Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Desirism: Simple Conflicting Desires

What happens if two desires come into conflict? Which should win?

Let us assume that Person 1 has a desire to kill Person 2. At the same time, Person 2 wants to work in his garden. These are the only two beings in the universe. Can desirism tell us the moral value of Person 1 killing Person 2?

The question is ambiguous. Because of this ambiguity, we have two potential answers.

In one sense, there is no answer. Moral concepts do not apply to this situation.

In another sense, it us wrong for Person 1 to kill Person 2.

In the first sense, given that Person 1 has a desire to kill Person 2. He will act to objectively satisfy the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. So, he will be trying to kill Person 2. That's just a simple fact of the matter.

Person 2 wants to work in his garden. He cannot work in his garden if he is dead. Therefore, he has a motivating reason to avoid a state of being dead. His desire is in conflict with Person 1's desire to kill him. He will be looking for ways to avoid being killed.

These two are locked in conflict. They have no way out.

Even if both desires are malleable, they have no way out.

Person 1will set to work getting rid of Person 2's desire to garden (so that Person 2 will quit trying to protect himself). He has no reason to do anything else. Person 2 will start to work on eliminating Person 1's desire to kill him. One of the options that Person 2 has is to kill Person 1 first. Killing a person has been proven to be an effective way of altering their desires.

In this sense, no moral argument can be made against Person 1's desire to kill Person 2. It is not even permissible in the moral sense - moral terms do not apply.

However, when we look into that universe, we are not within that environment. We look in from an environment with seven billion people who may or may not kill us. We have reason to worry - consciously or conconsciously - about the implications to our own survival of different attitudes towards this situation among that seven billion.

We have good reason to prefer to be surrounded by people who look into this world and find the person with the desire to kill repulsive. We have reason to encourage that attitude - to promote an aversion to those with a desire to kill. We can do this by praising those with an averse reaction to killing and condemning the person who is indifferent to the two desires.

The language we set up for promoting some desires through praise and condemnation is moral language. Calling something permissible tells people to have an attitude of indifference to the two options. However, in our world, this means telling them to be indifferent to a desire to kill. We have many and strong reasons NOT to say such a thing to people we have to interact with on a daily basis.

Instead, we have many and strong reasons to tell others, "Have an aversion to the desire to kill. Be repulsed by it." We do this by saying that the person with the desire to kill is evil. We do this by saying he deserves to be stopped, and the person with the desire to garden should be left to enjoy his simple pleasures.

In this sense, we look in on this imaginary world and say that it is wrong for Person 1 to kill Person 2.

It is true that, within that universe, moral terms do not apply. However, our moral terms are not within that universe. We do not speak within that universe. Our moral language is not heard by ears and interpreted (or affected) by brains within that universe. We speak in this universe, and our words have real-world implications. In this universe, moral terms have implications for the attitudes that the people around us adopt. They have real-world implications affecting how likely it is that that real people will be killed. We have real-world reasons to tell others in our community to have an aversion to the person with the desire to kill.

Calling Person 1's desire to kill Person 2 "wrong" is not a mistake. It is mot an illusion caused by the way we have trained our attitudes in this world. It is a fact. The person who calls the attitude "wrong" is making a true statement. However, that true statement is not, "There are properties in that universe that make the desire to kill another wrong." The true statement is, "People in this universe have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to the desire to kill - which we can do by morally condemning those who have that desire."

All of this is consistent with the fact that within that universe Person 2 cannot come up with a moral argument worth anything against Person 1's killing. Person 2 needs to plan his actions with the knowledge that Person 1 will hunt him down and kill him. That is what Person 1 will do as a matter of fact. No "moral arguments" about who deserves to live or die has any practical implications. They are not even worth discussing.

At the same time, Person 1 will be doing nothing but try to kill Person 2. Everything else he does - even eating and drinking - is done in pursuit of the end of killing Person 2.

And we, in the real-world surrounded by people who might kill us have reason to tell others, "Be repulsed by Person 1. Hate his desire to kill. Do nothing to promote or even dismiss that attitude in the real world. Condemn it, and encourage others to condemn it. Do not make the mistake of telling others to be indifferent to the desire to kill. There are lives at stake - real lives."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Desirism: "Desires to Do X" versus "Desires that Do X"

Desirism, Desires To Do X versus Desires That Do X

Many people commenting on desirism stumble on a distinction it draws between desires TO do something and desires THAT do something. This mistake is most often found in objections that desirism fails to justify an answer to the question, "Why should I care about the desires of others?"

The person who asks this question assumes that desirism is a theory that says to put objective desire satisfaction above all other concerns - and they want this assertion to be justified.

However, the actual answer that desirism gives is, "Perhaps you shouldn't. Even if you should, this interest in objective desire satisfaction would only be one interest among many and not the most important interest. There is nothing special about wanting objective desire satisfaction."

It is easy to explain how people make this mistake.

A great deal of moral philosophy has been devoted to finding the one thing we should all care about - where all other values are derived from that. Proposals include eudaemonia (Aristotle), pleasure (and freedom from pain) (Bentham), happiness (Mill), preference satisfaction (Singer), and the well-being of conscious creatures (Harris). It is a reasonable first guess to assume that desirism adds objective desire satisfaction to this list and to look for an argument explaining why this is the one root value from which all other value springs.

However, desirism does not follow that model. Desirism holds that a state of affairs in which P is true has value for the agent who desires that P. For example, to a parent concerned with the health of his child objective desire satisfaction means nothing. It is not even in his thoughts. He is looking to create a state of affairs in which his child is healthy. That is what has value to him - not "objective desire satisfaction."

To illustrate the distinction between "desires to do X" and "desires that do X," let us look at the simple case of Alph - a simple creature with one desire - a desire to gather stones.

Alph spends his days on his small planet putting stones in a pile.

Note that Alph does not have a desire that the stones be in a pile. An effect of Alph doing what he wants to do is that the stones will end up in a big pile, but not because this is what he wants. In fact, Alph does not want the stones in big pile. He wants them scattered, so that he can gather them. In a world where all the stones are in a big pile, Alph is stuck - unable to do what he wants until they are scattered again.

Now, let us introduce a second creature, Betty. Betty has no desires. However, Alph is given two injections to give to Betty. One injection will give Betty a desire to gather stones - just like Alph. The other injection will give Betty a desire to scatter stones.

Clearly, if Alph gives Betty a desire to scatter stones, he would not have to do any more work. While Alph is busy gathering stones in one area, Betty will be off scattering stones in another. This will allow Alph to continue to gather stones as long as Betty can keep up - and give Betty an opportunity to scatter stones so long as Alph can keep up.

Note that Alph did not give Betty a desire to objectively satisfy Alph's desires. In our case, that was not even possible. He gave Betty a desire to scatter stones. However, Betty's desire to scatter stones is a desire that helps Alph to fulfill his desire to gather stones.

It is also the case that Betty can read everything she finds on desirism and conclude, "I see no reason in here why I should care about Alph's desires. I see no reason at all to do anything but scatter stones. My only interest in Alph is that, because of his stone gathering, I get to scatter more stones. Other than that, I have no interest in Alph or his desires at all - and I see nothing in this theory that gives me reason to change that."

She would be right.

Desirism does not argue for desires TO objectively satisfy the desires of others. It argues for desires THAT objectively satisfy the desires of others. It states that Betty has no reason to be interested in Alph's desires except insofar as she has a reason to preserve in Alph a desire to gather stones. If that desire was in danger of extinction, she would have a reason to protect it.

In the real world that we share with billions of other people, desirism argues for such things as aversions to deception, physical assault, the destruction of or taking of the property of others without their consent, and sex without consent. It argues in favor of desires to help those in need, make a contribution to society, and learn about the real world. These are desires that people generally have many and strong reason to promote in others. No thought at all actually needs to be given to "objective desire satisfaction".

Friday, July 27, 2012

Desirism, "Should", and Reasons for Action that Exist

"Why should I do X?"

According to desirism, all questions of the form, "Why should I?" are asking for a reason for action that exists.

The phrase "that exists" appears because a lot of answers will refer to reasons for action that do not exist. A person might say, "Because God wants you to," or "Because it will help the garden spirits harvest stuff for their pet whatzits," or "Because it is a simple irreducible fact that you should do X." None of these reasons are real. Consequently, they do not provide an agent with a real reason to do anything. A real reason to do something must be a reason that exists.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Therefore, any appeal to a reason for action that exists must be an appeal to desires.

Specifically, a desire is a propositional attitude that gives an agent a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs. A "desire that P" for any proposition P is a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs in which "P" is true. A desire that I am eating chocolate ice cream is a motivating reason to realize a state in which "I am eating chocolate ice cream" is true.

So, why should I do X?

Answer: Because you have a desire that P and doing X will realize a state of affairs S in which P is true.

At least, this is true for one sense of the word "should". "Should" is actually an ambiguous term - having multiple - but related - meanings. All of those meanings refer to reasons for action that exist. However, they look at different bundles of reasons for action.

The meaning that appears above shows up in a sentence like, "I should go to the gym tonight, but I want to get home and get logged in to my game." The agent has reasons for action that motivate him to go to the gym. However, he has more or stronger reasons for action that generate a stronger motivation to go home. There is a sense of the word "should" that isolates single or small bundles of desires and looks at the actions they recommend.

A second sense of the word "should" looks at all of an agent's desires. "I really should go to the gym," in this sense means, "If we consider all of my present and future desires, they would be better served by my going to the gym." One problem with this, however, is that future desires have no ability to motivate present action. Tomorrow's desire to eat chocolate cake cannot motivate today's behavior unless the agent has a present desire that the future desire be satisfied. Even here, it is the present desire that motivates behavior, not the future desire.

Consequently, an agent can know, "I really should go to the gym," and yet fail to go to the gym.

The set of reasons for action (desires) that exist is larger than the set of reasons for action (desires) that an agent has or will have. Your desires are reasons for action that exist. However, they are not reasons for action that I have. Your reasons for action that exist are not going to move me towards any course of action unless I have a desire that your desires be satisfied. This is true in the same way that your own future desires will not move you to act in a particular way without a present desire that your future desires be satisfied.

However, in both cases, there is a sense of the word "should" that refers to those external desires. There is a sense of the word "should" that says that there are reasons for action that exist for you to contribute to feeding the hungry. These reasons for action that exist include the desires of the hungry.

Making you aware of these reasons for action that exist will not, by itself, motivate you to act. I can say, "You should help to feed the hungry." You can respond by shrugging your shoulders and saying, "So what? I don't care to."

However, those same reasons for action that exist are reasons that others have to promote an interest in caring in you and others. Since praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are tools for modifying these desires, those reasons for action that exist are many and strong reasons to praise (and otherwise reward) those who are charitable and condemn (and otherwise punish) those who are selfish.

While you may shrug your shoulders and say, "I do not care," you cannot change the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to praise and reward those who care, and to condemn and punish those who do not.

This, then, is the moral sense of "should".

Consequently, there are three answers to the question, "Why should I do X?" that correspond to three definitions of "should".

Using the first meaning, the answer is because you have a desire that P and doing X will realize a state S where P is true.

Using the second meaning, the answer is because doing X will create a state of affairs that will objectively satisfy the most and strongest of your current and future desires.

Using the third meaning, because people generally have many and strong reasons to praise and reward those who do X and to condemn and punish those who do not. In other words, because it is the morally right thing to do.

In a second case, a person who has all of the relevant facts might still fail to do what he should. He may be aware f future desires. However, future desires have no ability to reach backward through time and influence present actions.

Similarly, a person may be aware that an action may be one that people generally have many and strong reasons to praise or condemn, yet still fail to do the right thing. This is because desires (reasons for action that exist) are incapable of jumping across brains. An agent needs a desire to do the right thing (understood as a desire to do that which people generally have any and strong reasons to praise and not do what people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn) . Even here,that desire can easily be outweighed by other interests.

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 influences 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 Albert has a motivating reason to realize a state in which Kate is married to him.

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. Some desires 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 them, and by saying that their actions are wrong.

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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Desirism and Objective Values

There are no objective values.

However, there are objectively true moral claims whose truth is substantially independent of the speaker's moral beliefs or sentiments.

This apparently paradoxical statement is a result of the very confusing way the term "objective" is used in moral discussions. Furthermore, to add to the confusion, the term "objective" used in discussing morality is significantly different from the same term used in science. If we use the scientists' definition of "objective" then there are objective values – but not in the sense that the ethicist means when the ethicist uses the term.

Let's get through this maze of definitions and try to make some sense of the objective nature of morality.

There are no objective (in the ethicist’s sense) moral values.

When people discuss morality, they often mean by this that value is not an intrinsic property of that which is being evaluated. Objective values in this sense would require something like a state whereby certain arrangements of matter emit a form of value radiation that we can perhaps think of as waves of "goodon" particles or "badon" particles. The brain, in turn, has a goodon and badon detector. When this faculty is operating properly it can accurately detect sources of goodon and badon radiation. Furthermore, the very nature of this radiation is such that goodon detection demands that those who sense it act to increase goodon emissions, whereas badon radiation detection compels people to avoid whatever is causing or will cause those emissions.

We see evidence of people treating value in this way when people claim that particular states deserve a particular type of appreciation “just because”. For example, a patron of the arts demands that a particular work of art is good, and insists that those who do not appreciate the art as she does is somehow defective. In this case, she is treating the art as a goodon emitter and treating those who do not appreciate the art appropriately as people who have defective goodon detectors. They are tone deaf, or have poor taste, or simply have failed to cultivate the appropriate appreciation of things.

In another example, homosexuality is often talked about as if it is a badon emitter. Anybody who has an interest in a homosexual relationship is “perverse” in that he lacks the appropriate response to the value properties – to the badness - that is intrinsic to homosexual relationships. A person with a properly functioning badon detector would be repulsed at the thought of entering into such a relationship. We certainly should not encourage this defect by accommodating those who have this problem. Instead, we should be driving them through social condemnation to seek a cure for – or at least resolve to not act on – this defect.

As a matter of fact, no such property exists in the real world. Any statement to the effect that an object of evaluation contains such a property is false. Any moral claim that treats the object of moral evaluation as a goodon emitter or a badon emitter is false. There are no objective values in this sense.

If we add to this the proposition that this form of objectivity is built into the very meaning of our moral terms we get a view of morality called "error theory". This view, defended by the philosopher J.L. Mackie, holds that all moral claims make a claim of objective intrinsic prescriptivity, and that this type of claim is always false.

Mackie also provides two major arguments against this type of “objective values”.

One of those arguments is his "argument from strangeness." Read through the description of goodon and badon emitters above. There is absolutely no reason to hold that anything like this is a part of the world. Scientists have not discovered anything that functions anything like a goodon emitter, and nothing in the brain that can fill the role of a goodon detector. We have photon detectors (eyes), and sound wave detectors (ears), but nothing that we can point to as a goodon detector. Furthermore, we can’t even come up with a clear idea of what such an organ would look like or how it would work. This issue is made worse by the fact that the detection of the moral property is to somehow compel behavior - to motivate an agent to do that which is good and avoid that which is bad. The strangeness of these properties makes it unlikely that we will find anything like them in the real world.

Though Mackie and others do not actually speak in terms of goodon emitters when talking about "objective values", they have to be something like this to work the way people claim that they work.

Mackie’s second argument is his "argument from disagreement". Though some people are blind, and some suffer from hallucinations, people are substantially in agreement concerning what they see and hear. Our photon detectors and sound wave detectors give us common experiences with respect to what we see and hear. When we compare them, we see the similarities and we find differences to be extremely rare and at the limit of resolution. However, our alleged goodon detectors give us nothing like a common set of experiences. People detect different values in the same thing. Furthermore, the value they detect is heavily influenced by culture.

This way of understanding Mackie's argument from disagreement protects it from a common response to that argument. People often answer Mackie by saying that scientific disagreement does not prove the subjectivity of science. Therefore, moral disagreement does not prove the subjectivity of morality. This objection may be true, but it does not touch Mackie's argument as described above. A lack of agreement does give us reason to doubt that there are goodon emitters in the universe and reliable goodon detectors in the brain. If our vision and hearing were as varied as our sense of value, we would have reason to call into question our theories of photon detectors and sound wave detectors as well.

A third objection - one that does not come from Mackie - is an "argument from evolution".

Assume that there were goodon emitters. How could we possibly evolve an ability to detect them and respond to them appropriately?

To illustrate the problem, assume that the act of killing one's own offspring was a powerful goodon emitter. If this were the case, then any creature that acquired a functioning goodon detector would quickly go extinct. On the other hand, creatures that acquired the capacity to detect this goodon radiation and respond to it with revulsion instead of compulsion would have a chance at survival. Consequently, we would be the evolutionary consequence of this disposition to react to goodon emissions with revulsion.

Yet, we would never have any way of knowing whether evolution has selected an appropriate reaction to a goodon emitter, or a perverse reaction to a badon emitter. Both would have the same real-world implications and be indistinguishable.

There is no "appropriate behavioral response" to photon and sound wave detection. Consequently, we do not need to ask questions about whether and how we acquired the correct behavioral response. We simply detect them, and let evolution guide their effects on our behavior. In other words, our faculties for photon detection and sound wave detection do not suffer the same problems as an alleged faculty for goodon detection. Evolution would tend to treat goodon detection the same way it treats photon detection and sound wave detection. It would strip from it any sense of “appropriate behavioral response” and, instead, select a behavioral response that makes the organism biologically fit.

There are no objective values.

However, this is true using the ethicists' definition of "objective". If we adopt the scientists' definition of "objective" instead, then we are surrounded by objective values. The thing is, they are not anything like goodon emitters. They are relationships between states of affairs and desires. These relationships exist in the real world in such a way that scientists can discover them and describe them in statements that are testable and knowable. Moral values, in this sense, are real.

I will have more to say on this option tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Desirism and the Trolley Problem

A lot of moral philosophy these days focuses on what is called the "Trolley Car problem."

The Trolley Car problem goes like this:

You are standing on the edge of a track, near a switch. A runaway trolley is coming down the track. Looking down the track, you see five workers who will certainly be killed if you do not act. You can pull the switch. This will send the trolley down a different track. There is only one worker on that track - though he would be killed if you pull the switch.

Do you pull the switch?

One stranger's death or five? Many are reluctant to pull the switch - to cause the death of somebody who would have otherwise lived.

If six people were trapped in a burning building, and you could either rescue five in one room or one person in the attic, few have difficulty deciding to rescue the five. It seems important that the one worker on the track lives unless the agent acts.

Some seem willing to pull the switch. For these people, we alter the trolley car problem. Now, let's say that you can stop the train by pushing a particularly fat man onto the tracks so that the train runs over him and stops. Few people are willing to push the fat man onto the tracks.

What does desirism say about this example?

First, desirism notes that morality is a tool invented to handle everyday situations in the real world. It is poorly designed for imaginary scenarios.

Desirism starts by asking whether a person with good desires would perform such an act.
A desire (or aversion) is good if it tends to promote behavior that fulfills other desires. That gives others reasons to promote that desire, which they can do using social tools such as praise and condemnation.

To determine if a desire objectively fulfills other desires, the behavior it causes in real-world cases that happen billions of times each day is vastly more important than the behavior it might cause in a situation that as almost certainly never occurred and never will occur in the real world.

Given the assumptions of the trolley car problem, we can comfortably say that this will never happen. The greatest problem rests with what the agent is assumed to know with no possibility of error - things no agent can ever know in the real world. He knows that there is no other way to stop or divert the trolley. He knows that the five - or the one - will be killed. Another set of improbabilities lies in the situation itself. How many times in human history has anybody actually found themselves at an unlocked switch she knows how to use with a run-away trolley that will kill a number of people unless diverted to a side track where it would kill fewer?

Because these situations never exist in the real world, it makes no sense for us to evaluate desires according to the actions they may motivate an agent to perform in that situation.

What I would argue for a person to do in this type of situation is to do nothing - but to be ready to take instructions. The reason is because you do not know what you are doing, and people who do know what they are doing hate having to deal with ignorant laymen trying to be the hero. You don't know what they are planning or how your actions will affect those plans.

How would it feel to pull the switch, only to discover that the Trolley Company had rigged a brake between the trolly and the five workers that would have saved everybody's life? I know that this is not how the story goes, but this is how things work in the real world. Morality is a tool designed to work in the real world. It feeds us likes and dislikes that work in real world circumstances.

Note that the situation is different in the case of the fire. Rescuing five people from the fire does not prevent others from rescuing one. In fact, it frees up resources so that others can rescue the one person. This means that our reasons for doing nothing in the case of the trolley are stronger than our reasons for doing nothing in the case of the fire.

The problem with pushing the fat man in front of the tracks comes from asking ourselves, "How safe would we feel being surrounded by people with no aversion to killing any time they think they see an overall advantage?"

We recoil at the thought of pushing the fat man, and we want others to recoil as well.


Because people who recoil at the thought of pushing the fat man are safer neighbors. People who are willing and eager to push the fat man might decide to kill us for some perceived social benefit. When we add the fact that people do a poor job of perceiving social benefit - their vision is often clouded by personal advantage - we see even more reason for worry. We have reason to promote this aversion.

The fact that this aversion might prevent people from pushing a fat man in front of a runaway trolley in a highly idealized situation that can never happen in the real world is irrelevant. An aversion that fails to save five fictional lives can still save millions of real lives.

The implication actually goes further than this.

Praise and condemnation are built into the meanings of moral terms. "Pushing the fat person is wrong" not only prescribes against pushing the fat person. It praises those who would not do so and condemns those who would. This, in turn, promotes real-world desires and aversions. Those desires and aversions persist outside the story and impact real-world actions with real-world consequences.

This is why we are reluctant to say that it may be okay to push the fat man in this idealized piece of fiction. Saying so means, in part, "Everybody in the real world should feel perfectly comfortable with the thought of pushing the fat man." We do not want to say that. What we want to say is, "Everybody in the real world should feel perfectly comfortable with the thought of pushing the fat man." However, the wording for that statement is, "Pushing the fat man onto the tracks is wrong."

At this point the Trolley Car philosopher asks us, "What in the act makes it wrong?"

The answer is: Nothing.

However, that is not the right question to be asking.

The real question is, "How do we feel - how should we feel (what feelings do we have reason to promote in others, and do others have reason to promote in us) - about being surrounded by people who are comfortable with killing whenever they perceive some sort of overall benefit?" We need to answer that question while keeping in mind the fact that people have a habit of magnifying their own costs and benefits while discounting the costs and benefits to others - and people always act to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Desirism and the History of Moral Philosophy

Back to the Desirism Wiki - today, I would like to add some detail to the historical context if the theory.

David Hume

Many of the elements of Desirism can be found in the writings of David Hume.

Hume wrote that we find the wrongness of something like murder in ourselves. It is not in the act itself, it is within us. On this matter, desirism disagrees. We actually find the wrongness in whether the motives behind the murder are those that people generally have reason to condemn.

However, after getting past this bit of subjectivism, Hume agrees with this assessment. He writes that the primary object if moral evaluation is character traits. Furthermore, traits are to be evaluated according to whether they are useful or pleasing to oneself or others. In other words, they are to be evaluated according to whether people generally gave reasons to promote or to inhibit such a trait.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism is often evaluated as being rule-based. A good rule is a rule that maximizes utility, and the right act is the act that follows the best rule.

This is nothing that Mill explicitly defends. It is an interpretation of Mill's writings made popular in an article by J.O. Urmson in 1953 - approximately 100 years after Mill's original publications.

Rule utilitarianism has a well-known and significant problem. What do you do when the act that has the best consequences violates the best rules? If it is true that utility is the only thing that matters, then this argues for performing the act that produces the best utility and ignoring the rule. Thus, rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism seems to require that something other than utility matters - namely, following the rules.

One way to avoid this objection is to deny that it is even possible to break the rules. What if the rules were written into the brain as propositional attitudes - as desires, and human agents always act to objectively satisfy the most and strongest rules? Now, whenever an the best act violates the best rules, the option of performing the best act simply does not exist. Because "ought" implies "can" (and "cannot" implies "it is not the case that one ought"), an inability to perform the act-utilitarian best act implies that it is not the case that one ought to perform the act-utilitarian best act. Rule utilitarianism (or, in this case, desire utilitarianism) does not collapse into act utilitarianism.

Desire utilitarianism is an older version of desirism.

Mill actually says quite a bit about desires. He notes, for example, how we may begin by doing things so as to obtain a reward or avoid a punishment - but that it eventually becomes something we want for its own sake. At the turn of the century, G.E. Moore, writing against Mill, considered it an important objection that Mill fails to distinguish between what is desired (that which has value is that which objectively satisfy a desire) and what ought to be desired (the proper subject of morality). This, too, is an objection that Mill can answer simply by saying that what ought to be desired is that which, in being desired, would tend to objectively satisfy other desires.

James Martineau and Henry Sidgwick

At the end of the 19th Century, James Martineau developed a theory that held that the moral quality of an act depends on the quality of the motive from which it sprang. We determine the quality of a motive by simply reflecting on it. God himself has written these moral facts into our brain and we can determine which is the greater motive by holding them side by side in our minds and drawing a comparison. By knowing the relative value of each motive, and knowing which act is recommended by each, we can know what to do in a given situation.

Henry Sidgwick argued against Martineau that this account fails on two significant grounds.

First, it fails to account for negligence. An act of negligence does not spring from bad motives. The negligent person does not set out to do any harm, and generally regrets the fact that harm resulted from his actions. The drunk driver only wants to get home. The farmer who fails to secure the load he is carrying only wants to deliver the material. The harm that comes from their actions is entirely unintentional.

Second, it fails to account for the possibility of performing a right action from less-than-noble motives. A vicious neighbor who wants to harm the neighbor who mowed his grass early on a Sunday morning tells the police that his neighbor molests children. He has known about this for quite some time, but did not care to act until he wanted vengeance for this Sunday disturbance. It is certainly the case that he ought to have reported his neighbor, but his act does not spring from any good motive.

Desirism differs from Martineau's theory in that it understands a right action to be the action that a person with good desires would have performed. It does not look at the actual motives behind the action. A person with good desires has a level of concern for the welfare of others that motivates to prevent harms. This interest keeps him from driving while drunk, and motivates him to properly secure the load on his truck before driving into town. Also, a person with good desires would have reported the neighbor who molests children. He would have done so out of a proper level of concern for the children, rather than to avenge a Sunday morning of disturbed sleep. However, the person seeking revenge is still doing something that a person with good desires also would have done - only for a different reason.

R.M. Hare

In the middle of the 20th century, R M Hare proposed a modified version of Mill's rule utilitarianism.

Hare was a prescriptivist. He denied that moral claims were truth-bearing. Instead, he argued that they were commands like "Close the window," or "Get me a bowl of ice cream." Commands are neither true nor false.

Furthermore, he divided morality into two levels of moral thinking. At the most basic level - the level that most of us use to make our snap moral judgments and to guide our actions - those actions are judged by their conformity to certain rules. We do not have the capacity to judge an act by its consequences. Instead, we learn particular guidelines for action and, at the moment of decision, follow the guidelines.

However, when we have more time to think about an issue, we have time to engage in a second level of moral thinking. This level looks at the guidelines - the fundamental moral principles - and asks which of them, when followed, produces the best consequences. This is the realm of moral debate and moral philosophy - not the realm of snap moral decisions and every-day action.

Desirism holds that, when we act, we choose the action (or inaction) that will fulfill the most and strongest of our actions, given our beliefs. The vast majority of our actions are not performed with some massive moral calculation. A person does not need to do a heavy utility calculation to determine whether to take the money a co-worker has in her desk. We simply do what we like and not to what we dislike. We do not measure consequences so much as we measure what we are comfortable with. For many of us, this includes a strong aversion to taking the property of another person - it makes us uncomfortable.

Yet, we also have an opportunity to evaluate the desires that motivate our day to day action and to judge whether they are desires we have reason to promote or to inhibit. These moral calculations take a lot more effort, which are then used to determine what types of actions we have reason to praise or condemn. When we engage in moral debate, our debate is not about what is comfortable but, instead, about the consequences of "what if everybody did that?" At this level, we wonder whether we should rethink what people are - or should be - comfortable with.

J.L. Mackie

Later in the 20th Century, J.L. Mackie wrote an influential book in which he defended a view that came to be known as Error Theory.

Error Theory holds that our moral language contained an assumption that certain act-types contain an objective, intrinsic property of prescriptivity. This is built in to the very nature of the act that is to be avoided (if it is bad) or one is obligated to perform (if it is good). However, this objective, intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist. Because it does not exist, all claims that an act type contains objective, intrinsic prescriptivity must be false.

However, we are not stuck with these definitions. The word 'atom' originally meant 'without parts'. When scientists discovered that what they had been calling atoms actually had parts - nutrons, protons, and electrons - this meant that all of their previous talk about atoms was false. However, they had an easy solution to their problem. All they had to do was drop the notion of indivisibility from their concept of an atom, and they could continue doing chemistry much like they had been.

Similarly, ethicists can drop intrinsic prescriptivity from the meaning of moral terms. When we do this, we get a notion of value as being something that serves particular interests or desires. These claims can be objectively true. Desirism follows this model by arguing that we can make objectively true and false claims about the desires that people generally have the most and strongest reason to promote using social tools such as praise and condemnation.


Now, I need to crack open some books and find some references for all of this stuff. Well, that'll be my project for the week.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Rick Warren: Exploiting Tragedy to Sell Hate

Every national tragedy such as the shooting in Aurora, Colorado on Friday morning brings a particular type of lowlife out of the manure pile. These are people who exploit the heartbreak others are forced to endure to enrich themselves economically and politically.

(See: Rick Warren: Aurora shooting the fault of evolution)

Reverend Rick Warren tweeted shortly after the shooting, "When students are taught that they are no different from animals, they act like it."

Warren makes his living in part by selling hatred and fear of those who do not share his religion. He is not content to say, "We disagree." His message is, "You must hate and fear these people," offering reasons that are entirely unfounded. "Now, send me money and help me spread this message."

A morally responsible and respectable human being would not want to make such an accusation flippantly. We are talking about promoting hatred and fear of others - an act that a decent human being does not take lightly.

However, Warren made his statements out of ignorance - some of it willful.

First, there are assumptions he made that he cannot know. What were the shooter's beliefs about humans being different from animals? The vast majority of Americans believe in a God and and a human soul. With no evidence to the contrary, the responsible first guess is that the shooter believed in a God and a soul. Warren's first guess is to toss responsibility aside and go with a hate message he could sell.

Morally, this is no different than a KKK leader hearing about a rape and immediately ranting about how this proves how dangerous blacks are - without knowing anything about the race of the perpetrator. Worse, it is like doing so in a region where white people commit 80 to 90 percent of all rapes. These types of facts do not matter to the racist in this example. What matters is using news of a violent rape to sell his particular brand of hate by planting a fear of blacks in the public mind before the facts have a chance to catch up.

What if this were an example of the one-in-five rapes committed by blacks in this community. Our racist in this example will get the race of the perpetrator right 1/5th of the time. This is still hate-mongering bigotry. We still have good reason to hold in contempt anybody who acts this way.

Second, there are the assumptions in Rick Warren's hate that are not only false, but that a responsible person would have at least known to be questionable.

This includes the assertion that evolutionary theory teaches that humans are no different from animals.

Does evolution teach that lions are no different from grasshoppers? Are we plagued by a problem whereby evolutionists find themselves incapable of pointing to the elephant because it is no different than the peacock?

That there are differences between humans and animals is quite well known. Perhaps they are not as great as some humans want to believe - but they clearly exist. They include the capacity to make complex moral systems - systems that aim to secure the safety and liberty of each of us.

Find me an evolutionist who denies this difference and teaches that it does not exist.

Bearing false witness against a whole group of people in order to prosper by selling hatred of that group is something that humans - most humans - have the capacity to recognize as behavior they have reason to condemn, unless personal avarice or unreasoned thinking clouds their ability to tell right from wrong.

Third, ironically, if somebody actually cares about preventing these types of tragedies - rather than exploiting them to sell a message of hate - they would not be diverting attention from understanding what actually happened.

The way to prevent these types of events in the future is by accurately understanding its real causes. This will give us the information we need either to prevent those causes from materializing or to predict an event before it happens. People who want to save lives and prevent tragedy would want this.

What gives us the ability to understand, explain, predict, and avoid harms such as this is science.

Ironically, science in this case recognizes that the human brain is the product of billions of years of evolution. Understanding, explaining, predicting, and learning how to avoid the harms that spring from a human brain is substantially aided by understanding the evolutionary history of human brains.

Warren is not only exploiting the pain and suffering of others to profit from a message of hate, he is helping to ensure that there are future tragedies to profit from. Rather than contributing to an accurate understanding of what happened, he clutters our understanding with nonsense and hate.

I want to take this opportunity to assert that there are atheists who think this way as well - who are just as prepared to blame "religion" as Warren was to blame belief in evolution. Those atheists would have pounced at any suggestion that the shooter had religious motives - selling hate by using a broad brush to condemn all religion.

However, the fact that there are contemptible atheists does not justify the hate-mongering of contemptible theists such as Warren. Furthermore, here is an example of an atheist blogger using this as another opportunity to tell other atheists, "Don't do that!" - a message some responsible and moral theists should be telling Rick Warren.

I am not blaming religion for Rick Warren's contemptible behavior. I am blaming Rick Warren - and all who act like him - without regard as to whether they believe in a god or not.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Animal Morality

Desirism holds that there are simple requirements for a moral system - requirements that are sufficiently easy to meet that we can expect a lot of examples of moral behavior among animals.

However, we must take care as to what we count as morality.

Altruism and cooperation are not, in themselves, examples of morality. It is sometimes argued that the kind of cooperation we find in ant and bee colonies is a type of animal morality. In fact, it contains as much morality as is found in deer eating grass and then depositing their manure in the meadow. The deer, in its normal behavior, benefits the grass - but not as an example of moral virtue. These types of mutually beneficial relationship have nothing to do with morality. Sex - helping another creature to reproduce- is not, by itself, an example of morality. The cooperation among cells to make a living organism is not an example of morality.

Another set of cases cited as examples of morality in nature concerns demonstrations of fairness. Certain creatures share food equally or provide extra portions to those who are more in need of food. Besides ignoring the question of which type of behavior is actually fair, are these behaviors moral? The body distributes nutrients to cells in accordance with a number of complex criteria - based on need and contribution to the body in various circumstances. Yet, there is no sense to calling this set of criteria a moral system or a system of justice.

If we are going to use these types of cases as examples of morality in nature, we might as well speak about the way that the oceans provide a fair distribution of material by adding its own material to those regions that fall below a particular material poverty level known as "sea level", contributing (for the most part) more material to the most material-deprived parts of the planet.

Of course, this would be absurd. The reason it is absurd is because some of the necessary components of a moral system are missing.

A moral statement is a statement of praise or condemnation - a statement that makes no sense when applied to oceans, ants, bees, the distribution of resources among cells in the body, or behavior that is genetically determined. It makes sense only when applied to entities that praise or condemnation itself can influence.

We do find systems like this in nature. For example, a certain act generates a response of a snarl and a swipe of the paw - a non-lethal act that says, "Don't do that!" This type of response is not meant just to stop the current behavior, but to make the creature wary of performing similar acts in the future. The lesson is also passed to other members of the community who see the effects. This represents a primitive form of moral condemnation - its purpose being to generate an overall aversion to the type of act being condemned.

On the reward side of the equation, we would see a primitive morality at work where animals respond to behavior with rewards such as food-sharing, sex, grooming, and defense as a way of encouraging others to repeat the type of behavior being rewarded.

The mechanisms being used here are not moral systems. These are systems that disposr an animal to repeat behaviors that tend to lead to food and avoid behaviors that cause pain, fear, anxiety, and the like. However, once one creature has such a system, another creature can use it to teach behaviors - for example, by rewarding behaviors it wants repeated and creating anxiety to promote aversions to behavior it seeks to discourage.

Perhaps the clearest example of using praise and condemnation to alter the behavior of animals is seen in the training of pets. We even use moral terms: "Good dog," and "Bad dog," and a moral tone in our training. The brain mechanisms that allow for this type of training are inherent in animals - and exist in animals in the wild. These capacities did not emerge with human intelligence. If they did, then we could not use them in the training of animals.

Among a language-capable species, there is reason to hold a conversation over which behaviors to reward and which to punish - which to praise and which to condemn.  At the same time, this debate would take place in a culture of praise and condemnation that started well back in prehistoric times - back millions of years before the first human thought the first words of a human language.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why Should I Accept Your Definition Of Morality

"Why should I accept your definition of morality?"

This is a common question.

The answer to this question is, "I cannot give you an objective proof that the definition I provide is the one and only absolutely correct definition or that you make a mistake using a different definition."

At this point, some critics are quick to respond, "That proves it! All morality is subjective. One person's morality is as good as any other. Furthermore, my morality is unassailable. Nobody can say anything against it that is not itself an absolutely arbitrary, subjective claim."

This last response is unsound.

Consider the following counter-example.

An astronomer says that a planet is an object that is too small to create energy through nuclear fusion, that is round by its own gravity and, when orbiting a star, has swept its orbit of all similar debris. Furthermore, he says, Pluto is not a planet.

An astronomy student asks, "Why should I accept your definition of a planet?"

Clearly the definition violates the historic use of the term. Pluto has been called a planet since its discovery.

The astronomer says, "It is convenient to have terms refer to things that are alike. Pluto is more like a  Kuiper Belt Object than like any planet. Therefore, we are going to stop calling it a planet and start calling it a Kuiper Belt Object. If this upsets too many people, we will call it a dwarf planet.  We can give you no argument proving that this is the one and only absolutely accurate definition of "planet."  it isn't. It's just the definition we agreed to use. All I can do is urge you to go along with the decision.

Indeed, if somebody insists on continuing to use the old definition of "planet," they cannot be proved to be incorrect. They may be called stubborn. People may complain that their refusal to go along with the crowd sews confusion. However, they cannot be charged with making a factual error.

At this point, the student says, "That proves it! All of astronomy is subjective. Whether Pluto is a planet depends on what definition of planet you use, and there is no objectively correct definition of the term. There is nothing to convince others to adopt the definition except coaxing, coercion, and bullying."

Everything the student says about the definition of "planet" is true. However, the inference from these facts to the conclusion that all of astronomy is subjective is invalid. Astronomy remains a hard science - a paradigm example of objectivity - in spite of these facts. A teacher can ask a test question, "How many known planets are there in the solar system" and count as wrong anybody who gives an answer other than "8".

The same is true of morality.

Desirism is called a moral theory because it deals with a wide range of topics commonly associated with morality. These include the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment; concepts such as "excuse" and "supererogatory action", why it makes sense to ask, "What if everybody did that?" and the like. These are concepts long associated with the term "morality" by convention.

People readily identify a discussion of these topics as "morality" just as they recognize that a discussion of planets, stars, moons, galaxies, comets, and nebulae as making up a field called  "astronomy".

However, in the same way that the astronomer cannot prove that a particular definition of "planet" is the one and only correct definition, nobody can prove that the definition of "morality" is the one and only correct definition. 

Astronomers recognize that different definitions of the word "planet" do not change Pluto's size, orbit, chemical composition, number of moons, or any other fact.

Similarly, different definitions of the word "morality" do not change the reasons for action that exist, the role of beliefs and desires in forming intentional actions, the fact that some desires are malleable, that praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment can mold malleable desires, that there are malleable desires that people generally have reason to promote, or that there are areas where people generally have reason to see people adopt diverse interests. These facts are facts regardless of the name we give them.

You cannot magically conjure reasons for action that exist just by changing definitions any more than you can alter Pluto's size by changing the definition of "planet".

A person can choose a different definition if they want. Whether or not they have acted in a way that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn will not be affected.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Desirism, Evolution, and Morality

A moral theory needs to be compatible with what is known in other fields of study.

What is known in the field of biology is that humans are the result of billions of years of evolution. What desirism tells us about moralitymust be compatible with that fact.

What desirism tells us about morality is that a moral system has very few requirements.  Those requirements are easy to meet, and they are all true of the human organism.

Morality requires a creature capable of intentional action - of basing its behavior on goals (ends) with action plans designed to realize those ends. Humans use a system of beliefs and desires where desires identify the ends of human action and beliefs are used in the creation of action-plans for realizing those ends.

A system of morality requires that the ends be malleable. They must be capable of being changed. More specifically, agents need the capacity to acquire new desires or, at least, to have existing desires modified by interaction with one's environment.

Humans have a reward system, where desires that produce rewards for the agent aversions that avoid punishment (in the biological sense) are reinforced.

Once these conditions are met, a creature has the ability to adopt an action plan for reaching its ends by manipulating another's interaction with the environment so as to acquire useful desires.

In a sufficiently large community, there are desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote.

Evolution and the Content of Moral Claims

Some people argue that the content of our moral attitudes can be grounded in our evolved  dispositions. For example, they argue that since evolution supports certain types of altruism and altruism is morally good, then evolution makesus morally good.

A similar story is told about parental affection for their children and other forms of sacrifice.

This type of view is deeply confused.

Without questioning the fact that we evolved some dispositions towards altruism, what makes altruism a virtue? Evolution supports a great many things - not all of them qualify as virtues. Our capacity to rape can be found in our biological heritage. Our disposition towards tribalism and tribal warfare as well as our capacity for prejudice and bigotry are no less compatible with our evolution as our altruism. What makes altruism a virtue?

An evolutionary explanation of altruism is not sufficient. We need an evolutionary defense of the proposition that altruism is a virtue.

Here, the argument may state that altruism is a virtue, while these other dispositions equally compatible with our evolution are not, because we evolved a tendency to feel a particular way about altruism.

This ad hoc answer faces a number of challenges.

First, is it true? Again, without questioning that we evolved some form of altruism, defending that claim does not defend the conclusion that we evolved a particular attitude towards altruism. We have evolved to have an appendix. However, our appendix works just fine without an additional pro-attitude towards having an appendix.

Second, evolved altrism in specific, and evolved morality in general, leaves no role for praise or condemnation. Desirism explains praise and condemnation as tools for molding malleable desires. Evolved morality seems to suggest that we praise or condemn people for their genetic makeup.

Third, if it is true that we have an evolved attitude of approval, would this make it the case that what we approve of is good. If this implication was valid, it would imply that rape and tribal violence would also be virtues if we adopted similar attitudes towards them. Perhaps, like lions, we could evolve a sense of approval over the killing of our step children so we only spend resources on our own children. Perhaps, like certain insects, we could come to approve of killing and eating our mates. Perhaps we could come to have a sense of approval over enslaving those with dark skin, imprisoning women in breeding pens, and discarding those who do not produce children.

Nothing in the theory rules out these possibilities.

Desirism notes that we can still evaluate evolved dispositions by their tendency to objectively satisfy or thwart other desires. Then, by noting the degree to which they are malleable or can be augmented or countered by other desires that are malleable, use social tools to sculpture the character of its members accordingly.

Fourth, attempting to account for the content of moral propositions by appeals to evolution plays havoc with the logic of moral claims. "I have evolved a disposition to kill people like you and feel good about doing so; therefore, you deserve to die," would have to be considered a valid form of moral argument. If evolved dispositions determine moral facts and genetic tests show that people have an evolved sense of satisfaction at killing homosexuals, then homosexuals deserve to die.

Fifth, moral attitudes simply change too rapidly to have a direct basis in genetics. We cannot explain the abolition of slavery or the shift from the divine right of kings to the sovereign right of individuals in genetic terms. These shifts in attitude were not inherited. They were learned.

This is not to say that evolutionary theory has nothing to say about morality. We evolved malleable brains. We evolved the capacity to make plans and to execute intentional actions. The methods by which interactions with nature alter our desires has been subject to evolutionary pressures. 

Evolution has a lot to say about the capacity to use social tools to promote desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. However, it has nothing to say about the content of moral claims. Evolution may make us altruistic, but it cannot make altruism a virtue - not directly, at any rate.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Facebook group: Desirism

I have created a facebook group for Desirism.

I am hoping to draw people to this who would be willing to link to items of relevance to the theory - articles in neuroscience, moral philosophy, and application in the real world.

I do not want desirism to be a product to be bought or sold. A group created to promote desirism makes the perhaps unwarranted assumption that it is correct and worth promoting.

It is, instead, a theory (or, perhaps more accurately, a hypothesis) with propositions that are true or false and, if true, having implications in the real world.

Those implications have to do mainly with how we direct social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. It concerns questions about how to direct physical violence and how to organize a just community.

Unlike most miral theory, desirism does not come with a set of answers. There is no list of commandments. Nor does it try to identify an ultimate good from which all other good is derived. It explains good as a relatioship between states of affairs and desires. However, a person needs to determine what desires exist to determine what is good.

It describes moral good in terms of desires that people generally have reason to promote using social tools such as praise and condemnation. This eans that an act of moral praise or condemnation can be justified (or unjustified) be asking, "Am I promoting desires (or aversions) that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote?" and "Can I defend that conclusion?"

One of the topics of the desirism group is to look at acts of praise and condemnation and to question their justification.

I think there is a lot of interesting and important discussion to be had.

Thus, the creation of the facebook group:


Monday, July 16, 2012

Types of Excuses: Deserved Punishment

This post will discuss the last of six types of excuse - the excuse of deserved punishment.

In general, I like desirism precisely because it accounts for so much of our moral life. Other theories have focused on rationalizing our distinct moral prejudices. Many have not even asked the question, "How do you account for the four categories of culpability?" or "Why are praise and condemnation central to our moral experience?" or "What is an excuse?" 

Desirism holds that desires are the primary object of moral evaluation and that condemnation and punishment are used for molding malleable desires - promoting desires (and aversions) people have reason to promote. An excuse is a claim that argues, "Though it may look like it at first glance, this is not a case where it makes sense for people generally to use this tool of condemnation and punishment against me."

People generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to all forms of violence. However, this is not practical. Morality itself uses punishment as a way of molding desires - not only for those punished but those who become aware of the punishment. Punishment (as opposed to simple violence) carries an intrinsic message of condemnation. If a person is convicted of a crime, punishment is not a purely mechanical application of violence against that person. It is a declaration that "People like you deserve to be treated this way. You - and those like you - are contemptible."

This means that people can excuse acts of harsh treatment - acts that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn - by saying, "He deserved it."

Another phrase commonly used when appealing to the "deserved punishment" excuse is, "I am going to teach him a lesson." Note here that desirism can explain the idea that this type of behavior actually is an example of "teaching a moral lesson." This is not just a figure of speech. It is an accurate description of what condemnation and just punishment are for - teaching moral lessons (molding malleable desires).

Violence is also often needed as a form of defense against villains. Complete pacifism turns a community into a feeding ground for villains. At the same time, self defense is also only legitimate against those who act wrongly. Defending oneself against properly authorized legal authorities is not an excusable behavior.

This is also a much abused excuse. A person lies to the insurance company and justifies it in his own mind as a justified act of punishment against a greedy corporation. A rapist or a man who beats his wife and children will tell them (and himself) that they deserve to be punishment. The Jews deserved the Holocaust for being a part of an economic conspiracy to enslave the German people, and the Bible reports how the dark-skinned descendants of Ham deserve to be enslaved as divine punishment for Ham's actions.

A valid excuse claim requires that the behavior in question be of a type that people in general actually do have real reasons to condemn and punishment. These claims are justified in terms of people generally having many and strong reasons to mold malleable desires along certain lines. However, this includes the many and strong reasons they have for condemning unjustified (unjust) punishments.

The massive abuses that we see argue for tempering and constraining  these acts of violence. People generally have many and strong reasons to insist on a presumption of innocence, on the evidence being heard by an impartial jury, and of the violence being proportional to the wrong - all of these worked out in terms of the reasons that people generally have to use these tools to teach these lessons. People who do not work within these limits cannot justify their use of the excuse of deserved punishment.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Types of Excuse: Greater Good

This post is continuing a series on the moral concept of "excuse", aiming to show how a theory that says that morality is primarily concerned with evaluating malleable desires - rather than actions - accounts for a substantial part of our moral practices.

A part of our moral practice includes the opportunity to offer an excuse to defend oneself from moral condemnation.

An excuse is a claim that blocks the inference from an act that appears to be wrong at first glance (an act that a person with good desires would not have performed) to the desires of the agent who performed the act. It says, in effect, "You cannot use this act to infer that I have desires that people generally have many and strong reason to condemn."

The excuse of Accident and False Belief blame the state on either the unavoidable laws of nature or false but responsibly acquired beliefs. The excuse of Denying Harm and Consent deny that a person with good desires would have performed the act because precautions were taken to ensure that no harm was done and one had the consent of all people intimately involved (or their guardians).

In his posting, I will present the case of Greater Good. When using this excuse, the agent claims, "Yes, a person with good desires would not have acted as I did in ordinary circumstances. However, in these extraordinary circumstances she would have sacrificed that lesser good for a greater good."

Here are two examples in which the excuse of "greater good" is applicable.

Example 1: A driver is in her way to a meeting. On the way, the car ahead of her blows a tire and runs off the road. The driver stops to aid the people in the other car. She tries to call for help and discovers that there is no cell phone coverage. While she stays to help the victims of the accident, she sends the next car ahead to call for help. As a result, she leaves the people she had promised to meet waiting for her - a state that a person with good desires would want to avoid.

Example 2: A father and daughter are out fishing when the child is stung by a bee. She starts to get an allergic reaction. The father cannot find the keys to his own car. However, there is another car nearby with the keys inside. The owner of that car is nowhere in sight. He throws his daughter into the car and speeds her to the hospital. A person with good desires is averse to taking the property of another without their consent. But he is also averse to letting his child die.

In both of these cases, the agent appeals to a greater good to excuse their action. The greater good is a desire that, in a good person, would have outweighed the violated interest that the good person also would have had.

In offering this excuse, it must actually be the case that the greater good has been served. This means that, in this case of conflict, the agent acted on what people generally have reason to promote as the stronger desire. Speeding through a school zone to make it on time to work is seen as a poor excuse.

One of the things we see in this excuse of Greater Good is that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a number of different desires - not just one. They have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to making promises, aversions to taking the property of others without their consent, a concern for the well-being on one's children and for strangers in need of emergency help.

Furthermore, people have reason to make some of these desires stronger than others.

Sometimes, these different desires come into conflict. When they do, an agent can appeal to the excuse of Greater Good to claim that she acted on the desire that people generally have reason to make the stronger desire.

However, we should note that the agent must still demonstrate that the lesser desire was in play. She must show some frustration over her ability not to have objectively satisfied the weaker desire.

The woman who missed the meeting is expected to contact those left waiting and apologize - reporting that she appreciates the fact that a good person does not break promises, but she broke a promise.  The father who took the car will apologize to the owner and seek to minimize or compensate for any harm done.

In both of these cases, the agent is communicating to the world, "Yes, I was properly averse to breaking the promise or taking the car. I hate the fact that was forced to do so. I would have avoided that situation if I could."

As a part of our Greater Good ritual, the victims are then expected to forgive the agent. In doing so, the victim acknowledges, "You acted on the better desire. I recognize that an agent with good desires would have done the same thing."

Still, we seek evidence that the lesser desire was in play, even though it was overruled.

One reason that the lesser desire must be in play is because it motivates agents to avoid the conflict. An agent with an aversion to P and an aversion to Q has reasons to anticipate and avoid circumstances where they must choose between P or Q. There are people who seem always to be missing appointments or making and failing to promptly pay back small loans. They seem always to gave an excuse. However, with enough evidence, we can start to suspect that the agent just does not care about the lesser duty.

Another sign of the lesser duty being in play is that the agent tries to resolve the conflict before sacrificing the lesser duty. The woman missing the meeting is expected to call and say, "I can't make it," if she could. The father looks around for the owner of the car and is desperate to seek permission before concluding that there is no time to waste. Both express frustration over not being able to do both.

Desirism explains these aspects of Greater Good because morality is not concerned with rules or natural laws weighed against each other. It us concerned with the weighing of desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. It is the property of conflicting desires that they motivate agents to avoid conflict and frustrate those who must choose. These are understandable elements of the practice if excusing a wrong by appeal to a greater good.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Moral Compass in 2012

I am going to take a short break from writing the Desirism wiki to address this request from the studio audience.

Would be interesting to see how you think the “moral compass” of the Obama administration stacks up to your criteria for judging the Bush administration.

The comment came as a follow-up to an article I wrote during the Bush Adminstration objecting to the fact that 31% Americans still supported an administration that had done so much evil. I argued that our nation's moral compass must be broken.

A fair question.

I want to premise my remarks by noting that the last President I actually admired was George Bush senior. I consider him to have been a committed public servant who was willing to take advice and to work with others for the benefit of the country.

I am quite impressed with the Obama administration, but it tells us that the moral compass of the American people themselves has not improved much, if at all.

He has had some difficult situations to work with. To illustrate the problem, imagine a case in which a villain has broken into a man’s home and taken him and his 10-year-old daughter hostage. He tells the man, “Either you have sex with your daughter while I watch, or I will take this small butane torch and slowly burn every inch of skin on your daughter’s body.”

We are assuming that the father cannot overpower the villain – that his choices are exactly those listed.

I cannot condemn the father who has sex with his daughter – even though it is a contemptible act under normal circumstances.

Obama tried to shut down Guantanamo Prison and give the prisoners there civil trials in the United States. That was remarkable and more than I actually hoped for. Unfortunately, the Congress prohibited all funding for this option, and a substantial portion of the American people sided with Congress. The Administration ultimately backed down, but even here asserted that they were right in principle.

The fault lies with a substantial portion of the American people have come to believe that the whole idea if a right to a fair trial is un-American. Real Americans prefer a presumption of guilt followed by a quick lynching. The lack of support the Administration got on this issue taught them an important lesson - supporting judicial rights in America is a waste of time.

This lesson applies to many of the injustices implemented by the Bush administration. I wrote, even before the 2008 election, that no Democrat would be able to repeal those laws. Attempting to do so would make him or her a one-term President, with the Republican replacement putting those laws right back in place the instant the President got into office. Furthermore, any successful terrorist attack under a Democratic president will guarantee a Republican President at the next election. These facts describe the context in which a Democratic President must operate.

If we want these laws removed – seriously – then what we have to do is to go the people and restore their respect for civil rights. As long as the American voters condemn a right to trial by jury as some sort of liberal sissy pandering to criminals, we cannot expect a sitting President to successfully push for a right to trial by jury.

As long as voters demand that a sitting President be willing to kill American citizens shown to be working for enemies of the country without a trial, then that is the type of President we will have. The only way to compare the moral character of a President is in terms of qualities other than those that the people themselves are demanding.

I hold in moral contempt those who condemn Obama because of the continuing of these policies. It is like holding the father in my example above in moral contempt for the rape of his daughter. Yes, it’s a horrible situation. Yes, something should be done to change it. However, the President is not all-powerful in this country. The voters are. These evils are not to be blamed on the President. They are to be blamed on the American voters – or, at least the those that support these policies (including those who claim to oppose them but who would refuse to vote for any President who “makes me feel safe”) and are willing to fight for them, and those who oppose these injustices but are unwilling to fight against them.

Another example of this misguided judgment comes from those who condemn the Obama administration for a law allowing the US. MIlitary to detain US citizens without a warrant. This provision was attached to a Defense Spending bill that Obama could not have vetoed. Coming right after the fiasco after the national debt, vetoing the bill would have taken a wrecking ball to the economy. I saw a lot of idiots blame Obama for this without even mentioning the names of those who endorsed this amendment. Democrats would eat their own young if the Republicans served them up with a good sauce.

On another point, after 3.5 years, I know of no major official in the Obama administration involved in any sort of political corruption. There is nothing at all like Cheney’s secret meetings with energy company executives in writing an energy law, or hundreds of billions of dollars of no-bid contracts that allowed cash to go straight from the Federal treasury and into the pockets of those corporate donors.

I could be suffering from confirmation bias – simply blocking from my mind any evidence that contradicts my hypothesis. I will leave it up to others to potentially identify some major scandal that I might have missed. “Fast and Furious” – the only major scandal I am aware of – provides some hints of incompetence but no hints of corruption.

On the fact that the government appears to be deadlocked, we have a situation where Group A is willing to go 75% of the way towards a compromise, while Group B refuses to go even 10% of the way. This leaves a more-than-15% gap that prevents any type of agreement. Yet, it is absolutely insane to say that both parties deserve equal blame for the deadlock. That's the message we get from the press that has abandoned sense for the illusion of fairness. What they call fair is not even, actually, fair. Is it fair to hold those willing to go 75% of the distance deserve equal blame for the lack of compromise?

Ultimately, I am an economic conservative. I think that the welfare of the people of the United States depends on getting an economic conservative in the White House. However, an economic conservative is NOT somebody who thinks that a corporate leader has a right to poison people for a profit. An economic conservative does not think that corporate executives must be kept in their multi-million dollar jobs and multi-million dollar houses while their fraud is the cause of regular people losing their home and their jobs. An economic conservative does not believe in an open and unregulated public warehouse but, instead, a warehouse regulated by a pricing system that prohibits the use of force, fraud, and deceptive manipulations such as “bundling” garbage loans together in such a way that they hide bad loans in a package with a AAA credit rating. All of those executives should be unemployed and homeless.

However, disagreeing with Obama on matters of policy is quite different from the moral corruption of the Bush administration.

I long for the day that economic conservatives in general will simply recoil at the filth that they are politically allied with.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Types of Excuse: Consent

Now that I have given an analysis of “consent”, I wish to look at “consent” as an excuse.

An excuse is a claim that a person makes that attempts to block the inference that an action – that appears at first glance to be one that a person with good desires would have avoided, implies that the agent lacks good desires.

Note that a good desire is one that people generally have reason to promote using social tools such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. An aversion (or a “desire that not-P”) can be promoted by condemning and punishing those who do not show a proper dislike for P.

Some types of excuses admit that the act was one that a person with good desires would have sought to avoid. However, something else got in the way of avoiding it. Perhaps the laws of nature made the realization of the state unpredictable and unavoidable (an accident). Or a false belief prevented the agent from avoiding a state he would have wanted to avoid.

In other cases, the excuse is a claim that the prima facie judgment that the state is one which a person with good desires would have avoided, this prima facie judgment is mistaken. The state is not one that a person with good desires would have avoided because no harm was done or no wrong was committed.

“Consent” fits in the second category. It denies that the state created was one that a person with good desires would not have created.

A person is caught driving his brother’s new and expensive car. When he is accosted with the fact, “That’s not your car,” he answers, “My brother said I could take it.”

One might be troubled as to whether the claim is true or false (particularly if one knows the driver’s brother and the brother’s dislike for letting other people drive his car). However, the claim itself fits the excuse in the second category described above. No wrong was done because the owner of the car gave his consent. The state of affairs is not one that a person with good desires would have reason to avoid – though it may look that way at first glance.

In another case, Person A behind the wheel of a car aims for Person B. Person B tries to get out of the way, running left then right. He trips, and the car runs over him. This creates a state that a person with good desires would have wanted to avoid.

However, we learn that the driver and the person he ran over were members of a stunt crew working on a movie.

We could call this an “accident”. The “accident” excuse may protect against condemnation for the state in which the victim was run over – at least in this case. However, it does not excuse the state of aiming the car at the victim – that was no accident. That was done intentionally. Furthermore, it is something that a person with good desires – with an aversion to causing harm that people generally have reason to promote through condemnation - would not do.

When a person uses the excuse of consent, they admit, "this appears to be a state that a person with good desires would have tried not to realize. However, I checked with the most knowledgable and least corruptible authorities on the matter, and they assure me that this is not the case."

Where each person seeks the objective satisfaction of their own desires, they have reason to support an institution that will allow those desires to be objectively satisfied under conditions where those intimately affected agree that this is likely.

So, the movie company hires the stunt crew who plan out a a stunt so that it objectively satisfies the most and strongest desires (given the beliefs of the agents involved). The director is provided with the effect she wants at the price she affords, created in a way that protects the health of the members of the stunt crew and compensates them for their expertise and their risk.

Normally, aiming a car at somebody (let alone paying one person to aim a car at another) is not an act that a person with good desires would perform. However, "We checked with everybody intimately involved. The most knowledgable and least corruptible agents all agree, we can objectively satisfy the most and strongest desires this way. QUIET ON THE SET! PLACES, EVERYBODY!"

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Consent Part II: Duress

This post is a continuation of an analysis of the concept of "consent". It will appear with the previous post as a single article in the desirism wiki.

In the previous post I discussed consent in the context of desirism, the "consent of the governed", and the issue of guardians and wards. Here, I conclude the analysis with a discussion of duress.


Another important element of consent is the fact that we deny that a person gave consent when a person acts under duress.

We have some preliminary work to do before we look at the duress directly.

Agents act so as to objectively satisfy the most and strongest of their desires (given their beliefs). Let us assume that Person A has a desire that P and Person B has a desire that Q. One way that Person A can realize a state of affairs S where P is true is to tell B "S or not-Q". That is to say, "Either you act so as to objectively satisfy my desire that P, or I will act to prevent the realization of any state in which Q is true." B, with a desire that Q, now has a reason to act so as to realize S.

Did B give consent to this bargain? Or was B acting under a threat?

Under this description, we cannot tell.

Our description fits a case in which A tells B, "Either give me $100 or I will break both of your legs." In this case, B gives A $100 to prevent the realization of a state to which B is averse – a state in which both of his legs are broken.

It also fits a case in which A tells B, "For $100, I will drive you to the airport." In this case, B gives A $100 to prevent the realization of a state to which he is averse – a state in which he misses his flight.

Why is the first case an example of extortion, and the second case an example of a legitimate market transaction?

The most obvious difference is that the first option is one that a person with an aversion to acting so as to make another worse off would not perform. The second does not involve acting to make another person worse off. In the second example, B would have been worse off even in a world where A did not exist, so A cannot be the cause of B being worse off. This makes a difference as to whether the act is a threat or a transaction.

People generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to making others worse off. We are better secured in a community surrounded by people with such an aversion than we would be in a community where people make each other worse off as a matter of routine. So, people generally have a reason to condemn those who lack such an aversion in order to promote its prevalence and strength.

Threats are actions that a person with a proper aversion to making others worse off would hate to perform. They are actions that invite condemnation. Not only do we condemn the person who makes threats, we withhold the judgment that he obtained the consent of those they threatened.

We could have invented a language with two different types of consent - morally legitimizing consent and consent under duress. An argument that consent under durress is not morally legitimizing would still look at the fact that a person with a proper aversion to acting so as to make others worse off would not perform such an act - that people have many and strong reasons to condemn those who do.

Though we sometimes see hints of this language being used, for the most part we have adopted a language where we use the term "consent" only in the case of morally legitimizing consent in the language mentioned above, and deny that the term applies in cases where threats are used. These are simply two different languages that describe the same phenomenon


Asserting that one had obtained consent implies moral legitimacy. We have built this into the meaning of the term - and then bounded the term by what people generally have reason to condemn.

People have a reason to promote an aversion to acting without consent when agents are the most knowledgable and least corruptible guardians of their own interest. When these conditions do not apply, we deny that consent is even possible.

People have a reason to promote efficient proxies to consent for large groups. This involves promoting an aversion to going against the will of the majority (within limits). Therefore, when a vote is taken and the group, by and large, agrees to a proposal, we talk about this in terms of the "consent of the governed."

People generally have reason to condemn the lack of an aversion to causing harm that makes threats possible. Consequently, we deny that consent is obtained when a threat is used.

This means that the concept of "consent" carries a lot of morally loaded baggage that a proper analysis of the term must unpack. Yet, it leaves us with a concept where, in many cases, if a person obtains consent, an action that would have otherwise been morally prohibited (an act that a person with a proper aversion to acting without consent would not perform) becomes permissible.