Tuesday, May 15, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 06: Desiderata of a Theory of Desire

Graham Oddie claims that there are three things to ask for from a theory of desire. He argues that such a theory must be non-belief entailing, desire entailing, and ubiquitous.

See: 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.

Not Belief-Entailing

One of the “desiderata” that Oddie defends for desires I’d that they not be belief-entailing. One of his arguments for this is that, analytically, it simply seems to be the case that it is possible to believe that something can appear good without being good. In an analogy to other types of perception, he compares this to the way in which something can appear round but not be round or appear red and not be red.

The assignment thesis would meet this standard. In fact, I would argue that we have no special access to our own desires. Instead, we theorize as much about our own desires as we do the desires of others. Consequently, we can be mistaken about what we desire – about what our brains assign value to – just as we can be mistaken about what other people desire.
Granted, we have much more information about our own desires. We have not only a long and continuous history of observations to draw upon, but we also have access to additional information such as the emotions stirred within us upon contemplating and realizing certain states of affairs. Consequently, we usually know our own desires better than we know the desires of others. But that knowledge is not without error.

At the same time, our awareness of our own desires can be muddled by the fact that they are ours. There are certain desires that we do not want to have, and others that we do. This encourages us to favor interpretations of our own conduct that allows us to assign the best possible motives to ourselves and blind us to our faults.

This gives us both sides of Oddie’s non-belief entailing claim. Our brains can be assigning values to states of affairs without our believing that they are good, and we can believe that something is good even though our brains assign no value to it.


To be desire-entailing it would have to be the case assigning a value V to the realization of proposition P entails desiring that P. There would not be a case in which the brain assigned a value to the proposition ‘P’ being true where the agent did not have a desire that ‘P’. Nor would there be a case in which the agent had a desire that P where the brain did not assign a value to ‘P’ being true.

Of course, this is exactly what needs to be shown. In looking at the various objections that Oddie addresses to such theories, I hope to bring out this fact.

What is needed here is an example of some state of affairs that meets the conditions described here that would not fit the common-sense account of an agent having a desire. My inability to think of one can just be my inability to think of the account I am defending being false.

Though, even if somebody finds one, I still have a response. I could counter with the claim that the counter-example includes a false assumption and that we would be better off modifying our concepts than rejecting the thesis. This would be a reductionist/revisionist response.


We have evolved with dispositions to assign value to many things that sustain life and promote evolutionary fitness. From the aversion to pain to hunger and thirst, to what tastes good and tastes bad, to the comfortable of a room, to the company of friends, to the desire for sex and concern for our offspring, assigned values to ends govern our lives.

We also have a reward system whereby we acquire new desires and aversions, and mold existing ones, based on our experiences. This is how we come to like or dislike philosophy, Jazz, poetry, and pushpin. Here is where we learn our prejudices and, I would argue, many of our moral sentiments such as a disapproval of slavery and a fondness for virtue.
All of these involve assigning values to ends.


When it comes to meeting Oddie’s desiderata for a theory of desire, the assignment theory can hold its own. It is not belief entailing, since the fact that the brain has assigned a value to a proposition ‘P’ being true implies nothing about what the agent believes. It is desire-entailing directly from the fact that if the mind attaches a value to a proposition ‘P’ being true does imply that the agent desires that P. And it is ubiquitous since the whole of our intentional behavior is directed to realizing propositions ‘P’ to which our minds have assigned value.

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