Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Benefitting a Person - Part 3 - Well-being and Giving a Child a Desire to Read

I am spending a few posts going over what Dr. Chris Heathwood of the University of Colorado suggested may be problems with my "desire satisfaction" theory of well-being.

Consistent with my earlier writings, I would rather call it a desire-fulfillment theory of well-being. A "desire that P" is fulfilled, on this account, in any state of affairs where the proposition "P" is made or kept true. I use the term "satisfaction" to refer to the the pleasing psychological sensation that a person has when she believes that a desire has been fulfilled. Other philosophers refer to this distinction using the terms "objective desire satisfaction" (when the proposition P is made or kept true as a matter of objective fact) and "subjective desire satisfaction" when the agent believes that the proposition P has been made or kept true.

With these clarifications in mind, I suggested to Dr. Heathwood that a desire-satisfaction theory of well-being should not be understood as a claim that the agent is made better off by obtaining as much desire satisfaction as possible. Instead, the agent is made better off to the degree that the most and strongest of an agent's desires are fulfilled. When Derek Parfit suggests that an person can be made better off by giving them an addition to a readily available drug, somebody who holds this theory can deny that it is a benefit because the agent has no reason to acquire this addiction. It serves no existing desire.

Dr. Heathwood responded in part by saying:

It seems that we sometimes *can* benefit people by seeing to the satisfaction of desires that they will have but do not currently have. Consider a toddler. He currently has no desire to be able to read. But we can be confident that in the future he will desire to be able read (if the future comes and he can’t read, while all of his classmates can, he will wish he could read; if the future comes and he can read, he will be glad that he can read). The theory that you are suggesting seems to imply that we would not benefit the toddler if we now do things to see to it that he will be able to read in the future. Am I right that your theory has this implication?

In my previous post, I examined the benefit of teaching a toddler to read. I argued that, whether this turns out to be a benefit depends on whether it actually aids in the fulfillment of future desires, and only insofar as it does so. If, instead, teaching a child to read turns out to be a waste of time or thwarts future desires (e.g., an emperor decides that scholars are a threat and rounds up anybody who is able to read for torture and death) that the ability to read contributes nothing to well-being. In short, the benefit of learning to read is found entirely in the fulfillment of future desires it helps to bring about, if any.

There is another interpretation of this argument that looks, not at giving the child an ability to read, but giving the child a desire to read.

In having a desire to read, reading itself becomes something that the person pursues for its own sake, attempting to make or keep true the proposition, "I am reading". She reads, not merely because it is useful, but because it is something she wants to do.

We can compare giving the toddler a desire to read to Parfit's giving a person a desire for a drug where getting the drug becomes an end in itself. In the same way that such a person has no reason to acquire a desire for the drug (because it fulfills no current desire), the toddler has no reason to acquire a desire to learn to read in that, at present, the child has no desires that would be fulfilled by acquiring a desire to read.

An important difference between these two desires is that the desire to read is useful in fulfilling other desires, while the desire for Parfit's drug is not. It's not just that reading is useful, or knowing how to read is useful - a means towards the fulfillment of other desires – which I discussed in the previous section. The desire to read itself is useful.

The value of the desire to read is grounded primarily on the fact that future desires do not have backward causation. In other words, a desire that does not exist in the present cannot motivate an agent to act a particular way in the present. A "desire that future desires be fulfilled” can help in this regard. However, it is also useful to have current desires that bring about actions or states as a side effect that, in turn, will contribute to the fulfillment of future desires. A desire to read will motivate an agent to read for its own sake, which will give the agent knowledge, skills, and understanding that will be useful when those future desires emerge.

I generally refer to this as a distinction between a desire to fulfill other desires and a desire that fulfills other desires. A desire to read is not a desire to fulfill future desires, but it is (usually) a desire that fulfills future desires – and thus a desire that people have reason to cultivate - and that concerned parents have reason to cultivate in their children.

However, it would not be a desire worth having in a society where an emperor bans reading and punishes all who are caught engaged in this activity. Here, a person with a desire to read would be worse off as a result, since she would want to \engage in this prohibited activity. Consequently, she will be frustrated in the same way that an addict with no readily available access to a drug would be frustrated.

Our situation here with respect to a desire to read is similar with the situation with respect to reading discussed in my previous post. Whether or not the desire to read is a benefit is contingent upon it actually being put to use to fulfill future desires. If this does not happen, then the desire to read is not a benefit. If, instead, the desire to read thwarts other desires, then it is like a desire for a harmful drug.

The toddler, in this case, does not have a reason to acquire a desire to read. However, we can be relatively certain that, at least in most contemporary societies, she will acquire reasons to have acquired a desire to read. However, since those future reasons cannot reach back in time, parents and guardians who have an interest in the toddler’s welfare have reasons to provide the child with a desire to read – something for which the child will someday have a reason to be grateful.

Still, it is the case that, in fact, the benefit comes when (and if) the desire is fulfilled. The benefit of having a desire to read comes when the desire to read allows the agent to fulfill a desire, and does not exist if the desire never proves itself to be useful. The benefit, when it occurs, is located entirely in the fulfillment of those future desires that the desire to read made possible. (NOTE: I believe that this is comparable to what Heathwood called “Concurrent Intrinsic Desire Satisfaction Theory” in "Desire Satisfaction and Hedonism", Philosophical Studies (2006) 128:539-563.)

Also comparable to what I wrote in the discussion of giving a child an ability to read above, in everyday discussions of parenting and social policy, the claim that giving a child an ability to read is a benefit is true enough in contemporary society for practical purposes. There is no need for public discussion to go into the fine details of the benefit of a desire to read. The claim that giving a child a desire to read is close enough to the truth that it will become a benefit when it contributes to the child fulfilling future desires.

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