Desire Satisfactionism and the Problem of Irrelevant Desires

By Lukas, Mark | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Desire Satisfactionism and the Problem of Irrelevant Desires


Lukas, Mark, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


DESIRE SATISFACTIONISM ABOUT WELFARE comes in two main varieties: unrestricted and restricted. (1) Both varieties entail that a person's well-being is determined entirely by the satisfactions and frustrations of his desires. But while the restricted theories count only some of a person's desires as relevant to his well-being--perhaps just the fully informed desires or those that would survive cognitive psychotherapy--the unrestricted theory counts all of his desires as relevant. On this theory, it does not matter what a person wants or why he wants it; so long as he gets what he wants, his life goes well. Because the unrestricted theory counts all desires as relevant, it is vulnerable to a wide variety of counterexamples involving desires that seem obviously irrelevant. Derek Parfit offers a wellknown example:

   Suppose I meet a stranger who has what is believed to be a fatal
   disease. My sympathy is aroused, and I strongly want this stranger
   to be cured. We never meet again. Later, unknown to me, this
   stranger is cured. On the Unrestricted Desire ... Theory, this event
   is good for me, and makes my life go better. This is not plausible.
   We should reject this theory. (2)

Similar examples have been offered by Thomas Scanlon, James Griffin, Shelly Kagan and others. (3) These examples all feature desires whose objects seem well beyond the bounds of what most people take to be relevant to welfare. Consider a few of my own desires, borrowed from the literature: I am a nice guy and so I want people in the 29th century to flourish. I am a fan of prime numbers and so I want the total number of atoms in the universe to be prime. I am interested in cosmic affairs and so I have a desire about the chemical composition of some distant star. I am a weirdo and so I want it to be the case that Napoleon's favorite color was blue. Are any of these desires relevant to my well-being? Would their satisfaction be good for me? Unrestricted desire satisfactionism entails that it would be good for me if they were satisfied. But obviously it would not be; that is absurd. Or so say the objectors. This is the Irrelevant-Desires Problem.

In what follows, I defend a simple unrestricted form of desire satisfactionism from the Irrelevant-Desires Problem. I begin by sketching the theory and outlining some of its more attractive features. I then formulate the Irrelevant-Desires Problem and reject a few rationales for its key premise. Then I consider and reject a few flawed responses to the Irrelevant-Desires Problem. Lastly, I offer an obvious but widely overlooked response to the problem: I bite the bullet. My overall goal is modest; I want to dissuade those sympathetic to a desire-based approach to welfare from rejecting unrestricted desire satisfactionism simply because of the Irrelevant-Desires Problem.

1. Formulating a Simple Unrestricted Desire Satisfactionism

The theory I aim to defend, Simple Unrestricted Desire Satisfactionism (SUDS), is a theory about what makes a life intrinsically good for the person who lives it. (4) It is not about what makes a person's life good in some other way. So it is not a theory about what makes a person's life instrumentally good or morally good or aesthetically good or intrinsically good simpliciter. It is consistent with SUDS, then, that a person could live a life that is intrinsically very good for him and yet a complete disaster for the world. Such a person might, for instance, enjoy a very high level of well-being owing to the fact that he has successfully managed to enslave everyone on earth for the sole purpose of enhancing his own welfare. His life might be harmful to others, full of morally reprehensible behavior, ugly, and it might diminish the intrinsic value of the world in which it occurs; but it might nevertheless be a very good life for him.

The basic idea behind SUDS is that well-being consists in achieving an optimal overall match between the way things are and the way we want them to be, whatever we may happen to want. …

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