Morally Permissible Slavery

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 14, 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.)

cloud_break

People quite commonly confuse desirism with a related theory that could accurately be called “desire fulfillment act utilitarianism”.

The latter theory says, “Thou shalt perform that act that maximizes desire fulfillment.” A lot of the objections that I hear to desirism are from people who say, “Prove it is the case that I should maximize desire fulfillment.” The idea is that if I cannot prove such a claim (which I cannot) then this proves that desirism is to be rejected.

However desirism does not state “Thou shalt maximize desire fulfillment.” In fact, it rejects that ethic as being entirely undoable.

Yet, there is an objection from slavery applied to that theory that I want to address here. I’m going to argue that act utilitarian theories survive the “objection from slavery” quite well. But, when I do so, please do not think that I am defending desirism.

Though I will use that argument in the defense of desirism before his post is through.

So, what is the argument from slavery against act utilitarian theories?

“I can imagine a society with slaves and masters where the masters are gaining more utility than the slaves are using. Your theory tells us that, if this is the case, then slavery would be permissible. However, slavery is never permissible. Therefore, act-utilitarian theories suck.”

The fact of the matter is that we are surrounded by cases in which slavery appears to maximize utility and, where slavery maximizes utility we do, in fact, argue that it is permissible – in some cases, obligatory – to institute slavery.

In the case of slavery, you do the work and somebody else collects the benefit. You are working in their cotton field and they are taking and selling the cotton. You must do as you are told. You have no freedom to leave and do what you want – though you may ask for permission to do what you want.

So, we’re going to institute slavery. Of course, slavery needs to produce a great deal of positive utility. We will enslave people only when the potential utility of slavery is very high or the potential disutility of the lack of slavery is very high. Of course, we will need to minimize the unhappiness of the slaves. Therefore, any benefit that we can provide the slaves that does not harm the utility-producing benefits of slavery must be permitted.

So, let’s talk about a threat to the whole of society, where an invading army is threatening to conquer the population and subject it to their will. In defense against this aggressor, we opt to enslave the most fit members of society – those that can produce the greatest benefit – and force them to fight. We will enjoy the fruits of their labor – taken from them by force or threat of force. Of course, we will allow the slaves to enjoy whatever benefits that do not threaten the quality of their output as slaves. That is to say, once they have served their time, and they are no longer sufficiently useful, we will let them go free.

I am talking, of course, about the institution of conscription, which the United States has adopted several times since the Civil War. Conscription is forced labor – “involuntary servitude”. You do the work, whether you want to or not, and others obtain the profits. Consistent with the utilitarian requirement, these slaves are permitted freedoms that do not inhibit their usefulness as slaves.

Many of them will die.

For another example of morally permissible slavery, look at your paycheck (assuming you get a paycheck). Look at how many hours you work each pay period where somebody else takes the fruits of your labor. Now, in typical act-utilitarian fashion, you are allowed to choose what work you do as a slave – you have the option of doing the work that you enjoy most. But it is no less of an example of slavery for the slave master to say to his ten slaves, “I have five jobs that need doing. I will let you decide among yourselves which jobs each of you will do. And those who do not work, do not eat, unless those who do work are willing to share their food.”

So, as a matter of fact, if the institution of slavery were to be made one that promoted happiness or whatever the act utilitarian wants to promote, the act utilitarian would have to call it “good”. But, then, the act utilitarian would not be the only one. The act utilitarian would be calling “good” forms of slavery we already find acceptable.

Of course, in both of these cases, the slaves themselves gain some of the benefits of the institution of slavery. Yet, the southern slave owner said the same thing – that his slaves were obtaining some of the benefits of slavery. The slave was provided with food, clothing, shelter, and the freedom of never having to make a decision for themselves.

The problem with slavery in the 1800s and the types of slavery actually permitted is that slaves are denied even large benefits that impose slight costs on the masters. Where forms of slavery can be found in which the slave obtains those increases to happiness at small costs to others, slaves are provided those benefits and the institution of slavery in some form continues to this day.

Now, this argument applies to the thesis that we should perform those acts that maximize happiness or pleasure or preference satisfaction or desire fulfillment.

But those are act-utilitarian theories.

What does desirism say?

Basically:

(1) People generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote – through social forces such as praise and condemnation – those malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

(2) An act is right – that is, there are few and weak reasons to condemn a person who performs such an act – if it the act that a person with good desires would have performed.

(3) An act is wrong – there are many and strong reasons to condemn somebody who performs such an act – if it an act that a person with good desires would not have performed.”

On the issue of slavery, we are asking whether people generally have reason to use social forces such as praise and condemnation to promote a strong widespread love of liberty and aversion to violations of liberty.

People in general have many and strong reasons to promote a love of liberty. A person surrounded by those who love liberty will generally be left to pursue the fulfillment of his own desires as he sees fit. People surrounded by those with no love of liberty, on the other hand, will find himself surrounded by people who feel free to compel him to pursue their interests.

Remember, for each and every one of us, when it comes to compelling people to do that which is in the interested of others, there are a whole lot of others in the world. The odds that one of them will make you serve them is significantly greater than the odds that you can make them serve your interests. Besides, compelling others to serve one’s interests requires assistants. Furthermore, it requires assistants with no love of liberty. Assistants with no love of liberty are not the most reliable of friends.

However, this love of liberty is not absolute. It must necessarily fit in with a number of other interests. These other interests dictate that, while there is a presumption in favor of liberty, it can be overridden if other concerns weigh against it. The imposition of criminal laws, the arrest and denial of liberty to criminals, taxation, and potentially conscription identify areas where the love of liberty must give way to other concerns.

- Alonzo Fyfe

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Maitzen October 14, 2010 at 5:26 am

Alonzo,
What a great post. It made my morning, because — much to my embarrassment — it had never occurred to me to wonder if conscription violates the Thirteenth Amendment (1865). Clearly it does! I just googled the topic and discovered that the Supreme Court has, of course, ruled that there’s no violation:

http://www.usconstitution.net/consttop_drft.html

But the Court, in typically lame fashion, had to rule that the Thirteenth Amendment was never intended to forbid conscription — of course it wasn’t! — even though the plain language of the Amendment clearly does. The framers of the Amendment goofed. If they meant to allow conscription, they should have included it as an exception in addition to lawful punishment for a crime. So the Court had to spin an unconvincing rationale, further eroding the legitimacy of constitutional jurisprudence.

Anyway, thanks again. Your post brought a smile to my face, even as it fed my cynicism about constitutional law. –Steve

  (Quote)

James October 14, 2010 at 6:06 am

Ok, how about the grenade problem. Suppose an enemy tosses a grenade into a group of marines. Desireism says that the “marines generally” have a reason for one of them to jump on the grenade and be blown up. All of the marines hope that someone does this. None of the marines desire to be blown up. What does desirism say the right thing for me to do if I am one of the marines?

  (Quote)

Silas October 14, 2010 at 8:34 am

I think that objections to many ethical theories are rather absurd. If you accept that morality is about maximizing desire fulfillment, then you can’t object by saying, “Yeah, it sounds good, but what if the desires of slave-owners… ” Your intuition about what is morally right or wrong is worth nothing here.

Why is it that one must defend one’s theory against such hypothetical situations? If the ethical framework of desirism is correct, then our intuitions about what should be done in a certain situation are pointless.

It seems to me that many philosophers are more concerned about conforming to our intuitions about morality than providing a true theory.

  (Quote)

Hermes October 14, 2010 at 9:11 am

James, I don’t know how Alonzo will reply, but even prior to these discussions of desirism, the answer is readily available. It’s a two parter;

* Knowing that you did nothing while others died is a cost in itself. That cost may be too high not to sacrifice yourself.

* A reflex reaction from training.

  (Quote)

lukeprog October 14, 2010 at 10:18 am

Silas,

Desirism does not say we should maximize desire fulfillment. Moreover, it agrees that our intuitions are not the path to moral truth.

  (Quote)

lukeprog October 14, 2010 at 10:22 am

James,

I try to stay away from applied ethics, but it’s not clear to me that Desirism says that marines generally have a reason for one of them to jump on the grenade to be blown up. It might say that people generally have reason to promote a desire to perform acts of sacrificial heroism, or something like that, but of course that’s an empirical question, and one I don’t think I know the answer to.

  (Quote)

Silas October 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

Luke,

Yes, I know that desirism isn’t “desire fulfillment act utilitarianism”. It was just an example.

I’ll try to reformulate my questions in another blog post, I can’t think of the right words to get my point across.

  (Quote)

Patrick October 14, 2010 at 11:46 am

Regarding the grenade example…

do moral theories typically provide solutions to collective action problems?

I can’t even think of a way for virtue ethics to solve this problem, because it would tell you that every single marine ought to jump on the grenade… which just creates a brand new collective action problem in reverse.

  (Quote)

cl October 14, 2010 at 1:45 pm

I’d like to focus my comment on the opening, and address the conclusion later.

Alonzo,

People quite commonly confuse desirism with a related theory that could accurately be called “desire fulfillment act utilitarianism”.

Bear with me here, but I wonder if part of the problem might come from the fact that your introductory article Desire Utilitarianism on your own website still says,

With any type of utilitarianism, there is a question about what it is that we are going to maximize. Jeremy Bentham in the early 1800s argued that it was pleasure over pain. John Stuart Mill during the middle of that century argued for happiness over unhappiness. In the argument that follows, I will argue for desire fulfillment.

Granted you’ve ostensibly endorsed another position in the years since, but I wonder if perhaps some of your sub arguments might still be in need of emendation because they appear to support the retracted claim? I say this because many of your other statements about desirism seem to call for maximization of desire fulfillment. If the problem is simply one of wording, then it should work itself out quite easily. If the problem does not work itself out easily, perhaps it’s not one of wording?

In your post The Value of Desire Fulfillment you write,

So, while other theorists may say that we are concerned with eudemonia, or pleasure, or happiness, or preference satisfaction, or the well-being of conscious creatures, or even desire fulfillment, I deny all of these possibilities.

What we are really interested in is making or keeping true the propositions P that are the objects of our “desires that P”.

Yet, “making or keeping true the propositions P that are the objects of our desires that P” seems – by definition – to entail maximization of desires. IOW, to say we ought to “make or keep true the propositions P that are the objects of our desires that P” is the quantitatively the same as saying “we ought to maximize desire fulfillment.”

…desirism does not state “Thou shalt maximize desire fulfillment.”

No, not anymore – at least not in exactly those words – but as you tell us in Short List Theories of Morality, desirism does prescribe “in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires.” Given that I’m not necessarily accusing you of claiming that maximization of desire-fulfillment has intrinsic value – a caveat that nullifies some of your previous responses to this issue – what is the difference between saying, “desirism prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires” vs. “desirism prescribes in favor of maximizing desire-fulfillment?”

I think an answer to this question might clear things up for many. I don’t think you can really blame people for confusion so long as you allow contradictory statements to remain on your own blog and website, and I suggest that you update your website if you’d like to minimize confusion.

  (Quote)

cl October 14, 2010 at 1:53 pm

James,

What does desirism say the right thing for me to do if I am one of the marines?

In a comment September 3, 2010 in the thread of Short List Theories of Morality, Alonzo stated that, “Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision” so I’d be interested in hearing his answer, too.

  (Quote)

mkandefer October 14, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Good questions, cl. I’d be interested in hearing the answers too. Since you seem to be more in tune with Fyfe’s work, do you know if there is an answer to the question. How do we know what a person with “good” desires would do?

” An act is right – that is, there are few and weak reasons to condemn a person who performs such an act – if it [is] the act that a person with good desires would have performed.”

  (Quote)

Silas October 14, 2010 at 3:22 pm

mkandefer,

Good desires tend to fulfill other desires. An act is right if a person with good desires would have performed it. So a person with good desires would act according to those desires.

  (Quote)

lukeprog October 14, 2010 at 3:24 pm

cl and James,

About the moment of decision, please see ‘The Scrooge Problem’ episode.

  (Quote)

cl October 14, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Luke,

Good questions, cl. …you seem to be more in tune with Fyfe’s work, [mkandefer]

You hear that? I’m listening intently. It’s not “just me” having a hard time making sense out of all this. In nearly every thread on desirism, at least one commenter echoes my concerns, sometimes as many as a half-dozen. You’re only going to be able to get away with dismissals and false accusations of “not listening” for so long.

mkandefer,

How do we know what a person with “good” desires would do?

That’s a good question. I know that in the introductory article I cited, Alonzo defines “good” as “such as to fulfill the desires in question.” Alonzo then acknowledges that this pertains only to “the generic good,” which implied that a more specific definition of “the moral good” would be forthcoming in the article. As far as I can see, he offers as his definition of “the moral good” a statement similar to the one you just cited:

A right act is an act that a person with good desires would have performed, and a wrong act is an act that a person with good desires would not have performed. A good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and a bad desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. [Desire Utilitarianism, section V:A]

So, it appears that Alonzo offers “such as to fulfill the desires in question” as the definition of the generic good, and “an act that a person with good desires would have performed” as the definition of the morally good act. Alonzo then defines a “good desire” as one that “tends to fulfill other desires,” so I think it’s fair to combine those two and say, “A right act is an act that a person with other-desire-fulfilling desires would have performed, and a wrong act is an act that a person with other-desire-fulfilling desires would not have performed.”

My immediate concern is and always has been that his argument is circular in nature. He appears to use his definition of “the generic good” as a foundation for his definition of “the moral good,” with “desire fulfillment” as the lowest common denominator.

I’m only attempting a response to get a gauge for how well I’m actually understanding him. If my understanding is anywhere in the ballpark, my longstanding objections remain. If not, well… maybe he can help us both out. Keeping in mind that you would ultimately have to ask Alonzo for the final answer, what’s your initial impression?

  (Quote)

cl October 14, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Luke,

About the moment of decision, please see ‘The Scrooge Problem’ episode.

Been there done that, but even still, I just gave it another brief perusal and failed to discern exactly what you might be alluding to. In general, that post dealt with ways for us to get somebody else to act like a nice person. As opposed to simply pointing us off to yet another post and hoping we magically discover the answer you want us to, could you help us out and be more specific? What particular statement[s] do you perceive to be pertinent to our objections?

  (Quote)

Garren October 14, 2010 at 4:10 pm

People generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote – through social forces such as praise and condemnation – those malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

I would agree if the occurrences of the phrase “other desires” were replaced with “their own desires.”

  (Quote)

James October 14, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Hermes: “A reflex reaction from training.”

I do not think non-voluntary reflexes should enter into the answer to my question. I’m not asking what the marine will do. I’m asking what desirism says is the right thing for the marine to do.

James: “Suppose an enemy tosses a grenade into a group of marines. Desireism says that the “marines generally” have a reason for one of them to jump on the grenade and be blown up.”

lukeprog: “it’s not clear to me that Desirism says that marines generally have a reason for one of them to jump on the grenade to be blown up.”

Alonzo: “People generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote – through social forces such as praise and condemnation – those malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires.”

If one of the marines jumps on that grenade, fewer desires will be thwarted overall because if no one jumps on the grenade, all will die.

Each individual has a lot of desires that will be thwarted if that individual dies. If they are a survivor, they may deal with some shame, but it seems unlikely that the shame would be so great as to outweigh all the desires that will be thwarted by their death.

Suppose a marine jumps on the grenade and it fails to explode. All of the comrades will certainly praise the brave behavior. (S)he may even get a medal from the state. Surely this qualifies as a good desire by that criteria.

Therefore, since each marine will benefit if someone else wants to jump on the grenade, and since they will certainly praise the jumper after the fact, it seems straightforward to claim that the “marines generally” desire someone to jump on the grenade.

lukeprog: “About the moment of decision, please see ‘The Scrooge Problem’ episode.”

The issue I am trying to highlight is that if you look at each marine individually, they all have strong reasons to hold back and hope that someone else saves them from what would otherwise be certain death.

If desirism is a moral theory, each marine should be able to use it to calculate what the right action is. They may not like the results of the calculation and do the wrong thing, but if they have an accurate moral system they will at least least know that it is the wrong thing!

If I am reading “The Scrooge Problem” correctly, then desirism tells each marine that they should do whatever they feel like, and gives them a list of options for how to convince the other marines to jump on the grenade. Am I reading that right?

  (Quote)

Hermes October 14, 2010 at 6:25 pm
Hermes: A reflex reaction from training.

James: I do not think non-voluntary reflexes should enter into the answer to my question. I’m not asking what the marine will do. I’m asking what desirism says is the right thing for the marine to do.

Fesireism is descriptive. If both of my answers describe reality, then there is an overlap if not direct concordance between what I wrote and desireism If there is a gap between the two, then you have a spot to investigate or question the proponents of desireism about.

Note, also, I did not say that reflexes are involuntary.

Watch yourself. I mean that literally. Watch. Yourself. Watch yourself typing, walking, reading. You mostly run on reflexes; many caned routines that automatically run.

Yet, it’s not some homunculus that is pushing macro combination buttons to get the robot to dance. There’s no robot. It’s all you even if you don’t step through each part of each canned routine.

If you spend time contemplating how to catch a ball during a game, soon nobody will want you on their team. It’s worse in the case of a combat soldier as you could be dead or endanger others. That’s why they spend time training before they fight and not time navel gazing in the heat of the moment.

Those routines, though, didn’t come from nowhere. They were rehearsed in part or in whole. Just as the soldier. Split second decisions aren’t deep contemplative moments. The grenade question depends nearly entirely on previous training and reactions. It’s a good question since it highlights what is usually hidden or assumed to be unimportant.

  (Quote)

Hermes October 14, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Typo;

Fesireism is descriptive.
==>
Desireism is descriptive.

  (Quote)

Steven October 14, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Again, I find myself extremely frustrated with this talk of morality. How is the objection of “utilitarianism permits slavery” relevant? When a moral system doesn’t meet our preconceptions about what morality should be like, we object, but when it meets our preconceptions, we accept them. But the obvious problem with this is that a moral theory just finds wording for what we already believe and does no more; the basis on which we accept or reject these theories seems purely subjective to me. And this defense of Utilitarianism just seems to me more like a theory of way humans react to morals and specific situations more than a way of finding “objective” moral values.

  (Quote)

Thomas October 14, 2010 at 9:08 pm

A question about slavery and desirism: if there are lots of slave owners and a few slaves, wouldn’t the slave owners have many and strong reasons to make the slaves desire to be subjugated/enslaved? What I mean is, wouldn’t the desire to be enslaved be a desire that in this situation would tend to fulfill many and strong desires, and thwart few? That is, would this desire to be enslaved not be a “good desire?” I understand that “the desire to be enslaved” is not exactly a malleable desire, but just imagine a similar scenario, perhaps the desire to be raped, beaten, or something else? What I really want to know here is, regardless of whether those desires are malleable, doesn’t the fact that those desires would tend to fulfill many and strong desires, mean that those desires are “good” and therefore, submission to the rapist/slave owner/etc. is what the “good” action is? If I’m not being clear enough here about what I mean, tell me and I’ll try to clarify the question more.

  (Quote)

cl October 14, 2010 at 9:22 pm

I used to think I was crazy or just plain stupid when trying to make sense of desirism, but the fact that such a non-trivial number of intelligent commenters seem to share common objections is… well, non-trivial.

James,

If desirism is a moral theory, each marine should be able to use it to calculate what the right action is.

I wish I had kept an accurate count of all the people who raise this objection. I wholeheartedly agree, and would add that this is what the majority of people expect when they hear something touted as a moral theory. So, when in Short List Theories of Morality [CSA] Alonzo says, “Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision,” and yet simultaneously refers to desirism as a moral theory, I think it’s 100% accurate to accuse him of using moral terms in an unconventional way. Of course, Alonzo denies that he is equivocating, and responds that the issue is semantic, insisting that in desirism, “moral terms are being used in substantially the same way that moral terms had been used.” [Moral Definitions: The Great Distraction, AE, comment April 20, 2009 10:53 AM]

If I am reading “The Scrooge Problem” correctly, then desirism tells each marine that they should do whatever they feel like, and gives them a list of options for how to convince the other marines to jump on the grenade. Am I reading that right?

I think that’s more or less accurate, although, I question the extent to which Alonzo would endorse the statement that each marine should do whatever they like. I think that he might wrap that statement in some desirist-speak to make it less vulnerable to criticism. I think he might simply say something like, “people generally have reasons for action to promote a society where some individuals are willing to die for the whole” and leave it at that, saying just enough to seem like a valid response, yet not enough to actually be a valid response.

Though, if he answers, we’ll see what he says.

Steven,

It’s frustrating, isn’t it?

When a moral system doesn’t meet our preconceptions about what morality should be like, we object, but when it meets our preconceptions, we accept them. But the obvious problem with this is that a moral theory just finds wording for what we already believe and does no more; the basis on which we accept or reject these theories seems purely subjective to me.

You hit the nail on the head there IMHO. To date, I’ve not seen one single argument of shred of evidence that even provisionally convinces me that Luke and Alonzo aren’t just wrapping their theory around their preconceptions. I believe that idea better explains some of Alonzo’s peculiar claims, for example, that the Greeks were “probably wrong” about pederasty [citation needed]; that “spectator sports is a waste of time, money, and real-estate” [Trivial Hobbies, CSA]; that “Unless there is some sort of medical condition at work, the parent of an obese child is an abusive parent by that fact alone” [Gluttony and Superlust, CSA]; or that “The desire to smoke is an irrational desire” [Irrational Desires, AE]. All of those claims seem wildly out-of-scope to me.

Thomas,

What I really want to know here is, regardless of whether those desires are malleable, doesn’t the fact that those desires would tend to fulfill many and strong desires, mean that those desires are “good” and therefore, submission to the rapist/slave owner/etc. is what the “good” action is?

If we take Fyfe’s definition of “good” at face-value, I would think the answer would be “yes,” but since that would clearly violate the average moral intuition, I expect Fyfe to respond with some caveat as to why the answer is really “no” – even though, as you note – the “desire to be enslaved” would meet Fyfe’s definition of good.

I suppose we’ll see what he says.

  (Quote)

lukeprog October 14, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Steven,

Alonzo Fyfe and I agree with you completely about the silliness of testing moral theories against our current moral practice.

  (Quote)

Steven October 14, 2010 at 10:44 pm

I’ve been thinking about this and then realized that the objection “Utilitarianism permits slavery” is meaningless, but the question “What forms of slavery does utilitarianism permit, if any at all” isn’t. However, supposing utilitarianism permitted slavery a la Confederacy style, then how can you object to it? You already defined good and that definition led to acknowledging slavery as morally good. All you can do is propose another definition of good, but then, the only reason people would accept one definition over another would be subjective. Maybe I’m missing something, but I still can’t fathom how we can determine what moral theory, if any, is closest to the truth.

  (Quote)

antiplastic October 14, 2010 at 10:59 pm

“moral terms are being used in substantially the same way that moral terms had been used.” [Moral Definitions: The Great Distraction, AE, comment April 20, 2009 10:53 AM]

“Alonzo Fyfe and I agree with you completely about the silliness of testing moral theories against our current moral practice.”

Luke you’ve been handed a bag of goods. Think about it.

  (Quote)

Hermes October 14, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Thomas, at a basic — unsophisticated — level have you checked the ratio of slaves to masters in traditional slave societies? If not, regardless of what Alonzo Fyfe is saying, the ratio must be in favor of the masters or some magic must be implemented to make the slaves want to remain slaves. Do you have data to think that either is the case? If not, then how do you think that slavery is justified in such a simplified set of situations?

Note that none of the above obligates Alonzo Fyfe to anything. By intent, it is a crude estimation. To address Thomas’ comments, it is probably sufficient for now.

  (Quote)

lukeprog October 14, 2010 at 11:41 pm

antiplastic,

Huh? The two quotes you give are discussing totally different topics. I often wonder if people like you and cl are even trying to understand desirism.

  (Quote)

antiplastic October 15, 2010 at 12:41 am

This new ad hom tack is seriously uncool and uncalled for. People who “aren’t even trying to understand” have been totally on point lately citing chapter and verse on these kind of equivocations, and getting “check the faq” and “this will be answered in a future edition of the podcast in 6 weeks” and “you don’t listen” responses.

My Uncle Mike has never been within 100 miles of a philosophy class, and has very clear moral opinions on an array of issues. Is Fyfism “vindicated” by being “in substantial agreement” with his current moral practices, or is it “silly” to “test” Fyfism by seeing if it lines up with his current moral practices?

It really seems like the answer is “it’s (provisionally) the best model we currently have” whenever the current question is “why should I accept it”, and “it’s a Great Distraction” whenever the current challenge is “but that’s not what moral discourse is like at all.” But caught in mid-waffle-flip, it’s “this FAQ is currently under construction.”

  (Quote)

mojo.rhythm October 15, 2010 at 2:56 am

Antiplastic,

An ad hominem is when you conclude that an argument someone is making is wrong simply by virtue of something being objectionable about that person. What Luke said was not an ad hominem.

If you want to falsify desirism, you don’t juxtapose it with our intuitive moral precepts and see if it stacks up. If you want to falsify desirism, you could do one of two things:

(a) prove that desires are not reasons for action

This would falsify it well and truly, stamping it shut and putting a nail in its coffin. One way to show that desires cannot be a reason for action is to prove that desires don’t exist.

(b) prove that other reasons for action exist apart from desires

This wouldn’t always falsify it completely, but it would prove that desirism is not the only game in town. If it could be somehow demonstrated that other reasons for actions exist, and that they always override desires by default, then this would make the case for desirism even weaker.

  (Quote)

James October 15, 2010 at 3:50 am

mojo.rhythm:

If you want to falsify desirism, …you could … prove that desires are not reasons for action … prove that desires don’t exist …

Alonzo makes frequent reference to an entity called “people generally” and talks about what that entity desires. If he is consistently using this to mean “what individuals tend to have reason to do” then I have no quarrel. After all, individuals exist!

If he is using the term in a way that implies that “people generally” is a monolithic entity and functionally papering over the “me vs others” asymmetry in our desires, then I think there is a big problem. There is no existing entity whose desires are what “people generally” desire when used in this sense.

I want to know where desirism stands when there is a big difference between what “people generally” (used incorrectly) desire and what “each person individually” desires. That’s what the grenade problem is getting at.

Less colorful examples of the form of the dilemma exist everywhere. Does desirism say that the right thing to do is to cheat on your taxes and encourage others not to?

I’m not asking for the description of what people do. I don’t accept that desirism completely overlaps with pure description and say “whatever happens, that’s the right thing.” For example, if someone mistakenly drinks poison, that’s the wrong thing. If someone reflexively swerves to avoid a dog and drives down a ravine to their fiery deaths, I take it desirism doesn’t claim that was “right.”

  (Quote)

Joel October 15, 2010 at 7:22 am

mojo.rhythm,

It is 1) true that desires reasons for actions, and that 2) no reasons for actions exist apart from desires (i.e. no intrinsic value), but it does not follow that desires are the basis of morality.

Morality, as the term is understood by people, involves non-desire based reasons for action (i.e. intrinsic value); if intrinsic value does not exist, morality as most people understand it does not exist.

Desirism is factually true about how we act (i.e. use praise/condemnation to modify the desires and behaviour of others to suit our own desires) but it isn’t what we call a moral theory. Perhaps it can, in time, replace our old understanding of morality, but it doesn’t seem to answer the question of ‘what is objectively desirable?’

N.B. there is a difference between objectively existing (desires exist objectivity) and having objective motivational powers (desires are subjective reasons for action – one person’s desire cannot motivate another person).

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 15, 2010 at 7:40 am

James

What does desirism say the right thing for me to do if I am one of the marines?

It is interesting that I write a post on slavery and it ends up in a discussion about marines jumping on grenades.

To a substantial degree, this is the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is, “What type of person should I be by the time I get into that situation.”

If, when the grenade shows up, you’re sitting there making moral calculations, you have already failed that test. The type of person you need to be when that situation occurs is the type who will perform the right action without thinking about it.

It is well recognized in the military that soldiers to not fight and die for their country or for some abstract ideals. When the bullets start flying, they stand and fight for the person next to them, who is standing and fighting for him.

This explains the fact that, when morale drops and members of a unit start to flee, the whole unit rapidly disintigrates into a route. This is why esprit de corpse is perhaps the quality that best determines the effectiveness of a combat unit.

There’s really not much difference between jumping on a grenade or charging a machine gun nest or retrieving ammunition through an artillery barrage. In all these cases, you take the risk for the sake of your buddies. In a military unit, you want to be surrounded by people who are willing to sacrifice their life to protect yours, and the same is true with them.

So, the purpose of military training is to create people who are willing to jump on a grenade, charge a machine gun nest, or run through an artillery barrage to collect ammunition.

At the time of decision making, the soldier will simply perform that action that fulfills the most and strongest of his current desires, given his beliefs. In a good soldier, the desire to take risks for the sake of his comrades in arms counts high as the most and strongest of his current desires. They do so in the confidence that, “If our situations were reversed, they’d do the same for me.”

Mostly, this is what a substantial amount of morality is all about. A tiny fraction of the actions we perform in a day are based on thoughtful deliberation of “What is the right thing to do.” We simply perform one of a set of permissible acts, and refrain from performing a set of prohibited acts, without thought. Focusing on instances where we make long and labored moral calculations is a mistake – it involves taking a rare part of our moral lives and treating it as the norm.

  (Quote)

KK October 15, 2010 at 7:51 am

Hi. I really want to read about this desirism theory, but the link doesn’t work. It takes me to a blank page. A graphic pops up for a brief second, but then disappears and all I see is your background, no text. Can you restore it or provide a different link when you get a chance? Thanks a bunch. Really enjoying your blog, by the way!

  (Quote)

lukeprog October 15, 2010 at 7:54 am

antiplastic,

Do you know what an ad hominem is? Looks like you aren’t trying to understand logic 101, either.

I’m going to keep investing my time explaining desirism to people who are curious about its claims – for example through my podcast. I don’t have time to respond to people who keep ignoring what I’ve said. Does that mean people may have to wait 10 weeks for a certain episode of the podcast? Yup.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 15, 2010 at 8:00 am

James

If I am reading “The Scrooge Problem” correctly, then desirism tells each marine that they should do whatever they feel like, and gives them a list of options for how to convince the other marines to jump on the grenade. Am I reading that right?

Nope.

We are not making moral claims yet in The Scrooge Problem or any of our podcasts do date. We are only establishing the facts about reasons for action.

The scrooge problems says that there are three ways to get a marine to jump on a grenade under circumstances in which it will save the lives of several marines.

(1) A promise of reward or punishment after the fact.

On the reward side, it argues that promises to be made to people who make heroic sacrifices – life-insurance policies, posthumous awards, and other special benefits be provided.

On the punishment side, we see a range of possibilities from shame to court-martial and execution for cowardice.

(2) Altering the beliefs of the agent.

Telling the soldier that they will have high status in an afterlife if they sacrifice themselves in this life can motivate agents to perform heroic actions.

(3) Altering the desires of an agent.

If an agent values the survival of his comrades in arm more than he values his own life, then this will motivate him to throw himself on the grenade (where he believes this is the best way to secure their safety.)

As a matter of fact, these are the only three options available for getting a marine to choose to throw himself on a grenade. There is no other option.

And this is a matter of fact. If you disagree with this claim, I would like to know where the error is and your evidence for that claim that there is an error.

  (Quote)

MKandefer October 15, 2010 at 8:24 am

cl said,

“The desire to smoke is an irrational desire” [Irrational Desires, AE].

This is a bit dishonest, given the context it makes sense why smoking is considered an “irrational” desire under Alonzo’s definition for “irrational desires”. The desire to smoke thwarts other desires the agent has (e.g., to be healthy) at the time, but may not thwart them immediately. Alonzo (thankfully) acknowledges that the desire to smoke is not easily one removed, but doesn’t give enough emphasis on the social aspects of deciding to smoke initially. It seems to creep through, but not entirely.

I’m not too sold on the terminology for someone in this state. “Conflicting desires” might be better put. A person who has the desire to smoke due to habit and has a desire to quit smoking due to belief, reason, and evidence would seem to be conflicted, and have a conflict between a desire formed through addictive substance use and a desire formed from knowledge. In general, if something is not acquired through some justification, I don’t think rationality is at play. Desires seem to be one such thing that aren’t acquired through justification, but tangentially, either through knowledge; physiological changes due to substances, like nicotine; or other physiological factors, such as the innate desire for sex after puberty.

http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2010/02/irrational-desires.html

  (Quote)

Hermes October 15, 2010 at 8:48 am

MKandefer, good response. Another version of the smoking analogy can be made by swapping in stronger drugs;

* If a person is in good health, taking heroin can thwart other desires.

* If a person is riddled with an inoperable cancer, and in deep pain, taking morphine (related to heroin) can help allow the person to make the best of a bad situation.

The operable word in each case is can. Some cancer patients in deep pain may reject strong pain killers that have other effects that they dislike more than the pain. Conversely, there may be an instance where a healthy person may wisely choose things that are in general bad for you. While I can’t make a case for heroin, the nicotine in cigarettes actually does have a positive nootropic effect and some people who don’t smoke actually do use nicotine patches or gum specifically for that effect. [No, I don't do that and I'm also not advocating anyone else doing that.]

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 15, 2010 at 9:04 am

james

If [Alonzo] is using the term [people generally] in a way that implies that “people generally” is a monolithic entity and functionally papering over the “me vs others” asymmetry in our desires, then I think there is a big problem. There is no existing entity whose desires are what “people generally” desire when used in this sense.

If I ever do that, then point it out to me, because that would be a serious mistake.

I want to know where desirism stands when there is a big difference between what “people generally” (used incorrectly) desire and what “each person individually” desires.

I find this question to be ambigous. It has two potential meanings that suggest two different answers.

One interpretation is, “I want to know where desirism stands when there is a big difference between what people generally desire and every person individually desires.”

Desirism states that this is a bogus question. There is no such thing as a difference between what people generally desire and what every person individually desires.

The other interpretation is: “I want to know where desirism stands when there is a big difference between what people generally desire and what a given person individually desires.”

Well, then, assuming that the desires are not harmonious desires (which we will discuss in Episode 8 of the podcasts), then people generally have many and strong reasons to use praise and condemnation to change what the given person individually desires.

Does “people generally” include the person being targeted with praise and condemnation?

Usually, yes. But not necessarily. It is quite possible for an individual to exist who has every reason to do that which people generally have reason to condemn.

If, in response to this, somebody wants to assert, “Then it isn’t morality,” my response to that is to shrug and say, “Call it whatever you want. It’s still true, and that’s what matters.”

Does desirism say that the right thing to do is to cheat on your taxes and encourage others not to?

You are highlighting one of the fundamental problems for any theory that claims that actions are the fundamental object of moral evaulation.

Desirism denies that actions are a fundamental object of moral evaluation. Desires are the fundamental object of moral evaluation. That is why it is called “desirism”.

Desirism states that “the right thing to do” is “what a person with good desires would do”, and “good desires” are “desires that people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote” which, in this case, is an aversion to cheating on one’s taxes.

Therefore, “the right thing to do” is to not cheat on one’s taxes.

However, it can still be true that a person who lacks an aversion to cheating (a type of person that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn) can simply look at this fact, shrug his shoulders, and say, “So?” And go ahead and cheat on his taxes.

Again, the response to this may well be, “Then desirism isn’t a moral theory.”

My answer to that continues to be, “So? Call it whatever you want. It’s still true, and that’s what matters.”

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 15, 2010 at 9:30 am

When a person makes a mistake, we may ask, “What motivated the agent to make that mistake, as opposed to a billion other mistakes the agent could have made.”

where that reason for a mistake can be traced to the agent’s desires, and where the desires are those that people generally have reason to condemn, then . . . well, then the agent is exhibiting desires that people generally have reason to condemn.

Anaplastic’s statement:

“moral terms are being used in substantially the same way that moral terms had been used.” [Moral Definitions: The Great Distraction, AE, comment April 20, 2009 10:53 AM]

“Alonzo Fyfe and I agree with you completely about the silliness of testing moral theories against our current moral practice.”

Luke you’ve been handed a bag of goods. Think about it.

demonstrates that Anaplastic lacks any desire to understand what he is objecting to. A person with a desire to understand would note that the first sentence is a claim about moral terms, and the second is a statement about moral intuitions, and “moral terms” “moral intuitions”

In fact, if we accepted Anaplastic’s objection as sound, then anybody living in Georgia in 1850 who said that “slavery is wrong” could be accused of misusing moral terms, because most white people did not, in fact, use the term “wrong” when describing slavery.

Yet, the objection would be nonsensical, because nobody was arguing that the permissibility of slavery is a part of the meaning of moral terms. Those who thought that slavery was permissible were saying that this is true – but not that it is true by definition.

So, the evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that Antiplastic is simply shooting off sentences without thinking about them.

Of course, this is supported by Anaplastic’s next comment that Luke is guilty of an ad hominem attack.

An ad hominem attack is one that makes an invalid inference of the form, “You are a bad person; therefore, your conclusion can be rejected.” It is not an ad hominem attack to demonstrate that a person committed murder and then call him a murderer, to provide evidence that a person lied and call him a liar, or to provide evidence that a person has not even thought about what he was writing and accuse him of being somebody who isn’t thinking about what he is writing.

In Anaplastic’s case, we now have two pieces of evidence, one right after another, that this accusation is true.

  (Quote)

Thomas October 15, 2010 at 11:45 am

Maybe my post was too long and rambling, so, briefly, here is my question for Alonzo:
Regardless of whether the desire to submit to a large crowd of rapists, or slave owners, or what have you, is malleable, doesn’t the fact that those desires would tend to fulfill many and strong desires, mean that those desires are “good” and therefore, submission to the rapist/slave owner/etc. is what the “good” action is?

  (Quote)

woodchuck64 October 15, 2010 at 1:35 pm

cl,

what is the difference between saying, “desirism prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires” vs. “desirism prescribes in favor of maximizing desire-fulfillment?”

I’m going to take a stab at this. If I’m wrong, I trust Alonzo will correct me.

I take your phrase “desirism prescribes in favor of maximizing desire-fulfillment” to mean “desirism prescribes in favor of all acts, including the act of favoring desires that tend to fulfill other desires, that maximize desire-fulfillment.” If that interpretation is correct, then the problem is that it goes too far. Desirism only prescribes the act of favoring desires that tend to fulfill other desires, but no other acts.

Favoring all acts that maximize desire-fulfillment is act utilitarianism, favoring just certain desires that tend to fulfill other desires is desire utilitarianism. A key practical difference between the two is that DU is easier than AU; rather than each act requiring an exhaustive analysis of all possible consequences to determine whether it is right or wrong, we can step back and focus instead on how having certain desires tends to fulfill or thwart other desires (still not easy of course, but easier). More here http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2006/09/desire-utilitarianism-vs-act.html

  (Quote)

James October 17, 2010 at 8:39 am

James: If [Alonzo] is using the term [people generally] in a way that implies that “people generally” is a monolithic entity and functionally papering over the “me vs others” asymmetry in our desires, then I think there is a big problem. There is no existing entity whose desires are what “people generally” desire when used in this sense.

Alonzo: If I ever do that, then point it out to me, because that would be a serious mistake.

Alonzo: Desirism states that “the right thing to do” is “what a person with good desires would do”, and “good desires” are “desires that people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote” which, in this case, is an aversion to cheating on one’s taxes.

I think you are doing it right here. While it is true that “people generally, the monolith” have reasons to condemn tax fraud, it is not the case that “people generally, the individuals” have reasons to condemn it.

Praise and condemnation are actions, which have economic consequences. They consume time, they consume though, and to engage in them may put you into conflict with others, or change your social status in some way. Therefore an individuals reasons for engaging in them are not identical with the “good of the monolith.”

In the case of tax fraud, most individuals have no reason to condemn it, because they could not influence enough people to make their effort worthwhile.

It works the other direction as well. For example, in some societies, you are at risk of being stigmatized if you fail to condemn a certain action. Let’s say that in a certain society, “people generally, the individuals” have good reason to condemn people who do not subject their daughters to female genital mutilation, because if they fail to do this, they will suffer bad social consequences. By your definition, I think that would make FGM “right” even though the act is thwarting the desires of “people generally, the monolith.”

  (Quote)

cl October 18, 2010 at 3:09 pm

This whole “Good desires tend to fulfill other desires” is a bit silly IMHO. The truth of that claim assumes that the “other desires” are good. If the “other desires” are predominantly bad, then good desires will tend to thwart the other desires. This, I think, is one of the biggest problems with Fyfe’s theory: there’s no anchor. His definitions are circular, and so people run around in circles.

mojo.rhythym,

This would falsify it well and truly, stamping it shut and putting a nail in its coffin. One way to show that desires cannot be a reason for action is to prove that desires don’t exist.

I disagree. If we “prove” that desires don’t exist, we can just call these propositional attitudes something else. If we prove that that “something else” doesn’t exist, we can just change our terminology again. And again, and again, and again, until people tire of addressing our theory and give up, allowing us to declare it true by default, no peer review or demonstration of cogency needed.

James,

If he is using the term in a way that implies that “people generally” is a monolithic entity and functionally papering over the “me vs others” asymmetry in our desires, then I think there is a big problem. There is no existing entity whose desires are what “people generally” desire when used in this sense.

Correct. I have echoed this objection several times before. Apparently, Alonzo doesn’t think it’s worth answering – at least not when I ask. Maybe he’ll answer you.

Joel,

[desirism] isn’t what we call a moral theory.

I agree. Yet, Fyfe continues to claim that he uses moral terms in “substantially the same way they’ve been used,” which is false. Personally, I think he should just admit that desirism isn’t even a fake Rolex, but a different type of wristwatch entirely. Then we could sidestep all the semantics.

  (Quote)

cl October 18, 2010 at 3:30 pm

antiplastic,

But caught in mid-waffle-flip, it’s “this FAQ is currently under construction.”

Ha! Or, “I don’t have the time,” or, “I don’t think you’re listening,” or, “Go ask a professional philosopher and see if they answer all your questions,” or, “We’ll address this in an upcoming episode,” etc. etc. Given the caliber of pre-desirism CSA, I find those standards really disappointing. Alas, I won’t worry about it, and I’d hope you don’t either. We’re not the ones who look suspicious when our positive claimants shirk the burden of proof thus.

I mean, look at this thread for the most recent example. Instead of trying to figure out and respond to the dynamics of your objection – which I must admit were not entirely clear to me given the brevity of your response – Luke chose instead to cast doubt on our listening skills. Then, when you called him on it, instead of addressing that, Luke chose to nitpick your choice of words.

Sure, it’s true that your response did not take the traditional, technical form of an ad hominem fallacy, but nonetheless, Luke’s “response” clearly sends a message by attempting to cast doubt on our listening skills. That, right there, constitutes the implication of “something objectionable” about us. And, funny thing is, he apparently doesn’t ever stop to think that maybe – just maybe – he’s the one not making sense in one or more regards.

Alonzo doesn’t even take the time to get your name right, and his posts frequently contain typos and grammatical blunders. Worse than that, he allows contradictory statements to persist between his blog and website, and here is getting all preachy on you about “agents exhibiting desires that people generally have reason to condemn.” It would be uproarious if I didn’t get the impression that he takes himself so seriously.

MKandefer,

This is a bit dishonest,

I would appreciate it if you would be more careful in your selection of words. You imply that I have a desire to mislead others when no such desire exists. That said, I understand your objection:

…given the context it makes sense why smoking is considered an “irrational” desire under Alonzo’s definition for “irrational desires”. The desire to smoke thwarts other desires the agent has (e.g., to be healthy) at the time, but may not thwart them immediately.

The problem – as I have explained time and time before – is that Alonzo’s judgment assumes all people have the same values. Some people really don’t care whether they live or die. Some people want to die young. Who is Fyfe to judge smoking as an irrational desire for them? That’s a step towards fascism, as I’ve said before.

That said, I see some value in your admonition towards “conflicting desires” as more useful terminology, though my above objection would still stand.

Alonzo,

A person with a desire to understand would note that the first sentence is a claim about moral terms, and the second is a statement about moral intuitions, and “moral terms” “moral intuitions”

That’s a bit hypocritical, don’t you think? I say that because, a person with a desire that other people understand their theory wouldn’t allow blatant contradictions to persist in their arguments. In your introductory article – which comes up fairly quickly for Google searches on your theory – you say we are to maximize desire fulfillment. Then, a few years later, on your blog, you say it doesn’t. Should I conclude from the fact that you haven’t made the necessary emendations to your website that you lack the desire for other people to understand your theory as clearly as possible?

You are exhibiting desires that people generally have reasons to condemn, and I get the impression that instead of address that squarely, you’d rather accuse others. I think that’s unfortunate to say the least.

  (Quote)

Hermes October 19, 2010 at 5:44 am

Cl, look at the first sentences of your replies to MKandefer and Alonzo Fyfe.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 19, 2010 at 7:53 am

cl

If you want to make a meaningful contributions (which I doubt), identify a proposition held true by desirism and demonstrate that the proposition is false.

Your two most recent responses do fit the technical definition of an ad hominem fallacy. You would rather talk about Luke and myself than about the theory.

You make a couple of assertions towards that end. But, as is your style, you keep making the same assertions even in the face of the most obvious evidence that they are false.

This whole “Good desires tend to fulfill other desires” is a bit silly IMHO. The truth of that claim assumes that the “other desires” are good.

Would you care to demonstrate that this assumption is required? I don’t see it. In episode 3, for example, the fact that Alph’s desire gives him a reason to give Betty the red pill makes no assumption that Alph’s desire is good. (In fact, Alph’s desire is not good in any meaningful sense because no other desires exist). Yet, the conclusion that he has a reason to act so as to give Betty the red pill is still true.

The problem – as I have explained time and time before – is that Alonzo’s judgment assumes all people have the same values.

False.

Episode 3 of the podcast provides a clear example of agents who do not have the same values.

I have written a number of essays on the harmony of desires that argue that there are cases in which desires are thwarted when people acquire the same values and that people are better off with different (harmonious) desires.

(As an aside: Episode 8 will look at that issue more directly.)

Some people really don’t care whether they live or die. Some people want to die young. Who is Fyfe to judge smoking as an irrational desire for them?

I sincerely doubt that your premises are true. But, even if true, it provides no criticism of desirism.

That being said, desirism allows the theoretical possibility that there are agents for whom a desire to smoke would not be irrational. It would follow precisely on the lines of whether the desire to smoke does or not conflict with other desires (including future desires). The only reasons that exist for an agent to have or to avoid a desire to smoke are his other (including future) desires. No other type of reason exists.

This applies to the rationality of a desire which considers only the agent’s current and future desires. The moral quality of a desire, on the other hand, depends on the reasons others have to use social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote a desire.

Then, a few years later, on your blog, you say it doesn’t. Should I conclude from the fact that you haven’t made the necessary emendations to your website that you lack the desire for other people to understand your theory as clearly as possible?

You will make that assumption. That’s the kind of person you are. The assumptions you make tell us a lot about the type of person you are. It reveals a lot about your moral character.

The fact is, I haven’t visited that site in 3 years and I don’t remember the passwords I used to set it up or to make changes. I quit working on the site 5 years ago and merely used it as a link to the “atheist ethicist” site.

My plans are to copy the information that I want to keep someplace, then let the site expire.

I suspect the same thing is happening to the “Atheist Ethicist” site.

Historically, the website can be seen as my views before 2005. Atheist Ethicist will reflect my views from 2005-2010. The essays and podcasts that show up here represent my views from 2010 to some undetermined date.

If anything I have said in the past contradicts the podcast, the correct conclusion to draw would be that I have changed my mind.

I have, in fact, made some substantive changes in the theory over the years when people have brought up sound objections. I expect to make more changes in the future.

As I said at the top, if you want to make a meaningful contributions (which I doubt), identify a proposition held true by desirism and demonstrate that the proposition is false.

I agree. Yet, Fyfe continues to claim that he uses moral terms in “substantially the same way they’ve been used,” which is false. Personally, I think he should just admit that desirism isn’t even a fake Rolex, but a different type of wristwatch entirely. Then we could sidestep all the semantics.

This is not a proposition held true by desirism (though I think it is a true statement about desirism), but, whether true or false, it’s not important. It’s nothing but a semantic dispute, and not really worth a lot of time and effort.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 19, 2010 at 8:31 am

James

I think you are doing it right here. While it is true that “people generally, the monolith” have reasons to condemn tax fraud, it is not the case that “people generally, the individuals” have reasons to condemn it.

If you truly think that my claims require the assumption of some sort of monolithic entity called “people generally”, it would be useful if you could identify even one inference that I draw that requires such an assumption.

Praise and condemnation are actions, which have economic consequences. They consume time, they consume though, and to engage in them may put you into conflict with others, or change your social status in some way. Therefore an individuals reasons for engaging in them are not identical with the “good of the monolith.”

That’s true, and nothing found in desirism contradicts this statement.

In the case of tax fraud, most individuals have no reason to condemn it, because they could not influence enough people to make their effort worthwhile.

This is false.

0 + 0 + 0 + 0 = 0 so, if no individual had reason to condemn tax fraud, then there would be no reason to condemn tax fraud.

Whereas “small number” + “small number” + “small number” (x 300 million) can well come out to be a significant number.

Plus, I think you are artificially limiting the forms of expression that condemnation can take. Clearly, the legislature has reason to pass laws against tax fraud, and people generally have reason to support that legislation. Whereas there is very little reason to argue againist this legislation and the expression of disapproval inherent in it.

When many people realize they have several reasons to condemn something and few reasons not to condemn it, they can be (and are) quite expressive at condemning it.

If you think you have a better explanation for laws against tax fraud – one not grounded on reasons for action that (people believe) exist to condemn and punish those who engage in it – I would like to hear that theory.

…in some societies, you are at risk of being stigmatized if you fail to condemn a certain action. Let’s say that in a certain society, “people generally, the individuals” have good reason to condemn people who do not subject their daughters to female genital mutilation, because if they fail to do this, they will suffer bad social consequences. By your definition, I think that would make FGM “right” even though the act is thwarting the desires of “people generally, the monolith.”

No, it wouldn’t. It depends on whether there is good reason to act so as to stigmatize such people. On what is this stigmatization grounded? What reasons for action exist to stigmatize or to inflict these social consequences?

If it is based on a false belief about a God or of intrinsic value, or a false association between FGM and desire fulfillment, then there is no REAL reason for action that exists to support the practice. Only the imaginary reasons that exist that some people falsely believe are real.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 19, 2010 at 8:36 am

By the way, if anybody is actually interested in my own changing views on morality, a roughly accurate chronology would be

1977-1985 – Objectivist/Libertarian

1985-1990 – Act/rule utilitarian

1990-1992 – Some sort of vague “virtue utilitarian”.

1992-2000 – Desire utilitarianism as a theory of the meaning of moral terms

2000-2005 – Desire utilitarianism as a revisionist theory – a theory revising the meaning of moral terms.

2005-present – Desirism

Of course, all of these transitions were gradual. Notice the generally nice round numbers (5 year increments or multiples thereof).

  (Quote)

Hermes October 19, 2010 at 11:10 am

Alonzo Fyfe, on your blog, you made the following comment (and others that lead up to it) that I personally find accurate, insightful, and inspiring;

If you are not talking about facts, then you are talking about fiction. If, in making a moral claim, you are not talking about something real, then you are grounding your life on myth and superstition.

Those are the only two options.

Yet, not everyone agreed with it. The second sentence (first paragraph) has been said to be an example of a “Slippery slope fallacy.” For what it’s worth, I disagree with that assessment. At most, I could see someone complaining about the word grounding as it may be interpreted to mean that a single claim not based in something real does not mean that the person making that possibly single claim always does ground their moral claims in myth and superstition in every instance. That analysis seems to miss the point of what you wrote.

What are your thoughts? Does the person who said it was an example of a “Slippery slope fallacy.” have a good point, or are they missing the point of the quote or just being too stringent in their analysis — forest for the trees as it were?

Thanks.

Source: http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2010/04/sam-harris-science-and-morality.html

  (Quote)

James October 19, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Well you’ve definitely put up a good defense. I still have the sensation that something’s wrong with it, but so far so good.

  (Quote)

cl October 21, 2010 at 10:44 am

Sorry for the absurd length of this comment. My original intention was to just supply the trackback, but, with the new theme, trackbacks aren’t as obvious as they were [i.e.they appear after the comment field instead of in the thread]. So here we go:

Alonzo,

If you want to make a meaningful contributions (which I doubt), identify a proposition held true by desirism and demonstrate that the proposition is false.

I have, on more than on occasion. For example, the proposition that “a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires” is false. Others have agreed, and, you eschew them. By “them” I mean people like Thomas Reid, Cartesian, and TaiChi – who said he was “sympathetic to Cartestian’s example” [although I acknowledge that was some time ago and one or more of them may have changed their positions since].

Your two most recent responses do fit the technical definition of an ad hominem fallacy. You would rather talk about Luke and myself than about the theory.

Actually, I’d much rather talk about the theory. I tire of you, Luke, Kip and people like faithlessgod making false accusations of everything from “not listening” to “cl is obviously a racist” against whomever isn’t sold on your theory. Look over the thread, Alonzo. Luke’s the one that had to open his mouth and start talking about people as opposed to the theory. Besides, you’re apparently redefining the ad hominem fallacy to suit your own liking. The ad hominem fallacy occurs when we reject premise X on behalf of something objectionable about person Y. In fact, you defined it as, “…an invalid inference of the form, You are a bad person; therefore, your conclusion can be rejected.

Did I say that you are a bad person, therefore, your conclusion is wrong? No. Did I even say you were a bad person? No. I don’t even know you. Not once in the thread have I used things I find objectionable about you or Luke to support a conclusion that anything you say is false. So, you’re simply mistaken to accuse me of the ad hominem fallacy, and you’re equivocating on the definition you just supplied.

This whole “Good desires tend to fulfill other desires” is a bit silly IMHO. The truth of that claim assumes that the “other desires” are good. [cl]

Would you care to demonstrate that this assumption is required? I don’t see it. [Alonzo]

Like I said, myself – and others – have tried, several times, and you either flat-out ignore the attempts or give the arguments short thrift.

It all depends on the pre-existing balance of desires. If the pre-existing balance of desires is one of predominantly “bad” desires, then, a desire that tends to fulfill other desires 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 other desires. There’s a corollary in the old saying that in times of corruption, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. If the majority is bad, the person who thwarts their desires by doing what is right is good.

The problem – as I have explained time and time before – is that Alonzo’s judgment assumes all people have the same values. [cl]

False. Episode 3 of the podcast provides a clear example of agents who do not have the same values. [Alonzo]

I wasn’t talking about Episode 3. You’re response to my objection is out-of-scope. I was talking about your claim in your essay Irrational Desires that “smoking is an irrational desire.” As stated, that judgment assumes that everyone has desires which smoking would thwart. That’s not true. It’s an overgeneralization on behalf of the majority. In The Value of Desire Fulfillment, you yourself write that, “For an agent with a desire that P, states of affairs in which P is true have value.” In Irrational Desires, you define an irrational desire as “a desire that tends to thwart other desires of the agent.” Therefore, for an agent without the desire for health or long life, smoking is not an irrational desire. My conclusion is 100% valid and uses terms exactly as you yourself have defined them.

I have written a number of essays on the harmony of desires that argue that there are cases in which desires are thwarted when people acquire the same values and that people are better off with different (harmonious) desires.

That’s irrelevant to my arguments at hand, and not currently under dispute. That you included it demonstrates that you’re responding to my objection in a general scope, instead of the specific scope of the smoking example.

Some people really don’t care whether they live or die. Some people want to die young. Who is Fyfe to judge smoking as an irrational desire for them? [cl]

I sincerely doubt that your premises are true. But, even if true, it provides no criticism of desirism. [Alonzo]

It is undeniable that agents with a desire to commit suicide exist, so, my premises are true. As for whether my argument provides criticism of desirism, it wasn’t intended to. It was intended to demonstrate that your claim “smoking is an irrational desire” is an overgeneralization – and that’s true – as you essentially concede here:

It would follow precisely on the lines of whether the desire to smoke does or not conflict with other desires (including future desires). The only reasons that exist for an agent to have or to avoid a desire to smoke are his other (including future) desires.

Yes, exactly, that’s what I just said a few sentences prior. There you go. You’re now agreeing with me. From there, can you now admit that your statement “smoking is an irrational desire” was in need of emendation? If not, I suspect it’s because you think “including future desires” somehow saves your case. If so, I can reply one of several ways. I can reply that since future desires are unknown to the agent at the time of the decision to smoke, there is no way the agent can know that the desire to smoke would thwart their future desires, and if there is no way the agent can know the desire to smoke would thwart their future desires, then there is no basis on which you can judge their desire as irrational.

In your introductory article – which comes up fairly quickly for Google searches on your theory – you say we are to maximize desire fulfillment. Then, a few years later, on your blog, you say it doesn’t. Should I conclude from the fact that you haven’t made the necessary emendations to your website that you lack the desire for other people to understand your theory as clearly as possible? [cl]

You will make that assumption. That’s the kind of person you are. The assumptions yo u make tell us a lot about the type of person you are. It reveals a lot about your moral character. [Alonzo]

I was asking the question rhetorically, because you were drawing inferences about antiplastic’s character on the basis of nothing other than antiplastic’s comment. In reality, you don’t have enough information about antiplastic to judge antiplastic’s character thus. Similarly, I don’t have enough information about you to judge your character thus. That’s precisely why I wouldn’t make the assumption that your moral character is defective: disagree with you as I may, I’m still going to treat you as a professional and give you the benefit of the doubt. The spirit of my comment was, “I’m not going to focus on what I perceive to be inconsistent aspects of Alonzo’s arguments to draw inferences about Alonzo, the man.” In other words, you shouldn’t be doing that to us.

Yet, that’s exactly what you did. I believe it’s unprofessional and I believe you ought to be condemned for that. You imply moral defects on my behalf when you don’t know the first thing about me. You implied that antiplastic lacked the desire to understand. Yet, I could just as easily focus on the fact that you allow contradictory statements to persist in your arguments to arrive at the same invalid conclusion. Get it now? I hope so, because you have no right to call yourself an “ethicist” while you sit there and jump to conclusions about people’s moral character on the basis of blog comments.

The fact is, I haven’t visited [my own website] in 3 years and I don’t remember the passwords I used to set it up or to make changes.

The fact is, that you can’t keep track of your own personal information is your own problem, and that doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility to promote maximum clarity in your arguments. The fact is, you could at least have written on your blog – which you obviously have the password for – that your position as of six months ago is in direct opposition to your position as stated in your introductory article on your own website – which isn’t even dated. You could have at least provided your readers with that much, but, you didn’t. Is it really any wonder why people get confused?

If anything I have said in the past contradicts the podcast, the correct conclusion to draw would be that I have changed my mind.

Oh, I assure you, there’s no “if” about it:

We are seeking to maximize desire fulfillment over desire thwarting. [Alonzo Fyfe, Desire Utilitarianism, section VII, no date provided]

Desirism does not talk about maximizing some entity called ‘desire fulfillment’. It talks about making or keeping true those propositions that are the objects of our desires. [Alonzo Fyfe, The Value of Desire Fulfillment, May 19 2010]

Now, imagine somebody who had just heard about your theory and wants to check it out to see what it’s all about. They Google “Alonzo Fyfe Desire Utilitarianism” and the first two links point directly to your essay Desire Utilitarianism – which isn’t even dated! They read that first, and come to understand your theory as one that says exactly what you said it says – that we are seeking to maximize desire fulfillment. Of course, such a person would not have read your blog yet, but even if they did read your blog – which doesn’t even have an index or a single page that outlines the basics of your theory – how, for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, would you expect them to know that you’ve actually changed your position? I mean, if you don’t want people to understand as best as possible, that’s one thing, but if you do, well… help ‘em out a little.

I have, in fact, made some substantive changes in the theory over the years when people have brought up sound objections. I expect to make more changes in the future.

That’s fine, even commendable. I take that as a sign of intellectual pliability. I’m not criticizing you for changing your mind. I’m criticizing you for changing your mind and not cleaning up after yourself. I’m criticizing you for changing your mind and not syncing your own writings, and then having the audacity to blame others for misunderstanding the mess you made. It’s nothing personal. It’s entirely professional and has to do with courtesy to your readers.

As I said at the top, if you want to make a meaningful contributions (which I doubt), identify a proposition held true by desirism and demonstrate that the proposition is false.

As I said at the top, I have, and so have others. The ball’s in your court.

…Fyfe continues to claim that he uses moral terms in “substantially the same way they’ve been used,” which is false. Personally, I think he should just admit that desirism isn’t even a fake Rolex, but a different type of wristwatch entirely. Then we could sidestep all the semantics. [cl]

This is not a proposition held true by desirism (though I think it is a true statement about desirism), but, whether true or false, it’s not important. [Alonzo]

Well, I suppose whether or not “it’s important” depends on what we value, doesn’t it? I would say that it’s important for the person who values clarity. I would say it’s important for the person with a desire to avoid what you call The Great Distraction. You yourself lament the obfuscatory semantic debates that ensue over your own theory, yet, you yourself have the power to put an end to it by simply taking a step back and saying right up front – as Yair and many, many others have suggested – that desirism doesn’t use moral terms in the same way other moral theories do.

At least then people would know what they’re getting into, but, do what thou wilt.

  (Quote)

cl October 21, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Also, Alonzo, FWIW: though I respect your right reply however you want or wherever you want, I would actually prefer that you don’t answer my objection to your definition of “good” here. I think it would be more productive if you tackled it in one of the podcasts, so that everybody might be able to chime in. If you tackle it here, it’s just going to get buried in a thread that’s already almost two weeks old.

However, I’m more than willing to discuss any of the other issues here – or anywhere.

  (Quote)

Hermes October 21, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Cl, to continue on the topic of morality, I’d like to hear your comments on the following moral issue;

William Lobdell (former LA Times Religion reporter)

Primarily (a couple minutes in from the link; index 31:15+ for the whole program) where he talks about the ‘cowardice’ of national Christian leaders, up to the point where he starts to compare evangelicals to atheists.

The question I have for you is how should a Christian handle these moral issues? To bring this home, if you were one of the leaders in the same class as the ones Mr. Lobdell mentioned, what would be the proper reaction of a faithful Christian be? Do you have any ideas why these individuals did not react in a seemingly more moral way? (Assuming that you see some problem with Benny Hinn’s behavior.)

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }