The Ultimate Desirism F.A.Q.

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 7, 2009 in Ethics


Important Update: The most up-to-date and accurate presentation of these ideas is now available here.

This is the clearing house for all common questions about the moral theory I defend, desirism (aka desire utilitarianism). It is a sequel to my earlier desire utilitarianism F.A.Q., which is still useful, here.1

I will refer to desire utilitarianism as desirism because that term is shorter and leads to fewer misunderstandings.

I must stress that very little of what follows is original work. Most of what you read below is a paraphrase of work already done by Alonzo Fyfe. My work on desirism is not original research, but merely organization and popularization.

The questions are ordered by category as they are added so that the number associated with each question does not change. This is done so that I and others can write, for example “See questions 6.04 and 6.05 over here,” and link to this page.

To link to a specific question, link to this page’s URL, add a # symbol, then add the question number. For example, link to:


Okay, on with the questions…

The Basics

{1.01} What is desire utilitarianism / desirism? Why do you prefer the term 'desirism'?

{1.02} What is the history of desirism?

{1.03} Do any major philosophers defend desirism?

{1.04} Where can I learn more about desire utilitarianism / desirism?

{1.05} What is your personal opinion of desirism, Luke?

{1.06} Why should I choose desirism as my moral theory?

{1.07} Isn't it a bit arrogant to claim that desirism is the best moral theory ever devised?

{1.08} If desirism is so simple, why did nobody think of it until recently?

{1.09} What are the most frequently asked questions about desirism?

What the Theory Says

{2.01} What does desirism claim? Give it to me in a nushell.

{2.02} Okay, so what are beliefs and desires?

{2.03} Back up your first claim, that morality is about reasons for action.

{2.04} Back up your second claim, that desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

{2.05} Back up your third claim, that value exists as a relation between desires and states of affairs.

{2.06} Back up your fourth claim, that desires are the primary objects of moral evaluation.

{2.07} How could desirism be falsified?

{2.08} Are desires persistent? Do I lack the desire to not be killed while I'm unconscious?

{2.09} Why should I be moral?

{2.10} How can someone else's desires hold moral sway over me?

{2.11} Please state desirism as a logical argument.

{2.12} Can someone have a false belief about their own desires?

{2.13} How can you know which desires are more malleable than others?


{3.01} Moral talk is just the expression of someone's attitude.

{3.02} Values can't be objective, because if you eliminated all sentient beings, value wouldn't exist.

{3.03} But "objective" means "mind-independent," and desires are not mind-independent.

{3.04} Desirism may be a true theory about desires and types of value, but it's not a theory about morality. Desirism doesn't refer to intrinsic value or categorical imperatives, which is what we intuitively mean by "morality."

{3.05} You say "do what a person with good desires would do." Isn't that a hypothetical entity, something you said desirism avoids?

{3.06} But desirism is a theory about values, not facts. So desirism isn't factual.

{3.07} But why should I accept your definition of morality?

{3.08} Desirism does not account for motivational internalism, and that's a problem.

{3.09} Desirism isn't grounded in practical rationality, and that's a problem.

{3.10} What is the greatest objection to desirism you've ever heard?

{3.11} What about G.E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy?

{3.12} What about Hume's is/ought gap?

{3.13} But how can you have ethics without God?

{3.14} But how can you have ethics without intrinsic values?

{3.15} Can desirism solve the 1000 Sadists Problem?

{3.16} How does desirism respond to the explanatory argument against moral realism?

{3.17} Desirism is just your favorite way to justify your own moral intuitions.

{3.18} What if a B-Theory of time, instead of an A-Theory of time, is correct? How does that affect desirism?

{3.19} How can you say that desirism is the One True Theory of ethics?

{3.20} If moral value is derived from the relationships between billions of desires, how could you ever calculate the moral value of something?

{3.21} But "objective" means "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased." And desirism is not objective in that way.

{3.22} Racism is not evil according to desirism because desires would be fulfilled equally whether nobody was racist or everybody was racist.

{3.23} Desirism is basically Maoist.

Desirism in Practice

{4.01} How do I use desirism to make moral decisions? What ought I to do?

{4.02} How do I become a better person?

{4.03} Can I be religious and also accept desirism?

{4.04} In what ways am I morally responsible for my beliefs?

Desirism and Applied Ethics

{5.01} What about animals? Don't they have desires?

{5.02} Is it okay to harm someone to prevent them from doing wrong?

{5.03} Is war ever okay?

{5.04} Is patriotism good?

{5.05} Is capitalism good?

{5.06} Is taxation okay?

{5.07} Is libertarianism good?

{5.08} What about freedom?

{5.09} What should we do about offensive speech?

{5.10} Should "free speech" include the call to do harm?

{5.11} Do people always have the right to their own opinion?

{5.12} What about abortion?

{5.13} What about stem cell research?

{5.14} What about homosexuality?

{5.15} What about pornography?

{5.16} Is capital punishment okay?

{5.17} What should we do about global warming and other environmental issues?

{5.18} What about human cloning?

{5.19} What about space development?

{5.20} What is the value of survival?

{5.21} What is the value of truth?

{5.22} Is stealing ever okay?

{5.23} Is ridicule ever okay?

{5.24} What obligations do we have to children?

{5.25} Are protests ethical?

{5.26} Is anger okay?

{5.27} How would desirism respond to Sophie's Choice?

{5.28} How does desirism deal with trolley problems?

{5.29} What about incest?

{5.30} What about keeping promises?

{5.31} Does desirism promote totalitarianism?

{5.32} Would desirism recommend that we design robots with artificial intelligence and then enslave them, as long as we design them to desire to serve humans?

{5.33} What if we had a knob that could re-engineer people's desires? What should we do with it?

Other Moral Theories

{6.01} What's wrong with non-cognitivism?

{6.02} What's wrong with relativism?

{6.03} What's wrong with subjectivism?

{6.04} What's wrong with error theory?

{6.05} What's wrong with contractarianism?

{6.06} What's wrong with common utilitarianism?

{6.07} What's wrong with Kantianism?

{6.08} What's wrong with virtue ethics?

{6.09} Isn't happiness the sole good?

{6.10} Isn't morality just an evolved sentiment? What's wrong with evolutionary ethics?

  1. Note: for coding reasons, I must use curly brackets {} instead of straight brackets [] on this page. []
  2. Collected by Richard Joyce in The Myth of Morality, page 13. []
  3. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong []

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{ 138 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorkas August 7, 2009 at 7:50 pm

Not yet. Most major philosophers are not even aware of the theory, because Fyfe has not published his work in any peer-reviewed journals. Fyfe says this is because he doesn’t want to spend his life in ivory towers – he wants to bring his ideas directly to the people.

Well, that’s fine, so long as he wants desirism to remain a backwater theory that no one has heard of. Keeping your theory from peer review is a pretty cowardly course–if you’re wrong, then peer review is a pretty good way to find out why, and if you’re right, then philosophers ought to be talking about it. Either way, the truth should win out. I can’t see how sheltering a theory from the gauntlet of peer criticism is good for anything.


IntelligentDasein August 7, 2009 at 8:09 pm

Luke, you are going to need to answer Kant’s critiques to consequentalism. Kant put a serious beating on it and his objections are still the ones people bring up when talking about the ethical system.


josef johann August 7, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Luke, there has to be more to a more system based on desires than that they cohere with one another (and I think Alonzo believes this as well, but I’m not sure. I have an example below).
In your objection on rape, you resolve it by pointing out the fortunate coincidence that rape necessarily involves the thwarting of other desires and so it couldn’t cohere with “bad” desires into a system. This is an unsatisfying answer.
I think the fully stated objection should go something like this: Is it necessarily the case that “bad” desires like rape can’t come together in a system to promote one another?
I hope it’s ok if I reproduce part of I comment I left on Alonzo’s blog. He hasn’t answered yet, but I think it’s relevant here. Alonzo says here:
If those beliefs are false then there is a chance that you are not fulfilling the most and strongest of your desires as you could be.
and strongest. Supposing all desires were equally desirable (and bad desires correspondingly undesirable), one would prefer those which encouraged, numerically, the greatest number of good desires and suppressed the greatest number of bad desires.

However, there is such a thing as a stronger or weaker desire. Which appears to mean a single strong desire could thwart desires numerically larger and still have reason for being promoted, provided it is sufficiently strong (this seems plausible to me).

Doesn’t that mean there is a coin of the realm that desire must consist in such that it can be weaker or stronger than other desires? And that, whatever this coin is, it cannot be (exclusively) a quantity of other desires, but something that those desires terminate in which is itself desirable? (I think this is the juncture where other theories of ethics start referring to intrinsic values.)
And, to say this from a slightly different angle, how could one initiate a system of desires like this? If one were a blank slate, I don’t see how one could use desire utilitarianism to come up with first desires. If you don’t want to accept that people are at any point blank slates, it still seems that we somehow come up with desires without thinking explicitly of whether they tend to fulfill other desires, and that desire utilitarianism could only be implemented after you, somehow, already had a collection of desires.
I find Alonzo’s stuff to be amazing, but I only just encountered it this week. I look forward to your posts on this.


lukeprog August 7, 2009 at 9:41 pm


No doubt! I will eventually add those to the FAQ.


josef johann August 7, 2009 at 9:41 pm

That’s the last time I trust the automated line-breaking feature in a comment box!


lukeprog August 7, 2009 at 10:13 pm

Lorkas: Keeping your theory from peer review is a pretty cowardly course–if you’re wrong, then peer review is a pretty good way to find out why, and if you’re right, then philosophers ought to be talking about it.

I know! Fyfe’s reluctance to publish the theory in journals annoys me to no end. :) If possible, I will bring it to the scholarly realm.


TK August 8, 2009 at 2:51 am

All moral talk is about reasons for action. Reasons for action to feed the poor and show kindness to others. Reasons for action to not rape and not murder. Second, desirism claims that desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

I recall reading an old essay by Mill where he presents an argument for act utilitarianism among these lines. Essentially, the argument goes: What is the evidence that certain things are visible? The fact that we see them. And what is the evidence that pleasure is desirable? The fact that we desire it.
It’s a stealthy way to go from “is” to “ought”, but he commits an informal fallacy in the process. “X is desirable” can either mean “X is desired” or “X ought to be desired”, but these two usages of the word are not equivalent. All he has demonstrated is that pleasure is desired, not that it ought to be desired.
When you say things like “morality is about reasons for action, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist,” I believe you are committing the same fallacy. “Reasons for action” can either mean “reasons why we do behave in certain ways” or “reasons why we should behave in certain ways”. Yes, morality is about reasons for action–reasons that we ought to behave in certain ways. But desires are not necessarily reasons why we ought to behave in certain ways. The only thing we know about them is that they are reasons why we do behave in certain ways.


Jeff H August 8, 2009 at 5:51 am

One of the oddities I find in desirism (btw I like the new name :) is the potential for an infinite regress. Fyfe likes to translate “should” statements into “reasons-for-action” statements. So, if you say that I should give to the poor, you could translate it as “There are reasons for you to give to the poor.” But then I can ask, why should I do what there are reasons for me to do? Well, there are reasons for you to do what there are reasons for you to do. And then the cycle repeats – why should I do what there are reasons for me to do? This question never seems to be answered. I suppose it might seem intuitive to do what there are reasons for you to do, but a) you don’t seem to put much stock in intuitions, and b) it doesn’t seem to give the force of a “should” statement.


lukeprog August 8, 2009 at 6:57 am


Mill does indeed commit a fallacy, but I don’t think desirism commits the same one. I’ll add your objections to the FAQ when I can.


g August 8, 2009 at 12:57 pm

It seems odd to me (not outright wrong, but odd) to call desirism a consequentialist theory. In just about all other contexts, an ethical theory is called consequentialist in so far as it judges actions by their consequences. Desirism judges desires by their consequences, and takes no direct interest in actions at all.
One fundamental question that I’d have thought a moral theory ought to try to answer is: “Now, what should I do?” Desirism seems to fall down here in two ways (leaving aside the problems inherent to most consequentialist theories, like the need to predict the future in ways that are plainly impossible in practice and maybe even in theory):

It says “you should do what someone with good desires would do”. But there are lots of different ways of having good desires, and they might predict a whole lot of very different actions. I’m not sure whether that’s a big deal, but it seems like it might be, mostly because of the way that …
The multiple levels of indirection are a bit weird. You should do what someone with good desires would do; you tell whether someone’s desires are good by seeing what those desires tend to make them do, and what impact that has on other desires. (Only other good desires? Or all desires, even the bad ones? Neither answer seems quite satisfactory.)

There are a bunch of other things that somehow don’t smell right about desirism. For instance: we’re supposed to assess desires according to what effects they have. But desires on their own don’t have effects; a desire has whatever effects it has on account of being a particular person’s desire, and that person’s other desires, and abilities, and situation in life, and so on, all make a big difference. That would be OK if we only had to assess desires in the context of particular lives (as e.g. we do with acts, for act utilitarianism), but it’s not so good when there are claims like “you should do what someone with good desires would do” flying about. Better, perhaps: you should do what you would do if you had good desires; which is to say, desires that (being held by you) tend to help other desires get fulfilled. But now, why exactly should we prefer this to “you should do whatever helps desires get fulfilled” — i.e., straightforward preference utilitarianism?
I think the answer to question 1.06 (why choose desirism?) is silly. If someone asks “Why should I accept evolution?” or “Why should I reject the theory that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax?”, there’s no point saying “Because evolution is real, and the moon landings actually happened”. What you’re being asked is “What reason is there to think it’s true?”. I suggest that the same is likely true for anyone asking “Why should I accept desirism?”. (Not certainly true: some people might be trying to choose their ethics on the basis of what makes them feel most comfortable, or something.)


g August 8, 2009 at 1:00 pm

The comment editor has the ability to add numbered lists (HTML element OL) to a comment. They don’t actually display correctly in comments; or, rather, the comment-posting process removes them. (There was one in my reply above, but it’s turned into ordinary paragraphs.) Can you remove that feature from the editor, so it doesn’t function as an “attractive nuisance”?


Karl August 9, 2009 at 7:23 am

lukeprog: I know! Fyfe’s reluctance to publish the theory in journals annoys me to no end. If possible, I will bring it to the scholarly realm.

I strongly agree with you and Lorkas on this.  Luke, have you challenged Fyfe on this (particularly that he has no good reason not to subject his work to formal peer review)? If so, what does he say?


lukeprog August 9, 2009 at 9:00 am

I think I did ask him once. He said something about not enough time (he’s not paid to be a philosopher) and wanting to go directly to the people. The opportunity to subject desirism to peer review is probably the strongest force pushing me to go back to school and study philosophy. But I can’t afford school. Maybe if I successfully publish a few papers I could get a scholarship, or something.


josef johann August 13, 2009 at 2:24 am

Any thoughts on the comments from myself, g, and Jeff H about the problem of desires depending on other desires?


lukeprog August 13, 2009 at 6:23 am

josef johann,

I’ll be examining these questions in future additions to the FAQ.


Bribak August 28, 2009 at 7:43 am

I am currently exploring (trying to understand) all the implications of Determinism.  One question I have is that – if Determinism is true, how malleable are any of our desires?


lukeprog August 28, 2009 at 10:28 am


Determinism is unrelated to the malleability of desires, just like determinism is unrelated to the malleability of steel.


Bribak September 1, 2009 at 8:59 pm

lukeprog: Bribak,Determinism is unrelated to the malleability of desires, just like determinism is unrelated to the malleability of steel.

Maybe my understanding of Determinism is incorrect.  Suppose I am inclined by all determining factors (genetics, upbringing, the complete unfolding of cause and effect) to be predisposed towards a certain thrill from a socially unacceptable behavior (which thwarts more desires than it fulfills).  I can see where Desirism can maintain that society will bring its moral tools to bear (shame, punishment, etc) and I would thus now have a greater desire to avoid those moral tools being brought against me than to act on my original desire.  This would in turn inhibit my performing those acts that society is condemning.  But wouldn’t that original desire still be there (unmalleable by those determining factors)?  Isn’t it just that society has given me a greater reason to inhibit that desire?  Has my original desire really changed, or just been overridden?


lukeprog September 2, 2009 at 12:42 am


Some desires are more malleable than others. Try changing your sex preference, for example, or your desire to consume water.

Moral tools do actually modify malleable desires. I’m not sure what you think the difference is between “changed” and “overridden,” but if I grow up racist and then go to college and hear lots of cool and respectable people deriding racism, that weakens or even reverses my desire to think racist thoughts or act in racist ways. It may also change my beliefs about race.

I hope those examples help. Does that answer your question?


Kip September 2, 2009 at 5:46 am

I understand what Bribak is saying.  And it’s true, sometimes the social tools don’t change desires — they just use the desires that people already have in order to change behavior.  That is not the primary goal of the “moral project”, though.  And, when we come across desires that cannot be changed, that factors into our moral calculation.  Figuring out which desires can be changed, and which can’t, is a scientific question.  Figuring out which desires should be changed, if they can, is a moral question (which also uses science).


Kip September 2, 2009 at 1:18 pm

How broad or narrow should a desire be defined in the evaluation?  I believe you used the same argument in regards to Rule Utilitarianism with an example about lying to the Nazi’s when hiding a Jewish person in your house.  What is the “rule” in question?  The same would apply to the “desire” in question.  It may just be a practical question, though, in how specific you should be when promoting or demoting certain desires.  Should we promote the aversion to killing people?  Or just the aversion to killing innocent people?  Or just the aversion to killing innocent people who aren’t about to accidentally kill lots of other innocent people?


lukeprog September 2, 2009 at 3:30 pm


Yup, that’s a difficult and important question, I’ll address it when I can.


Bribak September 2, 2009 at 8:52 pm

Both of your answers have helped.  I see “overidden” as implying that the original desire is not vanquished, it is just overidden by the now greater desire to NOT be shamed, punished, etc. by society. This would I guess align with Kip’s comment that if a desire cannot be changed, the behavior must be changed through whatever tools we can bring to bear.
Determinism seems to me to imply that different people will have different capabilities of “interior desire changing” due to determining factors that are to a large degree beyond their control.  For example, some people can work their way through the tough “lot” they’ve been given in life due to the fact that they have unbelievable drive and passion (and desire) to work hard (if that’s what it takes) to escape from the spot they find themselves in.  Other people don’t have that magnitude of drive and thus find themselves “stuck” where they are.  That “drive” itself is largely a part of determining factors…and true change will be more difficult for those people without it.
Some people (probably most readers on this site) have a desire to find the best possible moral theory to use to become people who make better moral decisions.  Others never give such things a thought.  I think what Determinism says is that whether someone has the will or the desire to do the necessary searching is largely a product of predetermined factors. I think good or bad luck has a lot to do with it – the initial “hand” that you were dealt in life. At least that is my understanding of Determinism at this point.


Bribak September 2, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Sorry for all the mess in front of my last post.  I composed it in Microsoft Word and then pasted it here.  I’m assuming that is the cause.
In the sentence I wrote “That “drive” itself is largely a part of determining factors…and true change will be more difficult for those people without it.”  I meant to say – …a part of DETERMINED factors…not determining factors.


Kip September 3, 2009 at 4:51 am

Bribak:  “Determinism” doesn’t mean “can’t change”.  It (roughly) means that the initial conditions, plus the intermediate forces, determines the outcome.  In this case, the “intermediate forces” would include society using social tools to change people’s desires.  Desirism is compatible with Determinism, and in fact, probably requires it.  If people had Libertarian Free Will (that was unaffected by social forces), then we could not change people’s desires.


Justin Martyr September 11, 2009 at 7:58 am

lukeprog: He said something about not enough time (he’s not paid to be a philosopher) and wanting to go directly to the people.

I hate to break it to you, but Fyfe has written two books about desirism and written hundreds of posts on his blog. He wasn’t paid for any of that (selling a few hundred books won’t leave you much money once Lulu’s cut has been taken). The reason why Fyfe hasn’t published is because he knows that desirism cannot withstand peer-review. As a descriptive theory it suffers all the well-understood flaws of justice as mutual advantage. As a normative theory it loses all of its hard-headed appeal (no intrinsic values etc…) and cannot explain why someone should choose desirism as a normative standard rather than preference utilitarianism or eugenics. Better to be a big fish in a small pond  (or big pond of small-sized fish).


faithlessgod September 11, 2009 at 9:20 am

Here we go again.
Fyfe is deliberately not writing for a specialist audience but, by design, communicating this ideas in a more broad format. I have read some of his more technical notes which are more than capable. If he were able to devote himself full-time to this I recall him saying he would seek peer review publication. It was one of his biggest life decisions to take employment over completing his Phd as he has written about a number of times. Now he does not have the time. I still he think he should anyway but this would mean him dropping his blog for a year or two…
Desirism is not justice as mutual advantage and there are other theories that deny intrinsic value such as Railton’s, so, as usual, Martyr’s claims fall at the slightest scrutiny.


faithlessgod September 11, 2009 at 11:03 am



lukeprog September 11, 2009 at 7:02 pm


As stated earlier, if you continue to post the same question over and over again in bold, you will be banned. I have deleted your unnecessary comment. It will be addressed in future additions of the FAQ, as I’ve said several times. Now settle down.


one more clay figurine October 13, 2009 at 8:19 am

Fyfe is correct; the greatest objection to desirism is that desires do not exist. Just like any emotion we think we feel, it’s all an illusion laid upon us by the mindless processes of sociobiological evolution. And neuroscience and the like won’t prove anything; the physical reaction to desire is not actually desire itself. I can’t hold a testtube containing the desire for love; it’s merely a mixture of discharged liquids. So, just like the theists who point to God as the source of objective morality, your desirism is based on delusions and magic.


Roman October 24, 2009 at 12:20 am

Hi Luke,

Question 3.01 says “Moral talk is just the expression of someone’s opinion.”

You say this view is called non-cognitivism. As I understand it, non-cognitivism is the view that moral talk is just the expression of non-cognitive attitudes.

But I’m not sure if the word “opinion” really means “non-cognitive attitude”. Many times the word opinion is used to mean someone’s BELIEF about something. For example: In my opinion, the moon landing conspiracies are all false.

So a lot of the time (maybe even all of the time) the word opinion refers to a cognitive attitude.


lukeprog October 24, 2009 at 8:17 am

Thanks, Roman, that could use some clarification… when I have time.


Don Loeb October 31, 2009 at 5:08 pm

First, I have to agree with Roman. Colloquially, we use “opinion” to mean more than one thing–including an attitude towards a question that is not questions of fact (as in, “Whether chocolate is better than vanilla is a matter of opinion.”) But we should be more careful, because we also apply the term to beliefs. So you might–if you use the “opinion” terminology– be read as confusing non-cognitivism with cognitivism. Ordinary moral judgments express opinions, according to NC (you say). So do ordinary statements about things like the world being round. When I say, “The Earth is round,” I am expressing (by stating) my belief (or opinion) that the Earth is round. When I say, “Torturing babies for fun is wrong,” I am not–according to non-cognitivism–expressing a belief at all. I am expressing an attitude, or commanding, etc.

Second, I’ve tried to read a little about desirism, but I am confused. Are desires simply to be counted up, or are they to be weighed for strength? Are desires reasons or are the reasons facts about what would fulfill desires? Would it be a good thing if everyone wanted only for everyone else’s desires to be fulfilled? Is that even coherent? Is the view in fact a view about (among other things) what regular people are saying when they make moral statements, or is it some kind of a reform? What are the reasons: desires or good desires? If the latter, are only the best desires to be counted (see above!) or are they weighted for goodness too? Why should I think of good desires as giving me better reasons for action than the desires I actually have?


lukeprog October 31, 2009 at 8:56 pm


I kept hoping that the reason people did not understand my presentation of desirism was because they had not studied moral theory. :) But I cannot hope that is the reason if you do not understand what I’ve tried to say. So give me some time to re-write what is here already and I’ll get back to you.

I appreciate you spending time to read a bit about desirism!




Don Loeb October 31, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Ok, a good start would be answering some of those questions.



faithlessgod November 1, 2009 at 2:34 am


“I kept hoping that the reason people did not understand my presentation of desirism was because they had not studied moral theory. :)”

In my experience it is the other way around. It is those who have not studied moral theory who find it easier to understand desirism. Now I am focused on those of my friends who became sufficiently interested to then study moral theory – we all like arguing with each other – who almost invariably come back to me with the thought that most of it is deeply mistaken and desirism is sufficient for the real world we live in and the world would be better off without all those moral theories infecting people’s minds.


Thomas Reid November 1, 2009 at 5:41 pm

I’ve posted some objections to desire utilitarianism at the link below, and would be interested in any and all comments:


Bebok November 1, 2009 at 6:22 pm


In 6.01 you wrote: “So non-cognitivism just isn’t true about the way 99% of people use moral sentences.”
Is woman a witch because 99% of villagers think she is? And because she is just as one?
Aren’t there any sentences that merely seem to assert something?


lukeprog November 1, 2009 at 6:34 pm


But non-cognitivism is a claim about how people use moral language. And it is a false claim.


Don Loeb November 1, 2009 at 7:45 pm

1) Since I don’t subscribe to any moral theories, I don’t take offense at what FLG says above. Still, it strikes me as implausible. Can he really mean that training in thinking clearly is what causes people not to be able to understand a novel approach to ethics? Or is he assuming that training in philosophy (even analytic philosophy) is not training in how to think more clearly, but indoctrination into ethical dogmatism instead? Couldn’t it be that absent such training, unclear things seem clear to people? That’s certainly been my experience. People come into my classes thinking that they have the answers and gradually come to see that those answers are not as clear or as defensible as they initially believed. Now I do not pretend to have those answers myself, though I sometimes have views. But that has been the point of philosophical training ever since Socrates, to help people see just how complicated and difficult issues that seemed simple to the average Athenian actually are. Socrates was wisest because he alone recognized that he had no wisdom. That was not arrogance exactly. He really believed it–both parts.

Bertrand Russell (one of my first atheist heroes) said that even an atheist (he had a particular one in mind, but no matter) may sometimes have trouble shaking off the dogmatic worldview that characterized his religious perspective. We should all guard against such dogmatism, even when it masquerades as the view that those who did not see the truth BEFORE learning about the alternatives are in a worse position ever to understand it than those who reach enlightenment first and only THEN begin to study the non-enlightened alternatives, if only to find them wanting.

How do you do, FLG. I am Don. Nice to meet you. I have enjoyed your blog. (In what sense does Railton deny intrinsic value, please?)

2)A woman is not a witch because 99% of the people (in some group) think she is. There are no witches. But the word, “witch,” refers to whatever it is that people (most of them, anyway) using the term are talking about. If it turns out that nothing corresponds to that, there are no witches. So the difference is this. THINGS are what they are regardless of how we speak or don’t speak about them or what we (or the majority of us) believe about them. That, I take it is your point, Bebok. Thinking it so can’t make it so. Thinking someone a witch doesn’t make her a witch. But of all the things there are, the WORD “witch” applies to some of them only if those are what people using the word are talking about. One can’t just use a word any old way without risking changing the subject. It’s precisely because the meaning of a word like “witch” is fixed by people’s linguistic commitments that we can say that there are none. My brother once told me that God exists because God is just the capacity for goodness we all have. But even if we have such a capacity, it’s not God. God is whatever (if anything, and I think not) those using the word are talking about.


faithlessgod November 2, 2009 at 3:58 am

Thomas Reid

I have replied to your post on my blog


faithlessgod November 2, 2009 at 4:09 am

Don Loeb

First my reply to Luke was reflecting my anecdotal experience nothing more.

“Still, it strikes me as implausible. Can he really mean that training in thinking clearly is what causes people not to be able to understand a novel approach to ethics?”

My friends are trained in thinking clearly (at least the ones I am referring to). One evidence of this that they did not need to study moral philosophy to come up with all the standard criteria that any moral theory needs to pass muster, they worked these out from first principles.

What they lack is what seems to infect many who do study moral philosophy (religious and atheist) that morality must have its own special rules of logic and reasoning, employ unusual entities or require linguistic contortions to make sense. This is the issue I was highlighting to Luke.

You might have guessed that this collections of friends were scientists of differing disciplines,however some were musicians, who seem to be the most skeptical bunch of people I have ever met (unless they are female singer/songwriters – again anecdotal experience…) I can only end on this point by reminding everyone again that this is all just my anecdotal experience.


faithlessgod November 2, 2009 at 4:16 am

To expand on Luke’s point Bebok

I think moral non-cognitivists:
(1) confuse motivational non-cognitivism (which is true) with moral non-cognitivism (which is false), recognising the former it is a hasty generalisation to conclude the latter
(2) recognise the illocutionary force of moral language as speech acts (which is true) and then again use the fallacy of hasty generalisation to falsely conclude that is all there is to such language.


Bebok November 2, 2009 at 7:03 pm


Thanks. I guess (2) was my error.


As for the witch, there is nothing I can argue about. My reasoning was: People think moral statements assert something and we know that by how they use them. Villagers think woman is a witch and we know that by how they treat her. This doesn’t mean that moral sentences assert something and that woman is a witch.
I’d argue about Socrates. Plato’s Socrates likes to play stupid and highlight his alleged lack of wisdom (particularly in “Apology”), but in fact he always knows all the answers and never learns anything from his interlocutors.


I’m still a bit confused, though. You wrote that “non-cognitivism is a claim about how people use moral language”. But in the article you linked it is defined as a conviction that moral statements have no truth conditions. So it’s also the matter of semantics, not only pragmatics.
You mentioned theological assertions. Imagine you ask all Americans if it is true that in God there are three Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and if it is true that quadruplicity drinks procrastination. The vast majority of answers to the first one would be “Yes”, “No” and “I don’t know”, and to the latter “This doesn’t make sense.” Isn’t it mainly cultural context that makes the difference? Is asking the speakers always a reliable method here?


lukeprog November 3, 2009 at 5:51 am


This may introduce you to how philosophers argue about semantics.

Non-cognitivism is a semantic position with practical implications.


Christopher November 5, 2009 at 11:18 am

How is Desirism not re-heated Richard Brandt (1979) with some Kantian elements thrown-in for good measure (i.e., a quasi categorical imperative for Desirism’s universalizability claim)?


Don Loeb November 5, 2009 at 1:45 pm

It does my heart good to see Dick Brandt mentioned–quite apart from Christopher’s question. I took the last class he ever taught–a semester-long seminar on utilitarianism–and dedicated one of my papers to his memory.


lukeprog November 5, 2009 at 2:26 pm


Desirism has many similarities with Brandt and Kant, and many dissimilarities, too.


Bebok November 6, 2009 at 9:01 am




Eric November 8, 2009 at 10:45 pm

I can’t promise I’ve read every word on this site yet, but it already seems on the face of it like there is way to much complexity in the discussion, which comes from a lack of understanding about some basic facts of human neurology, cognition, genetics and development.

Here are my biases, so you can evaluate them. If you accept them as premises, the conclusions should follow quite simply.

1) Human beings are a bundle of competing desires, not just one at at time. (Lots of references, but check out Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Explained’ for one, in which he describes the ‘multiple drafts’ theory of consciousness – also, see’s program on Morality).
2) Our desires all fall on a continuum from ‘basic’ to ‘higher’ like along Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow).
3) Because of our genetic heritage (which we can see in other primates, who exhibit way more ‘good’ and ‘moral’ behavior than we tend to think – see Primate and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved from Frans de Waal and The Evolution of Cooperation by Axelrod), we can tell that in many cases, the desires which win out and make their way to behavior are the ones which religions and legal systems have attempted to codify as ‘good’ and ‘moral’.
4) Societies, via religions and legal systems, attempt to codify certain behaviors as ‘good’ and ‘moral’ because we all tend to like those behaviors in others and see the sense in having societies that are largely free of murderers and rapists, etc., and so by providing societal pressure, the attempt is to create another set of desires to help tip the scales in favor of the behaviors we all tend to like (so that in a moral dilemma, we might weigh the ‘desire’ not to go to prison or hell, for instance).
5) When people behave badly, it is largely due to mental illness or undue stress, often as a result of poor upbringing (or poor available conditions for upbringing). By the way, the fact that huge swaths of society have mental illness and did not receive proper upbringing does not denigrate this point. (See ‘Becoming Attached’ by Robert Karen, which shows that attachment disorders in the first year of life can have profound impacts on behavior throughout life. Also consider the rather more wild and woolly claims of Lloyd DeMause in his work on Psychohistory, which suggests that a nation’s childrearing habits has an affect on whether or not it is warlike).
6) It is also important to note that when desires compete and conflict, we bring them to consciousness to think about them – hence the whole big fore-brain thing in humans – we get to agonize over conflicting desires a lot because we can use more information and think more ‘moves ahead’ so to speak.

So here’s the summary:

A human being is supposed to do whatever they want; our wants can be really conflicted, especially as our situations get more and more complex and the considerations multiply; our huge brains are there (evolved, I’d say) for the purpose of allowing us to get what we want despite all the potential considerations having to do with the consequences of what we want; and societies provide codified versions of (by and large) universally desirable behaviors to help tip the scales in favor of ‘good’ behavior as well as give us guideposts when things get really complex.

So, if you just pay close attention to what you want, and spend adequate effort considering the pros and cons, pay attention to societal guideposts, and go to therapy if you are less than completely mentally healthy, then you should be fine.



Roman November 23, 2009 at 9:14 am

Hi Luke,

So I’ve read your ethics book and quite a lot of this FAQ. But I am not at all convinced that you’ve shown that moral fact exist! (Sorry!)

What I am going to say may be really obvious and already answered somewhere, but I’m afraid I haven’t found any answer to it! So I hope you can either point me in the right direction of where there is an answer or answer me directly on here. Thanks.

You say that morality is about reasons for action. Okay, that seems reasonable.

Then you say that the only reasons for action that exist are desires. I agree.

But then you say things like this:

“If the poor did not desire to be fed, there would be no reason for action to feed them.”

Here is what I think:

If the poor have a desire to be fed, then THEY have a reason to try to get fed. But the fact that the poor desire to be fed does not give ME a reason to feed them. Where would this reason for action come from? Surely I only have a reason to feed the poor if I have a desire to feed the poor? I am completely puzzled as to why other people’s desires give me reasons for action. They quite clearly don’t. My only reasons for action are my desires, other people’s reasons for action are their desires. I have no reason to try to satisfy other people’s desires, unless I have a desire to satisfy other people’s desires.

Desires are reasons for action in the sense that a person with a desire has a reason to act in a way which she believes will satisfy her desire. But that is it.

Maybe I have misunderstood desirism, and it does not claim that I have a reason to act in a way which satisfies other people’s desires.

However if it does not claim this, then it seems that I have no reason to act in a moral way. I only have reason to act in a way which satisfies my own desires.

I hope you understand my point, and I hope you can point out where I have gone wrong. Thanks.


lukeprog November 23, 2009 at 6:49 pm


This is a common objection to desirism. So far I have failed to explain my answer in a way that makes sense to people. I’m working on it. Thanks for your inquiry. For now, please note that desirism is not a theory that places morality under the domain of instrumental rationality, and so a “reason” is not a reason in that narrow sense…


Roman November 23, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Hi Luke,

Thank you for your answer.

I don’t want to waste your time and draw you into a discussion about it here. I hope you can write an answer somewhere, at some point.

I will just say that it sounds interesting that you think there are reasons for action other than those to fulfill a person’s desires. However these sound worryingly strange and unscientific.

Thanks for getting back to me anyway :)


Roman November 23, 2009 at 11:18 pm

“So far I have failed to explain my answer in a way that makes sense to people.”

Where are some of your attempts to answer the question? Maybe I could make sense of it. Thanks.


Mark November 24, 2009 at 11:41 am

Luke said: “After losing my faith in Christianity..”

Thought for the day: How can one lose what one never possessed?

Once you truly hear, synthesize, interiorize and become a DOER of the Word, in TIME (time is the key Luke) it becomes a part of you. Not like a timepiece strapped to your arm, but like a new limb grafted to your body.

“I am the vine, you are the branches, he who abides in Me and I in him bears much fruit..”

IN me, IN him.

But this process takes time. This is another reason faith based religion is such a hard pill for people to swallow; they want answers and they want them NOW. It doesn’t work like that with faith. Faith, like love, and wine, takes time. It is a PROCESS. And like all processes, it is comprised of progressive steps, as the making of the earth was (whether you believe in evolution or creationism). INCREASING in one’s faith is not unlike the process by which grape juice becomes wine called “fermentation.”

Hence faith literally grows and INCREASES in the beholder as the beholder consumes the Word and actualizes it. Once enough faith equity has been invested, at some point of God’s choosing it becomes part of one’s human fabric. I am a witness.

Once it becomes part of one’s human fabric, it can no longer be differentiated from the human itself and therefore cannot be extricated in the crude manner you assert is possible (“when I lost my faith..” as if you lost your iPhone). Once faith has truly taken hold, to will it out of one’s system would be like attempting to will one’s arm to detach. This is why martyrs like Stephen freely chose death over renouncing their faith. They had no other choice.

I am very deeply into science and learning more and more about atheism and its promoters every day, and I can tell you without fear of error that the more compelling atheist arguments I learn, the stronger and stronger my faith becomes. This is why I credit Chris Hitchens whenever I can. His musings–while very entertaining and humorous–ultimately have done nothing but validate and strengthen my faith. I’m actually grateful to him.

Thanks for thought provoking blog, Luke.




Evolution SWAT December 25, 2009 at 2:46 pm


I find it hard to believe that you cannot afford school unless you have some ridiculous amount of debt. Really, given your enthusiasm for the subject and the work you have done on this blog, etc. I am sure you could find a graduate school where you could get be a professor’s assistant or something.

I know those positions might have a lot of applicants, but I’m sure you would have a good chance of getting one, especially if you talked to some of your connections. You’d make an excellent graduate


Evolution SWAT December 25, 2009 at 2:48 pm

As a graduate student, you’d make an excellent Intro to Philosophy professor.

If you got a PhD not only would you learn a lot, but you would be able to have a greater influence and help even more people…etc. Just please don’t forget your blog if you do get a position somewhere :)


Don Loeb December 25, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Told ya!


lukeprog December 26, 2009 at 10:42 am

Evolution SWAT,

Thanks for your encouragement, but remember that I never even completed an undergraduate degree. Also, several philosophers have advised me to live first and do philosophy later, which is not a bad idea either.


lukeprog December 26, 2009 at 10:44 am



I’ll bet Tannsjo doesn’t follow comment threads on blogs. :)


Don Loeb December 26, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Who is that? Yes you’d have to get your UG/ And yes, your application would be unconventional. But you’d reach people who can reach people. Do you know how many lawyers and doctors and philosophers write me to tell me about the influence of my classes? I AM living. Better than when I was a 9-5er! I follow, my friend. I follow.


lukeprog December 26, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Lol, Dr. Loeb.


Don Loeb December 26, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Torbjorn–Moral Realism?

Which part were you laughing about, Luke?


lukeprog December 26, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Maybe I named the wrong philosopher. You named some philosopher who you said was a “very productive” philosopher who would push you to complete your collaboration with him, and that was the obscure inside joke I was attempting to make.

And it was a joke. I have no doubt you are living. You strike me as a very living kind of guy.




Don Loeb December 26, 2009 at 10:04 pm

Yeah, Terence Cuneo, Not Torbjorn Tannsjo. I now get it! I live–enough to follow blogs. And much more. Yet I have not been without production.

I think you should finish your degree and go to school. I know so many people who put off doing what they wanted to . . . and never did it. Law students who decided to do corporate law “just until they finished paying off the loans,” etc.

Getting paid to do philosophy? That’s living, my friend.


lukeprog December 26, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Ah, wrong T-guy.

I dunno. I kinda think I should travel and have lots of relationships and THEN do philosophy. But yeah, getting paid to do philosophy could be a pretty good gig.

Alonzo wants to the the thing, BTW, he just hasn’t written back yet. Good luck with your operation. Ignore the pain; look forward to the drugs!


Don Loeb December 26, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Thanks. I appreciate the thought. I seem to be cursed with being someone who does not enjoy them.


James Gray January 4, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I am mainly concerned with meta-ethics and this sounds like it could easily be a form of anti-realism despite the fact that you seem to think it has realist implications. Moral reality is in a sense “constructed” by our agreement and interests. Intrinsic value is pretty much the whole point of moral realism. To say that “something really matters” is to say it has intrinsic value. Otherwise it’s just about our desires. Anti-realists care about desires just as much as anyone else.


lukeprog January 4, 2010 at 10:58 pm

James Gray,

Yup. If “moral realism” is defined only in reference to intrinsic value, then desirism is a form of anti-realism. Tomayto, Tomahto.


Don Loeb January 5, 2010 at 7:26 am

Well, we need to say what we mean by “intrinsic value”. One thing we could mean is non-instrumental value. The satisfaction of desires could be good in and of itself, and not because it leads to pleasure (or some other good thought intrinsic). I suspect you two are using it to mean having value in a way independent of people’s psychologies. But that would rule out pleasure as an intrinsic good–an odd result.

The definition of “moral realism” is vexed and much debated. Many would doubt that it can simply be stipulated (as tomaytoh/tomahto suggests). In any case, people sometimes talk about moral realism as committed to “mind independence,” but without more that is also unclear. One sort of mind independence is independence from our beliefs. And some might wish to think of moral realism as committed to mind independence in this sense–calling what has value independent of our beliefs intrinsically valuable. On this use, moral realism might be thought committed to mind independent (or intrinsic) value. What’s really valuable is so whether we believe it to be so or not. But here also desire-based value could be relevantly intrinsic. For we can desire things without believing that we do.

One other thing. Many philosophers think it preferable to treat desires as grounding reasons, not as being them. My reason for going to see Avatar is that it would satisfy my desire to see stunning visual effects, not simply that I want to. On this view reasons are facts. But, Roman, you can’t assume even that desires ground reasons, much less that they are the only things that do or could. The latter simply begs the question against, for example Kantian categorical reasons; the former begs it against views like Scanlon’s.

Of course, I am on 15 mg. of Percocet–not enjoying it, but satisfying my desire to be in less pain rather than more, other things equal. Though it involves a different (but related) use of the words, my desire to take the Percocet is instrumental, I want the drug as a means to the satisfaction of my intrinsic desire to avoid pain.

Hey, I’ve got nothing better to do for a few days.

Whoops, time for another 15 mg–something better to do after all. Sadly, it does not give me the intrinsic good of pleasure. Another argument against the existence of God, if you ask me.


James Gray January 5, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Thank you for the quick reply. I agree that many people understand intrinsic value in different ways, but I think that tends to be a mischaracterization from what philosophers actually think about it when they endorse it.

Intrinsic value isn’t necessarily just non-instrumental, but it’s not necessarily mind-independent either. The main issue with mind-independence is just that realists insist that moral facts to exist, that they are irreducible, and that moral truth is independent of our beliefs. To say that moral facts can’t depend on psychology ignores the possibility that minds can have moral properties without being delusional. It’s a misunderstanding about what “subjective” means.

I’m not sure if desirism can escape the need for intrinsic value for a number of reasons. One is that it seems to suggest that everyone’s desires counts. The idea of intrinsic value is that something is good or bad no matter who has it. It’s not just good or bad in in an egistic sense. If desirism wants me to count everyone’s desires, then I either need a subjective desire to do so, or I need to know that your desires “really matter.”

Something a lot like desirism was introduced by Lawrence Becker in A New Stoicism. He suggested that goals produce “oughts” and moral “oughts” were just legitimate goals all things considered. In a New Stoicism, he argues that maximizing our own goals is best, which includes having coherent and comprehensive goals and so on. The problem with A New Stoicism is it seems to be a form of ethical egoism.

I would expect a good anti-realist to be an egoist. There is an assumption that we have to care about other people, but I am not convinced. A social contract still makes sense for an egoist, but it could lead to totalitarianism.


lukeprog January 5, 2010 at 6:42 pm

James Gray,

“I either need a subjective desire to do so, or I need to know that your desires ‘really matter,’” I think I reject the second option, but I’m not sure what you mean by the first. Could you elaborate that? Unfortunately, moral philosophers use their terms in so many different ways!


James Gray January 5, 2010 at 9:57 pm

By “subjective desire” I mean that we need to personally desire that other people’s goals succeed. The social instincts to care for other people could be manifested as the desire for good things to happen to others.


Joel Duggins January 12, 2010 at 9:39 pm

I have not read everything you have posted on your system of ethics, but I have read enough to have two requests. First, “desirism” seems, at least on a surface level, to be very similiar to a re-packaged form of hedonism, with different focuses and different terminology. Please respond to that statement.
Second, would you please explain how this system can even be called a genuine system of morality (and not merely so much obfuscation) if it does not deal with intrinsic values, on some level?
Thank you.


lukeprog January 12, 2010 at 10:37 pm


It depends which form of hedonism you refer to, but either way hedonism usually focuses on happiness whereas desirism acknowledges that humans have many other desires than the desire for happiness, among other differences.

As for obfuscation, desirism is quite explicit that it is offering a set of ‘reforming definitions’ (ala Brandt) for moral terms, seeing as previous definitions of moral terms were either incoherent, relativistic, or failed to refer.


Robert February 27, 2010 at 10:05 pm


Desirism reminds me of the work that is going on to build friendly AI. If smarter than human intelligence is possible, we’d like for it to share our morals (else we become feedstock for paperclips)!

Coherent Extrapolated Volition is one such proposal that attempts to define objective morality through the aggregation of many desires.


lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 10:47 pm


Thanks for the link to CEV; that’s interesting.


curious March 14, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Any plans to put all of this information into a wikipedia page? If your afraid of wiki language or whatever, you could send me what you want put into the wiki and I’ll do it for you.


TaiChi April 1, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Typo in 6.08:

“If humans have a purpose, it must be intrinsic to humans or else assigned from the outside, for example by God. The second option fails because God does not exist. The second option fails because intrinsic purpose does not exist.”

That second second should be a first first. ;)


lukeprog April 1, 2010 at 8:47 pm



Kaelik May 23, 2010 at 5:19 am

1) Based on my very very very limited understanding of evolutionary ethics, I think you A) completely misrepresent the idea and B) don’t need to falsify it in order for desirism to be true.

It seems the principle(s) of Evolutionary Ethics have to do not with what it moral, or why it is moral, but rather why we have moral theories. While if true it certainly is incompatible with for example, Divine Command Theory, the fact that morality is an evolved process in our brain in no way prevents it from being true that the morality we evolved is a way that we attribute value to our desires and their relation with the world.

2) I was very disappointed to see that 2.09 is “to be added” because that is I think the hardest hurdle to jump for any moral system. (Obviously some metaethical theories like Error Theory need not deal with it.)

I looked long and hard for an answer to my questions, and finally found that one, only to see it was not added.

I don’t supposed you could move it higher on the queue ay?

I am curious why you feel I should change my desires to ones that aid other peoples desires, rather than maintain my current desires.


Roman May 23, 2010 at 8:40 am

I’d like to second the request for an answer to 2.09! I hope the answer will mention the current literature about moral motivation. See


James Gray July 6, 2010 at 2:00 am

Fourth, desirism claims that desires themselves are the primary objects of moral evaluation. A good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire is one tends to thwart other desires. Thus, a right act is one that a person with good desires would perform, and a bad act is one that a person with good desires would not perform. A good law is one that a person with good desires would enact, and a bad law is one he would not enact. And so on.

Do only one’s own desires count? Should I desire that my desires help promote other people’s desires?

How can a desire help fulfill another desire? Isn’t it only going to do that when it causes action to occur? But we need to know how an action could possibly fulfill a desire. Desire alone can’t fulfill other desires. You could hope for all your desires to be coherent, but that would be a different theory as far as I can tell (which was possibly introduced by Lawrence Becker.) I suppose some sort of desire based cognitivism could help answer this question, but most people think that “reasons for actions” are a combination of desires and beliefs, not merely desires.


Ella Emma July 18, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I am new to Desirism and would appreciate a bit of guidance. I am attempting to connect desirism with moral maxims. It seems to me that Desirism provides an underlying calculus that, in turn, results in the observation of certain patterns of conduct or maxims. Does the following fairly represent the tenets of desirism?

Mill’s maxim is: Do whatever produces the most happiness for the most people. One problem is that we really don’t know what produces the most happiness until after an action is completed. Fyfe [apparently also Singer with reference to preference fulfilment] moves the moment of evaluation to before any action is taken: do whatever fulfills the most desires for the most people. Both maxims (Mill’s and Fyfe’s) suggest a calculus that requires an agent pause, take into consideration all the desires in a given situation, and comparatively choose that option which he or she can do and which fulfills more and greater desires than are thwarted or at least refrain, if able to do so, from doing that which thwarts more and greater desires than are fulfilled.

Rather than running a calculus over and over, especially in urgent situations, certain patterns or rules of thumb emerge. For instance, “a desire to rape is bad because it tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills. A desire to show kindness is good because it tends to fulfill more and greater desires than it thwarts.” (What is Morality; meta-ethics in plain talk, 2009 p. 26), giving rise to the moral maxims:

(1) don’t rape
(2) be kind

Moral maxims are general statements of social conduct based on desire-fulfillment tendencies or patterns, but do admit exceptions in specific instances.


lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 2:47 pm


Does desirism result in maxims? Hard to say. For one, it’s not a monistic theory of value like Mill’s or Bentham’s. Rather, it is a radically pluralistic theory of moral value. Every reason for action that exists (in this universe, that translates to “every desire that exists”) provides reason for action, and according to desirism’s definition of moral value, contributes to moral value. Yet you might say there is something like moral maxims in that these reasons for action result in our being able to say that there are more reasons for action to have one desire than another, and thus certain desires could be thought of as ‘maxims.’ But this is all very a posteriori, not a ‘first principles’ approach to morality.


Ella Emma July 18, 2010 at 4:43 pm

The word “maxim” may carry unwanted connotations, so I am happy to substitute a synonym, such as guideline or principle.

I am wondering whether it is possible for a desirist to say, to a child for instance, “you should do such-and-such” or “such-and-such is good to do”. If pressed as to why, the reason is because doing such-and-such tends to fulfill more and greater desires than it thwarts. It is a statement of tendency, namely that doing such-and-such tends to fulfill more and greater desires than it thwarts. Having a statement of tendency [maxim / principle / guideline] may be important in various situations, such as the following.

(-a-) Urgent situations or emergencies, such as on a battlefield.

(-b-) Circumstances where the maxim — er, statement of tendency — is more intelligible to the recipient, such as with a child.

(-c-) Situations where the the labor of moral calculus (e.g.: taking inventory of all relevant desires, calculating which are greater, which option has more, to what extend the more and greater interact, and so on) is simply impractical, impossible, or unnecessary.

So perhaps it is not so much that desirism results in maxims, but that statements of tendency may be possible and bear practical value in various situations.

Or have I missed it entirely?


lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 5:10 pm


Ah, then no, definitely not. Desirism does not say that people ought to do what tends to fulfill desires. That would be something like desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism, which would seem to require the notion that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. Desirism denies that intrinsic value exists.

To get clear on what desirism does say, you may read the posts linked at the older FAQ (linked above), or hang tight for an upcoming surprise on this website that will hopefully present desirism more clearly.


James Gray July 18, 2010 at 5:31 pm


the main difference between desire fulfillment/satisfaction utilitarianism and desirism is that desirism only tells you which desires are good. Desires are good if they promote more desires than they thwart. If pressed why this is so, I don’t know the answer. Certainly there is an expectation that some desires lead to certain actions and have consequences.

Desirism is supposedly a sort of virtue ethics about which desires to promote rather than what actions to promote.

As far as I can tell desire fulfillment utilitarianism could easily judge desires in addition to actions, etc. Desirism is a denial of some tings desire fulfillment utilitarianism does, but not necessarily everything it can do.

Desirism does not require intrinsic values, but I could imagine that someone endorses both intrinsic values and desirism.


Ella Emma July 19, 2010 at 10:05 am

My nephew is 10. We are walking my golden retriever around a large pond and happened upon a female turtle laying its eggs. The dog sniffed and moved off, more interested in a ground squirrel. When Daisy and I returned, we saw my nephew hoisting a large rock, about to smash the mother turtle in the process of laying her eggs. Stop it, I tell him, put the rock down and leave the turtle alone. Why, he wants to know. Would it make a green gushy mess? Probably, I respond, but the turtle is alive and of no harm to you. Its not like pounding one rock on another. After a brief silence he say: at summer camp we pounded coconuts together and all of us ate coconut inside. That was a lot like pounding one rock on another, even though the coconuts were alive and not harming everybody.

What makes it wrong to smash the egg-laying turtle, but acceptable to crack open coconuts? What would a desirist say in this case? How does one run the calculus of desire? Does the turtle and its eggs have a desire to consider? Same for the coconuts?

I have a few other cases that I’d appreciate input from those who are desirists or at least understand it. For instance, in the last season of TV show Survivor, one of the members new to the tribe took ripe bananas when he wished. A couple of the women took James to task over this: you shouldn’t eat the ripe bananas without permission of the rest of the tribe. Eat all the green bananas in the forest that you want, but these ripe bananas are protected by the rules of our tribe. Was the taking of ripe bananas without permission wrong?


lukeprog July 19, 2010 at 10:10 am


I appreciate your interest but unfortunately applied ethics is not simple or even intuitive according to desirism and I don’t have time to analyze your examples now. But see the old FAQ for links to articles on how desirism deals with all kinds of common questions like war and abortion and so on.


James Gray July 19, 2010 at 10:52 am


I would say that the turtle’s desires count as well. Of course, this leads to the problem of what happens when we include animals in the moral sphere. If a turtle and I both have desires, then why is it OK to eat the turtle?

Also, your nephew might have liked eating the turtle and it is harder to say that sort of behavior is immoral given that someone is willing to cook it for supper.


Ella Emma July 20, 2010 at 7:54 am

A Moral Tea Story [excuse no pun]

Here you are, a happy Utilitarian, sipping a spot of tea. Having tea! You could be phoning your mom, she misses you, sweetie. No, forget mom, the soup kitchen needs help feeding the homeless. Wait, wait: there is wildlife aplenty to clean up after that oil spill and — ahem — are you still sitting there with your tea? Utilitarianism seems unrealistically relentless.

At least picking the right choice should be easy, confident consequentialist that you are: just pick the one that has the best consequences. First do this and see what happens. Next do that and see what happens. Continue doing and comparing to find the choice with the best results: choose it, do it, compare its consequences. Er, wait, that makes no sense even if you had a TARDIS. One cannot know which action will have the best result prior to performing any action or even all actions. Consequentialism can be used retrospectively, but has no more practical advice to offer in advance than does your scolding aunt (should have called your mum, you know; I told ya it was her ticker).

My actions will be based on maximizing not the consequences, but the antecedents. I’ve forsaken “consequentialism” for, well, “antecedentism”. I will act in the way I want, satisfy my preferences, do as I desire. Problem is: my neighbour must think the same. His loud pool parties run into the wee hours of the night. All those people doing as they desire, laughing and splashing, playing loud music — which might not be so bad were it not polka all the time. Don’t they understand that my wants are deeper than their pool. That’s the difference, plus my interests have ongoing consequences, such as showing up sleepy and cranky for the big meeting tomorrow, turning lack of sleep into a bit of road rage, and other neighbours engaging in their own ways of expressing themselves.

About to toss a book at my pool-party neighbour, I glanced through a page or two first. Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals by some old dude named Hume. It seems that we neighbours should show moral sentiments: love, friendship, compassion, and gratitude. I will exhibit and expect my neighbours to exhibit these sentiments. Actually, they only have to avoid being unsentimental, after that they can do as they wish. Thus, there is wrong (being unsentimental), but no “right” per se since anything that is not prohibited (wrong) is permitted (right / permissible / tolerable). If you return my lawnmower by just leaving it in front of the garage, fuel tank empty, then you are being ungrateful and can expect scorn. It can be made “right” by apologizing (recognizing wrong) and offering to fill up the tank.

We can sit here and finish that tea without a ping of conscience since, although you might still opt to wash oil off seabirds, you do no wrong by sitting with me on the porch. Unless you’ve run out of biscuits, however. ;-)


Wassabi July 23, 2010 at 3:07 pm

first you have to excuse me, this is the first time i ask a question on your website although it was a great database knowledge for me.
I have a question, can desirism explain this: that there is no such thing as good and evil in the world, because objects, taught or actions hold no moral value, just how humans use them that makes these qualities good or bad. i refer to humans only, because we are the ones that dub, or mark, stuff as good or evil. for example take fire, fire by itself is not good or bad, but the way you use it determines it’s “goodness” or “evilness”. if you use fire to warm yourself during the winter it is a good thing but use it to kill people it becomes a bad thing. This is just an example, but it could apply to may other things on a human level.


Don Loeb July 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm


Very nice post and good question.

The position you seem committed to is known as moral irrealism or anti-realism (or antrealism).

But note that your example about fire seems to presuppose real moral value “in the world”. You say fire is good when put to one purpose but not another, as if there is some fact about which purposes are good and which ones are bad.

What I think you mean to say is that we value fire if used one way, and that most of us DISvalue it when used another. You are not claiming–or should not be–that this agreement constitutes the moral truth.

To my mind, the realism anti-realism debate is orthogonal to the desirism vs. other normative views debate. I know its defenders are likely to disagree, however, and in a way, that alone raises metaethical questions concerning desirism.


Wassabi July 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm

My apologies, I would like to correct myself and say that your website “is” a great database of knowledge, not “was”.

And yes, your correction is the point i was trying to make.


Don Loeb July 23, 2010 at 5:52 pm

One more minor correction, if I may. Not the “point” you were trying to make, but the CLAIM. There is a great debate over these issues. Moral irrealism, which I defend, is currently the minority view, by a large margin. I don’t think that proves anything, but it is still true that the position needs to be supported and can’t just be assumed or presupposed. It is by no means obvious.


lukeprog July 23, 2010 at 8:08 pm


Yes. Desirism ageres that things do not have value apart from being valued by valuers.


lukeprog July 23, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Don Loeb! You’re alive! Been trying to contact you.


Björn August 17, 2010 at 2:22 pm


It’s kinda late here so I’ll try to be brief. When listening to your podcast and reading through some of the FAQ on how to apply desire utilitarism I get the feeling that fulfilling desires is the hidden intrinsic value here. Why do we ought to act as a person with good desires? Well, because his desires are good. Why are they good? Because his desires tend to fulfill other desires. So what the theory says is that we ought to act in a way that fulfills desires and not thwarting desires. But where does the theory answer WHY we ought to act in that way? Without and intrinsic value, there is no real foundation. Or have I misunderstood something?

Regards, Björn


lukeprog August 17, 2010 at 6:43 pm


No. Desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value. See the link with that name on the old FAQ, which is linked at the top of this page.


Björn August 18, 2010 at 10:48 pm

The theory claims that desires that tend to fulfill other desires are good and desires that tend to thwart other desires are bad. Now, is this morally good and morally bad and if so, on what grounds does the claim rest? If it’s not morally good or bad, the what does the theory claim is morally good and morally bad? If there are no such claims, then I have a hard time to see it as a moral theory.

I’m asking this since when I read the links in the old FAQ it seemed to me that the theory is more a description of how things work or how you can go about to get your desires fulfilled (by manipulating others desires so they fit yours) than a theory which tells you what you ought and not ought to do (since it’s morally wrong or morally right).


cl September 8, 2010 at 10:47 pm


I concur. Your comment breathed new life into my criticisms of desirism. People are seeing the same problems I’m seeing. A welcomed confirmation, indeed.

The theory claims that desires that tend to fulfill other desires are good and desires that tend to thwart other desires are bad. Now, is this morally good and morally bad and if so, on what grounds does the claim rest? If it’s not morally good or bad, the what does the theory claim is morally good and morally bad? If there are no such claims, then I have a hard time to see it as a moral theory.

You hit the nail on the head. I’ve been asking these same questions for a long time now, and… nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing but a stonewall as cold and hard as that of any seasoned fundamentalist.

Above, Luke said the following to another commenter:

Desirism does not say that people ought to do what tends to fulfill desires. That would be something like desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism, which would seem to require the notion that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. Desirism denies that intrinsic value exists.

Then, as you inquire, what makes it a moral theory? Since desirism rejects intrinsic value, categorical imperative, decrees of the gods, etc., what objectively prescriptive fact does it point to, such that it might ground any declarative moral sentence (i.e. prescription)? If desirism cannot be found to point to such a fact, how can any prescriptions a desirist make be anything besides arbitrary?

At first glance, desirism appears to answer these questions straight-forwardly, usually with some variant of, “desires that tend to fulfill other desires should be praised; desires that tend to thwart other desires should be condemned.” Again, pretty straight-forward. Doesn’t this lead or at least nudge you towards the conclusion that “desire-fulfilling desires” are the thing to be maximized in desirism? After all, Fyfe calls his theory “desire utilitarianism.” Yet, that would be something like desire fulfillment act utilitarianism, as Luke just noted. More, Fyfe says that the claim, “We should have desires that tend to fulfill other desires” is “nearly always false,” and also that “desirism has nothing to say to moral agents at the time of decision” [paraphrased].

Then, why call desirism a prescriptive moral theory? Why call it a form of utilitarianism? Shouldn’t a true moral theory have something to say to an agent at the time of decision? If desirism has nothing to say, why call it a moral theory at all?


cl September 8, 2010 at 10:50 pm
James Gray September 8, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Desirism claims to only say that “desires” can be good or bad based on the effect they have on other desires. You can say that anything is good insofar as it causes good desires.

Desire Fulfillment Utilitarianism agrees that desires can be said to be good or bad based on the fact that they fulfill more desires by actually saying that “fulfilling desires” is good.

Desirism could be justified if maximizing desires has intrinsic value, but I think the founder sees it as something more like a social contract. He thinks that agreeing to have good desires is a better agreement than other agreements that can be made.

Another similar view to desirism was given by Lawrence Becker, as I already noted. He thinks that no intrinsic value needs to be mentioned for morality insofar as goals are prescriptive and we have goals. They are taken for granted as “justified” unless there is an overriding reason to not achieve the goal. If there is no reason not to achieve the goal, then it could be “categorical” (overriding) because there would be no possible reason not to do it.


cl September 13, 2010 at 10:45 am

James Gray,

Desirism could be justified if maximizing desires has intrinsic value, but I think the founder sees it as something more like a social contract.

The founder claims desirists ought to reject social contracts. I recall hearing this explicitly stated in Luke’s CPBD talks with Alonzo. Also, in his own Desire Utilitarianism vs. Social Contract Theory, Alonzo states that, “There is no social contract. Any moral argument built on a false premise is unsound by definition.” More recently, in his own Desirism, Descriptions, and Prescriptions, Fyfe implies that “hypothetical social contracts” are in the category of “reasons for action that aren’t real.” So, as I see it, Fyfe doesn’t see desirism as a social contract at all – or he’s badly confused if in fact he does.

Personally, I think a social contract is a very real reason for action. The entire animal kingdom successfully navigates by thousands of social contracts every day. Using humans as our example, drivers have a social contract with pedestrians to drive safely. Bosses have a social contract with their employees to pay timely. Police have a social contract with citizens to not abuse authority. Those who violate these social contracts can rightly be condemned in my view.


cl September 13, 2010 at 10:57 am


Now, contractarians will say the “social contract” is also a metaphor. But for what? Nothing that exists, as far as I can tell.

Desires exist. The social contract is founded upon preserving the balance of desires towards that which the members agreed upon. In our case, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”


lukeprog September 13, 2010 at 11:07 am


But then, social contract theorists should endorse a desire-based theory of morality.


Joel September 17, 2010 at 6:28 am

Hi Luke,

I think you ought to make it clearer how you move from value (i.e. that which is desired) to moral value (i.e. that which is desirable). You and Fyfe tend to start with the conclusion and work down, but I think working up from the assumptions is just superior in clarity. And this is analytic philosophy, no? :) Would a good way of summarizing desirism be this?

Object A has value (i.e. it ought to be, the particular person’s POV) if it is desired (i.e. Object A fulfills some person P’s desire X).

Object A has moral value (i.e. it ought to be, regardless of personal opinion) if it is desirable (i.e. Object A being desired fulfills some set of desires f(y1, y2, y3, … yn).

Assuming the veracity of the summary above, I think there can be a few questions to be raised:

1) G.E. Moore asks, though something is desired, is it desirable? Desirism answers this by breaking ‘desirable’ down into ‘some desire ought to be’, such that an answer can be provided: something is desirable if the desire for that something fulfills some other desires. However, we can always continue to ask, is X desirable? Ultimately X is desirable only if, some desire, a long way down the chain, is fulfilled. So this is still an theory of value, not a theory of moral value.

2) Is there a fallacy of composition somewhere in there? According to desirism, it is good that I desire A because doing so fulfills some other people’s desires. But why are their desires of any consideration to me when their desires are not mine? We cannot apply the original desire-intention-action analysis here, because the desire is someone else’s while the intention and action are mine.

I say that there is a fallacy of composition here because what is true of the part is not true of the whole here. Person A’s desires are reasons for action, for the person A. But person A’s desires are not reasons for action, for the person B. We tend to confuse this when we start taling about desires in general. An individual action may have motivating power over an individual, but it does not have the same motivating power over others. So we cannot say that you ought to desire X because desiring as such fulfills some other people’s desires – those desires are of no motivational relevance.

I fear that these two problems make desirism equivalent to to other moral realist theories in being unable to prove the existence of moral value. No doubt desirism would be the closest to being true, after error theory (in terms of which theory requires the least assumptions to be true), but false is false nonetheless.


lukeprog September 17, 2010 at 7:58 am


We are indeed addressing the move from value to ‘moral value’ more carefully in our podcast. Stay tuned.


Keith September 17, 2010 at 8:19 am

As far as I can tell, there is about as much obligation in any moral system as there is in, say, science. Science is defined as a method by which facts about the natural world can be established. That does not, however, mean that we *ought* to determine facts about the natural world. In the same way, we can define morality as a calculus of desires, or happiness, or anything else, but that doesn’t mean we *ought* to follow any of the recommendations these systems produce. I suppose that puts me in the Sam Harris camp.


James Gray September 17, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I think one reason that there is no naturalistic fallacy in desirism is because it is supposed to be an anti-realist theory. “Moral oughts” simply don’t really exist. That should also answer to some extent how we get a moral value from value — we don’t. There’s no such thing.


Steven65msp January 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Suppose that we happen upon someone planning to do something that would cause great unhappiness, thwart many desires, etc. We explain desirism to this person and he agrees that what he is about to do will thwart a great many desires, and per the rules of desirism would be considered bad. But then he says that he simply doesn’t care and goes on to proceed with his ‘bad’ act.

I see no way that desirism can show that this person has committed an factual error nor an error of logic. It would be like someone agreeing that there are specific rules to the game of chess, and then using a chess set to play checkers. So long as the person does not claim to be playing chess, there is no logical or factual error. We are not obligated to use a chess set in any particular way.


Ella Emma January 8, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Steven65msp, your chess/checkers analogy is interesting. I have posed the question (see above) about the efficacy of desirism in terms of my nephew wanting to know why it is okay to smash coconuts, but not turtles.

Desirism is DOA because a desire is a state of mind, not an act. As a mental state, a desire or hope or want of one person cannot fulfill or thwart the desire of another person. If desires do not fulfill or thwart other desires, then desirism is undone. It is not the means by which to evaluate acts as good or evil, appropriate or unacceptable. Desirism is no measure of acts at all, but simply a calculus of desires pro versus desires con. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. But wises are not horses or actions or anything but mental dispositions. Nobody rides.

Perhaps desirism has some poetic value; e.g., figuratively speaking, my desire for revenge led to an act of harm — but the desire itself does nothing. Taken literally, Desirism is akin to the study of prayers. Will the prayers of the multitudinous faithful effect world peace? No, nor can all the wishes in the world make a single leaf fall from a tree, or all the desires of the faithful adherents make desirism a viable moral theory.


James Gray January 8, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Ella, you said:

Desirism is DOA because a desire is a state of mind, not an act. As a mental state, a desire or hope or want of one person cannot fulfill or thwart the desire of another person. If desires do not fulfill or thwart other desires, then desirism is undone.

Desires help motivate actions, so the wrong certain can motivate actions that thwarts desires. Desirism could be phrased differently to avoid confusion. It is about “virtuous” desires based on the results we get from them.


Steven65msp January 8, 2011 at 7:56 pm

It is about “virtuous” desires based on the results we get from them.  

Isn’t this just substituting one question of value for another?
Q: What is good?
A: Good is acting on virtuous desires.
Q: What are virtuous desires?


Ella Emma January 8, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Desirism has been done before. It is re-titled preference utilitarianism. Utilitarianism: maximize good, minimize bad. Preference utilitarianism: to get what you want is good; to be denied is bad.

My nephew wants (desires, prefers) to smash the turtle, so for him it is good. The turtle does not want to be smashed, so for her it is bad. What does this tell us? Nothing more than party X wants this; party Y wants that.

Desire is but a synonym of preference. Desirism has been done before and Peter Singer should know; he did it. But he didn’t do much — at least not create a moral theory. Desire/preference utilitarianism doesn’t tell us what is right or wrong, merely who wants what.


Joel January 8, 2011 at 9:00 pm

In defense of Alonzo and Luke:

Desirism is a perfectly coherent irrealist theory of morality. It claims that:

1) Desires exist.
2) Some desires fulfill other desires; some desires thwart other desires.
3) People have reason to change other people’s desires to fulfill their own desires, or to prevent the thwarting of their own desires.
4) Such chance can be brought about through praise and blame, reward and punishment, rational appeal to the person’s own desire, emotional appeal to conscience, etc.

Preference utilitarianism, on the other hand, claims that 1) Desires/preferences exist; and 2) They ought to be fulfilled, regardless of whose desire/preference it is (i.e. preference fulfillment is intrinsically valuable). Fyfe’s desirism does not make that key 2nd claim.

Desirism may not be what we understand as common morality (i.e. realist), but irrealist conceptions of morality are perfectly conherent; indeed, they are more probably correct.


Ella Emma January 8, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Steven65msp, suppose we are playing chess and, given the configuration of pieces, if I now move my queen to take your king’s bishop’s pawn, I place your king in checkmate. The goal (aim, objective, purpose) of chess is checkmate. If I play Q x f7 (suppose this is an instance of the 4 move scholar’s mate), I achieve that goal.

So do I have obligation to play Q x f7?

Would it not be rational for an observer to comment afterward, “Ella should have played Q x f7″? And why? I should play the queen because it achieves the goal. Should = is. I should play it = playing it is the most conducive action to achieving the goal. Thus, Q x f7 is not only the right move, it is right.

So if I do have an obligation to move the queen, does that duty exist even if both of us are unaware that Q x f7 will result in mate? Does the obligation exist independent of our awareness or is it inherent in the configuration of the pieces (whether or not observed)?


Luke Muehlhauser January 8, 2011 at 9:40 pm


No. See the section in this faq on why desirism is not preference satisfaction utilitarianism. It is not even utilitarianism at all, because utilitarianism is about maximizing utility. There is nothing to maximize in desirism.


Luke Muehlhauser January 8, 2011 at 9:41 pm


Concerning irrealism… I think most philosophers would agree with you once they understood desirism’s claims. The fact that I call it a form of moral realism is for reasons of philosophy of language for which I must argue. But over time I’ve become less interested in whether desirism is considered moral realism or not.


Steven65msp January 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm

…So do I have obligation to play Q x f7?
Would it not be rational for an observer to comment afterward, “Ella should have played Q x f7″?…

Ella Emma, you’re talking about the instrumental of a particular chess move. If you want to play chess, and if you want to win, then certain strategies are more effective than others. But the fact that some strategies work better in no way obligates us to play chess.

It is this obligation piece that is missing from desirism.

Not playing chess in not an error.
A particular chess move does not, in isolation constitute an error. A chess error can only occur in the framework of of the rules and goals of the game, which we are are not obligated to play. There are no intrinsically valuable moves, only instrumentally valuable moves.
Playing a game of checkers using chess pieces does not constitute an error.

The rules of chess are not a motivation to play the game, nor do they suggest a reason that I ought to play the game. Desirism does not provide a motivation or reason to be good.


Ella "Configuration Ethics" Emma January 8, 2011 at 10:08 pm

I agree that the rules of chess are not a motivation to play the game and, no, we are not obliged to play. But here we sit to play chess (not checkers, but chess, by conventional rules). The moves are, as you say, instrumental. Given a particular configuration, moving the queen will achieve the goal of the game. With respect to that goal, however, the move is appropriate. Its appropriateness is in the configuration.

I hereby baptize this “configuration ethics” and brand it as another form teleology: if an act is conducive to achieving a goal, then the act is good and doing it is right. Whether the act is conducive to the goal is inherent in the configuration of circumstances. The obligation exists given the configuration, whether or not observed. It is thus objective. Obligations are discovered.

I am building a cedar deck. I could fasten the boards with nails or screws. If the goal is lower cost, then I should use nails. If the goal is a more lasting fastening, then using nails is inappropriate. The obligation is in the configuration of circumstances with respect to a goal. It isn’t merely instrumental, but inherent in the configuration.

As simple as it is, configuration ethics bridges the is/ought gap, is objective, gives a lucid interpretation of “good” and “right”, readily lends itself to applied ethics, and fits with familiar use of “should” (well, ya should have used the galvanized screws so as to prevent rust).


Steven65msp January 8, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Ella wrote:

As simple as it is, configuration ethics bridges the is/ought gap, is objective, gives a lucid interpretation of “good” and “right”, readily lends itself to applied ethics, and fits with familiar use of “should”

So what are you claiming is new here compared to the idea of an instrumental value or a hypothetical imperative?

And it dos not bridge the is/ought gap. If you set a goal to win at the game of chess, you have introduced a value as a premise of your argument. A goal is a value. If the goal is winning, then winning is good. Bridging the is/ought gap requires a way to leap from value-free premises to a value-laden conclusion. What you propose does not achieve this.


Zeb January 9, 2011 at 6:21 am

There is nothing to maximize in desirism.

That’s news to me. I thought desirism prescribed actions that maximize desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and minimize desires that tend to thwart other desires. I thought that was why you called it desire utilitarianism.


Ella Emma January 9, 2011 at 7:56 am

If you set a goal to win at the game of chess, you have introduced a value as a premise of your argument.  

In configuration ethics, the goal is inherent in the circumstance. It is not separate or set apart from the inventory of the circumstance. Thus, there is no is/ought gap to be bridged.

To be playing chess is to have an 8 x 8 grid on which to move a certain set of pieces — move them thus-and-so toward a configuration such that the other king is unable to be moved out of check. This checkmate configuration ends all further movement. The rules for movement are part of the inventory of the circumstance, along with the board and pieces. To be playing chess includes, in this inventory, movement toward the checkmate configuration. That isn’t added to the game; it is inherent in what it means to be playing chess.

By comparison, could two automata that move pieces according to the rules of chess be said to be playing chess if they both start by moving all the pawns, one after the other, and engage in an exchange of pawns. Would we not say, “well, that’s not playing chess; that’s just pushing the pieces”? To be playing chess includes in its inventory to be moving toward a particular configuration. The goal is thus part of the inventory of what goes into chess. It is not an addition to chess.


Steven65msp January 9, 2011 at 8:15 am

Ella Emma wrote:

In configuration ethics, the goal is inherent in the circumstance. It is not separate or set apart from the inventory of the circumstance. Thus, there is no is/ought gap to be bridged.

Read Kant.

(1) It seems that in your system, chess, or any other undertaking is a moral issue.
(2) Also, with your system, any possible action can be determined to be morally good by selection of an appropriate goal.
For example: if the goal is to rid the world of Jews, then concentration camps are morally good.
Or, if the goal is to buy green clothes, then green socks are morally good. It would be immoral to not buy (or even steal) green socks.

This is what Kant called a hypothetical imperative – given a goal, then we ought to do/value certain things to reach that goal – except that a hypothetical imperative does not carry moral weight. The thought process that if you want to obtain A, then you ought to do B is everyday common sense thinking that everyone uses. But not just any goal is a moral goal. A moral goal is one that we ought to desire based on pure reason – not based on any other goals, values, or desires. This would be a categorical imperative – a goal that we are obligated to seek in spite of our thoughts or feelings.


Ella Emma January 9, 2011 at 8:47 am

Kant’s hypothetical imperative sadly does admit concentration camps. Too bad for it.

However, configuration ethics is not based on hypothetical imperatives. One does not set a goal. Movement toward certain configurations are inherent in the circumstance, in the inventory of what it means to be engaged in a process, such as playing chess or thriving.

Molly smokes and smoking raises her blood pressure. By hypothetical imperative, Molly should quit smoking because of her New Year’s resolution to do so. She set a goal and according to it ought to quit.

Under configuration ethics, however, quitting is inherent in what it means to thrive — not merely to be alive, but to move toward or maintain a state [configuration] of being healthy and without pain. Quitting is discoverable in what it means to be thriving.


Steven65msp January 9, 2011 at 9:40 am

Ella Emma:

However, configuration ethics is not based on hypothetical imperatives. One does not set a goal. Movement toward certain configurations are inherent in the circumstance, in the inventory of what it means to be engaged in a process, such as playing chess or thriving.

But one can clearly choose not to play chess. And there is no error involved in such a choice. If somebody says “I don’t care about chess”, no amount of reasoning will prove that they ought to. You’re trying to pass off simple reasoning off as a moral theory.

Also, one can choose not to thrive or not to support thriving, and I challenge you to prove how such a choice would, in and of itself, entail an error of fact or or logic. Your theory is not meta-ethically grounded. Anyone who disagrees with your moral conclusions needs only to chase your theory back to the point where it is not grounded and then say you have not proven your case and that they are free to disagree.

Also, your definition of thriving is arbitrary. If the Nazi’s say that you’ve got it wrong, that they have to kill the Jews so that they can thrive, then what? In the Nazi view of thriving, Jews are bad. You’ll have to show that all people are somehow compelled to adopt the exact same definition of thriving. And also that thriving must be the one and only element of moral interest.

Also, the major problems in ethics, is not in how to figure out the means to achieve a specific ethical goal. The real problems lie in how to pick the goals and how to prioritize among various goals. Your system only picks up once a goal has been selected.

If someone could conclusively prove that abortion was wrong, then preventing the majority of abortions would be easy. It’s the proof part that is difficult.


Luke Muehlhauser January 9, 2011 at 10:59 am


It’s a common misunderstanding of desirism. Here’s an article on it. Also see the podcast episode “Desire Fulfillment Has No Intrinsic Value.”


Ella Emma January 9, 2011 at 11:47 am

Of course one can choose to not play chess and will not experience the obligation to make such-and-such a move.

Of course one can choose to not thrive and will not experience the obligation to act in a manner conducive to health.

You seem concerned that instrumental value might encroach upon moral decision making. But recourse to Kant’s categorical imperative will not rescue matters. A goal, decision, or action is not made into a special “moral” class because it is based, as you say, on pure reason. That isn’t meta-ethical grounding, but simply a presumption of what constitutes moral from non-moral values and, in the process, creates a gap between is and ought.

My definition of thriving isn’t arbitrary, but it is necessarily incomplete given that posting comments on a blog hardly affords extensive explication. Even so, you’ve brought the Nazi’s back in with a hypothetical imperative and, as such, they’ve set a goal against the jews. Configuration ethics does not work this way. The goal is inherent in the circumstances. The Nazi’s were simply mistaken as to what thriving means and the error of their ways was pointed out in Nuremberg.

You seem concerned — although not quite stated this way — that configuration ethics is susceptible to cultural relativism (e.g., having “to show that all people are somehow compelled to adopt the exact same definition of thriving”). Situations, circumstances, and processes are dynamic. The rules of chess have evolved. What it means to be healthy changes as medicine advances. Relativism is entirely consistent with the pursuit of goals inherent in the configuration of circumstances.

Again, I sense your strong preference for a one true categorial pronouncement. It isn’t going to happen. Configuration ethics does not pick up once a goal has been selected — and that’s just the point: one does not select goals. The goal is inherent in the process. One discovers goals.


Ella Emma January 9, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Practical Desirism — a contradiction in terms?

Last July I posted a scenario about my nephew and the turtle (see above) and asked for input from those who are desirists or at least understand it. Luke said “unfortunately applied ethics is not simple or even intuitive according to desirism” and that was the end of it to date.

Well, I renew the invitation for practical ethical situations and their desirist resolution. Does desirism have any applied ethical examples/solutions? Could desirism be put in an ethics curriculum for tweenagers to wrestle with everyday examples? Or is it a great theory will no practical application?


steven65msp January 9, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Ella Emma:

Again, I sense your strong preference for a one true categorial pronouncement. It isn’t going to happen. Configuration ethics does not pick up once a goal has been selected — and that’s just the point: one does not select goals. The goal is inherent in the process. One discovers goals.

You have guessed me entirely wrong. I am a strong moral anti-realist. The only way that I see that moral realism could be true is if some moral facts or values exist that are independent of all agents. I do not believe that any moral facts/values of this type exist. That said, I and others obviously do have values. Since there are no intrinsic values, no categorical imperatives, we are left with subjectivism and no possible means firmly grounded in reason to settle moral differences. Thus, something like a social contract seems, to me, a prudent path forward. Some people will reject the social contract or fail to adhere to it (i.e. serial killers) and then the only true basis we have to criticize them is that they are in the minority – they have not committed a factual or logical mistake by rejecting the contract. I am OK with this sort of democracy of values approach.

Many attempts have been made to construct a moral theory that will sit atop moral anti-realism. A concept or property is cooked up and defined as ‘good’. The problem with this is that properties don’t have any motivational or obligatory force. If a sphere has the property of roundness – well, so what? Is roundness supposed to motivate me somehow? Why would a property of goodness be any different (assuming anti-realism)?

Let’s examine a theory that collects data and concludes that people tend to value A, B, C, D… And IF you want to promote A, B, C, D… THEN it would be prudent to do W, X, Y, Z… Fine, you’ve made a nice plan for living that could just as easily have come from psychology, sociology, or political science. If that’s all there is to it, I have no problem. But, once a meta-ethical backing for the theory is claimed, or that it’s proposed that it ought to convince everyone, or all people should adhere to it, or that all people ought to want such things – then you’ve lost me. I can’t support that which doesn’t follow from the premises by reason.


Zeb January 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Luke, No I know desirism does not prescribe actions that tend to fulfill desires. I have tried here and there to help argue that desirism really does not include intrinsic value or categorical imperatives any way you slice it. But as I understand it, desirism labels as “good” those desires that tend to fulfill [the most and greatest] desires, and prescribes actions that increase (or maximize) the number and strength of good desires. Is that wrong? Desirism does not prescribe actions maximizing good desires? Then what does it prescribe vis-a-vis “good” desires?


Peter Hurford February 2, 2011 at 11:21 am

I have been studying desirism for awhile now and I still have not found any answer to the following three objections:

1.] Since desirism says desires are bad if the desire tends to thwart other desires, aren’t the social tools (punishment and condemnation) bad by definition because they thwart the desire to not be punished or condemned? On desirism, how do you justify putting people into prison when they clearly don’t desire to go to prison?


2.] I’m imagining a 1000 Sadists Problem where all the sadists are rapists. In this scenario, they all seek to rape this one child:

2a.]: Isn’t the child’s aversion to rape bad in this case because it is thwarting the desire for the rapists to rape?

2b.]: Isn’t the aversion to rape malleable in this case because we can convince the child that getting raped is perfectly normal and acceptable (as has been done in Catholic churches)?

2c.]: Doesn’t the knob metaphor fail here, since turning down the aversion to rape will create a society where no one’s desires are thwarted and many desires are fulfilled?


3.] Imagine we have a society with only two people, Alph and Betty. In this case, however Alph does not desire to gather stones, but actually desires the end: a giant stack of stones. Betty does not desire to scatter stones, but actually desires all the stones to be permanently scattered. Given that there are no other people in this universe and both desires are equally strong and opposite, how does desirism resolve this dilemma? Are they both morally wrong for having a desire that thwarts a desire? Should they enter into a battle of social tools and condemn and punish each other?


Peter Hurford February 2, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Also, a minor typo I have found: In {6.06} you reference {3.10} as an answer to the 1000 sadists problem, when in reality you have that answer marked as {3.15}.


Luke Muehlhauser February 3, 2011 at 8:26 am


And I see 3.15 is still empty. :)

Maybe once Alonzo and I get to a certain point in the podcast, I’ll come back here to update the F.A.Q.


Peter Hurford February 3, 2011 at 9:33 am

No problem.


If you don’t mind, I’m going to write more on some quasi-objections I have to desirism:

I’ve just read a lot about desirism and am still confused about a very basic premise. On desirism, we want to promote desires which fulfill other desires. But there are desires that simaltaneously fulfill some desires and thwart some other desires, such as the desire to imprison people or the desire to kill in self-defense.

I don’t think this makes desirism *wrong* (as in not factual), it just makes your FAQ misleading as I understand it. When you say we should promote desires that fulfill other desires, you mean we should promote desires that fulfill more desires than they thwart, after accounting for the fact that desires are weighted. I think this adequately and accurately accounts for all of morality and solves my first objection.


Now we bounce back to the “1000 sadists” problem. In this case, we have 1000 rapists who all want to rape one child. If we use my definition of desirism (we ought to promote actions which fulfill more desires than they thwart, after accounting for the fact that desires are weighted), then we are basically measuring the desire to rape * 1000 against the desire to not be raped.

From my experience with rape victims, the desire to not be raped is extensively high, and likely even counteracts the desire to rape * 1000. So this would “solve” the 1000 sadists problem and answer objection #2.

Of course, I also think the 1000 sadists problem is a complete red herring, because we clearly don’t live in a world where there is an 1000:1 ratio of rapists, and perhaps our intuition is wrong on this one and raping may be morally good in a world with a 1000:1 ratio of rapists. So a perfectly acceptable answer to the 1000 sadists problem is “Yep, you got me. Good thing we don’t live in a world with a 1000:1 ratio of sadists, right? Let’s use social tools to keep it that way.”

You can forget objection #3 for a similar reason, and also because it’s not an objection that weighs against the theory at all.


So I think in the end I ended up endorsing some sort of desire fulfillment act utilitarianism, but the more I study desirism, the more the two really start to blend together.

Do you, or anyone else, have any comments on this? (Meta-ethics is so hard, but interesting.)


Ver June 16, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Most of the time, rape occurs because the rapist has a desire to have control/power over the victim–often regardless of who the victim is. That was the only thing that bothered me about this post, even though it is a minor thing.


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