(‘This is what I want, I really, really want.’ The Spice Girls, 1996)
Utilitarians have a goal, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. How is this goal best attained? Here are two contrasting answers.
First, let us suppose that there are experts in human psychology. They know because of their study and practical experience the causes of happiness and unhappiness in the human mind. Indeed, they know what makes each of us happy or unhappy better than we know ourselves. For we make mistakes, believe this or that will please us and, for one reason or another, it fails to live up to expectations or, conversely, we believe that this or that will make us miserable and, to our surprise, we go on to take much enjoyment in it.
The second approach is to eschew the whole notion of happiness experts and simply aver that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is best achieved by organising society in such a way that the wishes of everyone are fulfilled as far as that is possible.
For an objection to the first formula simply read Huxley’s Brave New World or consider the practical problems that have forever beset the attempted imposition of philosopher kings as advocated by Platonists. But what about the second version, a society set up on preference utilitarian principles whereby each individual has the fullest opportunity to satisfy his or her wants? Here is one consideration?
Twenty years ago I did not have a mobile phone. Furthermore, I lacked any desire to possess one. Most people shared my view and we managed the ups and downs of life in a satisfactory manner. But in the course of time a desire to own a mobile phoned arose and grew in me. Eventually, I bought one — my progress (or decline) from lack of desire to desire to possession.
The problem this little summary highlights is the tendency for desires to be stimulated by outside forces. (Put aside, by the way, the obvious point that what in one decade is deemed a frivolous luxury a decade later is considered a necessity without which people cannot effectively function.That is not the point here.) One day you have no wish to own X, whatever that is. A year or so later, as a consequence of advertising, peer pressure or whatever, you now have an overwhelming wish to own X, whatever that is.
Preference Utilitarianism in its second version equates happiness with the fulfilment of desires, but as far as I can tell, it does not distinguish between types of desire or make any allowance for the fact that some desires are ‘artificially’ promoted or instigated by those who stand to benefit from their satisfaction whereas others seem to emanate from a deeper source.
Here we get to the core of the problem. Surely, there is a need to know the difference between desires which are superficial, in some way externally promoted and those that are more deep-rooted, based on considered reflection about what it in ones best interests, between what I want and ‘what I really, really want’ (or perhaps need).
How do we make this distinction?