In episode 06 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss the nature of desire fulfillment.
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Transcript of episode 06:
LUKE: Welcome to…
ALONZO: Morality in the Real World.
LUKE: I’m Luke.
ALONZO: And I’m Alonzo.
LUKE: Okay, Alonzo. We talked about Alph and Betty on the distant planet, and we talked about Ebenezer Scrooge. What should we talk about today?
ALONZO: I want to return to Alph on that distant planet and … and, no theremin music.
Good. Now, originally Alph had a desire to gather stones. Today, we’re going to start by giving Alph a personality transplant.
LUKE: A personality transplant? Can we give Lindsay Lohan a personality transplant? She would be totally hot, then.
ALONZO: Unfortunately, we can only do these things on Alph’s world.
ALONZO: Anyway, this time, Alph’s only desire is that the moon that he can see in the sky continue to exist.
LUKE: Why does Alph always have such stupid desires?
ALONZO: It’s not a stupid desire. It’s a beautiful moon.
LUKE: Oooh, like that moon Pandora in that movie Avatar with the floating mountains and pretty trees and stuff?
ALOZNO: Sure. But, there’s no creatures on it – just a lot of plants. Alph is the only creature that exists with desires.
LUKE: Okay. So Alph wants to preserve Pandora.
ALONZO: Yes. I choose this desire to focus on specific facts about desires. The facts that I want to focus on this time require a desire that can be fulfilled even if Alph ceases to exist. Alph’s desire to gather stones can’t be fulfilled if there is no Alph to gather stones. However, a desire that Pandora continue to exist, that can be fulfilled even if Alph himself should disappear.
LUKE: Um, yeah, but Alph has to stick around to have the desire that Pandora continue to exist, right? So if Alph goes, the desire that Pandora continue to exist goes with him, right?
ALONZO: Well yeah that’s right. If Alph ceases to exist, then his desire ceases to exist. However, at the moment of decision, Alph and his desires do exist. We are going to ask Alph to make a choice.
Luke, you play Alph. You only care about one thing: that Pandora continue to exist.
LUKE: Okay. What accent does Alph have?
ALONZO: Well, let’s make this easy. Let’s say . . . a Californian accent.
LUKE: Oh, good.
ALONZO: Okay, Alph…
ALONZO: Here are your two options.
Option 1. You, Alph, will continue to exist, and Pandora will continue to exist indefinitely.
Option 2. You, Alph, will cease to exist, but Pandora will continue to exist just as long as it would under option 1.
Which will you pick? Door number 1, or door number 2?
LUKE: Okay. I’m Alph. The only thing I care about is that Pandora continue to exist.
ALONZO: That’s right. One of the key claims that desirism makes is that when an agent desires something – that Pandora continue to exist, for example – then what matters to that person is that what is desired is made or kept true. A person who desires that Pandora continue to exist wants the proposition, “Pandora continues to exist” to remain true.
LUKE: That’s what you call ‘desire fulfillment’.
ALONZO: That’s right. I want to make it clear that Alph isn’t after some psychological jolt like pleasure or happiness or a sense of satisfaction. Alph desires a state of affairs in which Pandora continues to exist.
LUKE: Okay so, I want Pandora to continue to exist. You didn’t say anything about me caring about my own existence. I only care that Pandora continue to exist. But Pandora continues to exist under either option, so I don’t NEED to choose. Why should I? What reason do I have to choose one option over the other?
ALONZO: Congratulations! You win a cookie.
LUKE: I don’t want a cookie. I’m Alph. I have no desire to eat a cookie.
ALONZO: Hey that’s great! That’s more cookies for me.
LUKE: Um, okay. I’m Luke again. Give me that cookie. Oh God I love cookies…
ALONZO: Okay, but don’t talk with your mouth full.
LUKE: Okay, well, of course I, Luke Muehlhauser, was cheating because I already know which answer desirism gives to that question, but a lot of people are going to say that Option 1 is the best option, because that’s the option where Pandora continues to exist AND Alph continues to exist. If he chooses Option 2, Pandora continues to exist but Alph ceases to exist.
ALONZO: But who cares whether Alph continues to exist or not?
Literally, who in Alph’s universe cares whether he continues to exist? Alph doesn’t care, and nobody else exists. If somebody wants to say that there is a reason for Alph to continue to exist, I want to know what that reason is. How does it work? How do we discover it? Where’s your evidence?
LUKE: But Alonzo, I really feel deep down inside that there is value in Alph continuing to exist, even if Alph doesn’t particularly desire it, and even if nobody else exists.
ALONZO: I suspect that some people would say something even stronger. That even if nobody desires Alph’s continued existence, that it is something that he SHOULD desire. In other words, that it’s wrong not to desire Alph’s continued existence.
LUKE: So what are you trying to say? Are you telling me that this feeling inside me is an illusion?
ALONZO: No. The feeling is very real. But, it’s lying. It’s like those feelings that told you that you were being watched over by a benevolent God. They lie. Don’t trust them.
Or, it could be that they’re not lying, but you are misinterpreting what those feelings are saying. If you disagree with me, and you think they are telling you the truth, perhaps you can answer a few questions for me.
LUKE: Okay. Such as?
ALONZO: Such as, what types of reasons are your feelings talking about? What is your evidence that this reason that you feel actually exists in Alph’s universe? If my feelings told me that there’s a diamond buried in my back yard I can go into my back yard and try to dig it up. So, what can you do to show me that your feelings are telling you something that is true?
LUKE: Well okay, if you think I might be misinterpreting my feelings, then what ARE those feelings telling me?
ALONZO: Your feelings, in this universe, are probably telling you two things.
First is that YOU, Luke Muehlhauser, prefer a universe in which Alph continues to exist. Option 1 better fulfills YOUR desires – even though it does not better fulfill Alph’s desires.
Second, you probably sense that you would be better able to fulfill your desires in a universe where everybody else desires that Alph continue to exist. After all, if you’re surrounded by people who value Alph’s continued existence then you are probably also surrounded by people who value your continued existence, and that is a safer world for you to live in.
Your feelings are telling you about your desires, and the desires you have reason to want other people to have. They’re not telling you anything about Alph’s universe.
LUKE: Yeah, and me and my desires don’t exist in our fictional world where Alph is, and nobody in Alph’s world desires Alph’s continued existence, not even Alph.
ALONZO: Not one bit. He could not possibly care less. He only cares about Pandora’s existence.
LUKE: But what if Alph has to stay alive to prevent some huge asteroid from destroying Pandora, or something like that?
ALONZO: Well, now, you’ve changed the options. Let’s imagine that scenario and you’re Alph again. Now, you have these two options.
Option 1. You, Alph, continue to exist and Pandora continues to exist under your protection.
Option 2. You, Alph, cease to exist and Pandora gets destroyed by a huge asteroid.
LUKE: Now, Option 1 is the only option that fulfills my desire that Pandora continue to exist. So, now, I have a real reason to choose Option 1 over Option 2.
ALONZO: Now, let me throw the question back at you. What if it were the case that the the only way for Pandora to continue to exist is for you to cease to exist? You are going to unavoidably destroy Pandora unless you cease to exist.
LUKE: That’s pretty weird. Like, maybe you’re saying I’ve got Nuclear Tourette’s. Every now and then, I uncontrollably goes into a cursing fit, which fires nuclear warheads out of my mouth that will unavoidably destroy Pandora?
ALONZO: Well, sure, we’ll go with that.
LUKE: Alonzo this is really going to hurt my sex life.
ALONZO: You’re Alph. You don’t have a sex life. You don’t WANT a sex life.
LUKE: Oh. Yeah.
Now, from what you said so far, if the only thing I care about is preserving Pandora, and I have Nuclear Tourette’s that will DESTROY Pandora, then I would have to choose the option where I cease to exist, so that Pandora can be preserved!
ALONZO: And you would make that choice with absolutely no qualms or regrets. We would be wrong to imagine you full of anguish over the fact that you must sacrifice yourself to save your beloved Pandora. It would be more accurate to imagine you giving a shrug of total and complete indifference before ending your own existence with casual and deliberate ease.
LUKE: Alonzo, if this story is right, then it looks like there are a lot of other things in this fictional world that don’t have value either.
Alph’s welfare or well-being has no value.
Alph’s flourishing is worthless.
Pleasure or happiness . . . eh . . . who cares?
ALONZO: That’s right. In order for any of these states to have value somebody must have desires that are fulfilled in those states, and only those people with those desires have any reason at all to pursue these states.
LUKE: Alonzo, that puts a major crimp in those theories that say that human flourishing, or happiness, or pleasure, or the well-being of conscious creatures is the root of all moral value.
ALONZO: It tells us that those theories are substantially wrong. People in this universe do have reasons to pursue states such as flourishing or happiness or well-being – whatever those things mean. That is because these are states that contain elements that fulfill human desires. But there are other states, not properly called “well-being” or “happiness” or “flourishing” that also fulfill desires that people in this universe have.
There is absolutely no reason to take happiness or flourishing or whatnot and say THAT is the only thing that counts.
And, while we’re at it, there’s something else that doesn’t count on this model. Desire fulfillment itself. In Alph’s world, desire fulfillment has no value.
LUKE: Right. And honestly, Alonzo, I can’t stress this enough. People keep thinking that we must be sneaking intrinsic value into our theory somewhere, but we’re really not. We really don’t believe in intrinsic value.
ALONZO: And this is where they say we do it. They say that we are claiming that desire fulfillment itself has intrinsic value – that desire fulfillment is something that everybody should aim for whether they want to or not.
LUKE: Yeah, but desire fulfillment has no value at all unless somebody desires it, and it only has value to those who desire it. In our story universe, Alph does not want desire fulfillment. He only wants Pandora to continue to exist. In that universe, Pandora’s continued existence has value, but only to Alph, and only because of Alph’s desire that Pandora continue to exist.
ALONZO: That’s right. In fact, this is such a common misunderstanding that I’m thinking we should spend more time on it. Let’s take the next episode to explain specifically why not even desire fulfillment has intrinsic value.
LUKE: Sounds good. See you then.
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- clip from the opening of The Day the Earth Stood Still
- “Disconnected” from Speak by Lindsay Lohan
- “Stamping Ground” from Moondog by Moondog
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