Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Swinburne on Desire

"There is a natural contrast often made in ordinary language between the actions which we do because we want or desire to do them, and the actions which we do although we do not want to do them. It is a contrast which has been ignored by much modern philosophy of mind which has seen desire as a component of all actions, and the reasons for all actions as involving desires of various kinds. The ignoring of the distinction between desire and the active component in every action (call it 'trying' or 'seeking' or 'having a volition') leads a man to suppose that he can no more help doing what he does than he can help his desires. But 'desires', in the normal ordinary language sense of the word, are natural inclinations to actions of certain sorts with which we find ourselves. We cannot (immediately) help our natural inclinations but what we can do is choose whether to yield to them, or resist them and do what we are not naturally inclined to do. When we resist our natural inclinations, we do so because we have reasons for action quite other than ones naturally described as the satisfaction of desire -- e.g. we do the action because we believe that we ought to, or believe it to be in our long-term interest."

-- Swinburne (1985) 'Desire', Philosophy vol. 60, p.429.

See also: Agency and the Will


  1. Whenever I see arguments like this, I wonder if there isn't, behind them, some disregard for fact that "desire" is often used as shorthand for "pro-attitude," which can include a sense of obligation, or some other motivational factor. Of course desires--narrowly construed--can be overridden. The question is whether they can be overridden without an overriding pro-attitude.

  2. Trivially, anything that overrides a desire is ipso facto some "motivational factor". The question is whether such motivations are always prior to deliberation, a 'given' beyond our control, or whether our deliberation can give rise to new motivations, whatever 'given' attitudes we might begin with.


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