Wednesday, May 09, 2007

What Does It Mean to Have a Desire? (by guest blogger Justin Tiwald)

We don't normally speak as though having a desire for something implies that we presently feel some inclination to acquire it. It makes sense to say that I have a desire for Thai curry even if I'm currently taking a driving test and not thinking about Thai curry at all. Therefore it's tempting to say that "having a desire" can be cashed out in terms of a fairly straight-forward counterfactual. I would have a desire for Thai curry just in case the following is true:

(1.) If I were sufficiently deprived of Thai curry and entertaining the possibility of acquiring it, I would feel in an inclination to acquire it.

I don't think (1) does justice to the nuances of desire-possession. Consider another account offered by Xunzi (Hsün Tzu, 3rd Century B.C.E.). On the one hand Xunzi holds that our natural desires are susceptible of being utterly transformed. On the other hand Xunzi also claims that certain inclinations are permanent, such as the eyes' lust for beautiful things. The eyes will always lust for such things when allowed to dwell on them, but it's also true the eyes' lust can be refashioned into a desire for sights that are consistent with virtue. How is this possible? Consider the following passage:

[The gentleman] makes his eyes not want to see what is not right, makes his ears not want to hear what is not right, [etc.]...He comes to the point where he loves [learning the Way], and his eyes love it more than the five colors, his ears love it more than the five tones, [etc.]...For this reason, power and profit cannot sway him. ("An Exhortation to Learning," Ivanhoe and Van Norden, pp. 260-61.)

A strong claim about the possibility of radical self-transformation, to be sure. But notice that Xunzi isn't suggesting that we can entirely eliminate the disposition to lust for beautiful things when allowed to dwell on them. Rather, the eyes develop a preemptory desire to avoid dwelling on the wrong things in the first place--a power of selective perception. With sufficient reinforcement it no longer makes sense to say that we have a desire for beautiful things as such, even though our eyes would lust for them if our thoughts were allowed to linger on them. This gives us a slightly more nuanced account of having a desire for beautiful things:

(2.) If I were sufficiently deprived of beautiful things and presented with an opportunity to entertain the thought of acquiring them, I would feel an inclination to acquire them.

Of course, I can be presented with an opportunity to entertain the thought of acquiring something without actually entertaining that thought. So on this account I could have a desire for beautiful things in sense (1) without having it in sense (2).

I think (2) sits closer to our usual way of understanding desire-possession. If I allowed myself to dwell on the thought of taking someone's fancy new laptop, I would probably feel an inclination to do so. But it's highly unusual for me to contemplate such a thing. I can sit in a classroom for hours without noticing open bags and backpacks that might have laptops inside. Often students will use their laptops in class and it won't even register. In contrast, a kleptomaniac would be well aware of those open bags, and would need to remind herself that it would be wrong to steal them.

So I have the desire in sense (1), because I would be tempted to acquire the laptop if I thought about it. But I don't have the desire in sense (2), because I don't in fact think about it (unlike the kleptomaniac). For purposes of evaluating moral character, (2) strikes me as the more decisive sense of having a desire.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting post, Justin!

I've always liked this aspect of Xunzi's view of moral education. Part of being a morally good person is its not even being in the space of possibility to do certain things.

An example I use in my Chinese philosophy class is this: I may be running late for an appointment, but when a pedestrian is crossing in front of me it doesn't even occur to me to run him over in my hurry (even if I could get away with it!). One aim -- maybe the aim -- of Xunzian moral education is that it no more occurs to me to cheat on my taxes, needlessly insult someone, cut in line, break my promise, than it occurs to me to run over the pedestrian.

Then I can "follow my heart's desire without overstepping the bounds" (Kongzi 2.4).

Anonymous said...

Interesting issues, Justin.

I'd like to raise some questions about the relations between having a desire and feeling an inclination. Here's a view that seems to run counter to the line of thought in your post. I'd be curious as to your thoughts on it.

Desires and inclinations are the same thing. Desires/inclinations can vary with respect to whether they are conscious or unconscious. Another way of saying that they are conscious is to say that they are felt. So feeling an inclination just is having a conscious desire.

If the above view is correct, then both your (1) and your (2) are incorrect, since they are attemtping to analyze desires in terms of felt inclinations which, on the above view, would be to analyze desires in terms of conscious desires. To do so invites circularity.

Justin Tiwald said...

Thanks, Eric! That's a great example, not least because it makes even stronger demands of Xunzian moral education than my example suggests. Xunzi would prefer that all ungentlemanly behaviors be as unthinkable as running over pedestrians is, even when those behaviors are things like cheating on one's taxes or eating out of turn.

What I like about (2) is that it helps to resolve a number of puzzles in Xunzi exegesis. For example, something that Xunzi says in the "Rectification of Names" chapter suggest that the newly acquired desires overlay the desire we have by birth, and that when sufficiently reinforced it becomes impossible to tell the new apart from the old. This strikes me as possible if we understand desires in sense (2) but not in sense (1), because (2) offers an account that covers both the new and the original/natural desires.

Also, near the end of the same chapter, Xunzi seems to hold that even our natural desires, which are the source of so much discord in the state of nature, can find satisfaction in the life of the Way. Eric Hutton and Jack Kline read this to suggest (quite plausibly) that Xunzi thinks the natural desires can take a wide range of objects but can become refined and more focused over time. For a variety of reasons I think we need (2) in this case as well.

Justin Tiwald said...

And yes, on this point Xunzi says true to the Master himself (as expressed in Analects 2.4)!

Justin Tiwald said...


That's great. Thanks! I admit that this is a very compelling alternative to my Xunzian account. Actually, your view bears an uncanny resemblance to one that one of my dissertation advisors liked to pose, although in some ways I like your formulation better.

I'm inclined to think that there are both unconscious and unfelt desires (although I think a desire can be unconscious without being unfelt). But much depends on what an unconscious desire is. My advisor was a pure cognitivist about unconscious desires. On her account, very roughly, a person would have an unconscious desire just in case she judges (unconsciously) that achieving some outcome is important to her and worth pursuing.

As I'm not a pure cognitivist on this issue, I'm inclined to understand unconscious desires as predispositions to act or think in certain ways. So I have an unconscious desire to steal a laptop if, e.g., I'm more likely to be motivated to go after one, or to justify the stealing of a laptop without giving a fair hearing to all of the relevant arguments against it. (But maybe I'm using the word "motivated" in a weaselly way here. I'm not sure.)

If the second version is closer to the truth, then I think we can make a small adjustment while still preserving the spirit of Xunzi's account. We could just say that I have a desire to steal the laptop in sense (1) when entertaining the possibility of stealing it would predispose me to do so or rationalize doing so. And I would have the desire in sense (2) when being presented with the opportunity to entertain the idea of stealing it would predispose me to do so or rationalize doing so.

I'm reluctant to attribute this revised view to Xunzi himself, but this is one way of salvaging the very Xunzian notion that I can lack a desire to steal something even if mulling over the idea would make me more likely to do so (so long as I don't permit myself to mull it over).

Roman Altshuler said...

I sadly know nothing about Xunzi, but am wondering if what you are talking about are really "desires" in the usual sense, or more like predispositions toward having certian desires (which you call inclinations). The "sufficiently deprived" clause seems to imply this: I might have no desire, in the normal sense, for something. But if I am sufficiently deprived of it, I will develop a desire. (I may hate a particular place and want to leave it, but after a few years away start to miss it and want to visit it again.) It doesn't seem like in such cases it makes sense to speak of my having a desire, so much as a predisposition toward having desires of some sort. Integrating the account you give, then, the "sort" of desire I develop will depend on some non-conative features, like the kinds of thoughts I am capable of having. But the reason we cannot tell new from old desires seems to be exactly because both arise out of the same predispositions, the manifestation of which is conditioned by our various other background states.

I don't think I'm really disagreeing with you--I like your analysis a lot. I am just wondering whether what is accounted for in (2) may not frequently be too vague to really call a desire, but rather a state of character that can be shaped by other factors into all kinds of very different desires.

Richard Y Chappell said...

(I've a follow-up post here.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Richard raises an interesting point. I recommend following the link above.

Justin Tiwald said...

Thanks for your interesting remarks, Roman. I'm glad you pressed me on this!

I admit that the "sufficiently deprived" clause is somewhat ambiguous. What I had in mind was this: I may have a very strong desire for something like Thai curry, but that doesn't mean that, when presented with a giant vat of Thai curry, I'll want to eat the entire vat. Presumably I'll no longer be inclined to keep eating once I've had enough. Of course, there will be objects of desire of which we're always sufficiently deprived. Take Scrooge's desire for money--I don't think it could ever be satiated.

But you highlight another sort of case which might make trouble for my account: I could hate the social atmosphere of my home town, but put me elsewhere for a decade and I will want to go back again (even if for nothing more than a short visit).

Off the top of my head, I would make a distinction between disposition-altering deprivations and deprivations that leave my dispositions more or less untouched. In the case of moving away from my hometown, the inclination to return home arises because some of my enduring attitudes and habits of thought have changed. When deprived of Thai curry for a few days, though, the inclination to eat it arises without any change in enduring attitudes, habits of thoughts, etc. I just have an empty stomach and a lower blood-sugar level.

It's not the neatest distinction. But then again, most disposition-talk usually is.

Anonymous said...

I agree, i was taught very bad philosophy as a very intense teenager by people i soon realised didn't believe a word they were saying (i was an intensely believing christian at the time, so used to being lectured by people who did, and terribly shocked by it!). It was only when i was working in 'mental health' that i met philosophers who really believed what they were agonising over - if life was worth living, if any reason at all was to be trusted etc. Further, the lecturers just seemed to believe what it suited them temperamentally to believe - a good example is all those people who believe in Ayn Rand always think they're the ubermensch... Worst of all, when it seemed possible that psychology might be usable to test a theory - eg epistemology - they actively resisted any attempt to actually solve the issue, and resorted to name-calling. I was very naive when young, and very confused by this!
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