Attraction, Description and the Desire-Satisfaction Theory of Welfare

Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy (1):1-8 (2016)
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The desire-satisfaction theory of welfare says that what is basically good for a subject is the satisfaction of his desires. One challenge to this view is the existence of quirky desires, such as a desire to count blades of grass. It is hard to see why anyone would desire such things, and thus hard to believe that the satisfaction of such desires could be basically good for anyone. This suggests that only some desires are basically good when satisfied, and that desire satisfactionists owe us an account of which desires these are, and why. In "Quirky Desires and Well-Being," Donald Bruckner proposes such an account: a desire is welfare-relevant (i.e., such that its satisfaction would be basically good for its subject) if and only if and because its subject could describe its object in a way that makes it comprehensible what about the object attracts him or appeals to him. We are inclined to view quirky desires as welfare-irrelevant because we assume that their objects cannot be described in such a way. But if there were a quirky desire whose object could be so described by the subject whose desire it is, then this desire would be relevant to that subject's welfare. I will argue that while Bruckner's view delivers plausible verdicts about the cases to which it is meant to apply, its account of what makes a desire welfare-relevant is unmotivated and implausible. Desire satisfactionists can retain what is plausible about his view while endorsing a better explanation of why welfare-relevant desires have that status if they accept the following account instead: a desire is welfare-relevant if and only if and because something about its object attracts, or appeals to, the subject who has the desire.

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Eden Lin
Ohio State University


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