Monday, July 30, 2012

Desirism: "Desires to Do X" versus "Desires that Do X"

Desirism, Desires To Do X versus Desires That Do X

Many people commenting on desirism stumble on a distinction it draws between desires TO do something and desires THAT do something. This mistake is most often found in objections that desirism fails to justify an answer to the question, "Why should I care about the desires of others?"

The person who asks this question assumes that desirism is a theory that says to put objective desire satisfaction above all other concerns - and they want this assertion to be justified.

However, the actual answer that desirism gives is, "Perhaps you shouldn't. Even if you should, this interest in objective desire satisfaction would only be one interest among many and not the most important interest. There is nothing special about wanting objective desire satisfaction."

It is easy to explain how people make this mistake.

A great deal of moral philosophy has been devoted to finding the one thing we should all care about - where all other values are derived from that. Proposals include eudaemonia (Aristotle), pleasure (and freedom from pain) (Bentham), happiness (Mill), preference satisfaction (Singer), and the well-being of conscious creatures (Harris). It is a reasonable first guess to assume that desirism adds objective desire satisfaction to this list and to look for an argument explaining why this is the one root value from which all other value springs.

However, desirism does not follow that model. Desirism holds that a state of affairs in which P is true has value for the agent who desires that P. For example, to a parent concerned with the health of his child objective desire satisfaction means nothing. It is not even in his thoughts. He is looking to create a state of affairs in which his child is healthy. That is what has value to him - not "objective desire satisfaction."

To illustrate the distinction between "desires to do X" and "desires that do X," let us look at the simple case of Alph - a simple creature with one desire - a desire to gather stones.

Alph spends his days on his small planet putting stones in a pile.

Note that Alph does not have a desire that the stones be in a pile. An effect of Alph doing what he wants to do is that the stones will end up in a big pile, but not because this is what he wants. In fact, Alph does not want the stones in big pile. He wants them scattered, so that he can gather them. In a world where all the stones are in a big pile, Alph is stuck - unable to do what he wants until they are scattered again.

Now, let us introduce a second creature, Betty. Betty has no desires. However, Alph is given two injections to give to Betty. One injection will give Betty a desire to gather stones - just like Alph. The other injection will give Betty a desire to scatter stones.

Clearly, if Alph gives Betty a desire to scatter stones, he would not have to do any more work. While Alph is busy gathering stones in one area, Betty will be off scattering stones in another. This will allow Alph to continue to gather stones as long as Betty can keep up - and give Betty an opportunity to scatter stones so long as Alph can keep up.

Note that Alph did not give Betty a desire to objectively satisfy Alph's desires. In our case, that was not even possible. He gave Betty a desire to scatter stones. However, Betty's desire to scatter stones is a desire that helps Alph to fulfill his desire to gather stones.

It is also the case that Betty can read everything she finds on desirism and conclude, "I see no reason in here why I should care about Alph's desires. I see no reason at all to do anything but scatter stones. My only interest in Alph is that, because of his stone gathering, I get to scatter more stones. Other than that, I have no interest in Alph or his desires at all - and I see nothing in this theory that gives me reason to change that."

She would be right.

Desirism does not argue for desires TO objectively satisfy the desires of others. It argues for desires THAT objectively satisfy the desires of others. It states that Betty has no reason to be interested in Alph's desires except insofar as she has a reason to preserve in Alph a desire to gather stones. If that desire was in danger of extinction, she would have a reason to protect it.

In the real world that we share with billions of other people, desirism argues for such things as aversions to deception, physical assault, the destruction of or taking of the property of others without their consent, and sex without consent. It argues in favor of desires to help those in need, make a contribution to society, and learn about the real world. These are desires that people generally have many and strong reason to promote in others. No thought at all actually needs to be given to "objective desire satisfaction".

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