I am pleased with the response that this recent series on beliefs and desires has solicited. I sincerely enjoy this stuff – moral philosophy – and consider it a gift to be able to have intelligent discussion on some of these issues.
Richard has suggested that the following is a challenge to the theory that I have been defending:
Alonzo - I believe that I would desire X if I were more rational" is compatible with "I would desire X if I were more rational" being false.'
Of course. My claim is that the belief rationally forces one to have the desire; not that the belief is necessarily true!
Compare these Moore-paradoxical assertions: (1) P is true, but I don't believe it.
(2) I would believe P if I were ideally rational; but I don't currently believe that P.
(3) I would desire that P if I were ideally rational, but I don't currently desire that P.
My claim is that the agent who asserts (3) suffers from a rational incoherence, a kind of (almost) contradiction, the same as in (1) and (2).
That is, I claim that the BELIEF that one would desire P if one was ideally rational, rationally necessitates the agent (on pain of incoherence) to DESIRE that P.
I would like to question how, “I would desire that P if I were ideally rational” makes any sense at all.
In one sense, it appears to beg the question, in that the sentence presumes that there is a ‘rationality’ of desire, when this is exactly the point that is at issue. I am claiming that there is no ‘reason’ to desires. Rather, desires are like height, hair color, blood pressure, and location. They are facts about a person that can be changed. However, reason alone does not imply any such change.
You can argue with a person all you want, getting that agent to agree with your argument will not change his height or hair color. The best you can do is to convince him that he has reasons-for-action to change his height or hair color. However, even here, convincing him that he has such reasons-for-action means convincing him that he has desires-as-ends that would be fulfilled in a state where he has a different height or hair color.
In this context, the proper interpretation of Richard’s third proposition would be like, “I would 6’3” if I were at the best possible height for me to be; but I am not currently 6’3”.
Or, “I would have no desire to smoke cigarettes if I had those desires that it would be best for me to have, but I currently have a desire to smoke cigarettes.”
Neither of these statements involve any type of incoherence – not in the way that Richard’s first two statements are incoherent.
As I said above, once a person is convinced that having a different height or hair color would better fulfill his desires, he has reason-for-action to make the change. Changing hair color is easy, and unlikely to thwart other desires, so we can expect to see people acting so as to change the color of their hair.
Changing height is not-so-easy, and the procedures would thwart a large number of other desires (not the least of which is that the money that would go into changing one’s height could have gone into fulfilling other desires). However, where changing height can more easily accomplished, we do see people acting so as to change their height. There are, for example, children who take supplemental growth hormone in order to increase their height.
The relevant fact here is that, in neither case, do we expect an application of reason to change a person’s height or hair color. There is no set of propositions whereby, when a person accepts those propositions, his height or hair color will automatically change. We could, perhaps, come up with instances where, if we can get a person to accept a set of propositions, we can get them to change their beliefs about their height or hair color. However, changing beliefs about height or hair color is not the same as changing their height or hair color. Similarly, changing a person’s beliefs about his desires-as-ends (or about whether a particular state of affairs would fulfill his desires-as-ends) is not the same as changing his desires-as-ends.
A part of my discussion is the claim that we do have tools for changing desires-as-ends, just as we have tools for changing height and hair color. A person who has been convinced that he has reason to change his desires-as-ends has reason to put those tools to work, just as a person convinced that he has reasons to change his hair color will take action to change his hair color.
Let us assume that we have convinced a person that he has reason to be rid of his desire to smoke. His desire to smoke is causing actions that threaten to thwart his other desires (namely, smoking). There is no set of arguments or beliefs that, alone, will cause the desire to smoke to cease to exist.
Or, if there is a rational argument that can actually end the desire to smoke, I would like to see that reasoning, and I suspect that a great many people with a desire to smoke would like to know it as well.
Please recall, we are looking for a set of propositions that do not merely cause an end of the desire to smoke. Since beliefs and desires both reside in the brain, perhaps believing that the earth is 4.5 billion years old has an influence on the desire to smoke. We are looking for a set of beliefs that somehow entail no desire to smoke.
Once somebody has come up with a way to end the desire to smoke through reason alone, I would like to propose another challenge - to change sexual orientation through reason alone.
Unfortunately, as a desire-as-end, the desire to smoke is not susceptible to rational argument. The desire either exists, or it does not exist. It can be changed by applying tools that have been shown to have an affect on desire, but it cannot be altered by reason alone.