Morality in the Real World 11: The Claims of Desirism, Part 1

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 8, 2011 in Ethics,Podcast

Morality in the Real World is back for Season Two!

In episode 11, Alonzo Fyfe and I explain the first 10 claims of desirism, setting up the next several episodes (in which we will defend these claims).

Download Episode 11

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Transcript of episode 11:

ALONZO: Hey, Luke, we’re back!

LUKE: It’s been a while.

ALONZO: Ah, but it was time well spent.

LUKE: Yes. Yes, it was. For the sake of our listeners, we should explain what we’ve been doing. What we’ve been doing is: research. This next season, these next 10 episodes, are about the nature of desire, so Alonzo and I have been catching up on the current literature on the subject, from both philosophy and neuroscience.

ALONZO: And you are still sending me more stuff to read than a person can have time to read.

LUKE: You’ll find the time.

ALONZO: I’ll try. For today, however, I would like to catch our listeners up by taking a moment to review what happened in Season 1. In Season 1, we told stories about Alph and Betty and used them to present a set of ideas on what desires are and how they relate to each other.

LUKE: I think that was a good introduction, but of course it was a bit . . .  imprecise. Our readers have been asking for more detail and clarity, and I think we should give it to them. Only then will they be able to see whether desirism stands up to criticism or falls in the face of attack.

ALONZO: Attack? Desirism?

LUKE: Heh, you talk like it’s your little baby.

ALONZO: Well, yeah. I’m human. When I was in graduate school, I came up with the idea that we can understand morality a lot better if we see it not as a system of right and wrong actions, but as a system of good and bad desires. I’d really like that idea to be worth something. It’s not always easy to listen to criticism.

That’s a danger that honest people have to take seriously – this disposition that people have to blind themselves to flaws in a position that they like.

However, like we said in Season 1, I really don’t want to present an idea and have people accept it if it is wrong. I don’t want to contribute to making things worse for people, even as I tried to make things better. Desirismultimately needs to be able to stand up to criticism, or it needs to be discarded as just another foolish idea.

LUKE: Yup. So let’s get into the specifics of desirism. Let’s talk about what desirism actually says, and how desirism could be proved false.

ALONZO: Sure, but desirism makes a lot of claims. It makes claims about desires and intentional action, about praise and condemnation, claims about things like negligence and excuses and moral responsibility, about right and wrong action, just to name a few. These are all claims that might be false. We can’t cover them all at once.

LUKE: Okay, so, we break it up into parts. In this next set of episodes that we’re calling Season 2, let’s look at what is obviously a core concept of desirism: desire. What is a desire? How does it operate? How do we even know that desires exist? Once we have a grasp of what a desire is, we can move on from there. And then later, we can look back and compile the full list of claims that we want to defend.

ALONZO: Except, I am betting that, before we get too far, we will be discovering claims that we want to change. Our listeners are going to want to raise questions or objections about some of those claims, and in some cases they are going to be valid criticisms.

LUKE: I hope we get some good objections from our listeners. I mean, obviously we didn’t get this theory from God on Mount Sinai. I think it’s almost certain there are mistakes somewhere in our thinking about desirism, and it would be useful to have some listeners point out those mistakes.

ALONZO: Well, I’ve made a few changes over the years, what’s a few more?

LUKE: You know, before we begin I do want to make one thing clear. In the next 10 episodes we’ll be discussing some of the leading theories of what desire is, but we have to remember that these are basically theories of what desire is in humans. These are theories about what desire is in a particular species of mammal on a particular speck of dust in a vast universe.

ALONZO: Right. Humans came up with these ideas about beliefs and desires because they needed to be able to explain and predict the behavior of other people – other human beings. It is a theory built for that purpose. It’s an open question at this point whether those ideas have any use outside of that specific need. Heck, it’s an open question at this point whether it’s the best theory even for serving that need.

LUKE: And that’s fine. First we’re going to explain what our claims are in terms of how desires work in humans – in terms of human psychology. And this will give our audience something they can grab on to, because desire in humans is what we’re most familiar with, obviously. Later, we’re going to revisit these claims and try to show that they work just as well when applied to other possible implementations of desire, in “animals, aliens, and artificial agents,” as you might say.

ALONZO: In other words, we will eventually argue that this theory does have validity outside of its primary goal of explaining the intentional actions of human agents.

LUKE: Right. Anyway, let’s get started. Let’s look back at those earlier episodes where we told stories and made analogies and so on, and let’s pull out the exact, precise claims we were trying to make.

For example, in Episode 3, we told the story about Alph with his one desire to gather stones. If we were to generalize what we said in that episode, I suppose it would be something like this: Desires provide agents with reason to act so as to bring about that which is desired.

ALONZO: We could actually get a bit more technical than that. All desires can be expressed in the form of an attitude towards a proposition whereby the agent seeks to act so as to make or keep true the proposition that is the object of their desire.

LUKE: Alonzo, I know what you just said because I have been around this subject for a while. But could you please break that up a bit and show us how that all fits together?

ALONZO: That was our project during that first season. In that case, we said that Alph had a desire that he gather stones. This meant that Alph had motivating reason to make or keep true the proposition, “Alph is gathering stones.”

All desires can be expressed in the form of an attitude towards a proposition – such as the proposition “Alph is gathering stones.” Another proposition we used in Season 1: “The moon Pandora continues to exist.”

A couple of other examples of propositions that can be objects of a desire are – “I am having sex with Penny” – or – “the human race survives for at least several billion years.”

All desires motivate agents to choose those actions they believe would make or keep those propositions true.

LUKE: So, what if I can prove that desires, like gods or fairies, don’t really exist?

ALONZO: Well, if you can come up with a theory of intentional action that does a better job of predicting and explaining human behavior, and that theory has no room for anything like desires, then you have killed desirism.

LUKE: Or maybe desires do exist, but they don’t work the way that we say they do. Maybe all desires aim for pleasure or happiness or something. That’s different than what we’ve claimed. We’ve claimed that desires can aim for all kinds of things – like the desire that the moon Pandora continue to exist.

ALONZO: Right. In those types of cases, showing that desirism is wrong will not defeat desirism, but it will require that the theory be modified to some extent. Desirism still works even if all of us only have one desire – a desire for happiness, for example. But it doesn’t work the way we have claimed it does.

LUKE: So, what do you say to this being our first claim: Beliefs and desires exist as propositional attitudes. That is to say, they are mental states that constitute an attitude towards a proposition.

ALONZO: I’d have to make one slight change. Remember, we had to distinguish between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means. Means are the useful tools for getting what one ultimately wants, while ends are what one ultimately wants. So a desire-as-end is a desire for something as an end, not as a means to something else that is desired. Using that distinction, it would be more precise to say:

Claim Number 1: Beliefs and desires-as-ends exist as propositional attitudes.

LUKE: Okay. Now, more specifically, what is a belief?

ALONZO: Well, that’s our second claim.

Claim Number 2: A belief is an attitude towards a proposition that takes the proposition to be true.

So the statement “I believe that there is some chocolate cake in the kitchen” says “I have a mental attitude towards the proposition ‘there is some chocolate cake in the kitchen’ that takes that proposition to be true.”

LUKE: Okay. And how does that differ from a desire?

ALONZO: Well, we’ll make this our third claim.

Claim Number 3: A desire-as-end is an attitude towards a proposition that causes an agent to seek to create or preserve states of affairs in which that proposition is true.

The statement “I desire that I am eating a chocolate cake” says: “I have a mental attitude towards the proposition ‘I am eating a chocolate cake’ that causes me to seek to make the proposition true – or keep it true if I am already eating a chocolate cake.” In other words, it says, “Get up off your duff you lazy oaf and get yourself some chocolate cake!”

If I am eating chocolate cake, but I have had my fill, I would say, “I don’t want any more” or, more technically, “I no longer have a desire that I am eating chocolate cake. I no longer seek to keep true the proposition, ‘I am eating chocolate cake.’”

LUKE: And we might be wrong about these claims. Lots of philosophers think that these claims are false. They say that beliefs and desires are other types of things, or that beliefs and desires don’t exist at all. In fact, there isn’t really any consensus right now. There are quite a few theories of belief and desire that are serious contenders.

ALONZO: There isn’t a consensus over which theory will turn out to be correct, but there is a ‘leading view” or a “standard view,” and that is the view we are defending here. The standard view is that there are brain states – beliefs and desires – and that they explain our intentional actions. An agent acts a particular way because he has desires for particular ends and beliefs that pick out the means for realizing those ends.

I desire to eat chocolate cake. I believe that there is some chocolate cake in the kitchen. I get up and go to the kitchen so that I can make true the proposition “I am eating chocolate cake.”

LUKE: It sounds to me like you are adding another claim here.

Claim Number 4: Intentional actions are best explained in terms of an agent’s beliefs and desires.

ALONZO: Well, that’s how the standard view goes.

LUKE: Okay. But, Alonzo, I don’t go to the kitchen every time that I want some cake and believe there is cake in the kitchen. So I don’t always seek to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of my desires. What’s going on there?

ALONZO: Well, that’s because you have a whole slew of desires – not just a desire for chocolate cake. Some of those desires are telling you to stay on the couch. You might be comfortable sitting on the couch and want to stay there. If that’s true, fulfilling the most and strongest of your desires could mean staying on the couch. However, in that case, if somebody were to bring you a slice of chocolate cake, you would eat it.

LUKE: But not if I had an even stronger desire to. . .  have 6-pack abs for the ladies, I suppose.

ALONZO: That’s true. Which brings me to:

Claim Number 5: An agent chooses to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of the agent’s desires-as-ends, given the agent’s active beliefs.

Which means that even if you want chocolate cake, but you want to impress the ladies with your ripped figure even more, your belief that there is chocolate cake in the kitchen will not motivate you to get any. This is because you also have a belief that having the cake will contribute to making you fat, and that would thwart your stronger desire to impress the ladies.

You are acting so as to fulfill the most and strongest of your desires.

LUKE: Given my active beliefs.

ALONZO: Well, sure. You act as if the things that you believe are actually true – as if your beliefs are an accurate model of the world. Remember, a belief is an attitude that a proposition is true. If you desire to eat some chocolate cake and believe that there is some chocolate cake in the kitchen, assuming you had no competing desires, you are motivated to go to the kitchen for some cake.

But what if you’re wrong? What if there is no chocolate cake in the kitchen?

You don’t know this, so you are still motivated to go to the kitchen for some chocolate cake. Ultimately, this won’t fulfill your desire for chocolate cake, but you don’t act so as to fulfill your desire for chocolate cake. You act to fulfill your desire for chocolate cake in a world in which your beliefs are true and complete.

LUKE: Okay, but you said “active” beliefs. Does that mean there’s another kind of belief called an “inactive” belief?

ALONZO: It sure looks that way. We need to speak about active beliefs to account for those times when something slips your mind – when you forget something.

LUKE: Hmmmm.

ALONZO: Certainly, this has happened to you. You’re getting ready to go some place. You fix yourself some coffee to drink along the way, you put it in a cup with a safety lid on it so it won’t spill, and you set it on the table. Then you go and do something else for a minute, and when you leave, you leave the coffee cup on the table.

It’s still there. You don’t even think about it until you get a mile or two down the road.

Now, you didn’t stop believing that the coffee was on the table. If somebody asks, “Where is your coffee?” you know exactly where you left it. This isn’t something you need to learn, it is just something you need to remember. An inactive belief is sitting there in the back of your mind, waiting to be recalled, and it doesn’t influence intentional action until it is recalled.

LUKE: Okay, that makes sense.

ALONZO: Next, there is another fact about desire that is important to desirism that doesn’t actually get talked about much. It will turn out to be important that many desires-as-ends don’t change very quickly. In other words:

Claim Number 6: Many desires-as-ends are persistent.

LUKE: “Persistent.” What do you mean by that?

ALONZO: Persistent . . .  like my nephew when he wants a cookie. He won’t leave me alone. He just won’t go away. Well, a desire-as-end is usually going to stick around. If you hate spinach today, then chances are good that you will hate spinach tomorrow. You can’t just suddenly like spinach for an hour because your mother-in-law is serving a spinach souffle, and then go back to hating spinach after dinner.

LUKE: But Alonzo, think about this. Let’s say I desire to drink what is in the glass in front of me. Then you tell me the glass isn’t full of water; it is full of antifreeze. Well, my desire to drink that liquid in the glass will disappear immediately!

ALONZO: Your desire-as-means to drink what is in the glass will disappear immediately. Your desire-as-end to satisfy your thirst is persistent. You’re still thirsty. You simply came to realize that drinking the contents of the glass will not fulfill your desire-as-end to quench your thirst, or you realize that drinking the liquid will thwart more and stronger desires than not drinking the liquid.

Desires-as-means are combinations of desires-as-ends and beliefs. Your desire-as-means to drink the contents of the glass is a combination of your thirst, which is a desire-as-end, and your belief that the contents of the glass will quench your thirst. If you change that belief – and beliefs can change in an instant like that – then your desire-as-means to drink the contents of the glass changes in an instant as well. However, your desire-as-end doesn’t change so easily.

LUKE: Is that another claim? Desires-as-means are combinations of desires-as-ends and beliefs?

ALONZO: Sure. We’ll throw that one in there.

Claim Number 7: In addition to desires-as-ends, there are desires-as-means: desires for states that, given one’s active beliefs, will lead to the fulfillment of an end. Desires-as-means are constituted by desires-as-ends and beliefs.

LUKE: So, when my belief that the glass contains water changes in an instant, then my desire-as-means to drink what was in the glass changes too, but my desire-as-end – my thirst – does not go away. I start looking for something else to drink – something I think is good, clean water.

ALONZO: Right.

LUKE: Okay, and I would like to add a claim that David Hume is famous for, that “reason is the slave of the passions.”

ALONZO: I certainly accept that. You can’t deduce a new desire-as-end from reason alone. There is no set of premises that doesn’t already include a desire-as-end somewhere within them that entails a new desire in the conclusion. So:

Claim Number 8: There is no valid argument that contains a desire in the conclusion that does not contain a desire in the premises.

LUKE: Right. Or, this is how the philosopher Neil Sinhababu puts it: “Desires can be changed as the conclusion of reasoning only if a desire is among the premises of the reasoning.”

The example I use to explain this is to think about the person who is argued into becoming a vegan. That looks like reason alone led her to change her desires-as-ends, but I don’t think that’s what happened. Instead, the argument convinced her that becoming vegan is the best way to fulfill other desires she already has, for example her desires for animal welfare.

There are no desires that are “rational” except in that they can be rational in relation to other desires you already have. You can’t get from reason alone to desires-as-ends. You can’t get there from here. As Hume said, “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

ALONZO: I find it interesting that Hume gets all the credit for this. However, we can find the same thing even in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Book III. 3, 1112b):

We deliberate not about ends, but about means. For a doctor does not deliberate whether he shall heal, nor an orator whether he shall persuade, … They assume the end and consider how and by what means it is attained, and if it seems easily and best produced thereby.

LUKE: So you can’t change what an agent desires as an end by changing their beliefs or by “reasoning” with them. But you can change what an agent does by changing their beliefs. Changing their beliefs changes their desires-as-means, even if it doesn’t change their desires-as-ends.

ALONZO: Well, sure. If intentional action really is a consequence of beliefs and desires-as-ends then, if you want somebody to act differently, one way to do that is to change their beliefs. Another is to change what they desires-as-ends.

Claim Number 9: To change an agent’s intentional actions, you need to change the agent’s beliefs, or the agent’s desires-as-ends, or both.

LUKE: Right. My intention to go to the kitchen is premised on my desire to eat chocolate cake and my belief that there is chocolate cake in the kitchen. If Sally wants to get me to choose some other course of action – to go to the bedroom instead of the kitchen, for example – she can do so by making me believe there is chocolate cake in the bedroom instead of in the kitchen, or by making me believe that something even better than eating chocolate cake will happen if I go to the bedroom.

ALONZO: Or she can change your desires – so that you no longer desire chocolate cake, for example.

LUKE: Well, but Alonzo, why are we talking about changing people’s desires as ends? We already said that you can’t reason somebody into changing those types of desires.

ALONZO: We can’t change a person’s desires as ends by means of reason alone. That doesn’t imply that we can’t change desires-as-ends. Let me add:

Claim Number 10: Praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment can, in many cases, change – that is, weaken or strengthen – desires-as-ends.

I am not talking about how promising a reward or punishment can change people’s behavior by giving them new beliefs – beliefs that they will earn a reward or receive a punishment.

Instead, what I’m talking about is something psychologists have found. They’ve found that rewarding or punishing someone can actually change their desires. Parents already know this. They use reward and punishment not only to change how their children behave today, but also to change what the children genuinely want to do in the future, or when the parent isn’t around to monitor them. Parents use praise and condemnation in the hope that their kids will come to have certain desires – for example, desires to be kind to people and to succeed in life through hard work and creativity.

LUKE: But praise and condemnation don’t instantly change what people desire as an end. Sometimes, praise and condemnation doesn’t have any effect at all.

ALONZO: Exactly. That’s what we said before. Desires-as-ends are persistent. They are not easily changed. But they can still be changed – well, some of them can.

LUKE: You know, Alonzo, it seems to me that this last claim actually belongs in a different category from the first nine claims.

ALONZO: How’s that?

LUKE: Well, as we went through these claims, I kept asking myself how each one would apply to animals, for example. Or to an alien civilization, or to an artificial agent if we actually get an artificial agent that is that sophisticated. The first nine claims all seem to be things that we would have to apply to animals, aliens, and artificial agents as well as to humans. But, we humans might be the only creatures wired to respond to praise and condemnation the way we do. Well, maybe some animals as well – it always seemed like my dog responded to condemnation – but we might not find anything like that in aliens or artificial agents.

ALONZO: So, what are you saying?

LUKE: Well, just that I want to make that distinction. I think that I can argue later that the first nine claims apply to animals, aliens, and artificial agents as well as to humans. But I’m not so sure about the tenth one. That one might be specific to certain kinds of creatures like highly social primates that developed sophisticated language capacities, for example.

ALONZO: Okay, that’s noted.

LUKE: But let’s not get into that right now. For now, let’s focus on whether these ten claims are true of humans.

There is some controversy surrounding all of these claims, and any of them could be false. And if somebody wants to falsify desirism or, at least, force a major revision of the theory, then they can do that by showing that one or more of these claims is false.

ALONZO: I agree that, even though I think these claims are true, they are not obviously true. A great many good thinkers will raise objections against them. We want to look at these claims and look at what reasons exist for thinking they are true, and what reasons exist for thinking they are false.

LUKE: Right, and that’s what we want to explore next. What do today’s leading philosophers and scientists say about these claims?

ALONZO: Good. So Luke: same place, same time next week?

LUKE: Same place, same time.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Polymeron February 8, 2011 at 6:15 am

I generally accept these claims, though I think the mechanisms of desire change require much more research and better understanding.

I’m particularly uncomfortable around the fuzzy relation between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means. I think that, our brain working associatively as it does, we often come to solidify desires that were originally means, as ends unto themselves – forgetting the original reasoning. It can also be the case that a belief connecting desires has become inactive, but the desire-as-means remains active – which makes it function more like a desire-as-end.

I think the whole means/end part of theory is useful, but rough. It will probably need to be revised at some point in favor of a more comprehensive understanding of how desires and reasoning interact.

  (Quote)

Luke Muehlhauser February 8, 2011 at 6:50 am

Polymeron,

I agree that associations in the brain can turn a desire-as-means into a desire-as-end. That doesn’t conflict with anything we’ve said here, I don’t think.

I’ll have to think more about your second suggestion, that a desire-as-means can remain active even as a belief belonging to it has become inactive.

  (Quote)

Yair February 8, 2011 at 8:55 am

I am rather disappointed in that I want to get to what desirism says rather than its underlying assumptions. And it doesn’t seem like we’ll be doing this this season. Oh well. As for the points themselves – I find them rather standard, as you yourself say. While we’re at it, however, is is my commentary on your claims:

Claim Number 1: Beliefs and desires-as-ends exist as propositional attitudes.

Ehmmm… Don’t they exist as neural patterns that may, or may not, have an effect we’ll describe as a “propositional attitude”? Beliefs and desires are constituted by their role in our decision making process about mental/neural structures that roughly correspond to “propositions”; not by the vague behaviorist term “attitude”.

Claim Number 2: A belief is an attitude towards a proposition that takes the proposition to be true.

That interpretation leaves no room for “degrees of belief”, which is the very foundation of your Bayesian epistemology. I’d suggest picking up a more Bayesian definition.

Claim Number 3: A desire-as-end is an attitude towards a proposition that causes an agent to seek to create or preserve states of affairs in which that proposition is true.

That’s true of all desires, not just desires-as-ends.

Another key aspect that’s missing here is the strength of the desire.

What I’d really like to see is evidence that there are indeed desires-as-ends, rather than simply general “desires” that we construct. Is there a core of desires-as-ends that creates new desires, or are new desires created spontaneously? Are created desires compared to desires-as-ends by the relations of “means to” or simply by their intensity? Can they come to override and supplant the “desire-as-ends” that originated them? In which case, the division seems rather pointless.

Assuming there are desires-as-ends, I’d also like to see evidence on the structure and nature of such desires. Are there constant or nearly uniform desires (like, say, for sex)? Can these be altered and how are they determined? How large and significant are they in people’s lives, in comparison with other desires-as-ends and desires-as-means?

I’d also like to know the psychology of desires – is psychological hedonism correct? Is it possible for us to seek to make proposition A correct in the world if we don’t, on the level where the decision is ultimately made, derive pleasure from such a course of action?

Claim Number 4: Intentional actions are best explained in terms of an agent’s beliefs and desires.

I don’t understand why you’re insisting on keeping out what I consider to be another key ingredient – rationality. Intentional actions are best explained in terms of an agent’s beliefs, desires, and modes of reasoning.

Claim Number 5: An agent chooses to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of the agent’s desires-as-ends, given the agent’s active beliefs.

See? Told you you’re missing desire’s strength.

Also – it appears to me desires can be active or dormant just as much as beliefs can.

How can you measure a desire’s strength in a non-circular fashion? Isn’t the determining factor fame-in-the-brain rather than “strength”? Just what is this “most and strongest” supposed to mean? Don’t desires add up their strength, so that lots of weak desires can overturn a strong one? If so – where’s the evidence, and is the summation linear or logarithmic or what? How are desires evaluated in time – if doing X will fulfill desire A at time t1 but doing Y will fulfill desire B at t2, what shall I choose? There are a lot of open questions here I’d like to know the answers to.

Claim Number 6: Many desires-as-ends are persistent.

It certainly appears that way. The key information I’d like to know is whether there is a Normal set of persistent desires-as-ends (including Normal intensities thereof); i.e. if people have something like a Normal distribution of particular basic desires that determine much of their motivations.

Claim Number 7: In addition to desires-as-ends, there are desires-as-means: desires for states that, given one’s active beliefs, will lead to the fulfillment of an end. Desires-as-means are constituted by desires-as-ends and beliefs.

I very much doubt that desires-as-means are constituted by desires-as-ends and beliefs. They may be constructed by an analysis based on them, but it appears to me that once established they stand on their own as independent “desires”.

Claim Number 8: There is no valid argument that contains a desire in the conclusion that does not contain a desire in the premises.

Yes, but the is-ought-gap claim here is somewhat stronger – the conclusion desire’s strength needs to be derivative from the desires in the premises, in some sense.

This also doesn’t quite exhaust the is-ought-gap. I think my favorite formulation would go something like “There is no way to convince a rational person to act in a certain way that doesn’t appeal to his desires”.

Claim Number 9: To change an agent’s intentional actions, you need to change the agent’s beliefs, or the agent’s desires-as-ends, or both.

This is the one I think misses out the most – again, you’re neglecting the agent’s ways of thinking. You just had an interview with that rationality-guy all about that, man! Why would you do that if you didn’t think changing our way of thinking is going to change our intentional actions? I personally believe that changing people’s ways of thinking to be more skeptical and rational is the best way to change their behavior in the issues I’m concerned with (religion in schools, acceptance of science, freedom, and so on).

Claim Number 10: Praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment can, in many cases, change – that is, weaken or strengthen – desires-as-ends.

I’d like to see evidence of that. They can certainly change behaviors, but can they truly change desires as ends?

Also – can’t other things? Like education, reflection, meditation, psychological treatment, political and social philosophy, literature…

Overall, I mostly agree with the claims – and I’d like to see some details and evidence added. What I am missing from this series, however, are the moral claims of desirism, and in particular the claims about morality – what is good? Why? What is that definition useful for, or what makes it correct? I’m rather disappointed you haven’t inserted these in, and apparently won’t be dealing with them in this “season” at all. These are the “heart” of desirism. It might make sense to you to set down the foundations properly, but I’m at the point where I’d like to know whether, given whatever assumptions desirism wants about desires and whatnot – will it be useful for anything, and if so what? Only once this questioned is answered is there really any point in investigating whether these assumptions, or something sufficiently close to them, are true.

  (Quote)

paul corrado February 8, 2011 at 10:57 am

Thanks for starting the new episodes! You two are great … and Yair, great job on adding to the discussion.

What i am currently interested in is separating the desires as ends and the desires as means. I think we as a individuals or society can have some positive impacts on what means we use to get to an end desire and what resources (money, time and so on) are used (and how they are used) to get to these. Good means to an end are the desires we should “turn the knobs up” on. It is much easier to change the means to the end than the core or end desire.

We all have different ways of fulfilling the desire of significants for example (something we all crave to some extent). This desire is the end desire but the desires we have leading up to this really make a big difference. If we had the recourses we could get significants by purchasing a yacht (shows status and takes a lot of recourse to create), by purchasing a rare but already existent item such as the licence plate “1″ that was recently purchased about 14 millions in Dubai. This item has no value other than showing people you have power, excess wealth or significants. this item also takes no recourse away from producing other more desire fulfilling items the way the yacht does. (it technically could psychologically make people that do not have this feel they are not successful) You can also get the desire fulfilled by giving to a great charity and accepting praise and getting your significants this way. This would probably fulfill the most desires assuming that money for the “1″ licences went to a less useful cause. The world would have a lot more end desires fulfilled if we turned the knobs up on means desires that used the least resources to get to the end desires. We have not evolved to be supper efficient in regards to fulfilling the desires of all minds so we must take that into account as some seemingly bad means may work best with our irrational brains.

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Kip February 8, 2011 at 11:32 am

I look forward to hearing about any research you came across in regards to whether value-monism (we only have one desire-as-end) or value-pluralism (we have multiple desires-as-ends) is most likely true. Do we only value happiness/pleasure? Or do we actually value-as-ends the things that we also derive happiness/pleasure from? [I'm familiar with Alonzo's argument for value-pluralism, and it does seem convincing, but I'd like to see some more evidence for this.]

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Luke Muehlhauser February 8, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Yair,

> Don’t they exist as neural patterns…

Right. More broadly, we call them “brain states.” Whether or not these brain states genuinely qualify as propositional attitudes is of course debated… and that debate is the subject of episode 18. ‘Attitude’ in this case just means ‘disposition to act’, however that turns out to be implemented in a neuronal system. Using Marr’s levels, we’re describing the computational level whereas the neuronal structure you’re talking about refers to the systems level and especially the implemenational level.

> That interpretation leaves no room for “degrees of belief”, which is the very foundation of your Bayesian epistemology. I’d suggest picking up a more Bayesian definition.

I read that sentence as being comfortable with degrees of belief, but you’re right… we may want to add “… that takes the the proposition to be true to a certain degree of confidence” in order to be clearer. Thanks!

Concerning your comments on claim #3, recall that these are the bare-bones claims, and we explain what they mean in more detail in the rest of the episode, and in future episodes. Part of the evidence for a division between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means comes from the fact that some of our desires seem to be very stable, whereas others change the instant that one of the beliefs related to that desire changes, which suggests that it was not just a ‘basic’ desire but really a combination of a basic desire and a belief, and so when the belief changed, the combination of the two took on a different value.

Many of your questions will be addressed in as much detail as is currently possible when we start talking about the neuroscience of desire, in this season.

> I don’t understand why you’re insisting on keeping out what I consider to be another key ingredient – rationality. Intentional actions are best explained in terms of an agent’s beliefs, desires, and modes of reasoning.

Beliefs are the end products of reasoning. For our purposes, we need only mention the beliefs.

> This is the one I think misses out the most – again, you’re neglecting the agent’s ways of thinking. You just had an interview with that rationality-guy all about that, man!

Changing someone’s ways of thinking is a way of changing their beliefs. We need only talk about the changing of beliefs.

> What I am missing from this series, however, are the moral claims of desirism, and in particular the claims about morality – what is good? Why?

We haven’t gotten to that. We need to lay the foundations first because, as you’ve demonstrated in this comment, people have lots of objections and questions even before we get to the specifically moral claims.

Thanks for your comment, Yair. We’ll be responding to your questions in the upcoming episodes, including the episode 15 Q&A episode. Yours is exactly the kind of comment we were hoping to get!

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Luke Muehlhauser February 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Kip,

Right. Our position on value pluralism is, I think, supported by recent neuroscience. We’ll certainly be covering that.

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Steven R. February 8, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I was starting to miss these episodes! Now I have more than I can chew. I spent my whole morning going through what Luke wrote and now to try and decipher what Yair said (not because what he said doesn’t make sense but because I have no expertise in this and am not familiar with the terms used here).

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paul corrado February 8, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Steven, I am with you. as soon as i think i get something i have to take a few steps back. Lots of ideas that are not intuitive to me.

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Martin February 9, 2011 at 5:40 am

Question on claim 10 and praise and condemnation in general:

Why would people (or ALF) be motivated to seek praise and avoid condemnation? Don’t they necessarily need to have a desire (as ends?) for praise in order to take it into consideration?

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Zeb February 9, 2011 at 8:24 am

Regarding claim #10, is this an appropriate time to ask, “Does desirism generally promote violence?” Maybe you want to wait to talk about desirism’s actual proscriptions, particularly proscribing punishment, or the promotion of desires that tend to cause violent acts.

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James gradstu(pid) February 9, 2011 at 11:14 am

Luke,
Have you read anything in the philosophy of social sciences that cover some of the basic claims you are making or presupposing, such as whether intentional states of agents have explanatory value, whether something like utility can be quantified or compared across agents, etc.? Check this widely used textbooks out by a fantastic naturalist: http://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Social-Science-Alexander-Rosenberg/dp/0813343518
No science of morality can hope to succeed when its proponents are ignorant whether they are merely repeating the past mistakes of other philosophers/scientists!

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Luke Muehlhauser February 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Zeb,

Right, we haven’t gotten to that yet.

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JS Allen February 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm

#10 seems to be simply describing operant conditioning, which is used on animals. So I don’t think it’s unique to humans.

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Peter Hurford February 9, 2011 at 9:44 pm

The one thing I’m curious about is how desire theory explains things like the misplaced coffee cup.

True story: I was going from a building to another building, and I calculated the shortest path and had a desire to take it. I still, however, mindlessly drifted off onto the longer path I take to other buildings — the path I usually take by habit.

Did I just thwart my own desire, given my beliefs? Or is there another lurking desire at work? Is it just a fluke? Basically, is there any account for how beliefs become inactive, given that I desire my beliefs not to become inactive?

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AL February 10, 2011 at 12:14 pm

@Peter – It could be a conflict between different desires, i.e. between a “try novel shorter path” desire and a “keep status quo/resist change/home-sweet-home” desire. Or something like a “do not expend mental energy on this” desire.

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cl February 10, 2011 at 4:04 pm

[...snoring...]

Yair,

You pretty much said everything I would have said in response to the claims, and then some. Good job.

I am rather disappointed in that I want to get to what desirism says rather than its underlying assumptions.

Ditto. With the possible exceptions of #8 and #6, every single claim in this post was a claim that had already been stated over a year ago. Perhaps Luke and Alonzo felt the need to rehash things, but it still feels like a momentous exercise in stringing us along. The experience is not unlike suffering through an eight-hour movie that could have been distilled to a single hour.

Kip,

I look forward to hearing about any research you came across in regards to whether value-monism (we only have one desire-as-end) or value-pluralism (we have multiple desires-as-ends) is most likely true.

Ditto. Months ago, I supplied Luke with counter-questions challenging his claim that value-monism is false. I also re-articulated these questions several times since then. To my knowledge, he never answered them. For example: Why would Luke desire to run through flowers, unless of course running through flowers was instrumental in making him or somebody else happy? Why would Luke desire to have a compassionate child, unless of course it was instrumental in contributing to his child’s happiness, or the happiness of other sentient creatures? Etc. Luke seems to affirm Carrier’s value monism.

Luke,

Can you answer these questions when you get some time? Or, if you have and I’m simply unaware, can you point me to the answers? It shouldn’t take months.

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Garren February 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm

‘Or, this is how the philosopher Neil Sinhababu puts it: “Desires can be changed as the conclusion of reasoning only if a desire is among the premises of the reasoning.”’

I liked this.

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Jonas Kölker February 11, 2011 at 12:20 am

Thanks for another great podcast! :)

A few comments:

Regarding claims two and three (“A belief is an attitude towards a proposition that takes the proposition to be true.” and “A desire-as-end is an attitude towards a proposition that causes an agent to seek to create or preserve states of affairs in which that proposition is true.”):

These claims sound like definitions to me. If they are not the definitions of belief and desire-as-end, respectively, and you want to argue that these non-definitional claims are true, you will need to refer to other definitions of belief and DaE. Which definitions of these terms do you use?

How does claim one relate? If 2 and 3 form a definition, is claim 1 part of that definition, then? Or is it a theorem? If so, it looks rather trivial: “A belief is an attitude with properties A, B, C and D. Therefore, a belief is an attitude”. If it really is a claim, again, what’s the definition of belief and DaE?

About claim four, “Intentional actions are best explained in terms of an agent’s beliefs and desires.”, I think you need some measure of the goodness of an explanation. Do you sit down with a collection of agents and their beliefs, desires, then make predictions about their actions, and then see how many of the predictions come true? How do you measure and weigh the specificity of the predictions? “Alph will not commit suicide” is a predictions, but it’s one that’s true about (I’m guessing here) at least 99% of all humans on every given day. That seems like an “easy win” if it is to be considered a win at all. In fact, it seems like it’s too easy. Also, what are the relative predictive merits of desirism versus “past (observed) behavior predicts future behavior”?

Claim five, “An agent chooses to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of the agent’s desires-as-ends, given the agent’s active beliefs.”, seems to imply claim four: if this is really true, then you’re implying that beliefs plus DaEs perfectly predict actions, which presumably covers the contents of claim number four.

On claim six: define many.

Thanks again for a great podcast :)

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cl February 11, 2011 at 10:08 am

To expand on Yair’s criticisms regarding point 10: “Praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment can, in many cases, change – that is, weaken or strengthen – desires-as-ends.”

I’d like to see evidence of that. They can certainly change behaviors, but can they truly change desires as ends?

I agree with you there, and I, too, am frustrated with growing penchant for bare assertions in this discussion. Although, there is another point that I think falls by the wayside, and it’s implications are important: often, it is the case that condemnation backfires by strengthening desires-as-means. In particular, I see this happen when the agent being condemned is convinced of the their own moral correctness. Do not subsets of certain persecuted groups–gays, as one example–tend to derive strength and conviction from the condemnation heaped upon them? I see this at work in my own life: I tend to thrive off haters and naysayers. I certainly examine all accusations to determine whether or not they have a grain of truth, but at the end of the day, when I get labeled a “racist” or “troll” for simply speaking my mind, it doesn’t tend to “turn down the dial” on my desire to speak my mind. Rather, the dial goes up. To me, these points warrant skepticism regarding the use of condemnation: how do we really know who to condemn? In particular, for Luke and Alonzo who claim we ought to eschew intuition in these matters, where is the empirical science that would justify, say, Alonzo’s condemnation of smokers, fans of “trash TV,” and parents of obese children? It seems to me that Alonzo just shoots from the hip in this regard. I see that as a blatant contradiction, given the stated penchant for empirical foundations and the eschewing of intuition.

Also – can’t other things? Like education, reflection, meditation, psychological treatment, political and social philosophy, literature…

Most certainly. Barring psychological treatment, I have seen my own behaviors change in response to each of these things. Prayer included.

What I am missing from this series, however, are the moral claims of desirism, and in particular the claims about morality – what is good? Why? What is that definition useful for, or what makes it correct? I’m rather disappointed you haven’t inserted these in, and apparently won’t be dealing with them in this “season” at all. These are the “heart” of desirism. It might make sense to you to set down the foundations properly, but I’m at the point where I’d like to know whether, given whatever assumptions desirism wants about desires and whatnot – will it be useful for anything, and if so what?

I concur wholeheartedly. Personally, I’m a fan of cutting to the chase. Literally, most of these claims are present in Alonzo’s writings from 2005. Speaking of which:

NOTE TO NEWCOMERS:

Though it remains extant and still comes up in the top of Google searches, Alonzo’s essay Desire Utilitarianism is 6 years old, and contains claims that are no longer central to the theory. You would never know this from looking at it, because it is not dated. So, peruse at your own risk. Stick to this podcast or the Wiki for the most recent version of the claims.

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Peter Hurford February 13, 2011 at 6:43 pm

@AL:

You say that the reason I took the path I did not desire to take was potentially because of “a conflict between different desires, i.e. between a ‘try novel shorter path’ desire and a ‘keep status quo/resist change/home-sweet-home’ desire. Or something like a ‘do not expend mental energy on this’ desire.”

This makes me wonder whether we act on our strongest desire (given our beliefs) or whether whatever we act upon is our strongest desire (given our beliefs) by definition. There’s a distinction to be made there, and I’m starting to think desirism ends up with something similar to the second.

For the coffee cup example, I certainly didn’t desire to leave without it, and I certainly didn’t desire to forget about it. I suppose you could answer this with a “do not expend mental energy on this” desire, but I don’t desire to have that desire.

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@cl on condemnation:

I agree with you, in part. I think condemnation has to come from people you respect and/or with reasons you respect. For example, you’d be far more responsive to “Don’t smoke because it is bad for your health and everyone around you” than “Don’t smoke, you stupid idiot”. Condemnation can also make simple appeals to stronger desires, such as the desires to be healthy and not harm people you care about, for example.

I don’t think it is quite the same with praise, but I feel better knowing exactly why people are praising me than with a generic “Good job”.

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@cl on changing desires-as-ends:

I think desires-as-ends are very difficult to mold through condemnation. However, I would speculate that most desires-as-ends are adopted socioculturally when growing up, and could be molded then.

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JS Allen February 13, 2011 at 9:55 pm

This makes me wonder whether we act on our strongest desire (given our beliefs) or whether whatever we act upon is our strongest desire (given our beliefs) by definition. There’s a distinction to be made there, and I’m starting to think desirism ends up with something similar to the second.

Yes, I think you’ve nailed it.

I think desires-as-ends are very difficult to mold through condemnation. However, I would speculate that most desires-as-ends are adopted socioculturally when growing up, and could be molded then

Desires as ends are typically molded through operant conditioning. For very young children, the praise and condemnation of parents are tremendously effective instruments of operant conditioning. As people get older, the instruments often change, but the mechanism (operant conditioning) remains.

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Bernie (Bernard Oppenheim) March 11, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Great series of podcasts, Alonzo and Luke. I’ve just started reading them (listening to them would take much too long, though I’m missing most of the fun) and I’ve decided to pick up the gauntlet and enter the fray.

A problem I’m having with desirism is that it seems to overlook what underlies desires. Why do we have desires? Desires are psychological, but underlying everything psychological is something biological, and in the case of desires it is drives. It may be that a more fruitful approach to a theory of morality would be one based on drives rather than on desires. Perhaps it should be called “DRIVISM.”

An advantage to this approach is that it would eliminate the necessity for the distinction between voluntary actions and involuntary actions. You have to keep pointing out in your discussions of actions following from desires that you are always limiting these to voluntary actions, not actions like breathing. But ALL actions result from drives.

Using drives as the basis of a theory of morality enables one to go directly to an evolutionary account (the Alph and Betty parables are helpful, but only so far, since they are very unnatural and don’t follow an evolutionary account). I think that one can even trace things as far back as the selfish gene, but here it’s probably not necessary to go back that far.

Drives have an evolutionary origin, increasing the fitness of the organism. Involuntary actions such as breathing result directly from drives. In the case of the respiratory drive, diaphragm motion is caused by a chain of signals originating in O2 and CO2 receptors. With regard to desires, suffice it to say that every desire we have can be traced to a drive, the desire being the psychological component of that drive. The drive always precedes the desire. Successful biological organisms must reproduce, so all of them employ mechanisms, sometimes involving desires, that cause them to reproduce. The totality of these mechanisms, in each organism, represents the organism’s drive to reproduce.

In organisms with a sufficiently developed nervous system evolution has resulted in the generation of sensations accompanying experiences that are beneficial for survival or reproduction, and these sensations cause the organism to act in such a way that these experiences will tend to recur. These sensations can be characterized as being pleasurable. Analogously other types of sensations, which can be characterized as painful, will cause the organisms to act to avoid recurrence of the harmful experiences producing such sensations. On an evolutionary account the pleasurable and painful sensations have their origins in the organisms’ DNA and will tend to produce actions that will increase their fitness. The sex act produces sensations of pleasure only because, in the course of evolution, organisms experiencing such sensations behaved in a manner that increased their reproductive fitness.

I don’t want to engage in nitpicking your excellent podcasts on desirism (which, as some have noted, are perhaps a bit too drawn out and a bit too slow in getting to the meat of the issue). Rather than that I’ve decided, based on a few hours thought, to take a first stab at a description of a theory of morality that I am calling the ten claims of DRIVISM (they may be considered to be a summary of five years of podcasts which will never take place):

1. A drive is a physiological mechanism for attaining a certain state that furthers biological fitness or avoids impairment of biological fitness. It may involve only involuntary actions. However the type of drive of concern in a theory of morality involves voluntary actions.

2. Voluntary actions occur as a response to desires. Both desires and voluntary actions are components of a drive.

3. A belief is a mental model of the present state of the world based on experience and reasoning.

4. A desire is a mental model of a possible state of the world, the desired state, together with a mental model of a course of voluntary action that is expected to lead to realization of the desired state. Both mental models are based on beliefs, experience and reasoning. Because of its evolutionary origin the desired state should be the state of biological fitness that the drive (of which the desire is a component) is designed to attain. However changing conditions may outpace evolution, so that desires and the voluntary actions resulting from them may be maladaptive.

5. When present, a desire always seeks satisfaction. Satisfaction of a desire is generally accompanied by a sensation of pleasure. Failure to satisfy a desire is accompanied by a sensation of annoyance or discomfort which, when strong, becomes a sensation of pain.

6. Values are weights assigned to means for satisfying desires. These means consist of (1) various courses of voluntary action that might be taken to satisfy the desires, and to (2) whatever facilitates these courses of action. The weights result from the strengths of those desires competing for satisfaction at any particular time, and the difficulty in executing the various associated courses of action. These weights are determined psychologically on the basis of beliefs, experience and reasoning. Values exist only with respect to means for satisfying someone’s desires. Nothing has intrinsic value.

8. A good course of action is one assigned a high value, and some courses are deemed better or worse than others, depending on their values. Anything else is good to the extent that it facilitates a good course of action, and bad to the extent that it hinders a good course of action. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad.

9. The good is the good course of action. FOR EACH PERSON THE GOOD (COURSE OF ACTION) IS THAT WHICH CONTRIBUTES TO SATISFYING HIS OR HER DESIRES.

10. All the rest is commentary.

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Luke Muehlhauser March 11, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Bernie,

When you make up a theory like that out of your own head, it inevitably ends up being highly discontinuous with existing language and current science. The claims we’re putting forth draw on contemporary philosophy, science, and even artificial intelligence, and represent very common positions held by many experts.

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Bernie March 12, 2011 at 7:10 am

Luke,

How do I answer you? Let me count the ways:

1. My little essay was written tongue-in-cheek as a parody on the ten claims of desirism. Where did your funny bone go?

2. Highly discontinuous with existing language? How many professional philosophers ever heard of desirism? When I google it I only get 173 hits.

3. Highly discontinuous with current science? If anything, I attempted to give a thoroughly scientific theory of morality, eschewing artificial philosophical constructs that can lead one astray. I can’t say that everything I said can be backed up scientifically, because, after all, what I wrote was a parody off the top of my head. But I suspect that it would hold up fairly well. I’d like to know where it fails. I felt that by basing morality entirely on evolutionary theory I was providing a more solid basis than you guys were, with more explanatory power.

4. I stand by my conclusion. The good for any person at any moment is what that person believes will do the best job of fulfilling his or her desires. He or she may be wrong for various reasons, but there can be no other guide to action.

5. By presenting the entire theory it a nutshell I left no secrets about where the theory was heading. The stuff you guys are doing is great, but where are you going with it? Could you at least give us some hints? When it takes five years to make an argument it becomes a bit difficult to follow.

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