Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Smith on Parfit 4 of 15: Classification of Desire-Based Theories

In this series of posts I am commenting on an article sent to me by a member of the studio audience. These are, in a sense, notes written in the margin as it were as I highlight passages in the article and explain my agreement or disagreement.

The next phrase that I highlight for comments is this one, in which Smith is quoting Parfit.

According to one group of theories, all . . . reasons [for action] are provided by facts about what might fulfill or achieve our present telic desires or aims. Some of these theories appeal to our actual present desires or aims. Others appeal to the desires or aims that we would now have, or would want ourselves to have, if we had carefully considered all of the relevant facts. I shall call this group of theories desire-based. (On What Matters, §3)

And

[W]e should classify desire-based theories of reasons for action more directly in terms of the principles of rationality that they take to govern desire formation . . . . This is because all such theories agree that what we have reason to do is what we would desire that we do after informed and rational deliberation.

I scribble in the margins as follows:

Well, I do not agree. We have reason to do that which will fulfill our desires. We may have more and stronger reasons to do some things compared to others based on having more and stronger desires that would be fulfilled by each alternative.

That's it. Informed and rational deliberation plays no role.

This idea of desires or aims that we would now have, or would want ourselves to have, if we had carefully considered all of the relevant facts is a red herring.

There are two types of desires – desires as means and desires as ends.

Desires as means are actually packages made up of desires-as-ends and beliefs. Beliefs are subject to change through informed and rational deliberation. However, beliefs are not the component that realizes value or reasons for action in a desires-as-means.

The only part of a desires-as-means that is relevant to value are the desires-as-ends that are a part of their composition. And desires-as-ends are not subject to modification by reason or information. The desires as ends (or telic desires) that an agent would have if fully informed are precisely the same desires as ends the agent would have while wallowing in ignorance.

So, I reject Parfit's second characterization of a desire-based theory. Am I then committed to Parfit's first characterization of a desire-based theory?

This one says, [R]easons [for action] are provided by facts about what might fulfill or achieve our present telic desires or aims. Some of these theories appeal to our actual present desires or aims.

Again, I would need to qualify it that I would accept this only insofar as it is clear that we are talking only about telic desires or desires-as-ends. The extent of reasons for action that exist is limited to the set of desires-as-ends that exist.

All of the relevance of desires-as-means is fully captured by the desires-as-ends that are contained within them. An agent's reports about what he desires-as-means can well be corrupted by false or incomplete beliefs. Being fully informed can help to correct the desires-as-means. However, this has little to do with the work we are doing on actual (as opposed to merely believed-in) reasons for action - which are desires-as-ends.

4 comments:

faithlessgod said...

Hi Alonzo

There may be no comments on this series but the ideas are important and they are being read by me and I guess Luke as well as others.

I am too busy to blog at the moment but when I have time I will be analysing Scanlon's arguments in a similar vein.

Kip said...

Alonzo> "The only part of a desires-as-means that is relevant to value are the desires-as-ends that are a part of their composition."

This doesn't make sense to me. It seems that most of my desires are desires as means. And those desires motivate my actions.

Example: I desire making money. I value money. It's something that motivates me to go to work, increase my skills, seek better job opportunities, etc. Yet, money is not my desire as end. Money is just a means to get the things that I value as ends. I don't understand why you would say that I don't value money, when it sure seems to me that I do.

Can you please clarify & explain? Thank you.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kip

I am not saying that you do not value money.

I am saying that you value-as-means money, but you do not value-as-ends money. You value-as-ends the things that money can be used for, not the money itself.

The value of money depends on these desires-as-ends. Withotu them, money would have no value.

If, for example all of your desires-as-ends were for things where money could not help you, then money would have no value-as-means. If all of your desires-as-ends disappeared, your desires-as-means for money would also disappear.

Kip said...

Thanks, Alonzo. I understand what you're saying, now.