That which we most desire...

Hey look! Computer access... after hours at work.

In my computer-less evenings, between lengthy bouts of guitar practice, I'm reading a great book called On Desire by William Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University. It's a thought-provoking examination of how desires drive our behavior, how they're formed, and how we can deal with them. In my reading thus far, Irvine has briefly touched on an interesting point which strongly links desire to our moral behavior, and it got me thinking in new ways about some theistic arguments I've heard in the past.

Motivated self-interest

In his debate on morality with William Lane Craig, Sam Harris asserted that our desire for well-being is something we take as axiomatic. Craig's response was that we don't have any objective reason to desire well-being, so using it as a cornerstone of moral judgment, as Harris does, is just begging the question. The theistic argument is that morality is derived from authority; they argue that the chain of authority (our parents, the law, etc.) logically must terminate somewhere -- presumably with the ultimate, infallible authority of God.

When I discussed this with theists around the time of the debate, I posed what I thought was an obvious question raised by that assertion: why ought we care about obedience to authority? Or, to put it another way, why ought we value God's commands? By asking these questions, I was trying to state what I thought was a fairly obvious truth: that motivated self-interest can never be separated from moral behavior. Presumably, we ought to obey God's commands because it's in our best interest, both individually and collectively, to do so.

The theists with whom I discussed this issue, however, attempted to argue that God's authority simply warranted obedience intrinsically. It shouldn't be difficult to see that this is really just avoiding the question; I want to know why we would value obedience to God's authority. What would be in it for us?
But when we acknowledge that, even on a theistic view, our obedience to authority is made valuable by motivated self-interest, an interesting thing happens: God becomes irrelevant. That's because it's simply unnecessary to place God at the endpoint of our motivated self-interest. Back to the Harris' axiom, the question why ought we value well-being is, quite simply, because well-being is intrinsically desirable.

By contrast, think about hunger pangs. Why should we care about eating? Well, because hunger pangs are uncomfortable. Why should we care about relieving discomfort? Because discomfort is intrinsically undesirable. I could meld this with Sam Harris' definition of morality, and say that all forms and degrees of suffering are intrinsically undesirable.

A basis for morality

So when the question Why be good? (or similar questions such as Why be kind to others?) is raised, the answer lies in motivated self-interest. It's worth noting that obedience to authority is a woefully inadequate basis for such behavior; does any theist really believe that the only thing preventing him from, say, murdering and eating his family, is because he'd offend God if he did? But why care about offending God? If it is because it is in one's best interest not to offend God, the theist is right back where he started -- motivated self-interest.

We can easily recognize that we are innately bonded and interdependent. We depend on others for literally all aspects of our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. And because we recognize that others have similar needs and interests as our own, we can easily deduce that it is in our best interest to cooperate peacefully with others; that is, if we want others to respect our needs and interests, we ought to respect the needs and interests of others. Living with others simply mandates such a 'social contract'. If we lived alone in the wilderness, we would have complete moral autonomy -- no obligations to anyone but ourselves. But it would be a miserable and likely brief existence, and it is not something any of us truly desire.

An argument from consequence

One last thing: sometimes theists, unable to effectively counter the above arguments, will resort to a desperate appeal to consequence by pointing out that people can, and throughout history have, inflict suffering upon others to maximize their personal well-being, or cooperated to do cruel things.

There are two things to be said about this. Firstly, people have done great cruelty in the name of religion as well -- religious fanaticism is inarguably one of the greatest sources of cruelty in all human history. So if pointing out shortcomings in our gregarious nature is meant to bolster religion as a bastion of moral guidance, it's failed. But the more important point is that there are consequences to the exploitation and cruelty of others, many of which are not always immediately apparent. A person who makes his fortune through deception and exploitation will make many enemies; all the great human institutions of cruelty ultimately fell, in many cases because the oppressed -- or those sympathetic to them -- stood against tyranny.

Most importantly, though, we have learned all too slowly that we have far more to gain from others by cooperating with them than by exploiting them. If our ancestors had given Africans education and freedom instead of bondage, or if we had treated women and men as equals throughout history, would we not be a vastly more peaceful and prosperous species than we are today? How many individuals subjected to slavery, servitude or treated as the property of their husbands might have been great leaders, innovators, thinkers, educators, scientists, or inventors?

That is why, ultimately, our impetus to treat others with fairness and dignity can always be traced back to motivated self-interest. We can recognize -- though not always easily, unfortunately -- that a world in which we value the needs and interests of others is better for us and for those we care for and depend upon the most.


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