Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Why consider all desires that exist?


In the ethical framework I support called desirism is the requirement that one considers “all desires that exist”. Now Kip, who has commented on this blog and other blogs that advocate desirism and is largely also an advocate of desirism, and is well able to identify and argue against the all too common poor, unsound and invalid objections against desirism, still has an issue over this requirement. In his own words:

You know I am very fond of Desirism... but can't help thinking that the idea that we should consider "all desires that exist" into the moral calculus is just plain wrong.  I mean, you can do that, but then you aren't talking about the same system of morality that I think the theory was trying to capture -- the system that is being used by people.

Desirism states:  a practical-ought is relative to "the desires in question"; a moral-ought is relative to "all the desires that exist".  Why "all the desires that exist", and not just a subset of them?

My objection is that this claim is just an assertion -- that there is no reason or evidence to support it.

There are no moral laws of the universe that tell us to consider all desires that exist. That is just Alonzo's assertion.

Well is it just Alonzo’s assertion and if not, why not?

Kip provides a number of related objections in making his argument.  I have labelled these:

  • The Multiverse Objection
  • The Omniscience Objection
  • The Universal Objection
  • The Influencing Objection

The Multiverse Objection

[in] saying that when people say "you should not rape", that the desires in question for this statement include every desire that exists in the entire multi/universe.

In the two recent Doctor Who Series finales, the enemies of the Doctor were trying to destroy not just this universe but all universes – the multiverse – with the means to survive such destruction! How they how they could have destroyed the multiverse, let alone survived such destruction, is a question for science fiction. Here such desires can surely be seen as the ultimate desire-thwarting desires, can anyone imagine any desire more desire-thwarting than the destruction of the multiverse?

Now in such a science fiction scenario, the desire-desire cause-effect relations are such that the desire to destroy the multiverse is a causal desire and all desires that exist in the multiverse are necessarily affected. However, luckily, we do not as far as we know live in such a multiverse. As far as we know  the maximum causal scope of a desire is the world we live on now and no farther.  Whilst that might change in the far future the underlying principles would not, namely what are the cause-effect relations.

I do not know if Kip intended this as a reductio ad absurdum over  what “all desires that exist” means but, regardless, once one recognises that out of “all desires that exist” it is only the ones that are affected that are an issue, then surely this multiverse objection fails.   

I could dwell on global desire-thwarting issues such as Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) but that would be diversionary to the theme of this post. Still it is relevant to note two points on this.

The first is that AGW and other global issues illustrate, whether one agrees with their arguments or not, that there can be a global scope to the effect of certain desires. At this stage in our evolution the scope is only global, not stellar, let alone galactic, universal (in the cosmological sense) or multiversal.

The second is that many of the disputes over  AGW and so on, revolve over what is knowable now, certainly compared to the past and this leads to Kip’s next objection:

The Omniscience Objection

And, couldn't be the case as people are not omniscient.  At the most, people would mean "considering all the desires that we are aware of". 

With regard to Kip’s issue over omniscience not only does desirism not demand it but it already incorporates this cognitive limitation.

It provides substance to the reasonable person test in the establishment of Mens Rea “Guilty Mind” in criminal and civil judgements. If an actor caused a prima facie legal wrong they can be excused if it can be shown that no reasonable person could have done better in that situation, that is they were not acting in a negligent, reckless or knowing manner.  

Consider Asbestos. When it was developed it was regarded as having positive economic-value and use-value due to providing energy saving insulation. It was also regarded as having zero or neutral health-value. 

At some stage it was discovered – by one of the few great successes of epidemiology as it happens – that it has negative health-value (other means could have established this but it happened this way).

From that stage forward to promote the economic usefulness of asbestos by disregarding, ignoring, denying  or otherwise avoiding the negative health-value of asbestos made one morally and (eventually) legally culpable. One could only proceed to do so by being negligent, reckless or ignoring what was foreseeable.

Still prior to this, no-one could be held responsible, one could not demand an impossible omniscience. 

Partly as a result of story of Asbestos (and Thalidomide and so on) there is much issue made over trying to determine the currently unknown and maybe non-existent dangers of new technologies such as genetically modified foods and so on. Whatever the specifics over such controversies (and if they really are controversies) it is still the case that if one has made best efforts to ensure the safety and health issues, one could not be held responsible for not being omniscient.

Many new facts and discoveries emerge that can require revision of the health and other values of existing technologies (revised both positively as well as negatively) but desirism employs these same provisional principles, the ones that are shared by the best means to knowledge such as science. All ethical knowledge can ever be is provisional, the only challenge to seek the best provisional conclusion available, rather than lower such standards to permit less than best conclusions to be allowed.

The Influencing Objection

I actually think people mean "considering all the desires that we include in our "moral sphere", those that are capable of influencing us"

How does this connect to the cause-effect relations that desires have upon other desires?

If Group A discriminates (or worse) against Group B and Group B has no power to influence group A, it is still the case that Group B is affected by Group A. Further Group B has no ability to affect Group A – whether due to natural or social constraints and limitations - that it is why it has no influence over Group A. 

It seems that much of the history of moral progress is over this distinction between influence and affect and the institutionalised imbalance of the ability to affect one other. Whether this was and is apartheid both past (South Africa) and present (Sharia Law states) or slavery or misogynistic societies (ahem…Sharia law states again and so on) and so on, these can all be characterised this way.  This leads to the final version of Kip’s argument:

The Universal Objection

I guess it's that "universal" word that I'm now disagreeing with.  That doesn't reflect the actual usage of our moral institutions and practices, and it doesn't even make prudential sense to try to make it that way -- it's impossible.

I think a group of moral agents should (prudential reason for action) only consider the desires that are able to influence their desires (either through moral tools or force).  The agents using the social tools should (prudentially) consider any and all desires that need to be harmonized.  They should not (prudentially) consider desires that do not need to be harmonized, and they could not consider all desires that existed even if they wanted to (since they are not omniscient).

Further, if ought implies can, then it would be wrong to say that they moral-should consider all desires that exist, since they cannot do that.

If there is no multiversal scope or omniscient requirement it is not impossible.

Still the question to ask is why should Group A care about Group B? However just asking the questions presupposes the consideration of all desire that exist – the ones that can be reasonably be determined to be affected. Whatever answer a representative of Group A gives such as:-

  • we do not consider their desires
  • we do not need to consider their desires
  • their desires cannot influence us, so we do not need to concern ourselves of those desires
  • that is the way we always do (did) it
  • we are stronger and can get a way with it
  • we are more and can get away with it
  • we have the law on our side
  • we have God on our side
  • their desires are not worthy of moral consideration

and many other possible defences all presuppose that, in this case, the question over “all desires that exist” means the desires of Group B. This presupposition is both intelligible and feasible and neither impossible nor beyond cognitive capacities.

In asking the question to Group A “why do you ignore the desire of Group B?” one is seeking a rational and empirical justification, the above does not assume that none is possible. Indeed the above does shows that there can be one such justification, based on the fact that we are not omniscient but this only applies where there is new knowledge that a reasonable (or good) person could not now ignore. The many answers bulleted above all fail as rational and empirical justifications for Group A’s practises.

Desire that exist

There is another meaning over the term “all desires that exist” - the whole basis of asking such questions of Group A (and Group B as well for that matter) is that it is not over the desires they (internally) do have but over the desires that they could have – desire that exist. This is externalism, the institution of morality being the way to internalise such external desires.

Evaluating Moral Institutions

The last bulleted pseudo-justification is particularly telling as many claim morality on their side to “justify” their desires and actions. This too, is to be expected within a desirist analysis. It makes no difference whether they defend their position using “morality” and moral-speak or not, it is still a fact that their practices are desire-thwarting.

Like science that can recursively apply its own standards to the the methods by which it achieves provisional scientific knowledge, any such institution (of morality) can themselves be evaluated for how effective they are, in the Group A/Group B scenarios they are not.


I hope this addresses Kip’s concerns who I have otherwise found to be an able exponent of desirism. I regard the fact that Kip still asks such questions is a positive sign as I would never want anyone to accept such arguments without robust challenges. This and any other successful ethical theory should be well able to handle such objections and at least Kip presents decent challenges to desirism, still ones that desirism can refute.

In short that is no demand for omniscience and such cognitive limitations are incorporated into any desirist analysis of any situation.  To ask the question about what desires to consider is to presuppose all desires that could exist in order to find the desires that are actually affected and that anyone reasonably asking that question could know about. There is no reason to suppose today that there are any such affected desires that reach beyond this planet. Any defence is open to a critical evaluation which again presupposes in an intelligible and reasonable fashion what are the relevant desires. A “moral defence” and other defences that excludes - prior to argument - certain desires from consideration, is an illegitimate defence since if one wishes to argue for the exclusion of some desire that has be done in the argument and not before.

Neither Alonzo, myself nor anyone else is making an arbitrary or subjective assertion to consider all desires that exist, it is inherent in the objective approach of this framework that these are all to be considered unless and until some reasonable rational and empirical argument can show otherwise.


I have provided three replies to Kip’s questions in the comments here. These are:

  1. Why Consider Others When You Don’t Need To
  • All Desires Versus Affected Desires
  • Rational And Irrational Justifications
  • In addition, Alonzo Fyfe has replied again to Kip’s issues on CommonsenseAtheism blog in the post All Desires that Exist.

    This also addresses some points raised in posts 1 and 2 above. Both Alonzo’s reply and mine are quite consistent, although I realize now that it is still possible to misread some of my analysis in the way that Alonzo argues against. So it is useful to read my posts in conjunction with Alonzo’s, to avoid any such misreading.

    In short, the reason one analyses all desires that exist, and so finding and not omitting all the affected desires, is so that one can identify and predict those who have reasons to promote or inhibit the desire under evaluation. It would be misreading this analysis to think that there is any overall ethical principal or commandment such as “Thou Shalt consider all desires” in addition to such requirements.


    Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the response. Let's take a look back at my initial question/objection:

    Kip> Desirism states: a practical-ought is relative to "the desires in question"; a moral-ought is relative to "all the desires that exist". Why "all the desires that exist", and not just a subset of them?

    Your answer, in part, states that it is just a subset of the desires that exist to which a moral-ought is relative:

    faithlessgod> ...out of “all desires that exist” it is only the ones that are affected that are an issue...
    faithlessgod> In short that is no demand for omniscience and such cognitive limitations are incorporated into any desirist analysis of any situation.

    So, a "moral-ought" is relative to desires that a) are affected, and b) can be reasonably known given the limits of human faculties.

    Clearly, then, this is not "all desires that exist". A moral-ought is relative to a subset of all desires that (possibly) exist given your qualifications above. I think this is fine, though. I think the theory still stands. But this "all desires that exist" terminology needs to be clarified to include the qualifications you've pointed out here.

    Now, let's move on to the other side of my objection:

    Kip> I think a group of moral agents should (prudential reason for action) only consider the desires that are able to influence their desires (either through moral tools or force). The agents using the social tools should (prudentially) consider any and all desires that need to be harmonized. They should not (prudentially) consider desires that do not need to be harmonized...

    Apart from your list of reasons why a group might not consider the desires of another group, you just assert:

    faithlessgod> The many answers bulleted above all fail as rational and empirical justifications for Group A’s practises.

    Group A may have very many prudential reasons for ignoring the desires of Group B -- or perhaps they just don't have any prudential reasons to consider the desires of Group B. In other words, none of their desires will be fulfilled by considering the desires of Group B. Or, perhaps even, more of their desires will be thwarted by considering the desires of Group B.

    So, without begging the question, why should Group A consider the desires of Group B, if 1) more of their desires will be fulfilled by not considering them, and 2) Group B has no way of influencing the desires of Group A (though force or social tools).

    faithlessgod said...

    Just in case you have not noticed I have addressed your questions in the comments here in three new separate posts, two of which have, so far, been published