Disclaimer: The following is a (selective) outline of what I take to be the central argument of David Velleman's paper, “The Guise of the Good”. A number of Velleman's specific arguments have been omitted, not because I believe they are unimportant or uninteresting, but for the sake of brevity.
SYNOPSIS OF PAPER: Velleman argues that the Guise of the Good theory (henceforth, “GG theory”) errs by either making an evaluative term (henceforth, “the good”) part of the propositional content of the attitude motivating an intentional action (henceforth, “a desire”) or by equating the good with the direction of fit of a desire. The first strategy fails because it entails that an agent can have a desire only if she possesses the concept of the good, and the second strategy fails because it conflates the constitutive aim of an attitude with its direction of fit. Velleman concludes by advancing the positive proposal that desire aims at the attainable.
BRIEF OUTLINE OF PAPER:
I Motivating cognitivism: The Primacy of Rational Guidance (pp. 3-7)
II Sophisticated Cognitivism: The Direction-of-Fit Approach (pp. 7-9)
III The Aim of Desire: Objections to Sophisticated Cognitivism (pp. 10-19)
DETAILED OUTLINE OF PAPER:
I Motivating cognitivism: The Primacy of Rational Guidance
Summary: Velleman defines GG theory as the claim that intentional action aims at the good. GG Theory is motivated by an attempt to reconcile two seemingly incompatible stories of the origin of human action; namely, the story of motivation and the story of rational guidance. Non-cognitivism emphasizes the story of motivation at the expense of the story of rational guidance, and cognitivism emphasizes the story of rational guidance at the expense of the story of motivation. The main motivation for rejecting non-cognitivism and adopting cognitivism, according to Velleman, is a desire to preserve the commonsense story of the origin of human action.
(i) Story of motivation = an agent acts intentionally when her action is caused by a desire for some outcome and a belief that the action will promote it. (p. 3)
(ii) Story of rational guidance = an agent acts intentionally when the action justifying character of a proposition prompts her action via her grasp of that proposition. (p. 4)
Noncognitivism = emphasises story of motivation at the expense of the story of rational guidance.
Weakness of non-cognitivism = it is at odds with the commonsense story. “In the commonsense story, the agent is moved toward action because his reasons justify it; whereas in the noncognitivist story, his reasons justify his action in virtue of moving him toward it.” (p. 5)
Cognitivism = emphasises story of rational guidance at the expense of the story or motivation.
Weakness of cognitivism = entails that an agent can have a desire only if she has evaluative concept. “If the cognitivist seriously means to characterise desire as an attitude toward an evaluative proposition, then he implies that the capacity to desire requires the possession of evaluative concepts. Yet a young child can want things long before it has acquired the concept of their being worth wanting or desirable.” (p. 7)
Upshot: Noncognitivism is unattractive because it fails to preserve the commonsense story of motivation and cognitivism is implausible because it entails that an agent can act intentionally only if it possesses certain evaluative concepts.
II Sophisticated Cognitivism: The Direction-of-Fit Approach
Summary: Sophisticated cognitivism unpacks the claim that the attitude motivating an intentional action (henceforth, I will simply speak of a desire) aims at the good in terms of the attitude's direction-of-fit. On this view, a cognitive attitude (like belief) may be said to aim after truth because its propositional object is regarded as a factum (something that is the case); while a conative attitude (like desire) may be said to aim after the good because its propositional object is regarded as a faciendum (something that is to be made the case). The upshot is that a propositional attitude is characterised, not only by the proposition that embodies its content, but also by the attitude's direction of fit (i.e., whether it represents its propositional object as a factum or faciendum).
cognitive attitude = a proposition is grasped as patterned after the world (or factum).
conative attitude = a proposition is grasped as a pattern for the world to follow (or faciendum).
(i) Simple cognitivism = involves action-justifying propositions.
According to simple cognitivism, desires aim at the good in virtue of their propositional content, which include the predicate “good”. (p. 6)
(ii) Sophisticated cognitivism = involves action-justifying attitudes.
According to sophisticated cognitivism, desires aim at the good in virtue of type of attitude it is—namely, that it is a conative attitude—rather than in terms of its propositional content. (pp. 8ff)
Upshot: According to sophisticated cognitivism, desires justify or provide reasons for action, not because of their propositional content, but because of the way the propositional content of a desire is grasped; namely, as something to be brought about. (p. 9)
III The Aim of Desire: Objections to Sophisticated Cognitivism
Summary: According to Velleman, desire aims, not at the good, but at the attainable. This follows from the following three theses. First, the constitutive aim of belief is whatever distinguishes it from all other states with a cognitive direction of fit; namely, the fact that beliefs are only correct when they are true. Second, what distinguishes desire from all other states with a conative direction of fit is not the fact that it aims after the good, since this is something it shares with all other conative states. Third, what distinguishes desire from all other conative states is the fact that desire aims at the attainable. The upshot is that the central thesis of sophisticated cognitivism—namely, that desire aims at the good—is mistaken.
Velleman exploits an analogy from belief to argue that desires do not aim at the good. He draws a distinction between the direction of fit of belief and the aim of belief (p. 12 ff):
(i) direction of fit of belief = that in virtue of which it is a cognitive state.
(ii) aim of belief = that in virtue of which it is correct just in case it is true
The following is a rough reconstruction of Velleman's argument. (Note: "given" indicates a theoretically motivated claim, and "observed" indicates an empirically motivated claim.)
(1) Belief is a cognitive state in virtue of its direction of fit. (given)
(2) Belief does not share the same aim as other cognitive states. (observed)
(3) Aim of belief = what sets belief apart from other cognitive states. (loosely from (1) and (2))
(4) Aim of desire = what sets desire apart from other conative states. (by analogy from (3))
(5) Sophisticated cognitivism entails that desire aims at the good in virtue of its direction of fit. (given)
(6) Sophisticated cognitivism entails that all conative states have the same direction of fit. (given)
(7) Sophisticated cognitivism entails that all conative states aim at the good. (loosely from (5) and (6))
(8) Sophisticated cognitivism entails that the good is not the aim of desire. (loosely from (4) and (7))
(8) What sets desire apart from all other conative states = being directed at the attainable. (observed)
(9) Aim of desire = being directed at the attainable. (loosely from (4) and (8))
Upshot: Velleman's negative thesis is that, contra sophisticated cognitivism, the constitutive aim of desire is not the good. Velleman's positive thesis is that the constitutive aim of desire is the attainable (p. 17). Given that the constitutive aim of belief is the truth, it follows from Velleman's positive thesis that desire stands to the attainable as belief stands to the truth.