Why We Should Not Torture Children

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 2, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

u.n. torturing child citizen

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

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There has been some debate on this blog over whether desirism requires that we torture children if most people desired to torture children.

I have addressed this issue a few different ways and it would do me no good to repeat those arguments. So, let me take the issue on from a new perspective.

A person who desires to torture a child has a reason to act so as to realize a state in which the proposition, “I am torturing a child” is true.

This is simply a specific application of the claim that desires are reasons for action, and they are the only reasons for action that exist. If I am hungry for chocolate cake, then I have a reason to act so as to realize a state in which the proposition, “I am eating chocolate cake,” is true. If I want to experience Avatar in IMAX 3D then I have a reason to realize a state in which the proposition, “I am experiencing Avatar in IMAX 3D” is true.

However, the next question to ask according to desirism is, “What is the value of the desire to torture the child?

If a person has a desire to torture a child, then he has reason to act so as to realize a state in which “I am torturing a child” is true. However, the next question is, “What reasons for action exist, if any, for realizing a state in which ‘I have a desire to torture a child’ is true?”

We know that a state in which an agent is torturing a child is valuable to that agent if he has a desire to torture children. However, the next question to ask is, “What does it take for it to be the case that having a desire to torture children has value?”

Clearly, those children who would be tortured have no reason to realize a state in which the proposition, “He has a desire to torture children,” is true. In fact, the child has a huge set of very powerful reasons for realizing a state in which the proposition “He has a desire to torture children” is false.

The same is true of anybody who cares about those children who would be tortured. They also have reasons to act so as to prevent the realization of a state in which “He has a desire to torture children” is true.

We have all of these reasons for preventing the realization of such a state.

We have no reason, as far as I can tell, to actually realize such a state.

Even the person with the desire to torture children can ask, “What would the universe be like in which nobody, including me, had a desire to torture children? If I had no such desire, then I would have no reason to act so as to realize a state in which, ‘I am torturing a child’ is true. It would be a world in which the proposition, ‘I am torturing a child’ would be kept false, and I would be content in such a world. Even I, the one who desires to torture children, has no reason to realize a state in which ‘I have a desire to torture children’.”

We could, of course, imagine a person with a desire to torture children, and a desire to be somebody with a desire to torture children. In imagining this state, the desire to torture children would have value. When we ask what reasons there are to promote a desire to torture children, we can, under this assumption, point to the desire to be a person with a desire to torture children.

Yet, even here, we can still ask whether there are reasons to promote this ‘desire to be somebody with a desire to torture children’. If we have many and strong reasons to condemn such a desire – and we do – then we have many and strong reasons to condemn those states that fulfill such a desire. The problem of attempting to justify such a desire persists, it just gets pushed back one more step.

The desire to torture children is so inherently desire-thwarting, that it is difficult or impossible to imagine a case in which it could have positive value.

We can, of course, come up with cases in which the torturing of a child becomes a way of fulfilling desires that we have reason to promote. We could ask, “What if there were a world such that a state in which a child is being tortured is one that will fulfill good desires?”

An extreme science-fiction  example of this asks, “What if aliens came to earth with an ultimatum that, either we torture a child, or they will subject the whole Earth and everybody on it to a slow and painful death except that child, who they will take with them?”

It would seem that, according to desirism, if we can come up with a case where torturing a child fulfills ‘good’ desires, then desirism would then have to condone the torturing of that child.

Well, yes. Deirism may authorize the torturing of the child, but it would also demand that (1) those who torture the child do so with great regrets because of the strong aversion they are supposed to have to torturing children, and (2) the least desire-thwarting option be used against the child.

I can imagine a world in which subjecting a child to a series of extremely painful shots in the stomach may be necessary to prevent the child from dying of some fatal neurological disease that I will call ‘rabies’. Desirism cannot condone causing a child such pain as an end in itself – as something desired. However, it may be a necessary means to the fulfillment of some other desire, such as the desire to save the child’s life and preserve long-term well-being. In this type of case, desirism would probably come down on the side of giving the child these extremely painful shots.

However, I do not think that these types of conclusions raise any problems for desirism.

In all of these cases, the moral quality of an act depends on whether we have reasons to promote or to inhibit the desires that motivate that action.

We have no reason to promote a desire to torture children. Even the person with the desire to torture children has more and stronger reasons to rid himself of that desire than he does to preserve that desire. Given the extreme desire-thwarting nature of torture (and all of the reasons that desire-thwarting creates for preventing the realization of a state in which people desire torture), it is difficult and perhaps impossible to imagine a state in which we could actually have reasons to promote a desire to torture children.

If it does turn out that the torture of a child is necessary as a means to the realization of good desires, then it is not a problem for desirism that it concludes that such an act could be justified.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 68 comments… read them below or add one }

piero March 2, 2010 at 8:17 am

I think that in the outlandish space-aliens scenario, we could formulate a distinction: in that situation, torturing the child would not be carried out in order to fulfill the desire of torturing children, but in order to fulfill the desire of not torturing everybody else, including millions of other children. So the sceenario actually exemplifies how we can sometimes do things we do not desire to do, just in order to avoid having to do even more distasteful things.

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faithlessgod March 2, 2010 at 8:22 am

Not to give the plot way but check out the BBC’s Torchwood series “The Children of Earth”

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lukeprog March 2, 2010 at 9:47 am

I would like to know if it is now clear to cartesian and TaiChi why desirism does not imply that we should torture children if the majority’s desires would be fulfilled by torturing children. Is it still unclear?

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RD Miksa March 2, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Good Day to All,

Just a few points:

“Clearly, those children who would be tortured have no reason to realize a state in which the proposition, “He has a desire to torture children,” is true. In fact, the child has a huge set of very powerful reasons for realizing a state in which the proposition “He has a desire to torture children” is false. The same is true of anybody who cares about those children who would be tortured. They also have reasons to act so as to prevent the realization of a state in which “He has a desire to torture children” is true. We have all of these reasons for preventing the realization of such a state. We have no reason, as far as I can tell, to actually realize such a state.”

As weird and humorous as this may sound, a masochistic orphan child/teenager/adult would have both a reason to desire to be torture and no other individuals to desire to thwart that state. Therefore, under Desirism, the torture of masochistic orphans of whatever age is a desire that has positive value as it is desired by all parties and thus should be fulfilled.

“The desire to torture children is so inherently desire-thwarting, that it is difficult or impossible to imagine a case in which it could have positive value.”

See my point above concerning the masochistic orphan; a strange and extreme case, no doubt, but hardly “difficult or impossible” to imagine.

“An extreme science-fiction example of this asks, “What if aliens came to earth with an ultimatum that, either we torture a child, or they will subject the whole Earth and everybody on it to a slow and painful death except that child, who they will take with them?” It would seem that, according to desirism, if we can come up with a case where torturing a child fulfills ‘good’ desires, then desirism would then have to condone the torturing of that child. Well, yes.”

What if those aliens asked to us to torture 25% of all children? 35%? 45%? 49%? When does Desirism stop in such a case?

“Deirism may authorize the torturing of the child, but it would also demand that (1) those who torture the child do so with great regrets because of the strong aversion they are supposed to have to torturing children, and (2) the least desire-thwarting option be used against the child.”

Reference Point 1: So what? Reference Point 2: So what? You are still torturing a child.

“However, I do not think that these types of conclusions raise any problems for desirism.”

That is because you really have not thought it through!

“We have no reason to promote a desire to torture children. Even the person with the desire to torture children has more and stronger reasons to rid himself of that desire than he does to preserve that desire.”

This is simply an assertion that does not take into account the strength and quality of the Desirer and desire.

“If it does turn out that the torture of a child is necessary as a means to the realization of good desires, then it is not a problem for desirism that it concludes that such an act could be justified.”

It is both interesting and revolting that torturing a child is thus not a problem for Desirism in certain circumstances, especially since I could think of some such circumstances myself.

Take care and God Bless,

RD Miksa
Radosmiksa.blogspot.com

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RD Miksa March 2, 2010 at 12:47 pm

A Further Point:

“In all of these cases, the moral quality of an act depends on whether we have reasons to promote or to inhibit the desires that motivate that action.”

Forgetting torturing children for a moment and instead, let us consider pederasty for a moment.

In ancient Greece, pederasty was a common and accepted practice. It was desired by the adult practitioners and desired by the male boys, who received and had many other desires fulfilled due to this pederastic arrangement. The society as a whole, furthermore, also had many desires of great value fulfilled through this arrangement. Therefore, from all angles, pederasty fulfills numerous desires all which have great value and is not only justified but morally encouraged under Desirism.

Thus a question for Luke: Do you admit that pederasty is supported by Desirism in certain cultural structures and thus do you support pederasty in these specific cultural structures?

Take care and God Bless,

RD Miksa
http://www.radosmiksa.blogspot.com

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RD Miksa March 2, 2010 at 12:49 pm

One Final Point:

“In all of these cases, the moral quality of an act depends on whether we have reasons to promote or to inhibit the desires that motivate that action.”

Forgetting torturing children for a moment and instead, let us consider pederasty for a moment.

In ancient Greece, pederasty was a common and accepted practice. It was desired by the adult practitioners and desired by the male boys, who received and had many other desires fulfilled due to this pederastic arrangement. The society as a whole, furthermore, also had many desires of great value fulfilled through this arrangement. Therefore, from all angles, pederasty fulfills numerous desires all which have great value and is not only justified but morally encouraged under Desirism.

Thus a question for Luke: Do you admit that pederasty is supported by Desirism in certain cultural structures and thus do you support pederasty in these specific cultural structures?

Take care and God Bless,

RD Miksa
radosmiksa.blogspot.com

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cartesian March 2, 2010 at 1:51 pm

lukeprog: I would like to know if it is now clear to cartesian and TaiChi why desirism does not imply that we should torture children if the majority’s desires would be fulfilled by torturing children. Is it still unclear?  

Well, to be honest, Fyfe’s post was a pretty serious mess, which only muddied the waters. (Frankly, I think you’re well past the point at which the student surpasses the teacher. I think you should go find another teacher, perhaps at a badass Ph.D. program.)

But more to the point, no, I don’t think Fyfe put the concern to rest. You say desirism does not imply that we should torture children if that would satisfy the majority’s desires. But it sure seems like Fyfe says just the opposite:

“It would seem that, according to desirism, if we can come up with a case where torturing a child fulfills ‘good’ desires, then desirism would then have to condone the torturing of that child. Well, yes. Desirism may authorize the torturing of the child…

The reason I’m not positive if Fyfe has contradicted you is that I have no idea why he put “good” in scare quotes. I’m not 100% sure what he’s up to here, or anywhere else in his post for that matter.

But if by “‘good’ desire” he meant what you mean, namely a desire that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts, then it looks like Fyfe has flatly contradicted you. He thinks there are situations in which the desire to torture children would be a good desire, namely a situation in which the number and strength of desires adds up right. You, however, think there are no such cases. So you and Fyfe disagree.


Really, I’m not sure how what Fyfe said engages the little debate you and I were having. (And maybe he didn’t intend to engage that debate!)

You had said that “a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.”

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

If (a) and (b) are both true in the case I described, then I successfully described a counterexample to your original claim.

As far as I can tell, nothing Fyfe said engaged our discussion. Given the way Fyfe was talking about the value of desires, I’m not even sure whether Fyfe agrees that “a good desire is one that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts.”


By the way, as far as I’m concerned, what Fyfe says here is a flat-out reductio of Desirism:

We could, of course, imagine a person with a desire to torture children, and a desire to be somebody with a desire to torture children. In imagining this state, the desire to torture children would have value.

Either that’s plainly false (and so Desirism is false), or we’re not talking about *moral* value, and Desirism isn’t a moral theory after all.

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TaiChi March 2, 2010 at 2:05 pm

I would like to know if it is now clear to cartesian and TaiChi why desirism does not imply that we should torture children if the majority’s desires would be fulfilled by torturing children. Is it still unclear? ” ~ Lukeprog

I’m surprised to be asked, since I thought I’d hit on the solution with my (3) back in the other thread. Reading this post, I haven’t changed my mind – I think Fyfe’s response only makes sense if we take desires to be evaluated against each other in the abstract, ignoring the actual desires of people in the world.
In fact, there’s an obvious example of Fyfe’s ‘going abstract’…

Yet, even here, we can still ask whether there are reasons to promote this ‘desire to be somebody with a desire to torture children’. If we have many and strong reasons to condemn such a desire – and we do – then we have many and strong reasons to condemn those states that fulfill such a desire. The problem of attempting to justify such a desire persists, it just gets pushed back one more step.” ~ Fyfe

.. where he avoids the problem that desiring to be a torturer justifies the desire to torture by considering the former desire in turn. The implication is clear: if any desires are held fixed in our evaluation of some particular desire, then this is because it is convenient to do so in making our judgments, not because the theory calls for it. This shortcut (of holding some desires fixed) obviously won’t deliver the right conclusion if some of the desires are not themselves desire satisficing. (On the other hand, I presume there are some obviously good desires that we can hold fixed without being led into error).

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TaiChi March 2, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Cartesian,
But if by “‘good’ desire” he meant what you mean, namely a desire that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires than it thwarts, then it looks like Fyfe has flatly contradicted you. He thinks there are situations in which the desire to torture children would be a good desire, namely a situation in which the number and strength of desires adds up right. You, however, think there are no such cases. So you and Fyfe disagree.

They don’t disagree*. Fyfe is saying that the act of torturing a child may be good in an extreme case, but this is not the same as saying the desire to torture a child is good in that extreme case. Hence the passage…

Deirism may authorize the torturing of the child, but it would also demand that (1) those who torture the child do so with great regrets because of the strong aversion they are supposed to have to torturing children” ~ Fyfe

… where it is obvious that the torturer does not in fact desire to torture the child.

* (On this point – if Luke does think that the act of torture is always wrong, then they disagree over that).

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lukeprog March 2, 2010 at 2:49 pm

cartesian and TaiChi,

We seem to be talking past each other. Give me a week or so to read all your posts and see if I can come up with a clarifying way forward. Thanks for sticking with me on this. Maybe Alonzo will chime in, too.

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Erika March 2, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I’m going to be simple minded (like I often am =). It seems that an implicit in the question of “Is it moral to torture children in a world where the majority desires to torture children?” is the unstated assertion “and everything else stays exactly the same”.

While such a world may be interesting for thought experiments, it seems utterly infeasible. For example, in such a world, families as we know them would be impossible which would greatly modify the structure of society. While such a world may be analyzable under a framework like desirism, we lack the data to do so.

In logic, contradiction allows us to derive anything (such as your mom’s phone number). At what point in these thought experiments do we reach that point?

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Rhys Wilkins March 2, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Why don’t Cartesian and TaiChi go to Alonzo’s blog and engage him directly?

Guys?

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lukeprog March 2, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Rhys,

It might be confusing to split this discussion up all over the place.

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Alex March 2, 2010 at 11:48 pm

I’ve been following the conversation with some interest, I feel like I finally have some sort of idea as to what desirism is supposed to be about. I’d also say that Cartesian seems to be ripping it to pieces. He’s clear and to the point, in stark contrast to this most recent post from Alonzo which is just about impenetrable.

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Kyle March 3, 2010 at 3:33 am

I have three concerns about desirism:

1. How does one get from desire to reason for acting? I see how one can get from desire to action, but then a brain malfunction could lead to me singing at the top of my voice all day long, but I wouldn’t call that a reason for singing – except in the sense that it was the cause of my singing.

2. Why should other peoples desires be reasons for my actions? The most promising lines of thought I can think of to answer 1 seem to make this even more of a worry.

3. How does one count desires? I’m not sure how important this is from the way it has been described, but it seems that the claim is that initially all desires are equal, and it is only by finding the course of action that meets most desires that indicates which desires are good. If that is so, then how do we do the calculation?

In the case of the torturer, suppose that the torturer has a desire to torture girls and a desire to torture blond people. If he desires to torture a blond girl, is that one desire or two? It seems dependent on how one describes the situation.

I think this last concern is the least worrying. Perhaps one can simply talk instead of the strength of desire for a particular action. For example, I have a desire to be thin, and a desire to eat burgers. When confronted by a burger my two desires do not cancel each other out despite the fact that they pull in opposite directions (usually the desire for burgers wins). Perhaps strength of desire can be used accross the board to avoid this problem.

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Thomas Reid March 3, 2010 at 3:40 am

lukeprog: cartesian and TaiChi,We seem to be talking past each other. Give me a week or so to read all your posts and see if I can come up with a clarifying way forward. Thanks for sticking with me on this. Maybe Alonzo will chime in, too.  

I’d be interested to see you clarify this as well, Luke. It still seems to me TaiChi offers the most promising way out of the dilemma for someone defending desirism.

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lukeprog March 3, 2010 at 4:17 am

It’s odd to hear that someone things Fyfe’s post is impenetrable. It reads clearly for me. I suppose I’m coming with lots of background assumptions (or knowledge) that happen to agree with him.

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Roman March 3, 2010 at 5:08 am

“Why should other peoples desires be reasons for my actions?”

You have to believe in external reasons for actions in order to say that other people’s desires are reasons for your actions.

For an overview of the debate of whether there are external reasons for actions see here:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasons-internal-external/

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Kyle March 3, 2010 at 6:01 am

You have to believe in external reasons for actions in order to say that other people’s desires are reasons for your actions.

That would be fine if Desirism claimed only that other peoples desires can be reasons for action, rather it involves the claim that other peoples desires are reasons for action.

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Roman March 3, 2010 at 6:41 am

Kyle, you are right.

The existence of external reasons for action is necessary for the truth of desirism but not sufficient.
I think.

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Kip March 3, 2010 at 6:58 am

Roman> You have to believe in external reasons for actions in order to say that other people’s desires are reasons for your actions.

Kyle> That would be fine if Desirism claimed only that other peoples desires can be reasons for action, rather it involves the claim that other peoples desires are reasons for action.

If by “reason for action” you mean a “motivating force for action”, then Desirism states that the only “reason for action” that a person has is his/her own desires.

If by “reason for action” you mean a “consideration for action” then of course there are all sorts of external considerations that a person will take into account when performing intentional actions.

Desirism is a theory of morality that says that people should (and do) take into account (consideration) other people’s desires, and use social tools to shape those desires so as to create a society where more desires are fulfilled and fewer desires are thwarted (i.e. a *better* society than would otherwise exist if people had different desires).

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Charles March 3, 2010 at 9:03 am

Kip,

By “take [other people's desires] into account”, do you mean “acknowledge they exit”? Or are you saying something stronger?

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Kyle March 3, 2010 at 9:57 am

Desirism is a theory of morality that says that people should (and do) take into account (consideration) other people’s desires

Why, on the desirist account, should I? And should I give them equal weight to my own?

I’m not sure how a desirist could answer these questions in a non-circular way.

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Turas March 3, 2010 at 10:41 am

Is it just me or has RD Miksa been ignored? She/He seems to make some decent points.

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Reuben March 3, 2010 at 11:42 am

Where is that picture from?

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Kip March 3, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Charles: Kip,By “take [other people's desires] into account”, do you mean “acknowledge they exit”? Or are you saying something stronger?  

Something stronger — but not “God will send you to hell if you don’t” strong. More like: if you don’t consider all the desires that play a role in the moral system, then you will fail to account for how to harmonize those desires, which will thus make the “moral project” have a less optimal result.

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Kip March 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Kyle: Desirism is a theory of morality that says that people should (and do) take into account (consideration) other people’s desiresWhy, on the desirist account, should I? And should I give them equal weight to my own?I’m not sure how a desirist could answer these questions in a non-circular way.  

I can answer this 2 ways:

You practically-should for your own prudential reasons. The social system of morality is for your benefit, too.

Or, if you don’t have the necessary desires to see that that is the case…

You morally-should — meaning the rest of us in society have desires that say that you need to consider our desires, also. We will use moral tools to try to shape your desires to be in harmony with ours. If that fails, and you become a major harm to our desires, we will be forced to use force to stop you.

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lukeprog March 3, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Reuben,

I don’t remember where I found it, but TinyEye can help you find various versions of it.

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cl March 3, 2010 at 7:29 pm

While I haven’t been back to that other thread yet,

I would like to know if it is now clear to cartesian and TaiChi why desirism does not imply that we should torture children if the majority’s desires would be fulfilled by torturing children. Is it still unclear? (Luke)

I saw in the thread that Cartesian said “yes” and it’s still unclear to me, too. Fyfe wrote:

..according to desirism, if we can come up with a case where torturing a child fulfills ‘good’ desires, then desirism would then have to condone the torturing of that child.

Well, yes. (Fyfe)

Fyfe seems willing to concede that as long as “we” have reason to torture children, and can come up with a case where “good” desires suggest that “we” should do so, then “we” are permitted to torture children. He adds the following caveats:

Deirism may authorize the torturing of the child, but it would also demand that (1) those who torture the child do so with great regrets because of the strong aversion they are supposed to have to torturing children, and (2) the least desire-thwarting option be used against the child. (Fyfe)

He seems to be saying that desirism may authorize child torture, but “we” should regret it and go easy on them because “we” really “shouldn’t” torture children. Fyfe appeals to an undefined “we” with a de facto aversion to torturing children that is quite obviously a combination of his aversion to torturing children, and the aversion to torturing children held by society in general (a.k.a. the majority).

This is why I state that I have yet to see desirism ground its moral prescriptions in anything besides subjectivity and/or mob rule. Is it still being denied that “we” is an allusion to the majority? If yes, then who does “we” actually refer to, and why should everyone else live by their standards?

Also, I have yet to see how desirism can provide any meaningful definition of what constitutes a “good” desire.

For these reasons, and because I’ve not seen persuasive rebuttals to the examples raised by Cartesian, myself and others, my objections to desirism remain, exactly as stated in the other thread(s).

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RD Miksa March 3, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Good Day Turas,

Thank you for the shout out–it is appreciated. But if I am ignored, I am ignored. :)

Take care,

RD Miksa

PS – It is a He.

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Kip March 4, 2010 at 6:37 am

cl: Is it still being denied that “we” is an allusion to the majority? If yes, then who does “we” actually refer to…

I answered this question:

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

cl> Also, I have yet to see how desirism can provide any meaningful definition of what constitutes a “good” desire.

A “morally-good desire” is a desire that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires, considering all the desires in the moral system. These are also the desires that we have reasons to promote within the moral system.

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cl March 4, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Luke,

Did we lose preview capabilities here? Or, is my browser just quirky this morning?

Kip,

Again, your comment seems to affirm that “we” in fact does refer to the majority. For example, here in the United States, “we” generally share an aversion to child torture, right? Who does “we” refer to in the statement but the majority of US citizens who believe child torture should be avoided? Is that not what you allude to when you say “we” as “everyone in the moral system” have “reasons for action (desires) to see to it that this system of morality works optimally?” It is quite obvious that “we” doesn’t refer to those few individuals in the US (the minority) who claim to have good reasons for child torture, right?

Well, as myself and others have argued, and as Fyfe has in fact conceded, if “we” suddenly decide that “we” have reason to torture children, and can come up with a case where “good” desires suggest that “we” should do so, then “we” are permitted to torture children. That’s where the “mob rule” aspect comes into play: “morally good” gets determined by whatever “we” invoke.

A “morally-good desire” is a desire that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires, considering all the desires in the moral system. These are also the desires that we have reasons to promote within the moral system.

I got that on my first reading of Fyfe’s theory months ago. This is where desirism really fails, IMO. Such a definition renders the term “morally good desire” completely devoid of meaning. As we’ve seen, both torturing children and not torturing children can be declared “morally good” by desirism as articulated. As such, it can lead to genuine contradictions, and by “contradictions” I refer to instances of X and ~X.

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lukeprog March 4, 2010 at 12:57 pm

cl,

It works for me, but I notice the website has been slow today. I think I’m getting slammed with traffic. I hope I don’t need to upgrade the server; I doubt I can afford it!

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Kip March 4, 2010 at 1:00 pm

cl: Again, your comment seems to affirm that “we” in fact does refer to the majority.

No. If by “We”, we are talking about which desires are being considered, then “We” would be every agent in the moral system. You could make it “the majority” if you want, but then your moral calculation will be wrong. You could make it just you if you want, but then again, your moral calculation will be wrong.

As we’ve seen, both torturing children and not torturing children can be declared “morally good” by desirism as articulated.

No. According to desirism, there is a single right answer in regards to whether or not the desire to torture children is a good desire (i.e. is it something we should call “immoral”, and use our social tools to promote an aversion toward). There is no way it can be both a good desire and a bad desire in reality.

This is not the same as saying that we cannot come up with hypothetical realities where the theory would come to the opposite conclusion. Similarly, in an alternate universe, the speed of light might be faster or slower than it is here. That doesn’t mean the theories we have in regards to the speed of light, here, in this universe, are wrong, though. (And by “theories we have”, I don’t mean “theories the majority of us have”, I mean “theories that every agent who plays a role in the system of creating, using, or evaluating scientific theories has”.)

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RD Miksa March 4, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Good Day Kip,

Just quickly wished to point out that nothing that you or others supporting Desirism has yet to answer the masochistic-orphan torture and pederasty scenarios that I provided earlier in this thread. And these are just a few that could be brought forward to show Desirism as morally bankrupt.

Take care,

RD Miksa
radosmiksa.blogpsot.com

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Kip March 4, 2010 at 5:10 pm

RD Miksa: Your scenario didn’t seem any different than lots of others that have already been addressed before both here on Luke’s blog & on Alonzo Fyfe’s. This goes to show, though, that if we are to make any sort of progress in this conversation that we need a much better way or organizing the information than is possible in this type of format.

But, I have a scenario for you:

There is a universe where in order for children to survive past infancy, they must be placed in boiling water shortly after birth. This causes great pain to the infants, and only half of them survive the experience. Is it morally wrong for people to put these infants in boiling water? Why or why not?

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TaiChi March 4, 2010 at 6:14 pm

RD Miksa,
Ok, I’ll bite. I’m hesitant to say anything about Desirism, as I’ve apparently got it wrong, but it doesn’t look like I need to..

Therefore, under Desirism, the torture of masochistic orphans of whatever age is a desire that has positive value as it is desired by all parties and thus should be fulfilled.” ~ RD Miksa

Presuming you were right about Desirism, why is this a problem? It isn’t obvious that torture is always wrong, and it certainly isn’t obvious that torture is wrong in such weird circumstances as would ensure that the torture of a child were beneficial for everybody involved, including that child.

In ancient Greece, pederasty was a common and accepted practice. It was desired by the adult practitioners and desired by the male boys, who received and had many other desires fulfilled due to this pederastic arrangement. The society as a whole, furthermore, also had many desires of great value fulfilled through this arrangement. Therefore, from all angles, pederasty fulfills numerous desires all which have great value and is not only justified but morally encouraged under Desirism.” ~ RD Miksa

Again, it’s just not clear that this is wrong. You sketch yet another example where both parties not only benefit from the arrangement, but directly desire the arrangement itself. Now, I have some serious doubts that pederasty is as beneficial as you describe, but if it is, then it doesn’t appear to be a threat to the theory. It looks to me as though, instead of making a case that Desirism is false, you’ve made a case that pederasty is morally permissible.
It’s obvious that you have strong intuitions that torture of children and pederasty is just plain wrong. Since I don’t share these intuitions, I don’t find your examples convincing. That’s been my reason for not replying, and I suspect it is the same for others.

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cl March 4, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Kip,

I invite you to formulate your arguments for desirism without referring to this hypothetical “we” you keep referring to, because you say things like,

If by “We”, we are talking about which desires are being considered, then “We” would be every agent in the moral system.

The problem is, rarely does “every agent in the moral system” agree. That’s what I’m getting at, and another objection no proponent of desirism here has addressed (to my knowledge). If “we” means 200 of us, and 185 want to torture children, while 15 don’t, according to desirism – where there is no intrinsic value – the 185 who want to torture children have “good” desires if torturing children gets them closer to their desires-as-ends. Without an objective standard either theistic or otherwise, this is merely the same assumption of the moral highground freethinkers criticize in other facets of culture.

As we’ve seen, both torturing children and not torturing children can be declared “morally good” by desirism as articulated. (cl)

No. (Kip)

Did you read the OP carefully? Do you hold to a different version of desirism than Fyfe? Do you allege I misunderstood Fyfe when he clearly said “yes”, desirism can authorize the torturing of children if certain criteria are met, but that such should be done “with regret”?

According to desirism, there is a single right answer in regards to whether or not the desire to torture children is a good desire (i.e. is it something we should call “immoral”, and use our social tools to promote an aversion toward). There is no way it can be both a good desire and a bad desire in reality.

Yes, there is, and it depends upon the values of the “we” in question. You said it yourself, and I agree: we’re dealing with a relative theory here. Fyfe corroborates this when he says that according to desirism, there is “no intrinsic value”, only value relative to the desires-as-ends of “we”.

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Kip March 4, 2010 at 6:39 pm

cl: The problem is, rarely does “every agent in the moral system” agree.

That’s irrelevant. Just like it’s irrelevant if people agree on how far the moon is from the earth. The fact is that there is a fact of the matter, regardless of what people think.

A desire does not “tend to fulfill more and stronger desires” because people want that desire to, or because people believe it does. It either does or doesn’t.

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Kip March 4, 2010 at 6:41 pm

cl: Did you read the OP carefully? Do you hold to a different version of desirism than Fyfe? Do you allege I misunderstood Fyfe when he clearly said “yes”, desirism can authorize the torturing of children if certain criteria are met, but that such should be done “with regret”?

Yes. Mostly no. Yes.

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cl March 4, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Tai Chi,

It looks to me as though, instead of making a case that Desirism is false, you’ve made a case that pederasty is morally permissible. (to RD Miksa)

Speaking for myself, I conclude that desirism is a defective measure for making accurate moral prescriptions, precisely because it can allow outrageous things to be declared morally good. Torturing children is but one of many examples offered.

It’s obvious that you have strong intuitions that torture of children and pederasty is just plain wrong. Since I don’t share these intuitions, I don’t find your examples convincing. (to RD Miksa)

I’m glad you said that, because Luke, Fyfe and the others defending desirism also seem to begin with the de facto assumption that we have reason to avoid the torturing of children, when that’s not necessarily the case. While it’s true that “we” meaning the vast majority of us in this society, in the United States today, have such reason, I don’t see how desirism can permit the transference of such reason to “every moral agent in the system.”

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Kip March 4, 2010 at 6:47 pm

cl: I conclude that desirism is a defective measure for making accurate moral prescriptions, precisely because it can allow outrageous things to be declared morally good.

Only in hypothetical worlds. Which is as one would expect, unless you believe there to be some mysterious “moral force” that permeates all possible worlds or some bullshit like that.

I’ll ask you the same hypothetical scenario I asked RD:

There is a universe where in order for children to survive past infancy, they must be placed in boiling water shortly after birth. This causes great pain to the infants, and only half of them survive the experience. Is it morally wrong for people to put these infants in boiling water? Why or why not?

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Kip March 4, 2010 at 6:50 pm

I don’t see how desirism can permit the transference of such reason to “every moral agent in the system.”

Please explain what you mean by the bolded section.

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cl March 4, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Kip,

Hmm… more specifically, do you accept the “no intrinsic value” version of desirism, as argued by Fyfe on his own blog?

A desire does not “tend to fulfill more and stronger desires” because people want that desire to, or because people believe it does. It either does or doesn’t.

I agree, and so, if and when torturing children really would fulfill more and stronger desires than not torturing children, according to desirism, since there is no intrinsic value, torturing children may be authorized. To avoid this rather straight-forward conclusion seems like slothful induction to me. May he correct me if I’m wrong, but note that Fyfe himself did not avoid it. You allege that I misunderstood Fyfe in the OP, but no evidence for this claim was forthcoming.

Here are Fyfe’s words from the OP:

An extreme science-fiction example of this asks, “What if aliens came to earth with an ultimatum that, either we torture a child, or they will subject the whole Earth and everybody on it to a slow and painful death except that child, who they will take with them?”

It would seem that, according to desirism, if we can come up with a case where torturing a child fulfills ‘good’ desires, then desirism would then have to condone the torturing of that child.

Well, yes. Deirism may authorize the torturing of the child, but it would also demand that (1) those who torture the child do so with great regrets because of the strong aversion they are supposed to have to torturing children, and (2) the least desire-thwarting option be used against the child. (Fyfe)

My original statement was that Fyfe “said ‘yes’, desirism can authorize the torturing of children if certain criteria are met, but that such should be done “with regret”. Fyfe clearly said “yes” and “with great regrets,” so could you explain why you allege I’ve misunderstood him?

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Kip March 4, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Hmm… more specifically, do you accept the “no intrinsic value” version of desirism, as argued by Fyfe on his own blog?

I agree that there is no such thing as “intrinsic value” as typically understood, and as Fyfe has discussed on his blog.

I agree, and so, if and when torturing children really would fulfill more and stronger desires than not torturing children, according to desirism, since there is no intrinsic value, torturing children may be authorized.

Yes, in that universe, it would be permissible (or possibly obligatory). We don’t live in that universe, though.

May he correct me if I’m wrong, but note that Fyfe himself did not avoid it. You allege that I misunderstood Fyfe in the OP, but no evidence for this claim was forthcoming.

You misunderstood that Fyfe was talking about a “possible world”, not the world we actually live in. Your misunderstanding was made apparent by your statement:

As we’ve seen, both torturing children and not torturing children can be declared “morally good” by desirism as articulated. As such, it can lead to genuine contradictions, and by “contradictions” I refer to instances of X and ~X.

It is no contradiction to say that in a different world that things would be different than they are in this one. It is perfectly non-contradictory, therefore, to say that desirism would determine that in this world, that the desire to torture children is bad — one that we should promote an aversion toward. In another possible world, with a different set of desires being considered, a different result is possible.

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cl March 4, 2010 at 7:55 pm

The inability of “every agent in the moral system” to agree is highly relevant, because desirism cannot resolve instances where “good” desires are disagreed on, except by acquiescing to the set of stronger, more prevalent desires: if X fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts, X is good. I’ll try two examples, one which I think illustrates your point, and another which illustrates mine.

1) We have 200 people, all of whom have the desire-as-ends to live an optimally healthy life and avoid a premature death. Now, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying that even if by some stretch of the imagination 185 of them came to believe smoking was a “good” desire, it is still “objectively not” because it thwarts the more prevalent and stronger desire-as-end to live an optimally healthy life, or something similar. Right? If so, I agree, so hopefully we can finally put that to rest.

2) We have 200 people, all of whom have the desire-as-end to maximize pleasure and avoid senility. What I’m saying is that for that group, smoking actually fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts, so smoking then becomes “good” by the definition you gave.

As for your child-in-boiling-water example, I’ll gladly address your example when you address mine. I just asked you how 15 non-torturers could ground their claim that 185 torturers don’t have “good” desires if “good” means “fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts,” and you didn’t answer.

Only in hypothetical worlds. Which is as one would expect, unless you believe there to be some mysterious “moral force” that permeates all possible worlds or some bullshit like that.

I do not claim that desirism can lead to error in hypothetical worlds, but that it can and has led to error in the world we live in today. At one point, the mass consumption of fossil fuels combined with unbridled acceptance of the industrial revolution certainly fulfilled more and stronger desires-as-ends than it thwarted, but as any ecologist can tell you, that doesn’t make it “good” in any meaningful sense.

By “permit the transference” I meant simply that when “every agent in the moral system” does not agree as to which desires should be fulfilled, nothing “permits” those who say desire X should be fulfilled to “transfer” their moral proclamations to those who say desire ~X should be fulfilled.

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Thomas Reid March 4, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Kip:
It is no contradiction to say that in a different world that things would be different than they are in this one.It is perfectly non-contradictory, therefore, to say that desirism would determine that in this world, that the desire to torture children is bad — one that we should promote an aversion toward.In another possible world, with a different set of desires being considered, a different result is possible.  

If desirism is true, were the child sacrifices in ancient Aztec culture right or wrong? Why?

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cl March 4, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Kip,

You misunderstood that Fyfe was talking about a “possible world”, not the world we actually live in. Your misunderstanding was made apparent by your statement:

I object. Fyfe made it undeniably clear from the outset that he was referring to a “possible world.” Note that Fyfe said “extreme science-fiction example” and that only the dullest of dullards could misunderstand the clear reference to a “possible world.” I included the pertinent part of Fyfe’s quote specifically to convey my acknowledgment of that distinction. You apparently assumed there was misunderstanding where there was not one, nor was there sufficient reason to assume one.

It is no contradiction to say that in a different world that things would be different than they are in this one.

I agree, and while desirism can and does lead to absurdities and contradictions in hypothetical worlds, I do not need any “hypothetical world” to support my claim that desirism can and does lead to absurdities and contradictions in this world. The fossil-fuel example illustrates this and I’m sure I could think of other examples that do, too.

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TaiChi March 4, 2010 at 11:43 pm

cl,
Speaking for myself, I conclude that desirism is a defective measure for making accurate moral prescriptions, precisely because it can allow outrageous things to be declared morally good. Torturing children is but one of many examples offered.” ~ cl

Torturing children is outrageous, surely. But is torturing children who love to be tortured, and whose torture causes no harm to others, also morally outrageous? I doubt it. Considering the example in its specifics makes all the difference for me. I wonder whether you notice the effect of specificity too, since as a critic you choose to frame the criticism of Desirsm in terms of the general issue of torturing children, rather than in the terms of RD Miksa’s example.

..I don’t see how desirism can permit the transference of such reason to “every moral agent in the system.” ~ cl

As I understand it, Desirists don’t believe that a moral theory is in the business of motivating miscreants to act morally. So, in that sense, Desirism wouldn’t provide for the transference of reasons. On the other hand, the moral verdict Desirism delivers is objective, so whatever was morally good or bad would be morally good or bad for everyone. In that sense, the desires of the majority* would apply to everyone, just like any other fact.

* If you are right in your interpretation of Desirism. I suspect not, but I’m waiting for clarification.

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Kip March 5, 2010 at 6:38 am

cl: 2) We have 200 people, all of whom have the desire-as-end to maximize pleasure and avoid senility. What I’m saying is that for that group, smoking actually fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts, so smoking then becomes “good” by the definition you gave.

This is another hypothetical world, right? Because the world we live in has many more options that are more optimal to maximizing pleasure and avoiding senility and do not have the desire-thwarting consequences of smoking.

Another point you might need to consider is that not all desires are moral desires. I desire to eat cucumbers. I love them. But, that’s not a desire that need enter the “moral sphere” — it’s not a desire that we need to use our social tools to either increase or decrease the prevalence of.

I’ll gladly address your example when you address mine. I just asked you how 15 non-torturers could ground their claim that 185 torturers don’t have “good” desires if “good” means “fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts,” and you didn’t answer.

This has been asked and answered countless times on this blog and Fyfe’s.

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Kip March 5, 2010 at 6:41 am

Kip>

cl> I don’t see how desirism can permit the transference of such reason to “every moral agent in the system.”

Please explain what you mean by the bolded section.

cl> By “permit the transference” I meant simply that when “every agent in the moral system” does not agree as to which desires should be fulfilled, nothing “permits” those who say desire X should be fulfilled to “transfer” their moral proclamations to those who say desire ~X should be fulfilled

So, by “permit”, you meant “permit”, and by “transfer”, you meant “transfer”. That’s very clear now, thanks.

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cl March 7, 2010 at 9:32 am

TaiChi,

..is torturing children who love to be tortured, and whose torture causes no harm to others, also morally outrageous? I doubt it.

According to desirism as articulated, I doubt it, too.

Considering the example in its specifics makes all the difference for me. I wonder whether you notice the effect of specificity too, since as a critic you choose to frame the criticism of Desirsm in terms of the general issue of torturing children, rather than in the terms of RD Miksa’s example.

I agree that considering examples in their specifics makes all the difference. That’s why I included the example of women who want to be raped in order to fulfill their desire-as-ends. For the purposes of this discussion, would you say that example is sufficiently analogous to RD Miksa’s?

As I understand it, Desirists don’t believe that a moral theory is in the business of motivating miscreants to act morally.

I’m hesitant to speculate on what “Desirists” believe because “Desirists” are likely a diverse group of people like any other group. Even here I see significant variance in the various desirist positions. I know that Fyfe and Luke advocate the use of praise and condemnation for acts they consider “good” and “evil” respectively, and to me, that seems like a moral theory in the business of motivating miscreants to act morally. Wouldn’t you say?

..the moral verdict Desirism delivers is objective, so whatever was morally good or bad would be morally good or bad for everyone.

Perhaps “objective” in the sense that the majority has decreed desire X “good” as opposed to desire ~X, but that does not make desire X “objectively good” at all, just preferred.

I suspect not, but I’m waiting for clarification.

It’s hard to tell exactly what type of clarification you seek. Perhaps it would be easier if you state exactly Where you think I’ve gotten it wrong?

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TaiChi March 7, 2010 at 3:20 pm

For the purposes of this discussion, would you say that example is sufficiently analogous to RD Miksa’s?” ~ cl
I have the same concerns as previous posters about the coherence of someone desiring to be raped. You reply that, although a person may not directly desire rape, they may have another desire which being raped would fulfil, and this would apparently suffice for their desiring rape (I can’t help but think of having children as the obvious example here). But having a desire which X would help fulfil is not sufficient for desiring X – firstly, because there may be other ways to fulfil the desire-as-end which one might desire instead, and secondly, because the agent may not be aware that X would help to fulfil the desire-as-end, or may not be aware that X is the only way to fulfil that desire-as-end. So, no, I don’t think your case is like RD MIksa’s.

I know that Fyfe and Luke advocate the use of praise and condemnation for acts they consider “good” and “evil” respectively, and to me, that seems like a moral theory in the business of motivating miscreants to act morally. Wouldn’t you say?” ~ cl
But it’s not the moral theory that’s doing the motivating, that’s my point. When you said “I don’t see how desirism can permit the transference of such reason to “every moral agent in the system“, I took your criticism to be that you didn’t see how Desirism would make it the case that acting morally would be rational for every agent in the system. My reply, and Luke and Fyfe’s, is that no moral theory does this, and we shouldn’t expect it to do so.
Instead, this is something we have to do ourselves. And here is where praise and condemnation come in – we make it rational for agents to act morally by using praise and condemnation to encourage desires consistent with what is moral. But, again, this is not the moral theory doing the work, but people with a desire that others be moral who provide the motivation for moral behavior.

Perhaps “objective” in the sense that the majority has decreed desire X “good” as opposed to desire ~X, but that does not make desire X “objectively good” at all, just preferred.” ` cl
No, it would be objectively good or bad. Desirism states that a good desire is desire-satisficing, and whether or not a given desire actually is desire-satisficing is a factual matter, not a matter of opinion. It is something people can be ignorant of, or be wrong about.

It’s hard to tell exactly what type of clarification you seek. Perhaps it would be easier if you state exactly Where you think I’ve gotten it wrong?” ~ cl
I don’t think that the desires which the majority just happen to have will turn out to be the desires which we base our judgment of a further desire on. If they are, then it looks to me that Cartesian has a genuine counterexample and Desirism is false. But, Luke offered to clarify this in future, so I’ll just go along with your interpretation until I know where mine stands.

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Zeb March 18, 2010 at 5:48 pm

After listening to the first two podcasts with Fyfe and reading these blogs, I don’t see how desirism is prescriptive at all. (Though I am impressed with it’s incisive description of moral behavior.) It is true that I will take actions that I believe will fulfill more and greater of my desires. If I desire to torture children, and that desire is greater than the sum of all my other desires, I will take actions that I believe will lead to the state of me torturing children. If I desire that other people torture children, and I believe that promoting the desire to torture children will lead to the state of other people torturing children, I will take action to promote that desire. And if lots of people (ie “society”) desire strongly enough that no one tortures children, and they believe that eliminating the desire will reduce that instances of torture, then society will take action to eliminate the desire, and the desire to torture children will be defined as “wrong.” But is there any imperative other than the deterministic one to follow one’s greatest desire? Is morality anything other than the fact that the sum total of moral agents may through moral tools create wickedness-trumping desires which become imperative (ie my desire to not be in jail is greater than my desire to be torturing children, so now I have a desire to not be torturing children which rules my actions)?

The fact that Fyfe has said that there is nothing inherently good about desire fulfillment (and thus presumably nothing inherently bad about desire thwarting)seems to make desirism nothing more than a description of how desires, beliefs, and actions work on an individual and social level.

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Zeb March 18, 2010 at 6:09 pm

So desirism does tell us how to be good in a sense, but I don’t see how it tells me why I should be good, much less why I would want to be good (except in cases where society has successfully brought its moral tools to bear).

How does desirism evaluate Buddhism, the primary teaching of which is to desire to have no desires?

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lukeprog March 18, 2010 at 8:17 pm

FYI, I’m still planning to respond to many of the comments here and on the Sean McDowell post… just haven’t had time yet.

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Kip March 19, 2010 at 5:35 am

> But is there any imperative other than the deterministic one to follow one’s greatest desire?

There are only hypothetical imperatives — that is, imperatives that seek to fulfill desires. Those desires don’t have to be your own, though. You can have other-regarding desires — desires that are aimed at fulfilling desires of others.

> I don’t see how desirism is prescriptive at all. (Though I am impressed with it’s incisive description of moral behavior.)

You’re right. It’s a theory of morality. Insofar as it is not infused with any desires, it can’t be prescriptive. Prescriptivity requires desires. Without desires, there can be no prescriptivity. However, once you add some desires to the equation, Desirism can tell you a lot about how those desires are going to interact, provide a framework for understanding them, and provide some tools to use in harmonizing those desires.

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Zeb March 19, 2010 at 7:14 am

Those desires don’t have to be your own, though.You can have other-regarding desires — desires that are aimed at fulfilling desires of others.

Is it right though that there is no reason I should desire to fulfill the desires of others? And that the only reason I would desire to fulfill the desires of others is if I believe that fulfilling others’ desires would be a means of fulfilling my own desires?

It seems to me the only contribution desirism makes to the moral project then is illuminating the value of correct beliefs as a part of desire fulfillment, and pointing out that it may often be correct to believe that fulfilling other people’s desires can be a means of fulfilling one’s own desires. In other words, “You’re going to be selfish anyway, so you might as well be smart about it.”

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Kip March 19, 2010 at 7:51 am

> Is it right though that there is no reason I should desire to fulfill the desires of others? And that the only reason I would desire to fulfill the desires of others is if I believe that fulfilling others’ desires would be a means of fulfilling my own desires?

If you had no other-filling desires, almost by definition it would be not-morally-right. Why? Because that’s what we mean when we talk about “morally right”.

In fact, if it really were the case that you had no other-filling desires (as opposed to you just posting this “devil’s advocate” question), then many people around you would have many reasons to bring their moral tools to bear to make sure that you quickly started gaining some “other-filling desires”. If those tools failed, then you may soon find yourself in an insane asylum, since you would be a sociopath.

Do you refrain from killing people you dislike because you fear being locked up or killed?

Personally, I refrain from killing people because I have a strong aversion toward killing people. And that’s a *good desire* when viewed from a utilitarian point of view, since it tends to fulfill more and stronger desires. It’s a desire that you, and others in society have many reasons to promote in me, and everyone else in society. And I have reasons to promote that desire in you. We have reasons to promote that desire in each other. We have reasons to *harmonize our desires*.

That’s one of the best realization that I’ve gained from Desirism: the idea that morality is about *harmonizing our desires*. Of *course* the world would be a *better* place if our desires were in harmony. I desire the world to be a better place. If you do, too, then you have reasons to promote a harmonicity of desires. If you don’t desire the world to be a better place, then all of us who do, have reasons to promote that desire in you. :-) Sort of a “meta-moral desire” I suppose.

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Zeb March 19, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Kip, I should have phrased my question differently, as, “Is my understanding correct that there is no reason I ought to desire to fulfill the desires of others?” If one does desire to fulfill some other’s desire, as in your aversion to killing a person who wants to live, then it is a simple fact that that person will act according to his desire not to kill. He fulfills others’ desires not because he is a good person, but because he happens to have some particular desires (which desirism claims is the only real meaning of good).

Would desirism really differentiate between a person who does not kill because he has a personal aversion to it, and one who does not kill because he does not want to face the consequences? They both have a desire to not be killers, which is a desire that fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts.

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Kip March 20, 2010 at 5:23 am

Is my understanding correct that there is no reason I ought to desire to fulfill the desires of others?

If by “ought” you mean “moral-ought”, then no, that’s not correct. And it’s the same question you asked before.

You ought to have quite a few desires that tend to fulfill many and strong desires of others. If you don’t, you are a sociopath.

If by “ought” you mean “practical-ought”, then it is still not correct. Although you would have fewer of the moral-desires if the moral project had totally failed on you, I suspect that even with purely selfish desires, you would still have some desires that tend to fulfill more and stronger desires of others.

If one does desire to fulfill some other’s desire, as in your aversion to killing a person who wants to live, then it is a simple fact that that person will act according to his desire not to kill. He fulfills others’ desires not because he is a good person, but because he happens to have some particular desires (which desirism claims is the only real meaning of good).

You think that if I have an aversion to killing people, and therefore don’t kill someone, that that doesn’t make me good? So, pray tell, what would make me good, then? If I really wanted to kill them, but didn’t for fear of retribution?

Would desirism really differentiate between a person who does not kill because he has a personal aversion to it, and one who does not kill because he does not want to face the consequences?

Well, it might be hard (or impossible) to practically tell the difference (for this specific question) — so we may not put a lot of effort into it. But generally, yes, desirism says that someone’s motives — their reasons for doing something — the desires they have — are the concern of morality. I think this is reflected in everyday life, and our judicial system.

They both have a desire to not be killers, which is a desire that fulfills more and stronger desires than it thwarts.

No. The one desires to be a killer, but he just refrains for fear of retribution. If that fear ever subsides, or if he ever has the opportunity where he thinks he can get away with it, then he will kill. This is the very thing that the entire moral project is aimed at preventing. Ever hear the phrase: “doing the right thing when nobody is looking”. That’s what it means. It means you desire to do the right thing for the right reasons. That’s what a morally good person desires.

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Zeb March 20, 2010 at 6:40 am

You ought to have quite a few desires that tend to fulfill many and strong desires of others.If you don’t, you are a sociopath.

So what if I am a sociopath? Lots of people will have reason to change my desires, but so what?

I suspect that even with purely selfish desires, you would still have some desires that tend to fulfill more and stronger desires of others.

Does desirism differentiate between having desires that do fulfill others’ desires, and having a specific desire to fulfill the desires of others?

You think that if I have an aversion to killing people, and therefore don’t kill someone, that that doesn’t make me good? So, pray tell, what would make me good, then?

I thought desirism says that only desires can be good, so you can’t find a good person, only a person who has good desires.

It means you desire to do the right thing for the right reasons. That’s what a morally good person desires.

What are the right reasons for a desire? Desires are the reason for action, and desires are “right” if they fulfill more and stronger desires than they thwart. I can understand why society might desire that no one have any desire to kill, even if those desires would be overwhelmed by other desires, because society might desire to reduce its risk of a circumstance where murder-averting desires were reduced and latent killing desires were then expressed. But otherwise I don’t see what the moral difference is, in desirism, between one who doesn’t kill because he wants to preserve human life, or one who finds killing disgusting, or one who does not want to feel ashamed, or one who is afraid of being caught.

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Kip March 20, 2010 at 11:58 pm

So what if I am a sociopath? Lots of people will have reason to change my desires, but so what?

So, we have reason to use social tools to change your desires. And if that fails, then the case may come to us having to lock you up.

Does desirism differentiate between having desires that do fulfill others’ desires, and having a specific desire to fulfill the desires of others?

Yes. The desire “to fulfill desires” is not really a desire we tend to promote. We use our moral tools on more specific, practical things that can get us the most “bang for the buck”. And questionably, the “desire to fulfill desires” may not be a good desire for most people to have in a strong degree. It may tend to thwart more desires than it fulfilled.

I thought desirism says that only desires can be good, so you can’t find a good person, only a person who has good desires.

A person with good desires, is a “good person”, a “virtuous person”, a “moral person”.

It means you desire to do the right thing for the right reasons. That’s what a morally good person desires.

What are the right reasons for a desire?

That question doesn’t follow from my statement. “The right reasons” was for “doing the right thing”. And those reasons would be good desires. Doing the right thing because you had good desires would be “doing the right thing for the right reasons”.

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Zeb March 21, 2010 at 4:11 pm

I think I get it now. Thanks. I’ll have to spend a lot more time thinking about the implications before I subscribe to desirism though.

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lukeprog March 21, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Zeb,

Are you talking about comparing the apparent moral implications of desirism to your moral intuitions, and judging desirism accordingly? Does this mean you have reason to believe your moral intuitions are correct or justified?

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Zeb March 22, 2010 at 9:58 am

Zeb,Are you talking about comparing the apparent moral implications of desirism to your moral intuitions, and judging desirism accordingly? Does this mean you have reason to believe your moral intuitions are correct or justified?  

Yeah I guess so. If I find desirism agrees with my moral understanding then I will probably subscribe to desirism right away. If I find any major disagreements, then I will try to find where the error lies, in desirism or in my own understanding. Is that a bad way to answer important questions? I’m going to listen to your audio book tomorrow and I’ll have all day in the truck to think about it.

I’m not sure if I have reasons to believe my moral understanding which do not refer to “things that do not exist.”

By the way, thank you for all the effort and goodness you put into this site Luke. You are a saint just for responding to the late coming comments on old posts. No offense ;)

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lukeprog March 22, 2010 at 10:11 am

Some food for thought. I have called your moral theory test the Wrong Test for Moral Theories.

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 7:04 pm

TaiChi, cartesian, and others,

I’ve decided what I really need to spend my time doing is researching and writing about desirism with a level of precision needed for peer review. I just keep getting nowhere trying to defend the meta-ethics of it all without taking the time to really work it out in long, careful detail.

Of course, it may turn out that as I continue my research I find the view indefensible!

Cheers, and thanks for your thoughtful criticism.

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