Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Caring About "Desires that Tend to Fulfill Other Desires"

Geoff asked

Why do you care about "desires that tend to fulfill other desires" if "desire fulfillment has no value"? A goal to realise a "state of affairs" without an accompanying desire is not possible.

The first thing I want to note is that I did not say that desire fulfillment has no value. I said that desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value. More broadly, I said that intrinsic value does not exist. Nothing has intrinsic value - not even desire fulfillment.

However, there are two types of value that do exist.

An agent with a desire that P has a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs S where P is true in S. Another way of saying this is to say that the agent values S, or S had value for this agent. This type of value exists. It is real.

This is consistent with Geoff's claim that the goal of realizing a state of affairs without an accompanying desire is not possible. In a broad sense, this is true - a desire gives goals to the person that has the desire. A desire that P gives the agent a goal of realizing states of affairs in which P is true.

The second type of value is instrumental value. Let us say that some tool T is useful in realizing S where P is true in S. The agent with the desire that P has reason to value T as a tool - an instrument - useful for bringing about S.

If the agent wants to eat the contents of a can of tunafish, he has reason to value a can opener - not because the can-opener itself fulfills any desire, but because it us useful in creating a state of affairs (an open can of tuna fish) where the agent's desire can be fulfilled.

Desire fulfillment is like everything else in the universe. It has value when desire fulfillment is the object if a desire (Sam desires that Julie's desires are fulfilled), or when desire fulfillment is a useful tool. (If Sam fulfills Julie's desire and Julie knows it, then Julie will perform some action that will fulfill Sam's desire.)

However, the value of desire fulfillment is of little interest in this theory (except to deny that it has intrinsic value). What desirism focuses on is the value of various desires - particularly malleable desires subject to modification using social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

The two ways in which all things can have value are the two ways in which desires can have value. A desire can fulfill another desire directly (Sam desires that Julie desires to spend time with Sam). A desire can have instrumental value. (Given that Sam desires to have a car delivered to San Francisco, if Julie desires to drive to San Francisco, then Sam will find that desire useful in getting his car delivered there.)

I have a desire to retire - to quit my mundane job and research and write blog posts full time. Towards this end, I put money in a retirement account. It would do me no good if others routinely went into my account and took that money for their own purposes. Consequently, I would find a widespread aversion to going into other people's accounts and taking their money to be useful. I have reason to promote such an aversion.

At the same time, I find myself surrounded by people who would also benefit from a widespread aversion to taking what belongs to other people. This not only applies to retirement accounts. They benefit by others having an aversion to taking the car that they use to get back and forth to work, or taking the contents of their refrigerator, or taking the tools that they use in the fulfillment of their desires. At the same time that I have reason to promote a widespread aversion to taking the property of others, I am joined by countless others who also have reason to promote this aversion.

In our common language, we come up with a set of terms to use to identify desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote. We also come up with a language that uses praise and condemnation to promote the desires we have reason to promote, and inhibit the desires we have reason to inhibit.

We include in these desires we have reason to promote an aversion rape and, in fact, an aversion to acts without acquiring the consent of those who would be directly affected. We add an aversion (with some exceptions) to killing and assault and an aversion to lying or "bearing false witness". We promote a desire to help those in immediate need of assistance and an aversion to breaking the rules for those institutions that have rules (e.g., games - where "cheating" is a moral crime and "cheater" an accusation of blame and condemnation). We include an aversion to causing unintended harm and condemn those who lack this aversion as negligent or reckless, and we add an aversion to taking more than one's share.

When we do all of these things, we end up with a moral system.

It is a system that substantially evaluates desires according to their instrumental value and uses social tools to promote those that are useful while inhibiting or blocking those that tend to be harmful or dangerous. The motivation for doing this does not come from any sort of intrinsic value property. It comes from the desiresthat would be fulfilled by a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and from desires that would be thwarted by desires that tend to thwart other desires.

There is no God. There is no natural law. There are no intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, social contracts, impartial observers, or committees hiding behind a vail of ignorance deciding what is just.

There are desires. A desire that P gives an agent a motivating reason to realize states of affairs where P is true. In doing so, the agent is not responding to any type of value property. The motivational force is programmed directly into the desire. A "desire that P" simply is a way of organizing brain matter such that the agent is motivated to realize states of affairs in which P is true.

Evolutionary forces have molded these desires over hundreds of millions of years. We tend to have desires that motivate us to act in ways that, in the past, have resulted in genetic replication. (Note: reproduction is only one form of replication. Many animals - e.g., most ants in an ant colony - replicate without reproduction.)

The evidence is clear that in humans (and most complex animals) evolution has favored a malleable brain - a brain that can fit into various environments by learning a set of desires and beliefs appropriate for that environment. In other words, some of these desires are malleable, depending on the interactions we have with our environment.

Of these malleable desires, some tend to fulfill other desires while some tend to thwart other desires. The desires that tend to fulfill other desires are those that people generally have reason to promote. Those desires that tend to thwart other desires are those that people generally have reason to inhibit.

The tools for promoting and inhibiting desires include praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Read the paragraphs above again and let me know, if you will, if there is any need to insert anywhere any type of intrinsic value property - or any of the items such as categorical imperatives or a God that I mentioned in my list of fictions? We can see, as we go through the list, why any of these might be tempting theories. Social contracts and categorical imperatives, for example, certainly appear to be going in the right direction. Intrinsic value theories that put the intrinsic value in "pleasure", "happiness", "preference satisfaction", or "the well-being of conscious creatures" go in the direction of the truth. However, this account will show where these alternatives fall short, and how to cover the rest of the distance without them.

Why do (should?) we care about desires that tend to fulfill other desires?

Because they are useful. Because they 'tend to fulfill other desires'. Those 'other desires' they tend to fulfill provide the reason to care.


Justin said...

I really appreciate your posts these last few weeks on desirism and am anxious to see how this moral system can work in a variety of scenarios. One scenario that has hit me while thinking over desires and motivation and the fulfillment of others' desire in order to realize your own, is how desirism handles conflicts between two or more sets of desires.

For instance, say John owns a piece of land. John is not wealthy and inherited this land from his grandfather and it is his only possession of any economic value. John has been unemployed for the last six months and has desired to develop this land for agricultural uses and fulfill his dream of moving his family to the country and engage in sustainable farming. Upon clearing out the overgrowth from years of neglect, John comes across a remarkable kind of beetle living in a small pool and shows it to an friend of his, Jane, who is an etymologist. Jane erupts in excitement over this find, apparently John has stumbled upon a Mono Lake Diving Beetle that was once thought to be extinct. Jane then investigates the area and determines that John's pond provides a stable habitat for a sizable population of these beetles as well as a food source that provides a fragile ecosystem for these beetles. Jane pleads with John to donate his land as a preserve for this and several other rare species that have found sanctuary on his grandfather's land. Although John is in favor of fulfilling Jane's desires, the pond represents over half of his land, and to parcel out even that portion would render his remainder unsuitable for all but the most modest agriculture. For John, the health and well being of his family and their new life in the country represents his most important set of desires. He would be willing to allow time to have these species transported off his land, but determining the full scope of this ecosystem and the environmental impact of removing it will take years, and John is living off of borrowed money as it is. He argues with Jane and they part ways and Jane threatens to seek external means to acquiring the land to protect this endangered beetle. She manages to have a cease and desist ordered against further development on the land. John cannot fulfill his desires on his own land because Jane's desires, and those of other ecologists to preserve nature have come into conflict with them.

How would desirism view this situation from a moral standpoint, and would introducing a third system, something like act consequentialism help to mediate the dispute? Is John SOL, or does the beetle meet the reaper? Assuming of course that a third option cannot be found soon, since now John cannot even sell the land as an exit strategy, so no deus ex machina can swing in and fulfill both sets of desires.

This might be a simple problem, and a bad scenario, but it's the best I could come up with.

Justin said...

Why an etymologist would be studying beetles though is beyond me. That should be entomologist. I'm academically dyslexic.

Geoff said...

Thanks for clearing that up. Sorry I misquoted you. I understand now, but I don't fully agree.

I believe that feelings have intrinsic value to the person holding them. Feelings, rather than "to realize states of affairs" is our motivation.

Whether there is any practical difference between these two viewpoints, or it's simply academic, I'm not sure.

Either way, your general philosophy is interesting and useful. Thanks.

kipkoan said...

Geoff: people are sometimes confused by Alonzo's use of "intrinsic value" as meaning "having value without relation to anything else". This type of value doesn't exist. All value is relative to a valuer. I think most people use "intrinsic value" to mean "value as an end, rather than solely as a means to an end", though. Alonzo calls this type of value "value-as-ends", and he acknowledges that that type of value does exist. The value of feelings, for example, can very well be a "value-as-ends". People want to feel happy, for example, not because it will fulfill some other value, but simply because that is a state they desire.