There’s a God for That

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 13, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

zeus and others

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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What are we going to do about the thug?

By “thug”, I am referring to the type of person who seems to have no qualms about doing harm to others that get in his way. In fact, he may even enjoy it. To bring about the fulfillment of his desires, he will comfortably pull out a knife and tell you to get out of his way or, better yet, to give him your money first. He would actually be just as happy if you refused. That would give him the excuse he needs to make an example out of you – for the next person who dares to get in his way.

The question was asked:

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.

This was compared to another option, which is to convince the thug that an all-knowing judger is noting every act and, if he does evil, he can look forward for an afterlife of torment and pain. There is no possible way to get away with any evil, because the eye in the sky sees all and knows all, and always delivers perfect justice to those who commit injustice on Earth.

What the desirist says is that if we have a thug who has no interest in the well-being of others, and is willing to – even happy to – thwart the desires of those who do not do as he commands, and he believes there is little risk of others doing him harm, then he will in fact carry out the actions of a thug. There is nothing we can say that will cause him to change his mind.

Oh, of course we could tell him something that is not true. We could tell him that he will suffer some dire consequences from an all-knowing watcher imposing justice after death. We could tell him that there is cosmic karma where any evil a person does will come around again in this life or the next. We could also tell him that we planted a bomb in his house and if he should harm us then we will activate the bomb. Or that we have an email message set to deliver some incriminating documents to the police if we do not return home and tell the computer not to send them. Or we can say that we have a friend in that building over there with a sniper rifle who will blow the thug’s head off unless we signal him not to shoot.

In all of these cases, if we can get the thug to believe some story that some of his own desires will be thwarted if he should take action to thwart our desires then we have a chance to alter the thug’s behavior. This is all perfectly consistent with desirism. An agent will act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. Therefore, we can control the actions of others in part by getting them to believe that an action will generate a state in which his desires will be thwarted (or fulfilled). We all know this to be true – and it is a truth that desirism explains quite well.

So, there is nothing in this option that conflicts with desirism. In order to manipulate the thug, we are going to try to convince him that his desires will be thwarted if he should continue his desire-thwarting actions. We are going to try to convince him of a threat that he has no chance of avoiding.

Except, it is all make-believe.

One of the problems with making up threats in order to control others is that this option is just as available to the thug as it is to the rest of us. The thug can tell us that there is a supernatural all-powerful being that has named him ruler and king of all. To disobey King Thug is to disobey God. And while the King and the King’s Army might not be able to see every act of disobedience and every plot of treachery that his subjects might think up, they should know that an all-powerful being will hear every plan and impose justice on any who would dare to threaten his divinely chosen leader.

This option represents the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, which was the dominant political philosophy in Europe up until the 1600s. It is still the dominant political philosophy in some parts of the world, where religious leaders are prone to tell the members of their church, “You must obey me . . . um . . . I mean . . . you must obey God. And, of course, you need to come to me so that I can tell you want God wants. Because if you disobey me . . . I mean . . . if you disobey God, you face final judgment. So do as I say! Or else!”

The Enlightenment made two significant contributions to our society. First, it gave us science, which gave us the medicine and technology we enjoy today. Second, it brought an end to the doctrine of the Divine Right of Thugs . . . um . . . Kings.

We can trace this back to a new religious philosophy that said we each get to interpret the Bible in our own way, and that we do not need to rely on some authority to tell us what God wants. When authorities tell us what God wants, they are actually telling us what they want, which is for us to serve them . . . I mean . . . to serve God.

However, when we remove the authority of somebody else telling us what God wants and expecting us to obey, we enter into an era where each person gets to decide what God wants for himself.

Not surprisingly, people do what the King Thugs did for over 1000 years. They are surprisingly adept at imagining a God that commands them to do exactly what the agents want to do anyway, and of prohibiting exactly those things the agents do not want to do.

The priest who molests children has a perfectly accessible story he can fall back on to justify his actions. Did not God command Abraham to kill Isaac? Was it not God’s duty to obey? Didn’t Abraham answer the apparent evil of murdering a child by saying, “God must have a reason?”

Well, says the Priest, “God gave me this interest in having sex with children. He must be calling on me to do these things. Though I see them as wrong in most cases, who am I to question the will of God? I must obey God by obeying my inner most desires and trust that He is commanding this of me for a good reason.”

There is no act that cannot be justified by appeal to religion – precisely because people have the option of making up whatever God they find to be the most useful.

Do you want to sit around watching television and blame your failures on some supernatural being who has pre-determined your lot in life? There’s a god for that.

Do you want to make money without regard for who you hurt, believing that your economic success is proof of God’s approval? There’s a god for that.

Do you want to ignore the long-term consequences of your actions by believing that God will end the world before they could take effect? There’s a god for that.

And, let’s be fair.

Do you want to study medicine and spend your life in third-world countries taking care of sick children? There’s a god for that, too.

The number of gods that are available for people to choose from is limited only by the imagination. So, if you what to be a thug willing to use violence against those who get in your way, there’s a god for that.

And they can all use the same book and all call themselves Christians because, given the contradictions in the Bible, everybody has to embrace some parts and ignore others. Different people simply choose different parts to embrace or ignore.

With this in mind, let me turn the opening question around. What are you going to say to the person who believes in a final judgment and has decided that the judge will look favorably on his actions? What will you say to him?

Yet, the question remains, how would desirism handle the thug?

One place to start is by admitting that if the thug is in the position to advance his interests by violent actions, and he knows this, then he will advance his interests by violent actions. There is nothing truthful that you can say that can cause him to choose to do something else.

You have four options:

(1) You could tell him something that is not true that would lead him to believe that the violent action will not further his interests (e.g., some God story).

(2) You can make it the case that the violent interest will in fact lead to the thwarting of his desires and make sure he knows this.

(3) You could incapacitate him so that he lacks the ability to act (imprisonment, institutionalization in a mental hospital, dismemberment).

(4) You can change his interests so that he does not have interests that are served by violent action – by giving him a desire to help people or an aversion to using violence.

One of the problems with option (4) is that this is not going to happen in an instant. When the thug has a knife in his hand and he’s ready to use it, it is too late to change his desires so that he lacks the interests that will cause him to use the knife. You’re pretty much limited to using the other three options. However, the fourth option is still available when you have some time and, in particular, when the desires you are trying to influence are still the most malleable.

Some have said that desirism fails because it does not provide you with a magic phrase that will stop a thug on the verge of doing something evil from carrying through with his actions. Then you might as well say that chemistry fails because in has not provided you with a magic phrase that turns lead into gold. The theory does not fail. It explains exactly why nobody has ever been able to find such a magic phrase. It is because, as a matter of fact, that is not how the world works.

Some have said that desirism does not count as a moral theory unless it can tell us something true that we can say to the thug that will alter his motivation on the spot and to get him to refrain from the violence he plans to commit. I doubt that the premise is true; I hold that morality has always been concerned with the use of praise, condemnation, and other social forces to mold peoples’ desires over time.

However, if the reader is willing to accept the premise, then what follows is that this is not a moral theory. However, morality, in this case, will never have anything to do with the real world. It is like alchemy and astronomy – something that people with real-world concerns had best forget about. There is nothing in the real world that counts as ‘morality’ in that sense.

There is no fifth option.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

nate May 13, 2010 at 3:57 am

Is desirism a descriptive theory or a prescriptive theory?

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Dan May 13, 2010 at 4:32 am

Ask the simple question: “what group do you want to be part of or belong to ?”.

I havent done any philosophical “thinking through” on how to deal with the morality/ethics issues often foisted on us by believers whose own theries come up so short, but I like to think in terms of “groups” that people would want to belong to, be associated with and whose values reflect their own sensibilities and – to their desires.

So take for example the thug, in the example mentioned – but more precise a thug who is not a “king thug” – just a regular thug, one who is in a “gang” – his own metaphorical or actual “group” ( community/fellowship/club/etc).

The thug might answer that he belongs to a group that considers harm to outsiders for gain or pleasure to be a desirable and praiseworthy thing. Praise and condemnation within this group supports the values of this thug group.

Consider another group. This group is people who think molesting and torturing kids is praiseworthy, but to “grass up” one of their members is reprehensible.

Some molesters maybe most would not want to belong to such a group or be associated with it even if they carry out such tasks. Maybe they WANT to belong to a much larger group – one that actually condemns such practices.

Or think of another “group” – a group that encourages deceit, lying and any means to achieve ends regardless of cost to others. Now if such a group – for example a mafia family – were to hold to these group values in part – in other words acts of deceit and harm are fine and worty of praise if directed OUTSIDE of the group, but never to GROUP MEMBERS – then we can see many real examples of such groups in real life. They exists. “Honour amongst thieves” comes to mind here.

But now think of a group that encourages deceit, lying and any means to achieve ends regardless of cost to others – regardless of whether this is directed INSIDE or OUTSIDE the group. Now how many people would wish to belong to such a group ?.

My thinking is simply – go ahead – belong to whatever group you like and then see the logical outcome of what that means. In the case of the last group mentioned , Such a group would quickly destroy itself, induce fear, suspicion, stress and wholesale “desire thwarting”.

No need for any actual obective “group morality”. No need for a group “god”.

Now people might retort that selfish psychopaths, molesters and con-men would never want to join a group of people who consider being selfish, psychopathic liars praiseworthy. Instead for purely pragmatic reasons they would most likely fulfil THEIR own desires best by joining a group who believes in not harming, deceiving or molesting others. Such a group becomes DESIRABLE even to the most reprehensible villain.

SO theres my theory.

Think of a set of values – which if adopted by a “group” – would attract the largest set of members.

Whaddya think ?

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Dan May 13, 2010 at 4:56 am

Just a small addendum –

What are we to say of a person who belong to a hypothetical group – one i shall name the”Hinnites” – after the most loathsome xtian charlatan out there. This group believes that deceit for personal gain is the most praiseworthy value held in the group.

The Hinnites teach that if one of their members discovers they have been deceived by another member – say into giving her large wads of cash for bogus reasons – that they are to congratulate this deceiver. Shake his hand and say a mantra:

“Well Done, You really shafted me, keep up the good work, you’re a shining example to all of us. If only I could be as deceitful as you – maybe one day. One lives in hope”

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Alonzo Fyfe May 13, 2010 at 6:01 am

Is desirism a descriptive theory or a prescriptive theory?  (Quote)

It is both.

I am a moral realist. I hold that ‘ought’ is a subset of ‘is’ – that ‘presecription’ is a subset of ‘description’ the way that ‘square’ is a subset of ‘rectangle’.

Not all descriptions are prescriptions.

However, all true prescriptions also, at the same time, describe a relationship between a state of affairs and reasons for action that actually exists. Prescriptions (‘should’ and ‘ought’ statements) that are not at the same time accurate descriptions of relationships between states of affairs and desires can simply be rejected as false.

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Eneasz May 13, 2010 at 7:47 am

Dan -

What are we to say of a person who belong to a hypothetical group – one i shall name the”Hinnites” – after the most loathsome xtian charlatan out there. This group believes that deceit for personal gain is the most praiseworthy value held in the group.

Reread the post, substituting “Hinnite” for “thug” and “deceit” for “violence”, and you will have your answer.

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Erika May 13, 2010 at 8:38 am

Thought provoking essay. I’ll have to chew on it some.

However, I do think the comment about the hypothetical internal justifications of a child molesting priest was something of a cheap shot.

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lukeprog May 13, 2010 at 8:48 am

Nate:

Both.

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cl May 13, 2010 at 9:20 am

Nate,

As I understand it from Fyfe, desirism describes “good desires” as those that “tend to fulfill the desires in question.” (i.e., the generic good)

Desirism then prescribes the “right act” as the act that a person with “good desires” would perform. (i.e., the moral good)

Fyfe seems to base his definition of “moral good” on his definition of “generic good” but I argue that we cannot call a desire “good” simply because it tends to “fulfill the desires in question.” If the “desires in question” are of the type the average contemporary individual would call “bad” to begin with, then any desire that tends to fulfill them would also seem to be bad.

I (still) fail to see how numerical evaluations of desires fulfilled / thwarted can translate into justified moral prescriptions. It is quite easy to think of scenarios where a desire that “tends to fulfill the desires in question” is not a desire that your average contemporary individual would call “good.”

Personally, these are the types of scenarios I’d like to see desirism’s defenders address, e.g., in Greek society pederasty was “good” but in American society pederasty is “bad.” It seems we say either,

1) the Greeks were right;

2) the Americans were right;

3) both the Greeks and Americans were right;

4) neither the Greeks nor the Americans were right.

Desirists, which option do you take — and why?

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Alonzo Fyfe May 13, 2010 at 10:36 am

First, please note that I allow moral truths to change as situations change. The ancient Greeks did not have to deal with (desire-thwarting effects of) either Syphilis or AIDS. These changes provide reasons to condemn desires that are fulfilled by pederasty so as to make those desires less common.

Second, please note that in desirism we are not talking about thwarting desires that are condemned. We are talking about reducing the strength and frequency of the desire. The aim is to make it so that fewer people have desires that can be fulfilled by pederasty and that the desires are weaker in those that do have it.

Still, I believe that the ancient Greeks were probably wrong. The presence of such desires put children at greater risk of abuse and violence. Furthermore, even though syphilis and AIDS did not exist the desires still put children at risk of contacting other sexually transmitted disease.

I believe that a society that allows such behavior has to be one that is less concerned with the well-being of children than one that condemns it, and that there is more and stronger reason to promote concern for the well-being of children than to promote disinterest.

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Andy Walters May 13, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Alonzo/Luke,

Thank you for this thoughtful post. First, as a disclaimer, let me say I know only enough about ethics to be dangerous, and secondly that I certainly do not grok desirism.

But after reading this post and the comments, I wonder whether desirism can morally condemn this thug. To be clear, I am not wondering whether, as a practical matter, a desirist or any other philosophical votary can manipulate his desires. Instead, I want to inquire whether desirism houses the moral facilities necessary to construct a moral constraint against thuggery.

Can desirism legitimately declare the thug morally blaemworthy?

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RA May 13, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Cl goes with the child molestation thing again. I already weighed in on this in another thread but I’ve got a few things to add.

The answer is #3

The real question is were the Greeks just child molesters as Cl imagines or were they simply confused by their own ignorant beliefs?

As I understand it, the abused were of military age and were courted by males much like high school girls were courted by their beaus back in the days of true romance. They chose their abusers among different suitors and the abused were between age 14 and 19. So were they really children or were they men?

This was really a bizarre mentorship. They thought they were promoting the well-being of these young men

In addition, there was no real sex in most cases. I don’t want to go into any details but let’s just say all the action took place in a manner that does not technically qualify as sex today.

The Spartan warriors used to actually go at it with one another full throttle and they did not think of themselves as homosexuals. It was an accepted practice and a great bonding activity. Today they would be considered too wimpy for the U.S. military.

Can behavior considered to be good really be immoral when the people involved are truly ignorant and think it’s a good thing? I think not.

It’s a practice we would not condone today because we are not nearly as ignorant. And give the Greeks credit, they actually figured out that it wasn’t doing anything for them and abandoned it. Some of us are still hanging onto our centuries old beliefs.

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cl May 13, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Alonzo,

These changes provide reasons to condemn desires that are fulfilled by pederasty so as to make those desires less common.

Well sure, but those changes also provide reasons to condemn desires that are fulfilled by sex. So unless you want to say that sex is now wrong, I don’t see how that can be a cogent argument explaining why the Greeks were wrong.

The aim is to make it so that fewer people have desires that can be fulfilled by pederasty and that the desires are weaker in those that do have it.

What do you mean, “the” aim? That’s your aim, and the aim of everyone else who thinks like you. Atheists often use the canard, “Why does God care about what I do in my bedroom,” but here you are [apparently] caring about what other people do in their bedroom.

Per desirism, reducing the desire for pederasty should only be the aim when pederasty tends to thwart the desires in question, correct? IOW, according to desirism’s definition of good, if pederasty tends to fulfill the desires in question, then it must be good and we should promote it. So, what is your argument that pederasty tended [in Greek society] to thwart the desires in question? It seems to be,

The presence of such desires put children at greater risk of abuse and violence.

There are many “good” desires that entail risk; it may be that pederasty is among them. Even if this wasn’t pure assertion on your behalf, how would you calculate this risk against the rest of the desires in question?

May I politely suggest first defining the desires in question, so that something like a numerical evaluation can actually take place?

RA,

I realize some commenters tire of it, but I’ll discuss the example until I feel it’s satisfactorily resolved in desirist terms. Alonzo left me hanging last time. This time, we’re making some progress.

The answer is #3

That’s what I expected Alonzo to say. I was surprised that he took 2.

They thought they were promoting the well-being of these young men

To me the real question is, “Who’s to say they weren’t?” Alonzo argues that the desire for pederasty entails certain risks, but how do we weigh those risks against the benefits? On an even more fundamental level, should we be the ones to weigh those risks? It seems the appropriate question to ask is, How did the Greeks weight those risks? If they were okay with pederasty and unconcerned with those risks, on what grounds can we say they we were wrong?

Can behavior considered to be good really be immoral when the people involved are truly ignorant and think it’s a good thing? I think not.

This seems to translate to, “Under the auspices of positive intent, ignorance of the law is a valid excuse.” Is that what you’re saying?

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RA May 13, 2010 at 2:08 pm

It’s an interesting question. I think it is fine. I just get tired of the lets suppose we had a world of child molesters argument.

I think Alonzo actually took #2 based on today’s modern thinking. He thinks they were ultimately morally wrong by today’s standards.

But we can’t hold ancient people to the same standards. You bring all of your enlightened knowledge and judge the Greeks as if they should have known better. They were a primitive people. They dumped their 6-year-olds out into a public park and let them play Lord of the Flies for a year just to toughen them up.

They did not understand the Leave It to Beaver lifestyle.

There is no law. You assume intrinsic value which does not exist.

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cl May 13, 2010 at 2:42 pm

RA,

I just get tired of the lets suppose we had a world of child molesters argument.

Hey, you and me both. That’s why I think those who defend desirism need a handy, easy-to-understand response to it (along with the Nazi example, and other popular iterations of the “1000 sadists” problem).

I think Alonzo actually took #2 based on today’s modern thinking. He thinks they were ultimately morally wrong by today’s standards.

Hmmm… he can correct whichever one of us is wrong, but I’m under the impression Alonzo thinks the Greeks were “probably wrong” because of what he alleges are inherent risks involved with the desire for pederasty. Even if that is a fair paraphrase of Alonzo’s position, and even if we accept the claim despite Alonzo’s lack of empirical support for it, those risks would still apply to sex in general, so why doesn’t Alonzo judge sex in general as equally “probably wrong?”

But we can’t hold ancient people to the same standards. You bring all of your enlightened knowledge and judge the Greeks as if they should have known better.

I agree. Who does the “you” in your second sentence allude to, RA? If it alludes to me, you are quite mistaken: I am not passing any judgment on the Greeks whatsoever. In fact, I’m doing just the opposite: I am asking those who pass judgment on the Greeks for their justification.

You assume intrinsic value which does not exist.

No, you assume I assume intrinsic value, which you assume does not exist. For the purposes of these discussions, I make no assumption on the matter, nor do I offer any arguments that would require such an assumption.

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RA May 13, 2010 at 2:50 pm

We don’t have any idea what the Greeks were thinking so I think it is wrong to make any assumptions about them and try to make any moral equations. Anyhow, it would probably be better if the topic stayed on the thug argument for a while so I’m going to drop it.

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cl May 13, 2010 at 3:19 pm

RA,

We don’t have any idea what the Greeks were thinking so I think it is wrong to make any assumptions about them and try to make any moral equations.

I tend to agree. Note that Alonzo is the one making the assumption that the Greeks were “probably wrong.” I’m simply asking for a justification that can’t equally judge sex in general as “probably wrong.”

Anyhow, it would probably be better if the topic stayed on the thug argument for a while so I’m going to drop it.

Better for who?

I have no interest in continuing the thug argument, either, and was disappointed that Alonzo still felt compelled to respond to strawmen. I say strawmen because the necessity of “making something up” was not implicit in my original argument, which Alonzo didn’t even take the time to link to [the comment of mine Alonzo pulled from is about 23 comments down].

My real questions were about pederasty and Nazis in the first place, not Alonzo’s assumption that God doesn’t exist hence DCT is bunk. The “thug” thing is just a side issue Alonzo chose to focus on for whatever reason.

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