Morality in the Real World 07: Desire Fulfillment Does Not Have Intrinsic Value

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 2, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

In episode 07 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss one important fact: desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value.

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Transcript of episode 07:

ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.

LUKE: That’s how you wanna start? No ‘hello’, no ‘good morning’, just BAM! Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.

ALONZO: It has shock value. We want people to finish this episode knowing this one fact. Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.

LUKE: MMMMmmmm… Can you say that again?

ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.

Last time, we were saying that a lot of people, when we tell them what desirism says, think we’re trying to say that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value – that this is something that everybody should be concerned about whether they want to or not.

LUKE: But no!

ALONZO: No, it doesn’t. Nothing has intrinsic value. But no matter how many times we say this, people still think we’re saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value.

LUKE: Alonzo, you sound annoyed.

Take a chill pill, man.

ALONZO: Okay, I’m better now.

LUKE: Good.

ALONZO: Anyway, what happens is that they give us arguments aiming to prove that desire fulfillment doesn’t have intrinsic value as if that defeats desirism. Or they challenge us to present our arguments that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value so that they can refute those arguments.

LUKE: Yeah.

ALONZO: But we agree with them. Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.

LUKE: Yeah. Well, then, I think it would probably do some good to explain what we are saying, and how what we’re saying is different from the claim that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value.

ALONZO: As I see it, this is one way the argument might be presented: Jeremy Bentham thought that pleasure and the absence of pain were the source of all value. John Stuart Mill thought it was happiness that had intrinsic value. Peter Singer thinks it’s preference satisfaction. Now here’s Alonzo Fyfe thinking he is oh so clever coming up with . . . what does he call it? “Desire fulfillment”? Now he wants to tell us that desire fulfillment is the source of all value.

LUKE: Whoopty-do.

ALONZO: But the “desire fulfillment has intrinsic value” theory is going to run into the very same problem that all of those other theories had. They will tell me, “All you are doing is taking something you happen to value – desire fulfillment – and saying this is something that everybody else should value, and you can’t give me one single good reason to make that leap. As soon as you try to show that desire fulfillment is the one and only thing that has true value, you will fail.”

LUKE: Well, yeah, that’s true. If you ever try to prove that desire fulfillment is the one and only thing that has value then you will fail.

ALONZO: Right. So therefore, I am not going to say that desire fulfillment is the one and only thing that has value. Desirism doesn’t say that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. Desirism says that nothing – no thing – has intrinsic value, not even desire fulfillment. Intrinsic value does not exist.

LUKE: Intrinsic value does not exist.

ALONZO: I think I hear an echo.

LUKE: Intrinsic value does not exist… does not exist… does not exist.

ALONZO: Yes. Intrinsic value does not exist.

LUKE: Well, perhaps you can tell me what desire fulfillment is, what intrinsic value is, and then we’ll know what you mean when you say that desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.

ALONZO: As if you didn’t already know.

LUKE: Humor me.

ALONZO: Fine. Desire fulfillment is a state in which there is a desire for something – and whatever that thing is, it actually exists.

LUKE: Right, so let’s go back to that alien Alph and his one desire – a desire that the moon Pandora continue to exist. In that universe, desire fulfillment is a state where Alph has a desire that Pandora continue to exist and Pandora does, in fact, continue to exist. That’s desire fulfillment, right?

ALONZO: Exactly. Now: intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is a reason for action that is built into the very essence of something – it is intrinsic to that thing. This reason exists no matter what: no matter what anybody desires, no matter what anybody wants.

LUKE: Okay, so, let’s go back to our simplified world where Alph wants Pandora to exist and that’s the only thing that is wanted in the whole universe because Alph is the only creature in the universe and that’s his only desire. Alph doesn’t want desire fulfillment, so nobody in that universe wants desire fulfillment.

Now if desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, that would mean that there is a reason to bring about desire fulfillment even though nobody in Alph’s universe wants desire fulfillment.

But we’re saying desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value, so we’re saying there is no reason to bring about desire fulfillment in Alph’s universe.

ALONZO: None. Zero. Zip. Not even a smidgen. In Alph’s simplified world, desire fulfillment has no value.

LUKE: Not even a little bit?

ALONZO: Zero value. Didn’t you read the script? What does it say? Right there.

LUKE: “Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.”

ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no value at all in Alph’s world.

In that world, only Pandora’s continued existence has value, and that only has value to Alph, and only because Alph desires that Pandora continue to exist.

Now of course, desire fulfillment could have value in our world because, well, there are many people who desire desire fulfillment in our world.

Heh. “People who desire desire fulfillment.” There’s a phrase that will derail a few trains of thought.

LUKE: Yeah, can you rephrase that for us, Wordsworth?

ALONZO: Let me put it this way. Some of us like desire fulfillment. We even have reason to promote a liking for desire fulfillment in others because we have reasons for others to help fulfill our desires. But there’s nothing special about desire fulfillment. It is one thing in a whole bucket of things that can have value because of the desires that exist in the real world.

In Alph’s world, desire fulfillment has no value.

LUKE: Okay.

ALONZO: Now, think back a bit. We gave Alph two options.

Option 1. Both Alph and Pandora continue to exist.
Option 2. Pandora continues to exist and Alph does not.

LUKE: And I said that Alph has no reason to choose one option over the other. Because in both options, Pandora continues to exist, and that’s all that Alph cares about.

ALONZO: Right.

LUKE: But according to the idea that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, there is a mysterious reason for action buried in desire fulfillment itself. And that reason for action built into desire fulfillment is a reason for Alph to choose Option 1 – where he continues to exist along with Pandora. That’s the option that has desire fulfillment, right? Because it’s the one where both a desire exists and its fulfillment exists. In option 2, Alph ceases to exist. His desire ceases to exist. So, desire fulfillment ceases to exist.

But if desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value, then Alph has no reason to choose Option 1 over Option 2, because either way, Pandora continues to exist, and all that’s all he cares about.

ALONZO: That’s right.

LUKE: So this is a way of showing the difference between what we’re saying and this other theory that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value.

ALONZO: Right. We’re saying that in Alph’s universe, he has no reason to choose option 1 over option 2. People who think desire fulfillment has intrinsic value would have to say that Alph does have a reason to choose option 1 over option 2.

LUKE: But Alonzo, how do you know that intrinsic value doesn’t exist?

ALONZO: Well, what work does it do? Black holes – which nobody can see – explain why the stars at the center of galaxies move so quickly. Atoms explain everything from the fact that water-ice floats to how plants produce fuel from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.

What work does intrinsic value do? It doesn’t explain anything.

LUKE: And even if somebody were to say that intrinsic value did do some real work in explaining something, we would have to ask how it did that work. We can use molecular chemistry to explain why ice floats by noting how the polarity of the molecules creates crystals that have a lower density than water. How does the intrinsic value of desire fulfillment generate these reasons for action? How does that work?

ALONZO: So, let’s ask. This is our question for all people who think that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. HOW does this alleged intrinsic reason for action have any type of command on us to bring it about? How does it work?

LUKE: Alonzo, the fun part about this episode is that these are questions that people ask us, demanding that we provide an answer. Our answer is there is no defense of the claim that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. It isn’t true. Desirism itself says that desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value. So there is nothing for us to defend.

But, now, I wanna know, can you disprove the existence of intrinsic value?

ALONZO: Can you disprove the existence of fairies in your garden? Just like I don’t have a disproof of the existence of those fairies, I don’t have a disproof of the existence of intrinsic value. It’s just that there’s no reason at all to think those fairies exist, and there’s no reason at all to think intrinsic value exists. Neither of them help to explain anything we encounter in the real world.

LUKE: Okay, but without intrinsic value, isn’t morality just subjective?

ALONZO: Hold on there, cowboy. If somebody makes that leap, they’re getting way ahead of themselves. We said that we are not going to discuss morality yet.

Look at the facts we’ve established. Desires give agents reasons to act so as to bring about states of affairs that realize their desires. Alph’s desire that Pandora continue to exist gives him reasons to realize states where Pandora continues to exist. No other reasons for action exist. Now, stop there. Whoa. Halt. Let’s just stop there and see if there are any objections. Then we’ll go on and see what the implications are.

LUKE: Alright, yeah. It’s simpler that way. So for now we’re just trying to say that the only value that exists – the only reasons for action that exist – are those grounded in desires. In Alph’s universe, the only desire that exists is Alph’s desire that Pandora continue to exist. Therefore, only Pandora’s continued existence has value – and only to Alph – and only because of his desire that Pandora continue to exist.

ALONZO: Do you think we’ve said that enough times now?

LUKE: No, we’ll definitely have to say it more later.

ALONZO: You know, Luke, a lot of people out there are going to be thinking, “Look. You have two options. Either you are promoting desire fulfillment because you like desire fulfillment and you want to somehow coax the rest of us into liking it as well. Or you are promoting desire fulfillment because you think it has intrinsic value or what J.L. Mackie called ‘objective prescriptivity’. It has to be one or the other.”

LUKE: But it doesn’t. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There’s a third option. Part of the reason that the fight between those two options never ends, probably, is because they are both half right, and they are both half wrong, and they don’t admit to the possibility of a third option, which is what we’ll start to talk about in the next episode.

But I want to stress one thing. If things only have value when they are desired, and if that means that objective morality does not exist…

ALONZO: It doesn’t mean that at all.

LUKE: Well hold on, hold on: IF . . . if you can’t have objective morality in a world where desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then, well, you can’t have objective morality in the real world. Because in the real world, desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

We aren’t going to just make up imaginary reasons for action because of how we want the world to be. Instead, we’re going to stick to the reasons for action that exist in the real world, that we have evidence for, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist in the real world. If objective morality can’t be grounded in desires, then objective morality can’t exist.

Deal with it.

ALONZO: Do we have to start talking about what “objective” morality means now?

LUKE: No, no, no, no. That was just a warning for those who let their minds leap too far ahead. For us, like you said, we don’t want to say anything about morality or objectivity or subjectivity – not yet. We just want to start with a few simple claims, for example that the only type of value that exists comes from desires.

ALONZO: Right. And in our next exciting adventure, we’re going to make real-world claims about desires as the only reasons for action that exist, without saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value.

LUKE: In our next exciting adventure…

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{ 112 comments… read them below or add one }

Joel November 2, 2010 at 4:20 am

Regarding how intrinsic value does not ‘do any work’, or explain any natural phenomena:

Possibly false, if we accept as justified Sturgeon’s claim that intrinsic value/morality explains our moral beliefs (e.g. that Hitler was depraved).

But I prefer the naturalistic explanations (i.e. our conflating subjective desire-value and objectivity, from science etc) for our moral beliefs, without resorting to (strange) objectively prescriptive facts.

Thoughts?

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Lorkas November 2, 2010 at 4:53 am

Rereading Russell the other day I found this in his essay “What I believe”

All moral rules must be tested by examining whether they tend to realize ends that we desire. I say ends that we desire, not ends that we ought to desire. What we “ought” to desire is merely what someone else wishes us to desire. [...] But there is no conceivable way of making people do things they do not wish to do. What is possible is to alter their desires by a system of rewards and penalties, among which social approval and disapproval are not the least potent.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 2, 2010 at 7:04 am

Joel,

Yeah, sometime I’d like to write at length about Sturgeon’s examples. Basically, our feeling is that Hitler was depraved, but naturalistic explanations are far superior to this than than the hypothesis that, say, genocide has intrinsic negative value. Also, see the first half of my interview with Nathan Nobis.

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Garren November 2, 2010 at 10:59 am

Looking forward to hearing what Desirism is in a way that doesn’t treat desire fulfillment as if it has intrinsic value.

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cl November 2, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Garren,

While I’ll reread the post again later, I get the same feeling. I think that the type of intrinsic value being denied here is a bit irrelevant to the actual points of contention in our ongoing points. At least, that’s how it is for me. If by intrinsic value we mean value without a valuer – which seems to be in accord with the definition of intrinsic value Luke and Alonzo provided here – then I don’t think anybody would really argue that *that* type of intrinsic value exists. I think most people – even those who use some variant of intrinsic value to ground their moral claims – would agree that something like “happiness” cannot have value without a valuer. If I’m wrong I trust that somebody can supply a citation from one or more philosophers in support of value that can exist without a valuer. The only situation I could conceive of would be a sort of moral field that somehow rewards certain actions while punishing others.

That said, here’s what I think happens once we chase the rabbit out of the bush:

Desirist: Desire fulfillment doesn’t have intrinsic value.

Querant: Okay, then why should I be concerned about desires that tend to fulfill other desires?

Desirist: Oh, actually, I would say that the claim you should be concerned with desire fulfillment is almost always false. You should only be concerned about desire fulfillment if you desire it.

Querant: Okay, that would all be fine and dandy, but the problem is, if desire fulfillment doesn’t matter to me, you’re still going to use your definitions of good and bad to warrant the use of condemnation on me. If desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value, and I don’t desire desire fulfillment, how is it that you can label my desires as “bad” just because they don’t tend to fulfill other desires? What real world fact can justify imposing your own values on me?

Desirist: ???

So, while Luke and Alonzo claim that desirism is not vulnerable to the same objections as other utilitarian theories, I disagree, and if this post represents the extent of their work on this matter, then I don’t think they’ve made their case. It’s as you said: the intrinsic value of desire fulfillment is being denied verbally, but Alonzo’s definition of good uses amenability to desire fulfillment as primary criterion. A sort of intrinsic or implicit value seems to be smuggled in through the back door, and used to warrant the use of condemnation on dissenters.

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Keith J. November 2, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Can’t wait to hear what you guys have to say about intrinsic value and objective morality…

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mojo.rhythm November 2, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Cl,

If your desires lead to maiming and desire thwarting of lots of other people, then those lots of other people have strong reasons for action to condemn you and label you as a ‘bad’ person.

If you still don’t consider them bad and keep on doing them, then that is your prerogative.

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cl November 2, 2010 at 7:35 pm

mojo.rhythm,

Of course. That’s so obvious it’s nearly tautological. My objection was in the context a person whose desires don’t tend to fulfill other desires – not necessarily in the context of a person whose desires “lead to maiming and desire thwarting of lots of other people.” You’ve responded to my comment a bit out of context.

On another note, I’m interested in the question of which desires we ought to promote, and how we can know whether we are correct in our assessments.

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Garren November 2, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Agreed, mojo.rhythm, but that’s just subjectivism.

Desirism appears to have a higher aspiration: judging particular desires as “bad” even when held by individuals whose desires they tend to fulfill, and other desires as “good” even when held by individuals whose desires they tend to thwart. And this because a given desire is better or worse at desire fulfillment across the whole population.

So even if aggregate desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value, it is still the one thing valued in a Desire Utilitarian account.

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mojo.rhythm November 2, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Garren,

How is that subjectivism? If that’s subjectivism, then me saying “I fell down and screamed in pain from a broken leg” is not really an objective fact about the world. Pain is only a subjective disposition right? It is an objective fact that other people have desires.

Desirism appears to have a higher aspiration: judging particular desires as “bad” even when held by individuals whose desires they tend to fulfill, and other desires as “good” even when held by individuals whose desires they tend to thwart. And this because a given desire is better or worse at desire fulfillment across the whole population.

What desirism says is that if agent X has desires that tend to thwart other desires, then those agents with the thwarted desires have strong reasons for action to change agent X’s desires with praise and condemnation (i.e. “you’re a ‘bad’ person for thinking like that!”). That’s the motivation behind labeling desires as “good” and “bad”.

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cl November 2, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Garren,

So even if aggregate desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value, it is still the one thing valued in a Desire Utilitarian account.

Agreed. Fyfe might be more willing to agree to a statement like, “Desire fulfillment is the primary criterion of moral goodness,” or something of that nature. I could see Alonzo possibly objecting to the “one thing valued” part of your definition, as he frequently argues – quite correctly I think – that desire fulfillment encompasses a seemingly untold number of propositions. However, he and Luke seem either unaware or unconcerned with the fact that happiness, human flourishing, well-being, etc. can also encompass a seemingly untold number of propositions.

Mojo.rhythm,

How is that subjectivism?

While I’m sure Garren can answer for his or her self, I think so because desirism offers nothing of qualitative substance concerning which desires we ought to have. Under desirism, “morality” becomes little more than acquiescence to the majority of desires, but as we know from history, the majority of desires is constantly changing.

What desirism says is that if agent X has desires that tend to thwart other desires, then those agents with the thwarted desires have strong reasons for action to change agent X’s desires with praise and condemnation (i.e. “you’re a ‘bad’ person for thinking like that!”). That’s the motivation behind labeling desires as “good” and “bad”.

Of course, but again, that’s obvious to the point of tautology, and says nothing about which desires we ought to promote – or even if questions about which desires to promote can make any sense at all.

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Michael November 2, 2010 at 9:07 pm

I don’t get it.
A desire has value, I want it fulfilled.
I have a bunch of desires, I want them maximally fulfilled.
We describe our desires by their essence of pleasure, happiness, preference satisfaction, etc.
We choose a method of satisfying our bunch of desires such as desire utilitarianism or act utilitarianism or total randomness.

So the statement “desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value” is still not clear to me.

Are you talking about desire fulfillment of one desire? That has value to me.
Are you talking about desire fulfillment of my bunch of desires? That also has value to me.
However, the things I desire do not have any intrinsic value.
So, if I cease to exist, so do those values.
Am I missing something?

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Garren November 2, 2010 at 9:53 pm

mojo.rhythm,

Suppose I have a desire which thwarts the desires of everyone in Group A but fulfills the desires of everyone in Group B. I agree it’s an objective fact that individuals in Group A therefore have reason to condemn my desire, but it’s also an objective fact that individuals in Group B therefore have reason to promote my desire.

Now, is my desire a good desire or a bad desire? It sounds like you would have to say, “Both! It depends on who is evaluating it. It is a bad desire when evaluated by anyone in Group A, and a good desire when evaluated by Group B members.” Thus, the goodness of desires would be subjective.

By contrast, Desirism gives a unified answer to the goodness of a desire. If Group A and Group B each constitute half of the entire population and Group A’s thwarted desires are minor compared to Group B’s fulfilled desires, then — according to Desirism — my desire evaluates to “good” even for every individual in Group A. (This is consistent with Alonzo agreeing Desirism is a “motivational externalist theory of ethics” in episode three’s comments.)

This unified answer comes as a result of treating a desire’s impact on aggregate desire fulfillment as the criterion of goodness. I still don’t see how this is any different from using a desire’s impact on aggregate pleasure or lack of pain or well-being as the criterion of goodness. Answering, “Desire fulfillment is the only reason for action” doesn’t help because aggregate desire fulfillment does not provide reason for action for anyone unless …*drumroll*… they desire an increase in aggregate desire fulfillment.

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Garren November 2, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Before anyone gets pedantic, feel free to read the start of my last sentence as:

Answering, “Desires are the only reason for action” doesn’t help [....]

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mojo.rhythm November 3, 2010 at 7:15 am

Garren,

Let’s make your example a little more life like:

Suppose I have a choice between two buttons: the red button and the blue button. I am overlooking two rooms. Room A has 50 people in it. Room B has 50 people in it. The blue button drops a money bag with $10000 dollars into room A, and blows rotten egg gas into room B. The red button does the opposite. Call the resultant state of affairs from pressing the blue button X, and pressing the red button ~X.

If I have a desire for X, that desire is good to the extent that it fulfills the desires of room A and bad to the extent that it thwarts the desires of room B. If I have a desire for ~X, that desire is good to the extent that it fulfills the desires of room B and bad to the extent that it thwarts the desires of room A.

Those are objective factual statements about reality. Of course, assuming room A can communicate with me, its occupants will be using praise and condemnation to give me a desire for X, and B will be using praise and condemnation on me to give me a desire for ~X.

Room A will say things like “if you want to press the red button then you’re a bad person!” To an extent they are correct in their assertion. A person that has a desire for ~X is bad to the extent that having a desire for ~X leads to states of affairs that thwart the desires of room A. Conversely, if I have a desire for X I’m a bad person to the extent that having a desire for X thwarts the desire of room B.

Taking a step back though, in real life I would actually have the desire to give them both $10000 dollars and no rotten egg gas. I would desire that and have a strong aversion to only choosing one room. Suppose though that someone puts a gun to my head and says “choose now or chunks of grey matter will be all across the wall”. Then the issue does not become moral. The issue is then about my own survival.

So the take home message is that choosing between the desires of group A and the desires of group B is a false dichotomy. You can desire that the desires of both groups be fulfilled, yet simultaneously having to choose between an action that necessarily thwarts the desires of one group. Considering reasons for action as a whole, the desire for X and the desire for ~X are good and bad to the extent that they affect their related desires. Goodness and badness are not mutually exclusive.

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Garren November 3, 2010 at 9:04 am

mojo.rhythm,

So a given desire of mine is good to the extent that it fulfills others’ desires and bad to the extent that it thwarts others’ desires? That’s certainly simple and non-mysterious enough. It’s very much like saying, “An action of mine is good to the extent that it helps others and bad to the extent that it harms others.”

I tend to agree that attributing both moral goodness and moral evil to the same action (or desire) is more accurate than running through some calculus which spits out an unadorned “good” or “bad” evaluation. It always seems a bit off to call both an action with no downside and an action with a dire downside plain “good” just because both are better than some worse alternative. (Think of hard cases where shooting an innocent is the only way to prevent the deaths of two innocents.)

So, yes, on the understanding that both goodness and badness can be attributed to the same desire, I concur that you aren’t offering up a subjective evaluation of the goodness of desires. But I don’t think your approach is what Alonzo is doing. Maybe it should be!

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Kip November 3, 2010 at 10:04 am

Garren:

Looking forward to hearing what Desirism is in a way that doesn’t treat desire fulfillment as if it has intrinsic value.

Keith J:

Can’t wait to hear what you guys have to say about intrinsic value …

Did you guys write these things before listening to the podcast? Because, I sure thought “desire fulfillment” was defined in this podcast, and the idea that “intrinsic value does not exist” was pretty well hammered home over and over.

Now, as some people may be trying to point out, Alonzo’s use of “intrinsic value” is not the same as other people (specifically, philosophers) use it. However, I do think Alonzo’s use is more straight-forward than the way it’s typically used. A lot of philosophers seem to use the term in the same way that Alonzo uses the term “value-as-ends”. In this vein, an “instrumental value” would be the same thing as a “value-as-means”.

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Garren November 3, 2010 at 11:15 am

Kip,

Did you guys write these things before listening to the podcast?Because, I sure thought “desire fulfillment” was defined in this podcast, and the idea that “intrinsic value does not exist” was pretty well hammered home over and over.

Nope. I wrote it after reading the podcast script over several times. Alonzo is critical of other utilitarian theories because, he says, they rely on something having intrinsic value. Yet he seems to be treating desire fulfillment in much the same way other utilitarians treat things like pleasure or well-being, i.e. as the criterion of moral goodness. So his criticism of others is self-defeating unless he can show that he’s actually treating things in a different way than the way he claims requires intrinsic value. (I think his best move is to admit a moral system which uses a criterion for goodness need not claim the criterion has intrinsic value. One can be a hedonistic utilitarian without believing pleasure has intrinsic value.)

Now, as some people may be trying to point out, Alonzo’s use of “intrinsic value” is not the same as other people (specifically, philosophers) use it.However, I do think Alonzo’s use is more straight-forward than the way it’s typically used.A lot of philosophers seem to use the term in the same way that Alonzo uses the term “value-as-ends”.In this vein, an “instrumental value” would be the same thing as a “value-as-means”.  

Yep! I am constantly annoyed by philosophers who don’t make this distinction. That’s why I was so pleased when I stumbled across Korsgaard’s Two Distinctions in Goodness which expresses what had been bugging me so much. Like Luke and Alonzo, I question whether anything can have intrinsic value in the sense that its value does not depend on the existence of a valuer. But neither classic utilitarianism nor Desirism require their criteria for moral goodness to have intrinsic value of that (possibly incoherent*) sort.

* A conscious being’s self-valuing would count as intrinsic value as opposed to extrinsic value. Also, natural selection may involve a legitimate type of value without conscious valuers at all (it’s a family resemblance at least). But in most cases, “ends value” and “means value” would clearly be more accurate ways of saying what philosophers are trying to express.

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Kip November 3, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Yet he [Alonzo Fyfe] seems to be treating desire fulfillment in much the same way other utilitarians treat things like pleasure or well-being, i.e. as the criterion of moral goodness.

Nope.

Alonzo said in this podcast,

“Desire fulfillment is a state in which there is a desire for something – and whatever that thing is, it actually exists.”

That’s not the criterion of moral goodness according to Desirism. But, exactly what is “moral goodness” will be in a later podcast I’m sure.

However, I thought it was pretty evident from this podcast, combined with previous podcasts, that “desire fulfillment” does not necessarily even have value. Which, if it doesn’t have value, should be a hint that it’s not the basis for “moral goodness”.

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cl November 3, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Garren,

I agree that Mojo.rhythm’s latest formulation proffers an “objective best” of sorts – something like maximal desire fulfillment or the maximum amount of desires fulfilled. What this means is that for any given population, an “objective” answer exists to the question, “which desires are best at fulfilling other desires?” One could theoretically run a calculus of all desires and arrive at a numerical conclusion. This would be “objective” in the sense that it would not amount to the arbitrary whim of any single subject. However, it seems that in so doing, our conclusion is still “subjective” in a sense, and this is the “subjective” objection that I’m actually making. Instead of a moral good decreed “subjectively” by one agent – i.e. moral good is pronounced by God – under desirism, we have a moral good decreed subjectively by all agents – i.e. moral good is whatever happens to best fulfill group desires. Yet, any desire can qualify as morally good given that definition.

Alonzo is critical of other utilitarian theories because, he says, they rely on something having intrinsic value. Yet he seems to be treating desire fulfillment in much the same way other utilitarians treat things like pleasure or well-being, i.e. as the criterion of moral goodness. So his criticism of others is self-defeating unless he can show that he’s actually treating things in a different way than the way he claims requires intrinsic value.

Yes. Very well said.

Like Luke and Alonzo, I question whether anything can have intrinsic value in the sense that its value does not depend on the existence of a valuer. But neither classic utilitarianism nor Desirism require their criteria for moral goodness to have intrinsic value of that (possibly incoherent*) sort.

Yes. We are on exactly the same page here. That’s why I see their claim “desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value” to be a sort of strawman: I’ve never argued that desire fulfillment can have value without a valuer.

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Garren November 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Kip,

Nope.Alonzo said in this podcast,
That’s not the criterion of moral goodness according to Desirism.But, exactly what is “moral goodness” will be in a later podcast I’m sure.

I’ve cheated by reading Alonzo’s article:

“A good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and a bad desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. The evaluation of actions is derived from an evaluation of desires, and an evaluation of desires stands at the heart of morality.”

So evaluation of desires is at “the heart of morality” and desires themselves are evaluated as “good” or “bad” according to how well they fulfill other desires. Thus the heart of morality rests on the criterion of desire fulfillment.

However, I thought it was pretty evident from this podcast, combined with previous podcasts, that “desire fulfillment” does not necessarily even have value.Which, if it doesn’t have value, should be a hint that it’s not the basis for “moral goodness”.

It doesn’t necessarily have value to any given individual, but it is the foundational value of all Desirist moral evaluations. It all has to do with what a person with desires of a particular sort would do, even if no one actually exists who has that particular set of desires. Think “Ideal Desirer Theory.”

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cl November 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Mojo.rhythm,

Suppose though that someone puts a gun to my head and says “choose now or chunks of grey matter will be all across the wall”. Then the issue does not become moral. The issue is then about my own survival.

I’m not so sure there. Are you implying that all actions are permissible when agent survival is at stake? If so, that’s not a step I’m willing to take. Along this note, have you seen the movie Brothers? Though I don’t recommend the movie per se, it does have an interesting scene that made me think of our ongoing discussions here. Two soldiers are captured, and the enemy gives one soldier an ultimatum: kill your comrade, or we kill you. If you were put in that situation, would you still consider the issue non-moral?

Now, taking a step back, I realize that the desirist might say something like, “We have reasons for action to promote an aversion to putting people in such horrible dilemmas,” and I would agree. However, that’s not the point. For me, the point is that desirism “has nothing to say to a moral agent at the time of decision.”

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cl November 3, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Kip,

Why do you imply that Garren and Keith J. didn’t read before they write?

…[Alonzo Fyfe] seems to be treating desire fulfillment in much the same way other utilitarians treat things like pleasure or well-being, i.e. as the criterion of moral goodness. [Garren]

Nope. Alonzo said in this podcast, [Kip]

“Desire fulfillment is a state in which there is a desire for something – and whatever that thing is, it actually exists.”

That’s not the criterion of moral goodness according to Desirism. [Kip]

According to desirism, desires with a high ability to fulfill the desires of other agents are called morally good. At least, that is consistent with the definition of moral good Alonzo uses on his website – but then again – Alonzo also argues that we are to “maximize desire fulfillment” on that website, so maybe he’s changed his position again. Since he doesn’t provide courtesies to the reader about these sorts of things, it’s hard to tell.

The point is, you haven’t met Garren’s objection. You have not shown that Alonzo is actually treating desire fulfillment differently than how other utilitarians treat their utilities. You’ve simply re-asserted Alonzo’s definition of desire fulfillment.

…I thought it was pretty evident from this podcast, combined with previous podcasts, that “desire fulfillment” does not necessarily even have value. Which, if it doesn’t have value, should be a hint that it’s not the basis for “moral goodness”.

Yes, that’s what Luke and Alonzo say, over and over again, yet, the question remains: if desire fulfillment does not have value, why does Alonzo define a morally good desire as a desire that tends to fulfill other agents’ desires? It seems quite clear to me that “the ability of one desire to fulfill others” is Alonzo’s basis for moral goodness.

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Kip November 3, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Garren:

So evaluation of desires is at “the heart of morality” and desires themselves are evaluated as “good” or “bad” according to how well they fulfill other desires.

This is true…

Garren:

Thus the heart of morality rests on the criterion of desire fulfillment.

You’d have to unpack that statement. It could be true, or not. It depends. But, based on what prompted this line of conversation in the first place, my guess is that it’s not true. You are using “desire fulfillment” in the same way that utilitarians use “preference satisfaction” or “happiness” or “pleasure”. In that case, this is not true. Desirism does not advocate maximizing “desire fulfillment”. “Desire fulfillment” has no value apart from someone desiring it.

Garren:

Kip:
However, I thought it was pretty evident from this podcast, combined with previous podcasts, that “desire fulfillment” does not necessarily even have value.Which, if it doesn’t have value, should be a hint that it’s not the basis for “moral goodness”.

It doesn’t necessarily have value to any given individual, but it is the foundational value of all Desirist moral evaluations.

It would be possible that “desire fulfillment” had no value at all in this universe. Now, it so happens that people do desire “desire fulfillment”, so it does have value to some people.

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cl November 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Kip,

Desirism does not advocate maximizing “desire fulfillment”.

Then, what does desirism advocate maximizing? I think you would greatly help your case by answering that, and then explaining how “whatever desirism actually does advocate maximizing” is actually different than “desire fulfillment.”

“Desire fulfillment” has no value apart from someone desiring it.

Fortunately, I think we all agree there.

…it so happens that people do desire “desire fulfillment”, so it does have value to some people.

I think “some people” is grossly inaccurate. Isn’t it safe to say that all non-cerebrally-impaired humans have desires, that all non-cerebrally-impaired humans desire that those desires get fulfilled, and therefore, that “desire fulfillment” effectively has value to all humans?

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mojo.rhythm November 3, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Cl,

Sometimes those issues are moral, but in the situation I outlined above, the desire to give both people a suitcase full of $10000 dollars would be absolutely dwarfed in comparison to my non-malleable fixed desire to stay alive. I don’t think the issue would be moral because I would be waaaayy to preoccupied with my fear of being shot to listen to room A or room B’s efforts to praise and condemn me into changing my desires.

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Garren November 3, 2010 at 3:25 pm

cl,

However, it seems that in so doing, our conclusion is still “subjective” in a sense, and this is the “subjective” objection that I’m actually making. Instead of a moral good decreed “subjectively” by one agent – i.e. moral good is pronounced by God – under desirism, we have a moral good decreed subjectively by all agents – i.e. moral good is whatever happens to best fulfill group desires. Yet, any desire can qualify as morally good given that definition.

Yeah, I see what you’re saying. Not so sure I’m bothered by this form of subjective morality as much as other forms, because it would still be the case that desire fulfillment is being optimized. It’s like how I’m not sure I’d be opposed to slavery if it raised even the happiness of the slaves.

However, that’s not the point. For me, the point is that desirism “has nothing to say to a moral agent at the time of decision.”

What sort of things do you have in mind that Desirism can’t say at the time of decision?

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cl November 3, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Mojo.rhythm,

The desire to stay alive is malleable. Suicide victims prove this.

I don’t think the issue would be moral because I would be waaaayy to preoccupied with my fear of being shot to listen to room A or room B’s efforts to praise and condemn me into changing my desires.

Understood, but that doesn’t answer the question: Are you implying that killing your comrade in order to save your own life is not a moral issue? It sure seems like a moral issue to me.

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cl November 3, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Garren,

Yeah, I see what you’re saying. Not so sure I’m bothered by this form of subjective morality as much as other forms, because it would still be the case that desire fulfillment is being optimized.

The fact that desire fulfillment is being optimized can go either way, though. If the aggregate of desires is largely “good” to begin with, then all seems well. However, if the aggregate of desires is largely “bad” to begin with, then “desires that tend to fulfill other desires” actually end up creating more “bad” than good. Fyfe’s definition of good is insufficient. It’s circular, and never provides any reliable criterion of what a good desire actually is.

What sort of things do you have in mind that Desirism can’t say at the time of decision?

Anything. That’s a direct quote from Alonzo Fyfe:

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, Short List Theories of Morality, September 3, 2010

This, among many other reasons, is why I believe it’s prankish to call desirism a theory of morality.

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Kip November 3, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Then, what does desirism advocate maximizing?

Nothing. But we’ve been over this.

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Garren November 3, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Kip,

Desirism does not advocate maximizing “desire fulfillment”. “Desire fulfillment” has no value apart from someone desiring it.

What I’m hearing are statements like that, but then a description of how Desirism works which appears to conflict with those statements. I’m ok with finding out my current understanding is incorrect, but I need to be shown why.

cl,

The fact that desire fulfillment is being optimized can go either way, though. If the aggregate of desires is largely “good” to begin with, then all seems well. However, if the aggregate of desires is largely “bad” to begin with, then “desires that tend to fulfill other desires” actually end up creating more “bad” than good.

Wouldn’t you expect a metaethical theory to avoid starting with particular judgments, since the goal is to explain where such judgments come from in the first place?

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Garren November 3, 2010 at 4:55 pm

@myself

I suppose “metaethical” is shooting a bit high. “Normative” is probably what I was looking for there.

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mojo.rhythm November 3, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Cl,

We are two ships sailing past each other in the night sometimes.

With respect to suicide victims: I don’t claim to be speaking for all of them, but a common misconception about them is that they have no aversion to dying. This is not true. They find their life and situation so unbearable that the only way out of it is death. That is a subtle yet important distinction. The desire to live is being overrode, not eliminated.

The point that I am making is that when the desire to live is so strong that it renders one completely deaf to praise and condemnation with respect to the relevant desires in question, then that is when the issue becomes non-moral.

This same logic applies to someone who stubbornly and steadfastly hates everyone in the world. If that desire is fixed and sufficiently powerful, then using praise and condemnation is simply a waste of time. You may have to use the threat of the law instead of moral rhetoric to fix the situation.

Are you implying that killing your comrade in order to save your own life is not a moral issue? It sure seems like a moral issue to me.

The moral desire to have is the desire to not kill your comrade. However, your desire to live would be very strong, and probably override the desire to kill your comrade. Because the consequences of choosing your own life over your comrades would still be so significant, the choice will not be black and white. Therefore, praise and condemnation could probably be used to change your desires in this situation. As long as you have an aversion to killing your comrade, the choice to kill him over yourself would be a bad thing, but it would not necessarily be wrong.

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cl November 3, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Kip,

Nothing.

1) Then, don’t you think it’s a little misleading to call it desire utilitarianism?

2) On his blog, I believe I’ve heard Alonzo write that we are to maximize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of our desires are realized. Of course, that’s a paraphrase, and I don’t have a citation for that one. Perhaps Alonzo can clarify.

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cl November 3, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Garren,

Wouldn’t you expect a metaethical theory to avoid starting with particular judgments, since the goal is to explain where such judgments come from in the first place?

Yes, and this another point where I think Alonzo goes wrong. To define a morally good desire as a desire that tends to fulfill other desires is to grant “desires that tend to fulfill other desires” some mysterious sort of “ought to be promoted” quality. Alonzo begins with an implicit assumption that the aggregate of desires ought to be catered to, but I haven’t seen any justification for that assumption.

What I’m hearing are statements like that, but then a description of how Desirism works which appears to conflict with those statements. I’m ok with finding out my current understanding is incorrect, but I need to be shown why. [to Kip]

Yes, yes and yes. This is exactly what I’ve been saying to Luke, Alonzo, Kip, faithlessgod and others for a very long time now. To date, all they’ve done is denigrate or insult me in response. Their accusations are always similar: they accuse me of “not listening,” or they attempt to cast doubt on my moral character, or they imply that I’m an “idiot,” or they accuse me of being a “racist.” It’s as if they’re punishing us for their own inability to effectively communicate. It’s quite frustrating, and if you ask me, implies a lack of scholarly integrity – but that’s all besides the point. I just want to cut to the chase and get some sort of closure on the issues.

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Garren November 3, 2010 at 10:58 pm

@anyone

I’ve been reading Alonzo’s blog and playing around with a notepad for a few hours trying to crystallize my understanding of Desirism. At this point, I’m pretty sure it’s futile to unify it all. However, most things can be captured in these two theses:

Thesis A
Morality is the mass practice of encouraging or discouraging other people’s desires so that one’s own desires are better fulfilled.

Thesis B
Moral goodness is an attribute of desires, which tracks the extent a given desire is conducive to the fulfillment of all other actually held desires.

Notice how Thesis A is purely descriptive. It explains what’s going on and why, but makes no judgment about it. Meanwhile, Thesis B evaluates all desires by a criterion which is likely to conflict with every real person’s desires. This implies Thesis B is not a description but a prescription.

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tmp November 4, 2010 at 3:49 am

@Garren

For your thesis B, remember that moral goodness is NOT a reason for action. Only desires are. There is no categorical imperatives nor intrinsic value under desirism; that means that calling something morally good means ONLY that it is called morally good. It might be that an individual agrees with that definition and desires to do good, but it cannot be said that you ought to do something simply because it is good.

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Kip November 4, 2010 at 6:52 am

> It might be that an individual agrees with that definition and desires to do good, but it cannot be said that you ought to do something simply because it is good.

You need to be clear with your terms, here.

It can be said that you “moral ought” to do something simply because it is “moral good”. That’s what “moral ought” means. In fact, in so far as you link the “ought” to the “good” you can make that statement. “Good” must be relative to some set of “reasons for actions” (desires), and therefore you “ought” (relative to those reasons for actions) take that action.

According to desirism, “moral good” is relative to the set of “all reasons for actions that exist” (and I add the caveat “within the moral domain” which may or may not be the same thing as Alonzo means… I’m not sure… I’m hoping he clarifies this in the podcast series.)

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tmp November 4, 2010 at 7:44 am

@Kip

“It can be said that you ‘moral ought’ to do something simply because it is ‘moral good’. That’s what ‘moral ought’ means.”

It may be that I have gotten it wrong, but I’m under impression that under desirism it does not. Usually, there is either an implication of intrinsic oughtness in moral good, or we categorically state that one ought to do good. Desirism does neither.

For an individual agent, the only reasons for action are his/her own desires. Thus, any true “ought” must be grounded on those desires. If the agent does not desire to do “good”, then you cannot make a true statement that he/she ought to do so. Unless, of course, you show how doing “good” will advance his/her own desires.

I’m also waiting for clarification, but this is what I have got so far.

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Kip November 4, 2010 at 8:14 am

@tmp

They haven’t gotten there in the podcast series, yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m right. Sorry for jumping ahead. ;-)

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Garren November 4, 2010 at 10:06 am

tmp,

For an individual agent, the only reasons for action are his/her own desires. Thus, any true “ought” must be grounded on those desires. If the agent does not desire to do “good”, then you cannot make a true statement that he/she ought to do so. Unless, of course, you show how doing “good” will advance his/her own desires.

That view is quite consistent with Thesis A and with ethical egoism, but not with other statements Alonzo makes like this:

“This is because the question that lies at the root of all moral concepts is, ‘What types of desires should we have?’ [...and a bit further on...] ‘Moral terms evaluate desires relative to all other desires that exist.” — DU Article (emphasis added)

So individuals should have (it would be fair to substitute “ought to have”) desires which are better at fulfilling not only their own desires, but all desires people have in the world. For Alonzo’s statements to make sense as a whole, it seems he would have to affirm that we ought to do what we sometimes have no reason to do.

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tmp November 4, 2010 at 11:44 am

@Garren

My best interpretation IS your thesis A, with the addition of giving practical prescriptions about how to go about it.

Although now my brain hurts; in that DU article Alonzo indeed seems to categorically state that we should have certain kinds of desires. Which, since categorical imperatives do not exist, makes no sense.

Best to wait for further podcasts.

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cl November 4, 2010 at 2:03 pm

tmp,

If the agent does not desire to do “good”, then you cannot make a true statement that he/she ought to do so.

Exactly. That’s what I meant to convey in this little exchange:

Desirist: Desire fulfillment doesn’t have intrinsic value.

Querant: Okay, then why should I be concerned about desires that tend to fulfill other desires?

Desirist: Oh, actually, I would say that the claim you should be concerned with desire fulfillment is almost always false. You should only be concerned about desire fulfillment if you desire it.

Querant: Okay, that would all be fine and dandy, but the problem is, if desire fulfillment doesn’t matter to me, you’re still going to use your definitions of good and bad to warrant the use of condemnation on me. If desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value, and I don’t desire desire fulfillment, how is it that you can label my desires as “bad” just because they don’t tend to fulfill other desires? What real world fact can justify imposing your own values on me?

Desirist: ???

Garren,

For Alonzo’s statements to make sense as a whole, it seems he would have to affirm that we ought to do what we sometimes have no reason to do.

The problem is that desires are the only “real” reasons for action Alonzo accepts. Yet, if somebody lacks a desire for A or ~A, then that person lacks any “real” reason for action. Since desirism ostensibly favors only “real” reasons for action, it seems such a person has nothing to work with. I suppose the desirist might proffer either the agent’s aversion to condemnation or their desire for praise as a “real” reason for action — in the sense that even if an agent has no personal reason to do A or ~A, the condemnation or praise that would result might constitute a “real” reason for action — but I don’t know what the theory ultimately entails in this regard.

Another response I could see Alonzo possibly offering up is one of those, “People generally have reasons for action” type of statements. I don’t find those types of statements persuasive at all.

Mojo.rhythm,

I’ve got a response brewing on another machine for you. I mentioned it because I didn’t want you to get the impression that I dropped out of conversation.

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tmp November 4, 2010 at 2:32 pm

@cl

“Yet, if somebody lacks a desire for A or ~A, then that person lacks any ‘real’ reason for action. Since desirism ostensibly favors only ‘real’ reasons for action, it seems such a person has nothing to work with.”

This is actually something of a red herring. It’s entirely possible to believe something to be morally wrong, and do it anyway. The ability to say that someone who lacks the desire to do the right thing ought to do the right thing has limited utility. Prescribing the agents around the agent in question to act like the first agent ought to do the right thing is actually more useful, because they might actually listen.

“What real world fact can justify imposing your own values on me?”

Might makes right.

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cl November 4, 2010 at 3:03 pm

tmp,

This is actually something of a red herring.

Wikipedia defines a red herring as, “an idiomatic expression referring to a rhetorical tactic of diverting attention away from an item of significance.” Would you care to elaborate? You seem to be claiming that I’m trying to divert attention away from an item of significance, when in fact I am not.

Might makes right.

I’m going to go ahead and take that as a joke. If I should take it any other way, let me know.

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tmp November 4, 2010 at 3:44 pm

@cl

“Would you care to elaborate?”

I mean it as a “item that seems significant and grabs attention, but in practice really isn’t”. And I don’t mean that you are doing it intentionally.

It does not matter whether or not an agent has a real objective moral oblication, if the agent has no desire to fulfill it. He is not going to do it anyway. And neither does it matter if he does NOT have a real objective moral obligation, if everyone else is behaving like he has.

“I’m going to go ahead and take that as a joke. If I should take it any other way, let me know.”

No, if I have social tools (praise, condemnation, reward, punishment), that I can use to modify your malleable desires, and the majority around me agrees that with that use(and wont stop me), what other justification do I need? (Well, I personally would need more justification, because my own subjective moral sense would protest).

You asked “What justification” and I answered “I desire. I can.”

From Alonzo’s DU article linked by Garren:

“Morality is concerned with using environmental factors to control the desires that exist, promoting desire-fulfilling desires and inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.”

The first part is the desirist definition of morality. The second part, I’m waiting Alonzo to show why in some future podcast, because it looks suspiciously lika a categorical imperative. But note that this definition is not concerned with any justification, or need of one, for doing so. Alonzo is likely to address this in some future podcast, so we should probably wait. (Incidentally, under this definition of morality, desirism indeed is an example of moral realism.)

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Kip November 5, 2010 at 5:31 am

because it looks suspiciously lika a categorical imperative

Can you explain what you mean when you say “categorical imperative”?

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 6:39 am

@Kip

“Can you explain what you mean when you say ‘categorical imperative’?”

“,promoting desire-fulfilling desires and inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.”

Alonzo seems to say that we should categorically promote desire fullfilling desires and inhibit desire-thwarting desires.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 6:42 am

@Kip

Well, unless Alonzo means that we should promote desires IN OTHERS that fullfill OUR desires.

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Kip November 5, 2010 at 6:55 am

@tmp: I’m trying to understand what you mean by “categorical” as it relates to commands (imperatives). In the philosophical world, that usually means something specific, (a-la-Kant), and that is what Alonzo refers to that doesn’t exist. You seem to mean something else by it, which may very well exist.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 7:07 am

@Kip

Ah, I mean a command, that is asserted universally without further justification.

“Thou shalt promote desire-fulfilling desires.”

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Kip November 5, 2010 at 7:16 am

@tmp:

I see. Well, the Bible lists universal, non-justified commands… so “those” exist. But, I don’t think they are true. At least, I find no compelling reason for them to motivate me to action. Which, is the point I suppose.

Wiki defines “categorical imperative” as such:

“A categorical imperative denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself.”

In this sense of the word, there are only “hypothetical imperatives”: requirements that are conditional.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 7:35 am

@Kip

“Well, the Bible lists universal, non-justified commands… so ‘those’ exist. But, I don’t think they are true.”

Yes, and the desirist definition of morality also seems to imply universal, non-justified command(defining morality as about promoting desire-fullfilling desires seems to imply a command that one ought to do so). The bible has universal commands that are justified by an entity that does not exist. Categorical imperatives do not exist, so claims to them are false. And all these cases are functionally identical; there is a command and there is no (true) justification.

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Kip November 5, 2010 at 7:43 am

Yes, and the desirist definition of morality also seems to imply universal, non-justified command…

Universal, yes. “Unjustified”… well, that’s yet to be seen (on this podcast) I suppose. Either way, this definition of “categorical imperative” is not what Alonzo Fyfe denies exists… which was kinda my point. You are using the term different than the Fyfe is using it.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 8:02 am

@Kip

“that’s yet to be seen (on this podcast) I suppose.”

I believe that I mentioned that we should wait for further podcasts. :)

“Either way, this definition of ‘categorical imperative’ is not what Alonzo Fyfe denies exists… which was kinda my point. You are using the term different than the Fyfe is using it.”

Well, yes. But the problem remains, and it is almost identical to problem with categorical impetarive. A categorical imperative is a subjective assertion where you lie(or falsely believe) that it is objective. Fyfe claims that desirism is objective, but a base assertion(promoting desire-fullfilling desires) has no objective basis that I can see. (We will hopefully see that explained in a future podcast)

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Kip November 5, 2010 at 8:33 am

But the problem remains, and it is almost identical to problem with categorical impetarive. A categorical imperative is a subjective assertion where you lie(or falsely believe) that it is objective.

No. As typically understood, a “categorical imperative” has to do with an “absolute, unconditional” imperative. Those things don’t exist. All imperatives are relative and conditional.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 5, 2010 at 8:54 am

There is no categorical imperative to fulfill desires.

The reasons for action that exist for bringing about desires that tend to fulfill other desires, or for inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires, are the desires to be fulfilled or thwarted.

Alph’s reason for action to give Betty a desire that (helps to) fulfill Alph’s desire to gather stones is not some categorical command for desire fulfillment. It comes directly from Alph’s desire to gather stones.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 8:57 am

@Kip

“As typically understood, a ‘categorical imperative’ has to do with an ‘absolute, unconditional’ imperative. Those things don’t exist.”

Ah. My mistake. I was under impression that it meant a standalone imperative, something that you ought to do “just because”.

Still does not make the problem go away, I just called it by a wrong name. Although it seems possible, even likely, that I’m (again) seeing claims that Alonzo is not really making. (e.g. it seems that Alonzo’s(well, Luke’s) definition of “moral realism” is somewhat more limited than what I’m used to.)

Nothing to do but wait for further podcasts.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 9:11 am

@Alonzo Fyfe

“The reasons for action that exist for bringing about desires that tend to fulfill other desires, or for inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires, are the desires to be fulfilled or thwarted.”

But desires are (directly) reasons for action only for agents that possess them, yes? Unless, well, desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. This seems to be the general objection.

“Alph’s reason for action to give Betty a desire that (helps to) fulfill Alph’s desire to gather stones is not some categorical command for desire fulfillment. It comes directly from Alph’s desire to gather stones.”

This, I have not contested. It’s actually blindingly obvious. But what about agent Carter, who has ability(that Alph somehow lost) to give Betty a desire that helps to fulfill Alph’s desire to gather stones. If Carter has no desires relevant here, what is Carter’s reason for action to help Alph?

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Kip November 5, 2010 at 9:21 am

If Carter has no desires relevant here, what is Carter’s reason for action to help Alph?

Carter may not have a reason for action to help Alph (right now), but that doesn’t mean Alph can’t use moral tools to give him one(*). And Alph may have (right now) reasons for action to give Carter reasons for actions to help Alph. All of these things exist.

(*) Well, actually… it’s possible that Carter is immune from receiving any new reasons for actions, so Alph can’t do this. In that case, the moral project fails on Carter. But, in our world, this is the exception, not the rule. Those exceptions are psychopaths that we have to lock up to protect ourselves.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 9:29 am

@Kip

That is what I thought, and it makes perfect sense, but…

“Morality is concerned with using environmental factors to control the desires that exist, promoting desire-fulfilling desires and inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.”

If so, this quote is wrong, in a sense that it seems to suggest that an agent should promote desire-fulfilling desires even if there is no relation to agent’s OWN desires.

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Alonzo fyfe November 5, 2010 at 9:34 am

tmp

But desires are (directly) reasons for action only for agents that possess them, yes?

Yes.

Unless, well, desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. This seems to be the general objection.

How is that an objection?

This, I have not contested. It’s actually blindingly obvious. But what about agent Carter, who has ability(that Alph somehow lost) to give Betty a desire that helps to fulfill Alph’s desire to gather stones. If Carter has no desires relevant here, what is Carter’s reason for action to help Alph?

Carter has none.

Any theory that says that Carter has such a reason to act independent of Carter’s desires is in error.

Desirism certainly DOES NOT say that Carter has such a reason.

However, Alph’s alleged inability to give Betty a desire to gather stones does not imply an inability to give Carter a desire that can be fulfilled by giving Betty a desire to scatter stones. If Alph has this ability, he also has a reason for action to use it. (Kip says that Alph ‘may have’ a reason. Alph’s desire to gather stones means he ‘does have’ a reason to give Carter a desire that can be fulfilled by causing Betty to desire to scatter stones.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 9:48 am

@Alonzo Fyfe

“How is that an objection?”

Well, you outright state that desire fullfillment has no intrinsic value, but some of your (older, I think) writing clearly (and unintentionally, it seems) implies that it DOES.

“Any theory that says that Carter has such a reason to act independent of Carter’s desires is in error. Desirism certainly DOES NOT say that Carter has such a reason.”

This has actually been my interpretation, and it makes a great deal of sense, but there are things like this quote:

“Morality is concerned with using environmental factors to control the desires that exist, promoting desire-fulfilling desires and inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.”

that clearly seems to state that morality is concerned about promoting desire-fullfilling desires IN GENERAL.

These podcasts are going to help a great deal, I think, when they are finished and linked from an easily accessible place.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 5, 2010 at 10:19 am

tmp

“Morality is concerned with using environmental factors to control the desires that exist, promoting desire-fulfilling desires and inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.” That clearly seems to state that morality is concerned about promoting desire-fullfilling desires IN GENERAL.

That does not require any type of “categorical imperative”. Here, too, the reasons to act so as to promote desires that tend to filfill other desires still comes from the desires that are to be fulfilled.

If a particular aversion would tend to prevent the thwarting a great many very strong desires, then there are a great many and very powerful reasons for those agents in that community to promote such an aversion. And the way to do so is through the use of social tools such as praise and condemnation.

This DOES NOT imply that each and every person has many and strong reasons to promote such an aversion. The statement that people in general tend to work when it is daylight and sleep when it is night does not imply that each and every person tends to work when it is daylight and sleep when it is night.

This is the precise reason why I use the phrase, “people generally” instead of phrases like “every person” or “each individual”. If I used the latter phrase, then the claim would be false.

When people claim that desirism requires intrinsic value or categorical imperatives it is because THEY have injected something into desirism (that does not belong there) that requires intrinsic value or categorical imperatives – like the idea that desirism makes claims about what “everybody” or “each person” has a reason to do. What they then criticize is a theory of their own design that I reject, but which they insist on calling “desirism” and attributing to me.

There is no such thing as intrinsic value. There is no such thing as a categorical imperative. Desires provide the only reasons for action that exist. Desires provide people with a reasons to act so as to influence the desires that others have, promoting those desires that would tend to fulfill their desires and inhibiting those desires that tend to thwart their desires. Within a large and complex community, there are some desires and aversions that people generally have a great many and very powerful reasons to promote (or inhibit) – such as, for example, an aversion to lying.

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Kip November 5, 2010 at 10:21 am

@tmp

I see what you are saying, now. When we say:

“Morality is concerned with using environmental factors to control the desires that exist, promoting desire-fulfilling desires and inhibiting desire-thwarting desires.”

We mean that this is what the social system of morality is. Alonzo calls it the “moral project” sometimes. The term “morality”, of course can refer to several things. You seem to use it to refer to “what is moral” (or “what is morally right”). “Morality” is not the same as “what is moral”.

Anyway, even though Carter does not have any reasons to promote what is moral (right now), if the moral project is successful, then he will later have reasons to promote what is moral. And if the moral project fails, then so be it. We may have to take alternate actions to handle Carter (i.e. we may have to threaten him, or use force against him).

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 10:41 am

@Alonzo

“When people claim that desirism requires intrinsic value or categorical imperatives it is because THEY have injected something into desirism (that does not belong there) that requires intrinsic value or categorical imperatives”

Yes, I mentioned earlier, that I must be reading in claims that are not there, although this latest musing was prompted by Garren’s posts on this thread. (I had came to a conclusion, that Desirism is, at least mostly, like you explained here, but Garren expressed doubts and linked to your DU article, which really did give me an impression that intrinsic value is required. A case of stupid reader. My bad.)

The problem is that it is so very easy to inject things into Desirism, until there is clear and easily accessible reference. Again, these podcasts will probably help.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 11:00 am

@Alonzo,

As a suggestion, you should put an example that explicitly shows that agent A’s desires are not directly a reason-for-action for agent B somewhere easily accessible. Some language that is being used may give this impression, unless one explicitly know that this is not the case. Should also cut down on the intrinsic value confusion, because this misunderstanding requires intrinsic value.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 5, 2010 at 11:06 am

I never did hold that desire fulfillment had intrinsic value. However, there was once a time when I thought that even though desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value it behaves as something that does have intrinsic value. I thought it could play the role very similar to the role that happiness or pleasure or preference satisfaction plays in other utilitarian theories.

I gave up that idea at about the same time I gave up “desire utilitarianism” for “desirism”. In fact, I sometimes think that inventing the term “desire fulfillment” is a mistake.

The term is actually meant to focus attention on the fact that a person with a desire that P has a reason to act so as to realize states of affairs in which P is true. It is meant as a distinction from ‘satisfaction’ theories which focus on obtaining a feeling of satisfaction or contentment. In the case of desire fulfillment, the goal is not some feeling of satisfaction or contentment. The goal is a state of affairs in which P is true.

Anyway, theories change. There are more changes to come.

There have already been two new changes since this podcast began – one inspired by a reader comment, and one inspired by some reading I did in preparation for Episode 12.

Neither change defeats desirism. However, they both identify claims that turn out to . . . shall we say . . . deviate to some degree from the facts of the real world.

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Kip November 5, 2010 at 11:21 am

As a suggestion, you should put an example that explicitly shows that agent A’s desires are not directly a reason-for-action for agent B somewhere easily accessible.

One problem we have is that there are multiple definitions of the term “reason-for-action”. What is a “reason-for-action”? Does it mean something that motivates a person to do something? Or does it mean something that justifies an action? In other words, is it merely the motivational aspect, or would it also include beliefs, intentions, and possibly other facts of the matter? Hopefully this is addressed in an upcoming podcast… I don’t recall seeing it discussed in any of Alonzo’s writings (although, even though I’ve read a whole lot of them, I may have missed it).

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Garren November 5, 2010 at 11:39 am

Alonzo’s recent comments have been helpful.

It seems that Desirism has moved on to the point where it’s no longer appropriate to label a desire “a good desire” or “a bad desire” because of how well it facilitates desire fulfillment across the population. It’s therefore also no longer appropriate to evaluate the moral goodness of an action based on whether “a person with good desires” would have/wouldn’t have/might have done it.

Well, no wonder some people have been confused!

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cl November 5, 2010 at 11:41 am

Kip,

Wiki defines “categorical imperative” as such:

“A categorical imperative denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself.”

From a purely linguistic perspective, that definition seems illogical to me. A “requirement” cannot “assert” anything. Even still, desirism seems to smuggle in a “categorical imperative” in the sense that one cannot be a “good” person unless they value desire fulfillment. So, if somebody wants to be a “good” person according to desirism, then they absolutely, unconditionally, MUST value desire fulfillment. When you say,

No. As typically understood, a “categorical imperative” has to do with an “absolute, unconditional” imperative. Those things don’t exist. All imperatives are relative and conditional.

…it gets kind of confusing because nobody that I’m aware of is arguing that they do “exist” in the ontological sense you seem to imply. Whether they “actually exist” or not seems a moot point to me. Rather, I’m concerned as to why a categorical imperative towards desire fulfillment is present in Alonzo’s theory. I just don’t see the justification for that. Sure, you can *say* that the admonition towards desire fulfillment is hypothetical and not categorical, but in desirism, one can ONLY be “good” to the extent that they value – and thus maximize – desire fulfillment. This all flows logically from Alonzo’s definition of a “morally good” desire as one that tends to fulfill other desires – which I’ve been objecting to for one year now.

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cl November 5, 2010 at 11:45 am

tmp,

No, if I have social tools (praise, condemnation, reward, punishment), that I can use to modify your malleable desires, and the majority around me agrees that with that use(and wont stop me), what other justification do I need?

Wow. Really? That is downright scary. No offense, but please do not ever run for a position of authority. It’s thinking like this that makes it easier for people like Bush to lead a country into war: “Well hell Cheney, if I have tools like Fox News and I can pump enough condemnation onto those damn hippies, we can rally America for war and get all Iraq’s oil.” Et cetera.

Fyfe claims that desirism is objective, but a base assertion(promoting desire-fullfilling desires) has no objective basis that I can see. (We will hopefully see that explained in a future podcast)

This has been one of my primary objections for the past year, and it is an objection that’s been echoed by a long line of capable commenters.

Well, you outright state that desire fullfillment has no intrinsic value, but some of your (older, I think) writing clearly (and unintentionally, it seems) implies that it DOES. [to Alonzo]

You’re absolutely correct. Like you, I also have an aversion to being misled. I have an even bigger aversion to being condemned for “not listening” when in fact the problem is actually with Alonzo’s text. This is why I mentioned to Alonzo that – if he desires to promote his theory with maximum clarity – he ought to pull down the old article, or at least add a disclaimer to his blog indicating that desirism has changed substantially since that article. That, after all, is what a person with good desires would do, right?

I had came to a conclusion, that Desirism is, at least mostly, like you explained here, but Garren expressed doubts and linked to your DU article, which really did give me an impression that intrinsic value is required. A case of stupid reader. My bad.

While cordiality can take one far, I think you’re in error to apologize there. You’re not stupid for taking Alonzo’s writing at face value. Alonzo knows that the theory has changed substantially since that article, and a person with good desires would take whatever steps are necessary to insure that their theory is promoted with maximum clarity. I honestly believe this is a case of negligent author.

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cl November 5, 2010 at 11:50 am

Alonzo,

Do you see what I mean now, about how you ought to pull your website down? I know you said you lost the password or whatever, but there are ways to get around that. You could call the hosting company / domain registrar, etc. At the very least, you could include a disclaimer at the top of your blog and these podcasts that give people fair warning. Your negligence in this regard is thwarting other people’s desires to apprehend your theory with maximum clarity.

There is no categorical imperative to fulfill desires.

I agree with you that no categorical imperatives or intrinsic values “exist” in the ontological sense. However, as I explained to Kip, there is most certainly a categorical imperative present if one wants to be a good person according to desirism. According to desirism, one cannot be a “good” person unless they value desire fulfillment. So, if somebody wants to be a “good” person according to desirism, then they absolutely, unconditionally, MUST value desire fulfillment – and that is essentially a categorical imperative.

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 11:59 am

@cl

“Wow. Really? That is downright scary. No offense, but please do not ever run for a position of authority.”

Note, that I said that I _personally_ would need more justification. But I’m a moral subjectivist; the fact that I would do, or not do, something does not make it justified or unjustified. You originally asked for some justification for action, that assuredly exists, and I gave you “I want to. I can.” I don’t mean to say, that I personally think it RIGHT, but the world does not run according to my wants.

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cl November 5, 2010 at 11:59 am

Garren,

It seems that Desirism has moved on to the point where it’s no longer appropriate to label a desire “a good desire” or “a bad desire” because of how well it facilitates desire fulfillment across the population. It’s therefore also no longer appropriate to evaluate the moral goodness of an action based on whether “a person with good desires” would have/wouldn’t have/might have done it.

Well, no wonder some people have been confused!

EXACTLY. Tell me about it! The worst part of it is, this whole entire time, Luke – and to some extent Alonzo, too – have been criticizing and condemning others for “not listening” when in fact the problem is that Alonzo allows those contradictory writings to persist. In short, it seems Alonzo’s negligence has been the problem this entire time. Talk about frustrating! Talk about annoying! I believe that Luke and Alonzo owe their readers an apology, as we’ve just been doing the best we can with what *THEY* have presented – but I’m not going to hold my breath.

If anyone thinks I’m being too harsh on Luke and Alonzo, get over it. This isn’t personal. I’m simply using the tools of praise and condemnation to create an environment where more desires are fulfilled. I’m simply speaking up and condemning what I believe to be negligence – just like Luke and Alonzo does with young Earth creationists.

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cl November 5, 2010 at 12:02 pm

tmp,

You originally asked for some justification for action, that assuredly exists, and I gave you “I want to. I can.”

So, we’re justified to do whatever we want to, and can? If that’s not what you’re saying, help me out here – because that seems wrong.

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Garren November 5, 2010 at 12:04 pm

cl,

So, if somebody wants to be a “good” person according to desirism, then they absolutely, unconditionally, MUST value desire fulfillment

Even under the old version of Desirism, that isn’t technically correct. A person could still have a set of desires which doesn’t include maximizing desire fulfillment which just so happens to be best fulfilled by the same state of affairs it would take to fulfill a desire for maximizing desire fulfillment across the population.

I’m making a very pedantic point here. Of course you would be right that practically speaking, it’s ridiculously unlikely that anyone is going to be aiming at the optimal state of affairs according to old-style Desirism unless their overriding desire is that this be so.

My practical advice in these comments is to take it as understood that Alonzo’s older writings are contrary to his current conception of Desirism. It makes sense to ask him to do what he can to remove the misleading writings or label them as deprecated, but there’s little sense spending too much time arguing about things which are no longer parts of the theory we’re being asked to consider. Personally, I’m happy because I think I have a good grasp on current Desirism and can start responding to it directly from here on!

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tmp November 5, 2010 at 12:35 pm

@cl

“So, we’re justified to do whatever we want to, and can? If that’s not what you’re saying, help me out here – because that seems wrong.”

Yes. We can do what we want if we can get away with it(and I don’t want to do things that I think are unjustified), and we are free to treat the acts of others like they were justified or unjustified according to what we think of them(and act to prevent them, accordingly).

Justification is like value. Value cannot exist without valuer. Justification cannot exist without people to accept it. If nobody knows or cares, it is irrelevant.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 5, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Garren

Even under the old version of Desirism . . . person could still have a set of desires which doesn’t include maximizing desire fulfillment which just so happens to be best fulfilled by the same state of affairs it would take to fulfill a desire for maximizing desire fulfillment across the population.

This issue will be addressed in the next episode. There, Luke and I will talk about a distinction between desires TO fulfill the desires of others and desires THAT fulfill the desires of others.

My practical advice in these comments is to take it as understood that Alonzo’s older writings are contrary to his current conception of Desirism.

I have improved on a few things to be sure.

However, any call that I delete or disown everything I have written before is pattently absurd.

When has it ever been a standard or a requirement in writing when an author changes his mind some some issue that he must now track down and burn everything he has written before that point?

Realisticly, the web site should be viewed as a 2005 edition of Desirism, and this podcast as the 2010 version (pretty much the way that you have been doing it).

Never in the history of publishing have authors been told that, when the produce a new version of a book or an updated version of an idea, that they must track down and destroy all earlier versions. It’s the type of demand that one can only expect to be dreamed up by sophists looking for a red herring that they can use to distract people from the subject at hand.

Personally, I’m happy because I think I have a good grasp on current Desirism and can start responding to it directly from here on!

Excellent. So, let’s move forward.

Like I said above, I think you will find something particularly useful in the next episode.

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Yair November 5, 2010 at 1:55 pm

cl,

Instead of a moral good decreed “subjectively” by one agent – i.e. moral good is pronounced by God – under desirism, we have a moral good decreed subjectively by all agents – i.e. moral good is whatever happens to best fulfill group desires.

That has been my understanding as well. I’ve called Desirism a religion promoting obedience to “the most evanescent of deities”.

Garren,

Personally, I’m happy because I think I have a good grasp on current Desirism and can start responding to it directly from here on!

I’m only more confused – but I’ll just wait and respond to the 2010 version as it (slowly) arrives.

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Garren November 5, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Alonzo,

People with a good faith interest in finding out what Desirism is about are very likely to get the wrong idea for the right reasons. Calls to improve the situation aren’t an attempt to distract, but an attempt to clear away distractions.

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Kip November 5, 2010 at 2:50 pm

People with a good faith interest in finding out what Desirism is about are very likely to get the wrong idea for the right reasons. Calls to improve the situation aren’t an attempt to distract, but an attempt to clear away distractions.

This is true, and I agree. To be generous, though, it’s not an isolated problem with desirism, but most of what Alonzo has written, and most of what most philosopher’s have written, and most of what most people ever have written. So, it’s a huge problem for the spreading of knowledge in general. Once someone writes something down, and later wants to revise it, it becomes an issue because earlier versions of what they said will contain outdated information.

Solution: a central location that houses the most up-to-date, authoritative knowledge repository that people can access, link to, and pull from to make sure what they are referencing is not outdated (and wrong). So, for instance, in this case a good start would be a wiki that is updated when any major aspect of desirism changes.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 5, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Alonzo,People with a good faith interest in finding out what Desirism is about are very likely to get the wrong idea for the right reasons. Calls to improve the situation aren’t an attempt to distract, but an attempt to clear away distractions.  (Quote)

It wouldn’t even be POSSIBLE for me to go through all of my previous writings and bring them up to date. It wouldn’t take long before I learned something new that would require further changes that would require even another round of revisions.

There is simply no sense to the suggestion that I need to revise everything previously written every time I have a new thought.

The way to handle this issue is the way it has always been handled – for readers/listeners to recognize that past expressions may be out of date or the author may have since changed his/her mind. Where current writings seem to conflict with previous writings, one should assume that the newer writings superceed anything that is older.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 5, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Kip

Solution: a central location that houses the most up-to-date, authoritative knowledge repository that people can access, link to, and pull from to make sure what they are referencing is not outdated (and wrong). So, for instance, in this case a good start would be a wiki that is updated when any major aspect of desirism changes.

Funny you should mention that.

Three days before I got an email from Luke suggesting this podcast, I had started my own project of putting desirism into a wiki format. A wiki needs to start somewhere so, when Luke proposed the podcast, I figured that these podcast episodes would make the good start for a wiki – so I agreed to do the podcasts.

So, yeah, a wiki would be an excellent idea. And these transcripts are where it starts.

(Maybe I should start copying these transcripts into a wiki and organizing it. Let’s see, where did I leave flux capaciter?)

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Yair November 5, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Well, this is the first episode that I think is not very good. There is too much semantic confusion and ambiguity going on, and the main point is covered up by idiosyncratic definitions.

1) I’ll start with the good. I agree with the “summary” provided by Alonzo,

Look at the facts we’ve established. Desires give agents reasons to act so as to bring about states of affairs that realize their desires. … No other reasons for action exist.

One can quibble about “intentional desires” or so on, but this is largely I think true.

2) I also agree that under your definitions neither desire-fulfillment nor anything else has intrinsic value. You define value to be relative, so it is impossible for something to be valued regardless of people valuing it.

I do think your phrasing can be confusing. And I also doubt whether you could construct a moral prescription based on the basis you’ve established here. But we’ll see.

3) Now the bad. A large part (the majority?) of the episode is devoted to what other people say, their positions. But if you’re gonna do that, you need to apply the Principle of Charity and do them justice. I’ve tired of defending them – so I figure this time, I’d let them defend themselves.

Alonzo implies that Jeremy Bentham thought that there is an intrinsic reason for action to reduce pain and increase pleasure. Here is what Jeremy Bentham actually wrote,

There are two things which are very apt to be confounded, but which it imports us carefully to distinguish:— the motive or cause, which, by operating on the mind of an individual, is productive of any act: and the ground or reason which warrants a legislator, or other bystander, in regarding that act with an eye of approbation. When the act happens, in the particular instance in question, to be productive of effects which we approve of, much more if we happen to observe that the same motive may frequently be productive, in other instances, of the like effects, we are apt to transfer our approbation to the motive itself, and to assume, as the just ground for the approbation we bestow on the act, the circumstance of its originating from that motive. It is in this way that the sentiment of antipathy has often been considered as a just ground of action. Antipathy, for instance, in such or such a case, is the cause of an action which is attended with good effects: but this does not make it a right ground of action in that case, any more than in any other. Still farther. Not only the effects are good, but the agent sees beforehand that they will be so. This may make the action indeed a perfectly right action: but it does not make antipathy a right ground of action. For the same sentiment of antipathy, if implicitly deferred to, may be, and very frequently is, productive of the very worst effects. Antipathy, therefore, can never be a right ground of action. No more, therefore, can resentment, which, as will be seen more particularly hereafter, is but a modification of antipathy. The only right ground of action, that can possibly subsist, is, after all, the consideration of utility which, if it is a right principle of actions and of approbation any one case, is so in every other. Other principles in abundance, that is, other motives, may be the reasons why such and such an act has been done: that is, the reasons or causes of its being done: but it is this alone that can be the reason why it might or ought to have been done. Antipathy or resentment requires always to be regulated, to prevent it doing mischief: to be regulated what? always by the principle of utility. The principle of utility neither requires nor admits of any another regulator than itself.

Do you see here “a reason for action that is built into the very essence of something – it is intrinsic to that thing. This reason exists no matter what: no matter what anybody desires, no matter what anybody wants.” ? I don’t. I see Bentham talking about how we, humans that we are, reason about how to legislate. The Principle of Utility is not held because of any “intrinsic value”, but because this is the moral principle we, as a matter of fact, strive to uphold; so says Bentham. If he is right or wrong – that’s another matter. But his central commitment is to the Principle of Uniformity, not to the existence of intrinsic reasons for action.

John Stuart Mill was apparently also a dogmatist that thought that happiness had intrinsic value. Yet, the closest he comes is

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.

The last sentence is an atrocious twist of reasoning, but it is not committed to any “reason for action that is built into the very essence of something – it is intrinsic to that thing. This reason exists no matter what: no matter what anybody desires, no matter what anybody wants.” Far from it, Mill is (setting aside this momentary lapse of reason) explicitly setting his analysis on empirical claims regarding human nature – on what humans value.

What about Peter Singer? Apparently, he thinks that preference satisfaction is intrinsically good, right? Well, no.

I sight the paradox of hedonism in response to questions like, well, why should I be moral? Why should I pursue morality? Why shouldn’t I just go after my own happiness? Why shouldn’t I earn what money I can and then retire to the beach where I have beautiful people of the other sex rubbing oil into my skin or whatever your vision of what hedonism might be?

What I argue is that, that’s really not likely to bring you happiness, and you’re more likely to get happiness from doing something that is intrinsically worthwhile, that you can see is worthwhile, and you can take some real satisfaction from when you actually succeed in achieving it.

Do you see any reason for action “that is built into the very essence” of preference satisfaction here? Singer may say stuff I disagree with, but when it comes to citing actual reasons for action, he too goes back to real-world human psychology.

But wait! What about Mackie and “”objective prescriptivity”"? Well, he argued against it.

There are many philosophers who do say that things have intrinsic value. However, I suspect very few contemporary ones think they have it in the Alonzo sense of the term. When it comes to reasons for action, almost all moral theories agree intentional human action is driven by human desires (or something related); the argument is about what a theory of morality should do, and depending on the answer morality may relate to motivations in various ways. No central direction in normative ethics is committed to the existence of intrinsic values (in Alonzo’s sense of the term).

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Zeb November 6, 2010 at 7:02 am

I’d like to hear an explanation of why you believe, or how I can know, that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Also, why is that possible fact so important to desirism anyway?

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Robby November 7, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Hi Luke,

I have a similar background to you in regard to the Christian religion. I am a degreed minister, and am now retired. I never believed that all of the Bible was accurate. I did not believe much of the Old Testament. Some of the New Testament is also in error. However, this never changed my faith in God, as I believe God is a loving God, and communicated to us by convicting our hearts to be good people. God has followers all over the world, and the Bible or other religious books have nothing to do with people be saved by God’s Spirit.

There is one book that I think you would like, unless you have already read this book.
Here is the link http://urantiabook.org/newbook/index.html This book tell us it comes from God through celestial beings. It does make a lot of sense to me, and it could clear up all of your doubts about God, His love, His existence, and this book even explains which parts of the Bible are in error, and how this happened.

Even without any book, I would always believe in God, as I know He has answered many of my prayers, and changed my heart into a person that loves everyone on this planet. I do believe God works in the hearts of people around the world, and any spiritual person can truly be born again. God has billions of born again people around the world. They are not in any church. They are just a spiritual body of born again people that know God.

I feel that you are a good person, and may already be one of God’s born again children, but have not heard about the Urantia Book. Anyway with or without the Urantia Book or any book, my born again experience with God is all that I will ever need to know that God is my Father and Savior.

Luke, have a happy day. Robby

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Kip November 7, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Great, just what we need… another holy book. This is actually one of the reasons I’m fond of Buddhism: he said to not believe something because it’s in a book, or because he said it, but because it holds up to reason and evidence (my paraphrase). Human knowledge is provisional… we must realize that as we continue to explore the universe, our understanding of it will continue to get better. If we hold to what someone wrote in a book years past, then we will be retarding ourselves.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 7, 2010 at 7:43 pm

“If we hold to what someone wrote in a book years past, then we will be retarding ourselves.”

Good one.

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cl November 9, 2010 at 9:43 am

Garren,

A person could still have a set of desires which doesn’t include maximizing desire fulfillment which just so happens to be best fulfilled by the same state of affairs it would take to fulfill a desire for maximizing desire fulfillment across the population.

I agree, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the “once in a blue moon exception to the rule.” As an analogy, consider a “naturally gifted athlete” vs. a “not-so-naturally gifted” athlete. Sure, it can “just so happen” that somebody has all the qualities that lend to proficiency in athletics, but if the latter desires proficiency in athletics, then they must respond to a set of categorical imperatives: e.g. that they train hard, that they eat well, that they stay hydrated, etc. Similarly, I meant that the person who consciously endeavors to be a “good” person ala desirism absolutely MUST be concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires. IOW, such a person MUST respond to a categorical imperative to maximize – or harmonize, or whatever adjective you like – desire fulfillment across the population. As far as I can see, that is true – and hitherto unjustified.

People with a good faith interest in finding out what Desirism is about are very likely to get the wrong idea for the right reasons. Calls to improve the situation aren’t an attempt to distract, but an attempt to clear away distractions.

Thank you. It’s unfortunate that Alonzo either willfully distorted or negligently misunderstood the objection laid before him, effectively eschewing constructive criticism in favor of another unfounded personal attack.

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cl November 9, 2010 at 9:47 am

Kip,

Solution: a central location that houses the most up-to-date, authoritative knowledge repository that people can access, link to, and pull from to make sure what they are referencing is not outdated (and wrong).

That’s fine and certainly encouraged, but in the meantime – since that would entail a significant amount of work – one could simply take five minutes to post a disclaimer alerting new readers to the differences between the theory as its presented across various articles. It seems to me that a person with a desire that others understand their theory would do this. This is in fact a valid conclusion from sound desirist principles: People generally – and philosophers especially – have many reasons for action to promote maximum clarity and understanding of their work.

Since that’s the case, why do you think Alonzo is so resistant to the idea of a simple disclaimer as a courtesy to his readers?

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cl November 9, 2010 at 10:01 am

Yair,

Thank you for your comment. I think you really did a great deal of justice to the subset of philosophers that Alonzo constantly references. I agree that Alonzo doesn’t seem to extend their argument the principle of charity.

The last sentence is an atrocious twist of reasoning, but it is not committed to any “reason for action that is built into the very essence of something – it is intrinsic to that thing.

I agree. If Mill would in fact assent to the claim that happiness is valuer-dependent – which I think he clearly does – this in fact undermines Alonzo’s oft-repeated claim that Millian utilitarianism relies on the strange sort of valuer-independent “intrinsic value” that Alonzo and Luke write about.

There are many philosophers who do say that things have intrinsic value. However, I suspect very few contemporary ones think they have it in the Alonzo sense of the term.

This is precisely why I said Alonzo’s anti-intrinsic-value objections to other utilitarian theories seem like strawmen to me.

Do you see here “a reason for action that is built into the very essence of something – it is intrinsic to that thing. This reason exists no matter what: no matter what anybody desires, no matter what anybody wants.” ? I don’t.

I don’t either. This is exactly why my reaction to Luke and Alonzo’s adamant stance against intrinsic value is best described as a befuddled, “Huh?” From what I’ve read juxtaposed against what you’ve posted here, Bentham doesn’t seem to argue that his theory requires this strange “value that can exist without a valuer” definition of intrinsic value. Nor does Mill, Singer, or Mackie, from what I can see.

When pondering states of affairs that might motivate somebody thus, I came to the phenomenon of capitalism. You see, a great many people sell laundry detergent, and all laundry detergents do the same thing. However, in the interest of capturing market share, the promoter of one laundry detergent has reasons for action to make their laundry detergent *appear* to be *actually different* than the rest. Unfortunately, the technique works well on the unassuming masses. As for me, I like to read ingredients, and I get the impression that you do, too.

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Kip November 9, 2010 at 10:28 am

one could simply take five minutes to post a disclaimer alerting new readers to the differences between the theory as its presented across various articles

Are you saying post a disclaimer at the top of every new blog post? Or just have a blog post saying that over time Alonzo changes his mind and aspects of the theory change? If it’s the latter, I think he’s already done that. If it’s the former, then I think that’s a bit over–kill. Perhaps something in–between? What exactly?

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cl November 9, 2010 at 10:44 am

Kip,

What exactly?

Here’s what I would do:

1) Strike the outdated tenets of the theory as expressed in the introductory article on Alonzo’s website and include references to posts that explain why those tenets changed;

2) Post a disclaimer at the top of Atheist Ethicist alerting readers to the fact that key tenets of the theory no longer hold as expressed in the article;

3) Post a disclaimer at the top of each podcast alerting readers to the fact that key tenets of the theory no longer hold as expressed in the article, and that the podcast should be taken as the most current authority. This could be simple boilerplate text – in fact what Alonzo has already written here would suffice.

None of that is overkill in my opinion. Contrary, I think those courtesies are obligatory for any professional who wants their work taken seriously, and all of it could be easily accomplished in under ten minutes of time. Anticipating repetition of the excuse that he lost his password, note that 2 and 3 would still be greatly helpful, even without 1.

What do you think? Wouldn’t a person with good desires try their hardest to accomplish 1-3? Wouldn’t they at least do the bare minimum of 2 and 3?

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cl November 9, 2010 at 11:02 am

Alonzo,

It’s the type of demand that one can only expect to be dreamed up by sophists looking for a red herring that they can use to distract people from the subject at hand.

It’s unfortunate that you’re reacting defensively to constructive criticism. You’ve eschewed both salient rebuttal and the principle of charity in favor of yet another personal attack on me. Is that what a person with good desires would do?

Realisticly, the web site should be viewed as a 2005 edition of Desirism, and this podcast as the 2010 version…

That’s at least the second time you’ve written that in a comment thread here, yet I notice you still haven’t added this simple disclaimer to your blog, or the article. Very clearly, then, your desire to repeat yourself is stronger than your desire that people apprehend your theory with maximum clarity. Is that what a person with good desires would do?

I have improved on a few things to be sure.

That’s understated to the point of near-inaccuracy. While it is true that you’ve enhanced desirism thus fulfilling the technical definition of improve – defined by Merriam Webster as to enhance in value or quality – in actuality, you’ve made complete 180 degree turns from previous statements, and you’ve neglected to inform readers when you have the means at your disposal. Is that what a person with good desires would do?

Where current writings seem to conflict with previous writings, one should assume that the newer writings supercede anything that is older.

The article in question is not dated. How would the unassuming querant be able to distinguish?

…any call that I delete or disown everything I have written before is patently absurd.

Who asked you to “delete or disown everything” you have written before?

When has it ever been a standard or a requirement in writing when an author changes his mind some some issue that he must now track down and burn everything he has written before that point?

Who asked you to “track down and burn everything” you have written before?

Never in the history of publishing have authors been told that, when the produce a new version of a book or an updated version of an idea, that they must track down and destroy all earlier versions.

Who asked you to “track down and destroy all earlier versions” of your work?

It wouldn’t even be POSSIBLE for me to go through all of my previous writings and bring them up to date.

Who asked you to “go through all [your] previous writings and bring them up to date?”

That’s four times you’ve either willfully distorted or negligently failed to comprehend the objection laid before you. You’re pretending like we’re asking you to complete this monumentally insurmountable task, when in reality, the objection is simple, warranted, and would require but minimal effort to effect today: simply add a disclaimer to the website, blog and/or podcast saying what you’ve already taken the time to say twice here, and date it. Then, when people like me or Garren or tmp or antiplastic go to your website and/or blog, any misunderstanding will be our own fault. We’re talking about taking five minutes to extend a simple courtesy to your readers in the interest of maximizing clarity. Isn’t that what a person with good desires would do?

The assumption is that you’re offering a bona fide theory about things that exist in the real world. As such, shouldn’t you treat it with the utmost of high standards? You can take it or leave it, and I’m guessing you’ll leave it, but you really ought to accept some responsibility for people’s confusion instead of insulting them and making personal attacks on their moral character. That you alert your readership when you make 180 degree turns with your theory is not an unreasonable request. Now that the need to improve clarity has been brought to your attention and endorsed by others – instead of launching into another personal attack on me – why not devote that five minutes to ensure that other peoples’ desires for clarity aren’t further thwarted?

After all, isn’t that what a person with good desires would do?

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Zeb November 9, 2010 at 11:10 am

cl

Similarly, I meant that the person who consciously endeavors to be a “good” person ala desirism absolutely MUST be concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires. IOW, such a person MUST respond to a categorical imperative to maximize – or harmonize, or whatever adjective you like – desire fulfillment across the population.

Here’s one of the problems with desirism – the desire to be a good person could be a bad desire. Desirism does not necessarily prescribe action that would increase the desire to be good, and so it does not intrinsically value a desire to maximize desire fulfillment. If such a desire ended up reducing desire fulfillment (ei thwarting desires), then it would be bad. No categorical imperative that I can see.

I mean, it’s a problem if you want your moral theory to be useful for helping you be a morally good person. It could still be a true theory though. I hope the usefulness of desirism for being a good person is covered at some point in the podcast.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 9, 2010 at 12:21 pm

cl,

Those are not bad ideas. I may do that for some of my old posts.

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cl November 10, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Zeb,

I wasn’t able to follow your comment and I’m not sure if you followed mine. I’m saying that according to desirism, one cannot be a good person unless they have desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and that this rule is tantamount to a categorical imperative. Further, whether or not this categorical imperative exists in the ontological sense is a moot point, because desirism promotes subservience to the aggregate of desires either way.

Is that what you thought I meant? If no, what did you think I meant? I ask because I still can’t see the relevance of your comment to mine.

Luke,

Really? You mean I actually got something right as opposed to my always “not listening” to anything? Hell, who needs prayer studies? I think we’ve got proof of a miracle right here before us!

In all honesty, I’d like to go off on you right now, with tact and respect of course, but I don’t think any of it would get through. So, I’ll eschew all that in favor of a simple admonition: if you and Alonzo want people to understand this theory, make every effort to maximize the clarity with which it is presented. As an analogy, don’t let people download the browser with all the bugs when the debugged version is out. Most importantly, don’t be negligent and then go around blaming your interlocutors and denigrating their moral character when misunderstandings arise. I can’t even begin to explain the frustration I’ve felt because of this, and I imagine I’m not the only one.

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cl November 11, 2010 at 1:10 am

Yair,

I appreciate the work you did in this thread. Citing Bentham, Mill, et al. seems the most effective strategy to clearing up the waters that Luke and Alonzo have muddied. Consider this:

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

First off, which of Alonzo’s definitions of intrinsic value is Luke alluding to here? In Episode 3, Alonzo defined intrinsic value thus:

… [intrinsic value] is something that everybody should aim for whether they want to or not.

Yet, here in Episode 7, Alonzo defines intrinsic value thus:

Intrinsic value is a reason for action that is built into the very essence of something – it is intrinsic to that thing.

While the two definitions are not mutually exclusive, they differ substantially enough that the same claim can be true or false depending upon which definition we’re using. For example, if we’re talking Episode 7 intrinsic value, I believe Bentham would object to Luke’s claim. From what I glean from his writings, I think Bentham would categorize Episode 7 intrinsic value as “nonsense upon stilts.” Consider what the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a peer-reviewed source, wrote about Bentham’s critique of natural law:

Bentham’s analytical and empirical method is especially obvious when one looks at some of his main criticisms of the law and of moral and political discourse in general. His principal target was the presence of “fictions”—in particular, legal fictions. On his view, to consider any part or aspect of a thing in abstraction from that thing is to run the risk of confusion or to cause positive deceit. While, in some cases, such “fictional” terms as “relation,” “right,” “power,” and “possession” were of some use, in many cases their original warrant had been forgotten, so that they survived as the product of either prejudice or inattention. In those cases where the terms could be “cashed out” in terms of the properties of real things, they could continue to be used, but otherwise they were to be abandoned. [Jeremy Bentham, 2]

I read all of that as an indication that Bentham believed value cannot exist without a valuer, which suggests he would deny the claim that happiness is built into the very essence of a chocolate cake. However, if we’re talking about Episode 3 intrinsic value, then I believe Bentham would probably assent to the statement that everybody should aim to increase happiness whether they want to or not. Consider:

A second argument found in Bentham is that, if pleasure is the good, then it is good irrespective of whose pleasure it is. Thus, a moral injunction to pursue or maximize pleasure has force independently of the specific interests of the person acting. [Ibid., 4]

That is to say, it seems Bentham would affirm the Episode 3 definition and reject the Episode 7 definition, which considers value in abstraction from a valuer. This means that in the same way desirism denies Episode 7 intrinsic value, Benthamite utilitarianism also denies Episode 7 intrinsic value.

So when I read statements like the aforementioned from Luke and Fyfe, I have no idea what to think. Are they willfully distorting Benthamite utilitarianism to bolster the superiority of desirism? Are they negligently misunderstanding Bentham’s arguments? Are they consciously or unconsciously equivocating between the Episode 7 and Episode 3 definitions of intrinsic value? Is there something I’m missing?

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Luke Muehlhauser November 11, 2010 at 3:03 am

cl,

I can’t find your quote from episode 3 anywhere in the transcript for episode 3. Where are you quoting from?

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Zeb November 11, 2010 at 7:07 am

cl

I’m saying that according to desirism, one cannot be a good person unless they have desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and that this rule is tantamount to a categorical imperative.

But earlier…

I meant that the person who consciously endeavors to be a “good” person ala desirism absolutely MUST be concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires. IOW, such a person MUST respond to a categorical imperative to maximize – or harmonize, or whatever adjective you like – desire fulfillment across the population.

I agree with your revised statement. But when you said that a person who endeavors to be a “good” person must be concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires, that is incorrect. First of all, it is not certain that a good person would endeavor to be good. The desire to be good, which would motivate such an endeavor, might be a bad desire. But more importantly, cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires might itself be a wrong action if by chance it tends to actually thwart desires (and so the desire to cultivate desires that tend fulfill other desires, wheee!, might be a bad desire).

My only objection to your revised statement is that I’m not sure “have desires that tend to fulfill other desires” is an imperative, because it is not prescribing action. It’s like saying “be a horse.” If there is a categorical imperative in desirism, I would say it is “promote desires that tend to fulfill your desires, and condemn desires that tend to thwart your desires,” and that is so as to be wise, not good. Supposedly that will have the net effect of making people good in the long run across all of society.

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cl November 11, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Zeb,

I agree with your revised statement. But when you said that a person who endeavors to be a “good” person must be concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires, that is incorrect.

As far as I can tell, both statements are equivalent. In the Desire Utilitarianism article on his website, Fyfe defines a morally good desire as one that tends to fulfill other desires. Presuming this definition is still intact, then – excepting instances of pure chance – it follows logically that one cannot consciously endeavor to be a morally good person [in the desirist sense] unless they become concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Take Scrooge for example: he’s a “bad” person according to desirism. If he were to ask Alonzo what he can do to become a “good” person according to desirism, Alonzo would seemingly have to reply with some variant of an admonition towards cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Right?

First of all, it is not certain that a good person would endeavor to be good.

If all you’re saying there is that a person can be good “by chance” without actually having the desire to be good, I agree, but that doesn’t mean there’s no equivalent of a categorical imperative in desirism. My point is that in desirism, both generic and moral good hinge upon agents having desires that tend to fulfill other desires. So, any person with the desire to be good [in the desirist sense] MUST be concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Further, whether the desire to be good is present or not, in fact even if one has never heard of desirism, one CANNOT be a good person [in the desirist sense] without having desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

At least, that’s what I’ve taken from it. If you’re privy to information that challenges my interpretation by all means let’s hear it. It’s entirely possible that I’m taking too much liberty with one or more statements, or, perhaps even botching the whole.

But more importantly, cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires might itself be a wrong action if by chance it tends to actually thwart desires (and so the desire to cultivate desires that tend fulfill other desires, wheee!, might be a bad desire).

True, but the agent who acted so as to cultivate desires that tend to fulfill other desires would still have acted on a good desire. They still would have conformed to the categorical imperative. Does that make sense?

My only objection to your revised statement is that I’m not sure “have desires that tend to fulfill other desires” is an imperative, because it is not prescribing action.

I think it is an imperative, because desirism does prescribe action: it prescribes the cultivation of desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Straight from Alonzo’s mouth keyboard:

[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, Short-List Theories of Morality, September 2, 2010

Where do we go from here?

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cl November 11, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Luke,

I can’t find your quote from episode 3 anywhere in the transcript for episode 3.

That’s because I’m mistaken, which means that now it’s my turn to play the role of Mr. Negligent: though intact word-for-word, the citation I attribute to Episode 3 is actually in Episode 6, up near the top.

I’m sorry if I caused you or anybody else confusion. I’m sorry you wasted however many minutes of your life because I got something wrong. Honestly. I’m aware that it is my responsibility to approach citations with the utmost concern for accuracy. In my defense, I usually do, even to the point of dating individual comments where appropriate, and that I don’t want to thwart other peoples’ desires for clarity is why I’m usually so anal about it. Again, I apologize for my mistake and I’ll take effort to do better in the future. I respect your guys’ desire for clarity and do not wish to thwart it.

Alonzo,

See how easy that was? Wouldn’t a person with good desires issue an apology for any confusion created as a result of their own negligence?

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Conflicting desires:

1) Promote the desire to promote clarity, and avoid confusion
2) Don’t be a dick

Clearly #1 is winning.

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cl November 11, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Kip,

On 2, consider this nice little exchange between yourself and I, in the context of whether or to what extent science ought to be the arbiter of morality:

Now, it’s not that big of a deal if scientists are wrong about the distance to the nearest red dwarf or the chemical composition of the lunar surface, but we can’t afford to have scientists be wrong about morality. [cl]

Can we afford to have scientists be wrong about whether or not a multi-megaton asteroid asteroid will hit the earth in the near future, and if so, how to stop it? Or should we just use our intuitions for that too? Can we afford to have scientists be wrong about whether or not vaccines cause autism and should be avoided, or help prevent diseases and should be embraced? Or should we listen to the intuitions of non-scientists for that? I’m sorry, but as soon as someone says we shouldn’t use science to know something about the real world, I immediately put them into the “idiot” category. [Kip, Sam Harris: The Moral Landscape, Common Sense Atheism, comment October 14, 2010 at 6:43 am]

You jump illogically to the conclusion that my admonition towards caution constitutes an appeal to intuition, and you are awfully quick to put me in the “idiot” category when in fact you didn’t extend the principle of charity to my claim.

Isn’t putting people in the “idiot” category simply because you’ve misconstrued their claim consistent with “being a dick?”

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Zeb November 13, 2010 at 11:17 am

cl

[I]t follows logically that one cannot consciously endeavor to be a morally good person [in the desirist sense] unless they become concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Take Scrooge for example: he’s a “bad” person according to desirism. If he were to ask Alonzo what he can do to become a “good” person according to desirism, Alonzo would seemingly have to reply with some variant of an admonition towards cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Right?

What if an empirical analysis were to show that the desire to cultivate good desires tended to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfilled, or even ironically hindered the acquisition of good desires? A desirist might say there is nothing you can do to become a good person – it is all the people around you who should have made you a good person by malleating your desires using moral tools. Or perhaps it would be found that, say, getting a good night’s sleep and eating lots of fatty foods tend to impact human psychology so as to increase good desires. Then a desirist might say, “Don’t be concerned with cultivating good desires. Just worry about getting a good night’s sleep and eating fatty foods.” Granted, that is in effect an admonition to cultivate good deisres, but it is not the categorical imperative “thou shalt cultivate good desries.”

Anyway, despite what Alonzo might say (or might not, we’ll see), I don’t see desirism as prescribing actions or desires so as to become a good person. It prescribes actions to make other people become good (relative to your desires) so as to be a wise person. And it calls those prescriptions moral when they make people good relative to the most/greatest desires.

So, any person with the desire to be good [in the desirist sense] MUST be concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

I think I see what you mean. A person with the desire to be good will desire to have good desires, and thus will seek to cultivate good desires. But they may find that the desire to be good is itself a bad desire. Or they may find that the best way to acquire good desires is not to actively cultivate them, but to leave off that quest, turn to other (perhaps morally prescribed) pursuits, and hope that good desires will be acquired passively. Doesn’t it seem to you that under desirism, good desires generally are acquired passively (but promoted actively)?

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Luke Muehlhauser November 16, 2010 at 7:45 am

Michael,

Desire fulfillment has value to you, yes. But ‘intrinsic value’ in the sense we are discussing would mean that something (like desire fulfillment) has value apart from anyone valuing desire fulfillment. And that’s just not the case, we argue.

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cl November 30, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Zeb,

Sorry for the delay. Sometimes, life calls.

So, any person with the desire to be good [in the desirist sense] MUST be concerned with cultivating desires that tend to fulfill other desires. [cl]

I think I see what you mean. [Zeb]

Good. I find that refreshing. I also see what you mean when you say,

What if an empirical analysis were to show that the desire to cultivate good desires tended to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfilled, or even ironically hindered the acquisition of good desires?

Then desirism would seem even more incoherent than it already does. Problem is, neither Luke nor Alonzo are conducting anything even remotely close to an empirical analysis.

Granted, that is in effect an admonition to cultivate good deisres, but it is not the categorical imperative “thou shalt cultivate good desries.”

True, but trivial: it simply becomes the categorical imperative that “thou shalt do whatever leads to the cultivation of good desires.” I see no substantial difference. There’s still a categorical imperative being smuggled in, while simultaneously denied.

[desirism] prescribes actions to make other people become good (relative to your desires) so as to be a wise person. And it calls those prescriptions moral when they make people good relative to the most/greatest desires.

I get that, but why should I be good “relative to Alonzo’s desires?” I just fail to see how Alonzo gets from there to condemning spectator sports, smoking, pederasty, trash TV, and parents of obese children. How are we to know which desires we ought to condemn? Luke and Alonzo claim to be all about empiricism and science. Where is the empiricism or science for those claims?

Also, condemnation is a very powerful tool that thwarts many and strong desires when misapplied. Further, what of the fact that condemnation can work as motivation? Many a teenager who desires X finds their desire for X strengthened when condemned by others, especially their parents. For example, rock ‘n’ roll. Many a parent has condemned the desire for rock ‘n’ roll, only to find that such parental disapproval actually fed their child’s desire.

Doesn’t it seem to you that under desirism, good desires generally are acquired passively (but promoted actively)?

I’m not sure.

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Silver Bullet February 28, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Alph’s options 1 and 2 (which differ by whether Alph , himself, does or doesn’t exist) both fulfill his desire, so I don’t see how these options clarify the position that desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value on desirism. That is, I don’t see why the person who claims that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value is committed to accepting the state of affairs where Alph exists and Pandora exists. The other option still fulfills his desire.

Wrapped up in the meaning of the word desire is the notion of having it fulfilled. A desire without the desire to have it fulfilled is absurd – it’s incoherent. So it seems to me that desire fulfillment is an intrinsic part of a desire. As you seems to say, a desire is a reason to act so that the desire “is fulfilled”.

So I must admit that I am still having trouble, Luke & Alonzo, with accepting the message of this podcast.

Am I missing something with respect to the meaning of “intrinsic”?

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Silver Bullet February 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm

So to perhaps clarify: if Alph had desired that Pandora cease to exist, wouldn’t we say that Alphs desire could be fulfilled even after Alph ceases to exist?

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Nik K September 9, 2011 at 9:47 pm

This podcast made my head desire explosion. You both spend the first five minutes verbally denying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. Then this happens:

“ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no value at all in Alph’s world.
In that world, only Pandora’s continued existence has value, and that only has value to Alph, and only because Alph desires that Pandora continue to exist.”

WHAT? Why does Pandora’s continued existence (read: the fulfillment of Alph’s desire) have value? Because he desires it? Then desire fulfillment DOES have intrinsic value.
You both are intelligent people, how can you make such a circular argument?
“Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value, it’s the fulfilment of desire that’s valuable.”
This makes no sense.

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Kip September 10, 2011 at 8:23 am

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