In episode 10 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I answer listener questions about episodes 6-9.
Every five episodes we answer audience questions, so please do post your questions and objections below. Make sure your questions address the topics of this episode only. If we plan to address the subject of your question in later episode, we will not answer it in the next Q & A episode. You can also leave your question in audio and we will play it back during the Q & A episode and respond to it: call 413-723-0175 and press 1 to leave a voicemail.
Transcript of episode 10:
LUKE: Alonzo, about the script for today’s episode…
ALONZO: What do you think. Great, right?
LUKE: Well… It’s 109 pages long.
ALONZO: People had a lot of good questions.
LUKE: That would take hours!
ALONZO: Well . . . yeah. But they’re good questions!
LUKE: They are, but I think most of them will have to wait until future episodes.
ALONZO: You always say that.
LUKE: Yeah, but that’s because most of them will have to wait until future episodes.
ALONZO: If you say so. In that case, one of the first things I want to say has to do with how anxious some people are to have us get into talking about morality. It’s the question that is on everybody’s mind. “What does this have to do with morality?”
LUKE: Yeah. But be careful, Alonzo. As soon as you say, “Here is morality,” the whole conversation is gonna change.
ALONZO: Right. Well, without saying anything about morality, I just want to say that, in these first episodes, we’re going to be talking about malleable desires and the number and strength of the reasons that people generally have – not each person individually has but people generally have – to promote certain desires and inhibit others – and the actions that a person who has desires molded in such a way would or would not perform.
LUKE: But we are not going to talk about morality.
ALONZO: Not in so many words, no. Or, should I say, not in so few words.
LUKE: On that note, let’s get started with today’s set of questions.
ALONZO: Okay. One of the things that I want to mention is a confusion that seems to have resulted from the use of the term ‘desirism’. The comments suggest that some people might take the term ‘desirism’ to be some sort of new social movement – like fascism or communism or libertarianism or Ayn Rand objectivism.
LUKE: I think the person who coined the term “desirism” was thinking of something more like foundationalism or coherentism in epistemology, or determinism versus compatibilism in the free will debate. These types of ‘isms’ describe theories about things.
Here’s a good example: geocentrism versus heliocentrism. Both theories aim to explain the apparent motion of the planets. One says that the earth is at the center of the solar system and the other says that the sun is at the center of the solar system.
ALONZO: Right. And desirism is a theory that explains the elements of morality: elements like negligence, excuse, the use of praise and condemnation, obligation, prohibition, permission. It’s not a social movement, it is a theory that aims to provide a systematic account of something that is a significant part of our lives.
LUKE: And, just like we learned to explain the motion of the planets without the need to postulate that there are angels pushing the planets around, we think the best account of morality doesn’t require any gods or angels either. It requires desires, some of which can be molded through the use of social tools like praise and condemnation.
ALONZO: Which means that if anybody came here looking for the next social movement to belong to where we’re all going to move into a commune in South America and drink cool-aid; well, you’ve got the wrong podcast.
LUKE: You know, there was another word issue that came up in the last few episodes as well, about the term ‘intrinsic value.’
ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.
LUKE: Was that a sound clip from Episode 7?
ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.
LUKE: Okay, Alonzo. Enough, now. Anyway, one of our commenters, Kip, pointed out that another meaning of the phrase ‘intrinsic value’ is ‘value as an end’, whereas ‘instrumental value’ would be ‘value as a means.’ For example, money has value to me, not because I care about money itself, but because money is a means toward getting things I really do care about: sex, for example. So we might say that money has ‘value as a means’ for me, but sex has ‘intrinsic value’ or ‘value as an end’ for me.
So, yes, that’s another common sense of what the phrase ‘intrinsic value’ means – value as an end. But we’re just using it in a different sense, and I hope we were clear about that.
ALONZO: One reason I don’t like to use the phrase ‘intrinsic value’ to talk about something that has value as an end is that you end up having to say that something has intrinsic value because of something extrinsic to it, which is really weird. For example, if ‘intrinsic value’ means ‘value as an end’, then I would have to say that playing certain computer games has ‘intrinsic value’ not because of anything intrinsic to playing computer games, but because of the extrinsic fact that I have a desire in my brain to play them.
Intrinsic value is a form of value that depends on an extrinsic property? That sounds a lot like ‘war is peace’ and ‘slavery is freedom’.
LUKE: Yeah. So in this podcast, I think we will continue to use the phrase ‘intrinsic value’ to mean ‘value that exists as a property intrinsic to that which is being evaluated.’ It doesn’t depend on anything outside of itself. And, as it happens, we don’t think anything has that kind of intrinsic value.
ALONZO: Desire fulfillment has no intrinsic value.
LUKE: Yes, Alonzo. We heard you.
ALONZO: On this subject, I got a question through email that said:
“If something has ‘no value’, then it is valueless. Right? Is ‘valueless’ the same as ‘worthless’? I’m sure that isn’t what you mean but you could come across that way.”
This question came in response to our assertions that in the universe where Alph only wanted the moon Pandora to continue to exist, Alph’s own continued existence had no value. Alph’s well-being had no value.
LUKE: It sounds like you are saying that, in Alph’s universe, Alph’s well-being is worthless.
ALONZO: Well, yes it is, in Alph’s world. Our well-being is worth quite a bit to us. But Alph has no reason to assign any worth to his well-being. The only thing in Alph’s universe that is worth anything is the continued existence of Pandora.
LUKE: Because that’s the only thing that is desired in that universe.
LUKE: Here’s another distinction I want to make. Garren wrote in the comments for Episode 8:
“I’m having a hard time distinguishing Desirism from Rational Egoism with an awareness that manipulating the desires of others is an available method of getting what one wants.”
ALONZO: Well, rational egoism doesn’t just say that we act so as to fulfill our own desires – or so that we get what we want.
Rational egoism also says that the only thing we want – or the only thing we should want – is what helps us.
An egoist would say that Alph’s desire that the moon Pandora continue to exist isn’t possible because everybody only wants that which benefits them, and the continued existence of Pandora does not benefit Alph. That’s called ‘psychological egoism’.
Or, the egoist would claim that even though desires such as Alph’s are possible, they are not legitmate. Alph should shun those desires in favor of desires that benefit him. That is called ‘ethical egoism’.
LUKE: And desirism does not support those claims. Desires like Alph’s desire that Pandora continue to exist are psychologically possible. And also, there is no ‘intrinsic legitimacy’ built into any desires. The rational egoist talks about some ‘intrinsic legitimacy’ of selfish desires that does not exist.
ALONZO: Now, moving along to comments by Zeb. Zeb expressed concern with the question, “What is an action?” We have stated that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. When we say this, what do we mean by ‘action’?
Zeb says, and I quote:
“Automatic actions like breathing or blinking are clearly not the result of desire. If you somehow define those out of “action,” what about an athlete’s actions during intense points in a game, which seem to be just as automatic as blinking and breathing? Besides involuntary reflexes, aren’t instincts, compulsions, and routines also reasons for action separate from desire?”
LUKE: I think this is a great point because we talk about “reasons for action” but of course lots of actions happens automatically, without any intentional reasons at all, for example breathing and blinking. So we should clarify that when philosophers talk about ‘reasons for action,’ they only mean ‘reasons for intentional action.’ They just don’t use the whole phrase because ‘reasons for action’ is already long enough! And of course breathing and blinking are (usually) not intentional actions. You do not intend to breathe, most of the time. You just breathe, automatically, and you continue to breathe even while you’re asleep. So yeah, it’s good point. Just to clarify, when we say ‘reasons for action’ we mean ‘reasons for intentional action.’
ALONZO: It’s true that habits – which are among those things that Zeb called actions that “seem to be just as automatic as blinking or breathing” – habits do raise problems for a belief-desire theory of action. But we’ll have to discuss that in a later episode.
Habits exist, and they keep getting tangled up with our intentional actions. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that a habit may be a causal reason for action, but, whether we classify them as intentional or unintentional, a habit is not an end or goal reason for action.
LUKE: Alonzo, I think that’s an important distinction that we need to spend a lot more time on.
ALONZO: I agree.
Here. Basically, if somebody asks you why you turned off the power, they aren’t looking for a causal reason for your action.
LUKE: Why did you turn the power off?
ALONZO: “Well, because a neural impulse caused my arm to move in such a way so as to place my finger near the power switch at which point another impulse caused my finger to move the switch to the ‘off’ position.”
LUKE: Smart Alec!
What I’m really asking for is a goal-reason. What was your goal? Your aim? Your purpose? What was your objective?
ALONZO: Assuming the power switch was to my television, I could say that I turned it off because I was done using it and didn’t want it burning electricity. My goals have to do with not spending money on electricity that was not providing me with a benefit.
On this measure, habits provide causal reasons for our action. However, habits do not provide goals or purposes. This means that habits are not ‘goals-reasons for action’. They do not provide the types of reasons for action we talk about when we say that desires are the only reasons for action that exist – which are goals-reasons for action.
LUKE: So by ‘reasons for action’ we really mean ‘goals-reasons for intentional action,’ I guess, but that’s way too cumbersome. So we’ll just keep saying ‘reasons for action.’
Anyway, there was a second part of Zeb’s question. Zeb also asked:
“What about the occasions where people would claim to have eliminated desire, as in Zen Buddhism for example?”
Now on this issue, Alonzo and I and others who defend a Humean theory of motivation will simply deny that anyone can intentionally act without desires. I also doubt it is possible for anyone to have completely eliminated desire from their lives, because on my view, that would mean they never intentionally act.
ALONZO: I agree with that. Rocks do not have desires. Neither do corpses. If you are performing intentional actions – if you are eating, going to the bathroom, even intentionally sitting still and going through a meditation ritual – then you haven’t gotten rid of your desires. Something is motivating you to do those things.
LUKE: Moving along to our next question. In episode 7, we said we don’t believe intrinsic value exists because that hypothesis doesn’t explain anything that we observe. Joel pointed out that some philosophers think intrinsic value theory explains some of our moral beliefs.
ALONZO: They may think that, but is it true?
LUKE: Well, this is something else we will talk about in future episodes that look more closely at other moral theories. But for now, I’ll just say that moral beliefs are much better explained with reference to evolutionary and cultural forces than by intrinsic value theory. We don’t need to posit anything so strange as intrinsic value to explain our moral feelings and beliefs.
ALONZO: Speaking about the failure of other moral theories, in episode 7 and elsewhere, several people haven’t liked our occasional suggestions as to why other moral theories fail. They think that our dismissal has been too quick and not entirely fair.
LUKE: Well, we haven’t really discussed other moral theories yet. We do intend to provide a more thorough discussion of competing theories, but not until later. When we make a remark in these episodes addressing other moral theories, it should be taken as . . . well, a bit of foreshadowing. What we say now gives a bit of context for those future shows.
Which leads up to another claim we made in Episode 7 – that desires are the only reasons for action that exist.
ALONZO: We’ve actually said that a lot. It’s one of those major pillars of desirism. Kick that one over and the whole system comes down.
LUKE: Well, one commenter – Tmp – does not want to kick it over. But he does remind us:
“But desires are (directly) reasons for action only for agents that possess them, yes?”
ALONZO: Yes. Absolutely. Every once in a while I get accused of claiming that desires directly create reasons for people who do not have the desire. That’s not true at all. Just to be explicit, my desires are my reasons for my action, your desires are your reasons for your action, Tmp’s desires are Tmp’s reasons for Tmp’s actions.
LUKE: My desire for coffee is not a reason for action that you have to get me some coffee. It’s a reason for action I have to get me some coffee.
ALONZO: But it is not only a reason for action that you have to get some coffee.
It’s also a reason for action that you have to give me an aversion to stealing your coffee, or an aversion to shooting coffee drinkers. It’s also a reason for action that you have to give me a desire to respect the freedom of coffee drinkers to drink coffee, or a desire to help coffee drinkers to get some coffee if they have broken their legs and can’t get it for themselves.
LUKE: Now, Alonzo, on this next point, a lot of people have commented that what we’re saying now sounds different from some writing on morality you did a couple years ago.
ALONZO: I changed my mind.
LUKE: Are you allowed to do that?
ALONZO: I hope so. I keep learning things. I have even learned some new things as a result to comments made to this podcast. People who have commented on earlier episodes have already forced me to rethink a couple of things that I said.
LUKE: Do you have an example?
ALONZO: We goofed on the Scrooge episode. Threats and rewards are not a different kind of thing from changing their beliefs or their desires. Threatening somebody means changing their beliefs – making them believe that you’re going to whack them if they don’t do what they are told.
LUKE: Well that episode is done. You can’t go back.
ALONZO: I know. I could go back and hunt down everything I have written in the past, but I’m having a hard enough time keeping up with my workload as it is. People just have to realize that if it is something that I wrote 5 years ago, it just might be 5 years out of date.
However, something else that happens is that I sometimes find better ways to explain things. I try one explanation, and I discover that it leads to confusion or misinterpretation. So, the next time I discuss that topic, I try something else. I abandoned that earlier way of explaining things to avoid certain confusions.
LUKE: Yeah, me too. I’ve changed a couple things about how I explain desirism because my earlier attempts led to lots of confusion. There will always be some confusion, but I try to avoid it when I can.
ALONZO: The fact is that avoiding confusion requires some trial and error. It’s not until after something has been written or said that you discover just how confusing it is.
LUKE: A case in point is Yair’s long comment claiming that we misrepresent some utilitarian philosophers.
Here’s what happened. We mentioned Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer in episode 7. Yair thought we said, for example, that Peter Singer thinks preference satisfaction has intrinsic value.
What we actually did was put that claim in the mouth of a hypothetical questioner so that we could respond to a different point – in particular, the claim that we are saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, which is false. So I can see how it looked like we claimed those things of Bentham and Mill and Singer, but that’s just not what we were doing.
ALONZO: We should also say that of course there are many interpretations of what those philosophers were claiming.
For example, Mill claims that happiness is the only thing that has value. In his writings, he also says that happiness is the only thing that is desired. We could interpret this in a way that is compatible with desirism. We could say that the only way something can have value is to be the object of a desire, and then interpret Mill as claiming that happiness is the only thing that is desired.
But then we get into G.E. Moore’s objection that Mill fails to distinguish between what is desired and what ought to be desired.
From Moore’s objection, it seems we have to interpret Mill not only as saying that happiness is the only thing that is desired, but that it has ought-to-be-desiredness built into it. That is, happiness has some sort of intrinsic value property.
Of course, Mill then says that there are different types of happiness with different values built into them. What are we supposed to make of that?
LUKE: Yeah. So anytime we actually attribute philosophical positions to certain people, we have to be pretty careful, but that’s not what we were trying to do in episode 7.
ALONZO: Ah, but I loved Yair’s post. I’ve got it filed away. If we get an opportunity to discuss Bentham and Mill and Singer, I’ll be referring back to it.
LUKE: Yes, we’d very much like to have more comments like that one.
Now, on this idea of things being confusing, Kevin talked about our analogy between measuring desires with a desire-o-meter and measuring temperature with a thermometer. He said:
“I suppose my biggest problem is that temperature can be measured outside of human perceptions, but morality, it seems, is still restricted to whatever desires conscious beings may have, which seems to indicate that morals aren’t some ‘real natural property’ of the world, but rather the by-product of whatever desires a conscious entity happens to have. Am I interpreting this wrong?”
ALONZO: First, our intention here was to provide a counter-example to the claim that a current inability to measure something implies a permanent inability to measure it. We wanted to show that this inference is false.
LUKE: Well, there is also something to be said about this claim that the desires of conscious beings may not be ‘real natural properties.’ We wouldn’t say that the brain stem is not a real natural property.
ALONZO: But that is a part of the physical structure of the brain.
LUKE: Yeah, and what I would claim is that desires are a part of the physical structure of the brain as well. Statements about the brain are statements about how the brain is wired and, as such, they are real, natural properties.
ALONZO: That’s the way that I see them. They are affected by things in the real world through the kinds of normal cause-and-effect relationships we see among things in the real world. And they cause other things, such as intentional actions.
LUKE: Right. The desires of conscious creatures are fully natural things. Desire is not a spooky, supernatural thing. It is a kind of brain state – a certain configuration of physical matter. That’s all-natural.
ALONZO: Another commenter, joseph johan, also made a comment about measuring desires:
“Can we not measure the strength of our own desires, whatever they are? Can we not, in virtue of a shared human condition, make credible estimations as to the desires of others in a wide variety of cases?”
Well, there is some reason to believe that this is now how it is done.
Knowing our own desires doesn’t give us much of a survival benefit. Desires can still motivate action without us being aware of them.
However, knowing the desires of others is very useful, because it helps us predict their behavior. In fact, one popular theory today is that we learned how to infer others’ desires first, and we use the same process to infer what our own desires are. But that’s getting a bit beyond the scope of this podcast.
LUKE: Yeah, so next question: in Episode 8, Keith raised the point:
“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.”
ALONZO: Ah, but where does pleasure get its justification? Are we going to say that pleasure has its own built-in, intrinsic justification? If so, how does that work? If pleasure has no built-in justification, then what is there to prevent things other than pleasure from being worthwhile as well?
Actually, we will be discussing pleasure-based theories of desire in our next string of episodes. Certainly, pleasure has value. It is one of the things that people seek. But any non-spooky way of arguing that pleasure can be an end will make it awfully strange to argue that pleasure is the only thing that can be an end. We’ll discuss that in more detail in a few episodes.
LUKE: Alonzo, I think we’re stopping here.
ALONZO: What? I still have 105 pages to go!
LUKE: We’ll have to get to that stuff later, okay?
LUKE: Which means . . . . We finished our first 10 episodes! That’s… EPIC!
ALONZO: Well, I dunno about “epic.” Don’t you just mean “good”?
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- “Hanging” from Plunkett & Macleane by Craig Armstrong
- “Escape” from Plunkett & Macleane by Craig Armstrong
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