Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Basic Review of Desirism


I base my posts in this blog on a moral theory called desirism.

Desirism holds that malleable desires are the ultimate object of moral evaluation.

A malleable desire is good to the degree it tends to fulfill other desires and bad to the degree that it thwarts other desires.

The degree that a malleable desire tends to fulfill other desires is the degree to which people generally have a reason to use social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote that desire.

The degree that a malleable desire tends to thwart other desires is the degree to which others have reason to use these same social forces to inhibit that desire.

A right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong act is the act that a person with good desires would not perform. A permissible act is one that a person with good desires may or may not perform depending on other considerations.

Perhaps the most useful account of how desirism works can be found in the post The Hateful Craig Problem, which looks at the problem of trying to make sure that Hateful Craig will not do harm even when there is a chance he can get away with it. That post demonstrates how the principles of desirism would be put to use.

A commenter, Drake Shelton, is providing me as an opportunity to use his comments about desire utilitarianism as a foil for explaining some of the details of the theory. I tend to find these useful because it allows me to answer the claims of a real person rather than an imagined critic.

I want to start with this:

This falls prey to the problems with Utilitarianism. On your own admission then, the execution and torture of the inferior race gives pleasure to the superior race therefore it is the right thing to do. This theory also caters to totalitarians systems. In utilitarianism, the individual must sacrifice his own interests for the interests of the whole or the state.


This criticism applies to a related theory that can be properly called "desire fulfillment act utilitarianism". That theory says that the right act is the act that would fulfill the most and strongest desires. That theory requires the conclusion that if the torture of a young child fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts (by fulfilling the desires of 1000 sadists while thwarting the desires of 1 child) it would be the right thing to do.

However, desirism evaluates desires - and evaluates actions only in a derivative sense. A desire is good to the degree that it tends to fulfill other desires.

The sadist's desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. In fact, it inevitably does so. Therefore, the sadist's desire gets counted as a bad desire. It is a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit through social forces such as condemnation and punishment. We have many and strong reasons not to want this desire around - and reasons to use our social forces to fight it, and to raise kindness and consideration in its place. Even sadists have many and strong reason to bring these social forces to bear to prevent sadism in others and to promote kindness in its place.

It doesn't matter how many sadists there are, it is still the fact that sadistic desires are desires that tend to thwart other desires. In fact, the more sadists there are, the more desire-twarting we can expect.

I go into this objection in greater detail in The 1000 Sadists Problem

Here's another objection:

Sounds much like psychological hedonism.

Well, it's not much of an objection, but I would like to use it to explain the difference between desirism and psycholoogical hedonism - a theory that was largely discredited 150 years ago but which is still popoular among many atheists.

Psychological hedonism holds that each of us only seeks two things - our own pleasure, and our own freedom from pain. Nothing else matters. Pretty sunsets, the health and well-being of our children, are all valued for no reason other than those are the means by which we can activate the pleasure centers in our own brain - or save ourselves from pain. We give to charity, we risk our lives to save others, we cry at funerals, because these are the tools we have for triggering the pleasure centers of our own brain.

Before I consider objections to this theory I would like to broaden the scope a bit for the sake of efficiency.

Psychological hedonism is an internal state theory. It holds that the only thing in the world that matters to an individual is having its brain in a particular brain state. Other internal state theories hold that happiness is the only thing that matters - or desire satisfaction.

Note: Desire satisfaction is not the same as desire fulfillment. Desire satisfaction is a feeling - much like pleasure or contentment - that one gets when one (thinks that) the world is going the way one wants it to go. Desire fulfillment, on the other hand, takes into consideration that a desire is a propositional attitude - it takes as its object a proposition P. (Thus, desires can be expressed in the form "agent desires that P") A "desire that P" is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true. A desire that I am saving children from disease is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which the proposition "I am saving children from disease" is true.

I discuss internal state theories in detail in the post Internal State Theories.

Briefly, one of the major objections is that no internal state theory can handle the issue of the experience machine.

An experience machine is a machine that feeds electrical impulses into your brain that puts your brain in the state that the internal state theorist claims to be only thing that matters. Your brain is put in a jar, electrodes are hooked up into it, the electrodes produce the brain state of value and keeps it in that state.

Faced with this possibility, many people - most people - will claim that this is not what they want.

Desire fulfillment avoids the problem with the experience machine by holding that what matters to a person who desires that P is that P is made true. The desire to help protect children from disease can't be fulfilled by an experience machine. It can only be fulfilled by creating a state of affairs in which one is actually protecting children from disease.

Desirism is an external state theory. It holds that what a person with a desire that P seeks is (often) an external state - a state of affairs in which P is true - that will make the experience machine entirely unattractive.

There are other considerations to raise as well. For example, it is easier to tell a story of evolution whereby biological entities acquired at least some dispositions to change the world than it is to square evolution with the theory that they only acquire an interest in creating a particular brain state. Evolutionary success - procreation, for example - is an external state. External state changes are necessary for evolution.

Another post in which I draw distinctions between desirism and psychological hedonism (and other internal state theories) can be found in the post Egoism.

Oh, and I was accused in a comment against using a term in its own definition. That, in fact, is not the case. I illustrated a use of the term. Dictionaries, when defining a term, will often give an example of how the term would be used when it meets that definition. It helps to clarify the definition. The way that one might define the word "cow" by pointing to a cow.

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