October 6, 2010
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 try to explain why I’m skeptical of Alonzo’s response to this objection. 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?