Massimo Pigliucci vs. Julia Galef on the Foundations of Morality

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 30, 2010 in Debates,Ethics

Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef have an interesting debate going – which I hope they continue – at Rationally Speaking. The interesting thing is that I’m not sure with whom I agree more.

Massimo defines morality “as that branch of philosophy that deals with the maximization of human welfare and flourishing.” And obviously, science can tell us a great deal about what does and does not maximize human welfare.

Julia agrees that if you start with such an axiom, then moral reasoning is possible. But she doesn’t see why we can begin with that axiom:

I can’t see any way in which a claim of the kind Massimo is making – “doing X increases human welfare, therefore X is the moral thing to do” – could logically hold, unless you’re simply defining the word “moral” to mean “that which increases human welfare,” in which case the statement is tautologically true. But I’m not sure what we gain by simply inventing a new word for a concept that already exists.

…[Luckily,] thanks to some combination of evolutionary biology and social conditioning, I do enjoy being kind, and I do want to reduce other people’s suffering – and I would want to do those things even without a rational justification for why that’s “moral.” And I believe most people would feel the same way.

But if someone didn’t care about other people’s welfare, I couldn’t accuse him of irrationality. He would be committing no fallacy in his reasoning…

As Hume wrote, it is “not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

Is Moral Skepticism Possible?

Massimo’s first reply is to say that he doesn’t believe that anyone is a moral skeptic, not even Julia:

…moral skepticism is akin to skepticism about the existence of the world: it may be ultimately impossible to conclusively refute in an air-tight logical manner, but no one actually lives in this way, and no one really believes it.

As a one-time moral skeptic – and still a moral skeptic according to some definitions – I resist Massimo’s claim. Many people are moral skeptics. It might be nearly impossible to live as a skeptic of the external world – how do you interact with things you don’t think are real? – but it isn’t hard to be a moral skeptic.

In fact, it’s easy. The moral skeptic can act in ways that other people call “moral.” She can act with kindness and honesty and charity. She’ll just say she does these things because she wants to. She can even condemn those who kill and rape and lie and steal – but this won’t be because she believes robbers have violated some objective, universal standard of action. Rather, it will be because such actions are ones she disapproves of. In fact, the moral skeptic may even call such actions “evil” in everyday language, because such moral talk has more persuasive effect than merely saying “I disapprove of your actions.” But when you press her she’ll admit she doesn’t think anything is “morally good” or “morally evil” in the objective, universal sense of those terms. (In the same way, I say the “sun rises” though I know really the Earth is rotating, I talk about one object moving and the other “staying still” though I know all motion is relative, and I talk about “choice” though I don’t believe in contra-causal free will.)

So yes, one can live as a moral skeptic. Julia apparently does, and so do millions of other people. Moral skeptics lived even as far back as 600 B.C.

Facts and Axioms

Next, Massimo notes that moral skeptics often complain that the field of morality is not based on empirical facts. But neither is mathematics, says Massimo. Does that undermine mathematical truths? No.

Indeed, one might say the “foundations” of mathematics were undermined by Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and yet no one says that mathematics is “an arbitrary castle built on clouds.”

Massimo’s central position is:

I define ethics/morality as concerned with exploring the sort of behaviors that augment human (and possibly beyond human) welfare and flourishing. Since this is a definition, it cannot be argued for, only either accepted or rejected. And yes, definitions are tautologies, but they are nonetheless very useful (all of math can be thought of as a tautology, and so is every single entry in a dictionary).

Massimo defends his definition by saying that moral systems purportedly about something else were really about human flourishing. For example, many religious believers seem to think we should obey God because that is best for human flourishing.

Is it moral?

It appears Massimo and Julia are arguing over definitions. Massimo thinks it’s okay to define ethics as the study of what maximizes human welfare. Julia thinks this definition is arbitrary, and rejects it.

Here, the question “Is it moral?” may be what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls a disguised query – something Julia wrote about with regard to art. Consider the following debate:

Jules: That’s not art! The artist didn’t do anything, he just found that urinal and wrote his name on it.

Max: No, it is art, because it’s making a statement.

Here, Jules and Max agree on the properties of the urinal at the art show. They agree that somebody found a urinal, wrote his name on it, and put it in an art show. They agree this person is making a statement about art by submitting this piece to an art show. But they disagree about the definition of the word “art.”

How can we argue about definitions? Can we settle the matter by taking a poll or checking the dictionary? Or are we allowed to stipulate our own definitions for the sake of the conversation?

Julia explains:

…when we are arguing about how to categorize something, it’s immensely clarifying to ask: Why does it matter? For instance (and this is my example, not Eliezer’s), is a 16-year-old an adult? Well, it depends why you’re asking. You might be asking whether a 16-year-old is capable of bearing children. Or you might be asking whether we should let a 16-year-old make life-changing decisions. In either case, the argument over whether to classify a 16-year old as an adult is beside the point once you recognize why you’re asking.

So when we ask “is this art?” we can get at the disguised query by following it up with, “Why does it matter?” As far as I can tell, the disguised query in this case is usually “does this deserve to be taken seriously?” which can be translated in practice into, “Is this the sort of thing that deserves to be exhibited in a gallery?” And that’s certainly a real, non-semantic debate. But we can have that debate without ever needing to decide whether to apply the label “art” to something – in fact, I think the debate would be much clearer if we left the word “art” out of it altogether.

That seems to make sense. Can we do the same thing with the definition of “morality”? Can we follow the question “Is this moral?” with the question “Why does it matter?” Will that help us get past the definitions debate, and on to something more useful?

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{ 64 comments… read them below or add one }

Silver Bullet August 30, 2010 at 5:57 am

Massimo’s position seems to the be one and the same with the position I was first introduced to by Sam Harris, and that I hope will get more attention with the publication of Sam’s new book, The Moral Landscape.

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Emil Karlsson August 30, 2010 at 6:10 am

If one adopts a embodied mind theory of the philosophy of mathematics, mathematics becomes a form of empirical science of real or imagined patterns. From that perspective, it appears that Dr. Pigliucci’s analogy fails.

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Mastema August 30, 2010 at 6:24 am

Someone, please correct me if I am misremembering this, but isn’t Massimo’s position VERY similar to what he criticized Harris for when he was a guest on Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe? It’s been a couple months since I listened to it.

Also, as a moral skeptic, I would like to object to his statement comparing moral skepticism to external world skepticism. He sounds a little like Ray Comfort or some Christian who refuses to admit that atheists exist.

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smijer August 30, 2010 at 6:35 am

Excellent post. I’m sympathetic with Galef, but I agree with Pigliucci to a degree, too. If you define morality as he does (and I don’t see why you couldn’t), then you can investigate it empirically. However, I’m not sure how many people he could get to fully embrace such a definition – I’m not sure it matches what many people think of as “morality”. Certainly I find it a desirable project – but I’m not sure that I could justify basing all ethical reasoning on that definition. Galef’s notions seem to be more realistic and practical ways to think about morality – at least to me.

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Rob August 30, 2010 at 7:41 am

Luke has crush on Julia Galef. She looks even better in person. (Not that physical attractiveness is important, I’m just throwing it out there as an unrelated factoid that has nothing to do with her worth as a human person.)

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Reginald Selkirk August 30, 2010 at 7:48 am

Massimo defines morality “as that branch of philosophy that deals with the maximization of human welfare and flourishing.”

Silver Bullet: Massimo’s position seems to the be one and the same with the position I was first introduced to by Sam Harris, and that I hope will get more attention with the publication of Sam’s new book, The Moral Landscape.

Mastema: Someone, please correct me if I am misremembering this, but isn’t Massimo’s position VERY similar to what he criticized Harris for when he was a guest on Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe?

Two people have beat me to it already. Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D. Ph.D. Ph.D. has tried to define morality as a form of utilitarianism, which is precisely something he criticised Sam Harris for when you interviewed him recently. What a flaming wanker he is.

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lukeprog August 30, 2010 at 7:55 am

Mastema,

That’s what it looks like to me, honestly.

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Massimo Pigliucci August 30, 2010 at 8:24 am

Okay, but my only objection is to the old and not too good picture of me you used… ;-)

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lukeprog August 30, 2010 at 8:49 am

Massimo,

Send me a better photo and I’ll post it!

But I’m afraid a fresh photo will make neither you nor I look glamorous standing next to Julia. :)

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Silver Bullet August 30, 2010 at 9:29 am

Reginald Selkirk,

I also thought that I had come across Dr. Pigliucci arguing (rather vehemently actually) against Sam Harris, but I couldn’t be completely sure that I was remembering that correctly.

Nevertheless, he may not be a flaming wanker. He may have just changed his mind.

I hope that I will always have the integrity to change my mind when I am faced with good reasons and evidence to do so. I think that Sam Harris certainly does a good job of providing good reasons and evidence, so I could hardly blame Dr. Piggliucci for having done so.

I suppose it’s also possible that Dr. Piggliucci was just playing “devil’s advocate” for the debate. I don’t know.

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Reginald Selkirk August 30, 2010 at 9:40 am

I think that Sam Harris certainly does a good job of providing good reasons and evidence

I am not enamored of everything he says. I think Pigluicci was correct in his criticism of Harris. Harris was making a hidden value judgement, and assuming that it came out of his evidence.

I also think Harris is prone to overly simplistic, black-and-white rhetoric, and have made numerous criticisms of his recent statement on the Park51 Islamic center, but that’s another issue.

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Reginald Selkirk August 30, 2010 at 10:02 am

I suppose it’s also possible that Dr. Piggliucci was just playing “devil’s advocate” for the debate.

When your best defense is that you were insincere, you are in bad shape.

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Alonzo Fyfe August 30, 2010 at 10:10 am

Well, I could define morality as being concerned with maximizing each individual’s collection of marbles. But I cannot make it true by definition that people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the collection of marbles.

Massimo Pigliucci picked something a bit more popular than collecting marbles.

The first problem is because he selected a question-begging term.

What is human “welfare”? what is “flourishing”? The question of whether or how to count something as promoting “welfare” are going to be the same questions we had about whether to count something as “moral”.

What’s going to be the next step? Defining “welfare” in terms of yet another value-laden term?

The second problem is that it is false. People simply desire a lot more things than just “welfare” or “flourishing”. We have any number of desires. Trying to argue that we have only two desires (or only two legitimate desires) is like arguing that we have only two beliefs (or only two legitimate beliefs).

The problem with the “welfare and flourishing” model is that it will ultimately run into the same problem as the “collecting marbles” model. It will run into instances in which people will say, “That is not the most important thing to me and you can give me no reason why it should be.”

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cl August 30, 2010 at 10:13 am

Julia agrees that if you start with such an axiom, then moral reasoning is possible.

That’s exactly how I feel about desirism: if we simply define good as “tends to fulfill other desires,” then sure, we can make evaluations. The problem is, nobody seems able to justify that definition. Desirism also has that feeling of being “tautologically true.” Many people have remarked thusly.

The moral skeptic can act in ways that other people call “moral.”

Or they can just not give a damn and thug out. Pigliucci’s claim is simply false. Moral skeptics exist. There are people for whom empathy is impossible.

Massimo defines morality “as that branch of philosophy that deals with the maximization of human welfare and flourishing.”

IMO he ought to strike “human” from his definition. Why define morality exclusively in terms of humanity? That seems awfully species-centric to me. Sentiments like these seem to betray the evolutionary maxim that we’re all just animals. If that’s true, why do so many of us see ourselves as something different, something more important?

…“Is this the sort of thing that deserves to be exhibited in a gallery?” And that’s certainly a real, non-semantic debate.

Yeah, but unfortunately, even then our evaluations are still doomed to subjectivity. You know the drill; one person thinks Pop Surrealism is the hottest thing since sliced bread, another thinks it drab. In the absence of an agreed-upon set of criteria, it seems that our evaluations always will be doomed to subjectivity.

Can we do the same thing with the definition of “morality”? … I’ll take this up in a later post.

Thank you. People have been asking you and Alonzo to do precisely that. Richard Wein comes to mind, off the top of my head.

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Rob August 30, 2010 at 10:13 am

It seems to me that Pigliucci agrees with Harris that ethics ought to be “that branch of philosophy that deals with the maximization of human welfare and flourishing”, but Paigliucci acknowledges or realizes that is a controversial claim, whereas Harris refuses to acknowledge that.

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Rick B August 30, 2010 at 11:27 am

Is the proof of morality in any way different from the proof of god? I see loads of people who implicitly agree that morality and moral behavior exist and ought to be defined, but very few people who can agree on 1) what morality is and 2) what moral actions are/are not. Just like in the god debate.

I’d say I’m a moral skeptic. Would you apply morality to lions on the savanna who kill antelope to feed themselves? Alternately: These lions act contrary to the desires of the antelope to live and reproduce, and do so only to fulfill their selfish desire to eat antelope – surely there are other sources of food on the savanna. What makes the lions moral, amoral or immoral in this context?

I’m probably guilty of misunderstanding or misapplying desirism here. But more importantly, can the same questions we apply to human behavior be equally applied to bonobos, chimps, gorillas or monkeys?

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cl August 30, 2010 at 11:53 am

Alonzo,

Are you suggesting that your own questions don’t apply to your own theory? I sure hope not, because they sure do. For example,

Well, I could define morality as being concerned with maximizing each individual’s collection of marbles. But I cannot make it true by definition that people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the collection of marbles.

Well, I could define good as “tends to fulfill other desires,” but I cannot make it true by definition that people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires. See how easy that was? So how is your assertion any better than Pigliucci’s?

The second problem is that it is false. People simply desire a lot more things than just “welfare” or “flourishing”. We have any number of desires. Trying to argue that we have only two desires (or only two legitimate desires) is like arguing that we have only two beliefs (or only two legitimate beliefs).

That’s a little misleading. Nowhere did I hear Pigliucci assert that we don’t have “any number of desires.” However, I think it’s accurate to say that any desire you would call good would entail either an increase in human welfare, flourishing, or both. You can prove me wrong by citing a desire you think is good yet doesn’t entail said increase. If you cannot cite such a desire, then I see nothing but semantic difference between the definitions.

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Alonzo Fyfe August 30, 2010 at 2:00 pm

cl

Well, I could define good as “tends to fulfill other desires,” but I cannot make it true by definition that people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires. See how easy that was?

Not only is it the case that I cannot make it true by definition that people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires, I cannot even make it true as a matter of fact.

In fact, I go so far as to claim “people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires” is false, for the most part. Instead, what I argue is that other people’s desires give them reason to cause the agent to be concerned with those things that tend to bring about the fulfillment of other desires.

Note the difference between “concerned with the fulfillment of other desires” and “concerned with those things that tend to bring about the fulfillment of other desires.” It is an important distinction.

Another important difference is that this account does not identify any particular thing as having value. Desires determine what has value, and that could be just about anything. It is significantly different from a case where a person such as Pigliucci declaring what has value without any reference to desires or any other physical fact.

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nate August 30, 2010 at 2:08 pm

cl,

Could I not turn around and ask you the same question concerning DCT? Why should God be the standard for good? All attempts at moral realism must just start out with an unwarranted assumption about what is good and move from that.

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Alonzo Fyfe August 30, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Nate

All attempts at moral realism must just start out with an unwarranted assumption about what is good and move from that. nate

I disagree with this.

In fact, I hold that any moral realism that starts out with an unwarranted assumption about what is good is doomed to fail because this unwarranted assumption is just make-believe. It is fiction. No such “good” exists and basing morality on such a “good” is off to no better a start than basing value on “god”.

Moral realism must start out with a statement of claims about what exists in the real world – statements that require exactly the same types of support as any other claims of existence. They must identify things that help to explain and predict real world events.

Anything other than this, and the moral realist is constructing a myth.

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James August 30, 2010 at 3:02 pm

There is only one actual world, so you can win an argument over what properties it has using evidence. There is no ability to similarly force consensus about which potential world should be made actual, because more than one potential world exists.

So achieving consensus about morality requires achieving consensus on the specification of some way to filter out the various potential worlds so that you are agreed that a subset are the “morally acceptable” subset.

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Stewart, aka Luigi August 30, 2010 at 3:09 pm

This is a fascinating theme. I’m in agreement with Massimo’s definition, and I don’t quite understand how Julia can describe it as ‘arbitrary’.

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Kaelik August 30, 2010 at 3:16 pm

So Alonzo:

If someone desires to have sex with partners who are not consenting to the sex, then they should be concerned with those things that tend to bring about the fulfillment of that desire.

How do you argue that this person should not have this desire, something that, unless I misjudge, you and Luke both believe.

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Stewart, aka Luigi August 30, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Sorry, I didn’t read comments. I agree with much of Alonso’s remarks, but I don’t see ‘flourishing’ as a value-laden term, particularly. It’s not that we ought to aim for our flourishing, it’s just that we do, though not always effectively. I tend to view much morality as less than fully conscious, driven from somewhere deeper than consciousness and moral rules as coming from a formalization of post-hoc rationalization. a very rich formalization.

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Andres August 30, 2010 at 3:46 pm

“as that branch of philosophy that deals with the maximization of human welfare and flourishing.”

But why is it only about human flourishing and welfare?
I thought we’ve moved past this ever since Peter Singer and Tom Regan began their crusade for the rights (or interests) of animals.

Surely “That man beating his dog is morally wrong” isn’t wrong because the act interferes with the welfare or flourishing of the human, but rather it is morally wrong because you are inflicting suffering on another *Sentient* creature.

So, why not start with the much broader axiom “Morality is that branch of philosophy that deals with the maximization of sentient welfare and flourishing”?

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lukeprog August 30, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Fyfe’s comment in response to cl above is very important, and clarifies a very common misunderstanding of desirism. Everyone please read – and cl, please read it twice.

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mojo.rhythm August 30, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Cl,

Are you yourself a moral skeptic, or a moral realist? If so, is there an objective account of morality that you prefer over desirism? Do you accept Divine Commandment Theory?

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nate August 30, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Stewart,

Morality should answer the question “How should people act?” Defining morality as a certain way that people should act begs the question.

Alonzo,

what claims about the world does desirism start with to prove that we should maximize desires?

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anon August 30, 2010 at 7:25 pm

When is that one guy gonna show up and say “Massimo Pigliucci PHD PHD PHD?” I miss that guy.

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AlonzoFyfe August 30, 2010 at 7:37 pm

nate

Alonzo, what claims about the world does desirism start with to prove that we should maximize desires?

Desirism does not claim that we should maximize desires (or maximize desire fulfillment), which I suspect is what you meant to say).

In fact, desirism explicitly rejects the proposition that we should maximize desire fulfillment. For this to be true, we would have to become creatures with only one desire – a desire to maximize desire fulfillment. We could not have any other likes or dislikes – no averison to pain, no interest in sex, no food preferences, no sense of comfort or discovert assocated with anything other than the amount of desire fulfillment we create.

Which, simply in virtue of being impossible (and thus standing in violation of the principle ‘ought’ implies ‘can’) is not something that we ought to do.

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Jeffrey Shallit August 31, 2010 at 2:07 am

Why do you think ‘the “foundations” of mathematics were undermined by Gödel’s incompleteness theorems’? I don’t know any mathematicians who would say that.

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lukeprog August 31, 2010 at 4:33 am

Shallit,

I probably don’t mean the phrase as strongly as you think, as of course I don’t think mathematics dies after Godel or anything like that. I’ve rephrased.

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Reginald Selkirk August 31, 2010 at 5:52 am

anon: When is that one guy gonna show up and say “Massimo Pigliucci PHD PHD PHD?” I miss that guy. anon

You did miss him, in comment #6.

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MichaelPJ August 31, 2010 at 7:40 am

Pigliucci always amazes me. I mean, the man has three Ph.Ds! And yet I don’t think I agree with anything I’ve heard him say, except a commitment to naturalism. This does make me wonder whether I just don’t get him…

I have to concur with everyone else in being a bit confused at what he’s trying to do here. Possibly there is some subtle point of view from which it doesn’t look like he’s constantly dodging questions, but to a naive observer it looks like Massimo lives in a world where G.E. Moore’s question is not open, it’s trivial! If he wants to disagree with all that history of meta-ethics, fine, but I’d like some kind of justification for that!

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cl August 31, 2010 at 4:40 pm

nate,

I would agree with you that all unaided human attempts at moral realism must begin with an unwarranted assumption about what is good. That’s precisely what I believe Alonzo’s theory does. However, when you ask,

Could I not turn around and ask you the same question concerning DCT? Why should God be the standard for good?

By definition, an omnibenevolent, omniscient God would retain perfect access to the set of moral facts. Such an God would be equivalent [or better] to a supercomputer that could actually process these complex evaluations of desires-fulfilled vs. desires-thwarted. Such a God would return the correct answer every time. Any individual desire could be evaluated and judged on how it would affect the other desires in the world.

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cl August 31, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Alonzo,

You began your response to Pigliucci with,

Well, I could define morality as being concerned with maximizing each individual’s collection of marbles. But I cannot make it true by definition that people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the collection of marbles.

Massimo Pigliucci picked something a bit more popular than collecting marbles.

The first problem is because he selected a question-begging term.

From those criticisms, I inferred that you were criticizing Pigliucci’s definition of morality as arbitrary and/or unwarranted. Was that correct?

Not only is it the case that I cannot make it true by definition that people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires, I cannot even make it true as a matter of fact.

Then, why do you [seemingly] criticize Pigliucci as if he should have been able to make it true by definition that people are or ought to be particularly concerned with human welfare and flourishing?

In fact, I go so far as to claim “people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires” is false, for the most part.

Then – again – how is desirism prescriptive? If there’s no justification for saying that people should be concerned with the fulfillment of other desires, how is desirism *not* purely descriptive? As you’ve stated before, desirism “prescribes nothing” in the case of 200 that P and 200 that ~P, where P = some malleable desire [the debate about whether non-malleable desires exist temporarily notwithstanding], so how is desirism prescriptive? How is it not just a restatement of an obvious truth [that people will attempt to influence others to get what they want]?

…other people’s desires give them reason to cause the agent to be concerned with those things that tend to bring about the fulfillment of other desires.

No offense, but can you state that a little more clearly? It sounds like you’re just saying, “the fact that people desire states of affairs means they have reason to shape other people desires into desires that tend to bring about those states of affairs.” That translates to, “people will attempt to influence others to get what they want.” Is that all you’re saying?

Luke,

Cute. I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, again. Can you articulate – precisely – this misunderstanding you think I’ve made? I’m not sure we’re on the same page, and I’ve read Alonzo’s comment three times.

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cl August 31, 2010 at 5:05 pm

mojo.rhythm,

Are you yourself a moral skeptic, or a moral realist? If so, is there an objective account of morality that you prefer over desirism? Do you accept Divine Commandment Theory?

I’m hesitant to say because I’m not sure how you define those terms. If by moral skeptic you mean somebody who doesn’t believe that any substantive moral belief can be true, no, I’m not a moral skeptic. Since I believe God created humans for purposeful, creative action, I believe that there are substantive moral beliefs that can be true. In the same way it is true for a programmer to say, “My application performs best when the objects behave thusly,” it is true for God to say, “My creation fares best when the creatures behave thusly.” In practice, this might work out to something like, “God knows that people stealing will lead to directly thwarted desires [of the victim], and, over time, to unnecessary precautions that burden people who don’t steal, so, stealing is forbidden.” Of course, we’ve figured that out, too, through years and years of experience.

An omniscient, omnibenevolent God has perfect access to the set of moral facts. IOW, such a God knows the effect of any given desire A when juxtaposed against any given desire B, and whether the outcome [if the desire is acted on] will produce a state of affairs that’s more in line with God’s intentions, or not.

If you would call that moral realism, I suppose I’m a moral realist by your definition. Personally, I try to avoid the labels.

One of my primary objections to Alonzo’s theory is that – as far as I can see – he begins with an unwarranted assumption about what good is. I agree that good must certainly include the fulfillment of desires – i.e. we say a lasagna is good if it fulfills our desire for a hearty meal on a cold day – but that’s a generic definition of good that doesn’t allow for accurate moral evaluations.

If I were an atheist, I would be an error theorist, definitely. I would argue that no person can justify the imposition of their values upon any other, and that moral prescriptions can only be justified by submission to a social contract. IOW, I would only say “you should do X” in an instance where you and I have agreed upon something that would entail you doing X. Aside from that, I’d have no grounds whatsoever for telling you what you should do.

Sorry to ramble; you asked an intricate question.

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MichaelPJ August 31, 2010 at 6:52 pm

@cl

I presume you know about Euthyphro’s dilemma? Might I ask how you would respond to that?

You complain that Alonzo starts with an unwarranted assumption about what “good” is, and I’d agree, but I don’t see how bringing God into the matter helps at all, unless you’re willing to accept that God could make it so that torture was right.

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MichaelPJ August 31, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Ah. I’ve just seen that you have a blog post on that in which you take the first horn. So to answer the above poster for you, if you don’t mind, that rules out DCT.

However, I’m a little confused as to why you would be an error theorist in the absence of God. It seems that if God didn’t exist, the good would still be good, and we could act according to it, no?

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cl August 31, 2010 at 7:20 pm

You complain that Alonzo starts with an unwarranted assumption about what “good” is, and I’d agree,

Good. At least we’ve got that much.

So to answer the above poster for you, if you don’t mind, that rules out DCT.

Actually, if by “the above poster” you’re referring to mojo.rhythym, I thought I had answered sufficiently, but, if you’d care to provide elaboration for this claim of yours, I’m game.

Although, I’d rather pursue the creationist thing, if you’re still interested.

However, I’m a little confused as to why you would be an error theorist in the absence of God.

People have far-less-than-perfect access to the set of moral facts.

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MichaelPJ August 31, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Actually, if by “the above poster” you’re referring to mojo.rhythym, I thought I had answered sufficiently, but, if you’d care to provide elaboration for this claim of yours, I’m game.

My understanding of DCT is that it basically consists of accepting the “good is good because God says so” horn of the dilemma. Which isn’t the one you take. So I’m not saying much there.

People have far-less-than-perfect access to the set of moral facts.

But you believe that there are moral facts? If you’ve discarded our moral intuitions as so unreliable that they can only be grounded in a social contract, what is your justification for believing that?

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Yair August 31, 2010 at 11:41 pm

I’m glad to say that on this I’m in complete agreement with Alonzo Fyfe:

The problem with the “welfare and flourishing” model is that it will ultimately run into the same problem as the “collecting marbles” model. It will run into instances in which people will say, “That is not the most important thing to me and you can give me no reason why it should be.”

Now if only I can get him to acknowledge that Desirism has the same problem, I’d be content. When it comes to morality, “What does it matter?” is answered by “It guides human choice”. Morality matters for making decisions. This is why desirism is as “arbitrary” a definition as Massimo’s – neither good-defining-property (increasing well-being/tending to fulfill other desires) directly guides our choice. And this is also why a Subjective definition is not “arbitrary” – each person’s desires actually are the roots of his decisions-making. There is no point where people can reasonably say “Acting to further my own desires is not the most important thing to me and you can give me no reason why it should be.”

Although I have to say Massimo’s definition (i.e. utilitarianism) at least tracks one of our moral senses (i.e. one of our deep desires), whereas I reckon desirism doesn’t.

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cl September 1, 2010 at 1:10 pm

MichaelPJ,

If you’ve discarded our moral intuitions as so unreliable that they can only be grounded in a social contract,

That’s not what I said, but I’ll leave that aside…

…what is your justification for believing that?

I don’t see the problem. Why would my claim that “moral intuitions aren’t always reliable” cause my claim that “moral facts exist” to need justification? By moral facts, all I mean is that in the context of human behavior and interaction, certain actions yield certain results in a predictable manner.

Yair,

Now if only I can get him to acknowledge that Desirism has the same problem, I’d be content.

Yes, I think that’s true of many who are skeptical of Alonzo’s theory. I said the same thing in my comment to Alonzo. He replied that the claim, “people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires” is “false, for the most part.” If that’s the case, I don’t see how he can say that desirism is a prescriptive theory. Do you?

Also, I have a question about this:

…neither good-defining-property (increasing well-being/tending to fulfill other desires) directly guides our choice.

I think I might be misunderstanding you, because it seems to me that “increasing well-being” [of either ourselves, our community or our loved ones] directly guides all human choices that are typically referred to as good. Whether it’s a parent packing a healthy lunch or a child brushing his or her teeth, it seems the common denominator will always factor to “increasing well-being.”

Luke,

So, would you say that Yair is making the same misunderstanding I am? If so, then, again, could you please articulate precisely what that misunderstanding is?

Alonzo,

If “people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires” is “false, for the most part,” how is desirism prescriptive? It seems to me that for a moral theory to qualify as prescriptive, it would have to prescribe what people should do. What are your thoughts on the matter?

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nate September 1, 2010 at 1:15 pm

cl,

Saying that God would give the correct answer to moral questions begs the question. Usually when someone tries to define terms in such a way to prove their point, they are full of shit. This is no exception.

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Hermes September 1, 2010 at 1:35 pm

:)

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cl September 1, 2010 at 1:38 pm

nate,

Saying that God would give the correct answer to moral questions begs the question.

Which question does it beg, pray tell?

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MichaelPJ September 1, 2010 at 1:44 pm

By moral facts, all I mean is that in the context of human behavior and interaction, certain actions yield certain results in a predictable manner.

Really? I’m pretty sure that’s not what I understand by moral facts. Nor indeed what most of the moral philosophers I’ve read mean by moral facts. I thought the existence of moral facts meant that there was a fact of the matter about whether or not, for example, we should murder people if we feel like it. If you’ve managed to reduce this to the fact that “in the context of human behavior and interaction, certain actions yield certain results in a predictable manner”, then that’s very exciting and I look forward to hearing how you managed it.

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cl September 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm

I thought the existence of moral facts meant that there was a fact of the matter about whether or not, for example, we should murder people if we feel like it.

In the view I’m espousing, there is: the fact of the matter is that God created humans for good purposes [and please don't anybody flank me on epistemological concerns; we're granting such for the sake of argument]. When people murder others because they feel like it, non-good results. IOW, it is a moral fact that certain actions [arbitrary murder] yield certain results [suffering, tragedy, sense of loss, etc.], and this is both predictable and testable [though serious ethical objections could seemingly be raised to the testing]. Under this view, the phrase “arbitrary murder of others is wrong” would be a moral fact.

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nate September 1, 2010 at 8:31 pm

cl

//Which question does it beg, pray tell?//

You’re assuming that God gives correct answers to moral questions when that is the point you are trying to prove.

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Hermes September 1, 2010 at 9:13 pm

Expect deception or word games. After all, it’s war not an earnest search for mutual understanding.

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Yair September 1, 2010 at 10:26 pm

@ cl:
If that’s the case, I don’t see how he can say that desirism is a prescriptive theory. Do you?
No, I do not.

it seems to me that “increasing well-being” [of either ourselves, our community or our loved ones] directly guides all human choices that are typically referred to as good.
Do you want to have a descriptive moral theory, a linguistic theory talking about how humans in our society use the word “good”? Then that observation may be relevant (even though I actually disagree with it; i.e. virtue counts [e.g. don't participate in a murder even if someone else would do it if you won't] and rights count [e.g. don't throw the fat man on the tracks in the trolley problem]).

Or do you want to have a prescriptive theory, talking about what people ought to do? In which case, you have to start with square one – which as I argued above, is subjectivism.

You can choose to define as “good” only those actions that aim to further well-being. But that is not solely what people desire, certainly not in the objective/global well-being sense that is implied. So by sticking to this definition, you would end up in the situation where what a person ought to do does not coincide with what is “good”. In other words, your theory on how to advance “good” would only be of interest to people due to confusion or as an abstract academic subject-matter (like mathematics or chess are interesting in their own right), not as a guide to life.

Also,
it is a moral fact that certain actions [arbitrary murder] yield certain results [suffering, tragedy, sense of loss, etc.], and this is both predictable and testable [though serious ethical objections could seemingly be raised to the testing]. Under this view, the phrase “arbitrary murder of others is wrong” would be a moral fact.
Why would it be a moral fact?

Is it because morality is about what diminishes well-being [resulting in "suffering, tragedy, sense of loss, etc."]? Then you’re back at the dogmatic utilitarianism we just agreed was untenable.

Is it because these results are opposed to God’s purposes? Then you have precisely the same problem as Massimo and Alonzo have – your “ought” is not a priori of interest to a human being.

Is it because God’s purposes are “good”, so opposing them is wrong? Then you’ve chosen the impossible horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, landing you in the same problem yet again.

If I may, if you want to salvage Divine Command Theory, what you need to say is rather more like:

“The fact of the matter is that God created humans and the world in such a way that following his Laws is what they really want. It’s kind of like the manufacturer’s manual. When people stray from the Law, such as by committing murder, they are unwittingly inflicting suffering on themselves and acting against their true purposes. When they act to further the Law, they act to further their own purposes, as part of God’s Great Plan. This is why when people come to experience God, they want to obey him – that’s what they were created to do. That’s why “Islam” means “submission”. Evil is borne out of ignorance, and averted by Truth.”

In other words, what matters is not what God’s purposes are, but rather what human’s purposes are.

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Julia Galef September 2, 2010 at 4:48 am

Great post, Luke, and great discussion. Just wanted to let you all know that this post and its comments inspired me to re-visit the debate between me and Massimo, from a slightly different angle this time:

http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/09/definitions-dont-prove-anything.html

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lukeprog September 2, 2010 at 8:51 am

Thanks, Julia.

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cl September 2, 2010 at 11:56 am

nate,

You’re assuming that God gives correct answers to moral questions when that is the point you are trying to prove.

I’m neither assuming that point nor trying to prove it. What I’m saying is, if an omniscient, omnibenevolent God stands at the helm of creation [and I believe such a God does], then such a God would have perfect access to the set of moral facts. There’s no need to prove anything; it’s a conditional statement.

Yair,

Do you want to have a descriptive moral theory, a linguistic theory talking about how humans in our society use the word “good”?

Not really, I’d like a prescriptive one.

…virtue counts [e.g. don't participate in a murder even if someone else would do it if you won't]

Of course, but why does it count? Don’t you think it counts precisely because moral people seek to create a society that honors human well-being and flourishing? Else, why would we call virtue virtue?

You can choose to define as “good” only those actions that aim to further well-being. But that is not solely what people desire, certainly not in the objective/global well-being sense that is implied.

I agree that some people don’t desire well-being. There are in fact people who desire destruction and chaos, and there are people who don’t seemingly care about their own well-being or anyone else’s. The point I’m trying to make is, it seems every desire that “your average person” would call good distills to either flourishing or well-being. Can you think of a desire that “your average person” would call good that doesn’t have a net effect of maintaining or increasing human well-being or flourishing?

Regarding DCT, is it just the phrase “moral fact” that you find spurious? It seems to me that my,

Since I believe God created humans for purposeful, creative action, I believe that there are substantive moral beliefs that can be true. In the same way it is true for a programmer to say, “My application performs best when the objects behave thusly,” it is true for God to say, “My creation fares best when the creatures behave thusly.” In practice, this might work out to something like, “God knows that people stealing will lead to directly thwarted desires [of the victim], and, over time, to unnecessary precautions that burden people who don’t steal, so, stealing is forbidden.”

Is pretty much along the same lines as your,

The fact of the matter is that God created humans and the world in such a way that following his Laws is what they really want. It’s kind of like the manufacturer’s manual. When people stray from the Law, such as by committing murder, they are unwittingly inflicting suffering on themselves and acting against their true purposes. When they act to further the Law, they act to further their own purposes, as part of God’s Great Plan. This is why when people come to experience God, they want to obey him – that’s what they were created to do. That’s why “Islam” means “submission”. Evil is borne out of ignorance, and averted by Truth.

Do you see any substantive difference between our statements?

Luke,

I’m still very much interested in this discussion. Could you clarify the misunderstanding you think I’ve made? How can desirism be prescriptive if the statement “people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires” is “false, for the most part?” Yair has also expressed confusion over this point.

Can you help us out?

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MichaelPJ September 2, 2010 at 12:06 pm

@cl

Apologies if I’m missing something, but it looks like your argument involving moral facts is circular.

I’m neither assuming that point nor trying to prove it. What I’m saying is, if an omniscient, omnibenevolent God stands at the helm of creation [and I believe such a God does], then such a God would have perfect access to the set of moral facts.

But your argument for the existence of moral facts was:

Since I believe God created humans for purposeful, creative action, I believe that there are substantive moral beliefs that can be true.

So then your claim that God has perfect access to the moral facts is trivial, since the moral facts derive from the way God created humans. Hence you’ve actually embraced the second horn of the Euthyphro: that what is good is good because God commands it. That’s the opposite of what you stated.

If you want to claim that what God commands is good because God knows what is good, and not just because he commands it, you need some account of moral facts that is independent of God. You may have one, but I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.

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Hermes September 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm

I’ll take “word games” for $300 Alex, followed by “goose chase” for $100.

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cl September 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Who hired the cheerleader?

MichaelPJ,

Hence you’ve actually embraced the second horn of the Euthyphro: that what is good is good because God commands it. That’s the opposite of what you stated.

You are correct that is the opposite of what I stated. You are incorrect that I take the second horn.

If you want to claim that what God commands is good because God knows what is good, and not just because he commands it, you need some account of moral facts that is independent of God.

That is in fact what I’m claiming – that God commands what is good because God knows what is good – and I’ve already given a basic definition of “moral facts” that is independent of God. I said, “By moral facts, all I mean is that in the context of human behavior and interaction, certain actions yield certain results in a predictable manner.” I would use the same definition if I were an atheist. You replied that you felt my definition differed from that of most moral philosophers, saying that you were looking for something more along the lines of, “…whether or not, for example, we should murder people if we feel like it.” I responded that in my view, there is a fact of the matter. That’s where the “God” part becomes inseparable: God has perfect access to the set of moral facts, and has pre-defined our parameters according to the perfect knowledge of good that an omniscient, omnibenevolent God would necessarily have unbridled access to.

Do you still feel I’m taking the second horn?

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Hermes September 3, 2010 at 6:17 pm

The first horn swings and plays a tune … but can she dance?

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MichaelPJ September 3, 2010 at 7:19 pm

@cl

It was this passage in particular I was thinking of

Since I believe God created humans for purposeful, creative action, I believe that there are substantive moral beliefs that can be true.

That sounds like deriving morality from God. Maybe that wasn’t what you meant to say, there. Then you say that you define moral facts:

By moral facts, all I mean is that in the context of human behavior and interaction, certain actions yield certain results in a predictable manner.

However, now you seem to be playing the same game that many people have been criticising Massimo for playing. From your earlier comments you sound like you are indeed fairly sympathetic towards this gambit. My question to you is then the same as always: where did you get the “ought” from? You have a collection of facts about how some kinds of actions lead to other kinds of actions; how does this tell us what we “ought” to do?

Now, at this point, in your last post, you invoked God. However, from what you’ve said before, it sounds like you envisage God as solving the implementation problem: God, being omniscient, has perfect access to the moral facts (which we haven’t satisfactorily proved the existence of yet), and so his commands are a good guide to them.

None of this tells me why I ought to act in any particular way. Given your “moral facts”, then it may indeed be true that IF I desire a particular outcome, then I should take a particular course of action. Does that mean that your answer to, “Should I murder this guy because I feel like it?” is “it depends”? You’ve told me that you think there is a fact of the matter about these sorts of cases, but you haven’t told us why, except that it might have something to do with God.

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cl September 4, 2010 at 2:59 pm

MichaelPJ,

In the future, if I don’t respond as promptly as you think I should, please realize that I’ve got myself pretty spread out here lately.

None of this tells me why I ought to act in any particular way.

I disagree. Presuming you are interested in cohering with the good, it tells you precisely why you should act in a particular way: because God knows which particular ways are good. Now, you could always go the Lucifer route and rebel, but that doesn’t mean there’s no “particular way” you ought to act.

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Yair September 5, 2010 at 12:13 am

cl:

Of course, but why does it count? Don’t you think it counts precisely because moral people seek to create a society that honors human well-being and flourishing? Else, why would we call virtue virtue?

No, I don’t. It may very well be, for example, that treating everyone as morally equal, as is done in Western societies, is not an ideal structure to encourage human well-being and flourishing. Perhaps a slave-aristocracy society would do better. I’d still recommend against it, on the basis that it wouldn’t be just. We want to honor more than just well-being and flourishing.

The point I’m trying to make is, it seems every desire that “your average person” would call good distills to either flourishing or well-being. Can you think of a desire that “your average person” would call good that doesn’t have a net effect of maintaining or increasing human well-being or flourishing?
The common answer is to point at the Trolley Problem: you don’t push the fat man to his death not because that this would be conductive to human flourishing or anything like that, but simply because it is wrong to do so. You can call this “A desire to respect another person’s right to life”, if you want.

My favorite example, however, is the Argument from Genocide. Suppose we are agreed that society A is better than society B. We would therefore want to change society B to be like A. One way to achieve this is to kill every member in society B, and then repopulate the place with other humans, such that they will have the social structure of society A. Clearly, this is an improvement – whereas we once had goodness [flourishing, well being - whatever] A+B, now we have A+A! (Let us assume we can kill off society B so fast and replace it so quickly that the small transient stage is negligible; for practical purposes, we switched from A+B to A+A instantly.)

Well, no – killing off people (or replacing them with “improved twins” in sci-fi scenarios) isn’t a good thing. This is the problem with Sam Harris’ picture of the “moral [utilitarian] landscape” – there is a moral cost to how you move in the space of what exists, not just to how good [flourishing] what exists is.

Regarding DCT, is it just the phrase “moral fact” that you find spurious? It seems to me that my,
Not precisely.

The problem is with the focus. Your criteria is God saying “My creation fares best when…”. This is irrelevant for human decision-making, since we don’t (a priori) care what God judges to be “faring well”. The key point is whether humans judge some outcome or action as superior. In my version, it is emphasized that the obeying God is what people really want; in your version, it is emphasized that God is pleased, with human contentment no longer being the criteria – it is, at most, an equivalent result “in practice”.

If you would agree to my DCT, the essential difference in opinion between us would be factual – what is human nature (and not the more difficult to approach empirically question of whether there is a god).

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cl September 6, 2010 at 1:24 am

Yair,

It may very well be, for example, that treating everyone as morally equal, as is done in Western societies, is not an ideal structure to encourage human well-being and flourishing. Perhaps a slave-aristocracy society would do better.

I agree, but that seems out-of-place given the line of argument I’m pursuing. Am I missing something?

You can call this “A desire to respect another person’s right to life”, if you want.

And you think that desire does not fall under the category of an increase in well-being?

We would therefore want to change society B to be like A. One way to achieve this is to kill every member in society B, and then repopulate the place with other humans, such that they will have the social structure of society A.

Minor quibble: this would not be changing society B, but replacing it. That said, I’m still a bit confused. In your Argument from Genocide, is there an example of a desire that doesn’t fall under the category of human well-being or flourishing?

…in your version, it is emphasized that God is pleased, contentment no longer being the criteria

No, that’s not what I meant. “My creation fares best when” takes into account all desires that exist [human and divine]. This approach actually takes both the human and divine angles into consideration. Human contentment is one of the criteria. It seems to me we’re saying the same thing.

If you would agree to my DCT, the essential difference in opinion between us would be factual – what is human nature

With me saying a fallen reflection of God’s nature, and you saying?

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Yair September 7, 2010 at 3:15 am

@cl:

I agree, but that seems out-of-place given the line of argument I’m pursuing. Am I missing something?
That maximizing human well-being isn’t the only thing we value; it isn’t the only criterion.

And you think that desire does not fall under the category of an increase in well-being?
Yes.

In your Argument from Genocide, is there an example of a desire that doesn’t fall under the category of human well-being or flourishing?
It is a reductio ad absurdum. The point is that if all we desire is to increase well-being and flourishing we should engage in genocide, yet clearly we don’t desire to do that – so we desire more than just increasing well-being and flourishing.

“My creation fares best when” takes into account all desires that exist [human and divine].
That is the problem. Humans shouldn’t care, a priori, what divine creatures desire. What we should do, if we’re rational, is dependent first and foremost on what we want. (Of course, part or all of what we want may very well be to serve divine desires – but that’s not the starting point, that’s a later development.)

With me saying a fallen reflection of God’s nature, and you saying?
A flawed reflection of evolutionary pressures, I suppose would be the analogous sentence. :)

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Timothy Underwood November 2, 2010 at 11:52 am

Defining morality as X functions as a claim, not a definition. It will be interpreted as claiming we should feel about, reason about, and act upon X in a certain way.

A claim of that sort is not tautological, and it should be defended.

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