Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Desire and disposition

According to a standard view of desire, if one desires that p, then one is disposed to bring it about that p. But suppose I desire that p be brought about without my being in any way causally responsible for it. That is a recognizable desire. But it is not one that it is coherent to be disposed to bring about, is it?

Or is it perhaps just a wish?


jawats said...

Curiouser and curiouser.

todd said...

Excellent case, Alex! Here's a first thought: The desire that p be brought about without a causal contribution from me, certainly does not guide me toward any act that would bring about p. But it does guide some action. Waiting is an action. The desire you describe would lead me to wait; perhaps also to hope or yearn or something like that.

This action does nothing bring about p. But it does help bring about a state of affairs of which p is a part, which I may also desire, i.e., being pleased by p's being brought about (but not by me). My waiting does contribute to bringing about this state of affairs.

So I guess I'm inclined to say that your case does lead the desirer to act, and may even lead them to act in a way that fulfills another closely related desire.

Here's a case. Suppose I desire that my children marry well, but, being respectful of their autonomy, I desire that this state of affairs be brought about without any causal contribution from me. The desire is action-guiding. It leads me to wait. My waiting does nothing to bring it about their happy marriages. But it does do something to bring about my being pleased by their happy marriages.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Todd: You're right! In fact, if I desire that p happen but not through my efficacy, then I need to refrain from doing anything that might cause p. It was silly of me to have missed that.

todd said...

Alex: The case is still very interesting. It shows that "action guiding" is a more flexible notion than I have previously thought. A desire can be action guiding without guiding one toward action that fulfills the desire; or perhaps by guiding one toward action that fulfills a closely related a desire.

Apolonio said...


What about:

Sally desires that Billy ask her out. But she's shy and doesn't do anything about it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But maybe she is still disposed to do something? E.g., she has a disposition to answer "yes" if a friend were to ask her: "Should I hint to Billy that he should ask you out?"

jawats said...

I think this thought could include something of limitation of power to bring about p. I do not think it is possibe to simultaneously desire that something occur and not desire that one be in any way responsible for it, for that would be to negate some part of the very idea of desire in the first place (I'll leave you philo types to figure out which part...it's beyond my simple mind...). However, one may recognize a desire for p while simultaneously recognizing one's own lack of power to do anything about it. Which, of course, is not to say that were an opportunity to arise to effect a movement to an end, a prudent person could not recognize it and seize it.