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 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?

33 Comments

  1. woodchuck64 says:

    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.

    Well I think he goes further than that here, http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2007/08/intrinsic-objective-values.html in arguing that intrinsic value needs motivation first, and desires are the only reasons for motivation. I think this is a general argument used for moral skepticism (however, desirism doesn’t really fit moral anti-realism, so I understand Alonzo to be calling desirism a new/different kind of moral realism with no reliance on intrinsic value).

  2. jayman777 says:

    He asserts that intrinsic value does not exist. As with most things it’s hard to prove a negative. A possible refutation of desirism would be to demonstrate that intrinsic value exists.

  3. tmp says:

    I don’t see Alonzo redefining moral terms as much of a problem. Writing on open internet without very carefully explaining those new definitions is a problem, however. At least, if you want people to actually understand what you are trying to say, and want to avoid endless semantic arguments.

    So while I think that Alonzo is right, and intrinsic value does not exist, the commonly used definition of “morality” still implies intrinsic value, and you need to make it very clear that yours does not. Or when using term “moral realism” to mean “only dealing with real entities”(and intrinsic value is not real) instead of “inrinsic right and wrong are real”, you really need to be quite explicit.

    It helps a great deal to drop all pre-existing meaning from term like “moral”, “good”, “moral ought” or “moral realism” and only load them with what you can gleam from Alonzo’s writings.

  4. [I’m so glad that you attached links. Thanks.]

    I don’t know much about the history of morality, but I doubt that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were thought of as intrinsic (except with shallow OR knee-jerk ‘thinkers’).

    EG, I think everyone who would tell the Nazi soldiers where the Jews are hiding would be considered immoral. So, lying isn’t intrinsically wrong, and there’s moments when it can be used for good. And so is murder, torture, … perhaps even genocide. None of these have intrinsic value. It’s all about “it depends”, or the so-called “a relationship between a state of affairs”.

    I thought this was obvious. Or am I messing with definitions as well?

    If I’m not messing with definitions, can you give me an example of something that has intrinsic value, and defend why you claims so.

  5. tmp says:

    “If I’m not messing with definitions, can you give me an example of something that has intrinsic value, and defend why you claims so.”

    The argument is not about existence of intrinsic value, it’s about common use of moral terms implying its existence(and possibly/likely being wrong about it).

    As an example, if I call lying to Nazis to hide some Jews a good act, I’m implying that there is some kind of intrinsic goodness somewhere in the act. Well, I don’t; I’m a subjectivist. But in common use I believe it is so.

  6. woodchuck64 says:

    tmp

    As an example, if I call lying to Nazis to hide some Jews a good act, I’m implying that there is some kind of intrinsic goodness somewhere in the act.

    Let me try my hand at hypothetical desirism-in-action on this example and throw that out for comment. There’s no such thing as intrinsic goodness in desirism, so hiding Jews is a case of an act that tends to fulfill desires on the whole, which in turn I’ve been taught to desire by social forces in a desirism-driven society. Nevertheless, I almost certainly feel in my gut that there is intrinsic goodness in the desires I have that are strengthened by society because I’ve been praised for them, praise == good, and conversely, I almost certainly feel there is some shame and intrinsic badness in desires I have had that society has condemned and acts to weaken, shame == bad. Yet, desirism doesn’t need to care what I think about the existence of intrinsic value, only what I desire. Therefore, desirism doesn’t need intrinsic value to actually exist to be effective.

  7. Godless Randall says:

    i tend to agree with Cl that desirism is confusing. i don’t see why Alonzo says he rejects intrinsic value when he says stuff like,

    ^Murder by definition is wrongful killing, and wrongful killing is wrong by definition.^

    how is that different than saying murder is intrinsically wrong? it seems like Alonzo is using semantics

  8. Godless Randall says:

    by the way i got that from his post on rape today at commonsenseatheism

  9. woodchuck64 says:

    ^Murder by definition is wrongful killing, and wrongful killing is wrong by definition.^

    how is that different than saying murder is intrinsically wrong? it seems like Alonzo is using semantics

    There’s a difference between wrong by definition and wrong by virtue of some quantity of moral badness wired to the concept in a hidden dimension.

  10. tmp says:

    @woodchuck64

    “Therefore, desirism doesn’t need intrinsic value to actually exist to be effective.”

    It doesn’t and I don’t think anyone has claimed that. I personally think it’s both overly complex(determining and measuring all relevant desires in accurate and unbiased way is HARD), and overly simplistic(determining what widespread application of Desirism would do to society is hard also. Communism is a simple and good idea in theory. In practice, not so much. Some of the end results were … unpredictable. There is a feedback in altering the desires of a society based upon the desires of a society, so stuff will happen almost by definition, especially when we know that our unalterable biological drives are not all that appropiate for modern society. And that whatever it is that causes our mores to be passed to next generation, may not be very desirable from our perspective.)

    The really jarring parts are some of the terminology; moral realism and moral antirealism have well-known definitions, and Desirism is squarely in the antirealism camp. So seeing Luke or Alonzo call it moral realism always causes a brief “wait, what?” moment. The second is “objective moral theory”. Desirism is a moral theory like, say, error theory or moral subjectivism, sure. And it seems objective as a behavioral theory, but “objective moral theory”, at least to me, strongly implies moral realism. And Desirism is antirealist. None of this really affects the content of the theory, but it does give rise to endless semantic arguments.

  11. woodchuck64 says:

    tmp

    Agreed, complex and unpredictable, but it seems to offer the tantalizing hope (to me, anyway) of eventually making morality a science.

    I think calling it “moral realism” is more of a marketing decision. “Moral anti-realism” just sounds so … immoral :-)

  12. tmp says:

    woodchuck64

    “complex and unpredictable”

    This is the price to be paid for leaving behing categorical imperatives and intrinsic value. An acceptable tradeoff. Needs some work, though. The basic premise is nice, I admit, but it’s also pretty obvious and simple. The devil is in the details, let’s hope that Alonzo and Luke’s podcasts fill those in.

    “I think calling it ‘moral realism’ is more of a marketing decision.”

    Still confusing. “Moral realism” is more or less the claim that intrinsic value is real. Does not compute. Also annoys real moral realists, I’m sure.

    The claim of objectiveness is also somewhat suspect. In, say, theory of gravity, the (real) phenomenon itself determines the scope of the theory. In (antirealist) theory of morality, you need to define what morality is(and this definition is not directly derived from objective reality), so there is necessarily some subjectiveness in the definition of the scope, even if all the entities in this scope are real.

  13. woodchuck64 says:

    I guess Alonzo’s book goes into this in more detail http://atheistethicist. blogspot.com/2006/12/better-place-selected-essays-on-desire.html

    Chapter 8. In Defense of Realism: Answering J.L. Mackie:
    J.L.Mackie argued that a moral realist must believe that moral properties are intrinsically prescriptive properties and that they exist. Because no such properties exist, Mackie denies that moral realism is a possibility. In this essay I agree with Mackie that intrinsically prescriptive properties do not exist, but that they are not necessary for moral realism. Moral properties are real, even if they are not instances of intrinsic prescriptivity.

  14. tmp says:

    woodchuck64

    Still confusing. Alonzo has simply changed the meaning of the terms from commonly used ones. It does not solve any problems; it does not mean that moral realism as presented by Mackie exists; and it does not change the fact that Desirism is NOT “moral realism” as it is commonly understood.

    Fyfe’s treatment of Hume’s “is-ought-gap” is somewhat similar; he changes the definition of “ought” to leave out the hard part(moral realism). And since this gap does not really exist under moral antirealism, the problem vanishes. It’s no great achievement, and bringing it up at all under antirealist theory seems superfluous.

  15. woodchuck64 says:

    Apologies for more link spam. Here’s original Fyfe stuff on intrinsic value and moral realism that doesn’t require purchase.

    Chapter 12: Intrinsic Value
    http://alonzofyfe.com/desire_utilitarianism_12.shtml

    Chapter 15: J.L. Mackie’s Error Theory
    http://alonzofyfe.com/desire_utilitarianism_15.shtml

  16. Godless Randall says:

    ^There’s a difference between wrong by definition and wrong by virtue of some quantity of moral badness wired to the concept in a hidden dimension.^

    and that difference is…?

  17. @Godless Randal

    Wrong is simply a moral prescription and does not necessarily imply that thing labeled so is actually Wrong. That’s the difference.

  18. tmp says:

    woodchuck64

    That chapter 15 is pretty amusing; if I don’t get it entirely wrong, Mackie claims that the concept usually called “moral realism” is in error, because intrinsic value does not exist. Fyfe agrees, but notes that the concept usually called “moral antirealism” is still kosher. And promptly goes and calls it “moral realism” :) You can use any language, but the CONCEPTS don’t necessarily change. Or if they change, then you are of course talking about different thing, no matter what language you use.

  19. woodchuck64 says:

    tmp,

    The really jarring parts are some of the terminology; moral realism and moral antirealism have well-known definitions, and Desirism is squarely in the antirealism camp. So seeing Luke or Alonzo call it moral realism always causes a brief “wait, what?” moment. The second is “objective moral theory”. Desirism is a moral theory like, say, error theory or moral subjectivism, sure. And it seems objective as a behavioral theory, but “objective moral theory”, at least to me, strongly implies moral realism. And Desirism is antirealist. None of this really affects the content of the theory, but it does give rise to endless semantic arguments.

    After reading a bit more, I think I’m getting a little better understanding of the issue. Alonzo argues that “moral realism” actually means this:
    (1′) X is a part of the meaning of moral claims (for some X), and
    (2′) X exists
    (from http://www.alonzofyfe.com/article_dr.shtml)

    This seems to match the Wikipedia entry as well:

    Moral realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:
    1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
    2. Some such propositions are true.
    3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion.

    If it is true that intrinsic value has no necessary place in the definition of moral realism, then I think I would agree that desirism is a form a moral realism because it fits the definition above better than moral anti-realism. (However, I also understand that the well-known moral realist theories use intrinsic value)

  20. cl says:

    Hey all. Sorry to be so absent. Had to take a day off.

    I agree with Godless Randall that Alonzo seems to be engaging in semantics. Jayman suggested that I ought to attempt a demonstration of intrinsic value, but as Godless Randall notes, Alonzo’s stance on murder seems equivalent to a demonstration of intrinsic value. Dictionary.com defines intrinsic as “belonging to a thing by its very nature,” and value as “relative worth, merit, or importance.”

    Well, by its very nature, murder has bad merit. That’s 100% synonymous with what Alonzo is saying. Alonzo’s “denial” of intrinsic value seems superfluous to me. If there is no state of affairs by which murder can be good – as Alonzo’s statement clearly implies – then it is accurate to say murder is intrinsically bad.

    tmp,

    I agree with your opening comment in its entirety. It’s not so much that Alonzo redefines his terms, it’s that he claims his redefined terms have substantially the same meaning as the ones they replace – and that’s just false IMHO.

    Tshepang Lekhonkhobe,

    So, lying isn’t intrinsically wrong, and there’s moments when it can be used for good. And so is murder, torture, … perhaps even genocide. None of these have intrinsic value.

    I agree that a dishonest statement can be used for a greater good, but I think you’re wrong about the rest. Now, it seems undeniable that such a thing as an justified killing exists, but that’s different. Murder is unjustified killing, and if we are to say that such is wrong in every instance where it occurs – as it seems Alonzo has clearly said – then we have an instance of an act that, “by it’s very nature,” is wrong, or desire-thwarting, or bad, or evil, or whatever one wants to call it.

    Further, the overwhelming majority of cultures have moral intuitions that somehow attuned to what appears to be an “objective moral truth.” Are there exceptions? Of course, but those exceptions don’t mean that murder isn’t intrinsically wrong; they mean that we have people whose antennae are out of whack. How do we know? How do we know that the psychopaths’ antennae aren’t actually working correctly? Well, we don’t really “know” that, but then again, we don’t really “know” plenty of things that we accept as true enough to be useful every day.

    woodchuck64,

    There’s a difference between wrong by definition and wrong by virtue of some quantity of moral badness wired to the concept in a hidden dimension.

    What’s the difference? Who’s invoked any hidden dimension? Not I. Although as a theist I do happen to believe that God’s decrees play a part in moral presriptions, I don’t need to appeal to God or DCT to justify the claim that murder is intrinsically “wrong” or “bad” or whatever. The property of “wrong” or “bad” or “desire-thwarting” or whatever you want to call it remains an intrinsic property of an unjustified killing. Why then, would a pyschopath disagree? Because the psychopath has the ethical equivalent of Daltonism: faulty antennae. To ask “how do we know” seems superflous. How do we know that the sky is “really” blue? We don’t. We go off the fact that the vast majority of human beings perceive the sky to be blue. It would be incoherent to say that since 100% of humans don’t actually perceive the sky as blue, that there is no “objectively correct” answer to the question “what color is the sky?”

    Agreed, complex and unpredictable, but it seems to offer the tantalizing hope (to me, anyway) of eventually making morality a science.

    That’s why it continues to amaze me that no desirists attempt to construct useful methods of empirical evaluation. Why let all the philosophy-talk bog down the enterprise? I would be much more persuaded by some sort of theorem that could actually get this thing out of meta-ethics and into applied ethics.

    To be honest, I’m tiring of the whole morality discussion. I’ve been into it for about a year, and that’s because I got tired of the epistemology question before that. It seems to me that most (a)theist debates are intractable.

  21. jayman777 says:

    cl:

    Dictionary.com defines intrinsic as “belonging to a thing by its very nature,” and value as “relative worth, merit, or importance.”

    The desirist is saying that killing is not intrinsically wrong. Some killings may be morally justified while other killings may not be morally justified. Murder is simply another term for an unjustified killing. A murder is wrong not because of some intrinsic property in killing but because the killing in question was the result of a bad desire (as defined in the desirist framework). This is why Fyfe can say murder is wrong by definition but that killing is not intrinsically wrong.

    That’s why it continues to amaze me that no desirists attempt to construct useful methods of empirical evaluation.

    I’m reviewing Sam Harris’ new book and he argues that morality can be informed by the sciences. So far it appears to be some kind of utilitarianism whose goal is the well-being of conscious creatures. Unfortunately I am already getting the sense that he will be unable to tell people why they ought to care about the well-being of conscious creatures. I should have a post on my blog in a week or two.

  22. woodchuck64 says:

    cl,

    There’s a difference between wrong by definition and wrong by virtue of some quantity of moral badness wired to the concept in a hidden dimension.

    What’s the difference? Who’s invoked any hidden dimension? Not I. Although as a theist I do happen to believe that God’s decrees play a part in moral presriptions, I don’t need to appeal to God or DCT to justify the claim that murder is intrinsically “wrong” or “bad” or whatever. The property of “wrong” or “bad” or “desire-thwarting” or whatever you want to call it remains an intrinsic property of an unjustified killing.

    Wrongful killing is wrong in the same sense that invisible unicorns are invisible. One doesn’t have to believe in invisible unicorns or assume anything about what “invisible” or “unicorn” means or entails to agree that invisible unicorns are indeed invisible. So assuming that Alonzo believes intrinsic wrongness exists merely from his agreement that wrongful killing is wrong doesn’t follow to me.

    Or are you are making a more general statement that all language, abstraction and logic are “out there” beyond the physicalist plain in some sense?

  23. woodchuck64 says:

    Oops, note confused blockquoting above, my comment starts at second paragraph.

  24. cl says:

    Jayman,

    A murder is wrong not because of some intrinsic property in killing but because the killing in question was the result of a bad desire (as defined in the desirist framework). This is why Fyfe can say murder is wrong by definition but that killing is not intrinsically wrong.

    Yeah, but “killing” and “murder” are two different things, just as “sex” and “rape” are two different things. Murder is unjustified killing. Rape is unjustified sex. Fyfe can say “murder is wrong by definition but killing is not intrinsically wrong,” and I would agree. The act of killing someone – in and of itself – is not right or wrong. It requires something more before such a moral judgment can be reliably made.

    However, it seems to me that Fyfe cannot say that the statement “murder is wrong by definition” is true, while simultaneously saying that the statement “murder is not intrinsically wrong” is true. If murder is wrong by definition, then there is never an instance where murder can be right. Thus, it is entirely accurate to say that murder is an “intrinsically wrong” act.

    If you want to keep this strictly within the confines of the desirist framework, we can simply say that the desire for unjustified killing is an intrinsically bad desire. There’s still an “intrinsic value” at the end of the tunnel, because there is no instance in which the desire for unjustified killing can be right. As I said, it’s just a word game, and it’s annoying as hell, but I appreciate your input.

    Unfortunately I am already getting the sense that he will be unable to tell people why they ought to care about the well-being of conscious creatures. I should have a post on my blog in a week or two.

    That’s because, sans any sort of imperative that exists in the real world – i.e., decrees from God – all “ought to do” statements are subjective nonsense. So I fully expect Harris to fail to provide a reason, just as Fyfe fails to provide a reason.

    woodchuch64,

    Wrongful killing is wrong in the same sense that invisible unicorns are invisible.

    Would you say that “invisibility” is an “intrinsic property” of an invisible unicorn? I would.

    So assuming that Alonzo believes intrinsic wrongness exists merely from his agreement that wrongful killing is wrong doesn’t follow to me. Or are you are making a more general statement that all language, abstraction and logic are “out there” beyond the physicalist plain in some sense?

    No, I’m saying that Alonzo rejects intrinsic value in his writings, but then makes claims about actions like “murder” that are 100% congruous with intrinsic value existing. What I’m hearing here is that the statement “murder is wrong by definition” is somehow different than the statement “murder is intrinsically wrong.” It’s really frustrating, because I see no salient difference between “murder is wrong by definition” and “murder is intrinsically wrong.”

    But, oh well, sometimes we have better days.

  25. jayman777 says:

    cl, my sense is that Fyfe is trying to say that there are not mysterious “goodons” and “badons” out in the real world. In other words, murder does not cause the release of “badons” or some such thing. It’s wrong because it is desire-thwarting. I can’t argue with the statement that “the desire for unjustified killing is an intrinsically bad desire” as long as we realize it’s bad (under desirism) because it is desire-thwarting and not because of some mysterious property of the act. Everyone in this thread seems to more or less agree on that, so I won’t spend any more time splitting hairs.

    Regarding Harris, I would like to run the following theory by you (and anyone else who wants to comment) as it entered my mind while reading his book. Suppose it was scientifically demonstrated that performing good acts was good for your own personal well-being. As a matter of practical wisdom you ought to do what is best for your well-being. In such a world, would it be correct to say that you ought to perform good acts?

  26. tmp says:

    woodchuck64

    “If it is true that intrinsic value has no necessary place in the definition of moral realism, then I think I would agree that desirism is a form a moral realism because it fits the definition above better than moral anti-realism.”

    I don’t think that the wikipedia entry is entirely complete. I’m under impression, and I may be wrong, that under moral realism you’d need to add “4. Those sentences can be identified as ethical sentences by objective features of the world.” So while while you can easily make sentences about objective features of the world, those sentences are not objectively ethical sentences, unless there is some intrinsic quality that makes it so.

  27. tmp says:

    jayman77,

    “In such a world, would it be correct to say that you ought to perform good acts?”

    Yes. “Ought” carries a context. You can say “You ought not murder”(because murder is intrinsically wrong), or that “You ought to take your car to Mike’s carage”(because it’s close by and does good job) and “You ought to do good”(Because it benefits you).

  28. tmp says:

    cl,

    “Murder is wrong by definition” means that whoever defined “murder”, defined it to be wrong by whatever definition of “wrong” he or she abides by(does that even make sense). It doesn’t mean that the killing was intrinsically wrong, only that whoever is using the word(murder) deems it to be wrong.

  29. tmp says:

    cl,

    More verbosely, murder is a label assigned to a wrongful killing after the fact. You call it murder because it is wrong, it is not wrong because it is called murder. The wrongness is integral part of the definition, not an intrinsic quality. You might, for example, assert that pederasty is intrinsically wrong. But you don’t call a relatioship with a young boy pederasty because it’s wrong, you call it pederasty because it’s a relationship with a young boy.

  30. @tmp, you worded that better than I did, that calling something murder is simply us judging a particular act to be unjustified killing, and not because ‘unjustified’ is some special property of the universe. Even if all mentally competent people of the world would come and proclaim it unjustified, there simply isn’t a tiny law somewhere in the universe that would nod “it was indeed wrong; good humans; u messed up quite a bit, but this one… u got right”. There’s no such, just as there’s no pink unicorns. Such a thing is simply an invention, a tool that helps some of us try make sense of the world. I think that’s what Fyfe means by “there’s no such thing as intrinsic value”. This by no means that right/wrong matters not. It just means that morality doesn’t need such inventions to make sense.

    @cl,

    I argued that there is no intrinsic value. You disagree, meaning that you can’t imagine an instance where torture can be used for ‘greater good’. Is that so? I can easily think of a (admittedly extreme situation) situation where someone refused to tell where he’s hiding living kids. Imagine many methods of persuasion fail, and the kids’ chances of living are lowering by the day. If we proceed to torture such an individual, is that still a bad act? So bad that we should just let them die?

    This brings up another question, and this is just me exploring, not an objection: If both torture AND letting kids die even if you had the power to save them ARE intrinsically bad, that seems like a dilemma to me, unless one is more bad than another? How do you work around such a thing?

    An objection: I wonder what criteria you use to decide what is intrinsically wrong and what isn’t. You mentioned that it’s okay to lie a bit to help the Jew, but not to torture someone for whatever good that might bring. Can you expand a bit.

  31. woodchuck64 says:

    cl,

    To be honest, I’m tiring of the whole morality discussion. I’ve been into it for about a year, and that’s because I got tired of the epistemology question before that. It seems to me that most (a)theist debates are intractable.

    That’s too bad, I hope you find the time to continue to comment on Alonzo/Luke’s podcast series as they come out on CSA. This appears to be their latest/greatest effort on elucidating desirism so I’m fully expecting the issues you’ve raised to be at least addressed, which should go some ways towards resolving the ambiguity you criticize.

    Wrongful killing is wrong in the same sense that invisible unicorns are invisible.

    Would you say that “invisibility” is an “intrinsic property” of an invisible unicorn? I would.

    But it doesn’t need to be, it can simply be a symbol that has agreed upon meaning between two or more minds. In developing language at all, we must at some point agree on the syntax and function of adjectives, agreeing that “adjective noun” conveys the meaning “noun has attribute of adjective”. Once we have this agreement between us, all statements that fit the agreement are correct by definition: wrong killing is wrong, invisible unicorns are invisible, grue blicks are grue. But nothing is necessarily granted about the existence of wrong, invisible or grue. So I don’t see Alonzo assuming intrinsic value exists, I only see him agreeing with us on the rules of “adjective noun”.

  32. jayman777 says:

    If anyone is interested I just posted my review of Sam Harris’ book on my blog. I don’t think he did terribly but I was also not convinced.

  33. MikeThompson says:

    great post as usual!

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