Letter 2 to faithlessgod

November 11, 2009

faithlessgod has posted a second letter in our ongoing discussion on desirism.

First, as I alluded to in the comments area of his blog, I wholeheartedly endorse his position that honest and constructive debate is the only way to go.  In my opinion, there is a high heat-to-light ratio on the blogosphere, and I am determined to do my small part to change this.  It sounds like faithlessgod is committed to this as well.

In his most recent letter, faithlessgod takes time to correct my misunderstandings of some desirist concepts.  Specifically:

  • Desires are good if they tend to fulfill other desires, not if they promote the fulfillment of other desires.  I will incorporate the correction.
  • We need to calrify what it is that I called the “root” of morality for the desirist.  It is not really “what kind of desires should I have”.  Rather, the root of morality is to determine what is praiseworthy and blameworthy.  I will incorporate the correction.  I was trying to emphasize what the desirist might consistently and most commonly ask himself in everyday situation.  Perhaps my phrasing did not make this clear.

Thanks to faithlessgod for these corrections!  Now onto the discussion regarding my three objections:

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

faithlessgod comments:

Nothing in Reid’s response makes it clear that he accepts that he is not talking about morality at all here…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.

faithlessgod has failed to point out that this type of objection is always solved by trade.  I provided the example of two people burning each other’s house down (ceteris paribus), acts which seem to very clearly carry a moral component.

Unless the desirist is indifferent as to whether or not overall desire fulfillment increases (and I don’t see how he could be, afterall why commit yourself to developing desires that tend to fulfill other desires unless you want to see the most that you can fulfilled), then it seems like the act stated in my objection can indeed be labeled “good” and “bad”.  For in both instances, overall desire fulfillment will increase.

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

From faithlessgod:

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.

Very simply, given the premises of desirism, one cannot reason towards an obligation to do what desirism labels “good”.  Indeed, faithlessgod has not attempted to do this.  Rather, he states that desirism employs social forces to create an obligation.

But of course this is inadequate.  For suppose social forces were such that they obligated us to develop desires that tend to thwart other desires.  The desirist would protest that this is a bad form of government or other social institution.  But so what?  If the desirist claims that only social forces are what obligate us to do anything, then it must follow that we are obligated to develop those bad, ie thwarting, desires.  Put it another way: how can the desirist show that we wouldn’t be obligated to develop thwarting desires?  On faithlessgod’s explication, he cannot.

3. Third Objection: Given the inputs to decision-making, it is possible for DU to define any act as “good”.

faithlessgod is mystified by how it is that the other desires (those which we are attempting to fulfill, and not thwart) change.  But certainly this concept should be very easy to accept.  After all, the ability for desires to change is a fundamental tenet of desirism.  Maybe they change by persuasion, brainwashing, death by way of war, or something else.  There are many possibilities.  So I assume it is no problem understanding that desires can change (individually, amongst a group, amongst an entire population, whatever).

More importantly, faithlessgod brushes off this objection by saying that it is irrelevant to desirism.  Rather, it is an objection to “act utilitarianism”.  In response, I will attempt to be even more direct.  First, quoting faithlessgod from his most recent letter:

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.

Secondly, recall my previous letter where I supposed that the desire to exterminate the Jews tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts.  This is a plausible scenario, given the proper composition of desires overall (see my first paragraph above for how this can be done).  Contrary to faithlessgod’s assertion, the evaluation of all other desires that contributed to acts that resulted in just this particular composition of desires is indeed a red herring.  The point is, what does the desirist say of this desire given the set of hypothetical data?

Our syllogism is as follows:
1.  Good desires are those that overall tend to fulfill more than thwart all other desires.
2.  The desire to exterminate the Jews overall tends to fulfill more than thwart all other desires.
3.  The desire to exterminate the Jews is a good desire.

This example applies to anything we intuitively sense as right or wrong.  Hopefully I have cleared up whatever misunderstandings may have existed that caused faithlessgod to think I was erecting a straw man.



  1. My third letter is here

  2. I think this was a great response. I've not read faithlessgod's third letter yet, but I don't see that he sufficiently met your objections. In fact, I think his reluctance to do so actually caused you to strengthen your objections. I completely understand where you're coming from in your objections. I offer my support because I know how frustrating it is to have somebody simply assert that one misunderstands something when in fact they do not.

  3. Thanks cl. I closed down the discussion at this point because it didn't seem like faithlessgod was engaging the objections.

  4. I agree. It seems to me he just looks for the quickest thing he can find that doesn't really address the objections he's been given.Case in point – I asked for criticism on my understanding of desirism and he responds with a detailed list of what he thinks I need to do to establish the veracity of DCT.Or, bickering over the word 'useful' as it appears in my post, when none of my objections to desirism are predicated upon a definition of 'useful' that differs from Fyfe.It's weird: I can tell by reading his blog that's he's certainly intelligent and articulate enough to understand nuance, and I believe he's qualified to claim that he understands desirism, but at the same time, not without plenty of clunky or hard-to-decipher sentences that make engaging with him a burden.Anyways, more about this later..

  5. Sorry if any of that seemed brash; it's just frustrating.

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