Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Future Desires

A member of the studio audience has asked that I report on what desire utilitarianism has to say with respect to obligations to future generations.

What timeframe does DU consider when calculating desire fulfillment? Shouldn't future desires be considered? But, if they are, then how far in the future? And if they aren't, then it seems that "making the world a better place" only examining the current desires might end up making the world a worse place in the future.

Desire utilitarianism is concerned only with what is objectively true. So, in determining what desire utilitarianism has to say about future desires, one has to ask what is objectively true about future desires.

(1) There is no intrinsic moral virtue in considering future desires.

Intrinsic values do not exist. The person who claims that a person who considers the desires of future generations has more intrinsic virtue than somebody who does not is simply wrong.

(2) Future desires are not reasons for action that exist. They are reasons for action that will exist.

Future generations (if they exist) will certainly have reasons to reach back in time and mold our desires to be harmonious with theirs. They will have reason to promote in us those desires that will tend to promote their desires, and to inhibit in us those desires that will tend to thwart their desires.

However, they will not have the capacity to do so. Outside of a narrow band of time (where the younger generation of today can condemn the older generation and change their desires), future desires are not directly relevant.

(3) Future generations will have the ability to thwart some of our desires.

A 'desire that P' is a desire to realize a state of affairs in which P is true. The objects of desires are not limited to personal experiences. I have a desire that descendents of the human race continue far into the indefinite future. I hope that there are human descendents when the Andromeda galaxy combines with the Milky Way. My desire will be thwarted by future actions that result in human extinction.

(4) We have certain limited natural desires for the well-being of at least some members of future generations.

A parent’s desire for the future well-being of a child is a parent’s desire that the child’s future desires be fulfilled. That child’s future desires will likely include a desire that the desires of the child’s future child be fulfilled, and so on, fading off into the distance.

(5) Insofar as we have reason to see that the desires of future generations are fulfilled, we have reason to promote in others those desires that are compatible with those future desires.

We have reason to praise those who exhibit malleable desires compatible with fulfilling the desires of future generations, and condemning those who exhibit desires that will tend to thwart the desires of future generations.

However, the only reasons for action that exist are current desires. The reason for actions that exist for the praise and condemnation of those whose desires will tend to fulfill or thwart future desires comes from current desires that future desires be fulfilled. It does not come from the future desires themselves, because future desires cannot reach back in time to cause current actions.

(6) We have many and strong reason to promote in others a general aversion to doing harm, even to those who cannot defend themselves.

To the degree that we are successful in promoting in others a general aversion to causing harm, to that degree we are safe from being caused harm even by people who face no risk of retribution and revenge. We are each better off in a community of individuals averse to causing us harm, than we are in a community of individuals indifferent to causing us harm and, thus, willing to cause us harm whenever they can avoid punishment.

However, this aversion to doing harm is promoted by including an aversion to doing harm to animals or to future generations. Those are beings that can be harmed without fear of retribution, but a willingness to do harm when there is no risk of retribution is a dangerous desire for us to permit. We (and those we care about) may well become the victims of that willingness to harm when there is little or no risk of retribution.

Combining (6) with (4), the set of ‘those we care about’ who may be at risk of harms inflicted without the possibility of retribution include are own children, their children, and so on.

To the degree that we promote in others desires compatible with the fulfillment of the future desires of those we care about, and they promote in us desires that are compatible with the future desires of those they care about, the set of future people each of us care about has reason to grow. Ultimately, we have reason to promote desires compatible with the fulfillment of desires of future generations generally, to the degree that we can determine what they are and how they might be fulfilled and thwarted.


These are some of the facts regarding future desires. Make of them what you will. Future desires have no influence on current desires. If future desires are to be fulfilled or thwarted, it depends on whether people’s current desires are such that they have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill (or, at least, do not tend to thwart) future desires.

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