I see on Alonzo Fyfe’s blog that someone has recently challenged the idea that desirism is a normative philosophy. Fellow blogger and frequent commenter John Myste has leveled the same accusation here; he prefers to call desirism a “life plan” or “life strategy.” I wish to address this matter.
In order to determine whether or not some desire is morally relevant, we must have some standard. ”I believe it to be so” and “I feel that it is so” are unsatisfactory standards; they offer no reason for others to agree. Their success as arguments correlates with the extent to which others already accept their conclusions. Thus, when someone says that murder is wrong, most people do not ask why. In contrast, when someone says that eating meat is wrong, people expect to hear some kind of justification. The aversions to murder and death are familiar, but the aversion to eating meat is usually more foreign, so people seek out the underlying reasons for the aversion in order to understand it. Even fellow vegetarians are often curious about each other’s justifications.
Justifications generally conform to one of three standards:
- Deontological – whether the behavior conforms to or violates a rule
- Consequentialist – the effects of a behavior
- Virtuous – intentions and whether or not the behavior arises from proper desires
Deontological justifications tend to appeal to rules that we generally accept. A deontologist might try to get the government to recognize animal rights or point out some inconsistency between the act of eating meat and the moral rules by which we claim to abide, such as the golden rule.
Consequentialist justifications tend to appeal to happiness and harm. A consequentialist vegetarian might argue that it is wrong to needlessly harm animals because it is wrong to needlessly harm any being that can feel pain.
Virtuous justifications tend to appeal to our desires. A virtue ethicist vegetarian might ask if we truly desire to live in a society of people who are capable of or even enjoy harming creatures that are averse to pain and death.
Insofar as deontological justifications fail to justify the rules that they invoke, they are weak. A deontologist vegetarian must be able to explain why animals deserve rights or why, if our rules and behavior are inconsistent, we should change our behavior rather than adjust our rules. If he cannot, then his arguments reduce to the arbitrary “I believe it to be so.”
Similarly, a consequentialist (or, more accurately here, utilitarian) vegetarian must be able to explain why harm (of any kind) should be the basis for our moral analysis, otherwise his arguments reduce to the arbitrary “I believe it to be so.”
And even the virtue ethicist vegetarian must be able to explain the value of the desires that he wishes to promote or discourage, otherwise his arguments reduce to the arbitrary “I believe it to be so.”
The fundamental question to answer, then, is: What constitutes a non-arbitrary moral standard?
Let’s re-phrase the question so that the meaning is clearer. A non-arbitrary moral standard here is an objective or universal reason to act, so the question becomes: What desire motivates every sentient being to act?
One answer is: No such desire exists. Sets of desires vary too greatly across sentient beings, either between or within species. Just as flies, dogs, and humans all have different desires, different humans may have different desires as well. This is the basis of moral relativism: since one’s concept of good is defined by his unique set of desires, we cannot say that anything is universally good. To do so would be to arbitrarily raise one’s desires above all others simply because they are his own.
Another answer is: The “desire” to fulfill one’s desires. Desires motivate all intentional action, so this is unavoidable.
The two answers can co-exist: Desirism uses the second answer as its ethical foundation while recognizing that it does not dictate any particular course of action for all beings. This is true regardless of how we answer the question.
This has consequences for the meaning of terms like “good” and “bad.” If morality is defined by desire satisfaction, then good desires are those that tend to promote our other desires whereas bad desires are those that tend to thwart our other desires.
Of course, we are not accustomed to thinking of morality in such terms, but that is not the fault of the desirist. Morality as people usually think of it is a conceptual and linguistic mess that disguises desires and beliefs and their origins to make them seem nobler and more important.
For example: To say that one should help the poor is to say that there is a good reason to help the poor–and yet we often do not think to develop the reason. Without the reason, the claim conveys merely: ”I desire that others help the poor.” Those who already want to help the poor will agree that we should, but there is no need to advise them to do it if they already have the desire. Those who do not already want to help the poor will have no reason to agree, so the claim has no effect. In either case, the claim is useless except as an expression of preference. We desire something more from our moral reasoning.
A proper “should” statement (a prescription) tries to connect with its audience’s existing desires. For example: ”One should not hurt others because one would not like it if he were hurt.” Alternatively: ”One should help the poor because doing so strengthens one’s society, which allows him to pursue his desires more effectively.” Or: ”One should not steal because thieves are punished.”
The golden rule (example 1) is deemed golden because it is so sensible and effective–and it is so sensible and effective because it addresses a fundamental desire of the vast majority of humans or sentient beings in general: self-interest. We do not argue that the golden rule is amoral because it offers an actual reason to act or because that reason is self-interest. However, we sometimes condemn the second statement and often condemn the third even though the reasons that they offer are no more self-interested than that of the golden rule. This is but one case of our moral inconsistency, which has developed and largely escaped notice because we do not think about morality as what it really is.
That is not to say, of course, that there are no other reasons to act. Some of us feel actual compassion for others, which bypasses the need for a self-interested calculation of the costs and benefits of not stealing a car. This speeds up the process of determining that stealing the car is the wrong thing to do and is preferable to relying upon the threat of imprisonment to keep people in line. We prefer that people have an actual aversion to theft–not that they merely have an aversion to the possible consequences thereof, which is almost always a given.
However, when we are dealing with people who neither have such a desire nor see a reason to value it, we must appeal to their existing desires. That a man does not share our sense of compassion does not mean that he is amoral or that he is necessarily immoral. All creatures that have desires and reason, as he does, are moral beings. Only creatures that thwart their own desires through a faulty application of reason or poor selection of desires are immoral. This discompassionate man might actually be incapable of compassion or desire to be treated poorly, which would simply make him differently moral. We hope that he is similar enough to us that we can convince him to try to develop compassion, but that is not a given.
This raises an important question: What should we do about those whose desires conflict with ours and who cannot adopt the values that tend to promote our desires as a society?
The best examples of such beings are other animals. There is only so much that we can do to teach animals–especially wild ones–to be like us. There is no sense in condemning them for their unchangeable desires. In fact, no one is at fault. This does not mean that we cannot interfere when an animal tries to kill a human; we still have strong reasons to prevent such harm even at the expense of the animal. We simply should not waste our resources on the impossible task of changing it nor punish it needlessly as if doing so could make a difference.
Similarly, the psychopath can at best put on only the appearance of compassion. It is not his fault that he cannot develop those values that the rest of us have good reasons to promote. Therefore, there is also no sense in condemning the psychopath for his unchangeable desires–or lack thereof. However, insofar as the psychopath is rational and self-interested and has some desires that he is better able to fulfill because he lives in a lawful society, we can attempt to reason with him. We could point out that behavior that harms others needlessly is behavior that threatens our lawful society, which is in turn behavior that weakens the psychopath’s ability to pursue his desires. We could point out that harming others needlessly is an invitation to be harmed. We could point out that the rest of us have established laws against such behavior so that the costs of the behavior (imprisonment, execution, etc.) outweigh the benefits. (These are the same three self-interested reasons that I already acknowledged.) The psychopath will never develop the desires that the rest of us have, but he still has strong reasons to mimic them and contribute harmlessly to our society. If he is aware of these reasons–and he should be–but proceeds to harm others anyway, then we are justified in condemning him for his irrationality, just as we are justified in condemning a poor man who wastes all of his money on gambling simply because he desired to do so at that moment. We have strong reasons to encourage others to properly account for their desires and apply reason appropriately.
Of course, self-interested arguments are not just for psychopaths. I make them routinely on this blog for a reason: when one wishes to mix morality with law or any other set of rules that govern others’ behavior, one must be able to publicly justify the change, which usually involves a reduction of freedom.
Let’s consider two claims:
Claim 1: One should not eat animals.
As I have already explained, this translates to “I desire that others not eat animals.”
Claim 2: There should be a law against eating animals.
If one is an irresponsible citizen–if he wishes to dictate that others follow his desires simply because they are his desires–then this translates to “I desire that there be a law against eating animals.”
However, if one is a responsible citizen, then this translates to “There are good reasons to prevent everyone from eating animals,” which is to say that even those who do eat animals are actually thwarting some more important desire or set of desires by doing so.
Again: when we wish to convince others to act a certain way, we must appeal to their existing desires (reasons for action) rather than expect them to act with no reason for action. Vegetarians face a difficult task because eating meat is and has always been popular and because the desire to do so does not seem to be sufficiently relevant to any other desires. In other words: they generally cannot appeal effectively to the existing desires of meat eaters; they can only hope to raise future generations to share their desires.
However, since the desire to eat meat is not relevant to other desires, it is also not wrong for vegetarians to not eat meat. In fact, just as it is good for the meat eater to pursue his desire for meat, it is good for the vegetarian to avoid meat according to his desires. Only if we could sufficiently involve other desires would we be justified in saying that one of the desires is wrong. Since it seems that we cannot (which makes it what we might call a “neutral desire”), it is unreasonable for vegetarians to expect the law to reflect their desire just as it would be unreasonable for meat eaters to dictate that people must stop eating vegetables. We have good reasons to condemn those who would establish their arbitrary preferences as law and to expose arbitrary preferences as such whenever possible. We do not, after all, want others’ whims to dictate what we must do.
A careful reader might point out that I have argued that all desires break down to arbitrary preferences. If it is bad to establish an arbitrary preference as law, then surely that means that we must do away with all laws. If it is unreasonable to expect people to stop eating meat because vegetarians oppose the behavior, then surely it is unreasonable to expect anarchists to pay taxes.
That is not the case. Perhaps in a perfect world, the anarchist would get to live on his own anarchic island. (I look forward to the day when virtual reality allows us to pursue such desires freely.) However, we have limited resources and cannot cater to everyone’s desires. In some cases, we must thwart some desires for the sake of the majority. The minority in these cases must adapt. Of course, if these cases pile up to the point that some people have more reasons to oppose their government than to support it, then we can expect rebellions. We therefore have a responsibility to make sure that we do not ask people to forgo too many of their desires. If we must do so, then we have the responsibility to first prepare people for change by promoting those desires that we wish to legislate. Conflict can be avoided if the reasons for conflict are eliminated.
It should be clear now that desirism is not merely a personal “life strategy” or “life plan” and that it is, in fact, a normative philosophy. It accounts for the two components of intentional (morally relevant) action: our reasons for action (desires) and the beliefs that guide them. It clarifies our moral language through demystification and the elimination of inconsistencies. It offers a method of determining what we should do in both our personal and social lives. It meets all the criteria of a normative philosophy–and more. Of course, what term one uses to describe desirism has no bearing on its value, which is derived from the truth of its claims and its utility. These aspects speak for themselves.