Desirism Notes

Posted in Desirism, Ethics, Morality, Philosophy on  | 6 minutes | 1 Comment →

In lieu of jumping straight into my second post on Fyfe's desirism, I thought I'd spend some more time talking through my own understanding of the theory. My goal is – again – to show that my understanding of desirism's premises, scope and definitions is sufficient to establish both the positive and negative appraisals I pay to the theory. I have a strong desire to avoid meaningless discourse on this or any topic, and though other commenters can always misconstrue our statements no matter how articulate we write them, I believe that demonstrating an impeccable understanding of the theory is the best insurance against that problem.

I consulted the following six posts for today's installment (note: I've abbreviated titles for the sake of brevity): faithlessgod I, Thomas Reid I, faithlessgod II, Thomas Reid II, faithlessgod III, and FAQ About DU.

In my own Introduction, I summarized my positive and negative appraisals of desirism thusly:

1) I agree desirism is efficient in that it provides a working formula for determining the most useful course of action relative to some desire;

2) I agree desirism is accurate in that it accurately describes how individuals tend to make moral decisions in the real world;

3) Neither desirism's efficiency nor its accuracy necessarily make it true, or even worthy of being called the best moral theory;

4) I don't see that X can be accurately described as good simply because it fulfills other desires, specifically, more and stronger desires than it thwarts;

5) How do we distinguish between the three? How do we know if a person has good desires, vs. bad or permissible desires? Who – or what – is the ultimate arbiter of such decisions?

6) Desirism lacks sufficient foundation to decide what types of desires we should have, because as we'll see, it can lead to conditions where things most moral people find repulsive can be rightly called good (i.e. torture of children);

7) Desirism cannot ground moral prescriptions to anything beyond personal or group preference;

8) Desirism does not permit Fyfe or anyone else the liberty to label entire groups as evil.

It is not my intention to give arguments or considerations for any of these appraisals in today's post. I include them here only as a courtesy to those who might find the index useful.

In the past, I've used various iterations of the "desirism is subjective" argument to express the sentiments contained in 4-7. This has encouraged objection from desirism's defenders, who maintain that the theory is in fact objective. I think it would be wise to resolve this discrepancy before continuing. Key in doing so is an understanding of what I mean by the terms objective and subjective morality, which was explained last week in Exploring My Own Moral Parameters:

..if there is no objective source of morality, i.e. nothing [outside of ourselves] that prefers or selects for any one behavior over another, then any "should" statement one can make becomes akin to either individual or group opinion, and this is what I mean by subjective morality.

So, when I say that desirism constitutes subjective morality, I understand why desirism's defenders raise their eyebrows: because desirism evaluates desires according to their tendency to fulfill other desires, and this – desirists maintain – constitutes objective morality.

At this point, I'd like to introduce a phrase that – if nothing else – will help me articulate these points: the phrase is the balance of desires, and should be taken to refer to the effect of desire X on the sum total of all [malleable] human desires that exist.

For example, say that we have an agent with some desire X. The balance of desires can be represented by a ratio (i.e. 37/48). The first integer represents the total number of desires that would be fulfilled if the agent realizes a state of affairs where X has been made true. The second integer represents the total number of desires that would be thwarted if the agent realizes a state of affairs where X has been kept untrue.

In this example, 37 other desires would be fulfilled if the agent realizes X, while 48 other desires would be thwarted if the agent realizes X. According to desirism, then, X in this case represents an evil desire, because its effect on the balance of desires is such as to thwart more desires than it fulfills. Desirism doesn't evaluate what one, two or all people believe about desires; it evaluates the effect of desires on all other desires – the balance of desires. The ratio remains the same regardless of whether we believe desire X will fulfill or thwart other desires.

To relate this to my own asbestos/styrofoam examples, a desirist would say that the desires to use asbestos/styrofoam were evil all along, because the ratio was always the same despite our ignorance of the facts. We simply made a mistake due to the limits on our knowledge.

So, to recap: desirists maintain that the theory is objective because the effect of desire X on the balance of desires becomes categorically equivalent to the "God" and "moral field" in my definition of objective morality. The effect of desire X on the balance of desires becomes an "arbiter of morality" that actually is "something outside of ourselves," and in that sense, I agree that desirism constitutes objective morality. If my understanding is correct, I predict that any desirist would identify "the effect of desire X on the balance of desires" as desirism's objective component.

So, why do I still maintain that desirism is constitutes subjective morality, despite the aforementioned concession that it constitutes objective morality? I'll be explaining the apparent contradiction soon enough. I just wanted to make damn sure that my understanding of desirism cannot be further called into question, and I'm willing to write as many posts as are required to accomplish that.

One comment

  1. Hi Cl
    Lets our discussion in the other post, in that thread.
    The DU FAQ you refer to is not maintained. Nor is taking a sub-set of a conversation between myself and Thomas Reid the best guide to my take on this theory.
    If you want to minimise the chance of ” meaningless discourse” I suggest you instead refer to Luke’s FAQ into Alonzo’s posts, Luke’s index into my posts and Luke’s FAQ.

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