Practical Morality

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 23, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

grocery shopping

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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There is an important constraint in the subject of practical morality that is almost universally ignored.

Practical morality must respect the fact that it is relevant in every decision a person makes, and even in many options people pick without deciding.

It is not about pulling switches or throwing fat people in front of a runaway trolly car in order to reduce the number of deaths. It is not even about homosexuality, capital punishment, abortion, or stem-cell research.

It’s about decisions that we make every day.

It starts when the alarm goes off in the morning and knowing that, even though nobody would notice if you were a little late for work, getting to work on time.

It’s about staying quiet in the morning so your spouse can sleep and passing on the cookies because you told her you would even though you could take a couple and she wouldn’t notice. It’s about keeping the noise down so as to not wake the neighbors. It’s about making plans to return that book you borrowed. It’s about not buying that flat screen television you want because it is not the most responsible way to spend your money.

It is even about more mundane questions such as whether or not to go to the grocery store, which store to go to, and what to pick off of the shelves when you get there. Even here, there is a background moral question to be asked: Is there something else I morally should be doing instead of this?”

A part of this is that morality cannot be an institution that requires a PhD in brain science, probability theory, and a working knowledge of differential calculus to determine the right thing to do. It has to be something that you can appeal to that says that it is okay to grab your laptop when you leave so that you can write a blog posting on your way to work and get it mailed off by the end of the day.

Trust me, I did not sit down to decide whether my actions this morning fulfilled the most and strongest of all desires that existed when I made the plans to write this posting on the way to work. I did not even choose the topic by cross-referencing the desires that motivated me to write it with all other desires to ensure that a good person would have written this specific blog posting on this day – or even that it was permissible to do so.

I also did not consider the opinions of an impartial observer, examine a hypothetical social contract, evaluate my actions against some set of categorical imperatives, determine the best implications of any scripture, pray for guidance, or determine the implications of any theory of intrinsic moral values.

I did none of these things.

I have adopted a habit of writing these blog postings on Mondays on my way to work (which, I have discovered, leads to problems when Monday is a holiday), and that is what I do.

How can a moral theory fit this type of decision making?

Well, a 20th Century philosopher named R.M. Hare is one of the few philosophers who did not ignore this feature of morality. He divided moral thinking into two roles.

There is the role of the Prole. This is the role we are in when we make everyday moral decisions. We make these decisions based on our current emotions and attitudes – like grabbing my laptop and deciding to write this specific post as I went to work. It is a combination of current beliefs and desires – a desire to spend my time on the bus doing something useful, a belief that these blog postings do some good in the world, a sense of obligation to those who are expecting me to make some sort of comment.

Then, according to R.M. Hare, there is the role of the Archangel. The archangel asks whether these habits, rules, attitudes, and other considerations are the best ones to have.

Actually, Hare was a rule utilitarian. He held that everyday decisions were grounded on a set of moral rules that we adopt, where our Archangel moments ask whether those rules are the best rules to have.

I have a specific theory about how we make minute-by-minute decisions – that we act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of our desires given our beliefs. We may have a desire that our behavior conform to certain rules, yet that is still only one desire among many and easily overridden if that desire comes into sufficient conflict with others. The role of the archangel, as I see it, is to judge what desires we should have – which desires to promote or inhibit through praise and condemnation.

I believe that the fact that morality applies to every real-world decision, including the decision to write about this subject on this bus trip to work – that morality has to be taken as a split-level project. There is the level of basing immediate decisions on immediate beliefs and desires, and the level of evaluating which beliefs and desires we should have.

No question about what we should do makes sense in the absence of questions about what beliefs and desires we should have.

On the question of what beliefs we should have, the short and simple answer is: true beliefs. False beliefs thwart our attempts to fulfill our desires given our beliefs.

On the question of what desires to have, I go back to the proposition that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. This means that desires provide the only reason to choose one desire over another. The desires we should have are those for which there are the most and strongest reasons for us to have. This, in turn, means that the desires we should have are those that tend to lead to the fulfillment of the most and strongest reasons to promote.

However, our day-to-day decision making is not done by appeal to massive formulae or in the search of entities that do not exist. Our day to day decision making is based on our beliefs and desires at the time the decision is made.

So what happens when you go to the store?

It’s just a part of your normal routine of going to the store.

At some time, if there is preliminary reason to do so, you may ask whether having such a routine is a good idea, not only for yourself or for others.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Maher February 23, 2010 at 7:06 am

any book suggestions on this topic?

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Haukur February 23, 2010 at 7:17 am

It’s about staying quiet in the morning so your spouse can sleep and passing on the cookies because you told her you would even though you could take a couple and she wouldn’t notice. It’s about keeping the noise down so as to not wake the neighbors. It’s about making plans to return that book you borrowed.

I think this is the first thing I’ve really liked from those Alonzo Fyfe posts.

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Bill Maher February 23, 2010 at 7:18 am

Haukur, I think this is a good post also.

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 7:29 am

On which topic?

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Bill Maher February 23, 2010 at 7:52 am

lukeprog: On which topic?  

On “practical morality”. In particularly, the dichotomy between “minute by minute” decision making & “calculated” ethics and what it entails.

This is something I have always found interesting, but have not pursued.

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John D February 23, 2010 at 8:13 am

Bill,

I’m not sure if it covers exactly what you are talking about, but Ken Binmore’s stuff on game theory tries to account for basic day-to-day normative activity (e.g. returning borrowed items, giving way to people on the pavement/sidewalk, holding the door open for someone etc.).

I’d recommend his book “Natural Justice” for starters. He has more complex material as well.

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KRA February 23, 2010 at 11:37 am

I think most morality stems simply from empathy. Empathy is not merely a social construct, there are functions in the brain that allow humans to feel how other people feel.

“Research in recent years has focused on possible brain processes underlying the experience of empathy. For instance, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been employed to investigate the functional anatomy of empathy. These studies have shown that observing another person’s emotional state activates parts of the neuronal network involved in processing that same state in oneself, whether it is disgust, touch, or pain. The study of the neural underpinnings of empathy has received increased interest following the target paper published by Preston and De Waal, following the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys that fire both when the creature watches another perform an action as well as when they themselves perform it. In their paper, they argued that ‘attended perception of the object’s state automatically activates neural representations, and that this activation automatically primes or generate the associated autonomic and somatic responses, unless inhibited.”

So if a person merely feels empathy for those around him, which is already a biological construct in most people, then his actions will be in perfect moral order. Since as atheists we have no higher calling, then the only immorality possible is hurting other people, and I’d argue some animals as well.

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Anonotron February 23, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Luke,

Your Desirism sounds a lot like Desire Satisfactionism. Have you heard of that? If so, how is Desirism different? Chris Heathwood at Colorado has written a bunch of stuff about Desire Satisfactionism here:

http://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/papers.html

Best,
Anonotron

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Anonotron,

Yeah, desirism is different. First, it is a fulfillment, not a satisfaction theory. Second, I suspect that Heathwood’s theory – which I haven’t read in any detail yet – makes actions the primary objects of moral evaluation. Desirism says that desires themselves are the primary objects of moral evaluation.

If I have time to read his stuff later, I’ll write about it here.

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Laura February 23, 2010 at 4:38 pm

I would like to hear more about how this exceeds plain empathy, myself. Basing all morality on “empathy” sounds too simple and pedestrian to be true, but this post seems to show that desirism could be reduced just to that. The fact that we “don’t think about our decisions” points to this—where does anything else fit in?—unless you are saying that once you make a moral decision, you stick to it day-to-day and only then do you stop thinking about, as it becomes automatic?

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Laura,

For the person with good desires, the way to be moral is easy: act on your desires. Then there is the second-order question of: Which desires ought I to have? Which desires are good desires?

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Laura February 23, 2010 at 9:03 pm

lukeprog: Laura,For the person with good desires, the way to be moral is easy: act on your desires. Then there is the second-order question of: Which desires ought I to have? Which desires are good desires?  

I just re-read, and it’s interesting (so is Hare’s… dichotomy, for lack of a better word) — it sounds like ideal observer theory.

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KRA February 23, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Laura: The fact that we “don’t think about our decisions” points to this—where does anything else fit in?—unless you are saying that once you make a moral decision, you stick to it day-to-day and only then do you stop thinking about, as it becomes automatic?  

My problem with desirism, as I understand it from this article, is that is seems to be saying that for your actions to be completely moral it requires a conscious decision making. Humans, however, are a very social creature and it seems completely logical to me that evolution would develop a system for promoting civility towards each other. After all, how would early humans have developed into tribes if the natural state was selfish and it required conscious decision making to be courteous to other people. I think this is easily observable in each of our lives as well. There are certainly times living with a roommate that I felt completely justified at times of being obnoxious, but I would still feel guilt for doing so. I think it can also be argued that many great immoral actions result from making a distinction between “us” and “them.” Race, political systems, nationalities, or even just a large ego, typically people use these things to differentiate one people from another to promote selfishness, suppression of rights, slavery, wars, genocide, and overall hatred. I suspect that a “us” vs. “them” or even just “me” above “them” mentality is able to overcome our natural empathy towards all humans and allow for truely horrific acts.

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 9:24 pm

KRA,

FYI, there are so many misunderstandings your paragraph I can’t even muster the strength to respond

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Sabio Lantz February 24, 2010 at 1:55 am

The role of the archangel, as I see it, is to judge what desires we should have – which desires to promote or inhibit through praise and condemnation.

I remember reading a year or two ago that those considering the measure of freewill that humans have proposed, through some neuro studies, that real freewill only exists in inhibition. So that, when we free choose it is to NOT do something but all the rest is determined.

I wonder if others have heard or considered this archangel function.

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KRA February 24, 2010 at 6:07 am

lukeprog: KRA,FYI, there are so many misunderstandings your paragraph I can’t even muster the strength to respond  

Fuck you. I guess desirism, your made up philosophy, isn’t stopping you from being an asshole.

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lukeprog February 24, 2010 at 7:51 am

KRA,

Lol. Settle down. You’re not the first to misunderstand desirism.

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Bill Maher February 24, 2010 at 8:21 am

KRA, all philosophy is made up.

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KRA February 24, 2010 at 8:51 am

lukeprog: KRA,Lol. Settle down. You’re not the first to misunderstand desirism.  

I came here for an intellectual discussion and you can’t even give me the time of day. Fuck you, you think you’re so high and mighty because you have a blog and made up your own word? Go back to jerking eachother off, sorry for giving this blog concious consideration.

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Kip February 24, 2010 at 9:20 am

On the question of what desires to have, I go back to the proposition that desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

With the caveat of adding the word “intentional” before “action”, I agree.

This means that desires provide the only reason to choose one desire over another.

Agreed — I think this is just restating the prior statement; adding the word “choose” makes it obvious we are talking about intentional actions.

The desires we should have are those for which there are the most and strongest reasons for us to have.

Do you mean “moral-should” have, or “practical-should” have (or both)? I think you mean “moral-should” have, and in your other writings you state that “moral oughts are relative to all desires (reasons for action) that exist”. Per our discussions outside of Luke’s blog, you know that I disagree with this, now.

This, in turn, means that the desires we should have are those that tend to lead to the fulfillment of the most and strongest reasons to promote.

I think I understand this, but the clause “fulfillment of the most and strongest reasons to promote” is a bit confusing. I think you mean “fulfillment of desires for which there are the most and strongest reasons to promote the fulfillment of”.

For others to consider:

My recent question/objection was to the assertion that the Archangel moral-should consider all desires that exist in the moral calculation to determine which desires should be promoted. Alonzo seems to think that this Archangel is some god-like agent. How can s/he possibly consider all desires that exist in order to determine which desires “we” should have? All desires that exist in the entire uni/multiverse, even? That’s impossible. Alonzo himself has said that “ought implies can”, so it follows that since it is not possible for someone to consider “all desires that exist” (even when operating at the Archangel role), then it would be wrong to say that they “moral-should” do so.

So, which desires should be considered? I think this is a prudential question. Not a moral question. The desires that the Archangel prudentially should consider are all the desires that are able to influence the desires in consideration. In essence, part of this process is defining the “sphere of influence of desires”. It is figuring out who are all the moral agents participating in the social system. If any agent is able to affect our desires (through force or social tools), then we prudentially should consider their desires in our calculations (again, during the Archangel role). Agents outside of this sphere of influence (e.g. on the other side of the universe, perhaps), should not be considered in the calculation/evaluation. To do so would not be prudent. And if someone were to say that we have a moral reason to do so, they are begging the question, because at this level we are determining what a “moral reason for action” means.

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eric February 24, 2010 at 11:46 am

KRA: I guess desirism… isn’t stopping you from being an asshole.

lol. i guess luke’s archangel may be reevaluating whether the moral decision to offhandedly dismiss a misguided commenter was the correct one, especially in light of what i perceive to be his desire to cultivate a compassionate and benevolent blog-daddy vibe (it’s working, imho).

classic.

maybe if luke promises his half of the cookies to KRA they’ll stick around and provide further lively interjections.

btw, another great post, alonzo.
this one almost seems like the preface for all the previous posts in this series. if you or luke are collecting this series somewhere you might consider starting with this. just a thought.

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lukeprog February 24, 2010 at 11:59 am

Re: KRA,

I didn’t intend to offend KRA. All I said was that he had misunderstood desirism, which is what happens when most people first encounter the theory. And I just don’t have time to repeat myself every time somebody misunderstands the theory. I’ve written TWO F.A.Q.s on desirism, which address many but not all common concerns. If KRA takes offense and leaves, that’s too bad.

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JakeVortex February 25, 2010 at 5:39 pm

It seems like there should be (at least) three levels at which this all is worked out. You mention the moment by moment, and the Archangel, but there is also the building up of community consensus as well as academic developments. This will (at least hopefully) help guide the Archangel in deciding which desires to challenge and propose some solutions. It will also provide an upward channel for “progress” for the wise among us to challenge the community if some norms are found to be deficient.

[Though likely I just don't yet understand desirism at all and my comment is incoherent ;-) ]

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cl February 27, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Luke,

It’s about staying quiet in the morning so your spouse can sleep and passing on the cookies because you told her you would even though you could take a couple and she wouldn’t notice. It’s about keeping the noise down so as to not wake the neighbors. It’s about making plans to return that book you borrowed. It’s about not buying that flat screen television you want because it is not the most responsible way to spend your money.

The problem is that those are all things Fyfe values. If I do not value them, on what grounds can Fyfe or anybody else who does judge me as “objectively” wrong?

A part of this is that morality cannot be an institution that requires a PhD in brain science, probability theory, and a working knowledge of differential calculus to determine the right thing to do.

I agree with Fyfe there, which is why I was discouraged when you attributed your inability to successfully explain desirism to lack of a book-length dissertation.

How can a moral theory fit this type of decision making?

Because it works for the agent. As Fyfe said, he didn’t consider things like whether his writing would thwart the desires of other communters on the train. He writes on Mondays because it works for him.

It is a combination of current beliefs and desires – a desire to spend my time on the bus doing something useful, a belief that these blog postings do some good in the world, a sense of obligation to those who are expecting me to make some sort of comment.

Each of which are relevant to Fyfe and not necessarily shared by other commuters or other people. Some might see Fyfe’s typing on the train as offensive or annoying. Others might find his articles worthless or even harmful to society. Why should Fyfe’s desire to manage time efficiently by writing on the train be elevated above those who find such annoying or harmful?

No question about what we should do makes sense in the absence of questions about what beliefs and desires we should have.

Exactly, and desirism as I’ve heard it explained to date utterly fails to provide any grounding for the elevation of one set of beliefs and desires above another. For example,

On the question of what beliefs we should have, the short and simple answer is: true beliefs.

..who made Fyfe the arbiter of morality? Who is he to speak on what you or I or anyone else “should” do? I say let Fyfe speak for himself, and let me determine what I “should” do.

The desires we should have are those for which there are the most and strongest reasons for us to have. </blockquote

According to who? Says who? Fyfe? He's simply imposing his own preferences on others here, and that without justification.

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cl February 27, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Damn! I spent twenty+ minutes responding to this, only to find the comment vanished. I apologize if it happens to show up here or elsewhere. Here’s a five-minute reproduction to the best of my ability:

It’s about staying quiet in the morning so your spouse can sleep and passing on the cookies because you told her you would even though you could take a couple and she wouldn’t notice. It’s about keeping the noise down so as to not wake the neighbors. It’s about making plans to return that book you borrowed. It’s about not buying that flat screen television you want because it is not the most responsible way to spend your money.

Those are all Fyfe’s suggested desires; why should I act on Fyfe’s desires if I don’t share them?

..morality cannot be an institution that requires a PhD in brain science, probability theory, and a working knowledge of differential calculus to determine the right thing to do.

I agree. That’s why I was discouraged when Luke attributed his inability to successfully explain desirism on lack of a book-length dissertation.

I have adopted a habit of writing these blog postings on Mondays on my way to work.. It is a combination of current beliefs and desires – a desire to spend my time on the bus doing something useful, a belief that these blog postings do some good in the world, a sense of obligation to those who are expecting me to make some sort of comment.

Again, those are all Fyfe’s desires. Others commuters might find his typing annoying or offensive. Other people mind find his blog posts worthless or even harmful. In such a case, Fyfe’s actions thwart their desires to not be exposed to such.

No question about what we should do makes sense in the absence of questions about what beliefs and desires we should have.

I agree, which is why I say that desirism lacks the ability to establish a set of desires we “should” have. For example,

On the question of what beliefs we should have, the short and simple answer is: true beliefs.

Why? Because Fyfe says so? Who makes him the arbiter of morally good desires? That Fyfe values true beliefs is no justification for the claim that others should value true beliefs. It’s essentially just him imposing his preference on the rest of us.

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Kip February 28, 2010 at 11:59 am

cl: Those are all Fyfe’s suggested desires; why should I act on Fyfe’s desires if I don’t share them?

You’re going to act on your desires. The rest of us are going to think about what kind of desires make for a society in which we’d like to live, and use our moral tools to instill in each other the desires that tend to create that type of society. If you remove yourself from this social system, you are opting to be a sociopath.

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antiplastic February 28, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Kip:
You’re going to act on your desires.The rest of us are going to think about what kind of desires make for a society in which we’d like to live, and use our moral tools to instill in each other the desires that tend to create that type of society.If you remove yourself from this social system, you are opting to be a sociopath. &nbsp

The first thing that springs to mind is that as a practical matter, most of us spend most of our time “building the society in which we’d like to live” through deterrents rather than psychological conversion: it’s easier to make LA a more burglary-free place by locking my door at night than by winning hearts and minds.

But this goes off the mark as a response to CL’s concerns because “using moral language to encourage the type of world you want to live in” is compatible with any degree of psychopathy, just as not fulfilling the desires of people you don’t especially care about is compatible with quite high degrees of moral praiseworthiness. “The kind of world you want to live in” schema is an unbound variable that can be plugged by as many answers as there are people. There is no necessary empirical, conceptual, practical, or moral error in declining to consider what someone else wants as a reason for giving it to them.

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Kip February 28, 2010 at 1:54 pm

as a practical matter, most of us spend most of our time “building the society in which we’d like to live” through deterrents rather than psychological conversion

I don’t think that’s true. Being social creatures I think we spend a great deal of time using social tools to shape the behavior of those around us.

it’s easier to make LA a more burglary-free place by locking my door at night than by winning hearts and minds.

Again, I don’t think this is true.

There is no necessary empirical, conceptual, practical, or moral error in declining to consider what someone else wants as a reason for giving it to them.

I’m having trouble parsing that sentence. But, if I’m understanding you correctly, then my response would be that if you don’t consider the desires of others then you will leave them with no choice but to stop you with whatever level of force is necessary. Obviously, this is what happens in the real world. It’s unfortunate that people act irrationally, when they could act rationally, and consider the desires of all the parties involved to come up with a harmonious solution and create a world where we can all live together without resorting to force.

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antiplastic March 2, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Again, I don’t think this is true.

You don’t think locking my door is a more cost-effective way of preventing burglary than sitting down with several million potential burglars and using vivid thought experiments to illustrate the error of their ways?

I’m having trouble parsing that sentence.But, if I’m understanding you correctly, then my response would be that if you don’t consider the desires of others then you will leave them with no choice but to stop you with whatever level of force is necessary.

I mean that if someone wants to break into my house to feed their coke habit and I take the stance that the fact of their desiring it is not a reason for me to leave my door unlocked, then I have not committed either an empirical error (I have not incorrectly described any states of affairs of the world), a conceptual error (I have not misunderstood the concepts of “reason” or “desire” or “should” when I lock my door to keep him out), a practical error (I am not sabotaging any of my goals when I don’t consider his desire a reason to steal my shit), or a moral error (I am not a morally bad person for not considering his desire to steal to be a reason *for* *me* to leave my door unlocked).

Obviously, this is what happens in the real world.It’s unfortunate that people act irrationally, when they could act rationally, and consider the desires of all the parties involved to come up with a harmonious solution and create a world where we can all live together without resorting to force.  

The classic Fyfist equivocation is creeping back in — when I lock my door I most definitely am “considering the desires” of burglars! I’m just not considering them as reasons *for* *me* to act to fulfill them.

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faithlessgod May 8, 2010 at 12:02 am

Referring to some comments over Heathwood’s theory:

Heathwood’s theory “Subjective Desire Satisfactionism” is a mental state theory, rather than other desire satisfaction theories being world state theories. The latter includes desirism which avoids talking about subjective and objective satisfaction by using satisfaction for the former and fulfilment for the latter (as does Griffin who launched such desire-based reductive ethical theories).

On the the other hand, Heathwood, like desirism rejects idealised desire (Brant) or rational desires (Griffin) due to much the same objections of such idealisation.

Heathwood’s theory is a form of sophisticated hedonism, he compare his to the attitudinal theory of pleasure and pain. It has the same extensional results as his theory and so I cannot see any substantive difference, Heathwood might dissent from this, but having argued that they are extensionally the same, such dissent would not be (extensionally) significant!

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