Atheist: Definition of Morality and Desirism

| by Luke Muehlhauser

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

One of the practical uses of desirism is that it can be used to better pin down a number of evaluative concepts - not just moral concepts. I showed this in my last post by using the theory to assess 'health' and 'well-being'.

I had this question from a member of the studio audience.

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I’ll restate my main quandary more succinctly: Is there a real meter prescribing which desires are the desires “in question” for deciding moral issues, or is this measure of relevance subjective?

The answer is: Neither.

There is no real measure prescribing which desires are the desires in question for deciding moral issues.

And an unreal measure - a 'subjective' measure in the sense in which the term is used above, is nothing more than a game of "let's pretend". A 'subjective' measure involves taking a measure and pretending that it is objective, while admitting that it is not.

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I wish to provide a better answer to that question by going through a different concern also raised to that earlier post.


A reader presented three different ways in which an apple may be evaluated.

Alice: “That’s a good apple! Very tasty.”

Bob: “It might be tasty, but it’s been sprayed with chemicals that are bad for your health. Therefore, that’s a bad apple.”

Charlie: “Well a starving child in Africa wouldn’t care about that sort of thing, just that they have something to eat, so apples made with pesticides are still a good thing.”

This reader then made the observation:

So, we have three different opinions regarding whether the apple is good or not.

No, we do not have three different opinions regarding whether the apple is good or not.

I have noted that value is a relationship between states of affairs and desires. To explain this, I have drawn a comparison between value and another relational property - location.

You cannot give me the location of any object except by referring to another object.

If I were to tell you where I am as I write this, I cannot give that information without describing my location relative to some other thing. Furthermore, there is no "real measure" dictating the use of any particular reference. I could say, "I am on the bus," or "I am five miles away from home, or "I am on Earth." No "real measure" dictates the use of any of these things.

Yet, this fact does not threaten in any way the use of location statements in the hardest of sciences. The location of the Earth in the solar system cannot be given except in terms of a reference to some other thing. The fact that we talk most often about the location of the earth relative to the sun only happens because this is the relationship that interests us. There is no "real measure" that dictates that this is the "right answer" to the question of where the Earth is. Yet, this fact is not the slightest threat to the field of planetary science.

So, if we were to ask where the apples are, we might get three different answers.

Alice: "The apples are in my backpack".

Bob: "The apples are on the back seat of my car."

Charlie: "The apples are still in Denver."

However, to then claim, We have three different opinions regarding where the apples are is false. In fact, one person can hold all three "opinions" without contradiction. The apples are, at the same time, in the backpack, on the back seat of Bob's car, which is in Denver.

There is no problem here until somebody comes along and says that we must pick one of these as the correct relationship, and asks if there is a "real measure" dictating that the only correct location statement describes location relative to Bob's car, and all others must be discarded as somehow illegitimate.

The problem rests with the false assumption being made by the person who asks this question that we must pick an answer as "the right" answer. The only way we can do this is by playing a game of make-believe. We make-believe that one answer is the right answer and we make-believe we have a standard for choosing it. However, since we are starting with a false premise - an act of make-believe, we cannot draw any sound conclusions.

The counter-charge to this would be that desirism picks relationships between malleable desires and all other desires as the right answer to moral questions. The person raising the objection simply wants to point out that there can be no "real measure" dictating this right answer - that the measure can only be subjective.

My response to that is to deny that attaching the term 'moral' in this way implies that these relationships are the correct relationships. I am simply attaching a name to a particular relationship, and I am choosing this term as the name to apply because it captures the bulk of how moral terms are used.

We native-english speakers have invented a number of terms, each of which is used to refer to set of relationships between states of affairs and desires that interest us. According to desirism, there are four criteria that can be used to distinguish among different terms.

(1) What are the objects of evaluation that are relevant in the evaluation?

(2) What are the "desires in question" for making that evaluation?

(3) Does the object of evaluation fulfill or thwart those desires?

(4) Does the object of evaluation fulfill or thwart those desires directly or indirectly?

I used this standard in discussing health, injury, and illness in my last posting. Health is a value-laden term. The object of evaluation for this term is the functioning of the mind (brain) and body. The desires in question are those of the agent whose mind or body we are evaluating. "Healthy" refers to functionings that fulfill desires, while "injury" and "illness" refer to functionings that thwart desires. Both direct and indirect relationships are relevant. A person can have a direct aversion to how a certain part of the body is functioning (pain), or it could thwart desires indirectly such as paralysis or blindness.

There is no "real measure" dictating that the term "health", "injury" or "illness" refer to these relationships. Instead, as it turns out, we have an interest in talking about these relationships and this is the name we have given to them. Furthermore, I am not claiming that people have a conscious awareness that this is what these terms mean. I am claiming that this relationship best captures the way native English speakers tend to use these terms without appealing to fictitious entities.

I find it interesting to note that the difference between an "injury" and an "illness" is that the former is a bodily malfunction caused by factors easy for a primitive human to see and understand (e.g., being trampled by a mastodon), while the latter refers to malfunctions with no discernable cause (malaria, cancer).

I can give the same account of other value-laden terms, such as the term "useful."

There is no limit to the objects or states of affairs that this term can be applied to. The "desires in question" in this case can vary. We usually have to pick up which desires are relevant by looking at the context in which the term 'useful' was used. "Useful" things are things that tend to fulfill other desires. Furthermore, useful things must fulfill those desires indirectly. Something that is useful can still fulfill desires directly, but that has no relevance to its usefulness.

Once again there is no "real measure" dictating that the term "useful" must necessarily refer to indirect desire-fulfillment. It is simply the case that our interest in this type of relationship was enough for us to give it a name, and we named it "usefulness".

Another relationship that we have named is "beautiful". This term refers to objects of evaluation that are seen or heard - but not to those that there touched, smelled, or tasted. It relates the object of evaluation to the desires of the perceiver and says that the object of evaluation directly fulfills the desires of the perceiver. This is not to say that a beautiful thing cannot be useful (an indirect fulfiller of desires), but it is not in virtue of its usefulness that it is beautiful.

Why limit the term "beautiful" only to that which is seen and heard? I cannot give a "real measure" that dictates this usage. All I can say is that the real-world relationship that best captures how the term 'beautiful' is used in fact is the direct fulfillment of desire by that which is seen or heard.

Finally, the same thing is true of "moral" in its various forms. The real-world relationship that makes the most sense of how the term is used one in which (1) the objects of evaluation are malleable desires - desires that can be molded through social forces, (2) the desires that are relevant in the evaluation are all desires, (3) that positive moral terms are to be applied to malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires while negative terms apply to malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires, and (4) both the direct and indirect fulfillment of other desires is relevant in the evaluation of malleable desires.

In making this claim, I am not saying that this is the correct relationship and that all other relationships that exist are incorrect relationship. That would be no more true than saying that Alice's claim, "The apples are in my backpack" is the correct description of where the apples are and Bob's and Charlie's statements are incorrect.

I am saying that there are a whole lot of these relationships that exist in nature - that exist in the real world and can be studied - and we already seem to have names for some of them. Here's a relationship that we seem to be calling "injury", there is one that we seem to be calling "useful", and over here we have a relationship that has an extremely close match with what we have traditionally called "a virtue".

It is no different than saying, in chemistry, "This six-proton atom seems to fit what we have been calling carbon, that sixteen-proton atom fits pretty well with what traditional English speakers have been calling sulphur, and this substance H2O has a close fit to the traditional word water."

I am not saying that, from the beginning of time, people who have used the term carbon have had the conscious thought that, "That is a 6-proton atom." I am saying that if we look at lumps of six-proton atoms, we find that we have lumps of what people have traditionally called "carbon" . . . well, except that now that we know about 6-proton atoms we also now know that they make up what people have traditionally called "diamond."

And, yes, we could have just as easily called the sixth element on the periodic table "diamond" instead of "carbon" and not changed a single fact about the world. The fact that there is no "real measure" dictating that 6-proton atoms be called "carbon" and that the choice to call it "carbon" rather than "diamond" is subjective has no relevance to the objectivity of chemistry.

So, back to the original question. Is there a "real measure" for selecting relationships between malleable desires and all other desires as "the correct relationships" between states of affairs and desires, or is this measure subjective?

The answer is: Neither. What I am saying is that if you look at the relationships between states of affairs and desires that we see in nature, some of them already appear to have names. Some are called "health", others are called "useful" and relationships between malleable desires and all other desires seem to fit the traditional uses of moral terms. If you do not like giving those relationships these names, that is fine. Calling them something different will not change what they are. That will have as little effect on the theory as renaming 6-proton atoms would have to the field of chemistry.

- Alonzo Fyfe