Monday, May 12, 2008

Brute Desires

We desire things for reasons. Often we want something because we judge it to be good. The desire thus stems from an evaluative belief, which in turn is answerable to reason. In other cases, the reason for our desire is a brute taste, e.g. the fact that we find the taste of chocolate to be pleasant. We desire chocolate for the pleasure it brings us, but this taste (unlike our values) is not further answerable to reason. It is simply given.

Is it possible to have a brute desire? A desire for chocolate, say, not for the pleasure it may bring, nor because there's anything about it you judge to be valuable, but simply because you (inexplicably) want it? I submit that this is not possible. You may be able to program a creature to pursue certain ends for no reason, but it is not really an agent with desires in the fullest sense unless it could make sense of them on reflection.

Consider it from the perspective of the agent in question. You find yourself pursuing some object X, even though you see nothing redeeming about it. You have no taste for X (it does not bring you pleasure). Nor do you judge it to be good or valuable for any other reason. You are, in short, completely indifferent to it. And yet there your hand is reaching out for X. Why is your hand doing that? You can't make sense of it. The behaviour does not stem from your attitudes in any way you can make sense of. It would seem more like your body is possessed, moved by some compulsion outside of your self. Whatever your behavioural outputs, so long as you neither value X nor have a taste for it, there's no way your pursuit of it can be properly characterized as reflecting a "desire" on your part.

The situation seems even more odd when we consider that the alleged "desire" is supposed to govern not just bodily movements, but also internal deliberation. That is, you should find yourself engaging in instrumental reasoning, forming elaborate plans about how best to obtain X. But again: why are you reasoning in such a way? It makes no sense, unless you think that X is worth getting for some reason (hedonistic or otherwise).

If you have a genuine desire that P, then (ceteris paribus) you will accept an offer to make it the case that P even on the condition that this fact is wiped from your memory and so you never get any subjective satisfaction out of it. (If you don't accept this offer, that shows that what you really desire is not P per se, but rather the subjective satisfaction of believing that P.) But, in the above case, can you imagine voluntarily accepting such an offer to secretly bring about X? Such a choice seems incomprehensible (unless you actually valued X, contrary to our stipulated set-up). So brute desires are likewise incomprehensible.

Or am I missing something?


  1. I think this gets it backwards. For many basic desires, such as food, water, sleep and sex, we desire them not because they give us pleasure or any other such reason; on the contrary, they give us pleasure because we desire them.

    I may have an urge to drink a glass of water. Why? Because I am thirsty, that's all. It is not because of the pleasent sensation of the water down my throat; rather, drinking is pleasent because it quenches the thrist/desire.

    Something similar happens with sex. Surely most people have sexual desires before their first sexual experiences and therefore the desires are not because they know it is pleasurable. And to say that the reason is that "they think that it would be pleasurable" seems awfully intellectualistic. As with the water, the desire is logically and psychologically (and surely also evolutively) prior; the pleasure is an add-on.

    Of course, in both cases I may reflect on my desire and find good reasons to justify keeping them (or rejecting them); but this does not mean that those were the reasons for having the desire originally.

  2. Hmm. I guess I was thinking that those sorts of cravings are really just desires to be rid of a certain unpleasant mental state. The thirsty agent does not have a non-instrumental desire that the world be such that he drinks water. Rather, he fundamentally desires to be free of painful thirst, and the most obvious way to achieve this is by means of drinking water.

    (Note that I'm using 'desire' in a slightly technical sense. I agree that we can have brute tastes and cravings. But those are not philosophical desires, which are directed towards propositions.)

  3. I do find this question of the order of explanation perplexing, though. Perhaps I could better get at my core concern by sidestepping that problem and instead asking whether it's possible to implant a brute desire without any concomitant "taste".

    That is, even if you think one might have brute desires which give rise to certain tastes or pleasures, is it possible to just have the desire alone? (If not, this would be reason to think that we do not have two distinct things here, a desire and a taste/craving, but simply one state that may be described in two ways. No necessary connections between distinct existences, and all that.)

  4. I think alejandro might have it roughly right here: what we have is just an ambiguity in how we talk about desires. After all, it's not remotely clear (at least not to me) that there's anything about desires that they all have in common outside of the fact that we take them to be the sorts of things that can be satisfied, and that involve some sort of motivation. So what seems to be involved with what we could (but what I think you don't want to) call 'brute desires' is just something like an unpleasant sensation and, perhaps, the belief that the unpleasant sensation can be made to go away by performing some action.

    I'm not actually even certain that it needs to go this far. This may be unique to me, or at least no one that I know of has mentioned it specifically, but there does seem to be some experiences which might best be called uncertain desires. That is, the unpleasant physical sensation that generally characterizes a desire shows up, but not with any particular object attached to it. And as a result I am usually left wandering around my apparently trying various things until something makes it go away (either food, water, tea, nicotene, etc). But until I hit on something that does eliminate the sensation it doesn't necessarily come with any object at all. Whether this is even a proper desire is pretty ambiguous (there doesn't seem to be any proposition attached to it in any sensible way), but it's not an uncommon experience either.

  5. I think there's an option being left out. You give us (1) desire "stems from an evaluative belief" and (2) brute desire. But most of our desires are neither. At least, this seems to depend on what "stems" means. If you mean--as you seem to be suggesting--that we first judge something to be good and then come to desire it because of the judgment, this can't be a very common occurrence, at least for human beings. (Williams, anyone?) You don't have to go this far to oppose the idea of brute desires, and in the course of your argument you seem to characterize desires not as stemming from evaluations, but as dispositionally containing evaluations.

    So there might be one sort of thing called "desire," which would be both affective and normative. Neither would be primary, though the desire could be variously caused either by affective or normative means, and the other aspect would be added to make it a desire. Or something like that.

    This would also help address the issue of "uncertain desires": In those cases you have an affect, but until you find an at least prima facie decent means of hashing out its normative component (or representational content), you haven't got an actual desire.

  6. (On basic human desires like sex, food and water, there is an excellent section in Parfit's latest manuscript where he distinguishes likings from desires. The good we see in sex etc is a liking, not a desire, and Parfit gives us very good reason to think that these are two very different things.)

  7. It seems that there is such a thing as "brute desire" but it's not quite what you're describing here. The brute desire (thought that's probably not the term I'd use if I were choosing them) is that desire which gives rise to what you call judgments or pleasures. We seek out pleasurable experiences or seek to maintain ourselves in a state of feeling "good," but what is good or pleasurable? Maybe we can reduce pleasurable experiences to those that help us maintain or get back to that state of "goodness," but the desire to be in that state seems to be beyond reason, we simply do desire it.

    If this is the case, then the desire for chocolate is a wholly different use of the term "desire." It's something like a second-order desire that is the result of the intermingling of the "brute desire" to maintain a state of good feeling and beliefs about chocolate and past experiences through instrumental reason. These are the desires we label as such in ordinary language, but they're not desires in the purest sense at all. They do have propositional content, they do have an object, but that object is supplied by belief and by reason. Desire at it's core, it seems, may be prior to belief, and may be simply that yearning for a good feeling.

  8. Dr.P. - "until I hit on something that does eliminate the sensation it doesn't necessarily come with any object at all."

    Isn't the desire here simply to get rid of the unpleasant sensation? I'd think the only uncertainty here concerns the means, i.e. what hidden cause or bodily craving is giving rise to this unpleasant sensation.


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