Kagan vs. Craig debate review

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 20, 2009 in Debates,Ethics,Reviews

Previously, I have reviewed debates between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens, and between Daniel Dennett and Dinesh D’Souza. I also gave one-paragraph reviews of most William Lane Craig debates, and I said I’m not sure Craig has actually lost a debate.

Many readers have said they think Craig lost his recent debate with ethical philosopher Shelley Kagan, so today I’d like to review that debate (audio, video).

Thankfully, this debate was limited to the question, “Can morality exist without God?”

Kagan’s opening

Kagan starts out exactly as he should:

People have been doing moral philosophy without appeal to God for thousands of years… it’s not at all obvious [to me] what the problem is supposed to be.

This is necessary to reframe the question. “Can morality exist without God?” assumes that theistic morality is coherent but atheistic morality might not be. Kagan’s point is that this might be like asking “Can politics exist without God?” The question itself assumes too much for the theist.

I should say up front, though, that I actually agree with Craig that (nearly) all theories of secular morality are either internally incoherent or else they refer to things that do not exist. But I don’t think any theory of theistic morality is plausible – not even close. Theistic moral theories don’t even “get off the ground,” as far as I can tell.

But back to the debate. One problem here is that the topic of the debate – and the topic Craig always raises in his moral argument for God’s existence – is meta-ethical, while Kagan focuses his research on ethical theory and applied ethics. Here’s the difference:

meta-theory-appliedKagan’s strategy is a bit awkward. Instead of addressing the problem of the existence of moral value directly, he starts his discussion near the lower-middle of this graphic and tries to work his way up to the actual existence of moral values.

He doesn’t make it very far. He comes to unsupported assertions very quickly:

…I suggested “Don’t harm. Do help.” But there may be nothing at all deeper to be said about what makes those rules the valid rules, it’s just an objective fact about reality that there are these categorical reasons… to behave in certain ways versus others.

When Kagan tries to get any closer to the existence of moral values than this, he settles for John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, the view that moral rules are the rules we would agree to if we were perfectly rational and if we didn’t know what our lot in life would be after we agreed to these rules.

Both Craig and I want Kagan to go much deeper than this. Why are these hypothetical rules we’d give ourselves if rational and ignorant of our lot in life categorical reasons for action? Why not something else?

Craig’s opening

Craig gives his usual arguments:

  1. On naturalism, morality is something we evolved to believe in, but not something that exists.
  2. On materialism, our actions are merely outputs caused by the inputs of DNA and experience, like a puppet on strings. But what moral value does a puppet have?
  3. Without God to reward and punish good and bad actions, there is no moral accountability or obligation.

Cross-examination

Early in the cross-examination round, Kagan showed some of the debate skills that Andrew and I have been wishing more atheist debaters would exhibit. Craig asked Kagan a question, Kagan answered it, and then Craig said, “Okay, I think that’s a good answer for why we wouldn’t regard animals as moral agents… but it seems to me that at best that answer would go to show that rationality… is a necessary condition for moral behavior, but I don’t see that that’s a sufficient condition for moral behavior…” Kagan responds by “calling out” what just happened, as any good debater should:

Okay, the question you initially asked was “How can I explain why it’s wrong for me to murder when it’s not wrong for lions to murder and… [you said] I managed to do that. If we now shift to the question, “So what does it take for wrongness to enter the world, above and beyond rationality, I think the answer might well be…”

Kagan also does exactly what I had hoped he would do. He didn’t just defend atheistic morality, he attacked the assumptions of theistic morality. For example, Craig said, “I’m still not clear as to why [humans] achieve intrinsic moral worth in virtue of having complex nervous systems…” Kagan replied:

If you put it as “complex nervous systems” it sounds pretty deflationary. What so special about a complex nervous system? But of course, that complex nervous system allows you to do calculus. It allows you to do astrophysics… to write poetry… to fall in love. Put under that description, when asked “What’s so special about humans…?”, I’m at a loss to know how to answer that question. If you don’t see why we’d be special… because we can do poetry [and] think philosophical thoughts [and] we can think about the morality of our behavior, I’m not sure what kind of answer could possibly satisfy you at that point.

…I could pose the same kinds of questions of you… So God says, “You are guys are really, really special.” How does his saying it make us special? “But you see, he gave us a soul.” How does our having a soul make us special? Whatever answer you give, you could always say… “What’s so special about that?”

A bit later, Kagan really nails Craig. Craig asks, “On atheism… prudential value and moral value are on a collision course… what it’s prudent for me to do is often in conflict with what’s moral for me to do… but on theism, where there is moral accountability, you can consistently make choices that go against your self interest… for the sake of moral value and moral duty.” Kagan continues the thought:

[But that is] because, precisely, you’ll get it back in the end, so it’s not really in the long term a self-sacrifice at all. That’s the thought, yes?

Craig can only respond, “Well, that’s not how I would put it,” which of course means “Yes, but I’d try to disguise that fact with big words.”

This happens again about 15 minutes later:

KAGAN: There’s certainly one thing that Craig’s theism provides him that I lack. He has a cosmic enforcer, which provides a kind of motivation… I’ve got to hope I can assemble [motivation] here on earth. Although, I can’t resist [a question] about accountability, which I take it is the thought that evil-doers get punished and good-doers get a heavenly reward… I’m not sure how to reconcile that with the belief that Jesus can provide salvation… If it turns out that I can do evil [but] manage to recognize the saving power of Jesus in time, all this accountability stuff is not really [true]!

CRAIG: Well, I mean, no genuine Christian would think like that…

And then Craig changes the subject.

Kagan also lays the beat-down on Craig with regard to animal suffering. The moderator asks, “Do we have a moral obligation to treat animals well?” Then:

CRAIG: I think that here, the Christian… has a tremendous advantage… on a Christian view, God has given us stewardship of this beautiful planet – to care for it, and not to pollute it and ravage it…

KAGAN: Are you a vegetarian?

CRAIG: No, I’m not.

KAGAN: So our stewardship towards animals only goes so far. We can eat them, we can chop them up and wear them.

CRAIG: Yes, yes, but that would be done in ways that I think would be compatible with certain kinds of rules…

KAGAN: So I’m not sure you get the advantage… My view was that what morality boils down to is, “Don’t harm, and do help.” And now the question is, “Can creatures like chickens and cows be harmed?” And the answer is, “Of course they can.” Consequently, I think it’s immoral to harm them. And that seems to me to provide a very strong moral reason to be vegetarian, to not wear leather… it seems to me that our treatment of animals is morally appalling… and that we ought to radically revise the way we live, precisely because they feel pain, they can be hurt, and we’re constantly hurting these creatures!

Unfortunately for Kagan, Craig raises the point I did above, about Kagan’s opening speech:

You emphasize in your own book on The Limits of Morality the importance of having explanations, and not cutting off the search for explanations too soon, and I wonder if you’re not cutting off the search for explanations too soon by simply saying, “Well, I’m just going to regard persons as intrinsically valuable,” but without any further grounding for that.

Kagan responds by saying that he gave a sketch of further grounding: Rawl’s Theory of Justice, but that if this doesn’t satisfy Craig then there are other explanations available and whether they are successful is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, Kagan doesn’t have time to actually defend any of these theories, and in fact I think they all fail (except, of course, for the theory of moral realism that I hold to: desire utilitarianism).

So who won?

This is definitely one of the best debates between an atheist and William Lane Craig. Listen to it when you can. The speakers are, for once, both competent debaters, and both win points for their side. They also cover many topics I couldn’t cover in this short post. Most importantly, their points are actually relevant to one another. This is a debate between two trained philosophers who know when a point is relevant or not, and they know how to pursue only the relevant points.

I don’t know who won. It was a close debate, and a very good debate. I do have some wishes, though:

  1. I wish Kagan had done even more to attack the coherence of theistic morality.
  2. I wish Kagan had given a better defense of atheistic moral ontology, instead of talking so much about ethical theory and applied ethics.

But I can’t really complain. Like I said, a good debate.

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{ 161 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk May 20, 2009 at 8:31 am

<i>On naturalism, morality is something we evolved to believe in, but not something that exists.</i>

I suggest that morality is something that can be wished into existence by mutual agreement, like fiat money; and not something that cannot be wished into existence, like a pony or an omni-deity.

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Lorkas May 20, 2009 at 8:47 am

Is morality a something we discover, like mathematics, or something that we create (in conjunction with natural selection), like human language?

I tend to think of morality more like language, but I get the feeling from your writings (not just on this post) that you think of it more like math.

Is “Rape is wrong” true in the same sense that “2+2=4″ is true?

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Reginald Selkirk May 20, 2009 at 8:51 am

Since I view morality as having evolutionary origins, and as being a pragmatic necessity for the building of large societies, I do not expect or require existent moral codes to have philosophical purity.

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 10:02 am

Lorkas,

“Rape is wrong” is an empirical claim meaning something like “The desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.” But it only means that under the theory of desire utilitarianism. The reason to accept desire utilitarian is that it fits a great deal of our moral language (3 categories of moral action, guilty mind, supererogatory actions, etc.) and makes only true claims about things that exist and the relations between them. These criteria are not met by other moral theories, especially that second one (the most important one).

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 10:09 am

Reginald,

Do you think morality has any prescriptive force, are are you talking about “morality” as a description of what certain creatures do?

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Reginald Selkirk May 20, 2009 at 10:39 am

Yes, I would say it has prescriptive force. Morality is rules for getting along with others in a society. I think that necessarily entails prescription.

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Taranu May 20, 2009 at 10:54 am

I was just reading this month’s newsletter on Reasonable Faith about Craig’s trip to Turkey and amongst the things written there, something caught my attention. Craig said:

” Muslim thinkers have appreciated my defense of the kalam argument, which has deep roots in medieval Muslim theology, and most of the audience probably agreed with the first 85% of my talk. But then at the end, in response to the potential objection that a personal being cannot exist timelessly, I introduced the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as a solution to the objection”

Does anyone know what he’s talking about? I mean in more detail.
This is the link: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7125

PS: Craig looks good on a red background :)

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 11:02 am

Reginald, in that case how would you respond to the evolutionary Euthyphro problem?

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 11:03 am

Taranu,

I have no idea what Craig is talking about there… maybe I’ll come across it some day.

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Lorkas May 20, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Is it loved by the genes because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the genes? (from the Alonzo Fyfe article)

I wonder how desire utilitarianism would answer the same question posed slightly differently: “Do we desire something because it is good, or is it good because we desire it?”

The right answer, from a biological perspective, is that we desire things because they are good for the propagation of our genes (not good in any moral sense). This is not, of course, a complete picture of desire, which is also influenced by the environment (and therefore by culture), but it captures the root of our desire mechanisms.

I think it’s good to frame morality in terms of desire fulfillment, but it doesn’t avoid the problem that Fyfe points out in the article here:

If it is good because it is loved by our genes, then anything that comes to be loved by the genes can become good. If humans, like lions, had a disposition to slaughter their step children, or to behead their mates and eat them, or to attack neighboring tribes and tear their members to bits (all of which occurs in the natural kingdom), then these things would be good.

We can evolve new desires, so I’m not sure that this is a good argument for desire utilitarianism. If our desires are influenced by our genes and by our culture, both of which can change, then the fulfillment of those new desires will become “good”. Again, I am intrigued by desire utilitarianism, and find it useful in thinking about morality–I just don’t think this is a good argument for it, as opposed to other naturalistic theories of morality.

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Reginald Selkirk May 20, 2009 at 12:58 pm

lukeprog: Reginald, in that case how would you respond to the evolutionary Euthyphro problem?

If it is good because it is loved by our genes, then anything that comes to be loved by the genes can become good. If humans, like lions, had a disposition to slaughter their step children, or to behead their mates and eat them, or to attack neighboring tribes and tear their members to bits (all of which occurs in the natural kingdom), then these things would be good.

I have a scientific background, and do not have as much background and experience in philosophy as you, so it is entirely possible that I am making elementary mistakes.

Sounds like “is vs. ought.”  While it may be true that if we were evolved to behead and eat our mates after mating, then beheading and eating our mates would be a good thing, or at least not a bad thing. But we didn’t. Our species requires 9 months gestation between mating and birth, lots of care after birth, small litter size, etc.  I.e. our morality must be compatible with biological fact, which is tied up with our evolutionary history.

It is also entirely possible that some practices may have come into common use which, through reason, can be shown to be bad. I am not a panadaptationist (most people who actually understand evolutinary biology aren’t), so I have no problem acknowledging this.

The point I originally tried to make is that moral systems proposed by philsophers (virtue, utilitarianism, categorical imperative, etc) are attempts to propose ideological purity on something that was derived out if the messy fact of our existence, and our evolutionary history, so it is no wonder that they pretty much all have shortcomings.

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Jeff H May 20, 2009 at 4:10 pm

I have a way of framing morality/ethics that I’ve been toying around with for the past little while. I haven’t developed it too much, but I think it at least is reasonable. Essentially I would argue that morality is a natural function of social interaction.

What do I mean by this? Well I wouldn’t say that it’s a function of evolutionary heritage – I wouldn’t say that it’s right for humans to slaughter children because they had a disposition to slaughter them – that’s translating is to ought. Rather, I think morality may simply be a natural and inevitable byproduct that results when social structures form. As soon as interaction begins to take place, there are rules that accompany that, and these rules form simply according to what benefits or harms that social interaction. As we move from one singular interaction to a web of interactions present in a society, the rules become that what is right is what benefits the current and future social interactions.

Let me give an analogy. When we consider the topic of “evolution” (and like I already said, I don’t mean to link the two together), we talk about changes over time as a product of natural selection. But what is natural selection? It’s simply a function of competition. As soon as competition exists in the world, natural selection kicks into gear. It’s not something that animals decided to make up or follow. It’s simply a method of describing what happens when organisms must compete for scarce resources.

I see (or have been seeing, at any rate) morality in the same way. As soon as social interaction is present, suddenly there are “right” and “wrong” things to do, based solely on the fact that social interactions cease when the “wrong” actions take place. This is why murder is wrong – it harms social interaction. And this is qualitatively “more wrong”, we would say, then something like lying, which many would argue can be right in some circumstances. In some cases it may harm the social structure, but in others it can be beneficial.

At any rate, I think I’ve blabbered on for long enough about it. As I said, it’s something I’ve been toying around with, and as it stands I’m not sure it’s robust enough to explain some of the “less wrong” moral issues, but I still may hold onto it as a helpful explanation of why morality exists at all.

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Lorkas May 20, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Jeff H,
You’ll be pleased to know that biologists find just what you are predicting here. That is, social animals all have a set of rules that they follow when interacting with one another. We observe this in elephants, flocking birds, primates, fish, cattle, and any other herding, flocking, or schooling species.

In all social species, there are “moral codes” governing how individuals interact with one another.

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Lorkas: I wonder how desire utilitarianism would answer the same question posed slightly differently: “Do we desire something because it is good, or is it good because we desire it?”

Morality is about reasons for action. As it happens, the desires are the only reasons for action that exist. So according to desire utilitarianism, good means “such as to fulfill more and stronger desires than are thwarted.”

In other words, a desire is good if it tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than are thwarted. That is: if there are more and stronger reasons for action to promote this desire than to discourage it, then it is a “good” desire.

Re: your view. Why is propagation of our genes good? Does gene propagation have intrinsic value? What about the propagation of other species’ genes?

Lorkas: If our desires are influenced by our genes and by our culture, both of which can change, then the fulfillment of those new desires will become “good”.

Correct.

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lukeprog May 20, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Jeff H,

Are you saying that maybe “good” means “whatever prospers human interaction” and “bad” means “whatever discourages human interaction”? So, human interaction is the sole possessor of intrinsic value, and should be maximized?

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Mark May 20, 2009 at 9:01 pm

Taranu: …Craig said:” Muslim thinkers have appreciated my defense of the kalam argument, which has deep roots in medieval Muslim theology, and most of the audience probably agreed with the first 85% of my talk. But then at the end, in response to the potential objection that a personal being cannot exist timelessly, I introduced the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as a solution to the objection” Does anyone know what he’s talking about? I mean in more detail. …

As a Christian, I’ll take a shot at this, though I haven’t heard Craig specifically speak on the Trinity:
God as a Trinity is a society – Father-Son-Spirit – three “persons” existing with a single divine nature or essence.  Persons love and communicate so how could God be ”personal” before creating the universe since there’d be no ‘other’ to love or communicate with?  The Trinity is the answer.  So God’s essence is personal always and did not change with the Creation of time and humanity.
That’s my understanding of what Craig probably meant.

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Taranu May 21, 2009 at 12:47 am

Mark,
Thank you for your response I looked on the Internet to see what I can find related to this topic and I ran into this article by Craig:
http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/timelessness-personhood.html

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 5:18 am

lukeprog: Re: your view. Why is propagation of our genes good? Does gene propagation have intrinsic value? What about the propagation of other species’ genes?

It isn’t good. It just is. This is why I qualified “good” with the phrase “for the propagation of our genes.” I’m not saying that this propagation is good in and of itself (it’s not even necessarily good for long-term survival).

What I am saying is that, in general, we call things good if they are good for the propagation of our genes (although, as Reginald correctly points out, this is not the case 100% of the time), not that they are good in an objective sense. I don’t really believe that “good” is a thing (or force) in the universe so much as a label that we (or members of any other thinking species) assign.

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Reginald Selkirk May 21, 2009 at 5:32 am

Jeff H: Well I wouldn’t say that it’s a function of evolutionary heritage – I wouldn’t say that it’s right for humans to slaughter children because they had a disposition to slaughter them – that’s translating is to ought.

But a species which thought that it was “good” or “right” to slaughter its children would not be evolutionarily viable.

Your thoughts RE evolution and morality sound somewhat similar to mine.

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Mark May 21, 2009 at 5:58 am

Taranu, that article’s mention of the Trinity does seem to agree with what I tried to briefly express in layman’s terms.  The article also mentions John Piper – his book Pleasures of God has a chapter on the Father’s love for the Son and covers the Trinitarian relationship in scholarly detail, yet at the pastoral/layman’s level.  Pleasures of God is not an apologetic defense of the biblical doctrines, but does look at various “difficult” areas that often arise in Christian/non-Christian debates.  It may be helpful to some of Luke’s readers.  Some of the chapters:
-The Pleasure of God in His Son (Trinity)
-The Pleasure of God in Election (salvation)
-The Pleasure of God in Bruising the Son (atonement)
-The Pleasure of God in Concealing Himself from the Wise and Revealing Himself to Infants ( hiddenness of God/mystery)

I once studied the book together with a group of believers in a large evangelical church and seeing the biblical doctrines was a shock to many of them, though most were lifelong believers.  It’s nothing like Rick Warren or Max Lucado but faces the ‘hard’ biblical concepts straight on.

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 5:59 am

Lorkas: What I am saying is that, in general, we call things good if they are good for the propagation of our genes

Gotcha. Yeah, this is a theory about the sociology or anthropology of human moral talk, not what most philosophers would call “morality itself” (whether or not they believe such a thing exists).

But in fact, I think it’s false. There are tons of things we call good that are not good for the propogation of our genes. Asceticism and devotion of one’s life to God or holiness come to mind.

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Reginald Selkirk May 21, 2009 at 6:05 am

lukeprog: Re: your view. Why is propagation of our genes good? Does gene propagation have intrinsic value? What about the propagation of other species’ genes?

Having gone over these questions overnight, I stand by my original position that our moral codes, ie. our concept of what “ought” to be, are influenced (I wouldn’t say determined, since that would deny plasticity) by our evolutionary history. The “objections” raised by your hero Alonzo Fyfe actually reinforce my position rather than undermine it.

We have evolved to consider propagation of genes “good” because we come from a 3+ billion year lineage of organisms who were good at surviving and passing on their genes. Obviously, we tend to value propagation of our own genes more highly than those of other individuals, and those of other species. How we value the propagation of other species’ genes tends to be influenced by how those other species affect our own. For example, look at the resistance to reintroduction of predators such as wolves to parts of the USA, this tends to be viewed as a bad thing by ranchers. Propagation of species which provide companionship or food to us tends to be viewed as a good thing.

In order to understand evolution, one must understand that the environment changes over time. So what was helpful to the propagation of a species in the past may not be helpful today, or in the future.

Also, an evolutionary view does not rule out that reason, and scientific knowledge, could convince us to change our minds about what is good. I might tend to view the killing of venomous snakes to be a good thing, because they are a threat to my health. This would be tempered by the knowledge that snakes help to control the population of pests which compete for my food, such as mice and rats.

Also, reason, coupled with scientific inquiry, might tell us that propagation of our species had progressed to the point that we are endangering the existence of the environment upon which we depend. We might, through knowledge of the complex interworkings of ecosystems, come to value the survival of other species for their contributions to the complex web of life, and as sings of the health of that web.

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Reginald Selkirk May 21, 2009 at 6:08 am

lukeprog: But in fact, I think it’s false. There are tons of things we call good that are not good for the propogation of our genes. Asceticism and devotion of one’s life to God or holiness come to mind.

These values are not universal. I, for one, do not consider devotion of one’s life to God and holiness to be “good.”

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 6:23 am

lukeprog: There are tons of things we call good that are not good for the propogation of our genes. Asceticism and devotion of one’s life to God or holiness come to mind.

I agree, but I think this is a peripheral point. I didn’t mean “we call things good if and only if they are good for the propagation of our genes”. In fact, I mentioned earlier that our culture and other environmental factors influence our desires (and therefore, our morality under desire utilitarianism) a great deal.

I was just trying to point out that desire utilitarianism isn’t totally immune to the criticism that Fyfe applies to other naturalistic ethical theories, because our most basic desires are so strongly influenced by our genes, and the genes we have are the genes that were best at making more copies of themselves in the environment that our ancestors lived in. That is, they are largely a result of circumstance.

Fyfe states that if our genes determine our morality, then our morality is based on circumstance, since anything that our genes said was good would be good. Desire utilitarianism doesn’t solve this problem, it only places a middleman–our desires–between our genes and our morality.

To summarize my point: Desire utilitarianism is a great ethical theory, but this particular argument for it is not so good.

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Evil Bender May 21, 2009 at 6:34 am

CRAIG: Well, I mean, no genuine Christian would think like that…

And no true Scotsman would do something like that, either. I’m quite surprised to see Craig slip into this common fallacy.

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 6:41 am

Reginald,

Of course we agree that evolution programmed us to THINK certain things are good. But how does that make them ACTUALLY good? Again: does gene propagation have intrinsic value, and that’s why what is good for gene propagation is morally good?

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 6:42 am

Reginald Selkirk: These values are not universal. I, for one, do not consider devotion of one’s life to God and holiness to be “good.”

But if you’re defending a theory about what humans tend to mean by moral terms, why wouldn’t you go with what most people throughout most of history have thought of as good? It’s kind of weird to say “Hmmm… when humans say ‘good’ they seem to mean X” when a minority of humans actually mean that.

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 6:45 am

Lorkas: Fyfe states that if our genes determine our morality, then our morality is based on circumstance, since anything that our genes said was good would be good. Desire utilitarianism doesn’t solve this problem, it only places a middleman–our desires–between our genes and our morality. To summarize my point: Desire utilitarianism is a great ethical theory, but this particular argument for it is not so good.

It is true that if humans evolved such that getting slapped in the face was highly pleasurable, then yes, slapping people in the face would be moral. I don’t see how this undermines objective morality.

What the evolutionary euthyphro argument DOES undermine is any theory which says that whatever we evolved to think is moral actually IS moral.

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Ben May 21, 2009 at 7:04 am

Luke,

Question:  What would be an example (for my information) of an atheist ethical theory that “…refer[s] to things that do not exist”?

Ben

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 7:21 am

lukeprog: What the evolutionary euthyphro argument DOES undermine is any theory which says that whatever we evolved to think is moral actually IS moral.

Which desire utilitarianism does, only with our desires as a middleman. We are evolved to have certain desires, and desire utilitarianism says that the fulfillment of desires IS moral, if I understand it correctly.

Instead of “Our genes tell* us how to act, and acting according to our genes’ instructions is moral”, desire utilitarianism says “Our genes tell* us what to desire, and fulfilling those desires is moral”.

I can’t see how the Euthyphro argument applies to the first case, but not the second.

*as Reginald points out, behaviors and traits are very rarely determined entirely by our genes, but this comparison works so long as the effects of our genes are approximately equal in both theories

lukeprog: I don’t see how this undermines objective morality.

Then I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean when you say “objective morality” :s

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Jeff H May 21, 2009 at 8:08 am

lukeprog:
Jeff H,
Are you saying that maybe “good” means “whatever prospers human interaction” and “bad” means “whatever discourages human interaction”? So, human interaction is the sole possessor of intrinsic value, and should be maximized?

I don’t think this is how I’d phrase it. It’s not a matter of “I like human interaction, so let’s make more of it.” It’s more of a set of inherent rules existing within social interaction. If I am interacting with you, and while I do so, I murder you, this ends the social interaction. Thus we can declare this as “bad”, not because the social interaction by itself was inherently good, but rather because social interactions in themselves have rules of engagement. Obviously, if you end a social interaction, it’s not a social interaction anymore. In this sense, “good” actions would be whatever propels the interaction further, and “bad” actions would be whatever hinders the interaction.

Again, it’s not that there is any intrinsic value to interactions. If I have no interactions with anything, then I have no moral issues to deal with. In an isolated world, no morality exists. But as soon as interaction takes place, the inherent rules of morality apply, and these define the parameters of how interactions can take place successfully.

Anyway, I don’t think I’m explaining myself well enough, so whatever. Like I said, I’m not sure it’s robust enough to explain the intricacies of moral issues. Perhaps it’s more of an ontological explanation of the origins of morality. But at any rate, there it is.

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Reginald Selkirk May 21, 2009 at 8:27 am

lukeprog: Reginald,Of course we agree that evolution programmed us to THINK certain things are good. But how does that make them ACTUALLY good? Again: does gene propagation have intrinsic value, and that’s why what is good for gene propagation is morally good?

I’m sorry, but that seems to be your problem, not mine. I made no claims to any “ACTUAL good” outside of what humans consider to be good. I have said that my concept of morals is pragmatic, and here you are trying to impose an idealistic framework upon it.

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 9:36 am

Here’s an argument against your desire utilitarianism:
(1) There is no possible world in which rape is morally permissible.

(2) If desire utilitarianism is true, then “Rape is wrong” is an empirical claim meaning something like “The desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.”

(3) There is a possible world in which it is NOT the case that the desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.

(4) Therefore, if desire utilitarianism is true, there is a possible world in which it’s false that rape is wrong. (from 2 and 3)

(5) Therefore, if desire utilitarianism is true, there is a possible world in which rape is morally permissible. (from 4)

(6) Therefore desire utilitarianism is false. (from 1 and 5)


Exactly which premise do you deny, and why?

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Reginald Selkirk May 21, 2009 at 9:53 am

If you are going to be claiming a standard of ‘actual good” outside of what humans think is good, isn’t that reminiscent of Platonic forms?

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 9:55 am

Premise 1 is a bare assertion, presumably based on some ethical system other than desire utilitarianism. It seems to me that if you begin with an assertion that assumes that desire utilitarianism is false, then this argument is begging the question.

Perhaps you should construct an argument demonstrating that there is no possible world in which rape is morally permissible, so that we can see what assumptions you’re bringing to this argument.

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Silas May 21, 2009 at 10:37 am

cartesian,

Yes, there may be a world in which there are more rapists than non-rapists. The rapists, being in the majority, would have good desires!

Well, not really.

Imagine that you could “turn up” or “turn down” the desire to rape in a population. If you “turn up” the desire to rape in our little population of, let’s say, 100 people,  a lot of people would be raped, even the rapists. To rape someone is to, well, do something sexual with them without their consent. So being raped can’t be a good thing for the rape victim. With the desire to rape turned up in a population, we would have some desires fulfilled, sure, but many would also be thwarted.

But, if you “turn down” the desire to rape all the way, you would have zero rapists with a desire to rape.  You would have no victims of rape. Everybody would be satisfied.

A moral person is a person with good desires. So a moral person wouldn’t promote the desire to rape (because the desire to rape isn’t good, as seen in the scenario above). So it is wrong to rape, because a moral person wouldn’t rape.

That’s what I think a desire utilitarian would answer. I’m not at all qualified though.

You should definitely go with Luke’s or Alonzo’s answer.

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Teleprompter May 21, 2009 at 10:55 am

“Here’s an argument against your desire utilitarianism:
(1) There is no possible world in which rape is morally permissible.

(2) If desire utilitarianism is true, then “Rape is wrong” is an empirical claim meaning something like “The desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.”
(3) There is a possible world in which it is NOT the case that the desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.
(4) Therefore, if desire utilitarianism is true, there is a possible world in which it’s false that rape is wrong. (from 2 and 3)
(5) Therefore, if desire utilitarianism is true, there is a possible world in which rape is morally permissible. (from 4)
(6) Therefore desire utilitarianism is false. (from 1 and 5)

Exactly which premise do you deny, and why?”

Cartesian,

I reject Premise 1 because you have included a conclusion as a premise.

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 11:17 am

Lorkas,

“Premise 1 is a bare assertion, presumably based on some ethical system other than desire utilitarianism.”
 
No, it’s not based on any other ethical system. It’s just based on thinking about rape and moral wrongness. I can just see that there is no possible situation in which raping someone is morally permissible. Rape is always wrong, as far as I can tell.
 
Do you deny premise 1? Do you claim that there is a possible situation in which raping someone is morally permissible? Would you describe that situation to me please?
 
“It seems to me that if you begin with an assertion that assumes that desire utilitarianism is false, then this argument is begging the question.”
 
Premise 1 doesn’t assume that desire utilitarianism is false. All premise 1 says is that rape is necessarily wrong.
 
“Perhaps you should construct an argument demonstrating that there is no possible world in which rape is morally permissible, so that we can see what assumptions you’re bringing to this argument.”
 
I have no argument in favor of that premise, just as I have no argument in favor of the proposition that there’s no possible world in which a prime minister is a prime number. I can just see that these propositions are true.
 
If you think premise 1 is false, please describe the situation in which rape is good. Precaution: Don’t just describe a situation in which a rape leads to some really great consequences. No, that’s not enough to refute 1. To refute 1, please describe a situation in which the rape itself is good. (Good luck with that!)

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 11:19 am

Silas: cartesian,Yes, there may be a world in which there are more rapists than non-rapists. The rapists, being in the majority, would have good desires! Well, not really.

So exactly which premise do you think is false, and why?

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 11:21 am

Teleprompter: I reject Premise 1 because you have included a conclusion as a premise.

I have not included the conclusion as a premise. The conclusion is this:

(6) Therefore desire utilitarianism is false.

That is not equivalent to any premise.

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Silas May 21, 2009 at 11:46 am

cartesian: So exactly which premise do you think is false, and why?

Premise 2. A moral person is a person with good desires. The desire to rape is not a good desire (a desire to rape in a population will always yield more thwarted desires than in a population without the desire). Rape is wrong because a moral person wouldn’t rape or promote rape.

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 12:15 pm

cartesian: No, it’s not based on any other ethical system. It’s just based on thinking about rape and moral wrongness. I can just see that there is no possible situation in which raping someone is morally permissible.

In other words, it’s a bare assertion. You must have used some form of reasoning to determine that rape is always wrong, and you’re hiding your assumptions here. I’d be interested to hear why your assumptions about morality and ethics are not an “ethical system”.

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 12:24 pm

cartesian: To refute 1, please describe a situation in which the rape itself is good.

Um, Yahweh commands you to do it?

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Justfinethanks May 21, 2009 at 12:47 pm

“Um, Yahweh commands you to do it?”

Oh, snap! Jehovahowned!

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Jake May 21, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Lukeprog,

Perhaps you’ve already addressed this in some posting antecedent to mine, but may I inquire as to your education?

We are about the same age (24ish), and I’m wondering if you’re education has been predominately self-administered as mine has. I read your article entitled, “My Story”, but in it I didn’t happen upon any references to direct work or literature that influenced you the most. Again, I may be misremembering the content of that post but in case it hasn’t been addressed, I’m curious which authors, and in which of their work(s) were you most swayed? What are some of the more recent books or articles you’ve perused that have since colored the fabric of your belief-system?
 
If you have taken courses appertaining to this material, which courses were they and did you obtain a degree?
 
J. de Backer

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Justin May 21, 2009 at 2:35 pm

cartesian: (3) There is a possible world in which it is NOT the case that the desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.

What is this world in which the desire to rape tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts.

Rape is intrinsically wrong, by denying someone their desire to be un-raped. I can’t conceive of the possible more desire rape world.

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Justin May 21, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Desire utilitarianism seems very hard to use as an applied ethical system. It seems as though there are many standards such as Justice, and Rights which come into conflict at an applied level, even though both can be justified by desire utilitarianism.

This kind of conflict has always seemed to be the problem with utilitarian systems, and morality as a whole.

Since we thought up these concepts of good and bad, we intuit what they mean, but can’t adequately describe what makes certain things fall into either category.

And a final disjointed point: Why is promoting desire fulfillment good? I see that desires are real, but why is it good to fulfill them.

Oh and is this a moral realist theory because desires are necessary for good and bad?

Thanks!

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Chuck May 21, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Ben: Question:  What would be an example (for my information) of an atheist ethical theory that “…refer[s] to things that do not exist”?

Objectivism, virtue ethics, contractarianism, categorical imperative, just about every form of utilitarianism, the list goes on and on…

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 4:28 pm

Lorkas,
I said this:
>>No, [premise 1 is] not based on any other ethical system. It’s just based on thinking about rape and moral wrongness. I can just see that there is no possible situation in which raping someone is morally permissible.>>
You replied:
>>In other words, it’s a bare assertion.>>
Sure, just like “No prime minister is a prime number” is a bare assertion, and just like “Something exists” is a bare assertion. These propositions are obviously true and don’t stand in need of supporting argument or evidence. They’re self-evident. And it’s perfectly legitimate to use self-evident propositions as premises in arguments.
So even if premise 1 is a “bare assertion” as you say, that’s no strike against it. So you’ve not yet given me a compelling objection against premise 1.

>>You must have used some form of reasoning to determine that rape is always wrong>>
I disagree. Some propositions we know to be true immediately, non-inferentially, and not on the basis of any argument. “No prime minister is a prime number” is one of those. I don’t believe that in virtue of any argument or reasoning. I just consider the proposition and see that it’s true.
I think the same thing goes with “Rape is necessarily wrong.” I know what all those words mean. I consider the proposition and I can just see that it’s true. No reasoning required.

Finally, I said this:
>>To refute 1, please describe a situation in which the rape itself is good.>>
You replied:
>>Um, Yahweh commands you to do it?>>
Cute, but there are at least two problems with your response. First, I don’t think that’s a possible scenario, and I asked you to describe a possible scenario. Second, even if it were possible, I don’t think God’s commanding rape would make the rape itself good, and I asked you describe a possible scenario in which rape itself is good.
So for those two reasons you’ve failed to refute premise 1.

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Silas,
I asked you which premise of my argument you thought was false, and why.

You replied:
>>Premise 2. A moral person is a person with good desires. The desire to rape is not a good desire (a desire to rape in a population will always yield more thwarted desires than in a population without the desire). Rape is wrong because a moral person wouldn’t rape or promote rape.>>

This is premise 2 of my argument:

(2) If desire utilitarianism is true, then “Rape is wrong” is an empirical claim meaning something like “The desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.”

First, I don’t see how what you said challenges the truth of premise 2. To show that premise 2 is false, you’d have to show that desire utilitarianism actually doesn’t have the implication that I claim it does. The consequent (i.e. the “then…” part) of premise 2 is an exact quotation from Luke. So I think the desire utilitarian is committed to the truth of premise 2. Why do you think they aren’t?

>>(a desire to rape in a population will always yield more thwarted desires than in a population without the desire).>>

That’s not true. Imagine a population of three people who pop into existence and will pop back out of existence in twenty minutes. Two of these short-lived creatures really really want to rape the third. The third doesn’t want to be raped. But performing the rape will satisfy two large desires and frustrate only one. So in this population, the rape satisfies more desires than it frustrates. So on desire utilitarianism, it’s the right action. Not only is it morally permissible, it’s morally obligatory!

Surely that’s false. Rape can never be morally obligatory! Therefore desire utilitarianism is false.

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Justin, 
About my premise (3):
There is a possible world in which it is NOT the case that the desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.

You asked:
>>What is this world in which the desire to rape tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts. Rape is intrinsically wrong, by denying someone their desire to be un-raped. I can’t conceive of the possible more desire rape world.>>

Imagine a population of three people who pop into existence and will pop back out of existence in twenty minutes. Two of these short-lived creatures really really want the third to be raped. The third doesn’t want to be raped. But performing the rape will satisfy two large desires and frustrate only one. So in this population, the rape satisfies more desires than it frustrates. So on desire utilitarianism, it’s the right action. Not only is it morally permissible, it’s morally obligatory!
Surely that’s false. Rape can never be morally obligatory! Therefore desire utilitarianism is false.

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Pete May 21, 2009 at 4:44 pm

hey luke,

nice review of the debate, but i don’t agree with your evaluation of the debate. (maybe you’re a little bit biased … in favor of craig ;-))

you mentioned some of the points kagan scored against craig, but there were even more:

- when craig repeats his old (bad) argument that the heat death of the universe implies that nothing matters, kagan points out the non sequitur: “the fact that my action make no difference to the state of the universe in two million years does not mean that they make no difference simpliciter” (i’m paraphrasing here)… in reply, craig only repeats himself

- at one point, craig says something like this: “well, but what if we agreed that torturing babies is o.k.” (or something like that) … kagan, of course, replies that it is irrelevant what we actually agree on, since his theory says that moral facts are constituted by what we would hypothetically agree on if we were fully rational, etc. … surprisingly bad mistake by craig.

- another argument from craig runs like this: “your naturalistic approach is dangerous, because if there’s no god holding us accountable, we might not be motivated to act morally, etc.” … kagan, again, “calls out” what craig is doing and says: “well, now you’re changing the subject by speculating about possible psychological consequences…” (and he adds that these speculations are not really convincing and that one might have similar worries about theistic morality).

together with the exchanges  you mentioned (about intrinsic value,  moral & prudential reasons and animal suffering) , these are all points for kagan. 

now, what are points for craig? i must admit, i have a hard time seeing any.  yes, he urges kagan to give “more explanations”, but that’s not a very good objection in a public debate – kagan can simply say: “here’s a sketch; for details, read my book”.

for the record, i don’t accept kagan’s theory either (i’m a noncognitivist), but i don’t see that craig has formulated any effective arguments against it. he could have focused on the hypothetical nature of the scenario (why do these modal facts  about ideal beings give us reasons?), or he could have attacked the strong assumptions about rationality that kagan takes for granted, but he does nothing like that, he just repeats his mantras.

or did i miss something?

to sum up: if this were a soccer match, kagan would have beaten craig 5:0. (well, maybe 5:1 ;-))

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Lorkas May 21, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Cartesian, I deny that “rape is wrong” is a self-evident proposition. If you assert that it is without providing evidence (or even an argument) for it, then it is a bare assertion, a formal fallacy.

What about if I argued like this: I just know that you are wrong. No, I did not use any logical system to determine that fact: it is self-evident that this argument against desire utilitarianism doesn’t work. Is this line of reasoning compelling to you? Of course not. There is no reason to accept your argument when you are smuggling hidden assumptions that prevalidate your conclusion, into your premises and using them to draw your desired conclusion. This is why your argument is begging the question, and therefore fallacious.

I have pointed out two formal fallacies in your argument (not, as you seem to think, tried to invalidate premise 1, although I do think that a Bible-believer is committed to the belief that whatever Yahweh says, is right, and the Almighty One assisted and commanded rape in the Bible). You haven’t offered a shred of support in defense against these charges, apart from stating that it is obvious. For these reasons, your argument is invalid.

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Justin May 21, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Cartesian,

This was explained to you in another example. If we say rape is wrong, and “Turn down the rape knob” on everybody, then no desires are thwarted.

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Jeff H May 21, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Lorkas, I’d like to advance the self-evident claim that “cartesian is an idiot.” I think that settles the debate, right? Pack up boys, you can all go home.

Lol but seriously, cartesian, think about it. Do you believe that rape is a moral issue? I certainly hope you do, and you seem to advance it as such. But your argument is about moral systems as a whole. In order to show an internal contradiction in a philosophical system, you must assume it to be true and then show that it comes to an absurdity. This is not what you did in this argument, because desire utilitarianism would not claim that there is no possible world in which rape is morally permissible (which you later showed). Therefore, if you are trying to refute the theory based on an internal contradiction, you must throw out premise 1 because that is not something that could be concluded were desire utilitarianism true.

Let me give an analogy (I love analogies!):
(1) Animals were created by God exactly as they are today. (This is your self-evident claim.)
(2) Evolution says that animals evolved.
(3) If animals evolved, then they were not in their present form in the past.
(4) Therefore if evolution is true, animals in the past were not in the same form as animals today. (From 2 and 3)
(5) Therefore evolution is false.

See how it just simply does not work? All you’ve proven in your argument is that desire utilitarianism does not agree with your own moral judgments. This says nothing about the truth or falsehood of the theory. It only says that you’re not a desire utilitarian. If that’s what you were trying to prove, then I guess you did a great job. Otherwise, I don’t think anyone is obligated to accept your first premise. Especially since there is no logical necessity for rape to be wrong – while we can say that squares cannot be circular in all possible worlds, rape does not fall under this neat logical consistency. It’s far from logically self-evident. It’s only perhaps “self-evident” to the moral conscience of humanity. But that’s just the product of millions of years of evolution and social influence.

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Chuck May 21, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Cartesian,

The claim that something is wrong in <i>all possible worlds</i> is a pretty strong statement. If you want to assert that (1) is true, then you need to be ready to explain why.

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Josh May 21, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Yeah, I gotta agree that Cartesian is begging the question with premise 1.

Now, this doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with desire utilitarianism as an argument for OBJECTIVE morality… but that’s another question.

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Teleprompter May 21, 2009 at 7:23 pm

cartesian,

I believe that Lorkas has adequately explained my objections to Premise 1.

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Lorkas,
You said:
>>I deny that “rape is wrong” is a self-evident proposition.>>

OK, but that’s no part of my argument. Premise 1 in my argument just says that rape is necessarily wrong. Do you deny that? If not, you have no objection to my argument here. If so, then you’re committed to saying that there is some possible situation in which rape is morally permissible. There are few more compelling refuations of a view than to show that it entails that rape is sometimes morally OK.

If you don’t like the rape example, pick another moral proposition. This same argument will work to show that no moral proposition is necessarily true on desire utilitarianism. So the desire utilitarian is committed to saying that possibly, torturing babies for fun is morally permissible (even obligatory!). And the desire utilitarian is committed to saying that possibly, believing false stuff on no evidence is morally permissible (even obligatory!). And slavery, and human sacrifice, and stomping on puppies, and…….

It’s a crazy view. Let’s give it up.

—–
—–
>>If you assert that it is without providing evidence (or even an argument) for it, then it is a bare assertion, a formal fallacy.>>

Even as described in the Wikipedia article you linked me to, that is not a formal fallacy. And my argument doesn’t commit the fallacy described in the Wikipedia article at all. So I’m not guilty on both counts.

My argument contains no formal fallacies. The inference from 2 and 3 to 4 uses only modus tollens, an inference which is above reproach. The move from 4 to 5 relies only on the inference that for any x, if it’s false that x is morally wrong, then x is morally permissible. That inference too seems above reproach. The move from 1 and 5 to 6 is again just modus tollens. So, formally, my argument checks out. So you have no good objection to the structure of my argument.

You don’t seem to like that I claimed premise 1 is self-evident, and doesn’t stand in need of support. Well, you yourself seem to be denying premise 1. That is, you seem to be asserting that there is a possible situation in which rape is morally OK. How do you know that there really is such a possible situation? Where’s the argument? Where’s the evidence?

And once you give me the argument (call it “ARG”) in favor of your denial of 1, I’ll go ahead and ask you for an argument in favor of one or more premises in ARG. And so on and so forth forever. I think it was Aristotle who said that if nothing is assumed, nothing can be proved: if you think that a subject can reasonably believe a proposition only if it is supported by evidence accessible to the subject, you’ll never reasonably believe anything. You’ll be stuck on an infinite regress. Eventually, all good arguments (even yours!) rest on a bedrock of intuitions, i.e. propositions that just seem obviously true. This goes for philosophical arguments, scientific arguments, etc. Literally all good arguments ultimately rely on self-evident propositions. There’s no escape, so you’d better just accept it.

—–
—–
>>What about if I argued like this: I just know that you are wrong. No, I did not use any logical system to determine that fact: it is self-evident that this argument against desire utilitarianism doesn’t work.>>

Naturally I wouldn’t be convinced by such an argument, since as far as I can tell it isn’t self-evident that this argument against desire utilitarianism doesn’t work. If you were sincerely convinced that it IS self-evident, then we’d just have to agree to disagree.

Maybe that’s where we’re at with respect to my premise 1. It looks obviously true to me, but it’s negation looks obviously true to you. I think it’s obvious that rape could never be morally OK. You think it’s obvious that it could be morally OK. Oh well, that’s the end of the discussion. We can still be friends, but we’ve gone as far as we can go on this subject.

>>There is no reason to accept your argument when you are smuggling hidden assumptions that prevalidate your conclusion, into your premises and using them to draw your desired conclusion.>>

I’m not smuggling in any hidden assumptions. I’m just telling you that premise 1 looks obviously true to me. Rape could never be morally OK. It’s always wrong, no matter what. There’s nothing hidden here. I’m being perfectly explicit.

>>This is why your argument is begging the question, and therefore fallacious.>>

Premise 1 doesn’t by itself entail my conclusion. So I’m not begging the question.

>>I have pointed out two formal fallacies in your argument>>

I’m getting the impression that you don’t know what “formal fallacy” means. No, you haven’t pointed out two formal fallacies in my argument. My argument is formally bulletproof. To object to it, you’ll have to deny one or more premise. The structure of my argument is uncontroversial.

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Justin,
You said:
>>This was explained to you in another example. If we say rape is wrong, and “Turn down the rape knob” on everybody, then no desires are thwarted.>>

I don’t know what you’re saying here. Are you trying to explain why my premise 1 is false? What are you up to here? And what does it mean to “turn down the rape nob”? Is that what the kids are into these days?

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 9:31 pm

Jeff H,

You said:
>>I’d like to advance the self-evident claim that “cartesian is an idiot.”>>

I have a few questions. Do you understand what I mean when I say “self-evident”? If so, do you think there are any self-evident propositions (e.g. No prime minister is a prime number, 2+2=4, etc.)? If so, why would you think that “Cartesian is an idiot” falls into that category?

—–
—–
>>In order to show an internal contradiction in a philosophical system, you must assume it to be true and then show that it comes to an absurdity.>>

You’re right. Unfortunately, you seem to be assuming that I’m trying to show an internal contradiction in desire utilitarianism. I’m not. I’m trying to show that it entails something that we know to be false, independently of the system. That’s a perfectly good way to refute something.

—–
—–
>>All you’ve proven in your argument is that desire utilitarianism does not agree with your own moral judgments.>>

Well, I’ve proven that desire utilitarians are committed to saying that there are possible scenarios in which raping people is morally permissible (and even morally obligatory). People who agree with me that rape is necessarily wrong will, in light of this argument, be convinced that desire utilitarianism is false. People who don’t agree with me that rape is necessarily wrong won’t be convinced.

I’m fine with that conclusion, since I think it’s obvious that rape is necessarily wrong. It could never be morally permissible or obligatory, no matter what.

But apparently you deny that. So would you please do me a favor and describe a case in which raping someone is not a bad thing? And again, just a precaution: don’t just describe a case in which raping someone leads to really good consequences. Nope, we need a case in which the rape itself fails to be bad.

Good luck with that!

I notice a lot of people are scoffing at my premise 1, but nobody has taken up the challenge of actually describing a case in which rape fails to be morally wrong. I think it’s time to put up or shut up, as they say.

>>…there is no logical necessity for rape to be wrong…It’s only perhaps “self-evident” to the moral conscience of humanity. But that’s just the product of millions of years of evolution and social influence.>>

So you don’t trust any of your moral intuitions? Scary. Remind me to watch my back if we ever meet.

What about this moral intuition? “Nobody should believe false stuff without evidence.” And what about this one? “Torturing babies for fun is wrong.” And what about this one? “I shouldn’t believe p and not-p.”

You’re really skeptical about those? Yikes! I’d say it’s time to revisit your (naturalistic) assumptions.

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 9:34 pm

>>I notice a lot of people are scoffing at my premise 1, but nobody has taken up the challenge of actually describing a case in which rape fails to be morally wrong. I think it’s time to put up or shut up, as they say.>>

Let me qualify that: Lorkas did make an attempt. I’ve explained why his attempt was unsuccessful, but I appreciate that he attempted.

Anyone else?

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cartesian May 21, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Chuck,
>>The claim that something is wrong in all possible worlds is a pretty strong statement. If you want to assert that (1) is true, then you need to be ready to explain why.>>

You’re right that it is a strong claim. But I think you’re wrong to assume that all statements of necessity stand in need of explanation, argument, or support.

Take these claims of necessity:
Necessarily, no prime minister is a prime number.
Necessarily, everything is identical with itself.
Necessarily, 2+2=4.
Necessarily, if Alan’s taller than Bob, and Bob’s taller than Charles, then Alan is taller than Charles.
Necessarily, pain isn’t euphoria.

You get the idea. There are very many claims of necessity that don’t stand in need of justification, explanation, argument, or evidence. They’re just obviously true.

And I say the same thing goes with this claim:
Necessarily, rape is wrong.

I think we can just see that rape is always wrong, no matter what. If you disagree, please describe a case in which a rape (itself, not its consequences) is good.

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Ben: Question: What would be an example (for my information) of an atheist ethical theory that “…refer[s] to things that do not exist”?

Most utilitarian theories refer to something that supposedly has intrinsic value, and should therefore be maximized. Unfortunately, intrinsic value does not exist. Likewise for God’s commands, intrinsic rights and duties, categorical imperatives, and universal social contracts. These things do not exist, so all ethical theories that refer to them have at least one false premise in their argument.

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Jake: may I inquire as to your education?

I did some college but it was not helpful. I am self-taught.

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 10:04 pm

Justin: This kind of conflict has always seemed to be the problem with utilitarian systems, and morality as a whole.

I didn’t understand your point. To which conflict does desire utilitarianism fall prey?

Justin: Why is promoting desire fulfillment good? I see that desires are real, but why is it good to fulfill them.

It’s not as thought desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. Please see the links under “Aren’t you just saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value, that we should do whatever fulfills the most desires?” on my ethics FAQ. Sorry – I have so much to respond to I can’t respond individually to every comment anymore!

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 10:10 pm

EVERYONE:

This blog has outgrown my capacity to respond to every single comment. If I did so, I could not publish any new content. So readers; please DO comment and ask questions of me, but please understand if I don’t respond. Hopefully you’ll get the answers you want from other readers.

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Josh May 21, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Cartesian,

You ARE begging the question, though.  For example, a case when rape isn’t necessarily wrong: if desire utilitarianism is true!  Desire utilitarianism, if true, defines when things are right and wrong.  It is just a sheer fact of the theory that almost no moral propositions are necessarily right or wrong.  This is like trying to argue against quantum mechanics by saying “Waves and particles are not the same, quantum mechanics says they are the same, hence quantum mechanics is wrong”.  The problem is, the first point is only valid on some subset of not quantum mechanics.  Hence, you are begging the question in that case.

The same applies here: moral propositions have necessary rightness and wrongness only on not desire utilitarianism.  Hence, by asserting that rape is absolutely wrong, you are implicitly assuming not desire utilitarianism.  Of course you derive a contradiction.

You then argue that the fact that rape is not necessarily wrong goes against moral intuition: of course, proponents of desire utilitarianism say that this is precisely a strength of it: why should it be a slave to intuition?  Again, quantum mechanics is highly counterintuitive, but it is something like true.  Being counterintuitive speaks nothing towards something being right.

I hate to defend desire utilitarianism, because I don’t really buy it.  However, your argument against it is pretty bad!

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 10:41 pm

cartesian: Here’s an argument against your desire utilitarianism…

Alonzo and I have a great discussion of rape in this podcast.

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 10:44 pm

cartesian: I think we can just see that rape is always wrong, no matter what.

I understand exactly why your other examples of necessary truths (things that are true in all possible world) are necessary truths. I have no idea why the above statement is necessarily true, though. Could you elucidate? Is it because it feels really, really wrong in our universe with its particular distribution of desires and consequences and such?

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 10:47 pm

Pete,

I have no disagreements with your assessment.

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lukeprog May 21, 2009 at 10:54 pm

cartesian: I notice a lot of people are scoffing at my premise 1, but nobody has taken up the challenge of actually describing a case in which rape fails to be morally wrong. I think it’s time to put up or shut up, as they say.

You haven’t defended your assertion, but let me attack it anyway.

Here’s an example of a possible world in which rape might fail to be morally wrong. Let’s say there is a possible world in which all desire-bearing species have two sexes: male and female. All males of all species HATE sex, but luckily for these species, the females are always stronger than the males in this possible world. Also, not only is rape the only way to produce new creatures, but offspring actually fulfill more and stronger desires in the rape victims than were thwarted by the rapes – and yet the victims are not smart enough to know this, and so they continue to resist sex at all costs.

But I dunno. Feel free to rip that to shreds. It just popped into my head and I blurted it out.

But it seems to me this is certainly a possible world, and also it is a world in which rape would be morally right on desire utilitarianism, and perhaps other moral theories as well.

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Ben May 21, 2009 at 11:58 pm

lukeprog: Most utilitarian theories refer to something that supposedly has intrinsic value, and should therefore be maximized. Unfortunately, intrinsic value does not exist. Likewise for God’s commands, intrinsic rights and duties, categorical imperatives, and universal social contracts. These things do not exist, so all ethical theories that refer to them have at least one false premise in their argument.

Thanks.

Ben

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Silas May 22, 2009 at 1:07 am

cartesian: That’s not true. Imagine a population of three people who pop into existence and will pop back out of existence in twenty minutes. Two of these short-lived creatures really really want to rape the third. The third doesn’t want to be raped. But performing the rape will satisfy two large desires and frustrate only one. So in this population, the rape satisfies more desires than it frustrates. So on desire utilitarianism, it’s the right action. Not only is it morally permissible, it’s morally obligatory!

So, if we “turn up” the desire to rape in this tiny population we will have 1) two people trying to rape the third, possibly killing each other because there isn’t enough time for both of them to rape/they don’t like “sharing” their victim 2) the two rapists are going to rape each other 3) they are going to be raped by the third person, because he also desires to rape 4) probably only one of them will be able to rape, or all will be so beaten up that they can’t rape.

Anyhow, at least one person will have an incredibly strong desire thwarted.

If we “turn down” the desire to rape in this population, we will have three people chillin’ for twenty minutes. No desires thwarted. All desires fulfilled.

So we see that it is a bad desire (to have and promote). A moral person has good desires. A desire to rape is not a good desire!

Desire utilitarianism says that what you should do in a particular situation is what a person with good desires would do. A good person wouldn’t rape or promote rape because in all possible scenarios, having a desire to rape will thwart more desires than without a desire to rape.

I’m talking about rape itself. The consequenses of rape might be different.

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Hylomorphic May 22, 2009 at 2:30 am

“If we “turn down” the desire to rape in this population, we will have three people chillin’ for twenty minutes. No desires thwarted. All desires fulfilled.”
Alternatively, we could turn down the desire not to be raped.
While Alonzo Fyfe disputed that this might be a problem in his last interview, I found his reasons to be extremely flawed. His response, roughly, was that since the individual knows his desires best,  one should avoid forcing situations on others nonconsensually.
This response is problematic for two reasons. First, it is ex hypothesi false. If we have the ability to “turn up” and “turn down” desires as if we were controlling them like a radio dial, we know their desires at least as well as they do. Second, it is empirically false. It is very frequent that people are mistaken about what will fulfill their desires. Advertisers are extremely good at manipulating this fact.
 
I strongly suspect that desire utilitarianism leads to any number of mutually exclusive solutions which cannot be rationally decided on from within the theory. One would have to flip a coin or something to decide whether “don’t desire to rape” or “don’t desire not to be raped” should be  eliminated.

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Silas May 22, 2009 at 3:23 am

Holymorphic,

I don’t think that’s possible. Rape is sex without consent. If you’re being raped, it’s by definition against your will. So you can’t possibly desire to be raped. If you desire it then you’re just letting this person strip you and have sex with you. If we’re using the same word here, then this must be true.

Likewise,  it’s not possible to “turn down” the desire not to have our desires thwarted. That’s having no any desires at all.

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Lorkas May 22, 2009 at 5:33 am

Cartesian, you continue to fail to understand what I’m even arguing. I will stop here–I’m confident that I’ve succeeded in showing why your argument doesn’t work to any reasonable reader, and so I rest my case, despite the peripheral objections to my assessment that you make above.

However, I would like you to answer the question that I implicitly raised at the end of my last post: what is the moral decision to make when God commands or supports rape, as he did in the ~6 Bible passages that I brought up?

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Lorkas May 22, 2009 at 6:04 am

cartesian: I’m getting the impression that you don’t know what “formal fallacy” means.

By the way, I think it was absolute genius to utilize the ad hominem fallacy to defend your already-fallacious argument.

It’s as if 2 fallacies just wasn’t enough for you.

Anyway, if I were going to deny a premise, I would probably deny premise 3. Why think that there is a possible world wherein rape satisfies more and greater desires than it thwarts? Particularly if you’re pre-committed to the idea that rape is wrong in all possible worlds.

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Chuck May 22, 2009 at 6:29 am

Cartesian, I can imagine a possible world in which having sex feels so good that everyone always consents. In such a world, rape is good.

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Lorkas May 22, 2009 at 6:55 am

But I’m not sure that would be rape, Chuck.

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Reginald Selkirk May 22, 2009 at 6:59 am

Silas: Rape is sex without consent. If you’re being raped, it’s by definition against your will. So you can’t possibly desire to be raped.

You appear to be equating “consent” with “desire.” This could lead to problems with your argument.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 7:16 am

Luke,
You said:
>>You haven’t defended your assertion, but let me attack it anyway.>>

I don’t think premise 1 needs a defense anymore than “Pain isn’t euphoria” needs a defense. One can just see that it’s true.

>>Here’s an example of a possible world in which rape might fail to be morally wrong. Let’s say there is a possible world in which all desire-bearing species have two sexes: male and female. All males of all species HATE sex, but luckily for these species, the females are always stronger than the males in this possible world. Also, not only is rape the only way to produce new creatures, but offspring actually fulfill more and stronger desires in the rape victims than were thwarted by the rapes – and yet the victims are not smart enough to know this, and so they continue to resist sex at all costs.>>

That’s clearly possible (notice how I allow this “bare assertion” of yours rather than nagging you for supporting argument and evidence).

What you describe is a world in which rape occurs, but the rape leads to good consequences (the species survives, people’s desires are satisfied, etc.). I admit that these consequences are good (or at least your description could be fleshed out so that they are clearly good). And I even admit that, on balance, the good consequences of the rape outweigh the badness of the rape.

But here’s the problem with your view. On your view, raping these people is good, period. It’s morally obligatory, period. There’s nothing bad or wrong about raping these people, since badness and wrongness are defined in terms of the sum total of thwarted and satisfied desires. Since in this case raping these people leads to more satisfied desires than thwarted desires, the raping is good, period.

I think that’s clearly wrong. Even if it is attended by all sorts of positive things, raping people is still bad. The rape itself is bad, even if it is surrounded by good stuff.

Your view has to deny that. On your view, there’s nothing wrong with the rape in this case; in fact, on your view the rape is morally obligatory! Since that’s absurd, I reject your view.

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Chuck May 22, 2009 at 7:41 am

I disagree. I don’t think you can separate the consequences of something from the something when trying to figure out if it is good. Take going to the dentist, for instance. I think we would all agree that going to the dentist is good.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 7:42 am

Lorkas,
You said:
>>Cartesian, you continue to fail to understand what I’m even arguing.>>

No, I think I get it. You were accusing me of committing two fallacies: bare assertion and begging the question. I explained to you how I wasn’t committing these fallacies. And I walked you through every inference of my argument, to try to persuade you that I was committing no formal fallacies.

You’re also not happy with the justification I offered in support of premise 1. You seemed to object that it’s illegitimate to just assert a premise as self-evident or obviously true. I gave you an argument for the conclusion that it’s not always illegitimate to assert a premise as self-evident or obviously true: if it were never legitimate, no argument would ever get off the ground.

So I’m pretty sure I get what you’re arguing (correct me if I’m wrong). I just don’t buy your argument, and I’ve given what I take to be good reasons why.

>>I will stop here–I’m confident that I’ve succeeded in showing why your argument doesn’t work to any reasonable reader, and so I rest my case>>

Really? You want to rest your case on the objection that I’m committing two formal fallacies and that my first premise is unjustified? I’ve already shown that I’m not committing any formal fallacies. I will accept that you can’t see any justification for premise 1, but that doesn’t concern me or anyone else to whom premise 1 is just obviously true. You think there might be a case in which rape itself is good. I think rape itself is always bad. We’ve reached an impasse, though it would be nice if you could describe the case you have in mind in which rape itself is good.

—–
—–
>>I would like you to answer the question that I implicitly raised at the end of my last post: what is the moral decision to make when God commands or supports rape, as he did in the ~6 Bible passages that I brought up?>>

I don’t want to derail this thread, so I’ll be brief. I don’t think God commands or supports rape in any of those verses you cite. I see some descriptions (Judg. 5:30) and predictions (Zech. 14:1-2) of rape, and I see some permissions to take some women as wives (Exod. 21:7-11, Deut. 20:10-14; 21:10-14). I also see Moses (Num. 31:7-18) and “the assembly” (Judg. 21:10-24) commanding some shady stuff. But I never see God commanding or supporting rape, as you say.

—–
—–
>>By the way, I think it was absolute genius to utilize the ad hominem fallacy to defend your already-fallacious argument.>>

Now I’m beginning to think that you don’t know what “ad hominem” means. Only arguments can commit the ad hominem fallacies. And arguments that commit these fallacies generally have this form: “My opponent believes p. But my opponent is ___(insert bad stuff)__. Therefore p is false.”

Since I wasn’t making any argument when I mentioned my suspicion that you don’t understand “formal fallacy,” and since I certainly wasn’t making anything like an argument of the above form, I plead not guilty to committing the ad hominem fallacy.

—–
>>It’s as if 2 fallacies just wasn’t enough for you.>>

Well, I don’t think I’ve committed any. If you think I’ve committed some, I’d appreciate it if you would say some more about it.

—–
—–
>>Anyway, if I were going to deny a premise, I would probably deny premise 3. Why think that there is a possible world wherein rape satisfies more and greater desires than it thwarts?>>

Thank you for engaging my argument! But both I and Luke have already described such possible worlds. So we both seem to agree that premise 3 is true. Why do you think it’s false?

To deny premise 3, you must claim that necessarily, rape doesn’t satisfy more and greater desires than it thwarts. If you want to meet the same evidential standard you held me to when it came to premise 1, you’d better have some argument or evidence in favor of your denial of 3. Do you? Or are you committing what you call “the fallacy of bare assertion”?

I’m sort of teasing, by the way. I think it’s fine for you to say that the denial of 3 seems obviously true to you. But I’ve actually presented a possible scenario that proves premise 3. And so has Luke. So I think premise 3 is pretty well supported. You’ll have to explain to me why these scenarios we’ve described don’t actually prove premise 3.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 7:51 am

Chuck,
You said:
>>I disagree. I don’t think you can separate the consequences of something from the something when trying to figure out if it is good.>>

Sure we can. We do it all the time. Many of us are doing it right now: “Sure Mr. Cheney, you may have acquired some good intelligence by using these interrogation methods. Some of the consequences were quite good. But still, you TORTURED people. So you did something bad, even if all the consequences were good.”

That’s an example of good consequences resulting from a bad/wrong action. I can multiply these examples ad infinitum.

>>Take going to the dentist, for instance. I think we would all agree that going to the dentist is good.>>

Yes, there are very many cases where we think that, on balance, a certain action is worth doing, i.e. that it would be prudent to perform an action given the balance of good and bad consequences. Going to the dentist is one such action: it will lead to a lot of pain, but there will be many good consequences as well. On balance, we think the good outweighs the bad, so we go to the dentist.

But what the dentist does (namely, moving various instruments around in your mouth) is morally neutral. And all the good consequences in the world don’t make moving instruments around in mouths good. It’s always just morally neutral.

Rape, on the other hand, is awful. And it stays that way no matter how many good consequences follow.

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Lorkas May 22, 2009 at 7:56 am

cartesian: If you think I’ve committed some, I’d appreciate it if you would say some more about it.

Nothing remains unsaid. My case is made, and practically everyone who has commented on the issue agrees that your arguments are fallacious in the way I described. Of course, that doesn’t make the claims true (that would be an argumentum ad populum), but it does suggest that perhaps you should reconsider where this argument has gone and ask yourself why your argument hasn’t persuaded anyone but yourself.

I assert that it is because you are precommitted to the idea that  desire utilitarianism is false (which it may be–I just don’t think that your argument is successful in demonstrating that). Perhaps you are right, and you are doomed to live in the world where everyone but yourself is irrational.

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Josh May 22, 2009 at 8:01 am

I still feel like my point has been unaddressed… I’m simply claiming, as seems quite reasonable, that on desire utilitarianism, almost nothing is necessarily wrong.  I don’t see that as a weakness of the theory, but it does invalidate Cartesian’s claim, because by asserting that something is necessarily wrong, he is implicitly assuming that desire utilitarianism is false, and hence assuming his conclusion, hence begging the question.

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Lorkas May 22, 2009 at 8:04 am

Jeff H: Lorkas, I’d like to advance the self-evident claim that “cartesian is an idiot.”

I don’t believe this is self-evident, but the evidence is mounting. ;)

BAM, cartesian–I can ad hom too, biotch

And, by the way–an ad hominem doesn’t have to be a formal part of the argument to be an ad hominem–any attempt to discredit the other speaker is generally considered an ad hom. It’s a fallacy of irrelevance, and your opinion about whether or not I understand the fallacies I was pointing out in your argument is irrelevant to your point, which is that your original argument was not fallacious. I just thought it was ironic enough to point out that you utilized that fallacy to help defend against the accusation that your original argument was fallacious.

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Silas May 22, 2009 at 8:08 am

Reginald Selkirk: You appear to be equating “consent” with “desire.” This could lead to problems with your argument.

Rape is by definition the thwarting of a desire. Seriously. You CANNOT approve of rape. It wouldn’t be rape if you did.

One cannot “turn down” the desire not to be raped. It’s totally contradictory.

As I’ve said before: I’m not qualified to defend desire utilitarianism. Even so, I think cartesian is wrong. A good person wouldn’t rape, according to desire utilitarianism. If Alonzo thinks differently, please let me know.

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Reginald Selkirk May 22, 2009 at 8:38 am

Silas: Rape is by definition the thwarting of a desire.

I checked a dictionary, and did not find the definition you claim. In fact, the word “thwart” did not appear in any definition I saw. I think maybe you are one of those annoying people who says “by definition” when you’re too lazy to make an actual argument.

A simple counter example to drive the point home: Consider statuatory rape with a minor: although the minor may desire sex, due to their age, they cannot be said to have given lawful consent.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 8:52 am

Lorkas,
>>My case is made, and practically everyone who has commented on the issue agrees that your arguments are fallacious in the way I described.>>

My argument commits no formal fallacies, not even of the type you claim it does. Even according to the Wikipedia (!) article you cited, my argument doesn’t commit the “bare assertion fallacy.” And for those of you who think I’ve begged the question, please define that fallacy and explain how I’ve committed it.

I haven’t assumed what I’m trying to prove. None of my assumptions or premises is that desire utilitarianism is false. It’s true that my premises entail that desire utilitarianism is false, but that’s the nature of deductive arguments! If I’ve begged the question simply by asserting premises that entail my conclusion, then every deductive argument begs the question, according to you guys. Since that’s clearly absurd, you should get more clear on what it is to beg the question.

—–
—–
>>perhaps you should reconsider where this argument has gone and ask yourself why your argument hasn’t persuaded anyone but yourself.>>

I don’t know why my argument hasn’t persuaded you guys since none of you has given me a clear explanation. Some of you have said I’ve committed a fallacy, but I’ve rebutted those charges. Some of you have said that premise 1 isn’t self-evident, but that’s beside the point. My argument doesn’t claim that premise one is self-evident, it only claims that premise 1 is true. Some of you have claimed that premise 1 is false, but you haven’t yet described a possible situation in which rape is morally permissible. Lorkas said that premise 3 is false, but I and Luke have both described possible situations that prove premise 3.

If you’re rationally unpersuaded of the argument, please explain why. None of my inferences fail, so you must think a premise is false. 4, 5, and 6 are conclusions, so you shouldn’t attack them. You should attack either 1, 2, or 3. 2 is a statement from Luke himself, so I think it’s above reproach. So it’s 1 or 3. Please explain to me why one of those is false.

Here’s the argument again, for convenience:

(1) There is no possible world in which rape is morally permissible. (2) If desire utilitarianism is true, then “Rape is wrong” is an empirical claim meaning something like “The desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.”
(3) There is a possible world in which it is NOT the case that the desire to rape tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.
(4) Therefore, if desire utilitarianism is true, there is a possible world in which it’s false that rape is wrong. (from 2 and 3)
(5) Therefore, if desire utilitarianism is true, there is a possible world in which rape is morally permissible. (from 4)
(6) Therefore desire utilitarianism is false. (from 1 and 5)

—–
—–
>>I assert that it is because you are precommitted to the idea that  desire utilitarianism is false>>
 
No, I’m simply not. None of my premises individually entails that desire utilitarianism is false. So I don’t presuppose that.
 
You’re not engaging my argument, Lorkas. Exactly which premise is false and why?

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Chuck May 22, 2009 at 8:53 am

cartesian: Rape, on the other hand, is awful. And it stays that way no matter how many good consequences follow.

How do you know? It seems to me that you’re arguing in the same way I might say, I don’t like chocolate. Now it may be true that I don’t like chocolate, but then it’s only a matter of taste. It has no moral significance.

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Silas May 22, 2009 at 9:43 am

Reginald Selkirk: I checked a dictionary, and did not find the definition you claim. In fact, the word “thwart” did not appear in any definition I saw. I think maybe you are one of those annoying people who says “by definition” when you’re too lazy to make an actual argument.

I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine otherwise. If you don’t give consent, it means that you don’t want to be raped. (Actually, I think “not giving consent” in real life translates to “Don’t touch me, perv!”) You desire not to be raped. If somebody desired to rape me, I would desire that they don’t. If they did it anyway, I would have my desire thwarted.

About child sexual abuse: I don’t know. That’s a good point and I will have to think about it. I don’t know what desire utilitarianism would say about that.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 9:43 am

cartesian: Rape, on the other hand, is awful. And it stays that way no matter how many good consequences follow.

>>How do you know?>>
 
Here’s how I know: I consider a case in which rape leads to many good consequences. I carefully consider the rape itself –that act of forcibly sexually violating someone against his or her consent — and I can see that it’s awful.
 
It’s the same way I know that no Prime Minister could be a prime number. I consider a case involving a Prime Minister. I carefully consider the Prime Minister, and I ask myself “Could he or she also be a prime number?” I quickly and clearly see that the answer is “no.”
 
Do you disagree about the rape case? Can rape itself  somehow become good if there are enough good consequences? Please describe such a case to me.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 9:48 am

Oh, and let me add something interesting to this discussion:

Many of you are probably atheists who think that the Euthyphro Dilemma is devastating to the divine command theory of morality.

Well, one of the horns in that dilemma is roughly this: If something is good because God commands it, then if God commanded us to rape people, raping people would be good.

This is supposed to sting for the divine command theorist, since nobody wants to say that there are any conditions under which raping people would be good.

But you guys aren’t among those people! You’re perfectly willing to accept that there are conditions under which raping people would be good.

So, you’ve lost this objection to divine command theory. The Euthyphro Dilemma is no longer a dilemma, according to you guys. There’s an easy way out: just admit that no moral principles hold necessarily. Easy.

So in the interest of intellectual honesty, please don’t wield the Euthyphro Dilemma against divine command theorists ever again.

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Reginald Selkirk May 22, 2009 at 10:15 am

cartesian: Well, one of the horns in that dilemma is roughly this: If something is good because God commands it, then if God commanded us to rape people, raping people would be good…

I don’t know about this. There are in fact religious texts which tell us that God commanded all sorts of things which I consider to be immoral. And yet, I do still consider them to be immoral. Not to mention that you haven’t even established the existence of any God, so I don’t accept your word that any God could command such a thing.

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Chuck May 22, 2009 at 10:20 am

cartesian: >>How do you know?>>   Here’s how I know: I consider a case in which rape leads to many good consequences. I carefully consider the rape itself –that act of forcibly sexually violating someone against his or her consent — and I can see that it’s awful.  

So you’re using the moral sense you got from evolution.

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Chuck May 22, 2009 at 10:22 am

cartesian: Oh, and let me add something interesting to this discussion:Many of you are probably atheists who think that the Euthyphro Dilemma is devastating to the divine command theory of morality.Well, one of the horns in that dilemma is roughly this: If something is good because God commands it, then if God commanded us to rape people, raping people would be good.This is supposed to sting for the divine command theorist, since nobody wants to say that there are any conditions under which raping people would be good.But you guys aren’t among those people! You’re perfectly willing to accept that there are conditions under which raping people would be good. So, you’ve lost this objection to divine command theory. The Euthyphro Dilemma is no longer a dilemma, according to you guys. There’s an easy way out: just admit that no moral principles hold necessarily. Easy.So in the interest of intellectual honesty, please don’t wield the Euthyphro Dilemma against divine command theorists ever again.

I object to the claim that rape is wrong in all possible worlds, not that it’s wrong in this one.

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Teleprompter May 22, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Cartesian,

Josh also summarizes quite well my objections to your argument.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Josh (and Teleprompter):

Josh said this:
>>I still feel like my point has been unaddressed… I’m simply claiming, as seems quite reasonable, that on desire utilitarianism, almost nothing is necessarily wrong.>>

That’s right. On desire utilitarianism, nothing is necessarily morally wrong. That is, IF desire utilitarianism is true, nothing is necessarily morally wrong.

That’s essentially a premise in my argument, so I’m glad you agree. So far, there’s no objection to my argument.

>>I don’t see that as a weakness of the theory, but it does invalidate Cartesian’s claim, because by asserting that something is necessarily wrong, he is implicitly assuming that desire utilitarianism is false>>

No, I am not implicitly assuming that desire utilitarianism is false. I’m explicitly asserting something which I later show to be inconsistent with desire utilitarianism. This is NOT begging the question. It’s a perfectly ordinary and legitimate way of reasoning.

Consider this argument:
“My opponent says that Texas was never under an ocean. If that were true, we shouldn’t expect to find layers of fossilized seashells in Texan soil. But we do find those layers of seashells. Therefore, my opponent’s theory is false.”

Suppose someone objected this way:
“Woh buddy. On your opponent’s theory, there should be no layers of seashells in Texan soil. So it’s question begging for you to assume that there are such layers of seashells.”

CLEARLY, that is a BAD objection. But this is exactly the same objection I keep getting from you guys!

I argue in an exactly parallel way:
“My opponent says that desire utilitarianism is true. But if it were true, no action would be necessarily wrong. But there are many actions that are necessarily wrong, for example rape. Therefore, my opponent’s theory is false.”

And you object in an exactly parallel way:
“Woh buddy. On desire utilitarianism, there are no necessarily wrong actions. So it’s question begging for you to assume that there are any necessarily wrong actions.”

CLEARLY (now at least, I hope), that is a BAD objection. It was bad in the seashell case, and it’s bad in this case.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Chuck,
>>I object to the claim that rape is wrong in all possible worlds, not that it’s wrong in this one.>>

Can you please describe a possible situation in which rape itself is not morally wrong?

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Chuck,
>>So you’re using the moral sense you got from evolution.>>

Yes. Fortunately, I think evolution was guided. So I have no reason to doubt my moral faculties (or any other of my cognitive faculties).

I’m sorry you find yourself in this skeptical position where you don’t trust your moral faculties, but I’m glad you accept what I take to be a consequence of naturalism. (I think you should also be skeptical of all your other cognitive faculties. And boy that sucks for you.)

So are you really skeptical of the proposition that it would be wrong to believe p and not-p?

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Hylomorphic May 22, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Silas: Holymorphic, I don’t think that’s possible. Rape is sex without consent. If you’re being raped, it’s by definition against your will. So you can’t possibly desire to be raped. If you desire it then you’re just letting this person strip you and have sex with you. If we’re using the same word here, then this must be true. Likewise,  it’s not possible to “turn down” the desire not to have our desires thwarted. That’s having no any desires at all.

First, I did not say anything about turning up a desire to be raped, but turning down a desire not to be raped.  These are two very  different things.  Presumably, we don’t want to be want to be raped because we find it unpleasant and dysphoric. Being raped is something we find objectionable in itself. We desire not to have it happen to us. It’s not simply a desire that our own desires not be thwarted.

Second, even if I had talked about turning up the desire to be raped, I don’t believe this is at all incoherent. It strikes me that the definitive characteristic of rape is not simply that it violates consent, but that consent is utterly irrelevant. The person being raped has no choice in the matter.  As it turns out, some rare few do indeed have a desire to be put in such a sexually helpless situation. I know of no way to articulate this desire than as a desire to be raped.

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Jeff H May 22, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Cartesian,

First of all, I know this was from way back now, but my “cartesian is an idiot” self-evident claim was a joke. Just to clear that up :P

I disagree with you that “rape is wrong” is a self-evident claim. I know you didn’t put that in your argument, but I dispute the claim of premise 1, and in your defense of that premise you asserted that “rape is wrong” is simply true. No proof required. But self-evident claims are essentially limited to claims that must be true in order not to fall into contradiction, i.e. something true by definition. “Squares are not round” is true by definition. The other examples you gave (which I now can’t seem to find) were examples of things that are true by definition.

We could define rape as, “an act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person.” I think this is an adequate definition, but there is nothing implicit in the definition that rape is “wrong”. You may dispute this definition if you like, but nothing about the definition of what rape is necessarily entails its “wrongness”. It is only through systems of ethics that we determine the “rightness” or “wrongness” of an act, and thus it cannot be a priori self-evident.

If the wrongness of rape is not a self-evident claim, then we require proof that premise 1 is true. If you cannot do so, then we have no obligation to accept such a premise.

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cartesian May 22, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Jeff,
>>self-evident claims are essentially limited to claims that must be true in order not to fall into contradiction, i.e. something true by definition.>>

Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “true by definition.” Can you tell me?

How about 2+2=4? I think that’s self-evident, but I don’t think it’s true by definition. It’s not like the definition of 2 mentions anything about 4.

What about “No prime minister is a prime number”? I think that’s self-evident, but I don’t think it’s true by definition. The definition of “prime minister” doesn’t mention prime numbers.

>>“Squares are not round” is true by definition.>>

Really? How so? Does the definition of square mention anything about roundness? What do you mean when you say “true by definition”?

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Josh May 22, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Cartesian,

To put your argument in terms of your example:

“My opponent says that Texas was never under an ocean. If that were true, we shouldn’t expect to find layers of fossilized seashells in Texan soil. But we do find those layers of seashells. Therefore, my opponent’s theory is false.”

translates to

“My opponent says that desire utiltarianism is true. If that were true, we should expect that there is a possible world where rape is morally permissible. But we don’t find such a world. Therefore, my opponent’s theory is false.”

What’s the key difference?  The seashell example makes an empirical claim.  We can go check if there are seashells.  However, you’re making a modal claim, and you’re just asserting it! What you would have to do, to truly derive a contradiction in this case, is to first assume desire utilitarianism is true, then show that rape is both possibly acceptable and necessarily wrong.  I can’t see a single bit of justification that rape is necessarily wrong.  Let’s give an example that shows the flaw in your logic, again by copying your previous example:

“My opponent says that parallel lines converge. If that were true, we would be able to see that parallel lines converge.  But obviously they don’t!  I mean, look at ‘em! Therefore, Riemannian geometry is false.”

But that can’t possibly work—this is because the “self evident” statement, that parallel lines never converge, is only true on Euclidean geometry; in fact, it’s axiomatic. 

If you don’t find my above example to be accurate, please correct it, and point out where exactly there is a difference between arguing about parallel lines and arguing about the wrongness of rape.  Note that I am not making an empirical claim: it could very well be the case that, empirically, desire utilitarianism is false, just as it could be the case that empirically Riemannian geometry is false.  However, you’re making a logical claim: desire utilitarianism is necessarily false.

Now, others here are making the argument that rape is necessarily wrong, even under desire utilitarianism.  I don’t think it’s germane to the issue at hand, but it’s fun.

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lukeprog May 22, 2009 at 5:40 pm

cartesian: Your view has to deny that. On your view, there’s nothing wrong with the rape in this case; in fact, on your view the rape is morally obligatory! Since that’s absurd, I reject your view.

On what grounds? On the grounds that it’s just “obvious” that rape is wrong? That it’s true just because? That you don’t need an argument for this because you say so? That you have an invisible cognitive faculty that reliably detects invisible intrinsic value, and rape has a negative intrinsic value in all possible worlds? I remain unpersuaded…

A message to Lorkas, cartesian, and myself. I think we might be running around trying to slap “fallacy!” on those who disagree with us. We may be getting more worked up than we need to. Can we all (including myself) take just a moment to remind everybody that we don’t think our opponents are stupid or generally irrational?

Cartesian, I’ve been mostly disagreeing with you, so I’ll take another moment out to say that I deeply respect your training in philosophy and critical thinking. I suspect you commit some fallacies here and there since there are hundreds of them, and I probably commit even more, since I’m newer at this than you are. I enjoy our discussions and think they are fruitful – at least for me, and I hope for you as well.

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lukeprog May 22, 2009 at 6:07 pm

cartesian: So in the interest of intellectual honesty, please don’t wield the Euthyphro Dilemma against divine command theorists ever again.

This is not a problem for atheists. It is a problem for theists who want to say that God is the source of objective moral values. If the theist wants to claim that God is the source of objective moral values and that his chosen moral values are arbitrary, then indeed the theist has avoided the dilemma by impaling himself fully on one of the horns.

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lukeprog May 22, 2009 at 6:10 pm

cartesian: No, I am not implicitly assuming that desire utilitarianism is false. I’m explicitly asserting something which I later show to be inconsistent with desire utilitarianism. This is NOT begging the question. It’s a perfectly ordinary and legitimate way of reasoning.

Yes, cartesian is correct here.

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Chuck May 22, 2009 at 7:44 pm

cartesian: Fortunately, I think evolution was guided. So I have no reason to doubt my moral faculties . . .

Even if evolution was “guided” as you say, that is only half the equation. Our moral sense is also heavily influenced by our culture, so unless your culture got everything right, you still have problems.

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lukeprog May 22, 2009 at 8:06 pm

cartesian: Fortunately, I think evolution was guided. So I have no reason to doubt my moral faculties

I just made up a story about a cloud of benevolent subatomic gremlins who endowed me with an invisible cognitive faculty that gives me the ability to detect the subatomic gremlins. So I have no reason to doubt my gremlin faculties.

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cartesian May 23, 2009 at 8:19 am

Josh,
>>What’s the key difference?  The seashell example makes an empirical claim.>>

I agree with you that this is a difference between the two cases, but I don’t see how it’s a key difference, as you say. I don’t even see how it’s relevant to whether I’ve begged the question.

Do you think the seashell argument begged the question? If so, why?

If not, do you think my argument begs the question? If so, what’s the difference between my argument and the seashell argument? They both have the same form: “My opponent claims p. But if p then q. Yet q is false. Therefore not p.”

That’s a perfectly legitimate way to argue, I should think.

You seem to be changing the subject and raising a new objection concerning the justification of my first premise. You don’t seem to be talking about begging the question anymore. Have you conceded that my argument doesn’t beg the question?



>>you’re making a modal claim, and you’re just asserting it!>>

Yeah, we do it all the time. And very often it’s perfectly legitimate. 2 plus 2 must be 4. No prime minister could be a prime number. There could be a golden mountain. These are all legitimately asserted as self-evident.

So why do you think it’s illegitimate in this case?

>>What you would have to do, to truly derive a contradiction in this case, is to first assume desire utilitarianism is true, then show that rape is both possibly acceptable and necessarily wrong.>>

That would be one way to refute desire utilitarianism (by showing that it is internally inconsistent), you’re right. But it’s not the only way to refute the theory.

One way to refute the No-Ocean-Over-Texas theory is to show that it is internally inconsistent, i.e. to derive a contradiction using only premises that the theorist would accept. But that’s not the only way to refute the theory. Another way is to show that it entails something we know to be false, independently of the theory. That second strategy is the one I’ve adopted to refute desire utilitarianism.

>>I can’t see a single bit of justification that rape is necessarily wrong.>>

Try to describe a possible case in which rape itself is not morally wrong. If you can’t, then you should agree with me that rape is necessarily wrong.



>>If you don’t find my above example to be accurate, please correct it, and point out where exactly there is a difference between arguing about parallel lines and arguing about the wrongness of rape.>>

Yeah, a lot of people cite this case as an example in which something which seemed self-evident (i.e. that parallel lines never converge) turned out to be false. But I don’t think that has happened. To see this, let’s be more careful about just what proposition seemed obviously true. I think that, in both geometries, two lines are parallel just in case a third line can intersect both of them at right angles. Now in Euclidean space where both of the parallel lines will be on a rectangular plane, clearly (and self-evidently!) these parallel lines will never converge. But in Riemannian space, where all planes are not rectangular but rather spherical, clearly (and self-evidently!) all parallel lines will eventually converge.

Nothing that seems obviously true turned out to be false. In Euclidean space, it seems obvious that parallel lines will never converge, and indeed they don’t. In Riemannian space, it seems obvious that parallel lines will always converge, and indeed they do. What we must be careful about when evaluating the truth of “Parallel lines never converge” is what sort of space we’re considering these lines to be in. Most of us naturally revert to Euclidean space, and so we may verbally report our intuition as “Parallel lines never converge!” But a more complete and accurate report of our intuition is “Parallel lines never converge (in Euclidean space)!” And this intuition has not been defeated.

So you haven’t given me any reason to doubt my intuition that rape is always wrong.

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cartesian May 23, 2009 at 10:44 am

Luke,
>>I just made up a story about a cloud of benevolent subatomic gremlins who endowed me with an invisible cognitive faculty that gives me the ability to detect the subatomic gremlins. So I have no reason to doubt my gremlin faculties.>>

If you genuinely believed that, then the following objection against your view wouldn’t work: “Regardless of whether or not your belief is true, you’re unjustified or irrational in believing in subatomic gremlins, since there isn’t enough evidence.” And, if you genuinely believed that, it wouldn’t be irrational for you to trust your supposed gremlin-detecting cognitive faculty.

And, I think, the same thing goes for Christianity, if the Christian believes in something like a sensus divinitatis.

But for those naturalists who think that their cognitive faculties were not designed by evolution to aim at the truth, there’s a serious problem of self-defeat. You’ve accepted this implication with respect to morality: you think evolution designed our consciences not necessarily to deliver true beliefs, but rather to deliver merely adaptive beliefs. So you’re a skeptic with respect to the deliverances of your conscience.

But don’t you think the same thing goes with all your other cognitive faculties? Natural selection is blind to the truth of your beliefs; it can select only based on your behavior. So your cognitive faculties were designed by evolution only with an eye towards adaptive behavior, not with an eye towards true belief. So why trust any of your cognitive faculties?

I don’t really want to derail this thread. Luke, if you’d like to talk about this, maybe you could write a blog about it sometime. If not, that’s fine. I just wanted to press the worry for you. Why are you just a skeptic about your conscience, but not about your other cognitive faculties?

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cartesian May 23, 2009 at 10:47 am

Luke, I said:
>>On your view, there’s nothing wrong with the rape in this case; in fact, on your view the rape is morally obligatory! Since that’s absurd, I reject your view.>>

You replied:
>>On what grounds? On the grounds that it’s just “obvious” that rape is wrong? That it’s true just because? That you don’t need an argument for this because you say so? That you have an invisible cognitive faculty that reliably detects invisible intrinsic value, and rape has a negative intrinsic value in all possible worlds? I remain unpersuaded…>>

Can you describe a possible scenario in which rape itself is not morally wrong? You’ve tried, and I responded to your attempt. Did you find my response persuasive? Why or why not?

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Josh May 23, 2009 at 11:00 am

“Try to describe a possible case in which rape itself is not morally wrong. If you can’t, then you should agree with me that rape is necessarily wrong.”

Here is a situation, on desire utilitarianism, where rape is not wrong: rape fulfills more desires that in thwarts.  This is where you’re begging the question.  I think your analysis of the parallel lines argument makes it quite clear where you’re argument is wrong.

If we say “rape is always wrong”, we must say which ethical system we’re arguing from.  In this case, it may be that rape is always wrong on, say, deontology, but not always wrong on, say, desire utilitarianism.

Your basic premise, however, says that we don’t have to do that, because rape is necessarily wrong, in the same way that no prime minister is a prime number.  But there is obviously a distinction between prime ministers and prime numbers.  For example, I can prove deductively that a prime minister is not a prime number:

Assume a prime minister is a prime number.  Then, by definition, the prime minister is an element of the natural numbers, such that he can only be divided by himself and one.  But, by definition of natural numbers, a prime minister is not a natural number, because natural numbers are defined in a specific way, as the iterative composition of sets.  A prime minister is specifically defined as a human being, which by definition is not an iterative composition of sets.  Hence, no prime minister can be a prime number.

Similarly, 2+2 = 4 is possible to be derived from the axioms of set theory.  Of course, what you call “2″ and what you call “4″ is arbitrary, but I think that’ s a different issue than what we’re discussing here.   You have to have definitions in order to talk about anything!

Similarly, “there could be a golden mountain” is simply true because the concept of a golden mountain is internally coherent—but it may not be possible under certain process e.g. it might be impossible for geological forces to generate a golden mountain, while a very rich person could build a golden moutain.

Hence, for you to just be able to assert that “rape is necessarily wrong”, you have to show that it follows from definition.  But, if we assume desire utilitarianism, then for something to be wrong precisely means that it “thwarts more desires than it fulfills”.  Hence, by asserting rape is necessarily wrong, you’re implicitly assuming an ethical system on which rape is necessarily wrong.

We’re arguing between levels of ethics here. Maybe this will help clear things up.  In fact, if you answer nothing of my post, at least tell me whether you think the following proposition is true or not:

(1) Something can be wrong in the absence of a moral theory which dictates what is right and wrong

I think that (1) is false, because to define an action as wrong, you need some definition of what it means for an action to be wrong!  If you hold that (1) is true, as it seems  you do, then we can’t possible have a constructive debate until we agree as to the truth value of (1).  If you hold that (1) is false, then you have to tell me how your proposition that “rape is necessarily wrong” is not begging the question by assuming an ethical system in which rape is wrong.

I also want to say that arguing with you is a pleasure :).  This is my first string of posts here on this blog, and it’s been one of the most fun I’ve had on the internet.

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Josh May 23, 2009 at 11:02 am

“I don’t really want to derail this thread. Luke, if you’d like to talk about this, maybe you could write a blog about it sometime. If not, that’s fine. I just wanted to press the worry for you. Why are you just a skeptic about your conscience, but not about your other cognitive faculties?”

I would love to see Luke blog about this: I think it’s more or less Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism.  I think I have a response to it, but it’s not germane to this thread.  Hence, I am throwing in for having Luke blog about it!

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lukeprog May 23, 2009 at 12:15 pm

cartesian: lukeprog: >> I just made up a story about a cloud of benevolent subatomic gremlins who endowed me with an invisible cognitive faculty that gives me the ability to detect the subatomic gremlins. So I have no reason to doubt my gremlin faculties.>>

If you genuinely believed that, then the following objection against your view wouldn’t work: “Regardless of whether or not your belief is true, you’re unjustified or irrational in believing in subatomic gremlins, since there isn’t enough evidence.” And, if you genuinely believed that, it wouldn’t be irrational for you to trust your supposed gremlin-detecting cognitive faculty.

I would leave off the “regardless of whether or not your belief is true….” part. What I’m trying to say is that just because you have a story about why your moral sense is justified does not make it the case that your story is true.

cartesianWhy are you just a skeptic about your conscience, but not about your other cognitive faculties?

Yeah, I’ll definitely do some posts on EEAN in the future. There are many reasons to ‘trust’ (in a very limited sense) the output of my ‘other’ cognitive faculties (to say other is weird because the conscience is not a moral faculty because it doesn’t exist), and of course secular philosophy is not blind to this issue. In fact, we know our senses are sometimes reliable, and we have developed many cross-checking and other procedures to filter the data from our senses into something that more probably than not represents the world truly. This has been what most of epistemological research has been all about! You can’t avoid this problem simply by saying that God gave you accurate senses, including an accurate moral sense. Even if you can marshall evidence in favor of theism, this does nothing to indicate that God gave you acccurate senses or an accurate moral sense. This is just another case of theists wanting to assume everything they believe in so they don’t have to provide any evidence for it – because if they had to provide evidence for it, they would quickly find there is none.

cartesian: Can you describe a possible scenario in which rape itself is not morally wrong? You’ve tried, and I responded to your attempt. Did you find my response persuasive? Why or why not?

Yes. I provided a possible world in which, under desire utilitarianism and some other moral theories as well, rape was morally good.

Your response was, as far as I can tell, merely to assert that rape “stays [awful] no matter how many good consequences follow.” When asked to defend that position, you said:

cartesian: Here’s how I know: I consider a case in which rape leads to many good consequences. I carefully consider the rape itself –that act of forcibly sexually violating someone against his or her consent — and I can see that it’s awful.

This is precisely the “close my eyes and let me feel the force” notion of moral reasoning I often rebut. Closing your eyes and feeling your way to an answer about a moral question involving possible worlds is not going to persuade me.

Josh has shown how your examples about Prime Ministers and Prime numbers, 2+2=4, etc. are known to be true not by closing our eyes and feeling the force, but through logical deduction. It’s just that in those cases the logical deductions are so widely accepted that people rarely bother to do them, and we add them to our column of “undisputed truths” that we don’t check anymore.

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Reginald Selkirk May 23, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Silas: I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine otherwise.

So your argument boils down to: “I lack imagination.”

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Reginald Selkirk May 23, 2009 at 3:48 pm

cartesian: Yes. Fortunately, I think evolution was guided. So I have no reason to doubt my moral faculties (or any other of my cognitive faculties).

How odd then that so many people have differences in their moral positions. Some of them must be wrong, and therefore a perfect evolution of moral faculites seems to be in question.

(I think you should also be skeptical of all your other cognitive faculties. And boy that sucks for you.)

We should be skeptical of our cognitive and perceptual faculties. Cognitive and perceptual illusions are quite common.

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Reginald Selkirk May 23, 2009 at 3:52 pm
Reginald Selkirk May 23, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Josh: I would love to see Luke blog about this: I think it’s more or less Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism. I think I have a response to it, but it’s not germane to this thread. Hence, I am throwing in for having Luke blog about it!

Is that the one where Plantinga says that evolution is incompatible with naturalism? I’d like to see that covered as well.

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cartesian May 23, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Josh,
 
I said this:
>>“Try to describe a possible case in which rape itself is not morally wrong. If you can’t, then you should agree with me that rape is necessarily wrong.”>>
 
You replied:
>>Here is a situation, on desire utilitarianism, where rape is not wrong: rape fulfills more desires that in thwarts.>>
 
I didn’t ask you for a possible situation in which rape itself is not wrong ON DESIRE UTILITARIANISM. No, I just asked you describe a possible situation in which rape itself is not wrong, period. You seem to think that’s impossible, since elsewhere you say:
 
>>If we say “rape is always wrong”, we must say which ethical system we’re arguing from.>>
 
And later, you say:
>>(1) Something can be wrong in the absence of a moral theory which dictates what is right and wrong.

I think that (1) is false, because to define an action as wrong, you need some definition of what it means for an action to be wrong! >>
 
I think (1) is true. The proof is that there were many things that were good and bad long before there were any moral theorists, and therefore long before there were any moral theories.
 
I’m more interested in the justification you give for thinking (1) is false. Regarding that justification, if you have some time, I think you should read Roderick Chisholm’s “The Problem of the Criterion.”
http://books.google.com/books?id=0F8XQeFVGwcC&printsec=frontcover#PPA61,M1
 
You say that “to define an action as wrong, you need some definition of what it means for an action to be wrong.”
 
First, a preliminary point: What do you mean by “define an action as wrong”? Do you just mean to judge that an action is wrong? That’s all I’ve been doing in these rape cases. I’ve considered various scenarios and judged that the rape in these scenarios is wrong.
 
If you do mean to say that to judge an action as wrong, one needs some definition of what it means for an action to be wrong, then I completely disagree. That principle (to judge that x is F, one needs a definition of F) is not true in general. Consider Gettier’s famous paper on the analysis of knowledge. He considered the definition that S knows p just in case S has a justified true belief that p. He described possible situations in which a subject had a justified true belief that p, and yet in which, intuitively, S lacked knowledge. I don’t know of any philosopher who thinks that Gettier wasn’t doing legitimate philosophy here, and yet Gettier judged subjects to lack knowledge even though he didn’t have any definition or analysis of knowledge. So that’s a counterexample to the general form of the principle you present.
 
Gettier just used his pre-theoretical understanding of the knowledge. These sorts of pre-theoretical intuitions are the data that theories of knowledge must account for. The subjects Gettier describes don’t know that p. Any proposed analysis of knowledge that rules otherwise has a serious, perhaps insurmountable strike against it.
 
Similarly in ethics. Our pre-theoretical intuitions about what is right and wrong, good and bad are the data that ethical theories must account for. If an ethical theory rules in a way that is contrary to our pre-theoretical intuitions, that is a very serious and perhaps insurmountable strike against it.
 
To just insist, as a theorist, that we must disregard pre-theoretical intuitions in favor of the theory is to get things exactly backwards. Imagine someone who said “My theory is that knowledge just is belief.” Confronted with cases in which subjects have false beliefs and so really seem not to know that which they believe, suppose this theorist said “Oh well. My theory rules that these people know what they believe, since knowledge just is belief.” That would be a really poor way to theorize. That would be to ignore the data.
 
Or suppose someone theorized this way: “My theory is that an action can be wrong only if it takes place on Earth.” Confronted with possible cases in which people murder and rape each other on the Moon in really horrific ways, suppose this theorist responded “Oh well. Those lunar murders and rapes are only apparently wrong, since my theory rules that only terrestrial actions are wrong.” Clearly, this would be an awful way to theorize. The theorist is just ignoring the relevant data.
 
Finally, suppose someone theorized this way: “My theory is an action is wrong just in case it thwarts more desires than it fulfills.” Confronted with cases in which a brutal rape fulfills more desires than it thwarts, suppose this theorist responded “Oh well, that brutal rape is only apparently wrong, since my theory rules that actions are wrong just in case they thwart more desires than they fulfill.” Clearly, again, this would be an awful way to theorize. The theorist is just ignoring the relevant data.
 


You also said:
>>there is obviously a distinction between prime ministers and prime numbers.  For example, I can prove deductively that a prime minister is not a prime number:>>
 
This was just an example of a proposition that is self-evidently true. It’s reasonable to believe even in the absence of argument or (other) evidence. So two points about the proof you offer: Do you really believe that no prime minister is a prime number on the basis of some complicated argument? Don’t you rather just immediately and non-inferentially see that it’s true? I sure do. I didn’t need to be enlightened by your argument in order to see the truth of that proposition anymore than I need an argument to see that pain isn’t euphoria.
 
Secondly, I think your argument relies on premises that you ultimately believe only on the basis of raw intuition, i.e. only because they just seem true. So perhaps for you these premises would serve as better examples of propositions that are self-evidently true than the proposition that no prime minister is a prime number.
 
For example, consider this premise of yours:
>>But, by definition of natural numbers, a prime minister is not a natural number, because natural numbers are defined in a specific way, as the iterative composition of sets.>>
 
The definition of natural numbers doesn’t at all mention prime ministers. So what you’re relying on here is the intuition that if something satisfies the definiens of natural number, then that thing isn’t a prime minister. That proposition just seems obvious to you. It’s self-evident. You don’t believe it on the basis of argument. (Or, if you’d like to go one more level up, show me the argument. I’ll just find another premise in that argument that is justified only on the basis of intuition.)
 
>>A prime minister is specifically defined as a human being, which by definition is not an iterative composition of sets.>>
 
The definition of human being doesn’t mention anything about sets. So you’re relying on intuition here to conclude that humans can’t be numbers. That is, you consider the proposition that something satisfies the definiens of human being and yet is also a number, and you find that proposition to be obviously false. You’re using intuition just as I am.
 
There’s no escape from intuition. Join the Rationalist Revolution! :-)
 
>>Similarly, “there could be a golden mountain” is simply true because the concept of a golden mountain is internally coherent>>
 
How do you know that it is internally coherent? That’s right: via intuition. It just seems obvious to you that the concept is internally coherent. You’re relying on intuition for your judgment here just as I rely on intuition for my judgment that rape is wrong in the cases we’ve considered.
 


>>I also want to say that arguing with you is a pleasure :).  This is my first string of posts here on this blog, and it’s been one of the most fun I’ve had on the internet.>>
 
Well I’m glad you’re having fun on the internet. I’ve enjoyed arguing with you as well, though I’d prefer that we agree on this stuff. :-)
 

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Lorkas May 23, 2009 at 5:26 pm

cartesian, the reason that I still think you are begging the question (albeit in a subtle way) is that, if you rewrite premise 1 with your hidden assumption in it (that is, the assumption that our moral intuitions are a better guide to morality than desire utilitarianism is), then it becomes:

1) If desire utilitarianism is false, then there is no possible world in which rape is wrong.

Since your conclusion is “desire utilitarianism is false“, you have included your conclusion in a premise, which is begging the question. If you didn’t assume desire utilitarianism to be false, then you could not have constructed the first premise. If desire utilitarianism were true, then this premise would be false, (as your argument shows, I think) and an argument with a false premise can lead to false conclusions. Even if desire utilitarianism is false, this argument does not demonstrate that fact.

Hopefully I have now shown the fallacy more explicitly.

If you can demonstrate that premise 1 is true without assuming desire utilitarianism to be false (that is, assuming that it is not the best way to form moral truths), then I would accept your argument, but as it stands, it is not at all clear that you can justify premise 1 without assuming your conclusion (or turning it into a bare assertion–that is, asserting a claim to be true without justifying the claim. I’m not sure, by the way, how you failed to understand this from the article I linked, since you explicitly stated after reading it that the premise is true simply because you say so–exactly what the article describes as a bare assertion).

Also, I hope that people don’t think that pointing out a fallacy is the same as calling someone an idiot. I expect others to point out when an argument I advance commits a fallacy–I can only learn from that experience.

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Josh May 23, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Cartesian,

Okay, I can see that we have a more fundamental issue here than merely whether or not rape is wrong.  I don’t think I am going to be successful in this attempt, but I am actually quite willing to say that “intuitionist” (for want a a better term) reckoning of definitions is a relatively useless practice.  Of course, you present Gettier’s cases, which I think bring up a good point about the idea of knowledge of “justified true beliefs” failing to meet our intuitive definition of knowledge.  Obviously, one of the main goals of definining a term is so that we can go out and say “ah, that over there is x, while that over there is not x”, which has  sense of getting at our intuition about what “x” is.  In that way, yeah, I agree with you that intuition can be important.

However, I don’t think it’s the most important, and, in fact, we should be willing to throw it away at a moments notice.  I’ll again go back to my example of quantum mechanics: our intuition is that the definition of a particle and the definition of a wave are such that something cannot be boht a wave and a particle.  Unfortunately, that intuition is just flat out wrong.  Similarly, our intuition is that if you need to, say, go from point A to point C along the real number line, you have to also go through all points B between A and C.  Again, this is wrong.  One more: if you’re trapped in a room, we don’t suspect that you will some day appear on the other side of the wall.  But you can, though it’s incredibly unlikely (unless you’re an electron)!

On my understanding of your argument, it should be quite persuasive to say “But quantum mechanics does pure violence to my intuition, hence we should not believe in it”, because if we ignore the violence it does to our intuition, we are ignoring the data.  But we also know (or at least have a good idea of) why it does violence to our intuiton: we live, and evolved, in a world where quantum effects are quite negligible—as I said, it is incredibly unlikely for you to tunnel through the wall. 

I hope you can see where I’m going with this: we also live and evolved in a world where (presumably) it always thwarts more desires than it fulfills when someone is raped.  Hence, we have evolved to believe that it is always wrong to rape.

Of course, the obvious difference here is that quantum mechanics is almost certainly true on the basis of a large amount of evidence, and desire utilitarianism doesn’t have nearly as much.  Nonetheless, as far as I can tell, proponents of desire utilitarianism argue for it in an empirical manner, and have some evidence on their side.  To some extent, it’s like you have just witnessed the double slit experiment, but resolutely refuse to believe quantum mechanics can be true because a particle just can’t be a wave too!

So, to conclude, I do think that intuition is quasi-relevant data, but it should be one of the first things to go if we need it to.  What’s most important is an empirically relevant and consistent definition of a term, rather than one that satisfies our intution.

Also, you criticized my proof that no prime minister is a prime number.  Of course, no one goes through proofs like these when they are deciding on whether something is a number or a human—this is one case where our intuition works.  It doesn’t mean that the case can’t be made, and indeed should be made in some cases.  Another example from the history of science: for many, many years calculus lacked a solid theoretical foundation.  Of course, it worked, which in a lot of ways is good enough for me, but integrals and derivatives seemed pretty weird, not to mention this bizarre idea of “infinitesimals”.  This seriously bothered people.  Luckily, we have a good theory of calculus at this point, and no one is up in arms, and no one teaches first year calculus students how to prove things rigorously, because it doesn’t matter: they just need an intuition for why something works, which is quite good enough for the purposes.

Specifically, you argued that I made some intuitive leaps in my logic.  I can definitely see that you have a point.  Part of this is that it’s really hard to beat around intuition.  I have to agree that I can’t just implicitly assume that “something satisfies the definiens of of human being and yet is also a number” is false.  But it can be salvaged by such: suppose that a human being is defined by having all or most of a set of qualities, x_1 through x_n.  If there is some other quality, y, that does not fall into the set previously enumerated, then that thing is not a human.  So, I don’t think anyone would say “an iterative collection of sets” is a property that defines humanness, hence it is inconsistent for someone to be a human and a number.  Now, you’re welcome to define that one of the qualities of being human is being an iterative collection of sets, in which case I have to say, “Yes, a prime minister CAN be a prime number”, though it would still be to prove that any prime minister actually is a prime number (they may all be irrational, for example ;-]).  Hell, you can even do something like form a mapping from the set of prime ministers to the set of natural numbers, and use that to prove all kinds of theorems about the divisibility of Tony Blair by Margaret Thatcher—that’s fine with me.

Similar comments can be made about my other examples.

One last thing: I (as I think is obvious) place a high value on empirical observation and evidence.  Of course, I can’t empirically justify everything, in just the same way as you can’t logically justify everything.  So yes, I am forced to accept some things as axiomatic—and yes, I have really big problems with this.   Nonetheless, I think that the things I accept as axiomatic are relatively simpel compared to the claim that “rape is necessarily wrong”, which means I am totally okay with arguing with you about it!

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Josh May 23, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Ah, one more thing about our intuition: mathematical “paradoxes”.  There are plenty of examples of mathematical puzzles that absolutely massacre our intuition.  Of course, they’re not paradoxes in the true sense, rather paradoxes is the sense that they massacre our intuition—just because you can make 2 losing games into a winning game does not make probability theory wrong (Parrondo’s Paradox), for example.

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Lorkas May 23, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Josh: it would still be to prove that any prime minister actually is a prime number (they may all be irrational, for example ;-])

Hah! I think this entire argument was a giant buildup to this joke.

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lukeprog May 23, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Thanks, Josh. You are doing my work for me. :)

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cartesian May 24, 2009 at 7:21 am

Lorkas,
 
You said:
>>cartesian, the reason that I still think you are begging the question (albeit in a subtle way) is that, if you rewrite premise 1 with your hidden assumption in it (that is, the assumption that our moral intuitions are a better guide to morality than desire utilitarianism is), then it becomes:
1) If desire utilitarianism is false, then there is no possible world in which rape is wrong
Since your conclusion is “desire utilitarianism is false“, you have included your conclusion in a premise, which is begging the question..>>
 
First, maybe it would help if you actually defined “begging the question.” Then you could clearly show how I’m satisfying the definition. (I think you’ll find out that this is tricky business!)
 
Second, I’m not assuming that moral intuitions are a better guide to morality than desire utilitarianism is. All I’m assuming, which I make explicit, is that rape itself is always wrong.
 
Third, even if I did change my argument as you suggest, I still wouldn’t be begging the question. Putting my conclusion in the antecedent of a premise is not by itself the same as having my conclusion as a premise.
 
Fourth, that premise is almost certainly false. The necessary wrongness of rape doesn’t follow from the falsity of desire utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism could be false and yet there could still be a possible world in which rape is not wrong say if classical utilitarianism were true and the rape caused on the whole more pleasure than pain. So the premise you suggest for my argument is just plain false. So thanks but no thanks; I’ll leave my argument how it is.
 
Fifth: Look, I think I know what the problem is. Deductively valid arguments are really just invitations to consider a set of inconsistent propositions. And your job as a rational thinker, upon being confronted with a deductive argument, is to reject the member of that set that you think least likely.
 
So for example suppose someone argues:
(1) If p then q
(2) not-q
(3) Therefore not-p
 
You can think of this argument as an invitation to consider the set containing the premises and the negation of the conclusion: {if p then q, not-q, p}. This set is inconsistent: at least one member must be false. Your job as a rational thinker is to figure out which proposition in this set is least likely to be true, and reject it.
 
Since my argument is formally valid, it too is just an invitation to consider an inconsistent set consisting of the premises and the negation of the conclusion: {If DU is true, then possibly rape is not morally wrong, Rape is always morally wrong, DU is true}. This set is inconsistent: at least one member must be false. Our job as rational thinkers is to figure out which proposition in this set is least likely to be true.
 
When I consider the set, I think the third member, namely DU is true, is least likely to be true. But of course when a committed desire utilitarian considers the set, he won’t reject that member of the set. He’ll reject one of the other members, most likely that rape is always morally wrong.
 
That’s the nature of philosophical arguments! All philosophers can really do is point out inconsistent sets. It’s then up to each of us to decide which member of that inconsistent set gets the boot.
 
 
>>If you didn’t assume desire utilitarianism to be false, then you could not have constructed the first premise.>>
 
The first premise you’re referring to is that if DU is false, then there’s no possible world in which rape is wrong. One could assert that premise even if one does not assume desire utilitarianism to be false. For example, I don’t think my friend is actually a spy. But still, I might assert and believe that if my friend is a spy, I should alert the authorities. I might assert and believe that even though I also believe that the antecedent is false.
 
So in general, there’s nothing wrong with asserting a conditional the antecedent of which you don’t believe (and which in fact is false). So I needn’t believe that (and it needn’t be true that) DU is false in order to properly assert that if DU is false, possibly rape is OK. So you’re incorrect to say otherwise.

>>If desire utilitarianism were true, then this premise would be false>>
 
The premise, again, is roughly that if DU is false, then possibly rape is OK. Contrary to what you say here, it’s not the case that if DU is true, then this premise is false. In general, if not-p then q is perfectly compatible with the truth of p. I gave an example above: my friend isn’t a spy. But still it’s true that if my friend is a spy, then I should alert the authorities. There’s a case where the truth of the conditional is compatible with the falsity of the antecedent. So again, you’re incorrect to say otherwise.
 
Put another way, you’ve committed a formal fallacy in your reasoning here:
1. p
2. Therefore, not-(if not-p then q)
In the particular case of your reasoning, “p” represents that DU is true. “q” represents that possibly rape is OK. But this argument form is invalid, since there are many cases in which the premise is true and yet in which the conclusion is false. I gave you such a case: my friend is not a spy (p). But still it’s true that if my friend is a spy, I should alert the authorities (if not-p, then q). So you’ve committed a formal fallacy.
 


>>If you can demonstrate that premise 1 is true without assuming desire utilitarianism to be false (that is, assuming that it is not the best way to form moral truths), then I would accept your argument, but as it stands, it is not at all clear that you can justify premise 1 without assuming your conclusion (or turning it into a bare assertion–that is, asserting a claim to be true without justifying the claim.>>
 
Imagine an atheist argued this way:
(1) If God exists, we wouldn’t see any evil in the world.
(2) But we do see evil in the world.
(3) Therefore God doesn’t exist.
Suppose a theist responded just as you did: “You’re right that if God exists, we wouldn’t see any evil in the world. But to then assert that we do see evil in the world is to tacitly assume that God doesn’t exist! After all, on my view, since God does exist there must be no evil! So you’re begging the question against me. If you can demonstrate that (2) is true without assuming that atheism is true, then I would accept your argument. But as it stands you can’t justify (2) without assuming your conclusion (or turning it into a bare assertion).”
 
Would this response be convincing to you? Of course not. Clearly, evil exists. And you’re not begging the question to assert that as a premise. But then you can see why I’m not convinced by your response. Clearly, considered just by itself, forcibly sexually violating someone is always wrong. I’m not begging the question to assert that as a premise.
 
>>I’m not sure, by the way, how you failed to understand this from the article I linked, since you explicitly stated after reading it that the premise is true simply because you say so–exactly what the article describes as a bare assertion).>>
 
No, I never said that rape must be wrong because I say so. I never offered any evidence at all in favor of this assertion (and certainly not that very weak evidence: because I say so). I said this premise was self-evident. It doesn’t stand in need of justification any more than the claim that 2+2=4 stands in need of justification. One can just see that these propositions are true.
 
If you can’t just see it, alright, this argument of mine probably won’t persuade you. But frankly I think you’re in a minority. I’m aiming my argument to convince those people who think that forcibly sexually violating people, considered just by itself, is always wrong. If you’re not one of those people, what can I say? We’ve reached an impasse. You’re like the theist who, in the face of the problem of evil, says it’s not obvious to him that any evil exists. What can we say to such a person? I think we just have to agree to talk about something else.
 
>>Also, I hope that people don’t think that pointing out a fallacy is the same as calling someone an idiot. I expect others to point out when an argument I advance commits a fallacy–I can only learn from that experience.>>
 
I agree that pointing out a fallacy doesn’t entail that you think that person is an idiot. I don’t think you’re an idiot, and yet I’ve pointed out some formal fallacies that you committed in this post.
 

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Lorkas May 24, 2009 at 9:58 am

cartesian: Third, even if I did change my argument as you suggest, I still wouldn’t be begging the question. Putting my conclusion in the antecedent of a premise is not by itself the same as having my conclusion as a premise. Fourth, that premise is almost certainly false. The necessary wrongness of rape doesn’t follow from the falsity of desire utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism could be false and yet there could still be a possible world in which rape is not wrong say if classical utilitarianism were true and the rape caused on the whole more pleasure than pain.

You’re right here. I worded the proposition clumsily, as y0u pointed out, and created a false dichotomy.

Would it be fair to say that your argument boils down to the following proposition: “If rape is wrong in all possible worlds, then desire utilitarianism is false“. I agree with this proposition, given 2-6 in your original argument (although I’m still unsure about 3, but I want to think about lukeprog’s example case and your response to it before posting anything). It seems like a fair summary of your point to me, and it points out the difficulty that has arisen in this conversation: that is, if it is obvious to you that rape is wrong in all possible worlds (or if you have an argument to demonstrate that proposition), then you have good reason to disbelieve that desire utilitarianism is a good ethical theory. If it isn’t obvious to you that rape is wrong in all possible worlds, then this proposition says nothing about the truth or falsity of desire utilitarianism. Hopefully this is common ground.

I should be clear that I do think that rape is probably always wrong in this world. I don’t think you need to prove that–I would agree that that assertion requires no further justification (I would say that the person asserting otherwise needs to provide a case in which rape would be moral in this world). Where I part company with you is when you say that rape is wrong in all possible worlds. If desire utilitarianism is true, then the premise “rape is wrong in all possible worlds” is false, so you can see why I think this is a bad argument against desire utilitarianism.

Finally, (off the topic of the argument at hand) you seem to think that I am committed to the truth of desire utilitarianism. That is not true. I have argued against arguments for desire utilitarianism on this very thread–I’m just trying to weigh the arguments on both sides, and found this argument unpersuasive for the reason I detailed above.

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Chuck May 24, 2009 at 10:43 am

The thing that bother me about this whole discussion is this. We evolved in this world. What possible justification can be made to support the idea that our moral sense, which evolved in this world, gives us any information whatsoever about what is moral in all the others?

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lukeprog May 24, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Chuck,

Yet another reason why I reject all moral sense theories.

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Reginald Selkirk May 24, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Chuck: What possible justification can be made to support the idea that our moral sense, which evolved in this world, gives us any information whatsoever about what is moral in all the others?

What others?

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cartesian May 24, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Hi Josh,
You said:
>>I agree with you that intuition can be important. However, I don’t think it’s the most important, and, in fact, we should be willing to throw it away at a moments notice.>>

Well, I’m willing to agree with you that we should be willing to throw intuition away, if we’re confronted with a theory that has some counterintuitive consequences and yet has very many theoretical virtues.

But I don’t think we should throw intuition away “at a moment’s notice,” as you say. Suppose someone reasoned this way: “Well, Gettier is right. That guy really seems not to know that p. But K=JTB was a definition proposed by Plato, Ayer, and Chisholm, and those guys are really really smart! Therefore, the guys in Gettier’s cases must actually know that p, despite appearances.”

I think that would be a case of throwing intuition away at a moment’s notice, and I think that would be totally unreasonable.



>>I’ll again go back to my example of quantum mechanics: our intuition is that the definition of a particle and the definition of a wave are such that something cannot be boht a wave and a particle.>>

I’m not having any intuition here. What is the definition of wave that you’re referring to? And what’s the definition of particle? Maybe if I grasp those definitions, I’ll have the intuition you’re referring to.

>>Unfortunately, that intuition is just flat out wrong.>>

I’ll temporarily suppose you’re right that we have this intuition about waves and particles. And I grant that we have really good reasons to think that some things behave in both wave-like and particle-like ways. If we give up our intuition, is this really a case of giving it up “at a moment’s notice”? I would have thought that it took an awful lot of experimental evidence before people were willing to give up their intuitions here. And I bet there are still a lot of holdouts who say “Look, it’s impossible for something to be both a wave and a particle on these definitions:____. So though it sure looks like electrons are both, there must be some explanation that we’ll find with more experiments.”

>>Similarly, our intuition is that if you need to, say, go from point A to point C along the real number line, you have to also go through all points B between A and C.  Again, this is wrong.>>

Really? That’s wrong? Are you referring to Zeno’s paradox? I should have thought that what Zeno showed us was that it doesn’t take an infinite amount of time to traverse a finite distance, even though that distance contains an infinite number of points. But if you’re going from A to C, you do have to go through all points in between. I don’t see anything counterintuitive here.

>>One more: if you’re trapped in a room, we don’t suspect that you will some day appear on the other side of the wall.  But you can, though it’s incredibly unlikely (unless you’re an electron)!>>

I don’t think this is a case of a rational intuition. I think this is a case of what some call “physical” intuitions, i.e. hunches based on experience of the world. Like “if the house is undermined, it will fall” and “if I drop this ball, it will fall.” Those things aren’t the sort of intuitions I’m talking about, though I recognize that many people (including many scientists) use the word “intuition” in this way. I don’t think I can just see that if I drop the ball, it will fall. It may not, if there’s an enormous updraft of wind at the same time, or if the gravitational constant suddenly changes, or… Similarly, I don’t think I can just see that the atoms composing my body couldn’t suddenly appear on the other side of the wall. I admit that this seems unlikely and uncommon, but it seems perfectly (metaphysically) possible.

So I don’t think you’ve given a clear example in which our (rational, not just physical) intuitions have been overturned by science or anything else.

>>Nonetheless, as far as I can tell, proponents of desire utilitarianism argue for it in an empirical manner, and have some evidence on their side.>>

Really? What evidence do they have on their side?

>>To some extent, it’s like you have just witnessed the double slit experiment, but resolutely refuse to believe quantum mechanics can be true because a particle just can’t be a wave too!>>

Again, I’m not sure if I buy the analogy, because I don’t have any intuitions about waves and particles. I don’t really even understand what waves are, to be honest. Insofar as I do understand them, I don’t have a strong intuition that something couldn’t be wave-like and also particle-like.

Also, whereas the claim that something is particle-like and wave-like has experimental evidence in its favor, as far as I can tell desire utilitarianism has no experimental evidence in its favor. I don’t even think it’s the sort of thing that could have experimental evidence in its favor. All this despite the fact that its adherents seemed please to wear white coats and strike a scientific pose.

>>Specifically, you argued that I made some intuitive leaps in my logic.  I can definitely see that you have a point.  Part of this is that it’s really hard to beat around intuition.>>

That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s encouraging to see some beginnings of an agreement here.

>>So, I don’t think anyone would say “an iterative collection of sets” is a property that defines humanness, hence it is inconsistent for someone to be a human and a number.>>

And why wouldn’t anyone say that an iterative collection of sets is a property that defines a number? That’s right: intuition. It just seems obviously true.

That’s another point you should be sensitive to when you generate these proofs of obviously true propositions: the definitions you offer are ultimately justifiable only on the basis of intuition. I mean, that’s what Gettier was up to: he was evaluating a standard definition of knowledge using his intuition.

>>Now, you’re welcome to define that one of the qualities of being human is being an iterative collection of sets>>

It’s not up to me what the definition of being a human is, anymore than it’s up to me what the definition of knowledge is. I guess this is where we differ: you seem to think that all definitions are stipulative. We can define things however we want. I on the other hand think that philosophers are actually describing the world when they do philosophy. Gettier helped us figure out what knowledge actually is and isn’t.

>>One last thing: I (as I think is obvious) place a high value on empirical observation and evidence.>>

So do I! We can agree on this too. :-)

>>Of course, I can’t empirically justify everything, in just the same way as you can’t logically justify everything.>>

Insofar as I understand what it means to “logically justify something,” I’d never presume to think that we could logically justify everything.

>>So yes, I am forced to accept some things as axiomatic—and yes, I have really big problems with this.   Nonetheless, I think that the things I accept as axiomatic are relatively simpel compared to the claim that “rape is necessarily wrong”>>

What do you mean when you say a proposition is simple? Syntax? Syntactically, “rape is necessarily wrong” is very simple. How are your axioms (as you call them) more simple than mine?

>>Ah, one more thing about our intuition: mathematical “paradoxes”. >>

The only paradox that I would be concerned about is one in which every member of some set of propositions seems obviously true, and yet it also seems obviously true that they are jointly inconsistent. Do you have such an example?

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lukeprog May 24, 2009 at 4:47 pm

cartesian: Really? What evidence do they have on their side?

Desire utilitarians have on our side all the evidence ever assembled to show that:

  1. Desires exist (as brain states).
  2. Some desires are stronger than others.
  3. People act only to fulfill their desires. (Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.)
  4. People don’t just act to “satisfy” their desires (to achieve certain brain states) but to “fulfill” them (to achieve states of affairs in the world).
  5. Some desires tend to fulfill other desires, while some desires tend to thwart other desires.

If you doubt one of these, let me know and I will expound the evidence for it.

Desire utilitarianism also stands out because of the astonishing lack of evidence for other theories of moral realism, which inevitably make reference to things that do not exist, such as gods, intrinsic values, intrinsic rights and duties, categorical imperatives, social contracts, Ideal Observers, and so on. Unfortunately, no good evidence exists in support of those things.

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Chuck May 24, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Reginald Selkirk: What others?

Other possible worlds.

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Jeff H May 24, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Luke, just a question here: You’ve referred a couple times now to the fact that the categorical imperative, social contracts, etc. don’t “exist.” Could you explain that? I mean, I can see your point about gods, and intrinsic values/rights, but I don’t understand what you mean when you say that the  categorical imperative does not “exist” – it’s an abstract concept. And Kant argued at least that it was a product of our reason. Does reason “exist”? Perhaps in an abstract sense, but it’s a product of our minds only. I just don’t see how you are such a fan of philosophy, yet you would seem to imply that you are a fan of studying what does not “exist.”

Same thing with social contract theory. It’s not meant to be an actual event or a physical document (as I’m sure you’re aware) – it’s a theoretical construct. Just like Einstein’s thought experiments did not “exist” – but did that make them any less valid? I understand the desire (hah!) to find a theory that is based in reality, but I don’t think we should be so quick to throw away theories merely because they are based on human reason rather than in states of mind. The difference, indeed, seems to be negligible anyway.

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lukeprog May 24, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Jeff H: I don’t understand what you mean when you say that the categorical imperative does not “exist” – it’s an abstract concept. And Kant argued at least that it was a product of our reason. Does reason “exist”? Perhaps in an abstract sense, but it’s a product of our minds only.

When I say that something doesn’t exist, I mean that it “is not instantiated as anything more than a concept.” So yes, categorical imperatives and social contracts exist as concepts. So do gods and intrinsic values. But they do not exist “in the real world,” in the same sense as “fish exist in the sea.”

I deny the existence of gods, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, and hypothetical social contracts on the basis of Occam’s razor. There is no evidence for these things. They are superfluous, like Russell’s teapot. I reject the existence of categorical imperatives for the same reason I reject the existence of gods.

Jeff H: I just don’t see how you are such a fan of philosophy, yet you would seem to imply that you are a fan of studying what does not “exist.”

Let me mimic d’Holbach: “It is only by dispelling the phantoms of myth and superstition in religion and ethics that we shall discover Truth, Reason and Morality.”

In order to illuminate and clarify what does exist, it is often necessary to clear away the distortions and distractions of created by things that do not exist.

It is not my fault that humans have invented so many concepts that have no referent in the real world. But it is my task to clear them away so I can help clarify and discover things that do exist.

Jeff H: I don’t think we should be so quick to throw away theories merely because they are based on human reason rather than in states of mind.

I’m not sure I understand your contrast between human reason and states of mind.

Anyway, the problem with social contract theory is that it bases morality on something that can be assembled by human reason, but doesn’t actually exist. In the same way, we might be able to assemble logically consistent models of theistic morality that we can point to and say, “There! THIS is what morality is!” But the problem is that this conceptual model of morality doesn’t refer to things that exist. The development of social contract theories is like theology: a rigorous attempt to systematize and logically clarify a concept which refers to things that do not exist. It might be good exercise, but it isn’t telling us much about the universe we live in.

In contrast, desire utilitarianism refers only to things that actually exist: reasons for action, desires, varying strengths of desires, relations between desires and states of affairs, the tendency of certain desires to fulfill or thwart other desires, etc.

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cartesian May 25, 2009 at 6:41 am

lukeprog: Desire utilitarians have on our side all the evidence ever assembled to show that:
Desires exist (as brain states).
Some desires are stronger than others.
People act only to fulfill their desires. (Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.)
People don’t just act to “satisfy” their desires (to achieve certain brain states) but to “fulfill” them (to achieve states of affairs in the world).
Some desires tend to fulfill other desires, while some desires tend to thwart other desires.
Luke,
I’d quibble with 1 and 3, since I don’t think desires are brain states (one piece of evidence is that creatures without brains could have desires, say because they have something else that functions like a brain between their ears), and since it seems like I can run so that I catch a train, and that I catch a train is not a desire. I can take a job for the money, and money isn’t a desire.

But suppose I grant 1-5. I’m still not sure if these support desire utilitarianism, since I’m not 100% sure what the view is. Can you please give a statement of desire utilitarianism, so that I can evaluate whether this evidence supports the view?

Is desire utilitarianism a semantic claim like this?: “x is wrong” is an empirical claim meaning something like “The desire to x tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills.”

If so, I don’t see how this evidence you provide supports such a claim, since the claim seems to be about how English speakers use words.

English speakers use “x is wrong” to mean a whole bunch of things. Most of them probably use it in a primitive way, synonymous with “x should not be done.” Some may mean “x is forbidden by God.” Some may mean “x will lead to more pain than pleasure.”

So why do you think that “x is wrong” means “the desire to x tends to thwart more and greater desires than it fulfills”? 1-5 don’t prove that at all. 1-5 don’t even seem relevant to what English speakers mean when they utter “x is wrong.”

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lukeprog May 25, 2009 at 7:46 am

cartesian, I’ve said quite a bit about my ethical theory, here and in my book.

It’s certainly possible for desires to exist outside of wet brains. I’m using the term “brain” loosely, here.

Re: catching trains and making money. You have a desire that P, you believe that S will bring about P, and therefore S has desire for you. For example, you have a desire for a BMW, you believe that money will bring about your ownership of a BMW, so you act so as to make money. Your counter-examples fit quite readily into the standard belief-desire model of intentional action.

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Lorkas May 25, 2009 at 9:19 am

cartesian,
I can’t see how the possibility that a non-brain could have a desire precludes the idea that a desire is a brain state when found in beings with brains.

All that suggests (to me) is that desires aren’t only brain states. The fact that desires might exist outside of brains doesn’t mean that they don’t exist inside of brains.

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cartesian May 25, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Luke,

>>I’ve said quite a bit about my ethical theory, here and in my book.>>
 
I had a look at those, and I still can’t tell exactly what the view is. Is it a semantic view, as I asked in my last post? Are you trying to tell me what people ordinarily mean when they say “x is wrong”?

Also, you listed some evidence for desire utilitarianism, but I didn’t see any experimental data. Didn’t you say that this is an empirical theory, supported in the same way that quantum mechanics is supported, i.e. by experiment? Where is the experimental evidence?
 
>>Re: catching trains and making money. You have a desire that P, you believe that S will bring about P, and therefore S has desire for you.>>
Did you write that correctly? It’s a pretty weird sentence. “S has desire” for me? What does that mean?
 
>>For example, you have a desire for a BMW, you believe that money will bring about your ownership of a BMW, so you act so as to make money. Your counter-examples fit quite readily into the standard belief-desire model of intentional action.>>
 
So you’re just denying that I can act for the money, simpliciter. Instead, you say, what’s really going on in these cases is that I desire money, and I act for that desire’s fulfillment.

Well, what can I say other than that I just find your suggested rephrasal totally implausible. Sure, many times people may act so that their desires are fulfilled. All that I claimed was that, at least once in a while, we act for other reasons. For example, I’m writing this post to set the record straight. That’s my reason, and it’s not a desire. We say things like this all the time, so a natural view would admit of more types of reasons than mere desires. People get married for love, have sex in order to have babies, eat broccoli for the vitamins, go to the store for toilet paper, etc. These are all reasons for actions, but neither love nor babies nor vitamins nor toilet paper are desires. So these are all counterexamples to your view, as far as I can tell.

Of course it’s open to you to just deny the natural reading of all these English sentences and to propose your revisionary theory. But I can’t see why we should accept your theory in the face of all this contrary evidence.

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cartesian May 25, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Lorkas,
>>I can’t see how the possibility that a non-brain could have a desire precludes the idea that a desire is a brain state when found in beings with brains.>>

Luke thinks that desires are brain states. So consider the desire for chocolate, D. That will be identical with some brain state B. So D=B.

Now suppose a non-brain could have the desire for chocolate, i.e. D. Well, since this by hypothesis this thing isn’t a brain, it can’t be in a brain state. So it must be in some other state, call it S, and S must be identical with D. And B=/=S.

Here’s an argument that desires can’t be identical with brain states, given that non-brains can have desires:
(1) B=D      (for reductio)
(2) S=D      (assumption that non-brains can have desires)
(3) B=/=S     (assumption that brain states are not non-brain states)
(4) So, B=/=D (substitution of identicals, 2 and 3)
Contradiction between 1 and 4. So let’s reject 1.

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lukeprog May 25, 2009 at 1:53 pm

cartesian: Did you write that correctly? It’s a pretty weird sentence. “S has desire” for me? What does that mean?

Oops, no I meant “You have a desire that P, you believe that S will bring about P, and therefore S has value to you. You form an intention to achieve S because it will bring about P, which you desire.”

cartesian: I had a look at those, and I still can’t tell exactly what the view is. Is it a semantic view, as I asked in my last post? Are you trying to tell me what people ordinarily mean when they say “x is wrong”? Also, you listed some evidence for desire utilitarianism, but I didn’t see any experimental data. Didn’t you say that this is an empirical theory, supported in the same way that quantum mechanics is supported, i.e. by experiment? Where is the experimental evidence?

If this is not clear in what I wrote, then I have some work to do…

But really, I know I have work to do. I’m developing some posts that will more thoroughly explain desire utilitarianism than what I’ve written so far, and I say we postpone our discussion until then.

I hope you know I’m not “avoiding” all this. It matters a lot to me whether desire utilitarianism is true or not, and if I can’t answer others’ questions for myself, I have no business defending desire utilitarianism.

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Lorkas May 25, 2009 at 4:15 pm

cartesian,
Do you think that a desire might be a thing that can be represented as a brain state?

I mean, the letters I am typing here and the sequence of sounds I might make if I read them aloud are not identical, but they are both representations of particular meanings. Might desires be like this? That is, can a brain state represent a desire in the same way that a sequence of letters or sounds represents an idea (regardless of whether it is spoken or written)?

Also, I think that you can probably express the reasons for action that you give above in terms of desires. That is, you might say that you are writing the post because you want or desire to set the record straight or you might say that people have sex because they desire to have babies (or because they desire the act itself!).

In other words, I think that the statement “Desires are the only reasons for action that exist” might be as much a definition as it is a description–that is, if “desire” is defined as “a reason for action”, and then anything that is a reason for action is, by definition, a “desire”.

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Jeff H May 25, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Luke, feel free to postpone the answer to this question if you wish, but I’m still not entirely clear about how you are using the word “exist”. I mean, certainly we can use it in different ways, and so there’s some inherent ambiguity that comes along with it. I think we could reasonably say that desires exist in a different way than radios, or fish, or moose, or any other tangible objects exist. But when we get to concepts, things get a bit fuzzy. Does love “exist”? Does truth “exist”? And hey, you say that desire utilitarianism refers to things in the real world – but does the theory of desire utilitarianism itself “exist”? Certainly what it talks about exists, but the theory is more than just a string of desires put together. There is argumentation and logic – I would just like to ask if these “exist”.

If your answer is yes, then how is the argumentation of desire utilitarianism different from the argumentation of social contract theory or regular act utilitarianism, or the categorical imperative? The only difference I can see between them is essentially that some of these use deductive reasoning, whereas desire utilitarianism uses inductive reasoning. But surely you wouldn’t say that inductive reasoning is more “real” than deductive, would you?

On the other hand, if your answer is no, argumentation and logic do not “exist”, then why even bother discussing philosophy in the first place?

Thanks for your comments, whether now or later. I really just think the terms you are using could be clarified. As always, I appreciate your insight :)

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Chuck May 25, 2009 at 7:40 pm

I think a desire utilitarian would say that desires exist in the same way that radios exist, and if they don’t, then desire utilitarianism is false.

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Jeff H May 26, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Well Chuck, I make the distinction simply because desires are the products of our minds rather than physical objects in the world. Ultimately, they can be brought down to electrical firings in the brain, but I think we could represent them as at least somewhat “less real” than radios, for example. Maybe they’re more similar to radio waves…but at any rate, I think I’d classify desires as slightly more of an “abstract” concept than moose. Because moose are pretty damn concrete.

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Chuck May 26, 2009 at 5:41 pm

Radio waves are just as real as radios. Ask any physicist.

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Jeff H May 27, 2009 at 3:57 am

Alright alright, I know! Lol I’m just trying to say that people might often think of them as more “abstract”, likely because they are invisible. Can I just retract my earlier statement about the differences between them? I still see a difference, at least a qualitative one, between the “existence” of radios and love, truth, theories, or logic. So that part is still what I’d like Luke to explain in more detail. Just forget about what I said about the distinction between desires and moose :P

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svenjamin December 9, 2009 at 1:11 pm

It looks like this conversation finally petered out, but since I went to the trouble of reading all but the final sixth, I might as well throw out what I hope may be a useful hypothetical situation:

Suppose there is a married couple, both of whom dearly want a child. The husband, however, has deep-seated anxieties about due to childhood psychological trauma. He has tried counseling unsuccessfully. His wife considers the situation, then procures a drug that will render her husband unconscious and proceeds to regularly drug him and have intercourse with him while he is unconscious. She continues doing this until she becomes pregnant, at which time she informs her husband of what she has been doing. He is very pleased to have a child on the way, and agrees that, had he been informed ahead of time, he would have struggled to prevent his wife’s actions.

The wife’s conduct seems perfectly morally acceptable to me, and appears to constitute rape by every accepted use of the word. If Cartesian objects, I believe this situation merits an explanation of /why/ rape is wrong in this case, which I expect requires an appeal to an ethical system.

Further, although I don’t think I accept desire utilitarianism, this situation does appear to be compatible with D.U.

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Setiferum January 15, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I think that one of the reasons Kagan did better than other atheists (in addition to being a better debater) is that they were only debating one subject related to the whole theistic question. In Craig’s usual debates, the question is something like “does god exist?” In these debates, both speakers are given equal time to open and Craigs almost always opens first.

This gives him the chance to fire off as many arguments as possible in as short a time as possible. It usually takes longer to refute an argument than is does to present it. As such, his opponents just don’t have the time to adequately answer all of his points.

After his opponent makes their (usually bumbling and woefully under-polished) opening, Craig need only take them to task for not having addressed this point or that.

Craig still does well in debates on specific issues like the doctrine of hell, or the historical Jesus, but he does not “wipe the floor” with his opponent to nearly the same extent.

I hope there are more debates where Craig is faced with a worthy opponent and where he is deprived of the chance to use his favoured “shotgun” technique.

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Majesty February 19, 2010 at 3:05 pm

I am a huge Craig supporter. But i really feel as if he lost this one. This is the ONLY debate in which i feel as if his opponent outshined him. I dont agree with Shelly’s logic at all. But on the subject, I think Shelly presented his case better than Craig presented his. I do feel as if one major flaw was presented on both sides, and each side did a good job of pointing it out to his opponent.

Craig’s flaw: Basically, Shelly nailed him by pointing out that Craig’s logic was: “If something doesn’t matter on a cosmic scale, then it doesn’t matter right now.” While I agree with this Craig on this, I think he was really caught off gaurd by this and he never responded. Not being able to respond to this was proof of how bad this debate was going for WLC.

Shelly’s flaw: He made it seem as if everyone had a “social contract” that we should all be take heed to. Craigs response was, “Well, what if someone doesn’t want to sign the contract?”

Shelly presented his case well. Probably the only opponent along with Austin Dacey that was just as articulate as WLC. In this debate, Shelly owned the whole night.

We also have to understand that the subject of “morality” is Shelly’s baby. He really loves this subject and he is actually a philosopher of morality. It is his subject of interest. You can tell by the way that he presented his case that this subject was dear to him. I dont feel as if Shelly can outshine Craig on the subject of “Does God exist”, because then he will fall in Craigs territory, which is cosmology and the resurrection of Jesus. But Shelly definately gets my vote on this one, as much as i hate to admit it :0)

So to sum it up, Craig came into Shelly’s playing field and got whooped. I would love to see these two gentleman engage in the broader topic of theology.

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JJG April 7, 2010 at 2:00 pm

I was kind of surprised that Kagan didn’t take the opportunity to spank Craig on the Materialism point of his three-point argument. I.e., according to Craig, in a universe without God all outcomes are predetermined by physical laws, thereby rendering all human actions preordained, thereby removing free will, a necessary component of moral accountability (the “puppet” analogy).

But the existence of an omniscient deity, who therefore knows all future events in perfect detail, seems to present at least as much of a problem to the existence of free will. (Unless there is a cogent counter-argument which I am unaware of, which is entirely possible.)

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DoAtheistsExist? April 10, 2010 at 8:36 am

I’m a Christian but I definitely think that Craig lost his “debate” with Kagan. I definitely found Kagan’s arguments more persuasive in the cross examination, though admittedly he was quite defensive, ie showing that it is possible to derive ethics on atheism, without saying why morality on theism is no good. That said, I found out later that Craig was specifically instructed not to use his usual debating style and instead use a more “friendly” approach by Veritas (the organisers), see here http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7259.

I think that may have been what made this debate slightly different for WLC, though I still don’t think he properly dealth with Kagan’s use of contractarianism, even though Kagan rejects the view himself. What do you think of moral contractarianism, Luke? Do you know of any good responses?

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DoAtheistsExist? May 31, 2010 at 4:48 am

Also, I found an alternate review of this debate, from a Christian perspective, here: http://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/william-lane-craig-vs-shelly-kagan-is-god-necessary-for-morality/

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AgeOfReasonXXI July 4, 2010 at 11:12 am

who won?? are you serioulsy suggesting that Kagan did NOT destroy Craig’s arguments? what do you think it takes to defeat Craig – to make him cry?? you’re biased

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David Hume August 5, 2010 at 7:10 pm

You are being far too generous to William Lane Craig, the clear winner of this debate was Shelly Kagan.

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Mike February 10, 2011 at 11:45 am

This was a fantastic debate. I thought Kagan really shined in the cross-examination, like many people seem to think. I have to agree with Luke, though, that his opener was not the best use of his time and didn’t really put a head start on all the points that we all knew Craig would raise.

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Robby August 23, 2011 at 7:38 am

On Craig’s 2nd argument…materialism says we are mere puppets and how can a puppet have morals….

That’s just an assertion….BF Skinner proved that human behavior can be predicted based on environment and conditioning….

As we grow, our minds (not souls) accumulate data, and based on those “memories” we make our choices…but don’t take BF Skinner’s word…

Who was it that said, give me the child until he’s 9, and I’ll give you the man?”
(not sure if that’s the direct quote…but you get the point).

Religion has been conditioning children for centuries….

So what’s my point? Children do behave as puppets. They mimic their parents…that’s how language is acquired! Then when we have sufficient data stored in our minds, do we start making sound moral choices (or not)….our conscience (not an invisible sky daddy or our soul, or our heart) which is an accumulation of memories, that is where morality comes from. That’s why morality is not objective. It depends on our up bringing. That’s why there are so many different moral codes in the world.

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Robby August 23, 2011 at 10:09 am

To clarify my point….

Craig assumes that in a strictly materialistc world, we (as adults) remain like puppets…

I say we start life off (as children) with minds that can be molded with experience…(enough so that it appears like we are puppets being manipulated by our parents)…

…but eventually, after enough experience, we can become independent enough to make sound moral decisions…

But we never really stop the molding process…that’s why our attitudes change as we age…

So Craig’s 2nd argument only works for children and therefore fails to convince me…

One way to dispute Craig is to look at highly secular countries like Denmark. What are the crime statistics for Denmark? If the people never see the 10 commandments, how in the world do they know that it’s wrong to murder? How is it possible that Denmark has such a low murder rate? Where did Denmark get it’s morality? Obviously not from the pew of a church!!!

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Scott October 23, 2011 at 3:56 pm

I am not seeing anything from from Kagan but an opinion. There is no depth the arguement. What is it to help people? Right and wrong is based on being a nice guy? Notice to that Kagan has to use Biblical references to get started, this shows that morals did just come to be in the universe, but there was a Creature. Huh, does belief in morality make it exist? Notice also Kagan runs his head forever, this is not a debate, but a lecture on a small opinion.

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