From The Recycle Bin

Posted in Desirism, Recycle Bin on  | 8 minutes | 3 Comments →

So I have all these snippets of comments and posts that never made the cut for one reason or another, and instead of just delete them, I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate them into the blog. Thus, TWIM’s new Recycle Bin category.

Atheists And Lying Snakes

First up, we have this interesting exchange from an argument between Vox and I. In his post The Dishonest Atheist, Vox made the following normative claim (in the context of a certain atheist commenter, Cabal):

…one always has to assume, until it is demonstrated otherwise, that an atheist is a lying snake who will deceitfully redefine the language to suit his arguments at need.

I took Vox to task for this and incurred the wrath of his ilk, big-time. Once Spacebunny got involved, she made a comment that I find quite interesting in that it seems to support my objection to Vox’s claim:

You’re completely wrong. If you have been around here as long as you claim, you would know that there are several atheist commenters here who do not fit Cabal’s mold, but he regularly pulls this kind of crap so it was totally warranted.

Now that’s interesting. If there are “several” atheist commenters who don’t fit Cabal’s mold, then aren’t I correct? That is, if several atheist commenters don’t fit the “lying snakes” mold, then isn’t that good reason to challenge Vox’s normative claim “one should always assume an atheist is a lying snake?”

God’s Goodness And Suffering

Last month at Victor Reppert’s place, grodrigues left the following comment at May 19, 2012 9:04 AM (you’ll have to scroll yourself if you wish to read it, because Vic’s blog doesn’t have permalinks to individual comments). A commenter named Walter wrote:

…it seems that classical theists defeat the POE by claiming that God is not omnibenevolent in the sense that he would or should create worlds that are all hugs and kisses. It suggests that God’s goodness is significantly *different* from human notions of goodness—since a good person would attempt to eliminate as much pain and suffering as possible in animals as well as fellow humans. The God of CT has no such desire.

I believe grodrigues successfully addressed Walter’s remark, but I’d like to add a few things.

First, God’s standards of goodness can’t be identical to human notions. After all, God is omniscient, not only that, but purportedly omnijust as well. Therefore, it makes sense that an omnijust being would be more concerned with the permanent removal of sin—the root cause of evil—than the temporal removal of evil that sin causes. Now, this isn’t to say God has no interest in alleviating suffering, for Scripture both confirms and commands believers thus. The former is the cause, the latter an effect. What competent physician focuses primarily on symptoms?

Second, if this is the standard of “good person” on offer—one who would attempt to eliminate as much pain and suffering as possible in animals as well as fellow humans—then why do we all knowingly fall short of it? None of us—and by “none” I’m going with an intuitively derived figure of < .005%—meet that standard. Most of us prioritize our careers, families and individualistic little lives above all else. Every keystroke on our blogs is time that could’ve been spent alleviating suffering, right? For most of us, charity and alleviating suffering is something that comes after making a living and fulfilling personal desires. So how does the atheist who espouses this standard account for the tension between it and their own priorities? To me, this suggests that there is something more to “goodness” than eliminating as much suffering and pain as possible.

The Desirism Tango

Unfortunately I didn’t grab the link to the original conversation, but I’m pretty sure it occurred at CSA just before going defunct. I was conversing with a commenter who went by PDH, who said:

When it comes to actually influencing desires, we obviously have to use actions but desires are what make us act. We can use desires to evaluate other desires.

Why are desires the objects of evaluation in desirism? Desires cannot thwart or fulfill other desires, only acts can do that. So why should we heap condemnation on somebody for desire X if desire X is harmless unless acted upon? You might be tempted to say, “Well, desires lead to acts. A person with a desire is more likely to act on it than a person who doesn’t even have that desire.” I agree, but when might desire-condemnation become an infraction on one’s liberty to think freely? Should we really be condemning people who desire to do bad things but refrain from actually doing them?

I think everyone – including Fyfe – would like more work with regards to empirically testing these claims to be done but note that this is complaint that could apply to very many other moral theories.

I question the extent to which Fyfe desires empirical testing of his claims. It seems to me that if Fyfe had the desire to promote an empirical study, he would act according to that desire. After all, that’s desirism, right? People tend to act such as to realize their strongest desires. So, it seems safe to say Fyfe doesn’t have the desire to either A) present empirically-derived normative claims, or B) provide empirical evidence for the normative claims he does make. Hell, I even tried my own hand at two methods here and here, and hardly anybody even commented on it. I didn’t see much interest from any desirist in actually running those calculations, nor did any seem concerned with critiquing the methods.

Claims about what desires are and how they work can be tested, for example, and Fyfe, for one, considers the possibility that desires might not exist to be one of the biggest challenges to the theory.

In my opinion, “desires might not exist” is a faux objection hinging entirely on semantics. It is undeniable that conglomerations of matter we call “people” exist, it is undeniable that their brain states exist, and it is undeniable that people act such as to realize certain states of affairs according to their desires. That right there is sufficient to at least perfunctorily quantify desirism, so the question remains: If reliable empirical calculations cannot be conducted, what makes desirism any better than the folk moralities it claims superiority to?

What are your problems with [Fyfe’s] responses to the 1000 sadist problem?

Why don’t we turn the victim’s dial down, since that would be easier and require less resources? In Cartesian’s Nazi example, ‘up’ in strength and prevalence means more desires are being fulfilled, not thwarted, because the Jews are the minority. Now, Fyfe is correct to say that if we turn the desire to torture all the way down to zero, we won’t have any Jew’s desires being thwarted, and we won’t have any torturers desires being thwarted, but that doesn’t mean the desire to torture is “bad” because we could do the same thing in the other direction—with any desire—and it would often be much more pragmatic to do so. Why don’t we turn down the Jews’ aversion to torture? I suspect Fyfe avoids that route because he intuitively understands that only a principle of intrinsic value such as “sanctity of life” could sustain it. Remember, desirism is incompatible with intrinsic values.

The desire to torture thwarts the desires of the Jews, it is therefore inferior to the desire to spare them the torture.

It is true that the Nazis’ desire to torture thwarts the desires of the Jews, but desirism claims that good desires tend to fulfill other desires. Well, the Jews’ desire to escape torture thwarts the more and stronger desires of the Nazis. On the other hand, the desire to torture fulfills the entire hierarchy of Nazi desires. You’re intuitively reverting to this “protect the Jews” attitude, even though desirism seems to call against it.

Of Matter And Metaphysics

We discovered gravity, and the response was “Wow, that’s amazing, what else is out there?” We discovered QM, and the response was “Wow, that’s amazing, what else is out there?” Take the “mysterious dark energy” described in this article as an example. If scientists “discover” what dark energy “really is,” are they going to say, “Wow, that’s amazing, what else is out there?” What if there is nothing else “physical” or “natural” out there? Granted, scientists are committed by their metaphysical naturalism to the idea that With regard to matter and metaphysics, when will scientists stop assuming that every material phenomenon has a material cause? What if an immaterial Creator actually upholds the material creation? If that were the case, I would expect to find a sort of “physical limit” to the universe. By “physical limit” I mean a state of refinement or physical reduction that permits of no further refinement or reduction. The problem is, we can never be sure we’ve attained this state. Some people thought atoms were the physical limit. The truth of such a conclusion can only be assumed. There might be problems to which no epistemology can avail, and I think that scares some people.


  1. Why don’t we turn down the Jews’ aversion to torture? I suspect Fyfe avoids that route because he intuitively understands that only a principle of intrinsic value such as “sanctity of life” could sustain it. Remember, desirism is incompatible with intrinsic values.

    Couldn’t he say that an aversion to torture is an immutable desire?

  2. cl


    I suppose he could, but sadomasichism seems to suggest otherwise. I’ve tried for a while to think of a truly immutable desire. It might be weird to us, but it seems some people really do want to die. Also, if we truly had “immutable” desires, that would come pretty close to conceding something roughly describable as “intrinsic value,” don’t you think? In the sense that physical autonomy and ease has intrinsic value to all agents?

  3. Admittedly I haven’t read Fyfe for quite some time, but I believe by denying the existence of intrinsic value he is trying to deny any non-physical moral entities exist. I know he mentioned the existence of immutable desires, though I don’t recall if he gave any examples.

    I suppose, by definition, if you like sadomasochism then it isn’t torture. Off the top of my head, I too cannot think of a truly immutable desire (or at least one that would hold for every human being). And even if there are desires that we can’t change through normal mental means perhaps the desirist could propose physically altering our brain/body to change our desires. My enthusiasm for desirism has waned quite a bit. It caught my interest at first but it never quite makes it over the finish line. You end up with an infinite regress of “knob-turning”.

    I haven’t delved into the subject much, but natural law morality seems to make answering moral questions far easier than most of the “scientific” attempts at morality by atheists. Chopping off someone’s hand, say, isn’t wrong merely because it thwarts his desires. It is wrong because it permanently prevents a person from fulfilling his nature as a human being. Even if the person wanted you to cut off his hand it would still be wrong for the same reason (barring some complication such as a disease). We all have good knowledge of human nature and so we don’t need elaborate moral calculus to act ethically.

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