A Better Place Essays On Desire Utilitarianism

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For today’s episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, I interview Alonzo Fyfe, who completely changed the way I think about morality with this very interview. We discuss:

  • morality without gods
  • the failure of atheistic ethics
  • moral values that really exist
  • how to tell if something is right or wrong

I also answer another listener question: “As an atheist, have you ever felt really grateful about your life, but then, not had anyone to thank? Isn’t that kind of depressing?”

Download CPBD episode 003 with Alonzo Fyfe. Total time is 54:28.

Links related to the interview:

Let me know what you think about the interview, and submit your own questions for me to answer on the show!

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I have received a communication with a set of four questions about my basic moral view. Since this is the start of a new year, and since I suspect that there is some turnover in my readership, I think that this is a good time to explain the moral foundation of this blog in the light of these questions.

I am considering what someone in reference to you called Objective Moral Relativism. After doing some research, I found out you have a book where you use the term Desire Utilitarianism, and maybe it's the same thing. Is that still the ethical position you hold?

(1) Yes, I still hold that Objective Moral Relativism is true. I also hold that Desire Utilitarianism is true.

(2) Desire utilitarianism and Objective Moral Relativism are not the same thing. However, they do not conflict with each other either – which is how both can be true.

So, let me explain. I will start with desire utilitarianism

Utilitarian theories hold that moral values are tied up with the 'utility' of the object of evaluation. One alternative is morally better than another in virtue of the fact it creates the most utility.

We have two different ways that we can distinguish among different utilitarian theory.

One method is by distinguishing between that which is to be maximized – that which counts as 'utility'. In this schema we have utilitarian theories that say we should maximize pleasure and minimize pain, theories that say we should maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness, theories that say we should maximize preference satisfaction, and so forth.

The other method is by distinguishing between primary objects of evaluation. Act utilitarianism says that the primary object of moral evaluation is the act (the right act is the act that maximizes utility). Rule utilitarianism says that the primary object of moral evaluation is the rule (the best rule set is the set that maximizes utility), and that the right action is the action recommended by the best rules.

Desire utilitarianism is a utilitarian theory in the second sense. It holds that desires (or, more specifically, desires that can be molded through social forces such as praise and condemnation) are the primary objects of moral evaluation. The best desires are those that tend to maximize utility in the sense that they tend to lead to the fulfillment of other desires. The right action is the action that a person with good desires would perform.

So, what is it that we should maximize? What counts as "utility" in a desire utilitarianism framework?

On this metric, desire utilitarianism is a pluralistic theory. There is no single thing that all people should maximize. Instead, each desire identifies a state of affairs that the agent has a reason to bring about. If the agent desires pleasure, then he has reason to bring about pleasure. If he desires happiness, he has reason to bring about happiness. If he desires the welfare of his children, then he has reason to bring about the welfare of his children.

I speak about desire fulfillment in this theory. However, desire fulfillment is not a thing to be maximized. Desire fulfillment is simply a term that I use to refer to a state in which an agent has a desire that P (for some proposition P), and P is true.

Different desires have different strengths. We can use the strengths of different desires to choose among different options available. So, a person who has an aversion to pain and a desire that his children are healthy and happy can weigh the value (to him) of a state in which he is free of pain from a state in which his children are healthy and happy, and to act according to the strongest of the two desires. Yet, it is not "desire fulfillment" that has value for this agent. It is "freedom of pain" that has value, or "my children are healthy and happy" that has value.

The biggest mistake people make when they encounter the term "desire utilitarianism" is that they assume that it is an act-utilitarian theory that calls for maximizing desire fulfillment – the way that other utilitarian theories call for maximizing pleasure, happiness, or preference satisfaction. term refers to a theory that I call desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism. They then bring the standard objections to act-utilitarian theory to bear against this theory.

Yet, desire utilitarianism does not say, "Perform that act that maximizes utility.” It says, "Perform that act that a person with good desires would perform," along with, "Promote those desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires."

This is the difference between an act-utilitarian theory, and a desire-utilitarian theory.


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