I have been speaking to some comments that Richard Carrier has made regarding desire utilitarianism.
Those comments so far have focused on criticisms of alternative happiness or satisfaction (in the hedonist sense) theories of value. Today, I want to add weight to those objections by focusing on exactly what it is about these types of theories that cause them to fail.
Theories that state that all value rests in pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, happiness, or any similar state can all be classified as "internal state" theories. For all practical purposes, they say that the only thing that has value . . . the only thing that CAN have value . . . is that the brain be placed in a particular state.
For a materialist, this means that the matter in the brain is to be organized in a particular way. This and only this organization of matter can have value. Everything else has value only insofar as they contribute to putting the brain in such a state.
The first question that an internal state theorist has to answer is why it is the only thing that can have value is that the atoms in the brain have whatever physical arrangement that is associated with this state. Why is it that an agent can be concerned with getting the molecules in the brain in a particular arrangement, but he cannot be concerned with getting molecules outside the brain in the brain in some other arrangement, or getting molecules outside of the brain in a particular arrangement?
The second problem with internal state theories is precisely the problem is that they are divorced from external states. If it is the case that the internal state is the only thing that has value then, once we realize that internal state, we can do whatever we want to the external world and it does not matter.
This is the point that is illustrated by many of the stories brought against internal state theories. My own story about the person given the choice between falsely believing that her child is well when it being tortured, and falsely believing that the child is being tortured when the child is doing well, is simply one way of illustrating a case in which the internal state of the brain is realized, but is independent of what is going on in the world.
Experience machine stories, stories about putting happy pills in the water, and stories about a person being made happy and then having her brain preserved in that state (while the external world changes) are all stories that illustrate a break between the internal state and the external world.
All of these stories provide a way of imagining that the requisite internal state of the brain has been established. Then, the author divorces that internal state from what is going on in the external world. If it is true that the internal state is the only thing that has value, then any and all changes one makes to the external world does not matter, as long as the internal state is maintained.
All of these stories aim to illustrate the fact that external states not only can matter to people, they do matter to people. Even in cases where the internal state is held constantly in a state of high value, differences in the external world independent of this fact with affect a person’s choices.
Desire utilitarianism is not an internal state theory. It is a relational state theory.
Desire utilitarianism holds that value exists in a relationship between a desire that P (for some proposition P) and a state of affairs in which P is true. P itself can be an internal state (the experience of happiness or pleasure), or an internal state (one’s children are well), or a state of interaction with the external world (one is having sex, one is eating chocolate cake). In fact, there is no limit to what an agent can desire, just as there is no limit to what a person can believe.
As such, desire utilitarianism avoids objections where internal states having value are established and maintained independent of what goes on in the external world. Furthermore, the desire utilitarianism does not need to explain why it is the case that only one possible internal state can have value – while all other internal or external states are mere means to the establishment of the one, sole, internal state having value.