Friday, 27 March 2009

Informed Desires

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Desire-based accounts of motivation are the natural way to ground or reduce questions of moral value and facts. As a naturalist and empiricist this is the most plausible approach to answering the challenges of ethics as such approaches, unlike most objective and subjective moral theories, are provisional, defeasible and congruent in procedure to any other empirical enterprise. This requires neither dubious and non-empirical postulates such as intrinsic prescriptions or prescriptive laws that objective moral theories are infected with nor the equally but differently dubious linguistic contortions or distortions of truth that subjective moral theories are prone to. 

Still there are a number of desire-based approaches. James Griffin, Peter Railton and Richard Brandt offer somewhat similar "informed desire" or "rational desire" accounts. I am more familiar with Griffin's approach and so will address his arguments here. 

Now like desire utilitarianism (noting all the above authors are promoting  forms of desire-based utilitarianism) Griffin distinguishes between satisfaction and fulfilment. In Well-Being (1986) he writes:
“being fulfilled cannot be understood in a psychological way.” “A desire is ‘fulfilled’ in the sense in which a clause in a contract is fulfilled: namely, what was agreed (desired) comes about.” 
(I do not if this is a quote or a paraphrase of Griffin when I have written in the past "fulfilment is a state of the world, satisfaction is a state of mind"). 

However Griffin has an issue with what he calls actual-desire accounts, better understood as what I called naive preference satisfaction in my criticism of Brian Leiter, or the fulfilment of "mere desire". What he is really addressing is the challenge that J.S. Mills failed to meet - the desirability of desire. Griffin seeks to derive a prudential theory of value or well-being  and does this in terms of an informed-desire account which answers the desirability of desire question. This is the basis for his utililitarian moral theory - on fulfilling only such "informed desires".

The issues he addresses are that "our actual desires are often poor guides to value because we lack enough information either about states of affairs that we desire to happen, or about states of affairs for which we have not yet formed desires". This leads to two issues - of misjudgment and happenstance.  Misjudgement is where we do not gain what was expected when the desire is fulfilled, not just internally in not being satisfied but possibly disappointed, but also in other ways not finding the desire worthwhile. Happenstance is where one has no desire for a state of affairs but discovers it worthwhile in some way, that is even though it was not the object of a desire and so did not value it, one has now found it of value. 

If happenstance and misjudgement could be avoided, we would only seek "the fulfilment of desires that persons would have if they appreciated the true nature of their objects” and this is a better basis of well-being, or so Griffin argues. That is his solution is in the form of an ideal version of the agent, one who is fully informed about the objects of the agents desires. Such an ideal agent could advise or inform the actual agent of whether the expectation of fulfilling a desire was justified, or even if it is fulfillable and so reasonable to pursue at all and this would answer the misjudgment issue. Such an ideal agent could also advise the actual agent over desires that they lack but would find worthwhile if they did have them and this would answer the happenstance issue. Collectively, Griffin argues that it is only the fulfilment of these informed desires that contribute to the well-being of the agent and not all their actual desires. This is his solution to the desirability of desires.

Well the basic problem to this approach can be considered with tastes. Suppose I have a childhood recollection of enjoying cream soda and get an overwhelming desire for this which I have not had since I was a kid. I finally get this drink and find it now tastes disgusting. Oppositely I always avoid ordering spinach in my meals because I recollect it tastes disgusting at least when I last had it when I was a kid. I am accidentally served it one day and find it delicious not knowing what it is.  My new dislike for cream soda is an example of misjudgement, my new like for spinach is an example of happenstance. 

How do informed desires help? They do not, since they cannot alter the facts of what I desire and do not desire. I am not that ideal version of myself. If that person could talk to me they would be unlikely to deter me from either wanting cream soda nor to eating spinach (others might trust their ideal selves more or less than I would but still one cannot will desires one does not have). Further one does not need an ideal version to attempt to and fail to achieve equivalent outcomes. We have all had friends or associates who advised us on similar issues, ignored them and they turned out to be correct. Once cannot reason one to change desires, whether through ideal selves or actual agents. Our desires change and evolve through learning and discovery and advice, whether sought or unrequested, is just a factor in that process.  

Ideal selves are not real, they are hypothetical. One might aspire to become one's ideal self, or might not. One might pursue the considered life or not.  Either way one could never achieve it, we do not have the time and by the time one has improved oneself  in some sense, there are new unknowns to face.  Ideal selves cannot help in a filtering of the actual desires of anyone, nor can one seek to fulfil desires of their informed selves if they do not already exist within one's actual self.

So does this mean, if we reject informed or rational desire, to have to accept actual-desire accounts or naive preference satisfaction? No, desire utilitarianism is an alternative to both informed- and actual-desire accounts. It solves the desirability of desire not by proposing hypothetical entities such as ideal selves but by empirically treating desires as means to be evaluated against all other desires.

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