Monday, 2 November 2009

"Thomas Reid" on Desirism

5 comments
Someone who calls themselves "Thomas Reid" - which I put in scare quotes since I do not know if this their real name or a nom de plume inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher - has written three challenges to desirism.

Now there are interesting parallels with another critique I blogged about from a "Justin Martyr" (of course  not the christian apologist and saint). They both also start with a characterisation and explanation of desirism. Well apart from likely using nom de plume's of historical figures and writing these introductions the difference is night and day. I do have quibbles with Reid's explanation of desirism but it is so much better than Martyr's that I am happy to leave it as as is and proceed to his three objections. Unlike Martyr, at this stage it indicates that Reid is making a charitable and honest attempt to understand desirism and asks what he thinks are challanging ripostes to it. I will take his challenges in this spirit. The same could not be said for Martyr.

A caveat here is that I welcome challenges, I (or you) might learn from them, including finding something better than desirism (at least in my case), which, after all, is a provisional and defeasible theory, in line with any other emprical enterprise. So lets proceed.

His three objections are:
  1. The theory is internally contradictory; it is possible for a desire to be both good and bad.
  2. The theory cannot be used to condemn those who do not abide by the theory.
  3. Given the inputs to decision-making, it is possible for DU to define any act as "good".
 I will quote his original arguments in full and then respond.

The theory is internally contradictory; it is possible for a desire to be both good and bad
Suppose that if A's desire for X is thwarted, then B's desire for Y will be fulfilled and B's desire will be stronger than A's. 
Suppose also that if A's desire for X is fulfilled, then B's desire for Y will be thwarted and A's desire will be stronger than B's.  In each case, A and B influence only each other's desire.

Should A's desire be fulfilled?

If A's desire for X is thwarted, then total desire fulfillment will increase.  Therefore A's desire for X bad, that is it ought to be thwarted.

If A's desire for X is fulfilled, then total desire fulfillment will increase.  Therefore A's desire for X is good, in the moral sense. 
So is A's desire for X good or bad?  DU would seem to tell us "both".
Albert and Barry are collectors of antique cars. There is one unique item for sale in an auction. They both want it to complete their respective collections. They both bid for it, one wins the auction, the other loses.

Reid's above analysis parallels the issues of Albert's desire being thwarted if Barry outbids him and vice versa. The issue here is that Reid was looking at something that is often (but not always and not necessarily fairly - but this is not the issue here) solved by trade. Regardless this is not a moral issue at all. That is this is not a ceteris paribus and all-things-considered situation applicable to everyone or people in general. It would become one if Albert was so unhappy with the result of the auction that he stole the car, but that is a different issue entirely and outside Reid's criticism here.

I will also note that this is an objection I made myself on Alonzo's blog a long time ago, before I worked it out for myself! Be warned, Thomas, look where I am now...

The theory cannot be used to condemn those who do not abide by the theory.
Why should we develop good desires?  It seems irrefutable that humans have all sorts of desires.  However, what obligates us to develop good ones?  DU is silent on this issue.  It needs to show that the obligation comes from some aspect of human nature itself.  In other words, there is something in his own nature that requires man to mold his desires into good ones.  It can't derive its sense of obligation from anything else, because then that something else would be the true (or at least the more accurate) moral theory.

Until DU incorporates some component of obligation rooted in man's nature, it serves only as a roadmap for suggested behavior.  It remains incomplete as a moral theory, which needs to tell us what we should do.
There are many answers I could give here but I will be brief for now, noting that these are good questions.

First there are no special rules, logic, linguistic contortions or entities over moral obligation. The same as moral good is a sub-species of good, so is moral obligation a sub-species of obligation. This is a topic I have yet to write explicitly but it is on the list.

Secondly Reid's use of man's (and woman's surely) "nature" is mysterious. Desirism already has an explication and de-mystification of this notion, namely nature is adumbtrated as the beliefs, desires and dispositions (dispositions to beleive as well as desire and act)  whether this applies to a particular (token) person or over the capacities that any human (type) is capable of exhibiting. Further this notion is not specific to desirism but a typical and standard position within psychology and biology.
 
Third what desirism already employs is how people are obliged (and not) by the effect of the social forces on their desires and dispositions. So the need that Reid identifies has already been dealt with (and this would have been one of those quibbles  that Reid missed in his introduction to Desirism but I am answering it here). The "something in his own nature that requires man to mold his desires into good ones" is the human emotional the capacities to respond to the social forces. There is a wealth of work in cognitive psychology on such topics.

As such Reid's conclusion that desirism in this respect is incomplete, is unfounded.

Given the inputs to decision-making, it is possible for DU to define any act as "good".
DU tells us that good desires are those that promote the fulfillment of other desires.  It tells us also that we can mold our malleable desires to make them good.  But one could also make them good by adjusting the composition of the other desires. In this way, DU permits at least two paths to the definition of "good" and "bad".

For example, suppose the Nazis's strongest desire is the extermination of the Jews, and suppose also that the Nazis are successful in defeating all others who oppose this view. Then the extermination of the Jews will move from "bad" to "good".  One need not adjust one's malleable desires to make them "good", one could also adjust the population.

I need to break down Reid's reasoning here as it is not quite accurate.

"DU tells us that good desires are those that promote the fulfillment of other desires."
No, good desires are good only in virtue of them tending to fulfil other desires. In desirism (moral) good is reduced to such real-world tendencies. They are one and the same thing.

"It tells us also that we can mold our malleable desires to make them good."
Well, by definition, only malleable desires can be moulded, so certainly there is the capacity and hence possibility of moulding them to make them good. This is more relevant over un-malleable or fixed desires which is a separate issue to here.


"But one could also make them good by adjusting the composition of the other desires."
 As I understand it what Reid is trying to say is something like the following.

First recall a desire is evaluated by comparing it presence over its absence and see which brings about more desire fulfilment over desire thwartment. (Description and prescription being two sides of the same coin here, this is the same seeing whether people, generally, have reason to promote its presence or absence).

Now Reid wants that instead that we looking at inhibiting those other desires, those that are otherwise thwarted by the presence of the desire under question, since if these no longer exist then they are not thwarted and so a "bad" desire becomes "good".(The same reasoning can be applied in the other configurations of the evaluation but nothing is substantively altered by making my response more complicated).

Unfortunately for Reid this then begs the question over these other desires. These, in turn, need to be the subject of a (moral) evaluation and so the same method can be applied to them. The evaluations are independent. Simplifying, with no loss of accuracy, to one other desire, yes they can both be evaluated in parallel. One result could be  be the case that both are bad (where the scope is everyone), mutually thwarting each other. In that case both would be inhibited. And so on.

Returning now to Reid's example of this, which actually is different to his reasoning just analysed. He is still now arguing that what once what was bad can become good. I fail to see this in his example, since if the Nazis' religious crusade to exterminated all the Jews had succeeded, this would still have been an extremely and directly desire-thwarting desire and morally bad (or evil) and this remains the case regardless of its success or failure. The means of adjusting the population by extermination is, trivially, according to desirism, morally evil. It still remains evil, wherever and whoever considers this as a solution in the present and the future, that is people generally would still have (and do) reason to condemn such actions and contemplations of such actions .

5 comments:

Dan Doel said...

Objection #1 sounds suspiciously like desire fulfillment act utilitarianism, which is an easy mistake to make.

The situation talks about how A's desire for X is stronger than B's desire for not X and vice versa, and concludes that either way fulfilling the desire is good. But that's not how desirism works. To evaluate the moral status of the desires, you need to ask whether they tend to fulfill all other desires, not whether making some decision in a particular situation results in the most desire fulfillment.

It's possible I'm not reading it right, but the question "Should A's desire be fulfilled?" is a tip-off, since that translates to, if my Alonzo channeling is any good, "would a person with good desires fulfill A's desire?" And the latter question doesn't appear to have much to do with the rest of the analysis.

Thomas Reid said...

faithlessgod,

Thank you for your responses. I'll let them roll around in my head for a while before I publish any rejoinders.

Just one question. How is my explanation "good desires are those that promote the fulfillment of other desires" different from your explanation "good desires are good only in virtue of them tending to fulfil other desires"? I'm not seeing the difference. Is it just that you are clarifying what it is only that makes them good?

Thanks,
Thomas

faithlessgod said...

Hi Dan

You are quite correct. However I am finding it tedious to repeatedly point out "this is not desirism but DFAU", so I thought an alternative critique was in order. I should have made your point as well.

Hi Thomas

The issue I had is the you were mixing the descriptive and prescriptive views of the same facts when you said ""good desires are those that promote the fulfilment of other desires".

The descriptive view is a desire is labelled good to the extent that it tends to fulfil and not thwart other desires. The prescriptive view is a desire is labelled good to the extent the people generally have reason to promote and not inhibit that desire. Both are views of the same facts but with different emphasis, the descriptive focused on the desires, the prescriptive focused on the people.

Thomas Reid said...

faithlessgod,
OK, I see the distinction to which you're trying to draw attention. Thanks for the clarification.
Thomas

Thomas Reid said...

faithlessgod,
I posted responses to your comments:

http://merelymist.blogspot.com/2009/11/response-to-faithlessgod-regarding.html

Thomas