Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Better Place: Selected Essays on Desire Utilitarianism

I have a book.

For a couple of years now, some people who have read my writing have asked to have some of its core ideas written in book form, because they prefer books to reading online, and because they wanted something they could give to others.

Some did the research on how to do this and sent me the results.

So, I created a book.

A Better Place: Selected Essays on Desire Utilitarianism.

It contains a set of essays that are rewritten and reworked versions of some things that you will find here and on my web site. The amount of editing that I have done to these chapters (compared to their original versions) is extensive in many cases as I tried to make my arguments as clear as possible in light of the comments I have received on postings here and in discussion forums. I have even changed my mind on some things.

Specifically, the book contains:

Chapter 1: Introduction: Reasons for Action: This is an over view that explains in rough detail what value is, what moral value is, and why even atheists have reason to be concerned about moral value.

Chapter 2 Desire Utilitarianism: A description of desire utilitarianism, starting with the nature of desire as propositional attitudes, value as relationships between states of affairs and desires, moral value as relationships between malleable desires and other desires, and explaining why the evaluation of desires is primary and the evaluation of actions is secondary.

Chapter 3. Objectivism and Subjectivism in Ethics: An account of the different senses of the terms ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, ‘relative’, and ‘absolute’, used to explain why desire utilitarianism fits three of these classifications, but not the fourth.

Chapter 4. Ethics from Scripture: If a person wishes to make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been, here are four reasons why one would not turn to scripture for moral guidance.

Chapter 5. Doing Good without God: How and why does a person do what he morally should if there is no God waiting to punish him?

Chapter 6. Moral Persuasion: What does it mean to persuade somebody that something is wrong? Can you convince somebody that something is wrong, have him believe you, and simply have him dismiss your proof as unimportant?

Chapter 7. Hume on ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’: This takes a detailed look at Hume’s famous argument that you cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ to show how it is possible to make this derivation, and that Hume himself makes it.

Chapter 8. In Defense of Realism: Answering J.L. Mackie: J.L.Mackie argued that a moral realist must believe that moral properties are intrinsically prescriptive properties and that they exist. Because no such properties exist, Mackie denies that moral realism is a possibility. In this essay I agree with Mackie that intrinsically prescriptive properties do not exist, but that they are not necessary for moral realism. Moral properties are real, even if they are not instances of intrinsic prescriptivity.

Chapter 9. Rational Self-Interest: This chapter takes a look at the idea that morality can be reduced to questions of rational self interest. It argues that those who defend this position confuse ‘interest of the self’ with ‘interest in (the benefit of the) self’, and that arguments for morality as rational self-interest depend on equivocating between these two concepts.

Chapter 10. A Problem with Faith: This takes a look at the idea that there is a special problem with faith. It argues that most theists and most atheists have nearly identical ways of determining moral views and that this method is seriously flawed. However, the flaw has nothing to do with faith.

Chapter 11. Morality as Evolved Sentiment: Here, I take a look at the idea that morality is an evolved sentiment – an evolutionarily selected disposition to view some acts as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I identify six problems with such a view.

Chapter 12. The Desire for True Belief: This chapter contains a defense of three sets of virtues/vices – a love of true belief (and aversion to deception), intellectual curiosity (and intellectual laziness), and intellectual responsibility (and intellectual laziness). It defines what these are and where they can be found. It also defends liberty of belief and liberty of action based on one’s own beliefs – up to the point that one’s beliefs make one a threat to others by ‘justifying’ actions that are harmful to others.

Chapter 13. The Meaning of Life: This is a reprinting of my very short story that attempts to describe how there can be meaning in an atheist’s life – more meaning, in fact, than can be found in following religious doctrines.

I worte the book, as I wrote this blog, for readers who are reasonably intelligent but who have no specific education in moral philosophy. I also wrote it with an eye towards atheists and to those who hold that an atheism cannot handle moral concepts.

I hope that you might find it useful - particularly if you are accustomed to debating others (theists and atheists) on moral issues. If you do decide to read it, I would be interested in your comments. Feel free to write any time.

And I thank you for your support.


Jason Powers said...

I'm happy and sad about this. I felt the same way you did about wanting to make the world a better place, so I spent my 20s working at a nonprofit cancer and aids research foundation. Living in Boston is expensive, though, and now at 31 I had to face the reality that if I kept working there I'd be bankrupt by next fall.

I got another job that paid more (way more) so I can pay off my accumulated debts and save some money for once. I felt bad about my new job not 'making the world a better place', but the extra money meant I could offer to help you get your great book soon as I'd saved enough to make the offer worthwhile.

I had no idea there was an internet service for this purpose, but it looks a lot cheaper and easier than me having to beg favors from Harvard University Press. So I'm happy you got your book published at last, but a little sad I didn't get enough cash together in time to make a meaningful offer to help.

I'll tell some people about it and see if I can't drum up a little business for you, but now I have to go find something else to do to contribute.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the book.

I hope we get there.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I have read your comment several times. It appears as if you are saying that you were wanting to pay for the publication of my book.

I find it hard to believe that somebody would do that.

It is perhaps the second most flattering compliment that I have ever received.

(The first most flattering comment was a high school teacher who accused me of plagiarism because "I've been teaching high school for years and no high school student writes like that." I, of course, knew who wrote the paper.)

Anyway, if you think Harvard University Press would like to publish this book, you are more than welcome to invite them to do so. I would be more than happy to transfer the publication rights to them, and would also be more than happy to have their name associated with my writing.

Now, as for making a money and making a contribution, I would like you to note the contribution that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warran Buffett have made to making the world a better place. They made themselves extremely wealthy, then turned that wealth over to projects to help others. Come to think of it, the idea that the only way to help others is to take a vow of poverty seems a bit strange.

Now, if one is making money by promoting misery and suffering - the way Exxon executives made money by clouding the issues and confusing the public on global warming - that's different. Or the way tobacco companies worked to make and market a product to addict people to things that kill them. No amount of public charity can erase the moral stain of those involved in these destructive and deadly trades.

But, most of us . . . it's not impossible to make money with a clean conscience, and then to use one's economic status and resources for good causes.

Jason Powers said...

I have read your comment several times. It appears as if you are saying that you were wanting to pay for the publication of my book.

That was the idea.

I know people who know people etc. and I figured since I had to get a better job I'd get the best one I could and save up some money. I really think that it's the sort of book you could print up a few thousand hardcover copies, send one each to a few influential people and book critics, and at least break even doing small print runs.

I like your book quite a bit. I studied philosophy in college and for years since, I liked it and it came easy to me, especially ethics. However, the majority of the past systems were too easy to break with simple, reasonable tests. It's critical that your work is much more resilient to existential deconstruction, and more importantly, relies on a foundation of strong evidence and is compatible with modern scientific research in neurology and economics.

I think all of the arguments in your book are presented with a strength similar to Singer's work, but in plainer language - and if I had to predict the future, I'd say your argument against the Subjective/Objective Dichotomy is probably historically the most meaningful within the discipline and is going to outlive you by a good long time.

Outside the discipline, it's my expectation that Desire Utilitarianism - especially if you write a second book to further clarify how it should influence personal behavior and public policy - is the sort of work that will end up on college kids' shelves with Nietzsche and Sartre.

So I didn't think we'd get rich if I paid for the first run and we split the profits, more likely I'd break even, but at least your risk would be minimized. It seemed like a nice contribution to making the world a better place, and hopefully offset my not being able to work in nonprofit cancer and AIDS research any more.

Jason Powers said...

Let's start with this, then:

Got you one link so far.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, will you be writing another book? I read this one. It was great, but I know that there's a heck of a lot that was left out.

Sam said...

I must say all these essays are great!

College Research Paper said...

I appreciate the work of all people who share information with others.

inchirieri apartamente cluj said...

Good job! I have to say that you have thought of the best way for promoting your work: creating a blog. Thank you for presenting the chapters of the book.

news games said...

Great coment Alonzo about Bill and Melinda Gates and Warran Buffett it is good for us to remaber this like this.
Congratulations on the book !!