Chris Heathwood has written an article in which he tries to defend a particular theory on the value of a life.
(See Desire Satisfaction and Hedonism by Chris Heathwood (Philosophical Studies (2006) 128:539–563).)
His theory focuses on the idea that a good life is one in which there is the most subjective desire satisfaction. This is a state that obtains when an agent has a desire that P and a belief that P is true.
An instance of subjective desire satisfaction is a state of affairs din which a subject (i) has an intrinsic desire at some time for some state of affairs and (ii) believes at that time that the state of affairs obtains.
An 'intrinsic desire' in Heathwood's sense is what I call a desire-as-end. It is the desire that agents have for states for their own sake and not for their usefulness in realizing some further end.
According to Heathwood, this type of value is what makes up a good life. He states:
Each instance of subjective desire satisfaction is intrinsically good for its subject.
My first objection is that there is no such thing as intrinsic value.
Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. A state S has end-value (to A) if and only if A has a desire that P and P is true in S.
I illustrate this denial of intrinsic value by calling upon readers to imagine two universes. In Universe 1, there is an agent with a desire that P and a state S in which P is true. In Universe 2 there is no agent, but it is still the case that there is a state S in which P is true.
Intrinsic value theory states that Universe 1 is better than Universe 2. This is because Universe 1 has desire fulfillment (which has intrinsic value), and Universe 2 does not.
The theory that I advance states that State S has value to A in virtue of A's desire that P and P being true in S. A himself has no reason to choose Universe 1 over Universe 2, because in both universes there is a state S and P is true in S. A would look at both universes with indifference because both of them fulfill his desire that P.
Nobody else other than A has a reason to choose Universe 1 over Universe 2 except in relation to their own desires.
We may prefer Universe 1 over Universe 2. We may look on this situation and say, "Yes, clearly, Universe 1 is better than Universe 2." However, we are making that choice based upon our own desires. If we take away those desires, then we, too, will be indifferent with respect to these two universes.
In fact, if we take away our desires, we will become indifferent about just about everything.
There is no intrinsic value. There are only relationships between states of affairs and desires.
This means that a state of, "A desires that P and A believes that P" has value to an agent only insofar as an agent has a desire that Q, and Q is true in "A desires that P and A believes that P."
I agree that, when an agent has a desire that P and believes that P, that agents tend to get a jolt of pleasure. And the state of feeling pleasure is a state that a great many of us desire. However, by and large, this jolt of pleasure is more than what is needed for a good life.
Heathwood's theory cannot pass the experience machine test. The experience machine is a virtual world generator that gives an agent the belief that his desires are being fulfilled. He lays himself on a couch, hooks himself up to the virtual world, and is then fed sensations that his brain interprets as him being a successful political and business leader loved by everybody and incapable of failure.
Heathwood, it would seem, would have to grant that this is an extremely good life. It is filled with subjective desire satisfaction - with desires that P and beliefs that P - though it is a world in which P is seldom true.
However, a great many people would consider this to be a pathetic and wasted life. Yes, it would feel good, and they would admit to a desire to feel good. However, they would prefer to feel good for the right reasons.
The reason that many people find little value from the experience machine is because, if they have a desire that P, then they are motivated to realize a state in which P is true. Stepping into the experience machine is not a way to realize a state in which P is true. In fact, for most of our desires, inside the experience machine, P is false. To the degree that people have desires that cannot be fulfilled within the machine, to that degree they have no reason to act so as to choose a life in the machine.
Different people have different desires. There may well be some people whose desires are such that they do have more and stronger reasons to enter the machine.
However, this does not change the fact that many would not enter the machine. They would prefer to live in the real world. It is a world in which "A desires that P and A believes that P" is less common and requires much more work - particularly insofar as the desire that P motivates them to adopt methods where they are likely to reject the belief that P unless P is true.
However, they would still view this as the better, more meaningful life.