If our intrinsic desires themselves are subject to rational requirements, then there must be rational requirements beyond [means-ends rationality]. (Smith, Michael, "Beyond the Error Theory," in A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, (Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin, eds.), 2010.)
I hold that there are no rational requirements for intrinsic desires -- that there is no way to evaluate desires - other than "means-ends rationality". That is to say, the only thing we can say about a desire, in terms of recommending for or against it, has to do with the degree that it tends to fulfill or thwart other desires.
In a section of Michel Smith's article cited above, Smith will examine a suggestion that this view is mistaken, derived from the writings of the Richard M. Hare.
It is a principle of Universalization.
U: RR (if a subject has an intrinsic desire that p , then either p itself is suitably universal or the satisfaction of the desire that p is consistent with the satisfaction of desires whose contents are themselves suitably universal).To be fair, Hare did not present this principle as a principle governing the rationality of desires. Hare presented this as a principle of morality. The further claim is that only the desire to maximize happiness and minimize suffering is universal in this way.
In other words:
To be rational, our intrinsic desires must have contents that are themselves suitably universal – they must mention no particulars – or, at any rate, their satisfaction must be consistent with the satisfaction of desires whose contents are themselves suitably universal.
I wish that Smith had provided an example to help explain these principles. However, he did not, and that leaves me a bit lost as to whether my understanding is even in the right neighborhood.
For example, it makes sense to say that if an agent has a desire that P, that this is fulfilled by any state in which P is true. A person who wants a steak should be equally satisfied by any of a set of identical states. It would make no sense for him to say, "I like them all except Number 3," when there is nothing to distinguish Number 3 from any other steak.
However, if this is what is meant by this principle of universalization, I cannot see how it has anything to do with the rest of the discussion. I can't see how it provides even a hint of an challenge to Mackie's claim that there is no rationality of ends.
Instead, Hare seems to be asserting that this principle of universalization requires that we abstract out the particular people in a state of affairs.
In a hypothetical situation involving three people, for example, this principle of rationality requires that we look at the situation from the point of view of all three people with their individual desires. The only desire that survives this test is a desire for maximum happiness and minimum suffering.
Smith alternatively describes the conclusion as saying that this universal desire would be "to maximally satisfy the desires of all three parties". This is not the same thing as the desire to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, but the difference need not concern us here.
Now, one question to answer is: "Who has this desire for maximum desire satisfaction, and how did he get it?"
Smith discusses and immediately dismisses the possibility that by imagining oneself in the position of all three participants in this event, one automatically acquires the desires of all three participants in this event - which clearly does not happen.
Another option is that there is a principle of rationality that is violated if one imagines oneself in the position of somebody else if one does not acquire the desires of that other person.
Unfortunately, this second option requires that we augment the principle of universalization with a new, second principle of rationality - the principle that states that imagining a situation from the point of view of others rationally requires the adoption of their desires.
Regardless of the merits of this second principle of rationalization, the mere fact that it is required tells us that the principle of universalization is insufficient. We need something else to get us from this imagined universal perspective to a state where an agent has an actual desire that influences real-world action.
Here, it is important to point out that Hare presented this universalization principle not as a principle of rationality, but as a principle of morality. This form of universalization does not tell us what rationality requires, it tells us what morality requires. The person who fails to act appropriately on this principle is not irrational, but immoral.
Here, i want to agree with Hare's distinction. I, too, deny that there are any principles of rationality applicable to evaluating desires-as-ends. However, it still makes sense for us to evaluate desires-as-ends in terms of the degree to which they tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. Those answers tell us whether and to what degree we have reason to promote certain desires-as-ends and weaken or inhibit others.
You cannot infer from the fact that there is no rationality of desires-as-ends that there is no morality of desires-as-ends.
Taken as a principle of morality rather than as a principle of rationality, I still have objections to raise against Hare's universalization. It fails, on practical grounds, to provide an answer to the question, "Who gets this desire and how does he get it?" My answer is that desires are evaluated according to their usefulness, and that useful desires are promoted while harmful desires are inhibited using the social tools of rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation. Because we cannot reason a person into goodness, we must use other tools.