Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Justin Martyr and Desirism:

[This post was written in response to Martyr's original posts. He has since significantly revised them. I have asked him to revert it to the originals, which this post addresses. If he wants to create new posts to which I will chose to respond or not as and when I have time, that is fine. However what Martyr has done is completely unacceptable and extremely ironic given he is writing on ethics!]

Luke, of Commonsense Atheism, has a post which draws my attention to a couple of posts by a "Justin Martyr" (no, not the historical figure) who claims to have an easy refutation of Desirism.

Now, I have deliberately not read Luke's response and intend here to provide an independent analysis of Martyr's arguments. I find it interesting to see (regardless of whether anyone else will) what, if any, differences there are between our analysis of Martyr's argument. So lets proceed.

Martyr makes his argument in two posts, first in A Critical Guide to Desire Utilitarianism and then A Quick Refutation of Desire Utilitarianism. We shall examine these as he presents them.

Martyr claims to make a sympathetic introduction to Desirism in his first post and the following analysis will also show if this is true or not.
  • One: A Desire Is a Reason for Action
  • Two: Desires are About States of Affairs in the World
  • Three: Malleable Desires
  • Four: Good is that which Fulfills Desires
  • Five: Punishment and Condemnation of Bad Desire
  • Desire Utilitarianism is The Pursuit of Self-Interest     

A Desire Is a Reason for Action
This is quite correct but he makes some serious errors in explaining this.
This is true by definition – we have simply defined the word ‘desire’ to mean a reason for action
False, it is not true by definition and this is not just an assertion in Desirism. Now a desire in desirism is defined in accordance to the most common model of philosophical psychology, simplistically that it is a psychological attitude to a proposition, an attitude to make or keep states of affairs where the proposition is or becomes true.  Desirism, along with many other reductive naturalist theories further argues that such desires are reasons for action. There are dissenters to this position, non-reductive naturalists such as Scanlon.  Desirism recognises this and makes arguments that desires are indeed reasons for action (I have a post in preparation to answer Scalon's three criticisms of desires as reason for action). Martyr follows this with
If you don’t think that is an accurate definition then feel free to use any other word, perhaps ‘goonygoogoo.’ Then Alonzo Fyfe would be just as happy to champion goonygoogoo utilitarianism.
It should be clear  that such statements are  beginning to cast doubt on his claim that he is presenting a "sympathetic" introduction to Desirism.
Given this definition it is tautologically true that people act to fulfill their desires
Martyr misses a crucial point here, the argument that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Moreover his brevity in this statement misses out the key elements of this concept, which in full is "people act to fulfil the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs". This is meant to capture what people do, and again follows the most  typical and dominant view in philosophical psychology. (A side note is that Desirism, as any good theory should do, seeks to employ the least problematic and uncontroversial related theories in order to build the answer that the theory is designed to address. That is it relies on the minimum amount of speculative and alternate ideas in related areas in order to build a theory. This is good practice and desirable if possible, which it is here.)

Now the reason for the formulation is that this identifies how and where people can be influenced to modify their behaviour, namely through changing their beliefs, as everyone would agree, whilst also noting that this is often insufficient. To change how people act one has to address how the strength and quantity of desires could be altered. That is the reason for the above formulation, it shows what the successful application of social forces is meant to achieve, to affect the environment so that what are the many and strongest desires that people act upon are suitably modified.

The fact that he ends this first bullet agreeing that "one cannot argue this point" does not help as he indicates some substantial misunderstandings of the issues here. Now some of my above response anticipates points that Martyr later makes. However there are already so many problems with his presentation that it would be too long and tedious to address all his errors. So I will sum up with his most egregious mistakes. 

Two: Desires are About States of Affairs in the World
Yes but he does not really understand this is about relational, extrinsic value and that intrinsic value does not exist.

Three: Malleable Desires
For all practical purposes the desire to not jump off a cliff cannot be changed
Huh??? Anecdotally, I have personally stopped someone jumping off an infamous bridge called "Suicide Bridge". I am not sure if Martyr understands what "malleable" means. Further he fails to understand the ethical desires are means not ends.

Four: Good is that which Fulfills Desires
He fails to recognise that this is a semantic definition of generic good that provides objective referents (does any thing else?). He completely fails to understand that this is not ethical or moral good at all. He erroneously claims that
It seems desire utilitarianism says that murder is good.
This is a mistake in his understanding and not in the theory itself. To still hold that this is a sympathetic portrayal of desirism has been shown to be double false, it is neither sympathetic nor is he portraying desirism rather a straw man of his own imagination.

He goes on to quote Fyfe and there is nothing wrong those quotes, selective as they are. What Martyr has done is miss out a most important concept in Desirism, without which it is not Desirism! Namely a moral good (bad) is such as to fulfil (thwart) or tend to fulfil (thwart) other desires (whoever has them and whether they realise this or agree or not). He finishes this section with:
In short: you have a rational reason to want to make bad desires less common because they will probably thwart your desires. You have an equally rational reason to want to make good desires more common because they will help to fulfill your desires.
Um...this has not addressed the questions of ethical concern at all and is merely reporting what is generally accepted in philosophical psychology.  Anyone reading Martyr's post is not going to learn about Desirism at all.

Five: Punishment and Condemnation of Bad Desire
He finishes this problematical section with
Stage one of changing the desires of other people: punishment. Stage two: praise and condemnation. Notice that desire utilitarianism leads to laws against rape, murder, torture, abusing children and does so without appeal to God. In fact, it does so without appeal to supernatural entities of any kind. You don’t have to be Mother Theresa to desire to want laws against torturing children.
Again the much subtle confusion here. Any expressivist could agree, although all would alter the order to social forces first followed by legal reinforcement and then legal punishments.

Martyr has failed to actually address Desirism at all in his analysis, just isolating features and concepts that Desirism employs that are used variously by other moral theories too or in the philosophy of action in general.

Desire Utilitarianism is The Pursuit of Self-Interest   
I note that he does understand the concept of other-regarding desires (although again not explicitly acknowledging them as ends). He then provides a mysterious quote without source, and this does not look like anything Fyfe would say, but I may be mistaken:
"People have a rational reason to promote their own self-interest. In a superficial sense it may be in your self-interest to murder and steal in order to get ahead. But there is nothing to stop others from murdering you. So in a deeper sense the best way to promote your self-interest is to form a society with laws against murder and theft. The lesson is clear: the pursuit of self-interest provides a rational basis for "thou shall not murder" and "thou shall not steal". You do not need God to be good."
I admit that this is not far off but specifically Desirism is a moral realist theory and the above fails to capture this important aspect at all. Many theories might end up with similar conclusions to Desirism, but what is under the microscope are the arguments used to justify those conclusions. The above is partially correct but incomplete, certainly as a statement of Desirism.

However I am losing patience to dealt with all the issues raised here such as over self-interest which I have deal with in numerous times in the past. All in all, Martyr has substantially failed to charitably, decently and properly describe Desirism at all. He ends with a cryptic:
Using the language of self-interest makes it easier to understand why desire utilitarianism does not need God or invisible metaphysical entities to provide a rational basis for laws against murder and rape. Or does it? Because desire utilitarianism is basically the same as social contract theory it suffers from the same weaknesses. There is a reason why even liberal egalitarian (read: secular) philosophers have generally rejected social contract theory. 
Huh? Actually many of our current philosophers (the secular qualifier being a dubious prefix) have not reject social contract theory, whether of a Rawlsian contractarian or Scanlonian contractualist spin both are very influential at the moment.

A very bad pseudo-refutation of Desirism
I have spent enough on this and there really is not much to say about Martyr's second post (I hope Luke has addressed this). As the above should indicate he fails completely to understand Desirism and instead looks at some version of a majoritarian act utilitarianism, which Desirism is most emphatically is not.

I have addressed this on numerous posts in the past but most simply here:

1.Desirism provides an analysis on how to evaluate the application of the device of morality in any society, this device being the use of social forces (backed up by legal sanction and judicial enforcement) to modify the strength and quantity of desires acted upon.

2. It does this by providing a realistic means of determining the general desirability of all such desires, quite specifically independent of the existing strength and quantity of such desires in any society.

3. Based on such determinations this can serve to direct the device of morality to suitably alter the strength and quantity of desires. So whatever the current strength of and quantity of desires are, the conclusion of an analysis is about the modification of such desires.

4. It is sad fact than many societies, past and present, have both been immoral in the sense objectively identified by Desirism and have often employed pseudo-morality in their supposed justification, such as most commonly a theistic based morality as favoured by Martyr (and equivalent "higher truth" alternatives such and communism and fascism). Regardless they are open to empirical evaluation, objective criticism and practical condemnation as required. Desirism  provides such a framework.

Martyr makes the very deep mistake of thinking that what is the case, ought to be the case (which is probably symptomatic of his theistic based  moral theory but I will not psychologise him further in this post), and this is specifically rejected by Desirism. His supposed refutation is so bad there is really not much more worth saying. Only the fact that he has made a public post has warranted any response here

I do welcome criticism of Desirism, I only hope that next time there is actually some attempt to first understand the theory and then actually attempt to find flaws in it. All we have here is an incredibly poor straw man that is not worth wasting any more time on.

Okay I am publishing this before reading Luke's response, maybe Luke has more patience than me to deal with these incredibly poorly argued two posts.

POSTSCRIPT: In my opinion Luke's response was far better and more to the point than mine. An interesting lesson, for me, anyway.

POSTCRIPT 2: I respond to a question in the comments in 900 Racists


Justin Martyr said...

Hiya Faithlessgod,

You spent a lot of time criticizing what is intended to be a high level intuitive overview of desirism. But you did not even make an attempt to engage my case of the 900 racists. Since that forms the heart of my criticism I invite you to do so in the comments.

The Case of the 900 racists. Small world of only 900 racists and 100 members of a minority group. The members of the minority group do not have the power needed to change the desires of the racist majority via praise, punishment, and condemnation. So why should the racists change their desires such to allow the minority group to have more of their desires fulfilled?

Luke said...

Nice experiment, doing a fully independent critique and then comparing our posts!