Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Is Abortion Murder?


Tim McGregor asked me the following question:

“I started pondering about the issue of abortion and I thought maybe a worked example how desirism might help us make moral decisions would be greatly aid my comprehension of it.

With that in mind, would it be possible to explain how we might decide:

  • Whether to abort a foetus when the life of the mother is threatened?
  • At what age it might be ethical to do so if the foetus was not threatening the life of the mother.?”

The Framework

In applying desirism, the underlying question that needs answering is “what do people generally have reasons to promote and inhibit?”. The “generally” is to emphasize the trans-cultural feature of what is in common to people, regardless of their cultural background, influences, opinions and desires. This is to consider the moral issue as an all-things-considered and all-things-being-equal question and to find the facts of the matter.

Operating with such a framework question does not guarantee determinate let alone definitive conclusions, this is an enterprise that draws upon any relevant rational and empirical tools as for any other such empirical enterprise. Any conclusion is both provisional and defeasible and so open to challenge within such a framework.

A desirist focuses only on reasons to act that exist (as well as states of affairs) and these are desires. If an agent lacks such a desire, they appear to them as an external reason and not one that motivates them. Now one cannot use reason to change desires, instead one uses the social forces such as praise and blame, reward and punishment to do so. Desirism provides rational and empirical grounds over what desires to promote and inhibit and shows that history has been littered with the promotion and inhibition of desires for which there are no rational and empirical justifications. That is always the danger over the mutual and reciprocal influence over desires – whether they are really justified - a danger desirism has been developed to mitigate against.

So granted a conclusion is available for a given topic, of course individuals and groups are going to differ and disagree with this conclusion, this is because they either have desires that people generally lack, or lack desires that people generally have, the conclusion serves to show the desires that such individuals and groups should have. That is the whole point of the analysis. Again if no-one disagreed then there would be nothing to debate, and no-one bothers to ask such questions of universal agreement (still sometimes those are worth asking, if they can even be recognised, since we could all be wrong).


In order to answer Tim’s questions we are going to look at another question that underlies these - “is abortion murder?” -and based on the conclusion to that, answer Tim’s questions.

It is said, even by moral relativists, that the one common feature across cultures is a prohibition against murder. However this is misleading since murder is a value-laden term, it has disvalue built into it by definition. Let us explicate this term, which I will only do briefly here, as this post is focused on abortion.

Murder stereotypically means the deliberate wrongful killing of a person. Given such a meaning, it is no surprise that this is a prohibition that is likely a near universal across cultures. The real question is what counts as murder and this varies significantly across cultures depending on their notions of “deliberate” and “person”. All grant that for whatever is regarded as “deliberate” and “person” that it is “wrongful”  - that people have reasons to inhibit such a desire – a desire to deliberately kill a person (although they might indirectly focus on acts, rules or duties, none can be successfully affected unless the relevant desires are influenced).

We do not need to explore the notion of “deliberate” here, as we take it as given that an abortion is “deliberate”. This leaves us to answer the question as to whether a foetus is a person.

Prior to examining this we first need to explore two issues related to murder, self-defence and the defence of those incapable of defending themselves.

Defence against Murder

If a society coherently and consistently promotes an inhibition to deliberate kill persons, fewer members of such a society will have such a desire and so will be less likely to act upon it. However successful as society is at doing so, it is likely that some will still have such a desire and some of those will act upon it, albeit less than a society that fails in such a promotion. If there is a clear and present danger and killing the would be killer is the only option then this is not murder, it is self defence, this is not wrong, it is permissible, neither to be promoted nor inhibited. We do not need to explore the issues of the use of self-defence as a reactive response and tests to ensure whether such a claim is valid or not. However  this establishes the concept that there may be other circumstances that alter the conclusion that the deliberate killing of a person is murder - that is wrongful - such as medical complications.  We will look at that below.

We do need to note that if a foetus is a person, it is not capable of self-defence and this leads to the next derived principle.

Again, being brief, a moral agent is a person that can act and respond to the social forces. Now all moral agents are persons, but not all persons are moral agents. The notion of a person here (we are not exploring animal rights or psychopaths here) is is that any person is worthy of moral consideration, whether it is capable of being a moral agent or not. This certainly includes children, who lack the maturity to be moral agents, and those who are incapacitated, due to injury, illness and age. People generally have reasons to inhibit the desire not to consider such persons worthy of moral consideration, and this gives people motivations to defend those who cannot defend themselves. This does not mean or imply killing the aggressors in some form of assisted self-defence but rather that people generally have reasons to inhibit such desires, after all we all have been and will be in the position of being incapable of defending ourselves.

So if a foetus is a person and it clearly is incapable of self-defence, on the basis that it is worthy of moral consideration, we certainly would have reasons to deem abortion murder and utilise both the social forces and legal institutions to ensure that abortions do not occur.

Is a foetus a person

So now we need to see if a foetus is a person or not. If it is not, then abortion is not murder, if it is then abortion is murder.

Now history full of varying conceptions of persons, that is to who qualifies as a moral agent and who is worthy of moral consideration, often getting these relations inside out such as for slave and minorities being considered moral agents but not worthy of moral considerations, children often were not worthy of moral consideration and very often and till today women are worthy of only diminished moral consideration, if at all. If we seek a trans-cultural understanding of what is a person we can only have recourse to rationally secure arguments and empirically sound evidence which supports none of the above and other similar discriminations.

At the very least a  person is a being with dispositions, desires and beliefs. One can have such desires and beliefs without language, as some higher animals do and as, indeed we often do, operating on beliefs and desires that we have never put in words (and may, if one does not fully consider one’s life, ever do). So the fact that a foetus has not yet learnt a language does not mean that it does not have beliefs and desires, however limited they may be.

At this stage we need to refer to biological, developmental and neurological knowledge, to establish at what at age foetus could be reasonably called a person. Prior to such an age it is not a person and past that age it is.

Some have argued that not even a new born baby is yet a person but here we will seek a reasonable minimum. I have a recent wonderful reference, which I unfortunately cannot find, that eloquently and, I believe, accurately covers these issues and which is establishes that a foetus becomes a person between 22 and 23 weeks from conception.  Further that paper argues that even as medical science improves – such as increasing the likelihood above a 4% survival rate for a 22 week old foetus -this will not alter these biological facts.

I will take this as tentative empirical support, that a foetus less than 22 weeks old is not a person and so such an abortion is not murder. The 22 to 23 week period is therefore questionable but see below. Should my reference – if I ever find it - be invalid and revised then the relevant date would need to be updated, but this is an entirely empirical question one way or another.

So this tallies nicely (all too nicely one might wonder) with the current UK limit of 23 weeks. Another lost reference (I checked my google history and when I have time will check my delicious bookmarks) was that the huge majority of elective abortions occur before 20 weeks and virtually all 20 -23 week abortions are due to medical complications. This makes me conjecture that those very few 22 week abortions are very unlikely to reside in the 4% that would have survived.

So it seems that the UK has both reasonable and humane abortion rules. There is no need to add a more limited period for elective abortions versus medical emergency abortions as this is the way it already occurs.

Now there are many other questions that could have been asked that I have not dealt with but, as far as I can see, the above is the central question that needed to be dealt with and so issues of over choice, cause of pregnancies, religious beliefs are important but separate questions to this.

Tim’s Answers

Whether to abort a foetus when the life of the mother is threatened?

23 weeks

At what age it might be ethical to do so if the foetus was not threatening the life of the mother.?

22 weeks but this is practically what happens anyway.


Tim’s question was inspired by what he correctly calls a piece of idiocy Nun Excommunicated For Allowing Abortion.

There are two points here. First is that religious beliefs are motivated by when the “soul” enters the foetus. However there are two religious positions on this “immediate ensoulment – upon conception - and “delayed ensoulment” – after conception.

Immediate ensoulment has the problem of the formation of twins after conception and much theistic debate has revolved around the time of delayed ensoulment. Indeed, contrary to popular conception, the Catholic Church is itself has never rejected delayed ensoulment! There is a fascinating free eBook on this and I do have that reference: The Pope who said Abortion is NOT Murder by John McCloskey. So there is no reason why religious mystical ideas of ensoulment could not be made consistent with our empirical knowledge of human developmental physiology and neurology.

The final concluding thought is over the Catholic Church’s gross moral hypocrisy of ex-communicating a decent Nun who saved a life versus not defrocking, let alone ex-communicating, both all those priests who abused young children in their care and all those who defended them from criminal prosecution. Since the Pope is a prime suspect in the latter we know why the Church has not and still not has done this, but all this goes to further discredit that religious considerations has any value in public debates over abortion.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Letter to a Lapsed Pagan III


Hi Tim

You asked for a short description of desirism. I will give you three. The first two are aimed at school level albeit said slightly more technically and compactly than one would say to school kids. The third is a summary of the key points argued for in my previous letter. I will then finish this letter by answering your questions.

Desirism in in one line

Encourage desires that tend to fulfil other desires, discourage desires than ten to thwart other desires.

Desirism in a Couple of Paragraphs

If someone acts to thwarts one of your desires, this is undesirable to you, and this is the reason you have to discourage them from doing so. If you act to thwart one of their desires, that is undesirable to them, and that is the reason they have to discourage you from doing so. And the same goes for everyone else. Everyone uses praise and blame; and social reward and punishment to influence – to encourage and discourage - each other.  One can also use other means to influence each other, such as physical and material threats, coercion and force. However we all have reason to discourage these these other means from being used on us, and others have the same reason from those means from being used on them.

Morality is about desires that are universally desirable to everyone, these are morally good desires and about desires that are universally undesirable to everyone, these are morally bad desires. So if we all encourage morally good desires – desires that tend to fulfil other desires, whoever has them - and discourage morally bad desires – desires that tend to thwart other desires , whoever has them - we make the world better for all of us, as we are all would better able to fulfil our own desires.

a Formal description of desirism

All value terms such as “good”, “bad”, “ought”, “ought not” are action-guiding, they are prescriptions.

The best pragmatic definition of a prescription  is “there are reason to act of the kind to keep or bring about the state of affairs in question”.

A prescription is a type of description. It can be true or false. We use, metonymically, the label “good” for the “keep or bring about”  relation and “bad” for the “stop or prevent “ relation. If these labels are applied to the other relation, then the prescription is false.

The other way a prescription can be false is if they refer to reasons to act that do not exist. The only reason to act that we know exist are desires – the only brain states that motivate us to act to keep or bring about states of affairs that are the targets of those desires.

Now we can use the label “fulfil” for the “kept or made” relation and the label “thwart” for the “stop or prevent” relation. Desires can also be directly fulfilled, or indirectly. So we can say an action “tends” to fulfil a desire, if it indirectly aids in bringing out the state of affairs that is the target of the desire.

So we can now say that good means “such as to fulfil or tend to fulfil the desires of the kind in question” and that “bad” means “such as to thwart or tend to thwart the desires of the kind in question” . We can also shorten this using “tend” to cover both direct and indirect fulfilment so that good (bad) means “such as to tend to fulfil (thwart) desires of the kind in question”.

Moral value terms are a specific type of prescription, they are universally prescriptive.

A universal prescription limits what kind of reasons to act apply in such a prescription. is that “there are reasons to act for everyone to keep or bring about the state of affairs in question”.

Given that the only reasons to act that exist are desires and that acts can only be modified by influencing desires,  this means that only desires that tend to fulfil everyone’s desires and that are socially influenceable (malleable) are the kinds of desires amenable to be universally prescribed. Similarly only malleable desires that tend to thwart everyone’s desire are the kinds of desires amenable to be universally proscribed.

Combining this a true moral, that is universal, prescription or proscription is that there reasons to promote or demote the desire under evaluation, these reasons being whether the desire tends to fulfil or thwart everyone’s desires. If it does neither is is a morally neutral desires, not one of moral significance.

Your First Question

Since Desirism is sometimes called Desire Utilitarianism, does it agree that it is the outcome of an action that is important when determining its moral status and that an increase in the wellbeing, or reduction of suffering of sentient creatures, is the goal of moral actions?

A desire for wellbeing is only one possible desire. People can chose to fulfil a desire that sacrifices their wellbeing. We leave such a utility undetermined, allowing for it to be non-fungible, incommensurate and plural. Unlike traditional utilitarianism, Desirism does not impose one utility on everyone.

It is a consequentiality model, consequences do matter. The consequences being the material and physical affects on desires (more precisely on their fulfilment and thwarting). Actions are determined only indirectly, the evaluation focus is on desire and not acts and that takes better account of the results of empirical psychology.

In right act terms one could say that the right acts are acts that are the result of desires that tend to fulfil other desires, or the act that a person with desires that tend to fulfil other desires would perform.

Your Second Question

Does Desirism dictate that there is a right thing to do in any given situation, regardless of the culture in which it is taken? Are there, as Sam Harris contends, "many peaks on the moral landscape", or is there one rule for all?

Desirism is a means to establish what is universally desirable or not, independent of individual or group opinion. To establish matter of fact not opinion – culturally based or otherwise.

This is not to say it guarantees this result, some analysis may just be indeterminate. Also this is an empirical approach limited as is any other empirical approach to achieving the provisionally best conclusion given the available data. Further there can be disputes over the existing data e.g. which desires are affect or who has desires (such as over foetuses) as well as whatever conclusion being revisable in the light of new data. That is this is a provisional and defensible analysis.

Your Third Question

Are there grades of right and wrong rather than a binary decision?

Yes, one can compare two desires and it can be the case that one tends to fulfil more desire and tends to thwart less other desires, than another desire sunder evaluation. And so on.

Your Fourth Question

Does Desirism resolve the ought-is problem, or does it have nothing to say about this and just work from the principle that we ought to be moral and only concern itself with the "how" rather than the "why"?

The is-ought problem is not ignored by desirism. As noted above prescriptions are a type of description and can be true or false. There is no is-ought, description-dualism or fact-value dualism. That is an unempirical and (fallible) metaphysical claim.

This dualism can be shown to be false by showing that certain values or prescriptions can exist, rather than focus on others, where if they do not exist, then they are fictions. On that I assume we agreed.

One can only argue to “ought” conclusions if there is at least one “is” premise that contains one or more reasons to act that exist, then and only then  one can draw ought conclusions. That is why desirism focused only on reasons to act that exists and so always refers to desires in arguing to ought conclusions.

Quote of the Day: Tolkien versus Rand

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs".[Rogers]

h/t The Barefoot Bum

Friday, 23 April 2010

Letter to a Lapsed Pagan II

[See Letters to a Lapsed Pagan - Index for full list of our correspondence]

Hi Tim

I think a better way to move forward is for me, in this second letter to you, is to directly answer your "WTF is desirism?" question from your first letter.

Given your second letter, although you did not intend it as a second letter as such, I do not think it right to give you homework or require you to look up unfamiliar terms (within reason). Apart from anything else, I hope our correspondence can be a standalone reference to these ideas.
So lets proceed.

Moral Language

First I want to add a point omitted from my first letter and one that nicely dovetails into the following explanation.

One of my concerns, as a sceptic, was the misuse and abuse of moral language, specifically and most often by those who presumed best qualified to use it, religious leaders.

I must emphasize that I am not only concerned with them, as the issue is broader than religions and not all religious leaders (and followers) are culpable. This is an important point but I will not repeat it. Please take it as read.

The issue is that all too often moral language is used to support immoral actions, such as prejudice, bigotry and violence. However too many critics seem to be disabled from using the same type of language, due to their interpretations of what they Moral Inquiry actually is, that, at the very least, they consider Morality not to be objective. They concede much by doing this and this has concerned me for quite a while. Such critics, if nothing else, still concede to religious claims taht thiersis the only basis for moral objectivity, even as any sensible person knows and argues that such theistic-based moral claims are,with respect to objectivity, at least false (or in my view, incoherent, and not even false). 

For a while my approach took to pointing out the many incoherencies and ignorance that no intellectually responsible person would endorse, let alone promote. To use their own supposed morality against them. The classic being “bearing false witness” which many of the theists I was concerned over committed, when they repeatedly misrepresented atheists as communists and immoral and so on. However, those and similar arguments. were either wilfully misunderstood or consistent with their view that we are not their neighbours!

Then I undertook a study of ethics, all of the classics through to much of the work of the present day. Here I was very surprised, as far from there being little to support objective approaches to morality, there were many and from different bases and assumptions. Indeed this is, as I often repeat, where all the action ethics seems to be nowadays. Part of the surprise was I did not get this from many scientific and other critics, who were more concerned to base their views on their own take of morality, including negative or nihilistic ones. Whilst quite a few are quite objective in their approach (as Sam Harris is), there are far too many who are not and either way, none communicated how much is really going on in ethics. The last few years has seen dramatic changes in public awareness but there is still much that has not been covered.

Anyway I sought to find the most empirically adequate explanation of the phenomenon of morality, one that explained more with less, had fewer errors and mistakes than competitors and this is where I discovered and challenged Desire Utilitarianism. Part of testing became for me to, reluctantly I must say, to become an advocate of this theory.

My experience has been that there are about 5 or 6 common criticisms (some from theists, the others from subjectivists and non-cognitivists) and it is clear to me, however often they are repeated that desirism can deal with them. There are many other criticisms and I too still have some but I am not going to second guess you. Lets see what you come up with.

Anyway the underlying goal was is to rehabilitate moral language, so none of us has any qualms about using it, as and where required, particularly and most often, to those who misuse and abuse such language.
In order to do this we need to get behind the language and see what it means. To see if there are empirically adequate referents for these terms,to reduce such terms to their references and analyse the implications of these references without recourse to moral language.


So what do “ought”, “ought not”, “should”, “should not”, “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong” mean?

If one says “you ought not to X” and you ask “why?”, they might reply “because doing X is wrong” or “because X is bad”, These do not really answer the question. In fact these are three different ways of saying the same thing, that is expressing the same proposition. This proposition is a recommendation, it is action-guiding, or, to use the parlance, it is a prescription. This is the real answer to any of the three above responses.

Note at this stage we are not looking at just “moral” usage but in general. For example the same knife might be “good” in one context “sharp enough”, bad in another “dangerous to children” and “bad” in a different way in another context “too blunt to use”. The use of “good” and the two different “bad”s are all prescribing the usage of a knife, such that there are reasons to use it in situations when it is “good”, and reasons not to use it in situations when it is “bad”. And, note, the prescription is often implicit or tacit and inferred from the situation. Regardless of how implicit or explicit it is stated, there is a prescription being expressed.

So what are prescriptions? As hinted above, a prescription is a description of objects under evaluation, the reasons to act and the relation between them – as to whether the reasons to act are to realise or prevent the state of affairs that is the object of the evaluation.

Clearly many descriptions are not prescriptions, since if they do not describe objects of evaluation, reasons to act and the relations between them, they have necessarily failed to provide the components of a prescription. However descriptions that do contain these three components are prescriptions.

Like descriptions in general, prescriptions can be true or false (or cognitive), whether they are, or not, depends on the propositions stated by the prescription.  So the description of an object of evaluation, the reasons to act and the relations between them can be false, if either the reasons to act do not exist, or the relations between the reasons to act and the objects of evaluations are incorrect. If a prescription describes both reasons to act that exist and correct relations between these and the object of evaluations, then it is true.

If “good” does not express such a prescription then it is not a prescription and in contrary to general, common and typical usage, that is redefining good not to be a prescription does too much violence to any pragmatic meaning of the term.

Now if instead, one defines generic good to be about reasons for action to stop or prevent a state of affairs, one has inverted the meaning of good (and bad) and again has done too much violence to any pragmatic meaning of the term.

Given this, saying that a prescription that has reasons not to act (or refrain from acting) or reasons to prevent a state of affairs is good is a false prescription, since one has inverted the relation between reasons to act and the state of affairs for which those reason to act are about.

In short, a prescription is a way of describing value. So this gives us a robust, general, consistent but pragmatic definition of value or generic good to mean  “there are reasons to act of the kind to keep or bring a state of affairs in question” and disvalue or generic bad “that there are reasons to act of the kind to stop or prevent  a state of affairs in question”. These definitions are pragmatic in that this describes how the terms are used, as opposed to what they users think they mean.

Desires as reasons to act

The other way for a prescription to be false is if it refers to reasons to act that do not exist. That is in order for a prescription to be true it is necessary to refer to reasons to act that exist.

The only reasons to act that exist, as far as we know with our current state of knowledge, are desires. Desires are a type of brain state and the only brain states that motivate the agent to keep or bring about the state of affairs that is the object of the desire.

Desires themselves are neither true or false (cognitive) rather they are fulfilled or thwarted (or neither) depending upon whether the state of affairs that is the object of the desires is made or kept true; stopped or prevented from occurring, respectively. By contrast the only other equivalent brain state beliefs are cognitive, they are capable of being true or false (or undecided)

If a prescription contains any other reasons to act, these reasons to act do not exist and the prescription is false. If someone proposes a reason to act that is not a desire, it is up to them to show that it exists, if they cannot, then any prescription based on it is false.

Based on desires being the only reasons to act that exist, we can add a derivative definition of value to mean “such as to fulfil the desires of the kind in question” and disvalue to mean “such as to thwart the desires of the kind in question”.

Note in either form, that value is not intrinsic to any objective feature of the world, nor is intrinsic to any subjective feature of the world (such as a desire). It is extrinsic to both,that is value is relational not subjective nor objective. Nothing here stops us performing an objective examination of these relations as in any other empirical endeavour which can be mostly considered as finding and describing relations between different features of reality. It is this objective examination that I will pursue here.

Agent Reasons

Now my desires are my reasons to act. Your desires are your reasons to act. If I desire a state of affairs and you act, knowingly or inadvertently, directly or indirectly, to prevent or stop that state of affairs, the thwarting of my desire gives me a reason to dissuade you from so acting. And vice versa, if my actions thwart your desire. And so on for everyone else. 

Indeed knowledge of others’s beliefs and desires are very useful as they enable us to predict how others are going to respond to our actions. That is, these prescriptions, whether one to one, one to many, many to one, or many to many, are all predictions.

For example, if you tell me that Alice will not like it if I phi, you are giving me a prediction as a prescription, one based on your (accurate or not) understanding of Alice’s beliefs and desires (their reasons to act) as to how they are likely to respond if I phi. More explicitly you would be saying “Alice has a  reason to dissuade me from doing X, those reasons being that me phi’ing thwarts (what you believe are) one or more of Alice’s desires.”

Social Forces

So how does one go about dissuading someone from an action that thwarts your desires?

What we are trying to do is change actions, but the only actions we can change are voluntary or intentional actions and these are the result of intentions. An intention is, at a minimum, a combination of a belief and a desire, but it is only desires that motivate, so in order to influence actions, one has to influence desire.

Still when people act to fulfil their desires, they do so given their beliefs and, if they have false beliefs, then one could address those false beliefs, using reason and argument. As we know this may or may not work (even if you are correct, and it sometimes works even if you are not!) mostly because their desire to believe overwhelms their desire for truth. Whether you succeed or not in addressing their beliefs, you cannot use reason to alter their desires.

However we can directly influence each others desires using rhetoric - emotive language - through social tools employing commendations and condemnations, praise and blame, honours and demerits, reward, penalties and punishments and behind these are physical tools such as of power, threats and violence, economic tools such as financial rewards and penalties, the legal tools such as (including threats of) civil actions and so on. Everyone, to various degrees, employs some of these and similar tools in their day to day and longer interactions amongst friends, families, colleagues, peers, businesses, strangers and so on. These all serve to change the social environment within which we seek to fulfil our desires, such that our desires are mutually and reciprocally moulding each other.

Now one can only mould desires that are malleable, those that can be modified by the environment. If they are not malleable, then they are unaffected by changes in the environment. So social forces can only be used to influence malleable desires.

Universal Prescriptions

As noted in my previous letter, morality is specifically to do with the  employment of the social forces such as praise and blame, reward and punishment in institutions of morality. What makes moral prescriptions different to prudential, familial, team, work and other prescriptions is, that regardless of how anyone does or does not define moral terms, they are universally prescriptive, they are universally applicable to everyone.

If these were not universally prescriptive, then one could imagine anti-abortionists saying, “we think abortion is murder and so will not have abortions, you do not think it is murder, so go ahead if you want to”. Similarly we do not say “We think bigotry is wrong, you do not, so go ahead and be a bigot” . Clearly this is absurd. It is inherent in usage that moral terms are universally prescriptive.

So given our definitions of value in general and that moral value is to do with universal prescriptions, what are moral values in this same framework?

Since the issue is universal applicability, we are looking at the  value of a desire with respect to everyone. That is a universally good (bad) desire is universally  good (bad) to the degree that it tends to fulfil the desires of everyone’s desires.  Remembering that prescriptions are also predictions, one could say that a universally good desire is one that, all things being equal, generally people have reason to encourage, (these reasons being their desires that this desire tends to fulfil). And a universally bad desire is one that, all things being equal, generally people have reasons to discourage, (these reasons being their desires that this desire tends to thwart). The means of encouragement and discouragement being the social forces, as employed by people generally. If such a prescription is true, it would be an accurate prediction of how people would in fact react.

All things being equal

Of course, in the real world, to various degrees, the distribution of desires in a population and the acceptable and unacceptable usages of the social forces, show that often things are not equal, that many institutions of morality are no operating on a level playing field.

However we both agree on one naturalistic fallacy (there are at least four others), that what is the case does not mean it ought to be the case. So there is no reason to justify things based on the way they are. So how can we  evaluate them?

Well we can evaluate any and all distributions of desires and variable usages of the social forces by comparing this to the all things being equal general situation. So we can say, that in comparison to that scenario, what the individual or group ought and ought not do – whether they listen to us or not (that is up to the effectiveness of the social forces, which we can discuss in a future letter, maybe).

We now have a means of evaluating any individual or group independent of matter of opinion, employing only matter of facts based, of course, only on still provisional and defeasible prescriptions as accurate enough predictions of what people want, all things being equal.

One last point, in this already long letter, is over whether there an implicit “should “ in comparing any scenario to an all things being equal  (or level plain field) scenario.

Actually there are two opposite questions here: one is “why should there be a level playing field?”(even if such universal prescriptions are accurate of it), the opposite question is “why should there not be a level playing field?” . On purely rational and objective grounds, there is no prior basis to prefer one unlevel playing field over another, so the level playing field is the natural default or null hypothesis to engage in such comparisons.

This is not to say that some apparently unlevel playing fields can be rationally and empirically justified, but such justifications must presume a level playing in order to make such successful argument. What I have found is that all the justifications for unlevel playing fields rely upon additional and unsound assumptions and/or formal and informal fallacious reasoning. That is I have only seen unsound, invalid and poor arguments to justify unlevel playing fields, in other words they are not rationally and empirically justified.


Ok this letter is longer than planned and reflects some issues that I have been debating elsewhere. I could have provided a short paragraph description of desirism as I have done elsewhere and might do again if you request. Still there is enough meat here for you to get your teeth into and examine sceptically. Please fire away!