Sunday, October 22, 2006

Should Joe kill Fred? (Brandon)

Hi all,

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,
Brandon

2 comments:

Sean said...

You wrote: "The best answer [as to whether one can say that he should refrain from killing Fred] 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."

Consider an analogous argument. I believe that p, and I believe that if p, then q. Should I believe that q? Physical events at the quantum level, whether governed by deterministic or indeterministic laws, fix the content of all one's beliefs. To say that I should believe that q is to say that nature should be different from the way it is, which seems nonsensical.

The argument is surely faulty, because I should obviously believe that q if I believe that p and believe that if p, then q. (Suppose p is true and [if p, then q] is true, if that makes this more obvious for you, and suppose that the connection between p and q is straightforward, if that helps.)

Appraisal of actions' rationality and morality is no less compatible with the (deterministic or indeterministic) causation of mental events like beliefs and desires by prior physical events than are evaluations of the rationality of beliefs, and I take it you don't object to the latter, which is what we're practicing right now.

Josh Cherniss said...

Good to hear from you, Brandon!
My response is of a different form and perhaps on a different level from Sean's (which I didn't quite follow -- should there perhaps be a negative in there somewhere where there currently isn't, Sean, or am I merely being dense again?), though I'm not sure if it's all that different. First, I find the way that the hypothetical (I hope it's a hypothetical!) is specified. If Joe asks whether he should not kill Fred, it is not clear that he has an overriding desire to kill Fred such that he cannot help but kill him. Indeed, the fact that he is asking you whether he should not kill Fred suggests that he is not completely set on that course of action. So, unless I have some reason to believe that this is the case, if Joe asked me 'Should I not kill Fred', I'd have no difficulty in replying 'Of course not!'
Now, if Joe said 'I have an irresistible desire to kill Fred, which I'm now going to go do -- bye', or if I knew that his desire to kill Fred really was irresistible (by his will, though not necessarily by external force -- so at this point I'd be tackling Joe, or at least calling the cops), then -- well, I'd still say no, he should not kill Fred. This is because (I believe) killing Fred is wrong. The question, as it is stated, is a purely normative one: is killing Fred something, in general, that I should do, or not; and the answer seems clearly to be, it is not. If Joe can't help but kill Fred, we might judge him differently -- we might not assign him moral responsibility in the same way, for instance. But this doesn't make Fred's being killed any more or less morally desirable. So, I suppose I do find the first assumption problematic.
As for the second assumption, I find that problematic too; but even if one accepts it, I don't see that moving the question back a step, to 'should I not have an overwhelming desire to kill Fred', necessarily changes things: even if Joe can't (or won't) not have an overwhelming desire to kill Fred, we can still say that it is bad that he has this desire, that he _should_ not want to have this desire, even if, in fact, he does have (and wants to have) this desire. It seems to me plain -- and not terribly puzzling, though certainly troubling -- that we have plenty of desires, some irresistible, that we feel we oughtn't to have; and we have other desires that we don't feel we oughtn't to have, but which still seem bad desires to have based on moral principles we accept.
I might be missing something here, of course; but, not only do I find the two assumptions problematic, but I also don't quite see why one would want, or feel the need to, accept them in the first place -- but, again, that may just be my denseness.