Saturday, August 11, 2007

Answering Ernie on Desire Utilitarianism

This past spring, as my diablogue with Ernie was winding down, there were several topics that were brought up that were just left hanging. One of these was a list of Open Questions on Desire Utilitarianism that Ernie posted. Desire utilitarianism (DU) is the theory of morality that I had brought into our discussion. Ernie addressed the questions to Alonzo Fyfe, the originator of DU, but only for "stylistic reasons". I thought I would take a crack at answering Ernie's questions.

A. Most and Strongest

As I understand it, one of your foundational assertions is that:

“Individuals always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires.”

Yet, I consider that statement trivially falsifiable. For example, my pigging out on chocolate cake last week was a single minor desire that trumped my many desires to look good, lose weight, and act responsibly. At best, one could perhaps claim that people always act “to fulfill the most or strongest of their desires.” At worst, it might be true that people simply act in accordance with their “momentarily strongest desire.” How do you justify such a seemingly counterfactual claim?

Ernie gave the answer himself: people act according to their most and strongest desires at each moment, even though the momentary strength of a desire may be different than its usual value. How do we measure the strength of a single desire or the net strength of a set of desires? I would suggest we can only do so by observing their actions, given their beliefs and other background information. In this sense, Alonzo's statement is true almost by definition.

However, suppose we had another mechanism (say, some kind of brain scan) that would allow us to measure the strength of individual desires. Suppose further that we could then identify cases where individuals acted such as to thwart rather than fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, contradicting the claim under consideration. Assuming we had good reasons to believe that our measurements were accurate, would that prove an insurmountable obstacle to desire utilitarianism? No, not yet. For instance, we might find that individuals are still most likely to act according to the most and strongest desires, with the probability of so acting being related to the absolute net strength of those desires. DU would be compatible with such a finding (and in fact, I would not be so surprised if this were the case.) If it were found that actions are not correlated or are inversely correlated with the net strength of momentary desires, that would be a problem, but this seems quite unlikely. A more troubling, possibly fatal, finding would be some other causal factor (beyond desires and beliefs) involved in the formation of intentions. How such a factor would impact DU would depend on the nature of that additional causal factor.

B. Praise and criticism

You seem to explicitly eschew coercive measures from your consideration of ethics since they require “power.” Yet, do not praise and criticism themselves require at least “soft power” (i.e., moral authority) to be effective? If so, might not “hard” and “soft” power in reality be two ends of a continuum, that need to be analyzed as a whole?

I think Ernie is simply mistaken here. Alonzo has not completely rejected coercive measures, nor do I recall him ever basing his opposition to coercive measures simply because they involve power. In fact, Alonzo does recognize and analyze a spectrum of responses to good and bad desires and actions.

For instance, while Alonzo is tentatively against capital punishment, this is based on (inconclusive) empirical evidence that seems to suggest that societies that use capital punishment do not promote a universal aversion to killing that would tend prevent violent crimes. But this stance is open to correction on empirical grounds and is in no way based merely on an aversion to power.

Similarly, Alonzo has said that some wars can be justified. If war is not the exercise of power, the term would be virtually meaningless. So, to say that he eschews coercive measures and has not considered the full spectrum of power is plainly incorrect.

On the other hand, coercive measures do have their own problems and there are reasons to limit their use. Alonzo has addressed that in Why Worry About Morality?, among other places.

C. Inter-community enmity

When asked about slavery, I believe you said a moral individual would not wish to enslave another because encouraging such a desire towards might backfire towards the enslavement of that selfsame individual. But, what if the other person was being enslaved due to an attribute that the individual in question did not possess (e.g., dark skin)? [After all, that is pretty much exactly what the white Virginians did to the minority black slaves several hundred years ago.] Does DU provide any basis for considering such slavery wrong, even though it successfully fulfilled the “most and greatest” desires of the dominant white majority for several generations?

Desire utilitarianism does not say that simply fulfilling the most and strongest desires is good. This is addressed on page 11 of Alonzo's book, on the very first page that describes desire utilitarianism. Desires are evaluated according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. This is a very basic point, and the fact that Ernie (apparently) missed it is troubling, considering he has referred to his questions here as reflecting "very serious flaws" with DU.

The (relatively mutable) desires of the dominant white majority thwarted the (relatively immutable) desires of the minority black slaves. Further, the basis of this discrimination (skin color) was both immutable and irrelevant. We have good reasons for condemning discrimination on such a basis in order to prevent the same or other kinds of discrimination on similarly immutable and irrelevent grounds: gender, national origin, hair color, handedness, or whatever. (I excluded religion from that list only because religious beliefs are comparatively mutable. I excluded sexual orientation because I do not want a disagreement over its mutability to distract from my point.)

So, DU does provide a basis for considering slavery wrong: the desire to enslave others thwarts the desires of those others. Further, people ought to condemn slavery (and lesser forms of discrimination) based on skin color because skin color is only one of a number of arbitrary categorizations that can become the basis for discrimination (including slavery).

D. Shaping desires

DU appears to implicitly assume that it is possible to shape the desires of others. However, it also seems to implicitly assume that it is impossible for us to shape our own desires. Is that true? If so, how do you justify that distinction? If not, then what moral obligation (if any) do we have for how we shape our own desires?

Again, Ernie is simply wrong here. DU does not implicitly or explicitly assume that individuals cannot shape our own desires. I suggest reading Alonzo's post Becoming a Better Person.

As far as moral obligations go, my interpretation of the term "obligation" in the context of DU refers to desires and actions that we have particularly strong reasons to promote (if they are good) or inhibit (if they are bad) in ourselves and in others. If we do not meet these obligations, others have strong reasons (obligations) to promote or inhibit them in us.

E. Knowing desires

You make a compelling case that it is sometimes possible to know desires to a high degree of accuracy. Do you in fact assert that we have (or at least can have) sufficient knowledge of desires (either our own or others) to accurately make moral judgments? More precisely, under what circumstances can we be confident we have sufficient information? And what is our moral obligation when we lack such information?

Here I will just supply several relevant quotes from Alonzo:

I have encountered a similar issue with respect to the desire utilitarianism that I have defended here. One of the more frequent objections that I receive says that desire utilitarianism must be rejected because, if desire utilitarianism were true, some moral questions would be difficult to answer. The objector makes the completely unfounded assumption that a moral theory would make all moral questions easy to answer, and that desire utilitarianism must be rejected for its failure to do so.

I would argue for rejecting any theory that distributes answers to moral questions like answers to scientific questions. Some of them are easy to answer. Some are difficult. Some may even remain outside of our ability to answer forcing us to live in a universe with some measure of moral uncertainty. Yet, over time, we have the ability to make moral progress as we make scientific progress, never quite arriving at perfect moral knowledge (just as we will always lack perfect scientific knowledge), but getting closer over time – as long as religion doesn’t muck things up by insisting on teaching moral (scientific) myth.


Even within science, there is always a maximum potential level of description. We can only know answers within a certain degree of certainty. Below that, we cannot go. There is no reason to demand that a theory of ethics must give us perfect precision on all issues. All we can expect is that it give us as much precision as is possible.

If you know of a way to get more moral precision using another method (one that doesn’t simply make things up), then that theory is obviously to be preferred over the theory I defend here. Without the possibility of finding greater precision elsewhere, then this is the best we can do.

I answered this question in part in the essays on pornography. Desire utilitarianism is substantially a theory on what value is – a relationship between states of affairs and desires. We can lament about our inability to come up with precise answers to all moral questions. However, this will not change the fact about what value is. We simply have no choice but to make decisions in the face of imperfect information.


F. Non-physical reality

You appear to assert that desires are “ontologically real” because they can usefully predict behavior, even though they are not directly observable. By that same token, could one similarly assert that “spiritual experiences” (e.g., conversion, conviction, etc.) are also real, since they can also provide useful guides to behavior? Why or why not?

I am not sure how Alonzo would answer this. (To be sure, that is true of everything; I do not and cannot speak for him.) But I would answer it this way: first, spiritual experiences, if real, would inform our beliefs and affect our desires, but desires would remain as the sole reasons-for-action that exist and desire utilitarianism would still be a valid formulation of morality. Desire utilitarianism is compatible with the existence of a god or gods; however, these would merely be additional agents with desires, possibly with superior knowledge of and ability to act according to good (or bad!) desires.

The question of whether "spiritual experiences" are real or not, and whether God is real or not, are separate questions from whether desires are real or not. We have good reasons to believe that desires are ontologically real. We have (I believe) only poor reasons to believe and good reasons to disbelieve that spiritual experiences exist (in the sense of being an indication of a spiritual reality in the sense generally meant by theists). But, in any case, the answers to these other questions are not particularly relevant to desire utilitarianism's usefulness as a theory of morality.

G. Cultural relativism

I believe you assert that our desires (and thus morality) are a product of our upbringing and social institutions, and are thus merely constrained — not determined — by genetics. If that’s the case, is it ever meaningful to speak of making moral judgments between societies? Or does morality only exist within the context of shared institutions?

The connection between desires and morality under DU is not quite so direct as Ernie's opening might suggest to some people. Ernie may not have intended such a direct connection here, though his earlier question about slavery seems to imply it.

Remember that in DU a mutable desire is determined to be good or bad according to whether or not that desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires. An action is determined to be good (or bad) according to whether a person with good desires (or bad desires) would perform that action in its context. These are universal principles. They reflect a sort of ideal, an ideal contingent on desires that actually exist, but not necessarily one that we can completely and accurately identify (as discussed above). And, since the context of our actions necessarily changes over space and especially time and since desires themselves change over time, some actions chosen by a good person will likewise vary, while others will be more stable.

In other words, desire utilitarianism is both universal and contextual. It is universal because actions are evaluated independent of the agent; the same rules apply to everybody. It is contextual, or relative, because actions must be evaluated according to their context. Culture may or may not be a significant part of the context for a particular action. An action is not moral simply because it is traditional in a culture.

H. Scope of desires

More generally, what exactly is the scope of the network of desires I “ought” to optimize? From your definitions, it would seem that the practical scope is either i) “those individuals who might have the power to aid or thwart the fulfillment of my own desires,” or ii) “those individuals whom I have affection for, and thus intrinsically desire their fulfillment.” Is that correct, or am I missing something?

This is a question to which I am afraid I have probably contributed confusion. And I am not sure that I can entirely clear that up. But I will do my best.

First, the universality described in the previous section is relevant here as well. In fact, I originally wrote the middle paragraph in the previous section here, before deciding to use it to answer the previous question.

While I am not sure that I can explain why, the concept of optimizing a network of desires that Ernie and I originated and discussed seems not to have been very helpful. Perhaps it is simply the practical problems involved. At least Ernie's question as formulated presupposes operating within this narrower concept of a network of desires, and it is apparently the practical difficulties of this narrower concept that leads Ernie to ask how far our concern should spread. But as a theory of morality, DU is concerned with universal answers, even while acknowledging the practical difficulty in obtaining some of them.

A second reason that this question may be ill-formed is that DU is a descriptive theory of morality. That is, it supplies a definition for describing things as morally good or bad. It does not itself prescribe certain actions, other than to note that we have reasons to promote desires that lead to certain actions (which in turn will promote other desires). The scope of our concern, then, is a practical matter for which we must make choices and which others may attempt to give us reasons to expand or contract.

I. Counter-cultural choices

What if I live in a society which places social censure on behavior I consider morally good, say 1950’s America which forbade inter-racial marriage? In that context, is the “moral” action to act in accord with societal judgement? Why or why not?

Under DU, the morally good action is that action that a morally good person would choose. A morally good person is a person whose desires tend to fulfill or not thwart other desires (both her own and others'). Societal judgment can be wrong. So can your judgment. Which action is truly moral is independent of either of these.

On the other hand, we do have reasons to promote both the desire to discover what is good and the desire to do what is good even when society is generally mistaken about what is good. If someone made a good faith effort to determine the morally good action and it conflicted with societal norms, and especially if those societal norms did not appear to be similarly based on careful consideration, I would encourage that person to act according her beliefs.