Monday, February 23, 2009

Right Actions and Non-Obligatory Permissions

The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed.

Good desires, in turn, are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. For an account of how desires can be evaluated, and the sense in which agents can have motivating reasons to promote and inhibit desires, please see A Harmony of Desires

I am writing a series of posts to show how these propositions explain a number of the elements that we find in this institution we know as "morality". In this post, I focus on the issue of non-obligatory permissions.

Non-obligatory permissions refer to actions that a person may perform (if one wants to), but which one has no obligation to perform. It is permissible for the agent to do something else if the agent chooses to do so.

Huge sections of our life are dominated by choices made within this realm of non-obligatory permissions. Imagine yourself going grocery shopping, walking up an down the isles deciding your meals for the week, not on the basis of taste, but on the basis of maximizing utility.

We are in the realm of non-obligatory permissions when we decide what to watch on television or what music to listen to, what to read, what to study in school and what to choose as a vocation.

Perhaps one of the most important areas where non-obligatory permissions rule is in choosing a marriage partner. If there were no such thing as non-obligatory permissions then every given marriage would either be morally obligatory (required), or morally prohibited. Act utilitarian theories have a special problem with non-obligatory permissions. Act utilitarian theories say, "Perform that act that maximizes utility." Utility, in turn, can be measured in terms of pleasure minus pain, happiness minus unhappiness, preference satisfaction versus preference dissatisfaction, or desire fulfillment versus desire thwarting.

The act that maximizes utility then becomes morally obligatory. All other possible actions become morally prohibited. There is no moral permission to do an act that does not have the best consequences because consequences are all that matter when determining the moral quality of an action.

We can say that that the agent's own utility counts in making these decisions. However, the agent's own utility counts for one seven billionth of the total utility. It would be strange to find a case in which, after everybody else’s total utility has been considered, that the result is so close to a tie that the agent’s own utility decides the issue.

Imagine going up to somebody and saying, "I have done the utilitarian calculations and I have determined that the act of marrying you will bring the most utility to the world as a whole. I happen also to have some affection for you, but that necessarily is substantially irrelevant in making this proposal – my utility being such an infinitesimal proportion of overall utility.”

Of course, that other person’s decision to accept would also have to be based on the same calculation of total utility.

The propositions above leave room for whole section of our lives to be governed by non-obligatory permissions. There are some desires that we have many and strong reasons to promote universally (e.g., a love of truth and honesty), and some we have many and strong reasons to inhibit (e.g., out-group hostility). However, there are other desires that have reason neither to inhibit nor to promote universally.

Those desires that would lead to the choice of a profession, for example, are desires that we have reason to inhibit or promote. We have no reason to use social forces to try to make sure that nobody has a love of engineering, for example. Nor do we have reason to promote a universal love of engineering. What we have, instead, is reason to promote a society in which some people love engineering more than teaching (let’s say), and some people enjoy teaching more than engineering.

Food preferences, actually, represents another area where we have no reason to promote universal likes and dislikes. If everybody liked the same food, then we would face scarcities in that food as more and more marginal methods of production are brought on line to satisfy the demand. However, a rich diversity in food tastes means that we can grow different types of food – growing each type in circumstances best for that type.

Of course, when it comes to marriage partners, there would be fierce competition for the few people who would fit that universal criteria. A diversity of interests in marriage partners means that each of us has a chance of finding somebody that matches our own interests.

None of us need to make our decisions about what careers to enter, what foods to each, or who to marry based on some sort of universal standard. In these areas, we are free to turn our attention inward and choose what we like and dislike – within certain limits, of course.

"Do that act that a person with good desires would have performed," where career, food, and mating preferences are free to vary from one person to the next, yields the conclusion that choices in this area fall into the realm of non-obligatory permissions. The person with good desires would certainly not make some choices. However, this leaves a whole realm of choices where the deciding factor is desires that society generally has no particular reason to promote or inhibit.

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