Friday, July 06, 2018

About a Theory of Desire - Dispositional Theories

A desire-based theory of morality requires a theory of value.

Long ago, I decided that I wanted to focus on theories of morality and not worry about theories of desire. On this latter issue, I would simply accept conventional wisdom on the matter. I certainly did not have time to do everything, and consequently it makes sense to benefit from a division of labor. "You folks work on that part over there, and I will work over here."

In my defense, at that time the discussion in the philosophy of psychology was on things being called "folk psychology", "eliminativism", "type-type identity theory", "token-token identity theory." And that certainly would have taken me far from my area of interest. My decision was to accept folk-psychology - a system that grounded intentional action on beliefs, desires, and intentions - until and unless the philosophers came up with something better they could agree upon. At that point, I would see how much of this moral theory (if any) could be salvaged.

Since then, the debate seems to have shifted. There are now theories of desire - theories about those things that are said to exist in the realm of psychology that is one of the basis for intentional action. In looking at these accounts, I discover that I do, indeed, have something to say. While I have been accepting folk psychology while I studied morality, I have come up with an account of desire that seems to be at odds with what the experts in the field are coming up with.

There is a sense in which I find this discouraging. In my mind, it raises doubts about my project in that it seems to say things about desire that are not a part of the received wisdom. It would have been so much better to point to the received wisdom about desire and say, "See, all of this stuff I say about morality fits hand-in-glove with what the experts are saying about desire." Instead, I find the account of desire that I have been working with at odds with what those experts say.

However, this is not, in fact, the type of problem that leads to the conclusion that I should simply give up and admit to error. Rather, it is the type of problem that invites the response, "So, you disagree with what the experts in the field are saying about this matter. Come on, then. Show us what you've got? Why do you think that they are wrong? Let's see your evidence and your reasoning?"

Well, it goes as follows:

Note: I will describe the issue briefly here, and then go into the subject in more detail on each of the key points later.

Currently, there are two major theories of desire, and several sub-theories within each category.

The dominant major theory takes desires to be dispositions to act in a particular way. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Desire, it can be characterized as:

For an organism to desire p is for the organism to be disposed to take whatever actions it believes are likely to bring about p.

There is a sense in which this is true. I hold that desires are motivational state. That means that when an organism has a desire that p, the agent is motivated to take whatever actions it believes are likely to make or keep true the proposition 'p'.

However, the desire is not the disposition itself. The desire is the cause of the disposition.

In talking about desires, we speak about motivational force. I want to take this "force" analogy seriously.

When a force acts on an object, it "disposes" that object to accelerate in a particular direction. However, this does not mean that it necessarily will accelerate in that direction. The force of gravity is currently (thankfully) not accelerating me to the center of the earth. This is because the chair that I am sitting on, the floor that the chair is sitting on, and a huge column of dirt, rock, and magma provides an equal and opposite force in the opposite direction, thus preventing my fall. But the force is still there. The "disposition" to fall continues to exist, even while all of that stuff below me is holding me up.

However, there is a difference between saying that gravity is the disposition to fall and that gravity is the thing that causes the disposition to fall.

The same can be said about the other forces. Electromagnetic force is not the disposition of electrically charged particles to behave in particular ways (e.g., opposite poles attract). It is that which causes charged particles to act in a particular way. Strong and weak nuclear forces are not the disposition for the nucleus of an atom to stick together in spite of being filled with positively charged particles (protons), it is that which holds the nucleus together. Similarly, desires are not the disposition to realize certain states of affairs. They are those things that cause the agents to be disposed to realize certain states of affairs.

One of the problems with the dispositional theory of desire is that, though it may work fine when we talk about a single desire, it becomes amazingly complex very quickly when we talk about a person motivated by several desires. Take an agent with a desire that A, a desire that B, and a desire that C. How will this person choose between A, B and not C versus A and C but not B? What if the desire that A is the agent's aversion to pain. How do we fit in the fact that the agent would accept a little bit of pain, but would avoid a larger amount of pain?

I may be able to find some support for this in a book by J. Pollock (Pollock, J., 2006. Thinking about Acting: Logical foundations for rational decision making, New York: Oxford University Press.) According to a summary of Pollock's position in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Pollock (2006) argues that the number of such facts is on the order of a billion billions at the very least, just to encode the same facts about desire and preference that could readily be generated from just three hundred basic facts about desires. From the assumption that the basic psychological facts must be physically realized in the brain, Pollock concludes that it is psychologically realistic to believe in basic desires, not basic pairwise preferences.

Force theory understands a force as having two components - a magnitude and a direction. The dispositional theory of desire recognize the "direction" of a desire (realizing p), but not the "magnitude" component (the strength of the desire). The strength of the desire is to be understood in terms of the importance that realizing p has for the agent, and thus what the agent may be willing to give up to realize p. However, the assignment of a magnitude to a motivational force is the point at which we leave the dispositional theories of value and enter the second major family of theories - the evaluationist theories. Evaluationaists, at least, understand that desires have a magnitude or strength component.

There are other areas where the dispositional theory's failure to account for the value of realizing p to the agent with the desire. Warren Quinn has a counter-example to dispositional theories. He described "radioman", a person with a compulsion to turn on radios in his vicinity - even though he does not want the radios to be on and has no reason to turn them on. This is simply something he is disposed to do. The objection is that he does not have a desire to turn on radios because this result (or the activity) has no value. Desire takes more than a disposition to act, it takes an assignment of value - or importance - to the agent.

I tend to dislike thought experiments as being too vague, and prefer to keep my discussion of such topics grounded in the real world. However, we have real-world analogues to Quinn's Radioman. A habit is a disposition to act in a particular way. However, a habit only obtains its value insofar as it is in service of a desire. We recognize good habits and bad habits precisely in virtue of the fact that they serve or thwart desires. A habit is a disposition to act, but a habit - by itself - is not a desire to realize any state of affairs.

Turette's Syndrome provides another example. People with Turette's Syndrom are disposed to perform certain intentional actions called "tics". These are intentional actions, but the agents who perform those actions do not see the actions as theirs. They attach no value in doing so. They have a disposition to behave, but they do not have a desire. This brings into question the idea that we can relate a desire with a disposition to act.

For these reasons, I would suggest that we reject dispositional theories of desire in favor of a theory that assigns to a desire both a direction (that which the agent is motivated to bring about) and a magnitude (a strength of the desire).

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