Monday, May 22, 2006

Misconceptions Regarding Desires and Values

In a recent post, a commenter named "Chris" made some remarks about desire utilitarianism -- the system of ethics that lies as the foundation of these posts. Since they represent some of the more common misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what I am saying, I have decided to answer them.

I want to start with Chris's statement,

If satisfying desires is the fundamental measurement of good in your system, how can it be trumped by anything, including truth?

First, it is not the 'satisfaction' of desires that I am concerned with, but the 'fuflillment' of desires. I have a technical definition of what this means.

Beliefs and desires are mental statements. Specifically, they are propositional attitudes or attitudes towards a proposition.

A 'belief that P' (for some proposition P) is the mental attitude that P is true.

A 'desire that P' (for some proposition P) is the mental attitude that P is to be made or kept true.

A 'desire that P' is fulfilled by any state of affairs S in which P is true. (Any state of affairs in which P is false thwarts the desire that P.)

A person always seeks to act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his own desires. He always acts in fact so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his own desires if his beliefs were true.

A person sees a glass of cool, clear liquid on a table. He drinks it. He is seeking to fulfill his own desire to drink something cool and refreshing. However, we can see how false beliefs (e.g., his belief that the liquid in the glass was clean water) can cause him to act instead in ways that thwart his desires.

He sought to fulfill his own desires. He acted in a way that would have fulfilled his desires if his beliefs were true. False beliefs prevented him from fulfilling his desires.

So, here is the value of truth. The person with a desire that his child be healthy and happy is a person who desires a state of affairs in which “my child is healthy and happy” is a true proposition. He will act to make it true, and he will act as if all of his other beliefs are true. If he has false beliefs, these only get in the way of him fulfilling his desires.


The claim that people act so as to fulfill only their own desires is drawn from the fact that there is only one brain attached to a person’s muscles in the right way. Certainly, the desires that motivate John’s actions are John’s desires. Even if it were possible to hook Jane’s brain up to John’s muscles in such a way that John acted to fulfill Jane’s desires – a machine that allowed Jane to control John’s body – these actions would no longer be John’s actions. They would be Jane’s.

This is not a claim that people are basically selfish. A person desires that no child go hungry will work to make the proposition “no child goes hungry” is true. He will not do it for personal reward, or for fame, or even for happiness. He will do it because this is what he values – this is what he wants. To call such a person ‘selfish’ would have to be thought of as a very peculiar use of the term.

Unchanging Desires

Chris offered the criticism that there seem to be desires that do not respond well to praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment – like sexual orientation.

This is an application of the “hasty generalization” fallacy. The fact that there exists a red marble, and that one can point to a red marble and show that it is definitely a marble and that it is red, is not proof that only red marbles exist.

I hold that morality is concerned with promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires to the degree that we are able. Yes, there are desires that we are not able to change. However, society has the ability to mold other desires. Nothing else explains the reabit transition of a society. Clearly, the (moral) aversion to slavery did not come about because of a genetic change. We did not evolve into abolitionists. We learned abolitionist sentiments from our culture.

The wide varieties that we see among different cultures and, even more importantly, the changes within a culture over time, tell us the power of learned desires.

Deciding between Incompatible Desires

As for deciding between incompatible desires, this is not that difficult. We look for the desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and the ease with which it is possible to change that desire. We choose to change those desires that can be most easily changed in ways that promise the best results.

Chris writes,

Why should we believe that "evil" desires are somehow easier to extinguish? It almost seems like a Pollyannaish conviction that everyone wants to be good if they only knew how, which may be true of some people but is clearly not true of all people.

If an airplane is heading towards the earth at a high rate of speed, reason suggests which option: trying to move the planet so it does not crash into the airplane, or trying to move the airplane so that it does not crash into the planet?

Reason suggests going with whatever is the easiest to move.

All that this principle states is that in molding desires through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment that we use these tools where they can do the most good, and not use them where they can have no effect. It is a simple question of efficiency.

It does not require any presupposition of a natural desire to do good. It only requires that people act so as to fulfill their desires. It is axiomatic that a person seeking to fulfill his own desires has an incentive to promote desire-fulfilling desires and to hinder desire-thwarting desires (since his desires will almost certainly be among those fulfilled or thwarted).

Just as it is reasonable for him to promote desire-fulfilling desires in others, others have reason to promote desire-fulfilling desires in him. The result is a cultural institution of seeking to identify desire-fulfilling desires and desire-thwarting desires, and an interest in using positive and negative reinforcement to promote the former and obstruct the latter.


Ultimately, this theory is grounded on the idea that value only exists in the form of a relationship between states of affairs and desires.

Moral theories that pick a set of “goods” and proclaim, “I am going to advance these things as being ‘the good’” are making one of two possible claims. They are either saying, “These goods have an intrinsic ought-to-be-doneness that is built into their very substance,” or “I am going to pretend that these goods have an intrinsic ought-to-be-doneness built into their very substance, even though they do not.”

The first option simply is not true – no such power or entity exists. The second option at least has the advantage of admitting that the agent is playing a game of ‘let’s pretend’. However, it is still a game of ‘let’s pretend.’ Such an individual cannot explain to me or anyone what relevance his ‘let’s pretend’ game has on the real world, or why it is okay to force all of us to play his game of ‘let’s pretend.’

I am not saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. Quite far from it – I deny that intrinsic value exists. My claim is that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Value claims are claims about reasons for action. Therefore, value claims are either claims that take the form “the object of evaluation is such as to fulfill the desires in question,” or they are false and have no relevance in the real world.


openlyatheist said...

Hi AF,

Surfed in from Goose the Antithesis. I recognize you from several powerful posts of yours on IIDB.

You are now bookmarked. Looking forward to reading more of your blog.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am pleased to have you on board.

Argen said...

"It is axiomatic that a person seeking to fulfill his own desires has an incentive to promote desire-fulfilling desires and to hinder desire-thwarting desires (since his desires will almost certainly be among those fulfilled or thwarted)."

It is not obvious because desires are not equal to themselves. You are taking into account only horizontal perspective and do not see that some desires can be much more important than any others. That is why fulfillment of the desire which will thwart many other or maybe even all the rest of them can be still more important than those which will be "thwarted". What is funny here is that you could not know if that is the case if you won't come into the head of the agent in the first place what is impossible.