Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Heathwood's Theory of Well-Being - Part 2 - Simple Desire Satisfactionism

The topic under discussion is "A good life" or what it means to be doing well.

Simple Desire Satisfactionism is a theory of a good life that states that a good life simply consists in getting what one wants – fulfilling the most and strongest of one’s own desires. More specifically, in the terms already put down in this blog, it means that, for a person who has a desire that P, desire that Q, and a desire that R, his life is going well if a state of affairs (or series of affairs) is realized in which P, Q, and R are all true.

If we use the example that I have been using in the desirism book posts, where Alph has one desire, which is to gather stones, so long as there are stones to gather, Alph is having a pretty good life – as good as a life can be. We may not like it, but Alph has no reason to complain.

Heathwood discusses this theory in his article, "Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism" (Philosophical Studies, 2006, 128:539-563).

He notes, correctly, that when we talk about desire satisfaction we are talking about what Heathwood calls “intrinsic desires” and what I call “end-desires”. These are things that are desired/valued for their own sake. They are distinguished from things that are desired/valued as a means to an end.

When Alph has gathered all of his stones he has a “desire as means” to scatter stones so that he can gather them again. However, this scattering of stones does not contribute to his well-being or the quality of his life. It is work – something he must do though he has no end-desire to do so in order to once again realize a state in which he is gathering stones.

I dislike the use of the term “satisfaction” because it hints at a physical sensation such as “pleasure” that one might have when thinking that one has gotten something that one wants. I prefer to use the term “fulfillment” – indicating that, for an agent with a desire that P, a state of affairs in which P is true fulfills the requirements for being a state that the agent values.

Similarly, I fear that the term “intrinsic” desires suggests value that is intrinsic to objects of evaluation and, thus, not dependent on desires. The value of any state of affairs S is, in fact, extrinsic – depending on there being a desire that P and that P is true in S. Even then, the state S is only valued/desired in this way by those with the desire that P. Instead, I use the term “end-desires” or “desires as an end” as opposed to “desires as a means”.

Terminology aside, Heathwood brings up a couple of problems with the “simple desire satisfaction theory”. These objections are effective against the theory. However, they point to possible improvements.

One problem concerns future desires. Heathwood uses an example from Richard Brandt that involved a person at age 20 who desires that rock music be played at his 50th birthday party. However, by the time he turns 50, he no longer likes rock music. Instead, he prefers easy listening, and wants easy listening for his birthday party. Simple desire satisfaction theory states that fulfilling the desire of his 20-year-old self will contribute to the quality of his life – his well-being. However, this seems not to be the case.

Heathwood answers this objection, sensibly, by arguing that what matters is getting what one wants when one wants it. It means getting rock music while one wants rock music, and getting easy listening when one wants easy listening. Now-for-then desires, or desires for some future state, are not included among the desires that contribute to the quality of a life since they are not desires that can be fulfilled while one has them.

This implies that a person's life can neither be improved upon or diminished by what happens after the person has died.

Heathwood notes a second problem with simple desire satisfaction theory that comes from remote desires – or desires for things so far removed from a life that it cannot influence its quality. He uses Derek Parfit’s example of a person who meets a stranger on a train. Over the course of the trip, the agent learns that the stranger is ill and sincerely comes to hope that the stranger is cured of his affliction. However, he never sees the stranger again and never learns that the stranger, actually, comes to be cured. This is a desire that is fulfilled, but it does not seem to contribute to the quality of the agent’s life.

Heathwood answers this objection with another modification to simple desire satisfaction theory. Simply, Heathwood suggests that the satisfaction of a desire only counts if the agent is aware that it has been satisfied.

In providing this objection, Heathwood dismisses Parfit’s suggestion that the only desires that count are desires “about the agent’s own lives” (though this raises questions about what those desires are).
I have an objection that suggests that Parfit may be closer to the truth than Heathwood on this matter.
My objection has to do with the possibility of genuine self-sacrifice. This is a case in which an agent sacrifices or lessens the quality of his or her own life for the same of something or somebody else. A parent who sacrifices for his child, the soldier who sacrifices for her country, and the scientist who is so devoted to her research that she neglects her own well-being are examples of this.

Under Heathwood’s account it would seem that the only form of self-sacrifice that exists involves helping others in a way that one does not learn about whether the act was a success or a failure. The soldier who gives his life for his country would perform an act of genuine self-sacrifice. However, the soldier who becomes paralyzed or loses a limb learns whether her sacrifice was successful. Thus, this person has only traded something of lesser value for something of greater value in her own life. She has not performed a genuine sacrifice.

I would like to suggest an answer much like Parfit’s. The desires that matter in measuring the quality of a life are the desires that take the self as an object. These are desires where the proposition that is the object of the desire refers to the agent who has it. “I desire that I have lots of money,” “I desire that I not be in pain,” “I desire that I see my grandchildren graduate from college.” These desires are self-referencing and count towards the quality of a person’s life.

An act that is performed where an agent thwarts self-referencing desires to fulfill other-referencing desires, then, would be acts of genuine self-sacrifice. The soldier who becomes paralyzed or loses a limb has performed an actual act of self-sacrifice in that her self-regarding desires (those regarding the use of the limbs that are paralyzed or lost) are sacrificed so that an other-regarding desire (the safety of her comrades in arms, her country, and its fellow citizens) are fulfilled. This is a sacrifice of self for others.

This suggestion will still require some work. There is a question as to how to handle desires that are both self-regarding and other-regarding, such as the parent who desires that his children are healthy or that his country is protected. There are also questions regarding self-regarding harms, such as a person who has performed some criminal act and, feeling guilty, wants to be punished.
Heathwood discusses a similar case to these in the next part of his article. I will look at his discussion and try to provide some clarification on these issues in a future post.

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