Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bob the Slave

Today, I would like to address some of the issues that are presented in a hypothetical case brought forward by a member of the studio audience.

"Bob" will have to obey the orders of the VAST majority of people not named "Bob" and work for those people's benefit, under pain of torture/death. Now, in that case it seems "generally" people DO NOT have a desire to inhibit this desire. Most people are not named "Bob" and this desire therefore benefits them. Do we then refer to some vague overall desire for "decency" that should make people oppose this desire, even if will benefit them. Even if there is absolutely no chance that further laws will be passed that will make them a slave?

First, I would like to direct the user’s attention to the post, The 1000Sadists Problem, where I deal with the hypothetical case in which 1000 sadists have desires that would be fulfilled by the torture of a single individual. This is a similar, though not identical, to the case presented above.

The problem here is that the 'problem' comes from a failure to distinguish 'desire utilitarianism' from 'desire fulfillment act utilitarianism'. Desire fulfillment act utilitarianism says, 'Do that act that will fulfill the most and the strongest desires'. Whereas desire utilitarianism says, 'Do that act that a person with good malleable desires would perform'.

Good malleable desires, in turn, are desires that are capable of being molded through social forces and that tend to fulfill other desires. Thus, they are desires that people generally are able to promote through social forces such as praise and condemnation, and are desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote (because the desire promoted tends to fulfill other desires).

Second, morality is a tool invented for use in the real world. Prospects such as, "absolutely no chance that further laws will be passed that will make them a slave" are not real-world concerns.

Furthermore, it introduces such contrivances into the situation that it would make judgment impossible. What else would have to be true for it to be the case that there is 'absolutely no chance' that further laws will be passed that will make them a slave? If we have no answer to that question, then we do not have the facts that we need to go any further.

In the real world, we know that this decision to enslave Bob is completely arbitrary. A person who is willing to enslave people named Bob can, at any type, acquire a desire to enslave people named Alonzo or Tip. We have good reason to avoid such a state of affairs, so we have good reason to promote an aversion to slavery. In fact, we have good reason to ally with Bob so as to make this aversion to slavery universal.

Furthermore, if people are generally comfortable with slavery, then that makes them less likely to take action to protect freedom. There are a great many ways to limit peoples' freedom other than slavery. Limitations on where they may live, where they may work, who they may marry, what they may say, who they may speak with . . . these are all ways, short of slavery, of limiting freedom.

If I can create in others a love of freedom, then I can trust them to act so as to avoid states of affairs in which freedom is being inhibited, which will help to protect my freedom and those of others that I care about.

However, this love of freedom entails an aversion to slavery – so my reasons for promoting a love of liberty are also reasons for promoting a dislike of slavery. Promoting this love of freedom means promoting an aversiont to slavery - which means condemning those who would promote or sustain the institution of slavery.

If people are willing to tolerate slavery, then they cannot have a love of freedom. This means not only that I and those people I care about are at greater risk of being enslaved. It means that I and those I care about are at risk of having our liberties lost in other ways.

On the other hand, if I – and others – get together to promote a general love of liberty, then our own freedoms and the freedoms of those we care about are more secure.

Of course, while a society is busy promoting a love of liberty in people generally, this includes promoting a love of liberty in ourselves. This love of liberty motivates us to avoid states of affairs in which we limit the liberty of others, just as it motivates others to avoid states of affairs in which they limit our own liberty.

We have many and strong reasons to promote a general love of liberty in others, just as they have many and strong reasons to promote a love of liberty in us. The way to do this is through praise of those who support and defend liberty generally, and the condemnation of tyrants and those who deny liberty.


Burt Likko said...

Doesn't this line of reasoning come close to making your vision of desire utilitarianism a stalking horse for something that looks an awful lot like Kant's categorical imperative?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Transplanted Lawyer: my vision of desire utilitarianism is extremely close to Kant's categorical imperative except that it is not categorical.

All imperatives are entirely hypothetical.

Tep said...

First, thanks for responding to my scenario. I suppose I'm still trying to grasp the, for me, somewhat difficult sense of how desire utilitarianism proscribes certain actions. Whether your belief, Alonzo, is that those proscriptions are relative to a society's norms, or if you are asserting they somehow transcend that. I guess my example really didn't push the question I wanted. I'd like to try again, if you will be patient enough to indulge me again.

It seems possible to imagine a society where something we now consider horrible, let's say murdering people, would be considered acceptable. In such a society, murder is considered a right. People feel it adds value to their society when everyone must guard themselves against being murdered (they must be strong, well-defended, self-sufficient, etc. whatever the justification) and feel that killing others provides benefits (people with poor social skills are eliminated, etc.) Therefore they have the desire to have a society where murder is legal, and there is a general belief that restricting murder thwarts the ability to have a society based on bravery, resourcefulness, and the like. While I wouldn't want to live there myself, would people who find that state of affairs to be the norm be engaging in bad desires?

Luke said...

Within the next 600 years, I suspect basically ALL desires will be malleable - malleable by neurosurgery.

But while most of us can wield the moral tools of praise and condemnation, we are not neurosurgeons.

Then again, many of us are not in a position to wield the moral tools of certain kinds of reward or punishment.

Is there any reason to exclude neurosurgery from our consideration of which desires are malleable and to what extent?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


In a sense, all desires are maleable now. You can introduce a lot of changes to a set of desires with a good blow to the head, a stroke, or a large jolt of electricity. Of course, killing a person changes all desires.

You point, however, is that desires will become more maleable over time - which is certainly true.

As we learn to modify desires, we are going to have to ask ourselves what reasons for action exist for allowing, engaging in, prohibiting, or refusing, any given modification.

The question of what reasons for action exist will still be the question of what desires exist and whether those desires will tend to be fulfilled or thwarted by the change in question.

There is nothing new in this. New possibilities emerge, and we ask ourselves the value of realizing those possibilities. The answer will be found in whether realizing the possibilities tend to thwart or fulfill (other) desires.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


In other words, do not imagine that we instantly pop into a universe in which all desires are perfectly maleable. Where we are at any given point in the journey will have a lot to say about where we go next.