Living Without a Moral Code, part 3

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 26, 2010 in Ethics

girl on rock

In July 2009, I wrote these words:

Many people live without a moral code.

Some do not think that morality exists. Others have chosen a life of sensual beauty instead of morality: aesthetics over ethics. Still others despise morality, seeing it as an impediment to their own domination of others.

I am in a rather odd position. I think that moral imperatives are real and knowable, but as it happens I know almost none of them. So, I don’t know how to live a moral life. I am morally bound but morally blind. I’m driving my life forward at 100mph but I don’t know which direction to turn it.

I went on to explain that this is because the moral theory I find most plausible – desirism – says that right and wrong are known not by intuition, but by difficult calculations involving millions of desires.

And since I’m still working through basic moral theory, I haven’t yet had time to figure out the implications of desirism  for the ethical decisions I need to make every day. That is why I say I am “living without a moral code.”

I responded to some confusions and objections here. Now, let me respond to a criticism from faithlessgod.

His main objection is to the part where I said:

Instead, desire utilitarianism says that moral imperatives can only be known by way of calculations involving billions of (mostly) unknown variables: desires, strengths of desires, relations between desires and states of affairs, and relations between desires and other desires.

Faithlessgod says this is a problem for a monistic value theory, but not for a pluralistic moral theory like desirism.

I had planned to launch into a long explanation of value monism and pluralism, but I think it will be simpler for me to give an example of what I mean when I say that desirism’s calculations can be complex.

A complex calculation

I will choose an example that is relevant to everyone, and one I think about often: Is it moral for me to eat meat?

Now, desirism is not an act-based theory. It is a desire-based theory. Desirism says that desires are the objects of moral evaluation, and the moral value of other things like acts and laws are derived from the moral value of desires. In particular, a morally right act is an act that a person with morally good desires would perform.

So now the question becomes: Would a person with good desires eat meat?

According to desirism, a good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires. Most people misunderstand what “tends to fulfill other desires” means, but Alonzo Fyfe and I have explained this many times, for example here. The rest of this post is written for those who understand what “tends to fulfill other desires” means.

First, let us note that my desire to eat meat falls under the domain of morality because it is a malleable desire. Millions of vegans throughout history – including Jains living over 7,000 years ago – have successfully modified their desires so as to enjoy a meat-free diet. (Remember, humans are not carnivores but omnivores.) Indeed, many vegans have told me that they trained themselves to dislike the taste of meat such that it is now disgusting to them and they are not even tempted to eat it.

Now, it seems straightforward that my carnivorous desires are immoral. Surely my desire to eat meat tends to thwart more and stronger desires than it fulfills. It certainly thwarts the desires of the animals I eat, both by way of their death and by way of their horrifying lives packed into factory farms.

But it’s more complicated then that. After all, my desires count for something. And let me tell you, I have strong desires for the Wendy’s Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers, and Supreme Pizzas, and Subway BLT sandwhiches, and roasted half-chickens, and… you get the idea.

More importantly, what if everyone stopped eating meat? Millions of people would be out of work. That would thwart lots of desires.

Also, many have suggested that animals – unlike humans – do not have an aversion to death, for they do not comprehend death. But this is a question for scientists to answer. We do not have the answer yet, and the answer will greatly impact the outcome of our calculations with regard to the morality of eating meat.

Animals do, of course, have an aversion to pain. But what if we got rid of factory farms and instead treated for-food animals with more compassion? We could fairly easily provide each of them with a life of greater desire fulfillment than they are likely to find in the wild, where there are predators and nutritional scarcities and environmental dangers and diseases. So what if I only ate meat from farms that raised animals with more compassion? Would that fulfill more desires than not eating meat at all?

What I’ve said here barely puts a dent in complex issues involved in figuring out whether or not human carnivorous desires are morally good according to desirism. Some further thoughts are here, here, and here.

The point is that I don’t have time to become an expert in every issue of applied ethics that I face in my life. I barely have time to figure out whether desirism itself is a plausible theory of morality! That’s why I invited Alonzo Fyfe to speculate about applied ethical issues in his weekly column.

So my contention stands: I care deeply about morality. I want to be a moral person. But I’m not very confident in my ethical decisions, because I don’t have time to figure out whether or not they are correct.

Next time, I will respond to faithlessgod’s point about Proles and Archangels.

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{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur February 26, 2010 at 6:21 am

More importantly, what if everyone stopped eating meat? Millions of people would be out of work. That would thwart lots of desires.

You’re edging close to a “broken window fallacy” there – producing vegan food is generally more cost effective than producing meat. If everyone became vegan there might be fewer people in the food production business but that would usually be seen as a good thing rather than a bad thing – freeing up human resources to do other things.

Then again there would be significant short term pain to the adjustment. And there are, of course, places which can be efficiently used to produce meat but not to produce vegan food. Iceland is unsuitable for growing crops but reasonably suitable for rearing sheep.

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Scott February 26, 2010 at 7:37 am

Well, during your suspension of judgement, do you eat meat?

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Bebok February 26, 2010 at 8:24 am

Also, many have suggested that animals – unlike humans – do not have an aversion to death, for they do not comprehend death. But this is a question for scientists to answer. We do not have the answer yet, and the answer will greatly impact the outcome of our calculations with regard to the morality of eating meat.

I have always failed to understand how the ability to “comprehend death” could make any morally relevant difference.
When I suddenly deprive some human or non-human animal of all its desires by skilfully hitting it in the head, which of those desires do I thwart?
And besides, it’s possible to justify eating children and mentally retarded people this way as well.

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Charles February 26, 2010 at 8:48 am

I agree with Bebok. Once you accept animals have any desires at all, then surely you must grant that killing them seriously thwarts those desires. I don’t see why it should matter whether animals can comprehend death.

On the question of eating meat, I find the analogy to owning slaves in pre-Civil War America very instructive. We all agree owning slaves (even when treated well) is wrong. What is the difference between one case and the other. I believe that in the minds of most, its that the lives and desires of animals don’t matter (just like previous generations would have said about the lives and desires of slaves).

If you can find an argument that works for animals but not slaves, I’d love to hear it!

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Thomas Reid February 26, 2010 at 9:07 am

Luke,
What did you think of Ruth Chang’s critique of desire-based theories in CPBD 021? By the way, the podcasts are good resources, thanks for offering them.

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Lorkas February 26, 2010 at 10:00 am

Maybe some other animals comprehend death. Who knows?

http://wimp.com/gorillakitten/

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Bebok February 26, 2010 at 10:18 am

Animals do, of course, have an aversion to pain. But what if we got rid of factory farms and instead treated for-food animals with more compassion? We could fairly easily provide each of them with a life of greater desire fulfillment than they are likely to find in the wild, where there are predators and nutritional scarcities and environmental dangers and diseases. So what if I only ate meat from farms that raised animals with more compassion? Would that fulfill more desires than not eating meat at all?

The problem is that if everyone only ate meat from farms that raised animals with more compassion, almost everyone would have to become a farmer.
In a factory farm there is one worker “looking after” thousands or tens of thousands of animals. In traditional, more humane farming one man looks after a couple of animals. Moreover, humanly treated animal “gives” significantly less meat or milk. To satisfy the current demand for meat, dairy and eggs with products from “humane” farms exclusively, it would take millions of extra workers as well as millions of extra hectares of grasslands. And still every way of raising animals for food involves a great amount of suffering (castration, separating mothers from their offspring, etc.).

The “dangers of the wildlife” objection isn’t sound either, I think. If everyone became a vegan, most of farm animals would never be born. No one wants to release pigs, cows and chickens in the jungle.

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lukeprog February 26, 2010 at 10:30 am

Hi all,

I wasn’t endorsing any of the above arguments, but merely illustrating how complicated moral issues can be.

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lukeprog February 26, 2010 at 10:31 am

Thomas Reid,

Thanks. I don’t have time to respond re: desirism right now.

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Bebok February 26, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Charles: I agree with Bebok. Once you accept animals have any desires at all, then surely you must grant that killing them seriously thwarts those desires.

It was not my point, actually. I assume that desirists think that painless killing is (usually) immoral not because of the desires of the one being killed, but because of other people’s desires.
I wanted to say that there is a serious difference between thwarting a desire and eliminating a desire. I don’t understand how a desire that can be thwarted can be derived from the ability to comprehend death.
I also don’t understand how being able to comprehend death can make a difference in theories other than desirism.

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Kip February 26, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Alonzo> I do not need “a desire to be [harmonious]” or a moral principle, “thou shalt create a harmony of desires.” I only need the reasons for action that exist. Those reasons for action themselves are enough to motivate acts that tend to their fulfillment, which means that they are sufficient to generate acts that establish a harmony of desires.

I submit that humans do not have reasons for action to include all desires that exist into their moral calculations (even at the Archangel level, when trying to determine which desires are good for us to have in order for them to be in harmony). Whether or not this applies to non-human animals that live on earth depends on what species you include in that category. Clearly we do not include insects & such — yet they are animals. Do they have desires? Seems like they do to some limited extent.

Which desires should we consider then? We cannot consider all of them. We should consider those for which we have reasons for action to consider. And those are? The ones that will affect us if we don’t.

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Charles February 26, 2010 at 1:30 pm

I think you’re wrong. A desirist would definitely include the desires of the one to be killed. The desire to kill exists prior to the act of the killing itself. The time between could be a moment. It could be a year. It makes no difference. Since we are evaluating whether the desire that precedes the act is good, and before the act, the desires of the victim still exist, they must also be considered in any calculation.

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Kip February 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Charles: A desirist would definitely include the desires of the one to be killed.

You seem to be talking about the Prole level — at which point you will act based on your own desires. I’m referring to the Archangel level, where we determine which desires should be promoted among the agents within our moral sphere.

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Bebok February 26, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Charles,

I understand that desires, not acts are the objects of moral evaluation. I just don’t think that person A’s desire to kill person B tends to thwart person B’s desire to stay alive. I think it only tends to eliminate person B’s desire to stay alive. Perhaps I don’t understand what exactly desirists mean by “to thwart”.

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Kip February 26, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Bebok: I understand that desires, not acts are the objects of moral evaluation. I just don’t think that person A’s desire to kill person B tends to thwart person B’s desire to stay alive. I think it only tends to eliminate person B’s desire to stay alive. Perhaps I don’t understand what exactly desirists mean by “to thwart”.  

A desire is a mental attitude toward a proposition, such that when an agent desires P, that agent will be motivated to bring about or maintain a state of affairs where P is true. Desire P is said to be “fulfilled” in a state of affairs where P is true, and “thwarted” in a state of affairs where P is not true.

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Bebok February 26, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Kip,

So person’s B desire to stay alive can never be thwarted, because when person B is dead her desire to stay alive doesn’t exist. Am I right?

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Kip February 26, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Bebok: Kip,So person’s B desire to stay alive can never be thwarted, because when person B is dead her desire to stay alive doesn’t exist. Am I right?  

No. A state of affairs where I am not alive is a state of affairs wherein the proposition “I am living” is not true.

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Charles February 26, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Kip:
You seem to be talking about the Prole level  

Actually, I was responding to Bebok. Your comment wasn’t there when I started writing. Next time, I’ll try to remember to quote.

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Charles February 26, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Bebok: Charles,I understand that desires, not acts are the objects of moral evaluation. I just don’t think that person A’s desire to kill person B tends to thwart person B’s desire to stay alive.  

If A kills B, then all of B’s desires are thwarted. Maybe B was saving up for college. Thwarted. So he could attract a women. Thwarted. So he could start a family, get a good job, enjoy life. Thwarted. Thwarted. Thwarted. Whenever you kill someone, there is an awful lot of desire thwarting going on.

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Kip February 26, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Charles:
If A kills B, then all of B’s desires are thwarted.

Not necessarily. B can have desires that don’t require B being alive in order to be fulfilled (e.g. that B’s children are not tortured).

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Charles February 26, 2010 at 6:36 pm

True. I should have said ‘many’.

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svenjamin February 26, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Bebok: The problem is that if everyone only ate meat from farms that raised animals with more compassion, almost everyone would have to become a farmer.
In a factory farm there is one worker “looking after” thousands or tens of thousands of animals. In traditional, more humane farming one man looks after a couple of animals. Moreover, humanly treated animal “gives” significantly less meat or milk. To satisfy the current demand for meat, dairy and eggs with products from “humane” farms exclusively, it would take millions of extra workers as well as millions of extra hectares of grasslands. And still every way of raising animals for food involves a great amount of suffering (castration, separating mothers from their offspring, etc.).

The “dangers of the wildlife” objection isn’t sound either, I think. If everyone became a vegan, most of farm an

This actually isn’t true. There are small scale “compassionate” farms that are orders of magnitude more efficient than the industrial farming system, and they generally involve livestock. Check out the Polyface farms webpage:
http://www.polyfacefarms.com/default.aspx

They do all kinds of things to manipulate the farm ecology. It’s pretty cool.

But I’m still a vegetarian. Eating meat thwarts my desires to not eat animals. And if I did want to eat meat, then doing so would be perpetuating and enhancing my desire to do something that inhibits other desires.

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Jeff H February 26, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Kip:
Not necessarily.B can have desires that don’t require B being alive in order to be fulfilled (e.g. that B’s children are not tortured).  

Wait wait wait, so now desirism requires us to calculate the desires that dead people had before they died? Sounds a little too complicated for me…

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lukeprog February 26, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I’ll just bip in to say it’s very implausible that dead people have desires.

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Thomas Reid February 27, 2010 at 2:59 am

lukeprog: I’ll just bip in to say it’s very implausible that dead people have desires.  

Have, or had? You see the metaphysical import of this question, I’m sure.

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faithlessgod February 27, 2010 at 4:35 am

Hi Luke

Not quite ready to be woken up from my blogging slumber. Will await your next post on proles and archangels and then will reply.

In the comments I see that many do get the basics of desirism but Thomas Reid, again, does not. No there is no metaphysical import in this question. Dead people do not have desires, only live people can have desires (animals and aliens too but I am only addressing the “people” point here). Killing a person necessarily entails thwarting all their desires they would be unable to fulfil if they cease to exist as a person. Ceteris paribus the fact that once they are dead these desires no longer exist cannot excuse their killing and cannot be used to avoid the fact that the act of killing is desire thwarting (with the usual caveats over voluntary euthanasia etc. which is not the issue at hand)

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Kip February 27, 2010 at 9:02 am

lukeprog: I’ll just bip in to say it’s very implausible that dead people have desires.  

Agreed.

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Kip February 27, 2010 at 9:08 am

Jeff H:
Wait wait wait, so now desirism requires us to calculate the desires that dead people had before they died? Sounds a little too complicated for me…  

Perhaps: http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2007/08/honoring-dead-in-theory.html

But, that’s not what I was saying. What I was saying is that someone that is alive (right now) may act so as to fulfill their desires in such a way that they will not be alive to see the fulfillment of their desires. It is an important fact to consider that ALL reasons for action that motivate agents to perform intention actions concern FUTURE states of affairs. Although the current state of affairs obviously requires the agent to be alive in order to have desires (as far as I know, anyway), it is not the case that the FUTURE state of affairs that the agent is working toward must also include the agent being alive.

I gave one example: a parent sacrificing their life to prevent their children from being tortured. There are many others that you could come up with.

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Jeff H February 27, 2010 at 10:22 am

Alright, Kip. I was being a little facetious, but I thought it was important for you to clarify what you meant by that. Thanks :)

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Thomas Reid February 27, 2010 at 11:11 am

faithlessgod:
Will await your next post on proles and archangels and then will reply.In the comments I see that many do get the basics of desirism but Thomas Reid, again, does not. No there is no metaphysical import in this question. Dead people do not have desires, only live people can have desires (animals and aliens too but I am only addressing the “people” point here).

faithlessgod,

Nice to see you again!

One of the hazards of reading blogs at 5 o’clock in the morning is the risk of misreading what people are saying. That is precisely what I did with Luke’s comment. Of course, the naturalist must insist that dead people do not have desires, because dead people simply are no more. Sorry Luke for the confusion.

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cl February 27, 2010 at 11:26 am

Luke,

No matter how many times I read you or Fyfe try to explain it, I still can’t get down with desirism. I realize that you’re not nececssarily endorsing any of the arguments from the OP, but still, whether in the limited context you’ve tackled it here or the larger context I’ve heard it defended elsewhere, I see the inability to provide a meaningful definition of “morally good desires” as desirism’s biggest failure. I don’t see that desirism can support anything other than mob rule.

In particular, a morally right act is an act that a person with morally good desires would perform.

Understood, but that’s tautological. What is a “morally good desire?” To simply say,

..a good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires.

..doesn’t strike me as meaningful. Without some “intrinsic value” (to use Fyfe’s word) that exalts life over death, wouldn’t such apply even to psychopaths?

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Kip February 27, 2010 at 1:58 pm

cl:

“good” means “such as to fulfill the desires in question”. A burger is good if it fulfills my desire to eat a deliciously tasty burger. The desires in question are my desires, and the object of evaluation is the burger.

“moral good” is a subset of the “good”. Unlike the broader “good”, “moral good” applies only to desires (those are the object of evaluation), not to other objects or even states of affairs. For example, it makes no sense to say that a hurricane is “morally bad”. Further, it applies only to those desires that are malleable (and yet, persistent). It is futile to use our moral tools to try to change unmalleable desires.

This all makes sense when you realize that morality is a social system used by people to make living together a better place than it would otherwise be.

Finally, what are the “desires in question” when talking about “moral good”? In the general “good”, the desires in question could be whatever — usually it’s the desires of the speaker (as in my “good burger” example). But, when we are talking about a social system, then it is clear that a single person’s desires are not the desires in question. I would say that it is all of the desires that play a part in that social system. Alonzo would say it is all desires that exist.

Hope that helps.

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cl February 27, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Kip,

Unfortunately for me, none of the points you covered were being contested or misunderstood, nor did they provide any sort of “grounding” for desirism, so there was no help to be found.

“good” means “such as to fulfill the desires in question”. A burger is good if it fulfills my desire to eat a deliciously tasty burger. The desires in question are my desires, and the object of evaluation is the burger.

Believe me, I understood all that months ago when I first discovered Fyfe’s blog. By that same token, an individual murder is also “good” if it fulfills the psychopath’s desire to spill human blood. However, that example ignores the larger context of the social system. As you say,

..when we are talking about a social system, then it is clear that a single person’s desires are not the desires in question.

Again, understood. The problem for me is that if the entire social system decides that child sacrifice is good, and desires that children be sacrificed, such is “good” according to desirism — a.k.a. mob rule.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 2:32 pm

cl,

No, even if the entire social system decided that child sacrifice is good, it would still be an objective fact that desires which lead to child sacrifice are desires that tend to thwart more and stronger desires than alternative desires.

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cl February 27, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Luke,

I read your assertion the first time, in the OP. Repeating it doesn’t make it true. You’re the one making this positive claim; support it. A good place to start would be citing what you believe to be the desires that lead to child sacrifice, followed by an explanation of how those desires “tend to thwart more and stronger desires than alternative desires.” It would also help if you shed some light on the “alternative desires” you allude to.

You of all people should know that asking one’s interlocutor to address undefined generalities is meaningless!

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Kip February 27, 2010 at 4:04 pm

cl -

I just gave you a very good overview of Desirism, and you need to read it again, carefully, because your question indicates that you still are missing some of the basics. I’ll proceed, though:

The problem for me is that if the entire social system decides that child sacrifice is good, and desires that children be sacrificed, such is “good” according to desirism — a.k.a. mob rule.

How does the entire social system “decide” that child sacrifice is good? It either is good, or it isn’t, depending on the desires it fulfills.

Let’s back up to my “good burger” example. I don’t just “decide” that the burger is good. It either is good (if it fulfills my desires), or it isn’t (if it doesn’t).

In your example, since you are talking about “moral good”, the first question to ask is what is the object of evaluation? Is it the act itself? No — according to Desirism, the object of moral evaluation are the desires that tend to lead to acts that we want to prevent (or encourage). I think this makes sense — and if you think the BDI model of intentional action is somewhat accurate, then it follows from there.

So, the question then is: is the desire to sacrifice children a good desire? Well, “good” is relative. There must be “desires in question” for which we are to see if those other desires tend to be fulfilled or not. So, we are asking: does the desire to sacrifice children tend to fulfill more and stronger desires, considering all the desires ([of those in the social system] or [that exist]).

This is an empirical question. It has an objective answer, that is independent of what any single person in the social system thinks or feels about the issue. It is the case that people desiring to sacrifice children will either tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts, or it will thwart more and stronger desires than it fulfills, or it will be about even.

So, let’s see what happens: let’s call this desire “good”, and promote it in society to see what happens. People desire to sacrifice children, and so they do. Of course, this thwarts the desires of the children (since they most certainly desire to live, and many other things for which living is a prerequisite). But, perhaps we’ve promoted this desire so much, that it is very strong, even stronger than the all the desires that the children have. So, it’s still “good”. But, then we have the parents of the children. Presumably they will also want to sacrifice their children, since we’ve had to turn up the desire to sacrifice children very high to overcome the strength of the desires that we will be thwarting. So, what happens after all the children have been sacrificed? Now we have a problem. We have a lot of people with a very strong desire to sacrifice children, and no children left to sacrifice. Those desires that were being fulfilled are now going to be thwarted. We would have to expend a lot of time and resources trying to fulfill those desires in other ways — perhaps by breeding lots of people to produce an endless supply of children to sacrifice? But then we have a lot more problems — what with all the forced breeding and all — not too many people would desire that. And with all this time and money and energy being spent on growing children to sacrifice, we’ve been neglecting all the other things in the world that we also desire. We’ve gotten ourselves into a world of a mess here.

Alternatively, what if we could instead demote the desire for child sacrifice — such that nobody wanted to sacrifice children? Then, that solves all of those problems. No children would be having their desires thwarted, no parents would be having to sacrifice their own children, nobody would be forced to breed or raise children to be sacrificed, and people would be free to spend their time and energy on other things that will be fulfilling our desires. AND (and this is a big AND) — there will be nobody with the desire to sacrifice children having their desires thwarted. It’s a win-win situation.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Off-topic:

LOL @ the opening paragraph of Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition:

At the time of this writing, exactly one week has passed since the Supreme Court of the State of California decreed that homosexuals have a “basic civil right” to marry someone of the same sex. Whether these Golden State solons will follow up their remarkable findings with a ruling to the effect that an ass is the same as a horse, it is too early to say; but they have already gone well beyond the sophistical orator of Plato’s dialogue in “confounding good with evil,” not to mention reason with insanity.

“Jesus,” I think, is all I can say.

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cl February 27, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Kip,

I just gave you a very good overview of Desirism, and you need to read it again, carefully, because your question indicates that you still are missing some of the basics.

While I will never deny my ability to completely misunderstand a nuanced philosophical theory, your statement indicates that you need to read my responses again, carefully, because I assure you I’ve not asked a single question since you gave your overview.

Well, “good” is relative.

That’s exactly my point: under desirism, good is relative. That’s why I say it has nothing to ground it other than mob-rule.

..according to Desirism, the object of moral evaluation are the desires that tend to lead to acts that we want to prevent (or encourage).

I understand the distinction, Kip. The string “that we want to encourage” simply reinforces my point: who’s we? You? You and people who think like you? The “average” person or perhaps “the majority”? More importantly, whoever we say “we” is here, who made them the arbiter of “good” desires? Believe me, though I’m not a professional philosopher, I’ve been patient with the theory for some time now, but every time I hear it explained I’m pushed that much closer to the “desirism is just a bunch of philosophical claptrap” position. My rebuttal is that without one of the two objective standards of morality I described in comment #8 here, no objective grounding exists by which we might evaluate said desires as good or bad.

So, what happens after all the children have been sacrificed?

Do you really think people who desired to appease deity X by sacrificing children would simply stop having sex? I find that absurd.

Those desires that were being fulfilled are now going to be thwarted.

While technically true, the non-existence of children in a society that desires child sacrifice just isn’t a feasible scenario. Just for fun though, let’s grant it. If the motivation for sacrificing the children was to gain favor from deity X, the “guiding desire” is to gain favor from deity X. Sacrificing the children is but one of many possible ways members of that society could fulfill their guiding desire. When and if the non-existence of children occurred in such a society, the members could just say something like, “deity X has now decreed that we plant corn to gain its favor.” Then, planting corn would become “good” and that which thwarted the planting of corn would become “bad.”

Alternatively, what if we could instead demote the desire for child sacrifice — such that nobody wanted to sacrifice children? Then, that solves all of those problems. No children would be having their desires thwarted, no parents would be having to sacrifice their own children, nobody would be forced to breed or raise children to be sacrificed, and people would be free to spend their time and energy on other things that will be fulfilling our desires.

I agree that the alternative you described would be a win-win situation, but that’s only because I believe child sacrifice isn’t the “good” thing to do. The problem is that not everybody believes as I do, and who am I to say that they should? That’s where I see desirism as completely inept. In the society that desires to appease deity X via child sacrifice and believes it is the “good” thing to do, parents having to sacrifice their children isn’t a problem, it’s a virtue. Similarly, we couldn’t say people in such a society were “forced” to breed or raise children. Rather, whether they liked it or not, they did such willingly to appease deity X, which would make their actions good.

You said it yourself; “good is relative.” That’s precisely my objection to desirism and as such I don’t see what we have left to debate.

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Kip February 27, 2010 at 8:51 pm

cl: You said it yourself; “good is relative.” That’s precisely my objection to desirism and as such I don’t see what we have left to debate.  

Did you expect “good” to be an absolute property, like every other property of the universe? Oh wait, nevermind, that’s not the kind of universe we live in. Pretty much every property of this universe is relative. Do you think that my “good hamburger” should be good in some absolute sense without being good relative to anything else? If not, then what makes you think that something should be “morally good” without being relative to something else?

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cl February 27, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Kip,

Did you expect “good” to be an absolute property… ?

I’m unsure whether it is or not, and I didn’t enter this discussion with any expectations.

..that’s not the kind of universe we live in. Pretty much every property of this universe is relative.

I understand that, for example, gravity is different here than elsewhere, and also dependent on mass of objects which varies.

Do you think that my “good hamburger” should be good in some absolute sense without being good relative to anything else? If not, then what makes you think that something should be “morally good” without being relative to something else?

I don’t see it as a question of should but could. For me, the salient question is whether your hamburger could be called good in some absolute sense without being good relative to anything else. Sans either of the two scenarios mentioned in my last comment, my position is that no evaluation of “moral goodness” could be anything but relative. Again, it seems we agree there, so I’m not sure what there is to actually debate.

Returning to your original analogy,

A burger is good if it fulfills my desire to eat a deliciously tasty burger.

Equally, a hydrogen bomb is good if it fulfills our desire to eliminate “the enemy.” If you would agree to that logic, I’d say you’re being consistent in your evaluations of desires as required by desirism. However, I doubt you agree to that logic, and anticipate another claim that I’m misunderstanding the basic tenets of the theory.

Which, of course, could be the case, but I’ll need more than appeals to the flexibility of universal properties to see my error.

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Zach February 28, 2010 at 3:11 am

Hi Luke,

I have been following your blog for quite some time and you do a really fantastic job. I have a question about desirism.

I am a moral relativist, and therefore I naturally have some issues with desirism. I think it’s fascinating and complex, as you have demonstrated, but attempting to analyze moral quandaries objectively is always a complex process. I understand (I think) the concept of good/bad desires thwarting others’ desires. But again, as a relativist, I don’t see how one classifies a given desire as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Human desires are objective, as in we all have them, but our classification of them is surely a subjective process, is it not (relative to personal, cultural, and historical factors)? I believe moral truths that are common or universal are still not properly objective; they are the products of a continuous socio-biological evolution (though I believe subjectivity does not make them untrue per se; I am a very morally driven person).

My question then is this: how does one objectively classify desires as either “good” or “bad”?

Maybe our respective subjective/objective philosophies won’t allow us to reconcile our views, but I would like to find some common ground. I have yet to find an objective moral philosophy that I found truly convincing, and I’m hoping desirism might be the one for me.

Thank you for your patience.
Zach

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Bebok February 28, 2010 at 6:02 am

Charles, Kip and faithlessgod,

You all seem to suggest that either desires can exist after death or that desires that don’t exist can be thwarted or fulfilled.

Charles: If A kills B, then all of B’s desires are thwarted. Maybe B was saving up for college. Thwarted. So he could attract a women. Thwarted. So he could start a family, get a good job, enjoy life. Thwarted. Thwarted. Thwarted.

I think that as long as those desires exist, they are not thwarted. Or perhaps a desire to attract a women is constantly being thwarted until one finds a woman. Killing a person only eliminates their desires, it doesn’t thwart them.

faithlessgod: Killing a person necessarily entails thwarting all their desires they would be unable to fulfil if they cease to exist as a person.

When a person ceases to exist, their desires cease to exist as well and there is nothing to fulfill anymore.

Kip: What I was saying is that someone that is alive (right now) may act so as to fulfill their desires in such a way that they will not be alive to see the fulfillment of their desires.

Again: once a desire doesn’t exist, there can’t be any fulfillment.

It seems to me that lots of confusion comes from not making a distinction between:

1. Desires that disappear once they are fulfilled, like a desire to attract a partner, desire to eat a burger, desire to rob a bank.
2. Desires that are constant, like a desire to have a partner, desire not to be hungry, desire to be rich.

I think that when desirists talk about thwarting and fulfilling, they generally mean desires from of latter category, but sometimes, when it fits their argument, they switch to the former category without warning.

But I must concede that I’ve only read Luke’s FAQ and a couple of Fyfe’s posts, so maybe I’ve got something wrong.

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Bebok February 28, 2010 at 6:52 am

svenjamin: There are small scale “compassionate” farms that are orders of magnitude more efficient than the industrial farming system

Orders of magnitude? Do you have the figures? Do you know how much it costs to produce one kilogram of beef or one litre of milk on such farms, and how much it costs on factory farms? How many workers are involved, how much grassland you need, and so on?

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Kip February 28, 2010 at 8:56 am

cl: Equally, a hydrogen bomb is good if it fulfills our desire to eliminate “the enemy.”

It would be good relative to one set of desires; it would be bad relative to another set of desires. Same for my “good hamburger”, by the way. It’s “good” for me, but “bad” for those that desire that no animals be eaten (and “bad” for the cow that I’m eating).

But … we aren’t talking about “moral good” here. We don’t use praise and blame on bombs and hamburgers. We use them on people, to shape their desires.

If you want to ask a moral question, you would ask: is the desire to kill a group of people a good desire to have? Or: is the desire to eat hamburgers a good desire to have? Basically, we are asking: should we praise those that exhibit the desire to kill groups of people? Or should we condemn them? Should we praise those who desire to eat hamburgers, or should we condemn them? In the former case, we have decided to usually condemn them, except in extenuating circumstances (i.e. there are “excuses” for doing something that would usually be condemned). In the latter case, most of us in the moral system don’t praise or condemn the desire to eat hamburgers; it is morally permissible — neither obligatory nor prohibited.

The key thing to note is that once the set of desires is identified, the question of whether or not a desire is “good” or “bad” relative to that set of desires is an objective question — one that can be answered empirically. Yes, the answer is “relative” to that set of desires, the same way that velocity is relative to a point of reference, but there is a right answer relative to that reference. You can’t just make shit up and think that your answer is just as good as any other answer. Further, there are also objective reasons for including desires in the set of desires being considered. This is where I part ways with Alonzo (& Luke perhaps). It makes no sense to me to consider “all desires that exist” — because I have no way of even doing that. It does make sense to include all desires that play a part in the moral system, though — that is, all desires that are able to influence the group (either through using social tools or force). This is a prudential question, since if we did not include those desires, then we will end up with a sub-optimal solution being calculated (i.e. the wrong answer).

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Kip February 28, 2010 at 11:51 am

Bebok: You all seem to suggest that either desires can exist after death or that desires that don’t exist can be thwarted or fulfilled.

I’m saying that desires that existed in the past, can be thwarted or fulfilled by present or future states of affairs. In fact, all desires that are ever fulfilled are desires that existed in the past.

Should we consider the past desires of agents that are no longer living?

Alonzo addresses that question here: http://goo.gl/B5zN http://goo.gl/Rrve http://goo.gl/XzmP

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cl February 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm

When I woke up today, I realized a large part of my problem: imprecision with language. If we replace “good” with “capable” and “bad” with “defective,” I find this theory much more intuitive and much less objectionable. By “capable” I mean “likely or able to fulfill guiding desire(s),” and by “defective” I mean “unlikely or unable to fulfill guiding desire(s).” Also, note that my term “guiding desires” is equivalent to Fyfe’s “desires-as-ends,” while my term “pursuant desires” is equivalent to Fyfe’s “desires-as-means.” So, on that note:

“The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed.”

“Good desires” in turn are “Those desires that tend to fulfill the most and the strongest desires of others.” (Fyfe)

..would translate to,

“The right act is the act that a person with capable desires would have performed.”

“Capable desires” in turn are “Those desires that tend to fulfill the most and the strongest desires of others.” (cl)

I find that use of “capable / defective” immediately removes the tendency to get hung up on our inevitably subjective understandings of the word “good”. I have no aversion to calling the US’ desire to obliterate an “enemy” with a hydrogen bomb “capable” of fulfilling our guiding desire to be safe. OTOH, I have a strong aversion to calling that desire “good” simply because we believe it is capable of fulfilling our guiding desire to be safe, and I imagine most rational and reasonable people would agree.

Kip,

You still seem to be writing as if I don’t understand the basic tenets of Fyfe’s theory. I assure I speak in earnest when I say I’ve been exceedingly patient with the theory. Many a time I simply bit my tongue and assumed the misunderstanding was on my part, as it often is, but as these arguments progress, I’m getting more and more convinced that desirism’s central tenets simply cannot be justified as I’ve heard them articulated thus far.

We don’t use praise and blame on bombs and hamburgers. We use them on people, to shape their desires.

Hence a large part of my objection, and one you’ve left unanswered: who’s “we” in your statement? Your language appeals to an unidentified consensus and I’m simply not willing to accept that. Who are “we” to shape other people’s desires? Who makes “us” the arbiter of what desires should be praised or condemned? If you’ll say that something real affords that liberty, by all means let’s hear it. If you’ll say that the “sum of other desires” should be the arbiter of which desires we praise and condemn, how is that not mob-rule? If you’ll say that the strongest set of desires should be the arbiter of which desires we praise and condemn, how is that not tantamount to saying “desires A-Z should be praised / condemned because we strongly feel so?”

We’re right back to square one for me, and that’s desirism’s inability to ground itself to anything besides subjectivity. Do you – or does anyone else – have a valid rebuttal to that? If nothing else, please, just answer the question of who “we” refers to in your argument. I think that will clarify things immensely.

It’s “good” for me, but “bad” for those that desire that no animals be eaten (and “bad” for the cow that I’m eating).

In a similar vein, according to desirism articulated thusly and presuming they acted according to their guiding desires, the actions of Bundy, Dahmer, Malvo, et al. were “good” for them. Since the vast majority of rational and reasonable individuals would not hesitate to call that nonsense, I submit we should use “capable” in place of “good” when making such statements.

It makes no sense to me to consider “all desires that exist” — because I have no way of even doing that.

I agree, and this is where it gets interesting: presuming an omniscient superconsciousness exists, such an entity would possess those tools, which would make trusting such an entity quite rational and reasonable. It would also relieve individual agents of exactly the burden you cite.

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Kip February 28, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Hence a large part of my objection, and one you’ve left unanswered: who’s “we” in your statement?

I think I’ve answered it several times, perhaps not in this thread, though, and perhaps not as completely and directly as is necessary. So, here goes:

“We” are everyone in the moral system — all of “us” that are using the moral tools to shape desires. “We” are the agents that have reasons for action (desires) to see to it that this system of morality works optimally. “We” are the ones with desires that will be fulfilled or thwarted based on the outcome of the “moral project” (the outcome of using the system of morality to shape the desires of everyone in the system).

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faithlessgod March 1, 2010 at 5:08 am

Bebok

When a person ceases to exist, their desires cease to exist as well and there is nothing to fulfill anymore.

Morality is concerned with the promotion and inhibition of the desires that bring about this circumstance. Ceteris paribus, a desire to kill a person – an intentional act where the person ceases to exist – is a desire that thwarts all the desires of that person, which is the same as saying there are reasons to inhibit this desire, or in short hand, it is a bad desire.

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