Go read the Atheist Ethicist.

I’ve been working on expanding the number of blogs I read regularly in general and the ones dealing with atheism in particular. In my wanderings I came across Alonzo Fyfe’s blog called Atheist Ethicist and it’s quickly become a daily read. Alonzo explores the realms of ethics and morality from the standpoint of an atheist and he puts forth a number of excellent arguments on everything from Secular vs Non-Secular Acceptance of Torture to The Limits of Religious Tolerance and he’s already helped me to clarify my own thinking on several of these topics in doing so. I don’t know how widely read his blog is, but I’d like to do my part to raise awareness of it.

In my experience most folks haven’t spent a lot of time examining the reasons why they have and hold certain moral viewpoints—this is true of atheists as much as it is any believer—and when it comes time to explain to other people why their particular viewpoint is correct, or even valid, they have a hard time articulating those reasons because they’ve not really thought about them all that much. Most often they’ve heard the viewpoint from someone else and it just seemed to make sense to them so they accepted it as correct. I like to think I’ve spent more time than most, but I have to admit that there’s been more than one viewpoint I’ve simply accepted as correct without devoting much thought to it and have been caught with my pants down when called on to explain my reasoning.

This is what makes Atheist Ethicist such a valuable blog. Alonzo has clearly spent a considerable bit of time not only thinking about his views, but studying various moral and ethical frameworks and he can argue his stance versus other proposed models very effectively. Occasionally it gets a bit thick in the tech-speak of ethics discussion and may make you a bit cross-eyed trying to follow along if you haven’t had similar training, but it’s worth the effort to work your way through it as you may be surprised at what you learn about yourself along the way. Take for example his most recent entry on Media Bias:

Last night, I read the article. “I Agree With You, Completely” from Jack Shafer on Slate.com. Slater’s article discusses what he called “a math-heavy paper” called “Media Bias and Reputation,” written by two economists, Matthew Gentzko and Jesse M. Shapiro.

One of the findings that the pair reported was that if you own a news outlet (or, I assume, a blog), and you want your audience to be objective, you will tell your [audience] what they want (expect) to hear. If you should tell your audience something that they do not already believe, they will be more likely to attribute your claims to your lack of objectivity than to their own bias. In short, media acquire a reputation for ‘objectivity’ by slanting news stories so that they conform to their audience’s preconceptions.

From this beginning Alonzo discusses some other related findings and what some folks really seem to mean when they claim that someone else isn’t being ‘objective’ or is showing ‘bias’ based on what these studies show us to be actually happening in our heads. He proposes that instead of trying to consider how ‘objective’ someone is we should consider how honestly or accurately they’ve provided both sides of an issue:

I sometimes think that the concept of “objectivity” was invented by people with poor arguments as a way of arguing that others pretend that their position has more strength than it actually has. “If you point out my false assumptions and blatantly invalid reasoning, then you are not being objective,” is an effective way to hide false assumptions and invalid reasoning.

In place of objectivity, I would like to substitute honesty. “Has the author presented the case on each side of the issue accurately?” It may well be the case that “accuracy” in this case simply supports the conclusion, “Those people are wrong.” The people who say that the earth is flat are wrong. There is nothing wrong with saying that.

Finally his conclusion for this entry should cause you to take a moment to consider your own beliefs and how you arrived at them:

Here, once again, we need to return to the studies that I cited above. They say that an individual may do a good job in identifying the mistakes made by a partisan writer for “the other side,” whatever side that is. At the same time, they tend to blind themselves to the contradictions and inconsistencies to the writers working on the author’s own side. If you find yourself agreeing with somebody, this does not mean that he is right. In fact, it means that you should not trust yourself to determine whether he or she is right. You may be blinding yourself to the contradictions and inconsistencies carried within his argument.

All of this argues in favor of being a bit skeptical of one’s own beliefs. And that hearing or reading somebody who agrees with you is poor evidence that you are right. It argues in favor of recognizing the possibility of error and listening well to critics.

Strangely, people blame the media for media bias. Ultimately, it seems, the problem does not come from the media, but from us. We are too quick to grant the label of “objective” to those who have merely demonstrated the capacity to say what we want to believe, and to deny objectivity based on nothing more than the fact that the speaker or writer does not share our opinions.

Rational and responsible thought requires a bit more effort than that.

Of course I’ve only snipped small segments of the essay and you really should go read the whole thing, but I hope this gets across why I think he’s got such a great blog that should be widely read by everyone, believers and non-believers, alike. For those of us who value reason and rationality it’ll help you to understand your own way of thinking a bit more as well as help you to spot when you’re making mistakes and for those believers who are always asking how an atheist can have any morals without a God to enforce them it’ll provide some of the answers they’re looking for. Good stuff and highly recommended.

70 thoughts on “Go read the Atheist Ethicist.

  1. I think Hume’s Is-Ought problem is insoluble for atheists (although rationalists from Kant to Searle to Nagel have tried).

    If there is no God, then there is no objective morality. You can no more point to objective morality than you can to the tooth fairy. Where would objective morals even come from? Surely not the big bang. Evolution? All evolution tells us is that cooperation is a survival tool for a social animal. It doesn’t tell us that we *have* to cooperate even if we don’t want to.

    The closest thing you can come to rational atheist ethics is contractualism. No one wants to be killed, so by coopoerating and forming governments we can minimize the chances that a would-be tyrant will kill or oppress us. That creates a civil and (reasonably) just society, but the motivation is still not submitting to a system of ethics. It is self-interest.

    The irony is that ever since Hume and Kant, Christians have abandoned rationalist proofs of God in favor of empirical arguments (a lot of atheists including Einstein – his greatest blunder – had difficulty accepting the Big Bang because of its theistic implications. They wanted a steady-state eternal universe). But since there are no empirical arguments for objective morals, atheists are stuck in a pre-Hume mindset trying to create rationalist arguments for objective morals.

  2. Thank you Les!  I have now added this site next to yours on my daily review. 

    However, when I first started to read through some of the posts there, my brain hurt.  Of course, I sum it up to him making me think and question as I read, plus the fact that my boss keeps interupting me to socialize.  bleh.  grin

  3. I don’t have time to do an extensive analysis of any of his posts or his site, so I did the next best thing.  I ran a keyword search on his websites of all of the biggest names in ethics in the last 2500 years, names you would hear in a intro to philosophy course or short series of the history of philosophy courses.  I found a very small percentage of names and even ethical theories referenced.  He mentions Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Aquinas, Hume, and utilitarianism.  He says he spent 12 years in school, but he deosn’t say what he got his undergrad in or if he even finished his graduate degree or what that was in.  It is apparent he has done some reading in ethics, but in my opinion he is a far cry from any kind of expert in the field.  I suspect he would get his butt handed to him if he debated an actual professor of ethics from a respectable university.

  4. Oh yeah, I did read the Slate article that Fyfe discusses and would simply like to introduce Hans-Georg Gadamer who plays Obviousman in response to the research of these economists.  Gadamer suggested in 1960 that all humans are naturally and always prejudiced and the only way to become more “objective” was to realize our prejudices and constantly challenge them by comparing them to other people’s prejudices.  Of course no one likes to know that they are really an idiot so most people skip the realizing and challenging part and just accept what agrees with them.

    The application question is how many ideologically different sources do you get your news from?  Looking through my bookmarks I have a communist news source, three anarchist news sources, a neo-nazi news source, two capitalist news sources, three liberal news sources, WorldNetDaily and the usual choice of tv news sources.  So on the rare occasion I bother to read news, I’d say I’m not doing to bad at challenging my prejudices.  How’s everyone else doing?

  5. But since there are no empirical arguments for objective morals, atheists are stuck in a pre-Hume mindset trying to create rationalist arguments for objective morals.

    If, by “objective”, you mean something like “grounded in pure reason” or “reducible to a logical evaluation of incontrovertible facts”, Justin, I would agree with you.  In the absense of a First Cause, a Telos who decides what’s right and wrong, there can be no absolutely objective morals.

    However, since Darwin came along, this kind of objectivity has been defenestrated along with the tooth fairy- although many philosophers and religious thinkers seem to have missed out.  Before there was life on Earth, there was no right or wrong, no morals, no free will, no “why”.  They evolved along with life, and for good or ill, are just as messy and complicated as life itself.

    Morals are part of the design of civilization- they help us balance the needs of individuals with the needs of society, so that we can reap the benefits of being part of something larger and more complex than ourselves.  Being the social animals that we are, our needs and desires are a complex and to some extent self-contradictory mishmash, and getting all of us to agree well enough to make culture is akin to a juggling act on a tightrope.  No absolutes, no objectivity.

  6. I suspect he would get his butt handed to him if he debated an actual professor of ethics from a respectable university.

    Given that “ethics” is a subject approximately as objective as “philosophy”, the conclusions to be drawn from a putative butt-handing one way or another are moot.  Who do you suppose would win in a “debate” between a Catholic priest and a Muslim imam?

    So on the rare occasion I bother to read news, I’d say I’m not doing to bad at challenging my prejudices.

    Speaking of challenging prejudices, have you gotten around to reading Darwin’s Dangerous Idea yet, theo? LOL

  7. Justin writes…

    I think Hume’s Is-Ought problem is insoluble for atheists (although rationalists from Kant to Searle to Nagel have tried).

    From what I understand, Hume’s Is-Ought is a tough one for religious moralists as well. As for the atheists I’ve seen a number of different takes at the problem that seem to resolve it just fine. Alonzo Fyfe address it in explaining “Desire Utilitarianism”, which is his personal theory on morals. The explanation he gives for the Is-Ought problem is rather lengthy so I’ll leave it as an exercise for those interested to go read it for yourselves. Personally, I don’t see a lot of problems with it, but then I’m not a philosophy major either.

    Theocrat writes…

    He says he spent 12 years in school, but he deosn’t say what he got his undergrad in or if he even finished his graduate degree or what that was in.

    That’s what you get for trying to “skim” his site with a keyword search. Had you actually taken some time to poke around a bit you would have come across this in Chapter 21 of his book on Desire Utilitarianism:

      I also had money problems at the time. I had been going to school on an assistanceship from the Philosophy Department. But, after six years there, that money was coming to an end. So, I had to start thinking about what I was going to do for income.

      This tied in with another concern; making a living. Whenever I told people that I was working on a PhD in moral philosophy, they asked me what I would do with that degree.

      The standard answer is, “teach

  8. However, since Darwin came along, this kind of objectivity has been defenestrated along with the tooth fairy- although many philosophers and religious thinkers seem to have missed out.  …

    Morals are part of the design of civilization- they help us balance the needs of individuals with the needs of society, so that we can reap the benefits of being part of something larger and more complex than ourselves. 

    Hiya Zilch!

    I’ve already addressed this point in my first post: “All evolution tells us is that cooperation is a survival tool for a social animal. It doesn’t tell us that we *have* to cooperate even if we don’t want to.”

    Let me expand on that. Opposable thumbs are also a survival tool. They are great for making spears and typing on keyboards, but they are not very useful for running or verbal communication. If our self-interest is best advanced by not using opposable thumbs, then we should do so.

    The same principle applies to social cooperation. Since we are a social species we can best advance our self-interest by being cooperative and helpful towards our fellow humans. Even if cooperating means sacrificing the short run, we will typically benefit in the long run. But if there is a situation in which we can best advance our self-interests (and our reproductive fitness) by sticking a knife in someone’s back – we enhance our evolutionary success by doing so.

    The point of morality is that it has a claim on our actions, even when that action is detrimental our self-interests. In fact, that is precisely what we believe that morality to be! Evolution does not work. The best an atheist can do with the evolutionary argument is say that the best way to selfishly pursue our own self-interest is by (generally) cooperating.

  9. Hiya Les!

    From what I understand, Hume’s Is-Ought is a tough one for religious moralists as well.

    It depends (doesn’t it always?)

    Some Christian philosphers want to be a modern day St. Thomas Aquinas. But if they want to come up with a philosophical defense of Christianity independent, then it is indeed a tough problem. OTOH, if you simply rely on the Bible as the word of God, then the is-ought problem is solved. This presupposes the existence of Christian God, but you will have a much easier time making headway using empirical arguments for the existence of a Christian God than you will using a priori arguments to deduce is from ought.

    As for the atheists I’ve seen a number of different takes at the problem that seem to resolve it just fine. Alonzo Fyfe address it in explaining “Desire Utilitarianism

  10. “All evolution tells us is that cooperation is a survival tool for a social animal. It doesn’t tell us that we *have* to cooperate even if we don’t want to.

  11. So any philosophy, religion, or form of government, that devises morals or laws for behavior, is baking a cake that will not be anyone’s favorite, but will (hopefully) be enjoyed by most.  We can’t do any better than that.

    So why the standard objection to the “imposition of the majority’s mores upon the minority” if the goal is cake that makes the most happy?

  12. Justin, you said

    That creates a civil and (reasonably) just society, but the motivation is still not submitting to a system of ethics. It is self-interest.

    How is it any less self-interested to base your actions on whether or not God will get ticked off and send you to hell? In fact, isn’t Christian ethics MORE self-interested than secular ethics, since secular ethicists don’t presume that any ethical action will ultimately be rewarded?

    If there is no God, then there is no objective morality. You can no more point to objective morality than you can to the tooth fairy.

    Exactly. How does that contradict reality? I’m no expert in this area, but it seems to me that morality is socially constructed, predicated on human evolutionary traits such as empathy, and I haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence presented to contradict that point other than “But wouldn’t it be nice if…”

    All evolution tells us is that cooperation is a survival tool for a social animal. It doesn’t tell us that we *have* to cooperate even if we don’t want to.

    But we don’t *have* to cooperate if we don’t want to. We’ve just evolved ways of making most people want to cooperate. In fact, one of the reasons I’m skeptical of religion is that it so obviously fulfills this function. “Hmm…I am a person who wants to survive, and to do so at a certain level of comfort. As such, I need my society to survive. In order for that to happen, I need everyone to cooperate. What the best way to make everyone cooperate? Oh, I know! I’ll tell everyone that no matter how sneaky they are, if they don’t cooperate, someone will magically know and punish them for it! This will be so much easier than coming up with a rational explanation and somehow communicating it to everyone, plus it will introduce an element of enforcement through fear that no human institution possible could.”

    The point of morality is that it has a claim on our actions, even when that action is detrimental our self-interests. In fact, that is precisely what we believe that morality to be!

      I’m not sure I agree with that. Let’s say I run into a burning building to save a baby. Most people would agree this is a moral action, and it also seems to go against my own self-interest, since there’s a good chance I could suffer bodily harm. But it’s only against my self interest if you narrowly define that term. I would run into a building to save a burning baby because I would feel bad if that baby died when I might have prevented it. I would think about how terrified the baby must have been, and how sad its parents would be if it died. To me, avoiding this feeling might be more important than avoiding physical harm. So, I would save the baby, and it would be moral, but it would also have been self-interested. It seems to me that the only way to truly do something without any consideration towards self-interest is accidentally or impulsively.

    Again, I say, religious morality doesn’t teach us to act counter to our self-interests; it just tells us that our self-interest in life is secondary to our self-interest in an unknowable eternity (where the consequences of our actions are potentially much, much scarier or much, much nicer than ever possible in the living world).

    Evolution does not work.

    Unless, of course, we view the development of religious morality as an inevitable phase of human evolution. Justin, you seem to make the common mistake of presuming that since Christianity has had a fair degree of social utility (depending on the extent to which it has been practiced in a socially-useful way), then it must be literally true. In my mind, that very utility supports an opposite conclusion; rarely does reality perfectly conform to human needs.

  13. So any philosophy, religion, or form of government, that devises morals or laws for behavior, is baking a cake that will not be anyone’s favorite, but will (hopefully) be enjoyed by most.  We can’t do any better than that.

    So why the standard objection to the “imposition of the majority’s mores upon the minority

  14.   So any philosophy, religion, or form of government, that devises morals or laws for behavior, is baking a cake that will not be anyone’s favorite, but will (hopefully) be enjoyed by most.  We can’t do any better than that.

          So why the standard objection to the “imposition of the majority’s mores upon the minority

  15. Back at ya, Zilch

    What I believe evolution, and life, teach us, is that while there are many things that are good, there is no one absolute good.  And no two person’s definitions of “good

  16. Hiya Ulf!

    How is it any less self-interested to base your actions on whether or not God will get ticked off and send you to hell? In fact, isn’t Christian ethics MORE self-interested than secular ethics

    Two points:

    1. Most Christians scholars subscribe to “faith, not works.” Being good will not get you into Heaven and being bad will not keep you out. Only faith that does that, so self-interest does not play a role. However, once you believe in God you will probably want to obey Him – even if He has said that faith alone will get you into Heaven. Thus Christian ethics works against our self-interest (although in many cases the evolutionary argument holds – selfless actions often have earthly rewards)

    2. Even if it were works that got you into Heaven, God has aligned our real self-interests with moral behavior. This is not true of our earthly self-interests. Suppose I found your wallet on the ground. My earthly self-interest is to keep it. But my Godly self-interest is to mail it to you.

  17. I would like to thank Les for some very kind words.

    To Theocrat: My 12 years of college are in moral philosophy—and I tended to do an acceptable job standing up to professional philosophers.

    I had a reader last year who wanted to see how my work would stand up to professional review, so he forwarded copies to Peter Singer and J.C.C. Smart. Neither offered significant criticisms of my arguments.

    To Justin (and others): On the is/ought problem, I do not get around it by “defining ‘good’ as ‘desire satisfaction’. Indeed, that would not solve the problem.

    I get around it by saying that the is/ought distinction requires some sort of metaphysical dualism. If ‘ought’ is distinct from ‘is’, then how does it interact with the world of ‘is’ to bring about physical changes in physical substances? And if ‘ought’ cannot do this, we have no reason to pretend that ‘ought’ exists at all. ‘Ought’ is either a part of the world of ‘is’ or it does not exist.

    It does not matter to me which of these two options we take—desire utilitarian survives either way.

    Yes, somebody can define ‘good’ as ‘happiness’, however, they cannot come up with a theory that explains human intentional action in terms of happiness acquisition. There are too many counter-examples (some of which I use in my writings).

    However, we can explain all human action in terms of desire fulfillment.

    This is where ‘happiness’ theory fails and ‘desire fulfillment’ theory succeeds.

  18. The question of whether it’s right or wrong to steal the money is irrelevant. Most people won’t steal it because they *believe* it is wrong. Anyone who doesn’t care whether it’s wrong or whom it would hurt would steal it anyway, if they thought they could get away with it. The only way to prevent someone like this from stealing the money is to make them feel like they can’t get away with it, and what better way to do that than by threatening them with an omniscient policeman? Again, you aren’t making a case for the validity of religion, just the utility of the religious paradigm.
      IMHO, the problem with your assessment, Justin, is that you’re assuming that people are objective actors. But people are products of evolution and subjected to the influences of their society. So even though I might rationally believe that stealing money with no risk of punishment is neither right nor wrong from an objective standpoint, I’m still probably not going to do it because there are deeper, more ingrained pressures acting on me, not least of which is the desire to feel like a “good” person. This desire appears to be hammered into us, and very few people totally discard it; even the worst criminals tend to try to justify or rationalize their actions. But I think this desire is largely instilled through social conditioning. Imagine a child raised in a box, with no human interaction. If he escaped and stole a pie from your windowsill, would he be a bad person for stealing, even if stealing is “wrong”? How would the child have known it was wrong? Would it be right to put that child in jail for the crime? What if the child escaped in an Islamic country, and ate a pig? What if it escaped in the Vatican, and destroyed a cross? Each action would be considered severely wrong in one country, but not in the other. If morality is so objective, why don’t we seem to have any objective moral standard?
        Consider this: just about anyone, if asked, would say that it’s wrong to break the law. But how many people do you know who have never driven over the speed limit? If it’s immoral to break the law, then aren’t virtually all drivers immoral, especially since they’re doing something they know is wrong? Or is it more likely that they’ve assessed the risks compared to their self-interest? If we wanted fewer people to speed, would it be effective to have religious leaders inform people that speeding angers God? Since laws are inarguably social constructs, can breaking them in and of itself even constitue an objectively immoral action?
        Or maybe your standard for objective morality is determined only by what’s in a holy book, say, the Bible. First of all, how can you know that this is the right book to pick? Moreover, how can you determine exactly what its moral standard is? There isn’t even a set standard for what constitutes the Decalogue, and you can think of plenty of vexing issues surrounding those rules. If my father and my mother routinely try to poison me, what is the best way for me to honor them? If someone puts a bomb in a children’s hospital on the Sabbath, should the bomb squad still be allowed to defuse it? And the examples go on and on.

    I’m getting long-winded again, so one last point:

    However, once you believe in God you will probably want to obey Him – even if He has said that faith alone will get you into Heaven. Thus Christian ethics works against our self-interest (although in many cases the evolutionary argument holds – selfless actions often have earthly rewards)

    But you don’t HAVE to obey him? Even the worst genocidal slave owner would still be ok as long as he has genuine faith? Then under your objective moral system, pretty much NOTHING is wrong, and Christian ethics are a social construct as much as anything else. Please note that I’m not knocking them when I say that; I think the overarching Christian moral system is a pretty solid one when it’s not being opportunistically exploited.

  19. To Justin (and others): On the is/ought problem, I do not get around it by “defining ‘good’ as ‘desire satisfaction’. Indeed, that would not solve the problem.

    That was my interpretation of your article on desire utilitarianism:

    “Good” = “Is such as to fulfill the desires in question.”

    “Bad” = “Is such as to thwart the desires in question.”

    I “is” the case that people have desires. But why is that good? Why is the desire to sexually torture small children good?

    I get around it by saying that the is/ought distinction requires some sort of metaphysical dualism. If ‘ought’ is distinct from ‘is’, then how does it interact with the world of ‘is’ to bring about physical changes in physical substances? And if ‘ought’ cannot do this, we have no reason to pretend that ‘ought’ exists at all. ‘Ought’ is either a part of the world of ‘is’ or it does not exist.

    This is the problem that rationalists have always had – what was the meaning of their metnal creations? For example, the Greeks had this problem with geometry. What is a point? What is a line? What is a plane? Where do they exist? How do they interact with our thoughts?

    Eventually mathemeticians took a more analytic approach. A point was defined to be a pair of real numbers. A line is the set of points that that solve the equation ax + by = c. A plane is merely the set of all points. With a real definition, all this metaphysical angst about the real meaning of a point disappears.

    This takes us back to is-ought. There is no more reason to believe there is an ought than there is a tooth fairy.

    Yes, somebody can define ‘good’ as ‘happiness’, however, they cannot come up with a theory that explains human intentional action in terms of happiness acquisition. There are too many counter-examples (some of which I use in my writings).

    However, we can explain all human action in terms of desire fulfillment.

    Which is to say, we can describe the “is” of humans in terms of desire fulfillment. But how do you get from there to “we ought to maximize the number of fulfilled desires.”

  20. I could put forward several conjectures, but I’m going to say this simply, because, frankly, my own interpretation of my experiences works for me, and I’m going to drop it here.

    I demand self-appeasement in all that I do, at the simplest levels I can understand. I don’t need to juxtaposition it with some hypothetical system to try and measure it. In fact, that would be a bad idea since that would assume some relationship between myself and the hypothetical before-hand.

    As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have no moral crisis whatsoever. When I invoke the “good dog, bad dog” mentality on other people, it’s because I’m trying to control their actions to my benefit. In a relationship, I expect that I will be compromising, so when I tell my girlfriend that something is “bad” what that means is that I want her to not do that thing. In turn she’ll argue her side and we en up doing something that seems to be in both of our interests.

    I just don’t see a connection between morality and human behavior other than that. That presents the question (this is aimed at you, Justin); why is anything good, or bad, or moral or immoral? Why isn’t molesting small animals good? I know it may seem abhorrent at face value, but..

  21. Questions of “morality” are difficult for people to grapple with, particularly since there really is no absolute, objective morality that exists outside of some people’s minds. Therefore, humanity has invented religion and the idea of gods in order to answer these questions. I, however, do not share many of the opinions of the religions’ tenets on morality.

    That’s my take on this issue.

  22. Let me edit my confusing above sentence: I do not agree with or live my life according to many of the major religions’ tenets on “morality.”

  23. I thank the people here for their interest.

    To understand desire utilitarianism, please recognize the following.

    I am not saying that desire fulfillment is good. I say, ‘good’ = ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question.’ These are not the same thing.

    In order to determine if something is good, one must determine if it is such as to fulfill the desires in question.

    This formula applies to everything, including desire fulfillment itself. In order to determine if desire fulfillment is good, one must determine if desire fulfillment itself fulfills other desire.

    The reason that the desire to torture small children is bad is because such a desire is inherently desire-thwarting, not desire-fulfilling. Torturing small children may fulfill the desires of the person who tortures children.

    However, the DESIRE to torture small children is not the same thing as the ACT of torturing small children. The DESIRE to torture small children is desire-thwarting (particularly on the part of the child being tortured), and thus counts as bad.

    What if 90% of the population wanted to torture children. Would it not then be the case that torturing children is good?

    Answer: No. Regardless of how many people desired to torture children, the desire to torture children remains inherently desire-thwarting. However, if nobody had a desire to torture children, then a society with NO desire thwarting is possible.

    Also, I deny that “the right thing to do is that which causes the most desire fulfillment.”

    This is an act-utilitarian theory. More precisely, it can be called desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism. It says, ‘Do that ACT that fulfills the most desire.”

    Desire utilitarianism is not an “act utilitarian” theory, it is a “rule utilitarian” theory.

    Rule utilitarianism says, “Do that act that is consistent with the best rules,” and “the best rules are those that produce the most utility.”

    However, rule utilitarianism runs into a problem. If consequences are the only things that matter, and an act that breaks the rules produces better consequences than following a rule, than why follow the rule? The claim that one ought to follow the rule requires a moral principle that says that following the rule has value INDEPENDENT OF ITS CONSEQUENCES, which creates an inconsistency.

    Desire utilitarianism follows the same model. It says “Do that act that is consistent with the best desires,” and “the best desires are those that tend to fulfill the most (other) desires.” We can see in this why the desire to torture children would be disqualified.

    However, desire utilitarianism avoid the problem of rule utilitarianism. What happens if there is an act that will produce the best consequences would thwart the best desires? Does it not follow that, to say that one ought to do the act that fulfills the best desires require that acts that fulfill the best desires have value independent of their consequences?

    We answer that challenge by calling on the principle ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. It makes no sense to say that you morally ‘ought’ to snap your fingers and bring an end to world hunger if you cannot snap your fingers and bring an end to world hunger. Whatever it is you ‘ought’ to do it must, in some sense, be something that you ‘can’ do.

    Desires are rules that are written into the wiring of the brain in such a way that they do not allow for exceptions. It is not the case that a person with good desires ‘ought’ to do the act that would bring about the best consequences because a person with good desires ‘cannot’ do such an act. A person with good desires can only do that act that fulfills his desires.

    I hope this clarifies a few things.

  24. Consigliere:

    First, please note, what words mean is not at all important. Scientists have recognized this for centuries. When it comes to defining words, they simply get a bunch of people together and say, “From now on, we will use these definitions.” Then the rest of the scientific community says, “Okay,” and off they go.

    So, for example, the International Astronomical Union is currently trying to decide how to define the word ‘planet’—in order to determine if Pluto is or is not a planet. Whatever decision they reach will be the arbitrary decision of a group of people.

    Yet, there is nothing in this activity that threatens the objectivity of science in the least. Scientists have long recognized that what words mean is not important. All that matters is that they are used consistently. So, they have quit wasting their time discussing the meanings of words and left that job to the arbitrary decision of committees. Meanwhile, they spend their time studying what is true of the universe.

    I am fully comfortable with using words the way that scientists use words. On this model, I invite anybody to give me whatever set of meanings they would like me to use. Changing the meanings of words is nothing more than changing the language that a person is speaking. I can translate this theory into any language you want, and the theory will not change.

    Imagine a bunch of scientists getting together and asking, “Who gets to decide what the word ‘planet’ means?”

    Scientists reconize that the answer to this question is, “Who the frack cares? Pick somebody. It does not matter. It does not affect the objective truth of claims made in the field of astronomy in the slightest. It only affects the language we use when we report those claims.”

    The astronomer’s answer to the question, “Who gets to decide what the word ‘planet’ means” is the same as my answer to the question, “Who gets to decide what ‘good’ means?” If you think that this is an important question, you do not understand the nature of language.

    Now, the desire to torture children is disqualified because the desire to torture children inherently thwarts other desires. It is quite obvious that the desire to torture children cannot be fulfilled unless some other desire—the child’s desire to be free from pain—is being thwarted. In all cases, either the child’s desire to be free of pain is being thwarted, or the desire to torture children is being thwarted. Either way, there is a desire being thwarted. If “good” = “is such as to fulfill desires”, and the desire to torture children is inherently desire-thwarting, then the desire to torture children cannot be good.

    On the other hand, you can have a whole society without a desire to torture children with no desire-thwarting. If nobody had a desire to torture children, then no person would be driven by such a desire to thwart the desire of children to be free of pain. Furthermore, there will be no person whose desire to torture children would be thwarted, because no person with a desire to torture children would exist.

    Similarly, the desire to help children is inhrently desire-fulfilling. It fulfills the desires of the children being helped. Because a desire to help children is desire-fulfilling, it is good.

    Of these two possibilities, only the second allows for the possibility that only desire-fulfillment takes place, and that there is no desire thwarting. By this, we see that the desire to torture children is inherently desire-thwarting. The desire to torture children is not “such as to fulfill (other) desires.” It does not fulfill any other desires—it only thwarts other desires.

    From this, the principle, “Do that act that is consistent with the best desires,

  25. Beware, Alonzo: Consi tends to be a stickler for words and their contextual uses. tongue wink

    No harm was intended on Consi’s behalf in the making of this comment.

  26. Now, the desire to torture children is disqualified because the desire to torture children inherently thwarts other desires. It is quite obvious that the desire to torture children cannot be fulfilled unless some other desire—the child’s desire to be free from pain—is being thwarted.

    My rough understanding is tht the desire fulfillment must be consonant with the desires of others or at least not be at odds with the desires of others.  If you use the cake analogy, under your system the cake never gets made.

  27. Similarly, the desire to help children is inhrently desire-fulfilling. It fulfills the desires of the children being helped. Because a desire to help children is desire-fulfilling, it is good.

    Conversely, in helping the children you have thwarted the desire-fulfillment of those who would like to torture children.  I’ve kinda slow, but I don’t see the difference there if the distinction is being drawn on whether doing something is desire thwarting. That’s why there is no cake.

  28. So why the standard objection to the “imposition of the majority’s mores upon the minority

  29. Breaking thread (only barely) for just a second, has anyone else ever read Eric Frank Russell’s science fiction work ‘And Then There Were None’? Care to examine it and then introduce comments here about whether or not it contains any useful ideas concerning the thread?

    One source for E. F. Russell’s text online

  30. Hi Alonzo,

    Well, I have to give you credit – desire utilitarianism seems like the most agreeable form of utilitarianism that I have come across. Act utilitarianism has too many disagreeable consequences. And rule utilitarianism has always struck me as a way to wave the white flag on one hand, while claiming not to have surrendered on the other.

    At least at first glance, desire utilitarianism seems to avoid both problems.

    I am not saying that desire fulfillment is good. I say, ‘good’ = ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question.’ These are not the same thing.

    In that case I think the choice of the word ‘good’ is misleading. As you point out, language is an agreed upon convention and most of us already have a different sense of the meaning of good. Perhaps we can use a different word.

    doog = is such as to fulfill the desires in question

    The question is: is doog objectively good? If so, where does this objective good come from? If not, then why doog? Why not something else?

  31. As I wrote above, astronomy is a hard science—as ‘objective’ as any science can be. Yet, astronomers are not sweating about whether the International Astronomical Union is going to come up with “the right definition” of the word “planet.” They know full well that, whatever definition the IAU comes up with will be the subjective opinion of a bunch of men sitting around the table, and not one of them will be able to defend their vote as the objectively right definition of the word “planet.” Yet, they do not care, and they do not treat this as a threat to the objectivity of astronomy.

    The reason for this is that they respect the fact that words do not have the power to change things. Regardless of whether Pluto ends up being a planet or not, its orbit will not change. Its distance from the sun will not change. Its chemical composition, size, the number of moons it has, and the layout and size of its craters will not change. Nothing that is objectively true of Pluto will be affected by what we call it. Therefore, the scientists say, as far as the science goes, ‘call it whatever you want.’

    Many people who talk about value theory, however, treat the word ‘good’ like a magic wand that somehow changes whatever it touches. Attach the word ‘good’ to ‘happiness’, and now suddenly ‘happiness’ changes so that it becomes something that it would not become if we called it something else. These people then ask the question, ‘What entity—happiness? desire fulfillment? survival?—deserves the magic property that we can bestow upon it by calling it ‘good’?”

    Indeed, when I say that ‘good’ = ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question,’ the first question I get asked is, ‘What special reason can you give us to explain why ‘desire fulfillment’ deserves the special power that you assign to it by calling it ‘good’—a power that it would not have if you were to call it something else?’

    My answer: If you are treating words as entities that change what they refer to, then you are starting off with a bad assumption. With such a bad start, I fully expect your arguments and debate to go absolutely nowhere.

    You can define ‘good’ in terms of ‘happiness’ if you like. It will not change what is objectively true about happiness. When I assign ‘good’ to ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question,’ I am saying nothing about ‘being such as to fulfill the desires in question’ that would not objectively true of that state under any other name. Which is why I say that I do not care about definitions. I care only about what is objectively true of ‘being such as to fulfill the desires in question.’

    I could define ‘good’ as ‘a chemical compound consisting of one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen’. It’s a perfectly good definition. However, I would have trouble linking ‘good’ defined this way to reasons for action.

    You can assign ‘good’ to ‘happiness’ if you want, but you will have trouble linking it to reasons for action.

    Consider this hypothetical choice:

    You and somebody that you care about—child, parent, significant other—are captured by a mad scientist. You are given the following choice:

    (1) This other person will be taken and tortured mercilessly. However, you will be made to believe that he is living a healthy and happy life.

    (2) This other person will be set free to live, given free medical care and enough money to live comfortably, but you will be made to believe that he is being tortured mercilessly.

    ‘Happiness’ theory predicts that everybody will pick 1. ‘Happiness’ theory will fail—many people will pick 2.

    ‘Desire fulfillment’ says that a person will choose that option that will make true the propositioins that are the objects of his desire. The person for whom the desire that this other person is healthy and happy is stronger than the desire for happiness will pick (2). The person with a stronger desire for happiness than for the health and happiness of this other person will pick (1).

    ‘Desire fulfillment,’ then, has a link to reasons for action (reasons for choices) that ‘happiness’ does not have. You can define ‘good’ in terms of ‘happiness’ if you want. However, you would have to give up its link to reasons for action. If you want to link ‘good’ to reasons for action, only ‘desire fulfillment’ has that link. Make your choice. Do you want ‘good’ to refer to something that has a link to reasons for action or not?

    I am still not saying anything about ‘desire fulfillment’ that is not objectively true of ‘desire fulfillment’—including its link to reasons for action.

    My objection to a sharp break between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is that it requires metaphysical dualism—and metaphysical dualism is extremely problematic.If ‘ought’ is distinct from ‘is’, then how does ‘ought’ influence things in the real world? Do physicists find a set of events in the real world that cannot be explained but through the influence of these ‘ought’ entities—the perceptions of which cause atoms to move left or right?

    Zilch is right—our desires have been subject to evolutionary and cultural forces. The link between desires and the ‘is’ world is well established. Desires are codes written into the brain. Brains are connected to muscles through nerves. Evolution has molded our disposition to different brain strucures—selecting a tendency towards acquiring those desires that promote our genetic survival.

    However, brain structure is maleable given interaction with the environment. That is how we learn. The proposition that our beliefs can be molded by interaction with the environment is beyond dispute. Clearly, our desires can be molded (within limts) by interaction with the environment as well.

    If ‘ought’ is linked to desires, we have both a link to reasons for action and a physical link between ought and the real world that explains its interaction. If ‘ought’ is linked to something separate and distinct from the real world, then what is it, and how does it interact with the real world?

    ‘Should’ (or ‘ought’) = ‘would fulfill the desires in question’ links to reasons for action and explains the relationship between reasons for action and desires.

    Whenever a person uses the terms ‘should’ or ‘ought’, he is making a claim that certain reasons for action exist. If those reasons for action do not exist in fact—if they are not real—then we can rightfully answer that person by saying, ‘No. The reasons for action that you are talking about are not real, so your claim that I ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ do that which you claim is false.’”

    ‘Is such as to fulfill the desires in question’ are reasons for action that are real.

  32. Alonzo,

    I appreciate your time here.  I’m not sure how the IAU actually relates to my assessement of what you are saying.  So a couple of real quick questions that can be answered without paragraphs:

    1) Did I correctly summarize what you were setting forth in my post on 4/6/06 at 11:03 P.M.?

    2) If not, how is the assessment inaccurate?

    3) If so, then is it agreed that helping children is desire thwarting for those that want to torture children?

    4) If 3 is accurate, then the distinction you have drawn is an illusory one, correct?

    4) What on earth do you have against cake? Is using a cake analogy desire thwarting for you?

  33. 1) Did I correctly summarize what you were setting forth in my post on 4/6/06 at 11:03 P.M.?

    No.

    2) If not, how is the assessment inaccurate?

    You wrote: “My rough understanding is tht the desire fulfillment must be consonant with the desires of others or at least not be at odds with the desires of others.”

    A good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires. It can thwart other desires, but the tendency must be positive.

    The desire that wrongdoers be punished certainly thwarts desires—namely, those of the wrongdoers who are punished.

    However, this desire that wrongdoers be punished tends to result both in fewer wrongdoers, and in fewer victims of wrongdoing. In both ways, the desire that wrongdoers be punished results in overall desire fulfillment.

    Once again, I remind you that I am talking about the affects of desires, rather than the effects of actions. Counter-examples that show how a certain desire-fulfilling act is still wrong are not relevant here. A relevant counter-example has to show how a desire that tends—overall, all things considered—to thwart, rather than fulfill, other desires can be counted as good.

    Imagine that you are sitting in front of a control board with dials for all of society’s desires on it.

    You take the dial for “desire to torture children.” If you turn this up, then overall desire fulfillment decreases. Either the person with a desire to torture children must have that desire thwarted, or the child’s aversion to pain must be thwarted. On the other hand, if you turn it down, overall desire thwarting goes down.

    Now, take the dial for “aversion to the desire to torture children.” This dial is linked to the “desire to torture children” dial. Increasing the aversion to the desire to torture children results in lowering the overall desire to torture children. Condemnation and punishment of that desire makes it less common, as more people acquire society’s standard against torturing children. At the same time, decreasing the aversion to torturing children allows the desire to torture children to increase, with all of the desire-thwarting that results.

    So, we have reason to turn down the “desire to torture children” dial, and we do that by turning up the “aversion to the desire to torture children” dial.

    Yes, some desire-thwarting still results—but we get less desire thwarting by turning this aversion to child torture up than we get by turning this aversion to child torture down.

    3) If so, then is it agreed that helping children is desire thwarting for those that want to torture children?

    Not applicable.

    4) If 3 is accurate, then the distinction you have drawn is an illusory one, correct?

    Not applicable

    5) What on earth do you have against cake? Is using a cake analogy desire thwarting for you?

    The cake analogy examines an act. I have said that this is not an act-utilitarian theory. It is a rule-utilitarian theory (substituting desires for rules).

  34. Just jumping in for a moment to state my appreciation for Alonzo taking the time to come here and explain his ideas for us. I don’t know about everyone else, but my understanding of his theory is a lot clearer now.

    I’d also like to take a moment to thank everyone who has participated in the discussion for asking thoughtful and useful questions about it. This has turned into a really good thread.

  35. You can define ‘good’ in terms of ‘happiness’ if you like. It will not change what is objectively true about happiness. When I assign ‘good’ to ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question,’ I am saying nothing about ‘being such as to fulfill the desires in question’ that would not objectively true of that state under any other name. Which is why I say that I do not care about definitions. I care only about what is objectively true of ‘being such as to fulfill the desires in question.’

    Exactly. The only good is what you define.

    ‘Desire fulfillment,’ then, has a link to reasons for action (reasons for choices) that ‘happiness’ does not have. You can define ‘good’ in terms of ‘happiness’ if you want. However, you would have to give up its link to reasons for action. If you want to link ‘good’ to reasons for action, only ‘desire fulfillment’ has that link. Make your choice. Do you want ‘good’ to refer to something that has a link to reasons for action or not?

    Desire fulfillment does not always have a link to actions. What if our aliens made us this offer: We will rob a bank for a million dollars and give it to you. We will also use our alien technology to make sure that you do not get caught.

    Why should I be the nice guy and refuse the alien’s offer?

    My objection to a sharp break between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is that it requires metaphysical dualism—and metaphysical dualism is extremely problematic.If ‘ought’ is distinct from ‘is’, then how does ‘ought’ influence things in the real world? Do physicists find a set of events in the real world that cannot be explained but through the influence of these ‘ought’ entities—the perceptions of which cause atoms to move left or right?

    I agree. ‘Ought’ does not make sense. The only rational position for an atheist to take is what Zilch and I were discussing: the realization that cooperation is usually the best policy for a social animal. But it isn’t always, and then the only rational position is not to cooperate.

  36. I’d also like to add my thanks to Alonzo for an interesting discussion.

    Kysstfafm- I took a look at your link to Russell’s story, and it reminded me of the time I was trying to call a friend in the Linguistics Dept. at Cal Berkeley:

    Me: Hello, may I speak to John Davis, please?
    Linguist: Yes.
    Pause.
    Me:  Could you call him to the phone, please?
    Linguist:  Yes.
    Pause.
    Me: (finally catching on) Do so.  Please.
    Linguist (aside) Hey, John, you got a call…

    Justin:  I agree that we agree to some extent, but I think you may have misunderstood my position, which is that there is no perfectly rational system of morals, because of built-in conflicts that cannot be eliminated.  While evolution can tell us a lot about how we came to be the way we are, it cannot be an objective basis for morals, because our evolved desires conflict with one another, and because we also desire things evolution has not, or has only sketchily, prepared us for: culturally learned beliefs and desires, as Alonzo mentioned.

    True, an atheist cannot be objectively moral- but neither can a believer, for two reasons.  One has been mentioned already by Les: the impossibility of knowing exactly what God wants us to do.  If I recall correctly, there have occasionally been some disagreements between religions, and even within religions, on this point.  The other reason that a believer cannot be objectively moral is that the source of objective morals, God, does not exist.

  37. Not a very good linguist, Zilch.  MAY (as oppossed to CAN) is generally taken as having the semantics meaning ‘please do this’.

  38. Hussar, what exactly do you mean by “good”?  I don’t know how successful he was at passing on his genes… LOL

  39. True, an atheist cannot be objectively moral- but neither can a believer, for two reasons.  One has been mentioned already by Les: the impossibility of knowing exactly what God wants us to do.  If I recall correctly, there have occasionally been some disagreements between religions, and even within religions, on this point.  The other reason that a believer cannot be objectively moral is that the source of objective morals, God, does not exist.

    It is not theoretically impossible for us to know what God wants us to do.  Neither is the existence of God a theoretical impossibility. 

    If we can engage in the abstract to the extent that we have in this thread, abhorring something as wonderful as cake, then we can’t be just discarding God or discernment of God’s will with a few rash keystrokes. :p

  40. It is not theoretically impossible for us to know what God wants us to do.  Neither is the existence of God a theoretical impossibility.

    Well, consi, I guess it depends on what theory you go by.  Let’s just say that believers have not made a convincing case so far for knowing what God wants us to do, or that God exists at all.

    I agree with you, however, about cake being wonderful.  Any system of thought that claims otherwise is obviously on the wrong track.

  41. Alonzo,

    Just a quick question how does one desire effect other desires except through influencing actions.  For example, if I had the desire to light babies on fire how does that desire simpliciter thwart the desires of babies or their parents unless I actually act upon that desire?

  42. I don’t see how desire alone could be construed as “immoral” or bad unless it is acted upon. For example, Bob can desire all day long to burn his neighbor’s house down, but unless Bob actually does commit an act of arson on his neighbor’s home, the desire itself is not immoral (though it may reveal something about Bob’s mental health).

  43. If you wanted to light babies on fire, but didn’t, then aren’t your own desires being thwarted?

  44. Are we talking “utter need” desires (what you truly don’t think that you can live without doing) or merely “idle wish” desires (and the whole continuum in between), because I’m not certain desire really is any better a concept than good/evil for the purposes of this discussion. I know people who are total bullshit about their desires because they cannot be pure in their thinking about what they want. Alot of thoughts can grow through your mind when contemplating a course of action, many of them can be viewed as desires.

  45. Adding to what Kryss said, there certainly exist degrees of desire. While I desire a brand new Rolls Royce, my desire for a friend’s love and support outweighs my desire for a new car (sometimes wink).

  46. Sorry for my typo earlier (go rather than grow) and thanks Sadie. On the same page there are those who don’t seem to have much between thought and deed and others that never seem to achieve the level of deed for all of the many thoughts that go through their heads.

  47. Where do you stand on fantasy (as opposed to desires – I don’t think that they are 100% equivalent)? There are even many kinds of fantasies, with people not seriously expecting that they will ever achieve actualization.

  48. Okay, thanks for the questions. Let’s see how many I can get through.

    Socialist Swine, Sexie Sadie, and Kysstfafm: You are correct in noting that desires almost exclusively fulfill or thwart other desires through the actions they cause. It is theoretically possible that a desire can thwart other desires just by existing. However, desires are like black holes. We can never see a desire directly. We can only know of their existence by looking at actions and postulating those desires that best answer the question, “What could have caused a person to act that way?”

    What does it mean to have a desire that has no affect on actions? It would be like having a black hole that has no affect on the physical universe. Again, we would have no reason to think it is even there. So, we would have no reason to make any type of assessment.

    On this model, a “right act” is that act that a person with good desires would perform. If a person has a bad desire, but he never acts on it, then his actions would still be the actions that a person with good desires would perform. He would never do anything wrong.

    Yet, society would still have reason to use its powers of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to inhibit the formation of that desire generally throughout society. Just because this person does not act on the desire, this does not imply that others would not act on it. It is to save itself from the harms that those others may do that society has reason to inhibit such a desire.

    Ulfrekr: If you wanted to light babies on fire, but did not, then we may assume that you had an even stronger (direct or indirect) aversion to lighting babies on fire. Not lighting babies on fire would thwart one of your desires, but lighting babies on fire would thwart even more and stronger desires. Otherwise, you would light babies on fire. You would have no motivating reason strong enough to prevent it.

    Kysstfafm and Sexie Sadie: You are correct; one of the properties of a desire is its strength. The stronger a desire, the greater a disposition to act on a desire.

    Also, Kysstfafm, you correctly note that a person can be wrong about their desires. They can think that they want something then, when they get it, discover that it does not fulfill a desire of theirs at all. However, the very possibility of making a mistake suggests that there is something there about which a person can be mistaken.

    Following Aristotle, there are actually two types of desires—desires as an end, and desires as a means. I can desire a match as a way of lighting a fire so that I can keep warm. My desire for the match is an example of “desires as a means.” My desire for warmth is an example of “desires as an end.”

    Of course, some things (e.g., warmth) can be both a means and an end. For example, warmth is not only comforting itself, it can also be useful in preventing frostbite.

    Joel Fienberg (Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, Oxford University Press, 1984) defined welfare goods as those things that are universally useful as means. Welfare goods are useful as a means for almost anything one may want as an end. Health is a welfare good, as is money, knowledge, and freedom.

    Now, Sexie Sadie, taking all of this into consideration, a desire for a friend’s love and support can outweigh a desire for a car on a number of levels. First, the desire might actually be stronger. Second, the desire for a friends love and support may be augmented by a desire to desire a friend’s love and support. Third, a friend’s love and support might be more useful. Fourth, society in general might have reason to promote a desire for love and support as a way of promoting social cohesion and you, as a part of this society, would then promote this desire as an important social (moral) value.

    Kysstfafm: On the realm of fantasy, I can answer this by example. I like to play computer war games. However, a part of my ability to enjoy these games depends on my knowledge that no real people are being made to suffer. A person with a strong aversion to harming others can still engage in fantasy, because a fantasy does not thwart the desire not to harm others. However, society in general has reason to worry that it has no ability to allow a fantasy that does not also make a desire more common as well. Society may have no way of allowing rape fantasies that does not also encourage rape desires. Its interest in inhibiting rape desires gives it reason to inhibit rape fantasies as well. That is to say IF the social institutions of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment cannot distinguish between the two efficiently.

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