Morality in the Real World 13: Objections to the Action-Based Theory of Desire

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 22, 2011 in Ethics,Podcast

In episode 13 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I defend the action-based theory of desire from some objections given by Timothy Schroeder.

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Transcript of episode 13:

LUKE: So Alonzo. How are you feeling?

ALONZO: Better. I’m recovering.

LUKE: Well, good. Now, I have a problem.

ALONZO: Uh-oh.

LUKE: Today’s script is like, a million pages long.

ALONZO: I know. But, I can’t think of anything to cut that won’t leave a hole. In this episode, we’re not just presenting the standard view of desire, we’re defending it, and that takes a bit more work. What would you have me do?

LUKE: Well, I want to at least apologize to our audience. Season 1 of Morality in the Real World was pretty easy going, but in Season 2 here, we’re diving into some really deep and complex material and there’s just no way around that.

We aren’t offering a kind of popular manifesto for an undefined, vague vision of what a moral theory could be – like Sam Harris does in his book The Moral Landscape. Instead, we’re offering an actual theory of morality that consists of very specific claims, with precise arguments in favor of those claims, that engages directly with the very latest philosophical and scientific literature on the subject. And there’s just no way for us to do that while keeping things as simple as we did in the first season.

ALONZO: Yeah. Not only is it long, but parts of it are . . . well . . . kinda dense. Readers who are really interested might have to listen to each episode first, and then go to the website and read the transcript. That’s why we provide a transcript – because we know that audio may not be the best format for dealing with such complex subjects.

LUKE: Right. So we’re sorry that our episodes are getting longer and more complex, but . . .  it can’t be helped.

ALONZO: I’m afraid not.

LUKE: Okay, Alonzo: you have said that desirism is founded on the action-based theory of desire. But that view is not without its critics. Timothy Schroeder, in his book Three Faces of Desire, lists seven – or, by my count, eight – objections to action- based theories of desire. Do you have something to say to his objections?

ALONZO: Yeah. He’s wrong.

LUKE: I was hoping you could be more specific.

ALONZO: He is wrong seven times. Or, by your count, eight.

LUKE: Okay I was really wondering if you could actually, like, respond to his objections.

ALONZO: I suppose.

LUKE: Good. Go for it.

ALONZO: Okay. the first issue that Schroeder raises against an action-based theory of desire is that it is sometimes possible to have desires without action – or even desires where action isn’t possible.

He speaks about a Greek mathematician who wants pi to be a rational number. There is nothing this mathematician can do to make pi a rational number. Yet, it seems, we would still call his passion that pi be a rational number a ‘desire’.

LUKE: Okay, but we can skip that objection. Schroeder himself says that the action theory of desire has an answer to this. The desire tells us how the agent would act if he believed he could do something about it. If he desires that pi be a rational number, and he believes that praying to God could make pi be a rational number, then we predict he’ll try praying to God to make pi a rational number. So a desire for something that is impossible to realize can still lead to intentional action.

ALONZO: That was easy.

LUKE: But we’ve only just started. Schroeder also mentions a case of an agent who has a desire that a committee rule in his favor without his intervention.

ALONZO: Like a desire that a fair and unbiased jury return a verdict of not-guilty?

LUKE: Yeah, but I think we need to imagine a trial where the accused person does not testify. In fact, he doesn’t want the jury to base its decision on anything he does. This way, contrary to action-based theories of desire, we have a desire that is not and cannot be action-guiding.

ALONZO: Okay. Our hypothetical agent wants vindication. He wants a fair and impartial jury to announce to the world that he is not guilty, and he wants the jury to do so without being manipulated by him at all.

LUKE: Right.

ALONZO: But, in that case, I would say that the agent has a “disposition to act” housed in a disposition to turn down options to act.

Here, let me explain. If an action-option were available to him – say, bribing a member of the jury or, in our own example, testifying in his own defense, he would refuse. If somebody were to show him a button and say, “Press this and the jury will decide in your favor,” he would refuse. His decision to refuse – his decision to do nothing – is explained, in this case, by his desire that the jury rule in his favor without his intervention.

LUKE: Okay. That makes sense of the part that says that he wants a verdict without his intervention. But it still doesn’t account for the fact that he wants a verdict in his favor.

ALONZO: I take that to be recognition of the fact that a state of affairs that results from a particular verdict is one that would fulfill certain desires.

Let’s say that the punishment if he is found guilty would be a fine of a million dollars. If he is found not guilty, he keeps a million dollars. We can still expect that there are a lot of things that the agent would do for one million dollars. Jury tampering may not be one of them, but that doesn’t imply that he would never act to get a million dollars.

For me, other things that I would not do for a million dollars – besides jury tampering – includes killing somebody or sticking my hand in the coals of a campfire and leaving it there for five minutes. My reluctance does not prove that I have no reason to act to get a million dollars. It only proves that I have a sufficiently strong aversion to various options.

LUKE: Well, on the idea that there can be desires without action, Schroeder still has one more set of examples.

Schroeder draws from Galen Strawson’s example of creatures called “Weather Watchers”, aliens on a distant planet…

…whose internal states have no dispositions to cause their owners to act, and have never… had such dispositions. He imagines that such creatures might have beliefs about what the weather is and desires that it be one way or another; such a life, though evolutionarily unlikely, does not seem a metaphysical impossibility.1

ALONZO: Does not seem a metaphysical impossibility? It does to me. It still seems to me that if you could give them the power of speech and tell them, “We have the power to control the weather, and we are going to let you decide tomorrow’s weather,” if they care, they would choose the weather that they prefer. If they shrug their shoulders and say, “Whatever,” then they don’t care. They don’t have desires about the weather.

LUKE: Yeah, but the main problem for me is that this is like arguing about philosophical zombies. Do philosophical zombies seem possible? Do Strawson’s ‘weather watchers’ seem possible? They don’t seem metaphysically possible to me, but if they seem metaphysically possible to somebody else, I don’t have much I can say about that. In the end, all I can say is that this whole kind of argument isn’t persuasive either way, so I just throw it out of consideration.

I don’t think we humans evolved to have good intuitions about the metaphysical possibility of philosophical zombies and alien weather watchers, so our intuitions about such things aren’t good evidence either way. I need something better than an appeal to metaphysical intuitions if I’m going to update my probability that desires always provide motivational force.

ALONZO: I also want to add that language is an invention. It’s a tool where the best argument to be given as to what words and phrases should mean is that the definitions are useful. Astronomers are currently concerned with the definition of “planet” because, given what we have learned about what we have traditionally called planets, a new definition would be more useful.

Knowledge and understanding of what causes intentional action – and what can be done to modify intentional action – is useful. For the sake of protecting our well-being and harvesting the benefits of cooperation, we have many reasons to ask, “What are people doing? Why are they doing it? Do we have reason to cause them to do something else instead, and, if so, how can we bring those changes about?”

LUKE: So, are you saying that a desire is whatever it is that motivates intentional action?

ALONZO: I am saying that knowing what motivates intentional action is worth talking about, and so it makes sense for people to want to ask about it. “Water”, “Trees”, “Planets”, “Running” – these words exist first and foremost because we have an interest in these things. “Water” is “whatever it is in those lakes and streams that we seem to have to drink to keep ourselves alive.” It turns out that it’s a chemical compound made up of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. But that’s the compound that gets the name “water” because that’s the compound that we seem to have to drink to keep ourselves alive.

And “desires” are “whatever it is that motivates intentional action.” It is that thing or things that we have reason to investigate and ask questions about because of the effects generated by “whatever it is that motivates intentional action.”

LUKE: Well, again, that’s how we’re using the phrase. Nobody owns a copyright on the term ‘desire’, but it is a pretty common use of the term ‘desire’, and we need to specify that this is how we’re using the term.

But even once we’ve stipulated that use of the term, there is no guarantee that such a definition will point to something simple. There could be lots of different things that motivate intentional action that have very little in common with each other – other than the fact that they motivate intentional action.

ALONZO: I suppose so. There was no guarantee that “water” would end up all being H2O. It could have been some type of chemical soup with a dozen different compounds that was still “water” in the sense that it’s “that clear liquid stuff we have reason to drink.”

And there might be a dozen different mental functions that motivate intentional action. They would still be “desires” in the sense of “those things we have reason to understand because they influence intentional action.”

Schroeder may well be using the term “desire” to refer to a small part of that which motivates intentional action, but not the larger phenomenon of what people have reason to be interested in as they use the term.

LUKE: So, you think Schroeder is not really saying anything we need to disagree with. Our disagreement with him is over what language to use when talking about what is true in the world – what language is most useful. We aren’t having a disagreement with him over what is true in the real world.

ALONZO: Well, yes. Typically, when a debate reaches a dispute about the meanings of terms, I tend to shrug my shoulders and say, “You speak your language, I’ll speak mine, and we will try to find some way to translate between them.”

In this case, I think that the action-based definition of desire is more useful than any definition where desires might have absolutely no output in terms of behavior. Presumably, they don’t even give people a reason to talk about the fact that they have those desires – that would be an action. They don’t motivate any choices at all. How did such a term make it into our public language? And, if it did, why keep it?

LUKE: So then, we’re not really interacting with Schroeder’s objections directly, because we’re not engaged in the same project as he is. Still, I think it will help to illustrate some useful points if we continue.

So let’s turn to the third objection to the action-based theory of desire. Our first two problems had to deal with the possibility that an agent can desire something without being motivated to act – which you claimed might be true but unimportant.

ALONZO: There are possible definitions of “desire” in which that’s true.

LUKE: Right. Well, the third problem has to do with the possibility that an agent can be motivated to act without desiring.

One example of this is the case of trying. Schroeder states that a person who tries to lift weights in order to earn a million dollars – because somebody has offered her a million dollars if she will try to lift some weights – she can’t actually be said to desire to lift the weights. Yet, trying is a motivational state.

For instance, imagine a person offered money if she will try to bench-press sixty kilograms. While she is indifferent to the accomplishment, she would like the money. She thus tries to lift the weight without particularly desiring to lift the weight, and so trying must be distinct from desiring.2

ALONZO: I don’t see that as a problem. We have already made a distinction between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means. We have mentioned how Alph, who desires-as-an-end to gather stones, has to scatter stones in order to gather them again. This scattering of stones is work. It’s not something that he ‘wants-as-end’ to do. It is something he ‘has-to-do-as-means’ if he is ever going to to gather stones again. Alph will try-as-means to scatter the stones without particularly desiring-as-end to do so. It is just as natural to say that this person Schroeder writes about will try-as-means to lift the weights, while she has no desire-as-end to do so.

LUKE: Once again, though, I think Schroeder is a step ahead of you. He writes:

There is room for the standard theorist to object that the weight lifter is really trying to get some money, but if it is accepted that she is trying to do so by means of trying to lift the weight, then [the] point stands: the weight lifter tries to do something she does not, in any sense, desire to do: she has a pro-attitude towards a state of affairs that is not a desired state of affairs.

ALONZO: I can’t see how somebody might think that the point stands. The weight lifter tries-as-means to do something she does not, in any sense, desire-as-end to do. She has a pro-as-means attitude towards a state of affairs that she has no pro-as-end attitude towards. How is that a problem for an action-based theory of desire?

LUKE: No, Alonzo, I think you are missing the point on trying. Let me see if I can explain.

Trying to lift the weight has instrumental value for the woman. She gets paid for trying. Actually lifting the weight has no instrumental value. If she succeeds in lifting the weight, that gives her nothing. Only trying wins her the reward.

So, answer me this: what is she trying to do?

ALONZO: Lift the weights.

LUKE: Right. But lifting the weights is not an end, nor is it a means to an end. Trying to lift the weights is a means to an end. Actually lifting the weights is not.

ALONZO: So, the agent is trying to lift the weights when lifting the weights is neither an end or a means. Why is she trying to do something that has no value as an end or a means?

LUKE: By George I think he’s got it.

ALONZO: Oh, that’s clever. But, if you are going to pay me to try to do something, I take that to mean that you are paying me to ‘succeed if I can.’ If I fail to ‘succeed if I can’, then I have failed to try, or I did not try hard enough, or I didn’t really try. So, it is ‘succeeding if I can’ that has instrumental value. Our weight lifter is “succeeding if she can” to lift the weights, and that is what is meant by “trying to lift the weights.”

LUKE: Okay, that’s good. And Alonzo, I’m going to give you a break on this next objection. It has to do with the possibility of intending without desiring, but it’s too long and complicated to cover here, so we’ll have to come back to it later.

ALONZO: Okay. I’m gonna hold you to that.

LUKE: Okay. Now, Shroeder has another set of conditions he wants to talk about relevant to the possibility of motivation without desire. He says that habits provide motivation without desire. And, Alonzo, I remember you saying in episode 10 that habits do provide a problem for the standard theory of desire.

ALONZO: Yes, habits provide a problem for the standard theory.

Schroeder talks about a case of a person going to work and turning right, out of habit, at an intersection he has turned right at countless times before. But I like to give the example of typing, because I spend a lot of time typing.

LUKE: So how would you describe the problem?

ALONZO: Well, I type pretty quickly. Let’s say I intend to type the word ‘Alonzo’, and I quickly hit all the right keys and put the name on the page. But, what if you decided to switch the ‘Z’ key and the ‘X’ key on my keyboard. You didn’t do this secretly, I watched you do it. You showed me that if I press down where the ‘Z’ key used to be, I get the letter X. If I press down where the ‘X’ key used to be I get the letter ‘Z’.

Now, I desire to type the name ‘Alonzo’. I believe that the ‘Z’ and the ‘X’ keys have been switched. But still, out of habit while typing the name, I type what used to be the ‘Z’ key and end up typing ‘Alonxo’. We can’t explain my intentional act of typing ‘Alonxo’ in terms of my beliefs and desires.

LUKE: But you didn’t intentionally type the word ‘Alonxo’.

ALONZO: But, my typing the word was an intentional act. If that intentional act sprang from my beliefs and desires, then it should have produced a state in which I had typed ‘Alonzo’. Yet, my beliefs and desires caused me to type ‘Alonxo’. That has to be explained somehow. That explanation is to be found in the motivational power of habits. Habits provide motivation without desire.

LUKE: Okay, but, like we said in Episode 10, habits do not provide goal-reasons for intentional action, and we’re talking about goal-reasons for intentional action. Your typing the letter ‘X’ was an accident – it did not fulfill an end goal. In fact, it thwarted an end-goal. It was a mistake. You would call it a mistake as soon as you discovered it.

ALONZO: Yes, we talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ habits depending on whether the habit tends to fulfill or thwart our desires. That is, we can measure the instrumental value of a habit. But we do that by comparing the actions that habits cause to the goal-reasons for action that the agent has: their desires-as-ends. If habits provided goal-reasons or end-reasons for intentional action, then we would be evaluating other things – such as desires – according to whether they served the goals of particular habits, rather than evaluating habits according to whether they served our desires-as-ends.

I don’t want to call habits ‘desires’, even though they motivate action, precisely because they fail to provide these end-goals of intentional action. Calling them ‘desires’ would just confuse things.

LUKE: So once again, much of this has to do with language, not with facts about brain states and how they work. Interesting.

Anyway, let’s move on to the next objection, something called deviant causal chains:

Frightened about a possible high-speed crash, [Kristin] has conflicting desires; both to fall down in a safe manner, and to continue skiing and test her limits. It suddenly occurs to her that if she were to turn thus and fall now, she would fall safely and avoid all danger of a crash. The thought causes her to lose her nerve, and she takes the turn badly, thus resulting in a safe fall. The poor turn and safe fall… are caused, it seems, by her desire that she avoid a crash… and her belief that [the poor turn and safe fall will avoid a crash], but nonetheless does not seem to be a genuine [intentional] action.3

ALONZO: Again, let me make sure I understand this. This is supposed to be a problem for action-based theories of desire because it is a case where an agent’s beliefs – “a poor turn and safe fall will avoid a crash” – and her desire – to avoid a crash – had the effect of causing her to fall safely. Yet, the fact that they caused her to act in a particular way – to fall safely – does not imply that she intended to act that way.

LUKE: Right. So, what is the difference between belief and desire causing an action that was not intended and belief and desire causing an action that was intended?

ALONZO: When I read that, I noticed that Schroeder wrote as if this is one of those long and outstanding problems with a belief-desire theory of action. If that’s the case, I think I’m not likely to come up with an answer that hasn’t already been thought up and shot down. I am going to have to wait for professionals in the field to come up with a good answer.

In the mean time, the question that I have is: What implications will this have for desirism? Does it make any difference to desirism whether an effect of an agent’s desire is an intentional action or is the consequence of a deviant causal chain?

LUKE: My first guess is that it doesn’t matter, as long as the effects are predictable. If these effects happen and can be predicted, then people whose desires are fulfilled or thwarted by those effects have reasons to be concerned about them. Both intentional action and deviant causal chains are going to be treated the same way in desirism, so we don’t have much reason to care whether you place certain events in one category or the other. That won’t make any difference with regard to which desires people have reasons to promote or inhibit.

ALONZO: Yeah, that’s how I see it. Why care whether something gets classified as an intentional action or deviant causal chain if both have the same implications? People may have other reasons to care, but for the purposes of explaining desirism, that distinction isn’t important. It doesn’t do any work.

LUKE: Well, it seems we are up to Problem #7. Problem 7 is my favorite problem because it says, “Look at the empirical evidence. It says that you’re wrong.” And I love empirical evidence.

ALONZO: And it says that I am wrong?

LUKE: Well, maybe. Schroeder asks:

Where are the mental representations found in desires tokened? That is, where are desires found within the brain?4

ALONZO: Gad. That’s a bit far out of my areas of expertise. I’ve never taken any brains apart. Honestly, I don’t know.

LUKE: Well . . . here’s what Schroeder says.

. . . although brain regions have been found whose stimulation causes sensory hallucinations or brief motor responses, no region of the brain has been found whose stimulation causes a person to become motivated to tend to her child’s well-being, or to see to it that humans colonize Mars, or do other things that people take as ultimate ends. If the simple representationalist version of the standard theory were correct, one would expect such “desire centers” to be discoverable at least in principle, and by now to have been discovered in fact. Yet scientific studies on humans have not yet turned up such centers.

ALONZO: Well, Schroeder is raising that objection against the simple representationalist version of the standard theory, which he says has a, “simple picture of a distinct set of mental representations making up our desires.” While continuing to plead that I’m not an expert in this particular field, I have tended to think that desires are found in how the brain is wired, rather than with stimulating a “desire that humans colonize Mars” node or region. To change a desire – to ‘excite’ the desire to colonize Mars – one would have to change the connections between cells, not stimulate a particular region.

LUKE: Yeah.

ALONZO: We do know of ways to alter desires. For example, injections of Medroxyprogesterone Acetate significantly reduce the desire for sex in males. It’s the chemical used in chemical castration of sex offenders. It doesn’t affect the ability to have sex – it affects the desire to do so. It does so by blocking receptors that testosterone would normally bind to. If Schroeder wants me to identify something in the brain associated with a desire, this is one example.

LUKE: Yeah. That’s how I’ve been thinking about how desire works in the brain.

ALONZO: We can also make the general point that there is a lot we don’t know about the brain yet, and the fact that we don’t understand in such detail how desire works isn’t a strong objection to action-based theories of desire.

LUKE: I also want to point out that in a later article, Schroeder himself explains how desires could be propositional attitudes without there being a place in the brain where these propositions are encoded in some kind of language of thought. He writes:

A wide range of non-human animals have desires… while only a tiny range of non-human animals have significant conceptual sophistication. I can desire that I have an apple in my possession, but how can an animal have that same desire without concepts such as SELF and POSSESSION? . . . I think of propositional contents as individuated not by the concepts their entertainers deploy, but by how things must be in the world for them to be satisfied. When a lizard desires a fly, the way things must be in the world for the lizard’s desire to be fulfilled is that the lizard catch and consume the fly… The lizard missing the fly, or merely being landed on by the fly, or having the fly tied to its neck by a slender string, would certainly not [constitute the satisfaction of that desire]. And, one way or another, the lizard is able to detect the flycatching-and-consuming state of affairs and distinguish it from the others, and this is why the former [satisfies the desire] and not the latter. Hence, one correct way to characterize the lizard is by saying that it desires that it catch and consume the fly. Its ability to entertain such an attitude while lacking concepts such as SELF and CONSUME is a puzzle, but there are theories – those of Fred Dretske and Ruth Millikan come to mind especially – on which such contents can be entertained even by creatures that, intuitively speaking, lack the concepts that we would use to form thoughts with the same content.5

ALONZO: So his point is that if desires are propositional attitudes, this need not mean that the agent’s brain itself encodes a proposition with sophisticated concepts like SELF and POSSESSION. Rather, the desire system has to respond to states of affairs in the world that we could express propositionally.

LUKE: Right. And I think that’s plausible, especially given the fact that many animals seem to have desires, and yet probably don’t have very sophisticated proposition-representing capacities. So, by Schroeder’s own account, we don’t need to identify a part of the brain and say, “The propositional content of the desire is there.”

ALONZO: Which means we can move on to Problem 8.

LUKE: Yup! Objection #8 ties in with a set of claims that I have heard you make, Alonzo.

You speak about desires and aversions. But, when you speak about them, you treat an aversion as pretty much the same thing as a negative desire. An aversion to eating worms is the same thing as a desire that one not eat worms.


LUKE: Well, Schroeder says that this actually doesn’t fit the phenomenology of aversions and desires.

Here: Let’s say I have a desire to eat chocolate cake. I can scarcely say that I have a desire that I not eat worms that is anything like my desire that I eat chocolate cake. I actually look forward to eating chocolate cake. I don’t actively look forward to not eating worms in the same way.

ALONZO: You might if you were in a position where you thought you were going to have to eat worms. Imagine that you were are a prisoner, forced to eat worms every day. Then, suddenly, they say, “No worms today.” Wouldn’t that gift be a lot like somebody saying to you, “We have chocolate cake today?”

LUKE: I’m not sure. It sounds like you are claiming that I can introspect my way to the right answer on this. But I don’t trust my introspection that much.

ALONZO: Schroeder seems to have more faith in introspection that you do:

If introspection is good for anything at all, as it obviously is, then it is surely good for gathering information about our desires.6

LUKE: Interestingly, though, Schroeder himself provides all sorts of evidence on how unreliable introspective evidence is. In his second chapter on Three Faces of Desire – the chapter on reward and punishment – he offers examples of a number of experiments in which agents altered their behavior as a result of rewards and punishments, but were unable to accurately introspect what happened.

And I can give other examples of how poor introspection is as a source of information about our internal states. For example, it was recently discovered that even though it feels like we have direct introspective access to the moment we decided to do something, we don’t. We infer it from other data, and we’re sometimes wrong.7 You can find many more examples in, for example, Eric Schwitzgebel’s work… for example his paper “The Unreliability of Naive Introspection” and his upcoming book Perplexities of Consciousness.

And, one really massive error of introspection worth mentioning is that introspection tells me I have free will powers to step outside the causal chain of nature and create effects that are not themselves caused by the previous state of the universe and the laws of physics. But I don’t have such powers. That’s a pretty big error for introspection to make.

For these reasons, I don’t have much trust in what introspection tells me about my brain. I would feel much more comfortable if we were to talk about the relationships between desires and the effects we could actually measure – effects in terms of blood pressure, heart rate, parts of the brain that are activated, actions actually being performed – that kind of thing.

ALONZO: Speaking of which . . . even though you and I define desires in terms of motivating intentional action, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of different desires having different . . . feelings, as it were. The biological mechanisms for hunger are different than those for thirst, which are different than those for pain, which are different than those for that sensation you get when you look over a ledge at a great height. Why can’t a desire for chocolate feel different than an aversion to eating worms?

When I equate an aversion to P with a desire that not-P, I’m talking about its impact on motivation. I don’t think I need to imply that they are identical in all other ways, such as how they feel.

LUKE: Schroeder still says that these differences, where they exist, are in need of explanation.

ALONZO: Well, sure. There’s a lot of work to do even on basic desires such as hunger and disgust. Where there are differences, there is a need for explanation. However, I have to say that my concern is with the impact on desirism. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether desires and aversions work exactly the same way in the brain. I only need it to be the case that desires and aversions function the same way in that they motivate the agent to make or keep true, or to make or keep false, certain propositions.

And I’m with you on the power of introspection. I don’t trust it.

LUKE: So, Alonzo.


LUKE: I have to ask, now that you have considered these objections, how confident are you about the action-based theory of desire?

ALONZO: Okay, ultimately, I think it has a good shot at being right, but parts of it make me uneasy.

In the end, each of us is concerned with how we are going to arrange our environment to fulfill our desires. That environment includes other people whose desires influence their intentional actions which, in turn, impact us. This is very much a concern with behavior – the causes of behavior, and the effects of behavior.

For that reason, I think theories of intentional action are going to be important to us. With them, a theory of desire with a specific focus on its role in explaining and predicting intentional action is going to be important to us.

We spoke in the last episode about how many philosophers have a different project – that of doing what’s called “conceptual analysis” on the concept of desire, where the goal is to arrive at a Super Dictionary definition for “desire” that is logically consistent, fits the facts, and matches up with our intuitions and use of the term.

But that’s not our project. We’re talking about desire strictly as that thing that plays the motivational role in our best theory of intentional action – that thing that we can use in the very important project of explaining and predicting – and influencing through moral institutions and other ways – what other people do.

LUKE: So, Alonzo, if we’re just stipulating that by “desire” we’re talking about the motivational or action-based sense of the term, do we need to bother exploring what the other theories of desire are?

ALONZO: Of course. First, it helps to explain and clarify the concepts – helps make them more precise. And, second, looking into the defense of these other theories of desire may very well raise some salient objections even to our very narrow project of considering desire in just its motivational aspect. Look at Schroeder’s arguments here. They addressed a lot more than just the concept of ‘desire’.

LUKE: Yeah, Schroeder’s theory of desire in particular I think is really strong, for the project he’s interested in, and his synthesis of neurological and philosophical research on desire has many implications for anybody who wants to talk about desire in any sense. I’m really excited to talk about his theory of desire in particular.

ALONZO: I think that’s scheduled for Episode 15. For the next episode, we’ll be talking about the second most popular theory of desire – the pleasure theory. The idea that to desire something is to find pleasure in it.

LUKE: I find pleasure in the thought of recording that episode.

ALONZO: So do I.

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  1. Schroeder, Three Faces of Desire, pg. 20. []
  2. Ibid., pg. 21. []
  3. Ibid., pg. 23. []
  4. Ibid., pg. 24. []
  5. Schroeder, “Reply to Critics” (2006) in Dialogue, 45: 165-174. []
  6. Schroeder, Three Faces of Desire, pg. 8. []
  7. Banks & Isham, “We infer rather than perceive the moment we decided to act” (2009) in Psychological Science, 20(1): 17-21. []

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

cl February 22, 2011 at 4:55 pm

What about duty? If a person is motivated to do something that actually thwarts their desires, isn’t that an example of an action not motivated by desire? Or, would you say that duty reduces to desire?

Does it make any difference to desirism whether an effect of an agent’s desire is an intentional action or is the consequence of a deviant causal chain? [Alonzo]

Doesn’t negligence reduce to, “consequence of a deviant causal chain?” If yes, then doesn’t this make a difference to desirism? If not, why not?

And I love empirical evidence. [Luke]

Speaking of which, are you guys ever going to actually run some math on any of this? I tried, and nobody seemed to care. Not that I mind, but it just strikes me as odd, this apparent preference for quasi-philosophical banter over hard empirical demonstration. It seems to me that without math and empirically derived conclusions, this whole thing is an exercise in thought that can’t get off the ground.

For example, injections of Medroxyprogesterone Acetate significantly reduce the desire for sex in males. It’s the chemical used in chemical castration of sex offenders. It doesn’t affect the ability to have sex – it affects the desire to do so. [Alonzo]

So then, does this mean that what was once thought of as a non-malleable desire is actually malleable? Or, would you deny that you ever held the desire for sex as non-malleable? What happens to desirism if–as I’ve argued–all desires are malleable? It would seem to me that certain desires once declared off-limits would become open to moral inquiry.


Cyril February 22, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Speaking of desire malleability, is that something that you guys are going to talk about this season? Because if I remember correctly, that’s where most of my questions were last time I was trying to figure out desirism.


Garren February 22, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Still loosely following along. I’ve just never had much of a problem with the “here’s a list of things we affirm” tidbits. What I’m really interested in seeing is what all this groundwork implies for things like normativity and truth conditions.


Luke Muehlhauser February 22, 2011 at 10:48 pm


Yup, that’s coming. :)


Alonzo Fyfe February 23, 2011 at 10:06 am

Cyril . . . unless plans change, a significant portion of Episode 15 will address concerns of desire malleability and the role of reward and punishment (and praise and condemnation) in that system.


Cyril February 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

Okay. That works for me.


JS Allen February 24, 2011 at 6:31 pm

I still don’t understand the seemingly arbitrary emphasis on “intentional” action. Roughly where do you draw the line between intentional and unintentional action, and why does it matter?

Research on split-brain patients shows that our explanations of why we did something can easily be fabricated in our minds without us realizing it. This shows that our talk about intentional action can be a subconscious fiction, but what if this is relatively normal instead of the exception? What if our actions are far more a result of habit, operant conditioning, mimicry, and other subconscious influences than we realize?

This seems very plausible to me. I suspect that a large percentage of the actions people explain via an appeal to beliefs and desires, are in fact relatively automatic, and the appeal to belief and desire is just a post-hoc excuse. I suspect that there are many actions that can truly be explained via beliefs and desires, but introspection is a terrible guide in this. And it’s not clear that these actions account for enough of the pie to be interesting. Finally, I still don’t understand why you would arbitrarily exclude the non-intentional category of actions.

I find it interesting that you don’t accept introspection about libertarian free will, but are credulous of introspection over intentional action.


b March 19, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Hey guys, love the show.

Can habits be reduced to precalculated actions, associated with beliefs that they bring certain (instrumental or terminal) utility? If so, a mistake out of habit (e.g. Alonxo) would seem to be due to incorrect belief, since the new belief (x-z switch) failed to propagate.

JS Allen,
I think they use “intentional(X)” as “outputed by decision making process X”. Introspection will likely fail in some (if not most) cases, but it still makes sense to speak of desires explaining intentional actions, as opposed to reflexes or getting hit by a truck.


Gatogreensleeves July 31, 2011 at 2:32 pm

What a great podcast. While I am sympathetic to desirism and you’ve already made the caveat that it applies only to humans, this idea is the basis for how many phenomenologists view “will” in the cosmos:

ALONZO: But, in that case, I would say that the agent has a “disposition to act” housed in a disposition to turn down options to act.

They say that even inorganic rocks “behave” according to their composition and a pervasive will in the cosmos is quasi-latent at some primal preconscious level. That there is both organic material that comes from inorganic material and that this inorganic material still has character and is causally vulnerable is evidence of such a latent will (not that it is neccessarily consious ala Gaia/pantheism/etc). In this view, there is latent cosmic desire analogous to unconscious behavior in humans that mostly does what it wants and we try to manipulate it best we can (like Haidt’s elephant). There is also the suggestion that even though evolution shows a continuum of small changes from homo sapiens (almost) all the way to inorganic matter (and may seem to delineate who can participate in desirism via biological capacity), latent desire may still require a comprehensive version of desirism that applies cosmically.

What can one say to that? Anyway, since I have a Heideggerian friend who holds a version of this view, I can’t help but inflate desirism cosmically on one of my mental backburners as I listen to you guys.

I hope the show continues forever…


Gatogreensleeves August 14, 2011 at 1:53 am

Been thinking more about latent morality/desire. Since even the part of the universe generally considered incapable of moral awareness does have actual potential for eventual moral awareness via some as yet unknown process of abiogenesis (or already has varying degrees of moral awareness, i.e. in at least some animals), then in the same way that future selves may affect our obligations in personal identity (i.e. we may have some moral obligation to our future selves, even our actions upon inorganic matter (let alone upon beings already with varying degrees of moral awareness) may, in principle, have consequences and constraints commensurate with whatever actual possibility for moral awareness exists in our awareness of how to bring those morally aware beings into existence. My question is whether or not this would be true (if it is true), even if one only objectifies value relationally (e.g. desire utilitarianism) and not intrinsically.

Most naturalists don’t give a rat’s ass about latent morality/ personal identity, perhaps because of how it’s used so presumptuously in the abortion debate, but I think it is an interesting area to explore in the context of desire utilitarianism.


JS Allen August 14, 2011 at 9:42 am

@b – Yeah, I understand roughly what “intentional” is supposed to signify, but I don’t see why we would choose to focus on those specific actions.


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