In episode 08 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss the difference between a desire to fulfill other desires, and a desire that fulfills other desires, and also the concept of a “harmony of desires.”
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Transcript of episode 08:
LUKE: C’mon. We’re recording. Put down your Diet Dr. Pepper.
ALONZO: Sorry, I was thinking about Ebenezer Scrooge.
LUKE: We already finished the Scrooge episode. You can’t redo it.
ALONZO: I know. But, do you remember the question we asked in that episode?
LUKE: Yeah. We were responding to a question about Scrooge, namely: “Why should Scrooge care about the desires of others?”
ALONZO: Yep. That’s right. We talked about a desire on the part of Scrooge to fulfill the desires of others. And what was the answer?
LUKE: Well, desirism doesn’t say, necessarily, that Scrooge should want to fulfill the desires of others.
ALONZO: Okay, instead of saying ‘should’, let’s just say that there might not be very many or strong reasons to want Scrooge to fulfill the desires of others. There may be reasons to have him want other things instead.
LUKE: You’re saying that desirism isn’t about promoting a desire to fulfill the desires of others?
ALONZO: Only a little bit. Here, let’s go back and look at Alph.
LUKE: That’s the alien who wants the moon Pandora to continue to exist.
ALONZO: No. The earlier Alph, before the personality transplant.
LUKE: Oh, back when he wanted nothing but to gather stones.
ALONZO: That’s the one. Because he lives on a planet with very few stones, he gives his companion Betty a desire to scatter stones so that he, Alph, will have a constant supply of scattered stones to gather.
But, notice this. A desire to scatter stones is NOT a desire to fulfill the desires of others.
ALONZO: Well, the difference here plays on a distinction that philosophers have long recognized between ends – or goals – and means.
See, we have a number of ways to relate desires to states of affairs. In Betty’s case, scattering stones is her “end” or “goal”. That’s what she wants. She’s not aiming for a state in which she is fulfilling Alph’s desires. Fulfilling Alph’s desires is an unintended consequence – a side effect – of her having what she does want: scattering stones.
LUKE: Yeah, I can see that. It is a side effect the same way that getting fat is a side effect of eating as much chocolate cake as you want. Getting fat isn’t the desired result, it’s just a side effect.
ALONZO: And Alph’s gathering of stones is a means to Betty’s end of scattering stones. Betty finds the fact that Alph gathers stones to be useful or convenient for fulfilling her desire.
LUKE: Okay, then, from Alph’s point of view, gathering stones is HIS end or goal. That’s what he likes to do. Creating a pile of stones, which Betty can then scatter, is just a side-effect of Alph fulfilling his desire to gather stones. And getting Betty to scatter stones is a useful or convenient means by which Alph can continue to gather stones.
That’s why, in Episode 3, Alph gave Betty the red pill, because he knew it would give Betty a desire to scatter stones. For Alph, having Betty desire to scatter stones is useful. Betty’s desire to scatter stones has what we call instrumental value, or means-to-an-end value, for Alph.
ALONZO: I’m afraid that this is a place where people get confused because our language is confusing. We have one word in our language – ‘desire’ – and we use it in two different ways. We use it for what people desire as an end – what they like. And we use the same word for what people desire as a means to an end – for what is useful toward getting what we really care about.
So in normal English, it would make perfectly good sense to say that Alph wants to give Betty the red pill. When asked why, Alph would say that it was so that Betty would scatter stones, and he would have a constant supply of stones to gather.
LUKE: Yeah, and it would also make perfectly good sense to say that Alph wants to gather stones. But in this case, when we ask “Why?” he has no answer but to say, “No reason, that’s just something that I like to do.”
But notice: that actually gives us a test we can use to figure out whether something is desired as a means or as an end. If something is desired as a means to something else, and we ask, “Why?”, then somebody can give an answer.
ALONZO: We can ask Alph, “Why do you want Betty to desire to scatter stones?”
LUKE: And Alph has an answer. He can say: “Well, because then there are stones available for me to be gathering.”
But if something is desired as an end, and we ask “Why do you want that?”, then there is no answer. If you were to ask Alph, “Why do you want to gather stones, Alph?” The only answer he can give is: “Because that’s what I want.” And if that’s true, then we’ve discovered that Alph desires to gather stones as an end. That’s what he really cares about.
But we have to be careful. There’s no law of nature saying that an agent can’t have a desire for something both as a means and as an end at the same time. A couple having sex might want to have children and, at the same time, they might just want to have sex. When asked why they are having sex, they may answer that, “It is because we want to have a child.” But that might not be the whole explanation. They might also have wanted to just have sex for its own sake.
ALONZO: Here, we could ask the couple, “Would you have sex even if it were discovered you could not have children?” If the honest answer is, “Yes,” we know that the reason they offered – that they want children – isn’t the whole story.
LUKE: Yeah, so that’s another good test we can use to figure out whether something is desired as a means or as an end.
ALONZO: So here’s what we’re saying.
There are desires-as-ends and desires-as-means. If something is desired as a means then there is an answer to the ”Why” question – that answer is either the end or goal of the action, or the next link in some chain of means to some ultimate end.
LUKE: But if something is desired as an end, then there is no answer to the “Why?” question. It’s just: “No reason. I just like to gather stones.”
ALONZO: I also want to make the point that when we talk about desires, you and I are almost always talking about the desires-as-ends sense, not the desires-as-means sense. Alph’s desire to gather stones was a desire-as-end to gather stones. Betty was given a desire-as-end to scatter stones. Alph had a personality transplant which gave him a desire-as-end that the moon Pandora continue to exist.
ALONZO: So, now that we can tell the difference between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means, let’s go back to Alph and Betty and look more closely at a desire to fulfill the desires of others – what a lot of people wrongly think desirism is exclusively about, and desires that fulfill the desires of others – what desirism actually spends a lot of time talking about.
I want to say some things about how these types of desires differ.
Here, let’s say you’re Betty.
LUKE: Betty? No way. I’m not going to talk in a high-pitched voice. No way. Nope. No way.
ALONZO: Okay, you’re Betty’s guardian angel. You are going to watch over Betty and report on her.
LUKE: Do I get badass angel wings so I can fly?
ALONZO: Sure. That’ll make it easier to watch over Betty, I suppose.
LUKE: Badass Guardian Angel, reporting for duty.
ALONZO: Okay, let’s go ahead and look at the desire we talked about in the Scrooge episode – the desire to fulfill the desires of others. Let’s say that Betty has this desire. Let’s hear your report on what Betty is doing assuming she has a desire to fulfill the desires of others.
LUKE: Okay. So, right now, Betty wants to fulfill the desires of others, and the only desire of others in existence is Alph’s desire to gather stones. And she can help him fulfill that desire by scattering stones so that he has stones to gather, and so that’s why Betty is scattering stones.
ALONZO: But Alph dies.
LUKE: He must not have a guardian angel.
ALONZO: Or not a very good one. Now, he’s dead. And Betty survives. So what’s going to happen to Betty?
LUKE: Well, it seems like she wouldn’t have any reason to scatter stones any more. There’s nothing she can do to fulfill Alph’s desires now. . . so, I dunno, I guess there’s nothing for her to do. I guess she sits down and does nothing.
ALONZO: That’s what happens if Betty has a desire to fulfill the desires of others – the desire we talked about in the Scrooge episode. Now, let’s give Betty a desire that fulfills the desires of others – in this case, a desire to scatter stones. Alph is alive again. Now, let’s hear your report on what Betty is doing this time.
LUKE: Well, Betty is scattering stones, just like before. Only, this time, the reason that she is scattering stones is because she likes to scatter stones. Fortunately, Alph is gathering stones so Betty has a constant supply of gathered stones to go about scattering.
ALONZO: But now Alph dies.
LUKE: Again? C’mon, what did Alph ever do to you?
ALONZO: I didn’t kill him. It was an accident. A tiny meteor fell from the sky and hit him in the head.
ALONZO: Alph is gone, and Betty survives. What is going to happen to Betty this time?
LUKE: Well, she’ll continue to scatter stones because she wants to scatter stones.
Now, eventually, she’ll notice that the piles of rocks are getting smaller and smaller. And soon, she’ll have to gather stones into a pile so she can scatter them again, but she’ll keep on scattering stones.
ALONZO: So, a desire that fulfills the desires of others is not the same as a desire to fulfill the desires of others. There are circumstances in which each type of desire results in different actions.
LUKE: Yeah. So when we talked about Scrooge, you said that desirism does not claim that Scrooge should have a desire to fulfill the desires of others. That’s because Scrooge should have desires that fulfills the desires of others, and they’re not the same thing.
ALONZO: But remember, we need to be careful of using the word “should” there. Let’s just say that people generally might not have as much of a reason to give Scrooge a desire to fulfill the desires of others as they have to give Scrooge desires that fulfill the desires of others.
LUKE: But, wait a minute. That means, if, say, Ayn Rand is right about how selfishness helps fulfill the desires of others, then selfishness really is a virtue. Or, maybe Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street, maybe he was right when he said, “Greed is good.”
GORDON GEKKO: The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
ALONZO: It could be. Desirism doesn’t necessarily require everybody to desire to fulfill the desires of others. It really could end up saying everybody should be selfish. It doesn’t rule out that possibility.
And, there is something else that we glossed over earlier that I think deserves some mention. That’s the fact that Alph and Betty don’t end up with the same desires. Alph – who had a desire to gather stones – did not give Betty a desire to gather stones. He gave Betty a different desire, a desire to scatter stones.
LUKE: Yeah, because he needed somebody to scatter stones so he could keep on gathering them.
Betty’s desire to scatter stones fit better with Alph’s desire to gather stones.
ALONZO: Notice how this type of answer is a lot different from the type of answer you get when you think about value being intrinsic: being in things themselves.
Here, let’s illustrate by going back and talking to Alph.
LUKE: Okay, I’m Alph again.
ALONZO: Hello Alph.
LUKE: Hey, Alonzo. Why do you keep killing me?
ALONZO: I told you! It was an accident.
LUKE: Suuuuure it was.
ALONZO: Alph, pay attention.
ALONZO: You have a desire to gather stones. You have to decide whether to give Betty a blue pill that will cause her to want to gather stones, or a red pill that will cause her to want to scatter stones.
LUKE: So, I give Betty the red pill so she will scatter stones for me.
ALONZO: Not so fast! Here, let me give you a desire that others experience true value.
LUKE: Uhhh… Okay, well, having Betty scatter stones makes it easier for me to gather stones, and that has value to me. That’s true.
ALONZO: Now, Alph, think about the value you find in gathering stones. Where does that value come from?
LUKE: Well, it has value because that’s what I want.
ALONZO: That’s what those foolish desirists like Luke and Alonzo claim. Don’t listen to them. No, the value you find in gathering stones resides in the act of gathering stones itself. Gathering stones has special significance and you – by God’s design or by the forces of evolution – have come to have a proper appreciation for the intrinsic merit of stone-gathering.
There is no way a person can properly understand the nature of stone-gathering and not want to gather stones herself.
And the blue pill? That’s not a pill that gives Betty a desire to gather stones. That’s is a pill that, at least as you understand it, gives someone a “proper appreciation for the value intrinsic to the gathering of stones.”
LUKE: Uhh… okay, well…. so then in that case, if I believe that, and let’s say I want Betty to have a proper appreciation for the significance of gathering stones, then I guess I should give Betty the blue pill.
ALONZO: Of course, that would depend on which desire was the strongest. If your desire to gather stones were the stronger desire, you would give Betty the red pill anyway and sacrifice your interest in giving her a “proper appreciation for the significance of gathering stones” But if your desire to give Betty a “proper appreciation for the value of gathering stones” were stronger, you would prefer giving her the blue pill.
LUKE: But, if I did that, and we both wanted to gather stones, then I would have to fight her over who gets to gather the few stones that remain and who has to do the chore of scattering stones so they can be gathered again!
ALONZO: That’s right. You’d be losing out on the benefits that come from a harmony of desires.
LUKE: Hold on. What was that? “A harmony of desires”?
ALONZO: Oh, that’s what I call it when different desires work well together. When I noticed that there are some combinations of desires – like the desire to scatter stones and the desire to gather stones – that work well together, I thought of the way some musical notes work well together.
LUKE: Oh, like this . . .
SINGING: Well I see you’ve got your Bible, your delusion imagery. Well I don’t need your eternity or your meaning to feel free. I just live because I love to, and that’s enough, you see. So don’t preach about morality; that’s just human sense to me.
ALONZO: Yeah. That’s quite nice. Anyway, just like musical notes can work together, desires can work together as well. I call that kind of situation a harmony of desires. This is one of the conclusions that comes from desirism, but it doesn’t come from any theory that tries to find value in things themselves.
LUKE: So, you’re saying, let different people be different.
ALONZO: Well, not always, of course. Some notes play well with others. Some don’t.
For example, remember that in Episode 3, I took care to say that Alph had a desire to gather stones, and not a desire for a big pile of stones.
ALONZO: If I had said that Alph had a desire for a big pile of stones, and Betty had a desire that all the stones be scattered, those desires would not work well together. In that situation, Alph and Betty would find themselves at war.
LUKE: Yeah, and Alph would end up losing.
ALONZO: Huh? How does that follow?
LUKE: Well, I figure Alph wants to gather stones, so Alph will be putting the stones in one spot. But Betty wants the stones scattered, and she can scatter them by throwing them at Alph.
ALONZO: But Alph’s pile of stones is where Betty will get her ammunition.
LUKE: Oh, yeah. That’s right. Then I guess we’re talking about mutually assured destruction.
ALONZO: All over a pile of stones, and desires that are not in harmony.
LUKE: Still, the lesson here is not “Let different people be different”. The lesson is that we can look at desires and distinguish those desires that work well together and those that do not. Desires that fulfill other desires are desires that are in harmony with each other. And this means, sometimes, we have reasons to encourage different people to desire different things rather than having everybody desire the same thing.
ALONZO: That’s one of the claims we can make about comparing desires. There’s more we can say on that issue.
LUKE: But, it’ll have to wait until the next episode.
ALONZO: Okay, see you then.
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- “Spiegel im Spiegel” from Fratres, etc. by Arvo Part
- “Hard Believer” from The Big Black & The Blue by First Aid Kit
- “Strange Desire” from Magic Potion by The Black Keys
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