Dogs and Desires

In discussing the merits of moral expressivism the following example came up. I was maintaining that desires are inherently evaluative in that they represent something as something that should be the case. Put differently, what it means to desire/want something is to think that it should be the case -- If S desires that x, then S believes that it would be better if x were true than not. If this is so, then the expressivist cannot appeal to desires.
My claim is that the only thing that trumps our desire for x (belief that x being true would be better than not) is a higher-order desire for y (belief that y being true would be better than not and better than x being true and y and x cannot both be true).
A collegue presented the idea that his dog has desires (to go outside, for a treat) but that he (the dog) lacks the capacity to think that if the world realized those desires it would be better than if it did not.
I don't think so. I think that once we grant desires we've granted the capacity to think of something as better. I'm not sure whether the dog has both though or neither, but I'm leaning toward both.


Trent Steele said...

Desire as evaluative? Am I ever going to agree with you on philosophical topics?

First, I've got to ask what counts as one state of affairs being "better" than another. For instance, I would say that I can desire to eat a piece of chocolate cake, but I don't think that things would be better if I got what I wanted, not unless "better" means "more immediately pleasurable." This is obviously problematic, though, given that I desire things that I don't believe to be immediately pleasurable. Maybe you want to say that "better" means "increasing overall utility," but then we have the opposite problem, because on that account, my desire for chocolate cake doesn't look much like a desire anymore, since I would be very unhappy as a fat person.

Let me anticipate a potential response here: we can't very well say that my desire not to be fat is simply a "higher order desire" (whatever that means) relative to my desire to eat cake. There are two very different senses in which things would be "better" if each desired thing (or state of affairs, etc.) obtained, and those two senses of "better" are frequently incompatible. It's even worse to say that desire for x is just the belief that things would be "better" if x for any conceivable sense of "better". After all, one could maintain that people always act according to what they think is best, but one might not believe that people always act according to their desires. That line of thinking was good enough for Plato, anyway, and it seems quite intuitively plausible.

Second, I guess I'm not sure whether you mean to equate the desire for x with the belief that things would be better if x, or if you're merely saying that all desires for x are beliefs that things would be better if x. For example, I might believe that things would be better if we had never invaded Iraq, but it would be very awkward and probably wrong to say that I desire that we had never invaded Iraq. I sometimes wish it, but I don't desire it.

Finally, I have to disagree with your contention that "once we grant desires we've granted the capacity to think of something as better." Someone might have the desire to draw a square circle, but since they can't think of a square circle, it seems a fortiori the case that they can't think of drawing one, and if they can't think of drawing one, they can't think of it as better.


jon said...

You would desire to draw a squared-circle!
First, I do not want to equate desires with beliefs. The two are obviously different propositional attitudes. What I do like is a certain symmetry thesis that has gained some credence (Searle and Velleman are two examples). It says that what beliefs want the content of one's mind to match the world and what desires want the world to match the content of one's mind. The difference between belief and desire is a direction of fit between one's mind and the world.
I think this thesis might mean that a desire for x implies a certain belief (a belief that x is better than not-x), but I don't think that is problematic. But it does not entail that beliefs imply desires.

Second, I don't think Plato is a counter-example. Doesn't he also hold that one always desires to do what is best? Either way the theory is wrong.

Finally we have come full circle to the squared-circle. I don't see how you could have such a desire if you were unable to have a thought of a 'squared-circle'(I'm not so sure you can't have such a thought though -- the phrase is certainly meaningful). If not though, how can 'I desire to draw a squared-circle' differ from 'I desire to slke#ro^ise?n'? How could you possibly desire something that you cannot think of?

chaz said...

You still never told me in what sense things would be "better" if I get what I desire. Are you a utilitarian on this point? How do you respond to my chocolate cake question?

I don't think it is enough simply to say that desire is someone wanting the world to fit the contents of one's mind. If I've understood you correctly here, your definition of desire uses the concept of desire to define itself. Second, what are "contents of one's mind?" Brain states? What would it be like for the world to match a brain state? Or are they mental images of possible worlds? There seem to be a lot of directions you could go in defining "contents of mind."

On the Plato point, he certainly would not say that one always desires to do what is best; remember that the faculty of desire is the lowest part of the soul. As a philosopher, your desires should be tightly reined in by your rational faculty! Plato says that everyone always acts according to what he or she thinks is best no matter which part of the soul controls the person's actions (cf. Republic 505e). Thus he would admit the possibility of someone rarely acting according to desires but always acting for the perceived best. For him, philosophers are such people.

My squared-circle might not be the best example, but I'm not sure I can give a better one, since you'll always object that if I can desire something, I can think it. In fact, I may have to end up granting this (obviously if desires are "propositional attitudes," I would; my jury's still out on that one, though - I think I have desires that aren't attitudes toward propositions). However, granting that desire entails thought by no means entails that desire entails thought of something as better. Again, I'm still waiting for a definition of "better."

jon said...

What 'better' means may be tricky to spell out, but I don't see why I need to. I think that it is at root an evaluative notion and as long as it is there is problems for the expressivist -- it doesn't matter in this sense which evaluative notion it is.
I also don't see how 'better' is being used equivocally in the cake example. The evaluation takes place on a different level of analysis, but it looks like the same evaluation to me. When you desire to have cake you are at least prima facie holding that having cake is better/preferrable to not having cake. There is certainly a higher-order desire here that then overrides this preferrence due to another preferrence at a higher level of analysis. I think your definitions of 'better' are unfair. A better candidate would be 'more pleasurable' without any modifiers such as 'immediately' or 'overall' since such modifiers are the ones that come into play when desires compete.

How can a desire not be a propositional attitude? Perhaps this is our problem. Can you help me out in how you can understand desiring something that is not a proposition? It seems to me that desiring x is always desiring that x be the case which has to be a proposition.

danny boy said...

I'm not totally sure the dog is that sophisticated in its thinking. Maybe if we were to analyze its instincts we can try and tease out those notions, but I don't think the dog is aware of such ideas. As for myself, I think I can have desires that I don't actually wish to be actualized. In fact, such desires that were they to be actualized, it would be worse. Maybe you could say that those aren't true desires then, but I think desires are simply inclinations or emotive responses (in vastly differing degrees) to propositions. Perhaps desires simply involve possible alternate worlds, and our 'feelings' towards such possibilities being actualized. I think in that case you have to be able to conceptualize something (even if that be just as 'different' or 'not') in order to desire it, or in other words, that desire requires some sort of object (as vague as it may be).

danny boy said...

I just thought of a line about those propositional attitudes - without a sense of what the real world is like, it is impossible to imagine new ones.

jon said...

I don't think emotive responses to propositions will do the trick since we need to distinguish desiring that from liking that, loving that, hating that, etc. What are you thinking of when you say there is a desire that you don't want to be actualized? I don't mean your overall thoughts, but just that there is some level at which you think the world would be better if it were that way. Overall you may think it would be an terrible thing, but I think that if you truly desire it some part of you must want it to be the case. I'm open to counterexamples though.

Anonymous said...

I am a friend of your Dad's...so I guess I can comment on your blog.
Re desires: yes, of course we live with a conflict of desires and we choose what is the most valuable, not necessarily the one that is the most urgent. My desire for revenge is strong, but I temper it and do not act on it becauseof a higher value, namely, that I would be kept from going to prison.
Same with Christianity---we develop a passion for Jesus that is greater than our passion to sin. Much more that I could say.
Re your view of hell; nice try, but it won't work....yes, God destroys the soul in hell, etc. but these passages do not teach annhilation; and then there are others that explicity teach eternal torment...see Reve. 14.
Sure great to communicate with you...nice to know you've studied philosophy....
Joke: what does a 12 inch pizza and a PHD in philosophy have in common? Answer: neither can feed a family of four!
Blessings and benedictions.