Open Response To Alonzo Fyfe

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In Luke’s post Morally Permissible Slavery, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist has implied moral defects in my character, here. The backstory: commenter antiplastic said this to Luke Muehlhauser, who replied not by addressing antiplastic’s objection, but by attempting to cast doubt on the sincerity of both antiplastic and myself to understand the theory. IOW, Luke chose to make it personal instead of keeping it professional. Then, Alonzo chimed in, lambasting antiplastic with what were in my opinion uncalled-for accusations about antiplastic’s character. Then, of course, when I came to antiplastic’s defense, Alonzo turned him judgment towards me.

My response follows, written to Alonzo.

You wrote,

If you want to make a meaningful contributions (which I doubt), identify a proposition held true by desirism and demonstrate that the proposition is false.

I have, on more than on occasion. For example, the proposition that “a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires” is false. Others have agreed, and, you eschew them. By “them” I mean people like Thomas Reid, Cartesian, and TaiChi – who said he was “sympathetic to Cartestian’s example” [although I acknowledge that was some time ago and one or more of them may have changed their positions since].

Your two most recent responses do fit the technical definition of an ad hominem fallacy. You would rather talk about Luke and myself than about the theory.

Actually, I’d much rather talk about the theory. I tire of you, Luke, Kip and people like faithlessgod making false accusations of everything from “not listening” to “cl is obviously a racist” against whomever isn’t sold on your theory. Look over the thread, Alonzo. Luke’s the one that had to open his mouth and start talking about people as opposed to the theory. Besides, you’re apparently redefining the ad hominem fallacy to suit your own liking. The ad hominem fallacy occurs when we reject premise X on behalf of something objectionable about person Y. In fact, you defined it as, “…an invalid inference of the form, You are a bad person; therefore, your conclusion can be rejected.

Did I say that you are a bad person, therefore, your conclusion is wrong? No. Did I even say you were a bad person? No. I don’t even know you. Not once in the thread have I used things I find objectionable about you or Luke to support a conclusion that anything you say is false. So, you’re simply mistaken to accuse me of the ad hominem fallacy, and you’re equivocating on the definition you just supplied.

This whole “Good desires tend to fulfill other desires” is a bit silly IMHO. The truth of that claim assumes that the “other desires” are good. [cl]

Would you care to demonstrate that this assumption is required? I don’t see it. [Alonzo]

Like I said, myself – and others – have tried, several times, and you either flat-out ignore the attempts or give the arguments short thrift.

It all depends on the pre-existing balance of desires. If the pre-existing balance of desires is one of predominantly “bad” desires, then, a desire that tends to fulfill other desires would actually be a “bad” desire. Or, in the other direction, if the pre-existing balance of desires is one of predominantly “bad” desires, then, a “good” desire will be one that tends to thwart other desires. There’s a corollary in the old saying that in times of corruption, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. If the majority is bad, the person who thwarts their desires by doing what is right is good.

The problem – as I have explained time and time before – is that Alonzo’s judgment assumes all people have the same values. [cl]

False. Episode 3 of the podcast provides a clear example of agents who do not have the same values. [Alonzo]

I wasn’t talking about Episode 3. You’re response to my objection is out-of-scope. I was talking about your claim in your essay Irrational Desires that “smoking is an irrational desire.” As stated, that judgment assumes that everyone has desires which smoking would thwart. That’s not true. It’s an overgeneralization on behalf of the majority. In The Value of Desire Fulfillment, you yourself write that, “For an agent with a desire that P, states of affairs in which P is true have value.” In Irrational Desires, you define an irrational desire as “a desire that tends to thwart other desires of the agent.” Therefore, for an agent without the desire for health or long life, smoking is not an irrational desire. My conclusion is 100% valid and uses terms exactly as you yourself have defined them.

I have written a number of essays on the harmony of desires that argue that there are cases in which desires are thwarted when people acquire the same values and that people are better off with different (harmonious) desires.

That’s irrelevant to my arguments at hand, and not currently under dispute. That you included it demonstrates that you’re responding to my objection in a general scope, instead of the specific scope of the smoking example.

Some people really don’t care whether they live or die. Some people want to die young. Who is Fyfe to judge smoking as an irrational desire for them? [cl]

I sincerely doubt that your premises are true. But, even if true, it provides no criticism of desirism. [Alonzo]

It is undeniable that agents with a desire to commit suicide exist, so, my premises are true. As for whether my argument provides criticism of desirism, it wasn’t intended to. It was intended to demonstrate that your claim “smoking is an irrational desire” is an overgeneralization – and that’s true – as you essentially concede here:

It would follow precisely on the lines of whether the desire to smoke does or not conflict with other desires (including future desires). The only reasons that exist for an agent to have or to avoid a desire to smoke are his other (including future) desires.

Yes, exactly, that’s what I just said a few sentences prior. There you go. You’re now agreeing with me. From there, can you now admit that your statement “smoking is an irrational desire” was in need of emendation? If not, I suspect it’s because you think “including future desires” somehow saves your case. If so, I can reply one of several ways. I can reply that since future desires are unknown to the agent at the time of the decision to smoke, there is no way the agent can know that the desire to smoke would thwart their future desires, and if there is no way the agent can know the desire to smoke would thwart their future desires, then there is no basis on which you can judge their desire as irrational.

In your introductory article – which comes up fairly quickly for Google searches on your theory – you say we are to maximize desire fulfillment. Then, a few years later, on your blog, you say it doesn’t. Should I conclude from the fact that you haven’t made the necessary emendations to your website that you lack the desire for other people to understand your theory as clearly as possible? [cl]

You will make that assumption. That’s the kind of person you are. The assumptions yo u make tell us a lot about the type of person you are. It reveals a lot about your moral character. [Alonzo]

I was asking the question rhetorically, because you were drawing inferences about antiplastic’s character on the basis of nothing other than antiplastic’s comment. In reality, you don’t have enough information about antiplastic to judge antiplastic’s character thus. Similarly, I don’t have enough information about you to judge your character thus. That’s precisely why I wouldn’t make the assumption that your moral character is defective: disagree with you as I may, I’m still going to treat you as a professional and give you the benefit of the doubt. The spirit of my comment was, “I’m not going to focus on what I perceive to be inconsistent aspects of Alonzo’s arguments to draw inferences about Alonzo, the man.” In other words, you shouldn’t be doing that to us.

Yet, that’s exactly what you did. I believe it’s unprofessional and I believe you ought to be condemned for that. You imply moral defects on my behalf when you don’t know the first thing about me. You implied that antiplastic lacked the desire to understand. Yet, I could just as easily focus on the fact that you allow contradictory statements to persist in your arguments to arrive at the same invalid conclusion. Get it now? I hope so, because you have no right to call yourself an “ethicist” while you sit there and jump to conclusions about people’s moral character on the basis of blog comments.

The fact is, I haven’t visited [my own website] in 3 years and I don’t remember the passwords I used to set it up or to make changes.

The fact is, that you can’t keep track of your own personal information is your own problem, and that doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility to promote maximum clarity in your arguments. The fact is, you could at least have written on your blog – which you obviously have the password for – that your position as of six months ago is in direct opposition to your position as stated in your introductory article on your own website – which isn’t even dated. You could have at least provided your readers with that much, but, you didn’t. Is it really any wonder why people get confused?

If anything I have said in the past contradicts the podcast, the correct conclusion to draw would be that I have changed my mind.

Oh, I assure you, there’s no “if” about it:

We are seeking to maximize desire fulfillment over desire thwarting. [Alonzo Fyfe, Desire Utilitarianism, section VII, no date provided]

Desirism does not talk about maximizing some entity called ‘desire fulfillment’. It talks about making or keeping true those propositions that are the objects of our desires. [Alonzo Fyfe, The Value of Desire Fulfillment, May 19 2010]

Now, imagine somebody who had just heard about your theory and wants to check it out to see what it’s all about. They Google “Alonzo Fyfe Desire Utilitarianism” and the first two links point directly to your essay Desire Utilitarianism – which isn’t even dated! They read that first, and come to understand your theory as one that says exactly what you said it says – that we are seeking to maximize desire fulfillment. Of course, such a person would not have read your blog yet, but even if they did read your blog – which doesn’t even have an index or a single page that outlines the basics of your theory – how, for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, would you expect them to know that you’ve actually changed your position? I mean, if you don’t want people to understand as best as possible, that’s one thing, but if you do, well… help ’em out a little.

I have, in fact, made some substantive changes in the theory over the years when people have brought up sound objections. I expect to make more changes in the future.

That’s fine, even commendable. I take that as a sign of intellectual pliability. I’m not criticizing you for changing your mind. I’m criticizing you for changing your mind and not cleaning up after yourself. I’m criticizing you for changing your mind and not syncing your own writings, and then having the audacity to blame others for misunderstanding the mess you made. It’s nothing personal. It’s entirely professional and has to do with courtesy to your readers.

As I said at the top, if you want to make a meaningful contributions (which I doubt), identify a proposition held true by desirism and demonstrate that the proposition is false.

As I said at the top, I have, and so have others. The ball’s in your court.

…Fyfe continues to claim that he uses moral terms in “substantially the same way they’ve been used,” which is false. Personally, I think he should just admit that desirism isn’t even a fake Rolex, but a different type of wristwatch entirely. Then we could sidestep all the semantics. [cl]

This is not a proposition held true by desirism (though I think it is a true statement about desirism), but, whether true or false, it’s not important. [Alonzo]

Well, I suppose whether or not “it’s important” depends on what we value, doesn’t it? I would say that it’s important for the person who values clarity. I would say it’s important for the person with a desire to avoid what you call The Great Distraction. You yourself lament the obfuscatory semantic debates that ensue over your own theory, yet, you yourself have the power to put an end to it by simply taking a step back and saying right up front – as Yair and many, many others have suggested – that desirism doesn’t use moral terms in the same way other moral theories do.

At least then people would know what they’re getting into, but, do what thou wilt.

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