Wednesday, June 19, 2013

False Beliefs

False beliefs are bad.

Desirism accounts well for the badness of false beliefs. People seek to objectively satisfy their desires, but act so as to objectively satisfy their desires given their beliefs. In other words, they act in ways that would have objectively satisfied their desires in a world where their beliefs are true.

(Note: To say that a "desire that P" is "objectively satisfied" is to say that a state of affairs has been created in which P is true.)

My standard illustrative story about the problem of false beliefs is that of a thirsty jogger taking a drink of what she falsely believes is clean water. Her act would have objectively satisfied her desire in a world in which her beliefs are true, but not in a world where the water has, in fact, been poisoned.

On this model, I have said that liars are parasites. They infect their victims with a false belief so as to harvest their victims' efforts for their own ends. People generally have many and strong reasons to punish and condemn liars.

Desirism also identifies intellectual recklessness as a moral crime. A person who points a gun and pulls the trigger, falsely believing it not to be loaded, is reckless. A person properly concerned that his actions cause no harm to others will double-check important facts that risk bringing harm. We may condemn those who do not do so for their lack of concern.

Religions are full of false beliefs. As such, they cause people - even good people (meaning by this, people with desires people generally have reason to promote, and lacking desires people generally have reason to inhibit) to fail to fulfill and to sometimes thwart other desires. It is not the case - as Steven Weinberg claimed - "For good people to do evil things - that takes religion." What is true is that for good people to do evil things - that takes false beliefs.

A good person is not intellectually reckless. An intellectually reckless person is not good. But some false beliefs seep in regardless of an agent's intentions.

There are limits to our epistemic powers and, from this, to our culpability in the case of error.

Nobody has held all of their beliefs to the careful light of reason. It's impossible.

Our first beliefs are handed to us. We do not even have the capacity to reason. For those who claim they will not "indoctrinate" their child - what are you going to do, lock them in a dark, soundproof room until they have the capacity to reason? How do they gain such a capacity?

Even when we can think about our beliefs, holding a belief "up to the light of reason" means comparing beliefs to other beliefs - some of them having just been picked up.

We take shortcuts. We have to. Lacking time or ability to objectively verify and continually reverify everything we know, we use methods that are "good enough".

If a society was 95% atheist, my bet is that the bulk of that population will be atheists for exactly the same reason most are Christian in some countries today or Muslim in others. They will simply pick up the beliefs common in their society substantially without question. Later, when they apply the light of reason to future beliefs, much of that will involve comparing those beliefs to this arationally adopted base set and determine if they match or do not match. This is one of our shortcuts. This is how the human species survives. Sincerely, one of the things we can say about those standard beliefs is, "They got us this far."

When people focus on "religion" rather than "false belief" they open the door to two types of avoidable misakes - desire-thwarting mistakes, which is why I write against them.

First, they put too much too much emphasis on religious beliefs that are not causing people to behave in ways harmful to others. And, second, it takes the spotlight off of false beliefs that are not religious. As such, it takes efforts away from battling beliefs that cause greater harm and focuses effort on condemning those whose beliefs are relatively harmless.

Allow me to assume that everything I have written about desirism is true and that all other moral theories contain significant errors - just for illustrative purposes. It is quite possible to be a theist and still accept desirism. For example, one can believe that there is a god creator of the universe who created a universe in which some desires are malleable and we have been given the social tools of praise and condemnation to promote useful desires and inhibit harmful desires. At the same time, the atheist can believe in Marxism, Objectivism, Act Utilitarianism, Common Moral Relativism - or any of a dozen other error-ridden theories prompting, in some cases, "good people to do evil things".

And, yes, I consider Marxism, Objectivism, and Moral Relativism more destructive than some religions. Act utiltarianism fails to be dangerous because it simply cannot be put into practice. Human beings do not work the way that act utilitarianism requires.

There are a whole lot of false beliefs out there. Some are religious, some are not. Some are dangerous, some are not. The practical thing to do is to focus on those that are the most dangerous, not necessarily those that are the most religious.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Religion Poisons Everything?

There is a fundamental inconsistency in the way many atheists relate religion to good and bad actions.

When a theist does something bad, religion is to blame. "What do you expect? You give a person a desire to please god and a belief that god is pleased by a suicide bombing or killing apostates or some other horrendous act, and they go out and kill people. Religion poisons everything. "

When a theist does something good, this is because of our inherent good nature. Evolution has disposed us towards fairness and charity. Giving people a desire to please god and telling them that fairness and charity please god, while brutality and injustice do not, has absolutely no effect on the disposition to be kind and just."

This inconsistency not only reflects an intellectual fault, but a moral failing. This is prejudice - a disposition to prejudge theists as bad because they are theists and give them no credit for goodness, not unlike the same types of attitudes we see in some towards other population subgroups.

Consistency would see both good and evil potentially motivated either by religion or our nature.

I go with the view that dispositions towards good and evil can be found in our nature. This, of course, creates problems for the popular thesis that we can answer the question, "What is good?" by looking at our nature. It also creates problems for those who claim to have proved that nature provides us a disposition to do good - who cannot, at the same time, give us a theory of "good" that our nature is supposed to be disposing us towards.

Religion is not to blame. No god was involved in the writing of scripture. Its contents and its interpretation do not come from an external divine source that we can blame for all of our problems. Religion comes from human beings and, actually, does a good job of reporting our nature. It tells us of the moral character of the people who wrote it - real human beings with human flaws that some people today treat as "all knowing" and "perfectly virtuous". Its interpretation tell us more about the person reading scripture than it does about the scripture itself.

There is no evil written into scripture that cannot also be written into an atheistic philosophy. Human beings who can write these evils into a religion can also write them into an atheist philosophy. Saying that "religion poisons everything" simply ignores the fact that the real fault - where religion is at fault - comes from the people who invented it and follow it. Those who can invent and follow a vile religious practice can invent and follow practices that do not mention a god.

We can see an example of this in Sam Harris' defense of torture.

We see evidence of this in Ayn Rand Objectivism, Communism, multiculturalism, social Darwinism, and other atheist philosophies.

Steven Weinberg said:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

This is unvarnished bigotry, plain and simple. Atheists, too, can embrace philosophies with twisted concepts of what is right and wrong. When they do, then the charge mentioned above is just as applicable to that atheist as it is to any theists.

However, this fact does not appeal to those people who want the emotional satisfaction of seeing "us" atheists as morally superior to "them" theists. Weinberg's quote sooths our tribal prejudices - so it is embraced and promoted where it should be condemned.

Atheists have some work to do when it comes to morality. Converting people from theism to atheism simply is not sufficient.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Effective Altrusim

I have been looking into the movement known as “Effective Altruism” recently, particularly in the light of Peter Singer’s presentation at TED.

To a large extent, this is substantially consistent with my interests since high school. I wanted to make the world a better place. However, I had a question that needed answering, "What is 'better'?"

In the Civil War, many Confederate soldiers made a significant "contribution to charity" - sacrificing years of labor, their health, even their lives in defense of something that they felt had real value. Yet, what they defended, in fact, had little value.

The same can be said about the Kamikaze Pilot in World War II, and the suicide bombers. These are - at least in the minds of those who performed them - acts of charity.

We can apply this analysis to a number of political causes that people support. For example . . . abortion. Is the time and money donated to protecting a woman's wife to choose, or the right of the conceptus' to life, a "good thing"?

Is it the case that those who are fighting for handgun regulation making the world a better place? Or does that honor go to those who are fighting against that regulation? Capital punishment? Homosexuality? The balance between invasions of privacy versus security? Euthanasia? Protecting the environment?

Look at any political campaign . . . or all political campaigns. Billions of dollars and countless labor-hours are donated - charitably contributed - to advancing a political agenda. Those who do so think they are doing good. Yet, they are countered by people "charitably" donating billions of dollars and countless labor-hours on the other side.

How effective is this altruism?

In each of these areas, we have people spending countless labor hours and dollars on one side, versus those who spend countless labor hours and dollars on the other side. People on both sides think that they are making a valuable contribution - that they are being charitable. Yet, clearly, some of them are wrong.

From the very start I did not believe that I had the wisdom to be able to say with arrogant certainty that the side I selected was the right side, and those who disagreed with me are either co-conspirators with the forces of evil or manipulated dupes. Perhaps they were on the right side, and I was the manipulated dupe.

How can we know?

Here, then, is the first question of effective altruism.

How do you know when you are being altruistic?

Under the topic of "effective altruism", there is a lot of talk as to which causes are more effective than others. Indeed, the whole focus of the movement is to identify a cause as "effective" or "ineffective". Some causes, it is said within the movement, are 1000 times more effective than others.

Actually, I would argue that the difference is greater than that. Some causes are infinitely more effective than others, because some of the causes that people are contributing to are causes that do no good and positive harm.

So far, the "Effective Altriusm" movement seems to be substantially ignoring the question, "When am I doing good?"

In much of what I read, they make the assumption that "lives saved" is a good thing - and that no life is intrinsically more valuable than any other. Yet, what is the value of saving the life of a boy who grows up to be a lieutenant in the service of a war lord who spends that life going around raping, stealing, and killing from rival war bands and any innocent civilian seen as vulnerable? Are you doing good to save the life that will be spent devoted to beheading anybody who "insults" their god or violently attacking any woman who seeks an eduction? Does it do good to save a life that will be spent promoting ignorance and superstition and actually fighting the sound scientific understanding that provide the intellectual foundation for our ability to treat injuries, cure disease, and understand the workings of the environment in which we live?

While it is the case that all lives have the same intrinsic value (that, actually, being no intrinsic value since intrinsic value does not exist), it is not the case and never will be the case that all lives have equal extrinsic value. Saving a life is not enough. Directing those saved lives so that they are spent in the service of that which is actually good rather than that which is evil is an essential part of making one's altruism truly effective.

A part of the extrinsic value of a life is the resources consumed - increasing competition and scarcity. In places already suffering from shortages of food and clean water, is it the case that another 1000 lives added is such a good thing? Perhaps the best charity is not to be understood in terms of "lives saved" but "births foregone".

How can we know?

Even where we can know, how do we direct those lives being saved to good ends rather than evil? Effective altruism can't be limited to just knowing, "X is good", but - to truly count as effective - has to direct human activity towards that which is good. So, "How can we direct the lives saved to that which is good rather than that which is evil?"

If one wishes to talk about "effective altruism", these are questions not to be ignored.

When is a person doing good? How do we know? How do we direct "lives saved" to the doing of good rather than the doing of evil?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why you should not kill yourself and why we should try to stop you if you do try.

Yesterday, I wrote that if you want to talk a person off the ledge, you need to tie that action to current desires. Future desires do not work because future desires cannot reach back in time to influence current actions.

You can mention intrinsic values or displeasing god, but there had better be a present desire to do that which has intrinsic vale or aversion to displeasing god, or the augment will not work. When a person says, "If there is no intrinsic value or god to please, then life is not worth living," they are actually responding to a current desire to do that which has intrinsic value or pleases god - a desire learned through social forces, not one that occurs naturally. It is a desire that can be unlearned as an individual, instead, learns to find value in things that are real rather than things that are imaginary.

However, I did not actually tie suicide prevention to current desires.

I do not want to lie and make claims about intrinsic values or gods that do not exist. The question about whether to lie or "humor" a suicidal person with a belief in intrinsic values or a god is a legitimate question - but not the topic under discussion here.

To start, we all tend to have current concerns for fulfillment of our future desires. It is an important part of what keeps us alive. Show a person a button and say, "Pushing this button will cause you excruciating pain tomorrow lasting one hour." Few will push it. We live our lives considering the effects that our actions will have on our future selves.

This happens to be one current desire among many - often overridden by the weight of other current desires. These include the desire for sex (risking disease and, for some, the physical stress of pregnancy), for more food than is good for us, for things that thwart future desires. We put future desire fulfillment at risk by not saving for retirement and running up debts. Still, even if often outweighed, our interest in the fulfillment of our future desires is there, giving us motivating reason to act in ways that bring about future fulfillment.

We are also concerned about the future desire fulfillments of our friends, our children, and our friends' children.

This gives us reason to promote in others those desires that will contribute to our future desire fulfillment. Not only is it the case that we do care about the fulfillment of future desires, we should care - in the sense that people generally have many and strong reason to promote interests that fulfill rather than thwart future desires.

At this point, I want to bring up an important distinction that desirism recognizes. It is the distinction between desires TO fulfill future desires and desires THAT fulfill future desires. An aversion to activities that waste non-renewable resources is not the same as an aversion TO thwarting future desires. However, it is an aversion THAT prevents the thwarting of future desires - and one that people with a concern for preventing the thwarting of future desires have reason to promote.

The fact is, many suicides are irrational. The person incorrectly predicts whether future desires will be thwarted or fulfilled. They falsely conclude that current pain will extend into the indefinite future, thinking "Every future day will be as bad as today, and the only way to avoid that future pain is death."

This is often not true. The current pain itself is already working through the reward system to alter desires - creating and strengthening interest that avoid these pains and weakening or eliminating interests that contribute to them. In a few years, the pains will be diminished. Perhaps it will not disappear entirely. Perhaps, in some cases, it should not. However, it will diminish.

In other words, "It gets better."

This is not always the case. The 87 year old cancer patient who is either in excruciating pain or so heavily drugged she cannot think would not be irrational to conclude that her prospects for future desire fulfillment are slim. Similarly, we can imagine the case of a prisoner enduring day after day of torture rationally concluding that his prospects for future desire fulfillment are dim as well.

However, there are many cases in which these types of conditions are not met. For the person standing on the ledge, chances are good that it is true that, "Your calculations are mistaken. Your future is not as bleak as you think it is. You are incorrectly predicting sameness where, in reality, things will change. You will adapt. All you need is time. If you realized how wrong you are, you would not act this way."

Yet, this leaves open the question of whether we force this conclusion on people who disagree with us. We think it will get better. The person on the ledge disagrees.

Generally, the argument for liberty is that each agent is the most knowledgable and least corruptible individual regarding their own welfare. I have accumulated a great deal of knowledge about what I desire and how to obtain it. Furthermore, there is little or no chance that I will exploit the power I may have over my own life to advance interests other than my own. On the other hand, if somebody else is given authority to run my life, they will that authority to fulfill their desires, not mine. Even if it included an interest in my happiness and welfare, she would not have near the knowledge of what that is as I do.

Furthermore, I have many and strong reasons to promote in others an aversion to denying my freedom to act on that knowledge - and they have many and strong reasons to promote such an aversion within me. We do this through social institutions that promote a love of liberty and an aversion to slavery and tyranny.

This translates into an aversion to interfering with the liberty of the person on the ledge.

On the other hand, with respect to suicide among a certain class of people we are almost always dealing with people who are not the best judge of their future desire fulfillment - who have made incorrect inferences about the prospects of future pain. It is not unreasonable to conclude that a major support for liberty is missing. With drug users, alcoholics, and smokers, there is still an opportunity to teach them the error of their ways. With suicide, the only way to buy time is through force. We also have reason to worry about promoting such a casual indifference in another person's untimely death that people are not motivated to prevent those deaths. We have reason to want people to be motivated to prevent our untimely deaths, and they have reason to want us to be motivated to prevent their untimely death.

Here, I want to point out that one of the conclusions of desirism is that some moral questions allow for no easy answer. There are weighty matters to consider - and the only people clearly wrong are those who say that the answer is obvious.

If you are looking for a moral calculator where you can punch in the circumstances and easily draw out the moral right answer, desirism is not that theory.

Here, we weigh an aversion to interfering with liberty and an aversion to interactions with others without their consent against an aversion to the waste of a life and a need for time to convince somebody they are about to make what we can reliably know is a tragic mistake.

Ultimately, I would argue that suicide prevention offers an important exception to the provisions of liberty. It is a good thing to violate the liberty of a person considering suicide (with some exceptions for rational suicide). On the other hand, I would not argue that this is so obviously true that any who disagree must be indoctrinated into some idiocy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Talking Somebody Off a Ledge

I have been presented with the following scenario:

Imagine a healthy, intelligent, priveleged young guy with the entire life ahead of him. Say he becomes deeply depressed for some reason and wants to die. Let's also imagine that he is completely atheistic and believe in no intrinsic values or meaning. He has absolutely no desires, not even to get healthy (as this is often the nature of deep depressions). He's standing on the ledge of a building: why should he not jump and get out of the suffering if that's his only desire. If future and potential desires doesn't count, then why should we try to cure him?

My statement that future desires do not count is a descriptive claim that future desires do not reach back in time and influence present day actions - at least not directly. If you want to talk the person off of the ledge, you need link that action to a current desire or it just will not work.

The link you make may be to a current desire that future desires be fulfilled. We tend to have such desires. We tend to be strongly concerned that our future selves be happy - though this is one desire among many and easily outweighed by other present desires (smoking, drinking, failure to exercise, interests in sports as a spectator and in "reality" television). In fact, his motivation towards suicide may come from an (often irrational - but not always) belief that there can be no future happiness. People extrapolate current pain into the far future and see a future they would prefer to avoid. Still, it is the present desire (or aversion) motivating the action.

This is true, by the way, even if you talk about intrinsic values.

Desirism says that you can motivate an agent to act a particular way by giving a person a desire to do that which has intrinsic value, and a belief that X has intrinsic value. This will motivate an agent to realize X. However, his action is still only motivated by a current desire and channeled by current beliefs. We do not find in this any evidence that intrinsic values (any 'reason for action' other than desires) are real.

Correspondingly, you can send a child to church - where praise, condemnation, and other social tools are heavily used to promote a desire to please God. If you also convince him, "X displeases God" you will give him a motivating reason to avoid doing X. Yet, again, the actual actions are fully explained in terms of current beliefs and current desires. Nothing in this provides any actual evidence for the existence of a god or any type of reasons for action in the real world other than desires.

This account of religious motivation supports the claim that many theists make that, if you take away religious motivation, then some people will do wicked things. To the degree that a person has acquired an aversion to displeasing God and a belief that this "wicked thing" displeases God, then that person has a motivating reason with a weight equal to the strength of the aversion to refrain from doing those wicked things. If you remove this aversion - by convincing this person that nothing displeases God because there is no God to displease - then that person will lose some of his motivation to refrain from "wicked things".

It is true, as many atheists (such as myself) claim, that we could better use our social tools to give people an aversion to doing "wicked things" (rather than the more complicated aversion to displeasing god and a belief that "wicked things" displease god), standard practice for many people still takes the second route. Consequently, when people worry, "If you take away a belief in God, you will take away motivation to do good and refrain from evil" is almost certainly true.

However, this common course of action has many pitfalls. For one thing, it tends to use archaic ideas about what counts as "wicked things" from primitive and substantially uninformed people. It is foolish at best to take the word of prehistoric, superstitious, and all-too-human tribesmen as the unerring truth of an all-knowing and perfectly virtuous diety. Yet, this foolishness is practiced and on a global scale. With it, there are a lot of cases in which people are being convinced to do wicked things by giving them a desire to please God with belief that the ideas of these primitive tribesmen - killing homosexuals, killing whole populations of innocent civilians, denying life-saving medical care to a child - pleases God.

This, in turn, highlights a gross inconsistency in a lot of atheist thinking that runs through a great many atheist discussions - proving that the abandonment of reason is not confined to the religious. Many are all too eager to blame religion as the motivating reason why somebody did something evil. Yet, they deny that religion motivates people to do anything good - they credit good to "other sources" (e.g., our biological nature).

There is absolutely no reason to hold to his asymmetry, other than "tribal" reasons of wanting to look at the world in terms of "us -good/them-bad".

However, there is no sense to the idea that these are not symmetric. If religion can motivate evil, it can motivate good. If religion cannot be a force for good, then it cannot be a force for evil. I hold that the first one is correct.

If a person is given a desire to please God, and a belief that charity pleases God, they can be given additional motivation to be charitable. This is true in the same way that if a person is given a desire to please God, and a belief that blowing up a bus or punishing gays pleases God can be motivated to blow up a bus or punish gays. There is absolutely no sense to claiming that the second type of item happens all the time and the first never happens.

All of this ties to the same point. Whether you like this fact or not, if you want to motivate a current action - such as talking a person off a ledge - you must link that action to current desires. You can talk about future desires, but there had better be a present desire that future desires be fulfilled. You an talk about intrinsic value, but there had better be a desire to do that which is intrinsically good (and this still will not make it true that something is intrinsically good). You can talk about what pleases or displeases god, but there had better be a desire to please god - and it still will not make it true that anything pleases or displeases god.

The same applies to trying to "cure" people of depression. The reasons to do so will need to be found in present desires. Like it or not, nothing else will work.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Procreation and Reasons for Action that Exist

If desires is the thing that tells us what is morally right / wrong, doesn't that impose upon us to procreate as much as possible? So that we have more entities that can form desires and fulfill them?


Desires tell us what has value. That is to say, a desire for something (a desire that P) is a motivating reason for the person having that desire – and only that person, not anybody else – to act in ways to realize states of affairs that makes real what is desired.

The phrase that I use to report this is that a desire that P provides an agent with a motivating reason to realize a state of affairs S in which P is true.

Among other things, this means that a future person's desire is a motivating reason for that future person to realize that which the future person desires (where possible). However, no person's desire is - directly - a motivating reason for any other person to act in a particular way. Desires are motivating reasons for people to alter the desires of others. However, future people have no way to act so as to change our desires, unless they invent some real cool technology.

Using these principles, let us evaluate a state of affairs S that would exist if we "procreate as much as possible."

What reasons for action do we have to create such a state? What desires of ours are fulfilled by procreating as much as possible?

Note that a desire for sex is not a desire to procreate – and that there are many ways in which the former desire can be fulfilled where the latter effect is avoided.

Of course, procreation creates a person with a desire that P and – in many cases – a state of affairs in which P is true. Who cares? Yes, desires determine value. Our desires determine what has value to us. To demonstrate how procreating as much as possible has value to us, one needs to show which (if any) of our desires are fulfilled in a state of affairs created by procreating as much as possible. I do not think that very many can be found. I think we have few reasons to procreate as much as possible, and many and strong reasons not to.

An objection can be raised here that I have failed to respect the distinction between what we do desire (the reasons for action that we have) and what we should desire (the reasons for action that we should have). Moral value is not a question of what we desire. It is a question of what we should desire. It may be the case that we have few desires that would be fulfilled by procreating as much as possible. However, we should have those desires.

Desirism holds that what we should desire asks about the desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. To say that people should desire X is to say that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote in others a desire that X. To say that we should have desires that result in as much procreation as possible is to say that we have many and strong reason to promote desires that result in as much procreation as possible.

I have mentioned that a person with a desire that P has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which P is true. One of the ways in which this person can accomplish this end is by motivating others to act in ways that realize states of affairs in which P is true (or, at least, not act in ways that will realize states of affairs in which P is false). That is to say, the agent has reason to use the social tools of reward (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation) to promote in others those desires that contribute to the realization of P.

At the same time, others have reason to promote in the agent those desires that contribute to the realization of what they desire.

As it turns out, there are some desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. Desires to help others, to keep promises, to tell the truth, to refrain from reacting to another person's words with violence, and the like. There is a fact of the matter concerning desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote - and to work with each other to identify these desires and promote them through community rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation). It is not merely a matter of personal opinion. It is not a matter of individual personal taste.

To claim that we ought to procreate as much as possible is to say that we have many and strong reasons to promote those desires that would motivate us to procreate as much as possible.

But do we?

I do not see very many and strong reasons to do this. We have reasons to procreate some. There is a natural desire to do so. It also provides a way to have healthy and productive members in the community to take care of those less able to take care of themselves - and the vast majority of us will need (and thus have a reason to promote desires contributing to) such a community. Some people see a continuing of the self - a kind of immortality - in procreation. These are reasons to promote an interest in having some children, but not reasons for unlimited procreation.

In order to get to the conclusion that we must procreate as much as possible, we must postulate a different kind of reason for action. We have to assume that there is a reason for action intrinsic to the state in which a creature with a "desire that P" exists in a state where P is true. This independent reason for action somehow beckons to us - prompting us to act in the ways that it demands even though we have no desire or interest in doing so. That is to say, it is independent of the reasons for action we have.

We can ignore these types of reasons for action - reasons to procreate as much as possible or to promote desires that would result in as much procreation as possible - because they are not reasons for action that exist.

Desirism does not support - let alone require - the conclusion that we should procreate as much as possible because it does not support the thesis that reasons such as this actually exist. There is no "intrinsic value" providing a reason independent of the reasons for action we have to procreate as much as possible. Our desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and they provide the sole reasons to use social tools such as reward (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation) to promote the desires we "should have".

We could have reasons to procreate as much as possible - it is not absolutely ruled out by desirism. Yet, it is not automatically ruled in either. Given the reasons for action that we have, it seems highly unlikely that we have reasons to procreate as much as possible or to promote those desires that would motivate us to procreate as much as possible.

The answer to the question is . . . "no".

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

On Having a Purpose

Another question from the studio audience.

Given the premise that determinism is correct, how can you say that the universe has no purpose? The universe is exactly as it had to be given it's deterministic evolution and consequentially the purpose was to give rise to living entities like you and me. . . . So in other words the purpose of the universe is to give rise to meaning creating entities which then gives rise to emergent REAL meaning and morality.

It does not follow from the fact that something has a particular effect that it has a purpose.

One of the effects of oxygen in the atmosphere is to cause iron to rust. But that is not the purpose of oxygen.

Some people get cancer. However, it is not their purpose to get cancer. It is just something that happens to them.

Consequently, the universe may have been determined to give rise to living entities. However, this does not imply that it was the
purpose of the universe to do so. It is just something that happened.

To have a purpose is to have an intended use. To have an intended use requires postulating an intender - a being with ends (desires) for the obtainment of which the object is useful.

Hammers have a purpose - to drive in nails. Cars have a purpose - to provide for the transportation of people and things.

Of course, having a purpose does not imply that something cannot have other uses. A car can be used as a shield to hide behind when a protest turns violent. A hammer can be used as a paperweight.

In all cases, to speak of something having a purpose is to speak of it being a useful tool. One must postulate a creature with desires that can put the tool to use.

If the universe has "a purpose" at all it is to give us light and materials with which to sustain life and fulfill our other desires. Our desires - and perhaps the desires of extraterrestrial aliens - provide for the only purpose that exists.

In light of this fact, the complaint that one's life lacks purpose is odd at best. It is a complaint that one is not being used as a mere tool by some other being.

Of all people, slaves are in the best position to claim that their life has a purpose. Their purpose it to pick cotton, or to fulfill the sexual desires of their owner, or to bring money to the owner when they are raised and sold - like cattle. Yet, a state of slavery hardly seems to be a state to yearn for. Even enslavement to a god.

An ironic fact about enthralling oneself to a being that does not exist is that one does not actually become God's property. One becomes the property of those who claim to be relaying God's desires. Because, in fact, they are not reporting God's desires - they are reporting their own desires. It should be no surprise that those desires include blind and unquestioned obedience - servitude - thus finding "purpose" to life in the sense used here. "You can find meaning and purpose to your life in being my servent . . . um . . . I mean . . . God's servant."

Alternatively, somebody can market a "purpose" to life, not in service to a god, but in service to the state or the government. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia also "sell" purpose and meaning to others through servitude. Yet, the individual accepting servitude to "the state" is - more than anything - merely a servant of those who claim to represent "the state".

One can argue that it is not slavery to voluntarily accept a status of servitude. However, that misses the point. The slave is still the person whose life has the greatest purpose because the slave is the person most like a tool to be used towards the fulfillment of desires not his or her own. The slave has a purpose, in the same way that the hammer or blow-up doll has a purpose.

In summary, the universe has no purpose except in the fact that we find pieces of it useful. A life can have purpose when that life is enslaved - voluntarily or voluntarily - by another. But a state of slavery is hardly a state to be yearned for. For those who have been taught to yearn for a state of servitude, it is relevant to note that nobody has ever served God - because there is no God to serve. Those lives tend to be spent in service to people who claim to speak for God. They may well value being surrounded by people seeking meaning and purpose through servitude, but those are not serving who they think they are serving.

My life has no purpose. My life is one of the things that exist that assigns purpose to other things - hammers, governments, laws, information, art, friendship, love, the universe. But not other people. I do not wish to be made a mere tool for the service of others, and seek that they not regard me as a mere tool for their own use. In return, I offer the same thing of them. They are not mere tools. They are beings with ends - ends that also assign purpose and meaning to things.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Using People

I have been provided with another set of questions to answer regarding desirism. I will start with this one:

A guy drugs a girl. She passes out. He rapes her in her sleep because he desired to. She is passed out during the entire ordeal and wake up without ever knowing about it. In other words she suffered no trauma. Was what he did still wrong? He got his desire fuifilled while she was in a state of no desires, so if desirism is correct, did anything immoral occur here?

This represents the most common misinterpretation of desirism – one that I suspect will persist for a long time. It confuses desirism with a related but significantly different theory best identified as “desire fulfillment act utilitarianism”.

This alternative theory holds that desire fulfillment is the only thing that has value, and that the right act is the act that maximizes desire fulfillment. Desirism holds a different view of right acts – the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform. Within desirism, moral praise and blame are attached to the desires that motivated an action, depending on whether those desires are those that people generally have reason to promote or discourage.

Desire-fulfillment act utilitarian theories have the same problems that all act-utilitarian theories have. One of the biggest problems is that they assume beings whose motivation is solely associated with the “good” that the act utilitarian theory proposes?

Why did this guy drug and have sex with the girl? It could not be because he had a desire to maximize desire fulfillment. A person with this desire has no interest in sex. If he engages in sex at all it is only as a tool – an instrument – for maximizing desire fulfillment. He has no aversion to pain, to food preferences, no friends – because friendship motivates a person to weigh the desires of friends above those of non-friends. He has no likes or dislikes other than “desire maximization”.

If he has any like at all – any preference other than a preference for maximizing desire fulfillment – then there will be circumstances in which this second desire are going to outweigh the first desire and result in the agent sacrificing the first good for the second. Under circumstances where a person likes chocolate ice cream, there are circumstances where this like will “tilt the balance” in what is otherwise a close call, motivating the agent to make a choice that he would not have made in the absence of a preference for chocolate. If his only other desire is for maximum desire fulfillment, then a love of chocolate will motivate him in some circumstances to sacrifice maximum desire fulfillment for a lesser option that includes him eating chocolate.

In the real world, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to having sex with somebody without their consent. We have reason to condemn those who use others without consent – in fact, we have reason to bring to bear some of the harshest condemnation available, including physical punishment. This is what it takes to make having sex with somebody without consent “wrong”. It has to be something motivated by desires that people generally have reason to stomp out – or by the absence of desires that people have reason to promote. In this case, the aversion to having sex without consent is absent, and that makes the agent a legitimate target for condemnation.

The question, then, “did anything wrong happen?” asks if people generally have any reason to condemn the types of desires that would motivate such an act. In this case, they most certainly do. The fears of unwanted pregnancy or disease . . . the reasons people have not to be surrounded by others who think of them as mere things to be used . . . these all provide many and strong reasons for the most serious objections.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. They are the only things that give other things value. However, in giving value to things, they also give value to other desires. They give a very high value to the aversion to treating others as mere things and, in particular, to an aversion to having sex with somebody without consent. It is a value that is realized by using moral condemnation against those who demonstrate that they lack a proper respect for the consideration of others and a willingness to treat them as mere objects.