Sunday, September 16, 2007

Examples of Irrational Desires

More from Reasons and Persons. I love this one (pp.123-4):
A certain hedonist cares greatly about the quality of his future experiences. With one exception, he cares equally about all the parts of his future. The exception is that he has Future-Tuesday-Indifference. Throughout every Tuesday he cares in the normal way about what is happening to him. But he never cares about possible pains or pleasures on a future Tuesday... This indifference is a bare fact. When he is planning his future, it is simply true that he always prefers the prospect of great suffering on a Tuesday to the mildest pain on any other day.

We can judge such a preference to be irrational because it makes arbitrary discriminations. It is ad hoc, and fails to treat like cases alike. A more coherent desire-set would appreciate pleasure on future Tuesdays as for any other day.

Parfit also discusses "Within-a-Mile-Altruism". Rather than caring about the welfare of others in his general community, the Within-a-Mile Altruist cares only about those who are located within one mile of him. One step further, and he feels indifferent to their suffering.

I've discussed similar arguments from Michael Smith here. This leads to the core argument of my essay, 'Why be moral?':
We have already established that self-interested reasons would force the amoralist to develop an intrinsic appreciation of at least some other people as ends in themselves. But it would seem arbitrary to recognize only some people as having intrinsic worth or even agent-relative worth to him. We can ask the relativistic amoralist why others do not also have worth to him. It seems plausible to hold that his overall desire set could be made more unified and coherent by adding in a more general desire for human well-being. This would contribute to explaining and justifying the more specific values the amoralist holds in valuing himself and his friends. We thus have rational grounds to criticize his desire set, in that it fails to exhibit such a degree of internal coherence. Given the rational pressure towards coherence, we may thus conclude that even the amoralist has reason to care about morality.


  1. But just because it might be ad hoc or irrational doesn't necessarily make it arbitrary. Assume further that the person's life is such that he knows both that significantly unpleasant things will happen on a regular basis, and decides that they should all happen on Tuesday as opposed to any other day. Why? Because they have to happen at some time, and because it's better to have them all happen at once so he can move on. After all, if his day is going to be ruined it might as well be ruined repeatedly and spare him from other ruined days that week. The choice of Tuesday as opposed to some other day might be arbitrary, but not necessarily irrational.

    This changes the case around, of course, but if anything it matches the "within-a-mile" case even better. One can't be altruistic towards everyone, or care equally about everyone's welfare: this is not something humans are generally capable of. So there will be some people one cares about and some one doesn't, and it's not clear if there's a non-arbitrary line here. (At the least, there may not be a non-arbitrary moral line to be drawn.)

  2. Right (assuming you meant to write, "just because it might be ad hoc or arbitrary doesn't necessarily make it irrational"), that's a fair point. Sometimes we need to make arbitrary decisions, and since there are no reasons to be found, it is perfectly rational to adopt an ad hoc policy or means to your ends. But that is quite different from introducing arbitrariness into your ultimate ends, which I think is necessarily irrational.

    (Note that the within-a-mile altruist is not just a general altruist who adopted a within-a-mile policy for pragmatic reasons. That would be far more reasonable. No, this guy is someone who genuinely doesn't care, at the deepest level, about those who live more than a mile away. He judges that people really matter less once they cross that invisible boundary. It's every bit as crazy as Future-Tuesday Indifference.)

  3. I'd also note that, even if the hypothetical hedonist prefers all his suffering to happen on Tuesday so he can get it over with, that doesn't mean he should be *indifferent* to what happens to him on Tuesdays.

    All else being equal, even if Tuesday is worse for him than any other day of the week, a Tuesday with less suffering is preferable to a Tuesday with more. So, he should take steps to minimize his suffering on that day as well. If he was truly indifferent as to how bad Tuesdays were for him, treating a worse one as equivalent to a better one, that would truly be irrational.

  4. What if the within a mile altruist IS irrational BUT the decision to be one was made for some at least semi rational "indirect utilitarian" logic (eg I believe i can help people closer to me better than far away so I will only think about those close to me as people).

    I imagine such things are absolutely rampant in almost everyone's philosophy and i can think of hundreds of rational ways one could form them.


  5. By this logic, wouldn't it be irrational to prefer dogs to cats, as there is no relevant difference between them? But it seems odd to say that someone is irrational for liking dogs over cats(or vice versa).

    1. Surely there are relevant differences in which such a preference may be grounded, e.g. whether one prefers close companionship or independence and lower maintenance in a pet.

    2. Ok so maybe that wasn't the best example but I still think the point remains. Let's say someone has a preference for redheads over blondes, another person prefers blondes over redheads, and a third person doesn't have a preference. It seems strange to say that the third person is more rational than the other two. (Obviously I'm assuming that hair color doesn't reflect anything else about a person)

    3. Right, so it's important to distinguish tastes from philosophical "preferences" (even though in ordinary English we often use "prefers" broadly to cover either). Tastes, we may suppose, are a-rational, and not subject to rational criticism. But they have downstream rational significance: If you like the taste of chocolate more than vanilla, then that is a perfectly good reason to prefer that you get the chocolate rather than the vanilla ice-cream (indeed, it may render the opposite preference downright irrational, though you can imagine some confused or self-loathing person who prefers that they get the flavour they like less).

    4. Well wouldn't both 'tastes' and 'preferences' fall under the category of desires? And how would we distinguish between the two? The future Tuesday indifferent person could say that his future tuesday indifference is a matter of taste and that he is not being irrational in desiring it.

    5. No, we need to distinguish tastes or likings, on the one hand, from desires or preferences, on the other. (See, e.g., here.) The former simply concern what your subjective experiences are like, whereas the latter involve a kind of reflective endorsement or ranking, and a tendency towards choice. So again: liking the taste of chocolate (or finding redheads more attractive) is just a brute fact about your subjective experiences. What you prefer upon reflection is always a further question.


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