The New Moral Crusaders?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke writes,

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

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

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

Alonzo writes,

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

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

8 Comments

  1. woodchuck64 says:

    cl,

    IOW, how can we be sure that Alonzo Fyfe isn’t just projecting his values onto others, like every other moral crusader throughout history?

    As an analogy to Alonzo’s style, here are two statements:
    1. I have a social intuition that legalizing gay marriage should have a generally positive effect on society; as a member of a traditional marriage, I don’t feel that my marriage or the institution of marriage is threatened in any way by gay marriage, and I think most others would agree.

    2. I have a moral intuition that gay marriage is as moral an institution as traditional marriage and that opposing it is a morally wrong position.

    I feel that Alonzo is making arguments more like (1) and less like (2). That is, he’s making testable assertions via social intuition that can be, in theory, empirically verified or disproved, while (2) just is, there is no argument.

    Should one be allowed to make statements like (1) without having solid empirical studies to back it up? I.e. is social intuition of this sort a reasonable attempt at an argument or is it so unreliable as to be worthless and better off unsaid, in your view?

  2. cl says:

    Rufus,

    Should one be allowed to make statements like (1) without having solid empirical studies to back it up?

    That depends on the rest of the claims they make. Should Luke or Alonzo be allowed to make statements like (1) without having solid empirical studies to back it up? Absolutely not, because they preach this HUGE game about eschewing intuition and relying on science and empiricism. IMO, they contradict themselves badly. Regarding (1), it MIGHT be true that “most others” would agree, in 2011. However, that might not be the case in 2011, and I feel pretty confident in surmising it certainly WAS NOT the case in times past, which puts them right back in the position they ostensibly wish to avoid: culturally-dependent morality.

    I’d cut Alonzo much more slack if he actually tried to demonstrate the veracity of his theory, empirically, as opposed to making these “shooting from hip” intuition-guided claims. I’d also cut him more slack if he didn’t come off so pompous against theists.

  3. woodchuck64 says:

    cl,

    Absolutely not, because they preach this HUGE game about eschewing intuition and relying on science and empiricism.

    Well, for desirism, quick and dirty calculations for how people act based on our own experience may be all that we have right now. I agree that we need more, especially for something so important, but you might have to put up with a lot of social intuition for some time.

    I’d cut Alonzo much more slack if he actually tried to demonstrate the veracity of his theory, empirically, as opposed to making these “shooting from hip” intuition-guided claims. I’d also cut him more slack if he didn’t come off so pompous against theists.

    Yeah, not much disagreement there.

  4. Garren says:

    cl et al.,

    I’m curious what you think of the constructivist interpretation I’m giving of Desirism now. I bet Alonzo would object as strongly as he would to the utilitarian-style interpretation I gave yesterday, but I don’t have a lot of respect for “I’m not saying that!” without a clear “This is what I’m saying instead.”

    So I’m just trying to shoot for the best good-faith understanding of Desirism which doesn’t use Alonzo’s lingo.

    http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-is-desirism.html

    Also, I plan on putting together a one-post sketch of my own metaethical view after I finish reading a relevant book. Looking forward to hearing you criticize the snot out of it. ;-)

  5. bossmanham says:

    Seems to me since Luke gave up Jesus, he’s been attaching himself to a new dude every year or so to follow. Just sayin’.

  6. Garren says:

    I’ve been going back and reading a lot of old stuff on here, Luke, and Alonzo’s websites on how ‘right action’ vs ‘wrong action’ evaluation is supposed to work and I’m just getting more frustrated.

    Has anyone expressed the procedure without using Alonzo’s phrasing and had him say, “yes, that’s it”? I find his phrasing really ambiguous. I don’t know whether to feel like it’s my fault for not being able to figure this stuff out, or his fault for making it hard to figure out.

  7. cl says:

    Bossmanham,

    Seems to me since Luke gave up Jesus, he’s been attaching himself to a new dude every year or so to follow. Just sayin’.

    That’s understandable. I’m sure rejecting Jesus left a worship vacuum of sorts, as Luke was the quintessential worshiper. However, I suspect that Luke will eventually stand on his own two feet as an original thinker, and I think he’ll surpass his teachers.

    Garren,

    You reminded me that several months ago, I attempted the same thing: formulating Fyfe’s “theory” without the ambiguity. Maybe I’ll dredge that post up and publish it, if nothing else just so you and I can compare our approaches. I think it’s a good exercise, at the very least.

    I had read “What Is Desirism?” a few days ago. Is there a second version? Or, did you overwrite the first one? I didn’t want to jump in the comment thread because “faithlessgod” aka “Martin Freedman” has been known to falsely accuse people of being “racists” for demanding a coherent presentation of desirism. Frankly, I don’t have the time or patience to stomach such a juvenile approach to debate anymore–also characterized by some of jim’s recent commnents around here. So, I kept quiet.

    I’ve been going back and reading a lot of old stuff on here, Luke, and Alonzo’s websites on how ‘right action’ vs ‘wrong action’ evaluation is supposed to work and I’m just getting more frustrated.

    You’re not the only one, and I wouldn’t do that if I were you. These guys have changed the theory so much and so fast that, by going back to their old stuff, you’re likely to just confuse yourself. I suspect that stripping moral terms from desirism will expose it for the theory of pragmatism that it is, and that this is why Fyfe is wedded to the ambiguity.

    Now, as far as your actual presentation is concerned: I’m interested in talking about Kant and duty. I’ve often wondered if duty can legitimately falsify the claim that “desires are the only reasons for intentional action that exist.” Your thoughts?

    Also:

    From what I know of Fyfe, he doesn’t advocate making stuff up to shape the beliefs of those who buy into it.

    You’re kidding, right? I can give you a laundry list of stuff it seems Fyfe has simply made up to shape the beliefs of others. Hell, almost every single applied-ethics claim he makes falls into the category of “stuff he made up.”

  8. Garren says:

    cl,

    ..”I had read “What Is Desirism?” a few days ago. Is there a second version? Or, did you overwrite the first one?”

    I’ve overwritten the section on moral judgments twice now. The current version sticks more closely to Fyfe’s presentation without trying to draw an analogy or use other moral theories. Really hoping to get a ‘yes, that’s what I’m talking about’ from him sometime. Then maybe I can move on to critiquing Desirism on some area besides the action theory.

    ..”You’re not the only one, and I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

    Yeah, I think I’ll take that advice and stick to updating what I have from the new series and comments made since that started.

    ..”I’m interested in talking about Kant and duty. I’ve often wondered if duty can legitimately falsify the claim that “desires are the only reasons for intentional action that exist.” Your thoughts?”

    Kant’s ‘inclinations,’ whether they be self-oriented or other-oriented, appear to be the same notion as the ‘desires’ we’re talking about. For him, actions have moral importance only if we perform them without any desire to do so, or indirect desire for what this achieves.

    I think Kant is mistaken here and the sense we feel of acting out of duty against our own desires is actually following some of our desires, while taking the trouble to deny some of our more self-oriented desires. I agree with the notion that a person taking intentional action thereby shows they had some kind of desire to do that.

    Instead of “desires-bad duty-good,’ I think desires comes in a variety of respectability levels. Helping someone isn’t invalidated as a moral act just because I care about them.

    ..’Hell, almost every single applied-ethics claim he makes falls into the category of “stuff he made up.”’

    Eh, not the sense of ‘making stuff up’ I intended. I still say his applied ethics claims look like they make use of that ‘desire fulfillment act utilitarianism’ he tries so hard to disclaim.

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