Desirism provides a template that could be used in resolving moral disputes.
This template divides the types of reasons that can be brought into a moral dispute into four categories.
• Reasons that do not exist. • Desires that cannot be objectively satisfied. • The effects of desires on other desires. • The malleability of desires.
This illustration will use the issue of homosexuality to explain the elements of the template. However, this is not meant to be a complete discussion of the issue of homosexuality. That discussion would involve a lot more detail and require a lot more evidence.
The conflict that I will use can be expressed as follows: "If a person who opposes homosexual acts thwarts the desires of homosexuals, then don't homosexuals thwart the desires of those who oppose homosexual acts?" What do we do when faced with this kind of conflict?
Category 1: Reasons for action that do not exist.Edit
Desirism holds that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. This means that any claims to reasons for actions other than desires are false, and they can be tossed out of the moral debate.
We are going to throw out all claims based on the idea of a god and divine commands – because there is no god and his alleged commands are actually the prejudices of people who died thousands of years ago and whose desires no longer exist. We are going to throw out all appeals to what is "natural" - since these claims assume that "natural" has some type of intrinsic merit, and intrinsic merit does not exist. We are going to throw out implications of the form, "It seems right to me; therefore, it is right." Personal likes and dislikes will be relevant. They represent desires and, as such, they represent reasons for action that exist. However, the direct implication from the fact that one has a particular sentiment about some state of affairs to the conclusion that others ought to have that same implication is invalid and will be thrown out. We are going to toss out any claims based on a "moral sense" – a faculty in the brain that allows us to perceive moral qualities by contemplating the situation in which it arose. We have no "moral sense". What some people call "moral sense" is simply their personal opinions and prejudices. The only thing we are going to allow are appeals to reasons for action that exist – which is to say, appeals to desires. Desires provide the only reasons for praising or condemning certain attitudes – the only thing in the real world that will allow us to determine if people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an attitude or inhibit it.
Category 2: Desires that cannot be objectively satisfied.Edit
After we have removed reasons that do not exist from the calculation, we are going to remove reasons that exist but cannot be objectively satisfied. A person may have an aversion to a state in which God is offended. She may believe that a state in which people engage in homosexual acts is a state in which God is offended. Her aversion is real. As such, it is a reason for action that exists.
However, the state that this person is averse to – a state in which a god is offended – can never happen in the real world. Regardless of the number of homosexual acts that take place, no actual god has ever been offended by those actions. Thus, this person's desire does not provide us with a real-world reason for the real-world condemnation of homosexual acts.
Desirism looks at reasons for action that exist – not reasons for action that people wrongly believe exists. People with an aversion to acts that are intrinsically wrong are in this same situation. No homosexual act is intrinsically wrong, so an aversion to intrinsically wrong acts is not a reason to oppose any real-world homosexual act. This is true even if one falsely believes that homosexual acts are intrinsically wrong. On the other hand, a person might simply have an aversion to a state of affairs in which homosexual acts take place. If this is the case, then this person has a reason for action that exists – and it is a reason for acting in ways that reduce or eliminate states of affairs in which homosexual acts take place. This means that he has a real-world reason to condemn those desires that would tend to cause people to engage in homosexual acts. Consequently, this claim would be legitimate.
Here, it is important to distinguish between an aversion to taking part in homosexual acts versus a desire that homosexual acts not take place. An agent might find the idea of having sex with somebody of the same gender repulsive. However, that agent can avoid states of affairs that thwart his desires simply by not entering into a state where he is performing homosexual acts. This is not a reason to prevent others from having sex with people of the same gender.
It is not uncommon for a person to take a personal like or dislike and make the mistake of thinking that others should like or dislike it as well. This happens when he takes his own approval or disapproval to be a sign of some intrinsic value property and a faculty on his part that allows him to detect this property reliably. He would then infer from this that those who do not react as he does do not have a properly functioning detector of this value property. The claim that an object of evaluation has this property is false (and, thus, fits in Category 1). An agent's own desire or aversion, which counts as a legitimate reason for action, still counts as the desire of one person only - and does not automatically trump any other desire.
Category 3: The real-world effects of real-world desires.Edit
For the desires that are real, we are going to look at the effects of those desires on realizing states of affairs that objectively satisfy other desires.
We already know that an aversion to states in which homosexual acts take place is it motivates people to thwart the desires of those who are motivated to participate in homosexual acts. Similarly, the desires that motivate people to engage in homosexual acts motivate them to create states in which homosexual acts exist - states that thwart the desires of those averse to homosexual acts taking place.
We have asked how common these desires are - removing from our list desires that a god not be offended and aversions to intrinsic badness being realized because those have no relevance in the real world.
We further need to ask how strong these competing desires are. It would matter that those with a desire to engage in homosexual acts have a particularly strong desire that makes this type of relationship of central importance in their lives, while those with the aversion have a rather mild aversion that they can live with. In this case, the question of "more and stronger" desires will side with the former, unless the latter is far more common. In this category, we will also add the effects of each of these desires on fulfilling or thwarting other desires. We may discover that people with homosexual desires tend to abuse children. If this is true, then the desire-thwarting elements of child abuse would be a reason to condemn homosexual desires. If it is true that by condemning homosexual acts and the desires that motivate people to perform such acts, we can reduce desires that contribute to the abuse of children, given that people have reason to prevent states in which children are abused, they would have real-world reasons to condemn homosexual acts.
However, this is only the case if such a claim is true. One of the dangers we need to worry about in this category is that of people malicously making up claims to justify acting on their desires in ways harmful to others. People with an aversion to homosexual acts take place have a motivating reason to cause others to believe that a relationship like this exists, even if it does not. People with desires that motivate them to engage in homosexual acts have reason to get others to doubt that a relationship like this exists, even when it does. What we are interested in here is the fact of the matter, not the false beliefs that manipulative people have reason to promote.
To determine the effects of desires that motivate people to engage in homosexual acts, we may want to look at desires that motivate people to engage in heterosexual acts. One may claim that we have reason to condemn desires motivating homosexual acts because such acts contribute to the spread of disease, cause physical harm, or violate the rules of consent. However, there are heterosexual acts that also spread disease, cause physical harm, or violate the rules of consent.
It is quite illegitimate to argue in the case of heterosexual desire that this justifies aversions to those types of acts that spread disease, cause physical harm, and violate the rules of consent while arguing, in the case of homosexual desires, that this provides a justification for condemning homosexuality itself.
Another set of data that would be relevant in this case relates to whether those with homosexual desires tend to engage in self-destructive or anti-social behavior. The desire-thwarting elements in self-destructive and anti-social behavior provides reasons for action to condemn desires that produce these states. However, we must take care to get the proper cause. Is it the case that homosexual desire itself brings about these states? Or is it the case that the condemnation of those with these desires causes psychological harms that, in turn, lead to self-destructive and anti-social behaviors? If it is the former, then we have reason to condemn homosexual desires themselves. If the latter, then we have reason to condemn those with an aversion to homosexual acts taking place for attitudes that bring about states of self-destructive and anti-social behavior.
Cagegory 4: Malleable versus fixed desiresEdit
In a sense, this category comes after the category of the effects of desires because we are going to distinguish between moral evil and a mental illness. After determining that a particular desire is harmful and one that people have many and strong reasons to be rid of, we are going to ask if it can be countered using social forces such as praise and condemnation. If it can, then it is a moral evil and we bring these social forces to bear against it. If not, then it is a mental illness. It makes no sense for us to condemn such a person – that condemnation does no useful work. However, the harms caused by the desire are still reasons to confine such a person or remove the conditions that make them a danger to others. In this conflict between desires that motivate people to engage in homosexual acts and the aversion to states in which homosexual acts take place, which can be most easily eliminated? It appears to be the case that the desires that motivate agents to engage in homosexual acts are quite firmly established. Actually, there is no desire to engage in homosexual acts. There is a desire to engage in sex with a male – embedded in the brain of somebody with a male body. And there a desire to engage in sex with a female in the brain of somebody with a female body. These "desires to engage in sex with a male/female" are likely to be firmly fixed in the brain – regardless of the physical properties of the body that that the brain finds itself in. It is probably as difficult to change the desire to have sex with a man when the brain is in a male body as it is when such a brain is in a female body. On the other hand, evolution has no reason to fix in the brain an aversion to a state in which homosexual acts exist. Evidence suggests that it is acquired through learning - from a childhood of being exposed to people who condemn those who engage in homosexual acts. Where it is the case that these social forces are causing the aversion, a change in social forces can eliminate the aversion and, in doing so, eliminate the conflict. We need to apply these criteria not only to the desires themselves, but to the other desires that are fulfilled or thwarted. Where the condemnation of homosexual acts causes psychological harms that motivate self-destructive and anti-social behavior, is this thwarting desires that can be easily modified or desires that are fixed? In this case, aversions to the harms brought about by self-destructive and anti-social behavior are, for the most part, fixed.
Even if an affected desire is malleable, we need to ask whether we have reason to promote that desire or inhibit it. Perhaps parental affection or a child's interest in parental affection are both malleable. Perhaps we can, to some degree, weaken or eliminate this desire generally throughout the population. As a matter of fact, we have few reasons to do so and many reasons to go in the other direction and to strengthen these bonds. Thus, an aversion to homosexual acts that turn parents against their own children can be criticized for thwarting desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote.
If we want to come to a conclusion on an actual moral issue, then these are the considerations to look at.
In the first category, toss out all claims of divine commands, categorical imperatives, intrinsic values, primary moral oughts, and all similar assertions that make reference to reasons for action that do not exist.
In the second category, toss out all appeals to desires that cannot be thwarted or fulfilled regardless of the conclusions we reach. Desires to please god or to realize states that have intrinsic merit are real desires, but the states these people desire can never be realized.
In the third category, evaluate desires according to their effects on other desires. Consider not only whether such a conflict exists, but the strengths of the competing desires.
In the fourth category, determine which desires are malleable. We have reason to target easily changed desires. If we can end destructive conflict simply by stopping the practice of promoting a particular aversion, then this simple course is to be preferred over other options that are extremely difficult and costly.
These considerations suggest that there are times in which the moral calculus may be difficult. However, there is no fault in a theory that reports as true what is in fact true – that on some issues determining the morally right answer is very difficult, or nearly impossible. Nor does the fact that some questions are hard to answer imply that others are not easy to answer. It seems difficult on this model that the value of an aversion to killing aggressors, or lying, or engaging in acts intimately involving others without their consent cannot be easily demonstrated. Furthermore, we do not need to compute the effect of every little desire in making these calculations. The movement of an object through space is influenced by every asteroid, star, and galaxy that exists. However, a rocket scientist plotting the course of a probe to Mars does not need to put all of this data in her calculations. She only needs to include those items that have the greatest influence on the final result. The answer will be close enough to accurate for all practical purposes, and morality is a practical art.