Monday, October 15, 2012

Reasons and desires

A plausible theory of desire is that x desires A if and only if x is disposed to pursue A (perhaps we should add "as such", to get around Daniel Stampe's worries, or maybe do a functionalist tweak on it and add some "typically" qualifiers). Now it seems that I am disposed to pursue A explains why I pursue A but does not directly justify or give reason for pursuing A. (It could indirectly do so if, say, I promised you to act on my dispositions in some case, or if my therapist told me that it would be good for me to act on more of my dispositions.) Moreover, dispositions to pursue are precisely the sort of thing that itself calls out for reasons. So even if desires, on this view, were reason-giving, that would only be shifting the bump under the rug in an unhelpful way.

That said, there is a view on which one could hold fulfilling because it is good for an entity to be active in accordance with its nature, and it is in the nature of desiring beings to act on their desires. On this Natural Law view, one could hold to something like a dispositional theory of desire (with teleological tweaks) and still think that desires are reason-giving. But it would be very odd to think in a case like this that desires are the only reason-givers. After all, there are other ways of being active in accordance with our nature.

The main alternative to dispositional theories of desire is to see desires as an awareness of, belief in or attention to normative (putative) states of affairs, such as there being a reason to do something or something's being good. On such a view, the reason-giving force of desires is parasitic on the reason-giving force of something else. In fact, this is true in the Natural Law view I offered above, too.

So it really does seem very plausible that if desires are reason-giving, their reason-giving power is parasitic on the reason-giving force of something other than desires.


davida said...

Talbot Brewer's book _The Retrieval of Ethics_ contains some really neat arguments against the view that desires are propositional attitudes. I dont have the book before me and I'd hate to get the details wrong so I'll just settle for referring you to the book.

Brewer argues (in conjunction with some stuff from Stampe and Scanlon) that the best account of desires is that they are seemings of goodness. This is compatible with what you say here. The reason-giving force of desires is parasitic on their content; that is, they give reasons because they are seemings of goodness.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Isn't that conclusion compatible with desires being propositional attitudes? After all its seeming that X is good is a propositional attitude--it's a seeming of the proposition that X is good.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

“… if desires are reason-giving, their reason-giving power is parasitic on the reason-giving force of something other than desires.”

How true. Here’s an example. If my desires are reason-giving, and their reason-giving power becomes so parasitic that it is tempting me to sin, all I have to do is to contemplate this skull of a 4 point buck I have and how this buck went from a living creature to a skull mount. It all had to do with this buck’s desires and how these desires parasitized his God-given instincts for survival. On the Patuxent River Naval Air Station hunters use corn, acorns and apples to bait deer. Department of Natural Resources and aviation safety require that a minimum quota of deer be culled each year. Shooting deer at corn piles is the accepted method to accomplish this. One of the Naval personnel who is an avid hunter allowed me to use his box stand. He told me that in addition to the corn, I should use slices of Golden Delicious Apples. So each day I dutifully tended to the corn pile by the box stand with corn and the Golden Delicious Apples. Soon I saw deer tracks. One day during deer firearms season, I tended the corn pile as usual, then headed for my truck and got my gun and ammo. As soon as I was in the stand there was this 4 point buck at the pile. He ate some of the apple slices. I didn’t shoot because he wasn’t giving me a good angle. The buck left. Then he came back. I was ready for him. He sensed something wrong, spooked, whirled around and took off. I remembered similar incidents with shying horses, and I knew that the shying horse will become (if the trainer remains nonchalant and doesn’t try to make anything happen) curious and return to cautiously examine a frightening object. Deer and horses are prey animals and so have some similarities in behavior. I sensed that the buck might come back, and he did. He was very wary. All of the instincts God gave him to keep him alive were telling him he was in grave danger, BUT he DESIRED those Golden Delicious Apples. He wanted to satisfy this appetitive state. All this time he had eaten those apples without any apparent consequences. He had found them good. He desired them. Such it is with desire and sin. At first, nothing bad may happen. Because nothing bad happens, we are drawn in especially if something seems good to us. We are seldom tempted by bad things; we are tempted by what seems to be good things. We rationalize our desire for these things, and we reason away any objections. We deceive ourselves. We may even silence our conscience. Our desires have parasitized us spiritually. Yes, we may know that doing something is wrong, that there are consequences, that we can lose our salvation and die eternally. But by now breaking free from temptation is very difficult. I could see the buck struggling between his desires for those apples and his God given instincts warning him. The whole time I had him in my crosshairs. I had several possible shots, but I was waiting for the right moment. Then there was that one slice of apple. The buck was a desiring being acting on his desires. He put his head down to pick it up and put one of his front legs forward, giving me a perfect direct 30 yard shot at his vitals. I pulled the trigger. The buck whirled around and bolted off. He must have had the awful realization in this terrible moment that his instincts were right. Seconds later I heard him crash somewhere in the bush. So it is when desires are reason-giving, and “their reason-giving power is parasitic on the reason-giving force of something other than desires.”

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Here is a prayer that covers how we are to deal with our reason-giving desires that are parasitizing us.

From His Eminence Cardinal Merry del Val:

Oh Jesus meek and humble of heart, here me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire if being approved,
Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,
Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase,
and I decrease,
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others become holier than I, provided that I may
become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

The desire to be esteemed, loved, extolled, honored, praised, preferred, consulted, approved are the slices of golden delicious apples that the Devil slices up and puts out on the corn pile and puts out on the corn pile for us to nibble on. We may add to that the desire of self-fulfillment. While being loved, honored and praised are inherently good, the desire for them can become dangerous traps spiritually. We must be wary of these desires and that the reason-giving force of these desires is parasitic.

Another feature of a corn pile that people use to hunt, is that logs and fallen timber are arrange such that when going after the attractive goodies on the pile, a deer is more likely to orient his body so as give the hunter a broadside shot at the vitals. The fear of being humiliated, despised, rebuked, calumniated, forgotten, ridiculed, wronged and suspected function exactly like these timbers. These fears orient us so that the Devil gets a better shot while we reach for the desired goods.

The rest of the prayer is how we avoid this corn pile altogether. At a sportsman’s banquet put on by a local Baptist Church, I told the pastor that hunting was teaching me how the Devil operates. Then the pastor said to me that God is also a Hunter.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently trying out a view (drawing from Aquinas I.II 19.5-6 and De Veritate 17.3-4) on which reasons are ontologically dependent on rational appetite for their initial existence conditions. Only if I see some object O as good or true, etc. can O I have a reason to pursue O. The "only if" is something between an instrumental claim and a constitutive claim. I don't think it is purely instrumental for my having a reason to pursue O because it's a necessary claim. R is potentially a reason for me to pursue O just in case I am actually so structured such that I could rationally desire O.

Thus, my rational appetite plays more than an instrumental role. The rational appetite-reason relation is closer to the body-soul relation in hylomorphism. The body sets the individuating conditions of the soul initially.

But, it is less than a constitution relation because if I habituate myself to no longer be potentially desiring O (by a vicious downward spiral, say) I can still have reason to pursue O. Potentiality here is supposed to be *second potentiality, rather than first. It is first potentiality and actuality-- my being so structured as to potentially desire O-- that makes possible the generation of the reason, just like a body's being so structured to receive a rational soul makes possible the generation of a soul in that body.

I wonder whether you think Aquinas could have held such a view.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Aquinas might have held such a view.
One might try to argue for it by analogy with what he says about the promulgation of laws. Unpromulgated laws have no rational force--the law needs to be in some way made epistemically available to the governed. But perhaps unknowable (in the sense of first potentiality) goods have no rational bearing on our actions--the good needs to be in some way epistemically available to us.