Mail from the studio audience is coming in at a fairly fast rate right now. Which is a good thing. I am trying to answer as many questions as I can.
One piece of correspondence came with a question that I really should have answered long ago.
I was curious if you would be willing to or already have (and would be willing to provide me a link) addressed the concept of the utility monster and how it relates (or doesn’t) to desire utilitarianism.
The “utility monster” was one of philosopher Robert Nozick’s objections to utilitarian theory.
Nozick postulated a creature who received 100 units of utility (pleasure, happiness) per unit of resource consumption, in a universe where everybody else received 1 unit of utility per unit of resource consumption. In this type of universe, Nozick argued, utilitarian would require that all of the people who got lesser utility be sacrificed (give up any and all resources) to the utility monster. This moral demand for sacrifice, however, is absurd. Therefore, basic utilitarianism is defeated by means of a reduction to absurdity.
How does desire utilitarianism handle the utility monster?
I will begin by asserting that morality is a tool used for the fulfillment of real-world desires. If I were to build a hammer, somebody might raise the objection, “How would that hammer work in a world where nails were all built of clay?” The answer is, it wouldn’t. However, this is still a perfectly good hammer for the real world, where nails are made of steel.
Having said that, as a desire utilitarian, I would also note that the utility monster, in this case, has desires that tend to thwart other desires. Desire utilitarianism focuses on the evaluation of desires - counting as good those desires that tend to fulfill other desires and bad (evil) those desires that tend to thwart other desires.
Let us assume that we had a choice between a utility monster who received 100 units of utility per unit of resource consumption, and one that received 100 units of utility for each act of kindness he performs. We certainly have more and stronger reason to prefer the second type of utility monster to the first. That is to say, we have more and stronger reason to use our social tools to promote the formation of the second type of utility monster and to inhibit the second type. That is to say, we have many and strong reason to call the latter 'good' and the former 'evil'.
It is better, in other words, for the utility monster to get its 100 units of utility from states of affairs in which the desires of others are fulfilled, than from states of affairs where the desires of others are thwarted through the loss of resources.
This, I would wager, is where the emotional reaction to Nozick’s hypothetical come from. We read the description and immediately note that we have an aversion to that type of situation – the desires we have that will be thwarted by the greedy consumption of all the resources by this monster.
Those desires are "reasons for action that exist" for each of us to act so as to prevent the realization of such a state – to avoid a state in which there is a utility monster commanding the consumption of all the resources. They give us reasons to promote a aversions to overconsumption, waste, and greed, so that more desires are fulfilled through the use of fewer resources.
This is, in fact, what we see in the real world – the use of social forces (praise and condemnation) to promote aversions to the over-use of resources. It is because of the desire-thwarting qualities of "utility monsters" that people act to inhibit the creation of a world in which people find utility in the over-consumption of resources.
Individuals will seek to act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their own desires. As a result, if we assert that the utility monster is a creature that acts in ways that thwart the desires of others, it follows that others have little or no reason to feed the utility monster. Advocating that people do that which, by hypothesis, we are told that they have more and stronger reason to refrain from doing, is nonsense. It’s a contradiction built straight into the example.
Let us say, instead, that we are dealing with a non-malleable desire. The utility monster has extremely strong desires (obsessions, perhaps) that require the consumption of vast amounts of resources. Other people have non-malleable desires to use those resources to fulfill weaker desires.
In this case, desire utilitarianism says that we have stepped out of the realm of morality. We have a universe in which these two sets of beings are in an unavoidable conflict. As a matter of fact, each faction will continue to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of its own desires, given its belief. The fighting will continue until one group or the other has been wiped out or conquered.
Moral concepts only apply when we have a faction that has malleable desires. Then (and only then) it makes sense to ask how social forces should be brought to bear to mold those desires. Which is the same as asking about the desires that the most and strongest people have reason to promote or inhibit - asking about what to call good and what to call evil.
The utility monster's resource-consuming desires are not desires that people generally have reason to promote.