Sunday, June 10, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 33: Ought, Good, and Desire

It is an ironic coincidence that, right after posting a summary of how the terms desire, ought, good, right, and normative reasons relate to each other, I read Olivier Massin's contribution to The Nature of Desire. (Massin, Olivier, (2017), “Desires, Values, and Norms” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

Massin is seeking to defend the "guise of the ought" thesis over the "guise of the good" thesis.

He will do this by showing that the logic of desire matches the logic of ought, not the logic of good. This, in turn, will require presenting us with a lot of information about the logic of desire, ought, and good. I intend to use his information to see if the relationships among terms that I provided in the previous post actually makes sense in light of this data.

Finding differences will not settle any questions. One of the problems with our value terms is that we still carry around the idea that our desires are responses to intrinsic prescriptivity - values that exist independent of desire. In fact, one form of the "guise of the good" thesis is that it is the perception of the intrinsic value of things. We may have build this assumption into our language. If this is the case, then it is our language that needs to change, not the theory.

This is still a restatement of the "atom principle" that I borrowed from J.L. Mackie. (Mackie, J.L., (1977), Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin Press). The word "atom" originally meant "without parts." When scientists started to speculate that atoms had parts, they changed the definition of "atom" so that it fit with the new discoveries. Sometimes, this is the easiest option.

However, I am going to reject the Massin's "guise of the ought" thesis for independent reasons. This is because of the implications that the guise of the ought thesis has for the possibility of mistaken desires and the implications that desiring something would have on one's attitude towards others.

Massin wrote:

[Guise of the ought] claims that because occurrent desires are what they are, it is immediately impossible to desire something without being under the impression that it ought to be.

What does it mean to say that something "ought to be"?

For one thing, it means that if somebody else should interfere with it being the case, then that other person is preventing what ought to be. That seems a blameworthy offense - something that is wrong and, thus, something that deserves condemnation and punishment. If Alph's desires sex with Betta, then, under the guise of the ought thesis, Alph sees having sex with Betta as something that ought to be. If Betta should refuse, then Betta is preventing the realization of something that ought to be. This at least suggests that Betta's refusal is, in some sense, wrong. She may have a right to refuse to bring about what ought to be, but she really shouldn't, under the guise of the ought.

Massin also wrote:

[Guise of the ought] will have it that a desire is correct if and only if its object ought to be (or if the desirer ought to do it).

Desires are never "correct" or "incorrect". A desire can be good or bad - or, more precisely, whether one or more people has a particular desire can be good or bad. This is based on whether people having such a desire will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. However, there is no object or action that has a build in "ought to be desiredness". Such properties do not exist. The fact that "guise of the ought" implies that desires can be mistaken, when this is false, gives us reason to reject the "guise of the good" thesis.

The defender of a guise of the ought theory can agree that such properties do not exist and then still say that all perceptions of such a property - all desires - are illusions. We evolved to see things that are not there. Perhaps, evolution is well served by creating within us this perception of things that are not there. This "necessary illusion" may be the case, but it should not be our first option. A theory that does not require that we see things that are not there would be preferred.

I would argue that the assignment theory of desire is such a theory. We are not perceiving oughtness that does not exist. We are simply assigning an measure of importance to propositions being made or kept true. No assignments are mistaken. They just are. Evolution and environment strongly dictate some assignments. Other assignments are the consequence of experience. The fact that Alph assigns a measure of importance to having sex with Betta does not, in any way, imply that there is anything wrong with Betta assigning a different measure of importance. They simply do not want the same thing. Yet, it is still true that people generally have reasons to encourage people universally to adopt certain assignments - such as an aversion to having sex without consent.

So, I am going to reject the guise of the ought for metaphysical reasons. It postulates a property of ought to be desiredness that does not exist.

However, this gives us no good reason to throw out all of the data on the logic of "good", "ought", and "desire". We still have reason to study this logic carefully and see whether the account I provided in the previous posting actually makes sense of this logic, or whether it should make sense of this logic.

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