Monday, March 04, 2013

How to Refute Desirism

Ultimately, desirism is built on the proposition that desires are the only end-reason for intentional action that exist. If one wishes to refute desirism there are two options:

One option is to show that desirism claims too much. The leading contender in this realm is "eliminative materialism" - the thesis that there are no desires. Here, the claim s that a modern theory of action - informed by neuroscience - will come up with a way to explain and predict behavior that makes no mention of "desires" or anything like them. When this happens, desires will be put in the trash bin of failed explanations such as aether, phlogiston, and demonic possession. Anything grounded on desires - such as desirism - will be trashed as well.

My sense is that desirism is most vulnerable from attacks from this direction. In fact, I expect findings in neuroscience will almost certainly require some modifications what we know about intentional action - resulting in some modification to our understanding of what desires are and how they work. Whether this will bend desirism past the breaking point remains to be seen.

In many cases, findings will only require a modification to desirism. For example, I typically assert that an agent acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires given his beliefs. Technically, this is not true.

For example, I conveniently ignore the role of habit - which can cause an agent to perform an intentional action other than the act that will fulfill the most and strongest of his desires given his beliefs. I can switch two letters on the keyboard to my computer. My desire to type a post remains constant. Since I am the one that switched the keys, I know they have been switched. However, habit would sometimes cause me to press a key typing the wrong letter. My action in this case is not explained in terms of what would fulfill the most and strongest of my desires given my beliefs.

This does not threaten desirism. Habits - in addition to beliefs and desires - work to cause intentional actions. However, habits do not provide end-reasons for intentional action. That is to say, habits do not determine our goals. They simply establish a means to obtain those goals that require less mental energy than conscious deliberation.

I leave habit out of the picture because including it adds complexity without clarity. It is my version of the physics teacher's habit of talking about frictionless pulleus and massless strings. Yes, we know these things exist and they add complexity to the system. However, to understand the parts we are focused on (end-reasons for intentional action) we can ignore them for now.

This discussion of habit illustrates some of the components of a legitimate refutation of desirism. Habit provides a way of explaining a set of observable events that belief-desire theory cannot handle (typing the wrong key when the keys are switched). This gives us a reason to postulate habits. Somebody who wants to refute desirism will also need to come up with something - something real and observable - that desirism cannot handle.

The second form of attack against desirism holds that desirism claims too little. These attacks claim that there are end-reasons for intentional action in addition to desires. Examples include devine commands, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, social contracts, and a natural moral law.

This is the most common form of attack against desirism. However, it is also the form of attack that I hold to have almost zero chance of success. What do these end-reasons for intentional action that are not a desires look like? How did they come into existence? How can we reliably detect them? Without answers to these questions and others like them - and without a set of real-world observations that these theoretical end-reasons explain - we can dismiss them as fiction.

The most common form for this objection to take is to argue that there are circumstances in which desirism implies S, and S must be rejected, and therefore desirism itself must be rejected. That is to say, the critic attempts to reduce desirism to an absurdity.

For example, the critic might invent a scenario where desirism supports slavery of genocide. However, we all know that slavery and genocide are always wrong, so desirism must be rejected. Therefore, desirism must be rejected.

My first answer will be to say, "I am still waiting for a demonstration of the existence of these other end-reasons for intentional action. What are they? How did the come into existence? How do we reliably detect them?" Critics always fail these tests.

What the critic usually gives us is a conclusion they do not like. It I settles their stomach and causes them anxiety. From this, they conclude that the conclusion must be false, and desirism must be rejected. Their argument tends to be convicing (while remaining invalid) when the listener or reader shares this sense of emotional anxiety over the possibility of accepting the conclusion.

However, there is no valid inference from, "I do not like your conclusion." to "Therefore, it is false."

In many cases, desirism cannot only explain this anxiety, but can justify it. We can perhaps invent a story where there are beings in that world that have no reason to reject slavery. However, this does not change the fact that the people reading that example and looking at the conclusion are beings that exist in this world. In this world, we have many and strong reasons to promote a strong aversion to genocide or slavery. Thus, we have many and strong reasons to promote in others a feeling of anxiety whenever they read a story in which the beings in that story have little reason to reject slavery or genocide.

Because of these reasons, we do not want to say that the genocide or the slavery in the story is "permissible". This implies that the reader or listener ought not to feel any anxiety or unease over the states that exist in the story. Yet, we have reason to worry about reducing that moral/emotional to slavery or genocide. We have reason to reinforce the feelings of anxiety over seeing the slavery or genocide in the story as "legitimate".

However, this means that we have many and strong reasons to continue to call the slavery or genocide in the story "wrong", even where the beings in the story have no reason to reject it. This is because we are not directing the word "wrong" at the beings in the story. We are directing it at our fellow readers - praising fellow readers who have a strong negative reaction to a story of slavery or genocide while condemning those who do not.

Consequently, there is no real-world observation in the fact of our feeling of anxiety over a story that reports to describe slavery or genocide as "permissible" or in our reasons to promote similar anxiety on the part of others. There is no real-world observation that desirism cannot explain.

This is what I am waiting for on the part of those who claim to refute desirism. "These are the observations that your theory cannot explain. Here is the end-reason for intentional action that I am using to explain it. Here is its description. Here's how you can find it in the real world."

I am looking for something more than, "Desirism implies S, and I don't want S to be true." Or even, "Not only do I not like your conclusion, I and others have many and strong desire-based real-world reasons to want others to dislike your conclusion as well."


Alex Strinka said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex Strinka said...

What if someone denies desirism by claiming that morality doesn't have to do with reasons for action at all?

I ask because people who people who support other forms of morality rarely explicitly talk about reasons for action.

I don't know if that's because they think it's so obvious that morality is about reasons for action that they don't think it needs to be explicitly stated, or because they don't think morality has to do with reasons for action.

Doug S. said...

Actually, I can think of another line of attack: it could be the case that desires aren't actually malleable by social forces - that they *appear* to modify desires because people have desires to be praised and to not be condemned, and that these social forces never actually modify desires, only the actions that people take in order to achieve them. Offering people praise, respect, admiration, or whatever might not be fundamentally different from offering someone money; if someone will dig ditches if you pay them, that doesn't mean that they have a desire to dig ditches, it means they have a desire for something that they can get with money. "Paying" with social rewards rather than financial ones might be exactly the same.

(Not that any of this is necessarily true, but it's a possible world in which desirism would be false or useless.)

Kuroneko (Aaron Zeng) said...

Doug S.:

Yes, it may be true that people's desires to be praised could be the true driving force behind their action. But unless it can be evidenced that hearing about how bad slavery is doesn't, in turn, make one reject slavery as a matter of personal moral outlook and also to defend that view when it is questioned, the argument is untenable.

I would argue that the desires are acquired/modified, and while few who dig ditches probably enjoy digging ditches without compensation, but they have the desire to do so anyways because they expect compensation for their labor.

As always, please correct me if I have made any errors or have overlooked any key points.

Nolan said...

Alonzo, are you aware of the modular theory of mind? I'm thinking about what Robert Kurzban popularizes in his book Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite.

Kurzban takes the example of split brain patients, and claims that normal, undamaged brains are also split up into parts that do not necessarily communicate, and do not necessarily "desire" the same thing.

This has pretty large ramifications for the "self" and for desires, and I think it falls into the first category of what may best refute desirism. Without a "self" I don't think there are desires to be had.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S.

Eliminative materialism is an example of an attack from that direction - but there is a whole set.

(1) Desires do not exist.
(2) Desires exist, but they are not propositional attitudes.
(3) Desires exist as propositional attitudes, but they are not maleable.
(4) Maleable desires exist, but praise and condemnation have no effect.
(5) Desires are maleable, but not by proxy (not, for example, as an effect of having somebody else - even a fictional character - be punished or rewarded).
(6) Desires play no part in intentional action.
(7) There is no such thing as intentional action.

These are all options on the side that "desirism claims too much".