• 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

I Get Email

A few days I go I received an email from bossmanham:

I took Luke’s blog off of my Google reader feed a while back because he was getting boring and predictable, but moseyed on over yesterday. I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was a little surprised that he’s focusing so much time on machine ethics. I guess that’s what you get when inventing your own ethics, but I was wondering what your thoughts were since you’ve followed his blog longer than I have?

Where to begin? I suppose I should start from a writer’s perspective and give Luke credit for writing about what he feels is most important. Like I said, I admire the fact that he’s writing for himself. I’ve never been impressed with writers who value pleasing their audience over writing from the heart. To me, this shows that Luke is more interested in finding and following his own voice than maximizing his readership, and I say bravo to that.

That said, I agree that Luke’s gotten boring and predictable. Truth be told, after what I would describe as a stellar beginning at Common Sense Atheism, I thought Luke had gotten boring and predictable by the end of 2009, ever since he ponied up with Alonzo Fyfe. How can I not be at least a little let down when the blogger who started with such seemingly genuine respect for conservatively stated claims declares that his newfound beliefs in materialism and atheism are “settled issues?” Just a few short years ago, Luke would have told you they were “settled issues” in favor of God’s existence and dualism. Personally, I’m a fan of the tortoise, not the hare, and it seems to me that Luke has simply traded his cross for a scarlet A, swapped one faith for another. If there’s one statement D forever etched into my mind, it’s that everybody needs a gris-gris.

As a hobbyist programmer, the topic of machine ethics isn’t 100% devoid of interest for me, but I’m just not that interested in reading about it. I agree with Luke that the topic is of paramount importance to the survival of our species, but the whole thing is a bit like politics for me: a runaway train completely out of my control, a bull in a china shop thrashing rampantly amidst the fragility of organic life. Apathetic? Perhaps, but I tend to think I’m being realistic. Sure, I want these lunatics to stop, but what am I going to do? Get all Ted Kaczynski and send AI researchers care packages in the mail? Write a letter to my Congressperson? Please. I can’t even get my neighbors to keep it down after midnight on weekdays. Call me selfish, but I’ve got better things to do than becoming the next John Connor. I might be a Christian, but a crusader I’m not.

So… what of bossmanham’s remark that Luke’s inventing his own ethics? On the one hand, can we really fault Luke or any atheist in that regard? I don’t think so. After all, atheists don’t believe in God, so it’s only logical that they would delegate morality to themselves. On the other hand, I’m less-than-impressed with Luke’s approach to the problem. For example:

…the single largest impact you can have with your charity dollars is to give all of them toward ensuring we develop artificial superintelligence that is friendly to human goals. Giving to stop global warming looks like a drop in a puddle in comparison. [Luke Muehlhauser]

Really? What about all the poor and starving, here and now? Note Luke said the “single largest impact” is to give “all” of one’s dollars towards his charity of choice. I see a glaring discrepancy between this claim and Luke’s stated penchant for empirical evidence. The claim strikes me as pure intuition, quite ironic coming from someone who promotes distrust thereof. Luke’s is, after all, a truth-claim about the real world, and he used to gas on ad nauseum about the need to support such claims with empirical evidence. Has he forgotten the very same standards he used to wage his assault on theists just last year? I don’t get it. What’s even more perplexing is that nobody seems the least bit concerned. I feel like a lunatic when I comment on Luke’s blog these days. In fact, I would wager that I feel just like an atheist stuck in the middle of the Bible belt. Ex?

Furthermore, Luke’s claim strikes me as speciesist. I suspect Luke would disagree, but his sole criterion for artificial superintelligence was that it be friendly to human goals. Why human goals? Albert Einstein is purported to have said that we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. I tend to agree. Is it not undeniably true that the wanton pursuit of human goals has brought us to the brink of distinction? I mean, we haven’t even begun to arrive at any sort of consensus on human ethics. Isn’t it putting the cart before the horse to jump to machine ethics? If we haven’t come to any consensus about how humans should act, on what grounds should we be deciding how machines should act?

Wouldn’t it be prudent to put this whole thing on pause for a few–hundred years, that is?

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?

On Intrinsic Value

As opposed to his usual complaining that he “doesn’t have time” or falsely accusing me of “not listening” to his arguments, Luke Muehlhauser actually had some salient things to say about my response to his article, In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism. I will respond to Luke here, and use those responses to articulate my broader position on the concept of intrinsic value, and how it relates to our ongoing discussions of morality.

Here are Luke’s definitions for value and intrinsic value, respectively:

[The term] value as a noun refers to a relation between desires and states of affairs.

Intrinsic value usually refers to value that a thing has in itself – that is, it would have value even if no beings valued it. It would have value if it was all alone by itself in some universe.
-Luke Muehlhauser, In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism, comment October 16, 2010

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines intrinsic value thus:

The intrinsic value of something is said to be the value that that thing has “in itself,” or “for its own sake,” or “as such,” or “in its own right.” [Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value]

If that is what intrinsic value necessarily means, then I don’t believe that intrinsic value exists. In fact, I don’t believe that anything can have value “in itself,” or “for its own sake,” or “as such,” or “in its own right.” This is because the act of valuing requires a valuer. Along the lines of Luke’s definition, imagine a universe with no sentient beings, and a planet full of rocks. Would it be absurd to claim that these rocks have value? I think it would.

In the interest of maximizing clarity, I don’t think philosophers should use the term value as a noun anymore, except to refer to a particular belief or set of beliefs held by an agent [e.g., “Bob and Susie have traditional values”].

In my response to Luke’s article, I suggested that he use value as a verb. Luke wrote statements such as, “A cup of coffee has value when I desire it,” and I argued that this language was potentially misleading because it implies that some “thing” or “entity” called value actually exists, if and when an agent desires it.

Although such language is sufficient to communicate a point in everyday conversation, I believe it is insufficient for rigorous philosophy. I do not believe that anything can ever “have value,” nor do I believe that “value exists” under any circumstances. Rather, I will argue that value occurs – or more precisely, the act of valuing occurs – whenever objects, brain states or states of affairs are instrumental in allowing sentient beings to fulfill their desires.

A stepladder does not “have value” without a sentient being for whom the stepladder is instrumental in fulfilling a desire, perhaps the desire to grasp an object otherwise out of one’s reach. Going further, a stepladder does not “have value” even with a sentient being for whom the stepladder is instrumental in fulfilling a desire. That is because this type of value cannot exist; it can only occur. A state of affairs in which value is occurring can exist, but that is different. A value can also exist in the sense that a bargain or good deal can exist, but I believe that is irrelevant to moral philosophy.

So then, why have I said before that I believe in intrinsic value? As I explained to Luke in the thread of his article, when I say that I believe in intrinsic value, this means I believe certain acts are intrinsically morally right or intrinsically morally wrong regardless of any human opinions about them. Luke responded that this differs substantially from the traditional definitions of intrinsic value supplied above, and I agree. However, that is a semantic objection that does not challenge the claim itself. As far as any actual challenge of my claim is concerned, Luke writes,

If you think intrinsic value exists, then explain what you mean by that, what predictions your theory makes, and show me that the predictions turn out to be correct.

Well, I’ve already explained that I don’t think intrinsic value exists, but I do think that certain acts are intrinsically morally right or intrinsically morally wrong regardless of any human opinions about them. What predictions does my “theory” make?

Consider the claim that barring instances of Daltonism, all human beings will perceive the cloudless midday sky as the color that falls between 475 and 510 nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum. Though it is true that English-speakers might call this color blue, and Spanish-speakers might call it azul, both speakers refer to the wavelength of light that falls between 475 and 510 nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum. We can test this claim by asking people without Daltonism to correlate their perception of the cloudless midday sky with colors on a chart. Note that this is not an example of collective subjectivity, but an example of an empirical, falsifiable claim.

Next, consider the claim that barring instances of Antisocial/Psychopathic Type, all human beings will perceive infantophilia as morally repugnant. At least in theory, we can test this claim, perhaps by retrieving neuroimaging data from non-Antisocial/Psychopathic Type individuals responding to infantophilia, and using inverse inference to identify any correlations that might exist. We might expect something like “similar or identical brain states” in response to the stimulus. Similarly, this would be an example of an empirical, falsifiable claim that, if true, would not reduce to collective subjectivity.

So then, if all or even the vast majority of people have a similar or identical brain-state response to an instance of infantophilia, would that justify the claim that infantophilia “really is” morally repugnant in the same way the cloudless, midday sky “really is” blue?

Why or why not?

Can anybody suggest a better method for apprehending “objective morality,” if in fact such a thing exists?

Atoms, Morality, Desirism & Language

That desirism is not a moral theory is a common objection, one that its founder Alonzo Fyfe handles in a systematic way. Today, I will why I believe Alonzo’s handling of this objection fails. I suppose it would be best to dive right in with some actual examples of the objection:

What I’m getting at is that although Desirism perfectly explains human behavior towards morality, I just don’t see how it can help us determine the state of morality itself.
[Steven, Morality in the Real World 04: The Scrooge Problem, October 5, 2010]

The theory claims that desires that tend to fulfill other desires are good and desires that tend to thwart other desires are bad. Now, is this morally good and morally bad and if so, on what grounds does the claim rest? If it’s not morally good or bad, the what does the theory claim is morally good and morally bad? If there are no such claims, then I have a hard time to see it as a moral theory. I’m asking this since when I read the links in the old FAQ it seemed to me that the theory is more a description of how things work or how you can go about to get your desires fulfilled (by manipulating others desires so they fit yours) than a theory which tells you what you ought and not ought to do (since it’s morally wrong or morally right).
[Björn, The Ultimate Desirism FAQ, August 18, 2010]

I would say the greatest objection to desirism is that it’s not a moral theory at all.
[Kaelik, The Greatest Objection to Desirism (part 1), September 11, 2010]

Those are three typical examples of the objection among literally dozens. A slightly different version of the objection is provided by Richard Wein, who argues that desirism is a moral theory, because Fyfe expresses desirism in moral terms, but that Fyfe redefines the meaning of moral terms:

The problem with desirism (as a moral theory) is that it redefines the meaning of moral terms, and then conflates its own meaning with the ordinary meaning of those terms, hence committing a fallacy of equivocation.
[Richard Wein, The Greatest Objection to Desirism (part 1), September 13, 2010]

While his objection is expressed differently, Richard appears to concur with the general spirit of the previous three objections, in the sense that Alonzo is not using moral terms in the way they have been traditionally used. Despite the fact that a very high number of intelligent people have voiced similar objections, Alonzo replied to Richard by stating that desirism uses moral terms conventionally:

…in desire utilitarianism, moral terms are being used in substantially the same way that moral terms had been used. [Alonzo Fyfe, Moral Definitions: The Great Distraction, comment April 20, 2009 10:53 AM]

I think Alonzo’s reply is blatantly false, but let’s hold off on that for now. Since objections like the aforementioned seem to be in abundance and do not appear to be on the decline, we can charitably assume that Alonzo has addressed them before, and indeed, he has. I point the reader to the following examples of Alonzo’s various replies to what he calls “The Great Distraction” in moral discourse:

What people take to be different moral theories is, in fact, different moral languages. Realism and anti-realism no more contradict each other than Einstein’s theory of relativity in German contradicts Einstein’s theory of relativity in Chinese. They appear to contradict each other because both theories use the same terms. So, “Moral properties do not exist” in one language appears to contradict “Moral properties do exist” in another language. However, they are different language (as opposed to different theories) precisely because they use two different meanings of the term “Moral properties”.

Here’s the argument as I see it.

Person 1: Choose your definition of ‘morality’.

Person 2: (Chooses a definition).

Person 1: Now, defend that definition as the correct definition.

Person 2: I cannot.

Person 1: Then we can throw out that definition of morality.

I take this to be logically equivalent to the following.

Person 1: Choose your language for expressing Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Person 2: I choose German

Person 1: Now, defend that language as the correct language for Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Person 2: I cannot.

Person 1: Then we can throw out Einstein’s theory of relativity.

[Alonzo Fyfe, Choosing a Moral Language]

In another post, Alonzo elaborates thus:

It is true that public discussions of morality have focused heavily on questions of definitions. One question I often hear is, “Why should I accept your definition of what good is?” One form of rebuttal I often encounter is, “That’s true under your definition but that’s not necessarily true under this other definition over there.”

When it comes to moral theory, I consider questions about definition to be the great distraction. Questions of definition are this ichthyosaurus sized red herring that derails far too many conversations about morality and gets people wasting huge amounts of time dealing with issues that are not legitimate issues.

If a theory is sound, then it should be a theory that can be translated into any language. Einstein’s theory should be translatable into Chinese, Spanish, Croatian, and any other language on Earth without damaging the theory at all. Speakers of a language might need to invent a few new terms to conveniently handle all of the concepts. However, languages are inventions anyway. In any given language, new terms are invented for conveniently discussing new subjects every day.

Imagine somebody presenting a theory at a conference, and presenting it in English. Then imagine, after the presentation, somebody says, “Okay, your theory sounds great in English, but why should I accept English as my primary language? You have not given me one single, solitary piece of evidence as to why I should change my primary language from French into English.”

The response to that type of question would be to ask the speaker, “What on earth are you talking about?”

The problem in ethics – the “great distraction” – is that a lot of people have gotten it into their heads that this type of response actually makes sense. The moral theorist delivers his theory, then somebody in the audience asks, “Why should I accept your language as my primary language?” and far too many people in the audience turn to the speaker as if that person has just asked an intelligible question that the speaker should be able to answer.
[Alonzo Fyfe, Moral Definitions: The Great Distraction]

Along similar lines, Alonzo writes,

There is, or has been, a movement in philosophy that suggests that philosophy look at ordinary language in order to make sense of the world in which we live. However, I have never found any particular merit in that view. Language is an invention – and a rather sloppy invention at that. There is no reason to believe that language is a perfect descriptor of reality such that, if a theory of how the universe is does not fit our language – that it is our theory of how the universe is that must change. Rather, I would argue that it is our language that must change.

Similarly, there is no law of language that prohibits people from taking shortcuts with language. There is no reason to require that native speakers use a sentence such as, “Andrew desires that he drink a beer” when native speakers can easily reduce this to a much more manageable phrase, “Andrew wants a beer.”

Native speakers can easily figure out the rest.

The real question to answer is not whether the theory best fits our language (with the assumption that if it does not then it is the theory – and not language – that must change). The question to answer is whether the theory provides a way to explain and predict human behavior. [Alonzo Fyfe, Desires And Ordinary Language]

Lastly, and perhaps most recently, Alonzo tells us,

… As I have said before, it’s merely a debate over which language to adopt – over whether an essay on desirism should be written in French or English.

Specifically, a dispute about whether to use moral terms to refer to intrinsic value, or whether to use the term “moral” to refer to what we can say about things like murder, rape, theft, fraud, abortion, capital punishment, homosexuality, incest, genocide, war, self defense, freedom of speech, separation of church and state, democracy, conscription, trial by jury, ex post facto laws, slavery, negligence, abuse, recklessness, vandalism, and these types of issues without making stuff up.

Because all we would be doing in that debate is arguing over which language is correct. And it is absolutely absurd to get into a long detailed discussion over whether “English” is “the one proper and correct language” or over whether “French” is more correct than “English.”
[Alonzo Fyfe, Morality in the Real World 04: The Scrooge Problem, comment 10-6-2010]

Well. There’s quite a bit to digest in all that, I admit, but I think it’s fair to say that Alonzo’s objection is the same in each case: he claims the objections are purely semantic.

Now, I agree with Alonzo that debates over language are essentially useless. I agree that language is just a messy convention that cannot escape arbitrary assignment. I agree with Alonzo that language is irrelevant so long as our theory provides a way to explain and predict behavior. The question I have is, are the aforementioned objections purely semantic? Are questions of definition dismissible as distractions? I say no, and to illustrate why, let’s appeal to a favorite example of Alonzo’s to form an analogy: the atom.

The original definition of atom was “uncuttable” and implied the claim that non-reducible units of matter exist. Right off the bat, we should note that such is an “objective” or empirical claim, that is, a claim about the real world; a claim that can be tested. It turns out that, in haste, scientists assigned the word “atom” to units of matter that were in fact reducible. Scientists were wrong. Today, atom doesn’t denote “uncuttable,” it denotes an object with a nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Due to empirical observations which proved that the previous definition of atom was faulty, that definition has become deprecated. Scientists haven’t stopped using the word atom, and I would imagine that Alonzo hasn’t, either. Further, I would state that he is under no obligation to do so.

What about morality?

For thousands of years, the accepted definition of morality has been something like “that which is right or wrong on its own merit regardless of what anybody thinks about the matter,” and implied that something like “intrinsic rightness and wrongness” exists. Much like the situation with scientists being wrong about the atom, Alonzo might claim that, in haste, people assigned the word “morality” to entities that did not in fact exist in the real world. According to Alonzo at least, today, morality doesn’t denote “intrinsic rightness or wrongness,” it denotes a relationship between desires and states of affairs. As with the atom, the former definition of “morality” has become deprecated. Philosophers and laypeople haven’t stopped using the word morality, so – since I just stated that Alonzo is under no obligation to stop using atom – why would I claim that Alonzo is obligated to stop using morality?

Is there a real difference here?

I believe there is. In the case of atom, science proved that the original definition was inadequate. However, neither scientists nor Alonzo have proven that the original definition of morality is inadequate. In the case of morality, Alonzo simply disregards the matter, and asserts without justification that “morality” should no longer refer to intrinsic rightness or wrongness. In the case of atom, empirical confirmation preceded and justified the deprecation. In the case of morality, nothing besides Alonzo’s arbitrary assertion precedes the deprecation. It is unjustified.

I ask: if some writer came up and asked us to stop using the word “lepton” to denote the components of an electron, what would be our reaction? Would we be acting outside of reason to ask this writer to justify their claim?

Similarly, when a writer comes up and asks us to stop using the word “morality” to denote intrinsic rightness or wrongness, would we be acting outside of reason to ask this writer to justify their claim?

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