Friday, February 26, 2010

Irrational Desires

I am currently looking over the objections that Chris Heathwood A to a desire-fulfillment (or desire-satisfaction) theory of a good life.

(See: Desire Satisfaction and Hedonism by Chris Heathwood (Philosophical Studies (2006) 128:539–563).)

One of the problems he claims exists with such a theory concerns the possibility of irrational desires.

[A] person might know that going to the dentist is in his interest, but still he prefers and chooses not to go, because he is weak-willed. The claim is that desire satisfactionism implies, incorrectly, that since he desires not to go and all desire satisfactions are good for a person, it is good him not to go to the dentist.

The question is: What does it take to make a desire irrational?

I argue that an irrational desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires of the agent. (An immoral desire is a desire that tends to thwart the desires of other agents.)

The desire to smoke is an irrational desire. It is a desire that tends to lead to future consequences that will thwart the desires that the agent can be expected to have at that time. All things considered, the agent would be better off not smoking. However, all things considered, the agent would be better off if she never acquired the desire to smoke.

The reason that irrational desires exist is that desires are not capable of backward causation. A future desire cannot influence present-day actions. When an agent acts, he only acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his current desires, given his beliefs. He never acts so as to fulfill a desire that does not yet exist - even if he knows that it will exist.

A person can know full well that a current desire (to smoke, to drink, to eat, to gamble, to use some cocaine, for sex, for pornography, to avoid public speaking, to avoid flying, to avoid germs) is excessive and will thwart many and strong future desires, and still succumb to that irrational desire. Because, while his beliefs about the relationship between acts motivated by current desires and the fulfillment of future desires are true, the future desires are also impotent.

When desires come into conflict, the next question that comes up is: Which desires should be changed? Which are the desires to be given up and which are to be kept?

Desire fulfillment theory says that malleable desires should be given up. It makes no sense to try to give up desires that are fixed. And, of malleable desires, those desires that are easiest to change should be changed in preference over those that are harder to change.

When we talk about irrational desires, we are not just talking about desires that are difficult to give up once they have been gotten, but desires that can be avoided in the first place. A fair amount of social morality goes into avoiding the acquisition of desires that tend to thwart other desires, because it is recognized that, once acquired, they cannot easily be unacquired.

It is a part of this theory that the fulfillment irrational desires count towards the quality of a life. After all, if we take that same desire and strip away the conflicts that make it irrational, we would also be taking away all reasons-for-action for avoiding that desire to begin with. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist, so the only reasons for action that exist for getting rid of an irrational desire are the desires that the irrational desire will thwart.

On this model, irrational desires do not provide a problem with a desire-fulfillment theory of value. Instead, a desire-fulfillment theory of value provides the best way of understanding irrational value.

It tells us what irrational desires are (malleable or avoidable desires that tend to thwart future desires).

It tells us how it is that irrational desires can exist (future desires have no backward causation so weaker current desires can cause actions that thwart many and strong future desires).

It tells us why irrational desires generally subtract from the quality of a life (because of the weight of the future desires that end up getting thwarted).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Defective Desires: Ill-Informed Desires

I have been continuing to read through this paper I was sent in which Chris Heathwood argued that the best desire satisfaction theory of a good life is the same as the best hedonist theory of a good life.

Desire Satisfaction and Hedonism by Chris Heathwood (Philosophical Studies (2006) 128:539–563).

I want to skip one of the concerns he raises with a desire-satisfaction (desire-fulfillment) theory of a good life - a desire not to be well off - and address to other concerns that are more fundamental to a desire-fulfillment theory of value.

He claims that a desire-fulfillment theory of a good life runs into problems with respect to defective desires. He then claims that there are two types of defective desires - ill-informed desires and irrational desires.

There is no such thing as an ill-informed desire.

The types of desires that a desire-fulfillment theory of value is concerned with is a type that does not yield to information.

Heathwood himself admits this early in his paper, but seems to forget this fact after a few pages.

Everyone seems to agree on one restriction to Simple Desire Satisfactionism right off the bat: we should count only intrinsic desires. If I want to turn on my CD-player only because I want to hear the Pixies, I am made no better off if only the first desire is satisfied.

Here, I apply the distinction between desires-as-means and desires-as-ends. When talking about desire fulfillment, I am only talking about desires-as-ends fulfillment. I use desire-fulfillment as a shortcut or abbreviation.

There is also desires-as-means fulfillment. However, the fulfillment of a desires-as-means only has value insofar as it successfully brings about something that the agent desires-as-end. If a desires-as-means is fulfilled without fulfilling a desires-as-end, then the desires-as-means fulfillment has no value. Thus, if the desires-as-means of turning on the CD player is fulfilled, it only has value insofar as it brings about the fulfillment of the desires-as-end of listening to the Pixies. Otherwise, it was a waste of time and effort.

Desires-as-means are combinations of beliefs and desires-as-ends. I want to pick up some milk at the store is a desires-as-means that involves a desire to eat things that include milk as an ingredient and a belief that I can get milk at the store. If I pick up some milk at the store, only to drop the milk on the way home and have it spill all over the sidewalk, the fact that I had successfully fulfilled the desire-as-means of getting milk at the store is irrelevant. What really mattered was the unfulfilled desire-as-end of eating things for which milk was an ingredient.

Heathwood's own example should scream at him that what he is talking about is not a defective desire-as-end, but a defective desire-as-means grounded on a defective belief.

We might have a desire to drink from a river, not knowing that it will make us sick.

The agent does not have a desire to drink from the river.

The has a desire-as-end to drink (along with a bunch of other desires-as-ends) and a set of beliefs that leads to the conclusion that drinking from the river will fulfill the most and strongest of his desires-as-ends. The desire to drink from the river is a desire-as-means to the fulfillment of a desire to drink. However, because of his defective beliefs, he does not realize that drinking from the river will thwart some of his desires-as-ends. It will make him sick.

We know that the agent does not have a desire-as-end to drink from the river because of the possibility of substitutes for drinking from the river. If there were a restaurant next to the river where he could get a free class of ice cold water, we can ask whether he would take the cold glass of water without regret. If he would, this shows that his desire is not ‘a desire-as-end to drink from the river’, because that desire could never be fulfilled by drinking a free glass of water from the restaurant. The cold glass of water may fulfill some desires, but not that one.

So, Heathwood does not provide us with an example of an ill-informed desires-as-end. He provides us only with an ill-informed desires-as-means. And, as Heathwood himself admits, desires-as-means are not the types of desires that desire-fulfillment theorists are concerned with.

So, the 'problem of defective desires', where the type of defective desires we are talking about are ill-informed desires - does not exist. This is because ill-informed desires-as-ends do not exist, and that which does not exist cannot create problems, either for a desire-fulfillment theory of value, or a desire-fulfillment theory of a good life.

The other type of defective desire that Heathwood mentions is 'irrational desires'. Irrational desires do exist, and I will discuss them in my next post.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Unstable Desires

I have been continuing to read through this paper I was sent in which Chris Heathwood argued that the best desire satisfaction theory of a good life is the same as the best hedonist theory of a good life.

Desire Satisfaction and Hedonism by Chris Heathwood (Philosophical Studies (2006) 128:539–563).

In this article, Heathwood presented several objections to a desire satisfaction theory of a good life and with some of the attempts to correct them.

I have asserted that desirism is not a theory of a good life but a theory of value. While lives can be better and worse they are not the only things that are capable of having value. As a result, it is not unreasonable to expect that agents would be willing to sacrifice the value found in a life in order to realize other values.

Still, desirism states that desires provide the only reasons for action that exist, so they provide the only reasons to choose one life over another. Any appeal to a reason for choosing a particular life that does not appeal to desires appeals to a reason that is imaginary.

When it comes to a good life, I argued that desirism states that a good life is a life that tends to fulfill those desires thaat typically motivate people to choose life.

I was wondering how this account stands up to what Heathwood argues to be problem with desire satisfaction theories of a good life.

One of those problems was what Heathwood called the problem of changing desires

Richard Brandt, a one-time defender of desire satisfactionism, became convinced later that any form of desire satisfactionism suffers from an irremediable defect: there is no satisfactory way to handle cases in which a desire for something is unstable. Suppose for my whole life I want rock and roll on my 50th birthday; suppose a week before the birthday my tastes change and I want easy listening on my birthday (and will continue to want easy listening). Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism seems to imply that we make me better off by giving me rock and roll on my 50th birthday. But this seems mistaken – the theory suggests we force-feed people things they no longer want.

My first question on this example is whether Brandt or Heathwood mean for this to describe some actual state in the world, or whether it is simply a philosophical 'what if' question.

I do not see this happening in the real world.

I can well imagine a similar situation where an agent spends his life wanting rock and roll music now and believing that he will also want rock and roll on his 50th birthday. Such a person can experience a change of taste whereby, on his 50th birthday, he wants easy listening music instead.

However, there is a difference between "believing that I will want for my 50th birthday" and "wanting for my 50th birthday." The most important difference is that the former is a belief, and there is no such thing as thwarting a belief. There is no real desire for rock and roll to be fulfilled by forcing this person to have rock and roll on his 50th birthday.

This is why it makes sense to give the person easy listening on his 50th birthday.

In thinking through a number of these types of cases, I find myself having trouble thinking of even one case that is not a belief about a future desire, rather than a desire for a future state.

However, desires for future states are possible. Desirism suggests that the set of propositions that can become the object of desire is as large as the set of propositions that can become the object of belief. This is a very large set of propositions that includes desires for and beliefs about future states.

The issue here concerns a case where an individual genuinely desires to be in state S at time T. Then, at time T, he does not want to be in state S.

Now, we must remember here that we are dealing with the concept of a good life. I have described a good X as an X that has those qualities that generally fill those desires that motivate people to choose or seek out X. A good life is a life with those qualities that generally fulfill the desires that people have in a life - those desires that motivate people to choose life.

If we are talking about a genuine desire to be in state S at time T that the agent has had for 49 years and lost in the past year, and this being in a state S at time T is what typically motivates agents to choose life, then, yes, the agent's 'good life' will include being in a state S at time T.

Yet, it is still compatible with this view that an agent can give up a good life for the same of some other value or interest. An agent's own desires might not be fulfilled by those qualities that tend to motivate people to choose life. It is not impossible for an agent to say, "I have no interest in the so-called 'good life'. I have these other interests instead and they do not give me any reason to be interested in what typically fulfills he desires of those people who choose life.

Language is a public good. That is why the public term, 'good life', refers to those qualities that typically fulfill the desires of those people who choose life - because this is what people generally have reason to talk about. But it is not necessarily something that every one of us has reason to pursue.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Debt Politics

It is troubling to recognize that humans may be so constituted that we will pursue a course of action, knowing full well that it will lead to destruction, detesting that destruction, and yet moving all the closer to that destruction year after year.

It's like a moth who knows that the light ahead of him is a flame, is in a state of despirate panic over the fact that he does not want to burn to death, and yet who flies into the flame anyway.

This hypothetical moth's relationship to that flame is like America's relationship to its national debt. The debt that we are accumulating could destroy us as a country, and cause widespread misery among its individual citizens. Yet, we keep running up more and more debt, and refuse to take the necessary steps to reduce it.

(See: NYT: Party gridlock in D.C. feeds fear of debt crisis )

First, a caveat is in order. Economists seem to be in universal agreement that deficit spending is currently necessary to avoid an economic collapse. However, the morally and fiscally responsible course of action that any individual or country should take is to save for a rainy day.

A person or family that runs up huge debts when all is going well is putting themselves in a particularly tight bind when things go poorly. If they lose a substantial portion of their income, they not only have to worry about the fact that they cannot continue to spend money the way they had been spending it. They have to worry about the debt that simply does not go away.

The same is true of a country, which should be running budget surpluses when the economy is going well, so that it has the financial elbow room it needs to run deficits when times are hard.

However, fiscal responsibility is not seen as much of a virtue these days - not on the part of individuals, or on the part of countries.

Then we throw in another human trait which makes the situation even worse. It is always somebody else's fault. People around the country are angry at the government for getting us into this financial mess.

How did those people get into government to start with?

Well, the people elected them. These are people who demand that those who give them more and more while taking less and less. The government did what the people told it to do. The government will continue to do what the people tell them to do unless and until we end democracy in this country. Which means that we are responsible for this mess, not the government.

It is quite easy to understand what the politicians are doing. It is buying votes. It is giving government benefits and lowering taxes on those who have the power to vote, and it is taking that money from those who have no political power and who do not vote - generations that do not yet exist or have not reached voting age.

Future generations have absolutely no power to organize to throw a current politician out of office. They cannot form political action committees to run advertisements that promote policies that better secure their interests and their welfare. They are politically impotent. So, politicians are free to impose greater and greater burdens on them without any fear of suffering any political fallout.

A politician who is not willing to rob from the politically impotent in order to buy the votes of the politically potent is quite simply a politician who does not get enough votes to get elected. We have a system that guarantees that elected offices will be held by those who are more than willing to sacrifice our children to our benefit.

The only way that this will change is if we learn to care enough about our children's benefit that there are, in fact, averse political consequences to sacrificing our children. The only way that this will

If we cannot push these people into the political frings, and do so quickly, we have serious political and economic problems ahead of us.

Remember, this is an election year.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


A member of the studio audience has asked:

Group A is promoting desire X that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires for Group A, but at the same time, tends to thwart more and stronger desires of Group B. Group B has no way to affect the desires of Group A (e.g. social tools or force). As a member of Group A should you have desire X?

That depends. What definition of 'should' are you using?

Recall that I view the question, "What should I do?" to be like the question, "Is Pluto a planet?" The answer is, "It depends on what you mean by 'should' or by 'planet'."

Furthermore, I cannot provide any type of objective proof that a given definition is correct and that its competitors are incorrect. Definitions are a matter of social convention. An individual's definition can more or less conform to the convention. However, the lack of an objectively correct definition of 'planet' is no threat to an objective astronomy, and the lack of an objective correct definition of 'should' is no threat to an objective morality.

Regardless of how you define 'should' there are objectively true facts about the relationships between these desires and other desires. Those facts do not change on account of changes in what we call them.

It sounds to me that the person asking the question is telling me that Group A has no reason to promote desires that will tend to fulfill the desires of Group B and does have reason to promote desires that tend to thwart the desires of Group B. Furthermore, Group B has no power to change Group A's desires - not by praise or condemnation, not by rewards or punishments, or by any other means. This implies that that Group A does not and will not have any reason to promote those desires that fulfill the desires of Group B.

What should Group A do?

That's a worthless question. Group A is not going to promote desires that fulfill the desires of Group B. This is a fact. This fact is independent of how we define the word 'should'.

We can tell Group A that they should promote desire that fulfill the desires of Group B. They can accept the definition, shrug their shoulders, and say that they do not care to do what they should do.

Using a definition of 'should' that includes the desires of Group B will not change that. At best, such a definition might cause people to falsely believe that they have a reason to promote desires that fulfill the desires of Group B. However, this would be a lie - given the assumptions under which this case was presented.

Now, here is an interesting complication that can easily confuse things.

The definition of 'should' that this question depends on is not Group A's definition. It is not Group B's definition. It is our definition.

I have suggested that we use 'should' not only to identify where people have rason to apply social force to mold maleable desires, but as an actual act of praise and condemnation. Our use of the term 'should' will reflect the desires that we see ourselves (correctly or incorrectly) as having reason to promote or to inhibit.

In other words, what the question asks is:

Group A is promoting desire X that tends to fulfill more and stronger desires for Group A, but at the same time, tends to thwart more and stronger desires of Group B. Group B has no way to affect the desires of Group A (e.g. social tools or force). As a member of Group C do we have reason to praise or condemn Group A's attitude of ignoring the desires of Group B?

Why is the question actually a question about what Group C has reason to do or not do?

It is because the term 'should' that is found in the question is the 'should' of the English Language - the 'should' of Group C, which is us. The question is being asked of members of Group C using a language that Group C has invented to serve the interests of Group C. So, even though the question does not explicity mention Group C, it cannot be answered independent of facts about Group C.

I would argue that we have good reason to promote among the members of our community a hostile attitude towards those who ignore the desires of the powerless. This is because we have an interest in our desires being considered in any situation where we are powerless, and that the desires of those we care about are considered in those cases where they are powerless. Others have reason to promote those desires in us.

Whereas 'should' statements are acts of praise and condemnation we cannot answer what Group A should or should not do without answering the question of what Group C (us) has reason to praise or condemn.

So, should Group A have desire X?

Is Pluto a planet?

The answer is that it depends on what you mean by 'should' or 'planet'. And the fact that there is no objective right answer to either question is entirely unimportant.

Hedonism, Desire Satisfaction, and a Good Life

So, would you like to have a good life?

I wouldn't.

Well, actually I would in a sense. After all, for something to be 'good' is to be 'such as to fulfill the desires in question'. The desires in question, in this case, are my desires. To say that I do not desire a good life is to say that I do not desire a life that has those properties that I desire.

However, a good life is not the only thing I want. I want a great many of things. I would like to have a good steak. A good steak is a steak is a steak that has those qualities that I desire in a steak regarding taste and size. However, I want a great many things and often find that i give up other things I would give up a good steak - I would give up the best possible steak - to fulfill sme of those other desires.

I would be willing to give up a good life in exchange for some of the things that I value.

That is, unless we define "a good life" to include everything that I value. In that case, giving up a good life would be impossible. What would I give it up for? It would have to be something I value more than life, but 'life' has been defined in a way that embraces all desires.

We have the same problem with steaks by the way. The best of all possible steaks would be a steak that fulfilled the most possible of my desires. It would fulfill my desires with respect to taste, while leaving unthwarted my desires with respect to gaining weight. However, it would also fulfill my desires regarding, for example, the extended survival of the human species and its descendants.

Note here that I am not using "best" in the moral sense. Different value terms relate different states of affairs to different desires in different ways. When I say, "This is a really good steak," I am not understood to be making a moral judgment - evaluating the steak in relation to desires that tend to fulfill other desires. I am making an aesthetic judgment - evaluating the steak in relation to my own desires regarding the taste, texture, and other qualities of the food itself.

I bring this up because a member of the studio audience sent me a paper, Desire Satisfaction and Hedonism by Chris Heathwood (Philosophical Studies (2006) 128:539–563).

Heathwood's thesis is that:

Hedonism and the desire-satisfaction theory of welfare (‘‘desire satisfactionism’’) are typically seen as archrivals in the contest over identifying what makes one’s life go best. It is surprising, then, that the most plausible form of hedonism just is the most plausible form of desire satisfactionism.

If we were to try to plug the desire utilitarian concept of desire fulfillment into the term "desire satisfaction" in this thesis, there is an immediate problem. Hedonism is an internalist value theory. It holds that what has value is that the brain be in a particular state and draws no relationship between the brain in that state and the external world. This is why hedonist theories fall victim to all sorts of "experience machine" objections. It means that if we get the brain into a particular state and leave it there, we can do whatever we want to the real world and it will have no value.

Desire fulfillment is an externalist value theory. It holds that value can be found in relationships between desires and states of affairs in the real world. A state of affairs S is good (in the generic non-moral sense) insofar as an agent A has a reason to bring about S if and only if A has a desire that P and P is true in S. We can freeze the brain in a particular state of desiring S. However, if we change S we destroy the relationship between S and the desire that P, and thus destroy value.

This is a fundamental difference that makes it impossible for one to be like the other.

Hearthwood gets the externalist nature of desire fulfillment right in his description of desire satisfaction.

Every time a subject S desires that some state of affairs p be the case, and p is the case, S’s desire that p be the case has been satisfied.

Hearthwood adds:

It is no part of Simple Desire Satisfactionism that, for a person's desire to be satisfied, the person must experience feelings of satisfaction.

This is true.


Everyone seems to agree on one restriction to Simple Desire Satisfactionism right off the bat: we should count only intrinsic desires.

By "intrinsic desires" Heathwood seems to be talking about what I call "desires as ends" (as distinguished from desires-as-means) which I, too, would agree with.

However, Heathwood - inexplicably, as far as I can tell - links this to a good life.

According to Simple Desire Satisfactionism, your life goes well to the extent that your desires are satisfied.

I don't think these ideas are at all equivalent. A really good life is like a really good steak. There are some things I want in a life (a steak) and if there is a life (a steak) with those qualities then those desires have been fulfilled. However, what I desire in a life (steak) is only a small subset of the things that I desire. Simple Desire Satisfactionism - or at least Desire Fulfillmentism - looks at all of the things an agent desires, not just the things that an agent desires in a life (or a steak).

Here is an example. I have a desire that the descendents of humanity persist far into the future - as far as the laws of physics will permit. Now, assume that it is the case that the course of human history in which that becomes true is one that requires that the human race go through a period of turmoil and that, in this period of turmoil, the life of Alonzo Fyfe is filled with misery, strife, pain, and deprivation.

We have here an example of a desire that fits the three conditions of desire satisfaction. The desire is satisfied in any state where humanity's descendants will persist as far as the laws of physics will allow, it is an intrinsic desire, and it does not require any feeling of satisfaction on my part.

However, it is decidedly not the case, with respect to this desire under this set of facts, that my life goes well to the extent that this desire is satisfied.

We can conceive of a concept of 'good' in which my life of pain and misery is 'a good life' in the sense that I would accept the pain and suffering in order to prevent human extinction. However, this is the same sense in which a 'good steak' is one that brings about world peace and prevents global warming. But now you are defining 'life' so broadly that there is no basic distinction between a life defined this way and a steak. All steaks are lifes and all lifes are steaks.

When Heathwood relates desire satisfaction to the quality of life he artificially limits the desires in question, and may well beg the question by limiting it to desires that would make his thesis relating hedonism and desire satisfaction true.

If we take this artificially narrow concept of desire fulfillment - as pertaining only to the subset of all desires that comprise what one desires in a life, it may be possible to draw some sort of relationship between that and hedonism. It may be the case that what we desire in a life is pleasure. That option deserves some further scrutiny.

However, it would not follow from the claim that what we desire in a life is pleasure - even if it is true - that what we desire is pleasure - or that the most plausible desire satisfaction theory is identical to the most plausible hedonist theory.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Reassessment: Desire Utilitarianism Ideology

I have been going through one of those self-assessment phases where one looks at what one has done with one’s life, what one is going, and what one wants to do in the future.

Of course, all of this assessment takes place in the backdrop of that childhood goal to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been.

Am I doing that?

Could I do more?

I think that this type of self-assessment is a good thing. Desire utilitarianism recommends it. A person who makes these types of assessments cares about how things are going, and has at least some motivation to move in the direction of improving them.

Somebody who never asks is either exceptionally arrogant and thinks himself incapable of needing a mid-course correction in his life, or simply doesn’t care. We have good reason to condemn those who do not care.

I find a bit of a dilemma here. I think I can make my best contribution in the way of moral theory. However, moral theory doesn’t matter all that much. People don’t live their lives according to a moral theory.

Here, I want to distinguish between a theory and an ideology. There are lots of ideologies out there that tell people what to do. People join ideological groups, and they come with a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

At one time, I joined the libertarian tribe. As a member, I was culturally prohibited from supporting any type of government program. No matter what the government did, the free market could do it better. In addition, the world contained these natural rights and duties, as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and as defended by that great master of all wisdom in the universe Ayn Rand.

As a member of the tribe I was required to subscribe to these things. One thing we could always trust that if anybody was introduced as a member of that particular tribe, that he subscribed (at least publicly) to those basic core beliefs and values.

What I gravitated to . . . desire utilitarianism . . . is quite different from all of that.

Desire utilitarianism is not an ideology with a set of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’. Desire utilitarianism explains how to answer moral questions, but does not tell you what the answer is.

I have, over the course of this blog, argued for a number of moral positions. I have argued that there is a right to freedom of speech. This right to freedom of speech, I have often claimed, is not a right to an immunity from criticism.

Some people speak as if the right to freedom of speech is a right to freedom from criticism. They make a claim and, as soon as it meets with protest, they assert that those who condemn them are violating their right to freedom of speech. In a sense, they condemn those who condemn them by saying that condemnation is always wrong, so that those who condemn must be condemned.

On the other hand, a right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence. No person shall respond to words alone by threats of violence to the speaker, or to the speaker’s property, or the like. The only legitimate form of punishment comes from private actions – refusing to vote for the speaker, or to hire the speaker, or to support those who hire the speaker, or to refuse to deal with the businesses that sponsor the speaker’s radio show, and the like.

I have defended this particular set of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’. However, they are not integral to desire utilitarianism. It is quite possible that desire utilitarianism yields a different result – a result that says that it is permissible to do violence to others based on their words. A person could object to these claims and still call himself or herself a desire-utilitarianism. Desire utilitarianism is concerned with how these claims are defended or rejected, not with what they are.

In fact, there are principles that allow us to respond to words with violence from time to time. Obviously, revealing military secrets can justify a violent response. Libel and slander are examples where words can invite violence. Can we justify these exceptions? Desire utilitarianism does not guarantee an answer one way or the other.

So there is no desire utilitarian ideology. Becoming a desire utilitarian is not like becoming a communist or a libertarian or a Christian. Becoming a desire utilitarian is like becoming an evolutionist or a heliocentrist or an atomist. It is a theory that describes the reality of value. The quality of the theory depends on the quality of those descriptions.

In fact, I left graduate school in part because I did not see the pursuit of moral theory as being worthwhile. I found college the realm of moral philosophy to be filled with very intelligent people, the bulk of which were doing nothing of any particular purpose. They were people sitting in an ivory tower talking about the nature of value – an ivory tower surrounded by human beings making human decisions that affected real lives in the real world.

With almost no interaction between the people in the tower and the people outside.

So, I sought to leave the tower and go outside, trying a number of options to try to make the world outside a better place.

Including the writing of this blog.

And I still have to ask.

Is there something else I should be doing?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Texas Church Arson

Eleven churches in east Texas have been destroyed by arson so far this year.

What if it is the case that an atheist is responsible? What would be implications of discovering that the culprit in this case has decided to target churches "for the harm they have do promoting faith and other groundless doctrines used by millions do to harm to others"?

From time to time I have challenged the notion that, while people commit violence in the name of God, nobody commits violence in the name of no-God. The main reason is because no-God never commands its followers to do violence. In fact, no-God never commands its followers to do anything.

I have challenged it on the grounds that God has never commanded people to do violence either. This is because no God exists to do the commanding. Whatever it is that causes people to engage in these types of violence, God is not and has never been a part of the actual causal chain.

There are people who have committed violence who have claimed that they have done so because scripture or some religious doctrine has told them that this is the right thing to do. However, this scripture did not come from God. It came from other human beings - and from the agent's own interpretation of what those other human beings (claiming to speak for God) wanted them to do.

Yet, putting commands to do violence into scripture that one claims to be the word of God is not the only way one person can inspire others to commit acts of violence. There are a great many other ways. Any statement that denigrates a group of people, identifies them as such-human and as perpetrators of injustice, and thus places them beyond the bounds of common moral constraints, can make those people the objects of violence.

So, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the arsonist in this case has read the words of atheist writers on the internet, developed a loathing for those who preach religion, and has decided to use this as a justification for committing acts of violence against them.

If it is not the case that this person has been inspired to do God by reading the statements of atheist writers, there is still the possibility that some other person, now or in the future, is feeding a hatred off of his interpretation of the claims made on atheist sites, and will commit some future act of violence in the name of atheism.

My question to my readers - particularly those who also write - is, "What have you done to promote or to inhibit that possibility?"

For my part I have stated countless times that the right to freedom of speech may not mean a right to immunity from criticism for what one says, but it does imply a right to immunity from violence. The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions - where 'private actions' are those that one may perform without asking for permission from or justifying it to another person. Choices over what to watch on television, which movies to go to, which web sites to visit, what to eat, what to wear, who to invite to your child's birthday party, where to send your private charitable donations, all count as private actions. People are free to use these private actions to reward or punish others for what they say.

However, nobody is free to use a torch to communicate their disapproval of another person's words. People who do so are a threat to all of us. They are not only a threat to our property, they are a threat to our very lives. They are a threat to the lives of the first responders who show up to put out the fire, and they are a theat to the lives of anybody who may have been sleeping or staying in the churches at the times they were torched - including, potentially, children in need of shelter.

This arsonist is truly a despicable human being for what he is willing to cause happen to others. He exhibits desires that the rest of us have many and strong reason to inhibit through condemnation, or at best shows an absence of those aversions that many of us have reason to promote.

Our responsibility lies in knowing that despicable people like this exist. They are prone to violence and, even though they might select a target for their violence by reading scripture, there are other ways for such a person to select their victims.

They may select their victims from reading our blogs and articles, and through them determine that there is a class of people amongst us who fall beyond the realm of moral society, and who are deserving of the harms he seeks to inflict.

The idea that nobody does harm in the name of no-God is a dangerous delusion that some people may be tempted to use because they enjoy or otherwise find value in making mean claims about others while ignoring the possible consequences of their actions. Some people enjoy being mean, and they enjoy the cheers of an audience who find it entertaining to be a part of the crowd that is being mean (which is far better than being a part of the crowd that is being targeted with that meanness).

I know nothing about this case in Texas and I am not suggesting any theories about what the facts of the case are. However, what has been reported is enough to ask the questions, "Could you be making claims that risk inspiring such a person to such a level of violence?" and "What have you done, as a responsible writer, to help to ensure that you are not a contributor to these types of actions?"

Maybe this arsonist is a reader of our sites. Or maybe it is the next one.

What would you have to say to such a person?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Self-Serving Definitions

In response to my claim that some atheists use a self-serving definition of "The Christian god of the Bible", a member of the studio audience said:

Again, my point is that, if they claim to be talking about "the Christian god of the Bible" (instead of simply "God"), it's valid for us to go to that Bible as an authoritative source of what that god is like. They're the ones who indicated what their authoritative source is.

It is important to recognize that the term 'they' in this response refers to only a subset of those who use the phrase, 'the Christian god of the Bible', and is adopting only one specific way of using that phrase. So, any assumption that this definition that 'they' use is the one and only use of the phrase and thus the one true and correct definition of the term – rather than one definition among many – is false.

I will agree that this accurately describes the definition that the atheist I was referring to use. However, I do not see any argument against the claim that the decision to use this definition, as opposed to any of the multitude of other definitions, is not self-serving.

It is even question-begging, in a sense. It assumes that the Christian God of the Bible is a character in a work of fiction.

If I were to try to make a moral assessment of Gollum, in The Lord of the Rings, or of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean, I would begin with the assumption that the text that the author has given me is authoritative. The author may not have provided me with all of the facts, but that which the author has provided are to be taken as true within the context of the story. I cannot turn to a passage in which the character performed an action that contradicts my assessment and say, "That did not really happen," unless the author himself indicated that the events took place in the context of a dream or a vision.

This quest becomes particularly challenging when we have several authors who have all written stories about the same invented character. Let us, five hundred years from now, take all of the assembled versions of the Robin Hood myth and assemble them into a book, attach the assumption that all of the texts are authoritative, and see what we can then determine to be the true of this character Robin Hood.

However, if I were to pick up a biography, I would use a different set of assumptions. It is no longer the case that the words of the author are authoritative. The author can make mistakes, or for personal reasons attach a particular spin to the events that he is reporting that serves some personal end or feeds some personal bias

Against this, the criticism would be that it is not the atheist who is claiming that the text in the Bible is authoritative. It is the Christians themselves who say this, and the atheists were simply following that assumption to its conclusion.

First, some Christians say this - but not all. There are Christians who take the Bible to be a work of human history that has all of the problems that any other account of human history might have. While they hold that a God exists and that the texts of the Bible were an attempt by man to accurately capture the actions of such a God, that text simply cannot be trusted to be true in all cases.

This, then, relates back to my claim that atheists use a self-serving definition of the Christian God of the Bible. They are using a definition that some Christians use and showing some problems with that definition. However, this does not show that there is a problem with 'the Christian god of the Bible' the way other Christians use the term - as when it means, 'The deity the Bible refers to but which the Bible may not report on with perfect accuracy'.

Second, even here there is a difference between a text being authoritative in the way that a work of fiction is authoritative, and authoritative work of non-fiction. The authoritative work of non-fiction still has to correspond to an external reality, while an authoritative work of fiction does not.

Anybody who reads a line of text has an infinite number of interpretations that they can apply to that text. After all, a line of text is nothing but an image containing a particular pattern of squiggles that can mean just about anything. The interpreter must then throw out whole sets of possible interpretations to get to the correct one. If he takes the text to be authoritative non-fiction, then any interpretation of that text that contradicts known facts must be rejected.

In other words, the reader of a line of text must bring a whole set of mental baggage with him if he is ever able to even begin to read the text. There is simply no such thing as getting all of the meaning of a line of text from the text itself. There is no such thing as treating the Bible as authoritative in the sense that the reader's interpretive software has absolutely no relevance in determining what the passage means. Readers must necessarily bring a certain set of assumptions with them that will be relevant in determining the meaning the reader assigns to that text.

Since an authoritative work of non-fiction cannot have a false claim, the reader must then come up with an interpretation that is not false - that does not contradict known facts. If, for example, one of those facts that the authoritative fiction cannot contradict is that God is perfectly benevolent, then no interpretation of a biblical passage that is inconsistent with the view that God is perfectly benevolent can be correct.

Many atheists are guilty of taking the Bible as being authoritative in the 'work of fiction' sense, to reach conclusions about the moral qualities of the God character, and then using that to criticize others who take the Bible to be authoritative in the 'work of non-fiction' sense, where a whole different set of rules apply.

I agree that the Bible is a work of fiction, and the God character of the Old Testament a morally irredeemable tyrant of the worst order. This character is an self-centered, egotistical, violent, infinitely cruel dictator. The New Testament was at least an attempt to replace this morally repugnant father-God with a Jesus-God that at least had some morally redeeming characteristics. It reflected a few thousand years of progress in human moral thought. Yet, this Jesus-God was still a human invention reflecting the moral attitudes of his inventors - substantially ignorant peasants living under the rule of a foreign dictator.

However, any claim that I may make about 'the Christian God of the Bible' unerstood as a fictional character invented by a bunch of primative and substantially ignorant tribal members a few thousand years ago, even if true, would not remain true if one changed the definitions of the terms. Substitute instead a phrase that means, 'a perfectly benevolent entity', where this is used to determine which interpretations of Biblical pasages are 'literally true' and which are not, and you get an entirely different result.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Christian God of the Bible

A member of the studio audience wrote in a comment:

One belief that you have expressed that you don't think is "insanely stupid and destructive" is the belief in the Christian god of the Bible.

Did I say that?

Actually, I would say that the phrase "the Christian god of the Bible" is vague and the insane and destructive stupidity of believing that such a being exists depends on the meaning that one assigns to the term.

On the question of meaning, I hold that the meaning of a term is determined by the ideas that arise in the mind of the listener or speaker by the use of a term in a context in which that term was used.

As a writer, I generate theories about what ideas will appear in the brain of a reader with each term or phrase I adopt. To the degree that I can accurately predict the ideas brought up in the brain of a person hearing or listening to a term, to that degree I can be an effective communicator.

I do not think that I have ever used the phrase, "the Christian god of the Bible." I would be reluctant to do so precisely because it would raise a whole glob of different ideas in the brains of different readers. Which means that the term cannot be used in clear communication. You would not be able to say anything that was true of all, or of even a substantial majority, of the ideas the term will cause to spring into the minds of readers and listeners.

I find certain atheists to be rather self-serving when they use the term. They protest that "the Christian god of the Bible" has all of these despicable characteristics, but then define the term "the Christian god of the Bible" in such a way that it has all of these characteristics. It is like proving that atoms have no parts by defining the term "atom" as "the smallest particle of matter that, itself, has no parts."

Naturally, the first protest one reads when an atheist makes these claims is, "That is not what we mean by God. You atheists are creating a straw man, inventing a concept of God that is easy to attack but has nothing to do with what we understand by the term 'God'. If you want to criticize God why do you not criticize the God we actually believe in?"

Against the specific claim that the Christian god of the Bible did this or that evil, the response these accusations always get in return is that, while God knows the whole story that explains why He performed this or that action, we only have a part of the story. It is always possible to make up additional facts that make an apparent moral transgression into something that is morally permissible.

In fact, there are a number of works of fiction in which the author presents their lead character as somebody who appears to have done some great evil, only to reveal in the final chapter that his reasons for that action are such that they were, in fact, extremely virtuous actions. It is not at all difficult to imagine a book in which the author presents the actions of a character as apparently evil without actually ever revealing the facts that would show that the agent was actually extremely virtuous.

Another part of the reason why I hold that belief in the Christian god of the Bible is not necessarily insanely stupid and destructive is because none of us have the ability to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason. We have to use shortcuts that give us reliable (but fallible) beliefs. One of those shortcuts is to adopt those beliefs that are dominant in the society in which one lives. After all, those beliefs have not destroyed society yet. There is reason to believe that those beliefs are not entirely destructive.

None of us have beliefs that are entirely guided by reason. We cannot have. How, in fact, could we have acquired those first beliefs if we could only do so by holding them up to reason? And how can we evaluate future beliefs except to evaluate them in relation to those earlier beliefs - beliefs that we could not hold up to the pure light of reason.

Given the fact that we can hold only a certain subset of our beliefs up to the light of reason, we need to perform belief triage. We need to look at those beliefs that are relevant to matters with a great potential for harm or benefit first, and save the examination of other beliefs for another day . . . if ever.

Because the concept of The Christian god of the Bible is so vague it can always be molded to fit our other beliefs. For that reason, at least for some people, it may not need much examination. The agent will simply modify the belief to correspond to those important conclusions he draws from the rational examination of beliefs that do have direct real-world implications.

Somehow the Constitution has come to be the Cliff Notes version of the Bible even though one speaks of a right to freedom of religion while the other speaks of killing those who worship other gods. Even though one speaks of a right to freedom of speech while the other speaks of heresies being punishable by death. Even though one says that the child will not be punished for the sins of the parent while the other hands punishment down for three to five generations beyond that of the original transgressor.

This has been the way of many Christians for at least the last 400 years - of taking any and all discoveries and moral advances of the real world and changing their concept of "the Christian god of the Bible" accordingly.

A concept of the Christian god of the Bible that is so easily changed can hardly be called a dangerous. If it is dangerous in one generation, it will be modified and changed in the next.

Moral criticism in this case requires tighter concepts and a more precise use of language than can be had by the phrase, 'the Christian god of the Bible'.

So, it is not, strictly speaking, true that I hold that a belief in the Christian god of the Bible is not insanely stupid and destructive. In some cases, when a person says that he believes in the Christian god of the Bible, further discussion will reveal that he does, in fact, have insanely stupid and destructive beliefs - the type of beliefs that deserve the condemnation of good and rational men. But others mean by that term something that is not so insanely stupid and destructive.

The term is far too vague to make any kind of blanket statement.

The final piece of evidence against the idea that a belief in the Christian god of the Bible is insanely stupid and destructive is that a lot of very not-dangerous people have a belief in the Christian god of the Bible.

Unless, of course, a person adopts a self-serving definition of 'the Christian god of the Bible'. However, when atheists do this they commit the Trus Scottsman's fallacy. They assert that Christians believe in a God that is cruel, selfish, blood-thirsty, vain, intolerant, and megalomaniac. When confronted with examples of Christians who do not believe in such a God they answer with the True Scottman's fallacy. "Then they are not true Christians, because true Christians believe in a god that has these qualities."

I have long found it depressing how quickly a group of people who profess such a love of reason and logic will embrace fallacies when it serves their purpose and protects their favorite beliefs to do so.

Tim Tebow Part II: Insanely Stupid Beliefs

One of the dominant themes of the new atheism has been a rejection of the idea that we should admire people for their beliefs, regardless of what it is that they believe.

Yesterday, I objected to ESPN opinion columnist Jemele Hill's claim that I should admire somebody to standing up for what he thinks is right, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with his opinion. Specifically, she wrote that Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow deserves my admiration because he has taken a stand on issues that invite criticism of himself and his family.

(See: Jemele Hill, Laud the courage in Tim Tebow's stand.)

I responded that, by the same logic, I should admire the proud Nazi who continues to assert that the Holocaust was a proud moment in human history in the face of condemnation and ridicule. I should admire the racist KKK leader who is willing to stand on the courthouse steps with a bull horn and sign and to declare his beliefs to the world. And that I should admire the terrorist willing to strap on a bomb and destroy himself for the sake of his beliefs.

The New Atheist movement itself started, not with a rejection of religion, but a rejectioni of this idea that we must admire and respect a person who has strong beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are or how little evidence one has to accepting them.

Sam Harris's book The End of Faith is an attack on this idea that we must not criticize another person's deeply held religious beliefs. It rejects the long-standing cultural tradition of holding religious beliefs as sacred in the sense that one is not socially permitted to say, "What you believe is not only wrong, it's stupid."

The reason we should feel perfectly comfortable telling people that stupid beliefs are stupid and are nothing a morally responsible person would accept is because insanely stupid beliefs get innocent people killed. Insanely stupid beliefs make it possible for a person to strap on a vest made of C4, walk into a crowded market, and blow herself and a few dozen patrols to bits in the name of fiction, myth, and superstition.

Insanely stupid beliefs make it possible for people to take a gay student, beat him nearly to death, tie him to a fence post, and leave him to die. Insanely stupid beliefs allow parents to bury their teenage daughter alive for the crime of having friends who are boys, or to refuse to get simple medical treatment that could have saved a child's life.

Atheist blog posts are filled with examples of insanely stupid beliefs causing people to do insanely stupid things that, unfortunately, bring a great deal of harm and suffering to people who are not insanely stupid, but who happened to be in the wrong place.

The New Atheists continued this attack on 'believing in belief'. It is an attack on the idea that it does not matter what a person believes in, as long as a person believes in something. It is a position tht holds that religious people are more virtuous than atheists at least by the simple fact that the religious person has belief - is permeated by faith - and the atheist is not. What the individual has put his faith in is not relevant, as long as an individual puts their faith in something.

This is the tradition that Jemele Hill embraced when she told us that we must admire Tim Tebow for standing up for something, regardless of what it is. It is the view that I rejected when I wrote that admiring people merely for the act of standing up for their beliefs means admiring the proud Nazi, the courageous KKK activist on the courthouse steps, and the suicide bomber. It is a view that I reject when I condemn, rather than admire, the parents who kill their daughter for the crime of talking to boys, refuse to get medical care for a sick child, or put countless dollars and countless hours into a campaign to reject gay marriage.

Ultimately, I have more of a reason to admire the person who has these insanely stupid beliefs and who do nothing about them. The apathetic idiot does far less harm than the arrogant and hard-driven idiot with a deep sense of purpose to commit acts that are utterly destructive of the lives of others.

It is said that there is nothing really new in the New Atheism - that this is a misnomer. Yet, in one important respect, this is false. For decades atheists have stood passively by in the face of a social custom that said that we ought not to condemn the beliefs of others. Atheists had been keeping their mouth shut about insanely stupid beliefs, allowing those with these beliefs an uncriticized control of public opinion and public action.

Then 9/11 happened, and atheists in the Western world woke up to how stupid they had been in being unwilling to openly criticize insanely stupid beliefs. In spite of evidence of how insanely stupid beliefs have contributed to human suffering over the years, the sight of airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center made clear some facts that there had already been more than enough evidence to support in the past.

Some insanely stupid beliefs are incredibly destructive, and they ought not to go unchallenged. And it is morally irresponsible to let insanely stupid beliefs go unchallenged, let alone to admire those who decide to devote so much time and effort into promoting insanely stupid and destructive beliefs. Such people do not deserve our admiration. They deserve condemnation and ridicule. And if they are brave enough to continue their stupidity in the face of ridicule, this simply makes them more ridiculous.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Tim Tebow's Stand: Content Matters

I don't care if you're an American or a Saudi Arabian, conservative or liberal, Muslim or Christian, you've got to admire the 9/11 hijackers for standing with conviction, even as they opened themselves and their families up to criticism.

That is an absurd claim, is it not?

Yet, Jemele Hill at made a statement much like this with respect to Florida Gators quarterback Jemele Hill:

I don't care if you're pro-choice or pro-life, conservative or liberal, god-fearing or atheist, you've got to admire Tebow for standing with conviction, even as he is opening himself and his family up to criticism

(See: Jemele Hill, Laud the courage in Tim Tebow's stand.)

Absolutely not.

The claim that I must admire Tebow merely for the act of standing up for what he believed is to say that I must admire the KKK member who marches through a Jewish neighborhood standing up for what he believes, in spite of the criticism he gets. It is the same as saying that I must admire the true Nazi who proudly participated in and defended the Holocaust because he is willing to stand up for what he believes in the face of criticism.

I do not need to admire these people - not in the slightest.

At this point, many demagogues and the sophists will have already formed an angry retort in his head by saying, "How dare you compare Tebow's stand on abortion to the terrorist or the Nazi. That is absolutely repulsive, and you owe Tebow and his family an apology for suggesting such a thing."

Yet, I am not the one who said that there is no morally relevant difference between Tebow and the terrorist or the Nazi. Jamelle Hill said that. Hill is the one who told us that the content of the beliefs that one is standing up for is not morally relevant - the only thing that matters is that the person be willing to stand up for something. Anything.

If anybody owes Tebow and his family an apology, Jemele Hill does, because Hill argued that the content of what one stands up for is not morally relevant - as long as one is willing to stand for something.

If the content of what one stands for is not morally relevant, then there is no morally relevant difference between Tebow and the terrorist or the KKK member or the proud Nazi. When it comes to a willingness to stand up an defend what one believes in the face of criticism, all of these people are alike.

If one wants to say that there is a difference between them, that difference can only be found in their content. One has to say that the person who stands opposed to abortion is better than the others, and that betterness has to come from something other than merely being willing to stand up for one's beliefs.

Tebow is different from the terrorist only if content matters, and the content of Tebow's convictions are somehow better than those of the terrorist, proud Nazi, or KKK member.

If content matters, then the claim that we must admire Tebow merely for the act of standing up for what he believes regardless of whether he is right or wrong has to be rejected.

If content matters, we still have an open question as to whether Tebow did anything to be proud of, or whether he decided to promote attitudes and beliefs that actually deserve the support of such a public figure. Or whether, instead, he has given his name and his fame to causes that do not deserve his or anybody's support.

Friday, February 05, 2010

NASA's New Direction: Safety First?

Should racecar driving, sky diving, and climbing Mount Everest all be banned until such time as it can be made perfectly safe.

All of these activities claim a number of lives every year. None of them can b said to involve some sort of crucial social function - unlike being a first responder or a soldier in times of war - that justify the risk. Yet, all of these activities are allowed to continue year after year in spite of the deaths and injuries that result.

I've been busy defending the course that President Obama has decided to take with respect to putting humans in space. That course is to cancel another set of flag-and-footprint missions to the moon and to use the money instead to create a set of private companies capable of launching people into space.

If the question were asked, which would be better to have in the year 2020 for the future of space development, a government owned and operated moon base or private companies capable of selling tickets to private citizens to go into orbit, I'm suggesting that the latter will have the better long-term impact.

One of the objections being raised against this option is that the private space companies will not provide safety. I suppose that the fear is that they will cut corners, sacrificing safety for profit.

There are a number of examples of this - of people using substandard materials and taking less care for safety and for getting a lot of people killed in the process. The HMS Titanic was built with substandard material and contained too few life boats - for the sake of profit. This should be a genuine concern.

However, there is a difference between foolish risks taken for profit, and calculated risks taken because the person taking the risk thinks the end is worthwhile.

Consider race-car driving, for example; or hiking to the top of Mount Everest, or sky diving.

In all of these activities, there are standard procedures that people can follow to make the activity safer. However, there is still some risk involved. There is enough risk that one can ask the question of whether people should be so hung up with safety that the whole project is basically cancelled.

Imagine closing down all the race tracks until racing can be made safe because of a wreck during the Indianapolis 500, or ending all alpine mountain climbing after a death until such time as we can guarantee the safety of every mountain climber.

One of the things that it is important to feed into this equation is that there are people who enjoy these activities, in some part, because of the risks. You are not doing them any favors by telling them they are prohibited from racing cars, sky diving, climbing Mount Everest, or riding a rocket into Earth Orbit. You are, in fact, diminishing the quality of their lives, denying them of a potential for some of the experiences that make a life worth living.

Human space flight should strive for the same type of safety that we find in automobile racing, sky diving, and alpine mountain climbing. That is to say, there should be a certain st of precautions that one goes through to make sure that nobody suffers out of stupidity or negligence. However, it should not be the type of safety that seeks to make sure that nobody dies.

People will die in space.

Rockets will blow up. Micrometeorites will shoot through astronauts on space walks, capsules will leak, astronauts will strike out in anger at fellow crew members and land some fatal blow. All of this will happen in space, just as they do on Earth.

The thing is, there are people around who are willing to take those risks. Thy consider their lives better if they are able to participate in this type of project. Some of them take risks for no reason at all other than to entertain themselves or others. The Space Program allows people to take risks in a project where they will be serving humanity.

It would be absurd to hold that this should not be permitted - that risks voluntarily taken in an activity that serves humanity must not be allowed - while others are still granted the liberty to take risks for reasons as trivial as entertainment.

It would be ironic, in fact, if, in the name of safety, we decide to prohibit people from doing thta which might well be necessary to save all of human kind.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Objections Considered: Hidden Prescriptions

I am sorry for my absence. I have been ill for the past couple of days. I am feeling better now.

While I was ill, I have been given some thought to this charge of arbitrariness that some have leveled against me. Specifically, the concern is that I have some something illegitimate and unjustifyable by liking the value of a maleable desire to all other desires. People object that this is an arbitrary assertion, not grounded in fact, that people may accept or reject as they please.

Furthermore, as I have argued, it has to go beyond the arbitrariness of assigning meanings to words. People in all branches of learning arbitrarily assign meanings to words. Chemists, physicists, logicians, and mathematicians do it. There is no scientific law that dictates the meaning of the word 'planet'. And the logician's use of the term 'argument' - a set of two or more propositions where one proposition, the 'conclusion', is said to follow from the other proposition(s), the 'premises', defies all common usage.

Yet nobody accuses the chemist or the logician of any illegitimate forms of 'arbitrariness'.

The charge is that when I assert that morality has to do with the evaluation of desires relative to all other desires, I am engaged in a different type of arbitrariness - one not found in chemistry and logic.

I believe that if we cut through the rhetoric, I am being accused of prescribing a particular sort of attitude to the relationship between maleable desires and all other desires - an attitude that I cannot objecively defend. When people get to this part of my ethics, they think I am saying, "You ought to look at relationships between maleable desires and all other desires in a particular light - seeing them as defining your rights and duties, and conforming not only your beliefs but your attitudes in general to their primacy."

They then assert that I cannot defend this call for having a particular attitude towards malleable desires and other desires objectively, and that this is where desirism fails. They reject this attitude towards malleable desires and other desires and, in doing so, they think they refuse desire utilitarianism.

The problem is that this assumption is mistaken. Desire utilitarianism does not call for having any particular attitude towards malleable desires and other desires. I have meant it when I said that one can drop all of the moral language entirely from desire utilitarianism and stick with the cold, objective facts about relationships between malleable desires and other desires without changing the theory one iota. Take this attitude that you think I may be prescribing for relationships between malleable desires and other desires out the window. You will discover that the theory does not need them.

Go ahead, chuck that arbitrary and objectively indefensible attitude towards these relationships out the window. Get rid of them. Look at what is left. THAT is desire utilitarianism.

People like to make up science-fiction stories to test moral theories. Here is one.

Imagine a society where there is a group of people who have the power to do something harmful (that thwarts the desires) of some other group. Group A does not care one iota about the harm that they do to Group B, and, even though Group A's desires are malleable, Group B lacks the intelligence or the power to choose any course of action that would alter Group A’s attitudes towards Group B.

Is it the case that what Group A does that is harmful to Group B evil? Group A has no reason to refrain from harming Group B. Group B has many and strong reasons to change the attitudes of Group A but lack the ability to even conceive the thought of doing do.

Desirism states that, in such a state, members of Group B are destined to suffer at the hands of Group A. The only way that Group A's desires are going to change is if somebody, somewhere, starts to put into motion the social institutions that would help mold those desires. Ex hypothesi there is no reason for action that is going to be put into place to mold those desires. Group A members do not have a reason for action. Group B members have many and strong reasons for action but lack the ability to form a plan that would alter the desires of Group A.

I would hold that, in a complex society such as ours, people do have reasons to promote a consideration for the desires of those who cannot express their wishes. We have reason to praise those who consider the desires of those who cannot defend their own interests, and reason to condemn those who ignore the interests of others who cannot defend themseves in the moral arena. We have reasons grounded on our own interest in their well-being, and the recognition that we (and those we care about) may end up in such a state.

However, these are contingent facts that could be different, at least in some hypothetical imagined universe.

Desirism does not necessarily prescribe an attitude towards the members of Group B. Desirism recognizes that in the situation, as described, with no opportunity to change things, Group A will continue to perform actions harmful to members of Group B without remorse. They will do so until somebody with a reason to promote the interests of Group B gets introduced into the world and begins the process of changing Group A's malleable desires.

Another science fiction story that sometimes works its way into the discussion is: What is there is a large and powerful group with a particularly strong fixed desire that A and a weak group with a desire that not-A? What does desirism say about this case?

First, note that, because the story concerns fixed desires, desire utilitarianism (as opposed to desirism itself) says nothing about this. Desire utilitarianism has to do with the molding of malleable desires and, where desires are not malleable, desire utilitarianism does not apply. However, desirism says that if the weak group's desire that not-A is malleable they are advised to get rid of it. If it is not malleable, then they are doomed to suffer, and no amount of moralizing will change things.

We are a species with a multitude of malleable desires. We have reasons to promote desires that fulfill other desires. This generates a feedback loop where the "other desires" we have reason to promote desires to fulfill are, more and more, the "desires that tend to fulfill other desires" that we are promoting.

We may not have, and may never have, sufficient reason to consider the interests of animals. And they may never have sufficient capacity to mold our desires so as to promote in us desires that tend to fulfill their desires, and inhibit in us desires that tend to thwart their desires. In this case, animals are going to tragically continue to suffer preventable harms just as they suffer harms from disease and illness that they could avoid if they only had the intelligence to do so.

The fact is that we are not going to go to the effort of moralizing about the welfare of animals unless we have reason to do so. That's a brute fact about how the universe works. Even if we can be made to have reasons to better consider the welfare of animals, we will not be made to do so unless people discover that they have reason to promote those desires.

Desirism does not deny these facts. In fact, these facts are also a part of the theory of desirism.

A lot of people are in the habit of looking for fundamental 'oughts' at the foundation of any moral theory. This habit has paid off, because the traditional moral theories start with some set of foundational oughts and build from there. But desirism is not that type of theory. There are no foundational oughts. There are relationships between states of affairs and desires and objectively true and false statements that one can make about those relationships. And that is it. If you see something else in desire utilitarianism, you put it there.