“Evidence for Desirism”

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 24, 2010 in Ethics

A reader sent me this message:

I’m just curious to hear what you think the evidence for your version of ethical realism is…

I quickly typed a messy reply email, but I think it might be helpful to some people, so I’ll duplicate it here:

Desirism approaches things differently. Most moral realists point to certain features of experience as evidence for moral realism in general, and then try to figure out which theory of moral realism is correct.

In contrast, desirism starts with some rather uncontroversial non-moral claims about desires and reasons for action and states of affairs. Then we ask: Is there any set of these rather uncontroversial facts that makes sense of our moral practice and language? Can these facts make sense of how we talk about there being three categories of moral behavior: forbidden, obligated, and permitted? Can these facts make sense of the concept of negligence, excuse, and what makes a good or bad excuse? Can it make sense of why praise and condemnation, reward and punishment are so important to moral belief and behavior? Can it make sense of “guilty mind” and of actions we call “above and beyond the call of duty”? Can it make sense of how we talk about subjective vs. objective normative truths? And so on.

For Fyfe and I, the answer to these questions is “Yes.” Thus, it’s worth using moral terms to describe relations between desires and states of affairs.

This will all be made very clear, I think, in our podcast…

Moreover, I must point out that one of my main objectives is to disempower the semantics of meta-ethical debate. This is why I call myself a meta-ethical pluralist. I don’t think there is One True Theory of morality (whether it be relativism or error theory or utilitarian moral realism). Rather, I think that depending on how you define your terms, all these theories can be simultaneously true.

For example, some relativists define moral value in terms of the attitudes of a particular culture. Well, it is trivially true that certain cultures have (on average) particular moral attitudes. So that kind of relativism is trivially true, if you accept its definitions. (In contrast, divine command theory is false even if you accept its definitions, because divine commands do not exist.) Moreover, if like Richard Joyce you say that strong moral absolutism is part of the meaning of moral terms, then Joyce-ian error theory is true, because he’s right that nothing in reality answers to that kind of normative absolutism. But if you’ve got a theory like Railton’s that talks about morality without requiring that moral imperatives be categorical, then perhaps some revision of his theory could also be correct according to his own definitions.

One followup question might be, then – which of these theories that is true (given its definitions) is the one that conforms most closely to our moral discourse? This is a project on which anthropologists, moral psychologists, and philosophers must cooperate. I suspect that desirism might win this race, but it’s not crucial to me that it does. One reason desirism might not “win” that race is because recent work by experimental philosophers has shown that people do not actually endorse moral objectivism as robustly as early studies seemed to show. So maybe some theory of relativism is the theory that would be true (given its definitions) and also match our moral discourse most closely. Andy Egan’s philosophy of language is worth watching, here.

There’s also the question of what “our” moral discourse is. Westerners tend to have different assumptions that go along with their moral discourse than Asians do. Modern Europeans have different assumptions in their moral discourse than Ancient Greeks did. The “Ik” people of Northern Uganda may not have anything worth calling “moral discourse” at all, though they have a limited form of normative discourse – according to Turnbull, anyway.

So the question cannot be, simply, DOES MORALITY EXIST?

It can only be, ‘Does Moral Theory X successfully refer, and does it match our moral discourse in enough ways to justify calling it a theory about morality?’

That second part might be harder to answer. Consider, for example, that indivisibility was always built into the meaning of the term “atom,” and yet we continue to talk about “atomic theory” even though we now know these “atoms” are divisible. So even if some concept (say, transcendence) was built into moral discourse from the start, it’s not clear that we shouldn’t call something a “moral theory” just because it doesn’t embrace transcendence. This is a central theme of the debate between Richard Joyce and Stephen Finlay, for example.

Hope that helps.

I should note that I’m not sure how much Alonzo Fyfe agrees with the above, but it’s how I see the landscape of problems facing meta-ethicists.

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Lukas September 24, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I have a question about Luke’s argument against utilitarianism (from the introduction episode of the Morality podcast). As I understood it, the argument went like this: Utilitarianism assumes that happiness has intrinsic value. There is no evidence that happiness has intrinsic value, except that we experience it that way. “Experience” is the same argument used to argue in favor of the existence of a god (religious people experience their god). Hence, we must discount that argument.

However, it seems to me that this analogy does not work, since “happiness” is the name we give to a type of positive feeling. In other words, the mere fact that you experience happiness is sufficient to prove that happiness exists, and that it is positive. In addition to that, we can measure happiness, and explain how the brain produces the feeling of happiness.

None of these things can be said about the argument that religious experience proves that a god exists, except if you give a “divine feeling” the name “god” (in which case you would probably not be a theist).

Any thoughts on why I’m wrong?

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cl September 24, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Luke,

…divine command theory is false even if you accept its definitions, because divine commands do not exist.

You know, sometimes I wonder if you just say stuff like this to get a rise out of people. If not – that is, if you really think that you can call DCT false simply because you disbelieve in God – that’s a pretty low standard of argumentation. What if I say “DCT is true because God exists?” You and I both know that you would never accept the converse argument from a theist, so why should we accept such an argument from you?

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Garren September 24, 2010 at 12:53 pm

It is refreshing to start with things which are non-controversially real and try getting to something recognizably “moral” from there.

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lukeprog September 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Lukas,

There are many dis-analogies between experience of the divine and experience of happiness. I’m not saying the experience of happiness is insufficient to show that happiness exists and feels good, merely that the experience of happiness does not give evidence that it has intrinsic value.

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lukeprog September 24, 2010 at 1:02 pm

cl,

The point of such a sentence is not to argue for its truth, but to just assert its truth. I’m not going to present the entire case for God’s non-existence every time I use the non-existence of God as an illustration of some other point. And I don’t expect you to argue for the existence of God every time you use his existence to illustrate something.

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antiplastic September 24, 2010 at 1:02 pm

“Then we ask: Is there any set of these rather uncontroversial facts that makes sense of our moral practice and language? Can these facts make sense of how we talk about there being three categories of moral behavior: forbidden, obligated, and permitted? Can these facts make sense of the concept of negligence, excuse, and what makes a good or bad excuse? Can it make sense of why praise and condemnation, reward and punishment are so important to moral belief and behavior? Can it make sense of “guilty mind” and of actions we call “above and beyond the call of duty”? Can it make sense of how we talk about subjective vs. objective normative truths? And so on.

For Fyfe and I, the answer to these questions is “Yes.”

I understand that you believe the answer to be yes, but AF’s position is that these questions are “great distractions” and that “‘people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires’ is false, for the most part.” (emphasis supplied).

I don’t mean to imply at all that deviation from the founder’s orthodoxy is some sort of Bad Thing, but it helps to be clear and avoid confusion, especially when readers like your anonymous commentor are first becoming acquainted with the topic.

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lukeprog September 24, 2010 at 1:08 pm

antiplastic,

BTW, when you quote the bit about being concerned with fulfilling other desires out of its context, I don’t think it captures desirisim’s position on the matter very well. But, well, that’s what longer discussions are for.

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cl September 24, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Luke,

…I don’t expect you to argue for the existence of God every time you use his existence to illustrate something.

That’s just it: I don’t use my belief that God exists in my arguments. That’s a flagrant offense against rational argumentation. It’s hard for me to accept that you can’t see this.

…when you quote the bit about being concerned with fulfilling other desires out of its context, [to antiplastic]

How is that “out of context?” When people think of “moral theories,” they are generally thinking of something that has prescriptive power – something that entails a set of “should” statements. If not prescription, what is the “proper context” for that quote?

Consider the following:

…I go so far as to claim “people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires” is false, for the most part. [-Alonzo Fyfe, August 30, 2010, Massimo Pigliucci vs. Julia Galef on the Foundations of Morality]

Also, from Short-List Theories of Morality,

Desirism does not say that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, like utilitarianism says that increasing happiness has intrinsic value. -Luke Muehlhauser, September 2, 2010

…no meta-desire, and no “desire to maximize fulfillment of all desires” is required. Even if such a desire were to exist, it would only be one desire on the list with no claim to supremacy over all the other desires. -Alonzo Fyfe, September 2, 2010

Nothing has intrinsic value – not even desire fulfillment. -Alonzo Fyfe, September 2, 2010

Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision. Any theory that claims that it DOES have something truthful to say to an agent at the moment of decision can be thrown out because what it has to say is false. -Alonzo Fyfe, September 3, 2010

Desirism does not prescribe anything specifically. It is a system for coming up with prescriptions… -Alonzo Fyfe, September 2, 2010

How in the world can one possibly reconcile all of that with,

[Desirism] provides a long list of prescriptions. It prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires. -Alonzo Fyfe, September 2, 2010

Help us out here. You can’t have all these statements going at the same time.

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Hermes September 24, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Cl, on the topic of morals, how do you respond to my comments on the subject? For reference, it’s the last post from me in this thread;

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11664

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Hermes September 24, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Oh, Cl, additional details and comments from others are in a thread that you participated in at one time;

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11303

Ildi also noted a few related issues in that thread as well.

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vanilacrmcake September 24, 2010 at 5:45 pm

That’s just it: I don’t use my belief that God exists in my arguments. That’s a flagrant offense against rational argumentation. It’s hard for me to accept that you can’t see this.

*squeals*! zomg, I luva you

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cl September 24, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Hermes,

You’ve posted the same comment across multiple threads, and only just now has it been brought to my attention. That shouldn’t constitute “avoiding” to any sane individual. Nonetheless, I addressed the 2% of your screeds that actually attempted to make a point.

If you have anything to contribution to the ongoing discussion about morality, I’m all ears. Else, stop making Luke’s blog your own personal trolling grounds.

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Hermes September 24, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Cl, I am glad to hear it. As a recommendation, as other people seem to think that you are indeed avoiding comments — http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11245 — it may be worth it to you to monitor threads for a few days more than you currently do. That would go quite far in combating that impression as well as a few others (as shown in the link and elsewhere).

If anyone thinks that I have not shown proper restraint in the threads I cited, I will be glad to hear succinct criticism on my actions.

With that out of the way, do you have any comments about the moral issues I raised in those posts? If not, why not?

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Mike Young September 24, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Luke, still working on the quine video, but I have been overwhelmed with school. But it is coming,
Reference is a relation between an utterance (commonly called a word but lets stick with utterance for clarity) and things (where a thing here can be an object, an idea, a number, a force, etc). Reference not to be confused with meaning (not all meaningful words refer’ IE: the word “the” does not refer nor does “if” )

Now, your problem is going to turn out to be this: asking if moral theory x refers is incoherent because utterances refer, theories do not. A theory cannot refer, reference is a property of locutions, utterances, words,etc. Theories seek to give an explanation of phenomena in causal terms. So to ask if a theory refers makes no sense. What you might want to ask is “do the utterances used in the discourse refer.” Of course this is a really useless exercise. The utterances might just refer to the ideas being used and in fact any moral discourse you can think of will have many terms which refer.
So to skip a whole lot of Philosophy of language You are trying to do the following:

You “Luke Mullhauser,” want to take the dominant question in moral discourse which is “What is the ontological grounding of moral claims?” and you want to say that is the wrong question. You want then to say that the proper question is “What is moral discourse ABOUT?”
Now, you no doubt recognize the enormous gap between the relation of reference and the relation of aboutness. You want to know what is the intentional mental content of speakers is relating to when they engage in moral discourse. Of course that is going to lead you right back to ontology, because aboutness is a relation between mental states and things (in the sense aforementioned) and the whole problem that faces everyone is whether or not the aboutness of moral discourse is connected to something with objective ontological import (like really existing moral duties that exist whether we like them or not), or something with ontologically subjective import (Happiness is a good example).

Now, concerning this : “Moreover, I must point out that one of my main objectives is to disempower the semantics of meta-ethical debate.”
This is just senseless. first off, I don’t think your using the word semantic properly. It is conceptually impossible for you to disempower someone else’s intentional mental content, and if what you mean is that you want to destroy the semantic (read meaning) of the terms meta ethicists use that’s useless because (as you now realize) it is not the meaning (or reference) of the utterances that is up for grabs. For example, we know exactly what the word “ought” means. You might be trying to unhinge the terms from their accepted implicature (if confused, google Grice), but that is not something that you are going to be able to do because you want to know what moral discourse is about and that is going to lead you right back to meta-ethics which goes part and parcel with the accepted implicature.

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Chris Hallquist September 24, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Luke: this is my quick response without having perused comment threads or listened to the Fyfe video:

I agree that we can try to figure out, in an uncontroversially evidence-based way, how to make sense of our moral discourse and practice. But when people talk about ethics or moral theory, the questions they tend to be really interested in are questions like “what should I do in this situation?” and “in general, how should I live my life?” It’s not clear how evidence bears on those questions.

There are, in fact, two pretty clearly distinct questions here. Pick a moral dispute in any one of Plato’s dialogs. If we’re trying to make sense of what’s going on, in the sense of answering the questions “why do people do the things they do, say the things they say?” we’ll want a theory that accounts for the actions and utterances of both sides of the debate. But we could also ask who’s right, and might look for a theory that tells us that one party is right and the other wrong. These are two very different tasks.

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cl September 24, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Hermes,

As a recommendation, as other people seem to think that you are indeed avoiding comments [links to James Lee thread]

I explain in that thread precisely why I left: the discussion about bigotry got derailed into a discussion about YEC – as if those ever end on a positive note. Other people seem to understand just fine why I’d leave a thread with no respect. You – for reasons unknown – continue on.

Mike Young,

…we know exactly what the word “ought” means. You might be trying to unhinge the terms from their accepted implicature (if confused, google Grice), but that is not something that you are going to be able to do because you want to know what moral discourse is about and that is going to lead you right back to meta-ethics which goes part and parcel with the accepted implicature.

Salient comments, but you’re talking to someone who wouldn’t give up their theism until being mocked by a radio DJ. If reason wouldn’t persuade then, why would it now? Valid objection after valid objection has been presented to Luke re desirism – yet, I don’t hear any of the atheist troops accusing him of “blinding himself to the evidence.”

As far as “ought” is concerned, the way Fyfe handles it [and presumably Luke, too] is to simply say that “ought is a sub-species of is.” Yet, anyone – especially a programmer – can tell you that “is” signifies equality. When we say, “Jane is female,” we imply a state of equality between “Jane” and “female.” Or, we imply that Jane shares the quality of femininity. When we say, “Jane ought to prostitute herself,” we imply that Jane has reasons for action to prostitute herself. Very clearly, then, “ought” is not a sub-species of “is”, but a different beast altogether.

Desirism’s “good” is not the same as most people’s “good.” A desirist might respond to this by saying, “So what? Atoms weren’t really uncuttable, either.” Such coy rejoinders miss the point you rather eloquently stated above.

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cl September 24, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Chris Hallquist,

…when people talk about ethics or moral theory, the questions they tend to be really interested in are questions like “what should I do in this situation?” and “in general, how should I live my life?”

Yes, my thoughts exactly, and despite the seemingly contradictory statements from its founder, I don’t see that desirism has anything to say in this regard. Alonzo stated that, “Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision.” That would seem to effectively preclude desirism from moral theory status.

However – though he denies that desirism maximizes desire fulfillment – Fyfe also says that desirism “prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires.”

Can someone help me out here? If desirism is NOT about maximizing desire fulfillment, on what grounds does Fyfe claim desirism prescribes desire fulfillment?

Is it just me, or is that really, really unclear?

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drj September 24, 2010 at 10:20 pm

If you have anything to contribution to the ongoing discussion about morality, I’m all ears. Else, stop making Luke’s blog your own personal trolling grounds.

Seriously!??! Hahahaa… CL accusing someone else of using this blog as a personal trolling ground. Amazing.

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cl September 24, 2010 at 10:42 pm

drj,

What’s your definition of trolling? Mine is, “leaving comments that have nothing to do with the OP and are obviously intended to arouse other commenters.”

Given that definition, can you show me where I’ve trolled? Now, if you want to claim that I often respond to trolls, you’d be right – but that’s different. I know the old adage, don’t feed the trolls, but it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Say nothing, and the troll wins the rhetorical victory as they denounce you for “evading.” Say something, and, well… you’ve fed the trolls! Quite the conundrum.

BTW, do you have anything to say about morality? Or, were you just, you know… trolling yourself?

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Joel September 25, 2010 at 12:04 am

I agree with the sentiment expressed in the latter part of the post. Morality can be defined as 1) What people in general think it to be (i.e. imperatives that must be followed regardless of your desires) or 2) An explanation of the behaviour associated with the first definition.

So it may well be that there are no categorical imperatives arising from intrinsic value, but there are good explanations for why people act for the sake of others, for why people are selfless even when it is completely aganist their interest, for why we care about other people, and so on.

The real question, I think, is whether a system of morality by the second definition is really meaningful, in the same vein of whether compatibilist free will is free will worth having (in Dan Dennett’s words). The tentative answer, I think, is, not so much. Morality as a human construct upon (say) our concern for others just doesn’t seem as transcendentally awesome and significant as categorical imperatives to care for other people.

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Lukas September 25, 2010 at 1:53 am

Luke wrote:

I’m not saying the experience of happiness is insufficient to show that happiness exists and feels good, merely that the experience of happiness does not give evidence that it has intrinsic value.

Isn’t the definition of happiness as a positive feeling (or “a state of mind or feeling characterized by contentment, love, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy”) enough to conclude that it has intrinsic value? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what “intrinsic value” means.

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lukeprog September 25, 2010 at 2:38 am

Mike,

Like I said, this is a quickly typed email. Yes, it’s correct to say “terms of moral theory X refer” rather than “theory X refers.”

It’s not accurate to say I want to chance the question from the ontological grounding of moral claims to the meaning of moral discourse. Both are important to me.

I don’t think you understood what I meant by disempowering the semantics of meta-ethical debate. I would also disagree with your claim that “we know exactly what the word ‘ought’ means.” You make it sound like I’m trying to escape meta-ethics but no, I’m trying to do meta-ethics.

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lukeprog September 25, 2010 at 2:44 am

Chris,

What Fyfe video?

Concerning how evidence bears on questions like ‘What should I do in this question?’ I’m starting to suspect that normativity basically all boils down to hypothetical imperatives, which can themselves be rephrased as predictions. And, well, science is really good at predictions.

As for your last paragraph, yes those are two different tasks. And the question of who is correct must always begin with “what do we mean by ‘ought’?” or “what do we mean by ‘just’?” Now as Socrates discovered, our concepts of such terms are not clear, and perhaps incoherent. But that’s terribly unsurprising given that our language evolved as a tool used by humans and was not invented in a logician’s lab. So the fact that our concepts are confused is no great problem with our universe, it just means we need to do what scientists do: offer precising or stipulative definitions for our terms, and then go out and test to see if they refer.

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lukeprog September 25, 2010 at 2:50 am

Yeah, it depends quite a bit on what one means by “intrinsic value.” But here’s the thing. Utilitarians generally say we have reasons for action to maximize happiness (or preference satisfaction), and this maxim to a degree sums up moral theory. I think that’s just empirically false. But we’ll talk more about that in our podcast, later.

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Yair September 25, 2010 at 3:27 am

So the question cannot be, simply, DOES MORALITY EXIST?

It can only be, ‘Does Moral Theory X successfully refer, and does it match our moral discourse in enough ways to justify calling it a theory about morality?’

And here lies Wittgenstein’s Curse, undoing philosophy since 1953.

The degree to which moral theory X matches “our moral discourse” is a not-very-interesting question in linguistics. It has nothing to do with the far more interesting questions of moral philosophy, like “What should I do?”. You are confusing issues of communication (“What do I mean by “should” there?”) with issues of philosophy (“what should I do?”). What matches our moral discourse – that’s just not interesting.

Yes, morality can be defined every-which-way. So can every word. The interesting, non-confused meaning is a body of knowledge that we can use to guide our actions and choices in life.

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lukeprog September 25, 2010 at 3:35 am

Yair,

But the question ‘What should I do?’ depends entirely on the meaning of the terms in that sentence. Do you somehow disagree with that? I don’t think I understand what you’re saying.

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AlonzoFyfe September 25, 2010 at 4:15 am

antiplastic

I understand that you believe the answer to be yes, but AF’s position is that these questions are “great distractions” and that “‘people are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires’ is false, for the most part.” (emphasis supplied).

Your use of the phrase, “these questions” is a bit ambiguous. The questions that I am referring to as great destractions have to do with the definitions of terms.

In a sense, I agree with Luke, if you redefine moral terms you will get a different moral vocabulary that can be used to describe a different part of the real world. However, none of those alternative sets of definitions will ever say anything that conflicts with desirism. They will all be consistent with and, in some cases with, incorporated into desirism. So, to argue which is “correct” is a waste of time.

It would be like arguing which is correct, the theory of evolution, or the theory of gravity, as if we must choose between them.

What is happening with some “theories of morality” would be comparable to what might happen if evolution and gravity were both proposed as “theories of change”. So that a lot of people saw the “evolution theory of change” and “gravity theory of change” would be in conflict.

Then, simply imagine somebody like Luke stepping into that world to suggest some type of “pluralism” in theories of change, suggesting that multiple theories can all be correct. It is quite possible that both of these “theories of change” can be correct and the error is in thinking we must adopt one or the other. In fact, the two theories describe different parts of the real world.

I think Luke is suggesting that some subset of “moral theories” are using moral terms to describe different parts of the real world. The assumption that we must choose one or the other can be rejected as being similar to the assumption that we must choose between the evolution theory of change and the gravity theory of change.

It is not the case that we must choose. Both theories are correct, fully compatible with each other, and fully objective.

I fear that Luke’s use of the term “moral pluralism” invites people to think that different moral theories that yield different and contradictory moral conclusions can both be true. On my side, I say that there certainly can be a wide variety of languages (or dialects, as you will) that use the term “moral” in different ways, none of which are wrong. Just as there are different dialects that use the term “Coke” in different ways – none of which are wrong. But they do not yield different and contardictory moral (or “soft-drinkal”) facts.

But what Luke would call “meta-ethical pluralism”, I would perhaps call “language or dialect pluralism”.

And the debate over which language to adopt is “a great destraction” from the debate over what is true.

As for the second part . . .

Yes, it is the case that desirism says:

“People are or ought to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires” is false, for the most part.

It is not even possible for people to be particularly concerned with the fulfillment of other desires. Where this desire exists, it is one desire among many, and all of those desires will weigh on their choices.

It seems, we will be getting to why this is the case fairly quickly in the podcast.

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Hermes September 25, 2010 at 4:48 am

Cl, I appreciate your direct and specific reply on an instance of the “avoiding” tendency others have generally noted.

That secondary issue aside for the moment, I would like to know if you have as direct and specific of a reply to the primary topic I posed in my comments on the moral issue I identified. You could opt to comment on what I wrote while not identifying specific personalities where it may or may not apply.

If you want a refresher, I would be glad to re-post the whole message again.

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lukeprog September 25, 2010 at 4:59 am

Fyfe,

You’ve hit the nail on the head. Your way of framing it is superior to “meta-ethical pluralism” – luckily, I haven’t used that term much yet.

I think it is such a trivial step to say that (certain versions of) relativism and error theory and desirism can all be true because they describe different features of the world, and yet moral debate is so confused that I have to stress the point.

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Lukas September 25, 2010 at 5:10 am

Yeah, it depends quite a bit on what one means by “intrinsic value.” But here’s the thing. Utilitarians generally say we have reasons for action to maximize happiness (or preference satisfaction), and this maxim to a degree sums up moral theory. I think that’s just empirically false. But we’ll talk more about that in our podcast, later.

Awesome, looking forward to it!

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MichaelPJ September 25, 2010 at 6:03 am

I’m going to pick on one poster because I think he indirectly brings out my major problem with desirism:

Joel:

So it may well be that there are no categorical imperatives arising from intrinsic value, but there are good explanations for why people act for the sake of others, for why people are selfless even when it is completely aganist their interest, for why we care about other people, and so on.

The thing about this is that it is psychology not moral theory. The basic part of desirism seems to be an entirely plausible account of how people decide how to act. However, it doesn’t tell us how we should act.

Of course, a psychological theory of reasons etc. might be able to tell us why we do use moral language in the way that we do, but if this is cashed out in terms of something else, like a the sort of enlightened self-interest that I think Luke and Alonzo are proposing, then I think it really ought to be philosophical moral anti-realism.

Obviously this is a terminological dispute, but I think it’s misleading to call such a view moral realism.

Alonzo:
Great post! Very illuminating stuff there. I think the key passage is this one:

I think Luke is suggesting that some subset of “moral theories” are using moral terms to describe different parts of the real world. The assumption that we must choose one or the other can be rejected as being similar to the assumption that we must choose between the evolution theory of change and the gravity theory of change.

Okay, take expressivism. Expressivism claims that moral approval/disapproval is just us expressing our feelings about a certain act or thing. So murder is wrong translates to “Murder! Boo!”. Now, I think it’s plausible that some people actually do use moral discourse in an expressivist way. Especially considering the psychological links between moral disapproval and disgust, it seems pretty likely to me that some of (say) the anti-gay-marriage protesters are in fact merely expressing their instinctive anti-gay feelings when they say that gay marriage is wrong.

However, the thing about that explanation is that it’s a psychological explanation. If I put that to a philosopher, I expect he would say something like: “Yes, that sounds very interesting. However, what I’m interested in is whether there is a substantive theory that performs the functions that our moral discourse claims to (prescribes action etc.). If there isn’t, and so in fact everyone uses moral language expressively (or has some other psychological explanation for their action that doesn’t depend on the theory), then I’d call myself a moral anti-realist. Of course, I can be a realist and still think that some people (or even all people!) use moral language in an expressivist way; I’d just think that they were using it wrongly.”

So it looks to me like you’ve rejected philosophical moral realism, and tried to come up with a psychological account of morality. That’s fine, and I have no problem with that. Indeed, I would agree with Luke about the prevalence of hypothetical imperatives in our action. I just think that it’s confusing for you to put yourselves in the moral realist camp, when in fact it looks to me like you’re classic anti-realists.

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tmp September 25, 2010 at 6:56 am

@cl,

“Can someone help me out here? If desirism is NOT about maximizing desire fulfillment, on what grounds does Fyfe claim desirism prescribes desire fulfillment?

Is it just me, or is that really, really unclear?”

My best(and probably wrong) interpretation is that Desirism uses hypothetical prescpriction; it prescribes things that are useful to agents in question(that ultimately help them fulfill their OWN desires). Also, Desirist moral evaluation and prescpriction have error bars and may be wrong, or there may not be enough information to make them reliably to start with(say, the infamous Greek pederasty).

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Yair September 25, 2010 at 6:56 am

But the question ‘What should I do?’ depends entirely on the meaning of the terms in that sentence. Do you somehow disagree with that? I don’t think I understand what you’re saying.

I am disagreeing that the way to determine what I, or some philosopher, means when he says “ought” is by looking at what theory on the meaning of “ought” best fits the moral discourse. Ultimately, I am disputing the very notion that language is public; contra Wittgenstein, all language is private.

More to the point, when someone asks “What should I do?”, he usually has some not-very-clear idea what he means. The ambiguity means that there are probably several clear meanings that can be given to that question, addressing different implied meanings and properties. But pointing out that theory X fits the discourse well enough bears next to zero information about what the person meant. Laboring to develop a fitting theory does nothing to help the person get an answer to his question.

For example, a person might say “Well, I want to do good, but I’m not sure what it means – Oh Great Philosopher, what does good mean?” If a philosopher then answers “Well, in common Western discourse it appears that “good” refers to such-and-such properties”, the philosopher has addressed what “people in general” seem to refer to as “good” instead of what the person referred to as good. He was addressing the wrong subject-matter. An answer of “Well, if you are thinking of the “good” in terms of categorical imperatives (is that what you meant?), then I’m sorry to say no such thing exists” is far more useful.

One of the eternal arguments in philosophy is what philosophy is. For me, philosophy is about clarifying thought. When the meta-ethicist says “Morality in this sense implies…”, he is clarifying thought. When he says “Morality in this sense matches moral discourse”, he is confused about what philosophy is and confusing others about what morality is.

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tmp September 25, 2010 at 7:37 am

@cl,

About prescription…

“Help us out here. You can’t have all these statements going at the same time.”

It is possible, that some of those statements are about categorical prescriptions and others about hypothetical prescriptions.

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lukeprog September 25, 2010 at 8:28 am

Yair,

I don’t think we disagree, here, then. I’m not saying the philosopher should rule definitively on what “good” means. Rather, it might be of interest to people what most people in a certain group mean by “good”, but yes, you always have to come back to “Well, if by ‘good’ you mean X, then ____. If by ‘good’ you mean Y, then _____.”

The job of figuring out which sense of ‘good’ matches moral discourse in a particular group of people is a job for scientists, including “experimental philosophers.”

So I’m not sure we disagree about any of this.

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Chris Hallquist September 25, 2010 at 3:06 pm

@Luke,

Ack, I meant to say “interview,” not “video.”

But anyway, in a previous post, you said you find moral realism emotionally satisfying–or at least used to hope it would be true for emotional reasons. Is this still true? If so, how does desirism fill that emotional urge?

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lukeprog September 25, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Chris,

I’m not sure how to answer your question about my emotions. I’m tempted to say that I have positive emotional associations with speaking about things in the terms of a moral realist – probably just because of my Christian, heavily moralistic upbringing. So if I was a nihilist who still spoke about things as if he was a realist, I wonder if that would fulfill the same emotional needs. :)

In any case, I’m doing my best to transcend my emotional needs, but I’m quite certain I’m not succeeding fully.

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Mike Young September 25, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Luke, you said :
A couple of things. First, with regard to the meaning of the word ought we do know what it means. Ought means that you have some moral obligation toward some particular course of action. That seems very very clear.
Second, the answer to the question “What should I do?” does not depend on the meaning of the terms in the sentence alone. That is a silly thing to say. The answer cannot depend on the meaning of the terms, if it did the answer would be analytic. If you’re a Quinean (which means you deny first philosophy)then you can’t accept the existence of analytic statements. Thus I’ll suggest what you mean is that the answer to the question is determined by what the question means given some state of affairs in the world. Of course the state of affairs in the world will turn out to be a case of an “is” and what you need is an ought. Which is where your ethical theory comes in because your its ethical theory (and not the meaning of the sentend “what shouldI do?”) that is going to be what allows you to derive your ought once your given a state of affairs in the world.

The problem that arises is this: “which theory of morality is correct given that there are many of them.” That of course spawns the question of what it would mean for an ethical theory to be correct. In one sense it could mean the ethical theory which best explains the meaning of the terms of our moral discourse. But we don’t want that because if that is how we determine which moral theory “wins” moral progress is dead. Why? because then all moral progress would be is us fitting our action to a moral theory which best fits the meaning of a set of moral terms that we invented. And then all I have to do is ask “Why should a set of definitions obligate me o perform a certain behavior?”

The way out is to say that the way to judge whether a moral theory is correct is to judge the ontological accuracy of the theory. If that is the case then your right back in Dr Craigs hands.

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Garren September 26, 2010 at 5:09 am

I’ve been trying to get a handle on Desirism. Here’s how I would explain it to someone:

Every individual person has a collection of desires. These desires don’t operate in isolation, since having one desire can make it easier (or harder!) to fulfill another desire. For example, a strong desire for sweets can make it harder to fulfill another desire to be admired in a swim suit. Just as we have reason to do what we can to fulfill one of our individual desires, we also have reason to do what we can to optimize the overall fulfillment of our desires. If I realize my desire for sweets is thwarting several other desires, I have reason to tone down the strength of my desire for sweets (if I can), or to change circumstances so that my desire for sweets is not so harmful to my other desires (perhaps by burning my calories to make up for it), or possibly even to deny myself the satisfaction of this one desire so that I may fulfill others.

Within an individual, a “good” desire is one which assists overall desire fulfillment and a “bad” desire is one which makes makes overall fulfillment harder. We could even say bad desires don’t play well with other desires; they’re “anti-social” in a sense even within a single person.

Now let’s consider a group of individuals, each with his or her own collection of desires. Does it still make sense to talk about “good” desires and “bad” desires in this wider perspective? Sure! Certain desires can still be classified as “good” if they assist overall desire fulfillment, where the desires of everyone in the group are now considered. “Bad” desires make overall fulfillment more difficult.

It’s important to note that no special, new value is being attached to “good” desires. No one need care about promoting good desires or discouraging bad desires for their own sake. The only reason to care about improving our desire fulfillment is that we already do. This is what’s so special about desires! Care, concern, and motivation are built-in practically by definition.

…is the above about right? If so, then I have one major concern:

The project of improving overall desire fulfillment makes sense as a fully instrumental exercise at the individual level because it’s individuals who have desires and therefore reasons for action. Groups don’t have desires. Why should any individual participate in a group project which would improve desire fulfillment across the whole group whenever it fails to help (or maybe even hinders!) the individual’s own project?

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lukeprog September 26, 2010 at 8:09 am

Garren,

Stay tuned for the podcast. It’s by far the best presentation of desirism Alonzo or I have ever done.

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AlonzoFyfe September 26, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Garren

Why should any individual participate in a group project which would improve desire fulfillment across the whole group whenever it fails to help (or maybe even hinders!) the individual’s own project? Garren

What do you mean by “should”?

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Garren September 27, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Alonzo,

By “should” I mean in an instrumental sense. I desire certain states of affairs to be true, so I should do X, Y, and Z to bring them about. As I understand it, Desirism includes desires themselves among the possible things to manipulate to fulfill desires. If encouraging one of my desires helps me fulfill more or greater of my own desires, it is therefore a good desire that I should encourage.

No mysterious “ought” here. No assumption about what I might desire, not even desire desire-fulfillment itself (that’s an unnecessary layer).

Unfortunately, I don’t see how this could carry through to the group without assuming I have a desire for ‘desire-fulfillment across the group.’ If I lack that particular desire, then what desires I “should” encourage (in the sense above) are limited to which desires tend to fulfill more or greater of my own desires even if such desires tend to thwart more or greater desires at the group level.

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cl September 28, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Hermes,

…I appreciate your direct and specific reply on an instance of the “avoiding” tendency others have generally noted.

As I explained, there’s no “avoiding” going on. It’s more like “losing interest,” just as anyone might lose interest once words like “creationist retard” and “I dominated you” start getting thrown around. I’ve no time for childish escapades.

…I would like to know if you have as direct and specific of a reply to the primary topic I posed in my comments on the moral issue I identified.

Sure: you didn’t identify any moral issue at all. You’ve merely attempted to frame me as immoral on account of your baseless accusation that I “ignore evidence” regarding the age of the Earth.

However, since we’re on the topic, what sayest thou as to the morality of following me around in thread after thread after thread waging your personal crusade? Let me guess: it’s no moral issue at all, because you’re actually trying to do a good thing. You’re actually trying to help a poor, misguided theist see the light, right?

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Hermes September 28, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Cl, thank you for your response. Note that I did not say “creationist retard” or “I dominated you”, so I don’t know what that has to do with me. As I noted earlier, I do not begrudge you your sharp comments, and I admit to my own from previously.

Additionally, I did not do as you state; “You’ve merely attempted to frame me as immoral on account of your baseless accusation that I “ignore evidence” regarding the age of the Earth.”. I asked you a more limited question about the moral issues involved in ignoring available evidence and what your thoughts were.

For reference, here’s the message again that identify quite a few moral issues (the sentences in italics are not about moral issues);

A few quotes from Alan Sokal in The Marketplace of Ideas interview that sums things up quite well;

If you are sloppy about evaluating evidence, then you are ethically liable for the mistakes that you’ve made. [ ~45:00 mark ]

* * *

The main point is … it’s important when you make claims about factual matters in the world, to understand clearly what is the evidence on which those claims are based and to and try evaluate that evidence as impartially as possible. [ ~45:50 mark ]

I’d add that if you have evidence before you, not evaluating it at all is also an ethical failure, not only a philosophical or logical one. Ignoring evidence is like a white lie and it should not be treated as a valid method of justifying a point of view.

Ignorance of details you are unaware of is a valid justification for drawing the wrong conclusion or having an invalid chain of reasons in reaching any conclusion at all.

Having the details available to you and then ignoring it in preference to your previous ignorance so you can reach a different conclusion or avoid any conclusion at all is not valid.

Along those lines, and in the spirit of Alan Sokal’s comments as well as many others; You can have your own opinions, but you can not have your own facts.

As there are quite a few moral or ethical issues noted in the text above, I am still awaiting your comments on them.

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cl September 28, 2010 at 6:23 pm

tmp,

Thanks for the comments. I’ll take them into consideration, but I really wish Alonzo would clarify.

MichaelPJ,

The thing about this is that it is psychology not moral theory. The basic part of desirism seems to be an entirely plausible account of how people decide how to act. However, it doesn’t tell us how we should act.

I agree, and from every angle I’ve got, Alonzo badly contradicts himself in this regard. On the one hand, he says desirism prescribes in favor of desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Then, on the other hand, he denies that any desire to maximize fulfillment of all desires is required. Does that make any sense to you? If so, help me out.

Garren,

Unfortunately, I don’t see how this could carry through to the group without assuming I have a desire for ‘desire-fulfillment across the group.’

I agree wholeheartedly. Alonzo says that desirism prescribes in favor of desires that would fulfill other desires, but – for the umpteenth time – on what grounds? Where is the connection between desires, morality, and the real world?

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cl September 28, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Hermes,

Note that I did not say “creationist retard” or “I dominated you”, so I don’t know what that has to do with me.

I didn’t say you did, so I don’t know why you felt the need to explain. As for what it has to do with you, well… you were on a thread with a high level of disrespect and trollish type comments. When I left, you apparently assumed it was for some reason other than said disrespect and trollish type comments. Then you proceeded to run around Luke’s blog on a personal crusade wherever I could be found – in the complete absence of anything pertinent to the post – and imply that I was “evading” or “avoiding” the questions, when in fact I was neither evading nor avoiding any questions. However, I was both evading and avoiding the recurring insolence from the same subset of disrespectful atheist commenters. So, if you are in fact aware of the real reason I lost interest in that thread, then, we’re on the same page.

As there are quite a few moral or ethical issues noted in the text above, I am still awaiting your comments on them.

Yes, there are moral and ethical issues “noted” in the text above. So, why don’t you go ahead and explain how they relate to me?

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Hermes September 28, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Cl: Yes, there are moral and ethical issues “noted” in the text above. So, why don’t you go ahead and explain how they relate to me?

Cl, thank you for acknowledging the moral/ethical issues.

As I noted before, I am interested in your comments on them. Maybe after that point, I’ll have some understanding on how you relate to them on a personal level. As the words are mine, I relate to them and acknowledge that they are my thoughts. Do you think similarly or differently?

For what it’s worth, I hope that you can see that I am a very patient person. I also hold to the idea that if I am mistaken, and find out where I am mistaken, in that instant I can change my mind and by doing so become less mistaken. Do you think that is a good way to approach things? Do you have any recommendations on where I have made any mistakes in what I’ve written in the text above?

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cl October 4, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Hermes,

As the words are mine, I relate to them and acknowledge that they are my thoughts. Do you think similarly or differently?

I think people have a rational obligation to investigate the pertinent issues from all angles.

I also hold to the idea that if I am mistaken, and find out where I am mistaken, in that instant I can change my mind and by doing so become less mistaken. Do you think that is a good way to approach things?

Yes.

Do you have any recommendations on where I have made any mistakes in what I’ve written in the text above?

Yes. You haven’t explained what any of your fondness for Sokal or intellectual thoroughness has to do with me.

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Hermes October 4, 2010 at 5:57 pm

I think people have a rational obligation to investigate the pertinent issues from all angles.

I’ll take it that includes the key details such as including and using the best available knowledge.

Yes

Good.

Yes. You haven’t explained what any of your fondness for Sokal or intellectual thoroughness has to do with me.

I asked for your insights and comments. Does this mean that you have none to share?

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cl October 8, 2010 at 11:12 am

Does this mean that you have none to share?

Obviously not, as I’ve provided you with my insights and comments over multiple threads now. It does mean that I’m still wondering what your fondness for Sokal has to do with me. Would you care to clarify?

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Hermes October 8, 2010 at 11:17 am

Cl, thank you. If you have no comments, then I guess you either agree or have no major objections with what I quoted and what I wrote in that one post?

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Hermes October 8, 2010 at 11:23 am

For reference, my first post on the 28th has a copy of the previous post. That message starts “Cl, thank you for your response. Note that I …”. I will be glad to re-post the original in isolation if you wish.

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Hermes October 8, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Cl, additionally, MichaelPJ has responded thoughtfully and in detail to you in another thread. He has also posed a couple questions. As it has been a few days, his reply may have escaped your notice; http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11245

reference: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=11855 (September 29th, 2010)

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