Monday, August 13, 2012


Does desirism require that we weigh all desires equally? Or does it allow a person to give special attention to friends and family?

Think of the last gift that you bought. Chances are you did not weigh all desires in the world equally and buy the present that was most wanted for the person who most wanted it. Instead, you bought it for somebody in a particular relationship to you - a family member, a friend, or a co-worker.

Is this permitted with desirism? Or does desirism require that we purchase presents instead for those people in the world who most need a gift - giving them what they most need? Must we abandon these particular interests in those near to us in favor of complete indifference among individuals?

Desirism follows a relatively recent development in moral philosophy regarding two-tiered moral systems. It evaluates action relative to one standard (what a person with good desires would do), and then makes a second evaluation according to that standard (good desires are malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote).

The most widely held interpretation of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism is that it represents a two-tiered moral theory known as rule-utilitarianism. Actions are evaluated according to whether they are consistent with the best rules. Rules, in turn, are evaluated according to whether they maximize utility. As agents engaged in our day-to-day activities, we do not have the time or the resources or even enough data to determine the utility of each individual action. In order to decide what to do, it is more efficient to invent a set of rules where actions consistent with the rules will tend to maximize utility, and to judge actions by those rules.

When faced with the question of whether to lie to a grand jury, one applies the rule, "Do not lie to grand juries." When deciding whether to have a rule against lying to grand juries, one looks at the overall utility of having such a rule.

Richard M. Hare developed a much more sophisticated two-level system. According to Hare, moral claims are commands of the form, "Do this." "Do not do that." These commands are given to people in our role as "proles" or mere followers of orders. However, there is a second level of moral thinking that Hare calls the level if the arch-angel. At this level, we examine the commands to determine which commands produce the most utility.

When faced with the question of whether to lie to a grand jury, one yields to the command, "Do not lie to grand juries." When deciding whether the arch-angels would command us not to lie to grand juries, we ask whether the arch-angel would see that such a rule maximizes utility.

Both systems have a way of justifying the practice if showing preferences for those who are nearest to the individual.

Imagine that you are the CEO of a massive multi-nation company. This is far too big for any person to manage efficiently. Therefore, you decide to divide the company into regions, and assign a vice-president to each region. Even though your concern is with the overall profitability of the company, it seems at east plausibly sensible to give each vice-president the following instructions:

Do not concern yourself with overall profitability. That is my job. You are explicitly prohibited from looking at each region with indifference towards any other regionl. Insead, you are commanded - or given a rule - to concern yourselves with what is going on in your region. Focus your attentions and concerns there. If you think that it is fitting to hand out performance bonuses to your employees, feel free to do so. Do not concern yourself with whether the employees in some other region could benefit more from such a bonus - they are the responsibility of some other manager who knows that region better than you. They are not your responsibility. You focus on your region.

The vice-president may, in turn, give the same instructions to the regional manager, and the regional manager may give the same instructions to each store manager. In each case, the individual is given a command or a rule to focus on those subordinates in a articular relationship to herself. They are not told to be indifferent to all employees regardless of what store or region they work in. In fact, they may even be prohibited from doing so on the grounds that no person could do so efficiently. Furthermore, they are evaluated as employees according to their capacity to take care of their store or department.

By comparison, in society as a whole, at the level of the arch-angel or the rule-maker, we may instruct each person, "Do not weigh the interests of all individuals equally. Your job is to take care of your friends and your family. Let others worry about their friends and their family. Like the department manager authorizing a celebration for the people in his department without regard for whether some other department in an office on the other side of the planet could better use the money, you may have a birthday party for your children and buy them gifts and focus on their education without regard for the fact that somebody on the other side of the planet needs the money more."

Of course, as with store managers and department managers, there are limits to what one may do in expressing their concern for the people in one's store or department - or for one's friends and family. Yet, these limits do not invalidate the call to have a special concern for people in the given relationship.

All the while, thus rule is justified by the fact that, on the whole, such a rule will benefit the whole company in the first case, or all of humanity in the second.

Desirism also uses a two-tiered moral system. The difference is that it focuses on desires or affections rather than rules or commands. It suggests that you not buy your child a present because some indifferent rule says to, or because some arch-angel would command it. It says to buy a present for your child out of love for your child - out of an affection for the child and a partiality for that child that is far above your affection for other children.

When asking whether such an affection is something that people generally have reason to change, one consideration to weigh is whether it is even possible to bring about a change. Like indifference to personal pain, indifference towards people may not be possible - or it might be so costly in terms of the psychological trama one must endure to break these affections that no benefit is worth the cost.

However, even independent of these considerations, there are reasons to promote and encourage these types of affections rather than to argue for their dissolution in favor of an indifference towards all people. It is simply more efficient to take each child and assign them to an adult, saying, "Your responsibility is to watch over these children. Let other adults watch over other children. You get this child to adulthood as a decent human being whose interests are compatible with the interests of others." In doing this, it is only prudent take advantage of natural affections, such as the bonding between a mother and a child to whom she gives birth, to further strengthen interests that there are many and strong reasons to strengthen.

1 comment:

Emu Sam said...

I've been thinking recently about inheritance. I'd come to the conclusion that multi-generational inheritance of a significant fraction of our resources as a species was one of the worst evils in the world. But in the principle of should implies can, I'm not sure it can be considered much of a moral issue in itself - the morals involve how we impact inheritance, such as via taxation.

I guess that's not really related to your post. It's just that your post relates to my thoughts, and I'd be interested in future posts addressing it.

Another related issue is to what degree ethics is about individuals and to what degree it is about groups, something you've addressed before, most noticeably in posts about the fact that there are no ethics without at least two individuals.