Monday, May 16, 2016

Reasons to Abandon Old Desires and Acquire New Ones

A couple of posts ago, in an open letter to Dr. Heathwood, I argued for a way of defending a desire-fulfillment theory of well-being from one objection raised against it.

In that previous post, I addressed an objection that stated that a desire-fulfillment theory of well-being implied that a person should, if the option were available, get himself addicted to a potent drug as long as fixes were easily obtainable and the desire could be repeatedly and easily fulfilled.

In response, I argued that the objection confused the thesis that an agent's well-being depended on getting as much desire fulfillment as possible from the thesis that the agent was trying to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires. In order to judge whether an agent has a reason to acquire a new desire, we are not to ask whether it produces a lot of desire fulfillment. We are to ask whether her existing desires give her a reason to make the change.

Unless acquiring the addiction helps to fulfill the agent's other desires, the agent has no reason to acquire the addiction.

The same response applies to another potential objection that Heathwood mentioned.

When someone can’t get what he really wants, he may adapt his preferences to his predicament.  If he succeeds in doing this, he is now getting everything he wants.  This seems like an unfortunate situation, but the desire theory may be unable to accommodate this intuition. Desire Fulfillment Theory" (G. Fletcher (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Being, Routledge, 2016),

This is all he says on the matter.

I am not clear as to what Heathwood is calling "an unfortunate situation" or what intuition there is to accommodate. However, I do not need to clarify what Heathwood was after to explain how the case of changing one's desires would play out.

Let us take an agent, Alph, and give him a desire that P, a desire that Q, and a desire that R.

In this case, the desire that Q and the desire that R are being thwarted. However, since S and T are both true, if Alph were to replace the desires that Q and R for the desires that S and T, he will get a lot more desire fulfillment.

However, we need to ask, "What reason does Alph have to do this? Where does that reason come from?"

If we assume that desire fulfillment magically generates its own reasons, then it would be true that the agent would have a reason to change desires. But they do not generate their own reasons. Reasons for action come only from desires.

In other words, we are going to continue to use Bernard Williams' concept of having a reason, where "A has a reason to φ iff A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing."

In other words, Alph has a reason to change desires only if doing so would serve to fulfill his desires that P, Q, and R. These are the only things that can give him a reason to change to the desires that S and T. In other words, the agent has reasons to acquire a desire that S and a desire that T only if there is something about having those desires that makes P, Q, and R true.

We do, at times, instruct people to get different desires.

A person who is faced with the thwarting of an important desire - a politician who has lost an election or an actor who cannot get a role, or a musician who cannot get a recording contract - are often told to abandon that option (to give up their dream) and to find something else to do with their time.

Often, this advice can be understood in terms of, "You can't fulfill those desires, so choose the next best thing."

However, advice can also take the form of, "Find a new interest."

However, this advice follows the model given above. I wrote that a person with a desire that P, Q, and R, where Q and R are being thwarted would have a reason to acquire new desires S and T if doing so would fulfill their other desires. Since the thwarting of desires tends to generate frustration and unhappiness (which a person has reason to avoid), and the satisfying of a desire generates pleasure (which people generally desire), an agent usually does have reasons to acquire new desires in the face of constant frustration of existing desires.

Here, again, we have an account of how a potential objection to a desire-fulfillment theory of well-being can be answered by focusing on the desires that an agent has. What makes a person's life go well is not maximizing an agent's desire fulfillment, but maximizing the fulfillment of the agent's desires. The desires are taken as a given, and their fulfillment determines the quality of the life.

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