Benny Labamba

Morality in the Real World 05: Questions and Answers #1

In episode 05 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I answer questions from our listeners about episodes 01 through 04.

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Transcript of episode 05:

They are approaching the microphone now. Here’s Alonzo.

ALONZO: Hello. Thank you all for coming.

Before we start taking questions, I have a brief statement I’d like to make.

In terms of marketing desirism, it probably wasn’t the wisest step that Luke and I could make to tie desirism to atheism. There is no doubt that we live in a highly prejudiced society where linking anything to atheism is guaranteed to cause a lot of people to close their minds to those ideas immediately, and to find twisted and distorted interpretations that are easy to attack.

And it wasn’t necessary. There is nothing strictly incoherent if somebody believes that there is a God that created the universe, and God created a universe in which the claims that are made by desirism are true. Desirism is not built on the assumption that no God exists, though it is certainly compatible with that view.

For my part, I link atheism and desirism precisely because of this prejudice. One way to fight widespread bigotry that relates atheism to immorality is by explicitly talking about atheism and morality.

I don’t know if Luke has anything to add to that…

LUKE: Nope! But let me just say that if you left a question on one of the earlier episodes and we don’t answer it here, it’s probably because we already have another episode planned in the future where we’re going to address those issues. But anyway, let’s look at the first question.

ALONZO: Our first comment was posted on the web page for episode 3. A reader going by the name Yair said this podcast is “all well and good, but man is this way of presentation slow.”

Do you care to comment on that?

LUKE: Sure. We’re doing something that hasn’t been done before with desirism, which is to present the theory systematically. Alonzo has presented a lot of pieces of the theory in his blog and other writings, but we haven’t seen what the theory looks like from the ground up. So, that’s what we’re doing.

ALONZO: Besides, I have learned from experience that it’s no faster to take shortcuts. If you take shortcuts by leaving something out, somebody will ask questions about the gap, and somebody else will think you had some evil and underhanded reason for glossing over whatever was cut. So, I think it is better to be thorough. Though, to be honest, we are still not being as thorough as we could be – not yet.

ALONZO: Our second question also comes from the comments to episode 3. Just to refresh your memory, that episode concerned two aliens, Alph and Betty on a distant planet. Reginald Selkirk remarked, quote:

How ironic: a post entitled “Morality in the Real World” is a science fiction piece about two people on a fictional planet.

LUKE: Alonzo, you and I talked about this before recording the episode.

ALONZO: That’s right. Let me tell you a bit of a story which ties in to my thinking on this issue. When I first started college, I was a physics major. I wanted to be an astronomer. My very first physics class was on mechanics, and I remember the teacher giving us all sorts of lectures and problems to solve where we were told to assume massless strings and frictionless surfaces and the like.

We were studying physics in the real world. But, to get a handle on the concepts we would be using, we assumed a simplified world where a string has no mass and surfaces have no friction.

That is what we did in episode 3. We simplified our world by assuming one person with one desire, and then we added one other person with one other desire.

LUKE: Besides, the principle that we illustrated in that episode is a fact about the real world. Desires provide people with reasons to mold the desires of others. We used Alph and Betty as a way of focusing attention on that one principle, but that principle is something that is true in the real world.

LUKE: Now, Alonzo, here is a question from Polymeron. PolyMEron? I don’t know. Anyway, quote:

One underlying assumption you explicitly make is that, by praising someone for an action, you can cultivate in them a desire for that action that is independent of further praise. Now, that may be true, but I think an assumption this serious carries a big “[citation needed]” mark over it.

ALONZO: Hmm. Well, I have to admit I thought this was self-evident. Somebody who performs an action for the sake of a reward such as parental praise or attention soon comes to value that action for its own sake. Soon, we will be looking at the propositions of desirism in more detail, and I’ll keep in mind to provide those citations.

Okay, Luke, the next question is for you, I believe. There was a bit of a discussion attached to the ‘God is not the ground for morality’ episode where people seemed to think we had argued, “divine command theory can’t be true because God doesn’t exist.” The accusation is that we were simply starting with the assumption of atheism.

LUKE: Well actually, the argument doesn’t assume that there is no God. It takes the form of a dilemma. Either God exists or God does not exist. If God exists, we have all of these problems with a God-based morality. If God does not exist then that’s a real serious problem for God-based morality.

Besides, I’m not just assuming God’s nonexistence. This podcast is hosted on a website called Common Sense Atheism, where I have hundreds of posts explaining how we know God doesn’t exist.

ALONZO: Our next question comes from Yair again. Yair wrote:

Sure, you can influence others’ desires… but what about influencing other things to affect their behavior? Like their beliefs and thought-patterns?

LUKE: Alonzo, what do you have to say about that?

ALONZO: Well, I hope that Yair saw some of his question answered in episode 4. There, we presented three ways of influencing Ebenezer Scrooge’s behavior. In addition to the option of influencing desires, we looked at influencing Scrooge’s beliefs and also at influencing the environment by threatening to punish or promising to reward him. These all have their place. However, I would argue that morality is specifically concerned with molding desires.

LUKE: Yeah, but we’re not really talking about morality right now. So far, we’re just focusing on the basic facts that desirism draws upon. One of those basic facts is that reward and punishment, changing beliefs, and changing desires are three ways that we have for molding the behavior of others.

ALONZO: But one reader said that there was a fourth way of influencing behavior. Charles wrote:

I just wanted to mention there is a “fourth way” that works for small children based on attachment parenting theory. The idea that children will do what their parents want or say because of an innate desire to please their parents. We don’t use any praise, condemnation, rewards, or punishment. We do however spend a lot of time working on attachment.

LUKE: I think that’s a great point. Attachment fits into the “molding desires” category – not by the use of praise and condemnation but, instead, by using attachment. Alonzo and I focus a lot on praise and condemnation because that seems to be the subject matter of morality. But actually, we usually talk about “social tools such as praise, condemnation and so on,” and the use of attachment is another social tool. So yeah, that’s totally valid.

Of course, there are other ways to mold desires, too, such as drugs or perhaps some future neuroscientific tools that can remap our neuronal connections or something. But that’s probably the subject matter of what we call “medicine”, not what we call “morality.” But yeah, attachment is another social tool that can be used to mold desires.

Now Alonzo, you wanted to address this next question. Steve made a comment to episode 4 that said:

It’s more than obvious that this podcast is merely establishing some basic premises and setting itself up (notice how the option of praise & condemnation is seen as the most effective)…

ALONZO: Yeah. If the impression we left is that praise and condemnation is the most effective in some absolute sense, then we left a false impression.

Each of the three options we mentioned – reward and punishment, changing beliefs, and changing desires – is the most effective in its own area. One of the problems with praise and condemnation is that it is only effective in the long term and, sometimes, it is not effective at all. When that happens, then you need to consider one of the other two options.

LUKE: That’s right. If you see some stranger dragging your child into his car, that’s not the time to draw out praise and condemnation as your most effective option for stopping him. In those types of circumstances, I would recommend the first option – find a way to threaten him. Call 911. Call the people with the guns.

ALONZO: That’s right. And when the armed Nazi soldiers come to your house looking for the Jews that used to live next door, option 2 might be your best option. You lie. “I saw them get into their friend’s car and drive off. I don’t know where they went.”

LUKE: Right. I think the “armed Nazi soldier” component is probably going to rule out the option of threatening them. And standing there and condemning the Nazi guards isn’t likely to produce the best results for you or the neighbors that are now hiding in your attic.

ALONZO: Moving along, the next question comes from Alonzo…

LUKE: Hold on. That’s cheating!

ALONZO: Hey, it’s our podcast. I can insert questions if I want to.

LUKE: Fine. Go ahead.

ALONZO: Alonzo is concerned that some listeners probably think there is an unbridgable gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, and we should address that objection right away.

LUKE: “Alonzo is concerned.” Let me tell you, Alonzo is concerned about a lot of things. If I were to show you a list of the things that Alonzo has worried about in recording this podcast, it would be…

ALONZO: I don’t think that the list will answer the question.

LUKE: Yeah, well, can I show them the list anyway? It’s pretty funny.


LUKE: Okay. Um… We don’t want to talk about the is-ought gap before we get to that topic. So far, we are staying exclusively on the “is” side of the equation. For example, we claim that a desire gives an agent reason to mold the malleable desires of others in ways that contribute to the fulfillment of that desire. We also claim that there are three types of tools available for modifying Scrooge’s behavior – we can use threats or rewards, we can change his beliefs, or we can change his desires. These things are facts. They’re on the “is” side of the equation.

Now when we get to a point where we are leaving the realm of fact and entering the realm of value, then we can talk about the is-ought gap.

ALONZO: The alleged is-ought gap.

LUKE: Yeah, the alleged is-ought gap. Or, in other words, we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

ALONZO: The next question is an audio question:

Hello, my name is B.J. Marshall, and I’m calling from Baltimore, Maryland with a question about Alph and Betty and their morality. I can see how Betty and Alph could respectively use praise and condemnation to promote desires that would lead toward their fulfillment. In this case, one desire is to collect rocks; while the other, to scatter them. My question is this: what happens when the number of stakeholders one must consider increases to, say, the level of my neighborhood? Betty and Alph each had only one other person to consider when using praise and condemnation in order to promote good desires. How should I go about using praise and condemnation when attempting to promote good desires where lots of people are involved? Thank you for considering my question and producing a great podcast!

ALONZO: There’s two things to say. First, we haven’t talked about Alph’s and Betty’s morality yet. Only about what they have reason to do. We want to save the introduction of moral terms until later.

Second, the question of how to handle multiple complex desires will certainly be important. We will give some hints about how to answer that in the next few episodes. In Episode 9 specifically, we are going to ask “What can we say when there is a whole bunch of Alphs and Bettys?” Can they determine which desire to give the next person to come into their world?

LUKE: Alonzo, I have a question.


LUKE: What else are we going to talk about about in the next few episodes?

ALONZO: Well, we’re going to talk about how we’re not saying that desire fulfillment has any special kind of value. We’re also going to talk about how to measure and compare desires. Then we’re going to lay down all the propositions of our theory to make it easier for anybody who wants to try to falsify desirism. Then we’re going to go about defending all of those propositions.

LUKE: Whooo! Talk about systematic! They don’t even do that in professional philosophy papers and books!

ALONZO: Well, maybe they should.

LUKE: Cool. Anything else?

ALONZO: Nope, that’s all… for now!

LUKE: Hey Alonzo, we finished our first set! Our first 5 episodes!

ALONZO: Yeah, we did.

LUKE: We need to celebrate. I think it is time… TO ROCK!

Audio clips

(in order of appearance)

  • “Hour Five” from by Robert Rich
  • “Instrumental Interlude” from by Richard Lowe Tietelbaum
  • “Trees” from by Max Richter (time-stretched)
  • “Escape” from by Craig Armstrong (time-stretched)
  • “Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)” from by The Mars Volta

* marks royalty-free music. With copyrighted music, we use only short clips and hope this qualifies as Fair Use. Fair Use is defined in the courts, but please note that we make no profit from this podcast, and we hope to bring profit to the copyright owners by linking listeners to somewhere they can purchase the music. If you are a copyright owner and have a complaint, please and we will respond immediately. The text and the recordings of Luke and Alonzo for this podcast are licensed with Creative Commons license , which means you are welcome to republish or remix this work as long as you (1) cite the original source, and (2) share your remix using the same license, and (3) do not use it for commercial purposes.

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