Desirism: More Questions Answered (part 5)

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 28, 2009 in Ethics

I’ve answered three more questions on my Desirism F.A.Q. Here they are:

{3.21} But “objective” means “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” And desirism is not objective in that way.

As explained in section {3.03}, there are many definitions of the term “objective.” Desirism is objective according to some definitions, and not objective according to others.

But desirism is objective even given the definition above: “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” According to desirism, the terms “good” and “evil” refer to desires that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires, respectively. And the truth of whether a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires is based on the facts of the matter, and is not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, prejudice, or bias.

For example, it may be my personal feeling that black people should not enjoy the same human rights that white people do. Even if everyone was racist – including blacks themselves – it would still be a fact that this racism thwarts a great many desires of blacks. Even if blacks believed their racism did not thwart their own desires, it would still be the case that it thwarted a great many of their desires. Even if the blacks interpreted their circumstance to say that this culture of racism fulfilled their own desires, and even if blacks themselves were prejudiced and biased against their own kind, it would still be a fact that racism thwarts a great many desires of blacks. See {3.22}.

{3.22} Racism is not evil according to desirism because desires would be fulfilled equally whether nobody was racist or everybody was racist.

Sometimes I used the Knob Metaphor to illustrate what I mean by desires that “tend to fulfill” or “tend to thwart” other desires. Imagine a knob that controls the strength of a given desire within a population. If we turn the knob to the left, the strength of that desire decreases in the population. If we turn the knob to the right, the strength of that desire increases. To say that a desire is good is to say that if we turn its knob to the right, more desires will be fulfilled (or fewer desires thwarted). To say that a desire is bad is to say that if we turn its knob to the right, more desires will be thwarted (or fewer desires fulfilled).

Since each desire is a reason for action, there are more reasons for action to increase the suffusion of a good desire in a population than there are to decrease it. (That is what it means to say it is a good desire.)

So let’s consider the knob for racism. To keep things simple, let’s define “racism” as a desire to deny blacks many privileges that whites enjoy, for example freedom to travel, freedom to choose one’s labor, freedom to vote, freedom to defend oneself in court, and freedom from physical abuse.

Is racism a good desire or a bad desire, according to desirism?

Racism is a bad desire because it tends to thwart other desires. That is, if we suffuse a society with racism by “turning its knob to the right” (or, in the real world, by praising and rewarding racism), then this racism will cause a great many desires to be thwarted. Sure, the desires of the racists will be fulfilled, but a great many desires of the blacks will be thwarted. Their desires for freedom to travel, freedom to choose one’s labor, freedom to vote, freedom to defend oneself in court, and freedom from physical abuse will be thwarted.

Now, suppose we deplete a society of racism by “turning its knob to the left” (or, in the real world, by condemning and punishing racism). In that case, fewer racist desires will be thwarted, because there will be fewer racist desires. And also, the desires of blacks will be better fulfilled – for example their desires for freedom of travel, freedom to choose one’s labor, and so on.

So there are more reasons for action to deplete a society of racism than to suffuse it with the same. Thus, racism is a bad desire.

Note that this is true even if we turn the knob all the way to the right, such that everyone is racist, even blacks. Why? It may help to call to mind comedian Dave Chappelle’s character Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who doesn’t know he’s black, and remains a racist even when he learns the truth. Even if every black person on earth desired that blacks be denied freedom of travel, freedom to choose one’s labor, and so on – and even if they believed this denial of freedoms actually fulfilled their own desires – it would still be a fact that this racist denial of freedoms greatly thwarted the desires of blacks.

The only way this could not be the case is if we also changed the desires of blacks such that they no longer desired freedom of travel, freedom to choose one’s labor, freedom to vote, freedom to defend oneself in court, and freedom from physical abuse. But morality is concerned with malleable desires and many of these desires are not very malleable. (In contrast, racism is extremely malleable, having gone from near-total suffusion to a minority desire in many societies in just a few generations.) Moreover, at least one of these desires could not be reversed: the desire for freedom from physical abuse. Abuse is defined in terms of that to which you have an aversion, and it’s not possible to have a positive desire for something to which you have an aversion (a negative desire).

{3.20} If moral value is derived from the relationships between billions of desires, how could you ever calculate the moral value of something?

According to desirism, a morally good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it tends to thwart. But this would require (1) counting up all the desires in the world, (2) measuring their strengths, and (3) mapping all their causal relationships. And this, we cannot do. So even if desirism is true, it is unusable, right?

No. We often make judgments even though we do not have all the information. In fact, all our judgments are that way. We even make complex judgments we are fairly certain about while lacking much information. We can use our reasoning and make “educated guesses” and also estimate how prone to error each educated guess is.

As for (1) counting desires, we can estimate these. For example, it is quite clear that the detonation of an atomic bomb in Tokyo would thwart more desires than a serial killer in Siberia. And we can use evidence and argument to approach accurate estimates in more difficult cases. But there is a need for moral experts here. We need people to weigh the arguments and study the data and take surveys and count desires. Those researching applied ethics under a consequentialist framework have been doing basically this for several decades already.

We can also (2) measure the strengths of desires. While we don’t yet know what a desire looks like in the brain or how to measure it directly, neuroscience will eventually tell us. In the meantime, the crude tools we possess will have to do. People could tell when one thing was hotter than another before they had thermometers to give precise numbers. And we can tell that Tom’s desire for warm shelter is stronger than his desire for ice cream. You might be surprised to learn how precisely we can currently measure the strengths of desires through methods such as an economist’s willingness to pay algorithms.

Finally, (3) mapping the causal relationships of desires may be the most difficult. This always requires a great deal of theorizing and argument and counter-argument. But as more evidence is accumulated and more prejudices are left behind, we may yet be able to understand how certain desires cause the fulfillment or thwarting of other desires. Many cases are not much disputed – for example, the desire to rape pretty clearly causes a great many strong desires to be thwarted around the world each year.

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{ 86 comments… read them below or add one }

Kip October 28, 2009 at 7:53 am

Luke, I think I disagree with this version of the Knob Metaphor:

“Imagine a knob that controls the strength of a given desire within a population. If we turn the knob to the left, the strength of that desire decreases in the population. If we turn the knob to the right, the strength of that desire increases. To say that a desire is good is to say that if we turn its knob to the right, more desires will be fulfilled (or fewer desires thwarted). To say that a desire is bad is to say that if we turn its knob to the right, more desires will be thwarted (or fewer desires fulfilled).”

The “right” strength for a desire may not be all the way to the right — that is, it may be the case that a medium-strength desire fulfills the most desires, while decreasing *OR* increasing the strength of that desire may thwart more desires. In fact, it’s probably the case that most of our desires are this way. A desire that becomes too strong can become an obsession, a compulsion, and cause a person to thwart all sorts of desires (their own, and other people’s).

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Kip October 28, 2009 at 8:02 am

“Since each desire is a reason for action, there are more reasons for action to increase the suffusion of a good desire in a population than there are to decrease it. (That is what it means to say it is a good desire.)”

Not necessarily. A “good desire” is one that tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts. It’s not always the case that it’s good for everyone to have the same “good desires”. It may be the case (?) that in the context of morality, a “morally good desire” must be one that is good for everyone to have (universal). If so, that’s probably only true because we want to reserve our moral language for those types of universal desires.

At least, that’s my current understanding of Desirism. You know it better than I do, though. :-) Please let me know if I’m missing something.

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ayer October 28, 2009 at 8:51 am

lukeprog:”…and even if they believed this denial of freedoms actually fulfilled their own desires – it would still be a fact that this racist denial of freedoms greatly thwarted the desires of blacks…”

I’m afraid this hasn’t cleared it up at all. If someone believes with absolute 100% certainty that they do not have a particular desire, how does it make sense to say that they really have that desire, they just don’t realize it?

lukeprog: “The only way this could not be the case is if we also changed the desires of blacks such that they no longer desired freedom of travel, freedom to choose one’s labor, freedom to vote, freedom to defend oneself in court, and freedom from physical abuse. But morality is concerned with malleable desires and many of these desires are not very malleable. (In contrast, racism is extremely malleable, having gone from near-total suffusion to a minority desire in many societies in just a few generations.)”

Also, how could you possibly know which desires are “malleable” and which are “not very malleable”?

Lukeprog: “Moreover, at least one of these desires could not be reversed: the desire for freedom from physical abuse. Abuse is defined in terms of that to which you have an aversion, and it’s not possible to have a positive desire for something to which you have an aversion (a negative desire).”

Have you heard of masochists?

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dbassett October 28, 2009 at 9:37 am

Luke, I’m a computer science student and Artificial Intelligence researcher and as such, often ponder the moral dilemmas that building a ‘strong AI’ (that is, an AI with human-like or greater than human reasoning capacity) would entail.

Under the tenets of desirism, such as the examples on racism, it seems that it could be morally justifiable to build and enslave intelligent machines so long as they desired it.

What are your thoughts on this?

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Yair October 28, 2009 at 10:56 am

dbassett stole my question.

But here’s a related one – if scientists invent a knob that easily changes any person’s desire to be a slave, would it be moral to use this knob? If so, how should it be used?

I maintain that, like most moral theories, desirism is too narrowly focused. In this case, concerns over autonomy and dignity are ignored.

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Kip October 28, 2009 at 11:02 am

> I maintain that, like most moral theories, desirism is too narrowly focused. In this case, concerns over autonomy and dignity are ignored.

Not at all. To the extent that people desire autonomy & dignity (which I think is a lot), those desires are included in the moral calculation.

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Anonymous October 28, 2009 at 11:03 am

I haven’t read any of the comments, so I apologize if someone has already asked. Neither have I read all your posts, so I apologize if you address this someplace else. That said, you state that desirism claims that an action is right if it tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts. I am wondering exactly what is meant by “tends.” Thanks.

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Penneyworth October 28, 2009 at 11:13 am

Dammit Ayer, you took the words right out of my mouth :)

Luke, I’m glad you finally went a little deeper on the racism knob analogy. Two assumptions are now revealed:
1) Desire for freedom is less malleable than racist desires.

-But if being a free man meant freezing and starving while being a slave meant food and shelter, your desire for freedom would change in a heartbeat.

2) Desire for avoiding physical abuse cannot be reversed.
-Masochism.

Notice, again, that where utilitarianism fails here, simply valuing empathy and kindness prevails. Even if the whole population of the earth REALLY desired to torture a child, and the child only sort of desires to not be tortured, I can still say that torturing the child displays a lack of empathy and kindness. Why do I need to go above and beyond the concept of empathy to posit morality? By Occam’s razor, I hack off morality. (kind of like how Alonzo Fyfe, in one of the bright moments of his book, hacked off the ability to exercise free will beyond one’s own desires; removed it from his ontology so to speak)

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Kip October 28, 2009 at 11:19 am

> you state that desirism claims that an action is right if it tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts

Almost. Desirism claims that an action is right if it is what someone with good desires would do. A desire is good if it *tends* to fulfill more (and stronger) desires than it thwarts.

“Tends” means “generally, ordinarily, usually, under most circumstances, most of the time”. In other words, there are exceptions, but we still promote the desires that *usually* will fulfill the most & strongest desires.

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Kip October 28, 2009 at 11:27 am

> But if being a free man meant freezing and starving while being a slave meant food and shelter, your desire for freedom would change in a heartbeat.

No it wouldn’t. It is the case that we have multiple, competing desires. The desire to survive (not starve, not freeze), is usually stronger than the desire to be free. At least at first, for a while, until you become Patrick Henry-ish and proclaim “give me Liberty or give me death”.

> Even if the whole population of the earth REALLY desired to torture a child, and the child only sort of desires to not be tortured, I can still say that torturing the child displays a lack of empathy and kindness.

If the child only “sort of desires to not be tortured”, then it wouldn’t be torture. Torture, by definition, is something we are strongly averse to.

Empathy & kindness are what they are because they consider the desires of others. Desires are more basic than empathy & kindness.

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Yair October 28, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Kip: “To the extent that people desire autonomy & dignity (which I think is a lot), those desires are included in the moral calculation.”

Give me the right knobs, and they won’t be desired. In the above case, the knobs have been turned already – the robots/modified people don’t desire autonomy and dignity. And the rest don’t want them to have them either. All desired fulfilled, all is well. Indeed, if universality is required in addition, we can just make all men slaves, and appoint one (unfortunate) slave wannabe as their master.

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Kip October 28, 2009 at 12:21 pm

> “Give me the right knobs, and they won’t be desired. In the above case, the knobs have been turned already – the robots/modified people don’t desire autonomy and dignity.”

If there is no desire for autonomy or dignity, then why should those be concerns?

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eric October 28, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Kip:”The “right” strength for a desire may not be all the way to the right … A desire that becomes too strong can become an obsession, a compulsion, and cause a person to thwart all sorts of desires”

i agree with Kip’s assessment of the knobs problem, and i wonder if it wouldn’t be solved simply by modifying the metaphorical knob to increase or decrease just the spread of a desire in a population, rather than its strength.
otherwise there may need to be two knobs, one to adjust the spread of a desire and the other to adjust its strength.

it is good to see the often posed racist issue addressed more specifically. still, i can’t help but think that all it requires in order to justify a racist scenario is for the population of racists to be greater than the oppressed minority to the degree where the value of their racist desires being fulfilled is greater than the value of the minority’s thwarted desires.
it seems like the numerical possibility of a scenario that justifies something we find immoral is an intrinsic problem of positing an equation for morality.

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Penneyworth October 28, 2009 at 12:50 pm

“No it wouldn’t. It is the case that we have multiple, competing desires. The desire to survive (not starve, not freeze), is usually stronger than the desire to be free…”

Ok, I’ll buy that. Now we have have thrown out the the knob analogy because desires cannot be turned down. Rather, they always exist and are simply considered relative to other desires. You can’t have the ability in our thought experiment to turn down the racist desires and exclude the ability to turn down the desire to be free.

“If the child only ‘sort of desires to not be tortured’, then it wouldn’t be torture. Torture, by definition, is something we are strongly averse to.”

That may not be correct. Some people may desire to be tortured because they feel like they’ve been naughty and deserve it. Sometimes people feel terrible emotional pain, and then decide to torture themselves physically for a variety of reasons.

“Empathy & kindness are what they are because they consider the desires of others. Desires are more basic than empathy & kindness.”

First of all, one might argue that the desire to help someone does in fact arise from empathy, not the other way around as you say. Second, even if we grant that empathy and kindness are elements in the set of desires (which may be false), it still seems to me that I should value only certain elements (such as empathy). The set of desires may contain horrible things that I don’t value. I see no new reason to posit morality as anything more than the set of one’s feelings on certain matters.

Mom: Jimmy! Stop flaying that cat! That’s immoral.
Jimmy: Whyz it immoral?
Mom: It shows a lack of empathy, and I value empathy.

The morality statement was superfluous.

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Kip October 28, 2009 at 1:01 pm

> “You can’t have the ability in our thought experiment to turn down the racist desires and exclude the ability to turn down the desire to be free.”

Luke is arguing that the desire to be free is less malleable than the desire to enslave. I think he’s right.

> “Some people may desire to be tortured because they feel like they’ve been naughty and deserve it.”

This may be the case — but it is only true if they desire something that they strongly do not desire.

> “First of all, one might argue that the desire to help someone does in fact arise from empathy, not the other way around as you say.”

You can’t “help” someone without considering their desires. Desires are more basic than “helping”.

> “The set of desires may contain horrible things that I don’t value.”

Sure. And you don’t value them because they don’t fulfill desires. Value is the relationship between states of affairs and desires.

> “I see no new reason to posit morality as anything more than the set of one’s feelings on certain matters.”

1) there are more than just “feelings”, and 2) there is more than just one person.

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Anonymous October 28, 2009 at 1:03 pm

You’ve provided synonyms for the term “tend” but you haven’t yet defined it or given its meaning. That is, I am still unclear by what you mean by “generally”, “usually”, “most of the time”, etc. I’m not asking this to be difficult. Rather, I am asking for precision. I’m also asking because there will be different difficulties that pop up for desirism depending on the given definition of “tends.”

It looks to me as if you might mean something like “X tends to produce Y if and only if the frequency of X resulting in Y is more than X resulting in -Y.”

Now questions concerning the term “more” must be answered. Does Y occurring 50.0000000000001% of the time after X count as more? Or does it have to be 51%? or 75% or 80%? Is there a non-arbitrary percentage? Is 51% enough to really say it’s good? Or should more be required?

Important questions about frequency will also arise. Does the frequency of X resulting in Y or -Y take into consideration all instance of X up until now or will it also include future instances? In other words, the “tendency” of X resulting in Y or -Y may be time dependent. X may result in Y more times than not when measured at time T, but may result in -Y more times when measured at T+1. Now questions of arbitrariness pop up. Which time (T or T1) yields the “true” frequency and tells us whether the desire is good or bad? What good reason is there for picking one time over the other. Do we simply pick up to THIS point in time because it happens to be THAT time?

Have you anticipated or addressed these potential problems elsewhere?

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Kip October 28, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Anonymous: in the real world, I think we try to create the strength of the desire partly in proportion to the amount of time that desire fulfills more and stronger desires. So, if a desire only fulfills other desires 50% of the time, then it’s not a desire we spend much time strengthening, or we try to create a more “fine-tuned” desire to strengthen that applies more often. The desires we strengthen the most are the ones that apply almost all the time (like, say, 99% of the time): not killing other people, not stealing, not raping. The ones that apply less often, we strengthen less: not lying.

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Mark H. October 28, 2009 at 2:18 pm

To me, moral theories, including desirism, are just unimpressive: they predict what we already know. That desirism says that racism and rape* are bad is not evidence in favor of desirism–all decent moral theories should come to these conclusions. At best, opposition to racism and rape are basic sanity checks for any moral theory, just as any theory of gravity should predict that a dropped ball will fall to the ground.

Is there a morally ambiguous situation in which desirism provides guidance where no previous moral theory could?

*A request for moral philosophers: Please stop using rape as an example in whatever hypothetical situation you’re using as an illustration. It gets creepy when I see it mentioned everywhere (not least because it’s always men tossing it out as the canonical immoral act). There’s plenty of other obviously immoral acts.

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Cecilieaux Bois de Murier October 28, 2009 at 2:58 pm

I have a similar philosophical and religious trajectory as yours, but I settled for a very different universal norm of ethics without gods. I culd explain this, but it is simpler to say, see my post Godless Ethics, along with the posts on ethics and philosophy.

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lukeprog October 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Kip,

Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that. ‘Good desire’ just means a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and therefore a desire for which there are many reasons for action to promote. Isn’t that the same as saying it is a desire we want to suffuse throughout a society?

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lukeprog October 28, 2009 at 4:04 pm

dbassett,

I think a lot about that. I wrote about a similar topic in Moral Machines. I’ll write more, later.

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lukeprog October 28, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Yair,

Do autonomy and dignity have intrinsic moral value?

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lukeprog October 28, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Penneyworth,

You’re right, freedom isn’t our strongest desire. A desire for food is stronger. But it remains the case that there are many strong reasons for action to condemn racism, but not many strong reasons for action to encourage it.

Re: masochism. I am using ‘abuse’ in a way that I already specified, to entail the notion that one has an aversion to it. Masochism is not abuse according to this definition.

How does valuing empathy and kindness prevail, where desirism “fails”? Is it because empathy and kindness give you the answer that feels nicer to you, or because desirism is factually false while empathy and kindness have intrinsic value? Or something else?

I do not posit a concept of “morality” beyond readily observable facts about the universe – for example desires and relations between desires and states of affairs. If you can’t hack them off with Occam’s razor, then you can’t hack off desirism, because that’s all desirism is. Desirism would still be true even if you did not feel like using moral terms to describe it.

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lukeprog October 28, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Mark H,

I do not think that desirism’s condemnation of rape is evidence for the truth or sanity of desirism, because I do not put any stock in the deliverances of our “moral inner sense.” In many cases desirism contradicts our inner moral sense. Desirism only provides guidance in that it happens to be true about the universe, whereas other theories of moral realism are not.

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eric October 28, 2009 at 6:00 pm

lukeprog:”‘Good desire’ just means a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and therefore a desire for which there are many reasons for action to promote. Isn’t that the same as saying it is a desire we want to suffuse throughout a society?”

i can’t speak for Kip, but my understanding of the issue he raised is that a homogeneity of desires is not always good for a society. a desire to lead would be a good desire for a small percentage of citizens to possess in a society with a larger percentage of citizens desiring to be led. it seems that if we turn up the desire to lead so that it is strengthened throughout the populace we begin to thwart the desires of those who want to lead because there will be only those who want to lead and no one who wants to follow.
is this just the tipping point at which the good desire to lead becomes a bad desire?

i may be misinterpreting the metaphor of the knob. perhaps the specific effects of turning the knob could be explained more clearly.

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Chuck October 28, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Luke:

If we turn up the desire for racism far enough, the end result is a Nazi-ish scenario where all minorities are wiped out. One could argue that no desires are being thwarted because no minorities remain.

How do you respond to that?

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lukeprog October 28, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Chuck,

That’s an awful lot of desire-thwarting along the way! Currently existing desires are the only reasons for action that exist, not potential future populations of desires.

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Chuck October 28, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Makes sense.

What do you think of Kip’s comment, that “turning up the knob” should be interpreted as making a given desire “stronger” in a given population? In our example this would mean making racism more prevalent in society (as opposed the other interpretation, make racists more ardent in their racism). Or do you see it as a combination of the two?

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lukeprog October 28, 2009 at 9:17 pm

I tend to conflate the two: strength and number. The assumption is that a certain addition of strength to an existing desire would equal the reason-for-action value of a new desire. But that assumption may be false, depending on what neuroscientists figure out about desires.

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Yair October 28, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Kip: “If there is no desire for autonomy or dignity, then why should those be concerns?”

Because “Currently existing desires are the only reasons for action that exist, not potential future populations of desires.” It is the fact that we currently value autonomy and dignity that gives them value, not the fact that a desire to value them tends to fulfill desires.

Luke: “Do autonomy and dignity have intrinsic moral value?”

No, they have value *to us*.

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faithlessgod October 29, 2009 at 2:16 am

A couple of comments, this one over the “knob metaphor” re Luke’s posts and comments by Kip at al.

I regard the “knob metaphor” as a description of how morality works in practice, regardless of one’s (or anyone else’s') moral theory – whether subjectivist or objectivist. That is it describes how the social forces of praise and blame, reward and punishment work, summarised as by increasing and promoting some desires and decreasing or inhibiting other desires, as appropriate.

This is a biological, neurological, psychological and sociological theory and can be disputed on those bases.

If one does so dispute this – and so the “knob metaphor” to boot – then one needs to supply an alternative description and theory of how morality works.

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faithlessgod October 29, 2009 at 2:28 am

Ok granted my previous comment on the “knob metaphor” I can now address some specific points here.

Regarding Kip‘s point over the “The “right” strength for a desire may not be all the way to the right”. Of course but then these would not be regarded as “moral” desires under the category of prohibited or obligatory but rather permissible. Plenty fall into that third category.

That is any desire can be morally evaluated – that is with respect to its material effect on people in general – the ceteris paribus and all-things-considered conditions, without which it is not a moral evaluation – and many would be permissible or the evaluation is basically neutral over them.

“At least, that’s my current understanding of Desirism.”

I agree with you Kip. Maybe you have picked up on Luke’s exposition which misses (or misleads over) your and my points as noted in these comments?

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faithlessgod October 29, 2009 at 2:40 am

Okay I will make short(er) comments rather than one long comment addressing multiple respondents.

ayer said “I’m afraid this hasn’t cleared it up at all. If someone believes with absolute 100% certainty that they do not have a particular desire, how does it make sense to say that they really have that desire, they just don’t realize it?”

1. People can be mistaken over the desires they have (regardless of their certainty)
2. People are often unable to explicate their desires (animals cannot lacking language yet still have desires)
3. They can be quite unaware of desires they are operating according to (regardless of Freud’s BS, “unconscious motivations” has been heavily studies in cognitive psychology)

Still I agree with your underlying point but only since morality is about instilling desires (some) people lack or removing desires (some) people have.

I wonder if Luke’s exposition is at fault? Note it is too easy for me to read or fill what is not said or unclear in a fashion in accordance with my understanding of desirism. So it is good to see these constructive criticisms. What remains is as to what you (and others) might dispute as to whether it is over Luke’s exposition (or mine, for that matter) or desirism per se. I let (impartial) others be the judge of that.

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faithlessgod October 29, 2009 at 2:45 am

Kip and Anonymous

Kip’s response is correct except for the “almost”. Anonymous’s “…action is right if it tends to fulfil more desires than it thwarts” is desire fulfilment act utilitarianism not desirism at all.

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faithlessgod October 29, 2009 at 2:56 am

On “tend”

A desire can directly fulfil another desires or indirectly fulfil it. I read “tend” – loosely – as a synonym for “indirectly”. When compressing statements, for the purpose of conciseness, “tend” can be a useful simplification.

Compare ‘A desire is a good to the extent that it fulfils (direct) or tends to fulfil (indirect) other desires’ to ‘A desire is a good to the extent that it tends to fulfil other desires’ – where the “direct” element is now implicit.

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faithlessgod October 29, 2009 at 3:28 am

Yair

Not to labour the point but you (amongst many others here) still seem to looking at this in terms of desire fulfilment act utilitarianism. ’nuff said.

“It is the fact that we currently value autonomy and dignity that gives them value, not the fact that a desire to value them tends to fulfill desires.”

1.I am not sure how you get from “your” – as in the subjectivism I believe you espouse – to “we” in the above statement. How do you do this?

2. Others – also possibly subjectivists – could disagree over valuing autonomy and dignity for everyone – or at least “we” – they might value it for themselves not anyone else. How, as a subjectivist, do you answer them?

3. What is your theory of value so that you can explain how anything can be valued (and not just morally valued, this surely being a species of value) not just autonomy and dignity?

4. Autonomy and dignity, are not desires, they are states of affairs brought about by intentional actions, so autonomy and dignity are (or can be) valued they do not have value per se – hence Luke’s “intrinsic” question. Also having autonomy and dignity are some of the means to fulfilling desires, without which some desires would tend to be thwarted, in this sense they are valuable. This explains why these are valued or we find them valuable (depending on how you look at or state this concern). Why, according to your subjectivism, do you or “we” find them valuable or valued?

5. “the fact that a desire to value them [autonomy and dignity] tends to fulfill desires” this makes no sense. How did you get to this statement? (A desire for autonomy and dignity just means to find them valuable. Autonomy and dignity can be evaluated like anything else and morally evaluated according to whether promoting or inhibiting such states of affairs increases or decreases the fulfilment of other desires generally). Could you restate this so that it is clearer as to what you are complaining about?

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Kip October 29, 2009 at 3:55 am

Luke: it seems our disagreement is over your conflation of the strength and number of desires. I think we tend to reserve our moral language & practice for those desires that we want everyone to have (so the number would be maximal). However, even though everyone should have a desire, that doesn’t mean the strength of that desire should be maximized. On the contrary, it almost never should. What we are trying to do is give the right (relative) strength to a number of desires (for everyone) such that the higher-strength desires will prevail when there are conflicting desires.

For instance, we want people to value truth, but we also want people to value life even more. So, if they need to lie to save a life, then that is permitted.

So, the “strength” of a desire, shouldn’t be conflated with its “prevalence”. So, the Knob Metaphor, I think, would be more accurate if you used the word “prevalence” instead of “strength”. Or, as Eric said, maybe we should have 2 knobs: 1 for strength, and 1 for prevalence.

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lukeprog October 29, 2009 at 4:43 am

Kip,

You may be right; I’m not sure.

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Chuck October 29, 2009 at 7:01 am

That’s interesting, Kip. If you’re right, it suggests an area where the current theory is incomplete. It isn’t enough to have good desires. You also need to have them in “right strengths”.

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Penneyworth October 29, 2009 at 7:21 am

Luke,

I want more than just assertions about stronger reasons to condemn racism and freedom being less malleable. I’ll assume that you will tackle it in more detail in your next letter to vox.

Note that slavery does not entail your specific definition of abuse. You are equivocating physical beatings and other abuses (in the non-specific sense) with *that which one has an aversion to.*

Empathy prevails because by definition, causing pain displays a lack of it. No amount of utility can change that. In a world of 1000 sadists and one christian child who desires to be tortured for her inherited sin, desirism requires torture (until desirmism apologetics can show otherwise).

Why value empathy? Is it the answer that feels nicer to me? That is exactly right. That’s all there is. You can point to examples all day that show sadists feeling nice about acts that you say are wrong, but surprise surprise, you aren’t the sadist! You are the one judging the sadist. If you WERE the sadist, you might easily say “gee, that guy doesn’t torture people, and clearly that is wrong, so we need a moral system that can tell us right from wrong without appealing to what feels nice to us.”

Here’s a challenge: find any act that desirism endorses that feels very wrong to you. Would you still defend it if it yielded a result such as “the most desires will be fulfilled if one virgin is burned at the stake each month.”? Would you be willing to say “Well, that feels wrong, but I know that I can’t trust what feels nicer to me.”?

Lastly, when you explain “…Desirism would still be true even if…”, it sounds a lot like you are revealing that for desirism to be “true,” then it is the case that desirism is simply a correct model of human behavior. In this case, you are certainly right about not eliminating it with Occam’s razor. But then, if that were true, why would you be willing to turn on the desirism machine that would vastly alter human behavior? This is confusing and would seem contradictory.

Why not clear things up by detailing what it means for a moral theory to be the “correct” one, if only to shut me up? If you say “if we test it in the real world and it turns out to be correct” … well, I’m sure you know that will not cut it.

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Kip October 29, 2009 at 7:26 am

Chuck: I believe it is implied by the BDI model: a person will act in order to fulfill the most and strongest desires given their beliefs.

I’m not sure if Alonzo has talked about the “right strengths” directly, though.

In practice, in a single situation, we may not be able to tell if a person lacked a good desire, lacked the right strength for that desire, or had competing bad desires that outweighed the good desires. We would respond similarly either way (by condemning them for not having that good desire in the right strength). We try to gauge what strength of desire they had, though, based on various factors: how they responded afterward, their past actions, character witnesses, and other indirect ways of trying to get an account of what competing desires caused them to behave the way they did.

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faithlessgod October 29, 2009 at 8:15 am

Pennyworth

In a world of 1000 sadists and one christian child who desires to be tortured for her inherited sin, desirism requires torture (until desirmism apologetics can show otherwise).

Interesting modification to 1000 sadists.

Everyone acts to fulfil the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. Here the christian child has false beliefs, as there is
a) no such thing as inherited sin and
b) no such thing as sin (in the sense implied as in to err against god, since there is no such being).
For the sadists to take advantage and encourage such false beliefs is also immoral (evaluating, say, desire for truth not desire to torture).

Why value empathy? Is it the answer that feels nicer to me? That is exactly right. That’s all there is. You can point to examples all day that show sadists feeling nice about acts that you say are wrong, but surprise surprise, you aren’t the sadist! You are the one judging the sadist. If you WERE the sadist, you might easily say “gee, that guy doesn’t torture people, and clearly that is wrong, so we need a moral system that can tell us right from wrong without appealing to what feels nice to us.”

And so you have refuted your own empathy-based ethics.

Here’s a challenge: find any act that desirism endorses that feels very wrong to you.

Still waiting for anyone to come up with any decent example. IIRC Fyfe did say he was once for capital punishment but as he understood ethics and developed/discovered desirism (DU) this got him to change his mind on this.

Would you still defend it if it yielded a result such as “the most desires will be fulfilled if one virgin is burned at the stake each month.”?

Well you first have to give a recommendation that could possibly be the conclusion of a desirist analysis. The above again looks like desire fulfilment act utilitarianism.

In highly extreme cases we all become utilitarians (desirist or otherwise) and our intuitions have long gone out the window. If an innocent person were to get a chocolate for a vending machine that would trigger a nuclear bomb and kill 3 million, and there was no way to stop them except by shooting them a long distance would you do it?

Now whilst you might be glad to have saved the lives of 3 million one would expect you still feel bad about killing the innocent potential trigger of the bomb. Indeed not feeling remorse would still be condemnable even though you did the right thing in those extreme circumstances. And this is entirely consistent with desirism.

Would you be willing to say “Well, that feels wrong, but I know that I can’t trust what feels nicer to me.”?

If all I had was an argument from comfort or feeling then most certainly (however reluctantly) yes. Still I would make sure my analysis was not mistaken. Still lets have an actual example to look at, can you propose one that is an accordance with a desirist analysis. Have not seen one here to date.

Lastly, when you explain “…Desirism would still be true even if…”, it sounds a lot like you are revealing that for desirism to be “true,” then it is the case that desirism is simply a correct model of human behavior.

Not just “simply”. It is partly a model of human behaviour and anyone’s ethical model that is not based on some such model is deeply flawed.

But then, if that were true, why would you be willing to turn on the desirism machine that would vastly alter human behavior?

Human behaviour already employs social forces to alter human behaviour. Desirism just provides the most spartan set of real-world entities to ground such a process when it comes to moral applications.

This is confusing and would seem contradictory.

Where is the contradiction?

Why not clear things up by detailing what it means for a moral theory to be the “correct” one, if only to shut me up? If you say “if we test it in the real world and it turns out to be correct” … well, I’m sure you know that will not cut it.

IMV it explains more with less and makes fewer errors (of reason) and mistakes (of fact) than others (the criteria for “best” in what follows), so it is “correct” only in the sense of being the best provisional and defeasible empirical theory to date.

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Penneyworth October 29, 2009 at 9:11 am

Faithlessgod,

I appreciate the higher standard of clarity you’ve shown.

First, you have made a fundamental mistake about me:
“And so you have refuted your own empathy-based ethics.”
I do not have ethics! I value empathy. A sadist values torture. You value the theory of desirism. That’s all there is! If I ever were to say “everyone ought to value empathy” I would simply be stating my opinion about what consequences follow certain actions. I would not be positing “empathy-based ethics.”

Sorry to have complicated the 1000 sadists. It appears I put too fine a point on it. Requiring a person to have correct beliefs is a whole other level of complication. IMO, desirism fails the regular 1000 sadists.

“If all I had was an argument from comfort or feeling then most certainly (however reluctantly) yes.”

Thank you for that honesty. Understand that this possibility is where utilitarianism breaks down. The argument from comfort and feeling is tossed aside too flippantly. If you had all the information about the nuclear bomb, the innocent person, and the vending machine, your feelings alone will determine your decision to shoot… or not. See, if the decision is enforced by utilitarianism, there is no more room for personal decision making. This would be a world of complete totalitarianism and thought control.

“It is partly a model of human behaviour and anyone’s ethical model that is not based on some such model is deeply flawed.”

Explain deeply flawed.

“Where is the contradiction?”

Well, if it is only modelling human behavior then it would have no need to modify it. However, your definition might resolve this. That’s why I said “would seem contradictory.” So we still need to get to the bottom of what it means to have the “correct” moral theory. “Being the best provisional and defeasible empirical theory to date” begs the question: How did you test it? Explain the empirical part. How did you check off any of its results as “correct”?

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Penneyworth October 29, 2009 at 9:37 am

Faithlessgod,

I forgot to respond to this important point:

“Still waiting for anyone to come up with any decent example.”

This shows that desirism perfectly matches up to what feels nice. Therefore it is superfluous. It would need to supersede our feelings in a significant way to be of any use at all.

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Chuck October 29, 2009 at 9:56 am

Penneyworth,

I’ve already answered this question. A moral theory is true if it can be expressed in the form of a logical argument that is valid, in other words, the conclusions do indeed follow from the premises, and the premises are all true! We would also need to establish desirism is a theory about morality and not something else. That’s it.

These are not my ideas. They are Luke’s. They are all over this blog.

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Penneyworth October 29, 2009 at 10:07 am

Chuck, I’ll respond to you the same way I did last time:

Desirism may be internally consistent. Divine command theory is also internally consistent. We are no closer to choosing the “correct” one.

You said: “We would also need to establish desirism is a theory about morality and not something else.”

Has this been done? Or were you answering your own question?

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Chuck October 29, 2009 at 10:08 am

Here’s a challenge: find any act that desirism endorses that feels very wrong to you.

I *think* desirism prohibits the eating of meat. I really like eating meat. Especially bacon. And turkey. Come to think of it, chicken, if seasoned properly, is really good too …

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Chuck October 29, 2009 at 10:10 am

Pennyworth,

You asked me what it would mean for desirism to be true, not whether it was, in fact, true.

I have no idea if desirism is true.

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Chuck October 29, 2009 at 10:14 am

Also,

Divine command theory is false because it refers to things that do not exist. As far as we know, desirism is the only moral theory that fails to commit this error. That is why Luke (and others) defend it as they do.

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Penneyworth October 29, 2009 at 10:24 am

Chuck,

Divine command theory is such: Whatever gawd says is moral, is moral. How do I get gawd’s decrees? Ask your pastor, or the pope, or assume the voice of your conscience is the authentic voice of gawd. I see no need for the literal existence of gawd in order for divine command theory to be internally consistent.

Let me put it this way: Assume desirism requires you to be a vegetarian lest ye be immoral (not even eggs and cheese allowed). Assume you will always act morally.

Now, what could convince you that desirism does in fact represent morality?

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Chuck October 29, 2009 at 10:47 am

Sorry, no. For divine command theory to be true, God would have to actually exist.

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lukeprog October 29, 2009 at 10:51 am

Chuck,

I doubt it’s incomplete here. I just haven’t worked out the implications of desirism’ meta-ethics. But I’ll be Alonzo has – maybe he just hasn’t written on this part yet, or I’m misunderstanding the theory a bit.

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Chuck October 29, 2009 at 10:57 am

Assume desirism requires you to be a vegetarian lest ye be immoral (not even eggs and cheese allowed). Assume you will always act morally.
Now, what could convince you that desirism does in fact represent morality?

Whether or not it is true.

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Penneyworth October 29, 2009 at 11:28 am

“For divine command theory to be true, God would have to actually exist.”

Not in my version. Even in the wikipedia article version, one can easily determine the attitudes of god by simply making them up. But who cares anyway. Being internally consistent gets it no closer to being the correct theory.

“You have answered your own question. Any theory that spits out ‘ought’ statements is, by definition, a moral theory.”

You misunderstood my question. My question is: what would convince you that this is the correct theory, and its requirements are really correct? I understand full well that it makes claims about morality.

And remember: making ought claims (to be a bona fide moral theory) together with internal consistency is not the magic recipe. So far, we have made zero progress toward a coherent explanation of what it even means for a moral theory to be “the correct one”. How does one test it?

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Chuck October 29, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Penneyworth,

Did you not see I completely changed my answer? In any case, I didn’t say much before time ran out so let me try again.

First off, I have no idea what it would take to convince me that desirism is true. I suppose I would need to rewrite what has already been written about desirism in the form of a logical argument. I would need to make sure the argument is valid. I would need to test all the propositions and make sure every single one of them is true. Then I would need to apply desirism to the Vegan Question. I would need to ask, What are the relevant desires, Which ones thwart other desires, and so on. That’s a lot of philosophizing that right now I don’t have time to do.

For the time being, I am making a bayesian inference that desirism is true and eating meat is wrong.

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lukeprog October 29, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Chuck,

What Bayesian inference is that? I haven’t done anything so thorough as that for desirism. I would love to see if your calculations, if you’ve done any…

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faithlessgod October 30, 2009 at 12:11 am

Penneyworth

“Still waiting for anyone to come up with any decent example.”

This shows that desirism perfectly matches up to what feels nice. Therefore it is superfluous. It would need to supersede our feelings in a significant way to be of any use at all.

1.I already gave you Alonzo’s change of view over capital punishment. I too was ambivalent over this but my understanding of desirism has convinced me otherwise too.

2. I was pointing out that you have failed to give such an example althought you tried (but it was not a desirst anlaysis but desire fulfiment act utilitarianism analysis). So lets see an example.

3. I have changed my mind in the light of reason and evidence on numeruous occasions, for example the sub-title of my blog is “do not sacrifice truth on the latar of comfort”. This includes the adoption and application of desirism. It seemed more comfortable then not to take such a positive position on any moral theory, but the arguments and evidence were compelling that for intellectual integrity I had no choice but to overcome my nice feeling and discomfort in order to become “one of those” who pushes a moral theory on the internet.

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faithlessgod October 30, 2009 at 12:35 am

Penneyworth

I value empathy. A sadist values torture. You value the theory of desirism.

This looks like a double category error here, there are three quite different types of objects of evalaution in the above.

IMO, desirism fails the regular 1000 sadists.

One point that triggered off some of this comment thread is that opinions are irrelevant here, where is your reasoning and argument that your assertion is the case?

Understand that this possibility is where utilitarianism breaks down. The argument from comfort and feeling is tossed aside too flippantly. If you had all the information about the nuclear bomb, the innocent person, and the vending machine, your feelings alone will determine your decision to shoot… or not. See, if the decision is enforced by utilitarianism, there is no more room for personal decision making. This would be a world of complete totalitarianism and thought control.

This is confused. You are confusing the argument from comfort with motivational non-cognitivism which desirism recognises as the psychological basis for intentional actions and is consistent with, including in what I originally stated. I do not know what “utilitarianism” you are talknig about here but again it looks like DFAU which is not desirism and I have made no argument employing DFAU.

“It is partly a model of human behaviour and anyone’s ethical model that is not based on some such model is deeply flawed.”

Explain deeply flawed.

If one produces a moral theory that cannot account for human motivation, then it offers to no basis for anyone to behave according to that theory. That would be a deep flaw.

Being the best provisional and defeasible empirical theory to date” begs the question: How did you test it? Explain the empirical part. How did you check off any of its results as “correct”?

It can be externally critiqued abnd internally critiqued in terms of falsifiability. Externally it makes falsifiable claims such as desires exist, desires motivate, only desires are proximate motivators, beleifs do not motivate and so on. Internally granted these claims and others have not been falsified it can be applied and one can critique the analysis – which desires, how are others affected and so on. This is the same as in any other emprical enterprise.

Desirism may be internally consistent. Divine command theory is also internally consistent. We are no closer to choosing the “correct” one.

You have completely ignored my prior answer to you on this. I dunno about anyone else here, but I have not and never supported desirism by merely claiming that it was internally consistent. This is a straw man.

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Chuck October 30, 2009 at 8:04 am

Sorry, Luke. I’m sort of new to this whole Bayesian thing, and in the heat of the back-and-forth, I guess I exaggerated my position. I haven’t done an actual calculation, and if I had, I’m not sure how confident I would be it would be right.

On that note, do you know of a good “manual” out there that explains how to do this sort of thing?

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Penneyworth October 30, 2009 at 8:19 am

faithlessgod,

“but I have not and never supported desirism by merely claiming that it was internally consistent. This is a straw man.”

I was talking to Chuck.

(about a moral theory being correct) “You have completely ignored my prior answer to you on this.”

That is false. Reread our exchange. If you still don’t see it, I’ll copy-paste it all into my next comment. In fact, your last response on this issue was your second to last item in which you responded: “It can be externally critiqued abnd internally critiqued in terms of falsifiability. Externally it makes falsifiable claims such as desires exist, desires motivate, only desires are proximate motivators, beleifs do not motivate and so on. Internally granted these claims and others have not been falsified it can be applied and one can critique the analysis – which desires, how are others
affected and so on. This is the same as in any other emprical
enterprise.”

So let’s continue (I totally ignored this issue? nonsense).
In this explanation, you are only talking about internal
consistency. Don’t get me wrong, it sounds to me like desirism is a good attempt at analyzing human behavior; particularly, why a person reaches the opinion of x is wrong, or y is right. I also accept that you can correctly make the statement “According to desirism, x is objectively wrong.” Furthermore, if you were to decide to live by the code of desirism, I would respect your opinion. You could make objective moral statements within your framework all day, but outside that framework, you have no way of saying I am wrong to reject desirism as a code to live by. To say so would merely be your opinion. “Desirism’s derivative moral statements are all right” merely asserts “I approve of desirism’s derivative moral statements.” There is no connect between approving of desirism’s claim that “x is wrong” and the William Lane Craigian concept of “x is REALLY wrong. If you and luke would just say, “I think desirism is a good code to live by” I would be as happy as Liberace on tuor with the Vienna Boys Choir, but you seem to be insisting that you can empiricaly show that desirism’s results are REALLY correct. And that concept is just incoherent. Unless you can define what it means for one internally consistent moral theory to be “correct” while another internally consistent moral theory is not. You think you have explained it, but you’re like a theist who thinks he has explained why the universe needs a cause, but gawd doesn’t need a cause.

(on 1000 sadists) “where is your reasoning and argument that your assertion is the case?”

I have in the past several times pointed out the failure of the knob analogy. 1000 sadists defeats desirism at the point when it must baselessly assert that the desire for freedom is less malleable.

“I was pointing out that you have failed to give such an example”

You took the point exactly backwards. If one can’t show an example, then desirism is the exact same as just going with your feelings, and is therefore superfluous. Your example fails: You now feel differently about capital punishment. That is not the same as you feeling strongly that capital punishment is right, but reluctantly accepting derirism’s moral conclusion that it is wrong.

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faithlessgod October 30, 2009 at 10:32 am

Penneyworth

In this explanation, you are only talking about internal consistency.

Having just given you external falsifiable criteria, how can you say I am just giving internal criteria!!!

There is no such thing as a code of desirism nor do I assert that there is.

With or without a “framework”, it is a fact that certain desires thwart (or tend to thwart) whilst other desires fulfil or tend to fulfil. These facts remain whether anyone knows this explicitly or not. It is also a fact that people have reasons to promote desires that tend to fulfil others desires and have reasons to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. Again these are facts regardless of frameworks or codes and so on. These are facts without needing to prefix them “according to desirism”, this prefix makes no difference, they are still facts and they are objective facts (there are no other kind).

“but outside that framework, you have no way of saying I am wrong to reject desirism as a code to live by.”

It is not a question of accepting nor rejecting desirism. Rather it is that when one rejects any moral theory this is what remains. I call it desirism so you know what I talking about. In a sense desirism is what remains when you eliminate the mistakes behind pretty much all moral reasoning, namely that it somehow is special and distinct from rational and empirical reasoning. I make no such additional assumptions over moral logic, language or features of nature and have discovered that none are required.

To say so would merely be your opinion.

The facts remains regardless of my or your opinion.

“Desirism’s derivative moral statements are all right” merely asserts “I approve of desirism’s derivative moral statements.”

Whether you or I approve of them or not they are still facts and they are mean to be derivative of what exactly?

There is no connect between approving of desirism’s claim that “x is wrong” and the William Lane Craigian concept of “x is REALLY wrong.

Where did Craig come from? Anyway he most definitely is REALLY wrong. So for sure there is no connection, his has no empirical grounds whatsoever.

you seem to be insisting that you can empiricaly show that desirism’s results are REALLY correct.

Because these are not due to desirism, this theory is not the cause of these results. These results are there waiting to be discovered. All you need to do is look without bias and preconceptions.

And that concept is just incoherent.

What concept?

Unless you can define what it means for one internally consistent moral theory to be “correct” while another internally consistent moral theory is not.

Oh so you are using this argument against me when you said it was in reference to Chuck not me! I repeat I have never used “internal consistency” arguments, what makes you think I am here?

You think you have explained it, but you’re like a theist who thinks he has explained why the universe needs a cause, but gawd doesn’t need a cause.

You can deny the facts but they are still fact nonetheless, whether you I or anyone else knows them or not. This is utterly different from a theist cosmological argument at least it looks this way to me. If you think otherwise could you please make an argument to make your case.

I have in the past several times pointed out the failure of the knob analogy. 1000 sadists defeats desirism at the point when it must baselessly assert that the desire for freedom is less malleable.

I have never made that argument but we have not discussed this before. The desire under evaluation is the desire to torture not the desire for freedom, that is not the issue here. Now a “moral” evaluation has ceteris paribus and all-things-considered conditions by definition which leads to the empirical conclusions that the desire to torture is a desire thwarting desire and that people have reason to inhibit such a desire. Now whether you think the subjective term “moral” applies here or can be applied different this still remains the case. I am quite happy to say that “morality” does not exist, but these facts still remain. moral-speak is a useful shorthand and has illocutionary force in the application of the social forces of praise and condemnation. If you don’t like it that is fine by me, neither of us, nor anyone else, needs such language.

You took the point exactly backwards. If one can’t show an example, then desirism is the exact same as just going with your feelings, and is therefore superfluous.

Well I have have repeatedly applied desirism as a personal analysis and sometimes found conflicts between my feelings and the analysis and therefore cultivated different feelings to match. I have generally forgotten these conflicts but one I recall is over homosexual couples adopting children (thoughts triggered by analysing publicly funded catholic agencies exhibiting bigotry). I realised my unconsidered feelings were wrong on this matter and still made the arguments I did even though I felt otherwise because I was quite clear that my epistemically objective analysis was correct.

Your example fails: You now feel differently about capital punishment.

Duh! First that was Alonzo not me. Secondly this is all about cultivating desires so of course one wants to strive to update ones feelings. How on earth can succeeding in doing so be an example of failure? Your argument looks incoherent.

That is not the same as you feeling strongly that capital punishment is right, but reluctantly accepting derirism’s moral conclusion that it is wrong.

I just gave exactly that example over homosexual adoption. QED

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Penneyworth October 30, 2009 at 11:30 am

Hold off on the QED for a second,

Maybe I can be clearer on this point: You used to feel that capital punishment (or homosexual adoption, or whatever controverial stance) was right, but then you studied, and now you feel that it is wrong. The actual moral decision is ultimately based on your feelings. See, if you were to say that desirism was just a useful tool that helped you uncover all the facts that led to your new updated feeling on some issue, then I would say cool beans! The kind of example I’m looking for is a situation where desirism demands that you do something that you cannot bring yourself to feel is moral. If desirism contains nothing of the sort, then it is merely identical to trusting what feels nice to you. Changing your feelings based on learning more about the complicated consequenses of certain actions does not necessitate desirism.

I’m trying to figure out exactly what it is we are disagreeing about, and I realized I may have made a mistake: I’ve been under the impression that desirism entails moral realism. Have I been wrong about that? Cause that’s where my Craig reference comes from.

When you speak of external falsifieable criteria, are you referring to statements such as “desires exist” or “some desires tend to thwart others”? I see these as premises of the theory of desirism (premises that I think are true), and therefore part of the “framework” of desirism. An example of external verification would go something like: Desirism tells us it is immoral to eat deceased relatives, and we can see that this is correct, for we know that eating deceased relatives is in fact immoral because… … ???

See, this is where it breaks down for me. This is the thorn in my foot. What could it mean for one of desirism’s claims to be “correct” except within the context of its own framework?

Again, if desirism does not entail moral realism, and is just a tool to help someone better understand the fullness of the consequenses of his desires (and therefore his behavior), then I retract all my complaints.

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ayer October 30, 2009 at 3:52 pm

faithlessgod: “I am quite happy to say that “morality” does not exist, but these facts still remain. moral-speak is a useful shorthand and has illocutionary force in the application of the social forces of praise and condemnation. If you don’t like it that is fine by me, neither of us, nor anyone else, needs such language.”

This the key point. Yes, desires are facts, but so what? I can see no way in which (assuming atheism is true) I (or anyone else) am morally obligated to encourage “those desires that tend to fulfill other desires.” If desirism results in no moral duties or obligations, it deals in “facts” that are as irrelevant to morality as the facts of gravity and electromagnetism.

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Kip October 30, 2009 at 5:00 pm

faithlessgod: you have much more patience than I do in dealing with people who seem to be willfully obtuse.

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lukeprog October 30, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Chuck,

Hmmm, good question. There are tons of texts on Bayesian inference, but not a user-friendly “how to” guide that I know of. Perhaps I should write one!

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drj October 30, 2009 at 7:02 pm

This the key point. Yes, desires are facts, but so what? I can see no way in which (assuming atheism is true) I (or anyone else) am morally obligated to encourage “those desires that tend to fulfill other desires.” If desirism results in no moral duties or obligations, it deals in “facts” that are as irrelevant to morality as the facts of gravity and electromagnetism.

If theism is true, why should the fact of divine command give us reason or duty to behave, any more than the facts of gravity or electromagnetism?

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Chuck October 31, 2009 at 12:18 am

I’m looking for is a situation where desirism demands that you do something that you cannot bring yourself to feel is moral.

But that would mean I am irrational.

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Yair October 31, 2009 at 3:39 am

I’m with Penneyworth.

faithlessgod: Not to labour the point but you (amongst many others here) still seem to looking at this in terms of desire fulfilment act utilitarianism. ’nuff said.

I don’t think so, but if I did it is besides the point. My point is far more general – that as a utilitarian theory, desirism only accounts for the end state, ignoring the moral constraints along the way.

To give another example – let us imagine that Professor X invents a device that instills, within every human, Desire X. Desire X *enormously* tends to fulfill other desires, especially other X desires. So advancing desire X in the population is immensely good, so good that no matter what the side effects are – it is desirable. Unfortunately, Desire X also stands in opposition to greatness. Any great person afflicted with Desire X dies a horrible, agonizing death. With Desire X in place, no longer will mankind produce great works of art, great engineering projects, new scientific discoveries. Indeed, the lack of great people means that in time humanity will atrophy, and be reduced to substinence levels. But remember, Desire X tends to fulfill desires, and especially desire X, to a huge degree. So all those forlong desires that will be lost, thwarted, will be pittance, a small price to pay to bring the great and glorious Desire X to existence.

Let us push that on button on Professor X’s device. No matter that it will thwart all our greatest current desires – it will instill within us a new, more powerful, one, to the glory of Desirism! Hurray!

[On the other issues - I see no point in defending my position against you, since we tried this once and it did not go well, and they're presented well by Penneyworth at any rate. Luke has stated that he intends to answer my other, main, critique of desirism in some future time; I await. I'll just note that it seems to me that this is the very critique Penneyworth is raising here, unless I grossly misread her - that the development of desirism suffers from a fatal logical flaw and evidential lacuna at the point where it most matters, at the motivational and psychological aspect.]

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Kip October 31, 2009 at 7:57 am
I’m looking for is a situation where desirism demands that you do something that you cannot bring yourself to feel is moral.

But that would mean I am irrational.

No, it would just mean you lack a good desire. Desires are not rational; they are arational.

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Kip October 31, 2009 at 8:02 am

Yair: Do you think something can be great without fulfilling desires? Please give an example.

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faithlessgod October 31, 2009 at 10:03 am

Penneyworth

First it does not matter whether me personally or anyone else here who is a proponent of desirism, if you will, has changed their desires as a result of a desirist analysis or always found one coherent with the other. The theory does not stand or fall on such a basis.

Secondly there are plenty of people past and present who would reject a “desirist” analysis – the racists or sadists who have been mentioned here in a couple of examples recently. Now exposed to a moral critique of their desires, even as some might claim the “moral” high ground such as endorsement by their god, some would upon exposure to praise and commendation change and others would not. This is what is to be expected here. The best we might be able to do is minimise such desire thwarting desires, elimination of them would itself bear too high a cost that could not be justified on a desirist basis.

Third I did give you an example and as Kip pointed out desires are arational. The whole point of the use of social forces is that one cannot use beliefs and reason to change desires, they are motivationally non-cognitive. Social forces directly address desires, not intermediated by beleif. But this is the problem with ungrounded or pseudo-grounded (i.e. God) directions for the social forces. On this aspect we can provide real-world grounds to identify what is blameworthy and praiseworthy. Your empathy is, by contrast, arbitrary I might rather your empathy than that of a racist or sadist, but it should be painfully obvious that empathy is woefully insufficient grounds to identify what is blameworthy and praiseworthy.

Desirism is based on a realist view of the world. It employs only real-world entities – desires, states of affairs and the relation between them. How one earth this this meant to bring about a Craig reference when it is well known that his type of supposed moral realism is in fact pseudo-realism, a moral subjectivism and relativism in the category called in the literature voluntarism has no comparison with any of the claims made here. I repeat where is your argument that these are comparable, apart from the trivial, trite and facile observation that they both claim moral realism, which is a very poor basis for any real argument.

The premises of desirism are the ones that are challengeable in terms of an external critique, the conclusion based on those premises are the ones challengeable in terms of an internal critique.

“An example of external verification would go so”Desirism tells us it is immoral to eat deceased relatives, and we can see that this is correct, for we know that eating deceased relatives is in fact immoral because… … ???”

No this is not an external critique but an internal critique.

“Correctness” is the same as in any other empirical discipline, provisional and defeasible. Are the claims of the theory of gravity “only correct expect within the context of its own framework”? I do no see what you are trying to argue for here. Please explain what you mean by correct if it is not what i employ as I have explained, and as is used in any other empirical disciple.

Desirism does not entail moral realism, it is the consequence of thinking of what a moral realism could possibly look like. It is entailed by a purely natural approach that sees how far one can get without accepting any of the typical assumptions of moral theories over entities, language and logic. The answer is that none are required whether of your’s empathy or Yair’s subjecivist assumptions. Desirism is a name to a theory that assumes less than either yours or Yair’s approaches. This Spartan theory does more with less than any other approach certainly yours and Yair’s here, which are in play and so relevant. So what justification is there for you to assume more? And how can you support your assumptions?

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faithlessgod October 31, 2009 at 10:23 am

Yair

I don’t think so, but if I did it is besides the point.

Accepted but only if you do not make critiques of DFAU and say they are critiques of desirism. If you do i will point this out explicitly and it should not be assumed either way otherwise.

My point is far more general – that as a utilitarian theory, desirism only accounts for the end state, ignoring the moral constraints along the way.

Whether this is a “utilitarian” theory or not is moot, it is is certainly a modern consequentialist approach, but then consequentialism is the basis of all empirical disciplines, otherwise they are not empirical. It is only due to the peculiarities, history and additional assumptions of moral theory, infected by religious-type thinking, that has required one to explicitly identify a consequentialist approach.

Further desirism rejects the idea of a utility – that would be DFAU, rejected because any such utility is indeterminate, plural and incommensurate and it is not possible to maximise that which is indeterminate, plural and incommensurate – at least one could never know if one had succeeded.

The end state is the state of the world, there are no intermediate versus final states of the world, they are all intermediate and open to moral (and other) evaluations. Indeed desirism works by treating whatever is the target of evaluation as a means not an end. There is a false dichotmoy between means and ends, it is a matter of perspective as to which is which.

So you can relax since your concern does not apply to desirism, indeed your criticism of such utilitarian theories is the same as that from a desirist perspective. Ends do not justify the means, as those ends are treated as means, in desirism it is means all the way down.

And (with no hence required) your whole example falls apart as this is possibly DFAU, anyway certainly not desirism. I will let Kip tackle the details now that he has started.

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faithlessgod October 31, 2009 at 10:31 am

Ayer

This the key point. Yes, desires are facts, but so what? I can see no way in which (assuming atheism is true) I (or anyone else) am morally obligated to encourage “those desires that tend to fulfill other desires.” If desirism results in no moral duties or obligations, it deals in “facts” that are as irrelevant to morality as the facts of gravity and electromagnetism.

Such distinct ontological categories as “moral obligation” do not exist, they are fictions e.g categorical imperatives.

One can make two types of reports of the facts, a descriptive one and a prescriptive one. There are no additional moral facts above and beyond the natural facts, which is why this is a reductive naturalist approach. Descriptive report “this desire tends to thwart other desires”, prescriptive report “people have reason to inhibit this desire”. One does not cause the other, these are two ways of saying the same thing.

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faithlessgod October 31, 2009 at 10:33 am

Kip

faithlessgod: you have much more patience than I do in dealing with people who seem to be willfully obtuse.

I think the same about you! Guess it is swings and roundabouts. Divide and conquer? ;-)

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Chuck October 31, 2009 at 11:09 am

No, it would just mean you lack a good desire. Desires are not rational; they are arational.

I think we’re both right.

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lukeprog October 31, 2009 at 11:16 am

faithlessgod and Kip,

I appreciate all the help I can get explaining desirism over here!

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Chuck October 31, 2009 at 11:21 am

The whole point of the use of social forces is that one cannot use beliefs and reason to change desires, they are motivationally non-cognitive.

I have a hard time accepting this. In my life, I have changed my mind about a lot of things mainly by thinking about them. I use to desire to go to church, spend time with other believers, follow Christ, but now that my beliefs are different, I now desire none of those things. If that isn’t “reason changing desires”, then what would you say is going on?

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ayer October 31, 2009 at 11:29 am

faithlessgod: “Such distinct ontological categories as “moral obligation” do not exist, they are fictions e.g categorical imperatives.

One can make two types of reports of the facts, a descriptive one and a prescriptive one. There are no additional moral facts above and beyond the natural facts, which is why this is a reductive naturalist approach. Descriptive report “this desire tends to thwart other desires”, prescriptive report “people have reason to inhibit this desire”. One does not cause the other, these are two ways of saying the same thing.”

Yes, which is why desirism is irrelevant and apparently has nothing to contribute to moral discourse. Thus, Fyfe and Luke should cease posting screeds condemning Young Earth Creationists as morally blameworthy and “evil” since the YECs have no moral obligation to either thwart or encourage desires of any sort.

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faithlessgod November 1, 2009 at 2:14 am

Chuck

You ask a good question and a comment is too brief to give a full answer.

Still, to be brief: People act to fulfil the more and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. Change those beliefs, and the desires remains, but the means to bring them about and the resultant intentional actions will be different.

If you look at how the only empirical sound psychotherapies work – CBT and REBT – they work on changing beliefs and so changing one’s emotional reactions to the world – from chronic distortions to a more realistic and less distorted view of the world.

However most of the work – the “interventions” – are all about addressing the emotional or connative inertia and resistance to accepting that one has been operating according to mistaken beliefs – including to the extent that one has been acting to bring about unfulfillable desires.

For some, it is not sufficient to intellectually recognise that one has been operating according to mistaken beliefs and for those who cannot do something like go “cold turkey” over such unfulfillable desires they might benefit from such therapies.

I am not saying that any newly de-converted require such therapy, only that such therapies work by doing the equivalent of what the social forces do between people, directly address and re-mould desires. If all that was required was for people to free themselves of mistaken beleifs then there would be no need for such therapies.

So you do now have different desires to the past, but you, as has anyone else how has realised that one was operating upon such foundational and false beliefs – such as “that god exists” – had to have gone through some emotional transformation in addition to just freeing oneself of false beliefs. The intensity, difficulty and duration of such a transformation was probably somewhat proportional to the degree of one’s prior commitment to such beliefs and one’s prior investment in fulilling those (unfulfillable) desiers.

However you look at it, I would argue that it is the emotional component and how you dealt with it, that got you where you are now and it is this emotional work that directly addressed those unfulfillable desires, reason was insufficient – one cannot use reason to change desires.

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faithlessgod November 1, 2009 at 2:20 am

Ayer

Your conclusion is a non sequitur. The fact that you are operating according to some mistaken notion of “moral obligation” does not mean that such terms do not have illocutionary force, they do. Desirism shows why these have illocutionary force, shows that when people actually use them what are the most likely real-world referents and that these referents better explains this practical usage than any other approach.

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ayer November 1, 2009 at 5:57 am

faithlessgod,

Ok, so desirism is a subset of speech-act theory. As I said, it is then outside the category of moral discourse. If it confines itself to theoretical musings on speech-acts and refrains from pretending to issue moral condemnation or approbation (e.g., from Fyfe to Ray Comfort on YEC), I have no problem with it.

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faithlessgod November 1, 2009 at 9:01 am

ayer

“Ok, so desirism is a subset of speech-act theory.”
It most definitely is not nor can I see that anything myself or Luke has said that can give you that impression.
Moral language falls, by definition under the scope of speech act theory, but moral language, as I already pointed out, is not morality per se. Morality will continue to exist whether anyone uses moral language or not e.g. Soviet Communism which was predicated on rejecting “morality” as a tool of the bourgeoisie used the term “counter-revolutionary” instead of “evil”. So, your conclusion is a non sequitur.

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ayer November 1, 2009 at 5:17 pm

A statement like this would give me that impression: “I am quite happy to say that “morality” does not exist, but these facts still remain. moral-speak is a useful shorthand and has illocutionary force in the application of the social forces of praise and condemnation.”

Whether or not a statement has illocutionary force is irrelevant to whether it has moral content, but it may be interesting in analyzing its content under speech-act theory. As you said, in your view “morality” does not exist; making observations about the configuration of desires in a given situation may be relevant in determining whether “praise” or “social force” will be applied to my behavior in that situation, but is irrelevant in determining my moral obligations in that situation.

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faithlessgod November 2, 2009 at 2:10 am

Ayer

I said and you quoted “A statement like this would give me that impression: “I am quite happy to say that “morality” does not exist, but these facts still remain. moral-speak is a useful shorthand and has illocutionary force in the application of the social forces of praise and condemnation.””
I put “morality” in scare quotes and in response to you, since you were the one who said morality did not exist! I was pointing out that moral-speak is optional and redundant – which does not mean I cannot use it, I can but I know its place. As a reductive naturalist there are real-world features to which these terms refer, we can use those references with or without the optional moral-speak.

“Whether or not a statement has illocutionary force is irrelevant to whether it has moral content, but it may be interesting in analyzing its content under speech-act theory.”

By its very nature the language used by in commendation and condemnation – i.e. social forces – are speech acts.
However illocutionary force is only one aspect, the “moral content” as you put it is as to whether what is being commended is, in fact, praiseworthy and whether what is being condemned is, in fact, blameworthy. You deny there are such facts relying on empathy as you said before.

As you said, in your view “morality” does not exist;

Huh? No, you said that, I was only agreeing with you in order to move the conversation on. Now you are contradicting yourself. I am saying that morality as a distinct domain with its own logic, meaning and entities does not exist, as I have said there are no moral facts above and beyond the natural facts. The morality I am talking about is natural and real, I just reject morality based on fiction and fantasies.

making observations about the configuration of desires in a given situation may be relevant in determining whether “praise” or “social force” will be applied to my behavior in that situation, but is irrelevant in determining my moral obligations in that situation.

So your “moral obligations” are free-floating and quite unattached to reality, as I said such a concept of moral obligation is a fiction (and subjective to boot).

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ayer November 2, 2009 at 6:01 am

I think you are confusing me with Pennyworth in portions of your last comment; he is the one who refers to empathy, etc.

faithlessgod: “I am saying that morality as a distinct domain with its own logic, meaning and entities does not exist, as I have said there are no moral facts above and beyond the natural facts. The morality I am talking about is natural and real, I just reject morality based on fiction and fantasies.”

Then you, Luke, and Fyfe should really stop using the language of “morality” in describing desirism. It simply obscures and confuses what you are really talking about, because when you condemn something as “immoral” under desirism you are working in an entirely different paradigm than that of the moral language used overwhelmingly by humanity and in the history of philosophy. (Unless “good desires” are interpreted as equivalent to the “virtues” under virtue ethics–i.e., good desires conform to a human being’s instrinsic purpose of achieving eudaimonia–in which case desirism is just virtue ethics under another name).

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faithlessgod November 2, 2009 at 8:05 am

Ayer

“I think you are confusing me with Pennyworth in portions of your last comment; he is the one who refers to empathy, etc.

You are correct, sorry.

Then you, Luke, and Fyfe should really stop using the language of “morality” in describing desirism.

Why? Desirism is the result of finding the most likely real-world referents for moral terms are used in day to day discourse. If you have better referents then please show them to us. Until then desirism captures moral usage better than any other approach I have seen.

It simply obscures and confuses what you are really talking about, because when you condemn something as “immoral” under desirism you are working in an entirely different paradigm than that of the moral language used overwhelmingly by humanity and in the history of philosophy.

On the contrary it is history of mistaken answers (and the abuses these have (falsely) justified) to provide a grounds for morality that is the source of obscurity (and worse).

It really should be no surprise that in this field, as in most others, throughout history most of humanity has been quite wrong in its explanations. Then again, being quite mistaken in explaining how the world works did not prevent humanity from feeding, surviving, mating and reproducing. (Still with the knowledge we have today, such as demons are not the cause of diseases, they could have done better in the past).

What would be surprising is that somehow humanity was right about explaining morality, in contrast to all other explanations, that would take explaining itself! So if you insist this is the case (at least you are tacitly implying something like this here), please explain how it is the way you see it.

(Unless “good desires” are interpreted as equivalent to the “virtues” under virtue ethics–i.e., good desires conform to a human being’s instrinsic purpose of achieving eudaimonia–in which case desirism is just virtue ethics under another name).

Desirism can be considered is a form of virtue ethics, but one, unlike traditional virtue ethics, that provides the grounds for virtues and vices – in terms of desires and dispositions – which is far clearer than “intrinsic purpose of achieving eudaimonia” which is a very nebulous concept and plastic concept – so it is a better version of virtue ethics.

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