Saturday, August 11, 2007

Altering Desires as Ends

Atheist Observer and Thayne have challenged me to better defend my claim that reason cannot affect desires-as-ends; that it takes something else (such as praise and condemnation.

From Thayne:

So far, I've seen no particular reason to accept Alonzo's assertion that information and reasoning cannot change desires-as-ends. As far as I can tell, it just seems that way to Alonzo. I'm curious if there is any psychological research to back his claim.

First, we need a more precise account of just the type of relationships I am talking about here.

It may be possible for reason to cause a change in desires-as-ends. For example, empirical research may show that, by reasoning with a person, and demonstrating to him convincingly that the sum of the square of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse, that this may cause the agent to have a stronger preference for rhubarb pie.

After all, beliefs and desires are both brain states. Altering a person’s beliefs means altering the pathways in the brain. Those pathways may also have some significance in determining what a person desires. It may well be the case that the pathways for the quadratic equation also function as a stronger desire for rhubarb pie.

Yet, I suspect that these are not the types of relationships Atheist Observer and Thayne are talking about. They certainly are not the types of relationships that I am talking about. I am talking about something that has the structure of entailment – logical implication – inference.

Somehow, a set of beliefs (acquired through reason) are supposed to entail or imply a desire-as-end such that a person who accepts the premises (beliefs) without having the desire-as-end is guilty of some sort of logical incoherence.

When we talk about implication, we are not talking about something that is verified or falsified for psychological research. When mathematicians said that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse, it is a mistake to say, “I want to see some psychological research that shows that the sum of the squares of the sides must equal the square of the hypotenuse.” Asking for psychological research to verify or falsify this claim would be a category mistake.

If somebody wants to assert that a set of beliefs can entail or imply a desires-as-end in such a way that having the former but not the latter is incoherent, I simply would like to see that argument.

It would be an argument that takes the form:

  • Proposition believed
  • Proposition believed
  • Proposition believed
  • Therefore, proposition desired-as-end

Simply provide an example that has this structure where the premises actually entail the conclusion, and my thesis has been disproved.

I suggest that it cannot be done.

Furthermore, I argue that this is the insight that sits at the core of Hume’s claim that one cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’.

I have argued that a person can derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. This is the case because ‘ought’ means ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question’ – which is an ‘is’ statement, and can be derived from other relevant ‘is’ statements.

However, these ‘is’ statements must include desires-as-ends. Without any desires-as-ends there are no reasons for action, and without reasons for action, an ‘ought’ claim makes no sense. Therefore, you cannot derive an ‘ought’ conclusion – a conclusion about reasons for action – unless the premises contain reasons for action (desires-as-ends).

Which means that the only way you are going to get ‘proposition desired-as-end’ in your conclusion in the argument above is if you include not only propositions believed, but propositions desired-as-end in the premises.

That is to say, you are going to have to have an argument in which the ‘desire-as-end’ that makes up the conclusion is going to be evaluated according to its relationship to the ‘desires-as-ends’ that fit into the premises. Or, as I have repeatedly said, we can evaluate desires-as-ends just as we evaluate everything else in the universe, according to how well or how poorly that desire-as-end fulfills other desires-as-ends.

Let’s look at what this theory says about a drug addiction, for example. A drug addiction is a strong desires-as-end for the effects of a drug that tends to thwart other desires. Now, you can reason with a person about why this desire for drugs is a bad thing. You can totally convince him that this is a bad thing. However, all of the convincing you can do will still leave him wanting the drug. The best you can hope to accomplish is to explain to him that the more and stronger of his desires can be met by not taking the drug – and that he should perform those actions that will weaken the desire for the drug. But reason itself does not change the desire.

Atheist Observer combined this with another challenge – a challenge that praise and condemnation cannot affect desires.

How many times has condemnation without any supporting reasons or facts caused you to change your desires?

However, all I am talking about when I speak about praise and condemnation changing their desires are versions of the widely known phenomena of conditioning. You do not train a pet by sitting down and reasoning with him. You train a pet by providing positive and negative reinforcement – by rewarding the types of behavior you want to see repeated, and punishing the behavior that you want to see inhibited. No amount of reasoning is involved.

There is no reason to believe that humans are somehow immune to these forces.

Reasoning can only serve to teach a person how to fulfill the desires he already has. If a person desires not to do harm to others, you can reason with him, and show him that a particular course of action causes harm to others. However, if he does not care what happens to others, if he greatest joy is found in the suffering of others, then what type of reasoning are we going to use to get him to care?

If you like spicy food, and your significant other does not, then what type of argument are you going to use to get your partner to like spicy food? What set of propositions, once believed, entail the conclusion that “spicy food tastes good to me after all?”

On the other hand if you take a kid (in particular), and expose him to spicy food, and you surround this exposure with praise for those who eat this food and condemnation for those who do not, then you create a situation where that child is at least more likely to grow up to be somebody who likes that food. This is how food traditions within a culture are preserved – how tastes in food are handed down.

You cannot reason somebody into liking liver and onions. You may be able to reason him into eating it (if eating it will help to fulfill other desires he already has), but you cannot reason him into liking it.

So, this is why I believe that beliefs cannot entail a desires-as-end (or you cannot reason a person into a desires-as-end). And why social tools such as praise and condemnation can affect desires-as-ends.

7 comments:

Richard said...

"If somebody wants to assert that a set of beliefs can entail or imply a desires-as-end in such a way that having the former but not the latter is incoherent, I simply would like to see that argument."

What about my comment right here?

Atheist Observer said...

Alonzo,

How about this:

John believes Mary is a beautiful, sexy woman.
John believes Chez Pierre is a good place for a romantic dinner.
John believes he enjoys romantic dinners with beautiful, sexy women.
John has a desire-as-ends to have a romantic dinner with Mary at Chez Pierre.

If you wanted to change John’s desire as ends for this dinner would you:
a) try to condemn, embarrass, or humiliate him about it.
b) Reason with him and explain Mary hates men, can’t stand French food, and Chez Pierre is actually noisy, crowded, and ridiculously overpriced.

My point is that operant conditioning may work in rats, chickens, and dogs, and to some degree in small children, but as a method to change desires as ends in adults it effectiveness is marginal at best. “Clockwork Orange” was just a movie.

Just how much condemnation and ridicule would it take to make you change your desire to leave the world a better place? Or do you consider that desire just a means?

martino said...

Atheist Observer:
[1]John believes Mary is a beautiful, sexy woman.
[2]John believes Chez Pierre is a good place for a romantic dinner.
[3]John believes he enjoys romantic dinners with beautiful, sexy women.
[4]John has a desire-as-ends to have a romantic dinner with Mary at Chez Pierre.


Surely [4] is not a desire-as-ends but as desire-as-means. Presumably there is an unstated desire-as-ends here such as John desires Mary romantically or equivalent. For example, a friend who does want John to be involved with Mary might criticize belief [2] and suggest a better place for romance. If John was convinced his desire-as-means would change but his desire-as-ends would not.

(The example is peculiar for its point but not uncommon of course. It implies an old story we are all probably familiar with. We have all had friends who sought or were involved with someone we know would be a disaster for them (or have been that person ourselves). We have all reasoned with them and mostly this does not work becuase this is a desire-as-ends.)

So your means to change [4] is misplaced since this is a desire-as-means.

Hence you would choose b) in your list of options
a) try to condemn, embarrass, or humiliate him about it.
b) Reason with him and explain Mary hates men, can’t stand French food, and Chez Pierre is actually noisy, crowded, and ridiculously overpriced.

Atheist Observer said...

Martino,
The dinner might be a means, but it could also be an end. Perhaps John doesn't want a long term relationship, he just wants that evening.

martino said...

Atheist Observer
The dinner might be a means, but it could also be an end. Perhaps John doesn't want a long term relationship, he just wants that evening.

In which case pursue option b) then a). However this example has an oddness which does not make look like a prototypical or stereotypical exemplar to discuss this point.

The question, either way, is that once one has dealt with the associated beliefs involved succesfully or not, what is left to deal with the desires apart from praise, adulation, reward and condemnation, ridicule and punishment?

Atheist Observer said...

Martino,

It is my belief that desires-as-ends are rarely, if ever changed in adults by praise or condemnation. I can’t imagine any desire of yours I could change by saying, “Martino’s desire for X is horrible. Martino’s desire for X is horrible. Martino’s desire for X is horrible.” I’ve condemned your desire, but without some supporting reasons that might affect your beliefs, you are unlikely to change at all. Your most likely reaction is just to think I’m ignorant or mean.
I see that as counter-productive because it makes you less likely to listen to any reasoned arguments I might have.

Eneasz said...

Atheist Observer - You seem to saying that condemnation from a random stranger won't make any difference to you, and most people would probably agree. I'm more interested in what your reaction would be if it was persons very close to you condemning you. Your spouse, your siblings, your friends, your co-workers. Your immediate peer-group, who's opinions and esteem you value. I think condemnation from these sources would be much more likely to affect you. If almost everyone who you held dear were to harshly critisize you for (in example) fraternizing with someone of a different race, view you as less worthy as a human, as someone who is poisening the purity of your own race.... I would think that your desire to fraternize with different races would be greatly reduced.

I think a quick examination of history bears this out.