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Morality- Desirism vs. Goal Theory


 Tonight I had a debate with Richard Carrier on morality. He believes that Goal Theory is the best account of morality, and I believe desirism is more accurate. After any debate, you go back and think of some things that you should have said better, but I think overall it was a great exchange. Video of the debate will be posted soon, but for now, here's the text of my opening speech:

First off, I'd like to thank Ben and the Ethical Society for hosting tonight's debate. I'd also like to thank Dr. Carrier for that excellent opening speech. Like Dr. Carrier, I think it's important to use reason to discover moral truth. We must expose our views to scrutiny and embrace the possibility that we're wrong, for that's the only way we learn. I hope that however tonight's debate turns out, we all walk away slightly closer to the truth. Far too much evil has already been done by people who thought they were doing good.

While I think morality is important, there's nothing magic about the word itself. If someone defined morality as following some person's arbitrary whim, then morality wouldn't matter to me. I don't care about how you choose to define the word morality; I care about making the world a better place.

To figure out what a better world would be, I think we have to start with desires. As Dr. Carrier said in a recent blog post, desire is the root of all value. Among other things, I want to eat a tasty slice of pizza, have fewer people die of preventable diseases, and live a happy life. Those things have value to me. That value is real. The objects of of my desires have real value. But morality is about more than my desires. In order to make the world a better place where everyone gets more of what they value, we have to consider ALL desires.

How do we bring about such a world? We do that by promoting good desires. In a world where everyone hated being hurt but wanted to hurt as many people as possible, everyone would be miserable. But in a world where everyone wanted everyone else to be happy, everyone's desires would be fulfilled. So a moral desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires, and a moral action is one that someone with those good desires would perform.

Some people think that morality should be focused on what action maximizes happiness. But I disagree. If a mother had to either kill one of her children or have them both be killed, happiness would be maximized by her gleefully killing one of her children without hesitation or remorse. This would minimize their suffering, as well as her suffering. However, think about the kind of mother who would do that. If she had a strong desire for her children to be happy and healthy, it would have been very difficult for her to kill either of them and if she did decide to kill one of them, it would at least have been an immensely painful decision for her to make. A loving mother cannot instantly turn off her love in cases like this. Since desiring that your kids be happy and healthy generally fulfills a lot of other desires (like their desires to be happy and healthy), it's a good desire, one that we should promote. We should not praise a mother who gleefully kills her child regardless of the circumstances, because we want parents who have a strong desire to care for their children.

If we promote good desires, we will make the world a better place, and will also make ourselves better off. If everyone had more good desires which fulfilled more of the desires of others, then more of our own desires would be fulfilled. It is in our own interest to get people to have good desires.

In order to promote good desires, we need to make better use of tools like praise and condemnation, reward and punishment. Although those words may have a negative connotation, there's nothing sinister about them. We already use these tools every day. For example, a simple “Thank you” to someone who helped you out can make them more likely to help you in the future. A football coach might praise his team and reward them with an extra day of rest after a well-played game. Your wife might punish you for your indiscretions.

We should focus on improving desires since our desires determine our actions. If I desire to go see the latest Disney movie, and I believe it is showing at 5pm at the local theater, I drive to the theater.

Almost everyone wants to be happy. But it is not the only thing we desire. I would want my children to go to college, even if I knew I would not live long enough to derive any happiness from seeing it happen. I would rather make a groundbreaking scientific advance that was only recognized after my death than be famous in my lifetime for a discovery that later turned out to be false and which ended up holding back scientific progress. The second life might be happier, but I would prefer the first. So happiness, which Dr. Carrier defines in his book as “an abiding contentment” is not the only thing people value. A content world is not necessarily a better world. We must consider everything we care about.

Dr. Carrier could respond by using a different definition of happiness, in which you can become happier even after you're dead. One problem with this approach is that it is misleading since it is so far from how people normally use the word “happiness”. It also doesn't make much sense to say that happiness is the one thing we want more than anything else, if by happiness you just mean everything that we value.

While we're typically happy when our desires are fulfilled, happiness and desire fulfillment are not the same. People who are moderately depressed may still desire that their family does well even if nothing makes them happy. We also may be willing to sacrifice our own life to save someone else's. Even if we know that we will die instantly and get almost no happiness from the action, we will lay down our life if we care enough about the cause.

For these reasons, I think it is wrong to say that happiness is the goal of morality. Morality should take into account everything that we value.

I think Dr. Carrier is also mistaken when he says in his writings that since people will always do what they most desire to do, we should focus on making sure that all moral agents act rationally and with sufficient information. It's important to be rational and well informed, but I think he's mistaken when he argues that everyone would act morally if only they were fully informed and rational. The problem is that everyone has different desires. Some people have more evil desires than good ones and could best fulfill their desires by acting immorally. If your only desire is to kill as many people as possible, being more informed and rational will not prevent you from killing.

Of course Dr. Carrier could respond by slipping morality into his definition of rationality, but I think this is problematic. A theist could simply define rationality as acting based on the Bible. By that definition, the theist could rightly argue that if only atheists were rational, they would believe in God. Rationality is about acting consistently with your reasons for action and the only reasons for action that have been shown to exist are desires.

I think Dr. Carrier would respond by saying that even if someone has bad desires, they would be happier if they acted perfectly morally. For the moment, let's set aside my concern that happiness is not the only thing we value. What reason do we have to think that someone would be happier if they were perfectly moral? There are definitely some moral traits that make us happier, but it seems like an extraordinary claim to say that evolution would just happen to result in all our brains working in such a way that every moral trait would increase our happiness. Evolution works on the individual gene level. If an immoral trait makes it more likely that you'll pass on your genes, that trait will become more common. Even one of the works that Dr. Carrier cites to defend his claim that acting virtuously makes you better off argues that evolution promotes some negative traits like aggressiveness. Sometimes doing good makes us happy, and sometimes doing evil makes us happy. Sometimes evolution favors good, sometimes evolution favors evil. With all the violence in the animal kingdom, and our own species, it seems unreasonable to assume that every trait which helps others would also help one's own genes. So I see no reason to think that evolution would make it so that acting morally would always make us happier.

In addition to happiness, many of us value the freedom to be ourselves and pursue the things we want to pursue. If we could become fully informed and rational, and then had the same desires that all the other fully informed and rational people have, we would lose everything that makes us unique. We would no longer have our own unique memories, or our own unique wants. Even if a fully informed perfectly morally person was maximally happy, that person would not and could not be me.

So I reject Dr. Carrier's claim that knowing about morality causes you to act like an angel regardless of your desires. Many philosophers argue that in order for something to count as morality, it has to provide a reason-for-action that motives all people to follow it. I don't think that such a morality exists, but I also don't think this is an essential part of morality. People have many contradictory beliefs about what morality is and no definition could satisfy all of them. But this doesn't disprove morality any more than some people believing that God is supernatural and others believing that he's the entire natural world proves that God could not exist. If our definition of a word had to be consistent with everything people ever took the word to mean, then we would have to throw out all language.

Atoms used to be defined as the indivisible building blocks of everything. But when we discovered that they could be divided, we didn't say “I guess atoms don't exist after all”, we just said that they're slightly different than we once thought. However, when we discovered there was no mass-less inside things which was released by fire, we stopped using the term phlogiston because there was nothing for it to refer to. Even though morality does not compel evil people to be good, it still has all the important components of morality. Under my view of morality, we can still say that regardless of individual opinion, certain actions are wrong because they tend to hurt other people by depriving them of things they care about. We have good reason to praise those who do good, and condemn those who do evil.

We can condemn slavery as the evil that it is. Even if everyone on Earth thought slavery was moral and  wanted to be enslaved, it would still be wrong since it deprives people of things they want, like freedom to make decisions for themselves, freedom from pain, and the ability to choose one’s spouse and protect one’s family. Evil desires like the desire to enslave others thwart more and stronger desires than they fulfill.

Thankfully, today there are few people who actually want to own a slave. This is a huge change in just 200 years. We didn't get rid of slavery by presenting everyone with a logical case for why slavery is wrong. It's not like those who supported slavery hundreds of years ago had a logical case for it or that most people today oppose it because of logical arguments against it. It's that people are far less likely to want to enslave others today since slavery is seen as reprehensible. We need to condemn and punish those who hurt others in order to change their desires and make the world a better place .

That is why tonight's debate matters. If something like happiness is the root of all value and acting morally makes us perfectly happy, we could just get people to be moral by showing them that only morality leads to happiness. But if not, then we have to work to change desires. It may not be easy, but if we try, we can make the world just a little bit better. Thank you.