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.
I don’t believe what I’m about to say in the following thought example, but suppose that news of bin Laden’s death restores the economy to as good a state as it’s ever been in. Then suppose that his “death” was actually a lie concocted by economists and politicians because they knew–with reasonable certainty based on seemingly airtight calculations–that this lie would spur economic growth. Now, if there was an instance where desirism’s broad “people generally” statement can be made confidently, this is it. Certainly, “people generally” have reason to promote that which spurs economic growth, right?
Today I’d like to examine three different questions that come up in discussions over so-called “objective” morality, and I’d like to argue that two of them are essentially worthless in terms of answering what most people seem to perceive as the core question.
woodchuck64 recently said that “Logic easily disposes of libertarian free will and ultimate moral responsibility via something like Galen Strawson’s basic argument.” I replied that I felt this was false, and asked for elaboration, which he supplied by linking to this PDF.
The Pessimist’s argument woodchuck64 cited seems the same as Strawson’s basic argument outlined here:
The Basic Argument has various expressions in the literature of free will, and its central idea can be quickly conveyed. (1) Nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the cause of itself. (2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects. (3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible.
I agree with woodchuck64 that most who reject this argument do so out of aghast reaction to it’s ramifications as opposed to sound refutation of one or more premises. While I won’t go that route, I can’t help but ponder these ramifications. Hitler’s actions become equivalent to the Japanese tsunami in Strawsonian morality: ultimately blameless events necessitated by prior causal interactions. More revoltingly, if true, Strawson seems to have successfully proven the illusion of rationality. Perhaps most revoltingly of all, if true, Strawson has proven that the very foundation of law-abiding civilization is an illusion. What does this mean for legislation founded on illusion? Interesting thoughts, but let’s cut to the chase.
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?
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 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. [source]
Here and here, I argued that Luke Muehlhauser misled the audience at Colorado State University by declaring as subjective a God-based morality William Lane Craig does not actually endorse [a.k.a., refuting a strawman].
Luke’s response was to attack my character by labeling me a troll in his 7-point rejoinder, which I believe I successfully rebutted. Now, instead of responding to that rebuttal, Luke has declared in some sort of odd, melodramatic exit stage left that he’s “finally given up” on me. I won’t tire you with why I think that’s not a move a person with good desires would make. I’d rather dig a little deeper into one of the counterarguments I made in my aforementioned responses.
Well. I hopped over to Common Sense Atheism today, where I found the transcript from Luke’s talk at Colorado State University, titled The Science Of Morality: No Gods Required.
First off, I wondered how it came to be that Luke – a newbie atheist who was a self-described irrational Christian just a few years ago – was granted the authority to educate students at a major university. What are his credentials? Should anybody with a popular blog be allowed to educate the populace in our public institutions? Lest any hasty inductors be tempted to cry ad hominem, allow me to clarify.
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.