Thursday, May 06, 2010

Conflicting Desires

A member of the studio audience has written with the following question:

My question is that I understand the bad desires being those that thwart other desires and good desires being those that fulfill other desires but given no intrinsic value doesn't that mean that all desires could thwart and fulfill other desires?

I would like to begin by looking at conflicts among propositions in general.

You look at a set of propositions and discover that it contains the following pair:

Jim is seventeen years old.

Jim is not seventeen years old.

You put these two side by side and, assuming that we are talking about the same Jim and using the same standard for "year", the two statements contradict each other. They cannot both be true.

How do you determine which proposition to adopt?

You cannot do so by looking just at these two propositions. You have to look outside of these propositions at other pieces of evidence.

That is to say, we bring other propositions to bear on the subject and to see which has the more and stronger support. For example, if other propositions are that Jim was born in 1992 and the government does not consider him eligible to vote, we have arguments favoring (though not demanding) the 17-years-old hypothesis.

Of course, either of those pieces of supporting evidence could be mistaken, so we need to find ways of verifying or falsifying them.

And so on. And so on.

Either way, the ultimate aim is to pick the option that has the most and strongest support.

The same is true when we have conflicting desires.

A desires the P and B desires that not-P.

Desirism states that, if this is all there is in the universe, these two beings with these two desires, then there is no way to resolve the conflict. A and B are at a state of war until one of them defeats the other.

We can even allow that both desires are malleable. A can acquire a desire that not-P and B can acquire a desire that P. However, given that there is no intrinsic value - no intrinsic betterness of the desire that P vs. the desire that not-P - there is no reason to choose the desire that P over the desire that not-P.

Some might object that desirism fails because it cannot identify the correct desire to promote in these types of circumstances. However, desirism does not fail. It correctly points out that there is no answer to be had in those types of circumstances. It is the theory that reports to have an answer where no answer can be had that fails.

There may be people who want to live in a universe where these types of situations generate moral right answers, but that is not enough to prove that we actually live in such a universe and that any theory that says otherwise is mistaken.

Also, please note that this does not lend itself to any type of moral subjectivity where A and B each get to freely choose a different answer. Both of them live in a universe where the fact of the matter is that they live in a universe of irresolvable conflict and any who claim that one is better than the other is simply making a false claim.

Subjectivism says, "Let's take make-believe claims that we know to be make-believe and treat them as real."

Now, as a matter of fact we do not live in that world. We live in a world where there are a lot of additional desires providing a lot of additional reasons for action which can be used to evaluate whether the reasons for action more strongly support the desire that P or the desire that not-P.

When two desires come into conflict, we have a number of other facts to bring to bear to determine which of these desires tends to fulfill the most and strongest other desires and which do not.

Let us put homosexual desire - the desire some individuals have to have sexual relationships with another of the same gender, with the aversion to homosexual relationships - an aversion to a state of affairs in which a person of one gender has sexual relationships with another of the same gender.

Note that the conflict here is not a conflict with an aversion an individual may have to performing homosexual acts. Person A can be gay, while Person B is heterosexual, and their desires are not in conflict. It is only when Person A is gay and Person B has an aversion to the existence of homosexual acts that there is a conflict.

In itself, this does not tell us whether we should resolve the conflict in favor of those who have homosexual desires or those who have an aversion to the existence of homosexuality.

However, now we bring other facts to bear on the subject.

One fact to look for is whether a desire is a desire to thwart the desires of others. The person who desires the suffering of others is a person whose desires can only be fulfilled in any possible world in which the desires of others are being thwarted. He cannot live in peace with others.

In the case of homosexuality and the aversion to homosexual acts, this does not apply. The homosexual can fulfill his desires in a number of possible worlds in which no other desire is being thwarted - a world in which nobody has an aversion to the existence of homosexual acts.

The person with the aversion to the existence of homosexual acts can find his desires fulfilled in a world where no other desires are being thwarted - a world without people who desire homosexual acts.

Another thing to look for is to determine which of the two desires is most easily malleable. In the case of homosexuality, homosexual desire seems to be far less malleable than the aversion that homosexual acts exist. We see this in the fact that the latter change their orientation far more easily and frequently than the former.

When talk turns to whether homosexuality can be 'cured', a relevant question to ask is whether the aversion to homosexual acts can be 'cured' and to ask which cure involves the least amount of stress and difficulty on those who are going to undergo treatment. In this case, the evidence seems to suggest that 'curing' the aversion to the existence of homosexual acts is far easier than 'curing' homosexuality, so that is the option that we should go for on a social level.

Now, an argument may be offered that attempts to 'cure' the aversion to the existence of homosexual acts constitutes an attack on some religious beliefs. However, the condemnation of slavery (for example) also went counter to certain religious beliefs. If the argument that the aversion to homosexual acts have some sort of religious protection is valid, then the argument that slavery has religious protection would also be valid. At the same time, if we have reason to reject the claim that slavery is protected as a religious practice, when we also have reason to reject the claim that the aversion to the existence of homosexual acts is a protected religious practice.

The argument above further illustrates how we bring other concerns to bear to determine the value of each element of a conflicting set of desires and aversions. In this case, we are looking at the desire to protect religious practices. We bring into the argument the implications that a desire to protect religious practices would have in light of the claim many would make that their biblical interpretations say that certain types of slavery are legitimate. Or the killing of heretics. Or the burning of witches. We look at the desire-thwarting potential of this aversion and we say, "No, a desire for the protection of religious practices - given the types of religious practices we would have to protect - is not such a good idea."

The analysis just keeps going from here, bringing to bear the reasons for and against promoting or inhibiting each desire, to determine which side has the greatest support.

At this point, some would argue that lack the ability to make this calculation is an objection to the theory. I would argue that it is sometimes difficult, but that it is not always impossible - particularly considering the fact that we do not always need our final answer to be that precise.

For example, the movement of an object in orbit around the Earth is determined by the total of all of the forces of all of the bodies in the universe acting on it. We lack the ability to determine the precise effect of all of these influences. However, in spite of this, we can still launch a rocket that will rendezvous and dock with another rocket in space.

We do this because we do not need to know the precise location of the two rockets in order to get them docked. We need to be close enough for a successful docking. The influences of the vast majority of objects in the universe - even massive objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy - are just too small to consider.

Similarly, we do not need to know precisely all of the effects of promoting an aversion to rape. We know the effects of rape and the 'gravity' of these effects is so great that we can confidently assert that it outweighs any concern that might be put up against it.

So, this is how we resolve conflicts. This member of the studio audience is correct to point out that we have no way to resolve the conflict if we fix our attention solely on the two desires that are in conflict. We have to look instead at what the two desires are and the power that those desires have to fulfill or thwart other desires. From this, we can figure out how to resolve the conflict.

By the way, just as a final note because this is a common source of confusion, we are not looking at the consequences of this specific act to fulfill or thwart desires.


SS400 said...

Ah, very good post, Alonzo. I tried to explain DU to an English teacher of mine a while back and this was actually the first objection of which he thought. I tried to explain it to him, but obviously not so eloquently and, as a result, pretty ineffectively. I'll have to show this one to him. Thanks!

Zach said...

As a some what different question but related i think. I have been trying to explain DU to a friend of mine and the objection he brought up was that since we have to weigh all desires then couldnl't we just keep making desires that people have up to make it so that a desire thwarts more desiresten it promotes? Or am i miss understanding what that means

Eneasz said...

Zach - you can no more "make up" desires to make something moral than you can "make up" planets to send a manned mission to Vulcan. Either is possible in stories, neither is possible in the real world.

Zach said...

Well what i mean is that one could think of many many possible desires that could exist in the situation to make it seem "even"

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, people can make up all sorts of things and practice all sorts of self-delusion to support the answer that they want.

It happens in science as well, where creationists prove quite creative when it comes to coming up with evidence to support their view on evolution or the origin of the earth.

Yet, the boundless potential of creativity does not change the fact that there is a fact of the matter.