Thursday, May 09, 2013

On Population Ethics

I have been asked the following question from the studio audience.

What's your view on it? Should we maximize fulfilled desires in the world; fulfilled desires minus unfulfilled ones; or should we minimize the number of unfulfilled ones? This population-ethical question has vast implications for many real-world questions.

Answer: None of the above.

This set of options is based on a false set of assumptions. They assume either that desire fulfillment is the only thing that is intrinsically good (thus, is to be maximized), desire unfulfillment is the only thing that is intrinsically bad and the only thing that is intrinsically bad (thus, is to be minimized), or both.

Desirism holds that nothing has intrinsic value – not even desire fulfillment itself. A person with an aversion to pain does not need another aversion that the aversion to pain be fulfilled. The aversion to pain (the desire that “I not be in a state of pain”) all by itself is sufficient to motivate the agent to avoid states in which “I am in a state of pain” is true. What matters in this simple case is not “desire fulfillment” or “the reduction in desire thwarting”. What matters for the agent is “I am not in a state of pain” – and that’s as far as we can go.

Admittedly, the habit of looking for one intrinsic good to be maximized has a long history in moral philosophy. With Bentham it was pleasure and the freedom from pain. With Mill it was happiness. With Peter Singer it is preference satisfaction. Because of this tradition, many people interpret desirism as a theory that says to take desire fulfillment and maximize it.

However, this is not a correct interpretation. Desirism does not hold that desire fulfillment has some sort of special value property that warrants its maximization. It is simply a term used to describe the implications of the fact that a person with a desire that P has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which P is true. A person with an aversion to pain has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which, “I am not in pain” is true.

End of story.

Well, another part of the story is that a person with an aversion to pain has a motivating reason to mold the desires of others – using rewards (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation) – so that they are less likely to bring about states of affairs in which “I am in a state of pain” is true. And it is possible to look upon a whole population and see that people generally have many and strong reasons to use these tools to broadly mold the desires of people to make pain-causing behavior less common. For example, they have reason to praise those whose behavior makes it less likely that others are in pain and to condemn those whose behavior makes it more likely others are in pain.

However, please note, I still have not made any mention of “maximizing desire fulfillment” or “minimizing desire non-fulfillment.” I have only talked about people using social tools to mold malleable desires to avoid states in which “I am in a state of pain” is true.

With this, the next question is: How would desirism apply to population ethics?

We are going to look at the various reasons for action that people have and determine whether people generally have more and stronger reason to promote desires that bring about increased population. Some people may have an interest in maximizing desire fulfillment or minimizing non-fulfillment. However, this will be one interest among many – sitting side by side with their aversion to pain, desire for sex, desire for the health and happiness of their children, and the like.

Now, imagine a couple alone in the wilderness. Alone, they have many and strong desires that cannot be fulfilled as well as they could be if the couple had people around with whom they can trade and call on for help. There is nobody to take care of food gathering while they are sick or injured, nobody to set their bones or to help them with any task that requires more than four hands. They have a very limited capacity to take care of specialization and trade – allowing one person to spend all of their time making arrowheads so that their arrowhead production is most efficient and trading those arrowheads for food and hides. As they get older and less capable of doing things for themselves, they become more vulnerable to desire-thwarting events.

They have many and strong reasons to add to their population - and few reasons to promote desires that would inhibit population growth.

Yet, each additional person provides a smaller benefit. Yet, each additional person also consumes a share of available resources, some of which are finite. This greater competition for finite resources provides agents with reason to promote desires that limit population growth.

I take it to be a point in favor of desirism that it models the population debate as it actually exists. We see people bringing up reasons for action that exist for promoting desires that inhibit population growth. They are not talking about “maximizing desire fulfillment” or “minimizing desire thwarting”. They are talking about limiting competition as a way of avoiding wars, avoiding starvation and shortages of clean water, providing people with a comfortable living environment, and some measure of economic equality. Note: We have some reason to promote an interest in economic equality grounded on the fact that additional resources in the control of any one person provides diminishing marginal desire-fulfilling power. A poor person can fulfill more and stronger desires with a given $100 than a rich person.

Where desirism cannot account for the elements of the current debate in population ethics is where people bring fictions into that debate. Natural moral law (rich people have a natural moral right to keep all the property they can acquire), intrinsic values (including claims about the intrinsic value of desire fulfillment), divine commands (divine prohibitions on the use of birth control), impartial observers, social contracts, decisions made by committes behind a vail of ignorance, and other fictions that are a part of current debate are to be discarded.

This is how desirism would approach population ethics.

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