Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hedonism, Desire Satisfaction, and a Good Life

So, would you like to have a good life?

I wouldn't.

Well, actually I would in a sense. After all, for something to be 'good' is to be 'such as to fulfill the desires in question'. The desires in question, in this case, are my desires. To say that I do not desire a good life is to say that I do not desire a life that has those properties that I desire.

However, a good life is not the only thing I want. I want a great many of things. I would like to have a good steak. A good steak is a steak is a steak that has those qualities that I desire in a steak regarding taste and size. However, I want a great many things and often find that i give up other things I would give up a good steak - I would give up the best possible steak - to fulfill sme of those other desires.

I would be willing to give up a good life in exchange for some of the things that I value.

That is, unless we define "a good life" to include everything that I value. In that case, giving up a good life would be impossible. What would I give it up for? It would have to be something I value more than life, but 'life' has been defined in a way that embraces all desires.

We have the same problem with steaks by the way. The best of all possible steaks would be a steak that fulfilled the most possible of my desires. It would fulfill my desires with respect to taste, while leaving unthwarted my desires with respect to gaining weight. However, it would also fulfill my desires regarding, for example, the extended survival of the human species and its descendants.

Note here that I am not using "best" in the moral sense. Different value terms relate different states of affairs to different desires in different ways. When I say, "This is a really good steak," I am not understood to be making a moral judgment - evaluating the steak in relation to desires that tend to fulfill other desires. I am making an aesthetic judgment - evaluating the steak in relation to my own desires regarding the taste, texture, and other qualities of the food itself.

I bring this up because a member of the studio audience sent me a paper, Desire Satisfaction and Hedonism by Chris Heathwood (Philosophical Studies (2006) 128:539–563).

Heathwood's thesis is that:

Hedonism and the desire-satisfaction theory of welfare (‘‘desire satisfactionism’’) are typically seen as archrivals in the contest over identifying what makes one’s life go best. It is surprising, then, that the most plausible form of hedonism just is the most plausible form of desire satisfactionism.

If we were to try to plug the desire utilitarian concept of desire fulfillment into the term "desire satisfaction" in this thesis, there is an immediate problem. Hedonism is an internalist value theory. It holds that what has value is that the brain be in a particular state and draws no relationship between the brain in that state and the external world. This is why hedonist theories fall victim to all sorts of "experience machine" objections. It means that if we get the brain into a particular state and leave it there, we can do whatever we want to the real world and it will have no value.

Desire fulfillment is an externalist value theory. It holds that value can be found in relationships between desires and states of affairs in the real world. A state of affairs S is good (in the generic non-moral sense) insofar as an agent A has a reason to bring about S if and only if A has a desire that P and P is true in S. We can freeze the brain in a particular state of desiring S. However, if we change S we destroy the relationship between S and the desire that P, and thus destroy value.

This is a fundamental difference that makes it impossible for one to be like the other.

Hearthwood gets the externalist nature of desire fulfillment right in his description of desire satisfaction.

Every time a subject S desires that some state of affairs p be the case, and p is the case, S’s desire that p be the case has been satisfied.

Hearthwood adds:

It is no part of Simple Desire Satisfactionism that, for a person's desire to be satisfied, the person must experience feelings of satisfaction.

This is true.


Everyone seems to agree on one restriction to Simple Desire Satisfactionism right off the bat: we should count only intrinsic desires.

By "intrinsic desires" Heathwood seems to be talking about what I call "desires as ends" (as distinguished from desires-as-means) which I, too, would agree with.

However, Heathwood - inexplicably, as far as I can tell - links this to a good life.

According to Simple Desire Satisfactionism, your life goes well to the extent that your desires are satisfied.

I don't think these ideas are at all equivalent. A really good life is like a really good steak. There are some things I want in a life (a steak) and if there is a life (a steak) with those qualities then those desires have been fulfilled. However, what I desire in a life (steak) is only a small subset of the things that I desire. Simple Desire Satisfactionism - or at least Desire Fulfillmentism - looks at all of the things an agent desires, not just the things that an agent desires in a life (or a steak).

Here is an example. I have a desire that the descendents of humanity persist far into the future - as far as the laws of physics will permit. Now, assume that it is the case that the course of human history in which that becomes true is one that requires that the human race go through a period of turmoil and that, in this period of turmoil, the life of Alonzo Fyfe is filled with misery, strife, pain, and deprivation.

We have here an example of a desire that fits the three conditions of desire satisfaction. The desire is satisfied in any state where humanity's descendants will persist as far as the laws of physics will allow, it is an intrinsic desire, and it does not require any feeling of satisfaction on my part.

However, it is decidedly not the case, with respect to this desire under this set of facts, that my life goes well to the extent that this desire is satisfied.

We can conceive of a concept of 'good' in which my life of pain and misery is 'a good life' in the sense that I would accept the pain and suffering in order to prevent human extinction. However, this is the same sense in which a 'good steak' is one that brings about world peace and prevents global warming. But now you are defining 'life' so broadly that there is no basic distinction between a life defined this way and a steak. All steaks are lifes and all lifes are steaks.

When Heathwood relates desire satisfaction to the quality of life he artificially limits the desires in question, and may well beg the question by limiting it to desires that would make his thesis relating hedonism and desire satisfaction true.

If we take this artificially narrow concept of desire fulfillment - as pertaining only to the subset of all desires that comprise what one desires in a life, it may be possible to draw some sort of relationship between that and hedonism. It may be the case that what we desire in a life is pleasure. That option deserves some further scrutiny.

However, it would not follow from the claim that what we desire in a life is pleasure - even if it is true - that what we desire is pleasure - or that the most plausible desire satisfaction theory is identical to the most plausible hedonist theory.

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