Desirism Notes, II

Posted in Desirism, Ethics, Morality on  | 7 minutes | 3 Comments →

As with the last set of notes, today's post should be read as a supplement to the series, containing reflections, concerns and open questions. As such, it should not be taken as a formal presentation of arguments either for or against desirism.

Luke has an index of Fyfe's writings on desirism here, and an index of faithlessgod's writings on desirism here. Luke also has what he calls The Ultimate Desirism FAQ here. Luke also conducts interviews with Fyfe in CPD003 and CPD005.

Luke gives us the core principles of desirism in his words, which you may or may not find helpful:

  1. Desires exist.
  2. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.
  3. Desires are propositional attitudes.
  4. People seek to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of their desires are true.
  5. People act to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the object of their desires are true, given their beliefs – meaning that false or incomplete beliefs may thwart their desires.
  6. Some desires are malleable.
  7. Desires can, to different degrees, tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. That is, they can contribute to realizing the propositions that are the objects of other desires true, or contribute to preventing the realization of those propositions.
  8. To the degree that a malleable desire tends to fulfill other desires, to that degree people generally have reason to promote or encourage the formation and strength of that desire. To the degree that a malleable desire tends to thwart other desires, to that degree people generally have reason to inhibit or discourage the formation and strength of that desire.
  9. The tools for promoting or inhibiting desires include praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Part of my initial problem was the use of the word objective in connection with desirism. Now that I understand the sense in which those who defend desirism as objective make this connection, we're on the same page. The problem was that I tend to reserve the word objective for, well, you know.. objects, i.e. things " the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers, having reality independent of the mind." I suppose it's true that desires are "of" or "relating to" an object, i.e., a human being, but they don't have any reality independent from our minds. As Luke says,

Desires are mind-dependent, so desirism is not objective in this sense.
Luke, UDFAQ, 3.03

This was creating a disconnect but is no longer a problem. The problem I'm still having is understanding is how the fact that any particular desire X tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts can make X 'good'.

Desires are the primary objects of moral evaluation such that the right act (or the good law, etc.) is defined in terms of good desires. A right act is one that a person with good desires would perform. A right law is one that a person with good desires would enact.

Okay, but then what's a good desire:

…a desire that tends to fulfill other desires.

Does anyone else see the problem here? Round and round we go, but we never quite get to a concrete definition of good. It's like an airplane continuously circling the runway but unable to land. Can anyone help me through this problem?

As an aside, here's a spontaneous question to those who deny intrinsic-value theory: when is torturing children good or permissible? If we say 'never' then it seems we accept intrinsic-value theory.

Moving along, in desirism, the objects of evaluation are desires – specifically, 'good' desires tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than they thwart. One problem is that we – meaning all moral agents that exist – lack the necessary processing power and facts required to reliably evaluate the effect of any particular desire(s) against the balance of all desires. No single human or group of humans can achieve such a feat.

Nonetheless, to further illustrate desirism's objectivity, we can conceive of a SuperComputer with the processing power and access to facts required to theoretically process the desire-types and tokens of all sentient beings. Any time a sentient being had any particular desire, the SuperComputer would be instantly aware of that desire, then run a Wargames-type application to predict the effect on all other desires if that particular desire is fulfilled. Note that such is extensible even to sentient beings living in distant galaxies; all that is required is that our desires affect theirs, and vice-versa. As opposed to fallible humans attempting their best with a faithful application of the theory, our SuperComputer could reliably evaluate what the 'good' desires were in any given instance.

Would anybody deny that this would be an ideal desirist scenario?

On only a slightly relevant note, while doing a Google search for 'desire fulfillment act utilitarianism,' I was reassured to come across a sentiment I argued for in Exploring My Own Moral Parameters, that the Euthyphro dilemma apparently applies regardless of our source of morality. In contrasting the pros and cons of "God-likes" morality vs. "I like" morality, that author concludes,

..the Euthyphro argument applies here, too. "Is torturing young children wrong because I disapprove of it, or do I disapprove of it because it is wrong?"(source)

The author also hit on the confusion between DFAU and DU, which faithlessgod claims Reid and myself continue to indulge in:

Desire fulfillment act utilitarian [DFAU] theories state that an agent should perform that action that fulfills the most desires. If there are 1000 sadists who desire to see a child tortured, and one child who has an aversion to being tortured, the act that fulfills the more and the stronger desires is the act of torturing the child.

Desire utilitarianism [DU], on the other hand, holds that the primary objects of moral evaluations are desires, not actions. We should primarily concern ourselves with evaluating desires according to their tendency to fulfill other desires, rather than evaluating actions by whether or not they fulfill other desires. (bold, brackets mine)

Since I've been evaluating desires all along, how does this apply to any argument of mine? As an aside, if DU can easily solve the 1000 sadists problem, why didn't the author attempt to also frame DU in the context of the 1000 sadists problem?

Perhaps by "tendency to fulfill other desires" we should think in terms not of any isolated example either hypothetical or actual, but in terms of all available examples of that specific desire-type throughout history? If that's the case, then instead of evaluating the desire to exterminate other races in the isolated context of the Nazi example, are we to evaluate the desire to exterminate other races against its effect on all other desires throughout history?

Either way, how does the difference between evaluating the desire as opposed to the act constitute a meaningful difference? To me it seems that evaluating the desire as opposed to the act just means that our evaluation takes place earlier on in the chain of events. According to desirism, desires -> intentional acts. What this means is that any act X (aX) was preceded by a corresponding desire X (dX). If dX tends to fulfill other desires and is thus a 'good' desire, then aX will also tend to fulfill other desires and thus be a 'good' act. Right? If so, what difference does it make whether we evaluate desire vs. act?

Is there ever a case where dX can be 'good' but aX not? Or, to say it differently, can 'good' desires ever lead to 'evil' acts, or vice-versa? If not, then what do we gain by evaluating dX as opposed to aX, if the nature of aX is always pre-determined by the nature of dX?


  1. fp


    just a quick question. does the calculation of the balance of desires include the affect of the desire in question on all past, present and future desires?

  2. Dominic Saltarelli


    Either way, how does the difference between evaluating the desire as opposed to the act constitute a meaningful difference?

    It doesn’t, just my $0.02 though… carry on.

  3. cl


    I had the same question. I’m guessing it will depend on who we ask. While I imagine the effects of a desire throughout history factor into the equations, I think all that desirism requires is an evaluation of the desire in relation to other desires.

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