Morality in the Real World 03: Alph and Betty on a Distant Planet

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 28, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

In episode 03 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I explain how we can have reasons to give other people certain desires, using a story about two aliens on a distant planet.

Download Episode 03

You can also listen to this podcast at archive.org, or subscribe in iTunes or out of iTunes.

Every five episodes we answer audience questions, so please do post your questions and objections below. Make sure your questions address the topics of this episode only. If we plan to address the subject of your question in later episode, we will not answer it in the next Q & A episode. You can also leave your question in audio and we will play it back during the Q & A episode and respond to it: call 413-723-0175 and press 1 to leave a voicemail.

Transcript of episode 03:

LUKE: Welcome to ‘Morality in the REAL World’. I’m Luke Muehlhauser.

ALONZO: And I’m Alonzo Fyfe.

LUKE: Alonzo, I’m really excited today.

ALONZO: Why is that?

LUKE: Because this time, we’re actually going to talk about the subject of this podcast.

ALONZO: Finally!

LUKE: Okay, Alonzo: what is desirism?

ALONZO: At its most basic level, it is is a theory about morality.

LUKE: And when you say ‘a theory about morality’, what do you mean?

ALONZO: It is a theory – which means that it is a systematic way of thinking of things. And it’s a theory of morality – things related to right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice, and other aspects of morality. So, it is a systematic way of looking at things related to right and wrong and good and evil.

LUKE: And… what kinds of things?

ALONZO: Well, have you ever wondered why there are three different moral categories for actions. Actions can be obligatory or prohibited or just permissible. Why do praise and condemnation have such a central role in morality? How are facts different from values? What is negligence? What’s an excuse, and what qualities distinguish a good excuse from a poor excuse? A moral theory gives us some way to answer those kinds of questions.

LUKE: Okay, so we could have a systematic way of thinking about those things and answering those questions, but what about justifying those claims about obligation and permission and negligence and so on?

ALONZO: Right. The best theory of morality might show us that no moral claims are justified. That’s what you believed, Luke, when you adopted error theory a while back.

LUKE: Right.

ALONZO: Well, let’s not rule that option out at the start. It’s a possibility. Ultimately, I would argue that desirism does give us a justification for some claims about obligation and the like. It justifies some of our moral claims and moral practices, though not all of them. For example, it says that moral claims that appeal to a God have no merit.

LUKE: Okay, but if you think you can justify a bunch of claims, I hope you can see that you have the burden of proof.

ALONZO: That’s true. In fact, one of the conclusions that I draw from desirism is that the person making the moral claim has the burden of proof.

And I want to point something else out. I didn’t say that a moral theory is something that shows that “rape is wrong” or “charity is a virtue.” Once we have a theory of morality, then we can use it to determine if a statement like, “rape is wrong” can be justified. These two types of questions occur on two different levels.

LUKE: Okay, so you’re saying that we shouldn’t just look for whatever theory justifies what we already believe about what is right or wrong, just like, I suppose, we shouldn’t be looking for a theory of the solar system that “justifies” what we already believe about the solar system.

ALONZO: Like the obvious fact that the Earth is at the center of the universe and everything revolves around us.

LUKE: Right. Cuz we might be wrong about the solar system, we might think that the Earth is the center of the universe. But Copernicus showed us that we were wrong about that, and we might be wrong about morality. So, what we should be doing is looking for a true theory of the solar system and a true theory of morality, and then we see what they have to say about the solar system or about whether rape is wrong or charity is right.

ALONZO: Right. Imagine if we had tried to find a theory of morality to justify our moral opinions and we were doing this 300 years ago. That theory would have had to “justify” slavery, racism, sexism, and the like. That kind of approach just tells you what the people living at a particular time actually believed. It wouldn’t give any indication if they were right or not.

So we’re looking for a theory that explains the subject matter of morality and, of course, makes only true claims. I would argue that other theories either make false claims, or they are not about the subject matter of morality at all.

LUKE: Right, and here’s an example: so there’s the atomic theory of matter, which is true – it’s true that molecules and compounds and so on are made up of atoms – but that theory doesn’t have much to do with morality. So that’s not what we’re looking for. But then there’s a theory like Kantian ethics which is about morality – it is about obligation, permission, excuse, negligence, and so on – but it makes false claims. It makes claims about categorical imperatives that don’t exist. So that’s not gonna work for us, either.

ALONZO: Right. We want a theory that is about the subject matter of morality (not about atoms), about right and wrong and obligations and prohibitions and so on. And we want a story that will tell us what is true about these things.

LUKE: Okay, so what does the moral theory called ‘desirism’ claim?

ALONZO: Let me just say up front that I’m never going to be happy with this episode because there’s no way to squeeze the whole theory into the time that we have left.

LUKE: Well, Alonzo, let’s do this. I think different people will come to understand desirism in different ways, so let’s present the theory from a bunch of different angles.

ALONZO: I like that.

LUKE: And in fact, let’s do this: Let’s present desirism as just a theory about desires and states of affairs and so on, and put off talking about why we think it’s a theory about morality altogether, until we have presented what the theory says about desires and states of affairs and so on.

ALONZO: That will definitely make explaining the first part easier.

LUKE: Yeah, and I think what happens alot is that when we present desirism to people, they interpret it through the lens of a lot of their own assumptions about what morality is, and so, not surprisingly, when they mix those assumptions with desirism they get something totally incoherent. Then they think desirism is incoherent. So I think it will be best to begin by presenting desirism without using any moral terminology at all, and that way we can avoid those kinds of problems until after we’ve explained the basics of desirism.

ALONZO: Okay then, how would you like to start?

LUKE: Tell me that story about the two aliens on a distant planet.

ALONZO: Um . . . I could do without the 50’s space music.

LUKE: Okay. How’s this?

ALONZO: Okay. That’s better. Okay: First, I want to say that the purpose of this story is to start with some basic facts about how desires relate to each other. Later, we’re going to build up from this and see how far we can go without adding spooky things like God or intrinsic value.

LUKE: Or theremins…

ALONZO: Preferably. So, to make it as simple as possible, we are going to start with a universe with one creature, with one desire.

LUKE: Okay.

ALONZO: So, what shall we name this creature?

LUKE: Um, let’s call him “Alpha.”

ALONZO: Okay. I’ll call him “Alph” for short. So Alph has one desire – a desire to gather stones. Desirism says that all value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Alph has a desire to gather stones so, for Alph, the state of affairs in which he is gathering stones has value.

LUKE: Gathering stones? That’s not fun!

ALONZO: For Alph it is. That’s what he desires. And remember, he isn’t trying to make a big pile of stones. He wants to be engaged in the act of gathering stones. The fact that he ends up with a big pile of stones at the end is just a side effect of him doing what he wants to do.

So here’s Alph, alone on this distant planet, gathering stones into a big pile, day after day. And loving it!

Unfortunately, there aren’t very many stones to gather on this planet. So, after Alph gathers them all, he can’t gather any more until he scatters the ones the has. But scattering stones is work. It’s not something he wants to do. It is something he now has to do if he ever wants to gather stones again. And he does want to gather stones again.

So, now, we are going to give Alph a companion.

LUKE: Alonzo, I’m getting bored, so this companion of Alph’s had better be a girl.

ALONZO: Sure. Her name will be ‘Beta’, but she goes by the name ‘Betty.’

LUKE: Okay, that’s good.

ALONZO: Now, Betty doesn’t have any desires to start with. Betty is just this lump of flesh. She has no interest in anything.

LUKE: Sounds like me on Saturday morning.

ALONZO: Perhaps. However, we are also going to give Alph two pills – a red pill, and a blue pill. If Alph gives Betty the blue pill, then Betty with have a desire to gather stones, just like Alph. But, if he gives Betty the red pill, then Betty will have a desire to scatter stones.

LUKE: Uh… how about a pill that will give Betty a desire for Alph?

ALONZO: Well we could, but I have to ask: what would Alph do with it? All Alph wants to do is gather stones.

LUKE: No…..

ALONZO: Okay, Luke, don’t project your desires onto Alph. You might not want to gather stones, but think of Alph. He has this one desire, and it’s this desire to gather stones. Given that assumption – and we’re talking about Alph, not about you – which pill should he give to Betty?

LUKE: Uh, okay. The red one, the one that will make Betty want to scatter stones.

ALONZO: Why?

LUKE: Because Alph wants to gather stones, and if gives Betty the desire to scatter them, then he gets to gather stones all day long because Betty keeps scattering them for him.

ALONZO: Right.

Now, Alph doesn’t have to do any work – he doesn’t have to spend any of his time doing something he doesn’t like.

However, if he had given Betty the blue pill, they would both desire to gather stones. This means that one of them or both of them would have to spend time on the monotonous task of scattering stones.

So, Alph’s one and only desire – the desire to gather stones – gives him a reason to give Betty the red pill.

LUKE: Okay, I’m with you so far.

ALONZO: Good. So, you see that by using nothing more mysterious than desires, we have shown how these desires can be reasons to act so as to influence the desires that others acquire.

LUKE: Right.

ALONZO: Now, let us say that instead of giving Alph red and blue pills, we tell him that he can affect Betty’s desires through praise and condemnation instead. By giving Betty praise when she scatters stones, Betty acquires a desire for scattering stones. Soon, she’s scattering stones not because she is being praised for it, but because she likes it.

LUKE: You know what else I noticed? If Alph gives Betty the desire to scatter stones – whether through a pill or through praise – this actually makes it better for both of them, not just for Alph. Because if Betty has a desire to scatter stones, and Alph is constantly gathering them, then Betty gets to constantly fulfill her desire, too. But if Alph had given Betty a desire to gather stones, not only would his desire to gather stones have been thwarted whenever he had to take time out to scatter them again, the same would be true for Betty.

ALONZO: Right. If Alph had given Betty the blue pill, then they would fight over who gets to scatter stones. Each would have a reason to be lazy and get the other to do all the scattering. But by giving Betty a desire to scatter stones rather than a desire to gather stones, Alph is giving Betty a desire that she can fulfill constantly, rather than a desire that she can fulfill only half the time. There’s nothing to fight over.

Now, this is just a simple model to show how desires can be reasons to affect other desires. In this case, a desire to gather stones translates into a reason to give Betty the red pill (or to praise Betty for scattering stones) in order to give Betty a desire to scatter stones.

LUKE: Right.

Now let’s try applying this to a more complex world with billions of people and see if we can find some parallels.

LUKE: Okay.

ALONZO: In the same way that Alph has reason to give Betty a desire to scatter stones, I think it’s reasonable to say that we have reason to give each other an aversion to lying, for example.

LUKE: Wait. Why do we have reason to give each other an aversion to lying? Is it because lying is intrinsically wrong?

ALONZO: Of course not. Think of it this way. You can do a better job fulfilling your desires if you are surrounded by people who are honest. You can do it better than you can if you are surrounded by people who are deceitful, for sure. That’s your reason to praise honesty and condemn lying.

Just like Alph can spend more time gathering stones by giving Betty a desire to scatter stones, you can spend more of your time fulfilling your desires by giving other people desires to be honest. And everybody else can better fulfill their desires by giving you a desire to be honest. That is why they are out there praising honesty and condemning deceit – or, they would be, if they knew what was good for them.

LUKE: Okay, so my reason to praise honesty is that a world of honest people helps me fulfill my desires. And John Doe – his reason to praise honesty is that a world of honest people helps him fulfill his desires. And Mary Lou – her reason to praise honesty is that a world of honest people helps her fulfill her desires.

ALONZO: And so on. And so on.

LUKE: And that’s a pretty uncontroversial way to talk about reasons to do something. You’re not saying there are categorical imperatives or intrinsic values or divine commands or anything mysterious like that which generate reasons for action. You’re just saying that desires generate reasons for action, for example that my desire to drink coffee is a reason for me to drink coffee.

ALONZO: Yes. But the main point I would want to make is that we have ways of evaluating desires. There are desires we have a lot of reasons to cause each other to have. Some desires, like some types of coffee, are better than others.

LUKE: Now Alonzo, when you say some desires are better than others just like some types of coffee are better than others, that sounds to me like moral relativism – that morality is all a matter of taste, like coffee.

ALONZO: That’s exactly why we are not using moral terms yet. You are attaching assumptions to what I just said that don’t fit. Set that aside for now.

LUKE: Okay, yeah, you’re right.

ALONZO: At this point, we are just dealing with the simple claim that desires give us reasons to choose some things over others. More specifically, people have a lot of reasons to use praise and condemnation to change the desires that others have – and others have reasons to change the desires we have. Is there anything in this story that seems like it’s not true?

LUKE: Not really. That story seems to be built on pretty uncontroversial claims, like the claim that our desires give us reason to act, that some desires tend to fulfill other desires, and that at least some desires can be affected by praise and condemnation.

ALONZO: Okay, then. In the next episode, let’s look at some other relations between desires and actions.

Audio clips

(in order of appearance)

* marks royalty-free music. With copyrighted music, we use only short clips and hope this qualifies as Fair Use. Fair Use is defined in the courts, but please note that we make no profit from this podcast, and we hope to bring profit to the copyright owners by linking listeners to somewhere they can purchase the music. If you are a copyright owner and have a complaint, please contact us and we will respond immediately. The text and the recordings of Luke and Alonzo for this podcast are licensed with Creative Commons license Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0, which means you are welcome to republish or remix this work as long as you (1) cite the original source, and (2) share your remix using the same license, and (3) do not use it for commercial purposes.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk September 28, 2010 at 6:54 am

How ironic: a post entitled “Morality in the Real World” is a science fiction piece about two people on a fictional planet.

  (Quote)

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe September 28, 2010 at 7:02 am

‘A Harmony of Desires’, on which this conversation is based, is among my favorite of Alonzo’s posts, and you guys better it by adding beautiful humor. You guys, rock on!

  (Quote)

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe September 28, 2010 at 7:10 am

@Reginald, that’s not fair. That was a simplification on which the more real-world concept of honesty was built on. What’s wrong with the illustration?

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe September 28, 2010 at 7:27 am

Reginald Selkirk

How ironic: a post entitled “Morality in the Real World” is a science fiction piece about two people on a fictional planet.

Yep, I agree, it is. Luke and I make the same comment in a future episode.

LUKE: … I’m also worried about the fact that we’ve spent a lot of time about a fantasy world with Alph and Betty …. But the podcast is called, “Morality in the REAL World.” Don’t you sense some sort of disconnect there?

But, if you took a class on “Physics in the Real World”, you’d start off on lectures about systems with massless strings and frictionless pullies. The physics teacher who did not do this is guilty of making his subject matter unnecessarily complex.

  (Quote)

Cyril September 28, 2010 at 7:47 am

Question.

In previous expositions of desirism, there’s a lot of technical terminology that comes into play in expressing the BDI theory that desirism is based on. And while you’ve kept such words in the podcast, you use them without introduction. Was this because?:

a) You think the terms are self-explanatory, and therefore don’t need any explanation,
or
b) They need refinement to understand the nitty-gritty, but you’re starting in broad swaths and working inward.

  (Quote)

Joel September 28, 2010 at 8:09 am

There seems to be a problem.

Praise and condemnation can mean moral praise and moral condemnation. Obviously, no moral theory can be built upon a a praise/condemnation model that presupposes “moral” value. Thus, I assume that Luke and Alonzo are talking about non-moral praise and condemnation. However, such non-moral praise or condemnation isn’t a free lunch. Some people like praise more than others, and for some people, condemnation slides right off. And if these basic tools of desire molding aren’t as universal as the OP shows, how can they be used to establish morality?

  (Quote)

lukeprog September 28, 2010 at 8:10 am

Cyril, we’ll be revisiting them, especially in episodes 11-20.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe September 28, 2010 at 9:59 am

Joel

Praise and condemnation can mean moral praise and moral condemnation. Obviously, no moral theory can be built upon a a praise/condemnation model that presupposes “moral” value.

“Praise” and “condemnation” in this context would include something as simple as a smile or a grunt – a pat on the back, or an angry growl.

We can discuss at a later time whether or not to call these “moral” praise or condemnation. For the purposes of this essay, I am simply concerned with the acts themselves – acts that communicate approval and encouragement, or disapproval and discouragement. We certainly know that these communications exist and have an effect on the behavior of others in the community, even among animals.

  (Quote)

Yair September 28, 2010 at 10:09 am

Ai! The hidden assumptions! They hurt! They hurt! … Not sure I like this method of presentation, it is (by the nature of the medium) imprecise.

I would ask the following points be clarified in future episodes:

1) Sure, you can influence others’ desires… but what about influencing other things to affect their behavior? Like their beliefs and thought-patterns? Like, say, encouraging people to think more skeptically and scientifically, and to reject false theology or religion. Or what about influencing their financial situation, technological capabilities, or life (as in, killing them)? There is much more that will affect how they affect my goals. Why focus only on desires? Why not treat the whole gestalt?

2) There is a key point which is the assumption that your desires would be furthered by encouraging honesty. No doubt, this is true in practice for just about everyone – but surely we could find exceptions (perhaps in the looney bin, but still). It is critical to explicitly acknowledge that what furthers “our” desires hinges on an assumption of Normativity, or an underlying common human nature. Without this, talking about what serves “our” desires is not only empty, it is disconnected from the naturalistic reality of what “we” are.

3) Another key piece missing is the discussing of influencing my own desires. You’re focusing on competition of desires between individuals, but there is also competition within the self.

4) Choosing “honesty” is a very interesting choice, as it leads to the Kantian line of reasoning that certain desires are inherent from the very structure of Reason. This line of reasoning can be extended through evolutionary thinking (e.g. even aliens will need, and hence want, to feed).

5) A related issue is the role of irrationality in this calculus of desires – what if Alph irrationally thinks getting Betty to scatter stones will aid him? “Should” he offer her the blue or the red pill? Red in the sense that it will further his primary desires, blue in the sense that it will further his secondary (wrongly deduced) ones. Curiouser and curiouser does the Kantian rabbit hole goes.

6) Finally, if you’re going to talk about morality in the realm world, you better tie all of this to neurology. Neural-net attractors such as desires can lie dormant and are plastic and dynamic entities that change under introspection, with a dominance-asserting mechanism (neural “fame”) that bears no necessary connection to the primary/secondary (desire) distinction, and are mostly unconscious. Should I work to uncover and think over, and hence change, my unconscious desires? Should I ignore a repressed desire or ignore my desire to repress it?

Well, that’s enough for now, I guess.

In other words – it’s all well and good, but man is this way of presentation slow.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe September 28, 2010 at 10:55 am

yair

In other words – it’s all well and good, but man is this way of presentation slow. Yair

Yep.

Ai! The hidden assumptions! They hurt! They hurt!

Can you identify any specific hidden assumptions? (I know that there are some here, We’ve already written a couple of podcasts to address some of them, but I would like to know if you know about any that we don’t – any that might ‘hurt’.)

1) Sure, you can influence others’ desires… but what about influencing other things to affect their behavior? Like their beliefs and thought-patterns?

We will be discussing these. But, in part, your question here will turn about to be a bit like picking up a book on whales and complaining, “What about fish?” Of course, some mention on how to distinguish whales from fish and why fish are not whales might be warranted.

2) There is a key point which is the assumption that your desires would be furthered by encouraging honesty. No doubt, this is true in practice for just about everyone – but surely we could find exceptions…

Yes. In the Real World there are definitely exceptions. A theory of morality in the real world will have to respect that fact, and we will.

…what furthers “our” desires hinges on an assumption of Normativity, or an underlying common human nature.

Nope. We’ll get to that in a bit. Answers about what furthers “our” desires do not hinge on any kind of an assumption of normativity or a common nature. We can throw beings into a community with a mix of desires and still make sense of statements concerning which desires (if any) will fulfill the most and strongest of those desires.

3) Another key piece missing is the discussing of influencing my own desires. You’re focusing on competition of desires between individuals, but there is also competition within the self.

Yes. There is also competition within the self. Which is an interesting subject of study in its own right. Somebody dealing with an addiction, or trying to lose weight, directly experiences these types of conflicts.

These types of facts are all a part of the overall theory.

4) Choosing “honesty” is a very interesting choice, as it leads to the Kantian line of reasoning that certain desires are inherent from the very structure of Reason.

“Leads to” in what sense? As in “implies the truth of?” I don’t see the implication.

5) A related issue is the role of irrationality in this calculus of desires – what if Alph irrationally thinks getting Betty to scatter stones will aid him?

Yep. We’ll get to that. (Spolier alert: Red)

6) Finally, if you’re going to talk about morality in the realm world, you better tie all of this to neurology.

Yep. Episode . . . 12, I think, we will start touching a bit on that.

Should I work to uncover and think over, and hence change, my unconscious desires? Should I ignore a repressed desire or ignore my desire to repress it?

It depends.

It’s like, “Should I take that job in Phoenix?

It depends.

Anyway, this is an excellent set of questions. Just the type that will allow us to build a number of future episodes.

  (Quote)

lukeprog September 28, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Yair,

I agree with Alonzo that those are all good questions, many of which we address in future episodes that are already written, and some of which we should write into additional episodes. Keep ‘em coming.

  (Quote)

Polymeron September 28, 2010 at 1:24 pm

One underlying assumption you explicitly make is that, by praising someone for an action, you can cultivate in them a desire for that action that is independent of further praise. Now, that may be true, but I think an assumption this serious carries a big “[citation needed]” mark over it.

Specifically, it is very possible that what you are cultivating here is not a desire for the act itself, at all. The person has a desire for praise, and what you are cultivating is a *belief* that the action will lead to praise, thereby encouraging that behavior. Shaking that belief would then stop the behavior.

It seems to me that this distinction is important and I’d like to understand if we can actually cultivate and abate desires, rather than just augment or suppress them with other desires, before we proceed.

Unrelated to this question, I’ll point out that the calculus involved with desires is a complicated one. Sure, it would benefit me to have honest people around me, but condemning dishonesty also entails a harsher reaction from people when they catch me at a lie or deceit, thus harming my interests. Since most of us are dishonest to some degree, we now need to juggle several factors: The benefit from influencing others to be honest, the added harm when getting caught in a lie, the chance of actually getting *caught* in a lie… In fact, trying to maximize the benefits may be one reason why people promote different standards of honesty, saying some lies are ok.

I know desirism isn’t about “what should I do in situation X?” but rather “What should I desire to do, not just in situation X?”. But as the honesty example shows, some intricate calculus can happen at that level, too.

  (Quote)

TaiChi September 28, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I’ve not much to add, except to say that if Betty has no desires, neither praise nor condemnation will have any effect on her. It’s all pretty uncontroversial.

  (Quote)

AlonzoFyfe September 28, 2010 at 4:58 pm

I’ve not much to add, except to say that if Betty has no desires, neither praise nor condemnation will have any effect on her. It’s all pretty uncontroversial. TaiChi

Betty could be “programmed” so that when she hears voice utterances that contain the patterns of “praise”, then she acquires a desire for that which was praised, and if she hears voice utterances that contain the patterns of “condemnation”, then she acquires aversions to that which is condemned.

In this way, giving Betty praise or condemnation is like feeding her the blue pill or the red pill. It is simply a cause that triggers an effect.

But, even if we want to go with the claim that desires are necessary for praise and condemnation to work, we can give Betty those desires and continue with the thought experiment. It does not effect the point of the story one way or the other.

  (Quote)

cl September 28, 2010 at 5:36 pm

While I appreciate the improved clarity and sincerity of effort, I was still disappointed. I felt that you started off on the right foot, with all the talk about justification and describing desirism without moral terms, but, all that seemed to vaporize right when it needed to solidify. It felt to me like you’re belaboring the obvious, and not explaining the connection between the obvious and morality. In due time, I suppose.

Getting to the meat first:

ALONZO: … In this case, a desire to gather stones translates into a reason to give Betty the red pill (or to praise Betty for scattering stones) in order to give Betty a desire to scatter stones.

LUKE: Right.

Now let’s try applying this to a more complex world with billions of people and see if we can find some parallels.

LUKE: Okay.

ALONZO: In the same way that Alph has reason to give Betty a desire to scatter stones, I think it’s reasonable to say that we have reason to give each other an aversion to lying, for example.

This is where we depart. As usual, Alonzo’s use of “we” is loaded: it is only true for a subset of people: people that already have the desire to receive only true statements. Of course, most people in the world exist in that subset. In fact, it might be that all people in the world exist in that subset [which would then make it a set]. However, what happens when the example gets fuzzy? What happens when we evaluate the aversion to pederasty? Trash TV? Smoking? Do pederasts have reasons for action to promote an aversion to pederasty? Do those who enjoy trash TV have reasons for action to promote an aversion to trash TV? Do smokers have reasons for action to promote an aversion to smoking? If so, what are they? If not, on what grounds can we use condemnation to mold these peoples’ desires?

Now the lesser objections and questions:

…Alonzo Fyfe and I explain how we can have reasons to give other people certain desires…

For me – and I would imagine for most people – that never needed explaining. It’s quite obvious how we can have reasons to mold other peoples’ desires: everybody has interests, and the interests of one necessarily affect the interests of others. Even the lower animals are on the up and up in this regard.

[desirism] justifies some of our moral claims and moral practices, though not all of them. For example, it says that moral claims that appeal to a God have no merit.

That’s an example of an unjustified claim, and it bothers me that Alonzo and Luke refuse to extend to DCT the same credit they extend to error theory. Isn’t it presumptuous to rule DCT out from the start, especially since we don’t actually know if God exists or not? I can’t think of anything else besides bias that could explain such special pleading. However, enough about that, because I already get that nobody cares – especially atheists.

I didn’t say that a moral theory is something that shows that “rape is wrong” or “charity is a virtue.” Once we have a theory of morality, then we can use it to determine if a statement like, “rape is wrong” can be justified. These two types of questions occur on two different levels. [Luke]

How so? It seems to me that if we can use a moral theory to justify a statement like “rape is wrong,” then that moral theory is something that shows that rape is wrong. In fact, “show” can be synonymous with “justify” in that context. What’s the difference?

…we have ways of evaluating desires. There are desires we have a lot of reasons to cause each other to have. Some desires, like some types of coffee, are better than others. [Alonzo]

I see your point here, but if you wish to avoid confusion due to laden assumptions, why use “better” at all? I suggest that you go back through this transcript, and replace all instances of “good” with “desire fulfilling,” and then replace all instances of “better” with “more desire fulfilling.” It seems to me that phrases like “better, good, bad, evil” etc. invite the intrinsic value comparisons and confusion you wish to avoid.

This still seems like a theory of pragmatism rather than morality.

  (Quote)

TaiChi September 28, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Fyfe,
I’m not sure that there’s a difference between Betty’s being “programmed” to acquire desires correlating with praise, and her actually having a desire to be praised. After all, these are functionally the same, and I’m skeptical whether there is anything more to desires than the explanatory role being exhausted by this function.
But you’re quite right that this doesn’t affect your point.

  (Quote)

Garren September 28, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Is a desire “good” if increasing it across all people helps fulfill more/greater desires overall, but increasing it also thwarts more/greater desires within a subgroup? (Assume opposite results for decreasing the desire across all people.)

Many people in the subgroup have a reason to discourage the desire.
Many people outside the subgroup have a reason to encourage the desire.

Even though more/greater desires are fulfilled overall by encouraging the desire, I don’t think it would be correct to say that “we” overall have a reason to encourage the desire. Many of us would have the opposite reason. If reasons for action are essential to justify calling a desire “good” or “bad,” then the same desire in the same situation would evaluate as “good” for some people and “bad” for others.

It seems you would need an ideal (i.e. fictional) person who embodies the desires of all people in order to get a unified, reason-based evaluation for a given desire in an arbitrary situation. But since this ideal person doesn’t exist, there’s no reason to think any real person’s reasons for actions match up to the list of good/bad evaluations for all desires considered across all people.

  (Quote)

Joel September 29, 2010 at 1:18 am

Alonzo,

The main point of my first post was not about the problem of presupposing moral praise or condemnation. It was about how:

Some people like praise more than others, and for some people, condemnation slides right off. And if these basic tools of desire molding aren’t as universal as the OP shows, how can they be used to establish morality?

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe September 29, 2010 at 7:04 am

Joel

Some people like praise more than others, and for some people, condemnation slides right off. And if these basic tools of desire molding aren’t as universal as the OP shows, how can they be used to establish morality? Joel

You will start to see us address some of these concerns in Episode 4, coming up.

However, a method does not have to be 100% effective 100% of the time to be useful. A vaccine, for instance, can merely improve resistance to a disease and it would still be worthwhile to take it.

Not only does the OP not “show” that these tools are universal. I will claim that they are not universal. But, they do not need to be.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe September 29, 2010 at 7:16 am

Garren

….there’s no reason to think any real person’s reasons for actions match up to the list of good/bad evaluations for all desires considered across all people.

This is true.

Well, it is theoretically possible, but extremely unlikely as a matter of fact.

And any moral theory that was not consistent with this fact would not be a moral theory for the real world.

  (Quote)

Garren September 29, 2010 at 7:33 am

Alonzo,

Would it then be fair to say Desire Utilitarianism is a motivational externalist theory of ethics?

It seems a member of the minority I described earlier could be a Desire Utilitarianist, realize it is a fact (given the theory and the desires of the entire group) that one of his desires is a “bad” desire, yet be correct that he himself only has reason for action to promote the desire.

  (Quote)

Silas September 29, 2010 at 7:47 am

Jesus, the music is totally unnecessary and hokey. What’s up with that dude?

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe September 29, 2010 at 9:53 am

Garren

Would it then be fair to say Desire Utilitarianism is a motivational externalist theory of ethics?

Yep.

  (Quote)

woodchuck64 September 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm

cl,

However, what happens when the example gets fuzzy?

Fuzzy data can only lead to fuzzy conclusions in science, so it seems to me fuzzy understanding of the play of desires in particular cases can only lead to fuzzy moral conclusions under desirism. But this is what I usually see with “folk” moral decisions already: when we can clearly work out the desires, it is also turns out to be the case that the moral decision is clear; when we can’t work out the desires easily, reasonable people seem to disagree as to whether it is right or wrong.

Desirism, however, says that fuzzy moral questions can be eventually resolved in much the same way science eventually solves problems, by continued and better observation/measuring/quantifying. I think a methodology of desire observation/measuring/quantifying should be possible in theory; it will start out rough and error prone but improve over time as technology improves and more becomes known about human behavior (and I hope future episodes address this). Do you think that such a methodology is actually impossible in theory? Or do you think desirism is practically useless until it has a perfect methodology?

  (Quote)

bossmanham October 1, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Who says fulfilling desires is good?

  (Quote)

AlonzoFyfe October 2, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Bossanham

Who says fulfilling desires is good? bossmanham

Nobody that I know of.

Well, at least not int he sense of its being necessarily good.

In fact, Luke and I just recorded the episode in which we explicitly discuss the goodness or non-goodness of desire fulfillment.

  (Quote)

cl October 5, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Garren,

Is a desire “good” if increasing it across all people helps fulfill more/greater desires overall, but increasing it also thwarts more/greater desires within a subgroup? (Assume opposite results for decreasing the desire across all people.)

Many people in the subgroup have a reason to discourage the desire.
Many people outside the subgroup have a reason to encourage the desire.

Even though more/greater desires are fulfilled overall by encouraging the desire, I don’t think it would be correct to say that “we” overall have a reason to encourage the desire.

Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been getting at: Alonzo’s use of “we” and “people generally” is loaded. Good to see some confirmation every now and again.

If reasons for action are essential to justify calling a desire “good” or “bad,” then the same desire in the same situation would evaluate as “good” for some people and “bad” for others.

It seems you would need an ideal (i.e. fictional) person who embodies the desires of all people in order to get a unified, reason-based evaluation for a given desire in an arbitrary situation. But since this ideal person doesn’t exist, there’s no reason to think any real person’s reasons for actions match up to the list of good/bad evaluations for all desires considered across all people.

I don’t usually backpat, but you’ve hit the nail on the head. It would take a coherent response to these and other objections before I could consider desirism respectable.

Joel,

Some people like praise more than others, and for some people, condemnation slides right off.

Even more than that, condemnation often motivates individuals towards that which is condemned. Alonzo replied to you that this would be dealt with in Episode 4, but I read Episode 4 today and did not find this addressed. He can correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I can tell, Alonzo’s response to this observation is basically that we’re screwed when this happens, and that any theory that says otherwise lies.

Alonzo,

And any moral theory that was not consistent with this fact would not be a moral theory for the real world.

That’s part of what makes desirism “not a moral theory for the real world” IMHO. You make evaluations using the generic “we” and “people generally” when, as I’ve explained and now Garren takes a stab, those things don’t exist. I really hope you will address these concerns in upcoming episodes.

woodchuck64,

Fuzzy data can only lead to fuzzy conclusions in science, so it seems to me fuzzy understanding of the play of desires in particular cases can only lead to fuzzy moral conclusions under desirism. But this is what I usually see with “folk” moral decisions already: when we can clearly work out the desires, it is also turns out to be the case that the moral decision is clear; when we can’t work out the desires easily, reasonable people seem to disagree as to whether it is right or wrong.

I agree, and that’s what I expect any true theory of morality to do: guide us towards the right answer, if in fact one exists.

I think a methodology of desire observation/measuring/quantifying should be possible in theory; … Do you think that such a methodology is actually impossible in theory?

No, I think such a methodology is plausible in theory. Though, I remain confused as to why desirists apparently have no interest in such a methodology. That aside, did you ever look at my attempts I pointed you to before? If yes, and you’ve commented on them, I apologize. If not, do you have any suggestions as to how they might be improved?

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }