Friday, 6 June 2008

Ethics for Everyone

The ethical approach being developed in this blog (and elsewhere) is available to everyone, regardless of their beliefs or disbeliefs whether you are a theist or atheist, religious or irreligious, naturalist or supernaturalist and so on. This post is the final one of round two of examining and explaining Desire Consequentialism. This is another introductory and, as far as possible, theory-free and universally accessible description of how to apply Desire Consequentialism.

The Two Questions
There are, at the core of Desire Consequentialism, two questions to ask to help understand and resolve ethical situations. The first helps in understanding, the second helps in resolutions. The first question is what would a good person do in this situation? The second is what would a good person do to remedy the situation? Desire Consequentialism gives us the means to determine what a good person is, without requiring or demanding any idealized insight into the situation or people - a demand that might be impractical or that many might not be capable of achieving. This is an approach that is available to anyone and everyone should they so choose.

What would a good person have done?
Desire Consequentialism argues that a good person is a person with good desires. Well what are good desires? First there many types of desire - appetites, tastes, needs, wants, preferences, interests, goals and so on but what they all have in common is an attitude to making or keeping something true and that is what is meant here by "desire". This "something" is what is valued, the means to make or keep this "something" true is what valuable and value, itself, is the relation between the desire and the states of the world where this "something" is or could be true. Now everyone values the realization of their desires and they disvalue the failure to realize their desires. Still this does not tell us whether a desire itself is good or bad. We need to find out what is the value of a desire but this depends on what we are comparing it against.

In questions of ethics, the central concern and the one relevant here, is over problematic interactions between people - any and all people, without special dispensations. So to find out if a desire is ethically good is to evaluate its realization against it material effects on all other desires, of everyone who is or could be effected - without exception or bias. This evaluation would say that an ethically good desire is one that realizes or tends to realize all other affected desires and an ethically bad desire is one that prevents or tends to prevent all other effected desires from being realized. So an ethically good desire is one that can benefit all in realizing their desires, whereas an ethically bad desire imposes a cost to all or prevents them in realizing their desires.

So now we can have an answer for any situation by asking what a good person - one with good desires - would do. We can determine that what a good person would have to do is obligatory, what a good person would not be able to do is prohibited and that everything else is neutral or permissible. And what is determined is universal in the sense that this applies to anyone and everyone, in suitably similar situations, without exception. We can use this question not only to evaluate what someone actually did in that situation - to determine whether their actual actions were ethical or unethical - but we can examine their possible justification for the way they did or could have acted. That is we can evaluate not only individual actions but also rules, laws, legal processes, moral codes, cultural and religious values - no exceptions - by comparing them to what a good person with good desires would have done.

What remedies would a good person suggest?
Now we know what for any situation is ethically good or bad, what would a good person suggest as a remedy? For a person who has or would behave unethically, they are either lacking a desire that a good person has or, has a desire that a good person lacks. Since anyone and everyone can only act on the desires that they have, the remedy is to promote this desire that they lack or, to inhibit this desire that they have - the one that leads to unethical conduct. To the degree that the person behaving unethically has false beliefs that are misleading, one can reason over these false beliefs. However one cannot use reason to change desires, you can only use this to change beliefs. To change desires - to inject or remove desires from anyone and to increase or decrease the strength of a desire - one needs to use such socially expressive and persuasive forces of praise, commendation and honor to promote good desires; and criticism, condemnation and ridicule to demote bad desires. These are means that appeal directly to their desires via their emotional responses, for example negative expressions can lead to emotional reactions such as shame, embarrassment and guilt and, if successful, can alter what one desires in the future.

It is important to note that this approach allows, indeed encourages, each individual to be the best judge of what they want, of what they value. This approach does not dictate what they should want but rather provides and encourages valuable means so that they just behave more ethically in achieving their own values. They behave more ethically because they want to, they do not have to reason most of the time as to what the right thing to do is, nor to need the fear of being punished if they do not, since most of the time no-one has all the data and time to analyze situations to decide what is the right thing to do, they just do it. This is aided by recognizing that there are common and numerous patterns where having certain desires or lacking other desires will typically lead to more ethical conduct. The two previous posts The Ten Aversions and Virtues and Vices covered some of these generalizations, all based on what a good person with good desires would do.

Finally what about remedies over formal and informal institutions - rules, laws, legal processes, moral codes, cultural and religious values? The same process applies but addresses the people who support, encourage, enforce and benefit from the unethical features of these institutions. Change the people to change the institutions. Both on the grass roots level and those in the public eye, one can use the social expressive and persuasive forces to praise all those who want to effect ethical changes and condemn all those who support keeping or making unethical changes.

The Two Challenges
There two challenges to achieving the above one in relation to evaluating situations and one to do with the proposed remedies.

The Evaluation Challenge
For the first, the real world is a messy, noisy place it might be very difficult to determine what the significant desires are that affect situations and to determine who are all the people and the relevant desires that are effected. This is true but this is not an argument against this approach, unless one can come up with a better way of analyzing these situations. In ethics the other approaches I am aware of are worse, not better. One has to do the best one can and sometimes one can only estimate, approximate or guess what these desires are and perform the analysis on this basis. Further this approach is not a magic wand, there will be dilemmas that are not easily resolvable, however it is conjectured that this is better able to limit and identify these dilemmas than other approaches. There will still be dilemmas but less of them. One could provisionally conclude that the more people that engage in performing this types of reasoning, the more likely that we will obtain better and clearer analysis of problematic situations.

The Remedy Challenge
For the second, in terms of remedies, not everyone will respond to such social forces as suggested and there is also the question of what are the appropriate methods to apply - some might work whereas as other might fail depending on people and situations. These two issues are really versions of the same challenge. We must note that Desire Consequentialism offers not an ideal solution but a pragmatic one, and there will always be some who fail to respond and continue to act unethically. Severe transgressions of this is why we have legal systems and these would not disappear. Those systems also serve, to the degree they reflect justice in terms of what good people would do, to reinforce the message, so that those who do not respond to these social forces and lack the relevant desires would be more likely to conduct themselves ethically to avoid the legal and social (such as disapproval) consequences. However this requires that the various formal and informal institutions to be both coherent in evaluations and consistent in application - and current incoherence and inconsistency is the root cause of this challenge.

Inadequate Socialization
The result of this incoherence of evaluation and inconsistency of application is that many are inadequately socialized. The material means of reward and punishment is available to parents, schools and other relevant institutions - media and peers - to as a temporary measure to help our children to learn to respond directly to expressive means of praise and condemnation. That is learning through initially only the, indirect, threat of material rewards and punishment and to eventually not even needing these threats. This also requires some coherence in evaluations and consistency in application. Without the effective use of these three components - material means to learn to respond directly and only to expressive means, coherency of evaluation and consistency of application, then that child might is likely to become inadequately socialized. As an adult they would not respond to praise and condemnation as properly socialized adults would, which ends up requiring material means for them as adults to learn the message they failed to get as children.

Resolving incoherence and inconsistency
Desire Consequentialism has not only identified the problem here but it is a proposed solution. It shows how to be coherent in evaluation and consistent in application and where and when material means should be used. This is the challenge, to make the world a better place, do you want to take it or not?


Anonymous said...

I find many aspects of DU theory appealing, particularly the tie-ins with scientific principles, but I've had a hard time with practical applications of DU. It seems that there are still a number of unanswered questions that would present problems with applying DU as formulated here and over at Alonzo's site to ethical decisions. I think I'll post them as common groups to keep the conversation, should you and others be kind enough to respond, relatively on topic.

According to DU one should decide to act on desires which are good and not on desires which are bad. "Good" desires are defined as those which tend to fulfill other desires. This seems based on the belief that maximum desire fulfillment for everyone is the goal of ethical decision making. While I agree with this formulation I cannot boot-strap it into existence and it ultimately seems like an arbitrary unsupported belief. Perhaps this is inevitable for any theory of ethics, but it would be nice if defining good as DU does had some empirical basis. After all, without any modification of the rest of DU theory, one could define "good" as tending to fulfill the will of the despot and achieve a remarkably different determination of ethical action.

Ultimately do we need to agree on an ethical goal first before applying DU analysis as a tool to work toward that goal? Why should "maximum desire fulfillment for everyone" be held as a more desirable goal than any other? Does DU offer any tools for determining empirically which belief identifying the good is true or false?

Anonymous said...

oops. I'd intended to post this comment here. I was reading both posts and put my comment into the wrong one. Sorry.

martino said...

Hi Erik

I will be dealing directly with this point when I tackle, hopefully next week, two questions 1) what is ethics and 2) the meaning of good "moral speak". Lets see what I come up with although I have obliquely covered this in various ways in these posts.