Pummel Me with Questions about Desire Utilitarianism

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 1, 2009 in News

Recently I’ve supported a controversial ethical theory called desire utilitarianism. I wrote a book about it and published a FAQ.

A few months ago I interviewed the author of this theory, ethicist Alonzo Fyfe. Alonzo has agreed to another interview so that he can answer your questions about desire utilitarianism.

So, what questions about – or objections to – desire utilitarianism would you like me to bring up during the interview? Leave them in the comments below.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Hylomorphic April 1, 2009 at 1:54 pm

One quibble I have is that desires are not propositional attitudes. When I am hungry, it is not as if I have the desire that P become true where P is “Food is in my stomach.” I'm just hungry. The proposition P comes into the picture when I attempt to communicate my hunger or when I take steps to alleviate it. But it's not essential to the hunger–the desire–itself.

That's inessential to the fundamental claim however.

A more pressing objection I might raise is that, under desire utilitarianism, there seem to be an incalculable number of possibly ethical desire scenarios. It would not be possible to decide between them on the basis of desire utilitarianism alone.

Look at the question of rape, for instance. Alonzo Fyfe would have us imagine that, if we had a knob controlling the total desire to rape, turning it all the way down would minimize frustrated desires. But why should we have a knob controlling the desire to rape, rather than the desire not to be raped? If we were to diminish aversion to rape, surely this, too, would minimize frustrated desires.

Perhaps it's not possible to diminish the desire not to be raped–we should only consider desires that we can possibly diminish. If this is the case, then desire utilitarianism does perhaps forbid the desire for rape, murder, etc. However, I think there are other examples which we could give of undecidables.

For example, should a woman desire to be financially independent of the male members of her household? On the one hand, this stymies some of the desires of the woman, though certainly not all. Most people, I think, desire adequate food, shelter, clothing, and other comforts, which she would have, and desire not to struggle for them, which she wouldn't. She may well not have time, should she be working, to raise her children as she would like. She may not be able to In this light, even some of the desires of the woman would be stymied by her financial independence.

However, her desire would also stymie the desire of men to work for adequate pay to feed their families. By introducing extra competition into the work force, it would reduce everyone's financial stability, potentially stymieing the desires of many for adequate food, clothing, and shelter.

It is not obvious to me that woman's liberation is preferable, under desire utilitarianism, to patriarchy. It is perhaps somewhat arbitrary that women stay at home rather than men, but this does not seem to me to be an adequate response, so long as one section of the population stays financially dependent.


lukeprog April 1, 2009 at 7:22 pm

I'll hold off on replying until I do the interview. Thanks for your questions and objections.


Chuck April 1, 2009 at 8:06 pm

For what it's worth, the question of who should stay home is almost never going to be arbitrary. Until there are kids in the picture, no one has to stay home. Once there are, one of them will have a job that pays more. The other might have a job that can be done from home.

Also, men can't breast-feed.


Chuck April 1, 2009 at 8:09 pm

Here's my question.

In order to eat meat, an animal has to die, so is eating meat wrong?


tinyfrog April 2, 2009 at 2:13 am

Admittedly, I wasn't paying enough attention to the podcast to get a full understanding of it, but my question is this: how does desire utilitarianism balance the desires of different species? For example, presumably, animals wouldn't want to be killed for food. (And they certainly would not want to be hunted in a forest – where they tend to die a slow death from blood-loss after being shot with an arrow or gun.) Yet, we kill them. On the other hand, we would find the idea of killing humans for food to be evil. Why the inequality between human and animal desires? How is killing animals “right”?


hewhocutsdown April 2, 2009 at 6:20 am

I'm not seeing how one can make the jump from:

* I have desire X and you have desire Y

* desire X is preferable to desire Y due to it's capacity to fulfill more desires than it thwarts.

This seems, at best, highly subjective – as is illustrated by your case of the community of sadists and the abused child. If you argue for the abuse of the child in this context, but against in a context where child-abusers are a minority, than 'morality' is merely subject to the sentient creatures in a given environment.

If you argue against, what principle or extra information are you using? It is not obvious at all that abusing a child thwarts more desires than it fulfills – how are we measuring thwarted/fulfilled desires? Without a mechanism for testing this, it's merely a new moral subjectivity.

After all, how can we argue with this that homophobia, slavery, sexism, etc are morally superior without subjecting each of them to the above test and comparing the results? It could be that some are indeed, morally superior using the mechanics of desire utilitarianism, which would cast your examples into the same fire you cast the prior arguments for morality into.

Whether or not you believe in the devil, I'm happy to play his advocate. ;)


Kevin June 12, 2009 at 7:39 pm

Another question about desire utilitarianism (DU). Your argument makes the following claims:
1) Desires are the only reasons for action that really exist.
2) No desire is intrinsically better than another, not within one person or across all people.
3) Thus, we must consider all desires when evaluating the moral value of any given desire.
4) A desire is morally good if tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts; bad if it tends to thwart more desires than it fulfills.
What is unclear to me is how real and verifiable some of these claims are, since relying only on what is real is a major strength of DU allegedly. For instance, granted that there are no objective differences between desires, what compels an individual to regard all desires equally (claim 3)? Because it’s rational to give equal treatment unless there are real differences between things? But that assumes one has a desire or moral duty to be rational. I happen to have such a desire, but I don’t see how, on DU, we can generate a moral duty that people be rational in this or other ways. If a person, or all people, lack this desire, then there is reason to be rational, no reason to affirm claim 3.
Next, how do you get from 1-3 to 4? My objections to 3 aside, even if these claims are true, how do they justify 4? What I think is going on is that claim 4 assumes a further claim, namely, either:
5a) We ought to maximize the fulfillment of desires; or perhaps
5b) Each of us desires to maximize the fulfillment of desires.
I don’t see what can justify 5a on DU, and 5b is likely empirically false, at least when it comes to maximizing not just one’s own desires, but the desires of all subjects. In other words, what evidence do we have that all or most people do in fact desire to maximize the fulfillment of other people’s desires?
Also, what compels an individual to refrain from acting on a morally bad desire, i.e., a desire that would thwart more desires than it fulfills? If the individual does not agree to either version of claim 5, how can DU justifiably condemn him?
Claim 5 above (and by extension 4 also) sounds like just the sort of thing you’ve been critical of, namely, unverifiable values, principles, duties, and so on. The only other option seems to be to show that most, if not all people, agree to claim 5b. Is this likely.
For what it’s worth, I like the sound of this theory, so I’m just about on board, but I’d like to pummel it as you have. Thanks for your time.


lukeprog June 12, 2009 at 7:58 pm


I’m not even fully on board with desire utilitarianism. :) I’m still feeling it out.

Claim 3. All I’m saying is that your desire to survive the flu is some reason for action to promote the advance of scientific medicine, and that Maria’s desire to not be raped is some reason for action to discourage rape, and that Johnny’s desire to kill Bob is some reason for action to encourage the murder of Bob, and so on. Some of these desires are stronger than others. All I’m saying is that we can measure them as they are, and there are no ‘external’ weights to consider, such as intrinsic value.

Claim 4. Your 5a is false, and 5b does not directly engage the study of morality. All I’m proposing is that “good = such as to fulfill the desires in question”. That’s how we use the term. A hammer is good if you want to pound a nail or crack a skull, but that’s not MORAL goodness. Moral goodness just means that something tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts, simply because desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and morality is about reasons for action.

Many people have little desire to act morally. DU can justifiably condemn him by demonstrating that moral agents generally have reasons to condemn his immoral desires. If you have a desire to kill everyone you see, we all have reason for action to condemn that desire and inhibit it as much as possible. All I’m doing is applying that logic to all possible desires and actions.


Kevin June 13, 2009 at 2:05 pm

I don’t think you’ve addressed my objection to claim 3.  It might make sense to promote scientific medicine because I want to avoid the flu, but I still don’t see a reason to put my desires on par with those of others.  Presumably, the only real reason to do that for DU is because doing so will maximize the fulfillment of my own desires, but clearly that’s not always the case.  I get that DU allows us to measure them “as they are,” but that doesn’t address the normative question of why we should give them equal weight.
I like your last paragraph.  This seems to reduce morality to pragmatic concerns, but I’m not opposed to that view of things.  The traditional moral realist is going to object that condemning the would-be killer because we don’t want to be killed is not giving him moral reasons why he shouldn’t kill, it’s only saying that our desires numerically outweigh his.  But there’s nothing wrong with his desire to kill.  And I understand why for DU.
Thanks for the feedback.


lukeprog June 13, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Kevin, my response to (3) has a lot to do with my view of meta-ethics, which is a reaction to error theory. I have more to say about this in an upcoming review of Joyce’s “The Myth of Morality.” I’ll try to remember to point you to my review when it is published.


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