Desirism Wiki

Desirism is a moral theory that holds that desires are the fundamental object of moral evaluation. It is built on an overall theory of value that holds that value exists in the real world as a set of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

Right Actions and Good Character[]

Actions are evaluated according to whether or not they are the actions that a person with good desires would perform. Note that the moral value of an action does not depend on the desires that actually motivated it - but on whether a person with good desires would have done the same thing.

Specifically, there are three moral categories for intentional action:

  1. Obligatory: That which a person must do.
  2. Prohibited: That which a person must not do.
  3. Non-obligatory permission: That which a person may or may not do as suits their interest.

Desirism accounts for these three moral categories as follows:

  1. Obligatory: That act which a person with good desires would perform under those circumstances. A person has a moral obligation to repay debts or tell the truth under conditions where a person with good desires would repay debts or tell the truth.
  2. Prohibited: That act which a person with good desires would not perform under those circumstances. Taking the property of another without consent is prohibited where a person with good desires would not take the property.
  3. Non-obligatory permission: An act that a person with good desires may or may not perform. There is a variety of shows that a person with good desires may decide to watch, and a variety of foods one may decide to eat. With some exceptions, having good desires does not dictate a specific show to watch or specific food to eat.

A good desire, in this sense, is a desire that people generally have reason to promote.

Desires themselves are the only reasons for intentional action that exist. That is to say, they are the only entities in the world that identify an objective or goal and direct intentional action towards that goal. As such when saying that an agent ought to do something else (prescribing action) this implies either that the person ought to have believed something else (practical ought), or desired something else (moral ought) or both.

The desires that an agent acts on are his own desires. This view may sound like some form of egoism. However, it is not, owing to the fact that the desires that an agent can act on may (and often does) include genuine concerns for the well-being of other people.

Some desires are malleable. They are not hard-wired into the brain. They are acquired - learned - through experience. Consequently, it is possible for one person to alter the behavior of others by altering the desires of others. They can do this by using the mechanisms through which desires are learned, strengthened, or weakened.

To "have reason to promote" a desire is to have a desire that the desire being promoted would objectively satisfy. An aversion to pain is a reason to promote in others an aversion to causing pain.

Some desires are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. That is to say, there are many and strong desires out there that the desire in question can objectively satisfy. These are the "good desires" referred to above.

That people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a particular desire is a knowable fact - one that is substantially independent of the feelings, wishes, beliefs, or attitudes of any one person.

The relevant mechanism for learning desires - acquiring new desires or strengthening or weakening existing desires - is through the reward system. When an action creates a reward, the malleable desires that motivate that action are strengthened. Punishment, on the other hand, modifies desires to motivate agents to avoid that which brought the punishment. Actions that may, at one time, be taken as a means for acquiring a reward or avoiding a punishment may come to be valued for their own sake, independent of the original reward or punishment. For a basic account of the tools available for altering malleable desires see Yvain, [Basics of Human Reinforcement].

So, when people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a malleable desire, they have many and strong reasons to use the tools of social conditioning - praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment - to strengthen that desire.

Desirism, then, concerns identifying malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, and directing the social tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promoting those desires. Those who perform the actions of a person with good desires are to draw praise and are rewarded, while those who do not perform the actions of a person with good desires are to draw condemnation and punishment.

By evaluating actions according to what a person with good desires would do, and desires in terms of their tendency to objectively satisfy other desires, desirism fits within the same category of two-tiered moral systems as J.S. Mill's rule utilitarianism and R.M. Hare's Prescriptivism. Among other things, this makes it possible for a "right act" to show favoritism to one's own friends and family (favoring one's own children rather than demanding impartiality for all children), while, at the same time, demanding impartiality at the level where desires are evaluated by their relation to other desires.

Conflicting Desires[]

A common question asked about desirism is, "What happens if desires conflict? One person has a desire that P. Another has a desire that not-P. How do you determine who wins?"

The answer is different depending on whether you are talking about a simple community having just two agents with conflicting desires, or a complex community of 7 billion people with conflicting desires. In the case of simple conflicting desires, there may not be an answer - there just may be conflict and no way to resolve it. In the case of a community conflict, one can bring in all sorts of data about the effects of various desires on other desires. The result in the latter case is a moral template for resolving moral issues.


A lot of questions in meta-ethics deal with the meanings of moral terms. Desirism does not tend to defend any strong positions on these issues, holding instead that matters of definitions are not that important. Different definitions are treated as different languages, where one should be able to translate a correct theory of morality from one language to another, the way one can translate the theory of evolution from one language to another.

In the language that desirism adopts, it holds that there are no "objective values" (desires determine all value, and only provide a motivating reason to those who have the desire). However, there are objective moral facts (a moral statement is true or false independent of the beliefs or desires of the person who uttered it).

There is also no such thing as free will. Desirism requires determinism. Actions are the determined results of beliefs, desires, and other mental states. Environmental factors can cause changes in desires. People with desires often have reasons to modify the desires of others using praise and condemnation. All of these relationships fit together in a determined universe.

Even though desirism grounds value on brain states (desires),

Desirism reduces claims about 'ought' (or 'should') to claims about relationships between states of affairs and desires. If an agent has a desire that P, and doing X will realize P, then the agent has a motivating reason to do X. The agent should do X - unless there are more and stronger motivating reasons to be found against doing X. Unlike brain-state theories that reduce all value and motivation to one or more brain states such as pleasure or happiness, desirism claims that a desire that P aims at creating a state in which P is true. This may be a brain state, as when an agent desires to feel pleasure. However, P may also be an external state such as when an agent desires that a particular species be preserved from extinction.

Even though desirism relates 'should' to reasons for action, and it relates reasons for action to desires, in the realm of moral 'ought' it denies motivational internalism. This is because an agent is motivated by the desires she has. However, 'moral ought' relates an action to the desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. These may differ. The desires that a particular agent actually has, may not be the desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit.

Desirism denies the is/ought distinction, claiming that the only relevant distinction is the distinction between 'is' and 'is not'. If 'ought' is distinct from 'is' then 'ought' belongs in the realm of 'is not'. It also dismisses the so-called 'naturalistic fallacy', claiming that this objection to reducing value claims to claims of natural fact is itself grounded on a fallacy - the masked man fallacy.

At the same time, desirism, even though it holds that moral claims are objectively true or false propositions, holds that there is a lot of truth in emotivism. Moral claims actually contain those elements of praise and condemnation (cheers and boos) that, at the same time, claim that people have many and strong reasons to give.

Desirism is a view that is fully compatible with human evolution.

History of Philosophy[]

Many of the elements of Desirism can be found in the writings of David Hume. Hume held that moral judgments are primarily concerned with character traits. Furthermore, those traits are evaluated according to the degree to which they are pleasing to the agents and others, and useful to the agent and others.

John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism is often evaluated as being rule-based. A good rule us a rule that maximizes utility, and the right act is the act that follows the best rule. It is also possible to interpret Mill along the lines of desire utilitarianism. A good desire is a desire that maximizes utility, while a right act is the act motivated by the best desires.

At the end of the 19th Century, James Martineau developed a theory that held that the moral quality of an act depends on the quality of the desire (motive) from which it sprang. Henry Sidgwick argued against Martineau that this fails to account for negligence (wrongful action with no intent to do harm), and fails to account for the possibility of performing the right action for a bad reason (reporting a child molester as an act of revenge for a slight insult). Desirism handles these objections by identifying a right act as the act that a person with good desires would do, without regard for what actually motivated the agent.

In the mid 20th century, R M Hare proposed a theory that divided moral cognition into two levels. At the level of the prole, we evaluate actions according to rules or principles. At the level of Archangel, we evaluate principles according to their utility. This is a more sophisticated version of Mill's rule utilitarianism.

Late in the 20th Century, J.L. Mackie wrote that our moral terms contained a mistaken assumption of objective, intrinsic prescriptivity. The fact that this assumption is false implies that all moral claims false. However, in the same way that chemists removed the false assumption of individibility from their definition of 'atom', ethicists can remove the false assumption of intrinsic prescriptivity from their definition of "moral". This would make it possible to have true moral claims grounded on overall interests or desires.

Currently, a lot of effort in moral philosophy is devoted to looking at certain problematic moral cases such as the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Trolley Problem. Each of these types of tests put the agent in a situation where they must make a choice. In the Prisoner's Dilemma, the situation is set up so that "defecting" on another prisoner will produce the best outcome regardless of what the other prisoner does, but both defecting produces a worse outcome than both cooperating. In the Trolley Problem, a person is asked about letting a run-away trolley continue down some tracks to kill five people, or to divert the trolley down a side path where it will kill only one. Subtle changes in the problem are known to produce interesting and hard-to-justify changes in what people claim should be done.

Common Misconceptions[]

1000 Sadists Objection. People commonly assert that desirism holds that people should act so as to maximize objective desire satisfaction, then bring up standard anti-utilitarian arguments against this view. For example, they may assert that it would be wrong to torture a person even if it objectively satisfies the desires of 1000 sadists but thwarts the desires of one victim. This view is a form of desire-fulfilling act utilitarianism. However, desirism does not hold that the right act is the act that maximizes objective desire satisfaction. It holds that the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform - and good desires are those that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. Even in a community with 1000 sadists and 1 victim there is no reason to promote a desire to torture, and everybody in the community has many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to torture.

'To Do' versus 'That Do'. Another common objection is that desirism fails to justify the conclusion that agents ought to be concerned with the interests of others. The mistake here comes from thinking that desirism says that agents should desire to objectively satisfy the desires of others. However, desirism actually states that people generally have reason to promote desires that objectively satisfy the desires of others.

Implications of the Theory[]

One of the claimed strengths of desirism is its ability to explain many elements of our moral life. This does not refer to a theory's ability to explain our moral intuitions - which desirism holds to be an attempt at rationalization. It refers to the theory's ability to account for features of our moral life such as culpability or "mens rea", the role of praise and condemnation in morality, the structure of the "excuse", the apology, consent, supererogatory action, and non-obligatory permission.

Contrasting Theories[]

To better understand desirism, essays are being produced that compare desirism to other theories. For example:

Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature by Larry Arnhart

Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill