Today, I wish to deal with Atheist Observer’s proposed counter-example to my claim that no set of beliefs entails a desire.
Atheist Observer proposed the following:
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.
In this example, we are to assume that, in addition to the premises that Atheist Observer put in his original argument, that the following premises are also true.
(1) Mary hates men.
(2) The Chez Pierre is noisy.
(3) The Chez Pierre is crowded
(4) The Chez Pierre is ‘overpriced’
However, this account also contains several unmentioned desires-as-ends. These desires-as-ends are necessary for these beliefs to have the motivational power they do. Specifically, Atheist Observer’s example buries the following assumtions:
(5) John has no desires-as-end to form a relationship with somebody who hates men.
(6) John has an aversion-as-end to noisy restaurants.
(7) John hates crowds
(8) John has an aversion to paying too much for food.
Note: John’s aversion to paying ‘too much’ for food is actually redundant. ‘Too much’ is that amount that John has an aversion to paying. Also, more so than with the other examples, the aversion to paying too much can either be a desires-as-end, or it can be a desires-as-means of doing other things with the money.
Whatever the details turn out to be, we have a case where we can assume that John had additional desires-as-ends in play, and that the additional beliefs merely pointed out the relationship between the state of affairs John was creating and his full set of desires-as-ends.
Specifically, note that the proposition “The Chez Pierre is noisy and crowded” by itself does not motivate John to either go to the restaurant or to refrain from going there. His motivation depends on more than a belief about the crowds and noise. It also depends on his attitudes towards crowds and noise.
Perhaps John loves noise and crowds. Perhaps crowds make him feel alive and connected, while he finds quiet, restful places to be depressing. Or, perhaps, he is indifferent. Any belief that the Chez Pierre is noisy and crowded would affect him differently, depending on his desires towards things that are noisy and crowded. The belief itself carries no recommendation to go or to refrain from going.
John might well pick the Chez Pierre because of the noise and crowds.
In fact, every belief that you can feed to John, his attitude towards that belief will depend on his desires. The beliefs themselves are motivationally neutral. The motivation to preserve or to avoid a state in which that belief is true depends on desires.
[Richard: I will get to your points on this matter tomorrow.]
Assume that you have a column of 12 numbers, and you take 3 of those numbers at random and add them up, what are the chances that the sum of those three numbers would equal the sum of all 12 numbers?
It is possible that the sums would be the same (since we are allowing for the possibility of zero and negative numbers), but it is not likely. It is certainly not guaranteed.
This is what is happening in Atheist Observer’s example above. He starts his example by relating a case in which a state of affairs relates to subset of the agent’s desires-as-ends, then he brings in the remaining desires-as-ends and shows that the resulting new sum is different than the original sum. We have shown this to the person by affecting his beliefs – by showing that his original beliefs about the relationship between that state of affairs and his desires-as-ends were mistaken. However, none of this shows that beliefs have the power to entail a change in desires as ends. It simply shows the capacity to learn new facts relating states of affairs to desires that already existed but were not mentioned.
Desire utilitarianism says that a person acts to as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs – and that false or incomplete beliefs may cause a person to act in ways that will not fulfill the more and stronger of his desires. Atheist Observer’s example is one in which an agent had incomplete beliefs and, as a result, considered acting in a way that would not have fulfilled the more and stronger of his desires. By better informing him about how the relevant state of affairs compared to the more and stronger of John’s desires, we have shown John that his original estimate is correct.
The Cost of Precision
I have argued in the past that the cost of information is high, and because of this cost we must sometimes take shortcuts.
Assume that somebody gives you a long list of numbers and tells you that he wants to know the total in, say, 20 seconds. You need to get as close as possible. What would you do?
Personally, I would start adding from left to right, adding the first digits in the largest numbers first and add them to get an estimate. After I got done with the highest column I would move to the next highest. I would give the person asking the question as much precision as I could. Yet, the numbers that I left unconsidered would still have the power to change the total, perhaps from a positive to a negative number.
It makes sense for people to do the same when evaluating whether a state of affairs will fulfill the more and stronger of his desires. He will compare the state of affairs to his stronger desires to get an estimate of its value, and learn not to sweat the small stuff. The estimated cost of error, at some point, becomes less than the estimated cost of acquiring further information. We all act – we all must act, on limited information.
This does not mean that desires unconsidered will not affect the agent’s choice. Desires (like forces) have an affect wherever they exist. The point that I am getting at here is that, if the desires are weak (or significantly weaker than the other desires in play) it is simply not worthwhile to an agent to find out more about whether a state of affairs will fulfill or thwart that desire – not if it costs him to the opportunity to fulfill some stronger desire.
Yet, in this case, the information that John did not seek becomes available. That information changes his mind, not because it generates new desires-as-ends. It is because the information tells him about relationships between the actual state of affairs and existing desires-as-ends that he had not taken the time to consider.
None of this shows that a change in beliefs entails a change in desires as ends. It only shows that a change of beliefs can change beliefs about how a state of affairs relates to the desires-as-ends that already exist.
Of course, one would use reason to point these types of errors out to a person – to point out, “Hey, John, I know that your desires-as-ends includes and aversion to noisy crowds. Let me tell you, Chez Pierre is a noisy and crowded place. It’s relationship to the full set of desires-as-ends that you already have is not what you think it is.”
Atheist Observer added a second point to his comment that I would also like to address.
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.
The precise degree to which conditioning works on adults is subject to further research. I agree that, as one gets older, its effects weaken. However, I see no reason to assume that humans are any different from animals in this way. It is also true in animals that, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Or, at least, it takes more effort for little gain to the point that it may not be worthwhile to try. Yet, the teaching of new tricks is not impossible and, if there is a sufficiently large gain to be had, then there is reason to try.
However, I allow that the greatest influence of these social forces rests with their effect on children. This is why I have argued in the past that the lessons of atheists ‘coming out’ and, in particular, in expressing certain moral principles should be done in the presence of or, better, while directly speaking to children.
At some point, it takes so much effort for such a little change in a person’s desires that it is not worthwhile to engage in that activity. We may decide to simply give up and ignore Grandpa’s racist rants, knowing that Grandpa was a product of another age and, with just a few years of life within him, it simply is not worth our while to try to change him. We may decide to quietly put up with Grandma’s religious-based moral attitudes until she passes away, while restricting her opportunity to infect her grandchildren with primitive superstitions.
Yet, none of this argues against the sensibility of using these tools where they do have an effect, and the cost of using them is less than the benefit that can be expected from the changes they bring about.