The Greatest Objection to Desirism (part 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 17, 2010 in Ethics

A neuron, up close and personal.

Last time, I wrote that I think the greatest objection to desirism is the claim that desires do not exist. I provided reasons for thinking we may not discover that anything like our common notion of “desire” exists as a structure or system in the brain at all.

Why, then, do I defend a desire-based theory of ethics?

Desirism and Physicalism

I would like to draw an analogy between my defense of desirism and Andrew Melnyk’s defense of physicalism.

First, what is physicalism? Roughly, physicalism is the view that everything that exists is made of the stuff of fundamental physics: that is, everything is physical. (Quarks and electrons are the stuff of fundamental physics, and a brain cell is made of molecules which are made of atoms which are made of quarks and electrons and so on.)

But physicalists face a dilemma right at the start, when merely trying to define what physicalism is. The dilemma is this: If I define physicalism in terms of current fundamental physics, then that kind of physicalism will almost certainly turn out to be false, as fundamental physics continues to make progress, for example positing such things as “dark energy” and “dark matter” and perhaps “strings.” But if I define physicalism in terms of an imagined, completed physics of the future, then I can’t even say what physicalism is, because we have no idea what a “completed” physics will look like! Perhaps our future physics will end up confirming dualism!

Andrew Melnyk embraces the first horn of the dilemma along with its implications. He defines physicalism in terms of current physics, and acknowledges that this means his version of physicalism will probably be disproven in the future!

But Melnyk softens the blow in this way: Consider what it means to “accept” a theory in science. We “accept” quantum mechanics and general relativity even though we are pretty sure one or both of them are false (because they are incompatible when applied to certain phenomena). And yet, these theories are wildly successful at making predictions, and are thus the best theories of fundamental physics we have at the moment. We accept quantum mechanics and general relativity because their chances of being correct are higher than any of their relevant rivals. They are the theories to which we assign the highest probabilities among the theories of that subject currently in play.

Moreover, Melnyk suspects that physicalism (defined in terms of current physics) may be more analogous to a “completed” physics of the future than any of its current competing theories (such as dualism) are.

Desirism is the Best So Far

Remember that really, desirism is about reasons for action, and makes the empirical claim that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. So maybe we should call this ethical theory reasons-for-action-ism. But that is clunky and not very descriptive (in a way, every moral theory could be called “reasons-for-action-ism”). So we call it desirism.

The dilemma I face in defining this ethical theory is similar to the dilemma faced by the physicalist.

My first option is to define this theory in terms of our current understanding of reasons for action in “intentional” behavior. If I go that way, I would define this theory in terms of the most successful theory of intentional behavior currently at our disposal: the belief-desire-intention model of folk psychology. The problem is that the belief-desire-intention model of intentional behavior is probably false. A completed neurobiology will probably be radically different from the belief-desire-intention model the ancients came up with, and this completed neuroscience will be a vastly superior theory for predicting behavior.

My second option is to define this “reasons-for-action-ism” in terms of an imagined, completed neurobiological theory of behavior. The problem is, I have no idea what that looks like!

Like Melnyk, I bite the first bullet. I define this “reasons-for-action-ism” theory of morality in terms of the best theory of intentional behavior currently available, the belief-desire-intention model of behavior, taken from folk psychology – and thus, I name the theory desirism, after the word we use to refer to that phenomena that seems to motivate behavior. But I accept that desirism, so defined in terms of our current (very limited) understanding of behavior, is almost certainly false.

This may sound shocking, but remember: If I’m right, I can still rationally “accept” desirism as the best theory of moral realism we have so far – the theory that is more likely to be correct than any of its competitors. (Even if its probability of being correct is only 5%, that is still higher than the probability than is enjoyed by any other theory of moral realism.)

Moreover, it may be that current desirist theory will turn out to be more similar than its current rivals to the moral theory that would be justified by a completed neurobiology many centuries from now.

We cannot stand by and wait for a completed neurobiology before we try to live morally. Morality cannot wait. As in every domain of science, we do the best we can with what we know now, and we accept that our theories will probably have to be revised in light of new evidence in the future.1

  1. I want to apologize in advance that I will remain tempted to use the term “desirism” in two different senses: sometimes, to refer to “current desirism” based on folk psychology, and at other times, to refer to that future succession of theories that follow desirism but ground themselves in reasons for action that are justified by future developments in neurobiology. Thus, I might sometimes talk about how I think “desirism is a plausible theory of ethics,” by which I mean to express optimism about the final “reasons-for-action-ism” grounded in a completed neurobiology, not about the current theory of desirism grounded in folk psychology, which has a very low probability of turning out to be true. Other times I might say that I endorse “desirism” even though “desirism is probably false,” in which case I am of course referring to desirism as defined in terms of our current best theory of intentional action: folk psychology. Argh, words. If only we could communicate more clearly without them! []

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

ayer September 17, 2010 at 7:27 am

I’m not an expert in this area, but doesn’t the Churchlands’ eliminative materialism deny the existence of desires, so that it would not be possible to hold to both eliminative materialism and desirism?

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lukeprog September 17, 2010 at 7:59 am

ayer,

The whole point of this post is to explain how I might defend “desirism” while simultaneously having some doubts about the existence of desires (as we use the term today).

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ayer September 17, 2010 at 8:10 am

Ok, it was just my impression that the Churchlands’ don’t just have “some doubts” about the existence of desires, but adamantly deny their existence, so that you would need to hold to a more diluted form of eliminative materialism to have any hope of reconciling it with desirism. But as I said, I have not studied the Churchlands in detail so I defer to you on that.

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antiplastic September 17, 2010 at 8:10 am

“If I’m right, I can still rationally “accept” desirism as the best theory of moral realism we have so far – the theory that is more likely to be correct than any of its competitors.”

How do your reconcile this with AF’s recent concession that desirism “for the most part” neither predicts nor prescribes any human behavior, nor attempts to?

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stamati September 17, 2010 at 8:26 am

Can you clarify what you mean by “we may not discover that anything like our common notion of ‘desire’ exists as a structure or system in the brain”? Would this also apply for things like hatred, love, compassion and so forth?

If I’m getting what you’re saying, I don’t really think there’s much of an issue here. Don’t desires exist pragmatically, in that we call a certain behavior ‘desire’ and that behavior is universal? Doesn’t part of the brain act when we have strong desires or passions?

Anyway, maybe you can help me understand your point a bit better.

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stamati September 17, 2010 at 8:30 am

Actually, no need to clarify per se. I read the previous post. But if you could address the second paragraph, I’d appreciate it.

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Adito September 17, 2010 at 9:24 am

stamati, I’m inclined to agree with you. It seems like no matter what neuroscience finds in the future there will always be a certain super-structure to our brains that look exactly like desires. We need to be careful in how we use reduction. Saying that such-and-such collection of neurons is firing in response to stimuli X is all well and good but on a practical level it isn’t always relevant.

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Alonzo Fyfe September 17, 2010 at 10:09 am

antiplastic

How do your reconcile this with AF’s recent concession that desirism “for the most part” neither predicts nor prescribes any human behavior, nor attempts to?

I would like to know the context in which I said this. It sounds like something is being taken out of context.

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MichaelPJ September 17, 2010 at 10:19 am

Excellent post! Clear and to the point. I’m going to steal these considerations for next time I’m discussing physicalism :)

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mkandefer September 17, 2010 at 11:37 am

“When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.” Isaac Asimov

http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm

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Ein Sophistry September 17, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Adito, don’t confuse reduction and elimination. The Churchland’s aren’t advocating the reduction of folk psychology, for reduction requires some degree of correspondence and articulation between the reduced and reducing theories. Folk psychology, they argue, is a poor prospect for reduction because it is radically false. It doesn’t accurately reflect our cognitive activity at any structural level. Now, some, like Dennett, believe folk psychology will remain useful as a rough heuristic, but its domain of practical utility seems to only shrink over time. The Churchlands see no necessary reason why we can’t learn to reconceptualize our cognitive activity in more neurobiologically realistic terms, even outside the laboratory.

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Jeff H September 17, 2010 at 1:15 pm

I continually find it odd when you say that quantum mechanics or general relativity are almost certainly “false”. This seems way too binary, saying that any theory that isn’t exactly 100% true is false. I mean, in some sense, I see what you’re saying, but there is a big difference between a theory that explains most of the data and a theory that explains none of the data. Those in the former category are merely incomplete and can be expanded or modified in ways that make it more correct. I just wish you would stop talking in terms of “true” and “false” when discussing scientific theories and start talking about “stronger” and “weaker”.

But that’s just a pedantic point, I suppose. I also cringed when you said that folk psychology was the best method we have for explaining behaviour. Cognitive psychology uses beliefs, intentions, and desires all the time, but they measure them in a scientific way. So even if it starts from the intuitions of folk psychology to generate hypotheses, it still is vastly superior because the intuitions are overturned if they are not supported. Please, can we stop talking like it’s either neuroscience or folk psychology like that’s all we have?

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cl September 17, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Luke,

Personally, I really don’t understand why you’re so concerned about the existence of desires. It is undeniable that “animals who prefer certain things over others” exist. As I said in Pt. 1, I think there are far stronger objections to desirism than this, and I think it’s unfortunate that they fall by the wayside post after post after post. I think “desires might not exist” is a semantic, trivial objection.

So we call it desirism.

I prefer that to “desire utilitarianism,” because every indication from yourself and Fyfe concurs that desirism is not a traditional utilitarian theory – in that we don’t maximize desire fulfillment. However, other statements you’ve both made seem to contradict this. For example, Fyfe writes,

[Desirism] prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires.” [Alonzo Fyfe, September 2, 2010]

How is that *not* a prescription in favor of maximizing desire fulfillment? Is it really any wonder why so many intelligent people are confused?

All that aside, what you call the theory doesn’t absolve it of any objections IMHO. “Reasons for action” exist for all intentional acts – both those we would call “good,” and those we would call “bad.” So, to simply say that a “reason for action exists” seems devoid of any real prescriptive power – unless of course you’re arguing some variant of egoism or “do what thou wilt” – which Fyfe emphatically denies.

…I can still rationally “accept” desirism as the best theory of moral realism we have so far – the theory that is more likely to be correct than any of its competitors. (Even if its probability of being correct is only 5%, that is still higher than the probability than is enjoyed by any other theory of moral realism.)

I think that’s terribly overstated. Can you show us the probability work you’ve done and the criteria you used to determine that any other realist theory has less than 5% chance of being true? If not, where’s the evidence or logic for this claim? If none, does the claim come from “gut feeling?”

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cl September 17, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Expanding on Jeff H’s comment,

We “accept” quantum mechanics and general relativity even though we are pretty sure one or both of them are false (because they are incompatible when applied to certain phenomena). [Luke]

That statement doesn’t sit well with me. In fact, this is [in part] what The Grand Design is all about. That QM applies to one class of objects and Newtonian physics or general relativity to another is not warrant to believe any of them to be false. The authors use the analogy of a Mercator projection quite persuasively. As one can’t show the whole of the Earth’s surface on a single map, no single theory offers an accurate representation of observation at all levels. This is not warrant for the claim that “we are pretty sure one or both of them are false.” That’s a false dichotomy.

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cl September 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Expanding on the dialog between antiplastic and Fyfe,

…I go so far as to claim “people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires” is false, for the most part. [-Alonzo Fyfe, August 30, 2010, Massimo Pigliucci vs. Julia Galef on the Foundations of Morality]

Also, from Short-List Theories of Morality,

Desirism does not say that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, like utilitarianism says that increasing happiness has intrinsic value. -Luke Muehlhauser, September 2, 2010

…no meta-desire, and no “desire to maximize fulfillment of all desires” is required. Even if such a desire were to exist, it would only be one desire on the list with no claim to supremacy over all the other desires. -Alonzo Fyfe, September 2, 2010

Nothing has intrinsic value – not even desire fulfillment. -Alonzo Fyfe, September 2, 2010

Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision. Any theory that claims that it DOES have something truthful to say to an agent at the moment of decision can be thrown out because what it has to say is false. -Alonzo Fyfe, September 3, 2010

Desirism does not prescribe anything specifically. It is a system for coming up with prescriptions… -Alonzo Fyfe, September 2, 2010

Those statements seem difficult to reconcile with,

[Desirism] provides a long list of prescriptions. It prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires. -Alonzo Fyfe, September 2, 2010

Am I the only one who sees a glaring contradiction here? Can anyone help me see what I’m missing? Is this inconsistency of logic, or inconsistency of language?

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antiplastic September 19, 2010 at 9:37 am

Well, CL beat me to it.

Unfortunately, when dealing with a doctrine which rests foundationally on several key equivocations, the defender can always point to some other passage where she used the equivocal term to mean something completely different than what was clearly meant in the first passage, and then indignantly harrumph “I’m being misrepresented!”

@CL as I tried to explicate in another thread, whether propositional attitude psychology corresponds to any real neural phenomena is not a “mere semantic” issue. First of all, it’s obviously important to the neuroscientist. But Fyfism *requires* that there be some set of entities which can be quantitatively compared. If there’s nothing to compare, then “tends to fulfill more than it thwarts” comes out as literally a gibberish statement.

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cl September 20, 2010 at 12:41 pm

antiplastic,

Unfortunately, when dealing with a doctrine which rests foundationally on several key equivocations, the defender can always point to some other passage where she used the equivocal term to mean something completely different than what was clearly meant in the first passage, and then indignantly harrumph “I’m being misrepresented!”

Yeah, sad, but true. Or, they can just ignore the questions altogether, or quip something about how professional philosophers don’t have time to answer every question, or quip something about how everybody’s misunderstanding the theory, or quip something about time constraints… there are seemingly no end to the excuses when it comes to desirism. It really puts the conscientous objector between a rock and a hard place, because, on the one hand, I want to give these guys the benefit of the doubt, but on the other hand, one can only do so justifiably for so long. I’m tempted to try the mockery route – since that’s what got Luke deconverted in the first place – but, I dunno… I just can’t get behind that. I don’t see that mockery can entail a rational change of mind, and everyone already complains enough about my delivery.

This feels exactly like the pastor who can’t answer tough questions about evolution. It’s like we’re just supposed to believe “on faith” that desirism is true, regardless of the unresolved contradictions – which are increasingly met with “we’ll get to that in the next podcast.” How many podcasts is it going to take?

…whether propositional attitude psychology corresponds to any real neural phenomena is not a “mere semantic” issue.

I agree, but that’s not necessarily what I’m saying – at least, I don’t think. I’m suggesting that we start with the seemingly undeniable: human beings that have preferences exist. To say “what if desires don’t exist” seems wholly semantic to me, because, well… human beings exist, and it is undeniable that human beings prefer certain things to others. So, let’s say a panel of neuroscientists concludes that desires don’t exist. Okay, fine, but human beings do – and the human beings that do exist, have different – and often conflicting – interests. So then, even if we say “desires don’t exist,” Fyfism can still correspond to a set of entities which can be quantitatively compared, thus fulfilling that criterion.

Right?

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Mike Young September 20, 2010 at 9:58 pm

C1. R is a primary reason why an agent performed the action A under the description d only if R consists of a pro-attitude of the agent toward actions with a certain property, and a belief of the agent that A, under the description d, has that property.

1.For us to show a reason of any kind rationalizes an action it is necessary and sufficient that we see, at least in outline, how to construct a primary reason

2.The primary reason for an action is its cause.

-Donald Davidson.

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