Thursday, January 28, 2010

NASA: "We Lost The Moon"

According to the Obama administration, the project to return humans to the moon is at an end.

More information on the NASA budget for 2011 suggests that the Obama administration will request no money for the Aries I or Aries V rockets to return to the moon, no money for lunar landers or lunar rovers, and no plans for any human space activities other than continuing to occupy the International Space Station until 2020.

The decision to keep the International Space Station alive and well until 2020 is new. That had been a question mark until recently, with the Space Station originally set to be deorbited in 2015.

The one significant shift in NASA plans is to use commercial rockets to take astronauts to and from the space station, rather than use a NASA rocket such as the Space Shuttle.

So, this is what you have to look forward to in terms of human spaceflight for the next 10 years.

Now, Congress still has the power to override the recommendations of the Obama administration. They can continue to demand work on a moon base, and they can appropriate money for it. If they choose to do so, then the President, of course, has the option of accepting or vetoing this legislation. So, we do not yet know what the final outcome will be, but we know what the President is aiming for.

I cannot complain about these results.

I have argued for years that NASA should get out of the business of building and launching rockets and executing its own space projects and, instead, offer prizes and other forms of support for private companies to carry out these objectives. The plan to establish some sort of competition for private companies to carry astronauts to and from the station, and to award lucrative government contracts to the companies that succeed in meeting this challenge, fits that model quite well.

I think it will significantly lower the cost of getting people into space, and result in more money being put into human space flight as these private companies have the option of seeking revenue outside of the government that NASA projects do not have. This includes the options as mundane as putting advertisements on the sides of rockets like giant billboards to carrying non-government passengers to non-government destinations in space such as Bigalow's private space stations.

While the taxpayer dollars spend on space development go down, private dollars spent on space development go up. And if the latter go up more than the former go down (and to the degree that the money on both sides is spent more efficiently) we get more space development, but with less of a strain on the tax payers.

In developing near-earth space - and in particular in developing it commercially - people are going to start to look for two things in abundance; energy and materials. Launching these materials from Earth is expensive, so there will be a drive to look for cheaper alternatives. Orbiting space power stations that can transmit power to orbiting customers will be one possibility. Orbiting manufacturing centers that can take materials harvested from asteroids and turn them into useful products will be another.

We can expect some resistance to these changes. There are entrenched groups who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, and those who have a habit of thinking in terms of government space projects and cannot yet imagine an alternative paradigm. I do not see much call to resist them, however.

From one perspective, it can easily be seen as an attempt to preserve the current status (minus the space shuttle) until such time as the Space Station itself becomes obsolete and the last elements of manned space flight is deorbited into the Pacific. However, hopefully, what we are seeing is a shift away from government astronauts travelling to government space stations to one in which private citizens are visiting and utilizing private space resources.

Well, there is that hope.

Objections Considered: Other Desires

Here is an interesting exchange from the studio audience:

Writer 1: What is useful for us is what we want to do, not what tends to fulfill our desires.

Writer 2: I'm pretty sure that when I "want" something, that's the same as saying that it "fulfills my desires".

Writer 1: Then why do you care about a definition that is concerned with OTHER desires? It is simply not a topic of interest.

Let me answer that question:

First, of course, what we want and what fulfills our desires is exactly the same thing. What we want to do is a mere subset of what we want. And what is useful to us is often not what we want to do (exercise), but will help bring about something that we want (longer life with a greater ability to do more while living).

However, I don’t think these are side issues. The main issue can be answered as follows:

Do you really mean to suggest that I have no reason to be concerned with whether other people have an aversion to lying, stealing, rape, or murder? Their desires with respect to owning slaves are of no interest to me?

Now, let me add a bit more detail to that answer.

I would like to start with some remarks on egoism - the idea that the only (legitimate) interest a person can have is in himself or herself.

Egoists typically defend their view using a tight equivocation - a logical fallacy by which they are continually changing the definitions of their terms in order to dance around objections to their theory.

We can see this equivocal dance more clearly by introducing a couple of terms that more clearly distinguish between two different types of egoism: Subject-egoism and object-egoism.


Subject-egoism simply states that the beliefs and desires of the agent (the 'self' or 'ego') is the proximate cause of all of an agent's intentional actions. My intentional actions can be linked to my beliefs and desires. If an act cannot be linked to my beliefs and desires, then it is not my action.

Let's assume that some mad scientist invents a machine that allows him to take control of my body. He does so, then uses my body to rob banks and convenience stores and drop off the money where he can pick it up. Because those actions did not come from my beliefs and my desires, they are not my action - they are the actions of the person who took over my body. He is responsible for robbing those places, not me.

Subject-egoism is almost certainly true. Desirism includes the fact of subject-egoism when it states that the each person acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs - and seeks to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires.


Object-egoism is the view that the self or the ego is the only object of one's desires. It states that the only thing an agent wants or desires is his or her own benefit. Other people, other things, things that are not of the agent himself are of no concern to him or her.

Object-egoism is almost as clearly false as subject-egoism is true. People, in fact, can have a number of other-oriented desires. He can have a desire that no child go to bed hungry, an aversion to the suffering of animals, or an interest in having the human race or its bio-mechanical descendants persist billions of years into the future. A person can have such a strong interest in the welfare of his children that he will run into a burning building to try to save them, or such an interest in promoting God that he will blow himself up in order to attack God's enemies.

The Egoist Dance

What the egoist does is he begins with object-egoism - asserting that the self is the only legitimate object of one's concern and one either cannot or should not have concern for any person other than the self. When he is challenged, he retreats into the unassailable position of subject-egoism asserting that the self is the subject of all of one's intentional actions. When the egoist's opponent quits attacking the unassailable position of subject-egoism and goes away the egoist steps out of subject-egoism and brags about how he has now defended object-egoism and forced the attacker into submission.

Other Desires

The proximate cause of all of an agent's actions are his own beliefs and desires. However, the self is not the only possible or the only permissible object of one's desires. One can well be interested in the well-being of others, and others have many and strong reason to cultivate those types of concerns in their neighbors.

A person can be made to hate lying. He can be made to hate lying in the same sense that he can be made to hate spinach or to hate spinach.

An agent's hatred of spinach does not spring from the belief that spinach is not useful-to-self. In fact, the opposite is true. Spinach is very useful-to-self. It provides the self with a number of benefits - far more benefits than chocolate cake, for example. However, some people cannot stand the taste of spinach and they refuse to eat it in spite of its benefits. They just don't like it.

An agent can be given the same type of hatred of lying. This hatred of lying does not spring from any argument that lying is always harmful to the agent. In fact, lies can often provide the agent with a number of benefits. However, people can be made so that they cannot stand the taste of lying and they refuse to lie in spite of the benefits that they would otherwise get from lying.

If I can cause other people to have a sufficiently strong aversion to lying, then I can trust that they will tell me the truth even under conditions when they would otherwise have benefitted from a lie. They would forego the benefits of a lie just as they forego the benefits of spinach.

I have many and strong reasons to build in others this aversion to lying. I also have many and strong reason to build in them aversions to theft, assault, rape, and murder. In doing so, I make them so that they will not commit theft, assault, rape, and murder even when they would otherwise benefit.

They have reason to build in me these same aversions. To the degree that they have done so, then they have made me so that I will not steal, assault, rape, or murder them when I might otherwise benefit.

This is all incorporated under the desire utilitarian slogan of promoting in others those desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting in others those desires that tend to thwart other desires. It is something I can do using the social tools of praise and condemnation, among others.

In doing this, I am making others so that they are less likely to thwart other desires in the subject-egoist sense, not the object-egoist sense. My motivation for promoting in others desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires includes my interest in having humanity or its bio-mechanical descendents survive indefinitely into the future, and my interest that no child go to bed hungry.

My motivation to promote in others desires that tend to fulfill other desires includes the aversions to lying, theft, assault, rape, and murder that others have had reason to cause me to have.

When I get together with others, it also makes very good sense for us to talk about which desires we have reason to promote using social forces of condemnation and punishment, and which we have reason to inhibit. It makes perfectly good sense for us, using language, to invent a word to refer to desires that people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote or inhibit.

Yes, I am acting on my subject-egoist desires. The desires that actually motivate my actions are my own. How can they be anyone else’s and still be my actions? However, it would be absolutely foolish of me to have no interest in what desires other people have. Of course I have an interest in other desires – as does every rational agent – because the desires that other people have will help to determine whether my attempts to fulfill my desires are fulfilled or thwarted.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

NASA's Budget 2011

I have mentioned before that Obama appears to be no friend of space development. His actions suggest that he is at least sympathetic to the philosophy that we should not be wasting any money on space exploration as long as there are problems on earth to be solved.

Last year, Obama created a committee to look at the future of human space flight and to make recommendations. The committee came to the conclusion that NASA could not even carry out its current projects without an increase in funding and suggested a set of increases, starting with $1 billion in 2011.

However, the talk around town is that there will be no increase in the manned space flight budget. Obama will increase the budget in other areas such as earth-monitoring satellites (the science program that the Bush Administration neglected almost to death) and education, but not for manned space flight.

However, this news, combined with a few other stories that are making its way through the space development community, suggests that Obama may be the best friend that human space development could ever have. While he is cutting back on space programs that the government plans and executes with its own money, he may well create the foundation for a commercial spce program that will do more with less.

Let's look at some of this other news.

(1) Virgin Galactic rolled out the VSS Enterprise at the end of last year. This will be the first commercial space ship rated to carry paying customers to the edge of space. A short 5-minute visit to the edge of space will cost the willing customer $200,000. This is not as harsh as it sounds - the money will go to a week-long vacatioin that includes training and a number of other space- and flight-related activities.

In 2010, Virgin Galactic will conduct a series of flight tests. First, the configuration consisting of a mother ship called 'Eve' will fly around with the space ship. Then there will be drop tests where the space ship is dropped at altitude and landed. Then, finally, they will drop the space ship and light the engines,

(2) Robert Begalow is building space stations and marketing them to other governments. With Bigelow's system, any country who wants one can have a space station with more internal room than the International Space Station at a fraction of the price. The stations modules are inflatable - instead of being hard-skinned like the Space Station. This is why they have so much more room than modules on the space station.

With two prototype modules already orbiting the Earth, this company is more than just talk. It is making and flying hardware.

(3) Robert Bigelow needs space ships capable of carrying humans into space to inhabit his space station. SpaceX is working on its Falcon9 rocket and on a crew capsule that it will be capable of launching into space.

Here is a specific area in which the Obama administration may be a better friend to human space development than those who like government-run projects. Apparently, he will seek to fund a multi-billion dollar project to help get these companies to the point where they can hall astronauts to and from the International Space Station, giving them a significant economic platform on which to build.

These three projects combined implies that the commercial space industry will be be able to do more than NASA is currently doing. It will be building and manning several space stations, taking one set of paying customers to the very edge of space, and taking another set of paying customers for an extended stay in space.

They will not be going to the moon, yet. But, then again, neither will NASA. However, I have often argued, the future of humanity should not consist in going to all of this effort to climb out of one gravity well just to climb down another. Instead, when it gets out of this gravity well it should stay in space, using asteroids to construct places to live and to work and to harvest the energy and mineral resources that can be had without cutting deeper and deeper scars into a living earth.

Objections Considered: Right Actions

An issue has come up regarding the qualities of a "right act" according to desire utilitarian theory.

In light of current discussion, I am going to argue that there are two distinct concepts of 'right action' and that something can be a right action in one sense and not a right action in another.

A member of the studio audience writes,

Your exact words are usually something along the lines of "The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed." On the other hand, it seems to be possible for two different agents, both with good desires, to choose to do two different acts.

One of the implications of desire utilitarianism is that moral dilemmas are possible. Moral dilemmas are situations in which an agent has a choice to make, where both options are morally impermissible. That is to say, there is no 'right action'.

A classic example from literature is Sophie's Choice. Sophie was a Jew in Nazi Germany where a Nazi gave her an ultimatum. "You tell me which of your two children I am to kill, or I will kill both of them."

Morality, as I said, has to do with the day-to-day situations. It is a world in which far too many children suffer from abuse and neglect. It is a world in which we do not expect people to be asked to choose which of their children will be killed - so it is a world in which we have little or no reason to prepare people for that type of circumstance. It is in a world in which we say, "if we promote these desires then, in that type of situation, they will be trapped." The answer to that problem is then to say, "Well, then, let's see what we can do to reduce the numbers of people who find themselves in that type of situation."

As such, we have many and strong reasons to promote and to augment parental care for one's children. Obviously, the sentiments that nature has given us are not sufficient for the task. If they were, we would not have the abuse and neglect that is a part of our world. So, we bring morality to bear to bolster and strengthen this natural affection.

By the way, the paragraph above was a direct attack on those who hold that morality is found in our innate biological dispositions. Natural parental affection - the affection that we have as a result of evolution and is written into our genes - is not a moral quality. People do not deserve praise or blame on the basis of innate qualities - qualities that are not subject to the influence of social forces. This would be akin to giving somebody an achievement award for having a particular genetic sequence, something which the agent has by chance and not by choice.

Morality has to do with the augmentation of good desires and inhibition of bad desires through social forces. People who study these natural forces are not studying morality. They are studying the pre-moral foundation that serves as the starting point for morality.

Anyway, back to our story . . .

Generally, we have many and strong reasons to promote parental affection as a way of reducing the total amount of abuse and neglect that children would otherwise suffer. Sophie, unfortunately, is in a position where, no matter how she acts, she is going to do something that will thwart this particularly strong desire for the well-being of her children. She will not only be acting contrary to a mother's natural inclination to protect her children. She will be thwarting a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote - a morally praiseworthy desire.

This type of choice would be psychologically devastating to a good person. It could ruin her. And, in fact, the quality of the book Sophie's Choice is that it well illustrates the psychological damage suffered by a person who is forced to make these types of choices.

One might say that the right act is clear. The right act would be to name a child to be killed so that one child is spared rather than none. This is the act that best fulfills the morally praiseworthy desire for the welfare of one's children under these circumstances.

However, a good parent simply is not prepared to hand over a child to be killed - to point to her own child (who looks to that parent for protection) and say, "Kill that one." A good parent would have a particularly strong aversion to such an act. This, being forced to do something that one does not wish to do, this act of deciding actually choosing a child for death, this act that was not foreseen by the morality that shaped her malleable desires, cannot help but haunt and torment th good mother for the rest of her life.

It is a torment that can, perhaps, only be ended by taking one's own life.

In cases where an act is the right act in the sense of being the act that a person with good desires would perform, but a wrong act in that it thwarts a desire that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, we have reason to morally demand that the agent be seriously troubled by the choice. The person that we have true reason to condemn is the person for whom it is an easy decision.

Desire utilitarianism is comfortable with the prospect of moral dilemmas - situations where a good person would have a particularly strong aversion to all permissible outcomes. These are actions where people generally (and 'generally' is important here) in the real world in which we live have many and strong reasons to condemn that type of action.

There is an important social function to be served by a morality that allows for the possibility of moral dilemmas. In gives people an incentive to avoid those situations where they would have to make these types of choices. People do not always succeed. However, the incentive to avoid these types of situations means that there are fewer incidents like this than there would have otherwise been.

The moral question is, what would the good person's reaction be to that type of act? Would a good person have a particularly strong aversion to performing that act? Do people generally have reason to promote a particularly strong aversion to that act? If so, then there may well be a sense in which the act is the right thing to do. Yet, under desire utilitarianism, it would not qualify as something good. It would at best qualify as a necessary evil - a forgivable wrong.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Objections Considered: Why Should I?

A member of the studio audience asks:

Why should someone consider all desires that exist when making moral judgments? Why not just the desires of those they care about?

This question is a lot like the Hateful Craig Problem I discussed in post quite a while back. The answer here is going to start off the same, though I will take it in a slightly different direction.

See Atheist Ethicist, The Hateful Craig Problem: Why should I, who for purposes of this question hate everyone, wish to fulfill the desires of others?

This question was asked in relation to an alternative,

What if I have a humans-only morality and consider only the desires of humans?

I begin by asking, "What does the word 'should' mean in this question?" Clearly, I cannot answer the question until I know what it is that is being asked.

I hold that 'should' (and 'ought') refers to reasons for action that exist. When a person 'Why should I do X?' this can be reduced to a question of the form, 'What reasons for action are there for me to do X?'

Here, all I need to do is to point to the desires of non-humans and say, "Well, those are reasons for action that exist. When you ask what reasons for action are there for you to do X, I point to the desires of non-humans and say that there you will find reasons for action that exist for you to consider the desires of non humans."

The response at this point may be, "But I do not care about those reasons for action that exist. I choose to ignore them - to disregard them. I will not include them in my moral calculus."

However, now you are asking a different question. It is not, "What reasons for action are there for me to consider the desires of non-humans?" but "What reasons for action do I have to consider the desires of non-humans."

Desirism states that you may well have no reason to consider the desires of non-humans. The desires that you have are a very small subset of the desires that exist, and there is no reason to assume that this subset of desires includes a reason to consider the desires of non-humans.

Yet, moral claims seldom look at the reasons that a person has or doing or refraining from some action. The child rapist has a particularly strong reason to rape a child. However, the immorality of rape is not grounded on what reasons the rapist has or does not have for performing some action. It has to do with the reasons that others have for promoting or inhibiting that particular desire. It has to do with the malleable desires that people have reason to promote or to inhibit - including those desires that contribute to or inhibit the act of raping a child.

Non-human animals have reasons to act so as to promote in you desires that would contribute to the fulfillment of their desires. What non-human animals lack is the capacity to engage in a complex program of praise and blame that would help to shape those desires. Their limited system of beliefs stands in the way of them engaging in moral practices to the same degree that we do. They can make rudimentary moral judgments and impose them on others within their tribe, but they cannot participate in a complex global culture.

However, the fact that they are not capable of making the best possible plans to aid in the fulfillment of their desires does not change the fact that those desires exist and that they are reasons for action that exist.

We still have reason to promote in people generally an aversion to disregarding the desires of those who cannot fully participate in the moral culture - those who cannot plan sufficiently well to prevent being taken advantage of.

Such an aversion makes us safer. It would also inhibit actions that would be a threat to our pets and livestock and even our children. We have reason to praise those who consider the desires of agents who are incapable of fully expressing their own desires, and to condemn those who see an inability to express one's desires as a reason to disregard those desires.

"Why should I consider the desires of non-human animals?" implies "What reasons for action exist for me to consider the desires of non-human animals?" We can answer this question by pointing to the desires of non-human animals. Those are reasons for action that exist.

"What reasons for action do I have to consider the desires of non-human animals?" Answer: Possibly none. However, morality has never been concerned with what reasons for action an agent has, but with what reasons for action he should have - what reasons for action that others have reason to cause him to have. In this respect, non-human animals have many and strong reason to cause the agent to consider their interests. They simply lack the ability to act intelligently on those reasons.

Yet, the rest of us have many and strong reasons to condemn those who disregard the interests of those who cannot defend them. Many people we care about share those same qualities and, in some context, we may find ourselves unable to fully participate in the moral community either. In which case, we still have reason to have those in the moral community consider our interests. So, we have reason to praise those who consider the interests of those who cannot speak for themselves, and to condemn those who disregard such interests.

This is all that can be said on the matter. Somebody could well read this and assert that they still have no interest in considering the desires of non-humans. And they may well be right - they do not have such an interest. But the moral question is not whether they have or do not have these interests. It has to do with whether the rest of us have reason to create those interests in him through the use of social tools such as praise and condemnation.

On this question, the honest answer is that we do have reason to do so - even those of us who cannot make sophisticated plans to fulfill its desires still has reason to use social tools to create such interests in others. This remains a fact regardless of whether the agent to be praised or condemned cares about that fact.

Now, one can read all of this and still respond, "After considering these things I do not feel any interest at all in considering the desires of non-humans. Therefore, your argument fails."

However, remember, desirism states that you cannot reason somebody into virtue. Rather, you mold their desires through social practices such as praise and condemnation. The argument states that there are reasons to act so as to use social institutions to cause people generally to have certain desires and aversions. The reasons do not generate those desires and aversions. The actions that people have reason to perform are to do that.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Objections Considered: Subject Of Discussion

I can prove to you that all of chemistry is subjective.

Assume that a chemist were to make the statement, "Carbon atoms have six protons."

I have already proved that chemistry is subjective. This is because no scientist can give any type of objective argument showing that six proton atoms have to be called 'carbon' and cannot have any other name. The decision to call six proton atoms 'carbon' is arbitrary and subjective. So, chemistry itself is subjective.

There is a second argument, along these same lines, yielding the same general conclusion.

Not only is it the case that the scientist cannot objectively prove that six proton atoms must be called 'carbon' - that this choice is not arbitrary - but can give no objective answer to the question of why he has decided to write about 6-proton atoms.

There are over a hundred different atoms that the chemist could be talking about - hydrogen, oxygen, iron, uranium. The decision to talk about carbon atoms, as opposed to one of these other types of atoms - is entirely arbitrary. It is up to the whim of the chemist what atoms he is going to write about. That is to say, the choice is totally subjective. Therefore, chemistry is totally subjective.

In fact, both of these accusations about chemistry are true. Yet, neither of them prove that chemistry itself is subjective. The objectivity of chemistry is not the least bit threatened by the arbitrariness of language or the arbitrariness of what any individual chooses to write about.

In the realm of morality, one of the things I choose to write about are the relationships between malleable desires and other desires. I claim that the degree to which a malleable desire fulfills other desires relates to the degree that others have for using social tools such as praise and condemnation to mold those desires. People generally (not individually, but generally) have many and strong reasons to use these social tools to promote malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires.

The question then comes up, "Why are you talking about these relationships between malleable desires and all other desires? You can give me no objective answer to the question of why you choose to talk about these and not some other desires and relationships. Because you cannot give an answer to this question, this proves that morality is subjective rather than objective."

Yet, this is no more of a threat to objective morality than the claim that the chemist chooses to talk about carbon rather than oxygen threatens objective chemistry. What makes a field of study objective or subjective is not the author's preferences with respect to what part of reality he wishes to study, but whether the claims he makes about that object of study are objectively true or false.

This is the challenge that somebody who wants to claim that desire utilitarianism (desirism) is not compatible with the claim that morality is objective. It's not a valid objection to say that the agent has a choice as to what aspect of reality he is going to study. One must demonstrate that he is saying things about that object of study that are not objectively true.

In my case, the person raising the objection must be able to point to something that I have said about the relationship between malleable desires and other desires and say, "Well, that's just your assertion. It is not a fact about those desires. We can make just as much sense of the real world if we deny that claims that you have made."

This is quite different from the objection that says, "You have selected to write about relationships between malleable desires and other desires. You could have selected to write about the history of Great Britain or the chemical composition of stars. Because you made an arbitrary choice as to what to write about, your claims are not objectively true."

If a person wants to make a meaningful objection they have to talk about the claims that I am making about things, not my choices as to what things to talk about or what to call them. That is the type of objection that will challenge any theory.

So, what have I said about the relationships between malleable desires and other desires that is not objectively true?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Objections Considered: Specific Exceptions

Doug S. is proposing a possible reductio ad absurdum of desirism.

He wishes to argue that the propositions of desirism conclude that all actions are good because they can all be described as actions that a person with good desires would do,

[A]ssuming 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.

An example was brought up in discussion of the killing of a little girl at a specific place in time. If an aversion to killing is a good desire, then an aversion to killing except when killing this young girl at this specific place and time would be an almost equally good desire. So, the killing of this girl may well be something that a person with good (though not perfect) desires would perform.

In response to this I wish to bring forth what desirism says is the relationship between reason and morality. The role of reason to morality is the same as the role of reason to fixing the flat tire on your car. You can reason with the flat tire all you want, but you will not convince it to change places with the spare. The role of reason is to tell you how to use the tools at your disposal to change the flat tire.

Just as you cannot reason the flat tire into changing itself, you cannot reason a person into virtue. Reason is the instrument for altering a person's beliefs. Virtue is a quality of malleable desires. To alter people's desires you do not use reason, you use the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. However, reason will tell you how best to use these tools.

Praise and condemnation are core moral concepts. In desirism, they explain why moral concepts are not applied to fixed desires but to malleable desires - because fixed desires are by definition immune to the effects of cultural tools. It also explains why the concept of an evolved morality is nonsense - because it makes no sense to morally praise or condemn a person for the sequence of their genes. Praise, condemnation, and other cultural tools can have no effect on those sequences. No person can justly claim moral superiority over another in virtue of having a morally superior genetic sequence.

When we bring these concepts to bear on Doug's desires, one of the questions we need to ask is what the likely effects would be of cheerfully praising the killing of this girl. Will this cheerful praise actually help to promote an aversion to killing except for the killing of this girl at this particular place and time? Or will it likely have the effect of weakening the desire for killing generally?

I would suggest that it is the latter. We have more to gain in society as a whole by condemning the killing of this young girl and thereby promoting an overall aversion to the killing of young children, then we have by praising the killing of this young girl and promoting a weakened aversion to killing young girls that would put others at risk of the same fate.

We can clearly invent stories in which actions which we have reason to condemn are not actions that the people in those situations have reason to condemn. However, this is not a threat to desirism. This is, in fact, a part of desirism.

Imagine a planet in which a species much like humans evolved. However, on that planet, there came to exist a sexually transmitted virus. This virus, as it does out, does not do harm to those who are infected. It provides a benefit. Let us say that it forms a symbiotic relationship with the infected person's immune system that makes it more effective against some particularly harmful diseases.

On this planet, pre-historic tribal cultures that tolerated and encouraged sex between adults and children had the effect of infecting children with this virus. These cultures grew and prospered. Where those cultures that condemned this practice ended up with sizable numbers of children getting sick and dying. The cultures that exist today on this planet are the descendants of those historic cultures that condoned the practice of sex with children and even required the rape of children who would otherwise refuse sex.

Consider the similarities between the rape of a child in this hypothetical world and providing a child with a vaccination. Both involve the violent penetration of a child's body against the child's will. It takes a minor change to make an act of sex the delivery system for such rather than an act of skewering the child. The latter, of course, is an act that is not only permissible in our society, but (arguably) obligatory.

However, none of this implies that we humans living on Earth today should praise the act of having sex with children. What is true on that far distant planet is not true on Earth. The fact of the matter is that we, living in the real world, have many and strong reasons to condemn those acts in order to weaken the desire to perform such acts and to put up conflicting desires that would inhibit and reduce the rates at which people engage in such acts.

We may be uncomfortable with the thought that such acts might be permissible where different facts obtain. We are supposed to be uncomfortable with the thought. Part of what it means to promote an aversion to such states is that one is promoting a feeling of discomfort at the thought of such states obtaining and a desire to condemn or punish those who realize such states.

I can even go so far as to say that we have reason to worry about – and even to morally condemn – anybody who does not have an averse emotional reaction to the thought of such a world exist. They are likely to be a threat to us and those we care about.

However, the fact of - and even the justification for - that discomfort for us in this situation does not imply that, if the facts were different, there justification for that discomfort might disappear with it. It justifies our not liking that fact. It may even demand that we have an adverse emotional reaction to the possibility of such facts. However, it does not alter the facts.

In the real world, in the here and now, if somebody were to try to argue for praising the killing of this young girl on the grounds that, "it promotes an aversion to killing except in this one specific instance and that, generally, is a good aversion to promote," we would justly claim that the person is mistaken. The real world isn't built that way. In the real world, his praise of that young girl's death weakens the aversion to killing generally and puts others at risk. The praise of such a killing, like the killing itself, is something we in the real world have many and strong reasons to condemn.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Apollo +50: Little Joe 1B

Finally, NASA got had a successful test of the Mercury abort system under maximum dynamic pressure.

I am devoting some space in this blog (pun intended) to covering the 50th anniversary of the start of the space age. 50 years ago today, NASA was 9 years, 5 months, and 30 days away from launching a mission to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth. Only, nobody at NASA knew this at the time. They were still trying to put a man into space - for a little while at least.

One of the systems that they wanted to test before putting a human on the top of a rocket was whether the astronaut would survive an abort at that point in the lanch when the rocket would be under the most stress. This was determined by the speed at which the rocket was traveling and the thickness of the atmosphere it was flying through.

Above the point of maximum dynamic pressure - or max-Q - the atmosphere grew sufficiently thin that it did not put much pressure on the space craft. Below the point of max-Q the rocket was travelling more slowly and that meant less dynamic pressure. At the point of max-Q the speed had gotten high enough and the atmosphere was still thick enough to put the greatest load on the rocket.

If the astronaut could survive this, he should have no trouble surviving an abort either before or after that point.

Well . . . assuming everything else worked.

For this test, NASA also decided to get a little extra data by putting a live passenger on board - a Rhesus monkey by the name of Miss Sam. The Max-Q test was originally designed to test how the rocket held up under an abort under max-Q. But how well would the astronaut hold up?

In this test, Miss Sam became disoriented for about 30 seconds after the abort sequence was triggered. He had been trained to perform a set of tasks throughout the mission. When the abort rockets fired to carry the capsule away from the rocket, she quit performing those tasks and failed to respond to commands. Thirty seconds later, she was back to doing her tasks.

However, this caused NASA officials to worry that an astronaut would react in the same way. This was a problem because the astronaut was the designated backup for a chute deployment failure. If the capsule did not deploy the parachutes automatically during an abort, the astronaut was supposed to be available to deploy the chutes manually. If the astronaut was too shaken up by the abort itself to do the job, then he would not serve as a reliable backup.

This result did not imply that the mission was a failure. In fact, a part of the success of this mission was that it produced useful data such as this - and Miss Sam and the capsule did survive the Max-Q test.

The rocket launched, the abort system activated at Max-Q. The capsule splashed down into the ocean. The Navy recovered the capsule. Mss Sam was taken out of the capsule and examined and shown to be in good health.

At this point, NASA decided to move past the use of test capsules and to start flight-testing the man-rated capsules - the capsules designed to carry astronauts into space.

We will have to wait six months until the next test. However, when these tests start up again, they will begin a run that will end up in putting men in space, then in orbit, then on the moon, in nine and a half years.

Objections Considered: Arbitrariness

This is the cardinal mistake of desirism - it classifies desires as abstract as "good" or "bad" according to arbitrary criteria, instead of addressing the real desires of real humans.

This is a common objection that I hear. It can be found in another recent comment from a member of the studio audience:

[Y]ou have said that when we consider moral questions, the desires in question become "all desires that exist." Why? . . . How do you get from practical-ought to the moral-ought, without already instilling your own values into the equation (the value of considering all desires that exist)?

The fact is that I can drop the terms 'good' and 'bad' - and moral terms like 'good' and 'evil' completely out of this theory and it will not change the theory whatsoever. The terms 'good' and 'bad' are merely code words.

When the first person pointed to a rock and said 'rock', he set up the question, "Okay, now, what else is going to count as a rock?" There is no law of nature that dictates what the word 'rock' means. People simply make these things up. They decide, "Heck, it sure is convenient, when w want to talk about these naturally occurring hard things that seem to be everywhere, to use the term 'rock', so that's what we are going to do."

Every word that exists is assigned its meaning by means of arbitrary criteria.

Do you think that there is some experiment that people used to determine that a 6-proton atom would be called 'carbon?' It is not as if they peered through a carbon atom through a microscope and read the name off of it. Chemists decided, quite arbitrarily, that they would assign the word 'carbon' to the 6-proton atom. They did not prove that 6-protons are properly called 'carbon' by means of any natural experiment. They simply made an arbitrary decision, and agreed among themselves to follow it.

To accuse me of doing the same thing that geologists and chemists do does not provide me with any reason to reject any theories that I may have about the nature of rocks or of atoms or of morality.

If this is to be a meaningful objection, then the person who raises it cannot be accusing me of arbitrarily assigning meanings to words. That is a necessary part of language - and anybody who participates in the institution of language necessarily participates in the same arbitrariness. If I am guilty of doing the same thing that geologists, chemists, and physicists must necessarily do, then I am just as guilty as the geologists, chemists, and physicists.

Instead, a meaningful objection must be one in which I am accused of arbitrarily assigning a property to an object or state of affairs - a property that it does not have as a matter of objective fact.

Yet, if this is the accusation being made, the accuser has the obligation of identifying the property that I am allegedly assigning arbitrarily to some object or state of affairs. They have to make an accusation that takes the form, "When you apply the term T to state of affairs S, you are claiming that S has property P. Yet, the assignment of property P to S is arbitrary and cannot be demonstrated as a matter of objective fact."

That would be a problem; it would be a particularly significant problem for me because I hold that arbitrarily assigned properties do not exist. The only realm where properties can be arbitrarily assigned or removed from objects or states of affairs is in the realm of fiction - not the realm of fact.

Note that I have written several times that I do not believe that there is a mutually exclusive is/ought distinction. I think that such a distinction is nonsense. It smacks of dualism - of the existence of an odd realm of existence distinct from yet capable of interacting with the realm of what is. Instead, I hold that there is and is/is not distinction. Either moral properties fit into the realm of what in, or we must assign them to the realm of what is not and move on.

In light of that assumption, the accusation that I am guilty of arbitrarily assigning some property to some state of affairs would be particularly damaging.

If the accusation that I am guilty of arbitrarily assigning a property to an object or state of affairs, then name that property.

If the accusation that I am guilty of expressing my theory by using language (the practice of arbitrarily assigning definitions to symbols), then, I am as guilty as any geologist, chemist, and logician.

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.

Objections Considered: Reasons for Action That Exist

In considering an extremely common family of objections to desire utilitarianism, there is one point where, as I see it, all objections fail. I can carry many objections up to this specific threshold, but cannot carry it across that threshold. Thus, I see no option but to drop the objection.

The form of the objection goes as follows:

• If we take the propositions of desire utilitarianism and follow their implications, we see that they reach conclusion C.

• C is false.

• Therefore, we must reject at least some of the propositions of desire utilitarianism.

This is, at least, a valid form of criticism. If it is true that the propositions of desire utilitarianism yield C, and if it is true that C is false, then it follows necessarily that at least one of the propositions in desire utilitarianism must be rejected. However, it leaves two ways in which one can respond to this type of criticism. One is to argue that it is not the case that the propositions of desire utilitarianism imply C. The other is to argue that C is true.

It is useful to note that the form of the objection given above is very close to the following:

• If we take the propositions of desire utilitarianism and follow their implications, we see that they reach C.

• I (we) do not like C. In contemplating C, we are made to feel uncomfortable.

• Therefore, we must reject at least some of the propositions of desire utilitarianism.

In this case, the response is, "Not necessarily." The fact that you do not like a particular conclusion or that it makes you feel uncomfortable is not good enough reason to declare that the conclusion is false. It may well be the case that you just have to get used to living in a universe that does not conform entirely to what makes you comfortable.

In fact, this is the type of objection we often see made to desire utilitarianism. Whereas the author must assert that C is false in order to have a sound objection, the best we get is the assertion that C makes some people uncomfortable.

That simply is not good enough.

We need to take seriously the fact that the objection requires that C is false, and what this actually means.

The defining proposition for desire utilitarianism (aka desirism) is that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. To say that this is false is to say that there must be some other type of reason for action that also must exist.

But what is this other type of reason for action that exists? What does it look like? How does it work? How does it interact with matter in the universe to yield a state of affairs of not-C? Can you tell me anything at all about these reasons for action that supposedly exist and support the conclusion of not-C, where desires, if desires are the only reasons for action that exist, support C?

The various proposals that people put out - divine command, intrinsic value, categorical imperatives, social contracts drawn up behind a veil of ignorance, the wishes of an impartial observer, genetic oughts . . . they are all imaginary entities. These are cases in which what is real yields a conclusion that the speaker does not like, so the speaker invents some entity that allows them to reject a conclusion they do not like - that makes them feel uncomfortable.

This is the big stumbling point for me. The author raising the objection tends to simply gloss over the fact that they are asserting that some other type of reason for action . . . something other than desires . . . must exist. They ignore the fact that they have a lot of very heavy questions that they need to answer if they are going to make that type of assertion.

When the person raising that objectin can provide answers to those questions, I will start to take seriously the possibility that C is false.

For me, the weight of those questions are such that I answer, "No. If I have to choose between accepting conclusion C as true, or that there is some other type of reason for action out there that exists other than desires even though nobody can answer any of these questions about what those reasons are and how they exist, I think embracing C as true is BY FAR the least problematic option."

There is another option that is sometimes the case. The person making the objection may be mistaken in their claim that the propositions of desire utilitarianism yield C. That is to say, the first premise in their objection may be false, rather than the second.

That is sometimes the answer that I provide - to argue that the propositions of desire utilitarianism do not yield the conclusion that some people claim that it does.

This is the case when people confuse desire utilitarianism (desirism) with desire fulfillment act utilitarianism and object to conclusions that are true within act utilitarian theories. They assert that this theory says to do the act that fulfills the most and strongest desires - a conclusion that I hold to be simply impossible for any real-world creature.

And since 'ought' implies 'can', it follows that 'cannot' implies 'it is not the case that one ought'

My response in this case is that desirism is not the same as desire fulfillment act utilitarianism, and the conclusions that the latter theory may reach are not conclusions that come from desire utilitarianism.

Yet, even if the author is right in claiming what desire utilitarianism implies C, I am still going to challenge the person making the objection to demonstrate that C is false, and to explain what other reasons for action they are going to propose in order to support the conclusion not-C.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jesus Sites and Danish Cartoons

Every once in a while it is interesting to hold two stories side by side and compare them.

Story 1: Jesus sights

The military buys a number of telescopic sights for its rifles from a company called Trijicon. Trijicon, it seems, puts an etching on its sights that reference biblical quotes. For example, a sights might contain the etching JN8:12. This refers to John 8:12, "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

There are certainly a number of things wrong with this type of act. It is as if the government were to issue Christian bibles and require that its soldiers carry them into battle, or to have a Christian cross included on their dog tags regardless of the soldier's personal beliefs.

However, the concern that I am interested in looking at in this case is that the references ought not to be included because it angers certain Muslims and may incite them to greater violence.

"This is probably the best example of violation of the separation of church and state in this country," said [Michael "Mikey") Weinstein [of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation]. "It's literally pushing fundamentalist Christianity at the point of a gun against the people that we're fighting. We're emboldening an enemy."

Story 2:

The story that I want to compare this to is the story of a Dutch newspaper that published several cartoons that some Muslims found offensive and responded to with violence. Recently, police shot a man "linked to the radical Islamist al-Shabab militia" who had broken into the home of one of the authors, Kurt Westergaard, with an axe and a knife.

(See: BBC, Danish police shoot intruder at cartoonist's home)

What I see is an interesting point of comparison is over whether the fact that somebody is prone to respond to certain speech with acts of violence is a good reason to condemn the speaker.

There are, in both cases, good reason to condemn the speaker in these cases.

Some of the Danish cartoons commit the Bigot's Fallacy. They take qualities that are found in a subset of a particular group and they use those qualities to denigrate the whole group. They are bigoted in the same way that trying to brand all atheists with the crimes of Stalin is bigoted.

And we have good reason to condemn an act of the Government of handing out military equipment with religious inscriptions on them promoting the views of a religion that the specific soldier may not share. It is not the job of the military to indoctrinate soldiers into a specific religion.

In neither case are these objections grounded on the possibility that others might respond with violence.

If and when there are people who are prone to respond to particular text with violence, then the condemnation never falls on the person who is doing the speaking. It falls upon those who have decided to respond to words with violence. This is exactly what the doctrine of the right to freedom of speech condemns. That right states that, while a speaker has no immunity from condemnation for what he says and writes, he shall enjoy an immunity from violence or threats of violence.

When we yield to violence and threats of violence in matters of freedom of speech, we weaken that freedom for everybody. It sends a message throughout the community that responding to words with violence and threats of violence is not only effective, it is permissible. We effectively allie ourselves with those making the threats and against those who are doing the speaking.

So, is it the case that there are people who may be embolded to respond to words with violence a good reason to condemn those who issue those words? Should we count among our reasons for condemnation the fact that, "There are people who may respond with greater violence to your act of including religious inscriptions on these sights."

I would argue that this should not count as one of our reasons.

Admittedly, there is a complication here. The military's job is to win battles. So, one of the questions that the military has to ask and answer is whether a particular set of actions contributes to or reduces the possibility of winning a particular conflict. If this type of act empowers and emboldens the enemy, thus increasing their power in the battlefield, then this consequence has military implications.

Yet, it might also be argued that the Danish cartoons embolded and empowered the enemy as well. It was also an effective recruiting tool that made the Muslim forces stronger than they would have otherwise been. So, if it is permissible to condemn these religious inscriptions for empowering the enemy, then is it not also permissible to condemn the Danish cartoonists as well?

To condemn the cartoonists in a way that condones the threats of violence made against them is to abandon the principle of freedom of speech. It may help to win the battle or the war, but it does so by destroying that which the war was supposed to be defending.

As I have said, we have good reason to condemn the government for purchasing and distributing these sights, and the company for including them on the scopes. Our reasons have nothing to do with the fact that others might respond violently. They have everything to do with legitimate prohibitions against the government using the military to push a religious doctrine.

That others might respond to these words with violence is NOT one of those good reasons. It should not be included as such in this debate. Doing so requires siding with those who respond to words with violence - condoning the violence by joining the violent in condemning the speakers.

Friday, January 15, 2010


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.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Morality and the Neurocomputational Model of Decision Making

A member of the studio audience sent me a paper in which Paul Thagard wrote that desires are not propositional attitudes.

Thagard, P. (forthcoming). Desires are not propositional attitudes. Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review.

That article raises objections to the view that desires are propositional attitudes. While making that argument, the author does draw a comparison between the belief-desire model of intentional action and the model that seems to be coming out of modern brain studies.

(1) desires + beliefs -> actions

(3) emotional brain areas + cognitive brain areas + interactive mechanisms -> actions.

This suggests that some sort of reduction is to be expected from belief-desire theory to what the author calls the neurocomputational account of decision making. He reports that the neurocomputational account has much greater explanatory potential.

Well, when it turns that potential into actual explanations, then we will see what can be done with it.

At the same time, he also wrote:

The everyday belief/desire explanation of action often suffices for ordinary social purposes, but it fails to give anything like the kind of deep mechanistic explanations that have contributed so much to physics, chemistry, and biology.

This raises what I consider to be an interesting issue in moral theory - the issue of simplicity.

Let us assume that there are moral facts - that can be reduced ultimately to relationships between states of affairs and desires (or states of affairs and emotional-brain-area facts, as the case may be). And that these facts are knowable. They are legitimate objects of scientific study just as the relationships between atoms in a molecule are legitimate objects of scientific study.

That does not guarantee that these facts will be easy to know. We can . . . in fact, we should . . . expect that the neurocomputational account of decision making might be particularly hard to understand - something where only a few people heavily focused on this one area of study can actually be said to understand it. And that these neurocomputational facts are an integral part of the relationships that exist between states of affairs and desires (or neurocomputational emotional-brain-area facts).

Does it make sense that the discovery of moral facts requires that the agent acquire the equivalent of a PhD in neurophysics? Would it do to have moral calculus be so complicated that figuring out the right thing to do requires set theory and multi-level differential equations?

Morality needs to be something that fits into the experience of the common individual. It is not een sufficient to argue that the average person can understand it - this still leaes a substantial population incapable of making moral decisions. To include them, morality must be something that a substantial portion of the adult population can understand.

One argument that people can give is that it is entirely unreasonable (and a substantial piece of luck to boot) to expect moral facts to fit that level of simplicity - not if moral facts are real.

This leads to the possibility that even if a neurocompuationoal set of facts about the remationships between emotional brain areas and cognitive brain areas are more complex than a belief-desire model, that it will still be the belief-desire model that is to be used in making and defending moral claims.

This is analogous to the difference between Einsteinian physics and Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics is the physics of our day-to-day world. When people talk to each other about day-to-day events, that language is almost entirely conducted in Neutonian physics, even though the propositions of Newtonian physics have been proved to yield false conclusions. Those false conclusions are still good enough.

Similarly, a neurocomputational account of decision making might well prove that many of the belief-desire accounts of decision making are false. It may actually be the case that it trumps the belief-desire model in computational power. Yet, in spite of this, the belief-desire model (and desire utilitarianism itself) would still be the model to use in day-to-day moral discussions.

The answers, though wrong, are close enough to the truth for all practical purposes.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Desires and Ordinary Language

A member of the studio audience sent me a paper in which Paul Thagard wrote that desires are not propositional attitudes.

Thagard, P. (forthcoming). Desires are not propositional attitudes. Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review.

I found desire utilitarianism on the idea that beliefs and desires are propositional attitudes. That is to say, they express the agent's attitude towards a particular proposition. A belief that P (a belief that a God exists) is the attitude that the proposition P is true. Whereas a desire that P (a desire that I am eating chocolate cake) is an attitude that P is something that I am moved to make or keep true.

One of the decisions that I made when I was back in graduate school is that I do not have the time to track down all of the different ideas in the philosophy of mind and evaluate which is best. Instead, I decided to employ the view that I would take whatever theory is the received view among those who are engaged in the study of such things.

I fully expect that the belief-desire-intention model that I use will be replaced by better theories over time. When it is, beliefs and desires will either be reducible to terms in this new theory - in which case desire utilitarianism will be reducible as well. Another option is that beliefs and desires will not fit at all in the new theory in which case desire utilitarianism gets discarded as well.

These represent two end points on a continuum. A likely result is that some aspects of belief-desire-intention model will be reducible while others will have to be discarded. This means that desire utilitarianism itself will need to undergo some revisions to fit into the new theory.

I am interested in seeing what direction this research goes.

However, in the mean time, I can take a cursory look at some of the arguments.

One of the arguments that Thagard gives against desires being propositional attitudes is that it makes for awkward sentences. For example, the statement "Andrew desires a beer" does not express an attitude towards a proposition. To turn the statement into one that reflects a propositional attitude it would have to be written in the form, "Andrew desires that he drink a beer."


[T]hese paraphrases are at best awkward, and even more awkward are paraphrases of sentences involving words that dictionaries relate closely to “desire”, such as “want” and “long for”. Only a non-native speaker of English would paraphrase “Andrew wants a beer.” by “Andrew wants that he should have a beer.”

My response to this argument is: So?

There is, or has been, a movement in philosophy that suggests that philosophy look at ordinary language in order to make sense of the world in which we live. However, I have never found any particular merit in that view. Language is an invention - and a rather sloppy invention at that. There is no reason to believe that language is a perfect descriptor of reality such that, if a theory of how the universe is does not fit our language - that it is our theory of how the universe is that must change. Rather, I would argue that it is our language that must change.

If we look at ordinary language, we will find a number of examples in which people speak as if a god exists. Yet, the fact that people make these statements is not proof that a god actually exists. It only serves to show that people believe that such a god exists - a belief that may or may not be true. We do not determine the truth of the matter by looking at whether people speak as if such a being exists.

Similarly, there is no law of language that prohibits people from taking shortcuts with language. There is no reason to require that native speakers use a sentence such as, "Andrew desires that he drink a beer" when native speakers can easily reduce this to a much more manageable phrase, "Andrew wants a beer."

Native speakers can easily figure out the rest.

The real question to answer is not whether the theory best fits our language (with the assumption that if it does not then it is the theory - and not language - that must change). The question to answer is whether the theory provides a way to explain and predict human behavior. The proposition, "Andrew desires that he is drinking a beer" predicts that Andrew will act in such a way so as to make or keep the proposition, "Andrew is drinking a beer," true at least so long as the desire persists.

Does the phrase "Andrew wants a beer" generate predictions that are in any way different from the phrase, "Andrew desires that he is drinking a beer?" If not, then there is no basis on which to say that one phrase represents a better theory than the other. There is no observation that can distinguish the two. The fact that one is an awkward English sentence and the other a common and natural-sounding claim among native English speakers is irrelevant.

I have encountered this objection before, yet I have not encountered it in any context where the person who uses it explains why it is an objection to a theory that it does not conform to plain language.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Faith and Morality

A member of the studio audience asked the following question a few days ago:

I'm really curious about this: What do atheists say to other atheists who have differing moral values?

TGP gave a fitting response:

Are you really asking this question in the comments thread of an atheist ethics blog?

With nearly 1600 posts and nearly 20,000 comments - mostly from atheists - it should not be at all difficult to discover what atheists say to each other on matters of morality. And it is quite clearly NOT what the anti-atheist bigots like to pretend to themselves and claim to others what atheists say.

Yet, that question brings up a question in response.

What does a theist say to somebody whose moral values differ from his own?

Here, I am particularly concerned with those theists who hold that religion is a matter of faith. It is not subject to proof or to reason. Instead, some divine revelation of one sort or another is supposed to spring forth onto the mind causing the person who experiences it to judge this or that religion to be correct.

The problem is, two people who suffer from divine revelation can come to believe in two different gods or, just as easily, two different interpretations of the demands of the same god. Scriptures are so filled with contradiction and ambiguities that a person can easily find in them what he or she wants to find.

Now, the consequence is two people, each stricken with absolute certainty that theirs is the flawlessly perfect interpretation of divine will on account of some mystical experience, who are in crucial disagreement over some relevant moral fact.

Like, one person believes that this area of land was given to them by their God - while another group of people held that the land was given to them instead.

Or Person 1 holds that anybody who should question his interpretation of scripture shall be put to death - while Person 2 believes exactly the same thing about his interpretation.

Let is not ignore what is actually going on in these cases. As I have written before, people do not get their morality from God. They assign their morality to God. When a person has such a mystical experience, it does not come with a set of moral revelations. Rather, the agent himself builds his moral sentiments into his mystical experience. This allows him to take his own sentiments and options and give them divine origin.

This is a very common and easy way for people, in effect, to turn themselves into Gods. Suddenly, their morality is not their own opinion based on beliefs handed down to them from the previous generation combined with his or her own observations - subject to all sorts of human flaws. Instead, it is the divine word of an imagined super-being that is all knowing and who could not possibly be mistaken. When people take their own sentiments and prejudices and assign them to a god, they can give those attitudes a certainty that is beyond question.

They can even go so far - as some have in human history - as to say, "Anybody who dares to disagree with me . . . um . . . I mean . . . with God . . . shall be put to death." And they act on that new ultimately arrogant sentiment.

So, what does such a theist then say to those whose values differ from their own?

We see the answer in a whole set of slaughters that are described in various religious text.

We see it in history, in the Crusades and Inquisitions of European history. We see it in the capture of Jerusalem where the Christian soldiers slaughtered the whole population of Muslims who had been contaminating the holy city with their presence for centuries.

We see it in the 30 Years War which all but depopulated whole sections of Europe. One religious faction would enter a village dominated by another religious faction, herd all of the villagers into the church, lock them in, then set the church on fire. The fact that some of the villagers (claimed to be) followers of the same religion as the attackers often did not deter those attackers. They would kill everybody, and trust to their god to sort the heretics from the faithful in the afterlife.

We see it in the bloody English civil wars between Catholics and Protestants of the same era - in the religious purges that drove so many people out of Europe to seek a new start in America.

For those who know history, those people did not come to America to seek religious freedom. They came to America so that they can leave a situation in which they were too weak to impose their religious dogma on others, to create a new city in the wilderness where they had the numbers and the power to becomes the dictators of what is correct in matters of religion.

We continue to see the effects today of different groups 'discussing' matters of religion that each hold to be beyond the matter of reason an evidence and, thus, not subject to debate. We saw it on 9/11, and we have seen it over and over again since then.

These are the signs of what one religious person says to another whose values differ from their own - particularly for those religions that hold that religion is a matter of faith and divile revelation and, as such, cannot be demonstrated or argued for in any way.

If you cannot persuade people by reason and argument, if you cannot offer anything in the way of proof that you are right and they are wrong, then the only form of persuasion that is left is brought about by sword, or gun, or bomb.

I am not saying that religion is necessarily like this. Nor am I saying that all religion is, in fact, like this. The world contains a rich variety of religious beliefs, including those that hold matters of religion are private and matters of morality must be settled by that which can be demonstrated across all religions.

Nor am I saying that atheists are immune from the arrogance and certainty that make people prone to violence against those who disagree with them. I fear that those who hold that religion is the root of all violence will blind themselves to the fact that it is arrogance, not religion, that makes it easy for people to pick up weapons and kill those who disagree. Atheism does not come with any built-in immunity from arrogance. Communists and anarchists lacking a belief in God have not lacked the ability to carry out atrocities.

There are people who hold that a secular argument backed by reason must sit at the root of all matters of social or government policy - that they cannot be based on this group's or that group's personal articles of faith without opening society up to the violence of religious civil war (if the religious factions have equal power) or religious oppression (if one religious faction is more powerful than all others).

Yet, these moral truths that transcend religion - that allow the members of one religious faction to live in peace with others who do not share their values or their specific interpretations of scripture - are just as available to the atheist as they are to the theist.

In fact, the atheist is in a better position with respect to these moral truths that transcend religion and allow peace among different factions, because the atheist will never experience conflict between those moral truths and his or her religious beliefs.

There is no article of faith for those moral truths that transcend across religions to contradict.

What do atheists say to other atheists who have differing moral values? Well, what do (or should) theists say to other theists who do not share their specific religious prescriptions?

Friday, January 08, 2010

Atheism and Charity: Rational Giving

If we are going to look at the difference between theists and atheists with respect to charitable giving, one of the concepts we should introduce is that of rational charity. This is the idea of putting one's money where it can do the most good, and not wasting money on that which has no effect, or that which actually harms the people that one is trying to help.

We get significant examples of this from religious charities.

There are those who devote a considerable amount of effort building churches where they could be building water treatment plants, and teaching a set of religious myths where they could be teaching people to better understand the real world in which they live.

They do more harm than good by teaching that which substantially ignorant tribesmen who have long been dead once held to be immoral as if those ignorant tribesmen had perfect knowledge. They encourage behavior that is destructive, discourage behavior that would be helpful, and institutes an attitude that any who would dare to question these ancient and false beliefs must be condemned as heretics.

However, even if one gets around these problems, there is a great deal that one needs to know in order to engage in rational charity. There is so much information out there that most of us base our decisions on very little information. In fact, we are more likely to be guided to make our decisions based on proximity than on reason - those organizations that are closest to us and easier to reach as opposed to those that do the most good.

We have ways of knowing the types of things that are relevant to determining how much good can be done by a particular set of actions Mostly they involve the types of research that scientists are particularly good at conducting. You take a course of action, you compare it to relevantly similar actions, you look at the various outcomes, and you pursue the option that produces the best outcomes.

It takes a lot of work to determine whether your charitable dollars are being used properly. However, the work could well be worth it. $250 worth of effort that goes into seeing that a $750 contribution will be well spent is better than a $1000 contribution to an organization that wastes $500 on activities having no effect, or spends $300 doing $700 of harm while spending $700 to do only $500 in good.

This is a risk that one takes when one's charity is directed by the recommendations of substantially ignorant tribesmen who have been dead for centuries written into some ancient book.

If each of us has to do that work ourselves it would take a great deal of effort - and it would be wasted effort. It would be more rational to assign the task of selecting charities to somebody we can trust, who will then do the effort of determining the quality of the plans created by the recipients of that money.

Those trusted individuals could then give us the results of their research, helping the rest of us to ensure that our charitable contributions go to organizations that do more good and less harm with the resources we give them.

In fact, it may be worthwhile to pay such an organization to research these types of issues and get back to us. A $1000 contribution to an organization that takes $100 off the top to make sure that the remaining $900 goes to where it will do the most good is far more efficient than $1000 to an organization that pursues some type of magical solution to a real-world problem or one whose philosophy has its members performing or advocating behavior that is actually harmful.

The best method for determining whether a charity is doing a good job is to employ the tools of verifiable premises and logical reasoning that have been such a benefit to science generally. The fact that the leaders of an organization are pious is not sufficient to conclude that they are doing a good job. One should look instead at what the organization has actually accomplished with its money in the past, and at the quality of reasoning used in determining what actions will produce the best outcome going forward.

Do the leaders of the organization respect the principles of reason and evidence when it comes to making plans?

The consequence of this approach should be the ability to do more good with the resources that are available - save more lives, put more families on a more secure foundation, promote more effective forms of education, provide education in those areas that are the most useful, promote rational economic and social reforms, and the like.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Atheist Charity: Teaching Virtue

In doing some online research about the relationship between religious belief and charity, I found a statistic that makes a lot of sense in a desire-utilitarian framework.

People who, as children, are regularly taken into a social environment where the virtue of charity is praised and practiced are more likely to become charitable adults. Even if that child grows up to reject religion - to become an atheist - she will, on average, be a significantly more charitable atheist than the atheist raised by atheist or antipatheist (one who does not care whether a god exists or not) parents who never exposed their child to such an environment.

It is unfortunate that so many of those institutions that teach children the virtue of charity also teaches them contempt for others (homosexuals, atheists), encourages them to devote energies destructive towards their happiness, and teaches contempt for evidence and reason. However, those institutions are not to be faulted for their ability to teach charity.

These results are the results that desirism would predict. If you raise a child and expose them to an environment in which certain qualities are praised and others condemned, then the child will more likely (not guaranteed) grow into an adult who desires those things that were praised and who are averse to those things that were condemned.

The child who is taken religiously (pun intended) into an environment where charity is praised will become an adult who desires to perform charitable acts. The child who is raised by parents who stay home and engage in self-indulgence all weekend will more likely become self-indulgent adults.

Religions have been around for a long time. The vast majority of those religions that have been invented have since gone extinct. What we are dealing with now is a set of religions that have been tested and have proven themselves fit. These are the religions that have survived.

It would be irrational to look at the qualities that these religions have and reject all of them simply because they are associated with religion. Reason suggests that we take a look at what religion does, try to discover what it does that is worthwhile and what it does that is harmful, copy that which is worthwhile, and abandon that which is harmful. Reason suggests that we take those people who argue, "That is what religious people do, so we should condemn it," and look on them as people who are responding to the facts irrationally.

The practice of leading children on a regular basis into an environment where certain virtues are praised and vices condemned is one of the things that religions does well. Many of them to a particularly poor job of picking out what are, in fact, virtues and vices - identifying as virtues some traits that are not worthy of the title and condemning as vice some traits that should not be condemned. However, they do have a very effective way of passing those beliefs on to the next generation - and the next - and the next.

Which is probably one of the main reasons why we are still dealing with those institutions today.

It would be wise for atheist parents to set up groups that they drag children to (against the child's will) where the children are coerced into listening to lessons describing particular virtues and vices, where they will be expected to help participate in charitable behavior and other activities that exhibit virtues and warned against behavior that exhibits vices, and thus formed into adults who will be better members of their community than those children might otherwise have become.

These practices may very well explain why theists are more charitable than atheists on average.

It may also explain, in some cases, depending on the church, why they are more prone to hatred towards particular subgroups and why they share such a disrespect for reason and evidence. In all cases, these were the values that they were taught in this setting, and these are the traits that they carry with them into adulthood.

A similar institution that did a better job of distinguishing virtue from vice should be expected to have a better overall effect - raising children who not only become more charitable adults, but more tolerant and rational as well.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Atheist Charity: The Causal Connection

The launch of a new humanist/atheist charitable foundation, Foundation Beyond Belief, has given me an opportunity to say a few words about atheism and charity.

One of the major scholarly books on the subject of the relationship between religious belief and practice on the one hand and charitable contributions on the other is Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism. The book reports empirical research that shows that conservatives are far more generous with their time and money than liberals. Furthermore, the factor that is most strongly associated with charitable actions is religious practice. Religious people give significantly more of their time and money than poor people.

One could complain that this is book was merely a hack job by somebody with a political agenda. Yet, in looking at reviews of the book, I have not found much in the way of criticism of its scientific methods or their results. The sources that I found were inclined to say that the research was properly done and should be taken seriously, even by those who do not like the particular conclusion.

Evaluating the quality of the research is outside of my normal area of work, However, the moral implications that the author draws from the empirical findings are well within my normal area of work - and those deserve some scrutiny.

Let us start with the fact that no amount of statistical relationship between religious practices and charitable actions implies that a god exists. It is almost certainly the case that no god exists. If there is an inescapable link between belief in god and charitable acdtions, we are faced with a tough choice.

We could go with the noble lie - filling peoples' heads with a fiction that is known to promote charitable action.

This option has two problems. The first of these is that it can only be carried out by and large by those who have a substantial disregard for truth and evidence. A regard for truth and evidence helps us to keep our efforts focused on things that actually work, as opposed to wasting our time on that which has no effect or, worse, spending our efforts on actions that do more harm than good.

Imagine that you are sick and you are faced with three liquids you could take. The first contains a useful medicine, the second contains plain tap water, and the third contains a deadly poison. In this type of situation, the usefulness of a love of truth and evidence becomes quite clear. Even if charitable contribution is linked to a belief in God, the price of giving up a love of truth and evidence may have far worse consequences than we would find in giving up whatever difference is found in the charitable acts of atheists and theists.

The second problem with the noble lie is: What if we get the lie wrong? Even if belief in God is an effective way to cause people to become more charitable, we run the risk of mixing the fiction that a God exists with some other potentially harmful errors. For example, a religion that professes the value of charity might also include false beliefs against the use of condoms or other forms of birth control that contribute to the spread of disease.

Or those who invent religion might burden it with a prejudice against homosexuals that inspires its members to be charitable, but to engage in political actions that do a great deal of harm to the well-being of homosexuals.

Or the inventors of religion might end up including statements that glorify flying airplanes into sky scrapers or blowing oneself up at a soccer game or a shopping center killing hundreds of people. If we are going to weaken our interest in truth. Their love of dogma without evidence might leave them holding whole nations hostage to threats of violence if their particular dogma is not accepted - a dogma that, even with its call to charity, may contain some very harmful elements.

However, we only face this problem under the assumption that there is some necessary link between belief in God and charitable actions. If this assumption turns out to be false, then we have other options available. That is to find those elements that cause religious people to be more charitable than those who not religious and to copy them in a society that respects truth and reason, whose members hold that no god exists.

For example, it may well be the fact that religions are successful in forming a strong sense of community that, in turn, inspires charitable actions. In this case, rational atheists would see this as reason for atheists to promote a stronger sense of community - to set up those institutions and practices that make a community and which bind people together.

It may well be useful to bundle the children up once a week and to take them along to a meeting where they gather with other folks and hear lessons that praise the value of charity and that makes a big deal of helping the less fortunate members of that group. This may well help to promote a love of charitable actions that will stay with most children throughout their adult years, and be passed on to their children.

Such a gathering need not be devoted to preaching fictions such as the existence of a god or make-believe stories of prophets that have been dead for centuries. It would also include a love of truth and reason - lectures on the marvels of science in fields from astronomy to zoology.

In both cases, the leap from the premise that religious people are currently more charitable than the non-religious to the conclusion that we should praise religion and condemn atheism is invalid. In fact, it's a bigot's leap - the leap that we will find people making if they are disposed to find reasons to hate atheists and think they are successful when they discover such a relationship.

The fair and just person asks, "How can we arrange our institutions to make atheists as charitable as theists?" The bigoted hate monger immediately leaps onto the desired assumption that it cannot be done.