Thursday, June 28, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 56: Desires Near and Far

In the last few posts, I have been examining Peter Railton's claim that beliefs aim at actual value in the same way that beliefs aim at actual truth. There is a fact of the matter concerning value, and the desire system collects evidence that seeks to point desire to actual value just as evidence point belief to truth.

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.

I have gone over four types of cases to show that, contra Railton, there is no "actual value" involved.

These are:

(1) Cases of disappointment - which I described as cases where one discovers that what one desires is not to be found in a state of affairs, and not a case in which one's desire was mistaken.
(2) Malleable desires - where I argued that the fact that a desire can be caused to change does not imply that it is approaching or getting further away from actual value.
(3) Fading desire. Our desire for what is familiar is not the recognizing of actual value resulting from more evidence, but a way the brain has to getting our attention focused on what needs changing.
(4) The utility of desire: The fact that desires can be changed invites see desires as things we may have reason to change, but the instrumental value of a desire does not represent a type of "actual value" that Railton has in mind.

Here, I want to discuss a fifth and final case - the case of near and far desires.

In another quote from Hume, Railton describes the fact that things that are more distant in time and space do not influence our actions as that which is near.

Now as every thing, that is contiguious to us, either in space or time, strikes upon us with such an idea, it has a proportional effect on the will and passions, and commonly operates with more force than any object, that lies in a more distant and obscure light. Tho' we may be fully convinc'd, that the latter object exceeds the former, we are not able to regulate our actions by this judgment, but yield ot the solicitations of our passions, which always plead in favor of whatever is near and contiguous.

There are two types of desires that clearly have no influence on current actions. These are desires that do not exist yet - future desires, and desires that one wishes one had.

In the first case, we must distinguish between a future desire and a present desire for a particular future state. The latter exists, but it is one desire among many - sitting beside all other present desires such as hunger, thirst, and an interest in watching football games on television. As one desire among many, it does tend to be outweighed.

Of course, wishing that one valued exercise. We may well imagine the case where a person is aware of the benefits of exercise and obtains some motivation as a result of these facts, that same agent may despise exercise (all of that effort is just uncomfortable). He may wish that he valued exercise instead. Similarly, one may wish that one disliked chocolate the way one dislikes broccoli, and like broccoli the way one likes chocholate, the desires one has will motivate one's actions, not the desires that one wishes to have.

Closely related to this desire one wishes one had is an interest in that which has actual value. A person may have no desire at all for something that he believes has actual value. However, actual value does not exist, and the desire that one does not have cannot motivate the agent.

However, more to the point, I have mentioned that, while a belief by itself can be wrong (a "belief that p" is false if "p" is false), a desire cannot be wrong. A desire can only conflict with another desire. When a conflict occurs, there is no outside reality to appeal to in determining which is correct. The Hume quote above speaks of being convinced that the value of the distant object exceeds that of the nearer, but the individual pursues the nearer object instead. However, the question still needs to be asked (and answered): What makes the distant object more valuable?

An individual may be convinced that piety is the greatest value, and that this demands a severe form of asceticism. However, the individual finds himself giving in to nearer and more immediate goods, living a live tinged by a bit of guilt, but one in which he does well and does well to others. It does not follow from the fact that a desire is for something more remote and distant that it is for something with a higher actual value. And to take the agent's conviction that something has a higher actual value as proof is to beg the question in this case. I am not denying the possibility of believing that something has an actual value, I am denying that this belief is true.

Another example is illustrated in the movie Mr. Holland's Opus. Glenn Holland takes a job as a high school music teacher to pay the bills as he works on writing a great symphony. He never gets to write that symphony, as his duties as a husband, father, and responsible teacher get in the way. Yet, as illustrated in the movie, his constant yielding to nearer and more immediate concerns proved to have underappreciated value.

In all of this, the question is: How does one determine which desire is linked to the correct value? The fact is: there is no correct value. If two values (or sets of values) come into conflict - whether they be nearer values to more distant values, or different near values, or different distant values, there is no way to say, "this is the correct value" by appeal to the "actual value" of what the desire is for. The only answer is to be found in the reasons there are for promoting or inhibiting that interest - reasons that are found in other desires which it may either fulfill or thwart respectively.

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