a blog by josef johann

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What Desire Consists in

I've been developing my point on what desire must consist in. This comment of mine was posted at Common Sense Atheism, coming in the context of a discussion on death, where I said it is right to fear death. One commenter responded to me, saying:

However, it’s unhealthy to have a paralyzing fear of death, which is, if the atheists are correct, quite peaceful.

I replied:

Fortunately I haven’t said anything about a paralyzing fear of death. Luke [the owner of the Common Sense Atheism blog] said “I do not fear my death” and I’ve heard many people say this, often with reference to the famous Mark Twain quote about being dead billions of years before having been born. It’s that position that I think is incorrect. I think pain and regret, etc. are perfectly appropriate, healthy feelings, even if you are powerless to stop it.

Furthermore (perhaps this position of mine is closer to what you, lorkas, mean to criticize [that's the commenter who responded to me]), I think so long as it is true that death is bad we ought not attempt to believe it is anything other than bad, even if believing so were harmful to us (though I don’t think it is ultimately harmful even if the feeling itself is).

And, though Luke has not said so here and I am not claiming he holds this position, one corollary I frequently hear is that people would rather die than live forever, or for some very long amount of time. This is absurd.

It would be better for people to live than to die. The fact that people die when it would be better to live makes death a moral problem (one that it would be best to solve, if we can), and we have moral reasons for wanting to live as long as possible if we can find some feasible way of bringing it about. Finding ways to not fear death, I think, represents a withering of an important moral capacity that instructs us to appreciate life, fight to preserve it and enables us to combat superstitions (such as the one that 80 years is the “right” amount of time for people to be alive) that would lead to morally poor choices.

I was challenged on whether people's desires about how long they should live can actually be correct or incorrect. After all, they are desires. Can it really be "correct" to want to live longer? Similarly, can it be "correct" that someone desires ice cream? Are they lying about their desire?

Here was my reply:

I don’t think anyone is lying about what they desire, but I do think the desire to live a [shorter] rather than longer life, all else being equal, is in some sense incorrect. A person can be ignorant of a state of affairs that, if they knew better, they would desire very strongly. I won’t desire ice cream until I discover ice cream. Then, after discovering its enjoyable taste I might say “I desire ice cream.” Then, after discovering I am lactose intolerant I might revise that and say “I don’t desire ice cream.”

But before and after each revision, my desire or aversion was directed toward an identical state of affairs (in each case my physiology was the same: I enjoy the taste of ice cream no more or less than before, in each case I am no more or less lactose intolerant than I was before). What changed was the light under which they were considered (in that successively more light is cast each time.) These different desires can’t all be the best evaluation of the identical state of affairs.

Which is to say, a desire appears to be preceded by an evaluative process, a running of the state of affairs over your palate and coming to a determination as to whether you do in fact judge it to be desirable. A desire must consist in something that moved us from indifference to desire, something besides relations to other desires (the fact that we can have contradictory desires and must choose between them on the basis of whether they promote other desires, suggests to me that desires somehow pop up prior to a consideration of their relations to other desires, otherwise they would not be contradictory).

That “something” typically taken to be an intrinsic value (I have such things as pleasurable tastes, the feeling of happiness, etc. in mind). I can already see your response comment with the objection to intrinsic values [I say this because desirism does not accept that there are intrinsic values]. Believe me, I make this point in full consciousness of the intrinsic values objection, which may yet win me over. My answer to this is that things like “sweetness of taste” are no more or less intrinsic than is green or middle C, which certainly exist in some sense even if they aren’t intrinsic. If you want to say an experience of pleasure can be too complicated to make analogy to a single color or sound, but that it is something over and above those things, I can concede that this is true, but that it is nonetheless consists in a combination of such things than then open us up to an enjoyable experience. (I’m prepared to elaborate on this if necessary.)

I’ve said too much for one comment, so to summarize, (1) desires are preceded by an evaluative process, (2) if that process is to be possible at all, desires must consist in something to be evaluated besides their relations to other desires (3) the components of the experience which are judged to be desirable are no more or less intrinsic than the color green or the sound of middle C. (4) Just as there is a correct answer to whether an image has green in it, there is a correct answer to whether an experience consists in those things that make experiences desirable.

I recognize that point (4) may seem absurd, because it entails things like “the desire to have chocolate cake” can be wrong, or that prioritizing the desire to listen to Joanna Newsom over the desire to listen to Third Eye Blind can be correct. I think this is true, and again, I’m prepared to elaborate on it if necessary.

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.

Friday, August 7, 2009

On Intrinsic Values

Haven't posted in a bit, but I might as well share my participation at other blogs. I just posted this as a comment over at Atheist Ethicist, home of the philosophy of desire utilitarianism.


I have only just encountered your philosophy this week, so I apologize in advance if I don't characterize it accurately. You say:

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.

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.

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 the pleasurable experience is an obvious candidate (or perhaps a combination of things, of which the pleasurable experience is one).

This would be an opening for the insertion of intrinsic values where pleasure counts as an intrinsic value, and is real because it is or corresponds to a brain state in the same way a desire, which is real, does.

It might be the case that pleasure is intrinsically pleasurable, but not intrinsically valuable if its realization is bound up in a subsequent chain of pleasurable and non-pleasurable experiences, and what is "valuable" is any state of affairs that returns a positive balance of pleasure after subjection to the utilitarian calculus.

It may be too much an abuse of the word "intrinsic" to say that a state of affairs with a whole mixture of consequences yielding a positive amount of pleasure could be "intrinsically valuable." But there remains an intrinsic quality that the objects of desires ought to consist in, that they might be stronger or weaker than one another.