Tomorrow I am going to disappear for a few weeks. While I am gone, you are free to talk amongst yourselves. In these last few posts before the break I am posting comments to a post from Chris concerning the differences between subjectivism and desire utilitarianism (desirism).
After making an assumption in which an agent is said to desire Y or Z, Chris wrote:
[T]he conflict, ethics wise, is when some other person fails to desire Y or Z or both. Then we have to say something like "Well, you ought to desire Y or Z". But why would this be? It is a fact that this other person does not desire Y or Z. I may be willing to work to "force" this person to desire Y and or Z, but it is incoherent to say he 'ought' to desire this or that unless I acknowledge that I am merely stating a preference.
Why is it the case that I must be speaking about my own desires when I use moral language? There are a lot of desires in the universe – all of them just as real as my own. The claim that I am only capable of talking about my own preferences is simply false. I am quite capable of making intelligible claims about relationships between objects of evaluation and preferences that are not mine. Among these, I am capable of speaking intelligibly about malleable desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit.
In fact, if I were interested in getting you to do Q, it would be foolish of me to merely express my preference that you do Q, unless I thought my preferences had some magical control over your decisions that the mere knowledge that I had a preference would influence your action. The rational thing for me to do would be to relate doing Q to your own preference – to convince you that you had a reason to do Q, not that I had a reason for you to do Q.
Of course, if you do not have a reason to do Q, the fact that doing Q would bring about a state that I desire gives me a reason to give you a reason to do Q. I can do this in one of two ways.
The first is by threat. "You desire that P. If you do not do Q, then I will work to realize not-P". In other words, I will thwart your desire unless you act to fulfill mine. Please not that the criminal law functions almost exclusively on this principle, where fines, imprisonment, or (in some cases) death are the desire-thwarting actions of those trying to get you to do Q (or, in most cases, to refrain from doing R).
The other way I can give you a reason to do Q is to alter your desires. If I can give you a desire that R, and doing Q will realize R, then I can give you a reason to do R.
So, how can I alter your desires? Among the tools I have available are praise and condemnation. I can also use positive and negative reinforcement. I have no ability to reason you into a new desire (I can only reason you into an action that better fulfills the most and strongest of the desires you already have), but this does not imply that I am impotent.
In the same way that I can speak intelligibly about the desires that I have reason to cause you to have, I can also speak intelligibly about the desires that people generally have reason to want you to have. I can add to my praise or condemnation that, "It's not just me. People generally have many and strong reason to promote the general strengthening of this desire that would give those who have it a reason to do Q or to abstain from R."
Though this statement alone might not motivate you to do Q, it does put you on notice that there are many and strong reasons to criticize and condemn those who do not do Q and to give them other types of reasons for doing Q such as making threats and making good on the threats given.
Moral claims, in this sense, are almost entirely independent of my own preferences. Insofar that they are dependent on reasons for action that exist, and the reasons for action that I have are a portion of the reasons for action that exist, they are somewhat dependent on my desires. However, the influence of my desires is quite small. The moral claims that were true before I was born remained true after I was born. The moral claims that are true the day before I die will be true the day after I die.
Furthermore, it makes perfectly good sense for people in a society to talk about desires that people generally have many and strong reason to promote, and desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit. In fact, the very same reasons that exist to promote some desires and inhibit others are themselves many and strong good reasons to discuss what desires to promote and what desires to inhibit.
It makes no sense to limit claims about relationships to objects and desires to relationships between objects and my desires. It is as absurd as limiting claims about relationships between objects in space to claims about the relationships between objects and my current location in space.
Moral claims are not claims about what I like or do not like. There is no reason for such a claim to move people in any way. They are claims about what desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, where the method of promoting those desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If I can make and defend such a claim, it follows necessarily that people generally have many and strong reasons to act on such a claim.
This is not "merely stating a preference". It is "merely stating a relationship between malleable desires and the most and strongest of all reasons for action that exist." However, using the term 'merely' when talking about the most and strongest of all reasons for action that exist is incoherent – so that part needs to be dropped.