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.)
Luke asked me to write this series to deal with the application of desire utilitarianism to practical moral problems. In line with that, I recently received the following email:
Is it ethical, according to Desire Utilitarianism, to torture a terrorist with fundamentalist convictions bent on destroying the planet if he activated a weapon so powerful as to put an end to all life on earth, and he is the only one who can disarm it? How would you answer this?
I would begin by saying that the question itself lies outside of the realm of morality.
Morality is an institution set up to deal with the every-day interactions of every-day people. We live in a world where we are surrounded by lies, theft, fraud, assault, rape, and murder. Morality, as an institution, aims to reduce (or eliminate) these practices. We live in a world where earthquakes destroy whole cities and whole populations suddenly find themselves in a metropolis without food or water, needing massive amounts of medical care.
When it comes to molding malleable desires so as to fulfill the desires of others, these are the types of situations that sit at the top of the list. We do not need to be wasting time and energy molding desires so as to deal with situations that will almost certainly never arise and will never have a real-world impact on our desires.
This also applies to trolley car examples that are all the rage in the study of ‘morality’ these days. “You are in a run-away trolley car that is speeding down the track. If it continues on its current route it will kill give people. But, if you change course by throwing the switch up ahead you will go down another track where you will kill only one person.”
If this type of event was happening on a regular basis, we would then have reason to bring the social tools of praise and condemnation to bear to mold malleable desires in a particular direction. However, because this is not an every-day problem, we would be wise to mold desires to deal with real-world issues.
This means that when an exotic situation such as this comes up, we simply allow the cards to fall where they may.
I do use stories such as this in my writing. However, I use them to illustrate a different kind of point.
Here’s one of my stories.
Aliens have come to earth. They have a weapon that can destroy all life on earth. However, they say that they will spare the Earth and move on if you were to torture – over the course of several days – one young child – your own 10-year-old daughter. However, whether the aliens destroy the Earth or not, they will spare you and your daughter. What does Desire Utilitarianism say about such a case?
It says . . . almost nothing.
It’s not about alien visitors coming to Earth threatening to destroy all live on Earth unless you torture your child. We have no reason to mold people’s desires so that they have a ready answer to this type of situation.
It is about a world where a lot of children suffer from all sorts of abuse and neglect, and where abused and neglected children grow up into adults who behave in all sorts of ways harmful to themselves and others. Therefore, it is about promoting a concern for the well-being of children – and particularly one’s own children – that is far greater than the concern that nature provides us with. Because nature obviously does not give us the strength of concern for the well-being of children that it is good for us to have, so we have reason to design social tools to augment this concern.
One of the effects of this is that, if aliens should visit the earth threatening to destroy all life on earth (except the specific father and daughter in question) unless a specific father tortures over the course of days his own daughter, we may well discover that the father simply cannot bring himself to do such a thing.
Is that wrong?
Well, what reason do we have to bring our tools of praise and condemnation to bear to mold the desires of fathers to make it easier for them to torture their young children for days?
If such a situation should arise, and the father cannot torture his daughter, then that’s just the way that things worked out. In the real world, we are still dealing with real-world concerns where far too many children suffer from abuse and neglect. So, as far as our real-world is concerned about, we are well advised to bring our social tools to bear to strengthen parental affection for the care of their children, and general concern over the welfare of all children.
One thing I can say about such a case, given desirism, is that no good person would enjoy torturing the child. The parent who finds himself in this type of situation, who gleefully tortures his child – which is something he has always wanted to do and now he can do it while claiming it was to save humanity – is a villain. That man is evil. A good person would have an aversion to doing this type of harm and our agent, in this case, is far from being a good person.
The same applies to another story I sometimes use.
In this story, a terrorist has hooked up a bomb in a distant city to a vending machine. You find out about this. You rush to the vending machine to stop anybody from using it. You are quite some distance from the machine when you see a child standing at the machine making a purchase. The child will not be able to hear you shout because of other noises. You have mere seconds to act – and you do not have time to close the distance. But, you have a shotgun and you can stop the child by shooting him.
Do you shoot the child?
What if it is your own child?
Desire utilitarianism does not say whether you should or should not shoot the child. This is one of those exotic situations that we simply are not prepared to deal with. However, it does say that the good person in this type of situation has smashed full speed into a moral brick wall that will probably destroy him. He’s either going to have to live with the fact that a whole city was destroyed when he could have prevented it, or with the fact that he shot and killed his own child. Chances are, he’ll be dead within the year at his own hand.
This is not the type of answer that one typically gets from a moral theory. Yet, I hold that it is the only answer that makes sense. A theory that says that a person should kill his own child is telling us that it should come with no emotional baggage – that the virtuous person would find it easy to kill his own child. That’s a wrong answer. The parent who can kill his child and shrug it off as something that just had to be done is, himself, a moral monster.
There are people who use these types of stories about torturing terrorists to argue that there should be no general prohibition on torture. However, that argument is clearly flawed. Certainly, we would not argue that the alien story that I invented argues that people generally should engage in a lot more child abuse – that because aliens might come to Earth and make such demands we must learn to allow more parents to abuse their children.
If we ever come across a case in which a terrorist has planted a bomb that will go off in just a few minutes unless we get the disarming code from him – where he refuses to tell us voluntarily – the people who are there at that time will need to make a decision. It will not be . . . it should not be . . . an easy decision to make – like the cop needing to shoot and kill his own child.
The problem with weakening the aversion to torture is that, in the real world, it results in huge swarms of people getting tortured by self-important political leaders who think they have a good reason to do so. Not only is it the case that nobody – or almost nobody – has ever been tortured to prevent a bloody act of terrorism that will occur in the near future, countless people end up getting tortured for no reason other than that they had the wrong last name, or a neighbor who did not like them whispered some false accusations to those willing to torture, or some violent dictator is struggling to hold onto power.
These are the real-world effects of weakening the aversion to torture. And, in the end, morality is all about real-world effects.