Thursday, February 28, 2008

Desiring Thisness

Value-based theorists claim that (in standard cases) whenever it seems that desires provide us with reasons, it is really some valuable feature of the thing desired which provides the normative reason. Ruth Chang, in 'Can Desires Provide Reasons for Action?' (and class last Tuesday), tries to break the dialectical stalemate by discussing a desire for one of two qualitative duplicates, which have all their (intrinsic) features in common.

Think of Buridan's Ass, stuck between two bales of hay, or the ordinary experience of picking a can from the supermarket shelf. It's possible, Chang suggests, for you to just "feel like" one rather than the other, and not for any particular reason. You just feel an affective pull towards that particular object as such, desiring its "thisness" (haecceity or bare identity) rather than any generic feature it happens to exemplify along with the other duplicates.

I don't think this makes much sense, since I don't think haecceities make much sense. But, metaphysics aside, here's a quick counterargument to suggest that these ordinary desires do not, in fact, take bare identities as their objects: we wouldn't care if God secretly switched the duplicates. That wouldn't frustrate one's desire. Having obtained the second can from the left, I now have everything I wanted (so far as cans are concerned, at least). I would not feel in any way cheated to learn that the can has a different 'thisness' from the one I originally set my eyes on. So the 'thisness' could not have been the object of my desire.

(N.B. If you can imagine a case where switching duplicates would bother you, e.g. replacing your wife with a perfect copy, this is arguably because you value the particular causal history connecting you to the one and not the other -- which is just another qualitative feature, albeit a relational one. So there are still no grounds for attributing a desire for bare identity.)

Fortunately, Chang does not need to make such a strong claim. At least if I'm following the dialectic correctly, it should suffice to note that there are no normatively relevant differences between the options in the example, besides the fact that one is desired. (It doesn't matter if the desire is based on some unimportant relational feature rather than being a "feature free" desire for bare identity.)


  1. does your after the fact analysis really provide proof about your desires?

    For example Imagine a fundimental desire of "thisness". I might "desire a coke" as a simple concept in my head which has no form at all besides a desire to have that thing that has coke as it's name.

    I might in the end have a cola and maybe decide that that was a perfect substitute - but that doesn't change the fact that I wanted (in it's pure form) a coke and not a cola.

    maybe we want to say that what you want is 'that think that will make you happy', or "I want what an idealized me would want". Which extracts us a bit from the real world and creates some counter intuitive hypotheticals to consider (but I guess is OK if we want to do that).

    Also I'm also not sure that everyone would not feel 'cheated'. Afterall you WERE cheated in a sense.
    the other part of this is that if we divide these sorts of desires into 'real desires' for lets say 'continued existance' and 'fake desires' for, let's say 'coke' then do we have solid grounds for saying that the desire for 'continued existance' is fundamentally different from the desire for coke?
    that probably sounds strange - but I'm suggesting that you could reasonably have a model where you could desire anything including ceasing to exist or 'not having any cans" and I'm suggesting that whole web of beliefs might be anchored to nothing other than itself. Wanting coke might be one potential first principle and 'wanting to exist another neither being essential or holding a special place.

  2. Right, this is related to the discussion (in Theorizing about Desire) about whether to count merely instrumental desires. (I think we shouldn't, by this same test.)

    My thought is that if you truly desire something of the name "coke", in addition to all the underlying features shared by cola substitutes, then upon getting a mere cola you will find that you have not yet gotten everything you wanted.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.