Thursday, May 17, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 08: Desirable, Admirable, and Delightful

Continuing my series on 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.

Oddie’s key focus in his theory of "desire" is on the idea of “fitness”.

This will require that we look more closely at the idea of fitness.

The fitting attitude account tells us that the delightful is not just what people happen to take delight in or what people typically take delight in, but in what it is fitting to delight in.

Oddie provides us with three conceptions of this which he generated by “commandeering” a similar topology presented by Toppolet (2011):

(Deontic FA) X is V if and only if one ought to take attitude F(V) to X.

(Axiological FA) X is V if and only if it is good to take attitude F(V) to X.

(Representational FA) X is V if and only if it is representationally accurate for one ought to take attitude F(V) to X.

In these sentences, FA stands for a fitting attitude such as admirable. We can read Deontic FA as saying, for example:

Honesty is admirable if and only if one ought to take an attitude ‘admiring’ to honesty.

Oddie does not specify any preference for either of these three formulations here. He saves that task for when he discusses objections, where he sides with the representational view. I fear that I am going to have problems with the representational view because I do not know how to cash out the phrase “representationally accurate.”

At this point, he seeks only to specify the options. I will do the same. However, I want to say a bit more about these formulations as seen from the assignments perspective.

Again, there is nothing here that we can see as an objection – just a clarification.

For illustrative purposes, allow me to take Deontic FA.

The initial examination of the assignments theory of desire would seem to suggest that honesty is admirable if and only if people admire it. However, this is clearly problematic. There have clearly been cases in the past where at least some people have admired cruelty or ruthlessness in getting what one wants, yet that did not make these admirable qualities. However, there is a way of getting something that fits more closely to what Oddie has in mind out of the assignments theory.

Consider a hypothetical community whose members have an evolved aversion to pain; evolution planted wiring in their brains such as to assign a negative value to states of being in pain.

Let us further assume that the beings in this community have what we may call a “mesolimbic pathway” – a reward system. By means of reward and punishment (including praise and condemnation) inflicted on agents, people can create in those agents an aversion to causing pain. In addition, people can acquire these aversions by observing others being rewarded or punished, or even hearing about them in a story where those who avoided causing pain were praised and those who did not were vilified.

Now, we have this fact: People generally have a reason to promote in others universally an aversion to causing pain. Nobody at the start of this community has an aversion to causing pain. However, this does not prevent it from being trued that they have a reason to create such an aversion. In fact, it may be the case that nobody has even yet figured out, "You know, if we all were to reward and praise those who refrain from causing pain, and punish and condemn those who do not refrain, we can promote universally an aversion to causing pain." Yet, this will not change the truth of the claim.

We can understand honesty in this way.

Honesty is admirable if and only if people generally have on balance many and strong reasons to promote an attitude of ‘admiring’ to honesty.

For the same types of reasons that the people in my hypothetical community have for promoting an aversion to causing pain, we can make an argument that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, an admiration for honesty. In this sense, honesty ought to be admired, even where the fundamental desires are evolutionary designed “brain chips” that assign values to such things as avoiding pain, caring for one’s offspring, hunger, thirst, sex, and environmental comfort.

This gives me a way of making sense of the claim I made in the previous section that maintaining a fiction of independent goods is a bad thing. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, an aversion to promoting the fiction of independent goods. The reasons come from the fact that people get criticized for having brains that make value assignments different from those of others. Recall that the problem is that those others see these value assignments as reliable indicators of a type of goodness that does not exist. This is true even though many of those reasons come from the “brain chips” evolution and experience has planted in people’s brains.

Nothing here so far provides a reason to Oddie’s fittingness thesis. It provides a useful analysis of terms like “admirable”.

Oddie does go on to consider three objections. The first of these will lead him to accept "Representational FA" as defined above. I wish to consider his objections and suggest a problem with Representational FA in the next section.

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