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.)
This is not going to be my favorite topic because it concerns a particular vice of mine.
There seems to be some underlying assumption that if one is going to bill oneself as an ethicist than one should be a paradigm of moral virtue – free of faults. If one is caught doing what one argues ought not to be done, then the whole moral theory must be garbage.
Well, according to desirism this link is not true. A person can know what a person with good desires would do and also know, at the same time, that one does not have those desires.
Then there comes the question of changing those desires. That takes effort, and the motivation must come from somewhere. Desirism tells us that there are probably cases in which an immoral agent can say, “I just don’t have the energy to change that.”
Well, this is where social praise and condemnation comes in. If the internal drives to become a better person are absent, then the praise and condemnation of others – others whose desires are thwarted by the agent who is not as good as he could be – can, perhaps, provide the motivation.
Well, a comment in my last post suggested that if we evaluate the desire to read according to desirism, this turns out to be a vice – something that people generally have reason to condemn so that they can get people away from reading and on to doing something more valuable.
Actually, it is going to depend a lot on what one reads. Acting to fulfill desires requires true and complete beliefs, and reading is a means of acquiring true and complete beliefs. So, reading true non-fiction, or even non-fiction that has been disproved so that one can understand why it was wrong, can have value. We should be encouraging people to acquire true and relevant beliefs that will aid them in acting in ways that fulfill the desires of others.
There is also some fiction that has merit. Plato’s dialogues were fiction – stories about Socarates that never took place. Some of my posts represent lessons drawn from writing about imaginary people in imaginary situations and asking, “What should that person do in that situation.” Good fiction can provide good moral lessons that give people a chance to ask themselves, “What should a person do in that situation?”
However, a lot of fiction is just garbage. It is pure escapism that does not even teach a valuable moral lesson. In fact, some of them teach moral vices – a type of recklessness or disregard for others where the author conveniently leaves out the potential harms of, say, unprotected sex, vigilante justice, or the casual slaughter of non-descript ‘bad guys’.
Television sitcoms and reality shows fall into the same category. They are a worthless waste of time where people sit on a couch and get fat while they acquire no useful information and accomplish absolutely nothing of value. We would be better off if people had no taste for such things – and we can make ourselves (or our children’s lives) better off if we were to condemn these practices and praised more useful expenditures of time and energy in their place.
Turn the television off and go do something useful. Go acquire some true and relevant beliefs and see what you can do to teach those true and relevant beliefs to others. It’s better than watching mindless television. If you must watch television, try to find some programs that provide you with true and relevant beliefs. (Which, of course, would put an end to Fox News.)
Spectator sports provide another example. Participatory sports provides exercise, but spectator sports is a waste of time, money, and real-estate. Imagine if we could take all of the time and effort and all of the money that people spend on sports – about $300 billion per year in the United States alone – and put it to something useful, like curing malaria or teaching science. There are many and strong reasons to go this route. A great many desires otherwise being thwarted would be fulfilled. And we would not have to worry about the desires of sports fans being thwarted because the method for making this transfer is to reduce the frequency and strength of sports fandom by social forces such as condemnation.
“Why are you wasting your time with that stupid game?”
And there is my personal vice… computer games. I spend hours each week manipulating electrons inside of my computer in ways that fulfill certain interests of mine that produce absolutely no real-world good. Time that I could spend acquiring true beliefs and teaching them to others are spent in this tasks of changing the order of electrons in my computer from one useless configuration to another.
This issue does touch on the question of whether such an interest counts as an addiction. This is a relevant tangent, but it is not the topic that I am interested in here. I am not talking about the sports fanatic who dos nothing but talk about “the team” and has memorized every relevant statistic going back 30 years, or the person so hooked onto a computer game that he cannot get focused on his classes or hold down a job.
I can know all of this, and still the lure of the game is there. See, if I manipulate the electrons on my computer a particular way then I get a prize which is called a “win.” The logic puzzle of figuring out just what manipulations to engage in and in what order to obtain this “win” appeals to me. I could literally spend hours solving thinking about these problems, inputting my instructions, and seeing if they get me any closer to a “win” or not.
But, what if I was finding that desire-fulfillment, not in a game, but in a socially relevant puzzle like figuring out exactly how the mind-brain works or doing more reading and writing on matters of moral philosophy? Or, what if the desire to obtain a “win” were just a bit weaker, and the desire to read and write on moral philosophy were just a bit stronger?
Imagine the society we would have if the interest people have in sports were instead an interest in rooting for teams to produce important medical breakthroughs or provide medical benefits to children in underdeveloped countries. Imagine if the time that people spent watching sitcoms and “reality” television were spent on understanding reality. It seems quite clear that the world would be a better place.
Of course, this assumes that we can alter peoples’ affections through social forces. If it is impossible to alter these affections, then the principle of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ (or ‘cannot’ implies ‘it is not the case that one ought’) comes into play, which makes moral statements inapplicable.
Now, this result may not conform well to our moral intuitions. However, our intuitions only tell us the sentiments we do have. They do not tell us the sentiments we should have, and clearly it is not the case that “we do have sentiment S implies we should have sentiment S.” It would be absurd to argue that our sentiments or intuitions are infallible and any theory that does not correspond to those intuitions must be rejected. A person who argues this way is not looking for a moral theory, but a way of rationalizing existing prejudices.
So, I think it is correct to say that desirism does not have anything good to say about frivolous pasttimes. The best that can be said for them is that others are not being harmed by them, even if others are not being helped.
“What a waste. You could have done so much with your life. Instead, you have wasted it.”
- Alonzo Fyfe
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