Thursday, July 26, 2012

Desirism and Objective Moral Facts

There are no objective moral values.

However, there are objective moral facts.

In my last post I explained what is meant by the claim that there are no objective moral values. It means that there are no intrinsic values – no sense in which value exists as something embedded within and intrinsic to the object of evaluation. To give a sense of what is being denied I asked to imagine value as a form of radiation – emissions of “goodons” and “badons” – that come from various arrangements of matter such as an act of murder or of charity.

No such thing - and nothing like it - exists.

A moral claim that says that this type of objective badness exists in rape or slavery, for example, would be false.

However, this does not imply that "slavery is bad" or "rape is bad" is false. A lot of objectively true statements do not refer to objective properties. Not only are they still true, these truths make up a significant portion of science - perhaps all of science.

Take, for example, the proposition, "The earth orbits the sun at an average distance of approximately 150 million kilometers." This is true. Furthermore, it is a scientific claim – a claim that one would not be surprised to find in a science book or on a science test. This proposition does not describe a property intrinsic to the earth or the sun. Instead, it describes a relationship between them - a relationship that can change over time.

A rogue planet could zip through the solar system and throw the Earth into a new orbit - perhaps an average distance of 200 million kilometers. The relationship between the earth and the sun changes. However, the new claims we are making about that relationship are still objectively true and would count as legitimate claims within the realm of science.

So, a claim can be objectively true or false and a legitimate claim in science even if it is not referring to an intrinsic property.

The same is true in morality. A moral claim can be objectively true or false even though it is not a claim about an "objective value" in the sense that ethicists often use the term. An objectively true or false claim can describe a relational property - such as the orbital relationship between the earth and the sun. In the case of morality, desirism argues that it refers primarily to a relationship between malleable desires and other desires.

All of the following propositions are objectively true or false using the scientists' concept of "objective".

Albert has a desire that P. P can be any proposition. We can, for example, make P = "Kate is married to Albert." This is a statement about an organ in the body (the brain), how it is structured, and how that structure affects observable events. It is as objective as the statement, "Jim has a blood pressure of 134/88" - a proposition that any scientist would be comfortable making. It allows us to make predictions about how an agent will behave in certain circumstances. Future observations will help to verify or falsify our hypothesis. Some complex variables might make it difficult to determine if Albert really has this desire. However, difficult-to-know objective facts are still objective facts.

For a particular state of affairs S, P is true in S. This is a simple descriptive claim about S. In our hypothetical case, we are talking about any state of affairs in which Kate is married to Albert. This is no stranger in science than talking about a state in which water is heated to 80 degrees centigrade.

Albert has a motivating reason to realize S. A desire that P is a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs S in which P is true. This is what desires do - they provide motivating reasons. If both of the previous statements are true, then this one is true.

If Albert has a motivating reason to realize S, and giving somebody else a desire that Q will aid in realizing S, then Albert has a motivating reason to give that somebody else a desire that Q. This is nothing more than means-ends rationality. If you want a new car and you need $25,000 to buy a new car, then you have a motivating reason to get $25,000. You might not be able to get the money. There might be other things you want more (e.g., to spend time with friends and family), but you still have a motivating reason to get $25,000. When true, this is objectively true. When false, it is objectively false.

Some desires are malleable. They can be changed by triggering the reward system in the human brain. Rewards such as praise reinforce certain desires. Punishments such as condemnation reinforce certain aversions. Consequently, a motivating reason to give somebody else a desire that Q is a motivating reason to use the social tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to mold those desires.

There are some desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. Desires to help others in times of need, make a contribution to society, promote and defend institutions that allow for peaceful cooperation, are things nearly everybody as reason to promote in others, and others have reason to promote in them. Aversions to lying, killing, breaking promises, taking the property of others, acting in ways that intimately affect others without their consent, and the like are aversions that virtually everybody has reason to promote in others, and others have reason to promote in them.

In any of the cases mentioned above the claim may be false. Perhaps we have many and strong reasons to promote selfishness and to condemn concern for others as the Ayn Rand Objectivisits argue. Whatever the case may be, there is a fact to the matter that can be determined by looking at the evidence. There is an objective fact of the matter as to whether people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a particular desire. This fact is substantially independent of the beliefs or sentiments of any individual person. No person can make it true that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a desire to help others just by believing it or wanting it to be "true for me". It is true or false as a matter of fact.

The many and strong reasons to promote these desires in others are many and strong reasons to direct social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote these desires and aversions. This simply involves using the reward system - which is effective in molding malleable desires - to promote those desires one has reason to promote. It is true in the same sense that having many and strong reasons to change a tire implies having many and strong reasons to get the jack out of the trunk.

Moral terms contain elements of praise and condemnation. We praise certain people by calling them good and virtuous, by calling them heroes, by giving them plaques and honors, and by saying they did the right thing. We condemn them by calling them vicious or evil, calling them liars or bigots or thieves, by shunning or punishing the, and by saying that their actions are wrong. There may be cases in which a person uses moral terms without implying praise or condemnation. However, these are rare.

All of these propositions point to the conclusion that there is an objective rationality to our use of moral terms. This rationality carries through to a large set of activities related to how moral terms are used. For example, it makes sense of how excuses are used as a defense against condemnation, explains the possibility of conflicting obligations, links "should" to reasons for action that exists, and it does all of this in a way that fits with the natural universe and, in particular, the fact of human evolution.

Two follow-up questions that one might ask are: (1) "Well, all of these things are objectively true or false, but they don't tell me why I should be moral. Why should I be moral?" and (2) Is this a moral theory? Are we talking about something that deserves to be called 'moral facts'?" The two questions may be related. Some may argue that a theory's inability to motivate a person to do the right thing simply be explaining the relevant facts to them cannot properly be called a moral theory.

However, this post is already too long to handle those questions. They will be handled in future posts.

33 comments:

Eli Horowitz said...

Yeah, no, still not seeing it. In particular, your questions (1) and (2) at the end are not really connected to this:

"Some may argue that a theory's inability to motivate a person to do the right thing simply by explaining the relevant facts to them cannot properly be called a moral theory."

In particular, I would ask both (1) and (2) and I have no particular concern for whether or not knowledge of the theory motivates action according to the theory (my poor wording in the prior comment thread notwithstanding).

To be even more specific, "having strong reasons to promote" some thing (desire or otherwise) means having some value system that underlies and trumps desires, at which point desires themselves can no longer be the central subjects of moral facts. In particular, just talking about desires emphatically does not "link 'should' to reasons for action that exists." What forms that link is the good reasons for promoting this or that desire. If you can't identify those good reasons, then you haven't shown that anybody should promote any desire or take any action (except in the irrelevant instrumental sense of "should").

Look at it this way: there are strong reasons to have certain kinds of desires when one plays basketball. There are very strong reasons, for example, to desire not to leave your feet on defense before your man does, to desire to box out, and so on. But the desires themselves aren't the subjects in facts about what is good or bad in basketball, nor will any number of facts about desires tell you why you should do one thing as opposed to another. Rather, those desires depend on facts about what is good and bad in basketball, and those facts inform one's basketball obligations. Thus, analogically, I can't help but feel like you've actually disproven the importance of desires to moral obligation. Instead, you make it sound like we should be looking for the "good reasons" and then basing our moral obligations on those things, rather than using desires as a very approximate and indirect proxy for those reasons.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eli Horowitz

"having strong reasons to promote" some thing (desire or otherwise) means having some value system that underlies and trumps desires

No. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. A theory that tries to postulate something that "trumps desires" is going to fail because the reasons they postulate simply do not exist. They are not reasons to promote anything because they are not real.


If you can't identify those good reasons, then you haven't shown that anybody should promote any desire or take any action (except in the irrelevant instrumental sense of "should").

The "irrelevant and instrumental" sense of should is, again, the only sense there is. If morality requires something other than this "irrelevant instrumental" sense of "Should", then morality itself does not exist. However, it does not matter in the real world. This "irrelevant instrumental" sense of good can still provide all of the things I mentioned earlier.

If, instead, you are referring to the difference between means and ends (and the argument that every means must, eventually, lead to an end), to this the answer is that the "desire that P" makes any state of affairs in which P is true an end. This is the ultimate goal - the realization of a state of affairs where P is true.

From this, two people with two different desires (A has a desire that P and B has a desire that Q) will pursue different ends. If P and Q is not possible, these will be conflicting ends.

A person with more than one desire (and we all have more than one desire) will have multiple ends. If A desires that P and A desires that Q then one end or goal will be a state of affairs in which P is true and another will be a state of affairs in which Q is true. A state of affairs in which P and Q are both true will satisfy both ends at once.


You make it sound like we should be looking for the "good reasons" and then basing our moral obligations on those things, rather than using desires as a very approximate and indirect proxy for those reasons.

Desires are the only reasons that exist. "Good reasons" are desires that people have reason to promote. However, because desires are the only reasons that exist then the only "reason to promote" one desire is its ability to objectively satisfy other desires. While some object that this is circular, the correct term to use is that it is a feedback loop (and feedback loops are very real).

Matthew Fuller said...

What process is involved in actually knowing what 'good reasons' are? Give a concrete example refuting common theistic moral positions, if you can.

How can you calculate desire when few people really know what they want or what the downstream effects are? Can you not include certain groups of people because they are ignorant and so discount them? What is the discount rate of ignorance? And isn't power the real factor, not moral facts, in most of our decisions anyway?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

What process is involved in actually knowing what 'good reasons' are?

That is what these posts are about.


Give a concrete example refuting common theistic moral positions, if you can.

I am not certain about what you mean by "refuting common theistic moral positions." Are you asking for an application to an issue like slaying apostates or homosexuals?


How can you calculate desire when few people really know what they want or what the downstream effects are?

Mostly on the grounds that one does not need a precise answer. How do you determine the sum of a set of numbers when you do not know exactly what every value is? You can still get an effective approximation simply by taking a sum of the largest numbers. For example, I can glance at the amounts of money in a few dozen bank accounts and give you a reasonable estimate of the total.


Can you not include certain groups of people because they are ignorant and so discount them?

Well, on top of the problem of ignorance there is a problem of ignorance over who is ignorant - people who think they know the right answer but are wrong. These possibilities argue against excluding people just because (one thinks) they are wrong. Rather, it is better to include everybody - or virtually everybody - and to allow free debate to work at convicing people that they are wrong.

Eli Horowitz said...

"Desires are the only reasons that exist. 'Good reasons' are desires that people have reason to promote. However, because desires are the only reasons that exist then the only 'reason to promote' one desire is its ability to objectively satisfy other desires."

So the qualifier "good" does not actually belong there, then, because there's no sense in which they are good (as opposed to bad or neutral) reasons to act. That's enough to convince me that there's nothing normative going on here at all - if your use of normative language is empty, there's no normative content.

Matthew Fuller said...

Eli is right in that he wants you to defend a position. I think we simply need to see some actual content.

Take a position on abortion. Or the death penalty, or even the tax code.

Every case is unique and that is why it's important to dive in and really look at how these ideas will be applied. My guess is that desires are just too ambiguous, as are moral facts, to be applied consistently.

Each situation has too many variables and conflicting desires. I simply take for granted that desirism is logically consistent. Now please apply it to an actual issue that is widely disagreed upon. I chose theistic issues because I know you believe you ought to include theists. Why you brought up theists killing homosexuals is just a red herring (in America circa 2012).

Eli Horowitz said...

Well, or just look at this:

"Aversions to lying, killing, breaking promises, taking the property of others, acting in ways that intimately affect others without their consent, and the like are aversions that virtually everybody has reason to promote in others, and others have reason to promote in them."

Why? Why any of that stuff? If I had to come up with any reason at all why this could possibly make sense, I'd go in the direction of the categorical imperative - I should endorse those desires that I can endorse universally. But that's not desire utilitarianism, right? It's just deontology.

To make it desire utilitarianism, you'd have to say that I have reason to promote in others whichever desires will fulfill my desires not to be lied to, murdered, etc. (assuming, in fact, that I have such desires in the first place). But now it's no longer obvious that having a desire means having a reason to promote that desire in others, because psychology is not that straightforward. Which is why, I think, we need to differentiate between good reasons and bad ones...but, apparently, it's not gonna happen.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Matthew Fuller

This blog has nearly 2000 essays,with posts on a variety of topics such as incest, abortion, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, bigotry, lying, capital punishment, intellectual recklessness, animal rights, drunk driving, negligence, and the like.

You shoukd be able to search on a subject that interests you and find something,

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eli Horowitz

Here, too, I am going to have to ask what you mean by "normative content." I will need to know what it is that you think is missing.

Desirism incorporates reasons for action. To call something good is to say that some agent has a motivating reason to realize that thing. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Therefore, all true claims that something us good (at least in the sense of worth pursuing or realizing) has to point to a desire or it does not point to a reason for action that exist.

If your "normative content" requires something else - some other type of reason for action other than desire, my claim is that a search for normative content is like a search for the fountain of youth. You will never find it.

However, even without this normative content we can account for nearly all of the elements of our moral life. We can demonstrate that peopke generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to responding to words with violence, for example (to defend a right to freedom of speech) and apparently without any need for what you would call "normative content"

Matthew Fuller said...

Give me social science data that was used, not philosophy. Why are you exempt from this?

How would this theory work in practice? If you cannot do that, then why would anyone take you seriously? I know its a very hard thing to do. I cannot do it. You have too. Or with help, someone needs to.

Saying you don't have too is a bit like the Intelligent Design folks who claim they needn't see if their theory does any work. Well, put your theory to work, or at least attempt to falsify and modify parts of it.

How else can you know if it is right?

Eli Horowitz said...

"Here, too, I am going to have to ask what you mean by 'normative content.' I will need to know what it is that you think is missing."

I dunno, man, you're the one who's using the word "good" to mean apparently nothing. How about you tell me what you think makes for a "good" (or "better") reason (as opposed to a "bad" or "worse" one). Cause right now you're just saying that some things are and aren't reasons, which tells me nothing normative.

"To call something good is to say that some agent has a motivating reason to realize that thing."

But no, it's not, at least not in the sense you mean "has a motivating reason." Again: in basketball, it is good not to leave your feet before your man does whether or not you desire to do so - that is, whether or not there is any particular state of affairs in your brain. When you say that somebody "has a reason," you apparently mean that they have certain sorts of brain activities that, when parsed by our cognitive machinery, end up as desires; fine. But refusing to leave one's feet before one's man does is good (in basketball) for reasons that have nothing to do with the brain states of the people who are playing. Similarly, "to call something good" with respect to morality (or even rationality) is not simply to match people's brain states up with states of affairs in the world. You can pursue this "motivating reason" line of thought if you like, but what morality requires is a normative reason. The difference is this: a motivating reason is something that, in actuality, pushes some individual one way or the other; motivating reasons describe, causally, how people work. A normative reason, on the other hand, is something that would push any individual one way or the other if they had perfect (enough) knowledge of morality and wanted to be moral. Again, basketball: wanting to block your opponent's shot is a motivating reason to jump like a fool whenever somebody throws a pump fake at you. But jumping like a fool is bad in the realm of basketball even if you want to do it because the (relatively) freestanding normative structure of basketball is such that you will tend to produce basketball disvalue (i.e., you will tend to lose) if you jump like a fool when playing defense. See the difference?

Eli Horowitz said...

It's just the is/ought gap. For instance: "all true claims that something us good (at least in the sense of worth pursuing or realizing) has to point to a desire or it does not point to a reason for action that exist." A "reason for action" in your sense is just descriptive, but when you say "worth pursuing" you're talking prescriptively. The two cannot be bridged so simplistically.

"However, even without this normative content we can account for nearly all of the elements of our moral life."

Sure - but so what? You said you were going to give us "objective moral facts," not merely a psychological account of ideas or feelings or behaviors that we just so happen to classify under "morality." You can't sanely expect moral theory to "account for nearly all the elements of our moral life," just as you can't expect a theoretical explanation of good and bad in basketball to provide explanations for why people play basketball the way they do. That's a fool's errand.

Here's the fundamental problem, I think: objective moral facts are not first and foremost anything like reasons. They are just evaluations of states (or, if you prefer, actions or individuals or whatever) - e.g. lying is worse than truth-telling. How facts like that might become motivating reasons for action (in your sense) is a worthwhile question, but you can't just assume that moral facts are, in reality for the people who happen to exist, also motivating reasons for action. Description and prescription are two different categories, and it'll never work to just mash them together like this.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eli Horowitz

Again: in basketball, it is good not to leave your feet before your man does whether or not you desire to do so - that is, whether or not there is any particular state of affairs in your brain.

Since I am not much into sports, I actually don't know what this means.

However, you tell me why it is good not to leave your feet before your man does? Eventually, you will get to a state of affairs that is an object of a desire. Winning is desired. Not leaving your feet before your man does contributes to winning. If you are not creating a state in which P is true and for which there is a desire that P, then there is no reason not leave your feet before your man does. It doesn't matter.


But refusing to leave one's feet before one's man does is good (in basketball) for reasons that have nothing to do with the brain states of the people who are playing.

It's going to have to ultimately end up in somebody's brain states. It doesn't have to be the brain state of the player. (Note: The player will act to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires given his beliefs. That is to say, the player's brain states will determine when or whether he "leaves his feet before his man does" (whatever that means). However, the term "good" does not have to refer to the brain states of the player. It may refer to the brain states of the owners, or the audience, or the sponsor, or the NBA. You had better get somebody's brain states in there or there isn't even a reason to play basketball at all.

A normative reason, on the other hand, is something that would push any individual one way or the other if they had perfect (enough) knowledge of morality and wanted to be moral.

Using this definition, there is no such thing as a normative reason. Nobody has ever acted on one. Nobody has ever been pushed by one. It is not a useful part of any explanation of anything that has actually happened in the real world. It is, like ghosts and angels, a fiction.

If, using your definition of morality, morality requires normative reasons, then there is no such thing as morality. I am not going to give you "moral facts" that fit this definition. There are no moral facts that fit this definition.

However, I can still identify desires and aversions that people have many and strong reasons to promote using social tools such as praise and condemnation - which they can do by using terms like, "good", "evil", "virtue", "vice", "right", "wrong" that make no mention of "normative reasons" - yet that still serves all of the same real-world purposes.

You are free to deny that this is a moral theory and there is nothing that can be said against you. In the same sense, you are free to continue to say that Pluto is a planet - using the classic definition of "planet" - and nobody can say that you are wrong.

However, if we stick to your definition of morality, morality does not exist. Because it does not exist, it is not worth talking about - and it certainly has no relevance in the real world of things that DO exist.

Yet, malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote do exist in the real world. Not only do they exist, they are important (since, by definition, they are desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote). So, they ARE worth talking about.

Emu Sam said...

You appear to have someone complaining about not enough social science and someone complaining about too much psychology.

It's probably too simplistic to say that when people are pushing you to go both further into science and further away from it, you've hit a good moderation.

Eli Horowitz said...

"However, you tell me why it is good not to leave your feet before your man does? Eventually, you will get to a state of affairs that is an object of a desire."

Nope - it's a state of affairs that is an object of a stipulated definition. Nobody has to want to win a game of basketball in order for sloppy defense to be bad in basketball, there just has to be a coherent definition of basketball (complete with a normative framework). That people do actually desire to win is probably the reason why people play, and so why this is more than a merely academic matter, but the fact that bad defense is bad has nothing to do with desires.

"It's going to have to ultimately end up in somebody's brain states."

Sure - that's correct. But not desire brain states, just brain states about what "good" and "bad" mean with respect to basketball. Again, it's tempting to just think that anybody who has some certain beliefs about value in basketball will necessarily desire to be good at basketball, but that's not true.

"Using this definition, there is no such thing as a normative reason. Nobody has ever acted on one. Nobody has ever been pushed by one. It is not a useful part of any explanation of anything that has actually happened in the real world. It is, like ghosts and angels, a fiction."

I mean, we can argue that separately, but at least you agree that there's a distinction. I happen to think that there can be facts and reasons that aren't brain states - just for a more reasonable definition of what it means to "be" a fact or a reason - but, again, it's good that you concede the difference between what you're doing and morality.

"However, I can still identify desires and aversions that people have many and strong reasons to promote..."

Huh??? Why "strong" reasons? That, again, is normative language; it means that there are "weak" reasons, as well as "stronger" and "weaker" and so on. But you've still not told me how this could possibly be the case! All you can say is that some things are reasons and that others are not reasons; once you've established that, you don't seem to be capable of rating or evaluating them. So I'll ask again: what makes for a strong reason as opposed to a weak one?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

[I]t's a state of affairs that is an object of a stipulated definition. Nobody has to want to win a game of basketball in order for sloppy defense to be bad in basketball, there just has to be a coherent definition of basketball (complete with a normative framework).

In order to get this "normative framework" to actually apply to people deciding not to "leave their feet before their man does" you are doing to need more than a coherent definition of basketball. You are going to need a desire to play. A simple desire to play for its own sake, a desire for exercise, a desire to make money and a belief that basketball playing will result in the accumulation of money, a desire for fame - something, or nobody will ever play basketball no matter how coherent your definitions and normative framework may be.

I used to play a game as a child where my friends and I were camping in the Jurrasic period - dinosaurs all around.


Huh??? Why "strong" reasons? That, again, is normative language; it means that there are "weak" reasons, as well as "stronger" and "weaker" and so on.

"Strong" and "Weak" refer to motivational force. we can draw an analogy between the forces acting on a body moving through space. Stronger forces have a greater magnitude and a greater effect on the motion of the body. Weaker forces have a smaller effect. Stronger desires have a strong effect on behavior and can override several weaker desires.

If you answer that this is "not normative" therefore "not moral" or "not good", we go back to that other debate. Of course it is "not normative" as you define the term. Nothing like that exists - so nothing like that is relevant in the real world. However, even though it is not normative, it is real and it provides reasons for action. So, at least it has relevance in the real world - something that a "coherent definition with a normative framwork" does not have in the absence of desires - and has only to the degree that the "coherent definition with a normative framework" objectively satisfies those desires.

Eli Horowitz said...

"'Strong' and 'Weak' refer to motivational force. we can draw an analogy between the forces acting on a body moving through space...even though it is not normative, it is real and it provides reasons for action."

Sorry, this is just false. Psychologically speaking, desires - reasons - do not determine our actions. Unperceived factors play a huge role in human decision-making, so if you're looking to use a physics analogy then you cannot just stick with desires.

"In order to get this 'normative framework' to actually apply..."

No - this is just wrong. A normative framework doesn't "apply" to people in that it causally affects their actions; once again, is/ought gap. It applies in that their actions fall under its purview.

Let me try it this way: on your desire-centric way of understanding things, how can we tell who is a better basketball player (or philosopher, or carpenter, or mountain climber, or whatever)? I don't think we can, because everybody will just be following their desires, and - from what I can tell - you think that following desires is all that matters. So even if I happen to play like an idiot (or if I'm a philosopher who's terrible at logic, or a carpenter whose furniture is unusable, or a mountain climber who only ever gets a few hundred feet above sea level, etc.), there's no way for you to say that I'm doing poorly at my chosen task. Desires simply cannot achieve this. So do you think that there is a difference between good carpentry and bad carpentry (or whatever), or not? If not, I contend that you've got a much bigger problem than I have; if so, you need a different sort of "strong" and "weak" than the sort used when discussing bodies moving through space (as I've been saying).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eli Horowitz

Psychologically speaking, desires - reasons - do not determine our actions.

Actually, the thesis is that a combination of beliefs and desires that determine our intentional actions.

Unperceived factors play a huge role in human decision-making...

There is no requirement that all beliefs or desires are perceived. We clearly have unconscious desires. Furthermore, animals have desires without having the slightest idea of what a desire is or how to perceive one. Humans are not that different from animals. A lot of psychological evidence shows us that we do a very poor job of perceiving our own desires.

Their is a reason for that. Evolutionary fitness requires perceiving the external world - seeing food, smelling danger, or feeling things that damage our skin. There is no particular value in a faculty that allows us to perceive our own mental states - and no physical evidence of such a faculty that we can disect and study. Consequently, most of our beliefs and desires are unperceived.

The question is: What explains intentional behavior. Can one point to an actual example of an intentional act that cannot be explained by appeal to beliefs and desires? I would be quite interested if you can. I know that this is a young field subject to change, and I would like to make sure that I include relevant improvements in the field.

(By the way, I do know of one - habit. Let us assume that switch two keys on my keyboard - the Z key and the X key. I watch you do it. I desire to type my name, "Alonzo". Even though I believe that they Z and X key have been switched, and I desire to type my name, I will sometimes type "Alonxo" out of habit. This is not fully explained by a reference to beliefs and desires. It cannot be explained without also referencing habit. However, habitual action has no value. Typing the 'x' instead of the 'z' is something I have no reason to do or refrain from doing except insofar as it objectively satisfies desires - such as the desire to type my name. Consequently, it provides no objection to desirism as a theory of value.)



A normative framework doesn't "apply" to people in that it causally affects their actions; once again, is/ought gap. It applies in that their actions fall under its purview.

Then there is no sense talking about it. If nothing in the real world - if no motion of any particle through space-time is ever caused to change course as a result of - this 'ought', then this 'ought' is not relevant to anything in the real world.

The opposite of "is" is "is not". If "ought" cannot be placed in the category of "is", then it goes into the category "is not." Proof that there is a gap between "is" and "ought" is proof that "ought" is a fiction. It belongs in the realm of fairy tales and make-believe and can be dismissed as irrelevant in the real world. The real world is the world of "is".

Eli Horowitz said...

"There is no requirement that all beliefs or desires are perceived. We clearly have unconscious desires."

...he says, neglecting to argue in favor of unconscious beliefs. I'm with you on unconscious desires, but that still does not get you where you say you're going.

"The question is: What explains intentional behavior. Can one point to an actual example of an intentional act that cannot be explained by appeal to beliefs and desires?"

Sure - just read any behavioral economics study out there and you'll see them for yourself. You can reply that these don't count as intentional because of the mitigating factors, but then all you've managed to do is define "intentional action" into nonexistence, because habit plays a nontrivial part in all of our actions. In fact, I don't know how you can possibly have a brain-based theory of mind that tries to make habitual behavior into the exception rather than the rule.

"If nothing in the real world - if no motion of any particle through space-time is ever caused to change course as a result of - this 'ought', then this 'ought' is not relevant to anything in the real world."

Maybe and maybe not - again, I'm willing to have this conversation later. But first I'd like you to answer my question: do you believe that there's a real difference between good and bad carpenters (philosophers, mountain climbers, gardeners, surgeons, whatever) or not? If so, please tell me how that's possible given that you think normativity is a non-thing; if not, please at least admit as much so we can move on.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Let me try it this way: on your desire-centric way of understanding things, how can we tell who is a better basketball player (or philosopher, or carpenter, or mountain climber, or whatever)?

The better basketball player is the player that fulfills the more and stronger of those desires that basketball players tend to satisfy. The best carpenter is the carpenter that fulfills the more and stronger of those desires that carpenters are hired to satisfy.

So even if [I'm] a carpenter whose furniture is unusable . . . there's no way for you to say that I'm doing poorly at my chosen task.

There certainly is. The desires for which carpenters are typically hired to fulfill are desires fulfilled by stable furniture. A carpenter who does not produce stable furniture does not fulfill those desires that carpeters are hired to fulfill.

[F]rom what I can tell - you think that following desires is all that matters.

This is a common misunderstanding. If an agent has a desire that P, "following the desire that P" is not what matters. "States of affairs in which P is true" is what matters. What matters to the person with the desire that his child is healthy is that the proposition, "My child is healthy" is true.

Eli Horowitz said...

"The better basketball player is the player that fulfills the more and stronger of those desires that basketball players tend to satisfy. The best carpenter is the carpenter that fulfills the more and stronger of those desires that carpenters are hired to satisfy."

No kidding. So a basketball player who never wins but is insanely popular is, according to you, a better basketball player than one who wins every time. Sorry, but that's slightly insane, and it flies in the face of every idea we have about value in basketball. The same exact problem will occur when you bring this over to morality; you can have your theory or you can have morality, but you can't have both at the same time. I grant that you've been talking about objective facts, but it's a joke to call them moral.

"The desires for which carpenters are typically hired to fulfill are desires fulfilled by stable furniture."

Ah ah! You're not allowed to just talk about why they're hired. You just said that it's about fulfilling the desires that people tend to fulfill. If it turns out that carpenters don't tend to fulfill people's desires for stable furniture, it doesn't matter that that's why they were hired. Especially given all of our unconscious desires, you can't just point to one conscious one and then dust your hands off as if you're done. Maybe you're right after all - but maybe you're not. And even if you're right about carpentry, you're for damn sure not right about basketball players (or in general).

"'States of affairs in which P is true' is what matters. What matters to the person with the desire that his child is healthy is that the proposition, 'My child is healthy' is true."

This is objectively disprovable by your own standards. If I throw a concerned parent down a hole and then proceed to take excellent care of his child without ever telling him about it, at no point will it matter to that individual that his child is, in fact, well cared for. In other words - again, by your own standards - there is nothing in physical reality that corresponds to "what matters to the person with the desire that his child is healthy is that the proposition 'my child is healthy' is true." So far as you're concerned, the opposite of "is" is "is not," right? So what causal, empirical, physical thing in the world corresponds to mattering-for-me when I'm ignorant of the event?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

. . . habit plays a nontrivial part in all of our actions. In fact, I don't know how you can possibly have a brain-based theory of mind that tries to make habitual behavior into the exception rather than the rule.

I did not say that habit plays a trivial role in explaining our actions.

I said that habit does not does not give me a reason to type 'x' instead of 'z'. My reason to type 'z' remains fully dependent on my desire to type my name 'Alonzo'.

Typing 'x' instead of 'z' frustrates my desire. That makes the habit a bad habit - a habit that I have reason to change. Desires are still the only things that are relevant in evaluating a desire and determine if one has a reason to change or to acquire a particular habit.

Eli Horowitz said...

"I did not say that habit plays a trivial role in explaining our actions."

Don't lie to my face like that, it's disrespectful. Here's what you said:

"The question is: What explains intentional behavior. Can one point to an actual example of an intentional act that cannot be explained by appeal to beliefs and desires?"

That sure sounds like you're saying that habit is trivial. (Or, the other alternative that I already mentioned, that "intentional act" is an empty set.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

So a basketball player who never wins but is insanely popular is, according to you, a better basketball player than one who wins every time.

I would have thought that basketball players (insofar as they are basketball players) were hired to win basketball games.

Okay, yes, you are correct, I used the word "hired" to focus attention on a particular set of qualities, but it is not actually "the reason why they are hired". A more detailed answer holds that many of our terms identify objects in part according to the desires those objects typically fulfill. A knife, for example, is so named because it is used to fulfill a particular set of desires. Something that does not fulfill those desires cannot properly becalled a knife. "Hired" focuses attention on the reasons why carpenters actually exist - on the desires-fulfillment that is built into the definition of the word "carpenter".

In saying this, we are merely talking about the definition of terms - semantics. Some of the terms we invent include within them an account of the desires that they are meant to fulfill. A difference between an entertainer and a basketball player is defined in part in terms of the desires that entertainers are used to fulfill and the desires that basketball playes are hired to fulfill. Consequently, the person you talk about can be a good entertainer and a poor basketball player.


I have a suggestion. If you think that an answer is "slightly insane", it maybe useful to try for a less insane interpretation.


I grant that you've been talking about objective facts, but it's a joke to call them moral.

Then do not call them 'moral'. As I have said before, whether Pluto is a planet depends on your definition of planet. It is possible for "Pluto is a planet" to be true for one person and false for another because they use two different definitions of "planet". Similarly, "desirism is a moral theory" can be true for one person and false for another because they are using different definitions of the term "moral".

When I use the term "moral", I mean that it works in a theory that makes sense of a large set of real-world events typically covered under the umbrella term "morality" - excuses, praise and condemnation, the types of reasons people bring to bear in defending moral claims, reasons for action that exist. It is not a joke to say that desirism can handle these practices that actually exist in the real world.


If I throw a concerned parent down a hole and then proceed to take excellent care of his child without ever telling him about it, at no point will it matter to that individual that his child is, in fact, well cared for.

Actually, this is false.

Take a concerned parent and give him two options. "Your child will be well taken care of, but you will be caused to believe that your child is suffering horribly," or "Your child will be made to suffer horribly, but you will be made to believe that your child is well cared for." The concerned parent will choose the first option. The concerned parent seeks to make or keep the proposition, "my child is well cared for" true, and the first situation is the only situation in which "my child is well cared for" is true.

It will matter to the parent in the well that their child is well cared for. The parent will not know, but it a mistake to claim that the parent no longer cares.

Shout down the well, "Do you care whether your child is well cared for?" What answer to you expect? "Nah. Doesn't matter to me one way or the other."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eli Horowitz said...

Don't lie to my face like that, it's disrespectful.

It's been a great discussion so far - one of the best discussions I have become involved in. However, it seems that this is coming to an end.

What I said in no way implies that habits are a trivial part of explaining intentional action. However, in the same way that physicsts talk about frictionless pullies and massless strings, it is sometimes easier to remove confounding and confusing elements that do not actually affect the conclusions one is trying to communicate.

I provided my argument that habits do not provide ends. A habit may cause me to type 'x' but it does not give me a reason to choose to type 'x'. It is for this reason - not because of triviality - that it can be excluded.

Have a pleasant day. This discussion has been very useful to me and I appreciate it greatly. Thank you.

Eli Horowitz said...

"Actually, this is false.

Take a concerned parent and give him two options..."

Um, no, I don't think you understand how this works. You can't say, "Your conclusion does not follow from your premises" and then proceed to show that a different conclusion follows on different premises. That is not a valid strategy of argumentation.

"It will matter to the parent in the well that their child is well cared for. The parent will not know, but it a mistake to claim that the parent no longer cares."

I didn't say that he would no longer care. I said that it wouldn't matter. Caring whether or not P happens is not the same as it mattering that P in fact did happen. The two are very clearly distinct. So I ask again: what physical reality corresponds to it mattering that P happened to an individual who is entirely ignorant that P happened?

"I would have thought that basketball players (insofar as they are basketball players) were hired to win basketball games."

I've been over this already: if you're talking about which desires people tend to fulfill, that makes hiring a red herring. It's not entirely irrelevant, but it is definitely not as central as you're making it out to be.

"'Hired' focuses attention on the reasons why carpenters actually exist - on the desires-fulfillment that is built into the definition of the word 'carpenter'."

Oh boy...

Carpenters don't exist because people hire them. Indeed, that's impossible: you couldn't hire a carpenter without there being a carpenter already, so carpenters must exist prior to being hired as such. Carpenters exist because people do (what we call) carpentry, period.

Eli Horowitz said...

"What I said in no way implies that habits are a trivial part of explaining intentional action. However, in the same way that physicsts talk about frictionless pullies and massless strings, it is sometimes easier to remove confounding and confusing elements that do not actually affect the conclusions one is trying to communicate."

Seriously? Are you serious? "Habits are not trivial, they just 'do not actually affect the conclusions one is trying to communicate'"? Just which definition of "trivial" are you using, here? Cause here's the one that I'm familiar with:

"Of little value or importance"

You just said that habits are of so little importance to explaining human action that they can safely be ignored, and that they are of no value - how is that not an assertion that habits are trivial?

I guess you're giving up on this, which is fine, but you really have some serious work to do to make this even begin to make sense. Let me know if you ever decide to do that work, cause I feel like you're smart enough to do good things once you get some of the basics straightened out.

josefjohann said...

Eli, I started reading this thread (and your comments in the previous one) and thinking to myself, "this is a guy following a line of thought that is important to me." Specifically, I have a lot of sympathy for your point about whether desires are "a secondary good that's parasitic on something more basic for its value."

But I think for the second half of this thread you've lapsed into derision, condescension, and general abrasiveness which was completely uncalled for and my sympathy for you has evaporated.

Matthew Fuller said...

Yep. Critics can feel like enemies. But if desirism, or something like it, is ever going to be taken seriously one must actually use data rather than word-arguments.


A blog comment post is not the way to do that. Very complex ideas don't get communicated well in this format. I'd say it would be a good idea to meet a collaborator in person.

I guess the science of ethics isn't mature enough yet.

josefjohann said...

Matthew, I must be a counter-example then, because this particular critic felt like a possible ally. At least before he went nuts.

Eli Horowitz said...

Josef - sorry you feel that way, but I tend get a little peevish when people abruptly change their position in the middle of a conversation and then deny having done so. That, to me, is not fair play, and it significantly disincentivizes any further attempts on my part to pretend that the opposing view is one that merits any kind of serious attention.

I mean, really: can you read the following quote any way that doesn't make it out to be a flagrant contradiction?

"What I said in no way implies that habits are a trivial part of explaining intentional action. However...it is sometimes easier to remove confounding and confusing elements [i.e., habits] that do not actually affect the conclusions one is trying to communicate [i.e., intentional action]."

Cause I can't.

If somebody is going to tell me that such-and-such a thing is nontrivial but also that it does not matter, I'll begin to suspect that they're trying to put one over on me - or, at the very least, that they aren't actually worth conversing with (because they care more about sticking up for their preconceived opinion than they do about avoiding even the most basic logical errors). I don't really care whether you're sympathetic to me personally, but at least do yourself the favor of not confusing the accuracy of my opinions with the (perceived) validity of my approach. Maybe you think that any old view merits serious attention just for existing, or for having come from the brain of a complicated thinker, or something. If so, I would be very interested in seeing you explain why you think that (say, over at my place) because I've never understood that, either; otherwise, I'm not sure what there is to get upset about.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I mean, really: can you read the following quote any way that doesn't make it out to be a flagrant contradiction? "What I said in no way implies that habits are a trivial part of explaining intentional action. However...it is sometimes easier to remove confounding and confusing elements [i.e., habits] that do not actually affect the conclusions one is trying to communicate [i.e., intentional action]."

There is a distinction to be made between, "I do not see how this fails to be a contradiction" and "Obviously this person is advancing a view that is not only laughable, but he knows it is laughable and is obviously trying to use some sort of deception to advance a position that even he knows to be absurd."

I think that the appearance of a contradiction can be handled by recognizing two different types of "reasons" - commonly recognized in the philosophy of mind - between causal reasons and end- or goal-reasons.

For example, gravity causes the river to flow into the ocean. However, gravity does not have a goal to deliver the water to the ocean. Gravity, in this sense, is a causal reason but not an end- or goal-reason.

Habits are an important part of intentional action. However, they provide causal reasons for intentional action, not end-reasons or goal-reasons. In the example that I mentioned earlier, habit may cause me to type the letter 'x' when I tried to type my name. However, it does not give me a goal-reason or end-reason to type the letter 'x'.

In the sense of a causal-reason, habits are quite important. They explain a great deal of behavior.

In the sense of goal-reasons, habits are entirely insignificant. They utterly fail to provide goals or ends.

There is no contradiction.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Matthew Fuller

Your point is correct. I have defended desirism piecemeal for a while. I have just started a project of putting it in a more organized form on a desirism wiki.

There is no sensible way to deny the claim that a part of this project will require links and references to research in neuroscience, evolutionary theory, and other fields of study. I cannot make any sensible argument to the contrary.

However, a sound argument not only needs true premises but valid reasoning. A demonstration of which forms of argument are valid and which are invalid - which types of objections make sense and which are nonsense - is also important.