Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Response to Common Sense Atheism's The Science of Morality

I'm actually surprised that there is someone out there who thinks we can discover moral truths by performing scientific experiments, but Luke from Common Sense Atheism thinks we can. As I understand it, most ethicists would deny that science has this ability, and I'll explain here in my response (which I'm also trying to post as a comment on his blog, but am having issues), why this fails.

Luke says:

Now, I want to point out right away that that’s a strange claim to make, because usually, the phrase “OBJECTIVE moral value” means something like “moral value grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a person or persons.” Right? If what you’re calling “moral value” is just based off somebody’s personal attitudes, that’s called SUBJECTIVE morality.

I've seen this from you a couple of times, and despite it being answered even by fellow athesits it seems you still think it's a pretty strong objection.

Here are the issues. 1) It's a straw man. Theists, at least those who hold to the divine command theory you're attempting to critique, don't think that moral values are based in the attitudes of God, but in His very nature. His attitudes toward behavior flow from this essential part of His being. So you misled this audience.

2) It doesn't destroy the objective nature of the moral values that we are defending. These morals exist in spite of what anyone thinks, what anyone desires, what makes anyone happy, etc. All people are bound by them and all people will be judged by them in light of being made in the image of God. Innately, all people whose mental faculties are functioning properly apprehend these morals even if they don't believe in God; hence the common belief that some things are really wrong.

3)Who says that the well being of conscious creatures is a good thing; good enough to base our concept of morality off of? People all around the world would debate your assertions about "whether legalized abortion promotes the well-being of conscious creatures. There’s an objective fact of the world about whether or not female genital mutilation promotes the well-being of conscious creatures." What are you basing these personal opinions of yours on, Luke? Do you realize that the Muslim cultures that practice the latter are far outpacing the western nations that cringe at this practice in spreading their genetic code? Further, they would say it does produce the well being of those in their society because it keeps the women in line. You're just assuming your western ideals, fostered in a Christian context, are the thing that is the best for people. But the Mullah in Pakistan is going to ask, "who the heck are you?"

Even if the Nazis had won World War II and brainwashed everybody into thinking that killing people who aren’t white Europeans is okay, it would still be an objective fact that killing non-white people would NOT generally promote the well-being of conscious creatures. That would still be an objective fact.

The Nazi's thought it would, and that's why they acted on it. They thought the well being of humanity hinged on eliminating the Jews. Those who owned slaves and subjugated the rights of women thought that advanced the good of conscious creatures. It's subject to the prevailing perception of what is beneficial for conscious creatures. That isn't objective at all, Luke.

Further, who grounds the assertion that the well being of conscious creatures is worth promoting. Who says? What do conscious creatures have over non-conscious creatures? That sounds like specie-ism.

4) We do science? To discover morality? Really? Science can't tell us what actually should be considered a benefit to conscious creatures, because that is a personal opinion dependent on individual notions of what is beneficial. And that is just an arbitrary definition anyway. Does the moral fact that "we should advance the well being of conscious creatures" have some basis beyond the human mind? If not, it's subject to those human beings who think that way. There isn't actually a moral code that is objectively true and binding for all people, rather your formulation here is just as subjective as any other secular moral theory.

23 comments:

woodchuck64 said...


Theists, at least those who hold to the divine command theory you're attempting to critique, don't think that moral values are based in the attitudes of God, but in His very nature.


I find it easier to think of divine command theory as subjective with respect to God's attitudes and nature, rather then trying wrap my head around the idea of objective morality being both defined by and consistent with God's nature. Of course as an atheist I may simply misunderstand DCT.


Who says that the well being of conscious creatures is a good thing


That's Sam Harris, not Luke. Luke goes with desirism.


It's subject to the prevailing perception of what is beneficial for conscious creatures. That isn't objective at all, Luke.


Yes, prevailing perception is definitely subjective. But objectivity would come from hypothetically measuring the well-being of conscious creatures scientifically and then reaching a conclusion from that. As Luke says, it might be very, very hard to measure with current technology, but in principle it would be a scientific question.

Therefore, if someone can prove that the well-being of conscious creatures is the best definition of morality (burden of proof to Sam Harris), and prove that scientific technology now or in the future can measure the well-being of conscious creatures (burden of proof to Luke), then morality becomes objective. A sound argument, seems to me.


Further, who grounds the assertion that the well being of conscious creatures is worth promoting. Who says? What do conscious creatures have over non-conscious creatures? That sounds like specie-ism.


Again, this is not Luke's assertion, ask Sam Harris. Desirism would say, rather, that desires that tend to fulfill desires are to be promoted and taught and that this is something the individual actually already wants to do (at least those who are not already committed to a moral theory), but may not realize it (and Luke and Alonzo's continued podcasts I take as the necessary persuasion).

Desires may be in principle measurable by science. Therefore, if we provide a correct definition of desires, are able to define desires in terms of particular brain-states, are able to measure those states, and finally get agreement that desires that tend to fulfill desires are what we mean or should mean by "morally good" and, conversely that desires that tend to thwart desires are what we mean or should mean by "morally bad", we have a science of objective morality worked out.

But I think Christians will always reject any definition of "morally good" or "morally bad" that does not reference God. And that's fine. Desirism seems unlikely to be true if God exists and certainly false if the Bible is true.

bossmanham said...

Woodchuck,

Thanks for your thoughts.

I find it easier to think of divine command theory as subjective with respect to God's attitudes and nature, rather then trying wrap my head around the idea of objective morality being both defined by and consistent with God's nature. Of course as an atheist I may simply misunderstand DCT.

Some theists do hold to that (known as voluntarism). Vox Day makes a pretty persuasive case, though I think that the problems it produces are easily solved with this version of DCT.

But that's not really relevant, since Luke is trying to critique William Lane Craig's DCT, which is not as Luke described it.

That's Sam Harris, not Luke. Luke goes with desirism.

Ok, whatever. He still said it would be objective and seemed to be defending it in the speech. I showed that it cannot be considered objective.

But objectivity would come from hypothetically measuring the well-being of conscious creatures scientifically and then reaching a conclusion from that.

So you suddenly make a subjective standard objective by measuring it?

Desirism would say, rather, that desires that tend to fulfill desires are to be promoted and taught and that this is something the individual actually already wants to do

Desires are subjective.

Desires may be in principle measurable by science. Therefore, if we provide a correct definition of desires, are able to define desires in terms of particular brain-states, are able to measure those states, and finally get agreement that desires that tend to fulfill desires are what we mean or should mean by "morally good" and, conversely that desires that tend to thwart desires are what we mean or should mean by "morally bad", we have a science of objective morality worked out.

Just because you can do all of that in no way grounds the assertion that desirism is based on; namely we should work to fulfill as many desires as we can in a utilitarian sort of format. Who the heck says? It's an arbitrary standard of morality. Not to mention that desires are subjective.

But I think Christians will always reject any definition of "morally good" or "morally bad" that does not reference God. And that's fine. Desirism seems unlikely to be true if God exists and certainly false if the Bible is true.

Correct. Though I would say in no circumstance could this cobbled together moral theory be considered objective. Anything based off of human feelings or proclivities is inherently subjective.

woodchuck64 said...

bossmanham,


Desires are subjective.


But age, I assume, is objective. However, what's the difference between a person claiming his age is 32 and a person claiming he likes ice-cream? Both are either true or false and if we had a way to measure brain-states, we could confirm a person's desire for ice-cream objectively the same way we confirm his age via birth certificate. That's the sense of "objective" I'm using.

Desirism, or any scientific approach to morality, must measure human desires or attitudes accurately in order to arrive at objective measures of morality (given prior agreement that moral good is something like maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, or maxmizing desire fulfillment). That's how subjectivity is turned into objectivity.


Just because you can do all of that in no way grounds the assertion that desirism is based on; namely we should work to fulfill as many desires as we can in a utilitarian sort of format. Who the heck says? It's an arbitrary standard of morality.


Desirism would argue that the individual has self-interested reasons to follow desirism; a desiristic society is the society must likely to maximize that individual's desire fulfillment.

(But I should add that I'm waiting on Luke and Alonzo's desirism podcasts to provide more specifics on questions like this.)

bossmanham said...

But age, I assume, is objective. However, what's the difference between a person claiming his age is 32 and a person claiming he likes ice-cream?

That someone is a specific age is an objective truth, BUT there is no objective age that applies to everyone no matter what they think. Age in that respect is subject to the individual. What flavor of ice cream someone wants is also subject to an individual. Desires are also subjective.

That's the sense of "objective" I'm using.

That sense of objective says nothing about universal application. It only says that there are specific truths about individuals. But if we're basing morality on individuals, then we've got moral relativism.

Desirism, or any scientific approach to morality, must measure human desires or attitudes accurately in order to arrive at objective measures of morality

I just want to point out that anyone who holds to desirism is NOT following their own moral system, because we haven't done this scientific study. I'm not even sure that it's possible to do such a thing.

Regardless, your results would be subject to people's brain states at that time. That is not a morality that is objectively true no matter what anyone thinks.

Desirism would argue that the individual has self-interested reasons to follow desirism; a desiristic society is the society must likely to maximize that individual's desire fulfillment.

And others would have self interested reasons to act contrary to other people's desires to advance their own desires. People are going to constantly have conflicting desires.

At it's base, desirism is founded on something that is subject to what people think. It falls to the same complaints that utilitarianism and self-interested humanism do.

woodchuck64 said...

bossmanham,


That someone is a specific age is an objective truth, BUT there is no objective age that applies to everyone no matter what they think


But there is, the average age. In the same way, measuring all people's brain states in theory could give us a measure of average well-being, or average desire fulfillment.

But note that I'm not saying we're measuring moral behavior itself, or averaging people's moral intuitions in this approach, rather desirism is stating up front that moral behavior is defined in terms of the result it has on overall measured brain states (along with all other objective measurements that may need to go into a determination of average desire fulfillment or desire thwarting).


But if we're basing morality on individuals, then we've got moral relativism.


In a scientific approach to morality, we would be checking the result of morally unknown behavior by the effect it has on average brain states (assuming such can be objectively measured) to determine if those actions are good or bad. That's not relativism as long as the scope encompasses all individuals.


I just want to point out that anyone who holds to desirism is NOT following their own moral system, because we haven't done this scientific study. I'm not even sure that it's possible to do such a thing.


Yes, it's difficult to apply desirism beyond the obvious things that are rarely morally controversial. Alonzo has opinions about how desirism applies to many ethical quandries/dilemmas but he admits that proof is hard to come by.

On desirism's appeal to the individual:

And others would have self interested reasons to act contrary to other people's desires to advance their own desires. People are going to constantly have conflicting desires.

True, but it stands to reason that cooperation is better than conflict.

bossmanham said...

woodchuck,

But there is, the average age. In the same way, measuring all people's brain states in theory could give us a measure of average well-being, or average desire fulfillment.

An average age is not an objective age that applies to everyone, it is a mathematical median. Are you saying we should apply a mathematical median to what people desire to determine what we do?

And you still haven't given a reason to think that well being is what we should aim for. What about the people who think that people's well being is a bad thing? That is a subjective and arbitrary standard, and I'm not sure why anyone should accept it.

In a scientific approach to morality, we would be checking the result of morally unknown behavior by the effect it has on average brain states (assuming such can be objectively measured) to determine if those actions are good or bad. That's not relativism as long as the scope encompasses all individuals.

It is relative to what people think at that specific time. That can change over time, and is contingent on specific circumstances. Any type of utilitarian moral theory is susceptible to these problems.

It's far too easy to conceive of obvious moral atrocities that could be justified by simply measuring averages of people's desires. If, on average, the desire happened to be fewer children on the planet, then it would be morally good to off children until the desire is fulfilled. Heck, Hitler could be said to have followed the theory on a region wide scale.

There is nothing that says that people's desires are good, and since they are contingent on preference of a species, they change, ergo they are relative.

On desirism's appeal to the individual:

And others would have self interested reasons to act contrary to other people's desires to advance their own desires. People are going to constantly have conflicting desires.

True, but it stands to reason that cooperation is better than conflict


I can think of many reasons where that is false. It is right to cause conflict rather than to capitulate to tyranny, for instance.

woodchuck64 said...

(Note: I'm attempting to separate the discussion of whether the moral approach outlined originally by Luke is best described as an objective/subjective realist/relativist approach from the discussion of whether the moral approach is really in tune with our moral intuitions. This is part 1 of 2)


Are you saying we should apply a mathematical median to what people desire to determine what we do?


Sort of; we need to apply a mathematical equation to determine if behavior is good or bad, although so far what I've described would be a fairly simple function; for behavior to be called "good", "X > Y", where X is the number of people with well-being or desires being fulfilled by the action and Y the number of people without well-being or desires being thwarted by the action, for example.


It is relative to what people think at that specific time. That can change over time, and is contingent on specific circumstances.


Yes, desire fulfillment or well-being in general is not solely a function of the actions of other people and is certainly affected by environment, possibly genetics, etc. But measurements would have to take that into account; only the desire fulfillment/thwarting or well-being/misery that is caused directly or indirectly by the behavior in question should contribute to the moral conclusion, the rest has to be filtered out of the results to properly evaluate cause and effect.


people's desires ... are contingent on preference of a species, they change, ergo they are relative.


If you mean species may evolve genetically and this might affect the interplay between social actions and overall desire-fulfillment or well-being, I agree. But that seems to require fairly large time-scales, such as hundreds of thousands of years or more.

If you mean desires are random or have no relationship with the activity of other people, that might be a problem for the theory, but it doesn't seem to be true to me.

To summarize at this point, I see definite moral realist (moral propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion) aspects to the approach outlined by Luke and it doesn't seem anything like moral relativism (which I interpret to say it's okay to reach different conclusions based on the same facts). If you still don't agree, it would helpful to me if you define what you mean by moral realism/relativism in this context.

woodchuck64 said...

(part 2 of 2)

And you still haven't given a reason to think that well being is what we should aim for.


That's correct, I haven't, and that's because I'm trying to first explain the objective/subjective question of the approach as stated above.

I don't personally believe well-being is something we should aim for.

But how do we to talk about the superiority of moral theories at all, how do we measure them? If I use my own moral intuition to judge the "fit" of another, I might as well argue I don't need a new moral theory, because I've got one already that apparently I trust implicitly. On the other hand, if I don't use my moral intuition, what other metric do I use to judge the superiority of one moral theory over another? I would be interested in your thoughts on how atheist and theist can discuss the proper definition of morality or if this is an area we've already agreed to disagree (and one of us didn't get the memo).

A final note on desirism:

If, on average, the desire happened to be fewer children on the planet, then it would be morally good to off children until the desire is fulfilled. Heck, Hitler could be said to have followed the theory on a region wide scale.


Well, it's difficult to imagine a state of affairs where killing children would tend to fulfill more desires than it thwarts. Further, a desire for life is always stronger than a desire to kill, and strength of desire is another factor that goes into desirism calculations. If we somehow manage to invent a scenario where desirism says it's okay to kill children-- everyone's strongest desire is to kill children for example-- the question is then whether the species we've defined are really human beings in the first place. If they can't reasonably be thought of as human beings, we can't reasonably apply our moral intuition to such a scenario and arrive at anything useful. And that's assuming that moral intuition is useful at all in trying to adjudicate moral theories.

bossmanham said...

Woodchuck,

Sort of; we need to apply a mathematical equation to determine if behavior is good or bad, although so far what I've described would be a fairly simple function; for behavior to be called "good", "X > Y", where X is the number of people with well-being or desires being fulfilled by the action and Y the number of people without well-being or desires being thwarted by the action, for example.

That's all well and good, but it's still arbitrarily based on the median of what people's desires happen to be at that point.

And what if the median happens to be what nobody holds to? If half of the people hold to 0 as a desire, and the other half hold to 10, the median is 5. No one is even close to desiring 5. How can you ever approach fulfilling the desires of anyone in that case? This would cause desire stalemate, not fulfillment.

Yes, desire fulfillment or well-being in general is not solely a function of the actions of other people and is certainly affected by environment, possibly genetics, etc. But measurements would have to take that into account; only the desire fulfillment/thwarting or well-being/misery that is caused directly or indirectly by the behavior in question should contribute to the moral conclusion, the rest has to be filtered out of the results to properly evaluate cause and effect.

And this is supposed to be morality for real life? This is ridiculous sophistry. No one thinks of morality in this way. No one thinks we should average what people desire to determine what is good, because we know that some desires are wrong!

Consider this, there are more Muslims than almost every other people group in the world next to Christians. Sbjugating women is a desire for a good bit of these Muslims, because it would correlate to the teaching of their holy book. In order to increase desire fulfillment, we should be subjugating women. Now come on. This is obviously a morally vacuous
system that would allow that.


Not to mention that it seems like the goalposts are continually being moved with every objection that I bring up.

If you mean species may evolve genetically and this might affect the interplay between social actions and overall desire-fulfillment or well-being, I agree. But that seems to require fairly large time-scales, such as hundreds of thousands of years or more.

And? Moral values change, ergo they are relative. Doesn't matter how much time it takes.

If you mean desires are random or have no relationship with the activity of other people, that might be a problem for the theory, but it doesn't seem to be true to me.

Not my point. My point is that desires are contingent on the people that have them. That means they change.

To summarize at this point, I see definite moral realist (moral propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion) aspects to the approach outlined by Luke and it doesn't seem anything like moral relativism (which I interpret to say it's okay to reach different conclusions based on the same facts). If you still don't agree, it would helpful to me if you define what you mean by moral realism/relativism in this context.

Something that is objective is something that is true no matter what anyone thinks. Whether you think it or not, there is a tree in my front yard. Something that is subjective depends on what people think about it. Chocolate is delicious depends on people actually thinking that. If we had evolved slightly differently, there may be no person that could stomach chocolate. Therefore, chocolate would not be delicious. But there'd still be a tree in my front yard.

Desirism lands in the chocolate category.

bossmanham said...

Woodchuck part 2,

But how do we to talk about the superiority of moral theories at all, how do we measure them? If I use my own moral intuition to judge the "fit" of another, I might as well argue I don't need a new moral theory, because I've got one already that apparently I trust implicitly

You could, but I think that's shortsighted. What if you say that they way you happen to sense morality must correlate to an actual reality and you should find the reality that it correlates with. I think you know that isn't desirism.

On the other hand, if I don't use my moral intuition, what other metric do I use to judge the superiority of one moral theory over another? I would be interested in your thoughts on how atheist and theist can discuss the proper definition of morality or if this is an area we've already agreed to disagree (and one of us didn't get the memo).

I don't think atheistic thought is very helpful in the realm of ethics, because they can't have an objective morality by definition. It would depend ultimately on individual preference, which ends up in Peter Singer territory.

And, purely for the sake of argument, even if you could come up with a decent meta-ethic, there is no way to tell people they ought to adhere to it.

Well, it's difficult to imagine a state of affairs where killing children would tend to fulfill more desires than it thwarts

Not to me. In fact, it seems to be in practice all over the world every day. See American abortion on demand, China population control, Muslim sharia law, etc.

Further, a desire for life is always stronger than a desire to kill, and strength of desire is another factor that goes into desirism calculations

Who the heck says? How could you gauge that? There have been some pretty driven people who kill lots of other people, and there are lots of people who want to die.

If we somehow manage to invent a scenario where desirism says it's okay to kill children-- everyone's strongest desire is to kill children for example-- the question is then whether the species we've defined are really human beings in the first place.

Again, it's not hard to conceive of, and it already seems to be in practice. This is just moving the goalposts anyway. All that is required of desirism is desire fulfillment. Speaking of hypothetical situations just fleshes out the shortcomings of this dead-on-arrival idiocy.

woodchuck64 said...

bossmanham,


Something that is objective is something that is true no matter what anyone thinks. Something that is subjective depends on what people think about it.


True. Now suppose 10 people like chocolate, and 5 people dislike chocolate. It's objectively true that the majority prefer chocolate, isn't it?

Now let's add in a hypothetical moral theory. Eating chocolate is good if more than 50% of the population like it, otherwise eating chocolate is bad. Is this an objective moral theory? Sure, it's a silly moral theory, but is it objective? I think it is.

Desirism is objective, and hence a moral realist theory, in the same sense.

woodchuck64 said...

Continuing, the second theme of this discussion is whether or not desirism makes sense as a moral theory. First, how do we judge moral theories and moral intuition in particular?


What if you say that they way you happen to sense morality must correlate to an actual reality and you should find the reality that it correlates with.


Partly true. What I believe is that my moral sense is an evolutionary stable solution for my species and culture, but simply because evolution came up with it doesn't make it moral, and that's my quandry. From evolution, I know that my moral sense wants me to be most altruistic towards those that share most of my genes, and, conversely, be ready to be up in arms at any provocation of other cultures or groups against my culture or group.

Without being able to trust my moral intuition, I have to use some other standard, and ultimately I think it does come down to my own desires, both selfish, inwardly directed, and selfless, outwardly directed. This is where desirism has its appeal because it argues that a desiristic society is one in which my desires, both selfish and altrustic, are more likely to be fulfilled.


Not to mention that it seems like the goalposts are continually being moved with every objection


My "goal posts" are to describe a complex moral theory accurately and simply, and I've probably not achieved that so far, so I'll keep working on it. Note that a lot has been written on this at Alonzo's website and at CSA. If anything I say seems counter to that, I'm probably in the wrong.


No one thinks we should average what people desire to determine what is good, because we know that some desires are wrong!


But why are those desires wrong? The key answer appears to be because they tend to thwart desires overall. That is why desirism says desire thwarting is linked to "bad", while desire fulfilling is linked to "good".


Sbjugating women is a desire for a good bit of these Muslims, because it would correlate to the teaching of their holy book. In order to increase desire fulfillment, we should be subjugating women


But subjugating women thwarts the desires of the women being subjugated, so it's more likely desires are thwarted overall than fulfilled (desirism's cost function). In addition, it's not hard to see that a desire to dominate a woman is one small desire compared to the woman's many desires that are thwarted by the domination.


And what if the median happens to be what nobody holds to? If half of the people hold to 0 as a desire, and the other half hold to 10, the median is 5. No one is even close to desiring 5.


I'm probably introduced some confusion talking about medians and averages, I'm not sure exactly what you're getting at above. Think of desirism as concerned only with desire fulfillment and desire thwarting overall that results as the consequence of (im)moral activity. Number of desires fulfilled, number of desires thwarted and strength of desires are what needs to be measured in order to arrive at a conclusion of the morality or immorality of an action.


There have been some pretty driven people who kill lots of other people, and there are lots of people who want to die.


Certainly, but most people aren't driven to kill and most people don't want to die. "Most people" is mainly what desirism is concerned with for moral judgements, meaning there will always be a minority left out in the cold (pyschopaths for example).

bossmanham said...

True. Now suppose 10 people like chocolate, and 5 people dislike chocolate. It's objectively true that the majority prefer chocolate, isn't it?

Yes, but then turn it around and say 10 people don't like chocolate and 5 do. In that case eating chocolate would be bad. So, as can be seen, what is right or wrong is subject to people's preferences. Not only that, it is subject to majority rule.

So no, desirism is blatantly subjective. It is subject to the whims of the majority. Morality would morph as desires morph.

Not only that, it's just utilitarianism renamed. Fyfe hasn't introduced anything new here at all.

woodchuck64 said...

bossmanham,


Yes, but then turn it around and say 10 people don't like chocolate and 5 do. In that case eating chocolate would be bad. So, as can be seen, what is right or wrong is subject to people's preferences. Not only that, it is subject to majority rule.


Here's the key difference between objective truth and subjective truth under hypothetical chocolate morality:
1) If chocolate morality is subjective, each of 15 persons is free to make up their mind about whether or not chocolate liking is good or bad, there is no definitely good or bad to chocolate liking.
2) If chocolate morality is objective, chocolate liking is definitely good or bad for all 15 persons.

In this scenario, because I defined morality in objective terms, the question of whether chocolate liking is good or bad applies to everyone; anyone can do the math and determine the moral answer. Do you agree with this use of subjective/objective morality?

It is certainly true that "chocolate morality" depends on society (not individual) preference. Desirism does too, and that's supposed to be a strength not a weakness. Morality, under atheism, is about resolving social conflict, and conflicts arise because of preferences/desires that people have that conflict with other people. Without God to tell us what to do, we have to couch morality in terms of the desires that people have. But that doesn't mean everyone makes their own rules as subjective morality would imply.

Desirism doesn't pass judgment on desires, but instead simple assumes that desires to be called "good" will tend to fulfill desires in one's self and others, while desires to be called "bad" will tend to thwart future desires in one's self and others. This simple formula is surprising close to the way our moral intuition already works -- doing good to people directly fulfills their desires, doing bad to people directly thwarts their desires -- although, as previously mentioned, I'm not sure how far to trust moral intuition.


Not only that, it's just utilitarianism renamed.


I've seen it referred to as desire utilitarianism but it is quite different from traditional utilitarianism in that it doesn't identify a specific metric that ought to be maximized in the same sense as act or rule utilitarianism. Alonzo and Luke should be addressing these points soon in their morality podcasts at http://commonsenseatheism.com and give us something more to work with.

On an unrelated issue, I've found it surprisingly difficult to have a lengthy, in-depth conversation on your blog due to comment character limits and spurious blogger errors (Request-URI too large). Due to that, I've essentially given up trying to publish a prior comment addressing your criticisms of desirism in more depth. I'd certainly appreciate if you'd find a way to make the experience a bit easier for your commenters.

bossmanham said...

Here's the key difference between objective truth and subjective truth under hypothetical chocolate morality:
1) If chocolate morality is subjective, each of 15 persons is free to make up their mind about whether or not chocolate liking is good or bad, there is no definitely good or bad to chocolate liking.
2) If chocolate morality is objective, chocolate liking is definitely good or bad for all 15 persons.


This is an ad hoc moving of the goalposts. Objective truth is something that's true in spite of what people think. This truth, in your case, is entirely dependent on what people think and what the median thought process happens to be at the time. If the Nazis had won out and reeducated the world, then guess what...

In this scenario, because I defined morality in objective terms, the question of whether chocolate liking is good or bad applies to everyone

Only if they think it.

Do you agree with this use of subjective/objective morality?

No, your redefinition doesn't persuade me. Seems to me that desirism is an attempt to redefine terms. It's a complete hijacking of utilitarianism. All Fyfe and Muehlhauser have done is stuck a new name on it and tried to redefine other terms. Sad.

It is certainly true that "chocolate morality" depends on society (not individual) preference.

Yes, exactly, which is precisely why it isn't objective. It isn't true in spite of thought.

Desirism does too, and that's supposed to be a strength not a weakness.

Except 1) that's not how anyone senses morality, 2) performs morality, or 3) preserves morality. Society rule can be a nasty thing, except under desirism what we consider nasty would actually be good if the median thought process dictated it was.

Morality, under atheism, is about resolving social conflict, and conflicts arise because of preferences/desires that people have that conflict with other people.

Unless it was desired by the majority to cause social conflict.

Desirism doesn't pass judgment on desires, but instead simple assumes that desires to be called "good" will tend to fulfill desires in one's self and others, while desires to be called "bad" will tend to thwart future desires in one's self and others.

Which would mean that Jim Jones wasn't evil, he just did things that may have stifled some desires. Except it seemed that many people desired to follow him...hmm...

On how moral intuition works: I don't think most people would agree with that at all. While sometimes fulfilling desires could be a good thing, most people intuitively feel that some things are wrong no matter when and where they are committed and no matter who thinks it's wrong. That may be changing, but I don't solely base morality on intuition. I have an all knowing revealer of morality.

On Blogger issues: I actually have no control over the commenting issues, at least none that I know of.

When I get the too many character issue, I just cut and paste into multiple posts. I always type my posts in Notepad or Word and then cut and paste.

The request URI doesn't keep it from posting, just hit back on your browser and it should be there; at least it usually is for me. It's annoying, but it is possible to work around.

Other than that, I'm certainly open to suggestions. Blogger's been doing it for a few months. I don't know why. I just think the hassel of switching providers would be too much, and I like the Google interconnection.

woodchuck64 said...

bossmanham,


Objective truth is something that's true in spite of what people think.


In the chocolate scenario what is "true in spite of what people think" is that the majority like chocolate. That chocolate-liking is good, given the majority preference, is true by definition (at least for the sake of argument), so also true in spite of what people think.

Any subjectivity at all in this scenario comes from the fact that all this objective truth (i.e. true in spite of what people think), is based on people's attitudes, which may change, but why is that enough to change the characterization of the overall process from objective to subjective?

Is an election by vote best called an "objective election process" or "subjective election process"? By my reasoning, I would say objective since the person with the most votes wins. By your reasoning, I think you would call it subjective because it is based on the preferences and attitudes of people.

Likewise, is a market survey of a popular soft drink best called an "objective survey" or "subjective survey"? By my reasoning, I would say objective, since the process objectively determines the popularity of a soft drink. By your reasoning, I think you would call it subjective because it is based on personal preferences.

Would you think it accurate to call elections or marketing surveys subjective or objective?


Except 1) that's not how anyone senses morality, 2) performs morality, or 3) preserves morality. Society rule can be a nasty thing, except under desirism what we consider nasty would actually be good if the median thought process dictated it was.


The question is whether "nasty" ever can be defined to "good" under desiristic assumptions and the human race as we know it. I'm open to the question, but so far I haven't seen that demonstrated clearly.


Which would mean that Jim Jones wasn't evil, he just did things that may have stifled some desires. Except it seemed that many people desired to follow him...hmm...


Actually, evil is strongly in the category of stifling/thwarting desires, so yes, desirists would call Jim Jones evil. The question might be whether or not his followers had their desires thwarted if they truly desired to commit suicide. Since they were told that an afterlife awaited and they were also told that they would be severely tortured if they did not commit suicide, effectively their true desires for life were thwarted by deception.


While sometimes fulfilling desires could be a good thing, most people intuitively feel that some things are wrong no matter when and where they are committed and no matter who thinks it's wrong.


I think that is true, and that in practice most desiristic morality is like that as well since it depends mainly on desires that are fairly stable over large time scales (food, family, health, happiness). But if, for example, suddenly half the population developed a mutation that turned them into brain-eating zombies, desirism might well give the nod to destruction of the human race. But this is an area I'd like to hear Alonzo or Luke clarify in more detail.

bossmanham said...

woodchuck,

You're continuing to confuse categories here. In the chocolate scenario, it's obvious that there is an objective state of affairs in that case. But what makes chocolate-liking good or bad, on desirism, is that people like it and it must be a majority, which is subject to the people. It is contingent on what people think, which is contingent on their subjective feelings on the subject.

but why is that enough to change the characterization of the overall process from objective to subjective?

Because that's the definition of subjective; relying on what people think. It's only true that people like chocolate because they subjectively enjoy it. Chocolate is delicious is not an objective truth, it only becomes true if people personally think it.

Is an election by vote best called an "objective election process" or "subjective election process"? By my reasoning, I would say objective since the person with the most votes wins. By your reasoning, I think you would call it subjective because it is based on the preferences and attitudes of people.

Yes, elections are based on the subjective attitudes of people. There may be an objective winner, but that winner is contingent on the subjective attitudes of the electorate.

Likewise, is a market survey of a popular soft drink best called an "objective survey" or "subjective survey"?

Taste is subjective and depends on individual preference. Just like desirism.

Would you think it accurate to call elections or marketing surveys subjective or objective?

They're quite obviously subject to the whims of people.

THAT chocolate is good is not true unless people think it is. It's a category error to equate the fact that they like it with IT IS GOOD. It's only good if they like it.

Objective morality is true regardless of who likes it and regardless of majority opinion.

The question is whether "nasty" ever can be defined to "good" under desiristic assumptions and the human race as we know it. I'm open to the question, but so far I haven't seen that demonstrated clearly.

I've done it. Not my fault you refuse to see it.

Actually, evil is strongly in the category of stifling/thwarting desires, so yes, desirists would call Jim Jones evil. The question might be whether or not his followers had their desires thwarted if they truly desired to commit suicide.

Yet if it were the case that most people desired these people dead, and these people also desired death, then it would be as I described it. If it's based on desire fulfillment, then any desire is valid if it's the majority desire, even ones that are obviously not.

I think that is true, and that in practice most desiristic morality is like that as well since it depends mainly on desires that are fairly stable over large time scales (food, family, health, happiness).

You can't seem to grasp the fact that there are scenarios that we can conceive of where this is blatantly false. You can't do that with DCT.

woodchuck64 said...

bossmanham,


Yes, elections are based on the subjective attitudes of people. There may be an objective winner, but that winner is contingent on the subjective attitudes of the electorate.


So you would say our US Democracy is a subjective form of government? That seems a strange use of "subjective" to me.


THAT chocolate is good is not true unless people think it is. It's a category error to equate the fact that they like it with IT IS GOOD. It's only good if they like it.

Objective morality is true regardless of who likes it and regardless of majority opinion.


In an election, we say that "Senator Joe was elected" is an objective truth regardless of who likes him and regardless of the majority opinion. Likewise for desirism: if desirism says something is good, it is good regardless of who likes it and regardless of majority opinion.

Are you saying that objective morality must be objective AND be based on something more than the attitudes/opinions of persons? Because adding the latter as a requirement of "objective" runs into the problem described above where you end up calling the US government "subjective" because it relies on the opinions and attitudes of people, clearly a poor fit.

Let me suggest that you mean this: morality must be objective AND must be independent of the attitudes/opinions of all humanity. Desirism fulfills the first but not the second.

BTW, some of this ground is being covered over at cl's blog in excellent detail.


I've done it. Not my fault you refuse to see it.

I don't believe that's fair to say I "refuse" to see it. I have considered all cases you've mentioned and attempted to the best of my ability to understand and respond to them. Do you recall which example you feel best expressed your objection? Perhaps it was addressed in a comment I wasn't able to post?

bossmanham said...

woodchuck,

So you would say our US Democracy is a subjective form of government? That seems a strange use of "subjective" to me.

It's formation is subjective yes. While it holds as an objective law for Americans, it is only for Americans and depends not only on men for its development, but it depends on the consent of the people who adhere to it, which means it is not true in spite of what anyone thinks.

In an election, we say that "Senator Joe was elected" is an objective truth regardless of who likes him and regardless of the majority opinion.

Yet his election is subject to and contingent on people electing him. His election is not a necessary truth. Just like desirism.

Let me suggest that you mean this: morality must be objective AND must be independent of the attitudes/opinions of all humanity

Because the attitudes and opinions of humanity are subjective! The ultimate basis of your moral theory is subjective. That means that it isn't true for all people at all times regardless of what they think. I though that was pretty clear.

woodchuck64 said...

bossmanham,


It's formation is subjective yes. While it holds as an objective law for Americans,


If the US government holds as an objective law for Americans, desirism should also hold as an objective moral code for those who wish to abide by it. Being based on the attitudes/preferences of a majority shouldn't be enough to classify something as "subjective", or it wouldn't feel so strange to refer to our US Democracy as a "subjective" form of government.

A democracy specifically strives to overcome subjectivity in two ways: it forms its laws (or elects its law-makers) by the will of a majority, and its laws apply to everyone governed, regardless of opinion or preference. A democracy insists on a majority for a law or law-maker so no person can claim that the laws are specific or peculiar to an individual (which would be subjective). A democracy applies its laws universally to the governed, so no person can claim that the laws are simply a matter of taste (which would be subjective).

Desirism is like democratic voting on morality, except that people don't pull levers, they vote by virtue of simply holding desires and reacting as human beings to other human beings (assuming such desires can be accurately measured). That's as objective as you can get without grounding morality in something beyond humanity. Atheist morality can only be as universal or objective as the laws of an all-encompassing democratic society, but that's still a lot better than personal preference.

bossmanham said...

If the US government holds as an objective law for Americans, desirism should also hold as an objective moral code for those who wish to abide by it.

Why you can't see the problem with this very post is beyond me. That is just relativism blown up like a baloon. You create your own system, which is subjective, and you base it off of people's desires, which are subjective, and then say it IS what is right and wrong. You can call it what you want, but anyone in their right mind can see through this silliness.

Except where it is based on the actual moral law we perceive, the US government's law is subjective at base. It only becomes a standard for Americans and is based on what they think. Though it becomes the standard for Americans, it is not truly an objective, true in spite of what anyone thinks, standard. If desirism is less than this, then it doesn't meet the standard that theism sets and does not correlate to intuition. It's about the saddest attempt I've seen, in fact, which is why I'll bet it hasn't gained any ground in any academic circles.

Being based on the attitudes/preferences of a majority shouldn't be enough to classify something as "subjective",

Other than that is the definition of subjective.

will of a majority

Is subject to the thoughts and feelings of the majority, which is made up of individuals. Apparently you're unfamiliar with the problems majority rule brings about, ie subjugation of minorities. That's why our form of government isn't a democracy. You don't escape subjectivism, you just embrace a larger subjective sample.

Really, there's nothing more to say here. You want to alter the definitions being employed, but I'm not going to let you get away with it. Anything that is based off of people's thoughts is subjective, plain and simple. Objective truth is true in spite of what people think. Trying to rescue this pathetic moral theory is very telling about the status of atheism in our time.

I'm glad we've had the discussion. It's clarified desirism for me, and shown it's utter failure in accomplishing what Fyfe and Muehlhauser have claimed it does. I'm not sure why you've ignored most of what I've said and ignored the conceptual problems with the theory, but it's really not something that I'm impressed with at all.

This will be my final post here. And my final response till after the new year anywhere on the blog.

woodchuck64 said...

bossmanham,

If you are content to call a democracy a subjective form of government, then I agree that you are using "subjective" consistently when applying it to desirism. However, I continue to believe you are misapplying the term. Perhaps it's time to agree to disagree.

Throughout this conversation, I get the strong feeling that you are trying to pick a fight (using terms like "silliness", "pathetic", "utter failure", etc.), while I've been trying to "pick" a conversation, hoping to successfully understand and communicate. It's difficult for me to have a productive dialog with someone who is constantly injecting emotive terms into the conversation.
Just letting you know.

bossmanham said...

As I've said before (not here) I think ideas are open for insult. And trying to apply false labels to certain ideas are as well. Some ideas just really are dumb. You may not like it, but I'm pretty open when I criticize ideas.

I think we've had a productive conversation, and I think telling you exactly where I stand is important. If ideas get bashed, that's part of dialog. I don't see how that makes it hard to communicate. I think letting people know what you think of ideas is fine. Also notice I have not insulted these ideas without giving my reasons for doing so.

I've left it up to you to describe how desirism makes morality something that isn't subject to human thought. The more I've seen of your exposition of the idea, the less I've found it even worth considering. That's not against you, but against an idea I think is not only not worth considering, but harmful if employed.

I hope that helps.