Friday, February 27, 2009

Why Desire Fulfillment Matters

A question from the studio audience reflects on the most common false assumption that gets in the way of somebody understanding the desire utilitarian theory that rests at the heart of this blog.

Christian Apologist asked:

Why does fulfillment of desire matter?

Eneasz answered:

You're asking the wrong question. There is no thing, no entity or law of nature or reason, which declares that the fulfillment of desires is what matters.

Which is correct. Desire utilitarianism is not a theory that declares that desire fulfillment matters.

Instead, what it says that, if A desires that P, then, for every state of affairs S, whether P is true in S matters to A.

P is what matters. Or, more specifically, ''P' is true' is what matters. And, in this example, it only matters to A. To the degree that A desires that P, and P is true in S, then A has a motivating reason to act to realize S.

Desire fulfillment is a term that I use to describe a state in which, "A desires that P and P is true."

What would it take for "A desires that P, and P is true" to matter?

Specifically, it would matter to B if B had a desire that Q, and Q is true in "A desires that P, and P is true". In this case, desire fulfillment would matter. But it would only matter to B, and only insofar as B has a desire that Q.

However, A’s desire that P gives P a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which P is true. A is not, in this case, seeking desire fulfillment. A is seeking P. That is to say that A has a motivating reason to organize things in the universe in such a way so as to make P true, or to keep it true.

One of the things that A can do to create or preserve a state of affairs in which P is true is to manipulate the desires of other people. This further implies that, to the degree that he can influence whatever desires other people has, he has a motivating reason to cause them to have desires that would bring about states of affairs in which P is true.

Again, A is not doing this because he seeks desire fulfillment or because :desire fulfillment is what matters". He is doing this because he seeks to make or keep the proposition P true, and P is rue in S.

To the degree that B seeks to make or keep Q true, B has reason to promote in A those desires that will cause A to act in ways that make or keep Q true. This could involve giving A a desire that Q. It could involve giving A a desire that R, where R causes Q (or, at least, makes Q more lilely).

If we look at all of the reasons for action that exist, we will discover that there are some malleable desires that people generally have a great many strong reasons to promote, and desires that people generally have many strong reasons to inhibit.

None of this requires anybody to put any value in desire fulfillment itself. All of this could still be true and accurate even if absolutely nobody cared about desire fulfillment per se. That is to say, all of this would still make sense even if desire fulfillment per se did not matter to even one individual.

So, the objection that I always face is actually an objection that I do not have to answer. The objection is, "Alonzo, I want to hear your proof that desire fulfillment is what matters." The person raising the objection then asserts, implicitly or explicitly, that since I can offer no proof that desire fulfillment is what matters, that he has therefore disproved desire utilitarianism and can then move on.

What the person raising this objection does not understand is that desire utilitarianism denies that desire fulfillment is what matters. What matters are those things that are the objects of desires – the 'proposition P' that one finds in a "desire that P".

So, it is not an objection to desire utilitarianism that I have no argument to defend the proposition, "Why does the fulfillment of desires matter?" It is not an objection to a theory that it cannot do what it says cannot be done.


Luke said...

This is crucial, thanks.

Matt M said...

I've done a quick search through your archives, but didn't find anything on this -- I'm just wondering what DU has to say about the treatment of animals.

In order to make a moral argument, would a vegetarian have to show that (for example) a cow possessed the desire to live? Would animal desires (assuming we could find out what they were) even be valid for consideration?

Eneasz said...

Hiya Matt. I try to stay away from this topic personally, but two recent posts:
The Predator Problem Revisited
Animals and Morality

Matt M said...


Cheers -- those were exactly the kind of posts I was looking for (and managed to miss!).

Tom said...

I just finished reading a book that talks about this stuff. So I'll give it a plug.
It's called “Defending My God-given Right to NOT be a Christian” by Jimmy D. Kuratz. It proves that Christian theology is an invalid moral compass and that the Bible is a fraud! It gives us atheists a ton of ammunition for fending off the Christians. I bought the book off his website: