What Is Morality?

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 7, 2009 in Ethics

Important Update: This ebook is obsolete and no longer reflects my views. The most up-to-date and accurate presentation of these ideas is now available here.

When it comes to moral systems, atheists are are “all over the map.” An atheist can be an emotivist, a quasi-realist, a universal prescriptivist, an error theorist, a relativist, a naturalist, a non-naturalist, a deep ecologist, an egoist, an Objectivist, an atheistic Jain or Buddhist, a situational ethicist, a deontologist, a virtue ethicist, an extropist, an ideal observer theorist, a happiness utilitarian, a preference utilitarian, a humanist, etc.

Atheists keep making up new moral systems, too. Stefan Molyneaux has something he calls Universally Preferable Behavior. Francois Tremblay has something else. Ebonmuse has universal utilitarianism.

Atheists are very confused about morality.

I’m very confused about morality, too. No system is clearly more correct than all the others, at least not yet. Our methods for measuring what materials and forces exist in the universe are much better developed than our methods for measuring moral values. Finding and explaining morality is very difficult, especially when “Goddidit” is not considered a useful answer.

But I have found one moral theory that seems to me to describe moral values that really exist. I’m not sure about this theory, but it is very promising. I keep looking and I just can’t find what’s wrong with it, whereas it’s easy for me to find genuine problems with the other moral theories I’ve encountered.

I’d like  to share this moral theory with you.

Instead of doing a series of posts, I wrote a very short ebook about it (43 mini-pages). The book starts out as a plain talk introduction to “meta-ethics.” I compare all the major moral theories and explain why they fail so badly. Then I introduce the moral theory that so intrigues me, and explain why I think it succeeds.

I even made a video that can serve as the trailer for this book. Watch it here.


So here it is, my free ebook/audiobook on morality:

43-page .pdf ebook (5.2mb)

57-minute .mp3 audiobook (9.8mb)

If you have questions or objections to the ideas in the book, they are probably answered on this page. But the book itself is the best introduction to its ideas.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

faithlessgod March 9, 2009 at 12:58 am

Well done Luke and keep it up!


piero March 9, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Yes, well done, Luke. This is what the internet was meant for: the free exchange of ideas.


Mark May 14, 2009 at 8:38 am

Luke, this is an interesting theory.  You are on the right track in considering desires as the basis for actions.   I looked through the 100+ comments on the related thread and didn’t see a direct answer to this -
You state on p24:
” ‘morally good’ means ‘such as to fulfill more and greater desires than are thwarted…’ ”

What does ‘greater’ mean here?

Also, you list a sunset as something ‘directly’ desired.  In this case, I assume the ‘action’ the desire would lead to is ‘contemplating the sunset’.  So here, the action is a mental activity, not necessarily a physical movement or work.  Right?



Lorkas May 14, 2009 at 10:24 am

Read the last three comments on this post. I think it might answer the first question. It seems that it was settled that “stronger” was an accurate description of what he meant by “greater”.


Mark May 14, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Thanks Lorkas, yes that helps.  Somehow I missed that whole thread.  I’ll review it, ponder, and return with more questions if I have any.
(Still interested in the ‘sunset’ clarification – it may be in the other post comments as well)


lukeprog May 14, 2009 at 5:36 pm

I suppose many of us have a desire to experience sunsets, yes. Desire are often for mental states, but often they are for states of affairs to be effected in the world that extends beyond our minds.

“greater” means “stronger.” Your desire to not die is stronger than your desire for ice cream.


Mark May 15, 2009 at 7:39 am

OK, wow I finished the other thread(s)  ;)  Good discussions there.  I have a few suggestions of refinements to your moral theory but first I wanted to make sure I understand the overall purpose of the theory.  My understanding:
You (as a naturalist) are seeking to describe why we have certain desires.  Desires are merely thoughts and thoughts are merely chemical reactions.  So your theory tries to determine why certain chemical reactions occur and not other chemical reactions.  You are not ascribing quality to these reactions.  In the sense of traditional morality, there’s an idea of quality – “better” “virtuous”, etc.  You have dismissed these and are simply describing why certain reactions tend to occur and other reactions are less prevalent.
If so, then this theory is like a biologist studying why mold grows more thickly on the east wall of a cave than on the west wall.  Or how a chemist might determine how oxidation is affected by relative humidity.  The purpose/value/worth of these scientific exercises is equivalent to the purpose/value/worth of your exercise regarding brain chemistry.


lukeprog May 15, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Um, kinda. I think I would then say that “value” exists not as some magical intrinsic property of certain things, but value exists as a relation between desires (brain states) and states of affairs in the world.


Mark May 15, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Is that value somehow different than the “value that exists as a relation between mold growth patterns(vegetation states) and states of affairs in the world.”?

I just substituted “mold growth patterns(vegetation states)” for “desires (brain states)” in your value statement.

If there is a value difference, how would you characterize it?  Thanks.


lukeprog May 16, 2009 at 8:01 am


I can’t think of any way in which a mold growth pattern is a reason for action, unlike desires. But you may be getting close to what I think is the greatest objection to desire utilitarianism – the one most likely to ultimately defeat it. The greatest objection to DU is the assertion that “There are no desires.” See here.


Lorkas May 16, 2009 at 8:21 am

The Alonzo Fyfe post reminds me of a philosopher joke told by Daniel Dennett, about 6:11 into this video.

How does a philosopher explain a magic trick?

Philosopher: Well you see: the magician doesn’t saw the lady in half–he just makes it seem as if he saws her in half.

Other: Yea, and how does he do that?

Philosopher: That’s not my department.


Mark May 16, 2009 at 9:45 am

Thanks Luke, I didn’t state the “mold growth” scenario well in my last post.  I’m trying to determine the importance of this moral theory’s goal.  I think your definition of desires is succinct and complete and is fine for the theory to proceed as stated.  My question is what will you accomplish by having a “successful” theory?  It looks to me like you will have a mechanism for explaining how certain chemical reactions in brains (thoughts, of which desires is a subset) lead to other reactions (thoughts/desires) and possibly to physical motion (running, chewing, etc.).  To a naturalist, these bodily motions are simply molecules moving – chemicals in motion.  So your theory, if successful, will explain patterns and tendencies of various molecules in motion and/or reacting under various conditions.

Now the biologist in the cave who studies mold growth is doing the same thing – studying what makes certain molecules react and move as they do.  The successful chemical/biological theory describes the process.  It doesn’t assign any implicit or transcendental “importance” or “goodness” to any of these reactions or results.  “The mold is green” “The mold is thicker today” “The mold doesn’t grow below 32degressF” are simply descriptions.

So it looks to me like your theory is merely another chemical experiment, though more complex than the cave mold study.  Your theory succeeds if it can describe the molecules in motion, but is no more important than that.  I can describe and model cave mold, oxidation, and storms on Jupiter.  But in no way can I judge them “good/bad” or “important/trivial”. 

Likewise with your theory, I presume.  Correct?


Lorkas May 16, 2009 at 11:27 am

It seems to me that you implicitly point out a distinction between desires and mold growth patterns in this post, Mark.

It is this: the patterns of chemical reactions that we call human “brain states” commonly lead to human actions, but mold growth patterns do not.

You seem to think that the naturalist is committed to viewing all phenomena dispassionately, but that’s not the case. There’s no reason why a naturalist has to say that the chemical reactions that cause us to feel love have the same value as the reactions that determine mold growth.

Naturalists are free to value phenomena differently (the Spock outlook is actually not common among naturalists!) just as theists are. The distinction, as I see it, is that in theism, it is God who assigns value, while in naturalism, human beings assign value.

It could be that I’m mistaken about what it is you’re getting at, so let me know if this is way off the mark.


lukeprog May 16, 2009 at 12:12 pm


I hold that some ‘descriptive’ reasons for action are also ‘prescriptive’ reasons for action. Indeed, this is necessary for naturalistic moral realism. If you have a desire to not be burned and a belief that putting your hand onto a hot stove will cause you to be burned, then you have a prescriptive reason for action to not put your hand on a hot stove (at the same time, this ‘reason for action’ theory describes the behavior that you WILL perform). From this simple observation, desire utilitarianism is a theory about how (1) we DO act on the strongest of our desires given our beliefs, (2) how there may be more and stronger reasons for action to promote some desires than to discourage them, and vice-versa, and (3) how this theory about reasons for action seems to fit with a great deal of our moral language, so it makes sense to call this a theory about morality.

But everything I’ve written on this blog is a mere gesture at desire utilitarianism, not a thorough defense. If I have my way, I will spend the next 15 years developing a thorough philosophical defense of desire utilitarianism, whether or not I am still a desire utilitarian when I am done.


Mark May 16, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Lorkas, Yes, this is what I’m getting at.  You said “There’s no reason why a naturalist has to say that the chemical reactions that cause us to feel love have the same value as the reactions that determine mold growth.

I agree.  So for the naturalist, these various assigned values are themselves personal thoughts which are merely more chemical reactions/molecular states.  You aren’t assigning any transcendent, eternal “value” to anything.  So the sum total of a human’s personal being/thoughts/desires/values is a molecular entity only, just as cave mold is a molecular entity of a different composition.  So in that sense, all we are doing in these discussions is chemical analysis, and possibly chemical engineering if we want [desire ;) ] certain brain states to prevail over others.

This is fine, I just want to make sure there’s nothing transcendent implied in the theory as stated, before I begin more detailed analysis.  Thanks.


Mark May 16, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Luke, you said “I hold that some ‘descriptive’ reasons for action are also ‘prescriptive’ reasons for action.”

As I replied to Lorkas, I see how the theory seeks to describe what people do and possibly lead to guidelines on how certain actions can lead to a more preferred mental state (Lorkas’ might call these  more ‘valued’).  In the end though, you are still viewing people as just molecules in motion, analogous to cave mold.  So you are describing how the human molecular entity reacts, etc.  You aren’t looking for any transcendent, non-material law, purpose, ‘importance’, etc.  Right?  This is fine, I just want to proceed on the right basis regarding what you are trying to accomplish.


lukeprog May 16, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Desire utilitarianism posits nothing transcendent or beyond physical investigation. Yes, we’re talking about brain states – neurons and chemicals and such, and also relations between brain states and states of affairs in the world. Brain states and mold growth can both be described in chemical terms, so they are similar in that way, but there are many dissimilarities as well, which I hold to be morally significant. A thing with desires has reasons for action. A thing without desires does not.

The fact that desire utilitarianism need not posit transcendent, eternal, non-physical facts is one of its greatest strengths. Desire utilitarianism can wield Occam’s razor against other theories, for it explains moral behavior and moral facts without reference to a vastly multiplied and un-evidenced ontology.

However, brain states are not necessarily the final ends of reasons for action that exist. Evidence suggests that people do not merely desire brain states in many cases, but actually desire states of affairs in the real world. One example is that when presented with the hypothetical choice to be plugged into a happiness machine for the rest of their life or continue to experience the real world and affect it, many people choose the latter. This suggests that though we often desire mental states, are desires are not merely for internal states (like happiness).


Mark May 17, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Thanks Luke, we’re on the same page regarding what you are trying to accomplish, I think.

Is your theory permanently biased against the conclusion that God exists and has revealed Himself through a moral law/directive/system?  If your work is successful (I wish you well on your proposed 15 year pursuit of this theory) you will uncover a universal moral directive.  This moral directive will reveal why people make certain choices and prescribe the ‘best’ choices in certain situations such that the ‘best of all possible worlds’ might be attained.  Will you allow the possibility that the ‘best of all possibly worlds’ might include people praying to God, perhaps sacrificing to God, reading scripture, etc.?  You say elsewhere that people should be willing to follow the evidence, so I presume you will allow for this and not bias your research, modelling, etc. against these scenarios.

Now if your theory does uncover such universal directives that involve God, would you say that is evidence that God put knowledge of His existence and will ‘into the fabric of the universe’?  Or will you say it’s just an illusion since you can’t physically measure this God?  Or if it happens to match one of the existing religious systems, will you worship the God of that religious system or just conclude that the religious authors made a ‘lucky guess’?

I trust you will allow this possibility, though your book has already stated ‘gods do not exist’ on page 9.  Even if all the current religious systems were fatally self-contradictory, there could still be a ‘true’ religion no one has discovered yet.  What do you think?


lukeprog May 17, 2009 at 4:51 pm


The results of the moral calculus of desire utilitarianism would not change much with the addition of a single new being with desires, unless God’s desire were infinitely strong. That’s possible, but I don’t know how you would ever gain evidence of that under popular conceptions of God (non-physical, undetectable, etc.). And wouldn’t that make God even more a slave to his desires than we are? That’s an odd theology, but I’ve seen odder.

Desire utilitarianism is not a theory about the best of all possible worlds. I’m not sure what that would mean. A world with an infinite number of desires being totally fulfilled, and no desires being thwarted? Well, no, because desire utilitarianism does not hold desire fulfillment to have intrinsic value that should be maximized. Rather, each desire that DOES exist is a reason for action. It’s not as though we have to go around maximizing desire fulfillment, though it’s an easy mistake to make.

If a god existed such that he would cause immense suffering on those who, say, rape people or have gay sex or eat lobster, then there may indeed be more and stronger desires to promote aversions to rape and gay sex and lobster-eating than to promote desires for those things – which would mean that desires to rape and have gay sex and eat lobster would be “morally bad” in such a world. Personally, I’m quite relieved there’s no good evidence to suggest a world exists, but that’s beside the theoretical point.

If God existed, this would not lend plausibility to divine command theories of ethics. Those theories fail even if God does exist. If God exists, desire utilitarianism is still more plausible than divine command theories.

Now if your theory does uncover such universal directives that involve God, would you say that is evidence that God put knowledge of His existence and will ‘into the fabric of the universe’? Or will you say it’s just an illusion since you can’t physically measure this God?

I don’t understand this question. If we discovered God, that would mean God is not an illusion.

Even if all the current religious systems were fatally self-contradictory, there could still be a ‘true’ religion no one has discovered yet. What do you think?

Oh, indeed. When I say “Gods do not exist,” that doesn’t mean I’m not open to the idea. That just means, as with anything, “To the best of my knowledge, gods don’t exist.”


Mark May 17, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I’m not talking about God’s desires or benefits/penalties in an afterlife.  Your theory seeks to ‘make the world better’.  So if the theory found that the world could be made ‘as good as possible’  (where all desires tended to fulfill other desires and no desires thwarted any other desires) only in the case where people prayed daily or sacrificed to a God (or other religious practices), would that be convincing proof of that God’s existence?  I assume so, by definition, since to not take part in these practices would be to thwart what could only be a good desire (as all bad desires would have passed away, in the best possible world).  Does that make sense?


lukeprog May 17, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Yeah, I can’t think of a way for us to know that we could make a better world by getting more people to pray to a certain god without first coming to know that that god exists…


Mark May 18, 2009 at 5:53 am

I assumed your research into human desires/actions/will/etc. would have to include a healthy consideration of religious desires/actions as these have been ubiquitous  throughout human history.  These effects could not be ignored by an honest researcher.  However, your comments in the book and on the blog seemed to indicate you were biased against God’s existence and so your research might ignore religious effects since you ‘knew they could not exist’.  Glad to hear you will consider these as well. 
The point is that one possible way God may have revealed Himself to humans is through a universal moral code in which He Himself takes part/plays a role.  If you discover this code (I’m not saying that you will), you must honestly conclude that God exists, even though you could not see Him, touch Him, weigh Him, etc.  In other posts, you complain about theists believing in an ‘invisible’ God so I assumed you might not admit evidence that is not directly material/directly physical.  In other words, you seem to dismiss anything not directly detectable through material means.  But if God is not matter, He might only be detectable through immaterial means.  The moral code you might discover would be an ‘effect’ of which only He could be the cause, therefore you would have scientific evidence of a non-material, non-natural sort – indeed ‘super’-natural.  It sounds like you agree this is possible and are not biased against it.  Let me know if I’m misunderstanding you.

Moving on, are you familiar with Jonathan Edwards’ philosophical writings about the will/understanding/desires/etc?  I think they are pertinent to your quest and can bring those into the discussion unless this is old ground for you.


lukeprog May 18, 2009 at 6:26 am

Mark: In other words, you seem to dismiss anything not directly detectable through material means.

Not necessarily. Some quantum phenomena are not directly detectable, and yet our models of how they behave provide us with astonishingly accurate predictions of what happens in a lab. Not so with any God theory I’ve ever heard.

Mark: However, your comments in the book and on the blog seemed to indicate you were biased against God’s existence and so your research might ignore religious effects since you ‘knew they could not exist’.

I’m not sure what this means. Are you ‘biased’ against flat earth theory, or have you done your best to remove your own bias, do the research, and found that there’s just no good evidence for flat earth theory?

Also, what ‘religious effects’ are you talking about? Are you saying that I should account for religious desires in my moral calculus? If so, I certainly do. It’s not as though secular desires have more intrinsic value than religious desires! They have the same amount of intrinsic value: none.

Mark: The point is that one possible way God may have revealed Himself to humans is through a universal moral code in which He Himself takes part/plays a role. If you discover this code (I’m not saying that you will), you must honestly conclude that God exists, even though you could not see Him, touch Him, weigh Him, etc.

Yes, if God is both (1) a plausible explanation for some feature of the natural world, and (2) the best explanation for some feature of the natural world, and also if it is true that the strength of this (3) outweighs arguments against God’s existence, then such a discovery would compel me to believe that God exists. Same goes for the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I am not familiar with Edwards’ understanding of the will and desires. But I doubt he would be able to inform me than the very latest in neuroscience and analytic philosophy.


Mark May 18, 2009 at 9:28 am

Edwards would agree with you that desires are reasons for action.  He states that we always choose to fulfill (realize and act upon the reason for action) our strongest desire at any given moment, indeed we can do nothing else.  This might simplify your theory, as you state the moral value of a desire is how well it fulfills or tends to fulfill more(more numerous) and greater (stronger) desires.  If everyone is always enacting their strongest desire at every moment, you can drop the ‘greater/stronger’ distinction.  In that sense one could almost say that ‘less strong’ desires don’t exist, as they will never be acted upon (thus are not viable reasons for action) until the moment they become the strongest desire.


Yair May 26, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Why is the Good  “to fulfill more and greater desires than are thwarted, among all desires” [p. 24], rather than, say, the least and weakest desires? This is a dogmatic foundless statement, not at all a scientific determination.
Since it is YOU that are making the moral choices, it is only YOUR desires that matter. If your desires include considering other peoples’ desires, then considering other people’s desires is good (for you) due to you having this meta-desire. Only your desires are reasons for  your actions, others’ desires aren’t (directly).
If you are a sadist that enjoys raping children, why should desire-utilitarianism convince you rape is  bad? You might as well argue that the rapist shouldn’t rape because a triangle has 180 angles. What’s the connection? Why should the rapist care if his desires are judged “good” by desire-utilitarianism, or god, or whatever?
Neither should we care. If we judge something as desirable (or not) – that’s what matters. There is no other sense in which something can be said to be good from your presepctive – the only “ought” that actually motivates you is the ought inside your head.  Other people’s oughts are not (directly) relevant – they are relvant for other people, not for you, not for your actions and choices.
Now, most people have a fairly similar and benevolent moral nature. This allows one to speak of Humanism, and a shared (and in this sense objective) morality. But the foundation of this morality is not some abstract principle like maximizing pleasure or desires. The only real, scientific, foundation is the actual moral determinations made by real humans in their brains – their actual desires and preferences. We are still very ,very far from having a scientific understanding of our moral senses, but let us not delude ourselves to think some abstact principle, like desire utilitarianism, is influencing human moral behvaiour. The brain operates according to the moral algorithms it implements, and I very much doubt that it implements anything considerably like desire utilitarianism. The best current accounts indicate that it implements a wide array of analog, messy, algorithms that are difficult to seperate let alone code into abstract laws, but are founded on emotions such as empathy, a sense of justice and equality, an appreciation of truth, and so on.
There is room for dogmatic moral theories, in assisting us to uncover and think more clearly thorough our own moral algorithms. They should not be considered as prescriptive, however. They are only partial insights into the workings of our moral sense, and if you confuse them with your moral sense you end up doing things that deep down inside you don’t want to do.
Stay true to yourself, your decisions can only be based on your own judgments.


Lorkas May 26, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Even a potential rapist is likely to have a desire to remain in society with other human beings rather than be thrown in jail (or perhaps a desire not to get killed by the husband or family of the rape victim in retribution in a society where justice is more of the vigilante persuasion). These are desires within the potential rapist that are relevant to the choice of whether or not to rape a person–you don’t have to look outside of a person to find desires that might be thwarted by engaging in an action like rape or murder.

A person might have the desire to make love with his neighbor’s wife, but also the desire to remain friends with his neighbor (and not to get attacked by him). The desire to avoid bad consequences of an action is certainly a reason to refrain from performing the action.


murrowcronkite May 26, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Desires create as much suffering and harm as they create good. They are amoral. The reason we choose to act on some desires and not others- good or bad(sorry that’s qualitative) is probably due to the subjective view of the survival benefits of the one acting. The more developed a persons cognition and ability to see the  full consequences  of their actions, the more likely they will ultimately benefit the person acting and others around them, even if it involves delayed gratification or sacrifice.
The ability to realize this for ones self, develop  it, refine it, to me makes us human, with “higher” conciousness. Survival first then the decorations of happiness. A  realization of connectedness is also involved. ( We’re the same at some or many levels of our being, self, person,existence, life,  etc.).


Paul July 16, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Yair -
“We are still very ,very far from having a scientific understanding of our moral senses, but let us not delude ourselves to think some abstact principle, like desire utilitarianism, is influencing human moral behvaiour.”
It seems to me you are operating under a misunderstanding.  So far as I understand him, Luke is not claiming that DU is influencing moral behavior.  In a sense you have it backwards.   DU is a system (or a means or a tool, perhaps) to objectively and universally determine whether an action is moral or not.
Luke – If I have misrepresented DU then please correct me.
I do have a question – can DU be applied to make a moral judgment in the following?
A couple desires to engages is public sex.  It is unknown whether the public desires to witness such an act or not.   Or perhaps slightly modified – a couple desires to engage in public sex.  Say they do this in front of  a public that desires to witness such an act.  Say they also do this in front of a public that desires not to witness such an act.


Paul July 16, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Just quick edit of my previous comment -
when I say “a couple desires to engage in public sex” perhaps I should have worded it “a couple engages in public sex”.  I think it makes a difference.


lukeprog July 16, 2009 at 6:19 pm


You have characterized DU correctly.

Re: a couple who desires to have public sex. Is their desire to have public sex a morally good desire? Certainly, the desire for public sex is malleable, and as such falls under moral considerations. (Since it is malleable, other people have reasons for action to encourage or inhibit this desire. If it was not malleable, we would not have reasons for action to do either.) So the question is: does a desire to have public sex tend to fulfill more and stronger desires than it tends to thwart? Does this desire tend to bring about states of affairs that generally fulfill other desires, or generally thwart other desires?

I do not know the answer. This is an empirical question, to be answered by science alone.


Justin Martyr August 17, 2009 at 8:30 am

1. Desire utilitarianism suffers from G.E. Moore’s <a href=”http://www.iep.utm.edu/moore/#SH3b”>naturalistic fallacy</a>. That means that while we can define X as good, that does not mean that X really is good. It remains an open question until we get some evidence. Desire utilitarianism defines fulfilling desires as good. Where is the scientific evidence that proposition? I can give you better evidence for the flying spaghetti monster. I’m pretty sure I saw something odd outside of my window last night …

2. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, beauty is also a criterion for evaluating ethics. Any ethical theory that starts with the position that torturing children to death counts as much as feeding starving children in Africa should be rejected on purely aesthetic grounds.

3. Infants do not yet have desires in terms of having intentional objects of thought. Are desire utilitarians in favor of legalized infanticide? If not they are caught in a logical contradiction (by far the best method of refuting a system of ethics).

4. Let’s go back to the sadist problem. Luke holds that the desire to torture children is bad because it thwarts the desire of the child to live. But similarly, the desire of the child to live is bad because it thwarts the desires of the sadists to torture. (This is the insight behind <a href=”http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Coase_World.html”>the Coase theorem</a>. Like preference utilitarianism, you need some measure of making interpersonal comparisons of utility (which is itself impossible). And then with that you are left with all the horrible consequences of preference utilitarianism.

5. Luke consistently argues against the coherency of the moral intuitions of the common folk but that view is wrong. Philosophers can be forgiven because they do not generally keep up with the best stuff coming out of behavioral and experimental economics. But as the Nobel Prize winning economist Vernon Smith concludes, “the subjects had it right.” Smith summarizes the literature in <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Rationality-Economics-Constructivist-Ecological-Forms/dp/0521871352″>Rationality in Economics</a> and shows that people believe in fairness, earning their endowments, reciprocity, and will enforce social norms at some cost to themselves (neuroeconomics shows that people actually get pleasure out of this).
So what did the subjects get right? That the moral reasoning of neoclassical economics is wrong, as is utilitarianism-style moral reasoning along with. Our moral intuitions are built for ecological rationality and evolutionary game theory. They enforce social norms and care about fairness and reciprocity. Utilitarians would do well to read the empirical literature – but the cost would have to be rejecting utilitarianism for some form of rights-based ethics or duty-based ethics!


Justin Martyr August 17, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Ok, I’m striking #4 off of the list of objections. I’m still new to desire utilitarianism and did not fully appreciate how it handled conflicts of interests. My mistake! I will also soften my objection to #3 in light of how desire utilitarianism handles conflicts of interests, although it is not fully assuaged.


Piero October 20, 2009 at 4:36 pm

JustinMartyr, you said “Desire utilitarianism defines fulfilling desires as good”. I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood what good is in this perspective. Try again.


Guy November 9, 2009 at 7:57 pm

Dear Luke,

I read your ebook and very much appreciated your viewpoint. I have done quite a bit of reading on the subject and was wondering if I could get your thoughts on two questions.

In your book, you said that morally-good means “such as to fulfill more and greater desires than are thwarted, among all desires”. You also said that “no desire is intrinsically better or worse than any other” (page 30). If these two statements are true, the first question I have is simply how did you objectively decide which desires or actions are greater than others?

Under your definition, it seems to me that if a larger group determines that the economic benefit of the many is of “greater good” than the freedom of the few, then slavery of the few is a perfectly acceptable (ie good) action/desire.

I think you did a good job of pointing out the fact that this moral “tug” is something that all of us feel and therefore exists in the universe. However, I don’t see your connection from “is” to “ought”. Referring to page 28… Let’s assume for a moment that you are correct and that our desires/morality are something that we received from (1) random chance (ie evolution) and/or from (2) our culture (ie a group of people who also got their morality from evolution). If this is true, then morality is simply an impulse that developed via random chance. If this is true, then there is really no reason why anyone is OBLIGATED to obey someone else’s belief of right versus wrong. If a man wants to rob a bank, the bank owners may object, the society may object, in fact the whole world may object, but so what? If the man is smart enough to get away with it, then that action will bring HIM more pleasure and financial gain than he could possibly gain from acting “good” (according to your standard) for his whole life.

It seems to me that if there truly is no God, and therefore no punishment for the actions in this life, then morality (the “you ought to or else!” variety) is an illusion. Morality just becomes another random impulse in a laundry list of random impulses that evolution (ie random chance) dumped on us over the course of time.

See the problem with your theory? If there is no guaranteed future punishment associated with acting badly (immorally), then it simply doesn’t make sense for a person to act in a way that they perceive is advantageous to others while being disadvantageous to themselves. Why would they? Why should anyone deny themselves maximum pleasure (even if they hurt others in the process) if they truly believe that (1) they are smart enough and/or strong enough to get away with it and (2) if they truly believe that there are no consequences in any afterlife?

If what you are espousing is true, then the best course of action for people in this life is to grab all the enjoyment they can grab REGARDLESS of what other people may want… because in the end everyone dies and it doesn’t matter how many people you hurt in your journey, just so long as you enjoyed it. This is the logical conclusion that your view of morality leaves us with. My question is “Why should people behave the way you (or even society) want them to behave, when it is disadvantageous for them to do so?” Your construct of morality doesn’t answer the “ought” question for those who can do whatever they feel like doing (ie those who are really good at evading punishment or those who are really powerful.) In the end, in the absence of God, those people OUGHT to behave anyway they feel like it.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.




lukeprog November 10, 2009 at 5:42 am


There are many things I want to rewrite in version 2 of that book for clarity. By “greater” I just mean “stronger.” My desire to not be tortured is stronger than my desire for ice cream.

“If this is true, then morality is simply an impulse that developed via random chance. If this is true, then there is really no reason why anyone is OBLIGATED to obey someone else’s belief of right versus wrong.”

This is correct. We must distinguish moral belief from morality itself. Morality is not the impulse or moral opinion. Morality is a calculation concerning all the reasons for action that exist. Moral BELIEF or moral OPINION is based on the impulses we evolved or were taught. All the moral beliefs in the world do not change what IS moral, just as all the astronomical beliefs in the world do not change what IS true about astronomy.

I did not say that it is disadvantageous for people to be immoral. I just said it was immoral. There are prudential oughts and moral oughts and moral goods are not always prudential goods for individual agents.


Guy November 10, 2009 at 10:27 am

Thanks for the detail Luke. Given your belief that there is no God, I think I am still confused as to why someone must comply with what others say is the morally correct thing to do. If there is no God, then a strong person or nation can do whatever they want, and no one can say “you did a bad thing”. The most they can say is “you are acting in a way that is contrary to the feeling of right and wrong which random chance (evolution) has impressed on my mind.” Hardly a compelling argument for someone to behave.

Morality gives people a sense of guilt and pending punishment when they break moral laws. If however, these feelings of morality/guilt/pending-punishment just evolved over time via random chance, then there is no real punishment that is pending for wrongdoers…because there is no one who can punish after this life. If that is true, then moral behavior (as a standard to which we should adhere) is a myth. There is no reason anyone MUST or SHOULD follow either the moral tug they feel in themselves nor the moral tug that others say they feel.

Once again, in the absence of a God who can punish wrongdoers, the question of ‘Why should I behave?” remains unanswered.



lukeprog November 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm

“Why should I be moral?”

I’ve answered this several times already elsewhere, but I’ll add it to the F.A.Q. when I can…


Roy Sablosky March 19, 2010 at 11:24 pm

I enjoyed this book very much, and agree with most of it. You might enjoy my book, No One Believes In God.


GG April 22, 2010 at 10:14 am

Your a wonderful human being, do you know this?


Brandon P. April 22, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Overall, I think your book is excellent and raises all kinds of questions that should be answered when it comes to morality and values.
Just one thing that caught my attention: At the beginning of Chapter 5, in the second sentence it says ‘A right action is one the produces “the greatest good for the greatest number.’”

I think it should be “A right action is one THAT produces ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’”


RA May 12, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Don’t know if you want to correct it or not. But on page 28 in the first paragraph, your book reads “In this sense, morality is objective, as we saw above.”

But in your audio, you say as we saw “before.” Since a person reading in book format would not look above, it seems “before” is the better word.


Guy May 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm

You say that “Morality is a calculation concerning all the reasons for action that exist.”


If this is true, and I think of 10 good reasons to rob a bank but only 1 good reason NOT to rob a bank… is it then moral to rob a bank?

And who exactly is doing the “calculation” you speak of? Me? You? Society?

Such a definition of morality leads us nowhere.



lukeprog May 12, 2010 at 1:05 pm


If you’re interested to understand what the theory actually says, I’ve written a great deal on this site about it.


RA May 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm


Your objection is bad enough that I think I can handle it. There is no doubt that you can think of 10 reasons to rob a bank. I can think of a million reasons I’d want to rob a bank.

But just because you or I want to rob the bank, doesn’t make it moral. It only possibly makes it moral to us.

Desirism states that we must take all desires into consideration. So we must take into consideration the people whose money we are going to steal. FDIC insurance takes care of that so maybe that fails.

Then we’ve got to take into consideration society’s willingness to let us steal from banks. This is where we probably start to run into trouble. Why should society think it is alright for us to steal from a bank?

If you can think of one, you may have defeated desirism and I’ll be willing to argue further with you. If not, you have a failed argument.

Everyone’s desires get taken into consideration with desirism. Not just the bank robber’s.


Guy May 12, 2010 at 2:25 pm

You haven’t thought this through.

You said…”we’ve got to take into consideration society’s willingness to let us steal from banks. This is where we probably start to run into trouble. Why should society think it is alright for us to steal from a bank?”

Society would NOT think it is alright. But is society the final “calculator” of what is morally right and wrong? I hope not. Is the individual the final “calculator” of what is morally right and wrong? I hope not. If society is the final determiner of morality, then how could one culture/society condemn the actions of another culture as being immoral? According to your “society determines morality” paradigm… how could the united states condemn the attrocities of the German society during WWII. It couldn’t.

Something beyond society and beyond the individual must be the determiner of what is morally right versus morally wrong… or else it all boils down to “whoever is in charge determines what is MORALLY right”.

Next time, think first before you answer.



RA May 12, 2010 at 2:57 pm


You need to think this through. Yes, society is the final calculator for what is wrong or right. You have already acknowledged that society would NOT think it was alright. So, you have admitted that desirism works.

One society does not get to determine what is moral or not. They have to submit to the human race. And the human race rose up against the Nazis and walked across their country and destroyed it.

No one but society and the human race decides what is right or wrong. It provided a sufficient reason for Germany to realize that its love of war was not in its best interest and its society has been changed as a result. That what desirism proposes.

Will desirism result in a perfect planet? No, we will never be able to be to convince all people to behave morally. But it will provide us with reasons to condemn behavior and attempt to deter it. That’s all any moral system can do.

The fact is that the Christian moral system did nothing to stop slavery, the Nazis or the slaughter of the Native Americans by a Christian country seeking to steal their land for their own benefit.

Desirism is at worst tied with Christian moral values.


Guy May 13, 2010 at 4:21 am

Please. Check your facts before making such assertions.

Here’s one final question you can wrestle with though…

What happens when a smaller fraction of the human race believes that they are morally right about a particular action and they believe that the rest of the world is morally wrong? Does the smaller fraction of the world always have to submit to the will of the rest of the human race (because as you suggested above they would be morally wrong to resist the will of the rest of the human race)?

Your theory of “entire human race” being the final calculator of morality results in nothing more than might-makes-right. And once again we are left with the original point which is “If morality is simply might-makes-right, then everyone is free to do whatever they want so long as they are strong enough to enforce their will.” In this scheme, morality is devoid of meaning.

For your edification, may I suggest the book “Relativism: Feet firmly planted in mid-air”. I think it would go a long way towards sharpening your skills.



RA May 13, 2010 at 6:01 am


What facts should I have checked? Didn’t the Nazis start their exterminating of the Jews in the late 30s? They had basically taken over Europe before we ever got into the war and we didn’t get into it until Japan attacked us. We only reluctantly provided aid to Britian when they were being bombarded by the Germans. What did the fear of hell accomplish? I don’t think it even provided the U.S. with much reason to get involved.

Again, desirism requires that we take the desires of all humans (and even non-humans) into consideration. So might would not make right under desirism. If the majority of the human race thought slavery was moral, it not make it moral unless all the enslaved thought it a good idea and were willing slaves. If you can provide a case for that happening, I will grant you that you have a good argument. If not, you have only provided another failed one.

Don’t you find it a bit of a problem that you believe the human race gets it morals from God and yet you propose that if we do not base our beliefs on God, we will have the Nazis, slavery and mass persecution. And all these things that you propose would happen have occurred in Christian countries already that believed what you believe? That seems a fundamental problem for your claim.

You really are not making a compelling argument, you’ve got to admit.


Guy May 13, 2010 at 7:45 am

Another fallacy on your part. Just because some Nazi’s CLAIMED to be Christians does not mean that they were ACTING according to the teachings of Christ. Do you understand the difference?

And what is this comment about “You want the desires of “non-humans” taken into consideration?” ok.. now you’ve lost it. Let me know when you have added the opinions and desires of sharks, dingos, bears, and alligators into your moral calculator. My guess is that they will all vote to EAT you. Will you then tell them that you want a recount?

Please. Do us all a favor and read some decent books like the one I previously suggested.



RA May 13, 2010 at 8:17 am

Yes, I understand the difference. The problem is that they did think they were Christians. Just like our Christians thought they were Christians when they were killing off the Indians and getting rid of the “savages.” That wasn’t very Christian was it?

And that is the problem with your moral theory. It fails when we take the people that do not believe in your version of God into consideration. It even fails when we do. We don’t get any better morals with God than without.

That’s why our morals don’t come from God. They are a desirism type of concept and we have attributed our morals to God when in reality we have developed them on our own. Desirism would be a tweak to our present moral ideas but basically the same basic concepts that we all believe in.

Our motto might even be to treat others as you wish to be treated.

Taking other people’s desires more into consideration could potentially give us a better moral system. That is not something you can comprehend because you believe man is depraved without God.

But we will always have fundamental different takes on things since none of us think alike. That’s why we have Republicans and Democrats.

As for the animals, yes, we probably should take their desires into consideration if we really want to be moral. But that gets really complicated. I think it probably is immoral for me to eat certain animals but that doesn’t stop me from doing it. A case can be made either way on that one. I’ll agree that it is kind of far out but maybe something that we should think more about. Or at least think more about the way we treat the animals that we do eat.

When it comes to suggested reading, I’d recommend you read more on desirism if you want to make arguments against it. Otherwise, you just make foolish arguments which do more to convince people that you are wrong rather than right.


Guy May 13, 2010 at 8:52 am

Are you serious. You just admitted to making up your own morality (” in reality we have developed them on our own”). Therefore, you cannot legitimately call other people’s positions “immoral”. You can only say that their made-up moral system differs from your made-up moral system.

If it is ok for people to make up their own morality, then why are dictators, pedophiles and rapists morally wrong when they make up their own morality? According to your “make up your own morality” scheme the answer is THEY ARE NOT WRONG WHEN THEY CREATE THEIR OWN SYSTEM OF MORALITY.

Does that even come close to sounding right to you?

Your theory of create-your-own morality would be totally unacceptable to you when other people create moral systems/behaviors that don’t agree with yours. How would you convince them that they were doing something morally wrong? Would you say “Hey! According to my made-up moral system, your made-up moral system is wrong!”

Please, do some studying.



RA May 13, 2010 at 9:35 am

Yes, we make up our own morality. Haven’t you been paying any attention? Why does this come as a shock to you?

There is no real morality. Only the morality that we all agree to.

The question is what do we base our morality on? Do we base it on what we believe is best for humanity? Or do we base it on what the ancient Jews said God said about it?

We certainly wouldn’t base anything else on the ideas of the ancient Jews. Why should be we base our morality on their imaginings of God?

Pedophiles are wrong because they act against the interests of the child. We can all understand that one. Rapists are wrong because they act against the will of the raped. That’s just not right. That’s something we all understand intuitively and feel we need to take action against.

We impose those morals on the pedophiles and rapists because we don’t want them raping our children and daughters. Pretty simple concept.

If God did not exist, would I want to be raped? Would I want my kid molested? Would you suddenly think it was OK for me to steal all your belongings?

Dictators tend to persecute the people they rule. That’s a bad thing. If the dictator was real nice guy, it might not be such a bad thing.

What do I need to study to have this basic understanding? It’s pretty basic stuff really.

Do we get our speed limits from God? Tax rates? We can put a man on the moon but we can’t figure out it is wrong to murder someone? Where do you get this stuff?


MathAtheist June 6, 2010 at 7:06 am

Hi Luke!

A few things irk me about desirism to the point of making it all nonsensical to me. Some are addressed in your ebook (although, the answer on the is-ought question seems deeply unsatisfactory to me) yet there are some, I think, even more important questions that I have not found addressed anywhere. Now, I am not a philosopher so I do not really know if these count for good arguments or not. On the other hand, they seem commonsensical and logical objections to me. Therefore, I’d wish you could elaborate on them.

1. It seems to me that desirism attributes moral agency where there is none. For example, consider a dog’s desire to play with human children. Obviously, this desire is both a) malleable and b) tends to fulfill other desires. On desirism, therefore, a dog performs a morally good action playing with children. More generally, it seems very unusual to talk about morality when choice is not involved.

2. The premise of desires being the only reason for action can be true only in some very narrow (and/or technical) sense. You however, seem to use the term in a high level, common sense kind of way – saying that we “desire peace” or “desire freedom”, for example.

But, using the terms in a commonsense way, a change in beliefs can also be a reason for action. For example, I might crave some candy but my belief that none is available would prevent me from taking action upon this desire. If I were now to suddenly remember about a chocolate bar in my pocket, I could take action on my desire. Here my desire would not have changed at all, while the change in my belief about the availability of candy would have lead me to taking the action (eating that chocolate bar).

We can go even further. If I were superstitious and see a black cat cross my intended path, I might choose to take a different route. Using a high level language of beliefs and desires one could say that neither my desires nor my beliefs changed, yet I took action. Therefore, the black cat crossing the way was the reason for action in this case.

It seems plausible, that one can provide definitions for desire such as to show that I really desired to change the path, or that a desire to put my hand in the pocket and take out the candy arose the second I remembered about it being there. I do not think, however, that such a “desire to put hand in pocket” would be the same thing as, say, a “desire for freedom”. Building a theory on the assumption that they are runs a serious risk of committing an equivocation fallacy (as I think desirism does).

3. It seems to me quite obvious that desires alone can not possibly be enough to explain morality. For, the same desire can lead to morally good or morally bad action depending on the relevant beliefs and/or situation. Take rape, for example. While I have no doubt that there are some rapists that DESIRE TO RAPE, a lot of rape actually occurs because of a simple desire for sexual gratification. It is the lack of some other stronger desire (like, for example, a desire to be good) and/or a combination of beliefs (about what constitutes rape, for example) that makes one person rape when the other would not, given a similar situation. Is a desire for sexual gratification therefore bad, or are we now unable to say that this kind of rape is bad? The same goes for any number of things. Some murders are committed out of a desire for wealth. Does this make desire for wealth bad?

To end on a more positive note, I would like to commend you for the important work you are putting in to your blog and pod-cast. I especially like your interviewing style, letting the interviewee express their views on their own terms. In the end, it is we, the audience, who are left with reaching conclusions – and that is as it should be. Huge kudos for that and keep it up!


Nico July 27, 2010 at 1:35 pm

This gave me made me see I am an Atheist.
It was very revealing to read it and understand our thought in a “better ” way.
In hope to become a better person even if it is just for myself…..

Thanks for publishing this……


LoPan August 19, 2010 at 10:41 pm

Desirism still assumes it matters what the balance of desires are, so despite being strong in other aspects it ultimately fails just like all the others that try to prove objective morality.

Moral Relativism cannot be defeated the evidence for it is irrefutable and abundant. I think it is the only intellectually honest progression from atheism with regards to morality.


Roy Sablosky August 19, 2010 at 10:48 pm

LoPan, what is the “irrefutable and abundant” evidence for moral relativism? I am not familiar with it.


Guy August 20, 2010 at 5:05 am


Exactly what “evidence” for moral relativism are you referring to?



Guy August 20, 2010 at 5:24 am


In fact, just give us the top 1 or 2 pieces of evidence (whatever you think is the most powerful evidence) proving that moral relativism is irrefutable. No need to provide a laundry list.



J.A. Kraulis September 2, 2010 at 9:37 am

Hi Roy,

You wrote (somewhere above): You might enjoy my book, No One Believes In God.

Thanks! I downloaded it, not sure I’ll have time to read every page. But without knowing your basic thesis, the corollary is of course, Everyone Believes in God. It only depends on what your definition of “God” is. The laws of nature? Sure. The potential goodness within us all? Why not. But I suspect you’ve covered this in some detail.

As well, I assume, the utterly unsolvable problem at the core of all punishment-reward religions, namely that requirement believe (as distinct from merely asserting that you do) is impossible to fulfill if the very intelligence that God presumably gave you prevents you from doing so.


Roy Sablosky September 2, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Yes, “the requirement to believe (as distinct from merely asserting that you do) is impossible to fulfill”. Christopher Hitchens said (I forget where) that this is a characteristic of totalitarian regimes: the rules don’t make sense, so they can’t be followed. (An incoherent command cannot be obeyed.) This means that you are always in the wrong; so your safety depends on the “forgiveness” of the State.


Nordon October 9, 2010 at 11:59 am

Completely unrelated to the topic at hand, but I have to ask where that picture is from with that gorgeous expansive field. I pretty much need to know. :)


Timothy Underwood October 30, 2010 at 1:14 am

And there is the “most of the above” option. I at least partially share the views of error theorists, emotivists, quasi realists, naturalists, and preference utilitarianism. And those are only the ones I think I understand. Well I really am not a deontologist.

Also the list confuses meta ethical positions with ethical positions. You can have both.


Kyle March 1, 2011 at 9:59 am

Desire is still abstract, convoluted, and not real enough for objectivity. But that’s not to say you are not going the right direction. Desires are the reasons for personal action, but there are reasons for desires. They are natural instincts, social influences, and indirect derivations of the first 2 based on personal “logic”. Since social influence and personal logic are not sources and are actually processing methods, the only actual and pure source is natural instinct- the rest is chaotic artifacts. That is not without cause either, it stems from evolution. That’s how far I got. Good action is what physically promotes more survival-fit species.


Henry March 28, 2011 at 10:20 am

Is there any chance you’ll produce a Kindle version of the eBook?


Luke Muehlhauser March 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm

No chance, because it doesn’t reflect my views anymore.

But my podcast ‘Morality in the Real World’ will probably eventually lead to a book.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }