Morality in the Real World 05: Questions and Answers #1

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 19, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

In episode 05 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I answer questions from our listeners about episodes 01 through 04.

Download Episode 05

You can also listen to this podcast at archive.org, or subscribe in iTunes or out of iTunes. See the full list of episodes here.

Transcript of episode 05:

ANNOUNCER: We are here at the press conference where Luke Muehlhauser and Alonzo Fyfe will address questions concerning their first four episodes of Morality in the Real World. We expect them to make an opening statement and then take questions from the studio audience.

They are approaching the microphone now. Here’s Alonzo.

ALONZO: Hello. Thank you all for coming.

Before we start taking questions, I have a brief statement I’d like to make.

In terms of marketing desirism, it probably wasn’t the wisest step that Luke and I could make to tie desirism to atheism. There is no doubt that we live in a highly prejudiced society where linking anything to atheism is guaranteed to cause a lot of people to close their minds to those ideas immediately, and to find twisted and distorted interpretations that are easy to attack.

And it wasn’t necessary. There is nothing strictly incoherent if somebody believes that there is a God that created the universe, and God created a universe in which the claims that are made by desirism are true. Desirism is not built on the assumption that no God exists, though it is certainly compatible with that view.

For my part, I link atheism and desirism precisely because of this prejudice. One way to fight widespread bigotry that relates atheism to immorality is by explicitly talking about atheism and morality.

I don’t know if Luke has anything to add to that…

LUKE: Nope! But let me just say that if you left a question on one of the earlier episodes and we don’t answer it here, it’s probably because we already have another episode planned in the future where we’re going to address those issues. But anyway, let’s look at the first question.

ALONZO: Our first comment was posted on the web page for episode 3. A reader going by the name Yair said this podcast is “all well and good, but man is this way of presentation slow.”

Do you care to comment on that?

LUKE: Sure. We’re doing something that hasn’t been done before with desirism, which is to present the theory systematically. Alonzo has presented a lot of pieces of the theory in his blog and other writings, but we haven’t seen what the theory looks like from the ground up. So, that’s what we’re doing.

ALONZO: Besides, I have learned from experience that it’s no faster to take shortcuts. If you take shortcuts by leaving something out, somebody will ask questions about the gap, and somebody else will think you had some evil and underhanded reason for glossing over whatever was cut. So, I think it is better to be thorough. Though, to be honest, we are still not being as thorough as we could be – not yet.

ALONZO: Our second question also comes from the comments to episode 3. Just to refresh your memory, that episode concerned two aliens, Alph and Betty on a distant planet. Reginald Selkirk remarked, quote:

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

LUKE: Alonzo, you and I talked about this before recording the episode.

ALONZO: That’s right. Let me tell you a bit of a story which ties in to my thinking on this issue. When I first started college, I was a physics major. I wanted to be an astronomer. My very first physics class was on mechanics, and I remember the teacher giving us all sorts of lectures and problems to solve where we were told to assume massless strings and frictionless surfaces and the like.

We were studying physics in the real world. But, to get a handle on the concepts we would be using, we assumed a simplified world where a string has no mass and surfaces have no friction.

That is what we did in episode 3. We simplified our world by assuming one person with one desire, and then we added one other person with one other desire.

LUKE: Besides, the principle that we illustrated in that episode is a fact about the real world. Desires provide people with reasons to mold the desires of others. We used Alph and Betty as a way of focusing attention on that one principle, but that principle is something that is true in the real world.

LUKE: Now, Alonzo, here is a question from Polymeron. PolyMEron? I don’t know. Anyway, quote:

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.

ALONZO: Hmm. Well, I have to admit I thought this was self-evident. Somebody who performs an action for the sake of a reward such as parental praise or attention soon comes to value that action for its own sake. Soon, we will be looking at the propositions of desirism in more detail, and I’ll keep in mind to provide those citations.

Okay, Luke, the next question is for you, I believe. There was a bit of a discussion attached to the ‘God is not the ground for morality’ episode where people seemed to think we had argued, “divine command theory can’t be true because God doesn’t exist.” The accusation is that we were simply starting with the assumption of atheism.

LUKE: Well actually, the argument doesn’t assume that there is no God. It takes the form of a dilemma. Either God exists or God does not exist. If God exists, we have all of these problems with a God-based morality. If God does not exist then that’s a real serious problem for God-based morality.

Besides, I’m not just assuming God’s nonexistence. This podcast is hosted on a website called Common Sense Atheism, where I have hundreds of posts explaining how we know God doesn’t exist.

ALONZO: Our next question comes from Yair again. Yair wrote:

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

LUKE: Alonzo, what do you have to say about that?

ALONZO: Well, I hope that Yair saw some of his question answered in episode 4. There, we presented three ways of influencing Ebenezer Scrooge’s behavior. In addition to the option of influencing desires, we looked at influencing Scrooge’s beliefs and also at influencing the environment by threatening to punish or promising to reward him. These all have their place. However, I would argue that morality is specifically concerned with molding desires.

LUKE: Yeah, but we’re not really talking about morality right now. So far, we’re just focusing on the basic facts that desirism draws upon. One of those basic facts is that reward and punishment, changing beliefs, and changing desires are three ways that we have for molding the behavior of others.

ALONZO: But one reader said that there was a fourth way of influencing behavior. Charles wrote:

I just wanted to mention there is a “fourth way” that works for small children based on attachment parenting theory. The idea that children will do what their parents want or say because of an innate desire to please their parents. We don’t use any praise, condemnation, rewards, or punishment. We do however spend a lot of time working on attachment.

LUKE: I think that’s a great point. Attachment fits into the “molding desires” category – not by the use of praise and condemnation but, instead, by using attachment. Alonzo and I focus a lot on praise and condemnation because that seems to be the subject matter of morality. But actually, we usually talk about “social tools such as praise, condemnation and so on,” and the use of attachment is another social tool. So yeah, that’s totally valid.

Of course, there are other ways to mold desires, too, such as drugs or perhaps some future neuroscientific tools that can remap our neuronal connections or something. But that’s probably the subject matter of what we call “medicine”, not what we call “morality.” But yeah, attachment is another social tool that can be used to mold desires.

Now Alonzo, you wanted to address this next question. Steve made a comment to episode 4 that said:

It’s more than obvious that this podcast is merely establishing some basic premises and setting itself up (notice how the option of praise & condemnation is seen as the most effective)…

ALONZO: Yeah. If the impression we left is that praise and condemnation is the most effective in some absolute sense, then we left a false impression.

Each of the three options we mentioned – reward and punishment, changing beliefs, and changing desires – is the most effective in its own area. One of the problems with praise and condemnation is that it is only effective in the long term and, sometimes, it is not effective at all. When that happens, then you need to consider one of the other two options.

LUKE: That’s right. If you see some stranger dragging your child into his car, that’s not the time to draw out praise and condemnation as your most effective option for stopping him. In those types of circumstances, I would recommend the first option – find a way to threaten him. Call 911. Call the people with the guns.

ALONZO: That’s right. And when the armed Nazi soldiers come to your house looking for the Jews that used to live next door, option 2 might be your best option. You lie. “I saw them get into their friend’s car and drive off. I don’t know where they went.”

LUKE: Right. I think the “armed Nazi soldier” component is probably going to rule out the option of threatening them. And standing there and condemning the Nazi guards isn’t likely to produce the best results for you or the neighbors that are now hiding in your attic.

ALONZO: Moving along, the next question comes from Alonzo…

LUKE: Hold on. That’s cheating!

ALONZO: Hey, it’s our podcast. I can insert questions if I want to.

LUKE: Fine. Go ahead.

ALONZO: Alonzo is concerned that some listeners probably think there is an unbridgable gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, and we should address that objection right away.

LUKE: “Alonzo is concerned.” Let me tell you, Alonzo is concerned about a lot of things. If I were to show you a list of the things that Alonzo has worried about in recording this podcast, it would be…

ALONZO: I don’t think that the list will answer the question.

LUKE: Yeah, well, can I show them the list anyway? It’s pretty funny.

ALONZO: No.

LUKE: Okay. Um… We don’t want to talk about the is-ought gap before we get to that topic. So far, we are staying exclusively on the “is” side of the equation. For example, we claim that a desire gives an agent reason to mold the malleable desires of others in ways that contribute to the fulfillment of that desire. We also claim that there are three types of tools available for modifying Scrooge’s behavior – we can use threats or rewards, we can change his beliefs, or we can change his desires. These things are facts. They’re on the “is” side of the equation.

Now when we get to a point where we are leaving the realm of fact and entering the realm of value, then we can talk about the is-ought gap.

ALONZO: The alleged is-ought gap.

LUKE: Yeah, the alleged is-ought gap. Or, in other words, we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

ALONZO: The next question is an audio question:

Hello, my name is B.J. Marshall, and I’m calling from Baltimore, Maryland with a question about Alph and Betty and their morality. I can see how Betty and Alph could respectively use praise and condemnation to promote desires that would lead toward their fulfillment. In this case, one desire is to collect rocks; while the other, to scatter them. My question is this: what happens when the number of stakeholders one must consider increases to, say, the level of my neighborhood? Betty and Alph each had only one other person to consider when using praise and condemnation in order to promote good desires. How should I go about using praise and condemnation when attempting to promote good desires where lots of people are involved? Thank you for considering my question and producing a great podcast!

ALONZO: There’s two things to say. First, we haven’t talked about Alph’s and Betty’s morality yet. Only about what they have reason to do. We want to save the introduction of moral terms until later.

Second, the question of how to handle multiple complex desires will certainly be important. We will give some hints about how to answer that in the next few episodes. In Episode 9 specifically, we are going to ask “What can we say when there is a whole bunch of Alphs and Bettys?” Can they determine which desire to give the next person to come into their world?

LUKE: Alonzo, I have a question.

ALONZO: Okay.

LUKE: What else are we going to talk about about in the next few episodes?

ALONZO: Well, we’re going to talk about how we’re not saying that desire fulfillment has any special kind of value. We’re also going to talk about how to measure and compare desires. Then we’re going to lay down all the propositions of our theory to make it easier for anybody who wants to try to falsify desirism. Then we’re going to go about defending all of those propositions.

LUKE: Whooo! Talk about systematic! They don’t even do that in professional philosophy papers and books!

ALONZO: Well, maybe they should.

LUKE: Cool. Anything else?

ALONZO: Nope, that’s all… for now!

LUKE: Hey Alonzo, we finished our first set! Our first 5 episodes!

ALONZO: Yeah, we did.

LUKE: We need to celebrate. I think it is time… TO ROCK!

Audio clips

(in order of appearance)

  • “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
  • “Instrumental Interlude” from Golem by Richard Lowe Tietelbaum
  • “Trees” from Blue Notebooks by Max Richter (time-stretched)
  • “Escape” from Plunkett and Macleane by Craig Armstrong (time-stretched)
  • “Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)” from Frances the Mute by The Mars Volta

* 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 }

ildi October 19, 2010 at 6:06 am

Music reminds me of my Edgar Froese and Brian Eno days…

Speaking of Eno: Bone Bomb

  (Quote)

Charles October 19, 2010 at 8:09 am

Well, I have to admit I thought this was self-evident. Somebody who performs an action for the sake of a reward such as parental praise or attention soon comes to value that action for its own sake.

This is false. Research shows that children lose interest the rewarded behavior when the reward is removed.

  (Quote)

Charles October 19, 2010 at 8:35 am

Then we’re going to lay down all the propositions of our theory to make it easier for anybody who wants to try to falsify desirism. Then we’re going to go about defending all of those propositions.

Wow! I’m really looking forward to that.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 19, 2010 at 8:48 am

Charles

Research shows that children lose interest the rewarded behavior when the reward is removed.

Loose ALL interest? All the time? Guaranteed?

It would have to be the case that all interest is always lost in order to provide an objection to desirism. As long as there is some capacity to mold desires through praise, then the question of which desires to mold (within those limits) remains.

Well, it would also be an objection if the interest that remains is so infrequent and so weak as to be practically ineffective with respect to future actions.

So, yep, this is definitely something that requires some future research.

  (Quote)

dh October 19, 2010 at 9:05 am

“This is false. Research shows that children lose interest the rewarded behavior when the reward is removed.”

I’m interested in the discussion about desirism because it looks a lot like behaviorism. I don’t have much experience on the philosophy side but I do have some experience in learning theory, behaviorism specifically. From that perspective, I’d have to question a blanket statement like this one. Whether or not “children lose interest in the rewarded behavior” would have to do with the nature of the reinforcer, the skill with which it is utilized, whether or not a behavior was conditioned successfully to a secondary reinforcer. Many variables.

  (Quote)

Chip October 19, 2010 at 10:12 am

LUKE: Whooo! Talk about systematic! They don’t even do that in professional philosophy papers and books!

ALONZO: Well, maybe they should.

Speaking of which… any plans to publish yet? Or do I need to use condemnation to mold your desires?

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 19, 2010 at 11:17 am

dh

I’m interested in the discussion about desirism because it looks a lot like behaviorism.

Well, it doesn’t look like what philosophers have called behaviorism (a theory of the early 1900s that said that mental states do not exist).

In that sense, it is more in tune with late 20th century functionalism (mental states exist and are understood in terms of their functional role in behavior).

Whether or not “children lose interest in the rewarded behavior” would have to do with the nature of the reinforcer, the skill with which it is utilized, whether or not a behavior was conditioned successfully to a secondary reinforcer. Many variables.

Desirism says that a study of these issues would be extremely relevant in determining which desires can be molded, how they can be molded, and what techniques will mold them most efficiently.

  (Quote)

Polymeron October 19, 2010 at 11:17 am

Hey, thanks for addressing my comment! Even though it’s only a promise to further research the issue, I think it’s a possible gap that the theory might be attacked through, so it’s important to close that gap. Beware, beware, those “self-evident” claims! You never know when someone might go around challenging them.

For instance:
“Somebody who performs an action for the sake of a reward such as parental praise or attention soon comes to value that action for its own sake.”

Well, if the “such as parental praise” means to denote a specifically socially empowering reward then yes, MAYBE that is true*. However this does not seem to be the case with all rewards; for instance, a person who performs an action (say, assembling televisions) for monetary compensation may come to even loathe it. Most people generally stop doing the action immediately if reward is withdrawn (“ugh, I never want to check another bolt in my life!”), unless they are already predisposed to do it (i.e. have an existing relevant desire).

Luke _somewhat_ appeased me in the 4th episode, with his anecdotal account of how his desires were changed by condemnation. I want to expand on this.

Let’s examine the antithesis: That desires are not molded by praise and condemnation, but only behavior is. A new hypothesis for why this happens is that the behavior is now coupled with another desire (to receive praise or avoid condemnation), which simply overcomes the old, unchanged desire.
If that were true, we’d expect Luke’s thought process when talking about gay rights to go something like this:
1. I want to hurt gay rights
2. People will condemn me if I express anti-gay sentiments
3. I care more about #2 than about #1
*Therefore, I will not do #1.

However, that seems unlikely. Maybe in the short run, people do this – about to say something, then biting back their words or rethinking their approach. But in the long run, I’d assume Luke’s thought process does not go through this; step #1 simply does not exist. So that might seem like an example where desires are malleable and subject to change by condemnation.

BUT. I might raise a second hypothesis here. Because Luke’s subconscious thought process could well be something like:
1. I want to say what I believe in
2. I believe X about gay rights is true
3. I believe Y about gay rights is false
*Therefore, I will uphold X and deny Y.

Now, when Luke was a Christian, X could be something like “Gay sex is a sin”, and he would say that. Since then his beliefs changed so that he believes sin does not exist, he now say THAT, instead, acting very different – but the desire in question (#1) has not changed at all. So one might argue that his change of attitude was the result of a belief change. Condemnation caused Luke to rethink his facts, maybe, but not change his desires. That would rather ruin the example’s intended purpose (though not its heartwarming factor :) ).

(Sorry for using your mind as a theoretical thought experiment Luke, you know this is all in the abstract, right?)

So this brings us mostly back to square one: Desires need to be shown to be malleable by these actions, at least semi-reliably, in order for these actions to be relevant in desirism – unless I got something wrong here. This of course is a question of fact, and can be settled as such so long as our meters and tests are up to the task. So, I’m still going to wait on those citations :)

I’ll try to wrap this up since I’ve already blathered long enough, but there’s something else I didn’t ask even though it bothered me, because I thought we weren’t far along enough. But you touched on it now, and I’d like to comment:

“Of course, there are other ways to mold desires, too, such as drugs or perhaps some future neuroscientific tools that can remap our neuronal connections or something. But that’s probably the subject matter of what we call “medicine”, not what we call “morality.” But yeah, attachment is another social tool that can be used to mold desires.”

I would like to think that morality would be relevant in these cases too. Would we have strong reasons to promote desires to mold desires through neurosurgery or outright mind control? I believe you compared praise to taking the red (or blue?) pill – maybe if we have a non-social means of affecting desires, this would be relevant to morality? That may not be what we think of as “morality” today, but it still seems relevant and I wonder what desirism has to say about the morality of such actions.

And yes, you’re saying it right the second time. It’s pronounced paw-lee-MEH-ron. Or Neil for short ;)

Keep posting, I find the methodical approach to philosophy extremely refreshing.

*Citation needed.

  (Quote)

cl October 19, 2010 at 11:33 am

In terms of marketing desirism, it probably wasn’t the wisest step that Luke and I could make to tie desirism to atheism. There is no doubt that we live in a highly prejudiced society where linking anything to atheism is guaranteed to cause a lot of people to close their minds to those ideas immediately, and to find twisted and distorted interpretations that are easy to attack.

Well. I’d like to commend you for that, Alonzo. I’ve been arguing that point for some time now, and it’s good to know that it appears to have gotten through. Further, I think it’s entirely reasonable for you as an atheist to connect your theory of morality to atheism, because I agree with you that many – maybe even the majority – of theists are in fact quite bigoted against atheists when it comes to morality.

That said, I’m disappointed in some of the questions and comments you chose to focus on, particularly, 1, 2, and 6. Though it’s your podcast and you guys can do what you want, I think it would behoove you to choose the toughest and most oft-repeated questions. I mean, that Yair thinks the presentation is too slow doesn’t have anything to do with the theory itself. As for Reginald’s quip, why even bother? It was just meant to roast you, and again, responding to it didn’t seem to assist anybody in understanding the theory.

As for your response to Polymeron, it seems inconsistent with your stated penchant for empirical demonstration. If arguments from self-evidence don’t persuade you to believe in God, why should an argument from self-evidence persuade Polymeron of your claim?

There was a bit of a discussion attached to the ‘God is not the ground for morality’ episode where people seemed to think we had argued, “divine command theory can’t be true because God doesn’t exist.”

People “seemed to think” that’s what you argued? I disagree. Rather, that is, in fact, exactly what you argued, in episode 2:

…the biggest problem with God-based morality is that God doesn’t exist.

If God doesn’t exist, God-based morality can’t be true. If that’s not really what you meant, I suggest greater precision with words. You can’t just equivocate like that.

Luke writes,

I’m not just assuming God’s nonexistence. This podcast is hosted on a website called Common Sense Atheism, where I have hundreds of posts explaining how we know God doesn’t exist.

Well, there is a grain of truth in that statement, in the respect that you’re not “just pulling an assumption out of your arse with no supporting arguments.” However, you are assuming the veracity of your arguments sufficient to declare God’s non-existence. In truth, you have hundreds of posts explaining why you believe God does not exist, just as apologists have hundreds of posts explaining why they believe God does exist. You can’t just assert the superiority of your arguments over theirs and handwave away a seemingly intractable debate that’s raged for thousands of years. At least, not if you want to be honest.

  (Quote)

lukeprog October 19, 2010 at 11:59 am

Chip,

Nah. Desire is not the problem…

  (Quote)

Jeff H October 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm

This is false. Research shows that children lose interest the rewarded behavior when the reward is removed.  

I was going to come here and say the same thing. However, on second thought, I think that praise and condemnation are being used in a broader sense than rewards and punishments. Offering rewards might reduce intrinsic motivation in a child, but praising a child for a job well done links more to the child’s esteem and (as far as I am aware) doesn’t lead to the same overjustifying effects that tangible rewards do.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe October 19, 2010 at 12:24 pm

charles; dh; Polymeron

I have to say . . . I find this line of questioning refreshing. They are addressing what desirism genuinely has to say and issues that are significant.

Polymeron

I think that the moral issue of when to use drugs and surgery to alter behavior is quite interesting.

I have touched on it in one sense – whenever people argue that homosexuality should be permitted because one does not have a choice as to whether or not they are a homosexual.

“Do you really want to use that argument?” I ask.

“What if they come up with a pill, or some form of surgery, that actually does ‘cure’ homosexuality? Then, it becomes a choice. What do you want to say on the moral issue of forcing people to undergo this type of treatment? What are the implications with respect to homosexuality if it were, in fact, a choice?”

Or, what if pedophilia is no more of a choice than homosexuality. What if a certain combination of drugs affecting brain development during the 2nd trimester determines whether the brain adopts a structure of “seeking sexual activity with a male adult” or “seeking sexual activity with a female adult” or “seeking sexual activity with a male child” or “seeking sexual activity with a female child”?

What if a method were discovering for treating all of these conditions with surgery or a pill?

In this case, how will the fact that homosexuality is “not a choice” be relevant to its moral permissibility?

All of this relates to the moral question of when it is and is not appropriate to use pills and surgery to alter behavior. And the more scientific information we gain in this area, the more important these questions are going to become.

The “homosexuality is not a choice” argument is a time bomb. With advancing technology, it will eventually go off in the face of those who use it to argue for the permissibility of homosexuality.

Like I said, these are interesting questions.

  (Quote)

Eneasz October 19, 2010 at 12:43 pm

In a way, sexuality of any kind is sorta a choice. There are pills that remove all sexual drive (chemical castration). I’ve heard of people who know they are attracted to children and who want to be good people voluntarily seeking these drugs out. It’s not as good as being able to choose to be attracted to adults, but it’s something.

  (Quote)

cl October 19, 2010 at 12:45 pm

A minor clarification: I said I had been “arguing that point for some time now,” in response to quoting Alonzo thus:

In terms of marketing desirism, it probably wasn’t the wisest step that Luke and I could make to tie desirism to atheism. There is no doubt that we live in a highly prejudiced society where linking anything to atheism is guaranteed to cause a lot of people to close their minds to those ideas immediately, and to find twisted and distorted interpretations that are easy to attack.

While I have argued that point, the point I primarily had in mind was this one:

There is nothing strictly incoherent if somebody believes that there is a God that created the universe, and God created a universe in which the claims that are made by desirism are true.

While I question the implication of the qualifier strictly, otherwise, I say bingo.

Polymeron,

Luke _somewhat_ appeased me in the 4th episode, with his anecdotal account of how his desires were changed by condemnation.

I can see at least two forces at play when an agent changes their desires thus:

1) The condemnation actually made the agent reconsider their beliefs, leading to a rational rejection of the former beliefs; vs.,

2) The condemnation actually hurt or embarrassed the agent, leading to an irrational rejection of the former beliefs.

Sometimes a sharp word will get somebody’s attention, especially if spoken through a friend or loved one. This has certainly happened to me. However, I think that changing one’s mind just because somebody else hurt their feelings – without doing the intellectual work – can also be a sign of intellectual weakness, and ultimately counterproductive.

Also, we need to be careful with condemnation. I mean, think of all the condemnation that’s been heaped on gay people. It often doesn’t help them, and in fact, often hurts them. So, we ought to be careful in our application of condemnation, limiting it to where it is really deserved. Of course, this raises the question of who shall be the arbiter of deserved condemnation, and that can be a tough question to answer.

  (Quote)

dh October 19, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Alonzo,

re:behaviorism. I didn’t mean in terms of whether mental states exist, rather using operant and classical conditioning to modify behavior. Where I’m coming from, a paradigm of behavior modification, it isn’t so much about whether or not mental states exist but rather that I don’t need to have access to your mental states per se in order to change your behavior. (Mental states meaning something more akin to the ability to communicate accurately about them via language. IIRC, OC and CC arose as a way to bypass the language problem.) In that sense it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m wanting to change the behavior of a chicken or a human, only that I understand its desires or motivations and can be in a position to control the outcomes of its behavior. So that’s the framework that I understand already. I’d often wondered what a program would look like that went back and put language back on the table as a tool for use with humans, precisely b/c language can be used as secondary reinforcer for us, and that’s what some of your methodology looks like, when you’re talking about methodology. At any rate, despite what might be differences in our terminology, it’s interesting stuff you’re working out here.

As for terminology, if anybody cares about terminology in psychology, reinforcement and punishment mean something very specific in the OC/CC paradigm. For example, the statement “Offering rewards might reduce intrinsic motivation in a child,” would be a confusion of terms. A reinforcer, rather reinforcement, is by definition that which increases (desired) behavior. (desired by the trainer/parent/who or whatever, not the subject) If something is, in fact, intrinsically motivating it would be considered a primary motivator. If say, approval is a primary motivator for a subject, then and only then, can language be conditioned to serve as a reinforcer for that subject. Whether or not the thing you’re using as “praise” will actually effect the rate of the behavior you’re after will largely depend on whether or not the ground work of conditioning that thing to a primary motivator was laid down (and maintained) effectively.

  (Quote)

dh October 19, 2010 at 2:24 pm

That second paragraph wasn’t directed to Alonzo or anyone specifically, just trying to clear up some terms.

  (Quote)

dh October 19, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Pah. “If something is, in fact, intrinsically motivating it would be considered a primary motivator.” should read, “primary reinforcer” etc. That which is intrinsically motivating can be used as a primary reinforcer.

  (Quote)

drdave October 19, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Alonzo:

The “homosexuality is not a choice” argument is a time bomb. With advancing technology, it will eventually go off in the face of those who use it to argue for the permissibility of homosexuality.

See Greta Christina’s most recent post – Born or Learned? in a discussion of a recent report that gay parents have more gay children than straight. The two “party lines” in the GLBT world have been “gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids” in a an effort to calm the straight world and its fears, and “we’re born that way” in order to avoid the “choice” issue. As she notes, the second seems to contradict the first.

So I am looking forward to the discussion of pills and surgery and conditioning and desires and morality in this area.

  (Quote)

Steven October 19, 2010 at 7:27 pm

drdave, you over-simply the data and the factors of a person’s sexuality. Perhaps people with homosexual parents are more open to the idea that they are homosexual and don’t try to repress their sexual impulses. Maybe kids with heterosexual parents are more reluctant to tell others that they are gay. Also, saying that homosexuality is “learned” denies basic empircal data about receptors in our brain that influence our sexual impulses and decisions–these receptors are certainly NOT influenced by culture or parents; to make such a claim is ridiculous. Furthermore, back when homosexuality was taboo and never talked about it, how would someone “learn to be gay”? It’s all nonsense.

And, hell, let us even suppose that homosexuality is learned. Even then, it doesn’t mean it is within the person’s control to choose who they are and what they are sexually attracted to. Take the 18th century and how women found men with very big beards to be sexy. Today, most girls are starting to go for clean-shaven men. Yet I can almost guarantee that if today’s generation had been raised with a culture that told them that beards are sexually appealing, these girls would go after hairy men. This, I think, illustrates that even if sexually appealing things are “learned”, it doesn’t mean it is a choice, or, at least, a choice as it is made out to be by religious propaganda. That’s all hyperbole. There’s also nothing to avoid with the choice issues. So what, you’re attracted to men. You’re not harming anyone. Who cares, other than the Moral Police?

  (Quote)

drdave October 19, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Steven, you over interpret my comment. I am quite aware there are 11 sexes, depending on chromosomes and uterine environments. Not counting familial environment, cultural environment, and environment environment (pollution, etc). All you did was elaborate on these things. Alonzo commented on the time bomb of “homosexuality is not a choice”, I agreed, and you go off on a tear (not a liquid, a rent). Did you read Greta’s comments? Or just pulled the trigger on the flame thrower?

  (Quote)

Yair October 20, 2010 at 3:55 am

I find Charles’ comment on attachment very interesting. It appears to me there are generally three ways to change someone’s behavior:

(1) Change his beliefs.
(2) Change his desires.
(3) Change his ways of thinking.

And then there are several tools that can be used to change any of these. These are:

(1) Rational discourse. An appeal to reason, often employed to change beliefs but sometimes to change one’s way of thinking (“you have to think critically…”) or, often using fallacious reasoning, desires (“The theory of evolution shows us that we are all part of the same family tree, so we should be kind to our distant relatives…”).

(2) Social pressure. This includes praise and condemnation, but also accolades and expressions of admiration and love or exclusion and exile. I agree with Alonzo that generally social pressure can result in long-lasting desires that persist even when the pressure subsides. Like all other techniques, this can be used to affect any of the three factors: beliefs (“You believe in what?!”), desires (“no son of mine is a fag”), or ways of thinking (“We here are rational folk…”).

(3) Reward and punishment. Again, over the long term I believe people will develop the “habit” of their behavior and rationalize it, so reward and punishment can lead to effects even when their application ceases. And again, all three factors can be influences: beliefs through affecting the expression and spread (“It is illegal to deny the holocaust”), desires (“The punishment for rape is death”), or ways of thinking (“All books of Falsafa will but put to the torch! All such thinkers will join them!”).

(4) Association. Attachment is one example of this, when certain things are made desirable by their association with the attachment-figure. A similar thing happens with idol-worship and celebrities, and with charismatic leaders. An extreme case of attachment is advertisement. One can associate to disgusting and vile things too, as is often done in propaganda. Associating something with cherished or disgusting things can subtly influence one’s beliefs (“Jews are rats”), desires (“For the motherland!”), and ways of thinking (“The Buddha is said to have sat in meditation for a whole day…”).

Am I missing something important? Is my classification wrong? Ought I read someone on the subject?

  (Quote)

Yair October 20, 2010 at 4:12 am

The suggested

(4) Change the environment in which he operates.

I think generally is only meaningful for imprisonment and other such extreme effects. Perhaps for a change in social institutions and customs – one way to decrease rape, for example, is to eliminate all cases where (unmarried) men and women can mingle. It is yet another prespective, I agree.

Praise and condemnation are, I think, better understood as a change in the social pressures that are applied to the person.

  (Quote)

lukeprog October 20, 2010 at 8:17 am

Yair,

The breakdown Alonzo and I suggest is that there are three ways of affecting someone’s behavior, if the belief-desire model of intentional action is true:

(1) Change their beliefs.
(2) Change their desires.
(3) Appeal to their existing beliefs and desires.

  (Quote)

Yair October 20, 2010 at 8:52 am

Wouldn’t appealing to their existing beliefs and desires change their beliefs and/or desires? To the degree it does, it collapses to the first two option. To the degree that it doesn’t, I don’t see why it would change their behavior! If you keep the person with the same beliefs and desires (implictly, at the same intensity of belief and desire, too), then he’ll act in the same way.

I think you and Alonzo also are mistaken in ignoring the impact of changing one’s way of thinking. In the long turn, it can have drastic effects on one’s beliefs and desires. Consider that a large part of what you are attempting to do on this blog involves getting people to think more critically, carefully, and methodically – you wouldn’t be doing that if you didn’t think it could make a difference. The option of changing the way of thinking is certainly necessary at the level of analysis, too, as it is one way to change behavior at least abstractly.

  (Quote)

MichaelPJ October 20, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Interesting stuff, guys!

It looks like human beings are complicated (who would have thought). I think the belief-desire model is a bit of a simplification, but not too much of one.

A question for Luke or Alonzo: given that someone’s actions depend both upon their desires and their beliefs, would you consider it equally good to change someone’s beliefs? So rather than condemning the thief in order to make him stop wanting to steal, you instead try to get him to believe that if he keeps stealing, he will spontaneously combust.

My immediate reaction to that is that it looks like you’re damaging his rationality, and that is a Bad Thing, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Of course, if we can change any bit of the mechanism that leads up to action (i.e. beliefs instead of desires), then in a more complex model it would be natural also to consider changing their “ways of thinking” etc.

  (Quote)

al friedlander October 27, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Something I thought about was the impact desirism would have (if any) on current modes of psychotherapy. It already sounds like some variant of cognitive-behavioral-therapy (maybe?)

  (Quote)

Patrick October 28, 2010 at 4:11 am

Okay, I just read the transcript (see my first comment on the previous episode for why). This has helped me *a lot*, in fact it has addressed most of my problems with your podcast. Only it seems I’ll have to wait a few months before more episodes are out so I can then listen to them on a whole :)

So listener questions were a great idea. For me, anyway :)

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }