Richard wishes to argue that my account of morality in terms of desires – which he identifies as “mere drives and cravings” is inadequate. He wishes to reserve a role in ethics for ‘value-desires’ – a type of desire that adds the quality that its object is somehow ‘worthwhile’.
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.
My response is that these value-desires do not exist. Instead, the phenomena that Richard is talking about and wishes to capture under ‘value-desires’, I capture under the heading of second-order desires or desires that certain desires exist.
These second-order desires can be desires-as-ends that other desires exist, but most often they are desires-as-means that other desires exist. They come from the recognition that some desires tend to fulfill other desires, and some desires do not. The desires that tend to fulfill other desires are desires that people generally have reason to endorse and have the real-world properties that Richard classifies as ‘value-desires’. The desires that do not tend to fulfill other desires, and perhaps even thwart other desires, are Richard’s ‘mere drives or cravings’.
ADHR provides an example of this in saying:
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 rationally; so, in these sorts of cases, inconsistency alters proper desires.
Now, without addressing the question of whether it is ‘contra Hume’ or not, when there are two incompatible desires this tells us something of the value of each desire as a means. Each desire contributes to the thwarting of the other, and thus each desire provides a reason for action to get rid of the other.
Which desire should a person get rid of?
Well, I have a desire to have a healthy body, and I have a desire for chocolate. These desires are in conflict. In deciding between them, I note that the desire for a healthy body will tend to fulfill other desires. However, my desire for chocolate does not. As such, I recognize that the desire for a healthy body has more value as a means than my desire for chocolate. I have more and stronger reasons to give up my desire for chocolate than my desire for a healthy body. In fact, the desire for chocolate is one which I would choose to get rid of.
As for the possibility that a desire will simply disappear when the agent recognizes a conflict, there are far too many examples when this is not the case. Poor eating habits, gambling, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sexually transmitted disease, all point to cases where a person may wish that desire that conflicts with others would simply disappear, but does not.
Now, ADHR did not say that all desires are like his ‘proper desires’ when they come into conflict. He has not denied the existence of what he has called drive-desires. However, the only testimony he offers is a personal testimony that he has witnessed such a phenomenon.
I would like to politely suggest that one look at this with the same attitude that one would use in looking at the claim, “I know that ghosts exist; I saw one.” I will not deny that ADHR saw something. I would question the accuracy of his interpretation.
We can get something like the suppression of one desire when we realize that it is in conflict with another when, instead of having two desires, we have one desire that can e fulfilled in two different ways. A person can have a desire for sex. He may not care whether it be with Sam or Jesse. Either option fulfills his desire and, thereby, causes the other desire to ‘disappear’. However, this was not a conflict in ends, it was a conflict in means.
The main problem with Richard’s alternative is the impossibility of coming up with any sense of ‘worthiness’ other than ‘being such as to fulfill the desires in question.’ Allegedly, objects of desire can have a property of ‘worthiness’. The simple recognition that something has this property can motivate us to bring it about. Indeed, the recognition of the ‘worthiness’ of an object of evaluation is supposed to be enough to generate a motivation to pursue it – a ‘value-desire’, or a ‘motivational belief’.
No, sorry, I don’t see any reason to go down that road. There is no real-world evidence that compels this type of metaphysics. Second-order desires – the endorsement of desires because they tend to fulfill other desires, either directly or indirectly, has all of the real-world explanatory power we need without postulating any strange entities.
Part of his justification for this belief is that humans are
. 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.
Yes, we do ‘reason about our ends’. However, there is no such thing as a pure end. Any end we adopt has effects – it is a means to the fulfillment of other ends – or a barrier to their fulfillment. So, we are wise to reason about the value of an end as a means, and to adopt those ends that tend to promote other ends, while inhibiting those ends that tend to thwart other ends.
I will agree that animals do not have the capacity to reason about the value of their ends as means. Yet, animals still (in an unreflective – unphilosophical way) exploit the power of second-order desires. One creature in a colony acts in ways that aggravate others. The others respond with condemnation and punishment. The first animal then learns his place – learns how to behave as a member of the colony.
Because these animals are unreflective about such things, they do not use these tools as efficiently as we are capable of using them. They cannot sit down and debate whether it really is a good idea to be inhibiting this desire or promoting that one. “Maybe it has some long-range or secondary benefits that outweigh its prima-facie badness?” However, the raw materials are there, and they do not require introducing some type of ‘worthiness’ into our world view.
Richard’s objections come with a recommendation
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.
In order to respond to this objection precisely, I need to know what Richard has in mind for a ‘rational agent’ and for a quality of ‘worth doing’. Yet, I suspect that whatever definitions he offers, I am going to reject this proposition.
Others have reason to make it rational for me to do what is worth doing. Here, by ‘rational’ I mean that an action is such as to fulfill my own desires, while ‘worth doing’ means that those same desires are those that tend to fulfill the desires of others. In fact, I would agree that this is the purpose for moral practices – to promote in people those desires that they have reason to promote, those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. To the degree that they are successful, then what is rational for me will be that which is worth doing.
However, there is no guarantee of success. To the degree that moral institutions fall short, to that degree we have people for whom it is rational to do things that do not fulfill the desires of others; that even thwart the desires of others.
I do not know if Richard would accept this view of rationality. I suspect that he would not accept this account of ‘worth doing’. He has something else in mind. I will answer that this ‘something else’ he has in mind isn’t real. It is as much of an invention as God, and it is just another way to try to give special significance to ends that really obtain their value in the way I described above.
Richard suggests that I assign his quality of worthiness to my own project of making the world a better place than it would have otherwise been.
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.
He knows me well enough to know that I will ‘refuse to acknowledge’ this option. My desire to make the world a better place has no quality of ‘worthiness’ has he would define it. It has the quality of being a desire that people generally have reason to promote (based on their desires). Any attempt to write anything more into that involves stepping into the realm of fiction.
In fact, the differences between our two accounts invite me to ask the following question:
Is there a case in which something fulfills one of our accounts, but not the other? Is there a case in which a desire that tends to fulfill other desires is also a desire for that which is not worthwhile? Or a desire that tends to thwart other desires is worthwhile?
If not – if the two sets are co-existent, I can get rid of Richard’s concept of ‘worthwhileness’ because I simply do not need it. It does no work.
However, if it is true, then we have ‘worthwhileness’ promoting people to do harm by promoting them to pursue that which thwarts other desires, or inhibiting them from doing good by inhibiting them from doing that which fulfills other desires.
This is not a strong argument. It is not an argument at all, since it begs every question that can be begged. However, it does provide an important illustration at what is at stake. Can something have ‘worthwhileness’ that gets in the way of desires that tend to fulfill other desires or promote desires that tend to thwart other desires?
The real argument against this concept of ‘worthwhileness’ is that, if it exists, what is it? What does it take for a proposition identifying something as ‘worthwhile’ to be true or false? How do we recognize it when we see it? How is this alleged capacity to recognize ‘worthwhileness’ made compatible with the fact of human evolution? What is happening when one person identifies a state of affairs as being ‘worthwhile’ while another identifies it as ‘a waste of time’? Who is right? Can they both be right?
These types of questions argue against adding ‘worthwhileness’ to our ontology unless we absolutely have to. I hold that we do not have to. We can do everything we need to do by evaluating the capacity of desires to fulfill or thwart other desires – and we don’t have all of these pesky questions.
Value desires are not a new type of desire susceptible to reason. They are regular desires being evaluated according to their usefulness in fulfilling other desires.