Friday, June 15, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 39: Desires As Beliefs

I now move on to Chapter 7 of The Nature of Desire: Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

The answer is "No."

Before I look at Gregory's arguments in any detail, I want to say some things about why I generally reject the idea that desires can be reduced to beliefs.

We have a lot of examples of this. The most common form that this type of claim takes is to say that a desire that P is a belief that P is good. This is the guise of the good thesis that has shown up repeatedly in the comments already made. The belief that P is good explains why the agent tries to realize P - that is what we do to good things.

Another form that we have seen in this series says that the desire that P is a belief that P is better. This one has, so far, been mentioned only in passing.

There is the thesis that took up the previous two articles that states that a desire that P is a belief that P ought to be the case.

Now, we are going to look at the thesis that a desire that P is a belief that the agent has a normative reason to bring about P. Specifically, Gregory's thesis is that

To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ

Each one of these thesis has a perceptual or "seems that" alternative. That is to say, to desire that P is to perceive that P is good, or that it seem to be the case P ought to be, or that it appears that one has a normative reason to realize P.

My standard objection to all of these rests on the question, "What is it for the object of these claims to be true?"

To believe that P is to believe that "P" is true. That is to say, to believe that a god exist is to believe that, "A god exist" is true. We can now launch an investigation into what it means to say, "A god exist" is true. When we do this, we leave our beliefs behind.

The same is true of the person who believes that Charlie is in New York. If we look at this belief, we now have reason to ask about what "Charlie is in New York" means and what it takes for this to be true.

Comparably, if we are going to analyze "Agent desires that P" in terms of "Agent believes that P is good," then it seems to follow that the agent must also believe that 'P is good" is true.

Now, please tell me, what does it mean to say that "P is good" and what it takes for the proposition, "P is good" to be true.

Please note that you cannot legitimately answer the question by referring back to desires. If you answer the question about what it is for P to be good by saying, "This is what the agent believes when the agent desires that P," then one's theory is viciously circular - empty, for all practical purposes.

We can ask the same questions about the belief that P ought to be the case, or the belief that the agent has a normative reason to realize P. We now need a theory about what it means to say, "P ought to be the case," or "The agent has a normative reason to realize P." This account cannot refer back to desire - that would be viciously circular.

It would take far more time and effort than I have available to demonstrate that nobody who has proposed a "belief" theory of desire in any form has produced a respectable account of what it is for the thing believed to be true. However, I will offer it as something to look for. If somebody should come up to you and say, "A desire that P is a belief that Q," then be prepared to ask (and expect a non-circular answer to) the question, "What is Q and what does it take for Q to be true?"

That is the tactic to use here. With Gregory telling us:

To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ

My question becomes, "What does it mean to say that I have normative reason to Φ?" and "Please instruct me on the criteria that must be met for the claim that I have normative reason to Φ to be true?"

Gregory is not going to have an answer to that question, which means that his thesis is empty.

No comments: