• About TWIM

    The Warfare Is Mental (TWIM) reflects the mental warfare of an author, screenwriter, publisher and member of the Writer's Guild of America. Family, friends, health, humor, art, music, science, faith, fun and knowledge are some of the things that are important to me.

    TWIM is the first and only theist blog listed on the Atheist Blogroll, which currently contains over 1,000 blogs. It goes without saying that I don't endorse hardly any of the views of any of them. Contact Mojoey for more information.

    Ironically, TWIM won an award for "Best Atheist / Skeptic Site" from this site. Much obliged.

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    You and your commenters are a feast of thinking — great stuff.

    -C.L. Dyck
    I have no need to engage with racists, so will ignore cl’s further diatribes.

    cl resists following through on a thought even to provide a solid opposing position, and thus stifles many conversations. It’s a shame since it seems like cl has some brain power that could be applied to the topics at hand.

    [faithlessgod and Hermes] fit my definition of trolling. I didn’t take any of those attacks against you seriously, and quickly categorized them as trolls.

    -JS Allen,
    [cl] is, as many have noticed, a master of this warfare. I’ve been following him for quite some time and he’s one of the most effective Christian trolls out there. No one can completely destroy a conversation as effectively as he does, and with such masterful grace and subtly that he rarely gets banned. This isn’t a blunt-force “U R Hitler!” troll, this is the Yoda of trolling.

    This seems to imply that cl is, at least in part, disingenuous in terms of how he responds/what he claims. Is this most likely true, supported by evidence, or merely a subjective claim?

    -al friedlander,
    ...I wanted to get a message to you outside of the context of specific discussions on CSA. You make good, insightful contributions to that site, and since I often agree with you I'm glad there is someone else there defending my positions better than I sometimes can. However I don't think anything of value would be lost if you stopped engaging in personal combat with juvenile snipers.

    Thank you for your wonderful response - so reasoned in the race of [Waldvogel's] blustering.

    -Annie Laurie Gaylor
     Freedom From Religion Foundation
    Thanks for a great Op-Ed.

    -Marianne Ratcliff
     VC Star
    ...as atheists we need to make sure that someone like cl and any Christian readers of [An Apostate's Chapel] don’t come away with the perception that the atheists caved in or were incapable of responding. I’m sure that a lot of Christians who find cl incomprehensible at times and don’t even bother reading him themselves will come away with an assumption that cl is that sort of rare intellectual theist who can prove that gods exist. And that’s how those inane rumors about the feared xian intellectuals start…

     An Apostate's Chapel
    You are in so over your head here, you are embarrassing yourself...
    I am well versed in many aspects of evolution biology, through my academic background, and my professional life. Unless your academic degrees and background match mine, cease and desist. Return to philosophy and rhetoric, or whatever it is you perceive your strengths to be. They are definitely not science, even at the high school level.

    -R.C. Moore
     Evangelical Realism
    You're doing a fine job.

    -Prof. Larry Moran
     Dept. of Biochemistry
     University of Toronto
     re: R.C. Moore & others
    Phyletic change and vicariance (or, drift and selection versus population isolation), as cl points out, are much better ways of describing what are unfortunately more commonly known as micro- and macro- evolution, respectively.

     Biology postdoc
     Univ. of Cyprus
     re: R.C. Moore & others
    cl says, “The minute you call yourself a Christian or an Atheist or whatever the heck else, you automatically get painted by other people’s interpretations of those words, which are almost always different and almost always distorted.” cl’s point couldn’t be more on. As cl points out there is an important reason for not claiming any real religious (or lack thereof) belief. It puts logical constraints on one's arguments due directly to the bias of the individual that is translating the English to mind ideas of what it means to be religious.

    Just who in the bloody hell do you think you are, you Christian piece of garbage, to come here barking out orders? You're an arrogant, condescending piece of shit. You seem to think you're an intellectual of sorts, when all you are is a Christian who's read a few books. John, everyone, this really is the limit. BR, I'm more than a little annoyed that you continue to engage him. I'm out of here. I have better things to do than to waste my time with these cretins.

     Debunking Christianity
    How old are you CL? I'd guess you have not yet experienced much life. I'd say you were under the age of 21, too young to be here. I don't give a damn what you think of me or my deconversion at all. You're too stupid to realize that regardless of it you must deal with the arguments in the book. They are leading people away from you [sic] faith. I'm seriously considering banning you cl, as I've heard you were banned on other sites. You are much too ignorant for us to have a reasonable discussion.

    -John Loftus
     Debunking Christianity
    I admired the way you handled yourself in the discussion on John's blog. I'm not patient enough to keep my sarcasm in check with some of them blokes, but appreciate those who are.

    -David Marshall
     re: Debunking Christianity
    cl, I have to say, while I fundamentally disagree with you, you are an individual which I highly respect. I think your responses are always well thought out and your insights always well thought out and pertinently derived.
    [Y]ou have made me a stronger atheist in my regards to critical thinking and debating. I really can’t wait to hear more from you. Hell, I’d even buy you a drink, good sir. Cheers!

     Evangelical Realism
    Bottom line? Sometimes I think he's right about certain arguments, and I don't have a problem admitting that. Other times, however, I think he's wrong, and I've called him on that. But I have found he can be pretty reasonable if you (1) don't overstate your case, (2) make concessions when you have, and (3) insist he do the same.

    I like it when [cl] makes me stop, think and question if I am making unfounded assertions or if I am being sloppy. What has been annoying me about cl of late is that he is being excruciatingly anal...

    I really can't thank you enough for catching me on my error in rhetoric. I always love a good debate! And I always enjoy your posts, as well! Keep up the great writing and the excellent eye for detail!

    You make me smarter...

    -Mike G.
    ..thank you, cl. I discovered your blog on a random web search and saw it as an oasis amidst a vast desert of seemingly intractable theist-atheist debate.

    -Sung Jun
    It's good to be able to discuss with people who are open and respectful, and know that disagreement does not mean disrespect... You are to be congratulated, not only for your patience, but also your ability to hold an ever-growing debate together with an impressive degree of structure.

    My tone is derogatory... [cl is] ignorant and credulous and deserves to be mocked... In the time he's been here, he's shown a consistent pattern of antagonizing everyone he comes in contact with, monopolizing threads, derailing discussions with perpetual complaints, quibbles and demands for attention, and generally making arguments that display a lack of good faith and responsiveness... it's become intolerable. I'm not banning him, but I'm putting in place some restrictions on how often he can comment.

     Daylight Atheism
    This is no defense of the annoying cl, but what a self-righteous, prissy atheist you turned out to be, Ebonmuse. I'm disappointed in you, stealing a strategem from the theists.

    -The Exterminator
     to Ebonmuse
    I certainly didn't get any bad impression about cl, and I can't relate his comments with any of the things (Ebonmuse) said above. I actually thought it was quite interesting to have him around.

    -Juan Felipe
     Daylight Atheism
    Please continue to allow
    cl to post his views and make it clear that he is still welcome. And let me be clear, cl is not a lunatic.

     Daylight Atheism
    With one exception, you are the most coherent and intelligent theist I've seen on this site...

    -Steve Bowen
     Daylight Atheism
    I'm rooting for cl. I hope he perpetually manages to skirt the rules enough to do his damage, forcing rule revision after rule revision, ad nauseum. Awesome! Let's watch as Ebon, ever more frustrated, continues to struggle to figure out how to keep his precious private blog neat and tidy as cl keeps messing up his papers while one by one, readers leave due to an every increasing administrative presence. Outstanding! Well I won't go. The thought of this sounds like the most entertaining thing that probably would have ever happened on Daylight Atheism. Hot damn!

    Your visit has been something of a reality check to me. It seems that when you present rational arguments and criticisms, many commenters feel territory slipping and then work up vaporous or leaky responses. I also want to remark that your presence here has considerably moved me to try being a more careful and understanding debater...

     Daylight Atheism
    I do have a lot of respect for you too. You seem to be a very intelligent and thoughtful individual with a knack for getting to the bottom of a problem, cutting through all the bullshit rhetoric on the way down. The fact that many other atheists seem to unreasonably despise you bothers me a lot, because I think that maybe they aren’t acting in good faith.

    -Peter Hurford
    I am not going to waste any more time parsing your comments to decide if they've crossed the line or not... So I banned you.

    -Greta Christina
    Be rude... cl invites rudeness. Would you want an incontinent little puppy coming into your house?

    -(((Billy))) the Atheist
    Note to all my regular readers: Since An Apostate’s Chapel is a free-speech zone, I don’t censor conversations.
    As it appears that cl is a troll, please note that I will not be responding to him any longer. I ask that you refrain from doing so, as well. Please don’t feed the troll!

    -The Chaplain
    …I can’t reconcile being a "freethinker" with banning speech. [cl's] comments are not offensive in the normal understanding of that term, and he poses absolutely no threat except perhaps to some imagined decorum. Why can’t atheists lighten up, for no-Christ’s sake?

    -The Exterminator
    Is it going to distract from my meal when crazy uncle cl starts blathering out nonsense, pick his ears with a carrot or start taking his pants off? No. In fact, it might actually heighten the experience in some amusing way. So no, I don't see cl's work as damage.

    I am beginning to suspect that you are a troll cl. Albeit an evolved troll, but a troll nonetheless. Perhaps we should all stop feeding the troll?

     Evangelical Realism
    [cl is] is either a sophist or an incompetent when it comes to the english language... (sic)

     Evangelical Realism
    I’d say cl is pretty sharp... it may be tempting at times to think that “the other guy” is arguing out of some personal character flaw rather than a sincere desire to acknowledge the truth, I still think it’s better to debate respectfully... It is disrespectful to make unsupported accusations against people, e.g. by suggesting that their views are caused by an intrinsically corrupt and immoral nature.

    -Deacon Duncan, 3-9-09
     Evangelical Realism
    [cl] cannot refute my facts, so he needs must find (sic) some scapegoat in order to claim that he has confronted the enemy and proven them wrong... cl, sadly, has proven himself to be the sort of guest who comes into your living room and sneaks behind your couch to take a crap on the floor, just so he can tell all your neighbors how bad your house smells and what an unsanitary housekeeper you are... an interesting case study in the negative effects a Christian worldview has on a reasonably intellectual mind.

    -Deacon Duncan, 6-17-09
     Evangelical Realism
    I strongly discourage discussion of the character, abilities, motives, or personal ancestry of individual commenters, as tempting as such comments may be at times. I discourage the posting of comments that make frequent use of the pronoun “you,” as in “you always…” or “you never…” or “you are just so…”, when directed at a specific individual.

    -Deacon Duncan, 4-9-09
     Evangelical Realism
    I won’t be publishing your most recent comment because it’s a return to the same sort of schtick you’ve pulled here before: re-writing other people’s arguments to make yourself look misunderstood and/or unfairly accused, taking “polyvalent” positions so that when people address your points you can claim to have said something else, distorting other people’s arguments, trolling for negative reactions, and so on.

    -Deacon Duncan, 10-8-09
     Evangelical Realism
    [E]gomaniacal troll.
    You win... You’re a disingenuous sophist through and through, cl. And a friggin’ narcissist to boot! Since I’ve thoroughly and purposefully broken the Deacon’s rules of engagement, I shall consider my right to post henceforth annulled, and move on - dramatic pause, lights out.

     Evangelical Realism
    He either thinks in a very weird way or he's quite the con artist.

    I will gladly admit that I have a boner for cl. Maybe some day I’ll even earn a place of honor on cl’s Blog of Infamy.

     Evangelical Realism
    Long time reader first time poster... I like reading what you
    have to say over at Daylight Atheism so I figured I'd pop in here.

    He's just a jerk
    that likes to argue.

     Daylight Atheism
    You’re not a reasonable thinker in my book. You’re simply an arguer, for better or worse. I’m Michael Palin, you’re John Cleese. You’re just a disputation-ist, bringing everything into question...

     Reason vs. Apologetics
    Motherfucker, this is an interesting blog... Quite the group of commenters.

    -John Evo
    You are very articulate, and I can only assume that it's a result of high intelligence; an intelligence that's interested in, and can understand, healthy debate. However, at every turn, that's not what I or others seem to get.

    -ex machina
     Daylight Atheism
    You are a troll, a liar, and a useless sack of shit. Not only that, but you're still wrong even after moving the goal posts and trying to re-write history. So, you can stop cyber stalking me now and trying to provoke me. I know what you are doing, and you are doing it so that you can whine about how I'm being irrational and mean to you and stroke your pathetic martyr complex. You're a pathetic attention whore and I've already given you too much attention. So, back the fuck off, stop following me around the intarwebs and trying to provoke me, and fuck off.

     Daylight Atheism
    I would just like to say that, OMGF, having read the debate as a neutral observer, some of the things cl says about your style of argument are true, IMO. It is quite hasty, which means you occasionally haven't got the central point cl is trying to make...

    -John D.
     Daylight Atheism
    ...this is a difficult question that deserves more than a kneejerk reaction, not to imply that you're kneejerking. You're the least kneejerking person I've met.

    If you’re here playing devil’s advocate, then, hey, you do a great job at it, it’s a service, keep us sharp... You’re a smart guy, but those are exactly the ones who give the worst headaches!

     An Apostate's Chapel
    You are a waste of time, cl. A big fat black hole of bullshit sucking in everyone who comes into contact with you.

    -Spanish Inquisitor
    As for all that harsh invective that's come your way, umm... I gotta say, I've seen some of the invective, but I haven't seen the behavior on your part that called for it. Maybe I've just not seen enough? I don't know... from what I've read, I can tell that you're a smart person, and whether you deserved any of that treatment or not is quite frankly immaterial to me; I just want to deal with the smart person at the eye of that storm.

     She Who Chatters
    I now think that you’re an atheist, just having fun at other atheists’ expense. If that’s the case, kudos.

    -The Exterminator

How Would I Present Desirism?

(I originally wrote this post six months ago)

When considering a redesign for some client’s website, I often ask, “How would I have coded this thing?” A while back, I got to thinking about desirism in the same way.

This is no offense to Alonzo, but in my honest opinion, he presents desirism ambiguously, from key tenets right down to the original name, desire utilitarianism. I may be way off here, but I get the feeling Alonzo doesn’t want the heavy burden that typically falls to those making moral claims, and that this may influence him to equivocate on select terms. Most discouraging is that regarding conventional definitions, he claims “moral terms are being used in substantially the same way that moral terms had been used.”

I wouldn’t waste the time if it were just me having difficulty with the theory, but a non-trivial subset of intelligent people consistently raise identical or near-identical objections, so I thought I would take a stab at presenting desirism in a way that would make sense to myself. Specifically, my goal is to present it in a way that it avoids the common objections. If the current objections are really the result of misunderstanding as Luke and Fyfe claim, then a clearer presentation should nullify them. OTOH, if the same objections can still be raised after a clearer presentation, it follows that desirism may be in error.

I will be particularly interested in feedback regarding how accurately you think I’ve presented Alonzo’s theory, and more importantly, if you think my formulation can avoid at least some of the common objections to desirism. Hopefully, you’ll notice and appreciate the relative absence of traditional moral terms: no good, no evil, no morality, no right, no wrong, no mention of objective or intrinsic value, etc. In fact, I’m not even going to call it desirism!

Mind you, I’m not presenting this as something I actually believe in and endorse [although certain parts of it do happen to overlap with my own views on meta and applied ethics]. Ultimately, I think my presentation remains vulnerable to criticism [for example, substitute “should I paint my house bright pink” for “should I listen to loud music in the middle of the night,” the example discussed at the end of the presentation]. However, I think my presentation is far simpler and clearer than Fyfe’s, without confusing moral language or claims without evidence–and that it is nowhere near as convoluted or open to criticism as his. We can actually use my presentation as a guideline without the need to embark on an impossible calculation of billions of desires, and without the unjustified claims that necessarily ensue from our inability to do so.

I’ve written the rest of this post as if I were speaking to a live audience.

Continue reading

The New Moral Crusaders?

Episode 14 of Luke and Alonzo’s oddly named Morality in the Real World is up, and despite its length, I don’t think it said much. Sure, it’s important and commendable to distinguish between the facts of reality vs. the words we use, but they could have accomplished that in a few short sentences. In the positive, the student is starting to surpass–or at least show genuine skepticism towards–the teacher. I find that very encouraging. Though one could argue that it has simply transferred to Yudkowsky, Luke’s infatuation with Alonzo Fyfe seems to be waning. If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the episode, I suggest doing so, else my post might not make as much sense as it could.

On the alleged ambiguity of Alonzo’s terms, Luke writes,

Well, Alonzo, you invented these terms, “thwarting” and “fulfilling” to refer to relationships between desires and states of affairs. A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true, and it is thwarted in any state in which P is false… every time you present your idea to a new audience you have to explain how you are using those terms, because it’s not obvious. And a lot of people who encounter your writing don’t encounter the explanation of what you mean by those terms, so it confuses them… I have a solution to that problem. I found a couple of people who picked what I think might be better words for making this distinction. Instead of talking about ‘desire fulfillment’ versus ‘desire satisfaction’, they talk about ‘objective desire satisfaction’ versus ‘subjective desire satisfaction’.

How isn’t that obvious? It’s clear as day to me. Though I disagree with his conflation of morality and desire fulfillment, I think the majority of Alonzo’s original definitions are clear, accurate, and useful to productive discussion. Luke proposes a terrible solution. He’s added two of the most misunderstood and confusing terms into a theory that was already heavily misunderstood and confusing. I mean, look how much people struggle with “objective” and “subjective” morality. So we have “action-based” theories of desire, and “pleasure-based” theories of desire, also referred to as “objective desire satisfaction” and “subjective desire satisfaction,” respectively. I’m not sure what this accomplishes. In terms of the agent, is there any salient difference? I don’t really see what this distinction brings to the table. Does this distinction support the theory? Does it change the way we discuss praise and condemnation?

After revisiting the old, “if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it” koan, Luke writes,

…we can skip the definition issue altogether – avoid using the words ‘desire’ and ‘sound’ – and just argue about what certain motivational structures in the brain are doing, or what certain shock waves in the air are doing.

I agree. This is why I have always resisted Luke’s claim that “desires might not exist” would be problematic for desirism. As I said then, this seems semantic, and I’ve never understood why Luke took that as a potential defeater. As long as we are discussing human morality, brain states undeniably exist. Specific brain states are the structures, and desires are the symbols. Nobody can argue that brain states don’t exist, at least, not without turning quite a bit of apparent knowledge on its head. So, if we commit ourselves to the position that desires reduce to brain states–which Alonzo has committed to–who can argue that desires don’t exist?

However, despite claiming that desirism respects no particular assumptions, Luke and Alonzo respect a massive assumption here: that desires reduce to brain states. What happens when we extend desirism to brainless organisms? Do jellyfish have desires? Clearly, jellyfish have needs, or perhaps predispositions to eat, reproduce, poop, etc. If we treat desires as ultimately reducible to brain states, it seems we must deny that jellyfish have desires, but we can ask: do jellyfish desire eating? Mating? Do jellyfish feel pain? If you poke a jellyfish with a stick, it reacts like a creature with a brain. Jellyfish clearly demonstrate an aversion to being poked. If they demonstrate aversion, don’t they necessarily demonstrate desire? Perhaps desires don’t reduce to brain states at all? Perhaps desires actually reduce to, “needs fulfilled to procure stasis,” or something like that? With that definition, jellyfish are included. Regardless, Luke and Alonzo will need to hash this out if they extend their theory to brainless organisms.

One might criticize me for making the very same error Luke and Alonzo discuss in the post, that of searching for a “super-dictionary” definition for desire. I’m not, at least, not to the neglect of the larger picture. I’m questioning how well the symbol matches the substance. I’m challenging their claims that desires are ultimately reducible to brain states, and that desirism respects no particular assumptions. That first claim hasn’t been demonstrated, and the second claim is definitely false. Though, for the sake of argument, I’ll agree to treat human desires as ultimately reducible to brain states. Let’s grant Luke and Alonzo the benefit of the doubt, and say the symbol matches the substance. Do any serious problems persist? I think so.

Luke writes,

I’m interested in the facts of the world, not the words.

Then support desirism with facts of the world, instead of intuition and semantic meandering! I was never too confused over what Alonzo meant, at least, not enough to be stuck in the mud. I simply haven’t seen a lick of evidence that supports the conclusions he draws from his theory. Now, this is only an issue because Luke and Alonzo claim their theory is empirical, and evidence-based. If they didn’t make that claim, I wouldn’t raise such a big stink about evidence. Regardless, we need to start at the ground level. Okay, so we have this particle-fine distinction between “action-based” theories of desire and “pleasure-based” theories of desire. By what principle do we get from there to, “television sitcoms and reality shows are a worthless waste of time where people sit on a couch and get fat while they acquire no useful information and accomplish absolutely nothing of value?” By what evidence do we get from there to, “spectator sports is a waste of time, money, and real-estate?” By what facts do we get from there to, “we would be better off without television sitcoms, reality shows and spectator sports?”

IOW, how can we be sure that Alonzo Fyfe isn’t just projecting his values onto others, like every other moral crusader throughout history? How can we be sure Luke and Alonzo’s “morality” is any different than Tipper Gore’s, who felt the same way about gangster rap–or Osama bin Laden’s, who felt the same way about American culture?

Alonzo writes,

…our listeners have been clamoring for a detailed, accurate presentation of desirism. How else can we give it to them?

Empirical demonstration, bottom line. If this is a theory about morality in the real world, then use real world empiricism to demonstrate your claim that we should do away with spectator sports, television sitcoms and reality shows. If you cannot, I suspect you’re just another moral crusader. It’s that simple.

On “Beneficial Lies”

I don’t believe what I’m about to say in the following thought example, but suppose that news of bin Laden’s death restores the economy to as good a state as it’s ever been in. Then suppose that his “death” was actually a lie concocted by economists and politicians because they knew–with reasonable certainty based on seemingly airtight calculations–that this lie would spur economic growth. Now, if there was an instance where desirism’s broad “people generally” statement can be made confidently, this is it. Certainly, “people generally” have reason to promote that which spurs economic growth, right?

If morality can reduce to desires fulfilled and thwarted, then should we praise or condemn the “beneficial lie?”

One might respond by pointing to a higher-order prohibition on lying in general. Yes, “people generally” also have reason to promote honesty–I do not deny that–although, why? Why do people have reason to promote honesty under desirism? Is it not in order to procure desire fulfillment? If I understand it right, there are no categorical imperatives in desirism, that is, no absolute, unconditional requirements. “Dishonesty is always wrong” seems to be an example of categorical imperative, so it seems fair to say that desirists ought to reject “Dishonesty is always wrong” in favor of something more like, “Dishonesty that thwarts more than fulfills desires is always wrong.” Remember, the economists and politicians knew with reasonable certainty based on seemingly airtight calculations that this lie would spur economic growth. So then, if they fulfill many desires and thwart few or none, should we praise or condemn the “beneficial lie?”

Desirism, Doughnuts & Red Curbs

In discussions of morality, attempts to define good can get downright maddening once one applies themselves duly to the task. Yet, it seems so simple. We all know what good means, right? The problem is, my “good” might actually be your “bad,” so how might we deal with that?

For example, let’s say you own a doughnut shop. Not just any doughnut shop, but one in a strip mall with a decent-sized parking lot such that some curbs are painted red to reserve parking for emergency vehicles. Now, let’s say I like to ride my skateboard full speed into those red curbs, like this, and that this actually causes a minor amount of damage to them. My desire to do this ranks very high on my hierarchy of desires. You, of course, don’t want me to skate the curbs, and your desire ranks equally high on your hierarchy of desires. I am primarily concerned with two things: the intense feeling of satisfaction this gives me, and freedom of physical expression regarding my style of exercise. You are primarily concerned with two things: preventing a lawsuit should I injure myself, and promoting an encouraging atmosphere for potential doughnut consumers.

In this case, my “good” is clearly your “bad,” and there are seemingly endless variables as well as ways this dilemma can be resolved. Here are just a few possibilities:

1) I can say, “screw you and your desires,” and continue skating the curbs;

2) You can threaten to call the police;

3) I can oblige your concerns and stop skating the curbs;

4) You can relent of your concerns and stop worrying;

5) We can attempt to determine who has the legal right of way;

6) We can fist fight;

7) We can search for a way to satisfy my desire without thwarting yours.

In (2), why would you threaten to call the police? Is it not because you assume–as you could quite correctly in the vast majority of cases–that my desire to grind red curbs is not as strong as my aversion to being arrested? Here is a real-world example where desirist tenets can both predict and explain human behavior.

Note that my decision to continue skating the curbs may or may not be illegal depending on the municipality we’re in. If it is legal, you have no legal grounds for (2), and I could choose (1) with no fear of punishment, which would lead to the thwarting of your desires.

The desirist would presumably prescribe (7), and because I’m a nice guy, that would be my first choice, too. However, my fondness for (7) could quickly vaporize depending on your reason for wanting me to stop skating the curbs, and the demeanor in which you present your request. If you come out and get hostile, we might be well on our way to (6). If, on the other hand, you come out cool, calm and collected, I might just yield to your desire and choose (3). If you are simply a cranky old bat that “doesn’t like skateboards,” and that is why you want me to stop, I’m not going to be very sympathetic. After all, I like skateboards, and since we’re both presumably tax-paying citizens of the same community, why should I stop just because you don’t? To those leaning towards the argument from private property, how would the situation change if the setting was a public park?

I’ve seen each of these play out in real life.

Perhaps your reason is that you don’t like the scuffs on the red curbs. How is that any different than disliking a certain artist? Is this not a purely subjective aesthetic preference? Why should your desire to see red curbs without minor scuffs take precedence over my desire to skate them? What if I agree to periodically repaint them for you?

Perhaps your desire is preventing a lawsuit. As is the case with every skateboarder I’ve ever known, what if suing you would never even enter my mind as a viable option should I get hurt? After all, I’ve hurt myself in who-knows-how-many places, and never once have I thought to sue the owner of the property. If I get hurt skateboarding, more often than not, it’s my own fault. So, why should I have my desire thwarted simply because you worry about a situation that will never materialize in reality?

Questions like these lead me to question the appropriateness of using desire fulfillment as the sole criterion for good, and more importantly, questions like these lead me to remain skeptical of the claim made by Harris, Fyfe, Muehlhauser et al. that science should be the ultimate arbiter of morality.

How in the world is science going to help in a situation like this?

Desires Cannot Fulfill Or Thwart Other Desires

In his post Living Without A Moral Code, part 3, Luke Muehlhauser writes,

Now, it seems straightforward that my carnivorous desires are immoral. Surely my desire to eat meat tends to thwart more and stronger desires than it fulfills. It certainly thwarts the desires of the animals I eat, both by way of their death and by way of their horrifying lives packed into factory farms.

That is incorrect. Desires cannot fulfill or thwart other desires.

Luke and Alonzo define morally good desires as “desires that tend to fulfill other desires,” and argue that we should use praise to promote them. Conversely, they define morally evil desires as “desires that tend to thwart other desires,” and argue that we should use condemnation to promote aversion to them. Yet, if desires are mere propositional attitudes as Alonzo also claims, then it is logically impossible for a desire to either thwart or fulfill other desires. If I was sitting next to you on the train, and you had the desire to breathe clean air, my desire to smoke could not possibly thwart your desire to breathe clean air. Only acts and the states of affairs created by them retain the ability to thwart or fulfill other desires. Simply put, desires cannot fulfill or thwart other desires unless acted upon. Only my lighting up a cigarette can thwart your desire to breathe clean air.

So why are desires the objects of evaluation in desirism? Is it simply a branding decision to make desirism more attractive on the shelf of moral theories? Or, is there a reason for making desires the objects of evaluation as opposed to acts?

Granted, intentional acts seem to flow from desires in every conceivable instance, so it makes sense to aim praise and condemnation at desires. If you can remove evil desire X from the population, then you effectively preclude all instances of evil act X therein. I see nothing controversial with that line of reasoning. Rather, I question the supremacy of desire fulfillment in moral evaluations. Don’t get me wrong; I think “desires fulfilled and thwarted” are certainly a component of morality, but they simply cannot be the guiding criteria because even evil desires can “tend to fulfill other desires” if the “other desires” are predominantly evil to begin with.

What about the “no harm, no foul” policy?

Take the desire to cheat on one’s spouse as an example. Alonzo might argue that “people generally” have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to infidelity, but there are at least two angles I think we need to consider. For one, I’m not sure it’s true that “people generally” have many and strong reasons to promote such an aversion. At first glance, it seems to me that single people have no such reason. I suppose one could invoke the phenomenon of collateral damage and claim that even single people have such reason, because infidelity can lead to expensive trials that burden the legal system and cause serious psychological damage, especially when they are children involved. Even still, it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that single people or those committed to non-monogamous relationships have any reason to promote an aversion to infidelity.

What does it mean to say that we should “promote an aversion to infidelity,” anyways? Should we spread anti-infidelity propaganda? This is in fact what happens in other instances. For example, you might see a poster at a bus stop which condemns bigotry against homosexuals and other minorities. On further reflection, I don’t recall ever once seeing a poster that condemns infidelity. Yet, our culture is literally saturated with posters and propaganda that condemn bigotry against minorities. What, if anything, can we infer from this?

Further, could a “bad desire” actually be beneficial to the agent? Recall that desires cannot thwart or fulfill other desires unless acted upon. What of various arguments for the psychological benefits of sexual fantasy? Here we at least potentially have a class of desires which would tend to thwart other desires if acted upon, but would actually tend to fulfill other desires when not acted on. In the case of married individuals, sexual fantasies constitute genuine desires for infidelity – desires I’m guessing Alonzo Fyfe would say “people generally” have reason to condemn – yet, on what grounds?

Where is the justification for the across-the-board policy of condemning desires that tend to thwart other desires? Since desires are brain states, isn’t this simply the desirist version of the thoughtcrime objection atheists often level towards Christianity? To that end, Luke remarks,

Christianity [claims] that we are ruled by an all-powerful dictator who convicts us of thoughtcrime and will torture us if we do not bow before him – like an everlasting Jafar with unlimited wishes.

What, exactly, is the difference between Jesus condemning adultery in the heart and the desirist condemning adultery in the brain?

Is Desirism An Objective Moral Theory?

Luke Muehlhauser claims that desirism is an objective moral theory. I think it’s quite easy to demonstrate that this is an incoherent claim. Recall that Luke defines “objective moral value” thus:

…usually, the phrase “OBJECTIVE moral value” means something like “moral value grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a person or persons.” Right? If what you’re calling “moral value” is just based off somebody’s personal attitudes, that’s called SUBJECTIVE morality. [The Science of Morality: No Gods Required]

Next, recall that in desirism, desires are the objects of evaluation, and that a desire is a “propositional attitude.”

Now, consider the following propositions:

A) Moral value based on personal attitudes is subjective morality;

B) Desires are the objects of evaluation in desirism;

C) Desires are propositional attitudes which vary from person to person;

D) Desirism is based off personal attitudes, hence, a subjective theory of morality.

It should be apparent that either A, B and/or C need emendations, else, D is a valid conclusion. I anticipate that Luke might respond by repeating the claim he made the first time I brought this to his attention:

…desire-based accounts of morality are not generally considered subjective when the desires being considered are all desires that exist. [Dr. Craig and Objective Morality]

What exactly does it mean to say “not generally considered subjective?” Is Luke alluding to a real-world consensus amongst the philosophical elite? Is that phrase supposed to carry some sort of weight or authority that I should assent to? Personally, I’m not concerned with what “people generally” or “philosophers generally” consider, about anything. I want to know – from Luke – how a system based on “somebody’s” attitudes is subjective, but a system based on “everybody’s” attitudes is objective.

Another rejoinder I’ve heard Luke use is the “desires of all sentient beings” distinction, but I still fail to see how this resolves the apparent contradiction. More, if a desire is a propositional attitude, is it accurate to say that all sentient creatures have desires? Further, if we answer that question in the affirmative, Lastly, what of the practical issues? Might we poll earthworms to see if we’re thwarting their desires? It seems to me that widening the scope to “all sentient creatures” simply complicates an already-complicated “theory” that proffers no numerical or technical explanation whatsoever [as an aside, desirism’s specific stance on non-human desires is hitherto unclear. Luke does appear to argue that desirism evaluates all desires that exist, which would include non-human desires – both lower animals – and any higher forms of intelligence should they exist].

At any rate, without a sound explanation for what appears to be an unavoidable conclusion, I’m going with the unavoidable conclusion: as delineated thus far, desirism cannot rightfully be called an objective theory by Luke’s current definition of objective moral value.

What do you think?

Can God-Based Morality Be Objective?

Here and here, I argued that Luke Muehlhauser misled the audience at Colorado State University by declaring as subjective a God-based morality William Lane Craig does not actually endorse [a.k.a., refuting a strawman].

Luke’s response was to attack my character by labeling me a troll in his 7-point rejoinder, which I believe I successfully rebutted. Now, instead of responding to that rebuttal, Luke has declared in some sort of odd, melodramatic exit stage left that he’s “finally given up” on me. I won’t tire you with why I think that’s not a move a person with good desires would make, but I do have something to say in response, and I promise to keep it to a single paragraph so we can get to the meat of today’s post.

I just want to point out that if anybody should be contemplating “giving up” here, it’s me! After all, I’m the one who gets personally attacked as a “troll,” “shotgun philosopher” and “racist” on Luke’s website! And for what? I question persistently because I’m not persuaded by various arguments that Luke and Alonzo make. Is that such a crime? I mean, come on. Anyone who can’t handle persistent questioning has no business running a popular atheist blog – which would seem to logically entail tolerance of persistent questioning. Of course, it’s true that I’ve left more than one comment at CSA that can be rightfully described as scathing, but if you look closely, I’m willing to bet that an ad hominem remark preceded each and every scathing comment I’ve left, and I don’t recall a single descent into name-calling. Besides, Luke and Alonzo claim we ought to condemn desires that tend to thwart other desires, right? So, when I mock or speak strongly to them or anyone else for calling me names or making false accusations about my character, it’s not out of revenge, or to be a jerk, or because I got my feelings hurt. Not that I make any claim to being a good person, but I’m simply doing what I believe a person with good desires ought to do. To put it in desirist terms, a person with good desires has many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to personal attacks and false accusations about others on intellectual forums. Right? Right?

At any rate, let’s get on with it. Today I’d like to dig a little deeper into one of the counterarguments I made in my aforementioned responses to Luke’s speech.

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