Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Desirism vs Subjectivism I: A Response to Chris

A member of the studio audience has provided me with a set of comments that I can use as a foil for my writings.

Chris wrote:

…I am a subjectivist and I too think that all ethical considerations are reducible to preferences and desires. I just think statements of "ought" are incoherent outside of those subjective preferences.

I do not think that such statements are incoherent. However, I do think they are false.

Specifically, desires are the only reasons for action that exist and all true value statements are statements about relationships between states of affairs and desires. So, in the absence of desires, there is no value.

There is a significant difference between claiming that a proposition is incoherent and saying that it is false. An incoherent statement makes no sense, so you cannot respond by saying that it is true or false. You can only cock your head to one side and ask, "What?" A paradigm example of an incoherent statement is, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

A false statement is one where we know what the statement means, but it does not accurately describe the world. "New York is on the west coast" is a perfectly coherent idea. It simply happens to be false.

There is a fine line between these two types of statements. The proposition, "That green triangle has four sides" is false. Whereas the proposition "That four-sided triangle is green." The subject in the first statement is something that can exist – but such a thing cannot have the property of having four sides. The subject of the second statement cannot exist because the terms contradict each other. So, we have reason to throw out the statement before we even get to the verb.

People speak about desire-independent reasons for action constantly. Divine commands, natural laws and duties, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, impartial observers . . . these are all elements used to capture the possibility of desire-independent value. None of these things are real. However, a concept does not have to refer to something real to be coherent. The claims that one finds in any work of fiction do not refer to anything real, but this does not make the book or movie incoherent.

No, I would not say this. A reaction just is. It is not right or wrong, per se. If people have different reactions to waking up, then they have different reactions to waking up.

Why not?

If you can evaluate a movie or power tool according to its relationship to various sentiments (desires), then why not also evaluate desires themselves according to their relationships to other desires?

There are two ways in which we evaluate things. We evaluate them according to how they directly relate to our desires (we like them or we dislike them). We also evaluate them according to their usefulness. They are things that tend to bring about states of affairs that we like, or that tend to bring about things we do not like.

So, why not do this to desires themselves? Why not judge reactions themselves according to whether the reaction is something that we like or dislike, or whether that type of reaction tends to bring about other things that we like or dislike?

It makes absolutely no sense to evaluate everything else in the universe according to how it relates to our sentiments, but, when it comes to the sentiments themselves, to adopt an entirely different standard that says that the sentiments are not to be evaluated. If it makes sense to evaluate everything else in the universe according to their relationship to our sentiments, then sentiments themselves can be evaluated according to how they relate to our other sentiments. In this way, sentiments, like everything else, can be judged good or bad.

Your feelings in so far as you directly experience them are subjective. They are not part of my subjective experiences and hence I can only learn about your feelings indirectly by watching you, listening to you, or directly measuring your endorphin levels, etc.

Actually, there is good empirical evidence that you learn about your own feelings indirectly as well. You theorize about your own desires, and how states of affairs relate to those desires, in exactly the same way that you theorize about the desires of others.

And sometimes – in very predictable and repeatable ways – people are mistaken. They refer to beliefs and desires in explaining their own actions that can be empirically shown to be false.

Be that as it may, beliefs and desires are entities that we refer to in order to explain the behavior of real objects in the real world. We observe the behavior of objects in the universe (ourselves and other people) and, from this, we create a theory as to what beliefs and desires best explain that behavior. From that theory we make predictions as to how that person would behave in different environments. If their behavior does not conform to our predictions, then we must alter the theory so that it accommodates this new data.

Desires – and relationships between states of affairs and desires – are as real as anything in any science that explains real-world observations. Nowhere, in talking about these things, do we need to leave the realm of objective science behind and talk about 'a different kind of thing'. Propositions about relationships between states of affairs and desires are as scientifically objective and meaningful as propositions about relationships between planets and propositions about relationships between the parts of an atom.

There is more to say in response to Chris' post. And I will get to it. However, in the interest of space, I will stop here for now and continue in a future post.


Anonymous said...

> "They refer to beliefs and desires in explaining their own actions that can be empirically shown to be false."

I don't think a desire can be false. It can not exist, or be different than what is stated, but not "false" in the way a belief can be false.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


It is not the beliefs or the desires that can be shown false in this context.

It is the explanation - the proposition that a particular act can be explained by reference to a particular desire that can be false.

josef said...


Can't a person be more or less informed about a state of affairs that they desire? For example, someone might at one point not know whether they like ice cream. Then, they may discover that they like the taste of ice cream and say that they desire ice cream.

But then, they may discover that they are lactose intolerant and say they do not desire ice cream.

Each of indifference, aversion, and desire, pertain to the identical situation, yet it seems that the last of the three was the most informed formulation of desire and so it was in some sense "correct" whereas the others were not.

josef said...

Or rather, the fact that they had a desire or aversion wasn't itself incorrect as a description of the person's attitude toward that state of affairs.

But it seems that the aversion was the most informed position and therefore in some sense the "best" one to have.

Luke said...

Lol, you're already using "desirism"?

I just really like the term. It's 8 letters (but 5 syllables, as I pronounce it - is that a record, to get 5 syllables from 8 letters?). It avoids objections to common utilitarianism. And, perhaps most importantly, it emphasizes the central role of desires, in particular that they are the primary object of evaluation.

Since I've started using the term, it has only grown on me.

Martin Freedman said...

Luke and Alonzo

I am glad you both are using the term "desirism". I do think a better term but it helps if we all use the same label since we are talking about about the same theory (even as we might understand it differently or misunderstand it - at least by myself and Luke).

Prior to this I have only named four restaurants/bars in London. I consider this more important - of course - although it is still just a label, the theory it refers to is what really matters, thanks Alonzo. And have a good break.

Anyway I have been too busy to blog recently but will continue to blog on the theoretical aspects and so expand on my understanding of desirism when I have the time. I do have a post in preparation as a complementary answer to this "desirism versus subjectivism" series. But first I have to reply Kip (on another topic).