Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Is it Irrational to Wish to be Human? (by Guest Blogger Brad Cokelet)

First off, I want to thank Eric for inviting me to Blog on The Splintered Mind. I hope my posts, like Eric’s, help some fellow procrastinators fill their time in a less regrettable fashion than they would otherwise. But today’s topic is wishing, not hoping.

In the Groundwork, Kant makes a striking, negative claim about what it is rational to wish for: “But inclinations themselves, as sources of needs, are so far from having absolute value to make them desirable for their own sake that it must rather be the universal wish of every rational being to be wholly free of them,” [4:428] Is Kant right? Is it irrational to wish to have human inclinations for creature comforts like food and sex?

It will help to consider an argument for a similar conclusion that Graham Oddie discusses in his recent book. It focuses (no surprise) on desires for things that are indeed good; desires for the bad are presumably not something a rational agent would wish to have. Here is a version of that argument adapted to present purposes.

First, note that if we desire something then we do not have it. Thus, given that the object of a desire is something good, our desiring entails that we lack something good. But that entails that if you wish to have a desire for something good, then you wish to be without something good. And given that it is irrational to wish to be without something good instead of wishing to have that good, that entails that it is irrational to wish to have desires for the good. So we can conclude that it is irrational to wish to have desires.

How should we respond to this argument and Kant’s claim?

I think the most promising possibility is to argue that some desires are plausibly seen as necessary parts of or necessary means to a valuable experience. For example, we might argue that you have to have sexual desires in order to have valuable sexual experiences. We could then either argue one of two ways:

(1) That these desires are instrumentally valuable and that we cannot conceive of the experiences without them.

(2) That the desires are intrinsically valuable because we can undergo the relevant valuable experience if and only if we delay gratification and enjoy a desire, so to speak.

Questions abound here: Are there other types of experiences that we need desires in order to have? Is there a better way to respond to this argument? Or is Kant right that, if we are rational, we will wish to leave our humanity behind?

4 comments:

charles said...

Some stray thoughts...

"First, note that if we desire something then we do not have it. Thus, given that the object of a desire is something good, our desiring entails that we lack something good. But that entails that if you wish to have a desire for something good, then you wish to be without something good."

Why not respond to the argument like this: the bold passage is simply false. It is generally not true that if p entails q and S phi's that p, then S phi's that q, for a given propositional attitude phi and propositions p and q. There is a distinction to be drawn between desiring that p and desiring a situation in which p. One can desire (that) a situation in which p (is the case) and not eo ipso desire that p. Example: I can wish that a psychopath felt remorse for his murders. A psychopath's feeling remorse for his murders entails that a psychopath murdered someone. Obviously, my desire does not entail my desiring that a psychopath murdered someone. If it did, it would entail that desiring anything that entails that the world is not the best possible world is an irrational desire. This, to my mind, is hilariously absurd.

I think that a more plausible principle would be: a desire that p is irrational iff, if it were the case that p, the world would be worse off than it is now. This principle, unlike the one implicitly drawn on by the argument you cite, does not ignore the (psychological) role of desires in motivating time-indexed action in an imperfect world. I think Kant can only be understood to be correct if interpreted as saying something about how we should strive to be: namely, free of sources of needs -- having all our needs met. This does not entail that we are irrational for not having achieved this (I find it hard to even begin to fathom what such a state of affairs would be like), only that it is irrational to not strive to do so.

Finally, the quote makes Kant sound vaguely Buddhist!

Brad C said...

Thanks for the interesting comment Charles.

Glad you brought up the de dicto / de re desire distinction, because I intially thought it would solve this problem too. Nice example - I agree it shows we shouldn't run the two uses of 'desire' together.

I was thinking along these lines though: Given that the question is about what we can rationally *wish* for, we have to consider all the possible options. In this case: you can wish that (1) you desire to have something good or (2) you already have that good thing. As you point out, wishing for (1) instead of (2) does not entail wishing that (3) you desire that you not have something good. Nonetheless, if we can wish for anything possible (I was assuming that) then I think it is irrational to wish for a situation that is worse than some alternative one.

In this case I think it would be better to already have something good (2) than to not have it and desire it (1), and that holds true even given the fact that, as you nicely point out, you can desire something good without desiring to not have it. If I am right about that "better than" claim, then it is irrational to wish to have the desire because it entails that you do not have a good and you could wish to have the good instead.

This brings out my focus on the language of 'wish'. If Kant had said no rational being would *desire* to have inclinactions I think you might be able to defuse the argument along the lines you suggest. We can wish at will, so to speak, but we cannot desire at will.

Charles said...

A couple more stray thoughts.

"Nonetheless, if we can wish for anything possible (I was assuming that) then I think it is irrational to wish for a situation that is worse than some alternative one."

Though I see where this fits in context, I think this principle is false, since it entails that I am irrational when I wish for some situation only slightly worse than perfect, not realizing that the more perfect option is a wishable situation. The principle fails to account for the situation of the thinker FOR the thinker at a specific time. This has implications further in the argument.

"In this case I think it would be better to already have something good (2) than to not have it and desire it (1), and that holds true even given the fact that, as you nicely point out, you can desire something good without desiring to not have it. If I am right about that "better than" claim, then it is irrational to wish to have the desire because it entails that you do not have a good and you could wish to have the good instead."

I think that this argument fails to properly frame the content of the desire in the network of an agent's motivational psychology. Wishing a given good, as a first-order abstract attitude toward an object (say), presumably has little motivating force for acquiring that object. Wishing to desire a given good, as a second-order abstract attitude toward a possible state of the agent's psychology personalizes the wish and is necessarily connected with the agent's conception of herself qua agent in the world.

It is consistent for a rational agent to wish for a good and make no connection between that wish and her ability to take steps toward fulfilling it. It is not consistent for a rational agent to wish to have a specific desire and make no connection between that wish and her ability to structure her thought and action toward achieving that state. A rational agent cannot consider desires she does or does not have apart from how those desires do or would influence her action.

What I am driving at is that from the subjective psychological perspective of an individual who does not have a given good, it is plausibly more motivating to wish for a desire for that good than to wish for the good itself, given that wishing is a more theoretical, abstract attitude than desiring itself. Assuming that it is more rational to wish for things that bring one closer to actually having a good, given that one does not have it, this implies that it is more rational to wish for the desire than to wish for the good itself.

Brad C said...

Thanks again Charles.

You write: "What I am driving at is that...it is plausibly more motivating to wish for a desire for that good than to wish for the good itself, given that wishing is a more theoretical, abstract attitude than desiring itself. Assuming that it is more rational to wish for things that bring one closer to actually having a good, given that one does not have it...it is more rational to wish for the desire than to wish for the good itself."

You make a very good point. In assessing the rationality of the attitude we have to consider whether the object of the attitude is appropriate and also whether having the attitude will be good or bad too. I was focusing on the first, object-given reasons, but you point to the later, attitude-given reasons. Thanks for reminding to take those into account!

Personally, I doubt that wishing for a good will be less motivationally efficacious than wishing to have a desire for that good (as you suggest). But that is an empirical question -- one that would be hard to resolve by experiment I suppose.

But even if I am right, your objection reveals a contentious assumption (about the relevant attitude-given reasons) on which the argument I gave rests.