Saturday, January 20, 2007

Promoting Desire Utilitarianism

If you are a regular reader of this blog, I want to call your attention particularly to this post. I want to address the most common misinterpretation of what I write. This interpretation comes from friends and foe alike.

From foe – particularly from common subjectivists - this misinterpretation often comes in the form of a challenge. “You cannot tell me why I should want to fulfill the desires of others. There is no objective reason compelling me to fulfill the desires of others, so your theory is as subjective as any other moral theory.”

From friends, I usually get this misinterpretation in the form of an email. “How do we establish desire utilitarianism? How do we get others to adopt this moral theory?”

Both sets of comments rest on a mistaken assumption. They assume that the point is to prescribe or recommend desire utilitarianism. This is wrong. Desire utilitarianism is a meta-theory that describes how prescription works. Desire utilitarianism can then be used to show why it then makes sense to prescribe such things as a love of knowledge, an aversion to (and presumption against) doing harm, an aversion to violations of privacy, an aversion to non-consenting interactions, and the like.

Desire Utilitarianism as a Descriptive Theory

Desire utilitarianism is a description of what is true of prescription. As such, desire utilitarianism is to be adopted or rejected on the same types of criteria that any other descriptive theory is to be accepted or rejected. Are the claims that desire utilitarianism make about prescription true or false?

For example:

All prescriptions are recommendations to bring about or avoid a particular state of affairs.

A prescription brings to bear the ‘reasons for action that exist’ that recommend bringing about or avoiding a state of affairs.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

These are not moral claims. They are descriptions about what is true of the world.

I am not saying that desires are the only reasons for action worth paying attention to and that other reasons for action are inferior. I am saying that other reasons for action do not exist. They are not there. Those who claim that they exist are making things up.

So, when somebody challenges me by saying, “You cannot explain to me why we should be paying attention to these reasons for action and not those without using subjective language,” I answer that, “I am distinguishing between reasons for action that exist and those that do not exist – not between reasons for action (that exist) that we should be paying attention to versus reasons for action (that exist) that we should not be paying attention to. Paying attention to reasons for action that do not exist is nonsense. It is like saying, ‘There exists a reason for action that does not exist.’”

So, here is an example of a reason for action that does not exist.

An Example of Claiming Intrinsic Value

Somebody claims that it would be intrinsically bad if spotted owls become extinct. There is a ‘reason for action’ built into the very nature of the fact that spotted owls exist that tells us that we should act in ways to preserve this species.

My answer to that is that it is false. Intrinsic values do not exist. Consequently, anybody who claims, ‘There is a reason for action intrinsic to this particular state of affairs’ is making a false claim. He is making an objectively false claim.

What is really happening is that the speaker has a desire that the spotted owl species not go extinct. This desire that he has gives him a ‘reason for action’ to preserve the spotted owl species. One of the ways that he can preserve the spotted owl species is to cause in us a desire to preserve the spotted owl species and/or an aversion to those things that threaten the existence of the spotted owl species.

He can also try to convince us that, unbeknownst to us, the extinction of the spotted owl species will thwart desires that we already have. For example, he may tell us that the extinction of the spotted owl will result in the increase in the numbers of their prey. Those prey are desire-thwarting pests. Our aversion to the effects of these pests give some people reason to preserve the existence of the spotted owl – not only those who are averse to these effects, but those who care for those who are averse to these effects.

These types of arguments, according to desire utilitarianism, all make sense – because they relate the state of affairs of the spotted owl’s extinction to sets of desires. Of course, claims that relate the state of affairs in which lumberjacks are put out of work to a set of desires are also relevant.

What is not relevant are any claims relating states of affairs to reasons for action that do not exist, such as the intrinsic worth of the preservation of the spotted owl species.

The Value of a Desire

Desire utilitarianism then takes this fact that desires are the only reasons for action that exist and applies it to the question, “What is the value of a desire?”

Two common answers to this question are simply mistaken.

Answer 1: Some desires are simply, intrinsically better than others. The aversion to deception simply intrinsically good, and the desire to rape young children is simply intrinsically bad.

This is false. No such intrinsic value exists. There is no ‘reason for action’ intrinsic to the aversion to deception that is a reason to promote it. There is no ‘reason for action’ intrinsic to the desire to rape young children that is a reason to condemn it.

Answer 2: All desires have equal value. There is no sense in which we can say that one desire is ‘better’ than another. This would require a belief in intrinsic values. Intrinsic values do not exist. Therefore, it follows that all desires are of equal value.

Wrong again. The claim that there are no ‘reasons for action’ intrinsic to a desire does not imply that there are no ‘reasons for action’ for promoting a desire or inhibiting that desire. It simply states that the ‘reasons for action’ that exist are not intrinsic. They are extrinsic.

This would be like saying that, since the state that results from my sticking my hand into a vat of molten iron is not intrinsically worse than the state that results from keeping my hand out of molten iron, that the two states have the same value. It implies that I have no ‘reason for action’ for refraining from sticking my hand in molten iron. In fact, I have a very good ‘reason for action’ for refraining from sticking my hand in molten iron. That ‘reason for action’ is very real. It is as much a part of the real world as I am. It simply is not intrinsic to that particular state of affairs.

So, we need to answer the question, “What is the value of a desire?”

This is the same as the question, “Do reasons for action exist for promoting or inhibiting that desire.”

Yes, they do.

Desires exist. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist, but they do exist. Desires are our reasons for action for promoting certain desires and inhibit others.

An Act of Honesty versus a Desire to be Honest

So, somebody comes to me with the question: “How do I promote desire utilitarianism? How do I get other people to adopt this system?”

That is not a legitimate or even a sensible question. A legitimate and sensible question would be something like, “Should we be promoting an aversion to deception?” The person who asks this question is asking whether reasons for action exist that recommend acting to promote a widespread aversion to deception, and whether they are more and stronger than the reasons against promoting such an aversion. Here, we bring desire utilitarianism to bear on whether to promote such a widespread aversion.

Before I get into that subject, I need to distinguish this question from another question. “How do I convince an agent to tell the truth in this particular circumstance?” This is not a question about promoting a particular desire, but a question of getting somebody to perform a particular act.

At the level of action an agent will only perform that act that, given his beliefs, will fulfill the more and the stronger of his existing desires. At the level of action, all you have the power to do is to convince a person that an act of honesty will best fulfill his existing desires. If it turns out that dishonesty will best fulfill his desires, then unless you lie to him and convince him of things that are not true, then the simple fact of the matter is that he has more and stronger ‘reasons for action’ for lying than telling the truth.

If by ‘morality’ one is looking for a set of true beliefs that one can give a person that will cause him to tell the truth regardless of what he desires – even if he has only one desire and that desire is to lie to others - this type of ‘morality’ does not exist. That type of morality is not even coherent. The only thing that beliefs do is identify the means to the fulfillment of the more and stronger desires of an agent. True beliefs that cause an agent to act independent of his desires do not exist.

On the other hand, even though there is no set of true beliefs that you can give to all people that will cause them to be honest, it is possible to get a person to tell the truth, even when he otherwise would not, by promoting a desire to tell the truth or an aversion to deception. If a person has such a desire, then all you need to do is to tell a person, “That is a lie,” and you have demonstrated that it is something he has reason not to say.

If it is true that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then it the desires that we have the most reason to promote are those that best fulfill the more and stronger of our desires. It is not the case that all desires are equal. Some desires (the aversion to lying) tend to fulfill other desires, while some desires (the desire to rape young children) tend to thwart other desires. Some desires we have reasons to promote; some we have reasons to inhibit. Some are virtues, and some are signs of great evil.

Morality is concerned with giving people those desires that we can cause them to have (because our minds are malleable) and which we have reason to cause them to have (because those desires fulfill other desires).

If we are asked why we should go through the effort of promoting a universal aversion to deception, we can now easily answer, “Are you nuts? An aversion to deception fulfills other desires. Those are the desires we have. The fulfillment of those desires that an aversion to deception would fulfill is the only ‘reasons for action’ we need to promote an aversion to deception.”

Reason does have a role to play in this. Reason identifies the means to fulfilling our desires. That is to say, reason identifies those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. However, that is the extent of the power of reason. Reason does not actually change those desires.

For example, you can reason with somebody, and even convince him, that his desire to smoke is putting the fulfillment of his other desires at risk. However, even after you have convinced a person that he would have been better off if he had not acquired a desire to smoke, he will still have a desire to smoke. There is no reason you can give him that will cause the desire to smoke ultimately disappear. That takes work.

Similarly, reason tells us that we have reasons for action for promoting an aversion to deception. But realizing this will not suddenly cause an aversion to deception to spring into existence. We still have to teach children the difference between right and wrong .

(See Obligations to Children: Teaching Right and Wrong.)


Alan Lund said...

Your ninth paragraph reads:

Beliefs are the only reasons for action that exist.

I am pretty sure you meant "Desires are the only reasons for action that exist." I hope you will correct that so as not to confuse people, as this is clearly a pretty central point you are making.

Thanks for the excellent, thought-provoking writing.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

You are correct.

Thank you for pointing this out to me.

Anonymous said...


How do you incorporate instinctive behaviors into your "desires are the only reasons for actions that exist" paradigm?
When I accidentally touch something hot I reflexively take an action to move away. That action takes place before my conscious brain is even aware of pain, so I have no "desire" to do anything. The same is true of the pattellar reflex. These, of course, are relatively trivial from an ethical standpoint. However, there are instinctive behaviors in animals to be caring to young or protective of a group that do have ethical implications to the extent those behaviors or reactions exist and influence behaviors in humans.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

When I use the word 'action' I am actually using the term in its narrow sense - 'intentional action'.

This is apparent in the fundamental formula:

(belief + desire) -> intention -> intentional action

The reflex actions that you talk about are like the pumping of the heart, breating, and blinking. They are not intentional actions - though we do have a limited ability to modify some of these actions intentionally.

Even in the area of intentional action, both beliefs and desires have an effect. However, desires identify ends or goals, while beliefs identify means to accomplish those ends. Beliefs are 'reasons for action' in the broad sense in that, once we identify a means, we can act on it.

Still, "desires are the only ends-providing reasons for intentional actions that exist."

When writing gets overly technical, it gets a little difficult to read. I fear losing a lot of readers if I wrote consistently in these terms. I shorten some of the more technical phrases to make them easier to digest (though, admittedly, they are less precise).

"Desires are the only reasons for action that exist" substitutes for "Desires are the only ends-providing reasons for intentional actions that exist."

The former sentence is vague but easier for a casual reader to digest. The second version is more accurate.

Anonymous said...


I understand the desire to keep your terminology as simple as possible in your blog. I try to be as concise as I can in my comments.
What I consider most relevant about my comment is the degree to which much of our behavior is unconscious or instinctive, and that there is a significant gray area where our choices are the result of a combination of conscious desires and unlearned responses.
This doesn't impact the kinds of desires we might wish to encourage or discourage, but might have implications for what would be the most effective ways for doing so.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

You are correct.

Moreso, because even where our desires are learned, there is much we do not not know about how our desires are molded by outside forces. This methodology of learning is largely unconscious and, though 'instinctive' may not apply, it is still likely to be governed by certain natural regularities.

These facts - as we discover them - will also have implications for the most effective ways of promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires. In fact, this could also have implications for which desires are good or bad because, if we discover an easier and more effective way to change a desire, this may remove some of our reasons for action (in terms of cost and effort) against requiring such a change.

bpabbott said...

Respecting "Promoting Desire Utilitarianism", I agree that it makes sense to promote good desires and to inhibit bad ones. Especially respecting ones self.

However, with regards to the desires of others ... how can we know what the desires of others are? Without explicit knowledge of another's desires it is still possible to encourage good desires, but how do we inhibit bad ones?

For example, what are the desires of Ken Ham of Kentuky or Kent Hovind of Florida (now a guest of our penal system)?

What desires have produced their actions with regards to the construction of YEC museums of natural history?

If their desires are to encourage others to search out divine truth, then their desires are admirable (even if misguided) ... However, their actions are not admirable. They are objectively destructive to the lives of many of those they successfully reach out to.

Perhaps a better alternative, respecting the desires of others, would be to promote good desires and to inhibit bad actions?