A friend (we'll call him Joe) recently asked me the question: should I not kill Fred (our mutual friend)? Strange as it may seem, I wasn't sure how to answer. Even stranger, after thinking about it for a while, I decided that even though I strongly want Joe not to kill Fred, the best answer to Joe’s question is no.
A desire is overriding, let us say, if and only if one attempts to satisfy it. It follows that Joe's question can be restated thus: should I not have an overriding desire to kill Fred? The best answer is no because no one, including Joe, can help having the overriding desires s/he has. Physical events at the quantum level, whether governed by deterministic or indeterministic laws, fix the content of all one's desires, and hence all one's overriding desires. To say that Joe should not attempt to kill Fred is to say that nature should be different from the way it is, which seems nonsensical.
I want to do away with a possible objection. One might observe that people often can help having the overriding desires they have. It may be, for example, that two years ago, Joe had the opportunity to join a gang. He recognized that whereas joining A was likely to cause him to embrace violence in the future, refraining from joining A was likely to prevent him from doing so. For social reasons, Joe joined A. In this case, the objection goes, Joe caused himself to have an overriding desire to kill Fred in the future.
It is true that Joe caused himself to have an overriding desire to kill Fred in the future, but only in a proximate sense. The important question to ask about the above case is: whence Joe’s overriding desire to join A? At this point, a regress sets in. Perhaps three years ago, Joe decided that he was going to pursue social satisfaction at all costs and, in this way, caused himself to have an overriding desire to join A in the future. The important question then becomes: whence Joe’s overriding desire to pursue social satisfaction at all costs? At some point, the overriding desire in question will have been caused by a prior overriding desire that Joe did not choose to satisfy. (This counter-objection is similar to Galen Strawson’s infinite regress argument in “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility”.)
I’d like to know what people’s reactions to the above argument are. It seems to me that the argument hinges on two assumptions that you might find problematic. The first is that a person must choose to do X in a more-than-proximate sense in order for it to be true that he should not do X. The second is that asking whether one should attempt to kill another is the same as asking whether one should have an overriding desire to kill another.
Thanks in advance for your thoughts,