Recent discussions by members of the studio audience has brought forth the following question about desire utilitarianism (or “desirism” as one member has proposed).
It seems that DU is not a moral calculus at all. Instead, it tells me how to create the moral calculus that will best fulfill my own desires (including my altruistic desires and urges of my conscience). If I’m a slave-owner with a desire to continue reaping the benefits of slavery (an no contrary desires), DU will probably tell me to espouse a moral calculus that disregards the desires of slaves.
The first point to take is that the question is set up to be about a science-fiction universe filled with creatures that are difficult to imagine. We are supposed to imagine a creature with a desire to continue reaping the benefits of slavery, and no desires that could be thwarted by slavery.
I have to ask, does this agent have an aversion to pain? The aversion to pain could well become a “contrary desire” if others have a reason to act so as to cause pain to those who endorse slavery. The slaves themselves, for example, have reason to inflict pain on those who would enslave others, as does anybody who cares for the interests of those who would be slaves.
Does our agent have a desire for material wealth or anything that material wealth can help him to acquire? Does he have a desire for social status? Both of these desires can be thwarted by anybody who has reason to act so as to interfere with his interest in having slaves.
The creature with no desire that can be thwarted by a desire to own slaves is a creature of science fiction. It may even be an inherent contradiction – no such creature exists. Because, certainly, our agent has no desire to become a slave himself. Yet, if he does not promote an aversion to slavery in society at large, then he can potentially be made a slave. His own freedom is better secured by a universal aversion to enslaving others – which would make his own freedom a desire contrary to his desire in having slaves.
The real moral question is whether or not people generally have reason to give him a reason not to have slaves.
As I have argued before, it does not matter whether one wants to assign the word 'moral' to these properties. What matters is what is true about these properties. It is true that people generally have reason to use the social tools of condemnation and punishment against those who do not show sufficient aversion to depriving others of freedom. This is because their own freedom, and the freedom of those they care about, are better defended in a society with neighbors who love and respect freedom, than in a society where neighbors have no aversion to depriving others of freedom.
Even the slave owner himself has many and strong reason to promote, overall, an aversion in people generally to depriving others of freedom. However, a neighbor who has a love of freedom is a neighbor who has an aversion to slavery. The very method by which our agent would promote freedom in others is by condemning those who willingly take the freedom of others. Which means . . . by condemning those who would embrace and endorse slavery.
However, it is not necessarily the case that the slave owner has reasons for action to promote an aversion to taking the freedom of other people. It is still the case that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn those who have no aversion to taking the freedom to others, and this is enough to support the moral claim that slavery is wrong. It is simply the case that our agent might not care that it is wrong.
Ultimately, moral questions (assuming that it makes sense to use the word 'moral' here) are not questions that are answered by looking at one’s own likes and dislikes. They are questions answered by looking at what people generally have reason to cause one to like or dislike. They are not questions answered by looking at the sentiments one does have, but at the sentiments one should have.
Should, remember, requires a relationship to desires. However, in this case, the desires are not one's own. The relevant desires are those of other people – the people in a position to praise, condemn, reward, and punish.
If one refuses to attach the word 'moral' to these relationships, it changes nothing. These are still desires that people generally have reason to promote using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, regardless of their name.