Thursday, July 05, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 62: Intuiting Desires

I am now on the last chapter of The Nature of Desire - the book that I have been commenting on over the past two months.

This last chapter is; Ashwell, Lauren, (2017), “Introspection and the Nature of Desire,” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

I will not be spending much time here for two reasons.

Reason 1: It is a short chapter.

Reason 2: I think that our ability to introspect our desires is week.

Let's take a look at what Ashwell is trying to claim, first.

Ashwell is taking on the claim that desires can be understood as beliefs about what is good or as perceptions of something being good.

She brings up a number of cases in which we judge something to be good while, at the same time, we intuitively judge that we do not desire to do it. For example, I can judge that I should go exercise while I sit at home watching television. Ashwell's contribution to this discussion is to put stress on our intuitions about what we desire. We have the judgment that exercise is good for us, yet our intuitions tell us we just don't want to do it. On this basis, it is difficult to argue that our desire corresponds with what we judge to be good.

Similarly, we often find ourselves wanting to do things that we do not judge to be good. Ashwell's example here is of a person who wants to stay in bed, under the covers, instead of getting up and going to work. Quite simply, the person in such a state will say that she desires to stay in bed. However, she does not judge it to be the case that she ought to stay in bed or that it is good to stay in bed. Instead, she know that she ought to get up and go to work - that this is the best thing to do.

For the most part, Ashwell is simply looking at the ways in which we are likely to use the word "desire" and that, in our normal use of the term, we do not use it to refer to what we judge to be good or what we believe we ought to do. We use the term to refer to that which we are motivated to do, regardless of whether we judge it to be good. This is a serious problem for the thesis that to desire that P is to believe that P is good or to judge it to be something we ought to bring about.

At the end, Ashwell herself brings up some problems with intuition about desires.

My discussion here is complicated somewhat by the fact that I do not think a complete story about self-knowledge should involve the assumption that desire introspection is as highly privileged as is usually claimed; I am also not unsympathetic to views of self-knowledge that have a place for inference from evidence in introspection.

Indeed, in some of my previous discussions, I have questioned the idea that we know our desired directly.

First, there was Timothy Schroeder's claim that the parts of the brain that seem to be most closely associated with desires have little connection to the parts of the brain having to do with consciousness or memory. I discussed Schroeder's account of the biology of intentional action in post 48 of this series. This aspect of desire sits in contrast with the parts of the brain having to do with belief and perception - parts with many and strong connections to parts having to do with consciousness and memory. This suggests that what we know even about our own desires we know indirectly - in terms of their effects.

Having said this, we have a great deal of experience dealing with the effects of our desires, and sometimes those effects are rather urgent. Consequently, we can reach conclusions about our own desires with so little effort that it would not be difficult to think that this is direct intuitive knowledge. After all, one of the primary effects of desires is motivation (and one of the primary effects of a lack of desire is a lack of motivation). These motivations impose themselves on us, often, with a great deal of force. It is difficult to deny that the relevant desire or aversion exists.

Second, in my discussion of G.E. Schueler's account of Robert Audi's theory of practical reasons discussed another way in which our beliefs about our desires might deviate from our actual desires. The major premises in Audi's account of practical reasoning is a premise about what the agent wants. However, it is actually a statement about what the agent believes that she wants, a premise that may be mistaken. When it is mistaken, the agent may reach a "should" conclusion. However, if that conclusion is not linked up to an actual desire, then there will be no actual motivation to do what one judges one should do.

This provides agents with one way to realize that their first premise - their beliefs about what they desire - are mistaken. They can begin to question this premise when they realize that it does not provide the motivation they would expect if the premise was true.

As I said, we have a great deal of experience learning about our own desires, even if they are not directly connected to the parts of the brain having to do with consciousness and memory. They are connected to motivation (they select the potential actions that become actual actions), and our beliefs about them are certainly connected to consciousness and memory.

Before leaving, there are other ways in which one can reach a "should" conclusion in an Audi-style practical syllogism without experiencing motivation. This happens whenever the major premise does not refer to an actual desire. This, in turn, happens when the major premise refers, in part or in whole, to a desire that does not exist yet, or somebody else's desire. Connections to those desires will not come with motivational force - or will do so only through the mediation of a "desire that future desires be fulfilled" or a "concern for the interests of other persons". These provide additional ways in which a person can believe that something is good or ought to be done yet fail to find the motivation to do it.

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