Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Right Actions: Summary

I have been spending the last several posts attempting to demonstrate how the desire utilitarianism account of right actions can explain a number of elements of morality. Those propositions are:

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

In those posts I have sought to provide accounts of:

Negligence (and recklessness) – wrong actions made so because the show the absence of an aversion to causing harm to others that people generally have many strong reasons to promote and that a person with good desires would have.

The Bad Samaritan – a person with desires that people generally have reason to inhibit who nevertheless performs the same action as that which a person with good desires would have performed. In spite of the bad motives, the act itself is not wrong.

Non-Obligatory Permissions – In addition to desires that we have reason to universally promote and universally prohibit, there are areas where we have reason to promote a diversity of desires. These include areas such as what to eat, where to live, who to marry, and what careers to pursue, where a diversity of desires reduces competition and makes it easier for everybody to get what they want.

Excuses – Excuses are claims that block an implication from a state that suggests bad desires (or the absence of good desires) to actual desires. A claim of 'accident', for example, if true implies that even a person with good desires could not have prevented the unfortunate event.

Mens Rea – the guilty mind that must be demonstrated in order to prove that a person deserves to be punished. This guilty mind cannot be found in beliefs and can only sensibly be found in desires.

Moral Dilemmas – rare circumstances in which desires that we have reason to promote because of their good effect in day-to-day circumstances are made to come into conflict – creating situations where an agent must thwart a desire that it is good for everybody to have.

Supererogatory Actions – actions above and beyond the call of duty suggesting that the agent has desires that it would be good for everybody to have, but at a degree of strength we can expect only a few people to acquire.

This is only a partial list. I could add others.

For example, the theory explains why praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are such core components of morality. It is because these are the tools for molding malleable desires. It explains what subjectivists get right about value – that value depends on desire and, without desire, there would be no value.

It explains what the objectivists get right about value – that right and wrong is substantially independent of the beliefs or the desires of the speaker, and is something about which whole societies can be wrong (much to their detriment).

And so forth.

Furthermore, this account does not make any use of gods, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, "ultimate goods", contra-causal free will, or any other supernatural or exotic entity. It talks about desires, states of affairs, and relationships between them.


anton said...


Your use of the Samaritan in this very good series may be a little out of place for some of us who know the original parable was about a guy who was an exceptional member of his group who would help an enemy. His group was known as a ruthless and immoral people. If he was a member of the originally referenced tribe, he would have never been on that road for fear of his life! Much later, long after Christ was to have lived, his "nationality" was changed to Samaritan. There are now organizations which refer to themselves as Samaritans and Christian Samaritans even though the originally referenced group were the "avowed" enemies of the Hebrews. To put it into a modern context, it would be like using the phrase The Good Nazi!

In your exammle "The Bad Samaritan" is like saying "sauna steam bath". "Samaritan" is all you need.

Christian Apologist said...

The biggest problem I see with your system is that desire can never be fulfilled or satisfied. No sooner do we fulfill one desire but another takes up its place. A life lived in the fulfillment of desire is a chasing after the wind. You can chase your desires to and fro about the earth but it will always lead you to the grave, unsatisfied.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Christian Apologist

We are routinely quite successful at fulfilling our desires.

A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true. At any given moment, many of us can identify a number of things that are true that we are grateful for - desires that are currently fulfilled.

Since desires are the only reasons for action that exist, there is nothing else to do but act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of one's desires.

You can wish for something else. But even that wish would be yet another desire. In this case, it would be an irrational desire to choose, since the wish for other types of reasons for action would certainly never be fulfilled.

Christian Apologist said...

But why stop at desire? Why not continue into what the cause of desire is? Nor is desire the only reason for action. There are such things as involuntary actions, instinctive actions, and actions which we take that are contrary to our desires.

You still have not addressed the fact that the fulfillment of a desire does not bring any long lasting satisfaction. The satisfaction of one desire soon brings on another desire in place of it and no peace can be had as long as your goal is to fulfill desire.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Christian Apologist

The "cause" of desires is simply whatever caused particular dendrites to be connected to particular axions in the brain. It could be something as basic as an anneurism or a nail entering the skull. Anyway, the causes of desires do not have ends.

Speaking about ends, you seem to have confused reasons for action with causes of action. There are involuntary actions, but involuntary actions are not intentional - they are not done "for a reason".

Finally, I deny your claim that the fulfillment of desires cannot bring long-lasting satisfaction. The fulfillment of some desires can do so - such as the fulfillment of my desire to learn moral philosophy.

Furthermore, value of long-lasting satisfaction depends entirely upon whether people value long-lasting satisfaction. It may be the case that the fulfillment of desires does not bring green geese - but it is only important insofar as one desires green geese.

To the degree that people do value long-lasting satisfaction, it is still only one desire among many. It is still the case that many of those other desires can be fulfilled even if this one is thwarted.

Finally, desire utilitarianism aims for the fulfillment of desires, not satisfaction. A desire that P is fulfilled in any state in which P is true. It is quite possible that a desire can be satisfied without bringing any satisfaction at all, yet its fulfillment is still valuable.

I often use the case of a person who is given the following options. "Option 1: Your child is made to suffer while you are made to believe that your child is healthy and happy. Option 2: Your child is healthy and happy but your child is made to suffer."

Many people would still choose Option 2, which provides an example of the case that it is the fulfillment of a desire that matters, not any sense of satisfaction.

Christian Apologist said...

Why does fulfillment of desire matter?

Also option 2 is a false option. Suffering is the result of the lack of either health or happiness. Therefore option 2 is a contradictory situation.

Anonymous said...

Option 2 is a typo actually. It should read "Option 2: Your child is healthy and happy but you are made to believe that your child is made to suffer."

(I'm familiar with Alonzo's use of this example :) )

Why does fulfillment of desire matter?

You're asking the wrong question. There is no thing, no entity or law of nature or reason, which declares that "Fulfillment of desires is what matters!"

Rather, there is the fact that people take intentional actions. Any intentional action taken by an agent was taken for some reason. And when it comes to reasons-for-action, desires are the only reasons-for-action that exist.

So nothing declared that fulfilling desires matters. It's simply the case of the matter that desires are what motivate actions.