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Desire Utilitarianism

November 2, 2009

The Atheist Ethicist, Alonzo Fyfe, is developing and promoting an ethical theory he calls “Desire Utilitarianism“.  He has a fan in the Common Sense Atheist, who is compiling a Desirism F.A.Q.

In this post I will present a brief synopsis and then some objections to Desire Utilitarianism (DU).

Brief Synopsis

Here I attempt to present only what is essential to understand DU.  Refer to the links above for expanded explanations.

According to Fyfe:
A desire is “a mental attitude that the proposition P is to be made or kept true”, as in “I want to eat a hamburger tomorrow”.
belief is “a mental attitude that proposition P is true”, as in “I will eat a hamburger tomorrow”.

Some desires are malleable, while others are not.  Malleable desires can change based on external influences.  For example, it’s possible for a teenager to lose his desire to drive at breakneck speed if he knows he will lose the privilege of using the family car, or if he knows that his chances for dying in a car crash increase while speeding, etc.

Now, Fyfe labels “good” anything that fulfills a desire in question, and labels “bad” anything that thwarts the desire in question.  But so far he only means “good” in the sense that something facilitates the fulfillment of a desire.  Using Fyfe’s example, when a psychopath cuts up his victim, he can reflect that it was “good”, meaning that his desire fulfilled.  We’re hardly at the moral sense of “good” yet.

The key is to consider whether a malleable desire promotes the fulfillment of other desires, or thwarts them.  If it promotes their fulfillment, then it is “good” in the moral sense, and “bad” in the moral sense if it thwarts them.

All intentional action is motivated by desires and beliefs.  Presumably, by “intentional action”, Fyfe means something like “all acts that are free”, or “all acts that are worthy of moral evaluation”.  Unconscious breathing surely is exluded from the scope of intentional acts.

So, what makes an intentional act right or wrong?  According to DU, we evaluate acts based on the value of desires, not the acts themselves.  So, an act that someone with good desires would perform is a “good” act, or, what we ought to do.

So the typical conscientious Desire Utilitarian would evaluate act X based on whether or not someone with good desires would do act X.  Since good desires are those which promote the fulfillment of other desires, in practice we should be asking ourselves: “what kind of desires should I have?”  That is the root of morality for the Desire Utilitarian.

I think I understand the basic structure of the theory, but welcome comments pointing out the error of my ways.

Objections to Desire Utilitarianism

1.  The theory is internally contradictory; it is possible for a desire to be both good and bad.

Suppose that if A’s desire for X is thwarted, then B’s desire for Y will be fulfilled and B’s desire will be stronger than A’s.
Suppose also that if A’s desire for X is fulfilled, then B’s desire for Y will be thwarted and A’s desire will be stronger than B’s.  In each case, A and B influence only each other’s desire.

Should A’s desire be fulfilled?

If A’s desire for X is thwarted, then total desire fulfillment will increase.  Therefore A’s desire for X bad, that is it ought to be thwarted.

If A’s desire for X is fulfilled, then total desire fulfillment will increase.  Therefore A’s desire for X is good, in the moral sense.

So is A’s desire for X good or bad?  DU would seem to tell us “both”.

2.  The theory cannot be used to condemn those who do not abide by the theory.

Why should we develop good desires?  It seems irrefutable that humans have all sorts of desires.  However, what obligates us to develop good ones?  DU is silent on this issue.  It needs to show that the obligation comes from some aspect of human nature itself.  In other words, there is something in his own nature that requires man to mold his desires into good ones.  It can’t derive its sense of obligation from anything else, because then that something else would be the true (or at least the more accurate) moral theory.

Until DU incorporates some component of obligation rooted in man’s nature, it serves only as a roadmap for suggested behavior.  It remains incomplete as a moral theory, which needs to tell us what we should do.

3.  Given the inputs to decision-making, it is possible for DU to define any act as “good”.

DU tells us that good desires are those that promote the fulfillment of other desires.  It tells us also that we can mold our malleable desires to make them good.  But one could also make them good by adjusting the composition of the other desires. In this way, DU permits at least two paths to the definition of “good” and “bad”.

For example, suppose the Nazis’s strongest desire is the extermination of the Jews, and suppose also that the Nazis are successful in defeating all others who oppose this view. Then the extermination of the Jews will move from “bad” to “good”.  One need not adjust one’s malleable desires to make them “good”, one could also adjust the population.

All comments are welcome.

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4 comments

  1. Hi Thomas

    I have replied to your post on my blog


  2. Regarding: ” For example, it’s possible for a teenager to lose his desire to drive at breakneck speed if he knows he will lose the privilege of using the family car, or if he knows that his chances for dying in a car crash increase while speeding, etc.”

    This is false.

    No change in beliefs entail a change in desire. The teenager in this case will weigh the desire to drive at breakneck speed against the aversion to losing the use of the family car and dying and act on the most and strongest desires.

    The way to change a maleable desire is through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. This is most effective in children. A child is condemned for taking somebody else’s property (or is a witness to the condemnation of another child who is condemned for taking property) and forms a stronger aversion to taking property.

    The most basic form of desire modification is positive and negative reinforcement. An agent does X, obtains a reward, and acquires a desire to do X. Eventually, that agent will do X even when there is no reward, because X has gone from being a means only (to a reward) to an end.


  3. To be a bit more precise, if I may . . .

    There are two types of desires – desires as ends and desires as means.

    A desire-as-means is a package of desires-as-ends and beliefs

    A person has a headache and wishes to be rid of it. He believes that if he takes some aspirin that this will get rid of the headace. So, he says, “I want to take some aspirin.”

    This taking of aspirin is not a goal – it is a means, where getting rid of the headache is the goal.

    Because desires-as-means are bundles of beliefs and desires-as-ends, it is possible for a change of beliefs to imply a change in desires-as-means. If our agent believed that aspirin had no effect on headaches, he would not desire-as-means to take aspirin.

    However, if we break up desires-as-means into their constitutent parts, we are left only with beliefs and desires-as-ends.

    No change in beliefs entails a change in desires-as-ends. Changing desires-as-ends requires methods other than changing beliefs.


  4. I find the definition confusing. Let’s use the Nazi example. The Nazis have certain desires (like wanting to exterminate Jews), which we could supposedly measure and add. The Jews have different desires (like wanting to live), which we supposedly can also add up. How do we determine what metric to use for these desires? Saying that the Nazi desires are a priori bad desires steps outside the definition. You end up using circular reasoning.

    A second example. It is known in advance that for a bridge building project to be feasible, a certain number of workers will end up being killed, although it is impossible to determine in advance which ones they will be. Should the bridge be built?



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