A Set of Questions
I have been spending much of these first two weeks of 2009 addressing questions to the moral propositions that provide the foundation for this blog – with a couple of digressions into applications and real-world implications.
I have more questions that I wish to address.
[I] is your theory basically "desire fulfillment rule utilitarianism," where the rule is that the good act is the act a person with good desires would perform, and good desires are desires that tend to fulfill more and greater desires than they thwart?
First, because the name suggests that rules are the primary object of moral evaluation, while I hold that it is maleable desires. The name should properly identify the object of evaluation.
Second, because the term would seem to suggest that the end of evaluation is being evaluated by its ability to maximize the entity called "desire fulfillment." This would suggest that "desire fulfillment" is an entity with intrinsic value that we need to create as much of as we can. I deny that this is the case.
Desire fulfillment is not an end having intrinsic value that needs to be maximized. Instead, desire utilitarianism is a pluralistic moral theory. It states that each desire creates its own end – that a “desire that P” creates an end of realizing a state of affairs in which P is true. If an agent has a desire that P and P is true, I say that the desire has been fulfilled. However, this is just a name for a particular combination of states.
To illustrate the difference, imagine a choice between two possible worlds. World A is one where there is a creature with a desire that P, and P is true. World B is one in which P is true, but there is no creature.
The term "desire fulfillment rule utilitarianism" seems to suggest that we should pick World A (or that we should adopt a rule where the rule is better to the degree that it tends to recommend World A over World B), because World A contains desire fulfillment, and World B does not.
However, neither world has more value than the other.
The state in which P is true has value to the creature in World A. However, even the creature in World A does not have any reason to prefer World A over World B. It has a desire that P, P is equally true in both worlds, so he has no “reason for action” for choosing one world over the other.
In order to get the creature to choose World A we need to give him a second desire – a desire that Q, where Q is true in A but not in B. For example, if we added a desire to be alive to the desire that P, given that "I am alive" is only true in A and not in B, he now has a reason to choose A over B. But only because he has a desire that is fulfilled in A but not in B – not because A contains more "desire fulfillment" than B.
The same is true if we look at both worlds from the point of view of an impartial observer. Impartial observer theories make up a large branch of moral philosophy. However, if an impartial observer were truly impartial (he has no desires), then he has no reason for choosing one world over the other. He would be indifferent.
If we start to give our impartial observer desires, then he ceases to be an impartial observer. He becomes partial – depending on the desires we give him. As we give the observer desires, we give him reasons for action for choosing the world in which the most and strongest of those desires are fulfilled.
If we give our observer an aversion to desire fulfillment, he has reason to select World B, rather than World A. He has no reason to pick a world merely because it has the most desire fulfillment. He only has reason to pick the world in which the propositions that are the objects of his own desires are true.
If we look at our own sentiments, I suspect almost all of us will see a preference for World A rather than World B. We would rather it be the case that a world with a creature with a desire exists than that a lifeless world exists.
Here, we are simply appealing to our own desires. We are not perceiving some type of intrinsic merit in one world over the other, only that the propositions that are the objects of own desires are true in one world, and not the other.
So, in conclusion, any formulation that says that World A has more value than World B, merely because World A has desire fulfillment and World B does not, is making a false claim that intrinsic value exists. The goal is not to maximize the amount of desire fulfillment (to realize a world in which desire fulfillment exists). The goal is to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of our desires are true.
If those propositions are true in a world where desire fulfillment does not exist, then so be it.