The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)
There are those who think that desire utilitarianism contains the hidden moral premise, “Thou shalt consider all of the desires that exist.”
They object to desire utilitarianism on the grounds that there is no way to justify this fundamental moral principle. They challenge me to to provide them with a justification as to why they should consider all the desires that exist. They anticipate that I will fail and, on the basis of that, assert that they have punched a fatal hole in desire utilitarianism.
Ironically, it is not only the case that desire utilitarianism is not founded on a principle of, “Thou shalt consider all desires that exist.” It specifically rejects that proposition. The proper desire utilitarian response to the challenge, “You can’t explain to me why I should consider all the desires that exist,” is to say, “Gad, I hope not! If I could, then I would prove that desire utilitarianism is false.”
“Thou shalt consider all of the desires that exists,” is not the foundation for desirism. It is the foundation for desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism. Desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism says, “Do that act that fulfills the most and strongest desires, regardless of whose they are.” That requires considering all of the desires that exist.
This confusion is why some people prefer the term ‘desirism’. It is thought that the term ‘desire utilitarianism’ immediately makes people think about the various forms of act utilitarianism that exist: Jeremy Benthan’s “Do that act that produces the most pleasure and the least pain no matter whose it is,” or “Do that act that produces the most happiness over unhappiness,” or even, “Do that act that satisfies the most preferences regardless of whose they are.”
When they hear the term “desire utilitarianism” they think, “Do that act that produces the most desire fulfillment.”
I wonder, when they hear the term “rule utilitarianism,” if they think this must mean, “Do that act that produces the most rules.”
Desire utilitarianism empatically denies that you should consider all the desires that exist.
When you have sex with your spouse, it is hoped that you are not thinking, “Well, according to an impartial calculation of all the desires that exist, this act of having sex with my spouse is the act that produces the most overall desire fulfillment.”
It would not make for a very entertaining evening.
If your child just got hit with a wild pitch and is laying unconscious next to home plate, desire utilitarianism would not have you impartially consider the interests that others have in continuing the game. Those desires . . . when your child is laying unconscious . . . should not matter.
If they do matter, then the father not only foreits any claim to call himself a good father. He looses any claim to call himself a good person. To put it loosely, he needs to get his priorities (his desires) in order.
Nor is it the case, when you go to a restaurant, that you should look through the menu and ask, “Which menu item would fulfill the most desires that exist?” The proper question to ask would be, “What would I like to eat?”
Now, there is reason to ask the question, “What should I like to eat?” It may be the case that certain food preferences tend to fulfill or to thwart other desires. To whatever degree food tastes are malleable – and the fact of cultural cuisines suggests they are malleable – there may be some preferences we have reason to promote over others.
For example, we may have reason to promote an aversion to eating human meat. If people desired the taste of human meat, then they would have a reason to act so as to fulfill that desire. The actions that such a desire might cause a person to perform are actions that run a high risk of thwarting the desires of others. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to eating human meat because people have many and strong resons to avoid the desire-thwartings prevented by such an aversion.
So, when you go into a restaurant, you still only order what it is that you want most. But you don’t want human meat. You do not reject human meat because you have considered all of the desires that exist and decided that, in spite of your craving for human meat, it would fulfill more desires if you did not eat it. You do not eat human meat because you find the thought of eating human meat repulsive. The very idea sickens you.
The principle that you are acting on is not, “Thou shalt consider all desires that exist.” You are acting on a principle, “Thou shalt not eat human meat,” that cultural praise and condemnation has turned into an actual aversion – a very real and effective revulsion to eating human meat that prevents you from eating human meat even in secret when you think you can get away with it.
Though no moral-cultural conditioning is ever 100 percent effective.
I cannot justify the principle, “Thou shalt consider all of the desires that exist.” However, failure to do so does not prove that desire utilitariaism has a fatal flaw. Failure to do so is a mark in favor of desire utilitarianism, because desire utilitarianism says that such a principle cannot be defended. If I could defend the principle, “Thou shalt consider all of the desires that exist” this would not prove desire utilitarianism to be correct. It would prove that desire utilitarianism is mistaken – and desire fulfillment act utilitairnism is the better theory.
The role that all of the desires that exist plays in desire utiltarianism is not the role of, “That which you ought to consider in performing any given action.” The role they play is to provide others with reasons to use praise and condemnation in molding your desires – those desires being the principles you can and will act on – your love for your spouse or your child, your preferences for food, your interest in helping others in need, your aversion to acts of violent harm, and the like.
Can I prove that all the desires that exist offer reasons to use praise and condemnation to alter the desires of others? That part, actually, seems pretty simple.
- Alonzo Fyfe