Monday, May 14, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 04: Perceiving vs Assigning Value

What is a desire?

According to Graham Oddie (2017):

Desire = The fitting response to the good.

On the way to this destination, Oddie defends an evaluative theory of desire – whereby to desire something is to evaluate it as being good. This, he argues, has two main options:

There are two possibilities within this approach: that desires are value judgments (doxastic value seemings) and that desires are value appearances (non-doxastic value seemings). I defend the second of these, the value appearance thesis. To desire something is for it to appear, in some way or other, good.

Of these, Oddie defends the second option.

To Oddie's account, I want to divide this second option into two sub-options.

Desires are value-perceivings:. A desire that P perceives ‘P’ being true a value as an end in itself, which motivates the agent to act so as to realize states in which ‘P’ is true.

Desires are value-assignings. A desire that P assigns a value as an end to ‘P’ being true and, thereby, motivates the agent to act so as to realize states in which ‘P’ is true.

I am going to be seeking to defend the second option. To do this, I would like to run the assignings option through the same obstacle course that Oddie set up for the appearance option generally to show that it can handle these problems, as well as list some additional advantages for the former.

I do not want this thesis to be confused with the theory of projectivism. Projectivism holds that we project qualities onto an object as if the object has those qualities. This assumes that the projection is some type of error or mistake.

The situation is more like that which happens when you are in a car that is supposedly stopped. You see a vehicle in the next lane move backwards relative to your car and, for a moment, you are confused. Both descriptions are equally accurate, and the situation can only be resolved by calculating movement relative to some third thing, such as the Earth.

Similarly, when something appears to have value all we see is that it has value.

All we perceive is that something has value. We do not see that it has value as an intrinsic property, nor do we see that it has value in virtue of it being assigned. If the value seems to be an intrinsic property, it is because the perceiver is adding assumptions that are not found in the appearance. To work out these answers, we must look at other facts to determine which explanation makes the most sense.

So, something appears to have value. Is this value perceived or assigned?

I find it difficult to match the perceivings options to my understanding of how the rest of the world works. It seems to require that there is a good independent of desire that is either known through reason alone or seen directly. It is a property of things that commands that people have a particular reaction (motivation) towards that good. J.L. Mackie (1977) labeled this “objective, intrinsic prescriptivity” and argued that it is such a strange entity that there is reason to doubt that there is such a thing.

Sharon Street (2005) adds strength to Mackie’s objection by pointing out that that the theory of evolution creates problems for any theory that places values “out there” to be known about or perceived. Evolution has molded our motives to whatever produces biological fitness. Our biological ancestors had more to gain by being disposed to act in ways that produced evolutionary fitness than to correctly perceive some good independent of fitness.

The assignment view would have it be the case that evolutionary pressures selected assignings of value that promoted genetic fitness. Our aversion to pain evolved to cause is to avoid states of affairs that would result in the types of injuries that would have prevented our ancestors from having and raising children. The desires for sex, for food and drink, our food preferences, all came about because the random genetic mutations and survival of the fittest selected some candidates over others.

If our genetic history had been different, if we had evolved in different environments, and if the fortunes of fate had worked out differently, we would have evolved into creatures that assign values differently.

We see evidence of this in the fact that animals, too, assign values to certain states. A dog’s aversion to pain and a cat’s desire to hunt and catch anything that flitters about are examples of natural selection creating brains that assign value to these ends. Each preference that we find in nature is a preference that we could have had if we had evolved along the same lines.

Oddie will confront the issue of animals and infants having desires later in his paper, so we will get back to this issue.
Of course, not all assignings of value are genetic. In fact, among humans in particular, many are learned.
We know some things about how values are learned and they, too, seem to support the assignings view over the perception view. Rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) act on the mesolimbic pathways in the brain – the reward system – to encode rules of behavior in, primarily, the pre-frontal cortex. Our experiences cause us to like that which produces a positive reward, and to form aversions to that which produces a negative reward or, in psychological terms, a punishment.

In effect, this system takes as input the experiences of the agent and produces as output alterations in the value assignments that the brain makes, thus altering behavior.

In this way, a person can come to like philosophy or opera, can hate sushi or card games. The different experiences of different individuals results in different assignings of value for different agents.

In contrast, the perceivings theory seems to require that different agents should all perceive the same value in things – the value that it actually has. Those who do not perceive something correctly has a perversion or some other sort of defect. Mackie (1977) argued that the different assignments among individuals and among cultures is evidence against objective intrinsic prescriptivity. Though there are ways in which it can allow two different people can assign different values to the same thing and neither be wrong, these are far more complex than the simple explanation of the assignings view – that people with different histories (evolutionary and experience) simply come to assign different values to things.

These give reasons to support the assignings view over the perceptions view. The next question that I want to address is: assign value to what?

Mackie, J. (1981). Ethics. Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin Press.

Oddie, Graham (2017). Desire and the Good: in search of the right fit. In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds.), The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

Street, Sharon (2005). A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value. Philosophical Studies 127 (1):109-166.

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