Monday, April 19, 2021

Desires for another's action

Suppose that Alice is a morally upright officer fighting against an unjust aggressor in a bloody war. The aggressor’s murderous acts include continual slaughter of children. Alice has sent Bob for a mission behind enemy lines. Bob’s last message said that Bob has found a way to end the war. The enemy has been led to war by a regent representing a three-year-old king. If the three-year-old were to die, the crown would pass to a peaceloving older cousin who would immediately end the war. And Bob has just found a way to kill the toddler king. Moreover, he can do it in such a way that it looks like it is a death of natural causes and will not lead to vengeful enemy action.

Alice responds to the message by saying that the child-king is an innocent noncombatant and that she forbids killing him as that would be murder. It seems that Alice now has two incompatible desires:

  • that Bob will do the right thing by refraining from murdering the child, and

  • that Bob will assassinate the child king, thereby preventing much slaughter, including of children.

And there is a sense in which Alice wants the assassination more than she wants Bob to do the right thing. For what makes the assassination undesirable—the murder of a child—occurs in greater numbers in the no-assassination scenario.

But in another sense, it was the desire to have Bob do the right thing that was greater. For that was the desire that guided Alice’s action of forbidding the assassination.

What should we say?

Here is a suggestion: Alice desires that Bob do the right thing, but Alice wishes that Bob would assassinate the king. What Alice desires and what Alice wishes for are in this case in conflict.

And here is a related question. Suppose someone you care about wants you to do one thing but wishes you to do another. Which should you do?

In the above case, the answer is given by morality: assassinating the three-year-old king is wrong, no matter the consequences. And considerations of authority concur. But what if we bracket morality and authority, and simply ask what Bob should do insofar as he cares about Alice who is his friend. Should he follow Alice’s desires or her wishes? I think this is not so clear. On the one hand, it seems more respectful to follow someone’s desires. On the other hand, it seems more beneficent to follow someone’s wishes.

No comments: