Theology, Moral Philosophy, and Wasted Intellectual Lives

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 15, 2009 in Ethics,General Atheism


"Allah" written in the clouds (in Arabic).

Thousands of brilliant people, over centuries of history, have spent much of their intellectual lives systematically working out the detailed traits and nature of an invisible magical being that does not exist: Allah. Similar amounts of time and effort have been spent working out the nature of karma, brahman, and Yahweh – even though these things do not exist, either.

What a waste! Imagine the progress that could have been made if these thousands of top-quality brains had decided instead to devote themselves to figuring out the nature of things that do exist!

But all this intellectual waste is not limited to theology. It is pervasive in moral philosophy. Hundreds of living philosophers have spent entire lives working out the logical details of things that do not exist – categorical imperatives, intrinsic values, intrinsic virtues, and hypothetical social contracts.

How much progress in philosophy has been lost simply because these philosophers did not bother to find substantial evidence that the cornerstone of their ethical theory exists, before doing all this research?

Morality is about reasons for action, and most moral philosophers continue to devote their careers to writing about reasons for action that do not exist. A few, however, are writing about reasons for action that do exist: desires. As many of you know, I defend one particular moral theory based on desires. It is called desire utilitarianism, and was developed first by Alonzo Fyfe. As soon as I get to a certain point in my Intro to Ethics course, I will begin a comprehensive defense of desire utilitarianism.

Stay tuned. :)

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorkas June 16, 2009 at 6:39 am

What does it mean for a contract to exist? Verbal contracts are just spoken words, right?
Perhaps all that’s necessary for the “social contract” to “exist” is that we all agree to it. Even if we just agree to it because we’re evolved to agree to it by default. What do you think?


Jeremy Killian June 16, 2009 at 7:24 am

It strikes me that DU, at least from my limited understanding of it, is still compatible with theism-even Christian theism. As a matter of fact, I think that Piper’s reincarnation of Jonathan Edward’s “Christian hedonism” smacks of DU. You’re ptobably familiar with Desiring God, Luke, what do you think?


David June 16, 2009 at 7:59 am

First, the use of hypothetical contracts as a basis for philosophy is cleary not similar to theology. Theology is based on the presumption that God exists. Hypothetical contracts don’t presume the existence of the contracts.
Second, not all hypothetical social contracts are a waste of time. Take John Rawls’s ‘original position’ for example. Many people will be familiar with the idea, but I’ll briefly state it anyway for those who are not.
Rawls asks what principles of justice would rational persons agree to if they were behind a veil of ignorance that obscured their social status in society, their personal characteristics, and their conception of the good. All that is available to the persons is a desire for  ‘primary’ goods – those goods that are desirable to people whatever their conception of the good (e.g. liberties, opportunities, wealth etc.).
Like most thought experiments, there is no need for this original position to actually exist in order for it to be useful. It is useful as a means of modelling ignorance and thereby arriving at a more impartial conception of justice that is not biased by social circumstance nor based on one particular conception of the good. Its existence is irrelevant.


William June 16, 2009 at 10:08 am

I wouldn’t say that its all a waste of time? In many instances one can not be sure where a road leads until they have taveled it. I am not a philosopher or a theologian, but I do think on occasion. And I thnik that a lot of philosophy is nothing more than a intellectual exercises (I think this is what David was saying.); however, how can one know for sure that their efforts will lead to wasted paper until they have followed the thinking to its conclusion. As an R&D engineer I spend most of my time failing. 9 times out of 10, things do not work out the way we would like them to. Like many things in my life, it is much easier to say, “What a waste of time that was!” after the fact.


Taranu June 16, 2009 at 11:15 am

I’m with you on this one William.


Michael June 16, 2009 at 11:47 am

How is “desire utilitarianism” different than “preference utilitarianism” as described in this Wikipedia article?
This is the moral theory of Peter Singer and some others.


Yair June 16, 2009 at 1:19 pm

I think DU primarily is concerned with acting to induce co-harmonious desires, whereas PU is concerned with acting to induce the fulfillment of current desires.  It’d be interesting to see if I got that right.
Also, Peter Singer seems to place great emphasis on valuing a particular type of desire, namely desires as to one’s “life journey”, desires on your future. I’m not sure if DU does.


lukeprog June 16, 2009 at 2:36 pm


I don’t know Desiring God, but I’m already writing a post about how a Christian can be a desire utilitarian.


lukeprog June 16, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Michael, that is one of the questions answered in my Ethics FAQ.


Kevin June 16, 2009 at 5:24 pm

It’s not clear that moral philosophers throughout history could have done the work they did in any other way.  What one can think is largely limited to what others have thought before.  So, is it not pointless to wish things could have been otherwise?  And besides, you don’t believe in freewill, lukeprog.  So, how could things have been any different?


lukeprog June 16, 2009 at 5:44 pm


By complaining about wasted effort spent analyzing non-existent things, I am doing my part to make the future different. The past is past.


Taranu June 16, 2009 at 9:24 pm

It seems that the first of the three links from yout Ethics FAQ referring to preference  utilitarianism is broken.


lukeprog June 17, 2009 at 6:30 am


The one for the word “No”? It works for me…


Lorkas June 17, 2009 at 7:52 am

Works for me too


Kevin June 17, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Point taken.


Taranu June 17, 2009 at 10:45 pm

Yes it works now. I don’t know why I couldn’t access it yesterday.


Justin June 19, 2009 at 11:49 am

Does desire utilitarianism imply thoughtcrime? It seems as though having the wrong desires is wrong regardless of wether or not you act on them. Not acting on them would mean you had another preferable desire which would be stronger, but would still make you “bad” for having the wrong desires.


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