Friday, April 28, 2006

Desire-Based Theories of Welfare and Value

I'm sorry about yesterday. I really was angry, and wrote that post in about quarter of the time it typically takes me to write a post. There really are some things that I wanted to do with my life, that society's bigotry against atheists have prevented me from pursuing. And this is the only life I get within which to do these things. So, yes, it frustrates me.

Today, as promised, an answer to some objections to a desire utilitarian theory of value as posted on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – referenced by an anonymous contributor a three days ago in answer to a post of mine on Utilitarianism and Rights Theory.

I’m sorry about spending two posts so close together writing about moral theory. When I started this blog, I resolved to spend more time on practical matters. Yet, I still think it is useful, from time to time, to remind the readers that there is a system behind these postings, and to show some of the blue prints for that system.

Besides, on the practical side, we have a new polls telling us that Bush's popularity continues to slide. The number one reason people have for giving the President low marks is the high price of gas.

Forget torture, kidnapping, unjust war, illegal searches and seizures, imprisoning Americans without a trial, secret prisons, global warming, a handing huge mountains of debt to our children and grandchildren. Apparently, those issues are not worth getting upset about.

The problem with the war in Iraq, I suspect, for most people is not that Bush invaded a sovereign country on false pretenses, but that he failed to bring home cheap gas as a result.

After all, we must all remember that the most important moral principle in America, the one for which we reserve the highest praise for conforming and the harshest criticism for violating, is the principle, "The right act (e.g., torture, war, suspending the Constitution, global warming) is that act that most lowers the price of gasoline to Americans."

That is the state of morality in America today. So, I hope to be forgiven if I take a short leave and discuss theory for a while.


The link that the anonymous commenter that I mentioned provided focused on a section of that posting where there are two concerns over a desire-based ethics.

For one thing, people can have sensible desires that are simply too disconnected from their own lives to be relevant to their own welfare. I desire that the starving in far-away countries get food. But the fulfillment of this desire of mine does not benefit me.

Everything said in this 'objection' is perfectly true. However, this objection is meant to address a desire-fulfillment theory of welfare. The objection recognizes that some of the desires that a person may have may not be desires for his or her own welfare. An individual can have desires for the welfare of others – desires that have nothing at all to do with his or her own well-being.

This fact does support the conclusion, as stated in the Stanford article, that desire-fulfillment theory – as a theory of welfare -- is too broad. However, I am not offering desire-fulfillment as a theory of welfare. I am offering it as a theory of value. All value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

To the degree that a person desires that the starving in far-away countries get food, to that degree the state of affairs in which the starving in far-away countries get food has value to him. He will be willing to sacrifice to realize that value – including sacrifice his own welfare. It is still his desire that he is acting on. It is not a self-centered desire, but this has no effect on the capacity of the desire to have a pull on his actions.

For another thing, people can have desires for absurd things for themselves. Suppose I desire to count all the blades of grass in the lawns on this side of the road. If I get satisfaction out of doing this, the felt satisfaction constitutes a benefit to me. But the bare fulfillment of my desire to count all the blades of grass in the lawns on this road does not.

Again, this may serve as an objection to a desire-based theory of welfare. However, everything in here fits well into a desire-based theory of value.

A desire-based theory of value states that counting blades of grass has value to one who has a desire to count blades of grass. However, if we are going to talk instead about the value of the desire to count blades of grass (which is quite different from talking about the value of counting blades of grass), then we have to look at the ability that the desire has to fulfill other desires.

Counting blades of grass fulfills the desire to do so. But having the desire to do so does what? If it fulfills no other desire, then it is valueless. If it fulfills other desires, then the desire is also good. If it thwarts other desires, then the desire is bad.

I believe that the image that will come to mind of a person who desires to count blades of grass would be an image in which this is a bad desire. Counting blades of grass takes resources – time, at least. The person counting blades of grass is not fulfilling other desires. In this type of situation, the desire to count blades of grass tends to thwart other desires. If this is a compulsion, we would call it a mental illness -- it is a desire that the person who has it has reason (in terms of other desires being thwarted) to get rid of.

However, let us imagine that this is a mild desire – a hobby, that does not interfere with the fulfillment of other desires. The agent, if he is not busy, will go out and count blades of grass.

This may seem like a waste of time to us, and a cause for worry. However, is it really much different from eating one more piece of cake that one does not need to survive, or playing a game of solitaire, or coloring a picture in a coloring book, or solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, or to collect stamps, or dribbling a ball in the driveway and trying to throw it through a metal ring hanging from the garage wall -- are any of these desires any less absurd?

Absurd Desires

Imagine a planet with a species of rodent. Quite by chance, this rodent acquires a habit of counting blades of grass in an area where it lives. If the count is below a particular value, it moves and searches for greener pasture. I am not talking about an animal that knows that it is counting; only an animal whose brain is wired in such a way that it looks at the area where it lives, tallies the number of blades of grass, and gets an uneasy feeling that it alleviates by moving if the count is low.

That race evoles, becomes intelligent, learns to plant its own grass. Yet, its members still engage in the entertaining past-time of counting blades of grass. It's just something that it likes to do.

This species is no different than us, with our fondness for food (for example), even when we do not need to eat to survive. It is an activity that was once useful to it as a species, but which is not any more. Yet, the activity still has value to them -- they still desire it.

This story should call into question any type of special 'absurdity' associated with the desire to count blades of grass. The person who is convinced by the Stanford argument is making unwarranted claims about the nature of his or her own values. He is making the unwarranted assumption that because he does not have a desire for something, does not want a desire for that thing, and does not find it useful, that it is somehow intrinsically wrong to desire that thing. That conclusion, and all of the conclusions that follow from it, are unwarranted.

I typically encounter this objection with respect to other values -- such as eating feces. Certainly, there must be something 'wrong' with the desire to eat feces, right? When this example is used, I point out that rabits eat their own feces. They evolved this trait because it allows them to suck more nutrients out of their food. No doubt they do not do this because they seek to draw more nutrients out of the food. Rather, they evolved in such a way that they find a certain type of feces to be tastey. If they were to develop intelligence, there is no reason to doubt that they would still find it tastey.

Similarly, iquanas eat the feces of their parents. It helps them to acquire immunities from certain diseases. Plus, many species of birds and other animals eat the vomit from their parents. Again, it is likely that they like the taste.

These activities may well turn our stomach, and be things we do not like to think about. However, they teach a valuable lesson. There really is no such thing as an 'absurd' desire in the sense that would cause problems for a desire-fulfillment theory of value. There are good desires in terms of their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. But there is no such thing as an intrinsically good or bad desire.

We look at this desire with suspicion only because so few of us (if any) have this desire. We do not have it, we do not want it, and it does nothing useful for us. All of this is perfectly well handled within a desire-fulfillment theory of value.

Defining Desire Utilitarianism

The Stanford University argue states that if a theory does not deal with welfare, then it is not a utilitarian theory. It states that a moral theory that deals with welfare is ‘utilitarian’, while a moral theory that deals with other values (e.g., freedom, justice, equality, artificially low gas prices) is ‘consequentialist’.

The article then raises problems with consequentialist theories in that they fail to explain why or how these other goods acquire value. What is the essence of the value of freedom, if it is not in its consequences?

The theory that I have been calling ‘desire utilitarianism’ does not fit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of ‘utilitarianism’ because it does not concern welfare. It also does not fit their definition of ‘consequentialist’ because it denies the existence of intrinsic value in anything such as freedom, justice, and equality. These things are good, in the desire-utilitarian sense, because a love of freedom, or of justice, or of equality, tends to fulfill other desires.

Nothing has desire-independent value.

I continue to put this theory into the 'utilitarian' camp is because I have found that it fit well with the economic concept ‘relative utility’ in the economic sense of the word. Economists use utility or ‘utils,’ not to refer to welfare, but to the value that the agent puts on certain states of affairs. It is not a measure of intrinsic value; it is a measure of the subject's willingness to exchange one state of affairs for another. Economists do not distinguish between an agent’s self-regarding desires (the things that an agent will ‘buy’ because it benefits himself), and his other-regarding desires (things, such as buying food for people in far-away countries), because he values that particular outcome.

Indeed, one point that I would offer in defense of a desire-based theory of value is that it makes the most sense of advances in the field of economics.


If somebody is opposed to calling this a 'utilitarian' theory, then I invite him to use a different term. What we call something does not change what it is. One cannot reject a theory on the basis that one does not like the words used to express it.

What I have called ‘desire utilitarianism’ has no trouble handling the two ‘objections’ found in the section of the Stanford University article that the anonymous commenter referenced.

It is perfectly compatible with the idea that an agent’s other-regarding desires do not fit comfortably into talk about his welfare. That does not matter; these are still his values, and it is value that counts, not welfare.

The theory also explicitly states that nothing has value except in terms of its ability to fulfill (other) desires. Counting blades of grass has value to the person who has the desire. The desire to count blades of grass has no value – none at all – unless it fulfills or thwarts other desires.

The Stanford University article does not create any problems with what I have called “desire utilitarianism.” Rather, it expresses and defends points that are actually part of the theory.

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