Friday, September 02, 2016

Desirism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Virtue Theory

360 days until the start of class, and what have I done recently in the service of philosophy.

I have often benefitted a great deal by going through the effort of trying to explain things to others. In my recent post, Dr. Neil Sinhababu's Epistemic Argument for Hedonism I sought to explain some thoughts regarding Dr. Sinhababu's argument to readers who, I assumed, were not familiar with the original argument.

In doing so, I think I came up with clearer ways of making my points, so I wrapped them up and send a second email to Dr. Sinhababu.

I considered also sending my comments to one of the professors at the University of Colorado as a way of introducing myself - but I worry that such a move may be taken as odd.

I also edited a couple of my previous posts.

I edited A Desire That a Child Be Tortured because I was informed of typographical errors. That has always been a problem with me. Long-time readers know this. It's a part of the "time" problem I mentioned.

I do go back and edit old postings, by the way. I try to only make improvements - though I may not always be successful.

I also edited The Death of Desire Utilitarianism, to make the argument for the case that desirism is not desire utilitarianism more explicit.

However, you know, desirism does mimic desire utilitarianism quite closely. The relationship between desirism and desire utilitarianism may be compared to the relationship between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics. At the every-day realm in which we live our lives, the two theories give quite similar answers. In the realm of keeping promises, repaying debts, honesty, kindness, helpfulness, we can look at these as desires that maximize utility.

Desire utilitarianism is, itself, a slight variation on rule utilitarianism. The only difference is that the rules are written into the brain in ways that do not allow for exceptions. This slight change protects rule utilitarianism from the charge of collapsing into act utilitarianism whenever an exception to a rule maximizes utility. People cannot simply turn off a desire at will, so they cannot simply shut off its motivational force just because, in a given case, utility would be maximized.

So, desirism mimics this very popular theory quite closely.

I also think that it mimics both other major moral theories quite closely as well.

Take, for example, one of the expressions of Imanual Kant's categorical imperative, "Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

Desirism says to act in accordance to those desires which you can will to be universal desires. What we do here is take Kantian principles and make them the objects of desires, and then see if we have reason to promote that desire universally across a whole population. A Kantian maxim against lying says to take lying, make it the object of an aversion, and promote that aversion universally.

Here, desirism provides an answer to a problem with Kantian ethics - namely, the ranking of principles. Kantian theory has trouble with situations that arise where one principle conflicts with another - where the principle of saving a life comes into conflict with a prohibition on lying. Some philosophers try to work out a way to rank principles. Desirism holds that each desire has a strength, and these strengths weigh against each other as they do when we struggle with going to one's favorite restaurant or going to the gym. When the Nazi soldiers come to the door asking if you are hiding any Jews in the attic, your aversion to lying may make you a bit nervous, but your interest in saving the lives of others should still motivate you to say, "Jews? I haven't seen any Jews."

Quite obviously, desirism also closely mimics the third most popular cateogry of moral theories - virtue theory.

Virtue theory says that actions are not really what matters - character traits are what matters. We should be concerned with being good or bad people more than with performing right or wrong actions. In fact, the "right action" in virtue theory is nothing more than that act which a virtuous person would perform, and a "wrong act" is an act that a virtuous person would not perform.

Desirism says that the right act is the act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would perform, and a wrong act is the act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not perform.

Desirism then answers one of the major questions in virtue theory: What is it that makes a character trait a virtue? Desirism says that a desire is good to the degree that it fulfills other desires. This property gives others reason to use the tools of reward/praise and punishment/condemnation to promote that desire. A tendancy to thwart other desires gives others a reason to use these same tools to inhibit that desire.

I find it to be a mark in favor of desirism that it effectively brings all three popular moral theories together. It is a virtue theory in that it looks primarily at desires and not at actions. It is a Kantian theory in that it looks at the reasons that exist (or not) for making some deires and aversions universal. It is utilitarian in that the value of a desire is determined by its consequences. No utilitarian, Kantian, or virtue theory actually needs to go very far to reach desirism.

Perhaps one of the things that made those other three theories so popular is that each of them were quite close to the truth to begin with.


Unknown said...

I love this post. Thank you, Alonzo.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It was inspired by your comments.