III. Desire Satisfactionism
A. Another Problem with Hedonism
Nozick's experience machine argument was designed to show that we value things other than just pleasure, and that things other than just our internal mental states are important to us -- we want the world to be a certain way as well (e.g., we want real friends / love / achievement, not just hallucinations of these things).
Another objection to hedonism can come from the opposite direction: there can be people who don't want pleasure. They don't seek it out; they don't revel in it; they go out of their way to avoid it; they are happier if they don't get it. You may think that such people are strange, but there are actual people like this. Maybe they are really into meditation or something. They want a life of peaceful meditation, that's not ruffled up by feelings of pleasure.
Imagine such a guy. Call him Stoicus. He
wants to live an unruffled life. We must be clear about his desires:
it's not that he wants peace and quiet because he thinks these
will give him pleasure. He wants these as ends in themselves.
In fact, he prefers not to have pleasure. He prefers not to
have pleasure in part because he fears that if he had some pleasure,
it would ruffle his life. He feels the same way about pain: he
does not want it. Suppose he gets exactly what he wants -- peace,
quiet, no pleasure, and no pain -- and eventually dies a thoroughly
satisfied man. He lived 90 years of (somewhat boring) peace and
quiet. Stoicus thinks (right before he dies) that he led an outstandingly
CH implies that Stoicus did not have a good life. This follows from the fact that the life of Stoicus did not contain many episodes of pleasure. Very few hedons; therefore little source of positive intrinsic value.
But if Stoicus was happy with his life, and was fully satisfied, and got precisely what he wanted at every moment, it seems strange to say that there was something wrong with his life.
So, What Made the life of Stoicus Good?
If you were to ask Stoicus about what made his life so good,
he might say that the goodness of his life derives from the fact
that he got what he wanted, and didn't get what he didn't want.
In other words, he would point to the fact that his desires were
satisfied to a very
So this, the case of the Stoic, seems to point us in the direction of taking into account a person's desires. It shows us that Hedonism may be too paternalistic. Hedonism says, we know what's good for you -- it's pleasure, whether you want it or not. But maybe we need to consider what the person wants.
Nozick's Experience Machine may also have
pointed us towards looking at a person's desires -- one reason
why the life of the guy in the Experience Machine isn't so good,
we might think, is that he didn't get what he wanted. He wanted
love, friendship, achievement, knowledge, success, and got none
B. Desire Satisfactionism (DS)
A number of philosophers have suggested that these sorts of examples point toward the solution to the fundamental project of axiology - an alternative to hedonism.
Derek Parfit, in the reading I asked you to do, mentions this as one major theory about what makes someone's life go best. He calls it the "Desire-Fulfillment Theory."
The ultimate source of value, on this view,
is the satisfaction of desire. We must be clear about "satisfaction".
This does not refer to any sort of feeling. Rather, it refers
simply to the situation in which a person gets what he wants;
his desires are satisfied. Suppose I want my children to be happy
after I die.
Suppose they are, but I never know about this. Then my desire is satisfied in this sense, but I do not get any "feelings of satisfaction".
We can define this as follows:
S's desire for p is satisfied =df. S desires that p be the case, and p is the case.
S's desire for p is frustrated =df. S desires that p be the case, but not-p is the case.
The first element of Desire Satisfactionism is a statement about the basic bearers of intrinsic value, positive and negative. On this theory, "The Good" is the satisfaction of actual desires, no matter what they are desires for; "The Bad" is frustration of actual desires, again no matter what they are desires for.
I. Every case of desire satisfaction is intrinsically good; every case of desire frustration is intrinsically bad.
Does everyone understand what a "case" of desires satisfaction is? It is a situation in which a person desires that something be the case, and it is the case.
Next, we need a principle stating the numerical value of each desire satisfaction, and each desire frustration.
Clause II of any axiological theory always says this. Parfit suggests a way to do this, on p. 133b, at the bottom. He talks of a "Summative" version of the Desire theory. This is the route we'll take. He talks of assigning some positive number to each desires that is fulfilled and some negative number to each desire that is not fulfilled. Parfit then says, "How great these numbers are depends upon the intensity of the desires in question."
So, we will suppose that whenever we desire
something, we desire it with a certain "strength" or
"intensity". This gives the answer to the question
'how much do you desire that?' Maybe the strength of a desire
can be measured by appeal to how much you would pay to get it
In any case, if we assume that every desire has a certain intensity, which can be represented by a number, we can say this about the intrinsic value of the satisfaction or frustration of a desire:
II. The intrinsic value of a desire satisfaction is equal to the intensity of the desire satisfied; the intrinsic value of a desire frustration is equal to -(the intensity of the desire frustrated).
As a result, it is always intrinsically
good for a desire to be satisfied, and always intrinsically bad
for a desire to be frustrated (because in the latter case the
intrinsic value of the frustration is always a negative number).
And it is always intrinsically better for a stronger desire to
be satisfied, and always intrinsically worse for a stronger desire
to be frustrated.
As in the case of CH, our final principle explains how the value of a complex thing is determined.
Parfit alludes to this on the next page (134a, top). He says that the "total net sum of desire-fulfillment is the sum of the positive numbers minus the negative numbers." This is a slightly screwed up way of stating part of Clause III of Desire Satisfactionism. Here is our statement of it:
III. The intrinsic value of a complex thing such as a life, consequence, or possible world is equal to the sum of the intrinsic values of all the desire satisfactions and frustrations that occur in that life, consequence, or world.
Does everyone get the theory?
C. Applications of the Theory
If we apply DS to the life of the Stoicus, we get the result that his life was pretty good. We assume that each day of his life Stoicus wanted peace and quiet and got exactly that. So his desires were largely satisfied and hardly ever frustrated. DS implies that the value of his life is thus equal to sum of the ivalues of all these desire satisfactions. And that the ivalue of each of these is equal to the intensity of the desires satisfied. Since he had strong desires for peace and quiet, each will be worth a lot. His long desire-fulfilled life will thus come out pretty good on DS. Classical Hedonism, recall, gave him a very low score, since he hardly had any feelings of pleasure in his life.
DS will also imply that L2 (in the experience machine argument) is not as good as L1. This is because the guy in L2 wanted love, friendship, achievement, but got none of it. So, even though he didn't know it, his desires were largely frustrated. His life will therefore have a low score according to DS.
So, in both of these cases, DS seems to have more plausible results than CH does. You might like ADS because it is less "paternalistic" than CH. Whatever you want, if you get it, then you're life goes well. Who are we to say what you should want? Who are we to say exactly what's good for you?
You might also like DS because it can explain why a life in which you are radically deceived isn't as good as one in which you are not.
Now, DS is so anti-paternalistic, that it will not judge harshly the life of Porky, either. It will say that his life is fine so long as Porky wants to be screwing the pigs -- and let's suppose he does. But I gave some reasons to think that maybe this isn't such a hard result to swallow.
D. A Problem for DS: Max the Masochist
In the reading from Parfit in the anthology, there are hints of a handful of problems for DS, along with suggestions about how the theory might be revised to avoid these difficulties.
I wish we had the opportunity to study all of these, since I think this is fabulously interesting, but we don't. So I'm going to focus on just one of these difficulties, one that seems to go to the heart of the theory.
The problem emerges from the fact that it makes sense to suppose that sometimes people desire things that are not good for them. It seems that a person might be confused, or mentally unbalanced, or brainwashed so that he desires lots of things that will in fact make his life go worse. As a result, we can see that it is possible for a person's desires to be well satisfied, but his life to be bad.
Parfit suggests this on p. 136 when he says, "suppose ... in some imagined cases, what someone would most want both now and later, fully knowing the alternatives, would not be what would be best for him. If we accept this conclusion, it may seem that we must reject" a theory like DS.
For example, suppose a person (we can call
him 'Max the Masochist') suffers from some mental defect that
makes him desire pain, failure, illness, humiliation, and early
death. Suppose he gets these. DS implies that his life went
well for him. But surely his life was a wreck. He would have
been much better off if he had different desires and they had
been satisfied. The satisfaction of these desires did him no
So we have this little argument:
Max the Masochist:
1. Max the Masochist led a miserable life.
2. If Max the Masochist led a miserable life, then DS is false.
3. Therefore, DS is false.
P1: Look at his life. From early on, he was constantly in pain. He failed at everything he did. He was sick and ill. He was constantly humiliated and ashamed of himself and his failures and his miserable. And he died young. This is what happened in Max's life. Now, are we going to say this is not a miserable life? If you were asked to describe a life in which the person was not doing well, could you do a better job than to describe Max's? It seems not. So it seems clear that Max's life did not go well for him -- he led a miserable life.
P2: But if Max really did lead a miserable life, then DS can't be true, because DS implies that Max's life went well for him. It implies this because all of these things Max got, he actually wanted! He wanted this misery. He wanted the pain, the humiliation, the illness, the early death.
Maybe you're skeptical about P1. Maybe, you say, if Max really did want those things, then his life was fine. Maybe some people are inclined to think Max's life didn't go so well because they wouldn't want those things.
But can you really swallow this? Suppose you had a close friend just like Max -- your friend had desires just like Max, and he was getting them satisfied. Would you then just sit back and say, "Oh wonderful, I'm so glad things are going so well for my friend?" No -- you'd try to get your friend some help. You'd think things would be better for your friend if he had different desires (say for love, pleasure, friendship, success) and got those things. But if DS is true, what you are saying doesn't even make sense. It doesn't even make sense to say the things he desires are bad for him.