Where I Cram My Ideas

Friday, June 15, 2007

Desire Utilitarianism

This post is here to provide a groundwork for all future discussions of ethics on my blog. When I write about events/concepts, I will be applying the moral meaning theory of desire utilitarianism to evaluate the topic - to the best of my ability. If I happen to disagree with Alonzo Fyfe on the matter, rest assured that the proper application of the theory is his. Mine must be either insufficiently thought out, or born of a misunderstanding of my own.

I found this essay posted by a contributor on a new scratchpad Wiki for desire utilitarianism:


I think it gives a concise but thorough description of the theory (complete with original curvy font and formatting). If you'd like further explanation, just ask me.

Desire Utilitarianism

By Richard Chappell (Summarising the moral theory developed by Alonzo Fyfe) [2004]


- The focus of moral judgements should concern an agent's desires, rather than his actions.

- Desires are persistent entities.

- Value derives from desire-fulfillment. (There is no value without a valuer.)

- Morality is about maximising value (and hence desire-fulfillment), universally.

- Hence, a good desire is one that will tend to fulfill desires generally, regardless of whose they are. A bad desire is one that will tend to thwart desires generally.

- Morality is subjective in the sense that it depends on minds ('valuers') generally, but it is nevertheless objective from the perspective of any individual.

- An act can be judged on its consistency with how a person with good desires (see definition above) would behave in that situation.

- The Is/Ought gap can be bridged, by noting the general form of the hypothetical imperative: "If you want Y, you ought to do X", is another way of saying "Doing X is such to fulfill the desires in question" (where the desires in question are 'Y'). To extend this to morality, note that the 'desires in question' are all desires, regardless of who has them.

Focus on Desires - BDI Theory

Why focus on desires rather than actions? Because no action occurs in isolation. Instead, they are caused by the beliefs & desires of the agent. This idea is formalised in today's most widely accepted view of human psychology, BDI Theory. To quote Alonzo Fyfe:

(Beliefs + Desires) -> Intention -> Action

It is important to understand that beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes. That is to say, they express a mental attitude towards a proposition. Furthermore, a proposition is the meaning component of a sentence. "I am eating chocolate cake" and "Alonzo is eating chocolate cake" are two different sentences that happen to express the same proposition (given that I am the Alonzo referred to in the second sentence).

"Agent believes that P" states that Agent has the mental attitude that the proposition P is true.

"Agent desires that P" states that Agent has the mental attitude that the proposition P is to be made or kept true.

BDI theory states that the intentional component of intentional actions (the only type of action we can be held morally accountable for) is strictly determined by our beliefs and desires. If I desire some chocolate cake, and believe that I still have some chocolate cake left over from the birthday party, I form the intention to go downstairs and get the cake, which (barring physical injury) causes the muscle contractions associated with walking downstairs, cutting a piece of cake, and bringing it back up to my computer.

If I do not go downstairs and get a piece of cake, this is because the description of my beliefs and desires is either mistaken or incomplete. Perhaps I do not believe that there is a chocolate cake in the kitchen. Or perhaps I have an aversion to gaining weight that is stronger than my desire for chocolate cake. Either way, the intentional component of my behavior is to be explained in terms of my beliefs and desires.

BDI theory says that we always act to maximize fulfillment of our desires (given our beliefs), but allows that we can have a mix of self-regarding and other-regarding desires. A 'desire that my child is healthy and happy' is as possible as a 'desire that I am having sex with Jenny'. Self-sacrifice springs from our other-regarding desires. An parent's act of sacrifice to benefit his child springs from the agent's desire that P, where P = 'my child is healthy and happy', and the desire that P is a motivating reason to make it the case that P either becomes or remains true. There are times when an agent's other-regarding desires can override all self-regarding desires.

People can even have other-thing-regarding desires such as a desire that a piece of artwork or a historic document be preserved, or a desire to learn some secret of the universe. These are not always done for personal credit.

Yet, in all cases, it is always our own desires that fully govern our actions.

Note the technical definitions used in regard to desires: they are fulfilled if the proposition P is in fact true, and thwarted if the proposition is in fact false. On the other hand, desires are satisfied if the agent believes P is true (regardless of the truth of the matter), and frustrated otherwise. Simple thought experiments demonstrate that people seek desire fulfillment, not mere desire satisfaction (though they may desire the pleasant feeling too, it is a separate desire which may itself be fulfilled).

Desires as Persistent Entities

Our desires remain relatively constant over time (though of course they are subject to change, and some are more long-lived than others). As Alonzo put it: They are not the type of thing that springs forth at a whim to be tucked back into their corner when it is convenient to do so. Every desire weighs on us constantly, and if it is there, its effects will not be confined to this one act alone. This simple fact allows us to overcome the common objections to utilitarianism - for what the usual examples have in common, is that they describe rare scenarios in which (taken in isolation) acting according to bad desires would seem to have the best consequences (e.g. killing an innocent person to appease a rioting mob). However, real life does not occur "in isolation". For someone to have a desire set which allows them to kill innocent people in one scenario, would invariably compromise their behaviour generally.

In this respect, Desire Utilitarianism is similar to Rule Utilitarianism, except that it recognises that the rules are (in a sense) compulsory - wired into the human brain, in the form of "desires". To behave according to Act Utilitarianism is a psychological impossibility, and therefore (because 'ought' implies 'can') it is not the case that we ought to behave according to Act Utilitarianism.

Note also that desires persist even when they are overpowered by other desires. Alonzo Fyfe discusses the example of a man whose bee-allergic son gets stung and will die if he doesn't get treatment fast enough. The father then steals a car in order to drive his son to the hospital in time. He should have an aversion to stealing, but it is overpowered by his desire to save his son. However, that doesn't negate the aversion to stealing - the resistance is still there (like opposing forces in a physics vector), and this will cause the father to return the car and compensate the owner for any inconvenience caused.

Explaining Value

There is no value without a valuer; no intrinsic value in the universe - no 'goodons' and 'badons' to complement protons and electrons. Fortunately, however, there are valuers (us!), so it is possible for objects or states of affairs to be assigned subjective value.

Value is a relationship between an object (or state of affairs) and a specific set of desires.

There are 4 dimensions to all value statements:

(1) A class of objects to be evaluated.

(2) A set of desires to evaluate them against.

(3) Whether the relationship between them is direct ("pleasing") or indirect ("useful").

(4) Whether the object to be evaluated thwarts ("bad") or fulfills ("good") the desires.

As an example, the value tasty evaluates objects put in ones mouth against the desires of the individual doing the tasting. The relationship is a direct one (compare to the value nutritious, which would answer 'indirect' to this question instead), and the desires in question are fulfilled (i.e. it tastes "good").

As Alonzo points out, every value statement follows this same pattern, and moral value is no different:

1) What is being evaluated? Desires themselves. A virtue is nothing more or less than a good desire.

What desires are relevant in determining whether a desire is a virtue? All other desires, actually, regardless of who has them. Honesty tends to fulfill other desires. So does compassion.

3) Which types of relationships are relevant? Both direct and indirect relationships are used in determining if a desire is to count as a virtue. Honesty is good not only because an honest person is a wonder to behold, but honesty is generally useful to people generally.

4) It counts as a part of this that a virtue must fulfill desires.


You may be wondering about the second dimension of moral value as described above - why are all other desires relevant? I think the best answer is simply that there aren't any plausible alternatives, especially when you consider how people talk about "morality". For example, to consider only your own desires, would be called "selfish", not "moral".

To draw a line demarcating those whose desires are relevant to moral consideration from those who are irrelevant would seem unacceptably arbitrary. Likewise, it would be arbitrary to weigh the values of any person or group as being of greater inherent worth than some other person or group.

Which leads us to the intuitively pleasing conclusion that morality is about maximising value universally - that is, a good desire is one that will tend to fulfill other desires generally. Honesty, compassion, and an aversion to killing, are all examples of 'good' desires. Bad desires (e.g. a desire to burn pagans at the stake) have a tendency to thwart other desires generally.

Note that this universality prevents morality from degrading into a relativistic or purely-subjective farce. Because morality is essentially about asking what is "good for everyone", the answer does not depend upon individual beliefs or preferences - it is objective in this sense. It is subjective in the sense that value is relative to desires generally - there is no "absolute" (or "intrinsic") value. Alonzo Fyfe dryly refers to this as objective moral relativism. The concept of "location" serves as an illustrative analogy - any location must always be given relative to some other location (e.g. "the keys are on the table"), yet statements about relative locations can still be objectively true or false.

Judging acts

When a person asks, "What, morally, should I do in this case?", the best interpretation one can give to this question is, "What would a person with good desires do in this case?" Where a 'good desire' is a desire that, if universal, would be such as bring about the greatest fulfillment of all the desires without regard to whose they are.

Acts can be moral, permissible, or immoral, depending on whether a person with good desires would act that way, have no preference, or condemn the action (respectively).

Universality revisited

Here I temporarily depart from Alonzo's theory, and instead elaborate it somewhat with my own ideas. While I fully agree with everything in the Universality section, there is a different sense of universality, that which is described in the Judging acts section, where Alonzo states that "a 'good desire' is a desire that, if universal..." It is that "if universal" bit that I disagree with.

As the theory stands, all 'good' desires are moral duties. They are desires that everyone should have, and so anyone who lacks it may be judged as morally deficient in that respect. However, this leaves no room for supererogation - the concept of a 'good' which is voluntary, rather than a duty (e.g. giving to charity). It also fails to recognise the virtue of harmonious individual differences (e.g. that some people are mathematicians, whilst others are engineers). Currently, individual differences can only be identified as "permissible" (or maybe "bad"), never "good" in their own right, because of that if universal clause (after all, a universal desire to be a theoretical mathematician would result in a world where very few practical advances were achieved!).

My suggestion is to adopt a two-tier approach to morality:

1) Moral duties: this is the compulsory (and universal) side of morality, which is defined as Alonzo stated it: "a 'good desire' is a desire that, if universal, would be such as bring about the greatest fulfillment of all the desires without regard to whose they are."

2) Supererogation: this is the voluntary (and individual) aspect of morality, which could perhaps be defined as follows:
An 'individually-good desire' is a desire that, in that individual, would tend to fulfill desires generally.

This approach would, I believe, allow for greater subtlety and variety of moral thought. It acknowledges the moral worth of individual differences, and allows for a greater breadth of moral choice, rather than insisting that all moral 'goods' are also 'duties', and everything else is merely 'permissible'.

The Is/Ought gap

David Hume proposed that premises purely about how the world 'is' (fact) cannot yield conclusions about how it 'ought' to be (value), and that anyone who attempts to bridge the is/ought gap in such a way must explain how this is to be done.

Alonzo Fyfe responds as follows:

[B]eliefs and desires follow the same pattern. Recall, beliefs + desires yield intentions, which in turn yield actions. One can stack as many beliefs as one wants into a human brain, yet no action is implied about these beliefs. It is like sticking data into a database, no set of data implies that the database should do something. Yet, the instant you add even a single desire to this set, there is a reason to do something. The agent still might not be able to do anything, but he has an understandable reason to do so.

The 'is' portion of the 'is/ought' distinction reflects the 'belief' part of the 'belief/desire' distinction. Correspondingly, the 'ought' portion of the 'is/ought' distinction reflects the 'desire' part of the 'belief/desire' distinction.

But desires are real. They exist in the real world and have influence over the physical movement of matter in the universe. Specifically, they have as their effects the muscle movements that make up human action. Desires -- the embodiment of 'ought' -- exist in the world of the 'is'.

If Agent wants to record that show that comes on in ten minutes, then Agent ought to get the video recorder ready. If Agent wants to graduate from college in four years, then Agent ought to buckle down and study. Once we add a desire to our list of premises, we get an ought conclusion. But the claim, "a desire that X exists" is an 'is' claim. As a premise, it is an 'is' premise. Yet, once added, it allows one to yield 'ought' conclusions.

To summarise: The Is/Ought gap can be bridged, by noting the general form of the hypothetical imperative: "If you want Y, then you ought to do X", is another way of saying "Doing X is such as to fulfill the desires in question" (where the desires in question are 'Y'). To extend this to morality, note that the 'desires in question' are all desires, regardless of who has them.

As Alonzo puts it: 'Ought', in this case, evaluates actions in terms of their ability to fulfill certain desires, either directly or indirectly. Every 'ought' claim, like every value claim, presupposes a set of desires, and asks about the fulfillment of those desires. Every 'ought' claim asks about an 'is' relationship.


Alonzo Fyfe's writings can be found online at the Internet Infidels Discussion Boards. Of particular use to me in compiling this summary:

His formal debate Is Morality Objective? <http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?s=&threadid=59835>

The Infidel thread on Utilitarianism <http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?s=&threadid=70296>

His 26-chapter series, Ethics Without God: A Personal Journey <http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?s=&threadid=46876>


Alonzo Fyfe said...

If I happen to disagree with Alonzo Fyfe on the matter, rest assured that the proper application of the theory is his.

No, the proper application of the theory is what is true, regardless of who says it. If somebody should happen to disagree with me because I am wrong, then the wise thing to do would be to side with the person who corrected the theory, not the person who originated it.

Anyway, I thank you for the kind words.

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