Wednesday, January 09, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0012: Ought to Desire


Desirism is concerned centrally with what an agent ought to desire. in fact, it says that this is the central question of morality. Praise and condemnation, right and wrong, virtuous and vicious, all are to be interpreted, in one way or another, on what an agent ought to desire.

Thomas Hurka in his book British Ethical Theorists reported that the British Ethical Theorists had a lot to say on this topic.

The overall program for the BETs (according to Hurka) was to reduce moral concepts to the smallest possible number. In general, this set of philosophers tended to settle on two basic concepts: "good" and "ought". This is made explicit in W.D. Ross's famous book The Right and the Good.

However, there were some who tried to reduce this to one basic concept. This required either understanding "the right" in terms of "the good" and vica versa.

"Ought to desire" fits into the attempt to reduce "the good" to "the right". Hurka attributed this move particularly to A.C. Ewing. For Ewing, for something to be good is for it to be that which it is fitting to desire. In other words, to say that something is good is to say that one ought to take a pro-attitude towards it. So, we can eliminate "good" from our vocabulary and replace it with "ought to desire".

The difficulties that they had with this tells us things that desirism needs to take seriously.

Please note that "ought to desire" does not mean "does desire". The BETs were not defending a subjectivist theory that states that the goodness of something depends on the agent wanting it. On their account, it was quite possible that a person "does desire" something that they "ought not to desire".

However, this leaves us with a question, why is it that somebody ought to desire something? If we say that the agent ought to desire it because it is good, then we have a problem. Now, our definitions are circular. We are saying that "good" can be explained in terms of "ought to desire", and that an agent "ought to desire" something because it is good. If we are going to make "ought to desire" work, we need to get it out of this vicious loop.

Desirism and "Ought to Desire"

Desirism, of course, has a concept of "ought to desire." Furthermore, what an agent ought to desire may be different from what the agent does desire. An agent cannot search her feelings to decide what is right and what is wrong. The agent has to find moral ought in the world. Here, desirism shares something with Ewing's theories - an assumption of moral facts.

The way that desirism handles the concept of "ought to desire" is easier to explain when we focus on something that is wrong and towards which a person ought to have an aversion. Let us use as our exemplar the wrongess of lying. Within desirism, to say that lying is wrong is to say that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, an aversion to lying. Of course, it can be true at the same time that (1) people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to lying, and (2) Donald lacks an aversion to lying. So, there is no necessary connection between what an agent ought to desire and what he does desire. No person can "search his feelings" (or his attitudes) and expect to flawlessly determine what is wrong.

Furthermore, though the BETs sought to reduce everything to a basic moral term, desirism does not have a basic moral term. Desirism seeks to reduces all of morality to non-moral natural properties. The descriptive entity "desire" is the foundation for all value, and all value claims get reduced to claims about relationships between states of affairs and desires. As I wrote in The Good, "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question." At the same time, "Agent ought to do X" gets translated into "there is a reason for Agent to do X" which, in turn, is understood as "there is a desire that would be served by Agent's doing X." Note that there are different types of "ought" for different types of "desires in question." There is "prima-facie ought" (a specific desire), practical "ought" (all of an agent's desires), and "moral ought" (the desires of the agent with good desires and lacking bad desires). Good desires are, of course, the desires that people generally have reason to promote universally, which means that they are the desires that tend to fulfill other desires regardless of whose they are. Everything, as I said, gets reduced to desires. That is why it is called "desirism".

Now that we have a basic idea of how the BETs and desirism think of the concept "ought to desire", let us look at what the BETs said on the subject and how they effect Desirism.

Agent Relative Ought to Desiredness

The BETs were concerned with the relative importance of values to different individuals. For example, let us assume that I promised to pay Mary $100. We would say that there is a goodness to be found in my paying Mary the money I promised to pay her. However, it would make no sense for this to be an intrinsic agent-neutral goodness. If it was, everybody would have the same obligation to make sure that I pay Mary $100 as I have. However, this implication is absurd. Consequently, the goodness of following an obligation cannot be agent neutral.

In British Ethical Theorists 0010: Intrinsic Rightness, I discussed the fact that my obligation to keep my promise to pay you $100 can have a different amount of value for me than it does for you. At least, it ought to provide me with far more motivation to pay the $100 than it provides you to make sure that I pay the $100.

Desirism handles this by including indexicals in its desires. The desire that people generally have reason to promote universally is the desire "that I keep my promises". This will motivate each person to keep their promise, but does not give any person any reason to make sure that others keep their promises. This is different from promoting a universal desire "that promises be kept" - which would motivate each agent to make sure that each promise is kept no matter whose it is. The latter version would be an unrealistic desire to promote universally. It would require that we condemn all people universally for each promise that is broken - and that simply is not practical. Consequently, we adopt the practice of punishing and condemning people only for their own unbroken promises.

From this, we also get the active/passive distinction. There is more wrong in killing somebody than there is in letting that person die. Utilitarian theories have trouble with this idea. Utilitarianism measures the value of an act from its consequences. The consequences of letting a person die are just as bad as the consequences of killing somebody. In both cases we suffer the loss of an innocent life. However, desirism focuses on desires that people generally have reason to promote universally.

Imagine living in a world where you were expected to feel just as bad about every person that has ever been killed as you may feel towards a person that you killed yourself. To create this rule, we will have to take up the practice of condemning and punishing everybody equally for every person who is killed. In fact, we would have to punish everybody as if they were guilty of murder. The reasons people have not to do this far outweigh any reasons they may have to establish such a system.

Ought to Desire, Goodness, and Order of Explanation

Another problem that the BETs addressed with respect to "ought to desire" concerns the "direction of explanation". Hurka states this common objection to the "fitting attitudes" account of "ought to desire" that Ewing (in particular) promoted as follows: "It is natural to say ‘you ought to desire x because x is good’ but not ‘x is good because you ought to desire it’, though the opposite should be true given the fitting-attitudes view."

Our natural way of understanding things is to say that something is good and, in virtue of its having this quality of goodness, people with properly tuned senses would desire it. In other words, they ought to desire it. We use goodness to explain "ought to desire." We do not us "ought to desire" to explain "goodness".

Desirism throws the direction of explanation out the window entirely. It does not say that agents ought to desire P because P is good. Nor do they say that P is good because it is something that agents ought to desire.

Instead, desirism states that people generally ought to desire P because desiring P is good. Note the difference here. In one case, we say that an agent ought to desire P because P is good. But the view for desirism is that we ought to desire that P because the desire that P is good. And why is it the case that the desire that P is considered good? It is because the desire that P tends to fulfill other desires. This property of the desire that P is what gives others reason to promote that desire universally by praising those who exhibit the desire and condemning those who do not.

For example, people ought to have an aversion to lying. It is not the case that they ought to have an aversion to lying because lying is bad. Nor is it the case that lying is bad because it is something that people ought to have an aversion to doing. Rather, people ought to have an aversion to lying because there are reasons to promote (universally, in this case) an aversion to lying.

Looking back to the concept of "ought to desire", this account states that Agent ought to desire that P is to be understood in terms of "there are many and strong reasons to promote a desire that P".


The BETs say more about "ought to desire", but this is enough for one blog posting.

It identifies a couple of important characteristic. First, we saw how desirism explains the agent-relative nature of certain duties such as keeping a promise. Desirism asks what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would have done in the circumstances. Sometimes, the relevant circumstances would include "I made a promise." The aversion to breaking promises applies to the person who made the promise and no others.

It also pointed out an error of trying to understand "ought to desire that P" in terms of the value of P instead of in terms of the value of "desires that P". Once we realize that "ought to desire that P" asks if there are reasons for promoting a desire that P, we see that the solution is to look for reasons to promote or inhibit a desire that P.

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