Wednesday, June 13, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 38: Desire To vs Desire That

It is generally accepted in the philosophy of desires that desires are propositional attitudes. Though many desires are expressed as "desires to" (e.g., I desire to live on a space station), every case of a "desire to" can be expressed as a "desire that" (e.g., I desire that I live on a space station).

This is important to the assignment theory of values I am defending. To say that a "desire that P" assigns a value representing the importance of "P" being true makes no sense if "p" cannot be true. The phrase, "I desire to live on a space station" presents us with no proposition P that can be true. However, the phrase, "I desire that I live on a space station" does present us with a proposition that can be true - the proposition "I live on a space station".

Olivier Massin does not like this distinction. (Massin, Olivier, (2017), “Desires, Values, and Norms” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

Recall that Massin is interested in explaining desires in terms of a "guise of the ought". That is to say, to desire that P is to hold that P ought to be the case. A desire to, in contrast, is not a presentation of something as "ought to be," it is a presentation of something as "ought to do". His interest in preserving the distinction between "desires that" and "desires to" is grounded on an interest in preserving the distinction between "ought to be" and "ought to do."

Yet, if one looks back on my discussion concerning the death of desire, I think that I can present an argument for the reduction of "desires to" to "desires that".

In the "death of desires" discussion, several authors have argued for the "death of desire" on the grounds that it makes no sense to talk about a "desire to" once that which is desired obtains. It makes no sense to talk about a desire to go to the park if you are at the park, or a desire to visit with your best friend if you are visiting with your best friend. They have used this to argue that the existence of a desire to P is incompatible with believing that P obtains - that the belief kills the desire. Thus, the death of desire.

I have argued against this view. Relevant to this discussion, I have argued against it precisely by reducing "desires to" to "desires that".

Let us take hunger, for example. I have a desire to eat. So, I go to the kitchen, I fix myself a large bowl of seasoned Brussel sprouts, and I take my first bite.

According to the "death of desire" doctrine, my desire to eat immediately ends the moment I start eating. In its place, an entirely different desire emerges - a desire to continue eating. It is this desire to continue eating that allows me to take the second, third, and thirty-sixth fork full of seasoned Brussel sprouts.

This, to me, is nonsense, particularly given what we know about the biology of desire. An empty stomach produces ghrelin. Ghrelin controls hunger. As the stomach expands, the amount of ghrelin produced decreases and hunger subsides. It is not the belief that P that causes the desire to P to die, it is a biological process that is triggered by P being the case.

This means that we have one desire that, first, drives the agent to go into the kitchen and fix seasoned Brussel sprouts, and then to continue eating them until the plate is empty.

The best way to understand this is as a "desire that" I eat. The phrase "desires to" is simply the phrase we use to talk about a desire in the context where the object of desire does not obtain. The "desire to eat" is a phrase we use to talk about the "desire that I am eating" when it is the case that I am not eating. If I am eating, the phrase we use is "desires to continue."

In short, I have one desire (a desire that I eat), and two phrases, one for talking about the desire when I am not eating and another for talking about the desire when I am eating.

In other words, there is only one desire - a "desire that". This desire motivates me to act so as to fulfill the desire, and to keep acting once I fulfill the desire at least for a while. "Desire to" statements are statements used to talk about this "desire that" in different context. Which means that "desires to" is fully reducible to a "desires that" plus that context that "desires to" is calling attention to.

This provides a little extra reason, contra Massin, for thinking that "desires to" can be reduced to "desires that"'

I should mention that there is one more article on the theories of desire for me to go through. Then, I will be able to look at some empirical evidence. That should be fun. Stay tuned.

No comments: