Sean McDowell and Theistic Morality

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 27, 2010 in Criticism of Atheists,Debates,Ethics

mcdowell-corbett

A recent debate gave me the opportunity to write a post I’ve been wanting to write for a long time.

Christian apologist Sean McDowell debated history teacher James Corbett on the question: Is God the Best Explanation for Moral Values? Grab the audio of the debate at the ever-useful Apologetics 315.

Sean McDowell expounds the William Lane Craig version of the moral argument, which goes like this:

  1. If God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Like Craig, McDowell offers no arguments in favor of premise (2), but instead pumps the emotions of the audience with tales of Nazis and rape. However, because atheists almost always miss the point of the moral argument, McDowell begins with three clarifications:

Warren Buffet, atheist philanthropist

Warren Buffet, atheist philanthropist

  1. Atheists can be moral.
  2. Atheists can know morality.
  3. Believers can do bad things, and do them in the name of God.

McDowell’s central claim, then, is this:

If God does not exist, we do not have a solid foundation for [objective] moral values. But if God does exist, we do have a solid foundation for [objective] moral values.

His opponent, James Corbett, responds with many doubts about McDowell’s certainty in God’s commands – do we pretend that Sean McDowell knows God’s will better than the celebrated theologians of ages past who tortured unbelievers or held slaves? This is a good point, but it is irrelevant to McDowell”s argument.

Corbett also cites Gregory Paul’s 2005 paper showing a correlation between secularism and societal health. He then says that “If the Christian God is necessary for morality, it must follow that belief should correlate with positive social behavior.” But I see no reason to accept this.

Point after point, Corbett fails to engage McDowell’s argument. Instead, he rants against the straw men that McDowell clearly labeled as straw men in his opening statement. His performance is summed up in his own words quite nicely:

Is there another explanation for morality? I’m sure there are many. And the truth is, I’m not an expert in religion or morality.

Well, then. As long as you, a non-expert, are “sure”… I guess that settles it!

When will atheists stop embarrassing themselves in debate? This shows the problem with atheists believing they are, by default, more rational than believers. Atheists don’t think they need to study the relevant subjects, or pay attention to the logic of the Christian’s position. Instead, they just wander in and spout some irrelevant points about the Crusades and religious disagreement. Meanwhile, the Christian can put forth whatever argument he wants – whether it’s a good argument or not – because the Christian will clearly explain why the atheist’s arguments fail, but the atheist will not clearly explain why the Christian position fails. Thus the audience leaves believing the Christian has won. And basically, he has.

McDowell responds to Corbett’s irrelevance kindly but firmly, pointing out quite clearly why each of Corbett’s points were red herrings and did not engage the stated topic of the debate.

Corbett once again accuses McDowell of logical fallacies, even though McDowell has not committed any. He then repeats his red herrings from his opening speech. Hoo-boy.

McDowell responds with humor, and points out that he has nothing to respond to, because Corbett hasn’t addressed the topic of the debate. Corbett completely misunderstands that the debate concerns the ontology of moral values – what philosophers call the “sources of normativity.” Instead Corbett thinks the debate is about why we do things that we believe to be moral, even though McDowell clearly explained the difference in his opening speech, and throughout his rebuttals. Argh!

Then there’s some cross-examination and time for questions, but suffice it to say that Corbett keeps digging his own grave, and McDowell merely hands him the shovel.1

McDowell’s Argument

Because Corbett never addressed McDowell’s argument or provided a foundation for moral values without God, I will do so here and now.

Let us remind ourselves of McDowell’s central claim:

If God does not exist, we do not have a solid foundation for moral values. But if God does exist, we do have a solid foundation for moral values… God is the best explanation for objective moral values.

Now what does he mean by “objective”? McDowell says, for example, that

[Rape] is wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be [wrong] or not.

William Lane Craig offers this illustration of McDowell’s definition:

To say, for example, that [the Holocaust] was wrong [is to say that] it would have been wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brain-washing everyone who disagreed with them.2

McDowell also proposes “three criteria that any adequate moral system must be able to account for”:

  1. Any adequate moral system must have a transcendent standard beyond human nature.
  2. Any adequate moral system must account for free will.
  3. Any adequate moral system must account for what makes humans special.

Desirism

It would be rather startling to all the philosophers who have done ethics without God for centuries if McDowell walked into a room and announced that without God there could be no objective morality. They might look at each other and exclaim, “What did he just say? Did he just say the universe can’t have moral value without a cosmic overlord lurking in the background? Is he serious?”

Of course, there are many theories of objective moral value, and none of them invoke a deity. (Theistic morality is a form of ethical subjectivism; I’ll get to that in a moment.)

So before I respond to McDowell’s argument, let me sketch just one plausible theory of naturalistic, objective moral realism. I call it “desirism.”

I cannot sketch desirism in one blog post. Nor could I sketch it in 30 pages. Desirism interacts with thousands of pages of contemporary meta-ethics, and cannot be boiled down easily. One reason that divine command ethics is so attractive is that it’s easily understood – “God said it, and that settles it” – even if it’s implications are unclear (Slavery or abolition? Genocide or peace? Distribute resources to the poor like Jesus or build wealth through capitalism?)

So I will not be able to thoroughly defend desirism, or even adequately present it. Let me instead try to offer at least a “movie trailer” for the theory of desirism.3

Morality is about reasons for action. Reasons for action to feed the poor. Reasons for action to promote the truth. Reasons for action to not rape.

feed the poorDesirism holds that, as it turns out, the only reasons for action that exist are desires. Other proposed reasons for action do not, in fact, exist. Categorical imperatives, hypothetical social contracts, divine commands, intrinsic value – these things do not exist. However, desires do exist, and they are reasons for action. There is only a reason for action to feed starving people because it would fulfill their desires for food. If people did not desire food but instead desired sunlight, there would instead be reasons for action to give them access to sunlight.

But individual desires are not moral reasons for action in isolation. My desire to successfully rob a bank is a subjective reason for action for me to bring a gun to the robbery, because it will help me fulfill my desire to rob a bank.  (This is usually called ‘practical value’ or ‘prudential value’, not ‘moral value’.)

But morality is concerned with reasons for action as a whole. This would include the desires of the people in the bank to not get shot, the desires of those with a financial stake in the bank to not be robbed, and the desires of people in the community to live in a peaceful and safe society. When accounting for all reasons for action that exist – when accounting for objective moral value – it turns out that my robbing the bank would be objectively wrong.

But don’t confuse desirism with act utilitarianism or rule utilitarianism. I’m not saying that the right act is the one that will fulfill the most desires. Desirism does not claim that acts are the primary objects of moral evaluation. Rather, it says that the reasons for action themselves – the desires - are the primary objects of moral evaluation. So a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts, and a right act is one that a person with good desires would perform.

Now, reading such a brief summary, many objections will immediately come to your mind. This is because I do not have the space to properly spell out the theory. But for the sake of argument let us examine this question: If desirism is coherent, does it engage Sean McDowell’s argument?

Objective

First, note that desirism does offer an account of objective moral value as McDowell defines it. According to desirism, racist slaughter and oppression would still be wrong even if the Nazis had killed or brainwashed anybody who disagreed with them. Even if we all believed racist slaughter and oppression was morally good, they would still be morally wrong according to desirism, because they are actions that come from evil desires – desires that tend to thwart more and stronger desires than they fulfill.

Transcendent

Next, does desirism provide a transcendent standard of moral value?

What does McDowell mean by “transcendent”? If McDowell means just “supernatural”, as he seems to intend later in the debate, then he begs the question against the naturalist. But in intellectual charity I will assume he intends the meaning he gives at the outset of the debate: a moral standard is “transcendent” if it lies above and beyond human nature.

Desirism places the standard of morality in a universal consideration of reasons for action that exist, and this is a standard above and beyond human nature. Why? Because humans are not the only beings with reasons for action. Many other animals have desires, too, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Probably, they have strong desires according to the complexity and sophistication of their neurological structures. A chimpanzee has many desires, but a butterfly probably does not. So desirism’s standard of morality lies above and beyond human nature, and is therefore transcendent according to McDowell’s definition.

By the way, I agree with McDowell that evolution cannot provide a basis for objective moral value. First, because of reasons summed up by Sharon Street. Second, because evolutionary ethics faces its own Euthyphro dilemma. But desirism certainly does not say that whatever we evolved to do is therefore moral.

Free will

Next, must an adequate moral system account for contra-causal free will? That is, must an adequate moral system account for free choices that are not determined by the prior state of the universe?

McDowell cites, of all sources, Dictionary.com:

One of the definitions for ‘moral’ at Dictionary.com is: “capable of conforming to right rules of conduct.”

But this is fully consistent with determinism. Even if our choices are determined, we are still capable of conforming to right rules of conduct. This happens all the time. We make conscious choices to do things that are right or wrong. Whether the prior state of the universe or God’s foreknowledge or the will of a supernatural spirit had anything to do with these choices is irrelevant. Moreover, some have argued that contra-causal free will is incoherent – that is, logically impossible. And, scientific evidence is piling up to show that, whether or not God exists, free will does not exist.

More importantly, contra-causal free will is not needed for morality. You might ask: “Without free will, why should we praise someone for doing what is right, or condemn them for doing what is wrong?” The answer is: “Because that’s the whole point of morality. When you praise people for doing good, you affect people’s desires. You promote good desires – desires that tend to fulfill other desires (including your own). And when you condemn people for doing evil, you diminish evil desires – desires that tend to thwart other desires.”

This is quite obvious in the case of, for example, slavery. Slavery was banished from much of the world – after thousands of years as a standard practice – within a few generations! How? It wasn’t done just by enacting laws prohibiting slavery. It’s not like we all walk around today thinking “I wish I could have slaves, it’s too bad about those damned laws that prohibit it.” No, our desires have changed. They changed because people like Martin Luther King Jr. praised brave abolitionists and condemned racist bigots.

Finally, I would remind McDowell that vast populations of Christians and other theists have rejected the notion of free will and still affirmed humanity’s moral responsibility. Indeed, it’s hard to see in what sense we would have free will if God foreknows everything we will ever do.

So contra-causal free will is not required for objective morality.

Are humans special?

human brainIt’s unclear to me why an “adquate moral theory” must conclude that humans are special. And of course, humans are special in a number of ways. We have the biggest brains of any species. We dominate the world like no other. We can run longer distances than any other species.

More relevant to morality, we are the only species capable of consciously making moral decisions. So humans are special in that way, and desirism acknowledges this.

Desirism also acknowledges that human desires may have more moral significance than animal desires, because our desire factories (our brains) are more advanced than animal desire factories, and therefore seem to produce more and stronger desires.

Moreover, desirism seems to have a much better account for the moral significance of animals than Christians ethics does. According to Christian ethics, slaughtering dolphins or torturing livestock is not wrong because of the harm it does to dolphins and livestock, but perhaps because God commanded it or, as Aquinas argued, because it harms the humans involved by making them feel less averse to harming the animals that matter: humans. In contrast, desirism says that slaughtering dolphins and torturing livestock is wrong precisely because of  the harm it does to dolphins and livestock.

Can God Ground Moral Values?

So I think I’ve offered a robust, plausible account of objective moral value without God. Now, I would like to argue that God cannot ground objective moral values.

Many religious people assume that God is a plausible foundation for moral values, and they do not understand why most moral philosophers have been doing ethics without God for over 300 years. (This includes famous theistic philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Henry Sidgwick.) Indeed, most philosophers living today are moral realists, and most are atheists. Let me explain some of the reasons why this is.

First, the Euthyphro dilemma. If things are good because God says they are good, then morality is completely arbitrary. Whatever God commanded would be morally right. So if he commanded genocide and mass rape – as he is reported to do in Number 31:7-18 – then genocide and mass rape would be morally right. But this evacuates the term ‘moral’ of any significance. ‘Moral’ just means ‘Whatever the boss likes.’ To call God morally good is just to say that he is God. It doesn’t say anything meaningful about his actions, because God would be ‘good’ no matter what he did.

On this point, Christian philosopher Gottfried Leibniz is most eloquent:

In saying… that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful?4

But if things are good for some other reason, then God is at most a messenger of moral duties, and at worst may be a selfish deceiver about genuine moral values. After all, he does supposedly command that we worship and obey him for all eternity – a highly suspicious ‘moral’ command. In any case, if things are good for a reason besides God’s will, then the ground of morality lies beyond God.

Yahweh slaughters the Amorites by throwing rocks from the sky (Joshua 10:10-11).

Yahweh slaughters the Amorites by throwing rocks from the sky (Joshua 10:10-11).

The usual response to this dilemma is to say that morality is grounded in God’s nature, which is merely expressed in his commands. But this hardly avoids the problem, for it would still be the case that whatever it was God’s nature to prefer would be right by definition. If it was in God’s nature to prefer genocide and mass rape, then it would be morally right to commit genocide and mass rape. And this would still diminish the significance of moral terms. To say call God ‘good’ would just mean that God accords to his own nature – which is hardly a praiseworthy accomplishment. God would still be good no matter what his nature was – even if his nature was to command genocide, eternally torture people who had never heard of him, and demand everlasting adherence to his arbitrary decrees.

Why else do most moral philosophers reject theism as a ground of objective moral facts? Though theistic ethics is ‘objective’ in the sense McDowell defines the term – moral truth transcends human moral beliefs – it is not objective in another common sense of the term. Theistic ethics falls under the usual heading of ethical subjectivism: the view that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes of certain people – a particular person of culture (group of people). So unless McDowell wants to say that God is not a person, his theory of morality is really a theory of ethical subjectivism. In contrast, desirism defends a standard of moral value that exists independently of any person’s or people’s attitudes.

Can God Explain Morality?

Finally, let us remind ourselves of the topic of the debate: Is God the Best Explanation of Moral Values?

But in what sense is “God did it” the best explanation for moral values? Does McDowell propose a Bayesian defense of “God did it” as a good explanation for objective moral value? If so, I’d like to see it.

eddington and relativityOr perhaps McDowell intends to offer God as an explanation in a more traditional way, by saying that the God hypothesis possesses certain explanatory virtues as a potential explanation for the existence of objective moral values. In the same way that Einstein’s theory of relativity possesses the explanatory virtues of testability, predictive novelty, explanatory scope, consistency with background knowledge, simplicity, and so on with regard to the diverse phenomena it is invoked to explain, perhaps McDowell thinks that the God hypothesis possesses some or all of these explanatory virtues when posited as an explanation for the existence of objective moral values.

But I do not see how this is the case.

First, is the God hypothesis testable? I’m not sure how. What specific, measurable predictions does the God hypothesis make that we could test? Theologians usually define God such that he is consistent with all data, rendering him untestable. If McDowell thinks the God hypothesis is testable, he must explain why he thinks the God hypothesis makes certain predictions about the world instead of others, and in fact these predictions should turn out to be true if they are to lend support to his explanatory hypothesis.

Second, does the God hypothesis offer any predictive novelty? Again, I’m not sure what. Theologians have used the God hypothesis to predict all sorts of things about the world which science eventually revealed to be false. I’ve never seen the God hypothesis render some precise and surprising new prediction which later turned out to be true – as was the case in many ways with Einstein’s theory of relativity.

contrailsThird, does the God hypothesis offer much explanatory scope? This would mean that the God hypothesis accounts not just for some of the data but for all of the data. To illustrate, this is often a problem with conspiracy theories. For example, conspiracy theories about contrails – the visible exhaust of compressed vapor left behind flying jets – claim that they represent a secret government plan to dump harmful (perhaps mind-controlling) chemicals on people. But this theory does not explain why contrails appear just as often over uninhabited sea and land as over inhabited sea and land, along with many other things. The correct explanation – which has to do with jet exhaust and condensation – does account for these facts.

So does the God hypothesis offer good explanatory scope? Again, because the God hypothesis is offered so vaguely that it could explain any state of affairs, it therefore explains nothing.

Does the God hypothesis exemplify consistency with background knowledge? It doesn’t seem so. The God hypothesis posits something timeless (!!??), spaceless (!!??), all-knowing (!!??), all-powerful (!!??), all-good (!!??) and so on. In short, God is by definition exactly contrary to everything we know and experience in all the usual ways.

Is the God hypothesis simple? Christian philosopher C. Stephen Layman identifies four facets of simplicity:5

  1. The number of things postulated.  Leverrier posited one planet to explain the irregular orbit of Uranus: not two or three or four objects. (The posited planet was later discovered: Neptune.)
  2. The number of kinds of things postulated. A theory that posulates four kinds of subatomic particle to explain phenomena is simpler than a theory that has to postulate 50 different kinds of subatomic particle.
  3. The simplicity of the terms. A term is complex to the extent that it can be understood only by someone who understands other terms. The term ‘ball’ is defined by reference to very few other terms, whereas the term ‘quark’ is defined by reference to a great number of other terms.
  4. The number of statements that receive little or no support from other statements in the hypothesis. Basically, the more things you say, the more likely you are to say something false.

Is the God hypothesis simple in these ways – relative to naturalism? (Desirism is a naturalistic theory of ethics.)

No. The God hypothesis is more complex, on all four fronts. First, both naturalists and theists posit the existence of all the usual things. But theists must posit an additional thing – namely, God.

Second, theists must posit more kinds of things posulated. They must posit both natural and supernatural things. As already stated, they must posit a timeless (!!??), spaceless (!!??), all-knowing (!!??), all-powerful (!!??), all-good (!!??) being. Now that is quite extraordinary.

Third, naturalism is simpler with regard to the simplicity of terms. Naturalism explains things in terms of other things we already understand – other natural things for which we already have good evidence. In contrast, theism employs terms like ‘omnipotent’ and ‘perfectly good’ and ‘omniscient’ that are so difficult to make sense of that theists have written entire books trying to explain what these terms could even mean.

Fourth, naturalism is also simpler with regard to the number of statements. Naturalism basically just says that all entities are physical entities.  Theism claims something like:

Theism: (1) There is exactly one entity that is (2) perfectly morally good and (3) almighty and that (4) exists of necessity.6

Thus, Layman concludes: “I agree that Naturalism… is simpler than Theism.”7

So if Layman wants to argue that God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values, he certainly has his work cut out for him.

Desirism and explanation

How does desirism fare with regard to these common explanatory virtues? Much better than theism, that’s for sure. First, desirism makes a large number of specific predictions about relations between desires and states of affairs, all of which are falsifiable. So far, they have not been falsified.

What about predictive novelty? It depends how you define predictive novelty, but for now I’m willing to concede that desirism may not offer any predictive novelty.

Does desirism have good explanatory scope? I think so. Desirism is grounded in the most well-attested theory of intentional action: the desire-belief model of intentional action, which has been successfully used to explain a wide range of human behavior.

Is desirism consistent with our background knowledge? Yes. It need not posit anything unfamiliar to us, but only beliefs and desires and certain common-sense relations between them.

Is desirism simple? Though I can’t explain the theory in just a few words, it is certainly simpler than theism by virtue of being a naturalistic theory of ethics. It doesn’t postulate a God in addition to the natural world – it only postulates the natural world. And it refers to commonly understood and accepted terms like beliefs and desires.

Summary

Once again, an atheist has embarrassed himself in an awful debate performance against a theist. Christian apologist Sean McDowell – perhaps the next William Lane Craig – presented a clear argument, and his atheist opponent did not attack the argument or present his own argument for a non-theistic explanation of the existence of objective moral values.

So I have provided an objective theory of morality that has greater explanatory virtue than McDowell’s theory of theistic ethics. I have also explained some serious problems with theistic ethics that I do not think McDowell will be able to overcome.

  1. I should note that during the cross-examination, Corbett did no better but McDowell did worse. He begins to expound the off-topic evolutionary argument against naturalism, for example. []
  2. From Craig’s debate with Sinnott-Armstrong, page 17. []
  3. This summary uses certain terms somewhat differently than I use them elsewhere, which will confuse people who are already familiar with desirism. I apologize. This is my attempt to summarize things in a way that may be more clear on a surface level. If we discuss desirism at a more detailed level, then we can be more precise with the meanings of our terms. []
  4. Discourse on Metaphysics II, trans. by George R. Montgomery. []
  5. Letters to Doubting Thomas, pages 23-24. []
  6. Ibid, page 12. []
  7. Ibid, page 29. Actually, Layman’s character Zach says this, but it’s clear that Zach is the character speaking from Layman’s position. []

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{ 149 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex February 27, 2010 at 12:59 pm

If you’ve read it, what do you think about Wielenberg’s “In Defense of Non-Natural Non-Theistic Moral Realism” ( http://philpapers.org/archive/WIEIDO.1.pdf )? Regardless of the merits of his case for non-naturalism, I think he argues powerfully that positing God is no better than his non-naturalism, making God an unnecessary component of explaining morality. That would be another way (besides the explanatory virtues approach) to argue that God doesn’t explain moral values.

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Jlakotas February 27, 2010 at 1:09 pm

You sneak in “objective moral value” without, as far as I can tell, accounting for it. You write,
“But objective reasons for action transcend my own subjective preferences. That is, objective moral value comes from a consideration of all the reasons for action that exist. This would include the desires of the people in the bank to not get shot, the desires of those with a financial stake in the bank to not be robbed, and the desires of people in the community to live in a peaceful and safe society. When accounting for all reasons for action that exist – when accounting for objective moral value – it turns out that my robbing the bank would be objectively wrong.”

Why would S’s robbing the bank be objectively wrong because someone else, even many others, have the desire that the bank not be robbed? That would only be wrong (though still subjectively wrong) only if S had the desire to weigh the desires of others for or against acting. But S could very well not value the desires of others—and presumably, if S is planning to rob a bank, S has already dismissed the desires of the bank tellers and the like as reasons against robbing the bank. What gives “all the reasons for action that exist” its objective normative force?

You seem to give a criterion of this when you say, “So a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts, and a right act is one that a person with good desires would perform.” But what makes the simple fact of the desire being stronger a reason for it being therefore good? You can’t pull those kinds of bunnies out of that kind of hat!

Even so, counter-examples are possible. Imagine bank-robber-S is convinced by your account, but wants a way around it. So, S builds (as I repeatedly heard at a recent conference on neuroscience and cognitive computing, we are increasingly closer to doing) an artificial replica of his brain, and configures it with many of the same desires relevant to robbing the bank. But this isn’t an ordinary artificial brain—it is extremely big and powerful and its desires far surpass human desires in their strength. So artificial-brain-S’s desires to rob the bank (or have the bank robbed by human-S) far outweigh the desires of all the bank-tellers and the like. Would S, then, have an objective reason to rob the bank? (Of course, more realistic cases could be given. Maybe S is an extremely obsessive person, and he has been obsessively planning and desiring to rob the bank for years. Perhaps then his desire to rob the bank would outweigh those that would prefer the bank to not be robbed. Imagine a world in which everyone was convinced of your desirism. Court cases would proceed by the guilty party attempting to show the jury that he or she really, really, really wanted to do X, so much so that his desire to do X far outweighs the desire of all afflicted parties that he not had done X. If the person on trail were right, wouldn’t his action, no matter what it was, be objectively morally good?)

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Aeiluindae February 27, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Excellent post. You raise lots of really good questions. I personally am not as sure if the moral argument for God’s existence has all that much power. I also take issue with arguments of the form “Religious people do bad things in the name of religion, so religion-based morality is invalid.” From my perspective, its like saying global warming isn’t happening because a few of the people who say it is happening have bad data, or because there was a huge snowstorm this winter in the US. That view only sounds sane when you ignore whole mountains of evidence.

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Lorkas February 27, 2010 at 1:57 pm

One reason that divine command ethics is so attractive is that it’s easily understod

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Reginald Selkirk February 27, 2010 at 1:58 pm

1. Any adequate moral system must have a transcendent standard beyond human nature.
2. Any adequate moral system must account for free will.
3. Any adequate moral system must account for what makes humans special.

Any adequate moral system must also account for flying pigs.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Thanks, Lorkas.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Alex,

I like Wielenberg’s paper, though I’d like to see him to address the epistemological problem of non-natural ethics.

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cl February 27, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Luke,

My general feelings are that morality is a tricky issue. From the outset, it seems commonsense to label certain things as “wrong and always wrong,” for example murder, but what if one murder prevents another 1,000? Also, for the record, I believe that objective moral values could actually exist without God. For example, if the universe has something equivalent to a “moral field” that mechanically dispenses rewards and punishments based upon certain actions, then the statement that an “objective moral standard” exists would have meaning. Similarly, if God created life and the universe and has decreed divine commands for living, the statement that an “objective moral standard” exists also has meaning. Under either of those systems, to say that any given person “should” perform act X can have meaning outside of personal preference (subjectivity).

Further, note that neither case would guarantee the “correctness” of the objective moral standard: the existence of an objective moral standard and the existence of a “correct” objective moral standard should be considered separately. After all, it could be possible that the universe is deprecated, or that God is really Satan. IOW, an objective moral standard is not necessarily a “correct” one.

However, if no such field exists or no such being has issued said decrees, then the statement that an “objective moral standard” exists lacks meaning. This is why I think “desirism” as expounded by Fyfe and yourself lacks meaning: to ground itself, it needs precisly the “intrinsic value” Fyfe denies.

As Jlakotas notes,

Why would S’s robbing the bank be objectively wrong because someone else, even many others, have the desire that the bank not be robbed?

In the absence of either of the two aforementioned scenarios, at the end of the day you have no foundation to judge S as “objectively wrong.” You can say S did something you personally disliked, or that you would never do what S did, but what you can’t say is that S is objectively wrong.

So I think I’ve offered a robust, plausible account of objective moral value without God. (Luke)

I don’t. To me, we’re right back where we always were: desirism’s inability to ground itself in anything but group desire (a.k.a. subjectivity).

Even if we all believed racist slaughter and oppression was morally good, they would still be morally wrong according to desirism, because they are actions that come from evil desires – desires that tend to thwart more and stronger desires than they fulfill. (Luke)

I disagree. If we all desired to be raped and slaughtered, rape and slaughter would fulfill our desires. It would be good according to desirism. This is what I mean when I say desirism can’t ground itself. It can never be objective because evaluations are always contingent on subjective consensus concerning good.

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Aeiluindae February 27, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I disagree. If we all desired to be raped and slaughtered, rape and slaughter would fulfill our desires. It would be good according to desirism.

I don’t think it would. First of all, wanting rape kind of negates the idea of rape, because rape is inherently not consensual. If you want it, its not rape. Secondly there would be many other desires thwarted by being killed, not just the desire to continue living. Even if it was the single most overwhelming desire for every human on earth, the desire to be killed would thwart everyone else’s desire to be killed. Even if the desire to kill and the desire to be killed were equally overwhelming, fulfilling either desire would tend to thwart the same desires for others.

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EvanT February 27, 2010 at 3:30 pm

cl: I disagree. If we all desired to be raped and slaughtered, rape and slaughter would fulfill our desires. It would be good according to desirism.

Actually, the desirability of rape negates the whole meaning of the word. In a world where a stranger could grab you off the street and *ahem* your brains out, that would be called sex and would be the normal means of procreation (procreation being objectively desirable by default for any given species [that cares to stick around]).

You seem to be using “rape” it in the sense that the rapist belongs to our world, enjoying in his evil intent and the fact that he’s having sex with someone against their will, while he doesn’t know that the victim (and basically anyone he could’ve chosen) would react normally by thinking “I scored!”.

I see your argument like this; saying “it’s wrong to wear red” (from our point of view) in a universe where all creatures have black and white vision. No one would understand you and you wouldn’t have been able to do it in the first place (in the same sense that it’s pointless arguing why our universe can support life, since otherwise we wouldn’t be here to debate the point in the first place).

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Sabio Lantz February 27, 2010 at 5:19 pm

(1) Superb ! Fantastic post. This is a reference post since “Morality” is one of the most common reasons the general believer states they feel a need to believe in God. You are arguing against a common intuition of believers.

(2) But I wish you could draw a diagram sometime to illustrate show how desirism is not an act or rule utilitarianism. I still can’t get that through my head — and I am a visual learner.

(3) Concerning “Are Humans Special?”,
you said: “We dominate the world like no other.”
Bacteria can indefinitely thrive in more environs than we can.

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Tom Gilson February 27, 2010 at 5:21 pm

You say,

Morality is about reasons for action.

Really, now. You start there as if that were a settled and agreed fact. But the language of morality is not the language of reasons for action, except insofar as right and wrong are reasons for action. If morality is about reasons for action, it is only secondarily so. If you’re going to make it entirely about reasons for action, you ought to at least take a shot at giving us some reason to think it so.

This may be only a movie trailer version of desirism, but if you can’t even get started — if you can’t even get the film rolling in the projector — you aren’t giving us a preview of anything.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Tom,

Yours is a common complaint, and the real problem is not you or any of my objectors, but that I haven’t written a book-length defense of desirism yet.

The short response is that all theories of morality begin with definitions and axioms. Theistic morality defines good and bad in terms of God’s commands or God’s nature. Desirism defines good and bad in terms of reasons for action. And so on. May the theory that both (1) matches something close to what we mean when we use moral terms, and (2) makes only TRUE claims, win.

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Tom Gilson February 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Close, but not quite. It’s not quite true that theistic morality defines good and bad axiomatically in terms of God’s commands or nature. Rather, God’s nature is good, and God reveals what is good. Theistic morality is not just based on axioms picked out of the air. It’s based on revealed foundational reality.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Tom,

Can you clarify your position for me, or point me to some writing that does? I don’t know what it means to say that “God’s nature is good” without defining goodness in terms of God’s nature. Are you defining goodness with reference to something else, and then saying that, as it turns out, God’s nature happens to correspond to that independent definition of ‘good’?

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Tom Gilson February 27, 2010 at 6:08 pm

I think you can look up the Euthyphro dilemma at LeaderU or any of the other major Christian websites, including my own blog.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Lol. Care to be more specific? Is there are particular article that defends the position you find persuasive?

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Lorkas February 27, 2010 at 6:17 pm

More relevant to morality, we are the only species capable of consciously making moral decisions.

I’m not sure that this can go without argument. There seems to be at least some evidence that some other species make moral decisions (at least in the same sense that humans “make moral decisions” if we reject contra-causal free will).

Here’s one study, for example: http://tinyurl.com/RhesusStudy

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Lorkas February 27, 2010 at 6:18 pm

BTW I tried to request deletion on my first post (I just wanted you to see it and correct the error), but for some reason my post appeared only after a delay.

There are a couple of other typo errors I’ve noticed so far, but I won’t make a post with every error I see.

Feel free to delete this comment and the first one.

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Tom Gilson February 27, 2010 at 6:22 pm

No, Luke, I don’t want to chase that down with you. I think it’s enough to have pointed out that you started with an unsupported statement, which you later called axiomatic. I also pointed out that the evidence of moral language contradicts your assertion, which certainly weakens your claim that it can be considered axiomatic. I have also called into question your view that a moral system has to start with axioms, and if I had time I would work that question considerably more. But actually I’m trying to write a talk right now and I think I’ll let you look up Euthyphro on your own. You can find it, you have the wherewithal I’m sure.

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TaiChi February 27, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Nice post, Luke.

But objective reasons for action transcend my own subjective preferences. That is, objective moral value comes from a consideration of all the reasons for action that exist.

I think this needs a little clearing up. Earlier you say that the only reasons for action that exist are desires, and this looks for all the world like you are saying reasons for action can be objective because individual desires are objective. But here you deny that individual desires are really objective, and instead say that the objectivity of moral value depends on the balance of all desires. That looks contradictory (individual desires both are and aren’t objective), and is confusing (how does the sum of the parts, which are subjective desires, add up to an altogether different whole, which is objective?).
If I have it right, I’d say this instead: “Individual desires are reasons for action, and morality is concerned with reasons for action, so morality is concerned with individual desires. Individual desires are objective (they exist), so morality is objective too. But not just any desire in isolation is peculiarly moral – morality is concerned with reasons for action as a whole, and so all desires count toward the moral. Thus, even though morality is concerned with individual desires, it is not and cannot be subjective in the sense of being idiosyncratic.”

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Kiwi Dave February 27, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Great post, very stimulating, and an interesting response from Jlakotas – I’ll have to re-read both.

To come at the God’s nature justification from a different angle, I would say that either God gave herself her nature, or something else gave God her nature. Either way, the Euthypro dilemma is alive, and the second alternative is incompatible with Christian claims about God.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 7:41 pm

TaiChi,

Yes, you’ve got it right. That’s a good suggestion. I’ll try to reword.

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cl February 27, 2010 at 8:26 pm

..wanting rape kind of negates the idea of rape, because rape is inherently not consensual. If you want it, its not rape. (Aeiluindae)

..the desirability of rape negates the whole meaning of the word. (EvanT)

These objections are identical but misplaced, if you’ll bear with me for a moment. I’m using the string “desires rape” in terms of somebody who really desires to be raped, or that really desires to be killed. IOW, someone who will consent to that which they would normally not consent to in order to fulfill a larger “guiding desire.” That’s what I’m getting at. Any person could justify their desire to rape and kill, or their desire to be raped and killed, as “good” pursuant to some larger guiding desire(s). The former is precisely the mentality that guides the psychopath and the latter is precisely the switch cult leaders and other demagogues are skilled at flipping in weak-willed individuals. It’s not uncommon to hear victims of cult brainwashing say things like, “I didn’t want to have sex with him per se, but it’s okay that he raped me because X came about as a result,” where X represents the fulfillment of some larger guiding desire that the agent genuinely desired.

I would like any of desirism’s defenders to explain how the definition of a “good desire” as “one that fulfills other desires” – whether in the context of the individual or society as a whole – can be supported by anything other than subjectivity and/or mob rule.

Morality is about reasons for action. (Luke)

Really, now. You start there as if that were a settled and agreed fact… If you’re going to make it entirely about reasons for action, you ought to at least take a shot at giving us some reason to think it so…

..you started with an unsupported statement, which you later called axiomatic. I also pointed out that the evidence of moral language contradicts your assertion, which certainly weakens your claim that it can be considered axiomatic. I have also called into question your view that a moral system has to start with axioms, (Tom Gilson)

I share your objections, Tom.

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TaiChi February 27, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Jlakotas:
What gives “all the reasons for action that exist” its objective normative force?

Can you clarify what you mean by “objective normative force”? Because I think Luke’s explanation fits the standard use of those terms.
Moral valuations are objective because they depend only on facts about desires, and desires are objective. They are normative because they prescribe a standard of behavior for the individuals in a community to adhere to. And they have force because the standards are directly based on the desires of those individuals, who have a natural interest in the satisfaction of their desires and will predictably act so as to protect that interest.
On the other hand, Desirism does not imply a rational compulsion which is specially moral, and perhaps this is what you are referring to. But so what? Is it obvious that there is some special normative force operating, above and beyond what Desirism describes? That, when apprehended, would make evil acts not only deplorable by society, but would make the evil acts positively irrational for anyone to carry out? I don’t think there’s any such thing, and while we may wish that there was such a rational compulsion, a theory of morality need not be judged by whether it accommodates this speculation.

So artificial-brain-S’s desires to rob the bank (or have the bank robbed by human-S) far outweigh the desires of all the bank-tellers and the like. Would S, then, have an objective reason to rob the bank?

I think yes. Why not? It’s not intuitive, I grant you. But then neither is your counterexample. It is very difficult to imagine the artificial brain you describe, so we should expect that our intuitions fail to deliver the moral judgment derived from Desirism.
What I do find, when I try hard to imagine the scenario, is that my convictions about the moral value of robbing a bank begin to erode. I find I’m not quite sure what to think. I’d like to say that it was still wrong, relying on moral judgments I’ve made of other robberies, but equally I may as well generalize from the theory of desirism and draw an inference about the robbery that way. Either way, I can’t rely on some simple intuition that robberies are wrong, and so I don’t your counterexample decisive.

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cl February 27, 2010 at 9:08 pm

TaiChi,

Pardon me for the interjection, but part of the problem for me is the way the word objective is being used here. For example, when you say “individual desires are objective” [because they exist], something about that doesn’t seem right. To me, individual desires are subjective, end of story. To me, objective refers to things like trees or houses or people or brains, things that exist on a molecular, chemical, atomic or quantum level, things that have a referent in reality outside of our minds. Likewise, subjective refers to things like emotions, values, preferences and individual desires, things whose “existence” is contingent on [claimed to be emergent properties of] the subject making the assertion, things that lack a referent in reality outside of our minds.

What I do find, when I try hard to imagine the scenario, is that my convictions about the moral value of robbing a bank begin to erode. I find I’m not quite sure what to think. I’d like to say that it was still wrong, relying on moral judgments I’ve made of other robberies, but equally I may as well generalize from the theory of desirism and draw an inference about the robbery that way. Either way, I can’t rely on some simple intuition that robberies are wrong..

I feel the same way.

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Nick Barrowman February 27, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Luke, how does desirism deal with the issue of “opportunity cost”? Suppose actions X and Y are mutually exclusive and they are both right actions. Choosing X precludes Y, but suppose Y satisfies far more desires than X. Doesn’t that mean that it’s wrong to choose X?

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ThePowerofMeow February 27, 2010 at 9:27 pm

TOM: “Rather, God’s nature is good, and God reveals what is good. Theistic morality is not just based on axioms picked out of the air. It’s based on revealed foundational reality.”

POM: “Rather, my feelings are good, and they reveal what is good. My feelings are not just based on axioms picked out of the air. They are based on experienced foundational reality.”

OR

POM: “Rather, reason is good, and it reveals what is good. Reason-based morality is not just based on axioms picked out of the air. It’s based on logical foundational reality.”

OR

POM: “Rather, social conditioning is good, and it reveals what is good over time. It is not just based on axioms picked out of the air. It’s based on revealed foundational reality.”

All this is just to say that I think Luke is right that first principles are definitely involved in any pursuit of knowledge, including morality. But Tom is right that they are not “picked out of the air.” They are not provable, but we can appeal to our common experience to provide good reasons for them. This seems very religion-friendly to me – it’s a bit mystical.

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Charles February 27, 2010 at 9:42 pm

I would like any of desirism’s defenders to explain how the definition of a “good desire” as “one that fulfills other desires” – whether in the context of the individual or society as a whole – can be supported by anything other than subjectivity and/or mob rule.

cl,

A desirist says, “A good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire is one tends to thwart other desires.” It is, as you say, a matter of definition. If you are talking to a desirist, this is simply what these words mean for them.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Nick,

Here is one relevant post.

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cartesian February 27, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Hi Luke,

So according to desirism, “a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.”

Here’s an objection. Suppose the Nazis had killed or brainwashed anyone who disagreed with them, and succeeded in conquering the world. They keep a handful of Jewish people around in zoos, just to torture. Suppose the most popular television show in Naziland features ordinary Nazis — selected by lottery from among the Nazi population — torturing these Jewish people just for fun. The billions of Nazis in the television audience absolutely LOVE it. It’s like American Idol to them. They look forward to it all week. It’s what they want most in life: to see those Jewish people tortured. These Jewish people are kept in a pretty sorry mental state (due to nearly constant torture, and perhaps even some drugs), so that each of their desires not to be tortured is weaker than each of the Nazis desires to torture them.

You and your friend Jerk live in Naziland. Jerk is a typical Nazi: he really badly wants to win the lottery so he can appear on this television show and torture some Jewish people. You, on the other hand, don’t. You’ve done some thinking lately, and you’ve concluded that torturing people just for fun is awful, and you want no part of it. (Naturally, you keep these opinions to yourself, for fear of being taken in for “re-education.”)

Clearly, in this situation, your desire is good and Jerk’s desire is bad. But, in this situation, only Jerk’s desire tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts. (His desire, if satisfied, would fulfill the very strong desires of billions of blood-thirsty Nazis, while thwarting the weaker desires of only a few Jewish people.) Your desire, however, actually tends to thwart more and stronger desires than it fulfills. So, according to desirism, *your* desire is bad and *Jerk’s* desire is good.

But that gets things exactly backwards. So desirism is false.

————–
Later, you say: “According to desirism, racist slaughter and oppression would still be wrong even if the Nazis had killed or brainwashed anybody who disagreed with them. Even if we all believed racist slaughter and oppression was morally good, they would still be morally wrong according to desirism, because they are actions that come from evil desires – desires that tend to thwart more and stronger desires than they fulfill.”

For reasons I’ve just given, I think this is pretty clearly false. So your argument for the conclusion that desirism gives an objective account of morality fails.

—————
Also, by the way, I really can’t see any substantive difference between desirism and preference-satisfaction utilitarianism. You say that, on desirism, the “primary” objects of moral evaluation are desires. Good desires are the ones that tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than they thwart. Well, at least since Mill, utilitarians have said that, even though strictly speaking only consequences are good, things like intentions, character traits, motives, people, etc. can all be evaluated as “good” insofar as they tend to promote good consequences.

So a preference-satisfaction utilitarian should be more than happy to say that preferences are good insofar as they tend to promote good consequences. (And of course, on this theory, good consequences are preferences being satisfied.) So a preference satisfaction utilitarian can happily agree with you when you say that good desires tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than they thwart. I’m not sure if they can agree with you that the “primary” objects of moral evaluation are desires, but I don’t really understand what you mean when you say that desires are the “primary” objects of moral evaluation. In exactly what sense are they primary, first, fundamental, most important, etc.? And why can’t a preference-satisfaction utilitarian agree with you there?

Basically, the worry is that desirism, supposedly some hip new theory, is really just warmed-over preference-satisfaction utilitarianism, a popular theory that’s been around for quite a while.

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cl February 27, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Charles,

A desirist says, “A good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire is one tends to thwart other desires.”

I understand that; I submit that it’s meaningless philosophical claptrap lacking any referent in reality.

Cartesian,

..in this situation, only Jerk’s desire tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts. (His desire, if satisfied, would fulfill the very strong desires of billions of blood-thirsty Nazis, while thwarting the weaker desires of only a few Jewish people.)

Exactly. IOW, mob rule is the arbiter of “morally good decisions” under desirism.

[Luke's] argument for the conclusion that desirism gives an objective account of morality fails.

I agree.

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Charles February 27, 2010 at 10:36 pm

cl
I understand that; I submit that it’s meaningless philosophical claptrap lacking any referent in reality.

Words mean whatever we decide they mean. We could have invented a new word for ‘atom’ when we discovered the electron. We didn’t. We simply redefined it.

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TaiChi February 27, 2010 at 10:38 pm

cl,

Pardon me for the interjection, but part of the problem for me is the way the word objective is being used here. For example, when you say “individual desires are objective” [because they exist], something about that doesn’t seem right. To me, individual desires are subjective, end of story.

I think there a multiple senses of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ out there. If you disagree with the way I’ve used them, then I think you’re well within your rights to do so. Nothing significant rides on it, from my point of view.
But just so we understand each other, I’ll translate:
“Individual desires are reasons for action, and morality is concerned with reasons for action, so morality is concerned with individual desires. Individual desires are exist, so morality exists too. But not just any desire in isolation is peculiarly moral – morality is concerned with reasons for action as a whole, and so all desires count toward the moral. Thus, even though morality is concerned with individual desires, and is therefore subjective, it is not and cannot be idiosyncratic. That is, morality is not merely decided by one individual alone – it is subjective, but not subjectivist.”

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 10:46 pm

cartesian,

You are crystal clear as always. Thank you.

I’ll respond to the bulk of your comment in a later post, but I’ll address your final section now.

Until recently, nearly all consequentialist theories were act-consequentialist or rule-consequentialist. Recently, philosophers like Parfit and Pettit and Smith have advocated ‘global consequentialism’ such that “Consequentialism covers, not just acts and outcomes, but also desires, dispositions, beliefs, emotions, the colour of our eyes, the climate, and everything else. More exactly, [consequentialism] covers everything that could make outcomes better or worse.” More similar to desirism, R.M. Adams came up with ‘Motive Utilitarianism’ in 1976.

But these theories make slightly different claims than desirism does. So it’s true that desirism is not a revolutionary theory. Frankly, I think that counts in its favor, if anything. But I’m more concerned with whether or not desirism is coherent and true.

Desires are the primary objects of moral evaluation such that the right act (or the good law, etc.) is defined in terms of good desires. A right act is one that a person with good desires would perform. A right law is one that a person with good desires would enact. And so on.

A preference satisfation utilitarian is free to agree with me about that, though I haven’t seen one do so. In any case, there are other differences between desirism and preference satisfaction utilitarianism.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 10:48 pm

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TaiChi February 27, 2010 at 10:55 pm

That really is an excellent counterexample, Cartesian. I don’t have a reply, but I promise to think about it.

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lukeprog February 27, 2010 at 11:03 pm

TaiChi,

Actually, it represents the #1 most common misunderstanding of desirism. I call it ‘desirism’ instead of ‘desire utilitarianism’ precisely in an attempt to avoid this misunderstanding, but it still pops up constantly.

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cartesian February 27, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Hi Luke,
Of course I look forward to the future post in which you explain how that Nazi counterexample misunderstands desirism. ;-)

Until then, I was curious about this bit of your last comment: “A right act is one that a person with good desires would perform.”

You offer that as a definition. I know this is the internets so we’re being a bit casual, but I’m having a hard time understanding the definition as you’ve written it. You tell me what a person with good desires *would* do, but you don’t spell out the conditions under which the person would do it.

It would be uncharitable of me to interpret you as meaning “under any conditions,” since there are straightforward counterexamples in which the person with good desires *cannot* do the right act. There’s a baby drowning. The right act is to save the baby. But there’s also an assassin who can read minds and will kill anyone with good desires who gets close to the baby. Still, it would be right to save the drowning baby. Yet no person with good desires would do that, in this situation. Any such person would be dead, in this situation. Cooked up, I know, but I’m pretty sure it works as a counterexample.

I also don’t think you’d want to say that the right act is what a person with good desires would do *if she could*, since again there are counterexamples. That baby’s drowning again, but she’s wearing a cloaking device, so she’s completely invisible (and underwater, so inaudible). Still, the right act is to save the baby from drowning. Yet no person in the situation would do this, since no person in the situation would believe that the baby was drowning. So even though a person with good desires *could* save the drowning baby, she wouldn’t, since she wouldn’t have the requisite beliefs. Cooked up again, I know, but it’s late, and I’m pretty sure it still works as a counterexample.

So maybe you could just tell me what you mean when you say “a right action is one a person with good desires would do.” Would do, under what conditions?

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cl February 28, 2010 at 12:29 am

Cartesian,

If you disagree with the way I’ve used them, then I think you’re well within your rights to do so. Nothing significant rides on it, from my point of view.

I agree. It wasn’t so much that I disagreed with you, but that I was having difficulty deciding the extent to which we agree. Your rewording worked fine for me, and I saw your drowning-baby thought experiment as unnecessary. The Nazi one seems to refute the validity of desirism just fine. Still, in response to your baby analogy, I’d say the right action is trying to save the baby, which remains right whether we actually save the baby or not. While I agree when you say,

..there are straightforward counterexamples in which the person with good desires *cannot* do the right act.

I don’t think the example of the assassin constitutes one of them. The assassin might certainly prevent the baby from being rescued, but doesn’t necessarily prevent people from trying. I think a better example of an instance where the person with good desires literally cannot do the right act would be a **dumb** paralytic with a gun who witnesses a murder. In that case, the person with good desires can neither prevent the murder, nor make any attempt to do so, perhaps with the exception of prayer or some other internally-focused process intended to bring about an external result.

So maybe you could just tell me what you mean when you say “a right action is one a person with good desires would do.” Would do, under what conditions? (Cartesian, to Luke)

For me, the problem is that neither Luke nor Fyfe can ground their definition of “good desires.” To define a desire as “good” simply because it “tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts” seems absolutely meaningless to me. Your Nazi example sufficiently illustrates this.

**as in unable to speak

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cl February 28, 2010 at 12:57 am

Luke,

That’s the second time tonight you’ve replied to my objections by simply re-asserting a claim. No big deal, as you’re well within your rights to relegate my objections to KRA status, but just asserting that I’m wrong doesn’t make desirism appear any more coherent or true. By the looks of the comment threads, I’m not the only one with objections, and in that I find some solace. At some point, you and Fyfe are going to have to actually defend this theory as opposed to just re-asserting your interlocutor’s misunderstanding.

For the record, I’m not the least bit enthused by Fyfe’s willingness to accuse his critics as having an “interest” in dishonesty. That I don’t think his theory holds water doesn’t make me dishonest. The minute someone can explain it in simple language that makes sense and “clicks”, I’ll retract my objections and join you both in the trenches. In the meantime, I find it odd and borderline arrogant that Fyfe doesn’t seem to seriously consider A) the possibility that his theory is invalid, or, B) the possibility that his theory is valid but he lacks the articulation to make it “click” for the general reader. Mind you, he’s a pretty articulate guy.

Let me distill my objections to desirism into two concise statements:

1) Neither you nor Fyfe have grounded your definition of “good desires” as those “that tend to fulfill the most and the strongest desires of others,” that is, the fact that desire X fulfills more and/or stronger desires than desire ~X doesn’t make it good;

2) To define “good desires” as those “that tend to fulfill the most and the strongest desires of others” implies that if more people desire X than ~X, and/or those who desire X do so more strongly than those who desire ~X, they are right.

You assert that desirism is not majoritarianism. It may be that such is the case and that I am in fact misunderstanding the nuances of the theory. However, from Fyfe’s page you link to:

Be that as it may, desire utilitarianism does not say, “The right act is the act that favors the majority.” It says, “The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed.” (Fyfe)

Then why not leave it at that? Why add the word “most” into the equation at all? Don’t you see a discrepancy between, “The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed,” and “good desires [are] those desires that tend to fulfill the most and the strongest desires of others?” Look, right here:

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

Fyfe’s use of the word most implies the very majoritarianism you both deny. Fyfe’s out seems to be to simply shift focus to the word strongest:

One of the implications of this is that a smaller number of relatively strong and stable desires will outrank a larger number of weaker and transient desires. The torture of one person to bring a weak pleasure to several would not be justified on this theory – even if those who experience the weak pleasure are able to outvote those who would be tortured. (Fyfe)

Again, if the strength of those who desire X trumps the number of those who desire ~X, then why include the word “most” at all? Further, I see no referent in reality for Fyfe’s distinction between strong and weak desires. He simply declares the desires of those who seek aversion to torture as “strong,” then paints the desires of their opponents as “weak,” all the while no justification for this distinction is made and then we get the same old standard line:

..the focus of moral evaluation is not on actions (the right act is the act that pleases the majority), but desires themselves (a good desire is the desire that tends to fulfill other desires). (Fyfe)

I can’t agree with Fyfe either in the context of an isolated individual or in the larger context of society. By this definition, killing, even genocide can be either “bad” or “good” depending on the number and strength of the desires for it weighed against the number and strength of the desires against it.

The desire to torture is not a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. (Fyfe)

Sure, the desire to torture is not a desire that tends to fulfill other desires of “normal” individuals like us, but try telling that to high-level interrogators and psychopaths, both of which have many strong desires fulfilled by torturing somebody. Further, in the case of the interrogator, if their torture of some subject results in information that confers a real increase to our national security, untold millions of desires have been fulfilled in that act of torture.

Lastly, take a look at this:

In making these evaluations, we are not looking at what the majority in society actually wants. We are looking at what the majority in society should want. (Fyfe)

Who is Fyfe or you or I or anybody else to say what the majority in society should want?

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EvanT February 28, 2010 at 1:49 am

Is it me or most people who object to desirism (in this case, but I’ve seen it with happen at discussions about other moral theories as well) seem to forget that moral theories are meant to explain what we observe about human behaviour. I honestly don’t know what purpose the constant parading of utopic Earths serves. Is it surprising that most utopic scenarios cannot be satisfied with a moral theory, since moral theories are based on the actual world and what we can observe?

It’s a THEORY. It’s supposed to explain the data at hand. Am I wrong to assume that?

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faithlessgod February 28, 2010 at 3:04 am

Hi Luke

Whilst I like your exposition of desirism in response McDowells argument I would make two points.

1. Desirism is in fact simpler as well as far superior to divine command theory, and I would not admit from the first instance that it is not. This might be a question of debate style. Still it use here is unnecessary and gives opportunity to others, as in this comment thread, to divert attention from the central weaknesses of divine command theory

2. You miss the most central riposte to McDowell but say everything else but this. That is that he has the moral argument upside down:

(P1)If God – specifically of the kind defined by McDowell, Laine and Gilson – then objective moral values exist.
(P2)Objective moral values do exist.

(C ) Therefore, God – specifically of the kind defined by McDowell, Laine and Gilson – does exist.

The correct argument is
(P1*)If God – specifically of the kind defined by McDowell, Laine and Gilson – then objective moral values do not exist.
(P2)Objective moral values do exist.

(C*) Therefore, God – specifically of the kind defined by McDowell< Laine and Gilson- does not exist.

This argument can wielded by anyone regardless of whether they hold that morality is objective or not, since it is a perfomative contradiction by McDowell, Gilson et al to assert P2 (and not an obligation for anyone else) and to falsely conclude C when it must be C* since P1 is false and P1* is true.

P1 is false due to Euthyphro include any post-Thomistic argument such as espoused by Gilson. He is unable to resolve the “Is it good because it is in god’s eternal nature or is it in god’s eternal nature because it is good?” dilemma without taking the first horn – as much as he tries to avoid admitting this. This is, of course, the subjective horn (which is more relevant than stating the “arbitrariness” for which his “eternal” modifier is supposedly meant to resolve).

You, independently makes as similar point in your post over ethical subjectivism.

Either way P1 is false and P1* is true hence the perfomative contradiction (so possibly logically incoherent position they take).

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faithlessgod February 28, 2010 at 3:52 am

Of course I mean Craig not Laine in the previous comment. Plus note I ran out of time to correct some of my emphasis in that comment.

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 5:16 am

I have a basic problem with the terms in the Theistic argument. What “Objective Moral Values” and which “God”. Let’s not look at examples tainted by history but seek a relevant conflict as illustration right now. The Taliban was a highly disciplined governing body operating with a distinct morality aligned with God. A person who was raped and murdered in the tribal conflicts pre-Taliban in Afghanistan would consider the Draconian justice imposed by the Taliban as objectively moral in relation to its preceding chaos. We don’t because we live in a representative republic and value individual liberty. My point is that the Taliban leaders would agree with the theistic premise regarding objective morality and justify shooting women in the back of the head on football fields for defying allah as evidence of objective morality and evidence of god. The Christian theist can only invoke objective morality as wrong with the Taliban killings by invoking Jesus which of course is a highly immoral thing to do since objective morality shows there is only one true god. My point is that there is no objective moral standard when you invoke such a thing as a god proof. objective moral standard becomes relative in its meaning based on the popularity of the ideology most successful in coalescing economic power. Anything else is illusion.

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lukeprog February 28, 2010 at 7:38 am

cartesian,

Desirism accepts that there are genuine moral dilemmas. Think of it this way: we don’t have much reason to promote or condemn desires in such a specific way that people will generally make some ‘right’ choice in the extremely unlikely situation of a baby drowning near an assassin. Here’s more.

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Rick M February 28, 2010 at 7:39 am

“When accounting for all reasons for action that exist – when accounting for objective moral value – it turns out that my robbing the bank would be objectively wrong.”

What if you are Robin Hood and you rob a bank to distribute the money to aid the disaster relief in Haiti?

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 7:58 am

It would be interesting to filter the theistic argument and desirism through the lens of James’ pragmatism.

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Thomas Reid February 28, 2010 at 7:59 am

cl:
I can’t agree with Fyfe either in the context of an isolated individual or in the larger context of society. By this definition, killing, even genocide can be either “bad” or “good” depending on the number and strength of the desires for it weighed against the number and strength of the desires against it.

Exactly. faithlessgod and I kicked this around last year. See my third objection here:

http://merelymist.blogspot.com/2009/11/letter-2-to-faithlessgod.html

With the right inputs, any “calculation” can yield either a good or bad result.

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cartesian February 28, 2010 at 10:10 am

Hi Luke,
I didn’t really understand how your last response was meant to engage my previous comment. There, I asked you about your definition of a right action as the one that a person with good desires would do. I asked: “Would do, under what conditions?” If you don’t specify any conditions, the definition is false. If the condition is just that the person with good desires *can* do the action, the definition is false. So what are the conditions?

On another note, you said that my Nazi counterexample misunderstands desirism. I’ve thought about it a bit more, and I just can’t see how that’s so. According to desirism, “a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.” Didn’t I describe a case in which a good desire (namely, not to torture Jewish people) did not tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts? If I did, then desirism is false.

Since you still think desirism is true, you must deny one of these:
(a) In the case I described, the desire not to torture Jewish people was a good desire.
(b) In the case I described, the desire not to torture Jewish people did not tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.

If you accept both (a) and (b), you have to deny that “a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.” But since desirism entails that, you’ll have to deny desirism.

So which one goes, (a) or (b)? And why?

Both (a) and (b) look extremely plausible to me. So I’m going to reject desirism.

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Chuck February 28, 2010 at 10:13 am

It seems pretty simple to me.

a) the desire not to torture Jewish people is a strong desire because Jewish people are a subset of people and therefore not torturing is a good thing
b) not torturing Jewish people would fulfill the stronger desire not to torture people

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faithlessgod February 28, 2010 at 10:32 am

Hi Luke and Thomas

First I have created my own reply, in parallel wiht your Luke, to this debate. See An atheist argument from morality (Note I had some formatting problems and lost some text when I first published this and republished this. I do not know how it would appear to anyone using an RSS reader)

With respect to Thomas this is my reply to his above linked letter at which point we mutually agreed to terminate our correspondence.

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lukeprog February 28, 2010 at 12:36 pm

cartesian,

You’ll have to wait for my post about Jews. The confusion arises because of the ambiguity of the phrase “tend to fulfill.”

Re: ‘what a person with good desires would do… under what conditions?’ The conditions are whatever conditions you’re asking about. If you want to know which act in conditions/situation X is right, then you ask: “What would a person with good desires do in conditions/situation X?”

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cl February 28, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I’m going to re-post part of my comment #45 from this thread, because it helped me greatly, which means there’s a chance it might help someone else towards clarity.

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

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

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

..would translate to,

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

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

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

EvanT,

Is it me or most people who object to desirism (in this case, but I’ve seen it with happen at discussions about other moral theories as well) seem to forget that moral theories are meant to explain what we observe about human behaviour.

While it’s not my place to speculate about most people who object to desirism, I can say that I see desirism as delineated by Fyfe and Luke to go beyond mere explanation of human behavior. Rather, both seem to use it to prescribe human behavior (i.e., some “should” is invoked and directed at others), and that’s where I object. Truth is, I myself use something like desirism in my decision-making every day. For example, last night just before the bars closed, I had the desire to eat. Particularly, I had the desire for a slice of pizza, of the potato-garlic-pesto variety. Before that desire surfaced, I had the pre-existing desire to retrieve a few items from a client the next day, a desire I decided could in fact be fulfilled as I went to get my pizza slice. I also had a friend who was drunk at a nearby bar, and I figured I could factor his desires to get home safe and avoid paying $25 for a cab into my desires. It was a win-win situation for all involved, and I say that precisely because of my definition of “capable” desires as “those that are likely or able to fulfill guiding desires.”

However, where Fyfe, Luke and myself seem to part ways is in the “something more” that I allude to: the exposition of desirism as a prescription for “morally good” desires or behavior.

Thomas Reid,

With the right inputs, any “calculation” can yield either a good or bad result.

That seems crystal-clear to me now, as it did when I read your third objection earlier this year ;)

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RD Miksa February 28, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Good Day Luke,

While I will probably reply in detail to this post on my own blog, I was struck by this point you made:

“Instead, they just wander in and spout some irrelevant points about the Crusades and religious disagreement.”

And in light of it, I was wondering whether you could comment on this post that I wrote concerning atheists who do what you describe:

http://radosmiksa.blogspot.com/2010/02/miksas-lawall-catholics-adopt-it-now.html

Take care,

RD Miksa

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oarobin February 28, 2010 at 3:38 pm

excellent post.

first a very minor point
“We have the biggest brains of any species”
not quite true i think that honor belongs to the sperm whale.

i think my two major objection have been most eloquently written by Cartesian and Cl above.

in short:
1. please define “stronger desires” as it is central to the claim of desirism (i.e. trumps weaker desires) but doesn’t seem to accord with how strongly the belief is held.

2. is the set of desires under consideration those desires are presently rooted in moral agents (humans, animals,etc and thus can be brainwashed away) or are they drawn from a set of potential desires that any moral agent could have or something else?

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TaiChi February 28, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Cartesian,

I’ve mulled this over for a bit, and I see three options of reply to your Nazi-land example.

(1) Damage control: On this option, the Desirist simply accepts that her theory has made the wrong prediction, since it does not correctly predict the application of moral terms. That looks like capitulation, but it need not be – if Desirism nevertheless gives us the best description of when and where moral terms apply, then it should win our approval, even if we know it isn’t perfect and will be on the look out for something better.

(2) Bite the bullet: Yes, it looks as though Desirism gets things backward. But, depending again on how well the theory otherwise performs, perhaps we should accept the verdict of Desirism over our own intuitions. Indeed, there is nothing in the theory of Desirism, in contrast to intuitive moral theories (I include Theism here), which tells us we should expect our intuitions to align perfectly with the actual facts of morality. So it is open to the Desirist to simply accept the consequences you describe, and to justify her position by pointing to how good the theory otherwise is.

(3) Go abstract: A good desire tends to fulfil more and stronger desires than it thwarts – that’s the slogan. But the slogan is imprecise because it doesn’t tell us how far to take our counterfactual reasoning. In the case that you present, the scope of cf-reasoning is very narrow – everything is held fixed about the world except the desires of Luke and Jerk. But perhaps we should extend the scope of our cf-reasoning to include variations on all desires of all the agents, rather than just Luke and Jerk. If we do, then I think we can actually expect that Desirism will yield the right moral verdict, for it does seem to be the case that there are possible worlds in which the calculus of desires works out better on the whole than it does in Nazi-land, and in the best of these worlds, the desire to torture Jews does not tend to fulfil more and stronger desires than it thwarts.

I don’t know which of these Fyfe or Luke would agree with, but (3) looks to be the happiest option for the Desirist.

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lukeprog February 28, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Miksa,

The Crusades are highly relevant to many discussions, they just weren’t relevant to the topic of this debate. Bringing up the Crusades doesn’t make one ignorant.

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lukeprog February 28, 2010 at 4:49 pm

oarobin,

1. My desire to have sex with Beth than my desire to help her see the excitement of meta-ethics, and since the two are in conflict, I won’t mention meta-ethics when we meet at Whole Foods.

2. Morality specifically deals with malleable desires; desires that can be molded (to some degree) by things like praise, reward, condemnation, and punishment. Potential desires do not exist.

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lukeprog February 28, 2010 at 4:53 pm

cartesan & TaiChi & others,

I can see you don’t want to wait, so here’s a copy/paste from the post I was planning to publish next week. :)

As expected, most of my critics responded with misunderstandings of desirism. (It’s a theory that is easy to misunderstand.) They did not respond to my arguments against theistic ethics. Nor did they respond to my remarks on why theism is a poor explanation of objective moral facts. But I will address these misunderstandings of desirism below.

But what if enough people enjoy torture?

Reader ‘cartesian’ offers the following argument against desirism:

So according to desirism, “a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.”

Here’s an objection. Suppose the Nazis had killed or brainwashed anyone who disagreed with them, and succeeded in conquering the world. They keep a handful of Jewish people around in zoos, just to torture. Suppose the most popular television show in Naziland features ordinary Nazis — selected by lottery from among the Nazi population — torturing these Jewish people just for fun. The billions of Nazis in the television audience absolutely LOVE it. It’s like American Idol to them. They look forward to it all week. It’s what they want most in life: to see those Jewish people tortured. These Jewish people are kept in a pretty sorry mental state (due to nearly constant torture, and perhaps even some drugs), so that each of their desires not to be tortured is weaker than each of the Nazis desires to torture them.

You and your friend Jerk live in Naziland. Jerk is a typical Nazi: he really badly wants to win the lottery so he can appear on this television show and torture some Jewish people. You, on the other hand, don’t. You’ve done some thinking lately, and you’ve concluded that torturing people just for fun is awful, and you want no part of it. (Naturally, you keep these opinions to yourself, for fear of being taken in for “re-education.”)

Clearly, in this situation, your desire is good and Jerk’s desire is bad. But, in this situation, only Jerk’s desire tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts. (His desire, if satisfied, would fulfill the desires of billions of blood-thirsty Nazis, while thwarting the desires of only a few Jewish people.) Your desire, however, actually tends to thwart more and stronger desires than it fulfills. So, according to desirism, *your* desire is bad and *Jerk’s* desire is good.

But that gets things exactly backwards. So desirism is false.

This is a common objection. I have two responses to it.

First, to say “the conclusion feels wrong to me, therefore desirism is false” carries no weight. The best explanation for our moral feelings – biological evolution – leaves us with no reason to think that our moral feelings are truth-tracking with regard to objective moral facts. There is no reason to think that true moral beliefs would have been selected for in the competition for survival.

Second, cartesian has fallen prey to the #1 most common misunderstanding of desirism. In fact, I use the term ‘desirism’ instead of the original term ‘desire utilitarianism’ precisely in an attempt to avoid this misunderstanding.

When people hear the term ‘desire utiltarianism’, they think “Oh, that’s the theory that says that if enough people enjoy torturing a child then the right thing to do is to torture that child.” Unfortunately, even when I use the term ‘desirism,’ people still think I’m talking about the theory that says “that if enough people enjoy torturing a child then the right thing to do is to torture the child.”

Alonzo Fyfe responds:

No. The moral question is not whether the act of torturing a child fulfills desires, but whether we have reason to promote a desire to torture children to begin with. We are evaluating desires first, and actions only insofar as they fulfill good desires. If nobody had a desire to torture children, then no child would need to fear being tortured, and nobody would have reason to regret this fact.

In contrast, if most people have desires to torture children (or Jews), then at the very least the desires of the children are being thwarted. So if we change people’s desires by condemning torture – much as we successfully changed the desires of hundreds of millions of people regarding slavery, and in just a few generations! – then neither the children nor the former torturers have their desires thwarted. But if we continue to condone torture, then at the very least the children’s desires are severely thwarted.

So we have most reason for action to condemn the desire to torture. So the desire to torture is an evil desire. So desirism passes cartesian’s test. So desirism remains an ‘objective’ moral theory, in the sense of the term meant by Sean McDowell.

This explanation also reveals why desirism is not a ‘mob rule’ or ‘majoritarian’ moral theory, as some have asserted. The moral facts do not depend on what the majority currently desires.

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Thomas Reid February 28, 2010 at 5:27 pm

lukeprog:
First, to say “the conclusion feels wrong to me, therefore desirism is false” carries no weight. The best explanation for our moral feelings – biological evolution – leaves us with no reason to think that our moral feelings are truth-tracking with regard to objective moral facts. There is no reason to think that true moral beliefs would have been selected for in the competition for survival.

I don’t see how any of your objectors have appealed to moral feelings (I don’t even know what those are), but rather moral knowledge. Feelings on the matter are entirely beside the point. We all know genocide is wrong, yet it can be shown that desirism produces the opposite conclusion if provided certain inputs.

In contrast, if most people have desires to torture children (or Jews), then at the very least the desires of the children are being thwarted. So if we change people’s desires by condemning torture – much as we successfully changed the desires of hundreds of millions of people regarding slavery, and in just a few generations! – then neither the children nor the former torturers have their desires thwarted. But if we continue to condone torture, then at the very least the children’s desires are severely thwarted.

According to desirism, if you desire to thwart the desire to torture children such that, by your acting, more desires are thwarted than fulfilled, then you have an evil desire. This objection is true regardless of whether the desires are considered with equal or variable strength. Tune the equation just so, and you get the wrong result. This holds for anything we know to be wrong.

Moreover, why should we change desires, particularly if doing so would tend to thwart more desires than it fulfills? The answer to this must come from outside desirism’s tenets.

So we have most reason for action to condemn the desire to torture. So the desire to torture is an evil desire. So desirism passes cartesian’s test. So desirism remains an ‘objective’ moral theory, in the sense of the term meant by Sean McDowell.

We have reason to act to condemn it, sure. But it just can’t come from a foundation of thinking that good desires are those that tend to fulfill more desires than it thwarts, as some of us are pointing out.

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lukeprog February 28, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Thomas Reid,

What I’m saying is that the only evidence I’ve heard in support of ‘I know torturing children is wrong regardless of which moral theory is correct’ is something like ‘my moral feelings/intuitions tell me so.’

You ask: “why should we change desires, particularly if doing so would tend to thwart more desires than it fulfills?”

This is the opposite of what I said. I said we have reasons for action to promote desires that tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart, not the other way around. That is, we ‘should’ change our desires such that they tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart.

I couldn’t parse this paragraph:

According to desirism, if you desire to thwart the desire to torture children such that, by your acting, more desires are thwarted than fulfilled, then you have an evil desire. This objection is true regardless of whether the desires are considered with equal or variable strength. Tune the equation just so, and you get the wrong result. This holds for anything we know to be wrong.

Could you rephrase, please?

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cartesian February 28, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Hi Luke,
Thanks for the reply. I’m not entirely clear on how your reply engages my original proposed counterexample. It would help if you could just clearly say which of these you think is false, and why:

(a) In the case I described, the desire not to torture Jewish people was a good desire.
(b) In the case I described, the desire not to torture Jewish people did not tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.

If both (a) and (b) are true, then it’s false that “a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.” But since desirism entails that quoted bit, if (a) and (b) are both true, desirism is false.

—-
About the Naziland case, you said: “if most people have desires to torture children (or Jews), then at the very least the desires of the children are being thwarted.”

Sure. But I set up the case so that, though fulfilling Jerk’s desire would thwart the Jewish people’s desire not to be tortured, these desires are fewer and weaker than the desires that fulfilling Jerk’s desires would fulfill, namely the billions of strong desires held by the bloodthirsty Nazis to see the Jewish people tortured.

Therefore, Jerk’s desire tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts. You say that, on desirism, “a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.” Therefore, by your own account of desirism, Jerk’s desire is a good desire. Since that’s clearly false, desirism is false.

—-
You also say: “So if we change people’s desires by condemning torture… then neither the children nor the former torturers have their desires thwarted.” Sure, that’s true. That’s certainly one option available to us. But of course another available option is to just torture those Jewish people, which would fulfill billions (or trillions, if we change the case) of strong desires. And isn’t fulfilling as many strong desires as possible the whole point of life, according to desirism? So why shouldn’t we torture those Jewish people in the case I described, according to desirism?

Another option is to try to change the Jewish people’s desires, say by brainwashing them or drugging them. Then their desires won’t be thwarted! It wouldn’t be too hard to wipe out their desires. We could just keep them in a very low-level state of consciousness, with drugs. We’ll give them a cocktail so that they can feel pain, but can’t desire relief.

So we have three options:
(i) Change the billions (or trillions) of Nazis’ desires, so that their desires are no longer thwarted by our not torturing the Jewish people.
(ii) Torture the Jewish people, satisfying billions (or trillions) of very strong desires, while thwarting only a handful of far weaker desires.
(iii) Change the few Jewish people’s desires, so that they are no longer thwarted by the torturing.

If I put my desirism hat on, (ii) and (iii) look pretty darn attractive to me. On what grounds do you prefer (i)?

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cartesian February 28, 2010 at 7:33 pm

lukeprog: What I’m saying is that the only evidence I’ve heard in support of ‘I know torturing children is wrong regardless of which moral theory is correct’ is something like ‘my moral feelings/intuitions tell me so.’

Interestingly, the only evidence I’ve heard in support of your claim that desires are reasons for action is something like “my moral feelings/intuitions tell me so.” ;-)

Actually, that was sort of a smartass remark. In reality, I haven’t heard you give *any* evidence for that central desirist claim.

So welcome to the intuition club, Luke! You can’t escape the evidential use of intuitions, so I’d be pretty careful about marshaling evidence to undercut them all.

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TaiChi February 28, 2010 at 7:41 pm

lukeprog: The best explanation for our moral feelings – biological evolution – leaves us with no reason to think that our moral feelings are truth-tracking with regard to objective moral facts. There is no reason to think that true moral beliefs would have been selected for in the competition for survival.

I have to say I don’t agree with this. To explain: I conceive of Desirism and other ethical theories as offering an account of our use of moral terminology. As such, we begin with data concerning the usage of terms such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and infer from the data a rule or set of rules that would tell us in which situations the terms would be used appropriately. The test of the theory is then how well it performs this function. If it performs well, then we might trust the theory to give us the right prediction in cases where we would be otherwise unable to say whether a moral term was appropriate; it it performs exceptionally, then we might end up, on rare occasions, trusting the theory more than our own sense of the appropriateness of moral terms. So far as that goes, I think you are right to resist the implicit view that moral feelings are always in the right.

But notice, if this is the way to choose a moral theory, then no general question about whether moral terms are being used correctly arises. They are assumed to be largely correct at the outset. Our only task is to find the truth-conditions which occasion their use, and assign these truth-conditions as their meaning. This investigation may ultimately lead to the conclusion that sometimes moral terms are used incorrectly, but it cannot lead to any wholesale skepticism about the prevalent usage of moral terms.
Ok, so what about moral feelings? Well, I think it is uncontroversial that these are correlated with the use of moral terms which, remember, enjoy a presumption of correctness. As such, they are a (fallible) guide to when a moral term is appropriately applied.

lukeprog: The moral question is not whether the act of torturing a child fulfills desires, but whether we have reason to promote a desire to torture children to begin with.

Sounds like (3) – all desires are up for evaluation. That seems right.

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Rob February 28, 2010 at 9:39 pm

lukeprog says:

“Theistic morality defines good . . . in terms . . . of God’s nature”

Gilson responds:

“Close, but not quite. It’s not quite true that theistic morality defines good in terms of God’s . . . nature. Rather, God’s nature is good”

Got that Luke? Is it all clear how you goofed it? Cuz it’s not to me.

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lukeprog February 28, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Rob,

Yeah, I wish Tom would have referred me to an article that reflects his views. Instead he said “Google Euthyphro.”

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Rob February 28, 2010 at 10:18 pm

I’m always startled when theists like Gilson show up and confidently proclaim that only a universe with an overlord lurking in the background could have objective morality. Of course for the last 2300 years the overwhelming majority of philosophers think otherwise.

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lukeprog February 28, 2010 at 11:41 pm

Rob,

By the way, my best guess is that Tom is referring to Adams’ theory in Finite and Infinite Goods, according to which there are brute ethical facts, some of which have a weird relationship with God’s nature. But if we’re to posit brute, necessary, unexplained ethical facts as having a weird relationship with God’s nature, why not just posit brute, necessary, unexplained ethical facts and be done with it? That’s the point of Wielenberg’s 2009 paper in Faith and Philosophy.

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Roman March 1, 2010 at 12:38 am

Cartesian, have you got a blog or somewhere where I could read more of your writing? It’s excellent.

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cl March 1, 2010 at 3:18 am

Luke,

[my critics] did not respond to my arguments against theistic ethics. Nor did they respond to my remarks on why theism is a poor explanation of objective moral facts.

Perhaps because your arguments against theistic ethics and your opinion that theism is a poor explanation of objective moral facts are irrelevant to your obligation to defend your articulation of desirism? Honestly, those seem like red herrings.

I’ll give it a more thorough address tomorrow, but the synopsis is that I’m pretty unimpressed with your rebuttal. I acknowledge that you’re a busy guy, but I see your rebuttal as lacking in thoroughness and heavy on assumption. It eschewed specific examples and objections, while accusations that your interlocutors are simply misunderstanding you remain forthcoming. How about giving us the benefit of the doubt? This is not an incapable bunch here. In particular, I wish you would respond to the specific examples and objections left for you by Cartesian and myself. I believe we could probably get somewhere if you would.

Cartesian,

Therefore, Jerk’s desire tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts. You say that, on desirism, “a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.” Therefore, by your own account of desirism, Jerk’s desire is a good desire. Since that’s clearly false, desirism is false. (to Luke)

I see that as undeniably cogent, and would say Luke has one of two options:

1) admit that desirism as articulated is not valid; or,

2) actually demonstrate his assertion that we’re misunderstanding desirism by meeting our objections and addressing our examples head-on, which might facilitate an articulation of desirism as valid.

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Thomas Reid March 1, 2010 at 4:03 am

lukeprog:
You ask: “why should we change desires, particularly if doing so would tend to thwart more desires than it fulfills?”This is the opposite of what I said. I said we have reasons for action to promote desires that tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart, not the other way around. That is, we ’should’ change our desires such that they tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart.

Right, I know what you said. My rebuttal is that the conjunction of:
(a) I know intuitively that desire X is an evil desire, and
(b) Desire X tends to fulfill more desires overall than thwart them

…causes a very serious problem for the desirist, I think fatally so. I haven’t seen much of an answer to these kinds of objections, from yourself, faithlessgod, or Fyfe. Nobody seems willing to commit to change their opinion regarding evil desire X, so I think the right thing to do would be to jettison desirism, or at least fix it up a bit to counter these types of objections.

I couldn’t parse this paragraph:

Reid: According to desirism, if you desire to thwart the desire to torture children such that, by your acting, more desires are thwarted than fulfilled, then you have an evil desire. This objection is true regardless of whether the desires are considered with equal or variable strength. Tune the equation just so, and you get the wrong result. This holds for anything we know to be wrong.

Could you rephrase, please?

Really it’s just another example of the conjunction I described above. Take all individual desires to be of the same strength, or postulate that they have variable strength, it doesn’t matter. The objector can pretty easily provide an example tuning the inputs such that a desire we know to be good (your desire to thwart the desire to torture children) is pronounced evil by desirism (outweighed by the desires of the many sadists around you).

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faithlessgod March 1, 2010 at 4:55 am

Hi Thomas

(a)I know intuitively that desire X is an evil desire, and
(b)Desire X tends to fulfill more desires overall than thwart them…causes a very serious problem for the desirist, I think fatally so.

We had an exchange on this and you failed to make your case, trading off a misunderstanding of desirism I repeatedly pointed out to you, making a point as an purported “objection” to desirism where desirism makes the same objection. It is bizarre to repeat ad nauseum (including others here) a point that desirism makes against act utilitarianism as an objection to desirism.

Once is an innocent mistake, to repeat it when pointed out is not. (An additional point regarding (a) is that intuition alone is insufficient to determine the evilness or not of a desire, act, rule or god-given law etc.)

I haven’t seen much of an answer to these kinds of objections, from yourself, faithlessgod, or Fyfe.

Then I request any interested reader to read our exchange, links given above, and let you be the judge of that!

Really it’s just another example of the conjunction I described above.Take all individual desires to be of the same strength, or postulate that they have variable strength, it doesn’t matter. The objector can pretty easily provide an example tuning the inputs such that a desire we know to be good (your desire to thwart the desire to torture children) is pronounced evil by desirism (outweighed by the desires of the many sadists around you)

And yet again you misrepresent desirism. If there is such a thing as a “calculus” in desirism it is not based on the strenght and distribution of desires.

Simplistically, one compares the presence versus the absence of the desire under question and determines the degree in either situation where actions that result tends to (directly or indirectly) materially fulfil or thwart all other desires. Based on this one encourages or discourages the desire under question.

Now it is up to you to show a desire we all, from our disparate backgrounds agree is evil, whereas desirism argues otherwise. You have failed to date, back to you.

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Chuck March 1, 2010 at 5:03 am

This is one of the exchanges that makes this site really valuable.

The level of intellect on this post string is excellent.

Thanks again Luke.

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faithlessgod March 1, 2010 at 6:05 am

Thomas

Just to make it quite clear the desire under question – independent desire as I used to call it – is evaluated against all other desires (including those of the agents with the independent desire) – I used to call these the dependent desires.

Ex Hypothesi it is trivially true that the independent desire if fulfilled, is fulfilled! However it would be absurd to include this a part of the evaluation. Absurd because then you end up with no analysis at all of the independent desire as you appear to be doing. Absurd because one is unable to decide if this is a desire to promote or inhibit if, due to accidental and arbitrary (relative to this analysis) historical contingencies, it happens to be in the majority. Absurd because its distribution and strength in a group is what is being questioned.

The moral question at hand is should it be – that is are there reasons to act to promote, inhibit it or not? This is what this evaluation is seeking to determine.

So whether one uses the “tuning the knobs” metaphor or my binary “presence versus absence” approach one, in order to perform any sensible analysis, one must exclude the fulfilment of the independent desire – the desire under evaluation. If you do not, then you are not criticising desirism instead you are building a straw man.

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drj March 1, 2010 at 6:13 am

I don’t know much about desirism, but even with what little I know, it seems rather trivial for desirism to overcome the Nazi objection. But then again, maybe I have some misunderstandings of my own. Here’s my take:

The act of forcefully requiring prisoners to take drugs that overpower many otherwise non-malleable desires seems like something that desirism would condemn. One could almost put that on par with committing murder, in that it truly thwarts all of a beings good and strong desires.

Tuning down the Nazi desire to torture would really only thwart their desire to torture – which itself is a desire thwarting enterprise, which even led to the design of drugs and brainwashing techniques to thwart even MORE good desires. So would not desirism give us justification to tune the Nazi desire to torture down, while tuning the Jews desire to live and not be tortured back up?

Artificially keeping some good desires in check is itself a clear cut case of thwarting many good and strong desires – which is precisely what desirism condemns.

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faithlessgod March 1, 2010 at 8:18 am

This is addressed only to those critics of desirism who support something like the theistic-based morality which was the topic of the debate that inspired this post. I know Thomas Reid is one but do not know who else here is.

I find it very ironic what is occurring in this thread, which should be primarily about the inadequacies of theist-based morality. Instead it is about attacking desirism, correctly or not. This as I predicted in my own post on this debate.

This calls to mind those desperate communists, who when you point out that, when instantiated, communism has repeatedly failed and led to totalitarian regimes that have caused great harm, seek anything to blame but the ideology of communism. “The Soviet state was not communist” and “The countries were not capitalist enough before the revolution” springs to mind.

Here the comment thread has devolved into a discussion as to whether desirism could prevented the worst excesses of Nazism. In spite of the ease with which an honest representation of desirism does deal with this (as does quite a few non-theistic moral theories) critics are applying wholly inadequate (and morally dubious given the theme of this comment thread in conjunction with the OP) methods by calling act utilitarianism desirism and other straw men.

Why the desperation to show that desirism cannot deal with Nazism? Because we all know the ignominious failure of theistic-based morality to have prevented it. The complicity of the catholic church – before,during and after WWII; Hitler’s non-denominational Positive Christianity; his claims in Mein Kampf and elsewhere to be doing the work of the Lord; the basis of the Aryan nation being in German speaking Christians and his popularism partly based scapegoating Jews for their woes and so on and so forth.

I am not saying that theistic-based morality or its particular strains were not abused here, or that these were pathological and are not representative of anyone writing or lurking here. Nor am I saying this was the only or sole cause of that sorry state of the world then. Nor am I saying that anyone here or elsewhere can be held responsible in any way for these past horrendous excesses or of any other genocides such as the Armenian Christians by the Turks.

I am saying the history bears testament to the appalling failure of theistic-based morality to prevent such horrors in the past. And they are still occurring now such as what occurred in former Yugoslavia, the Muslims in Dafur or the Catholic Church’s scandalous involvement in the the Rwanda genocide.

So like the communists noted above, theists can only try to divert attention from religions disgusting (willing or otherwise) involvement in the Nazi genocide and elsewhere. “That was not true Christianity” or “blame the atheists” being the equivalent of the two desperate defences of the equally condemnable communists mentioned above.

So the (I would say “delicious” but given the topic matter cannot) irony of seeking to find flaw in any other moral system, which only diverts attention from the massive inadequacy of their own.

My challenge here is that no amount of criticism, successful or not, honest or disingenuous, ethical or unethical of any other moral system can rehabilitate theistic-based morality.

Unless one can clearly and honestly show a sound, valid, strong objective basis as to how theistic-based morality can be a significant factor only against and not for all and any genocides future we should all be deeply worried. To the degree that anyone here is unable to do so and still wishes to perpetuate the illusions of objectivity behind theistic-based morality one should be very concerned that we are still failing in preventing genocides and in these economically troubled times, anyone who so argues has to accept moral responsibility however remote, that they are complicit for any future genocides, just to server their own comforting illusions. To sacrifice truth on the altar of comfort is too high a price to pay on such issues.

Theistic-based morality is a failure because being an entirely subjective and relative morality it can only falsely – but all to often successfully – tries to perpetuate the illusion of objectivity. The result as history repeatedly tells us, is that with God, anything is possible

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lukeprog March 1, 2010 at 9:18 am

BTW, I appreciate the thoughtful comments on this thread and I plan to respond when I have time.

cartesian, especially, makes a good point about no arguments being given that desires are reasons for action. The difficulty here is that we must involve philosophy of language, here, because moral terms and also ‘reason for action’ do not have universally agreed definitions like the terms of physics or chemistry. So in physics and chemistry the definition is given and they get to start by collecting evidence. In moral philosophy we have to do a lot of legwork in philosophy of language before we even know what we’re gathering evidence about.

But that’s all I have time to say right now.

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Aeiluindae March 1, 2010 at 9:55 am

Theists certainly cannot claim to have any moral superiority in action. We’d like to think that the code, principles, moral theory, etc. that we try to live by is the best, but that’s fairly typical of everyone. What is unfortunate is that theistic morality for so many people comes down to “It’s right because God said so.”

I understand where Christians get that, though, and its not always from some arrogance or lack of intelligence. Its the acknowledgment that the omniscient being is a little better equipped to figure out what’s good or bad (dispute the possibility of omniscience somewhere else). It’s still bad logic, and our morality needs to stand on its own merits, not because God said it.

I think morality and human-like consciousness are connected. Our notion of cause and effect, our ability to understand other people’s thoughts, combined with logical thinking, probably are the reason why certain moral ideas are fairly universal. Yes, the specifics differ massively, but there seem to be some universal principles, like fairness, from which you can derive most other moral thought. The rest can come from direct observation of real-life consequences of certain courses of action.

I think those can arise logically, without any need for a God, as many atheists have demonstrated, so a God could arrive at them, as well, independent of anything else. It wouldn’t be good just because God did it or said so, either. The morality would be something that we could cross-check and understand ourselves. Arguably, there would be still probably some things that don’t make sense because of a limited perspective. The dilemma still exists, but if there is no right and wrong without consciousness, if the two are tied together, it changes the question somewhat.

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Thomas Reid March 1, 2010 at 10:58 am

faithlessgod:
Just to make it quite clear the desire under question – independent desire as I used to call it – is evaluated against all other desires (including those of the agents with the independent desire) – I used to call these the dependent desires.

Right, that is clear. Now, when you evaluate it against all other desires (by a process which you resist calling a “calculation”), and it comes out with an answer you know is wrong, what do you do? This is the essence of my objection, and so far as I can tell, the essence of cl’s and cartesian’s, and yet you are not addressing it. Honestly, I don’t see how we are misunderstanding the theory.

Quoting your earlier comment:

Simplistically, one compares the presence versus the absence of the desire under question and determines the degree in either situation where actions that result tends to (directly or indirectly) materially fulfil or thwart all other desires. Based on this one encourages or discourages the desire under question.

Yes, simplistically, that is what a desirist does. To repeat then, what happens when we evaluate the given set of hypothetical data (cartesian’s example above, or my example from last November, or, say, stealing from everyone whose name begins with “Thomas”, the possibilities could go on and on) that shows acting on what you know to be a bad desire would actually tend to overall fulfill more desires than it thwarts?

Finally, while I appreciate the erudite discussion on the failings of theists who were complicit in mass atrocities throughout human history, that is not relevant to this objection against desirism, and only tangentially related to the merits of theistic-based ethical theories. If you don’t have an answer to this objection, it’s OK to admit ignorance and agree that the theory needs some work. No one’s going to hold it against you.

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faithlessgod March 1, 2010 at 11:19 am

Hi Thomas

First of all you have failed to respond to my challenge to show how theistic-based morality can show the moral evilness of genocide, Nazi or otherwise. I suspect that this this because you cannot. I am still waiting.

Still we both agree that whether you can or cannot is no defence of desirism and vice versa. That is if one were to give a valid critique of desirism (which you have not) that does not strengthen theism’s case. Both have to stand on their own merits. Still give the topic matter of this thread is not about time you stood up and defended your position? Otherwise to persist seems more than imbalance in this discussion but diversionary rhetoric.

Well I am still waiting for a valid critique of desirism with respect to this particular example. You insistence on persisting with a straw man is I am coming to think highly dubious.

The “simplistically” was excusing the shortness required for a comment in a post, nothing more. Thanks for your charitable reading of this.

To repeat then, what happens when we evaluate the given set of hypothetical data (cartesian’s example above, or my example from last November, or, say, stealing from everyone whose name begins with “Thomas”, the possibilities could go on and on) that shows acting on what you know to be a bad desire would actually tend to overall fulfill more desires than it thwarts?

No example I have seen by you (I have not read all the comments here) has not been trading off reading act utilitarianism as desirism applying the same objections that desirism has of act utilitarianism and other straw men and other confusions. I am getting bored of pointing out the flaws in your reasoning, just for you to ignore and repeat them as if never discussed. This makes me think of your theory that “it’s OK to admit ignorance and agree that the theory needs some work. No one’s going to hold it against you.”

So lets start again. Give an explicit, clear, unambiguous example and also give your own theistic-based solution at the same time. And I in turn will provide a desirist solution. We can then compare and contrast our solutions. Over to you.

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Thomas Reid March 1, 2010 at 2:10 pm

faithlessgod,

To your challenge:

So lets start again. Give an explicit, clear, unambiguous example and also give your own theistic-based solution at the same time. And I in turn will provide a desirist solution. We can then compare and contrast our solutions. Over to you.

(a) Suppose everyone except me desires that I steal your car. Maybe they get a rush from seeing someone named “Thomas” steal stuff from someone named “faithlessgod”, or maybe they’ve been brainwashed to desire this, whatever. The theft would be totally unprovoked, not done for any kind of retribution, but just because everyone except me (and probably you) desires it.
(b) Suppose I desire not to steal your car.

Now, my desire tends to thwart more desires than it fulfills, overall. So according to desirism, mine is an evil desire. But of course this is wrong, the desire not to steal is a good desire. So something needs to be done to desirism to help it avoid this objection.

But for the Christian theist, there’s no problem here. The Christian theist can say that he knows theft is wrong, irrespective of whether he knows a single command in the Bible. If he’s well-read in the Bible, he can still say that the desire to steal is a bad desire and that it is consistent with the specific commands God reveals to us in the Bible. Furthermore, he can claim pretty comfortably that the evil desires that others have to see Thomas steal faithlessgod’s car don’t have much bearing on the matter.

Over to you.

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TaiChi March 1, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Lukeprog,
The difficulty here is that we must involve philosophy of language, here, because moral terms and also ‘reason for action’ do not have universally agreed definitions like the terms of physics or chemistry. So in physics and chemistry the definition is given and they get to start by collecting evidence. In moral philosophy we have to do a lot of legwork in philosophy of language before we even know what we’re gathering evidence about.

I look forward to the post which explains your method, since I can’t see how you’ll avoid giving moral intuitions some kind of endorsement.
Just to add to what I said earlier, since I realize I didn’t connect it up to evolution:
You’re quite right that biological evolution gives us no reason to think our moral feelings track the truth, since the reason for this is instead found in the method we must follow to explicate moral terminology. However, evolution is not wholly orthogonal to the issue – it suggests that rules which dictate the use of moral terms have a genetic basis, and that they would be universal across the human species. If so, then we should expect that a single moral theory would suffice to account for moral terminology across cultures, and that the terminology in various cultures be translatable into each other. The evolution of morality is therefore the death of cultural relativism and the justification of the Desirist’s implicit assumption that one theory of morality is uniquely correct.

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lukeprog March 1, 2010 at 2:58 pm

TaiChi,

I disagree that one theory of morality is uniquely correct, actually. Rather, I think desirism is the most ‘robust’ theory of morality that is also true. For example, certain theories of moral relativism are trivially true.

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TaiChi March 1, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Lukeprog,
Any theory worthy of being called ‘relativist’ tells us that the variation of moral opinion (across persons, cultures, times, etc.) is fundamental and ineliminable, so that it cannot be explained in terms of some common factors which would serve as an absolute ground for morality. But we have identified common factors through evolutionary biology, and so all such theories are false. It may be that the insights and descriptions which motivate relativist views can be incorporated into whatever turns out to be the correct theory of morality, but this does not thereby make the theories true.

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lukeprog March 1, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Gack! I just corrected another typo in this post. Come on, people, don’t be shy when you see typos! :)

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piero March 1, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Wow! This was an excellent post, and so are the comments. I think I finally understood desirism, though I cannot be sure.
Concerning Cartesian’s scenario, it seems to me very similar to the current state of affairs concerning livestock: most people desire to eat meat, so how is thwarting cows’ and chickens’ desires wrong? Sure our desires to eat meat count too? From Luke’s response, I gather that yes, given the current state of affairs our desires tend to thwart the desires of other sentient beings. But that’s precisely the reason why we should change those desires! If we managed to acquire an aversion to meat, we would not need to thwart the animals’ desires, and our desires would not be thwarted either, because we would no longer have the desire to eat meat.
Translating this into Cartesian’s scenario, it would mean that the desires of those billions of Nazis would still be wrong, because there is a possible world in which those desires do not exist, and in that possible world the desires of the Jews are not thwarted. In short, if Nazis wanted to stop being Nazis, the total amount of suffering would diminish; hence, it is morally right to promote the desire to stop being Nazis.

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faithlessgod March 1, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Lukeprog and Rob

Yeah, I wish Tom would have referred me to an article that reflects his views. Instead he said “Google Euthyphro.”

or you can look at the end of our discussion on Euthyphro here. Its not pretty. (That whole process now makes me think of getting blood out of a stone…)

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faithlessgod March 1, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Thomas

Oh dear. When I asked you to give an example, I was talking about the subject under discussion here, namely one version of genocide or torture whether the Nazis versus the Jews or otherwise for you to present you own theist based solution. I was nobly allowing you to state your case rather than presume and make your case for you, quite unlike your arguments against desirism. I suggest you lookup the principle of charity, as it appears my previous sarcasm must have been lost on you.

So now you have created a brand new different example? An unnecessary changing of the subject, lets stick to to topic at hand shall we? After I did not introduce the other examples on genocide and torture in this thread, you and others did.

And yet again you proceed to criticise a theory that is not desirism and call it desirism. I suggest you search for look up “straw man” in google. And also look up one of your god’s commandments “do not bear false witness”. I suppose you don’t consider me a neighbour so this commandant does not apply? :-)

So lets not change the subject and go back to the same challenge that I ask for the third time (at least). Give an example of any type of genocide or torture of a minority and give your solution, then I will give mine and we can compare and contrast. Comprende?

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Thomas Reid March 2, 2010 at 3:57 am

faithlessgod:
Oh dear. When I asked you to give an example, I was talking about the subject under discussion here, namely one version of genocide or torture whether the Nazis versus the Jews or otherwise for you to present you own theist based solution. I was nobly allowing you to state your case rather than presume and make your case for you, quite unlike your arguments against desirism.

Since you asked for an example, I provided another one for you. Don’t like the one I provided? OK, use cartesian’s example on this thread, dated February 27. I thought TaiChi’s was actually the best response to it so far, you’ll notice he didn’t dodge the objection. In contrast, your approach seems to be dodge the objection and mock your interlocutor.

So lets not change the subject and go back to the same challenge that I ask for the thirdtime (at least). Give an example of any type of genocide or torture of a minority and give your solution, then I will give mine and we can compare and contrast. Comprende?

Use cartesian’s, from above. You will find it strikingly similar to the one I provided to you during our last correspondence, which you didn’t answer. The response of the Christian theist above would be that he knows such a desire is evil, and that such a desire is consistent with the particular commands God has revealed in the Bible.

Over to you, again.

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faithlessgod March 2, 2010 at 4:30 am

Thomas

OK, use cartesian’s example on this thread, dated February 27.
Agreed

I thought TaiChi’s was actually the best response to it so far, you’ll notice he didn’t dodge the objection.

Have not read it and now deliberately not, so I can give an answer untainted by any others.

In contrast, your approach seems to be dodge the objection and mock your interlocutor.

I am sorry but that is complete bullshit, as any interested unbiased observer could confirm.

Anyway the desire in question is the desire to torture a minority. The presence of that desire leads to thwarting the desires of the minority. The absence of desire leads to no thwarting of those desires. Therefore this is a desire to inhibit or promote an aversion to.

As for your reply:

You will find it strikingly similar to the one I provided to you during our last correspondence, which you didn’t answer

Please enough with the bullshit, OK?

The response of the Christian theist above would be that he knows such a desire is evil, and that such a desire is consistent with the particular commands God has revealed in the Bible.

It is not that he knows it is evil but how. You claim that this is consistent “with particular commands God has revealed in the Bible”. However the debate ultimately as to whether there are objective moral values and such an argument as your looks entirely relative and subjective.

If you presumably also assert this is objective, then your position is logically incoherent, hence not even wrong as an explanation of objective moral values. You need to establish that your argument is objective and then the incoherence disappears.

Why do I think this is subjective and relative? Performing a selective interpretation of a book is not an objective grounds, it is doubly subjective – being based on the opinions of one or more authors and on your interpretation of those authors. It is also relative, given that example quotes Nazis (but it could be any group) they had their own subjective but presumably different to your interpretation of, as it happens, the same book (but it could have been a different one) that justified their actions.

So far I do not see your argument as even being a candidate to explain objective moral values, since there is nothing objective about it.

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Chuck March 2, 2010 at 4:34 am

I agree with you. I think Thomas’ line of thinking is BS simply because he used the word “interlocutor”.

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faithlessgod March 2, 2010 at 5:31 am

Hi Chuck

Good point. I missed this. I wonder how he relays messages back his government – God – prayer? Oh, am I mocking him? Shame on me. Well I thought this discussion is not politics but philosophy, reason and science. Clearly I was mistaken ;-)

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Chuck March 2, 2010 at 5:37 am

Faithless,

He has never once addressed the realities of the mechanism of desirism but only has moved the goal-posts to assert his Theistic claims.

Has anyone done a study on recovery literature and how that philosophy correlates with the precepts of desirism?

There is the misunderstanding that 12 step groups are “faith-based” when actually they are desirist. Often people would like to point to the whole “Higher Power” thing but, in the literature it is stated that it isn’t an invisible force like Yahweh that keeps people sober but, actually it is the willingness for a person to exchange the desire to get high with the desire to help others struggling with that temptation. Working with others is the primary force behind the efficacy of recovery and is predicated on the observation that nothing ensures recovery as much as one addict helping another addict.

I really like this desirist concept and need to listen to the podcast again.

Good stuff.

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Thomas Reid March 2, 2010 at 5:45 am

faithlessgod:
OK, use cartesian’s example on this thread, dated February 27.

Anyway the desire in question is the desire to torture a minority. The presence of that desire leads to thwarting the desires of the minority. The absence of desire leads to no thwarting of those desires. Therefore this is a desire to inhibit or promote an aversion to.

Unfortunately for the desirist in the example, if he doesn’t torture the minority, he’ll be thwarting more desires than he fulfills. Thus, if desirism is true, the desire not to torture the minority is an evil desire.

It is not that he knows it is evil but how. You claim that this is consistent “with particular commands God has revealed in the Bible”. However the debate ultimately as to whether there are objective moral values and such an argument as your looks entirely relative and subjective.

We don’t need a theory of how we know X to know that we know X, unless one is committed to skepticism. You’re not denying the desire to torture the minority is objectively wrong, happily this is a point of agreement between yourself and the Christian theist. It does mean, however, that you should toss or modify desirism.

If you presumably also assert this is objective, then your position is logically incoherent, hence not even wrong as an explanation of objective moral values.

I gave you one example of something objectively wrong, which you don’t deny. I’ve also claimed that this is consistent with the commands specifically revealed in the Bible, which you also haven’t shown to be incorrect. So your charge of incoherence is really just bluster.

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/interlocutor
(see the first definition)

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Chuck March 2, 2010 at 5:53 am

Thomas,

I know the definition of interlocutor. I just think it is arch and pretentious to use it.

Additionally you said, “Unfortunately for the desirist in the example, if he doesn’t torture the minority, he’ll be thwarting more desires than he fulfills.”

By what standard? Your rigged standard that demands dependent variables like “brain-washing” and “drugged” Nazis?

Give me a volumetric argument that the aggregate desires of all “brainwashed” and “drugged” Nazis in your illustration outweigh the aggregate desire of those not “brainwashed” or “drugged”.

Your examples only compel one to believe that theist’s moral philosophy allows them to comfortably lie.

Now, will you be my interlocutor too?

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lukeprog March 2, 2010 at 6:22 am

Darn. I use ‘interlocutor’ often. I use it because it allows me to avoid calling somebody my ‘opponent’, which has a kind of negative connotation.

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Chuck March 2, 2010 at 6:24 am

@ Luke, LOL.

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piero March 2, 2010 at 6:28 am

Chuck, Thomas, Faithlessgod:
I think you’ve missed the gist of Luke’s reply. You keep confusing desirism with utilitarianism. In Cartesian’s scenario, the point is not – repeat, the point is not – whether torturing Jews fulfills more desires than it thwarts: that would be an utilitarian approach. The desirist approach is: if Nazis desired not to torture Jews, would that lead to more or less desire fulfilment? Obviously, it would lead to more, because then both the Nazis and the Jews desires would be fulfilled. So, we have reason to promote an aversion to torturing Jews, because that would tend to bring about a situation where more desires are fulfilled.

Read Alonzo Fyfe’s quotation again:

No. The moral question is not whether the act of torturing a child fulfills desires, but whether we have reason to promote a desire to torture children to begin with. We are evaluating desires first, and actions only insofar as they fulfill good desires. If nobody had a desire to torture children, then no child would need to fear being tortured, and nobody would have reason to regret this fact.

In short: desirism does not judge morality on the basis of how many current desires are satisfied or thwarted; it judges morality on the basis of what changes in current (malleable) desires would bring about the most desire satisfaction.

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Chuck March 2, 2010 at 6:43 am

Great clarification.

Thanks.

I am officially intrigued by Desirism.

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piero March 2, 2010 at 6:47 am

Oops, sorry: I didn’t mean to address my previous comment to all three of you, only to Thomas.

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Chuck March 2, 2010 at 6:55 am

No worries. I benefitted from it.

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Hermes March 2, 2010 at 6:58 am

lukeprog: Darn. I use ‘interlocutor’ often. I use it because it allows me to avoid calling somebody my ‘opponent’, which has a kind of negative connotation.  

I use it partially because they are a puzzle to me at times — or they show much puzzlement themselves. More conventionally, they are locked into a position that they are conveying along a chain, but might not be capable in expressing let alone understand themselves because they are not the origin of the statements that they utter.

As such, it can be endearing, respectful, or dismissive.

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faithlessgod March 2, 2010 at 7:16 am

Thomas Reid (clearly not named after nor inspired by the philosopher of that name)

Unfortunately for the desirist in the example,

Desirist? I thought you were an adult, not in kindergarten, dear boy.

Such s if he doesn’t torture the minority, he’ll be thwarting more desires than he fulfills.Thus, if desirism is true, the desire not to torture the minority is an evil desire.

It seems no amount of pointing your error makes the slightest difference to you. Lets see. “Is the majority desire good? Well it is the majority so yes it is.” Apart from being virtually a tautology, it is simply not desirism as I have explained to you in many ways. I can only conclude that you have no interest in truth or ethics.

Do you have any idea what an argument is? The evidence says no. Do you know what is means to criticise an argument? Again the evidence is against you. I wondered why Luke felt fit to include a course on Logic in this blog. Now I know.

We don’t need a theory of how we know X to know that we know X, unless one is committed to skepticism.

A semblance of an argument, or is that just a fortuitous coincidence on your part? If one does not make any attempt and even actively avoids knowing how one knows, then there is no basis asserting one’s claims as knowledge. Admit it you do not know.

It does mean, however, that you should toss or modify desirism.

Conclusions require sound premises and valid inferences, you have provided neither and the evidence indicates you are incapable of doing so.

I’ve also claimed that this is consistent with the commands specifically revealed in the Bible, which you also haven’t shown to be incorrect.So your charge of incoherence is really just bluster.

Until you can demonstrate that your claims are not subjective and relative, which you have completely avoided doing, there is only one inescapable conclusion as a matter of logic (please study Luke’s course on that). Theistic-based morality is incoherent. Also failing to address the argument and denying the conclusion is most certainly bluster. I grant you are an expert on that.

I cam here looking for some intelligent, critical, honest and charitable debate on this topic. Surely theists must be deeply embarrassed leaving Mr Reid as their main representative on this topic. Is any theist here willing to actually provide such a debate?

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Thomas Reid March 2, 2010 at 9:20 am

I won’t bore anyone else carrying on this thread, it seems pretty futile. faithlessgod, thanks for the exchange. Luke, I look forward to more posts on desirism.

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faithlessgod March 2, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Thomas

Thanks for the exchange too.

Cheers

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Kip March 2, 2010 at 7:03 pm

TaiChi: But not just any desire in isolation is peculiarly moral – morality is concerned with reasons for action as a whole, and so all desires count toward the moral.

I think this is a pretty good way to put it, as long as it is understood that you are implying the domain to be “within the moral system”. When Alonzo uses the phrase “all desires that exist”, it seems to imply all desires that exist throughout the entire uni/multiverse… which would be impossible.

When asked what set of desires should be included “within the moral system”, my reply was:

I think a group of moral agents should (prudential reason for action) only consider the desires that are able to influence their desires (either through moral tools or force). The agents using the social tools should (prudentially) consider any and all desires that need to be harmonized. They should not (prudentially) consider desires that do not need to be harmonized, and they could not consider all desires that existed even if they wanted to (since they are not omniscient).

Further, if ought implies can, then it would be wrong to say that they moral-should consider all desires that exist [in the entire uni/multiverse], since they cannot do that.

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faithlessgod March 3, 2010 at 1:33 am

Hi all

It is interesting to see Kip’s debate with Tai Chi just after the termination of mine with Thomas Reid. I am not going to enter their debate but the contrast in the debates has given me insight I wish to share.

On a side note, some of you, only aware of my debate in this thread might think I was impatient and/or disagree with my style of argument. Others might be aware that this was (hopefully) the last chapter in a debate that existed long before this thread and that I have been very patient. Or not. It is what it is.

Anyway I wish to contrast the two approaches of Reid and Kip to criticising desirism.

In Kip’s case, he seems to fully understand the cognitive, social and philosophical realist and empirical basis upon which desirism is built. He disagrees with the scope of the evaluation of which other desires to include or not.

This I recognise as a legitimate criticism. By calling this legitimate does not mean it is correct, only that it could be and as to whether it succeeds or not can be debated, again, hopefully using only legitimate arguments for and against his challenge. Whether this can be resolved or not, is not guaranteed. It may be the case that a criticism cannot be (in turn) legitimately resolved, it is undecided (I don’t think so in his case, I am using this as an illustrative example. Further, now I fully understand Kip’s legitimate complaint, I will attempt to address this at some future time but not now)

By contrast Reid’s “argument” was illegitimate. It was trading on mis-conceptions, mis-representations, mis-attributions – a straw man – he was not criticising desirism at all. There are many ways to create illegitimate criticisms of any theory, however they all share in common that they fail to address the theory under question. Again this legitimacy criterion can go “all the way down”. One could argue that a criticism is illegitimate and the critique could show that it is not, it is, in fact, legitimate, by using legitimate supporting arguments. Whereupon the newly established legitimate criticism needs to be addressed and, in turn, may succeed or not or be undecidable and so on and so forth.

Hopefully you get the point.

Here I believe I have made a legitimate and (in this case) fatal criticism of theistic-based morality and Reid (and others but don’t know if they are theists or not) has made only an illegitimate and so failed criticism of desirism. It is still the case that if Kip’s or anyone else’s legitimate criticism’s of desirism were to succeed as to how this bears on the topic at hand, and that theistic-based morality is regardless still a non-starter and so not a valid alternative until and unless it can successfully dissolve my legitimate fatal criticism of that.

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Kip March 3, 2010 at 7:22 am

faithlessgod> Further, now I fully understand Kip’s legitimate complaint, I will attempt to address this at some future time but not now.

Dang it! I was hoping your reply was going to do that. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts. I sent you an email with more of my question/objection laid out. Not sure if you got that.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is a fatal criticism of Desirism. It may be the case that all the desires on the planet Earth may need to be considered in the moral system. In that case, it wouldn’t be practically any different than theoretically considering all the desires in the uni/multiverse (at this time, anyway, since we aren’t aware of any other desires outside of Earth).

BUT – the key point is that there should be an objective criteria for which desires should be considered in the moral system. Just asserting that we *should* consider “all desires that exist” holds no weight — neither prudentially, nor morally. I think the consideration of which desires to consider is itself a moral question — meaning that those involved in the moral system will use their moral tools to expand or shrink the “sphere of morality”. We see this happening among those that struggle for animal rights by appealing to the desires of the animals directly. *Should* we include the desires of insects in the moral system? What about artificial intelligence? These questions themselves are moral questions — one that I think needs more than an assertion for an answer.

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Amy Sterling Casil March 3, 2010 at 9:07 am

I think all that is required is to present several varied examples of moral behaviors, attitudes and systems from a variety of contexts.

I am a Christian and do not believe that God is the only or “best” source of moral values and behavior. I also believe in free will and disagree that there is any scientific evidence that truly disputes “free will,” which I believe to be the perception of choice of action (which clearly exists).

Thanks for this brilliant discussion and illumination.

However, I expressed it thus

http://asterling.typepad.com/incipit_vita_nova/2010/03/morality-in-the-absence-of-religion.html

Regarding Dr. King – you do him injustice to leave his Christian reasoning out of the equation. This is a part of things; not the only thing. Dr. King derived much of his thinking from Gandhi, who also corresponded with Tolstoy. These are very deep, longstanding, international traditions of spiritual thought. So, please do not fail to consider the origin of these thoughts in several disparate religious traditions that gave rise to today’s attitudes regarding civil and human rights – a real change.

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faithlessgod March 3, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Hi Kip

Dang it! I was hoping your reply was going to do that. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts. I sent you an email with more of my question/objection laid out. Not sure if you got that

Sorry no I did not. Could you send it again please? I want to make sure my email filters are not blocking emails sent from the link on my site. I will look out for it.

I am not sure whether this is the right thread to discuss these issues. We can chose where to pursue this further once I have the email?

I am still waiting for an attempt at answering Luke’s (or my) criticism of theist-based morality here.

As the previous commenter notes there are plenty of Christians and theists in general who do not believe that god is either the best nor even an explanation of morality. I wholeheartedly agree as I noted in my own post on the debate. Nonetheless the challenge is to those who do hold such a position to make a response. Or they could leave it with Thomas Reid ‘s concession I suppose, however I do not think his was much of a defence and I would hope others could do far better.

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Kip March 3, 2010 at 4:32 pm

I just sent it again – to your “martinfreedman -at- gmail” address.

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faithlessgod March 4, 2010 at 12:02 am

Got it. Thanks.

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faithlessgod March 4, 2010 at 12:12 am

Kip and Luke

Fascinating. I do have answers to the different variants of your (Kip’s) challenge which, we agree, are not fatal to desirism. Still, if your legitimate criticisms succeed, this would require modification to desirism. Regardless, by comparison theistic-based morality remains a non-starter in this race.

A request to both of you. Is it ok to quote you both in replying, when I have time, in posts on my blog?

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lukeprog March 4, 2010 at 5:45 am

faithlessgod,

Yes of course it’s okay to quote me.

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Chuck March 4, 2010 at 6:10 am

Luke, can I quote you on that?

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Kip March 4, 2010 at 6:23 am

faithlessgod: Yes, it’s okay to quote me. And Chuck, yes you can quote me on that. :-D

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Chuck March 4, 2010 at 6:29 am

Excellent.

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Chucky March 5, 2010 at 7:27 pm

It is certainly nice to see someone who actually understands what the argument offered.

Can you explain why drug dealing is wrong on “desirism”? Both the dealer and the addict are fulfilling their strongly held desires. Perhaps I have misunderstood…

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faithlessgod March 6, 2010 at 2:54 am

Hi Chucky

This is off topic given the theme of this post, so to make it on topic, I will repeat he challenge once again that whatever solution offered by desirism – whether you agree with it or not – it is beholden on theists who support a McDowell type (christian apologetics) god to offer a legitimate alternative, not just to qualify as “best” but, at the very least, one that does not disappear into incoherence.

Both the addict and the dealer seeks to substitute a more fulfilling state of affairs for a lessor, and both do this by acting upon the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. We know their motivations and these are not in dispute, it is whether these motives have legitimate and defensible justifications that is under examination here. In this case, there are two desires under consideration here, as there is a very specific cause-effect relationship or inter-dependency here.

The first desire under consideration – the causal desire, if you will – is the desire of the dealer to sell and promote the use of his drugs. This might just be a means to many other ends, nonetheless we wanted to consider if this is a justified means, not just to his ends but to those that he sells his drugs to – the addicts.

The other desire under examination is the drug addiction. Whether the addict knows this or not, agrees with it or not, to fulfil this desires it is irrational compared to his or her prudential interests. The addiction is a form of akrasia. The addicts desire is a desire-thwarting desire (when considered prudentially), since if the addict lacked the addictive desire many more and other (of his or her) desires would be fulfilled. It is in everyone’s prudential interest to inhibit such irrational desires.

So the dealer in promoting drug use and make available the drug is promoting irrational, desire-thwarting desires in others. If the dealer lacked this drug dealing desire, then there would be less of such desire-thwarting desires. So the dealer drug dealing desire is to be discouraged.

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Chucky March 7, 2010 at 2:36 am

“To fulfil this desires it is irrational compared to his or her prudential interests.”

Right. Fulfilling individual desires can often be (as in this case) irrational, self-destructive, and sadly our collective desires can sometimes even seem downright evil.

“So the dealer in promoting drug use and make available the drug is promoting irrational, desire-thwarting desires in others. If the dealer lacked this drug dealing desire, then there would be less of such desire-thwarting desires”

Well explained. Why would a sum of many potentially morally bad desires be morally good? Do I simply have to accept this as a definition?

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faithlessgod March 7, 2010 at 4:04 am

Chucky

Well explained. Why would a sum of many potentially morally bad desires be morally good? Do I simply have to accept this as a definition? 

Exactly. One should not accept any such definition. If a definition makes the “sum of many potentially morally bad desires” morally good, then there is something wrong with that definition of “moral good”.

Now since you agree that desirism, in this scenario, concludes, correctly with the opposite, which moral theory are you tacitly criticising? I presume, given the topic of this thread, that this must be a form of theistic-based morality. However I am not sure how that applies in your example.

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Chuck March 7, 2010 at 4:58 am

It seems like Chucky is willfully ignoring the definition of desirism being a moral system born from the assessment of desires not, the assessment of current action.

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Chucky March 8, 2010 at 3:06 am

> Now since you agree that desirism, in this scenario, concludes, correctly with the opposite, which moral theory are you tacitly criticising?

I only agreed that I understood your excellent explanation. I’m not trying to criticize, so far, just understand.

> It seems like Chucky is willfully ignoring the definition of desirism being a moral system born from the assessment of desires not, the assessment of current action.

I’m sorry if I come across as disingenous. I’m a scientist, not a philosopher, so you’ll have to take things slowly.

What I don’t understand is why this isn’t a problem at every level of the tower. Sure if we just evaluate the last level (the current action) then desirism seems to fail. So you say we have to look a level higher, and evaluate if those desires thwart or encourage other desires. But those others desires can also be immoral, perhaps even the vast majority immoral… so we presumably have have to look at the next level up. And so on. What I don’t see at the moment is why the whole tower isn’t rotten. If I can’t apply the cost function on the ground floor, why should we think it will work out better on any of the others? What happens if the vast majority of desires are just plain evil?

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Chuck March 8, 2010 at 3:11 am

I can’t answer your questions Chucky. I am still learning the nuance of this approach to morality but, see in your contention a similar problem I had with the philosophy. Desirism does not seem to assess possible behaviors but rather considers the trade-offs desires might generate. I need to look into it more but, your question doesn’t make sense within the context of desirism because objective “evil” desires are not a variable in assessing a desire’s worth within the system. You might need to drop what seems an existential approach to morality rooted in behavior before fully criticizing the philosophy mentioned.

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faithlessgod March 8, 2010 at 5:58 am

Chucky

I’m a scientist, not a philosopher, so you’ll have to take things slowly.

This should be a benefit not a hindrance, since it is probably better and clearer to consider desirism as a empirical extension of social, cognitive (and philosophical) psychology than as rational (philosophical) inquiry per se. It also serves as empirical support for philosophical criticism of other theories. However to criticise theistic-based morality it is not needed, since, as AFAICS, such a theory is philosophically incoherent, it cannot be a candidate for empirical consideration.

What I don’t understand is why this isn’t a problem at every level of the tower.

It would help if you could explain what theory you do endorse (whether confidently or not) and how it works in this example,as it would help indicate why you are not understanding this approach.

Sure if we just evaluate the last level (the current action) then desirism seems to fail.

This is quite false, no-one has demonstrated any such thing in this thread, especially since, as Chuck indicates, desirism holds that it is a deep (and all too common) mistake to evaluate actions directly. In morality it only makes sense to evaluate voluntary or intentional actions and, given our understanding of psychology, this only makes sense by considering and influencing the motivators of any such actions – which are desires. One directly evaluates desires and so indirectly evaluates actions, and that is all we are psychologically able to do. Any theory, such as theistic-based morality, that does not take this into account has a mountain to climb – if it could ever be made coherent.

So you say we have to look a level higher, and evaluate if those desires thwart or encourage other desires.

No, not a higher level, the only level that is appropriate and possible.

But those others desires can also be immoral, perhaps even the vast majority immoral…

That is what this analysis directly and primarily determines and note that the label “immoral” is an artefact of our language, it is a subjectively assigned label. Desirism posits that desire-thwarting desires (or equivalents) is the most probable and feasible external real-world referent for such a term as it is typically and commonly used. Again any other theory has to make a case for a better real-world external reference to be in any sense “better” than this approach and again theistic-based morality is a complete non-stater in that regard.

so we presumably have have to look at the next level up. And so on. What I don’t see at the moment is why the whole tower isn’t rotten.

Because you are making the deep mistake of considering acts first by thinking philosophically, not psychologically, ignoring how they are actually motivated and as to whether such motivations are practically justified. You need to look at the causal desire(s) and their relevant material and physical effects on other desires (actually the effects on their fulfilment or thwarting). When you look at it that way there is no “tower”. Anyway where is your argument for “rottenness” and what has this to do with desirism? Or is this an empty rhetorical assertion?

If I can’t apply the cost function on the ground floor, why should we think it will work out better on any of the others?

You can and must apply a “cost” function at that ground floor that is what desirism argues, so again where is your argument that desirism does not do this, or is this another empty rhetorical assertion?

What happens if the vast majority of desires are just plain evil?  

This analysis seems to be currently the best basis to establish whether a desire is desire-thwarting or not. A desire that causes great desire-thwarting we can label “evil”. Regardless of such a label, for such a desire there are many and strong reasons to inhibit it, in virtue of it being a significant desire-thwarting desire, and use of that label is most often recruited in to help condemning such a desire, given its illocutionary force, in further discouraging such a desire from increasing in a society.

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smijer June 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

Hey! I’m late to the party. I have just started listening to CFTPBD and found this thread after listening to your interchange with Sean McDowell… luke – since I am late, I am only hoping that you happen on this comment in your blog management back-end, and that you have a minute or two to reply.

As background, I am a non-expert, non-philosopher who has rather given up on an objective program of morality. Prematurely, maybe, but I haven’t regretted it so far except maybe the same way I regretted giving up the belief that I had a chance with that cute girl in my 9th grade algebra class. [I am happily married now and many years removed from 9th grade. And I'm not sure that there was such a girl - just trying to characterize the type of regret I might have over giving up moral objectivism.]

Now I’ll quickly summarize the objections I’ve read here that resonate with me in my own terms, so that I can clarify the response of desirism in terms that make sense to me.

I don’t have a specific quarrel with the “most” desires condition that isn’t subsumed elsewhere. So I’ll reduce the people involved to two so we can focus without confusion on the “strongest” condition. On this world there is only Dick and Jane.

To rephrase the Divine Command theory killer in terms of desirism: If Dick’s desired strongly to rape Jane, and Jane desired (less strongly) to not be raped, then (under desirism as characterized by this objection), it would be a right action for Dick to rape Jane.

Now, one response I read is that the “right action” is for Jane to convince Dick not to desire raping her. Having done so, we will not wish rape, and no one’s strong desire will be thwarted. Is this correct? If so, isn’t it still the case that if Jane is unsuccessful and Dick continues to desire to rape her, then under desirism it is the right action for him to do so?

The next response I read – and I may be reading this correctly at all – is as follows. Yes, under desirism, rape of this sort is the right action. We intuit that it is the wrong action, but our intuition fails. Desirism is well established, and therefore we can objectively conclude that under that scenario, rape is correct. Perhaps, if this is the argument, then it would continue to point out that our intuition is based on how strongly we expect people to wish not to be raped – that under this scenario the desire not to be raped isn’t as strong, and it is a failure of our imagination to imagine a weaker desire to not be raped and how it figures into the moral calculus. (Or conversely, how a much stronger desire to rape on the part of Dick than exists in our world could figure into the moral calculus).

If I am reading (and anticipating) this argument correctly, then I have major reservations and would have to back up and think through all of this over a long careful period of time before assenting to its merit. A further objection I would present is that such an answer fails to take into account the value of non-compulsion. I think we would agree that if two people have equal but diametrically opposed interests (I use this word to get outside the framework of desirism for a moment), then the outcome that doesn’t require someone to be coerced is the preferred one. In other words, Smeagol and Deagol each want the ring (which belongs rightfully to neither) equally, Deagol should keep it since Smeagol would have to coerce Deagol in order to obtain it (I would go to lengths to explain how this situation might arise without Deagol having a greater claim to the ring on another criterion such as findership, but I trust you can take this as a given). How does desirism cope with this?

The third response that I see is the effort to “go abstract”. I find this dissatisfying for the same reasons as the first response. Yes, in the best possible world, Dick’s and Jane’s desires will not conflict in exactly this way. That still leaves to be explained the notion that the world in which Dick rapes Jane is better than the world in which Dick’s desire is thwarted.

So, anyhoo. Am I reading you right? Am I just too dumb or lazy to understand how you have already answered my objections earlier in the thread? (I’ll concede that I had to skim some of it – it’s a very long thread and philosophy, as I indicated, isn’t my payday. Nor is the internet). In any case, I’d like to hear back from you.

I’ve really enjoyed Conversations, by the way!

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smijer June 19, 2010 at 10:31 am

Well….. Ok…. I think I have identified the flaw in my own thinking above. Some of this meta is too meta for me. So, the right outcome between Dick and Jane would be for Dick to evaluate his own desire in terms of how the most desires could avoid being thwarted, realize that changing his own desire to rape is a recipe for reducing thwarted desires, and then do so? But if desires are so easily changed then why shouldn’t Jane be the one who reflects this way and changes *her* desire? After all, hers is initially the weaker one…. Or why shouldn’t everyone just stop having desires entirely? So, I still have a problem … just maybe a different one.

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lukeprog June 19, 2010 at 11:51 am

smijer,

Thanks for your interest, but I’m afraid your reading of Desirism is far from accurate. Start here if you want to learn more:
http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=776

Cheers.

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Kip June 19, 2010 at 12:57 pm

So, the right outcome between Dick and Jane would be for Dick to evaluate his own desire in terms of how the most desires could avoid being thwarted, realize that changing his own desire to rape is a recipe for reducing thwarted desires, and then do so? But if desires are so easily changed then why shouldn’t Jane be the one who reflects this way and changes *her* desire? After all, hers is initially the weaker one…. Or why shouldn’t everyone just stop having desires entirely?

Great question. And as far as I know, it won’t be answered in the link that Luke gave you (although your previous misunderstanding is).

The fact is that some desires are not malleable. Jane’s desire to not be raped may very well be such a desire (I think it is). The very definition of “rape” entails “without consent”, so there is no way that Jane can want to be raped. Now, we may be able to change the definition of “rape” in such a way that it would not cause this logical contradiction. It would still be bad for Jane because she doesn’t want Dick to have sex with her. The desire to have autonomy over ones own body is so fundamental to our nature, that it is practically impossible to change — it’s not malleable. The desire to force your will upon someone else, though, is not fundamental to our nature — it is a desire that is malleable. This, then, is our only option in reconciling (harmonizing) these desires.

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smijer June 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm

lukeprog,

OK… having done so (some – I have quite a bit more to read there), I believe that my initial objections are answered. My problem came from trying to understand it in purely objectivist terms. Understanding desirism as subjectively grounded, my objections wither.

Obviously, the problems implicit in subjective grounding come up, but it appears that the project of desirism is designed to help with some of them. And the approach seems very promising. I’m subscribed to CSA now & will look forward to reading more on the subject.

Thank you again. Great blog. Great podcast. Take care.

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smijer June 19, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Kip.. having read the link… no – the problem still exists in this respect: there exists no objective basis for saying that Dick should not rape Jane. We only know that subjectively. But the lack of an objectively grounded reason that it is wrong for Dick to rape Jane is a problem that no other system gets around either. No objectively grounded moral theory seems to be coherent. So, we are stuck with making the best of subjectively grounded ones.

However, reading the linked page (and the pages it links to) suggests to me strongly that desirism makes no claim to provide an ultimate objective grounding from which we can derive the view that Dick should not rape Jane. I am still working on desirism does say – but it seems to be more sophisticated than I originally realized.

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lukeprog June 19, 2010 at 2:02 pm

smijer,

Thanks for the kind words.

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Kip June 19, 2010 at 2:17 pm

smijer> the problem still exists in this respect: there exists no objective basis for saying that Dick should not rape Jane. We only know that subjectively.

Without using the words “objective” or “subjective”, can you rephrase this? What does “should” mean to you in this context?

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smijer June 19, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Kip – Dick, assuming that he is a psychopath and doesn’t care what Jane wants, thinks, or suffers, has no recourse to reflect on any fact of life or nature that will convince him that he should not rape Jane*. Put another way – there is nothing that he can see that will convince him that this is wrong.

Jane does see something that will convince her that it is wrong, as do we. But Dick cannot see it. The reason to refrain from raping her is not equally available to all observers. It is available to Jane, but not to Dick.

In the real world, the situation is similar, but far more complicated, since there are now three or more sets of desires.

*What does “should” mean? Well, I would define it as the prescriptive moral operator. If morality is about right and wrong, then “should” indicates rightness and “should not” indicates wrongness. If morality isn’t about right and wrong, then I don’t know what morality is.

To restate briefly and bring back the terminology of subjective and objective: A moral system is objectively grounded if anyone who uses the best possible set of logical principles and facts about the world, will in principle find the same things to be “right and wrong”, regardless of their individual values.

A moral system is subjectively grounded if “right and wrong” will sometimes necessarily vary between two people who think about them using the best possible set of logical principles and facts about the world, depending on their individual values or some other feature unique to their personality.

Desirisim seems to be subjectively grounded – at least ultimately – but has an important objective component.

That’s my take (and as far as I am willing to take it before understanding the theory better). But I’m not one of those championing the theory, so I may still be wildly wrong and luke may simply being polite by not pointing it out to me a second time.

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Zeb June 19, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Smijer, desirism does not say that Dick should not rape Jane, it says that Dick should not desire to rape Jane. In desirism it is desires, not actions, that are morally evaluated. So even while Dick desires to rape Jane, if he is rational and desires to be good, he will desire to lose his desire to rape Jane. That is because as Kip explained the desire not to be raped is not malleable (by definition of rape, even if not on grounds of autonomy). A more interesting test case, I think, is if there is a world with one man and one woman and the conflict is over reproductive sex. In the interest of balance, let’s say Jane wants to have sex with Dick but he does not want to have sex with her because he is attracted to her and doesn’t care enjoy the company of children, which might result from sex. The desire to have sex and to pocreate are both malleable and stronger than the desire to avoid sex with unattractive people and the desire to avoid the company of small children. Futhermore, if we are counting the desires of future people (and why not?), there are uncountably many desires that will be thwarted by Dick desiring not to have sex with Jane. So desirism should come down hard on the side of Jane desiring to use the moral tools of condemnation and punishment to change Dick’s desire.not to have sex with her, and even approve her desire-as-means to use for to get him to have sex with her. Now for emotional punch, if we reverse the genders, I have a hard time accepting a morality that justifies a man using condemnation and punishment to change a woman’s desire to have sex with him under any circumstances.

I agree your question about having no desires is interesting. If anyone knows of a desirism addressing Buddhism, please point to it. I suppose the answer will involve the immalleability of desires, but that’s a scientific claim about which I am skeptical.

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faithlessgod June 20, 2010 at 3:02 am

Hi Smijer

“Desirism seems to be subjectively grounded – at least ultimately – but has an important objective component.”

Merely referring to desires does not make a theory subjective, most certainly not as part of the meta-ethical category known as moral subjectivism, let alone any specific theory within it such as individual subjectivism or normative relativism.

A major and prominent branch of moral realism – that is objective morality – is the reductive naturalisms based on desires or desire-based ethics. Desirism is one version of this, along with Griffin’s Informed Desires, Brink’s Rational Desires, Railton’s Objective Interests/Social Rationality, Nagel’s Agent-neural objective reasons and so on.

If you want to call all these subjective that is your choice, but such a label is in my view unhelpful. Sinc, hese all argue that there are truth-apt moral statements, some of which are true, specifically independent of individual or group opinions or preferences.

Desirism is a theory derived from a systematic examination of the interactions of desires, grounded upon existing and well supported empirical psychology, that establishes and can predict determinate and publicly observable cause-effect relations. That is, unlike “indiviudal subjectivism” or “normative relativism”, it is amenable to ratio-empirical inquiry, capable of providing empirically adequate universal, provisional and defeasible conclusions, which is all that is needed for any other empirical inquiry to qualify as “objective”, so why not here?

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faithlessgod June 20, 2010 at 3:11 am

Hi Zeb

“I agree your question about having no desires is interesting. If anyone knows of a desirism addressing Buddhism, please point to it.”

Dunno but here is my take on this. Assuming you have some familiarity with Buddhism there is an innocent equivocation over desire between these two theories. Buddhism identifies the problem of suffering as one that can be cured by freeing oneself from those “grasping” desire that bring about this suffering, that is both unnecessary and avoidable. One cannot avoid experiencing pain but can avoid additional reactions that are the suffering due to other desires and false expectations such as “why me?” Why not someone else”, “its not fair” and so on. It addresses desires that specifically adversely affect an internal condition of fulfilment of desires – namely a internal, psychological satisfaction condition. It is about inhibiting those desires that tend to frustrate other desires, and do nothing else, such desires based on certain false beliefs such as false expectations and so on. Does this help?

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smijer June 20, 2010 at 4:35 am

I’ll try to answer Zeb and faithlessgod together, and start by apologizing (to Kip, I guess) for mis-stating the question of what Dick should do. Under desirism, the most we could directly say is that Dick should change his desire.

However, if this is true (rather than that Jane should change her desire), then it is only true because we subjectively believe that Dick should change his desire. I reject the notion that Dick’s desire is conveniently more malleable than Jane’s. The only objective fact that could come into play is that Jane’s desire is somewhat weaker. For our purposes, the two are equally malleable (or unmalleable). So if Dick truly should change his desire, then this is a subjective “should”.

Furthermore (in defense of my ill-formed statement), under desirism it is automatic that Dick will act according to his desires, so saying that he should change his desire implies that he should not rape Jane.

I am accustomed to using the terms objective and subjective for moral reasoning in a very specific way. I apply it to the source of “should” – regardless of what the object of “should” turns out to be.

This article explains that we cannot persuade a person to change their desires through objective reason (here I read: “through appeal to an objective moral standard”), but can use praise and condemnation to get them to conform to our moral standard (which presumably must be informed both from a subjective standard and from reasoning objectively about how to arrange the world to match that standard).

A relevant passage:

It would be nice to be able to get you to want to fulfill the desires of others through reason alone. Unfortunately, reason cannot be used for that particular job – it is ineffective. But reason tells us what tools we can use; praise and condemnation. The claim that you should have desires that fulfill the desires of others is the claim that reason tells us to use the tools of praise and condemnation to help bring it about that people generally have such desires.”

The way I (and I think most people intuitively) use “objective” and “subjective” has to do with how we arrive at the “original should”, not how we derive other “should’s” from it nor how we use objective information to qualify or inform our response to that “original should”. If I had been reading about desirism with the idea in mind that the “original should” was not supposed to be objective, then I would have understood it better and would have been more sympathetic.

Naturally, there are other ways to use those terms and desirism seems to be careful to make the necessary distinctions. It’s just that I wasn’t cognizant of them when I was trying to make sense of all this yesterday.

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Zeb June 20, 2010 at 5:26 am

Faithlessgod, that’s interesting. If you could explain more in plainer language and perhaps offer an illustration, that would help more. I realize direct translation of religious terms is not always sufficient, so that when Buddhism says that suffering is caused by desire and suffering ends when desire ends, that may not mean that one should stop feeling hunger (a physical desire for food), much less stop having “reasons for action”. Are you saying desirism would concur with Buddhism that a certain kind of desire should be eliminated? If so, how are those desires differentiated?

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faithlessgod June 21, 2010 at 2:11 am

Zeb

I just wanted to me the point out that Buddhist “desire” is not the same as BDI “desire” but rather addresses a certain sub-set of beliefs, desires (means and ends) and dispositions. That one framework can be understood in terms of the other. As for properly identifying and evaluating that sub-set and so on that is an interesting question but I have no time to pursue this right now. One day I will write a blog post in this.

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faithlessgod June 21, 2010 at 2:35 am

Smijer

I will let Kip pursue the content of the rape discussion with you and add only these additional points due to your response to my comment.

“Under desirism, the most we could directly say is that Dick should change his desire.”
Surely, this is the most that the application of any moral theory could do? That is Desirism just makes this explicit and so puts the burden on other approaches that claim more, as how and why that could be done.

“it is only true because we subjectively believe that Dick should change his desire.”
Not under desirism, which is based on seeing if there is a determinate answer to looking at the issue objectively, meant here by transcending anyone’s prejudice, preference and partialities, and looking at the issue trans-culturally and/or generally (time- and place- transcendence). There may not be a determinate answer under such an analysis but, if there is (or is not), it is a provisional and defeasible answer, reviewable and revisable in the light of new data, this does not include subjective beliefs as to what is right and wrong.

“Furthermore (in defense of my ill-formed statement), under desirism it is automatic that Dick will act according to his desires, so saying that he should change his desire implies that he should not rape Jane.”
Not quite, Dick will seek to fulfil his more and stronger desires, however at the time of him considering (or not) to rape Jane the work has already been done or has failed. It is about creating a society where such socially malleable desires have already been inhibited. If Dick does still have such a desire and acts upon it then either society has not done a good job (being variably inconsistent, incoherent or ration-empirically ungrounded) or if it has then it cannot guarantee that everyone will so desire, it only serves to better minimise such desire-thwarting desire’s as Dick’s than other approaches.

“I am accustomed to using the terms objective and subjective for moral reasoning in a very specific way. I apply it to the source of “should” – regardless of what the object of “should” turns out to be.”
You can use those labels any way you want. However here the issue is as to whether one can obtain universally determinate yet provisional and defeasible answers to the question as to what people generally (or trans-culturally) have reason to promote or inhibit.

Does this help?

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Contrararian July 5, 2010 at 6:42 am

I’ve just listened to your podcast interview with Sean McDowell. Very interesting, as everyone above says.

While I appreciate why you didn’t challenge him on his views on salvation and damnation, I really wish you had.

Reading his own website, he comes across like a complete idiot.

Jesus did not come down to earth to exclude anyone but to lead as many people as possible to the knowledge of God… Christ makes no human distinctions—he died and rose again so that all people could have a personal relationship with the living God.

Which is why he damns most people to burn in hell eternally without any hope of reprieve. Ugh.

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LightUp November 8, 2010 at 8:38 pm

This is quite a discussion! While I haven’t read everyone’s comments, I have to say that generally speaking I’m just happy to see most contributors where having honest exchanges about a difficult subject free from personal insults and demeaning statements.

That said, http://contrararian.tumblr.com/, where did you find that “(Jesus) damns most people to hell without any hope of reprieve?”

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GS November 14, 2011 at 6:13 am

While this thread has not moved for a year it seems like as good a place as any to ask this question.

Can Craig’s moral argument be turned back on him.

As I recall Craig’s moral argument it is:
1 If god does not exist then objective moral values do not exist
2 Objective moral values exist
3 therefore god exists.

In response to the Euthyphro dilemma when it is raised against him Craig avoids the horns of the dilemma essentially by placing good in gods nature

Based on his moral argument and response to the Euthyphro dilemma it seems reasonable to formulate an argument as follows.

1 If god exists then objective moral values exist.
2 Objective moral values do not exist.
3 therefore god does not exists.

Premise 1 seems to reasonably arise from Craig’s moral argument and response to the Euthyphro dilemma.

Premise 2 seems plausible based on real world observations.

Therefore god does not exist.

Does this fly?

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Zeb November 14, 2011 at 6:50 am

GS, it seems to me your argument would work, but you’d be arguing right past Craig and the people he is targeting. Craig is taking for granted that people will intuitively accept his premise 2 and assumes the difficulty is in arguing for his premise 1, which is not intuitive. You’ve got to argue for two counterintuitive (for most people, probably?) premises in order for your argument against God to be convincing.

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GS November 15, 2011 at 4:22 am

GS, it seems to me your argument would work, but you’d be arguing right past Craig and the people he is targeting. Craig is taking for granted that people will intuitively accept his premise 2 and assumes the difficulty is in arguing for his premise 1, which is not intuitive. You’ve got to argue for two counterintuitive (for most people, probably?) premises in order for your argument against God to be convincing.

I think you have a point however Craig and his clones have to be challenged since their arguments on this issue generally start with multiple appeals to authority where it’s the argument we are interested in not name dropping particularly when there are other authorities that disagree.
They then follow up with appeals to emotion, however so what if we are all to die, so what if we live on a speck its not an argument for or against objective moral values it is just an appeal to emotion.
Finally Craig and his clones get to the argument, “But the fact is that objective moral values do exist, and we all know it. There’s no more reason to deny the objective existence of moral values than to deny the objective reality of the physical world.”
Arif Ahmed in his debate with Craig had what I consider to be an excellent response to this ‘argument’, “Dr. Craig says that objective moral values exist, and I think we all know it. Now that might pass for an argument at Talbot Theological Seminary, and it might pass for an argument in the White House, but this is Cambridge, and it will not pass for an argument here.” so I think you can create a response along these lines that hits home for a wider audience than Cambridge students.

Dr Law in his debate with Craig argued in the following way against Premise 1
“the onus is on Professor Craig to show that no atheist-friendly account of the objective truth of moral claims can be given. … The onus is on Professor Craig to show that all such atheist-friendly accounts are wrong – even the ones we haven’t thought of yet. And don’t forget, as theists regularly do, that they needn’t even be naturalistic accounts.”
It seems to me that if Laws counter to premise 1 of Craig’s argument is logically correct then premise 1 collapses as a matter of logic and Ahmed’s response to premise 2 destroys that premise.

All in all it seems to me that Craig and his clones whole line of argument can be collapsed without any particularly fancy footwork from a challenger. Its a pity that most challengers really don’t seem to do their homework before they enter into a debate with Craig and his clones since there seem to be good and simple defeaters to their arguments around which can be wordsmithed into a polished and effective response to Craig.
Anyway cheers

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GS December 18, 2011 at 8:59 pm

I was wondering some more about morality and Christianity and particularly Craigs approach which is to dispose with the logical problem of evil, generally based on the free will defense, and then deal with the evidential problem of evil based on gods long view verses our short view of the consequences of evil followed by saying that in any event even if you are evil Christianity doesn’t care because as long as you repent and accept Christ you get all the benefits that are on offer in any event because this god wants to get the maximum number of its creatures into an eternal and freely loving relationship with it and that’s the method its chosen to achieve its goal.

It occurred to me that maybe there is an argument against the existence of this version of the christian god along these lines.

1 If the christian god exists then it is omnipotent.
2 If the christian god is omnipotent then it is able to do all logically possible things.
3 If the christian god exists then it wants to get the maximum number of its creatures into an eternal and freely loving relationship with it.
4. It is possible to conceive of a possible world (“LW”) in which all its creatures enter into an eternal and freely loving relationship with it. In other words such a possible world is not a ‘logical contradiction’.
5 Since LW is a possible world it is a world which the christian god can create.
6 Since LW is the world in which the maximum number of its creatures enter into an eternal and freely loving relationship with it the christian god must have created that world otherwise the maximum number of its creatures have not entered into an eternal and freely loving relationship with it.
7 Therefore this world must be the LW.
8 However if this world is the LW then all the creatures in this world must have entered into an eternal and freely loving relationship with it.
9 However it is clear that not all the creatures in this world have entered into an eternal and freely loving relationship with it.
10 Therefore this christian god does not exist.

Does this hang together?

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thatguy January 22, 2012 at 7:56 pm

I may have misunderstood what Luke meant by objective morality. If I have someone please clarify for me. Objective Morality: Morals that exist free of bias. Clearly this is impossible. My own morals come from the Bible therefor they are prejudice. Your morals probably come from philosophers therefor they are prejudice. I think it is clear that there are NO new ideas in the world. Ask yourself, “Have I ever thought of something completely original?” Probably not. Every idea you have ever had is a result of something else. Every thought you have ever had is a result of something else. As your reading this your brain is understanding and processing what I’m saying. You are probably deciding right now whether or not you agree with me. If I suddenly say “Don’t think of elephants!” of course you are thinking of a large grey mammal that lives in Africa. Thus proving that nothing is original.

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