Sunday, November 09, 2008

BB3: AC Grayling: Flourishing, Fulfillment, and Freedom of Choice

This is the third in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Yesterday, I looked at AC Grayling's presentation to the Beyond Belief conference. Specifically, I looked at the suggestion that 'flourishing' rather than 'happiness' is 'the point' of human existence. I suggested that neither view works – that ‘the point’ is to make or keep true those propositions that are the object of our desires. The moral point is to provide people generally with desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Grayling then went on from his concept of 'flourishing' to draw some conclusions about government policy – that a primary concern of government is to promote those institutions that enhance human flourishing.

In doing this, it is important to note one thing; that there is a rich variety of humans and there is almost certainly not going to be only one way in which humans can flourish. As a result, institutions that try to fit all people into the same mold are almost certain to fail. They are attempts to coerce everybody into the same, narrow lifestyle. As a result, they ultimately generate more unhappiness than happiness.

The framework within individual can choose rich and flourishing lives has to be one characterized by a lot of negatives in the sense that what we want to do is open spaces and limit the degree of coercion that we impose on people within communities.

Indeed, choice itself has value according to Grayling. A life in which a person lives by his own choices has value that the same life that is the result of other peoples’ choices apparently would not have. The good life, according to Grayling as taken from Aristotle is:

. . . something rather rich - experientially rich - which accrues to a person the minute that person begins to try to live a reasoned and reflective life given that, for Aristotle as indeed for his teacher, Plato, the idea of the considered life the life examined and chosen and lived according to those choices . . . that kind of life is one that is more likely to be attended to by or characterized by eudemonia than the life which is the result of other peoples' choices.

Recall, a state that one is placed in as a result of coercion is less value than the same state that one is placed in as a result of choice – even though the state is the same.

A Desire Utilitarian Analysis

The first question that a desire utilitarian will raise in examining this view has to do with the nature of value. What is it that makes it the case that a state chosen has more value than a state that one is coerced into?

Desire utilitarianism recognizes two types of value.

One of those types is direct value (sometimes called 'intrinsic value' though that term often carries connotations that are not true of direct value in the desire utilitarian sense). Direct value is the value that a state S has in virtue of the fact that there exists a desire that P, and P is true in S.

The other type of value is indirect (usually called 'instrumental') value. A state S can have instrumental value if there exists a desire that P, and it is the case that in a state S where Q is true, Q yields P.

(I have also sometimes spoken of partial value or component value, where S has value in virtue of there being a desire that P and P is true in S, and C is a part of P. In this way, a corner of the Mona Lisa has value.)

So, there are two ways in which a state S that has been chosen can have value on this model. Agents could have a desire that P where P is “I choose to be in state S”, or choice can be instrumentally valuable in the sense that it tends to bring about states in which desires are fulfilled.

Then there is moral value, which is a mixture of these two values. A state of S has moral value if P is true of S and the desire that P is useful (tends to fulfill other desires), so that people generally have a reason to promote or encourage the desire that P.

On this standard, we can make the case that the desire that P, where P is a life that is chosen rather than a life that is coerced on the individual, has moral value. It is a value that people generally have reason to promote.

I have given the argument for this in several past postings. It is an argument that comes from John Stuart Mill that says that each agent is the least corruptible and most knowledgeable resource around (with some exceptions such as children). When I act so as to fulfill my own desires, I know those desires better than anybody. Furthermore, I am not likely to be distracted by something else – something else only has the power to distract me to the degree that it appeals to one or more of my desires.

Whereas, if you try to direct my life, you have a less reliable idea of what my desires are. Furthermore, even in deciding what act I am to perform, you are going to give me the instruction that will fulfill the most and strongest of your desires.

Perhaps you have a desire that my desires are fulfilled and that motivates you to choose for me what I would have chosen for myself. However, at best, it is inevitable that this will be one desire among many and, as a result, a desire capable of being sacrificed for the public good (or so we are told).

So, we have reason to promote a set of institutions that cause our neighbors to have desires that the others freely choose how to live their own lives, as long as those choices are not harmful to others.

This gives a reason behind the type of value that Grayling talks about, rather than just asserting that a particular state has value. Nothing ‘just has value’. That type of value entity does not exist.

Freedom for individuals to make their own choices does have value. The love of freedom – the preference for chosen states over coerced states – has value. These are facts that we can derive out of our understanding of what value is. It is not something that merely adheres to a particular state of affairs.

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