Self-Sacrifice

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 28, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

cloud_break

In comments to my last post, commenters brought up the issue of self-sacrifice.

The example that commenters brought up was that of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade. One of the claims being made is that each agent wanted to surround himself with others who were willing to throw themselves on a grenade, without being that type of person himself.

Of course, we are supposed to also accept the assumption that if nobody throws themselves on the grenade, everybody dies or suffers some similar mishap.

Technically, this assumption is seldom true and the military does not specifically want soldiers throwing themselves on grenades. They want a soldier’s first instinct to be to duck and cover so that everybody lives. It is better that all of the soldiers live than that one of them dies, and grenades are not so fatal that a guaranteed death is the best option.

We would have to be talking about a special case involving soldiers in a cramped, confined space with no place to hide.

But there is not much of a difference, really, between throwing oneself on a grenade and charging a machine-gun nest to silence it, or running across an open field to get a message to headquarters. In all of these cases, an agent acts on a desire that the rest of the people in the unit are kept well-off, and this is worth more than everything else the agent values.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the self-sacrifiing soldier’s beliefs are true. He’s not throwing himself on a grenade because he thinks this is a gateway to an afterlife in which all is perfect. He is throwing himself on the grenade because he wants to protect his brothers in arms, and their well-offness can best be made or kept real by throwing himself on a grenade.

Yes, throwing oneself on a grenade would thwart a number of other desires the self-sacrificing soldier may have. However, the agent acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his current desires. Life is full of trade offs. The chocolate cake that you eat involves sacrificing the lean and trim body one would like to have. However, if you want the chocolate cake more than the trim body, you eat the chocolate cake. If you want the well-offness of your brothers in arms more than all other things combined, you throw yourself on the grenade.

So, my question to those who raise the claim that there is “betterness” in being somebody who wants things other than the well-being of his brothers in arms, why is that “better”? Particularly given the assumption that wanting such things will actually bring about a state in which everybody dies?

The claim that soldiers automatically have the most and strongest reason to prefer giving others a desire to throw themselves on the grenade while refusing to adopt the sentiment themselves must be based on one of two assumptions – both of which are false.

Either they are grounding the soldier’s reasons for action on the soldier’s desires and assuming that all possible combinations of desires a soldier may have yields this conclusion. Or they are saying that this conclusion is grounded on reasons for action independent of desires.

The first assumption is false – a soldier with a deep concern for the well-being of his brothers in arms is not one who would prefer his fellow soldiers sacrifice themselves to protect his life. The second option is false because no reason for action independent of desires exists.

In the first case, somebody may accuse me of begging the question. We are talking about the reasons why people who do not have such a concern for the well-being of their fellow soldiers would have reason to adopt one.

But that is not the real-world option that a group of soldiers face. The options to choose from are: (1) a set of institutions that create this type of concern in everyone, or (2) a set of institutions that fail to do so.

On the level of the individual, throwing himself on the grenade best fulfills his desires, given his beliefs. Any set of options that aim for, “Create a set of desires in others but not in me” ultimately, in practice, reduce to Option 2 above when everybody decides to adopt it.

If we were to imagine a fantasy world with some sort of enchanted elixer – where those who drink it will adopt this concern for their brothers in arms – we can imagine a case in which an agent may have personal reason to feed it to everybody else while refusing to drink from it himself.

However, even in this case, soldiers generally have reason to cast the individual in this fantasy story as the villain. People generally would still have the most and strongest reason to call such a person evil, and to condemn him – by proxy condemning everybody in society who would dare to think like him. When thinking in terms of what people generally have reason to praise or condemn, feeding the elixer of self-sacrifice to others would fit into the “condemn” category.

In this case, even the villain would have reason to join in the condemnation of such an agent. After all, his condemnation is a part of the formula by which he promotes this concern for one’s brothers in arms in others. Praising the act that he himself is performing would defeat his purpose.

The same is true about moral sentiments in general. The aversion to taking what belongs to somebody else will not spring into existence the instant somebody sees their neighbor’s $1,500 camera sitting there unguarded. We want the aversion in place, so that the agent will act (or not act) on that desire when the opportunity to take the camera arrives.

The trick is to work in advance of the grenade showing up to have the soldiers in the right frame of mind when that situation arises. The trick is not to try to create that state of mind in the three seconds between the arrival of the grenade and when it goes off.

The same general story is true in all of morality. The trick is to put people in a mental state where taking the expensive camera you leave on your desk, raping your daughter, murdering you so as to take over your company or to get your job, simply is not an option. At the time of action, acting so as to fulfill the most and strongest of one’s own desires simply does not support those types of actions.

- Alonzo Fyfe

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

James October 28, 2010 at 8:55 am

The original intent of the grenade question was to see if desirism defines “should” in such a way that it is different depending on your perspective. The answers you gave indicated that desirism defines “should” in such a way that the soldier “should” self-sacrifice, even if the soldier has no desire to do it, because that would be the action that people would have reason to praise. The horn you just have to swallow is that the soldier “should” do something that the soldier has no reason to do.

  (Quote)

cl October 28, 2010 at 12:11 pm

In all of these cases, an agent acts on a desire that the rest of the people in the unit are kept well-off, and this is worth more than everything else the agent values.

It is interesting to note that in such cases, the agent instinctively acts to maximize human flourishing.

The second option is false because no reason for action independent of desires exists.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I’m not as convinced of it as I used to be. Specifically, I’ve been questioning whether duty can be a reason for action that is independent of desires. For example, a person might really hate picking up trash, such that they would never desire to pick up trash. Hell, they might even have a strong aversion to and many reasons for action not to pick up trash. Yet, this person might still pick up trash even though they hate it because they believe it is a duty. Of course, one could argue that the desire for a better world is what prompted the feeling of duty in the first place – because a world with less trash is more conducive to human flourishing – but I wonder if such an option would be present in all evaluations of duty in the real world? That is, can anybody conceive of an action motivated by duty that doesn’t reduce to an increase in human flourishing? Further, duty doesn’t have to be grounded in any sort of religious belief, either. I know that even irreligious people respond to an inner sense of duty at times.

The same general story is true in all of morality. The trick is to put people in a mental state where taking the expensive camera you leave on your desk, raping your daughter, murdering you so as to take over your company or to get your job, simply is not an option. At the time of action, acting so as to fulfill the most and strongest of one’s own desires simply does not support those types of actions.

So then, would this be at least part of the reasoning for your claim that desirism “has nothing to say to a moral agent at the time of decision?”

  (Quote)

Hermes October 28, 2010 at 1:29 pm

James, I took Alonzo Fyfe’s post as mostly descriptive not proscriptive.

  (Quote)

James October 28, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Hermes,
I agree. In this post, Alonzo is not making descriptive claims. I just wanted to clarify what I think the grenade question tests, and the answer that eventually emerged in the other thread, as I understood it.

  (Quote)

James October 28, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Correction: “In this post, Alonzo is [only] making descriptive claims.”

  (Quote)

Hermes October 28, 2010 at 4:00 pm

James, thanks. That makes complete sense. I’m interested in how Alonzo will flesh out all the details in desirism over the next few months. It should be interesting how things play out.

  (Quote)

Lorkas October 28, 2010 at 4:03 pm

“Specifically, I’ve been questioning whether duty can be a reason for action that is independent of desires.”

I doubt it, since you only act on “duties” if you have a specific desire to fulfill your duties.

I feel a “duty” to do the dishes much more frequently than I actually do them, but I don’t act on that duty unless the desire to fulfill the duty (or more specifically, the desire not to live in a shithole apartment) outweighs my desire to do something else, like catch up on Common Sense Atheism.

I’m a schoolteacher, and I often have to work at home to plan lessons when I’d rather be doing something else. However, I don’t do it so much out of a sense of duty as out of a desire to see my students succeed and a desire not to lose my job.

Maybe this seems like we’re playing word games, but it still seems to me that you have to frame “duty” in terms of desire in order to talk about our actual reasons for action.

  (Quote)

Hermes October 28, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Bertrand Russell makes a few comments that are interesting and run parallel to many of these discussions on morality;

(0:17)Interviewer: Do you think there’s a practical reason for having a religious belief, for many people?

Russell: Well, there can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. That’s quite… at least, I rule it out as impossible. Either the thing is true, or it isn’t. If it is true, you should believe it, and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t. And if you can’t find out whether it’s true or whether it isn’t, you should suspend judgment. But you can’t… it seems to me a fundamental dishonesty and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful, and not because you think it’s true.

(1:00) Interviewer: I was thinking of those people who find that some kind of religious code helps them to live their lives. It gives them a very strict set of rules, the rights and the wrongs.

Russell: Yes, but those rules are generally quite mistaken. A great many of them do more harm than good. And they would probably be able to find a rational morality that they could live by if they dropped this irrational traditional taboo morality that comes down from savage ages.

(1:35) Interviewer: But are we, perhaps the ordinary person perhaps isn’t strong enough to find this own personal ethic. They have to have something imposed upon them from outside.

Russell: Oh, I don’t think that’s true, and what is imposed on you from outside is of no value whatever. It doesn’t count.

Russell: I never decided that I didn’t want to remain a believer. I decided… between the ages of 15 and 18, I spent almost all my spare time thinking about Christian dogmas, and trying to find out whether there was any reason to believe them. And by the time I was 18, I’d discarded the last of them.

Interviewer: Do you think that that gave you an extra strength in your life?

Russell: Oh, I don’t… no, I shouldn’t have said so, neither extra strength nor the opposite. I mean, I was just engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aPOMUTr1qw

Transcript (minor changes): http://staringatemptypages.blogspot.com/2010/02/in-memory-of-bertrand-russell.html

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 29, 2010 at 4:13 am

James

The horn you just have to swallow is that the soldier “should” do something that the soldier has no reason to do.

That is absolutely right.

I embrace that option whole-heartedly and hold that those who reject it are confusing moral “should” and practical “should” (the latter having to do with the reasons a person has, while the former deals with the reasons that the agent should have or the reasons people have reason to cause the agent to have).

The alternative that comes from rejecting this is to compel people to make perfectly sensible claims like the following.

“I’m sorry. When I said roasting children slowly over an open fire so that you can enjoy their screams made you evil, I didn’t realize how much you actually enjoyed it. Yes, yes, I realize that proof that you really do get off of roasting children slowly over an open fire is a perfectly legitimate argument against the claim that it is wrong to do so.”

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 29, 2010 at 4:17 am

Hermes

James, I took Alonzo Fyfe’s post as mostly descriptive not proscriptive.

Remember, I reject the claim that there is a sharp distinction between descriptive and prescriptive claims. Prescriptions are a subset of descriptions – prescriptions describe relationships between states of affairs and desires.

Practical prescriptions describe relationships between states of affairs and the desires of the agent.

Moral prescriptions describe relationships between malleable desires that can be molded through social forces and all other desires (practical prescriptions specifically concerned with what desires people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote or inhibit).

  (Quote)

Hermes October 29, 2010 at 5:13 am

Alonzo, yep. I was aware of that and agree with it, but wanted to set expectations for now. I take it that you and Luke are not done providing a fully fleshed out description of desireism, and that this post was one stone along the path towards that description (or a functional subset).

  (Quote)

woodchuck64 October 29, 2010 at 12:29 pm

cl,

I’ve been questioning whether duty can be a reason for action that is independent of desires.

One thing that I find occasionally tricky about desirism is that the word “desire” fits most comfortably in my understanding as referring to an attractive force pulling pleasurable things in to my being. But desirism needs “desire” to also refer to a negative force that repels things I don’t like. While I think both fit the definition of “desire” strictly, I still find the former more natural.

I think of duty (my duties anyway) as a result of a desire to avoid the pain of “shirking one’s duty”. I don’t do them because I want to do them exactly, but mainly because I’d feel worse if I didn’t.

  (Quote)

cl October 29, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Alonzo,

Prescriptions are a subset of descriptions – prescriptions describe relationships between states of affairs and desires.

I don’t think that’s true. To describe is to provide an account of how things are at any given moment. To prescribe is to provide an account of how things could be if an agent takes a particular course of action. Further, prescriptions tend to be justified in some way or another, whereas descriptions need no justification. Prescriptions seem to have properties that put them in an entirely different category than descriptions. This of course leads to the conclusion that ought is not a subspecies of is – which I accept as true.

I think this is why some people – myself included – question desirism for not grounding its prescriptions towards desires that tend to fulfill other desires: that a desire tends to fulfill other desires is not necessarily an indication of moral goodness.

woodchuck64,

…desirism needs “desire” to also refer to a negative force that repels things I don’t like.

I tend to use aversion for that, and it seems to me that Alonzo does, too.

I think of duty (my duties anyway) as a result of a desire to avoid the pain of “shirking one’s duty”. I don’t do them because I want to do them exactly, but mainly because I’d feel worse if I didn’t.

So then, in your case, you’re saying that duty is actually motivated by desire, and thus not a desire-independent reason for action?

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment