The Definition of Morality

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 29, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

definition of morality

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

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One of the practical uses of desirism is that it can be used to better pin down a number of evaluative concepts – not just moral concepts. I showed this in my last post by using the theory to assess ‘health’ and ‘well-being’.

I had this question from a member of the studio audience.

I’ll restate my main quandary more succinctly: Is there a real meter prescribing which desires are the desires “in question” for deciding moral issues, or is this measure of relevance subjective?

The answer is: Neither.

There is no real measure prescribing which desires are the desires in question for deciding moral issues.

And an unreal measure – a ‘subjective’ measure in the sense in which the term is used above, is nothing more than a game of “let’s pretend”. A ‘subjective’ measure involves taking a measure and pretending that it is objective, while admitting that it is not.

I wish to provide a better answer to that question by going through a different concern also raised to that earlier post.

A reader presented three different ways in which an apple may be evaluated.

Alice: “That’s a good apple! Very tasty.”

Bob: “It might be tasty, but it’s been sprayed with chemicals that are bad for your health. Therefore, that’s a bad apple.”

Charlie: “Well a starving child in Africa wouldn’t care about that sort of thing, just that they have something to eat, so apples made with pesticides are still a good thing.”

This reader then made the observation:

So, we have three different opinions regarding whether the apple is good or not.

No, we do not have three different opinions regarding whether the apple is good or not.

I have noted that value is a relationship between states of affairs and desires. To explain this, I have drawn a comparison between value and another relational property – location.

You cannot give me the location of any object except by referring to another object.

If I were to tell you where I am as I write this, I cannot give that information without describing my location relative to some other thing. Furthermore, there is no “real measure” dictating the use of any particular reference. I could say, “I am on the bus,” or “I am five miles away from home, or “I am on Earth.” No “real measure” dictates the use of any of these things.

Yet, this fact does not threaten in any way the use of location statements in the hardest of sciences. The location of the Earth in the solar system cannot be given except in terms of a reference to some other thing. The fact that we talk most often about the location of the earth relative to the sun only happens because this is the relationship that interests us. There is no “real measure” that dictates that this is the “right answer” to the question of where the Earth is. Yet, this fact is not the slightest threat to the field of planetary science.

So, if we were to ask where the apples are, we might get three different answers.

Alice: “The apples are in my backpack”.

Bob: “The apples are on the back seat of my car.”

Charlie: “The apples are still in Denver.”

However, to then claim, We have three different opinions regarding where the apples are is false. In fact, one person can hold all three “opinions” without contradiction. The apples are, at the same time, in the backpack, on the back seat of Bob’s car, which is in Denver.

There is no problem here until somebody comes along and says that we must pick one of these as the correct relationship, and asks if there is a “real measure” dictating that the only correct location statement describes location relative to Bob’s car, and all others must be discarded as somehow illegitimate.

The problem rests with the false assumption being made by the person who asks this question that we must pick an answer as “the right” answer. The only way we can do this is by playing a game of make-believe. We make-believe that one answer is the right answer and we make-believe we have a standard for choosing it. However, since we are starting with a false premise – an act of make-believe, we cannot draw any sound conclusions.

The counter-charge to this would be that desirism picks relationships between malleable desires and all other desires as the right answer to moral questions. The person raising the objection simply wants to point out that there can be no “real measure” dictating this right answer – that the measure can only be subjective.

My response to that is to deny that attaching the term ‘moral’ in this way implies that these relationships are the correct relationships. I am simply attaching a name to a particular relationship, and I am choosing this term as the name to apply because it captures the bulk of how moral terms are used.

We native-english speakers have invented a number of terms, each of which is used to refer to set of relationships between states of affairs and desires that interest us. According to desirism, there are four criteria that can be used to distinguish among different terms.

(1) What are the objects of evaluation that are relevant in the evaluation?

(2) What are the “desires in question” for making that evaluation?

(3) Does the object of evaluation fulfill or thwart those desires?

(4) Does the object of evaluation fulfill or thwart those desires directly or indirectly?

I used this standard in discussing health, injury, and illness in my last posting. Health is a value-laden term. The object of evaluation for this term is the functioning of the mind (brain) and body. The desires in question are those of the agent whose mind or body we are evaluating. “Healthy” refers to functionings that fulfill desires, while “injury” and “illness” refer to functionings that thwart desires. Both direct and indirect relationships are relevant. A person can have a direct aversion to how a certain part of the body is functioning (pain), or it could thwart desires indirectly such as paralysis or blindness.

There is no “real measure” dictating that the term “health”, “injury” or “illness” refer to these relationships. Instead, as it turns out, we have an interest in talking about these relationships and this is the name we have given to them. Furthermore, I am not claiming that people have a conscious awareness that this is what these terms mean. I am claiming that this relationship best captures the way native English speakers tend to use these terms without appealing to fictitious entities.

I find it interesting to note that the difference between an “injury” and an “illness” is that the former is a bodily malfunction caused by factors easy for a primitive human to see and understand (e.g., being trampled by a mastodon), while the latter refers to malfunctions with no discernable cause (malaria, cancer).

I can give the same account of other value-laden terms, such as the term “useful.”

There is no limit to the objects or states of affairs that this term can be applied to. The “desires in question” in this case can vary. We usually have to pick up which desires are relevant by looking at the context in which the term ‘useful’ was used. “Useful” things are things that tend to fulfill other desires. Furthermore, useful things must fulfill those desires indirectly. Something that is useful can still fulfill desires directly, but that has no relevance to its usefulness.

Once again there is no “real measure” dictating that the term “useful” must necessarily refer to indirect desire-fulfillment. It is simply the case that our interest in this type of relationship was enough for us to give it a name, and we named it “usefulness”.

Another relationship that we have named is “beautiful”. This term refers to objects of evaluation that are seen or heard – but not to those that there touched, smelled, or tasted. It relates the object of evaluation to the desires of the perceiver and says that the object of evaluation directly fulfills the desires of the perceiver. This is not to say that a beautiful thing cannot be useful (an indirect fulfiller of desires), but it is not in virtue of its usefulness that it is beautiful.

Why limit the term “beautiful” only to that which is seen and heard? I cannot give a “real measure” that dictates this usage. All I can say is that the real-world relationship that best captures how the term ‘beautiful’ is used in fact is the direct fulfillment of desire by that which is seen or heard.

Finally, the same thing is true of “moral” in its various forms. The real-world relationship that makes the most sense of how the term is used one in which (1) the objects of evaluation are malleable desires – desires that can be molded through social forces, (2) the desires that are relevant in the evaluation are all desires, (3) that positive moral terms are to be applied to malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires while negative terms apply to malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires, and (4) both the direct and indirect fulfillment of other desires is relevant in the evaluation of malleable desires.

In making this claim, I am not saying that this is the correct relationship and that all other relationships that exist are incorrect relationship. That would be no more true than saying that Alice’s claim, “The apples are in my backpack” is the correct description of where the apples are and Bob’s and Charlie’s statements are incorrect.

I am saying that there are a whole lot of these relationships that exist in nature – that exist in the real world and can be studied – and we already seem to have names for some of them. Here’s a relationship that we seem to be calling “injury”, there is one that we seem to be calling “useful”, and over here we have a relationship that has an extremely close match with what we have traditionally called “a virtue”.

It is no different than saying, in chemistry, “This six-proton atom seems to fit what we have been calling carbon, that sixteen-proton atom fits pretty well with what traditional English speakers have been calling sulphur, and this substance H2O has a close fit to the traditional word water.”

I am not saying that, from the beginning of time, people who have used the term carbon have had the conscious thought that, “That is a 6-proton atom.” I am saying that if we look at lumps of six-proton atoms, we find that we have lumps of what people have traditionally called “carbon” . . . well, except that now that we know about 6-proton atoms we also now know that they make up what people have traditionally called “diamond.”

And, yes, we could have just as easily called the sixth element on the periodic table “diamond” instead of “carbon” and not changed a single fact about the world. The fact that there is no “real measure” dictating that 6-proton atoms be called “carbon” and that the choice to call it “carbon” rather than “diamond” is subjective has no relevance to the objectivity of chemistry.

So, back to the original question. Is there a “real measure” for selecting relationships between malleable desires and all other desires as “the correct relationships” between states of affairs and desires, or is this measure subjective?

The answer is: Neither. What I am saying is that if you look at the relationships between states of affairs and desires that we see in nature, some of them already appear to have names. Some are called “health”, others are called “useful” and relationships between malleable desires and all other desires seem to fit the traditional uses of moral terms. If you do not like giving those relationships these names, that is fine. Calling them something different will not change what they are. That will have as little effect on the theory as renaming 6-proton atoms would have to the field of chemistry.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 96 comments… read them below or add one }

Yair April 29, 2010 at 8:06 am

If desirism is to be a descriptive theory, then it is nothing but a rather simplistic anthropological theory. If desirism is to be a prescriptive theory, then you are committing the naturalistic fallacy. You’re no better off than Harris, you’ve simply replaced one arbitrary relation (“health”) with another (“tends to fulfill desires”).

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Charles April 29, 2010 at 8:24 am

Yair,

I think you’re missing something that’s key. In order for desirism to be prescriptive, you have to already have the desire, “I want to be good.”

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noen April 29, 2010 at 8:48 am

Charles
“In order for desirism to be prescriptive, you have to already have the desire, “I want to be good.””

What is the good here? How does desirism decide what an objective good might be? It seems to me that desirism must fail because it relies on an individual’s own subjective view of what is a good that one should desire. I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to live in a society where it is up to the individual alone to decide what constitutes an ultimate good.

I have only skimmed through the FAQ on desirism but I saw no objective method that would regulate individual desires and that is really what any moral system is going to have to do.

Nor does desirism acknowledge or replace the role of collective intentionality in the construction of social reality. Without doing that I don’t see how desirism gets you beyond the “morality” of a pack of wolves deciding what’s for lunch.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 9:56 am

I’m still waiting patiently for the desirist arguments that don’t allude to the generic “we” and that don’t include confusing moral speak.

A reader presented three different ways in which an apple may be evaluated.

Alice: “That’s a good apple! Very tasty.”

Bob: “It might be tasty, but it’s been sprayed with chemicals that are bad for your health. Therefore, that’s a bad apple.”

Charlie: “Well a starving child in Africa wouldn’t care about that sort of thing, just that they have something to eat, so apples made with pesticides are still a good thing.”

This reader then made the observation:

So, we have three different opinions regarding whether the apple is good or not.

No, we do not have three different opinions regarding whether the apple is good or not.

Interesting. That “reader” was Polymeron, whose full comment can be read here (April 21, 2010).

I object to Alonzo simply denying that we have three different opinions about the apple. By every sense in which everyday people use the word opinions, Polymeron’s statement is correct. If the goal is to use language to reflect what people generally mean by the terms, then Alonzo is not using language to reflect what people generally mean by the terms.

However, if the goal is simply to say something like, “the apple can be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on the desires in question,” I think that’s obvious, even tautological to the point of uselessness in discussions about morality, and certainly no help in clarifying desirism.

noen,

Without doing that I don’t see how desirism gets you beyond the “morality” of a pack of wolves deciding what’s for lunch.

I agree. The desirist might say something like, “We” should consider all the desires in question, but I put ‘we’ in scare quotes because by ‘we’ they really mean something like ‘all the other people who think like me.’

I’ll restate a sentiment that was not responded to in the last thread: desirism seems to proceed by the underlying assumption that we should all be peace-loving utopians who care about fulfilling more than thwarting everyone else’s desires, but if there is no intrinsic value as desirism also claims, then on what grounds does the desirist base such an assumption?

As I’ve heard it explained to date, desirism refutes itself by denying that which it needs to ground its own prescriptions.

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Alonzo Fyfe April 29, 2010 at 10:16 am

If desirism is to be a descriptive theory, then it is nothing but a rather simplistic anthropological theory. If desirism is to be a prescriptive theory, then you are committing the naturalistic fallacy. You’re no better off than Harris, you’ve simply replaced one arbitrary relation (”health”) with another (”tends to fulfill desires”).  (Quote)

I have dealth with the Naturalistic Fallacy before. There is no such fallacy. Hume’s argument for such a distinction is itself an example of the fallacy, “Argument from Ignorance.” G.E. Moore’s “Naturalistic Fallacy” is itself an example of the Masked Man Fallacy.

See Atheist Ethicist: The Naturalistic Fallacy

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Alonzo Fyfe April 29, 2010 at 10:32 am

I object to Alonzo simply denying that we have three different opinions about the apple. By every sense in which everyday people use the word opinions, Polymeron’s statement is correct. If the goal is to use language to reflect what people generally mean by the terms, then Alonzo is not using language to reflect what people generally mean by the terms.

You may object if you wish. However, the question is whether you have reason to object.

One of the rules of interpreting language is to look for an interpretation that allows the speaker’s comments to be true. The interpretation that I provide allows it to be the case that all three of them are making a true statement.

An interpretation can be offered that has all three people saying something that is, in fact, in conflict with what the others are saying. However, that interpretation would make all three statements false. The type of “good” that such an interpretation would require is one that does not exist in the real world.

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Charles April 29, 2010 at 10:46 am

Noen,

The single best explanation of desirism is Alonzo’s book. There is a summary here. If you haven’t got the $15, there is also his blog.

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Alonzo Fyfe April 29, 2010 at 11:26 am

I agree. The desirist might say something like, “We” should consider all the desires in question, but I put ‘we’ in scare quotes because by ‘we’ they really mean something like ‘all the other people who think like me.’ I’ll restate a sentiment that was not responded to in the last thread: desirism seems to proceed by the underlying assumption that we should all be peace-loving utopians who care about fulfilling more than thwarting everyone else’s desires, but if there is no intrinsic value as desirism also claims, then on what grounds does the desirist base such an assumption?As I’ve heard it explained to date, desirism refutes itself by denying that which it needs to ground its own prescriptions.  (Quote)

The desirist does not say “we should consider all the desires in question.”

In fact, the desirist would say that such this proposition is false. It is not the case that we should consider all desires. The only values that exist are relationships between states of affairs and desires. The only way that “we do consider all desires” can have value (to be a state that we should realize) is in virtue of it being the case that there is a universal desire to desire to consider all desires.

On that particular state, desirism holds that it is impossible. And because ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ (or ‘cannot’ implies ‘it is not the case that we ought’) it follows that it is not the case that we should consider all desires. We are not capable of doing so. And even if we could, doing so would take so much time and effort that this, too, would end up being desire-thwarting.

It is an example of the straw-man fallacy to throw something into a theory that the theory itself says cannot be justified, then assert, “Because your theory fails to justify that which I have added to it, the theory fails.”

The theory does not fail. It properly identifies those things that cannot be justified as things that cannot be justified – and explains why they cannot be justified.

Desirism states that, if a desire tends to fulfill other desires, then people with those other desires have reasons to act so as to promote the desire in question. If a desire tends to thwart other desires, then those with the other desires have reason to use social forces to inhibit the desires in question.

“We” and “people generally” are shorthand ways of identifying widespread (though not necessarily universal) desires.

People generally have reason to inhibit the number of people in society who would set them on fire. This is a true statement that anybody not looking to be a contrarian would readily assent to.

For those who hold that desirism requires the assumption We should consider all the desires, please provide an argument demonstrating that the proposition that desirism requires such an assumption is true.

I would hold that you cannot come up with such an argument. All you can do is make the assertion, and then criticize the theory on the basis of that false assumption.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 11:44 am

Alonzo,

You seem to be claiming that the three statements regarding the apple are not mutually-exclusive. If that’s the case, we agree, at least for the purposes of this discussion. If that’s not the case, please clarify.

However, the question is whether you have reason to object.

I do have reason to object, and that reason is that in my experience, the vast majority of people use the word opinion to mean something like, “an individual’s personal take on matters that may or may not necessarily hold for others.”

Would you say that such is a sufficient approximation of what everyday people mean when using the word opinion?

If yes, then, instead of encouraging suspicion by denying an obvious truth, might it be better to say something like, “although it is true that Alice, Bob and Charlie have three different opinions as to whether or not an apple is good, these opinions are not mutually exclusive and therefore do not obviate desirism’s definition of ‘good’ as stated?

If no, then can you provide what you feel is a sufficient approximation of what everyday people mean when using the word opinion, such that I can get behind your denial of Polymeron’s claim?

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Eneasz April 29, 2010 at 11:51 am

I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to live in a society where it is up to the individual alone to decide what constitutes an ultimate good.

I’m afraid you don’t have any choice in the matter, what you want doesn’t affect reality. Even if there was a magic “good field” that radiated from good acts that could be measured, and therefore ultimate good was decided by physics, individuals alone would still decide whether or not to do the “good” acts. And those decisions would be driven by their desires.

I’d even wager that over time they would create a new word for things that tend to fulfill their desires, regardless of if they have a “good field” or not, and that word would come to mean basically the same thing that English-speakers currently mean when they use the word “good”.

Then they’d probably get in long internet arguments over whether it’s acceptable for individuals alone to determine if things fulfill or thwart desires or if that must be a something that’s intrinsic to certain acts. And when someone points out that “good fields” are intrinsic to certain acts they’d look at them blankly and ask them “So what? Magnetic fields are intrinsic to certain materials, but that has no relationship to morality!”

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Alonzo Fyfe April 29, 2010 at 12:48 pm

A proposition containing the word “should” must fit into one of three categories.

(1) It relates an object of evaluation to some set of desires, where the desires provide reasons for action. Because these reasons for action exist these statements can be true.

(2) It is purely descriptive and makes no recommendation as to one option over another.

(3) It is false (because it claims to make a recommendation while referencing reasons for action that do not exist.

A ‘should’ statement can fit in both category 1 and category 3 at the same time. It can report a relationship between a state of affairs and desires that is not true.

An ‘opinion’, if it matters, is a belief state. If it is true that, “In Jim’s opinion, P”, then “Jim belies that P”. Of course, “In Jim’s opinion, P” is independent of whether P is true or false.

Any statement about whether the child should eat the apple either relates the state of eating the apple (or the consequences of that state) to some set of desires, or it is not meant to make a recommendation, or it makes a reference to reasons for action that do not exist.

Option 1 is the only option that allows all three statements to be true – in the same way the three statements about the location of the of the apples mentioned in the posting are true.

so, either all three statements are true in the way described in the article, or at least two of the statements are not to be taken as statements that recommend a course of action, or at least two of the statements are false because they make a reference to reasons for action that do not exist.

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noen April 29, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Charles:
“The single best explanation of desirism is Alonzo’s book. There is a summary here.”

“Read my book” is an unsatisfactory reply. If the author cannot defend his ideas in clear and simple phrases in answer to clear and simple questions then I see little reason to make the effort to pursue a philosophical dead end.

Here is my quandary in a nutshell:

Desires are subjective. Fyfe claims that he can derive objective morality from subjective psychological feelings. How is this done?

It’s a simple enough question that deserves a straightforward answer.

Eneasz:
“I’m afraid you don’t have any choice in the matter, what you want doesn’t affect reality. Even if there was a magic “good field” that radiated from good acts that could be measured, and therefore ultimate good was decided by physics, individuals alone would still decide whether or not to do the “good” acts. And those decisions would be driven by their desires.”

This is obviously false as my desires affect reality everyday. I have many desires and when I act on them I change reality to fit my desires.

I don’t know what this magical field is that you are talking about. I never mentioned anything like that. I would appreciate it if you restrained from putting words in my mouth.

“individuals alone would still decide whether or not to do the “good” acts. And those decisions would be driven by their desires.”

Yeah and markets are self-regulating too huh? The magic hand of the free market is a Glibertarian delusion and if you are claiming that there exists a similar magic hand of free market morality then you are just as deluded. If that is what is being described then my criticism stands. I do not wish to live in the hell-hole that free market morality would create any more than I wish to live in the economic wasteland that free market theories create.

I would really like a direct answer to my question. How does desirism get objective moral rules from subjective psychological desires?

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Alonzo Fyfe April 29, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Neon

Desires are subjective in the same way one’s height or hair color or blood pressure or blood-alcohol content are subjective. In short, they are real properties of the human body and can be spoken about as objectively and scientifically as any physical property in the field of medicine.

If desires did not exist as real entities in the real world, they would have no capacity to influence the motion of real objects in the real world, such as the rock one picks up or the chess piece one moves in a game.

If you are talking about something with the power to influence the motion of objects in the real world you had better be talking about something that is real and can be described objectively.

Yes, different people have different desires. Yet, it is also the case that different people have different blood pressure, height, weight, age, and blood alcohol content. Individual differences are not enough to justify a claim that the property is not objective.

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Eneasz April 29, 2010 at 1:56 pm

This is obviously false as my desires affect reality everyday. I have many desires and when I act on them I change reality to fit my desires.

Yes, I obviously (I hope) didn’t mean that you are completely powerless in all regards, but rather that a statement like “I wouldn’t want to live in a universe without my god” has absolutely no affect on whether or not the god exists. Your “not wanting to live in a world were individuals decide what is good” doesn’t change the fact that you do.

I don’t know what this magical field is that you are talking about. I never mentioned anything like that. I would appreciate it if you restrained from putting words in my mouth.

It was a hypothetical. Since you don’t think that people determine what is “good” you must think that something else does. Often this is claimed to be “intrinsic goodness”, which is what I used to demonstrate that even if something else does determine what is “good”, people would still decide to do what is “good” or not based on their desires, and not on whether the act contains “goodness” intrinsically. Feel free to substitute “What God Commands” or anything else you please in place of “intrinsic goodness”. The argument still stands.

The rest of your comment strikes me as a non-sequitur. Are you saying that individuals do not choose how to act? And that if they could choose how to act then the world would descend into chaos and hell? Do you not understand that every time you choose to NOT break the law you are making a choice?

I don’t see how this relates to economic theories, except for the trivial fact that such theories assume that people can make choices.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Alonzo,

This comment is in reply to your second comment to me.

It is an example of the straw-man fallacy to throw something into a theory that the theory itself says cannot be justified, then assert, “Because your theory fails to justify that which I have added to it, the theory fails.”

I agree, and would readily apologize, if I had asserted what you [seemingly] attribute to me, but I have not asserted any such thing. Through the use of double quotation marks, you have implicitly attributed a statement to me that I have neither made nor implied, neither in spirit nor letter. I do not argue that your theory “fails” – or succeeds for that matter – and I explain my official position here, in case you’re at all interested in mounting responses to my actual position as opposed to your own caricature of it [speaking of strawmen].

Nor have I “thrown” anything into the theory that it doesn’t say, at least AFAICS. You write,

It is not the case that we should consider all desires… For those who hold that desirism requires the assumption We should consider all the desires, please provide an argument demonstrating that the proposition that desirism requires such an assumption is true.

I don’t hold that assumption, and by omitting the words “in question” which were part of my original statement, you are awfully close to quote-mining me. The assumption I hold is that the desirist considers all the desires in question [prole], not “all desires” [archangel]. If, in any given evaluation, the desirist should not consider all the desires in question, then I apologize, and feel free to clarify.

You write,

People generally have reason to inhibit the number of people in society who would set them on fire. This is a true statement that anybody not looking to be a contrarian would readily assent to.

I agree, but you’ve concocted a “toy example” that is near-meaningless in its extremity.

How about, “People generally have reason to inhibit the number of middle-aged men that have sex with teen boys?” It’s not so cut-and-dry with that example, which, by the way, is not a “toy example” but one from the real world that applied ethics deals with. The Greeks had reasons to promote the desire for pederasty, reasons that dovetailed nicely into their underlying assumptions about what constituted a “good” life. On the other hand, contemporary Americans have reasons to inhibit the desire for pederasty, reasons that dovetail nicely into our underlying assumptions about what constitutes a “good” life.

If what you say about the apples is true – that all three statements can be simultaneously true – then it follows that both of these statements about pederasty can also be simultaneously true. Since there is no intrinsic value, the desire for pederasty can be either “good” or “bad,” depending on the underlying assumptions of the person(s) making the evaluation.

IMO, this is a problem for the desirist who wants the layperson to accept their theory, because the vast majority of laypeople I know aren’t going to agree that the middle-aged man’s desire to have sex with teen boys pederasty can be good.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Alonzo,

This is in reply to your third comment to me.

You write,

..either [1] all three statements are true in the way described in the article, or [2] at least two of the statements are not to be taken as statements that recommend a course of action, or [3] at least two of the statements are false because they make a reference to reasons for action that do not exist. (brackets mine)

..yet, I can’t help but wonder why you wrote that, because I opened my second comment by firmly placing myself in camp 1.

Again, I agree that all three statements are true in the way described in the article. The apple really is good to Alice, because it is tasty, and Alice’s underlying assumption is that tasty apples are good. The apple really is bad to Bob, because it is sprayed with chemicals, and Bob’s underlying assumption is that apples sprayed with chemicals are bad. The apple really is good to Charlie, because it helps a starving child, and Charlie’s underlying assumption is that a single apple provides an immediate supply of nutrients and relief from hunger that outweighs any [potential] damage from exposure to pesticides [presumably because the latter do their most vicious damage at the tail end of mass consumption, not isolated instances of ingestion].

I agree that all three statements are true in the way described in the article, for the same reason that the apples really can be “at the same time, in the backpack, on the back seat of Bob’s car, which is in Denver.”

I disagree with your claim that, “we do not have three different opinions regarding whether the apple is good or not,” on the logic that everyday people use the word opinion to mean something like, “an individual’s personal take on matters that may or may not necessarily hold for others,” and you yourself state that we ought to use the words the best reflect what “people generally” mean by them.

So, for the second time, would you say that mine is a sufficient approximation of what everyday people mean when using the word opinion? I have not found a clear, direct answer to that question. All you said was that an opinion is a “belief state,” but if that’s the case, then it is true that Alice, Bob and Charlie each have different belief states about the apple.

So, either there really are three different opinions regarding the apple and you should retract your denial of Polymeron’s claim – or – can you please give us a definition of opinion that justifies your denial of Polymeron’s claim?

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cl April 29, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Correction – the final paragraph from my comment two comments previous:

IMO, this is a problem for the desirist who wants the layperson to accept their theory, because the vast majority of laypeople I know aren’t going to agree that the middle-aged man’s desire to have sex with teen boys pederasty can be good.

..should read,

IMO, this is a problem for the desirist who wants the layperson to accept their theory, because the vast majority of laypeople I know aren’t going to agree that the middle-aged man’s desire to have sex with teen boys pederasty can be good.

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Charles April 29, 2010 at 2:44 pm

“Read my book” is an unsatisfactory reply.

Eh …. you asked me a question, to which I replied, “Read his book.”

Not the same thing.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Alonzo,

Desires are subjective in the same way one’s height or hair color or blood pressure or blood-alcohol content are subjective. In short, they are real properties of the human body and can be spoken about as objectively and scientifically as any physical property in the field of medicine. (Fyfe, to noen)

I agree, but what I want to know is how the desirist gets from that to the claim that, “the right act is the act the person with desires that are such as to fulfill the desires in question would perform.”

Remember, “good” simply means “such as to fulfill the desires in question,” which means that the above is a simple extrapolation from the definitions you provided. IOW, the statements,

the right act is the act the person with desires that are such as to fulfill the desires in question would perform,

&..

the right act is the act the person with good desires would perform,

..are categorically equivalent, because “good” is synonymous with “such as to fulfill the desires in question,” according to what you yourself wrote here, at the top of Section IV.

Unless of course I’m misunderstanding you.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Also, Alonzo, you write,

It is not the case that we should consider all desires

..yet, you also write,

Moral terms evaluate desires relative to all other desires that exist. (source, section V.B)

I don’t mean to be rude, but can’t you see how people might be confused?

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noen April 29, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Alonzo Fyfe

“Neon”

It’s noen please.

“Desires are subjective in the same way one’s height or hair color or blood pressure or blood-alcohol content are subjective. In short, they are real properties of the human body and can be spoken about as objectively and scientifically as any physical property in the field of medicine.

Well that is obviously wrong. My height is epistemically objective in that it isn’t up to me what my height should be. I cannot simply decide that I am 7ft. tall. However my desires are ontologically subjective because it really is up to me that I want the veal en croute rather than the Lark’s tongues in aspic.

What I am missing here is the distinction between those things that are observer relative vs those which are observer independent. It should be pretty obvious that my subjective desires, no matter how objectively instantiated in my mind, are very different than brute facts about the world.

I have been reading some of the desirism FAQ pages but do not yet see how this difficulty is over come.

——–

Eneasz
“a statement like “I wouldn’t want to live in a universe without my god” has absolutely no affect on whether or not the god exists.”

I would greatly appreciate it if you refrained from telling me what my beliefs are. Thanks.

“Your “not wanting to live in a world were individuals decide what is good” doesn’t change the fact that you do.”

Bald assertions are not facts. Your claim that we live in a world where only individuals decide what is good is something that you need to show and you’ve not done that. To counter your claim I would point out that institutional facts exist which are neither brute facts about the world nor subjective desires but in fact represent the collective intentionality of people that they be so. Money being a good example of how something can exist which is independent of my desires while also not being a bald fact which could exist without the human institutions needed to create it.

Your claim therefore is false.

“It was a hypothetical. Since you don’t think that people determine what is “good” you must think that something else does. Often this is claimed to be “intrinsic goodness””

Yeah well you guessed wrong then didn’t you? I understand though because it was based on the false assumption that there do not exist desire independent reasons for action. Human social institutions are able to create these desire independent reasons for action which is how, I believe, that we can avoid getting in bed with Nietzsche and his will to power.

“The rest of your comment strikes me as a non-sequitur. Are you saying that individuals do not choose how to act? And that if they could choose how to act then the world would descend into chaos and hell?”

I think that without some social institution(s) that can regulate our will to power that yes, we would descend into chaos. Just like the free market descended into chaos when restrictions on personal greed were removed, so too if one removes all inhibitions on my narrow self interest then society collapses.

Society depends on us submitting ourselves to something that is greater than we are. It need not be any god but there really does need to be a higher power or calling that we commit ourselves to or else society as such falls apart. I do not see the New Atheists offering anything to replace what they are tearing down and I think that is dangerous.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 3:45 pm

noen,

I think that without some social institution(s) that can regulate our will to power that yes, we would descend into chaos. Just like the free market descended into chaos when restrictions on personal greed were removed, so too if one removes all inhibitions on my narrow self interest then society collapses.

Society depends on us submitting ourselves to something that is greater than we are. It need not be any god but there really does need to be a higher power or calling that we commit ourselves to or else society as such falls apart. I do not see the New Atheists offering anything to replace what they are tearing down and I think that is dangerous.

I agree, and I often think of those individuals most “moral” people would refer to as “thugs”.

Many of these “thugs” terrorize the streets precisely because they think they can get away with it. When we remove the idea of final judgment, so long as these “thugs” believe they can terrorize the streets without getting caught, they have reason to do so, in their view – and personally – without resorting to some sort of intrinsic value, I don’t see any valid ground for the desirist to challenge them on.

What is the desirist going to say? That the “thug” “shouldn’t” desire to terrorize the streets because it thwarts more than fulfills *the majority’s* desires? That “thugs” “shouldn’t” desire to act recklessly because “we” have reasons to promote an aversion to their desires to act recklessly?

Good luck with that.

Right or wrong, true or not, the idea of final judgment by an all-powerful God retains more deterring power than anything I’ve heard from the desirist camp.

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Charles April 29, 2010 at 4:05 pm

A desirist would say that we should toss the worst thugs in jail as an example to the rest. In other words, if thugs lack “reasons for action” not to be thugs, then we should create the reasons for them. In addition, we should educate our children so that fewer in the next generation grow up to be thugs. For those of you who haven’t read Alonzo’s book, this is page 7 stuff.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 4:43 pm

A desirist would say that we should toss the worst thugs in jail as an example to the rest. In other words, if thugs lack “reasons for action” not to be thugs, then we should create the reasons for them. (Charles)

See? Another generic “we” argument, seemingly based on the very same intrinsic value that desirism denies.

Here, in Charles’ usage, the generic “we” is loaded because it alludes specifically to the subset of people who have reasons to promote an aversion to thugs’ desires. AFAICS, Charles’ prescription either does not take the thugs’ desires into account, or mitigates the thugs’ desires for some unspecified reason.

So, again, I’ll rephrase the same question, in hopes that somebody can provide a clear, succinct answer: without relying on some version of an appeal to intrinsic value, why should the desires of those with reasons to inhibit the thugs’ desires trump the thugs’ desires?

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noen April 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm

cl
“without relying on some version of an appeal to intrinsic value, why should the desires of those with reasons to inhibit the thugs’ desires trump the thugs’ desires?”

As an agnostic and a pragmatist I would say that the justification for inhibiting the desires of some is that it works better that way. That is, those societies who maximize certain values function better than those who do not. A free market economy for all it faults is still objectively better than a slave economy. “Better” in that last example means that it conforms to the collective intent of the society as a whole.

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Charles April 29, 2010 at 6:45 pm

One can also use desirism to ask, ‘Are the desires that lead to thuggery good?’ I didn’t attempt that because I didn’t think it was the point of your question. However, if you want to do the “calculation”, I suggest looking at the rape question. It has been discussed many times before.

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Eneasz April 29, 2010 at 6:59 pm

I would greatly appreciate it if you refrained from telling me what my beliefs are. Thanks.

Again, I wasn’t saying these were your beliefs. I was presenting what I believe is both the most common and most obviously silly example of “I’m not willing to live in a…” statements. I don’t know why you think I was attributing this particular sentiment to you.

Bald assertions are not facts.

Fair enough. Let us agree that whatever the fact may be, our knowing it and/or not wanting to live with it (or its opposite) has no bearing on what the fact of the matter is. Our changing understanding will have no direct effect on reality. “In the end it all adds up to normality.”

To counter your claim I would point out that institutional facts exist which are neither brute facts about the world nor subjective desires but in fact represent the collective intentionality of people that they be so.

I think we may be in agreement, and are arguing over a misunderstanding of the other’s views. Aren’t institutions created by individuals working collectively? Each participating individual had to choose to contribute to the institution. And their choice to do so was guided by their desires (say, the desire to not have their things stolen). Of course many of their desires were shaped/guided by pre-existing institutions, but at this point we’re just stating the obvious. So where I say “individuals” and you say “institutions” we’re both talking about collections of people.

Yeah well you guessed wrong then didn’t you?

Once again, I was not saying this is what you thought, I was providing a general counter-argument and merely using a single example for illustration purposes.

Human social institutions are able to create these desire independent reasons for action

Wait… how are they desire-independent? How could an institution create a reason-for-action that is independent of desires? Do they not offer incentives to either act in good ways, or develop good desires? Or, alternatively, create disincentives to acting in bad ways and developing bad desires? If someone really really REALLY wants to take my car, but is prevented from doing so by knowing he may get caught and punished, isn’t his desire to not risk jail time outweighing his desire for my car?

Even cl seems to be missing the point that the Thug is prevented from sinning because he desires reward in heaven, and has an aversion to punishment in hell. The institution of the church is still working on the actor’s desires.

so too if one removes all inhibitions on my narrow self interest then society collapses.

I agree, but no one anywhere is suggesting removing all inhibitions on narrow self interest. Rather the opposite – a society functions best when people have an interest in others. That is precisely why people create institutions that shape the desires of others.

I do not see the New Atheists offering anything to replace what they are tearing down

Really? You don’t see the blog you’re commenting on? I see it.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 7:23 pm

noen,

As an agnostic and a pragmatist I would say that the justification for inhibiting the desires of some is that it works better that way. That is, those societies who maximize certain values function better than those who do not. A free market economy for all it faults is still objectively better than a slave economy. “Better” in that last example means that it conforms to the collective intent of the society as a whole.

Acknowledged. I don’t have much of an objection to any of that, and even if I did, it wouldn’t relate to desirism, so I’ll just keep quiet on that and wait to see what Alonzo has to say. :)

Charles,

..if you want to do the “calculation”, I suggest looking at the rape question. It has been discussed many times before.

I’m not sure exactly what you allude to by “the rape question.” If you’ve got a link or can decently summarize whatever it is that you’re referring to, I’m all ears.

Eneasz,

Even cl seems to be missing the point that the Thug is prevented from sinning because he desires reward in heaven, and has an aversion to punishment in hell. The institution of the church is still working on the actor’s desires.

False. I’m not missing that point at all. Rather, I alluded directly to it when I said,

When we remove the idea of final judgment, so long as these “thugs” believe they can terrorize the streets without getting caught, they have reason to do so, in their view.. Right or wrong, true or not, the idea of final judgment by an all-powerful God retains more deterring power than anything I’ve heard from the desirist camp.

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RA April 29, 2010 at 8:06 pm

noen,
I agree, and I often think of those individuals most “moral” people would refer to as “thugs”.
Many of these “thugs” terrorize the streets precisely because they think they can get away with it. When we remove the idea of final judgment, so long as these “thugs” believe they can terrorize the streets without getting caught, they have reason to do so, in their view – and personally – without resorting to some sort of intrinsic value, I don’t see any valid ground for the desirist to challenge them on.
What is the desirist going to say? That the “thug” “shouldn’t” desire to terrorize the streets because it thwarts more than fulfills *the majority’s* desires? That “thugs” “shouldn’t” desire to act recklessly because “we” have reasons to promote an aversion to their desires to act recklessly?Good luck with that.Right or wrong, true or not, the idea of final judgment by an all-powerful God retains more deterring power than anything I’ve heard from the desirist camp.  

I don’t know the first thing about desirism but this is such a load of crap I’m going to comment on it anyway.

Thugs do indeed terrorize the street because they feel they can get away with it and they act on their own desires in doing so. However, they run head on into the community’s desires to have control over the streets and being afraid to walk those streets. This desire eventually supercedes the thugs desire and the thugs desires are not met when they are locked in a prison cell.

This experience then can have a changing effect on future thugs desires as they desire to avoid the fate of the other thugs whose desires put them behind bars. In this way, the community’s desires have a changing effect on the thugs desires leading to a more peaceful place for all.

May not be consistent with desirism but it makes a whole lot more sense than final judgment. I’ve heard a lot of thugs say they desired to do right and not go back to jail. I’ve never heard one say they wanted to avoid thuggery because they might go to hell.

The end result is that the thugs desires are now to conform to the desires of society for their own self interest. Ultimately, we all act in our own self interest and meet our desires.

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cl April 29, 2010 at 8:41 pm

RA,

You say my comment was “crap” but you seem to echo the salient points:

Thugs do indeed terrorize the street because they feel they can get away with it and they act on their own desires in doing so.

I agree.

However, they run head on into the community’s desires to have control over the streets and being afraid to walk those streets.

I agree.

I’ve heard a lot of thugs say they desired to do right and not go back to jail.

I have, too.

Ultimately, we all act in our own self interest and meet our desires.

I agree.

I’ve never heard one say they wanted to avoid thuggery because they might go to hell.

There, we differ, but that you’ve never heard a thug say this doesn’t make my statement “crap,” especially when you echo most of its salient points.

But let me toss a question back to you: what would you say if the populations were reversed? If “the community” was comprised of thugs, and the “good people” comprised the minority?

Would you still say that we should honor the values of the community? Why or why not?

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faithlessgod April 30, 2010 at 2:36 am

Noen

Another fan of John Searle at least with respect to “The Construction of social reality” I see.

You seem to have three issues over collective intentionality, desire-independent reasons to act and epistemic objectivity.

1. One can be epistemically objective over the relations between desires and the relations between these desire is ontologically objective.

2. Searlian desire-independent reasons to act, such as a promise, are still desires, which is triggered in the promiser to deliver upon, the trigger is desire-independent – to the agent, that is what Searle argues, but it exists as a reason to act, as a desire, whether triggered or not (in the recipient of the promise).

3. The institution of morality is one such social institution that is the product of collective intentionality.

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RA April 30, 2010 at 5:56 am

Cl,

Well, like I said I don’t know the first thing about desirism so maybe we do agree on many points. On the other hand, it seems that you are misunderstanding desirism and making it something that it is not. I think this is why Luke has given up on defending it. Not because he doesn’t believe in it, but because people simply will not learn what it is and insist on saying that it is something that it is not.

I certainly believe that all morals arrive from human desires. I might be a desirist but like everybody else I’m not interested enough to study it long enough to find out.

The very fact that a large portion of the world rejects the concept of hell and lives roughly equal moral lives or even better than portions of the world that does believe in it pretty much invalidates your theory on its own.

If the majority of the community are thugs then the thugs morality becomes the morality of the community. For example, we could have a moral and peaceful world if the majority of the population began to believe that stealing was morally acceptable. Instead of demonizing stealing, we would give it attributes and give the thieves credit for their cunning and slyness. Bernie Madoff would be perfectly acceptable because he was smarter than we were he got our money. We would just have to aspire to be as clever as Madoff.

The entire natural world benefits from stealing. It’s a key to survival. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about it. It’s not that a wolf doesn’t object to the bear stealing his meal, he just can’t do anything about it. We as humans have an ability to impose our will if we can get enough others to agree with us.

We would not object from being stolen from because we can in turn steal from someone else. The only problem with this idea is that we do not object so much to people stealing other peoples things. But we object extremely to people stealing our own. And that’s where our self-interested desire kicks in.

Once we become concerned about losing our own possessions that we worked so hard to obtain, we begin to realize that our neighbor deserves to have his property protected as well. There will always be people that see the considerable benefits of stealing. But ultimately, it is the society view of stealing that will determine how much of it that is tolerated. The fear of hell will have no say in the matter because ultimately, humans do not believe in it. Or if they do, it has no power to sway their actions.

The Native Americans had a certain tolerance for stealing and they stole like bandits when they encountered the white man and stole among themselves. This was something the white man just could not understand. That’s was because he was not part of that community that understood their moral values.

If our economy collapses and money becomes worthless, we will very likely develop morals that say it is OK to steal from the rich and give to the poor. And there is nothing really wrong about that view. In fact, it is arguably more moral than the opposite view. We just have to all agree that it is OK.

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cl April 30, 2010 at 8:02 am

RA,

I’ve already agreed that Luke should stop repeating himself, and it could very well be that I’m misunderstanding one or more tenets of Fyfe’s desirism. However, that so many others have had the same exact objections for so long cannot be overlooked. Not just theists either, but atheists and freethinkers across a wide range of ideologies. If I was the only one whining about it, that’d be quite a different story.

Though, I’m curious as to why a person who admittedly “doesn’t know the first thing about desirism” would be so bold as to accuse another of misunderstanding the theory?

Perhaps you know enough about it to show me the part you think I’m misunderstanding?

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RA April 30, 2010 at 8:29 am

No, I don’t. I can’t accuse you of not understanding desirism because I don’t understand it myself, so your understanding could well be as good as mine. And we may be in more agreement than Luke/Fyfe.

I have my own moral theory which seems to basically agree with desirism (but maybe it doesn’t). My reference to your understanding being “crap” was regarding hell being the prime motivation for morality. I think that’s clearly not true. Crap didn’t really have anything to do with desirism.

In truth, you probably know a lot more about desirism than I do. I just read your comments and found them a little haughty so I fired off the word crap. I should have been more polite about it. But that’s the internet for you.

I haven’t figured out yet what the desirism version of objective moral values are. Until I do, I don’t know if I can agree with it or not.

But I think I can disagree with you on most things.

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noen April 30, 2010 at 9:01 am

faithlessgod
“Another fan of John Searle at least with respect to “The Construction of social reality” I see.”

Yes, and that’s why I’m not really opposed to desirism so much as really confused by his terminology. The points you make are correct.

RA
“there is nothing really wrong about that view. In fact, it is arguably more moral than the opposite view. We just have to all agree that it is OK.”

People have a very strong sense that there are some things that would be wrong even if the whole world said otherwise. That it just cannot be that morality is whatever we say it is. It is this intuition that is at work in most objections to secular moral systems. The fear is that if you’re not careful you could undue that which hold our society together. I’m not convinced that fear is unfounded.

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RA April 30, 2010 at 9:27 am

Noen,

Yes, I’ve made that out as your view. There are indeed things that we all regard as wrong and that is why atheists can be more moral than Christians and atheist societies can be as well.

I think you fail to understand that human beings will not simply elect to live in a world of chaos. To make that assumption, you have to come to the conclusion that a person has no regard for their own welfare or safety and cannot have empathy with other people based on that understanding.

I think in an atheistic world we would have a society no different than our own. Certain atheistic communities would have values that lead to cultures equal or better than any Christian culture. We would also have cultures that resulted in widespread murder and theft.

Each of these cultures would likely converge and possibly reverse over time as different values and leaders influenced those cultures based the many things that influence our desires and moral views. It is easy to be moral in a wealthy country. Much harder in a country run by a despot where you might have to steal just to feed your family or murder someone that might murder you.

Your morals will change according to your conditions. Societies that don’t experience war for a while begin to want the glories of war. Societies that experience war for a long time begin to tire of it and want peace.

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Charles April 30, 2010 at 9:59 am

it could very well be that I’m misunderstanding one or more tenets of Fyfe’s desirism. However, that so many others have had the same exact objections for so long cannot be overlooked.

Lots of Very Smart People have misunderstood quantum mechanics. That isn’t evidence against quantum mechanics.

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Godless Randall April 30, 2010 at 11:45 am

i didn’t read all the posts but the remarks about stealing being able to be made ^good^ goes back to the ^surfing^ example i brought up last time. it wasn’t the best example but it still looks to me like that under desirism surfing or stealing or humping little boys or anything else can be ^good^

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RA April 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Don’t know if my stealing argument is consistent with desirism or not. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea based on my moral arguments.

In a theoretical world, stealing could be moral along with any other immoral act you want to come up with. But I later came back to say that we would never approve of stealing when taking our own and other desires into consideration in most cases. So reality would not result in an atheist viewing these things as moral except in certain circumstances.

It is not really possible for these to literally be “moral” acts in the real world where we take other peoples interest into consideration. There is nothing really wrong with stealing but that doesn’t mean we will automatically approve of it.

When you find this type of argument unattractive to your view, you need only look to our Christian view of killing another human being. We say it is wrong. But we don’t believe it. We make all sorts of exceptions for it (war, punishment, self defense).

With any human “immorality,” you always have to read the fine print to find out if it is really immoral because there are exceptions to even “objective” moral values.

I don’t think you can hold theoretical atheist moral values to a condition that Christian moral values are not held to.

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Godless Randall April 30, 2010 at 12:44 pm

ah,

but it still looks to me like that under desirism surfing or stealing or humping little boys or anything else can be ^good^

i messed that up a bit. i just meant that things can be reversed. if the desire to surf thwarted enough desires it would become bad. if the desire to hump little boys fulfilled enough desires it would be good. that just doesn’t seem right

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RA April 30, 2010 at 1:12 pm

It’s hard for me to imagine a world where surfing would be immoral. Certain arguments are nonsensical. You have to deal with the real world and not get too focused on theoretical ideas that would never happen in reality.

I can’t imagine a way for child molestation to be considered moral either. Because in order for you to think it is moral, you’d have to think it was in the best interest of the child. It’s not sufficient for it to be in the best interest of the abuser.

But what would your cutoff be for molestation? Is it wrong to molest a 14-year-old boy? What if he wants to be molested? If molesting a 14-year-old boy is wrong is it wrong to molest a 14-year-old girl?

If your answer is yes then why have women been getting married at the age of 14 throughout human history? My aunt was married at 14 and she is still married. Was that immoral?

If it was immoral, how do you explain that a 14-year-old girl can have a baby?

In 2010 almost anybody would tell you it is immoral for a 25-year-old man to have sex with a 14-year-old girl. He would go to prison. But just a few decades ago, it led to long and happy marriages.

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Godless Randall April 30, 2010 at 1:21 pm

It’s hard for me to imagine a world where surfing would be immoral. Certain arguments are nonsensical. You have to deal with the real world and not get too focused on theoretical ideas that would never happen in reality.

that’s why i said it wasn’t the best example. but technically ^if for some reason it was^ that surfing thwarted other desires it would be ^bad^

In 2010 almost anybody would tell you it is immoral for a 25-year-old man to have sex with a 14-year-old girl. He would go to prison. But just a few decades ago, it led to long and happy marriages.

hey i’m with you. so who’s right? it seems according to desirism both are and the same can go for humping little boys. i’m talking guy = 40 or over boy = 15 or under. that was moral in Greek’s society and desirism seems to support that

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RA April 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Who knows? Someone that knows something about it would have to weigh in. The only reason I commented was to make certain nobody confused my postings for actual desirism.

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Jeff H April 30, 2010 at 4:26 pm

that’s why i said it wasn’t the best example. but technically ^if for some reason it was^ that surfing thwarted other desires it would be ^bad^

I’m not an advocate of desirism, but I fail to see how this is really a problem. If, for example, one found some link between surfing and genital herpes (like one person surfing afflicts ten people with genital herpes), don’t you think that there would be moral condemnation of those who decided to surf anyway? It’s a silly example, of course, but the idea that changes in desire-fulfilling/thwarting leads to changes in morality actually lends weight to the claims of the desirist.

Essentially, though, your criticism here boils down to “if things were different, then things would be different.” Well fine. But the fact is that on this planet, here and now, surfing does not thwart any desires (generally speaking, I suppose). So saying “yeah but if it did thwart desires…” doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t. So we come to the (I would think) correct conclusion that surfing is morally okay (or perhaps “neutral”). And if we find out one day that surfing is responsible for all the major natural disasters in the world, we might end up redesignating it as “morally reprehensible.”

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cl April 30, 2010 at 6:29 pm

RA,

I just read your comments and found them a little haughty..

For example?

..so I fired off the word crap. I should have been more polite about it.

Hey, no skin off my back. I don’t automatically value politeness anyways. I like that you spoke honestly.

..I think I can disagree with you on most things.

Maybe, maybe not, but I’m not here to disagree.

Charles,

Lots of Very Smart People have misunderstood quantum mechanics. That isn’t evidence against quantum mechanics.

Did I say the consistent objections to Fyfe’s desirism counted as “evidence against” it? If yes, where? If no, how is your comment relevant?

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RA April 30, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Cl,

Haughty…I don’t remember exactly. I’m not sure I completely differentiated between you and Noen at the time. In any case, I had some assumptions about what you believed that were incorrect. Agree or disagree, you are always thoughtful when I tune in.

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faithlessgod April 30, 2010 at 11:12 pm

RA

“I haven’t figured out yet what the desirism version of objective moral values are. Until I do, I don’t know if I can agree with it or not.”
There are no objective moral values.

There are prescriptions which are truth-apt and some are true. These are based on extrinsic relational value, not intrinsic objective value, that is the relation between desires and states of affairs, with moral value being reduced to relations between malleable desires and all other desires.

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faithlessgod April 30, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Noen (and Eneasz)

Just responding you both debated previously:

Noen said: “Human social institutions are able to create these desire independent reasons for action”

This not what Searle argues, although others have. He argues that these institutions are “vehicles” for social agents. The institution of promising is a vehicle within which a promiser creates a reason for action in the future, this promise is desire-dependent and dependent on two participants, plus their common desire to operate within the institution of promising.

The fulfilment of the promise is still desire-dependent on the recipient at the time of fulfilment, the promiser can recognise this. That is there is a reason to act that exists that may not be the agents, even if it only exists because he created it in the past. And this reason to act is still a desire. As to whether he fulfils this or not, depends on whether he wants to participate in the institution of promising or not and that is a reason for him to do so.

AFAICS There are no desire-independent reason to act here that refute the argument that desires are the only reasons to act.

Yes Noen, Searle and Fyfe may be using these terms differently, but it is quite easy (I think) to see how one can translate from one to another.

There are differences though.

Searle argues that strong altruism is built into language but I am not sure what to make of that.

Searle does not think that ethics is a proper subject and so not one he directly deals with. However, in that sense, I consider desirism an explanation that remains, if ethics is a non-subject, so these approaches are very compatible.

Searle’s whole practical rationality model rejects psychological attitudes e.g. Hume, Frege-Russell, BDI for psychological modes. However, AFAICT, this is a difference that makes no difference, as far as the application of philosophical psychology is concerned here.

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Charles May 1, 2010 at 6:24 am

Did I say the consistent objections to Fyfe’s desirism counted as “evidence against” it?

Not in so many words, but you implied it.

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cl May 1, 2010 at 7:54 am

RA,

I’m not sure I completely differentiated between you and Noen at the time. In any case, I had some assumptions about what you believed that were incorrect.

Well, like you said, it is the internet. And like I said, no worries.

Charles,

..you implied it.

No, I did not imply it. If I wanted to say, “The consistent and ecumenical objections to Fyfe’s theory constitute evidence against it,” or anything else categorically equivalent, I would have.

But, lest we waste our time on trivial matters, maybe you could chime in on the pederasty thing? According to Fyfe’s desirism as you understand it, how should we evaluate the desire for pederasty in 1) Greek society where it was accepted as moral, and 2) American society where it is accepted as immoral?

It seems to me the desirist has to conclude both opinions are true. Fyfe seems to affirm this by analogy when he says, regarding the two sets of “apple statements” mentioned in the OP, that one “can hold all three opinions without contradiction.”

What do you think?

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Charles May 1, 2010 at 9:05 am

There are plenty of things that went on in ancient societies that we now freely condemn. Slavery is a good example. On the question of slavery, the Greeks were clearly wrong.

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RA May 1, 2010 at 9:29 am

Cl,

I think I understand the pederasty thing. Fyfe seemed to argue that the Greeks believed pederasty was best for its society. Therefore, they had justification for believing it was moral.

If the culture has a whole believes in this concept and all participants are willing, it seems to me that it becomes moral. However, the only way for us to know if it is moral or not is if it was indeed for the better of its society. Even if it wasn’t, but they thought it was, it wouldn’t necessarily be immoral.

Can something be both moral and immoral? It seems that it can. Killing for example is both moral and immoral.

Or let’s think about the Iraq War and George Bush. As I understand it, Bush could literally be prosecuted as a war criminal according to international law. If you ask an American if the Iraq War was immoral, some will say yes. Some will say no.

If you ask someone from Europe, many more will say that it was immoral. Is it possible that the Iraq War was both moral and immoral? Maybe it is. Depending on your perspective. To know for sure, we have to know the truth which is unknowable.

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Yair May 1, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Charles:

Yair,I think you’re missing something that’s key. In order for desirism to be prescriptive, you have to already have the desire, “I want to be good.”

This person (as others noted above) is merely confused about what he wants. For desirism to be prespcriptive he needs to have the “I want to be good-as-desirism-defines-it” desire, but then this prescpription would be one of individual subjectivism, not the objective moral one that desirism purpots to provide. It’s also exceedingly unlikely that he;ll have this desire, given how morality evolved; indeed, hell only have it if he’s confused about what “good” is, and under this confuses identifies “good” with what desirism says it is.

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Yair May 1, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Alonzo Fyfe:

Desirism states that, if a desire tends to fulfill other desires, then people with those other desires have reasons to act so as to promote the desire in question. If a desire tends to thwart other desires, then those with the other desires have reason to use social forces to inhibit the desires in question.“We” and “people generally” are shorthand ways of identifying widespread (though not necessarily universal) desires.

Then desirism is nothing but a descriptive theory (and then it’s a rather poor one, since it ignores all the complications and constraints of real life). And yet, you make prescriptions, recommending a “course of action”. This cannot be.

One way to phrase your naturalistic fallacy (and no, I’m not referring here to the open question argument, the term has wider use) is that

(1) It [should] relates an object of evaluation to some set of desires, where the desires provide reasons for action. Because these reasons for action exist these [should] statements can be true.

is false, because desires are only a necessary condition for the existence of a reason for action. The existence of a person with the relevant desires will raise it to necessary and sufficient. Without being in a person, desires don’t provide a reason for action, any derived “should” is merely a linguistic semantic label and does not constitute a reason for action.

But you’re too trapped in the philosophy of language paradigm, trying to “capture” moral speech instead of guiding action, to comprehend Hume’s argument.

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cl May 2, 2010 at 12:29 am

Charles,

Slavery is a good example. On the question of slavery, the Greeks were clearly wrong.

I asked if you could chime in on the pederasty example we were talking about. Nothing personal, but I’m not really interested in discussing new examples while the current ones still need address.

RA,

I can’t recall offhand anything specific that Fyfe’s written on pederasty, but then again I’ve been through so much of his stuff lately that I wouldn’t be surprised if I have seen something. If you (or anyone else) have a link handy, let us know.

If the culture has a whole believes in this concept and all participants are willing, it seems to me that it becomes moral.

Maybe Fyfe can clarify.

However, the only way for us to know if it is moral or not is if it was indeed for the better of its society.

Problem is, this establishes “for the better of its society” as a sort of intrinsic value and/or synonym for moral, and unfortunately, “for the better of its society” is always going to be a matter of subjectivity, which is why I wonder why the desirist doesn’t attempt to make their case mathematically. Since the theory is ostensibly objective, then let’s quantify things like desires and strength, and run evaluations that return numerical results. I gave it a perfunctory effort here and it’s proven to be pretty interesting, both within a desirist context and on its own. Note, though, that I’m not claiming any of my ideas are orthodox desirism.

Regardless, we seem to pretty much agree that there are bazillions of factors and nuances at play in making moral evaluations (i.e. no cut-and-dry matter), and here you were saying we could probably disagree on most things!

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RA May 2, 2010 at 9:05 am

Hmmm. Looks like you are right about that. I unknowingly pulled that from YOUR argument. This stuff is making me cross-eyed.

Yes, we do seem to be agreeing on much here. I’m not sure if that is because you are a near advocate of desirism or if what I think is desirism actually isn’t. I haven’t seen anything that I disagree with on desirism.

It seems to me that the fact that we do not know if it is actually for the good of society is irrelevant. It only matters if the desires are based on producing that effect.

Faithlessgod says that all the morals that come out of desirism are basically subjective.

As I understand it so far, the objective part of desirism is that desires objectively exist, therefore, any morals that arrive from desires are objective moral values.

What am I missing there?

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cl May 2, 2010 at 10:11 am

Well, despite the various accusations with which you may or may not be familiar, I am in fact a “near advocate” of desirism. I think the theory has some merit, and also some flaws. No matter how much I say this, though, people still seem to think that I’m “out to get” Fyfe’s theory. My main objection is, the fact that a desire fulfills or thwarts other desires is only a descriptive fact that says nothing about whether that desire is *actually* good in the sense that people generally use the word [i.e., to mean something like “the right thing”).

It is quite easy to come up with both real-world and hypothetical examples that show desirism’s definition of good to be insufficient. In short, I don’t see the basis for deriving moral value from strictly numerical computations.

Faithlessgod says that all the morals that come out of desirism are basically subjective.

He can correct me if I’m wrong (or accuse me of being a racist again), but I’m going to say that faithlessgod does not argue that “all the morals that come out of desirism are basically subjective.”

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RA May 2, 2010 at 10:42 am

OK. Does desirism say that desires are going to necessarily bring about “good” results? Luke’s FAQ indicates that desirism can arrive at incorrect morals. My thought is that they only have to intend to bring about good results.

Desirism gives us a reasonable idea for how atheist moral values can exist without them bring written on our heart.

The present Christian moral structure, however it was obtained, seems to have all the problems that desirism might have.

Is this really all just a quibble over wording and technicalities. That’s what it seems to me. Is this just an argument between philosophy nerds on matters that don’t amount to a hill of beans?

If not, why should I not believe in the desirism concept? And what would be better assuming I’m not going to believe in a personal God?

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RA May 2, 2010 at 11:24 am

Also, when you say that it is easy to come up with real world and hypothetical examples to show that desirisms definition of good is not sufficient, It seems to me that most of these scenarios make the assumption that the world is going to degrade into a society of child molesters and Nazis. These arguments are not very compelling for me. What is that based on?

I also don’t know what numerical computations would have to do with anything desirism espouses. This seems to me to be an unnecessary technicality.

My idea, which I think is consistent, is that on the whole humans are going to pursue avenues to get along with one another because that’s what we’ve pretty much always done with the exception of a quite a few bumps in the road. If that’s not the case, someone has got to provide a compelling reason for why that is not going to happen if the desirist concept is truly flawed.

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RA May 2, 2010 at 11:48 am

Luke,

You claim to read all of your comments. Am I on the right track on this desirism thing or not? If not, tell me where I’m off. I need to know if you are right or not.

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lukeprog May 2, 2010 at 12:53 pm

RA,

Alas, I only skim-read comments now; there are so many. I’m not sure if you’ve got desirism right or not. I’m taking a break from defending desirism so I can spend the time researching what I need to research so I can present desirism with more precision.

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RA May 2, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Luke,

I didn’t think it was possible for you to read all of your comments anymore unless you spent all of your time in front of your computer. Keep researching. If I think I believe in it but don’t know for sure, it is going to take a lot of work to present it to the masses successfully.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 3, 2010 at 3:58 am

Also, Alonzo, you write,

It is not the case that we should consider all desires

..yet, you also write,

Moral terms evaluate desires relative to all other desires that exist. (source, section V.B)

I don’t mean to be rude, but can’t you see how people might be confused?  (Quote)

Yes. People are confused because they fail to make the distinction between how do determine what we should do and what we should do. It is as basic as failing to make the distinction between how we determine how we determine the weight of something and its weight.

Let us say that we weigh something by putting it on a balance with a set of known weights in one pan and the object we are weighing in the other.

Why is that a correct way to determine its weight? Why can’t we determine its weight by putting it in a liquid and seeing how much the volume changes? Why don’t we determine its weight by putting a ruler up against it and reading the numbers off of the side.

Prove to me that ‘weight’ is that which you determine by using a balance?

I have given the same type of analysis here to ‘moral’ that I gave to ‘health’, ‘usefulness’, and ‘beauty’. Try applying the objection to those other terms and I think you will start to find a way through the confusion.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 3, 2010 at 6:10 am

I’ll rephrase the same question, in hopes that somebody can provide a clear, succinct answer: without relying on some version of an appeal to intrinsic value, why should the desires of those with reasons to inhibit the thugs’ desires trump the thugs’ desires?  (Quote)

Because (A) there are more of them, (B) they are stronger, (C) they are non-malleable, and (D) they are desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

Thus, there are more and stronger reasons for action that exist in favor of desires other than the thugs’ desires. Note that the thugs’ desires are by defintion desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. Otherwise, there would be no real-world reasons to be concerned about them.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 3, 2010 at 11:19 am

Well, despite the various accusations with which you may or may not be familiar, I am in fact a “near advocate” of desirism. I think the theory has some merit, and also some flaws. No matter how much I say this, though, people still seem to think that I’m “out to get” Fyfe’s theory. My main objection is, the fact that a desire fulfills or thwarts other desires is only a descriptive fact that says nothing about whether that desire is *actually* good in the sense that people generally use the word [i.e., to mean something like “the right thing”).

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You are asking a question about language, and I do not put a lot of effort into questions about language.

It is sufficient for my purposes to note what is objectively true about these desires that tend to fulfill other desires – that they are desires that others have reason to promote, where the degree to which a desire tends to fulfill other desires determines the degree to which others have reason to promote it. Also, that praise (and condemnation) are ways of molding desires (explaining the relevance of praise and condemnation in morality) and that this is only true of malleable desires (explaining the significance of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’).

Of somebody (like J. L. Mackie) wants to argue that our regular definition makes a reference to objective intrinsic prescriptivity, that is fine. It is no more problematic than the fact that ‘atom’ once meant ‘thing without parts’ and ‘malaria’ once meant ‘bad air’. It is a dispute over language, not a dispute over anything of substance.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 3, 2010 at 11:24 am

Charles:For desirism to be prespcriptive he needs to have the “I want to be good-as-desirism-defines-it” desire, but then this prescpription would be one of individual subjectivism, not the objective moral one that desirism purpots to provide.  (Quote)

Nope.

In order to make a presriptive claim you have to provide a person with a relationship between that which is prescribed and reasons for action that exist.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

Only my own desires motivate my actions. However, other desires exist. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable to talk about relationships between states of affairs and desires other than my own – as long as one does not make the mistake of claiming that relationships between objects of evaluation and desires other than my own somehow have the power to motivate me or automatically provide me with reasons for action.

They do not.

They are reasons for action that exist. They are things people can talk about (and do talk about). They do not do not provide an example of people being somehow motivated by desires that are not their own.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 3, 2010 at 12:24 pm

cl

Many “thugs” terrorize the streets precisely because they think they can get away with it.

As an explanation for behavior, this is a bit weak. There are a lot of people who find themselves in a position where they “think they can get away with it” who still do not do anything remotely thuggery.

You could say that the reason I have oatmeal in the morning is “precisely because I think I can get away with it.” But there is a substantial list of things I think I can get away with doing that I do not do. I think I could get away with having pancakes in the morning. But I don’t have pancakes. I have oatmeal. So why, precisely, did I choose oatmeal instead of pancakes? Is it because, “I think I can get away with it?”

A more substantive explanation is that thugs terrorize the streets precisely because thugs terrorizing the streets will best fulfill their desires, given their beliefs. In many cases, their desires include a desire to dominate and control others, and suffer from an absence of other desires such as an aversion to doing harm. the abse, like everybody else, act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs.

Given this, there are a couple of ways of changing their behavior. One is to threaten to thwart certain desires unless they are do what they are told. This is the option expressed in

When we remove the idea of final judgment, so long as these “thugs” believe they can terrorize the streets without getting caught, they have reason to do so, in their view.

Yes, if a person is a thug, then the only effective way to stop them is to threaten them with the thwarting of some desire – or to take away their ability to act (by depriving them of life or liberty).

And if you have no way to effectively threaten or disable that person, then he will in fact engage in thuggery. That is a fact about the world we live in. However, the fact that we dislike a particular fact does not prevent it from being a fact.

One thing you can do is to threaten this person with the actions of your omnipotent all-knowing super being in the sky. However, again, the fact that this is effective does not imply that it is true. “If you masturbate you’ll go blind” might be effective, but to use and advocate this option is to say that one does not have much of a regard for truth. Worse, it says that it is okay to make things up in order to control other people – an ironic fact given that many religions contain some sort of prohibition on bearing false witness.

One of the merits of desirism is that it gets this fact right. It does not pretend to claim to have something to say with the person whose desires are fulfilled by thuggery who is in a position to get away with it. Desirism says that you’re doomed to suffer his thuggery. Any theory that says otherwise, in spite of the promise of delivering a conclusion that is very much desired, suffers from the fact that it cannot deliver a conclusion that is true.

In spite of this fact, there are still two ways to prevent thuggery that do not involve making things up. One is to use praise and condemnation in order to mold desires so that fewer people wish to engage in thuggery.

There are a great many people in the world who do not engage in thuggery even though they think they can get away with it. They do not do so because they are adverse to acts of thuggery. They do not want to be that type of person. In fact, they want to not be that type of person.

It’s the same as the fact that I do not eat liver even when I think I can get away with it. I do not like the taste. This aversion keeps me from eating liver even when I am pretty sure nobody is watching and I can sneak a bite without anybody being suspicious. I do not need to be warned about what some imaginary super-being will do to me. The taste of liver is bad enough to stop me all by itself.

The same happens when we as a society give thuggery a bad taste. We create people who avoid thuggery even when they think they can get away with it, because they do not like the taste.

– and personally – without resorting to some sort of intrinsic value, I don’t see any valid ground for the desirist to challenge them on.

Well, intrinsic value claims fall into the same grouping as final judgment claims. They are both examples of “trying to control other people by telling them things that are not true.”

What is the desirist going to say? That the “thug” “shouldn’t” desire to terrorize the streets because it thwarts more than fulfills *the majority’s* desires?

That would not do any good unless he cared about those other desires.

However, the desirist can tell the people with those desires, “Hey, you have a lot of very powerful reasons to use praise and condemnation to make thuggery something that tastes bad to people – so they won’t do it.”

Right or wrong, true or not, the idea of final judgment by an all-powerful God retains more deterring power than anything I’ve heard from the desirist camp.

Just one of the problems with using this type of justification is that it says it is morally permissible to control people by telling them things that are not true. If truth were important, then the argument would be, “This is true.” But the argument is not, “This is true.” The argument is, “This is how you can control people,” with questions of truth being made secondary.

The next question is: What type of society are you going to create if it is one in which controlling people by telling them things that are not true is the standard of the day?

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Yair May 3, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Fyfe:

In order to make a presriptive claim you have to provide a person with a relationship between that which is prescribed and reasons for action that exist.

Nope.

A relevant prescriptive claim has to create motivation to follow it. There are a multitude of “true” prescriptive claims (i.e. prescription recommendations to advance a certain set of desires). In order to make a prescriptive claim that actually matters, you need the prescription to matter, you need for SOMEONE to care about following it. And as you yourself said, only a person’s own desires motivate them. Enlightened Egoism follows – as does, fortunately, humanism.

You can talk about the relationships between various sets of desires and various prescriptions, but that doesn’t make the theory prescriptive any more than a theory discussing how different building techniques affect the stability of buildings. You’re merely providing a descriptive mapping of the relations between certain procedures (“prescriptions”) and certain results (“desire fulfillment”); this does not constitute a prescriptive theory. Pointing out that some building technique makes building most stable, or that the prescription of encouraging desires that tend to fulfill other desires is a stable strategy, does not constitute a prescriptive theory either. It’s just a statement of fact, in and of itself merely of academic interest.

A “prescriptive theory” is not one that provides some prescriptions, or that identifies a prescription as special in some sense. A prescriptive moral theory must (at least try to) explain why the prescriptions it recommends are ones humans would want to follow. That what makes these prescriptions interesting to talk about. Utilitarians argue everyone wants happiness. Kant argues everyone wants self-worth. Aristotle argues virtues are the path to fulfill our final goal. Without such a hook, a “moral” theory does not guide human action and therefore does not deserve to be called “moral”.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm

yair

A relevant prescriptive claim has to create motivation to follow it.

On your account of a relevant prescriptive claim, prescription itself does not exist. Motivation comes from desire, and there is no “claim” that a person can make that implies a desire (or motivation)
to do anything.

I hold that you can make true prescriptive claims. However, those true claims relate states of affairs to desires that exist. It is not a claim that creates new motivation. It is a claim that describes the relevant implications of motivations that exist.

Again, it is possible to create motivation – through praise and condemnation. However, the change in motivation is an effect of the claim, not an implication of it.

And as you yourself said, only a person’s own desires motivate them. Enlightened Egoism follows – as does, fortunately, humanism.

Enlightened egoism does not follow. Enlightened egoism fails to recognize the fact that, while only an agent’s own desires can motivate his actions, it is not the case that all of a person’s desires take the self (ego) as an object. There are other-regarding desires.

You’re merely providing a descriptive mapping of the relations between certain procedures (”prescriptions”) and certain results (”desire fulfillment”); this does not constitute a prescriptive theory.

Well, as I said, prescriptivity in your sense does not exist. You may not want to call what I describe a “prescription”, but it is real and it links reasons for action that exist to actions. It is as close to a prescription as one can get without being fictitious.

Pointing out that some building technique makes building most stable, or that the prescription of encouraging desires that tend to fulfill other desires is a stable strategy, does not constitute a prescriptive theory either. It’s just a statement of fact, in and of itself merely of academic interest.

Again, if you do not wish to call a descriptive fact about what people have the most and strongest reasons for action to do a ‘prescription’, but they are real, and your prescriptions are not. So, at least these descriptions have real-world relevance, while fictitious prescriptions are a total waste of time.

A prescriptive moral theory must (at least try to) explain why the prescriptions it recommends are ones humans would want to follow.

Would want to?

What does this mean on your account?

I hold that there are things that we do want to, and that the only types of evaluations that make sense are those that relate states of affairs to desires. We can also relate the state of affairs of having certain desires to other desires. In this sense, I can speak about what we have reason to want and have reason to cause others to want. However, this is not an account of “would want to” (which sounds descriptive). It is an account of “should want to” (which sounds prescriptive).

So, I would say that your account of prescriptivity has some flaws. The most serious flaw being that the term refers to things that do not exist in the real world and, as such, have no real-world relevance. If you do not wish to call what I write about prescriptions, that does no harm to the theory. The objects that I write about are still real, and still relate actions to reasons for action, which is all I need for it to do.

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RA May 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Yair,

I’m trying to understand your point of view, but I don’t speak the language of philosophy. Are you saying that desirism fails at a basic level because human desires cannot result in the pursuit of the greater good or it as at least unlikely?

I think your argument against it being “moral” is legitimate. But I suspect that might just be another argument over words.

Perhaps it should be called an “ethical” view but that doesn’t really work for the “moral” debate between Christians and Atheists and whether our world can exist successfully without a personal God.

Also to help me understand your perspective, are you atheist, agnostic or Christian?

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Yair May 3, 2010 at 10:54 pm

RA

Are you saying that desirism fails at a basic level because human desires cannot result in the pursuit of the greater good or it as at least unlikely?

Not really. I’m saying that desirism fails because it doesn’t really attempt to guide human action – instead it tries to describe the dynamics and properties of desires and save moral speech. It doesn’t look at people as what they are, it is too abstract, it doesn’t provide people with reasons to act in certain ways (except through confusingly identifying what desirism defines as “good” with their own concept of good).

I think your argument against it being “moral” is legitimate. But I suspect that might just be another argument over words.Perhaps it should be called an “ethical” view but that doesn’t really work for the “moral” debate between Christians and Atheists and whether our world can exist successfully without a personal God.

See, that’s the problem – desirism is all about defining words, not about guiding human action. In the real world, people aren’t interested in moral theories because they want to understand what “good” is, they are interested in moral theories because they want to know what to do.

Also to help me understand your perspective, are you atheist, agnostic or Christian

I’m an atheist, in the strong sense (i.e. I believe god doesn’t exist).

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Yair May 4, 2010 at 12:05 am

Fyfe:

I hold that you can make true prescriptive claims. However, those true claims relate states of affairs to desires that exist. It is not a claim that creates new motivation. It is a claim that describes the relevant implications of motivations that exist.

I hold that you can make true and relevant prescriptive claims. However, those true claims relate states of affairs to desires of people that exist. It is not that the claim creates a completely new motivation, rather the claim describes the relevant implications of motivations that already exist. It is therefore of interest to agents with said motivations – the people that exist with those desires – since if these people discover this is a true proposition they will be motivated to follow the prescription.

You can also provide true prescrptive claims that relate states of affairs to an arbitrary set of desires that no one holds, whether these desires and states exist or not. Such prescriptions, however, will not serve to motivate anyone if their truth is ascertained, and are thus of no real interest.

In other words, “If you want to have healthy teeth, you should brush them daily” is a true prescriptive claim that is of interest to anyone that wants healthy teeth. “If you want every third person in the world to have healthy teeth, you should have them all brushed daily” is a true prescriptive claim that nevertheless is of no interest to anyone, since no real person wants that.

Enlightened egoism fails to recognize the fact that, while only an agent’s own desires can motivate his actions, it is not the case that all of a person’s desires take the self (ego) as an object. There are other-regarding desires.

This fact is what “enlightened” was meant to capture.

Well, as I said, prescriptivity in your sense does not exist. You may not want to call what I describe a “prescription”, but it is real and it links reasons for action that exist to actions. It is as close to a prescription as one can get without being fictitious.

Prescriptive in my sense is precisely prescriptive in your sense, involving precisely the same non-fictitious entities. The only difference is that I insist that prescriptive moral theory must make not just prescriptions that are true, but also ones that are relevant for humans that look up this theory in the hope of finding out how to act. It is another constraint limiting the prescriptions the theory recommends rather than a different understanding of what prescriptions are.

if you do not wish to call a descriptive fact about what people have the most and strongest reasons for action to do a ‘prescription’ [fine]

Language is confusing here. A descriptive fact about what any particular person has the most and strongest reasons for action to do is a relevant prescription for that person. If there is a single such fact that applies to many, most, or all people – all the more interesting. But a descriptive fact about what people “in general” have the most and strongest reasons for action to do is only an interesting prescription to the extent that there are such “general” people (as an aside, there may be none – you can drown in a pool that is an inch deep “in general”). Again, this means that to the extent that desirism can make (relevant) prescriptions, it is not a moral realistic theory.

Would want to? What does this mean on your account?

Something like “would desire to do if he was thinking ideally”.

I hold that there are things that we do want to, and that the only types of evaluations that make sense are those that relate states of affairs to desires. We can also relate the state of affairs of having certain desires to other desires. In this sense, I can speak about what we have reason to want and have reason to cause others to want. However, this is not an account of “would want to” (which sounds descriptive). It is an account of “should want to” (which sounds prescriptive).

It is still an account of “does want to”, simply discussing wants in regards to wants. However, I’d note that the only types of evaluations that make sense are those that relate states of affairs to desires and are true. My “would want” referred to incorrect evaluations based on ignorance or error, and this is where a more profound “should” enters as we can say that “Person A currently wants A because he thinks it will bring him C, but actually he should want B because only B will bring him C”. We are prescribing another course of action (a should claim), that is of interest to person A because (if we’re right) it helps him correct his actions to serve better his reasons for actions. That’s what relevant prescriptions are all about – helping people decide how to act.

If you do not wish to call what I write about prescriptions, that does no harm to the theory. The objects that I write about are still real, and still relate actions to reasons for action, which is all I need for it to do.

I maintain you need to do more. You need to relate actions to reasons for action of people that exist. Relating actions to a random set of reasons for action (desires) may result in true prescriptions, but not ones that are interesting to study and follow.

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AlonzoFyfe May 4, 2010 at 4:03 am

I hold that you can make true and relevant prescriptive claims. However, those true claims relate states of affairs to desires of people that exist.

There is no relevant difference here, other than the fact that beings other than people have desires, and relationships between those desires and states of affairs are just as real. You cannot cause them to cease to exist simply by ignoring them.

No, I am not saying that the desires of non-persons have any magical capacity to motivate persons to act in certain ways. Nor am I saying that there is some magical ‘ought’ embedded in them that command our attention. In order to motivate people to act in ways that fulfill rather than thwart the desires of non-persons, those people have to be given desires that tend to fulfill the desires of non-persons.

In order for people to have reasons to fulfill the desires of non-persons, they have to have reason to use praise and condemnation to promote desires that fulfill the desires of non-persons, and to inhibit desires that thwart the desires of non-persons.

There is a set of objective facts of the matter regarding these relationships. Any propositions added to the mix other than objective fact is objective fiction.

Regarding the fact that enlightened egoism fails because it ignores other-retarding desires, you wrote:

This fact is what “enlightened” was meant to capture.

Typically, not. Enlightened self-interest is typically used to refer to the practice of fulfilling self-regarding desires rationally – which means taking care of others not because you care about them, but because they are useful and by helping them it is easier to get them to help you.

After all, you are the one who used the term EGOism.

I insist that prescriptive moral theory must make not just prescriptions that are true, but also ones that are relevant for humans that look up this theory in the hope of finding out how to act.

(A) Why ‘humans’ only? If we encountered a race of non-human aliens would not their desires count? Would it not make sense to use social tools, to whatever degree it is possible to do so, to promote in them desires that fulfill the desires of humans and to inhibit in them desires that thwart the desires of humans?

Similarly, the desires of animals are a part of the real-world environment in which we live. We have reason to promote in animals those desires that tend to fulfill our desires and to inhibit in animals those desires that fulfill our desires. Similarly, we have reason to promote in other humans an aversion to causing suffering because those averse to causing suffering are less likely to cause us and those we care about to suffer.

(B) In this theory I constantly speak of desires as “reasons for action that exist.” Clearly, desires that do not exist are not reasons for action that exist.

(C) It is also a part of this theory that desires only motivate those who have the desire. I have written constantly that if somebody else’s desires are causing my action then it is not even my action. The act belongs to the person whose desires provide the motivation.

But a descriptive fact about what people “in general” have the most and strongest reasons for action to do is only an interesting prescription to the extent that there are such “general” people.

Again, you are simply restating what I have said several times. Desires only motivate those who have them. If 99 people out of 100 have an aversion to loud noises, then 99 people out of 100 have reason to use condemnation to inhibit desires that result in the production of the making of loud noises. The 100th person has no such reason to promote the aversion. But the 100th person still is faced with the objective fact that he is in a community where people in general have many and strong reason to promote aversions to making loud noises. That fact is as true for him as it is for the other 99 people. It would be foolish for him to live as if the proposition, “People in general have strong reasons to promote an aversion to producing loud noises” were false.

When I asked what ‘would want to’ means in your account you answered:

Something like “would desire to do if he was thinking ideally”.

We must distinguish here between desires-as-means and desires-as-ends. Recognizing that desires-as-means are simply collections of desires-as-ends and beliefs. Because desires-as-means contain beliefs it follows that changes in beliefs can change what a person desires-as-means. But there is no rationality of desires-as-ends. What a person desires-as-ends if he was thinking clearly is precisely the same as what he desires-as-ends when he is not thinking clearly. No change of beliefs entails any change at all to changes in desires-as-ends. Insofar as anything that has value as a means it only has virtue in terms of the ends they serve. So, all value resides in desires-as-ends and none in desires-as-means. Yet, “would desire to do if he was thinking ideally” only applies to desires-as-means.

You need to relate actions to reasons for action of people that exist.

Look, in order for a proposition describing a relationship between a state of affairs and desires to be true the desires must exist. To treat such a proposition as true when the desire does not exist is patently absurd. So, OF COURSE I am talking about desires that exist when I talk about true value claims.

Perhaps a part of the confusion between us is that I consider the accusation that I am trying to treat relationships between states of affairs and desires that do not exist as true is so absurd I could not imagine a person raising such an objection.

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Eneasz May 4, 2010 at 5:28 am

Alonzo, thanks for all the commenting you’ve done on this thread!
And many cheers for this quote:

But the argument is not, “This is true.” The argument is, “This is how you can control people,” with questions of truth being made secondary.

The next question is: What type of society are you going to create if it is one in which controlling people by telling them things that are not true is the standard of the day?

The type of society that creates people like cl and Glenn Beck, I dare say!

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RA May 4, 2010 at 5:53 am

Yair,

Thanks for responding.

And as you yourself said, only a person’s own desires motivate them. Enlightened Egoism follows – as does, fortunately, humanism.

It does not follow for me that egoism necessarily follows by following ones desires. It is often the case that humiliation will follow.

But what I’m really interested in is where you think “morals” would come from with humanism if not from desires?

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RA May 4, 2010 at 6:05 am

Ahhh. I see that my ignorance of philosophy has led me astray with the term egoism. Anyhow, if you can explain exactly how desirism fails and another moral theory prevails, I’m interested in hearing it.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 4, 2010 at 6:46 am

See, that’s the problem – desirism is all about defining words, not about guiding human action. In the real world, people aren’t interested in moral theories because they want to understand what “good” is, they are interested in moral theories because they want to know what to do.

You say this in spite of the fact that I have repeatedly argued that I do not care what definitions you use. Arguments over definitions are arguments over what language to speak in, not over what propositions are true. If you do not like my definitions, choose a set of definitions that you do like and we’ll translate the theory into that langauge if it will make you happy.

That being said, I cannot communicate the theory except through language, so by necessity I have to have a set of definitions. If it is a problem that at theory must start with defining its terms, then there is no such thing as a legitimate theory – because every theory has to begin with a set of definitions. There is no way to avoid it.

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Eneasz May 4, 2010 at 7:03 am

In the real world, people aren’t interested in moral theories because they want to understand what “good” is, they are interested in moral theories because they want to know what to do.

I’m not sure this is true. In the real world, most people aren’t interested in moral theories at all, they simply want to know what to do. For that purpose, our institutions of morality work reasonably well to shape the desires of most people.

The few people who are interested in moral theories tend to be interested because they want to know that the institutions of morality are justified in promoting the things they do. They aren’t actually confused on the moral value of theft, murder, honesty, justice, etc.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 4, 2010 at 8:00 am

In the real world, people aren’t interested in moral theories because they want to understand what “good” is, they are interested in moral theories because they want to know what to do.

As far as what people are interested in, the map of what they are interested in maps to their desires. The two have the same reference.

If they are interested in moral theories it is to the degree that moral theories either directly or indirectly contribute to the fulfillment of their desires. The same is true of their interests in sports, in math, and in jigsaw puzzles.

I hold that one of the ways in which people have to fulfill their desires is to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. Some desires are malleable – they are vulnerable to the effects of praise and condemnation – so it makes sense to ask how praise and condemnation can be used to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Now, as a matter of fact, people are only motivated by their own desires. They are not motivated by what fulfills desires generally except insofar as they share their desires. However, if you look at the group as a whole, people generally have more and stronger reason to be concerned with desires that tend to fulfill the most and strongest desires. Barring false beliefs, these concerns are going to rise to the top.

Again, if you want to dispute that this concern over malleable desires and their effect on fulfilling or thwarting other desires, and the use of social tools such as praise and condemnation in molding those desires has anything to do with ‘morality’, you are free to do so. That is a dispute about language, not a dispute about the world.

Regardless of what you call it, it makes sense for people generally to have an interest in using social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

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Yair May 5, 2010 at 12:44 am

Fyfe:

So, all value resides in desires-as-ends and none in desires-as-means. Yet, “would desire to do if he was thinking ideally” only applies to desires-as-means.

If I understood you correctly, then I’d say that all value stems from desires-as-ends (i.e. final desires). All valuable things are valuable because they are means to further these ends. Specifically, moral theory is valuable because it is a means that allows you to change your desires-as-means to better achieve your desires-as-ends.

Perhaps a part of the confusion between us is that I consider the accusation that I am trying to treat relationships between states of affairs and desires that do not exist as true is so absurd I could not imagine a person raising such an objection.

That is not the accusation I’m making. You are, of course, talking about desires that exist, held by people (and non-humans) that exist. But by abstracting desires from the people who hold them you cease to address the specific people that exist. Your prescription ends up advancing a set of desires that no real person really holds, and is thus of no real interest to any person – it is not a useful means to his desires-as-ends.

Look, in order for a proposition describing a relationship between a state of affairs and desires to be true the desires must exist. To treat such a proposition as true when the desire does not exist is patently absurd. So, OF COURSE I am talking about desires that exist when I talk about true value claims.

My point is that you should talk about, and more importantly to, people that exist. The relevant, important prescriptions are those that interest the people that exist.

Again, you are simply restating what I have said several times. Desires only motivate those who have them. If 99 people out of 100 have an aversion to loud noises, then 99 people out of 100 have reason to use condemnation to inhibit desires that result in the production of the making of loud noises. The 100th person has no such reason to promote the aversion. But the 100th person still is faced with the objective fact that he is in a community where people in general have many and strong reason to promote aversions to making loud noises. That fact is as true for him as it is for the other 99 people. It would be foolish for him to live as if the proposition, “People in general have strong reasons to promote an aversion to producing loud noises” were false.

Knowing the facts is of course important, but that is not a prescription. Why should this person act to follow the prescription “promote an aversion to producing loud voices”? I believe you’d agree that practically he shouldn’t, and our ground for disagreement seems to reside in that you think he “morally should” in the sense that this should is the desirist should. But, please notice that none of those other 99 people have an interest in following the desirist should except in-so-far that they have an aversion to loud voices. The fact that this desire results in a should that also coincides with the desirist should is incosequential in guidning their actions. Why then prescribe it in the first place? Why not just focus on providing prescriptions that promote what people actually desire? That allows for greater usefulness and flexibility, e.g. treating cases where the strongest and most common desires are not what the bulk of humans desire, or where the population is split into several distinct groups, and so on.

(A) Why ‘humans’ only? If we encountered a race of non-human aliens would not their desires count? Would it not make sense to use social tools, to whatever degree it is possible to do so, to promote in them desires that fulfill the desires of humans and to inhibit in them desires that thwart the desires of humans?

Because we’re humans, so that’s what interests us; Humanism addresses humans. Alien’s desires would count for humans to the degree that humans would care about alien desires. [I actually think any contemplative person will realize that “as much as humans” is the right degree, but that's an a posteriori truth about human nature, not an a priori truth about morality.] Aliens, if they’re rational, would also develop their own Alienism, which would advise them on how to treat humans in light of their own alien final ends.

(C) It is also a part of this theory that desires only motivate those who have the desire.

This implies that people would (if they’re thinking straight) only wish to follow the prescriptions of desirism if they have the desires that this prescription addresses. Again I repeat my original point – to the extent that desirism is (relevantly) prescriptive, it is so by virtue of individual subjectivism, not moral realism.

Typically, not. Enlightened self-interest is typically used to refer to the practice of fulfilling self-regarding desires rationally – which means taking care of others not because you care about them, but because they are useful and by helping them it is easier to get them to help you.

Fine. Perhaps Individual Subjectivism, then? At any rate – the view that any person should advance his own desires, which include desires for others’ happiness and so on.

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Yair May 5, 2010 at 1:13 am

RA

Ahhh. I see that my ignorance of philosophy has led me astray with the term egoism. Anyhow, if you can explain exactly how desirism fails and another moral theory prevails, I’m interested in hearing it.

It actually seems that mine has led me astray. In my defense, I had a vague memory that Egoism can’t be extended that way, which is why I added “enlightened” to distance myself from self-serving desires only; apparently, this did not suffice.

At any rate, from what I hear my moral theory is apparently identical to Richard Carrier’s (I’d be buying his book on my next Amazon order – maybe I’ll discover it isn’t). Essentially, it consists of two parts – a metaethical philosophical part and an ethical scientific part.

The philosophy essentially consists of defining moral theory (Humanism) as that body of knowledge that is built to assist normal people better achieve their desires by helping them uncover their desires and thought processes, correct errors in thinking and beliefs, change their desires and character, and reason through the ramifications of choices and alternatives.

Ethics is then the pursuit of this knowledge and psychological technology, which is in principle scientific but in practice is still pre-scientific. Its central tenet is that there even is a normal human and a reasonable definition of “normal development” that allows one to make generic statements about how humans should behave, or at least relatively-narrow statements that encompass the bulk of the bell-curve.

In practice, I suspect DU, GT, my theory, and lots of others would give similar practical prescriptions. My theory will, perhaps, tend also to emphasize the importance of self-knowledge and personal development more than others. But I can’t give you a recipe for a general action, like Fyfe does – this is an empirical knowledge that is very hard to acquire and depends very much on your own personality and nature.

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Yair May 5, 2010 at 1:21 am

Fyfe:

You say this in spite of the fact that I have repeatedly argued that I do not care what definitions you use. Arguments over definitions are arguments over what language to speak in, not over what propositions are true. If you do not like my definitions, choose a set of definitions that you do like and we’ll translate the theory into that langauge if it will make you happy.

It appears to me that a large motivation of desirism is to save moral speech – to say that “yes, you can talk about morality in an objective manner, like this…”. If we translate to another language, that will be lost. However, if this is not important to you – I have to ask, what is? What is the purpose of developing desirism (please answer without using moral language)?

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Yair May 5, 2010 at 1:28 am

Eneass:

I’m not sure this is true. In the real world, most people aren’t interested in moral theories at all, they simply want to know what to do. For that purpose, our institutions of morality work reasonably well to shape the desires of most people.The few people who are interested in moral theories tend to be interested because they want to know that the institutions of morality are justified in promoting the things they do. They aren’t actually confused on the moral value of theft, murder, honesty, justice, etc.

I actually think most people are interested in moral theories – it’s just that most people think they know enough moral theory to know how to act (even if all they know is “God said it, so it’s right!”), so they need not explore it further. Regardless, it is my experience that those people who take interest in moral theories generally do not think our moral institutions are perfect, and at least to some degree strive to correct both the institutions and private conduct to a better course. They do look to moral theory to provide them with guidance on how to act, including how to tell and influence other people to act.

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Yair May 5, 2010 at 2:02 am

Fyfe

Now, as a matter of fact, people are only motivated by their own desires. They are not motivated by what fulfills desires generally except insofar as they share their desires. However, if you look at the group as a whole, people generally have more and stronger reason to be concerned with desires that tend to fulfill the most and strongest desires. Barring false beliefs, these concerns are going to rise to the top.

This is a descriptive claim about the dynamics of desires in society. I think it ignores power disparities, constraints on the fulfillment of desires, and so on. But most importantly, to go to a (nearly) universal relevant prescriptive claim you need these “general” people to actually be the typical people. I’m sure you know that mathematically the typical need not be the average nor even common. The most common and strongest desires are simply not necessarily the desires that motivate the typical person. I think you’re implicitly assuming they are.

I’m going off the same intuition as you here (I think) – I want to talk about the typical person, under the assumption that there is one, and hence I assume a normal distribution. But we must make that assumption explicitly, we can’t assume a priori that the distribution of desires amongst humans is such that the common and strongest desires are those held by the typical person.

Again, if you want to dispute that this concern over malleable desires and their effect on fulfilling or thwarting other desires, and the use of social tools such as praise and condemnation in molding those desires has anything to do with ‘morality’, you are free to do so. That is a dispute about language, not a dispute about the world.

I have no problem with that aspect of your theory. I’m more queasy about using terms such as “evil”, since I think their meaning is vague and I value being clear and truthful as well as affecting others’ desires, and I know my words will be misinterpreted. But generally, we’re in total agreement here – as we are about nearly anything. You’re reading into me objections into things I totally agree with.

Regardless of what you call it, it makes sense for people generally to have an interest in using social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Yes, in practice it does. What doesn’t make sense is for someone to do so according to the prescription that is good for the “general” person irregardless of whether he is one of these people, or even whether he’s likely to be one (i.e. are such people typical). It is only because there is, as a matter of fact, a normal distribution of desires that there is, as a matter of fact, an interest for most people to promote those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. This is a matter of fact, not an a priori truth.

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RA May 5, 2010 at 6:01 am

Yair,

Thanks again for your views. I think I somewhat understand your objection regarding the individual with desirism. But I don’t think that objection matters much. I think I might pursue this avenue the next time this topic comes up and the same objections are expressed again.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 5, 2010 at 6:25 am

yair

Knowing the facts is of course important, but that is not a prescription. Why should this person act to follow the prescription “promote an aversion to producing loud voices”? I believe you’d agree that practically he shouldn’t, and our ground for disagreement seems to reside in that you think he “morally should” in the sense that this should is the desirist should. But, please notice that none of those other 99 people have an interest in following the desirist should except in-so-far that they have an aversion to loud voices.

Well, it is not a prescription given your definition of prescription, which are the the prescriptions of practical-ought and which ignore the prescriptions of moral-ought.

I agree it that it is not a practical-ought prescription. It is a moral-ought prescription.

It is a fact about a moral-ought prescription that the person you are talking to might not have a practical-ought reason to do what he morally-ought to do. This does not change the fact that he morally-ought to do it.

The practical-ought prescription behind a moral-ought is the practical-ought reason everybody else has to use social forces to promote a practical-ought reason to act in others.

To say that a person morally-ought not to rape young children is to say that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause people to have an aversion to raping small children. There could still be people who have no aversion to raping small children. Those people have no practical-ought reason to refrain from raping young children when they can get away with it. This does not change the fact that people in general have many and good reason to promote an aversion to raping young children.

Moral-ought statements (when true) not only describe relationships between malleable desires and other desires. The uttering of moral-ought statements are acts of praise and blame. As such, while they do not imply a change in desire, they can effect a change in desire not only in those who are praised or blamed, but in those who are a witness to the praise and blame (even when it is conveyed in a story or work of fiction against a fictitous character).

The moral-ought claim does not say that the person it is directed act has a practical-ought reason to do what he morally-ought should. However, it is an attempt to create in that person a practical-ought reason by using the elements of praise and condemnation also found in moral statement to mold maleable desires in the person it is directed at and in others who are witness to the moral claim.

In other words, the claim, “You morally should not do X” does not mean, “You have a practical-ought reason not to do X”. It means “People in general have practical-ought reasons to cause in you a practical-ought reason not to do X, and here we are using the tool of condemnation which is also a component of our moral statement to try to create that practical-ought reason.”

At least, this is what is going on when moral statements are true.

You are of course free to refuse to call these moral claims prescriptions because precriptions must be limited to practical-ought statements (refer to the desires that people have, and not the desires others have reason to cause him to have). That is no burden on the theory. That is a dispute over language.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 5, 2010 at 6:52 am

Yair

I’m more queasy about using terms such as “evil”, since I think their meaning is vague and I value being clear and truthful as well as affecting others’ desires, and I know my words will be misinterpreted.

On this issue, there is a concern. I use some moral terms in non-traditional ways.

For example, I use the terms ‘vice’ and ‘vicious’ in their traditional sense – to mean the opposite of ‘virtue’ and ‘virtuous’.

A ‘virtue’ is a malleable desire that tends to fulfill other desires, so a ‘vice’ is a malleable desire that tends to thwart other desires.

This does not conform to current usage – where the term ‘vice’ seems to have changed over time so that it now refers to desires that tend to thwart other desires of the agent like alcoholism, drug use, and dangerous sexual desires.

Yes, it does cause some confusion.

I have heard several people claim that the term ‘evil’ is a specifically religious term – it refers to people who oppose God. Of course, I do not use the term this way. I use the term to refer to those who have malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires. I like the word because it is a particularly strong emotive element. In terms of condemnation, it packs a particularly heavy punch.

Remember, condemnation is how we actually effect changes in desires. Giving up tools with a strong component of condemnatino will weaken our ability to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

In this sense, we have no substitute. We cannot simply invent a term that has the same punch. Our best option is to use a term that exists and try to redirect its punch towards desires that tend to thwart other desires.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 5, 2010 at 8:20 am

Yair

It appears to me that a large motivation of desirism is to save moral speech – to say that “yes, you can talk about morality in an objective manner, like this…”. If we translate to another language, that will be lost. However, if this is not important to you – I have to ask, what is? What is the purpose of developing desirism (please answer without using moral language)?

You are asking what is important to me in promoting desirism.

This, I take it, as asking which of my desires are fulfilled – either directly or indirectly – by those actions of mine in which I am defending desirism.

Specifically, it is a desire to leave the world a better place than it would have been if I had not existed.

Okay, what is ‘better’?

Well, that’s the question I went to college to try to answer, looking at all sorts of theories, where they succeeded, and where they failed.

I came up with the following:

State A is “better than” State B to the degree to which the propositions that are true in A fulfill more and stronger desires than the propositions true in B.

A “desire that P’ is fulfilled by any state in which P is true. So, state A fulfills a desire that P if P is true in A.

Which means that, to make the world a better place, I need to create a world in which the propositions P that are true in the world fulfill more and stronger desires than the propositions that would have been true in a world where I had not existed.

How does promoting desirism fulfill that desire?

For one thing, though people seek to create states to fulfill their desires, they act to create states that would have fulfilled their desires if their beliefs were true and complete. False and incomplete beliefs lead people astray – preventing them from creating a world in which their desires are fulfilled.

Among the beliefs that are useful in fulfilling one’s desires are:

(1) One shares the universe with other creatures who have desires.

(2) Some of those desires are malleable.

(3) Some of the changes that are possible will tend to fulfill other desires, while others tend to thwart other desires.

(4) Creating a state in which more and stronger desires would be aided by promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

(5) Praise and condemnation are among the tools available to mold desires – to strengthen desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

(6) Moral statements contain an element of praise and condemnation – so are useful in molding desires. (Note: This is a claim about moral statements, it is not a moral statement – in the same way that a claim about horses is not a horse.)

(7) The world can be made a better place by people using the praise and condemnation inherent in moral statements to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Now, you asked me to relate the act of defending desirism to my own desires. The fact that such an explanation exists, is true, and incorporates my desires is not an argument against the objectivity of the things that I defend.

You can ask Charles Darwin why he wrote the Origin of Species. You will get an answer that relates the writing of the origin of species to his desires. The fact that this story exists, is true (we may assume), and makes reference to Darwin’s desires is not proof that the theory lacks scientific objectivity.

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Zeb May 5, 2010 at 11:52 am

Great job explaining, Alonzo. Finally I feel like I understand the basics of desirism and agree that it is useful and true as far as it goes. I agree with Yair that it does not rise to my standard of a moral theory in that it does not provide a universal way of transforming a moral ought into a practical ought for every individual in the way that intrinsic value or divine command does, but from a atheist/materialist point of view desirism sounds like the closest you can get to morality that is real.

If I understood some of your statements, desirism implies that it may not be good to desire to be good or to desire to find out what is good. I would count it as a weakness of a moral theory if it implicates its own use as (possibly) immoral, but I can’t see any argument why such a theory must be factually false. Am I correct that desirism is a way of understanding morality, and that only empirical research would tell us if studying and trying to practice desirism would actually be good or evil?

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Alonzo Fyfe May 5, 2010 at 12:14 pm

I agree with Yair that it does not rise to my standard of a moral theory in that it does not provide a universal way of transforming a moral ought into a practical ought for every individual in the way that intrinsic value or divine command does…

Intrinsic value and divine command also fail to provide a universal way of transforming a moral ought into a practical ought because their claims are false.

Desirism states that there are two ways to transform a moral ought into a practical ought. One is a system of rewards and punishment, and the other is by using social tools to alter people’s desires.

If what you call a “moral theory” has to propose some other system, then I am content to argue that there is no such thing as morality – that all moral claims must be rejected as being false.

If I understood some of your statements, desirism implies that it may not be good to desire to be good or to desire to find out what is good.

Desirism denies that morality requires a desire to be good or a desire to find out what is good. For example, it allows intelligent animals to develop a rudamentary social system without even having the capacity to comprehend the concept of “goodness”. Yet, even animals have at least some capacity to use praise and condemnation to mold the malleable desires of other animals – and they do, in fact, use these tools.

Also, desirism says that it is a mistake to treat a a desire to be good or a desire to find out what good is as if these were the only two desires that exist. As a matter of fact, they are not.

Am I correct that desirism is a way of understanding morality, and that only empirical research would tell us if studying and trying to practice desirism would actually be good or evil?

Actually, it is quite easy to demonstrate that studying and trying to practice desirism is sometimes evil. Imagine that this is all anybody ever did – or ever wanted to do. The did not want to eat, they did not want to sleep, they did not want to study medicine, they only wanted to study desirism.

This is a society in which a great many desires would be thwarted.

We need a society in which people have a great many desires. Among these, there is almost certainly a place for a desire to practice desirism. Yet, this would be one desire among many and, at times, it is a desire that must lose out to the desire to eat, sleep, have sex, care for one’s children, study medicine, get some exercise, and the like.

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cl May 6, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Alonzo,

Many thanks for staying so involved this time. It’s going to take me a few comments to get all this out.

Unfortunately for me, the first thing I noticed was that you have not replied to any of my criticisms or questions that resulted from our previous exchanges. Instead, you replied to various statements I made to noen regarding the concept of final judgment.

I say “unfortunately for me” because I’m trying to be sure I understand desirism here, not get sidetracked into discussing your assumption that God doesn’t exist. In The Morality of Challenging Belief in God, you explicitly state a clear disinterest in debating God’s existence, but when you say,

[DCT fails] to provide a universal way of transforming a moral ought into a practical ought because [its] claims are false.

..you invite a debate over God’s existence because your criticism rests on your assumption that God doesn’t exist. While I don’t want to waste our time there, nonetheless, I’ll address some of what you said regarding DCT:

Many “thugs” terrorize the streets precisely because they think they can get away with it. (cl)

As an explanation for behavior, this is a bit weak. (Alonzo)

Actually, the fact dovetails nicely with desirism, IMO: the thug has certain desires, and when the thug lacks reasons for action to not act on them, they will act on them.

But it’s a bit of a moot point, because I wasn’t seeking to explain behavior in the first place. I mentioned “because they think they can get away with it” to illustrate the factual existence of a subset of people – those who don’t care about other people’s desires. We can split this subset into two smaller subsets: atheists who don’t care about other people’s desires, and theists who don’t care about other people’s desires. Desirism can’t reach anyone in either subset, as you yourself concede. However, divine command theory can. Sure, we can have a discussion about what we mean by “divine command theory” and whether or not we think a various implementation of DCT is ethical, but that doesn’t change the fact of DCT’s usefulness, where it exists, and I remain confident that’s not a fact you’d like to challenge.

A more substantive explanation is that thugs terrorize the streets precisely because thugs terrorizing the streets will best fulfill their desires, given their beliefs.

I wholeheartedly agree. Neither your explanation, nor my observation or subsequent argument are at odds. When it is effective, the concept of final judgment works precisely because of the agent’s desire to avoid unpleasant circumstances (i.e., eternal punishment, hell, etc.). We seem to be in agreement here, because you say,

..if a person is a thug, then the only effective way to stop them is to threaten them with the thwarting of some desire – or to take away their ability to act (by depriving them of life or liberty)…

I agree. That’s exactly the strategy that DCT employs. Now, as I said, you can object on grounds that,

..to use and advocate this option is to say that one does not have much of a regard for truth. Worse, it says that it is okay to make things up in order to control other people – an ironic fact given that many religions contain some sort of prohibition on bearing false witness.

..and I can object right back. Though I understand that desirism disregards the abstract or unproven (e.g., social contracts, categorical imperatives, hypothetical observer, decrees from God or gods, etc.), I don’t need to invoke the imperatives of any God here, nor do I need to make any sort of truth claim about God’s existence. I don’t need to make anything up at all. Rather, I can ask the simple, open question, “What if there’s such a thing as final judgment?” or “What if somehow your actions come back to you after death?”, and then let desirism do the rest.

In such a case, I’ve not told anyone anything false, because I’ve not made any truth-claim whatsoever. I’ve not threatened anyone with hellfire; I’ve asked a question and left it unto the agent to decide on their own. So, DCT can reach at least some of the people desirism can’t.

And if I’m not making any untrue claims, and my question successfully dissuades a thug from terrorizing the streets, I don’t see any problem whatsoever.

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Alonzo Fyfe May 7, 2010 at 6:14 am

cl

I was actually planning on making my next post about thuggery. I needed to do the “criticize God” post first because of its proximity to the event (Luke’s presentation).

I will get to this issue next.

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lukeprog May 7, 2010 at 6:37 am

“Thuggery.” Haven’t heard that word in a while. I propose you write a post about “hoodlumism.”

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Eneasz May 7, 2010 at 12:03 pm

cl:

a subset of people – those who don’t care about other people’s desires. We can split this subset into two smaller subsets: atheists who don’t care about other people’s desires, and theists who don’t care about other people’s desires.

Oh, a milder form of Blood Libel. I’m continually surprised that people reply to you as if you were a rational human.

As if threat of hellfire ever stopped anyone.

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Yair May 9, 2010 at 12:49 am

Fyfe:

To say that a person morally-ought not to rape young children is to say that people generally have many and strong reasons to cause people to have an aversion to raping small children. There could still be people who have no aversion to raping small children. Those people have no practical-ought reason to refrain from raping young children when they can get away with it. This does not change the fact that people in general have many and good reason to promote an aversion to raping young children.

I think you’re still committing the fallacy of the averages here. You are thinking of those not having the aversion as rare exceptions of the norm, while your theory merely defines a standard of average, not typicality.

And perhaps more importantly, you’re still not thinking about addressing specific typical people, but rather promoting “good” desires.

Despite this, I again emphasize we’re fundamentally in agreement on most things. These are the two point where we are in contention, and I think they are matters of substance, not language.

In this sense, we have no substitute. We cannot simply invent a term that has the same punch. Our best option is to use a term that exists and try to redirect its punch towards desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Of course we ahve a choice – we can choose not to use these words, giving up the extra punch. I’m undecided on whether clarity trumps rhetorical impact here or not.

You are asking what is important to me in promoting desirism.

Thanks for your candid reply.

Zeb:

I agree with Yair that it does not rise to my standard of a moral theory in that it does not provide a universal way of transforming a moral ought into a practical ought for every individual in the way that intrinsic value or divine command does

To clarify, this is not my position. I do not demand “for every individual”, just for the individuals the theory addresses.

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cl May 13, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Eneasz,

I’m continually surprised that people reply to you as if you were a rational human.

I’m continually surprised that you reply to me as if I cared. I get that some people get off on insulting others (typically young people), and I know you said you were young, but you just make yourself look like a mark. For the most part, these are philosophers here; they don’t care that you don’t like me.

My claim is testable, you know: simply keep insulting me for no reason in each thread that I comment on. I’m willing to bet that sooner or later, somebody else will tire of your sandbox techniques, too.

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