Friday, December 22, 2017

Flourishing and Desire Fulfillment

The next issue that I want to discuss concerning the difference between my theory of right action and Hursthouse concerns the fact that she rests the value of character traits on the “flourishing” of the agent who has them. A character trait is good to the degree that it contributes to the agent’s flourishing.

The next task is to explain how honesty, courage, kindness, and the like contribute to flourishing.

The distinction between flourishing as the root of all value and the desire fulfillment theory that I use will take us fully into competing theories of value. Instead of repeating all that I have written on this subject, I will invite the reader to check out Morality from the Ground Up.

However, for the sake of those who do not wish to follow the link, I will give you the highlights.

All value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. An agent with a “desire that P” for some proposition P has a motivating reason to act so as to realize a state of affairs in which “P” is made or kept true.

Proposition P need not have anything to do with flourishing. We can imagine a person, Alph, with one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora exists. That person stands before a button which will bring that planet into existence. At the same time, it will cause Alph to cease to exists. Alph, with his one desire, has a motivating reason to press the button and no reason not to.

This is not a theory of moral value. (A desire is a virtue if it is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally.) It is a theory of general value, from which moral value is derived. But this theory of general value does not give flourishing any type of necessary worth.

I use the example of Alph, who has one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora exist. He stands before a button. If he presses the button, then the planet Pandora will exist., but he will cease to exist. Alph has every reason to press the button, and no reason not to. Flourishing counts for nothing.

For most of us, we have desires that count for flourishing. That is a little more than coincidence, since we are evolved beings disposed to value a life in which our evolutionary fitness is being served well. However, it is a mistake to make too much of this and think that flourishing has a built in “ought to be ness” that is the root of all value.

So, to return to the main point, one difference between Hursthouse’s thesis and mine is the theory of value that it is built on - a difference that makes Hursthouse’s virtues that contribute to flourishing significantly different from motives that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally.

This is not to say that flourishing lacks importance. It is just that a being that is flourishing tends to be in a state where many of its desires are being fulfilled, or to have the means to fulfill many of its desires.

Of course, there is the issue that plants can flourish even though a plant has no desires.

On this issue one has to make a choice about value. Does value have anything to do with reasons for action that exist?

People have reasons to consider the flourishing of a plant only where and to what degree that those people have reasons to act this way - which depends on their desires. Plants, however, have no capacity to engage in intentional actions. Consequently, they have no reasons to act. We can speak hypothetically about wha5 a plant would have reason to do if it could perform intentional action. However, would have reason to do does not imply “does have reason to do.”

The other option is to divorce good from reasons for action, in which case we can ask, “What does it matter that something is good?” This option literally says that what is good is irrelevant to the question of what one should do. This means we need another word to describe states that people have reason to bring about or avoid - and we need to get people into the habit of using this new language.

The option that I would argue for is to keep the concepts of “good” and “bad” tied to reasons for action. This means that flourishing is not valuable in itself, but is valuable in terms of being either a state that fulfills desires or is useful to the fulfillment of desires. It provides no independent grounds for intentional action.

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