Living Without a Moral Code, part 4

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 5, 2010 in Ethics

girl on rock

In previous posts I explained that I am, essentially, living without a moral code. I want to be moral but I don’t know what is moral because I’m studying moral foundations and haven’t worked out anything in applied ethics yet.

Today I discuss one more objection, spread across two posts by faithlessgod. The objection is that I need not despair at my ethical position because I can make use of what R.M. Hare called two-level utilitarianism.

Hare’s idea goes like this. If you’re a rule utilitarian, you believe you ought to govern your behavior according to whichever rules for behavior create the greatest good. But you can’t stop and make this calculation for every decision you need to make. The solution is to act at an intuitive (‘prole’) level most of the time, following the rules it feels like would probably do the most good, and then in certain situations where your intuitions contradict each other or don’t apply, you consider the situation at a more critical (‘Archangel’) level so that you can proceed and do the right thing.

I’m not a rule-utilitarian, but the basic idea can be applied to desirism, as Alonzo Fyfe explained in his post Practical Morality.

When we apply Hare’s idea to desirism, we get the following strategy: Most of the time, I may operate at the ‘prole’ level, doing what I desire to do. This is how I get through my day. But then, as often as I can, I operate at the Archangel level, and decide which desires it would be morally good to have. The idea is that over the course of my life I will have time to change my own desires so that I have generally moral desires, and doing the right thing usually consists merely in doing what I desire.

Now this is a good solution in far as it goes, except that I cannot yet operate at the Archangel level. If operating at the Archangel level means figuring out which desires are good desires, then I can’t do much of that yet. Why? Because I’ve decided to spend a good chunk of my life studying meta-ethics and trying to clarify the most basic assumptions of moral realism and anti-realism. Because I’m working out the foundations, I can’t even make it to questions of applied ethics – which in desirism’s case is the study of which desires are morally good.

So that is what I meant when I said that I am living without a moral code. I’m trying to be a moral person but I have no idea if I’m succeeding because I’m not very confident of the truth of any one moral theory. And that will probably be true for me for years, if not decades. I have a lot of studying to do.

Divine command theory is so much easier than real morality!

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{ 83 comments… read them below or add one }

Justin Martyr April 5, 2010 at 6:11 am

Hi Luke,

I see that you haven’t yet realized that desirism is a descriptive theory of ethics, and thus suffers from all the fatal flaws of every other descriptive theory of ethics: the best way to fulfill your desires is to oppress others.

Desirists (who are really just social contract theorists without a Veil of Ignorance) fall back on the old “well, the rest of society will use praise, punishment, and condemnation”. But that doesn’t work when you are talking about oppression by a powerful group, perhaps and ethnic majority.

At this point, the allegedly hard-headed desirists start going normative. Apply the “turn the knobs” technique and you’ll see that oppression won’t fulfill everyone’s desires! That’s true, but why should a rational, evidence-minded person care about other people’s desires? Why should he change his beliefs such that his own desires change in order to accommodate the rest of society. That explanation cannot be provided.

Desires may then take refuge in the “false beliefs” defense. Oppression can only be justified with false beliefs about the inferiority of other groups. But this neglects the Homo economicus reasoning you would find among the New Atheist Man. It would work something like this:

Atheist 1: We’ve had a history of reciprocal interaction that has allowed us to build up a certain amount of trust and social capital.
Atheist 2: Yup.
Atheist 1: So let’s use that to our advantage. Let’s team up and kill that other group of people over there and take their women.
Atheist 2: Ok.

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Matt M April 5, 2010 at 6:52 am

Justin Martyr,

“Let’s team up and kill that other group of people over there and take their women.”

Your desires involve killing and rape?

I’d seek help if I were you.

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Thomas Reid April 5, 2010 at 7:19 am

Luke (and others interested),
There’s been a pretty involved discussion over at cl’s place regarding desirism recently.

If you’ve followed it, I’d be interested to hear your opinion (or Fyfe’s, if you have a reference) on what is the ontology of these desire-types. My understanding is that by treating them as types, one attempts to avoid the objection that obviously bad desires are mistakenly pronounced “good” depending on the strength and distribution of desire-tokens.

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Rob April 5, 2010 at 10:47 am

“…I am, essentially, living without a moral code. I want to be moral but I don’t know what is moral because I’m studying moral foundations and haven’t worked out anything in applied ethics yet.”

It seems as though you assume that “living with a moral code” requires some sort of reflective awareness of it, and a related skill in dialectically justifying it. But don’t most people we consider moral, and perhaps even the most admirable among them, lack any such depth of awareness and associated skill? Perhaps the preoccupation with “being a good person”, or at least the assumption it underwrites that being so bears any deep connection with philosophical self-reflection and dialectical skill, is a delusion.

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cl April 5, 2010 at 11:06 am

..why should a rational, evidence-minded person care about other people’s desires? Why should he change his beliefs such that his own desires change in order to accommodate the rest of society. That explanation cannot be provided. (Justin Martyr)

Though I have my own reasons why I care about certain other desires, I concur.

My understanding is that by treating them as types, one attempts to avoid the objection that obviously bad desires are mistakenly pronounced “good” depending on the strength and distribution of desire-tokens. (Thomas Reid)

You know, I’m still hung-up on how desirism can ground its definition of ‘good’ as ‘such as to fulfill other desires.’ faithlessgod’s emphasis on the type-token distinction and DFAU/DU didn’t solve the problem for me. I added another set of notes today.

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B Halps April 5, 2010 at 3:58 pm

This might be what you’re getting at, but how can you answer the question “what would create the most good?” without first defining good? I have not been able to define what absolute “goodness” is.

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Justin Martyr April 5, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Hiya CJ and Thomas Reid,

I think you are barking up the wrong tree. It is easy for desirists to define good. I think their definition of good is congruent with our ordinary moral intuitions (although I think the application of concrete moral reasoning in their applied ethics is woefully lacking). I just wrote a new post on desirism using rational choice theory language. (Desirism would be a much more honest theory of morality if it were based on rational choice theory rather than creating its own language). You may want to check it out.

The problem is that desirists ultimately have to take “turn the knobs” as normative. And there is no reason that a rational, evidence minded person convinced of the truth of atheism should do that.

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faithlessgod April 6, 2010 at 3:48 am

Luke the logic you are applying here seems similar to an old argument I heard over food:-

A person not knowing what food is healthy or not, including hearing conflicting authorities on what was healthy, decided to undertake a proper study of biology, physiology, digestion, nutrition and related fields in order to find out for themselves what was really healthy or not. In the meantime they undertook not to eat anything until they knew whether it was really healthy for them. In reality anyone approaching that field this way would die long before they ever found out, not eating anything unless knowing it was healthy is itself fatally unhealthy.

Here we have to start with what we know and you now have one incredibly important tool you did not have before when you were a Christian. Namely any of your beliefs and desire can be challenged, there is no special protection preventing any of them being challenged. This makes you far better off in finding out deleterious beliefs and desires and dealing with them as they occur.

You do have enough to tools to switch to the archangel level as required. You just use the best available tools you now have as and when needed. You continue to seek better ones as and when you are able to. Your rejection of Christianity enables you do this both more honestly and ethically and come to better decisions than you were previously permitted to make.

You might have personally chosen the path of seeking the best philosophical and scientific understanding of these issues where many others do not but either way that does not prevent you in the meantime seeking the best you can, this is specifically something that is singularly lacking in those with religious and political beliefs – that they have all the answers and (falsely) believe that these answers should be immune to and protected from challenges.

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 5:31 am

faithlessgod,

In your analogy the person stops eating until they can do their research about food. But I have not stopped acting as a moral agent until I do my moral research. I’m merely saying that I don’t know whether my actions are morally right or wrong – I’m just guessing based on intuition. In the same way, I suspect the person who wants to become an expert on health food will be guessing based on their intuition that some foods are healthier than others.

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Richard Wein April 6, 2010 at 5:43 am

You know, I’m still hung-up on how desirism can ground its definition of ‘good’ as ’such as to fulfill other desires.’

It can’t. That’s nothing like what the word “good” actually means. Luke is taking a claim about which desires are good, and pretending it’s a definition of what it means for something to be good. Luke picks it as his definition so that his claim will follow effortlessly. But of course it just makes the claim into a tautology. It’s circular reasoning.

Luke: Good desires are ones which tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart.
Me: What do you mean by “good desires”?
Luke: I mean desires which tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart.
Me: So you’re just saying that desires which tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart… tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart.

It may seem hard to believe that someone as highly rational as Luke would make such a rookie error. But because the word “good” is so difficult to define correctly, it’s an error that’s easily made. Luke is far from the first.

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Richard Wein April 6, 2010 at 5:52 am

P.S. I’m not sure that Alonzo Fyfe makes the same error. He seems to be much more reluctant than Luke to commit himself to any definition.

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cl April 6, 2010 at 7:39 am

Justin Martyr,

I believe there’s more than one right tree to bark up. Sure, it’s easy for the desirist to just say “fulfills other desires” = “good”, but that doesn’t make their definition meaningful such that it can ground their theory.

Richard Wein,

That’s nothing like what the word “good” actually means. Luke is taking a claim about which desires are good, and pretending it’s a definition of what it means for something to be good. Luke picks it as his definition so that his claim will follow effortlessly. But of course it just makes the claim into a tautology. It’s circular reasoning.

I agree that the logic is circular, but I think you’re being too hard on Luke. After all, he didn’t pick the definition; Fyfe did.

It may seem hard to believe that someone as highly rational as Luke would make such a rookie error.

I agree; that’s why I’m still holding to the assumption that somewhere along the line, I’m the one who’s misunderstanding things – because I’m giving Luke and Fyfe the benefit of the doubt, and doubting myself here. The minute one decides one is right it becomes that much harder to decide one is wrong.

I suspect Fyfe and/or Luke may be smuggling in some sort of intrinsic value unawares. If not, clear answers to things like the 1000 sadists objection should be forthcoming. Each day that clear answers to such objections are not forthcoming, I lean more towards the conclusion that such objections are sound.

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drj April 6, 2010 at 9:10 am

Luke: Good desires are ones which tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart.
Me: What do you mean by “good desires”?
Luke: I mean desires which tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart.
Me: So you’re just saying that desires which tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart… tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart.It may seem hard to believe that someone as highly rational as Luke would make such a rookie error. But because the word “good” is so difficult to define correctly, it’s an error that’s easily made. Luke is far from the first.  

I don’t really have a dog in the desirist fight, nor am I an expert on the theory, but this objection is a little puzzling to me.

I don’t see what good it does to levy charges of circularity against a definition. The actual definition of a word or phrase can always be used in place of said word or phrase. If you think there is something circular about the desirist argument you will have to aim elsewhere. Criticizing the desirist definition of ‘good desire’ misses the mark.

Bachelors are unmarried men. Unmarried men are unmarried men. Oh noes, circularity! Anyone who believes in bachelor theory has made a rookie mistake!

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Thomas Reid April 6, 2010 at 9:21 am

cl: You know, I’m still hung-up on how desirism can ground its definition of ‘good’ as ’such as to fulfill other desires.’

It’s coincidental in that it happens to accurately and efficiently (your terms, which I like) match up with what we find to be good typically. But, it is arbitrary as a definition. I’m interested to see you pursue this line of thinking.

Richard Wein [responding to cl]: It can’t. That’s nothing like what the word “good” actually means. Luke is taking a claim about which desires are good, and pretending it’s a definition of what it means for something to be good. Luke picks it as his definition so that his claim will follow effortlessly. But of course it just makes the claim into a tautology. It’s circular reasoning.

Well said.

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Michael April 6, 2010 at 9:27 am

My question is where do moral intuitions come from and why could they be trusted? I’e never found the moral argument for God compelling, but what I find interesting is how Judeo-Christian values have so heavily influenced our world, including moral intuitions. When we rely on our intuitions, they seem to tell us that other humans have some intrinsic value and that we should act in a way that considers them. This is interesting, as it seems to be the grounding even for somewhat relativistic moral theories, since the “good” of others is desired in some way.

In this sense, I must agree with Justin Martyr, in that there seems to be no reason that all should rationally desire to not thwart others desires, especially not that this is necessarily good. What if everybody apart from you desired to kill you? Would it be “good” for you to surrender your desire to live in order to fulfill their desire? Luke, I think that it would be wrong to kill you even if that is what everybody but you desired. I think that as a human, you have rights(that in my belief are due to the concept of imago dei, but I tend to grant it apart from this idea as well, since it seems to be accepted by most people, though not all) that no matter what any number of people want, cannot/should not be taken away. Life being one of these. And I think your initial intuition is to agree with me, that it would be wrong in that case, even given those circumstances, though on desirism, it is just fine, and is actually good since it fulfills more desires than it thwarts. Even if we apply utility to the situation, what happens if the utility gained by killing you outweighs even all of the utility that you would have gained during your lifetime?

I think there are many more examples that one can come up with in which a majority desire something that is usually considered wrong, yet would be right on desirism, making desirism implausible as a way of describing ethics if our moral intuitions can be right.

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drj April 6, 2010 at 9:43 am

I think there are many more examples that one can come up with in which a majority desire something that is usually considered wrong, yet would be right on desirism, making desirism implausible as a way of describing ethics if our moral intuitions can be right.

You have made a common mistake here, and one I made in the beginning too. Desirism does not care about the number of instances of a desire in its moral calculation, it cares about the desire itself, and its relation to other desires. Murder thwarts more desires than it fulfils – it thwarts the same amount of desires in the case that a million people desire to murder one individual, or in the case that a single individual wants to murder another individual.

If you consider the range of all possible desires as a set, what desirism cares about is each element’s relation to the other elements in the set – not the number of individual instantiations of the elements of that set, versus others.

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Richard Wein April 6, 2010 at 9:56 am

Bachelors are unmarried men. Unmarried men are unmarried men. Oh noes, circularity! Anyone who believes in bachelor theory has made a rookie mistake!

That’s not analogous to what Luke’s done. What you’ve given is a genuine definition, not a theory. “Bachelor” really does mean “unmarried man”. What Luke has given is a moral theory (claim) masquerading as a definition.

You can’t make a claim true just by calling it a definition. Suppose I claim (falsely) that “bouyant objects are ones that are denser than water”. When challenged to justify that claim I say instead, “it’s not a claim, it’s a definition of the word bouyant”. That’s analogous to what Luke’s done.

I admit it’s not a “circular argument” in the strict sense, where the conclusion is contained in a premise. In this case the conclusion is contained in a pseudo-definition.

Even if I make the true claim that “bouyant objects are ones that are less dense than water”, it’s still a claim and not a definition. Objects are bouyant because they’re less dense than water. Bouyant doesn’t mean less dense than water.

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drj April 6, 2010 at 10:38 am

That’s not analogous to what Luke’s done. What you’ve given is a genuine definition, not a theory. “Bachelor” really does mean “unmarried man”. What Luke has given is a moral theory (claim) masquerading as a definition.

Well, from what I understand of desirism, I think the desirist would claim that it actually is offering a genuine definition of the term. Or an attempt at one, at any rate.

Like most moral theories, desirism offers a proposal for the definition of good, one that its proponents believe is coherent. Every moral theory is ‘circular’ in the exact same way you seem to suggest desirism is (at least the ones that claim to be objective, in some sense), so it seems a little unreasonable to take desirism to task for doing what is basically required for any moral theory to get off the ground.

For example, your criticism would just as well be applicable to many theist moral theories. For example, any theistic moral theory that defines good as ‘God’s commands’ or ‘God’s nature’ is certainly ‘circular’ in the same way.

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Michael April 6, 2010 at 11:46 am

If you consider the range of all possible desires as a set, what desirism cares about is each element’s relation to the other elements in the set – not the number of individual instantiations of the elements of that set, versus others. 

What does this mean? What is a desire’s relation to another desire? I understand that if my desire is to drink a coke with you, and your desire is to drink a coke with me(or pepsi if you prefer), then our desires match up. I get that this isn’t the best analogy, as it seems to be more amoral than anything, but the point is that agreeing desires is “desired.” But some desires conflict, like if I want to live and you want me to die. To kill me is to thwart my desire to live, though on the other hand, for me to live is to thwart your desire for me to die. This is how these desires relate. But this does not seem to tell us which one is right.

Desirism does not care about the number of instances of a desire in its moral calculation, it cares about the desire itself, and its relation to other desires.

Then on what ground do we evaluate desires if not by number? Do we posit utility? Though this is what desirism wishes to eliminate. But hypothetically, surely it is possible that someone may not enjoy much in life, and have a very low utility for all things, and another person who would very much enjoy killing this other person. If the utility that the killer receives outweighs that that would have been received otherwise by the victim, is it “good?” Or are we evaluating desires on something else? Is life being taken away in general a “thwarting” even if the desire to live in general is not strong? If so, why is this?

Desirism wants to evaluate the morality of desires, at least that is how I understand it. What desires are “good” or “desirable” or not. But how do we determine this if we don’t apply some sort of consequence of the desires to judge the desires. One could posit that the desire to rape a child is not bad in itself if it is not fulfilled, but bad if fulfilled. But now we have posited the action. I’m not sure how we can separate the two. Fyfe likes the example of torturing children. So let’s go with that. Is there a reason to desire the desire of torturing children? Well, how do we assess whether something is desirable? What if the desire to torture children, even if never fulfilled, brings about a happiness to the one with such a desire? Would that make it good? If not, why not? So when is it “good” to torture children? Can one say “never,” or does that imply intrinsic value? What if the child desires to be raped for some reason? Then two desires are fulfilled, so is it good then? What if torturing a child fulfilled stronger desires than it thwarted? Would it be good then? I think intuitions say surely not. So we remain stuck at how to decide what desires are good?

It does not seem that what makes a desire good is because desirism says it is, but rather desirism calls a desire good because it is good. It seems that the “good” of desirism depends on the situation that the desire is had in, and depending on this it is good or bad. So in the right situation, murder or torturing a child could possibly be good. But then we have some sort of relativism(which I do think desirism is in a way anyway), in which an act that intuition and everything else says is evil or bad could somehow be good. Now this is indeed where many moral theories struggle, when they are applied to certain situations. Desirism is fairly solid in theory, but given real circumstances, seems to lock and and the proponent becomes unsure of how to apply the theory.

So where do we go? Is it still a form of utilitarianism and do we think of the greatest good in terms of desires? We are then back to what makes a good desire, and it is the good of the desire that makes it good, but then what is the good that makes the desire good? It seems circular. So let’s assume that this is not the case. It seems we need to posit some “good” apart from the desires as to be able to categorize them as good or bad, so that we are not relativistic.

Please don”t taken any of this as demeaning. It is all in good humour, meant to make one consider the basis for the theory. I would truly love to hear a solid answer to my questions, and may even adopt it to some degree if that happens.

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm

BTW,

I’m not responding re: desirism because I tire of repeating myself, and because I would rather develop a precise defense of desirism so that you have something to critique that is less confusing than what I’ve written so far.

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Though I will say this: I wish people would stop accusing me of giving a theory ‘masquerading’ as a definition, or other such tactics. I am extremely explicit about how I deal with moral definitions; I’m not being dishonest at all in my presentation. All moral theories depend on definitions, as do all other types of theories. You can’t have a theory of atomic nuclei until you define atomic nuclei. The difference is that moral terms are used by ordinary people in a wide variety of ways, whereas the term ‘atomic nuclei’ is not. But the variety of uses of moral terms need not lead us to something like Don Loeb’s moral incoherentism. A variety of definitions does not mean the concept of morality is incoherent, just varied. We use the term ‘love’ in many ways, too, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have objectively true theories about love, as long as we specify which definition of ‘love’ we’re working with.

I think we should choose moral theories the same way we choose ANY theory. A successful theory should:

(1) Generally refer to what people mean when they use the terms of the theory. But it need not be spot-on. For example, we kept using the term ‘atom’ after we discovered that everyone was wrong in their use of the term and atoms are not, in fact, indivisible. I think desirism’s definitions for moral terms are quite compatible with people’s ordinary use of moral terms, and in fact are more general than definitions offered by competing theories, like Kantian ethics or preference utilitarianism or divine command theory. According to desirism, moral value is defined (roughly) as a universal consideration of reasons for action. That’s not too objectionable, I think. Moreover, this definition results in a coherent account of many things that are considered part of our ordinary moral discourse: things like the 3-category breakdown of moral assessment (obligated, permitted, forbidden), mens rea, moral dilemmas, and more.

(2) Make only true claims of fact. Here, too, I think desirism succeeds. Its claims are fewer and less controversial than the claims of fact entailed by many other theories, especially something like Kantian ethics or divine command theory. Of course these claims may still turn out to be true, for example if desires do not exist.

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Justin Martyr April 6, 2010 at 1:22 pm

I believe there’s more than one right tree to bark up. Sure, it’s easy for the desirist to just say “fulfills other desires” = “good”, but that doesn’t make their definition meaningful such that it can ground their theory.

Well, let’s think about it this way. Suppose an atheist said he defended objective ethics. He defined good = Biblical morality. In that case I would completely agree with him that his definition of good is successful. The question is: why should an atheist follow biblical morality? Why should they sacrifice their self-interest for the greater good?

Here is another way of putting it. Create a set of all desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Call that set D, for desirism. Then create another set of our everyday moral intuitions such as ‘murder is wrong’ and ‘stealing is wrong’. Call this set I, for moral intuitions. If set D and set I are the same, then desirism has created a successful definition of good.

(of course, Luke rejects common sense moral intuitions, but that is only because he (1) is not familiar with the literature of behavioral economics and the prosocial foundations of cooperation, and (2) has an inconsistent treatment of moral intuitions. He does lean on his moral intuition that genocide is bad)

Of course, another fatal flaw of desirism is that it relies on interpersonal comparisons of utility, but that is impossible to do unless there is an independent way of measuring desires (e.g. perhaps with PET scans). But then the lack of interpersonal comparisons of utility never stopped utilitarians, so I guess that there is no reason why desirists can’t also champion an inconsistent system.

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Justin Martyr April 6, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Hi Luke,

I’m still waiting for you to answer “Why be moral?” Why should people take “turn the knobs” as normative when the power of praise, punishment, and reward lies with an oppressive and powerful group?

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lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Justin,

I’ve answered that so many times I won’t do it again.

Really, I don’t plan to write much more in defense of desirism until I have time to write a systematic presentation and defense of it. So I’m afraid you won’t have much fun criticizing the theory for a while. :)

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Justin Martyr April 6, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Hi Luke,

Last time I asked you why “turn the knobs” should be taken as normative (or if it is actually in the self-interest of a powerful group), you refused to answer the question, but promised a forthcoming entry in the FAQ. If you have done so, I’d love to see a link. Kip and Faithlessgod attempted to answer the 900 racists challenge, but you did not answer.

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Richard Wein April 7, 2010 at 2:40 am

Luke, I’ve never meant to imply that you are knowingly using a misleading definition. I’m certain that you’re not, and I’ll be more careful to make that clear in future.

However your definition of morally good desires doesn’t just fail to be “spot on”. It is nothing like what people mean by “morally good”. On the other hand it is just like a moral claim about what kind of desires are morally good (apart from the fact that you call it a definition).

According to desirism, moral value is defined (roughly) as a universal consideration of reasons for action. That’s not too objectionable, I think.

Well, that’s in the right ball park. But it’s completely different from your proposed definition of morally good desires, which defines morally good desires to be those which tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart. That definition says nothing at all about reasons. With that definition the maker of a moral claim would not be indicating any sense that anyone has any obligation to promote such a desire.

In earlier discussion with me you claimed that “murder is wrong” means “there are reasons (for action that exist) not to commit murder”. At the time I had difficulty putting my finger on what was wrong with that definition. Now I see that the problem is that it fails to make clear whether these reasons are internal or external to the person who might commit the action. (Moral reasons are external, in the sense that they are not about achieving the subject’s own ends. If we were only talking about internal reasons, we would be giving advice, not making a moral claim.) But at least you were right in saying that moral claims are claims about reasons. However, your definition of morally good desires says nothing about reasons.

To be self-consistent you should define morally good desires as those desires which there are reasons to promote (or something of that sort). Then you would have to show how you get from there to the moral claim that desires which fulfill more desires than they thwart are morally good. It may appear to follow obviously, but that’s because you’re lumping everyone in together and failing to make clear whose reasons you’re talking about (i.e. whether they are internal or external to the person who is supposed to be promoting the desires). And then you fall at the same hurdle as every other moral realist theory: it’s impossible to justify to someone that he has a reason to do something, unless it’s based on telling him how to achieve his own ends. You could cause someone to have a reason to do something by changing his ends (desires) through non-rational means, such as praise and condemnation (which is what you talk about elsewhere). You could even influence his ends (desires) by making a moral claim. Moral claims do have an effect on people. But that only shows that moral claims are effective, not that they’re true.

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cl April 7, 2010 at 8:04 am

drj,

Criticizing the desirist definition of ‘good desire’ misses the mark.

I disagree. A workable definition of ‘good desire’ is a must for any sound moral theory, IMO.

Bachelors are unmarried men. Unmarried men are unmarried men.

Correct, but the analogy doesn’t hold: all bachelors are unmarried men. Not all “desires that tend to fulfill other desires” are what the average person would call good.

Every moral theory is ‘circular’ in the exact same way you seem to suggest desirism is (at least the ones that claim to be objective, in some sense), so it seems a little unreasonable to take desirism to task for doing what is basically required for any moral theory to get off the ground.

There might be some truth to that. It’s a thought I’ve returned to more than once in these considerations.

Thomas Reid,

It’s coincidental in that it happens to accurately and efficiently (your terms, which I like) match up with what we find to be good typically. But, it is arbitrary as a definition.

This highlights the “prescriptive / descriptive gap” Luke alludes to in CPD005, around 7:00, which Fyfe claims doesn’t exist.

Michael,

When we rely on our intuitions, they seem to tell us that other humans have some intrinsic value and that we should act in a way that considers them.

The funny thing is, desirists (Fyfe, at least) deny intrinsic value, yet – just as you say – their efforts always seem to revolve around the [largely unspoken] idea that people have intrinsic value, such that we should care.

One could posit that the desire to rape a child is not bad in itself if it is not fulfilled, but bad if fulfilled. But now we have posited the action. I’m not sure how we can separate the two. Fyfe likes the example of torturing children. So let’s go with that. Is there a reason to desire the desire of torturing children? Well, how do we assess whether something is desirable? What if the desire to torture children, even if never fulfilled, brings about a happiness to the one with such a desire? Would that make it good? If not, why not? So when is it “good” to torture children? Can one say “never,” or does that imply intrinsic value? What if the child desires to be raped for some reason? Then two desires are fulfilled, so is it good then? What if torturing a child fulfilled stronger desires than it thwarted? Would it be good then? I think intuitions say surely not. So we remain stuck at how to decide what desires are good?

Excellent questions, IMHO. I’ve asked desirists some of these exact questions (specifically, “when is it permissible to torture children?”). I think answers to questions like these would greatly assist folks like us.

Luke,

I’m not responding re: desirism because I tire of repeating myself, and because I would rather develop a precise defense of desirism so that you have something to critique that is less confusing than what I’ve written so far.

I think that’s both wise and respectful of your guests. When people start repeating themselves, that is often a sign that things need time. We’ve all been there, methinks. For what it’s worth, I’m waiting for your answer to the 1000 sadists problem. I’ve heard other answers (from Fyfe, faithlessgod, etc.) but so far they fail to ‘click’ for me. In the meantime, I’ll provide a concise statement of why I think those rebuttals fail. Then, you can assess that and decide for yourself whether I’m simply another voice in the chorus of misunderstanding, or if my objections actually constitute new ground.

I would also like to hear arguments for desirism that don’t allude to the generic ‘we’. Fyfe continually uses the phrase “we have reasons for action..” but this presumes all the agents referred to share Fyfe’s beginning assumptions.

I wish people would stop accusing me of giving a theory ‘masquerading’ as a definition, or other such tactics. I am extremely explicit about how I deal with moral definitions; I’m not being dishonest at all in my presentation.

Though I didn’t like the whole “Creationists are evil” tirade you and Fyfe went on a few months back, for the record, I’m not amongst your accusers. I just want to be sure I’m understanding desirism as its propenents understand it. Else, I can’t offer valid criticism. Point is, I haven’t seen any indication of a dishonest bone in your body.

Although, I do have one request that shouldn’t cost much for you:

I’m still waiting for you to answer “Why be moral?” Why should people take “turn the knobs” as normative when the power of praise, punishment, and reward lies with an oppressive and powerful group? (Justin Martyr)

I’ve answered that so many times I won’t do it again. (Luke)

Could you point us to a link or two, either from yourself, Fyfe, or both?

Richard Wein,

However your definition of morally good desires doesn’t just fail to be “spot on”. It is nothing like what people mean by “morally good”.

Though I’m no fan of desirism’s definition of ‘good’ I have to disagree with you there. I think if you evaluate your own daily routine, and ask yourself why you make any particular choice, you will find that most all choices you make share the common denominator of desire fulfillment. Why did you go to work today? Why did you take the particular path to work that you took? Etc.

On the other hand it is just like a moral claim about what kind of desires are morally good..

I agree there; that’s the part I’m getting hung up on, too.

To be self-consistent you should define morally good desires as those desires which there are reasons to promote (or something of that sort).

The problem is, Nazis came up with all sorts of reasons for action when considering the desire to exterminate the Jews, and presumably, they were convinced that those desires were good.

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faithlessgod April 8, 2010 at 3:09 am

Justin Martyr

I see that you haven’t yet realized that desirism is a descriptive theory of ethics, and thus suffers from all the fatal flaws of every other descriptive theory of ethics: the best way to fulfill your desires is to oppress others.
1. Of course it is a descriptive theory, all ethical theories at a minimum must be descriptive. However it is also a normative theory since it is false to tacitly imply that being a descriptive theory prevents it being a normative theory.

2. Your conclusion over descriptive theories is a non sequitur and incoherent. This is because a theory when just considered as a descriptive theory does not make any recommendations on how to best fulfil desires, if it did it would not be in virtue of it being a descriptive theory but a normative theory!

Desirism is not a social contract theory (nor a rational choice theory) it provides criticisms of both.

Ethics is the study of the institution of morality namely the employment of the social forces of praise and blame, reward and punishment and a key part of this study is to establish the grounds for blame and praise, what is blameworthy and praiseworthy. So your criticism that “‘well, the rest of society will use praise, punishment, and condemnation’. But that doesn’t work when you are talking about oppression by a powerful group, perhaps and ethnic majority.” is utterly confused. Any other realist and normative theory evaluates the employment of praise and blame in any institution of morality, otherwise they are not a realist and normative theory! The complaint that this is a problem is nonsense.

Your say ” Why should he change his beliefs such that his own desires change in order to accommodate the rest of society. That explanation cannot be provided.” This is more absurdity. Desirism is formulated to exactly explain how this is done as is any realist and normative theory. It requires no special fictional and fantastical elements only what we already know is most likely true in cognitive, social and philosophical psychology. It does more with less than any other moral theory in tackling this question than any other approach I have seen.

You say “Oppression can only be justified with false beliefs about the inferiority of other groups.”
That is broadly correct. Elimination of such false beliefs and the acceptance of such pseudo-justifications such as “my god says so” would go a long way in removing such oppression. The promotion of theistic-based morality only serves to further and legitimise such oppression, as religious groups are doing in the UK creating exemptions from the Equalities Bill.

The end of you first post then performs a category error since the debate in ethics is not over atheism versus theism. Many theists past and present reject a theistic-based morality of your type, and many non-theistic-based have been developed or supported by theists.

Finally if you are genuinely concerned about moral issues and seek to find objective grounds for moral facts and judgements, given the wide and diverse logical and evidential failings of theistic-based morality, surely these are reasons to drop such an incoherent non-candidate and seek at least coherent as well as better approaches?

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Richard Wein April 8, 2010 at 3:15 am

cl:

Though I’m no fan of desirism’s definition of ‘good’ I have to disagree with you there. I think if you evaluate your own daily routine, and ask yourself why you make any particular choice, you will find that most all choices you make share the common denominator of desire fulfillment. Why did you go to work today? Why did you take the particular path to work that you took? Etc

Yes, but those are not moral questions. I repeat what I wrote above: with Luke’s definition of a morally good desire the maker of a moral claim would not be indicating any sense that anyone has any obligation to promote such a desire. That sense of obligation is the essence of a moral claim, and it’s entirely lacking from Luke’s “definition”.

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faithlessgod April 8, 2010 at 3:15 am

cl and Thomas Reid

Just given my last comment, I now have something that I agree with Justin Martyr over when he says: “Hiya CJ and Thomas Reid,I think you are barking up the wrong tree. It is easy for desirists to define good. I think their definition of good is congruent with our ordinary moral intuitions”
Clearly I still argue that Martyr’s other criticisms are wrong-headed however he has not persisted, as you two still appear to be doing, in treating desirism as act utilitarianism, whilst both theories are consequentialist, but only the latter is really utilitarian. As long as you persist in doing so, you are arguing against straw men.

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faithlessgod April 8, 2010 at 3:25 am

CL

“Sure, it’s easy for the desirist to just say “fulfills other desires” = “good”, but that doesn’t make their definition meaningful such that it can ground their theory.”
You have this quite upside down. Any realist and normative theory seeks to examine the “territory” of which different cultural usages of moral-speak are “maps” some that better describe the territory and others worse. So moral-speak is redundant once you examine the territory, it then becomes a task to show how maps relate to the territory, how the usage of moral-terms affects the territory.

Desirism is not grounded in any such definitions and any theory that is is mistaking the map for the territory.

Any moral theory also has to provide a revised definition of “good” etc, and Desirism provides the most practical and robust definitions to describe the actual usage of such terms that I have seen to date.

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Justin Martyr April 8, 2010 at 5:57 am

Hiya Faithless,

Your post makes the “no false beliefs” defense of desirism, but I already refuted that in my opening post. But let’s go back through it again.

Ethics is the study of the institution of morality namely the employment of the social forces of praise and blame, reward and punishment and a key part of this study is to establish the grounds for blame and praise, what is blameworthy and praiseworthy. So your criticism that “‘well, the rest of society will use praise, punishment, and condemnation’. But that doesn’t work when you are talking about oppression by a powerful group, perhaps and ethnic majority.” is utterly confused. Any other realist and normative theory evaluates the employment of praise and blame in any institution of morality, otherwise they are not a realist and normative theory! The complaint that this is a problem is nonsense.

I agree that theists have to use praise, punishment, and reward too. But you are neglecting the role of beliefs in formulating desires. We do have a normative duty to hold our beliefs rationally. On theistic morality, the belief that other people are fair game for oppression is a false belief. On atheistic morality, it is a purely subjective belief that people are free to accept or reject at their pleasure.


You say “Oppression can only be justified with false beliefs about the inferiority of other groups.” That is broadly correct. Elimination of such false beliefs and the acceptance of such pseudo-justifications such as “my god says so” would go a long way in removing such oppression.

Wrong. Evolution is the universal acid, remember. Even if reason is slave to our passions, our passions come from evolution. The contemporary understanding of the level of selection debate in evolution is that it happens at multiple levels. At the level of the individual it is rational to exploit other individuals. At the level of groups, it is rational for one group to exploit other groups. Gencodide is rational. Steven Pinker explains in The Blank Slate (p. 259)

Group selection, in any case, does not deserve its feel good reputation. Whether or not it endowed us with generosity towards the members of our group, it would certainly have endowed us with a hatred of the members of other groups, because it favors whatever traits lead one group to prevail over its rivals. (Recall that group selection was the version of Darwinism that got twisted into Nazism.) … As Williams put it, “To claim that [group selection] is morally superior to natural selection at the level of competing individuals would imply, in its human application, that systemic genocide is morally superior to random murder.”

I already forestalled the “false beliefs” defense in my first comment in the thread:

Desires may then take refuge in the “false beliefs” defense. Oppression can only be justified with false beliefs about the inferiority of other groups. But this neglects the Homo economicus reasoning you would find among the New Atheist Man. It would work something like this:

Atheist 1: We’ve had a history of reciprocal interaction that has allowed us to build up a certain amount of trust and social capital.
Atheist 2: Yup.
Atheist 1: So let’s use that to our advantage. Let’s team up and kill that other group of people over there and take their women.
Atheist 2: Ok.

Of course, I suspect in reality that even this little dialogue would be impossible because if atheists truly accepted the rational consequences of their beleifs, then the prosocial foundations of human cooperation would collapse. Thus the vast majority of atheists will always subscribe to some for of moral realism as their replacement for God.

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cl April 8, 2010 at 7:12 am

Richard Wein,

Yes, but those are not moral questions.

Instead of debate that, I’ll just rephrase my comment: why didn’t you beat any of your family members to death this week? Why haven’t you dranken a 750 of Jack and gotten 12 hookers? Is it “just because” you think those things are “wrong?” Or, is it also because those desires would tend to thwart more other desires than they would fulfill (both your own, and others’)? If the latter, then Luke’s definition isn’t a total miss.

I repeat what I wrote above: with Luke’s definition of a morally good desire the maker of a moral claim would not be indicating any sense that anyone has any obligation to promote such a desire. That sense of obligation is the essence of a moral claim, and it’s entirely lacking from Luke’s “definition”.

And, I repeat what I wrote above: I agree.

faithlessgod,

..you two still appear to be doing, in treating desirism as act utilitarianism, whilst both theories are consequentialist, but only the latter is really utilitarian. As long as you persist in doing so, you are arguing against straw men.

While I can’t speak for Reid, I am not evaluating acts. I am evaluating desires, and their relation to other desires. IOW, desirism. Accordingly, the burden of production falls back to you, and assertions won’t cut the mustard.

Justin Martyr,

Sorry, I couldn’t resist:

..if atheists truly accepted the rational consequences of their beleifs, then the prosocial foundations of human cooperation would collapse.

That’s not nice! I hope you get a thorough spanking for that slippery-sloper; you deserve it. ;)

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Thomas Reid April 8, 2010 at 8:26 am

faithlessgod,
You wrote, to myself and cl:

Clearly I still argue that Martyr’s other criticisms are wrong-headed however he has not persisted, as you two still appear to be doing, in treating desirism as act utilitarianism, whilst both theories are consequentialist, but only the latter is really utilitarian. As long as you persist in doing so, you are arguing against straw men

Nonsense, I’m not treating them like acts. The end of our dialogue back at cl’s place should be utterly clear in that regard. Why do you think I pressed so hard to understand the ontology of the desire-types? It’s because I want to understand what it is the desirist claims he is evaluating!

Drop the point-scoring routine, it embarrasses everyone else on your behalf and doesn’t move the conversation forward an inch. Lighten up.

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faithlessgod April 8, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Thomas Reid

The desirist analysis of situations you have posited is simple. You must by now have seen numerous variations on the same theme all to show how the analysis works whether type/tokens, general/particular, overall/instance, turning knobs, presence/absence and so on.

There is a simple test to see if you have this not difficult analysis, do you now recognise that the desire to torture and the desire to exterminate a minority (or majority) are grossly desire-thwarting. If you do then we could have a fun and potentially fruitful discussion, if not then you are a waste of time.

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faithlessgod April 8, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Justin Martyr

There is no “no false beliefs” defence of desirism. Usually if someone tries to justify desire-thwarting desires, they have no resort but to use false belief since there is typically no rational and empirical justification for this otherwise. These are just the facts. By all means this a provisional conclusion and there are obvious exceptions such as new knowledge not available in the past but these are all based on “ought” implies “can”. Apart from those what else is there?

Now, and this is interesting, you appear to be arguing that beliefs motivate, that motivation is cognitive that there are reason for action that are not desires. If so what actually is your evidence and argument that this is the case?

Then you spoil it all by persisting with and completely failing to address the category error, morality is not about atheists versus theist when you say:

“On theistic morality, the belief that other people are fair game for oppression is a false belief. On atheistic morality, it is a purely subjective belief that people are free to accept or reject at their pleasure.”
This is utter rubbish and totally confused. For example, on certain versions of theistic morality, other people are fair game for oppression – non-believers, apostates and homosexuals for example. There is no rational justification for such beliefs and they are based unsound and false beliefs, but most definitely not “on theistic morality” grounds. Theistic morality only provides a subjective beliefs which theists through history have been free to accept or reject at their pleasure.

As for “atheistic morality” whatever that means I can only read this intelligibly to mean any non-theistic morality, well then there are many approaches which reject any such subjectivism as your theistic morality or other forms of subjectivism so your conclusion regarding this is a non sequitur.

Your evolution arguments are quite irrelevant, evolutionary based morality suffers some similar (but fewer) flaws to theistic morality. Both are rejected by desirism as well as many other moral realists (desire-based theories or otherwise)

You then bizarrely finish with “Of course, I suspect in reality that even this little dialogue would be impossible because if atheists truly accepted the rational consequences of their beleifs, then the prosocial foundations of human cooperation would collapse. Thus the vast majority of atheists will always subscribe to some for of moral realism as their replacement for God.”
There is no need for a moral realism to replace God, since using God as the basis for a moral realism is incoherent.

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faithlessgod April 8, 2010 at 2:21 pm

CL

“While I can’t speak for Reid, I am not evaluating acts. I am evaluating desires, and their relation to other desires. IOW, desirism. Accordingly, the burden of production falls back to you, and assertions won’t cut the mustard.”
Good hear that you claim the same as Thomas Reid. However, forgive me if I am somewhat dubious of this claim. So ask the same of you as of Thomas Reid, namely to prove it.

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Justin Martyr April 8, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Hiya Faithless,

(note: this quote is taken out of order, but it fits best for my response)
Your evolution arguments are quite irrelevant, evolutionary based morality suffers some similar (but fewer) flaws to theistic morality. Both are rejected by desirism as well as many other moral realists (desire-based theories or otherwise)

I am not taking evolution as a normative basis for morality. Rather, I am making the factual claim that evolution is a source of desires. In particular, evolution is the source of the desires for wealth, power, social status, and women. Do you agree or disagree?

Usually if someone tries to justify desire-thwarting desires, they have no resort but to use false belief since there is typically no rational and empirical justification for this otherwise. These are just the facts.

That is false. You have the misguided idea that the only way to justify oppression is “God wants me to kill them” or perhaps even “they are genetically inferior so I can kill them.” Those beliefs are false, and thus oppression on that basis would be irrational. I agree with you on that. But we have our evolutionary based desires for wealth, power, social status and women. That is another reason enough to oppress others, and it is not based on false beliefs.

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Thomas Reid April 8, 2010 at 6:15 pm

faithlessgod,
You wrote:

There is a simple test to see if you have this not difficult analysis, do you now recognise that the desire to torture and the desire to exterminate a minority (or majority) are grossly desire-thwarting.

Yes, I see that. But of course I’ve never disputed that and never contested whether or not a desirist could claim that. The issue is, how does one show that it is a bad desire, right? You claim that we do this by analyzing just what is common between the token brain states “exterminate a minority”. Then, we determine how this desire would fulfill or thwart other elements of commonality between other brain states. We do this without consideration of the distribution or strength of any particular brain states. And, I think you still claim that if the desire overall tends to thwart more than fulfill other desires, then it is a bad desire.

But truthfully I’m still trying to figure out what all that means. First, I very much doubt that a desire is merely a brain state. Second, if it is, how could a brain state be bad or good in the first place? Third, I can’t see how a desire tends to thwart or fulfill other desires in the absence of action. Yet, simply having a desire is not sufficient for causing action. So we either need to evaluate more than desires or show why we shouldn’t evaluate beliefs as well. Fourth, it seems that the fulfillment or thwarting of other desires very much depends on the strength of those as well as the strength of the one under question, so we should consider strength. Fifth, it also seems that the fulfillment or thwarting actually does depend on distribution, because different people respond differently to the same desire.

I know that evaluating desire-types, instead of the sum of desire-tokens, is supposed to avoid the “exterminate the minority” objection, but it seems to me that it does so at the cost of obscuring just what these desire-types are. I speculate it moves the desirist into the realm of intuitions and intrinsic goods and evils, while trying to dress up such intuitions in empiricist language. But I haven’t thought it through enough to really press this point. Anyway, those are my questions right now. I’m still not sure what these desire-types are supposed to be, so I’m holding off on writing up any formal objections.

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faithlessgod April 9, 2010 at 5:20 am

Justin Martyr

AFAICS the source of desires is irrelevant. Clearly the capacity for having desires and beliefs is due to our evolved brains. And whatever desires one does have is a result one’s unique biological and cultural history. The issue in morality is not the source but the target of desires.

“But we have our evolutionary based desires for wealth, power, social status and women. That is another reason enough to oppress others, and it is not based on false beliefs”
Regardless of their source, desires are not beliefs. Whatever the desires one has that one uses to suppress others, when asked to justify them, one uses beliefs. However I have not seen any argument (in general I mean, nothing specific to our conversation) that does not employ formal or informal fallacious inferences to provide beliefs in support of such desires, this is what I mean by false beliefs here. Desires give people a reason to employ such fallacious reasoning, they might be prudentially rational to do so, but it is still fallacious reasoning, that is theoretical rationality can conflict with prudential rationality and often does here. (For example argument from tradition, argument from status quo and argument from majority are the three most common I have seen.)

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faithlessgod April 9, 2010 at 5:56 am

Thomas Reid

You claim that we do this by analyzing just what is common between the token brain states “exterminate a minority”.
I don’t know why you are labouring over this point of types and token. Whatever, type/token, general/particular, overall/instance, invariant/variant theses are just description how to do an empirical analysis. I will read the rest your comment with this latter sense.

A desire is specified by its conditions of fulfilment. Here the desire’s conditions of fulfilment is when the proposition “minority X is exterminated” is true in an actual state of the world.

Then, we determine how this desire would fulfill or thwart other elements of commonality between other brain states.
We are seeking invariants – what is in common – across particulars – what varies from case to case.

We do this without consideration of the distribution or strength of any particular brain states.
Specifically because particulars vary from case to case. There is no prior justification from selecting one case over others, to do otherwise is both arbitrary and a hasty generalisation.

And, I think you still claim that if the desire overall tends to thwart more than fulfill other desires, then it is a bad desire.
One step too far. The analysis is just meant to establish whether a desire is desire-thwarting or desire-fulfilling etc.

The argument of meaning is separate and is over what is the most applicable and consistent definition. Lets be clear over the analysis first.

When it comes to meaning a desire is “bad” in virtue of its tendency to thwart all other desires. More formally “morally bad” means “such as to thwart or tend to thwart all other desires”.

First, I very much doubt that a desire is merely a brain state.
What else could it be? I am merely following standard and orthodox philosophical and scientific views on this. When build a model, it is a measure of how good an explanation is that it relies upon the most accepted version of items required for the model, rather than to have to select more unorthodox variants.

Regardless this model relies on the fact that desires exist and, unless you are a eliminative materialist you would accept that, whether you think they are brain states or not. As long as you accept that desires exist the analysis follows.

Second, if it is, how could a brain state be bad or good in the first place?
They are not. Good and bad does not apply to brain states. A moral evaluation is not internal to a desire but external, not intrinsic but extrinsic.

Third, I can’t see how a desire tends to thwart or fulfill other desires in the absence of action.
Action is not excluded but included in the evaluation. If there is no action then there is no affect on other desires! The issue is not just one particular action. A desire under evaluation might lead to different actions in different circumstance, all of which lead to the fulfilment of that desire.

Yet, simply having a desire is not sufficient for causing action.
Of course. What is required for action is the formation of an intention which is at a minimum a combination of a belief and a desire. However when we are evaluating a desire it is a given that the desire is acted upon.

So we either need to evaluate more than desires or show why we shouldn’t evaluate beliefs as well.
Hopefully the above clears this up. Beliefs are evaluated with respect to desire, as to whether they help of hinder the fulfilment of the desire under question.

Fourth, it seems that the fulfillment or thwarting of other desires very much depends on the strength of those as well as the strength of the one under question, so we should consider strength.
The strength of a desire only counts when selecting that desire over alternatives, however in the analysis here it is granted that the desire under is being acted upon, so questions of strength are irrelevant.

Fifth, it also seems that the fulfillment or thwarting actually does depend on distribution, because different people respond differently to the same desire.
We are considering the desire-desire cause-effect relations. I am not sure what you mean by “respond differently to the same desire” in such a context. We look to see what the material and physical affects of causal desire has on the affected desires.

I know that evaluating desire-types, instead of the sum of desire-tokens, is supposed to avoid the “exterminate the minority” objection, but it seems to me that it does so at the cost of obscuring just what these desire-types are.
As already explained desire are persistent entities. These are not at all obscure, these are what desires are understood as in the ethical, philosophical and psychological literature. Maybe just think in terms of desires and their expressions. There is a one to many mapping. I think you are dwelling too much on the type/token distinction was just one of many pedagogical methods to enable you to do the pragmatic analysis.

I speculate it moves the desirist into the realm of intuitions and intrinsic goods and evils, while trying to dress up such intuitions in empiricist language.
There is no argument above and in my responses above that supports such speculation and much that specifically denies it, apart from the issue of intrinsically good or bad desires which is mistaken as the above should have made clear.

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Justin Martyr April 9, 2010 at 6:13 am

Hiya Faithless,

Whatever the desires one has that one uses to suppress others, when asked to justify them, one uses beliefs. However I have not seen any argument (in general I mean, nothing specific to our conversation) that does not employ formal or informal fallacious inferences to provide beliefs in support of such desires, this is what I mean by false beliefs here.

Agreed. But that’s only because most people really do believe in some sort of a higher power or moral realism. They have to find a way to justify their oppressive desires in a way that is consistent with their worldview, and that means adopting false beliefs. But if you don’t actually believe in moral realism then you don’t have to go through that song and dance. The non-moral realist has a much simpler calculation: I have a desire to oppress, so I will oppress.

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cl April 9, 2010 at 7:45 am

faithlessgod,

So ask the same of you as of Thomas Reid, namely to prove it.

Prove what? That I reject your claim? You’re the one making the positive claim that needs to be supported here, specifically, that the desire to torture and the desire to exterminate a minority (or majority) are grossly desire-thwarting. If you can explain why this is so in simple, clear language, I’m all ears.

Thomas Reid,

faithlessgod asked you,

..do you now recognise that the desire to torture and the desire to exterminate a minority (or majority) are grossly desire-thwarting.

Could you give me a brief explanation of why you said “yes?”

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faithlessgod April 9, 2010 at 8:59 am

Cl

I have explained this myself in numerous places including in response to you in various threads. However the classic reference is Alonzo’s 1000 Sadists post.

I am not the one that is claiming that a desirist analysis supports torture or genocide as “good” desires, you are. I have repeatedly pointed out that such analysis as I have seen or has been implied by you is not a desirist conclusion, since, as should be clear, we know what the desirist conclusion is that such desires are massively desire-thwarting.

You have yet to provide a desirist analysis that leads to the conclusion you complain about. Where is it?

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Thomas Reid April 9, 2010 at 9:21 am

Hi cl,
You asked:

faithlessgod asked you,

..do you now recognise that the desire to torture and the desire to exterminate a minority (or majority) are grossly desire-thwarting.

Could you give me a brief explanation of why you said “yes?”

It seems obvious to me (and everyone probably) that extermination is grossly desire-thwarting, but not necessarily net desire thwarting. That’s pretty uncontroversial – it always has been in the context of the desirism conversation.

I think faithlessgod was a little obscure in his questioning. He can’t think that just because a desire thwarts say, another single desire, then that makes it a bad desire. We could come up with lots of counterexamples to prove that false (say the desire for justice thwarts the desire for robbing one’s neighbor, that doesn’t make the desire for justice a bad desire). No, it has to be more nuanced than that. It needs to be something akin to yours or TaiChi’s balance of desires, or indeed faithlessgod’s very own definition that he defended in my dialogue exchange with him: a bad desire would be one that overall tends to thwart rather than fulfill other desires. His question to me [above] may have been a little misleading in that regard.

But even with this more nuanced version, we must evaluate types, not tokens, otherwise the “Nazi example” could be formulated to still work. My admitted hang-up at this point is to try and figure out just what the thing is that we are evaluating. They can’t be abstract objects, because such things are characterized by causal inefficacy. But they can’t be merely brain states, because matter in motion isn’t moral by definition. This is part of why I think that the desirist is simply affirming what we already know to be good, and then pulling out a typical property of what we know to be good to use as a definition. This is similar to Mill’s utilitarianism or Kant’s categorical imperative: decent at first glance, but nevertheless inadequate.

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Justin Martyr April 9, 2010 at 9:40 am

He can’t think that just because a desire thwarts say, another single desire, then that makes it a bad desire. We could come up with lots of counterexamples to prove that false (say the desire for justice thwarts the desire for robbing one’s neighbor, that doesn’t make the desire for justice a bad desire). No, it has to be more nuanced than that.

Agreed, but I’m willing to accept that murder and oppression don’t demand such a nuanced analysis. However, in general I think that is correct, and it leads to a second fatal flaw of desirism: you need to make interpersonal comparisons of utility when the dials are turned down (or up). And that is impossible unless there is an independent method of measuring desires (e.g. a PET scan). But PET scans don’t work on preferences (desires), they work on more primitive features like pleasure. Thus preference utilitarianism and desirism fall. See chapters 1 and 4 of Theories of Distributive Justice by John Roemer.

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cl April 9, 2010 at 10:27 am

faithlessgod,

I am not the one that is claiming that a desirist analysis supports torture or genocide as “good” desires, you are.

So now you want to change the subject from your positive claim that you just made, to mine? Yes, I did make a positive claim similar to the one you attribute to me: since there is no intrinsic value, a desirist analysis can support any desire so long as that desire tends to fulfill more than thwart other desires. It’s that easy. Desires are ‘good’ or ‘evil’ insofar as they fulfill more than thwart or thwart more than fulfill other desires, respectively. Both hypothetical examples like the Nazi one and real-world examples like the Canaanites conclusively illustrate that there must be more to ‘good’ than ‘tends to fulfill more than thwart other desires.’

Now, I’m aware that you deny this; what I’m asking you is explain why. Demonstrate your own positive claim here, don’t point me off to references I’ve already read and responded to; it does no good. Fyfe’s analysis goes wrong the second he says, “in any society” because it’s not true that the desire to torture children tends to thwart more than fulfill other desires in any society. It is true that in any society with reasons to promote aversion to child torture, turning the knob up will tend to overall thwart more than fulfill other desires. However, if it can be the case that torturing children tends to fulfill more than thwart other desires, overall, then desirism (as articulated by its defenders thus far) must call this desire ‘good’.

But let’s get back to your positive claim: if this is so easy, as you allege, it shouldn’t take more than a concise paragraph or two to defend your claim that the desires to torture children and exterminate a minority are grossly desire-thwarting.

Make it ‘click’ for me and I’ll become a full-fledged desirist, too.

Thomas Reid,

I hate to be picky, but none of that really helps me understand why you said yes. You just kind of implied that faithlessgod’s claim should be self-evident. It is self-evident to me that a desirist analysis according to the values of our current society would always return an evaluation of ‘evil’ with regard to the desire to torture children. It is not self-evident to me how a desirist analysis according to the Canaanites’ value system would return anything other than an evaluation of ‘good’ with regard to child torture, because in their society, “passing children through the fire” tended to fulfill more than thwart other desires.

What I think I need to see here is an actual evaluation, i.e. something with numbers. After all, desirism is objective in that sense, so let’s take the Nazi example as our starting point. Let’s say we have 1000 Nazis and 10 Jews. We have two general desire-types here: the Nazis’ desire to exterminate a minority, and the Jews’ desire to live free. We have 1000 tokens of the first type, and 10 tokens of the second type. A simple analysis would say extermination fulfills more desires than it thwarts, but that evaluation is superficial in that it 1) evaluates only tokens, and 2) occurs in a vacuum whereas real-world evaluations depend on all other desires.

I’m not interested in tokens here. How is the Nazis’ desire to exterminate 10 Jews “grossly desire-thwarting?” What “other desires” would the Nazis’ desire tend to thwart? What “other desires” would it tend to fulfill?

Those are the types of questions I need answers to before this thing can ‘click’.

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faithlessgod April 9, 2010 at 10:40 am

Thomas Reid

Just follow the link I gave to cl

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faithlessgod April 9, 2010 at 10:44 am

Justin Martyr

There are no interpersonal comparisons of utility since fulfilment is not a utility – it the name of a relation between desires and states of affairs.

There are no PET scans required since it is the material and physical affects of a causal desire on other desires material and physical fulfilment that is the issue as far as morality is concerned.

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Thomas Reid April 9, 2010 at 10:50 am

cl,
Sorry if I wasn’t clear. You wrote:

I hate to be picky, but none of that really helps me understand why you said yes. You just kind of implied that faithlessgod’s claim should be self-evident. It is self-evident to me that a desirist analysis according to the values of our current society would always return an evaluation of ‘evil’ with regard to the desire to torture children.

I agree with you here.

It is not self-evident to me how a desirist analysis according to the Canaanites’ value system would return anything other than an evaluation of ‘good’ with regard to child torture, because in their society, “passing children through the fire” tended to fulfill more than thwart other desires.

I agree with you here as well, simply because I don’t know what it means to evaluate types within the desirist framework. I know the desirist would want to say that we don’t evaluate desires according to individual societies, perhaps because there is an assumed causal relationship, no matter how tenuous, of desire fulfillment/thwarting across societies.

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faithlessgod April 9, 2010 at 10:56 am

cl

I will say this for a final time and will not repeat this again.

My version of the analysis: We need to evaluate the desire to torture (or exterminate etc.) some group. We compare the presence of the desire to its absence.

If it is present and fulfilled what is this causal desire’s material and physical affects on other desires? The other desires are those that are affected by making the target of the causal desire true, that is to bring about any state of affairs where the proposition expressed by the causal desire is made true. These are the affected desires. What is the affect on them? The desire not be tortured or not to feel pain or an aversion to torture or pain is directly thwarted. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not thwarted. Therefore it is a directly desire-thwarting desire. Simples!

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Thomas Reid April 9, 2010 at 11:24 am

Come now faithlessgod, it has to be more than this. You say:

My version of the analysis: We need to evaluate the desire to torture (or exterminate etc.) some group. We compare the presence of the desire to its absence…

The desire not be tortured or not to feel pain or an aversion to torture or pain is directly thwarted – and these are the affected desires. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not thwarted. Therefore it is a directly desire-thwarting desire. Simples!

Alright, here’s my version:
We need to evaluate the desire to torture. We need to compare the presence of the desire to its absence. The desire to torture or inflict pain is directly fulfilled. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not fulfilled. Therefore it is a directly desire-fulfilling desire. Simples!

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Thomas Reid April 9, 2010 at 11:41 am

Argh, edit the above:

“We need to evaluate the desire to be tortured.”

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faithlessgod April 9, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Thomas Reid

That is not the desire being evaluated.

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Justin Martyr April 9, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Hiya Faithless,

fulfilment is not a utility – it the name of a relation between desires and states of affairs.

That is also what preference satisfaction is. It is a relation between preferences and states of affairs. If you have a preference that P, and the state of affairs that P is brought about, then that preference is satisfied. Desirists talk about fulfilling “the most and strongest of your desires”, but that is technically incoherent since you can’t maximize two things at once. You need a way to compare two small desires with one big desire. That’s what rational choice theory does with utility. In a hypothetical case, it might say that satisfying preferences A and B gives more utility than satisfying preference C.

Desirism needs to make interpersonal comparisons of utility when it applies the “turn the knobs” technique. That’s because, with the (possible) exception of oppression and killing, no desire is purely desire-fulfilling or purely desire-thwarting. So yes, good desires tend to fulfill more desires than they thwart, but you need a way to score that. That means that desirists need to make interpersonal comparisons of utility. And that is what is impossible to do.

P.S. I know that you are defending yourself on many fronts here, so I understand if you drop the thread, but if you have time, I would appreciate it if you would continue with my main line of objection to desirism (that evolutionary-based desires giving a rational basis for the desire to oppress. No false belief needed).

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Justin Martyr April 9, 2010 at 12:14 pm

We need to evaluate the desire to torture. We need to compare the presence of the desire to its absence. The desire to torture or inflict pain is directly fulfilled. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not fulfilled. Therefore it is a directly desire-fulfilling desire.

But that is not the desirist definition. Take the whole list of desires that people have. For the sake of simplicity let’s say that people have 26 desires, A to Z. Let’s take desires B to Z as fixed and unchanging. Now “turn the knobs up” on A. Does that fulfill the most and strongest of desires A to Z for all the people in society? Now “turn the knobs down” on A. Does that fulfill the most and strongest? If turning the knobs up does best, then it is good. If turning the knobs down does best, then it is bad.

I wonder that you could construct a hypothetical world of sadistic child torturers and masochistic children and conclude that, in this world, sadism is good. But I don’t like using unrealistic hypotheticals in moral reasoning.

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Thomas Reid April 9, 2010 at 1:03 pm

faithlessgod,

That is not the desire being evaluated.

I know. But you’re not saying that we use different methods to evaluate different desires, are you? Or do you agree that the method you used above to evaluate the desire to torture is inadequate (or incorrect), since I used it to generate an obviously wrong result?

Justin Martyr,

But that is not the desirist definition.

The problem is I’ve received different “desirist” methods/definitions at various times.

I wonder that you could construct a hypothetical world of sadistic child torturers and masochistic children and conclude that, in this world, sadism is good. But I don’t like using unrealistic hypotheticals in moral reasoning.

I’m pretty confident thinking that the Aztec priests would have been even more emboldened had they thought that the children should be encouraged to have the desire to be sacrificed. My hypothetical above showed that, using faithlessgod’s method, and given certain inputs, the desire to be tortured/sacrificed could be construed as “good”. According to desirism, we should use praise and condemnation to promote good desires and suppress bad desires.

Furthermore, I like using “unrealistic” hypotheticals in moral reasoning, since most of us have been at one time or another surprised at what human beings are capable of doing and rationalizing. That is, sadly enough, it’s pretty hard to tell what is “unrealistic”.

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faithlessgod April 9, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Thomas Reid

“But you’re not saying that we use different methods to evaluate different desires, are you?
No, not at all
Or do you agree that the method you used above to evaluate the desire to torture is inadequate (or incorrect), since I used it to generate an
obviously wrong result?”

No, what you wrote just did not make sense. Try again.

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Thomas Reid April 9, 2010 at 5:20 pm

faithlessgod,
You wrote:

No, what you wrote just did not make sense. Try again.

Sure. Here’s your analysis for determining if a certain desire is a bad desire:

“We need to evaluate the desire to torture (or exterminate etc.) some group. We compare the presence of the desire to its absence…

The desire not be tortured or not to feel pain or an aversion to torture or pain is directly thwarted – and these are the affected desires. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not thwarted. Therefore it is a directly desire-thwarting desire.”

So according to you, because the desire to torture would thwart the desire not to be tortured (or not feel pain), then the desire to torture is a bad desire.

Using the same exact method, this time to determine a good desire:

We need to evaluate the desire to be tortured. We need to compare the presence of the desire to its absence. The desire to torture or inflict pain is directly fulfilled. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not fulfilled. Therefore it is a directly desire-fulfilling desire.

So, because the desire to be tortured would fulfill the desire to torture, the desire to be tortured is a good desire.

So there you go. My questions would be: Why did you consider just one affected desire in your example? Why didn’t you consider the desires it would fulfill? Why doesn’t the concept of “overall tending to thwart more than fulfill other desires” apply in your example?

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faithlessgod April 9, 2010 at 10:54 pm

Thomas Reid

I disagree with your analysis, I will now do it, keeping as close as possible to my other one.

My version of the analysis: We need to evaluate the desire to be tortured. We compare the presence of the desire to its absence.

If it is present and fulfilled what is this causal desire’s material and physical affects on other desires? The other desires are those that are affected by making the target of the causal desire true, that is to bring about any state of affairs where the proposition expressed by the causal desire is made true. These are the affected desires. What is the affect on them? The desire not to feel pain or an aversion to pain is directly thwarted. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not thwarted. Therefore it is a directly desire-thwarting desire.

There are a number of differences to the previous example but the most significant is that here the directly affected desires are only the desires of the agent holding the desire under evaluation – whereas in the previous example the directly affected desires are held by those other than the agent.

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faithlessgod April 10, 2010 at 1:26 am

Justina Martyr

Preference Satisfaction is different to desire fulfilment.

First, preferences are not desires per se but a lexical order of desires.

Second I agree satisfaction/frustration is a utility as is pain/pleasure and happiness/misery and so on. However fulfilment/thwartment is not a utility, since these are just relations between states of the brain – desires – and other states of the world.

To expand, unlike any of those utilities these relations are external to brain states. By contrast any utility can understood as desires/aversions to maximise certain states of affairs, where the states of affairs include internal brain states e.g. desire for pleasure/aversion to pain, the desire for happiness/aversion to misery and the desire for satisfaction/aversion to frustration.

That’s because, with the (possible) exception of oppression and killing, no desire is purely desire-fulfilling or purely desire-thwarting.
You are likely correct here but the rest of your reasoning does not follow, given my above points.

Still your point is interesting and worth expanding upon. The extreme examples we are examining are extreme for a specific reason – they are not only directly desire-thwarting but specifically in that it is built in to the conditions of fulfilment of the desire under evaluation that other desires must be thwarted – if those other desires are not thwarted then the desire under evaluation cannot be fulfilled. So these desires under evaluation are necessarily desire-thwarting – they are desire-thwarting by design if you will.

Of course that is why objections to desirism based on such extreme examples are absurd but what may be obvious to me, may not be to others and, at last, this dialogue between you, me and Reid – not yet cl – has become interesting and fruitful, at least for now.

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cl April 10, 2010 at 7:57 am

faithlessgod,

Your argument, verbatim in italics, my responses, in between:

We need to evaluate the desire to torture (or exterminate etc.) some group. We compare the presence of the desire to its absence.

This has been understood.

If it is present and fulfilled what is this causal desire’s material and physical affects on other desires?

This has been understood. I agree this question is valid in a desirist analysis, but your language opens up a non-trivial side issue. Note that “if it is present and fulfilled” denotes an hypothetical act, not a desire existing as-is. I can have the desire to exterminate or torture whomever I wish and no harm will be done to anyone so long as I don’t act on it. So the desire to exterminate / torture really isn’t other-desire-thwarting at all. You [unnecessarily] belabor the DFAU/DU distinction, but here you are evaluating an [hypothetical] act! If I was misunderstanding you, certainly, I’d hope you could see why, but enough with the side issue, let’s continue along with your argument.

The other desires are those that are affected by making the target of the causal desire true, that is to bring about any state of affairs where the proposition expressed by the causal desire is made true. These are the affected desires.

I agree that we are to evaluate desire(s) against the balance of [affected] desires. This has been understood.

What is the affect on them?

I agree that this is the appropriate question to ask in a desirist evaluation. However, you neglect to identify “them” such that a meaningful analysis can take place. You focus solely on the Jews’ desire when you need to consider the balance of all [affected] desires that exist. This is another point you’ve [unnecessarily] belabored and I’m at a loss to understand why you’re apparently not heeding your own advice in your own evaluation.

The desire not be tortured or not to feel pain or an aversion to torture or pain is directly thwarted. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not thwarted.

I understand the logic behind your attempt, but no: if this [causal] desire is absent, then the Jews’ affected desires are not thwarted. I agree with and have understood your method of evaluation for some time now. The problem this time around is that you define “affected desires” as “the desires of those harmed” and this skews your analysis. You don’t consider the Nazis’ desires at all. The Nazis have feelings and desires, too! Remember, in Cartesian’s original example it wasn’t just the desire to exterminate; mistreatment of the Jews sustained the Nazis’ entire economy and culture, such that turning the knob towards zero would thwart more desires than it fulfilled.

The problem had already been alluded to, which brings me to another side-issue, but one that’s pertinent: why don’t you provide clear answers to certain questions? Thomas Reid asked you three direct questions, each of which is relevant here, and instead of answering them, you simply repeated the very same analysis you told me you wouldn’t repeat again. To echo Reid: Why did you consider just one affected desire in your example? Why didn’t you consider the desires it would fulfill? Why doesn’t the concept of “overall tending to thwart more than fulfill other desires” apply in your example?

Cartesian’s example aside, if the desire to exterminate was all we were evaluating, then: what if the Jews succumbed to despondency and decided they no longer had the will to live? Surely, exterminating them in such a case would fulfill all tokens of everyone’s desire-types, so it must be called ‘good’ if our only criteria for ‘good’ is ‘such as to fulfill more than thwart other desires.’

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Thomas Reid April 10, 2010 at 9:34 am

faithlessgod,
Thank you for providing your analysis of the desire not to be tortured. I must say I’m really puzzled as to why you are presenting a method here that doesn’t consider all desires and make some kind of “balance of desires” calculus. Anyway, in your summary, you say:

There are a number of differences to the previous example but the most significant is that here the directly affected desires are only the desires of the agent holding the desire under evaluation – whereas in the previous example the directly affected desires are held by those other than the agent.

faithlessgod’s analysis
In your example, you investigated a certain causal desire CD, a certain affected desire AD, and applied a certain method (I’ll call it desirist method “M”). By the application of M to CD and AD, you determined that CD (the desire to torture) was a bad desire. So in this instance, M yielded a correct answer. What is M again? As you have told us in this thread, it is a simple question of whether CD directly thwarts AD (in which case CD is “bad”) or directly fulfills AD (in which case CD is “good”).

So with your example, maybe we could argue for desirism this way:
CD = causal desire, the desire to torture
AD = affected desire, the desire not to be tortured or feel pain
1. If CD is bad, then M is true.
2. CD is bad (M tells us this, but we also knew this already).
3. Therefore, M is true.

Thomas Reid’s analysis
As my example showed, it is just as easy to apply M to a different set of desires CD’ and AD’ that are also causally related. But this time, M yields the incorrect answer as to whether or not CD’ (the desire to be tortured) is good or bad. In my example, method M says CD’ is good, but obviously CD’ is bad. Thus, I conclude that M is false.

So my example argues against M this way:
CD’ = causal desire, the desire to be tortured
AD’ = affected desire, the desire to torture or inflict pain
1. If M is true, then CD’ is good.
2. CD’ is bad (which we knew already).
3. Therefore, M is not true.

How did you respond? You don’t challenge my example, maybe because you reject the causal relationship between CD’ and AD’. Instead, you come up with a different example by picking out a different affected desire AD” (the desire of an agent not to feel pain) such that M will yield a correct answer regarding CD’. Why? Aside from the obvious problem of not engaging my example, that seems like a completely arbitrary thing to do from the desirist point of view. What I think is that, since you already knew the desire to be tortured is a bad desire, you cherry-picked a particular affected desire to make the equation work.

Conclusion
All you are doing with your example is relying on everyone’s intuition that CD (the desire to torture) is a bad desire to garner some respectability for method M, the desirist method. But we can clearly see that this method is either false or at least inadequate for making ethical decisions because it doesn’t work on other examples. So we should reject desirism as is, and either incorporate some kind of balance of desires equation (although I’m still skeptical that this could work), or give up on it altogether.

To sum it up: the desirist calculus (as you have presented it here) and the raw data of desires are insufficient to make ethical decisions.

Potential rebuttal
Let me also anticipate a rebuttal, which is this: no ethical theory can avoid dilemmas, so we shouldn’t toss desirism just because we come across a dilemma.

In response I’ll say that it seems moral dilemmas are characterized by not having enough knowledge to make the right decision, so my example (applying your method) pretty clearly is not a dilemma. The desire to be tortured is always and everywhere a bad desire, nowhere should it ever be promoted. In contrast, a moral dilemma is a case where it’s just not easy to see what the right decision is, although we are pretty sure there is one.

End of life issues come to mind as pretty good examples of moral dilemmas, as in: when is it OK to “pull the plug” on those in a vegetative state? Maybe it’s just not that easy to tell when someone is dead, or should be allowed to die, etc. So these decisions are dilemmas, and very difficult to resolve confidently.

I bring up this example not to get sidetracked, but only to anticipate a rebuttal that my example is some kind of “dilemma”. It clearly isn’t.

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cl April 10, 2010 at 10:16 am

faithlessgod,

If you respond to my last rebuttal, please ignore my final paragraph. I understand that when the desires of “extermination vs. non-extermination” are considered in a vacuum, turning the knob to zero would entail zero thwarted desires for all agents: obviously, no token of the [malleable] desire to live in peace would ever be thwarted if no token of the [malleable] desire to exterminate it exists, so turning the knob to zero – using condemnation to remove the desire to exterminate in the first place – always results in zero desires thwarted – when we consider the desire in a vacuum.

With you, I would prefer to continue with Cartesian’s original example, because it better reflects the fact that neither desires nor the fulfillment or thwarting thereof occur in a vacuum. To run the Nazi experiment as a simple issue of “extermination vs. non-extermination” is to build a strawman and lessen the experiment’s correspondence to real-world scenarios.

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cl April 10, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Justin Martyr,

I liked your summary, actually:

..let’s say that people have 26 desires, A to Z. Let’s take desires B to Z as fixed and unchanging. Now “turn the knobs up” on A. Does that fulfill the most and strongest of desires A to Z for all the people in society? Now “turn the knobs down” on A. Does that fulfill the most and strongest? If turning the knobs up does best, then it is good. If turning the knobs down does best, then it is bad.

To get just a little bit more specific, let’s say our 26 people represent a cross-section of “average Americans.”

Now, let’s take the desire to sacrifice children to Molech. Obviously, turning the knobs up will thwart more than fulfill other desires. After all, our agents represent a cross-section of average Americans, and I don’t know of any Americans that worship Molech, such that turning the knobs up might fulfill their desires. I do know that most children don’t want to be sacrificed, and I also know that the vast majority of Americans value the safety of children, so I know there are plenty of desires to be thwarted by turning the knobs up. Clearly, a desirist evaluation against the values of our 26 average Americans concludes that sacrificing children to Molech is an evil desire.

However, let’s evaluate the same desire – to sacrifice children to Molech – this time not against the values of our 26 average Americans, but the Canaanites. Obviously, the children’s desires are still going to be thwarted here, but the Canaanites valued gaining the favor of the Baalim and Baalot above all else. For the Canaanite who desires to please the gods, hook up with the temple prostitutes and participate in the religious traditions of his time, turning the knobs up will actually tend to fulfill more than thwart other desires, and besides, they can always make more babies another day. A desirist would seemingly have no choice but to call the Canaanite’s desire ‘good’ provided these conditions.

Lastly, let’s evaluate the desire for homosexuality, this time against the values of our 26 average Americans. That one should be easy. The more we turn the knob up, the closer we come to the extinction of our species – period. Since this would seemingly thwart more than fulfill all other desires, the desirist would seemingly have to conclude the desire for homosexuality is evil.

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faithlessgod April 11, 2010 at 6:43 am

Thomas Reid

The first mistake you made in your response was that you were jumping the gun. We are not trying to establish ethical semantics “good” and “bad” we are just doing the analysis first. Then, and only, then can be conclude with the ethical implications.

The second mistake was that it was not me that was not engaging with your counter-example but that you were failing to engage fully with the skeletal desirist framework that I showed you.

Compare your version to mine:

Thomas Reid:“We need to evaluate the desire to be tortured. We need to compare the presence of the desire to its absence. The desire to torture or inflict pain is directly fulfilled. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not fulfilled. Therefore it is a directly desire-fulfilling desire.
So, because the desire to be tortured would fulfill the desire to torture, the desire to be tortured is a good desire”.

Faithlessgod:“We need to evaluate the desire to be tortured. We compare the presence of the desire to its absence.
If it is present and fulfilled what is this causal desire’s material and physical affects on other desires? The other desires are those that are affected by making the target of the causal desire true, that is to bring about any state of affairs where the proposition expressed by the causal desire is made true. These are the affected desires. What is the affect on them? The desire not to feel pain or an aversion to pain is directly thwarted. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not thwarted. Therefore it is a directly desire-thwarting desire.”

Now note the differences. Why did you omitted the following lines?:
“If it is present and fulfilled what is this causal desire’s material and physical affects on other desires? The other desires are those that are affected by making the target of the causal desire true, that is to bring about any state of affairs where the proposition expressed by the causal desire is made true. These are the affected desires. What is the affect on them? ”
These are identical to the method I present to you in the desire to torture example. Yet you claim:

Thomas Reid:Using the same exact method, this time to determine a good desire:
This claim is false, when you clearly have not used the same exact method, otherwise you would have had no need to omit those lines.

Back to you

Now some notes:

You read something potentially differently to the way I intended, so here is a clarification to avoid future confusion. The aversion to torture (AT) is different to the aversion to pain (AP). The aversion to pain is a final or end desire, where as, usually, the aversion to torture is a intermediate or mean desire. AT is a means to AP (there are others but they are AFAIK not relevant here).

When it comes to considering all desires, the reason for this is to ensure one is not omitting any affected desires. The problem with not considering all desires, is that some affected desires are arbitrarily precluded from consideration. Still it is the affected desires that need to be considered, not desires that are unaffected, since they obviously make no difference.

Now there are other desires affecting the agent apart from an aversion to pain, such as being tortured thwarts other desires the agent could be fulfilling whilst they are being tortured and there are others too, but if you cannot even get the analysis right over the aversion to pain it won’t help to consider those. Hopefully we can and will once you properly engage with the desirist framework.
We are currently only looking at the directly affected desires, desires can be indirectly affected too and we can expand the analysis appropriately (which is why I called the above framework “skeletal”). However until you can demonstrate application of the analysis successfully to the directly affected desires – which you have not yet done – then such an expansion would only serve as distraction. I do hope to get there once we resolve your currently inept analysis over the desire to be tortured.

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faithlessgod April 11, 2010 at 7:04 am

cl

First I don’t remember Cartesian’s example and asked for it to be represented which you have not yet done.

Second it is unnecessary, emotionally biased and distasteful to keep referring to Nazis and Jews. Lets keep to an objective representation of the issues such as a desire to A, desire to B and so on.

Third the example being covered with Reid is less convoluted than I recall Cartesian’s (how it was I do not recall). Lets get that clear and then we can look at more complicated examples. So how about you engage with the example at hand, it certainly is not a straw man, as any theory should be able to analyse it.

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faithlessgod April 11, 2010 at 7:15 am

cl

Your complaint over “hypotheticals” is misplaced. We are concerned with creating a model of morality. Well any model is a non-accidental generalisation that supports counterfactuals. So of course we are considering “hypotheticals” that is reasoning with counterfactuals. To demand otherwise is silly.

It is not the case that when the “knob is turned to zero” that no desires are thwarted. It depends on the desire under evaluation. It can be that desires are thwarted. A desire for charity, or to not harm others when turned to zero will increase the thwarting of desires for example.

However for now I will stick to my presence/absence method to which the above answer also applies.

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faithlessgod April 11, 2010 at 7:22 am

Thomas Reid

There are more mistakes in you purported analysis of a desire to be tortured than I realised. The third line in my above quote of your analysis is completely mistaken.

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cl April 11, 2010 at 11:53 am

faithlessgod,

To Thomas Reid, you said,

When it comes to considering all desires, the reason for this is to ensure one is not omitting any affected desires.

Yet, in your own evaluation, you omitted the Nazis’ affected desires. Can you either explain this discrepancy, or re-run your evaluation according to your own criteria?

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faithlessgod April 11, 2010 at 2:25 pm

cl

Thomas Reid and I are not currently discussing Nazis. I am not interested with your obsession with them.

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cl April 11, 2010 at 2:53 pm

faithlessgod,

Thomas Reid and I are not currently discussing Nazis. I am not interested with your obsession with them.

I see. When you and Thomas Reid were discussing Nazis – less than 24 hours ago – why did you omit consideration of the Nazis’ affected desires, then proceed to tell Thomas Reid that we are to “consider all affected desires?” Can you either justify this special pleading or re-run your evaluation according to your own stated criteria?

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Thomas Reid April 11, 2010 at 5:53 pm

faithlessgod,
Thanks for your response. This will be a longish response, since it seems we have to retrace some ground to move forward. Regarding my counterexample, you said:

The first mistake you made in your response was that you were jumping the gun. We are not trying to establish ethical semantics “good” and “bad” we are just doing the analysis first. Then, and only, then can be conclude with the ethical implications. [faithlessgod]

Well, it sure seems to me like you were establishing a clear ethical implication regarding the desire for torture in our conversation here. Let’s revisit key points in this thread to build that case. cl asked you to defend your positive claim that torture is grossly desire-thwarting (and therefore bad, according to some purported desirist analysis). He wrote:

But let’s get back to your positive claim: if this is so easy, as you allege, it shouldn’t take more than a concise paragraph or two to defend your claim that the desires to torture children and exterminate a minority are grossly desire-thwarting. [cl]

In response to his challenge, you wrote cl the following:

I will say this for a final time and will not repeat this again.

My version of the analysis: We need to evaluate the desire to torture (or exterminate etc.) some group. We compare the presence of the desire to its absence.

If it is present and fulfilled what is this causal desire’s material and physical affects on other desires? The other desires are those that are affected by making the target of the causal desire true, that is to bring about any state of affairs where the proposition expressed by the causal desire is made true. These are the affected desires. What is the affect on them? The desire not be tortured or not to feel pain or an aversion to torture or pain is directly thwarted. If this causal desire is absent, then the affected desires are not thwarted. Therefore it is a directly desire-thwarting desire. Simples! [faithlessgod]

After that little exchange, I came up with a counterexample to disprove the ability of this method to correctly identify “good” or “evil” desires. But now you claim that this is never what you intended in the first place! I’m sorry, but that is just a little too unbelievable.

What did you expect us to take from your analysis? Were you simply trying to prove that the desire to torture is causally related to the desire not to be tortured or feel pain? Or maybe you were only trying to show that the desire to torture thwarts at least one other desire? Is that all? No one on this entire thread has disputed either of those points! Of course the desire to torture is causally related to, and thwarts, other desires – that has never been contested. And yet now you expect us to believe that your example was aimed at clearing up such a non-existent confusion on our part?

Why don’t you try again: give to us a desirist analysis, that is, a method we are supposed to use, that shows the desire to torture is an evil desire.

Let’s move on. The next problem you have with my implementation of your method is this:

The second mistake was that it was not me that was not engaging with your counter-example but that you were failing to engage fully with the skeletal desirist framework that I showed you. [faithlessgod]

And your evidence that I didn’t engage your skeletal framework? You think it’s because I didn’t quote the following portion of your analysis:

If it [the causal desire] is present and fulfilled what is this causal desire’s material and physical affects on other desires? The other desires are those that are affected by making the target of the causal desire true, that is to bring about any state of affairs where the proposition expressed by the causal desire is made true. These are the affected desires. What is the affect on them? [faithlessgod]

I didn’t quote the above because I granted the entirety of it for the sake of discussion. I didn’t include it because I wasn’t going to dispute it, and because it wasn’t necessary to come up with my counterexample. Come on, this is to what your position has devolved?

I repeat: I used the exact same method you provided (for the sake of discussion I fully grant to you every iota of your proposed method) to come up with a counterexample that showed a known bad desire (the desire to be tortured) was directly desire-fulfilling. Now, what do you say of your method? Is it or is it not sufficient for determining what are good and evil desires? If it is true that we have to consider all affected desires, as you maintain elsewhere, what is the equation for considering all desires?

I’m sorry to have to repeat all this. But it seems necessary because you just aren’t being clear on what is sufficient to show what a desirist would consider an evil and good desire. Please, give us the method, the calculus, we are supposed to use.

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faithlessgod April 11, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Hi Thomas

I wish this could go faster but it is not me that it is slowing it down.

Where we are at is trying to establish the direct affect on desires of two distinct but related cases. We have no achieved that yet.

Then we could look at indirectly affected desires but until you get the directly affected cases right there is no point.

Once they are both done then we could look at the relation between that and moral language.

We seem to be clear on the directly affected desires of the “desire to torture” – at least for where we are now. However you have failed to provide a desirist analysis of a “desire to be tortured” as I have demonstrated. Just saying you have when I have shown otherwise and then not even attempting to criticise the analysis and instead just assert it produces an opposite result to the analysis offered is not productive and fruitful.

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faithlessgod April 11, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Thomas Reid

I am not interested cl’s unhealthy obsession with Nazis. If you think he raises any good arguments then you can repeat them in trying to further the debate.

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cl April 12, 2010 at 12:46 am

Hilarious:

We seem to be clear on the directly affected desires of the “desire to torture” (faithlessgod, to Reid)

How in the world can you say that, when Reid and myself have both asked you to justify your own failure to consider the affected desires of the Nazis?

Why have you now twice alleged an “obsession” with Nazis on my behalf, when in fact I’ve given several non-Nazi examples (Canaanites, homosexuals, etc.) that you haven’t addressed?

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cl April 12, 2010 at 1:12 am

More hilarity:

I wish this could go faster but it is not me that it is slowing it down.

How am I slowing this down? All I did was ask you to justify your positive claim. When discrepancies were revealed in your attempt, you gave up and went back into accusation mode.

You’re right about one thing, though: you’ve not slowed this down; you brought it to a grinding halt when you refused to explain why you omitted the Nazis’ affected desires from your evaluation.

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Thomas Reid April 12, 2010 at 3:19 am

Hi faithlessgod,

I’ll repeat what I said in my last comment: please give us the method, the calculus, we are supposed to use that shows the desire to torture is an evil desire. Lest I be accused again of insufficient quoting, here again is the entirety of your recent comments to me:

You write:

Hi Thomas

I wish this could go faster but it is not me that it is slowing it down.

Where we are at is trying to establish the direct affect on desires of two distinct but related cases. We have no achieved that yet.

I doubt I could have been more explicit in showing exactly how I reproduced your method. Please re-read my last two comments to clear up any confusion.

Then we could look at indirectly affected desires but until you get the directly affected cases right there is no point.

You gave us a case where a bad desire directly-thwarted another, and in turn I gave you one back where a bad desire directly-fulfilled another. Without special pleading, show us how my example is not one of directly affected desires.

Once they are both done then we could look at the relation between that and moral language.

We seem to be clear on the directly affected desires of the “desire to torture” – at least for where we are now. However you have failed to provide a desirist analysis of a “desire to be tortured” as I have demonstrated. Just saying you have when I have shown otherwise and then not even attempting to criticise the analysis and instead just assert it produces an opposite result to the analysis offered is not productive and fruitful.

So, you don’t offer a desirist analysis, and then accuse me of not using one. Do you think that constitutes validation of your position?

I’m just about done with this non-conversation. Once more: please give us the method, the calculus, we are supposed to use to show that the desire to torture is an evil desire. For the sake of moving the conversation along, I’ll grant that there could be directly affected desires, indirectly affected desires, potential desires, and the like.

Finally you write:

Thomas Reid

I am not interested cl’s unhealthy obsession with Nazis. If you think he raises any good arguments then you can repeat them in trying to further the debate.

Whatever. I’ve plenty of other, more productive things I could be doing rather than playing whac-a-mole with you. Please stop doing this.

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faithlessgod April 12, 2010 at 4:50 am

Thomas Reid

“So, you don’t offer a desirist analysis, and then accuse me of not using one. Do you think that constitutes validation of your position?”
This is such a blatant contradiction of the facts I will let the lurkers in this thread come to their own conclusion, rather than call a spade a spade.

You are right, I’ve plenty of other, more productive things I could be doing rather than playing whac-a-mole with you. Please stop doing this.

I have no need to engage with racists, so will ignore cl’s further diatribes. Clearly you can take a horse to water, but you cant make it drink.

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Thomas Reid April 12, 2010 at 5:22 am

Hi faithlessgod,

You wrote:

This is such a blatant contradiction of the facts I will let the lurkers in this thread come to their own conclusion, rather than call a spade a spade.

Alright, that sounds fine.

You are right, I’ve plenty of other, more productive things I could be doing rather than playing whac-a-mole with you. Please stop doing this.

Ah yes, again you choose to parrot people when it becomes too difficult to converse with them. Come on, that is playground-style argumentation, why do you still use this tactic?

I have no need to engage with racists, so will ignore cl’s further diatribes.

Shame. That is a fantastic, baseless, caustic, and completely false accusation.

That’s all for me here.

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Justin Martyr April 12, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Hiya Faithless,


Preference Satisfaction is different to desire fulfilment. … First, preferences are not desires per se but a lexical order of desires.

I do not think that is correct, but I went to some texts and could not find a conclusive definition. But my sense is that rational choice theory has separate terms for preference relations versus the underlying preferences. For example, in his text Game Theory Evolving Herb Gintis writes “A preference ordering on A is a binary relation with the following three properties, which must hold for all x; y; z 2 A” (available here. That suggests that it is an ordering over preferences, which are the primitive. I am willing to concede that my definition is wrong, but my sense is that preference orderings and preferences are used separately.

In any case, the point is incidental …

You are likely correct here [that there are few "purely" desire thwarting desires] but the rest of your reasoning does not follow, given my above points.

I would like for you to expand on your point. My objection is fairly simple, which is that if desirism is going to meaningfully talk about “tends to be desire fulfilling” or “tends to be desire thwarting” then it needs to score this. For a concrete case, suppose we apply the turn the knobs technique and find that a desire tends to fulfill what we intuitively take to be one big desire, but thwards two relatively trivial desires. How do we know whether this desires tends to be desire fulfilling or thwarting?

We could impose a preference relation over desires and use utility. Or perhaps there is some other method?

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cl April 13, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Justin Martyr,

I’m curious to hear what you thought of the examples I gave about 25 or so comments back up in the thread. You had mentioned not liking examples based on unrealistic hypotheticals so I left a couple of real-world scenarios for your consideration.

..if desirism is going to meaningfully talk about “tends to be desire fulfilling” or “tends to be desire thwarting” then it needs to score this. For a concrete case, suppose we apply the turn the knobs technique and find that a desire tends to fulfill what we intuitively take to be one big desire, but thwards two relatively trivial desires. How do we know whether this desires tends to be desire fulfilling or thwarting?

I wholeheartedly agree, and had been thinking the same thing for some time now. Here’s my initial attempt: Proposed Method For Meaningful Evaluations In Desire Utilitarianism.

I believe there are several advantages to the hierarchy-of-desires concept, among them the abilities to proportionately quantify desire strength and generate empirical, mathematical results. My hypothesis is testable and predicts that if desirism’s definition of good is even fairly reliable, then our moral intuitions should agree with the numbers in the overwhelming majority of evaluations.

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Justin Martyr April 14, 2010 at 7:09 am

Hi Cl,

You mean the example of Canaanites sacrificing children? I did not think that it worked. Faithlessgod is resisting the idea that desirism needs utility to score the degree to which desires have been fulfilled, but I think it is necessary. If you “turn up the knobs” on child sacrifice then the Canaanite priests would gain a lot of utility from the sacrifice. The children would also gain utility since “turning the knobs” gives them the desire for child sacrifice. The rest of society would also gain utility. But by any reasonable interpretation of declining marginal utility, this gain would be dwarfed by the child’s desire for life and liberty.

E.g. fulfilling desire A for sacrifice would give everyone 100 utility. Thwarting desire B to be alive would cost the children a billion utility.

Of course, now that I think about it, what is the limit of “turning the knobs?” I’ve just assumed that turning up the knobs on the prevalence and intensity of child sacrifice would come to a stop at a reasonable point. But why wouldn’t you simply crank the knobs all the way up to infinity? How intensely do people hold their desires after the knobs have been cranked all the way up? It seems to me that desirists have to work this out or else all desires will be desires-fulfilling. Perhaps they already have?

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