Sophistry

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 11, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

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

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A sophist is just as much of a parasite as a liar.

Our culture does not treat them the same. In fact, in America, it is quite legitimate to open a company devoted to professional sophistry and make a lot of money doing sophistry, legally and in the clear.

However, if we look at what sophistry is made of, we find that the terms “liar” and “sophist” fit into the same moral category.

Technically, the difference between the liar and the sophist comes from the difference that logicians recognize between a proposition and an argument.

The formal definition of a proposition is that it is a statement having truth value. “I am sitting on the bus” is a proposition. It is true, or it is false.

In contrast, an argument is a set of two or more propositions, one of which serves as a conclusion while the other(s) serve as the premises, where the conclusion is said to follow from the premises.

(1) I am sitting on the bus.
(2) The bus is going to Denver
(3) Therefore, I am going to Denver.

A valid argument is an argument such that if (and I do mean if) the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true.

A sound argument is an argument which is valid, and the premises are all true. Thus, a sound argument is an argument where the conclusion must be true.

A liar is a parasite that infests your brain with false beliefs in order to manipulate you into choosing actions that tend to fulfill the desires of the infesting agent while thwarting your own desires.

A sophist is a parasite that infests your brain with invalid inferences in order to manipulate you into choosing actions that tend to fulfill the desires of the infesting agent while thwarting your own desires.

There is no quality that distinguishes the sophist from the liar that changes the fact that we have just as much reason to condemn and to hold in contempt the sophist as we do the liar.

Yet a politician caught in an outright lie is often humbled and forced to apologize. The outright lie could cost him his job. A politician engaging in sophistry, on the other hand, is regarded as practicing business as usual.

We could improve our culture significantly if it were one that, in addition to claims like, “Politician P was caught lying about his war service record,” we also had headlines like, “Candidate C was caught yesterday engaging in sophistry on the subject of global warming.”

We could respond to acts of sophistry just like we respond to acts of lying.

Many acts of sophistry, as it turns out, are far easier to prove than lies. The argument is simply and easily shown to be invalid, yet the candidate (or cable news host, or political talking head) still uses them.

Sophistry in Montana

One of my more memorable encounters with sophistry – and the basis for my claim that professional sophists are permitted in this country to grow huge industries devoted to the practice of their “art”, came during a political campaign in Montana.

I was working with a group that put a measure on the ballot in that state to eliminate the Milk (Price) Control Board in Montana. In Montana, a government agency effectively set the price of milk. As a result, people in Montana were paying more for their milk than people in any other state. Furthermore, the people in Montana also had to pay the taxes to finance the government agency whose purpose was to take their money and give it to milk producers.

After the election, the milk producers explained how the defeated the ballot initiative. That plan was to give money to a professional political organization. That organization then performed a number of surveys from which they designed their campaign.

Effectively, the purpose of a marketing survey in this case is to use the scientific method to reveal which acts of sophistry would be most effective. Such agencies are a bit shy about lying, because a demonstrable lie will result in social condemnation and put the campaign at risk. However, since our culture does not condemn sophistry, a person can build a buisness on the practice of determining the most efficient acts of sophistry they can use.

One of their advertisements featured a graph that showed the price of milk in Montana versus the price of milk in Wyoming. This graph had both prices starting at the same point, and showed that the Wyoming graph was steeper than the Montana graph.

Now, starting both prices at the same point is an effective way of hiding the fact that, while in Montana the price of milk went from $2.00 to $2.30 (an increase of 30 cents), the price of milk in Wyoming went from $1.50 to $1.90 (an increase of 40 cents).

However, the graph gives the casual observer (and, let’s be honest: almost everybody is a casual observer) the mistaken impression that the heroic Milk Control Board kept the price of milk in Montana low while the free market in Wyoming caused its prices to go up – that the price of milk itself is higher in Wyoming than in Montana and the Milk Control Board is responsible.

Furthermore, we must add the fact that the price of milk in Montana was controlled by the Milk Control Board and, when the ballot initiative threatened their job and their position, it was in their power to respond by changing the price of milk.

These facts make the graph an act of sophistry. Its purpose was to infest the brains of the voters so as to cause them to perform acts which, though harmful to their own interests, were helpful to the interests of their client corporations (parasites) that paid the company to do the research and cause this infestation.

There is no reason for action that exists that argues for treating the sophist any differently than the liar. The sophist, just like the liar, is making his living infesting our thoughts with ideas that will cause us to act in ways that make us worse off, so that their clients can benefit.

Once again, if you live in a village that has decided to cultivate warm stagnate pools, do not be surprised to discover that you are being sucked dry by that which comes out of those efforts.

-Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorkas November 11, 2010 at 4:45 am

“while in Wyoming the price of milk went from $2.00 to $2.30 (an increase of 30 cents), the price of milk in Wyoming went from $1.50 to $1.90 (an increase of 40 cents).”

Something’s wrong here. I’m assuming the first Wyoming is supposed to be Montana.

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 5:54 am

Interesting post, though I’m not sure we can condemn all sophists as liars. For example, consider a well-meaning child’s right activist who is genuinely trying to protect children. Unfortunately the activist is gullible and believes that vaccines cause autism. He does his best to convey what he believes to be true, thereby meeting your definition of sophistry:

“…infests your brain with invalid inferences in order to manipulate you into choosing actions that tend to fulfill the desires of the infesting agent while thwarting your own desires.”

To legally convict someone of lying, our courts must show that the defendant knew they were wrong, i.e., there was intention to deceive. A sophist may unknowingly deceive, i.e., there is no intention. Am I missing something?

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 6:00 am

To add to my last post, the sophist could also be someone with a limited understanding of logic, and therefore unknowingly promotes fallacious arguments.

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Tony Hoffman November 11, 2010 at 6:06 am

This is another great post. I think that a great deal of shared interest is thwarted because of sophistry. And while our political system is built to respond to charges of “Liar!” it is not so well equipped for the moment when you stand up and shout, “Sophist!”

My question would be what tools are available to make the charge of “sophist” as strong as that of “liar” in our political system? Assuming that news outlets could even incorporate a “Sophist Tracker” feature in their programming, does anyone think that this would have any traction with the population? I doubt it, so I’m not so sure that I agree with your statement that, “Many acts of sophistry, as it turns out, are far easier to prove than lies.”

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 7:14 am

@Tony: I’d say we call them both “liars”, since they are effectively the same thing. And, when the sophist responds with “I’m not lying”, then we can let them know that knowingly giving people false beliefs is lying — whether those beliefs are in the form of a proposition, or inferred from an argument.

@Methodissed: If the person telling the lie doesn’t know they are doing it, then they aren’t lying. If you believe that what you are saying is true, then it’s not a lie. Now, they may be guilty of negligence, but that’s different.

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Hermes November 11, 2010 at 7:18 am

Re: Sophistry, I highly recommend the recently released audio version of Schopenhauer’s The Art of Controversy. In it, he gives a different view of things that is still relevant to our discussions here. I’d quote specific sections, but his take on things is quite varied and one or two quotes may give an impression that differs from what he actually intended, so instead I point to Schopenhauer’s first chapter.

One of his points is that in the moment someone can be convinced about their own position being wrong, and our natural stubbornness actually helps us from being taking in by someone who is more skilled but not necessarily more correct.

So, because of that, in the moment it is important to argue well and to be stubborn even if you yourself are not convinced. A corollary of that, though, is that it is not good to retain that stubbornness when you are able to carefully go over the details on your own. I think this second part is where people make a dire mistake; the argument ends and no time is set aside later to consider the details and the facts that were being argued over. Merely arguing well — or fooling yourself that you argued well — is enough to close the subject and any chance of learning something new or becoming less wrong by adopting the best available evidence concerning a specific claim.

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 7:23 am

Kip said: “If you believe that what you are saying is true, then it’s not a lie. ”

Correct. My point though was that sophists may believe that what they are saying is true, and therefore should not be treated as liars.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 11, 2010 at 7:25 am

Lorkas,

Fixed, thanks.

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 8:14 am

My point though was that sophists may believe that what they are saying is true, and therefore should not be treated as liars.

I agree. I think Alonzo would too. The point of this post, though, is that lots of people knowingly commit sophistry, with no regrets, because we don’t condemn or punish it like we do lying.

One reason may be that it’s harder to know if someone knew that they were committing sophistry, than if they knew they were lying. Lots of people are bad at logic, and prone to giving fallacious arguments. In that case, we shouldn’t condemn them for sophistry if they aren’t doing it on purpose… but I think there are times where we can (and should) condemn them for being intellectually negligent (similar to the person who lies unknowingly, causing people harm, but could have prevented it by doing some research).

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 8:42 am

Thanks Kip. I shared my comment because the article seems to make an absolute assertion that all sophists are liars, as implied by the following quote:

if we look at what sophistry is made of, we find that the terms “liar” and “sophist” fit into the same moral category.

I agree with you about chastising people who are causing harm due to their own intellectual negligence, recognizing that biases may prevent them from being able to objectively research the subject.

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 8:55 am

I shared my comment because the article seems to make an absolute assertion that all sophists are liars, as implied by the following quote…

I may need to clarify my previous response…

The way I (and Alonzo) are using the term “sophist”, it would be the case that all sophists are in the same category as liars. There is no such thing as a sophist who believes what they are saying is true (and leads others to infer true beliefs), just like there is no such thing as a liar who believes what they are saying is true. They would not be “liars” or “sophists” if they believed what they were saying were true (or in the case of a sophist, also leads to people believing true things). A person who believes what they are saying is true, and believes that people will infer true beliefs from their arguments, is not a sophist.

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dan November 11, 2010 at 9:06 am

atheist have no need for moral theory.

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 9:11 am

Thanks for the clarification.

A person who believes what they are saying is true, and believes that people will infer true beliefs from their arguments, is not a sophist.

Is that definition generally accepted by philosophers? (I don’t know). Conventional use doesn’t seem to nuance the element of intention. Here’s what Dictionary.com says:

Sophistry
* a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning.
* a false argument; sophism.
* a method of argument that is seemingly plausible though actually invalid and misleading – the art of using such arguments
* subtle but unsound or fallacious reasoning

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 9:14 am

Dan said:

atheist have no need for moral theory.

Huh?

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 9:28 am

Kip, I’m getting conflicting messages from you.

Example 1
I said:

My point though was that sophists may believe that what they are saying is true, and therefore should not be treated as liars.”

Kip said:

I agree. I think Alonzo would too. The point of this post, though, is that lots of people knowingly commit sophistry, with no regrets, because we don’t condemn or punish it like we do lying.

One reason may be that it’s harder to know if someone knew that they were committing sophistry, than if they knew they were lying. Lots of people are bad at logic, and prone to giving fallacious arguments. In that case, we shouldn’t condemn them for sophistry if they aren’t doing it on purpose… but I think there are times where we can (and should) condemn them for being intellectually negligent (similar to the person who lies unknowingly, causing people harm, but could have prevented it by doing some research).

Example 2
Kip said:

“There is no such thing as a sophist who believes what they are saying is true…”

That’s a radical flip to make in just a matter of minutes. Is this a moving goalpost?

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dan November 11, 2010 at 9:58 am

why would they?

Dan said: Huh?  

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 10:08 am

Dan, you made a positive assertion without offering any supporting reasons, i.e., you haven’t presented an argument. You’re now asking me to disprove your unsupported assertion.

If you don’t think that atheists need a moral theory, how about explaining why. Your 3-6 word posts are indicative of troll-like behavior.

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dan November 11, 2010 at 10:20 am

Maybe I am a troll…What difference does it make? The question remains open for answer.

Why would atheist need moral theory? They have no God, no one is looking they can do what they please (as long as they don’t get caught)

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 10:39 am

Maybe I am a troll…What difference does it make?

It makes a big difference. If you’re you’re not genuinely interested in the pursuit of truth, no matter where it leads, then I’m not interested in conversing with you.

The fact that atheists on this site are discussing moral theory suggests that we want to be as moral as possible.

You’ve just indicated that if you didn’t think someone was watching over your shoulder, you would do whatever you wanted, whether it hurt other people or not. Is your God belief the only thing that keeps you from being a monster? If so, I think you’re a scary person.

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JS Allen November 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

Am I the only one who sees the rich irony in the inventor of “desirism” condemning sophistry?

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 11:21 am

@Methodissed:

No. I’m not moving the goalpost. I can make the statement: “a liar who believes what they are saying is not a liar”. This is seemingly self–contradictory, but a more subtle (and perhaps charitable) understanding of the statement would be that “liar” is being used in two different ways. This is the only way it could logically be true. The same was the case with what I “agreed” to in what you said, but then later clarified because I saw that you might not have understood it that way.

Also, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophism

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 11:23 am

Am I the only one who sees the rich irony in the inventor of “desirism” condemning sophistry?

I don’t see the irony. Please explain. Are you saying that Alonzo is engaged in sophistry?

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 11:52 am

Kip said:

I can make the statement: “a liar who believes what they are saying is not a liar”. This is seemingly self–contradictory, but a more subtle (and perhaps charitable) understanding of the statement would be that “liar” is being used in two different ways. This is the only way it could logically be true.

That makes no sense. A liar, by definition, knows they’re being dishonest. Your quoted statement cannot be logically true, because it’s incoherent, i.e., the first two words cannot be true if the rest of the sentence is true.

I’m not moving the goalpost. … The same was the case with what I “agreed” to in what you said, but then later clarified because I saw that you might not have understood it that way.

Um, but you didn’t just agree to what I said. You wrote an entire paragraph elaborating on your agreement. Then later, you said just the opposite, i.e., Q and then not Q. The latter was not a nuance — it was a 180 degree reversal of position.

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 12:13 pm

@Methodissed: this is my last response to this. This is a complete and utter waste of time.

Kip>

I can make the statement: “a liar who believes what they are saying is not a liar”. This is seemingly self–contradictory, but a more subtle (and perhaps charitable) understanding of the statement would be that “liar” is being used in two different ways. This is the only way it could logically be true.

Methodissed>

That makes no sense.

It does make sense for the reason I gave. It’s called equivocation. One word used to mean two different things. In the first usage, the word “liar” means something along the lines “someone who is being called a liar”, and in the second usage it means something along the lines of “a person who should be condemned for lying”.

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Kip said:

this is my last response to this. This is a complete and utter waste of time.

If you’re unwilling to concede that you may be mistaken, then I agree, at this point it would be wise to stop talking. You’ve dug a hole and can’t get out.

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 1:13 pm

@Methdissed:

I reply on here to help people where I can, and learn from others. Most people are generous and like to carry on mutually beneficial conversations. On occasion, people like you and “cl” come along and show that you are more interested in trying to win stupid arguments. It’s like some form of pedantic trolling. There’s a reason why I rarely respond to him anymore, and for that same reason, you can be sure that I’ll rarely respond to you either. So long.

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 1:43 pm

…you can be sure that I’ll rarely respond to you either.

Thank you.

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JS Allen November 11, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Am I the only one who sees the rich irony in the inventor of “desirism” condemning sophistry?

“I don’t see the irony. Please explain. Are you saying that Alonzo is engaged in sophistry?”

I’m sure that Alonso is sometimes direct and honest, but “desirism” itself seems like the best example of sophistry I’ve seen in a long time.

Every time Alonso is asked to formulate desirism in a way that is coherent enough to even be peer-reviewed, he dodges the issue. But the lack of coherence doesn’t stop him from regularly holding forth on real-world issues and giving advice.

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cl November 11, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Alonzo,

Many acts of sophistry, as it turns out, are far easier to prove than lies. The argument is simply and easily shown to be invalid, yet the candidate (or cable news host, or political talking head) still uses them.

I think you’re incorrect here. In both cases, we retain the difficulty of establishing with evidence the fact of a guilty mind. In fact, I suspect that many of your own personal accusations of sophistry error in this regard: you see somebody like me who questions persistently and refuses to simply swallow claims that I honestly believe to be unfounded and/or invalid, and you mistakenly assume that my resistance springs from a desire “to manipulate you into choosing actions that tend to fulfill the desires of the infesting agent while thwarting your own desires.” You take the liberty to assume and assert without evidence that which you do not know, and it actually seems quite self-aggrandizing if you ask me: the implicit assumption is that I have something to gain, as if your work is so important that a sophist like me would be desperate to undermine it. However, what do I have to gain? It’s not like my persistence confers any postive benefits to my life. Hell, my persistence actually detracts from my life. It just ends up with people like Hermes and Kip talking crap.

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Tony Hoffman November 11, 2010 at 3:17 pm

JS: “Every time Alonso is asked to formulate desirism in a way that is coherent enough to even be peer-reviewed, he dodges the issue. But the lack of coherence doesn’t stop him from regularly holding forth on real-world issues and giving advice.”

I gather that you’re upset with Alonzo, but your argument that Alonzo is a sophist seems a tad weak. But yes, something does seem ironic indeed.

Speaking of dodging, can you explain what it is that incoherent about desirism? I could think of many ways of describing it, but incoherent would not be among them.

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cl November 11, 2010 at 3:34 pm

JS Allen,

Am I the only one who sees the rich irony in the inventor of “desirism” condemning sophistry?

No, not at all. While I am not at liberty to make statements about Alonzo’s motives as he apparently deems appropriate to do unto others, I can’t help but notice that many of his tendencies are quite consistent with sophistry. That is to say, if Alonzo did in fact have the desire to manipulate us into choosing actions that tend to fulfill his desires while thwarting ours, we would reasonably expect to see states of affairs that are very much in line with some of those we do in fact see. Consider these of many possible examples, all taken from a single transaction:

1) It can be assumed that most of us querants have an aversion to unjustified attacks on our moral character, but when it behooves him, Alonzo uses unfounded accusations to personally attack querants such as myself, as opposed to supplying cogent rebuttals which actually demonstrate the superiority of desirism over competing theories1;

2) It can be assumed that most of us querants have a desire for clarity, but Alonzo eschews simple disclaimers that could easily minimize confusion due to conflicting presentations of his theory across his website, his blog, and this podcast, which – through negligence – lends to states of affairs that thwart our desire for clarity2;

3) It can be assumed that a person with good desires would apologize when it becomes apparent that their negligence is thwarting other peoples’ desires for clarity, but Alonzo refuses to assume responsibility for other peoples’ confusion in this regard and still hasn’t taken even five minutes to post the disclaimer people have suggested3;

4) It can be assumed that a person with good desires would extend the principle of charity to their interlocutor, but often, Alonzo either willfully distorts or negligently misunderstands the objections before him, for example responding to requests for a simple disclaimer as if they were requests to “track down and burn” everything previously written4.

All of that is 100% consistent with the desire to mislead and manipulate, but again, please note that I’m not accusing Alonzo of anything. I am not at liberty to do so because I have no knowledge of his motives, no evidence of a guilty mind. Maybe he just doesn’t see this stuff from an unbiased perspective. Or, maybe I’m completely out in left field. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Point is, I simply wish to note that all this condemnation of sophistry is coming from a writer who didn’t even date his introductory article on his own theory, and then had the nerve to insinuate that the responsibility of distinguishing recent from deprecated work falls to the querant. Therefore, perhaps Alonzo should be less quick to judge others, and spend more time getting his own house in order.

1, 2: Morality In The Real World, Episode 7, comment November 9, 2010 at 11:02 am

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JS Allen November 11, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Speaking of dodging, can you explain what it is that incoherent about desirism? I could think of many ways of describing it, but incoherent would not be among them

The whole damned thing. Why don’t you try summarizing it in a way that’s coherent? This ought to be fun.

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cl November 11, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Whoops: the aforementioned footnote also includes 3 & 4 of the comment it appears in.

Methodissed,

Hilarious. You rightfully call Kip on equivocation, and Kip gets all pissy and personal, even to the point of personally attacking me when I’m not even around. Hilarious! Don’t get too flattered, though: these personal attacks and snide insinuations about the moral character of other interlocutors has become standard desirist fare lately. Kip here is a perfect example: when things don’t add up for commenters Garren and Keith J, Kip retorts:

Did you guys write these things before listening to the podcast? [Kip, Episode 6, November 3, 2010 at 10:04 am]

I ask: is that in line with the principle of charity? Is that in line with a motive to “help others?” Is that in line with the desire to “learn?” Or, is that more in line with a desire to assert a attitude of superiority? It’s hard to say, isn’t it?

Or, consider this nice little exchange between Kip and I, in the context of whether or to what extent science ought to be the arbiter of morality:

Now, it’s not that big of a deal if scientists are wrong about the distance to the nearest red dwarf or the chemical composition of the lunar surface, but we can’t afford to have scientists be wrong about morality. [cl]

Can we afford to have scientists be wrong about whether or not a multi-megaton asteroid asteroid will hit the earth in the near future, and if so, how to stop it? Or should we just use our intuitions for that too? Can we afford to have scientists be wrong about whether or not vaccines cause autism and should be avoided, or help prevent diseases and should be embraced? Or should we listen to the intuitions of non-scientists for that? I’m sorry, but as soon as someone says we shouldn’t use science to know something about the real world, I immediately put them into the “idiot” category. [Kip, Sam Harris: The Moral Landscape, Common Sense Atheism, comment October 14, 2010 at 6:43 am]

Notice how Kip jumps illogically to the conclusion that my admonition towards caution constitutes an appeal to intuition? Notice how quick Kip was to put me in the “idiot” category when in fact he didn’t properly apprehend my claim?

So, in short, don’t worry about it. You’re better off without that kind of “help” and “learning” if you ask me.

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cl November 11, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Kip,

I reply on here to help people where I can, and learn from others.

Yet, you use the word “idiot” at my expense. Does that constitute helping people where you can? Does that constitute learning from others? Apparently, not all of your responses here stem from motives as pristine as you allege.

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Tony Hoffman November 11, 2010 at 3:45 pm

The whole damned thing. Why don’t you try summarizing it in a way that’s coherent? This ought to be fun.

Nope. Your claim, your burden of proof. How is Desirism incoherent? Are you going to dodge your claim so quickly?

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Methodissed November 11, 2010 at 3:50 pm

CL, thank you for the background. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who is perplexed by Kip’s responses.

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cl November 11, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Tony Hoffman,

Nope. Your claim, your burden of proof. How is Desirism incoherent? Are you going to dodge your claim so quickly?

In the same way that the burden of proof defaults to theists when atheists deny the cogency of various arguments for God, the burden of proof falls to whoever says desirism is being presented coherently, as JS Allen is denying the claim that desirism is being presented coherently. In this case, JS Allen is the atheist, and whoever says desirism is being presented coherently is the theist.

I’m afraid you’ve gotten it backwards.

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Tony Hoffman November 11, 2010 at 4:00 pm

No, CL — you, like so many theists, consistently struggle with the burden of proof problem.

And, no, the burden of proof doesn’t fall to theists when atheists point out the fallacies in arguments for God. If that were there case, there wouldn’t be websites like this, which patiently point out where the faults are for arguments for God.

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/goldstein09/goldstein09_index.html

JS Allen, I await your argument. Why is desirism incoherent?

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cl November 11, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Tony Hoffman,

No, CL — you, like so many theists, consistently struggle with the burden of proof problem.

Bare assertion fallacy.

…no, the burden of proof doesn’t fall to theists when atheists point out the fallacies in arguments for God.

Well, this is technically correct, albeit a semantic quibble: the burden doesn’t “fall” to theists, because they are the ones that retain the burden from the outset – in the same way desirists retain the burden from the outset. Consider:

1) The person who claims that arguments for God are coherent retains the burden of proof. It’s up to them to supply something – an argument, a syllogism, etc. – that meets the burden of proof.

2) The person who claims that desirism is coherent retains the burden of proof. It’s up to them to supply something – an argument, a syllogism, etc. – that meets the burden of proof.

You are the one implying the claim that desirism is coherent. We are the ones denying your claim. It is up to you to present us with your argument, syllogism, etc.

Nonetheless, I’m pretty confident in my assumption that you can’t formulate a coherent argument for desirism, so, instead of play the back-and-forth game, I’ll oblige you anyways. First, let’s define coherence:

logical coherence and accordance with the facts; “a rambling argument that lacked any consistency” [thefreedictionary.com]

Now, consider the following argument Alonzo used to assert the superiority of desirism over competing theories in Episode 6:

LUKE: Alonzo, [your story about Alph] puts a major crimp in those theories that say that human flourishing, or happiness, or pleasure, or the well-being of conscious creatures is the root of all moral value.

ALONZO: It tells us that those theories are substantially wrong. People in this universe do have reasons to pursue states such as flourishing or happiness or well-being – whatever those things mean. That is because these are states that contain elements that fulfill human desires. But there are other states, not properly called “well-being” or “happiness” or “flourishing” that also fulfill desires that people in this universe have.

There is absolutely no reason to take happiness or flourishing or whatnot and say THAT is the only thing that counts.

Alonzo simply asserts and does not provide examples of other states, not properly called “well-being” or “happiness” or “flourishing” that also fulfill desires that people in this universe have. There is no consistency between the facts alleged and any actual facts.

That’s incoherent.

I await your argument.

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Tony Hoffman November 11, 2010 at 6:29 pm

CL,

You remain confused. I have not asserted that desirism is coherent, as I think that would be a fairly stupid thing for me to say, because I don’t really even know how to go about defending that assertion about things I know something about, and I know very little about desirism.

No, the charge of incoherence is the one that bears the burden of proof. I have claimed nothing about desirism here. JS Allen has claimed that desirism is incoherent.

I await JS Allen’s reply.

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cl November 11, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Tony Hoffman,

Earlier…

I could think of many ways of describing [desirism], but incoherent would not be among them.

…uh, coherency is a Boolean value: an argument – or a set of arguments for that matter – is either coherent, or it is not. Now, you write:

I have not asserted that desirism is coherent,

That’s slippery. You implied it when you said you wouldn’t describe desirism as incoherent.

No, the charge of incoherence is the one that bears the burden of proof. I have claimed nothing about desirism here.

I’m not going to argue with you about the burden of proof, which you still seem to think the person denying the claim bears.

JS Allen has claimed that desirism is incoherent.

As do I, and I provided exactly what you requested – an argument demonstrating the incoherency of a desirist argument – and you have simply looked the other way without so much as even a passing comment.

At this point, you really bear the burden of proof – actually, the burden of production: Do you accept or deny that I provided an example of an incoherent argument? If the former, please supply your reasoning. No more bare assertions.

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Tony Hoffman November 11, 2010 at 6:57 pm

CL, I find the coherence of something to be very difficult to defend. It often boils down to, “It makes sense to me.” I could be mistaken about many things that appear sensible / coherent to me, so when someone tells me that something is incoherent, I will listen to their argument.

So far, JS Allen has not defended his assertion.

Your charge of incoherence doesn’t make sense to me. I read your previous comment, and I really don’t understand what you mean when you write:

CL: Alonzo simply asserts and does not provide examples of other states, not properly called “well-being” or “happiness” or “flourishing” that also fulfill desires that people in this universe have. There is no consistency between the facts alleged and any actual facts.”

How does that make Desirism incoherent?

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cl November 11, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Tony Hoffman,

How does that make Desirism incoherent?

It doesn’t per se. Rather, it shows as incoherent the claim, “desirism is superior to competing theories because there are other states, not properly called “well-being” or “happiness” or “flourishing” that also fulfill desires that people in this universe have.” Would you agree that claims without evidence to support them are incoherent? If yes – which it seems you have to – then understand that my previous comment was meant to illustrate but one of a subset of incoherent arguments used to defend desirism. In my opinion, producing a subset of incoherent arguments is tantamount to demonstrating the incoherency of the theory. Incoherent parts cannot add up to a coherent whole.

Still, I’ll try some other approaches.

In the broader sense, desirism is incoherent because it defines morally good desires as, “desires that tend to fulfill other desires.” The problem is that if the pre-existing balance of desires is one of predominantly “bad” desires, then, a desire that tends to fulfill more than thwart them would actually be a “bad” desire. Or, in the other direction, if the pre-existing balance of desires is one of predominantly “bad” desires, then, a “good” desire will be one that tends to thwart more than fulfill them [think Whistleblower]. There’s a corollary in the old saying that in times of corruption, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. If the aggregate of desires is “morally bad,” the person who thwarts them by doing what is right is good, yet desirism appears to get this backwards – as Cartesian’s Nazi example so eloquently explains.

Further, Alonzo defines an irrational desire as one that thwarts the other desires of the agent, and defines an immoral desire as one that thwarts the desires of other agents1. This leads to the conclusion that whenever an agent doesn’t have reasons for action to have desires that fulfill other desires, acting morally becomes irrational. That doesn’t “make sense” to me. That is to say, it seems incoherent.

1: -Alonzo Fyfe, Irrational Desires, Atheist Ethicist, February 26, 2010

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Luke Muehlhauser November 11, 2010 at 8:20 pm

cl,

You say it’s fairly obvious that “claims without evidence to support them” are best called “incoherent.”

Please go back to Philosophy 101. It’s stuff like this that makes me want to not bother reading your endless comments. You seem to fire out a thousand shots, most of them just fundamentally confused on basic issues of philosophy (such as equating lack of evidence with incoherence), with a few that hit home and are worth responding to.

I don’t have time for all that.

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JS Allen November 11, 2010 at 8:35 pm

I think desirism is incoherent in the same way as “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves“. You’re asking, “What part of it is incoherent”, but that requires me to presuppose that any of it makes sense. I don’t know what brillig is. Is slithy a quantity? I can’t tell.

Methodissed cited the definition of sophistry, and I think it applies to desirism:

Sophistry:
*a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning.
* a method of argument that is seemingly plausible though actually invalid and misleading – the art of using such arguments

I’ve read Alonso’s posts purporting to explain “desirism” several times over the past year, and I still can’t figure out how to articulate the theory in a way that makes any sense. On the surface, it kind of makes sense, but it’s a mess when you dig deeper.

In his system, what exactly is a desire? He initially said “propositional attitude”, but that was extremely problematic (it’s easy to empirically demonstrate that people’s propositional attitudes often diverge from both folk-psychology desires and also from actions), so he’s turned it into something like “any reason for an action”. But that was problematic, so now he talks about reasons that aren’t necessarily arrived at via “reason”. And what is an “action”? Does the boundary between belief and action take place in the motor neurons? Or is it somewhere before that?

He hand-waves and says, “It doesn’t really matter exactly what a desire is; whatever it is, we want to encourage desires that encourage other desires”. But to me, it sounds like, “It doesn’t matter what the toves are, just trust me. It was brillig and slithy toves. ‘Twas!.

The problem is, it makes all the difference in the world what “brillig” and “toves” mean, and the coherence of Alonso’s theory depends heavily on having cleanly defined terms. He prescribes specific tactics for encouraging “desires that ought to be encouraged”. But how do we empirically test the efficacy of any desire-modification scheme if we don’t even know what a desire is?

Next, he talks about promoting “more and stronger desires”, which implies at least two axes of quantification (and really, at least three, if you consider desires split across individuals). But how exactly does he propose to quantify desires on these many axes? Anyone with a modicum of experience building scientific models will know that the details about the quantification scheme can change everything. A course of action that could be considered “moral” under one scheme of quantification could end up being unspeakably evil under another scheme of quantification.

Now, let’s assume that we one day arrive at a clear picture of what desires really are, what is the boundary with action, how one ought to quantify desires, and strong empirically-verified tactics of modifying desires. These are by no means the only problems with “desirism”, but let’s assume that these are the big ones, and that they can be solved in the next 100 years. Even assuming this, we have a problem. We have no confidence that Alonso’s algorithm will lead to his stated desired outcome. Systems like this, which might work well for small groups, tend to exhibit chaotic behavior when the number of actors are large enough. On a planet with 5 billion people, it’s safe to say that the actual results will be highly chaotic, with all sorts of results that nobody would consider to be “moral”. Large groups of people locked into local minima, huge swings in fortune, and so on. This is basic “complex systems” behavior.

Alonso doesn’t even quite know what his terms are, and he hasn’t done even the slightest bit of due diligence to determine whether his suggested approach would work (versus spreading misery), yet he’s actively promoting his system and dispensing advice based upon the theory (whatever it is at the moment).

Now, I highly doubt that Alonso could create a simulation at global scale that could get the results he claims to want. If he did, there would be a Nobel prize waiting for him. But, even if he could, it wouldn’t change the fact that he hasn’t defended why he wants that outcome. He claims to have engineered a system which will maximize globally the quantity and intensity of “good desires”. But he hasn’t even tried to explain why this is the best state for the world. In fact, Buddhists would argue in favor of a very different result, and with good reason.

There are many, many other problems, but it’s really not worth spending too much time on it, when Alonso himself refuses to be bothered with proving that any of this crap is coherent, let alone that it works.

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Tony Hoffman November 12, 2010 at 5:59 am

JS Allen, as I suspected your claim that Desirism is incoherent boils down to, “I don’t like it.”

JS:” The problem is, it makes all the difference in the world what “brillig” and “toves” mean, and the coherence of Alonso’s theory depends heavily on having cleanly defined terms.”

Whatever moral system you subscribe to, how does it not fail under the same criticism? Love, happiness, goodness – are these cleanly defined terms?

JS: “But how exactly does he propose to quantify desires on these many axes? Anyone with a modicum of experience building scientific models will know that the details about the quantification scheme can change everything. A course of action that could be considered “moral” under one scheme of quantification could end up being unspeakably evil under another scheme of quantification.”

Again, pot to kettle. Assuming you are a theist subscribing to Divine Command Theory, morality under God falls under epistemological problems more dire than Desirism; We don’t know that God exists, and if he did we have no reliable way of knowing what his will is.

You also seem confused about desirism and moral absolutes. As I understand it, in desirism there are no moral absolutes, so your claim that one scheme of quantification could whipsaw between “moral” and “unspeakably” evil shows a surprising inability to grasp this concept. This might explain why you have failed to find it coherent.

JS: “We have no confidence that Alonso’s algorithm will lead to his stated desired outcome. Systems like this, which might work well for small groups, tend to exhibit chaotic behavior when the number of actors are large enough.”

Fallacy of consequences.

So, is this all you have?

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JS Allen November 12, 2010 at 7:03 am

Whatever moral system you subscribe to, how does it not fail under the same criticism? Love, happiness, goodness – are these cleanly defined terms?

I answer your question about how desirism is incoherent, and all you can come back with is “tu quoquoe”?

It’s an utterly bizarre “tu quouque”, too, since I don’t even defend any particular moral theory. Desirism isn’t the only incoherent moral theory out there, if that’s what you’re saying. How does that help you?

Fallacy of consequences.

Do you even know what “fallacy of consequences” is? This has nothing to do with fallacy of consequences. You might as well have smugly said, “fallacy of blue ass-monkeys”.

Alonso claims that his theory is prescriptive. If his prescriptions are based on ignorance, wishful thinking, and magic pixie dust, that’s an important data point in evaluating his theory. If his prescriptions are likely to lead to very different results than he claims, that’s important in judging his theory.

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Tony Hoffman November 12, 2010 at 8:10 am

JS Allen: “It’s an utterly bizarre “tu quouque”, too, since I don’t even defend any particular moral theory. Desirism isn’t the only incoherent moral theory out there, if that’s what you’re saying. How does that help you?”

Okay, name a coherent moral theory then, one that doesn’t fall prey to the failing you decry in desirism, that of not having”cleanly defined terms.”. Should be fast and easy for you.

This has nothing to do with fallacy of consequences. You might as well have smugly said, “fallacy of blue ass-monkeys”.

No, it’s still fallacy of consequences. You seem to be saying that desirism can’t be true because you think it might exhibit chaotic behavior (whatever that means). This remains an incoherent criticism to me, but it still appears that you are pronouncing the theory to be “incoherent” because the outcome is not what you’d like. That is a fallacy of consequences.

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JS Allen November 12, 2010 at 10:39 am

No, it’s still fallacy of consequences. You seem to be saying that desirism can’t be true because you think it might exhibit chaotic behavior.

Sigh…

Joe: We should put poison in the wells to make everyone healthier.
Sally: That wouldn’t make people healthier!
Joe: Ha! Gotcha! FALLACY OF CONSEQUENCES!

This is very simple stuff. You can’t just shout “fallacy of consequences” every time someone points out that your prescription will kill the patient. Fallacy of consequences has a very specific meaning, and it doesn’t apply in this case. Alonso is making prescriptive statements that are, frankly, unbelievable and probably dangerous.

Okay, name a coherent moral theory then.

Anyone here could propose a more coherent moral theory than desirism, but what would it prove?

Are you asking me if I defend any particular comprehensive “moral system”? I don’t.

We need to have a very healthy dose of epistemic humility when talking about moral systems. I agree with what Karl Popper says in “Open Society and its Enemies”. The “isms” (like communism, desirism, etc.) are the problem, not the solution.

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JMauldin November 12, 2010 at 1:51 pm

William Lane Craig is the KING of sophistry. The arguments he frequently uses in rebuttal sound good but amount to nothing more than a gross appeal to authority followed by a fallacious conclusion. From his debate with Christopher Hitchens:

“Barrow and Tipler in their book ‘The Anthropic Cosmological Principle’ lists ten steps in the course of human evolution, each of which is so improbable that before it would occur, the sun would have ceased to be a main sequence star and incinerated the Earth. And they calculate the probability of the evolution of the human genome to be somewhere between four to the negative hundred and eightieth power, to the hundred and ten thousandth power and four to the negative three hundred and sixtieth power to the hundred and ten thousandth power. So, if evolution did occur on this planet, it was literally a miracle and therefore evidence for the existence of God.”

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Hermes November 12, 2010 at 2:13 pm

JMauldin, exactly. Good quote. Very blatant.

The whole A-theory of time dependencies along with his jumping at the last moment to ‘thus, my God’ in his rushed conclusions is another example — though yours is much more approachable since it’s in one single paragraph.

Then again, Craig has already admitted that he doesn’t care about facts because he has a personal ‘self-verifying’ experience and thus doesn’t need any other facts himself. Funny how he doesn’t consider how others with different ‘self-verifying’ experiences can claim the same tactic.

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Tony Hoffman November 12, 2010 at 2:53 pm

JS Allen,

You began here by saying that Desirism is incoherent. I think this is an odd claim, and have asked you to explain what you mean.

So far we’ve gotten:

JS Allen writes:
1) “The whole damned thing [desirism].”
2) “On the surface it kind of makes sense, but it’s a mess when you dig deeper.”
3) To paraphrase, Desirism is incoherent because we “don’t even know what a desire is.”
4) “…the coherence of Alonso’s theory depends heavily on having cleanly defined terms.”
5) “Anyone with a modicum of experience building scientific models will know that the details about the quantification scheme can change everything.”
6) “On a planet with 5 billion people, it’s safe to say that the actual results will be highly chaotic, with all sorts of results that nobody would consider to be “moral”.
7) “He claims to have engineered a system which will maximize globally the quantity and intensity of “good desires”. But he hasn’t even tried to explain why this is the best state for the world.”
8) “If [a proponent of desirism’s] prescriptions are likely to lead to very different results than he claims, that’s important in judging his theory.”

This is a list of criticisms you apply in defense of your claim that desirism is incoherent. I think the only thing here on the list worth keeping is 3, and if I were you I would have gone with that one. You would have had other problems, I think, then defending any other moral theory as more coherent, but at least that’s what I see as the most defensible approach.

Along that line, I last asked you a simple question – “Okay, name a coherent moral theory then.” and you answered:

JS Allen: Anyone here could propose a more coherent moral theory than desirism, but what would it prove?

No, I didn’t ask for a “more coherent” theory than desirism. I asked for a coherent moral theory. Since your list above is, according to you, what makes desirism incoherent, I am interested in what moral theory avoids such problems.

I await your response, although I am incredibly busy and probably won’t be able to respond until Sunday or later.

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Kip November 12, 2010 at 3:05 pm

I think the only thing here on the list worth keeping is 3, and if I were you I would have gone with that one.

Alonzo does define “desire”, and I’m sure he’ll do so later in the podcast, but has admitted that the fact that there might not be such a thing as a “desire” is problematic. The truth, though, is that whatever it is that drives us to take actions, whatever that complex arrangement of mental states is, that is what we need to focus on. “Desire” is probably a very simplified notion of something that is much more complex in reality, but the basic idea, I think, still works. Whatever these things are that drive us to take actions, are malleable. And we can take actions to mold those things in other people.

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JS Allen November 12, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Tony, you seem to have a serious problem with reading comprehension. I leveled several criticisms at desirism; only some of which deal with it’s lack of coherence.

To summarize a few of the reasons for desirism being incoherent, desirism’s prescriptions about “desires” are about as coherent as “slithy toves”: We don’t know what a tove is, nor do we know if slithy is a quantity. We don’t know what a desire is, we don’t know where the boundary is between a desire and the thing it motivates, and we don’t know anything about how to quantify number and intensity of desires. Saying, “encourage desires which increase number and quantity of good desires” is just about as semantically meaningful as saying “cultivate toves that lead to super-slithiness of toves”.

Since your list above is, according to you, what makes desirism incoherent, I am interested in what moral theory avoids such problems.

That’s a completely different topic, and not one that interests me very much. Are you sincerely interested, or are you just trying to change the subject?

If you’ll politely acknowledge that you were wrong about “fallacy of consequences”, and acknowledge that you’re incapable of presenting desirism in any coherent form, I’ll happily tell you about some peer-reviewed moral theories that don’t suffer those specific problems that desirism suffers.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 12, 2010 at 7:10 pm

JMaudlin,

That is a lovely quote. :)

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mojo.rhythm November 13, 2010 at 1:44 am

Luke and JMaudlin,

The thing that makes me hock up my spleen in disgust is that his Christian audience clap their hands red everytime he says it! *HEADTHUD*

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Zeb November 13, 2010 at 10:38 am

JS Allen,

Great comments. I think I look more favorable on desirism than you do, but you have clearly and concisely identified the major hurdles desirists need to overcome in defending their theory.

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Zeb November 13, 2010 at 10:39 am

Luke, can you provide or link to a quick definition of coherence and incoherence as used in this context? I have not taken philosophy 101, but since people throw that term around all the time here I have tried to look it up and just keep running into the coherence theory of truth.

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Tony Hoffman November 13, 2010 at 1:11 pm

JS Allen: “Tony, you seem to have a serious problem with reading comprehension. I leveled several criticisms at desirism; only some of which deal with it’s lack of coherence.”

Okay, but then much of what you wrote appears irrelevant to my question. I wanted, specifically, to know why you think that desirism is incoherent. Don’t blame me for thinking that your replies were an attempt to assemble an answer to my question.

JS Allen: “To summarize a few of the reasons for desirism being incoherent, desirism’s prescriptions about “desires” are about as coherent as “slithy toves”: We don’t know what a tove is, nor do we know if slithy is a quantity. We don’t know what a desire is, we don’t know where the boundary is between a desire and the thing it motivates, and we don’t know anything about how to quantify number and intensity of desires. Saying, “encourage desires which increase number and quantity of good desires” is just about as semantically meaningful as saying “cultivate toves that lead to super-slithiness of toves”.

Okay, I think I could agree with some of this (I’ve asked similar questions) except that I think you’re overplaying your hand here. I don’t know anything about a tove, but I do know something about desires — I experience desires, I believe that others experience desires, etc. I do not experience toves, nor do I believe that anyone else experiences toves. Desires are not toves, and they deserve, I think, consideration.

I am not sure what you mean by, “we don’t know where the boundary is between a desire and the thing it motivates.” Can you clarify that for me?

I completely disagree that saying…

JS Allen: “ ‘encourage desires which increase number and quantity of good desires’ is just about as semantically meaningful as saying ‘cultivate toves that lead to super-slithiness of toves’ “

…because I do not concede that desires and toves are meaningfully equivalent, and number and quantity are clearly defined terms, whereas slithiness is not. Your analogy appears silly.

Additionally, why would you think that a quantity is semantically meaningless (quantity and number = super-slithiness?) in regard to a moral theory? Am I misunderstanding you there?

I think that in order for desirism to be deemed incoherent, you would need to demonstrate that desires do not exist. Because I experience desires, and I have good reason to believe that others experience desires, I cannot yet concede that desires do not exist, nor that they are as meaningless as toves. You have done nothing to make me think otherwise.

Me: “Since your list above is, according to you, what makes desirism incoherent, I am interested in what moral theory avoids such problems.”
JS Allen: “That’s a completely different topic, and not one that interests me very much.”

Well, my question is relevant if you are applying criticism to desirism that is not appropriate to criticism of any moral theory. It is relevant to me if you are wasting my time in that way, for instance. And it is relevant if you want to at least appear sincerely interested in morality and ethics, and not biased toward reaching a pet outcome.

If you’ll politely acknowledge that you were wrong about “fallacy of consequences”, and acknowledge that you’re incapable of presenting desirism in any coherent form.

Hysterical. No, um, I do not accept your terms. I have already explained why fallacy of consequences appears correct to me. You then responded by saying, “Alonso is making prescriptive statements that are, frankly, unbelievable and probably dangerous.” This is a repetition of the fallacy and the addition of a new one – you are expressing personal incredulity and asserting that the outcome would be dangerous. This is not the same as demonstrating that desirism is incoherent (what you have stated, but not demonstrated clearly), only that a) you haven’t been able to get your head around desirism, and b) you don’t like what you imagine the outcome would be. A would be meaningful to me if you could construct an argument as to why desirism is incoherent, and B is a fallacy of consequences argument, and hence not a valid criticism.

As for my presenting desirism in any coherent form, I defer to its proponents; I don’t know enough about moral theory, nor desirism, to improve its presentation to you.

…I’ll happily tell you about some peer-reviewed moral theories that don’t suffer those specific problems that desirism suffers.

No, I’m not interested in you moving the goalposts. I did not ask you for moral theories that are different from desirism. I asked why you deem desirism incoherent. I asked you about your standards applied to other moral theories because I wonder if you are being consistent, and if you are not being consistent your criticisms will seem even less valid to me.

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JS Allen November 13, 2010 at 8:02 pm

@Zeb – Thanks; I was by no means comprehensive, and could have been more concise, but I do think that I highlighted a handful of the biggest problems for desirism.

To Kip’s point, I disagree with the notion that the “greatest objection” to desirism is that desires might not exist. The “greatest objection” is that Alonso refuses to provide a coherent definition of “desire”. We can already be virtually certain that “desires”, as Alonso first defined them, do not exist in any relevant way. On the other hand, we can be virtually certain that there do exist (quoting Kip verbatim) “complex arrangements of mental states” which “drive us to take actions”.

If the objection were that “desires which conform to some definition required to make desirism work, might not exist”, then it would be worth considering as an objection. But it’s hard to see how anyone could say that, since Alonso has never bothered to define the boundaries of a definition of “desire” which would work within the framework of desirism. He started with the definition “propositonal attitude”, and it’s entirely debatable if that would even work within his proposed framework. But retreating to the ambiguous definition, “mental state that drives us to take action” would seem to rob the idea of “desire” of the characteristics that presumably made it attractive to Alonso in the first place.

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Kip November 15, 2010 at 1:42 pm

At the recent ASU debate, Simon Blackburn also mentions “desires” (and “cares”) in his discussion of values and morality: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8vYq6Xm2To

Of course, “desires” are also used quite often in psychology. So, it’s not like Alonzo is making stuff up here. It does seem to be the most used model of human behavior and intention in existence today. Of course, I think it’s probably wrong… I’m just not sure how wrong it is. Perhaps it just needs a lot of details filled in, or perhaps it needs a complete overhaul. Time will tell…

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Luke Muehlhauser November 15, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Kip,

Exactly. Is is currently the most successful predictive theory for intentional action we have. I very much expect it to be replaced, but we can only work with what we’ve got at the moment. Only time will tell how badly BDI theory needs to be revised to fit the facts of our brains. Connectionist accounts, for example, do not yet even amount to theories that can predict intentional action.

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JS Allen November 15, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Is is currently the most successful predictive theory for intentional action we have.

Can you elaborate on this? Something sort of like BDI seems to be the preferred folk-psychology way of explaining whether an action was “intentional” or not (itself a folk-psychology concept). It also seems to be the preferred folk-psychology method of rationalizing behavior post-hoc. And of course, when we “mind read” others, we often explain our mental process in language that sounds like BDI.

However, I don’t know what it means to say BDI is successfully predictive for intentional action. Are you thinking of any particular empirical research?

I very much expect it to be replaced, but we can only work with what we’ve got at the moment. Only time will tell how badly BDI theory needs to be revised to fit the facts of our brains. Connectionist accounts, for example, do not yet even amount to theories that can predict intentional action.

Why do we need an ontological theory at all? Why not just roll with the empirical results? We know that there is a growing body of empirical evidence that clashes with classical BDI, but I fail to see why that’s a problem.

It’s not much different from QM, IMO. People can bicker about which interpretation is right, but all that really matters is that the probabilistic results are reliable. The interpretation isn’t necessary for reliable probabilistic results in QM, nor is it necessary for reliable predictions about cognitive behavior.

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