The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)
In the last week, Luke has provided us with two cases of people trying to give us a moral theory in which they start off with a short list of “that which has value.”
Massimo Pigliucci tells us that morality “deals with maximization of human welfare and flourishing” – by definition.
Scott Clifton says a particular action is moral or right when it somehow promotes happiness, well-being, or health or it somehow minimizes unnecessary harm or suffering or it does both.
They are going to call “moral” anything that promotes what is on their short list, and “immoral” anything that subtracts from what is on their short list.
Any time somebody starts off with a list of this type, their theory is going to fail.
For all practical purposes (and I mean this literally), they are starting with the assumption that the items on their short list have intrinsic value (or some similar property) and our goal in life is (or should be) focused on filling the world with as much intrinsic valueness as we can.
It is interesting to note that short-list moral theories very often (though not always) contain value-laden terms. They claim to be giving us an account of what has value, but they give us this account in the form of terms that smuggle evaluations into their account.
For example, “human welfare.” What is human welfare? Welfare is obviously good. However, this is because “goodness” is built into the very definition of “human welfare.” “Welfare” means “to fare well.” But what is it “to fare well”?
As Scott Clifton’s says (to criticize his theistic opponents), “It does not answer the question. It simply puts the question in different terms.”
“Health”, “flourishing”, “unnecessary suffering”, “harm”. These are all value-laden terms. These are all good (or bad, respectively) by definition because a value judgment is a part of the definition of the terms. Harm is always bad (in some sense) for the same reason that bachelors are always unmarried males.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that there is an objective fact of the matter as to what counts as “harm” or “health” or “well-being.” I think each of these terms can be unpacked. My objection is that neither Massimo Pigliucci nor Scott Clifton has done the job. They are not answering the question, “What is moral?” They are simply putting the question in different terms.
The Objection: “Desire Fulfillment is a Short List Theory”
Some critics familiar with my writing are going to claim that I also have a short-list theory. In fact, it is the shortest list possible – a list with only one item. That item is “desire fulfillment.”
“Desirism states that desire fulfillment is the only thing that has value and our goal in life is (or should be) focused on filling the world with as much intrinsic valueness as we can,” they will say.
And, they would be wrong.
They hear the term “desire fulfillment” and they then assume it is just another short-list theory with “desire fulfillment” as the only thing on the list. They then assume that desirism falls victim to the problems that they know exists with short-list theories.
However, desirism is a long-list theory. It is a very long list theory. It has, on its list, every single thing that is the object of a desire.
Nothing has intrinsic value – not even desire fulfillment. It is not the case that our lives should be spent filling the universe with as much desire fulfillment as possible. There are too many other things on the very long list that we should also be filling the universe with to waste all that effort on desire fulfillment.
By the way, some of the things on this long list are human welfare and flourishing, happiness, well-being, health, and avoiding harm and suffering.
As an added bonus, desire-fulfillment can tell you what “well-being”, “flourishing”, “health”, and “harm” actually are. It has the ability to unpack these terms, and not simply use them to avoid answering the question by stating the question in different terms.
Why Desirism is Not a Short List Theory
Let’s imagine a universe in which one creature exists – let’s call him “Alph”. And this creature has only one desire – a desire that the newly formed Planet X remain in a natural state throughout its existence.
Let us further assume that Alph has a choice between creating two possible states of affairs.
- Option 1: Alph exists with his one desire and Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence.
- Option 2: Alph ceases to exist and his desire dies with him, and Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence.
The “short list” interpretation of desirism would conclude that, since Option 1 is the only option that contains desire fulfillment, and our goal in life is (or should be) focused on filling the world with as much desire fulfillment as we can, that Option 1 is the obvious choice.
That is an entirely indefensible position and one that I would not even attempt to try to defend. It is a position that requires postulating entities for which there is no evidence, or that requires assumptions for which there is no foundation.
What does desirism actually say?
It says that “Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence” has value to Alph in virtue of Alph’s desire. In other words, Alph has a reason to act so as to realize any state in which “Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence” is true.
However, “X remains in a natural state throughout its existence” is true of both Option 1 and Option 2. Therefore, Alph (assuming true beliefs) has no reason to prefer either option over the other. Both options fulfill his one desire equally. He would be totally indifferent as to which option came to be realized.
In particular, he has no reason to choose Option 1 in virtue of the fact that it contains “desire fulfillment” because he does not value “desire fulfillment”.
Note that this is a different answer than the answer that “short list” desirism would provide. However, it is the only answer that does not introduce all sorts of mysteries and oddities that actually raise more questions than a theory could answer.
Also, notice that this model, when applied to Alph and his desire that that Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence, also gives no value to “Alphian welfare” or “Alphian well-being”. Nor can Alph be harmed in any way or put into a state of suffering. None of these things have value because no desire takes any of them as an object.
There is nothing that can happen to Alph that anybody cares about or has reason to care about.
Now, we might choose Option 1 over Option 2. However, this has nothing to do with Option 1 having more intrinsic value than Option 2. It has to do with the fact that, given our desires, more of the objects of those desires are found to be true in Option 1 over Option 2. Because we do not wish to cease to exist (for obvious reasons) we put more value in the universe in which Alph continues to exist. But it is a mistake to think that our choice cannot be explained adequately by reference to our beliefs and our desires.
Alph, meet IO
For yet another way to look at this, let us invent an impartial observer. Let’s call him IO. Let’s ask IO whether Alph should choose Option 1 or Option 2.
IO’s answer is: “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me.”
We tell IO: “But Option 1 has desire fulfillment AND Planet X remaining in a natural state throughout its existence. Option 2 just has a Planet X remaining in a natural state throughout its existence.”
IO answers: “So?”
We ask, “So, don’t you see! This means that Option 1 has more intrinsic ought-to-be-selectedness than Option 2! It’s just the better choice!”
IO says, “Listen, buddy. You invented me. You made me an impartial observer. I’m being impartial. There is no such thing as intrinsic ought-to-be-selectedness – that’s not going to help you. If you want me to prefer Option 1 and not Option 2, then make me partial to states where desire fulfillment exists. Or make me desire Alph’s continued existence. But you’re going to have to give me a desire for something that is true in Option 1 but not Option 2. Sure, that will destroy my impartiality, but that’s the way the universe is.”
As it turns out, in a universe with only one creature with only desire, desirism is going to yield a “short list” of that which has value. But that “short list” is not “desire fulfillment.” That short list, in this example, is going to be “Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence.” If you give Alph a different desire, then desirism will come up with a different short list.
However, on a world with nearly 7 billion people who have who-knows-how-many desires, desirism is going to generate a massively long list of things that have value.
Some people will now protest that this is going to give you an extremely “subjective” account of morality.
But that’s not true.
Julia Galef, Pigliucci’s challenger, agrees that given a particular list of values, morality is objective. She protests, however, that the list is subjective and unfounded.
Desirism does not have such an arbitrary list. Its list consists of states of affairs that are the objects of desires, and it does not say anything about the things on the list other than that they are objects of desires. As such, the agents with those desires have reasons to act so as to realize such states. It is no more arbitrary than constructing a list of elements, and putting on the list those substances that can be divided up into individual atoms and still retain their basic properties.
Short list moral theories are doomed to fail. They are doomed to fail because they do not understand the nature of value. To say that something has value is to say that there are reasons for action to pursue it. But the list of things that there are reasons for action to pursue is quite a bit longer than anybody’s short list. Currently, that list is very, very long.
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