Morality in the Real World 08: A Harmony of Desires

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 9, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

In episode 08 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss the difference between a desire to fulfill other desires, and a desire that fulfills other desires, and also the concept of a “harmony of desires.”

Download Episode 08

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Transcript of episode 08:

LUKE: Alonzo.

Alonzo?

Alonzo!

ALONZO: What?

LUKE: C’mon. We’re recording. Put down your Diet Dr. Pepper.

ALONZO: Sorry, I was thinking about Ebenezer Scrooge.

LUKE: We already finished the Scrooge episode. You can’t redo it.

ALONZO: I know. But, do you remember the question we asked in that episode?

LUKE: Yeah. We were responding to a question about Scrooge, namely: “Why should Scrooge care about the desires of others?”

ALONZO: Yep. That’s right. We talked about a desire on the part of Scrooge to fulfill the desires of others. And what was the answer?

LUKE: Well, desirism doesn’t say, necessarily, that Scrooge should want to fulfill the desires of others.

ALONZO: Okay, instead of saying ‘should’, let’s just say that there might not be very many or strong reasons to want Scrooge to fulfill the desires of others. There may be reasons to have him want other things instead.

LUKE: You’re saying that desirism isn’t about promoting a desire to fulfill the desires of others?

ALONZO: Only a little bit. Here, let’s go back and look at Alph.

LUKE: That’s the alien who wants the moon Pandora to continue to exist.

ALONZO: No. The earlier Alph, before the personality transplant.

LUKE: Oh, back when he wanted nothing but to gather stones.

ALONZO: That’s the one. Because he lives on a planet with very few stones, he gives his companion Betty a desire to scatter stones so that he, Alph, will have a constant supply of scattered stones to gather.

LUKE: Right.

But, notice this. A desire to scatter stones is NOT a desire to fulfill the desires of others.

LUKE: Hmm.

ALONZO: Well, the difference here plays on a distinction that philosophers have long recognized between ends – or goals – and means.

See, we have a number of ways to relate desires to states of affairs. In Betty’s case, scattering stones is her “end” or “goal”. That’s what she wants. She’s not aiming for a state in which she is fulfilling Alph’s desires. Fulfilling Alph’s desires is an unintended consequence – a side effect – of her having what she does want: scattering stones.

LUKE: Yeah, I can see that. It is a side effect the same way that getting fat is a side effect of eating as much chocolate cake as you want. Getting fat isn’t the desired result, it’s just a side effect.

ALONZO: And Alph’s gathering of stones is a means to Betty’s end of scattering stones. Betty finds the fact that Alph gathers stones to be useful or convenient for fulfilling her desire.

LUKE: Okay, then, from Alph’s point of view, gathering stones is HIS end or goal. That’s what he likes to do. Creating a pile of stones, which Betty can then scatter, is just a side-effect of Alph fulfilling his desire to gather stones. And getting Betty to scatter stones is a useful or convenient means by which Alph can continue to gather stones.

That’s why, in Episode 3, Alph gave Betty the red pill, because he knew it would give Betty a desire to scatter stones. For Alph, having Betty desire to scatter stones is useful. Betty’s desire to scatter stones has what we call instrumental value, or means-to-an-end value, for Alph.

ALONZO: I’m afraid that this is a place where people get confused because our language is confusing. We have one word in our language – ‘desire’ – and we use it in two different ways. We use it for what people desire as an end – what they like. And we use the same word for what people desire as a means to an end – for what is useful toward getting what we really care about.

So in normal English, it would make perfectly good sense to say that Alph wants to give Betty the red pill. When asked why, Alph would say that it was so that Betty would scatter stones, and he would have a constant supply of stones to gather.

LUKE: Yeah, and it would also make perfectly good sense to say that Alph wants to gather stones. But in this case, when we ask “Why?” he has no answer but to say, “No reason, that’s just something that I like to do.”

But notice: that actually gives us a test we can use to figure out whether something is desired as a means or as an end. If something is desired as a means to something else, and we ask, “Why?”, then somebody can give an answer.

ALONZO: We can ask Alph, “Why do you want Betty to desire to scatter stones?”

LUKE: And Alph has an answer. He can say: “Well, because then there are stones available for me to be gathering.”

But if something is desired as an end, and we ask “Why do you want that?”, then there is no answer. If you were to ask Alph, “Why do you want to gather stones, Alph?” The only answer he can give is: “Because that’s what I want.” And if that’s true, then we’ve discovered that Alph desires to gather stones as an end. That’s what he really cares about.

But we have to be careful. There’s no law of nature saying that an agent can’t have a desire for something both as a means and as an end at the same time. A couple having sex might want to have children and, at the same time, they might just want to have sex. When asked why they are having sex, they may answer that, “It is because we want to have a child.” But that might not be the whole explanation. They might also have wanted to just have sex for its own sake.

ALONZO: Here, we could ask the couple, “Would you have sex even if it were discovered you could not have children?” If the honest answer is, “Yes,” we know that the reason they offered – that they want children – isn’t the whole story.

LUKE: Yeah, so that’s another good test we can use to figure out whether something is desired as a means or as an end.

ALONZO: So here’s what we’re saying.

There are desires-as-ends and desires-as-means. If something is desired as a means then there is an answer to the ”Why” question – that answer is either the end or goal of the action, or the next link in some chain of means to some ultimate end.

LUKE: But if something is desired as an end, then there is no answer to the “Why?” question. It’s just: “No reason. I just like to gather stones.”

ALONZO: I also want to make the point that when we talk about desires, you and I are almost always talking about the desires-as-ends sense, not the desires-as-means sense. Alph’s desire to gather stones was a desire-as-end to gather stones. Betty was given a desire-as-end to scatter stones. Alph had a personality transplant which gave him a desire-as-end that the moon Pandora continue to exist.

LUKE: Right.

ALONZO: So, now that we can tell the difference between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means, let’s go back to Alph and Betty and look more closely at a desire to fulfill the desires of others – what a lot of people wrongly think desirism is exclusively about, and desires that fulfill the desires of others – what desirism actually spends a lot of time talking about.

I want to say some things about how these types of desires differ.

Here, let’s say you’re Betty.

LUKE: Betty? No way. I’m not going to talk in a high-pitched voice. No way. Nope. No way.

ALONZO: Okay, you’re Betty’s guardian angel. You are going to watch over Betty and report on her.

LUKE: Do I get badass angel wings so I can fly?

ALONZO: Sure. That’ll make it easier to watch over Betty, I suppose.

LUKE: Badass Guardian Angel, reporting for duty.

ALONZO: Okay, let’s go ahead and look at the desire we talked about in the Scrooge episode – the desire to fulfill the desires of others. Let’s say that Betty has this desire. Let’s hear your report on what Betty is doing assuming she has a desire to fulfill the desires of others.

LUKE: Okay. So, right now, Betty wants to fulfill the desires of others, and the only desire of others in existence is Alph’s desire to gather stones. And she can help him fulfill that desire by scattering stones so that he has stones to gather, and so that’s why Betty is scattering stones.

ALONZO: But Alph dies.

LUKE: He must not have a guardian angel.

ALONZO: Or not a very good one. Now, he’s dead. And Betty survives. So what’s going to happen to Betty?

LUKE: Well, it seems like she wouldn’t have any reason to scatter stones any more. There’s nothing she can do to fulfill Alph’s desires now. . . so, I dunno, I guess there’s nothing for her to do. I guess she sits down and does nothing.

ALONZO: That’s what happens if Betty has a desire to fulfill the desires of others – the desire we talked about in the Scrooge episode. Now, let’s give Betty a desire that fulfills the desires of others – in this case, a desire to scatter stones. Alph is alive again. Now, let’s hear your report on what Betty is doing this time.

LUKE: Well, Betty is scattering stones, just like before. Only, this time, the reason that she is scattering stones is because she likes to scatter stones. Fortunately, Alph is gathering stones so Betty has a constant supply of gathered stones to go about scattering.

ALONZO: But now Alph dies.

LUKE: Again? C’mon, what did Alph ever do to you?

ALONZO: I didn’t kill him. It was an accident. A tiny meteor fell from the sky and hit him in the head.

LUKE: Ouch.

ALONZO: Alph is gone, and Betty survives. What is going to happen to Betty this time?

LUKE: Well, she’ll continue to scatter stones because she wants to scatter stones.

Now, eventually, she’ll notice that the piles of rocks are getting smaller and smaller. And soon, she’ll have to gather stones into a pile so she can scatter them again, but she’ll keep on scattering stones.

ALONZO: So, a desire that fulfills the desires of others is not the same as a desire to fulfill the desires of others. There are circumstances in which each type of desire results in different actions.

LUKE: Yeah. So when we talked about Scrooge, you said that desirism does not claim that Scrooge should have a desire to fulfill the desires of others. That’s because Scrooge should have desires that fulfills the desires of others, and they’re not the same thing.

ALONZO: But remember, we need to be careful of using the word “should” there. Let’s just say that people generally might not have as much of a reason to give Scrooge a desire to fulfill the desires of others as they have to give Scrooge desires that fulfill the desires of others.

LUKE: But, wait a minute. That means, if, say, Ayn Rand is right about how selfishness helps fulfill the desires of others, then selfishness really is a virtue. Or, maybe Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street, maybe he was right when he said, “Greed is good.”

GORDON GEKKO: The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

ALONZO: It could be. Desirism doesn’t necessarily require everybody to desire to fulfill the desires of others. It really could end up saying everybody should be selfish. It doesn’t rule out that possibility.

And, there is something else that we glossed over earlier that I think deserves some mention. That’s the fact that Alph and Betty don’t end up with the same desires. Alph – who had a desire to gather stones – did not give Betty a desire to gather stones. He gave Betty a different desire, a desire to scatter stones.

LUKE: Yeah, because he needed somebody to scatter stones so he could keep on gathering them.

Betty’s desire to scatter stones fit better with Alph’s desire to gather stones.

ALONZO: Notice how this type of answer is a lot different from the type of answer you get when you think about value being intrinsic: being in things themselves.

Here, let’s illustrate by going back and talking to Alph.

LUKE: Okay, I’m Alph again.

ALONZO: Hello Alph.

LUKE: Hey, Alonzo. Why do you keep killing me?

ALONZO: I told you! It was an accident.

LUKE: Suuuuure it was.

ALONZO: Alph, pay attention.

LUKE: Okay.

ALONZO: You have a desire to gather stones. You have to decide whether to give Betty a blue pill that will cause her to want to gather stones, or a red pill that will cause her to want to scatter stones.

LUKE: So, I give Betty the red pill so she will scatter stones for me.

ALONZO: Not so fast! Here, let me give you a desire that others experience true value.

LUKE: Uhhh… Okay, well, having Betty scatter stones makes it easier for me to gather stones, and that has value to me. That’s true.

ALONZO: Now, Alph, think about the value you find in gathering stones. Where does that value come from?

LUKE: Well, it has value because that’s what I want.

ALONZO: That’s what those foolish desirists like Luke and Alonzo claim. Don’t listen to them. No, the value you find in gathering stones resides in the act of gathering stones itself. Gathering stones has special significance and you – by God’s design or by the forces of evolution – have come to have a proper appreciation for the intrinsic merit of stone-gathering.

There is no way a person can properly understand the nature of stone-gathering and not want to gather stones herself.

And the blue pill? That’s not a pill that gives Betty a desire to gather stones. That’s is a pill that, at least as you understand it, gives someone a “proper appreciation for the value intrinsic to the gathering of stones.”

LUKE: Uhh… okay, well…. so then in that case, if I believe that, and let’s say I want Betty to have a proper appreciation for the significance of gathering stones, then I guess I should give Betty the blue pill.

ALONZO: Of course, that would depend on which desire was the strongest. If your desire to gather stones were the stronger desire, you would give Betty the red pill anyway and sacrifice your interest in giving her a “proper appreciation for the significance of gathering stones” But if your desire to give Betty a “proper appreciation for the value of gathering stones” were stronger, you would prefer giving her the blue pill.

LUKE: But, if I did that, and we both wanted to gather stones, then I would have to fight her over who gets to gather the few stones that remain and who has to do the chore of scattering stones so they can be gathered again!

ALONZO: That’s right. You’d be losing out on the benefits that come from a harmony of desires.

LUKE: Hold on. What was that? “A harmony of desires”?

ALONZO: Oh, that’s what I call it when different desires work well together. When I noticed that there are some combinations of desires – like the desire to scatter stones and the desire to gather stones – that work well together, I thought of the way some musical notes work well together.

LUKE: Oh, like this . . .

SINGING: Well I see you’ve got your Bible, your delusion imagery. Well I don’t need your eternity or your meaning to feel free. I just live because I love to, and that’s enough, you see. So don’t preach about morality; that’s just human sense to me.

ALONZO: Yeah. That’s quite nice. Anyway, just like musical notes can work together, desires can work together as well. I call that kind of situation a harmony of desires. This is one of the conclusions that comes from desirism, but it doesn’t come from any theory that tries to find value in things themselves.

LUKE: So, you’re saying, let different people be different.

ALONZO: Well, not always, of course. Some notes play well with others. Some don’t.

For example, remember that in Episode 3, I took care to say that Alph had a desire to gather stones, and not a desire for a big pile of stones.

LUKE: Right.

ALONZO: If I had said that Alph had a desire for a big pile of stones, and Betty had a desire that all the stones be scattered, those desires would not work well together. In that situation, Alph and Betty would find themselves at war.

LUKE: Yeah, and Alph would end up losing.

ALONZO: Huh? How does that follow?

LUKE: Well, I figure Alph wants to gather stones, so Alph will be putting the stones in one spot. But Betty wants the stones scattered, and she can scatter them by throwing them at Alph.

ALONZO: But Alph’s pile of stones is where Betty will get her ammunition.

LUKE: Oh, yeah. That’s right. Then I guess we’re talking about mutually assured destruction.

ALONZO: All over a pile of stones, and desires that are not in harmony.

LUKE: Still, the lesson here is not “Let different people be different”. The lesson is that we can look at desires and distinguish those desires that work well together and those that do not. Desires that fulfill other desires are desires that are in harmony with each other. And this means, sometimes, we have reasons to encourage different people to desire different things rather than having everybody desire the same thing.

ALONZO: That’s one of the claims we can make about comparing desires. There’s more we can say on that issue.

LUKE: But, it’ll have to wait until the next episode.

ALONZO: Okay, see you then.

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{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

Polymeron November 9, 2010 at 2:23 am

Alright, this was pretty enlightening overall :)

A little long, though. I think if I needed to summarize the most important lesson from this, it would be: “Intrinsic value theories would prescribe the same behavior to everyone, but in reality it may be better for people to have different behaviors in the same situations”.

Of course, defining “good” is the prickly part of this conclusion, but it does make intuitive sense and can be elaborated on later.

Good job, guys.

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mojo.rhythm November 9, 2010 at 5:03 am

Ditto.

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Keith November 9, 2010 at 6:51 am

Another great podcast chaps, thanks.

Just one quibble, though: I’m a little uncomfortable with the assertion that some desires, like Alph’s desire to gather stones, are simply ends in themselves, with no real justification. In reality, it is more likely that if someone has a desire, it is because fulfilling that desire feels good. So, if Alph has a desire to gather stones, it is probably because gathering stones is pleasurable or fulfilling to him in some way.

Consider Luke’s example of a couple having sex. According to Luke, they may be having sex as an end to itself, or they may be having sex in order to have a child. However, “having sex as an end to itself” leaves out a very important piece of information: if people have sex without the intention to procreate, they usually do it because it is pleasurable, because it feels good. This is a very real justification that seems to put sex in the “means” category once again, rather than in the “ends” category. In other words, people seek to have sex in order to feel pleasure. If sex were not enjoyable or pleasurable, people would not desire it.

This seems to have potentially serious implications for desirism. Any thoughts?

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Kip November 9, 2010 at 7:02 am

Of course, defining “good” is the prickly part of this conclusion,…

“Good” means “fulfills goals”. Which goals? Whichever ones you want to talk about. It’s a relative term.

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Kip November 9, 2010 at 7:17 am

Hey faithlessgod

I’m curious what you think about this episode? I know they aren’t specifically saying they are talking about “morality” yet… but I think they will be getting there shortly.

Anyway, this seems to be contrary to what you were saying a while back that moral prescriptions must be universally applicable:

it is usually part and parcel of the inherent meaning of a moral prescription that is universally applicable

I had responded:

Well, here’s the thing: there are clearly cases where it is not good that everyone have the same desires. It may be the case that it is only good that 50% of the population have a certain desire. Or 75%. Or 90%.

If you want to restrict “moral ought” to only those desires that 100% of the people should have, then it’s just going to be limiting the potential usefulness of the tools. Or, maybe the argument is that the tools don’t work unless they are applied universally? But I disagree with that. Clearly we can target subsets of the population.

This is not a “do whatever you feel like” morality. It’s a “it’s best that this part of the population have X desires”.

When asked if you disagree with this, you responded:

Not at all but what is that to do with the question at hand, that is not morality.

So, it would seem that this entire podcast episode (and several before it) have nothing to do with morality. I guess morality only has to deal with “universally applicable prescriptions”? So, we need another word to deal with “harmony of desires”?

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Kip November 9, 2010 at 7:19 am

Keith: great question! The sex example may have been a bad example. I’ll let Luke respond, though.

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Garren November 9, 2010 at 11:12 am

LUKE: Well, desirism doesn’t say, necessarily, that Scrooge should want to fulfill the desires of others.

ALONZO: Okay, instead of saying ‘should’, let’s just say that there might not be very many or strong reasons to want Scrooge to fulfill the desires of others. There may be reasons to have him want other things instead.

The main point of this episode is to deny that:

( A ) Scrooge should want to fulfill others’ desires.

in favor of something like:

( B ) Scrooge should want things which fulfill others’ desires.

But Alonzo’s response to Luke takes one more step to something like:

( C ) Others should want Scrooge to want things which fulfill their own desires.

Which is part of a general principle that:

( D ) People should want things which fulfill their own desires.

Where “should” is understood in the sense:

( E ) People have reason to want things which fulfill their own desires.

Is this the only sense of should or “ought” in Desirism? If so, I’m having a hard time distinguishing Desirism from Rational Egoism with an awareness that manipulating the desires of others is an available method of getting what one wants.

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Zeb November 9, 2010 at 11:14 am

This is a very real justification that seems to put sex in the “means” category once again, rather than in the “ends” category. In other words, people seek to have sex in order to feel pleasure.

And you can then decide that pleasure is really just a means of fulfilling another desire, and so on. I do think this is a problem for desirism – all this talk of desires and reasons for action etc. is a constructed narrative, not the objective empirical description it claims to be.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 9, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Garren

Good summary, for the most part, Garren.

Is this the only sense of should or “ought” in Desirism? If so, I’m having a hard time distinguishing Desirism from Rational Egoism with an awareness that manipulating the desires of others is an available method of getting what one wants.

Rational egoism makes the further claim that all desires are desires “in the self” or self-interested desires. It either denies the existence (psychological egoism) or the legitimacy (ethical egoism) of desires other than self-interested or self-promoting desires.

For example, under egoism, Alph’s desire that the moon Pandora continue to exist is either not possible (psychological egoism) or not legitimate (ethical egoism) because it is not a self-promoting desire.

When desirists say that people seek to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, this actually goes no further than to say a that an act belongs to the person whose desire motivated that act.

If you were to hook up some type of machine to my body, so that your desires were controlling my body, then those actions are not “my actions” they are “your actions”. This is because my desires were not providing the motivating force – yours were.

Egoists mean something a whole lot more specific than, “my actions are mine because they come from my brain, and your actions are yours because they come from your brain.”

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Garren November 9, 2010 at 1:14 pm

Alonzo,

Rational egoism makes the further claim that all desires are desires “in the self” or self-interested desires

Ah, yes, that does appear to be how the term is generally used. From the SEP’s entry on Egoism:

“What makes a desire self-regarding is controversial, but there are clear cases and counter-cases: a desire for my own pleasure is self-regarding; a desire for the welfare of others is not. ”

Whereas in Desirism, no distinction is made of the regard of one’s desires.

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Garren November 9, 2010 at 1:15 pm

This bit was Alonzo’s and was supposed to be in block quotes ->

Rational egoism makes the further claim that all desires are desires “in the self” or self-interested desires

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe November 9, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Great episode, longer than others, but remains as interesting as any (I really love the stone gathering/scattering story; simple and elegant). Also, thanks for clarifying what desire-as-means/ends means, as well as the intrinsic value part.

I’m looking forward to how you handle Keith’s objection.

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Keith November 9, 2010 at 6:10 pm

I have one more thing to add to my initial quibble. I suggested before that some desires, such as the desire to have sex, cannot be justified as being ends in themselves, but exist for the purpose of experiencing pleasure. But what about desires that do not hold potential pleasure for the desirer? For example, what about the desire that my son grow up happy and successful? On the face of it, the main benefit this desire would confer, if fulfilled, would be on my son, not on me.

Well, what if pleasure was not the only ultimate reason for desires? What if fear of the *loss* of pleasure is the ultimate reason for certain desires? I am going to suggest that the ultimate “end” of my desire to see my son succeed is really about my fear of experiencing suffering if he does not. I would be devastated if my son experienced hardship.

Consider how an American parent might feel about some unknown young boy, somewhere in Uganda, say, or in Japan, or in Iceland. Would the American parent feel the same devastation if the Japanese boy, rather than his own son, experienced hardship? Empirically, I think we can answer a definitive “no”. But why? Because I am emotionally invested in my own son, and not in anyone else’s son. But what does this really mean? It means precisely that I would be negatively affected emotionally if my own son were to encounter hardship, but I would not be so affected if the Japanese or Ugandan boy were to encounter hardship. As unfair as this may sound, it seems to be the case in reality.

I must conclude, then, that even those of my desires which, if fulfilled, would place the most benefit on someone else, would, if thwarted, cause me great suffering. It seems to me, then, that even these desires can be accounted for by self-interest, except in this case it is my interest to avoid suffering, not my interest in experiencing pleasure.

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Kip November 9, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Keith: stop quibbling now, I mean-it. Anybody wanna peanut?

Check out these post to see if they answer your question:

Happiness vs. Desire Fulfillment

Internal State Theories

(Note that the first one was written in 2006.)

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Keith November 9, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Thanks Kip. I’ll try to stop quibbling :-).

I have objections to some of the content of both links you sent me, but perhaps this is not the appropriate forum for addressing them in detail. Instead, my hope here is that either Luke or Alonzo will say a few words about my two quibbles (which are really just one quibble).

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Luke Muehlhauser November 9, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Keith and Kip,

Actually I would kinda prefer that people ‘quibble’ here, and Alonzo and I will try to figure out what is significant and what is really just quibbling. For example in this case I don’t think Keith’s points are necessarily quibbles that aren’t worth answering. I think his points are worth answering.

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Yair November 9, 2010 at 11:42 pm

Good episode. Yes, one can quibble, but ultimately I think the points were well-made.

The headline gave me the impression that you are finally going to talk about an internal struggle of conflicting desires, but in retrospect that was uncalled for – “harmony” works better in your more general sense. I’m looking forward to the time when you actually start talking about this, and about morality.

Since Luke asked for it, I’ll just briefly mention my quibbles.

1) I doubt there is really a robust dichotomy between primary/secondary or ends/meands desires. It doesn’t look like our brain works that way. This is a quibble, because I think the dichotomy is a good-enough effective theory for the most part.

2) If you are going to mention this division, what you should engage with is the orthodox position that all humans share one identical primary desire (or at least all “good” ones share a small set of basic-primary desires). For Sam Harris, for example, it appears that all “good” people share a desire to maximize the well-being of fellow conscious beings (whatever that means exactly).This approach leads to seeing “moral error” as error in thinking, and to a moral theory that is at least meaningful and can be applied empirically – you can check if you are “good”, and if so the theory tells you what will further your desires. It traces back all the way to the ancient Greeks. I’d like to hear how Desirism deals with this kind of opposing moral theory.

3) As always, I think you’re giving the competition an unfair treatment. What, precisely, is the problem with the idea that “Gathering stones has special significance and you – by God’s design or by the forces of evolution – have come to have a proper appreciation for the intrinsic merit of stone-gathering.”? Sure, it can lead to a clash of desires in some contrived cases – so what? It certainly won’t matter as to the truth of it. Take a look at the real philosophers taking such a stand. Take G.E. Moore. He essentially claims that indeed there is a property called “good” and there are things that exemplify it; just like there is a property called “spherical” and there are things that exemplify it. But unlike “spherical”, “good” cannot be reduced to other properties, it cannot be fully described mathematically or physically; this is not unreasonable when you consider that what we judge as “good” is a strange attractor in an ever-changing real neural net – it cannot have a perfectly accurate description. So yes, there is a certain “value”, a certain irreducible property that we can judge is exemplified to a great degree by gathering stones (in this example). This is not “value” in the “someone desires this” Alonzo sense – it is “value” in another sense, that may or may not correspond to what we desire. What, again, is the problem with this view? Stop toppling strawmen. Deal with the heavyweights, and under the Principle of Charity.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 10, 2010 at 12:14 am

Yair,

On (2): But we reject this view, and give arguments against it.

On (3): We don’t think our story refuted intrinsic value theories. Rather, the point was to illustrate that there is a difference between what we are saying and what intrinsic value theories say. We make the point because people keep telling us that what we are saying is identical to saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, but those people are wrong. So no, we didn’t attack a straw man, because we weren’t giving an argument against intrinsic value theories at all in this episode.

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Yair November 10, 2010 at 2:47 am

Luke,

,On (2): But we reject this view, and give arguments against it.

Where? You acknowledged that there are desires-as-ends, i.e. primary desires. I didn’t see any indication that desirism implies that you can’t name a certain subset of these as “good” or that all (or just “good”) people aren’t driven by these good primary desires. Do give me some reference here.

On (3): We don’t think our story refuted intrinsic value theories. Rather, the point was to illustrate that there is a difference between what we are saying and what intrinsic value theories say.

Well, in that role I think it wasn’t bad at all. Indeed, it was better than the untenable definition of “intrinsic value” you gave last time, which isn’t something such theories are committed to. Now you were careful to note that the thing both has value, and you desires to spread appreciation of; our desires are separate from the moral value by itself. But it would have been even better if you would have emphasized the difference in the modes of thinking; as it is, your argument seemed geared to emphasize the “badness” of intrinsic values – that they lead to conflict. It seemed you were trying to show that intrinsic value is bad, not that it is different.

I would note that you have not yet established such conflict is morally bad. I also think that just about everyone would agree with you that at least under certain (contrived?) conditions, promoting an appreciation for what is moral can entail conflict which, by itself, is bad.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 10, 2010 at 3:00 am

Yair,

Re: (2), my most recent post on that was ‘In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism’.

Re: (3). Nope, we haven’t established that a conflict between desires is morally bad. As we keep repeating, we aren’t talking about morality yet in the podcast.

What was the untenable definition for ‘intrinsic value’ we gave last time?

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Yair November 10, 2010 at 3:42 am

Luke,

Yair,Re: (2), my most recent post on that was ‘In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism’.

That’s nice and all, but what has it got to do with this series? I am talking about explaining Desirism through this series, not about the blog in general.

But notice that point (2) covered two options. Some make the bold assertion that we all desire only X. This, IIRC, was what your post was about, and I commented there that this is an open empirical question. But the other possibility is that “good people” desire only X, and morality is just about X; this is a rather more philosophical question, not an empirical one, and I haven’t seen any desirist attempt to explain why this definition of “morally good” is at fault.

What was the untenable definition for ‘intrinsic value’ we gave last time?

That “[i]ntrinsic 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.” As I noted there, the relevant moral theories don’t require such reasons for action to exist. In this episode you were much more careful to separate the moral value of gathering the stones from the appreciation of this value and the desire to spread this appreciation. This is a much more respectable treatment of those views.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 10, 2010 at 4:46 am

re: (2). Oh you mean in the show? Yeah we haven’t covered that yet.

Re: (3), I’m not sure what you’re saying. We may be talking past each other. Are you trying to say that there are “intrinsic value” theories where the thing that supposedly has intrinsic value really only has value if it is ‘appreciated’ by something extrinsic to that thing? I don’t understand…

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Kip November 10, 2010 at 5:31 am

I was just joking about not quibbling. Keith has good quibbles.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 10, 2010 at 7:19 am

Yair

The only argument I am aware of against the existence of something is that there is no reason to believe that it exists. It does not explain anything. (Luke and I have already covered that in this podcast.)

The set of things that could exist is infinite, and it is not at all possible to write a podcast that looks at all of the things that could exist and refute their existence. It is an endless chore – and yet, even after several lifetimes worth of work, there will still be an infinite number of possible things that one can think of not yet ruled out.

So, the only reasonable way to continue is to say, “This theory accurately explains and predicts all that we observe. It is up to you, who wish to assert things that play no role in this theory, to show that this theory fails to make certain predictions, and how the proposed entity ends up being more successful.”

Not speaking for Luke . . . that is my refutation of intrinsic value. It is the same as my refutation of faeries in the garden.

Well, I do have a couple of arguments against such theories that we haven’t got to. One is an evolutionary problem – even if intrinsic values exist, it is unreasonable to expect that we would have evolved a capacity to appreciate them except if there were some lucky coincidence between the ability to appreciate intrinsic value and genetic replication. This would be an exceptionally remarkable coincidence given the range of appreciations we find in nature among creatures that have acquired reproductive success.

Concerning this podcast, Luke is right. The purpose here is to illustrate the difference between the desirist treats value and the condept of value as an intrinsic property. Desirism allows for the possibility of a harmony of desires, while intrinsic value theory is incompatible with a harmony of desires. This does not prove that intrinsic values do not exist, but it does illustrate a difference between the types of implications that can be drawn from each theory.

The actual objection to intrinsic value theories is that which we discussed in the previous episode, “they do no work.”

An objection may be raised that we did not present intrinsic value theories ‘correctly’. However, even here, the point can be raised: Is there a ‘corrected’ version of intrinsic value theory that actually does any work? If the response is, “Here is another theory postulating the existence of intrinsic values that also fails to do any work,” then that option is of merely academic importance – like the dozens of variations of Ptolomey’s theory that the Earth is the center of the solar system that are usually not considered when Ptolomey’s theories (as representative of all such theories) are refuted.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 10, 2010 at 7:28 am

It may well be that the desire for sex is a desire for pleasure where sex is a means of obtaining pleasure.

But, then, all we need to do is change the end to a “desire for pleasure” and the whole argument still stands, substantively unchanged.

What is pleasure, anyway?

Pleasure is a a particular configuration of molecules.

What gives that configuration of molecules value? Why do we pursue that configuration of molecules through whatever means necessary, and not some other? Why is it not possible to pursue some configuration of molecules other than pleasure? If we can give the pleasure-configuration value, then what prevents us from giving some other configuration value as well?

Like, for example, the configuration of molecules that makes up the state of affairs called “having sex”? If pleasure can have value for its own sake, then can’t sex have value for its own sake as well? If not, why not?

Remember, desirism DOES NOT SAY that desire fulfillment is a configuration of molecules having special value. Nothing has intrinsic value, not even desire fulfillment. Desirism states that desires motivate agents to realize the that which is desired. A desire for pleasure motivates an agent to realize a state of affairs in which the agent experiences pleasure. A desire for sex motivates an agent to realize a state of affairs in which the agent is having sex. A desire that the moon Pandora continue to exist motivates an agent to realize a state of affairs in which the moon Pandora continues to exist.

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Kip November 10, 2010 at 8:01 am

Like, for example, the configuration of molecules that makes up the state of affairs called “having sex”? If pleasure can have value for its own sake, then can’t sex have value for its own sake as well? If not, why not?

Were you chuckling when you wrote that? I pictured that you were. Not for low-brow reasons, mind you, but because your Socratic line of questioning is just so gripping. I’m not going to spoil the fun by answering your question… but I hope people really ponder it, and answer it for themselves.

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Keith November 10, 2010 at 8:06 am

Alonzo:

“It may well be that the desire for sex is a desire for pleasure where sex is a means of obtaining pleasure. But, then, all we need to do is change the end to a “desire for pleasure” and the whole argument still stands, substantively unchanged.”

I agree. What I am arguing is that it may be the case that *all* desires can ultimately be reduced to the “desire for pleasure” or, alternatively, the “desire to avoid suffering”. I am not saying that we necessarily consciously choose to have desires on this basis, but that his how it practically turns out to be.

The reason I argue this is because it seems to fit with how evolution would work. As you rightly point out, pleasure is simply a certain arrangement of molecules in the brain. But it is an arrangement with a purpose: it is the brain state that evolution has stumbled upon as way of telling us that we’re doing something good for gene propagation.

So, the reason we feel pleasure during sex is because sex is evolutionarily advantageous. Pleasure is nature’s way of getting us to have more sex so that we can pass on our genes.

In a similar fashion, pain is a mechanism evolution has stumbled upon to tell us that what we’re experiencing might limit the propagation of our genes. Physical pain obviously fits this description, but the same may be true for emotional suffering. For example, I feel distraught at the idea that my son might get run over by a car if I don’t hold his hand while crossing the street. Why do I feel this way? Because it is evolutionarily advantageous to experience discomfort at the prospect of one’s genes being prevented from propagating.

“Why is it not possible to pursue some configuration of molecules other than pleasure? If we can give the pleasure-configuration value, then what prevents us from giving some other configuration value as well?”

It is certainly possible to pursue some action that does not produce pleasure directly. But I would argue that even these actions are motivated by self-interest. For instance, I desire to clean the toilets in my home, but I do not experience pleasure at this task. Instead, the reason I desire to clean my toilets is because I think this will benefit me and my family: it will allow me to live in a clean house with clean ablution facilities. Cleaning the toilets, then, can ultimately be expressed as an act of self-interest, even if it doesn’t produce pleasure directly.

Self-interest, after all, is the fundamental currency of evolution, whereas pleasure is simply one tool evolution has devised to persuade us to act in our self-interest. (Obviously this misfires occasionally, as anyone who eats too much ice cream, and gains weight as a result, will tell you.)

“Like, for example, the configuration of molecules that makes up the state of affairs called “having sex”? If pleasure can have value for its own sake, then can’t sex have value for its own sake as well? If not, why not?”

I consider the word “value” to be synonymous with “that which we desire”. And I am not denying that we have all kinds of desires, and therefore that all sorts of things may therefore have value. What I am doing, however, is suggesting that these desires are not ends in themselves, but are born of a more fundamental desire to look out for one’s self-interest. In other words, I am arguing for a hierarchy of desires, because I think this is what a study of biology tells us is really the case.

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Josh November 10, 2010 at 8:50 am

This podcast is great, but is just getting me more and more confused. I’m beginning to accept desirism as pretty good DESCRIPTION of morality, but I can’t imagine where you’re going to get any kind of prescription out of this…

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Yair November 10, 2010 at 9:21 am

Luke,

.Re: (3), I’m not sure what you’re saying. We may be talking past each other. Are you trying to say that there are “intrinsic value” theories where the thing that supposedly has intrinsic value really only has value if it is ‘appreciated’ by something extrinsic to that thing? I don’t understand…

Perhaps the confusion lies in the different definitions of “value”. The people saying things have intrinsic value do not, as a rule, say that we necessarily have reasons for action to pursue this value. They are using “value” as an objective descriptive, akin to “how perfectly spherical the object is”. So a thing might have “intrinsic value” yet only have “real value”, i.e. Alonzo-value, if it is ‘appreciated’ by someone.

Of course, you can find people that say there really are reasons-for-action within the objective thing in-of-itself; I don’t think that’s a tenable position, and I do think all major directions in moral philosophy can be pursued without this ontological hypothesis. Then there are those who would claim that things don’t exist unless they’re observed… well, let’s just dismiss that without further ado, shall we? I’m not referring to such ideas. I think that when we as naturalists evaluate the notion of intrinsic value, we should extend it the respect it deserves by considering its strongest naturalistic incarnations.

Alonzo,

The set of things that could exist is infinite, and it is not at all possible to write a podcast that looks at all of the things that could exist and refute their existence. … the only reasonable way to continue is to say, “This theory accurately explains and predicts all that we observe. It is up to you, who wish to assert things that play no role in this theory, to show that this theory fails to make certain predictions, and how the proposed entity ends up being more successful.”

Absolutely. However, if you do go to the lengths of mentioning one option out of that infinity, you should treat it respectfully as much as possible.

Well, I do have a couple of arguments against such theories that we haven’t got to. One is an evolutionary problem – even if intrinsic values exist, it is unreasonable to expect that we would have evolved a capacity to appreciate them

I think that’s a decisive argument against intrinsic value. An episode dealing with intrinsic value should still provide it in some detail, but basically – yeah, this pretty much robs “intrinsic value” of any meaningful sense.

An apologist could still maintain that the value exists as a property that is being detected, but his argument is starting to sound like semantic tricks disguising a naturalistic moral-sense theory.

Concerning this podcast, Luke is right. The purpose here is to illustrate the difference between the desirist treats value and the condept of value as an intrinsic property. Desirism allows for the possibility of a harmony of desires, while intrinsic value theory is incompatible with a harmony of desires. This does not prove that intrinsic values do not exist, but it does illustrate a difference between the types of implications that can be drawn from each theory.

Whoa. You’ve achived the first purpose admirably.The big difference that the exposition exposed was the way of thought – instead of thinking about the intrinsic value of the thing, the appreciation of it, and increasing the value and appreciation in the world – you are thinking simply in terms of what desires people have and what they consequently practically-should want.

However, so far, both desirism and intrinsic value allow for the possibility of a harmony of desires. Perhaps you are relying on some moral prescriptions desirism makes here or something – I’m not privy to this information. But from what I read in this series so far, you have not shown desirism’s way of thinking “leads” to harmony of desires – indeed, you especially said desires may harmonize or not. Really, you have offered no prescription desirism makes, so it doesn’t “lead” to anything. You did show that desiring to spread appreciation for intrinsic values can lead to a conflict in desires in one case, but you have not shown it always does and that under desirism it always doesn’t.

For me, the way of thought is a far more fundamental difference that the fact that possibly one theory or the other may lead to conflict.

Is there a ‘corrected’ version of intrinsic value theory that actually does any work?

Well, this depends heavily on what it means for a moral theory to “work”, which you haven’t expanded on in this series yet so I’m not in a position to answer. I also don’t really support such theories, so my answer would be that ultimately there is none that work.

I would say that the Moorean approach that anchors “good” to an attractor in our brain has two points in its favor. First, it avoids the fallacy that our concepts can be clearly or analytically defined; as attractors of a very messy and complicated neural net, providing an accurate description of them is impossible in practice. Secondly, it separates out the “good” concept, and in this way allows to construct a moral-realistic theory about the good without committing oneself to the (false) position that people desire only (or at least always) good. It has many weaknesses, however, and I don’t think it’s a very good way to think about morality – so no, it doesn’t “work:” by my standards. But I don’t know yet what your standards are.

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Kip November 10, 2010 at 9:40 am

It has many weaknesses, however, and I don’t think it’s a very good way to think about morality – so no, it doesn’t “work:” by my standards.

I’d like to hear a brief synopsis of what you think the weaknesses are, and why you don’t think having “good” be equivalent to “fulfills goals” works by your standards.

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Yair November 10, 2010 at 10:19 am

Keith,

Self-interest, after all, is the fundamental currency of evolution

Not quite. The currency is the interest of your descendants – or more specifically, your genes. The direct interests of the organism are just one factor in this calculus of survival.

What you are basically arguing for is psychological hedonism. I’d advise you to amend your wording by removing reference to self-interest; what you desire is to be happy with your choices, which can involve very non-selfish things (e.g. dying to save your child), so “self-interest” is a deceptive term that can be easily misunderstood.

I think psychological hedonism is interesting in that it really touches on what is perhaps the most difficult question in philosophy – what is consciousness? What is concsiousness of pain and pleasure? Can pain and pleasure exist without us being consciouss of them?

It appears that decisions are made by “fame in the brain” – the ability to excite further neural activity down the line, in other parts and centers of the brain. How does this mechanism relate to pain and pleasure?

It is my (limited) understanding that there are pain/pleasure centers in the brain. Is their activation invariably correlated with indications – both physical and verbal – of pleasurable and painful experiences? Is it impossible to find such indications without the activation of these centers? If so, do these centers provide the positive/negative feedback that drives intentional decision-making? These, I feel, are the empirical facts that need to be established to establish psychological hedonism.

I suspect the picture is more complex than that. That there are various centers whose activation would lead to different types of pleasures and sufferings in the person, some of which would have verbal report and some only physiological. That decision making is based on negative and positive feedback from further, other, centers, and may occur without receiving feedback from “the” pain/pleasure centers at all. If this is true, then psychological hedonism is wrong – at least sometimes.

I am afraid I don’t know enough about this subject to determine which is the case.

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Yair November 10, 2010 at 10:56 am

Kip,

I’d like to hear a brief synopsis of what you think the weaknesses are, and why you don’t think having “good” be equivalent to “fulfills goals” works by your standards.

These are very different questions since the “weaknesses” there relate to Moorean theories, which do not say “good” is “fulfills goals”.

The weakness of the Moorean approach that I sketched are:
a) As Alonzo implied, evolutionary psychology paints a picture of our moral sensibilities that includes basic “pre-moral” emotional responses like empathy or a sense of justice. These get combined and fine-tuned through culture and personal development. Such a view on what morality is is at odds with treating moral properties as undefinable abstracta. The properties are fixated precisely because they had an impact on the survival of our ancestors. They are very real, tangible, describable properties.

b) To the extent Moore is correct that there is no reduction possible for our moral sense, it is also correct that one cannot construct any useful theory regarding it. The Moorean position is therefore self-defeating. Luckily, while Moore is technically correct (since it is impossible to fully describe any attractor in a neural net, “good” included), in practice we can reach a “good enough” understanding of it.

c) It does not appear that we have a single concept of “good” as a basic part of our brain’s conceptual network. Instead, we have a collection of moral terms that “good” is only a part of. If anything, the basic building blocks of morality appear to be things like “feeling of guilt”, “feeling of righteousness”, and so on.

d) Most importantly, the theory does not even seriously attempt to be a good theory for people looking for aid in making a choice. It describes what “good” is, how to promote “good”, and so on – not what people want and how to promote it. Its usefulness, therefore, is limited to cases where by fortuitous coincidence the two happen to overlap. This is not necessarily a blot against it as a “moral” theory, but it is what I am looking for, and it doesn’t provide it.

Now, the last point sort of addressed your second question too. I believe moral discourse is so confused that it is impossible to have a theory about “morality”, since different people use the word to mean vastly different things. What is possible is to provide different theories that serve different needs.

I think the most useful theory is a Theory of Normative Practical Reason – a theory that describes what the primary desires of normal people are (with some place for variety, as people differ from each other), and provides tools to help them fulfill these desires through personal development – helps them to want what they want to want, to react emotionally the way they’d like to, to think things through, to build the moral character they want, and so on. This is a theory that every normative person would have very good reasons to learn and apply. It would not define “good” as “fulfill goals”, but rather as “fulfills normative goals”. This is because it would specifically not provide guidance for “bad” goals, that stand in opposition to what normal people want – for example, developing a body of knowledge on how to rape well and enjoy it more would not fall within its purview. Again, I emphasize, that calling such a theory a “moral theory” is completely arbitrary. And I concede in advance that such a theory can only be useful if there is something like a normal distribution of primary desires, or something close to it.

It isn’t that you can’t define “good” to be “fulfills goals”, if that is what you wish. But this is simply not the kind of moral theory that I see as relevant. I have no interest in developing or promoting such a theory. I don’t just want to “fulfill goals”. What I care about is furthering my own personal desires, and for that I need a theory of normative practical reason – presuming, that is, that I’m indeed normal; I suspect I am.

All other definitions of “moral” or “good” can have their uses, but they won’t really serve as a guide for life for any normative rational person. (Assuming, again, that there is such a thing.) And this is my standard. What I seek from a moral theory is truthful and useful guidance in life. All other definitions do not provide this, most because they don’t aim to. The only exception is a personal theory of ethics – a theory on how to advance my own idiosyncratic desires. Creating such a theory is a herculean task far beyond my capabilities. It is not practical. The only moral theory that does the “work” I want from one that we’re ever likely to develop to any significant degree is the normative one.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 10, 2010 at 11:09 am

Yair,

Ah, yeah, we’re only talking about value in terms of normative reasons. If what some people are calling ‘value’ does not provide normative reasons to anyone then it’s not going to be relevant to what we will eventually talking about: morality. If morality is about anything, it’s gotta have normativity in there somewhere.

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Kip November 10, 2010 at 11:25 am

What I care about is furthering my own personal desires…

Indeed… that’s what everyone cares about. That’s what is “good” for each individual. Of course, the object of your desires don’t have to just be “self-regarding”. You can actually have personal desires that target things besides your own self.

So, even if we don’t use the word “good” for this, this is indeed what you “care” about. It’s what you are trying to do. You are trying to fulfill your desires. Call it what you want. I’m pretty sure that in normal language, I usually call something “good” to the extent that it fulfills my desires. I think most people do this.

Once we realize that we are all seeking to fulfill our desires, and that part of the way we do this is to try to shape the desires of others, then we can have a “meta-view” of desires to see which desires tend to fulfill other desires. We can do that within ourselves, for instance, and realize that our desire for eating too much high-calorie food will tend to thwart a lot of other desires we have. We can also do this among the entire population, and figure that promoting certain desires in our community will tend to fulfill more and stronger desires. So, that would be a good thing to do — meaning it’s something that will tend to fulfill more of our desires — it is “good for us”.

If you want to know what things you should do, you must first assess what your desires are. However, it’s not the case that all desires are good. But, by what standard can I say that? By the only standard that exists: the standard that some desires will tend to fulfill desires, and some will tend to thwart them. So, if you want to do a self-assessment, look at all the desires you have, and figure out if each one is “good” or “bad”. We can then work on trying to minimize the bad desires, and maximize the good desires, and even add good desires that we might not have.

There might not be one right answer, though. Sam Harris might be right, and there could be multiple peaks on the “Moral Landscape”.

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Yair November 10, 2010 at 11:26 am

Luke,

Ah, yeah, we’re only talking about value in terms of normative reasons. If what some people are calling ‘value’ does not provide normative reasons to anyone then it’s not going to be relevant to what we will eventually talking about: morality. If morality is about anything, it’s gotta have normativity in there somewhere.

With respect, this argument reminds me of Sam Harris’ argument that morality has to consist of maximizing the well being of all sentient beings since clearly a theory that doesn’t denounce the most extreme suffering of such beings is wrong.

These theories do relate intrinsic values to what people want. They just don’t identify between the two. Most often, it is “good” people that want the good, and people in general are kinda in the middle in how much good they are. I don’t really see anything wrong with that, per se. You don’t have to identify between value and reasons for action for you to provide a normative ethics.

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Yair November 10, 2010 at 11:45 am

Kip,

Once we realize that we are all seeking to fulfill our desires, and that part of the way we do this is to try to shape the desires of others, then we can have a “meta-view” of desires to see which desires tend to fulfill other desires.We can do that within ourselves, for instance, and realize that our desire for eating too much high-calorie food will tend to thwart a lot of other desires we have. We can also do this among the entire population, and figure that promoting certain desires in our community will tend to fulfill more and stronger desires.

So? As you said, “what everyone cares about” is furthering his own desires. By your own logic (which is also mine), I shouldn’t care about what tends to promote more or stronger desires “in our community”; it is only what tends to promote more or stronger desires in me that matters.

This the Cardinal Sin of the Old Desirism, as I understand it. It jumps without cause to valuing the values of the community instead of my own values. But this is the old desirism. I still harbor hope the New Desirism will get over this cognitive error.

However, it’s not the case that all desires are good. But, by what standard can I say that? By the only standard that exists: the standard that some desires will tend to fulfill desires, and some will tend to thwart them.

That is not the only standard that exists. More importantly, this is not a standard you should care about! The only thing you, as a rational person, should care about is to what degree these desires will tend to further your own desires. That’s it.

Normative Practical Reason offers a way out of this individualism – if as an empirical fact it happens to be that my desires are identical to the desires of the bulk of humanity, then what furthers my own desires also furthers theirs. We therefore have a shared interest in developing a theory on how to advance said desires. But this is a conditional thing – the construction of such a large edifice of knowledge is possible only as a shared effort, and thus is only possible if it indeed happens to be the case that we all share the same desires. (Or, if you can fool others, over generations, to further such a theory, and somehow live to see it through… yeah, right.)

Of course, we know there are exceptions. People who want things that most people don’t want them to want. Presumably, NPR would call the desires the bulk of humanity shares “good”, and those that conflict with them “bad”. In this way you too, as a normal person, would have a real reason for action to minimize the bad desires in society – these are, precisely, the desires that you desire to oppose.

You have no reason to thwart desires that tend to thwart the desires of people “in our community”. The only thing it is rational to care about is furthering your own desires; if you are acting to thwart desires that do no oppose your own, you’re acting irrationally. You don’t really have a reason to take such action.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 10, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Yair,

We’re not speaking the same language, here! Let me see if I can get clear on this:

- Are you saying there are theories of morality that make no normative claims? That looks like a contradiction in terms.
- Are you saying there are theories of morality that say something has intrinsic value because of something extrinsic to it (peoples desires)? That looks like a contradiction in terms, too.
- What language would you use to talk about normative ethics without mentioning reasons for action? That again look like a contradiction in terms…

It looks like you’re using words like ‘value’ and ‘reasons for action’ and ‘normativity’ and ‘morality’ to mean something very different from their usual meaning as I have encountered them, but maybe we’ve been reading completely different communities of scholars when it comes to value theory.

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Kip November 10, 2010 at 1:24 pm

So? As you said, “what everyone cares about” is furthering his own desires. By your own logic (which is also mine), I shouldn’t care about what tends to promote more or stronger desires “in our community”; it is only what tends to promote more or stronger desires in me that matters.

You have reasons to promote in the community desires which tend to fulfill your desires. And they have reasons to do that to you. If they succeed, then you will have new desires, and if you succeed, they will have new desires.

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Kip November 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Kip:

If you want to know what things you should do, you must first assess what your desires are. However, it’s not the case that all desires are good. But, by what standard can I say that? By the only standard that exists: the standard that some desires will tend to fulfill desires, and some will tend to thwart them.

Yair:

That is not the only standard that exists. More importantly, this is not a standard you should care about! The only thing you, as a rational person, should care about is to what degree these desires will tend to further your own desires. That’s it.

That’s what I meant. Some of my desires are “good” in that they tend to fulfill more and stronger of my other desires. And some of them are “bad” in that they tend to thwart more and stronger of my other desires.

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cl November 10, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I think Luke and Alonzo are quite wrong that Alph’s desire to gather stones constitutes a desire-as-ends:

LUKE: Okay, then, from Alph’s point of view, gathering stones is HIS end or goal. That’s what he likes to do. … in this case, when we ask “Why?” he has no answer but to say, “No reason, that’s just something that I like to do.”

If that’s what Alph likes to do, then he has a reason: gathering stones is actually a desire-as-means where experiencing happiness is the desire-as-ends, which means you end up confirming something quite similar to the Harrisian theory you criticize as inferior to desirism. This is why Luke’s arguments in In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism failed to persuade me: why would Luke desire to run through flowers, unless of course running through flowers was instrumental in making him or somebody else happier? Why would he desire to have a compassionate child, unless of course it was instrumental in contributing to his child’s happiness and well-being, or the happiness and well-being of other sentient creatures? Why would a junkie desire to get a fix, unless of course it was instrumental in making them feel happier? Why would a suicidal agent desire to pull the trigger, unless of course they believed that they would be “better off” dead?

Similarly, why would Alph desire to gather stones unless of course it was instrumental making him happy or increasing his well-being? Why would Betty desire to scatter stones unless of course it was instrumental making her happy or increasing her well-being?

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cl November 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Alonzo,

…there is something else that we glossed over earlier that I think deserves some mention. That’s the fact that Alph and Betty don’t end up with the same desires. Alph – who had a desire to gather stones – did not give Betty a desire to gather stones. He gave Betty a different desire, a desire to scatter stones.

This is misleading and it’s a bit discouraging to hear this just a few paragraphs after you belabored the difference between desires-as-means and desires-as-ends. It is only true that Alph and Betty don’t have the same desires-as-means, while it appears that they both share an identical desire-as-ends: doing what they like. Again, this supports theories like Harris’ and Bentham’s, and I still fail to see any significant improvement desirism has to offer.

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cl November 10, 2010 at 5:25 pm

ALONZO: But remember, we need to be careful of using the word “should” there. Let’s just say that people generally might not have as much of a reason to give Scrooge a desire to fulfill the desires of others as they have to give Scrooge desires that fulfill the desires of others.

If we are successful in persuading Scrooge to cultivate desires that fulfill other desires, then we take a step towards the harmony of desires. If we are successful in giving Scrooge the desire to fulfill other desires, we also take a step towards the harmony of desires. From the perspective of other peoples’ reasons for action, what would be the advantage in giving Scrooge desires that fulfill other desires as opposed to the desire to fulfill other desires? Wouldn’t the net effect on “people generally” be the same?

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cl November 10, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Kip,

I’d like to hear a brief synopsis of what you think the weaknesses are, and why you don’t think having “good” be equivalent to “fulfills goals” works by your standards. [to Yair]

Speaking for myself, Cartesian’s Nazi example: it is quite easy to come up with both hypothetical and actual instances where many and stronger desires are fulfilled than thwarted but the final outcome cannot be justifiably called morally good. For example, reconsider Alph and Betty in the same isolated context as Alonzo and Luke do with gathering stones: if we give Alph the desire to smoke methamphetamine and we give Betty the desire to cook methamphetamine, then desirism tells us we have a “morally good” situation on our hands. Do we?

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cl November 10, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Luke,

Still, the lesson here is not “Let different people be different”. The lesson is that we can look at desires and distinguish those desires that work well together and those that do not. Desires that fulfill other desires are desires that are in harmony with each other. And this means, sometimes, we have reasons to encourage different people to desire different things rather than having everybody desire the same thing.

The implication appears to be that competing theories entail everybody desiring the same thing, and that desirism somehow overcomes this. It doesn’t, and this approach seems a bit strawmanesque to me. Take Harris’ theory, which says that all of us “normal” people desire to increase well-being for ourselves [and possibly other sentient creatures]. True, we all have the same desire-as-ends, but – as with desirism – traditional utilitarianism also affords different people the option to utilize different desires-as-means to realize an identical desire-as-ends. Desirism does not appear to differ substantially from utilitarianism in this regard, yet you and Alonzo present it as if it does. I’m still not sure why.

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Keith November 10, 2010 at 6:31 pm

cl:

I think you are trying to make very much the same point I was trying to make, for what it’s worth.

Yair:

“Normative Practical Reason offers a way out of this individualism – if as an empirical fact it happens to be that my desires are identical to the desires of the bulk of humanity, then what furthers my own desires also furthers theirs. We therefore have a shared interest in developing a theory on how to advance said desires.”

If I’m not mistaken, this is pretty much the sort of exploration of the moral landscape that Harris talks about in his new book. The reason I say this is because I think, like cl does, that desires spring from a more fundamental desire to find pleasure (“do what I like”) or avoid pain (“not do what I dislike”). Finding those of my desires that the bulk of humanity shares is therefore akin to finding peaks on the landscape of communal well-being (“what most of us like”), as Harris advocates.

(Incidentally, your point about being careful to distinguish between the self-interest of a person and the self-interest of genes is well taken. My view is that pleasure and suffering are essentially our genes’ way of communicating to our minds what actions we should follow to ensure their – the genes’ – propagation.)

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Garren November 10, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Luke,

Are you saying there are theories of morality that make no normative claims? That looks like a contradiction in terms.

Does telling an individual that she has reason to do anything that helps fulfill her own desires constitute a normative claim? If not, I suspect the new Desirism is a theory of morality that makes no normative claims.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 10, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Garren,

Desirism definitely makes normative claims.

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cl November 10, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Garren,

You beat me to it. I was about to write exactly that. This is why I’ve said – and will keep saying – that once Luke understands why I dismiss other theories of morality, he’ll understand why I dismiss his. Consider this transaction:

LUKE: Yeah. So when we talked about Scrooge, you said that desirism does not claim that Scrooge should have a desire to fulfill the desires of others. That’s because Scrooge should have desires that fulfills the desires of others, and they’re not the same thing.

ALONZO: But remember, we need to be careful of using the word “should” there. Let’s just say that people generally might not have as much of a reason to give Scrooge a desire to fulfill the desires of others as they have to give Scrooge desires that fulfill the desires of others.

Luke’s was a strongly stated normative claim. Alonzo came in, and, with nothing more than a little wordplay, effectively disguised the normative claim. Of course, in Short-List Theories of Morality, Alonzo writes that desirism “prescribes in favor of those desires that tends to fulfill other desires, and against those desires that tend to thwart other desires,” so I could see him saying that desirism makes normative claims. The problem is, when pressed, he seems to make every possible effort to avoid justifying these normative claims, which are based on his definition of morally good desires as “desires that tend to fulfill other desires.” It’s as if we’re just supposed to accept without evidence that the aggregate of desires ought to be catered to.

Josh,

This podcast is great, but is just getting me more and more confused. I’m beginning to accept desirism as pretty good DESCRIPTION of morality, but I can’t imagine where you’re going to get any kind of prescription out of this…

Many, many commenters before you have said the same thing, and I agree. For me, the issue is how they’ll justify the prescription they get out of this. Whatever you do, don’t go to Alonzo’s website looking for answers. You’ll find a deprecated version of the theory that’s likely to induce more confusion than clarity. Why Alonzo allows this situation to persist – especially after being admonished by multiple commenters – is anybody’s guess. Alonzo seems to think that an undated essay is useful in discerning an author’s new work, and apparently isn’t concerned that people are going to his website and getting confused. If you ask me, that’s negligence.

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Yair November 11, 2010 at 12:19 am

Luke,

We’re not speaking the same language, here! Let me see if I can get clear on this:
- Are you saying there are theories of morality that make no normative claims? That looks like a contradiction in terms.

No, I’m not. Well, except perhaps “error theory”, but that’s more a theory about meta-ethics than a theory of ethics.

Are you saying there are theories of morality that say something has intrinsic value because of something extrinsic to it (peoples desires)? That looks like a contradiction in terms, too.
OK, let’s be careful with words here. There are two meanings to “intrinsic value”. One I shall call “intrinsic vs. instrumental”. This is where desires-as-ends vs. desires-as-means fit in, and in this sense something has intrinsic value because of something extrinsic to it – because people desire it for itself. That certainly has proponents, but is not the meaning of “intrinsic value” I take us to be discussing here.

The second meaning is “intrinsic vs. extrinsic”. In this sense something is intrinsically valuable because of its own properties, unrelated to any relations with other things (like people’s desires of it). This is the sense we are talking about. For a real-world philosophy espousing this, see G. E. Moore; e.g. in SEP “Moore’s second innovation was his view that the intrinsic value of a state of affairs can depend only on its intrinsic properties, properties it has apart from any relations to other states”, and more specifically “the question whether moral judgements are intrinsically motivating is not one on which he expressed clear views or apparently thought very important”.

- What language would you use to talk about normative ethics without mentioning reasons for action? That again look like a contradiction in terms…

No, it isn’t really. It’s just that things are only really relevant to the extent that they coincide with human desires. This does not prevent us from developing theories that promote other values, and make valid prescriptions and normative claims on that basis.

Let me give a story, as you seem to think stories are a good way to explain things. Suppose Alpha has a certain aesthetic sense, that values the existence of Pandora highly. Betty now comes along. Betty is an anthropologist, and – since there are no humans around to study – she studies Alpha. She develops a theory on Alpha’s aesthetics, called “Alpha Numeric Aesthetic Values”. One day, Alpha dies (no, not again!). Betty conducts a funeral, and places a headstone over his grave, in a shape she knows – from her theory – has high Alpha Numerical Aesthetic Value.

Now, the fact that no one values this Alpha Numeric Aesthetic Value does not mean that the headstone does not have this Alpha Numeric Aesthetic Value. It does.

Now a different scenario. This time, Alph places a high moral value on Pandora’s existence. This time, Betty comes in and studies his moral preferences, his moral sense. Now, when Alph dies (again!), she does something that Alph would consider morally valuable at his wake. The fact that no one alive cares does not make it have less Alpha Numeric Moral Value.

In the Alpha Numeric Moral Theory, “A person morally should do what he can to preserve Pandora”, which is a normative claim. The only thing is – no one practically should care. No one really has a reason for taking actions to follow that theory’s prescriptions. But then – I think you’d agree that nearly all moral theories are like that. They’re “mistaken”, so no one has any real reason to act according to their perscriptions.

Now suppose Grampy comes along. He reads the Alpha Numeric Moral Theory, and says to himself “Yeah, this is correct! This is what I should follow!”. Perhaps he’s right, perhaps he’s wrong – that depends on whether his desires really do match the ones the theory advances. But now, there is a person that follows this moral theory. That takes its prescriptiions seriously.

This is the story of ethics. People keep coming up with theories of morality, and other people keep trying to follow their prescriptions. But the theories need not be about what people actually desire – they are valid theories even if they aren’t. They at least can be “true”. Pandora really has high Alpha Numeric Value. The theory really does make valid prescriptions on how to advance its values, it makes normative claims. The thing is, people only have real reasons to act according to the prescriptions of a certain moral theory if it advances their desires. Yet they are typically so confused they don’t realise that. Thus they are led astray.

Most moral theories aren’t really about advancing people’s desires. They are about advancing a subset of human desires, that are called “good”. These can be perfectly fine “moral” theories, in the sense that they advance this “good”. But they are simply not theories that any person really has a reason to follow. He follows them only due to confusion.

The only moral theory that makes prescriptions that the bulk of humanity has real reasons to follow is Normative Practical Reason – the theory that tries to advance the real primary desires of the bulk of humanity. If such a theory exists – and its far from certain – then it is the sole one the bulk of humanity has real reasons to follow.

This does not prevent the construction of other moral theories – it just means that people would follow them out of condusion. Sam Harris is perfectly within his right to call the maximization of human flourishing “Good”, and to call the theory that advances that end “morality’. People only have real reasons to follow his theory if their desires coincide with this Good; I suspect they don’t, so they would follow his theory only through confusion. And I suspect there would be many, many who would be confused in such a way. This is the story of ethics.

It looks like you’re using words like ‘value’ and ‘reasons for action’ and ‘normativity’ and ‘morality’ to mean something very different from their usual meaning as I have encountered them, but maybe we’ve been reading completely different communities of scholars when it comes to value theory.

The confusion in moral langauge is so great I have all but discouraged of it. I believe it makes no sense to talk about “the right moral theory”; the term “moral theory” is just too vague.What “moral” or “moral theory” means is arbitrary. It is better to acknowledge this, and allow that different “moral theories” can be correct – when “moral theory” is interpreted differently. Different moral theories are correct depending on what you mean by the term.

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Yair November 11, 2010 at 12:58 am

Kip:

That’s what I meant. Some of my desires are “good” in that they tend to fulfill more and stronger of my other desires. And some of them are “bad” in that they tend to thwart more and stronger of my other desires.

That’s individual subjectivism. And it’s fine, it’s a fine theory of morality. But I don’t think it’s a particularly effective way to speak about morality, because different people then don’t have any reason to agree on what’s good – or more importantly, on what to do. Individual subjectivism certainly does not allow you to construct a substantive moral theory, for no matter your genius it takes generations of organized effort to really develop useful theories.

Again, the way out of individualism is Normative Practical Reason. If, and this is an empirical open question, people really do for the most part share the same primary desires, then by sheer coincidence what any normal person calls “good” under individual subjectivism would be essentially identical to what any other normal person does. One can then choose to adopt this normal definition as the definition of good, and proceed to construct a theory on how to advance the good and curtail all that opposes it (the “bad”).

This is just an arbitrary choice – it is a matter of calling such a theory “moral”, such shared primary desires “good”, and so on. But it is, I suggest, a more useful way to talk about moral issues. It allows us to say that “The Nazis were bad”, and have all of us mean the same thing and agree with each other. It allows us not to accept a neo-Nazi’s opinion that “No, actually the Nazis were good”. It provides a more useful moral discourse.

Keith,

If I’m not mistaken, this is pretty much the sort of exploration of the moral landscape that Harris talks about in his new book. The reason I say this is because I think, like cl does, that desires spring from a more fundamental desire to find pleasure (“do what I like”) or avoid pain (“not do what I dislike”). Finding those of my desires that the bulk of humanity shares is therefore akin to finding peaks on the landscape of communal well-being (“what most of us like”), as Harris advocates.

I am afraid I don’t have such a high opinion on Harris. I haven’t read his latest book, but from all I hear (mainly in his oral lectures), he is committing himself to a rather different enterprise. He seeks to maximize global well-being, which is not something I think constitutes our primary desires. He has a dogmatic view, motivated by introspection and unsupported by science, about what values to promote – and he suggests constructing a theory based on that. So he doesn’t try to find the peaks of what I like. It may be that his project would coincide to a substantial degree with what I want, but then so would essentially any other moral philosopher’s I’m sure. Harris doesn’t “get it”.

As for hedonism – see my response above. Hedonism makes a lot of intuitive sense, and has some decision-theoretic considerations in its favor, but I’m not up to date on the actual neurological data on it. At any rate, by itself it does not suffice to provide a detailed picture of what we desire – there are distinct types of pleasures and pains, distinct ways of conducting the hedonic calculus (how much is future pain worth? How to evaluate peak as opposed to continuous pain?)… We need a far better understanding of the human psyche then the simplistic idea that we seek pleasure and avoid pain, if we are to seriously engage in developing a theory on how to aid people pursue their deepest desires.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 11, 2010 at 2:56 am

Yair,

Thanks for the story. Now I’m not sure where we disagree. Maybe somewhere in philosophy of language. :)

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 4:44 am

That’s individual subjectivism. And it’s fine, it’s a fine theory of morality. But I don’t think it’s a particularly effective way to speak about morality, because different people then don’t have any reason to agree on what’s good…

Well, it’s a step past individual subjectivism. The fact is that what is good is subjective. But we can describe this objectively. And what is going on in the real world is that people are trying to harmonize their subjective desires.

What makes this work is that some of our desires are malleable, and the physical laws of the universe constrain what is possible. So, we can work to change the desires of others, while they are working to change our desires, such that in the end, all of our desires are “harmonized” — we all end up getting what we desire, because our desires have been changed. This is not “individual subjectivism”. This is “group harmonization”.

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 5:05 am

Again, the way out of individualism is Normative Practical Reason. If, and this is an empirical open question, people really do for the most part share the same primary desires, then by sheer coincidence what any normal person calls “good” under individual subjectivism would be essentially identical to what any other normal person does.

I don’t think so. I agree that it helpful that we start off sharing a lot of the same desires — because we have the same evolutionary history. (What makes this “helpful” is that we have less work to do in “harmonizing” the desires.) And a lot of those desires are not malleable, so they are not subject to social tools, anyway. But, this is not necessary. And, appealing to this evolutionary history to define what is “good” would be problematic. Besides being an “appeal to nature” fallacy, we would have the problem that there are desires that may have helped us when we were hunter–gatherer tribesmen, that are not good for us to have today: out-group hostility, infidelity, etc.

The thing you are missing is that it doesn’t matter how many people have a desire — everyone on earth can have the same desire — that desire might be “bad” if it tends to thwart more and stronger desires considering all the other desires that exist. That’s true even with myself. Just because I have a desire, doesn’t mean that desire is “good”. And just because everyone in the world has a desire doesn’t mean that desire is “good”. Desires can be judged as “good” or “bad” relative to other desires. Despite the prevalence of a desire, or the reasons why the desire came to be, we have reasons to demote it if it tends to thwart other desires. Of course, we can only do this using our social tools if the desire is malleable.

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Garren November 11, 2010 at 10:15 am

Yair,

Again, the way out of individualism is Normative Practical Reason. If, and this is an empirical open question, people really do for the most part share the same primary desires, then by sheer coincidence what any normal person calls “good” under individual subjectivism would be essentially identical to what any other normal person does. One can then choose to adopt this normal definition as the definition of good, and proceed to construct a theory on how to advance the good and curtail all that opposes it (the “bad”).

This is just an arbitrary choice – it is a matter of calling such a theory “moral”, such shared primary desires “good”, and so on. But it is, I suggest, a more useful way to talk about moral issues. It allows us to say that “The Nazis were bad”, and have all of us mean the same thing and agree with each other. It allows us not to accept a neo-Nazi’s opinion that “No, actually the Nazis were good”. It provides a more useful moral discourse.

This is similar to my approach. I consider it an empirical question what people are implicitly referring to when they use moral language, and suspect there are multiple answers with strong trends. So moral judgments can be true given a particular understanding of what morality is about, even though there is no “true and proper” morality in the world for us to discover as such.

I am afraid I don’t have such a high opinion on Harris. I haven’t read his latest book, but from all I hear (mainly in his oral lectures), he is committing himself to a rather different enterprise. He seeks to maximize global well-being, which is not something I think constitutes our primary desires.

His examples deal with individuals, so it’s not clear to me he’s valuing the maximization of aggregate well-being.

Kip,

And what is going on in the real world is that people are trying to harmonize their subjective desires.

Going to quibble here. Harmonization may occur. Alonzo may even be able to argue that harmonizations tend to form as stable phenomena when everyone is only trying to fulfill their own desires. But I don’t think most people are trying to achieve a harmony of desires.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 11, 2010 at 10:47 am

OK, let’s be careful with words here. There are two meanings to “intrinsic value”. One I shall call “intrinsic vs. instrumental”.

I do agree that this is a common use of the term ‘intrinsic’. It is “value that is not instrumental.”

However, as it is used, it springs from a false dochotomy. It is a term that assumes that all value must either be value as means, or it must be truly intrinsic to that which has value. It is a dichotomy that does not recognize or admit to the possibility of an extrinsic (or desire-dependent) value-as-end.

That is to say, people who use the not-value-as-means definition of ‘intrinsic’ also, at the same time, use the same term in the same instances with the not-extrinsic definition of intrinsic. In doing so, they rule out what is in fact the case, the possibility (actuality) of extrinsic (not-intrinsic) not-value-as-means.

Suppose Alpha has a certain aesthetic sense, that values the existence of Pandora highly.

Either this reduces to “Alph desires that Pandora continue to exist”, or it is false. In the latter sense, it is unnecessary. “Alph desires that Pandora continue to exist” adequately covers all observations that are related to this fact.

Now, the fact that no one values this Alpha Numeric Aesthetic Value does not mean that the headstone does not have this Alpha Numeric Aesthetic Value.

The fact that, if Alph dies, nobody desires that the moon Pandora continue to exist does not mean that a state of affairs in which Pandora continues to exist is a state of affairs in which the proposition that was the object of Alph’s desire when alive (Alph’s desire that Pandora continue to exist) is true.

So far, it seems we are still saying the same thing in different terms.

Alph places a high moral value on Pandora’s existence.

This now is going to beg all sorts of questions about what “moral value” is. I would hold that “moral value” is not something that Alph can simply ‘place’ on things. Moral value exists as a relationship between maleable desires and other desires. Whereas Alph’s desire that Pandora continue to exist has no relationship to other desires (no other desires exist), if Alph is placing a high ‘moral’ value on Pandora’s existence then Alph is living in a world of let’s pretend. Pandora’s continued existence has no real moral value, but Alph has decided to play “let’s pretend that Pandora’s existence has moral value.”

Again, there can be no ‘proof’ of non-existence other than to show differences in the implications of both theories and examine which implications are observed.

This is the story of ethics. People keep coming up with theories of morality, and other people keep trying to follow their prescriptions.

Your “theory of morality” is no different than a theory of religion. People keep inventing Gods that tell them what thou shalt or shalt not do. However, all such beliefs are fictitious.

They at least can be “true”.

No they can’t – any more than religion can be ‘true’ merely because a person has decided to adopt it. They can’t be true any more than, “Hey, I’m going to pretend that my neighbor is a space alien” makes it ‘true’ that the neighbor is a space alien.

In short, I hold that simply “adopting” a set of prescriptions is no different than simply “adopting” a story about one’s neighbor’s extraterrestrial origins or simply “adopting” a story about a “creater of the universe” with beliefs, desires, and intentions.

If this is what a person is doing, then that person is living in a world of make-believe or let’s pretend.

Sam Harris is perfectly within his right to call the maximization of human flourishing “Good”, and to call the theory that advances that end “morality’.

Yes. And I am perfectly within my right to call the four-legged mammel that lives in my house a “tree”. However, it is not perfectly within my right to infer that the four-legged mammel that lives in my house has roots.

The confusion in moral langauge is so great I have all but discouraged of it.

This is pretty much why Luke and I have decided to postpone the use of moral language – because it introduces confusion without providing any corresponding benefits.

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Alonzo Fyfe November 11, 2010 at 11:02 am

Yair

Again, the way out of individualism is Normative Practical Reason. If, and this is an empirical open question, people really do for the most part share the same primary desires, then by sheer coincidence what any normal person calls “good” under individual subjectivism would be essentially identical to what any other normal person does.

That doesn’t work because desires can take as objects propositions that include indexicals.

I have the desire that my children do well.

You have the desire that your chidren do well.

The first question is whether you want to call these “the same primary desires”. Because, in a very real sense, they are quite different desires. Which means that the proposition that we all share the same primary desires gets thrown out right at the start.

If we do decide to call these “the same primary desires” then it does not support the proposition that it leads to different people all pursuing the same good. It leads to me promoting the well-being of my children and you promoting the well-being of your children – but these are two different (and not necessarily compatible) states of affairs.

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Yair November 11, 2010 at 11:08 am

Kip – I’m having a hard time understanding what, precisely, it is you’re trying to say.

Well, it’s a step past individual subjectivism.The fact is that what is good is subjective.But we can describe this objectively.And what is going on in the real world is that people are trying to harmonize their subjective desires.What makes this work is that some of our desires are malleable, and the physical laws of the universe constrain what is possible.So, we can work to change the desires of others, while they are working to change our desires, such that in the end, all of our desires are “harmonized” — we all end up getting what we desire, because our desires have been changed.

Alright, say I buy that, with Garren’s caveat…

This is not “individual subjectivism”.This is “group harmonization”.

What does this eschatology got to do with how you define “good” or “bad”? Are you saying you now want to change your definitions from “Some of my desires are “good” in that they tend to fulfill more and stronger of my other desires” to, I don’t know, perhaps “Some desires are good because they tend to fulfill more and stronger desires”? Please, be clear.

I don’t think so.I agree that it helpful that we start off sharing a lot of the same desires — because we have the same evolutionary history.(What makes this “helpful” is that we have less work to do in “harmonizing” the desires.)

Wait – when did we ever start trying to harmonize desires? Since when is this the work we’re trying to do? I thought we agreed that

Yair: The only thing you, as a rational person, should care about is to what degree these desires will tend to further your own desires.

Kip: That’s what I meant.

So why do you suddenly care about harmonizing desires in the world?

.And, appealing to this evolutionary history to define what is “good” would be problematic.Besides being an “appeal to nature” fallacy

I am free to define “good” in whatever way I please. The appeal to nature fallacy is saying that something is natural, and hence it is desirable (morally, for health, whatever). I didn’t say that. I said the opposite – something is desirable to the bulk of humanity, and I’ll arbitrarily choose to call that “good”. Again, I’m free to define my terms as I please.

It appears to me, however, that you might be trying pull a naturalistic fallacy. You seem to place some value on harmonization based on your eschatology. This is a naturalistic fallacy. To see this, consider another eschatology. Let’s say we’ve established that humankind will destroy itself within three centuries – this won’t make the destruction of the human race a good thing that we should strive to hasten, now would it? Even if your eschatology is correct, it does not follow we should strive to further it along.

Not that I’m convinced it is correct. Let’s just say that people have been apparently engaged in this “harmonizing” game for tens of thousands of years, at least, and there is still no perfect harmony in sight. I suspect that your story ignores many factors that work against harmonization.

we would have the problem that there are desires that may have helped us when we were hunter–gatherer tribesmen, that are not good for us to have today:out-group hostility, infidelity, etc.

If they are not good for us (in your individual subjectivist sense), then by all means we should find ways to contain or eradicate them. That’s what practical rationality requires – what’s the problem here?

The thing you are missing is that it doesn’t matter how many people have a desire — everyone on earth can have the same desire — that desire might be “bad” if it tends to thwart more and stronger desires considering all the other desires that exist.
Again – why did you switch to this strange definition of “bad” ? You had a perfectly fine individual-subjective definition, that was useful in that it gave you a motivation to stamp out bad things. Now you’ve switched to a (desirist?) definition that is irrelevant to your decision making – it says precisely nothing about whether you would want, as a rational person, to eradicate “bad” things. Why? What is the use of this definition?

You are free to use any definitions you choose, but please be consistent and please explain why you’re using these definitions and what follows from them. Your switching between definitions is confusing me.

As for what “I’m missing” – yeah, I wasn’t precise enough in my phrasing, but I’m well aware of that point. Indeed, I consider a large part of morality to be about self-improvement (i.e. eradicating those desires in normative people that they, on the whole, don’t want to have), and frequently pester Alonzo and Luke to provide an episode on internal conflicts of desires.

Despite the prevalence of a desire, or the reasons why the desire came to be, we have reasons to demote it if it tends to thwart other desires.Of course, we can only do this using our social tools if the desire is malleable.

Yea, but I’d like to take the opportunity to add that focusing solely on changing others’ desires is unfounded, as I and others noted in previous chapters. It is just one of many ways to change the world – and all should be pursued to the degree they are effective. For example, it is possible to drastically reduce the impact of a desire that isn’t malleable by constructing social customs and institutions that discourage it or decrease the frequency of events where it becomes strong.

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Yair November 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

Garren,

This is similar to my approach. I consider it an empirical question what people are implicitly referring to when they use moral language, and suspect there are multiple answers with strong trends. So moral judgments can be true given a particular understanding of what morality is about, even though there is no “true and proper” morality in the world for us to discover as such.

We seem to agree.

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Kip November 11, 2010 at 11:21 am

Going to quibble here. Harmonization may occur. Alonzo may even be able to argue that harmonizations tend to form as stable phenomena when everyone is only trying to fulfill their own desires. But I don’t think most people are trying to achieve a harmony of desires.

They may not be intentionally trying to do this (obviously), but their actions are producing those results. I think their actions will result in a sort of “Nash equilibrium” of desires.

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Yair November 12, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Alonzo – I won’t respond to all of it, since I agree with nearly everything you said. So I’ll just talk about where we appear to differ.

I am perfectly within my right to call the four-legged mammel that lives in my house a “tree”. However, it is not perfectly within my right to infer that the four-legged mammel that lives in my house has roots.

Indeed. And this highlights two points:

First, that the core problem with most moral theories isn’t the definitions, but what is claimed they imply. In practice the main problem is often that the theory purports to make prescriptions that people have reasons to follow, when they don’t.

Secondly, your example highlights that moral terms are much more in dispute and unclear than terms like “tree”, so much so that they “introduce[] confusion without providing any corresponding benefits”. For this reason, I think it’s preferable to let anyone define their terms as they see fit, and see where that leads.

The Australian philosopher Russell Blackford uses a nice analogy – he compares moral theories to tools. Different tools might be suitable to different tasks. In the same way, different moral theories actually address different topics and are useful for different things. It’s critical to understand what the theory is actually talking about to be able to understand what it is really capable of doing.

If we do decide to call these “the same primary desires” then it does not support the proposition that it leads to different people all pursuing the same good. It leads to me promoting the well-being of my children and you promoting the well-being of your children – but these are two different (and not necessarily compatible) states of affairs.

I never promised to bring world peace. I only claimed that Normative Practical Reason is the theory every normal person practically should look to to guide his actions, and that they share an interest in developing it. That’s what my theory is good for, that is what it does. Not world peace – just real reasons to use and develop it.

We share the same index-dependent good: “promote the well-being of my children” – and we both practically should care to find out how best to do that.

In short, I hold that simply “adopting” a set of prescriptions is no different than simply “adopting” a story about one’s neighbor’s extraterrestrial origins or simply “adopting” a story about a “creater of the universe” with beliefs, desires, and intentions.

Indeed. But it appears to me we’re again saying the same thing in different words.

When I say a moral theory is “true”, I’m not saying that it is rational to adopt its prescriptions. All I’m saying is that within its definitions, and as long as you’re careful not to step outside them, what it says is true.

To get back to the example – it’s perfectly correct for Harris to say”You morally should do X” under his theory, when doing X will advance global well-being. To that extent, his theory is “true”. Where he and his followers go astray is when they maintain that “morally should” under his theory is also “practically should” in the real world, for real people. There is no real reason for adopting his theory’s prescriptions, but this doesn’t mean that the prescriptions aren’t “true” within his theory.

Harris’ theory is good for maximizing global well-being. If that’s what you want to do, that’s the tool to use. If you want a tool that does something else, though, you need to turn back to the morality work shed. If you want to pick up a theory that hands out prescriptions that the bulk of humanity has real reasons to follow – you need to pick up Normative Practical Reason.

This now is going to beg all sorts of questions about what “moral value” is. I would hold that “moral value” is not something that Alph can simply ‘place’ on things. Moral value exists as a relationship between maleable desires and other desires.

I can’t really comment on this since I don’t really know what you mean yet – I’m still waiting for this series to get to the “moral” part. However, I would say this –

This is just your definition of morality. You can define things this way if you want to, but the real question is – what is this “morality” good for? What does it do? Like all moral theories, it is only a tool – what is it useful for? When I’ll understand your theory enough, I’ll form an opinion on that. Until that time, all I can say is that we seem to be saying the same things using different words a lot, and I’m hopeful it would come to that in our moral theories as well – or that I’ll learn something new.

Cheers,

Yair

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Luke Muehlhauser November 16, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Garren wrote:

“This is similar to my approach. I consider it an empirical question what people are implicitly referring to when they use moral language, and suspect there are multiple answers with strong trends. So moral judgments can be true given a particular understanding of what morality is about, even though there is no “true and proper” morality in the world for us to discover as such.”

I heartily agree with this. In fact, you have basically summed up section 2 of the lecture I gave in Colorado a few weeks back.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 16, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Yair,

BTW, about half way through this conversation you responded to Alonzo and started talking about whether or not various theories of morality “work.” But remember, Alonzo was just talking about whether or not intrinsic value theories “do any work.” What that means is not a broad assessment of whether intrinsic value theories “work,” but whether or not they do any work in explaining observed phenomena. That is: do intrinsic value theories explain anything we can’t better explain without positing intrinsic value? Alonzo and I think not, and therefore reject the existence of intrinsic value… for the exact same reason we reject the existence of fairies. Neither fairies nor intrinsic value “do any work.”

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Yair November 16, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Luke,

I don’t believe there is such a thing as intrinsic value (in the “intrinsic vs. extrinsic” sense) as an ontologically primitive property, precisely because I don’t this concept is necessary to explain phenomena. However, I do think that the idea of intrinsic value is not entirely silly – it deserves a respectful and careful treatment even if it would ultimately be rejected. This is because there is some truth in it, there are naturalistic versions of it that make some sort of sense – I think that the grain of truth that’s left is not enough to hang any useful moral theory on, but the mere truth of it deserves to be acknowledged and respected.

To be more explicit – it is true that we have a sense of justice that responds to various relations of “injustice”, much like our vision responds to certain relations like “edge”. It is possible to call only some of our internal motivations “moral”, and it does appear many people do so. These are phenomena a naturalistic intrinsic value moral theory can explain rather well – that’s the “work” it does.

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