Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Beliefs, Desires, and the Nature of Value

I am wondering about whether the claims made in yesterday's post can ultimately defeat one of the larger branches of moral philosophy.

This branch equates a "desire that P" with a "motivational belief that P is worth pursuing". Certain moral realists prefer the "motivational belief" option because it would make moral attitudes objectively true or false. They adopt this way of talking specifically because they dislike the option of grounding moral value on desires.

My traditional objection to this view goes as follows.

Fine, let us take the view that we can analyze "P is good" in terms of a "motivational belief that P is worth pursuing."

A "belief that P" is true iff P is true. That is to say, a belief that Denver is the capital of Colorado is true if and only if "Denver is the capital of Colorado" is true. So, "motivational belief that P is worth pursuing" is true if and only if "P is worth pursuing" is true.

Now, we can make sense of "Denver is the capital of Colorado", so we can tell, independent of having the belief, whether the the proposition that is the object of the belief is true.

Now, the person who proposes a motivational belief theory has two problems.

Problem 1: The proponent needs an account of what it takes for "P is worth pursuing" to be true. Furthermore, this truth is independent of people having the belief. In short, this view does not answer any questions about morality. It simply moves them. All of the unanswered questions about morality become unanswered questions about "P is worth pursuing". These include answers to questions such as, "What is this worth-pursuingness really?" and "How did P acquire worth-pursuingness?" and "How can we tell if P has worth pursuingness or not?"

Problem 2: How can a proposition - true or false - provide motivation? That is to say, she not only needs an account of what it is for "P is worth pursuing" to be true, but also that believing it to be true motivates the agent to act in a particular way. "Denver is the capital of Colorado" does not recommend any particular action. In fact, it is difficult to identify any purely factual proposition - believed or not - that recommends any particular action. Even, "that would be painful" does not recommend an action unless we also introduce the independent fact that an agent has an aversion to pain.

That was my original response and still a response that I think worth making.

However, that response really just asks questions. It does not provide an objection per se.

This new response is an actual objection - one that demonstrates that a belief that P is worth pursuing and a desire that P are not the same thing. A belief that P is worth doing involves a reference shift. For example, Lois Lane believes that taking Superman with her is worth doing, but does not believe that taking Clark with her is worth doing.

However, the value of taking Clark Kent/Superman with her is the same regardless of the reference. Taking Clark with her is worth doing iff taking Superman with her is worth doing because they are the same people.

In other words, the actual value of taking Clark Kent with her follows the pattern of a desire - in that it does not have a reference shift (treats Clark Kent and Superman as the same). It does not follow the pattern of a belief - which would have a reference shift (treats Clark Kent and Superman differently).

Admittedly, this confuses me. The confusion is caused by the fact that it is so easy to slip from talking about the value of something to the agent's belief about its value. Yes, Lois does not believe that taking Clark with her has value. Yes, she is likely to reject the claim that "taking Clark with you has value." But it is also the case that she believes that Clark is clumsy and is likely to reject the claim that Clark has super powers. The fact that she believes and would say such things does not make the things she believes and are likely to say true.

We simply have to separate the cases in which, "Lois believes that P" and "Lois is likely to assert that P" are true from cases where P is in fact true. The truth of "worth doingness" claims do not have a reference shift. They are not beliefs.


Martin Freedman said...

Yes but on the other hand


I am sure you can answer this. IMV his desire-independent reasons for action can be shown to be other desires that the agent does not have.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Martin Freedman

Thank you for this. I took a glance and started to read it . . . I got through the first three pages. It seems that it will be an interesting read.

At first glance, there seems to be a confusion between causal reason for action and end-reason or goal for an action.

For example, I allow that habits exist. A habit provides a causal reason for performing some action, but not an end-reason or goal. So, for example, if I were to switch the 'a' and 's' keys on my keyboard, I would likely often use my little finger to press down on what used to be the 'a' key whenever I wanted to type an 'a'. This will happen even though that key now types an 's'.

We cannot express this action of pressing the little-finger key in terms of beliefs and desires. I desire to type an 'a'. One cannot say that I believe that pressing down with my little finger types an 'a' since I switched the keys myself. And, yet, I still press down using my little finger when I want to type an 'a' - out of habit.

However, habit does not create end-reasons. The fact that I have a habit of pressing down with my little finger when I want to type an 'a' does not make this my end or goal. Indeed, my end or goal is determined by my desire to type an 'a'. The fact that habit causes me to type 's' instead means that I have a bad habit - a habit that thwarts (rather than fulfills) my desires.

Given that habits exist, and that we know how to create and break habits, a person can be motivated to create useful habits or break bad habits. Making it a habit to perform a particular action means that, sometimes, one will perform the action even when it fulfills no desires - even when it thwarts the desires that caused one to create the habit. However, there still may be reasons for the agent to prefer the quick and simple response of a habit to the long and complex process of deliberative thinking.

The example of the reason for giving up smoking - the agent does not need to have a current desire that future desires be fulfilled. It could be a current desire to see one's grandchildren graduate from school. It could be a current aversion to dying. It could be a current desire not to create a health hazard for visiting children with second-hand smoke.

Well, those are just some initial thoughts. Like I said, it looks like an interesting read.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In fact, as I read more, this is going to turn out to be useful for my thesis paper. Thank you again.

Martin Freedman said...

I am glad you appreciate it. I think some of the ideas behind are crucial for taking desirism to the next level. I can see no better way for that to happen that you working towards a Phd in this field.

Martin Freedman said...

Have not read that article for a few years. I always get great and new insights from it. Very interesting. In my view one of the most important papers on this topic ever written. OTOH I am familiar with pretty much the whole history of Searle's work and have seen how it has evolved.That enables me to recognise easily many concepts in there that he has developed over in years in many articles and books.