‘Short List’ Theories of Morality

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 2, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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In the last week, Luke has provided us with two cases of people trying to give us a moral theory in which they start off with a short list of “that which has value.”

Massimo Pigliucci tells us that morality “deals with maximization of human welfare and flourishing” – by definition.

Scott Clifton says a particular action is moral or right when it somehow promotes happiness, well-being, or health or it somehow minimizes unnecessary harm or suffering or it does both.

They are going to call “moral” anything that promotes what is on their short list, and “immoral” anything that subtracts from what is on their short list.

Any time somebody starts off with a list of this type, their theory is going to fail.

For all practical purposes (and I mean this literally), they are starting with the assumption that the items on their short list have intrinsic value (or some similar property) and our goal in life is (or should be) focused on filling the world with as much intrinsic valueness as we can.

It is interesting to note that short-list moral theories very often (though not always) contain value-laden terms. They claim to be giving us an account of what has value, but they give us this account in the form of terms that smuggle evaluations into their account.

For example, “human welfare.” What is human welfare? Welfare is obviously good. However, this is because “goodness” is built into the very definition of “human welfare.” “Welfare” means “to fare well.” But what is it “to fare well”?

As Scott Clifton’s says (to criticize his theistic opponents), “It does not answer the question. It simply puts the question in different terms.”

“Health”, “flourishing”, “unnecessary suffering”, “harm”. These are all value-laden terms. These are all good (or bad, respectively) by definition because a value judgment is a part of the definition of the terms. Harm is always bad (in some sense) for the same reason that bachelors are always unmarried males.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that there is an objective fact of the matter as to what counts as “harm” or “health” or “well-being.” I think each of these terms can be unpacked. My objection is that neither Massimo Pigliucci nor Scott Clifton has done the job. They are not answering the question, “What is moral?” They are simply putting the question in different terms.

The Objection: “Desire Fulfillment is a Short List Theory”

Some critics familiar with my writing are going to claim that I also have a short-list theory. In fact, it is the shortest list possible – a list with only one item. That item is “desire fulfillment.”

“Desirism states that desire fulfillment is the only thing that has value and our goal in life is (or should be) focused on filling the world with as much intrinsic valueness as we can,” they will say.

And, they would be wrong.

They hear the term “desire fulfillment” and they then assume it is just another short-list theory with “desire fulfillment” as the only thing on the list. They then assume that desirism falls victim to the problems that they know exists with short-list theories.

However, desirism is a long-list theory. It is a very long list theory. It has, on its list, every single thing that is the object of a desire.

Nothing has intrinsic value – not even desire fulfillment. It is not the case that our lives should be spent filling the universe with as much desire fulfillment as possible. There are too many other things on the very long list that we should also be filling the universe with to waste all that effort on desire fulfillment.

By the way, some of the things on this long list are human welfare and flourishing, happiness, well-being, health, and avoiding harm and suffering.

As an added bonus, desire-fulfillment can tell you what “well-being”, “flourishing”, “health”, and “harm” actually are. It has the ability to unpack these terms, and not simply use them to avoid answering the question by stating the question in different terms.

Why Desirism is Not a Short List Theory

Let’s imagine a universe in which one creature exists – let’s call him “Alph”. And this creature has only one desire – a desire that the newly formed Planet X remain in a natural state throughout its existence.

Let us further assume that Alph has a choice between creating two possible states of affairs.

  • Option 1: Alph exists with his one desire and Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence.
  • Option 2: Alph ceases to exist and his desire dies with him, and Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence.

The “short list” interpretation of desirism would conclude that, since Option 1 is the only option that contains desire fulfillment, and our goal in life is (or should be) focused on filling the world with as much desire fulfillment as we can, that Option 1 is the obvious choice.

That is an entirely indefensible position and one that I would not even attempt to try to defend. It is a position that requires postulating entities for which there is no evidence, or that requires assumptions for which there is no foundation.

What does desirism actually say?

It says that “Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence” has value to Alph in virtue of Alph’s desire. In other words, Alph has a reason to act so as to realize any state in which “Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence” is true.

However, “X remains in a natural state throughout its existence” is true of both Option 1 and Option 2. Therefore, Alph (assuming true beliefs) has no reason to prefer either option over the other. Both options fulfill his one desire equally. He would be totally indifferent as to which option came to be realized.

In particular, he has no reason to choose Option 1 in virtue of the fact that it contains “desire fulfillment” because he does not value “desire fulfillment”.

Note that this is a different answer than the answer that “short list” desirism would provide. However, it is the only answer that does not introduce all sorts of mysteries and oddities that actually raise more questions than a theory could answer.

Also, notice that this model, when applied to Alph and his desire that that Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence, also gives no value to “Alphian welfare” or “Alphian well-being”. Nor can Alph be harmed in any way or put into a state of suffering. None of these things have value because no desire takes any of them as an object.

There is nothing that can happen to Alph that anybody cares about or has reason to care about.

Now, we might choose Option 1 over Option 2. However, this has nothing to do with Option 1 having more intrinsic value than Option 2. It has to do with the fact that, given our desires, more of the objects of those desires are found to be true in Option 1 over Option 2. Because we do not wish to cease to exist (for obvious reasons) we put more value in the universe in which Alph continues to exist. But it is a mistake to think that our choice cannot be explained adequately by reference to our beliefs and our desires.

Alph, meet IO

For yet another way to look at this, let us invent an impartial observer. Let’s call him IO. Let’s ask IO whether Alph should choose Option 1 or Option 2.

IO’s answer is: “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me.”

We tell IO: “But Option 1 has desire fulfillment AND Planet X remaining in a natural state throughout its existence. Option 2 just has a Planet X remaining in a natural state throughout its existence.”

IO answers: “So?”

We ask, “So, don’t you see! This means that Option 1 has more intrinsic ought-to-be-selectedness than Option 2! It’s just the better choice!”

IO says, “Listen, buddy. You invented me. You made me an impartial observer. I’m being impartial. There is no such thing as intrinsic ought-to-be-selectedness – that’s not going to help you. If you want me to prefer Option 1 and not Option 2, then make me partial to states where desire fulfillment exists. Or make me desire Alph’s continued existence. But you’re going to have to give me a desire for something that is true in Option 1 but not Option 2. Sure, that will destroy my impartiality, but that’s the way the universe is.”

As it turns out, in a universe with only one creature with only desire, desirism is going to yield a “short list” of that which has value. But that “short list” is not “desire fulfillment.” That short list, in this example, is going to be “Planet X remains in a natural state throughout its existence.” If you give Alph a different desire, then desirism will come up with a different short list.

However, on a world with nearly 7 billion people who have who-knows-how-many desires, desirism is going to generate a massively long list of things that have value.

Objective Morality

Some people will now protest that this is going to give you an extremely “subjective” account of morality.

But that’s not true.

Julia Galef, Pigliucci’s challenger, agrees that given a particular list of values, morality is objective. She protests, however, that the list is subjective and unfounded.

Desirism does not have such an arbitrary list. Its list consists of states of affairs that are the objects of desires, and it does not say anything about the things on the list other than that they are objects of desires. As such, the agents with those desires have reasons to act so as to realize such states. It is no more arbitrary than constructing a list of elements, and putting on the list those substances that can be divided up into individual atoms and still retain their basic properties.

Conclusion

Short list moral theories are doomed to fail. They are doomed to fail because they do not understand the nature of value. To say that something has value is to say that there are reasons for action to pursue it. But the list of things that there are reasons for action to pursue is quite a bit longer than anybody’s short list. Currently, that list is very, very long.

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Patrick September 2, 2010 at 5:40 am

1. I think Alonzo got Scott Clifton wrong. Clifton concedes that his definition is subjective. He just doesn’t care, because he doesn’t think anyone else can do any better, and he thinks his definition accords well with the default inclinations of the human animal.

2. I don’t see how defining a short list is so much more problematic than defining a rule by which a short list is to be generated.

3. I think the moral non realists are winning.

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 5:55 am

Patrick

The criteria you have established would deny non-realism about everything, moral and non-moral.

This “rule by which a list is generated” as you call it is a term that identifies a class of objects and what is true of those objects – no different than terms like “atom” or “force” or “rational number.”

In this case, the “list” is that list of those things that people have reasons for action to bring about. And, as the post says, it makes no claims about these things other than that they are “things that people have reasons for action to bring about.”

That is what makes this list no different from any other term used in (objective) science.

It appears that you are starting with “I think moral non realists are winning,” and using this as a fundamental assumption from which you then interpret and assess any claim made about moral realism.

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Patrick September 2, 2010 at 6:13 am

I think I shall begin calling you Moral Compatibilists.

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smijer September 2, 2010 at 6:21 am

Some people will now protest that this is going to give you an extremely “subjective” account of morality.

I’ll hold that judgment until I hear what the account of morality is.

I think you have done well to identify desire as the source of value (I’m not sure yet whether I agree that it is the sole source of value, but it seems a good starting point). It would seem to be a subjective account of value, since X and not-X could equally well be desired by any two individuals.

I’m a little bit puzzled about what makes all value specifically “moral” value. I value vanilla ice cream over chocolate, but I don’t think of it as a moral choice to buy the former rather than the latter. I can see there are objective reasons for me to ask the nice fellow at Baskin Robbins for the vanilla – an action meant to fulfill my desire. I just don’t see where this leads to a moral theory.

I’m still leaning toward moral skepticism of some sort.

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 6:35 am

Aha! This is very helpful. Thanks, guys.

Now, the problem I see is the following.

Suppose X has a desire for Y. Then I agree that X has a reason to try and bring Y about. Now, suppose we bring in IO. As you said, it doesn’t seem that IO has a reason to do anything. In particular, IO seems to have no reason to try and bring about Y.

So where does the moral imperative come in? It seems that all you’ve shown above is that we have reasons to bring about what we desire, not that we have any reason to bring about what others desire. Unless, of course we have a desire (a meta-desire, perhaps) to maximise desire-fulfilment, or something. If that was your argument (and I’m not saying it is), then it would seem that we have no grounds to say that a psychopath is acting wrongly. They act to bring about the objects of their desires, and they have no desire that leads them to do anything about other people’s desires.

(Also, I went to a bunch of seminars that Parfit gave last term, and you guys are going to love On What Matters. Unfortunately, they tended to be at that time of the afternoon when I was falling asleep, so I can’t remember quite how close his position is to yours, but you definitely need to read it)

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 7:18 am

Patrick

I think I shall begin calling you Moral Compatibilists.

Depending on what you mean specifically by “compatibilist”, this may well be a true.

Smijer

It would seem to be a subjective account of value, since X and not-X could equally well be desired by any two individuals.

It is “subjective” in the same way that “is 40 years old” is subjective – because “is 40 years old” and “is not 40 years old” may both be true of any two individuals.

One person can desire that X and another can desire not-X, in the same way that one can be 40 years old and another can be not 40 years old, or one can have a pulse of 72 and another can have a pulse of not 72, or one can be in New York and another can be not in New York.

(See Patrick’s comment on compatibilism above).

I’m a little bit puzzled about what makes all value specifically “moral” value.

It doesn’t. But this is a blog post, not a treatise.

MichaelPJ

So where does the moral imperative come in? It seems that all you’ve shown above is that we have reasons to bring about what we desire, not that we have any reason to bring about what others desire.

Yep. That’s the next question, and one that I do not have the time to answer in a blog post.

It can be found on quite a few of the posts about desirism, but I am certain you do not have the time to dig for it.

However, Luke and I are working on something that will make that answer a bit more accessable.

In the mean time, I can say that no meta-desire, and no “desire to maximize fulfillment of all desires” is required. Even if such a desire were to exist, it would only be one desire on the list with no claim to supremacy over all the other desires.

Just to show the first step (and it is only a first step, not a whole argument);

Assuming that you have an aversion of pain, doesn’t that give you a reason to cause other people to have an aversion to causing pain? Your desires lead directly to a concern with what other people desire without any intermediary desire – and their desires give them reason to be concerned with what you desire without intermediary desires as well.

So, there are a whole lot of people in the world with a whole lot of very strong reasons to want others to have an aversion to causing pain.

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smijer September 2, 2010 at 7:37 am

Alfonzo – “being 40 years old” is an objective value – any two people measuring a person’s age with a well-calibrated clock will find the same value. “Being valuable” is, according to the account you seem to be giving of value, subjective. One person will find vanilla valuable and another will not, according to their desires. It isn’t objective in the sense that any two people will be able to observe the same value in the same flavor.

As far as I can tell, conferred value is subjective value…

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 8:27 am

smijer

“being 40 years old” is an objective value – any two people measuring a person’s age with a well-calibrated clock will find the same value.

“Having a desire for the taste of ice cream” is an objective value. Any two people measuring a person’s tastes preferences will find the same value.

If we look at the ice-cream, it is true of a particular flavor of ice-cream that the property of “having a taste that is liked” is true when we speak of Jim but not when we speak of John.

But, if we look at a particular year its property of being “40 years after the date of birth” is true when we speak of Jim but not when we speak of John.

There is no reason why we cannot treat, “having a desire that P” (for some proposition P) as any less objective than “having a mole on one’s thumb” or “having an age of 40 years”.

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smijer September 2, 2010 at 8:53 am

I’m with you, so far, I think. The desire itself is an objective event.

Are you with me that the value it confers is a subjective one?

In other words, the desire is an objective quality of the desirer, but the desirability is a subjective quality of the desired, conferred by the desirer.

Sorry to be obtuse. I’ve read your web-site and tried to understand – and I see that you promise to make more accessible the theory by which we move from propositional truth to moral truth while maintaining the objectivity of the former in the latter. I look forward to that.

In the mean time, I think a number of us have a hard time thinking of propositional truth as having a moral component per se – so we are looking at the value statements rather than the propositional statements in search of the “objectivity” of the moral system.

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Patrick September 2, 2010 at 9:13 am

I referenced compatibilism in the following sense:

There’s a sort of compatibilist maneuver. It goes kind of like this… first, explain in great detail why Thing X that someone wants to exist definitely, definitely does not exist. Then redefine Thing X, and possibly a few other words. Using the redefined terms, explain why something sort of like the original Thing X definitely does exist. Then get really, really dodgy on the way and degree to which terms have been redefined. Use phrases like, “X is true… in the only sense that matters,” when you know that this is not the sense in which the question was posed. When other people who essentially agree with you speak about X using the original definitions, say that they’re wrong and then substitute in your definitions without giving notice.

So for example,

Questioner: Do you think we have free will?
Determinist: No. But does it really matter given that we feel like we have free will?
Compatibilist: Of course we have free will. Now let me embark on a very lengthy treatise after which you’ll dimly feel like I redefined “free” and “will” and probably a bunch of other terms, and somehow ultimately agreed with the determinist while denying ever having done so.

Questioner: Is morality objective?
Moral Skeptic: No. But we have desires and evolved natures that bear on how we should behave if we desire to be generally happy instead of generally miserable, and isn’t that good enough?
Moral Compatibilist: Of course morality is objective. It just requires that we quietly and surreptitiously redefine “morality” and “objective,” until eventually I’ve agreed with the Moral Skeptic while never having admitted it.

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 9:27 am

The desire itself is an objective event.

A desire is a property of the brain – brain structure – which is an objective fact.

Are you with me that the value it confers is a subjective one? In other words, the desire is an objective quality of the desirer, but the desirability is a subjective quality of the desired, conferred by the desirer.

That depends on what you mean by “subjective”. (And of “desirability”.)

Desires are individually variable (like age) and what may fulfill the desires of one person need not fulfill the desires of another.

“Is such as to fulfill my desire” (or “desirability”) is “subjective” in the same sense that “is such as to be three feet away from me” (or “reachability”) is subjective.

What tastes good to one person may not taste good to another, in the same way that one is reachable by one person may not be reachable by another.

If you want your definition of ‘subjective’ to go beyond this, I will need to know what else you might want to claim about ‘subjective’ and how it applies to one case but not the other.

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smijer September 2, 2010 at 9:36 am

Let’s agree on a definition of “subjective” first. I find the first meaning provided by dictionary.com satisfactory. It adequately conveys the sense of the term as I believe most people understand it in a debate about morality:

existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought

Do you accept this definition, or is there another you would propose?

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 10:11 am

@Alonzo

Thanks for the response. I’d have been surprised if you didn’t have an answer for that ;)

I think I see the direction you’re pointing in. However, I still think there will be problems for agents who lack (say) an aversion to pain. While we may have reasons to try and “turn up” their aversion to pain for the reasons you outline, presumably using praise and condemnation. However, it does not seem like they have any particular reason to pay attention to us. All you’ve said so far is that we do things for reasons and we try to manipulate others so that the objects of our desire will come about, but you haven’t said anything about why they would care.

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 10:26 am

smijer

Let’s agree on a definition of “subjective” first….”existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought:” Do you accept this definition, or is there another you would propose?

smijer

I am not certain I know how to use that definition consistently.

I like chocolate cake. My desire for chocolate ice cream is “in my mind” so to speak. However, my mind is also my brain. My mind, and I, are both objects. So, when I make a statement about my mind is that subjective (because it is in the mind), or objective (because it is about the object “my mind”)?

Ultimately, I would argue that the reason we have these endless discussions is because our terms are confused to start with.

Imagine that we got into a debate over whether a particular shape is a “squircle” or not. A squircle is something that is a perfectly round two-dimentional shape with four right angle corners”. Now, we look at a dime and get into a debate over whether it is a squircle or not.

You argue that it is perfectly round so it must be a squircle. I say that it lacks four right angles so it can’t be a squircle.

And around and around and around we go in an argument without end.

Because the mind is an objection (mind-properties are brain-properties), the definition, “in the mind but not the object” is as incoherent as “perfectly round and having four right-angle corners.” When I speak about the mind as an object I am making an objective statement (it lacks four right angles, so it is not a squircle). But, to somebody else, because I am talking about properties of the mind they insist that it must be subjective (it is perfectly round so it must be a squircle).

We can continue our debate by debating about the definition of a squircle. I can insist that a squircle is something that has four right-angle corners, while you insist that a squircle is perfectly round, and we can both find evidence for our claim in the common usage of the term. So, this is a debate without end as well.

When discussions enter these types of traps, the best move is to say, “Okay, we can agree that the shape of a dime is perfectly round and does not have four right-angle corners. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“I like chocolate cake” describes a relationship between chocolate cake and the structure of my brain such that I am disposed to act so as to make it the case that I am eating chocolate cake. It is a property of chocolate cake that it is such as to have a taste that I like, but it is also, at the same time, a property of chocolate cake that it does not have a taste that Jim likes (assuming that Jim hates the taste of chocolate cake).

I hope that we can also agree that these statements are not a matter of opinion.

It is TRUE that the taste of chocolate cake that it is such to have a taste that I like, and anybody who says that this statement is false is mistaken about a matter of fact.

It is TRUE that the taste of chocolate cake that it is not such to have a taste that Jim likes, and anybody who says that this statement is false is mistaken about a matter of fact.

We can agree to these claims about me and Jim and chocolate cake without ever getting tangled up in a discussion of whether or not this is a squircle chocolate cake.

Ultimately, I would say that all of these statements are objective in the fact that they are true and anybody who denies them are mistaken. (A statement can also be objective in virtue of being false and anybody who asserts them is mistaken.) I would also claim that for every so-called “subjective” statement that a logically equivalent “objective” statement can be put in its place just by admitting that the mind is an object. But we do not have to have that debate.

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Tony Hoffman September 2, 2010 at 10:32 am

““Having a desire for the taste of ice cream” is an objective value. Any two people measuring a person’s tastes preferences will find the same value.”

Sorry if this is covered already, but I am curious about how the amount of a desire is accounted for. I like ice cream okay, but not nearly as much as my wife. If I’m famished, I have a greater desire for a bite of food than I do just before I am sated. Is there a need (and if there is, is there a way) to account for this sliding scale of the amount of desire?

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 10:35 am

MichaelPJ

While we may have reasons to try and “turn up” their aversion to pain for the reasons you outline, presumably using praise and condemnation. However, it does not seem like they have any particular reason to pay attention to us.

Perhaps they do not. It certainly doesn’t follow from the fact that we have reason to create an aversion to causing pain in others that others have reason to acquire an aversion to causing pain in others.

However, it also does not follow from the fact that they have no reason to acquire an aversion to causing pain that we have no reason to cause them to acquire such an aversion.

The fact that I have a reason to inflate the flat tire on my car that the tire has any reason to pay attention to me. However, it does not follow from the fact that the tire has no reason to pay attention to me calls into question the legitimacy of my reasons to inflate the tire on my car.

When we use condemnation to promote an aversion to causing pain in others there is nothing in this that implies that they have a reason to pay attention. The relationship here is one of cause and effect like inflating the tire (material implication), not one of inference (logical explanation).

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 10:45 am

Let me try that paragraph again:

It does not follow from the fact that I have a reason to inflate the flat tire on my car that the tire has any reason to pay attention to me. However, it does not follow from the fact that the tire has no reason to pay attention to me that my reasons to inflate the tire on my car are somehow illegitimate.

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Yair September 2, 2010 at 10:54 am

Desirism has no advantage here. You simply replace the value “increase happiness” with “increase desires that tend to further other desires”.

Decide – is desirism descriptive? If all you do is list and categorize the desires, then certainly you can be objectively correct.

Is it prescriptive? Then you are no longer merely providing a list of desires, as you say on the post. You are furthering a particular set of desires with your prescription, and why would any particular person be interesting in furthering this particular set? Not “people in general”, there is no “average person” – a particular person.

The prescriptions that interest any particular person are those that further his own desires. Providing other prescriptions is simply irrelevant – they would only be followed due to confusion on the part of the person. Any person.

There are no objective categorical prescriptions. There are objective subjective prescriptions – prescriptions that would objectively further the desires of a particular subject. There may even be normative prescriptions – prescriptions that serve to further the desires of a normal (human) person. But the prescriptions must be tailored to the subject, if they are to be relevant to him; no categorical prescription (such as “further those desires that tend to further other desires”) is relevant to all particular agents a priori.

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smijer September 2, 2010 at 11:20 am

Alfonso,

It is true that any subjective statement can be re-cast as an objective statement about the mind of a person. What makes it “subjective” is that it is non-sensible except in relation to the mind of a person.

How is this unlike a statement about the reachability of an object? Not very – the statement “X is reachable” is not sensible except in terms of the relative position of a person.

We don’t normally think of this as a “subjective” quality of X for the single reason that we need no theory of mind in order to objectively ascertain the object’s position relative to the person. That’s an important practical distinction.

Still, this type of statement carries many of the limitations of a traditionally “subjective” statement. For instance, it is only useful in cases where reachability by A is an important concept. Such set of cases tell us little or nothing about such objects generally or people generally.

Normally, when people object to the moral subjectivism, it is because they think that the morality of an action ultimately depends on a measure that is the same for every person, which is difficult when the important terms are defined relative to the various individual persons.

I personally disagree with this type of objection to subjectivism, but I don’t think that this objection is answered by recasting notions we ordinarily consider subjective as “objective properties of the minds of various individuals”. I think that doing so just defines “subjective” out of existence, without eliminating the issues that made subjectivism unattractive to some in the first place.

No moral realist or moral skeptic will ever disagree with you if you say that it is objectively true that Jim thinks murder is wrong. But before either a realist or skeptic can accept your theory of morality, you must show that this objectively true fact about Jim’s opinion can go toward creating a generally valid truth about the morality of murder. If you don’t do that, then both the realist and skeptic will likely respond that it is no better or more helpful to say “it is objectively true that Jim thinks murder is wrong” than to say “Jim’s subjective belief about murder is that it is wrong”.

Again – sorry to be obtuse…I think that you have tried to show how this recasting helps lead to some generally valid moral truth that is as objective as the description of the state of an individual’s neural pathways.

It’s just that – until we figure out how that works, we are kind of stuck at the third-to-last paragraph in this comment.

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lukeprog September 2, 2010 at 11:22 am

Yair,

Did you read the post? Desirism does not say that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, like utilitarianism says that increasing happiness has intrinsic value.

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 11:27 am

Decide – is desirism descriptive? If all you do is list and categorize the desires, then certainly you can be objectively correct.

Desires, as I said, are the only reasons for action that exist. Listing and categorizing desires is the same thing as listing and categorizing the reasons for action that exist.

To prescribe something requires providing reasons for action that exist for realizing that which is being prescribed. There is nothing else that a prescription can be other than a list of desires that would be fulfilled by that which is being prescribed.

There are no objective categorical prescriptions.

This is absolutely true.

[T]he prescriptions must be tailored to the subject, if they are to be relevant to him…

True. Each person only acts so as to fulfill his or her own desires. This is true as well.

[N]o categorical prescription (such as “further those desires that tend to further other desires”) is relevant to all particular agents a priori.

Again, I agree completely.

Let me rephrase:

Desirism states that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. “Categorical prescriptions” as a reason for action do not exist. Any appeal to a categorical imperative as a reason for action is false. Furthermore, since there are no categorical prescriptions, then there are no categorical prescriptions relevant to all particular agents.

Furthermore, each agent only acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires. This is because only his brain is connected to his muscles in the right way. Furthermore, if somebody else’s desires were to control a particular body then the actions are the actions of the agent whose desires motivated the action.

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 11:48 am

@Alonzo

Okay, then how is desirism not just a promotion of following your own desires and manipulating others? In particular, unless I have a desire to see others’ desires fulfilled, I have no reason to act to bring that about. Sure, you may attempt to praise/condemn me so that I change my ways, but that won’t always be possible. If I am the billionaire in my castle and you are an anonymous starving child, there is no contact between us (let’s assume that I only associate with people who also don’t care about you). The point is that desirism as you’ve described it seems to lose all prescriptive force. I just don’t see how desirism can provide me with a reason to help feed the starving unless I desire to do so, or am emotivistically bullied into it by other people.

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 12:07 pm

MichelPJ

Okay, then how is desirism not just a promotion of following your own desires and manipulating others?

Following your own desires does not need any promotion. It is what we do. Every act aims to fulfill the most and strongest of the desires of the agent. Every act aims to realize in the external world a state of affairs in which the most of those strongest of those desires are fulfilled.

By the way, this is not “selfishness”. Those desires can and do include desires for the well-being of others (or altruistic desires). However, they have to be altruistic desires (interests) of the agent if they are going to have any hope of motivating that agent’s intentional actions.

In particular, unless I have a desire to see others’ desires fulfilled, I have no reason to act to bring that about.

Now, this is not true. There are a number of ways that desires can motivate me to bring about states that I do not desire.

They can be means to an end. I do not desire to clean house but I desire a clean house which gives me a reason to go through the effort of cleaning the house.

They also come as side effects. I do not desire to gain weight but I desire to eat chocolate cake which has, as an effect, a state of affairs in which I gain weight.

You may have reason to fulfill my desires as a means to an end. However, most importantly in terms of moral praise and blame, the fulfillment of other desires may well be a side effect of what you do desire.

Now, these may be mere technicalities in relation to your main point, but I did want to bring them up.

Sure, you may attempt to praise/condemn me so that I change my ways, but that won’t always be possible.

That is true. And, if a theory states that affecting the desires of others is not possible when, in the real world and as a matter of fact, it is not possible – then that sounds like a pretty good theory.

Describe for me a case in which desirism does not accurately describe the possibility of affecting the desires of others, and you might have an objection. However, to object that desirism describes the realm of possibilities accurately hardly counts as a flaw.

If you have the billionaire in the castle who does not care to help others and the anonymous starving child unable to affect his desires then, as a matter of fact, the billionaire will keep his money and the child will starve. If you want to change that fact – how would you go about doing it? You have to introduce some possibility for making change – some interaction between those who want the child fed and the billionaire – for any talk about changing the situation to even make sense.

We certainly have reason to condemn billionaires who care nothing for the welfare of children because we do not live in the universe you describe. Our condemnation has a chance of reaching the ears and affecting the desires of actual billionaires – present and future. So, while you describe a universe in which praise and condemnation are impotent, that is not the universe in which our praise and condemnation takes place. So, you haven’t provided any objection against us offering condemnation of such a person when we read and react to such a story.

In which case, what would you suggest as a way of getting the billionaire in his caste to contribute to the well-being of an anonyous starving child?

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 12:16 pm

MichelPJ

By the way, I have used a case similar to the one you described a number of times.

A child rapist is interested in raping a child. They are stranded – say, in a space ship, where there is no chance of rescue, and no way for anybody in the universe to impose any types of sanctions on the rapist. Let us say that raping the child will fulfill the most and strongest of the rapist’s desires.

In this case, as a matter of fact, the rapist is going to rape the child and there is nothing anybody can do about it. It is a fact of nature as certainly as the fact that they are going to run out of air.

This does not imply that we have no reason to condemn child rapists. It does not even imply that we have no reason to condemn this child rapist (because condemnation is meant not only for the person condemned but for everybody else in society). In fact, failure to condemn this child rapist would imply that his actions are somehow permissible and, as such, something that people in our world can go ahead and acquire – which is not the message we want to give.

So, our continued condemnation of child rapists continues to make sense. And our condemnation of this fictional child rapist as having those qualities we have reason to condemn still makes sense. Even though it remains true (ex hypothesi) that we have no way to prevent this hypothetical person from doing that which we have reason to condemn.

These are the facts of the matter – like them or not. It is not a reason to object to a theory that it gets these facts right.

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TH September 2, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Alonzo,

Those desires can and do include desires for the well-being of others (or altruistic desires).

Would desirism apply to a species that had no sense of empathy but was perhaps intelligent enough to see the benefits of cooperation? That is, does empathy and it’s crucial role in human social behavior play an important part in your definition of desirism?

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Yair September 2, 2010 at 12:21 pm

@Alonzo: Well, now I’m confused. What is it, again, that Desirism prescribes? You don’t say it in your post, but from previous posts it appears the prescription is “Act to further desires that tend to further other desires, and to curtail desires that tend to curtail other desires”.

E.g., in his FAQ Luke writes: “A good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire is one tends to thwart other desires. Thus, a right act is one that a person with good desires would perform, and a bad act is one that a person with good desires would not perform.”

Is this the Desirist prescription, when all is said and done, in a nutshell? If not, then I confess I’ve misunderstood you.

If it is – well, it’s a categorical one. Which you just agreed don’t exist and are irrelevant.

I have just one point of disagreement with your post:

To prescribe something requires providing reasons for action that exist for realizing that which is being prescribed. There is nothing else that a prescription can be other than a list of desires that would be fulfilled by that which is being prescribed.

It’s the other way around: to prescribe something implies that certain reasons for action (i.e. desires) will be furthered by the prescription. These desires need not even exist, they would still be furthered should the prescription be followed through. The prescription isn’t the set of desires that will be fulfilled, although of course you can construct a prescription so as to further a set of desires.

It is my impression desirism provides one universal prescription, one definition of “Good”, not tailored to the agent. A categorical imperative.

@Luke:

Who said anything about desire fulfillment? I maintained that desirist prescriptions are to “increase desires that tend to further other desires”, which I guess one can say is “practically” (to adopt Alonzo’s phrase) granting this intrinsic value. In that sense it is like utilitarianism.

You can couch it in terms of what is “Good” instead of what is prescribed, if you like.

@MichaelPJ:

Why do you make such demands from a moral theory? What is it you look for in a moral theory? If you want a reason for doing something against your own desires, I think you won’t find it – not in a rational theory. A rational agent always acts to further his desires.

I suggest that instead of thinking in terms of what answers the moral theory ought to provide, you’d consider what you personally need a moral theory for. And I think you would find that you want it to help you do what some part of you wants to do, let’s call it the “good part”, against the drives of some other part, let’s call it the “bad part”. That you want to further the good part means that you’re already a good person – what you lack is strength of will, moral clarity on what precisely this “good” is, and so on. And that’s what moral theories provide. Moral theories can’t convince a bad person to be good, they are there to help a good person to become better.

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 12:34 pm

@Alonzo

The point I’m making is that desirism is perfectly fine as a descriptive account. I have no real complaints with saying that our desires give us reasons, and that we try to influence others in order to achieve the objects of our desires. Fine. My problem is that this isn’t connected to morality. It’s just a description of human psychology.

You gave me some examples where I might fulfil others desires even though I have no desire for that particular outcome myself. However, in each example my reason for acting was always ultimately grounded in something I did want. The fact that others desires were fulfilled along the way was really incidental. So yes, you are right, but it is indeed tangential to my point.

I agree: the billionaire will not give the child any help. That is a description of the situation. You claim desirism is a moral theory. Said billionaire reads about desirism in his castle. What prescriptions does desirism have for him? What does it say he should do? So far all you’ve given is a description of how our reasons work; our billionaire will read that and say, “Yes, that is indeed why I am keeping all my money”, turn off his computer, and go to bed.

Whether or not praise or condemnation is actually effective is irrelevant. Presumably, if there are moral facts, it is a moral fact that the billionaire should help the starving child (if you disagree, feel free to change the example). This is the case whether or not praise and condemnation is effective. A moral theory should tell us why this is true. This could be done by showing that the billionaire does have a reason to help the child.

Let’s make the case more explicit. To get rid of conflicting factors, let it be IO who is the billionaire. IO doesn’t care about anything, and has no reasons to do anything. Let’s further stipulate that IO is maximally rational. Now, if IO should help the child, then it seems that IO must have some reason to do so. I just want to know what that is.

My point is that desirism alone does not provide any prescriptions. It explains why particular people make prescriptions to other people, but this does not qualify it to be a moral theory. For example, instead of just looking at praise/condemnation, let’s allow any form of belief manipulation. So, consider the desirist theory of bullying. This explains why some people forcibly coerce others into doing what they want in terms of desires. Is this a moral theory? The only difference is the medium in which the manipulation travels.

Essentially, I am accusing you of non-cognitivism. You are saying that when people apply moral praise or blame, instead of this referring to person-independent, prescriptive facts, this is just an expression of their desires.

@Yair

I expect a moral theory to give reasons for action that apply to any rational agent (i.e. prescriptions for action). The difficulty of doing so (for the reasons yo mention) is one of the reasons why I lean towards moral anti-realism.

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Just to add on, as I hadn’t seen Alonzo’s next post:

Non-cognitivism doesn’t say that we have no reason to condemn the child rapist in the spaceship. We condemn because we find it disgusting, or somesuch. This is an objective fact. Condemnation of child rapists makes perfect sense: we discourage things which intuitively disgust us. These facts, however, are not moral facts.

(Clarificatory note: I am not a non-cognitivist, but I think Alonzo is!)

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Yair

Well, now I’m confused. What is it, again, that Desirism prescribes?

Desirism does not prescribe anything specifically.

It is a system for coming up with prescriptions, though the prescriptions that come out as output depend substantially on the desires that go in as input as well as biological and physical facts respecting what is possible.

Change the inputs, and the outputs will change.

It recommends nothing that is independent of input.

Act to further desires that tend to further other desires, and to curtail desires that tend to curtail other desires.

That wouldn’t work.

Each person is going to seek to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires.

That’s how we are wired.

Or, as you put it, our actual reasons for action are grounded on things we do want. There is no way for an external reason to count as a reason for our own actions.

However, one of the ways in which agents can fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires (get what they want) is by causing others to have desires that will result in states of affairs that fulfill the desires of the agent. If I can cause you to have an aversion to causing others pain then I can better fulfill my desire to avoid pain.

It turns out that there are a whole lot of people with a whole lot of very powerful reasons to promote an aversion to causing severe pain. It turns out that one of the social tools useful in creating aversions is condemnation. So, there are a whole lot of reasons for a whole lot of people to condemn the intentional causing of severe pain.

Again, there is nothing categorical in this. It is motivated by the aversion to pain.

E.g., in his FAQ Luke writes: “A good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire is one tends to thwart other desires.

Yep. But it is not a good desire in virtue of any categorical imperative.

The aversion to pain is a good desire – one that people generally have reason to promote – precisely because it is such as to help people avoid a state of affairs in which they are suffering severe pain. These are pure means-ends calculations.

It is my impression desirism provides one universal prescription, one definition of “Good”, not tailored to the agent. A categorical imperative.

Your impression is mistaken. It provides a long list of prescriptions. It prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Any prescription that makes sense in the real world prescribes in favor of that which fulfills desires and prescribes against that which thwarts desires. What desirism does is it takes that prescription and applies it to desires themselves.

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cl September 2, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Is there a character limit to comments? This one’s a beast!

My initial reaction was, “Why on Earth would Alonzo dedicate yet another post to criticizing other people’s theories of morality when so many seemingly valid objections remain to his own?” In fact, I no longer agree that we can call desirism a moral theory at all. It can’t prescribe anything; it simply describes the fact that in general, people act to further their own interests. We already knew that.

Patrick,

There’s a sort of compatibilist maneuver. It goes kind of like this… first, explain in great detail why Thing X that someone wants to exist definitely, definitely does not exist. Then redefine Thing X, and possibly a few other words. Using the redefined terms, explain why something sort of like the original Thing X definitely does exist. Then get really, really dodgy on the way and degree to which terms have been redefined. Use phrases like, “X is true… in the only sense that matters,” when you know that this is not the sense in which the question was posed. When other people who essentially agree with you speak about X using the original definitions, say that they’re wrong and then substitute in your definitions without giving notice.

Ha! Yes, yes, and yes, especially the “really, really dodgy” part.

MichaelPJ,

All [Alonzo has] said so far is that we do things for reasons and we try to manipulate others so that the objects of our desire will come about,

I agree. However, hasn’t that been self-evident for eons? Did we need a moral philosopher to tell us that? We already know that “people have reasons to act so as to realize states of affairs in which the objects of their desires are attained.” That’s not saying anything that isn’t tautologically true. It’s just a verbose, academic-sounding way of saying, “people do what they want.”

Okay, then how is desirism not just a promotion of following your own desires and manipulating others?

AFAICS, that’s all desirism is; as you said, a description of human psychology. Is it me, or have you also noticed that Alonzo seemingly won’t commit to solid “yes-or-no” answers on whether desirism is descriptive or prescriptive? Instead of saying, “Yes, it’s prescriptive,” or, “No, it’s not,” he replied to Yair by restating the definition of prescriptive.

Even so, I think what Alonzo has committed to is enough to hang his “moral theory” dry: since there are no categorical prescriptions, desirism isn’t a prescriptive moral theory – which is exactly what I and others have suspected for close to a year now.

The point I’m making is that desirism is perfectly fine as a descriptive account. I have no real complaints with saying that our desires give us reasons, and that we try to influence others in order to achieve the objects of our desires. Fine. My problem is that this isn’t connected to morality. It’s just a description of human psychology.

YES. I guess I’m a “yes-man” today.

You claim desirism is a moral theory. Said billionaire reads about desirism in his castle. What prescriptions does desirism have for him?

YES. Keep pressing. I’ve tried, to no avail. Though, if it’s any help, Alonzo once told me that in the case of 200 that P and 200 that ~P [where P = some malleable desire], “desirism prescribes nothing.”

It seems to me that your criticisms are spot-on. I’m glad more people are speaking up because I was starting to feel like I was crazy.

Yair,

Desirism has no advantage here. You simply replace the value “increase happiness” with “increase desires that tend to further other desires”.

Decide – is desirism descriptive? If all you do is list and categorize the desires, then certainly you can be objectively correct.

Is it prescriptive? Then you are no longer merely providing a list of desires, as you say on the post. You are furthering a particular set of desires with your prescription, and why would any particular person be interesting in furthering this particular set? Not “people in general”, there is no “average person” – a particular person.

Yes. Keep those criticisms coming, please. I also tire of Alonzo’s appeals to things that don’t exist [for example the generic "we" and "people generally"], and I agree with you that Alonzo can’t call desirism “prescriptive” without committing himself to something to prescribe.

Luke,

Is it any wonder why people misunderstand desirism? You’ve been touting it as a prescriptive theory when, apparently, it’s not. Stop feeding dissenters the Courtier’s and help us out here.

Did you read the post? Desirism does not say that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, like utilitarianism says that increasing happiness has intrinsic value. [to Yair]

Did you read Yair’s comment? Yair asked Alonzo whether his theory is descriptive or prescriptive. It’s the same question Yair asked in the other thread – and the same question I’ve been asking for months. Instead of a clear, “Yes it’s prescriptive” or “No, it’s only descriptive,” Alonzo replied by restating facts that don’t need to restated, and articulating his own definition of prescriptive:

Desires, as I said, are the only reasons for action that exist. Listing and categorizing desires is the same thing as listing and categorizing the reasons for action that exist.

To prescribe something requires providing reasons for action that exist for realizing that which is being prescribed. There is nothing else that a prescription can be other than a list of desires that would be fulfilled by that which is being prescribed.

What’s the deal here? Do you really condone such slippery technique? Nowhere is there anything that could be even remotely paraphrased as, “Yes it’s prescriptive” or “No it’s not.” Though, it sounds like Alonzo is trying to say “yes it is” while his language clearly indicates “no it’s not.”

So, what then? It seems like we’ve gotten down to some variant of, “People should do whatever they want because there is no intrinsic value,” or, some variant of, “we cannot say that people should do anything because there is no intrinsic value.” Both are pretty unappealing to me, and I would suspect the same of anyone looking for a robust moral theory.

If you’re still convinced that I’ve misunderstood something, can you articulate the misunderstanding for me? Else, can you give us clear answers to these questions? If desirism is prescriptive, what does it prescribe, and how does the desirist justify enforcing whatever desirism prescribes [if the desirist does]?

If desirism is not prescriptive, what, pray tell, do you see in it?

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cl September 2, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Alonzo,

Desirism does not prescribe anything specifically.

Okay, so, for the record, is desirism a prescriptive theory? Or, a descriptive theory? Let’s settle this once and for all [or at least temporarily] with a straight answer, please.

It is a system for coming up with prescriptions,

Then, how can the desirist justify the prescriptions they come up with? If they cannot, why should we trust them – or desirism?

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 1:18 pm

MichaelPJ

I expect a moral theory to give reasons for action that apply to any rational agent (i.e. prescriptions for action).

On this account of morality, I am a moral eliminativist.

Moral prescriptions, defined this way, are as fictitious as God and ghosts. On these matters, I am not a God anti-realist (the way one might be an anti-realist about numbers). I am a God eliminativist. All terms referring to such an entity are false.

Accordingly, I am a “reasons for action that apply to any rational agent” eliminativist as well. They don’t exist. All claims about such reasons are false.

For those of us who want to live in the real world it is time to take these “reasons” and toss them in the dust bin and focus our discussions on things that do exist.

(The same is true of categorical imperatives. If morality is defined as a system of categorical imperatives then, on those terms as well, I am a moral eliminativist.)

However, the fact that I am a moral eliminativist with respect to these types of claims does not imply that I am a moral eliminativist with respect to all types of claims.

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Whoa. I’d missed this bit!

Desires, as I said, are the only reasons for action that exist. Listing and categorizing desires is the same thing as listing and categorizing the reasons for action that exist.

“Why should I save the drowning child?”
“Because it is the right thing to do.”

No, wait, this is desirism, so make that “Because I want the child to be saved, and I am therefore applying moral praise to that course of action! Do you not feel moved?”

This is looking more and more like non-cognitivism/expressivism to me. The position that Luke declared “empirically falsified” in another post. Oy vey.

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 1:26 pm

@Alonzo

I don’t have any problems with that kind of position. As I said, I’m pretty much a moral anti-realist myself. I just think that you’re muddying the waters by calling this “moral realism”. What you mean by moral facts is not what, IMHO, the layman, or IM(not-so-)HO, your average moral philosopher means by it. I think you’re denying that those exist. And that makes you a moral anti-realist. Seriously, it’s not that bad!

For myself, I think that we can salvage some of the moral project if we conditionalise everything. So we can still say “If you value human happiness and welfare, you should save the child”. A crucial job for the moral philosopher is to try to make those conditions as minimal as possible, so we can make our imperatives as close to categorical as possible. For example, it would be a great step forward if we could strengthen it to “If you value your own happiness and welfare, then you should save the child” by some argument that your own welfare and the child’s are comparable (think Reasons and Persons, here).

Note that, just like you, I think that people’s desires, or what they value, is the only source of reasons. I just don’t have the temerity to pretend that that constitutes moral realism.

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Alonzo Fyfe September 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm

MichaelPJ

No, wait, this is desirism, so make that “Because I want the child to be saved, and I am therefore applying moral praise to that course of action! Do you not feel moved?”

I think you must be getting tired.

Desirism is not a theory that states, “I want you to do X; therefore, you have a moral obligation to do X and I may legitimately require you to do X.” That inference does not even make any sense. If it did, then “I want Jenny to have sex with me; therefore, Jenny has a moral obligation to have sex with me and I may legitimately require that she do so.”

That’s so far removed from what desirism says I can only conclude that you have opted to stop actually thinking about the subject and are now only offering knee-jerk reactions.

Maybe we should put this discussion aside for a bit.

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 1:38 pm

That’s not what I’m saying. I admit, that post was a bit hasty. Sorry if I’m actually misrepresenting you now.

It’s just that from what you’ve said so far, it seems to me that my moral prescriptions are just expressions of the fact that, given the desires I have, your action will act towards or against the objects of my desires, and I am therefore trying to encourage/discourage you to so act.

Apologies for jumping to conclusions. Please do correct me if I’m getting it wrong.

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cl September 2, 2010 at 1:39 pm

MichaelPJ,

A crucial job for the moral philosopher is to try to make those conditions as minimal as possible, so we can make our imperatives as close to categorical as possible. For example, it would be a great step forward if we could strengthen it to “If you value your own happiness and welfare, then you should save the child” by some argument that your own welfare and the child’s are comparable (think Reasons and Persons, here).

Bravo. That’s about all I think can be said on the matter if we are moral anti-realists.

I just don’t have the temerity to pretend that that constitutes moral realism.

As you shouldn’t.

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cl September 2, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Alonzo,

I’ve been following this discussion intently, and mine is just a simple, concise question:

Is desirism a prescriptive theory? Meaning something like, is there anything all people “should” do according to desirism? If so, what does it prescribe?

I think it would be fair of any querent to ask. Can you please answer with a “yes” or a “no” so that we can know whether you offer your theory as prescriptive or not? I think that would be a very useful line of demarcation.

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woodchuck64 September 2, 2010 at 2:12 pm

cl,

Is desirism a prescriptive theory?

There’s a fair amount written on this at
http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2010/05/desirism-descriptions-and-prescriptions.html
and
http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2010/04/prescriptions.html

As I understand it, a prescriptive “ought” under desirism can only mean “there are reasons for others to encourage these desires”.

Using MichaelPJ’s example, “Why should I save the drowning child?”, I will save the child first out of a desire to, I’m not going to stop and think about whether I ought to. But in terms of society the question is “Why should we want to encourage the desire to save a drowning child?”, and the answer is because doing so fulfills more desires than it thwarts. Therefore, a society based on desirism will be composed of members that desire to save drowning children. (And it should be noted that desiring to save drowning children is so intrinsic to human behavior I’m not sure the example really illuminates anything about desirism.)

BTW, is your 12-objections to desirism post up yet? There seems to be two links to the same 1-paragraph post at your site, unless my browser is acting up.

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cl September 2, 2010 at 2:57 pm

woodchuck64,

As I understand it, a prescriptive “ought” under desirism can only mean “there are reasons for others to encourage these desires”.

I understand. It’s just that “there are reasons for others to encourage these desires” isn’t saying anything at all about whether “these desires” should be encouraged – and that is what I think most people have in mind when they say “prescriptive theory of morality.” They want to know what types of desires ought to be encouraged, and they want to know why.

…in terms of society the question is “Why should we want to encourage the desire to save a drowning child?”, and the answer is because doing so fulfills more desires than it thwarts.

I understand, but that’s just a explanation of why most people tend to encourage the desire. It’s not a prescription that provides a reason why anyone should encourage the desire.

BTW, is your 12-objections to desirism post up yet? There seems to be two links to the same 1-paragraph post at your site, unless my browser is acting up.

No, that’s correct. I re-posted it on accident. As far as the content, I still intend to get to it, but I was waiting for clear answers to certain questions from Alonzo and Luke. Since I don’t see that those will be forthcoming, I probably won’t post anything for a while. I’m pretty burned on blogging at the moment, and I really don’t like Wordpress. So, until I code my own site that I can be happy with and get motivated to write about something, I’m pretty much just commenting on other blogs.

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woodchuck64 September 2, 2010 at 3:38 pm

cl

I understand, but that’s just a explanation of why most people tend to encourage the desire. It’s not a prescription that provides a reason why anyone should encourage the desire.

My understanding is that my desires are best fulfilled and least thwarted under a desirism approach, so I would encourage good desires on that basis.

Apparently more details on this will be forthcoming, Alonzo writes above:

“So where does the moral imperative come in?” …
Luke and I are working on something that will make that answer a bit more accessable.

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AlonzoFyfe September 2, 2010 at 4:26 pm

What you mean by moral facts is not what, IMHO, the layman, or IM(not-so-)HO, your average moral philosopher means by it.

What I mean by moral facts is:

It concerns moral propositions – propositions having to do with permission, obligation, prohibition, moral responsibility, excuse, negligence, recklessness, intent, guilt, shame, virtue, vice, mens rea, rights, duties, supererogatory action (above and beyond the call of duty), praise, condemnation, the relationship between ought and can, the distinction between facts and value, and the types of arguments that are used in defending and challenging moral claims.

What I mean by “fact” is that claims using these terms describe states of affairs that exist in the real world. They are as real as the mole on Tim’s right hand, Mike’s age, and the total weight of all of the current members of the Rockies baseball team. I have never met anybody who ever had any difficulty calling these types of claims “facts”

As for the “prescriptive” component:

The only type of prescription that makes any sense at all is one that appeals to reasons for action that exist. To prescribe something by appeal to reasons for action that do not exist is empty. And, of course, prescribing something while saying absolutely no reason exists is incoherent.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

Each agent will seek to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires. This is a matter of logical necessity. If your desires are moving my muscles then those are your actions, not mine. In order to an action to count as mine, then my desires have to be behind them. Which means that for me to be morally responsible for an action, it has to come from my desires.

Which means that if you want me to rescue the drowning girl, or to refrain from stealing your property when I can easily get away with it, the only way to do it is to make sure that rescuing the girl fulfills the most and strongest of my desires, and that not taking your property fulfills more of my desires than taking it.

And not just me, but everybody else who might find themselves in a position to save your girl or take your property. The more people who are made likely to choose to rescue drowning girls or refrain from taking property, the safer your girl and your property becomes.

That’s the crux of it. If you don’t want to be lied to then you had better support an aversion to lying. If you do not want to be raped or have somebody you care about be raped, you have reason to promote a strong aversion to rape. To whatever degree you are successful at promote a general aversion to vandalizing property, to that degree your property and the property of those you care about is safe from vandalism.

So, speaking to the community as a whole, we have a whole lot of very strong reasons to promote aversions to lying, theft, rape, and vandalism and desires to provide charity and to help others in emergency situations (such as drowning).

If you don’t want to call this moral realism . . . well, it sure sounds like morality to me and everything it talks about is very, very real. But, ultimately, I am not going to lose any sleep over what these ideas are called. None of that makes them any less true.

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 9:30 pm

@woodchuck

Thanks, those links were very instructive!

@Alonzo

Consider the following classic non-cognitivist theory.

When someone makes a moral claim, what they are really doing is just expressing their instinctive reaction to something. So “Murder is wrong” is equivalent to “Boo! Murder!”.

Now people’s instinctive reactions to things are features of their mind (brain), so are objective. Thus there are facts about these things, and these are moral facts, by your definition, since they concern permission, obligation, blame, praise etc. Claims using those terms refer to states in the world, namely people’s instinctive reactions.

Nonetheless, what I just outlined was not a moral realist theory.

Now let’s consider a moral question. Should the billionaire help the starving child? If there are moral facts, I think it is fairly uncontroversial that the answer should be yes. Given your account of prescriptions (which, I should say, I think is perfectly correct), the answer is yes only if the billionaire has some reason to save the child, and hence some desire to save the child. But he doesn’t have such a desire (let’s also give him a small desire to stay sitting where he is). So the answer, apparently, is “no”. Desirism prescribes, by the only method of prescription that is possible, that the billionaire should let the starving child die.

Okay, I’m going to jump ahead a bit now. You haven’t really discussed this bit in detail, so as ever, please correct me if I’m guessing wrong. I think that you’re going to want to say that the billionaire is (say) part of a community, and since the billionaire doesn’t want to be left to starve to death, he has a reason to reduce desires that would allow people to starve to death, and increase desires that would result in helping people who are starving. So he has a reason to increase his desire to help starving people, and so probably will have a desire to help the child. Or something along those lines. Am I right?

There are several problems with this particular approach. Since the billionaire’s desire is to not starve to death himself, he has a reason to modify other people’s desires, but no reason to modify his own. After all, his own desires regarding starving people will be of no consequence if he is the one starving.

The second problem is that this is all still conditional. It is conditional on the billionaire not wanting to be allowed to starve to death. This condition might be averted if the billionaire happens not to need food. Not so plausible in terms of food, but perhaps more so in other cases. It is also conditional on the billionaire being part of a community of people who might be able to help him if he were starving to death. If this is not the case, for whatever reason, then the argument breaks down.

So, in general, it seems that we can have a reasonably plausible billionaire who should not save the child. Then suppose that I enter, and I am an altruist. I would like the billionaire to save the child, but I cannot prescribe him to do so, since, as you pointed out, any prescription must make reference to his desires. So I can apply moral condemnation, but that condemnation is empty, just an expression of my disapproval.

I have deep reservations about the step you are (presumably) going to make: from talking about an individual’s desires and reasons to “speaking to the community as a whole”. Of course, you haven’t really outlined that step yet, so maybe you will pull something out of the bag.

Regarding your last paragraph: I am a naturalist. Everything I talk about is (hopefully) very, very real. And I think there is a place for a kind of semi-moral discourse. But this does not make me a moral realist. Expressivism sounds like morality, but it is in fact non-cognitivism. I don’t think desirism even sounds like morality (since I haven’t yet seen any account of the categorical imperatives that seem to make up so much of moral discourse), but even if it does, I still think it’s non-cognitivism. Which, I repeat, is no bad thing.

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Zeb September 3, 2010 at 6:31 am

I think there would be much less confusion about desirism is desirists would state up front that desirism is prescriptive for the people who would be affected by what are normally considered moral decisions; it is not (necessarily) prescriptive for the person who is making the moral decision.

For example, say a person is deciding whether or not to commit murder. Desirism does not give her a reason not to commit murder; it advises everyone who has reasons for her not to commit murder (which may include the decision maker herself, if she has desires that would be thwarted by her committing murder) that they should have acted in ways to dial down the person’s desire to murder and dial up her desire not to murder so that it is less likely that the person will commit the murder. Desirism tells us what we should do now (that is, use moral tools) in order to create the desires (in others and in ourselves) that will likely lead to future actions that fulfill our desires.

As far as I can tell, desirism really has nothing to say to a moral agent in the moment of decision. The agent will act on their strongest desire in accordance with her beliefs about how to fulfill that desire regardless of what any morality may say.

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Alonzo Fyfe September 3, 2010 at 7:29 am

Zeb

I think there would be much less confusion about desirism is desirists would state up front that desirism is prescriptive for the people who would be affected by what are normally considered moral decisions; it is not (necessarily) prescriptive for the person who is making the moral decision.

Desirism is prescriptive for the people who would be affected by what are normally considered moral decisions; it is not (necessarily) prescriptive for the person who is making the moral decision.

Or, in other words, desirism prescribes those malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote and prescribes against those malleable desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to inhibit.

(You act like I haven’t already said that a few dozen times.)

As far as I can tell, desirism really has nothing to say to a moral agent in the moment of decision.

Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision. Any theory that claims that it DOES have something truthful to say to an agent at the moment of decision can be thrown out because what it has to say is false.

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Zeb September 3, 2010 at 9:17 am

(You act like I haven’t already said that a few dozen times.)</blockquote

You say it a lot, but you bury the lead that this is totally different from most moral theories in that way. And you usually put it in unfamiliar wording and difficult syntax, as above.

Or, in other words, desirism prescribes those malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote and prescribes against those malleable desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to inhibit.

No it doesn’t. It prescribes action to agents with desires, namely that they use moral tools to malleate desires that will affect their desire fulfillment. How does one prescribe desires, anyway? As you have said, one does not choose one’s desires, and so a presription of desire would make no sense. Now, desirism might say “If you desire for people not to murder, you ought to tell them, ‘You should desire not to murder.’” But desirism does not prescribe “You ought not desire to murder.” The proclamation “You should desire not to murder” is a false statement which might nevertheless be an effective moral tool if it malleates the desire to murder, and so its use might be prescribed by desirism.

Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision. Any theory that claims that it DOES have something truthful to say to an agent at the moment of decision can be thrown out because what it has to say is false.

And I think desirists should lead with that clear, concise statement because desirism opposes most moral theories and the conventional understanding of morality in that way. I really think this is one of the biggest confusions around desirism, next to ‘desirism advocates desire fulfillment.’ I know when I realized that, my first two thoughts were, “OK, now I get it,” and “But is that really morality, then?”

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cl September 3, 2010 at 11:58 am

Alonzo,

[moral facts concern] moral propositions – propositions having to do with permission, obligation, prohibition, moral responsibility, excuse, negligence, recklessness, intent, guilt, shame, virtue, vice, mens rea, rights, duties, supererogatory action (above and beyond the call of duty), praise, condemnation, the relationship between ought and can, the distinction between facts and value, and the types of arguments that are used in defending and challenging moral claims.

What I mean by “fact” is that claims using these terms describe states of affairs that exist in the real world. They are as real as the mole on Tim’s right hand, Mike’s age, and the total weight of all of the current members of the Rockies baseball team. I have never met anybody who ever had any difficulty calling these types of claims “facts”

The only type of prescription that makes any sense at all is one that appeals to reasons for action that exist. To prescribe something by appeal to reasons for action that do not exist is empty. And, of course, prescribing something while saying absolutely no reason exists is incoherent.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

Each agent will seek to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires.

I concur, but when you say,

Any theory that claims that it DOES have something truthful to say to an agent at the moment of decision can be thrown out because what it has to say is false.

Why? Because you say so? I’m a bit concerned that the qualifier “any” may be out of scope. Aren’t you judging before jury there?

MichaelPJ,

I have deep reservations about the step [Alonzo is] (presumably) going to make: from talking about an individual’s desires and reasons to “speaking to the community as a whole”.

I do, too: it’s a fascist step, even if only ever-so-minutely, but, yeah, you nailed it. When Alonzo says,

So, speaking to the community as a whole, we have a whole lot of very strong reasons to promote aversions to lying, theft, rape, and vandalism and desires to provide charity and to help others in emergency situations (such as drowning).

…he’s imposing the values of one subset of people onto another. Alonzo’s use of “we” is loaded; it refers not to inclusively to all of us, but exclusively to those of us who already share the values / desires in question. He says, “speaking to the community as a whole,” but that’s misleading. What happens given a fragmented community? For example, not everybody in the community is a smoker or a pederast. If we are going to say, “the community as a whole has reasons for action to promote an aversion to smoking,” then we are drafting something like a social contract that says, “all members of this community should promote desires which increase well-being and demote desires that decrease well-being.” Else, on what other logic could a prescription against smoking be sustained?

Zeb,

Desirism tells us what we should do now (that is, use moral tools) in order to create the desires (in others and in ourselves) that will likely lead to future actions that fulfill our desires.

Of course, that assumes everybody shares the same values and desires. I think real moral questions arise when that is not the case. Can we say that one side or the other is right or wrong? If so, how so? If not, why not? I think those are the sorts of questions moral theories are supposed to answer – but that’s just me.

I know when I realized that, my first two thoughts were, “OK, now I get it,” and “But is that really morality, then?”

Many have had that reaction. I know I did, and my answer was, “No, it’s not really morality at all. It’s just a description that provides useful insights for controlling human behavior.” It’s more Machiavelli than Mill, if you would.

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cl September 3, 2010 at 12:11 pm

An analogy just hit me, one that programmers may find useful. While re-reading Alonzo’s..

Or, in other words, desirism prescribes those malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote and prescribes against those malleable desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to inhibit.

..the concept of variables hit me. Traditional utilitarian theories tend to prescribe actions that maximize static properties, i.e., specific values – happiness, well-being, flourishing, etc. We can think of those values as hard-coded into our function. However, with desirism, it seems that we don’t hard-code any specific value into our function. Rather, we have something like a local variable called “$value” that is going to mean different things to different people at different times. In the larger context, we also have something like a superglobal “$_VALUE” that refers to the aggregate of al instances of $value, i.e., what all members in the system desire. It is this “$_VALUE” that we are aspiring to when making desirist considerations. This is why Alonzo says that desirism is not a short-list theory, because “$_VALUE” is not a static property like “happiness” or “well-being,” rather a dynamic property that varies at any given time.

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Yair September 4, 2010 at 11:13 pm

Sorry for dropping out, real-life got in the way. At any rate, it appears to me that the crux of the matter is as follows:

* Desirism prescribes that I, as an individual, should work to influence the malleable desires of others in the direction that furthers my own desires; this is not a prescription that is made explicitly since this isn’t the “point”, but it does seem to be a ramification of the theory. This is different from a description because only rational agents will really act in ways that serve their desires – and no one is fully rational.

I have no quarrel with this recommendation as a general one, but do think one should also consider one’s impact on other ways of changing behavior and desires (e.g. spreading knowledge and truth). For example, once extended in this way one of the strange ramifications that desirism may have is that it prescribes to mislead, e.g. to further falsehoods and ambiguities that will cause people to act in ways that “we” want.

More importantly, I think Desirism misses the personal aspect of morality. My own desires contest against each other too, so I should use psychological (sometimes called “spiritual”) tools to shape my own desires so as to serve my more constant and strong desires, and to overcome my irrationalities. I see such personal growth as forming the true heart of moral theories, and this is a dimension Desirism lacks entirely.

* Desirism describes that a community will tend (as a result of each person trying to further his own desires) to further those desires within itself that tend to further other desires. This is often couched in prescriptive terms, but it is a descriptive statement.

I think this is broadly true but certainly too simplistic for a comprehensive sociological theory of the dynamics of desires.

* Desirism implicitly assumes that “we” share the desires that are strong and common in the community [indeed, in the universe!], and prescribes action to further these desires to “us”. As said above, this is not only a “fascist” move, it is also often not reflective of our situation in real life, where our own desires may differ sharply from those common in society or where society [or the world etc.] will be fragmented into several camps.

I think this is a critical point where desirism almost becomes my own Subjective moral theory. I instead (explicitly) assume that there is a Normal human nature with every individual sitting on some “bell curve” relative to it (for each aspect, he sits at some other different from the “norm”). One can then develop a more nuanced theory addressing not some vague “we” with arbitrary desires but rather individual pretty-Normal people (e.g. people that have a normal degree of empathy). It is a Humanism in the sense that the theory aims to serve (an assumed) common human nature.

* Desirism is stated in a confusing manner, not being careful to separate the prescriptive from the descriptive elements within itself. I still find the desirist definition of Good confusing, for example – is this supposed to be a definition of what is good for furthering the strongest and most common desires in the [global?] community? Is this supposed to be a descriptive statement of how “good” is effectively defined in society?

I think the most important point in a description of desirim is to state very clearly precisely what desirism prescribes and who should be interested in following these prescriptions. It is crucial that the latter part not be omitted.

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lukeprog September 5, 2010 at 1:49 am

Yair,

I agree that desirism has not been stated as clearly as possible. The podcast Alonzo and I are working on takes a different approach that I think is much clearer.

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Polymeron September 5, 2010 at 5:22 am

At the risk of not contributing very much to the debate, I’ll be very brief and state that I think Yair has nailed it on the head, in all his points.

Basically the novelty of Desirism is in that it abandons personal prescriptions (“In situation X you should do Y) and instead tells people to consider which desires should be promoted in society. Plus it is very strong as a descriptive theory.

I’m just not certain how useful, if at all, any of this is. MichaelPJ’s conditionals come to mind as a more useful tool for eliminating generalities; using strong desires that are very prevalent (possibly innate, like pain aversion) in the norm as the antecedent in such a conditional would make it very useful indeed. None would be universally applicable, of course, but I don’t think that’s strictly necessary.

In summary: Desirism is very strong descriptively (and can be a good prism through which to view value-related interaction) but extremely weak as a prescriptive moral theory (can possibly be used as a social engineering tool, at best ).

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Polymeron September 5, 2010 at 5:23 am

I would still be interested in seeing whether the new presentation method you’re working on is more coherent, or changes my perception of what desirism is and how it affects me personally.

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cl September 6, 2010 at 1:06 am

Polymeron,

Desirism is very strong descriptively (and can be a good prism through which to view value-related interaction) but extremely weak as a prescriptive moral theory (can possibly be used as a social engineering tool, at best ).

I agree it is very strong descriptively, but wouldn’t it be closer to non-existent as a prescriptive moral theory? As Fyfe says, “Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision.” Wouldn’t that effectively preclude any prescriptive import?

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