Sunday, December 16, 2007

An 18th order desire

I guess I have a 18th order desire. This desire is to have a 17th order desire. Why would I want to have a 17th order desire? Because it would be so cool to have a desire of such a high order. And I could pull out my 17th order desire at parties with other philosophers and impress them. So I've got both an instrumental and a non-instrumental reason for my desire. And I wouldn't be surprised if this desire turns out to be settled.

I am not quite so desirous of having a 16th order desire. Sure, it would be kind of cool to have a desire of such high order, but I think prime number order desires are cooler.

What's the point of this little tale? Simply that higher order desires, no matter of how high an order, can be just as frivolous--and probably even more frivolous--than the typical first order desire. There is, thus, little reason to privilege higher order desires over lower order ones, giving them some kind of an authority whereby they get to define our welfare.

Maybe you'll question whether anybody can really have that 18th order desire. Well, I'd like to have that desire, and maybe I actually do, if only so I could honestly brag about it (that's not actually an instrumental reason of the crassest sort, because of the "honestly"). And that means that I I've already got a 19th order desire, namely the desire to have the 18th order desire mentioned at the beginning of this post. I wouldn't be surprised if this 19th order desire lasted for quite a while.

And, hey, it would be quite cool to have nth order desires for every prime number n, and to have no non-prime order desires except for the first order (I guess we need to have the first order ones to make sure we don't forget to take care of our bodily needs). Suppose I actually want that, and that desire is settled, reflected upon, etc. Then here we have an infinitieth order desire--and as frivolous and unimportant as desires get.

Or maybe you'll object that these very high order desires are very weak. Sure. And it would be a mark of insanity if they were very strong. But that underscores my point that there is nothing deeply rationally special about high order desires.


Mike said...


Can you can have an 18th order desire without actually having a 17th order desire? If your desire is to actually have a 17th order desire, then don't you have a 2nd-order desire to possess certain orders of desires? I'm probably taking this part of the post too seriously.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a good question. It kind of suggests the principle that one can only have an nth order desire if one has (n-1)st order desires, at least as long as n > 1. But I think that principle is false. For suppose that I discovered I have no first order desires (maybe I am deeply depressed), and after reading some ethics, I learned that first order desires are good. Then I might find myself with a desire to have a first order desire. And that would seem to be a second order desire, even though I would have no first order desires.

Here's another thought. Suppose I did have one 17th order desire D17, and also had an 18th order desire, D18, to have some 17th order desire. D18 is satisfies. The following seems conceptually possible: D17 peters out, so that I have no 17th order desires, but D18 remains. I think D18 would not jump from 18th to 2nd order as soon as D17 disappeared.

But maybe the point of your comment is a bit different. Maybe the idea is that there really are only two levels of desire: first order desires are not about desires, and second order desires are about desires. Thus, if I desire to desire to quit overeating, the desire to desire to quit overeating is a second, not third, order desire. Do you think that's the right way to talk?

Mike said...

I think the principle is false, too. I think a different principle might be true. It might be true that I can have a second-order desire to have a 17th order desire (this was my claim in the last post), but in general I cannot have an nth order desire to have an n-1th order desire n(n > 1). So I cannot have a 3rd order desire to have a 2nd order desire, and so on upward. But I can have a 2nd order desire to have any other order of desire including a 2nd order desire (of course, this would be a self-satisfying desire).

You say,

I think D18 would not jump from 18th to 2nd order as soon as D17 disappeared.

But I think you would never have had an 18th order desire to have a 17th order desire, but only a 2nd order desire to have such a desire. So in general, if there is no desire D of order n, you can have a 2nd order desire to have an nth order D, but you can't have any other order desire to have an nth order D. I guess another way to put it is that higher-order desires other than 2nd order desires in general entail the possession of lower order desires which are their objects. But we can have 2nd order desires to have desires that we do not now possess.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't really see why you think that the desire to have a 17th order desire is only a second order desire.

Is it because the meta-desire is not a desire to have a particular 17th order desire, but a desire to have some 17th order desire or other?

If so, I can modify the example. It strikes me that it would be cool to have the following desire: To desire to not desire to desire to not desire ... to be able to wiggle my middle left toe independently of my other toes, where the "..." contains 12 occurrences of the word "desire", continuing the sequence.

Why would it be cool to have this desire? Because it would support my argument.

So I guess I do want to have this particular 17th order desire, call it D17*. Now, if you weren't willing to call a desire 18th order unless it was for a particular 17th order desire, then that objection doesn't apply here--I want to have D17*.

If you agree, then I can run my basic argument with the desire to have D17*, which is as whimsical as anything.

But if you dig in your heels and say that my desire for D17* is only a 2nd order desire because in fact I don't have D17*, then a version argument in my previous comment kicks in. Suppose I gain D17*--my desire to have D17*, let us suppose, is powerful enough that I do a lot of "spiritual" work to ensure I have D17*. Then, I have a desire to have D17* and I have D17*. Surely, then, my desire is 18th order. But there is no reason to suppose the desire suddenly jumps 16 orders up when it is attained, and then, should D17* fade away, jumps 16 orders down.