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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Apropos of the Guardian piece

I do wish people reading pieces like this would bear in mind that they have to be incredibly terse. I was given 600 words, which is much shorter than an undergraduate essay! It meant either concentrating on a very small aspect of the topic or stripping some of it down to mere summary. My first draft was about twice the allowed length. So it's a bit, um, galling, when I see comments in various corners of the internet that criticise what is not said.

I'm slightly surprised, though, that the bit about reason and desire seems to be creating some problems over at RD.net. It's very standard Humean stuff, but let's expand a bit. Our desires can't be justified in some ultimate way. X desires to have sex with women; Y desires to have sex with men. Neither desire is more rational than the other. What is rational or otherwise is how they go about it. If X thinks that a good way to get women to have sex with him/her is to vomit over their shoes, that's probably not rational. I.e., reason tells us that this gambit is not usually successful.

Reason enables us to find out stuff about the world, including about other people, which can be very useful in achieving our desires. Sometimes it's even rational to try to change our desires because reason tells us that it'll help us achieve our deeper desires. So rational reflection on our desires is important. We shouldn't act on our most immediate impulse but in a way that will work to achieve deeper desires. Hopefully, X's desire to have sex with women isn't going to turn X into a rapist, because X also wishes (desires) not to hurt people, not to use violence, not to breach useful social norms, etc. So X might be the sort of person, like most of us, who is motivated to charm and seduce but wouldn't even think of raping.

But our ultimate, deepest desires are simply things that we have. There's no way to appeal to us to try to change them except by appealing to even deeper desires that we have (in which case they are not our deepest desires after all). Unfortunately, a truly evil person, e.g. a vicious and cunning psychopath, may be doing nothing irrational - but such a person is a danger to the rest of us and must be stopped. It's rational for us to throw him or her in jail. Fortunately, most of us are not like that: we may not be angelically altruistic, but we are social animals who desire to help each other, etc. Think how you'd react in the street if an elderly person suddenly collapsed in pain. Even if you didn't know what to do, you'd want to help. Almost everyone - barring the stray psychopath - is like that.

Without desires (and, like Hume, I include here hopes, fears, values) we'd never do anything. We wouldn't even have a reason to find out facts about the world unless we either desired to know these facts for its own sake or we desired to know these facts for the sake of achieving our other desires. Eventually, reason alone always runs out as a source of motivation.


Charles Sullivan said...

Yes,600 words is a tight constraint. But I thought you did a fine job, although I have a graduate degree in philosophy, which may allow me to better fill the conceptual gaps, as it were.

I was once asked by an editor from Playboy to write a 750-word condensed version of a 4,400-word article I wrote for Skeptical Inquirer.

I did it, yet it was frustrating.

I do have some thoughts on our use of the word "reason" (especially a moral reason), and how it can mean one thing to a Humean, and another to a moral realist, but I'll save that for another time.


Brian said...

I thought it was a fine article. I even said so as Brian72 attests. My only quibble was that you used the word creature. (A creature is created by a creator). Smuggling in creationism, you turncoat you. ;)

Keep up the good work.

Brian said...

you are a little lying idiot...

How tall are you DM? If memory serves Russell is a good 6 foot in the old measure. That's not little by any standard, and it was the only measure upon which you had a chance of attacking him. Because he's way too smart for you to even understand the tid-bits he drops by the table, for the smart ones to devour. You're probably just angry because you haven't yet found a morsel that was so empty of substance that you could swallow it. Bon apetite!

יאיר רזק said...


I agree with your basic position, but I suspect you're wrong to talk about "deepest desires". I believe you are making something akin to a genetic fallacy. You are careful to avoid the evolutionary genetic fallacy; once e.g. our sexual desire sets in it becomes its own cause, regardless of its distal cause. However, the same thing happens at the neurological level. Once a desire has developed, it becomes its own cause, regardless of what desire caused it.

The brain the is not a hierarchical deductive machine toiling to fulfill some final ends; it is a dynamic, learning neural net trying to predict fulfillment. Once a desire is built up (often irrationally), it becomes just as much an attractor for the neural net as its causes were, and may persist long past the demise of the desires that caused it. Granted, there are more basic and endemic desires, but they are not the Aristotelian final that our actions are aimed at. What matters is more the strength and consistency of the desire, and to a lesser extent its plasticity - least of all its origins.

Perhaps I misread you, though - blog posts certainly are brief.


Unknown said...

Um, anyway ...

Russell, assuming it were to become possible, could it ever be rational to *change* our desires - say, for desires that we had a greater prospect of fulfilling? Maybe I could downgrade my tastes in food and wine to cheaper alternatives, or my taste in women to ... aye, anyway, you get the picture.

I guess one might argue that this would be in pursuit of our ultimate higher-order preference, i.e. to satisfy our preferences, whatever they might be!

(There's an excellent Greg Egan short-story about a guy who is faced with the prospect of choosing all of his preferences and tastes ab initio. Clever punchline too, though I can't remember the title...)

Russell Blackford said...

It's called "Reasons to be Cheerful".

Russell Blackford said...

For those who don't know, "DM" is David Mabus, a well-known internet troll. You'd think he'd have better things to do, even by his standards, than turn his attention to this little part of the net.

Unknown said...

Yes! :-)

J. J. Ramsey said...

"There's an excellent Greg Egan short-story about a guy who is faced with the prospect of choosing all of his preferences and tastes ab initio."

And thanks to that little tip from Colin and Dr. Blackford, I've now requested a book with that short story. Yay!

Unknown said...

I don't think you'll be disappointed, JJ. :-)