Friday, June 19, 2009

The Persistence and Malleability of Desires

A member of the studio audience has asked me a series of questions on the persistence and malleability of desires and their implications for desire utilitarianism. This is an ara that I have not explored in any depth before, so here goes . . .

Alonzo, one of the tenets of DU is that desires are malleable & persistent. Can you discuss and expound on these concepts?

Desires contain two relevant components, an 'object' and a 'strength'.

Desires are propositional attitudes - they can be expressed in the form, "Agent desires that P," where P is a proposition capable of being true or false. The object of a desire is found in this proposition P that the desire motivates the agent to make or keep true.

The strength of a desire is, of course, the intensity of the drive to create a state of affairs in which P is made or kept true.

Malleability refers to changing either the strength of a desire, or its object, or both.

For example, we have a desire to eat, However, our tastes in food are subject to the experiences of our childhood. We tend to eat as adults the kinds of food we were fed as children. In this way, the object of our desire to eat is (somewhat) malleable. This malleability accounts for cultural differences in native foods. This is an example of altering the object of one's desires.

As for strength, the strength of a desire determines how much effort an agent is willing to put towards realizing a particular proposition P, particularly if the desire comes into conflict with other desires. To the degree that a desire for alcohol (or a desire to be drunk) increases in strength, to that degree the agent is likely to forego the fulfillment of other desires in order to fulfill the desire to be drunk. Maleability, here, has to do with the ability to strengthen or weaken desires.

Even though desires are maleable, they do not change easily. It typically takes a number of experiences to change an individual's desires and, even then, they change slowly over time, and there seems to be limits to the extent to which they can be changes. Another fact that seems evident is that a child's mind is more plastic than an adult's mind.

A desire that exists at a particular time (e.g., a fear of flying, a fondness for chocolate, shyness) cannot be expected to change overnight. In some rare instances it will, but not often.

The persistence of a desire is the degree to which a desire can be expected to continue to exist in (approximately) its current form over time.

Particularly, I think you have said that not all desires are malleable.

Yeah, I probably have said that.

However, now that you have planted a flag here, I immediately see that it is not entirely true. There is clearly one case in which all desires are malleable - that of execution. Any desire that does exist at the time of execution ceases to exist shortly thereafter.

One thing I can say is that, when it comes to malleability, we are talking about a range of values. Some desires are more maleable than others. Desires appear to be more maleable in a child's mind than in an adult's. Some desires are more maleable in certain directions (towards or away from particular objects) than in others. There is a variety in the degree to which desires are maleable and some of them are very difficult to change - short of or significant brain damage.

How do we know which are which?

How do we know what materials are more elastic in others? Through experimentation and observation. If we are effective in altering a desire - or we see changes in the variety of a desire that we have no reason to link to genetics - then we have reason to believe that the desire is maleable. If we never see a change, we have reason to suspect that it is not maleable.

If someone has a desire that is not malleable, but it is causing the thwarting of a lot of other desires, shouldn't we be concerned with that?

If a desire - even a fixed desire - tends to thwart other desires, then those with the desires that are at risk have a reason to be concerned with the desire in question.

However, if a desire is not malleable then it makes no sense to use the social tools for molding desires against it. These types of desires harmful to others requires an alternative approach.

This happens to be the place at which we draw the distinction between those who are sick and those who are evil. We use the term ‘evil’ to direct the social forces of condemnation and punishment against those whose desires are susceptible to those influence. If, on the other hand, it make no sense to blame a person, we use the medical language of illness. We withhold condemnation and, instead, go for treatment or confinement.

In both cases, we have reason to be concerned with desires that tend to thwart other desires. However, we respond to the malleability of the desire with whatever tool is most effective.

Or, at least, it is our ideal to do so – and for good reason.

You have also said that desires are persistent -- and this seems to be the crux of why desire fulfillment act utilitarianism fails. But, it seems to me that not all desires are persistent; in fact, some are very fleeting.

As I wrote above, a more precise way of speaking is to say that some desires are more persistent than others. I’m not sure that I would agree with you that a desire itself is fleeting.

Here, we have to be cautious about the fact that the term ‘desire’ is an ambiguous term. We use it both to refer to ‘desires-as-ends’ (the final goals of intentional action – the proposition P that is the object of an actual desire), and ‘desires-as-means’ (desires as a stepping stone to ultimately get to what an agent desires-as-ends).

Desires-as-means can be fleeting because an agent might quickly discover that what he thinks will help to bring about the fulfillment of a desire will not work. He thinks he wants to take a ride on a roller coaster, until he gets on the roller coaster and discovers that the propositions P that are made true by such an experience are not those he has a desire for. In fact, he may discover he has an outright aversion to those propositions P.

Ultimately, however, it will not harm the theory to discover that some desires-as-ends are fleeting. Certainly, it is not the case that all of them are. If a desire is fleeting then it would make less sense to worry about the persistence of that specific desire over time. However, this does not change the legitimacy of worrying about the persistence of other desires over time when those desires are significantly more persistent.

None of this raises any objections to desire utilitarianism. At most, it argues that arriving at certain moral conclusions is difficult. However, it is not an objection to a moral theory that the theory states, “Discovering the answer to these moral questions is difficult,” when it happens to be true that discovering the answer to those moral questions is difficult.

In fact, it should be taken as a mark in favor of a theory that it correctly identifies the moral difficulties that actually do exist.

So, this definitely seems to be a bit of a quandary for DU -- for DU to work, desires must be malleable, yet persistent -- but not too persistent, lest they not be malleable, and not too malleable, lest they not be persistent.

There is no quandary.

It is true that, if desires were not persistent, then we would have less reason to be concerned with desires persisting over a period of time.

It is true that, if desires are not malleable, it would make less sense to use social tools such as praise and condemnation to mold desires.

However, a great many desires are persistent and they are malleable, so we do have reason to bring social forces to bear to promote some desires and inhibit others. In doing so, we do have reason to be concerned with the effects that the desires we promote and inhibit will have over time.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alonzo. I have no disagreements. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo,

I'm particularly interested in the eating example you provided. I'm writing this in an attempt to see if I understand.

The desire to eat is more basic than the desire to eat something in particular. "The agent desires to eat" is different from "The agent desires to eat a ham sandwich" but both qualify as propositional attitudes (I think).

This is where I'm very uncertain--In a way, it is the object of a desire that is often the crux of moral claims. That is, the desire "to eat" is not necessarily something one would condemn or praise but the object (e.g. human flesh) could be. Whether it is worthy of condemnation or praise (or is simply permissible) would be dependent on whether (and to what extent) it thwarts the desires (and their associated objects) of others and/or of the agent.

Eating, being a basic biological drive, is going to be largely persistent and unmalleable. The desire to eat a particular object on the hand may have a greater degree of malleability and/or "fleetiness".

I wonder if most desires that have a particular object associated with them couldn't be traced back to a more basic biological drive (like the eating example) but that may be going too far (i.e. it is incorrect)

I'm also wondering if it would be accurate to suggest that for any given propositional attitude, the persistence and malleability (for that particular person) could be plotted (conceptually anyway) on orthogonal scales creating a 2 by 2 grid.

Jon Newman

Luke said...

Today's quote, from Theism and Explanation by Gregory Dawes:

A realist (about intentional explanations) is surely not committed to the idea that these terms - "belief," "desire," "intention," and so on - pick out natural kinds. It may be that a mature scientific psychology would replace these terms with others, which more accurately describe the workings of the mind. But this does not entail that there are no beliefs, desires, and intentions. The term "sea creature" does not pick out a natural kind - it embrace, for instance, both fish and marine mammals - but this does not mean there are no sea creatures.