Sunday, September 03, 2006

Happiness vs. Desire Fulfillment

Another popular idea that one encounters if one discusses value theory much – another idea that I argue should be rejected -- is the idea that all human action aims to achieve personal happiness – that happiness is the only thing that has real value.

Richard Carrier writes of this view in his book, “Sense and Goodness Without God.” He writes (p. 315),

On close analysis, I believe there is only one core value: in agreement with Aristotle and Richard Taylor, I find this to be a desire for happiness. I believe that all other values are derived from this, in conjunction with other facts of the universe, and that all normative values are what they are because they must be held and acted upon in order for any human being to have the best chance of achieving a genuine, enduring happiness.

This is false.

It is as much of a mistake to say that there is one core value and all other values are derived from this, as it is to say that there is one core belief and all other beliefs are derived from it.

Beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes. They are mental states that take a proposition as an object and assign a flag to that proposition.

Belief states take propositions and flag them as “true” or “false”. A person who believes that God exists is a person who has flagged the proposition “God exists” as “true.”

Desire states take propositions and flag them as “to be made true” or (in the case of an aversion) “to be made false”. A person who desires that her child is healthy and happy is a person who has flagged the proposition, “My child is healthy and happy” as “to be made or kept true.”

There is no reason to say that belief states can take all sorts of propositions as its objects – belief that God exists, belief that it is September, belief that Tyrannosaurus Rex was a scavenger. If belief states can take all manner of propositions as objects, then why not desires? What is the problem in holding that a person can also desire that God exists, hate the month of September, or prefer that Tyrannosaurus Rex was a hunter?

As far as core values go, I will argue that it is this:

Humans act so as to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of their desires, and human desires are (or can be) as varied as human beliefs. Insofar as a person has a desire to be happy (a desire “that I am happy”) then he will act so as to make or keep the proposition “I am happy” true. But this is one desire among many, and agents will often sacrifice happiness if it is necessary to fulfill some other desire.

I am going to make this argument the tried and true way that rational people should like – demonstrate that “make or keep true the propositions that describe the objects of our desires (a.k.a. ‘desire fulfillment’) theory” has far greater explanatory and predictive power than “happiness theory.”

People who have read the writings on my web site will be familiar with this example.

Assume that you and somebody you care about (e.g., your child) are kidnapped by a mad scientist. This scientist gives you two options:

Option 1: Your child will be taken away and tortured. However, you will be made to believe that your child is living a happy and healthy life. You will receive regular reports and even correspondence explaining how great your child’s life is. Except, they will all be fake. In fact, we will take your child to another location and spend every day peeling off his skin while soaking him in a vat of salt water, among other things.

Option 2: Your child will be taken away, provided with paid medical insurance, an endowment to complete an education, will be hired into a good job, and will be caused to live a healthy and happy life. However, you will be made to believe that your child is suffering excruciating torture. You will be able to hear what you think are your child’s screams coming down the hallway. We will show you video of the torture. It will all be fake, of course, but you will be convinced it is real.

Of course, after you make your choice, we will make you forget that you even had these options presented to you.

What do you choose?

Now, we are not going to kidnap people and make them choose. However, both theories need to explain the fact that the vast majority of parents, for example, report that, in such a situation, they would choose Option 2.

Happiness theory seems to suggest that the agent should choose Option 1. After all, the agent will be happier receiving news (that she believes) that says that her child is living a happy and healthy life. So, if happiness is what she is after, and Option1 delivers more happiness, then Option 1 is the rational choice.

Why do people choose Option 2?

Because happiness theory is wrong. In fact, people do not choose happiness. They choose “making or keeping true the propositions that are the objects of our desires.” In this case, the desire in question is the desire that one’s child be healthy and happy. A person with a desire that “my child is healthy and happy” will select that option that will make or keep the proposition, “my child is healthy and happy” true. That is Option 2.

Now, in science, when we have two competing theories, the thing to do is to come up with an experiment. If Theory 1 predicts State S1 under conditions C, and Theory 2 predicts State S2 under conditions C, then we test the theories by creating conditions C and seeing if we get State S1 or State S2.

Happiness theory predicts people selecting Option 1. Desire fulfillment theory predicts people selecting Option 2. We have people selecting Option 2. Therefore, we have reason to reject “happiness theory” and accept “desire fulfillment” theory in its place.

Note: “Desire fulfillment theory” is much like Peter Singer’s “preference satisfaction” theory. However, “preference satisfaction” does not give us precise definitions of what a preference is, what it means for a preference to be satisfied, or tie it in with a viable theory of action. “Desire fulfillment” theory comes with more precise definitions of “desire” (a propositional attitude whereby the agent is motivated to make or keep true the proposition that is the object of the desire), “fulfillment” (a desire is fulfilled by any state S in which the proposition that is the object of the desire is true), and a theory of action (belief + desire -> intention -> intentional action).

Desire fulfillment theory does not deny that one of the things that people desire is “that I am happy”. This desire exists, and it motivates some action. It is also the case that people have an aversion to pain (a desire “that I not be in pain”), a desire for sex (a desire “that I am having sex”), a desire for chocolate (a desire “that I am eating chocolate”) and the like.

In fact, this points to another problem with happiness theory – it is missing something.

Desire fulfillment theory explains intentional action as:

Belief + Desire -> Intention -> Intentional Action

Happiness theory says that the following describes all intentional action:

Belief + Desire that “I am happy” -> Intention -> Intentional Action

Now, take the “Happiness Theory” formula and plug in the assumption that two people have identical beliefs. According to the “Happiness Theory” formula, they would perform identical actions (in identical circumstances). If one would play a game of baseball, then the other would play a game of baseball. If one would watch cooking shows on television, the other would watch television shows on television.

“Beliefs,” according to this formula, is the only entity that has any variation.

Yet, we widely recognize that the sources of happiness also vary from individual to individual. That is what is missing in this formula – a variable for (an explanation for, a theoretical entity to account for) different sources of happiness.

Desire fulfillment theory does not have this problem, because people are as capable of having different desires as they are of having different beliefs. We can have two people with identical beliefs, where one desires “that I am watching a sitcom” and the other desires “that I am writing a philosophy essay.” This directly leads to different intentional actions without introducing a third variable.

For all of these reasons, I argue for rejecting “happiness” theory and putting “desire fulfillment” theory in its place. “Desire fulfillment” theory has far better explanatory and predictive power. (It also has more explanatory power than “preference satisfaction” theory, whose terms are too vague and are not closely tied to any given theory of intentional action.)


Aaron Agassi said...

MettaWoman said...

Happiness is subjective, rooted in pain-body experience very early on which imprints experience from then on. Memory is plastic. I hope you love as well as you theorize.

Mingy Jongo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Murphy said...

Is it possible to argue that someone's ultimate desire is to have as many desires fulfilled as possible?

Annie said...

Why do you desire anything, though? It's because it will ultimately make you happy.

In the thought experiment, people choose 2 because it makes them happier right NOW to know that their child will actually be well. It would cause unhappiness and distress to choose a different outcome in the future for their child.

I don't understand what you think desires are motivated by if not the desire to be happy.