Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Key Phrases in Desirism

In my writings, I employ certain phrases ad nauseum - because they put an emphasis on what I consider to be important - what I want people to focus their thoughts on - when applying desirism.

Most of the common phrases are captured in the following proposition, which is the core of desirism:

People generally have many and strong reasons to employ social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote those malleable desires that tend to objectively satisfy other desires, and inhibit malleable desires that tend to prevent the objective satisfaction of other desires.

"Have (many and strong reasons)". The only reasons that exist are desires, and a "desire that P" is a reason to act to realize a state of affairs in which P is true. To have a reason is to have a particular desire or aversion. However, since an aversion to P is a desire that not-P, we can typically speak only of desires.

"(Have) many and strong reasons". Many desires outweigh few desires. Strong desires outweigh weak desires. However, there are also cases in which few strong desires can outweigh many weak desires - or where many weak desires can outweigh a few strong desires.

A single life-threatening allergy to X can imply that everybody in the population must give up their weak and easily substituted interest in X. However, if the interest in X is less weak and not so easily substituted, we may reach a point at which the person with the life-threatening allergy does not justify having everybody else sacrifice their interest in X.

Plus, there will be a range of cases in the middle where the two interests are near to balancing out such that it is very difficult to decide which way to go. This is a fact of life. It is no argument against desirism that it concludes that some answers are difficult to discover - particularly where it is true that some answers are difficult to discover.

I speak of having a reason because only reasons that actually exist in the real world are relevant. We can speak hypothetically of relationships between desires that do not exist and states of affairs, but the relationships we speak of do not exist either. They are fictions not relevant in the real world.

"Objectively satisfy" . This reflects the fact that the motivation of a desire that P is to realize a state in which P is objectively true. It is to be contrasted with "subjective satisfaction" which us acquired by believing that P us true. A parent who lives his child wants his wish for the well-being of his child to be objectively true. The mere subjective satisfaction of this desire (believing that the child is well off while the child is in agony) is not good enough. Objective satisfaction of a desire is what people are after. Subjective satisfaction - when objective satisfaction has been acquired - is icing on the cake.

"Malleable desires." These are desires that can be strengthened or weakened, created or destroyed, or modified in terms of shifting their object (changing "P" for a desire that "P") by interaction with the environment.

Because each of us is a part of the environment of other people, to the degree that their desires can be changed through interaction with their environment, to that degree we have the ability to mold those desires. The desires we can mold because we are a part of their environment are what I call malleable desires.

Praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment act on the reward center of the brain to alter certain malleable desires. These are the tools of morality, and they are there to be used in promoting desires people have many and strong reasons to promote, or inhibit desires people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit.

"People generally". There are 19 people on a bus who have various interests that involve a certain amount of silence. They wish to catch a few more minutes of sleep on their way to work, to finish up a presentation before the 9:00 meeting, to talk to their sick mother, etc. There is one who wants would like to listen to a song very, very loud - or who just wants to talk to his friend about the party that afternoon. But he does so in their living-room voice - loudly, so that the whole population of the bus knows the details of the party by the time he is done.

We can speak of a boat going generally in a westerly direction, or of orbits being generally circular. We are not saying that these claims are true in every single instance, but that they are likely to be true in any given instance. I speak of people generally having many and strong reason to promote certain desires in this sense.

The phrase "people generally" looks at all of the desires and aversions that people have. It recognizes that there are few desires that everybody has. Yet, some desires are very common, and in many cases different desires can lead to common interests (in the way that the different desires above all lend themselves to an interest in relative silence on the bus). I am not saying that everybody has these interests, because they do not. However, when we look at a population, we can make certain claims about what is generally true among the people in that population.

Does this mean that desirism is a theory that says that the majority always wins? No, it does not. To see that, refer back to my discussion on "many and strong" where it is possible that a few strong desires can outweigh many weaker desires. The majority is not always right.

"Tend to". This pays attention to the fact that desires are persistent entities. We have no capacity to turn them on and off. Consequently, a desire that is active at in a particular set if circumstances will be active through a large set of circumstances - some common and some uncommon. To evaluate a desire we would be foolish to look only at the role it plays in this one circumstance. We must look at the role it plays in the wide variety of circumstances in which it will come into play.

Furthermore, these possible circumstances must be weighed by the likelihood that they would actually occur. Extremely unlikely circumstances (e.g., pulling a switch on a trolley that will send it off a track where it will certainly kill five people and onto a track where it will certainly kill one) do not count at all - because they will never happen. Likely and frequent occurances count a great deal.

The phrase "tend to" respects the fact that a desire can, for example, objectively satisfy other desires in 95 percent of the circumstances in which it comes into play. Yet, even in that 5 percent, people have many and strong reasons to promote it using praise or to condemn its absence - in oder to harvest the benefits from the other 95 percent.

Or, a desire might conflict with other desires a little bit 95 percent of the time. However, in the other 5 percent they produce exceptional benefits that objectively satisfy other desires. Cautious anxiety may cause a person to double-check a latch 19 times to discover it was still latched, and to double-check it once to discover it has become unlatched.

These, then, are some of the common phrases that I use in applying desirism and what they mean when I use them.

1 comment:

mojo.rhythm said...


Why haven't you been writing much about politics lately? Surely it is a meaty topic given the upcoming election?