Thursday, May 12, 2016

Unwanted Desires

The following is an email that I intend to send to Dr. Heathwood at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Dr. Heathwood:

I beg your indulgence on this intrusion.

I have just read your article "Desire Fulfillment Theory" (forthcoming in G. Fletcher (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Being, Routledge, 2016), which I found here .

In reading the article, I had some thoughts on "unwanted desires" that I would like to present, if you don't mind.

As you state it, the objection seems to be directed particularly towards "summative" theories of well-being where the quality of a life is determined by the sum of its (subjective) desire satisfactions. You presented Derek Parfit's objection to this as follows:

I am about to make your life go better.  I shall inject you with an addictive drug.  From now on, you will wake each morning with an extremely strong desire to have another injection of this drug.  …  This is no cause for concern, since I shall give you ample supplies of this drug.  Every morning, you will be able at once to fulfill this desire.
I would like to suggest a possible response to this objection that I did not see in your article.

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

The summative thesis says that Alph's life goes better insofar as (he believes that) P, Q, and R are all true. In particular, his life goes better if (he believes) this than if he (believes) that P and Q are true and R is false. We can add additional considerations regarding the strength of the desires, but, for now, I would like to avoid those unnecessary complications. 

Parfit is introducing a new desire - a "desire that I" ("that I have another injection of this drug" where "I" refers to Alph).

Parfit argues that Alph has a reason to acquire this desire.

But how can this be the case?

Let us introduce Barnard Williams' account of having a reason, "A has a reason to φ iff A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing." I actually do not know if you accept this account but it seems to be a respected position among philosophers - and I think it has a great deal of merit.

In this case, Alph only has a reason to acquire a "desire that I" if that desire will in some way serve the satisfaction of one or more of the desires that P, Q, or R. However, depending on the specific content of these desires, this need not be the case. If P = "My spouse is happy," and Q = "I learn to speak Greek", and R = "I am not in pain" then none of these desires gives the agent a reason to acquire a desire "that I receive an injection every morning."

Now, it is the case that if a different agent, Betty, has a "desire that I" then her life would go better if she got the injection every day. Her desire gives her a reason to seek that injection. 

Parfit could be taken as saying that Alph has a reason to acquire this desire merely in virtue of the fact that it is a strong desire which will be constantly and repeatedly satisfied. This seems to presume that desire satisfaction itself has an intrinsic "ought to be acquiredness" built into it. As such, we should obtain as much of it as possible.

However, the summative theorist need not (and should not) accept this assumption. Such a property does not exist. (For the sake of brevity I will gloss over that discussion. Again, I will leave it that this is at least a respected position among some philosophers.)

What this implies is that the quality of an agent's life is determined by summing the (subjective) satisfactions of that agent's desires. Alph's life is evaluated according to the degree to which P, Q, and R all become true. The possibility of acquiring a "desire that I" that can be repeatedly fulfilled is irrelevant to the value of Alph's life, because it is unimportant to Alph.

In other words, Alph is not seeking as much desire fulfillment as possible. Alph is seeking the fulfillment of the most and strongest of his desires. These are not the same thing.

Anyway . . . it's just a thought. I hope you find it useful.

Alonzo Fyfe

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