As a follow up to yesterday’s post, I have been asked
[B]etween the following [pair] of worlds, which would desirism recommend ("neutral" or "toss a coin" is also an option)?
(A-life = almost all desires fulfilled; B-life = hardly any desires fulfilled)
• World_1: one billion B-lives, three billion A-lives
• World_2: one billion B-lives, six billion A-lives
Desirism cannot answer the question because an important piece of information has been left out.
Who are you asking?
Let's ask the people of World_1. "Assume you had the capacity to decide today which world will exist tomorrow. Your world, pretty much as it is now. Or a different world made up one billion B-lives, six billion A-lives?"
I bet you would have a hard time coming up with any argument providing the population of World_1 with any type of motivating reason to choose World_2. There might be some in the population who would say, "I'll give up my life so that more people can live happy lives." Yet, they would be few and far between. For the most part, they would choose World_1. They have more and stronger reasons to choose World_1. They would not be neutral, nor would they be inclined to toss a coin. "World_1" would be their choice.
Correspondingly, if you ask the population of World_2, they would almost certainly choose World_2. The question would be like asking the population of World_2 if they have many and strong reason to have 3 billion people with A-lives disappear overnight. Again, it seems most likely that the population of World_2 have many and strong reasons to prevent such an event. They, too, would not answer with a shrug, nor would they choose to flip a coin. "World_2" would be their answer.
You can ask which world an impartial observer would prefer. However, if he was truly impartial, he would be neutral as to which world exists. In order to get this observer to make a choice, the observer has to have some interests or "partialities" on which to base that decision. His decision will be grounded on those partialities.
If the observer has a desire that 4 billion people exists, then the observer would choose World_1. If the observer desires that 7 billion people exists, it will choose World_2. If the observer only cares that people exist and does not care how many, this observer would likely choose "flip a coin" assuming that the coin flip was a precipitating event that would bring the winning world into existence from nothing.
The idea that there is a right answer independent of the question, "Who do you ask?" is a false assumption.
Asking this question is very much like asking, "Which is closest; Baghdad or Osaka?"
Closest . . . to what?
Closest to Tokyo? Closest to Tehran?
Until you give me a reference point, I cannot answer the question. However, after you give me a reference point, there is an objective right answer to that question. It is simply not the same answer as you would get if you selected a different reference point.
In fact, the reason why people who ask questions like, "Which world is better" without talking about a reference point never find an answer that they like is precisely because it is like asking the question, "Which is closest" without answering the question, "Closest to what?" There simply is no answer to that question.
This analogy can goes even further.
Note that, when we talk about location, there is no privileged reference point. There is no one right reference point that reference questions must refer to. "Tokyo" is not in any absolute way a more correct reference point than "Tehran".
However, in spite of this fact nobody argues that statements about location are subjective, or that location represents an area of knowledge outside of science. Instead, we build into our scientific and objective understanding of location that we can only talk about location relative to something else and that there is no intrinsically privileged or correct reference point.
The same is true about questions of value. Questions of value need a reference point. No reference point is privileged. However, given a reference point (a set of desires), now we can talk about the value of states of affairs as they stand in relation to that reference point.
The objection is sometimes raised that I give a special status to the reference point "people generally". I hold that moral claims are ultimately claims about malleable desires that "people generally" have the most and strongest reason to promote using rewards (such as praise) and condemnation (such as punishment).
However, the only fact I note about these desires is that they are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. I do not draw any implications that are not sound implications that follow from this fact alone. The only privilege I give these malleable desires is the privilege that they draw from being, in fact, desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote.