Sunday, May 13, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 02: Desires as Dispositions to Act

The first reading for the summer is: Graham Oddie, "In Search of the Right Fit".

In this paper, Oddie spends some time on a view presented by R. Stalnaker, ((1984). Inquiry. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.):

To desire that P is to be disposed to act in ways that would tend to bring it about that P in a world in which one’s beliefs, whatever they are, were true.

Off of the top of my head, I would say, "Yeah, that's right."

This just goes to prove that I need to be more careful. I am sometimes not as precise as I need to be.

Oddie brings up the objection:

[I]magine that a malevolent demon plants a chip in Radioman’s brain so that whenever he believes of any radio within reach that he can turn it on, he turns it on. Ipso facto, on the dispositional account he desires radios within his reach to be on. Two questions: First, does Radioman have a reason, even a weak one, to go around turning on radios? No, he just finds himself turning the damn things on. . . . Second, does Radioman even have a desire that radios within reach be on? He doesn’t like the sound of radios blasting, and he would be just as happy if radios didn’t exist at all. And he has no desire to have radios within reach so that he can have them blasting away.

Well, no. He doesn't have a desire. He sees a radio, and the chip takes over his muscles so that he reaches out to turn on the radio.

Actually, I don't think this is a fair presentation of Stalnaker's thesis. Radioman's reaching out to turn on the radio is not an "action" in the sense required in the Stalnaker's quote. It certainly is not an action in my understanding of the quote. This is because Radioman is not turning on the radio as an end in itself or as a means to an end. It is more like a heartbeat, or sweating. It is something that happens, not something that Radioman does.

In order to count as a "desire that P", it must be the case that the realization of P is an end or goal - something for the sake of which means are sought.

In Desire 2018: Part 01, I mentioned the distinction between the motivational theory of desire versus the evaluation theory of desire. The motivation theory says that desires are motivating reasons. The evaluation theory says that a desire is a perception of some state of affairs as good.

The idea that desires identify ends may not fully support the evaluation model, but does explain part of its appeal over the motivation model. Desires are more than just dispositions to act. They provide reasons to act. They take a state of affairs and assign a value to that state. For example, the aversion to pain takes the state of affairs, "I am in pain" and assigns it a negative value. In this way the avoidance of pain is an end - something for the sake of which other things (e.g., taking a pain relief pill, refraining from putting one's hand in a bed of hot coals) are means. Assigning a value to an end is more than just being disposed to realize an end.

So . . . this is going to be an important part of the nature of desire - a "desire that P" assigns a value to the realization of P.

This does not require that value exist as something independent of desire - that value is something that we perceive. Indeed, it is fully consistent with the theory of evolution to say that we evolved to be creatures that assign a value to a state such as, "I am not in pain" and, with that value assigned, then begins to look for ways of preventing the realization of such a state. We evolved to assign values to having sex, eating, being in a comfortable temperature. We learn to assign values to such things as studying philosophy, reading science fiction, taking long hot showers. Through praise and condemnation, we teach each other to assign values to such things as taking the property of others without consent (a negative value), repaying debts (a positive value), and helping those in need (a positive value).

But this becomes a key point. A desire that P is not just a disposition to act so as to realize P. It is the assigning of a value to the realization of P (a positive or negative value) such that it becomes a goal of our intentional actions.

I gotta remember that.

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