Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Unstable 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).

In this article, Heathwood presented several objections to a desire satisfaction theory of a good life and with some of the attempts to correct them.

I have asserted that desirism is not a theory of a good life but a theory of value. While lives can be better and worse they are not the only things that are capable of having value. As a result, it is not unreasonable to expect that agents would be willing to sacrifice the value found in a life in order to realize other values.

Still, desirism states that desires provide the only reasons for action that exist, so they provide the only reasons to choose one life over another. Any appeal to a reason for choosing a particular life that does not appeal to desires appeals to a reason that is imaginary.

When it comes to a good life, I argued that desirism states that a good life is a life that tends to fulfill those desires thaat typically motivate people to choose life.

I was wondering how this account stands up to what Heathwood argues to be problem with desire satisfaction theories of a good life.

One of those problems was what Heathwood called the problem of changing desires

Richard Brandt, a one-time defender of desire satisfactionism, became convinced later that any form of desire satisfactionism suffers from an irremediable defect: there is no satisfactory way to handle cases in which a desire for something is unstable. Suppose for my whole life I want rock and roll on my 50th birthday; suppose a week before the birthday my tastes change and I want easy listening on my birthday (and will continue to want easy listening). Intrinsic Desire Satisfactionism seems to imply that we make me better off by giving me rock and roll on my 50th birthday. But this seems mistaken – the theory suggests we force-feed people things they no longer want.

My first question on this example is whether Brandt or Heathwood mean for this to describe some actual state in the world, or whether it is simply a philosophical 'what if' question.

I do not see this happening in the real world.

I can well imagine a similar situation where an agent spends his life wanting rock and roll music now and believing that he will also want rock and roll on his 50th birthday. Such a person can experience a change of taste whereby, on his 50th birthday, he wants easy listening music instead.

However, there is a difference between "believing that I will want for my 50th birthday" and "wanting for my 50th birthday." The most important difference is that the former is a belief, and there is no such thing as thwarting a belief. There is no real desire for rock and roll to be fulfilled by forcing this person to have rock and roll on his 50th birthday.

This is why it makes sense to give the person easy listening on his 50th birthday.

In thinking through a number of these types of cases, I find myself having trouble thinking of even one case that is not a belief about a future desire, rather than a desire for a future state.

However, desires for future states are possible. Desirism suggests that the set of propositions that can become the object of desire is as large as the set of propositions that can become the object of belief. This is a very large set of propositions that includes desires for and beliefs about future states.

The issue here concerns a case where an individual genuinely desires to be in state S at time T. Then, at time T, he does not want to be in state S.

Now, we must remember here that we are dealing with the concept of a good life. I have described a good X as an X that has those qualities that generally fill those desires that motivate people to choose or seek out X. A good life is a life with those qualities that generally fulfill the desires that people have in a life - those desires that motivate people to choose life.

If we are talking about a genuine desire to be in state S at time T that the agent has had for 49 years and lost in the past year, and this being in a state S at time T is what typically motivates agents to choose life, then, yes, the agent's 'good life' will include being in a state S at time T.

Yet, it is still compatible with this view that an agent can give up a good life for the same of some other value or interest. An agent's own desires might not be fulfilled by those qualities that tend to motivate people to choose life. It is not impossible for an agent to say, "I have no interest in the so-called 'good life'. I have these other interests instead and they do not give me any reason to be interested in what typically fulfills he desires of those people who choose life.

Language is a public good. That is why the public term, 'good life', refers to those qualities that typically fulfill the desires of those people who choose life - because this is what people generally have reason to talk about. But it is not necessarily something that every one of us has reason to pursue.

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