Morality in the Real World is back for Season Two!
In episode 11, Alonzo Fyfe and I explain the first 10 claims of desirism, setting up the next several episodes (in which we will defend these claims).
Every five episodes we answer audience questions, so please do post your questions and objections below. Make sure your questions address the topics of this episode only. If we plan to address the subject of your question in later episode, we will not answer it in the next Q & A episode. You can also leave your question in audio and we will play it back during the Q & A episode and respond to it: call 413-723-0175 and press 1 to leave a voicemail.
Transcript of episode 11:
ALONZO: Hey, Luke, we’re back!
LUKE: It’s been a while.
ALONZO: Ah, but it was time well spent.
LUKE: Yes. Yes, it was. For the sake of our listeners, we should explain what we’ve been doing. What we’ve been doing is: research. This next season, these next 10 episodes, are about the nature of desire, so Alonzo and I have been catching up on the current literature on the subject, from both philosophy and neuroscience.
ALONZO: And you are still sending me more stuff to read than a person can have time to read.
LUKE: You’ll find the time.
ALONZO: I’ll try. For today, however, I would like to catch our listeners up by taking a moment to review what happened in Season 1. In Season 1, we told stories about Alph and Betty and used them to present a set of ideas on what desires are and how they relate to each other.
LUKE: I think that was a good introduction, but of course it was a bit . . . imprecise. Our readers have been asking for more detail and clarity, and I think we should give it to them. Only then will they be able to see whether desirism stands up to criticism or falls in the face of attack.
ALONZO: Attack? Desirism?
LUKE: Heh, you talk like it’s your little baby.
ALONZO: Well, yeah. I’m human. When I was in graduate school, I came up with the idea that we can understand morality a lot better if we see it not as a system of right and wrong actions, but as a system of good and bad desires. I’d really like that idea to be worth something. It’s not always easy to listen to criticism.
That’s a danger that honest people have to take seriously – this disposition that people have to blind themselves to flaws in a position that they like.
However, like we said in Season 1, I really don’t want to present an idea and have people accept it if it is wrong. I don’t want to contribute to making things worse for people, even as I tried to make things better. Desirismultimately needs to be able to stand up to criticism, or it needs to be discarded as just another foolish idea.
LUKE: Yup. So let’s get into the specifics of desirism. Let’s talk about what desirism actually says, and how desirism could be proved false.
ALONZO: Sure, but desirism makes a lot of claims. It makes claims about desires and intentional action, about praise and condemnation, claims about things like negligence and excuses and moral responsibility, about right and wrong action, just to name a few. These are all claims that might be false. We can’t cover them all at once.
LUKE: Okay, so, we break it up into parts. In this next set of episodes that we’re calling Season 2, let’s look at what is obviously a core concept of desirism: desire. What is a desire? How does it operate? How do we even know that desires exist? Once we have a grasp of what a desire is, we can move on from there. And then later, we can look back and compile the full list of claims that we want to defend.
ALONZO: Except, I am betting that, before we get too far, we will be discovering claims that we want to change. Our listeners are going to want to raise questions or objections about some of those claims, and in some cases they are going to be valid criticisms.
LUKE: I hope we get some good objections from our listeners. I mean, obviously we didn’t get this theory from God on Mount Sinai. I think it’s almost certain there are mistakes somewhere in our thinking about desirism, and it would be useful to have some listeners point out those mistakes.
ALONZO: Well, I’ve made a few changes over the years, what’s a few more?
LUKE: You know, before we begin I do want to make one thing clear. In the next 10 episodes we’ll be discussing some of the leading theories of what desire is, but we have to remember that these are basically theories of what desire is in humans. These are theories about what desire is in a particular species of mammal on a particular speck of dust in a vast universe.
ALONZO: Right. Humans came up with these ideas about beliefs and desires because they needed to be able to explain and predict the behavior of other people – other human beings. It is a theory built for that purpose. It’s an open question at this point whether those ideas have any use outside of that specific need. Heck, it’s an open question at this point whether it’s the best theory even for serving that need.
LUKE: And that’s fine. First we’re going to explain what our claims are in terms of how desires work in humans – in terms of human psychology. And this will give our audience something they can grab on to, because desire in humans is what we’re most familiar with, obviously. Later, we’re going to revisit these claims and try to show that they work just as well when applied to other possible implementations of desire, in “animals, aliens, and artificial agents,” as you might say.
ALONZO: In other words, we will eventually argue that this theory does have validity outside of its primary goal of explaining the intentional actions of human agents.
LUKE: Right. Anyway, let’s get started. Let’s look back at those earlier episodes where we told stories and made analogies and so on, and let’s pull out the exact, precise claims we were trying to make.
For example, in Episode 3, we told the story about Alph with his one desire to gather stones. If we were to generalize what we said in that episode, I suppose it would be something like this: Desires provide agents with reason to act so as to bring about that which is desired.
ALONZO: We could actually get a bit more technical than that. All desires can be expressed in the form of an attitude towards a proposition whereby the agent seeks to act so as to make or keep true the proposition that is the object of their desire.
LUKE: Alonzo, I know what you just said because I have been around this subject for a while. But could you please break that up a bit and show us how that all fits together?
ALONZO: That was our project during that first season. In that case, we said that Alph had a desire that he gather stones. This meant that Alph had motivating reason to make or keep true the proposition, “Alph is gathering stones.”
All desires can be expressed in the form of an attitude towards a proposition – such as the proposition “Alph is gathering stones.” Another proposition we used in Season 1: “The moon Pandora continues to exist.”
A couple of other examples of propositions that can be objects of a desire are – “I am having sex with Penny” – or – “the human race survives for at least several billion years.”
All desires motivate agents to choose those actions they believe would make or keep those propositions true.
LUKE: So, what if I can prove that desires, like gods or fairies, don’t really exist?
ALONZO: Well, if you can come up with a theory of intentional action that does a better job of predicting and explaining human behavior, and that theory has no room for anything like desires, then you have killed desirism.
LUKE: Or maybe desires do exist, but they don’t work the way that we say they do. Maybe all desires aim for pleasure or happiness or something. That’s different than what we’ve claimed. We’ve claimed that desires can aim for all kinds of things – like the desire that the moon Pandora continue to exist.
ALONZO: Right. In those types of cases, showing that desirism is wrong will not defeat desirism, but it will require that the theory be modified to some extent. Desirism still works even if all of us only have one desire – a desire for happiness, for example. But it doesn’t work the way we have claimed it does.
LUKE: So, what do you say to this being our first claim: Beliefs and desires exist as propositional attitudes. That is to say, they are mental states that constitute an attitude towards a proposition.
ALONZO: I’d have to make one slight change. Remember, we had to distinguish between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means. Means are the useful tools for getting what one ultimately wants, while ends are what one ultimately wants. So a desire-as-end is a desire for something as an end, not as a means to something else that is desired. Using that distinction, it would be more precise to say:
Claim Number 1: Beliefs and desires-as-ends exist as propositional attitudes.
LUKE: Okay. Now, more specifically, what is a belief?
ALONZO: Well, that’s our second claim.
Claim Number 2: A belief is an attitude towards a proposition that takes the proposition to be true.
So the statement “I believe that there is some chocolate cake in the kitchen” says “I have a mental attitude towards the proposition ‘there is some chocolate cake in the kitchen’ that takes that proposition to be true.”
LUKE: Okay. And how does that differ from a desire?
ALONZO: Well, we’ll make this our third claim.
Claim Number 3: A desire-as-end is an attitude towards a proposition that causes an agent to seek to create or preserve states of affairs in which that proposition is true.
The statement “I desire that I am eating a chocolate cake” says: “I have a mental attitude towards the proposition ‘I am eating a chocolate cake’ that causes me to seek to make the proposition true – or keep it true if I am already eating a chocolate cake.” In other words, it says, “Get up off your duff you lazy oaf and get yourself some chocolate cake!”
If I am eating chocolate cake, but I have had my fill, I would say, “I don’t want any more” or, more technically, “I no longer have a desire that I am eating chocolate cake. I no longer seek to keep true the proposition, ‘I am eating chocolate cake.’”
LUKE: And we might be wrong about these claims. Lots of philosophers think that these claims are false. They say that beliefs and desires are other types of things, or that beliefs and desires don’t exist at all. In fact, there isn’t really any consensus right now. There are quite a few theories of belief and desire that are serious contenders.
ALONZO: There isn’t a consensus over which theory will turn out to be correct, but there is a ‘leading view” or a “standard view,” and that is the view we are defending here. The standard view is that there are brain states – beliefs and desires – and that they explain our intentional actions. An agent acts a particular way because he has desires for particular ends and beliefs that pick out the means for realizing those ends.
I desire to eat chocolate cake. I believe that there is some chocolate cake in the kitchen. I get up and go to the kitchen so that I can make true the proposition “I am eating chocolate cake.”
LUKE: It sounds to me like you are adding another claim here.
Claim Number 4: Intentional actions are best explained in terms of an agent’s beliefs and desires.
ALONZO: Well, that’s how the standard view goes.
LUKE: Okay. But, Alonzo, I don’t go to the kitchen every time that I want some cake and believe there is cake in the kitchen. So I don’t always seek to make or keep true the propositions that are the objects of my desires. What’s going on there?
ALONZO: Well, that’s because you have a whole slew of desires – not just a desire for chocolate cake. Some of those desires are telling you to stay on the couch. You might be comfortable sitting on the couch and want to stay there. If that’s true, fulfilling the most and strongest of your desires could mean staying on the couch. However, in that case, if somebody were to bring you a slice of chocolate cake, you would eat it.
LUKE: But not if I had an even stronger desire to. . . have 6-pack abs for the ladies, I suppose.
ALONZO: That’s true. Which brings me to:
Claim Number 5: An agent chooses to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of the agent’s desires-as-ends, given the agent’s active beliefs.
Which means that even if you want chocolate cake, but you want to impress the ladies with your ripped figure even more, your belief that there is chocolate cake in the kitchen will not motivate you to get any. This is because you also have a belief that having the cake will contribute to making you fat, and that would thwart your stronger desire to impress the ladies.
You are acting so as to fulfill the most and strongest of your desires.
LUKE: Given my active beliefs.
ALONZO: Well, sure. You act as if the things that you believe are actually true – as if your beliefs are an accurate model of the world. Remember, a belief is an attitude that a proposition is true. If you desire to eat some chocolate cake and believe that there is some chocolate cake in the kitchen, assuming you had no competing desires, you are motivated to go to the kitchen for some cake.
But what if you’re wrong? What if there is no chocolate cake in the kitchen?
You don’t know this, so you are still motivated to go to the kitchen for some chocolate cake. Ultimately, this won’t fulfill your desire for chocolate cake, but you don’t act so as to fulfill your desire for chocolate cake. You act to fulfill your desire for chocolate cake in a world in which your beliefs are true and complete.
LUKE: Okay, but you said “active” beliefs. Does that mean there’s another kind of belief called an “inactive” belief?
ALONZO: It sure looks that way. We need to speak about active beliefs to account for those times when something slips your mind – when you forget something.
ALONZO: Certainly, this has happened to you. You’re getting ready to go some place. You fix yourself some coffee to drink along the way, you put it in a cup with a safety lid on it so it won’t spill, and you set it on the table. Then you go and do something else for a minute, and when you leave, you leave the coffee cup on the table.
It’s still there. You don’t even think about it until you get a mile or two down the road.
Now, you didn’t stop believing that the coffee was on the table. If somebody asks, “Where is your coffee?” you know exactly where you left it. This isn’t something you need to learn, it is just something you need to remember. An inactive belief is sitting there in the back of your mind, waiting to be recalled, and it doesn’t influence intentional action until it is recalled.
LUKE: Okay, that makes sense.
ALONZO: Next, there is another fact about desire that is important to desirism that doesn’t actually get talked about much. It will turn out to be important that many desires-as-ends don’t change very quickly. In other words:
Claim Number 6: Many desires-as-ends are persistent.
LUKE: “Persistent.” What do you mean by that?
ALONZO: Persistent . . . like my nephew when he wants a cookie. He won’t leave me alone. He just won’t go away. Well, a desire-as-end is usually going to stick around. If you hate spinach today, then chances are good that you will hate spinach tomorrow. You can’t just suddenly like spinach for an hour because your mother-in-law is serving a spinach souffle, and then go back to hating spinach after dinner.
LUKE: But Alonzo, think about this. Let’s say I desire to drink what is in the glass in front of me. Then you tell me the glass isn’t full of water; it is full of antifreeze. Well, my desire to drink that liquid in the glass will disappear immediately!
ALONZO: Your desire-as-means to drink what is in the glass will disappear immediately. Your desire-as-end to satisfy your thirst is persistent. You’re still thirsty. You simply came to realize that drinking the contents of the glass will not fulfill your desire-as-end to quench your thirst, or you realize that drinking the liquid will thwart more and stronger desires than not drinking the liquid.
Desires-as-means are combinations of desires-as-ends and beliefs. Your desire-as-means to drink the contents of the glass is a combination of your thirst, which is a desire-as-end, and your belief that the contents of the glass will quench your thirst. If you change that belief – and beliefs can change in an instant like that – then your desire-as-means to drink the contents of the glass changes in an instant as well. However, your desire-as-end doesn’t change so easily.
LUKE: Is that another claim? Desires-as-means are combinations of desires-as-ends and beliefs?
ALONZO: Sure. We’ll throw that one in there.
Claim Number 7: In addition to desires-as-ends, there are desires-as-means: desires for states that, given one’s active beliefs, will lead to the fulfillment of an end. Desires-as-means are constituted by desires-as-ends and beliefs.
LUKE: So, when my belief that the glass contains water changes in an instant, then my desire-as-means to drink what was in the glass changes too, but my desire-as-end – my thirst – does not go away. I start looking for something else to drink – something I think is good, clean water.
LUKE: Okay, and I would like to add a claim that David Hume is famous for, that “reason is the slave of the passions.”
ALONZO: I certainly accept that. You can’t deduce a new desire-as-end from reason alone. There is no set of premises that doesn’t already include a desire-as-end somewhere within them that entails a new desire in the conclusion. So:
Claim Number 8: There is no valid argument that contains a desire in the conclusion that does not contain a desire in the premises.
LUKE: Right. Or, this is how the philosopher Neil Sinhababu puts it: “Desires can be changed as the conclusion of reasoning only if a desire is among the premises of the reasoning.”
The example I use to explain this is to think about the person who is argued into becoming a vegan. That looks like reason alone led her to change her desires-as-ends, but I don’t think that’s what happened. Instead, the argument convinced her that becoming vegan is the best way to fulfill other desires she already has, for example her desires for animal welfare.
There are no desires that are “rational” except in that they can be rational in relation to other desires you already have. You can’t get from reason alone to desires-as-ends. You can’t get there from here. As Hume said, “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”
ALONZO: I find it interesting that Hume gets all the credit for this. However, we can find the same thing even in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Book III. 3, 1112b):
We deliberate not about ends, but about means. For a doctor does not deliberate whether he shall heal, nor an orator whether he shall persuade, … They assume the end and consider how and by what means it is attained, and if it seems easily and best produced thereby.
LUKE: So you can’t change what an agent desires as an end by changing their beliefs or by “reasoning” with them. But you can change what an agent does by changing their beliefs. Changing their beliefs changes their desires-as-means, even if it doesn’t change their desires-as-ends.
ALONZO: Well, sure. If intentional action really is a consequence of beliefs and desires-as-ends then, if you want somebody to act differently, one way to do that is to change their beliefs. Another is to change what they desires-as-ends.
Claim Number 9: To change an agent’s intentional actions, you need to change the agent’s beliefs, or the agent’s desires-as-ends, or both.
LUKE: Right. My intention to go to the kitchen is premised on my desire to eat chocolate cake and my belief that there is chocolate cake in the kitchen. If Sally wants to get me to choose some other course of action – to go to the bedroom instead of the kitchen, for example – she can do so by making me believe there is chocolate cake in the bedroom instead of in the kitchen, or by making me believe that something even better than eating chocolate cake will happen if I go to the bedroom.
ALONZO: Or she can change your desires – so that you no longer desire chocolate cake, for example.
LUKE: Well, but Alonzo, why are we talking about changing people’s desires as ends? We already said that you can’t reason somebody into changing those types of desires.
ALONZO: We can’t change a person’s desires as ends by means of reason alone. That doesn’t imply that we can’t change desires-as-ends. Let me add:
Claim Number 10: Praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment can, in many cases, change – that is, weaken or strengthen – desires-as-ends.
I am not talking about how promising a reward or punishment can change people’s behavior by giving them new beliefs – beliefs that they will earn a reward or receive a punishment.
Instead, what I’m talking about is something psychologists have found. They’ve found that rewarding or punishing someone can actually change their desires. Parents already know this. They use reward and punishment not only to change how their children behave today, but also to change what the children genuinely want to do in the future, or when the parent isn’t around to monitor them. Parents use praise and condemnation in the hope that their kids will come to have certain desires – for example, desires to be kind to people and to succeed in life through hard work and creativity.
LUKE: But praise and condemnation don’t instantly change what people desire as an end. Sometimes, praise and condemnation doesn’t have any effect at all.
ALONZO: Exactly. That’s what we said before. Desires-as-ends are persistent. They are not easily changed. But they can still be changed – well, some of them can.
LUKE: You know, Alonzo, it seems to me that this last claim actually belongs in a different category from the first nine claims.
ALONZO: How’s that?
LUKE: Well, as we went through these claims, I kept asking myself how each one would apply to animals, for example. Or to an alien civilization, or to an artificial agent if we actually get an artificial agent that is that sophisticated. The first nine claims all seem to be things that we would have to apply to animals, aliens, and artificial agents as well as to humans. But, we humans might be the only creatures wired to respond to praise and condemnation the way we do. Well, maybe some animals as well – it always seemed like my dog responded to condemnation – but we might not find anything like that in aliens or artificial agents.
ALONZO: So, what are you saying?
LUKE: Well, just that I want to make that distinction. I think that I can argue later that the first nine claims apply to animals, aliens, and artificial agents as well as to humans. But I’m not so sure about the tenth one. That one might be specific to certain kinds of creatures like highly social primates that developed sophisticated language capacities, for example.
ALONZO: Okay, that’s noted.
LUKE: But let’s not get into that right now. For now, let’s focus on whether these ten claims are true of humans.
There is some controversy surrounding all of these claims, and any of them could be false. And if somebody wants to falsify desirism or, at least, force a major revision of the theory, then they can do that by showing that one or more of these claims is false.
ALONZO: I agree that, even though I think these claims are true, they are not obviously true. A great many good thinkers will raise objections against them. We want to look at these claims and look at what reasons exist for thinking they are true, and what reasons exist for thinking they are false.
LUKE: Right, and that’s what we want to explore next. What do today’s leading philosophers and scientists say about these claims?
ALONZO: Good. So Luke: same place, same time next week?
LUKE: Same place, same time.
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- “Loud Pipes” from Classics by Ratatat
- “Spiral Theme” from Sucked Orange by Nurse with Wound
- “How High the Moon” from Very Best of Les Paul & Mary Ford by Les Paul and Mary Ford
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