Sunday, 8 November 2009

Letter to Thomas Reid II: On Desirism

Thomas Reid wrote a critique of Desirism, to which I responded. Thomas Reid has now written a second post responding to my rebuttals. This seems to be evolving, informally, in the fashion of Luke's various letters, hence my title to this post.

Now I am happy to engage with anyone on the topic of desirism, with the two constraints of my available time (which is highly limited at the moment) and that they are willing to engage in honest and constructive debate. Desirism is the name I have given to what I regard is the best available theory of moral realism, discovered by Alonzo Fyfe. It is an empirical approach, so is provisional and defeasible, and I am always interested in criticism and challenges to this. This approach, like any other in any area, is open to review, revision, replacement or rejection and I am open to all these possibilities and will engage with anyone providing those respondents indicates the same over their positions. Now nothing was formally agreed between myself and Reid over this, so I cannot impose this rule on this series of letters, with the proviso that I am assuming, as noted above, a willingness "to engage in honest and constructive debate".

Reid's synopsis of Desirism
First, faithlessgod says he has "quibbles" with my understanding of the theory, but is satisfied to leave my synopsis as is.  I appreciate his review for any errors on my part.  Hearing no specific problems I'll assume I've got a workable understanding of DU and proceed from there.
The main quibble came up my response to Reid's first post and in the following comments. For clairifcation I will bring it back to the synopsis itself.
The key is to consider whether a malleable desire promotes the fulfilment of other desires, or thwarts them.  If it promotes their fulfilment, then it is "good" in the moral sense, and "bad" in the moral sense if it thwarts them.[my emphasis and typo corrections]
 As I said in the comments:
The descriptive view is a desire is labelled good to the extent that it tends to fulfil and not thwart other desires. The prescriptive view is a desire is labelled good to the extent the people generally have reason to promote and not inhibit that desire. Both are views of the same facts but with different emphasis, the descriptive focused on the desires, the prescriptive focused on the people.
So we could rewrite Reid's statement as:"The key is to consider whether a malleable desire tends to fulfil other desires, or tends thwarts them.  If it overall tends fulfil them , then it is "good" in the moral sense, and "bad" in the moral sense if it overall tends thwarts them."  Note that Reid uses "promote" as some sort of synonym for "tend to", when they are not, in the rest of his synopsis, which, given what I have said here and for brevity, does not warrant further attention.

Lets continue
All intentional action is motivated by desires and beliefs.  Presumably, by "intentional action", Fyfe means something like "all acts that are free", or "all acts that are worthy of moral evaluation".  Unconscious breathing surely is excluded from the scope of intentional acts.
A clarification, intentional action is voluntary action, that is the concept of  "free" that is used here.
So the typical conscientious Desire Utilitarian would evaluate act X based on whether or not someone with good desires would do act X.  Since good desires are those which promote the fulfilment of other desires, in practice we should be asking ourselves: "what kind of desires should I have?"  That is the root of morality for the Desire Utilitarian.
Now on re-reading Reid's synopsis,  this is a worse issue than my previous one over "promoting". Morality is a social institution which employs the social forces of commendation and condemnation, credit and blame. The question over the "root" of morality would be how to determine what is praiseworthy and blameworthy, that is what to commend, what to condemn and so on. Desirism gives the best empirically grounded referents for these concepts that I have seen to date.  What is praiseworthy is what any person with good desires - that is desires that overall tend to fulfil more than thwart all other desires - would have and act upon and what is blameworthy is what any person with good desires would not have and not act upon - desires that overall tend to thwart more than fulfil other desires. There are other points one could make one the above, but this better answers Reid's apparent intention in that paragraph to show what the desirist roots of morality are.

Now to respond to Reid's challenges in his latest post.

The theory is internally contradictory; it is possible for a desire to be both good and bad

Nothing in Reid's response makes it clear that he accepts that he is not talking about morality at all here. His model applies not only to trade, but any form of transaction. It also applies to sports and games. If A's "desire for X" is that A win against B, and B's "desire for Y" is that B win against A, then everything trivially follows.  There does not seem to be anything else to say on the matter except that Reid has failed to show a desire can be both good and bad morally - that is where people generally are concerned.

The theory cannot be used to condemn those who do not abide by the theory.

It has already been explained that human nature is the set of dispositions and capacities to believe, desire and act and, as Reid knowledges, that morality can only be focused on those that are malleable, that is sensitive to the environment these occur in, what else are the means to effect this "human nature" than is via the social forces as  a key part of this environment? There seems to be nothing else that needs to be done.

It appears that Reid misses such points that the social forces of commendation and condemnation, credit and blame are already employed and used to mould each others' desires, this is already is  the basis of moral and many other obligations. Reid also fails to recognise that most people, whether they are aware of this theory or not, do not consciously, most of the time, explicitly apply it, rather most have, as the result of coherently and consistently grounded applications of the social forces, the relevant good desires and lack the relevant bad desires.

Further desirism can serve as a critique of the various instantiations of this social institution, in terms of how coherently (praising what is praiseworthy, blaming what is blameworthy), consistently (praising those who deserve praise, blaming those who deserve blame) and ratio-empirically grounded (determining what is praiseworthy and what is blameworthy) those versions are. They work by evoking emotional responses that lead to modifications of our malleable desires. This is especially important since one cannot use reason to change desires, only beleifs.

Now the whole of Reid's arguments in this section seems to fail to understand most of the above and he raises points that are meant to look like objections but are almost invariably already explicitly  incorporated in the problem space that desirism addresses and proposes answers for. Further he invents "precepts" that make no sense and are anyway nothing to do with desirism.

All in all I am not sure how to better analyse Reid's issues, in the time I have available. If Reid can respond with clear criticism of desirism - by understanding the above points - we could the revisit his purported conclusion. Until then, his conclusion does not follow.

Given the inputs to decision-making, it is possible for DU to define any act as "good".
It can beg the question of those other desires, and a moral evaluation of them is to be expected.  But that evaluation is a red herring. The objection is grounded in the definition of a desire as either good or bad once those other desires change (maybe they no longer exist, or are altered).
Now Reid seems to be responding to another theory not desirism - where does this mysterious change come from? This is a straw man, nowhere is the the goodness of a desire described, within desirism, the way Reid has portrayed it here and so evaluating the moral value of other desires is not a red herring. The rest of Reid's response is addressing a form of act utilitarianism. So none of his conclusion follows or is relevant to desirism.


Thomas Reid said...

Thanks again for your comments. Indeed I am attempting an understanding of the theory and what I believe are reasonable objections to it. Your comments are helping me do that.

Thomas Reid said...


I've posted a second letter:

Anonymous said...

What a complicated and thus utterly useless moral theory! I get that we daily use our intuitions (Luke Muelhauser's way of getting out of doing complicated calculations), but if one doesn't know whether an action is good or bad and has to determine which desires to take into consideration, whose desires to take to consideration, which desires are stronger when it comes to Desirism, then one does have to do mental gymnastics to come to a conclusion. This complication is evidenced by Desirism's defendants having to clarify and clarify and clarify and clarify how Desirism works and then clarify and clarify some more. We see the same ongoing clarification process going on at CSA. Desirism is great at explaining social behavior, but is complicated and useless when trying to figure out morals. So while it looks good on paper (or in THEORY rather), it's useless when attempting to put into practice, especially when it gets the results backwards; but my bad-I'm just not understanding it properly.