Response To Morality In The Real World, Episode 9

Though no previous objections seem to have been resolved, CSA’s ongoing Morality in the Real World podcast took a turn for the better in Episode 9, where Luke and Alonzo ponder the quantification of desires. For what it’s worth, Alonzo has written on willingness to pay before.

Early in my foray into desirism, I decided that an empirical schema for measuring desires was absolutely necessary in order for the theory to have any practical, real-world import. How else can we check against intuition? If desirism is indeed an empirical, objective theory as its defenders assert, then why not cut all the moralspeak and crunch some numbers? I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I believe my method – while certainly rudimentary and in need of further work – is a far better tool for quantifying desires than the overly simplified analysis Luke and Alonzo used in Episode 9.

In the posts Proposed Method For Meaningful Evaluations In Desire Utilitarianism and Conducting Single-Agent Evaluations With The Hierarchy-Of-Desires Method, I proposed an empirical schema that plots desires along an hierarchy-of-desires concept best represented by a pyramid, where the apex represents the agent’s desire-as-ultimate-ends:

Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that even with a schema like mine that features well-defined parameters, the ability to generate accurate results will likely remain a daunting task in real-world evaluations considering millions or even billions of agents. Still, we’ve got to start somewhere, and I think that a transparent methodology is a better place than an overly simplified analysis. If anyone has any suggestions and/or criticisms of my proposed method, feel free to leave a comment in either or both of those threads.

Why do I call Luke and Alonzo’s quantification an overly simplified analysis? I’ll get to that. In the meantime, I’m just going to offer my objections to Episode 9 as they came along, starting here:

ALONZO: We have been talking about morality in the real world. We have been talking about things in the real world that are true. For example we said that desires provide people with reasons to mold the desires of others.

LUKE: Yeah, but are we just talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I can just hear people complaining that none of this can be applied to a world with billions of people with all of their desires, and animals with all their desires. They’re thinking: “You’ll never get from the simple world of Alph and Betty to something applicable to the world in which we make our day to day decisions.”

ALONZO: Okay, let’s not make things more complicated than they need to be. We don’t need absolute precision to get useful results. I mean, astronomers have to deal with the fact that every object in the whole universe influences the motion of every other object. They can’t even know all of the things that exist in the universe, let alone measure their gravitional influence on every other thing. You don’t see them throwing their hands up in frustration over the inability to calculate the motion of objects through space.

That last sentence struck me funny. In fact, astronomers often need to calculate the velocity of moving bodies with the utmost precision, and when they cannot, they have reason to assume that something besides “innocent inaccuracy” is cause for the mismeasurement. If they did not, we would never have made it to the moon. If Alonzo wants to claim that demanding absolute precision is unreasonable at this point in the podcast, that’s fine, and I would agree. However, that we aren’t shooting for absolute precision just yet doesn’t mean should be satisfied with an overly simplified analysis.

My next objection came here:

ALONZO: Well, we can do the same thing relating desires to other desires – to determine if a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires. For example, we know that people generally have a great many desires that can’t be fulfilled if the agent dies. I suspect that I’d find it very difficult to continue this podcast if I were to find myself suddenly dead.

Of course, this is trivially true and not in dispute. My objection is that in any real-world analysis where condemnation is going to be used to create aversions, the invocation of the fictitious entity people generally can, if used with indiscretion, become tantamount to a fascist maneuver that allows the majority to oppress the minority. For example, in his post Irrational Desires on his own blog, Alonzo argues that “people generally” have reason to promote an aversion to smoking. However, don’t “people generally” also have reason to promote a love of liberty and freedom? Just because the majority has reasons to promote an aversion to a particular desire shouldn’t de facto overrule the reasons the minority might have to promote said desire. The fact that “people generally” have reasons to promote an aversion to a particular desire cannot be a reliable criteria for the moral good, which is ostensibly the topic at hand.

Moving along, I think the following is about as close to a Freudian slip as one can get:

ALONZO: If somebody wants to cause as much destruction as possible, he still knows with almost perfect certainty which option will fulfill that desire. The claim that he cannot know – or be very certain – which option would cause the most harm (the most destruction) is absurd. Of course he knows.

As far as I can see, and not that he’s explicitly denied it, but Alonzo appears to be implicitly acknowledging that harm is a necessary criterion to consider when making evaluations in naturalist ethics, which – again – seems to be essentially the same thing classic utilitarianism espouses: maximizing pleasure or happiness or desire-fulfillment on the one hand, and minimizing pain or suffering or desire-thwarting on the other. Yet, Alonzo attacks Sam Harris’ theory on the grounds that people desire many other things besides those things which lead to an increase in well-being. Granted it was amidst some heat, but I’ve asked Alonzo to justify this claim by providing examples of real-world desires that – if fulfilled – would not properly reduce to an increase in pleasure, happiness, well-being, etc. As of the time of this writing, he hasn’t responded. I’ve also asked Luke to provide examples of real-world desires that – if fulfilled – would not properly reduce to an increase in pleasure, happiness, well-being, etc. His response was that he was “out of time.” Yet, if Bentham, Harris, Mill, et al. are wrong as Alonzo and Luke claim, then they should be able to easily provide examples of real-world desires that – if fulfilled – did not properly reduce to an increase in pleasure, happiness, well-being, etc.

Anyways, let’s get to the meat: Why do I allege that Luke and Alonzo’s methodology is essentially an overly simplified analysis? In the context of evaluating reasons for action both for and against the consumption of limited resources whose depletion would thwart many desires, they write:

ALONZO: Let’s go with oil. For the sake of this argument we are not going to get into a debate over whether global supplies are actually shrinking. We only need to look at the fact that, if they shrink, desire-thwartings will result.

LUKE: Most definitely.

ALONZO: One of the ways that we can reduce the desire-thwartings of diminishing stockpiles is by giving people an aversion to those things that are causing the stockpiles to diminish. What if we could give people a pill where they simply do not want some of the things that involved drawing down the stockpiles of oil? Then, there would be fewer thwartings of desires caused by a diminishing supply.

LUKE: I can see two effects. There would be fewer desire-thwartings because there would be fewer desires to thwart. Obviously, to the degree that people didn’t want things that required consuming oil, then to that degree the lack of oil wouldn’t bother them.

And, another way that desire-thwartings would diminish is that people would not be drawing down the stockpiles so quickly, so the desires that require having oil around would continue to be fulfilled for a longer time.

ALONZO: If we could give people an aversion to using large energy-guzzling vehicles to run to the bank three blocks away, then, at least in that context, the price of gas would not bother them because they wouldn’t need gas. Meanwhile, that would leave more gas for fulfilling desires that we can’t change so easily.

LUKE: So, you’re saying that, in the real world, we should give people an aversion to driving around in big gas-guzzling vehicles.

ALONZO: No. Let’s phrase it this way. In the real world, if the quantity of oil diminishes, a lot of people will have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to driving around in large gas-guzzling vehicles. That seems true.

1) I agree that that if oil diminishes, a lot of people will have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to driving around in large gas-guzzling vehicles, but this relationship between desires has nothing to do with morality. We could just as easily say that if the supply of blue T-shirts diminishes, a lot of people will have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to the sale of Dodgers merchandise.

2) That said, I happen to believe that wanton consumption of oil is in fact an immoral practice, but not simply because it tends to thwart more than fulfill other desires as the desirists would have us believe.

3) I agree with Luke and understand the claim that, “There would be fewer desire-thwartings because there would be fewer desires to thwart,” but the fact that “people generally” have reasons to promote an aversion to a particular desire cannot be a reliable criteria for the moral good, which is ostensibly the topic at hand.

4) I agree with Alonzo that promoting an aversion to “using large energy-guzzling vehicles to run to the bank three blocks away” is appropriate in situations of depleted oil reserves, but again, the fact that “people generally” have reasons to promote an aversion to a particular desire cannot be a reliable criteria for the moral good.

5) What about the people who own oil companies, gas stations, delivery services, etc.? In fact, the desires of nearly every business owner would seemingly have to be taken into consideration here. To the extent we promote aversion to oil consumption, to that extent we also thwart the desires of human beings for whom oil consumption fulfills many and strong desires. We could go on along this line of questioning, and this is why I say that Luke and Alonzo’s evaluation amounts to an overly simplistic analysis at best. Granted, perhaps their example was meant to be more hypothetical, but these are the types of nuanced questions we need to ask.

Perhaps Luke and Alonzo will eventually offer something like my hierarchy-of-desires method or something else. Or, perhaps they’ll dismiss calls to sharpen their tools as just another instance of shotgun philosophy. As it stands, if the superiority of desirism is to be established, I think we need more precise tools. As I said in the opening paragraph, while we need not demand absolute certainty at this stage in the podcast, we shouldn’t settle for a rough guess, either.

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