In episode 15 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss the factual matters concerning the pleasure theory of desire, and offer two lines of evidence for thinking that pleasure and desire are separate things.
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Transcript of episode 15:
ALONZO: Well, Luke, we meet again.
LUKE: We meet again!
ALONZO: When last we met, we agreed to divide arguments about theories of desire into two groups.
One group – what you called trees-falling-in-the-forest arguments – are debates over definitions. And they’re really a waste of time. We should be able to simply pick a definition that works for efficient communication. Or, if we can’t, we can replace the symbol with the substance and continue to discuss the facts of the matter without getting bogged down in a debate over definitions.
The second group of arguments makes actual predictions about how the world works and we can test these arguments by testing the accuracy of those predictions.
LUKE: Right. And we are ignoring the first type of argument and keeping the second type. We are looking for arguments that lead to different predictions about the world, so that we can test those predictions.
ALONZO: Okay, then, on the pleasure-versus-motivation debate, I have an argument for you that I think fits this criterion of generating predictions that we can test.
LUKE: Okay, lay it on me.
ALONZO: This is an argument I have used to tease out the difference between motivation and pleasure.
First, I want you to imagine that you’ve been captured by a mad scientist.
LUKE: Wait, wait, wait, wait. This question already has nothing to do with the real world.
ALONZO: Are you saying that people in the real world can’t imagine being captured by a mad scientist?
LUKE: Of course they can. But the mad scientist isn’t real.
ALONZO: I assure you that nothing in this argument requires anything more than the ability to imagine being captured by a mad scientist – which, you admit, is possible in the real world.
LUKE: Okay, but no funny business. I’m watching you.
ALONZO: Okay. Now: imagine that you, and someone you care about a great deal – your child, your lover, your parents, your best friend – have been captured by this mad scientist. This scientist gives you two options.
Option 1: This person who you care about will be made to suffer unspeakable torture. However, the scientist will cause you to believe that this person is healthy and happy. Once the experiment begins, you will be utterly convinced of this person’s well-being even while that person pleads for mercy or death.
Option 2: This person you care about will be caused to live a healthy and happy life. However, once the experiment begins, you will be totally convinced that this person is being subjected to unspeakable cruelty. You’ll swear that you can hear that person’s screams down the hall, even while that person is actually living a prosperous, healthy, and happy life.
Which option do you choose?
LUKE: Assuming that this was somebody I really care about, I would probably pick Option 2. But what does this have to do with….
ALONZO: I have actually only met a few people who have selected Option 1. Almost every selects Option 2.
LUKE: But why should we take your word on this?
ALONZO: Please don’t. This is a very easy experiment to run – all you need to do is ask around. Or – better yet – get somebody who doesn’t know what answer you are looking for to ask around. They’ll come back with a report that most people – I predict, almost all people – choose Option 2.
LUKE: Yeah, everyone I’ve asked has chosen Option 2. But how would you test this hypothesis more thoroughly? Do you plan on actually kidnapping people and making them believe that they are faced with this horrible choice?
ALONZO: No, no, that’s not necessary. I am telling you my prediction on how people will answer this question when asked to imagine being captured by a mad scientist.
They do actually report that they would select Option 2 – that is the data we are working with. This is real-world data that needs explaining.
Now, I grant that those who say they would select Option 2 might all be lying – perhaps because they think we would judge them harshly if they gave an honest answer. Or, maybe, they simply fail to accurately predict what they would choose if given this choice. But they do at least report that they would choose option 2.
Why do people report that they would choose Option 2 if they were confronted with such a choice?
LUKE: I have a different question. What does this have to do with action-based versus pleasure-based theories of desire?
ALONZO: The pleasure theory of desire says that what we want is the pleasure we get from it seeming to be the case that our desires have been satisfied. The action-based theory of desire says that we seek a state in which our desires have been objectively satisfied – that what we desire has been realized. This experiment tests which one is true about humans, and gives some limited evidence in favor of the action-based theory of desire, because people choose the option where states of affairs are realized over those where states of affairs seem to have been realized.
And it doesn’t ask people which option best fits their intuition regarding the meaning of the word ‘desire’. It asks them which option they would act on.
LUKE: Okay, so, you are not using this to determine the super-dictionary definition of the word ‘desire’. What you are doing is trying to reveal a fact about human motivation. Specifically, you’re trying to show that motivation is about realizing states of affairs, not about obtaining pleasure from it seeming that a state of affairs has been realized, though of course sometimes we can desire pleasure as well.
ALONZO: Right. And we do experience pleasure, often, when it seems to be the case that what we want has been realized. But not always.
LUKE: Well, you know, your story is a lot like an argument that Robert Nozick once put forward in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia.
ALONZO: Right. In Nozick’s scenario, he presented people with the option of entering an experience machine.
Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? … Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening … Would you plug in?
A lot of people don’t like this option. Given this option, they claim they would refuse.
So, we have an option where an experience machine will give people all the pleasure that comes from it seeming to be the case that P. However, this does not motivate a lot of people. If P is not actually being made true, then they don’t care for it. We have the same disconnect here between the pleasure of it seeming to be the case that P, and motivation to make it the case that P.
LUKE: Well, Alonzo, you may be happy to hear that in the past few years, neuroscientists have found brain functions that seem to confirm these results. They have found one set of brain functions for wanting – brain functions that are concerned with motivation to act – and a different set of brain functions for pleasure. In the literature, researchers distinguish between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’.
And because these two systems are different, it is possible to have instances of wanting without liking – motivation without pleasure. But because these two systems are very closely related it is difficult to tell them apart outside the laboratory. Somebody can easily draw the mistaken conclusion that there is only one system unless one looks very closely at the evidence.
So this recent evidence not only shows that desire and pleasure are distinct systems, but also it explains why many people might think that they are the same.
ALONZO: That is interesting.
LUKE: Here, let me explain one of these experiments.
This is a study from the University of Michigan where researchers painlessly injected a drug into a certain pleasure hotspot in the brains of rats. The effect of stimulating this pleasure hotspot was that the rats ate three times as much food and exhibited twice as many ‘liking expressions’.
ALONZO: Liking expressions? What are liking expressions?
LUKE: The researchers described them as, “positive facial lip licking expressions that are similar in rats, monkeys, apes and even human infants.” They indicate how much a creature likes something.
A mother doesn’t need a PhD in neuroscience to tell when her young daughter likes something and when she doesn’t, or when their pets like something or when they don’t. There are certain physical behaviors that indicate that something is liked. One of them is that both animals and infants will lick their lips when they like the taste of food.
ALONZO: Okay, so what does this tell us?
LUKE: Nothing, yet.
But in the next part of the experiment, researchers took these animals and suppressed a second pleasure hotspot. This time, the rats still ate three times as much food, but without any of the liking expressions.
This is taken to be evidence of wanting without liking. The rats want the food – they are motivated to eat the food – but we get none of the behavioral signs that suggest that they actually like the food.
ALONZO: Which means that wanting and liking are not the same thing.
LUKE: That seems to be the case.
Now you can’t tell much from one experiment, but a number of experiments like this are pointing in that direction – that there are different neural pathways for wanting and liking, where wanting is associated with action according to the claims made by the action-based theory of desire.
As an example, here is the abstract of another paper showing this division between the desire system and the pleasure system:
To determine whether dopamine regulates liking, wanting, and/or learning about rewards during goal-directed behavior, the authors tested genetically engineered dopamine-deficient mice for acquisition of an appetitive T-maze task with and without endogenous dopamine signaling. Experiment 1 established that dopamine-deficient mice treated with L-dihydroxyphenylalanine perform similarly to controls on a T-maze task designed to measure liking, wanting, and learning about rewards. Experiment 2, which tested saline-, caffeine-, and L-dihydroxyphenylalanine-treated dopamine-deficient mice on the T maze, separated performance factors from cognitive processes and revealed that dopamine is not necessary for mice to like or learn about rewards but is necessary for mice to seek (want) rewards during goal-directed behavior.
ALONZO: Unfortunately, the listeners won’t know that I just had to sit through 10 minutes of you repeating that paragraph a million times until you said it correctly.
LUKE: Shhhhh, Alonzo. Let them think I said it perfectly on the first try, like I use the term L-dihydroxyphenylalanine every day.
ALONZO: Okay, sure. Where did we leave off? Okay.
So, we have two distinct systems – one for wanting, and one for liking. And dopamine, it seems, is a part of the system for wanting, not the system for liking, at least in this case. The only question we need to answer is: Which system deserves to be called “desire”?
LUKE: Well, now, don’t start that again!
Let’s not have a debate over the definitions of words. Just pick one.
For my tastes, I see the distinction between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ to be the same as the distinction between ‘desire’ and ‘pleasure’. That’s how I would use the terms. But I don’t wanna get into a huge conceptual analysis debate with somebody who sees it differently. What matters is that we have these two systems – a wanting system, and a liking system. Both systems exist. You can want something without liking it when you get it, and you can like something without first wanting it.
ALONZO: I guess this is what you were getting at when you said that people who have different theories of desire agree on the facts, but disagree over which words to use. The fact that we have these systems and how they function – these are facts that researchers in the field generally agree on. Whether we are going to apply the word ‘desire’ to the wanting system or the liking system is what they are often fighting over.
LUKE: Right. Or the reward learning system.
LUKE: There’s a third system called the reward learning system that is related to the wanting and liking systems. It was mentioned in that abstract I mentioned – the researchers wanted to know whether dopamine is necessary for liking, wanting, or ‘learning about rewards’.
There are some people who say that the concept of desire best fits the reward learning system. One of them is Tim Schroeder, who wrote the entry for Desire in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the book Three Faces of Desire that we have made reference to before.
ALONZO: Do we care?
LUKE: Not if the argument is going to be entirely about definitions. But as a factual matter, desirism requires a learning system – a way for agents to learn new desires and to modify existing desires through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. We are going to need to know something about the reward learning system, so that would be a good place to start, anyway.
ALONZO: In our next episode, then.
LUKE: In our next episode.
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- “When We Parted, My Heart Wanted to Die” from Sadly, the Future is No Longer What It Was by Leyland Kirby
- “Ice Cream Van” from Glasvegas by Glasvegas
- “Theme from A Summer Place” from A Summer Place by Percy Faith
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