Friday, September 23, 2016

"Dieting" and Evaluating Desires in Context

339 days until classes start.

This morning, I listened to the nautical philosopher Jimmy Buffett - a collection of works on The Good Life of beach-combing, sailing, and the drinking of margaritas.

Actually, I was celebrating the fact that, after months of hard work, I got my BMI number from 31.6 (Obese) to 24.9 (Normal).

That took work.

It also provides a case study concerning reasons for intentional action.

I have long had many and strong reasons to lose weight. My weight thwarted many current desires (mostly regarding appearance to others). However, it mostly threatened to thwart future desires. Unfortunately, a future desire (a desire that does not currently exist) cannot motivate current action. Current action depends on the desire that my future desires not be thwarted. This desire and the desire to look better could not outweigh the current desire for another slice of chocolate cake.

What tipped the balance was that somebody gave me a Fitbit Blaze activity tracker.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my interest in computer games - an interest I called a vice because it motivated me to waste time in unproductive activity such as talking my avatar Hedgerow Shrewburrow (former clerk to the mayor of Michel Delving in the Shire - Lord of the Rings Online) and accompanying a group into The Rift of Nûrz Ghâshu - only to suffer defeat at the hands of the troll boss Barz.

Well, the activity tracker turned weight management into a computer game. The rules are easy. I needed to record everything that I ate (at least its calorie value). The object of the game was to burn more calories than I consumed. I could accomplish this objective in one of two ways - by reducing the number of calories I consumed, or by increasing the number of calories burned, or (ideally) a combination of both. Every day in which I win, I lose a little fat. The high my score (the higher the difference between calories burned and calories consumed), the more fat I lost.

There are a few other technicalities to consider to maintain good health - see your doctor for details.

I have played this game every day since I got it, and I have won this game every day for 143 days in a row now (except on my birthday). Currently, I have a string of victories where my score has been greater than 1000. Last night, my score was I win with a score of at least 1000. Yesterday, my score was 2683 - but that required spending nearly 3 hours on an elliptical. (There are reasons not to recommend keeping such a high score for an extended period of time.)

This brings up something about the value of desires that perhaps does not get the attention that it should. Desires are not good or bad in themselves. They are good or bad in terms of their tendency to fulfill other desires. Their tendency to fulfill other desires depends on their context - the situations that occur in which they are relevant. We cannot simply say that a desire is good or bad. We have to look at the situations that the agent will likely find herself in, and the way that the desire will manifest itself in those situations.

This stands at the root of my objections to Trolley problems. They take the sentiments that are engineered to work in situations where people are likely to find themselves, and puts them into a highly unusual (in fact, an impossible but imaginable) situation, and looks at the results. Whenever I hear a trolley problem, I simply roll my eyes and wait for the topic to turn to something relevant.

This fact is also relevant to the many counter-examples to act-utilitarian theories. Desires that produce good consequences in the normal situations in which we find ourselves will not produce good consequences in all situations imaginable. Counter-examples to act utilitarianism almost always (always?) involve cases where sentiments that produce good consequences in everyday situations produce anti-utilitarian consequences in some unusual situation. These are effective arguments against act-utilitarianism, but they are explained by the fact that we cannot completely divorce any act from the motives that caused it, and we have to look at what consequences those motives will produce in normal circumstances.

In an earlier post, I argued that my interest in computer games counts as a bad desire, because it motivates me to waste my time. However, by modifying the context, I have changed the consequences of this desire to produce a personal benefit - weight loss. There is probably a consequence in which this same desire could produce good consequences - something that is generally useful for others. If this is the case, others may not have as much reason to condemn the desire as they would to alter the circumstances in which the desire operated.

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