Friday, January 18, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0017:Sidgwick, Desires, and Goodness

Whatsoever is the object of any man's desire, that it is which he for his part call Good, and the object of his aversion, Evil.Thomas Hobbes, Leviathon

Henry Sidgwick, in The Methods of Ethics, Book I, Chapter IX, objects.

To be clear, at the start, Sidgwick objects to this as a definition of "good", and on that score I would agree with Sidgwick. I hold that "good" is to be understood as "that which there is a reason to bring about." It is merely a matter of empirical fact that the only reasons that exist to bring about (or, for that matter, to prevent) are desires and aversions. If some other types of reasons existed, then those reasons would allow us to call other things good. But they do not exist.

However, I wish to set that question aside and simply take up the challenge of answering Sidgwick's concerns that are applicable to the proposition: "Good" = "Is such as to fulfill the desires in question." Against this proposition, many of Sidgwick's objections are relevant. It is time I stepped up and addressed them directly.

Desires and Expectations

Sidgwick wrote, "We have first to meet the obvious objection that a man often desires what he knows is on the whole bad for him."

This is easily addressed, for what is it that makes it bad for him? That would be the case that the realization of that which is desired also realizes states to which he has aversions - where, in some cases, that to which the agent is adverse is more strongly disliked that that which is desired. The point to be made here is that this is an observation, where we do not need to postulate anything other than desires and aversions to explain this observation. A person likes to eat chocolate cake, even though it causes him to gain weight, and the weight gain thwarts all sorts of desires.

Sidgwick also commented, "but that these bad effects, though fore-seen are not fore-felt". This is something that desirism has fully addressed. Future desires have no capacity to reach back in time and motivate current action. I know that, in the future, I will hate the fact that P. However, that future hatred will provide future motivation. The only way that it can motivate current behavior is if I have a present desire that my future desires be fulfilled. Other than that, the future desire is known but not felt.

The same is true of future good effects, such as the effects of saving for a retirement, which cannot motivate any current savings, unless the agent has a current desire that future desires go satisfied.

However, the very reason that those future states are bad (or good) is in virtue of their relationship to the agent's desires. It is still the case that there is no good other than that which fulfills a desire, and no bad other than that which will thwart a desire.

Unfulfillable Desires

Sidgwick also argues that, "a prudent man is accustomed to suppress, with more or less success, desires for what he regards as out of his power to attain by voluntary action---as fine weather, perfect health, great wealth or fame, etc.; but any success he may have in diminishing the actual intensity of such desires has no effect in leading him to judge the objects desired less `good'."

Here, it is important to see exactly what Sidgwick is saying, because it is not obvious. If we accept that "good" = "is such as to fulfill the desires in question," then it should not be possible to adjust the strength of a desire for something without changing its goodness. However, according to Sidgwick, the prudent man weakens his desire for things that are beyond his control. Yet, in weakening his desire, he does not weaken their goodness. Therefore, goodness is independent of the strength or object of an agent's desire.

One way to conceive of an agent weakening his desire for something is by lowering what the agent would be willing to give up to get it. Let us assume that perfect health - one of the things on Sidgwick's list - is something that the agent would be willing to spend $10 million to acquire. However, he does not have $10 million. According to Sidgwick, if he were prudent, he would lower his desire for it. Lowering his desire would translate into, for example, being willing to pay $1 million for it. This translates into saying that, if the price were dropped to $5 million, he would no longer buy it, because he does not want it that badly.

We have two options. On one option, he truly does not care about perfect health with the intensity that he used to. In this case, we should draw the conclusion that its value has diminished - that it is no longer as good as it once was. On the other option, while he has learned to deal with the unpleasantness of the unfulfilled desire, he still desires the good as much as he used to. In this case, he is still willing to pay the original $10 million, and it would be wrong to say that perfect health has any reduced value. Either way, the value of perfect health is still tied to how strongly it is desired.


As I mentioned at the start, I do not take this to be the meaning of "good", simply an account of what it takes for value statements to be true. This is because desires provide the only reasons that exist. If we change the desires, then we change the reasons that exist for realizing some end. Consequently, there is little option but to say its value has changed. But the value may not be what the agent believes it to be. An agent have a desire that P, and either falsely believe that he will find P in S or be unpleasantly surprised by finding P in T. It is still the case that the value he unexpectedly found or the badness that he failed to avoid depends on his desires.

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