Friday, September 08, 2017

Desirism and Issues with Utilitarianism

I would like to say a few words about utilitarianism- the standard happiness-maximizing kind. My instructor for the first three weeks of the Ethics Proseminar is a classic utilitarian, which gives me a clear chance to see the points of agreement and disagreement.

This is a class, with scarcely enough time to give a nuanced view, so I do not want to present any of these points as a complete and accurate account of the professor's views. It us, instead, a presentation of some of the features of classic utilitarianism.

The first point of major disagreement is found in the idea that utility (pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, or, in some senses, well-being) has intrinsic value. There is a property of "ought-to-be-ness" built into it commanding all of us to build as much of it as we can.

This has implications regarding population. If you can add one person to the world whose life is worth living - assuming that the well-being of others is not diminished - then do so. It is better that 10 billion people live a life with 11 utilities worth of life experience each then that 1 billion people exist with 100 utilities worth of life experience. It is better that a universe exist with 1 person having a quality of life above 0 than that no person exists.

Desirism asks, "Better for who?"

Desirism says that one cannot claim a state of affairs is good unless there is a desire that "P". The speaker may say, "I have a preference that a person with a life quality greater than 0 exists." The desirism answers, "Fine. Then you have a motivating reason to create such a world. But there would be no reason to realize a state in which P is true in the absence of a desire that P

The type of utilitarianism that holds that if you can add another person to the world and create more happiness, you should do it. More is better.

And if there is a desire that not-P instead, then so be it.

Are there reasons to bring a person into the world?

Not if we start with a world in which no intentional agent's exist. Without intentional agent's, there I'd no reason to act, no reason to realize one world rather than other, no reason to create a new person.

This is an intrinsic value theory of happiness. If paper clips had intrinsic value, the intrinsic value theorists would demand more paperclips - for putting more value in the world in the form of more paperclips.

Of course, desirism denies the existence of intrinsic value. Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Some people might have a desire to maximize utility, in which case, for them, a state of affairs with higher overall happiness is one they have reason to bring about. However, this is one end among many, and sometimes to be sacrificed for the realization of other ends.

In short, there is no reason that exists for choosing option A over option B unless there is a being with a desire that "P", and "P" is true in either A or B. This, then, provides the reason for the entity with that desire to choose A or B.

There is no obligation to bring more people into the world, not unless the agent has a desire that "P" and "P" would be made or kept true only by adding more people to the world. The fact that it creates more happiness in the world is important only to the person with a desire that there be more happiness in the world.

One of the issues with utilitarianism is that it does not care about who gets certain pleasures or pains. One person's broken ankle is no different from another person's broken ankle in terms of utility.

I will call forth my standard story of burning my hand when I was a teenager. My hand is attached to my brain in a particular way. I cared about that pain in a way that I could never care about the same pain in a hand not my own. I have no hope of being indifferent to my own pain versus even a more severe burn experienced by someone else.

I have an aversion to my own pain that is quite distinct from my aversion to there being pain, which itself is quite distinct from my aversion to cause pain. I do not have an aversion to other people being burned that nearly matches my aversion to my own burns. We could imagine how horrible life would be if we had the same aversion to everybody else's pain as we had to our own. We would be in a constant state of torture.

It's ironic that I considered myself a desire utilitarian for so long before realizing that desirism is not a utilitarian theory at all. Utilitarian theories postulate that utility has intrinsic value - that it somehow commands that we create more and more of this stuff. Desirism denies that anything has intrinsic value, and the push to create more of something requires a desire that "P" where P is true in the world where more of that thing exists.

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