Sunday, May 20, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 13: Objections to Dispositional and Doxastic Desires

We are moving on to another article on desire:

Friedrich, Daniel (2017), “Desire, Mental Force, and Desirous Experience.” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

“Desire, it is often said, is a pro-attitude”. This is how Daniel Friedrich begins his article.

He begins by looking at a couple of ways of understanding this, and providing reasons to reject this. The dominant views are: (1) desiring p disposes us to act in ways designed to realize p, and (2) desiring p entails a positive evaluation of p. These are the “doxastic” and “evaluate” theories of desire.

As a point of contrast, I have been arguing that desiring p entails an assignment of value to p being made or kept true. This is distinct from both of the theories presented above, which can be seen in the way it handles the objections.

Dispositions to Act

Friedrich begins by mentioning the same objections to the “dispositions to act” thesis discussed in Oddie (2017). We can imagine Radioman, who simply has a disposition to switch on radios. This mere disposition – something more of a habit or a tic – does not fit what we are talking about when we talk about desires.

Of course, what is missing is that there is no assignment of value to “the radio is on” being made or kept true. Add this, so that Radioman sees the radio being on as an end in itself – something to be done for its own sake – and we get something nearer to a desire.

However, the claim that a desire is an assignment of a value to p being made or kept true is not the same as believing that p is good or perceiving that p is good. To see this, we need to examine the doxastic view.

Beliefs that P Is Good

An alternative to the view that to desire that p is to be disposed to bring about p is the view that to desire that p is to believe that the realization of ‘p’ is good.
Friedrich brings up several objections to this doxastic view.

First, Friedrich brings up nihilists who believe that nothing has value yet who still has desires. He also brings up people who have a “desire that p” but who believes that p is bad. We can include in this the desires of the addict.

On the assignments theory, there is nothing problematic with a person believing that nothing has value yet still having a brain that assigns negative value to being in pain or positive value to having pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Nor is there any problem with a person having a desire that p and, at the same time, an aversion to having a desire that p, recognizing that his desire that p motivates him to act in ways that thwarts his other desires, that others have an aversion to people having a desire that p, or that others have many and strong reasons to condemn and punish those who are disposed to make or keep ‘p’ true.

Second, Freidrich brings up the objection that a believe that ‘p’ is good seems to require more intellectual sophistication than it is reasonable to assign to animals and small children who, nonetheless, have a desire to eat or an aversion to being in pain. There does not seem to be much sense in saying that one’s pet has a belief that being in pain is bad or that protecting one’s offspring from harm is good.

None of this sophistication is required of an animal that simply assigns being in pain a negative value – and thus works to prevent such states to the degree that she can recognize what might cause them.

Third, Friedrich reports that “beliefs are subject to the norm of truth”. To believe that p is to believe that ‘p’ is true. So, to desire to have pumpkin pie with whipped cream is to believe that having pumpkin pie with whipped cream is good, which means believing that “pumpkin pie with whipped cream is good” is true. Now, we need a theory to explain what it is for p to be true. And, if it is true for our agent Alph, is it true for everybody?

If you imagine there is an elephant in the room, you do not fall short of any inbuilt standard if there isn’t. But if you believe that there is an elephant in the room, your belief falls short of an inbuilt ideal if the closest elephant is in the zoo three miles away.

If one believes that p is good then one is “falling short of an inbuilt ideal” if p is not, in fact, true. So, now we need to determine what it is for p to be, in fact true.

When it comes to assigning a value to ‘p’ being made or kept true, there is no inbuilt assumption of truth. If ‘p’ is true, the desire motivates the agent to keep it true. If ‘p’ is false, the desire motivates the agent to make it true.

A common move to answer this kind of objection to the doxastic view is to say that value is like perception – that desiring that p is like perceiving that p is good.

Yet, perception also seems to have an inbuilt standard of truth. If one perceives that there is an elephant in the room then this perception is suspect if there is no elephant in the room. We still need to ask what is required to make, “There is an elephant in the room” true.

To be fair, one of the objections to the assignment view is that the assignments seem arbitrary. There is no fact of the matter to back them up, so one assignment is as good as another. This is true. Though, it is also the case that the relationships among desires are not merely a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact that addiction tends to thwart other desires and believing this is not the case will not prevent it from being true. People, who have this arbitrary aversion to pain that evolution happened to give them, as a matter of fact have a reason to cause others to have an aversion to causing pain.

Of course, these are the theories that Friedrich rejected as well. The interesting part will be to look at the theory that Friedrich supports.

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