In episode 07 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss one important fact: desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value.
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Transcript of episode 07:
ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.
LUKE: That’s how you wanna start? No ‘hello’, no ‘good morning’, just BAM! Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.
ALONZO: It has shock value. We want people to finish this episode knowing this one fact. Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.
LUKE: MMMMmmmm… Can you say that again?
ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.
Last time, we were saying that a lot of people, when we tell them what desirism says, think we’re trying to say that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value – that this is something that everybody should be concerned about whether they want to or not.
LUKE: But no!
ALONZO: No, it doesn’t. Nothing has intrinsic value. But no matter how many times we say this, people still think we’re saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value.
LUKE: Alonzo, you sound annoyed.
Take a chill pill, man.
ALONZO: Okay, I’m better now.
ALONZO: Anyway, what happens is that they give us arguments aiming to prove that desire fulfillment doesn’t have intrinsic value as if that defeats desirism. Or they challenge us to present our arguments that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value so that they can refute those arguments.
ALONZO: But we agree with them. Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.
LUKE: Yeah. Well, then, I think it would probably do some good to explain what we are saying, and how what we’re saying is different from the claim that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value.
ALONZO: As I see it, this is one way the argument might be presented: Jeremy Bentham thought that pleasure and the absence of pain were the source of all value. John Stuart Mill thought it was happiness that had intrinsic value. Peter Singer thinks it’s preference satisfaction. Now here’s Alonzo Fyfe thinking he is oh so clever coming up with . . . what does he call it? “Desire fulfillment”? Now he wants to tell us that desire fulfillment is the source of all value.
ALONZO: But the “desire fulfillment has intrinsic value” theory is going to run into the very same problem that all of those other theories had. They will tell me, “All you are doing is taking something you happen to value – desire fulfillment – and saying this is something that everybody else should value, and you can’t give me one single good reason to make that leap. As soon as you try to show that desire fulfillment is the one and only thing that has true value, you will fail.”
LUKE: Well, yeah, that’s true. If you ever try to prove that desire fulfillment is the one and only thing that has value then you will fail.
ALONZO: Right. So therefore, I am not going to say that desire fulfillment is the one and only thing that has value. Desirism doesn’t say that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. Desirism says that nothing – no thing – has intrinsic value, not even desire fulfillment. Intrinsic value does not exist.
LUKE: Intrinsic value does not exist.
ALONZO: I think I hear an echo.
LUKE: Intrinsic value does not exist… does not exist… does not exist.
ALONZO: Yes. Intrinsic value does not exist.
LUKE: Well, perhaps you can tell me what desire fulfillment is, what intrinsic value is, and then we’ll know what you mean when you say that desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.
ALONZO: As if you didn’t already know.
LUKE: Humor me.
ALONZO: Fine. Desire fulfillment is a state in which there is a desire for something – and whatever that thing is, it actually exists.
LUKE: Right, so let’s go back to that alien Alph and his one desire – a desire that the moon Pandora continue to exist. In that universe, desire fulfillment is a state where Alph has a desire that Pandora continue to exist and Pandora does, in fact, continue to exist. That’s desire fulfillment, right?
ALONZO: Exactly. Now: intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is a reason for action that is built into the very essence of something – it is intrinsic to that thing. This reason exists no matter what: no matter what anybody desires, no matter what anybody wants.
LUKE: Okay, so, let’s go back to our simplified world where Alph wants Pandora to exist and that’s the only thing that is wanted in the whole universe because Alph is the only creature in the universe and that’s his only desire. Alph doesn’t want desire fulfillment, so nobody in that universe wants desire fulfillment.
Now if desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, that would mean that there is a reason to bring about desire fulfillment even though nobody in Alph’s universe wants desire fulfillment.
But we’re saying desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value, so we’re saying there is no reason to bring about desire fulfillment in Alph’s universe.
ALONZO: None. Zero. Zip. Not even a smidgen. In Alph’s simplified world, desire fulfillment has no value.
LUKE: Not even a little bit?
ALONZO: Zero value. Didn’t you read the script? What does it say? Right there.
LUKE: “Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.”
ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no value at all in Alph’s world.
In that world, only Pandora’s continued existence has value, and that only has value to Alph, and only because Alph desires that Pandora continue to exist.
Now of course, desire fulfillment could have value in our world because, well, there are many people who desire desire fulfillment in our world.
Heh. “People who desire desire fulfillment.” There’s a phrase that will derail a few trains of thought.
LUKE: Yeah, can you rephrase that for us, Wordsworth?
ALONZO: Let me put it this way. Some of us like desire fulfillment. We even have reason to promote a liking for desire fulfillment in others because we have reasons for others to help fulfill our desires. But there’s nothing special about desire fulfillment. It is one thing in a whole bucket of things that can have value because of the desires that exist in the real world.
In Alph’s world, desire fulfillment has no value.
ALONZO: Now, think back a bit. We gave Alph two options.
Option 1. Both Alph and Pandora continue to exist.
Option 2. Pandora continues to exist and Alph does not.
LUKE: And I said that Alph has no reason to choose one option over the other. Because in both options, Pandora continues to exist, and that’s all that Alph cares about.
LUKE: But according to the idea that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, there is a mysterious reason for action buried in desire fulfillment itself. And that reason for action built into desire fulfillment is a reason for Alph to choose Option 1 – where he continues to exist along with Pandora. That’s the option that has desire fulfillment, right? Because it’s the one where both a desire exists and its fulfillment exists. In option 2, Alph ceases to exist. His desire ceases to exist. So, desire fulfillment ceases to exist.
But if desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value, then Alph has no reason to choose Option 1 over Option 2, because either way, Pandora continues to exist, and all that’s all he cares about.
ALONZO: That’s right.
LUKE: So this is a way of showing the difference between what we’re saying and this other theory that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value.
ALONZO: Right. We’re saying that in Alph’s universe, he has no reason to choose option 1 over option 2. People who think desire fulfillment has intrinsic value would have to say that Alph does have a reason to choose option 1 over option 2.
LUKE: But Alonzo, how do you know that intrinsic value doesn’t exist?
ALONZO: Well, what work does it do? Black holes – which nobody can see – explain why the stars at the center of galaxies move so quickly. Atoms explain everything from the fact that water-ice floats to how plants produce fuel from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.
What work does intrinsic value do? It doesn’t explain anything.
LUKE: And even if somebody were to say that intrinsic value did do some real work in explaining something, we would have to ask how it did that work. We can use molecular chemistry to explain why ice floats by noting how the polarity of the molecules creates crystals that have a lower density than water. How does the intrinsic value of desire fulfillment generate these reasons for action? How does that work?
ALONZO: So, let’s ask. This is our question for all people who think that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. HOW does this alleged intrinsic reason for action have any type of command on us to bring it about? How does it work?
LUKE: Alonzo, the fun part about this episode is that these are questions that people ask us, demanding that we provide an answer. Our answer is there is no defense of the claim that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. It isn’t true. Desirism itself says that desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value. So there is nothing for us to defend.
But, now, I wanna know, can you disprove the existence of intrinsic value?
ALONZO: Can you disprove the existence of fairies in your garden? Just like I don’t have a disproof of the existence of those fairies, I don’t have a disproof of the existence of intrinsic value. It’s just that there’s no reason at all to think those fairies exist, and there’s no reason at all to think intrinsic value exists. Neither of them help to explain anything we encounter in the real world.
LUKE: Okay, but without intrinsic value, isn’t morality just subjective?
ALONZO: Hold on there, cowboy. If somebody makes that leap, they’re getting way ahead of themselves. We said that we are not going to discuss morality yet.
Look at the facts we’ve established. Desires give agents reasons to act so as to bring about states of affairs that realize their desires. Alph’s desire that Pandora continue to exist gives him reasons to realize states where Pandora continues to exist. No other reasons for action exist. Now, stop there. Whoa. Halt. Let’s just stop there and see if there are any objections. Then we’ll go on and see what the implications are.
LUKE: Alright, yeah. It’s simpler that way. So for now we’re just trying to say that the only value that exists – the only reasons for action that exist – are those grounded in desires. In Alph’s universe, the only desire that exists is Alph’s desire that Pandora continue to exist. Therefore, only Pandora’s continued existence has value – and only to Alph – and only because of his desire that Pandora continue to exist.
ALONZO: Do you think we’ve said that enough times now?
LUKE: No, we’ll definitely have to say it more later.
ALONZO: You know, Luke, a lot of people out there are going to be thinking, “Look. You have two options. Either you are promoting desire fulfillment because you like desire fulfillment and you want to somehow coax the rest of us into liking it as well. Or you are promoting desire fulfillment because you think it has intrinsic value or what J.L. Mackie called ‘objective prescriptivity’. It has to be one or the other.”
LUKE: But it doesn’t. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There’s a third option. Part of the reason that the fight between those two options never ends, probably, is because they are both half right, and they are both half wrong, and they don’t admit to the possibility of a third option, which is what we’ll start to talk about in the next episode.
But I want to stress one thing. If things only have value when they are desired, and if that means that objective morality does not exist…
ALONZO: It doesn’t mean that at all.
LUKE: Well hold on, hold on: IF . . . if you can’t have objective morality in a world where desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then, well, you can’t have objective morality in the real world. Because in the real world, desires are the only reasons for action that exist.
We aren’t going to just make up imaginary reasons for action because of how we want the world to be. Instead, we’re going to stick to the reasons for action that exist in the real world, that we have evidence for, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist in the real world. If objective morality can’t be grounded in desires, then objective morality can’t exist.
Deal with it.
ALONZO: Do we have to start talking about what “objective” morality means now?
LUKE: No, no, no, no. That was just a warning for those who let their minds leap too far ahead. For us, like you said, we don’t want to say anything about morality or objectivity or subjectivity – not yet. We just want to start with a few simple claims, for example that the only type of value that exists comes from desires.
ALONZO: Right. And in our next exciting adventure, we’re going to make real-world claims about desires as the only reasons for action that exist, without saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value.
LUKE: In our next exciting adventure…
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- “Track 2″ from Requiem for Larissa by Valentin Silvestro
- “Hymn III: 136-278″ from Hymns 2 & 3 by Nicolas Korndorf
- “Indiana Jones Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark by John Williams
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