The website utilitarian.org presents itself as an internet based organisation and provides a range of essays and other materials on utilitarianism. In fact it it the work mostly of Nigel Phillips and could easily, in my opinion, have been developed as a personal blog. However I still commend Phillips for making such an effort to promote these ideas in this way. Nonetheless, it is important to note that this does mean that many of the articles reflect Phillips' particular take on utilitarianism rather than reflect a balanced view of contemporary utilitarianism.
I wish to review his critique of desire-fulfilment which also reflects his happiness-based act utilitarianism bias, hence it is quite critical of the concept. I like this as it gives me the opportunity to look at some possibly or at least popular criticisms of the desire-based reason models which is generally regarded - within moral philosophy - as the most likely natural basis for ethics (whether one is a utilitarian or not).
Phillips presents his critique in On what makes someone's life go better. He starts:
A great many people have rejected hedonistic utilitarianism on the grounds that it is mistaken about the source of intrinsic value. Commonly, it is not happiness which is valuable, they will say, but the fulfilment of desires - that hedonism is plausible only to the extent that we desire happiness.
I agree with a very strong proviso that there is no such thing as intrinsic value. That is not only is happiness not of intrinsic value, neither is the fulfilment of desire, (let alone desires themselves). Nothing has intrinsic value, because no-one has been able to show how intrinsic value could work empirically and all we are left with is internal (epistemically subjective) decisions over what to assign intrinsic value to, that is there is no external (epistemically objective) basis to show the superiority of one assignment over another - because there are no such things over which to determine such assignment.
John Stuart Mill's argument, that happiness is the only thing desired as an end, is interesting, however it is quite plain that many other things are desired in some way and I do not believe that the utilitarian position depends on the assumption that anything else is desired only as a means.
We agree on this however Phillips still assumes too much and applies an unjustified restriction over the type of objections that could be made against hedonism. For example Phillips grants that something can be intrinsically valuable but argues that positing it as a single ultimate end - "happiness is the only thing intrinsically valuable because it is the only thing desired as an end" - is insufficient to establish this intrinsic value, yet still argues for happiness as the intrinsic value "hedonism can stand without this belief". However he seems to think that a refutation of hedonism requires someone to provide another ultimate end alternative - "And let he who would say otherwise try to prove that what is ultimately desired is therefore necessarily and exclusively good" yet we both agree on the futility of such an argument. What he misses is that the lack of such an argument does nothing to establish any form of intrinsic value, let alone of happiness.
In addition he seems think any such argument would fail unless one could answer Mill's error of "assuming that what is desired ought be desired", the desirability of desire challenge that Mills failed to answer. Well this challenge can be answered but not in the form of justifying desires or desire fulfilment as the ultimate end. Both the process and the product of such an argument are not in support of an intrinsic value to compete with happiness, since there are no intrinsic values.
All that is required to establish the desirability of desire is to examine such a desires as a means with respect to whatever other desires, as states of affairs, that are affected by that desire's fulfilment. In the case of an individual agent, once could call it "prudential" interest, where the scope is restricted to all and only the other desires of the agent. In the case of some form of "moral" interest (i.e. of everyone), the scope is unrestricted and so includes the desires of everyone. However none of this is an argument for or over ultimate ends nor intrinsic value nor should this be demanded by any critic, such a demand is misplaced and unjustified.
After making some obvious distinctions, obvious from both our perspectives, he then claims that:
For these [obvious] reasons, it is easy to confuse happiness and desire, or to associate the clear experiential value of happiness with the desire (or even the object of the desire) rather than with the experience of happiness itself.
This is looking confused. First he has switched from intrinsic value to "experiential" value. Second he has left happiness as something obvious but it is so vague and broad it could mean whatever anyone wants it to mean - experientially - but what does this mean empirically, this is left unstated but clarified later. Finally how does one properly associate the "clear experiential value of happiness...with the experience of happiness itself", what does this mean? If the experience of happiness is not itself the intrinsic value then where does this value come from or how it is assigned (intrinsically or experientially)? Is it in addition to the experience or it it just the experience? This is all unclear and unfortunately nothing that follows clarifies this.
He then provides an number of anecdotal examples mean to refute the value of desire-fulfilment. The fact that they are anecdotal is not an issue as the examples are more than plausible and any desire theorist would accept that they occur. However the fact that these occur says nothing about refuting a desire-based model and Phillips makes no case but just assumes that they do.
Some fulfilled desires are discovered not to be "worthwhile", where Phillips leaves "worthwhile" undefined unless one reads " [t]hese cases of worthless desire-fulfilment, it will be found, coincide completely with those cases of desire-fulfilment that cause no happiness." This could be read as a definition of "worthless" but this looks like question-begging and might be an uncharitable interpretation of Phillips but I can read nothing more charitable from his argument.
It is surely unproblematic to note that some desires upon fulfilment do not provide the inner feeling that accompanies such fulfilment , let us call it here "satisfaction" (whether this is always "happiness" we can leave open). Similarly, of course when a desire is thwarted there may not be that inner feeling of frustration or dis-satisfaction (or "unhappiness ") either. To note this is merely to acknowledge any empirical and naturalistic desire theorist's argument that happiness/unhappiness or satisfaction/frustration are not co-extensive with fulfilment/thwarting, that inner psychological experiences are not co-extensive with external material effects. How is this meant to be any form of argument against a desire-based theory, since such theories are built on making such distinctions in the first place?
None of the further items that are meant not to harm his case (thereby tacitly supporting it), do no harm a desire theorists case either. It is quite unclear what Phillips is aiming to establish but this could be due to Phillips not being explicit about what desire fulfilment theory he is actually addressing. If it is some form of intrinsic value preferentialism or some object list theory that includes preferences on that is one thing, but why then talk about desire fulfilment which generally and specifically do not argue for intrinsic values at all but explicitly reject this whether by Mackie, Griffin or Railton for example (or Fyfe technically outside the orthodox literature but in my view provides the clearest statements of this approach).
In a desire-fulfilment model the states of affairs that are the targets of the desires are valued, Phillips understands that but fails to note it is the means to brings these about that are valuable and so he miss -addresses some of his criticisms. For example noting that neither what is valued nor what is valuable are intrinsically so, the fact that some desire may never be fulfilled does not mean it is automatically thwarted, we can purse desires that we expect neither extrinsic relation to pertain in our lifetime and still find such a pursuit valuable.
He complains about the lack of a (subjective) knowledge condition with desire-based theories -"That desire-fulfilment lacks a "pay-off"" - the fulfilment may not be noticed nor known and adds "or has no effect whatsoever". This is incorrect, it by definition does have an affect, when a desire if fulfilled a certain state of affairs has, for whatever reason or through whatever mean, occurred, yes in some circumstances desire for which this states of affairs fulfils may not be known to the originator of the desire, but it is an unreasonable and unjustifiable demand that all and any such desires when fulfilled must be known to be so by the desire owner.
Of course we usually and reasonably expect this to be so in a wide variety of real-life cases, but no-one usually goes about thinking "I must not desire this because I might not know whether it is fulfilled or not". Indeed, as already noted one can have desires that one does not expect to be fulfilled in ones lifetime and still find them valuable. Similarly one desires something for someone one might never reasonably expect to meet again and still find that valuable. The latter issue, when brought up by critics, reflects a confusion between acts and desires. In desire-based approaches it is not the single act that counts, it is the acts that are most likely to occur as a result of having or a lacking a desire. So yes, one could always create periphery, borderline or rare cases where this does happen - that a purported knowledge condition is not met. Phillips brings up the father-son example by Parfit where:
the son doesn't know of the desire, the father doesn't know of its fulfilment) and it therefore makes absolutely no difference to either of them. How then can this world necessarily be a (prima facie) better one than one in which the father's desire is unfulfilled?
This reflects the tacit subjectivism behind Phillips thinking. If consequentialism, upon which we both presumably agree is about the promotion of value, well the former world has one more valuable state of affairs in it than the later and so it is prima facie a better one.
Phillips further reflects his misunderstanding confusion between his subjectivism and the "objectivity" of intrinsic value, in an admittedly parenthesized paragraph when he asks about the existence of desire itself as possibly being intrinsically valuable. Not an argument made by typical desire-based theorists as Phillips acknowledges but it does reflect the weakness of his position to think of include in this way such a poor criticism however delimited in his essay. The reason for its inclusion becomes immediately apparent in what follows, as he needed to eliminate an objection to his own approach - the wire-head argument- and so tries to put on desire theorists shoulders, "the drugs as a path to happiness" argument.
Lets grant Phillips attempt not bring in the comparison between drugs and wire-heading, as wire-heading as the first positive argument for hedonism in this essay does not work anyway.
Experiments with wireheading have refuted several other arguments presented by the desire-fulfilment brigade: they have sometimes maintained, of the relationship between desire and happiness, that it is not that only happiness is desired, but rather that it is only the fulfilment of desires which causes happiness.
This displays a fundamental misunderstanding of desire theorists criticism that the desire for happiness is not the only desire. It is granted that a desire for happiness (as means or end) is certainly a quite common motivating reason but as has been noted above desire theorist do not argue that the fulfilment of desires causes happiness, indeed the desire-based arguments are predicated on these not being co-extensive.
This has been shown quite false by the (repeatable) causation of happiness by direct electric stimulation of the brain via implanted electrodes - it being absurd to suggest that these subjects must've either desired the direct electric stimulation of their brains or else that they weren't truly happy.
Now we are beginning to see that Phillips attempt to dump, straw man like fashion, drugs and pushers onto a desire based account fail. Well is Phillips suggesting that happiness is not a motivating reason or end? That one can get happiness for nothing, that one can short-circuit all real world actions and plug into a machine and be happy and forget everything else. Is this the omega point of hedonism and humanity? We can grant that this is not the same as some spiritual traditions offer and for sure some succeed in achieving - meditation practices leading to bliss and nirvana, (let alone the drug user achieving their high). So what? If there is no motivating reason or desire for happiness, this data is irrelevant to any argument presented by desire-based theories. Or we can not allow Phillips parenthesized attempt to avoid the conclusion that such wire-heading can be desired in and of itself but then there is no substantive difference between that and drug highs (all things being equal with respect to harm).
Another common criticism has also been shown unfounded: it has often been alleged that different types of happiness (such as that caused by good music compared to that caused by good sex) have no common element - but measurements have shown that happiness is always present when there is a certain type of electrical activity in certain areas of the brain, and further that there is never happiness without this type of activity, so there quite clearly is some common element.
Here Phillips is attempting to make some objective grounding beyond his subjective argument - as all intrinsic value arguments are. If we grant Phillips thesis here, that there is means to empirically measure (at least in theory) happiness, is this is what to be maximised? The choice to value this is still subjective and this does not alter in the slightest any of Smart's, Nozick's or Fyfe's experience machine criticisms. People can a value things other than their own happiness and sacrifice these own happiness for others. So such objective evidence is quite irrelevant, it makes no difference at all to such criticisms of hedonism as such criticisms are not predicated on the existence or lack of any such objective feature of reality.
It should be no surprise that Phillips conclusion does not follow. Since no desire-theorist denies that many people most of the time can be construed as having both a desire for happiness and and an aversion to suffering, just that these are not only such desires and aversions as ends, they are not led to deny such conclusions as:
And there is a symmetry those who are happy love life, which is to say that they desire that their life-experiences continue, in a way that the unhappy do not.
All in all, Phillips has presented some misrepresentations of desire theory, which, with all due respect, however popular, I would argue are straw men arguments and fails to provide any positive empirical objective support for happiness as an intrinsic value, his position remains as a subjective preference.