Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Confusing Desire Utilitarianism with Moral Relativism

Interesting debate has come in the comments to Alonzo Fyfe's post Two Types of Moral Relativism As Alonzo says:
Desire utilitarianism specifically states that moral statements describe relationships between malleable desires and all other desires, not just those of the agent....So, we have two definitions of moral relativism. On the first definition, it is absolutely true that desire utilitarianism is a relativistic theory. It says that moral statements are relational statements – but so are almost all scientific statements. On the second definition, saying that desire utilitarianism is the same as “moral relativism" is as absurd as saying that "all the desires that exist" is the same as "the sentiments as the assessor."
Now, as commenter, Tep says:
I suppose the issue is that "Malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit" is both a) not very clear, in that what does "generally" mean in that phrase, and also b) it does seem to lead to what people usually refer to as moral relativism, i.e., where moral values are completely dependent upon the biased opinions of those in question, or on the majority.
The issue is primarily with "generally" which, if dealt with, should resolve this whole debate. Recall this is a way of capturing what is is a good and a bad desire. "A good desire is one that people generally have reason to promote, a bad desire is one that people generally have reason to inhibit". Possible variants could include "A good desire is one that people universally have reasons to promote, a bad desire is one that people universally have reason to inhibit". "A good desire is one that people globally have reasons to promote, a bad desire is one that people globally have reason to inhibit".

Well the "general" variant does imply some form of majoritarian conclusion. Does the "universal" (which I believe Alonzo has used before) or "global" (which I have used before) help or hinder in this mistake? Both can still be read in an aggregative or total fashion both implying ultimately a majoritarian conclusion. This is not what is intended. It should not be the case that what is morally obligatory or prohibited is depended upon the current mix of different holders of different desires. Change the mix and what is obligatory and prohibited can change I have called this in the past the demographic bias.

Iin The Problem with Utilitarianism. I wrote:
If one takes the challenge to maximise preferences on a local or societal basis - on the basis that the only preferences to be satisfied must be those within the scope of the society that is capable of doing so, then this becomes sensitive to the demographic distribution of preferences. Whilst religion and ethnicity are only two of the causal factors that contribute to such demographics, they are very illustrative of the problem. Change the demographic mix and what preferences to satisfy change. This looks like cultural relativism of a sort but I am not trying to make that specific point here. Since the problem still occurs if one takes a humanist spin and so includes all the preferences of all the people on the planet at one time. It is still the case that the demographic mix of the planet changes through time and so the preference to satisfy can change. This analysis still applies even if one normalizes out resources and other non-demographic factors.
My answer there was:
For the points here one needs to consider desire fulfillment as dealing with desire qua desires, this is what is primary not the agents. (This is analogous to methods that are used in evolutionary biology where instead of looking at individuals in populations, one looks at distributions of genes in populations). Given the challenge of maximizing desire fulfillment one compares the effects of the desire(s) under consideration - the relevant desire(s) - versus it's (their) absence, and see how both instances have material effects on all other desires' fulfillments - the significant desires. (If a desire is not affected by a relevant desire, it is not significant in the analysis). It does not matter how many agents have the relevant desire(s) nor how many agents have the significant desire(s) the same analysis applies - that is what I meant by desire qua desire. This resolves the...the demographic [bias][My italics now]
Note my statement over "maximising desire fulfilment" is not quite correct but it is the italics that are important and is needed to be captured in Alonzo's correct expression above, which as you can see does not imply moral relativism, as it is invariant and not dependent upon the changing mix of agents and desires. It seems "generally", "universally" and "globally" can all mislead, although I think that "universally" and "globally" are better than "generally" but might have other issues.

How about "a good desire is is one that people, all things considered, have reasons to promote, a bad desire is one that people, all things considered, have reason to inhibit"? The use of "all things considered" does not obviously imply a majoritarian, aggregative or totalising solution.

Or how about a ceteris paribus version? "A good desire is is one that people,with other things the same, have reasons to promote, a bad desire is one that people, with other things the same, have reason to inhibit"? No this is not quite right.

Which expression best leads to capturing the (generally) invariant nature of this "calculus" the best? So far my vote is for "all things considered" version because it is not obvious that one must stop at the current mix of agents and desires but implies the need to consider any possible mix, which is exactly what is required. What do you think?


faithlessgod said...

Have some more thoughts on this, will write a new post shortly

faithlessgod said...

Alonzo has a post up on this and I am discussing it there. Generally fulfilling desires