DiaBlogue Aside: Open Questions on Desire Utilitarianism


Though our DiaBlogue is all but over, Alan was kind enough to point me to this Q&A by Alonzo Fyfe, which addresses some of the concerns I had raised earlier. Since I never followed through on my promise (threat? 🙂 to critique Desire Utilitarianism (DU), I figured I ought to at least summarize my concerns here.

Importantly, this is not an attempt to “prove” that DU is “false.” Far from it; I actually think DU contains many powerful and valid insights. However, I believe the current formulation promulgated by Alonzo Fyfe is incomplete, and in need of substantial improvement. I’ve provided one possible route of improvement myself, but it would be interesting to see if there are others.

[Note: I have written this in the second person as an “open letter” for stylistic reasons; I’m not particularly interested in starting an actual debate with Mr. Fyfe at this time, though I’m not opposed in principle to having such a discussion later.]

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Questions for Alonzo Fyfe

A. “Most and Strongest”

As I understand it, one of your foundational assertions is that:

“Individuals always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires.”

Yet, I consider that statement trivially falsifiable. For example, my pigging out on chocolate cake last week was a single minor desire that trumped my many desires to look good, lose weight, and act responsibly. At best, one could perhaps claim that people always act “to fulfill the most or strongest of their desires.” At worst, it might be true that people simply act in accordance with their “momentarily strongest desire.” How do you justify such a seemingly counterfactual claim?

B. “Praise and criticism”

You seem to explicitly eschew coercive measures from your consideration of ethics since they require “power.” Yet, do not praise and criticism themselves require at least “soft power” (i.e., moral authority) to be effective? If so, might not “hard” and “soft” power in reality be two ends of a continuum, that need to be analyzed as a whole?

C. Inter-community enmity

When asked about slavery, I believe you said a moral individual would not wish to enslave another because encouraging such a desire towards might backfire towards the enslavement of that selfsame individual. But, what if the other person was being enslaved due to an attribute that the individual in question did not possess (e.g., dark skin)? [After all, that is pretty much exactly what the white Virginians did to the minority black slaves several hundred years ago.] Does DU provide any basis for considering such slavery wrong, even though it successfully fulfilled the “most and greatest” desires of the dominant white majority for several generations?

D. Shaping desires

DU appears to implicitly assume that it is possible to shape the desires of others. However, it also seems to implicitly assume that it is impossible for us to shape our own desires. Is that true? If so, how do you justify that distinction? If not, then what moral obligation (if any) do we have for how we shape our own desires?

E. Knowing desires

You make a compelling case that it is sometimes possible to know desires to a high degree of accuracy. Do you in fact assert that we have (or at least can have) sufficient knowledge of desires (either our own or others) to accurately make moral judgments? More precisely, under what circumstances can we be confident we have sufficient information? And what is our moral obligation when we lack such information?

F. Non-physical reality

You appear to assert that desires are “ontologically real” because they can usefully predict behavior, even though they are not directly observable. By that same token, could one similarly assert that “spiritual experiences” (e.g., conversion, conviction, etc.) are also real, since they can also provide useful guides to behavior? Why or why not?

G. Cultural relativism

I believe you assert that our desires (and thus morality) are a product of our upbringing and social institutions, and are thus merely constrained — not determined — by genetics. If that’s the case, is it ever meaningful to speak of making moral judgments between societies? Or does morality only exist within the context of shared institutions?

H. Scope of desires

More generally, what exactly is the scope of the network of desires I “ought” to optimize? From your definitions, it would seem that the practical scope is either i) “those individuals who might have the power to aid or thwart the fulfillment of my own desires,” or ii) “those individuals whom I have affection for, and thus intrinsically desire their fulfillment.” Is that correct, or am I missing something?

I. Counter-cultural choices

What if I live in a society which places social censure on behavior I consider morally good, say 1950’s America which forbade inter-racial marriage? In that context, is the “moral” action to act in accord with societal judgement? Why or why not?

Again, these are not so much meant to negate DU as to point out that (as currently formulated, as far as I can see) it fails to address a great many important questions that are successfully addressed by other ethical theories (though to be fair, DU solves problems that those other theories don’t).

My larger question, Mr. Fyfe, is whether you see the relevance of these questions. Would you at least agree that DU needs at least a little more work before it can be used to make definitive moral judgments? If not, then why not?

Ernest N. Prabhakar, Ph.D.

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