There is a discussion currently ongoing under a previous thread
that I'm afraid is going to waste as it is totally away from the original topic and too deep in.
The contenders are Desire Utilitarianim
, represented by Alonzo Fyfe (aka the Atheist Ethicist
) against Act Utilitarianism or Consequentialism, Represented by George Kane.
To this end, as I'm quite interested in the debate, I'm opening this thread and hopefully the debaters will moe their discussion here.
I'm posting the last answer from Alonzo Fyfe below (I hope I got the quotes right):
This is a lower level ethical question. . . . Eating nutritious foods and exercising is a good thing to do because I will live longer and in better health, whether I desire it at all.
Actually, this involves a prior ethical question - what is value? Moral value is a type of value, so moral value must be a species of the genus 'value'.
All value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. So, moral value must exist in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. The question is: which relationships?
Your argument runs in a circle. Something is good because it is desired. If it is not desired, then the desire is defective.
The formal term for this type of relationship is ‘recursive’ or ‘virtually circular’. It is the type of circularity that is applied to our understanding of language (each term being defined in terms of other terms which are, in turn, defined by their relationship to yet other terms, and so on). It also is used in coherentist epistemologies (beliefs are justified by their relationship to other beliefs which are, in turn, justified by their relationships to still other beliefs).
However, you must be careful. There are a lot of different types of relationships between states of affairs and desires, and lots of different types of goodness. ‘Instrumental goodness’, for example, refers only to the capacity of an object to fulfill other desires indirectly – its usefulness as a means or as a tool. ‘Health’ is a type of goodness that refers only to changes in physical and mental functioning. Moral goodness refers to relationships between desires and other desires, while good acts are those acts that a person with good desires would perform.
Desires are not intrinsically defective. It is simply the case that if a malleable desire tends to lead to the thwarting of other desires, then those who would be harmed have reason to inhibit the formation of that desire. We have reason to give our neighbors an aversion to blind violence, simply because we do not want to become the victim of that violence (or for those we are about to become a victim.)
But you need something objective to distinguish between proper and defective desires.
If all value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires, then the value of a desire must exist in the form of relationships between that desire and (other) desires.
You cannot arrive at the question of how to get someone else to behave ethically until you answer the question “what is the ethical thing to do?” . . .
The answer to the question, "What is the ethical thing to do?" is "That action that a person with good desires would perform."
Let’s take a concrete case. Let us consider the case of Mary and Jody . . .
First, if I were a judge, I would be limited in my decision to deciding the case according to the law. To at least some degree, a judge cannot decide the issue on moral grounds, but on legal grounds. He may be working under a system of unjust laws.
Second, I do not think that it makes sense to apply ethics to hard cases, until we have a theory that can handle the easy cases.
Third, one of the implications of Desire Utilitarianism is that it suggests that there are genuine moral dilemmas - dilemmas where it all options are wrong. Parents ought to love and care for their children equally - so killing a child is something that a good parent is simply going to have a hard time doing. Any moral theory that casts one option as being 'clearly right' in the sense that the parent ought to feel no regret over the other option is a bad theory. A better theory supports the conclusion that you kill off the one child to save the other - but that it should be psychologically very difficult to do the right thing in this type of case.
You seem to believe that all action is selfish, which is both false and dismissive of ethics as an exercise in futility.
I deny that all action is selfish. However, I do require that all actions have a cause that is within the brain of the person who acts. Each person acts to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires. However, those desires can (and do) include desires for the well-being of others. They do not care for others as a mere means for their own happiness. They care for others as an end in itself. Because that is what desires do - desires identify our ends.
I deny that it is possible for an agent to act on a desire that is not his own - and that, if it were possible, then it would not be his action. If you hooked up a machine whereby your desires controlled the movement of my body, then those actions would be your actions, not mine. I would not be responsible for them in any way. It is only when the actions of my body spring from my own desires that they are legitimately called my actions.
So, "Each person acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs" is not a claim that all actions are selfish. It is a statement that all actions that belong to an agent must spring from his desires - even altruistic (other regarding) desires.
By the way, desire utilitarianism defines a selfish desire as a desire that contains a self-referencing indexical in its object. "I desire that I am free of pain" or "I desire that I have $1 million" are self-referencing (selfish) desires. Whereas altruistic desires have an other-referencing subject. "I desire that Jim is free of pain" or "I desire that Jim has $1 million" would be an altruistic desire. As long as the state desired is one that also fulfills the desires of the the subject (either 'I' or 'Jim' respectively).
If you are able to prove to someone, that X harms P, this will be a fact that he should include in his moral calculation, but it cannot be definitive.
Should . . . but how do you get it so that he does what he should do? I hold that, without desires, anything you do to a person’s beliefs are irrelevant. It is not enough that an agent can calculate a particular outcome. The agent has to be made to care about that outcome.
He must decide the magnitude and distribution of that harm, and weigh that against the magnitude and distribution of improvement that X causes in peoples’ lives. This is the responsibility of the moral agent.
Your 'moral agent' is not human. People act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. An agent can have a aversion to the harm suffered by others and the benefit acquired by others. However, these desires are going to be necessarily mixed in with his own aversion to pain, his desire for sex, his affection for his own children, his affection for his friends, his enjoyment of football.
Even when we come to harm and improvement, few (if anybody) has the capacity to make these types of calculations. There are too many variables involved - too much uncertainty at stake.
As I said earlier, techniques of persuasion are too far down the line to worry about. The issue of ethics is to decide whether an action is good or bad.
In answer to your concern about right actions, a right action is the action that a person with good desires would perform.