How to Make the World a Better Place

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 4, 2010 in Ethics,Video

Here is a brief speech I gave in Hollywood on desirism… except that I don’t mention the name of the theory, and I present it at a very accessible level, without explaining its meta-ethical foundations, as in my trailer for desirism.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sabio Lantz April 5, 2010 at 12:22 am

Many of our laws are indeed set up to change behavior by changing desires. And the manipulations of faiths is the attempt to change desires. I really don’t get how you said something unique.


lukeprog April 5, 2010 at 12:30 am


Yes, I think you’re right. And certainly, desirism is far from the first moral theory to emphasize moral desires over moral acts! That is a very old tradition.


Richard Wein April 5, 2010 at 2:53 am

Luke, congratulations on your performance.

With regard to the contents of your speech, “desirism” seems to be two separate things:

1. The pragmatic view that the best way to change people’s behaviour is to change their desires. Or perhaps you’re saying that the only way to change people’s behaviour is to change their desires. That makes sense if you define “desires” widely enough to include all motivations. Also, the pragmatic view that the best way to change people’s desires is through praise and condemnation.

2. A meta-ethical theory about the nature of morality and the meaning of moral language.

Your speech presented only the pragmatic view. You said in your post that you didn’t explain its meta-ethical foundations. But the pragmatic view doesn’t have (or need) any meta-ethical foundations. I was able to describe it without using any moral terms. True, you occasionally used moral terms in your speech, to describe the kind of behaviour we want to promote. But they weren’t necessary. For “good behaviour/desires” you could equally well have said “whatever behaviour/desires we consider good” or “whatever behaviour/desires we want to promote” and it wouldn’t have changed your argument.

The pragmatic view seems quite reasonable. But your meta-ethical theory is, to say the least, controversial. (Actually, I think it’s nonsense, but I won’t go over that ground again.) Don’t you think that you risk detracting from the persuasiveness of your pragmatic view if you associate it with a controversial and unnecessary meta-ethical theory?


vorodin April 5, 2010 at 9:52 am

Next stop, TED


lukeprog April 5, 2010 at 10:50 am


As Sabio pointed out, nothing in my speech is new or unique to desirism. People are welcome to agree with the pragmatic points without accepting (or even understanding) my meta-ethical views.


lukeprog April 5, 2010 at 10:52 am


Heh. Well, I’m a long way from TED-quality, but I’m working on it. I got lots of great constructive criticism on this speech that will help me improve.

Actually, the next stop is UCSD. I’ll post about that a bit later.


Sabio Lantz April 5, 2010 at 5:15 pm

@ Luke,
I must be a bit thick. Seriously, the speech sounds highly mistaken — not just mundane.

You state that to date, our great traditions have offered 3 ways to make the world a better place:
1. Discipline
2. Faith
3. Laws
But since the world is not a better place, you claim these must all be failures. So you come with a new Gospel — you offer a fourth way. (drum roll)
4. Change Desires with condemnation and praise

But what I am saying is that discipline, faith and laws all change desires and in some way or other with condemnation and/or praise.

Then you use slavery as an example. But I think you were mistaken: Slavery changed slowly (not overnight) and the change was brought about by faith in some, discipline in others, laws in others, and economics changing desires in others . . .

I mean, really, all you said is that our desires change our behavior — we have known and worked on that principle for centuries: laws, faith and discipline are all founded on that principle. You did not offer a fourth way. (Is that a Gurdjieff allusion? — smile)

Again, I don’t see how you offered anything new. But maybe I am not getting something. But, to me, if people walked away from your speech thinking they heard something new, you get a A+ in salesmanship. Very nice presence, btw.


lukeprog April 5, 2010 at 6:09 pm


I have already said there is nothing new in my speech. In fact, there is almost no content at all, as you observe. If there is a way to present new content in a 5 minute speech in a way that is actually going to connect with people and impact them, I have not yet learned it. Philosophical argument or innovation was not the purpose of my 5 minute speech.


Sabio Lantz April 5, 2010 at 6:09 pm

(forgot to sign in for e-mail notification)


Sabio April 7, 2010 at 3:35 am



David April 7, 2010 at 9:09 am

On praise and condemnation and changing desires:

I think your slavery analogy has a flaw. People who desired to have slaves did not (for the most part) change to have a desire not to have a slaves as a result of condemnation. Their children did – in the two cases I know of (the UK and the US), it took generations of slow abolitionist build-up before the practice was legally abolished and then it took time after that for the populace’s desires to align. So at least for slavery, the method of “praise and condemnation” seems to me to not’ve changed anyone’s mind at all, but rather to have shaped the new minds of the next generation.


Eugene June 18, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Luke, This is a well structured and clearly presented speech!

But I don’t see the connection between praise/condemnation and desire. How do you distinguish praise/condemnation the desire vs praise/condemnation of the action? To me, it seems like when we say we praise something, we are praising the action because that’s we see. We don’t see the desire. The action is public, while the desire is private.

Also, praise and condemnation requires the acceptance of an authority — whether its in the form of a powerful figure or just social conformity. It’s not clear what you think the authority is. I thought Desirism is a moral theory based on rationality that is independent of external authority.

I know it’s unfair to criticize your argument in a 5 minute video, because you simplified a lot for the sake of clarity. From what I read about Desirism, I actually like the approach. But I just don’t quite know where you are going with the argument here.

Still, I enjoy your work!


lukeprog June 18, 2010 at 5:36 pm


When you condemn an action, you have no effect on the action. The action has already happened. The effect of your condemnation is on the desires relevant to performing that action in the future.

Praise and condemnation have their effect on desires whether or not the speaker is an authority figure.



Sarah January 25, 2012 at 4:20 pm

i loved it and it helped me on my speech too!:)


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