I received an email question from a member of the studio audience that asked me:
As you probably know, Luke & faithlessgod are now using the term Desirism to refer to Desire Utilitarianism. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on dropping the Utilitarian part of the label? Why did you feel that the label was appropriate when you created it (i.e. is it really a Utilitarian theory?) And do you still feel the same way?
Why did I feel that the name Desire Utilitarian was appropriate when I adopted it?
Mostly because of its historical context. What I call Desire Utilitarian is very close to John Stuart Mill's Rule Utilitarian. So, I adopted the term to highlight those similaritis.
Specifically, rule utilitarianism says that an action is right if it follows the best rules, while rule-sets are evaluated according to their utility. According to Mill, the best rule set is the set that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
Mill also has a famous inconsistency in that he says that some forms of happiness (e.g., from poetry) are intrinsically better than others (e.g., from pushpin). And that a person who has experienced both can readily sense the greater quality of one over the other. However, let us set that question aside. My purpose here is not to prove that Mill made no mistakes.
A famous problem with rule utilitarianism is that it collapses into act utilitarianism. What happens if the act that violates the rules will maximize happiness? It seems that you have two options. You either have to argue that the act that violates the rules is the right action, or you have to argue that "following the rules" has value independent of utility. The former option gives you act utilitarianism, while the latter option abandons utilitarianism.
What I call Desire Utilitarian fixes this problem with a simple adjustment.
The rules are wired into the brain in such a way that they do not allow for exceptions. In other words, it isn’t possible to perform an act that violates the rules wired into the brain. The only way to get somebody to intentionally do something else is to change the rules wired into the brain. If we change the rules, we have to ask what consequences that change will have in all of the other instances in which the agent might have to act.
These rules are desires. A person will always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. If we hold beliefs constant, you cannot get a person to intentionally choose a different action by changing his desires. In other words, you cannot get a person to violate the rules that have been wired into the brain.
Given that 'ought' implies 'can', and 'cannot' implies 'it is not the case that one ought', it follows that it is never the case that a person with good desires can act in violation of the rules wired into his brain, then it is never the case that an agent ought to abandon those rules and perform the act-utilitarian best act.
Because this theory offers a minor correction to rule utilitarianism by replacing 'rules' with 'desires', I felt that desire utilitarianism would be a good option.
However, the theory has another change that one can argue ultimately requires giving up the term 'utilitarianism'.
Utilitarian theories have tended to argue that specific psychological states have intrinsic value, so we are to maximize the existence of this intrinsically valuable state. Different utilitarian theories have proposed pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction as the states to be maximized.
However, I reject all intrinsic-value theories. Value is not a property intrinsic to a state. Value is a relationship between states of affairs and desires. For each desire that P, the agent with that desire has a reason to realize a state in which P is true. To say that a state in which P is true has value is to say that there are reasons to act so as to realize that state.
With this change, there is no 'utility' to maximize any more. Agents are not seeking (or not ONLY seeking) pleasure or happiness or pleasure satisfaction. They are seeking states in which the proposition P is true for those who have a desire that P. Those who have a desire that Q are seeking states in which Q is true, and so on, and so on, across the set of desires that exist.
As I understand it, Luke and faithlessgod wish to drop the term Utilitarian because they are tired of addressing the response, "Oh, that's the theory that says that if enough people get off on torturing a child then the right thing to do is to torture that child."
No. The moral question is not whether the act of torturing a child fulfills desires, but whether we have reason to promote a desire to torture children to begin with. We are evaluating desires first, and actions only insofar as they fulfill good desires. If nobody had a desire to torture children, then no child would need to fear being tortured, and nobody would have reason to regret this fact.
There is reason to want to avoid having to deal with these mistaken assumptions entirely – to begin with a clean slate, as it were. Desirism allows for the clean slate.
At the same time, it is still the case that the theory is two steps away from rule utilitarianism. One step in that it puts desires in the place of rules. The second step is that it treats value as a relationship between states of affairs and desires and not as a property intrinsic to a state like pleasure or happiness that is to be maximized.