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Response to "faithlessgod" regarding Desire Utilitarianism

November 7, 2009

faithlessgod has posted some rebuttals to my objections to Desire Utilitarianism (“DU”, or “desirism”).  In this post I will respond to his (I’m assuming “his”, please correct if I’m mistaken!) remarks.  I encourage readers to go to the links to read the complete text, as I will only be posting snippets here.

First, faithlessgod says he has “quibbles” with my understanding of the theory, but is satisfied to leave my synopsis as is.  I appreciate his review for any errors on my part.  Hearing no specific problems I’ll assume I’ve got a workable understanding of DU and proceed from there.

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

This objection pertained to the fact that it is possible for DU to pronounce the same 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.

Using the DU principle of good desires are those that tend to fulfill other desires, we can reason that A’s desire is both good and bad.

faithlessgod responds:

The issue here is that Reid was looking at something that is often (but not always and not necessarily fairly – but this is not the issue here) solved by trade. Regardless this is not a moral issue at all. That is this is not a ceteris paribus and all-things-considered situation applicable to everyone or people in general. It would become one if Albert was so unhappy with the result of the auction that he stole the car, but that is a different issue entirely and outside Reid’s criticism here.

Perhaps my premise that “A and B influence only each other’s desire” was not clear enough: let my example be such that all else is the same.  This should alleviate any concerns that there are other desires I’m not considering that could change the conclusion.

Also, I agree that my example can be one involving trade, but it’s certainly not exclusive to trade.  If it is only “often…solved by trade” (to quote faithlessgod), how else would it be solved?  I’m having trouble seeing why this couldn’t be a moral issue, like burning each other’s house down (ceteris paribus!).

For these reasons then, it seems then that this objection still stands.  Interestingly, faithlessgod says that he at one time also made this objection, but that he “worked it out” for himself.  It would be helpful to know if faithlessgod worked out this problem for himself using the responses he offered to my post, or others.

Second Objection: The theory cannot be used to condemn those who do not abide by the theory.

Here I attempted to show that, from within the confines of DU, it is not possible to reason towards any personal obligation to do what a person with good desires would do (which is, have desires that tend to fulfill other desires).

…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.

faithlessgod’s first point is to explain that “moral obligation” is a sub-species of “obligation”.  I don’t see yet how this point is relevant to the discussion.  However, I will say that “moral obligation” seems almost redundant.  I’m using “obligation” in the sense that saying “we are obliged to do Z” is equivalent to saying “we ought to do Z”.

Moving on, his second point is to question why I use the term “nature” to represent what I think should be the grounds for that which obligates us to develop desires that tend to fulfill other desires.  I’m using that term (actually I’m using “human nature”) simply to represent whatever properties are essential to us, or that which makes us human.  Now the reason our nature must serve as the grounds for obligation is because there seem to be no alternatives for DU – no divine commands, no immaterial intrinsic goods, etc.  There must be something essential to humans such that we should mold our desires appropriately.  But what is it exactly?  For the purposes of this discussion I will accept faithlessgod’s definition of human “nature”:

…nature is adumbtrated as the beliefs, desires and dispositions (dispositions to beleive as well as desire and act) whether this applies to a particular (token) person or over the capacities that any human (type) is capable of exhibiting.

What the desirist needs to show is that one can reason from those basic concepts of human nature to a requirement that, lest we risk not being “human”, we mold our desires such that they tend to fulfill other desires.  Can this be done?  Until it can, the DU claim that we ought to do this still seems to be merely an assertion.

faithlessgod’s third point:

…what desirism already employs is how people are obliged (and not) by the effect of the social forces on their desires and dispositions…The “something in his own nature that requires man to mold his desires into good ones” is the human emotional the capacities to respond to the social forces.

Again, just because we are capable of altering our desires based on the influence of social forces, why should we?  I fail to see how emotional capacities to respond to social forces serves as any kind of justification that we ought to act in any way.  The obligation is not warranted by the assumptions of the theory or any conclusions inferred therefrom.

Moreover, both social forces and our emotions are notoriously fickle and irrational.  For instance, what happens when bad behavior is imposed by social forces? Or again, since our emotions are simply facts about ourselves, much like our desires, relying on them to induce certain behavior is just as likely to produce wrong behavior as good behavior. Indeed, one of the very reasons we need ethics is to overcome what our emotions would have us do in certain situations!  If these phenomena are fallable then, the desirist would need another precept to guard against their misuse, something like: “respond to social forces with your emotions such that good desires are produced only when the social forces and your emotions align to oblige you to develop good desires”.  But of course this is making no progress against the objection; desirism is still at a loss to defend why we should abide by that precept.

It seems that unless the desirist can reason from the assumptions of the theory to an obligation, this objection still stands.

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

Here I attempted to show that by changing the composition of desires in general, any desire could be defined as “good”.  I used the example of defeating all those whose strongest desire was not the extermination of the Jews.  faithlessgod responds:


Unfortunately for Reid this then begs the question over these other desires. These, in turn, need to be the subject of a (moral) evaluation and so the same method can be applied to them. The evaluations are independent. Simplifying, with no loss of accuracy, to one other desire, yes they can both be evaluated in parallel. One result could be be the case that both are bad (where the scope is everyone), mutually thwarting each other. In that case both would be inhibited. And so on.

It can beg the question of those other desires, and a moral evaluation of them is to be expected.  But that evaluation is a red herring.  The objection is grounded in the definition of a desire as either good or bad once those other desires change (maybe they no longer exist, or are altered).  faithlessgod continues:

…if the Nazis’ religious crusade to exterminated all the Jews had succeeded, this would still have been an extremely and directly desire-thwarting desire and morally bad (or evil) and this remains the case regardless of its success or failure

The problem is the desirist must arrive at the exact opposite conclusion if it is true that the desire to exterminate the Jews tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts.  This is easily achievable given the right composition of all desires.  Finally, quoting faithlessgod:

The means of adjusting the population by extermination is, trivially, according to desirism, morally evil. It still remains evil, wherever and whoever considers this as a solution in the present and the future, that is people generally would still have (and do) reason to condemn such actions and contemplations of such actions.

Now of course genocide is evil.  But why is it trivially evil, or evil at all, according to desirism?  Is it because a single desire would be thwarted?  Certainly not, because then virtually any desire could be construed as evil.  It seems then that the desirist is committed to making a calculation of the number of desires that would tend to be fulfilled versus the number of desires that would be thwarted given the desire in question.  Thus, all that is required to characterize desires as good or bad is to adjust the ratio of other desires.

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One comment

  1. Hi Thomas

    I have responded here



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