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Happiness vs. Desire Fulfillment

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This article is part of Desire Utilitarianism

A major competitor to the idea that value can be understood in terms of a relationship between states of affairs and desires is the idea that value is captured in the concept of happiness. The theory states that happiness (and the absence of suffering, where suffering is understandably an obstacle to happiness) is the root of all secular morality. Moral realism can be found in the fact that some conditions objectively, knowably produce happiness.

Richard Carrier, for example, writes of this view in his book, “Sense and Goodness Without God.”(p. 315):

On close analysis, I believe there is only one core value: in agreement with Aristotle and Richard Taylor, I find this to be a desire for happiness. I believe that all other values are derived from this, in conjunction with other facts of the universe, and that all normative values are what they are because they must be held and acted upon in order for any human being to have the best chance of achieving a genuine, enduring happiness.

This is false.

The Difference between Happiness and Desire Fulfillment

The first order of business is to explain how 'happiness' differs from 'desire fulfillment'.

'Desire fulfillment' begins with the thesis that desires are propositional attitudes that can be expressed in the form, "Agent desires that P' for some proposition P. A 'desire that P' is a motivating force to realize a state of affairs in which P is true. Any state of affairs in which P is true is a state of affairs that fulfills A's desire that P.

Desire fulfillment is not a subjective experience or a sensation of any kind.

Happiness, on the other hand, is a mental state alone - one that tends to come with a particular feel or sensation. A person can 'feel' happy in a way that one cannot 'feel' that their desires are fulfilled.

Truth Conditions

To see where the concepts diverge I want to look at where their truth conditions diverge. If the two concepts are the same, then their truth-conditions should co-vary. Specifically, if happiness and desire fulfillment are the same, then when a proposition about happiness goes from being true to false, a corresponding proposition about desire fulfillment should also go from being true to false. Where propositions about one of the two concepts change truth value and the other does not, we can see a difference between the two concepts.

So, let’s take the case of Mary. Mary is sitting at her computer, reading an email she has received from her daughter-in-law, Susan. Susan and her husband (Mary’s son) Brad are with their children enjoying a vacation in Australia. At this point, Mary is happy.

At the very instant that Mary is reading the letter, a drunk driver hits the car that her son was driving. Her son and one of her grandchildren are killed. Her daughter in law is paralyzed, and her other grandchild suffers severe and irreversible brain damage.

At the moment of the accident, the proposition, “Mary is happy” remains true. There is no sense in which it is reasonable to say that Mary’s happiness changed from one moment to the next. No observer, watching Mary’s behavior as she reads the letter, or measuring her vital signs, would notice any difference. Mary's 'feeling happy' did not change - or, at least, we have no reason to believe it did.

However, at the moment of the accident, the proposition, “Mary’s desire that her son and his family enjoy their vacation in Australia is being fulfilled,” goes instantly from being true, to being false. Mary’s desire that P is fulfilled only in a state where P is true - a state in which her son's family is enjoying itself. Because of the automobile accident, P is no longer true. Thus, it is no longer the case that Mary’s desire is fulfilled.

So, we see here that happiness and desire fulfillment are not the same thing. In circumstances such as this, a happiness proposition remains true while a desire fulfillment proposition changes from true to false.

The Difference between Happiness and Desire Fulfillment

Having demonstrated that there is a difference between happiness and desire fulfillment, I want to be more specific about what that difference is.

The reason that the two truth conditions diverge is because ‘happiness’ is a mental state that exists only in the brain. Before the accident in Australia can affect the parent's it has to affect her brain. She has to learn about the accident in some way, or it has to thwart some other desire.

On the other hand, 'desire fulfillment' concerns both the brain state and the external state of affairs. Anything that has an affect on the external state of affairs instantly has an affect on desire fulfillment. The brain does not have to be affected for desires to be thwarted.

Preserving Happiness

Because happiness is only a mental state we can isolate happiness from the external world. Let us take Mary’s brain state as she reads the letter – a state in which Mary is happy – and preserve it. Let’s put the brain in an infinite loop where Mary thinks that she is going to her computer, turning it on, happily reading the email, finishing the email, going to the kitchen, pouring herself a cup of coffee, taking her coffee into the computer room (without any memory of the earlier event), finding and reading the email, and so forth.

Once Mary is in this infinite loop, we can do anything we want in the external world - torture her dog, destroy any artwork she produced, spread malicious lies about her character - and it cannot affect her happiness.

If it is true that value tracks happiness, and happiness is protected by putting her brain in a loop, than the world in which Mary’s children and grand children get in the wreck is no more or less valuable to her than the world in which they do not get in a wreck. One of the things that happiness theory implies is, “What you do not know cannot hurt you.” Mary is not made unhappy by the accident. So, by promoting ignorance (of things people do not want to hear) we can prevent harm.

Other People's Happiness

A common response at this point is to say that happiness still has ultimate value. The negative value of the accident is found in the suffering of the family in Australia.

So, let's remove this variable. Let’s take the family in Australia and put their brains in the same loop. Before the accident, they were enjoying the day snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. So, we take their brains at the time when they were the happiest and we lock them in a loop.

In fact, let us take everybody’s brain and lock it in a loop when that person was the happiest. We will set up machines to monitor these brain states – machines that we will assume have no chance of breaking down.

Under the happiness theory of value, this would be utopia. Nothing could be better than to have all these brains experiencing nothing but their best state of happiness in perpetuity.

That is, if the happiness theory of value were correct.

Desire Fulfillment and the Value of Truth



Yet, some people look upon this description and shudder. They do not see this as the best of all possible worlds. They see this as a horrendously meaningless existence. In terms of happiness, nothing can be better. If something is better than this, than that something must be a state in happiness is sacrificed in favor of something else of value.

Happiness is, indeed, one of the things that we value. But there are others, such that people are willing to pay a little less happiness in order to purchase this “something else”. They are willing to endure a little suffering, if it brings them more of this “something else”.

Desire fulfillment theory explains why events external to our brain states matter. A ‘desire that P’ is a mental state that motivates an agent into realizing a state in which P is true. A state in which P is not true (even if the agent falsely believes that it is true) has no value – at least as it relates to that desire.

Value is not a brain state. Value is a relationship between a brain state and a state of affairs in the world. Alter the state of affairs and value can instantly vanish. We do not have to wait for the agent to find out about it.


It is as much of a mistake to say that there is one core value and all other values are derived from this, as it is to say that there is one core belief and all other beliefs are derived from it.

Beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes. They are mental states that take a proposition as an object and assign a flag to that proposition.

Belief states take propositions and flag them as “true” or “false”. A person who believes that God exists is a person who has flagged the proposition “God exists” as “true.”

Desire states take propositions and flag them as “to be made true” or (in the case of an aversion) “to be made false”. A person who desires that her child is healthy and happy is a person who has flagged the proposition, “My child is healthy and happy” as “to be made or kept true.”

There is no reason to say that belief states can take all sorts of propositions as its objects – belief that God exists, belief that it is September, belief that Tyrannosaurus Rex was a scavenger. If belief states can take all manner of propositions as objects, then why not desires? What is the problem in holding that a person can also desire that God exists, hate the month of September, or prefer that Tyrannosaurus Rex was a hunter?

As far as core values go, I will argue that it is this:

Humans act so as to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of their desires, and human desires are (or can be) as varied as human beliefs. Insofar as a person has a desire to be happy (a desire “that I am happy”) then he will act so as to make or keep the proposition “I am happy” true. But this is one desire among many, and agents will often sacrifice happiness if it is necessary to fulfill some other desire.

I am going to make this argument the tried and true way that rational people should like – demonstrate that “make or keep true the propositions that describe the objects of our desires (a.k.a. ‘desire fulfillment’) theory” has far greater explanatory and predictive power than “happiness theory.”

People who have read the writings on my web site will be familiar with this example.

Assume that you and somebody you care about (e.g., your child) are kidnapped by a mad scientist. This scientist gives you two options:

Option 1: Your child will be taken away and tortured. However, you will be made to believe that your child is living a happy and healthy life. You will receive regular reports and even correspondence explaining how great your child’s life is. Except, they will all be fake. In fact, we will take your child to another location and spend every day peeling off his skin while soaking him in a vat of salt water, among other things.

Option 2: Your child will be taken away, provided with paid medical insurance, an endowment to complete an education, will be hired into a good job, and will be caused to live a healthy and happy life. However, you will be made to believe that your child is suffering excruciating torture. You will be able to hear what you think are your child’s screams coming down the hallway. We will show you video of the torture. It will all be fake, of course, but you will be convinced it is real.

Of course, after you make your choice, we will make you forget that you even had these options presented to you.

What do you choose?

Now, we are not going to kidnap people and make them choose. However, both theories need to explain the fact that the vast majority of parents, for example, report that, in such a situation, they would choose Option 2.

Happiness theory seems to suggest that the agent should choose Option 1. After all, the agent will be happier receiving news (that she believes) that says that her child is living a happy and healthy life. So, if happiness is what she is after, and Option1 delivers more happiness, then Option 1 is the rational choice.

Why do people choose Option 2?

Because happiness theory is wrong. In fact, people do not choose happiness. They choose “making or keeping true the propositions that are the objects of our desires.” In this case, the desire in question is the desire that one’s child be healthy and happy. A person with a desire that “my child is healthy and happy” will select that option that will make or keep the proposition, “my child is healthy and happy” true. That is Option 2.

Now, in science, when we have two competing theories, the thing to do is to come up with an experiment. If Theory 1 predicts State S1 under conditions C, and Theory 2 predicts State S2 under conditions C, then we test the theories by creating conditions C and seeing if we get State S1 or State S2.

Happiness theory predicts people selecting Option 1. Desire fulfillment theory predicts people selecting Option 2. We have people selecting Option 2. Therefore, we have reason to reject “happiness theory” and accept “desire fulfillment” theory in its place.

Note: “Desire fulfillment theory” is much like Peter Singer’s “preference satisfaction” theory. However, “preference satisfaction” does not give us precise definitions of what a preference is, what it means for a preference to be satisfied, or tie it in with a viable theory of action. “Desire fulfillment” theory comes with more precise definitions of “desire” (a propositional attitude whereby the agent is motivated to make or keep true the proposition that is the object of the desire), “fulfillment” (a desire is fulfilled by any state S in which the proposition that is the object of the desire is true), and a theory of action (belief + desire -> intention -> intentional action).

Desire fulfillment theory does not deny that one of the things that people desire is “that I am happy”. This desire exists, and it motivates some action. It is also the case that people have an aversion to pain (a desire “that I not be in pain”), a desire for sex (a desire “that I am having sex”), a desire for chocolate (a desire “that I am eating chocolate”) and the like.

In fact, this points to another problem with happiness theory – it is missing something.

Desire fulfillment theory explains intentional action as:


Belief + Desire -> Intention -> Intentional Action

Happiness theory says that the following describes all intentional action:


Belief + Desire that “I am happy” -> Intention -> Intentional Action

Now, take the “Happiness Theory” formula and plug in the assumption that two people have identical beliefs. According to the “Happiness Theory” formula, they would perform identical actions (in identical circumstances). If one would play a game of baseball, then the other would play a game of baseball. If one would watch cooking shows on television, the other would watch television shows on television.

“Beliefs,” according to this formula, is the only entity that has any variation.

Yet, we widely recognize that the sources of happiness also vary from individual to individual. That is what is missing in this formula – a variable for (an explanation for, a theoretical entity to account for) different sources of happiness.

Desire fulfillment theory does not have this problem, because people are as capable of having different desires as they are of having different beliefs. We can have two people with identical beliefs, where one desires “that I am watching a sitcom” and the other desires “that I am writing a philosophy essay.” This directly leads to different intentional actions without introducing a third variable.

For all of these reasons, I argue for rejecting “happiness” theory and putting “desire fulfillment” theory in its place. “Desire fulfillment” theory has far better explanatory and predictive power. (It also has more explanatory power than “preference satisfaction” theory, whose terms are too vague and are not closely tied to any given theory of intentional action.)

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