Thursday, February 19, 2009

Structures of Dynamic Desire

Railton ('Rational Desire and Rationality in Desire') argues that "desire is a compound, dynamic state", containing implicit expectations about the desired object, which serve to regulate the desire over time -- e.g. weakening the desire if the actual experience of its object disappoints our expectations. For example: one may desire to try some exotic fruit, with the expectation that it will offer a novel and pleasant taste. But this sounds to me like a purely instrumental desire, where the so-called "favorable expectation" represents what the person really wants or hopes for. So can Railton's account apply more generally, and make sense even of non-instrumental desires?

Let's distinguish five desire 'structures', or ways the object of desire may be related to the regulating favorable expectation:

(1) Instrumental desire: here what you ultimately desire just is the implicit 'expectation' (a novel and pleasant taste, say), and you desire the immediate object (the fruit) merely as a means to this end. Note that mere instruments are replaceable: you could just as well substitute any equivalent means in place of this particular object. [I typically find it unhelpful to count these as real desires at all.]

(2) [Pure] Ultimate desire: if I ultimately desire X, in the pure case this shouldn't come with any further "favorable expectations" besides the desired object itself. (Otherwise, one might think, it starts to look like what I really desire is the expected outcome, rather than the object X itself. But compare the "impure" possibilities below.) Pure ultimate desires thus aren't 'regulated' by any expectation beyond themselves, and hence don't really fit into Railton's account. I'm not sure how serious an objection this is: he might consider such 'pure' ultimate desires to be a theorist's invention that aren't really found in complex human psychologies. (More on this, below.)

(3) Conjunctive desire: Here one desires the object to be as one expects it. E.g. one desires that [one eats the fruit and it tastes novel and pleasant]. This differs from purely instrumental desire because this time you really do want this particular fruit, and not just any source of novel pleasant taste sensations. But it has to be tasty, or your desire is thwarted. [It seems a little odd to model this by separating the desired duo into an 'object' and an 'expectation', though. Why isn't it just a simple desire with a conjunctive object?]

(4) Conditional desire: Here one desires the object (in itself) conditional on its fulfilling one's expectations. This is much like the conjunctive case, insofar as it blocks instrumental substitution. The difference here is that if the expectation (e.g. tastiness) isn't satisfied, the desire as a whole is cancelled rather than thwarted.

(5) Contingent desire: Here one genuinely desires the object for its own sake. (So the desire is straightforwardly satisfied if you get the fruit, regardless of whether it turns out to be tasty.) But the desire just happens to be causally dependent on the expectation. That is, you have some brute (non-rational) psychological mechanism that will cause you to lose this intrinsic desire if the experienced object fails to live up to your expectations. Alternatively, the process might be rationalized by means of a higher-order desire to only have first-order desires that meet their expectations. (I've discussed this possibility before in relation to Railton's sophisticated hedonist.)

[I guess this last proposal is actually compatible with previous variations. E.g. one may have a conditional desire for A given B that is causally contingent on some third condition C.]

What's the best way to interpret Railton, or to understand how most of our ordinary non-instrumental desires fit his model? My best guess is that our ultimate desires are supposed to be mutually regulating, as complex #5-type structures. That sounds psychologically realistic too, since it does seem that (even) our ultimate ends do change over time, perhaps by becoming associated with other ultimate desires/aversions. Any thoughts?


  1. Seems like Railton is developing a scientific theory, not a philosophical theory. So the question is not whether we find it intuitively appealing, but whether it adequately explains some facts in evidence.

  2. I'm a little unclear about what your (5) is supposed to be. Would this be an example: I desire the peach on the counter given that I don't expect to have any peaches for months to come?

  3. TBB - one of the facts in evidence is that people can desire things non-instrumentally.

    Brandon - hmm, I don't think so. That sounds more like you have an ultimate desire to each a peach sometime in the next few months, and an instrumental belief that this will be your only opportunity.

    Interestingly, this is a closer connection than found in typical 'instrumental' desires. Instead, it seems to be a kind of disjunctive or "imperfect" desire (by analogy to "imperfect duties"). So perhaps I should add this as a structure #6?

    To explain #5: the regulating condition is meant to be wholly external to what's desired and "why" (subjectively speaking). It's more like brute conditioning. Example: suppose I desire ice-cream, but then every time I eat it I suffer painful brain-freeze (a much worse experience than was hoped/expected!). Eventually I might develop an aversion to icecream, which persists even after I learn how to avoid brain-freeze. Although that external condition was the cause of my aversion to icecream, the aversion itself makes no reference to this cause, so that's not how I see things "from the inside". Instead (let's suppose) I'm now intrinsically averse to icecream.

  4. Thanks, Richard, that's very helpful.

    The peach case seems to me to be more like (4) than anything; but it's certainly more generalized than (4). Rather than simply being conditional on the object's meeting one's expectations about the object, it's conditional on reasons for one's expectations about the future in general (insofar as they are at least broadly relevant to the object, of course). If I like peaches in general, and I have what I think is good reason to expect that this is the last peach I'll have an opportunity to have for months to come, that makes the peach an object of desire; but if my reasons change, so that I no longer think the original expectations sufficiently well-founded, the desire might dissipate -- eating this peach is no longer particularly 'desireworthy' (if I may use the term). I think the analogy to imperfect duties is a very good one.

  5. Careful. Note that a conditional desire fails to qualify as 'fulfilled' if the condition turns out to be false. But suppose you eat the peach, and only days later learn that peaches can be found in abundance. Do you really want to say that, in this case, your earlier desire was not fulfilled? (Intuitively: "you didn't get what you wanted"?) That doesn't sound at all right. You wanted the peach, plain enough. There was no condition in the desire itself. It's just that, if you knew then what you knew now, you probably wouldn't have wanted it (so much).

    When you talk about the desire 'dissipating' upon learning that many more peaches are on the way, this sounds to me like a kind of sheer (external) contingency or 'causal dependence' of the desire on the belief -- something closer to #5 than #4. (So the causal dependence may be more transparent than in my previous example. This might especially be so if the dependence is mediated by some kind of higher-order desire state, as suggested in the main post, and the linked discussion of 'sophisticated hedonism'.)

    To be clear: the precise difference between desiring P on the condition that Q and desiring P, when this desire causally depends on your belief that Q is that the latter desire is satisfied so long as you get the desired object P. It doesn't matter whether the underlying belief Q on which the desire causally depends is actually true or not (as it would if Q were a condition for the desire's satisfaction). Though in either case, if you cease to believe it you will, as it happens, lose the desire.

  6. I think you're right that we should be careful here; but I'm not sure I agree with your interpretation of the case where we find out afterward that peaches are abundant. You're right that the scenario could have played out as a contingent desire scenario, in the sense that it would be entirely possible for a case of desiring peaches to be like that. But I don't think it necessarily has to; while you are right that peach itself is what is desired (and not the condition), it is not necessarily desired for its own sake, as you suggest in the post would be the case with contingent desires. It is the object, but merely having the peach might not be the objective. which might be to have the peach given that it will be the last I have in a while (i.e., as the peach that fulfills the expectation of being the last peach I have for a while. My desire would then be fulfilled as to object but failed as to objective: I wanted the object in itself but not for itself -- I have the object but not for that for which I wanted to have the object.

    The triviality of the example may obscure the point; if you genuinely like peaches in general, there isn't going to be all that much practical difference between desiring to have a peach for its own sake when I expect it will be the last for a while and desiring a peach for the sake of having a peach as the last for a while given that I expect it to be so. But there would be, for instance, a big difference between desiring wealth for its own sake when I expect that I will be happy when wealthy (contingent desire) and desiring wealth for the sake of using wealth to get happiness given that I expect that I will be happy when wealthy (which I think is the sort of desire considered here and in the peach case). This latter is not (1) because the object of the desire is wealth, not the expectation; it's not (2) because it's conditional; it's not (3) because while I may desire wealth to be as expect it, this is not the same as the desire for wealth itself; it's not (5) because wealth is not desired for its own sake. It's like (4), because it's a case of desiring wealth in itself conditional on my expectations. But I'm not sure that it actually is a case of (4) because it allows the desire to be fulfilled in one way and thwarted in another.

    I'm not sure how clear that is. I think what you're doing in the post is interesting in part because I think our ordinary means of characterizing desire are sloppy and ambiguous, and so it's useful to rough out a better way of doing it. What I am doing here is trying to rough out whether there's a class of desires that is like (4) but not quite. I think there is -- something like (4) and unlike (5) in having a built-in conditionality but like (5) and unlike (4) in that the desire is fulfilled if the object is obtained (but not, I think, in the straightforward way it is with (5) -- rather the same desire is both fulfilled and unfulfilled, in different ways). But I'm not certain, and so I'm not sure if the appearance of this other class is due to its being an actual class of desire or to the inexactness of our means of characterizing such classes.


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