Duration in Desire Satisfactionism

Where I come from, there are two main theories of welfare value: Hedonism, and Desire Satisfactionism. Typical versions of hedonism about value say that things are going well (for you, in the world, in this situation, in the consequence of this event, etc.) to the extent that the relevant entity contains a favorable balance of pleasure over pain; whereas typical versions of desire satisfactionism say that things are going well to the extent that the relevant entity contains a favorable balance of desire satisfaction over frustration. If you’re reading this, this is probably familiar.

Typical versions of the hedonic calculus involve the claims that pleasure and pain come in episodes, that the value of an episode of pleasure depends on how much pleasure it contains, and that the amount of pleasure contained in an episode is determined by multiplying the intensity of the pleasure by its duration. This means that, other things being equal, if one episode of pleasure is more intense than another, it is better. It also means that, other things being equal, if one episode lasts longer than the other, it is also better. This makes sense to me.

But desire satisfactionism is different. Typical versions of desire satisfactionism identify the satisfaction of a desire with a situation in which S desires that p be the case at a time and p is the case at that time, and then claim that the value of a desire satisfaction is equal to the intensity of the desire.

In an exceptionally clear instance of this trend, Chris Heathwood writes:

The Desire Satisfactionist picture is this. Each day of our lives, and over greater spans as well, we get some things we want and fail to get other things we want. When the former happens, we enjoy a desire satisfaction; when the latter happens, we suffer a desire frustration. The greater the number and intensity of the satisfactions and the lesser the number and intensity of the frustrations, the greater the balance of desire satisfaction over frustration.

Preferentism and Self Sacrifice.” p. 25*

And Heathwood is not alone; prominent philosophers who do not indicate that the duration of the satisfaction makes a difference include: Brandt, A Theory of the Good and the Right, pp. 24 – 30, 126 – 9; Griffin, Well-Being, pp. 10 – 13; Hare, Moral Thinking, pp. 91, 95; Heathwood, “Preferentism and Self-Sacrifice,” p. 25.; Heathwood, “Desire-Satisfactionism and Hedonism,” p. 540; Heathwood, “The Problem of Defective Desires,” p. 489; and Kagan, Normative Ethics, p. 36.

This inattention to the duration of the individual cases of desire satisfaction seems to me to be problematic. Consider, for example, the following case: Smith and Jones each work at the same button factory. In a world without labor laws, Smith and Jones work 16-hour shifts, seven days a week. Smith loves the work and has a constant desire to be at work, making buttons. This desire is, of course, satisfied 16 hours out of every day and frustrated the other 8. On the other hand, Jones does not like the work and has a constant desire to be at home with her family. This desire is satisfied eight hours out of every day and frustrated the other 16.

Intuitively, it seems that things are going better for Smith than they are for Jones, but a version of satisfactionism that attends only to the number of desire satisfactions while ignoring their duration will entail that they are equally well-off.

But then suppose that Smith is made to go home for lunch every day. This doubles the number of satisfactions she is involved in, by chopping the workday into two halves separated by a frustrating break, but without affecting their overall duration. Desire satisfactionism as it is normally formulated has the implauisble implication that this policy would double Smith’s well-being.

Here’s another example. Suppose Smith has just one desire his entire life: he wants to be the owner of a Ford Mustang. Suppose that this desire is frustrated early on–in particular, when he is not old enough to drive. But suppose that later on it is satisfied, and that this period begins on his 16th birthday and continues uninterrupted for the rest of his life. Jones has a similar life-long desire for a Ford Mustang, which is just as intense as Smith’s, and which is frustrated early on and satisfied later in life. Unlike Smith, Jones doesn’t acquire a Mustang until his 76th birthday. Suppose they each die at age 80. Smith and Jones each have the same number of satisfactions (1) and frustrations (also 1). According to the standard formulation, which says that it is the number and intensity of desire satisfactions that contribute to the value of a life, Jones is just as well-off as Smith. But this seems wrong. Smith spent practically his entire life with his only desire satisfied, and Jones spent practically his entire life going without.

Of course, it is possible that there is some good reason why satisfactionists don’t talk about duration, although I am not aware of an instance of a discussion of desire-satisfactionism that addresses this question. But all of these problems seem to be serious. As it is normally formulated, desire satisfactionism gives highly implausible results in each of these cases. So I suggest that an alternative formulation that recognizes the effect of duration on the value of a case of desire satisfaction be adopted.

* I asked Chris about this, and he tells me that his actual view is more sophisticated than the view contained in the quotation, that according to his actual view desires satisfactions are instantaneous events consisting of someone desiring that P while P is true, and that this gives his view the resources to do approximately what I’m looking for, since what I would call a longer-lasting satisfaction is what he would call a lot more satisfactions.

This entry was posted in Desire Satisfactionism, Hedonism, value theory. Bookmark the permalink.

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