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.