Pharyngula

Atheists and morality?

The Atheist Ethicist has written a book: A Better Place: Essays on Desire Utilitarianism.

When I was young I decided to try to leave the world better than it would have been if I had never lived. To do this, I had to know what ‘A Better Place’ actually was. Thus, I spent 12 years in college studying moral philosophy. This book contains a set of essays describing pieces of the answers I think I found. I argue that we cannot reliably find those answers in scripture, in subjective sentiment, or in evolved dispositions. In fact, those who look in these places for answers often leave the world worse than it would have otherwise been. Instead, I argue for ‘desire utilitarianism’ – the idea that morality involves using praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. The details and my defense of those answers can be found inside this book. I hope that what you find inside will also inspire and help you, too, to try to make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been.

You can find a more detailed summary of the contents here—it looks interesting, but I have this intimidating stack of books I have to finish first, and my own mountain of writing to do. It’s on my list now, though! If anyone else has read it, let us know more about it; a rebuttal to the theist claim that there is no morality without god always benefits from another counterexample.

Comments

  1. #1 Simon G
    December 5, 2006

    Amen – this is how atheism should be promoted, by focusing on the positive side of things such as why people are moral without gods, and this strong desire to make the best of the present and enhance the world. This is far more productive than the “let’s make fun of the crazy christians”-approach (tempting as it may be).

    –Simon

  2. #2 Dorilon
    December 5, 2006

    All subjective…thats one athesits view.
    Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Pol Pot, Madlyn Murray O’Hair, etc. all have other views.
    So what?
    Heres the real rule of morality: the Golden Rule; He Who Has the Gold, RULES.

  3. #3 Jason Spaceman
    December 5, 2006

    WingNutDaily’s Vox Day talks about atheists and morality in his latest snoozer, Godless criminals.

  4. #4 wintermute
    December 5, 2006

    Dorilon:

    Yeah, and people like Torqemada, Hitler, and Jack Chick can be held up as examples of Christian morality.

  5. #5 louis
    December 5, 2006

    Last I looked atheism isn’t a doctrine with representatives like say communism or christianity. It’s a lack of belief in god or gods. Some take it further and actively believe that god or gods don’t exist. Personally I find the distinction extremely meaningful and don’t cross into that faith area, although were I to be a betting man I’d put my money on no god at all.

    All theists are also atheists. The sum of gods they don’t believe in (unless they believe in all gods, which takes an act of supreme cognitive dissonance) is vastly greater than the sum of god(s) they do believe in. As a wise man once said: I just go one god further and when you understand the reasons you don’t believe in all those other gods, you’ll understand the reasons I don’t believe in yours.

    Atheist morality/ethics is a simple term for anyone to understand: it simply means a philosophical system of ethics or morals developed without reference to a fictional supernatural yardstick. After all, atheist morals are what we almost all have. Very few people (sadly vastly too many, but as a proportion of the whole, tiny) actually in practise define their moral/ethical standpoint from a divine source. Oh they CLAIM to, but that’s a different puppy. As a proportion of, for example, American literalist christians (good ol’ YEC biblical literalists) like Ted Haggard, how many stone adulterers? Kill pagans? Kill homosexuals? Kill people who wear clothes made of two different cloths? Kill people who eat shellfish?

    Shall I go on?

    No. Point made. These people pay lip service to a certain, rigid, unchanging moral authority derived from god or gods, but they don’t actually practice ALL of the things such a dogmatic moral system requires. They pick and choose the bits they like and that are culturally acceptable to them. Their ACTUAL moral stance is informed not by god or gods, but by the real world around them. By reason and observation.

    One therefore wonders precisely what they are afraid of when someone points this out?

    Louis

  6. #6 David
    December 5, 2006

    I think that Eudaimonism would be a good argument for atheists doing good for its own sake, and a fine refutation of the fundies rant that there can be no morality w/o a supernatural being.

  7. #7 E-gal
    December 5, 2006

    Empathy is the bedrock of ethics and morality to me.
    Why we evolved to have this empathy is something I want to study more about.

  8. #8 George
    December 5, 2006

    This is far more productive than the “let’s make fun of the crazy christians”-approach (tempting as it may be).

    “Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug — push it a little — weaken it a little over the course of a century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” – Mark Twain.

  9. #9 John B
    December 5, 2006

    I have spent some time thinking about the empathy question, too, ever since a grad level comparative ethics course.

    I have a completely untested (untestable?)theory that the ability to imaginatively ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes’ would have been extremely useful in our development as a social animal. The ability to understand yourself in relation to the other members of the group would be an adaptive trait in the social hierarchies of the earliest hominids (assuming they would bare some resemblance to the observable social structures in our nearest extant relatives).

    Part and parcel of our growing skill with abstract thinking, the ability to imagine how someone else would expect us to act would allow social roles to be learned through some process other than violent enforcement.

    Anyway, like i said it’s just an idea, but there seems to be something advantageous in a social animal using imagination to predict how they should act in certain situtations, and have some awareness of how the good of individuals impacts the good of the group. Hence empathy and the ubiquitous ‘Golden Rule’.

  10. #10 Daryl McCullough
    December 5, 2006

    I’m a little skeptical of basing morality on fulfillment of desires. I can agree with maximizing happiness, but I don’t think that’s the same as fulfillment of desires. As a matter of fact, having one’s every desire satisfied doesn’t seem to have much correlation with happiness.

    As to the question of whether religious belief is a coherent source of moral beliefs, I think that Plato’s Euthyphro dialog is a good argument for why invoking the gods is no help in deciding what is good and what is not.

    However, there is another issue, which to me is much more significant than the abstract philosophical foundations of morality: How are people motivated to want to be good? Many people think that religious people are motivated by fear of punishment from God (or promise of reward), but I really don’t think that’s the complete story. Most Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, yet the religion strongly encourages moral behavior.

    What I think helps about religion is that people think of being good as working on God’s team. I think that has more motivational power for most people than an abstract theory of morality ever would.

    An interesting statistic (via 3QuarksDaily) is that strongly religious people are more charitable (that is, they give a larger fraction of their income to charity). Conservative religious people are the most charitable, followed closely by liberal religious people. Secular liberals are a distant third. (The stingiest people are conservative nonbelievers.)

  11. #11 Noumena
    December 5, 2006

    There’s a simple way to respond to the claim that atheist = amoral. Over the past 3000 years, Western philosophy has developed only four fundamentally different theories in moral philosophy (divine command theories, deontology, eudaimonism, and consequentialism). Of these four, only one requires belief in some god or another for the system to work — and that’s also the one that Plato completely destroys in Euthyphro, written several hundred years before Jesus is supposed to have been born.

    Of course, this is only a simple way to respond if your fundamentalist opponent actually listens to you and cares about the history of philosophy. It will not be so effective if they stick their fingers in their ears and shout the Lord’s Prayer at the top of their lungs.

  12. #12 qw[njo
    December 5, 2006

    testing

  13. #13 Nietzschean
    December 5, 2006

    A famous atheist on morality, “Eliminatin of the weak and defective, the first principle of our philosophy! And we should help them to do it!”

    The AntiChrist, by Nietzsche the Syphillitic, sec. 2

    And lots more in there.

  14. #14 Rienk
    December 5, 2006

    This book is now officially added to my to read list… however, another great book on this subject is on the list too and I recommend it to everyone:

    Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe

    Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 202pp, $20.99 (pbk), ISBN 0521607841.

  15. #15 jeffk
    December 5, 2006

    Daryl:

    Those are interesting statistics, and as a secular liberal (like probably most people around here) they seem worth some consideration. I’d start with the fact that a lot of secular liberals are probably broke college students, or at least in general, tend to be young people, so I’d be interested to see what this looks like in 20 years.

    It’s also worth nothing that the money given by religious conservatives is probably being used 80% to convert people.

    However, I think the real reason is the same reason I am sometimes hesitant to give time or money (and the reason my roommate quit Americorps): it’s that we wanted to be taxed and see problems solved by professionals, through the government in a manner that best represents all of our will and solves problems most effectively. My roommate grew frustrated he was being used as an unqualified teacher because republicans wouldn’t fund schools properly and he felt as though he was only encouraging them. I’ve had similar sentimates.

  16. #16 George
    December 5, 2006

    PZ’s recommendation is going to have a tough time competing with this other ethics book on the Lulu all-time bestseller list:

    How to Become an Alpha Male by John Alexander

    Dubbed “The lazy man’s way to easy success with 20 or more women a month,” How to Become an Alpha Male is the no-risk, never-fail blueprint on how to ‘magnetically’ attract an endless flow of beautiful women to you… without ever having to play their games or deal with rejection.

    http://www.lulu.com/browse/top100.php?fResolution=ever

  17. #17 hoody
    December 5, 2006

    Meh.

    Desire utilitarianism holds that the primary object of moral evaluation are malleable desires – desires that can be influenced through social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. A morally good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires – one that others have reason to promote and encourage through the use of these social forces. A bad desire is one that tends to thwart other desires – one that others have reason to inhibit through the use of these social forces. A right action is the action that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong action is the action that a person with good desires would not perform.

    All he is doing is using basic learning theory to show how moral behavior is shaped. Which is well and good. He does nothing to show how those moral behavior b>originated, a major sticking point.

    As for Wintermute, Yeah, and people like Torqemada, Hitler, and Jack Chick can be held up as examples of Christian morality. God, this a tired argument. You cannot expect any religious system to create perfect human beings. . .and as for Hitler, as has been proven over and over, he was an apostate Catholic.

    But that’s OK. Being a Pharyngulite means never having to let facts get in the way of your faith in atheism and the idiocy of the “fundies”.

  18. #18 Dan S.
    December 5, 2006

    “An interesting statistic (via 3QuarksDaily) is that strongly religious people are more charitable (that is, they give a larger fraction of their income to charity). Conservative religious people are the most charitable, followed closely by liberal religious people. Secular liberals are a distant third. (The stingiest people are conservative nonbelievers.)”

    My guess is that one major factor, insofar that this is accurate and meaningful, involves religious institutions providing, well, an institutional framework. Hmm . . . ” The [2004 Generosity] Index shows that Southern and Midwestern states lead in giving, with these regions’ high generosity being attributed to the practice of church tithing.” [link.

    And this is interesting:

    ” Therefore, when it comes to donating to charity, “Americans are not one size fits all,” said Henry “Hank” Goldstein, chairman of Giving USA Foundation. In fact, he added, “there are marked differences that must be understood before assigning terms such as ‘generous’ or ‘stingy’ to residents of any particular state or region.”
    In the first-ever use of data that examined differences in participation rate and the average total amount contributed per household and the average
    amounts contributed for religious giving and for secular giving researchers discovered that “in some regions, religious giving predominates, in others,
    secular giving is higher,” said Gene Tempel, Ed.D., executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, the organization that researched
    and wrote the report for the Foundation. . .

    . . . Among the key findings for each of nine regions of the country, as defined
    by the U.S. Census Bureau:

    Region 1: Northeast (Conn., Mass., Maine, N.H., R.I., Vt.) Giving in these New England states, compared with national averages, is:
    — More widespread, shown by high participation rates, especially for secular causes.
    — Lower when measured as a percentage of income donated (1.3 percent compared with 2.0 percent nationally, when comparing all households) [food spending probably shows the same pattern – unfortunate in terms of charitable giving, certainly.]
    — Among donor households, lower, on average, in the amount given to religion
    — Among donor households, much higher, on average, in the amount given to secular causes. . . .”

  19. #19 wintermute
    December 5, 2006

    hoody:

    Yes, it’s a terribly tired argument, and a very bad one. And one I’d only dream of using to demonstrate that the equal vacuousness of the equivalent suggestion that Lenin, Trotsky, Mao and Pol Pot are exemplars of atheist morality. Did you know they all set up a cult of State as a religion, and Lenin and Pol Pot both made atheism a crime punishable, by death or life in the gulags?

    Of course you did. Still, there’s no reason to get upset about people demonising atheists, is there? I mean, clearly, they are are all baby-eating murderers, right?

  20. #20 Daryl McCullough
    December 5, 2006

    jeffk: Yes, I think you are right; many secular liberals do not believe that charity is the appropriate vehicle for helping the unfortunate.

  21. #21 JimC
    December 5, 2006

    and as for Hitler, as has been proven over and over, he was an apostate Catholic.

    It is a weak argument but it should be said he was and is still considered to be in good standing within the RCC. I don’t think you can even make a strong case for him being apostate. Not that it matters.

  22. #22 Dan S.
    December 5, 2006

    The charity vs. gov’t issue is mentioned in the 3Quarks link as well. (I happen to think certain kinds of charitable giving should have an important role – but I’m interested to know what exactly is being counted as charitable giving in such studies as mentioned there, ranking groups whether regional/ideological/religious/etc.)

  23. #23 GH
    December 5, 2006

    The Hitler ,pol pot, etc train of thought is silly as these pick a few who have done very terrible things. Religion is something that causes paper cuts daily and these cumulatively cause more harm than even the acts of the men above.

    And how on earth does Ohair get mentioned with Hitler? She may not have been liked but she wasn’t evil and didn’t hurt anyone.

  24. #24 hiero5ant
    December 5, 2006

    I’ve read most of it, and had several long exchanges with Alonzo Fyfe over at IIDB, and while I think secularists should be spending more time engaging in moral philosophy, I have to be brutally honest and say that his material is a complete waste of time.

    For starters, his “desire utilitarianism” is not original, but basically just a poorly digested rehash of preference consequentialism, which has been formulated elsewhere and more rigorously by others, like Peter Singer and R.M. Hare. I would recommend that atheists interested in consequentialism consult either of these authors, and/or return to the original works of Bentham and Mill.

    It would take too long to list everything that’s wrong with it, so I’ll just have to give the capsule view: Alonzo Fyfe thoroughly misunderstands and misrepresents skeptical challenges to moral realism; he equivocates on key technical terms; he repeatedly indulges in long, repetitive, and irrelevant jargon-laden tangents; he ridicules, at often tedious length, objections not made by anyone; and he makes no effort to anchor any of his views in empirical reality.

    By all observations he’s a swell guy to hang out with, and politically and morally I agree with him more often than I disagree. But when it comes to philosophy my honest assesment is that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s an engineer cracking a biology textbook and then blogging about it. There’s better moral philosophy for secularists out there.

  25. #25 Will E.
    December 5, 2006

    “He does nothing to show how those moral behavior b>originated, a major sticking point.”

    It may be a sticking point, but it is being investigated. I found Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue to be a concise and compelling book on the topic.

  26. #26 Pete
    December 5, 2006

    Agreed, the “Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin!” “Oh yeah? Well, Hitler, Torquemada, bin Laden!” argument is completely worthless and a waste of space..
    I suggest that in the future, to save space, we should adopt the convention that whenever someone wants to make Dorilon’s comment about the evil atheists, they should just write “1”, and then when someone wants to make wintermute’s rejoinder about the evil theists, they should write “2”. This can go in the reverse order too, of course. Then when someone wants to make a comment like mine (that this is a waste of space), they can just write “3”. This convention ought to make the arguing process much more efficient.

  27. #27 Richard Harris, FCD
    December 5, 2006

    “…argue that we cannot reliably find those answers in scripture, in subjective sentiment, or in evolved dispositions”.

    Like this author, I too have always had a desire, a need, to be ethical. I’m more concerned with being ethical than being charitable. The two are different, but seem to have been conflated by a comentator.

    But what worries me here is the apparent negation of the role of evolution in our ethical sense or dispositions. This must be wrong.

  28. #28 beepbeepitsme
    December 5, 2006

    Morality? Ethics? We all get them from the same places everyone else does. Natural selection and cultural conditioning.

  29. #29 TAW
    December 5, 2006

    http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html
    Study showing there is an inverse relationship between religiosity and the moral health of prosperous nations.

  30. #30 Daryl McCullough
    December 5, 2006

    TAW: I didn’t see any clear inverse relationship in the article’s charts. What I saw was that the United States (and Portugal, for some reason) was the outlier in almost everything (most religious, most abortions, most homicides, etc.)

  31. #31 Kevin Whitefoot
    December 5, 2006

    An interesting statistic (via 3QuarksDaily) is that strongly religious people are more charitable (that is, they give a larger fraction of their income to charity).

    Interesting it might be, but is it relevant? Also don’t you think that in the long run it might be more charitable to work to change the system so that fewer people are in need of charity than to devote one’s wealth to individual acts of charity?

  32. #32 Greg Peterson
    December 5, 2006

    My kneejerk reaction to the description of this book is that it sounds stupid and unnecessary, but of course I could be dead wrong. More importantly, in any case, is that I must vote wtih Rienk for…

    Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe
    Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 202pp, $20.99 (pbk), ISBN 0521607841.

    After reading this book (and it’s one in a string of similar books on godless morality and meaning that I read) my sense was that nothing more needed to be said. Not that more could NOT be said…there’s always something to add (and maybe “A Better Place” makes some of those additions), but Wielenberg has here provided a highly cogent foundation for secular morality and meaning that is perfectly satisfying. If “Better Place” contributes additional thoughts, so much the better, but I am convinced, after reading a half-dozen tomes on the subject, that “Value and Virtue” is a superlative place to start. (And no, I’m not on commission–this is just one of maybe a dozen specifically atheistic books that has really changed me over the years.)

  33. #33 Daryl McCullough
    December 5, 2006

    Kevin Whitefoot writes: Don’t you think that in the long run it might be more charitable to work to change the system so that fewer people are in need of charity than to devote one’s wealth to individual acts of charity?

    Personally, I think it’s important to do both. You should constantly be working to improve the world, but you should also realize that it might stubbornly resist your efforts. In the meanwhile, you can do what can to brighten a few lives, even if it doesn’t mean anything on the grand scale.

  34. #34 stogoe
    December 5, 2006

    Another thing to investigate is how much ‘religious charity’ is actually going towards the needy and how much is going to ‘Dove One’ equivalents?

  35. #35 Taylor Selseth
    December 5, 2006

    Sounds like an intersting , book. I’m a Utillitarian myself, though my views are more similar to JS Mill’s.

  36. #36 Nes
    December 5, 2006

    Though I don’t agree with all of it, Ebon’s “The Roots of Morality” series is an interesting read.

  37. #37 Nerull
    December 5, 2006

    So, which religion do other social animals follow?

    After all, they they weren’t so worried about going to hell, how could they possibly refrain from going on murderous rampages. They don’t all try to kill each other, and that couldn’t possibly be the product of evolution!

    Maybe there is a dolphin Jesus?

  38. #38 Nerull
    December 5, 2006

    The above was snark, if you couldn’t tell – the comment box ate my snark tag. 😉

    Also, s/they they/if they/

  39. #39 M31
    December 5, 2006

    ah, hell with it:

    4

  40. #40 Jason Powers
    December 5, 2006

    Thanks for posting this, PZ. I’m a fan of Fyfe’s work and since I wasn’t able to help him with the publication costs as I’d hoped I figured I’d ask around to see if people liked it.

    I figure Alonzo can defend himself from Heiro5ant here as ably as he has at IIDB. It wasn’t so long or difficult a book that you couldn’t have read all of it, and he spends enough time differentiating it from Singer’s work that it stands on its own.

    Let’s see if we can’t convince Singer himself to weigh in on it, hmm?

  41. #41 markmier
    December 5, 2006

    For the charity argument, I would be interested to see how atheists and Christians stack up if you exclude the Christians’ home church. You could likewise exclude the atheists’ … ummm… something, to make it even.

    I would bet that atheists would come out on top (though I have absolutely nothing to back this up). I would bet that most of Christians’ “giving” is to their own church, which they get some direct benefit from.

  42. #42 Alonzo Fyfe
    December 6, 2006

    Thank you, Mr. Myers, for mentioning my book. I greatly appreciate it.

    I wanted to respond to some of the comments that were mentioned here.

    Taylor Selseth:I’m a Utilitarian myself, though my views are more similar to JS Mill’s.

    Mill’s rule utilitarianism has a famous flaw – it collapses into act-utilitarianism.

    What do you do if faced with an act that violates a rule, but which will have better consequences? If you hold to a moral theory that ‘consequences are the only things that matter,” then there is no particular reason to follow the rule. You are told to violate the rule. If, on the other hand, your morality tells you to obey the rule, then ‘obeying the rule’ has to have value independent of consequences.

    Desire utilitarianism is a form of rule utilitarianism in that desires are rules written into the brain. Furthermore, those rules cannot be broken, so asking what we should do when an act provides more utility than following the rule is a nonstarter. Causal laws do not permit us the option of breaking the rules.

    I would like to note that I wrote a paper in graduate school where I looked at G.E. Moore’s three objections to Mill’s theory. If you read Mill as a desire-utilitarian, rather than a rule-utilitarian, then Mill avoids all three of Moore’s arguments. I discuss one of those arguments in the book (also in Chapter 2). Moore accused Mill of failing to distinguish between what ‘is desired’ and what ‘ought to be desired’. Desire utilitarianism handles this distinction by evaluating desires themselves according to the utility they produce, and picking what ‘ought to be desired’ out of what ‘is desired’ by picking desires that best promote utility.

    Hiero5ant For starters, his “desire utilitarianism” is not original, but basically just a poorly digested rehash of preference consequentialism, which has been formulated elsewhere and more rigorously by others, like Peter Singer and R.M. Hare.

    Try as I might, I have not been able to find such a ‘well formulated’ presentation of preference consequentialism that attempts to answer basic questions as, “What is a preference?” “What does it mean for a preference to be ‘satisfied’?” “Can we relate ‘preferences’ to other fields of study so as to put them on a firmer foundation?”

    Desire utilitarianism has questions to answers like this. A desire is a propositional attitude – namely, a disposition to make or keep true a proposition. A ‘desire that P’ for any proposition P is ‘fulfilled’ in any state of affairs where P is true. This relates to a theory in the philosophy of psychology called BDI theory. There is no theory in the philosophy of psychology grounded on ‘preferences’ as far as I know.

    Singer, in particular, seems to hold an intrinsic value version of preferences; this being, any creature that is capable of having preferences has intrinsic moral worth. Fetuses and infants have value according to their capacity to have desires, and are morally worth as much as any animal with a comparable capacity to have preferences. Also, on Singer’s model, it is wrong to show any preference for one’s own parents or children because other parents and children have an equal capacity for preferences.

    Desire utilitarianism denies the existence of any type of intrinsic value. Value consists of a relationship between states of affairs and desires – that’s all. Thus, if a person desires the well-being of their children more than the children of other parents, then the well-being of his children has more value to him. There is no sense in saying that there is an ‘intrinsic value property’ dictating that all children warrant equally strong desires for well-being on the part of parents.

    Hare’s theory does a better job with this. Hare’s idea of the Archangel and Prole are indeed very close to the claims that I make that say that actions are evaluated according to whether a person with good desires will perform them (the ‘Prole’ level under Hare), and desires are evaluated according to their utility – which is understood in terms of their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires (at the ‘Archangel’ level in Hare’s system).

    However, Hare had no concept of moral principles as desires. Nor did his theory have a theory of value in terms of desire fulfillment. Indeed, much of the work done in belief-desire-intention theory that I employ in desire utilitarianism was done after Hare died. Hare was a rule-utilitarianism, and his theory was still plagued to the standard objection to rule utilitarianism mentioned above.

    Rienck: [H]owever, another great book on this subject is on the list too and I recommend it to everyone . . .Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 202pp, $20.99 (pbk), ISBN 0521607841.

    Greg Peterson: Wielenberg has here provided a highly cogent foundation for secular morality and meaning that is perfectly satisfying.

    Wielenberg’s theory depends on moral properties being some sort of basic, unanalyzable property that he makes no effort to explain. He equates principles such that, “It is wrong to torture children for fun” to principles such as “no square is round.” However, “No square is round” is true for no reason other than the fact that we have (quite arbitrarily) defined the term ‘square’ to mean ‘not round’. Weilenberg ultimately tells us little to nothing about the nature of wrongness, how we recognize it. Mostly, he does not tell us how to correct for moral error or how to assess morally complex situations – or how slavery (for example) can go from being apparently permissible one century and unquestionably wrong the next.

    Desire utilitarianism makes no reference to strange properties that just float out there in the universe to be discovered. Desire utilitarianism requires malleable desires, states of affairs, and relationships between them (e.g., whether ‘P’ is both the object of a ‘desire that P’ and true in a state of affairs S). That’s it. There is no room for strange metaphysical entities.

    hoody: He does nothing to show how those moral behavior b>originated, a major sticking point.

    Actually, hoody, I have to ask how you know what I do and do not do?

    But, beside the point, the objection happens to be question-begging. It assumes that value is a thing, and object, which is one of the things that I deny. Value is a relationship (between desires and states of affairs or, in the case of morality, between malleable desires and other desires).

    Where did ‘closer to’ originate? Or ‘taller than’ or ‘faster than’? These phrases describe relationships as well, and it is difficult to speak of an origin of such things.

    As I said above, the theory that I defend requires:

    (1) Malleable desires (desires that can be affected by the environment – specifically, by praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment). We have that. This came about through evolution.

    (2) Possible and actual states of affairs. We have had these since the first day that the universe began.

    Once these two things exist, then the relationships between them exist. Once the relationships exist, then there are reasons for beings to promote those desires which tend to fulfill the desires of others and to inhibit desires that thwart the desires of others.

  43. #43 ConcernedJoe
    December 6, 2006

    Re: evolution of empathy. Sorry to talk way beyond my present credentials but in my humble opinion it arose as an offshoot of our need to process signals and cues from our hunting and gathering partners, and prey and predators. We see something and we “sub-consciously” start to form signals in our brain like we are doing the same thing. It helps us quickly understand what the other is doing and also its next moves. Minimizes the time-consuming “intellectualization” required.

    So – and I may be way over my head here – but it seems to me that empathy did not arise from social need – as in “makes you a better parent” … at least not directly … but arose from the need to quickly assess situations and anticipate actions of prey and predators, etc.. The brain acts like it is doing what the other is doing to survive…. that power evolves (expands) into helping with more benign things.

    You all who know more than me – blast away. I offer my “layman’s” view humbly, and clumsily I’m sure. Hope you get my gist.

  44. #44 Azkyroth
    December 6, 2006

    John B and ConcernedJoe: those are interesting hypotheses, and I would look forward to seeing them explored.

    Alonzo: Congratulations on responding to what certainly lends itself to being perceived as somewhat gratuitously abrasive criticism in such a professional and mature fashion.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.