Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0009 - Pushpin and Poetry

Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either - Jeremy Bentham (Jeremy Bentham, from The Rationale of Reward, excerpted and reprinted in: The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill, ed. John Troyer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), p. 94.)

I agree.

Not about the pleasure part, but about the relative merits of pushpin and poetry.

Pushpin is a game requiring two players, so it is not suitable for our imaginary world that contains just one person (Alph). However, we can make the same point by substituting the act of gathering stones for pushpin.

Prejudice apart, the act of gathering stones is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. What gives a state of affairs P any end-value is that it is the object of a "desire that P", which gives states of affairs in which P is true end- value to those who have it.

Please note that "pleasure" is not a part of the equation. Humans in the real world may have a desire to experience pleasure and the capacity to do so. Alph, in this model, may have the capacity to feel pleasure (depending on how pleasure is defined) but, under our assumptions, has no desire to experience pleasure - thus no reason to do so.

It does not matter whether P = "I am gathering stones" or P = "I am reading poetry", what gives P its value is that it stands in a particular relationship to a "desire that P". Those with a "desire that P" have a reason to realize such a state. There is no value to be given to gathering stones or to poetry - no reason to prefer one over the other - independent of their relationship to desires that exist.

In a more complex universe - ones with more people and more desires, there may be elements that give more value to one over the other. Poetry promotes the ability to read, which provides instrumental value by aiding communication. Poetry may also give people a better understanding of the emotional states or of other points of view. There may be a simple second order preference that the population have more people who desire to read poetry and fewer who value gathering stones. All of these would count as additional reasons to read poetry - and to promote a desire to read poetry.

These types of situations may alter our value judgment. However, none of these conditions exist in a world with one person and one desire. Nothing else exists in that world that can give poetry more value than gathering stones.

I also want to say something about the strength of a desire. An agent who has a weak desire to gather stones and a strong desire to read poetry has a stronger reason to read poetry. He would prefer reading poetry under conditions where he could do either. However, this also does not apply to our current situation where Alph has only one desire. In the future, I will introduce a second desire and examine some of its implications - but there is still more to say about a single agent with a single desire.

It is said that we have some sort of intuition that poetry is better than push-pin or gathering stones. However, that judgment comes from our own likes and dislikes. We are the ones who prefer that Alph spends his time reading poetry rather than gathering stones. Consequently, the world in which Alph is reading poetry has more value to us.

However, we – and our preferences - do not exist in this model, at least not yet. This model contains Alph and his one desire to gather stones. Alph has no reason to read poetry – not unless the poetry includes a clue as to where he might find some more stones to gather.

There is nothing in poetry that generates a reason or a natural command that it be read – by Alph, or by anybody else.

There is no good or bad, better or worse, best or worst, that does not relate an object of evaluation to a set of desires. In a world where only one desire exists (e.g., Alph’s desire to gather stones) then all of the goodness and badness that exists relates the object of evaluation to that desire. In that world, at least.

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