Morality in the Real World (podcast index)

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 14, 2010 in Ethics,Indexes,Podcast

Morality in the Real World is a series of dialogues about what kinds of moral value do and do not exist in the natural world, how we can examine these issues carefully, and how we can (really) make the world a better place.

You can join in, too. Every 5 episodes we answer audience questions about what we’ve discussed so far. If you’d like us to respond, leave a comment on the page of the relevant episode, or leave a voicemail at 413-723-0175.

You can listen to all episodes at, or subscribe in iTunes or with RSS.

Episodes are best enjoyed in order, but it’s not strictly necessary.

Season One

01: Introduction [mp3]

02: God is Not the Ground for Morality [mp3]

03: Alph and Betty on a Distant Planet [mp3]

04: The Scrooge Problem [mp3]

05: Questions and Answers #1 [mp3]

06: Alph and Preserving Pandora [mp3]

07: Desire Fulfillment Does Not Have Intrinsic Value [mp3]

08: A Harmony of Desires [mp3]

09: How to Measure Desires [mp3]

10: Questions and Answers #2 [mp3]

Season Two

11: The Claims of Desirism, Part 1 [mp3]

12: Action-Based Theories of Desire [mp3]

13: Objections to the Action-Based Theory of Desire [mp3]

14: Pleasure, Desire, and Arguing about Definitions [mp3]

15: Pleasure and Desire Are Separate [mp3]

16: Reward-Based Theories of Desire [mp3]

(more to come)

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Leomar September 15, 2010 at 5:44 am

Good. Waiting the next episode.


Kip September 17, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Great job, guys. 3rd time is the charm! :-) I like how the musical interludes are shorter in this one than in the last. Alonzo is sounding much more natural, too. Practice makes perfect!


lukeprog September 17, 2010 at 3:27 pm


Thank for the feedback. We’re still improving, hopefully!


June Maxwell October 1, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I agree with Kip about the music and Alonzo, many great podcasts are spoiled by awful music that seems to last forever, but you have clearly to have made an effort to make it effective and its paid off, so well done Luke and Alonzo – keep ‘em coming.


lukeprog October 1, 2010 at 2:36 pm



Mike C October 8, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Thanks for putting in the effort of producing these podcast. I think this podcast, along with your blogs, is promoting discussion and reflection on morality and ethics and that seems to me to be a very useful thing for our society. Particulary because you have approached the subject in a way that doesn’t require religion.

My question concerns the idea of praise and condemnation of people to influence their desires. Are you speaking of praising or condeming a person or their acts? For example do you say that if someone has a desire, and acts on it, to steal do you condeme the person. “You are evil!” or do you condeme the act “That is not acceptable.” There would be other consequences like jail or reparations but it seems to me the influce you want to achieve has to be making the action unactable not unprofitable, which is what jail or fines would do. So my question is framed in terms of verbal response.

I want to encourage your desire and perhaps inspire others, to create these kinds of podcasts and forums for discussion so I gave praise. However, my praise is directed at the action, I’m sure you’re nice guys, but it’s the action I’m praising not you directly. And if it is actions we praise will that have the desired affect? Praising actions doesn’t have the direct affect on ego that praising the person might have.

Are you aware of any studies that might show the relative effectiveness of praise and condemnation directed at a person “You’re great” “Your evil” vs praise and condemnation directed at actions “That’s good work.” “That is unaceptable”


Graham Robinson October 16, 2010 at 4:48 am

@MikeC praising/condemning the action/person.
My simple view is that I am created out of circumstance and genetics (which is really just another kind of circumstance). I want to live in a society that helps me become better. To praise or condemn me as a person is pointless it only creates pride and arrogance or guilt and shame; either way that damages me. Please praise or condemn my actions and hold me to account and demand reparation or contrition if that is appropriate. This will change my beliefs and desires and hence my future actions.


MikeC October 17, 2010 at 4:27 pm

@Graham – Well said Graham. However, I wonder if enough of humankind live with this understanding in their day to day lives.

I strive to keep this understanding as I move through my life and I know I don’t always succeed and I’m trying hard. How many others are doing this? And that’s why I ask if there’s been studies showing the relative effectiveness of praising ego versus praising actions.


Graham Robinson October 18, 2010 at 7:07 am

@MikeC praising ego/actions
It might seem a bit odd but maybe the best place to look for this kind of evidence may be from child development or parenting studies. With our children we would focus on behaviours. Unless I was completely worn down I would try to not attack the child by saying “You horrible child” rather I would say “That was not very nice now go say sorry and don’t do that again”.
Another place to look that might be have studies written is employee training programmes where they say “You get what you measure” i.e. focus on outcomes and actions.


Daniel Richardson October 18, 2010 at 11:36 am

Very entertaining and thought provoking podcast. When will see another?


lukeprog October 18, 2010 at 12:06 pm



Daniel Richardson October 18, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Sweet! :D


Julian November 14, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Fantastic work Luke and Alonzo,
I was a bit concerned when you introduced the musical interludes and the conversational style, as I thought it would detract from the content. But you’ve done a great job, it works very well. As for the slow and methodical pace, some might find it tedious, but for me it’s just right! Thanks and keep up the great work.


VID December 12, 2010 at 2:04 pm

When will the next episodes be available? (11, 12, 13, …)


Luke Muehlhauser December 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm


Sometime after Christmas. The first ten episodes are our ‘Season One,’ and we’re doing the research for Season Two now.


andy January 3, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Hiya, just wanted to say that I’m enjoying the podcasts. keep up the good work!


Luke Muehlhauser January 3, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Thanks, andy.


LR January 7, 2011 at 4:38 am

Hi, just reading through the DU e-book at the moment and was wondering if someone could explain the difference between “desire utilitarianism” and “desire
fulfillment act utilitarianism”. I have read the sadist example given and still don’t see how the two should differ in terms of outcome.

Thanks for any help,


Graham Robinson January 7, 2011 at 7:44 am

Desire utilitarianism vs Desire fulfillment act utilitarianism.
On page 11 & 12 Alonzo says this:
“For example, they assert that this theory says that if there were 19 people who would enjoy watching a child being tortured, and 1 child who does not want to be tortured, this theory would say that the right thing to do would be to torture the child.
That is not what desire utilitarianism says.
The theory that says that torturing the child would be the right thing to do is the theory that I call ‘desire fulfillment act utilitarianism’. It is an act utilitarian theory in that it says that fundamental moral evaluations are made of actions. It is a theory that says that desire fulfillment is the consequence that right actions are supposed to maximize.

Unlike act-utilitarian theories, desire-utilitarianism holds that the fundamental object of moral evaluations are desires themselves. Desires are evaluated according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. The desire to watch a child being tortured is fundamentally desire thwarting. As such, it counts as a bad desire in this theory. A right act is an act that a person with good desires (that is, desires that tend to fulfill other desires) would perform. A person with good desires would not have a desire to torture a young child. The desire to torture a child turns out to be a vice, or evil, in this theory.”

So in essence Desirism is not about number and consequence of the actions performed it is about the desires themselves. So regardless of how many sadists one might make happy; torture would forever remain a desire thwarting activity hence it remains wrong.


Graham Robinson January 7, 2011 at 7:58 am

Maybe another way to think about it is to perform a ‘static’ evaluation of the desires themselves (and forget for now the actions or consequences). Imagine a static network of desires and how those desires support or thwart other desires.

Shared desires are for example (Maslow)
The need for nutrition and physical well-being.
The need for safety and security.
The need for companionship and emotional well-being.
The desire for personal fulfillment.

Any desires that thwart these desires are likely to be bad because they cut across so many shared and fundemental desires.


Graham Robinson January 7, 2011 at 7:58 am

Maybe another way to think about it is to perform a ‘static’ evaluation of the desires themselves (and forget for now the actions or consequences). Imagine a static network of desires and how those desires support or thwart other desires.

Shared desires are for example (Maslow)
The need for nutrition and physical well-being.
The need for safety and security.
The need for companionship and emotional well-being.
The desire for personal fulfillment.

Any desires that thwart these desires are likely to be bad because they cut across so many shared and fundemental desires.


LR January 8, 2011 at 3:26 am

Brilliant! Thanks Graham, I believe I now understand the distinction.


Graham Robinson January 8, 2011 at 9:16 am

No worries.
I think Desirism needs to be shared as widely as possible amongst people who have a naturalistic worldview.
Alonzo & Luke are doing a great service promoting it. I try to share the idea in a low key way whenever and wherever I can.
(Sorry about the double post earlier)


Graham Robinson January 12, 2011 at 3:44 am

I’ve got myself into a discussion over at Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelieveable group.
I’ve just started summarising Desirism so if anyone here can watch out for errors or mis-steps that would be appreciated.


Luke Muehlhauser February 15, 2011 at 11:54 am

BTW, I listed a bunch of links on introductory meta-ethics over here.


Graham Robinson February 16, 2011 at 2:09 am

I’ve found the last two podcasts very interesting and helpful. Are you planning to produce a list of the claims that identifies which are original claims and provides citations for established claims.
Many Thanks


Luke Muehlhauser February 16, 2011 at 6:28 am


Yeah, probably.


Bret April 21, 2011 at 10:08 pm

I am enjoying the hell outta these podcasts. They make work fly by. Thanks!


Troy June 23, 2011 at 10:22 pm


The latest episode is not coming up in iTunes. Are you able to fix that? Thanks!



Luke Muehlhauser June 24, 2011 at 3:10 am


Fixed! Thanks.


Chris R. July 17, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Hey Luke!

Foremost, I just wanted to thank you for all the great work you do on Common Sense Atheism. As a young aspiring rationalist, your work and the work of those your interview been of great help. Moreover, it’s a great inspiration to see someone a little older than myself working in a field that I want to work in myself. So, thank you very much!

One of my primary fields of philosophical interest is moral philosophy. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I’ve been exposed to and studied several areas of ethics at an amateur level. After examination, I found that none of these systems seem to be rational, especially the religious ethics I was raised on. While I hope my skills in rationality have progressed since I began my search, I am still in search of a correct ethical theory. A theory without reference to gods, governments, and genealogy.

I’ve fumbled around with Universally Preferable Behaviour for a long time – a theory which claims to be just that kind of theory – but it never made much sense to me. At first I thought it might just be my lack of rational skills, but after reading your review, I’m less inclined to think that. Moreover, after listening to this podcast series and reading more about Desire Utilitarianism, I am even less inclined to believe that my lack of understanding UPB comes from my own cognitive flaws.

When I read about Desirism, something just seems to click with me. From what little I know, I certainly am interested in learning more. Hence, I am very interested in listening to this podcast. Yet, the podcast is coming out much too slowly for my liking. This isn’t a critique of your or Alonzo’s work, as I’d rather you take your time and produce the awesome quality that you do. But this does leave me stuck in a null zone, insofar as I’d really love to learn more, but I don’t have too many sources.

As you have pointed out, the best way to learn something new is a textbook. I’ve certainly tried to take that to heart and used your comments on Less Wrong and your recommendations of Amazon to find useful (text)books. So as such, I’ve been trying to find a textbook on Desirism. The closest I have found is Alonzo’s book A Better Place. So with that said, I have two questions:

First, beyond Alonzo’s book and this podcast series, could you recommend some good textbooks or other resources for learning about ethics? I suppose I want to start with Meta-Ethics, Normative Ethics, and then Applied Ethics, if that sequence makes sense.

Second, would it be possible for me to get a free ebook version of A Better Place? Or better yet, a physical copy? I really hate to ask, but as a broke young guy, I’m trying to save as much money as I possibly can. Thankfully in my case it isn’t yet one where I have to choose between buying books or food, but every dollar I can save helps me to avoid getting into that situation. I’d massively appreciate the help!

Best Wishes,
Chris R.


Luke Muehlhauser July 17, 2011 at 3:01 pm


Read Miller’s ‘Contemporary Introduction to Metaethics.’

This podcast, which is still being developed, is far more up-to-date than ‘A Better Place.’

Easiest of all is to read this in-progress blog sequence I’m writing on metaethics.


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