Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Theorizing about Desire

What do we want from a theory of desire? Should it match our intuitive judgments -- are we just analyzing the folk concept of 'desire'? Or are we aiming for a theory with some predictive/explanatory power? Or is it meant instead to have some kind of normative significance, so that fulfilled desires are pro tanto good for you? (These three options might lead us to focus on affect, drive, or evaluation, respectively.) Whether we opt for one of these, or something else entirely, seems to make a difference for how we deal with so-called "instrumental desires", for example.

Suppose I see a plastic apple, and - mistakenly believing it to be real - feel tempted to eat it. Should a theory of desire yield the result that I desire to eat it? Intuitively: sure. Normatively: no way. Behaviourally: whichever. (It's presumably just as explanatory to say that I desire some ultimate end -- a yummy taste, perhaps, or good nutrition -- and mistakenly believe that eating the plastic apple will serve these ends. This combination of attitudes suffices to explain why I might try to eat the plastic apple. If anything, it probably does a better job of explaining why I will stop eating it as soon as reality impinges itself on my beliefs!)

I'm most interested in the normative project, and this leads me to think that ultimate (non-instrumental) desires are the only desires we should count. Suppose I want to break out of prison, and believe that a hacksaw could help me achieve this end. Compare the following situations:

(1) I get the hacksaw, but it proves useless, so I remain imprisoned.
(2) I get the hacksaw and escape.
(3) I simply escape (no hacksaw required).

Surely the right thing to say here is that I get all that I want in situations (2) and (3), whereas in situation (1) I don't get what I really wanted at all. It's not as though I can console myself with the thought, "Well, at least I got this hacksaw I wanted!" I don't really desire the hacksaw at all; I just wanted to get out of prison. Similar problems arise when comparing (2) and (3). It's not as though I get more of what I want, in any interesting sense, in case (2) -- that would be double-counting! As an escapee in case (3), I won't feel the slightest frustration at having my 'desire' for a hacksaw remain unsatisfied.

So it is only ultimate desires that are philosophically interesting, I think. Sure, one could use the term in such a way that one counts as having a 'desire' for the believed means as well as the end. But what's the interest in that?

Another example: Liz Harman suggests that many apparent conditional desires, e.g. to be a fireman when you grow up, are really unconditional desires that simply weren't thought through all that carefully (i.e. one took the rationale / apparent 'condition' -- that you still want to be a fireman as an adult -- for granted). Maybe this fits better with folk intuitions, or a natural way of talking, or some such. But I don't really see why that should matter to us. Treating the desire as conditional gives us a neat explanation why it doesn't impact one's welfare when the condition isn't met. What does the alternative account give us?


  1. Richard,

    I see a tension between, on the one hand, the desires as ultimate desires view, and on the other hand, analyzing value in terms of desire satisfaction.

    The man in prison desire to escape from prison is another instrumental desire. What he really desires is time with his wife and kids, say. If he didn't get to see his wife and kids, he wouldn't say "at least I escaped from prison!" But then again his desire to see his wife and kids is an instrumental desire. What he really, ultimately wants is to live a good and meaningful life. If he got to spend time with his wife and kids but it nothing to make his life better or more meaningful he wouldn't say "at least I got to spend time with my wife and kids!" Maybe the imprisoned man's ultimate desire is to lead a good and meaningful life. Goodness might be the only thing he ultimately desires.

    The catch: then goodness or meaning in life had better not be analyzed in terms desire satisfaction on threat of circularity.

  2. Right, it wouldn't make sense, on a desire satisfactionist view, for "goodness" to be the only thing one ultimately desires. (That would be to ultimately desire only that one gets what one ultimately desires.)

    But then, the motivation for the desire theory is precisely that we do not have any independent grasp of what a "good and meaningful life" would be. Those are just empty words, unless you fill them in by specifying what you take a good and meaningful life to be, i.e. what it is that you ultimately want (desire) from life. I actually think that 'spending time with my wife and kids' is an ultimate value for many people. (I can certainly imagine lying on my deathbed, with everything else in my life having gone to hell, consoling myself with the thought that "at least I got to spend [quality] time with my wife and kids" -- that really is something I want for its own sake, no matter what else might happen to me. It's one of the things I take to be good.)

    Put it this way: if it really is one of your ultimate values, then it's incoherent to imagine both that it is realized and that it somehow fails to make your life "better or more meaningful". (What more could you want? What else do you desire?)


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