Friday, August 08, 2008

Desire Utilitarianism vs. Egoism

From a wide variety of independent sources in the past few weeks I have been questioned on whether I am an egoist, and of the role of free will in desire utilitarianism.

Both questions stem from the proposition

Each person always acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs.

I have also used the formula

(Beliefs + Desires) -> Intention -> Intentional action

Many people interpret this as being an affirmation of egoism, "Each person is only out for himself. It is only 'my desires' that matter and genuine altruism is not possible."

It also suggests that behavior is determined. The statement does not give any role to free will; it is not listed as one of the causes of intentional action.

The short answer is: Egoism is false, and there is no free will.

Egoism is false

Desires are propositional attitudes. They are expressed in the form, "Agent desires that P" where P is any proposition. P might be, "I am having sex with Sam" or "I am eating a chocolate cup cake" or "my child is happy" or "nobody on the planet is in pain" or "I have served God." Any proposition, true or false, can become the object of a desire.

Selfishness (or self-interest) and altruism, are two sets of desires. Both of them are possible. The difference between them is that, for selfish desires, the proposition P meets two criteria.

(1) P refers back to the speaker – or, in other words, it contains the word ‘I’ or ‘me’.

(2) P identifies a state in which the desires of the object of reference (‘I’ or ‘me’) are fulfilled.

The proposition P, when we are talking about altruistic or other-regarding desires, differs from self-interested desires in that the self is not the object of the desire. For self-interested desires, the proposition P:

(1) P refers to somebody other than the speaker (e.g., you, Jim, children, God).

(2) P identifies a state in which the desires of the object of reference (e.g., you, Jim, children, God) are being fulfilled.

Other Types of Desires

There are mixed desires – desires that take others as an object, but others that have a certain relationship to the self. These can be desires for the well-being of 'my child' or 'my spouse' or 'my pet snake, Reggie'.

Yes, it is possible for the 'other' in an altruistic desire to be an animal.

This system also leaves room for self-destructive desires. These are desires that take the self as an object, but seeks to thwart the desires of the object.

It also allows for the possibility of hate and sadism – desires that take others as an object, but they are desires that the desires of the other are being thwarted.

Ownership of Actions

The statement that everybody acts so as to fulfill his or her desires is not egoism. It is a statement about what is required in order to call an action ‘my action’. If an intentional action does not spring from my beliefs and my desires, then it is not my action. It belongs to the person whose beliefs and desires give rise to it.

Assume that Max the Mad Scientist invents a gadget for controlling my body. He sits back in his remote control and directs my body into a bank where it pulls a gun, robs the bank, and runs off with the loot. Those were not my actions. I am not the person who robbed the bank. Max robbed the bank, using my body as a tool. An action belongs to the person whose beliefs and desires were the proximate cause of the action. My actions are caused by my desires, and your actions are caused by your desires.

Debating Egoists

When you debate an egoist, that debate will quite often go as follows.

(1) The egoism will assert that everybody is selfish.

(2) Upon being challenged, the egoist will retreat to the desire fulfillment theory that I gave above, arguing that each person acts so as to fulfill his desires.

(3) When the egoist’s opponent has exhausted himself against the walls of these fortress and leaves, the egoists then asserts that he has successfully defended egoism.

This standard practice comes from the power of equivocating between egoism (everybody desires only his or her own benefit) from desire fulfillment theory (everybody acts on his or her desires).

Desiring that Ones Desires are Fulfilled

Part of the confusion that leads people to think that desire fulfillment theory is egoistic is that they inject something into the theory that the theory does not say.

Assume that an agent desires that P, where P = "my child is healthy and happy." The egoist interpretation of this actually asserts that the agent has two desires. He has a desire that his child is healthy and happy, plus he has a desire that his desire that his child is healthy and happy is fulfilled. It is this second desire – the desire that the first desire is fulfilled – that is supposed to motivate the agent’s action.

If this were true, then it would be the case that everybody is selfish in the egoist sense of the term. However, we co not need this second desire.

Asserting that this second desire exists is like saying that the motion of objects on the surface of a planet is governed by two forces. There is the force of gravity that attracts objects towards the center of the planet. Plus there is the force of meta-gravity that says that the force of gravity must be obeyed. Furthermore, the force of gravity is inert, and it is the force of meta-gravity that actually causes things to fall.

The theory does not demand that there is a 'desire that the most and strongest of our desires are fulfilled' Each desire that P1, desire that P2, desire that P3, etc., provides its own motivation for the agent to realize a state of affairs in which P1, P2, and P3 are true. Sometimes these desires conflict – you can fulfill desire P1, or P2, but not both. In these cases, the strongest desire will win. Or, perhaps, even though the desire for P1 is stronger than the desire for P2, there is a second desire that P3 where the fulfillment of P2 and P3 is stronger than the desire for the fulfillment of P1.

All of this, again, suggests that we are not acting according to any type of free will. Our actions are determined by the most and strongest of our desires, given our beliefs.

Which is true.

But if it is true, then how can we blame people for actions that they have taken when these forces of nature left them with no other option?

That will be the subject of tomorrow’s posting.


Anonymous said...


Okay, but can the desire to satisfy someone else's desire be generated sui sponte. or does this desire arise out of some self-serving desire?

If our desire to satisfy other's desires can be said to arise from some serving desire, essentially, how is this different from egoism, filtered through a third person perspective?

just a thought....


Anonymous said...

The first desire ultimately decomposes into the second desire, your point is moot.