Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Smith vs Parfit: 8 of 15: Addendum

I would like to thank those readers who came to my defense when my ideas came under attack by none other than myself.

Unfortunately, it seems that I must agree with my critic and concede the fact that my prior formulation had some errors that are corrected by following my critic's recommendations.

I would like to look at some suggestions for defending my original position.

I can't really see how you can say that a desire can be mistaken. Someone either has a certain desire or she doesn't. Maybe she wouldn't have this desire(-as-means) IF she had perfect knowledge about the facts of the matter, but she has the desire nevertheless.

I am not saying that a desire can be mistaken. I am saying that a proposition about a desire-as-means can be false. A person can claim, “I desire-as-means X” and be mistaken. However, her desires are not mistaken. Her claim about those desires is mistaken.

This is true in the same sense that the weight of an object cannot be mistaken, but a claim about the weight of an object can be false.

I used the case of a woman who starts to take a drink out of a glass that she believes contains water, but which actually contains poison.

I think she really DOES want to drink the contents of the glass. The fact is that doing so and thus fulfilling this desire-as-means will not fulfill her desire-as-ends.

Then how does one explain the fact that merely changing the belief about the contents of the glass causes her to not want it anymore?

This new formulation says that informing the woman that the glass contains poison causes her to draw the implication that the proposition, “I want to drink the contents of this glass” is false. This realization of false belief causes her to put the glass down. Her desires did not change. She is still thirsty. She still wants a drink of water. What changed are her beliefs – her realization that the most and strongest of her desires cannot be fulfilled by this particular act.

She is acting in accordance with her strongest desire, given her belief. Her belief is that there is water in the glass. If she is about to drink the contents of the glass, what desire is giving her the motivation to do so?

Her thirst, combined with the false belief that the glass contains harmless thirst-quencher, is motivating her to drink from the glass. Her desire-as-end, combined with a false belief, gives hr a false belief about the value-as-means of drinking the contents of the glass. The desire-as-end provides the motivation, the belief selected the means, and a false belief selected the wrong means. It selected something that the agent does not really desire-as-means, but instead falsely believes she desires-as-means.

How can one "bring about P by bringing about Q" without having the relevant belief? It might be tacit and difficult to explicate and state but it is still a belief.

She cannot. Beliefs are a necessary component of intentional action. However, they are not a necessary component of desire. Desires are independent of belief. Even desire-as-means, I am now arguing, is independent of beliefs. Desires-as-means, I now claim, depends on the relationships between means and ends that exist as a matter of objective fact, whether people believe that those relationships exist or not.

The value of getting a flu shot exists because of the factual relationship between getting the shot and avoiding the flu (and the desires-as-ends fulfilled by avoiding the flu). A person who believes that a flu shot has negative value cannot make it true just by believing it.

She does want to drink the liquid, given her beliefs is correct.

Yes, she would want to drink the liquid if her beliefs were true. But, if her beliefs were true then the glass contains water, not poison. I am not denying that she would want to drink the liquid in the glass if the glass contained water. I am denying that she wants to drink the liquid in the glass given that the liquid is some sort of poison.

AFAICS there can be no sufficient reason without at least one belief and one desire. Or having a desire without a belief is not a reason (to act). Is this what you are challenging?

Having a desire without a belief is, in fact, the same as having a reason to act. However, action itself is impossible without beliefs. Desires and beliefs are necessary to form an intention. They are not necessary for ends to have value. Desires alone gives values ends. Desires and beliefs make it possible to act so as to realize the ends that desires give value to – as long as the beliefs are true and complete.

Isn't your definition[1] of desire something like: An agent has a desire that P iff he/she will act in ways that (they believe) will realize states of affairs in which P is true. If an agent has a desire that P, and believes that realizing Q will realize P, then one would expect them to act in ways that they believe will realize Q, and so, by the above definition, they would have a desire (as means) that Q.

A belief that P is an attitude that the proposition P is true.

A desire-as-end that P is an attitude that the proposition P is to be made or kept true.

The issue here is whether an agent needs to desire-that-means that Q in order to perform Q.

I am disputing this. A person needs to desire-as-end that P and have a false belief that Q will bring about P, but this does not entail a desire-as-means that Q. We do not need to invent another entity to explain the agent's behavior. It is sufficient that he desire that P and falsely believes that Q will bring about P.

However, we do need to explain how an agent can give up on Q once she acquires true beliefs about Q's relationship to P. Telling the agent the truth about Q does not change her desires. She still wants the same things after being told that she wanted before being told. Only, now, she realizes that drinking the contents of the glass is not one of the things that she actually, really, wants.

10 comments:

Eneasz said...

Fair warning: long-winded rant incoming.

I've never felt at liberty to say anything, because I have no formal schooling in ethics or philosophy. But now that the door has been opened....

I've always had a problem with desires-as-means. They seem like a contrivance. They strike me as just as artificial as intrinsic-values or gods. I really think the distinction between desires-as-means and desires-as-ends should be dropped entirely.

Obviously, one of the weaknesses of DU/desirism is that there is no objective catalog of desires. One is free to postulate as many desires and sub-desires as one wishes, leading to a problem that is similar to the rule-utilitarianism collapse into act-utilitarianism (altho not as devistating in scope). This is an area that can't be solved by argumentation, and in a world were desirism had greater resources it would be an object of investigation for brain scientists, biologists, and psychologists.

I think any theory that says all desires can be reduced to a single ultimate desire is seriously flawed (ref. the discussion with Richard Carrier and his statement that happiness is the only ultimate desire). However I don't believe anyone has ever had a desire for a hammer and nails. People have a desire for (for example) comfort, which they believe can be (partially) brought about by joining two pieces of wood so they act as a single piece, and furthermore believe that a hammer and nails is the best way to achieve that goal. But saying they have a desire-as-means for a hammer seems silly.

Based purely on conjecture (and thus almost certainly wrong, actual work is needed to test/confirm this), I doubt that humans have more than a few dozen desires. Almost all of which are predetermined by evolution. A desire for safety, health, vengance, status, food, life, justice, tribalism, knowledge, etc. I consider "empathy" a special type of desire. Some can be created, such as a craving for nicotine, or a love of truth. And all can be strengthened or weakened.

However overall I think desires are a much smaller set than is often postulated here, and the tools of social conditioning are best used to strengthen good desires (empathy, truth, justice) and to weaken bad desires (negligence, tribalism).

I hope I'm not speaking out of turn. Do my musings seem unreasonable?

Dan Doel said...

"Then how does one explain the fact that merely changing the belief about the contents of the glass causes her to not want it anymore?"

If a desire-as-means is a package of a belief and a desire, then modifying an agent's beliefs modifies the agent's desires as well.

"The issue here is whether an agent needs to desire-that-means that Q in order to perform Q.

I am disputing this. A person needs to desire-as-end that P and have a false belief that Q will bring about P, but this does not entail a desire-as-means that Q. We do not need to invent another entity to explain the agent's behavior. It is sufficient that he desire that P and falsely believes that Q will bring about P."

Well, of course one doesn't need to invent a new entity to explain what is already explained by belief + other desire. It's just a convenient short-hand for referring to the two (or more) related, interacting pieces that we're using to explain the behavior.

Similarly, it isn't necessary to refer to combinations of desires and facts by some term, but it may well be useful.

I'm not really up on BDI, as I'm not a philosopher. I was under the impression that desire-as-means was just an abstraction that was useful because "desire that P" and "belief that Q implies P" functions similarly to "desire that Q," in that agents will act similarly whether they have one or the other. That of course conflicts with a statement that 'informing someone of facts does not change their desires,' which points to a way of distinguishing between the two states. So it's an imperfect abstraction at best.

Facts are somewhat mutable, as well, which means that if you take desire-as-means to be fact + desire, one can change an agent's desires by performing actions that have nothing to do with the agent's mental states. For instance, if there's a thirsty person, and a glass of water on the table, then they have a desire to drink from the glass, but if I poison the water, then they no longer do.

If that sort of thing is a problem, then I think Eneasz is right, and one might as well dispense with desire-as-means as a term entirely.

rauhem said...

Alonzo,

Okay, I now have a clearer understanding of what you meant to say before. But I think it doesn't get you out of trouble just yet.

There's still something not quite right, but I'm still thinking about how to put it in words (not writing in my native language doesn't help with that).

You make these statements:

Desires-as-means, I now claim, depends on the relationships between means and ends that exist as a matter of objective fact, whether people believe that those relationships exist or not.

The issue here is whether an agent needs the desire-as-means that Q in order to perform Q.

I am disputing this. A person needs to desire-as-end that P and have a false belief that Q will bring about P, but this does not entail a desire-as-means that Q. We do not need to invent another entity to explain the agent's behavior. It is sufficient that he desire that P and falsely believes that Q will bring about P.

However, we do need to explain how an agent can give up on Q once she acquires true beliefs about Q's relationship to P. Telling the agent the truth about Q does not change her desires. She still wants the same things after being told that she wanted before being told. Only, now, she realizes that drinking the contents of the glass is not one of the things that she actually, really, wants.


If I'm understanding this correctly, then in my opinion this leads to the following conclusion:

a) In case she drinks the water, correctly believing that it is water, then she really did have a desire-as-means 'drink the contents of the glass';

b) If she drinks poison, while believing that it is actually water, then she didn't have this same desire-as-means.

Can you propose a solution to this apparent paradox?

faithlessgod said...

Okay Alonzo now I am confused!

I always thought it was your position that desire-as-means is a just a useful semantic shorthand but not an ontological separate category from desire-as-ends. That is all desire-as-means are only "as if" desires and really a combination of desire-as-ends and beliefs.

You affirm this when you say

"
I am disputing this. A person needs to desire-as-end that P and have a false belief that Q will bring about P, but this does not entail a desire-as-means that Q. We do not need to invent another entity to explain the agent's behavior. It is sufficient that he desire that P and falsely believes that Q will bring about P."

So what is new? That desire-as-means is more than shorthand... it is misleading?

When have you ever answered that "The issue here is whether an agent needs to desire-that-means that Q in order to perform Q." in the affirmative? That is that this implies that desire-as-means is, in some sense, ontologically (let us say...) basic? You and I (well at least me) have always denied this, I thought.

Kip said...

A> Her thirst, combined with the false belief that the glass contains harmless thirst-quencher, is motivating her to drink from the glass. Her desire-as-end, combined with a false belief, gives hr a false belief about the value-as-means of drinking the contents of the glass. The desire-as-end provides the motivation, the belief selected the means, and a false belief selected the wrong means. It selected something that the agent does not really desire-as-means, but instead falsely believes she desires-as-means.

Why do you say her desire is "thirst quenching" instead of "water drinking"? She has both, right? Presumably there are numerous ways to quench thirst, and some people may really prefer water over some other liquid, or may not like drinking plain water very much at all. The lady in question clearly has the desire to drink water at the point at which she is about to drink what she believes is water. What desire motivated her to pick up the glass of what she thought was water and pour that liquid into her mouth? It was the desire to drink water. (Which, also can have instrumental value in fulfilling other desires: the desire to have thirst quenched, the desire to not get dehydrated, the desire to stay alive, etc.)

Kip said...

Alonzo: I'm not sure if anyone else is having this problem, but for the past couple of weeks I have not been receiving any follow-up comments sent to my email even though I am subscribed to several posts that get commented on after I have subscribed.

faithlessgod said...

Okay from your latest post I can see where your view has changed

"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."

So you are saying that if a belief that Q will bring about P is
1. False, then there is no desire-as-means that Q.
2. True, there is a desire-as-means that Q.

Hmmm....so a false belief can lead to a mistake about what desires one has? However surely it is still the case that she desires to drink the liquid, provided that she has the false belief that it is water. Change the belief and the desire changes, but only because it was a derivative not actual desire either way!

Surely it is simpler and more correct to say that all desire-as-means are constructs or derivative. Now you are saying that some are actual if the beliefs to have them are true?

faithlessgod said...

Woops

Change the belief and the desire does not change. The desire remains the same just that drinking the liquid is no longer a means to fulfil the desire.

Kip said...

A> "An actual desire-as-means that Q requires that the belief is true."

So, what type of desire is it if the belief is false?

And if you say it is no desire at all, then I'd say the "desire-as-means" is no desire at all for the same reasons.

I think the entire "desire-as-means" construct is unnecessary and confusing and should be scrapped at this point. Use the things that actually exist: desires and beliefs. Do not introduce unnecessary entities.

faithlessgod said...

Kip

My point exactly (just to clarify).