Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Biggest Objection to Desire Utilitarianism

The most recent set of questions I have received on desire utilitarianism contained the following two questions.

6. What do you think are the greatest objections to desire utilitarianism?

2. If desire is a brain state, it requires a nervous system. So, I assume bacteria, plants, and lower animals have no morally relevant desires. But how do we tell when a creature has morally relevant desires, especially since you make no distinction between conscious and unconscious desires?

Okay, the greatest objection to desire utilitarianism says that there are no desires.

The reason we have for holding that there are no desires is because we have too many questions to answer about what a desire is and who has them. Some people predict that when we come up with a theory of intentional action that can handle all of these questions, that this theory will be so radically different from the theory of beliefs and desires that the later will face elimination.

One of the questions is: At what point do creatures actually acquire desires. Let’s say that plants and amoeba have no desires. Do worms? Oysters? Lobsters? Sharks/ Insects? Frogs? Snakes? Cattle? It seems difficult to draw a line somewhere.

Do thermostats have desires? Is it reasonable to explain what a themostat does as having a desire for the temperature of the room to be at 72 degrees, a belief that it is at 68 degrees, and thus it forms the intentional act of heating the room.


Explain what a desire is such that it rules out this possibility needs to explain what desires are in such a way that it makes sense of this ruling.

Another relevant question to ask is: Under what conditions do machines acquire desires?

I do not have answers to these questions. I decided, when I encountered these issues that I did not have the resources to investigate them separately. Instead, I would take the most widely held view among philosophers of mind that we have today. However, the popularity of a view has little to do with whether or not it is correct. That demands a different sort of evidence.

One of the faults with objections to the thesis that intentional actions are caused by the beliefs and desires is that there are no solid competing theories. There are a lot of people who are complaining that desire-based reasons has serious faults – faults enough to suggest that it may be replaced. However, that is not the same as having a theory that actually purports to do a better job of explaining intentional action (or whatever intentional action proves to be in fact).

On the bright side, there is work to be done, for anybody who might have an interest in doing it. I would not want this work to take the form of “proving that desire utilitarianism is the best theory around”. Instead, it should take the form of looking at intentional action (or what we currently conceive of as intentional action), improving on the belief-desire model of intentional action, then seeing how desire utilitarianism (or some other theory) deals with those objections.

There is one thing that can be said for the belief-desire model, however. We do use these terms in an attempt to explain and predict events in the universe that are very important to us – the behavior of others. These have come to be very valuable tools. Their usefulness, then, is one argument to be made that they refer to something real, and provide a challenge that any competing theory must match.


Joe Otten said...

That a thermostat may have desires seems to be the sort of thing that a functionalist would suggest.

Functionalism, it seems to me, isn't interested in whether there is "anyone at home", merely whether there appears to be. And this seems quite a fashionable view: that a simulation of consciousness is conscious, much as a simulation of intelligence would indeed be intelligent more or less by definition.

I disagree, preferring Searle's view on all this.

Is this, I wonder, important to Desire Utilitarianism? You explain elsewhere why free will is not important to it, thwarting a few prior expectations. And non-conscious intelligent (reasoning) agents, which are probably possible, will have reasons for action.

How then do we deal with my feeling that the reasons for action of my intelligent toaster do not matter - other than instrumentally? Is the question whether I have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfil the desires of toasters?

Martin Freedman said...


I somewhat agree with you over Searle and consciousness but it is not relevant to the question of DU and morality. Why?

Well the issue is over intentional actions but not all such actions - not even most - are the result of conscious deliberation but we are still held responsible for these unconscious desires (at least part of the process to seek to fulfil the many and stronger of our desires is surely also unconscious too). This is what matters here.

Now the thermostat does not have any constitutive desires at all, it has at best a derived desire - from whoever sets the thermostat. One could not even call this a desire-as-means since it is the person who sets the thermostat who has that and that is really only combination of beliefs and desires-as-ends.

Toasters are instruments they they no function for themselves only as tools for others. They can have no desire-as-ends. So neither thermostats nor toasters can have desires-as-ends and therefore no real desires in any sense of the term.

Luke said...

Alonzo, do philosophers call this the "belief-desire model," or do they use a different term? Can you give us a brief bibliography of recent work in intentionality, or whatever you call it?

Unknown said...

For an accessible investigation of the usefulness/appropriateness of beliefs, desires, and other mental constructs in understanding our world and how they relate to the the reductionist viewpoint, see Hofstadter's "I Am a Strange Loop." (http://books.google.com/books?id=OwnYF1SCpFkC)

PS - Searle is wrong.