Morality in the Real World 10: Questions and Answers #2

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 30, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

In episode 10 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I answer listener questions about episodes 6-9.

Download Episode 10

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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.

ALONZO: Right.

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?

ALONZO: 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”?

LUKE: EEEEPIIIIIICCCCCC!!!!

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Gregg November 30, 2010 at 8:35 am

Regarding Zeb’s question concerning desire & Buddhism in this episode:

Buddhism has several words that have connotations of the English word “desire” and are often translated as such. Zeb stated that the goal of Buddhism is the ending of desire. However, the specific “desire” that is being discussed in the Second Noble Truth is tanha (in Pali, the language in which the oldest Buddhist scriptures are written) which more literally is “thirst”. This is the kind of driving, uncomfortable desire that demands its fulfillment, similar to an addict seeking his or her drug of choice. Other people often translate tanha as “craving” which has a slightly more accurate connotation IMO.

Other Pali words that can be translated as “desire” include cetana (“willing”), chanda (probaby actually closest to the English word “desire”), and some instances of sankhara (“volitional formations”). The ending of “desire” specifically only refers to tanha and not necessarily these other kinds of “desires”.

Although it may seem like I’m splitting hairs here, Buddhism has a fairly complex and technical phenomenological psychology which uses specific terms in specific ways. These distinctions between different “desires” really do make a difference when you start looking into Buddhist psychology.

In summary, the ending of desire in Buddhism doesn’t mean the ending of all “reasons for action”, but instead the elimination of a kind of impulsive craving. I hope this helps clarify this particular issue.

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Garren November 30, 2010 at 10:13 am

Regarding this “reasons that people generally have” phrasing, what is the truth condition for that?

If 55% of people have a reason to X, is it therefore true that “people generally” have a reason to X? If the other 45% have a reason to oppose X, is it still true?

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cl November 30, 2010 at 2:48 pm

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 sa

I advise against that, on the grounds that you’re likely to introduce more confusion over an already-confused and equivocated-upon term: intrinsic value. Why not just drop “intrinsic value” entirely and use “desire-as-ends” or “desire-as-means” wherever appropriate?

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.

It’s much worse than that. In Episode 7, your dismissal was founded on an implausible desire from a hypothetical agent in a make-believe universe, with literally zero reference to any real-world evidence, whatsoever. That is so out of line with everything else you two write about epistemological responsibility that I don’t know what else to say.

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.

Well sure, but that’s a make-believe universe! I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I honestly believe that in the real world, people do not have intentional desires unless they aim to increase well-being, happiness, pleasure, etc. either for the agent and/or other agents. Anyone can falsify this by demonstrating a single example of a real-world desire that does not aim to increase well-being, happiness, pleasure, etc. either for the agent and/or other agents.

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.

I agree, which is why I’m left wondering: if you really believe that, then how on Earth do you justify showering condemnation on practices ranging from smoking to spectator sports? Should we conclude that its okay to condemn whatever “we” or “people generally” don’t like, just because “we” or “people generally” have reason to do so? Where’s the empirical evidence that would justify your use of condemnation in these instances? If none can be presented, is it not reasonable to at least tentatively conclude that you are basing your claims on something besides empirical evidence?

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.

How on Earth is an unassuming querant supposed to make that distinction when the article in question – Desire Utilitarianism – isn’t even dated? You act like we should just somehow know when it is in fact your responsibility to provide that information. This is why I suggested that you simply take five minutes to write up a disclaimer that would clarify these things to newcomers. Your refusal to do so comes across as, “Who cares if people are getting misinformed from undated articles that say the exact opposite of what we’re saying in the podcast?”

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JS Allen November 30, 2010 at 3:27 pm

With respect to the “people” who “seem to be confused” about the word desirism, I’ll go out on a limb and guess that they weren’t confused by the name.

Alonzo presents desirism as a prescriptive system, which, if implemented, would offer people (in his own words):

a set of options that will improve their chances of preventing their children from being raped, their friends from being murdered, and that which they need to survive from being taken or destroyed.

When asked about this quote, he confirmed that this was, indeed, what desirism is about. To me, that sounds like a system that promises to create a better life for people; much like marxism or libertarianism.

On the other hand, compatibilism and determinism don’t promise to protect you from murder, rape, and starvation. So I’m not sure why you think desirism is that sort of -ism.

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Jayman November 30, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Zeb’s question and your answers make me wonder whether desirism is compatible with an entirely materialist view of the mind.

First, you attempt to differentiate between intentional actions and unintentional actions. If materialism is true, what is the difference? That intentional actions occur in our conscious stream of thought while unintentional actions do not? If that’s all the difference is then why restrict oneself to influencing desires? Why not influence others’ unintentional actions as well?

Second, you attempt to differentiate between causal reasons for action and teleological reasons for action. Do you actually believe matter can have a goal or do you think goals reduce to mechanical cause and effect? If the former, how do you square teleology with materialism? If the latter, then there is no real difference between causal reasons for action and teleological reasons for action.

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MikeC November 30, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Point of correction on your comment about Zen Buddhism.

Buddhism identifies desire as a source of suffering and nibbana or nirvana is described in part as a state beyond desire the elimination of desire is not the goal of most zen buddhist practitioners.

To be brief the practice of Zen is to be aware of desires and the effects on yourself and others because of those desires.

Zen Buddhist look towards the idea of a Bodhisattva who do not move into nibbana until all beings are saved. This means they must continue to live here in the world with all the desires that come with that, because without them nothing will be done. This is opposed to the idea of reaching Buddhahood which might be understood in part as casting off desires, but that would also mean no longer participating in the world as we encounter it.

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Alonzo Fyfe December 1, 2010 at 5:03 am

Garren

Regarding this “reasons that people generally have” phrasing, what is the truth condition for that? If 55% of people have a reason to X, is it therefore true that “people generally” have a reason to X? If the other 45% have a reason to oppose X, is it still true?

Regarding baldness. Is it the case that a person with 400 hairs on his head is technically “bald”? What about 399 hairs?

What is true is that the more and stronger the desires for promoting a particular malleable desire, the more and stronger the reasons for action that exist to do so.

If 55% of the people have a reason to X, then there are more and stronger reasons to do X than if 45% of the people have a reason to do X. Just as a person with 55 hairs on his head is less bald than a person with 45 hairs.

But it would be foolish to argue that this distinction makes no sense because it is not possible to identify a specific number of hairs at which point a person says, “if this person, who is not bald, loses one more hair, he will become bald.”

Also note that the “reasons people generally have” does not depend solely on the percentage of the population who have a particular interest. It depends on the strength of that interest, and the relationship that the interest in question has with respect to other interests (does this interest promote or inhibit other desires).

So, if 10% of the population were deathly alergic to nuts, this could very well provide sufficiently strong reason for a social prohibition on the growing, distribution, and consumption of nuts. But if only .000001% of the population is alergic to nuts, this then supports a social response of saying that these few people have a medical problem that does not warrant a social prohibition on the growing, distribution, and consumption of nuts.

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Alonzo Fyfe December 1, 2010 at 10:02 am

JS Allen

When asked about this quote, he confirmed that this was, indeed, what desirism is about. To me, that sounds like a system that promises to create a better life for people; much like marxism or libertarianism.

You write as if it is somehow an inherently illegitimate probject for a community to have a meeting on, “Things we can do to prevent murder and rape”. It is an inherently illegitimate project because the people who come to that meeting are obviously going to come with suggestions on “things we can do to prevent murder and rape”.

On the other hand, compatibilism and determinism don’t promise to protect you from murder, rape, and starvation. So I’m not sure why you think desirism is that sort of -ism..

Morality is concerned, among other things, with preventing murder and rape. A theory of morality is necessarily going to be a theory about preventing murder and rape, in exactly the same way that theories regarding free will (compatibilism, determinism) are going to be theories about . . . the will and whether or not it is or can be ‘free’.

Your absoulute prohibition on any discussion suggesting ways in which murder and rape may be prevented on the ground that all suggestions must constitute an illegitimate advocacy of an ‘-ism’ in the derogatory and negative sense is . . . well . . . unnecessarily and unjustifiably restrictive.

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JS Allen December 1, 2010 at 2:21 pm

@Alonzo – There is nothing illegitimate about discussing new theories that are in the same category as marxism or objectivism. It’s an interesting topic. Desirism is an interesting topic.

Desirism is a prescriptive system that purports to provide for people’s security. So, it’s a lot more similar to marxism than it is to compatibilism. Compatibilism isn’t prescriptive, and doesn’t address people’s security fears.

You seem to be worried that people will find desirism less palatable if they realize it’s a prescriptive system for preventing starvation and suffering, like marxism. I don’t think you need to worry about that — people have always found such “isms” to be interesting. Obfuscating and dissembling by pretending that desirism is just a passively descriptive theory like compatibilism, is going to be counterproductive.

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Godless Randall December 1, 2010 at 3:12 pm

^So, if 10% of the population were deathly alergic to nuts, this could very well provide sufficiently strong reason for a social prohibition on the growing, distribution, and consumption of nuts. But if only .000001% of the population is alergic to nuts, this then supports a social response of saying that these few people have a medical problem that does not warrant a social prohibition on the growing, distribution, and consumption of nuts.^

is there any scientific evidence for this or are we just supposed to take it on faith? where do you draw the line and how?

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Garren December 2, 2010 at 5:03 am

Desirism includes warranted social prohibitions? In that case, I’m looking forward to hearing how Desirism fills in the third step:

1. Explanation of desires in individuals, and how encouraging others to change their desires helps individuals fulfill their own desires.

2. Many individuals have strong desires which would be fulfilled if everyone else changed their desires in a particular way.

3. ???

4. Warranted prescription for everyone to change their desires in a particular way.

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Zeb December 2, 2010 at 10:23 am

Luke and Alonzo

Thanks for answering my question. Would it be fair to say that ‘goals-reasons for intentional action’ are defined as being actions that are motivated by desire and chosen based on beliefs? I think that “goals” is the desire part, and “intentional” refers to the use of beliefs to conceive and evaluate an action that will fulfill the desire. Is there a definition that doesn’t make the claim that ‘desires are the only reason for goals-reasons for intentional action’ tautological? That would be especially problematic if desires are defined as reasons for action, and action is defined as events motivated by desires.

That aside, I don’t understand why you guys are so keen to harp on the claim that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, rather than arguing that actions motivated by desire are the only ones to which morality pertains. I think you could make that argument pretty easily, and it would not look like semantic slight of hand the way your grand claim that desires are the only reasons for action that exist does (to me, at least). What do you think is so important about the claim that desires are the only reason for actions that exist?

I thank Gregg and MikeC for correcting my understanding of Zen. I may have been conflating Zen with Taoism, specifically the concept of wu-wei, often translated as “non-action” (and which I may also misunderstand). I thought this concept was also a part of Zen Buddhism, but that’s neither here nor there. As I understand it, and what seems plausible to me, is that one who engages wu-wei transcends goal oriented intentional action, but does not sink into physical inactivity. At the very least, by their own honest report of their experience, they would say that they acted with no goal or self consciousness (which is what I take you to mean by “intentional”). Would you say that if that is true, they did not really “act”? And if you deny that their report of the absence of goals and intention, why do you accept Alonzo’s report that he turned off the power in order to save electric? From the outside we might fit a narrative of desires and beliefs to their actions, but I don’t see the justification for doing so except possibly as a useful heuristic for making sense what people do.

I think you (Luke) have suggested yourself that the BDI upon which desirism is based is itself based on our evolved intuitional cognitive process for predicting other people’s actions. So even if wu-wei practitioners report no subjective experience of desires, and neuroscience reports no objective observation of beliefs and desires inside the brain which cause action (if eliminative reduction works out), BDI might be useful. Many people will still report experiencing beliefs and desires, and will successfully predict their own and other people’s actions using a BDI model. But free will and A theory of time, which you eagerly denounce, are also narrative constructions that comport with intution and everyday experience and are useful for making sense of and talking about life. Even if BDI is refuted as another inaccurate bit of folk psychology, I think you could still argue that desirism is the correct moral theory; I mean, even if morality is a made up game, it is may be true that desirism is the actual ‘rules of the game’ (I think it is!). I just don’t know why you, an naturalist, are so insistent that “goals-reasons intentional actions” exist as such, or that desires are the only reasons for action (and that they actually do exist).

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Alonzo Fyfe December 2, 2010 at 10:58 am

Garren

1. Explanation of desires in individuals, and how encouraging others to change their desires helps individuals fulfill their own desires.

2. Many individuals have strong desires which would be fulfilled if everyone else changed their desires in a particular way.

3. ???

4. Warranted prescription for everyone to change their desires in a particular way.

I will have to ask what you mean by a “warranted prescription”.

By “warranted”, do you mean “by appeal to reasons for action that actually exist?” In this case, (4) follows from (1) and (2). There is no need for a step three. An appeal to reasons for action that exist and an appeal to desires that exist are the same thing.

On the other hand, by “warranted” you mean “by appeal to some sort of desire-independent special reason for action – intrinsic or supernatural or divine,” desirism says that you can’t get to (4) from (1) and (2) with any type of sound reasoning because there is no true proposition that can be put into step (3).

Those are your only two option.

Your “warranted appeal” statement is either a statement about the relationship between the object of evaluation and reasons for action that exist (desires), or it is false.

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Alonzo Fyfe December 2, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Garren

Let me give the same answer to your question in other terms.

Somebody makes the statement, “You should do X”. This is a prescription, right?

You ask, “Why?”

The answer to this why question can take one of three forms.

(1) It can relate that which is prescribed to a set of reasons for action that exist.
(2) It can relate that which is prescribed to a set of reasons for action that do not exist.
(3) It can relate that which is prescribed to some proposition that does not in any way identify a reason for action.

Now, there is no sensible way in which (2) or (3) can answer the “Why” question.

Option (2) gives you a reason for action that does not exist. “Why should I do X if the reason for action for doing X does not exist?

Option (3) does not provide a reason for action. How can a statement that does not provide any reason for action provide any reason for the agent to do tat which will bring about P.

Option (1) relates that which is prescribed to reasons for action that exist. In this case, nothing else is required. You have related that which is prescribed to reasons for action that exist. What else is there to do? What possible purpose can be served by a Statement 3?

On the other hand, if the answer to the “Why” question to Statement 4 is an Option (1) or option (2) answer, nothing you put in step 3 is ever going to get it to work. You have provided a reason for action that does not exist, or made a claim that does not provide a reason for action. Nothing you put into step 3 in this case will allow it to ever make sense that an answer to a “Why?” question when the answer is a reason for action that does not exist or that which is not a reason for action.

So, your step (3) is either unnecessary when the person is giving a type (3) answer – linking that which is prescribed to reasons for action that exist.

Your step (3) is difficult to fill when the peson is giving a type (1) answer or type (2) answer. Desirism SAYS that it is impossible to fill. It makes no sense to point to the gap at (3) in these types of cases and say that Desirism fails when Desirism itself says that there is a gap at (3) in these cases that cannot be filled.

But it also says that it makes perfectly good sense – without putting anything in option (3) at all and to leave it blank – when the answer to the question relates that which is being prescribed to reasons for action that actually exist.

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Garren December 3, 2010 at 5:05 am

Alonzo

I used “warranted prescription” in reference to your phrase “warrant a social prohibition,” so thanks for clarifying what you mean by warrant in this context.

What I’m hearing is that we as a community are justified in making statements like “Stealing is wrong” only if — and to the extent that — real reasons exist to avoid stealing. And the only real reason to avoid stealing would be that desires are, on balance, better fulfilled than thwarted by not stealing.

(If you’re wondering why I insist on rewording things a bit, it’s because I’m wary of positions relying too much on verbal formulas rather than a solid idea that can be talked about in different ways. *cough* trinity doctrine *cough*)

If I have the right idea above, then I think “desire utilitarianism” is still a very apt description. Bentham’s first chapter On the Principle of Utility can be read as a structural twin to your system, with “desire fulfillment” and “desire thwarting” put in for “pleasure” and “pain.” Like so:

“By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the desire fulfillment of the party whose interest is in question

…if that party be the community in general, then the desire fulfillment of the community: if a particular individual, then the desire fulfillment of that individual.

…The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is, what?—the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.

…An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility […] when the tendency it has to augment the desire fulfillment of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.

…Of an action that is conformable to the principle of utility one may always say either that it is one that ought to be done, or at least that it is not one that ought not to be done. […] When thus interpreted, the words ought, and right and wrong and others of that stamp, have a meaning: when otherwise, they have none.

…Admitting any other principle than the principle of utility to be a right principle, a principle that it is right for a man to pursue; admitting (what is not true) that the word right can have a meaning without reference to utility, let him say whether there is any such thing as a motive that a man can have to pursue the dictates of it”

Likewise, much of the criticism of Desirism matches an obvious criticism of Bentham’s hedonic utilitarianism. Namely: if pleasure (or states of affairs with greater desire fulfillment) is the only reason for action for individuals, and “right” and “wrong” have no legitimate meaning without such a basis, what is the relevance of right or wrong for the community — considered as a “fictitious body” — to an individual? Since the community is not a real person weighing its own balance of desire fulfillment, no real reason for action exists based on the outcome of such a procedure.

Maybe you don’t think you’re aggregating Bentham-style, but phrases like “many and strong reasons exist” or “reasons people generally have” act as appeals to the overall balance of desire fulfillment/thwarting in a community when you draw conclusions from them about community-level reasons for action (e.g. a nut allergy prohibition).

Let’s take a step back a moment. Individuals have personal desires which give them reasons to act. No argument there. But a big question in ethics is whether morality provides individuals with any reason to act that goes beyond their personal desires. A lot of what you write implies a big: NO! (Not the answer most folks want to hear, but probably a harsh truth.) Pointing out that other people have other reasons to act — no matter how many of them and how strongly they feel about it — doesn’t change the “NO!” answer.

So if a person has reason to tell many lies, that’s the end of the story. Pointing out the fact that a bunch of other people have reason to want him to avoid lying provides no reason for him to avoid lying. If it were true instead that a bunch of other people had reason to want him to lie, this fact provides no reason for him to lie. The “many and strong” calculus is entirely reason-inert. Why bother with it?

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Garren December 3, 2010 at 7:22 am

Quick illustration:

Let’s say I want an ice cream cone. You want the same ice cream cone more intensely. However, I don’t care at all about you. Is there any reason for me to let you have the ice cream cone which weighs against my desire to take it for myself?

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Alonzo Fyfe December 3, 2010 at 7:42 am

First, an apology. I wrote the post above when I should have been asleep (and was more than half asleep at the time). I hope that one can sort through the confusions that it is with option (1) a statement (3) in Garren’s formula is unnecessary, and with options (2) and (3) there is nothing that anybody can put into position of statement (3) in Garren’s formula that would make for a sound argument, and statement (4) is false.

Garren

garren

What I’m hearing is that we as a community are justified in making statements like “Stealing is wrong” only if — and to the extent that — real reasons exist to avoid stealing.

Actually, no. This doesn’t work. It divorces an act (stealing) from the desires that motivate the act. It is foolish to evaluate actions independent of desires because the only possible way to get somebody to DO something else (assuming all relevant beliefs are true) is to get the person to WANT something else. However, desires are persistent entities, so changing the desires that a person would have in this situation will change the desires he has in a wide range of other situations, which will carry with it a number of consequences – each of which can be evaluated in terms of desires thwarted or fulfilled.

Because of this dependency of action on desire, a statement like “stealing is wrong” is justified only if people generally have many and strong reasons to weaken the desires that would motivate a person to steal under those circumstances.

Remember, “stealing is wrong” is a statement of condemnation. Condemnation is a tool for weakening or strengthening desires. So the statement “stealing is wrong” is justified only invirtue of whether reason for action exists for weakening or strengthening those desires.

garren

If I have the right idea above, then I think “desire utilitarianism” is still a very apt description.

I don’t think so because “desire utilitarianism” requires that “utility” – measured in terms of pleasure or happiness or preference satisfaction – is the end of all human action. Alph, in desiring that Pandora continue to exist, is not seeking utility. He is seeking the continued existence to Pandora. And the proposition, “Pandora continues to exist” cannot be reduced to a utility statement.

I have certainly been tempted by this reduction. However, I have come to view it is a mistake. Alph’s desire to gather stones and Betty’s desire to scatter stones are not interests in “utility”, they are interests in gathering or scattering stones.

…The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is, what?—the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.

A community is a fictitious body composed of individual persons in the same sense that a table of a fictitious entity, composed of individual atoms.

Now, I deny that a community is, itself, a person with its own beliefs and its own desires. The only desires that exist are the desires of individuals. There are no “desires of communities” distinct from the desires of individuals to consider – none that can be fulfilled or thwarted.

An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility […] when the tendency it has to augment the desire fulfillment of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.

…Of an action that is conformable to the principle of utility one may always say either that it is one that ought to be done, or at least that it is not one that ought not to be done. […] When thus interpreted, the words ought, and right and wrong and others of that stamp, have a meaning: when otherwise, they have none.

This is the part that I think is mistaken. The only way that act-utilitarianism is even possible is if you could create humans that had only one desire – a desire to maximize utility. He cannot have a desire for chocolate, love his children, enjoy a sunset, or have an interest in philosophy, or even have an aversion to pain or want sex, because any desire at all other than a desire to maximize utility will, at times, motivate the agent to perform some action other than maximize utility.

It just . . . can’t be done. And, of course, “ought” implies “can”, so “cannot” implies “it is not the case that one ought.”

Likewise, much of the criticism of Desirism matches an obvious criticism of Bentham’s hedonic utilitarianism. Namely: if pleasure (or states of affairs with greater desire fulfillment) is the only reason for action for individuals

“states of affairs with greater desire fulfillment” are not reasons for action.

Desires are reasons for action.

Desires are propositional attitudes – a “desire that P” is an attitude that “P” is to be made or kept true. A desire that P is an agent’s reason to act so as to make or keep “P” true.

His goal is not “desire fulfillment”. His goal is “a state of affairs in which P is true”.

The statement “stealing is wrong” is simply a statement that, if you look at a community of individuals, the desires that they have provide many and strong reason to use the tool of social condemnation to weaken those desires that would result in stealing.

what is the relevance of right or wrong for the community — considered as a “fictitious body” — to an individual?

Possibly none. You cannot make a valid inference from, “People have many and strong reasons to use the tools of praise and condemnation to give people an aversion to X” to any type of conclusion about what is of concern to any given individual.

Anybody who says that such an inference can be made is mistaken. Any theory that reports that it can make that inference is a theory that must be discarded, because this is not true.

Desirism states that there is no way to make a valid inference from the desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote/inhibit to what is of concern to any given individual.

If it turns out to actually be possible to make such an inference, then desirism is false and must be rejected.

But the fact that no legitimate inference can be made does not change the fact that people still do have many and strong reason to use the tools of social praise and condemnation to alter those desires. That fact remains. Even though cannot draw a legitimate inference to “what is of concern to the individual” it remains the case that people generally have many and strong reason to condemn that individual.

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Alonzo Fyfe December 3, 2010 at 7:51 am

Garren

Let’s say I want an ice cream cone. You want the same ice cream cone more intensely. However, I don’t care at all about you. Is there any reason for me to let you have the ice cream cone which weighs against my desire to take it for myself?

It depends on what you mean by “reason for me”.

If you mean, “Is there a reason that I have, or that merely knowing of its existence, would motivate me to let you have the ice cream cone”, the answer is “No.”

You stipulated that fact when you said, “I don’t care at all about you” – meaning, I assume, not only that you have no interest in helping me fulfill my desire but it would not even be useful for you in any way – say, as a way of paying me to fulfill some other desire.

However, if you mean, “Does a reason exist for others to cause in me a change of desires to those that would be fulfilled by my letting you have the ice cream cone,” the answer is “Yes”. My desire for the ice cream cone gives me a reason to use social tools such as praise in condemnation to cause others (such as you) to have a desire to give up ice cream cones to others who want it more.

Now, by your original assumption, the use of those tools has failed. You do not, in fact, have the desires that I have reason to cause you to have. As a result, you will not let me have the ice cream cone as a matter of fact. But it is still the case that I have reason to use social tools such as praise and condemnation (and ‘a good person will offer the ice cream cone to those who want it more’ is one of those statements of praise) to promote this type of generosity. And it still makes sense to talk about (make true and false claims concerning) the statements of praise and condemnation that people in a community have a great many and strong reason to make.

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Alonzo Fyfe December 3, 2010 at 8:19 am

Garren

According to desirism, any theory that states that the mere fact that I have a desire that P creates within you a reason to make it the case that P is true (to fulfill that desires) will have to be rejected.

My desire that P does not create in anybody a reason to see that my desire is fulfilled.

It creates in me a reason to use social tools such as praise and condemnation to cause others to have desires that would result in P being filled. But those reasons do not appear automatically in virtue of the fact that I have a desire that P. They appear only through a successful application of these social tools such as praise and condemnation.

If somebody were to demonstrate that this is false. If somebody were to demonstrate that, in fact, my desire that P immediately creates in you a reason to act so as to make or keep P true, then they will have proved something that desirism says is false.

In fact the whole practice of praise and condemnation would be unnecessary if this were true. We would not need to use these tools. We would simply point out that people have a desire that P and everybody else would automatically have a reason to make it the case that P is true. But the real world does not work that way. The claim that such an implication exists is false.

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Garren December 4, 2010 at 5:28 am

Alonzo

Your responses have been helpful (even when half-asleep).

I’m now seeing a strong analogy here to evolutionary theory. Desirism appears to be non-teleological in the sense that there’s no end goal of “correct” desires (and therefore actions). Instead, Desirism is a description of the system by which desire frequencies change over time in a population, i.e: “many and strong” desires lead to many and strong expressions of moral praise and condemnation which in turn mold desires in the population.

So Desirism itself does not give prescriptions. Prescriptions are part of the system Desirism describes.

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Keith December 5, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Alonzo and Luke:

You included a question of mine in this podcast (thanks!), and I’d like to say a quick word about your response.

My original question had to do with desires being ends in themselves. I suggested that most (if not all) desires may turn out to have the pursuit of pleasure as their ultimate end. Alonzo responded by asking what could possibly justify pleasure as an end, and why shouldn’t other properties also be justified as ends, too.

My justification is not philosophical, but physiological. I strongly suspect that, once we understand the brain more fully, the simple desire for pleasure will turn out to be the basic engine of all other desires.

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Alonzo Fyfe December 6, 2010 at 7:28 am

Keith

My justification is not philosophical, but physiological. I strongly suspect that, once we understand the brain more fully, the simple desire for pleasure will turn out to be the basic engine of all other desires.

I am curious to know why you think this may be the case.

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