CPBD 057: Tim Schroeder – Desire and Morality

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 25, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Tim Schroeder. Among other things, we discuss:

  • Different theories of desire
  • The implications of neuroscience for meta-ethics

Download CPBD episode 057 with Tim Schroeder. Total time is 53:31.

Tim Schroeder links:

Links for things we discussed:

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

Sweet new logo for Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot courtesy of anonymous donor.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

John D July 25, 2010 at 6:28 am

Nice new logo.

Have no comments about the episode. Will listen in due course.


NagelWattage July 25, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Have yet to listen to this episode but I wanted to compliment you on the new logo! Sharp!


Mo July 25, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Oooo Kant! I “Kant” wait to listen! Sorry, I had to say it. I have to say I don’t like the new logo as much. It all looks good except for the speech bubble. You could also emphasize the glow from the sun, maybe make it a little bigger? Just a suggestion.


RA July 25, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Clever logo. Thumbs up.


Bill Maher July 25, 2010 at 4:08 pm

I dig the new logo and the new intro song. very professional looking.


Cyril July 25, 2010 at 10:39 pm

A great episode, and with a fascinating topic. But I might be biased, since one of the main reasons I read the blog is to learn more about desirism (keep up the good work!).

So on that note:
Most of what Mr. Fyfe has written seems to be going on the motivational theory of desires. What kind of implications are there for desirism if it turns out that one of the other theories are correct?

Also, I know that in one of the desirism F.A.Q.s there was the question about “what has desires?”. In this context, does the proposed connection of dopamine production to the presence of desires (however construed) have any ethical relevance?

I’d be interested to know what you think about these things.


lukeprog July 26, 2010 at 6:07 am


Those are issues I plan to discuss in the future. But the framework of desirism is mostly just tied to reasons for action. If our reasons for action turn out to be not what we were calling ‘desires’ but rather something else, then the exact same logic might work built on top of whatever those reasons for action are. Then desirism will be misnamed, but most of its claims will still be true if we replace ‘desire’ in the theory with our name for whatever our actual reasons for action are rightly called. Maybe the theory should have been called ‘reasons-for-action-ism’, but that’s not as catchy. :)


Cyril July 26, 2010 at 5:31 pm


I see what you mean about the name thing. The difference between the thing-in-itself and the name that we apply to it seems to be a fairly constant thread in desirism discussions, so I’m not sure how I missed that one.

As for the other question, I look forward to seeing what you have to say.


CJ August 1, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Luke, I was very disappointed in the last half of this episode. I didn’t have any major problems with your ability and willingness to challenge Tim on the main topic of the day, but when you encouraged him to go down the road of the implications of his ideas for multiculturalism, you let him get away with some obviously bad reasoning.

To claim that someone from outside a culture cannot reasonably comment on the actions of its members is just asinine, especially when culture is such a fluid and poorly defined term. The fact is that there are multiple cultures within cultures. We are all members of various cultures, and to say that you have to be a member of an in-group to justifiably make a change is not reasonable.

He equates culture with nation, which we should all be able to recognize as obviously flawed. If you go this multicultural route, why can’t the men within these nations claim that the women are a separate culture within their nation, and they should not be able to comment on the actions of the men. There is no reasonable standard to judge this as wrong by the account of ethics he is trying to push. He clearly advocates an account of ethics that allows women in Islam to push for change, but he doesn’t give them any footing to do so that doesn’t violate his own standard of ethics.

By the multicultural standard he advocated, I can’t make comments about the groups of violent gangs living in the inner city of my region that prey on poor people and women in their community. I can’t comment on young teenagers who turn online gaming into a cesspool of racial slurs and hate speech. I can’t comment on groups who traffic in women in children for the gratification of sexual predators. I’m not a knowing, participating part of any of those cultures, so I have nothing I can say about them as an outsider.

I did a double-take when Tim claimed that polling showed that members of groups we might consider obviously harmful or harmed aren’t any less self-actualized. How can you honestly stand there and tell me that women in Iran who live in fear of being buried up to their necks and stoned to death for being caught in a vehicle with a man they aren’t married to are as self-actualized as your average person in the West? The videos of these women being violently assaulted put the lie to any such poll.


lukeprog August 1, 2010 at 7:36 pm


I hope you didn’t think I agreed with everything Tim said. And no, I don’t challenge my guests on everything. We’d never finish, and I’d never get any more guests! :)


CJ August 1, 2010 at 8:24 pm

I know this, Luke. On the other hand, you are usually pretty good about bringing up problems with or known criticisms to ideas that your guests bring to the table. You did a good job of this early on in the show. You just didn’t keep up the same rigor on the issue of multiculturalism…and I’m not sure how Tim’s form of multiculturalism even follows from the stuff he argues for in the first half of the show.

It seems to me that he is applying some kind of undefined higher ethical standard when he says who can and cannot reasonably criticize the actions of a group. By his own accounts, it seems he should premise any argument along these lines to something like “I’m emotionally committed to the idea that…” to remain consistent with his arguments.

Instead, he seems to be trying to make a rational argument based on premises and conclusions while apparently discounting the validity of reason as a method for reaching ethical conclusions.


CJ August 2, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Shit, I posted this on the wrong podcast episode. Sorry. You seem to have gotten the context, though.


JQ February 21, 2011 at 10:41 am

I happen to think that Tim Schroeder got away saying some implausible things about morality at the end of *this* episode. Here are two worries.

About normative ethics, Tim said or implied that all of people’s desires are relevant to morality. Certainly some desires are not morally relevant; for example, the fact that I would like to eat a Hershey’s Kiss does not suggest anything about any obligation or permission, for me or anyone else, is connected to my eating the Kiss. Furthermore, there will be plenty of morally relevant actions with no straightforward connection to desire. Suppose that someone desires that I torture him to death. His desiring this does not change the fact that it would be morally impermissible for me to do so.

On metaethics, Tim suggested that our contingent attitudes of endorsement or connection are sufficient to capture the force of moral reasons–that moral reasons don’t need to be justified or grounded any more than does Tim’s being a fan of the Montreal Canadians. That’s false. Morality is a system of norms which people use to evaluate each other’s conduct, as well as to blame, praise, and punish. If I tell someone they morally ought to do such-and-such, and they don’t see this right away, I either have to appeal to some more basic moral consideration that they’ll agree with, or assert that it is a basic norm they’re going to have to see applies to them. By contrast, it’s rare that anyone seriously tries to tell anyone else that they ought to be a fan of this or that team, and there is almost never any praise, blame, or punishment dispensed on this matter.


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