Desirism Wiki

"Why should I do X?"

According to desirism, all questions of the form, "Why should I?" are asking for a reason for action that exists.

The phrase "that exists" appears because many answers to such a question will refer to reasons for action that do not exist. A person might say, "Because God wants you to," or "Because it will help the garden spirits harvest stuff for their pet whatzits," or "Because it is a simple irreducible fact that you should do X." None of these reasons are reasons that exist. Consequently, they are reasons that the person asking the question, "Why should I?" can dismiss. A real reason to do something must be a reason that exists.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Therefore, answering a question in terms of reasons for action that exist requires drawing a relationship between X and some set of desires.

A desire that P exists, P is true in S, and doing X will realize S.

Specifically, a desire is a propositional attitude that gives an agent a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs. A "desire that P" for any proposition P is a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs S in which "P" is true. If doing X will realize a state of affairs S in which P is true then, in its most basic sense, there is a sense in which the agent ought to or should do X.

Basic "Should"[]

So, why should I do X?

Answer: Because you have a desire that P and doing X will realize a state of affairs S in which P is true.

At least, this is true for one sense of the word "should". "Should" is actually an ambiguous term - having multiple - but related - meanings. All of those meanings refer to reasons for action that exist. However, they look at different bundles of reasons for action.

The meaning that appears above shows up in a sentence like, "I should go to the gym tonight, but I want to get home and get logged in to my game." The agent has reasons for action that motivate him to go to the gym. However, he has more or stronger reasons for action that generate a stronger motivation to go home. There is a sense of the word "should" that isolates single or small bundles of desires and looks at the actions they recommend.

Practical "Should"[]

A second sense of the word "should" looks at all of an agent's desires.

"I really should go to the gym," in this sense means, "If we consider all of my present and future desires, they would be better served by my going to the gym." One problem with this, however, is that future desires have no ability to motivate present action. Tomorrow's desire to eat chocolate cake cannot motivate today's behavior unless the agent has a present desire that the future desire be satisfied. Even here, it is the present desire that motivates behavior, not the future desire.

Consequently, an agent can know, "I really should go to the gym," and yet fail to go to the gym.

Practical "should" aims to direct actions towards what will objectively satisfy all of an agent's desires through her whole lifetime. It is important in identifying areas where actual behavior may deviate from practical behavior, and to direct resources to what may bring them back into alignment.

Moral "Should"[]

The set of reasons for action (desires) that exist is larger than the set of reasons for action (desires) that an agent has or will have.

For a particular agent A, the desires of another agent B are reasons for action that exist. However, they are not reasons for action that A has. B's reasons for action that exist are not going to automatically move A towards any course of action unless A has desires where B's desires are relevant. This is true in the same way that A's future desires will not move A to act in a particular way without a present desire that the future desires be satisfied.

However, in both cases, there is a sense of the word "should" that refers to those external desires - a sense that says that there are reasons for action that exist for you to contribute to feeding the hungry, even if you have no desire to contribute to feeding the hungry. These reasons for action that exist include the desires of the hungry.

Making an agent aware of these reasons for action that exist will not, by itself, motivate an agent to act. However, these reasons for action that exist are also reasons for action that others have to give the agent the relevant desires and aversions - to promote in the agent and others a desire to (or desires that) feed the hungry.

Since praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are tools for modifying these desires, those reasons for action that exist are reasons to praise (and otherwise reward) those who are charitable and to condemn (and otherwise punish) those who are selfish.

While the agent may shrug his shoulders and say, "I do not care," that agent cannot change the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to praise and reward those who care, and to condemn and punish those who do not. Thus, he has no ability to deny the moral claim that he morally should feed the hungry. This represents a fact - though a fact that the immoral agent might not care about.

Considerations on Various Meanings of "Should"[]

The idea that "should" in the moral sense is reduced to "the action that a person with good desires would have performed" raises a number of potential objections. The term is ambiguous and easily leads to confusion. To clarify the situation, perhaps we should consider an alternative use of the word "should"

Arguments Over Definitions[]

Debates over which meanings to adopt for words do not lend themselves well to argument. Even proof that people use a word a particular way is not proof that they should continue to do so. When astronomers changed the definition of "planet", and Pluto lost its status as a planet, it was not because they discovered that the traditional use of the word was one that excluded Pluto. Nor was it because they took precise measurements and discovered by means of scientific proof that Pluto did not fit the traditional use. It was because they thought - or some thought - that a new definition would be more efficient.

Some argued against changing the definition - for some very unscientific reasons. People - particularly children - wanted Pluto to continue to be a planet and many astronomers were happy to sacrifice efficiency for the sake of pleasing a child - or to include in their definition of efficiency the idea that pleasing children promoted certain efficiencies (e.g., a love of learning the field).

The question over what to do about moral "should" likewise has to do with what would be more efficient, less confusing, more traditional, and the like.

One caveat is that changing definitions does not change the world. You cannot make Pluto bigger by calling it a planet. You cannot make slavery intrinsically good by calling it moral.

In desirism, moral statements are both truth-bearing and emotive. "You have no right to do that," reports an alleged fact of the matter - it is either true or false. Specifically, it states, "The act is of a type that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn." Claims about the effects of praise and condemnation on molding desires and aversions further refine the claim about what people generally have reason to condemn. At the same time, the statement is also emotive. It contains within it the condemnation that it claims that people generally have a reason to give.

Proposal 1: Moral "Should" Refers to Intrinsic Prescriptivity[]

One proposal claims that moral "should", as the word is currently used, refers to some sort of intrinsic prescriptivity. Intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist, so these claims are always false. Conseqeuntly, we should drop all use of moral terms when we talk about real-world acts, policies, or institutions. We can still continue to talk about desires that people generally have reasons to promote. However, using moral terms confuses people into thinking that these malleable desires are intrinsically good or bad. Regardless of the fact that desirism explicitly denies this claim, people who hear moral terms applied to desires will still instantly draw the assumption that one is making a claim about intrinsic prescriptivity.

To avoid this confusion, according to this proposal, we should drop moral 'should'.

A problem with this option is that dropping moral 'should' leads to another type of confusion - this one potentially fatal. If nothing is wrong, then everything is permissible. If it is not wrong to rape or abuse children (meaning that it contains no intrinsic badness - even though the desires are those that people generally have reason to respond to with condemnation and punishment), then it must be permissible to rape and abuse children.

We have many and strong reasons to avoid giving people an opportunity to deny the wrongness of a number of action types. Not only would it be dangerous, it would also be an avenue by which people would make fallacious objections to the desirism itself. "Desirism says that it is not wrong to rape and abuse children." Well, yes, in the sense that it is not intrinsically wrong - but not in the sense that people lack reason to respond to such acts with condemnation and punishment.

Proposal 2: Drop the factual exlement[]

Another option, closely related with the previous suggestion, is to drop the factual component of moral claims but to keep the emotive component. On this option, we recognize that a statement of moral outrage is an act of condemnation, but we remove all attempts to relate the act of condemnation and outrage to any fact, such as what people generally have reason to condemn.

A potential source of confusion that this would create arises from the shift of moral terms to all expressions of moral outrage. The parent who beats a child for spilling a glass of milk, or a man who rapes a woman claiming, "You deserve this," would be making moral statements no different than that of the person who condemns the abusive parent or the rapist. We would have to treat the rapist's statement, "You deserve this" as a legitimate claim.

Again, this change in language will not affect the types of acts that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn. However, this change will create some confusion while people switch over to the new meaning - some of which would be very costly. It would imply that beating the child or raping the woman is moral - in the sense that it is an expression of outrage and condemnation. They would then be in danger of confusing 'moral' with 'legitimate'.

Proposal 3: Dropping Intrinsic Prescriptivity[]

Another option for shifting the meaning of moral "should" is to drop the claim of intrinsic prescriptivity, but shift to the closest truth-bearing alternative to this myth.

This is the option that JL Mackie argued for in the book, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.

Mackie used the word "atom" to illustrate his point. This term originally meant "without parts". When scientists began to suspect that atoms had parts, they could have dropped the term "atom", since a particle without parts did not exist (or, at least, what they had been calling atoms was not a particle without parts).

However, what they did instead was drop "without parts" from meaning of 'atom' and continue with its traditional use in all other respects.

One potential objection to this is that it would still be confusing. Moral 'should' would be a 'should' unlike the others. The other types of 'should' relate the action to the desires of the person one is talking to. Moral 'should' would relate the action to the desires of the good person - the desires that people generally have many an strong reasons to promote. These desires may differ from those that the person one is talking to actually has.

While the previous section made it easy to draw such a conclusion, it is not true. We use 'should' in a number of ways that refer to desires other than those of the agent. For example, a person may tell her friend, "You should let your daughter go to the concert." In a case like this, she is not referring to a practical 'should' of what the mother wants. Nor is she claiming that the mother has an obligation and is worthy of condemnation from the community as a whole for refusing to allow her daughter to go to the concert. It is simply an invitation to give the daughter's own desires more weight. Advice routinely given on "what you should give your father for father's day" are also "should" statements that focus primarily on desires other than those of the person one is talking to.

All "should" statements - or, at least, all that are true - relate the action to some set of desires somewhere. This is because "should" relates actions to reasons for action, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist. However, it is not at all uncommon to use "should" statements to describe relationships between actions and desires other than those of the agent. Consequently, using "should" statements to relate actions to desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to support is actually not unusual.

On the other hand, the claim that this ambiguous use of the word "should" - having no clear meaning - is easily a source of confusion is well justified. It is not at all unusual for two people in a dispute, where one says, "You should do X" and another says, "You should not do X" to both be making true claims. The appearance of conflict is because they are using the same term while talking about two different relationships. Their dispute is like that of a person in San Francisco talking on the phone to somebody in Hong Kong, where the first person says, "Oakland is not very far," and the second person says, "Are you insane? It's half way around the world!"


The charge of confusion and the suggestion that we can be well served by coming up with a more precise language are both well founded.

There is no easy answer to this question. Each option would eliminate some confusions and provide some clarifications. At they same time, they invite new confusions and imposing some costs. Furthermore, we suffer the problem in that nobody has the ability to impose a new definition on all of society. To a certain extent, in communicating with others, we must accept the language that people generally seem to have adopted, even with its imperfections and confusions.

Desirism uses moral 'should' in a sense that is both fact-bearing and emotive. It describes an act as one that people generally have reasons to praise, and at the same time it praises the act. It uses terms that are also used with other relationships between acts and desires - generating some confusion and inviting some equivocation. However, that is less dangerous than some of the alternatives.