Friday, June 22, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 47: Animal Desires

Alex Gregory proposes: 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.)

If this is true, then it seems to follow that if Fido has a desire to go for a walk, then Fido has a belief that he has a normative reason to go for a walk. Yet, attributing such a belief to Fido seems absurd. Thus, it cannot be the case that Fido's desire to go for a walk is a belief that he has normative reasons to go for a walk. Meaning that Gregory's thesis must be rejected.

This, in my opinion, is a knock-down objection to Gregory's thesis.

Gregory makes two attempts to defend himself.

Gregory's first attempt is to suggest a rather loose attribution of beliefs and desires. He argues that a cat can have a desire to drink milk even though the cat can have but a very rough idea of what "milk" is. Fido can lament that his food bowl is empty with only the most basic understanding of "food bowl" and "empty". So, it seems conceivable that an animal can have a rude type of proto-belief about having a reason for action.

However, we have to draw a line somewhere between what the animal can understand and what humans can understand. As Fido jumps up to catch the ball thrown for him, we can say that he understands something about the relationship "Force = mass * acceleration". However, it this is mostly due to the development of instincts and habits that take advantage of the relationship. We would be making a mistake if we implied that Fido was a cognitive expert in Newtonian physics. Understanding the desire to go outside in terms of a belief that one has normative reasons to go outside is simply over-intellectualizing what is, in fact, a basic desire.

It may be difficult to know exactly what it is a dog believes, but "that I have a normative reason to go outside" hardly seems like it is even close to the line.

Gregory's second attempt is to narrow the concepts of desires and beliefs. Here, he tries a move that I discussed in the previous section, distinguishing "basic drives" from "desires". Here, he argues that animals do not, in fact, have desires. Instead, animals have "basic drives" that are distinct from desires, and thus are not to be understood in terms of "having a belief that one has a normative reason to φ."

In this case, as I said previously, Gregory himself defeats this option. Gregory wrote:

Hunger, we might think, is the paradigmatic desire, and if a theory of desires excludes hunger from its purview, then it is no longer a theory of desire at all.

Yet, when Gregory makes this move, he is removing hunger from the category of "desire" and putting it in the category of "basic drives" - something different from desire. Gregory, then, may be offering a legitimate theory of what he is calling "desire," but he is no longer offering a theory about what the rest of us call desire. Such a theory is, explicitly, a theory about such things as hunger, thirst, aversion to pain, desire for sex, along with the more complex desires that humans are capable of acquiring.

Indeed, Gregory is offering a theory of "desires-as-means". That which is desired as a means to an end can be understood as being desired in virtue of the belief that one has a reason to realize these means, because it serves the end. The squirrel's desire to climb the tree to get to the food can be understood as understanding that he has a reason to climb the tree (to get to the food). But his desire to eat cannot be understood in this way. Gregory's thesis fails the instant he switches from talking about the value of means to the value of ends.

The reason a cognitive understanding of "desires-as-means" makes sense is because "desires-as-means" are mixtures of "desires-as-ends" and "means-ends beliefs". And means-ends beliefs are subject to cognitive analysis. There is no mystery here.

But the true source of desire - that point at which all inquiry about desire ends, because it is has reached the things that we desire for their own sake and not for the sake of something else - is simply outside of the scope of his theory.

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