On what makes someone's life go better

A critique of desire-fulfilment

The extent to which this critique applies to preference-satisfaction in addition to desire-fulfilment is, by the author, unknown. Feedback from preference utilitarians would be appreciated.

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. 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.

To argue that happiness is the only thing intrinsically valuable because it is the only thing desired as an end, is to assume for desire an authority on these matters which it does not deserve. If one is inclined to believe that happiness is the only thing desired as an end, then fine... so be it. But if not, no matter; for hedonism can stand without this belief. And let he who would say otherwise try to prove that what is ultimately desired is therefore necessarily and exclusively good, being careful (as he does so) not to repeat Mill's mistake of assuming that what is desired ought be desired. [The infamous "can be desired" therefore "desirable" mistake, which has provided Mill's critics with so much play.]

It is obvious that the object of a desire, i.e. what it is we are consciously thinking of when we desire, is not always (or even generally) the experience of happiness itself. It is equally obvious that people often like having desires - that contemplation of some desired object often brings happiness, provided that it does not bring frustration. And it is obvious again that it often makes someone very happy to fulfil their desires. For these 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.

[David Pearce adds: "It's puzzling that today the happiest people tend to have the most desires - they find a wider range of stimuli carry greater incentive-reward than do depressives etc. Enhancing dopamine function increases both pleasure and desire/incentive-motivation. Why?"]

I can say from my own experience that it is quite common to desire something quite intensely, and to achieve this desire, but then to notice that its fulfilment was not worthwhile, and to immediately wonder why it was that the desire was bothered with at all. These cases of worthless desire-fulfilment, it will be found, coincide completely with those cases of desire-fulfilment that cause no happiness. And it appears that I am not alone in this observation - that fulfilled desires are not necessarily better than unfulfilled desires - hence the well-wish: "May all your dreams, save one, come true."

It harms my case not at all to mention that those who hold the fulfilment of desires to be supremely valuable often have desires so lofty (e.g. "knowledge of the fundamental nature of the universe" - or even knowledge of its "cause", if they will go so far as to assume that it has one) that there is no prospect at all of these desires being fulfilled - because it is only when desires are unfulfilled that it can plausibly be maintained that their fulfilment is necessarily valuable:

"There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." GB Shaw.

That desire-fulfilment lacks a "pay-off" is made even more obvious when we consider that we sometimes have desires of which the fulfilment is not even noticeable, or has no effect whatsoever. A classic example from Parfit is the man who secretly wishes his son to become a politician. The man later gets trapped on a desert island and loses all contact with his family. If, when the boy grows up, he does indeed become a politician, then the father's desire has been fulfilled - but neither son nor father are aware of this desire-fulfilment (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?

(I wonder if anyone will suggest that it is the existence of desire which is valuable, rather than its fulfilment... if so, let them sing all praise to the addict and the pusher, and down with the curse of satisfaction! Or, rather, let the philosopher concerned with desire on either existence or fulfilment account sing that praise, since the addictive drug both creates and fulfils the desire.)

[Some further issues must be addressed in order to provide a complete account of the intrinsic value of desire fulfilment: which desires should be fulfilled? Do all desires really count? How should we account for second- (or higher-) order desires (e.g. when we desire something but wish that we didn't)? What about a desire that is held now, but will not be by the time the desired result actually occurs - does it count? And the desires that dead people had when they were alive, or that we ourselves had as children (personal identity permitting) but no longer have?]

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 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. 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.

It may be thought from the above that there is no necessary relationship between desire and happiness, but there does seem to be at least one way in which this thought is mistaken: in my experience, it is not possible for someone to endure a net balance of suffering over happiness for any considerable length of time (it is possible to experience both at the same time, as in the case of "bitter-sweet" memories of former loves, or the practice of masochism) without them forming the desire that the suffering end. That it to say that it is a core feature of suffering that it is aversive. And there is a symmetry (which a negative utilitarian might like to deny?): 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.

Given the immense power of desire to influence action, it is unfortunate that desire and happiness are so far apart - that it is possible to desire something that would cause unhappiness, and to not desire something that would cause immense happiness. It is also unfortunate that humanity's tendency to associate the value of their happiness with the object of their desire (rather than their own experiences) can be expected to continue for some time, for it causes no end of problems.