Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Letter to Thomas Reid III: On Desirism

This is a response to Thomas Reid's third letter (well it was his third post on this topic, note he named it letter 2), that was in turn responding to my second letter.

There are three points that Reid is not yet getting in understanding desirism.
  1. Desire fulfilment is not a utility that can be maximised, desirism rejects the concept of a maximisable utility. It accepts and ...ahem.. utilises Mackie's Argument from the Indeterminacy of Utility.
  2. The evaluation focus is on desires not acts. Acts are understood in relation to desires. Desires are persistent, triggered over a variety of circumstances. To evaluate a desire one looks at the range of circumstances where it can occur, any specific act and distribution of desires being only one particular circumstance. The simplest and most effective means to do this is to look at desire qua desire with respect to its effect on other desires, regardless and independent of the particular distribution of desires in any specific situation.
  3. One can usually evaluate desires qua desires without needing to know the content of the desires, all one needs to know what the effect its conditions of fulfilment will have on other desires (the agent's as well as everyone else's). This frees one from bias, prejudgement and subjectivity going in to the analysis in order to lead to a posteriori judgements of the desires under question.
Now addressing his three challenges.

1. The theory is internally contradictory; it is possible for a desire to be both good and bad
A)Reid complains that I think that his mutually thwarting desire scenario is always solved by trade but I have never said that!! I gave a trade example in my first response, explicitly noting thatv this did not always apply, and, when challenged on this, provided a non-trade sporting example in my second response. Reid has failed to acknowledge this and quite misrepresented my position as a result.

B)Reid complains that I did not respond to his burning house down example which did not make any sense when he mentioned it in his second letter. He has now, barely, expanded it to "I provided the example of two people burning each other's house down (ceteris paribus), acts which seem to very clearly carry a moral component." No example was actually provided all he said previously was "like burning each other's house down (ceteris paribus!)." in his second letter and nothing in his first. So now Reid is misrepresenting his own position as he has not actually provided an example of burning houses down as an instance of the desire interaction scenario Reid is using in this challenge

Not actually knowing what is his example is I note the following issues.

This does not seem relevant to the desire interaction scenario that Reid was using to criticise desirism in this challenge. It appears that Reid has performed a (typical) retreat to extremes to try keep this objection alive. There are two big problems with this.

By doing so Reid has introduced a specific desire that needs to be evaluated in its own right. Is the desire to burn a house down as a resolution to an (some unstated) issue, the desire that a good person would have? No. So if both Albert and Barry are both considering burning each other's house down they are both planning to act immorally. In that sense this is a question of morality but this is not due to the desire interaction scenario that Reid was using as a basis of this objection.

Second, in this extension of Reid's it is, of course, quite possible that both houses are burnt down which is a quite different desire scenario from the one originally presented where the outcomes were mutually exclusive. This is why it did not make sense and did not warrant a response in my previous letter.

So Reid has failed to make a sound and valid case for this first objection and I hope that Reid does not persist to misrepresent his and my position on this matter.

2. The theory cannot be used to condemn those who do not abide by the theory.

Reid claims that I 'cannot reason towards an obligation to do what desirism labels "good". Indeed, faithlessgod has not attempted to do this. Rather, he states that desirism employs social forces to create an obligation.' I have given ample reason to show how to rationally evaluate desires, clearly Reid knows this otherwise we would have nothing to debate. What he is trying to say is that such evaluations of good and bad do not obligate anyone. Of course they do not, since at this point such an analysis is purely descriptive. We need to turn to the prescriptive representation to see how people can respond to these evaluations as commendatory and condemnatory, as action-guiding. Desirism provides such analysis in the parts that Reid failed to quote from my previous letter.

Reid follows with " If the desirist claims that only social forces are what obligate us to do anything, then it must follow that we are obligated to develop those bad, ie thwarting, desires. " I do not make this claim and it does not follow. I describe how the social forces mould our desires and show what emprical grounds there can be to justify any moral claims, and showed this can be used as a critique of (and to identify) flawed institutions of morality.

In particular I have specifically addressed the objection here, as to how people who do not subscribe or are unaware of this theory can still behave according to it. A far as I can see, Reid has not made any argument against that point, so this objection remains unsubstantiated.

3. Given the inputs to decision-making, it is possible for DU to define any act as "good".

Here Reid persists in criticising a desire fulfilment act utilitarianism (DFAU) as if it is desirism, when it is not.
1. Good desires are those that overall tend to fulfill more than thwart all other desires.
2. The desire to exterminate the Jews overall tends to fulfill more than thwart all other desires.
3. The desire to exterminate the Jews is a good desire.
If this is a syllogism then 1 is the major premiss and 2 is the minor premiss and 3 is the conclusion. 2 is an unsound premiss and so the conclusion does not follow.

The desire to exterminate the Jews overall (dramatically so) tends to thwart more desire than it fulfils - noting my points 1,2 and 3 in the introduction. Only by smuggling in what is rejected by desirism (that is ignoring my aforementioned three points), through applying some sort of aggregative, additive or majoritarian principle, which can only work if there is some utility to aggregate and that there is some specific distribution of desires cover which such an aggregation be performed, can this conclusion (not a premiss now) be derived from 1. But this already noted is not desirism but DFAU. It makes no sense to present a criticism of DFAU, with which desirism agrees, as an argument against desirism.

Until and unless Reid addresses a desirist analysis of this scenario and produced a criticism of that, there is nothing further that needs to be said, suffice Reid's conclusion in this objection fails again.


Thomas Reid said...

Thank you for the exchange. I'll let your letter be the last word.

faithlessgod said...


This is not me trying to have the last word, but thanks for the exchange too.

You given me seeds for another post, not addressed to you, that I will post when I have time it will be called "Boxing Desires" (and no, this is not about the desire for boxing!).