Gluttony and Superlust

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 5, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

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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A member of the studio audience recently expressed surprise that desirism could recommend condemning a desire that we had no reason to get rid of. In fact, it can call for condemning a desire we have many and strong reasons to keep.

The missing ingredient rests in the possibility (the actuality, in some cases) that nature gave us desires biologically useful to our ancestors that are too strong for our current environment. In this environment, those desires tend to thwart other desires and, for that reason, they need to be tempered or controlled. However, they are not to be eliminated; that would be going too far.

The two desires that this is true of are hunger and lust – the desire for food, and the desire for sex. By and large these desires tend to fulfill other desires. However, they are too strong in some cases, leading to behavior that tends to thwart other desires.

Hunger becomes gluttony, over-eating, leading to obesity and a number of health problems that, at best, disable a person’s ability to fulfill other desires and, at worst, actively thwarts those other desires.

Lust becomes . . . well . . . our language does not have a word for it. The word for excessive sexual desire used to be lust, but languages change over time, and the definition of ‘lust’ seems to have transmogrified into one that is now synonymous with ‘sexual desire.’ For convenience, let’s call excessive sexual desire ‘superlust.’

Superlust, then motivates violent or other forms of abusive behavior and contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted disease. Both of these families of consequences tend to thwart other desires.

There is an important difference between the harms caused by gluttony and the harms caused by superlust. The harms of gluttony are largely self-inflicted.1 Because of this, the wrong of gluttony is mostly classified as imprudence. It is not immoral or evil to eat too much – unless one is taking food away from others who are starving. It is just unwise. One would be better off – able to fulfill more and stronger desires – if one’s desire for food is tempered to some degree.

Yet, it is also important to note that gluttony is desire-thwarting even if one does not eat. The person who struggles to stay on a diet lives his life in a daily battle with himself – a battle that would simply go away if the desire to eat could be tempered. One of the qualities of desire-thwarting desires is that one must choose between fulfilling the desire and thwarting other desires, or not thwarting other desires and thwarting the bad desire itself.

In contrast, while many of the harms caused by lust are self-inflicted, some, such as violence and other forms of abuse, are inflicted on others. Violence becomes a weapon for fulfilling the desire for sex, people are manipulated and deceived, and children and faithful spouses are afflicted with desire-thwarting sexually transmitted diseases. The fact that the desires of others are thwarted by an untempered desire for sex means that these are not simply matters of prudence. They are moral concerns.

Desirism speaks about promoting (through praise and reward) desirs that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting (through condemnation and punishment) those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Yet, I hold that there is a moral matter with respect to gluttony. This has to do with the moral responsibility that parents have to mold the desires of their children. This responsibility includes a responsibility to give a child desires, where possible, that will continue to fulfill the child’s future desires. A morally responsible parent would use praise and condemnation, and reward and punishment, to try to give a child a preference for healthy eating and exercise, and aversions to junk foods and activities that would contribute to an unhealthy adulthood.

Unless there is some sort of medical condition at work, the parent of an obese child is an abusive parent by that fact alone.

There is a component of desirism that fits the mold of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ that says that, to the degree that desires can’t be molded, to that degree desires fall outside the realm of morality. One could argue that desires for food or sex cannot be molded.

Cultural variations in diet, not only between regions but among populations in the same region, suggest that there are some environmental influences on the foods we like to eat. We can harvest that cultural malleability to promote a healthier culture – a culture with stronger and more wide-spread desires for the foods that are good for us.

As for sexual desire, there may be limits in our ability to influence sexual orientation. However, we do appear to have the ability to apply aversions in the form of guilt and shame to certain types of behavior, forming strong aversions to appearing naked in public for example. While there is no value in attaching shame and guilt to ways of fulfilling sexual desire that thwart no other desires (masturbation, homosexuality), we do have reason to attach these sentiments to forms of behavior that are desire-thwarting (unprotected sex with multiple partners, infidelity).

These facts demonstrate the desires for food and for sex are not entirely beyond the reach of social customs. While there may be limits on our ability to mold these desires, we are not impotent. And we have many and strong reasons to mold and shape these desires in ways that avoid some of their harmful potential.

- Alonzo Fyfe

  1. Of course, gluttony does have effects on fulfilling or thwarting the desires of others as well. As it thwarts the desires of the glutton, it also thwarts the desires of those who care about the glutton. The person whose health is poor as a result of lifestyle choices puts a burden on those around her to care for her. Furthermore, it puts a burden on the taxpayer in any country where the taxpayer suffers the costs of a person’s lifestyle choices. These facts may well give others reason to condemn those lifestyle choices. However, these facts are mitigated by the fact that others volunteer to accept these costs. If I force you to let me make your house payments for you, am I then also justified in forcing you to accept my rules on how to use the house? These issues get complicated. Still, on the proximate desires thwarted by gluttony are those of the agent, so the proximate concerns with respect to molding the desire for food are practical rather than moral concerns. []

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

EvanT August 5, 2010 at 4:55 am

This article reminds me in part the 4 epicurean classification of desires(on the natural-artificial and necessary-unnecessary axes). I get this epicurean feeling a lot with Fyfe. Do you know if he’s ever mentioned whether or not epicurean philosophy has had an influence on his ideas?

I also liked the comment on the inexistence of a word for sexual insatiability now that “lust” has been watered down. If a man with superlust is a “satyr” and a woman a “nymphomaniac” what could a generic term for both genders be… I got nothing, but my thinking revolves around Dionysus for some reason :P

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe August 5, 2010 at 5:04 am

Perhaps off-topic, but it’s sad that your work on ethics hasn’t been through peer-review. Does it take that much time to prepare a paper worthy of submission? The theory sounds elegant, but being untrained in philosophy, I’m not sure it’s responsible to trust it. I think this is the same dilemma Luke is facing as well, such that he even made it is his dream to go study philosophy well enough to defend this theory (AFAIR).

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Silas August 5, 2010 at 6:31 am

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe,

Alonzo isn’t interested in having his work peer-reviewed, I think.

Luke writes:
“Most major philosophers are not even aware of the theory, because Fyfe has not published his work in any peer-reviewed journals. Fyfe says this is because he doesn’t want to spend his life in ivory towers – he wants to bring his ideas directly to the people.”

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe August 5, 2010 at 6:40 am

@Silas: I’ve seen that. I just wonder what “ivory tower” worry has to do with with “getting ur work peer-reviewed”. I mean, not enough people take his work seriously.

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Charles August 5, 2010 at 8:19 am

I too don’t understand the whole “ivory tower” meme. Journals and conferences are the way that scientists communicate with one another.

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cl August 5, 2010 at 11:07 am

(1) Since any desire can be so strong that it ends up thwarting other desires, I’m not sure what this post accomplished. To me, it just seemed like a verbose way of saying “all things in moderation.”

(2) Fyfe’s assertion that homosexuality doesn’t thwart other desires cannot be true in the across-the-board manner in which he presents it, else he falsifies a foundational pillar of desirism. If it’s fair to say the human race shares a collective desire for successful promulgation, then it’s fair to say that homosexual desire retains the potential to thwart the desire for promulgation. If allowed to run too rampant – i.e. without some degree of condemnation – the desire for homosexuality could eventually blot out the species.

One could certainly counter-argue that the desire for homosexuality is good because it promotes a stable population [numerically speaking] and ultimately fulfills the collective desire for successful promulgation, but that’s another argument altogether, and wouldn’t change the fact that it is certainly not accurate to say the desire for homosexuality doesn’t thwart other desires.

The main point here is that if one of desirism’s foundational pillars is true – that there is no such thing as intrinsic value – then all desires necessarily retain the potential to fulfill or thwart other desires. This means we cannot responsibly assign a de facto value to any desire, which means it is not necessarily true to claim that the desire for homosexuality does not thwart other desires, which means that without emendations, Fyfe is contradicting himself. Unless of course I’m misunderstanding him.

(3) Fyfe writes,

Unless there is some sort of medical condition at work, the parent of an obese child is an abusive parent by that fact alone.

That’s invalid. Might Fyfe be arguing from his own intuition here? Or is this just an example of painting with too broad a stroke? I think it’s fair to say that for most people, negligent and abusive are two different things, and that the fostering of poor eating habits which leads to obesity is an example of negligence, not abuse.

Semantic issues aside, Fyfe’s judgment only holds in those cases where at least two conditions are met: where the parents have 100% control over their child’s food choices, and where the parents have true beliefs about food choices. Many parents simply don’t have true beliefs about the effects of food choices. Among many of those who do encourage healthy eating habits, unfortunately, little Johnny is getting fat at Grandma’s or Aunt May’s where the rules are a little less strict, or at public school, where multinational junk-food corporations entice the lad or lass with their products. To call the parent abusive or negligent outside these conditions seems inappropriate.

My point is, we should think things through. We should be skeptical of blanket statements like Fyfe’s, especially when it comes to judging other people to the point that we call them abusive [or evil as Luke does, for that matter].

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lukeprog August 5, 2010 at 11:18 am

Charles,

Neither do I. :)

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lukeprog August 5, 2010 at 11:19 am

cl,

By the way, Alonzo knows applied ethics is complicated, and has clarified, for example, his ideas about homosexuality in other posts.

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cl August 5, 2010 at 11:33 am

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe,

Perhaps off-topic, but it’s sad that your work on ethics hasn’t been through peer-review. Does it take that much time to prepare a paper worthy of submission? The theory sounds elegant, but being untrained in philosophy, I’m not sure it’s responsible to trust it.

In my opinion, it’s not responsible to trust it, and it’s worse than sad: it’s intellectually reckless if Alonzo doesn’t care to submit his theory for peer review. Not that peer review is necessarily the “be all end all” for cogent arguments, but such is definitely considered courteous, professional and intellectually responsible.

Consider for a moment that Alonzo claims desirism is an empirical theory about things that exist in the real world, something like a science of morality. Well, in any other situation where people put forth theories about the real world – i.e. science as Charles notes above – they must submit their work for peer review. When they do not, such is not usually looked upon as courteous, professional or intellectually responsible. [cf. YECs, whom Alonzo criticizes vehemently]

To those who might not know, I’m not an staunch opponent of desirism. I do believe that it has some merit, but I also believe that the current objections amount to fatal flaws until resolved. Of those who support Alonzo, I can personally attest to many that scold YECs for intellectual recklessness [cf. Luke]. While I grant that Alonzo isn’t trying to get his theory into the public science curriculum, why do so many rationalists criticize YECs to the extreme of labeling them evil, then apparently grant Alonzo a free pass for what essentially amounts to the same type of behavior?

I mean, not enough people take his work seriously.

Given such a substantial amount of hitherto valid objections, I feel it would be irresponsible to take his work seriously, which is why I object to Luke pressing on towards peer review amidst valid objections. If Alonzo can meet the current objections, then I’d feel he might have something worthy of submission, but if Luke thinks the referees aren’t going to echo at least some of the same objections raised by the intelligent crowd who reads here, I think he’s in for a rude awakening.

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Lee A.P. August 5, 2010 at 11:54 am

Greatest.

Pic.

Ever.

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cl August 5, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Luke,

…Alonzo knows applied ethics is complicated, and has clarified, for example, his ideas about homosexuality in other posts.

LMGTS: You’re ostensibly practicing your skills for peer review, yet you opt not to cite sources? I know this is just a blog post but come on!

The last I read, Alonzo was still advancing the same unpersuasive argument that the best response to “What if everybody were homosexual” is, “What if everybody were a priest?” In fact, Alonzo states that modern reproductive technologies actually make the latter state of affairs more desire-thwarting than the former. This implies that technology has the ability to transform a morally wrong desire into a morally permissible or perhaps even morally good desire. If science were to invent a machine that could reverse the effects of smoking, does that mean smoking becomes morally permissible?

In situations where we don’t proffer technology as our justification, other questions remain, such as the question of how to determine the “critical mass” for any given desire. Is smoking, or pederasty, or gambling, trash TV or anything else bad when only one or two people engage therein? How many people need to have a desire-thwarting desire before “people generally” have reason to condemn that desire? In any given case, how do we know when the numbers are getting out of control?

Until these and other questions are answered, how can desirism be anything but a terribly blurry theory as far as prescriptive value is concerned?

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lukeprog August 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm

cl,

This is not hard.

And actually, about applied ethics issues I have many of the same concerns you do. I try to stay out of applied ethics for now, because I don’t have time to examine all of that. If you have questions about applied ethics, I probably won’t answer because my answer is “I don’t know.” But you sound like you’re saying desirism is false because one person’s look at desirism’s implications for an issue in applied ethics is false or hasn’t been fully worked out. I totally agree that the issues in applied ethics haven’t been worked out, and they are almost all suspicious to me. But this doesn’t make desirism false. It just makes us uncertain whether particular conclusions about applied ethical issues really follow from desirist premises or not.

If you have concerns at the meta-ethical level, then I might find the time to reply.

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cl August 5, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Luke,

This is not hard.

Apparently, getting you to be specific is. Exactly what do you proffer as pertinent in the post you link to?

…you sound like you’re saying desirism is false because one person’s look at desirism’s implications for an issue in applied ethics is false or hasn’t been fully worked out.

To my knowledge, I’ve not ever once typed the string, “desirism is false.” I’m saying that we have instance after instance of valid objections to desirism both at the level of applied and meta ethics, and I am criticizing you and Alonzo for beating around the bush and refusing to address them head-on. At this point, I’m not interested in pronouncing desirism “true” or “false.” In fact, I can’t pronounce desirism true or false – at least not responsibly – because you and Fyfe refuse to respond to a growing number of objections. So, you’re mistaken. I’m not looking to pronounce desirism false. I’m looking for justifications and explanations so I might make a more informed decision, and I’m getting stonewalled.

If you have concerns at the meta-ethical level, then I might find the time to reply.

Don’t be disingenuous, and quit making excuses, please. From Wikipedia:

While normative ethics addresses such questions as “What should one do?”, thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, meta-ethics addresses questions such as “What is goodness?” and “How can we tell what is good from what is bad?”, seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.

I have been raising meta-ethical questions all along. In fact, I’ve raised one again in this thread, right here under your nose. I’ve claimed that “good” must mean something more than “tends to fulfill other desires,” and I’ve included an argument from applied ethics that illustrates the point [Cartesian's Nazi example]. Note that it’s one of the same arguments that was raised here months ago, possibly even last year.

So don’t sit there and pretend you’ve only got time for meta-ethical issues, when you’re blatantly ignoring meta-ethical issues that are already on the table. Unless of course you don’t care about making sense.

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lukeprog August 5, 2010 at 2:18 pm

cl,

Okay, so let’s back up and keep things simple:

So now that I’ve (hopefully) cleared up some things about the argument against creationists, do you have an objection to that line of reasoning that stands?

If we’re back to Cartesian’s Nazi counter-argument, then we’ll go there. But first I want to see if your rejection is back to that point, or if you still object to something in the argument for the condemnation of creationists.

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cl August 5, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Luke,

So now that I’ve (hopefully) cleared up some things about the argument against creationists, do you have an objection to that line of reasoning that stands?

Yes. I believe the objections I’ve already given stand, despite your efforts to label them strawmen. See the fifty-third comment here. For the reasons given therein, I submit that your argument against creationists remains in need of emendations at best, and intellectually reckless at worst.

Also, I’m in favor of keeping this simple and appreciate you participating today. Let’s see if we can’t follow the creationist thing through all the way to the end this time. Please don’t get fed up and pull the “I don’t have the time card” anymore. Please!

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Lorkas August 5, 2010 at 4:06 pm

“Apparently, getting you to be specific is. Exactly what do you proffer as pertinent in the post you link to?”

cl,

You complained about Luke not citing a source regarding Fyfe’s other posts on homosexuality. He gave you a link taking you to a page with the search results for the term “homosexuality” on Fyfe’s blog. You’re awfully condescending for someone who apparently can’t read.

That said, I agree with you wholeheartedly about Fyfe regarding peer review. It’s downright cowardly of Fyfe not to submit his ideas to peer review. Maybe he doesn’t like the way the peer review process works, but there is a good reason for it. There are a lot more wrong ideas than right ideas in the world, and peer review is one of the best processes for sorting out which are which. I’ve heard enough about what Luke and Alonzo have to say about desirism. I want to hear more about desirism from philosophers who are critical of the theory, and hear some genuine dialogue about the theory between philosophers.

All I get here are 1) the same things I’ve heard about desirism from Luke and Alonzo over and over again (which has so far failed to persuade me to think of desirism as a true theory), and 2) the objections of anti-desirist commenters who can’t seem to understand desirism as presented by Luke and Alonzo.

Alonzo, quit trying to excuse your theory from criticism by avoiding peer review. It’s time to throw your theory into the deep end and hope it floats.

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lukeprog August 5, 2010 at 5:03 pm

cl,

FYI, I agree with everything Lorkas just presented. Alonzo and I are mostly repeating ourselves, and I think we’re gradually finding ways to be more clear about things. (I’ll give one example, below.) But the big deal is that somebody needs to bring this for peer review and see what the philosophers say, because nearly all the objections I hear here are blatant misunderstandings of what Alonzo and I are actually claiming.

What’s the example of where I think I’ve figured out I can be more clear? I used to differentiate between ‘reasons for action’ and ‘moral reasons for action.’ But this is confusing because ‘moral reasons for action’ is an invented term that is better avoided by claiming that “moral” reasons for action do not exist, rather there is a universal consideration of reasons for action that is called into play when considering a theory of morality. There is no special kind of reason for action called moral reason for action. I think this led to some earlier confusion. So I hope I’ll continue to make progress in making the theory clear.

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Cyril August 5, 2010 at 5:20 pm

This seems kinda wordy and a bit too specific. It could be stated more simply:

Certain desires act against one’s own desires but not against other desires and are therefore “imprudent”.

If Bob desires that Jane not have such-and-such imprudent desire, however, that Bob’s desire is a moral one, because to the extent that it’s fulfilled, other desires are fulfilled.

To put it even more simply, a desire that someone has an imprudent desire is itself an immoral desire, and a desire that someone has a prudent desire is itself a moral desire.

Am I getting that right?

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cl August 5, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Lorkas,

You’re awfully condescending for someone who apparently can’t read.

LOL! That was genuinely witty. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry you perceive asking Luke to be more specific as condescending, but speaking of condescending, you’re the one taking that route as far as I’m concerned. I can read just fine, thank you. I asked Luke to be more specific because he simply pointed me to an entire post of Alonzo’s – an entire post that I’d already glazed over, mind you – and expected me to figure out exactly what he was referring to when he could have just been specific. Do you think that’s courteous? I don’t.

That said, I agree with you wholeheartedly about Fyfe regarding peer review.

I’m glad we can agree on something.

It’s downright cowardly of Fyfe not to submit his ideas to peer review.

It is, if and only if fear is a motivating factor in Alonzo’s disinterest in submitting his work, but I don’t know whether that’s the case or not.

All I get here are 1) the same things I’ve heard about desirism from Luke and Alonzo over and over again (which has so far failed to persuade me to think of desirism as a true theory), and 2) the objections of anti-desirist commenters who can’t seem to understand desirism as presented by Luke and Alonzo.

Re 1), I agree, and submit that we’re not alone. Several intelligent commenters who generally understand the theory have consistently raised valid objections [cf. Richard Wein, Polymeron, Cartiesian, et al.]

Re 2), in my experience, though we’re all prone to misunderstanding a proposition or argument here and there, more dissenters understand desirism than not, so I can’t really agree with you there. Although, I would agree that commenters who misunderstand the theory are not uncommon. If, by chance, you’re implying that I’m among the commenters who misunderstand the theory, I’d ask you to state specific instances – with preferably verbatim citations – that illustrate misunderstanding of desirism on my behalf.

Alonzo, quit trying to excuse your theory from criticism by avoiding peer review. It’s time to throw your theory into the deep end and hope it floats.

I think that’s commendable of you. I think you are acting in accord with desirist principles when you condemn Alonzo for [what is arguably] intellectual recklessness. Really, that’s all I’m asking here: that more people like yourself would speak up, and that Luke and Alonzo would face the music instead of dilly-dally around, trot out the Courtier’s Reply, and pretend we need professional philosophers to sort things out.

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cl August 5, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Luke,

What’s the example of where I think I’ve figured out I can be more clear? I used to differentiate between ‘reasons for action’ and ‘moral reasons for action.’ But this is confusing because ‘moral reasons for action’ is an invented term that is better avoided by claiming that “moral” reasons for action do not exist, rather there is a universal consideration of reasons for action that is called into play when considering a theory of morality. There is no special kind of reason for action called moral reason for action. I think this led to some earlier confusion. So I hope I’ll continue to make progress in making the theory clear.

What was your point in mentioning that to me?

Alonzo and I are mostly repeating ourselves, and I think we’re gradually finding ways to be more clear about things.

Well I suppose that’s somewhat reassuring, but the last time you mentioned the fact that you were repeating yourselves, it was as a premise offered in support of the claim that most everyone else misunderstands desirism, a.k.a., the Courtier’s Reply.

…the big deal is that somebody needs to bring this for peer review and see what the philosophers say, because nearly all the objections I hear here are blatant misunderstandings of what Alonzo and I are actually claiming.

See, you did it again: the Courtier’s Reply. Ironically, you should be ashamed at how poorly you are understanding my arguments:

Example #1: Alonzo claims non-malleable desires exist, yet has refused to clarify when pressed on the issue by myself and others [cf. Cyril]. This is not an issue that needs peer review to be resolved at this point in time. Alonzo just needs to justify the assertion. What makes you think a professional philosopher is going to excuse an unfounded assertion?

Example #2: Alonzo claims that the Greeks were “probably wrong” concerning pederasty, yet refuses to give argument or explanation when pressed on the issue, save for a vague appeal to an unspecified subset of venereal diseases that would seemingly make all forms of sex also “probably wrong.” This isn’t an issue that needs peer review to be resolved at this point in time, either. Alonzo just needs to get on with his explanation. What makes you think a professional philosopher wouldn’t ask Alonzo to explain his position in greater detail?

Example #3: Alonzo claims that desirism is a prescriptive as well as descriptive theory, yet, he also states that desirism “prescribes nothing” in the case of 200 that P and 200 that ~P, where P = some malleable desire. When pressed on the issue, he accused me of “equivocating” and refused to explain himself any further. This is not an issue that needs peer review to be resolved at this point in time, either. Alonzo just needs to explain the apparent discrepancy. What makes you think a professional philosopher wouldn’t ask Alonzo to explain the apparent discrepancy?

So, unfortunately for your claim that we’re misunderstanding desirism and that we need professional philosophers to sort things out, there are three examples that clearly don’t need peer review to be resolved at this point in time, and none of them are founded upon blatant misunderstanding of desirism.

Now what? Would you agree or disagree that mine are examples of objections that don’t need peer review to be resolved at this time, and that none of them are founded upon blatant misunderstanding of DU? Be specific.

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piero August 5, 2010 at 10:57 pm

cl:

If it’s fair to say the human race shares a collective desire for successful promulgation, then it’s fair to say that homosexual desire retains the potential to thwart the desire for promulgation. If allowed to run too rampant – i.e. without some degree of condemnation – the desire for homosexuality could eventually blot out the species.

This has been discussed ad nauseam, and it has been repeatedly shown to be a spurious argument. What “desire for homosexuality”? People do not have a desire to become homosexual: they just are homosexual or heterosexual, and the percentage of homosexual people is fairly stable across cultures. Even if we allowed your unlikely scenario, humans could still reproduce through artificial insemination. And in any case, why is keeping the species going a moral obligation?

I’ve claimed that “good” must mean something more than “tends to fulfill other desires,” and I’ve included an argument from applied ethics that illustrates the point

You can claim whatever you want. You can claim that stabbing your grandma is good. So what? You seem to be searching for an absolute parameter by which to judge goodness, and that’s a futile search. Think of it this way: if an asteroid impacts the Earth and all life is wiped out, physics goes on as usual, whereas ethics vanishes. Can you see that there can be no useful ethical theory which does not take into account the well-being of sentient entities?

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Eric August 6, 2010 at 3:18 am

The women in that pic better not be scientists…

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Hermes August 6, 2010 at 3:43 am

I’ll keep this brief.

On the topic of homosexuality, there are benefits to groups that have non-breeding homosexuals.

While a male homosexual may not spread their individual genes their close relations will have additional support for their children. As such, the children are more likely to thrive and survive. Think of it as an example in humans of bees and ants do as a colony.

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lukeprog August 6, 2010 at 10:06 am

cl,

What do you mean by ‘Courtier’s Reply’? I’m just confused every time you use that term.

Your example #1: You doubt that non-malleable desires exist? Alonzo has given dozens of examples. Sexual orientation, for example. How malleable is my desire for women rather than men? How malleable is my desire to drink water?

Your example #2: Pederasty, I have no idea, and don’t have time to work through it. Maybe Alonzo will have the time to respond.

Your example #3: Desirism is descriptive because it describes nature. It is prescriptive because it prescribes desires and behaviors. There are many things in nature it does not describe, and there are many situations in which is has no desire or action to prescribe. This does not make it cease to be prescriptive and descriptive.

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Lorkas August 6, 2010 at 10:59 am

“I can read just fine, thank you. I asked Luke to be more specific because he simply pointed me to an entire post of Alonzo’s – an entire post that I’d already glazed over, mind you – and expected me to figure out exactly what he was referring to when he could have just been specific.”

Obviously not, because you still think that the page he linked to is just a post of Alonzo’s, even though you could see by looking at the page or by reading my comment that the page was actually the results of a search for “homosexuality” on Alonzo’s blog.

Given that the link was in response to a complaint you made about Luke not linking to Alonzo’s other posts on homosexuality, that link was about as appropriate as it’s possible to be in the situation. You’re simply too busy trying to find ways to criticize Luke to notice that he gave you exactly what you asked for. You also apparently missed the fact that he was suggesting that you do the search yourself instead of being such a lazy-ass. He did the equivalent of “let me google that for you”, but you didn’t even read the page enough to notice that it was a search results page and not just a link to a specific post.

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Hermes August 6, 2010 at 11:14 am

Lorkas, good assessment. For similar reasons, I lost patience with Cl very early on.

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lukeprog August 6, 2010 at 11:23 am

Lorkas hit the nail on the head.

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AlonzoFyfe August 6, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Regarding the prospect of having the theory written up and peer reviewed, if somebody would like to give me the means to do so I would love to have these ideas peer reviewed.

But, it takes a lot of work and time that I . . . not being a professional academic type (that is to say, I have to spend a lot of time earning a living that does not involve reading everything written on the subject I am seeking peer review on) . . . do not have.

I regret that.

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lukeprog August 7, 2010 at 12:50 am

Alonzo,

Is that your biggest reason for not seeking peer review, do you think? That is an extremely good reason. Last I asked you, I think you said something about wanting to go straight to the people.

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AlonzoFyfe August 7, 2010 at 6:04 am

Yep. Whenever I am asked about seeking peer review for my ideas my thought is, “Fine. Give me enough money that I did not have to spend 10 hours per day at or communiting to or from work.”

I would like that.

However, when I left graduate school without finishing my PhD, it was partially because I saw that academic philosophers had all sorts of good ideas that nobody outside of the study of academic philosophy ever heard about. I wanted to present those ideas to the general public.

That and:

My dissertation advisor died of a sudden and unexpected illness.

I ran out of money.

There are 400 applications for every position that opens up in academic philosophy.

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lukeprog August 7, 2010 at 6:13 am

Alonzo,

Yeah. The job market for philosophy is terrible.

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cl August 8, 2010 at 10:14 am

piero,

Re: homosexuality, I’m simply using the “turn up the knobs” technique that desirists have been known to promote. Technology aside, consider:

1) charity: if we turn this knob up all the way, we have a state of affairs where every person would help those in need. This would result in the minimum number of people in need.

2) homosexuality: if we turn this knob up all the way, we have a state of affairs where every person has sex with the same gender. This would result in the minimum number of people – period.

I’m just employing the technique I’ve heard desirists suggest. If you wish to suggest that this is not the best technique to make our evaluations with, I’m open to discussion. Or, maybe you’d like to argue that technology can make a “bad” desire “good” or something like that.

You seem to be searching for an absolute parameter by which to judge goodness, and that’s a futile search.

It may or may not be, but since you’re making the claim, how do you know?

Can you see that there can be no useful ethical theory which does not take into account the well-being of sentient entities?

When have I argued otherwise? I agree that “tends to fulfill other desires” is an accurate component of any definition of good. I disagree that “tends to fulfill other desires” is all there is to it.

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cl August 8, 2010 at 10:23 am

Lorkas,

You’re simply too busy trying to find ways to criticize Luke to notice that he gave you exactly what you asked for. You also apparently missed the fact that he was suggesting that you do the search yourself instead of being such a lazy-ass. He did the equivalent of “let me google that for you”, but you didn’t even read the page enough to notice that it was a search results page and not just a link to a specific post.

Hah! A “lazy-ass,” eh? Getting a little personal, are we?

You are correct that I did not notice Luke had actually linked to an entire search’s worth of Alonzo’s posts; that actually makes Luke’s “citation” even more ambiguous. However, you are incorrect when you interpret that fact as evidence that I “can’t read,” or as evidence that I’m “…simply too busy trying to find ways to criticize Luke to notice that he gave you exactly what you asked for.” You are also incorrect to say that Luke gave me exactly what I asked for.

Consider: my opening comment challenged some of the things Alonzo had to say about homosexuality. Luke responded by saying that Alonzo, “had clarified his position on homosexuality in other posts,” and instead of providing a link directly to that clarification the first time, Luke provided… nothing.

So, since Luke is ostensibly practicing for peer review, I called him on it, and asked for a source to this clarification of Alonzo’s. Instead of providing a source, Luke provided me with the search results for the word “homosexuality” on Fyfe’s blog – as if I couldn’t or haven’t already done that myself. Instead of saying something like, “Look cl, right here where Alonzo says X,” Luke implied, “Look cl, here’s a gazillion of Alonzo’s gazillion-word posts, I assure that the clarification you ask for is in there somewhere.”

IMO, that’s lazy. If you were to ask me to clarify something, I’m going to cite the pertinent paragraph and the source whenever possible. I wouldn’t just point you to a gazillion gazillion-word posts in hopes that you’d magically find what I’m looking for. IMO, that’s unprofessional, because it disrespects the time of one’s interlocutor and unnecessarily extends the length of the exchange [because one's interlocutor has to pour through a gazillion gazillion-word posts].

Ironically, you call me the lazy-ass, when Luke just pulled the equivalent of citing a book without a page number. If that’s what counts for good scholarship these days, I don’t know what to say. I disagree.

Anyways, no hard feelings, and let me know if you have something pertinent to any of the arguments. This name-calling that you’ve introduced to the thread is for the birds.

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cl August 8, 2010 at 10:30 am

Luke,

Lorkas hit the nail on the head.

How so? I asked you for a source to Alonzo’s clarification, and instead of giving me what I asked for, you gave me what I could have – and have already to some extent – done for myself. Figuratively speaking, I asked for a page number and you cited a book series. Do you really think I’m so slack that I haven’t poured through Alonzo’s blog to discern his positions? Help me out here.

What do you mean by ‘Courtier’s Reply’? I’m just confused every time you use that term.

Is it that you’re unfamiliar with the term itself? Or, is it that you’re familiar with the term, but don’t understand why I’m applying it to you?

Re: Example #1:

How malleable is my desire for women rather than men?

If you mean to imply that sexual preferences are not malleable, I’m afraid you’re mistaken.

How malleable is my desire to drink water?

Are you conflating biological needs with desires there? Do I have a desire to breathe as well? Or, do I just need water, and breathe out of necessity?

Re: Example #2

…I have no idea, and don’t have time to work through it. Maybe Alonzo will have the time to respond.

He’s certainly got the time; let’s see if he has the desire to respond.

Re: Example #3:

There are many things in nature it does not describe, and there are many situations in which is has no desire or action to prescribe. This does not make it cease to be prescriptive and descriptive.

That might actually be a suitable answer, for now at least. Although, it doesn’t let Fyfe off the hook, because my question illustrates that when it comes down to 200 that P and 200 that ~P, Fyfe prescribes something like survival of the fittest. I don’t see how that’s useful for a prescriptive theory.

Anyways, can you at least now agree that there are several issues that can likely be worked through without the aid of “professional” philosophers, and that aren’t based on “blatant misunderstanding” of desirism? That was the point of including those three examples. You imply that the objections on the table are all misunderstandings, but the fact is, they’re not. There are plenty of valid objections to Alonzo’s theory that neither need professional philosophers to resolve, nor indicate “blatant misunderstanding” on behalf of the dissenter.

Would you agree?

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Hermes August 8, 2010 at 10:43 am

Cl: 2) homosexuality: if we turn this knob up all the way, we have a state of affairs where every person has sex with the same gender. This would result in the minimum number of people – period.

Firefighters: if we turn this knob up all the way, we have a state of affairs where every person is a firefighter. This would result in the everyone starving to death in poverty – period.

It doesn’t work for homosexuality and it doesn’t work for firefighters either. What you find is moderation in each case. That’s kind of the point with desirism as I understand it; it is largely descriptive not largely proscriptive. It’s not oughts or shoulds it’s whats and iss.

Why aren’t all people firefighters or homosexuals? It seems as if there is an upper limit to each category.

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cl August 8, 2010 at 11:08 am

Alonzo,

[putting one's work through peer review] takes a lot of work and time that I… do not have… Give me enough money that I did not have to spend 10 hours per day at or communiting to or from work.

Oh please. No offense, but that’s a paltry, pathetic excuse, easily contradicted by the facts. I can only imagine the scorn with which you and Luke [and many atheists] would likely deride a creationist for making that same excuse.

You have the time, Alonzo. It’s a matter of priority, of desire. Correct me if my paraphrase is inaccurate, but you state that people act to make or keep true propositions in accord with their desires, right? If that’s true, then you’ll submit your work – as soon as your desire is strong enough.

What’s more important to you? Writing your blog posts? Repeating yourself ad nauseum here? Or, putting desirism through peer review? Unless writing your blog posts is your 10-hour-a-day job, I know from the extent of your blogging that you actually have plenty of time to prepare and submit desirism for peer review. I bet you could do it in the amount of time you dedicated to your Copenhagen Declaration posts. It really doesn’t take that long, and you have at least as much time as you spend blogging on your own blog and here, right?

So, why not just shut down AtheistEthicist for a few weeks, stop repeating yourself here, and bite the bullet?

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piero August 8, 2010 at 12:04 pm

cl:

2) homosexuality: if we turn this knob up all the way, we have a state of affairs where every person has sex with the same gender. This would result in the minimum number of people – period.

Ever heard of malleable and non-malleable desires? Besides, your example does not address my objection based on the possibility of artificial insemination, nor my objection based on the undefined ethical status of striving to keep the human race at six billion or over.

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cl August 8, 2010 at 12:39 pm

piero,

Ever heard of malleable and non-malleable desires?

Yes, I have heard Alonzo claim that these two categories exist. However, when pressed for justification on the issue by myself and others [for example Cyril], Alonzo declines to support his claim. As you note, “we can claim whatever we want,” but rationalists aren’t obligated to accept unsupported claims, so surely you’re not going to fault me for refusing to accept Alonzo’s unsupported claim, are you?

Besides, your example does not address my objection based on the possibility of artificial insemination,

You’re mistaken, actually. I did address your objection based on the possibility of artificial insemination, before you even spoke. I stated that such objections entail some variant of the proposition, “technology can make an otherwise bad or desire-thwarting desire permissible, or even good.” You didn’t say anything in response. So, in reality, you didn’t address me, right?

[nor does your example address] my objection based on the undefined ethical status of striving to keep the human race at six billion or over.

No offense, but you need to pay better attention. I’ve addressed this, too. In fact, before you spoke, I thought of it:

One could certainly counter-argue that the desire for homosexuality is good because it promotes a stable population [numerically speaking] and ultimately fulfills the collective desire for successful promulgation, but that’s another argument altogether… [cl, comment #6 in this thread]

Implicit in that statement is the argument that, “since, per desirism, no intrinsic value exists, then without an evaluation of it’s relation to other desires, the desire for promulgation ultimately retains an undefined ethical status.” According to desirism – at least if I’m understanding it correctly – this would be true of any desire, because there is no intrinsic right or wrong, only right or wrong in relation to other desires. If that’s true, it follows that a state of affairs must be possible where racist and sexist desires are good. Can you think of such a state of affairs? If you cannot – that is – if under all circumstances you deny the existence of a state of affairs in which racist and sexist desires can be morally good, isn’t the only valid conclusion that racist and sexist desires are examples of intrinsic moral wrongs?

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Hermes August 8, 2010 at 3:17 pm

To put it crudely, but not as crudely as has been discussed so far;

Since homosexuality and shades of it through bisexuality to heterosexuality are existent traits, and the two ends (if they are ends) of the scale have group survival value as well as genetic advocacy, what anyone has to say about it as an example must take those factors into account. I see little of that in the conversation so far.

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Hermes August 8, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Timely and related to my last comment;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PooEhBxh0NY

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Hermes August 8, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Cl:
How so? I asked you for a source to Alonzo’s clarification, and instead of giving me what I asked for, you gave me what I could have – and have already to some extent – done for myself. Figuratively speaking, I asked for a page number and you cited a book series. Do you really think I’m so slack that I haven’t poured through Alonzo’s blog to discern his positions? Help me out here.

Wow. And I thought I was pedantic. Well, I guess I am ahead as I don’t expect people to do my work for me on trivial matters. Then again, maybe not. In either case, I’m a bit puzzled over the nitpickery. Maybe in this case what is good for the hen is denied for the gander as well as all other geese?

In either case, I’m sure to be wrong. Yes. Most certainly.

Perhaps you could let it slide this time?

One thing I am sure of is that while you and I may not be reasonable people, Luke is and doesn’t deserve such fiddly nonsense from anyone.

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piero August 8, 2010 at 5:36 pm

cl:

surely you’re not going to fault me for refusing to accept Alonzo’s unsupported claim, are you?

It is not an unsupported claim. Some desires cannot be modified because they pertain to our physical constitution, and you can observe countless examples of this: hunger, thirst, lust, avoidance of exposure, etc.

“technology can make an otherwise bad or desire-thwarting desire permissible, or even good.” You didn’t say anything in response. So, in reality, you didn’t address me, right?

Of course. If technology allows a desire-thwarting desire to become a non-desire-thwarting desire, then obviously a bad desire has turned into a good (or at least neutral) one. The desire to own a car thwarts the desire to breathe clean air; if technology solved the pollution problem, then the desire to own a car would not thwart the desire to breathe fresh air. I don’t see the problem.

but that’s another argument altogether

That’s not properly referred to as addressing an argument. In any case, my objection was not “homosexuality can be functional to stablizing the number of individuals in a population.” My objection was “why should people behave in ways that ensure the continued existence of the human species?”

If that’s true, it follows that a state of affairs must be possible where racist and sexist desires are good. Can you think of such a state of affairs? If you cannot – that is – if under all circumstances you deny the existence of a state of affairs in which racist and sexist desires can be morally good, isn’t the only valid conclusion that racist and sexist desires are examples of intrinsic moral wrongs?

Yes, it should be possible to concoct a scenario where racism or sexism would be good, but it would have to assume that people are not the way they in fact are; such scenarios are entertaining but useless. As I said before, you seem to be intent on showing that absolute standards of morality exist, and that desirism cannot, after all, escape them. That would enable you to ask the million-dollar question, “Where do those absolute standards come from?” and give the one-dime answer “From God, of course.” I don’t think it can work. The closest you will get to an absolute standard of morality is the physical constitution of sentient beings which allows them to feel pain and pleasure, and to act in order to avoid pain and obtain pleasure.

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Hermes August 8, 2010 at 6:36 pm

Absolutes require perfection expressed in isolation from other elements that could contend with them. As soon as messy reality is applied, perfection — and absolutes such as claims to un-yielding moral universals — go out the door.

I discussed that partially here [just search that page for the word perfect], but more extensively elsewhere.

In sum: There are no Platonic forms in reality. Reality is messy and involves conflicting needs, wants, and goals.

Adding to that, the conversations are almost always framed in the guise of a specific group. For example, the traditional demarcation is between any free male land owners in a specific country vs. any slave, female, or foreigner. In even older cases, it was broken down into three tiers based on social standing; the king, then royal counsels, local rulers, and finally everyone else. There is a reasonable case to be made that non-human animals should be added to the list of those that matter, and some of that is already the case partially where there are cruelty to animals laws on the books and enforced.

Anyone who argues for moral absolutes is confronted with the fact that it is un-implementable. Like other attempts at perfection, there are winners and losers that must be ignored or placed in a subhuman role or the whole claim is seen for what is; a fantasy detached from both empathy that can be rarely applied compassionately in real life.

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piero August 8, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Hermes:

a fantasy detached from both empathy that can be rarely applied compassionately in real life.

Well said.

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Hermes August 8, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Thanks, though I muffed it up in a few places. I’m a better editor than I am a writer, but editing takes time and distance from the material. I’ve had some people just about crawl out of their skins during an editing session, though most of the time they end up being damn happy with the results and they ask for help later.

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cl August 9, 2010 at 9:32 pm

piero,

It is not an unsupported claim.

It is. Cyril, myself and others have asked for justification that’s not yet forthcoming.

Some desires cannot be modified because they pertain to our physical constitution, and you can observe countless examples of this: hunger, thirst, lust, avoidance of exposure, etc.

All of the “desires” you mention can be modified. All one has to do is make them subservient to an overriding desire. Take hunger for example. It is most certainly malleable. People fast or even starve themselves to death for religious and political reasons. The fashion industry has been very successful in modifying the desire to eat in a great many women. Also, as the title of this post suggests, the desire to eat can be modified in the other direction, too: towards gluttony. I’ll let you work through the others.

Of course. If technology allows a desire-thwarting desire to become a non-desire-thwarting desire, then obviously a bad desire has turned into a good (or at least neutral) one. The desire to own a car thwarts the desire to breathe clean air; if technology solved the pollution problem, then the desire to own a car would not thwart the desire to breathe fresh air. I don’t see the problem.

I don’t see the problem with that example, either. So then, if we acquire the technology to bring the dead back to life, is it permissible or good to murder? Please answer with a “yes” or “no” and explain why or why not. If you choose to answer “it depends” then please explain the conditions that would have to be met in order for you to say “yes” or “no”.

My objection was “why should people behave in ways that ensure the continued existence of the human species?”

Yeah, I know, that’s why I said, “Implicit in that statement is the argument that, ‘since, per desirism, no intrinsic value exists, then without an evaluation of it’s relation to other desires, the desire for promulgation ultimately retains an undefined ethical status.’ According to desirism – at least if I’m understanding it correctly – this would be true of any desire, because there is no intrinsic right or wrong, only right or wrong in relation to other desires.”

IOW, the atheist has no real-world reason to enforce that edict. At least, that’s the way I see it.

…such scenarios are entertaining but useless.

You seem to be denying the import of hypothetical evaluations to theories of morality. If so, I disagree. I believe it’s absolutely crucial to work out the kinks of any theory we’re going to endorse. You might think we could never get so off track as to uphold racism and sexism as good, but our history testifies otherwise.

As I said before, you seem to be intent on showing that absolute standards of morality exist, and that desirism cannot, after all, escape them. That would enable you to ask the million-dollar question, “Where do those absolute standards come from?” and give the one-dime answer “From God, of course.”

Gee, well I guess you’ve got me all figured out. Really though, don’t you think there’s quite a bit of assumption going on there?

The closest you will get to an absolute standard of morality is the physical constitution of sentient beings which allows them to feel pain and pleasure, and to act in order to avoid pain and obtain pleasure.

You don’t know that. Neither do I. Though I certainly agree that that’s a component of morality, in the sort of “across-the-board” manner in which you’ve presented it, I don’t think you can defend it. For, I can ask you the same question about pleasure that you just asked me about ensuring the continued existence of the species – why should we act towards pleasure and away from pain? Not that simple is necessarily bad, but I find that theory over-simplistic in a bad sort of way.

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cl August 9, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Luke is reasonable. That’s precisely why I’m objecting so strongly to the way he’s been handling this desirism thing. All reasonable writers deserve to have their arguments challenged strongly.

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Hermes August 10, 2010 at 6:02 am

Then get a better challenge. The one you’re using now is not on the mark.

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Hermes August 10, 2010 at 10:13 am

Point being: If you can and have already looked it up yourself, why bother someone over having them yet again look it up for you? What’s the point?

You are acting like a co-worker I used to know who was into S&M as the dom. Her private life of control would seep into every conversation as she demanded compliance from everyone on the smallest details. Except for her boyfriend, I don’t think she got anyone else to play along; it was humorous in an absurd kind of way.

If this is not you, ignore the observation. If it is, then continue the merriment. Demand the trivial!

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piero August 10, 2010 at 11:03 am

cl:
Asking for a justification of the existence of non-malleable desires is like asking for a justification of the existence of the moon: you can see it’s there, it pulls the sea, people have landed on it. What is there to justify? People feel hunger, thirst, lust, and will act upon those desires. The fact that maybe someone sometime could possibly starve him/herself to death does not invalidate the fact that hunger is a non-malleable desire: in fact, it supports it, because you can see that the result of trying to make it malleable is death. Maybe suicide is the moral course of action in some extreme situations, but let’s not turn exceptions into rules.

Yes, if technology allowed us to revive, murder would not necessarily be moral, but it would certainly cease to be an abominable act. If I spill my coffe over your new suit, I can always pay for the cleaning or buy you a new one. If I killed you and you were brought back to life, I might have to pay for the expenses involved, plus something for moral damages or what have you. No big deal. However, the scenario is not only unlikely, but impossible: maybe you could be revived if I poison you, but certainly not if I dissolve you in acid. So perhaps “murder” would be replaced by “unrecoverable bodily harm”.

I don’t know about atheists in general, but I certainly feel under no obligation to ensure the continuity of the human species. My moral obligations are to sentient beings, not to potential sentient beings. I cannot care about somebody who is not here yet. Maybe some people desire the continuity of the human race; let them take the appropriate measures, then, and breed like rabbits. In any case, it seems a rather silly thing to desire, since we know that the Earth won’t last forever and there is no guarantee that human beings will be able to colonize space before the Sun swallows them.

I never claimed that we could never get so off track as to uphold racism. I said that a scenario where racism is good in desirist terms would be so outlandish as to be useless.

Yes, I made the assumption that you prefer an absolute rather than a relative system of morality. I think the tenor of your objections to desirism warrant that assumption. So, are you in search of an absolute standard or aren’t you?

Why should we act towards pleasure and away from pain? In my opinion, that’s the wrong question. We, and all other sentient beings, just do seek pleasure and eschew pain. There is no moral justification for that. It’s just the way our genes have shaped us in order to maximize their chances of reproduction. The moral problem arises after we recognize that fact, not before.

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