Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Flourishing

I've previously argued that well-being is better understood in terms of desire fulfillment than mere subjective happiness. (Recall, a desire that P is 'fulfilled' iff P is true.) We could take this to motivate the following simple view about welfare:

DF: A person is well-off to the extent that their desires are fulfilled.

Is this, or something similar, an adequate account of human flourishing? In this post I want to explore some objections to this view.

1) It might instead be proposed that there are certain objective conditions (perhaps arising from a universal human nature) that influence wellbeing regardless of one's desires. Perhaps love and friendship are examples of such intrinsic goods. We can imagine someone, call him 'Uber-Hermit', who has no desire whatsoever for human contact or company (perhaps through mental illness, or a mad scientist rewiring his brain). But don't we feel UH's life is missing something, without which he cannot truly flourish as a human being, no matter how many of his desires are fulfilled?

But perhaps we are biased here. Just because we place a huge importance on these things, doesn't necessarily mean everyone else ought to. Interpersonal relationships might well be central to our usual understanding of human flourishing, and we may then use this conceptual prototype as the basis for a normative framework; but it's not clear to me that the typical view is exhaustive of wellbeing in general. I think someone could live well despite their life seeming bizarre from a 'normal' person's perspective. So I'm not sure that we should be so quick to dismiss UH and the quality of his life.

2) In an old comment, Dan raised a very challenging objection:
Consider the businessman who wanted to become rich and successful. Yet the more successful and prosperous he became, the less satisfied he was. At the height of his success, he realized what he really wanted out of life, renounced his worldly goods, became a hermit, and was finally satisfied.

You could [...] say that the businessman did not really want material success. Rather, he wanted something else, and mistakenly believed in material success as a means to that end. This approach, however, comes perilously close to the question-begging claim that the businessman really desired his well-being.

This is definitely tricky. But perhaps we can make sense of it if we recall that people have a great many desires, only a small fraction of which they're explicitly aware of at any given time. Now, I think we should take the story at face value and concede that Businessman Bob genuinely desired material success (though he later changed his mind). However, there's no way that was his only desire. So perhaps we could say that in satisfying his materialistic desires, he became more aware of other desires he had that he'd previously neglected. (Because the success rang hollow, he finally noticed what he'd missed before.) Consequently, those latter desires became more important to him, and he began concentrating on fulfilling them instead.

This explanation would seem to fit the story in a way that's consistent with DF - though I'm not entirely sure that it avoids begging the question as warned. But it's the best I can think of right now. I guess another way out would be to claim that Bob didn't really learn anything about his wellbeing, he just changed his mind about what he wanted from life. His anti-materialistic desires were entirely new, not old 'hidden' ones. We've all changed our minds before, there's nothing particularly mysterious about that. (I dislike this response, however. I don't really want to deny that Bob learned something, and that he had previously been mistaken about his best interests.)

3) Another problem with DF is that it implies we can improve our lives by forcing ourselves to desire arbitrary true propositions, but this seems silly. ("Gee, I wish that grass was green. Oh goodie, it is! Ain't life grand!") Perhaps this can be explained away by suggesting that such whimsical desires, if genuine at all, would surely be very weak.

We clearly need to clarify our understand of DF so that the value of a fulfilled desire is proportional to the 'strength' of that desire (i.e. its importance to us). But is that enough to make the previous problem go away? What if we managed to induce in ourselves strong pre-fulfilled desires? Would this make us any better off? I'm not sure. On the one hand, it seems too arbitrary. But on the other, it seems plausible that if the world is just how you (really, really) want it, then that's a good thing for you. So I don't think this objection is decisive, though it is at least somewhat troubling.

4) Building on the previous point, one might argue that DF is too passive a view of welfare; we should replace it with a more 'active' view which recognises the importance of an agent's strivings. PEA Soup discusses a relevant paper by Simon Keller:
In the paper, Keller argues for the "Unrestricted View: An individual’s achieving her goals in itself contributes to her welfare regardless of what those goals are" (28). "The greater the quantity of productive effort that an individual successfully devotes to the achievement of a particular goal, the more that achievement contributes to her welfare" (36). And Keller clarifies the notions of "goal" and "achievement" as follows. "Taking something as a goal involves intending to put some effort into its achievement. Having a mere desire does not" (32). "[T]he Unrestricted View is concerned with the achieving, not the mere attaining, of goals... To achieve a goal is to have its attainment be due in part to your own efforts" (33).

Put like that, it does seem to me that goals are more important to our welfare than desires. Though we could bridge this gap. A goal is just a desire we intend to 'achieve' (by the above definition). So we could simply posit a second-order desire that our other desires are achieved and not merely attained. If this new desire was just the right strength, we could get identical results to Keller's theory, without needing to posit anything of intrinsic value beyond simple desire-fulfillment. This strategy may seem a bit ad hoc and unprincipled at first, but I don't think it's so terrible. After all, it does seem plausible that we really do desire that our actions in life are effective, that our wellbeing is in large part due to our own efforts, and so forth.

5) More from the same PEA Soup post:
The Unrestricted view explains why "not every desire is such that its [fulfillment] contributes to its holder’s welfare" (32). Take Parfit’s famous example. "You meet a stranger who tells you that he has a disease, and you form a desire that the stranger recover. You never see or hear of him again, but he does recover. Your desire, then, is [fulfilled], but that – surely – doesn’t make things better for you" (32).

I actually don't share that intuition. If the stranger's health is something you care strongly about, then his recovery makes the world the way you want it to be, and that's a good thing for you. I suspect the source of the skeptical intuition is due to how very weak we normally imagine this desire as being. (Most of us don't really care about strangers all that much.) And whether a very weak desire of ours is fulfilled or not has a vanishingly small influence on the totality of our wellbeing. Hence the intuition that the fulfillment of this particular desire won't affect how well-off we are.

Alternatively, one could make a distinction between "self-regarding" and "other-regarding" desires, and insist that only the former are relevant to your self-interest. I don't so much like that response, but see here for yet another complication involving other-regarding desires.

6) Temporal complications. These aren't really 'objections' as such, and I won't address them in any detail here (this post is too long already!), but they do raise problems that need to be sorted out one way or another. For example: does the fulfillment of your (present) future-regarding desires affect your present welfare? How about past desires that you no longer hold? One might even question whether we should care about our future interests.

7) How to treat thwarted desires when assessing welfare. (Another complication rather than objection.) Are these positively bad, or merely the absence of good? Suppose you desire that P, but P is false. Would you be better off to not have this desire at all, or doesn't it make any difference? Put another way, would we be better off if we desired less? (I take it Buddhists would answer in the affirmative.)


I'm attracted to the theoretical simplicity of DF, but concerned that it may prove too simple to do justice to our wide range of intuitions about welfare and human flourishing. However, the general 'desire fulfillment' approach is very flexible, so I think most of the challenges can be successfully met by modifying or clarifying aspects of the theory, as I attempted to do in my responses above. (I'd be very curious to hear how convincing others found these objections and my responses.) But of course too many complications would negate the original appeal of the theory. Perhaps my desire for an elegantly simple theory of welfare is not one that can be fulfilled?

Update: Jonathan suggests: "Plausibly, I think, desires aim for well-being – my desire is appropriate when the fulfillment of that desire would make me better off." That does sound plausible. But I'm reluctant to accept it until we have some alternative account of what constitutes well-being. Any ideas?

Actually, we might be able to have it both ways here. We can evaluate a desire against how well it would help us fulfill all our other desires. So we can reconcile DF with the idea that desires aim for wellbeing - it's just that this 'aim' presupposes some set of (other) desires to evaluate our wellbeing against. Sound plausible?

29 comments:

  1. what is interesting then is one can improve someones welfare by relieving them of their ambitions - or desires. For example a class system would have a much higher level of welfare than a non class system in as far as the system was believed by the people because one could lover the expectations/desires of the poor to not include the achievements of the rich. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  2. Clearly false. What about addiction?

    -T 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  3. What about it? If you're addicted to something then you feel a compulsion to act in certain ways no matter what else you want. So it has a tendency to thwart your (other) desires, which is precisely why addiction is bad. 

    Posted by Richard

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  4. Frankly, that is a bit of a workaround. Unless you redefine the words, you do want what you're addicted to. At best, you're constraint solving for an optimal happiness. Maybe you would care to properly define the terms if you feel that "desire" and "addiction" are different things. If they are not, maybe you can explain to me why some desires should not take precedence over others? Is there a difference between a want and a need?

    Obviously, you can define well-being as meaning the same as desire fulfillment. Where might that fall down?

    1) If you desire something that is bad for you
    2) If your "true" desires are inaccessible to you
    3) If you view suffering and happiness as incompatible
    4) Man gains pleasure from overcoming difficulty - thus without difficulty, he has less pleasure
    5) The emasculation of too little achievement
    6) The mutually exclusive nature of desire fulfillment
    7) The individualistic definition of well-being - what is the well-being of a culture?
    8) The problem of addiction
    9) The problem of instants - delayed gratification. Averages versus moments, cycles of moods etc
    10) The chemical nature of happiness - endorphins etc
    11) The moral value of well-being - what is it? 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  5. Richard has a point that if I was addicted to cocaine I would acquire a desire - that desire would be to consume huge amounts of cocaine - that would
    A) Be a desire I would probably be unable to fulfil thus adding to the unfulfilled desires side of the ledger and
    B) Prevent me from achieving other desires by frying my brain.

    this leaves us with my initial proposal of removal of desires (and probably replacement by very unambitious aims) in order to improve welfare.

    The usual definition of addiction as opposed to desire for example is somthing like "a desire that significantly hurts other aspects of your life" for example you might have sex and be a normal person but if you had sex all the time and it caused problems I the rest of your life they might call you a "sex addict".

    That does not answer all of your questions of course some of which seem to be at a level even higher than this discussion related to if we should see happiness as valuable at all and if so how should we value each unit of happiness or sadness.
     

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  6. "If you desire something that is bad for you"

    But it seems to me that the only way it could be bad for you is if it was somehow getting in the way of your other desires. (What better measure of 'bad'-ness do we have?)

    Can you give an example of something that is bad for you, without thwarting any desires at all? Or, conversely, something 'good' that doesn't involve any desire fulfilment? Either of these would provide counterexamples to the theory. 

    Posted by Richard

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  7. Before Newton, we looked at the apparently random roll of a die and we thought we could influence its movement by prayer, by blowing on it, by tieing our shoe laces a different way. But now we know its movement is predetermined by the forces acting on it as it is released, and as it bounces. The mystery is gone.
    If our brains are made of the same atoms as those dice, must our desires not be the result of the laws of phsyics as well?
     

    Posted by consciousrobot

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  8. Clearly, we should all be using Hedons and Dolors in order to gauge our success in life...

    Something that is bad for you, without thwarting other desires, is difficult to imagine - mostly because I currently have a set of competing desires. However, I might put forward pride as a kind of desire that is bad for you, and may not thwart other desires. Or perhaps gluttony. What's bad is taking pleasure in something corrupted. To be individualistic, what about the desire for masochism?

    Also, you may or may not believe that people have malleable wills - that is their desires can be encouraged or discouraged through training. It would be bad for you to desire something which is not the most socially good outcome. For example, if you had only individual desires in a social context.

    Something good that doesn't involve desire fulfilment is empathy. Being able to feel the pain or suffering of another person is good, even though doing so fulfils no desire of your own. It is better to be empathetic than callous.

    Also, donation to those who are suffering. While you could argue that this assauges guilt, I think that is really a circular argument, as you have then defined desire as being "that which motivates people" rather than giving its' common sense understanding of "something we want". I think it is possible to pose a series of examples, each blurring the issue further.

    I desire a cake.
    I desire the pleasure I get from eating cake.
    I desire to help others.
    I desire the pleasure I get from helping others.
    I desire to live in a good society.
    I desire the increased utility that results from living in a social way, permitting a stronger economy...
    I desire to live
    I desire power
    I am

    Desire has been usurped from an appetite for pleasure to being the "sole motivator", defining all selfless acts as being desires for the "pleasure" of the act...

    The complementary example is "bad-for-you". If "good-for-you" is desire fulfillment, then "bad-for-you" is when things you desire do not come about. If you desire your own destruction (a la suicide), then is it bad for you to be foiled? Definitially, even if desire is the human motivator, then the utility from death outweighs the sum of the utility from all other desires, and thus is more "valuable". According to its' power to motivate, it is clearly true.

    Defining goodness as the mechanism for human action shows contradiction in suicide, and defining it as the fulfillment of appetites shows that not all appetites are healthy or good. Defining goodness as the maximisation of appetites still has a contradiction of time... 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  9. I think we are confusing two things here
    1) Is it bad to have a desire?
    2) Is it bad to fulfil that desire assuming it exists?

    They are fundimentally different

    RE 1...
    One might argue desires are ALWAYS bad because they create the opportunity to fail to fulfil a desire.
    Or that desires are bad if they are more difficult to achieve than the current desires that they will displace.
    Or that they are good by definition because they create an opportunity for fulfilment.

    some might also argue stretching goals are good because if one achieves a stretch goal then one feels better about it - but I think that feeling is a variable not a constant. I.e. we can theoretically feel just as good about a small goal as a difficult one - I’m sure conicous robots would agree.

    Re 2
    We have the position Richard is putting forth that it will be good as long as it does not conflict with other goals 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  10. Genius, who was confusing those two things? I don't think anyone would say your (2) is bad, would they? But your (1) strikes me as not specific enough. (As you note, a desire simply creates an 'opportunity' which could go either way.) In my (7) above I was trying to ask: is it bad to have an unfulfilled desire? (Rather than no desire at all; clearly it is better to have a fulfilled one!)

    Tennessee - I think many of the points you raise there are relating to moral goodness (good *of* you), rather than the prudential "good for you". (I meant only to be talking about the latter). This is, I think, essentially the same distinction we were recently discussing on your blog. It certainly is morally better to be empathetic than callous. But is it better for you? That's a different question entirely.

    Incidentally, I do think that - in general - being moral is also in one's self-interest. If you treat others well, they will more likely reciprocate, which can help fulfill your desires, and hence be good for you. But if being moral didn't help fulfill your desires in any way, then I have trouble seeing how it could be better for you. So I don't think that works as a counterexample.

    "donation to those who are suffering"

    This is like point (5) in my post above. If you have a strong desire that others not suffer, then I think fulfilling that desire (as donating could help achieve) would be good for you.

    "defining all selfless acts as being desires for the "pleasure" of the act."

    No, I strongly disagree with that maneouver. (See my 'desire fulfillment' and Conscious Robots posts for my arguments against hedonism.)
    As you rightly note, there is a difference between "I desire to help others" and "I desire the pleasure I get from helping others". Either could motivate us. A hedonist would (wrongly) say that only the latter can motivate us. Belief-Desire psychology is importantly different in this respect.

    "If you desire your own destruction (a la suicide), then is it bad for you to be foiled?"

    That depends. Most of our desires require us to be alive in order for the to be fulfilled. So dying would thwart all those desires, and so be bad to that extent. But it's also possible that someone has nothing more to gain from living; e.g. that most of all they desire to stop suffering, or die with dignity, etc. These desires might only be granted through death - in which case death would be in their best interest. (See my post on euthanasia.)

    I should add, though, that it's no contradiction to desire something that conflicts with your other desires. One can desire fast-food, despite having a stronger desire to lose weight. It just means the former desire is bad for them, in that it would cause other (more important) desires to *not* be fulfilled. I suspect suicidal desires are usually like that.

    Thanks for all the intelligent comments! 

    Posted by Richard

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  11. > I don't think anyone would say your (2) is bad, would they?

    Well there is always a time based arguement short term actions might have negitive long term concequences but you probably consider that as already part of the "desire fufilment equasion" - The problem then is that noone is actualy able to perform that equasion, making it theoretically valid but pragmatically weak, resulting in the suicide examples etc.

    > In my (7) above I was trying to ask: is it bad to have an unfulfilled desire? (Rather than no desire at all; clearly it is better to have a fulfilled one!)

    surely you have a fixed potential for desires and a desire will require some sort of resources to try to fufill and thus under normal situations a unfufilled desire should be worse than not having one (in that area).
    Reminds me of how a purple cow slightly increases the chance that all crows are black.

    > "defining all selfless acts as being desires for the "pleasure" of the act."

    Why do you do it then? It is a common move in moral debating to stop at a certain point that suits oneself. what if i did it because I wanted to help others but I want to help others because it makes me feel good OR when I was young helping others was rewarded by my parents - OR Because I have a habit - or because a gene made me do it. there are a number of ways one can follow it probably all valid at least to some extent as valid or more valid than jsut saying "because i want to help people". 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  12. "Why do you do it then?"

    The nature of a 'desire that P' is such that you are motivated to try to make P true. That's just what a desire is. (It doesn't matter whether P is about you or someone else; so selfless acts are explained in exactly the same way as self-interested ones are.)

    No further explanation is necessary - though it is possible. As you note, one could explain an instrumental desire in terms of a more ultimate one (e.g. I want to sit by the fire because I want to be warmer); and all could presumably be redescribed in neurobiological terms. I'm not sure how this relates to the present topic, however.

    "a desire will require some sort of resources to try to fufill and thus under normal situations a unfufilled desire should be worse than not having one"

    Good point. (I think 'opportunity costs' is the phrase you're looking for.) But note, that's just an instrumental (not intrinsic) problem. So, my new question: Are unfulfilled desires intrinisically bad, or are they only bad insofar as they tend to prevent us from fulfilling other desires? 

    Posted by Richard

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  13. It doesn't matter whether P is about you or someone else; so selfless acts are explained in exactly the same way as self-interested ones are.

    The argument however is is it possible to reduce all selfless desires to selfish ones in that way and if so then you cant reject "defining all selfless acts as being desires for the "pleasure" of the act."
    I think in a sense it is possible (although I think there is also habit which can have nothing to do with desire fufillment) an as such there is nothing special about selflessness.

    > Are unfulfilled desires intrinisically bad, or are they only bad insofar as they tend to prevent us from fulfilling other desires?

    this gets rather difficult to deal with. I was wondering if i wanted to but could not, pick up a book would that be a bad thing compared to not wanting it.
    My first thought was - as much ofa problem as I let it become. - but then again if I had no desire at all I would not be thinking and thinking is rewarding in itself..
    but that just means I have a desire "to think".
    hmm now your making my head hurt heh 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  14. I don't see where you're getting this "reduce all selfless desires to selfish ones" stuff from. Acting on a 'desire that P' is not necessarily selfish. It depends what the content of P is. And we've already established that there's a difference between acting on a desire to make P true or a desire for the pleasure which may accompany this. You cannot reduce all desires of the former type, to the latter ones. They're quite distinct.  

    Posted by Richard

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  15. A selfish thing is not something that by definition hurts others. you could be selfish AND help others.
    It would seem that acting on a desire to make P true is dependant on our ability to conceptualize P and the future. Our brains can do that and do so in a manner rather similar to if we were actually experiencing it.

    So just for example
    you want to help poor person because you can empathise with that person - you use your mirror neurons (i guess) to create an image in your head of the benefit that they will recieve. In sense you experience that benefit as long as that is created in your head.

    "And we've already established that there's a difference between acting on a desire to make P true or a desire for the pleasure which may accompany this."

    Usually science aims to simplify. one would either want to reduce them to the same thing OR define exactly what the difference is so that we can have a model of "selfless action = "selfish action" plus "X" 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  16. We're getting a bit off the topic of wellbeing here, but I guess it's helpful to clarify our 'theory of action' too...

    As I understand it, belief-desire psychology is a very general (simple) account of human behaviour. It does define the 'exact difference' too, let me demonstrate:

    1) S desires that the old lady gets across the road safely.
    2) S desires that he feel good about himself.
    Let us stipulate that in both cases, S believes that helping the old lady cross the road will achieve his desire. So S helps the old lady cross the road, in either case.

    Now, it should be clear that these are two quite different motivations. Neither can be reduced to the other. (1) is selfless, (2) is selfish. Either scenario is possible (most likely of all is that our agent is motivated by a little bit of both). 

    Posted by Richard

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  17. Maybe you proved it somewhere else but you seem to be stating that they cannot be reduced as a matter of faith as opposed to providing any argument as to why they cannot be reduced.

    For example lets say I help a old lady across the street - in my mind I am probably thinking "I want her to get across safely" as per your logic

    My brain runs a couple of scenarios - If she does get across safely with my help I will probably feel good, but an if I am part of a small minority of people might not.
    BUT if she DOES NOT get across safely I think we can safely say that will considerably reduce how good I feel about myself.
    To make this more general - feeling that you are a good person is one of the most important parts of "feeling good". I think it would be rather difficult to really think you are bad by your own standards (which are produced in the usual ways) and yet be happy. This is part of the reason why it may be hard to sell people the idea that there is no such thing as a “selfless act” because, for most, it undermines part of their argument to themselves regarding why they are “good people”.

    The simplest explanation is a selfless act is just a selfish act that you don’t understand - or a failure to act.

    Note however that I don’t think all decisions are based on self interest because some are just "non decisions". I.e. one might have a habit of helping ladies across the street and not think to change it even if one knew it is bad for both them and the old ladies (who maybe don’t even want to cross the road!)- in another debate I might reduce selfish behaviour to habit.

    Is it really possible to enjoy hurting people AND feel revulsion when you help people AND no regret at all when you don’t help and yet help them anyway because you know they will be better off - even though you don’t feel any thing positive in this either.
     

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  18. Richard,

    With DF, are you trying to make a descriptive claim about what people are in fact motivated to do or a normative claim about how people ought to act? In your 12/30 comment, you mention a descriptive brand of hedonism that holds (if I understand you correctly) that, for any person S:

    i) S is motivated to do those things (and only those things) that are good for S.
    ii) S's pleasure (and only S's pleasure) is good for S.

    Your view on desires, as I gather from your original post & your 12/31 comment, is that:

    1) "S desires P" means that S is motivated to make P true (ceteris paribus).
    2) S is well-off to the extent that S's desires are fulfilled.

    Assuming that S being well-off is the same as something being good for S, i) seems to follow from 1) and 2). So do you accept i)? As far as I can tell, your disagreement with the hedonist is not with i) but with ii), when he claims that pleasure is the only thing that is good for a person. You think that anything that a person is capable of desiring can be good for him.

    Proposition i) seems highly implausible to me based on my understanding of human motivation. For instance, I think that both of the following scenarios are possible:

    a) S had never thought of P, consciously or nonconsciously, but then P happened and it was good for S.

    b) S had always thought that he desired Not P, but despite his best efforts P happened, and it was good for him.

    It seems to me that either of these scenarios would contradict i).

    So, where have I gotten you wrong, or where do you think that I've gone wrong? 

    Posted by Blar

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  19. Blar, DF is meant normatively (it is making claims about what is good for us), but I don't think it has any direct implications for action. Perhaps we ought to be altruistic, and act in ways that aren't best for us. That's a different question entirely, as I see it. (An interesting one though... no doubt I'll post about it in future some time.)

    You're right that I disagree with the hedonist on (ii), but hold both (1) and (2) myself. But I don't think (i) follows from those two. You've left off the ceteris paribus clause, and potentially conflated means with ends (more on this later). So let's modify it slightly:

    (i*) S is motivated to bring about (all and only) those ends which are (ceteris paribus) good for S.I am indeed committed to (i*), but I don't think it is problematic. I'll explain the changes I've made in reference to your problem-scenarios (a) and (b).

    (a) sounds like a case of indirect fulfillment despite ignorance. Presumably S had some other desire Q which was fulfilled because of P (how else could P be good for him?). This is no contradiction. We're motivated to fulfill our desires, but we don't always know the best means to that end. My descriptive theory of action says that people act so as to fulfill their desires, according to their beliefs (as to how to achieve this). So there's a gap between motivation and action, ends and means, where our fallible beliefs come in. That's why I removed the "do those things" phrase from (i), as it brings actions/means into the picture too early. We're motivated to fulfill our desires - that is the 'end' we aim at - but we form intentions to "do those things" we believe will work as a means to that end.

    So, (a) is not a problem because (i*) recognises that we aren't always aware of all the ways in which we could (indirectly) bring about the fulfillment of our desires. We don't always know the best means to our desired ends.

    Now for (b): This is where the 'ceteris paribus' clause kicks in. If S desired that Not-P, then the obtaining of P was - in this respect - bad for him. However, it could well be that (as above) P indirectly served to fulfill many of his other desires, in a way that S could not have predicted. All that other desire-fulfillment is, of course, a good thing for S. So the indirect goodness of P might outweigh the directly bad, in which case we would rightly conclude that P was - overall - 'good for him', as you say.

    So I think (b) is also consistent with my positions.

    Good questions though! Do let me know if my responses here strike you as unsatisfactory in any way... 

    Posted by Richard

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  20. GeniusNZ, I continue the discussion of selfishness here

    Posted by Richard

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  21. Consider someone whose chief desire is to make life absolutely miserable for someone else. This person is psychologically deficient in such a way that they have no desires one way or the other regarding how others respond to this behavior, including those involving social status, pleasure and pain, or anything else along those lines that might otherwise lead to desire-prevention. Would you say that fulfilling this one desire would be good for this person? Wouldn't you rather just say that the person is deficient in knowing what's good for them because they are unable to desire what's really good for them? On your view, that last question is by definition impossible, but it seems perfectly reasonable to me. 

    Posted by Jeremy Pierce

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  22. "Wouldn't you rather just say that the person is deficient in knowing what's good for them because they are unable to desire what's really good for them?"

    I'm tempted... But what then is "really good for them"? I just don't see what else could provide the sort of objective grounding we need for this.

    "On your view, that last question is by definition impossible"

    Not exactly. We certainly don't always do what is best for us (even in terms of desire fulfillment). And I even think we don't always desire that which would best fulfill our (other) desires. We may have faulty beliefs (and so not know what would best fulfill our desires), or else our rationality may be impaired by some other overriding/incapacitating desire such as addiction.

    "Would you say that fulfilling this one desire would be good for this person?"

    Hmm... I'm not entirely sure the creature you describe *is* a person! It certainly doesn't bear much resemblance to any person I've ever come across. So I don't know whether the present theory could reasonably be expected to apply to it. But supposing there really could be such a wretched person: yes, I can't see what else would be good for it but the fulfillment of its one and only desire. (The immorality of it, in addition to the difficulty of conceiving of a genuinely single-desired agent, may help explain any countervailing intuitions here.) Though if it could possibly be 'rehabilitated' to have a greater range of harmonious desires then I agree that would be preferable (for it as well as the rest of us!). 

    Posted by Richard

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  23. Richard, one way to think of your (i*) [from 1/5] is in response to the question "What is S motivated to bring about?" as the answer "Those ends that actually are good for S." I think that motivation is messier than this. People are not motivated to bring about some of the ends that actually would be good for them. People can be ignorant of or mistaken about what ends are good for them, and not just about the means to those ends. That is, I think that my (a) and (b) can occur even when P is the end that is good for S and there are no other relevant desires involved in the scenario.

    Here's one hypothetical example of situation (a). In one of your links, you mentioned children who are physically incapable of feeling pain. Imagine that an operation was performed on one such child, Painless, so that he would be able to feel pain. Painless had been completely unaware of pain so he had no motivation to avoid pain, but when he felt pain after the operation it was bad for him. After experiencing pain he may have developed a motivation to avoid pain, but he had no such motivation before the pain was bad for him. (The example might be simpler, though further from reality, if it dealt with a child with the opposite incapacity, Pleasureless.)

    Think about things this way. DF is only a reasonable stopping point for a theory if the ends that are good for people are too varied or too numerous for it to be practical to specify them within our theory. But if the ends that would be good for S are varied and numerous, how can you expect S to be aware of all of them and be motivated to bring them all about? That level of self-knowledge seems implausible.

    I also think that motivation is not always directed at bringing about good ends. People can be motivated to act without believing that their actions are means to ends that are good for them. Your theory (according to your 1/5 comment) is that "people act so as to fulfill their desires, according to their beliefs", but human motivation does not always have this neat means-ends format. Sometimes people are motivated to perform a particular action and they have no idea why. 

    Posted by Blar

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  24. Blar, those are some good points, and I'm not entirely sure how to deal with them - but I'll try anyway :)

    The belief-desire theory of action might only apply to rational action. It clearly doesn't apply to automatic behaviour (such as habits or reflexes), and so presumably also lapses in other cases of a-rational or inexplicable behaviour. Having said that, just because someone isn't aware of the desires which motivate their behaviour, does not necessarily imply that there was no such motivation.

    " But if the ends that would be good for S are varied and numerous, how can you expect S to be aware of all of them and be motivated to bring them all about?"

    This brings me back to my response to Jeremy, above. I'm not sure how we're supposed to make sense of your talk of ends that are "good for S" independently of what S himself desires. If it doesn't fulfill any desire, then what is good about it? How are we to decide what counts as good or bad - what standard are we measuring these things against?

    By my view, there isn't really any objective value 'out there' that people must conform to. We make our own value - we assess things against how well they fulfill our desires, and that's just what value is.

    "Those ends that actually are good for S."

    Don't forget the 'ceteris paribus' clause! That plays such a huge role that the resulting claim is almost meaninglessly weak. Everything we desire is, prima facie, a 'good' for us. But these may come into conflict with each other - one desire may get in the way of many others, and so be - all things considered - actually rather bad for us!

    "but when he felt pain after the operation it was bad for him"

    Yeah, that sounds right. But why was it bad? Presumably it was a feeling that Painless would rather not have - i.e. that he would desire to avoid. This does raise some problems as to how we could desire something that don't even know (having never experienced it before). But perhaps we could go more 'general' and say he has a desire to 'not feel unpleasant conscious states', or something along those lines. (Even if he was unfamiliar with pain, he'd presumably know enough about 'unpleasantness' generally to want to avoid it?) 

    Posted by Richard

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  25. Richard, your smiley suggests that you're enjoying this conversation as much as I am. Here are some responses.

    I'm not sure how we're supposed to make sense of your talk of ends that are "good for S" independently of what S himself desires. If it doesn't fulfill any desire, then what is good about it? How are we to decide what counts as good or bad - what standard are we measuring these things against?

    How about this: after S has some experience we ask him "was that good for you?" If he says "yes" then we have reason to suspect that it was good for him. S does not need to have a preexisting desire for some aspect of that experience. He can assess the experience as it occurs, or afterwards. (This is not a perfect test of what is good for S, since S can still be confused, mistaken, etc., but it's one way to gather relevant evidence.)

    This does raise some problems as to how we could desire something that [we] don't even know (having never experienced it before).This is reminiscent of the problem of how we attain knowledge that Plato tried to escape by claiming that all knowledge is recollection. You can't get around it just by talking about Painless's earlier unpleasant experiences, because how would his first unpleasant experience be bad if he didn't have a preexisting desire? My answer is that preexisting desires are not required - people can assess their experiences as they occur. When unpleasantness first comes you can tell that you don't like it.

    I suppose that you could talk about how people are born with built-in desires. Or you could come up with an account of how people can develop desires for ends that have never been good for them before. (Or you could do both.) But it seems simpler and more plausible to me if the good and bad experiences can precede the motivations.

    The belief-desire theory of action might only apply to rational action. It clearly doesn't apply to automatic behaviour (such as habits or reflexes), and so presumably also lapses in other cases of a-rational or inexplicable behaviour. Having said that, just because someone isn't aware of the desires which motivate their behaviour, does not necessarily imply that there was no such motivation.Some questions: How much are you conceding here? Is it necessary to reformulate DF? How can behavior motivated by a hidden desire be distinguished from a-rational behavior?  

    Posted by Blar

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  26. Yup, it's all good fun!

    "How about this: after S has some experience we ask him "was that good for you?" If he says "yes" then we have reason to suspect that it was good for him."

    That sounds like a fair enough method. But the question still remains: what is S's criteria for assessment? How does S himself judge whether the experience is good or bad? And, most importantly, what makes it good rather than bad?

    It seems that we're simply dealing with S's own preferences, that is, his desires. The only puzzle is how he could have such a desire. But I'm not so concerned about that. I think we could plausibly speak of an innate desire to avoid pain and other 'negative' mental states. Alternatively, we could develop your idea, and not require pre-existing desires, but rather allow value judgments to be made in retrospect based on new desires. So it's an interesting puzzle, but not (I don't think) one that poses any threat to DF.

    "How much are you conceding here? Is it necessary to reformulate DF?"

    I don't think so, because DF is a normative claim, I don't see that a minor change in our (descriptive) theory of action should have much effect on it. Unless I've missed something here?

    But I may have been too quick in writing off our automatic actions. Pulling your burnt hand away from a hot stove is reflexive, but it could plausibly be explained by a desire to not burn yourself. I'm not entirely sure about this though (nor your final question)... 

    Posted by Richard

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  27. I the problem with retrospective desires is that they may be distorted by a whole new set of things. After the event one has more information about its results but one has a whole array of psychological effects standing in your way of accuratly assesing it. AND you may still not understand all the effects of the action or if you go far enough into the future (when you can theoretically know them) may not be able to empathise with your position before the event.

    One argument that can be made is that you should always be glad about any event in the past because it makes you what you are - i.e. if it did not happen you would not be you. this is a philosophical position but possibly a rational one.

    Similarly an example of the event changing you is taking a drug where after taking it a person might say it was good but several days after they might say bad (withdrawl) and after that who knows?

    One might be able to determine if the person knew all the information but had not been "effected" by it (ie changed) what would he want?

    I remember an azimov story regarding happyness being the efficient operation of the brain and unhappyness being an inefficient operation of the same brain. This makes sense if negitive feedback breaks habits (and positive feedback strengthens them although this is not required.)

    So we have negitive feedback triggers and the desire to avoid those triggers emerges naturally via a sort of natural selection of conenctions.

    You may well thus have such a biological assesment of welbeing - somthing htat could be mesured independantly of the person involved although rather "pleasue machine oriented". 

    Posted by geniusnz

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  28. Jeremy Pierce writes: "I'm not sure why you would define self-interest in terms of desires. It just seems that someone could fail to desire their own self-interest in any way. We would consider this sort of person highly defective, but it seems like a genuine counterexample. Doesn't self-interest have to have a basis in things besides our desires anyway, because it's the most fundamental object of our desires?

    I think cases like smoking, any other addiction, bulimia, etc. are going to be problems too. I'm sure you have a response to this, along the lines of weighting desires for damaging things as less then desires for health, longer life, etc., but that just seems wrong to me. The desire for the cigarette or to binge and purge is stronger than all the other desires combined, or it wouldn't win out.
    "

    Things like smoking (etc.) are bad to the extent that they thwart our other desires. You suggest that it must be strong enough to counterweigh these effects. I can think of a few responses to that:

    1) I'm not sure that compulsions are really 'desires' in sense that I want here. This is because we don't feel the same sense of ownership over them. I guess this comes down to second-order desires of the sort Frankfurt (I think) talks about. I'll have to think about this some more.

    2) Self-harming actions can arise from false beliefs. The agent simply might not realise how harmful (desire-thwarting) their behaviour is.

    3) Weigh the harmful desire less, as you suggested. To win out, the bad desire presumably must be stronger at the time of the action, but since we're taking a long-term view, I think this move is a plausible one. Once they've got lung cancer, they're much more upset about that than they were satisfied by their past smokes.

    4) Bite the bullet and admit that smoking could be in someone's self-interest. If that's what they really want... if it matters more to them than anything else does, then maybe it really is the best option for them. 

    Posted by Richard

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