Accounting for Natural Evil (part 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 31, 2011 in Guest Post,Problem of Evil

Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought. Visit John’s blog for more helpful summaries of contemporary philosophical works.

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I like sloths. They’ve managed to reduce life to its essentials: eating, sleeping, and occasional acts of reproduction. You have to admire that kind of efficiency. But that efficiency can also be their downfall. When push comes to shove, and their existence is threatened, their options are limited. Hanging on to a tree branch will only get you so far.

You may be wondering where I’m going with this – after all, this is supposed to be about the philosophy of religion, not the life cycle of the sloth – but never fear there is a reason. This video should make things clearer. It depicts a sloth being attacked and eventually killed by a cougar (or puma). I challenge you to watch all five minutes – it’s really quite heartbreaking stuff.

It would also appear to be a classic example of natural evil: neither the sloth nor the cougar would match the definition of a moral agent, i.e. neither one is in possession of free will and rationality, and yet the actions of one is clearly a source of moral harm for the other. What’s more, this is just one example; predator-prey interactions of this sort are a commonplace in the natural world. And natural evil of all varieties is simply abundant on this planet.

This is a bit of a sore thumb for theists. The naive version of the problem of evil tells us that the existence of god is incompatible with the existence of any evil whatsoever. But as we all know, theists have a ready response to this: some evils are necessary in order that higher goods (e.g. free-will, soul-making) be realised. Problem solved, right? “Not so fast” we non-theists reply: the evils necessary for those kinds of goods are products of human wrongdoing, natural evil is a separate issue. It’s not at all clear that natural evil is necessary in order that higher goods be realised.

This brings us – at long last – to the subject matter of this series of blog posts. You see, a few years back (2005 to be precise) Nick Trakakis published a paper in which he addressed this very issue and defended the bold claim that theism could not account for any instances of natural evil. I want to share the arguments from his paper here.

I’ll be dividing the series into three parts. In this first part I’ll outline Trakakis’s basic argument and define some of its key terms. I will then turn my attention to John Hicks’s soul-making theodicy and see whether it can account for natural evil. In future posts two additional theodicies will be assessed, one from Richard Swinburne and one from Bruce Reichenbach. By the end we’ll have a good idea of whether or not the problem of natural evil is a serious one for the theist.

Without further ado, let’s get underway.

 

1.Trakakis’s Basic Argument

Here’s an easy formulation of Trakakis’s argument.

(1) The existence of an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god is incompatible with the existence of evil, unless that evil is necessary in order to achieve some higher order good.

(2) No amount, instance or distribution of natural evil is necessary in order to achieve some higher order good.
(3) Therefore, an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god is not compatible with the existence of any amount, instance or distribution of natural evil.

The argument could continue. It could, for instance, point out that there is plenty of natural evil in the world and conclude that this implies the non-existence of God, but that’s not really Trakakis’s focus. He’s only concerned with the compatibility issue.

Before getting into the meat of this argument, we need to take some time out to define it’s key terms. They are the following:

I. Orthodoxly Conceived Monotheistic God: A being that has the following set of properties: omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, aseity (i.e. existential independence), immateriality and eternality. Also, contingently, the creator of this universe. (Note: the term itself is borrowed from Oppy, but is consistent with what Trakakis says about God)

II. Moral Evil: this is any evil act, event or state of affairs that is directly attributable to the actions of a moral agent (i.e. one with free will and rationality). Moral responsibility, as opposed to libertarian free will, is the key concern here.

III. Natural Evil: Any evil act, event or state of affairs that is solely or chiefly the result of the operation of the laws of nature. Or, alternatively, any evil act, event or state of affairs for which no non-divine agent can be held morally responsible.

Note that under the above definition, many things we might expect to count as instances of natural evil do not in fact count as natural evil. For example, cancers that are the result of willfully risky behaviour, and famines that are the result of government mismanagement, will not count as natural evils. Conversely, evils that were the unforeseeable result of some action on the part of a moral agent will count as natural evils.

Turning back to the basic argument, we should be able to see that premise (2) is where the debate can be expected to lie. Trakakis can either try to support it or defend it. He opts for the latter strategy: he considers three leading theodicies that would allow for natural evil and argues that they fail to do so. The first of those is the soul-making theodicy associated with John Hick. In the remainder of this post we’ll see how Trakakis fends off the challenge from Hick.

 

2. The Eden World vs. The Actual World

We begin by considering the differences between a hypothetical world that only has moral evil and the actual world that has both moral and natural evil. It is crucial to Trakakis’s overall argument that we develop a sufficiently rich conception of this hypothetical world. Why? Because his argument effectively forces the theist to look at such a world and ask: are the higher order goods appealed to by the different theodicies impossible there? If they are, then the theist can breathe a sigh of relief; if they are not, Trakakis’s argument might succeed.

Trakakis calls the relevant hypothetical world Eden and some of the crucial differences between it and the actual world are outlined in the diagram below. The most significant is that the laws of nature in Eden must be entirely benevolent.

 

3. The Soul-Making Theodicy

Bearing in mind the distinction between Eden and the actual world, we can now proceed to set out the soul-making theodicy. The basic idea is familiar: a certain level of evil (more specifically, hardship and suffering) helps us to develop important moral virtues such as patience, courage and compassion. Developing those virtues is a great good. And since evil is permissible if it is necessary for realising great goods then the problem of evil is defanged.

That might work for evil in general (no such concession is being made) but we’re solely concerned with natural evil here. So we need to assess whether natural evil, in addition to moral evil , is necessary for soul-making. To do that, we need to develop some idea of the preconditions for soul-making.

Roughly speaking, they are twofold (a) the agent must have opportunities for displaying moral courage in response to hardship and suffering, and (b) the agent must be epistemically distant from God. The latter condition might be surprising but the motivation behind it is straightforward: if God’s existence is too obvious, moral development would be compromised because we would not make free, autonomous moral decisions. God’s presence would just overwhelm our autonomy.

This is where the soul-making theodicy starts to bite. Its proponent can maintain – contra-Trakakis – that an Eden-like world would not provide the conditions necessary for soul-making because life would be devoid of hardship, and God’s existence would be immediately inferable from the benevolent character of the laws of nature.

To set this out more formally, we can construct the following argument:

(4) Soul-making is a higher order good.

(5) Soul-making is only possible if (a) there are opportunities for displaying moral courage in response to hardship and (b) there is epistemic distance from God.

(6) A world without natural evil would be a world without hardship and epistemic distance from God.

(7) Therefore, natural evil is necessary for realising the higher order good of soul-making.

 

4. Response and Summary

Trakakis gives relatively short shrift to the soul-making theodicy.

Looking first to condition (a), he notes that there will still be opportunities for moral courage in Eden. After all, moral evil can still give rise to the requisite hardship and suffering. Human beings will still have the potential for greed and self-interest, and these potentialities could make themselves known in the willful infliction of cruelty, the hoarding of essential natural resources, and the mismanagement of social and community relations. So we can rebut part of premise (6) with the following:
(8) In a world with purely moral evil there would still be deprivation, adversity, suffering and hardship due to the effects of moral evil.

Turning then to condition (b) – that of epistemic distance – Trakakis doubts that apparently benevolent natural laws would bridge the gap between man and God by that much. There will still, after all, be plenty of moral evil and its presence should restrain any impulse to infer the existence of a morally good creator. Furthermore, even if the impulse is not restrained, there is no reason to think that different creedal-specific beliefs would not arise in different parts of the world. This religious pluralism would create a level of ambiguity conducive to epistemic distance. So we can rebut the second part of premise (6) with this:

(9) Benevolent causal laws alone would not create conditions of epistemic immediacy: inference to the existence of a morally good creator could be blocked by the presence of moral evil and religious pluralism.

This gives us the following completed argument map for the first portion of Trakakis’s paper.

It would seem then that Trakakis’s bold thesis survives the assault from Hick’s soul-making theodicy. Can it do the same for Swinburne and Reichenbach? Find out in parts 2 and 3.

- John Danaher

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{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

Leomar May 31, 2011 at 5:53 am

The video, that link has a problem.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOJ_bVHey4A

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Leomar May 31, 2011 at 5:57 am

John or Luke, Can I translate this series to Spanish in my blog ?

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John D May 31, 2011 at 6:16 am

I’ve no objection anyway. Creative commons attribution applies.

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Zeb May 31, 2011 at 6:22 am

I don’t really understand the concept of natural evil. I guess it’s sort of an open question argument for me: I can recognise the existence of pain (at least as a type of nervous system activity), death, decay, and chaos in nature, but what makes these things bad?

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PDH May 31, 2011 at 6:26 am

…the agent must be epistemically distant from God. The latter condition might be surprising but the motivation behind it is straightforward: if God’s existence is too obvious, moral development would be compromised because we would not make free, autonomous moral decisions. God’s presence would just overwhelm our autonomy.

If this is the case then logically theists should be trying to lose this argument. Otherwise, they might inadvertently remove this all-important epistemic distance by accidentally convincing people that God exists, which would overwhelm their autonomy.

Quick, theists! Demonstrate the non-existence of God before it’s too late! There are higher order goods at stake!

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Dan May 31, 2011 at 7:12 am

I do put forward this challenge though:

WLC and others say god can not do anything that is logically impossible. But this means god is NOT the most powerful being. It’s impossible. The most powerful being means just that – it’s the most powerful. And god is supposed to have created all things that exist. And “all things” means nothing is excluded. Logic exists, logic is something. So would this not fall under gods creation? God had to create logic.

Therefor, god could have made it logically possible for a human to have free will and also not want to do harm.

Actually though…

It’s not illogical at all. Just remove the part of the mind that wants to do evil. The rest of the brain can then freely think as it wants – the good part of the brain has complete free will. There would be no evil area of the brain to stifle the free will of.

After all, God chooses to create people that are already brain dead in much worse ways. Disorders involving mood, eating, personality, anxiety, and so on. These people can’t control themselves, what kind of free will is that?

He also creates people with no arms, no legs. People that are blind, deaf, and mute. God chooses to take away MANY things from MANY people all the time – yet they are all still considered to have free will.

All of a sudden, simply taking away the minds ability to want to do evil doesn’t seem like such a stretch for god.

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Patrick who is not Patrick May 31, 2011 at 9:04 am

…possibly reposting because its not showing this as having taken…

I’m always amazed how easily theists throw their religion under a bus in order to defend their religion.

Lets look at the soul building theodicy for a moment. What does that do to the rest of Christian theology?

1. Mankind isn’t fallen. To be fallen is to have been better, but to have gone astray by sin. But under soul building God wants us to be like we are because then we can grow into something better. God created us with the intention that we be this way.

2. Hell isn’t the unfortunate place God has no choice but to send those who don’t reject him. First, if mankind isn’t fallen, the theology of hell needs an overhaul. But even more directly, hell becomes the intentionally-designed-as-such garbage disposal for raw materials that God doesn’t like.

3. The pure Group Supremacism latent in Christianity comes out to paint the town. Forget all those bumper stickers claiming that Christians aren’t pure, just forgiven. In fact, just push Paul into a woodchipper, cuz apparently he was an idiot. Christians really are better than everyone else, literally. Their souls are higher quality and God loves them more. They’re saved because they genuinely surpass a standard, through their own actions. No more salvation through grace.

That’s just what I came up with in 5 minutes. I’m sure a theologian could do more.

Its why I tend to think of theology and apologetics as a sort of magic trick. The theist has a set of beliefs. The critic makes a riposte, causing a particular portion of their beliefs to feel threatened. So an argument is deployed like ablative armor so that it can absorb the damage. The argument need not match their overall belief set, just the beliefs located at the point of impact. And since the argument, like a suit of armor, is removed at the end of the battle… no one ever need notice that it was just as harsh a critique as the attack itself.

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Mike B. May 31, 2011 at 10:14 am

Something in this defense seems a little bit off, though I’m having trouble putting my finger on it.

The reason natural evil usually comes up in these sorts of controversies is because it is an aspect of the problem that escapes the effects of the free-will defense. When dealing with the free-will defense, a distinction between natural evil and moral evil is important since the free-will defense does not defeat the problem of natural evil. However, I’m not sure that it’s helpful to distinguish between the two when dealing with the soul-making theodicy. In particular, saying that you don’t need natural evil to make souls since moral evil would be good enough doesn’t seem to advance the argument very much. It seems to me that when dealing with soul-making, you should just take the two together.

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John D May 31, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Hi Mike,

First off, as will become apparent in part two, not everyone agrees that the natural/moral distinction is important when it comes to the free will defence (or theodicy). Richard Swinburne being the prime example. He thinks natural evil is absolutely necessary in order for the free will defence to succeed. Second, I think distinguishing between the two does add something to the argument about evil and soul-making (and, indeed, any other theodicy that might be offered – contra Swinburne).

I look at it like this: If an argument is to be persuasive to someone, then it has to start from a premise they accept. But a general argument from evil might not be persuasive because it might not start from a premise accepted by all religious believers. These believers – having accepted the soul-making theodicy – might think God’s existence is compatible with at least some evil. In responding to this, the non-believer has a choice between two strategies: they can either challenge the belief that soul-making is a good that justifies some evils or, alternatively, they can grant that it accounts for some kinds of evil but challenge the idea that all evils are covered.

By distinguishing between natural and moral evil, and noting that one type is not necessary for soul-making, the believer can be forced to refine and revise their original commitment to the soul-making theodicy. Indeed, if Trakakis’s argument is successful, they are confronted with the possibility that soul-making doesn’t account for natural evils. And given the fact that our world is one with both natural and moral evils, they may be forced to rethink their commitment to God as well (Trakakis goes into the various implications in more detail towards the end of his article).

Of course, the natural/moral distinction is just one way to play this game. One could also argue the opposite way: that a world with only natural evil could allow for just as much soul-making as well (at least, that sounds plausible in my head – I haven’t worked out the implications). One could also, maybe, develop even more fine-grained distinctions between the different types of natural and moral evil, with each type posing a different challenge to the believer. This is sometimes done, e.g. as in the problem of horrendous evil. That said, the natural/moral distinction, approached from the perspective adopted by Trakakis, simply because it is so prevalent, seems like a good place to start.

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woodchuck64 May 31, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Zeb,

I don’t really understand the concept of natural evil. I guess it’s sort of an open question argument for me: I can recognise the existence of pain (at least as a type of nervous system activity), death, decay, and chaos in nature, but what makes these things bad?

I think it’s intuition. The same intuition that gives strength to the concept of moral evil works for natural evil as well by giving a sense of the general “wrongness” of any pain, suffering, death.

Skepticism of moral intuition undermines the whole thing, of course.

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Rob May 31, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Zeb asks:

I can recognise the existence of pain (at least as a type of nervous system activity), death, decay, and chaos in nature, but what makes these things bad?

Take off your shoes and socks. Find a cinder block. Smash your bare foot with the cinder block as hard as you can.

I doubt you will maintain your alleged skepticism about pain being bad.

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CharlesR May 31, 2011 at 3:30 pm

“Any evil act, event or state of affairs that is directly attributable to the actions of a moral agent”

“Any evil act, event or state of affairs that is solely or chiefly the result of the operation of the laws of nature.”

I fail to see the distinction between the two. Are these your definitions? Or his?

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Adamoriens May 31, 2011 at 4:25 pm

I don’t really understand the concept of natural evil. I guess it’s sort of an open question argument for me: I can recognise the existence of pain (at least as a type of nervous system activity), death, decay, and chaos in nature, but what makes these things bad?

Pain, death, decay and chaos in nature are the sorts of things we would expect a benevolence deity to reduce or eliminate. “Badness” can be thought of as describing a set of affairs rather than a moral evaluation. Unless you think pain and so on is rather good, and to be expected given a “good” deity, in which case the argument doesn’t work. But then, one could show that there is too much order, pleasure and growth to be consistent with a malevolent god…

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Mike B. May 31, 2011 at 5:02 pm

John. Thanks for the detailed reply. I’m interested to see how this argument plays out.

You said the following:

“One could also argue the opposite way: that a world with only natural evil could allow for just as much soul-making as well (at least, that sounds plausible in my head – I haven’t worked out the implications).”

This is something that occurred to me as well. I imagine that one might contest that there are certain kinds of soul making that could only be possible with the presence of moral evil (such as learning to forgive those who have wronged you, or some such thing). But you could also argue that even though a certain amount of moral evil is necessary for soul-making, whenever possible, it is better to employ natural evil for that purpose since it does not involve the presence of more and more evil people in order to accomplish certain goals. In either case, I’m not sure that this line of thought really gets to the heart of the problems with the soul-making defense, but we’ll see how the argument develops.

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Zeb June 1, 2011 at 5:42 am

Zeb asks:

Take off your shoes and socks. Find a cinder block. Smash your bare foot with the cinder block as hard as you can.

I doubt you will maintain your alleged skepticism about pain being bad.

I agree that I generally desire to avoid experiencing pain, but what makes something that I desire to avoid “bad”? Maybe the things that I desire to avoid are good, or have no moral attribute.

I suspect that when people say it is bad for the sloth to feel pain, they refer only to the fact that they personally desire to avoid events sloths feeling pain. Maybe I’m wrong though, because I don’t know how they get from having that desire to believing any good person would have that desire, and any person who does not have it is bad. I share the desire to avoid events of sloth pain, but I don’t know if I should have it, much less if all moral agents should. I certainly don’t see how the mere existence of the event itself is bad outside of its relationship to a moral agent. That is, I don’t see how it is a natural evil.

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Zeb June 1, 2011 at 5:44 am

Pain, death, decay and chaos in nature are the sorts of things we would expect a benevolence deity to reduce or eliminate

Why? That’s not helpful; you’re just saying “the bad” is that which a “good” person has reason to avoid/prevent.

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Rob June 1, 2011 at 7:06 am

Zeb,

Did you or did you not pulverize your foot with a cinder block?

The fact that you are still skeptical of whether such an event is bad leads me to believe that you have not done so.

Please do so, then we can have a conversation.

(And if you won’t, think for a moment why you won’t. Hint: because it is bad.)

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Patrick who is not Patrick June 1, 2011 at 7:18 am

Well, no, he won’t do it because its painful and he desires not to suffer pain. What he’s asking you is why the fact that he desires not to suffer pain implies that pain is “bad.” Maybe his desires are not a reliable guide to what is good and bad, even if they are strongly held desires.

That said, the argument from natural evil doesn’t actually need natural evil to exist in order to work. It just needs the world to be such a way that if theism is true, natural evil exists.

Suppose a particular religion claimed that its deity was infinitely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable, and infinitely desirous that space aardvarks be eradicated. Now suppose they also believe that the moon is a space aardvark. You can argue “If your religion is true, then the moon is a space aardvark. But if your religion is true, then your god would have destroyed the moon. The moon has not been destroyed. Therefore your religion is not true.” You can do this even if the moon is not a space aardvark.

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ayer June 1, 2011 at 11:39 am

John D: “The basic idea is familiar: a certain level of evil (more specifically, hardship and suffering) helps us to develop important moral virtues such as patience, courage and compassion. Developing those virtues is a great good.”

Although moral evil alone might be sufficient for SOME development of moral virtues, moral evil combined with natural evil might result in a HIGHER level of development of moral virtues–thus increasing “a great good.” How does the atheist meet the burden of showing that this cannot be the case? And if it is possible for it to be the case, it seems the objection to the soul-making theodicy fails.

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cl June 1, 2011 at 11:44 am

So, Lukey-poo… wouldn’t this be an instance where intuition is “bad” and should be avoided? I mean, you can’t rally against intuition 364 days a year, then endorse arguments that depend entirely on intuition on the remaining day — unless of course you don’t care about being consistent.

John D,

Please don’t misjudge my irreverence as disrespect. I’m a fan of the attention you give to various arguments.

This is a bit of a sore thumb for theists.

Yeah right! This is a sore thumb for all these people like Luke who deny free will on the basis of scant data and against the direct admonition from competent researchers who know better [cf. Luke's endorsement of Libet in the Marcel Brass CPD]. If we don’t have free will, then we’re no different than any other predator. We’re not moral agents. All evil is natural, because we’re just clumps of stuff that have no choice but to obey laws. It makes no sense to apply the term “evil” to a rock tumbling down a cliff, so we can’t make special exceptions for human beings. The atheist who rejects free will needs to be consistent. If you buy Strawson’s basic argument, there is no such thing as moral evil. All evil is natural given the definition you invoke here — but that entire paragraph is more of an aside.

It’s not at all clear that natural evil is necessary in order that higher goods be realised.

Likewise, it isn’t clear that higher goods can be realized without natural evil, and I have witnessed higher goods result from natural evil — so I’m not persuaded by that line of objection. Anyways, this is pretty straight-forward: Nick’s P2 is simply asserted. The theist is under no compulsion to accept it, and the atheist who criticizes intuition has no business making or endorsing it. With that, we remain at an impasse.

BTW, I’m skeptical of the “soul-making” theodicy, for the reasons Patrick alluded to, among others, so I look forward to the next installments of this series.

Dan,

WLC and others say god can not do anything that is logically impossible. But this means god is NOT the most powerful being.

That’s false. The inability to do the logically impossible does not entail that a being is not the most powerful.

Rob,

Way to miss the point entirely, even after Zeb took the time to explain!

Patrick,

Maybe his desires are not a reliable guide to what is good and bad, even if they are strongly held desires.

What a concept! If only you could get Alonzo Fyfe to take that seriously.

ayer,

How does the atheist meet the burden of showing that this cannot be the case?

They don’t, at least, not that I’ve seen. They simply assert it, then ironically protest when the theist simply asserts the converse.

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woodchuck64 June 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Zeb,

I suspect that when people say it is bad for the sloth to feel pain, they refer only to the fact that they personally desire to avoid events sloths feeling pain. Maybe I’m wrong though, because I don’t know how they get from having that desire to believing any good person would have that desire, and any person who does not have it is bad. I share the desire to avoid events of sloth pain, but I don’t know if I should have it, much less if all moral agents should. I certainly don’t see how the mere existence of the event itself is bad outside of its relationship to a moral agent. That is, I don’t see how it is a natural evil.

Spoken like a true skeptic. Our personal desires should not be guaranteed to provide some insight into the true nature of reality. But this necessarily means that we must also challenge our feelings that moral duties and values are real. If we can’t trust our desire to prevent sloth pain as having any objective force, how can we trust our desire that people not kill each other? The skeptic’s answer is to look first to the meaning and purpose of morality in an evolutionary context– the real origin of our biological desires for moral behavior– and work from there. The non-skeptic seems to be mired in confusion over intuition and a supposed mystical connection between that and a supernatural reality.

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cl June 1, 2011 at 1:08 pm

woodchuck64,

Our personal desires should not be guaranteed to provide some insight into the true nature of reality.

I tend to agree, and this entails the question: on what ground does the desirist stand? How is desirism not completely antithetical to everything else Luke ostensibly endorses?

Perhaps he’s got an answer, and we’ll just need to sit through 107 more podcasts before it all makes sense. Or, perhaps he’s finally grasping that desirism suffers from the same fatal flaws as other moral theories, and just opting for a quiet retreat. I noticed that he rewrote his stock introduction to Fyfe’s posts. He has stricken the “desirism is the moral theory I currently defend” part. Exactly what that indicates is another question.

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Silas June 1, 2011 at 2:11 pm

If we don’t have free will, then we’re no different than any other predator. We’re not moral agents. All evil is natural, because we’re just clumps of stuff that have no choice but to obey laws. It makes no sense to apply the term “evil” to a rock tumbling down a cliff, so we can’t make special exceptions for human beings. The atheist who rejects free will needs to be consistent.

1. We are different from other predators because we have a different brain, which produces different actions. Not too hard to understand.
2. We are ultimately made up out of quarks, yes. That clump of quarks gives rise to something we call “actions”. There is no “I” above that clump that is enslaved by the clump. We are the clump.
3. Everything in this world is natural, yes. Our minds are not supernatural. A rock is a quite different arrangement of quarks. The way desirism works is like this: this variable arrangement of quarks (humans) refers to a state of the arrangement of matter of itself as a “desire”. Some arrangements of matter alter other arrangements of matter. Desirism says that the arrangements of matter (desires) “should” be a certain way so as to make each other have a certain arrangement.

This talk fits well with another arrangement of matter – the brain state that is pondering morality. It seems to resemble that. So that is how morality is defined.

Now, rocks don’t have that arrangement of matter. Predators may have it. Of course, all matter will act according to the laws of physics. Some matter will possess the quality of having “bad desires” as defined by desirism. And that matter will have “bad desires” as defined by desirism.

Now, you can say that a rock has a specific arrangement of matter that corresponds to talk about morality. You can, but it doesn’t.

What “should” one do then according to desirism? One will do what the laws of physics dictate. One will have states of the brain that can be calculated by desirism as bad and/or good desires.

What is your objection, then?

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Patrick (Christian) June 1, 2011 at 2:48 pm

The following arguments concerning the Problem of Evil may withstand the objections put forward by Trakakis.

- An omnipotent being is a logical impossibility. This can be seen from the omnipotence paradox (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omnipotence_paradox). Therefore God cannot be omnipotent. Moreover, the Bible doesn’t assign omnipotence to God, as we can read that there are things that God cannot do (see e.g. 2 Timothy 2,13).
- God’s perfect justice prevents Him from helping sinners (Isaiah 59,1-2).
- Unlike God Christians are not perfectly just. Therefore, unlike God, they are in a position to help sinners. By doing this they may make the respective persons receptive of God’s salvation (Matthew 5,16, 1 Peter 2,11-12, and 3,1-2), which in turn frees these persons from suffering in the afterlife. This certainly is a strong motivation for Christians to help people.
- The greater God’s beneficial power due to His love, the greater God’s destructive power due to His justice (see Matthew 13,27-29). Striving to prevent as much suffering as possible God can only interfere to such a degree that the beneficial effect of the interference is not neutralized by the destructive effect of it.
- Looking at a person who will never accept God’s salvation, the more sins this person commits, the more severe his or her punishment in the afterlife will be. Therefore the earlier this person dies, the better for him or her.
- For such a person it would be the best thing to die before he or she reaches the age of accountability, i.e. before he or she can distinguish between good and evil (see Genesis 2,16, Deuteronomy 1,39, and Isaiah 7,16). In such a case the person would face no punishment at all in the afterlife, as he or she would not have been able to commit sins.
- A person’s suffering in this life may have a redeeming effect (Luke 16,25) and consequently contribute to a decrease of the respective person’s suffering in the afterlife. So, God may not be inclined to relieve this person’s suffering.
- A person’s suffering in this life may make the person receptive of God’s salvation (Luke 15,11-21), which in turn frees this person from suffering in the afterlife.
- From a Biblical point of view the source of all of evil lies in the disobedience towards God’s commandments. According to Jesus the most basic commandments are to love God and to love one’s neighbour (Matthew 22,34-40). Not even God can force people to love Him and their fellow human beings.
- One effect of a loving relationship with God is the improvement of man’s character (Ezekiel 11,19-20, Romans 8,29, 2 Corinthians 5,17, Galatians 5,16-18). If a person refuses to enter into such a relationship this makes it impossible for God to make this world a better place by means of this person.

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woodchuck64 June 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm

cl,

Our personal desires should not be guaranteed to provide some insight into the true nature of reality.

I tend to agree, and this entails the question: on what ground does the desirist stand? How is desirism not completely antithetical to everything else Luke ostensibly endorses?

I have a desire for justice, but that desire does not mean that there is ultimate justice in the universe, necessarily. The fact that I have that desire means desirism would consider it part of a total set of desires to be fulfilled or weakened under a hypothetical function. Since desirism could still maximize desire fulfillment with my desire for justice having nothing to do with the true nature of reality, I don’t see a problem there.

He has stricken the “desirism is the moral theory I currently defend” part. Exactly what that indicates is another question.

Interesting.

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Kyle Key June 1, 2011 at 3:40 pm

I begrudgingly agree with ayer and cl: if this is a logical problem of natural evil (and it certainly seems to be), then the theist can just invent whatever exceedingly improbable explanation they’d like so long as logical incoherence is escaped (such as they’ve already done). An exploration of the evidential problem of natural evil that John D. alludes to in the article proper would be of greater importance, from my seat (“The argument could continue. It could, for instance, point out that there is plenty of natural evil in the world and conclude that this implies the non-existence of God, but that’s not really Trakakis’s focus.”)

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cl June 1, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Silas,

What is your objection, then?

Ha! Exactly what I was about to ask you after reading those irrelevant remarks! Seriously though, if you don’t understand the problems with desirism by now, there’s nothing I can do.

woodchuck64,

I have a desire for justice, but that desire does not mean that there is ultimate justice in the universe, necessarily. The fact that I have that desire means desirism would consider it part of a total set of desires to be fulfilled or weakened under a hypothetical function. Since desirism could still maximize desire fulfillment with my desire for justice having nothing to do with the true nature of reality, I don’t see a problem there.

If our personal desires should not be guaranteed to provide some insight into the true nature of reality, then, what good is a theory that defines morality in terms of our personal desires? That seems like a HUGE problem to me.

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Ralph June 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm

I begrudgingly agree with ayer and cl: if this is a logical problem of natural evil (and it certainly seems to be), then the theist can just invent whatever exceedingly improbable explanation they’d like so long as logical incoherence is escaped (such as they’ve already done). An exploration of the evidential problem of natural evil that John D. alludes to in the article proper would be of greater importance, from my seat (“The argument could continue. It could, for instance, point out that there is plenty of natural evil in the world and conclude that this implies the non-existence of God, but that’s not really Trakakis’s focus.”)

As a defense, soul-making could be successful, but as a theodicy I think it needs to accomplish more than positing an “exceedingly improbable explanation”.

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Luke Muehlhauser June 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Leomar,

Updated.

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Luke Muehlhauser June 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Leomar,

But of course.

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cl June 1, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Ralph / Kyle Key,

What’s so “exceedingly improbable” here, and what scale are we using to determine this probability?

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woodchuck64 June 1, 2011 at 6:37 pm

cl,

If our personal desires should not be guaranteed to provide some insight into the true nature of reality, then, what good is a theory that defines morality in terms of our personal desires? That seems like a HUGE problem to me.

Using the same example, I have a desire for justice, but that desire does not mean that there is ultimate justice in the universe, necessarily. The desire does, however, show something true about my reality: I want justice. What I want is real to me by definition. As far as desirism is concerned with personal desires, it is concerned with the reality that is most important to us, the first-person perspective.

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cl June 1, 2011 at 6:42 pm

woodchuck64,

None of that addresses the problem, though: If our personal desires should not be guaranteed to provide some insight into the true nature of reality, then, what good is a theory that defines morality in terms of our personal desires? How do we get from “I desire X” to “I ought to desire X” or even “I ought to condemn whoever doesn’t desire X” ?

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Rufus June 1, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Dan,

I do put forward this challenge though:

WLC and others say god can not do anything that is logically impossible. But this means god is NOT the most powerful being. It’s impossible. The most powerful being means just that – it’s the most powerful. And god is supposed to have created all things that exist. And “all things” means nothing is excluded. Logic exists, logic is something. So would this not fall under gods creation? God had to create logic.

Therefor, god could have made it logically possible for a human to have free will and also not want to do harm.

Let us suppose, then, that God can do the logically impossible. If this were true, then Trakakis’ premise (1) would be false. God’s existence would not be logically incompatible with any state of affair, since God would have the power to make any state of affair compatible with His existence. In order for this argument to get off the ground, both the theist and atheist must accept the definition of omnipotence to include only the ability to do that which is logically possible, which is to say there is no problem of evil for one who holds to your definition of “most powerful being.” I believe Descartes held to this view of omnipotence, though it is far from the orthodox position.

-Rufus

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T'sinadree June 2, 2011 at 8:59 am

Luke,

I noticed that you added the image at the beginning of this post. Has anything in the post itself been revised? I’m just asking because I printed this when it was first posted and was wondering if I had to do it again to be up-to-date.

Thanks

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woodchuck64 June 2, 2011 at 12:40 pm

cl,

None of that addresses the problem, though: If our personal desires should not be guaranteed to provide some insight into the true nature of reality, then, what good is a theory that defines morality in terms of our personal desires?

My personal desires provide insight into the part of reality that is important to me, what I value. What I value may not be true of what anyone else values, but it is true for me. Desirism defines morality in terms of what people value, even though individuals may value different things.

I understand your question as asking effectively “If our values are not shared by ultimate reality, then what good is a theory that defines morality in terms of our values?” The answer is that morality is not supposed to be about what ultimate reality values but about what people value.

How do we get from “I desire X” to “I ought to desire X” or even “I ought to condemn whoever doesn’t desire X” ?

If desirism becomes an established form of secular morality then the “oughts” are taught just like morality is taught today. Why would someone try to get a society to use desirism? For me, that would require demonstrating in principle and practice that desirism can be expected to work better than any other form of morality as a means of advancing my goals and desires for myself, for my loved ones, and for the human race (accepting that those goals and desires are not necessarily set in stone at any given moment).

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cl June 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I understand your question as asking effectively “If our values are not shared by ultimate reality, then what good is a theory that defines morality in terms of our values?”

That’s not what I’m asking, and your closing paragraph didn’t answer the questions I am asking.

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woodchuck64 June 2, 2011 at 4:29 pm

cl,
I basically made a comment which you agreed with, but it has become clear that the way I meant my comment to be understood is different from the way you understand it. My comment “Our personal desires should not be guaranteed to provide some insight into the true nature of reality” is to be understood as saying that our desires should not be guaranteed to provide insight into the universe’s ultimate values or desires. Personal desires are critical for what’s important to people and important for morality, but shouldn’t be used to assume similar desires or similar priorities exist in the universe writ large. As mentioned, I don’t see an issue for desirism in that context.

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cl June 2, 2011 at 4:37 pm

My comment “Our personal desires should not be guaranteed to provide some insight into the true nature of reality” is to be understood as saying that our desires should not be guaranteed to provide insight into the universe’s ultimate values or desires.

It’s weird to me that you personify the universe. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Luke and Alonzo are interested in the theory that makes “only true claims” about morality, right? Well, if there’s no guarantee our desires are true, there’s no guarantee desirism is true–which completely undermines all its supposed advantages. That “people generally” desire X doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

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Luke Muehlhauser June 2, 2011 at 7:57 pm

T’sinadree,

No, I didn’t change anything else.

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melior June 3, 2011 at 1:58 am

both the theist and atheist must accept the definition of omnipotence to include only the ability to do that which is logically possible

A clever attempt, but the tragic consequence of this tactical maneuver is that it fatally undermines its own Ontological Argument: that a god which exists is more powerful than one who does not exist.

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Rufus June 3, 2011 at 5:39 am

melior,

A clever attempt, but the tragic consequence of this tactical maneuver is that it fatally undermines its own Ontological Argument: that a god which exists is more powerful than one who does not exist.

Yes, it would fatally undermine the Ontological Argument. It would fatally undermine many arguments having to do with God. That is, no logically necessary conclusions could ever be reached. If one insists that omnipotence entails the ability to do the logically impossible, then I don’t see how any of these arguments get off the ground. However, I don’t think omnipotence should be understood in this way. The majority of theists would agree that omnipotence does not entail the ability to draw round-squares and create stones too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift. So if the atheist and theist are to discuss the logical problem of evil, they must agree to at least this “limitation” to omnipotence.

-Rufus

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Reidish June 3, 2011 at 9:43 am

Rufus: both the theist and atheist must accept the definition of omnipotence to include only the ability to do that which is logically possible

melior: A clever attempt, but the tragic consequence of this tactical maneuver is that it fatally undermines its own Ontological Argument: that a god which exists is more powerful than one who does not exist.

Why should anyone take seriously a position that the logically impossible, is possible? Now since that position is absurd, then it does not, it can not, undermine the Ontological Argument.

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woodchuck64 June 3, 2011 at 1:04 pm

cl,

It’s weird to me that you personify the universe.

I don’t mean to personify the universe. Our desires should not be guaranteed to provide insight into the universe’s ultimate values or desires, or even insight into the question of whether or not the universe has ultimate values or desires.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Luke and Alonzo are interested in the theory that makes “only true claims” about morality, right? Well, if there’s no guarantee our desires are true, there’s no guarantee desirism is true–which completely undermines all its supposed advantages. That “people generally” desire X doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Here’s where I’ve been having trouble following this discussion: desires seem to be true by definition; if I have a desire, it is a real desire. That part of my subjective reality is very real to me. I may be uncertain or even mistaken on where the desires comes from or what exactly to do to fulfill it, but at least I can say with certainty that the desire exists and is real (at least as far as it feels from the inside).

When I talk about desires misleading us, it’s not the desire at fault really, but rather faulty reasoning that wrongly extrapolates and anthropomorphizes experience. The only sense of falseness I can get for a desire is if the desire is basically lying to me about what will fulfill it: i.e. imagine hunger and thirst being flipped in my brain. If desires consistently tell us nothing about what will fulfill them, desirism won’t work; but then we’re basically screwed anyway, we die being unable to choose basic necessities for survival. As it seems today, most desires come with fairly accurate hints about how to fulfill them. Even if this is not true for all desires all of the time, the task of matching desire to fulfillment seems solvable as long as desires and corresponding fulfillment are not utterly random.

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cl June 3, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Reidish,

Why should anyone take seriously a position that the logically impossible, is possible? Now since that position is absurd, then it does not, it can not, undermine the Ontological Argument.

Yeah, I thought that was odd, too. I’d like to see a better argument for meilor’s claim.

woodchuck64,

I don’t mean to personify the universe.

Well, then I kindly suggest refraining from language that personifies the universe! AFAIK, the universe can’t have desires.

Here’s where I’ve been having trouble following this discussion: desires seem to be true by definition; if I have a desire, it is a real desire. That part of my subjective reality is very real to me. I may be uncertain or even mistaken on where the desires comes from or what exactly to do to fulfill it, but at least I can say with certainty that the desire exists and is real (at least as far as it feels from the inside).

Right. We totally agree there. Now, here’s what I’ve been having trouble following in this discussion: how do we get from there to “I ought to desire X” or even “I ought to condemn whoever doesn’t desire X” ?

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woodchuck64 June 3, 2011 at 5:01 pm

cl,

Now, here’s what I’ve been having trouble following in this discussion: how do we get from there to “I ought to desire X” or even “I ought to condemn whoever doesn’t desire X” ?

My understanding is that an “ought” in desirism can only be something taught like “oughts” in any form of morality, which presumes that desirism has already been embedded in society. There is no other “ought”. People sympathetic to desirism as a means of advancing their goals and desires help it become embedded in society through actions which I think would better be described as pragmatic or goal-directed behavior rather than moral behavior. I’m basically saying the same thing as Garren at http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-is-desirism.html, section “Judging Behavior; and acknowledging with him that this is a still a bit fuzzy.

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cl June 4, 2011 at 10:09 am

I get all that. Let’s try it this way. Imagine that you, myself, and five others are all the people that exist. Imagine that you and the others have desire A, while I have ~A:

1) What makes your desire “morally right?”

2) Why?

3) How do we know who’s right?

4) Does morality reduce to anything other than the majority imposing their values on the minority in this situation?

That sort of thing.

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Rufus June 4, 2011 at 10:31 am

cl,

I get all that. Let’s try it this way. Imagine that you, myself, and five others are all the people that exist. Imagine that you and the others have desire A, while I have ~A:

1) What makes your desire “morally right?”

2) Why?

3) How do we know who’s right?

4) Does morality reduce to anything other than the majority imposing their values on the minority in this situation?

That sort of thing.

I would add:

5) What is to stop the minority, who holds desire for ~A from amassing sufficient power to manipulate all who hold desire for A such that they are either ambivalent or desire ~A?

We have discussed this before and both concluded that there is no reason to suppose that there is such a thing as non-malleable desires. Thus, in desirism, morality is not necessarily determined by the majority, but by the powerful. I think desirism essentially boils down to the old doctrine “Might Makes Right” as seen in Thrysamachus (Republic) and Callicles (Gorgias).

So I’d like to know if there is any good evidence for a desire that cannot be changed by any means. What is this desire and why would it be resistant to any efforts to change it?

-Rufus

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Ex Hypothesi June 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm

“So I’d like to know if there is any good evidence for a desire that cannot be changed by any means. What is this desire and why would it be resistant to any efforts to change it?”

How about an agent that is such that He necessarily desires only what is good- viz., God?

::wink::

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Zeb June 5, 2011 at 5:50 am

So I’d like to know if there is any good evidence for a desire that cannot be changed by any means.What is this desire and why would it be resistant to any efforts to change it?

-Rufus

Wait, how about a desire for a creature to be in communion with it’s creator, if the desire was ‘built’ to the fundamental nature of the creature and the creator was omnipotent and omniscient? ;)

But seriously, I am convinced that desirism is the correct theory of morality as a universal social convention whether or not theism is true. But I am very skeptical that desirism survives naturalistic reduction (and I wonder if that’s why Luke no longer claims to defend it on Alonzo’s posts), so on naturalism is would just be the rules of a game, like baseball, that refer only to social conventions and fundamental reality. Even so, I think discovering these rules that humans have been unknowingly playing by for thousands of years is an impressive accomplishment. But on theism, which holds that minds are fundamental and irreducible, I think it works. And I think desirism does a better job than any other theory I know of at explaining why under theism God would be all-good, but not really vulnerable to Euthyphro. It also explains why DCT is so appealing and almost but not quite right – desirist calculations are so complex that only an omniscient being could reliably get the right answers, and only a being with a single desire to fulfill all unmalleable desires (that is, given omnipotence, the single best desire possible, in other words a perfectly ‘good’ desire/perfectly ‘good’ being) could be relied on to always and only communicate those answers when doing so would be ‘good’. And finally desirism explains why, on theism, the answers communicated by God, ei God’s commands, tend to promote actions that would result from good desires or good desires themselves. Although to be fair of course, if BDI survives reduction, desirism also explains why, on naturalism, religious cultures would have invented such commands.

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woodchuck64 June 5, 2011 at 8:24 am

cl,

Imagine that you, myself, and five others are all the people that exist. Imagine that you and the others have desire A, while I have ~A:

1) What makes your desire “morally right?”

2) Why?

3) How do we know who’s right?

4) Does morality reduce to anything other than the majority imposing their values on the minority in this situation?

Under desirism, the only way we can refer to “morally right” is for all six people to be guided by desires that a good person has (presumably defined by some sort of comprehensive analysis of the human race). If we are ignoring the desires of a good person and focusing only on the desires of the 6 people above, that is not morality at all in my view, nor I think in desirism’s view.

Rufus,

5) What is to stop the minority, who holds desire for ~A from amassing sufficient power to manipulate all who hold desire for A such that they are either ambivalent or desire ~A?

Manipulation is thwarting our very strong desire for personal autonomy and continuity so I don’t see any way for this behavior to be considered moral under desirism. This may complicate desire calculations, though (although I’m fuzzy on how to do that in the first place).

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cl June 5, 2011 at 8:51 am

Rufus,

We have discussed this before and both concluded that there is no reason to suppose that there is such a thing as non-malleable desires. Thus, in desirism, morality is not necessarily determined by the majority, but by the powerful. I think desirism essentially boils down to the old doctrine “Might Makes Right” as seen in Thrysamachus (Republic) and Callicles (Gorgias).

Agreed. Fyfe has even alluded to concession in this regard. When I asked a question something along the lines of, “what does desirism say to a community of 400 when 200 people have desire X but 200 people have desire ~X,” he told me something along the lines of, “whoever has the most resources available is going to win.”

woodchuck64,

No offense, but you’re still not answering the questions! But that’s okay, because I’m pretty confident that you can’t–that no desirist can. Else, why two years and counting? If you wish to continue, I’d be willing to flesh out my hypothetical example. Let me know.

Zeb,

But seriously, I am convinced that desirism is the correct theory of morality as a universal social convention whether or not theism is true. But I am very skeptical that desirism survives naturalistic reduction (and I wonder if that’s why Luke no longer claims to defend it on Alonzo’s posts), so on naturalism is would just be the rules of a game, like baseball, that refer only to social conventions and fundamental reality. Even so, I think discovering these rules that humans have been unknowingly playing by for thousands of years is an impressive accomplishment. But on theism, which holds that minds are fundamental and irreducible, I think it works. And I think desirism does a better job than any other theory I know of at explaining why under theism God would be all-good, but not really vulnerable to Euthyphro. It also explains why DCT is so appealing and almost but not quite right – desirist calculations are so complex that only an omniscient being could reliably get the right answers, and only a being with a single desire to fulfill all unmalleable desires (that is, given omnipotence, the single best desire possible, in other words a perfectly ‘good’ desire/perfectly ‘good’ being) could be relied on to always and only communicate those answers when doing so would be ‘good’. And finally desirism explains why, on theism, the answers communicated by God, ei God’s commands, tend to promote actions that would result from good desires or good desires themselves. Although to be fair of course, if BDI survives reduction, desirism also explains why, on naturalism, religious cultures would have invented such commands.

I agree. I’ve been saying that for a long time, and it’s confirming to hear somebody else come to the same conclusions. Desirism can only work given faith in an omniscient, omnibenevolent God. Conversely, it can only fail given faith in cognitively flawed humans who are likely to contort morality according to their biases against things like spectator sports, reality TV, people of different color, etc.

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woodchuck64 June 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

cl,

No offense, but you’re still not answering the questions! But that’s okay, because I’m pretty confident that you can’t–that no desirist can. Else, why two years and counting? If you wish to continue, I’d be willing to flesh out my hypothetical example. Let me know.

None taken. But I do need you to make a stronger effort to explain which questions I’m not answering and exactly why you don’t think my answers qualify as attempts. Note that I don’t consider myself an authority on desirism, but at least I can give my honest view of the matter, and I don’t see yet that you’ve raised an issue on which I’m utterly stumped.

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Rufus June 5, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Zeb,

But seriously, I am convinced that desirism is the correct theory of morality as a universal social convention whether or not theism is true.

I have often wondered if God is the only being that can be a utilitarian. Still, I think God values more than the consequences of actions. I think He values our inner character as well, that he finds our dignity to be of intrinsic worth. For the desirist it is about creating those conditions which maximize desire fulfillment. I think God is the ultimate fulfillment of our desires. “You arouse us so that praising you may bring joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and out heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (Confessions I,1).

woodchuck64,

Manipulation is thwarting our very strong desire for personal autonomy and continuity so I don’t see any way for this behavior to be considered moral under desirism. This may complicate desire calculations, though (although I’m fuzzy on how to do that in the first place).

We manipulate and thwart personal autonomy all the time. When the rapist wants to rape, we create social pressures to discourage him. When he rapes, we lock him away and subject him to rehabilitation programs. So, it is a matter of what is desired. We desire to alter the desire of rapists. But, it could be otherwise. Rapists could figure out a way to “rehabilitate” the rest of us.

Manchurian style brainwashing programs could completely alter what one desires. In the future, as we come to understand the brain better, a certain select group might be able to use some sort of technology (drugs, nanotechnology, cybernetic implants) to completely control our brain-states so that our desires match whatever it is they want it to be. This would completely divorce the correlation between actions and brain-states related to desires.

If morality is just about creating certain electro-chemical patterns in the brain, then morality can be made irrelevant via technology. I don’t think morality could ever be made irrelevant via technology, so I don’t think morality is just about creating a set of patterns in the brain.

cl,

Agreed. Fyfe has even alluded to concession in this regard. When I asked a question something along the lines of, “what does desirism say to a community of 400 when 200 people have desire X but 200 people have desire ~X,” he told me something along the lines of, “whoever has the most resources available is going to win.”

Wow! I would love to see a transcript of that conversation. Was it a public conversation? How very telling… I am more and more convinced that desirism is just a fancy way of saying that if you want people to accept your agenda, you need to figure out how to control their desires. Master the brain, and you are master of the world. After all, there is no intrinsic value to the natural desires with which one is born.

Or, I might have completely misunderstood the doctrines of desirism. Desirists, please offer correction. I’m hoping I am wrong about this theory.

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cl June 5, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Rufus,

Wow! I would love to see a transcript of that conversation. Was it a public conversation? How very telling… I am more and more convinced that desirism is just a fancy way of saying that if you want people to accept your agenda, you need to figure out how to control their desires. Master the brain, and you are master of the world. After all, there is no intrinsic value to the natural desires with which one is born.

Eh… part of me wishes you wouldn’t have asked, because that’s pretty buried if I recall correctly. Hang on while I labor, it’s 12:53 pm my time… I think it was around the time of the post, Homosexual Desires. Be right back—

[...cl scours CSA, then Google because CSA's search functions are weak...]

Found it! I was a little off in what I said, but more or less spot-on with my paraphrase of Alonzo. From the post, Criticism of Atheists:

What does desirism prescribe when we have two agents that want P, and one that wants ~P? What about two-hundred agents that want P, and one that wants ~P? What does desirism prescribe then? Who’s right? [cl, June 11, 2010 at 3:06 pm]

Desirism prescribes nothing. … Which side will win will depend on a number of factors such as strength, planning, and quantity of ammunition. [Fyfe, June 11, 2010 at 6:50 pm]

Damn I’m gettin’ old! That took twenty minutes of searching. So, yeah… pretty much sounds like “might is right” to me.

Of course, Alonzo tried to mitigate my criticism by claiming, “Since your case did not allow for malleable desires, desirism is not applicable to that kind of case.” Yet, note my case DID NOT disallow malleable desires, and I explicitly allowed for them in my comment June 12, 2010 at 12:17 am:

…I was asking you what desirism prescribes when we have 200 agents with some malleable desire P and one agent with some malleable desire ~P. [cl]

In this case, desirism would prescribe for the 200 people that they realize a state of affairs in which the red rock is on top of the green rock and would prescribe for the 1 person to realize a state of affairs in which the green rock were on top of the red rock. [Fyfe]

Then all you are doing is using 54 words to say “people should do what they want,” which only requires six words. If you’re just saying “people should do what they want,” you’re going to have a hard time convincing people that your theory is about morality. Is that what you’re saying? [cl]

Of course, after I washed that mud, he stopped responding. I’d be very interested in hearing your opinion of that transaction, as I respect your carefulness.

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Rufus June 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm

cl,

Of course, Alonzo tried to mitigate my criticism by claiming, “Since your case did not allow for malleable desires, desirism is not applicable to that kind of case.” Yet, note my case DID NOT disallow malleable desires, and I explicitly allowed for them in my comment June 12, 2010 at 12:17 am:

…I was asking you what desirism prescribes when we have 200 agents with some malleable desire P and one agent with some malleable desire ~P. [cl]

In this case, desirism would prescribe for the 200 people that they realize a state of affairs in which the red rock is on top of the green rock and would prescribe for the 1 person to realize a state of affairs in which the green rock were on top of the red rock. [Fyfe]

Then all you are doing is using 54 words to say “people should do what they want,” which only requires six words. If you’re just saying “people should do what they want,” you’re going to have a hard time convincing people that your theory is about morality. Is that what you’re saying? [cl]

Of course, after I washed that mud, he stopped responding. I’d be very interested in hearing your opinion of that transaction, as I respect your carefulness.

I am not sure why Fyfe with an inane example like rock stacking here. Perhaps it had something to do with the comment string. Yes, people have different desires and they should be accommodated as much as possible, but desirism is supposed to help us in matters where promoting the desire for P precludes or makes difficult the possibility for others to fulfill their desire for ~P.

As far as I can tell, he was dodging the point completely by applying your question to a non-moral case in which both the 200 and the one can both be easily accommodated. I want to know what desirism tells us to do with the Marquis de Sade. He should be locked-up, punished, reformed… right? Well, is that just because it is easier to change him than it is to change us? If so, then preferencing non-Sadists is merely a matter of resources and technology. We simply can’t change the entire society to conform to de Sade’s views. But if de Sade had more power and resources, say nanotechnology or powerful drugs, then he could reprogram everyone to be masochists and enjoy his tormenting humiliation. Everyone wins! “But you’re taking away their autonomy” one might protest. True, but my little nanobots would make your brain-state such that you like losing your autonomy. “But that’s fanciful” another might object. Ok, maybe, but the point is that a moral theory should be able to resist such hypotheticals. My morality can respond to this because I think autonomy has intrinsic value even if it is not desired.

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woodchuck64 June 5, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Rufus,

We manipulate and thwart personal autonomy all the time. When the rapist wants to rape, we create social pressures to discourage him. When he rapes, we lock him away and subject him to rehabilitation programs. So, it is a matter of what is desired. We desire to alter the desire of rapists. But, it could be otherwise. Rapists could figure out a way to “rehabilitate” the rest of us.

But we need to distinguish punishment from non-punishment. A person who repeatedly takes desire thwarting acts may lose the right to autonomy under the calculation that forced rehabilitation will result in more fulfilled desires than the desire thwarted by taking that person’s autonomy. However, for one who has not taken similar desire thwarting acts, losing autonomy should make the calculation come out differently, against thwarting autonomy.

Manchurian style brainwashing programs could completely alter what one desires. In the future, as we come to understand the brain better, a certain select group might be able to use some sort of technology (drugs, nanotechnology, cybernetic implants) to completely control our brain-states so that our desires match whatever it is they want it to be. This would completely divorce the correlation between actions and brain-states related to desires.

A possibility, but it would not be given the blessing of desirism I think.

If morality is just about creating certain electro-chemical patterns in the brain, then morality can be made irrelevant via technology.

Morality ultimately governs the struggle between selfish and selfless desires in entities that share time/space. The only way I can imagine it to be irrelevant is if all entities become entirely selfless and effectively merge into one entity. Singularity believers think that technology may let that happen.

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cl June 5, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Rufus,

As far as I can tell, he was dodging the point completely by applying your question to a non-moral case in which both the 200 and the one can both be easily accommodated.

Yeah, I agree. I’m not too worried about it, though. Have you seen the steady decline in interest with desirism lately? I’ve noticed it. There’s a reason. A while back, Luke was fond of claiming he was getting desirism ready for peer review. Well, reality check: it’s been going through a form of peer review for the past two years now, and, from what I can see, the consensus seems about 65/35 in our favor–not Alonzo’s. That doesn’t make us right and Alonzo wrong, but it should raise serious doubts for any objective inquirer. After a while, people tire of the repeated failures and the inconsistencies. I mean, all this talk about a moral theory that “makes only true claims,” then the crap about how “people generally” would be better off without spectator sports and reality TV, and THEN the crap about how creationists are “evil” and “morally negligent” for making claims without evidence.

I want to know what desirism tells us to do with the Marquis de Sade. He should be locked-up, punished, reformed… right?

Nothing. Remember, “Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision. Any theory that claims that it DOES have something truthful to say to an agent at the moment of decision can be thrown out because what it has to say is false.” [Alonzo Fyfe, Short-List Theories of Morality, September 3, 2010]

woodchuck64,

I notice you’re talking about calculations now, and I think that’s a good thing. Can you point to even a single instance of Luke and/or Alonzo using a calculation to justify their claims?

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woodchuck64 June 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm

cl,
My calculations are vaguely intuitive at best. At this phase, I don’t expect to see much better than that while there are more important high-level issues to be clarified/fleshed-out. Even a task as basic as describing Desirism simply and clearly step by step has just been started with the podcasts.

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Rufus June 5, 2011 at 9:18 pm

woodchuck64,

But we need to distinguish punishment from non-punishment. A person who repeatedly takes desire thwarting acts may lose the right to autonomy under the calculation that forced rehabilitation will result in more fulfilled desires than the desire thwarted by taking that person’s autonomy. However, for one who has not taken similar desire thwarting acts, losing autonomy should make the calculation come out differently, against thwarting autonomy.

What is considered a desire-thwarting act is relative to the person. So if the Marquis de Sade is in charge of society and his values are shared by the majority while my “puritanism” is thwarting desires in his sadistic society and I repeatedly try to stop the brutal orgies, then I lose my autonomy and should be “rehabilitated” right?

O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self willed exile! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He has won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother (Orwell, 1984)

You also wrote:

Morality ultimately governs the struggle between selfish and selfless desires in entities that share time/space. The only way I can imagine it to be irrelevant is if all entities become entirely selfless and effectively merge into one entity. Singularity believers think that technology may let that happen.

Since desirism places value on the relationship between desire-fulfillment and those states of affairs in which desires are fulfilled only, a maximally good world, or a world with the most “relational” value, would be something like a “brain-in-vat” farm with trillions upon trillions of brains plugged into computers that stimulate brain-patters in which desire fulfillment occurs. I know this is a fantastic thought experiment, but we need to consider such possibilities in order to test whether a theory is correct. Why would a desirist not think this scenario the best, or at least the right direction? Autonomy, dignity, character, self-respect, loving relationships, developing talents, charity… none of those things have intrinsic value, so why not just get down to the level of directly controlling the brain? If we can do that, then we really don’t have to worry about doing anything else.

cl,

Nothing. Remember, “Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision. Any theory that claims that it DOES have something truthful to say to an agent at the moment of decision can be thrown out because what it has to say is false.” [Alonzo Fyfe, Short-List Theories of Morality, September 3, 2010]

Wow, ok. That last part is false even under the most generous reading. It is a universal claim, so I need only find one example of a moral theory that has prescribed something to someone at a moment of decision that turned out to be correct. I can think of thousands of examples in my life where I have followed the prescriptions of a moral theorists and their prescriptions turned out to be right. I can find hundreds of thousands, probably millions if I did not die first, of examples of friends, family, in biography I have read, in history. It is not even worth accumulating the data to prove this claim false. Am I missing something here?

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woodchuck64 June 6, 2011 at 8:02 am

Rufus,

What is considered a desire-thwarting act is relative to the person. So if the Marquis de Sade is in charge of society and his values are shared by the majority while my “puritanism” is thwarting desires in his sadistic society and I repeatedly try to stop the brutal orgies, then I lose my autonomy and should be “rehabilitated” right?

The majority is not relevant, here, but rather “people generally”, which includes the whole human race. Desirism is not defined to be used for isolated pockets of people. In the above scenario, the Marquis de Sade’s desires are wrong because they do not generally fulfill desires across the spectrum of humanity.

Since desirism places value on the relationship between desire-fulfillment and those states of affairs in which desires are fulfilled only, a maximally good world, or a world with the most “relational” value, would be something like a “brain-in-vat” farm with trillions upon trillions of brains plugged into computers that stimulate brain-patters in which desire fulfillment occurs. I know this is a fantastic thought experiment, but we need to consider such possibilities in order to test whether a theory is correct. Why would a desirist not think this scenario the best, or at least the right direction?

Because it requires thwarting the strong desires of autonomy.

Autonomy, dignity, character, self-respect, loving relationships, developing talents, charity… none of those things have intrinsic value, so why not just get down to the level of directly controlling the brain? If we can do that, then we really don’t have to worry about doing anything else.

Nevertheless, people have desires for those characteristics and desirism is focused on desire fulfillment. Thus, controlling the brain is only an option if people desire for that to happen.

Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision.

There is a relatively simple reason for this. See Garren’s blog http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-is-desirism.html, section “Judging Behavior” for what I think is a good overview of this potentially confusing claim.

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cl June 6, 2011 at 9:31 am

Rufus,

Wow, ok. That last part is false even under the most generous reading. It is a universal claim, so I need only find one example of a moral theory that has prescribed something to someone at a moment of decision that turned out to be correct.

Yeah, I know… that’s why I often sit back and shake my head like, “Do people really not see the problems here?” Not only what you said, but Alonzo puts the cart before the horse and condemns ALL OTHER THEORIES without even so much as a lick of evidence or argumentation. I suspect the only ground for his claim is his belief that morality is entirely reducible to “desires which tend to fulfill other desires.”

woodchuck64,

So, any progress on those questions? They are, after all, some of the standard questions philosophers use to test theories of morality. When I asked,

Can you point to even a single instance of Luke and/or Alonzo using a calculation to justify their claims?

…I wasn’t asking about your calculations, but theirs. Have you seen any calculations from Alonzo that would justify his claims about spectator sports and reality TV, for example? Have you seen any evidence whatsoever? If so, by all means, please point us to it.

The majority is not relevant, here, but rather “people generally”, which includes the whole human race.

That seems mistaken, but if Fyfe *really does* mean “the whole human race,” he is abusing language and misleading readers by saying “people generally.” When a person uses the word generally, they are implying that “in every instance” does not necessarily hold. Example: “generally, I like ice cream [subtext: although there are a few instances where this does not hold; perhaps pistachio].” Right?

Desirism is not defined to be used for isolated pockets of people.

In my opinion, any worthwhile theory of morality must be used in this way. Cultures–and by extension the prevalent desires therein–vary. For Alonzo to sit back in his chair and declare spectator sports and reality TV as “worthless” is to take his values, which generated in this culture, and apply them across the board to “people generally,” which you allege really means “the whole human race.” Well, how does Alonzo know that other cultures have reason to share his values? How does Alonzo know that other cultures don’t have “reasons for action to promote the desires for spectator sports and reality TV,” if you prefer the more verbose manner in which desirism tends to state things? Thus far, it seems Alonzo hasn’t provided a lick of evidence for his claim; not one single calculation that would justify it. Is that careful morality, consistent with an evidence-based pursuit of truth, in your opinion?

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cl June 6, 2011 at 9:36 am

Garren,

I leave this in case you happen to be following this thread. I tried–again–to post a comment on your blog, and, like others, seem to be having trouble. Oh well.

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Zeb June 6, 2011 at 11:41 am

Rufus

Since desirism places value on the relationship between desire-fulfillment and those states of affairs in which desires are fulfilled only, a maximally good world, or a world with the most “relational” value, would be something like a “brain-in-vat” farm with trillions upon trillions of brains plugged into computers that stimulate brain-patters in which desire fulfillment occurs.

There is a subtle but important distinction here: desirism does not place value, moral or otherwise, on desire-fulfillment. It does place moral value on desires that tend to increase desire fulfillment. So while it would not prescribe a brain in a vat world, it might prescribe the desire to create such a world for any entity or population capable of doing so (I would rather say desirism prescribes acts that promote that desire, but that’s not how Luke and Alonzo would put it). There are a couple more problems with the brain in a vat challenge. Since desirism does not prescribe simple desire fulfillment, it does not prescribe creating new desires in order to fulfill them – unless the subjects have a desire for simple desire fulfillment, that is. And creating a world in which people have the experience of having their current desires fulfilled is not good; only actual fulfillment of their desires is good [let it be understood that I'm not really calling the acts or the states of affairs "good," rather any desires that tend to lead to state of affairs]. Now if you can believe that people have a desire for pleasure, or the appearance of simple desire fulfillment, and that that desire outweighs (don’t ask me by what measure) all other desires and is unmalleable, then the desire to create a brain-in-a-vat world is a good desire if it can lead to that world.

woodchuck64
The existence of a strong desire for autonomy seems irrelevant, unless you are claiming that it empirically outweighs the desires that would be fulfilled by the brain-in-a-vat world in the hypothetical population in question. But it does bring up something that is confusing to me about desirism – how do you factor in time? Like, say it was possible to remove all desires for autonomy instantly and without anyone knowing that it happened, and then put all those people who no longer have a desire to avoid brain-in-a-vat world into vats. Would the desire for autonomy have been thwarted? The proposition “I am autonomous” has been made false, but no one holds a pro-attitude toward that proposition at the time it was made false. But, at least on B theory, those people still hold that position at an earlier time.

cl

Desirism has nothing to say to a moral agent at the moment of decision.

That is only true given Fyfe’s naturalism and an assumed absence of universal ultimate desires. In any world in which all people shared an overwhelming desire that could only be mutually fulfilled, then desirism would have the perfect relevant advice to every moral agent at every moment of decision. I think we live in such a world, and so I think desirism is an important and useful theory.

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woodchuck64 June 6, 2011 at 12:43 pm

cl,

Can you point to even a single instance of Luke and/or Alonzo using a calculation to justify their claims?

Not specifically that I can think of, no, but I’m not sure I should be expecting a serious effort at calculations at this stage. I’d still like them to spend time on clarifying the high-level issues. If Alonzo goes on about how something should be moral or immoral, I invoke Luke’s caveat: “questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.” Nevertheless it’s instructive to see desirism applied in order to get a feel for how it works.

That seems mistaken, but if Fyfe *really does* mean “the whole human race,” he is abusing language and misleading readers by saying “people generally.”

I mean that “people generally” can only be figured out by examining the whole human race, not a sub-population. (I don’t know exactly how to go about abstracting generalities from a vast population but I assume this is on the list of items they’re working on.)

In my opinion, any worthwhile theory of morality must be used in this way. Cultures–and by extension the prevalent desires therein–vary. For Alonzo to sit back in his chair and declare spectator sports and reality TV as “worthless” is to take his values, which generated in this culture, and apply them across the board to “people generally,” which you allege really means “the whole human race.” Well, how does Alonzo know that other cultures have reason to share his values? How does Alonzo know that other cultures don’t have “reasons for action to promote the desires for spectator sports and reality TV,” if you prefer the more verbose manner in which desirism tends to state things? Thus far, it seems Alonzo hasn’t provided a lick of evidence for his claim; not one single calculation that would justify it. Is that careful morality, consistent with an evidence-based pursuit of truth, in your opinion?

Whenever I read Alonzo arguing something as moral/immoral, I first note that he might be implicitly using praise/condemnation to modify the desires of his readers, and if so, the presentation is going to be a bit inflammatory. (I would prefer writings without emotive language.) Secondly, I believe that no matter what he says, Alonzo is going to be perfectly fine with people disagreeing with his moral reasoning; Luke reminds him on every post, so to speak. So while I won’t defend his moralizing writings as evidentially supported, I’m taking away from them studies in how theoretical desirism might be approached for real world problems.

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Rufus June 6, 2011 at 7:09 pm

woodchuck64,

The majority is not relevant, here, but rather “people generally”, which includes the whole human race. Desirism is not defined to be used for isolated pockets of people. In the above scenario, the Marquis de Sade’s desires are wrong because they do not generally fulfill desires across the spectrum of humanity.

Fine, then in my thought experiment the Marquis de Sade has taken over the desires of the whole human race via some sort of technology. Through this technology, he is able to replicate brain-states of desire fulfillment for any act he wishes to do, or have others do.

You also wrote:

Because it requires thwarting the strong desires of autonomy.

My point is that de Sade desires to remove autonomy from the whole human race. Since he also has the technology to “dial down” our desire for autonomy and “dial up” our desire to be enslaved, he now possesses the capability of making his desire for domination and control a desire that fulfills our desire to be dominated and enslaved. So de Sade’s technology actually permits him to make the fulfillment of any of his desires such that they promote and fulfill all desires of humanity.

Finally:

Nevertheless, people have desires for those characteristics and desirism is focused on desire fulfillment. Thus, controlling the brain is only an option if people desire for that to happen.

Suppose people generally do not desire their brain to be controlled. It turns out that this desire thwarts a great deal many more desires that can be fulfilled through perfect control of brain-states. Without brain control, it is likely that some instance of desire fulfillment will not occur. Thus, the desire to not have one’s brain controlled by de Sade’s nano-technology is actually immoral and should be thwarted.

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Rufus June 6, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Zeb,

There is a subtle but important distinction here: desirism does not place value, moral or otherwise, on desire-fulfillment. It does place moral value on desires that tend to increase desire fulfillment. So while it would not prescribe a brain in a vat world, it might prescribe the desire to create such a world for any entity or population capable of doing so (I would rather say desirism prescribes acts that promote that desire, but that’s not how Luke and Alonzo would put it). There are a couple more problems with the brain in a vat challenge. Since desirism does not prescribe simple desire fulfillment, it does not prescribe creating new desires in order to fulfill them – unless the subjects have a desire for simple desire fulfillment, that is. And creating a world in which people have the experience of having their current desires fulfilled is not good; only actual fulfillment of their desires is good [let it be understood that I'm not really calling the acts or the states of affairs "good," rather any desires that tend to lead to state of affairs]. Now if you can believe that people have a desire for pleasure, or the appearance of simple desire fulfillment, and that that desire outweighs (don’t ask me by what measure) all other desires and is unmalleable, then the desire to create a brain-in-a-vat world is a good desire if it can lead to that world.

I accept your modification from “Desirism prescribes creating a brain-in-vat world” to “Desirism prescribes the desire to create a brain-in-vat world for an entity or entities capable of doing so”. As I argue above, perfect control over brain-states, or near perfect control, will fulfill a great deal more desires than thwarts. Thus, the desire not to create de Sade’s nano-technology, or a brain-in-vat world would be a desire that thwarts far more desires than it could ever fulfill. As many futurists think that “cracking” the brain is a real possibility, shouldn’t the desirist try to create such a technology and use it in the fashion I describe?

There are many other points you make and I am going to try my best to tease them out. The first is that desirism does not prescribe the creation of new desires. I am not sure why this would be. It prescribes desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Thus, the desire to completely control brain-states so as to create desire fulfillment patterns in every existent brain (which is the essence of both of my thought experiments) is a desire whereby any desires can be fulfilled.

You seem to hesitate over the idea that people do not want desire-fulfillment simply. Yet, this whole theory is built upon the premise that desire is that which motivates action. So I think it is plausible that the desire for perfect brain-control is the epitome of a desire that fulfills other simple desires. Thus, the desirist would place value on perfect control of the brain as a means to fulfill all other desires.

You also seem to distinguish the “appearance of desire fulfillment” from “actual desire fulfillment”. Let’s suppose that a brain has the desire to go to the store and purchase a candy bar. In the brain-in-vat scenario, the brain perceives that a state-of-affair occurred such that the desire was fulfilled. The brain was mistaken only insofar as the state-of-affair which occurred was virtual. The important thing is not whether the state-of-affair intended is actually realized, but that some state-of-affair occurs such that the brain assents to it as the desire-fulfilling state-of-affair.

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Zeb June 7, 2011 at 2:53 am

It prescribes desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

It prescribes desires that tend to fulfill other desires that exist. Once those new created desires exist, then any desire that tends to fulfill them is good. But prior to their existence, the desire to create them is only good if it fulfills desires that exist at that time.

So I think it is plausible that the desire for perfect brain-control is the epitome of a desire that fulfills other simple desires.

If I have a desire for trees to flourish, and you put me in a brain-vat that makes me think all trees are flourishing, and then kill all trees, you are thwarting my desire. I don’t desire the experience of fulfillment, I desire trees to flourish.

The important thing is not whether the state-of-affair intended is actually realized, but that some state-of-affair occurs such that the brain assents to it as the desire-fulfilling state-of-affair.

Why is that the important thing? Desirism has a rigid adherence to as propositional attitudes, not just feelings, and objective reality, not subjective experience. I found those aspects counter-intuitive at first and I still don’t think they fit with reductionism, but they provide a great failsafe against the kinds of fears I usually have about atheistic systems of morality, especially forms of utilitarianism.

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Rufus June 7, 2011 at 6:27 am

Zeb,

It prescribes desires that tend to fulfill other desires that exist. Once those new created desires exist, then any desire that tends to fulfill them is good. But prior to their existence, the desire to create them is only good if it fulfills desires that exist at that time.

Granted.

If I have a desire for trees to flourish, and you put me in a brain-vat that makes me think all trees are flourishing, and then kill all trees, you are thwarting my desire. I don’t desire the experience of fulfillment, I desire trees to flourish.

I have proposed two different styles of brain control and I think this might be getting a bit confusing. In the de Sade scenario, he controls that which is desired by living humans in this world through some sort of technology and is able to turn the “knobs” of desires to fit his whims. Messy and inefficient “social pressures” which are used today to modify and shape our desires is replaced by a technology that simply changes that which is desired altogether.

The brain-in-vat scenario was not intended to be about controlling humans that are currently in bodies. I imagined it to be something of farm, in which trillions of brains are created having only perceived the simulation. In that case, the “tree-lover” was never outside of the vat in the first place. This is significant in that any proposition made by the brain would only reference objects perceived within the simulation. So if I were to enter into the simulation and ask the brain what it desired, it would respond “I desire trees to flourish.” And if I were to ask what is meant by “trees” the brain might direct my attention to objects within the simulation that it perceives to be trees. Thus, the scenario I am imagining here would adhere to “desire fulfillment” being a “propositional attitude” in which those things that are called “trees” are made to “flourish.” It is just that “Trees flourishing” would mean something quite different for the brain-in-the-vat than it would for the brain-in-the-body.

So perhaps it would be desire thwarting to remove a brain from a person and put into a simulation and then simulate desire-fulfilling scenarios. I still think the ultimate desire would be to create the brain-in-vat farm and clone trillions upon trillions of brains.

Zeb, thanks for playing along with me. I am learning more about desirism as we go through these thought experiments. I just want to push this as far as I can. I hope you don’t mind indulging me a bit here.

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woodchuck64 June 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Zeb,

The existence of a strong desire for autonomy seems irrelevant, unless you are claiming that it empirically outweighs the desires that would be fulfilled by the brain-in-a-vat world in the hypothetical population in question. But it does bring up something that is confusing to me about desirism – how do you factor in time? Like, say it was possible to remove all desires for autonomy instantly and without anyone knowing that it happened, and then put all those people who no longer have a desire to avoid brain-in-a-vat world into vats. Would the desire for autonomy have been thwarted? The proposition “I am autonomous” has been made false, but no one holds a pro-attitude toward that proposition at the time it was made false. But, at least on B theory, those people still hold that position at an earlier time.

It seems like the strength or importance of certain desires have to outweigh an infinity of desires. For example, I have a desire to keep the memories of my life and my loved ones and would not want to trade those memories for a life of infinite pleasures under any calculation. My desire weighs infinity+1. There’s something about desires for self continuity, autonomy, life that seem to defeat summing or weighing attempts, and thwarting them in any fashion (even without knowledge of or suffering per above) feels wrong. Along with Rufus’ comments, I’m wondering if desirism makes (or needs to make) some special exceptions for desires like that.

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Zeb June 8, 2011 at 6:09 am

Rufus

I think your analysis of the people already in a brain-in-a-vat is correct. I think your analysis of the De Sade situation is also correct, at least if the most and strongest desires are for Sadism, and if your puritanical desires are malleable. But I do recall seeing reference to the possibility of unconscious desires outweighing conscious ones, and so it may be that De Sade and everyone else has some unconscious desire that outweighs their desire for Sadism. As a Christian I believe that would be true, and so I think an unbiased, honest desirist analysis by a mind with complete knowledge and perfect functioning would yield something close to a traditional Christian moral analysis in all situations. Yet I think desirism does a better job than any traditional Christian theory that I have heard of explaining what it means to be “morally wrong” and why things are morally right or wrong. On the other hand, while I am extremely skeptical that science could ever provide the information needed for an objective desirist analysis of any situation assuming naturalism, I’m almost certain that what I take to be our true universal and overwhelming desire(s) would not yield to empirical measurement, so I am pretty resistant to any program of trying to use desirism and science to answer concrete more questions or engineer social change.

What do you mean by this:

I still think the ultimate desire would be to create the brain-in-vat farm and clone trillions upon trillions of brains.

Whose ultimate desire?

I really, really enjoy these kinds of conversations, especially with truly thoughtful and curious people like the ones involved in this conversation.

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