A member of the studio audience forwarded a question to me about desire utilitarianism.
What does "there are reasons for action that exist such that..." actually mean?
1. There are reasons why people do act such that... 2. There are reasons why people should act such that... 3. Something else. Please explain.
1 is just describing people's mental states, which makes this subjectivism. 2 makes the definition circular. Is there a 3?
Let’s look at the first option presented to us. We need to clarify (1) because there are two main types of reasons. There are what we might call blind reasons – reasons without intention. And there are goal-directed reasons or reasons that form intentions.
A blind cause is something that just happens without an objective. If a mountainside should give way, rock and dirt into a valley that blocks a river and creates a lake, the goal of gravity was not to create a lake. Gravity did not say, "I would like to have a lake here, I know, I'll bring the mountain side down and then I will have my lake." There was no intention – no purpose – behind the avalanche.
Goal directed action, on the other hand, is something where an end is identified, then the agent begins looking for means to achieve that end. The end, perhaps, is to control flooding, or to provide water for irrigation, or to generate electrical power. For each of these a means is selected of dropping a bunch of material into a river and forming a lake behind it.
"Desires are the only reasons for action that exist," points to the fact that desires are the only entities that direct action by identifying an end and searching for means to that end. These goal-directed reasons are used as the explanation for intentional action.
We use beliefs and desires all the time to explain why the people around us did what they did, and to predict what they will do in the future.
The objection is that if I select option 1 that this "makes this subjectivism". I have always stated that there is one sense of the word "subjectivism" that applies to desire utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism holds that value depends on desire – that there is no value independent of desire. If all of the desires were to disappear, then all value will disappear, since all value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires.
However, it is still the case that desires are real, and we cannot understand (objective) reality except as a place that contains desires and relationships between desires and states of affairs. Value depends on mental states, but mental states are real. And so are values.
The type of "subjectivism" that I complain about are those that reduce moral terms to relationships between objects of evaluation and the desires of the agent as if these were the only relationships that exist. This form of subjectivism needs to be rejected because, what also exists, are reasons for action for promoting or inhibiting malleable desires, and relationships between objects of evaluation and desires that people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit.
And all of these relationships exist. We can make objectively true and false claims about all of them. Call it "subjectivism" if you will. It is "subjectivism" with right and wrong answers, a great many of which are independent of the attitudes of the speaker.