Friday, January 15, 2010

Majoritarianism

Some people have been going around recently saying that I hold that whatever pleases the majority is right.

Some of these people have little or no interest at all in what I actually believe. Their purposes are best suited by creating a caricature of what I believe - a straw man - that is easy for them to attack. After demonstrating the errors in this pathetic theory that is, in fact, their own creation and not mine, they stroke their own egos by boasting that they have discovered a devastating blow in my own theory.

These are people for whom 'bearing false witness' has no moral significance whatsoever. Perhaps they think that if they use God favorably in a sentence that they earn a special "Get Out Of Hell Free" card whereby moral prescriptions against lying and other forms of misrepresentation do not apply to them. It is as if the Commandments state, "Thou shalt not bear false witness, unless thou speaketh favorably of me thy God in which case thou shalt not be bound in any way by any obligation to seek or present the truth."

Be that as it may, desire utilitarianism does not say, "The right act is the act that favors the majority." It says, "The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed."

"Good desires" in turn are "Those desires that tend to fulfill the most and the strongest desires of others."

One of the implications of this is that a smaller number of relatively strong and stable desires will outrank a larger number of weaker and transient desires. The torture of one person to bring a weak pleasure to several would not be justified on this theory - even if those who experience the weak pleasure are able to outvote those who would be tortured.

This is one of the significant faults with democracy. Democracy gives each person one vote. Yet, there are few policies that affect all people equally - where everybody has an equal interest in the outcome. It is often not the case that, where the majority of the people support something, that it is the best option for society. Instead, we have a situation where a majority gets a weak benefit by imposing disproportionately high costs on a minority.

But, more importantly, desire utilitarianism gets its name from the fact that the focus of moral evaluation is not on actions (the right act is the act that pleases the majority), but desires themselves (a good desire is the desire that tends to fulfill other desires).

The desire to torture is not a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. It thwarts the desires of those who are being tortured. We can look at the value of this desire by asking the question, "What desires would be fulfilled or thwarted if this desire were reduced? Well, the desires of those who value torture would not be thwarted because they would not have such a desire. Plus, we would be preventing the desire-thwarting of those who would be tortured. So, we have good reason to get rid of, as much as possible, any desire to torture and replace it with an aversion to torture.

We have the tools of praise and condemnation available to do this. Identifying such a person as evil not only reports the objective fact that he has desires that tend to thwart other desires - desires that people generally have many and strong reason to condemn. It also serves as an act of condemnation. It is, at the same time, both descriptive (this person has desires that, in fact, stand in a particular relation to other desires), and prescriptive (he should not have that desire).

We can look at other desires on the same model.

There are many and strong reasons to condemn the desire to rape and promote an aversion to sex without consent. It helps to safeguard the general population. We promote this aversion to sex without consent by condemning all instances of sex without consent.

We do not seek to replace it with "sex with somebody who seems to enjoy it" because we know full well that there are far too many people who will see "seems to enjoy it" where it does not exist. We also have them seeing consent where it does not exist. However, on the issue of consent, we can at least identify huge regions where we know that consent is not possible, even if in a few cases "seems to enjoy it" might be true.

All in all, we have many and strong reason to promote an aversion to sex without consent. This is not an aversion to having sex without consent, but an aversion to sex without consent existing. The latter includes the former but it includes much more. It motivates the agent who has such an aversion to act so as to prevent sex without consent even when he is not the perpetrator of the crime - to stop others from having sex without consent and, thus, help to protect those who would otherwise suffer harm.

The safer option - the option that there is the most and strongest reason to promote - is to promote an aversion to sex without consent and to create in people generally an aversion to such things whenever and wherever it occurs.

In making these evaluations, we are not looking at what the majority in society actually wants. We are looking at what the majority in society should want. A majority in society, perhaps, sees no aversion to slavery. Yet, that same majority at the same time fails to recognize the many and strong reasons for action that exist for promoting an aversion to slavery.

Though they lack such an aversion, they should not lack such an aversion. They "should not" in the sense that many and strong reasons for action exist for promoting such an aversion. They exist as a matter of fact, quite independent of whether the agents realize that they exist.

This position, I argue, is a bit more difficult to challenge than the position that what is right is what pleases the majority. This is why, I suspect, some people might want to accuse me of holding the latter position rather than the former. They have an interest - a dishonest interest, but an interest nonetheless - of saddling me with ideas that they can easily attack. It certainly can be a lot easier than responding to what I actually write.

And what I write is that the majority is not always right, and what pleases the majority is not always good.

38 comments:

josef said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
josef said...

Alonzo, I think there is an objection to be made from the opposite side of the spectrum. You say:

One of the implications of this is that a smaller number of relatively strong and stable desires will outrank a larger number of weaker and transient desires. The torture of one person to bring a weak pleasure to several would not be justified on this theory - even if those who experience the weak pleasure are able to outvote those who would be tortured.

But this can be inverted. It has troubled me is how "strongest" desire can outweigh a "most" desire. It seems that harmony of desire isn't good in and of itself, harmony is rather instrumental to the satisfaction of the greatest amount of desire.

Satisfying more desires rather than fewer is only necessary if those more-desires stack up in such a way that there is more total desire-fulfilment than with the few-desires. Frequently they do, so it is a good rule of thumb. But it's in principle possible that few-desires could be satisfied and result in more desire-fulfilment than if the more-desires were. (If this much is incorrect, then the rest of my comment will be incorrect as well.)

In the simplest case I can imagine, suppose there is one person who is more or less the same as any other person, except that they have one infinitely strong desire. It seems that according to desire-utilitarianism, on account of its strength this persons one infinitely strong desire should trump anything that conflicts with it, regardless of harmony. What's more, society should teach people, using the tools of praise and condemnation, that we are obligated to ensure that this desire is fulfilled! In fact, given that the desire is infinitely strong, society should organize itself around this infinite desire, train people to become better skilled at fulfilling this desire, maybe reduce the funds needed for the school or the police force in order to free up money for satisfying this desire, etc.

If we suppose that satisfying this infinitely strong desire required the thwarting of desires of many other people, this should be acceptable, so long as the balance between desire-fulfilment and desire-thwarting is more positive under this arrangement than any alternative scenario.

The problem is that desire utilitarianism teaches that if this person existed we should want for them to be a part of our society, and we would regard our society as better for his or her belonging to it.

It's like the Bill Gates joke: Bill Gates walks into a bar. The average net worth of everyone in the bar just rose by $500 million dollars.

A person with one infinitely strong desire walks into a society. The average level of desire fulfilment in the society has just vaulted into the stratosphere.

You could say that the person with an infinitely strong desire could be trained to not have that infinitely strong desire, so we wouldn't feel any need to thwart the desires of a large part of society in order to satisfy this one person's infinitely strong desire. And you could tell Bill Gates to destroy his fortune if it would pull his fellow bar-patrons out of debt. But then the average amount of desire-fulfilment would be lower, not higher, despite being more harmonious.

John Doe said...

I don't understand the concepts that you espouse. I certainly understand the concept of a "reasonable man" as that is the basis of our tort system in America: Negligence is the failure to act as a "reasonable man" would have acted under the existing circumstances.

You seem to be advocating under Desire Utilitarianism that the right action under the circumstances is what a person with "good desires" would do under the cirmcumstances. I get that so far, but the concept of the "good desires" is too vague. Perhaps, as in law school, if you would give hypothetical situations and apply your "good desires" to concrete facts. Or show how one goes about finding out how to determine what is a "good desire"

Do you take a poll to determine a "good desire"? Do you measure each person's desire with a meter, total the desire on one side divided by the number of desirees, and compare it with the sum from the other side? (Or is this just one of those "the rest of you are too ignorant to figure it out, let the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz tell you what is a good desire and what isn't?)

I totally agree with the fault that you pointed out with democracy. But America is not a democracy. And we have the Constitution to protect the rights of the minority. That said,if something is not unconstitutional, I believe that majority rule should trump the desires of individuals. You have to have some system of Government.

Dictatorships and Kingdoms don't seem to work particularly well. Are you saying that there is another form of government that is better, or just pointing out a flaw in democracy?

And I certainly disagree with you regarding "torture" if you are applying that term to waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other things done to for instance KSM. I'd say that many people don't consider those events to have been "torture," but even if they were, I think that the majority "desires" that those things be done to him to gather intelligence information so that hopefully people's lives can be saved. And I wouldn't characterize the desires that those actions be done as weak desires, I'd say that they were strong as heck. This goes back to my original questions, HOW do you measure desires to come to the conclusion of what is a "good desire." If there is no concrete way of measuring a "good desire," then isn't the concept susceptible of being manipulated? In other words, a "good desire" is what Alphonzo says it is?

supersage400 said...

How do you measure the strength and stability of a desire and how exactly do you compare the strength and stability of one desire to another?

Eneasz said...

Hiya supersage!

I don't think the tech to do so precisely exists yet. You have to infer from other evidence. But it's still reasonable to talk about strength and stability, even without precise measurements, just as it would have been reasonable to talk about how hot or cold something is before the invention of thermometers.

Yes, it's imprecise right now, which is unfortunate but (currently) unavoidable. But we do our best anyway, as evidenced by our legal system, in which intent plays a major role.

John Dooooooooooe said...

Speaking of "sock puppets" is Eneasz Alphonzo's alter-ego?

monkeyface said...

Well... how exactly was "reasonable man" arrived at? Wouldn't be a similar type of thing?

Marc said...

John Doe (and others),

Isn't it ironic? In response to a post in which Alonzo complains about people misstating his opinions, you come right back and... misstate his opinions.

Reading some of the reactions from these last few weeks? months? I can see this is a recurring theme.

Especially when you write something like:

You seem to be advocating under Desire Utilitarianism that the right action under the circumstances is what a person with "good desires" would do under the cirmcumstances. I get that so far, but the concept of the "good desires" is too vague. Perhaps, as in law school, if you would give hypothetical situations and apply your "good desires" to concrete facts. Or show how one goes about finding out how to determine what is a "good desire"

If I weren't very polite, I would be inclined to say: RTFM! It's al here... Read the FAQ, read Alonzo's original site, browse some of the older posts, use that search-box at the top of the page. It's not as if you're the first to come up with questions like these.

Having doubts about the theory is fine of course, but repeatedly taking it, misrepresenting it and bashing the resulting strawman is not.

John Doe said...

Monkeyface, it isn't always easy to determine what a reasonable man would do under the circumstances. The way that we determine whether that standard was breached, at least on close calls, is to let a jury decide the issue. Obviously, some questions are so easy that a judge will not allow the jury to determine the issue, but cases where reasonable minds could differ, it is up to the jury to determine the answer. That gets a little messy, and that is why I asked how do you determine it in Alonzo's system. And thank you for not knowing the answer to that question, either. Which leads me to Marc.

Marc, listen up, smartass, I'm not trying to mistate Alonzo's opinions. I did not KNOW that he supposedly has already written extensively about my question elsewhere. It would be as if you came to my blog and asked a simple question. You wouldn't know that I had already written several times about your particular question.

Obviously, you must not know the answer, either, or at least you must not be able to state the answer precisely. It would have been easier to just tell me, rather than to take a long post to insult me.

TGP said...

If you don't understand the basics of D.U., why don't you start here:

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=776

It's the FAQ linked in the sidebar.

Josef does raise an interesting point concerning desire strength. One super-villain could really skew the numbers.

There are minority members of most majorities that support the use of majority to impinge upon the freedoms of minorities. However, the majority of people support the use of majority to protect the freedoms of minorities as they are often members of minorities themselves.

e.g. Most people were not slaves and had no enslaved relatives. Most people do not support slavery.

e.g. Only about 3/10 of Americans own guns, but most Americans support the right to own them.

TGP said...

This may actually be a better link to a newer FAQ:

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=2982

John Doe said...

TGP, I read the 44 page "book" and it did not say HOW to measure desires to see whether they are good or bad. I spent 1 1/2 hours searching this blog site for the answer. I went to the site that you suggested and most just say "to be added." This isn't some inside joke, is it? Nobody knows the answer to my question, so they just keep giving me the run around? Or, is this some secret society such as the Masons or Scientology or the CIA? I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you?

TGP said...

John Doe,

Read this one:

http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2005/09/moral-theory.html

Here's the pertinent section:

Our desires are malleable. Like our beliefs, our desires are molded in part by our interaction with others. The institution of morality promotes these good desires (desires to help others) and inhibits bad desires (desires to harm others).

I concur that the site can be a little tough to search, but the articles are there. Secret? No. Disorganized? Maybe.

Doug S. said...

One criticism I frequently make of Alonzo is that he has not presented an adequate algorithm for determining whether a desire is a good desire or not. Alonzo, could you, if you wanted to, describe a computer program that could tell whether or not a desire is good?

For example, we may very well agree that "I desire that I am not telling a lie" is a good desire. Is "I desire that I am not telling a lie, except when the date is April 7, 2015 and I am wearing a green shirt, in which case I desire that I am telling a lie" a good desire? I could easily claim that it is, because most of the time it's not April 7, 2015 and I hardly ever wear green shirts.

If you could describe such a program, then we could attempt to settle the question.

Eneasz said...

Doug S -

The example you gave is (I believe) the classic refutation of rule utilitarianism. It doesn't apply to desirism because it is not possible for a desire to be so specific. You can have a desire to lie, or not to lie, but you can't have a "desire to lie except on 4/7/15 while wearing green." Human brains are incapable of producing such finely-tuned desires.

John "grasshopper" Doe said...

At the risk of incurring Eneasz' wrath, I have been trying to bone up on Alonzo's theory, and I have some comments. I get that his theory differs from moral relativism (thank God), but to me it still is relativism. Instead of leaving each question to the individual, it seems to leave each question to the subjective desires of the majority.

I believe that the rebuttal from Alonzo's camp (if they deign to answer me) will be that no, it does not leave what is moral to the majority, but rather leaves it to what "a person with good desires" would do even if the majority would not desire the right thing.

The problem, if I am correct in my guess at what the reply will be, is that it still devolves into a pissing contest over what a "person with good desires" would choose in each particular instance.

It's easy to sit back and sound all high-minded when you aren't talking about particulars. Let's say you are Pres Truman, and you have to decide whether to drop The Bomb or to instead order the troops to invade Japan. After just seeing how fanatical the Japs were in defending what they considered their homeland, in Okinawa. We can quibble about the numbers, but invading the homeland would cost American G.I. lives. What would "a person with good desires" choose to do? Sure, tens of thousands will die either way. Come on, person with good desires, what do you do? Either way, innocent persons will die.

To me, and I truly am not just being cynical, this just sounds like a system to dress up what you want to be the correct answer in fancy clothes and high-fallutin language. For instance, you want people to agree that man's activities are causing global warming. You want people to conclude that homosexuals should be allowed to marry. Instead of just saying that is your opinion, you dress it up with "a person who has good desires" would come to the same conclusion.

And to those of you who whine that I am constructing a straw man, no I am not. If I am wrong, it is an innocent mistake, and I will gladly listen to those who calmly point out how I am mistaken. I'm not trying to be a troll, and I am not trying to be contentious. I am stating my understanding of the theory, and am ready to admit if I have just misunderstood it. I come here to dialogue, and to understand, not to further any agenda of mine.

Personally, I could give a shit what anybody here thinks, I just want to understand the theory, and then determine whether I agree with it. For all I know, it might be the secret to wealth and happpiness.

Doug S. said...

The example you gave is (I believe) the classic refutation of rule utilitarianism.

Cool! I reproduced a classic refutation all by myself!

It doesn't apply to desirism because it is not possible for a desire to be so specific. You can have a desire to lie, or not to lie, but you can't have a "desire to lie except on 4/7/15 while wearing green." Human brains are incapable of producing such finely-tuned desires.

I have two objections.

1) Is that really true?

If I told you that I have a desire to not lie except when playing Diplomacy, would you say that no, I don't have such a desire because it would be too specific? What if I said that I hate to tell lies except on April Fool's Day?

2) Even if you're right, so what?

Even if human brains as they currently exist can't hold a desire like that, there's nothing in the laws of physics that prevents stops a brain that is capable of having such a desire from existing. I can easily imagine an artificial intelligence or a space alien that has a mind capable of having finely tuned desires. Furthermore, nobody here has ever claimed that desires don't become good or bad until they are actually implemented in some brain.

Marc said...

@John Doe
I think Alonzo adresses your point best in this post: cllllick

Searching for 'moral calculus' brings up some related posts.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Josef

The objection that you raise is that of Robert Nozick's Utility Monster.

Which I address in a post called Robert Nozick's Utility Monster

TGP said...

John Doe, regarding the "high fallutin'" tone of this blog: Alonzo is trying to formulate a formal moral theory. That requires quite a bit of abstract expression and generalization. Yeah, sometimes it gets a bit dense, but he's trying to be thorough. As far as 'particulars' go, one of the reasons I keep coming back to this blog is his excellent use of analogy and hypothetical examples to express those dense, abstract concepts from the formal theory.

John Doe said...

Marc, THANKS for the help. Ok, I think I get it, we estimate what a person with good desires would do under the circumstances. We can never know for sure, but we do the best we can, and we realize that inevitably there will still be areas where reasonable minds can disagree. [I still have this vague feeling that all this fancy theory is a way of dressing up morality in fancy talk--why not just say "I think this is moral, and this isn't, and set forth your reasons X, Y and Z. This theory seems to me an attempt to make scientific and to encapsulate in a theory something that is not scientific.]

And that article that you pointed to made more questions in my mind. I don't see how "desires are the only reasons for action that exist." People often can and do act contrary to their desires. They are negligent. People don't try to rear-end the car in front of them. They are forgetful. They don't mean to miss that loved one's birthday. And they just drift, e.g., in a boat or while walking through some unknown woods. Sure, they desired generally to be in a boat or in the woods, but where specifically they went was left to chance. And sure, often times just drifting does not cause important consequences, but sometimes it does, if for instance they drift too far out to sea and die.

I am not sure either how Alphonzo's theory addresses those who desire to do the right thing, but who nevertheless do the wrong thing. I'm pretty sure that some [many?] theives, murderers and rapists out there wish they did not give in to their improper and illegal urges.

Finally, Alonzo's conclusions about nudging hearts to do the right thing is not far from Christianity. He does it because he wants them to do the right thing, and Christians believe God wants them to do the right thing. Even people who come at problems from diametrically opposed viewpoints can occasionally reach the same conclusions.

Eneasz said...

1) Is that really true?

If I told you that I have a desire to not lie except when playing Diplomacy, would you say that no, I don't have such a desire because it would be too specific? What if I said that I hate to tell lies except on April Fool's Day
?

Actually I don't think these apply because a desire to not lie isn't just simply "never say something that's factually wrong". It's more like "don't sabotage other people's map of reality". Both the examples you gave are recognized as games where both parties know (or are expected to know) that the information conveyed is for play and not a representation of reality.

2) Even if you're right, so what?

Even if human brains as they currently exist can't hold a desire like that, there's nothing in the laws of physics that prevents stops a brain that is capable of having such a desire from existing
.

Well I assumed the question was an objection to actual morality as it exists, not hypothetical alien morality. It's not an objection to actual human morality if it doesn't apply to humans.

But as a hypothetical, you have a very good point. I expect that many desires will become more malleable (and previously fixed desires will become malleable) in the future as our knowledge and technology grow. I'm sure many new questions on "what is moral" will arise, and I certainly haven't thought through all of them. It could be a fun exercise tho, and potentially enlightening.

As for "A desire to not lie except on 4/7/15 while wearing green", I imagine this would basically turn 4/7/15 into another April Fool's Day, so I guess it'd be neutral. Altho personally I hate that you can't trust anything you hear on April Fool's Day. /sigh

Doug S. said...

The reason I'm bringing this up is that I think I've found a reductio ad absurdum of desirism.

According to desirism, as I understand it, an act is a right act if there is at least one possible agent with good desires that would do that act. However, I think that I can come up with such an agent for any possible act. It is self-evident that not all acts are right acts, so if I really can do so, then there is something wrong with desirism.

Again, if my understanding is correct, a desire is good if it tends to cause more desire fulfillment than desire thwarting. If a desire backfires in unusual circumstances, that's okay, as long as, in general, it meets those standards.

So, assuming that X is a sufficiently good desire, then "X, except in some over-specified, rare situation that most people won't ever be in, in which case Y" should also be a good desire, because it's still good "in general". So, if "don't murder anyone" is a good desire, then "don't murder anyone, except under this extremely constrained situation that almost nobody will ever encounter" should also be a good desire.

Every possible act in the real world happens at a specific place and time. So, by simply specifying that place and time precisely enough, I can take any desire, add a sufficiently narrow exception, and still have a good desire. Therefore I can take any agent with good desires, change those desires by adding a narrow exception, and end up with an agent with good desires that will performs the act I specified. Since I can do this for any act at all, that means that every possible act has at least one possible agent with good desires which will perform that act. So all acts are right acts.

(I really hope that made sense!)

Either something is wrong with my reasoning, or something is wrong with desirism as it was explained to me. (As it stands, desirism doesn't penalize desires for being complicated.)

TGP said...

John Doe said:
Finally, Alonzo's conclusions about nudging hearts to do the right thing is not far from Christianity. He does it because he wants them to do the right thing, and Christians believe God wants them to do the right thing. Even people who come at problems from diametrically opposed viewpoints can occasionally reach the same conclusions.

I think you're missing the point, John Doe. Christianity, and other morally prescriptive religions, want you to do the right thing based on the answers in the back of the book. Often these answers are correct, but we have no way of verifying them, and so must trust that whoever wrote them down was correct. An atheistic morality requires instead that you learn to do the math and be able to show your work. That way, you can check against the answer key.

Alonzo, and by extension most atheistic theories of morality, doesn't want you to do the right thing. He wants you to be able to figure out what the right thing to do from scratch and apply it.

Eneasz said...

Hiya Doug. Interesting discussion. :)

So, if "don't murder anyone" is a good desire, then "don't murder anyone, except under this extremely constrained situation that almost nobody will ever encounter" should also be a good desire.

If people actually have reasons to promote that desire in others, then yes.

Since I can do this for any act at all, that means that every possible act has at least one possible agent with good desires which will perform that act.

Actually, I don't think you can do this for any act at all. I have an adorable niece that just celebrated her first birthday. Can you make killing her right now a good act?

Please keep in mind that any hypothetical that requires omniscience is not applicable to the real world.

John Doe said...

TGP, I'd venture to bet that I can "show my work" and arrive at the correct moral conclusion better than any of the atheists whose writings I've seen here.

In fact, one of my biggest problems with desire utilitarianism is that it appears to be a convoluted and contrived method of coming to the same correct conclusions that are already contained in the New Testament. It's seems as though a moral person, with the same general beliefs of what is moral and just as are contained in the Bible, but who did not actually believe in God, was trying to get to the correct conclusions by some other means. "Can't just say it is correct because God said it, have to come up with some other rationalization that leads to the same conclusion while leaving God out of it."

IMO, the biggest problem of desire utilitarianism is contained within the general nature of humans. Most people are not born "good." Kids are born selfish and grow up to be mean. Power and money corrupts. Trying to "reason" persons into doing what Alphonzo, er I mean what a "person with good desires, would do" in like circumstances won't fly with too many people.

The typical response, I can imagine, is probably: "Who the hell is Alonzo and why should I care what he thinks? I don't care about what good people will do, I care about what I want to do. Yeah, I don't want others to steal from me, but that won't stop me from stealing from others."

Doug S. said...

I don't know if I can make killing your niece a good act, but I can make it a "desirism_right" act. (Of course, *not* killing her would also be a "desirism_right" act.)

Imagine a robot that, under almost all circumstances, will do things that we agree are generally desire fulfilling. However, due to a bug in its programming, if it sees your niece [where she currently is] between [five minutes ago] and [five minutes from now], it will try to kill her. Aside from that bug, it'll be a perfect desirism_moral agent. Now, because you can put that robot just about anywhere and anywhen and its desires will have good results, it's an agent with desirism_good desires that will, nevertheless, "kill your niece right now". Because any act that some agent with good desires would perform is a desirism_right act, "kill your niece right now" is a desirism_right act. (As is not killing your niece right now.)

(Let's be clear, though: this definitely isn't an argument that says that you ought to kill your niece! Doing that would certainly thwart more of your desires than it fulfills. ^_^)

TGP said...

John Doe,

Please show your work.

"God says so," is the equivalent of looking in the back of the book. There is no reason to believe that those answers are valid.

TGP said...

Doug S.,

I think that "bug" is Robotese for "bad desire."

John Doe said...

TGP, please be specific. On what topic do you want me to "Show my work?" You obviously have a stunted view of Christians if you think that all we can do is say "god said so." I am enjoying interacting with you, don't spoil it by acting like your intelligence is as low as Eneasz'.

And while we are on the topic of your wonderful neice, would you rather she be an atheist and grow up to be an amoral asshole, or a narrow-minded Christian who grew up to be a wonderful person who desired to do the right thing as often as possible? Assume for the moment that she was statistically more likely to grow up to desire to do the right thing more often if she was a Christian than if she was an atheist. Honest question. I'm wondering what is more important to you, that your niece grow up to believe what you think is true, or to grow up to be in the final analysis "moral" as you define moral.

Eneasz said...

Like TGP says, that would be a bad desire. Anyone who knows my niece (or the people who love her) would have reasons to replace that desire with a more general "don't kill" desire.

Perhaps the confusion arises because people have both good and bad desires, but we generally call someone good or bad on the whole based on their relative number/strength? Which leads to situations like "He's really a great guy, aside from being a bit racist."

A hypothetical Good Agent would be one that has desires we all wish to promote generally, and doesn't have any that we wish to eliminate generally. So I don't think the robot would qualify.

John Dr. McCoy Doe said...

From what little I know about the topic, I believe desirism does not take into account enough of other influences on our actions. Temperment, self-discipline, background, genetics, personality types, emotional make-up and history, etc. all have much effect on a person's actions.

Many "bad" persons likely have the best of intentions but lack the self-control and self-discipline to act on their good desires and refrain from their bad-desires. Conversely, many of those who are considered "good" because of their actions may not deserve nearly as much credit as they get because they were born even-tempered, and self-disciplined, etc. Very few of us, er I youse guys, are emotionally stable and completely logical Vulcans.

TGP said...

John Doe,

You're not interacting with me. You're retreating back to either "God" or "The Bible."

You want to show your work? Explain to me why it's bad to kill Eneasz's niece. That's an example others are working on in this same thread.

Also, let's have a moratorium on the name-calling. I don't think it's constructive for any of us as it degrades the clarity of our arguments.

Eneasz said...

would you rather she be an atheist and grow up to be an amoral asshole, or a narrow-minded Christian who grew up to be a wonderful person who desired to do the right thing as often as possible? Assume for the moment that she was statistically more likely to grow up to desire to do the right thing more often if she was a Christian than if she was an atheist.

I debated for quite a while whether I should reply or not. I really mistrust any attempt you make to engage me. But you claim it's an honest question.

The question is ridiculously easy, if we grant your assumption. Obviously I'd rather that she became a good Christian. I'm a big fan of Fred Clark. Morality trumps ideology, hands-down, no contest.

But, of course, your assumption is incorrect. (please note that while the video is factually accurate, I disagree with its implied message.)

Besides, given that a good person would have a strong desire for truth, she would likely eventually drop christianity anyway.

John Doe said...

TGP, how about a tougher hypothetical? The That's like asking would you rather have a million dollars or genital warts? How about if it was possible to save only her or three other people in a burning building. Or ten others?

Besides, the hypo about the niece is only thrown out there to try to prove or disprove desirism, and I frankly have no desire (pun intended) to do either. I've already said I that it appears to me that DU is a contrivance to help atheists arrive at "the correct moral positions" with the help of fancy sounding words and logic and reason. It won't work on those who reject the logic of what is best to fulfill the many, and it isn't necessary for the majority of Americans (assuming we are still a majority Christian nation). I probably view it as you do my references to the Bible, oh how quaint and not really necessary.

I beg to differ about me "retreating" into God and the Bible. I just don't run from them, either. It's like the weather--it is how it is. I don't feel the need to avoid discussing them.

I only call names in response, and I have a short memory, so no problem there either.

Eneasz, thanks for the honest response. I have nothing against you, but as you can see, I don't take any shit when somebody gives me shit, either. I honestly wondered whether you were such a rabid atheist that nothing else mattered. Obviously, I was wrong. That wasn't a slam--I'm such a rabid Christian that I would rather my neice become a Christian asshole than a wonderful atheist. But hopefully you at least understand why.

But your last comment made me wonder: I thought atheists basically just believed that it was not possible to prove or disprove God. You seem a step further, anybody who disagrees with you is believing a falsehood, or at least has not found the truth yet. Sounds like nothing could ever prove to you that God exists.

Eneasz said...

I thought atheists basically just believed that it was not possible to prove or disprove God.

Depends on the atheist. :) I take a stronger position.

You seem a step further, anybody who disagrees with you is believing a falsehood, or at least has not found the truth yet.

Yes (on the issue of a god's existence anyway, not on all issues). Specifically because I hold that anyone who sincerely cares about the truth doesn't simply want "the answer", she also wants to know how she can be confident that this knowledge is correct. When the reasons given for the existence of a god are examined, they are found to be of no better quality than the reasons given for believing in UFO abductions or scientology, and are properly dismissed the same way those other beliefs are. Conversely, when the reasons for the non-existence of a personal god are given, they are at the least plausible.

This is why I feel any honest search for truth will lead to weak agnosticism (at least).

Sounds like nothing could ever prove to you that God exists.

That's only half-correct. It is true that no SINGLE thing could ever prove to me that God exists. But no single thing could ever prove to me that atoms exist either. For any single phenomenon there's always an alternate explanation, which could take many possible forms. But knowledge is rarely gained from a single phenomenon. It is hammered home through thousands of disparate yet reinforcing observed, repeatable, real events.

Therefore if there was as much good evidence for god as there was for atomic theory I would of course believe. I might not worship, but I would believe. However that much evidence doesn't appear overnight, it would require years of research by humanity's top minds. And yes, that includes even if God himself started walking around on earth and moving the stars every night. I could certainly be convinced this was god, but not instantly.

Bogdan said...

Alonso, I've been reading your posts on Common Sense Atheism and I am rather new to this ethical theory so please excuse me if my questions are not new to you. After reading this post I started to wonder if it is ethical, according to Desire Utilitarianism, to torture a terrorist with fundamentalist convictions bent on destroying the planet if he activated a weapon so powerful as to put an end to all life on Earth and he’s the only one who can disarm it? Because of his convictions all attempts of persuasion have failed and torture remains the last resort. How would you answer this?

Eneasz said...

Bogdan - this post might be useful.