Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Desire Utilitarianism and Moral Calculus

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago that drew a number of interesting comments that I think deserve my attention.

The post provided a desire-utilitarian account of retributive justice. In it, I defended the value of the presumption of innocence, impartial juries, and the need for the accused to confront the evidence against him, among other principles as not only useful rules but principles that we should make the object of our affections. Rule utilitarian theories say that we should follow these rules so long as they are useful and discard them the instant they do not maximize utility. Desire utilitarianism says that if we cultivate a love of justice then we do not abandon it the instant it is no longer useful. This is true in the same way that a parent who truly loves his child does not abandon the child as soon as she quits being useful. It means protecting and defending the object of one’s affections even when it is not useful.

Having said that, one of the objections raised against desire utilitarianism is that it requires an impractical calculus to determine what the right action is, and that as such it is of no use in telling us what to do. A corollary to that is that the complexity of desire utilitarianism is such that it is particularly useless when an agent has a short period of time available in determining what to do in a specific case.

The calculus is not all that difficult. It is certainly impossible if it is determined that we need an infinite amount of precision in determining the answer to a moral question. However, the less precision we need, the less effort we need to put into making the calculation.

For example, how difficult would it be to determine the population of the United States? If we need to know the exact number at any instant, this would be an insurmountable task. We would have to keep track of every birth and death and be able to adjust the final total with any change in these two factors. That would take a tremendous amount of resources.

However, with significantly less resources at our disposal, I can tell you that the population is slightly over 300 million. I know this because we reached 300 million according to official estimates a few months ago, and the odds are that our population is going up, not down. Making an estimate takes very little effort.

Without a complex moral calculus, we can make a reasonable estimate of the value of certain types of desires. For example, we seek to act so as to fulfill our desires. For any desire that P, the desire is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true. We seek to create states of affairs in which the more and stronger of our desires are fulfilled, but we act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires given our beliefs. For this reason, we can know that true beliefs are generally useful. This gives us reason to argue that truth has value. A love of truth, intellectual responsibility (the use of methods that tend to give true results), and curiosity (the quest to discover the truth) are traits we generally have reason to promote.

It does not take many resources at all to know that we have reason to praise those who are honest and trustworthy and to condemn deceitful manipulators. We can defend this conclusion easily enough.

The same is true of many of the moral principles that we value. The right to freedom of the press, for example, can be translated into an aversion to responding to what people say with violence. Only criticism that takes the form a verbal response – providing reasons for rejecting the original claim – are legitimate. This keeps the peace and protects us from the harms that people have habitually suffered in ideological wars.

We may be wrong in some of our calculations. In fact, I will guarantee that we are wrong with respect to some of the things we believe. However, the possibility of being wrong does not prove that we are helpless and cannot make any decisions. We can still use the knowledge at our disposal to reach answers that are more likely to be right than wrong.

We can know that we have reason to condemn rape, that we have reason to condemn wanton killing, that we have reason to inhibit the tendency to respond to words with violence rather than counter-words, we have reason to promote an aversion to breaking promises, we have a reason to promote an aversion to taking property that belongs to others even when the agent can get away with it, and the like. These do not take any sort of complex utilitarian calculation.

More importantly, if we look at it, this is exactly how moral principles are defended. When people have debates over whether or not to allow capital punishment, whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry, whether to pass laws against drunk driving – people generally bring forth evidence that is relevant to debating the value of particular desires. We debate capital punishment by asking whether a person who cares about the innocent people who might be saved has more reason to be worried about the innocent accused who might be executed or the innocent victims of those who were not executed.

There are other arguments as well – such as appeals to God’s will or the intrinsic merit of ‘justice,’ but these entities do not exist. The reason to reject these claims made in defense of a moral position is not because, “They do not fit our model.” It is because “they do not make reference to entities that are real.”

Some questions are difficult to answer. Sometimes the answers really will be difficult, and intelligent people can disagree. This, too, is a fact of life. It is a benefit, not an objection, to desire utilitarianism that it can explain and predict the fact of moral disagreement.

Of course, if our choice is between two theories that explain and predict a set of phenomena equally well, we should go with the simpler theory. If there were a moral theory that allowed us to get moral answers more quickly and easily than desire utilitarianism – a theory that did not simply make answers up out of thin air – then we should go with that theory. My suggestion here is that there is no such theory. It may, in a sense, be regrettable that desire utilitarianism predicts that some moral questions will be hard to answer and that we will be locked in moral debate on some issues for a long time, but without a simpler theory, that is just a fact about the universe we are going to have to learn to live with.

It is important to note that my objections to other theories are substantially based on their claims about what exists. I hold that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. All other theories invent other types of reasons for action. They fail because they postulate reasons for action that do not exist. A reason for action that does not exist cannot possibly be a reason for action for performing or refraining from any real-world action. Objections to desire utilitarianism have to start with showing that these other reason for action do exist.

Otherwise, you are building your morality on a fantasy. You might as well be building your morality on a God as to build it on any other type of reason for action that is just as mythical.

This, by the way, is one of the merits of desire utilitarianism. Even though it does not guarantee that moral calculations will be easy, it does make moral calculations easier by throwing out a huge stack of clutter. This clutter consists of reasons for action that do not exist. Divine commands, categorical imperatives, intrinsic (non-relational) values, desire-independent values of all types do not exist, and can be thrown out of any moral debate as irrelevant.

Desires exist. Some desires are malleable. Desires that exist give us reason to mold those malleable desires, promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires. In some cases it will be easy to determine which desires we have the most and strongest reasons to promote (e.g., honesty) or inhibit (rape). In some cases it will be difficult.

Morality becomes even more difficult because advancing technology and a changing world keeps changing our options, which keeps changing the possible effects of different malleable desires, which means that the answers to moral questions will change. As I will discuss this weekend, we once never had to worry about the morality of altering or eliminating one’s memories of a recent event, but that is changing. Soon, we will need to be discussing the ethics of, for example, a treatment for rape that might allow the victim to forget the rape itself, but which would also cause her to forget what her attacker looked like.

Finally, there is the question about how desire utilitarianism might guide a person to act in a circumstance in which he does not have a great deal of time in which to make a decision. Desire utilitarianism holds that, at the moment of action, we will act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of our desires, given our beliefs. At the moment of action, we do not appeal to moral principles. We do what we want to do.

If the institution of morality has done its job correctly, then the most and the strongest desires that the agent has at the moment of action will be desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. He will have an aversion to taking property that belongs to others, an aversion to causing pain and suffering, a desire to keep promises and to tell the truth, and so forth. At the moment of action, he will act so as to fulfill these desires – just like he always does.

He will act in partial ignorance of the consequences of his actions, without fully knowing which action will actually fulfill the more and stronger of his desires. Just like he always does. He may make a mistake and perform an action that fails to fulfill his desires – one that will create a state that makes false propositions that the agent wishes were made true, or make true propositions that the agent wishes were made false. But his heart will be in the right place, and for that reason we have no legitimate reason-for-action to condemn such a person. We only have reason to condemn a person to the degree that we find evidence that his heart is not in the right place – as a way of nudging hearts in general into a better place, a place that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires generally.

This, then, is how desire utilitarianism handles the problem of moral calculus.

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