Tuesday 31 March 2009

The "Guise of the Good" Theory of Desires

I wish to outline what may be called the Animal Objection to the "guise of the good" theory of desires. In his paper, “The Judgement of a Weak Will”, Sergio Tenenbaum describes what (following Kant) he refers to as the “old formula of the schools”:
We desire only what we conceive to be good; we avoid only what we conceive to be bad.
I wish to focus on the first part of the formula; the claim that desiring φ involves conceiving of φ as good. One motivation for this account of desires is that it preserves the idea that there is a conceptual connection between evaluation and motivation. I will refer to any theory of desire that posits such a connection as a “guise of the good” theory of desires. In their most unqualified form, such accounts involve something like the following necessary condition for desiring φ:
(D1): For all agents, φ, if an agent desires φ then that agent believes that φ is good.
However, I find (D1) problematic since it seems incompatible with the widespread practice of attributing desires to nonlinguistic animals.

One may take (D1) to be inconsistent with the claim that nonlinguistic animals have desires; either because one holds that nonlinguistic animals cannot have beliefs simpliciter, or because one holds that they are incapable of having beliefs with the required content. The word ‘belief’ is a term of art. There are philosophical usages of the word according to which only animals with conceptual and linguistic abilities are capable of having beliefs. Whatever the merits of such usages, they are not the usage that features in pieces of instrumental reasoning.

In order to reason instrumentally, an agent must be able to engage in a nonlinear decoupling and recombination of means and ends. This means they must be able to recognise that X may be both a means and an end, that X and Y may be means to the same end, and that X may be a means to two different ends. This means/end decoupling and recombination is engaged in by many nonlinguistic animals, including all mammals. In order to decouple and recombine ends and means in this way, an agent must be capable of assenting to a proposition of the form, “X is a means to Y”. Moreover, I define belief just as assent to a proposition. It follows that insofar as a non-linguistic animal is capable of means/end decoupling and recombination, it must have beliefs.

I will refer to nonlinguistic animals that have beliefs (in the above sense) as proto-rational agents. Even if we grant that nonlinguistic animals may have beliefs, there are clearly certain kinds of beliefs that (due to their content) only rational agents—animals with conceptual and linguistic abilities—can have. I will refer to such beliefs as judgements. This presents the possibility of the following necessary condition for desires:
(D2): For all agents, φ, if an agent desires φ then that agent judges that φ is good.
(D2) clearly precludes the possibility that proto-rational agents may have desires. Insofar as we take a “guise of the good” theory of desires to involve judgements, then such an account cannot be reconciled with the intuition that proto-rational agents may have desires. However, if we take the type of belief implicated in (D1) to be of the sort that proto-rational agents can have—i.e., the kind which stands in contrast to judgements—then there is no reason why the necessary condition for having a belief simplicter should preclude proto-rational agents having desires.

Nevertheless, there remains the problem of whether or not proto-rational agents can have beliefs with the content in question—i.e., that having to do with the goodness of some φ. Since proto-rational agents lack the capacity to entertain the concept of the good, the belief implicated in (D1) is not the sort that a proto-rational agent can have. Due to its content, the belief implicated in (D1) is one that falls under the umbrella of what I have been calling judgements. Consequently, (D1) simply collapses into (D2). Thus, (D1) fails to preserve the intuition that proto-rational agents are capable of having desires.

I believe that (D1) and (D2) both fail because they conceive of desires in terms of agential level evaluations on the good. This requires that the agent have a criterion for the good, which in turn requires that the agent have a concept of the good. Since proto-rational agents lack concepts, they cannot have desires so conceived.