Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 45: Desires Without Motivation

In our last exciting episode, Alex Gregory distinguished hunger from feelings of hunger - hunger pangs and the like. He argued that the latter are not subject to evidence like beliefs. However, that does not imply that the former are not subject to evidence like beliefs. Thus, hunger and other appetites do not provide counter-examples to his thesis: To desire to φ is to believe that you have normative reason to φ. (Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

As a part of my response, I agreed with the distinction. After all, the assignment theory of desire states that a desire is the assignment of a value (importance) of a proposition being true. The desire to eat is an assignment of a value of importance to "I am eating" being true. This does not imply any type of feeling or sensation. One can assign a value to eating without hunger pangs, just as one can assign a value to being with one's children without hunger pangs. So the distinction is sound.

However, Gregory's thesis still has problems with the idea that a desire to eat can be understood in terms of a belief that one has motivating reason to eat.

In my response, I asserted that desire is closely related to motivation. I then mentioned in an earlier post in this series addressing the appetites, the desire to eat is related to motivation. Motivation is related to (among other things) the concentration of the hormone ghrelin. I argued that it is not difficult to understand concentrations of ghrelin being related to the assignment of a particular value to the proposition, "I am eating". However, it is difficult to understand how to relate concentrations of ghrelin to the "belief that I have a normative reason to eat".

Well, now that I am on the record as relating desire to motivation, I need to note that Gregory, in the next section of his article, denies this relationship. According to Gregory, a person can have a desire to φ without at all being motivated to φ.

Gregory is making this claim in an attempt to defend his thesis from counter-examples such as the following:

Sally is a smoker. She knows full well that she has very good reasons to quit: smoking is costly and unhealthy. But she is weak-willed and continues to smoke. Such a case might seem to threaten DAB. Isn't Sally's problem that while she knows she should quit, she doesn't want to?

The objection, put in terms more closely related to Gregory's thesis, is that Sally believes that she has normative reasons to quit, but she does not have a desire to quit. If a desire to φ is a belief that one has a normative reason to φ, then this is a problem.

To answer this objection, Gregory seeks to assert that Sally does have a desire to quit smoking. However, a desire to quit smoking does not imply motivation to quit smoking. According to Gregory, desires have the potential to motivate, but this potential is not always actualized.

There are a number of problems with Gregory's response. I want to start with his claim that desires do not motivate. Gregory has already separated hunger from the feeling hungry (a distinction I agreed with). Now, he wants to separate hunger from a motivation to eat. If he does that, then what is left of hunger? It is neither "feeling hungry" nor is it a drive to find something to eat. What is it? I argue, as I did above, that it is not reasonable to relate hunger to purely contingent physical sensations such as hunger pangs. Instead, it is a motivation to eat - a motivation partially under the influence of concentrations of ghrelin in the system.

Desires are a part of a theory that aims to explain and predict intentional action. Desires provide the motive to act - the reason to act. A desire that does not motivate is as odd as a force that does not provide acceleration. Saying that desires merely have the potential to motivate is like saying that gravity merely has the potential to provide a downward force on those objects that are near to the body - something that might, somehow, fail to be actualized.

There is a way that a desire can exist without resulting in any intentional action. This happens when there are more and stronger reasons to do something else. For example, a book sitting on a table does not move. The reason that it does not move is because the upward force from the table precisely counters the weight of the book. While the force of gravity still exists, drawing the book towards the center of the earth, it is not moving anything.

Similarly, a desire, countered by other desires, need not result in any action. Sally has desires to quit based on her desires to spend her money on things other than cigarettes and to preserve her health. However, she also has an even stronger desire to smoke, so the desire to smoke overrides her weaker and fewer desires to spend money on other things and preserve her health.

Also, there is, in fact, a type of desire that does not motivate. A future desire has no ability to reach back in time and motivate present actions. The agent may well believe that smoking will thwart future desires - e.g., the desire to be watching her grand children graduate from college. The agent can know that her present desire to smoke is thwarting her future desire. However, the future desire has no ability to motivate her to stop smoking. This would require a present desire that her future desire be fulfilled. The motivational force this and other present desires may exist, but they may not be strong enough to outweigh the desire to smoke. They are like the sheet of paper in the path of a bullet. They provide some resistance, but they do not stop the bullet.

Please note that this way of understanding Sally the smoker does not require that we disconnect desire from motivation in any meaningful way. It disconnects future desires from present motivation, but it would be more strange to link motivation in such a way that desires - unlike everything else in the macro universe - has the power of backwards causation (the capacity to cause things to happen in the past, when it did not exist).

So, the objection to Gregory is that he cannot sensibly disconnect hunger both from feeling hungry and the motivation to eat; there would be nothing else. At the same time, we do not need to disconnect desire from motivation to handle cases like Sally. We only need to recognize that the motivation of some desires may outweigh others, motivating the agent to choose the option that will fulfill the most and strongest of her desires, and overpowering her fewer and weaker desires to realize an incompatible end.

Gregory brings up another supposed problem case that he calls "Teething Tabatha".

Tabatha knows that she has good reason to go to the dentist: her teeth are in an awful state. But she will quite keenly insist that she doesn't want to go to the dentist. Who does?

This is supposed to create a problem for Gregory's theory because Tabatha has no desire to do something (go to the dentist) that she believes has normative reason to do. Thus, a belief that one has a normative reason to φ is not, in this case, a desire to φ.

Gregory begins by charging that this is also a challenge for the Humean theory. I consider the assignment theory of desire to be a Humean theory, so, if true, this would also challenge me.

This kind of case seems as much a problem for the Humean theory of motivation as for DAB, since it is natural to presuppose that Tabatha might go to the dentist even though she has no desire to do so.

But this is no problem for the Humean theory of motivation. The Humean would distinguish desires-as-ends from desires-as-means. Tabatha's statement that she does not want to go to the dentist can be accurately taken to be a (true) claim that she does not value going to the dentist as an end in itself. Indeed, she may even have an aversion to going to the dentist. Yet, her reasons for going to the dentist - her present desire to avoid future pain and to prevent the loss of her teeth - outweigh her reasons not to go to the dentist. So, even though going to the dentist is not valued as an end, this is more than made up for as a means to her other ends.

In defense of DAB, Gregory could offer the same type of analysis.

Tabatha doesn't think that she has good reason to seek out the pain at the dentist. This is the sense in which she doesn't want to go to the dentist. But all the same, Tabatha does think she has good reason to visit the dentist, all things considered.

The response here still does not require any break between a desire and motivation. We can still allow that the aversion to going to the dentist has motivational force. It is just outweighed by the many and strong reasons to go to the dentist, providing an even stronger motivation. Like a rocket leaving the Earth's atmosphere, the reasons for going to the dentist obtain enough power to overcome the "gravity" of staying away from the dentist.

Separating desires from motivation simply is not necessary.

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