling fewer and weaker desires, and give it to somebody who needs it to fulfill more and stronger desires, and more desires will be fulfilled.

This is providing, of course, that the wealth transfer does not decrease productivity. It very well could as special interest groups try to gain control of this power to distribute income, ultimately perverting the system into one that takes money from the poor and middle class and gives it to the wealthy.

Health is a welfare good. Healthy people tend to be able to fulfill more and stronger desires than sick or injured people. So, desires that lead to less frequent infections and disease (cleanliness) or that prevent injury (non-negligence) are good desires. The responsible person not only fulfills his own desire to act responsibility, but prevents the thwarting of the desires of those who would otherwise be his victims.

I have argued repeatedly about the welfare value of true belifes. A thirst for knowledge and a distaste for deception then are desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

In all cases, the test is whether a desire, if it spread throughout a population, would tend to produce states in which the propositions that are the objects of desires are true.