...and some conclusions.
This is a long-needed post. This is a list of propositions. These are all descriptive "is" statements describing an objective reality. Desire utilitarianism basically proposes that from these "is" statements, we as humans can reach prescriptive conclusions about what humans "ought" to do.
As I haven't spent much time thinking or planning this post, I will leave it open to my future edits, which I'll point out to readers.
Desire utilitarianism is a theory of ethics in a godless universe.
1. Desires are the only reasons for action in humans.
A desire describes a mental state as regards a state of affairs. The classic example is a desire that "I am eating chocolate cake" means that to the agent, the state of affairs where "I am eating chocolate cake" is to be made or kept true. Similarly, a desire that "I am not on fire" means that the state of affairs where "I am on fire" is to be made or kept false.
Desires are real-world, objective entities existing in the firings of neurons in the brain.
2. BDI theory is true regarding human motivation.
Beliefs + Desires = Intentional action. A belief, as used here, is an attitude about a proposition. An agent who believes that water will quench his thirst has the attitude that water will quench his thirst.
This theory of intentional action says an agent will always act motivated by its desires, given its beliefs. An agent that desires that "I am thirsty" is false, acts on the desire as its belief dictates. If the agent believes the glass of water on the counter will quench its thirst, it will drink (intentional action) the water. Unless, of course, there are other desires...
3. An agent will always act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of its desires.
Where a state of affairs that an agent desires to be true is made or kept true, that desire is fulfilled. Where that state of affairs is made or kept false, that desire is thwarted.
Often an agent will have a false belief. In the case of drinking the water, if the substance in the glass is, in fact, poison, the agent's desire will be thwarted by drinking.
4. Values lie in desires.
Agents place value on states of affairs. No other value exists.
5. Desires can be evaluated.
Objects can be evaluated on the criteria of their tendency to fulfill or to thwart relevant desires. An example is a knife - a good knife fulfills an agents' desire to cut something. The value of "good" is applied on the basis of its tendency to fulfill desires.
Desires being objective entities, they can also be evaluated. Desires can be evaluated on their tendency to fulfill or to thwart other desires. A good example is the desire to seek truth. For an agent that possesses this desire, it has a tendency to fulfill other desires.
6. Desires can be evaluated on their tendency to fulfill or to thwart the desires of other humans.
If I have, for example, a desire to obtain my neighbors' property by whatever means necessary, this desire has a tendency to thwart the desires of my neighbors.
We can call such a desire "bad," just like we can call a desire to support and help my neighbors "good." The desires are good/bad insofar as they have a tendency to fulfill or to thwart the desires of others.
When a desire is thwarted, it is called - to a greater or lesser degree - "harm."
7. When we ask the question "Which desires are good for humans generally?" we arrive at objective conclusions.
Desire utilitarianism does not claim to provide a list of the good desires humans can have. However, it can demonstrably be shown that such desires as honesty, kindness and compassion for others are desires that are good for my neighbors - for all people.
Desire utilitarianism promotes a scientific approach to studying ethics, a strong criticism of beliefs, and the admittance that at least some of its claims could be proven false.
8. There are real-world reasons for action to promote good desires and condemn bad or evil desires.
Given my desires and values, I have many good reasons to want a neighbor who respects my life, my liberty, my property. Similarly, my neighbors have many good reasons for me to have the same respect.
The more we work to create a society full of people who value the life, liberty and property of others, the more we create a society that is safe for our children, friends and family.
8.5 There is a difference between "I desire that the desires of others be fulfilled" and "I desire to fulfill the desires of others.
It is a simple mistake to think that desire utilitarianism demands that we try to fulfill the desires of other people to be good. This is not true. I can easily desire that shopping be done without desiring that I do the shopping.
9. Desires are malleable.
An agent will always act to fulfill the more and the stronger of its desires, given its beliefs (3). Human agents have the means of adjusting those desires. If, for example, I have a neighbor who wants to take my property regardless of how he accomplishes the goal - I can band together with my other neighbors and impose social sanctions on the fellow. If we sever trade with him, punish him fiscally, or temporarily imprison him, he will now have more desires to take into account. For example, his desire for personal freedom may now outweigh his desire to take his neighbors' property.
Criticism/social condemnation is another way to change desires in others.
Children have more malleable desires, so it's important that they be brought up in such a way that they have good desires - preferably that these desires are for end-goals rather than means to ends. For example, I want my neighbor to respect others' property out of a like for respecting others' property... not just as a way to stay out of jail.
10. Agents cannot be reasoned out of desires.
Jedi mind tricks aren't real. We can use reason to say "these aren't the droids you're looking for," but not to say "you don't want to find those droids you're looking for," for you Star Wars buffs.
That's why desires must be, in a sense, outweighed by other desires if we're to change what an agent desires.
11. There do exist cases of negligence.
Occasionally we may run into a case where someone should have been aware of a danger, or have taken more caution into account before acting. We can conclude, in many cases, that a person who doesn't take the time of day to secure a load on his pickup truck, for example, doesn't care enough about those he might endanger.
This sort of person deserves criticism because it is better for all of us if we live in a society full of people who take a great deal of caution where their actions could harm others.
12. A person with good desires and true beliefs performs good actions.
Given that value exists in desire fulfillment (4), the action that a good person (a person with good desires) performs is a good desire in that situation.
This is where desire utilitarianism becomes a situational, rather than a universal, theory. Honesty is a virtue (a good desire), but in a situation where you are sheltering a Jewish family from the Nazis and they ask if you're harboring fugitives, a good person would lie to protect the family.
Other moral questions become meaningless. The classic trolley car example helps demonstrate this. You are on a runaway trolley car and ahead of you the rail splits in two directions. If you maintain your course, you will kill a child on the track. If you switch tracks, you will run over 10 people. When asked what a good person would do in this situation, it becomes obvious that the "dilemma" is meaningless. A good person could choose either action. Neither effects how that person will be as my neighbor.
A note on meta-ethics
Morality is, necessarily, prescriptive. It describes what we should do - what we have reasons for action to do. Much religious morality involves reasons for action that do not exist. If we relate a moral "ought" to real-world reasons for action, we arrive (I am convinced) at desire utilitarianism.
Our reasons for action involve promoting or inhibiting (or permitting) desires - rather than actions - because it is demonstrably the case that desires cause actions and focusing attention on desires is more effective.
A common criticism is that desire utilitarianism is not about ethics. People say that ethics is about doing "God's will," for instance.
However, desire utilitarianism is about prescriptions for action (good and bad), in the hopes of realizing a better world. In this case, a "better world" for all of us is inhabited by people with good desires. Someone arguing against this is challenging many "is" statements listed above.
Please also note that there is no "is/ought" gap here. It is the case that we have these desires. It is the case that we have these reasons for action. What we ought to do is a part of what is true of our reality.
After all of that...
I hold these beliefs as my theory on value and the nature of good and evil. It is very legitimate to challenge the theory of desire utilitarianism (and for more check out www.atheistethicist.blogspot.com and read what Alonzo Fyfe blogs about).
It is also legitimate to challenge how my statements and arguments about morality are (or aren't) related to desire utilitarianism. Whatever you do, however, do not equate desire utilitarianism with atheism. Atheism is a belief about the existence of God, making no moral claims.
**Note: "Doesn't make moral claims" does NOT = "Is immoral," as some have surmised. The pen on my desk, for instance, is not moral. Nor is it immoral.