Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 45: Desires Without Motivation

In our last exciting episode, Alex Gregory distinguished hunger from feelings of hunger - hunger pangs and the like. He argued that the latter are not subject to evidence like beliefs. However, that does not imply that the former are not subject to evidence like beliefs. (Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

As a part of my response, I agreed with the distinction. After all, the assignment theory of desire states that a desire is the assignment of a value (importance) of a proposition being true. The desire to eat is an assignment of a value of importance to "I am eating" being true. Any associated hunger pangs or other related sensations are only contingently associated with the desire to eat. However, I went on to point out that what we know about hunger is that its intensity (in terms of a motivation to eat) is related to concentrations of the hormone ghrelin. It would be hard to make a case for relating a "belief that I have a normative reason to eat" to hormone concentrations.

Recall, Gregory’s thesis is: To desire to φ is to believe that you have normative reason to φ.

In the next section, Gregory distinguishes desire from motivation - so that a person can have a desire to φ without at all being motivated to φ.

Gregory is making claim in an attempt to defend his thesis from the challenge that there are a great many times when people deny that they have many and strong reasons to φ, but still have a desire to φ. He discusses the counter-example of Sally the smoker. Sally believes that she has normative reasons to quit smoking, but she cannot quit. She continues to feed her habit. This suggests a type of case in which Sally believes that she has normative reasons to perform some action, she lacks a desire to quit. So, we can have a belief about normative reasons without having a desire.

Gregory wants to respond by distinguishing desire from motivation. He wants to argue that Sally has a desire to quit smoking, but that the desire does not provide motivation. Desires have the potential to motivate, but this potential is not always actualized.

There are a number of problems with Gregory's response. I want to start with his claim that desires do not motivate. Gregory has already separated hunger from the feeling hungry (a distinction I agree with). Now, he wants to separate hunger from a motivation to eat. If he does that, then what is left of hunger? It is neither "feeling hungry" nor is it a drive to find something to eat. What is it?

As I see it, desires are all about motivation. Desires are a part of a theory that aims to explain and predict intentional action. Desires provide the motive to act - the reason to act. A desire that does not motivate is as odd as a force that does not provide acceleration. Saying that desires merely have the potential to motivate is like saying that gravity merely has the potential to provide a downward force on those objects that are near to the body - something that might, somehow, fail to be actualized.

So, how would I describe the smoker?

The smoker has an overwhelming desire to smoke. She has other desires - desires that she recognize provide reasons to quit, but the desire to smoke is stronger. Like the force of a bullet encountering a target, the force of the desire to smoke just goes right through the motivation to quit.

Also, future desires have no capacity to reach back in time and motivate current behavior. The agent may well believe that smoking will thwart future desires - e.g., the desire to see grand children graduate from college. However, a future desire can only influence a current action if it works through a current desire that future desires be fulfilled. This is one of the desires that the stronger desire to smoke just blows right through, motivating the agent to smoke. The agent fully recognizes that if she did not have this desire to smoke, then she would not have a motivation to smoke, and then her future desires will be fulfilled. She wishes he had no desire to smoke, but wishing will not cause the desire (and the motivation that comes with it) to go away.

In short, I agree that the smoker has a desire to quit smoking that is not strong enough to cause her to quit smoking. I agree that she has desires that do not motivate current action. This is because the desires do not exist yet, and those that will exist in the future have no ability to cause actions in their past. I do not agree with the claim that a desire that exists will fail to motivate. The motivational force may not be strong enough to outweigh other desires, but it is still there, like the sheet of paper in the path of a bullet. Furthermore, the power to motivate is proportional to the strength of the desire. This is how we distinguish strong desires from weak desires.

Gregory brings up another supposed problem case that he calls "Teething Tabatha".

Tabatha knows that she has good reason to go to the dentist: her teeth are in an awful state. But she will quite keenly insist that she doesn't want to go to the dentist. Who does?

This is supposed to create a problem for Gregory's theory because Tabatha has no desire to do something (go to the dentist) that she believes has normative reason to do. Thus, a desire to φ is not a belief that one has a normative reason to φ.

Gregory begins by charging that this is a challenge for the Humean theory. I consider the assignment theory of desire to be a Humean theory, so that would be a challenge to me.

This kind of case seems as much a problem for the Humean theory of motivation as for DAB, since it is natural to presuppose that Tabatha might go to the dentist even though she has no desire to do so.

But this is no problem for the Humean theory of motivation. The Humean would distinguish desires-as-ends from desires-as-means. Tabatha does not value going to the dentist as an end in itself. That is what she means when she says she does not want to go to the dentist - it is not an end or goal of hers. Tabatha is going to the dentist as a means only - as a way of preventing future pain and the inconveniences that would come about if she should lose her teeth. Considering both ends and means, she recognizes that has more and stronger reasons to go to the dentist than she has not to.

Gregory would respond that he can offer the same type of analysis.

Tabatha doesn't think that she has good reason to seek out the pain at the dentist. This is the sense in which she doesn't want to go to the dentist. But all the same, Tabatha does think she has good reason to visit the dentist, all things considered.

However, Gregory is still reducing all reasons to means-ends reasons. He can tell us why Tabatha wants to go to the dentist. This is because going to the dentist provides a rational means to fulfill other desires, such as the aversion to future pain and the inconveniences of losing her teeth. However, he cannot explain ends. He cannot explain the aversion to pain. Why go to the dentist? Because I can avoid future pain. Why avoid future pain? Because . . . because . . . just because. A theory of desire is, ultimately, a theory about ends, not about means. Once we have the ends figured out, the means fall into place with no additional difficulty. They are simply the ways of reaching those ends. If you want to realize the end, then you have to travel through the means.

Ultimately, the takeaway is the rejection of Gregory's claim that you can have a desire that exists without having a motivating reason for action that exist. A future desire is a future motivating reason for action. If desires do not motivate, then what are they for? What do they do?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 44: Appetites as Beliefs About Reasons

In considering objections to his thesis, Gregory considers an objection near to the objections I have raised. Specifically, he considers the objection that it makes no sense to think of appetites (such as hunger) as beliefs about reasons to eat.

Recall, Gregory’s thesis is:

To desire to φ is to believe that you have normative reason to φ.

(Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

So, on Gregory’s account, to desire to eat is to believe that one has reason to eat. It is absurd to think that a desire to eat is a belief that one has reason to eat. Therefore, we should reject a Gregory’s account.

Gregory attempts to defend his thesis be distinguishing the feeling of hunger from the desire to eat. We can have the desire without the feeling, he argues, as when one eats to be polite. And we can have the desire without feeling hungry, as when we have desert. The feelings of hunger are not beliefs about reasons to eat or anything else. However, the feelings are not the desire to eat, so this leaves open the possibility that the desire to eat is a belief about reasons.

I wonder if Gregory ever wanted to lose weight. That experience alone demonstrates that the desire to eat is independent of any and all beliefs about having reasons to eat. There are a great many obese and overweight people who are fully aware that they have no reason to - and many reasons not to - eat, but are driven to eat by an overwhelming desire. There are also a lot of people of normal weight who constantly struggle against a desire to eat that does not go away just because one rehearses the reasons.

We know something about hunger. For one thing, eating behavior is associated with the hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is released by the stomach when it is empty, and stops being released when the stomach is full. Empirical research shows that the concentration of this hormone determines eating behavior. Note that the experiments that researchers have conducted on animals do not associate amounts of ghrelin with feelings of hunger. Researchers, so far as I can tell, have no way to determine what subjective sensations their non-human research subjects are feeling as a result of the concentration of ghrelin in their system. They only measure the disposition to eat, and their findings show that the disposition to eat is not only associated with ghrelin concentrations in the bloodstream, but with the amount of those concentrations. The more ghrelin, the stronger the disposition to eat.

On Gregory's model, the desire to eat is the belief that one has a normative reason to eat. The disposition to eat is influenced by the concentration of ghrelin in the system. Consequently, we seem to be required to imagine a system where the concentration of ghrelin somehow influences the belief that one has a normative reason to eat.

One of the ways that this can happen, of course, is that the concentration of ghrelin determines one's reason to eat which, in turn, determines one's beliefs about one's reasons to eat. However, if we get a reason to eat from the concentration of ghrelin itself, there doesn't seem to be anything else for the belief that one has a reason to eat to do. We can simply go with the reason to eat (the desire to eat) that the ghrelin produces.

Imagine if there was a drug where, with a small dose of the drug, you would believe that the surface of the sun has a temperature of 3000 degrees. However, with higher concentrations of the drug, you come to believe that the surface of the sun has a higher temperature. At double the concentration, you believe that the temperature of the surface of the sun is 6000 degrees.

There is another problem with this thesis, given Gregory's defense of his thesis. The concentration of ghrelin in the system is not subject to evidence. There is no logical proof that entails, as a matter of deductive reasoning, a different concentration of ghrelin and, with it, a different belief about the importance that eating has to the agent.

These, then, three problems with Gregory's account of appetites. First, there seem to be a lot of large gaps between what an agent believes he has reason to do (has reason to eat or to drink) and what he desires to eat and drink. Second, Gregory needs an account of the relationship between concentrations of ghrelin in the system and the belief about how much of a reason one has to eat - which is an odd type of relationship to have. Third, concentrations of ghrelin in the bloodstream is not subject to evidence.

An alternative option - the option that I would favor (the assignment theory of desire) - says that the desire to eat is the assignment of a value indicating the importance to the agent of the proposition "I am eating" being true. The amount of ghrelin in the system can simply be associated with the value assigned to the proposition being true. The more ghrelin, the higher the assigned value. The desire itself provides the reason to - and the motivation to - eat.

Appetites cannot, in fact, be easily reduced to what an agent believes he has a normative reason to do.

Monday, June 18, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 43: Dual Direction of Fit

For the next few posts, I would like to address what Alex Gregory took to be the main objections to his thesis:

To desire to φ is to believe that you have normative reason to φ.

(Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

It will be instructive to see if those objections are also objections to the assignment thesis that I am defending:

To desire that P is to assign a value V to the importance of ‘P’ being made or kept true.

The first objection Gregory confronts is that of belief theories generally - that they have the wrong “direction of fit”. Recall that the standard distinction drawn between beliefs and desires is that, “If you believe that P and ‘P’ is false, change your belief. But if you desire that P and ‘P’ is false, change the world.” Beliefs have the wrong direction of fit for desires.

Gregory’s response to is to say that desires have both directions of fit at once. It is a belief that one has a normative reason to change the world - that the world ought to be changed. This has both a mind-to-world direction of fit (if one believes that one has a normative reason to change the world, and one does not, then change the belief), and a world-to-mind direction of fit (if one believes that one has a reason to change the world, and it is true, then one should change the world).

As I have been arguing, this works well for means, but means are mixtures of ends and beliefs. A belief about means is a belief that an action would serve an end. If one believes that an action will serve an end, and it is false, one should change one’s belief. If one believes that an action will serve an end, and it is true, then one should perform the action.

However, the desire that picks out the end cannot be understood in this way, and this is the type of desire that provides the foundation for all reasons for action. What is it to believe that the end is something one has reason to bring about? What is it to believe that spending time with one’s children is something one has reason to do? What does it take for the belief that one has this type of reason to be true?

I want to stress how important this is. All means-statements are statements are “ends plus beliefs” statements. In the distinction between desires and beliefs, all desires are ends. All value, all reasons for acting, all motivational force comes from these ends. If one does not have a theory of ends - if all one has is a theory of means - then one has an account of only the belief side of the equation, and is saying nothing about the desire side. An actual theory of desires must be a theory of ends - that which gives value, reasons for acting, and motivational force to means.

Assignment theory of desire is a theory of ends. Evolution, environment, and experience combine to assign values (importance) to certain propositions being made or kept true. These assignments are basic biological facts. Once an assignment is given to an end, the agent has a motivating reason to realize that end. Beliefs combine with ends to determine means - the route to take, the action to take, to realize the ends to which evolution, environment, and experience has assigned a value.

When it comes to ends, there is no mind-to-world direction of fit. There is nothing in the world that an end needs to match to be correct or incorrect. Desires can be good or bad - just as anything can be good or bad - according to whether it tends to fulfill or thwart (other) desires. But desires cannot be correct or incorrect like a belief can, because there is nothing in the world for them to match.

The fact that means have a mind-to-world element (in virtue of the mind-to-world element of the beliefs that make up means), does not imply that ends have such an element.





Sunday, June 17, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 42: Doing What One Ought

Here, I am considering Gregory's third argument in defense of the thesis, which he calls "DAB",: "To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ."

If DAB is true, this amounts to the claim that what we ought to do depends on our beliefs about what we have reason to do. It is very plausible that this claim is ambiguous between something true and something false. It is false in the sense that one’s beliefs might be false. But it is true in the sense that what we rationally ought to do does depend on our beliefs about what we have reason to do. So DAB resolves the controversy regarding whether what we ought to do depends on our desires.

(Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

I am not certain what controversy Gregory is referring to.

I suspect that the controversy he is referring to has to do with cases such as: Jim believes that taking a pill will cure his cancer. Given that he desires to cure his cancer, does he have reason to take the pill? What if the pill is a placebo? Does he still have reason to take it?

Gregory says, "It is false in the sense that one's belief might be false." But what belief is he talking about? A desire, according to Gregory, is a belief about what has reason to do. The agent desires to take the pill, because he believes he has reason to take the pill. He believes that it will cure his cancer. So, he has a desire to take the pill. The belief that the pill will cure his cancer is false. But his belief that he has a reason to take the pill (according to Gregory) is true.

From this, we can say that it is false that he ought to take the pill because it will not cure is cancer. However, it is true that he ought to take the pill because the rational thing for a person with cancer to do if he has a pill that he believes will cure it is to take the pill. To refuse to do so under these circumstances is irrational. The "ought" term is ambiguous.

If this is analysis is correct, then it is relevant to note that we can get the same conclusion without DAB.

Gregory is referring to the so-called desire to take the pill. Taking the pill is desired as a means, not as an end. The end - the final desire - is the desire to cure the cancer. Desires as means, as I have argued in the previous post, is a combination of beliefs and desires-as-ends. It is the beliefs, not the ends, that are sensitive to evidence.

Now, we can have the same ambiguity of ought without Gregory's DAB. The actual desire in this case, the desire to cure the cancer, is not sensitive to evidence. However, the belief that the pill will cure the cancer is subject to evidence. We have the same distinction between what the agent believes will cure the cancer and what will cure the cancer. We have the same two senses of "ought" - the one that relates the action to the desire through the belief, and the one that relates the action to the desire directly - independent of the belief. We have an objective "ought" and a subjective "ought". The objective "ought" says "You ought not take the pill; it will do no good." The subjective "ought" says "You ought to take the pill. It is what a person with a desire to cure cancer and a belief that taking the pill will cure cancer would do."

However, we have gotten this conclusion without interpreting desire - in this case, the desire to cure the cancer - as any type of belief about one has a normative reason to do. The desire is still nothing more than the assignment of a value to a state of affair - an assignment that is not sensitive to evidence.

The summary of these last three posts is that Gregory has given us no reason to favor the idea that a desire is a belief about a normative reason. Where this thesis seems to make sense, Gregory has confused what is desired as a means with what is desired as an end. What is desired as a means is sensitive to evidence and prone to the objective/subjective distinction because it contains a belief within it. That belief is sensitive to evidence and subject to the objective/subjective distinction. The desire-as-end that also makes up the desire-as-means is not. We cannot reduce the desire-as-end to a belief about what one has a normative reason to do unless we can come up with a theory of normative reasons that does not, in turn, refer back to that same desire.

On Desire 2018. Part 41: Susceptibility to Evidence

Concerning Alex Gregory's defense of his thesis that "To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ," Gregory's second argument in defense of this thesis is as follows:

Second, DAB explains why desires are sensitive to evidence about what we have reason to do (cf. Fernández 2007; Byrne 2011; Moran 2001: 119). If you want to vote Conservative, I might get you to rationally abandon this desire by presenting you with evidence that there are no good reasons to vote Conservative. Or, for another example, if I ask you whether you want my spare plane ticket to China, you will respond by considering the reasons for and against taking this choice: the sights, the food, the weather, etc. DAB explains why desires are sensitive to evidence about reasons: because they are beliefs about reasons.

(Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

I discussed his first defense in the previous post. There, he wrote that normative beliefs have the power to motivate us to act, which I countered by suggesting that normative beliefs are beliefs about relationships between states of affairs and desires where desires provide the motivation to act.

The problem in this second defense is that, as a matter of fact, the desires-as-ends (that which we desire for their own sake) are immune to evidence. More complex forms of desire are subject to evidence because they are mixtures of beliefs and desires, and beliefs are sensitive to evidence.

As evidence that basic desires are immune to evidence, try reasoning a person out of extreme pain, out of their love for their child, out of an addiction, or out of their sexual orientation. What syllogism can you provide a person who prefers the taste of butterscotch topping to the taste of chocolate that will alter his preference so that he comes to refer the taste of chocolate? How do you persuade a child that she likes broccoli when they do not like broccoli?

Indeed, if basic desires are susceptible to reason, I would like to see the structure of the argument that has a change of taste or preference as its conclusion. Generally, if a person claims to have a belief that P, we can at least make some sense of what it takes to prove that "P" is true. So, if P is, "I have a normative reason to Φ," please provide an example of how such an argument can be constructed without making a viciously circular reference back to the agent's own desires.

This is not to say that desires are not subject to change. Of course desires can change. However, they do not change as a consequence of evidence. The most common way for a desire to change is by experience. If a particular action produces a reward - whether in the form of pleasure, or a drug-induced high, or praise from others; or if it produces pain, the agent at first may value (or disvalue) the action as a way of obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain. However, it comes to be valued for its own sake - one of the rules of behavior that the agent adopts. But the relationship between experience and desire is nothing like that of evidence and belief. There is no "valid inference" between experience and desire as there is between evidence and belief. There is merely cause and effect.

When Gregory claims to see desires susceptible to evidence, what he actually sees are cases of complex mixtures of beliefs and desires being subject to evidence. However, this is because beliefs are a part of the complex structure.

For example, we should consider the distinction between means and ends. A person "wants" a half-inch wrench to tighten a bolt, then discovers that it is a 9/16 inch bolt. He no longer "wants" the wrench. It seems that his desire is “sensitive to evidence.” However, this is only because we are using a shorthand way of speaking. The agent never did want a half-inch wrench. Instead, he wanted to tighten the bolt and he believed that, with a half-inch wrench, he could tighten the bolt. His belief is sensitive to evidence. But his desire to tighten the bolt is not. The belief that the bolt was a half-inch bolt provided none of the motivating force. That came from the desire to tighten the bolt. The desire is not susceptible to reason (unless, of course, tightening the bolt is a means to some further end, and there is evidence that tightening the bolt will not, in fact, serve that end).

For another example, consider the person who wants to own a Picasso painting. He believes that the painting up for auction is a Picasso, so he "wants" that painting. Then he is given reason to believe that the painting is a reproduction and not an original Picasso. This, too, looks like evidence that his desire is susceptible to evidence. Yet, evidence did not alter his desire to own a Picasso painting. Rather, the evidence altered his belief that the painting up for action is a Picasso. There is no mystery behind the fact that beliefs are susceptible to evidence. But the belief that the the painting was a Picasso did not provide any motivating force. That required the desire to own the Picasso.

The examples that Gregory gives us of desires being sensitive to evidence - the case of "wanting to voting Conservative" or "wanting a ticket to China," these "wantings" are packed with beliefs sensitive to evidence. They are like "wanting" the half-inch wrench, or the painting that is up for auction. There is no mystery behind the fact that evidence regarding the relationships between voting Conservative or travelling to China and the agent's desires might alter the agent's opinions about those relationships.

Indeed, rather than sensitivity to evidence providing a reason to look at "desire as belief" theories, the invulnerability of ends to reason suggests an argument against "desire as belief" theories.

Friday, June 15, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 40: What Are Normative Reasons?

Alex Gregory seeks to provide us with a defense of the following thesis - which he calls DAB:

To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ.

Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

I gave my general objections to theories that attempt to reduce desires to beliefs in the previous posting. This being that Gregory now owes us a theory of what "you have a normative reason to Φ" means and what it takes for this proposition to be true. Without a theory of normative reasons, his theory of desires is empty.

Gregory provides us with no theory of normative reasons.

Still, he tries to say a few things in defense of his thesis.

His first argument is:

Because DAB identifies desires and beliefs about reasons, we do not have to see these two as competitors in our motivational system. That allows us to solve a certain puzzle about moral motivation: DAB entitles us to agree that normative judgments are beliefs and to agree that such judgments have the power to motivate us to act, while also allowing us to accept the Humean claim that only desires have the power to motivate us to act. It is only if we accept DAB that these three plausible claims are consistent.

The three "plausible" claims are:

(1) Normative judgments are beliefs.

(2) Normative judgments have the power to motivate us to act.

(3) Only desires have the power to motivate us to act.

DAB allows these three claims to be consistent because desires are normative judgments (beliefs) that motivate us to act.

Here, my general objection to these types of theories steps up to the front. What does it take for a normative judgment to be true? How can this truth motivate us to act?

What does it take for the normative judgment to be true? Insofar as I have this belief that I have reasons to purchase my wife a present for a birthday. What is it that I believe, and am I right to believe it? Or do I have a false belief?

Well, I believe that buying her a present for her birthday will make her happy, and that she would be disappointed if I did not.

So what? What does it matter that buying her a present would make her happy and that she would be disappointed if I did not? What makes that important to me? That alone does not provide me with a reason to act. There must be something else - something that makes it important.

I would answer that what makes it important to me is my desire to make her happy and my aversion to disappointing her.

Question: What is this "desire to make her happy?" What is this "aversion to disappointing her?"

Answer: According to Gregory, it is a belief that I have a normative reason to make her happy and a normative reason to avoid disappointing her.

Question: What does it mean to say that I have a normative reason to make her happy? How can this be true? Do I actually have this reason, or do I just believe it? How do I check this reason out to determine if it is real or just imagined? What will I be looking for when I try to find out whether I actually have this normative reason? What would show me that my belief that I have this normative reason is false?

The answer to the question, "What does it take to have a normative reason" matters.

I hold that I have a normative reason to Φ if and only if Φ-ing would serve one or more of my "desires that P". Φ-ing serves a "desire that P" by creating or preserving a state of affairs where P is true. My desire that P makes it Φ-ing important because the desire specifically assigns an importance-value to P being true.

Gregory can't use this theory of normative reasons. This is because it explains normative reasons in terms of desires. If he uses this theory, then he has a theory of desires that reduces desires to normative reasons, and a theory of normative reasons that reduces normative reasons to desires. That would be viciously circular. So, if Gregory is going to reduce desires to beliefs about normative reasons, then he needs a non-circular theory of normative reasons, or his theory is empty.

There is simply no reason to adopt an empty theory. Tell me what a "normative reason" is and how I can truthfully believe that I can have one, and then I can tell whether "believing that I have a normative reason" can be a reasonable analysis of desire.

On Desire 2018. Part 39: Desires As Beliefs

I now move on to Chapter 7 of The Nature of Desire: Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

The answer is "No."

Before I look at Gregory's arguments in any detail, I want to say some things about why I generally reject the idea that desires can be reduced to beliefs.

We have a lot of examples of this. The most common form that this type of claim takes is to say that a desire that P is a belief that P is good. This is the guise of the good thesis that has shown up repeatedly in the comments already made. The belief that P is good explains why the agent tries to realize P - that is what we do to good things.

Another form that we have seen in this series says that the desire that P is a belief that P is better. This one has, so far, been mentioned only in passing.

There is the thesis that took up the previous two articles that states that a desire that P is a belief that P ought to be the case.

Now, we are going to look at the thesis that a desire that P is a belief that the agent has a normative reason to bring about P. Specifically, Gregory's thesis is that

To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ

Each one of these thesis has a perceptual or "seems that" alternative. That is to say, to desire that P is to perceive that P is good, or that it seem to be the case P ought to be, or that it appears that one has a normative reason to realize P.

My standard objection to all of these rests on the question, "What is it for the object of these claims to be true?"

To believe that P is to believe that "P" is true. That is to say, to believe that a god exist is to believe that, "A god exist" is true. We can now launch an investigation into what it means to say, "A god exist" is true. When we do this, we leave our beliefs behind.

The same is true of the person who believes that Charlie is in New York. If we look at this belief, we now have reason to ask about what "Charlie is in New York" means and what it takes for this to be true.

Comparably, if we are going to analyze "Agent desires that P" in terms of "Agent believes that P is good," then it seems to follow that the agent must also believe that 'P is good" is true.

Now, please tell me, what does it mean to say that "P is good" and what it takes for the proposition, "P is good" to be true.

Please note that you cannot legitimately answer the question by referring back to desires. If you answer the question about what it is for P to be good by saying, "This is what the agent believes when the agent desires that P," then one's theory is viciously circular - empty, for all practical purposes.

We can ask the same questions about the belief that P ought to be the case, or the belief that the agent has a normative reason to realize P. We now need a theory about what it means to say, "P ought to be the case," or "The agent has a normative reason to realize P." This account cannot refer back to desire - that would be viciously circular.

It would take far more time and effort than I have available to demonstrate that nobody who has proposed a "belief" theory of desire in any form has produced a respectable account of what it is for the thing believed to be true. However, I will offer it as something to look for. If somebody should come up to you and say, "A desire that P is a belief that Q," then be prepared to ask (and expect a non-circular answer to) the question, "What is Q and what does it take for Q to be true?"

That is the tactic to use here. With Gregory telling us:

To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ

My question becomes, "What does it mean to say that I have normative reason to Φ?" and "Please instruct me on the criteria that must be met for the claim that I have normative reason to Φ to be true?"

Gregory is not going to have an answer to that question, which means that his thesis is empty.

Revisiting Reasons: Part 2

I have received a response from my (potential) thesis adviser regarding my initial presentation of ideas.

I addressed her concerns in a return email which is partially reproduced below:


Greetings.

In my last email I sought to establish that what The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls “the Humean Theory of Reasons” is inconsistent with other things that a Humean says about reasons. If this is essential to the Humean Theory of Reasons, then that theory is self-contradictory. But, we can remove the contradiction, preserving almost everything else that Hume says about reasons, by adopting the proposed alternative:

If there is a reason for someone to do something, then there must be some desire that would be served by her doing it, which is the source of that reason; and if she has a reason to do something, then she must have a desire that would be served by doing it, which is the source of that reason.

Recall, my argument was that “if there is a reason, then Sally has a desire” is false - and false under assumptions that a Humean would accept. When we looked at Jim's aversion to pain, we have an instance where the antecedent is true (there is a reason), but the consequent is false (Sally has a desire). The best alternative is: "There is a reason" implies "there is a desire" and "Sally has a reason" implies "Sally has a desire."

Now, as to your responses:

You wrote:

The view that "there is a reason" implies "somebody has a desire" is a version of utilitarianism.

I see two ways to respond to this:

Response 1: If it is true that this is a version of utilitarianism, then so be it. It is better to have a version of utilitarianism than the false conditional.

Response 2: This isn't actually a version of utilitarianism. It appears to be - and, for a long time, I thought it was. However, it is not. When we combine this with the Humean Theory of Motivation, we don't get utilitarianism, we get substantially what Hume defends in the Enquiry into the Principles of Morals.

You wrote:

On the so-called "Humean Theory," Jim's desire to avoid pain is, by itself, no reason for Sara to do anything unless Sara cares about Jim or something to that effect.

Yes, this is true.

On the account given so far, where Jim and Sally each only have an aversion to their own pain, Sally has no reason to avoid any action that causes Jim pain. Sally only has an aversion to her own pain. So, if Sally can avoid the slightest scratch on her finger with an action that would cause Jim to suffer excruciating pain, Sally has reason to (and no reason not to) perform that action.

But, Jim - if he can find a way - has a reason to cause Sally to “care about Jim or something to that effect.” Jim knows that if he can pull this off, he can cause Sally to avoid actions that would cause him excruciating pain, and his own aversion to excruciating pain means that he has a reason to try to pull this off.

Let us assume that Jim discovers a drug that will cause Sally to acquire an aversion to causing pain. Jim has a reason (his own aversion to pain) to cause Sally to take the drug. For example, he has a reason to sneak it into her tea. Once Sally has taken the drug, if she is faced with a situation where she must choose between a scratch on her finger or Jim’s excruciating pain, she now has a reason to prefer the scratch on her finger and save Jim from excruciating pain.

Comparably, Sally has a reason to sneak the drug into Jim’s tea. Indeed, they both have a reason to add it to the community water supply. It means that each might experience slight pains whenever the alternative is to cause excruciating pain to others, but each would be surrounded by people who would choose a slight pain for themselves over excruciating pain for others, with the agent being the one potentially saved from excruciating pain.

The Reward System

Now, let's throw away the drugs.

Instead of drugs, let us assume that the beings in this example have something like a reward system. The way this system works is that one can create an aversion to causing pain in others by rewarding/praising those who choose options that avoid causing pain to others, and punishing/condemning those who choose options that cause pain to others. In the same way that Jim had a reason to slip the drug into Sally's tea, Jim has a reason to use rewards and punishments in the ways described. So does Sally. In fact, in a community of beings of this type, we can say that everybody has a reason to use rewards and punishments to promote, universally (in everybody else) an aversion to causing pain to others.

Please note that rewards and punishments can also be used to provide incentives and deterrence. However, this is not the effect that I am concerned with here. I am interested in the ways in which rewards (including praise) and punishments (including condemnation) change behavior through their influence on character.

One key difference between, for example, threats of punishments to control behavior and altering character is on its effects when the agent can get away with performing the action. Jim's threat to punish Sally (e.g., "If you cause me pain, I will cause you even more pain in return.") only provides Sally with a reason not to cause Jim pain insofar as Jim might catch her and insofar as Jim has the power to make good on his threat. However, if Jim can create in Sally an aversion to causing pain to others, then Sally has a reason not to cause pain even when she could avoid punishment.

Of course, what I say here about Jim with respect to Sally is also true of Sally with respect to Jim. Indeed, it is true of everybody in this community with respect to everybody else. One of the things we can say about this aversion to pain is that people generally in this community have strong reasons to (and weak reasons not to) promote universally an aversion to pain by rewarding/praising those who choose options that do not cause pain, and rewarding/punishing those who choose options that do cause pain.

When it comes to these malleable character traits, one of the questions we can ask is, "What reasons are there for promoting this particular trait - for praising those who have it and condemning those who do not?" Referring to the alternative account of "reasons there are" that I defended above, "there is a reason to promote this trait" implies "there is a desire that would be served by promoting this trait."

We could, if we so choose, divide the desires that would be served by promoting this trait into four categories. (1) The agent's own desires that would be directly served by promoting this trait. (2) The agent's own desires that would be indirectly served by promoting this trait. (3) The desires of others that would be directly served by promoting this trait. (4) The desires of others that would be indirectly served by promoting this trait.

This, in Hume's language, would be (1) pleasing to self, (2) useful to self, (3) pleasing to others, and (4) useful to others.

This, in turn, is consistent with, "There is a reason to promote this character trait" implies "There is a desire that would be served by promoting this character trait."

This is still consistent with the claim that an agent has a reason to promote a character trait only if he has a desire that would be served. But, if he does not have such a desire, other people have reasons to give him one.

Not Utilitarianism

In closing, I would like to note that this is not a utilitarian system. The idea that maximizing utility is a reason for action - that it is a goal worthy of pursuing - never occurs. If utility is maximized as a result, it is an unintended side effect, never valued for its own sake.

It may be that people generally have reasons to promote, universally, a desire to maximize utility, and to employ their tools of rewards and punishments accordingly. But even if they promote this desire, it will be one desire among many. It will find itself in constant conflict with hunger and aversion to pain, concern for one's family, an aversion to lying and to breaking promises, a desire for sex, a love of reading and writing about issues in philosophy.

Consider, for example, what this has to say about Robert Nozick's Utility Monster. His utility monster is a creature that gets huge amounts of utility from actions that reduce others to misery. Still, the monster's utility greatly exceeds that of the suffering caused. That creature may have a reason to reduce others to misery. However, people generally have no reason to create such a monster through their use of praise and condemnation, and many and strong reasons to prevent its creation. Once created, people generally have no reason to serve its interests.

Or consider Derek Parfit's repugnant conclusion. This is the idea that a possible world with a huge number of people whose lives are barely worth living can be "better" in terms of overall utility than a smaller number with higher quality of life. On the model here, people generally have more reason not to create more people when it will make their lives worse off than to create such people. Indeed, they have reason to discourage others - to promote an aversion to - adding to the overall population.

Conclusion

I agree that, at first glance, it appears that "If there is a reason, then there is a desire" is going to lead to some form of utilitarianism. However, when we add Hume's theory of motivation, we don't get utilitarianism. We get (a version of) Hume's own moral theory as described in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. On this account, we look at the "reasons there are" for promoting certain character traits - reasons that serve not only the desires the agent has, but the desires that other agents have as well.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Klorn and the Bozos

A member of the studio audience asked the following question:

Let's imagine a planet, far far away, called Zongo. Zongo is inhabited by two forms of intelligent life: the Bozos, who have lived on Zongo for millions of years, and the Klorns, who landed on Zongo a couple thousand years ago.

They have roughly equal intelligence, but Bozos, which are the size of fleas, are at the hunter-gatherer stage of civilization, while Klorns, which are as tall as mountains, have the vastly sophisticated technology of an intergalactic civilization - they can replicate anything they need or desire, they are invulnerable from any attack a Bozo could muster, and they can literally destroy every living Bozo with a single thought.

Klorns and Bozos are by no means strangers: Klorns have mapped out every single molecule in the body of every single Bozo (along with all the other flora and fauna of Zongo) - they know absolutely everything there is to know about Bozos. Meanwhile, the Bozos are forced to closely keep track of every Klorn, because they live in terror of them, and want to stay out of their way.

It's not that the Klorns hate the Bozos, or want to kill them. It's simply that Klorns do not regard Bozos as people. They do not matter to the Klorns at all. Now: does a Klorn have any ethical responsibility towards a Bozo?

I am going to do what Randy calls “typical Alonzo” - over-explain my answer.

We need to establish some additional facts.

First, there is no intrinsic value. Philosophers often use stories like this so as to test our moral intuitions, thinking that this is a way to map the universe of “intrinsic ought” If the question is, “Are there any intrinsic oughts in the possible behaviors of the Bozos?” The answer is “No.”

Second, there is no free will. desirism is not only compatible with determinism. It requires determinism. If the question is, “How shall we utilize our freedom of will?” Desirism can do nothing but throw up its hands and run away.

But . . . There must be some sense to the phrase “could have done otherwise.” There must be some way to alter behavior.

Specifically, for moral terms to be relevant, we must assume that the Klorns and Bozos are intentional agents who act to fulfill their desires given their beliefs. Furthermore, they must have some malleable desires - this is where the “could have done otherwise” emerges.

Finally, they must have something like a reward system - a way of altering their behavioral rules (desires and aversions) through rewards and punishments. (There might be other ways of altering behavior, such as with pills or surgery, but this would fall under the rubric of “medicine”, not “morality”. Morality concerns the use of rewards and punishment.)

Without these, any use of moral terms would not make sense. It would be like asking about the mass of an idea or the color of height.

Here, the statement, “[the Klorn] are invulnerable from any attack a Bozo could muster” comes into play. If this means that there is no possibility of reward or punishment, then the game is over. If there is no way to reward or punish effectively, there is no sense to the question, “What should we reward and punish?”

However, the ability to reward or punish requires only the ability to fulfill or thwart desires. If the Klorn have a desire to be thought well of by others, the Bozos can thwart this desire by thinking ill of them. The Bozos do not need the ability to launch a military campaign, but they must have the capacity to make true (it false) some proposition P that the Klorn want to be false (or true, respectively).

So, now, do the Bozos have reason to use reward and punishment to alter the behavior of the Klorn, using these tools to promote behavior that contributes to the fulfillment of their desires?

Obviously, they do.

Do the Klorn have reason to promote among other Klorn concerns relevant to the well-being of the powerless?

Well, relevant to one of the comments above, Klorn have reason to promote among other Klorn a desire to be thought of well by others. Thus, they have reason to create in other Klorn the types of sentiments that the Bozos can use in influencing Klorn desires.

Similarly, we should assume that the Klorn have the ability to fulfill or thwart the interests of other Klorn. Under this assumption, Klorn have reasons to promote in others who CAN thwart the interests of others an aversion to doing so. This will generalize into an aversion to thwarting the interests of the Bozos as well. While we can imagine the Klorn promoting an aversion only to thwarting the interests of other Klorn, it is not, in fact, easy to hone desires so precisely. If you build exceptions into the sentiments, then you run the risk that at least some people will see you or somebody you care about as one of the exceptions.

Finally, I want to address a fact that is extremely relevant and almost always overlooked when addressing these types of questions:

You and I, and the people reading this argument, are not impartial observers. We are a part of a real world community and we have reasons to question the effects of our answers in the real world.

We have reasons to have people in the real world have an aversion to abusing power. We have reason to promote in others an aversion to taking advantage of us when we are vulnerable - when we sleep, if we are sick, when they have a weapon and we don't. This means that we have reason to promote an aversion to taking advantage of power among those who read these words. One way to promote such an aversion is to say that it would be wrong for the Klorn to harm the Bozos - that they would be deserving of condemnation - and to praise them if they concern themselves with the interests of the Bozos.

One might be tempted to see this as a lie that we tell in order to trick other people into having particular beliefs. We must "believe" that the Klorn have moral responsibilities towards the Bozos because if failure to believe or promote this fiction makes us a danger to each other. However, this interpretation is mistaken. If by saying that it would be wrong for the Klorn to ignore the interests of the Bozos I mean by this, "people in our community generally have many and strong reasons to promote a sentiment of aversion to the Klorn disregarding the interests of the Bozos," . . . if this is what "wrong" means, then the statement that the Klorn ought to consider the interests of the Bozos is a true statement.

Consider the fact that were are not impartial observers, that we use moral terms to promote useful desires and aversions among members of our own community, and the question of whether the Klorn ought to take the interests of the Bozos into consideration becomes a question of whether we have reasons to promote a sentiment of disapproval among fellow humans towards Klorn who disregard the interests of the Bozos.

The statement that "we humans discussing this hypothetical example have reason to promote among each other an aversion to the Klorn abuse of power" is a true statement.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 38: Desire To vs Desire That

It is generally accepted in the philosophy of desires that desires are propositional attitudes. Though many desires are expressed as "desires to" (e.g., I desire to live on a space station), every case of a "desire to" can be expressed as a "desire that" (e.g., I desire that I live on a space station).

This is important to the assignment theory of values I am defending. To say that a "desire that P" assigns a value representing the importance of "P" being true makes no sense if "p" cannot be true. The phrase, "I desire to live on a space station" presents us with no proposition P that can be true. However, the phrase, "I desire that I live on a space station" does present us with a proposition that can be true - the proposition "I live on a space station".

Olivier Massin does not like this distinction. (Massin, Olivier, (2017), “Desires, Values, and Norms” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

Recall that Massin is interested in explaining desires in terms of a "guise of the ought". That is to say, to desire that P is to hold that P ought to be the case. A desire to, in contrast, is not a presentation of something as "ought to be," it is a presentation of something as "ought to do". His interest in preserving the distinction between "desires that" and "desires to" is grounded on an interest in preserving the distinction between "ought to be" and "ought to do."

Yet, if one looks back on my discussion concerning the death of desire, I think that I can present an argument for the reduction of "desires to" to "desires that".

In the "death of desires" discussion, several authors have argued for the "death of desire" on the grounds that it makes no sense to talk about a "desire to" once that which is desired obtains. It makes no sense to talk about a desire to go to the park if you are at the park, or a desire to visit with your best friend if you are visiting with your best friend. They have used this to argue that the existence of a desire to P is incompatible with believing that P obtains - that the belief kills the desire. Thus, the death of desire.

I have argued against this view. Relevant to this discussion, I have argued against it precisely by reducing "desires to" to "desires that".

Let us take hunger, for example. I have a desire to eat. So, I go to the kitchen, I fix myself a large bowl of seasoned Brussel sprouts, and I take my first bite.

According to the "death of desire" doctrine, my desire to eat immediately ends the moment I start eating. In its place, an entirely different desire emerges - a desire to continue eating. It is this desire to continue eating that allows me to take the second, third, and thirty-sixth fork full of seasoned Brussel sprouts.

This, to me, is nonsense, particularly given what we know about the biology of desire. An empty stomach produces ghrelin. Ghrelin controls hunger. As the stomach expands, the amount of ghrelin produced decreases and hunger subsides. It is not the belief that P that causes the desire to P to die, it is a biological process that is triggered by P being the case.

This means that we have one desire that, first, drives the agent to go into the kitchen and fix seasoned Brussel sprouts, and then to continue eating them until the plate is empty.

The best way to understand this is as a "desire that" I eat. The phrase "desires to" is simply the phrase we use to talk about a desire in the context where the object of desire does not obtain. The "desire to eat" is a phrase we use to talk about the "desire that I am eating" when it is the case that I am not eating. If I am eating, the phrase we use is "desires to continue."

In short, I have one desire (a desire that I eat), and two phrases, one for talking about the desire when I am not eating and another for talking about the desire when I am eating.

In other words, there is only one desire - a "desire that". This desire motivates me to act so as to fulfill the desire, and to keep acting once I fulfill the desire at least for a while. "Desire to" statements are statements used to talk about this "desire that" in different context. Which means that "desires to" is fully reducible to a "desires that" plus that context that "desires to" is calling attention to.

This provides a little extra reason, contra Massin, for thinking that "desires to" can be reduced to "desires that"'

I should mention that there is one more article on the theories of desire for me to go through. Then, I will be able to look at some empirical evidence. That should be fun. Stay tuned.


On Desire 2018. Part 37: Comparitive vs Absolute Values

You know . . . I hate using the term "absolute values" in this title. I fear it will call to mind a doctrine of absolute moral values that are unchanging and without exception - a type of value whose existence I reject.

In this post, I need to distinguish between preference and desire.

The difference is that preference is a comparative value, while desire is an absolute value.

The point of this posting: I want to argue that the logic of "good" and "desire" is the logic of absolute or assigned values. The logic of "ought" and "preferences" is the logic of comparatives. Because the logic of desire is like the logic of good, this is at least consistent with associating "good" with "that which is such as to fulfill the desires in question".

Now, for the discussion.

A desire is an assignment of a value to the importance of a proposition being true (or false). This assignment is non-comparative. It simply says, "take proposition that I am eating pumpkin pie with whipped cream and assign it a value of 5." At this point we know only that this is a desire that P - that the agent wants P (where P = "I am eating pumpkin pie with whipped cream") to be true. It doesn't say anything about any other state of affairs.

"Preference", on the other hand, is a comparative. I prefer pumpkin pie with whipped cream over plain pumpkin pie. This is a way of saying that the value attached to the importance of the proposition "I am eating pumpkin pie with whipped cream" being true is higher than the value assigned to the importance of the proposition "I am eating pumpkin pie without whipped cream" being true.

Olivier Massin, in the article I have been criticizing, (Massin, Olivier, (2017), “Desires, Values, and Norms” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.) has argued that "desire" is in the "guise of the ought" rather than the "guise of the good" because the logic of desire is like that of "ought" and not "good".

Contra Massin, it is actually easy to both illustrate Massin's error and the logic of comparitives versus absolute (or assigned) values by looking at desires and preferences.

If A is better than B, then B is worse than A by the same amount. Another way to say the same thing is that if A is better than B, then it is not possible for the agent to be indifferent as to whether A or B obtains. There is no way for the preference of B over A to be zero. If the value of A over B is positive, then the value of B over A must be negative, and vise versa. This is the logic of comparative values.

Yet, as I have been arguing in the previous posts, the fact that an agent assigns a value to A does not imply that not-A has a negative value. Indeed, I have suggested that whenever the value assigned to a proposition being true is N, then the value assigned to a proposition being false must be 0. This is what the N stands for - the distance from 0 that represents the value of the proposition being true. I have illustrated by an example in which I assigned a state of affairs where I am in pain to be -8. I assigned a state of being in a little pain the value of -2. And I argued that the value of being in no pain at all is 0.

Notice the difference here. If the value of "A over B" is 8, then the value of "B over A" cannot be zero. But if the assigned value of A is 8, then the assigned value of not-A is 0. value of being in a little pain My aversion to a little pain is -2. And my aversion to no pain is 0.

Preferences, as described her, "prohibit indifference to the negation of their content". One cannot prefer A over B and be indifferent to B over A. However, desires do not prohibit indifference to the negation of their content. A person can have a strong aversion to a pain of -8, but be indifferent to a pain of 0. He must, necessarily prefer "no pain" to "pain", but this does not imply that "no pain" must be desired.

Massin notices this property of prohibited indifference to the negation of content is a property of comparatives when he examines the "guise of the better". He presents the "guise of the better" as an alternative to the "guise of the good" that would be immune to his objections. Specifically, "guise of the better" prohibits indifference to the negation of their content. A cannot be better than B without B being worse than A. Thus, "guise of the better" does not have the problems that Massin attributes to "guise of the good".

Notice, "better" is a comparative. It follows the logic of comparatives. He wrote, "betterness is naturally construed as the formal object of preferences, rather than of desires."

He did not see that "betterness" is to "good" what "preferences" are to "desire". In both pairs, the first term is the comparative version of the second term. A "guise of the better" thesis would match the logic of preferences, where a "guise of the good" thesis would match the logic of desires.

Betterness and preferences follow the logic of comparatives - prohibiting indifference to the negation of their content. If A is better than/preferred to B than the agent cannot be indifferent to B over A.

Goodness and desires follow the logic of non-comparatives. It is quite compatible with A being good/desired or bad/desired-not that the agent is indifferent to not-A.