Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Arationality of Desires

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.

Ideally Rational

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.


Richard said...

I see you are using 'desire' in a different sense from me. I am talking about value-desires, i.e. those ends we are drawn to by a perception of their worthiness. You are talking about mere drives, or craving-desires. (I discuss this distinction more in my response to Martino, here.)

I think you are clearly mistaken in treating all desires as mere drives or cravings, on the model of a drug addiction. Perhaps animals' motivational system is like that, but humans are rather more complicated. We reason about our ends, and not just our means. Some ends are not wholly arbitrary, but rather pursued because we judge them to be worth pursuing. Much as you will refuse to acknowledge it, I suspect that your own desire to "make the world a better place" is an instance of this. It is a worthy project, much more so than puffing on a cigarette would be.

Reason cannot (directly) change what people crave. But it can change what they judge to be worthy, i.e. what they value. This is what the field of applied ethics is all about, after all: philosophers arguing about what is worth doing. Sometimes, a good argument will even lead one to change their mind!

If you like, you could accommodate this within your Humean framework by adding the bridging claim:

(B) Necessarily, a rational agent desires to do what's worth doing.

Then our reasoning is merely changing our beliefs about how to fulfill this antecedent desire, rather than creating any new desire-as-ends.

(Frankly, I think this is a difference without a difference, given that the desire in (B) is non-contingent. The important claim is that a belief about what's worthwhile is necessarily motivating, i.e. no matter one's contingent desires. It makes no theoretical difference whether we posit a non-contingent desire, or intrinsically motivating beliefs, to explain this.)

ADHR said...

Richard's right to note that there's two senses of "desire" that have to be pulled apart. GF Schueler has, usefully, called them the "pro-attitude" sense and the "desire proper" (or, "proper desire") sense. (In a neat little book just called Desire.) The desire-as-urge is the latter; the desire-as-valuing is the former. It's the former that has to be at stake if one wants to defend a pseudo-Humean model of practical rationality. It's just too easy to find counter-examples if the model adopts proper desires.

Once we've moved to pro-attitudes, though, it's hard to maintain the claim that there must be a pro-attitude as a condition on an agent's intentional acting, versus the claim that a pro-attitude is attributed consequent to an agent's acting intentionally. This is because we identify pro-attitudes by looking at what an agent does, and inferring back what he must have had favourable attitudes towards in order to do what he did. Pro-attitudes, unlike proper desires, don't form a definable subclass of psychological states. We can only pick them out post facto; hence, they don't really do any motivational, causal or justificatory work. They're basically epiphenomenal.

(I know that's really compressed, but I'm, unfortunately, a bit pressed for time right now!)

I also note that your argument, Alonzo, kicks back on beliefs just as much as (proper) desires. You argue against a rationality of desires on the grounds that desires may not be changed by reasons -- they are just facts about a person. But it's sadly obvious that beliefs often aren't changed in response to reasons, either. I don't see a ground for claiming that beliefs, too, aren't just facts about a person that a person might have reason to change, but cannot themselves be changed by reasons.

The error, I think, is that proper desires are, contra Hume, amenable to reason. If I realize that I can't achieve both of two proper desires I have, in my experience, one of those desires has been extinguished or, at least, de-emphasized. Consistency is one feature of rationality; so, in these sorts of cases, inconsistency alters proper desires. Indeed, if it doesn't, it's hard to figure out why people don't try to achieve incompatible things all the time.

You can also approach this conclusion from another angle. Rationality, as I understand it, involves at least getting things right. Getting things wrong is, ceteris paribus, irrational. Desires, since they are propositional attitudes (whether we read them as proper desires or pro-attitudes), can fail to be rational insofar as the propositions they are attitudes about can be false. The same applies to beliefs. The only difference I can see between beliefs and desires is that beliefs are supposed to match the world (mind-world direction of fit) and desires are supposed to make the world match them (world-mind direction of fit). If you're going to analyze this difference in the pseudo-Humean way, though, I think you're stuck with Michael Smith's solution (from The Moral Problem): you have to say that the difference is that beliefs tend to immediately go out of existence when the propositions that are their objects are false, while desires tend to persist. That's what the "direction of fit" business amounts to: just two different dispositions.

Arkaro said...

I hope Alonzo spends one more day clearing up these complaints.. even though I was just about to comment on how frustrating it is that Alonzo has to keep repeating himself since I understood him the first time. However, now I see that what's really going on here is a clarification in light of other similar theories and philosophers. For example, the pro-attitiude vs value-desire and desire proper vs urge-desire seems to be a mere game of philosophical semantics.

As an amateur ethical philosopher (ie: I haven't even read Hume *gasp*), I can much more easily grasp Fyfe than adhr's brief examples from Schueler and Smith. However, I suspect there are more than just semantic differences.. which is what I hope Fyfe will soon highlight - despite what I presume to be continued redundancies in topic!

Richard said...

Arkaro - I understand Alonzo well enough. (I used to defend his theory on the IIDB forums, years ago.) It's just that I've come to the conclusion that he's mistaken. Disagreement is not (necessarily) the same thing as misunderstanding.

So I really hope he properly considers and engages with our objections, rather than merely "repeating himself". The latter would be a waste of everybody's time.

Arkaro said...

Well, perhaps I misspoke. He's certainly not repeating entire arguments, but going into different depth over such similar issues depending on the confused comments.

Your qualm is not really much different, and I think Martino makes some very good rebuttals to your evasive points. Do you realize that you keep shifting your focus throughout the thread? incoherence, rational ideals, and cravings vs attractions. All three addressed by Martino with very little response from you (aside from moving the goalpost onto the next aspect of how he keeps "missing the point").

If DU is mistaken, you'll have to point out, defend, and explain the point of the flaws more clearly. However, Alonzo says he'll get to your argument so I assume he understands your complaint and will work on putting your dispute to bed soon. We'll just have to wait for his post and go from there.

No pressure, Alonzo.. ;)

Richard said...

Arkaro, I think it's great that you're developing your interest in moral philosophy. But it would be overly hasty for you to assume that any argument you have trouble following is thereby "confused" in itself. Sweeping judgments aside, if you have a specific objection or request for clarification, feel free to state it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Richard and I have been having discussions, on and off, for quite a few years now. I remember when I first met him. He was a poor, confused Rawlsian thinking that ignorance of the real world was somehow a requirement to moral insight. He posted the first internet defense of desire utilitarianism other than my own.

The problem is not that he needs to better understand me, but that I need to understand the framework his objections are coming from. When I was writing my post to address his first comment, I knew he would write back and say, "That's not what I meant." But I needed him to specify where, exactly, what he meant differed from what I responded to.

Atheist Observer has long been one of my favorite critics, as he stands back with his ruler ready to rap my knuckles the instant I post something that hints at inconsistency or hypocrisy. More than once he has forced me to rework some section of my work.

So, I respect their work. And I am actually pleased that they have taken the time out of their days to provide me with this feedback. I am honored.

ADHR said...


Pro-attitude vs. value-desire and proper desire vs. urge-desire isn't quite semantics, but it's a quibble. The significant point is pro-attitude vs. proper desire or value-desire vs. urge-desire.

As I'm understanding Richard, his value-desire is a kind of my pro-attitude; and his urge-desire is a kind of my proper desire. So, we're both really making the same point against Alonzo, but doing it at different levels. Richard wants to talk about two more specific kinds of mental state than the ones I'm talking about.

There's a couple of differences between pro-attitudes and proper desires. For one, the latter is a subset of the former. For two, a pro-attitude is any psychological state that has some sort of conative content. That is, unlike beliefs which are purely cognitive -- they can be true or false -- a pro-attitude has another kind of content. It has a "feel" to it, for lack of a better description. A proper desire is a psychological state that has a particular kind of contative content -- phenomenological content, usually, but it could be analyzed differently. Hume, I think, mostly endorses the phenomenological view. That is, I can tell which of my psychological states are proper desires because they feel different. That may not be illuminating, but that's always the problem with phenomenology: unless everyone feels (approximately) the same thing, it won't get off the ground. Well, heterophenomenology may still have a better shot. You could also call proper desires wants.

To go completely off-topic, the difficulty in characterizing proper desires and beliefs is why I tend to suspect the whole belief/desire view of human psychology is simply wrong-headed. It's too hard to characterize these allegedly fundamental states. My suspicion is that psychology is best characterized as a whole rather than a constellation of states.

With the above proper desire/pro-attitude distinction in hand, we can see why proper desires can't be what plays the "desire" role in intentional action. Too many times, I do things that I know I don't want to do -- but I nonetheless do them intentionally. It just has to be pro-attitudes. But, pro-attitudes are a heterogenous class, including proper desires (wants, urges, promptings), but also more complex states (want-belief clusters), pure beliefs (such as moral or legal ones) and so on. So, until someone acts intentionally, it's not possible to figure out what their pro-attitudes are. This seems to me, following Schueler, to make pro-attitudes epiphenomenal.

As for Smith, I invoked him as someone who believes there is a rationality of desires. Indeed, it's the foundation of his whole moral theory that there are rational norms governing which collections of desires one should have. His distinction plays off a metaphor that's common in the philosophy of action/metaethics literature, namely of a "direction of fit". According to people who like this metaphor, beliefs and desires differ not because the former is governed by rational norms and the latter is not, but because the former have a mind-world direction of fit and the latter have a world-mind direction of fit. That is, beliefs are supposed to fit the world, and the world is supposed to fit desires.

Of course, what this "supposed to" means has to be analyzed. Smith does it dispositionally. According to him, beliefs tend to go out of existence when they disagree with the world (i.e., there is a high probability that a belief will cease to exist if it fails to fit the world), and desires tend to persist when they disagree with the world (i.e., there is a high probability that a desire will continue to exist even if it fails to fit the world). I don't think this is a good line, but I think it's better than the idea that desires are arational while beliefs are not.