Thursday, June 28, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 55: Fading Desires and the Utility of Desires

A desire is an attitude that aims at the actual value of its object. At least, this is the case according to Peter Railton. (Railton, Peter, (2017), “Learning as an Inherent Dynamic of Belief and Desire,” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.)

The problem is that there is no “actual value.” It does not exist. To show this, I have been examining Railton’s examples of desires chasing actual values to show that there is no actual value.

In our last exciting episode, we looked at the case of a woman who desired to be a partner in a big-name law firm who finds the actual experience to be disappointing. Her desire to be a partner then diminishes to match the actual value of being a lawyer. In fact, she did not desire to be a partner in a big name law firm. She desired something else and believed that being a partner would have those qualities. I compared this to taking a drink out of a cup that I thought contained hot chocolate when it actually contained coffee. It is a mistake to think of this as a desire to drink what was in the cup being corrected by my discovery of the true value of the taste of what was in the cup. Instead, I desired hot chocolate and discovered that the cup did not contain hot chocolate. There was no “actual value”.

I also looked at the case of desire modification through experience - acquiring a fear of bees because of a bee sting. The fact that desires change does not imply that one is discovering an actual value. Gaining weight is a change, but can hardly be described at discovering my true weight. The same is true with aging. Experience adds likes and dislikes as it adds physical scars and develops habits. We can explain all of this without mentioning actual values. A person can change so that his assignment of importance to p being true is increased or decrease without it being the case that the increase or decrease is more or less correct than the original value. Things are different with belief, where a change in credence actually does bring the belief closer to or further away from the truth.

Railton mentions three more cases - two of which I will discuss below.

Fading Desire

There is the case of the fading desire. Railton presents a quote from David Hume that says:

’Tis a quality observable in human nature, and which we shall endeavour to explain afterwards, that every thing, which is often presented, and to which we have been long accustom’d, loses its value in our eyes, and is in a little time despis’d and neglected.

Yes, our desire for that which is familiar tends to fade in many cases. However, it is a mistake to conceive of this in terms of discovering through familiarity that it has less actual value. We are hungry. As we eat, our desire to continue eating diminishes. It fades. Yet, it would be odd at best to describe this change in one's desire to eat as discovering the true value of eating. It is not the case that, when we are hungry, we valued eating above and beyond its actual value - an actual value that we discover as we eat until we realize the truth of the matter, which is that eating never had any value and our original desire to eat was mistaken. Instead, there is no "actual value" of eating that our desire to eat tries to discover.

We seem to be built so that we ignore that which is common, so that we can focus on that which is different. A sound that is always in the background, such as a fan, the wind blowing through the trees, the waves of the ocean or the babbling of a nearby stream, fade into the background of our consciousness so that we can focus instead on any new sounds - sounds that can tell us of a change in our situation. In our earlier evolutionary history, it could be the sound of a nearby predator, or the sound of potential prey.

Similarly, evolution may well have designed us so that once a desire is fulfilled it fades away, allowing us to focus our attention on that which needs changing. As we eat, our desire to eat fades so that, when we have enough food, we can quit eating and focus our attention on the next thing on the list, which may be to discover what is on the other side of the horizon or to manufacture some tools. Once we have built the tools, the desire to build tools fades (assuming the agent actually likes building tools) and, instead, the agent spends some quality time in social activities with other members of the tribe.

Yes, our desire for what we have been long accustomed diminishes, but it is a mistake to think of this as a case where, as an agent becomes familiar with something, the desire comes to recognize and match its actual value.

The Utility of Desire

Referring to "trust" as an example, Railton argues that our sense of trust is an instance of an affection seeking the actual value of things. A person can be too trusting, or not trusting enough. Both of these are mistakes - mistakes where our affections do not match the true value of trust.

But what is the correct value of trust?

I have agreed that some desires are malleable. I then denied that a change in the intensity or object of a desire necessarily counts as an improvement - it is merely a change. However, desires can be more or less useful - can fulfill or thwart other desires. As a result, it can be (and often is) the case that we can have reasons to modify certain desires - reasons to strengthen a desire where making it stronger can be useful, or to weaken a desire where weakening it can be useful.

A person becomes too trusting when her level of trust puts her in situations where there is an undue risk of coming to harm - an undue risk that other desires that the agent has will be thwarted. A person is not trusting enough when her level of trust prevents her from obtaining advantages that may be gained through interactions with others, leaving unfulfilled her own desires that could have otherwise been fulfilled.

In this sense, it us true that trust and other sentiments can have a true value. The same can be said of fear (courage), sociability, and curiosity. Each of these are malleable traits to some extent, and there is a level at which each of these is most useful. We may have reason to increase the intensity of our desire for certain types of states, or increase the intensity of our aversion to them.

However, please recall that one of the differences I specified between beliefs and desires is that a belief, by itself, can be mistaken - can fail to conform to reality. A desire by itself cannot. Another way that I expressed this is by saying that beliefs contradict, whereas desires conflict. There is no way to evaluate a desire except in virtue of its relationship to other desires. Yet this "value in relation to other desires" is how we evaluate all things - from kitchen utensils to blog postings. This does not require that there be any type of "actual value" that desires can pick out more or less correctly. It requires nothing more than value understood as a relationship to desires which, themselves, cannot be more or less correct. It is no mystery that desires themselves can have value in virtue of their relationship to other desires. "Actual value" is not needed.

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