CPBD 005: Alonzo Fyfe – Desire Utilitarianism

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 18, 2009 in Ethics,Podcast

cpbd005Here it is, my promised interview with Alonzo Fyfe, in which I asked him your questions about desire utilitarianism.

No, the podcast is not back on a regular schedule. But I will post new episodes as I have them.

guest alonzo fyfeDownload CPBD episode 005 with Alonzo Fyfe. Total time is 1:30:25.


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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Chuck April 20, 2009 at 8:58 am

Thanks for asking my question! 

I like the analogy he makes between animals and humans who are more or less powerless to make their desires known. However, I am less convinced that our treatment of animals somehow makes them better off. Let’s say a pig lives 5 years in the wild and 10 if kept as a pet. (I have no idea what the real life expectancies are, for now let’s just assume.) What does desire utilitarianism say about killing the pig you had for 10 years? The pigs desire live is just the same as it was before. I don’t see how your decision to extend its life factors in at all.


lukeprog April 20, 2009 at 10:03 am

Chuck: What does desire utilitarianism say about killing the pig you had for 10 years?

I don’t know. This is all a research question. We haven’t collected the data necessary to know what the relevant moral desires are and their consequences. If you want to become a moral expert in this area, please do! :)


Chuck April 20, 2009 at 6:17 pm

What research do you think is needed? The pig wants to live. I want to eat bacon. I can live a long, healthy life without it. The only people harmed by this are the meat packers (and indirectly, the business they supply).

How is this scenario different from rape?


Lorkas April 21, 2009 at 8:44 am

The way I see it:

The human desires bacon.
The pig desires to stay alive, to get plenty of food, and to be healthy.

In this arrangement, the human fulfills several of the pig’s desires by caring for it and providing food and health care, in exchange for the pig fulfilling the human’s desire for bacon.

Both actually fulfill their desires more fully as a result of the arrangement, even though the pig ends up in the human’s belly.

In a rape scenario, the desire fulfillment is strictly one-way–the rapist fulfilling his own desires at the expence of the victim’s desires. That seems to me to be an important difference.


Lorkas April 21, 2009 at 8:47 am

The pig also fulfills his/her Darwinian Mandate (which is the same, incidentally as Christianity’s Cultural Mandate–Go forth and multiply) by this arrangement, since the humans guarantee the survival and reproduction of the pig’s descendants as well.


tinyfrog April 21, 2009 at 11:33 am

Well, the question of farm-raised animals was an interesting one, but there’s still the issue of hunting wild animals. Wild animals do not gain the benefit of being taken care of. And, while we might object to hunting animals in this day and age, what about primitive people hunting animals? I’m pretty sure we’d be be aghast at the idea of those same people hunting humans for food. Why is the “I need to hunt to survive” argument more persuasive when we are hunting animals, but less persuasive when hunting humans is involved?

I have to admit that hearing him talk, it was hard to get a sense of the ‘mathematical certainty’ of his his system. There were times when he just seems to favor one explanation over another, and went about formulating a justification for it. It almost seemed like talking to a mathematician talking about numbers, but he was not letting you see his calculations. He would talk about this number being added to that number and getting a third number, and that it all works out correctly. But, the mathematician was always talking in vague terms, and you couldn’t help but wonder if it was as solid as he says. Maybe “mathematician” is bad in this context, since we all believe math works. Maybe “astrologer” would be a better example. It also reminded me a little of “evolutionary psychology” explanations – where someone finds a way to connect evolution with any particular human behavior. (There may be a hundred possible explanations of any particular behavior, and a hundred more we hadn’t even thought of, but the evolutionary psychologist acts like his explanations are the right ones.)


Lorkas April 21, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Do you think that desire utilitarianism is a description of how humans do moral reasoning, or a proposition about how we should do moral reasoning?

If the former, I (as I am not a proponent of desire utilitarianism) would like to hear your response to tinyfrog’s question about hunting, and the difference between hunting humans and non-human animals.

If the latter, do you think that desire utilitarianism suggests that hunting is immoral, since it violates the desires of the hunted animal? And also, do you think that the morality of an action depends on the capacity of the recipient’s capacity to have desires? Is it okay to “torture”  a tree (by, say, cutting all of its leaves), since the tree has no cognition (and therefore no desires)?


lukeprog April 21, 2009 at 3:02 pm


Desire utilitarianism is a theory that accounts for moral language (aka what we SHOULD do, what we are permitted to do, etc.) and (unlike other theories) refers only to things that really exist as described. Also, it is a theory of how we SHOULD do moral reasoning, I guess – only because it is the only theory that accounts for our moral language and also makes true claims about things that exist.

I don’t know the answer to your hunting question. Your hunting question requires a moral expert in that area. A lot of data has to be gathered, and a lot of hard thinking about the issue has to be done. Desire utilitarianism is not a theory that gives easy answers in many cases, because that is not how the world really is. In many cases, morality is a daunting research tactic. We need desire utilitarian researchers to answer many of our moral questions.


Chuck April 21, 2009 at 4:05 pm

On that note, I had a few additional thoughts on the hunting question . . .

It could be that 100,000 years ago, when survival was less certain, hunting animals for food may very well have been a reasonable thing to do. 

Fast forward to the present. Survival is much less of a problem (at least it is for some of us), and we know that meat isn’t necessary for a healthy diet. But just because a few have gone vegan with no ill effects, it doesn’t mean the whole planet can, and in order for this to be a moral imperative, isn’t that exactly what we would need?


lukeprog April 21, 2009 at 4:56 pm

These are all good questions to help clarify the issue. Really, we need moral experts. I cannot possibly know the answer to a question like this without doing decades of research.


Chuck April 21, 2009 at 11:08 pm

Decades, huh? Well we’ve got to start somewhere . . .

Btw, a quick internet search debunked my question on whether the planet can support it. Short answer: It can, because a vegan diet requires less energy than what most of us now eat. A vegan diet results in longer life and lower risks for cancer, heart disease, and other diseases. Setting aside the question of whether “animal farming” results in a net gain for the animal and looking at the simpler case of hunting, I still can’t see how this is any different from rape (a case that A.F. has already worked out). By my calculus, we should all be vegans. Please, show me where I’m wrong.


lukeprog April 21, 2009 at 11:18 pm

My desire for bacon has more intrinsic value than a pig’s desire to live.


Lorkas April 22, 2009 at 8:40 am

If my desire for bacon is stronger than another person’s desire for bacon, is it moral for me to steal his bacon?


Chuck April 22, 2009 at 9:18 am

I think Luke was making a joke.


lukeprog April 22, 2009 at 9:48 am

The question is: “Is the desire to steal bacon a good desire?” which means “Does the desire to steal bacon tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than are thwarted by that desire?” I dunno, but probably not. So there are more and stronger reasons for action to discourage the desire to steal bacon than there are to encourage that desire.


Lorkas April 22, 2009 at 10:45 am

The fact was not lost on me. Perhaps my humor is too dry for the internest.


CharlesP June 12, 2009 at 7:30 am

Thanks for having Alonzo on again.

Am I the only person who has had issues with the file on an iPod? It may be that the info is densely packed and my mind has wandered, but every time I’ve tried to rewind 30 seconds to hear a point again it seems to take me to a whole other discussion/timeline/etc.  Very strange (I suspect my iPod is borked because it has too much stuff on it).


I’d like to discuss the possiblity of us having evolved a moral sense, but I want to see if there’s a post more current to have that discussion in.  The question I have is that you and Alonzo both say something along the lines of “we have no reason to believe we’ve developed a moral ’6th sense’”, but while I agree that our moral “sense” would be highly fallible, it seems to me very likely that we would have in fact evolved a moral sense.  I’ll detail the hows/whys from an evolutionary perspective in a bit (possibly on this thread if I can’t find a better post to reply to).


lukeprog June 12, 2009 at 4:55 pm
Patrick October 28, 2010 at 7:33 am

Let’s have two people who both desire to possess the same painting. This would thwart the other one’s desire to do the same. So the solution, according to desirism, is that neither desires to possess the painting, and to influence their desires accordingly? And that’s without taking into account the desire to sell the painting.

I don’t know, I think there still needs to be a hierarchy of desires, e.g. the desire for freedom trumps the desire for bodily safety. Or with your rape argument, by the same token you could try and manipulate desires such that people desire to be raped. The direction could go both ways.

And why *is* it bad to have a desire to rob a bank? Whose desires get thwarted? The bank itself has no desires, and the money is insured.

I also doubt the practicality of this theory. It reminds me too much of economic attempts to describe preferences – usually, we are driven by a whole mess of desires, all working in concert or even in contrast, and we conflict with other people’s desires all the time; when I get into the elevator before someone else and the car is full, I’ve taken that person’s place, just as an example. I think that it is both impossible (at least right now) to try and describe all desires that come up to serve any and all kinds of situations and actions (just with the pig example, there could be a whole slew of different desires depending on the circumstances of the pig farmer) – and impractical since, when faced with a moral question in everyday life, I can hardly do such a survey.


Patrick October 28, 2010 at 7:38 am

Oh, and I pretty much jumped into desirism very quickly, so I am sure I have many misconceptions about it.


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