Maximizing Desires

Part 2 of the series I just want what I want! (Thinking about Desires)

Mill and Utilitarianism

Here is a math problem to get things started:

There are four children playing happily in a room, each with their own toy.

One new toy is brought into the room and placed in the middle. How many children will now want the new one?

Anyone who has been around children knows the answer. All four will want it.

Since children are humans, they are great desirers, and since they are children they don’t try to hide it.

Most people will also approach the real-life versions of this scenario in a similar way. If there is one toy and four children, make them share it. If it is a ball they can play a game together, and if it is a car they can take turns. In either case, the general impulse is a reasonable one: try to satisfy the desires of all the children to the extent that circumstances allow.

Given this impulse, perhaps it should be expanded into a principle for addressing all desires: the goal of any encounter between people is to maximize the desires that are satisfied.

To take another example, suppose that you have a very nice car. Suppose also that I would like to have your car very much. So I steal it. I might justify my action based on this goal of maximizing desire satisfaction, by saying that we both wanted the car. It doesn’t matter, then, which of us has the car, since in either case one person’s desire is satisfied and the other’s is not. So I might as well have it.

This would be a superficial application of this principle, however, since the desires involved are not simply the opposing desires for the car. You also have a desire to have your property be secure. In fact, the whole society has a desire to feel safe from thieves. Thus, my desire for the car is outweighed by many others.

The principle of maximizing desires is put forward in the book Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill. (Yes, this is the same Mill from my first post.) He calls it the greatest happiness principle, but it is usually just called the principle of utilitarianism. Mill was not the first to put it forward, but his presentation in Utilitarianism is particularly clear and was influential. He puts the principle like this:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.

Utilitarianism, p. 7

The right action is the one that brings about the most pleasure, whether this is because many people receive it or because it is very great for a few. Or we could say that the right action is the one that satisfies the most desires, whether this means the desires of many or desires that are important and strong. (There are times where it would be good to distinguish receiving pleasure from satisfying desires, but for the purposes here they can be discussed together.)

Many people find utilitarianism intuitive, and it often makes sense in situations that involve a lot of people, such as economic or public works decisions. For example, if a city is thinking about whether to put in a new road, there will inevitably be some in favor and some opposed, and the right decision is frequently doing the action that benefits the most people. The same could be said for when a country is deliberating on tax policy.

But there are difficulties for utilitarianism as well. If the right action is the one that concentrates happiness or desires in order to bring about the maximal result, then utilitarianism might start praising Robin Hood situations. If you are a rich person with twenty cars, and I am a poor person with no car and a job across town, then there is a case to be made that my desire for the car is stronger than yours, and that my happiness at possessing it would be greater. So it might not be wrong for me to steal the car. Now some people would agree with this conclusion, while others would strongly disagree. So at the least, utilitarianism is entering controversial waters.

And to get even more controversial, utilitarianism will ultimately have to side with a great majority of people over a small minority, because of its focus on maximizing the result. If it would not only make me happy to have your car, but it would make everyone else in my city happy for me to have it, then many more desires would be satisfied by me stealing it. So since this action would bring about the most happiness, it is right. This is true even though it is your car, and even if it is your only car.

That is a far-fetched example, but what about the following. A prominent and much-beloved figure in the community is killed. There is very little evidence as to who killed her, and because of the circumstances, it is not likely that the case will ever be solved conclusively. John is a possible suspect for the murder, although it is by no means certain that he is the culprit. He is also a recent immigrant, and people in the community wish he would leave, because they fear both his foreign customs and the threat of immigrants taking jobs away. Because of their hatred of him and because the community desires closure on the murder, they want to convict him for the crime.

Convicting John would strike many outside observers as wrong, but it seems like a utilitarian would have to say that it is right. Many more desires are being satisfied. If it still seems like John’s desires outweigh those of the community, just keep growing its size. What if the community was the whole world? In that case, it seems hard not to agree that the total desire of the world is stronger than that of John. Utilitarianism would have to say it is right to convict him, even though for many people this still seems unjust. If the goal is to maximize the satisfaction of desires, then eventually large enough majorities will always have to win.

While this is an important problem to consider, there is an even more fundamental issue to address when it comes to utilitarianism. I ended my previous post by saying that if we want to resolve disputes between desires, we need to be able to appeal to an objective standard. That is, we need to examine desires in light of morality. Utilitarianism potentially addresses this need, since it has a different function from the harm principle discussed last time. The harm principle is a political principle, one that explains what actions a society should allow its citizens to perform. By contrast, the utilitarian principle is an ethical principle, an attempt to explain right from wrong. Utilitarianism is supplying a moral standard.

If I am a baker of chocolate-bacon-cocaine donuts, it could be that in light of the harm principle society should allow me to sell my wares. Everyone who chooses to eat them is doing so willingly, so there is no harm to outside parties. But at the same time it could also be ethically wrong under utilitarianism for me to sell them, since my addicted faithful customers bankrupt themselves buying my tasty, tasty treats. As their lives are ruined, their happiness goes way down, and in some sense their donut-destroyed lives are not what they desired.

Now, there are all sorts of things that could be said at this point. We could ask whether or not an addict should be counted as acting on their desires. We could ask whether the harm principle and utilitarianism would produce results that are very different, and especially whether utilitarianism would resolve the problematic situations I discussed last time. We could ask whether utilitarianism has already been shown to fail as an ethical theory, given the way it favors the majority.

But I am going to focus on one fundamental issue for utilitarianism: how it treats desires. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory based upon maximizing the satisfaction of desires, so this means that prior to any conflicts, all desires are good. It does not evaluate whether a given desire is right or wrong, then seek to maximize the right ones, but it defines right and wrong in terms of desiring. The right action simply is the one that maximizes the satisfaction of desires, whatever desires happen to be out there.

I want your car and you want your car. Or four children all want the new toy. If we always approach these situations by trying to maximize desires so that as many of them are satisfied as possible, this assumes, like utilitarianism, that all desires should be satisfied—that desires don’t become wrong until they start hindering the satisfaction of someone else’s desires. But what if it is simply wrong for me to want your car? What if the new toy is a video game that is violent and misogynistic, and it is not the sort of thing that anyone should want to play?

The point is made even clearer in extreme cases. If the goal is to satisfy as many desires as possible, then why not introduce the murderous and the suicidal? One desires to kill, the other to die. It’s a match made in heaven! Of course, we could object that allowing murderers to exercise their desires will simply encourage them to practice on non-willing subjects as well, or that a wish to die is different from a wish to be brutally murdered. These are, however, just technicalities. Presumably we could find someone who wants to know what it is like to kill another human being and who would do so in a way acceptable to the one who wants to die.

This is the fundamental flaw with utilitarianism. Many of our desires are good: we want to live, to be loved, to help those in need. But we can also have desires that are wrong. No human being should want to know what it is like to kill another. No human being should want to take God’s place, given that the position is already filled, permanently and well. (Of course, this doesn’t stop us!) Even so simple a thing as me desiring what is yours can be a problem. If you obtained it through fair means, but I want it so much that I envy you—I want for you not to have it and for me to have it instead—this seems like a wrong desire, because it is treating myself as more important than you.

Utilitarianism addresses the relationship between desires and morality, but its answer is inadequate. Not all desires are good. It seems like some desires go against what is right, before we even take into consideration whether those desires fit with or go against the desires of others. Whatever morality consists of, there at least needs to be a possibility for some desires to be wrong. Because of this, the way to deal with desires can’t simply be maximizing them, for we might end up favoring widely held but immoral desires. Our desires can conflict with morality, and this will be the focus of my next post.


  • John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. [1861.] Second Edition. Hackett Publishing Company 2001. (Utilitarianism is quite clear, as long as you keep in mind the aspects of Mill’s writing mentioned in my previous post. The main presentation is in chapter 2, and it consists of a brief explanation of Mill’s position, followed by a series of objections to it, along with Mill’s replies.)

I just want what I want! (Thinking about Desires)

  1. Allowing Desires, Mostly
  2. Maximizing Desires
  3. Desires vs. Morality
  4. Motivating Morality Without Desires
  5. Motivating Morality With Desires
  6. Fear, Love, and Desires