Thursday, February 25, 2010

Defective Desires: Ill-Informed Desires

I have been continuing to read through this paper I was sent in which Chris Heathwood argued that the best desire satisfaction theory of a good life is the same as the best hedonist theory of a good life.

Desire Satisfaction and Hedonism by Chris Heathwood (Philosophical Studies (2006) 128:539–563).

I want to skip one of the concerns he raises with a desire-satisfaction (desire-fulfillment) theory of a good life - a desire not to be well off - and address to other concerns that are more fundamental to a desire-fulfillment theory of value.

He claims that a desire-fulfillment theory of a good life runs into problems with respect to defective desires. He then claims that there are two types of defective desires - ill-informed desires and irrational desires.

There is no such thing as an ill-informed desire.

The types of desires that a desire-fulfillment theory of value is concerned with is a type that does not yield to information.

Heathwood himself admits this early in his paper, but seems to forget this fact after a few pages.

Everyone seems to agree on one restriction to Simple Desire Satisfactionism right off the bat: we should count only intrinsic desires. If I want to turn on my CD-player only because I want to hear the Pixies, I am made no better off if only the first desire is satisfied.

Here, I apply the distinction between desires-as-means and desires-as-ends. When talking about desire fulfillment, I am only talking about desires-as-ends fulfillment. I use desire-fulfillment as a shortcut or abbreviation.

There is also desires-as-means fulfillment. However, the fulfillment of a desires-as-means only has value insofar as it successfully brings about something that the agent desires-as-end. If a desires-as-means is fulfilled without fulfilling a desires-as-end, then the desires-as-means fulfillment has no value. Thus, if the desires-as-means of turning on the CD player is fulfilled, it only has value insofar as it brings about the fulfillment of the desires-as-end of listening to the Pixies. Otherwise, it was a waste of time and effort.

Desires-as-means are combinations of beliefs and desires-as-ends. I want to pick up some milk at the store is a desires-as-means that involves a desire to eat things that include milk as an ingredient and a belief that I can get milk at the store. If I pick up some milk at the store, only to drop the milk on the way home and have it spill all over the sidewalk, the fact that I had successfully fulfilled the desire-as-means of getting milk at the store is irrelevant. What really mattered was the unfulfilled desire-as-end of eating things for which milk was an ingredient.

Heathwood's own example should scream at him that what he is talking about is not a defective desire-as-end, but a defective desire-as-means grounded on a defective belief.

We might have a desire to drink from a river, not knowing that it will make us sick.

The agent does not have a desire to drink from the river.

The has a desire-as-end to drink (along with a bunch of other desires-as-ends) and a set of beliefs that leads to the conclusion that drinking from the river will fulfill the most and strongest of his desires-as-ends. The desire to drink from the river is a desire-as-means to the fulfillment of a desire to drink. However, because of his defective beliefs, he does not realize that drinking from the river will thwart some of his desires-as-ends. It will make him sick.

We know that the agent does not have a desire-as-end to drink from the river because of the possibility of substitutes for drinking from the river. If there were a restaurant next to the river where he could get a free class of ice cold water, we can ask whether he would take the cold glass of water without regret. If he would, this shows that his desire is not ‘a desire-as-end to drink from the river’, because that desire could never be fulfilled by drinking a free glass of water from the restaurant. The cold glass of water may fulfill some desires, but not that one.

So, Heathwood does not provide us with an example of an ill-informed desires-as-end. He provides us only with an ill-informed desires-as-means. And, as Heathwood himself admits, desires-as-means are not the types of desires that desire-fulfillment theorists are concerned with.

So, the 'problem of defective desires', where the type of defective desires we are talking about are ill-informed desires - does not exist. This is because ill-informed desires-as-ends do not exist, and that which does not exist cannot create problems, either for a desire-fulfillment theory of value, or a desire-fulfillment theory of a good life.

The other type of defective desire that Heathwood mentions is 'irrational desires'. Irrational desires do exist, and I will discuss them in my next post.

1 comment:

cl said...

Before reading your distinction as delineated here, I'd been referring to desires-as-ends as "guiding desires" and desires-as-means as "pursuant desires." In the example of the radio, the desire to hear the Pixies would be the guiding desire, equivalent to your "desires-as-ends, because it's what the agent ultimately wants: the larger goal, the greater good, that sort of thing. The desire to turn the radio on would be a pursuant desire, because it's an intermediate action a reasonable individual would take to fulfill the guiding desire. To contrast, a reasonable individual wouldn't buy bubble gum thinking such would fulfill his guiding desire to hear the Pixies.

..the fulfillment of a desires-as-means only has value insofar as it successfully brings about something that the agent desires-as-end. If a desires-as-means is fulfilled without fulfilling a desires-as-end, then the desires-as-means fulfillment has no value. Thus, if the desires-as-means of turning on the CD player is fulfilled, it only has value insofar as it brings about the fulfillment of the desires-as-end of listening to the Pixies. Otherwise, it was a waste of time and effort.

How is that for anyone besides the agent to decide though? I fundamentally disagree with that, because it seems tantamount to claiming the journey is only meaningful if one reaches the destination. That will vary from person to person and I can't see how we can ground any sort of definitive rule there.

The agent does not have a desire to drink from the river.

I disagree. You yourself note that the agent has both a desire-as-ends (guiding desire) and a desire-as-means (pursuant desire). The agent does in fact have a desire to drink from the river, it's just that said desire is not the guiding desire, rather a pursuant one.

Heathwood's own example should scream at him that what he is talking about is not a defective desire-as-end, but a defective desire-as-means grounded on a defective belief.

Presuming that by defective we mean something like "unable to fulfill the guiding desire" (desire-as-end), I would agree that the desire to drink from the river was not a defective desire-as-end. As you say, drinking from the river is not the desire-as-end at all, such that we could properly call it a defective desire-as-end. The desire-as-end is something like survival and would seem immune from accusations of being defective. I would also agree that the agent's pursuant desire (desire-as-means) as defective because drinking from toxic rivers isn't conducive to survival, i.e. it's unable to fulfill the guiding desire.

However, where it gets blurry for me is your claim that the agent's defective pursuant desire is grounded on a defective belief. The way I see it, the agent who drinks from the river presumes the water is clean, or at least presumes the chance of it being clean outweighs the chance of it being toxic, then acts on the belief that drinking clean water fulfills the desire-as-end (for survival). Presuming that by capable we mean something like "able to fulfill the guiding desire," if in fact the river turns out to be toxic, the belief the agent acted on remains capable as opposed to defective. Rather, I see the act itself as defective, according to the aforementioned definition of defective as "unable to fulfill the guiding desire."