Sunday, September 10, 2017

Henry Sidgwick: Considerations in Defense of Desire-Based Ethics

There is an argument that I have often used in defense of a desire-based ethics that I found in my most recent read-through of Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics.

The idea that the purpose of praise or condemnation is to mold desires is supported by the fact that if a desire tends to be stronger than we have reason to want it to be, then we have reason to condemn (or to punish) a person who acts from which, at its proper strength, would be a good desire.

In other words, to determine if praise or condemnation is appropriate, take a desire's actual strength and compare it to the strength the desire would have for that desire to exist in harmony with others. If the natural strength is too high, then we should condemn or punish some acts that the desire motivates to bring the strength of the desire down to where it is at a more useful strength, even though it is a desire we have no reason to discourage entirely.

Sidgwick provides examples that fit this argument - thus providing support in this area that moral evaluations have a lot to do with the evaluations of motives and that praise and condemnation primarily function to mold desires (broadly understood).

although, in the view of a Utilitarian, only the useful is praiseworthy, he is not bound to maintain that it is necessarily worthy of praise in proportion as it is useful. From a Utilitarian point of view, as has been before said, we must mean by calling a quality ‘deserving of praise,’ that it is expedient to praise it, with a view to its future production: accordingly, in distributing our praise of human qualities, on utilitarian principles, we have to consider primarily not the usefulness of the quality, but the usefulness of the praise: and it is obviously not expedient to encourage by praise qualities which are likely to be found in excess rather than in defect. Hence (e.g.) however necessary self-love or resentment may be to society, it is quite in harmony with Utilitarianism that they should not be recognised as virtues by Common Sense, in so far as it is reasonably thought that they will always be found operating with at least sufficient intensity. We find, however, that when self-love comes into conflict with impulses seen to be on the whole pernicious, it is praised as Prudence: and that when a man seems clearly deficient in resentment, he is censured for tameness: though as malevolent impulses are much more obviously productive of pain than pleasure, it is not unnatural that their occasional utility should be somewhat overlooked. The case of Humility and Diffidence may be treated in a somewhat similar way.

Desirism holds that praise and condemnation are used to mold desires - to promote virtues and hinder vices. Thus, we judge the usefulness of praise or condemnation - not in its general sense, but in its specific effects on desires.

This is not the sense in which utilitarianism is generally criticized for judgment the usefulness of praise or condemnation.

For example, one of the common criticisms of utilitarianism is that it would call for the punishment of an innocent person if it would be useful to do so. For example, if you could prevent a murderous mob from destroying a whole town by handing over an innocent person that they want to lynch, then utilitarianism would argue for lynching him, even though he is innocent. This seems to be a counter-intuitive result.

The usefulness we are talking about here, in contrast, says that praise and condemnation - reward and punishment - are to be judged according to their ability to promote good desires and aversions and inhibit bad desires and aversions. We condemn promise-breaking in order to promote an aversion to breaking promises. We praise service to one's community in order to promote a desire in people to serve their community. We are not looking at the consequences of any particular act of praise and condemnation, but looking at the effects of praise and condemnation when practiced generally within a community on the psychological states of its members.

Since Sidgwick is a utilitarian, we have reason to wonder if he is not being inconsistent in his view on the consequences of praise and condemnation. We can ask of Sidgwick, "Why are you not judging individual instances of praise or condemnation on their consequences?" It would seem consistent with utilitarianism that he must do so.

Desirism, on the other hands, evaluates actions according to whether a person with good desires and aversions (and lacking bad desires and aversions) would perform them. I tend to abbreviate this as "a person with good desires" for simplicity. Anyway, desirism evaluates actions - such as praise or blame - according to whether a person with good desires would perform them. A person with good desires gives praise under conditions where the praise would promote good desires, and gives condemnation under circumstances where condemnation will promote good aversions. The murderous mob that might go on a rampage is irrelevant. The disposition to promote a love of justice and an aversion to punishing the innocent is what is relevant. Neither of these are consistent with turning the innocent person over to the murderous mob.

Back to my main point, it is consistent with this view to hold that, if praise and condemnation are used to mold desires, then if a particular desire is inherently much stronger than it should be, then this would suggest using praise and condemnation to inhibit or counter that desire with some relevant aversions. This is exactly what Sidgwick is arguing for. Self-love seems to be a natural desire that comes on more strongly than is useful - but not something we have any need to eliminate entirely. As a consequence, we have reason to use our powers of praise and condemnation to mold it in particular shapes - shapes that are generally useful to others.

Lust is another such desire. We have poor reason to condemn sexual desire entirely. However, we have reason to put up barriers against some of the actions that it may motivate - such as sex without consent or sexual harassment - aversions that people generally have reasons to promote universally.

Sidgwick is making these same points, but he does not seem to notice that this has implications for what counts as a right action. These are all consistent with the thesis that the right action is the action that a person with the good motives would perform. When an action conforms to this standard and people generally have many and strong reasons to move more people to do the same thing, this is where praise comes in. Condemnation, on the other hand, follows from actions that deviate from this measure - giving people to promote those aversions that would prevent people from performing actions of that type. Motives (desires) are the first target of moral evaluation, and actions are evaluated according to their consistency with good and the absence of bad motives (desires).

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