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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now let’s try applying this to a more complex world with billions of people and see if we can find some parallels.
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.
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- “Hope” by Anoel*
- “East Hastings” from F# A# ∞ by Godspeed! You Black Emperor
- clip from opening of The Day the Earth Stood Still
- “Through the Ergosphere” by TheBlueMask.com
- “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2″ from Hungarian Rhapsodies for Orchestra by Franz Liszt / Zubin Mehta
- “I Feel Love” from The Complex by Blue Man Group
- “Love Lockdown” from You Are Not Alone by Nichole Alden
- “Pizzicato” from Sylvia by Leo Delibes / Andrew Mogrelia
- “Cantus Inaequalis” from Songs of Sanctuary by Adiemus
- “Kayama” from Songs of Sanctuary by Adiemus
* 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.