§7.1

a blog by josef johann

Monday, August 24, 2009

Desire Utilitarianism

I might as well post a second comment I've put up at Alonzo Fyfe's Atheist Ethicist blog. He's the man behind Desire Utilitarianism (or "Desirism," the dust hasn't settled on it yet). Today, he has a post discussing the thwarting of desires and what kind of actions should be taken when certain desires are in conflict.

I anticipate that if I get a response, it will be to the fact that I am (1) implying the existence of intrinsic values of which Fyfe is skeptical, (2) that what I call "abhorrence" which is so wanting of condemnation is in fact condemned exactly as much as is necessary, (3) that it is in fact impossible to form a coherent system of "abhorrent" desires without them conflicting with one another (4) my complaint is not so much an argument as a demand for emotional satisfaction, or even (5) that just as desires can be stronger than other desires, some desires can be suppressive of other desires in a manner as to merit special condemnation.

In any case, I look forward to learning more about desirism- it is alive to many complaints I have with contemporary moral systems and answers them in a satisfying way. My last suspicion is whether I should actually favor it over preference utilitarianism.




If, by some act of magic, we could create a child who enjoys pain, this will not allow us to fulfill the desires of those who seek to torture children. If the child likes pain, than inflicting pain on the child would not be torture. By the very definition of the word, a person is not being tortured unless he or she has a particularly strong desire (e.g., an aversion to pain, an aversion to the sensation of drowning) that is being thwarted.


What about a child who likes pain, but not torture?

This would appear to restore the desire to cause pain to children as holding a valid place in society's network of desires. There admittedly remains something absurd about this, and there is probably an easy case to be made that there are indeed still desires being thwarted (such as that of the parents that their child lead a normal life and not run the risk of being ostracized).

The game I'm playing is to see if there is a way to set this up such that a desire is apparently horrifying and yet doesn't thwart other desires.

As I've observed both here and at Luke's Common Sense Atheism blog, it appears that when cases like rape or violence or robbery come up, it is by fortunate turn of circumstance that we recognize their thwarting of other desires and condemn them on that basis.

But, at least in my observation, there is nothing in principle preventing certain like-minded people from setting up their own settlement where they practice any number of behaviors an "average person" would find abhorrent, but are able to fit them together so as to not thwart one another's desires (for example, raising children to desire, or at least tolerate violent things being done to them).

I don't think, for example, that it can be resolved by identifying abhorrence with "desires that tend to thwart other desires," because I can think of desires that thwart other desires without having the character of abhorrence. For example, a law requiring everyone to play checkers once a day would certainly thwart desires, but not be abhorrent.

My intuition is that seemingly abhorrent acts are abhorrent for a reason other than the fact that they thwart other desires. And with what I understand of desire utilitarianism so far, I don't feel that it empowers me to condemn suffering for the sheer fact that suffering is wrong.

1 comment:

cl said...

The game I'm playing is to see if there is a way to set this up such that a desire is apparently horrifying and yet doesn't thwart other desires.

I think that's a good strategy to attempt. I tried the same thing with pederasty. Older men having sex with teen boys certainly qualifies as "apparently horrifying" for a significant subset of today's populace. Yet, the Greeks had reasons to promote the desire for pederasty, reasons that dovetailed nicely into their concept of a good life. Similarly, Americans have reasons to promote an aversion to pederasty, reasons that dovetail nicely into their concept of a good life.

In the end, Alonzo simply asserted that the Greeks were "probably wrong" about pederasty, yet didn't provide any real-world evidence or justification for the claim.

My intuition is that seemingly abhorrent acts are abhorrent for a reason other than the fact that they thwart other desires.

Well said, and I agree wholeheartedly. The problem is, when you confront Alonzo with a desire that both 1) tends to fulfill other desires, and 2) strikes the average person as abhorrent, he shifts into "people generally have reasons to promote an aversion to X" mode. It's all too convenient if you ask me.

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