Frequently Asked Questions about Desire Utilitarianism

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General questions

What is desire utilitarianism anyway?

Desire utilitarianism is a moral theory that holds that desires are the ultimate object of evaluation, and that desires are good or bad according to their utility - according to the degree to which they fulfill or thwart other desires.

A desire is a mental state that takes the form of a propositional attitude. For example, a desire to eat chocolate ice cream is a mental state that takes the form of the propositional attitude, "I desire that I am eating chocolate ice cream." Desires motivate agents to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of those desires are true. So, a desire to eat chocolate ice cream is a mental state that motivates an agent to realize a state of affairs in which "I am eating chocolate ice cream" is true.

Desires have real-world effects that can fulfill or thwart other desires. A desire to smoke cigarettes, for example is a desire to realize a state of affairs in which "I am smoking a cigarette" is true. However, making this true can bring about a future state of affairs (cancer) that thwarts other desires. This would make the desire to smoke a bad desire - a desire that tends to thwart other desires.

A desire to help others, on the other hand, tends to fulfill other desires. An act of charity, then, both fulfills the desire of the agent to help others, and helps to fulfill the desires of those being helped. This makes charity and kindness good desires.

A right action, on this theory, is the action that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong action is the action that a person with good desires would not perform. Where a good person would be indifferent between two actions, both actions are morally permissible.

Why should I be a desire utilitarian?

Desire utiltiarianism is not a moral theory in the sense that it is a set of codes and principles to adopt. It is not something for a person to "become". Rather, desire utilitarianism is a theory of what morality is - in the same way that atomic theory is a theory of what matter is. One "should be" a desire utilitarianism in the same way that one "should be" an atomist (a person who believes that the world is made up of atoms). People should believe the propositions of desire utilitarianism only to the degree that they are objectively true.

What makes it better than all the other ethical theories?

In an August, 2003 debate with Holy Heretic on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board [], Alonzo Fyfe presented some answers to this question. In this (edited) section, he discusses how we evaluate different meaning-theories of moral claims; simply put:

  1. 'God likes' Theory
  2. 'I like' Theory
  3. 'We like' Theory
  4. 'Good for me' Theory
  5. 'Good for us' / Good for us to like Theory

"God likes" Theory

I am going to start with "God likes" theory as a way of illustrating how we evaluate different meaning-theories of moral claims. This theory links moral value to what "god likes" and what "god does not like."

Plato attributes to Socrates (in a discussion with Euthyphro) a significant objection to the "God likes" meaning-theory.

"Is X good because God likes X? Or does God like X because it is good?"

If we go with the first option, then anything God likes would be good -- and God himself has no reason to prefer one option over the other. Imagine God sitting in his workshop. 'Let's see, "Thou shalt torture young children for pleasure?" Yes? No? <flips coin> No. Shucks.' Until God flips his coin and makes a decision, one is as good as the other.

This is, at best, odd. It makes more sense to say that torturing young children for pleasure is wrong in a sense that even God ought to disapprove of it. But, if this is true, then torturing young children for pleasure has a badness that is independent even of God.

"I like" Theory

The next meaning-theory says that moral claims take the form "I like"/"I do not like". Terms such as "approve" and "judge" can be substituted for "like."

First, I would like to make note of is that 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?" "I like" theory goes with the first interpretation, in which case I can turn torturing young children into the highest of all virtues simply by learning to like it. The more I get off on having children tortured, the more virtuous it becomes.

Second, "I like" theory cannot handle debate.

Person 1: I judge X to be good.

Person 2: I judge X to be bad.

Person 1: But that's wrong, I judge X to be good.

Person 2: No I don't. I judge X to be bad!

It may be true, moral debates may well consist of nothing more than shouting matches between mentally deficient individuals. Or, perhaps, it's the 'I like" meaning theory that is deficient. Perhaps, if we looked a little further, we can find a better alternative.

"We like" Theory

"We like"/"we do not like" theory handles the problem of debate. It refers to things about which different people can meaningfully disagree. However, there is a very easy way to resolve this type of dispute. Take a vote. If we find out that 80% of the people approve of X, and 20% of the people disapprove, we can show the results to the 20% so that they can immediately surrender. "I'm sorry. I was wrong. We do not approve of X."

Yet, when we show these polls to those who belong to the 20% minority, they don't surrender. They simply look at the poll and say, "How depressing, 80% of the people are idiots." But they can't be idiots about "We like X". So, the minority's claim must be about something else.

Even the members of the majority don't think that polls provide decisive evidence that they are right. If they did, they would greet minority representatives with mocking laughter and say, "Here you go, claiming that on the whole we generally disapprove of X -- because that is what it means to call X wrong -- when, in fact, the polls clearly say we generally approve of X." Even members of the majority faction recognize that being in the majority does not make one right by definition.

"Good for me" Theory

In our value vocabulary, the concepts of "like" and "dislike" are often found in conflict with the concepts of "good for" and "bad for." I do not like to exercise, but it is good for me... So, perhaps moral claims are not "like/dislike" claims at all. Perhaps we they are "good for me/bad for me" claims.

If I can murder my boss and take her job, that would be good for me. So, it must be right. Somebody may protest, "But it is too risky, it can't possibly be good for you." Yet, a "good for me" theorist would still have to agree that If I can murder my boss and get away with it, then it would be the right thing to do. All I need to do to turn murdering my boss into 'the right thing' -- maybe even an obligation! -- is to come up with a sufficiently risk-free plan.

Again, this is just a re-application of the Euthyphro argument. The Euthyphro argument against "God likes" theory does not depend on God actually approving on torturing young children. It is a sufficiently strong objection to note that "If God liked torturing young children, then it would be good." Similarly, "If I can murder my boss and get away with it, then it would be good," is a sufficiently strong problem for "good for me" theories.

"Good for us" Theory

Okay, let's try "good for us" theories. Well, it does make sense to have people debate issues about what is "good for us". Furthermore, it is possible for a person to be right, even if he is the only person on the planet who believes "X is good for us." I may be the only person on the planet who knows that aliens will blow the planet to bits unless we get rid of all of our nuclear weapons. My claim that "we ought to get rid of our nuclear weapons" would be true even if everybody else thought I was nuts.

And we can't settle the issue with a vote.


Moral disputes are disputes about what is "good for us". Is the institution of capital punishment "good for us?" Is separation of church and state "good for us?" Is homosexuality "bad for us?" Is a right to abortion "good for us?" Is slavery "good for us?"

Now that we know what moral terms mean, we can now go on to the next part of the question. Are answers to questions about what is "good for us?" objective or subjective?

Oh, happy days.

When Socrates shows up and asks, "Is this good because it is good for us, or is it good for us because it is good?" I can put my arm across his shoulder and say, "Socy, baby, have you been sampling the ouzo again?" "

So what does he mean by 'Good?'

"To be good something must have the capacity to fulfill desires, either directly (as in, beauty or pleasure) or indirectly (as in, exercise, education, or a visit to the dentist).

There is no mystery in evaluating things according to their capacity to fulfill desires. We do it all the time. No mysterious supernatural entities or semi-magical value properties are required. All we need is the thing being evaluated, a set of desires, and some way to relate the thing to the desires.

But, then, desires themselves are things. They exist in the real world, sitting right there between your left ear and your right ear, and behind your eyebrows. Statements about desires are statements about how the brain is wired, postulated on the basis of their capacity to explain real-world observations (human actions).

So, when we talk about a relationship between a desire and an object, we are talking about a relationship between two real things. This type of relationship is as real as, let's say, the relationship between the earth and the sun. "The earth orbits around the sun at an average distance of 93 million miles." It's a fact, perfectly appropriate for any science textbook. "Jimmy wants to have sex with Susan." is a fact. Well, it depends on how Jimmy's brain is wired and what is true of Susan. Still, this is a proposition that is also capable of being true, or false.

If objective, factual statements can be made about the relationships between desires and objects, and desires are also objects, we can make factual claims about the relationship between desires and other desires. That is to say, we can ask and answer meaningful questions about what it is good for us to like. And if you and I disagree about what this relationship is, we are disagreeing about a matter of fact."

Aren't ethical theories like religions, i.e. you can pick the one that suits you?

No. They're like religions, i.e. you try to pick the one that's most accurate.

Desire utilitarianism seems a bit technical for me. What use is it in my daily life?

If desire utilitarianism is so good, why don't more philosophers write about it?

Ultimately, philosophers do not write about it because they have not heard about it. Alonzo Fyfe thought up desire utilitarianism while a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. He has spent the last few years writing about the ideas online. Since academic philosophers do not go online to study new theories, they have not encountered desire utilitarianism in order to write about it.

Philosophical questions

Isn't desire utilitarianism the same as preference utilitarianism?

Preference utilitarianism is an act-utilitarian theory. It says that the right act is the act that produces the most utility, where utility is measured in terms of preference satisfaction.

Desire utilitarianism, on the other hand, is a rule-utilitarian theory. It says that the right act is the act that conforms to the best rules - or, in this case, the best desires, where desires are rules written into the structure of the brain. Rules (desires) then are measured in accordance with their utility. In this case, rules (desires) are measured by their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires.

Desire utilitarians have a clearer account of what a desire is. A desire is a propositional attitude - a mental state that can be expressed in the form 'desires that P' where P is a proposition. An agent with a 'desire that P' is motivated to bring about states of affairs in which P is true.

Desire utilitarians have a clearer account of what is means for a desire to be fulfilled. A desire that P is fulfilled by the realization of any state of affairs in which P is true, whether the agent knows that P is true or not.

Desire utilitarians also have a clearer account of why it makes sense to call desire fulfillment 'good'. Value statements are statements about the relationships between objects of evaluation and reasons for action. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist (taken from the fact that desires are propositional attitudes that motivate agents to act to realize particular states of affairs). It makes no sense to speak about what an agent 'should' or 'ought' to do except in the sense of what there are reasons for action for the agent to do. Those reasons for action are desires.

In a universe where 1000 sadists want to torture a child, doesn't desire utilitarianism say that it's okay to torture the child?

This objection confuses two closely related theories.

(1) Desire fulfillment act utilitarianism.

(2) Desire utilitarianism.

Desire fulfillment act utilitarian 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, 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.

One way to test whether a desire tends to fulfill other desires is to imagine a knob. As you turn the knob to the right, the desire becomes more common and stronger in those who have it. As you turn the knob to the left, the desire becomes weaker and less common.

Now, take the desire to torture a child. As you turn the knob on this desire to the right, it becomes stronger and more common, more and stronger desires will have to be thwarted. Either the desires of those who want to torture children will have to be thwarted, or the aversions that children (and those who care about children) have to torture will have to be thwarted.

On the other hand, as you make this desire weaker and less common, the fewer the desires that will have to be thwarted.

In fact, if the strength and frequency of this desire is turned to zero, then no desires will have to be thwarted. No child will be tortured, and no person will experience the frustration of a thwarted desire to torture children.

Because of the nature of the desire to torture children, desire utilitarianism says that social forces should be put to use to make this desire as weak and as rare as possible. The phrase, "Torturing children is wrong," is meant to communicate this idea that, "The desire to torture children should be made as weak and as rare as possible."

Wouldn't discouraging people to desire to hurt the child increase desire fulfillment, thus being good from a Desire fulfillment act utilitarian point of view too?

Why should you weaken the desire to torture the child, rather than weakening the child's aversion to torture?

If there are only two desires in the problem (the desire to torture, and the desire to avoid torture), and the two desires are mutually exclusive, then we have a stalemate. Turning the desire-to-torture knob to zero would result in no desires being thwarted, which suggests that the desire to torture is a bad desire. However, if we instead turn the desire-to-avoid-torture knob to zero, we also find that no desire is thwarted, suggesting that the desire to avoid torture is also bad. We're stuck.

To solve this problem, at least one more desire must be added to the problem. Realistically, of course, people have many desires, so such a requirement is easily fulfilled. For instance, both the prospective torturer and the child may have a desire to avoid being physically restrained. If the desire to torture is fulfilled, then two desires are being thwarted (the desire to avoid torture and the desire to avoid being restrained). If, on the other hand, the desire to avoid torture is fulfilled, then only one desire is thwarted (the desire to torture). Therefore, the desire to avoid torture is better than the desire to torture.

This solution hints at something more profound about morality: it relies on everyone sharing at least some common desires (like the common desire to avoid physical restraint). In a world in which everyone had completely unique, mutually exclusive desires, it would be impossible to find objective moral prescriptions that kept most people happy.

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