Desirism: A Quick & Dirty Sketch

There’s an ethical theory I’ve had interest in for some time, called ‘Desirism’ (or ‘Desire Utilitarianism’). Unfortunately, you won’t find it in any Ethics textbook, nor in any journal, nor even amongst the pages of Wikipedia. Nevertheless the theory has a substantial online presence, and is supported and elaborated by thinkers of quality (e.g. originator Alonzo Fyfe, Luke Muehlhauser) who make a strong case against more mainstream alternatives.

The theory has convinced myself and many others that a robust Moral Realism actually has a shot at being true, whereas prior to encountering it, a factual interpretation of moral statements seemed so absurd to me I assumed Realism couldn’t be true. On the other hand, the theory has never really crystallized in my head – some parts of the account seem to cohere with others, but the logical relations are not made explicit; and in still other parts the generality of the description is unsettlingly vague.

I begin with the briefest of explanations, one that will only get us so far as defining the moral good. But be warned: my explanation will be idiosyncratic, and I doubt the aforementioned thinkers will completely agree with my way of presenting it.

Demystifying Value

Explanations of Desirism typically give an account of value in general, and then proceed to an analysis of moral value in particular. The rough idea is as follows: Values imply valuers, therefore values are existentially dependent upon these valuers. But it is also true that what is valued is often independent of the valuer – the intentional object valued is part of the external world. So, values are a kind of relation between valuers and what they value, an idea which sits well with our intuitions that values are real, but that they are themselves insubstantial.

What sort of relation could that be? A clue here is the observation that values help to direct our actions in the world, along with beliefs: how we act depends on what we value. But, what is strikingly similar, so too do our actions depend upon what we desire. So it seems a good bet that desire and value are related. The Desirist explanation is that values are relations between desires and the states of affairs desired1: desires confer value, so what is desired is said to have value2. When desires are fulfilled by realizing the state of affairs desired, so too is the value realized. Symmetrically, desires can be thwarted when the desired state of affairs is prevented from being realized – think, for instance, of a party girl wanting to attend a concert, but being grounded instead – and so the value will fail to be realized.

This leads to the obvious distinction between positive and negative value. When we say that what is desired is valued, this typically means that it is valued positively. By contrast, where a desire is thwarted, that positive value fails to be realized, and a corresponding negative value is realized instead: a thwarted desire is a kind of penalty. When a desire is neither thwarted or fulfilled, no value is yet realized by it either way.

This tidy analysis allows us to begin to analyse the language of value. For instance, we know that a generic ascription of ‘good’ is one which evaluates, and so we know that some desire or set of desires are being implicitly referred to in the use of the word. We also know that, because ‘good’ is an adjective, there is some state of affairs which is being related to those desires and described by the word. Further, we know that ‘good’ bestows positive value upon a state of affairs, so that the term has to do with the realization of what is desired. Contraversly, ‘bad’ bestows a negative value, which implies that the desires fail to be realized – it thwarts them.

The term ‘good’ is highly plastic. Though sometimes deployed in an unrestricted sense – evaluating a state of affairs to all desires – it is much more common that a user has a restricted set of desires in mind. Just what desires are to be attended to is something that can be left to the context of use, or signaled by qualifying the term in various ways. One way is describe a state of affairs as “good-for-X”, e.g. “good-for-you”, which restricts the set of desires to those possessed by X. Another way is to adverbially qualify ‘good’, such as when we describe a state of affairs as “good fiscally”, or to affix a category, as when we talk of what is “good healthwise” or “good in an aesthetic sense” – this way of qualifying indicates desires by type, the type being desires to do with, e.g. finance, health, or aesthetics.

A word here is required about just what is meant by ‘desires’, before we get too far. Just as one might say that “there are many beliefs”, and one could be referring to broad kinds of belief everyone shares, or instead individual instances of belief, so too is ‘desires’ ambiguous. At least in the case of the second form of qualification, we should interpret ‘desires’ as picking out (tokened3) types rather than tokens of desire. Whatever is ‘good’ in a particular categorical sense is good because it fulfills the kinds of desires to do with the category, not good insofar as it fulfills multiple instances of a kind of desire.

Moral Good

But we’re interested in the ‘morally good’. That it is a species of good indicates positive value, and thus a relation of desire fulfillment. The adverbial qualification is a clue that a type of desires is being appealed to. But what type of desires? According to the Desirist, all types of desires4. I do not know of any persuasive argument for this point5, except perhaps to point out that “moral good” and “good” are terms often used synonymously, and the unrestricted scope of ‘moral good’ can perhaps be inferred from this. If there is a difference between the good and the morally good, the difference may be in that the latter picks out types, whereas the former is ambiguous as to between types and tokens.

Given that what is morally good is to be evaluated against all (tokened) desire-types, and given that it fulfills these being ‘good’, is there anything else to add? Yes, there are at least two more elements required. The first element is the Desirist thesis that moral concepts like ‘morally good’ are primarily applicable to desire-types6. So, for example, the ‘desire to give charitably’ is a desire-type, and will count as morally good if instantiation of this type fulfills the other desire-types. This primary evaluation allows derivative evaluations, most notably, the evaluations of actions according to the desire-types that we take those actions to exhibit. So, what we have here is a kind of virtue theory, based on desire-types, rather than character traits.

The second element we need is, well, subtlety. A desire-type is going to fulfill some desire-types, and thwart others, but it is not therefore both morally good and bad. Our evaluation needs to account for the preponderance of desire-fulfilling over desire-thwarting such that, all else being equal, a desire-type which fulfils more desire-types than it thwarts is a morally good desire. Further, some desire-types are stronger than others, and therefore their fulfillment is of greater value than weaker peers – we need to weight the various types. And finally, though one desire-type may fulfill another desire-type, greater value accrues to a desire-type which more often fulfills that other type, which means that the propensity to fulfill or thwart other types must factor in the weighting of types, too. These adjustments greatly complicate the process required to assess moral value, but I think it can be seen that each one is necessary to an accurate analysis, given our understanding of value.

Thus we arrive at a mature account of moral good, though it becomes more naturally expressible in terms of an equation than a definition. A desire-type is morally good iff, as a function of .. (i) the numerical preponderance of desire-types it fulfills over those it thwarts, (ii) the comparative strength of desire-types it fulfills to those it thwarts, and (iii), the tendency of the desire-type to fulfill or thwart other desire-types, .. the desire-type has a net positive value. If as a function of those three conditions a desire-type has a net negative value, then that desire-type counts as morally bad, or evil.

1 It is natural to talk of objects as desired and valued, rather than states of affairs. However, any expression of this sort can be easily translated into the philosophical vernacular: “I want ice-cream” can be interpreted as a desire to realize the state of affairs in which the person ‘I’ refers to has icecream.
2 An analogy might help. Justification is a relation between (e.g.) a belief and adequate grounds for that belief. It is the grounds which confer justification, and it is in virtue of the grounds being so related to the belief (sometimes by way of other beliefs) that the grounds confer justification upon the belief. Having justification conferred on it, we now call the belief ‘justified’. Notice that ‘justified’ here masquerades as a non-relational property, when in fact justified beliefs are always justified in relation to their grounds. So too with ‘value': that something has value depends upon its relation to some grounds, and the grounds are desires.
3 Why tokened types, rather than all types? Because if a value statement is to be true, the desire-types which form one of the two relatum had better exist.
4 I’m uncertain whether this analysis is defective – one naturally thinks that if ‘epistemically good’ picks out desires to do with knowledge, then ‘morally good’ should pick out desires to do with morality. The analysis so far is compatible with many other ethical theories, e.g., that ‘morally good’ picks out other-regarding desires which exhibit sympathy.
5 Some suggest that only the consideration of all desires could escape the charge of being arbitrary, since any restriction would need to be justified (and what could justify it?), yet at best this is a weak prima facie justification for wide scope. Another reason given is that morality is universal. I think this is true, but it is not a finding of the Desirist analysis of moral concepts, and so I do not think relativism should be ruled out.
6 I offer no argument here, as I have none. All I can offer is that the thesis may be justified in hindsight, by the fruit it bears.

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27 thoughts on “Desirism: A Quick & Dirty Sketch

  1. Yair says:

    The main problem with desirism (IMO) is that it forgets that “values are a kind of relation between valuers and what they value”. Iinstead it wrongly posits that “values are a kind of relation between desires and what they refer to”, and is thus led astray. It’s conjuration of the sum total of desires as conferring value is akin to establishing a god – in this sense, desirism is yet another religion, its adherents striving to interpret and follow the will of a nonexistent deity. However, desirists know this god doesn’t exist. Verily, desirism is the most evanescent of all religions.

  2. Charles says:

    “The adverbial qualification is a clue that a type of desires is being appealed to. But what type of desires? According to the Desirist, all types of desires. I do not know of any persuasive argument for this point …”

    In reading Alonzo’s book, this is the part where I have trouble too. It seems to be the right answer (to consider all desires), but I cannot see why it is.

  3. TaiChi says:

    Yair,
    I’m quite happy to grant Fyfe his conception of value, but where I think he goes wrong is in taking the the value to have normative force. You’ll see what I mean my next post, which won’t be too far away.

    Charles,
    If by ‘Fyfe’s book’ you mean “A Better Place”, I hope you’ll stick around and comment – I’m basing my posts off of what I’ve found online.

  4. Gregg says:

    Thank you for the extremely well-written and clear post!

    It seems that you’ve pointed out some of the problems that have also bothered me about Desire Utilitarianism (DU) – specifically in relation to your footnotes 4 and 5. There are two justifications that I’ve heard concerning this points.

    Firstly, one can take “morally good” to be stipulatively defined by “the fulfillment of all desire-types”.

    Secondly, the Desirist can argue that this is how “morally good” is in fact used by most people most of the time – that is, that this analysis is consistent with the lexical definition of “morally good”.

    These two lines of reasoning need not be unrelated.

    What do you think of these?

  5. Gregg says:

    One additional issue that I have with DU that I failed to mention in my last post is the following: DU claims that one of its strengths is that it refers only to things that exist in the real world (namely desires – be they brains states or states of a soul, most people would say that desires in some sense exist).

    But a problem arises when, as you clearly pointed out in your post, it is not desire-tokens that are being considered in DU, but (tokened) desire-types. The former exist, but the latter have questionable ontological status – for does a group of things that exists itself have ontological import?

    A further ontological question arises: suppose that a desire-type X is clearly morally good in DU. Furthermore, suppose X is not currently tokened. Would DU suggest we use praise and reward to encourage X? If so, then it is referring to something that doesn’t exist.

  6. TaiChi says:

    Thank you for the extremely well-written and clear post!” ~ Gregg

    You’re welcome :)

    Firstly, one can take “morally good” to be stipulatively defined by “the fulfillment of all desire-types”.

    Secondly, the Desirist can argue that this is how “morally good” is in fact used by most people most of the time – that is, that this analysis is consistent with the lexical definition of “morally good”.

    I think these are related: stipulating a definition of ‘morally good’ is justified just in case the definition mostly picks out what we would call “morally good”. It seems that Desirism does this rather well, so I’ve no objection to these responses, once we know what the theory says.
    On the other hand, most Desirists seem to think that our moral intuitions are unreliable, and that this is why we need a theory like Desirism. Since there is little doubt that intuitions guide our use of moral terminology (Desirists note this and deplore it), justifying the theory on the basis of current usage doesn’t seem to be an option for them. I’d be happy to take intuitions seriously, myself.

    But a problem arises when, as you clearly pointed out in your post, it is not desire-tokens that are being considered in DU, but (tokened) desire-types. The former exist, but the latter have questionable ontological status – for does a group of things that exists itself have ontological import?

    I’m afraid I know little about the problem of universals, so I can’t give you a satisfactory answer. It may or may not help to notice that “Desire-tokens exist” invokes a universal just the same as “Desire-types exist”, though the latter is a collection of universals.

    A further ontological question arises: suppose that a desire-type X is clearly morally good in DU. Furthermore, suppose X is not currently tokened. Would DU suggest we use praise and reward to encourage X? If so, then it is referring to something that doesn’t exist.

    That’s a good question. As I’ve worded it, I don’t think that Desirism allows the evaluation of non-tokened types, since it takes a hard line on only referring to things that exist. That is, the desire-type wouldn’t be morally good, even if it could be morally good, were it to be tokened. That doesn’t seem right.
    The problem generalizes, too. If a desire-type must exist, if it must be tokened to be evaluated, then so too must any state of affairs which is desired to be evaluated. That leads to the absurdity that one can’t value future state of affairs because they don’t exist yet. Yikes.
    The obvious solution would be to say that the object of evaluation need not exist, though the desire-types evaluated against do (i.e. they will be tokened). That would be sufficient to patch the account, I think.

  7. faithlessgod says:

    hi TaiChi

    Glad to see you are willing to start promoting – and hence holding up desirism to further scrutiny – in your own blog.

    I cant help but see that my type-token arguments helped you grok desirism,as you noted in another blog, but I am still a little concerned.

    The main point of those arguments, not addressed to you, was that people mistakenly treated single instances of a desire as the desire per se, rather than noting it is the same desire – the same brain state – occurring in multiple instances. And the desires under consideration are sufficiently similar, as to be considered the same desire across multiple agents. Consider the desire to eat, it occurs a few times a day for each agent, and every agent has the same desire. Different instantiations will have a variety of different desires involved and different actions (walking eating a sandwich, sitting down to dinner etc.) . The reason for that argument was that if they treated individual instances of a desire they were leading towards an act utilitarian evaluation, which desirism is not.

    Anyway we all have our own style of testing these ideas, the more the merrier, and the more we can stimulate, clarify and enhance our understanding of and possible limitations of this topic… or find a better theory.

    Look forward to reading future posts.

  8. TaiChi says:

    Faithlessgod,
    Thanks for dropping by. I have to say your concern puzzles me – if you’re going to employ the type/token distinction as a ‘pedagogical device’, to demonstrate to how Desirism and act utilitarianism differ, then this can only be legitimate if the type/token distinction is implicit in the theory. But if it is implicit, then I think it’s well worth making explicit, because, as Luke once said, it’s the number one misunderstanding of the theory. As it turns out, it’s also worth making explicit because it helps to expose a fallacy in Fyfe’s derivation of an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, which is the subject of my latest post.

  9. faithlessgod says:

    OK I will look at that post then.

  10. Hello,

    If you would permit me to be another drive-by supporter of desirism, I would like to talk a little bit about being uncertain why moral evaluation includes *all* desires, instead of just the desires the person doing the promoting has.

    The definitional argument that if morality means “good for everyone”, than we should consider all desires holds, but I agree this isn’t very convincing. Why should I care about promoting what’s good for everyone? Why not just what’s good for me, personally? Desirism seems to sneak in this shift without explaining why.

    I agree that this has typically been the weak point of the theory, but I think I finally have a strong defense for it.

    For example, if you have an aversion to being punched in the face, you can either promote “don’t punch me, specifically, in the face” or you can promote “don’t punch anyone in the face”. The first one considers just your desires, while the second one considers all desires. It turns out, however, that the second one is more likely to be accepted and make sense, because why are you so special in this case? Therefore, you have reason to promote general aversions, and not just you-specific aversions.

    Perhaps you (hypothetically) might ignore someone who desires to be racist to Mexicans because you are not Mexican and you are indifferent to Mexicans. However, you still have reason to condemn a desire to be racist to anyone, not just anyone except Mexicans, because otherwise you end up being arbitrary and unconvincing. What makes it okay to be racist to Mexicans, but not be racist to anyone else?

    Now, you might ask, sure I have reasons to promote good desires, but do I have reasons to have good desires? It turns out you do — specifically, the typical aversion to feeling guilt and cognitive dissonance and the desire to be consistent in your beliefs. Furthermore, if you want others to take your moral praise and condemnation seriously, you need to “take your own medicine”. It’s hard to imagine anyone considering your claim that no one should punch people in the face while you go around punching people in the face.

  11. TaiChi says:

    Hello Peter,

    The definitional argument that if morality means “good for everyone”, than we should consider all desires holds, but I agree this isn’t very convincing.

    It’s a lacuna in the Desirist’s analysis, yes.

    I agree that this has typically been the weak point of the theory, but I think I finally have a strong defense for it.

    I think you’re trying to answer a different question than the one I posed. What I wanted was an explanation of why terms like “aesthetically good” would refer to desire-types pertaining to aesthetics, “fiscally good” would refer to desire-types pertaining to finance, etc., whereas the term “morally good” would refer, not to desire-types pertaining to morality, but to all desire-types. It seems very weird that there should be this apparently singular exception to the adverbial modification of good, and that suggests that the Desirist analysis does not quite line up with the folk understanding of morality. That (somewhat) diminishes its plausibility unless an explanation can be given.
    Nevertheless, I’ll remark on the question you are trying to answer, which I think is: why ought I do what is good for people generally?

    For example, if you have an aversion to being punched in the face, you can either promote “don’t punch me, specifically, in the face” or you can promote “don’t punch anyone in the face”. The first one considers just your desires, while the second one considers all desires. It turns out, however, that the second one is more likely to be accepted and make sense, because why are you so special in this case?

    This is an interesting response. So, although there might be no straightforward logical justification for the consideration of all desires in one’s practical reasoning, there is a pragmatic justification for the consideration of all desires, yes? But now notice that the supposed pragmatic justification you point out depends upon people generally taking the practical consideration of all desires to be acceptable, to make sense, to be reasonable – in short, to be logically justified. And so we have a cicle of a kind: people ought to act for the good of people generally because people generally believe that people ought act for the good of people generally.

    That’s not to say it’s a vicious circle. I don’t take your practical argument to be unjustified. But I do think it comes remarkably close to the view that morality is a myth which, now entrenched, it is useful to comply with or at least feign to comply with. Desirism now courts moral anti-realism in a way which is at odds with its realist pretensions.

    Now, you might ask, sure I have reasons to promote good desires, but do I have reasons to have good desires? It turns out you do — specifically, the typical aversion to feeling guilt and cognitive dissonance and the desire to be consistent in your beliefs.

    And of those who lack guilt? Do they fail to have reasons to cultivate their own good desires? What of those for whom other considerations outweigh the guilt they may incur (which fades in time anyway)?
    The problem with trying to find a practical reason for people to do the right thing, or be the right kind of person, is that whatever reason you come up with will fail to apply universally, to all rational agents. And even if you manage to solve that problem, you still need to show, since moral reasons ‘trump’ reasons of any other kind, that your reason or reasons suffice to outweigh other considerations.
    Frankly, I can’t see how this can be done. I think the project is hopeless.

  12. TaiChi, thank you for your long and thoughtful response. I apologize for also responding with a very lengthy response:

    You’re right that I misunderstood the question that you posed. I think the objection you actually raised is a correct and completely true objection, but does not invalidate desirism at all.

    By my understanding of desirism, you are correct in saying that a “good hammer” does not take into account everyone’s desires, but only the “desires in question” — those of the people using the hammer, and those desires directly related to hammering.

    It is also true that any formulation of good really means “good for objectively satisfying {specific desire}”. The hammer is not good generically, but good for objectively satisfying my desire to get this nail into wood.

    Now why does the term moral good not mean “good for objectively satisfying desires related to morality”? My answer is that you are actually correct, and moral good does indeed mean good for objectively satisfying desires related to morality. Similarly, science is good for objectively satisfying desires related to science (figuring out the world and making predictions of anticipated experience, etc.)

    However, morality also typically refers to universal prescriptives — what we have reason to promote (prescriptive) in everyone (universal). This is the desirism thesis, which I think is best summarized in the statement “you have reason to (1) promote desires-as-ends that objectively satisfy other desires and (2) promote the desires-as-means that best satisfy those desires-as-ends”.

    Now you don’t have to call this morality or moral good. Moral good could instead refer to what is good for objectively satisfying our desires for a moral world, etc. You could call it flubbityjug for all I care, the thesis about what you have reasons to promote would still stand on its own merit.

    The fact that desirism does not line up to the folk methods of moral language is rather irrelevant, since that language has typically been in error (see Mackie). Fyfe gives the example of language related to “atom” — when we discovered that the atom was not actually indivisible, we did not discard the word because it still referred to something useful.

    Does that make sense?

    As for the second comment, you are also correct. Desirism does not claim to have a magic phrase that you can use to make anyone who hears it to adopt desirism as their moral theory and become moral. In actuality, desirism says that there can be no such phrase, and if you found a phrase, desirism would be false. You’re right that such a project would be hopeless. Desirism most emphatically does not embark on this project.

    Similarly, however, science does not contain a magic phrase to convince all creationists to adopt evolution as their theory of ancestry. However, this does not make evolution false.

    When we encounter psychopaths, we need to either find some way to cure them (if possible) or prevent them from doing harm (such as jail). We have strong reason to create a second defense of rewards and punishments to convince them to be moral for immediate practical reasons (avoiding jail) if they are unconvinced by other reasons.

    If desirism does not offer a magical means to make everyone moral (even if it might be in their long term, rational self-interest), what does it offer? Well, it gives us a steering path for how those who want to be good can go about it, as well as objective language to use to condemn evil practices.

    I believe could rephrase desirism as such: If you want to be a good person, you ought to promote desires-as-ends that tend to objectively satisfy other desires and the desires-as-means that best satisfy those desires-as-ends. If you don’t want to be a good person, realize that you are likely not acting in your own best interest and we have reason to find some way to persuade you to do so.

    Hopefully that helps?

  13. TaiChi says:

    Now why does the term moral good not mean “good for objectively satisfying desires related to morality”? My answer is that you are actually correct, and moral good does indeed mean good for objectively satisfying desires related to morality. Similarly, science is good for objectively satisfying desires related to science (figuring out the world and making predictions of anticipated experience, etc.)

    Well, you haven’t quite made an analogy there: you’re comparing ‘moral good’ to ‘science’, rather than to ‘scientific good’. And when we do compare ‘moral good’ to ‘scientific good’ we see a dissimilarity: whereas ‘scientific good’ might be thought to refer to some specific subset of desire-types to do with science (desire for understanding, prediction, etc.), ‘moral good’ on the Desirist hypothesis does not refer to a subset of desire-types. That’s what’s odd – the lack of restriction that the qualifier ‘moral’ places on the term ‘good’ – not that (what is false) the absence of some set of desire-types to do with morality.

    Now you don’t have to call this morality or moral good… the thesis about what you have reasons to promote would still stand on its own merit.

    Stand, or fall, yes.

    The fact that desirism does not line up to the folk methods of moral language is rather irrelevant, since that language has typically been in error (see Mackie).

    Mackie’s view, as I understand it, is that people generally understand moral terms to refer to objective values, and that because there are no objective values, moral realism is false and moral discourse is in error. So Mackie is prepared to take moral language at face value and find it ontologically erroneous. I see nothing wrong with that approach.
    On the other hand, to take the approach you suggest of finding the error in people’s understanding of their own terms rather than in thinking the terms refer may or may not be acceptable. A theory which competely did away with folk morality wouldn’t deserve to be called a ‘moral theory’, whereas one which subtly and systematically reinterpreted folk morality would probably be a good candidate. So, in sum, I disagree that folk morality is irrelevant: it is both a constraint on the notion of a moral theory, and a measuring stick for the plausibility of a moral theory.

    As for the second comment, you are also correct. Desirism does not claim to have a magic phrase that you can use to make anyone who hears it to adopt desirism as their moral theory and become moral.

    That is not quite the worry I have. The problem is not that the Desirist analysis cannot compel people to be moral, for it is only a theory, and even the most well-founded theory may fail to persuade those who are irrational. No, the problem is that the Desirist may fail to offer anything compelling to an ideally rational agent (i.e. to offer a rational reason to them), if it happens that the agent has some sufficiently unusual basic desires.

    Well, it gives us a steering path for how those who want to be good can go about it, as well as objective language to use to condemn evil practices.

    I’d be happy with a moral theory which gave us the correct analysis of moral concepts. I expect that if we have that, then practical benefits will follow, but I don’t think one should adopt any theory on the basis of its consequences.

    I believe could rephrase desirism as such: If you want to be a good person, you ought to promote desires-as-ends that tend to objectively satisfy other desires and the desires-as-means that best satisfy those desires-as-ends. If you don’t want to be a good person, realize that you are likely not acting in your own best interest and we have reason to find some way to persuade you to do so.

    And because I don’t think we should adopt a philosophical theory on the basis of its consequences, I don’t think you should rephrase Desirism this way. A philosophical theory is not an appeal, designed to manipulate subsequent behavior. It is an attempt to state what is true.
    Actually, this anti-pragmatism on my part is probably the reason I lost interest in Desirism (the above post is over a year old): whilst Fyfe’s original book rarely appeals to consequences, in later material by him it is common. The mixing of logical and practical arguments made it more laborious to assess for truth than was worthwhile.

  14. CharlesR says:

    Have you all been reading Luke’s current writing on the topic?

    I think he would say (in many cases) that moral language is an implied hypothetical imperative (whether the speaker realizes it or not).

    See
    http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/No-Nonsense_Metaethics

    • TaiChi says:

      Have you all been reading Luke’s current writing on the topic?

      I haven’t, but thanks Charles – I much prefer these sort of posts from Luke than going through the lengthy podcasts.

      I think he would say (in many cases) that moral language is an implied hypothetical imperative (whether the speaker realizes it or not).

      I think so too, but I’ll wait for the post on that before I comment.

  15. I apologize, but I’m still not understanding your point on “moral good”. How is anything but a semantics issue? “Moral good” on the desirist hypothesis can indeed be an abbreviation of “good for morality-related desires” and therefore refer to a subset of desire-types, but “morality” can also refer to statements about the system of a desires as a whole. Why is that not possible?

    A problem with folk morality is that it has not typically been a single thing. Instead, it has taken many forms — good is what God commands, good is what maximizes happiness, good is what maximizes well-being, good is what you can will to be a universal law, good is what people would agree to in a hypothetical social contract, good is what an ideally rational and impartial hypothetical observer would suggest, etc. Ontologically, none of these definitions are remotely compatible.

    Desirism does not do away with “folk morality” any more than science did away with the “folk atom”. These folk moralities have referred to as universal prescriptives, and desirism has found a way to phrase universal prescriptives — the desires you ought to have and promote.

    If desirism is found to not be deserving of the term “moral theory” as you define it, than that’s fine. Then there is no moral theory in our world. This, however, doesn’t make the claims of desirism false.

    If the agent has a set of desires such that it is rationally for the agent to act immorally, than the agent is going to act immorally if rational. Desirism predicts this and agrees with you — no such moral theory can convince a rational agent to be moral if being moral isn’t rational.

    I would first argue that, as argued by Richard Carrier, I don’t think any human being has desires where it is actually rational to act immorally. Though I concede I don’t fully understand all the subtleties of what “rationality” means in every situation, and that it is rather difficult to know how this statement can be proved either way.

    However, what we can do instead (and this is what desirism has suggested all along) is change the agent’s desires so he doesn’t have such a weird subset. We can threaten the agent with imprisonment and/or removal of his property (assuming his aversion to these exist and are stronger than whatever desires cause his immoral behaviour).

    Perhaps this is not the point, but would you agree that most people with average desires, such as you and I, would have reason to stop this agent if he was threatening to kill people?

    You are correct that “A philosophical theory is not an appeal, designed to manipulate subsequent behavior. It is an attempt to state what is true.” I agree with you there. If desirism’s many claims are not all true, there is no point in adopting the theory. Instead, it must be revised or abandoned.

    Desirism, still, is a theory about what all agents capable of intentional action have reason to do and would do if they were fully informed and rational. I only appealed to the consequences of the theory because you said the approach was hopeless. The consequences of the theory are what give us reason to continue the research, not what gives us reason to support a given theory.

    I also apologize to you for necro’ing a year old post — I honestly misread the date when I posted.

  16. TaiChi says:

    “Moral good” on the desirist hypothesis can indeed be an abbreviation of “good for morality-related desires” and therefore refer to a subset of desire-types, but “morality” can also refer to statements about the system of a desires as a whole.

    But, on the Desirist analysis, ‘moral good’ does not refer a (proper) subset of desire-types, but to all desire-types – your suggestion amounts to changing the theory to get rid of the problem. (So I think – if the theory has changed in this detail, then my point no longer applies).

    I apologize, but I’m still not understanding your point on “moral good”.

    Then I propose we leave it alone: I don’t see how I can explain it more clearly than I have, and it is, by my own admission, but a minor point anyway.

    A problem with folk morality is that it has not typically been a single thing. Instead, it has taken many forms — good is what God commands, good is what maximizes happiness, good is what maximizes well-being, good is what you can will to be a universal law, good is what people would agree to in a hypothetical social contract, good is what an ideally rational and impartial hypothetical observer would suggest, etc. Ontologically, none of these definitions are remotely compatible.

    The forms of morality that you list are not propositions belonging to folk morality; instead, they are the results of philosophical theorizing about folk morality. The first exhibits Divine Command Theory, the second Hedonistic Utilitarianism, the third Harris-style Utilitarianism, the forth Kantian Deontology, the fifth Social Contract Theory, and the sixth Ideal Observer Theory.
    Ok, but then surely the existence of such mutually exculsive theories about morality lends credence to assertion that folk morality is inconsistent? Well, no, no more than the existence of mutually exclusive physical theories lends credence to the assertion that the phenomena of physics are inconsistent.

    Desirism does not do away with “folk morality” any more than science did away with the “folk atom”.

    Great. But if it doesn’t, why the assertion that folk morality is irrelevant? Why the concern to persuade others that it is inconsistent, and that we can develop Desirism independently of it? This ambivalence just looks like a way of Desirists having their cake and eating it too: we are invited to adopt the theory because it largley accords with out pre-theoretical understanding of morality, but to disregard any ways in which it may depart from that understanding because folk morality doesn’t achieve the coherence and consistency of philosophical theory.

    If desirism is found to not be deserving of the term “moral theory” as you define it, than that’s fine. Then there is no moral theory in our world. This, however, doesn’t make the claims of desirism false.

    I tend to think that it does make the claims of Desirism false, since I include amongst those the claim that moral realism is true, and that various moral concepts are to be analyzed on Desirist lines. But suppose you are right, and that the content of the theory is restricted to claims like “S has reasons-for-action to do A, therefore (ceteris paribus) S ought to do A”. In that case, why should any moral philosophers be concerned to refute it? Why should they care about a theory which its propenents are willing to concede isn’t a moral theory?
    Ah, but you do think that moral philosophers should care, don’t you? And so you do hold, after all, that Desirism is a moral theory. But as such, Desirism needs to be argued for as a moral theory: the attempt to insulate it from criticism by conceding that it is not a moral theory won’t do. (And before you go on to argue against the connotation that Desirism cannot be argued for as a moral theory, please be clear: I think it can be argued for as a moral theory, I am just arguing that it should be argued for as a moral theory).

    I would first argue that, as argued by Richard Carrier, I don’t think any human being has desires where it is actually rational to act immorally. Though I concede I don’t fully understand all the subtleties of what “rationality” means in every situation, and that it is rather difficult to know how this statement can be proved either way.

    Carrier’s statement is quite implausible, so he would need a strong argument in its favour. But I do think that he would need to be right for a theory like Desirism to be correct as a moral theory.

    However, what we can do instead (and this is what desirism has suggested all along) is change the agent’s desires so he doesn’t have such a weird subset.

    The problem for Desirism (indeed, all moral theory) is to show that moral statements apply to persons whatever their desire-sets are. What you offer as a solution here doesn’t touch that problem: it is a piece of applied ethics and not of ethics proper. This an example of the mixing of logical and practical arguments I wrote of earlier.

    Perhaps this is not the point, but would you agree that most people with average desires, such as you and I, would have reason to stop this agent if he was threatening to kill people?

    Yes, though I do not think any practical reasons we may have here amount to moral reasons to stop him from killing. One argument in favour of this point: you do not stop to consider what desires a person has before deciding that they ought to stop a murder, if they can do so without risk of harm to themselves or others.

    I only appealed to the consequences of the theory because you said the approach was hopeless. The consequences of the theory are what give us reason to continue the research, not what gives us reason to support a given theory.

    Okay, fair enough: I’ve misuderstood you here.

    I also apologize to you for necro’ing a year old post — I honestly misread the date when I posted.

    That’s okay. But if you find my criticisms dated, well, you now know why.

  17. I misunderstood you, I think. Typically, people might be inclined to say “any theory of morality requires categorical imperatives by definition”. If this is true, than desirism is not a moral theory, because desirism does not use categorical imperatives. Nor would it, because categorical imperatives are wishful thinking, creating a reason for action that doesn’t exist.

    So if you think desirism ought to be argued for as a theory of morality, I must admit confusion and ask you what you believe are the criteria for a theory of morality. I think desirism is indeed a theory of morality, because it accounts for moral good, moral bad, negligence, moral excuses, the concept of a “good person”, and the role of praise and condemnation.

    Most responses to theories of morality like utilitarianism is “Well, why do I have reason to maximize happiness?” This question has historically remained unanswered, making utilitarianism nice, but not compelling. Desirism is an attempt to make a theory of morality that is actually compelling, by referring to reasons for action that exist.

    To the best of my knowledge, asserting moral realism is true is asserting that proper moral debates are reducible solely to debates on facts that can be true or false. Desirism makes claims that can be true or false (you have reason to promote desires-as-ends that tend to objectively satisfy other desires, X is a desire-as-ends that tends to objectively satisfy other desires, whatever is morally good is that which you have reason to promote in others universally, X is morally good).

    Why would I assert that folk morality is irrelevant? The answer is I didn’t actually assert that. I think folk morality is irrelevant when it refers to reasons for action that don’t exist (God and categorical imperatives).

  18. TaiChi says:

    I misunderstood you, I think.

    Well, not wholly. I’ll try to make myself clear.

    Typically, people might be inclined to say “any theory of morality requires categorical imperatives by definition”. If this is true, than desirism is not a moral theory, because desirism does not use categorical imperatives.

    Here’s what I think:
    (I) When people say that morality requires the truth of categorical imperatives, then they are philosophizing, and so this need not to be taken as part of the data to be covered by a theory of morality. What needs to be covered by a theory of morality is whatever it is about folk morality which motivates this kind of philosophizing, and one can do that, of course, by sketching a theory of morality which makes central the categorical imperative, or by explaining why moral imperatives might seem categorical but are actually not (e.g. that a hypothetical imperative covers most situations, and the folk overgeneralize), or by citing some non-cognitive source as having a corrupting influence on our moral thinking (e.g. explaining the categorical imperative as useful but ultimately fictional product of our evolutionary past). So, though I think the Desirist should explain folk morality, I don’t think they have any duty to explain folk philosophizing about morality, and this distinction in principle allows the Desirist to deny the sorts of idea that he wishes to. (I say “in principle”, because the appropriateness of doing so yet depends upon how well the Desirist accounts for folk morality).
    (II) Even if it is true that categorical imperatives are part of the folk morality, then it does not follow that Desirism is not a moral theory. Perhaps the categoricity of moral imperatives is not, pace Kant, central to moral discourse, but merely one aspect of folk morality among others of equal or greater intutive value. That, for example, seems to be the position taken up by various Consequentialist theories, and if these are known as moral theories, then there is no reason why we should not also describe Desirism as a moral theory too.
    (III) That said, I myself believe that categorical imperatives are central to folk morality. Or, I believe it this far: to say that S ought to do A is to say something the truth of which does not typically turn on what desires A or anyone has.

    Nor would it, because categorical imperatives are wishful thinking, creating a reason for action that doesn’t exist.

    If the Desirist is correct in asserting that imperatives advert to desires, then yes. But as my third point above suggests, anyone who believes that categorical imperatives are central to morality should think that the Desirist analysis is wrong. They should not believe that imperatives refer to desires, and they should not believe that desires are the only reasons for action.
    I don’t have space to get into it here, but the kind of theory I have in mind would explain reasons for action in terms of what people ought to do, rather than vice versa. If you’re interested, you can read this for a taste of what that might go like.

    So if you think desirism ought to be argued for as a theory of morality, I must admit confusion and ask you what you believe are the criteria for a theory of morality.

    The criteria for a theory of morality is set by our pretheoretical understanding of morality. The concepts that you list fall under this folk morality, and that is why accounting for these things marks Desirism as a moral theory.

    Most responses to theories of morality like utilitarianism is “Well, why do I have reason to maximize happiness?” This question has historically remained unanswered, making utilitarianism nice, but not compelling. Desirism is an attempt to make a theory of morality that is actually compelling, by referring to reasons for action that exist.

    Conceding for the sake of argument that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, it still does not follow that the Desirist can give an adequate answer to the sort of question asked of the Utilitarian. Why? Because even though Desirism would succeed where Utilitarianism fails in identifying a possible answer to the question, it may yet fail to give an answer in fact. That is, the searching questioner may fail to have the desires from which one could infer that they ought to act so as to fulfil more desire than they thwart.
    So, in the end, I don’t think Desirism has an advantage here. It doesn’t offer a more compelling answer to the meta-ethical question than other theories after all. (One can of course argue that the question can’t be answered, which is fair enough, but if so, it follows that no moral theory holds advantage over another in this respect).

    Why would I assert that folk morality is irrelevant? The answer is I didn’t actually assert that. I think folk morality is irrelevant when it refers to reasons for action that don’t exist (God and categorical imperatives).

    I think a better word here would be “mistaken”: insofar as folk morality refers to reasons for action that do not exist, it is mistaken. It may yet be relevant to moral theory: supposing that reference to such fictional reasons is central to moral discourse, it indicates the truth of error-theories as opposed to realist theories.

    Well, I’m not sure where we go from here, Peter. I suspect I’ll make little progress in convincing you unless I outline my alternative theory, and I don’t feel ready to do that yet – my understanding of the theory I am inclined to (linked above) is incomplete.

  19. Sorry for the slow reply, I’ve been away from the internet recently.

    You’re right, I misunderstood you. I actually think you make a great point — we might be able to better understand meta-ethics by exploring the psychology of ethical statements. Why are people motivated to make ethical judgements? What do these judgements have in common?

    I think it would be interesting to look into further. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html seems to be a good intro to this.

    However, I’m not really using desirism to look for an account of why people make the judgements they do — I’m using desirism to look for an account of which judgements we should make. What do we truly have reason to promote or condemn?

    I agree that the first question is also important and interesting, and both questions help answer each other. I don’t claim Desirism to have be the end of all research into morality, or even a comprehensive answer. To me, it is a start.

    The problem of saying “S ought to A” is that S can always respond “Why ought I A? Why can’t I realize not-A?”. This is the weak spot I have focused in on regarding morally recently.

    I think when you say “S ought to A, regardless of whether or not S *wants* to A” is really a statement that “I have reasons to promote A, at least to S”. In desirism terms, this means that we have reasons to promote a desire to A.

    Desirism, at least as I understand it, identifies the desires we have reasons to promote and then suggests how to promote them. Alonzo Fyfe’s recent blog post http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2011/06/moral-should-statements.html I think clarifies this a lot. (Desirism has suffered from a huge problem of not being communicated well, I concede.)

    Anyone who thinks categorical imperatives are important to morality can still advocate desirism, which I think offers a realistic reduction of categorical imperatives into things we can actually do. Any other sense of categorical imperatives needs further justification, otherwise it sounds like wishful thinking — “You ought to A, oh how I wish you had a reason to A.”

    Of course, I’m always interested in disproofs of desirism or justifications of categorical imperatives. I look forward to your theory.

    In summary, I agree with absolutely everything you said in your previous comment, and I think desirism produces the categorical imperatives you’re looking for by reducing them to that which we have reasons to promote.

  20. TaiChi says:

    The problem of saying “S ought to A” is that S can always respond “Why ought I A? Why can’t I realize not-A?”. This is the weak spot I have focused in on regarding morally recently.

    I think when you say “S ought to A, regardless of whether or not S *wants* to A” is really a statement that “I have reasons to promote A, at least to S”. In desirism terms, this means that we have reasons to promote a desire to A.

    Well, that’s one kind of solution I guess. But it’s a queer one: when a mother tells her son “You [son] ought to pay respect to others, regardless of whether you want to”, is the mother really giving comment on what she herself has reason to do? On what she herself ought to do? Of course, it’s probably true that the mother intends to promote respect for others in her son by saying what she does, but if that is the only reason she makes the self-reflective assertion and not the intent to state some other fact, then since “I have reason to promote respect for others to my son” isn’t a moral statement, neither should we consider “You [son] ought to pay respect to others, regardless of whether you want to” a moral statement either. That is, your solution would seem to have the consequence that morality drops out of language altogether.
    But it gets worse. When the son says that “I ought to pay respect to others”, he is, I presume, saying something about what he himself ought to do. But suppose he says instead “I ought to pay respect to others, regardless of whether I want to”. Is he now making a claim analogous to the mother’s, about what someone other than him has reason to promote to him? And who would that someone be, if we changed the story so that the mother had died and the son was now reflecting on what his mother had tried to instill in him? Perhaps this is instead now a claim about himself? But then why would the mother not make the same claim about him when saying something similar? I raise these questions to indicate the proposed solution is likely leads to an anamolous semantics.

    Desirism, at least as I understand it, identifies the desires we have reasons to promote and then suggests how to promote them.

    Yes, in a way. Just as Utilitarianism was both a political philosophy and moral theory, so too is Desirism, because both theories can talk about what society (at the most general level) should do and make sense. Having said that, a moral theory has to be able to sensibly translate these general claims to claims about what individual should do, and here I think both theories fail.

    Alonzo Fyfe’s recent blog post.. I think clarifies this a lot.

    Well, as I’ve read it, I may as well try to point out what I find wrong with it. First, notice the Fyfism..

    Now, I want to bring back the claim that “should” has to do with “reasons for action that exist,” and desires are the only reasons that exist.

    Now, why is that true? Why are desires the only reasons for action that exist? Fyfe answers..

    When I say, “You should do X”, a sensible question to ask is, “Why should I do X?”

    The sensible answer to this question is for me to describe the relationship that exists between the action that I am recommending and the reasons for action that exist. Reasons that do not exist are not relevant to what you should really do. And desires are the only reasons for action that actually exist. So, my answer to your “should” question is to relate the action to various reasons for action (desires) that exist.

    And that seems reasonable, right? But now he decides..

    At this point, we can divide these reasons for action that exist (desires) into two groups. There are reasons for action that you have, and reasons for action that exist but that you do not have.

    ..and here we have to be careful. It is not just the case that there are some reasons for action that I have that exist and some I don’t which also exist. It is further the case that the reasons for action that I have that exist are reasons for action for me, and not for anyone else. That is, the concept of a reason for action is, on Fyfe’s terms, relative to the individual person.
    But if the concept of a reason for action is relative to the individual, then one obviously cannot answer the question “Why should I do X?” with a reason for action that is not relativized to me, just as (supposing aesthetic facts are relativized to persons) nobody can answer the question of “Why should I eat wichitee grubs?” by citing the tastes of other like the Aboriginal Australians. And so, pace Fyfe, one cannot answer the question of “Why should I do X?” by by citing reasons for action that exist which I do not have.

    When I say, “You should not lie” in this sense – the moral sense – I am not saying that you HAVE reasons not to lie. I am saying that there exist a great many and strong reasons for people to cause you to have a reason not to lie. I am saying that they have many and strong reasons to offer rewards (such as praise) to those who are honest, and to offer punishments (such as condemnation) to those who lie.

    And this, frankly, gives the game away. Even if we grant Fyfe this special moral sense of “should”, the fact that he is now effectively introducing a new term makes all his prior argument useless, since he has not shown that it applies just as well to the usual “should” as to this new moral “should”.
    In fact, it’s no longer clear why we need refer to desires as grounding moral imperatives at all, as the previous justification doesn’t apply. Why not say that the correct answer to “Why should I do X?”, taking “should” in the moral sense, cannot be something other than desires? Well, I’m sure you could raise another argument here, to do with Desirism predicting our moral judgments best, but the point I want to make here is that the current argument fails to discredit alternative theories. Finally..

    You may respond that this is not what you mean by the word “should”, or that you do not agree with the claim that this captures how the word is actually used. Neither of these counter-claims are actually worth a great deal of effort. Neither proves that the substantive claims of this theory are false. They are merely disagreements over the language used in expressing those substantive claims, not the substantive claims themselves.

    .. what shall we make of this? Fyfe basically invites us to ignore everything he has written up to this point about the meaning of “should”. Well then, if he cares so little about defending his semantic theses, then I’m inclined to take him up on that invitation. As for what is left, I find the descriptions about what desires people have to be fairly uninteresting, now that the pretense of constructing a moral theory from them has been dropped. Back to your comments..

    Anyone who thinks categorical imperatives are important to morality can still advocate desirism, which I think offers a realistic reduction of categorical imperatives into things we can actually do.

    I’m yet to see that reduction, so I’m unsure what you mean. But presumably it will be a reduction of categorical to nearly universal hypothetical imperatives, in which case, I don’t think it’s a reduction at all. What it could be is an explanation of why there seem to be categorical imperatives instead.

    Of course, I’m always interested in disproofs of desirism or justifications of categorical imperatives. I look forward to your theory.

    I think I’ll have to write on that eventually. Like many others, your allegiance to Desirism is at least partly based on a lack of sensible alternatives, and I’d like to show that there is another option.

  21. Thanks for continuing this conversation. Once again, I have been away from the internet, but have managed to steal away time to both craft and post yet another reply.

    On desirism, when a mother tells her son “You [son] ought to pay respect to others, regardless of whether you want to”, the mother is promoting a desire to pay respect to others in the son.

    We can further deconstruct this by asking why is the mother suggesting this ought to the child and not a different ought? Why is the mother suggesting oughts to the child at all? Answering these two questions might demystify moral language more than anything else.

    On desirism’s endorsement of and basis within the Belief-Desire-Intention (BDI) Theory of Motivation, it is psychologically impossible to do what you do not desire to do. This, however, need not imply that you feel a satisfaction for doing everything, for a seemingly undesired task like studying may be a desire-as-means meant to accomplish a strongly desired end such as getting good grades, coupled with an aversion to work.

    The reason desires are the only reasons for action that exist on desirism is the fact that desires fully account for all intentional action — one will only act on additional reasons such as categorical imperatives or sense of moral duty if one desires to do so. As such, these moral duties are labeled within the broad category of desires, and have the potential to be ignored by the agent.

    This leads to the consequence that any notion of “you ought to do x regardless of whether you want to” is incoherent, since by desirism’s definition of “what you want to do”, an agent cannot possibly do something regardless of whether the agent wants to, since the agent is only capable of doing what the agent wants to do. (I do not deny that other definitions of “what you want to do” are possible and might make sense here.)

    When the son himself says “I ought to pay respect to others” he is either stating that “I have a desire to pay respect to others”, “I have a desire to desire to pay respect to others”, or “Others have a reason to promote a desire to pay respect to others within me”.

    These statements (both by the mother and the son) contain what Fyfe calls both a factual and emotive component — they are both statements about what people have reasons to promote and promotions within themselves. Perhaps the contained emotive component fits your conception of moral language.

    Furthermore, I continue to not understand this “what people have reasons to promote doesn’t sound like moral statements to me, therefore what people have reasons to promote are irrelevant” argument that you make.

    Firstly, what people have reasons to promote appears to be the basis of all moral statements, since morality is about universally promoting an action. We only universally promote what we have reasons to promote. We might ask, why do we care about making moral statements at all, if we’re not talking about what we have reasons to promote?

    Explaining moral statements in terms of non-moral statements does not mean moral statements don’t exist, any more than is implied in any other reductionist scheme, such as reducing a human to matter-energy and physical laws. And as you mentioned, appealing to the consequences of the theory (such as it drops/reduces moral language) does not imply the theory is false.

    This is also what I think happens to the categorical imperative. Either it is incoherent, because it fails to actually be a reason for action (it doesn’t answer “Why should I follow your categorical imperative”), or it is equally explained by that which we have reason to promote. Either “You should do x, no matter what” means “I have reasons to promote x” (factual) and am promoting x (emotive) or it is creating some sort of force that compels the agent to act, which has not been demonstrated to be possible.

    The categorical imperative continues to make me skittish. I think it comes from the idea that there are things we want to promote in all people, but this does not translate to the idea that all people therefore have reason to follow the categorical imperative. This is the reason why I think such an imperative does not exist.

    To my limited knowledge, even Kant conceded this, and justified his categorical imperative by appealing to an Aristotelian sense of being moral makes you happy, which I have yet to see conclusive evidence for. (This is also the key feature of Carrier’s moral theory, though I haven’t yet read his book.)

    Lastly, I think you misunderstand Fyfe (or Fyfe doesn’t make himself adequately clear, which is probably more likely; or I misunderstood both you and/or Fyfe, which is also rather possible) in saying that he answers “Why should I do X?” by citing reasons for action that exist but the agent doesn’t have.

    Fyfe says “Why should I do X?” can only be answered by “Because doing X objectively satisfies your desires” with the corollary that people will have reasons to promote or condemn X, and this may indirectly create reasons for you (through rewards and punishments, for example).

    You’re right that I do hold to Fyfe/Luke’s Desirism mainly because of lack of alternatives, and I do think that there is a theory out there that looks a lot like desirism, but is much less muddled. Failing that, I might fall back to some flavor of “ends relativism” / “pluralistic moral reductionism”, where moral language consist of hypothetical imperatives flowing from certain ends, which are arbitrary.

    I concede that desirism has been presented in both an unnecessarily confusing and incomplete manner, and I had hoped I could fix that. I also think that desirism has a few other weak spots*, and I only wish their podcast came out with more regularity and would address these.

    I do look forward to hearing your formulation of a categorical imperative that makes sense (or whatever else you have) and hope it stands up to the criticisms of the error theorists.

    *: The weak spots I refer to are that, despite my introductory argument here, I am not convinced that we have reasons to promote all desires that tend to objectively satisfy other desires rather than just the desires that tend to objectively satisfy *my* desires. Secondly, I am not sure why an aversion to torture (which thwarts the desire to torture) is not considered a morally bad desire.

  22. TaiChi says:

    Thanks for continuing this conversation. Once again, I have been away from the internet, but have managed to steal away time to both craft and post yet another reply.

    That’s fine, but I think I need to wind it up soon. I don’t particularly want to spend much more time on this since, as I said, I don’t believe I can convince you to abandon Desirism without showing you an alternative.

    The reason desires are the only reasons for action that exist on desirism is the fact that desires fully account for all intentional action — one will only act on additional reasons such as categorical imperatives or sense of moral duty if one desires to do so.

    I take it that Desirism accounts for all intentional action in the sense that it provides an explanation for it: desires play a causal role in the production of intentions, intentions cause action. But, when someone asks “Why ought I do X?”, is the question asking for an explanation of their future action X? Or are they instead requesting a justification of their future action X?
    I take it as obvious that it’s the latter: anybody who asks why they ought to do X is looking for some justification of their doing X. But if that’s so, then the fact that actions are to be explained in terms of desires does not license one to say that one can only appeal to desires in answering the question “why should S do X?”. To assume otherwise is to mistake explanation for justification.
    That the Desirist commits a fallacy here is both good news and bad news. It is bad news in that the Desirist cannot rule out a priori competing theories of morality which postulate different reasons for action, since the argument which purported to do that is erroneous. The good news is that sensitivity to this distinction makes possible a satisfying answer to the amoralist: if the question “why should S do X?” only requires of moral theory a justification of S’s doing X, and not an explanation, then it is perfectly legitimate for the Desirist to appeal to desires which exist but S does not have in giving an answer to this question.

    When the son himself says “I ought to pay respect to others” he is either stating that “I have a desire to pay respect to others”, “I have a desire to desire to pay respect to others”, or “Others have a reason to promote a desire to pay respect to others within me”.

    Well, I think that’s rather ad hoc. There is no reason to think that is true, unless you are in the grip of a philosophical theory. I’ll just mark it as a cost and move on.

    Furthermore, I continue to not understand this “what people have reasons to promote doesn’t sound like moral statements to me, therefore what people have reasons to promote are irrelevant” argument that you make.

    I never made that argument. What I said was that the mother’s “I have reason to promote respect for others to my son” was not a moral statement. Since the mother’s having reason to promote respect for others to her son does not entail that people generally have reason to promote respect for others to the son, I have not asserted that last. You misrepresent me here.

    Lastly, I think you misunderstand Fyfe .. in saying that he answers “Why should I do X?” by citing reasons for action that exist but the agent doesn’t have.

    I think it’s clear that this is what Fyfe is saying…

    Fyfe says “Why should I do X?” can only be answered by “Because doing X objectively satisfies your desires” with the corollary that people will have reasons to promote or condemn X, and this may indirectly create reasons for you (through rewards and punishments, for example).

    .. as well as this. He hedges, I imagine, because his argument for desires being the only reasons for action that exist would make the first answer inadequate, and because the second answer is, considered dispassionately, a wildly idealistic one. Giving both arguments allows him to slide from one to the other when dealing with critics, whether or not he realizes that this is what he is doing.

    I concede that desirism has been presented in both an unnecessarily confusing and incomplete manner, and I had hoped I could fix that. I also think that desirism has a few other weak spots*, and I only wish their podcast came out with more regularity and would address these.

    Then it’s a tough task you’ve set yourself. There’s a ridiculous amount of writing that Luke and Alonzo have done on the theory, and unfortunately, no part of that corpus is authoritative on what their theory is. I found this out when posting the sequel to this post: though I found a fallacy in Desirism as presented in Fyfe’s online book, I was told that he no longer endorsed this position. Since I wasn’t happy with the clarity of his posts, I decided to ignore the theory until such a time as he (or Luke) did offer something as authoritative of the theory. It’s yet to eventuate.

    I do look forward to hearing your formulation of a categorical imperative that makes sense (or whatever else you have) and hope it stands up to the criticisms of the error theorists.

    Thanks, but don’t hold your breath. The book I need to read to do this is yet to be released (what I’ve read is part 1 of 2), so it’ll be awhile.

  23. Now’s actually good time to wind it up — I don’t want to be that guy who sticks around and talks to you forever. I enjoyed discussing meta-ethics and think I’ve got a new perspective. I have gotten more than what I came here for, so I’ll stop necro’ing your year-old post.

    On the contrary, I think you have done more to convince me to abandon Desirism than you think you have. Or, at least, I want to distance myself from it and reproach it; or at least wait for Alonzo and Luke to start writing more. I’m going to remove my posts on Desirism and save them for later, and rewrite myself into a more coherent theory after I do more research.

    I think morality is still related to desires, goals, or ends in some way — I see no other way to get an ought from an is. Now, I’m thinking of morality as something close to being synonymous with compassion, and I have no idea how to make sense of “ought”, and imagine that it will be completely reduced to other terms.

    I like your notion of the explanation-justification distinction, but have no idea what people are looking for when they want a justification. What does a justification look like, and what does it accomplish?

    I still think a key here (that I did not realize before talking with you) is to figure out why we care about morality at all. What does the study of morality aim to accomplish? Why have we had so little advancement after philosophizing about it for thousands of years?

    Good luck with the formulation and presentation of your alternative.

  24. TaiChi says:

    Thanks Peter.

  25. [...] to record the Morality in the Real World podcast, which intended to explain the moral theory of desirism. People ask me if I still “believe in” desirism, so let me explain my current thinking. [...]

  26. [...] another conclusion: preference utilitarianism (or it's 2.0 version, desirism) is at least incomplete. It would require that you know the preferences of all beings so as to find [...]

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