Monday, October 12, 2009

Smith on Parfit: 10 of 15: The Limitless Types of Desires

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.

I am looking at some principles of what reason is thought to require that Smith presented in the article. In Part 8, I argued that a desire-as-end that P and a belief that bringing about Q will bring about P only generates a belief in a desire-as-means that Q. An actual desire-as-means that Q requires that the belief is true.

Another principle that Smith mentions is:

If someone has an intrinsic desire that p, then either p itself is suitably universal, or satisfying the desire that p is consistent with satisfying desires whose contents are themselves suitably universal.

I have never encountered a reason to limit the range of propositions that can be the object of a desire.

Beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes. They both exist in the brain as a consequence of the brain evolving in such a way that interaction with the external world changes the structure of the brain. This is how beliefs became possible – and how desires became malleable. Both are examples of changes in brain structure as a result of experience, tending to give individuals those beliefs and desires relevant to surviving in that particular environment.

At this point, I have not seen any reason why the range of possible desires cannot be as broad as the range of possible beliefs. If an agent can believe that P, then he can desire that P.

This is not to say that such desires are common. As I said above, nature has given us dispositions to desire those thing that have, in the past, caused us to create and preserve genetic replicas of ourselves. We are strongly disposed acquire an aversion to pain, hunger, and thirst, and to have a desire for sex. Those amateurs who think that this precludes homosexuality need to study a little biology.

The fact that nature will tend to channel our desires in a particular direction does not challenge the thesis that the range of possible desires is as broad as the range of possible beliefs. In addition, our disposition to believe might also be channeled.

Perhaps philosophers have found reason to hold that all propositions must be suitably universal, so this condition of suitable universality applies as much to what can be believed as to what can be desired. Perhaps there is an argument for it that I am simply not familiar with.

Part of the difficulty that I have with this pertains to the use of the term suitably. Suitable for what end? This would seem to invite all manner of question-begging. There may be an argument somewhere that gives more precise detail. However, until I have found out what that argument is, suitably universal remains unsuitably vague.

Until then, I hold that the range of propositions P that can be the object of a desire is as broad as the range of propositions that one can believe.

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