Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Utilitarianism and Rights Theory

I recognize that there are important similarities between the "desire utilitarianism" that I employ in these posts and the "preference utilitarian" theory of Peter Singer and the late R.M. Hare. Every once in a while, I go out and look for a systematic description of preference utilitarianism so that I can compare the two. So far, I have been disappointed. The closest that I have been able to come are brief (typically, one-paragraph) descriptions that preference utilitarianism is like all other types of utilitarianism except it puts 'preference satisfaction' in place of pleasure or happiness.

Well, that's quite different from the type of 'desire utilitarianism' that I employ here. Theories that attempt to maximize pleasure, or happiness, or preference fulfillment are all versions of act-utilitarianism: "Do that act that maximizes X."

Desire utilitarianism is a rule-utilitarian theory. It allows that people are going to act to fulfill their own desires, and argues for promoting those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. Any talk of a 'right act' in terms of maximizing anything is nonsense, because a person simply cannot act in any way other than to fulfill his own desires.

Desire utilitarianism is a rule-utilitarian theory because desires are rules that are written into our moral code. A desire for chocolate is a rule written into the brain that says, "choose those actions that will help you to acquire chocolate." This desire has weight. It must be weighed against other desires. However, if this desire is present then it will always exert a force on behavior -- urging the agent to act in such a way so as to acquire chocolate.

Using these facts, we can instill in people such things as an aversion to lying, an aversion to sex without consent, a desire to help others, an aversion to torture, and aversion to killing people who are no threat to others, and the like. These rules, once instilled, will have an affect on action. They will weigh for and against each other -- and against other non-moral desires the agent has -- to produce action.

So, desire utilitarianism does not say, "you ought to maximize X" for any X. It holds that such prescriptions are a waste of breath.

Now, on this particular trek out into the internet to find a systematic expression of preference utilitarianism, I came across a blog entitled, "The reasons why I am not a utilitarian" by Justin.

It gives several objections to utilitarianism. On the basis of these objections, the author asserts that rights-based theories are superior.

Rights Theories

In answering his challenge, I will start by explaining why I am not a rights theorist.

[Technically, I do believe in rights -- but a form of rights that is compatible with desire utilitarianism. On this concept, a "right" is "that which people generally have reason to create an aversion to violating." The right to freedom of the press translates into a claim that people generally have reason to prohibit violent interference with those who say things they do not like. A right to a fair trial means that people generally have reason to promote an aversion to do harm to people without an unbiased review of the evidence to determine if inflicting harm (punishment) is deserved.]

I am not a rights person because I cannot make sense of what rights are supposed to be. How do they manifest themselves in the real world? How do we perceive them? How do we know whether we are perceiving them correctly? What evidence do we have that we can perceive such things at all? If they are out there and can be perceived, why is it that different people perceive different rights? How do we determine whose perceptions are accurate and who is perceiving illusion? Because of its inability to answer these types of questions, I consider the 'intrinsic prescriptivity' view of rights the same way that Jeremy Bentham did 200 years ago: 'nonsense on stilts.'

Now, to handle some of the objections to utilitarianism that the author brought up.

Good and Bad Preferences (Desires)

I want to start with this claim: [P]reference utilitarianism makes no judgments about good versus bad preferences.

I will not pretend to speak for preference utilitarians, but desire utilitarianism holds that it is quite possible to make judgments about good or bad desires. We base those judgments on the same criteria on which all evaluations are based -- on the ability of the object of evaluation to fulfill (other) desires. A good desire (like charity) is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire (like sadism) is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.

The 18th century philosopher David Hume expressed this fact. He wrote that character traits could be evaluated on four criteria: (1) Useful to self, (2) Useful to others, (3) Pleasing to self, and (4) Pleasing to others. Telling the truth in a particular circumstance may be more or less useful. However, honesty is a character trait -- it is a disposition to tell the truth in all (or almost all) circumstances. It is difficult to refute the claim that this disposition, if widely practiced, would be useful.

John Stuart Mill made the same type of claim specifically about desires. He argued that the child first does good deeds to gain praise and to avoid punishment -- as a means only. However, as we grow, what we once valued as a means only, we acquire a habit of pursuing. It becomes an end in itself. So, the child who is honest because he seeks to earn praise and avoid punishment, becomes an adult who values honesty even when he will not obtain any other benefit.

Mill's writing contains a famous contradiction. He asserts that even if the desire to read poetry is of equal utility to the desire to play push-pin, that the first is still intrinsically better. He has been rightfully criticized for this inconsistency.

For purposes of this essay, it is important to note that Mill did not say that the desires were of inherently equal value. He was talking about their relative value independent of their utility. Nowhere does he write, or do classical utilitarians argue, that all desires (preferences) are equal -- that the 'good desire' is just as good as the 'evil desire'. They say that we determine good and evil desires by their utility -- by their tendency to bring about good or bad consequences.

Mill’s Push-Pin and Poetry

Here, we have to deal with Mill's own counter-argument that all else being equal, the desire for poetry is better than the desire for push-pin. Or, more generally, it is possible to imagine scenarios in which two desires have equal utility, but one clearly has greater value.

Against this, I am going to simply offer the challenge, "Please, show me a real example."

All of the counter-examples that I have seen are purely imaginary. Yet, clearly, what a person can imagine is not a constraint on the real world. We do not go to the biologist and say, "I can imagine a 50-foot spider and an amoeba living in space; therefore, your theories are garbage and must be tossed out." We do not go to the physicist and say, "I can imagine time travel and warp drive, so your theories are no good." For the same reason, I fail to see why utilitarians must account for what people can imagine.

In a specific example, the author began his list of reasons why he is not a utilitarian by saying that utilitarianism because he can imagine cases within which, under utilitarianism, slavery and genocide could be good. Well, I can imagine instances in which a pig can fly, but it is hardly a sound criticism of physics that it cannot account for flying pigs.

In attempting to provide me with a real example of a case where value is not captured by this relationship between states of affairs and desires, I am going to ask for an account of how an object can have value independent of desire. All of the questions that I asked above regarding the nature of value, how we can perceive it, how we can know that we are perceiving it correctly, and the like are going to come up. Without a satisfactory answer, I am going to suggest that those who claim to have the ability to 'see' value independent of desire simply have an over-active imagination.

There is no such thing; which means that there is no such thing as desire-independent 'rights'.

The Utility Monster

This same response applies to another of the objections that can be found in the author's reasons as to why he is no a utilitarian. One is the "utility monster" -- the being whose strong desire overshadows and outweighs all others. Here, too, we can ask whether this is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, or thwart other desires. A strong desire that tends to fulfill other desires would count as good, whereas a desire would be bad.

Clearly, the only type of 'utility monster' we really have reason to worry about are those whose desires tend to thwart other desires. It seems here that desire utilitarianism does a good job of explaining when ‘utility monsters’ are a problem, and when they are not. Desire utilitarianism ultimately says to use the tools at our disposal – praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment – to try to inhibit the formation of these utility monsters, so that we do not face this type of problem.


I am still looking for a systematic account of what a 'preference' is among preference utilitarians. Once I find one, then I can make an actual comparison between desire utilitarianism and preference utilitariansim. Until then, I can still offer a reason to hold that desire utilitarianism trumps preference utilitarianism. I, at least, can say something positive about what a desire is.

Old Business: Energy Prices

It appears as if Bush is giving in to pressure and taking steps to reduce gasoline prices. He has curtailed environmental protections and suspended the program to restore oil taken from the strategic petroleum reserve.

So, what will this give us. If it gives us cheaper gas, then people will have less of an incentive to seek out alternative energy sources. Investment in alternative energy becomes less attractive, so it will attract less venture capital. It also becomes less cost-effective to invest in conservation, which means more consumption. This, in turn, means even greater shortages in the future, because the markets will not be putting resources into preparing us for the future.

Artificially low prices means tricking the economy into thinking that there is no future shortage to be worried about. The economy will respond to this lie by saying that investment in alternatives or conservation is unnecessary. We will leave it to our children and their children to pay for this lie. They will live in the future that we have built for them through short-sightedness.

Artifically low prices will also bring about extra consumption that, in turn, will add fuel to the fire of global warming. These environmental costs will be added to the degradation to the ground water that will be caused by easing the environmental restrictions. These are more costs that we will leave to our children, and their children.

Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn) says that this is the issue that will decide the November elections. It will not be torture, or lying the country into war, or the President's habit of ignoring laws he does not like, or rewriting them through 'signing statements', or repealing the Bill of Rights, or imprisoning Americans without a trial. It will be the public's demand for lower gasoline prices, and the Democrat's willingness to use this as a campaign issue against the Republicans.

Quite plainly, the Democrats see an opportunity to grab for power here. The damage that will be done to the Earth or to future generations is of no concern to them. Pure, naked, power is far more important.

For the Bush Administration, the choice is simple. If they can bring down gasoline prices (even if it is an artificially low price with all of the destruction it will cause), then the people will love them again. If the people love them again, then they can go ahead and continue with the torture, kidnapping, war, wiretaps, imprisonment without trial, global warming, polluted drinking water, and the rest -- because those things are not important.

Cheap gasoline -- heck -- what's a bit of turture if it comes with cheap gas for the SUV?


Anonymous said...


Alonzo Fyfe said...


I want to thank you for giving me reason to write a blog entry on the items at the link you provided.

I already have tonight's blog entry partially written, so I will provide a response to those issues tomorrow night.

Joe Otten said...


Would it be accurate to describe desire utilitarianism as a kind of "virtue ethics" where good desires play the part of virtues?

Your formulation is that an act is good if it one that an agent with good desires would have performed rather seems to have the agent focus of virtue ethics.

PS I am aggregating you on atheistblogs.co.uk, I hope that is OK.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Joe Otten

Yes, desire utilitarianism is a type of virtue ethics. The idea of promoting "good desires" is the same as promoting "virtuous character traits" such as honesty and kindness.

And I am honored to be aggregated onto your blog of blogs.

Anonymous said...

One little complaint.

I feel that the definition "A person who disbelieves in the existance of a spiritual force" to be a good definition for atheism. Yes, the bit about not believing in God could apply to a rock, but the bit about being a person could not.

Anonymous said...

ahh, trying to get down to the comments section of the article and I skipped into the next one. Stupid me.

Anonymous said...

i am in philosophy and have to write a reflection and objection paper on mills theory of utilitarianism but i don't know where
to start. can u help me please

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The standard source of objections to Mill's theory on utilitarianism come from the writings of G.E. Moore.

So, do a search on the internet for "Moore Mill Utilitarianism" and you will find several discussion of objections to Mill's theory from G.E. Moore.

After you have done that, if you have further questions, contact me using the 'contacts' link above. I will be happy to help you out.

Martin Freedman said...

I will not pretend to speak for preference utilitarians, but desire utilitarianism holds that it is quite possible to make judgments about good or bad desires. We base those judgments on the same criteria on which all evaluations are based -- on the ability of the object of evaluation to fulfill (other) desires. A good desire (like charity) is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire (like sadism) is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.

How about "this is done by showing how a wise educator, seeking to maximise the satisfaction of all preferences indiscriminately, weight for weight, would try to cultivate some and discourage others. He would cultivate those whose satisfaction is compatible with, and discourage those whose satisfaction militates against, the satisfaction of preferences as a whole. Thus he will discourage sadistic desires, cultivating the disposition to think intuitively that they are evil (as they are)."
[Hare: Utilitarianism and Double Standards (1992) pg.311]

Anonymous said...

I'm 20yo. Utilitarianism is a topic that really intrigues me. I effeminately don't know as much about it as you do and its something that I'm going to research a lot more but I have gone and naively developed my own version of it called Evolutionary Utilitarianism and wrote a slightly clinical post about it. You and find it HERE on my blog

Anonymous said...

I'm 20yo. Utilitarianism is a topic that really intrigues me. I definitively don't know as much about it as you do and its something that I'm going to research a lot more but I have gone and naively developed my own version of it called Evolutionary Utilitarianism and wrote a slightly cynical post about it. You and find it HERE on my blog