Morality in the Real World 15: Pleasure and Desire Are Separate

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 10, 2011 in Ethics,Podcast

In episode 15 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss the factual matters concerning the pleasure theory of desire, and offer two lines of evidence for thinking that pleasure and desire are separate things.

Download Episode 15

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Transcript of episode 15:

ALONZO: Well, Luke, we meet again.

LUKE: We meet again!

ALONZO: When last we met, we agreed to divide arguments about theories of desire into two groups.

One group – what you called trees-falling-in-the-forest arguments – are debates over definitions. And they’re really a waste of time. We should be able to simply pick a definition that works for efficient communication. Or, if we can’t, we can replace the symbol with the substance and continue to discuss the facts of the matter without getting bogged down in a debate over definitions.

The second group of arguments makes actual predictions about how the world works and we can test these arguments by testing the accuracy of those predictions.

LUKE: Right. And we are ignoring the first type of argument and keeping the second type. We are looking for arguments that lead to different predictions about the world, so that we can test those predictions.

ALONZO: Okay, then, on the pleasure-versus-motivation debate, I have an argument for you that I think fits this criterion of generating predictions that we can test.

LUKE: Okay, lay it on me.

ALONZO: This is an argument I have used to tease out the difference between motivation and pleasure.

First, I want you to imagine that you’ve been captured by a mad scientist.

LUKE: Wait, wait, wait, wait. This question already has nothing to do with the real world.

ALONZO: Are you saying that people in the real world can’t imagine being captured by a mad scientist?

LUKE: Of course they can. But the mad scientist isn’t real.

ALONZO: I assure you that nothing in this argument requires anything more than the ability to imagine being captured by a mad scientist – which, you admit, is possible in the real world.

LUKE: Okay, but no funny business. I’m watching you.

ALONZO: Okay. Now: imagine that you, and someone you care about a great deal – your child, your lover, your parents, your best friend – have been captured by this mad scientist. This scientist gives you two options.

Option 1: This person who you care about will be made to suffer unspeakable torture. However, the scientist will cause you to believe that this person is healthy and happy. Once the experiment begins, you will be utterly convinced of this person’s well-being even while that person pleads for mercy or death.

Option 2: This person you care about will be caused to live a healthy and happy life. However, once the experiment begins, you will be totally convinced that this person is being subjected to unspeakable cruelty. You’ll swear that you can hear that person’s screams down the hall, even while that person is actually living a prosperous, healthy, and happy life.

Which option do you choose?

LUKE: Assuming that this was somebody I really care about, I would probably pick Option 2. But what does this have to do with….

ALONZO: I have actually only met a few people who have selected Option 1. Almost every selects Option 2.

LUKE: But why should we take your word on this?

ALONZO: Please don’t. This is a very easy experiment to run – all you need to do is ask around. Or – better yet – get somebody who doesn’t know what answer you are looking for to ask around. They’ll come back with a report that most people – I predict, almost all people – choose Option 2.

LUKE: Yeah, everyone I’ve asked has chosen Option 2. But how would you test this hypothesis more thoroughly? Do you plan on actually kidnapping people and making them believe that they are faced with this horrible choice?

ALONZO: No, no, that’s not necessary. I am telling you my prediction on how people will answer this question when asked to imagine being captured by a mad scientist.

They do actually report that they would select Option 2 – that is the data we are working with. This is real-world data that needs explaining.

Now, I grant that those who say they would select Option 2 might all be lying – perhaps because they think we would judge them harshly if they gave an honest answer. Or, maybe, they simply fail to accurately predict what they would choose if given this choice. But they do at least report that they would choose option 2.

Why do people report that they would choose Option 2 if they were confronted with such a choice?

LUKE: I have a different question. What does this have to do with action-based versus pleasure-based theories of desire?

ALONZO: The pleasure theory of desire says that what we want is the pleasure we get from it seeming to be the case that our desires have been satisfied. The action-based theory of desire says that we seek a state in which our desires have been objectively satisfied – that what we desire has been realized. This experiment tests which one is true about humans, and gives some limited evidence in favor of the action-based theory of desire, because people choose the option where states of affairs are realized over those where states of affairs seem to have been realized.

And it doesn’t ask people which option best fits their intuition regarding the meaning of the word ‘desire’. It asks them which option they would act on.

LUKE: Okay, so, you are not using this to determine the super-dictionary definition of the word ‘desire’. What you are doing is trying to reveal a fact about human motivation. Specifically, you’re trying to show that motivation is about realizing states of affairs, not about obtaining pleasure from it seeming that a state of affairs has been realized, though of course sometimes we can desire pleasure as well.

ALONZO: Right. And we do experience pleasure, often, when it seems to be the case that what we want has been realized. But not always.

LUKE: Well, you know, your story is a lot like an argument that Robert Nozick once put forward in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia.

ALONZO: Right. In Nozick’s scenario, he presented people with the option of entering an experience machine.

Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? … Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening … Would you plug in?

A lot of people don’t like this option. Given this option, they claim they would refuse.

So, we have an option where an experience machine will give people all the pleasure that comes from it seeming to be the case that P. However, this does not motivate a lot of people. If P is not actually being made true, then they don’t care for it. We have the same disconnect here between the pleasure of it seeming to be the case that P, and motivation to make it the case that P.

LUKE: Well, Alonzo, you may be happy to hear that in the past few years, neuroscientists have found brain functions that seem to confirm these results. They have found one set of brain functions for wanting – brain functions that are concerned with motivation to act – and a different set of brain functions for pleasure. In the literature, researchers distinguish between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’.

And because these two systems are different, it is possible to have instances of wanting without liking – motivation without pleasure. But because these two systems are very closely related it is difficult to tell them apart outside the laboratory. Somebody can easily draw the mistaken conclusion that there is only one system unless one looks very closely at the evidence.

So this recent evidence not only shows that desire and pleasure are distinct systems, but also it explains why many people might think that they are the same.

ALONZO: That is interesting.

LUKE: Here, let me explain one of these experiments.

This is a study from the University of Michigan where researchers painlessly injected a drug into a certain pleasure hotspot in the brains of rats. The effect of stimulating this pleasure hotspot was that the rats ate three times as much food and exhibited twice as many ‘liking expressions’.

ALONZO: Liking expressions? What are liking expressions?

LUKE: The researchers described them as, “positive facial lip licking expressions that are similar in rats, monkeys, apes and even human infants.” They indicate how much a creature likes something.

A mother doesn’t need a PhD in neuroscience to tell when her young daughter likes something and when she doesn’t, or when their pets like something or when they don’t. There are certain physical behaviors that indicate that something is liked. One of them is that both animals and infants will lick their lips when they like the taste of food.

ALONZO: Okay, so what does this tell us?

LUKE: Nothing, yet.

But in the next part of the experiment, researchers took these animals and suppressed a second pleasure hotspot. This time, the rats still ate three times as much food, but without any of the liking expressions.

This is taken to be evidence of wanting without liking. The rats want the food – they are motivated to eat the food – but we get none of the behavioral signs that suggest that they actually like the food.

ALONZO: Which means that wanting and liking are not the same thing.

LUKE: That seems to be the case.

Now you can’t tell much from one experiment, but a number of experiments like this are pointing in that direction – that there are different neural pathways for wanting and liking, where wanting is associated with action according to the claims made by the action-based theory of desire.

As an example, here is the abstract of another paper showing this division between the desire system and the pleasure system:

To determine whether dopamine regulates liking, wanting, and/or learning about rewards during goal-directed behavior, the authors tested genetically engineered dopamine-deficient mice for acquisition of an appetitive T-maze task with and without endogenous dopamine signaling. Experiment 1 established that dopamine-deficient mice treated with L-dihydroxyphenylalanine perform similarly to controls on a T-maze task designed to measure liking, wanting, and learning about rewards. Experiment 2, which tested saline-, caffeine-, and L-dihydroxyphenylalanine-treated dopamine-deficient mice on the T maze, separated performance factors from cognitive processes and revealed that dopamine is not necessary for mice to like or learn about rewards but is necessary for mice to seek (want) rewards during goal-directed behavior.

ALONZO: Unfortunately, the listeners won’t know that I just had to sit through 10 minutes of you repeating that paragraph a million times until you said it correctly.

LUKE: Shhhhh, Alonzo. Let them think I said it perfectly on the first try, like I use the term L-dihydroxyphenylalanine every day.

ALONZO: Okay, sure. Where did we leave off? Okay.

So, we have two distinct systems – one for wanting, and one for liking. And dopamine, it seems, is a part of the system for wanting, not the system for liking, at least in this case. The only question we need to answer is: Which system deserves to be called “desire”?

LUKE: Well, now, don’t start that again!

Let’s not have a debate over the definitions of words. Just pick one.

For my tastes, I see the distinction between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ to be the same as the distinction between ‘desire’ and ‘pleasure’. That’s how I would use the terms. But I don’t wanna get into a huge conceptual analysis debate with somebody who sees it differently. What matters is that we have these two systems – a wanting system, and a liking system. Both systems exist. You can want something without liking it when you get it, and you can like something without first wanting it.

ALONZO: I guess this is what you were getting at when you said that people who have different theories of desire agree on the facts, but disagree over which words to use. The fact that we have these systems and how they function – these are facts that researchers in the field generally agree on. Whether we are going to apply the word ‘desire’ to the wanting system or the liking system is what they are often fighting over.

LUKE: Right. Or the reward learning system.


LUKE: There’s a third system called the reward learning system that is related to the wanting and liking systems. It was mentioned in that abstract I mentioned – the researchers wanted to know whether dopamine is necessary for liking, wanting, or ‘learning about rewards’.

There are some people who say that the concept of desire best fits the reward learning system. One of them is Tim Schroeder, who wrote the entry for Desire in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the book Three Faces of Desire that we have made reference to before.

ALONZO: Do we care?

LUKE: Not if the argument is going to be entirely about definitions. But as a factual matter, desirism requires a learning system – a way for agents to learn new desires and to modify existing desires through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. We are going to need to know something about the reward learning system, so that would be a good place to start, anyway.

ALONZO: In our next episode, then.

LUKE: In our next episode.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Yair May 11, 2011 at 2:30 am

Interesting. I am looking forward to hearing more neuroscience.

I am unimpressed with the philosophical arguments, which appear to me to confuse being motivated by expectation of future personal desire with being motivated by pleasure felt when considering future states.

The neuroscience is much more interesting. I’m having a hard time assimilating the ideas into my thought, so I figured I’ll share my thinking and maybe you guys can enlighten me.

My thinking on hedonism is that deliberative action requires a single scale or “desirability” to compare possible actions on, and that it makes intuitive sense to identify this axis with the pleasure/pain axis. Consider the rat experiment from this perspective.

In the first part, I understand that we intensified the activity of pleasure center A, so that its reactions to all stimulai were stronger than normal. This resulted in the rats seeking rewards with more intensity (eating three times as much).

Now we suppressed pleasure center B, and they sought the rewards with the same intensity but without physiological indications of pleasure. I assume we still stimulated pleasure center A? (Otherwise, they would seem to have no reason to want anything more than usual.)

Is this what is going here? Am I understanding the experiment correctly? (A reference would be nice.)

Clearly, the increased pleasure from pleasure center A is still driving the rats’ actions, but not their pleasure-indicators. I can see several ways this might come about.

* Pleasure center A is part of the Want system, which sets the scale of comparing the utility of actions, pleasure center B is part of the Like system, which sets the feeling and physiology of pleasure. This is the conclusion Luke (and, I am sure, the researchers) are drawing.

But it isn’t the only possible scenario, and it appears that if one adopts it one should look carefully at why site A is considered a ‘pleasure center’ to begin-with, as according to this theory it isn’t really. It’s a Want center.

Another possibility is

* Pleasure center A is part of the Like system, which sets the scale of comparing the utility of actions and the feeling of pleasure, while pleasure center B is part of the Pleasure-Response system that relays this information to physiological subsystems.

If this is correct, stimulating pleasure center B should increase physiological indicators of pleasure, but not pleasure-inducing actions. Was this experiment carried out?

Finally, how would I go about designing a learning hedonic system, if I wanted to? Surely the natural think to do is something like this:

* I would establish a basic Pleasure System that will react to real-time inputs with values of Pleasure.
* I would establish a Desire System that will generate plausible scenarios and run them as “simulations” through the Pleasure System to receive – and store! – their Pleasure values. The desire with the most Pleasure will be passed down to execution (which requires a Decision System and numerous Execution Systems but let’s not go there).
* I would establish a Learning System that will compare the Pleasures obtained to those predicted and make adjustments to the way the Desire System simulates the future reality accordingly.

So the three systems Luke describes fit perfectly into an hedonic system if – and this is the crucial part – the Want system establishes its values through the Like system, under normal conditions of operation. Which leads me to the third hypothesis, that

* Pleasure center A is related to the Want system’s interaction with the Like system, and sets the representation in Want of how much Pleasure the Like system returned. Pleasure center B is part of the Like system that is suppressed by the Want-simulation, as it is related to physiological pleasure responses to Like (which clearly need to be suppressed when considering future possible eventualities).

A key prediction here is that suppressing those locales in the Like system that normally hold representations of the Pleasure value should depress the animals into listless apathy, whereas suppressing the analogous locales in the Want system should make the animals listless but not apathetic physiology (they should show normal physiological signs of pleasure). I’m not sure if centers A and B fall within these categories.

Note that under this hypothesis we are motivated by the pleasure we derive when thinking about the future scenarios, but this pleasure is not necessarily conscious. We are generally only dimly aware of the gross condition of our Like (Pleasure) system, not of its specific response to any of the many scenarios and real-life inputs that it evaluates simultaneously.

Which raises my final thought in this train-of-thought, which is that having several Pleasures and creating copies of them for easier simulation might be a good idea.


Yair May 11, 2011 at 2:42 am

At the beginning, “expectation of future personal desire” should be expectation of future personal belief”. I hate that there is no edit.



Garren May 11, 2011 at 3:28 am

Most interesting episode yet! It’s got me pondering.


Garren May 11, 2011 at 5:24 am

The categories in this episode seem muddled to me.

Instead of talking about action-based vs. pleasure-based theories of desire, shouldn’t you be contrasting desire-based vs. pleasure-based theories of action? I.e. whether we act to bring about our desires, which can include attaining pleasure…or whether we act attain pleasure, which can include believing our desires are fulfilled?

As it stands, Alonzo’s description of the ‘pleasure theory of desire’ can be read as ‘all we fundamentally desire is the pleasure we get from believing our desires are fulfilled,’ which appears unintentionally self-referential and confusing.


JS Allen May 11, 2011 at 9:35 pm

I think you’re dramatically oversimplifying the dopamine-wanting distinction, but not sure how much it will ultimately affect your argument. I would recommend Iverson’s textbook on neuropsychopharmacology for a review. Just like hormone systems, the neurotransmitter systems attempt to keep a balance, so it’s important not to naively assume that it’s like a control system you can manipulate. Augmenting dopamine causes down-regulation to occur, ensuring that we’re always on a sort of “hedonic treadmill“. And if you do it too long, you can do permanent damage to the motivation system, just like guys who take testosterone for too long end up growing tits.

Basically, if your argument is going to be analagous to: “Testosterone is implicated in the growth of muscle, and watching your sports team win has been shown to increase testosterone. Therefore, in order to grow muscle, pick a sports team that usually wins, or have your girlfriend pre-record and only show you winning games”, then I think it will be problematic. And of course there are much better ways to manipulate dopamine than to slather praise and insults.

There is also the issue that the reward-learning system is the old staple of behaviorism and operant conditioning, which is very different from “intentional” behavior. If you’re focusing on the reward-learning system, I think you need to drop the seemingly arbitrary focus on “intentional”.

Also, I’m not convinced by the studies asking people if they would prefer to be brains in a vat. The questions are far too simple, and people respond how they think they should respond. In real life, people choose the blue pill instead of the red pill all the time.


Kevin May 12, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Quite agreed–people choose the blue pill. It has even been argued that people survive on a moment-to-moment basis by doing the psychological equivalent of repeated blue-pill ingestion:

As always, I apologize in advance if the following is naive or obtuse. The original distinction to be made was between desire and pleasure. I believe the distinction is even more significant than has been thus far opined. To be perfectly blunt, wanting HURTS. Wanting is fundamentally unpleasant; wanting is the anti-pleasure. What people “desire” is not “wanting;” what people desire, consciously or otherwise, is FREEDOM FROM WANT.

(Sorry about the capitalization–how does one create italicized text in this blog?)

Here’s some more neurophysiology to supplement the good ideas already put forth. Increased levels of dopamine in the brain are indeed associated with the experience of motivation, but please don’t make the leap to conclude that increased levels of dopamine are pleasurable. The release of dopamine is a response to pleasure; pleasure causes wanting (the desire for more pleasure), but not vice-versa. Consider the use of anti-psychotic medications, which suppress dopamine levels and thereby moderate emotions. The “down-regulation” mentioned above is quite real. People become accustomed to the lower levels of dopamine when the brain responds by decreasing the number of dopamine receptors (limiting re-uptake activity). Imagine what happens, then, when someone stops taking this class of medication: with artificially lowered receptor counts, their dopamine levels overcompensate to the upside. Does this result in great amounts of pleasure? Quite the opposite. True, the person experiences increases in the sensation of “wanting,” but since there is no external object of desire, the result is merely a profound sense that something is WRONG. In other words, “wanting” devoid of a cognitive label results in plain old-fashioned, vanilla-flavored ANXIETY.

So, like I said, maybe I missed the point, or I’m just naive, but the distinction to be made seems self-evident to me. This is a great site with great contributors, and I’m optimistic about the progress that seems to be made here, mostly because what interests me about Desirism is the possibility that it can help me identify a pleasurable mode of thinking (i.e., “optimism”), that doesn’t involve copulation, intoxication, or gluttony. Perhaps if I’m able to make a small contribution, it would be to distinguish the word, “wanting,” from the word, “anticipating.” Anticipation of pleasure is pleasurable, and of pain, painful, but sadly (for me at least), the anticipation of anticipation is a very weak motivator.

Nonetheless, I look forward to having something to look forward to. So, given that desire is distinct from pleasure, and given that we all desire pleasure (by definition), how can I apply knowledge of Desirism toward attaining pleasurable experiences? I forget–what is it again that I wanted? Oh, yeah, now I remember: the blue pill.


JS Allen May 12, 2011 at 9:03 pm

@Kevin – Interesting point about “freedom from want”. That’s what many people find promising about Buddhism, and others have remarked that Desirism seems to offer the opposite. You could look at a heroin addict shivering and sweating on the floor in dopaminergic withdrawal and conclude that his problem is that his desires are being thwarted, or you could conclude that his desires were just too inflamed.

I like the way that Justine Suissa expressed this sentiment in Armin Van Buuren’s “Simple Things” (which was a B side to “Burned With Desire”):

Wasted days, I’m caught up in the fruitless chase
Wanting more than anything that’s come before

And I wish I didn’t have to choose
When I know there is so much to lose

Cruel desires blind me to the simple things
Lost in fires of passionate imaginings

Personally, I think that the Buddhist’s quest to eliminate desire is equally as flawed as the Desirist’s quest (which looks a lot like Crowley’s Thelema) to inflame desire. I think things are more subtle than either system supposes.

You are probably on the right track regarding “wanting” versus “anticipation”. In your comment, you call it “optimism”, and there is a distinction to be made between fantasy and expectation. There is a third aspect, which involves remembering. Daniel Kahneman talks about this in his short TED talk, “The Riddle of Experience Versus Memory“, and Daniel Gilbert hits the same issue from a different angle in his TED talk, Why Are We Happy?


Kevin May 13, 2011 at 3:33 am

@ JS Allen:

Hey, thanks for the links. I’m new to blogging, but obviously I like to talk shop when it comes to theories of consciousness and meaning, and TED looks like an interesting resource.

Speaking of resources, by pure coincidence, Nozick and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy were just mentioned in my Business Ethics class. That seems bizarre. Maybe the online philosophy world is smaller than I thought.

And speaking of coincidences, I just responded to some posts on Luke’s “My Story” page, and one of them was from “Joe Allen” on March 24, 2009. Was that you? That poster asked Luke, “Do you believe in love?” I thought that was interesting enough to follow up on. If that was you (or even if you’re just interested), the link is here:

“Love” is one of those ambivalent terms which can, for example, refer to an exstatic affirmation of the value of life, or an excellent reason to stop living altogether. I’m interested in your thoughts, because, yes, when I’m not being a fan of Nietzsche or William James, I dabble with the Buddha and Lao Tzu. Or the Wall Street Journal.

Back to the relationship between desire and pleasure: earlier this year I had to write a speech for a class, and my instructor suggested choosing a topic which might help the audience lead better lives. When I got home, I googled the words, “Life is better,” and of course got dozens of articles titled things like, “Life is Better After 40,” or “Life is Better When You Smile,” etc.

Then, halfway down the first results page, I see this title for an article: “Life is Better When You Stop Caring.” I’m remembering that now, because it seems appropriate. What’s the opposite of Desirism? Avoidance-ism? Or Apathy-ism? Are Buddhists just playing “sour grapes” because they can’t get laid? Does “Enlightenment” exist? Do good dogs go to heaven? I have to believe they do, because what else is heaven for?



JS Allen May 13, 2011 at 9:44 am

Nope, I’m not Joe. But I totally agree about the ambiguity of the word “love”.


Keith May 13, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Kevin – your main point makes a lot of sense to me too. To have a desire is to wish yourself in some state other than the one you are in.

That’s why I base my own moral theory on the idea of contentment, which I define as the absence of desires. If someone has no desires, then they have no wish to be in another state. Conversely, if they have many and strong desires, they are discontented: they very much wish to be in another state. Morality, as I see it, is about allowing people to reach a contented state without infringing on the ability of others to do the same.


cl May 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm

…people choose the option where states of affairs are realized over those where states of affairs seem to have been realized.

I think it’s a bit premature to infer conclusions–even tentatively–from such limited data. Consider:

Joe is captured by a mad scientist, who gives him two options:

Option 1: Joe will be shot up with heroin, but not high.

Option 2: Joe will be high, but not shot up with heroin.

If Joe likes the high, he’s going to pick 2. However, if Joe has no desire for the pleasure of being high, I’d say there’s a good chance he’ll pick 1. Or, run a different one:

Hungry Bob is captured by a mad scientist, who gives him two options:

Option 1: Hungry Bob will be fed, but still feel hungry.

Option 2: Hungry Bob will feel full without being fed.

If Hungry Bob is more averse to hunger pangs than missing a meal, he’ll probably pick 2. If Hungry Bob just wants to get his necessary calories and doesn’t care about the pleasure associated with eating, he’ll probably pick 1.

Apparently, human desires can be either action-based or pleasure-based, depending on pre-existing values. I think it would be interesting to narrow in on selection pressures [i.e. when and why do people choose one or the other].


Kevin May 13, 2011 at 5:37 pm


I agree that it would be interesting to narrow in on pleasure selection. In a sense, isn’t that what ethics is all about–choices? In my opinion, you nailed it when you wrote that desires (and thus actions) depend on pre-existing values.

For what it’s worth, sometimes I envy people who always seem to know what they want, but most of the time my inclination is somewhat to disdain rigid values. Apropos of the atheistic origin of this website, a good example is the professed value system of conservative “Christian” politics. They always seem angry to me, and I don’t envy that state of existence. Still, it seems to me that “narrowing in on selection pleasures” would entail identifying “proper” or “correct” values.

I’d be willing to hazard a few values which may or may not be foundational, except everything I think of immediately suggests its opposite. “Autonomy” is generally valued in Western culture, but from what I hear, this value tends to be superceded by an emphasis on “harmony” in traditional Eastern cultures (sometimes I wonder if the de-emphasis on autonomy isn’t disingenuous, though). Similarly, “self-esteem” seems at first glance to be universally valuable, but there are many instances where an emphasis on “humility” is more productive (when apologizing, for example).

Still, probably because I’ve grown up in the U.S., the harder I look at people’s motives, the more I suspect that self-interest (in the form of the abilitiy to sustify one’s existence to oneself) is the fabric that holds eveything together. Cultures and situations may differ in their assessment of what’s considered “right,” but maybe it’s significant that all cultures do in fact have a concept of “rightness.” In other words, every culture has a word for “mistake” (at least I’m willing to wager to that effect).

I suspect that all cultures also have concepts of justice and guilt, although I’m not as sure. Genghis Khan, for example, it the tradition of Nietzsche’s “ubermensch,” sincerely believed that justice meant crushing people who didn’t submit to his will. He equated his will with justice. That seems “wrong” to me, but what do I know?

But maybe I’ve gotten off the point. You mentioned “action-based” versus “pleasure-based” desires. Mostly I’m just adding my agreement with you that all desires are ultimately “value-based.” While I’m at it, I’ll hazard a hypothesis that all foundational values (if they exist) are either ego-based or community-based. I don’t know if this advances the discussion, but it’s one way to spend a Friday night.



mojo.rhythm May 13, 2011 at 11:44 pm


You’re absolutely correct. Good one.


Kevin May 14, 2011 at 1:37 am


You sound like a very kind person. That’s a great accomplishment, in my opinion, becoming kind. It’s a form of self-mastery, I think. I agree with you, and try to live the same, but contentment (I call it “serenity”), seems to be especially elusive for some people (myself included), and in my (selfish) desire to be kind, I often wonder whether my own peace of mind depends to some extent on helping others acheive some kind of peace as well.

Ironically, this thought tends toward dispair, if only because of the enormity of the world’s unrest, so I’m often left with a default, background-level anxiety. The solution seems obvious enough–just stop caring–but the moral imperitive, “be a good person,” seems to prevent that as well. It seems I’d rather accept a portion of personal anxiety, than risk over-inflicting my first-person desires on a world already torn by competition. Not that I’m a saint, mind you. Just a recovering jerk.

Are there any special practices you’ve discovered to facilitate serenity? The best I’ve discovered so far is walking my dogs in nice weather with my earbuds in, and listening to our local classical or jazz radio stations. Of course it never lasts forever, but for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, I seem to acheive a desireless state, which may or may not be classified as “happiness.” A lot of it centers around seeing how happy my dogs are when we’re on a walk, and that’s part of why I suspect that true happiness somehow includes helping other living creatures to be happy. That’s my only “Morality in the Real World.”

It’s a theory, anyway. Thanks for being kind.



cl May 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm

I’ve always respected Alonzo’s distinction between desires-as-means and desires-as-ends, and I see it as relevant here. In pleasure-based desires, it seems the behavior reflects a desire-as-means: Joe doesn’t necessarily care about the action of injecting himself with heroin; in fact he may even have a strong aversion to needles. However, his desire for the pleasure of being high overrides. Conversely, in action-based desires, the behavior reflects a desire-as-ends: You might have a strong aversion to believing that your loved ones are being tortured, but your desire for the state of affairs in which your loved ones are safe overrides. It seems to me that both situations are motivated by a common denominator.

But here’s an interesting question: can the same desire be both action and pleasure based? I’d say yes. I like the pleasure I get from a well-steamed plate of vegetables, and I also like the state of affairs in which my body receives a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals.


For me, skateboarding -> satori. Also, tidying up any sort of mess. Weird, eh?

I agree that it would be interesting to narrow in on pleasure selection.

Well, I still scratch my head when I hear Alonzo claim that Sam Harris is wrong, or when Luke and Yudkowsky claim that value monism is false–despite being apparently unable to supply desires that don’t reduce to an increase in ultimate well-being. It seems to me that the values behind all three of these examples reduce to an increase in ultimate well-being. Well-being encompasses feelings of pleasure as well as states of affairs. IOW, both action-based and pleasure-based desires reduce to desires for an increase in ultimate well-being, i.e. what each agent holds dearest.


cl May 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm




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