A member of the studio audience has asked me whether, in, desire utilitarianism – the moral theory that sits at the foundation of this blog – it is the case that "only desires have moral value."
I am not comfortable with this characterization. It sounds like an intrinsic value claim – a claim that there is this entity or essence called “moral value” and, if you break open desires, you can find this essence within. Since desire utilitarianism holds that there is no such thing as intrinsic value, this characterization would be a mistake.
Let me look at the issue by looking at value in general.
Anything can have value. Movies, pictures, television sets, hammers, knives, sex, reports, schools, laws, and presidents all have value.
In order for something (S) to have direct value it must be the case that there is a desire that P, and P is true of S. S has indirect value if S has a tendency to bring about T, there is a desire that P, and P is true of T.
All desire utilitarianism does is take the two ways in which something can have value – direct value in terms of being such as to fulfill a desire, and indirect value in terms of being such as to bring about a state that fulfills a desire – and applies this method to desires themselves. Desires also have value in virtue of the degree to which they are desired, or the degree to which they are likely to bring about states that are desired.
Moral values can also apply to actions, laws, institutions, and even movies and books.
Moral value applies to actions insofar as they are the actions that a person with good desires would perform. It applies to laws insofar as they are the laws that a person with good desires would support. It applies to a movie insofar as it is a movie that somebody with good desires would want to watch – and to books insofar as the book is one that a person with good desires would want to read.
It makes no sense to apply moral concepts to fixed desires because fixed desires are desires that cannot be changed. It makes no sense for anybody to ask what an agent’s fixed desires should be – any more than it makes sense to ask what the mass of the Earth should be. It makes sense to ask what something should be only insofar as it is within our power to affect that thing.
Actually, I argue that morality is primarily concerned with reasons for action. It turns out to be the case that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. As a result, true value claims have to be claims that refer ultimately to desires. Any value claim that refers to a reason for action other than desires is a value claim that refers to reasons for action that do not exist. If it is a claim that says, "There are reasons for action that calls for bringing about X," and the reasons for action it refers to are imaginary or mythical, then the statement is false.
So, why can’t moral value be assigned to other things like apple pie?
This is like asking why the term "monkey" cannot refer to an elephant. Obviously, we can use it to refer to anything we want. Language is an invention, and there is no law of nature dictating what things are called. In saying that moral values refer primarily to desires I am merely saying that, if we look at the way that moral terms are used, the claim that they refer primarily to desires makes the most sense of that use.
We can apply moral concepts to anything. However, in doing so we have no power to create reasons for action out of thin are, or to dismiss reasons for action that are real.
We can use moral terms to refer to happiness and claim that morality requires that we act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, this claim can never invent reasons for action for promoting happiness. Those reasons for action either exist or they do not exist, and are not at all dependent on what we call things.
Yet, we are free to change our language however we would like.
Yet, in doing so, we are not free to change what is objectively true of what we name. We can use the term "monkey" to refer to an elephant if we wish to re-define our terms. However, what is objectively true of elephants does not change.
We can choose not to apply moral value to malleable desires. Yet, it will still be true that we have malleable desires, that we have reasons-for-action for promoting and inhibiting malleable desires using social forces such as praise and condemnation, that we have reasons for action to promote desires that tend to fill other desires and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.
These claims remain facts regardless of how we decide to define the term "morality".