Sunday, September 28, 2008

Desire Utilitarianism vs Virtue Theory

A member of the studio audience has asked:

I was hoping that you could write a post explaining the difference between your desire utilitarianism and virtue ethics.

The answer is that desire utilitarianism is related to virtue ethics the way that lions are related to cats. There are a lot of different types of virtue ethics. Of these, one of them is desire utilitarianism.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics, in general, is a theory that holds that the evaluation of character traits is prior to the evaluation of actions. First, we determine what counts as a good or bad trait. When we derive the value of actions from this determination of the value of character traits. A “right action” in this case is the action that a “good person” would perform. A “good person” is a person with good character traits (or an absence of bad character traits).

However, virtue ethics leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We get different types of virtue ethics from the different ways that people attempt to answer this question.

For example, what makes a particular character trait ‘good’?

We can bring the full range of value theories into answering this question. A character trait is good to the degree that it is shared by God. Character traits have intrinsic worth. Evolution has caused us to value certain character traits, and whatever evolution has caused us to value is good. The value of character traits is subjective – different cultures pick different traits as being good or bad and there is no objective difference between them.

Similarly, different theories of virtue ethics give us different ways of knowing what these values are. God told us the difference between good and bad character traits through the lessons in the Bible (e.g., “What Would Jesus Do?”). We can sense the value of particular character traits through our moral intuitions. We recognize the value we place in different character traits the same way we recognize that we like certain foods more than others. We look at the culture we are in and determine what character traits people within a culture tend to value.

These are some examples of different theories of virtue ethics.

Desire Utilitarianism

Desire utilitarianism is a type of virtue ethics in that it provides its own set of answers to these types of questions.

First, we need to know the difference between good and bad. How is it that something can be ‘good’?

Desire utilitarianism holds that value-laden terms such as ‘good’ relate to reasons for action. To call a particular state of affairs ‘good’ is to say that reasons for action exist to pursue that thing. A state is bad if reasons for action exist for avoiding it.

The only reasons for action that exist are desires. Desires are propositional attitudes. That is to say, they can be expressed in the form “A desires that P” where ‘P’ is any proposition. If A desires that P, and P is true in state of affairs S, then S is good for A. That is to say, A has “reason for action” for bringing about state A.

We can apply this system not only to paintings, movies, jobs, states of health, construction tools, and anything else that has value. However, for the purposes of this essay, the one area of potential evaluation that people tend to overlook, is that we can apply this standard to measure the value of desires themselves. A state in which “people desire that P” is good for people generally if people generally have many and strong “reasons for action” for causing people to desire that P. We can evaluate desires themselves by measuring their tendency to fulfill other desires,

So, now we have a way of evaluating character traits (desires). This form of evaluation does not depend on God or intrinsic values. It is not the case that simply because we have evolved a disposition for a particular desires, that this means that it is good (a virtue). Furthermore, the value of a desire is knowable in scientific terms. We simply (and I use the term loosely) determine what reasons for action exist and how the character trait in question (which is, itself, a reason for action) relates to those other reasons for action.

According to the generic concept of a virtue theory, the value of actions is derived from the value of character traits. Desire utilitarianism holds that a right action is an action that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong action is an action that a person with good desires would not perform. In these cases, the evaluation of desires as good or bad is prior to the evaluation of actions, and the evaluation of actions is derived from the prior evaluation of character traits.

More specifically, there are three categories of actions. An action can be obligatory (an act that a person with good desires would perform), permissible (an act that a person with good desires may or may not perform), or prohibited (an act that a person with good desires would not perform). All people will act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. A person with good desires is no different.

Here is an example. People generally have reason to promote giving others an aversion to taking property that belongs to others. A person with good desires would have this aversion. Because of this aversion, if given the opportunity to take property that belongs to others . . . even if he is left alone with nobody watching over his shoulder . . . he would be reluctant to take the property that belongs to others. He would have the quality of ‘honesty’.

However, a person with good desires would also have a desire for the well-being of his children. There are circumstances, however rare, when we would expect his obligations to his children to overrule his aversion to taking property. So, if he is out in the forest with his child, his child suffers a bee sting and is having an allergic reaction, and the only way to get him to the hospital is to take a neighbor’s car, then we would expect him to take his neighbor’s car.

We would still expect him to feel bad about what he did. If he had a genuine aversion to taking property belonging to others, this aversion does not simply fade away because it was overruled. It is still there, driving the father to look for other alternatives, and causing feelings of anxiety and guilt even after the child had been safely delivered to the hospital. We will see signs of these aversions in the agent’s behavior. He will apologize for taking the car. He will offer some sort of compensation. He will demonstrate his recognition that taking somebody else’s car without consent is something to which people should have an aversion.

As a virtue theory, desire utilitarianism has some significant advantages over other virtue theories in that it does not require any strange metaphysics to account for value. Virtues are desires – ordinary material-world states that we have been using to explain and predict real world events (intentional behavior) for years. There is no God or intrinsic value, yet these entities (desires) are as real as quarks and black holes (other things we cannot see directly, but which we know about because of their effects).


Anonymous said...

If desire utilitarianism is a type of virtue ethics then why do you label it "utilitarianism"?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There are two ways to divide utilitarian theories; (1) into different views on what counts as utility (preference satisfaction, happiness, pleasure), and (2) into different objects of evaluation (act, rule).

Rule utilitarianism says that you evaluate an action according to its conformity to the best rules, and you evaluate rules according to whether they produce the most utility.

Desire utilitarianism is like rule utilitarianism in that it says that you evaluate actions according to whether they conform to the best desires, and you measure desires according to their utility. Utility, in turn, is measured in terms of desire fulfillment. (A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true.)

Given that it is a modified version of rule utilitarianism, I thought that the term 'desire utilitarianism' would be appropriate.

In turn, as it turns out, desires are character traits. In evaluating desires (rather than rules), we come up with concept of virtue (good character trait) and vice (bad character trait). So, as it turns out, the concepts of virtue ethics can also be easily applied to this theory.

The two sets of concepts are not mutually exclusive.

Luis V. said...

I believe the ideas held in these post are very close to what I’ve read in Roger Crisp's «Utilitarianism and the Life of Virtue», except he labels these theories Virtue Utilitarianism. I’ve been doing some research on these subject for my phd and found that Julia Driver in her book Uneasy Virtue (chapter 4) propose virtue consequencialism as a hybrid theory between Consequencialism and Virtue Ethics.
Luis Verissimo (
irtue Utilitarianism.