Thursday, March 03, 2011

Gene Cook Interviews an Atheist

Today I listened to a podcast that took place in early February where Gene Cook interviewed/debated an atheist by the name of Justin Shieber.  If my memory serves me correctly, I recommended that Justin contact Gene to appear on his show after learning that he's sharp, articulate, and knows how to defend his position.

When I spoke to Justin, I had learned of a moral theory called DESIRE UTILITARIANISM, which he was happy to explain to me.  Since this is a unique and non-popular moral theory (as far as I can tell), I was happy to learn that Justin had arranged to appear on Gene's show.

Anyone interested in atheism and Christianity will find this one hour cross examination intriguing.  Moral theory and epistemology are discussed and defended from both positions.

You can listen to the full dialogue HERE


Mark Hunter said...

"Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist’s Quest for Moral Truth actually presents the path that I took from High School, where I decided that I wanted to leave the world better than it would have otherwise been, through undergraduate and graduate school where I sought to find out what ‘better’ really was, through the years after college where I applied what I learned to real issues."

Ok, from the outset, who decides what defines "better"? Me? You? Him? Them? People 300 years ago? Aliens?

Yeah, it's a flawed, incongruent premise from the outset.

The Apologetic Front said...

Mark, that's one problem I noticed to. As much as this atheist wants to get away from an objective moral code, he ends up with one:

Morality is defined by what thwarts the least number of desires.

The "code" assumes 2 things. 1) That this is what should be the case, and 2) That we should live consistently with our desires.

As you alluded to, it still comes back to some sort of consensus whereby society decides what would inevitably satisfy the most desires and thwart the least.

Why couldn't my morality go as follows...

That which thwarts the most desires and leads to the satisfaction of my desires is what is most moral.

This may be labeled as inconsistent, but why is inconsistency "immoral?" Does the universe care about moral consistency?

Justin said...

Check.... I can't tell if this posted my comment.

The Apologetic Front said...

Justin, if you left another comment that is not appearing, then it must not have gone through.

Justin said...

I shall try again.

I heard your interview on 315, great job. I figured I would stop by your blog and was pleasantly surprised at this post.

I would like to make a small correction towards a possible misunderstanding of Desire Utilitarianism.

Mark, Values (Generic) are relationships between desires and states of affairs. This means that the value terms we use like 'good' or 'bad' are used to describe relationships. If I desire to not experience pain, and I stub my toe I can describe that relationship in a negative way using the word 'bad'. Now this is true even for the rapist who wants to rape, but if his victim gets away, he would describe the relationship between his desire to rape and the fact that his desire is being thwarted by his victim running away by using a value term like 'bad'. Anybody who can have desires and experience reality can make such subjective value statements.

However this is not MORAL value.

DU posits that moral value terms are a subset of value terms. That is to say, that where GENERIC value terms are concerned with the relationships between desires and states of affairs, MORAL value terms are concerned with the relationships between desires and a specific kind of states of affairs; Brain states....AKA Other desires.

So DU claims moral value is concerned strictly about the relationships between desires and other desires.

A desire is 'good' and worth promoting to the extent that it tends to fulfill other desires.

A desire is 'bad; and worth reducing or eliminating to the extent that it tends to thwart other desires.

The GENERIC/MORAL value distinction is key to understanding DU properly. So, while desires themselves are subjective brain states, their relationships (The moral concern) are objective. We can be wrong about the tendency of desires, but we can also be right. These relationships are not a matter of opinion, and so they are objective unlike the opinions of a top-down deity-based ethic stemming from a personal god's preferences or commands that are covenantally relative.

I hope this helps clarify my position. I had thought I was fairly clear in the debate with Gene, but it seems that apologists like Gene are much more interested in trying to trip up their opponent up before gaining an understanding of their opponents position.

Justin said...

And to Mike,

DU does not define morality by what thwarts the least number of desires. DU does not require us to count up desires thwarted v desires fulfilled. It simply says that a desire that 'tends' to fulfill is worth promoting etc.

A note on the codes assumptions.
1. What do we mean when we use words like 'should'? This is an elusive term that demands some mutual understanding. When use words like 'aught' or 'should' I am essentially saying...

'I have reasons to do X'

Now, this is a hypothetical imperative. It does not necessitate morality. If I wanted to go to Vegas, I SHOULD drive west. This is not a moral claim. Terms like Should or Aught are not strictly moral terms. So, you are asking why do we 'Have reasons to' think of moral terms this way? I think it is pretty apparent that having a grasp of the tendency of desires and their relationships between each-other is very beneficial and so it gives all of us strong reasons to think in this way.

2. The theory assumes that we 'should' live consistently with our desires.
This is not an assumption, it follows by the very nature of desires, which are propositional attitudes.

Is this a consensus or a Majority rule morality?
No. the tendedency that a particular desire has on other desires is not up to majority vote or even up to wether anybody is aware of its tendency. I can think of a possible world where nobody is aware that the desire to rape is a desire-thwarting desire, but this in no way acts as a defeater. It just gives us good reason to talk about morality openly, debate it vigorously and follow the research where it leads.

Why isn't morality just do what you want to do regardless of the consequences?
Well, any theory looking to account for morality needs to be able to capture what people generally mean when they use moral terms. This is an option for anybody who wants it, but you will be hard-pressed to find anybody who will take such a trade of semantics to be of any use in conversation.

Essentially, people have never thought that this kind of thinking was deserving of a 'moral' status. You may choose not to call my system a system of 'morality', you may choose to call it 'A system that seeks the promotion of contentment and fulfillment among conscious creatures by showing them what can be done by promoting certain desires, and condemning others' You don't have to call that morality, but I do. Its no real sweat of the non-theist's back. The propositions are still true and stop short of positing unfounded entities to make sense of moral discourse.

These kinds of questions are a bit more difficult for the divine-command theorist to navigate.

Mike Felker said...

Hey Justin,

I appreciate your taking the time to listen to the apologetics315 interview, even though the subject may or may not have been up your alley. But regardless, i'm glad you stopped by and was able to clarify your position.

I did listen to several interviews with Alonzo Fyfe, but this was a while back. Before I comment any further or write any future blogs on this topic, i'd probably want to listen to some more of those podcast. This seems to be an easy to misunderstand position and so I wouldn't want to comment further and do that very thing.

So I apologize if I mischaracterized DU and I appreciate your taking the time to correct any of these misunderstandings.

Just an idea: call Greg Koukl on his "Stand to Reason" radio show. He is a trained philosopher and would probably be willing to have a fair and fruitful interaction with you. Check his show out and consider calling if you haven't already. I'd like to see DU publicly contrasted a bit more to see how well it can stand up to scrutiny.

Justin said...

Mike, you are right. It is a very strange version of utilitarianism that it almost seems more helpful to drop the name.

I have had Greg Koukl on my podcast 'Yahweh or Myweh' but we did not talk much on morality mainly because of time constraints. I do hope to call into his show sometime or have him on again.

Mike Felker said...


I didn't even know you had a podcast. And I can see that you are having discussions with theists, so you can definitely count me in as a subscriber; especially if you've had one of my favorite apologists on!

Justin said...

Mr. Koukl was one of the most pleasant popular apologists I have ever had the pleasure of talking to.