Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Potential versus Actual Desires

Today I am going to address the second of three interesting questions from the studio audience that I received a couple of days ago. This one concerns the value of potential desires – desires that somebody might have in the future. This question will be important, in particular, to the question of abortion and performing an act that would have the effect of destroying certain future desires.

G-man asked:

If I recall, you support a right to abortion on the grounds that you cannot actually harm a fetus (until around the 20th week, that is). The future values and desires which that fetus could potentially have as a child seem to be irrelevant in light of the more immediate concerns of the presumption of freedom for the mother. I wonder if I can draw a parallel case here. Are the (potential) values and desires of the future world's population to be held relevant, and if so, how does this situation differ from that of an unborn child?

No, you cannot.

The potential desires are irrelevant in the case of an abortion because those future desires will not exist. The potential desires of future generations are relevant because those desires will exist. It makes no sense to speak about the value of something – that is to say, its relationship to some desire, as if the value is a real-world entity, if the desire on which that value depends is not a real-world entity. It makes sense to speak of the value that it would have had in an alternative universe where that desire existed, but not of the value that it does have in virtue of its relationship to a desire that does not exist.

There is a vital pair of concepts here which turns out to be one of the most common false assumptions about desire utilitarianism. Many people who speak about desire utilitarianism assumes that the theory says that desire fulfillment itself is intrinsically good. It says that the reason that a particular state of affairs has value is because it is a part of this intrinsically good state that is desire fulfillment.

In the realm of abortion, this line of reasoning suggests that, if a woman goes through with an abortion, then in 30 years certain desire fulfillments would not exist. Since desire fulfillment is intrinsically good, the absence of this desire fulfillment is a bad thing and, as such, must be avoided. Consequently, abortion is immoral.

To see where this argument goes wrong, I would like to invite the reader to imagine two universes.

In universe 1, there is a creature with one desire – a desire to gather stones together. That is to say, the creature has a mental state that can be expressed in the form, “I desire that I am gathering stones together.” In this universe, a state of affairs in which that agent is gathering stones together has value to that agent. That is to say, the agent has a reason for action to create a state in which “I am gathering stones together” is true. These claims are true about that universe.

In universe 2 there is no creature, thus no entity with a desire “that I am gathering stones together.” The second universe is void of life. Consequently, it is void of desire.

Which universe is better, universe 1, or universe 2?

Intrinsic value theory says that Universe 1 is better. Universe 1 has an entity with a desire and a state of affairs in which that desire is fulfilled. Desire fulfillment has intrinsic value – it is intrinsically good. Universe 1 has some of this intrinsic goodness. Universe 2 has none. So, Universe 1 is the better universe.

The problem is that intrinsic value does not exist. Universe 1 cannot have more intrinsic value than Universe 2 because there is no intrinsic value for Universe 1 to have. In fact, it has exactly the same amount of intrinsic value as universe 2, which is zero. None.

The only way that Universe 1 can have more value than Universe 2 is in relation to a desire that P, where P is true in universe 1 but not universe 2.

As it turns out, when comparing a universe in which there is an entity with a desire that P and P is true to a universe without such an entity, most of us have a preference for the first universe. What we are doing in fact, when we say that Universe 1 is better than Universe 2 is that we are saying that, of these two options, Universe 1 better fulfills our desires than Universe 2. However, this does not imply that Universe 1 has any value independent of those desires.

In fact, if an entity with an aversion to P, where P = “an entity exists with a desire that P and P is true,” then Universe 1 would thwart that desire. Consequently, this entity would see more value in Universe 2 than Universe 1.

Now, we can take this analysis one step further back. Let us now compare “a desire that there is an entity with a desire that P and P is true” (which will lead to a preference of Universe 1 over Universe 2), to “a desire that there is no entity with a desire that P and P is true” (which will lead to a preference for Universe 2 over Universe 1).

Of these two options, we have reason to prefer – and we have reason to encourage others to prefer – the first desire over the second. If we were surrounded by people with the second desire, we would have reason to worry about what they would do to us. At best, such a person would be less likely to come to our aid in circumstances when we needed it. At worst, they have reason to act to bring about a universe in which there is no agent with a fulfilled desire, and that makes them an active threat.

So, we have reason to recommend the first desire over the second desire. We have reason, when we are talking to somebody or writing a blog post, to try to recommend to engineer in others a set of desires which will cause them to pick the first universe over the second.

We could tell them that God would want us to pick the first universe over the second, and that those who do not or would not do so will be punished in the afterlife.

We could tell them that universe 1 contains more intrinsic value than universe 2, and those who do not see it are somehow defective.

Or we could tell them that we have reason to promote a set of preferences that would cause people to pick universe 1 over universe 2, because those who pick universe 1 are more likely to fulfill other desires in the real world, and those who pick universe 2 are more likely to be a threat to others in the real world.

Of these three options, I reject the God option and the intrinsic value option because they both make reference to entities that do not exist. However, the third option does not have this fatal flaw.

This third option is inconsistent with the idea that potential desires matter. Actual desires matter, and potential desires matter only to the degree that they become actual desires. In the case of an abortion, those potential desires have a zero percent probability of becoming actual future desires, so they are not relevant. Without an actual desire that exists in the real world, there is no value that exists in the real world.

Okay, in the case of murder, the victim’s possibility of having future desires also drops to zero, so those future desires do not matter either, right?

Well, yes and no. Murder does not only prevent future desires, it also prevents the fulfillment of current desires. At least, I know in my own case that if I were to be murdered this afternoon that many of my current desires will go unfulfilled. For example, I want to see the next Indiana Jones movie, but I suspect that I will not be able to do so if I should die between now and next year. So, I have reason to avoid getting killed between now and then, so I have a reason to promote a state of affairs in which others have an aversion to killing me. This is substantially true of almost all of us.

The fetus has no reason to avoid being killed. The fetus – at least one that does not yet have desires – has no reason to prefer any state of affairs over any other. The fetus’ desires cannot be thwarted because the fetus has no desires.

Finally, let us look at a test case involving alcohol poisoning or another action that does damage to a fetus. The fetus has no desires, so the fetus cannot be harmed, so this type of action cannot be wrong, right?

Again, this is wrong, because in this case there are actual future desires at stake. In this case, we can expect that the fetus will become a child and an adult who will have many of his desires thwarted because of the adverse affects of what was done to the fetus. We are talking about future desires that will exist, not potential desires that will not exist.

So, the moral of this story is: Where there are no actual desires, there are no actual values. Potential desires only matter to the degree that they will become actual desires.


Anonymous said...

In your example, where the fetus may not have desires for itself, other people may have desires for the fetus that are either fulfilled or thwarted by abortion. I think that is more the essence of the issue.

Anonymous said...

If these other people are anyone but the woman whose uterus holds the fetus, I don't think their desires are relevant to the abortion question.

Would my desires concerning your liver give me rights to change your drinking habits? Would they give me rights to a partial transplant (also called a "live liver transplant")?

Anonymous said...

You make an interesting argument about desires, but I totally disagree with you. Why do you have to be religious to realize that killing a fetus that will definitely become a baby is wrong? My morals wouldn't change whether we were created by God or from a big bang. Life is beautiful and that sperm hitting the egg and creating life is like hitting the ultimate lottery ticket. An abortion is ripping up that lotto ticket. Whether it's 2 or 6 months in the womb or 6 months out.......what's the difference? The difference is that 6 months out is considered murder and the other is applauded as a smart "choice" by many.