Friday, September 09, 2016

The Failure of Desirism

The Failure of Desirism

353 days now until classes start. There is still a question of whether I will have a part time job that will allow me to go to graduate school. (No part time job - no graduate school.) But, I have hope in that area.

Last night's "Philosophy Bites" episodes included a particularly interesting episode, John Skorupski on Normativity. Normative statements - as opposed to descriptive statements - are statements that refer to reasons. To say that something should or ought to be the case is to say that there are reasons that it be the case.

Desirism says that desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional action. However, there are other types of reasons. There are reasons to believe something and causal reasons (flipping the light switch should have caused the light to turn on). Still, what Skorupski says about reasons is interesting. The first 2/3 of the episode went along almost as a defense of desirism - but Skorupski ultimately asserts that there are reasons to do or avoid some action that are not grounded on desires.

Much of the talk recently - about podcasts and creating a Wikipedia page on desirism - there is a question as to why desirism has not reached an audience or level of respect that "it deserves".

Even if one adopts the position that desirism is totally flawed and unworthy of serious belief - there are a great many totally flawed belief systems in existence that seem to get along quite well. Desirism, even if not perfect, is still better than most.

Of course, the responsibility is mine. I like to think about and write about ideas - I am not much into selling a movement.

However, there is more behind it.

What is needed for desirism to become a movement is the development of a desirism tribe. This requires a spokesperson who is entirely unapologetic and confident in their belief in desirism. It is an attitude of "I have found the one and only true system in the entire universe and everybody else is not only wrong, but either foolish or malicious in their devotion to a false system of beliefs."

Once such a tribe is set up, it will acquire followers. These followers seek a sense of community and of belonging. A part of the price of membership is to accept the tribal doctrine - to accept its core beliefs and, more important, to accept them as true beyond question. The very quality that distinguishes members from non-members is their devotion to the tribal doctrine. Even the most absurd and irrational belief systems can gain acceptance once a tribe forms around it. Once established, its core beliefs are beyond question.

This clearest example of this can be found in organized religion. Religions are tribes that give its members a sense of belonging - of membership. To be a member, individuals have to sign on to the core religious beliefs (or, at least, the core beliefs of their sect). Once embraced, the costs of giving up those beliefs include the costs of being excluded from the tribe. That psychological cost is tremendous - far greater than the cost of embracing an absurdity.

However, this form of tribalism is not limited to religion. Atheists who say that the problem is religion fails to recognize that atheism is its own tribal community - which, like all tribes, excludes anybody who fails to embrace its core beliefs. To the degree that atheism form a tribe, atheism creates the same tremendous psychological costs with rejecting its core beliefs and, as a result, being forced out of the tribe. "You are no longer one of us."

None of this implies that beliefs themselves are entirely subjective. It is quite possible that there is a fact of the matter and that the core beliefs of some tribes are closer to these facts than the beliefs of other tribes. However, one of these objective facts is that once a person becomes a member of a tribe, that person must recognize that he may well lose the ability to hold that tribe's core beliefs up to the light of reason.

And, as with any tribe, to be a considered a leader of the atheist movement one has to be an uncompromising advocate of the atheist core beliefs. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, and Christopher Hitchens all have been able to acquire a large following based in part on their success into tapping into these tribal dispositions.

Political movements also succeed when they form a tribal identity. Marxism and Libertarianism are examples of political tribes. Each of them have their unapologetic spokesperson who had the arrogance to tell the world, "I have discovered the one true and accurate way of looking at the world and those who disagree are either fools or are maliciously pursuing selfish ends." These political tribes became movements with a great deal of political weight and influence.

The success of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can also be found in their success in establishing tribal identities. Both of them have divided the world up into "us" and "them" - tribal members and the "others" who are responsible for all of their problems. In the case of Trump, the tribal "other" are immigrants, Muslims, and "the establishment". In the case of Sanders, the "other" are "the establishment", billionaires, corporations, and the global poor who are taking away their jobs by agreeing to work at lower wages.

In fact, we can even explain Clinton's struggles in the fact that there is no Clinton tribe. She is constantly attacked by the members of the tribes she does not belong to - Republicans and Progressives - without having formed a rival tribe to rally to her defense. This leaves her vulnerable.

So, what desirism needs in order to become a movement is an unapologetic, arrogant defender who is willing to present the ideology as a contest between "us" who know the one true way and "them" who are denying this truth either because they are fools or are engaged in their own selfish program of malicious deception.

Of course, once this happens, then in order to be a member of the desirism tribe one must embrace its core beliefs. Because of the severe psychological costs that would then be associated with abandoning those beliefs, the beliefs will be as far beyond rational criticism as the beliefs we find in any other religious or political tribe.

I am simply not that person.

Ironically, I think that desirism would not have good things to say about such a person. Arrogance and the type of tribalism that it spawns has been responsible for a great deal of human suffering. Whereas many atheists like to blame religion, tribalism is the true culprit and tribalism is something that can afflict atheist and political groups as easily as it can afflict religious groups. Religions are just one type of tribe. Desirsm looks at tribalism and sees it as something that people generally have many and strong reasons to respond to with condemnation.

The irony comes from the fact that desirism probably can never become much more than just a local discussion unless its practitioners embrace the practices that desirism itself condemns. (Though, this would not be the first time that tribal psychology has allowed the members of a tribe to ignore the internal incoherence of their own beliefs.)


David Jacquemotte said...


I see what you are saying, but I don't think Desirism is like that. Like I've said before, as far as I can tell, it is an accurate description of a natural phenomena. As such, it is properly a scientific psychological theory, and not just an ideology. And it should be taken up by the psychologists that study and report about behavior.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

That is the track I am taking by trying to go back to graduate school and get into a position where I can communicate with academics. Academics tend only to pay attention to things that come from academic sources.