Thursday, July 19, 2007


I have received another question from the studio audience.

What does DU say about the egoist? Rather, what reason does anyone have to accept the DU definitions of "good" and "bad"? to be more precise: What does DU say about egoism? What arguments can be used against it?

Reasons for Accepting DU Definitions

As far as anybody accepting my definitions of 'good' or 'bad', I answered this question most recently just a couple of days ago.

Ask an astronomer, "What reason does anybody have to accept your definition of a 'planet'?"

The answer is "None, really. But, if you think that something of significance hangs on that fact, you are mistaken."

Pluto's properties do not in any way depend on whether or not we call it a planet. Similarly, the relationships that exist between states of affairs and desires do not depend on what we call them.

So, call them what you will - as long as your terms do not make assertions about those relationships that are not true.


The Meaning of 'Morality' Is Subjective

Choosing a Moral Theory


When it comes to confronting egoism, there are two versions of egoism that are relevant here.

Psychological Egoism. This is a descriptive theory that states that all human action can best be explained in terms of seeking that which benefits the agent. It holds that, as a matter of descriptive fact, no agent ever acts in any way other than according to what he beliefs benefits himself. No person ever acts so as to benefit another except as a means to securing a benefit to himself. One version of psychological egoism holds that a person only acts to maximize his own pleasure and minimize his own pain. Another version holds that a person only acts to maximize his own happiness and minimize his own unhappiness.

Ethical Egoism. Ethical egoism holds that, as a prescriptive theory, no person should act in any way other than to obtain benefits for himself. On this ethical theory, even if we have the capacity to make sacrifices for others, it is always wrong to do so.

Defeating Psychological Egoism

Psychological egoism needs to be treated like any other scientific theory. We use it to make predictions. We then make observations. If those observations fit the theory, then the theory is confirmed. If not, then the theory is falsified. Falsified theories end up in the scrap heap as soon as a better theory comes along that can handle the observations that the scrapped theory cannot handle.

One set of observations that psychological egoism cannot handle concern ‘experience machines’ or ‘The Matrix’ options. If we can hook you up to a machine that gives you perfect pleasure and no pain, or that we can guarantee will stimulate your brain in ways that produce the greatest happiness and the least unhappiness, would you enter that machine?

Psychological egoism implies that people will crawl all over each other for a chance to get hooked up to that machine. Yet, when we ask real people what they would choose, they often express a strong dislike for the experience machine – it is not their example of an ideal life. They would rather suffer the pains and unhappiness of the real world, than spend their lives hooked up to such a machine.

A theory that better handles these observations says that we act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of our desires, given our beliefs. A desire is a propositional attitude – a mental state that motivates an agent to make or keep a particular proposition true. Thus, a person with a desire to see her son graduate from college is motivated to choose options that will, some day, make the proposition, “My son has graduated from college,” true.

Experience machines simply cannot make these propositions true. They can make a person believe that they are true. But desires motivate people to make these propositions true in fact, and a false belief that these propositions are true simply are not good enough.

So, desire fulfillment theory beats out psychological egoism as the best explanation of intentional behavior.

Confusing Psychological Egoism and Desire Fulfillment Theory

It is easy to confuse desire fulfillment theory with a form of psychological egoism. After all, desire utilitarian theory says that a person acts so as to fulfill the most and the strongest of his own desires. That is psychological egoism, right?

Not really.

The claim that a person acts so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his own desires simply states that, if you trace the muscle contractions associated with any intentional action back to its source, it originates in the brain of the actor. In fact, if you were to trace a particular set of muscle contractions in my body to somebody else’s brain (say, through a system of remote control), then those actions would not even be my actions. If, for example, they caused somebody’s death, I would not be guilty of murder. Those actions would belong to the person whose desires spawned them. That is to say, the person with the remote control device would be the one guilty of murder.

Desire fulfillment theory’s ability to account for assignments of responsibility is yet another mark in its favor. My intentional actions are those that spring from my intentional mental states (beliefs and desires) and define the limits of my responsibility. Your intentional actions are the consequence of your intentional mental states and define the limits of your responsibility.

Egoism does not stop at saying that my actions are those that spring from my mental states. It limits the content of those mental states. Egoism says that I cannot genuinely want somebody else to be happy. I can only want my own happiness. The happiness of other people can only have instrumental value – can only be important to the degree that the happiness of other people is a useful to me.

Desire fulfillment theory, on the other hand, does not place any limit on the content of an agent’s desires. Just as an agent can believe just about anything (any proposition can be the object of a belief that ‘P’), a person can desire just about anything. For example, there is nothing to prohibit an agent having a desire that P where P = “no child goes to bed hungry”, or P = “humanity or its descendents will survive as long as the universe has energy capable of supporting life” or, on the cruel side, P = “people who do not believe in God are made to suffer an excruciating pain worse than death but cannot die.”

People can desire these things because they are useful. However, people can also desire these things as ends in themselves – for the sake of no further reason at all, not even for the sake of their own happiness.

A person can have a desire that P says that I can have a genuine desire that somebody else be happy, in which case I will be motivated to make the proposition “somebody else is happy” true, for no reason other than the fact that I value another person’s happiness.

This easy confusion between psychological egoism and desire fulfillment theory is part of what gives psychological egoism some of its intuitive plausibility. However, the theory of psychological egoism is like the theory of a flat earth or a geocentric solar system. It has a superficial appearance of being true, but is easily proved false once we start looking at the details.

Defeating Ethical Egoism

Once we have defeated psychological egoism and put desire fulfillment theory in its place, the defeat of ethical egoism is easy.

Ethical egoism says that we can measure the moral value of a desire by some internal or intrinsic property – that ‘desires for the benefit of the desirer’ are somehow intrinsically superior to all of the other desires an individual might have. Since intrinsic values do not exist, all claims that one set of desires are intrinsically better than other desires are false.

Here, some people make the mistake of claiming that because no desire has intrinsic merit that makes it the case that no desire is better than another, that all desires have equal value. The desire to torture young children would have to be declared equal to the desire that no child go to sleep hungry.

This is a mistake. Desires still have value. However, the value of a desire is like the value of everything else in the universe – it depends on the desire’s tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. People have reasons to reduce or eliminate the desire to inflict pain on others in people generally the same way that they have reasons to reduce or eliminate the chance that they will be burned alive in a fire. Saying that some desires are bad simply means that the desires tend to thwart other desires.

Statements to the effect that desires tend to fulfill or thwart other desires are true statements. When they are true, those whose desires will be thwarted have real-world reasons to reduce or eliminate those desires. They have the capacity to do so using tools such as condemnation and punishment. There is absolutely no sense to be made of the idea that it is somehow a mistake to report these facts. These facts are all one needs to be able to evaluate desires and label them, “desires that people generally have reason to promote” and “desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.”

However, this idea that desires have the same type of value that everything else has – value in accordance to its ability to fulfill other desires, is clearly at odds with ethical egoism. Ethical egoism does not have a metaphysical leg to stand on. Desire utilitarianism, on the other hand, requires only the existence of malleable desires and reasons to promote and inhibit those desires – all of which are very real.

This is how I would answer the egoist.

1 comment:

G-man said...

Alonzo -

Could you link me to your essay that best demonstrates your argument against intrinsic value?