Friday, February 26, 2010

Irrational Desires

I am currently looking over the objections that Chris Heathwood A to a desire-fulfillment (or desire-satisfaction) theory of a good life.

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

One of the problems he claims exists with such a theory concerns the possibility of irrational desires.

[A] person might know that going to the dentist is in his interest, but still he prefers and chooses not to go, because he is weak-willed. The claim is that desire satisfactionism implies, incorrectly, that since he desires not to go and all desire satisfactions are good for a person, it is good him not to go to the dentist.

The question is: What does it take to make a desire irrational?

I argue that an irrational desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires of the agent. (An immoral desire is a desire that tends to thwart the desires of other agents.)

The desire to smoke is an irrational desire. It is a desire that tends to lead to future consequences that will thwart the desires that the agent can be expected to have at that time. All things considered, the agent would be better off not smoking. However, all things considered, the agent would be better off if she never acquired the desire to smoke.

The reason that irrational desires exist is that desires are not capable of backward causation. A future desire cannot influence present-day actions. When an agent acts, he only acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his current desires, given his beliefs. He never acts so as to fulfill a desire that does not yet exist - even if he knows that it will exist.

A person can know full well that a current desire (to smoke, to drink, to eat, to gamble, to use some cocaine, for sex, for pornography, to avoid public speaking, to avoid flying, to avoid germs) is excessive and will thwart many and strong future desires, and still succumb to that irrational desire. Because, while his beliefs about the relationship between acts motivated by current desires and the fulfillment of future desires are true, the future desires are also impotent.

When desires come into conflict, the next question that comes up is: Which desires should be changed? Which are the desires to be given up and which are to be kept?

Desire fulfillment theory says that malleable desires should be given up. It makes no sense to try to give up desires that are fixed. And, of malleable desires, those desires that are easiest to change should be changed in preference over those that are harder to change.

When we talk about irrational desires, we are not just talking about desires that are difficult to give up once they have been gotten, but desires that can be avoided in the first place. A fair amount of social morality goes into avoiding the acquisition of desires that tend to thwart other desires, because it is recognized that, once acquired, they cannot easily be unacquired.

It is a part of this theory that the fulfillment irrational desires count towards the quality of a life. After all, if we take that same desire and strip away the conflicts that make it irrational, we would also be taking away all reasons-for-action for avoiding that desire to begin with. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist, so the only reasons for action that exist for getting rid of an irrational desire are the desires that the irrational desire will thwart.

On this model, irrational desires do not provide a problem with a desire-fulfillment theory of value. Instead, a desire-fulfillment theory of value provides the best way of understanding irrational value.

It tells us what irrational desires are (malleable or avoidable desires that tend to thwart future desires).

It tells us how it is that irrational desires can exist (future desires have no backward causation so weaker current desires can cause actions that thwart many and strong future desires).

It tells us why irrational desires generally subtract from the quality of a life (because of the weight of the future desires that end up getting thwarted).

2 comments:

BJ said...

I think I understand irrational desires, and I want to see how I can apply this in my life.

I would think that part of a desire's being irrational is that it isn't well thought-out. I mean, I don't go around thinking, "Gee, perhaps engaging in this activity may thwart my future, stronger desires that may improve my quality of life down the road."

So: How can I identify irrational desires and effectively combat them?

cl said...

I use "guiding desires" synonymously with your "desires-as-ends," and I use "pursuant desires" synonymously with your "desires-as-means."

I argue that an irrational desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires of the agent.

Though I wouldn't use the word irrational to describe such a desire, in a sense -- perhaps a simplistic one -- I can agree with you. For example, if my guiding desires are to live an optimally healthy life and maintain a healthy relationship with my wife, then the pursuant desires to drink a twelver, hit the strip club and smoke a pack of unfiltered cigarettes each day would surely seem to thwart those guiding desires. Presuming my wife is the type whose feathers would be ruffled if I drink a twelver, hit the strip club and smoke a pack of unfiltered cigarettes each day, as opposed to calling those pursuant desires irrational, I'd simply say my pursuant desires were defective (meaning incapable of fulfilling my guiding desires). That distinction is really just a matter of semantics not relevant to my larger objections with desirism.

An immoral desire is a desire that tends to thwart the desires of other agents.

That's too simplistic for me. If I get cornered by some thugs who desire to rob then kill me, and I desire to escape, my desire would tend to thwart the desire of those other agents, but no rational or reasonable person would call my desire immoral.

The desire to smoke is an irrational desire.

As you say, if and only if it thwarts other desires of the agent. That's for each agent to decide, not you or I or any other third party. If my guiding desires are avoiding senility and attracting females that like guys who smoke, the desire to smoke is not irrational but capable, meaning able to fulfill my guiding desires.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist,

I agree with a caveat: desires are the only reasons for purposeful action that exist.