Thursday, August 20, 2009

Desirism

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.

9 comments:

Luke said...

Alonzo,

Are you getting my emails? I emailed you about the term 'desirism' weeks ago but never got a response.

Kip said...

> "With this change, there is no 'utility' to maximize any more."

When I act to fulfill the "most and strongest of my desires" (given my beliefs), isn't that a sort of "utilitarian calculation" that is going on to "maximize utility"? If we could give a "util" measure to each desire, then I would be acting to maximize the # of utils, wouldn't I?

Now, how would this be different once you consider the various strengths ("util" measurement) of all desires that exist? Isn't Desire Utilitarianism then prescribing that what is "good" is the state of affairs that results in the most utility?

Chris said...

"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."

If nobody had a desire for socialized medicine, then no one would need fear socialized medicine, and nobody would have reason to regret this fact.

If nobody had a desire to marry someone of the same sex, then no one would need to fear people marrying someone of the same sex, and nobody would have reason to regret this fact.

If nobody had a desire for X, then no one would need fear people who desire X, and nobody would have reason to regret this fact.

It seems trivially true that if no one desires X, then no one would regret the fact that we do not have X.

Or am I missing something?

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Yeah, doesn't seem to matter what term you use, since when it comes to morality people are simply preset by their misconceptions to run things aground one way or the other. So pick your poison. You have to get beyond their first knee jerk reaction regardless, so you might as well just make up some crazy freakin name and then explain why you did that. :D

I'm half joking, of course. I prefer "desire economics."

Ben

Doug S. said...

Another common variation on utilitarianism is "preference utilitarianism", which is roughly equivalent to the theory you describe as "desire fulfillment act utilitarianism" - the best act is that which brings about the greatest preference satisfaction.

Eneasz said...

It seems trivially true that if no one desires X, then no one would regret the fact that we do not have X.

Hello Chris. This post was more of a summation, the full argument is covered in some earlier posts (which I believe are linked in Luke's FAQ - yay Luke!)

The thing that's missing is that some desires are malleable, and some are not. For example, it's impossible (or nearly so) to remove the aversion to pain from people - it comes pre-wired in our biology. It's far less difficult to create an aversion to causing pain to others. Since it's possible to prevent (or greatly diminish) sadism, but it's not possible to prevent an aversion to pain, the better world is one without sadists.

Also, re: socialized medicine and marrying someone of the same sex - desires aren't that specific. People have a desire to be healthy, and an aversion to being broke (actually an aversion to being powerless, but money buys power nowadays). For some that expresses itself as socialized-medicince-seeking behavior, but it's not a desire for socialized medicine per se.

Likewise, people have a desire for justice (or they should anyway, if society is doing it's job), are attracted to certain traits, and have a desire for companionship and sex. It is true that there are also some people who have an aversion to any sort of same-sex behavior. However that aversion is learned, and there is no good reason for it to exist. Attraction to certain traits is far less maleable than an aversion that wouldn't exist at all if not for those who teach bigotry.

Chris said...

Eneasz,

I had actually spotted the malleable angle. I do agree that it is certainly possible to imagine eliminating desire to rape children easier then to eliminate the fear and pain in the children (but why is this a criteria, necessarily). I agree with Mr. Frye on many issues of normative ethics, but I struggle to see how any of this clarifies the issue. The trouble with looking at this (or any ethical system) from the point of view of something so vile as child rape is we already know the answer. One the one hand, I have yet discovered any ethical system that does not in the end "prove" in some sense, that child rape is wrong. What a shock. On the other, it is on the more nuanced ethical issues that most systems inevitably fail.

In all due respect, I have read with interest a fair amount in this web site and one thing that keeps popping up are arguments somewhat like what you say in your post, "Likewise, people have a desire for justice (or they should anyway, ..." There is this blending of fact and norms. Why should people have a desire for justice, per se, if they don't currently have it? I would like them to have this desire, but I don't see how any analysis separate from our my subjective preferences could tell me this. I agree we have desires, including desires concerning other's desires. Even if you are right that "that aversion [for same sex copulation] is learned," what can you possibly mean by "and there is no good reason for it to exist" except that you do not think there is a good reason. Maybe you can show rationally that holding onto an aversion to same sex coupling is also detrimental to other things we value but this only affects those who hold that these other things have value.

And that is the crux. We cannot judge a set of desires accept in the context of how they fail or succeed in satisfy our wants. You can get me to work on some malleable desire voluntarily only if you can show me how it affects something else I desire. What we cannot do is find some objective basis for what we ought to value.

FWIW, I am a subjectivist. I will follow this thread and continue reading the site, but I will not try to derail every discussion with pointless "subjectivist" arguments. Like most serious meta ethical subjectivists, I do not think any normative theory has given any objective account of why one thing should be valued over some other outside of the context of our subjective preferences and their relationship to all of our desires.

Emu Sam said...

If I understand your argument, Chris, you are looking for an absolute answer, a thing that is always moral in all circumstances, and not based on existing desires.

Relevant points of Desire Utilitarianism might include that desires are real things, and the relationships between desires are real things. If I am happy to wake up in the morning, this is an objectively true fact. You can say that waking up is a thing that many people may have different reactions to, and no one reaction is the right one. However, you can't say that my feelings towards waking up are subjective. I am happy or I am unhappy. You can measure my endorphins and brain waves to discover a true state of reality, and you can call me a liar if I falsely say that I am unhappy.

It is also possible to measure whether people generally are happy or unhappy. (I suggest that happiness, if quantified, or all people would follow a graph very close to a normal curve in statistics.) From this, you could say that people generally have a good reason to promote waking up or not waking up (that we have a desire to wake up) which we mentally (consciously and unconsciously) cross-reference with other desires.

If we were to encounter an alien race with greatly different desires, how would we decide whether to promote waking up or not, according to Desire Utilitarianism?

Actually, the answer is that we decide according to that which fulfills the greatest of our desires, which will never solely include DU, but that's sidestepping an example that might be useful to Chris's point.

Another important principle is that "should" implies "can". An ethical theory that tells us we should do something (we should not desire no rape) that we cannot do (we cannot change our desires to not desire no rape - ugh, triple negative) is a useless ethical theory.

Chris said...

If I understand your argument, Chris, you are looking for an absolute answer, a thing that is always moral in all circumstances, and not based on existing desires.

Well, no, I am a subjectivist and I too think that all ethical considerations are reducible to preferences and desires. I just think statements of “ought” are incoherent outside of those subjective preferences.

Relevant points of Desire Utilitarianism might include that desires are real things, and the relationships between desires are real things. If I am happy to wake up in the morning, this is an objectively true fact. You can say that waking up is a thing that many people may have different reactions to, and no one reaction is the right one.

No, I would not say this. A reaction just is. It is not right or wrong, per se. If people have different reactions to waking up, then they have different reactions to waking up.

However, you can't say that my feelings towards waking up are subjective. I am happy or I am unhappy. You can measure my endorphins and brain waves to discover a true state of reality, and you can call me a liar if I falsely say that I am unhappy.

Your feelings in so far as you directly experience them are subjective. They are not part of my subjective experiences and hence I can only learn about your feelings indirectly by watching you, listening to you, or directly measuring your endorphin levels, etc. Yes, I can gain objective knowledge about your physical states of being--those are objective facts. I cannot however experience your subjective feelings (or your subjective anything.) But, I am not sure how it is relevant to our discussion. I will add that

I do not have a problem with “real” desires or the fact that our knowledge of psychology, sociology, biology, etc can help us understand why and how people are happy. I also understand that I have certain conflicts that I can work through with better knowledge of my desires. I also have conflicts with others, and I will employ various means to try to resolve the conflicts. These may include logic, facts, propaganda, negotiation and ultimately coercion.

Doing X is beneficial only in so far as makes it more likely that I can achieve some state Y and it is a fact that I do desire Y and it does not excessively keep me from achieving some other state Z that I also desire. But the 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. Even if I say “But desiring Y or Z leads to some other thing, A.” “Don’t you want A, too”. But maybe this person does and maybe he does not. I am still trapped at the point I say, “You ought to desire A.”

My problem is the jump from knowledge to “ought”. You say, “ Another important principle is that ‘should’ implies ‘can’ and that is true enough. It is also true, as stated by Mr. Frye, that something we cannot do implies it is not something we ought to do. This is simple logic. But it is also true that not all things we “can” do are things we ought to do or promote. It is in the deciding this that is the basis of ethics. I agree that an ethical theory that proposes we ought to do things we cannot do is useless. But merely focusing on what we can do does not fix the fundamental problem.