Friday, February 22, 2019

Are desires really different from wishes?

It is tempting to conflate what is worth desiring with what is worth pursuing. But there seem to be cases where things are worth desiring but not worth pursuing:

  1. Having a surprising good happen to you completely gratuitously—i.e., without your having done anything to invite it—seems worth desiring but the pursuit of it doesn’t seem to make sense.

  2. If I have published a paper claiming a certain mathematical result, and I have come to realize that the result is false, it seems to make perfect sense to desire that the result be true, but it makes no sense to pursue that.

The standard response to cases like 1 and 2 is to distinguish wishes from desires, and say that it makes sense to wish for things that it makes no sense to pursue, but it does not make sense to desire such things.

But consider this. Suppose in case 2, I came to be convinced that God has power over mathematics, and that if I pray that the result be true, God might make it be true. Then the affective state I have in case 2 would motivate me to pray. But the nature of the affective state need not have changed upon coming to think that God has power over mathematics. Thus, either (a) I would be motivated to pray by a mere wish or else (b) wishes and desires are the same thing. But the wish/desire distinction does not fit with (a), which leaves (b).

I suppose one could claim that a desire just is a wish plus a belief that the object is attainable. But that makes desires be too gerrymandered.

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