Moral Action at Work

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 4, 2009 in General Atheism


I would like to praise a reader for his moral action: specifically, that of criticizing and correcting an immoral act performed by me.

In my last post, I summarized and criticized two arguments by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Unfortunately, I had only read some brief commentaries on Plantinga’s two arguments, rather than the arguments themselves (which are longer and require a greater investment of my time). Because of this, I unknowingly misrepresented Plantinga’s argument.

Christian reader cartesian commented to condemn my intellectual laziness. He also explained where my summary of Plantinga’s views went wrong, and linked to full copies of Plantinga’s actual work, so I could read it.

Nobody who studies complex topics can read everything they comment on. We all rely on summaries and Cliffs Notes, while also reading many of the original works as time allows. We try to understand the original arguments and criticize them fairly, and we depend on others to correct us if we are wrong.

But I think in this case, my post was too hasty. I already had copies of the works I was discussing, and I refer to them often. So there is no excuse for the fact that I had only skimmed parts of them.

I suspect my intellectual laziness in this case was immoral in that there are many and strong reasons for action to inhibit that kind of intellectual laziness (using tools like condemnation). Those reasons for action to condemn intellectual laziness are all the desires that are thwarted when the pursuit of truth is corrupted. Truth helps to fulfill desires. For example, your desires for health are better fulfilled by scientific treatment than by an ignorant witchdoctor.

I suspect cartesian’s comments were moral because there are many and strong reasons for action to condemn intellectual laziness and enable a more successful pursuit of truth, as cartesian did. Cartesian condemned my intellectual laziness, and that influences me and others to avoid intellectual laziness in the future. He also enabled a more succesful pursuit of truth by going out of his way to explain Plantinga’s arguments correctly and link to copies of Plantinga’s original work.

So thank you, cartesian, for your moral action. Also, I apologize for my immoral action. I will (gladly) read Plantinga’s original work and then respond to it.

I have corrected my earlier post. I hope it no longer contains egregious errors.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Kip June 4, 2009 at 4:25 pm

I want to praise you, Luke, for being so open to correction, which is a very moral thing for you to do.


Sabio June 4, 2009 at 5:07 pm

We learn more from one person admitting a mistake than from ten who prove they have made no errors.
Well done !


atimetorend June 4, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Nice post Luke, keeping your cred, why I read you.


cartesian June 4, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Don’t be too hard on yourself Luke. This is how (analytic) philosophy goes: someone writes something, and then other people offer pointed criticisms. I think you’re sincere and trying your best to be fair and accurate, so I really don’t think you’ve done anything seriously immoral. The even-handedness and clarity of argument that you show is really very impressive for someone with no formal training, so don’t beat yourself up too much for making a slip. Just don’t let your potential go to waste! Now that would be seriously immoral. Enroll in a philosophy program asap!

Cal State Long Beach has very good BA and MA programs in philosophy, which could launch you into a very good PhD program. It’s nearby, cheap, and relatively easy to get into. The same goes for Cal State Los Angeles; David Pitt and Mark Balaguer are both there, and they’re both very good. (Balaguer does some metaethics, which you’d like.) Of course USC and UCLA have awesome philosophy departments, but they’re pricey and hard to get into.

I’m pretty sure that your talent, focus, and the fact that you’re not socially retarded would make you very popular with the professors at those places, and they’d be happy to write letters and pull strings to get you into a good PhD program when you’re done with the BA and/or MA.




Taranu June 4, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Luke, do you have a subscription to the ReasonableFaith newsletter? In this month’s newsletter Craig points out, among other things, your review of the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. This is what he says:

Undoubtedly the most important development on this front has been the publication this month of J. P. Moreland and my Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. This tome of over 650 pages features 11 articles by first-rate philosophers each defending at length a different argument for God’s existence. Jim Sinclair and I co-authored a 100-page defense of the kalam cosmological argument. Jim really knows current physical cosmology, so it was a privilege to team up with him. To give you a feel for why I’m so excited about this volume, let me simply share with you the first on-line review of the book, written by an atheist:
“As an atheist, I recognize this as the single greatest defense of theism ever assembled. Craig and Moreland basically made a list of the most compelling contemporary arguments for the existence of God, tracked down their foremost living defenders, and gave them 50-100 pages to make their case. The result is awe-inspiring, even for the atheist. . . . Even if Earth’s universities are emptied of theists by the year 2400, we may then look back and see The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology as the high-point in the philosophical defense of theism. . . . The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology is a tour-de-force of analytic philosophy.”

We hope that this response presages great things to come concerning the impact of this book!


Taranu June 5, 2009 at 12:25 am

As you can see Craig overlooked some of the things you said. :)


Daniel June 5, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Great way to own up to mistakes and show your passion for the truth.
I am curious about punishment in a desire utilitarian world. How is punishment to be determined for immoral actions?


Dace June 5, 2009 at 2:35 pm

To add to Cartesian’s post: if you’re interested in doing a philosophy program, you should take a look at which has rankings of the philosophy programs in the english speaking world.


lukeprog June 5, 2009 at 5:23 pm


Desire utilitarianism has no special category for punishment. However, it may turn out to be the case that certain forms of punishment come from desires that tend to fulfill other desires, in which case certain punishing acts would be moral for the exact same reason that all other moral acts are moral.


lukeprog June 5, 2009 at 5:23 pm


Yes, the philosophy gourmet is fascinating reading, isn’t it?


lukeprog June 5, 2009 at 7:17 pm


I had not seen that, thanks.


Jack August 9, 2009 at 10:37 am

It seems that terms like “moral” and “immoral” are rather blunt instruments to describe an action. Does desire utilitarianism make distinctions like “Right vs Wrong”, “Rational vs Irrational”, and “Praiseworthy vs Blameworthy” as described by J.J. Smart in Utilitarianism: For and Against (p.46-48)?
On a slightly related note – what are the objects of the utilitarianism that you subscribe to? Actions? Rules? Character traits? Something else? That is, do you do calculations about which action to perform based on its consequences, or which rule to enact/follow, or which character traits to cultivate, etc? (Probly a question for the FAQ ;)).


lukeprog August 9, 2009 at 11:31 am


Desirism can indeed be explicit about “right” vs. “wrong” and “good” vs. “bad.” As it turns out, praiseworthy = good, and blameworthy = bad. According to desirism, the objects of utility are desires themselves.

As for rational and irrational, that is the domain of practical rationality. That is a fine field of study, but desirism is not grounded in practical rationality.

I will certainly add many of these questions to the FAQ.


Jack August 9, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Whoops, I misreferenced – p.48 talks about “good vs bad”, but I found that distinction far less useful than “praiseworthy vs blameworthy” distinction he discusses more on p.49-52. They aren’t quite the same, but they’re trying to get at similar issues – when to commend an action, condemn it, or neither.

Also, I think I worded my question about the object of utility poorly. Let me rephrase. The general form of utilitarianism, as far as I understand it, goes something like this: “One ought to X that would bring about the greatest aggregate* happiness, understood as Y”. I fill in Y as net pleasure, you fill it in as, I gather, desire satisfaction (?). For X I fill in “perform the action”. My choices for X and Y bring me to the qualified label “hedonistic act utilitarianism”. Other X’s I’ve seen are “adopt the rule(s)” (rule utilitarianism) and “cultivate the character traits” (character utilitarianism). All of these are compatible with anything you choose for Y (at least prima facie). What is the X that you use?

*Of course there’s room to discuss this too – “aggregate” vs “average” vs some other metric, but that’s not what I’m particularly interested in now.


lukeprog August 9, 2009 at 1:51 pm


Desirism is not a monistic about value. It is thoroughly pluralistic. There is no reason to maximize desire fulfillment. Desire fulfillment does not have intrinsic value. Rather, every desire creates a reason for action to fulfill that desire. But please watch the FAQ as it develops.


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