Thursday, August 02, 2018

Desire, Love, and Caring

This is a continuation of my commentary on In Praise of Desire by Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder.

I have been using "desire" in the broad sense - as concerning all cases in which an agent has an end that the agent takes to be important. Love would, on this model, count as a type of desire. To love somebody is to have a desire that p, for some set of propositions p. Propositions almost certainly include the happiness and well-being of the other person, that they have a good life, and that they get what they want.

Apraly and Schroeder look at objections to the idea that love and caring can be described as a form of desire.

The authors specifically take on David Velleman's arguments against the idea that love is a type of desire. ( Velleman, J. David (1999). Love as a moral emotion. _Ethics_ 109 (2):338-374.)

Velleman argues that, if a lover is expected to constantly strive for the beloved’s wellbeing there cannot be, for example, friendship between people who choose to live in different cities, without it being true that the lover often feels impelled to travel to the city of the beloved to minister to her or his needs. Velleman also argues that, if a lover were to constantly strive for the beloved person’s wellbeing, then lovers would be meddling pests, and otherwise intolerable, as the lover’s attempts to maximize the beloved’s flourishing sometimes fail or backfire. Since these are not the characteristics of people who love, Velleman takes there to be a serious flaw in desire-based theories.

Arpaly and Schroeder argue that Velleman is being too demanding of desire. There are a lot of things that we desire that do not drive us to constantly devote every thought and action to such an object. I want to finish my paper on the nature of desire. However, I do not devote every moment of the day to it. I just finished spending a couple of hours on a computer game. Yet, I do not think that there is any way to explain the amount of time that I spend reading and writing on matters of philosophy except to say that I do love the subject matter. I have got this blog. I am spending thousands upon thousands of dollars each year in college tuition. Yet, can I not, consistent with all of that, spend a some time running a character around Middle Earth checking on the fate of the hobbits of the Shire?

Arpaly and Schroeder apply this to the thesis that a desire is a disposition to act. On that conception of desire, which I have already discussed before, one does not have a desire unless one has a disposition to act. So, under conditions where I am not disposed to act for my wife's well-being, I do not desire her well-being. And if love is a form of desire, then I do not love my wife.

On this model, I currently do not love my wife since I am spending my time working on a blog posting on a theory of desire - something that does not in any way serve my wife's interests. But, then, she is at work. I could, perhaps, spend some time cleaning up the house. She would like that. However, I have already done some chores and I am thinking I am now permitted to spend some time working on what I want to work on - this blog posting.

Arpaly and Schroeder use the example of somebody wanting their favorite team to win, even though they are not disposed to act in any way to bring about that victory.

The fact that one can love a spouse even while one spends a few minutes on something other than serving her interests - on something that one likes - provides an objection to the dispositional theory of action, and to the thesis that love cannot be a desire.

Arpaly and Shroeder also bring up an argument applicable against the death of desire principle. This is the principle that, as soon as one gets what one wants, one no longer desires it (because one can no longer be disposed to act to bring it about, since it already exists). The authors contrast a person who is content because he has the circle of close friends he desires versus the agent's indifference to still having a pair of childhood pajamas he once favored. If the desire for friends extinguished when fulfilled, then it would be like the desire for the pajamas - something the agent once wanted but no longer desires. Yet, the contentment at having the close circle of friends is not matched by a contentment over still having the pajamas.

Indeed, I cannot see how one could argue that desiring my wife's well-being is supposed to compel me to make a nuisance of myself with my meddlesome bothering. I have a great many things that I desire - from eating a pizza to returning to my computer game to drinking this Diet Dr. Pepper I have sitting on the desk beside me, to monitoring the comments that I may get from my facebook posting to finishing this blog posting. None of them command my attention to the degree that Velleman seems to think a desire should be commanding my attention.

Of course, I don't love these things . . . except perhaps the Diet Dr. Pepper. But I still see no reason to believe that loving something - or someone - commands one to be a meddlesome pest on a desire theory of love.

Another mention that the authors address suggests that there is something wrong with valuing something instrumentally and then coming to value it for its own sake, the way we learn to love a person first by finding their companionship enjoyable, finding them attractive, or otherwise finding them useful. But, this itself is an aversion, and not one that has any merit. It does not matter whether one's aversion to pain was learned or biological - it would hurt just the same and be just as awful. The same is true of a broken heart.

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