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.)
A member of the studio audience recently expressed surprise that desirism could recommend condemning a desire that we had no reason to get rid of. In fact, it can call for condemning a desire we have many and strong reasons to keep.
The missing ingredient rests in the possibility (the actuality, in some cases) that nature gave us desires biologically useful to our ancestors that are too strong for our current environment. In this environment, those desires tend to thwart other desires and, for that reason, they need to be tempered or controlled. However, they are not to be eliminated; that would be going too far.
The two desires that this is true of are hunger and lust – the desire for food, and the desire for sex. By and large these desires tend to fulfill other desires. However, they are too strong in some cases, leading to behavior that tends to thwart other desires.
Hunger becomes gluttony, over-eating, leading to obesity and a number of health problems that, at best, disable a person’s ability to fulfill other desires and, at worst, actively thwarts those other desires.
Lust becomes . . . well . . . our language does not have a word for it. The word for excessive sexual desire used to be lust, but languages change over time, and the definition of ‘lust’ seems to have transmogrified into one that is now synonymous with ‘sexual desire.’ For convenience, let’s call excessive sexual desire ‘superlust.’
Superlust, then motivates violent or other forms of abusive behavior and contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted disease. Both of these families of consequences tend to thwart other desires.
There is an important difference between the harms caused by gluttony and the harms caused by superlust. The harms of gluttony are largely self-inflicted.1 Because of this, the wrong of gluttony is mostly classified as imprudence. It is not immoral or evil to eat too much – unless one is taking food away from others who are starving. It is just unwise. One would be better off – able to fulfill more and stronger desires – if one’s desire for food is tempered to some degree.
Yet, it is also important to note that gluttony is desire-thwarting even if one does not eat. The person who struggles to stay on a diet lives his life in a daily battle with himself – a battle that would simply go away if the desire to eat could be tempered. One of the qualities of desire-thwarting desires is that one must choose between fulfilling the desire and thwarting other desires, or not thwarting other desires and thwarting the bad desire itself.
In contrast, while many of the harms caused by lust are self-inflicted, some, such as violence and other forms of abuse, are inflicted on others. Violence becomes a weapon for fulfilling the desire for sex, people are manipulated and deceived, and children and faithful spouses are afflicted with desire-thwarting sexually transmitted diseases. The fact that the desires of others are thwarted by an untempered desire for sex means that these are not simply matters of prudence. They are moral concerns.
Desirism speaks about promoting (through praise and reward) desirs that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting (through condemnation and punishment) those desires that tend to thwart other desires.
Yet, I hold that there is a moral matter with respect to gluttony. This has to do with the moral responsibility that parents have to mold the desires of their children. This responsibility includes a responsibility to give a child desires, where possible, that will continue to fulfill the child’s future desires. A morally responsible parent would use praise and condemnation, and reward and punishment, to try to give a child a preference for healthy eating and exercise, and aversions to junk foods and activities that would contribute to an unhealthy adulthood.
Unless there is some sort of medical condition at work, the parent of an obese child is an abusive parent by that fact alone.
There is a component of desirism that fits the mold of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ that says that, to the degree that desires can’t be molded, to that degree desires fall outside the realm of morality. One could argue that desires for food or sex cannot be molded.
Cultural variations in diet, not only between regions but among populations in the same region, suggest that there are some environmental influences on the foods we like to eat. We can harvest that cultural malleability to promote a healthier culture – a culture with stronger and more wide-spread desires for the foods that are good for us.
As for sexual desire, there may be limits in our ability to influence sexual orientation. However, we do appear to have the ability to apply aversions in the form of guilt and shame to certain types of behavior, forming strong aversions to appearing naked in public for example. While there is no value in attaching shame and guilt to ways of fulfilling sexual desire that thwart no other desires (masturbation, homosexuality), we do have reason to attach these sentiments to forms of behavior that are desire-thwarting (unprotected sex with multiple partners, infidelity).
These facts demonstrate the desires for food and for sex are not entirely beyond the reach of social customs. While there may be limits on our ability to mold these desires, we are not impotent. And we have many and strong reasons to mold and shape these desires in ways that avoid some of their harmful potential.
- Alonzo Fyfe
- Of course, gluttony does have effects on fulfilling or thwarting the desires of others as well. As it thwarts the desires of the glutton, it also thwarts the desires of those who care about the glutton. The person whose health is poor as a result of lifestyle choices puts a burden on those around her to care for her. Furthermore, it puts a burden on the taxpayer in any country where the taxpayer suffers the costs of a person’s lifestyle choices. These facts may well give others reason to condemn those lifestyle choices. However, these facts are mitigated by the fact that others volunteer to accept these costs. If I force you to let me make your house payments for you, am I then also justified in forcing you to accept my rules on how to use the house? These issues get complicated. Still, on the proximate desires thwarted by gluttony are those of the agent, so the proximate concerns with respect to molding the desire for food are practical rather than moral concerns. [↩]