The Greatest Objection to Desirism (part 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 10, 2010 in Ethics,Science

Sometimes I forget I’m a moral realist, because in reading the dialectic between moral realists and moral anti-realists, I almost always agree more with the anti-realists than I do with the realists. I can be rather harsh with moral realists.

One way I fall outside the mainstream of moral realists is that I am, in some ways, an eliminative materialist, even though eliminative materialism is considered anathema to naturalistic moral realism.

What is eliminative materialism? Patricia Churchland summed it up this way for Philosophy Bites:

One of the things you can see in the history of science is that there is a kind of progression… whereby certain old concepts get replaced by new developments…

As neurobiology comes to [engage] with higher-level concepts, what will those higher-level concepts look like? Will they look like folk psychology as it has been since ever, or will there be fundamental changes?

[Paul Churchland and I] made a prediction. The prediction was that… certain concepts might be modified, developed [and] eliminated as neuroscience progresses: [such concepts as] beliefs, desires, intentions…

I think the notion of “having a goal” is part of folk psychology, but I think that’s one of the concepts that is likely to be retained as a high-level psychological concept that really does fit quite well with neurobiological findings. Other concepts such as the notion of will… [are less likely to match anything in neurobiology.]

Patricia and many others are skeptical that our folk concept of desire will end up matching anything in neurobiology. Some think the concept of desire will end up being eliminated by neurobiology, just as we’ve had to discard our notions of “melancholy” or “sin” or “demonic possession” because they don’t actually match anything in our biology.

I don’t know what neurobiologists will discover, but I’m sympathetic to this view. And I think Patricia is right that “having a goal” is more likely to survive the next few centuries of neuroscience than “desire” is. The concept of “will” is probably the next one scheduled to go away.

Is Folk Psychology a Good Theory?

Why am I skeptical about the folk concept of “desire”?

Paul Churchland introduced a set of worries in 1981 with “Eliminative Materialism and Propositional Attitudes.”

Paul asked us to realize that folk psychology is a theory. We use concepts like “belief” and “desire” and “intention” and “fear,” to explain and prediction other’s behavior. For example, we say that “If John tells Sue she will get that raise she wanted, and then Sue does not get the raise, Sue will be angry at John.” And folk psychology makes accurate predictions about other’s behaviors much of the time, which is probably why we keep using it.

(Also, confirmation bias helps: We tend to forget all the times we predicted people’s behavior badly, and thus we think of ourselves as experts in human psychology and behavior.)

Abbreviating “folk psychology” as FP, Paul says “not so fast”:

…we must reckon not only with FP’s successes, but with its explanatory failures, and with their extent and seriousness. [Also] we must consider what sorts of theories are likely to be true of the etiology of our behavior, given what else we have learned about ourselves in recent history. That is, we must evaluate FP with regard to its coherence and continuity with fertile and well-established theories in adjacent and overlapping domains – with evolutionary theory, biology, and neuroscience, for example…

A serious inventory of this sort reveals a very troubled situation, one which would evoke open skepticism in the case of any theory less familiar and dear to us.

Consider, for example, what FP fails to explain: mental illness, creative imagination, intelligence differences between individuals, the function of sleep, the ability to catch a fly ball on the run, the internal construction of 3D objects from a 2D array of stimulations, visual illusions, the features of memory, the nature of the learning process.

Consider also the history of FP:

The presumed domain of FP used to be much larger than it is now. In primitive cultures, the behavior of most of the elements of nature were understood in intentional terms. The wind could know anger, the moon jealousy, the river generosity… These were not metaphors… the animistic approach to nature has dominated our history, and it is only in the last two or three thousand years that we have restricted FP’s literal application to the domain of the higher animals.

[Even still,] the FP of the Greeks is essentially the FP we uses today… This is a very long period of stagnation and infertility for any theory to display, especially when faced with such an enormous backlog of anomalies and mysteries in its own explanatory domain… To use Imre Lakatos’ terms, FP is a stagnant or degenerating research program, and has been for millennia.

FP’s prospects for theoretical integration are also grim:

If we approach homo sapiens from the perspective of natural history and the physical sciences, we can tell a coherent story of its constitution, development, and behavioral capacities which encompasses particle physics, atomic and molecular theory, organic chemistry, evolutionary theory, biology, physiology, and materialistic neuroscience. The story, though still radically incomplete, is already extremely powerful, outperforming FP at many points even in its own domain. And it is deliberately… coherent with the rest of our developing world picture. In short, the greatest theoretical synthesis in [history] is currently in our hands…

But FP is no part of this growing synthesis. Its intentional categories stand magnificently alone, without visible prospect of reduction to that larger corpus. A successful reduction cannot be ruled out, in my view, but FP’s explanatory impotence and long stagnation inspire little faith that its categories will find themselves neatly reflected in the framework of neuroscience. On the contrary, one is reminded of how alchemy must have looked as elemental chemistry was taking form, how Aristotelean cosmology must have looked as classical mechanics was being articulated, or how the vitalist conception of life must have looked as organic chemistry marched forward.

…what we must say is that FP suffers explanatory failures on an epic scale, that it has been stagnant for at least twenty-five centuries, and that its categories appear (so far) to be incommensurable with… the categories of the background physical science whose long-term claim to explain human behavior seems undeniable. Any theory that meets this description must be allowed [as] a serious candidate for outright elimination.

…FP is a theory, and quite probably a false one; let us attempt therefore to transcend it.

As if that were not bad enough, there is another set of problems that has to do with the apparent syntactic structure of “propositional attitudes” such as beliefs and desires. Consider a desire to visit Grandma in Texas. This desire appears to be composed to concepts like “Grandma” and “Texas” and “visit,” and these concepts must be arranged in a particular syntactic structure or else the desire would be for something else entirely, for example to visit Texas after visiting Grandma (who lives in, say, New Mexico).

Desires, then, appear to involve discrete symbols and combinatorial syntax. But the brain consists of action potentials, spiking frequencies, and spreading activation. As Patricia Churchland pointed out in Neurophilosophy, it’s hard to see how desires as we understand them will reduce to brain activity.1

But What About Desirism?

Desire is one of the foundational concepts in folk psychology. If folk psychology is a bad theory, then there may well be nothing in a completed neuroscience to which the term “desire” can be made to fit. So maybe “desire” is just an ancient folk concept that will have to be eliminated like “sin” and “demonic possession” and “melancholy.”

Considerations like those are why Alonzo Fyfe and I have long said that the greatest objection to desirism is the claim that desires do not exist. Strangely, opponents of desirism almost never raise this objection, but we think it is the strongest objection that can be raised against desirism, and we take it very seriously.

Desirism claims that value is a relation between desires and states of affairs. If desires don’t exist, then desirism is false, just like moral theories that invoke divine commands, intrinsic value, and other non-existent things are false.

So if I know about all these problems with folk psychology and the notion of “desire”, why do I defend desirism?

This will be the topic of my next post.

  1. But then again, perhaps Churchland is looking for the syntax of propositional attitudes at the wrong level of abstraction. See, for example, McLaughlin & Warfield, “The Allure of Connectionism Reexamined.” []

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{ 88 comments… read them below or add one }

David Rogers September 10, 2010 at 6:15 am

Don’t know if you’ve seen this but I thought you might be interested.

http://www.philosophynow.org/issue80/80marks.htm

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mojo.rhythm September 10, 2010 at 6:20 am

A question that has bothered me is: where is the fuzzy demarcation boundary drawn up that distinguishes desires from mindless biological processes? For example, does a colony of single-celled organisms desire to reproduce? Is it appropriate to say that a herpes virus is motivated to realize a state of affairs in which the proposition “this virus has infected a host” is true? Or is it nothing more then a coalition of particles working in synchronized fashion?

Why stop at life? What about chemicals? Quarks? Cosmic strings? Stars? Boltzmann brains? Entropy? Songs? Bicycles? Etc etc.

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Márcio September 10, 2010 at 6:26 am

Desires don’t exist? Tell that to a pregnant woman.

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lukeprog September 10, 2010 at 6:29 am

mojo.rhythm,

That’s a very good question with massive consequences, if we ever find the answer. For starters, read the distinction between situation-action machines and prediction-value machines here.

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lukeprog September 10, 2010 at 6:36 am

David Rogers,

That is an excellent essay. And what’s up with the header ‘desirism’?

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mkandefer September 10, 2010 at 6:37 am

The language of “beliefs”, “desires”, and “intentions” are not just part of “folk psychology”, by which I think you may be referring to introspection-based psychology. Cognitive psychology employs these terms frequently, and it is not lack in explanations for “mental illness, creative imagination, intelligence differences between individuals, the function of sleep, the ability to catch a fly ball on the run, the internal construction of 3D objects from a 2D array of stimulations, visual illusions, the features of memory, the nature of the learning process.”

Cognitive psychology is completely compatible with neuroscience and both fields influence each other.

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G'DIsraeli September 10, 2010 at 6:39 am

Interesting. I remember reading a rebuttal by Yair a time ago, but I can’t find it.
I wonder if concepts like “love”, “care” will be eliminated. A little frightening to think that our grandchildren will probably view the world in a very different way. Reminds me that we are very temporal beings.

Should every psychological concept match a neurological pattern in the brain or else its bunk?
For example, a states of affairs. It is no less social then desire (“SHE desires that” etc), is there a spot in the brain for it? Not that I know of.

Is there no state of affairs in reality? No causation?

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Taranu September 10, 2010 at 7:16 am

“just as we’ve had to discard our notions of “melancholy” or “sin” or “demonic possession” because they don’t actually match anything in our biology”

If we discard melancholy, what are we going to say about the feeling we associate with melancholy?

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Brian_G September 10, 2010 at 8:50 am

I don’t quite see how neurobiology can disprove something like desire. If I were to say “I see a horse”, someone could in principle prove to me that I didn’t really see a horse. All they’d have to do would be to provide reliable witnesses that can confirm that there was no horse there and show me that my brain was playing tricks on me. This seems plausible. Now, if someone were to go further and try to show that I didn’t really have the mental experience of seeing a horse even though I thought I did, I’m not sure that is a corherant concept. It seems to me that if I think I’m seeing a horse, then necessarily, I’m having the mental experience of seeing a horse.

Suppose the visual part of the brain has and error which I experience as seeing a cat, and then the language part of my brain has an error causing me to say “I see a horse” to describe my experience. It seems that the mistake is not about what I actually experienced but about how I communicated my experience.

This seems to be the same with things like desire. If someone experiences something they call desire, how can there not be a mental state associated with that experience? If the neuro scientist can’t find it, so what? If you experience it, it must be an experience.

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Silver Bullet September 10, 2010 at 9:12 am

Goalism?

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Zeb September 10, 2010 at 9:47 am

Just lately I have been thinking maybe desirism mixes up desire and belief a bit. Desirists frequently refer to the desire to be eating chocolate cake as an example whenn describing their philosophy. But a common experience, especially when it comes to food, is to think you desire something but when you get it realize your desire is not fulfilled and that you must have actually desired something else. This leads me to think that the desire part of the equation is just a raw urge that is experienced as a discomfort and an impulse to act, which gets matched to a belief about how to eliminate that discomfort and impulse. And this is for science to answer, but I find it easier to imagine that we have specific chemicals or processes that occur in the body which cause that desire-recognizable discomfort and impulse to act than that we have chemicals or processes that are “desire to be eating chocolate cake.”

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cl September 10, 2010 at 9:48 am

At the outset, I see this as a semantic issue. Let’s say a bunch of Ph.D’s conclude that “desires don’t exist.” Okay, well, we’d still have a bunch of Homo sapiens that did exist. All you’d have to do is change the name of the theory to “brain state utilitarianism” or something.

That said, I think there are plenty of objections to desirism that are as strong or stronger than the claim that desires don’t exist. Given the admittedly ad hoc solution above, I’m confused as to why you and Alonzo worry about that claim at all. In fact, if there was some consensus that “desires don’t exist” and you simply changed the theory to focus on that which can’t be denied [brain states, people, brains, whatever], all the current objections to desirism would still stand.

For example, the existence of desires – the very basis of Fyfe’s theory – is not an objectively prescriptive fact. That would seemingly remain true whether we say “desires” or “brain states” or something else.

No matter what you call it, desirism is grounded in arbitrariness. As delineated thus far, it’s not a moral theory in the usual sense of the word, just a useful description of human behavior; another schema for social control not unlike religion.

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Jeff H September 10, 2010 at 10:41 am

I agree with Brian_G on this one. We may discover that desires function entirely differently than we thought they did. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They still definitely exist, because we experience them all the time. It’s just that they may exist in an entirely different fashion than we thought.

It’s a little like saying, “Because this table is made of atoms and not a single large piece of material, therefore this table does not exist.” That’s absurd. What happened was that we came to a more complete understanding of in what form the table exists and the underlying structure of it. But that doesn’t negate the table.

So in some sense anyway, you seem to be saying that once physics figures out how everything works, we can just use the descriptions of physics and drop all the other words that we’ve come up with. Good luck talking about everything in terms of strings.

I’d also like to add that psychology has developed experimental methods that can study beliefs, desires, etc. So throwing out folk psychology doesn’t mean throwing out all these related concepts. It just means relying on science rather than heuristics.

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Derrida September 10, 2010 at 11:02 am

“Desires don’t exist? Tell that to a pregnant woman.”

Ha Cha Cha!

What a fatuous point, if indeed you’re making one.

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cl September 10, 2010 at 11:26 am

Jeff H,

It’s a little like saying, “Because this table is made of atoms and not a single large piece of material, therefore this table does not exist.” That’s absurd. What happened was that we came to a more complete understanding of in what form the table exists and the underlying structure of it. But that doesn’t negate the table.

Yes, exactly. It doesn’t matter what we call or how we describe them.

However, I will say that if we choose determinism as our theory of mind, it seems desirism goes out the window. It makes no sense to talk about malleable desires if we don’t really choose what desires we have.

So, perhaps determinism is a more looming threat to desirism the semantics of, “desires don’t exist.”

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Heuristics September 10, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Thank you for clarifying, I have been a bit curious.

I would like to offer a different perspective on this matter that might set things in a different light (in my view this paints a clearer picture of what is going on here with regards to eliminativism).

>”I don’t know what neurobiologists will discover.”
This sentence offers a very good starting point to jump off with.
A question that I find to be paramount here is: What can neurobiologists in principle discover?

To find out the answer we need to look at their tools that are used for discovery, of which they (like physicists or chemists) have two:
1. Mathematics
2. Measurements

A primary quality of mathematics is that any mathematical thing/equation has no teleology, an equation is abstract, it is never directed towards a specific thing but is about generalizable/quantifiable patterns, A+L=2 is not about a specific apple(A) plus a specific lemon(L), it could very well be about two kinds of cars instead. This causes enormous problems for scientifically producing a theory that has as a prediction: “bob has a desire of dating jane”. This since we have two specific atom groups, one of which in some sense is doing something with an aboutness quality directed at the other atomgroup.

Measurements go hand in hand with mathematics since they can communicate with one another via numbers. The odd thing about numbers is a quality shared with mathematics. A number is not cold nor is it warm, not happy nor sad, it is not yellow nor red it is not an experience at all.

So what will neurobiologists discover? Well, they will not find coldness, redness or happiness as they are normally understood (an experience), what they will find is neurons in different connections sending different electrons and chemical reactions between one another but all of that finding will be via tasteless and colorless numbers. Since the whole project is aimed at producing a mathematical/computational theory of what happens the theory will in turn be without reference to aboutness or redness.

Thus we have the explanatory gap, the inability of our tools to find anything other then numbers and the hard problem of consciousness is born.

The eliminativists at this point take out their razor and goes to town with it. The interesting question though is if they can coherently form statements of meaning (theories) without a concept of belief (since it was eliminated due to no need of aboutness).

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MichaelPJ September 10, 2010 at 12:35 pm

One thing that needs to be taken into account when talking about FP is that it isn’t just a theory we use to reason about others, it’s a theory we use to reason about ourselves. And not based on behaviour, or anything. Our internal self-monitoring processes seem to classify things in distinctly FP terms. Possibly one could be trained to do this differently. I don’t know. But the point is that our decision making processes at least seem to take account of our own appraisal of our desires etc. Unless neuroscience delivers a completely different account of our decision-making (and that seems unlikely: why would our brains create this detailed FP representation of its own state if it doesn’t use it somewhere?) then there will be some role for whatever our brain classifies as “desires” in it’s self-representation. And that can be studied.

In short, I think there’s a tendency in eliminative materialists (reminiscent of behaviourism) to focus too much on the third-person point of view. That’s important, but so is the first-person one!

@cl

As ever, determinism != fatalism.

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MichaelPJ September 10, 2010 at 12:40 pm

@Heuristics

If you’re interested, the SEP page on Eliminative Materialism says a little on some of those issues:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/materialism-eliminative/

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woodchuck64 September 10, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Don’t really get this. If desires don’t exist, humanity is essentially a society of robots going about their business. But these robots are still programmed to act like they want things and they will take actions to get what they “want”. Further these robots are usually programmed via environment to “value” subprograms reason and logic as it pertains to getting what they “want”, so they will use an approach that achieves that over one that doesn’t. Still sounds like desirism to me.

cl, I want my decisions to be determined by my genetics and my environment (including the actions of other people), otherwise frankly I would start to doubt my sanity. I want reasons for why I make decisions (but not to excuse them, because I am my genetics and environment) . So I don’t see why determinism is a threat to desirism, necessarily.

(BTW, I have a comment in moderation at your site; in short, I don’t fully understand why Alonzo says desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent desiring to make a moral decision, so I’d better wait until he or Luke writes something a little more formal/lengthy on desirism prescription before commenting further)

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Jayman September 10, 2010 at 2:54 pm

The existence of beliefs, desires, and intentions is self-evident to every living human being. If any philosophy or science rejects the existence of such things then that philosophy or science is clearly false. This is why few opponents of desirism deny the existence of desires.

I’m not sure what the Churchland’s consider “folk psychology.” It seems that they are suggesting we have to either choose folk psychology or neuroscience when I see no reason why we can’t choose both. I get the sense that they have an underlying materialistic assumption that if desires (or some other aspect of the mind) can’t be reduced to material processes then desires don’t exist. I think the argument in the other direction is stronger. If desires (or some other aspect of the mind) can’t be reduced to material processes then materialism is false and some form of dualism is true because the existence of desires is on firmer ground than the truth of materialism.

If “folk psychology” entails an immaterial mind (dualism) then it is not surprising that the physical sciences have a hard time studying it. But, unless one is an adherent of scientism, this is not a mark against folk psychology. Dualism’s strength is that it can explain qualia and intentionality when, as the Churchlands and Luke admit, materialism cannot and there is no visible prospect for how it ever could.

In my opinion desirisms biggest weaknesses are (a) its jump from hypothetical-oughts to moral-oughts and (b) its inability to explain why we should be good if we can get away with evil. But perhaps it is the best an atheistic theory of morality can do.

Luke, do you have any thoughts on natural law moral theories? I have only studied them a little bit but they appear to be rooted in the ends of human nature and thus might have some similarity to the immutable human desires in desirism.

CL, Fyfe claims that determinism is necessary for desirism. I can’t remember the exact reasons why he believes this but you should be able to find something by searching his blog.

Heuristics, I’ve seen philosophers argue that eliminative materialism is incoherent. The blogs of Edward Feser and Bill Vallicella, I believe, will have some posts on the subject.

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woodchuck64 September 10, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Jayman,

[desirism's] inability to explain why we should be good if we can get away with evil.

References? Getting away with evil requires then continuously hiding hypocrisy and dishonesty in social interaction, which can only have a corrosive affect on one’s character and subsequent dealings with others. I don’t see how this can be anything but desire thwarting.

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Jayman September 10, 2010 at 4:38 pm

woodchuck64, Fyfe has a post entitled “The Hateful Craig Problem” where he says that we cannot use reason alone to change someone’s desires. We also have to use social forces (praise, condemnation, reward, punishment). If an evil person can do evil without ever facing these social forces then he has no reason to acquire good desires. An evil person does not care about having a good character and if he hides his evils it will not effect his dealings with others (or perhaps he wants to be a loner).

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woodchuck64 September 10, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Jayman

If an evil person can do evil without ever facing these social forces then he has no reason to acquire good desires. An evil person does not care about having a good character and if he hides his evils it will not effect his dealings with others (or perhaps he wants to be a loner).

Okay, an evil person can commit evil and then leave society forever successfully escaping social forces. But I don’t see that as a problem for desirism. Moral theory should make no claim on the hermit, it’s how you treat people that usually defines evil.

But if an evil person wants to remain in society and/or interact with society to any extent greater then the hermit, the decision to do evil has made his life more difficult in high probability. It takes more energy/effort to avoid social forces and hide evil than not.

It also seems strange to me to make an objection to a social behavior theory that requires a loner or anti-social person.

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Jayman September 10, 2010 at 5:31 pm

woodchuck64:

Okay, an evil person can commit evil and then leave society forever successfully escaping social forces.

He wouldn’t have to leave society. He could merely hide his immorality from society. For example, if someone shoplifts from time to time but is never caught or even suspected of wrongdoing he will face no adverse social forces from society.

But if an evil person wants to remain in society and/or interact with society to any extent greater then the hermit, the decision to do evil has made his life more difficult in high probability.

That argument only works if the evil person (a) thinks doing evil will actually make his life more difficult and (b) desires an easy life over a life of evil.

It also seems strange to me to make an objection to a social behavior theory that requires a loner or anti-social person.

My point does not require that an evil person be a loner or anti-social (except for perhaps when he is doing evil). I merely brought it up as a possibility. Regardless, a loner who does evil is still interacting with society when he commits evil, is he not?

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cl September 10, 2010 at 5:58 pm

For the record, I still think “what if desires don’t exist” is an entirely semantic issue.

Jayman,

From Fyfe’s Morality and the Absence of Free Will:

Desire utilitarianism is not only compatible with determinism, it requires determinism. It requires the assumption that our actions are caused by our beliefs and desires, and the assumption that are desires can be molded, at least in part, by the environment. The parts of the environment that are particularly relevant are social forces – praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

I see two questions here:

1) Is desirism useless if determinism is true?

2) Can we legitimately hold people accountable for their actions if determinism is true?

I see Fyfe’s point and would now answer “no” to question 1. Determinism isn’t as much “Joe would have murdered regardless” as “Joe would have murdered regardless given his initial conditions of genetics and environment.” It would still make sense to employ desirism, because in doing so, we shape the environment, which shapes other desires, which shape our desires [to whatever degree]. Fair enough, I assent on question 1.

I’m still thinking about question 2, and its import to desirism.

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Mark September 10, 2010 at 6:14 pm

The existence of beliefs, desires, and intentions is self-evident to every living human being.

Evidently this is not the case. At least not in the most literal sense of “existence.”

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mojo.rhythm September 10, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Cl,

You can say that “good” and “evil” are not ultimately grounded in desires if you like. In fact, you can completely excise all value-laden terms from your lexicon.

This does not change the fact that:

a. Desires probably exist
b. There are some desires that, if they existed, would fulfill lots of desires.
c. There are some desires that, if they existed, would thwart alot of desires
d. A world full of moral agents with desires that tend to fulfill other desires is more desirable for the world as a whole then a world full of moral agents with desires that tend to thwart other desires.
e. Desires are the only known instrument which provide a reason for acting. (You may contest me on this point)

So even if you want to stop using value-laden terms, or define “good” as “that which pleases Yahweh” or something equally as superfluous, it does not controvert these 5 propositions.

What do you think is the greatest objection to desirism?

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Richard Wein September 11, 2010 at 3:03 am

I agree with CL that it’s largely a semantic issue, as are so many issues in philosophy. I have a similar reaction to the question, “Do mathematical objects exist?”. It’s pointless to say that mathematical objects don’t exist in any sense of “exist”. They exist in the sense that mathematicians have in mind when they say, for example, “There exist X primes between Y and Z.” But mathematical objects certainly don’t exist in the same sense that physical objects exist. We need to recognise that the word “exist” has multiple senses. Similarly, desires and beliefs exist in some sense of the word. The task of philosophers and scientists is to explain what that sense is.

I don’t think there can be a direct mapping of desires and beliefs onto identifiable structures (physical or logical) in the brain. There is nothing in my brain analogous to a computer file listing all my desires (or beliefs). Instead, desires and beliefs are a kind of emergent phenomenon arising from very complex structures. Nor are my desires and beliefs unequivocal. I may have conflicting structures at different levels (or regions) of my brain. (For example, at an intellectual level I’m a moral anti-realist. But I still feel the pull of moral realism at more instinctive levels.)

I would suggest that the relationsip of folk theories about desires/beliefs to a more sophisticated understanding of these matters is analogous to the relationship of Newtonian mechanics to relativistic mechanics. In each pair, the former is an approximation which remains useful even after we’ve discovered a more precise theory.

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Kaelik September 11, 2010 at 5:35 am

Mojo:

I would say the greatest objection to desirism is that it’s not a moral theory at all.

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lukeprog September 11, 2010 at 6:56 am

Kaelik,

BTW, I personally am tempted to consider that the “second greatest objection to desirism.” But note that it’s an objection to the semantics of the theory, not the truth of the theory. And it is certainly one Alonzo and I have addressed before, and we’ll continue to do so in the future.

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lukeprog September 11, 2010 at 6:57 am

Richard Wein,

Folk psychology doesn’t have anywhere near the predictive power of Newtonian mechanics, even when employed by cognitive psychologists.

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woodchuck64 September 11, 2010 at 10:34 am

Jayman

But if an evil person wants to remain in society and/or interact with society to any extent greater then the hermit, the decision to do evil has made his life more difficult in high probability.

That argument only works if the evil person (a) thinks doing evil will actually make his life more difficult and (b) desires an easy life over a life of evil.

a) That’s part of desirism’s strength, it makes a rational argument that doing evil has a high probability of causing it to come back to you. b) desirism makes probabilistic arguments, so we while we can probably find outliers if we look hard enough — the person who actually enjoys misery — it is still valid for the majority.

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MKandefer September 11, 2010 at 11:00 am

lukeprog,

I’m not sure what system of measurement you are employing to compare Newtonian mechanics predictive power to cognitive psychology predictive power, how is this typically done between fields of science? I can grasp what predictive power is to an individual theory, but once you step outside of an individual theory and start claiming some scientific disciplines offer less predictive power than a particular theory from an unrelated discipline it isn’t obvious how this comparison can be made.

That said, I suppose we could say the same things about a great many sciences, it doesn’t mean that the phenomena they are discussing don’t exist. Take medicine, would you agree that the “predictive power” of medicine is not as great as that of Newtonian physics? If so, does this mean we should consider the “greatest objection” to oncology that cancers might not exist? Perhaps cancer isn’t the best example, but I’m not sure how you view desires. I turned to you FAQ looking for a question like, “What are desires?” I found the question, but there wan’t an answer.

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cl September 11, 2010 at 12:12 pm

mojo.rhythym,

I don’t deny A, B, C or E. I deny D on several grounds, here are two:

1) Who are you to prescribe what’s “more desirable” for the world as a whole?

2) That desires tend to fulfill other desires says nothing about whether they are right desires – unless of course you wish to define “right desires” tautologically.

What do you think is the greatest objection to desirism?

There are many. I think one big objection is that desirism is just a redundant, verbose description of human behavior. Also, the waffling over whether desirism is prescriptive or descriptive. As far as I can tell, it’s not a moral theory at all. Also, Fyfe simply asserts things: that non-malleable desires exist, that the Greeks were “probably wrong” about pederasty… I could go on but why? Many other people have voiced the same objections. They’re usually met with accusations of misunderstanding. It’s frustrating.

Luke,

I personally am tempted to consider that the “second greatest objection to desirism.” But note that it’s an objection to the semantics of the theory, not the truth of the theory.

I disagree. I think it’s fair to say that any prescriptive moral theory must entail a set of “should” statements. Yet, Fyfe says desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the time of decision [paraphrased]. That’s beyond semantics; that puts desirism effectively outside the “prescriptive moral theory” category, if you ask me.

…it is certainly one Alonzo and I have addressed before,

Can you provide specific links? I don’t know that I’ve heard that claim addressed.

MKandefer,

I turned to you FAQ looking for a question like, “What are desires?” I found the question, but there wan’t an answer.

Yeah, that’s frustrating. That “Ultimate FAQ” is more empty than full. Luke?

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antiplastic September 11, 2010 at 1:01 pm

“I agree with CL that it’s largely a semantic issue, as are so many issues in philosophy….

I don’t think there can be a direct mapping of desires and beliefs onto identifiable structures (physical or logical) in the brain. “

Well, that largely makes you an eliminativist. *All* intertheoretic eliminations are “semantic issues” because what gets identified, reduced, or eliminated are theory terms. To say that temperature reduces to statistical mechanics is just to say that a person with complete facility in the vocabulary of SM will be able to say everything true which she previously expressed in the vocabulary of temperature.

One way to say we have eliminated melancholia is to say that there never was a unitary phenomenon that our earlier psychological theories referred to. There is no entry in the DSM-IV that corresponds to a definable set of symptoms caused by an excess of black bile. We can still speak loosely and say “he has a rather melancholy personality” but there won’t be a one to one mapping between these statements and the vocabulary of scientific psychology or endocrinology. Rather, there were a cluster of superficially similar phenomena — grief, unipolar depression, bipolar depression etc, and none of them have anything to do with bile.

Yet another way a theory term can get eliminated is the way that psychology eliminates demonic possession. Instead of saying, like with melancholy, that our previous ostensively defined concept was equivocal, we say that there never was any such thing as demonic possession. There is no mapping of demon vocabulary to psychology vocabulry at all. Prescribing Prozac is not performing an exorcism.

Eliminative materialists about propositional attitude psychology are making the prediction (philosophers making a prediction!) that as neuroscientific vocabulary develops, our vocabulary for describing the information content of brains in terms of discrete propositions will come to seem so empirically inadequate in light of the new vocabulary that we will end up saying, not that beliefs and desires *reduce* to certain neurological phenomena (as in the case of temperature and SM), but that such terms will be eliminated either in the dispersive sense (melancholia) or in the total sense (demon possession).

This is a *huge* problem for any theory that requires reference to a theory term (desires) that refers to phenomena in such a way as to admit of quantitative comparison. Everyone who’s followed this blog knows that Fyfists never ever ever even attempt to perform these comparisons to any real-world problems, and if EM is true then it can be seen a priori that it is in principle impossible to perform. Which it is.

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cl September 11, 2010 at 1:32 pm

antiplastic ,

Ha! I like that term: Fyfists. I’ll tilt my beer in salute to you later..

Everyone who’s followed this blog knows that Fyfists never ever ever even attempt to perform these comparisons to any real-world problems,

I’m no Fyfist, but I’ve always thought that was peculiar, myself. All this talk about how desirism is an objective, empirical theory, but no number crunching. Don’t just assert that the Greeks were “probably wrong” regarding pederasty; justify the claim. Show me some kind of analysis, evidence, argument, etc.

FWIW, I took a stab at some desirist number crunching on my own blog, in two posts: Proposed Method For Meaningful Evaluations In Desire Utilitarianism, and Conducting Single-Agent Evaluations With The Hierarchy-Of-Desires Method. I began with a single agent for simplicity’s sake, and I recognize that Fyfe may or may not say his theory should be used in single agent evaluations.

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mojo.rhythm September 11, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Cl,

In regards to your first objection to the labeling of “desires that tend to fulfill other desires” as right desires, that is totally fine!

You can define “right” as “that which is consonant with the will of Yahweh” or something similar, but the facts remains unyielding:

1. There are desires that fulfill other desires, and hence are desirable.

2. Promoting these desires would fulfill desires.

3. Therefore, if we can promote these desires, we ought to.

I think that responds to your second objection also.

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Richard Wein September 12, 2010 at 2:21 am

Lukeprog,

Folk psychology doesn’t have anywhere near the predictive power of Newtonian mechanics, even when employed by cognitive psychologists.

Sure, there’s a big quantitative difference, but that doesn’t undermine my analogy. Folk psychological ideas can still be predictive. Telling me whether someone has a desire for chocolate will help me predict his behaviour with regard to whether he will choose a chocolate pudding or some other dessert.

In case I wasn’t clear, I didn’t mean to imply that all of folk psychology will remain useful.

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Richard Wein September 12, 2010 at 6:35 am

Antiplastic,

Thanks for your detailed reply. It gave me some very interesting food for thought.

Well, that largely makes you an eliminativist. *All* intertheoretic eliminations are “semantic issues” because what gets identified, reduced, or eliminated are theory terms. To say that temperature reduces to statistical mechanics is just to say that a person with complete facility in the vocabulary of SM will be able to say everything true which she previously expressed in the vocabulary of temperature.

That sounds to me like what Dennett calls “greedy reductionism”: the idea that everything can be explained in terms of our lowest level concepts. That’s not my view. I don’t think you can explain the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo at an atomic level. You could perhaps explain every movement of every atom in terms of causes at the atomic level, and maybe you could call that an explanation of sorts, but it wouldn’t convey the same understanding as an explanation in terms of human actions and other higher level concepts (Napoleon was ill, the Prussians arrived in time, etc). And that higher-level understanding is useful in ways that the atomic-level one isn’t.

I think perhaps your temperature example seems more plausible because you’re only dropping down one level. But even in that case I don’t think I agree with you. What’s the SM equivalent of “the temperature of object X has risen by Y degrees”? I don’t know much SM, but let’s say it’s something like “the molecules of object X have increased in velocity by Z amount”. I wouldn’t accept that those two propositions mean the same thing, though someone with a knowledge of SM could deduce one from the other. (All provable mathematical theorems can be deduced from a common set of axioms, but they don’t all mean the same thing.)

One way to say we have eliminated melancholia is to say that there never was a unitary phenomenon that our earlier psychological theories referred to. There is no entry in the DSM-IV that corresponds to a definable set of symptoms caused by an excess of black bile. We can still speak loosely and say “he has a rather melancholy personality” but there won’t be a one to one mapping between these statements and the vocabulary of scientific psychology or endocrinology. Rather, there were a cluster of superficially similar phenomena — grief, unipolar depression, bipolar depression etc, and none of them have anything to do with bile.

Yet another way a theory term can get eliminated is the way that psychology eliminates demonic possession. Instead of saying, like with melancholy, that our previous ostensively defined concept was equivocal, we say that there never was any such thing as demonic possession. There is no mapping of demon vocabulary to psychology vocabulry at all. Prescribing Prozac is not performing an exorcism.

I’d put it differently, and say in both cases that we no longer use these terms because they involve commitments to premises that we now consider untrue, though this is more clearly so in the case of demonic possession. If someone said, “He has melancholia”, we might just about be prepared to take that as purely an attribution of symptoms, without any commitment to a particular cause, but I doubt it. The very choice of the word “melancholia” rather than “melancholy” suggests a commitment to a certain (false) causal premise.

I don’t think the terms “desire” and “belief” involve commitments to premises that will be shown to be untrue by a more sophisticated understanding of the mind. Sure, people’s beliefs about these concepts may be undermined, but I don’t think those beliefs are necessary for these terms to be used in something roughly like their current sense.

Consider the analogy of a wave. A folk understanding of a wave (on the sea) is that it’s an object that moves across the sea. A more sophisticated understanding tells us that each water molecule just moves up and down, not horizontally, and the molecules constituting the wave change as the wave advances. The wave is more like a pattern of movement than a physical object. But, when we gain the more sophisticated understanding, we don’t say, “Ah, waves don’t exist after all,” even though they don’t exist in quite the sense that we previously thought them to exist. Instead we slightly change our understanding of what it means for a wave to exist. To some extent the meaning of the word “exists” (as applied to a wave) changes for us. But most of the meaning remains unchanged, because the meaning of a word is given by all the associations that the word has for us. So people with the sophisticated understanding can still meaningfully communicate about waves with people who have the folk understanding. One can still usefully say to the other, “There exists a wave right behind you that’s about to knock you over.” Similarly, even as we develop a better understanding of what it means to have a desire, we will still be able meaningfully to say, “He has a desire to do X,” without having too greatly changed what we mean.

Now consider the case of free will. Most people strongly associate the term “free will” with a non-causal view of human nature. So they feel cheated when people use “free will” in a sense that makes it compatible with determinism. They feel the term has been redefined. So they still say that under determinism “free will” (in its usual sense) doesn’t exist. And I sympathise with that view.

Perhaps for you something similar is going on with the words “desire” and “belief”. Perhaps for you these words were once so strongly associated with some simplistic view of the mind that, having dropped that simplistic view, you feel the words are no longer applicable. If that’s the case, I would respond that (a) that’s not the case for me, and (b) you will still need to use these words (or similar ones) in your higher-level explanations, even if you decide to say that you are no longer using them in their original sense.

Note: you might, for example, switch from the language of desires to the language of goals (as Luke is suggesting might happen). Goal-language might well be more useful to philosphers than desire-language. But goals are still a high-level emergent concept, like desires, albeit perhaps a slightly less fuzzy one.

Eliminative materialists about propositional attitude psychology are making the prediction (philosophers making a prediction!) that as neuroscientific vocabulary develops, our vocabulary for describing the information content of brains in terms of discrete propositions will come to seem so empirically inadequate in light of the new vocabulary that we will end up saying, not that beliefs and desires *reduce* to certain neurological phenomena (as in the case of temperature and SM), but that such terms will be eliminated either in the dispersive sense (melancholia) or in the total sense (demon possession).

I don’t think that prediction will come true. I agree that there will be some level at which we will have to describe the information content of brains in terms of something other than discrete propositions. But I say that the language of beliefs will remain indispensable at higher levels of explanation. How could the work of historians be improved by dispensing with useful explanations like, “Napoleon believed that Blucher was further away”? What sort of alternative language could that usefully be replaced with?

This is a *huge* problem for any theory that requires reference to a theory term (desires) that refers to phenomena in such a way as to admit of quantitative comparison. Everyone who’s followed this blog knows that Fyfists never ever ever even attempt to perform these comparisons to any real-world problems, and if EM is true then it can be seen a priori that it is in principle impossible to perform. Which it is.

I agree there’s a huge problem when you come to quantification. It will probably never be possible to quantify desires in anything like the way needed to perform an objective desirist calculation. But I don’t think it’s meaningless to make broad quantitative assertions. Rating some of my desires on a scale of 1 to 10 would communicate some meaningful (if extremely crude) information about my mental state.

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Richard Wein September 12, 2010 at 6:40 am

Oops. I improperly nested my blockquotes. I hope the post was still readable. (The preview function doesn’t work for me when the thread gets too long.)

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antiplastic September 12, 2010 at 9:14 am

”That sounds to me like what Dennett calls “greedy reductionism”: the idea that everything can be explained in terms of our lowest level concepts.”

Sorry, I meant that as one example of one particular kind of reduction, not a definition of all possible or all useful reductions.

”I think perhaps your temperature example seems more plausible because you’re only dropping down one level. But even in that case I don’t think I agree with you. What’s the SM equivalent of “the temperature of object X has risen by Y degrees”? I don’t know much SM, but let’s say it’s something like “the molecules of object X have increased in velocity by Z amount”. I wouldn’t accept that those two propositions mean the same thing, though someone with a knowledge of SM could deduce one from the other.”

Beware the Masked Man Fallacy! If there was a one to one correspondence between our pre-theory concepts and our developed concepts, we wouldn’t even have a theory – we wouldn’t have learned anything new.

To steal an example from Pat Churchland, we can think about how our concept of “fire” changes. At the outset of science, concepts are usually defined by ostention (that’s philosopher-speak for “sort of handwaving and pointing in the general direction of something”) and are progressively modified and refined. So “fire” just means “those hot glowy things, like our campfire and the sun and lightning and fireflies”. You’ve acquired the concept “fire” when you’ve acquired the behavior of pointing at the appropriate sorts of glowy things and anticipating the appropriate sorts of warmness (where appropriateness is relativised to your linguistic community).

But after we do some science, not only does our concept of fire become much more richly detailed in terms of inferential consequences (for example, it requires oxygen), but things become included and excluded in surprising ways. Paradigm cases of fire like the Sun turn out not to be examples of the phenomenon at all (it’s fusion!), and apparently unrelated phenomena get lumped in: your campfire is not like lightning at all, but it is the same sort of thing as your pot rusting (both are oxidation reactions).

Building new empirical models just is reweaving the permissible inferences between present beliefs and future observations, and so necessarily, our concepts change when our theories change. “Acid” comes to mean “proton-donating” even though obviously the pretheoretic senses of the terms differ. To learn science is largely learning how to use concepts in new and useful ways.

”I’d put it differently, and say in both cases that we no longer use these terms because they involve commitments to premises that we now consider untrue, though this is more clearly so in the case of demonic possession. If someone said, “He has melancholia”, we might just about be prepared to take that as purely an attribution of symptoms, without any commitment to a particular cause, but I doubt it. The very choice of the word “melancholia” rather than “melancholy” suggests a commitment to a certain (false) causal premise.”

Commitment to causal premises is part of what it is to have a conception of something. In the case of melancholia, not only is the four-humours causal theory false, but “being kind of sad” is, like pre-theoretic “fire”, an ostensive definition of what turns out to be a disjunct set of properties, some which have no business being there. Protracted grief, unipolar depression, and bipolar depression are extremely different beasts that all would have fallen under the concept before.

I don’t think the terms “desire” and “belief” involve commitments to premises that will be shown to be untrue by a more sophisticated understanding of the mind. Sure, people’s beliefs about these concepts may be undermined, but I don’t think those beliefs are necessary for these terms to be used in something roughly like their current sense.

Well, we can still talk about the sun as fire in the sky, and the Churchlands don’t claim that in 50 years people will stop saying things like “Luke desires to take a break from blogging” or “I believe there are no beers left.” But your phrase “beliefs about concepts” is a pleonasm – if our dispositions to make inferences using a certain concept have been rewritten, then by definition our concepts have changed. The issue is, how different will our concepts have to be before we end up abandoning them as unworkable instead of continuing to modify them? It’s an open, empirical question in this case, the dogmatic, shocked indignation of some posters notwithstanding (“of course I have believes, ur science is teh wrong!”).

Like most philosophical positions, there is a shocking, fall-out-of-your-chair way of phrasing it and a more banal, non-threatening way of phrasing it. “Experience gives us no knowledge of causes!” vs. “causal claims are psychological artifacts of our models denoting counterfactual expectations which we project onto the world.” In the case of EM, it’s shocking and paradoxical-sounding to say “beliefs and desires will be eliminated”, but how many people would get all upset if you told them “neuro-representations are not propositionally structured”?

”Consider the analogy of a wave. Similarly, even as we develop a better understanding of what it means to have a desire, we will still be able meaningfully to say, “He has a desire to do X,” without having too greatly changed what we mean.”

Well, that is one example of concept modification not resulting in elimination (I hope it’s clear that I wasn’t claiming that concepts are so brittle that even the slightest change results in complete erasure.) But it’s an open question whether the next hundred years of neuroscience will result in models of the brain that will be conservative (like your wave example) or radical (like melancholia) or absolutely destructive (demon possession). There’s a spectrum of violence to concepts that science performs. The Churchlands are, tentatively and non-dogmatically, predicting (based on how radically folk physics is wrong even about everyday experiences of medium size dry goods) that folk psychology will turn out to be at least as wrong. How wrong, exactly? Time will tell.

”Perhaps for you something similar is going on with the words “desire” and “belief”. Perhaps for you these words were once so strongly associated with some simplistic view of the mind that, having dropped that simplistic view, you feel the words are no longer applicable. If that’s the case, I would respond that (a) that’s not the case for me, and (b) you will still need to use these words (or similar ones) in your higher-level explanations, even if you decide to say that you are no longer using them in their original sense.”

The Churchlands certainly aren’t claiming to have already eliminated propositional attitudes. That would be silly unscientific dogmatizing every bit as awful as kneejerk dualism. (“lol how much does a thought weigh mr smartypants?”) They are making an informed but speculative prediction about what our ideas about the way brains represent and manipulate information will look like after the science is done, and saying that propositional syntax probably won’t play a useful role in those models.

”I don’t think that prediction will come true.”

Again, time will tell. But it’s refreshing to engage with philosophers like the Churchlands just because even if they’re utterly wrong, there is at least in principle something empirical to be wrong about. Contrast this with dualists’ wittering on about the “ineffable about-ness” of thoughts…

”I agree that there will be some level at which we will have to describe the information content of brains in terms of something other than discrete propositions. But I say that the language of beliefs will remain indispensable at higher levels of explanation. How could the work of historians be improved by dispensing with useful explanations like, “Napoleon believed that Blucher was further away”? What sort of alternative language could that usefully be replaced with?”

Will it be replaced, or will it (as it says on the tin) be eliminated? Who knows? Again, EM is not the claim that the man on the street is going to ever stop saying things like “I believe that’s a badger,” or ever should. It seems prop-attitude psychology is hardwired into the way our brains detect and model agency. Think of eliminative materialism as the notion that “we can do better than this”.

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cl September 12, 2010 at 12:06 pm

mojo.rhythym,

I don’t deny 1 or 2. I deny 3, on several grounds:

3. Therefore, if we can promote these desires, we ought to.

Why? Articulate the grounding principle.

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mojo.rhythm September 12, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Glad to Cl!

When I say that we “ought” to do something, this implies two statements:

i. There exists reasons for action to do it.

ii. We can do it.

As it turns out, desires are a reason for action!

If there are desires that, if promoted successfully, fulfill lots of desires, then there is a reason for action to promote these desires.

This is what I mean when I say that “if we can promote these desires, we ought to.”

Two questions for you:

1. Does this answer your objection?
2. If you still disagree, how do you propose to fill the is-ought gap, and what am I not getting?

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antiplastic September 12, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Ferraris exist.

Therefore I have one.

Classic.

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MichaelPJ September 12, 2010 at 6:31 pm

@mojo.rhythm

“ought” => reasons & ability

does NOT mean

reasons & ability => “ought”

You need a little more to make that logically sound!

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mojo.rhythm September 13, 2010 at 1:51 am

MichaelPJ,

Take some hypothetical state of affairs A.

Consider the following:

1. Imagine a world where every single agent has a desire for A. (we have extremely numerous and strong reasons for action to realize A).

2. In this same world, not a single desire is thwarted by realizing A. (we have no reasons for action not to realize A)

3. A is extremely easy to actualize.

We ought to do A.

To prove me wrong, you have to show that there is some other overriding reasons for action that counterbalance all the desires for A (intrinsic value, social contract, categorical imperatives etc.).

P.S. I think a more accurate definition of “ought” would be: a state of affairs that we have greater and stronger reasons for action overall to actualize then to not actualize.

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tmp September 13, 2010 at 2:58 am

mojo.rhythm,

I think cl’s objection goes like this:

1. Imagine a world, where a single agent B has a desire for A.

2a. B does not care about any other agents.
2b. Realizing A causes agonizing death to all other agents.
2c. After realizing A, B does no longer need any other agents.

3. A is extremely easy to actualize.

B ought to do A, since there is no intrinsic reason not to. And my moral intuition lodges a stringent protest here.

Of course, there is really no way around this kind of painstakingly constructed corner cases without a naked “thou shalt not” assertion. And those you have to make up.

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Richard Wein September 13, 2010 at 5:36 am

@Antiplastic. I mostly agree with your account of meaning (the first part of your post), but I’d like to elaborate on a couple of points:

At the outset of science, concepts are usually defined by ostention…

I would say that our competence in using a term is mostly a result of our experience of hearing it in normal use among competent speakers, and not primarily through acts of definition. I would consider an act of definition (roughly) to be a deliberate attempt to improve another person’s competence. So I would call it an ostensive definition if someone holds up a stick and says, “this is what I mean by ‘stick’”. If I merely observe normal speech acts involving the word “stick” and thereby acquire competence in using that word, I wouldn’t think of those acts as definitions. But in a broad sense you could say that the word has been defined by ostention.

I suspect that even a scientist’s competence with scientific terms is mostly acquired by hearing competent usage, and not primarily from being given definitions. In my experience, when I gain my competence from a definition it doesn’t happen directly. I have to keep reminding myself of the definition each time I come across a use of the term, until understanding (and using) the word eventually becomes “second nature”.

“Acid” comes to mean “proton-donating” even though obviously the pretheoretic senses of the terms differ.

I would say rather that “proton-donating” is added to the pretheoretic meaning of “acid” in some contexts, but most of that meaning remains intact. That meaning is given mainly by our experience of hearing the word used in ordinary contexts. It is only partly given by our knowledge (if any) of the causes of acidity. As in your example of fire, it means something like “a burning liquid of the type we find in lemons and car batteries”. For pretheoretic chemists it may also have a causal element informed by higher-order concepts like atoms, but not sub-atomic particles.

In addition to that, within a certain technical context chemists may stipulate that when they say “acid” they will mean just “proton-donating”, stripping the word of all other meaning. That then becomes a technical sense of the word. The ordinary sense and this technical sense are linked, and they can usually be conflated without any problem (and are), but here we need to recognise the difference.

If we just wanted to have a discussion of processes at the subatomic-level, we wouldn’t need the word “acid” at all. We could define “xxx” to mean “proton-donating”, and use that word instead. At this level, “acid” or “xxx” is just a convenient short-hand for “proton-donating”. The reason we use the word “acid” is because we want to link our subatomic discourse to our higher-level discourse. And we do that by employing a word that already has a meaning at that higher level. We link the concepts of “proton-donating” and “burning liquid of the type we find in lemons and car batteries” by using the same word to mean both. Sometimes we mean one, sometimes we mean the other, and sometimes we may mean both at the same time.

There are as many different shades of meaning as there are speakers and contexts. Neverthless, for the present discussion I want to distinguish between (A) a sense that includes something like the ordinary meaning of “burning liquid of the type we find in lemons and car batteries”, with or without the addition of “proton-donating”, and (B) the technical sense in which it means just “proton-donating” and nothing else.

Returning to your SM example (which sounds kinky when we use that abbreviation!), I think I see where we are parting company. I now think you’re saying that the word “temperature” can be defined in SM terms (e.g. in terms of the velocity of molecules), so any temperature-based statement can be translated into SM terms by applying the definition. That’s true as far as it goes, but now you’re using the word “temperature” in a stipulated technical sense (analogous to sense B above), not in its ordinary sense (sense A). So your temperature-based statements no longer have their original meaning. Your temperature-based statements are simply differently-worded statements about the velocity of molecules.

In terms of the “acid” example, this is analogous to saying that higher-level statements about acid can be translated into subatomic-level statements by substituting “proton-donating” for “acid”. But when you do that you’ve changed the meaning, because you’ve switched from sense A to sense B. You’ve lost the link to the higher-level discourse.

I hope I’ve made myself clear. They’re difficult ideas to put into words, especially as I’m not familiar with all the philosophical terminology.

There was lots more good stuff in your last comment that I’d like to discuss. But I think it would be best to sort this point out first.

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cl September 13, 2010 at 10:19 am

mojo.rhythym,

When I say that we “ought” to do something, this implies two statements:

i. There exists reasons for action to do it.

ii. We can do it.

As it turns out, desires are a reason for action!

Correct – every single one of them: the desire to rape, the desire to steal, and the desire to kill, included – so I ask: ought we do rape, steal and kill?

If yes, you’re consistent, but morally reprehensible by most people.

If no, you really define ought as implying more than what you said.

Two questions for you:

1. Does this answer your objection?
2. If you still disagree, how do you propose to fill the is-ought gap, and what am I not getting?

If by “your objection” you mean my objection to the labeling of “desires that tend to fulfill other desires” as good desires, then,

1. No per above and standard examples like Cartesian’s [you can find it on my blog if by chance you haven't come across it yet].

2. I can really only speak for myself there. Though I reason the best I can in most situations, I assent to my own inabilities and leave the rest up to God. In daily life, when I bridge that gap, I usually justify it to myself by asking questions like these: does X seem in accord with God’s nature as revealed across scripture? Is X specifically forbidden across scripture? Would X bring any pain or suffering to another creature that wouldn’t be offset by a greater good? Would X bring any discernible benefits to another person, i.e., an increase in health or well-being? What is my motive for X?

If the answers are “yes, no, no, yes” and I wouldn’t judge my own motives as immature or unduly selfish, then chances are I’ll personally bridge the ought-is gap thusly.

tmp,

course, there is really no way around this kind of painstakingly constructed corner cases without a naked “thou shalt not” assertion. And those you have to make up.

I don’t think we need painfully constructed corner cases to show Fyfe’s definition of good to be wanting. His refusal to justify his claim that the Greeks were “probably wrong” about pederasty speaks a volume. As practiced in Greek society, pederasty seemed to be good or at least permissible by any faithful desirist evaluation.

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cl September 13, 2010 at 10:22 am

Luke,

Earlier you said that you and Fyfe have addressed the claim that desirism is not a moral theory. Can you provide specific links?

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lukeprog September 13, 2010 at 10:24 am

cl,

Sure. Check the FAQ for this question.

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MichaelPJ September 13, 2010 at 11:11 am

@mojo.rhythm

Sorry if I wasn’t clear. All I meant to say is that, as it stands, that isn’t a logically valid argument. You need to cover the “Sure everyone wants it, but so what?” gap. You may think that you can get across that gap, but you need to actually do so.

Now, in the example you gave, since every agent wants A, each has a reason to do A. But that reason is at best prudential, not moral. It is an “ought” of the “You ought to invest that money, rather than keeping it under your bed” sort. Noone would claim that the latter was a moral imperative!

Anyway, in most contexts there will be at least some agents who don’t want A, and so do not have a reason to bring it about. In that case your inference is even less apparent. You need serious machinery to go from “lots of people want A and it’s easy to accomplish” to “We (and therefore I) should do A”.

All I’m saying is that the gap is non-trivial! And it doesn’t help your case to put it in a way that looks like a logical fallacy.

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cl September 13, 2010 at 11:13 am

Luke,

I’m familiar with the FAQ. It’s been almost a year since you updated it. Is that the extent of your address? What address of Fyfe’s were you alluding to? Maybe he deals with the objection more persuasively.

Although, {3.04} is nothing more than you parroting Fyfe’s oft-repeated argument from the definition of atoms. You simply assert that “we” were wrong and that morality is “really” something different than what we thought. Problem is, this is philosophy, not chemistry. We could demonstrate that an atom wasn’t uncuttable. Can you slice intrinsic value thus, such that you might demonstrate your claim?

Perhaps you can clarify: would you say that a moral theory must proffer a set of “should” statements to be rightfully called prescriptive? A clear, “yes” or “no” answer to that question would help me understand your position. I say “yes.”

So from my angle, desirism is not a prescriptive moral theory unless it proffers a set of “should” statements. If you want to convince me that desirism is a prescriptive moral theory, can you produce the set of “should” statements it proffers?

If you say “yes” to the question above, and desirism doesn’t proffer a set of “should” statements, isn’t it a misuse of language to call desirism a prescriptive moral theory?

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lukeprog September 13, 2010 at 11:22 am

cl,

Desirism defends hypothetical prescriptions. Desirism is a system of hypothetical imperatives.

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cl September 13, 2010 at 11:52 am

Desirism defends hypothetical prescriptions. Desirism is a system of hypothetical imperatives.

Such as?

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lukeprog September 13, 2010 at 12:04 pm

cl,

Geez I do not have time to repeat the entire theory. But the upcoming podcast may help.

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cl September 13, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Oh please. I’m not asking you to “repeat the entire theory.” I’m asking you for a quick example or two of these “hypothetical imperatives.”

If you don’t want to answer directly, that’s fine, and totally expected. All you had to say was, “we discuss this in the next podcast.” I don’t see what you have to gain by making caricature of a simple request.

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Richard Wein September 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I’ve joined in this thread to discuss eliminativism, not desirism. But I can’t resist repeating my objection to desirism, while hopefully clarifying something to CL and others who say that desirism is not a moral theory.

Desirism is a moral theory because it’s expressed in moral terms. (Mojo.rhythm’s summary above was not a moral theory because it used no moral terms. But that summary was not how desirism is normally described.)

The problem with desirism (as a moral theory) is that it redefines the meaning of moral terms, and then conflates its own meaning with the ordinary meaning of those terms, hence committing a fallacy of equivocation. In other words, desirism says it’s using “morally good” to mean “fulfills more desires than it thwarts” but the incautious reader (including desirists themselves) can’t help taking desirism’s moral claims as having the prescriptive connotations conveyed by the ordinary meaning of moral terms.

The desirist might respond, “I’m not conflating meanings. I’m not using ‘morally good’ in its ordinary sense at all. I’m purely using it in a novel sense, as a technical term, a term of art, a shorthand for ‘fulfills more desires than it thwarts’”. But if it were just a shorthand, there would be no reason to use a moral term at all. It would be far better to use some other term that didn’t have pre-existing baggage and was more descriptive, such as “desire-enhancing”. Then desirism really wouldn’t be a moral theory, as it would contain no moral terms. (Besides, Fyfe denies that he’s not using moral terms in their normal sense, so he can’t take care to avoid the conflation.)

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lukeprog September 13, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Richard,

Where does Fyfe say he’s using moral terms in their “normal” sense? Personally, I’m not sure what the “normal” sense is.

In any case, I grok your objection, but I’d prefer to wait to respond by way of the podcast Alonzo and I are producing. The episodes we’ve recorded so far are by far the clearest presentation of desirism anywhere. I’m very excited about it.

But for the moment, note that desirism can be – and has been – expressed entirely without moral terms. I think it’s worth calling it a moral theory for the reasons given in the FAQ, but if you disagree, that’s fine. Such a dispute is a semantic one. In the end, words are words. What matters is what’s true, not what we call it. Desirism is true, and makes sense of a lot of things that in other contexts are considered facets of morality. But it does so without intrinsic value or categorical imperatives or divine commands or hypothetical contracts.

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cl September 13, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Richard Wein,

It doesn’t help that Luke and Fyfe seemingly waffle on the prescriptive / descriptive issue. Luke could have clarified things quite easily last comment, but instead, he gave another ambiguous answer [although I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and presume a non-ambiguous answer will be given in the podcast].

But I can’t resist repeating my objection to desirism, while hopefully clarifying something to CL and others who say that desirism is not a moral theory.

Your criteria for whether a theory is a moral theory seems to hinge on whether it’s expressed in moral terms. I don’t think that’s sufficient, but let me elaborate so you can understand where I’m coming from: that desirism “is expressed in moral terms” doesn’t make it a prescriptive moral theory in my book. I believe that a prescriptive moral theory must entail a set of “should” statements. I also believe that’s what most people think of when they ponder the concept of a moral theory: they’re looking for something that call tell them the “right” thing to do. By all accounts thus far, desirism is not a prescriptive moral theory, even though it’s expressed in moral terms.

The problem with desirism (as a moral theory) is that it redefines the meaning of moral terms, and then conflates its own meaning with the ordinary meaning of those terms, hence committing a fallacy of equivocation.

I agree wholeheartedly.

In other words, desirism says it’s using “morally good” to mean “fulfills more desires than it thwarts” but the incautious reader (including desirists themselves) can’t help taking desirism’s moral claims as having the prescriptive connotations conveyed by the ordinary meaning of moral terms.

Which leads a cautious reader to question: is desirism prescriptive? Does desirism entail a set of “should” statements? If so, on what grounds? Every time I ask this, I get stonewalled, or accused of misunderstanding, or fed some more cryptic desirist speak. It’s annoying.

Luke,

…note that desirism can be – and has been – expressed entirely without moral terms.

Where? I recall that you and Fyfe both hinted that you would do so, but I don’t recall seeing it. Why not just make a habit of including references so people don’t have to ask? I’d be very interested in hearing desirism expressed without moral terms.

But it does so without intrinsic value or categorical imperatives or divine commands or hypothetical contracts.

Yet, “hypothetical imperatives” are allowed? I can only assume this will be explained in the podcast, too.

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lukeprog September 13, 2010 at 5:40 pm

cl,

Yes. I don’t know anyone who rejects hypothetical imperatives.

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mojo.rhythm September 14, 2010 at 12:14 am

Correct – every single one of them: the desire to rape, the desire to steal, and the desire to kill, included – so I ask: ought we do rape, steal and kill?

This objection seems to just be an intuition pump, rather then a refutation.

Is there a reason for action to promote desires such as desires to rape, the desire to kill other and the desire to take that which does not belong to you? If you consider all desires on the planet, virtually no-one desires to be raped, killed or have their stuff stolen from them. In fact, most sentient creatures desire for these things not to happen. So why in the world should we “ought” to promote these desires?

Hark back to my reformulation of the definition of something we “ought” to do: a state of affairs that we have greater and stronger reasons for action overall to actualize then to not actualize. (note: ought implies can.)

A state of affairs in which everyone desires to rape, kill, and steal from each other is not a state of affairs that we have greater and stronger reasons for action overall to actualize then to not actualize!

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mojo.rhythm September 14, 2010 at 12:22 am

1. Imagine a world, where a single agent B has a desire for A.
2a. B does not care about any other agents.
2b. Realizing A causes agonizing death to all other agents.
2c. After realizing A, B does no longer need any other agents.
3. A is extremely easy to actualize.
B ought to do A, since there is no intrinsic reason not to. And my moral intuition lodges a stringent protest here.

I don’t understand what the objection is: If a desire for A thwarts a mother-load of desires, then there is extremely strong reasons for action to slam the desire for A.

In other words, B actually ought to desire not to do A, because:

1. It is possible for B to desire not to do A.
2. There exists greater and stronger reasons for action overall for B to desire not to do A then for B to desire to do A.

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 1:38 am

mojo.rhythm,

“2. There exists greater and stronger reasons for action overall for B to desire not to do A then for B to desire to do A.”

So Desirism DOES make a naked “thou shalt” assertion, and claims fullfilling desires has intrinsic value? Because if it does not, then Desirism has no way to give a prescription agains acting to B. You could, I think, say it was wrong(Desirist definition), but you have no way to say “You ought not do it”(unless you claim an intrinsic reason).

Mind you, the practical problem remains the same whether or not you claim intrinsic value: If B has no desire to be moral, and others cannot force him, he’s going to do it even if he believed it to be intrisically wrong.

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Richard Wein September 14, 2010 at 1:54 am

Luke, you’ve ignored most of what I wrote, and haven’t grokked my objection at all, but I’m used to that. It’s the same objection made by Julia Galef in a post you recently linked to, though she wasn’t referring specifically to desirism. If you want a better explanation of the objection, I suggest you read her post again (and the comments to it).

Cl, I understand where you’re coming from. When a theory is as incoherent as desirism, you can interpret it in different ways and make different objections depending on how you interpret it. But I would say that terms of moral judgement, like “morally good”, are inherently prescriptive in their ordinary usage. So I say the fact that desirism’s definitions fail to incorporate that prescriptivity is a failure of the moral theory, rather than making it not a moral theory. YMMV.

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Richard Wein September 14, 2010 at 2:04 am

P.S. Luke, this isn’t just an objection to desirism. It’s an objection to all forms of moral naturalism that take a basic moral claim (e.g. an action is moral iff it is conducive to human well-being) and call that a definition, instead of recognising that it’s a claim.

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Richard Wein September 14, 2010 at 3:46 am

P.P.S. Luke, on reflection I was too hasty in saying that you’d ignored most of what I wrote. Sorry. But the fact remains that you haven’t grokked my objection.

You wrote:

But for the moment, note that desirism can be – and has been – expressed entirely without moral terms.

That’s not true. You can’t remove the moral terms without discarding the moral part of the theory. You are committing another fallacy of equivocation, equivocating between a theory about desires (with no moral element) and a larger theory which covers morality as well.

Your FAQ says this:

Desirism is both a meta-ethical theory (about what moral terms mean) and a normative theory (about how to decide what is right and wrong).

How can you say what moral terms mean without mentioning moral terms? How can you have a theory that tells people how to decide what is right and wrong without using the words “right” and “wrong” (or equivalent words)? Just try reading your “What The Theory Says” section and eliminating all the moral terms. It’s impossible to do that without discarding everything that makes it a moral theory.

Get back to me when you’ve eliminated all moral terms from your FAQ, and then I’ll take your assertion (that desirism can be expressed without moral terms) seriously.

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Richard Wein September 14, 2010 at 4:37 am

P.P.P.S. (Sorry for going on, but I keep thinking of more ways to explain.)

We need to make a distinction between a new technical term, which is just used for convenience within your theory, and a pre-existing term which refers to an explanandum (a thing to be explained) of your theory.

If you’re creating a new technical term as a shorthand for a longer expression, you can define it in whatever way is most useful to you. And you can eliminate it completely by substituting the definiens for the definiendum in the text, and expanding the text to a longer form.

But, if the term refers to an explanandum of your theory, then, if you redefine it, you’ve switched to another explanandum, i.e. you’ve changed the subject of your theory. And you can’t eliminate it, because then you have no way to refer to the explanandum.

You can’t eliminate moral terms from desirism, because desirism sets out to explain (and/or prescribe) the meaning and use of moral terms.

If you decide that desirism is not going to explain (or prescribe) the meaning or use of moral terms after all, then it will be absurd to call it a moral theory.

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mojo.rhythm September 14, 2010 at 5:05 am

tmp,

Remember, intrinsic value as such does not exist. The only kind of value that exists is a relationship between desires and states of affairs.

An aversion to A would have value because it has overall greater and stronger reasons for action to promote then condemn.

I think what your getting at is you are skeptical that desires are a reason for action.

I guess I always just assumed that they were. The best way to justify it would be to give examples. If I desire a glass of milk, that gives me a reason for action to go get one. If my girlfriend desires my company for the night, that provides me a reason for action to want to go visit her. If an African child is dying of malaria, that gives me a reason for action to want to donate money to Doctors Without Borders, and so on. I can give you examples like this as evidence that desires are reasons for action, but I can’t really give you a syllogism or a philosophical argument that proves it absolutely 100%.

Desirism does prescribe some “thou shalt” assertions, but they are not naked, irreducible imperatives that exist in-and-of-themselves; they emerge from the complex relationships between desires and states of affairs.

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mojo.rhythm September 14, 2010 at 5:12 am

Mind you, the practical problem remains the same whether or not you claim intrinsic value: If B has no desire to be moral, and others cannot force him, he’s going to do it even if he believed it to be intrisically wrong.

I agree. What is the objection here? All you have shown in this thought experiment is this person is a moral monster whom we would have extremely strong reasons to condemn if we lived to tell about it.

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 5:22 am

Richard Wein,

One of my problems was that I’m from a cultural background that has concept of transcendent right and wrong. And when someone says “moral theory”, I expected it to deal these things.

But Desirism claims, and I agree, that transcendent or intrinsic value does not exist. If this claim is true, then the term “moral theory” is nonsensical; it deals with things that don’t exist. It doesn’t mean, that Desirism is a “moral theory”, of course. It cannot be, since it explicitly does not deal with these things, and I don’t think that it aspires to be since “moral theory” is nonsensical.

My objections are more practical, really. A moral theory does not have to be true to be useful. If you start dropping concepts like “murder is intrinsically wrong”, “the meatsacks out of your immediate tribe are really people” and “might does not make right”, I wonder what society would look like in a century or so. I suspect naked utilitarianism would lead to outrageous abuse of minorities for the good of the majority. You can, of course, construct entirely rational reasons to condemn this kind of behaviour, but most people simply do not have this kind of awareness. Plus, I cannot see a practical way to make an unbiased evaluation of the relevant desires, and then actually measuring them. These issues are complex enough, that making your best guess is almost certain to go tragically wrong.

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 5:35 am

mojo.rhythm,

“Remember, intrinsic value as such does not exist.”

I do. I said as much in the post that you respond to.

“An aversion to A would have value because it has overall greater and stronger reasons for action to promote then condemn.”

You just said that desires have intrinsic value.

“I think what your getting at is you are skeptical that desires are a reason for action.”

No, I agree.

“Desirism does prescribe some “thou shalt” assertions”

Hmm, I had a brief exchange with Fyfe, and I believe that he said that it does not. I’m probably wrong here.

“they emerge from the complex relationships between desires and states of affairs”

It would be interesting to see how.

“I agree. What is the objection here?”

No objection. I merely pointed out, in a sense of fairness, that if this a problem for Desirism, then it’a also a problem for everybodey else.

Mind you, we are not talking about my objection, but what I perceive cl’s objection to be: That Desirism lacks ability to prescribe our hypothetical B(astard) to not to do it. If you can describe how those “thou shalt” assertions are formed, I believe it would clear at least this particular objection.

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cl September 14, 2010 at 11:48 am

Luke,

1. What are hypothetical imperatives [in your own words]?

2. As it relates to desirism and moral theories, what is the difference between a hypothetical prescription and a prescription?

3. What hypothetical prescriptions does desirism entail?

4. Would you say that a moral theory must proffer a set of “should” statements to be rightfully called prescriptive? A clear, “yes” or “no” answer to that question would help me understand your position immensely. I say “yes.”

mojo.rhythym,

Hark back to my reformulation of the definition of something we “ought” to do: a state of affairs that we have greater and stronger reasons for action overall to actualize then to not actualize. (note: ought implies can.)

You’re committing the fallacy of equivocation just like Alonzo. Your “we” is loaded with the subset of people who share common values. For example, when Alonzo says that “we” or “people generally” have reason to promote an aversion to smoking, he loads his terms. His “we” actually denotes “those who don’t value smoking,” and his “people generally” can be discarded because it doesn’t exist.

Alonzo denies that his “theory” amounts to majority rule, but expressed thus, I don’t see any discernible difference. The people who don’t value smoking – the majority – have reason to promote an aversion to smoking. The people who value smoking – the minority – have reasons for action to smoke. Why should we cater to the people who don’t value smoking – the majority?

That people can’t see the fascist underpinnings at work alarms me.

tmp,

But Desirism claims, and I agree, that transcendent or intrinsic value does not exist. If this claim is true, then the term “moral theory” is nonsensical;

That’s an interesting approach.

…I cannot see a practical way to make an unbiased evaluation of the relevant desires, and then actually measuring them.

I’ve tried to run a few calculations, but it strikes me as odd that no desirists seem interested. I would find an empirical demonstration of desirism’s veracity compelling.

Richard Wein,

Luke, you’ve ignored most of what I wrote, and haven’t grokked my objection at all, but I’m used to that.

Ha! What confirmation. Luke’s impressed me in some other areas, but he’s straight-up Stonewall Muehlhauser when it comes to desirism. I’ve been tempted to think his stonewalling was preferential treatment reserved solely for cranks like myself, but it’s apparently reserved for any question that Luke doesn’t want to “take the time” to critically consider.

…I would say that terms of moral judgement, like “morally good”, are inherently prescriptive in their ordinary usage.

I would agree. The problem is, when you ask Luke or Fyfe simple, pointed questions about what desirism prescribes, we’re answered with cryptic-speak, hand-waving and empty promises – if at all.

So I say the fact that desirism’s definitions fail to incorporate that prescriptivity is a failure of the moral theory, rather than making it not a moral theory.

I’m willing to respect our differences, but I’m not so sure I follow there. Take geocentrism as an analogy. Does the fact that geocentrism fails to incorporate the scientific method a failure of the scientific theory? Or, is it more accurate to say that geocentrism no scientific theory at all? I say the latter, and that’s why I say desirism is no moral theory at all.

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cl September 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Also,

Luke,

I don’t know anyone who rejects hypothetical imperatives.

Are you promoting arguments from popularity these days? This sentiment seems entirely out of line with everything you preach about reliance on evidence and rejection of intuition.

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 2:20 pm

cl,

“That’s an interesting approach.”

Well, if you define morality as dealing with intrinsic right and wrong, and a theory explicitly denies intrinsic value, you are NOT talking about the same thing. Not that you necessarily do, but I did, and I’m sure there are others that do.

And I may be getting this wrong, but if 1)desires are the only reason for action and 2)intrinsic value does not exists, then the Desirist prespriction must necessarily be “because doing this will ultimately help you fulfill your own desires”.

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mojo.rhythm September 14, 2010 at 3:00 pm

tmp,

“An aversion to A would have value because it has overall greater and stronger reasons for action to promote then condemn.”

You just said that desires have intrinsic value.

Not at all. An aversion to A would have no value whatsoever if we had no reasons for action to promote it. If an aversion to A had intrinsic value, it would still be valuable even if it did not fulfill any desires.

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lukeprog September 14, 2010 at 3:17 pm

cl,

I did not say the following: “Everybody accepts hypothetical imperatives, therefore hypothetical imperatives exist.”

But some things, I will not choose to invest my time arguing about. I accept chemical periodicity but I have chosen not to make this my project to defend chemical periodicity. And actually, I will probably spend much of my career writing about hypothetical imperatives, but not for the next few months, at least.

For everything else, I’m going to say, “Wait for the upcoming podcast episodes.”

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 3:21 pm

mojo.rhythm,

“Not at all. An aversion to A would have no value whatsoever if we had no reasons for action to promote it.”

B has no reason to promote this aversion -> B ought to do A. If you claim that B ought not do A, you claim that not doing A has some intrinsic value.

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 3:33 pm

mojo.rhythm,

Let me try to put this more clearly.

If desires are the only reason for action that exists, and intrinsic value does not exist, then every “ought” must be grounded on the desires of the agent in question. Agent B does not have any desires that allow this. You cannot say that agent B ought not do A. You can say that doing A is wrong, but you cannot point a reason-for-action for B to not do it. If B ought not do A, then B ought not do it without a reason-for-action, and that means not doing A has some intrinsic value.

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mojo.rhythm September 14, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Sorry, I’m still trying to parse the details of your objection: are you skeptical that the desires of one agent that be the reasons for action of another agent?

This is actually a valid objection, and one that I personally have. I think it is this proposition (my desires being the reasons for action of other agents) that moves desirism into the domain of morality, rather then some generic population sociology theory.

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 4:16 pm

mojo.rhythm,

“are you skeptical that the desires of one agent that be the reasons for action of another agent?”

Yes, if you use agent C…Z’s desires as reason-for-action for agent B, you have just given those desires intrinsic value.

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mojo.rhythm September 14, 2010 at 4:16 pm

tmp,

I say that doing A is “wrong” because it is not an act that someone with “good” desires would perform (desires that tend to fulfill other desires).

An aversion to A would be considered a “good” desire because it fulfills other desires, therefore we ought to promote A.

Therefore, for these reasons, B ought to not do A.

Where is the intrinsic value? Because I don’t see any.

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 4:26 pm

“Where is the intrinsic value?”

“And aversion for A is considered “good” desire…, for these reasons B ought not do A.”

B has no reason not to do A simply because aversion to A is “good”. Thus, if B ought not do A, it’s because acting on “good” desires has intrinsic value.

Mind you, this is not much of an problem in practice. Not being able to give “ought” to someone who is not going to act morally anyway is no big loss.

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 5:43 pm

mojo.rhythm,

…Thus, if B ought not do A, it’s because acting on “good” desires has intrinsic value…

Actually, you could just make an axiomatic assertion that one should act on “good” desires, but then you have entered the wonderful world of moral subjectivism. Which is of course better than claiming intrinsic value.

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Mike Young September 14, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Eliminative Materialism is dead. It still is respected in some circles, but everyone doing contemporary philosophy of mind KNOWS eliminative materialism is dead. Read Jae- gwon Kim and Searle

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mojo.rhythm September 14, 2010 at 5:54 pm

tmp,

Now I see where our disagreement lies. It is the notion that one persons desires can be another person’s reasons for action.

I guess it technically isn’t true, otherwise we would not need morality or law.

Check this out, it might give you some sort of answer.

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cl September 14, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Luke,

I did not say the following: “Everybody accepts hypothetical imperatives, therefore hypothetical imperatives exist.”

Yeah, and I did not say “your statement as supplied is an argument from popularity,” either. I asked if you were promoting them these days, because taken on its own face-value, the sentiment you did supply is consistent with a step in that direction.

But some things, I will not choose to invest my time arguing about.

As Richard Wein noted, we’re well aware of that. I’ve noticed a strange correlation between this tendency and the difficulty of the question.

I accept chemical periodicity but I have chosen not to make this my project to defend chemical periodicity.

Well sure, but you’ve never claimed to defend chemical periodicity that I recall. However, you do claim to “defend” desirism every Tuesday, so quit dodging and stonewalling – and actually defend it.

…I will probably spend much of my career writing about hypothetical imperatives, but not for the next few months, at least.

I’m content to wait, but at the same time, you can’t expect people to react favorably to your teasing. By teasing, I mean dropping terms and then telling us it will be months before you get around to defending them.

For everything else, I’m going to say, “Wait for the upcoming podcast episodes.”

Or, “you’re misunderstanding the theory.” Or, “I don’t have time to get into this right now.” Or, “I don’t have time to repeat the entire theory [as if anyone asked you to].” Or, “I’m going to grok your objection” when you’ve utterly failed to do so. Believe me, I know your drill. No offense, as this is purely professional and not personal, but I think you and Alonzo ought to be criticized for being so selective with the objections. If some Christian was even half that slippery, you’d be all over them – and you know it.

Alas, do as thou wilt.

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tmp September 14, 2010 at 6:19 pm

mojo.rhythm,

“It is the notion that one persons desires can be another person’s reasons for action.”

Well, it’s the notion that you can say an agent ought to do so without doing so having intrinsic value, there being a subjectivist assertion that it should be done or the agent itself having some desire on which the ought can be based on.

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