§7.1

a blog by josef johann

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What Desire Consists in

I've been developing my point on what desire must consist in. This comment of mine was posted at Common Sense Atheism, coming in the context of a discussion on death, where I said it is right to fear death. One commenter responded to me, saying:

However, it’s unhealthy to have a paralyzing fear of death, which is, if the atheists are correct, quite peaceful.


I replied:

Fortunately I haven’t said anything about a paralyzing fear of death. Luke [the owner of the Common Sense Atheism blog] said “I do not fear my death” and I’ve heard many people say this, often with reference to the famous Mark Twain quote about being dead billions of years before having been born. It’s that position that I think is incorrect. I think pain and regret, etc. are perfectly appropriate, healthy feelings, even if you are powerless to stop it.

Furthermore (perhaps this position of mine is closer to what you, lorkas, mean to criticize [that's the commenter who responded to me]), I think so long as it is true that death is bad we ought not attempt to believe it is anything other than bad, even if believing so were harmful to us (though I don’t think it is ultimately harmful even if the feeling itself is).

And, though Luke has not said so here and I am not claiming he holds this position, one corollary I frequently hear is that people would rather die than live forever, or for some very long amount of time. This is absurd.

It would be better for people to live than to die. The fact that people die when it would be better to live makes death a moral problem (one that it would be best to solve, if we can), and we have moral reasons for wanting to live as long as possible if we can find some feasible way of bringing it about. Finding ways to not fear death, I think, represents a withering of an important moral capacity that instructs us to appreciate life, fight to preserve it and enables us to combat superstitions (such as the one that 80 years is the “right” amount of time for people to be alive) that would lead to morally poor choices.


I was challenged on whether people's desires about how long they should live can actually be correct or incorrect. After all, they are desires. Can it really be "correct" to want to live longer? Similarly, can it be "correct" that someone desires ice cream? Are they lying about their desire?

Here was my reply:

I don’t think anyone is lying about what they desire, but I do think the desire to live a [shorter] rather than longer life, all else being equal, is in some sense incorrect. A person can be ignorant of a state of affairs that, if they knew better, they would desire very strongly. I won’t desire ice cream until I discover ice cream. Then, after discovering its enjoyable taste I might say “I desire ice cream.” Then, after discovering I am lactose intolerant I might revise that and say “I don’t desire ice cream.”

But before and after each revision, my desire or aversion was directed toward an identical state of affairs (in each case my physiology was the same: I enjoy the taste of ice cream no more or less than before, in each case I am no more or less lactose intolerant than I was before). What changed was the light under which they were considered (in that successively more light is cast each time.) These different desires can’t all be the best evaluation of the identical state of affairs.

Which is to say, a desire appears to be preceded by an evaluative process, a running of the state of affairs over your palate and coming to a determination as to whether you do in fact judge it to be desirable. A desire must consist in something that moved us from indifference to desire, something besides relations to other desires (the fact that we can have contradictory desires and must choose between them on the basis of whether they promote other desires, suggests to me that desires somehow pop up prior to a consideration of their relations to other desires, otherwise they would not be contradictory).

That “something” typically taken to be an intrinsic value (I have such things as pleasurable tastes, the feeling of happiness, etc. in mind). I can already see your response comment with the objection to intrinsic values [I say this because desirism does not accept that there are intrinsic values]. Believe me, I make this point in full consciousness of the intrinsic values objection, which may yet win me over. My answer to this is that things like “sweetness of taste” are no more or less intrinsic than is green or middle C, which certainly exist in some sense even if they aren’t intrinsic. If you want to say an experience of pleasure can be too complicated to make analogy to a single color or sound, but that it is something over and above those things, I can concede that this is true, but that it is nonetheless consists in a combination of such things than then open us up to an enjoyable experience. (I’m prepared to elaborate on this if necessary.)

I’ve said too much for one comment, so to summarize, (1) desires are preceded by an evaluative process, (2) if that process is to be possible at all, desires must consist in something to be evaluated besides their relations to other desires (3) the components of the experience which are judged to be desirable are no more or less intrinsic than the color green or the sound of middle C. (4) Just as there is a correct answer to whether an image has green in it, there is a correct answer to whether an experience consists in those things that make experiences desirable.

I recognize that point (4) may seem absurd, because it entails things like “the desire to have chocolate cake” can be wrong, or that prioritizing the desire to listen to Joanna Newsom over the desire to listen to Third Eye Blind can be correct. I think this is true, and again, I’m prepared to elaborate on it if necessary.

1 comment:

cl said...

Hey there. Seen you around CSA, and today on my own blog, so I hopped over here to check things out.

A desire must consist in something that moved us from indifference to desire, something besides relations to other desires (the fact that we can have contradictory desires and must choose between them on the basis of whether they promote other desires, suggests to me that desires somehow pop up prior to a consideration of their relations to other desires, otherwise they would not be contradictory).

I agree wholeheartedly, which is why I object to the claims made in Episode 7 and In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism. As I said in today's post on my own blog, I honestly believe that in the real world, people do not have intentional desires unless they aim to increase well-being, happiness, pleasure, etc. either for the agent and/or other agents. Luke and Alonzo can falsify this by demonstrating a single example of a real-world desire that does not aim to increase well-being, happiness, pleasure, etc., and that's what they need to do if they wish to demonstrate the superiority of desirism over competing theories.

Simply using make-believe examples with implausible desires [e.g. that Pandora continue to exist for no reason at all] doesn't cut the mustard.

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