Morality in the Real World 14: Pleasure, Desire, and Arguing about Definitions

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 3, 2011 in Ethics,Podcast

In episode 14 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss the habit of arguing about definitions, and why we don’t do it.

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Transcript of episode 14

ALONZO: Luke! You’re still alive! Where have you been?

LUKE: Ummm… mostly reading neuroscience. I want to be able to defend what I say in this podcast, and we ran into something where we didn’t have the evidence we needed. So, I hit the books.

ALONZO: That sounds a bit suspicious – kinda like trying to find evidence to support a belief you already have?

LUKE: Well, if that’s what I was doing, I did a poor job. I actually didn’t find much evidence for what we were planning to cover in today’s episode, so later I’m going to end up claiming something else instead.

ALONZO: Does this mean that are you giving up on desirism?

LUKE: No. But I am going to propose some adjustments to what we said earlier based on some data from the fields of neuroscience and artificial intelligence.

Also, some things in the field of meta-ethics really clicked for me as I did that research, and I’m really excited to get it written up to see what other people think. But for now, we should get back to talking about different theories of desire.

ALONZO: Right. When we left off, we had just finished talking about action-based theories of desire.

Action-based theories of desire are those theories that say that to desire something means to be disposed to act to make it the case that what one desires is realized.

In this episode, we were supposed to be talking about pleasure-based theories of desire. Pleasure-based theories say that to desire something is to experience pleasure when it seems to be the case that it has been realized.

LUKE: Right. We are going to talk about pleasure-based theories of desire. But I need to distinguish two types of arguments. Well, actually, we already started distinguishing between these two types of arguments, but that distinction is going to become more important now.

ALONZO: What distinction are you talking about?

LUKE: The distinction between disputes over facts of the world versus disputes about the words we use to talk about facts of the world.

Part of the struggle in writing about pleasure-based theories of desire has been a blurring of this distinction. I find that a lot of people writing in this field agree on the facts of the matter. They just can’t agree on the words to use in describing those facts. A substantial portion of the debate is a debate over which words to use, not over which facts are true.

To me, these fights over words are a waste of time. Pick a definition and move on. I’m interested in the facts of the world, not the words.

ALONZO: That’s what you said earlier. On the idea that a lot of the dispute in morality seems to be about determining the best super-dictionary definition of a word, you said that this was not your project. Your project was to look at the world and see what the facts were.

LUKE: Right. Following Eliezer Yudkowsky, I’ve come to speak of this as replacing the symbol with the substance. If there’s a dispute over which symbol to use (which word to use), then perhaps the best way to get past that roadblock and move on is to drop the symbol and replace it with the actual facts you are intending that symbol to stand for. So if the word ‘planet’ is ambiguous, we can skip the word ‘planet’ and instead talk about ‘objects large enough to become roughly spherical because of their own gravity,’ or something.

When it comes to symbols, we should be less concerned with whether our use of them conforms to some super-dictionary definition and more concerned with whether we can use the term efficiently to communicate ideas about the world. That’s the whole point of using words in the first place, right? Efficient communication.

In fact . . .

ALONZO: . . . In fact . . . What?

LUKE: Well, Alonzo, you invented these terms, “thwarting” and “fulfilling” to refer to relationships between desires and states of affairs. A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true, and it is thwarted in any state in which P is false.

ALONZO: Well, yeah. I wanted to make it clear that desire fulfillment is not about achieving some psychological sensation like pleasure or happiness. It is about making or keeping a proposition true – about realizing states of affairs where the things one wants actually exist in the real world.

LUKE: Yep. And every time you present your idea to a new audience you have to explain how you are using those terms, because it’s not obvious. And a lot of people who encounter your writing don’t encounter the explanation of what you mean by those terms, so it confuses them.

ALONZO: Well….

LUKE: I have a solution to that problem. I found a couple of people who picked what I think might be better words for making this distinction. Instead of talking about ‘desire fulfillment’ versus ‘desire satisfaction’, they talk about ‘objective desire satisfaction’ versus ‘subjective desire satisfaction’.

What you call desire fulfillment – a state where the propositions that are the objects of a desire are actually true – they call objective desire satisfaction. And what you call satisfaction – the sensation of pleasure or happiness one often gets when one thinks – rightly or wrongly – that what one wants has been realized – they call subjective desire satisfaction. In the first case, we are talking about situations in which what a person wants has been realized. In the second case, we are talking about whether the agent merely believes it has been realized.

ALONZO: So, in my favorite example, a parent’s desire that their child is healthy and happy.

LUKE: Yeah. That desire is objectively satisfied if the child is healthy and happy. The desire is subjectively satisfied if the parent believes that their child is healthy and happy, even if the child lays cut and bleeding in a dark alley.

I think, with these terms, people can get an idea of what you are trying to say without wading into an explanation of how you are using your terms, because people have some idea of what ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ mean, even before you explain them. That makes these terms better than the ones you originally suggested. They are more efficient for communication, I think.

ALONZO: So, you want me to give up talking about fulfilling or satisfying desires, and talk about objectively satisfying or subjectively satisfying desires instead.

LUKE: Yeah, I think so. And I can point out cases in the professional literature where people are already doing that. And your old distinction was kind of confusing because people in the professional literature have often been using the word ‘satisfy’ to mean objective satisfaction, whereas you were using the word ‘satisfy’ to mean subjective satisfaction.

ALONZO: And the reason for this change isn’t because you discovered that this is more consistent with the super-dictionary definition of these terms – a careful exercise in conceptual analysis. It is because you think that this would be more efficient.

LUKE: Exactly. That’s the point of using our word-tools in the first place. Efficient communication.

ALONZO: Okay. I’m convinced.

Henceforth I shall use the term ‘objective desire satisfaction’ when talking about states in which an agent desires that P and P is true. And I will use the term ‘subjective desire satisfaction’ when talking about states in which an agent desires that P, and believes that P is true.

LUKE: Right, though maybe try not to use so much algebra. Our podcast episodes are hard enough to follow as it is!

ALONZO: But our listeners have been clamoring for a detailed, accurate presentation of desirism. How else can we give it to them?

LUKE: Yeah, it’s true. That’s the reason we’ve gotten so technical and precise and scientific on this podcast, but we don’t want to lose all our listeners, so we’ve got to strike a balance.

Anyway, I want you to notice something. We just had a dispute where we resolved a question about the use of words by looking at the issue of efficient communication. A different way to debate the use of terms – the one that bogs down a large chunk of analytic philosophy – is this issue of looking for the best super-dictionary definition of a term; what philosophers call ‘conceptual analysis.’

Here, let me give you an example of what I am talking about.

Ummmm… If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

ALONZO: Well, that’s kind of a dumb question.

What do you mean by ‘sound’?

Are you asking whether the tree falling sends off shock waves that a person, if present, would have perceived as a noise? The answer is “yes”.

Or are you asking whether it actually generates sensations in the brain of somebody present, in which case the answer is ‘no’, because there is nobody present?

LUKE: Well, but what’s the right answer? Yes or no?

ALONZO: Well, what’s the right question? Which definition of the word ‘sound’ did you intend? You tell me which question you are asking, and I will tell you what the answer is.

LUKE: Can’t you tell what the right question is just by listening to my question?

ALONZO: Actually, No. I can’t.

LUKE: Exactly.

Now, imagine two people who think that we should be able to tell what the “right question” is – which definition for the word ‘sound’ is correct or best. So they go looking for all sorts of evidence about how the word “sound” is used and they get into this long detailed fight over which is the right question – which is the right definition of ‘sound.’ They propose outlandish hypothetical scenarios to test what their intuitions tell them about the one correct meaning of the word ‘sound’. One person suggests a ‘correct’ meaning of the word ‘sound’, and then another person proposes intuitive counterexamples to that definition, and someone else proposes another definition of the word ‘sound,’ but then still more people propose intuitive counterexamples to that definition, too!

And they keep debating: What question are people actually asking when they ask about the possible sound of a tree falling in the forest when nobody is present?

ALONZO: First, maybe the question is just vague. Maybe the language of the common person on the street just isn’t very clear on this subject. And, second, I still don’t see why my original answer isn’t good enough. Just tell people that the question is ambiguous and have them ask a more precise question. Ask them which definition of ‘sound’ they have in mind.

LUKE: Exactly. And I think that’s what we need to do with respect to these theories of desire. The question, “What is a desire?” is ambiguous – just like the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is ambiguous. We have to disambiguate the question before we can give an answer. And it’s not very productive to argue about what the ‘correct’ definition of ‘desire’ or ‘sound’ is – we can just propose a definition and move on to talk about the actual facts. Or we can skip the definition issue altogether – avoid using the words ‘desire’ and ‘sound’ – and just argue about what certain motivational structures in the brain are doing, or what certain shock waves in the air are doing.

ALONZO: Okay.

LUKE: Now, back to the pleasure-based theory of desire. Tim Schroeder in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes pleasure-based theories of desire like this:

For an organism to desire p is for the organism to be disposed to take pleasure in it seeming that p and displeasure in it seeming that not-p.

ALONZO: And you were complaining about my use of algebra.

I would think that this is just one version of the theory. There are probably people who would substitute happiness for pleasure, for example. Something like:

For an organism to desire p is for the organism to be disposed to find happiness in it seeming that p and unhappiness in it seeming that not-p.

LUKE: Sure, but the issue I am describing will apply to all of those theories.

ALONZO: But a lot of people do think this way. Back in the first season when we were talking about Alph having a desire to gather stones, a commenter named Keith wrote:

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.

The thing is, psychological hedonism was widely held in the 1800s, but it was discredited over 100 years ago.

LUKE: Well, wait a minute. There is a difference between a pleasure-based theory of desire and psychological hedonism. Psychological hedonism is a theory about the world. It says that the only thing we pursue is our own pleasure and freedom from pain – or happiness and freedom from unhappiness in some versions.

A pleasure-based theory of desire is a theory about language. It says that the only thing worthy of the name “desired” is that which brings about pleasure when it seems to obtain, or displeasure when it seem not to obtain.

Somebody who holds a pleasure-based theory of desire can be perfectly comfortable with the thought that we can be motivated to pursue other ends – ends that have nothing at all to do with pleasure. But they would deny that these ends we pursue without pleasure are actually ‘desired’. They would need some other word to describe ends pursued without pleasure.

We see this in the way they argue for their theory.

One of the arguments in the debate concerns a hypothetical case of “weather watchers”. We mentioned them in our last episode. These are beings who have a preference for one type of weather over another, but are not interested in any way in acting so as to bring about one type of weather over another. They say, “Whatever comes will come, but we prefer sunshine over rain.”

ALONZO: Well, yeah. Galen Strawsen uses this to argue that our concept of desire tracks with our concept of pleasure more closely than it tracks with our concept of motivation.

He says that it makes sense to say that these weather watchers desire something that they are not motivated to bring about, which means that the concepts of desire and motivation don’t always fit together and action-based theories of desire are to be rejected for that reason.

Now, I think he’s wrong.

Let’s assume that we gave these creatures an option to pick tomorrow’s weather and they answered with a shrug, I would take that to be a shrug of indifference. They don’t care. If they did care, they would pick.

LUKE: No, Alonzo. Don’t go there. You are stepping into a tar pit from which you can never escape. You’re not discussing any difference in how the universe actually works. In fact, you’re not talking about anything real at all – these weather watchers don’t even exist. You are getting bogged down in the philosophy-of-mind equivalent of the question of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound when nobody is present.

Here is a place where, instead of getting bogged down in a discussion about definitions of words, we can just replace the symbol with the substance and get on with the factual investigation.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it set off a series of compression waves propagating through the air such that, if there was a normally functioning human present, it would register those waves as a sound? Yes. End of the discussion.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it set off a series of compression waves propagating through the air such that it actually does register in a brain as a sound? No. End of the discussion.

Problem dissolved.

We don’t need to endlessly debate what the ‘best’ definition of the word ‘sound’ is, or what the ‘correct’ definition of the word ‘sound’ is. We don’t need to do conceptual analysis on the word ‘sound.’ We can just replace the word ‘sound’ with whatever facts of the world we intend to bring to mind with the word ‘sound’, and then answer the question about those facts of the world.

And, rather than debate whether our intuitive concept of desire tracks with motivation or with pleasure, one of the ways around this question is to just discuss motivation and pleasure and skip the question of which one is called ‘desire’.

Now, desirism is built on motivational states – not pleasure-states. Admittedly, we called it ‘desirism’ because we took for granted an action-based theory of desire. But if somebody wants to challenge us on that, we can tell them to call the theory motivationism instead. We don’t care. We are not going to fight over definitions. I cannot tell you how many oceans of ink philosophers have spilled arguing over definitions. I cannot tell you how much incredible brain power philosophers have wasted arguing over definitions instead of arguing over facts.

ALONZO: Okay, let me give you another argument I’ve heard when people are debating different theories of desire – one that doesn’t involve anything like imaginary weather watchers.

Here it is, a nice Saturday morning – a great day for hiking in the mountains – and I am stuck here washing my neighbor’s car. Why am I washing his car? It’s a nice car and I said that – if he would let me borrow it on Friday night when my wife and I were celebrating our anniversary – then I would wash it Saturday morning. So, here I am on a Saturday morning stuck washing my neighbor’s car. I don’t want to be washing his car. I want to be hiking through the mountains. But, here I am.

Here, I am obviously motivated to wash my neighbor’s car. That’s what I am doing, after all. But what I want to be doing is hiking through the mountains. The argument here is that this is a case in which people use words like ‘desire’ or ‘want’ to refer to the option that gives them pleasure, not the option that motivates them.

Now, here’s the answer I would have typically given to this kind of objection.

The word ‘want’ isn’t tracking with what gives pleasure, but what is desired as an end.

We used this idea when we talked about Alph gathering stones. Without ever mentioning pleasure, we talked about Alph’s motivating desire to gather stones. Because of the limited number of stones, sometimes Alph had to scatter stones so that he would have stones to gather again. We admitted that he did not want – that is, did not desire-as-an-end – to scatter stones. It was a chore. It was work he had to do in order to return to a state where he was gathering stones again.

When it comes to the washing the car example, we can say that I don’t ‘want’ to be washing the car in the sense that it’s not what I desire as an end, though it is what I desire as a means. So the action-based theory of desire can accommodate this use of our language just fine.

LUKE: Okay, but, Alonzo: listen to me.

It doesn’t matter.

It . . . does . . .not . . . matter.

ALONZO: What? You come back from your reading and not only have me change the words I have been using to describe desirism, but you would have me just toss these arguments aside as well? I spent a lot of time on these arguments.

LUKE: You wasted a lot of time on those arguments.

First: notice that, once again, this is not a dispute over how the universe actually works. The first question you should ask is whether these different theories make different predictions about what happens in the world – other than predictions about how people will use a term.

If it makes different predictions, we should be looking to discover which predictions are more accurate. If it’s a dispute about words, we shouldn’t be trying to discover the best super-dictionary definition of the term. We should be asking which definitions will be more efficient in communicating ideas about the world.

And if it’s not clear which definitions will be more efficient for the purposes of communication, then we can get around the problem by jumping past that particular symbol – that particular word – and talking directly about the facts in the world you mean to call out by using that word in the first place. You can talk about motivational states or pleasure states or whatever instead of talking about the word ‘desire’ and arguing about which definition of ‘desire’ to use.

ALONZO: Well, I suppose.

It does sound like another Planet Pluto debate now that you put it that way. In the case of Pluto, one group wants to define the word “planet” so that it includes Pluto. Another group wants to define “planet” so that it excludes Pluto. These people have no real dispute about what Pluto is. They only disagree about what language to use when talking about Pluto.

Here, in the case of desire, instead of debating whether non-motivating pleasure, or motivating non-pleasure, gets to count as a desire, we can talk about non-motivating pleasure or motivating non-pleasure directly, if it exists at all.

LUKE: Right. It doesn’t really matter who wins the “pleasure is necessary for desire” debate any more than it matters who wins the “Pluto is a planet” debate. The former will not change the way the brain works, and the latter will not change the orbit, size, or composition of Pluto.

ALONZO: Looking at it this way, I do have one more point to raise. I have a practical consideration to raise for why the word ‘desire’ should, for the sake of efficient communication, track with motivation rather than with non-motivational pleasure.

LUKE: Good. Let’s hear it.

ALONZO: We have reasons to be concerned with what motivates people to act in different ways. Your actions have an effect on my world – and my actions can have an effect on yours – for better or worse. You have reason to worry about me flying airplanes into skyscrapers – I have reason to worry about whether you will give me help in an emergency.

But I have no reason to be concerned with your non-motivational pleasures. And you have no reason to be concerned with mine. I don’t even have a reason to want you to help me to realize the experience of non-motivational pleasure. By definition, such states are non-motivational. A non-motivational pleasure doesn’t give me any reason to act any differently, and it certainly does not give me a reason to cause you to act differently.

So, they’re pointless to talk about. It’s more useful to use the word ‘desire’ to talk only about brain states that motivate people to perform actions.

LUKE: Sure. That’s the type of practical consideration that actually makes sense to argue about.

It’s like the practical considerations that went into the debate over whether to call Pluto a planet. It is efficient, in science, to lump similar objects under the same name. Pluto simply has more in common with trans-Neptune objects than it does with planets. So, for the sake of efficiency, we no longer use the word ‘planet’ to talk about Pluto.

Some scientists still say that things that are big enough to be round because of their own gravity need to be lumped together because they are alike in many ways, and they want to use the word ‘planet’. So, for the sake of convenience, Pluto and a few other objects in our solar system get lumped under the name “dwarf planets”.

Notice that astronomers didn’t have to look at how the word was used in the past or whether Pluto fit our intuitions about the meaning of the word ‘planet.’ In fact, those who supported this change were ready to admit that they are breaking with tradition on how these terms are used because they value communication efficiency over tradition.

And when we discuss desire, we value communication efficiency over tradition.

But: I have to stress that if somebody comes back and argues that using the word ‘desire’ to talk about something other than motivational states is more efficient for communication, and this debate is not easily resolved, then I’m not going to waste my time arguing over definitions. I’m going to say, “Fine. Whatever. I’m not going to argue over definitions. We can just replace the symbol with the substance – replace the word with the facts we meant to call up by using the word – and then we can argue over the facts instead of arguing about the word. It’s really not worth my time to argue about definitions.”

These tree-falling-in-a-forest arguments are a huge distraction from talking about how the world actually works.

ALONZO: Okay, so when we come back, we’ll be arguing not about our definitions for words like ‘pleasure’ and ‘desire’, but about the facts in the world we might mean to call to mind when we use those words.

LUKE: Great! I’m looking forward to it.

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{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

woodchuck64 May 3, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Some tense moments, there, but it all worked out in the end. Well done!

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JS Allen May 3, 2011 at 7:05 pm

OMG, that explains a lot!

Somehow I never realized that you were arguing over definitions. I assumed that you had already started with a clear conception of what you meant by “desire”, and were just having an extraordinarily difficult time articulating it to others. (I also suspected that your conception of the relevant facts did not align well with the neuroscience, but that’s another issue). I assumed that all of your recent “research” on competing theories of desire was just part of an attempt to give people other ways of understanding the definition that you presumably were holding in your mind. I couldn’t understand why you were looking to philosophy to give answers about behavior and so on, since these are empirical matters.

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Yair May 4, 2011 at 12:06 am

Eliezer Yudkowsky’s patronage is definitely showing, and in a good way. There are two points where I suspect you may be offtrack still, however.

The Motivation for Caring About Motivation
You raise one positive argument for why you are addressing only motivational states. This is really the only positive contribution of this segment – and it seems at least suspicious to me. You say,

We have reasons to be concerned with what motivates people to act in different ways. Your actions have an effect on my world – and my actions can have an effect on yours – for better or worse. You have reason to worry about me flying airplanes into skyscrapers – I have reason to worry about whether you will give me help in an emergency.

But I have no reason to be concerned with your non-motivational pleasures. And you have no reason to be concerned with mine. I don’t even have a reason to want you to help me to realize the experience of non-motivational pleasure. By definition, such states are non-motivational. A non-motivational pleasure doesn’t give me any reason to act any differently, and it certainly does not give me a reason to cause you to act differently.

But this doesn’t exhaust the various combinations. A non-motivational pleasure doesn’t motivate the person holding it, but this doesn’t mean it may not motivate another person.

Consider the following thought experiment – assume that rocks can feel, and suffer when they are damaged. They still don’t have an intellect, so they can’t desire (in the motivational sense) anything – they can’t even understand why their state of consciousness changes, or even that it has changed. All they have are their instantaneous feelings (of suffering, when damaged).
I would say we wouldn’t want to cause these rocks to suffer, certainly not needlessly.

Consider now the opposite thought experiment – assume a computer can be “motivated” to act through its software, but has no internal feelings whatsoever. No inner life, subjective experience, first-person perspective, that thing that David Chalmers calls the “hard problem of consciousness”. We still care about its actions in the world – we want it to be “motivated” in the right way. But I would say that for the most part we don’t care about it as a moral agent – we care about how it impacts us, but we don’t really care if it is in a particular state (“value-function is high”) or not.

If this is the case, then we care about the conscious states of people, not the motivational ones.

The Great Confusion
I never understood how Eliezer Yudkowsky could so misunderstand the old “tree in the wood” question – and here you too are addressing it naively. How strange! You write

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it set off a series of compression waves propagating through the air such that, if there was a normally functioning human present, it would register those waves as a sound? Yes. End of the discussion.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it set off a series of compression waves propagating through the air such that it actually does register in a brain as a sound? No. End of the discussion.

Problem dissolved.

I take the problem to refer to the first scenario. But the whole point of the question is to ask whether realism is true – whether things indeed occur when we are not there to witness them, or more generally when no consciousness is there to witness them. It is never, as I understand it, a question about the meaning of sound – it is a question about Materialism and Idealism, about Epistemology and Realism.

Am I misunderstanding the koan? Is this not the original intention, taken in context? (Of course, without the Western terminology.)

My own answer to this riddle is rather strange (I argue that if a thing leaves no aftermath it never happened – see quantum eraser experiments – and that if it did happen it left a trace in consciousness as well as matter as they are one and the same), but I am sympathetic to your Realist answer. Regardless, I think presenting the paradox as being about the meaning of words is totally missing the point of the exercise.

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Yair May 4, 2011 at 12:17 am

I would add that in practice I think people are motivated by their subjective feelings, conscious or otherwise (yeah, that’s a whole other discussion), so separating motivational from experiential states is not really possible. In other words, there are no non-motivational pleasures, and there are no motivations that are not pleasures (although there are pleasures/motivations that are not accessible to your self, or at least your verbal self – did I mention this required a whole discussion?). But exploring why requires a whole and lengthy discussion (did I mention that?).

Yair

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Martin Freedman May 4, 2011 at 1:16 am

Great podcast!

I agree with Yair here, I think! Lets see…

As you guys know I have long used desires just to mean proximate motivational brain states, so motivationalism is just as good a label as desirism (or even better – whichever minimizes confusion is the one to choose).

Prima facie non-motivational pleasures make no difference in the real world with respect to peoples actions to one another. As they are not proximate (let alone “ultimate”) causes of action, they are invisible, they make no difference or might as well not exist, certainly they have no material affects. Or is this the case?

In trying to charitably develop the idea of what a non-motivational pleasure could possibly mean or, rather, refer to in the real world let us look at the example of sport fans.

I can “desire” as in “want”, say, my favorite driver such as Lewis Hamilton or Jensen Button to win this years World Driver Championship. However there is no action I can directly nor indirectly do to bring this about. Considered as a motivational brain state this might lead me to watch upcoming GPs and maybe buy fan merchandise, place bets and/or read motor racing magazines or web sites. So this “desire” does motivate me in certain ways, given the choice I would watch a GP over a football match and so on. Further I would experience some form of pleasure if my driver wins the world championship and disappointment if one of them does not.

Now there seems to be many desires we have of this ilk, where our actions provide only subjective desire satisfaction and is also dependent upon objective desire fulfillment for which our own actions are irrelevant with respect to realizing this state of affairs.

Is this a characterization of non-motivational pleasure or something else?

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Zed May 4, 2011 at 2:40 am

I think this is one of the strongest episodes in the series. High quality; excellent pacing.

However, after reading the comments above I think I may have misunderstood the bottom line of the episode (as my understanding of it is completely different). As I understand it, the two messages you wanted to get through to us is that (a) to not step into the super-dictionary tarpit and (b) that you may not realize that you’ve gone into the deep end if you don’t habitually ask yourself if you’re talking about viewpoints with different real world anticipations. The second argument was only sort-of implied by the admission that you both unintentionally debated definitions, but it feels like it was still an important lesson.

In the interest of better retention of the material I would appreciate it if you could add a summary to future episodes where you outline what the main points are. The listener can then read that to verify if the material has been understood correctly. If listening to the podcast is a completely passive experience, retention is going to be dismal.

(Also, I don’t think it’s wise to end the episode by qualifying that sometimes it IS okay to argue about definitions – the Pluto situation – because it undermines your argument. It’s a fine point to make, but I don’t think you should end on it)

When I look at some of the other comments I get the impression they drew a very different conclusion from the episode than I did.

JS Allen wrote:

Somehow I never realized that you were arguing over definitions

I don’t think that was the issue. The issue, as I understand it, is that the moment you step away from solid ground, from issues directly relating to the real world scenarios, you lose. Scientists all over the world fight for “conceptual clarity”, and even if they somehow get there by cleverly (re)defining words, then whatever they write will be incomprehensible for everybody else (especially laymen/enthusiasts) because the mapping will be too complex to follow. So even if Luke and Alonzo found the perfect non-contradictory all-inclusive Ethical Algebra it wouldn’t help one bit!

In another comment Yair seems to happily jump into a philosophical tarpit. Even after reading his comments three times I have no idea how it relates to this episode.

Martin Freedman’s example of wanting Lewis Hamilton to win the WDC is, at least on the surface level, the same as the weather-watcher example from the podcast of wanting the sun to shine (but taking no action to make it so). Classifying desires in the “right” categories shouldn’t be the goal here, I think.

From my perspective, it looks like all comments kind of missed the point of the episode. I’d like to urge you, Luke, Alonzo, to really think about what actions you can take to maximize comprehension for your listeners.

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mopey May 4, 2011 at 2:51 am

Please forgive me dear internet, for painfully belaboring the “tree in the wood”.

It seems that if you’re attemping to “replace the symbol with the substance”, you ought not include the symbol in the substance. Or else you just beg the question.

…it would register those waves as a sound? Yes. End of the discussion.

…it actually does register in a brain as a sound? No. End of the discussion.

So, is this not just an embedded definition (sorry, substantiation) that implies observer dependence? But, as Yair points out, whether or not it (sound) is observer dependent was the question in the first place. Both of your Yes/No substantiation scenarios take it to be observer dependant in each case. Sure, dissolution is so much easier this way.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around…

(stuff about waves)

…if there was a normally functioning human present, it would register those waves as a
sound?

So, the antecedent condition is about what things are like when nobody is around. But lets wonder instead what those things would be like having somebody around. Let me go check on that lonely tree…

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Alonzo Fyfe May 4, 2011 at 5:02 am

Yair

I take the problem (of the tree falling in the woods) to refer to the first scenario. But the whole point of the question is to ask whether realism is true – whether things indeed occur when we are not there to witness them, or more generally when no consciousness is there to witness them.

This makes no sense to me.

The question begins with the assumption that a tree falls in the woods with nobody presence. This ASSUMES that things can happen (trees falling in woods) without people being present to witness them.

A question with the intent that you ascribe would say, “Can a tree fall in the woods if there is nobody to witness it,” or something like that.

Either way, this is another example of the same issue. Can we tell what the question means just by looking at the question?

In this case, no.

How do we deal with this fact?

Answer: Not by conceptual analysis. Instead, we disambiguate the question, or we replace the form with the substance.

My guess, Yair, is that, given your background you encountered this question in a different context than I did and, in that context, ascribed a different meaning to it.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 4, 2011 at 7:30 am

JS Allen

Actually, I think that Luke and I were clear on the definitions we were using. What we did not expect when we looked at the professional literature is how much effort there has gone into debating definitions over debating facts.

We wrote an original script for Episode 14 that discussed the arguments in the professional literature, and as we struggled with it we discovered just how little of it was science. So we (read: Luke) dived into the science so we could get some science into this.

This disambiguating “what is a desire” or “replacing the form with the substance” is the same thing we were already doing with moral terms.

Remember, Luke and I said at the start that we were not going to use moral terms. Instead, we were going to avoid all of the issues about the meaning of moral terms by – what turns out to be – replacing the form with the substance.

We didn’t anticipate needing to do the same thing with the concept of “desire” until we started struggling through the first version of Episode 14.

Yair

I think you will find some answers to your two “thought experiments” and your addendum comment in the next episode.

Yair & Martin Freeman

I believe that a distinction must be made between a desire that an agent cannot act on, and one which the agent would not act on even if he could.

Is the rock’s pain something that it cannot act on? Or something that it would not act on even if it could?

An action-based theory of desire doesn’t say that an agent does not have a desire that P if he is unable to bring about P. You can’t take away a person’s desire to walk by breaking his back. Rather, an action-based theory of desire says that the agent that desires that P would act to realize P if he could.

So, would this hypothetical pain-feeling rock act to avoid pain if it could? If so, then it has a desire in the relevant sense that we are using the term here.

In the case of the sports fan, let’s assume that the sports fan believes that if he does not wear his luck shirt on race day his favorite driver would lose. His desire to see his driver win would motivate him to wear his lucky shirt on race day. If there really is nothing he can do to help his favorite driver win, this does not change the fact that there are things he would do if he could.

(Note: Other desires and aversions might rule out certain options such as murdering competing drivers or offering bribes. Also, a desire that one’s favorite driver win fairly would rule out these options because they would not contribute to fulfilling the desire that the favorite driver wins fairly. Such an agent would also be extremely disappointed if he discovered that his favorite driver was caught fixing races or cheating.)

Mopey

I would argue that the context for the embedded word “sound” disambiguates it. The new phrasing does have a clear definition, where the original phrasing (where the word “sound” was in a different context) does not.

And the fact that the new context disambiguates the term does not imply that it lacked ambiguity in its original context (though somebody doing conceptual analysis might want to draw such an inference).

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Sean Santos May 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm

I’m still a bit confused about the relationship between desires and brain states. In a previous episode, you mentioned that a desire that P could exist in an organism even if the proposition P was not directly encoded in that organism’s brain. That seemed OK to me, in part because I can imagine alternative ways of thinking about a desire that seem much the same. (For example, if I’m thirsty, I can think about a state of not being thirsty and seek that out, or think about drinking water and the pleasure that would bring, and so seek that out. Even if I don’t formulate the proposition directly, it’s clear what state I desire to be in and that I’m motivated to achieve that state.)

But it gets a bit more confusing if you think about organisms that are really dumb. You can think that maybe, say, a female mosquito does not have the ability to form hypotheticals or imagine various states, let alone be actually form abstract concepts such as “drink”. Yet the mosquito seems to be motivated to drink blood. I’m wondering in what way you might resolve this. Here are the options I thought of:

a) The mosquito has a desire as long as some outside agent can accurately describe its behavior as attempting to make a certain proposition true. (That is, since I can think “The mosquito desires it to be true that the mosquito is drinking blood.” and am supported by what the mosquito does, then that is what the mosquito wants.) This seems to run afoul of certain criticisms of behaviorism, and I’m suspicious of it, but that was what you seemed to lean towards when talking about this issue earlier.

b) The demands of evolution make it possible for certain propositions to have causal power to create behavior, even if the proposition has no causal power proximately within a single mosquito. So the mosquito wants to drink blood in the sense that evolution has crafted it to act in such a way as to do so, even if it can’t understand the situation by itself. (I have reservations about this one too; does this mean that plants and microbes also have desires?)

c) This mosquito lacks the capacity to have desires, because it cannot form the idea of a state other than the one it is currently in, and thus cannot move towards a different possible state. As a corollary, the mosquito takes no intentional actions because it has no intent.

d) The mosquito has desires, but only regarding present states. That is, the mosquito smells a large animal, and immediately begins to desire that it is heading towards the animal. Once it is there it forms a desire to be landing on the animal, then to jab the animal with a proboscis, then to be drinking blood from the animal, then to withdraw and fly off.

e) You don’t think mosquitoes (or any other animal) have the types of brain that would raise this problem, and therefore it doesn’t pose a practical problem for the action-based theory of desire until such animals are found. (Or, alternatively, it’s not so important as long as the theory works on the vast majority of human beings, even if it fails on some animals.) Note that it’s not a valid objection to say only that mosquitoes don’t work this way. I used mosquitoes as a plausible-sounding example, but if any organism at all works this way, I could use that organism as an example instead.

f) Something down the line in desirism is going to make this clear as either an irrelevant question about the physical world, or else a purely semantic issue that’s not relevant to the theory’s conclusions. That is, eventually some feature of the theory is going to make it not matter which of these options one favors, and we’ll be able to draw the same conclusions regardless.

g) There is something I’ve missed.

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Ex Hypothesi May 4, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Luke,

“If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it set off a series of compression waves propagating through the air such that, if there was a normally functioning human present, it would register those waves as a sound? Yes.”

Sorry, what *FACT* can you point to that might “confirm” this SUBJUNCTIVE CONDITIONAL?

No fact –> Not talking about the real world.

Oh SNAP! CONCEPTUAL ANALYSIS!

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Sean Santos May 4, 2011 at 6:45 pm

*yawn*

If you look closer, you can actually break down the sentence into two indicative conditionals:

1) If there is no one around and a tree falls, certain compressions waves move through the air. Supporting facts: these can influence the surrounding environment by a variety of means without the presence of a human being, and their presence later inferred (the easiest way being, of course, with a recording device). The laws of physics as we know them also demand the production of such waves.

2) If a conscious human being with normal hearing is exposed to atmospheric compression waves of this type, that person will hear sounds. We know this from normal induction.

The “such that if” is implied to describe what we know about the properties of such waves due to their occurrence in other conditions, not a counterfactual reality in which there is a human being present when there is no one present. One can forbid this move by stating that the properties of sound waves under one set of conditions are irrelevant to another set of conditions, but without explaining how the change (in this case the absence of a human being) is relevant to compression wave production, that’s tantamount to denying that induction works.

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JS Allen May 4, 2011 at 10:54 pm

@Alonzo – OK, then I guess my original hypothesis was correct, and you “already started with a clear conception of what you meant by ‘desire’, and are just having an extraordinarily difficult time articulating it to others”. In that case, it seems weird to write a post like this where you apologize for having gone off track and say you will get back on track in a future episode. I’m sure it’s just a failure to communicate, but your previously articulated theory was a trainwreck, and you’ve continually promised to clarify “at some point in the future”. Taking a detour to survey debates about definitions, and then blowing a whole episode to apologize about debating definitions, hardly seems like an efficient way to hasten your promised clarification of what your theory actually is.

In the past, I didn’t see a lot of evidence that your definitions were grounded in “substance instead of symbols”. In fact, the definitions often seemed circular, the reasoning tautological, and the conclusions mysteriously arbitrary. To me, “substance” is not some circular hokum, but instead is some hard empirical evidence about how people’s actions actually come about. As I’ve repeatedly stated, many of these issues are empirical matters, so why don’t we just talk about how people actually behave?

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Alonzo Fyfe May 5, 2011 at 5:38 am

JS Allen

If you will forgive me, I do not see much of substance in your last post. It reads pretty much as a statement, “You are a pathetic creature because you made mistakes I never would have made.”

Well, I do make mistakes.

However, I do not think it is accurate to say that this episode is an apology for having gone off track – at least as far as this podcast is concerned.

We ALMOST did.

The original draft to Episode 14 that we wrote 2 months ago certainly would have. However, we caught the problem before Episode 14 was recorded and then produced an episode that was designed to keep us on track, and to inform the listeners as to what track we are taking and why.

In the original draft for Episode 14 our goal was to take the arguments we currently found in the professional literature against an action-based theory of desire and respond to them one by one – assuming they were arguments worth considering. We give two examples in the version actually recorded of arguments we found in the professional literature and our original response.

However, in the course of reading and editing that draft we came to the conclusion that a huge portion of the arguments in the professional literature had the problem we described in this episode. They simply were not worth discussing because they were debates over words, not over facts.

Ultimately, we decided not to go down that road. However, the road we decided to reject is very heavily travelled in the professional literature, so ours was not a decision to be taken lightly. We spend some time making sure that we had good reasons to do so.

Then we presented the reasons for that decision in a newly rewritten Episode 14 as, I think, we were oblibated to do.

But, yes, I have made mistakes in the past. I will make mistakes in the future. When I discover them, I will try to admit to them and correct them, and then move on. I am not delivering commandments spoken to me here by an all-knowing God incapable of error. These are my attempts to make sense of the world around me. And I . . . well, I am only human.

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Zeb May 5, 2011 at 7:10 am

So, does this mean that previous claims that “desires are the only [goals] reasons for [intentional] action that exist” were vacuous, because you were defining “desire” as “[goals] reasons for [intentional] action that exist”? That was always a big sticking point in my mind. I think a LOT of confusion would have been avoided by calling the theory “motivationism” where the objects of moral concern are any motivations that exist that a proposition be made or kept true.

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Keith May 5, 2011 at 9:14 am

It’s very nice to see a focus on facts rather than definitions. This seems to continually bog down discussions of morality (including the word “morality” itself).

Two things:

1. I agree that motivational states are more important than non-motivational pleasures when it comes to interactions between people. Interactions, as the word implies, require actions, so we need to be concerned with what mental states lead to those actions.

2. I also agree that there are motivations that do not have pleasure as a direct end. For instance, the man who fulfills a promise to his neighbor by washing his car does not stand to gain pleasure from this action (let’s assume he doesn’t particularly enjoy washing cars – some people do!).

But what does motivate his action? It appears that the man is motivated by his desire to fulfill his end of the bargain he made with his neighbor. But why should he care about fulfilling this duty if it is onerous? Why does he not simply shirk this duty, and thumb his nose at his neighbor? I suspect that if you look deeply enough, you will find that he is ultimately acting in his own self-interest (i.e., happiness): he wants to maintain a good reputation as a kind, honest person, for instance. Or he doesn’t want to jeopardize future opportunities to exchange favors with his neighbor. Or he simply wants to maintain a positive self-image.

I am not attempting to make a solid, irrefutable argument here, I am simply suggesting that if evolution engineered our brains to look out for themselves, then the actions they trigger – if not directly intended to increase pleasure – are at least indirectly guided by an underlying preservation instinct, either for themselves or their kin.

This point may have arguable relevance to the current episode of the podcast, but I think it will become extremely important once the discussion of morality gets fully underway, especially when you argue for a metric to evaluate and compare different motivational states.

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cl May 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Had much to say, so I wrote my own post: The New Moral Crusaders?

Luke,

…we can skip the definition issue altogether – avoid using the words ‘desire’ and ‘sound’ – and just argue about what certain motivational structures in the brain are doing, or what certain shock waves in the air are doing.

Do you still think “desires might not exist” is potentially damning to desirism? Or, would you say that was a semantic detour?

JS Allen,

…[Luke and Alonzo's] previously articulated theory was a trainwreck, and you’ve continually promised to clarify “at some point in the future”.

If I might use Luke’s word here, “Yup.” The promissory notes were tiring early last year. I’ve long suspected that Luke and Alonzo know they can’t provide the empirical evidence this theory needs, and that this is why the discussion has drudged along for upwards of two years now.

Taking a detour to survey debates about definitions, and then blowing a whole episode to apologize about debating definitions, hardly seems like an efficient way to hasten your promised clarification of what your theory actually is.

I agree. I actually feel that this episode turned the dial “up” in the “obfuscation” direction, but maybe future episodes will turn it back down. After all, final catastrophe notwithstanding, there’s always the promise of future episodes.

In the past, I didn’t see a lot of evidence that your definitions were grounded in “substance instead of symbols”. In fact, the definitions often seemed circular, the reasoning tautological, and the conclusions mysteriously arbitrary.

Yes, exactly. I still don’t see any evidence–not even a shred–and I’ve long complained that this theory is circular, as have many others. The discussion needs to move from the air to the ground, e.g., from intuition to empiricism.

Alonzo,

This disambiguating “what is a desire” or “replacing the form with the substance” is the same thing we were already doing with moral terms. Remember, Luke and I said at the start that we were not going to use moral terms. Instead, we were going to avoid all of the issues about the meaning of moral terms by – what turns out to be – replacing the form with the substance.

That seems reasonable, and I commend efforts to avoid arguing over definitions of terms, but there’s a problem here, and I think it’s a BIG one: when you made that move, you implicitly assumed that the form [morality] reduces to the substance [desires]. You think you’re disambiguating the question, but in reality, you’re putting the cart before the horse in a subtle way that I’m not convinced you realize. Since we are supposed to eschew intuition when it comes to claims about the real world, where is the empirical evidence that would justify this move?

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Luke Muehlhauser May 5, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Those who wish to know a bit more about what we know so far about how motivation works may wish to read The Neuroscience of Desire.

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JS Allen May 5, 2011 at 1:14 pm

So, does this mean that previous claims that “desires are the only [goals] reasons for [intentional] action that exist” were vacuous, because you were defining “desire” as “[goals] reasons for [intentional] action that exist”? That was always a big sticking point in my mind. I think a LOT of confusion would have been avoided by calling the theory “motivationism” where the objects of moral concern are any motivations that exist that a proposition be made or kept true.

Yes, I found the previous attempt at definition to be circular and confusing. “Belief” and “desire” seem like folk-theory, betrayed especially by the use of “propositional”. Does any significant portion of our conscious behavior depend on propositional thinking?

I’m slightly more comfortable with saying that a “desire” is a “propensity to act to bring about a certain state of affairs”. But then we have to ask why Alonzo arbitrarily eliminates habitual action. The neuroscience seems to show that virtually all of the actions from the motor basal ganglia (which is the best candidate for “intentional” action) are influenced by habit, and often by emotion. There seem to be no “intentional” actions that aren’t heavily predicated on habit. Alonzo needs to define what he means by “intentional”, and then explain how the neuroscience could support such a distinction, since otherwise he is probably perpetuating a fable that has no bearing on reality.

Next, even if he can cleanly define “intentional” as distinct from habit and emotion, he would need to explain why he is arbitrarily choosing to focus on intentional in his theory. Surely an important part of acting morally is to inculcate good habits and good emotions?

Of course, these are simple definitional issues that should be cleaned up relatively quickly once he spends more time focusing on the real world instead of folk-theory. After there is a clearly-defined model of motivation/action, then we can show how the ethical theory fails at scale.

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Garren May 5, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Why not just talk about ‘desire fulfillment’ — period — and point out that a person can be mistaken about whether her own desires are being fulfilled?

..Sally’s desire that her child be happy is fulfilled.

..Sally believes her desire that her child be happy is fulfilled, but she is wrong.

Let’s ‘taboo’ the terms ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ with extreme prejudice.

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cl May 5, 2011 at 2:04 pm

JS Allen,

I’ve always responded to the “habit” thing by noting that the first act was intentional, but I’m not sure your point about emotion can be dissolved so easily, if at all.

Garren,

I agree. Luke’s “solution” is terrible. Adding two of the world’s most oft-confused terms into an oft-confused theory seems like a big step in the wrong direction.

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Luke Muehlhauser May 5, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Garren,

Indeed, much tabooing is ahead.

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JS Allen May 5, 2011 at 7:48 pm

BTW, Luke’s “Neuroscience of Desire” is not too shabby as a quick overview of neuroeconomics. As I’ve repeatedly said, desirism as a macro-level theory is even more prone to failure than an economic theory like marxism or capitalism. Not only do our internal mental states behave a lot like an economy, the macro system of desirism is quite analogous to an economy.

A theory as naive as desirism could never gain traction in modern economic theory, and it’s safe to say that less naive economic theories have caused incalculable human misery. Two articles on economics today underscore the point:

First, Eric Falkenstein on ‘Macro Aggregate Vacuousness’:

Now, this all seems pretty scientific. Its logic is best exemplified by Don Patinkin’s Money, Interest and Prices (1957), which had page after page of such equations, and has been called the ‘height of the IS/LM’ theory. It appeared to be a very compelling theory, because it was consistent and logical at every step. All the partial derivatives made sense, but one had to hope that such simple models were sufficient to overcome all the variables and interactions not explicitly addressed, because in a complex economy there’s an almost infinite number of relationships and omitted factors.

The economy is a complex, nonlinear, adaptive system where short run effects are often opposite of long run effects.

Thinking about aggregates this way is pure blather, like the way Marxist intellectuals talked about the laws of motion a century ago when their Oracle bloviated in Das Kapital that just ‘as the heavenly bodies, once thrown into a certain definite motion, always repeat this, so it is with social production.’Yeah, just like celestial mechanics. I generally just ignore any argument based on or alluding to such pretentious, hopeful, willfully naive twaddle.

Next, James Kwak on ‘The Myth of the Natural Economy’:

Temin’s main point is that what he calls general equilibrium approaches to macroeconomics have a political agenda, but they hide that agenda behind an ideology of naturalness. The “natural,” perfectly clearing, perfectly efficient economy, of course, has never existed and can never exist, but it is used to justify certain political prescriptions.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 5, 2011 at 8:07 pm

You have placed desirism at entirely the wrong level for analysis.

It is not a macro-level theory. It is a meta-theory – a theory about macro-level theories. Anything you might want to say about macro-theories does not apply here.

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JS Allen May 5, 2011 at 8:47 pm

@Alonzo – No, you’re the one who is failing at the meta level. As a theory about the macro-level theories, desirism is an abject failure. And as a prescriptive system, it is virtually guaranteed to cause far more human misery than would be caused by leaving well enough alone.

What you repeatedly fail to grasp is that the gulf between micro and macro is immense, and you simply cannot take a naive classical micro approach like you do with desirism and expect anything but disaster in the real world. Both at the micro and the macro level, human motivation is a “complex, nonlinear, and adaptive system” (that’s the meta you need to get in your head). It’s becoming increasingly clear that you don’t even understand what that means. You need to go back to math school, or study some economics. At the very least, you need to precisely define a model and run the appropriate PDEs or other simulations and gaze in horror at the beast you’ve created. It’s a model we’ve seen a thousand times, and we know how the movie ends. You need to trust people who are better at math than you, or else run the math yourself.

In the comments to the Kwak post I linked, a commenter calls your sort of model “theoclassical” — implying that it is both overly simplistic (i.e. utterly ignorant of the meta about how complex systems behave) and patently religious:

“What actually occurs in the course of modernity is thus not simply the erasure or disappearance of God but the transference of this attributes, essential powers, and capacities to other entities or realms of being. The so-called process of disenchantment is thus also a process of reenchantment in and through both man and nature are infused with a number of attributes or powers previously ascribed to God.”

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cl May 5, 2011 at 9:14 pm

JS Allen,

You need to trust people who are better at math than you, or else run the math yourself.

Yup. Just today I was–again–expressing consternation at Alonzo’s apparent refusal to do ANY math or provide ANY empirical evidence to justify his claims. That “theoclassical” comment was the most on-the-button comment I’ve heard in a long time. If you read the post I linked to earlier up in the thread, you’ll see why I’m saying that. Instead of doing the hard work, Alonzo pontificates and projects his own intuition-driven values onto others, all the while pretending that “empiricism” justifies it, which is a tad ironic given all the crap Alonzo talks about theists and God-based morality. I’m not kidding or trying to be dramatic when I say I think that’s dangerous. If the wrong people embraced this theory–people with a lot of power and technology–we could be up poo creek without a paddle, quick-like.

At any rate, kudos to reasoned dissent.

Alonzo,

You can attempt to insulate yourself from tough criticism all you want, and you do this several ways [for example--and correct me if I'm wrong here--promoting censorship at your blog], but at some point you’re going to have to bite the bullet if you wish to make your point. Instead of handwaving, getting offended, and dodging questions, you should really listen to JS Allen and the many others who take the time to offer legitimate criticism.

Or, continue on the crusade.

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JS Allen May 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm

@cl — Yes, the handwaving about “meta” is transparently silly. Heck, we could just proffer a counter-theory that is even more “meta” than desirism, and propose that we treat ethics at an electro-chemical or neurotransmitter level. We could say, “Desirism is placing moral theory at entirely the wrong level of analysis; direct neurotransmitter manipulation is a meta-theory about macro moral theories like desirism.” Because, who is to say what is the “right level of analysis”? But we would then be exposed to critics who insist that the molecular level is more “right”.

I’m encouraged that Luke is finally exploring the parallels between economics and moral theory, so I hope it’s only a matter of time before he realizes that nobody believes in prescriptively extrapolating the meta/micro to macro anymore. Trying to get more accurate by getting more “meta” is a fool’s game.

As always, Daniel Dennett is way ahead of the naive reductionist. Alonzo’s religious attachment to his arbitrary and naive reduction is preventing him from seeing the level which is actually interesting for analysis. In his book “Breaking the Spell”, Dennett describes how religion and culture supervene on intentionality, which in turn supervenes on consciousness and the material. Culture’s very function is to judge and mold propensity to feeling and action, so that is a more interesting level for analysis and prescription.

Trying to mold desires through mockery and praise (as Alonzo prescribes) is exactly as stupid as trying to do math on a computer by manually pumping electrons into a circuit board. If someone says that electrons are a better level of analysis, because they are more “meta”, you would dismiss him as an idiot. The calculator program on the computer supervenes multiple levels above the circuit board, and is vastly better for doing math. Likewise, there are several vastly superior evolved mechanisms that supervene on human biology for both judging and molding desires. Retreating to the meta is not only doomed to failure; it is a step backwards in evolution.

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Garren May 5, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Though I’m lost in the application of economics to ethics, it’s nice to see the notion come up here on the same day I found and ordered:

http://www.amazon.com/Welfare-Economics-Towards-Complete-Analysis/dp/0333971213/

Just take a look at the Table of Contents preview. So obviously relevant! (And the prices so ridiculous; buy used.)

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cl May 5, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Here’s an excerpt from Alonzo’s post, Embrace Torture:

As a matter of fact, no controlled experiments were conducted in which people were randomly assigned to “enhanced interrogation techniques” versus “alternative interrogation techniques” to reveal which group revealed the most and most useful information. The form of evidence that we have violates all of the rules of proof in a scientific sense, allowing room for all of the problems with non-scientific data such as confirmation bias – where agents assert that data that supports their position is solid and anything that contradicts their position is ignored as an anomaly.

Clearly, he understands the type of problems that can result when real-world claims are not supported by quality scientific data [e.g., confirmation bias], yet he either exempts himself from the rules, or apparently doesn’t care that his own real-world claims are not supported by ANY scientific data AT ALL. Should anyone be interested in proving me wrong, please show me where Alonzo cites the scientific data that would justify ANY of his applied-ethics claims, for example, oh, I don’t know… the claim that we would be better off without television sitcoms, reality shows and spectator sports (cf. Trivial Hobbies). I mean, here he is whining about the lack of controlled experiments performed on so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” while–to my knowledge–he’s never cited a single controlled experiment to support his own claims! In any real scientific endeavor, that’s grounds for mockery and ridicule.

Let the buyer beware.

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cl May 5, 2011 at 10:37 pm

JS Allen,

Trying to mold desires through mockery and praise (as Alonzo prescribes) is exactly as stupid as trying to do math on a computer by manually pumping electrons into a circuit board.

Something I’ve often wondered about, but never really brought up in these discussions, is mockery’s failure rate. You used the word “naive” a few times in allusion to Alonzo’s theory, and I think it might be appropriate on more than one level. I mean, how often does mockery completely backfire, actually strengthening the desire in question? Teenagers and fundamentalists are two examples that come immediately to mind. When you criticize these types, they have a tendency to feed off the criticism, and often walk away with the desire in question strengthened. I’ve seen this at work in my own life, when I was a teenager, and also in the lives of others. IOW, “mockery turns the knob down, praise turns the knob up” strikes me as naive. It’s not that simple in the real world, and for this reason, we might want to think very carefully before we go around pompously mocking others because they don’t value what we value.

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Garren May 6, 2011 at 7:34 am

Welcoming feedback on:

http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-is-desirism.html

Though I will update it anyway as this podcast progresses.

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The Judge May 6, 2011 at 10:56 am

Well done, cl and JS Allen.

Pin Aloznzo down on this one. He needs to provide the math and empirical evidence for these claims.

Methinks this the price he pays for refusing to publish in peer reviewed journals. They would have made him cough up such evidence a long time ago.

The Verdict:
cl, JS Allen – WINNERS
Alonzo – FAIL (unless he can meet the requirements.)

Since Alonzo’s ethical theory requires mockery to mold the correct desires, consider this my ethical contribution to his ethical evolution.

The Judge

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woodchuck64 May 6, 2011 at 3:05 pm

JS Allen,

…I hope it’s only a matter of time before he realizes that nobody believes in prescriptively extrapolating the meta/micro to macro anymore.

I’m having some trouble processing the analogy to the economy and grasping this objection in simple terms. If we study micro information about human economic behavior we find that it often seems to contradicts macro economic behavior, that sounds about right. So the analogy to desirism is that if we study individual desires, we’ll learn nothing about macro “moral” behavior? Or that structuring macro “moral” policy on metrics derived from measuring individual desires is a demonstrated failure? If this objection has been fleshed out elsewhere feel free to point me to it.

Culture’s very function is to judge and mold propensity to feeling and action, so that is a more interesting level for analysis and prescription.

Is this distinctly different from desirism’s approach? I thought desirism is expected to work by providing a secular anchor for moral rules, from which culture operates as before. I don’t see that desirism proposes changing or throwing out all the usual mechanisms we have for teaching and enforcing moral behavior, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Trying to mold desires through mockery and praise … is exactly as stupid as trying to do math on a computer by manually pumping electrons into a circuit board. … Likewise, there are several vastly superior evolved mechanisms that supervene on human biology for both judging and molding desires.

Mockery, condemnation, praise, reward, punishment are all evolved mechanisms for molding desires, yes, and I thought that desirism expects to use all of them, effectively working within our evolved system of morality. So I’m not following this objection.

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cl May 6, 2011 at 3:09 pm

The Judge,

I’m not trying to toot my own horn or anything, but I’ve been asking for the empirical evidence ever since Alonzo claimed the Greeks were “probably wrong” about pederasty, over a year ago. I mean, this guy makes a laundry list of claims where he condemns entire groups of people–usually Christian theists–as EVIL, without a shred of empirical evidence! How is that not the EXACT “intuition-based folk morality” problem desirism claims to solve? The irony is that lack of empirical evidence is often the VERY FOUNDATION for his “condemnation warrant!” I mean, who in their right mind isn’t going to call that? Rewind time a few hundred years and I could just hear Fyfe arguing that “people generally” have reason to promote slavery. Give me ONE REASON to suppose that Alonzo’s “morality” isn’t just the same culturally-induced variety of ages past. One reason, people.

And it’s not just JS Allen and myself. If we’re going to declare “winners” here, we need to add a very long list of commenters, some of whom we rarely see around here anymore: antiplastic, Richard Wein, cartesian, TaiChi, Thomas Reid (Reidish), Zeb, Yair, Polymeron, Garren and many others whom I can’t think of at the moment. Note that I am NOT labeling any or all of those people as “anti-desirism” or anything like that, nor am I necessarily “anti-desirism” myself, as I explain on my own blog. I’m just saying that each of these people have raised excellent questions and criticisms, most of which I’ve not seen met. We’re continually handed these promissory notes about future episodes, but how many episodes are we going to have? That excuse could go on indefinitely!

Anyone who believes in desirism ought to ask themselves: would a person with good desires ostensibly praise empirical evidence yet label ENTIRE GROUPS of people as “evil” without a shred of empirical evidence? Per the very theory Alonzo preaches, shouldn’t we all condemn this as blatant hypocrisy?

[/RANT]

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JS Allen May 6, 2011 at 4:36 pm

So the analogy to desirism is that if we study individual desires, we’ll learn nothing about macro “moral” behavior? Or that structuring macro “moral” policy on metrics derived from measuring individual desires is a demonstrated failure?

Yes, the point is that a bunch of combined micro movements don’t accumulate to a reliable macro environment. Think of the weather. You can’t just ask everyone to point in the same direction and blow really hard, and hope to blow away approaching storm clouds. On the other hand, a single butterfly flapping it’s wings at the right time can make the difference between a violent storm or a peaceful calm. This is what Eduard Lorenz demonstrated, opening up the science of complexity theory. We’ve proven mathematically that you simply cannot control a complex, nonlinear, adaptive system through a bottoms-up approach. If you do so, you just create volatility.

Alonzo is basically saying, “if every individual acts in a way so as to mold the desires of those around them through praise and condemnation, that would lead to some desirable long-run situation”. It’s a bottoms-up approach to a complex, nonlinear, adaptive problem. It’s like asking people to flap their arms to influence the weather. At best, it’s going to have no result; at worst it’s going to create volatility.

I don’t see that desirism proposes changing or throwing out all the usual mechanisms we have for teaching and enforcing moral behavior, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Mockery, condemnation, praise, reward, punishment are all evolved mechanisms for molding desires, yes

What I am saying is that these are a bottoms-up approach, which seems incredibly naive to me. I think people mold their desires and habits primarily through other means, which largely fall under the rubric of “culture”.

I am also very skeptical that mockery, condemnation, praise, and punishment are evolved mechanisms for molding desires. All four are primarily mechanisms of signaling that norm violations have already occurred, and say at least as much about the person doing the signaling as about the target. The theory I find most plausible currently is that this signaling operates as a form of sexual selection.

Honestly, I find this whole idea of Alonzo’s “sticks and carrots” to be stupendously idiotic. It’s like when Mao deputized all of the kids in the Cultural Revolution to run around with sticks beating peasants who wrote Chinese characters incorrectly. Yeah, that molded desires alright! *snort*

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woodchuck64 May 6, 2011 at 5:25 pm

JS Allen,

Yes, the point is that a bunch of combined micro movements don’t accumulate to a reliable macro environment.

Okay, so a possible goal macro environment is one where desire fulfillment is maximized in some sense. The micro movement you’re referring to is the conscious effort of an individual to directly, intentionally modify the desires of people he/she comes in contact with. The question is whether that micro movement will add up to such a goal. That sames a fair question is it feels awkward to me to to be constantly trying to modify desires of those around me, and I’d probably get it wrong half the time.

However, intuitively, the morality of individuals adds up to the morality of their society. Is there reason to question this assumption even with complexity assumptions?

I think desirism’s micro movement could be virtually indistinguishable from the activity a moral individual uses today. That is, an individual in a successful desirist society need have no special directive or behavior except to act as moral as conscience dictates, he’ll get angry at immoral behavior and act accordingly, he’ll get a warm feeling (oxytocin) when observing courage and honesty and act accordingly, etc. All that this individual needs is to have been taught moral behaviors and desires that desirism prescribes instead of moral behaviors and desires from say folk morality, Biblical morality, or humanist morality. Does this approach, then, avoid the complexity micro/macro issue?

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cl May 6, 2011 at 5:59 pm

However, intuitively, the morality of individuals adds up to the morality of their society. Is there reason to question this assumption even with complexity assumptions?

Yes. Conflicting permissible desires.

All that this individual needs is to have been taught moral behaviors and desires that desirism prescribes instead of moral behaviors and desires from say folk morality, Biblical morality, or humanist morality.

Why would the source of the desire matter?

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Alonzo Fyfe May 6, 2011 at 6:50 pm

JS Allen

Alonzo is basically saying, “if every individual acts in a way so as to mold the desires of those around them through praise and condemnation, that would lead to some desirable long-run situation”.

Nope.

Not only do I not say this, I do not see it as even being a reasonable suggestion.

For one thing, it is quite possible (and, in fact, is historically common) for people to use praise and condemnation on others in ways that lead to unfortunate – even tragic – consequences.

This is a bit like saying that, “Alonzo is basically saying that, if everybody uses tools, that would lead to some desirable long-run situation.”

It depends a great deal on how well one uses those tools.

Which then invites the question, “What counts as using those tools well?”

Or, more to the point, “Alonzo is basically saying that if everybody engages in intentional action, that would lead to some desirable long-run result.”

Not necessarily. There are intentional actions that would lead to desirable results, and those that will not. The trick is to identify those that will.

Praise and condemnation are tools – like hammers, computers, and language itself. There is no argument against using these tools that would also not count as an argument against using hammers, computer programs and language.

We ought not to use the tools of praise and condemnation because systems are just too complex to allow us to predict the outcomes? Then we ought not to use hammers, computers, or language as well.

Different tools have different purposes. Hammers are better than screwdrivers for pounding in nails. Screw drivers are better than hammers for driving in screws. Praise and condemnation are useful for influencing desires.

People are using praise and condemnation as a tool – to mold the malleable desires around them – just as they are using hammers, computers, and language itself. They use these tools in an institution called “morality”.

Like all tools, these tools can be used well or used poorly.

While we may dispute over what the difference between the good and poor use of such a tool is, we should be able to agree that false beliefs, superstitions, and pure facAtual error have no place in the good use of a particular tool.

In this case, claims about the use of such a tool should be cleared of all false claims such as those that postulate a god, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, imaginary social contracts, intrinsic observers, decisions made behind a veil of ignorance and deities.

What’s left? What remains when you throw out all of the fictions?

Desires.

Mental states that propositional attitudes that motivate agents to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of those desires are made or kept true.

That’s it.

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cl May 6, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Alonzo,

Mental states that propositional attitudes that motivate agents to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of those desires are made or kept true.

Gibberish. Pure linguistic ejaculation. Where’s the empirical evidence? Seriously man. Put up or shut up. This is way beyond old. You’re spinning everybody’s wheels with wordplay. Ground your theory. Do math. Do science. Respect empiricism. Hold yourself to the same standard you hold creationists to.

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cl May 6, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Just caught this:

While we may dispute over what the difference between the good and poor use of such a tool is, we should be able to agree that false beliefs, superstitions, and pure facAtual error have no place in the good use of a particular tool.

Yeah? How about real-world claims with NO EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE, at all? Can we agree that this has no place in the good use of a particular tool? If so, why do you do it? Would a person with good desires do this? Don’t you think a person with good desires would concede the error when pointed out to them? Or, are you really going to be so arrogant as to pretend your own rules don’t apply to you? Shouldn’t you cite the empirical evidence BEFORE you go around condemning people and things?

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cl May 6, 2011 at 8:01 pm

JS Allen,

Off-topic:

I posted a few comments at your blog, but don’t see them. Do you moderate? Might they be trapped in your spam filter?

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JS Allen May 6, 2011 at 9:14 pm

@woodchuck64

However, intuitively, the morality of individuals adds up to the morality of their society. Is there reason to question this assumption even with complexity assumptions?

Well, it’s ultimately a vacuous statement. It’s like saying, “individual temperature reading of distinct points on the world add up to the world’s weather”. It tells you absolutely nothing meaningful. What you care about is something quite different than some vacuous concept of “the world’s weather”. Is the weather violently volatile, or is it relatively temperate? These questions mean a lot. Does desirism mean a world filled with lot of pain and misery balanced by some pockets of extreme comfort?

Would you be able to cross a river that is “on average, 4 feet deep”? You would be a fool to try based on that information alone, because it could be 20 feet deep in some places.

I think desirism’s micro movement could be virtually indistinguishable from the activity a moral individual uses today. That is, an individual in a successful desirist society need have no special directive or behavior except to act as moral as conscience dictates, he’ll get angry at immoral behavior and act accordingly, he’ll get a warm feeling (oxytocin) when observing courage and honesty and act accordingly, etc.

What I hear you saying is that the desires could be modified more in line with how we’ve evolved to mold desires; that is, via culture. This would be a large improvement. It would require that the moral calculations be performed by some “priest” class who were in charge of defining the culture.

Does this approach, then, avoid the complexity micro/macro issue?

It would help quite a bit, but it still pushes an enormous problem to the priest class. The priests who make up the cultural norms will need to run models, make predictions, and try not to cause more harm than good. Since desirism intends to model desires as quantifiable and dynamic, the parallels to economics become huge. The priests of desirism would basically be macroeconomists.

At this point, it’s important to note 2 things:

1) We humans created and fully control money. The economy is immensely simpler than the web of human desires. Despite being a much simpler problem, economists often fail quite badly at avoiding human misery on the macro scale. Check out this post today from an economist describing some of the popular models used in macroeconomics, and thee problems with these models. I believe that all of these models would be relevant to desirism at a macro level.

2) Microeconomics has very little bearing on macro. Alonzo likes to stay at the micro level and pretend that everything else flows from there, but no complex, adaptive system works that way. Completely independent of the fact that Alonzo’s classical model is a poor analogue for the actual empirical research about how the brain works, it wouldn’t matter if it was better, because it would be irrelevant at the macro level.

@Alonzo:

People are using praise and condemnation as a tool – to mold the malleable desires around them – just as they are using hammers, computers, and language itself.

Wrong. That’s not how desires get molded, and that’s not why people evolved to use praise and condemnation. You’re trying to use a screwdriver to pound in a nail. I already explained what things the tools of praise and condemnation are used for.

While we may dispute over what the difference between the good and poor use of such a tool is, we should be able to agree that false beliefs, superstitions, and pure factual error have no place in the good use of a particular tool.

Well, again, I think you’re wrong. You’re a veritable cornucopia of stubborn prejudice. I can think of 4 potential counterexamples just off the top of my head:

1) As Luke has posted before, belief in libertarian free will, although it is most probably false, seems to help people perform all sorts of tasks better.
2) Mathematician Laszlo Mero has shown that lies in the form of bluffing are not only ethical, but absolutely essential to getting to optimal shared social outcomes.
3) Robin Hanson has argued persuasively that our large brains evolved from the need to impose social norms on others while attempting to slyly evade the norms ourselves — a theory he calls “homo hypocritus”. Thus, hypocrisy may be the very essence of what allows us to understand complex theories like economics.
4) The information age probably would not have happened without the utter obsession that Claude Shannon and Alan Turing had for hiding, secrecy, and deception.

I’m not proposing that lies are always better than truth, but it seems astonishingly simple-minded the argue that false beliefs and superstition never have a positive role to play in human society.

@cl:

I just looked, and I didn’t see any comments in spam or pending. Others seem to be getting through, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something is misconfigured. If you want to e-mail at allenjs626 (gmail), I can post manually.

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woodchuck64 May 7, 2011 at 7:43 am

cl,

Yes. Conflicting permissible desires.

What I mean is that we share an ideal that if individuals become more moral, society becomes better. I was wondering if JS Allen rejects that ideal on the grounds that combined micro movement of moral individuals may not necessarily result in a better macro society.

Why would the source of the desire matter?

My thought as well. Desirism can be practiced exactly like morality is practiced today, which means it is no worse in terms of micro/macro effects than morality practiced today. So I’m wondering if JS Allen’s issue is primarily with the methods of teaching desirism morality rather than something more basic.

JS Allen,

Well, it’s ultimately a vacuous statement.

What I mean is that we tend to have an ideal that if individuals become more moral, society becomes better. If society does not become better, we fault individuals that lack morality, or we may fault our morality itself. I was wondering if you reject that ideal on the grounds that combined micro movement of moral individuals may not necessarily result in a better macro society. I think desirism may makes this assumption, but it’s hard indeed to imagine an alternative (should people be immoral at times for the good of society?)

The priests who make up the cultural norms will need to run models, make predictions, and try not to cause more harm than good. Since desirism intends to model desires as quantifiable and dynamic, the parallels to economics become huge. The priests of desirism would basically be macroeconomists.

That sounds right to me. Lots of challenges, yes, but challenges of a similar nature as creating a stable economy. And we don’t need to call them “priests” since they don’t get directives from a god, but rather, say, “professional moralists” who are experts in the technology of desires and morality.

So if I understand you, basically you see desirism as an economy of desires, perhaps some orders of magnitude more complex than modeling money flow. Fair enough. But that means desirism as a science of morality is at least feasible, and that seems to me to be a massive improvement over anything else (at least from the atheist perspective).

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JS Allen May 7, 2011 at 9:52 am

I think desirism may makes this assumption, but it’s hard indeed to imagine an alternative (should people be immoral at times for the good of society?)

From the perspective of desirism, as currently formulated, yes it would certainly be better for society for people to behave immorally at times. Desirism defines “moral” as being calculated from the perspective of an individual agent doing calculations about how his actions will thwart or encourage desires of agents around him. If people behave according to those precepts (i.e. moral per desirism), it would probably lead to a society where aggregate thwarting and encouragement would look very ugly.

So if I understand you, basically you see desirism as an economy of desires, perhaps some orders of magnitude more complex than modeling money flow. Fair enough. But that means desirism as a science of morality is at least feasible

It would also be totally different from desirism as currently formulated. You would keep the macro definition of “good” that is implied by desirism, and get rid of the micro judgments about how an agent should act in any particular situation.

And that seems to me to be a massive improvement over anything else (at least from the atheist perspective).

It might be better; I don’t know. Let’s pretend for a moment that the micro definitions can be extrapolated cleanly to the macro. In that case, it seems that desirism implies a definition of “good” something like this:

good == everyone in society has the maximum possible magnitude of is non-thwarted desires, and is maximally desirous of encouraging others to have the maximum magnitude of such desires.

And by implication, immoral would be anything that threatened this ideal state.

Is that better? I guess it depends on who you talk to.

Note that I don’t think the current atheist systems are all that bad. People in Sweden and China seem quite capable of pronouncing moral judgment on others, despite being primarily atheist. The whole effort to create “atheist ethics” seems like an invented crisis created by Anglo Saxons who like to brag about how they’ve taken the “outsider test” to get out of their culture.

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woodchuck64 May 8, 2011 at 5:18 pm

JS Allen,

Desirism defines “moral” as being calculated from the perspective of an individual agent doing calculations about how his actions will thwart or encourage desires of agents around him.

I think the above describes a sort of amateur practice of desirism, but is in no way a formal requirement. The formal requirement is that an individual should act according to how a person with good desires acts, and presumably that ideal person’s desires are set forth in a frequently updated hypothetical “Desirism Code”, which is the painstaking work of countless hours of data collection, debate, computer modeling, simulation time, etc. The same DC is also what is used to influence culture at all levels possible, nursery schools, kindergartens, universities, households, governments, etc, I assume. But once Desirism gets through a generation, individuals rarely need to consult the DC at all because their desires have already been molded to match that of the ideal person with good desires. It seems to me you object to what I’m calling an “amateur” practice of desirism more so than the formal approach I would expect to see actually implemented in a society. Now maybe I’m seeing this very differently from Alonzo, I don’t know; but I don’t think so.

It would also be totally different from desirism as currently formulated. You would keep the macro definition of “good” that is implied by desirism, and get rid of the micro judgments about how an agent should act in any particular situation.

On the micro-vs- macro issue, it seems to me that individual morality has a correlation to a society’s stability. Our intuition is that better morality has a direct, simple connection to a better society. Are you saying this intuition is wrong because there is a complex, nonlinear, adaptive relationship between the micro-practices of morality and the macro society’s stability or perceived benefit to an individual, or are you saying that only certain kinds of moral micro-practices are problematic, such as explicitly trying to mold the desires of others around you (rather than just doing what feels right according to your conscience)? I think I hear you saying the latter, but I want to be sure.

Note that I don’t think the current atheist systems are all that bad.

But we don’t have any rigorous methodology to quantify the effects of and influence morality like we do with everything else (health, law, economy, genes, etc.). So to me, that’s unacceptably bad.

Coming to the desirism debate I think there’s two major positions: 1. we need a rigorous scientific methodological approach to morality, and 2. we don’t, evolution and/or God is good enough. If you’re coming from (2), any conceptual difficulty in a desirist approach may easily seem to render the whole thing pointless. Coming from (1), though, I say we just need to think harder and find a way to make it work.

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JS Allen May 8, 2011 at 8:50 pm

It seems to me you object to what I’m calling an “amateur” practice of desirism more so than the formal approach I would expect to see actually implemented in a society.

Correct. Additionally, since we don’t have a clear picture what the idealized outcome of a formal, macro approach would be, we shouldn’t be endorsing that yet, either. Macro desirism might be a brave new world, but it could very well be a terrible world that nobody would want to enter. We can’t naively extrapolate from the micro to the macro, so we shouldn’t assume that the macro is going to look as pleasant as a room with only 3 people who practice the precepts of desirism.

IMO, that’s where you need to start. You need to model what a world run by desirist priests would look like, and then decide if that’s a world worth pursuing. My intuitions tell me that desirism at macro scale would look pretty terrible.

So far, all I’ve seen Alonzo do is make some claims about the micro, and then do a bunch of handwaving about how it all works out at scale. To me, the handwaving looks like the underpants gnomes. There is always this unexplained and highly implausible jump from a micro theory about desires to a greater widespread good.

Coming to the desirism debate I think there’s two major positions: 1. we need a rigorous scientific methodological approach to morality, and 2. we don’t, evolution and/or God is good enough.

I disagree. Swedes and Chinese certainly don’t appeal to evolution or God, and they don’t implement rigorous quantitative methodology about morality, and it seems to work out OK. Morality is a sloppy and dynamic social/political matter, and that’s a good thing. In the last 200 year (a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms), the world has outlawed slavery, Swedes have normalized unwed parenthood and legalized gay marriage, and Chinese have gone from the prudishness of Cultural Revolution to a decidedly liberal stance about sex.

There is a strong argument to be made that evolution and God were always crutches used by evil people to justify immorality. The answer isn’t to replace both with yet another all-encompassing system. Just let people work out their morality socially.

But we don’t have any rigorous methodology to quantify the effects of and influence morality like we do with everything else (health, law, economy, genes, etc.). So to me, that’s unacceptably bad

These are interesting examples. Health, law, and economics are sloppy social/political processes that I wouldn’t describe as “rigorous” at all. And just look at what happened when people started trying to build “rigorous” systems to “improve” DNA. It was called eugenics.

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woodchuck64 May 9, 2011 at 4:48 pm

JS Allen,

You need to model what a world run by desirist priests would look like, and then decide if that’s a world worth pursuing. My intuitions tell me that desirism at macro scale would look pretty terrible.

That’s interesting, because my intuition of desirism in general is that it is quite similar to the way we do a lot of grey-area moral reasoning now, we try to work out costs/benefits. Only, we do it crudely, often without any proven or reliable guidelines to consider.

Swedes and Chinese certainly don’t appeal to evolution or God, and they don’t implement rigorous quantitative methodology about morality, and it seems to work out OK.

I mean that if someone asserts that you don’t need a rigorous scientific approach to morality, they are implying that evolution (and/or God) produced something pretty much good enough. I can understand the position that God produced morality and we shouldn’t mess with it. I can’t find any sympathy for the view that evolution-produced morality should be assumed to be perfect for all intents and purposes. No other evolutionary product has been let off the hook, why should morality be different? The selfish gene may want morality as we experience it today, but humans are quite different.

These are interesting examples. Health, law, and economics are sloppy social/political processes that I wouldn’t describe as “rigorous” at all. And just look at what happened when people started trying to build “rigorous” systems to “improve” DNA. It was called eugenics.

Eugenics as archaic racial hygene would be one of many practices that died out due to changes in human attitudes, the rigor of the approach shouldn’t get blame or credit. Approaches to health, law, economics, gene therapy, etc., all show a clear trajectory towards more rigor, better scientific methodology. I can think of no reason why the approach to morality wouldn’t be the same.

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JS Allen May 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm

I mean that if someone asserts that you don’t need a rigorous scientific approach to morality, they are implying that evolution (and/or God) produced something pretty much good enough.

That’s flatly false. As I explained, the vast majority of people in atheist or secular societies do just fine at morality without needing to start from God or evolution. How do they decide what’s moral? They just decide, then persuade their friends, and band together to push their value systems. Morality formation is a social process.

I’m arguing that an open, transparent, participative, and democratic approach is probably the best. It’s hard to imagine a world where the majority of people would prefer to make their morality dependent on some fallible computer models run by some technocrats in a dark room.

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woodchuck64 May 10, 2011 at 12:31 pm

JS Allen,

As I explained, the vast majority of people in atheist or secular societies do just fine at morality without needing to start from God or evolution. They just decide, then persuade their friends, and band together to push their value systems. Morality formation is a social process.

I’m not sure why that’s incompatible with what I said. If one believes morality evolved, accepting moral feelings as authoritative in some social sense without any intent to use a reliable or rigorous process to test them is also implicitly accepting evolution as authoritative in some social sense. I’m not sure why using morality and thinking it “just fine” is not exactly like saying “evolution is good enough for me”.

This is just like the theistic argument that if reason evolved, and evolution is a blind, unthinking process, we therefore have no reason to trust reason. If that has any appeal to you, my point should as well.

(But as a side note, I personally reject the argument from reason because I don’t see that reason, as a complex system of logical rules, evolved out of plausible alternatives; rather reason is ultimately nothing more than coherency in communication, and if communication evolves at all, the concept of coherent communication must come with it for free.)

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JS Allen May 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I’m not sure why using morality and thinking it “just fine” is not exactly like saying “evolution is good enough for me”.

It’s not the same, because when you make moral judgments, you don’t just consult your primitive instincts. You use all of your accumulated experience, reason, language, etc — in aggregate, what we call “wisdom”. Judgment is a function of wisdom, which is most definitely not a biological appendage.

I just don’t see the benefit of replacing wisdom with some secret decoder ring that is based on yet another grand unified theory cooked up in a fevered academic’s brain.

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woodchuck64 May 10, 2011 at 6:47 pm

JS Allen,

It’s not the same, because when you make moral judgments, you don’t just consult your primitive instincts. You use all of your accumulated experience, reason, language, etc — in aggregate, what we call “wisdom”. Judgment is a function of wisdom, which is most definitely not a biological appendage.

Ah, but I would not call personal wisdom an optimal approach in any sense; it’s a fallback when you don’t have anything more concrete to go on. The best approach is the accumulated, objective, tested, reliable wisdom of a scientific method.

I just don’t see the benefit of replacing wisdom with some secret decoder ring that is based on yet another grand unified theory cooked up in a fevered academic’s brain.

Well, agreed, sure. I would never second-guess the wisdom of my personal experience without an extremely good theory, and that’s what desirism is trying to become.

Thanks for the discussion. I imagine we’ll have more opportunities to revisit these issues in depth in the future.

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Taranu May 16, 2011 at 10:57 am

“Now, desirism is built on motivational states – not pleasure-states. Admittedly, we called it ‘desirism’ because we took for granted an action-based theory of desire.”

What do you mean “for granted”? Are you saying that you just piked and chose an action-based theory of desire, without reasons?

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Lung Cancer Symptoms May 30, 2011 at 4:34 am

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JS Allen August 14, 2011 at 9:48 am

@Luke, @Alfonzo – I found the perfect book to explain what I’ve been saying about the problems with your current model: “Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (Princeton Studies in Complexity)“.

It’s about $15 on Kindle, and you can read the whole thing on a trans-Atlantic flight. It is written for people who do not have a strong math background, and the computation examples are simplified enough that you can follow along with a pencil and paper (no computer skills necessary).

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