Sunday, March 05, 2006

Moore's Paradox for Desires

Long-time readers may recall my interest in converting belief/truth-based paradoxes into desire/value analogues. So I found it very interesting to talk with David Wall, a grad student here at ANU, who is exploring the idea of a "Moore's paradox" for desire.

Recall that the standard Moore's paradox involves assertions like "p, and I do not believe that p", which sound very odd - even incoherent - despite being consistent and indeed quite often true. The problem is that assertions express beliefs, and the underlying belief expressed above is the Moorean belief:

(1) The belief that [p, and I do not believe that p]

where belief in the first conjunct undermines the second. Now, Dave is interested in the analogous Moorean desire:

(2) A desire that [p, and i do not desire that p]

Note that this is a single conjunctive desire, and should not be confused with a conjunction of atomic desires, e.g.:

(2*) A desire that [p], and another desire that [i do not desire that p]

2* is perfectly comprehensible, just think of Frankfurtian agents whose first-order motivations fail to match up with their second-order desires. Say someone who has a strong craving for drugs, but who wishes that he didn't. Note that they are only comprehensible as two distinct desires. If combined into one, i.e. if the agent wanted it to be the case that he took drugs while no longer wanting to, that just seems bizarre. It's not literally inconsistent, but there does seem something deeply irrational about desires which take this logical form. So there is a good prima facie case for an analogue with Moore's Paradox in this vicinity.

(Incidentally, if you'd like further support for the idea that a conjunctive desire can be irrational even when the conjunction of distinct desires is not, just see this example from the Ethical Werewolf, where a prisoner wants to eat his captor's food, and wants the captor's food to be poisoned, but doesn't want both!)

Dave fleshes this out by trying to show that Sorenson's analysis of Moorean beliefs also applies to Moorean desires. Briefly: holding the Moorean belief guarantees that one will fall short of the ideally true and complete belief set. Dave argues that a similar problem befalls the Moorean desire in (2).

I think this is a misguided strategy. For note that as far as the global coherence or completeness of a mental-state set is concerned, it makes no difference whether the states are considered distinct or conjoined into one. Compare (1) above with its segregated version:

(1*) A belief that [p], and another belief that [I do not believe that p]

In the global sense, (1*) is just as imperfect as (1) is. Either suffices to guarantee that one will fall short of the ideal belief set. So if this sort of global imperfection was the underlying explanation of Moorean paradoxes, we should find (2*) just as wrongheaded as (2). But we don't. The torn agent in (2*) is certainly less than ideal. But they're not suffering from the kind of severe incoherence we find in (2).

We might even say the same about the Moorean beliefs, though I think it less obvious there. But perhaps an agent could be in situation (1*) through having compartmentalized beliefs. Then, although there is an underlying incoherence in his belief set, and thus he is a less than fully ideal doxastic agent, still our agent is not nearly so irrational as someone with the Moorean belief in (1). So the problem here is a local one, concerned with these mental states in particular, and not the total completeness and perfectibility of our state sets considered as a whole.

(Besides, perfection is never a realistic goal to begin with, so it isn't clear why we should find it so shocking when a state guarantees that we will fall short of it. That outcome is pretty well guaranteed in any case!)

So, how else might we try to understand the problem with Moorean desires? I was initially struck by their interesting relation to conditional desires. Note that often we desire some future event (e.g. eating ice-cream) on the condition that we still desire it at the time of occurrence. I don't now desire that in future I eat icecream, if it happens that at the future time I will no longer want it!

But that regrettable mismatch -- between the desire's satisfaction and its (lack of) persistence at the time of satisfaction -- is precisely what we find in case (2). The agent desires that he goes unsatisfied in some sense; that he receives an object which he will no longer appreciate at the time of receipt. This seems very odd indeed.

Alternatively, we might steer closer to the belief-truth // desire-value parallel, as follows: The agent either considers p to be of value to him, or he does not. If not, then he has no reason to desire it in the first place. But if he does, then he shouldn't want this desire to go away, for that would detract from his appreciation of p's value. Thus, the conjunctive desire in (2) displays a kind of internal incoherence; resting on the judgments both that p has value, and that it does not.

This explanation more closely mirrors our understanding of the Moorean belief (wherein the agent appears committed to judgments both that p is true, and that it is not), and hence seems an opportune strategy in light of Dave's goals.

Anyway, Dave said he'd like some more feedback about all this (even from those who think the entire project is misguided, and that there isn't really any Moorean paradox for desire), so do leave a comment!


  1. I think you could for example in theory believe in god but not believe that you believe in god.

    I suggest these sorts of things are related to the fact that different concepts are not stored in the same place in your brain and thus dont need to be entirely reconcilable. For example you might doubt god on a day to day basis but stil go to church because deep down you do believe. Or the opposite.
    you can seperate it by time or by parts of your brain or by contex or whatever as long as there is some difference there is the potential that shifts a vital factor that allows you to hold the opposite belief.
    then of course there is the purely irrational mind that fundimentally does not reconcile illogical statements to whom "I am dead and I am alive" is not a problematic statement.

  2. Yes, that's an example of the sort of "compartmentalization" that I mention in the middle of the post. It's a case of type (1*), with two separate conflicting beliefs. It is quite different from the Moorean paradox, wherein one has the single, unified, belief that god exists but I don't believe in him. Do you see the difference, and agree that there's something specially problematic about the latter?

  3. Well I'm not sure if it is possible to have a single complex belief that is not in some way compartmentalized (rather like how I can see a way to create a contradiction with a single word) but in regard to the hypothetical - yes.

  4. Hi richard,

    thanks for putting this up. i'll post the comments i made to you in the email yesterday;

    i). don't forget the commissive versions of each puzzle;
    (3) the belief that [p and i believe that not p]
    (4) the desire that [p and i desire that not p].
    i find these more striking than the omissive versions (it was thinking about (4) that got me started on this...)

    ii). we've talked about this and i know you disagree but i'm interested in other peoples' opinions on it; i agree that both (1) and (1*) are non-ideal; but they are non-ideal in different ways. That's why i think it isn't a problem that (2) and (2*) are non-ideal in different ways. Perhaps there is even an analogy there;
    (1) and (2) are local attidudes that COMMIT the subject to global error whereas (1*) and (2*) are globally non-ideal but could be explained by compartmentalisation, like you suggest.
    (But as (1) and (2) are the (putative) Moorean attitudes. Isn't that promising for my account that they are both explained in the same way?)

    iii). i disagree about explanations that appeal to incompleteness of attitude system. True, we don't expect an everyday subject to have a belief about everything. But there is something less than ideal about a belief system that contains only a few beliefs even if they're all true and all formed according to the evidence, etc. So i think that incompleteness is a criterion by which we criticise belief systems at least (of course, it is a more contentious step to say that desire systems can also be criticised for incompleteness too, but that is what i try to argue for; and i think there is an analogy there too. Just as the ideal believer is omniscient, wouldn't the ideal desirer be omnipotent?). It could well be the case that we think that truth is MORE important that completeness (in the case of belief). But that would not show that completeness is not important at all. Perhaps this is reflected in the (at least, my) intuition that the commissive version of moore's paradox is wierder than the omissive version).

    iv. as for value as the analogous criterion in the case of desires; i don't think this works; for two reasons.
    first it would be disanalogous with the belief case; value comes in degrees whereas truth (on most standard accounts) is all or nothing. In that respect satisfaction is like truth and value is like evidential support (so of course, if you think that moore's paradox is to be explained in terms of evidence then you might be more sympathetic to the value explanation for the desire case).
    second i don't think this would really be a puzzle about desire. it would reduce to a puzzle about contrasting judgments/appearances/seemings of value. That just seems like a particular instance of the belief case rather than something especially about desires.

  5. Hi Dave,

    You say: "i agree that both (1) and (1*) are non-ideal; but they are non-ideal in different ways. That's why i think it isn't a problem that (2) and (2*) are non-ideal in different ways."

    A problem for what? I agree it's no problem for your Moorean analogy in general, since (1) and (2) still seem to be behaving in analogous ways. But I was suggesting that it was a problem for your particular explanation of the paradox, since the explanation applies equally well to the non-Moorean starred cases. If I've understood it correctly, your Sorensonian analysis implies that (1*) and (2*) are both Moorean mental states also. (That's what I was trying to argue in the main post.) But that's plainly false. So the analysis must be wrong.

    Note that my objection here is not to the analogy (I support that!), but merely to the analysis of Moore's paradox.

    re: value: I had in mind the binary distinction between something being valuable or not. The question of how valuable it is doesn't seem relevant to these cases. So I don't think we need to worry about 'degrees' of value creating significant disanalogies here.

    Also, value isn't evidence of anything else. So it's not really anything like "evidential support", except for the minimal analogy you get from the fact that evidence might also come in degrees. That's really very minimal though! So I don't think there's any connection between explaining Moore's belief paradox in terms of evidence, and the desire one in terms of value. There is a much stronger parallel between truth and value, since they play analogous functional roles as the 'aim' of the relevant mental state (belief and desire, respectively).

    Indeed, as you note in your final point: if anything, the value account seems to be too closely analogous to the belief paradox! You might avoid this by pursuing my original suggestion about the conditional desires, etc. The oddness of "wanting to go unsatisfied in some sense" is surely distinctive of desire. But I rather think that the conflicting value judgments account may the best explanation, and if that ends up being merely another version of the original paradox, then so be it!

  6. Hi richard,

    i'll have to think about your points about value. but i don't think you're right that the analysis of moore's paradox implies that (1*) and (2*) are examples of Moore's paradox (in which case, you're right, that would show that the analysis was false).
    consider three types of irrationality;
    (i) the irrationality of having a single belief (p and not-p); (ii) having two separate beliefs, a belief that p and a distinct belief that not p; (iii) having a moorean belief like a belief (p and i believe that not p).

    In (i) the belief cannot be part of a belief system that does not contain falsity. but this is because the belief itself cannot be true. So the global defectiveness is purely a result of having a local defect.
    in (iii) the moorean belief cannot be part of a belief system that does not contain falsity; it leads to global defectiveness. However, this isn't due to any local defect; the content of the belief could be true. So the global defect has a local source that is not itself defective (at least, not in the same way). (i want to say that this is what Moorean irrationality is - something that is shared by (2)-(4).)
    in (ii) again the two beliefs cannot together be part of a belief system that does not contain falsity; they lead to global defectiveness. And like (iii) this isn't because of a belief that is itself inevitably false; so unlike (i) the global defectiveness of (ii) does not have a local source that is defective. But unlike (iii) it does not have a local source; like you say the problem is not with a particular belief. Rather it is plausibly a problem of compartmentalisation (i don't know how to describe that; a structural problem with the belief system?).
    If that is right then the irrationality involved in (i), (ii), and (iii) is different in each case. So this analysis does not imply that (1*) and (2*) are moore paradoxical.
    does that make sense?

  7. Okay, yeah, that helps. I was mistakenly thinking that the analysis was solely concerned with the global effects of the belief. But if you also include considerations which distinguish the Moorean cases from (i) and (ii), then my objections no longer apply. Thanks for the clarification!


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