Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Objections Considered: Who's Reasons?

A member of the studio audience objects,

It is not accurate to maintain that "desires are the only reasons for action that exist." Rather, desires are the only reasons for action that exist for the person with those desires.

My original description is accurate.

I would hope that, if I were to say that natural causes are the only causes that exist, I would not be accused of saying that each individual effect is the result of every cause that exists. Rather, the reader should assume that there is still something further to be said about the various relationships between different causes and different effects.

Similarly, my statement that desires are the only reasons for action that exist should not be taken to mean that each individual action is the result of every desire that exists. Rather, the reader should still allow that there is more to be said about the relationships between different actions and different desires.

Desirism also contains the following two claims.

Each person acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of her own desires given her beliefs

Each person seeks to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of her own desires.

One of the implications of this is that false and incomplete beliefs will put at risk a person attempts to fulfill the most and strongest of her desires. This is why we have a reason to condemn lying and other forms of deception. Liars, I argue, are parasites who infect a brain with false beliefs. These false beliefs then cause the infected agent to act in ways that often thwart the desires of the agent, but fulfill the desires of the liar.

It is because agents act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs, that each of us has reasons to be concerned with what other people desire. I have reason to promote an aversion to taking the property of others without consent because I do not want others walking away with my property.

To whatever degree people have an aversion to taking the property of others without consent, then to that degree I do not need to worry as much about other people walking away with my stuff. The fact that they will act to as to fulfill the most and strongest desires given their beliefs will include the fact that they will act so as to fulfill their desire not to walk away with other peoples' stuff without their consent. That means I have to worry less about others walking away with my property.

If, on the other hand, every desire was a reason for every single action, then we would never have to worry about morality. Each act would, in fact, be caused by every single desire that exists regardless of whose it is, and would automatically go to fulfill the most and strongest of all desires that exist. I would not need to worry about the desires that you had and how they may measure up against desires that exist because these two sets would be identical.

That's simple nonsense.

A desire counts as a reason only for the agent that has the desire.

Yet, it is still true - and remains true - that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. No person has a reason for action that exists that is something other than a desire. If you know of something that is not a desire, but is still a reason for action that exists, then please point it out to me. I hold that there is no such entity. That is precisely what I mean when I say that desires are the only reasons that exist.

This is true in the same sense that, if you know of a cause that exists that is supernatural rather than natural, I challenge you to point it out to me. I hold that there is no such entity. That is precisely what I mean when I say that natural causes are the only causs that exist.

16 comments:

יאיר רזק said...

1) By the above reasoning, I have a reason to shape the malleable desires of others to conform to my desires. I do not have a reason to shape the desires to conform to desirism's category of "good", i.e. desires that tend to fulfill other desires, except to the extent that the two sets happen to coincide.


That is essentially Carrier's metaethics, and mine - egoism.

2) Carrier also provided things that form reasons for action that are not desires: character, predispositions, general emotional states... the brain is more complex than just desires. Looking at our decision making processes only through the lens of desires is, I believe, to impoverish our understanding of what is going on. Being depressed or elated influences your decision-making in ways that are not easily, or productively, reduced to "desire".

Marc said...

@יאיר רזק
Regarding 1):
I think the first part of your comment: "I have a reason to shape the malleable desires of others to conform to my desires." describes what most people actually do, consciously or unconsciously. So that is the descriptive part of DU.

The second part of your comment is about the prescriptive power of DU. Whether you have a reason to shape the desires of those around you to DU's category of "good" doesn't reflect on DU's validity but on your desires. If you lack the desire to 'be good', be it according to DU or any other theory, then the theory isn't going to provide you with this desire. The theory only describes what desires people in general have reason to promote or condemn. That is as far as any prescription by any theory can go. The theory doesn's make you do these things, your desires do.

Regarding 2):
Of course the brain is more complex than that. Nevertheless, I think that those other 'reasons for action' Carrier provides can fairly easily be reduced to desires. Although reduced might not be the right word. All these things you mention exist of course and they influence your desires. Maybe you could even say that they are part of what shapes your desires. But you can still talk about about intentional action as being based on beliefs and desires, however these may be caused.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Egoism not only states that people act so as to fulfill their own desires. It further states that the self (or the 'ego') is the object of all desires. And that is false.

You will find my objections to egoism in the post:

Desire Utilitarianism vs. Egoism."

My objections to Carrier's metaethics is that he holds to the intrinsic value of brain states (happiness), which fails against all sorts of experience machine objections.

Or, he uses a strange definition of 'happiness' that is not a brain state but one that describes a relationship between the brain and the external world, where changes in the world while the brain state is held constant can somehow affect a person's happiness.

You will find my objections to internalist theories of value in:

Internal State Theories

and

Parsimony and Internalist Theories of Value

Alonzo Fyfe said...

If you lack the desire to 'be good' . . . then the theory isn't going to provide you with this desire.

Marc is correct on this. There is nothing that can be done to reason another person into being good.

For more on this topic, check out:

The Hateful Craig Problem

John Doe said...

I KNOW that you don't want to hear it, but there IS something "that can be done to reason another person into being good." It's called the power of the gospel. It changes peoples' lives. It has changed innumerable lives of drunks, addicts, murderers, theives and rapists. That's one thing that you rarely hear about atheism, that it makes a person want to act better. And you might object that the good news contained in the Bible is not "reason" but you would be wrong. It is just reason that you choose to disbelieve because you can't "prove" that it is true.

I know I can't prove to you that Jesus saves people, but likewise I can't prove that mothers love their children. They may say that they do, and act as though they do, but you can't see it, touch it or measure it. There are many things in this world that you can't see, touch or measure. You might not believe that I get migraine headaches, but that does not make them less real.

As a practical matter, since you want to encourage people to desire to do good things, and to discourage people from doing bad things, it seems to me that you ought to set aside your enmity to Christians and Jews. Whether a person desires to do good because of your theory of morality, or because of their belief in God, or even because they believe a little green martian is telling them, it should not matter so far as your general goal of having them desire to do the right thing.

I personally know many people whose actions have been changed by their belief in Jesus. Just curious--because I don't know many atheists--but can you point to persons whose lives have been changed for the better because of their conversion to atheism?

TGP said...

I'm pretty sure Malcolm X believed that Islam changed his life for the better.

I'm pretty sure that Tom Cruise would say the same about Scientology.

I know a guy who's life was changed for the better when he had heart bypass surgery and his doctor stuck him on a serious diet, forbid booze and tobacco, and told him to get on a bike. (He's a non-believer.)

People's lives also change when they have kids, get pets, pick up a new hobby, or switch to decaf.

I see no evidence that Christianity is any more a contributor than any other religion or many other secular life-changes.

Regarding your headaches: A doctor can detect and measure a migraine headache with an MRI or CT scan. We still do not have a Jesus detector. Get a better example. (Cher may have a song you want to quote-mine.)

Regarding practical matters: You might see some of the stuff Alonzo has written about backing the best 51%.

Regarding conversion to atheism: Usually, atheists consider becoming an atheist as a 'deversion' and not a 'conversion.' We don't all believe in the same things, but we do all not believe in the existence of any god or gods.

John Doe said...

TGP, you are wrong about a CT scan or an MRI showing migraines. But even if you are correct, they don't show the average head ache or toothache. They might show a reason for it, but they can't measure it.

You gave a couple of anecdotal cases of people who converted to religions from non-religions. We know that religious conversions change lives. As a student of history, you surely have heard of the great revivals. I understand, you believe that Christianity is bunk and based on a lie, that is not my point. My point is that it changes lives and entire communities so much that the changes are noted in history books.

I'm no Morman and I do not believe that they are Christian, but I still am able to see how Mormanism positively affects Utah and people in general. I would be the first to wish it wasn't true, but it is obvious. I'm looking for such similar huge society altering impacts by those who undergo a "diversion" into atheism. I'm guessing you aren't able to point out any such areas or you would have already.

And there was a "Jesus detector." There were many eyewitnesses to his death and resurrection. And many of them subsequently died for telling people what they saw.

I know that there are many kooks out there who will die for what they think is true, but not many who will die for what they KNOW is not true. Those simple fishermen and farmers saw something that they considered worth dying for. And unlike later, when the church became corrupt, they had no motive to lie and every reason to say that they did not see him alive after his crucifixion.

If you don't see differences in people, entire communities and entire countries based solely upon the religion (or irreligion) of the majority of the population, then aren't looking very hard.

Emu Sam said...

Convincing someone of the truth or falsity of the Bible (or of any other proposition) is not reasoning someone into a good desire (which is what desirism says is impossible). It is reasoning someone into a different belief, which will affect actions. An action is the product of beliefs and desires (many if not all beliefs and desires that a single person has).

A person who is thirsty may be ready to drink from a glass of water. If you can convince them it is poison, their desire (to drink and ease their thirst) is not changed. But they will not perform the action (drinking) they would otherwise have performed because their beliefs have changed.

A person with no desire to avoid pain or please a god may believe in the truth of some forms of Christianity and still perform actions Christianity forbids. The person may also have desires to go along with Christianity, but if those desires are weaker than other desires, no amount of reasoning will change the desires. A person who wants to kill more than they want to avoid hell will kill even if they believe they will be eternally punished for it. You cannot convince them otherwise. You can change their beliefs, not their actions.

John Doe said...

Emu, I thought desirism was all about trying to change peoples' behaviors, by condemnation, praise, punishment, encouragement, etc. If I'm correct, how does that square with your statement "reasoning someone into a good desire... is impossible"? Or are you talking about "immutable desires" as opposed to "malleable desires"?

And I thought that Alonzo said that desires are the only cause of actions? Do you disagree with him on this point, or am I not understanding one of ya'll's positions?

Also, I realize that reasoning alone cannot cause a person to become "perfect." Much of the condemnation of Christianity is because so-called Christians do not live up to the ideals which they espouse. Knowing the right thing to do, and even wanting to do the right thing, do not always result in actually doing the right thing.

Not to get all Christian-gooey on you, but many Christians claim to have experienced a change in their actual desires after conversion. Granted, nobody can prove it, but there have been many obvious changes in people and in entire communities. Atheists might attribute such changes to peer pressure or psychological delusion or whatever, but they can't honestly dispute that something is causing real changes in the outward behavior of individuals.

Further, from my experience, persons raised correctly in Christian homes have a much greater chance of becoming moral persons than those raised in immoral or amoral homes. Obviously there is not perfect correlation. I don't say this in a condemning manner--I was raised in a non-Christain, amoral household.

If you were to accept my premise, it does not change what you say, it adds to it. Agreed, you cannot reason a person into having good desires, but perhaps you can teach them and mold them when they are children to have more good desires and to learn tools to fight against bad desires?

Emu Sam said...

Praise and condemnation are not reasoning. I'm not sure what they are - perhaps emotional manipulation - but praise never takes the form of "Given premises A, B, and C, you should have desire D."

And I thought that Alonzo said that desires are the only cause of actions? Do you disagree with him on this point, or am I not understanding one of ya'll's positions?

I am not sure in what way I implied that there is another reason for action. We act on our desires, given out beliefs. But the belief is not a motivating factor.

The process of teaching and molding a child involves the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. These tools are not just used on the child. They are also used on others where the child can see them.

יאיר רזק said...

Mark:

People in general do not have reasons to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires. People in general have reasons to promote desires that fulfill their own desires. This is therefore the only prescription possible - No person has the desire to do good by DU, every person has the desire to do good by egoism, and almost any person has the desire to do good by humanism, seen as "standard egoism", i.e. the egoism of Standard Man.

As for reductions - I such reductions impoverish our picture of the brain, and are not productive.

Marc said...

יאיר רזק:

You say that:
(1) "People in general have reasons to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires."
is false.

and

(2) " People in general have reasons to promote desires that fulfill their own desires."
is true.

But these are not mutually exclusive options. Option (2) is true for the individual. Option (1) is true for the general populace. The fact that (2) is true does not mean that (1) is false. (1) just adds extra reasons for action. These may be reasons for action an individual doesn't realise she has, but the reasons remain nevertheless.

Leaving all use of moral language aside, these reasons for action still remain.

I already said that reduction may not be the right word. When talking about DU, these other aspects of the brain are simply not necessary. They are important concepts and may play all kinds of roles in the functioning of our brain, but they are redundant in the description of this theory. I don't think that has anything to do with an impoverished picture of the brain.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

People in general do not have reasons to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires. People in general have reasons to promote desires that fulfill their own desires.

As Marc pointed out, a person acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his belief. A person has reason to act to promote those desires that fulfills his desires.

People generally is a collection of persons. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. This is the net effect of a individuals having reason to promote desires that fulfill their desires.

The average weight of a group of people might be 75 kg. This does not imply that each individual person in the group weighs 75 kg. However, it is still a fact about the group.

The combined effect of all of the forces on an object is equal to the vector sum of all of the individual forces. Yet, there would rarely be any single force having the same magnitude and direction as this vector sum - that happens only when there is only one force or the other forces precisely cancel each other out. Yet, it remains true that the vector sum of the individual forces represents the total overall force on the object.

People generally have many and strong reasons to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

יאיר רזק said...

Mark -

Option 2 is a very poor description of what reasons "people in general" have on the social level. It focuses on the abstract common denominator, but thereby loses the concrete and the variety. To use an analogy, it would be like me saying "materials in general contract when they freeze", which may be true in general but misses both the fact that water doesn't and is rather important and the sheer variety of different materials and how they freeze.

It is descriptive, which is essentially the role of science. In other words - it is just an underdeveloped anthropological theory,that strangely refuses to engage and be based on actual data, like science should.

Fyfe - You are conducting a descriptive abstraction, and then identifying the game-theoretic end-game with "good". This ignores the actuality of the dynamics of people's desires - what people actually desire is not what they will desire in the (hypothetical) end-game. As a descriptive theory, I find it unfounded in actual data and neglecting other differences (such as heredity and infection rates, dynamical interactions of fulfillment or prevalence, correlations with power, and so on) between private desires and their social impact. As a prescriptive theory, I find it irrational - you're urging people to act in accordance with the end-game, instead of with their own desires.

Marc said...

יאיר רזק

Option 2 is your own statement, so I'm a bit confused as to why you're attacking it now.

I can't speak for Alonzo of course, but you state that he equates "good" with the game-theoretic end-game. I think Alonzo has made it pretty clear that "good" is just a moral term that can be just as easily abandoned. The theory doesn't hinge on any defintion of "good".

You say "As a prescriptive theory, I find it irrational - you're urging people to act in accordance with the end-game, instead of with their own desires.". Ignoring the end-game reference for the time being, isn't this what any moral theory does? If being moral means "act in accordance with your own desires" then any discussion on the subject would be superfluous, wouldn't it?

No matter what theory you deem correct, they all urge people to act in accordance with what that theory thinks they should act in accordance with, instead of with their own desires.

ps. Repeatedly misspelling people's names doesn't convey much respect for them in a discussion...

יאיר רזק said...

Marc -

Terribly sorry about misspelling your name - my sincere apologies.

I've gotten confused about the numbers of the options, too, but I hope my idea carried through.

As for your question - no, not all moral theories urge people to act in a certain way against their nature. Just to take an historical example - John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, if I remember correctly, starts from an empirical discussion of pleasure/pain with the goal of concluding utilitarianism as being in human's nature.

I believe Richard Carrier espouses a similar metaethic - the idea is that human nature is so uniform that we can talk about people in general. Carrier explicitly says that other kinds of "aliens" are possible, but maintains that they would be "monsters" that need to be put down.

The discussion is not superfluous because it is meant to help the reader uncover his own desires, think through them, and shed his misconceptions - this is hardly superfluous, but it isn't the same as attempting to convince him to act in a certain way contrary to his nature, either.