Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What Is Desire Utilitarianism?

Pardon me, but I am a little nervous. I am doing a web cast this evening. By the time I post this, the show will be over. At the time that I write this, the show is yet to come.

Understand, I am shy to the point that I get nervous ordering a pizza. Yes, I taught moral philosophy for six years. I even received an award for my teaching. There are some desires stronger than my aversion to public speaking - desires motivating me to do this webcast. However, the aversion to public speaking still exists, causing anxiety.

I can't help but try to anticipate the questions I will be asked this evening. Since that is where my mind is at anyway, I shall do my anticipating in today's post.

Desire Utilitarianism

"Mr. Fyfe, what is desire utilitarianism?"

I would love to find a way to answer this question that does not put people to sleep.

Okay, there are two ways to cut utilitarian moral theories; lengthwise, and widthwise.

All utilitarian theories say that we are going to maximize something called 'the good' and that we can talk about the good in terms of utility.

One way of cutting utilitarian theories is in terms of what 'the good' actually is.

'The good' is pleasure and the absence of pain according to Jeremy Bentham in the early 1800's. John Stuart Mill said it was happiness over unhappiness. There is a branch that says that we maximize well-being, but they need to explain what 'well-being' means. Peter Singer says that the good is preference satisfaction. I have to ask, "What is a preference, and what does it mean to say that it has been satisfied?"

The second way of cutting utilitarian theories cuts across the first. It asks, "What are we going to evaluate?"

Act utilitarians say that we evaluate actions; the right act is the act that maximizes the good. Rule utilitarians say that we evaluate rules; the best rules are those that maximize the good, and the right act is the act that follows the best rules.

Desire utilitarianism answers the second question by saying that we evaluate malleable desires - desires that we can change through social forces. We also evaluate actions, just like the rule utilitarians. However, the moral value of an action is derived from a prior evaluation of desires. The right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. Right acts do not always maximize the good.

So, what is a 'good desire'?

A good desire is desire that tends to fulfill other desires.

The desire utilitarian does not measure utility exclusively in terms of pleasure, happiness, well being, or preference satisfaction. Desire utilitarians say that the good is found in all of the things that we desire. It is found in happiness to the degree that we desire happiness, and it is found in pleasure to the degree that we desire pleasure. It is found in the company of family to the degree that we desire the company of family. All value exists in the form of desire fulfillment.

Desires and Fulfillment

"Okay, Mr. Fyfe. You asked the preference satisfaction theorist to explain what a preference was and what it meant for a preference to be satisfied. So, I ask you, what is a desire and what does it mean to say that a desire has been fulfilled?

A desire is one of two propositional attitudes that regulate intentional action. The other is beliefs. A belief is the attitude that a certain proposition (e.g. "God exists') is true. A desire is an attitude that a certain proposition (e.g. "I am having sex with Sam") is to be made or kept true.

We are all quite accustomed to explaining intentional actions by referring to beliefs and desires. Why did Bush invade Iraq? Because he believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and he desired to protect America from harm. Or so he says.

Once we make our theories, we test them by asking whether they can be made consistent with other observations. “But there was no evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So, did Bush actually believe this, or did he just claim to believe this? If he lied about the weapons, then he lied about attacking Iraq to defend the United States. Why did he really attack Iraq? What did he really want?"

Desires identify the ends or goals of intentional action (protect America from harm). Beliefs supply the means (invading Iraq will secure these weapons).

Beliefs can be true or false depending on whether the proposition believed accurately describes the real world. If the real world does not match a belief, then the belief is to be changed.

Desires can be fulfilled or thwarted depending on whether the proposition that describes the object of desire is true or false. If reality does not conform to what is desired, the agent has a 'reason for intentional action' to change reality.

So, a desire that 'P', for some proposition 'P' (e.g., "I am having sex with Sam") is fulfilled in state of affairs 'S' if and only if 'P' is true in S.

A desire that I am eating chocolate ice cream is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which the proposition, ‘I am eating chocolate ice cream' is true.

So, that is what a desire is – a mental attitude that a proposition is to be made or kept true. That is what it means for a desire to be fulfilled – a state of affairs exists in which the proposition is in fact true. Value exists in these relationships between states of affairs and desires. A state of affairs has more value to the degree that it fulfills more and stronger desires.

Back to Good Desires

So, Mr. Fyfe, how does this get us to desire utilitarianism?

If we can evaluate movies according to how well they fulfill desires, jobs according to how well they fulfill desires, relationships according to how well they fulfill desires, and everything else according to how well they fulfill desires, then we can evaluate desires themselves (or states of affairs in which certain desires exist) according to how well those desires fulfill (other) desires. This is just the standard practice of evaluation – looking at how well a state of affairs fulfills desires – and applying it to desires.

The idea that we can use desires to evaluate everything else in the universe, but that we have to take desires for what they are and not evaluate them, is nonsense. There is no reason why we cannot evaluate desires the same way we evaluate everything else.

A good desire, then – like a good knife or a good job – is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.

A good desire, insofar as it fulfills other desires, is a desire that others have reason to promote. A bad desire, insofar as it thwarts other desires, is a desire that others have reason to inhibit.

We use social forces to promote and inhibit desires; in particular, praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Therefore, we have reason to praise and reward those who exhibit good desires (desires that tend to fulfill other desires) to make those desires stronger and more common. And we have reason to condemn and punish those with bad desires (desires that tend to thwart other desires) to make those desires weaker and less common.

This is why desire utilitarianism is concerned with malleable desires. If a desire cannot be molded using these tools, then it makes no sense to ask questions about using these tools to mold those desires.

True Beliefs

Can you give me an example of desire utilitarianism in action?

We can see how true beliefs are important to desire fulfillment.

Take, for example, a person who is thirsty. He desires a drink. He sees a pitcher and a glass on the table and helps himself, believing that the pitcher contains clean water. In fact, the contents of the pitcher have been poisoned, and he gets violently ill. True beliefs about the contents of the pitcher would have avoided this desire-thwarting state of affairs.

The value of truth suggests that we have reason to be surrounded by truth. This implies a reason to cause others to have a love of truth, so that they will be disposed to promote truth and reduce fiction. We can promote a love of truth by praising and rewarding honesty, intellectual integrity, and curiosity. We can also do this by condemning and punishing lies, intellectual recklessness, and intellectual laziness.


This, then, is the basic account of desire utilitarianism, and an example of its application. I suspect that this is what I will be talking about tonight.

Of course, the hard part comes next. This involves explaining why this form of utilitarianism is better than other types of utilitarian theory and better than non-utilitarian moral theories. It involves dealing with claims like the impossibility of deriving ought from is and the separation of fact from value.

But, then, that’s why I wrote the book – which is really what I am talking about this evening. You can find a reference to the book, “A Better Place,” on the right side of this blog.


Alan Lund said...

I hate to nitpick on typos, but occasionally they drastically alter the meaning of a sentence. You have a paragraph which starts "I see no reason why A good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires." I think you meant simply to say "A good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires."

tedlove said...

Is there a way to get a recording of the webcast?

infidelguy said...

Link is here:
Fyfe Interview 03/7/2007

Anonymous said...

I bought and read the book. It was excellent.

Will you be writing a second one? I know you have the material.

Anonymous said...

I'm Revising for my A-levels at the moment and this site has been really useful for perspective, detail and explanation - it has made a great deal more sense than either motive or preference Utilitarianism.
Thanks very much for all the resources!!

Lippard said...

I'm not sure if this is the best place to post this, but I'd be interested in seeing you comment on Phil Goetz's analysis of desire utilitarianism as leading either to positions he labels as "Satanism" or "Buddhism" as the best way to maximize desire satisfaction.

He made his comments on this post at Overcoming Bias.