Desire Satisfactionism, Intrinsic Attitudinal Hedonism, and the Objection from Adaptive Desire Formation

As a number of philosophers (e.g., Nussbaum and Elster) have noted, what desires we actually have can depend on what we perceive our options to be. So, for instance, I don’t sit around desiring to fly, because I don’t see this as an available option.  Likewise, although I do desire to live to the ripe old age of, say, eighty, I don’t have the desire to live to a hundred and fifty, again, because I don’t see living that long as an available option.  It seems, then, that we adapt so that our desires "fit" what we perceive to be our available options.  Those who perceive less to be available to them set their sights correspondingly lower.  Those who perceive more to be available to them set their sights correspondingly higher.  Thus a poor college student sharing a dorm room may long for, not house, but merely a small studio apartment of her own whereas I long for, not a mansion, but a five bedroom house with a three car garage.  With this phenomenon of adaptive desire formation in mind, consider two possible lives:

Jane: Jane grows up thinking that the best life that she could hope to lead is, by most standards, a quite mediocre life.  As a result, the aspirations she sets for herself turn out to be quite low.  Fortunately, though, what little she does want out of life she is able to get.  Consequently, only a few of her actual desires go unsatisfied.  Although she has a mediocre love life, a mediocre career, a mediocre set of experiences and accomplishments, she turns out to be quite satisfied with this mediocre life.  Indeed, it’s the life she had always longed for, since she had often feared that she might do a lot worse. 

Fiona: Fiona grows up thinking that the world is her oyster.  She has all the best opportunities: good schools, good parents, good mentors, etc.  Consequently, she aspires to great things.  But because her aspirations are so high and because such high aspirations are very difficult to achieve, she often fails to reach the heights that she aspires to.  By most standards, though, she has quite an extraordinary life, a life filled with great lovers, wonderful experiences, tremendous accomplishments, etc.  Yet even this extraordinary life falls a bit short of what she had wanted for herself.  Consequently, more than a few of her actual desires go unsatisfied. 

Assume that there are just two significant differences between the two lives: (1) Jane has more desire satisfaction than Fiona does, but not terribly more, and (2) both Jane and Fiona would prefer a life like Fiona’s to a life like Jane’s if presented with the choice.  Assume that everything else is equal; in particular, assume that the intensities of their corresponding desires are the same.  So, for instance, Jane’s desires for a mediocre love life is just as intense as Fiona’s desires for a fantastic love life, but whereas Fiona doesn’t completely satisfy her desires for a fantastic love life, Jane does satisfy all her desires for a mediocre love life. 

Now let’s ask, "Does Fiona’s life go better for Fiona than Jane’s life goes for Jane?"  It seems to me that Fiona is clearly better off despite having less actual desire satisfaction.  Of course, there are a number of ways for the desire satisfactionist to accommodate this compelling intuition.  She can formulate her view such that it is the satisfaction of a person’s idealized desires, not her actual desires, that matter.  And she could spell out the idealized conditions in a way that ensures that under idealized conditions there is no phenomenon of adaptive desire formation.  Or the desire satisfactionist could change focus from desires to preferences and argue that, unlike desires which are occurrent mental states, a preference is a behavioral disposition to choose one thing over another when presented with a choice between the two — see H. E. Baber’s "Adaptive Preference".  Thus, even though Jane doesn’t have the occurrent mental state of desiring a life like Fiona’s, she would prefer Fiona’s life to her own if presented with the choice.

But it seems to me that our own Chris Heathwood’s version of desire satisfactionism, Subjective Desire Satisfactionism (SDS), is particularly susceptible to this objection from adaptive desire formation.  If I’m right, this is bad news for desire sactisfactionism, because, as Chris has rightly argued, his version is the most plausible version of desire satisfactionism — see his excellent paper "Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism".  And, as Chris Heathwood argues, rightly I think, in that same paper, SDS just is Intrinsic Attitudinal Hedonism (IAH). So this objection applies to both SDS and IAH.

In a nutshell, SDS holds the following: An instance of "subjective desire satisfaction" is a state of affairs in which a subject (i) at some time has an intrinsic desire that P and (ii) at that time believes that P.  An instance of "subjective desire frustration" is a state of affairs in which a subject (i) at some time has an intrinsic desire that P and (ii) at that time believes that ~P.  Every instance of subjective desire satisfaction is intrinsically good for its subject, and correspondingly every instance of subjective desire frustration is intrinsically bad for its subject.  The extent to which desire satisfaction/frustration is intrinsically good/bad for its subject is determined by the intensity of the desire.  The welfare value of a life is just the sum desire satisfaction minus desire frustration.

It seems, then, that SDS is committed to the position that Jane’s life goes better for Jane than Fiona’s life goes for Fiona.  After all, Jane does experience more subjective desire satisfaction than Fiona does.  But the idea that Jane’s better off than Fiona is quite counter-intuitive.  Perhaps, though, there’s some way out for SDS/IAH that I’m not seeing.  I actually hope that there is, as I think that something like SDS/IAH is our best hope of offering a unified account of welfare, the kind that Scanlon’s thinks we’ll never have.  Another possibility is that people don’t share my intuition that Fiona’s life goes better for Fiona than Jane’s life goes for Jane.  If so, I would like to hear about it.  But it seems to me that those sympathetic to desire satisfactionism ought to share my intuition given that Jane does prefer Fiona’s life to her own.

31 Replies to “Desire Satisfactionism, Intrinsic Attitudinal Hedonism, and the Objection from Adaptive Desire Formation

  1. Doug,
    I certainly share your intuitions about who is living a better life in your cases and I am attracted to subjectivism. But I doubt that Chris’s intrinsic attitude story (I hope I am remembering it correctly—if not I hope Chris will correct me) is Team Subjectivism’s best hope. Off-hand, it seems your objection might stick. I also worry about purposely dumbing oneself down so one is more content with less, as in cases of taking oneself in for a lobotomy. I think Mill’s competent judges test (the sort of thing you use towards the end of your post) is just decisive that how satisfied one is inside a life need not settle (even for one) how good that life is for you to live.
    I would think an informed desire account could handle cases of adaptive prefs, but you don’t seem to dispute that.
    By the way, if I am remembering rightly, what Scanlon doubted was that we could have a unified story about well-being that fixed both what I ought to care about for myself and fixed what others ought to care about for me. I think he is right about this, since an informed agent can care about things other than her own welfare, but others, when they care for us, should care only about our welfare.

  2. Doug,
    I agree that Fiona’s life goes better, given what you’ve said about the lives. I’m no desire satisfactionist, but if I were, I’d complain that you’ve mentioned only the global desires the two people have. You haven’t said anything about the more specific desires they must also have. I would say that it’s very implausible that Jane satisfies as many of her more specific desires as Fiona does. For example, what is it about Fiona’s job that is so wonderful compared to Jane’s? Suppose Fiona gets to travel a lot and makes a lot of money, while Jane makes just enough money to get by and her job merely involves repeating simple tasks. Take some particular day when Fiona gets to travel to some interesting place, and Jane has to perform her menial task. Then either (i) Fiona doesn’t really desire to go on her trip, or (ii) Jane really desires to do her menial task. (i) undermines the counterexample, because if Fiona is doing things she doesn’t desire to do, why are her experiences “wonderful”? (ii) makes Jane into a weirdo, not just a normal person with low expectations.
    But I don’t really care about weirdness. If we can really get the desire satisfactions to be greater for Jane than for Fiona, and if Chris is right that SDS = IAH, then so much the worse for IAH capturing any sort of hedonistic idea, since Fiona clearly enjoys herself a lot more than Jane does. I guess I should read Chris’ paper.

  3. As a contrary data point, I don’t share your intuition that Fiona’s life is better than Jane’s.
    If I were Jane, I would prefer (Jane’s desires, Jane’s Life) over (Fiona’s desires, Fiona’s life). Now, obviously, you’ve assumed that Jane prefers (Fiona’s desires, Fiona’s life) to (Jane’s life, Jane’s desires), so you might wonder what on earth _my_ preferences have to do with anything.
    My response to which would be that I suspect the preference for one life or the other that you’ve given Jane is exactly the same as the moral intution we’re drawing on in deciding whose life is better. If this is true, then Jane’s preference can’t count as an independent reason for thinking Fiona’s life better than hers; it’s just a data point as to people’s general moral intutions. Or, at least it would be if Jane were a real person; as she’s not, it can’t even serve that purpose.
    Of course, none of this changes the fact that I appear to be in the minority on the moral intutition front – unless others’ intutions happened to be decided by Jane’s preference.

  4. Ben,
    You say,

    Suppose Fiona gets to travel a lot and makes a lot of money, while Jane makes just enough money to get by and her job merely involves repeating simple tasks. Take some particular day when Fiona gets to travel to some interesting place, and Jane has to perform her menial task. Then either (i) Fiona doesn’t really desire to go on her trip, or (ii) Jane really desires to do her menial task.

    This seems a legitimate worry, but I’m not sure that you’re taking the phenomenon of adaptive desires seriously enough. Although Fiona gets to travel to interesting places all the time, she might often lament the fact that she doesn’t get to travel as much as she wants to or that she has to go to Europe again, when she wants to go to somewhere more “exotic.” Jane might be real happy to have a job at the factory because a lot of her friends are unemployed, and she might also be pleased that, unlike her co-workers, she gets to work by a window and she really enjoys getting to look out the window and seeing a bird now and then.
    Fiona doesn’t enjoy her life more than Jane does. Indeed, because of the phenomenon of adaptive desires, Jane is just as pleased with her menial job as Fiona is with her terrific job. What’s so wonderful about Fiona’s job is not that it’s more enjoyable but that she gets to experience things that Jane doesn’t (e.g., the Opera) and to accomplish things that Jane doesn’t, etc.
    When I introspect on my life, I don’t find that I’m any happier than I was four, six, or eight years ago, yet I’ve come a long way in those few years. Eight years ago I just wanted so bad to get published and had a lot of desire frustration as a result of getting one rejection after another. Now I just want to get published in J Phil or Phil Review and experience a lot of desire frustration as a result of getting one rejection after another. Six years ago, I just wanted any job, and any job would do. Then once I got my first visiting job, all I wanted was a tenure-track job, any tenure-track job. Then, after I had my first tenure-track job, I wanted a good tenure-track job, one with a lighter teaching load, graduate students, more time for research, etc. Every time I move up in the world, my aspirations shoot hire. Consequently, I don’t end up being any more content or pleased with my situation then before. I end up experiencing a similar amount of desire frustration at each stage, because at each stage I aim a bit higher. But, despite realizing that I don’t really enjoy myself more or experience more desire satisfaction, I still prefer the way things are now to the way they were then.

  5. Conchis,
    Why do you think that we’re drawing on a moral intuition in preferring Fiona’s life to Jane’s? I would selfishly prefer a life like Fiona’s to a life like Jane’s even if Jane’s life is the one that would make the world better. If I had to settle for Jane’s life in order to help my family out, I might be willing to do so, but this would be an altruistic act on my part.
    So I’m asking, “Which life would you prefer, leaving aside any non-instrumental concern you have either for making the world better or for making other people better off?” I’d certainly prefer a life like Fiona’s.

  6. Doug,
    You claim that Subjective Desire Satisfactionism and IAH are identical (or perhaps you meant extensionally equivalent). If so, then perhaps some of the moves available to Feldman are available to Chris. For example, Feldman seems to prefer what he class “Desert Adjusted Intrinsic Attitudinal Hedonism”. According to this theory, the value of an instance of intrinsic attitudinal pleasure is partly determined by the nature of the object in which a person is taking pleasure. Some things deserve to be the objects of being pleased, and others do not. If you take pleasure in something that deserves to be the object of being pleased, then this is a very valuable state of affairs for you; if, on the other hand, you take pleasure in a state of affairs that does not deserve to be the object of being pleased, then this is either not very valuable at all for you, or else it is of no value whatsoever (I think Feldman prefers the first option).
    Perhaps the subjective desire satisfactionism theorist could use similar ideas to respond to your objection. Fiona’s life is going better for her since many of her desires are for things that are worth being the objects of desire (fluourishing, achieving great things, etc.) while Jane’s desires are for things that are not as worthy of desire.
    I find the results of such a theory to be quite good. They conform to our beliefs about value quite well. However, I must admit that I worry about the method of arriving at such a theory. This kind of move raises some troubling questions, and I do not find the answers to them in Feldman’s recent book (not yet at least–I am still working my way through it). Is there some other motivation for adjudsting utility for desert other than that doing so makes the theory get the answer right? If there are no other reasons, is this reason sufficient? And how are we supposed to arrive at an answer to the following question: Which objects deserve to be desired (or deserve to be the objects of being pleased)?
    What do others think? Is this move adequate to respond to Doug? Is it an acceptable move either way?

  7. Scott,
    Yes, thanks Scott. I’m aware of this move where the attitudinal hedonist claims that “if you take pleasure in something that deserves to be the object of being pleased, then this is a very valuable state of affairs for you, but if, on the other hand, you take pleasure in a state of affairs that does not deserve to be the object of being pleased, then this is either not very valuable at all for you, or else it is of no value whatsoever.” But I don’t think that this move helps with the objection from adaptive desire formation. This move certainly helps with the objection from base desires/pleasures, but Jane isn’t desiring or taking pleasure in anything that’s base. The things that she takes pleasure in (e.g., getting a job, having a window to look out of, having a lover) are things that deserve to be the object of “being pleased that,” I would think. Perhaps, Heathwood and Feldman could go further and claim that “being pleased that P” is more intrinsically valuable for a person than “being pleased that Q” if P involves, say, more accomplishment than Q does, but I’m betting that they don’t want to go down this path. If Heathwood wants to say that how intrinsically good desire satisfaction (or attitudinal pleasure) is for its subject depends on whether the object being desired (the object one takes pleasure in) appears on some list of objective goods, then it seems to me that SDS/IAH will lose whatever distinctness as a theory it might otherwise have had.

  8. Scott,
    One more thing: moreover, SDS would have to claim that how intrinsically good taking desire satisfaction in, say, your accomplishment is for you depends on just how much of an accomplishment your accomplishment is. After all, Jane has some accomplishments, only they are much more modest than Fiona’s accomplishments.

  9. Doug,
    Given your clarifications above, I am prepared to say both that Jane’s life is better for her than Fiona’s life is for her, and that I would nevertheless prefer Fiona’s life. But I would prefer Fiona’s life not because it’s better, welfare-wise, but because I care about more than just welfare. I also care about whether I really do achieve “objectively” worthwhile goals. I think doing so does add value to a life, but not welfare value. I think of it as adding some sort of non-moral virtue to the life, or perhaps what we can call excellence.
    So, Doug, I would say that (given what you’ve said about your own life) there is a sense in which your life is improving and a sense in which it is not. The level of excellence in your life has been steadily improving. Nice going! But, alas, how well its going for you has not.
    I think I experience the same sort of phenomenon. I have a hard time resting content with what I’ve achieved. Instead I, like Doug, continually strive for the “next level.” But I don’t see this as the next welfare level. It’s the next excellence level. I think people who are like Doug and I would actually be better off if they could learn to focus on and appreciate what they’ve done and what they’ve got rather than continually noticing how much greener the grass is at the next level.
    This is not to say, however, that this is what we all-things-considered should do. Excellence in one’s life is a real kind of value, it so it, like welfare, makes a life worth choosing. So it’s a case of weighing goods: welfare or excellence. Too bad we often have to sacrifice one for the other (since resting content, I assume, decreases the likelihood of achieving excellence).
    Let me add that, depending on your specifics, Doug, it may be that you are in fact maximizing your welfare level even though your welfare level is not increasing. For it may be that, if you didn’t continually strive for and achieve the next level, your welfare would decline, since the knowledge of failure would make you miserable. So it may be that holding your well-being constant while continually increasing your level of excellence is pretty damn good.
    Incidentally, I find attractive the idea that, when one sets one’s welfare as one’s goal, one is sure to fail. Better to focus on something else (like achieving excellent goals for their own sake), and let your welfare rack up without paying too much attention to it.
    (P.S. Scott, I do think Feldman would take the tack you’ve suggested and Doug has expanded on. I prefer instead a more subjective theory of welfare.)

  10. Doug,
    Chris beat me to the punch, but I was just going to say that if Fiona’s experiences are not more enjoyable despite their being more wonderful, then I no longer agree that Fiona’s life goes better for her. If you want to say it does, you’ve either got to go the Feldman route suggested by Scott, or you’ve got to be a perfectionist. If you go the Feldman route, you have to say that the value of a pleasure varies (in part) with the value of its object. And there’s a big problem with that move, pointed out by Noah Lemos in a forthcoming paper, involving pleasures taken in objects whose value is indeterminate.

  11. Chris,
    Having read a number of your papers, this is what I expected your response to be. But what makes you confident that a life’s having greater “excellence” doesn’t enhance the welfare value of that life? Of course, what many people say is that “excellence” has to do with the perfectionist value of a life whereas we’re discussing prudential value. But this response seems inadequate, because it could be that “excellence” is of both perfectionist value and prudential value. You also can’t just say that, because the “excellence” of a life doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how satisfying or enjoyable it is, it can’t be of prudential value. That just begs the question. So what do you want to say?
    Now you admit that you do prefer Fiona’s life. But would you admit that you prefer Fiona’s life and that this is something you want for your own sake (not for, say, your mom’s sake), leaving aside any non-instrumental concern you have either for making the world better or for making other people better off? If so, why not think that “excellence” is something that makes your life go better for you. After all, as philosophers use the term, isn’t welfare just what one have reason to want for one’s self, leaving aside any non-instrumental concern you have either for making the world better or for making other people better off?

  12. Just an amplification of Doug’s last post. If we allow that it makes sense to aim at achieving objectively valuable goals even when acheiving those goals doesn’t add to one’s welfare, then shouldn’t we be indifferent to whether those goals are achieved by us or by others? Thus shouldn’t we seek to help others achieve their objectively valuable goals rather than seeking to achieve our own objectively valuable goals when doing so would be more likely to bring about success? But we do pursue our own projects in a way that we don’t pursue a friend’s equally valuable projects, even when we know that pursuing our own projects might diminish our overall desire-satisfaction. Or is the thought that it is my fame that is objectively valuable, not my friend’s, so there is no reason to choose? But this is absurd. Surely the most natural thought is that the completion of my own objectively valuable projects adds to my welfare in a way that the completion of my friend’s projects does not, and that this is why I choose to pursue my own fame and not his.
    It could be responded that the reason I pursue my own fame over my friend’s is that I have a better chance of increasing my own desire-satisfaction this way, or that I have a better chance of instantiating the property of fame by pursuing my own fame. But neither of these answers seems plausible.

  13. Nishi,
    Nice point. The way that I would put the point is that our own “excellence” (e.g., our own successes, accomplishments, and achievements) has agent-relative normativity for us, whereas the excellences of others have only agent-neutral normativity for us. And I would argue that one of the distinguishing features of prudential value, in contrast to most other values, is that it has agent-relative normativity for us in addition to whatever agent-neutral normativity it has for others. Having read Heathwood’s review of Darwall’s recent book, I gather he would agree with me on this.

  14. A follow to Doug and Nishi’s points, which I agree with.
    Suppose I have a child, who I love very much. I also very much want that this child’s life to go a certain way, and so I raise the child in such a way that his life will most likely go the way I want it to go.
    Now, suppose it turns out that I really want the child to prefer the color red over blue, football over baseball, and metallica over beethoven. And this because I want a child to wear red clothing, play football, and practice in his 80s metal band. Unfortunately, it turns out that my raising my child this way signifigantly adversely affects how happy my child is.
    Sounds like I’m a bad parent; I’ve raised my child in such a way that although his life will have certain features I want it to have, his overall welfare is probably pretty low, because an important component of his welfare — enjoyment of what he does– is missing.
    The moral: caring parents qua caring parents want their children to have a high-level of welfare. They are bad parents to the extent that they prioritize other aspects of the child’s life.
    Contrast this case with a case in which a child is raised to desire what is excellent, so that the child will persue objectively worthy goals. As long as the parent doesn’t overemphasize this — as long as the desire for excellence doesn’t trump the happiness of the child — the parent is not failing to do his job. He isn’t being a bad parent. In fact, many have the intuition that a caring parent should raise a child in such a way that the child’s life will be filled with pleasure taken in excellent or objectively worthy activities or objects.
    I find that I have this intuition. When I think about how I should raise my child, it seems to me that I should due my best to ensure that my child’s life is filled with happiness taken in objectively excellent things. When I think about how I should raise my child, the important thing seems to be that my child should have a good life. This is what leads me to think that excellence is a component of the good life.

  15. Doug and Nishi,
    Excellent points. I want to agree with both of you that excellence has agent-relative normativity. But I want to disagree with the idea that all value that has agent-relative normativity is ipso facto welfare value. So I agree that each of us has special reason to do what makes our lives more excellent, but I insist that doing what makes our lives more excellent doesn’t directly enhance our welfare.
    Doug asks:

    what makes you confident that a life’s having greater “excellence” doesn’t enhance the welfare value of that life?

    Perhaps we can bring out the force of this question by distinguishing between two sets of views, or “systems.” The first system is monism about welfare and pluralism about agent-relative normativity. Just one thing (such as subjective desire satisfaction) directly enhances our welfare. And so we have an agent-relative reason to promote this one thing in our lives. But we have agent-relative reasons to promote other things in our lives, such as its level of excellence or moral virtue. So we still have to weigh agent-relative reasons against each other to decide what to do.
    The second system is pluralism about welfare and monism about agent-relative reasons. On this system, only welfare provides agent-relative reasons, but many different kinds of thing enhance our welfare, e.g., subjective desire satisfaction, excellence, and moral virtue. On this second system, the practical upshot is the same: we have to engage in exactly the sort of weighing that we have to engage in on the first system. But it’s not described as weighing agent-relative reasons (we are monists about that). It is described as weighing the various things that are good for us.
    So Doug’s question is, How can you be so sure the first system is correct, especially given that they are, in a sense, “practically equivalent”?
    I prefer the first system because I think our ordinary concept of welfare just doesn’t include these perfectionist values. Here are three arguments for this claim, one having to do with benefit and harm, one having to do with justice, and one having to do with skepticism about value.
    Welfare is analytically tied up with the notions of benefit and harm. But I don’t think it is correct to say that we directly harm someone when, say, we cause him to be less virtuous. If ranking low in terms virtue entails ranking low in terms of welfare, then the notion of a bad person being well off would be incoherent. But of course it’s not. Virtue is its own reward, I say, only if you care about being virtuous.
    Welfare is also supposed to be the currency of justice. Suppose you’ve done a good deed and therefore deserve something good. I think we’d agree that what you deserve is to be made better off. But suppose we reward you not by, say, giving you something you want but somehow by making you more virtuous or more excellent. You would feel gypped! And justifiably.
    Here’s one last reason to prefer the first kind of system. Many people are skeptical about these more objective kinds of value (like virtue and excellence [not to mention intrinsic value for the world]). But very few people are skeptical of welfare value. They think it is obvious that some lives are better than others for the person living it. Although I am no such skeptic, I think I can understand why someone would be skeptical in this way. Carving up the terrain as I have respects this kind of skepticism, since it separates welfare from the more objective values.
    (I’ve had arguments like these in the back of my mind for a while, but never put them to paper. I’m very anxious to hear what others think.)

  16. McX (a.k.a. Kris) writes:

    When I think about how I should raise my child, it seems to me that I should do my best to ensure that my child’s life is filled with happiness taken in objectively excellent things

    I agree, ‘cuz then he gets both kinds of value: welfare and excellence!

  17. Chris,
    I have a number of things to say in response.
    (1) First, I never said that all values that have agent-relative normativity are prudential values. I said that most values that have agent-relative normativity are prudential values. In order for something to count as a prudential value, it must not only be the case that it has agent-relative normativity but also be the case that that normativity stems from something other than a non-instrumental concern to make the world better, to make other people better off, or to make yourself a morally better person. So it not only has to be an agent-relative reason, but a self-interested reason, which I take to be a kind of agent-relative reason. On this account, something like personal accomplishment would count as a prudential value, but being morally virtuous wouldn’t. The only reason I want to be morally virtuous is for the sake of being a morally better person as well as for the sake of others. By contrast, the reason I want to accomplish things is entirely selfish. Indeed, sometimes I selfishly take time away from my family so that I might accomplish more with my life, so that, for instance, I might publish more. And, believe me, the reason I want to publish more is not that I think that it will benefit others, make me a morally better person, or make the world a better place. I doubt that it will do any of those things.
    (2) I think that if you use accomplishment instead of virtue in your examples, they fail to have the intuitive force that they might otherwise have. And, again, I deny that moral virtue is a prudential good. So, for instance, it does seem to me that if you help me accomplish something, you benefit me. And it seems that if you prevent me from accomplishing much with my life (if, for instance, you scale back my opportunities and give me a Jane-like life instead of a Fiona-like life), you harm me. Furthermore, if you reward me with a Fiona-type life rather than a Jane-type life, I don’t feel gypped at all.
    (3) I don’t think that our ordinary notion of welfare (which, I think, is too closely tied to notions of health, longevity, and happiness) is what us philosophers are after or should be after. What we’re interested in is whatever notion is appropriately tied to other notions like benefit, harm, and self-interest. I think that that philosophers use the word welfare stipulatively to serve a certain theoretical role. And, as I’ve said, it seems to me that our intuitions about benefit and harm support a view that includes something like accomplishment as a prudential good.

  18. I hate to be the party-pooper, but I have to say that the Portmore-Heathwood dispute has all the hallmarks of a “merely terminological” dispute. I take it that both Doug and Chris agree that there’s a kind of value that is more present in Jane’s life than in Fiona’s, and both agree that this kind of value has “agent-relative normativity”. So, I’m having difficulty seeing anything of substance left to argue about. Where’s the beef?

  19. Doug (on a different point from my last post),
    You say that one way in which desire satisfactionism could be squared with your intuitions regarding the case in question is by adopting a “disposition-to-choose” account of desire (or preference). But I gather you have some reason for rejecting such an account, because you go on to say that “something like SDS/IAH is our best hope of offering a unified account of welfare”. So, I’m just wondering what you’ve got against dispositional desire satisfactionism.

  20. Campbell,
    I think that it is just a verbal dispute. Indeed, I have a post just waiting in the wings that makes exactly that claim. But maybe Chris thinks otherwise.
    Regarding dispositional desire satisfactionism, I’m just not a big fan of desire satisfactionism in general, although this is, I think, the second most plausible version around (SDS being the first). But I don’t have any new criticisms to offer, so I won’t bore you with the standard ones. I do like SDS better, because I’m kind of sympathetic to IAH, and, as Chris argues, SDS just is IAH.

  21. Doug,
    Sorry, I may have been a bit loose in terms of what I meant by a moral intutition, but I’m not sure too much hangs on the label. I think basically what one’s doing when one express a preference for Fiona’s life over Jane’s (or vice-versa) is drawing on an intuition about what’s fundamentally important in life, because that considered preference is, I think, precisely a judgement about which life is “better”.* (Perhaps I’m wrong about this, and preference is _not_ a judgement about betterness. But it strikes me as an odd preference that would aim at worseness.)
    My point is that if that’s what we’re doing when we express a preference for F’s life over J’s, then (unless we think that betterness is precisely defined by Jane’s preference, which I’m assuming we wouldn’t if we were partial to desire satisfactionism) that’s all Jane is doing when she expresses that preference too. And if that’s all Jane’s doing, it would be odd if her preference figured in our own assessment of betterness.
    All of which is a very convoluted way of saying something almost tautological.
    *I guess I considered this to a “moral” intution in the sense that it’s an intuition about the end at which (consequentialist) morality aims, but as I’ve said, not much turns on the label.

  22. Doug seems to agree with Campbell that there is no real issue between him and Chris. I’m surprised, given that both Doug and Chris have already pointed out one way in which it matters which side we take. All sides agree that the notion of a person’s welfare is tied to what harms and benefits that person. And whether something harms or helps a person is of paramount significance to those who care about that person. Those who care about me have reasons to benefit me, not to promote all those things that I have an agent-relative reason to promote. Whether those who care about me have reason to help me become famous thus depends upon whether achieving fame is of mere agent-relative value for me or whether it would actually benefit me. Therefore it does matter whether we say that achieving excellence contributes to a person’s welfare or instead that it contributes to some other kind of agent-relative value.

  23. Nishi’s right. There may still be some important difference between Chris and myself on substantive issues of importance. But at the root of it all is, I believe, a verbal dispute. That is, I believe that at the source of disagreement between those who favor and those oppose mental state accounts of well-being is a disagreement about the proper conception of well-being, one narrower than the other. As I said, I have a post on this waiting in the wings, but I’m saving it for a rainy day.

  24. Doug,
    About your earlier post:
    I think achievement of a worthwhile goal is a mixed case. It has a welfare component (since it has to do with satisfying a desire or goal), and it has a virtue/excellence component (since the goal is worthwhile). So if your goal is to write a good book or become a good piano player, and you succeed (and, in my view, realize that you succeed), then you get a boost in both welfare and excellence.
    So I disagree that our reasons for wanting to accomplish things are entirely selfish. I think our reasons are mixed (in typical cases, at least). One component is selfish, and the other component is analogous to the virtue case. We want to write a good book or become a good chess player in part for the same reason we want to be a good person – namely, i.e., “for it’s own sake.” (Of course, some may not be motivated at all by the excellence of the goal, but instead only by, say, the fame it will bring. In those cases, I think the motive is entirely selfish.)
    And so I agree when you say, “it does seem to me that if you help me accomplish something, you benefit me.” The benefit comes not from the worthiness of the goal but from the fact that it’s something you want. If, by contrast, we help you accomplish something that you want to do, but that isn’t especially worthy, you still get the benefit, I say, but don’t get a notch in your excellence belt.
    And so I agree that the first two examples above lose force if we use accomplishment. But this is because accomplishment (of something worthy) is a mixed case – part welfare, part excellence.
    I agree that if I prevent you from accomplishing much with my life, then I harm you, so long as you still desire to accomplish the goals. But if I both prevent you from accomplishing much and I remove your desires to accomplish much, then no harm done. (Although I think it is still probably morally wrong to do this to someone, but, if done “right,” it will be a harmless wrong.)
    On (3). I’m hesitant to say we’re not after our ordinary notion of welfare. No doubt the expression ‘well off’ (like many that are of interest to philosophers) have connotations that can lead us astray (not the least of which is its association with money!). But I think philosophers are interested in a concept that has currency in ordinary language and thought. Isn’t that how we got interested in the topic in the first place? Anyway, I agree that the concept is linked to the concepts of benefit and harm (and I don’t think that’s just stipulation – I think that’s part of the (or, at least, an) ordinary notion).
    P.S. I also want to say something about the “merely verbal” charge. I think I’m inclined to agree with Nishi. I’m gonna think a bit about it.

  25. Hi Doug,
    Just a quick question. In a comment above, in responding to Chris, you write
    “something like personal accomplishment would count as a prudential value, but being morally virtuous wouldn’t. The only reason I want to be morally virtuous is for the sake of being a morally better person as well as for the sake of others.”
    I think many people would hold that moral virtue also has prudential value – even in the case of (primarily) other-regarding virtues. If a person develops the virtue of justice, she will be better able to identify injustices affecting her; her tolerance and compassion would allow her to better accept her flaws or failings, and so on. And even as she interacts with others, her moral virtues will (at least typically?) keep her relations with other people in good order, so that she will enjoy friendships, other bonds with those in her community, and avoid unnecessary conflicts.
    Would you hold that to the extent that developing moral virtues improves the welfare of an agent, we are not looking at these virtues qua moral virtues, but simply as traits that typically improve well-being?

  26. Chris,
    I’m confused. Much of what you say seems contrary to SDS.
    You say, “I think achievement of a worthwhile goal is a mixed case. It has a welfare component (since it has to do with satisfying a desire or goal), and it has a virtue/excellence component (since the goal is worthwhile).” Achievement itself doesn’t have a welfare component on SDS. To achieve some outcome, that outcome must obtain and its obtaining must be due, in part at least, to your efforts. What enhances one’s welfare on your view is not the achievement of a goal, but the concurrence of a desire to achieve a goal and the belief that one has done so. Note that the goal doesn’t have to be achieved (i.e., doesn’t have to obtain, let alone by one’s own efforts) on your view. (By the way, I’m sympathetic to Simon Keller’s view, where the goal doesn’t have to be worthwhile – see his recent paper in Phil Studies.) It seems to me, then, that you cannot account for our intuitions that one’s achievements has an effect on one’s welfare.
    You say, “So if your goal is to write a good book or become a good piano player, and you succeed (and, in my view, realize that you succeed), then you get a boost in both welfare and excellence.” But your view is not that you must succeed and realize that you’ve succeeded in order to get a boost in welfare. Your view is that you need only believe that you’ve succeeded whether or not you, in fact, have. Right?
    You say, “so I agree when you say, ‘it does seem to me that if you help me accomplish something, you benefit me’. The benefit comes not from the worthiness of the goal but from the fact that it’s something you want.” On your view, you have no reason per se to help me accomplish something. Ultimately, what you have reason to do is to get me to believe that I’ve accomplished something. Now one way to do that is to help me accomplish something. But note that in a case where you can help me accomplish something but where you know I’ll never believe that I’ve accomplished that something, you have no reason to help me on your view. Actually, what you ultimately have reason to do, on your view, is increase my subjective desire satisfaction, and there might be cases where you do that by helping me fail to accomplish my goal, for doing so in the end may diminish my expectations for the future and thereby make it easier to garner more subjective desire satisfaction out of life.
    You say, “I agree that if I prevent you from accomplishing much with my life, then I harm you.” Not necessarily. If you know that my desires will adapt to my diminished opportunities, then you do not necessarily harm me by preventing me from accomplishing much with my life. For instance, if you take a little girl and put her in a situation where she will have a Jane-like life (one with little accomplishment) rather than a Fiona-like life (one with a great deal of accomplishment), you do no harm so long as, given the phenomenon of adaptive desire formation, she will have at least as much subjective desire satisfaction. So long as you give me the same amount of subjective desire satisfaction, it doesn’t matter whether or not you prevent me from accomplishing much with my life.
    You say, “if I both prevent you from accomplishing much and I remove your desires to accomplish much, then no harm done.” This is where our intuitions diverge. I want to say that you harm a little girl by putting her in a situation where she will have a Jane-like life (one with little accomplishment) rather than a Fiona-like life (one with a great deal of accomplishment). On your view, you do no harm to her so long as, given the phenomenon of adaptive desire formation, she will have at least as much subjective desire satisfaction. I wonder what others think.

  27. Jason,
    By “prudential values,” I mean those things that are valuable for their subjects for their own sakes. Thus, on this terminology, pleasure but not money counts as a prudential good. So I agree that moral virtue can be instrumentally valuable in promoting one’s welfare, as you point out. But, on my terminology, that doesn’t make it a prudential good. So, perhaps, it would be less confusing if I talked about prudential final values.

  28. Chris,
    One more thing:
    I believe that a lot of the literature on adaptive desire formation (although I have yet to read it myself) stems from a concern for justice for women in societies where women have extremely limited opportunities for things like education. The concern is that if you accept a certain sort of desire satisfaction account of welfare along with the view that welfare is the “currency of justice” (as you put it), then justice wouldn’t require those societies to reform to one where women have more opportunities. After all, given the phenomenon of adaptive desire formation, such reformation won’t benefit those women since they won’t garner any more desire satisfaction in their lives. Indeed, such reform might result in their having less desire satisfaction. Now you can still say that such reform should take place so that their lives will be more excellent. But this seems to be the wrong diagnosis. The reason for demanding such reform is not so their lives will be more excellent, but so that they’ll be better off. The reform should take place not for sake of their lives, but for the sake of them.

  29. Let me suggest another possible line of reply for the desire satisfactionist.
    After describing the two lives, the question you ask is:

    Does Fiona’s life go better for Fiona than Jane’s life goes for Jane?

    This is a hard question to answer, it might be said, because it requires one to compare the value that one life has for one person with the value that another life has for another person. And so people are naturally inclined subconsciously to replace your question with a different one:

    Would Fiona’s life go better for you than Jane’s life would?

    According to desire satisfactionism, the answer to the latter question depends, not on the desires of either Fiona or Jane, but instead on the desires of whomever the question is addressed to. Hence, the theory predicts that when we ask people who have more moderate aspirations, somewhere in between Fiona’s and Jane’s, they’ll respond that Fiona is better off. Perhaps the data bear out this prediction.

  30. Doug,
    Yeah, I was speaking from the point of view of a more conventional desire satisfactionist rather than from the point of view of a subjective desire satisfactionist. I did this mainly because, in these mixes cases, the desires really have to be satisfied in order to get the excellence as well as the welfare. Sorry for the confusion.
    But I still think my main points stand (with the modications you fill in). I agree that my view has the implications you point out. But I accept them.
    You did say something about the nature of achievement that I had wrong:

    To achieve some outcome, that outcome must obtain and its obtaining must be due, in part at least, to your efforts.

    I didn’t realize that that’s what ‘achievement’ meant. Predictably, I deny that the desired outcome’s obtaining as a result of your efforts has a direct bearing on welfare. (Of course, this could have an indirect effect; it would if you desired that your efforts made a difference (and belived they did).)
    We’ve got a lot of sub-threads going here. Let me know if I have overlooked a point of yours.
    About the oppression of women. We can discuss the implications of my view of any imaginary case pretty easily. The implications for real cases are more difficult to know, since the relevant facts of these cases are difficult to know.
    As best I know the facts, I think the view implies that women are, by and large, benefitted by the reforms you mention. Adaptive desire formation is real, but it is quite “imperfect.” As a matter of fact, many women in many parts of the world (ours included!) simply are not satisfied with the status quo. They want change.
    My view does of course imply that, if some woman really does change from a Jane-like life to a Fiona-like life, her situation is not improved (welfare-wise). But, as I said, I think this is right.
    I do not think we should underestimate the relevance of excellence here. I prefer when people are doing excellent things rather than mediocre things. I’m inclined to think engagement in the excellent is better (intrinsically, for the world) than is engagement in the mediocre. So I do think considerations of excellence give us reason to be in favor of women’s liberation.

  31. This is a fascinating thread. My response to the Fiona problem would be to mix the dispositional conception of desire with a Parfit/Griffin-style focus on the structure of our desire set (in particular, a prominent concern for global over local desires). The simple fact that Fiona and Jane would both prefer to live Fiona’s life, demonstrates that Fiona is better off.
    Incidentally, I don’t really think SDS qualifies as a “version of desire satisfactionism”, seeing as how it treats the external world (including actual desire fulfilment) as entirely irrelevant. But I guess that’s why Doug likes it! (Doesn’t anyone worry about “experience machine” type objections any more?)

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