Ulterior motives

We all know that people sometimes act with ulterior motives. Some people marry for money, despite declaring that they are marrying for love. Some give to charity with apparent sincerity, when in fact they hope to make a profit by enhancing their reputation.

Many people think that practically everything we do is done with the ultimate ulterior motive of seeking pleasure. For example, they think that even if givers to charity are not motivated by the hope of making a profit, at bottom they must “really” be motivated to seek the pleasure of giving to charity.

I think that’s a mistake. In fact I think it’s a monumental mistake, one that has philosophically interesting causes, and politically troubling effects.

What are these philosophically interesting causes? I think there are two of them. The first is a failure to acknowledge an ambiguity in language. Whenever we act, our actions are caused by our beliefs and desires. And of course our desires are our own desires – if they weren’t, we’d be more like remote-controlled robots than autonomous actors. So in a completely trivial and empty sense, we do things because we want to achieve things for ourselves. In that trivial sense, whatever we do, we do it “for our own sake”.

But in another, non-trivial sense, some of our actions are selfish, because they contrast with actions that are obviously aimed at doing things for others. We do things for our loved ones, friends, sometimes even total strangers. We feed wild animals, we avoid dropping litter, we vote in secret ballots, and so on, with the evident intention of simply bringing about objective states of affairs. In such states of affairs we might end up poorer, or end up having less time, or end up suffering inconveniences, or whatever.

I think many people fail to see the difference between the trivial “selfishness” of doing things for the self’s own reasons, and the non-trivial selfishness of doing things for one’s own gain rather than for the good of others. By accepting the first, and then imperceptibly sliding into the second, they end up embracing the idea that “we do everything for selfish reasons”. With our intelligence bewitched by this ambiguity, it now merely looks as if I give to charity to help others – when in fact I must be doing it for my own gain, with an ulterior motive.

That brings me to the second philosophically interesting cause of that monumental mistake. We assume that we act with an ulterior motive, and when we cast about for such a motive, we usually look inwards and find “pleasure”. This habit of looking inwards comes from our philosophical tradition, which is misinformed from top to bottom by the assumption that our minds are “cut off” from the “outside” world. Being isolated like that, the best we can hope for by way of reasons for our mental states is “internal” justification. Thus tradition has it that our beliefs must be “based on” experience to count as knowledge. Analogously, our desires must be aimed at pleasure to be rational. Hence the near-universality of something akin to Freud’s “pleasure principle”: whenever we act, we act in order to get pleasure.

So it seems to me that two very typical philosophical errors lead us to embrace a misguided principle. And this misguided principle leads to still further trouble when it is applied in psychology, foreign policy, economics, and elsewhere.

If we assume that everything we do is “really” aimed at getting pleasure for ourselves, deliberation looks like a matter of accountancy, of “balancing the budget” of pleasure by deferring some of it. Motivation itself begins to look like a matter of exchange, of “looking for the best bargain”, of “making sure profits exceed losses”. Motivation becomes the hope of reward. (I would guess that Kant’s distaste for such accountancy led him to adopt his nonsensical “categorical imperative”.)

For the individual, the supposed reward is pleasure. Between individuals, the supposed reward is the social surrogate of pleasure, namely money.

Be clear that I have nothing against pleasure, or money, nor do I think there is anything immoral about seeking them. But I have serious objections to the factual assumption that motivation is essentially a matter of seeking reward, in the form of hedonistic or monetary profit (i.e. a gain in the “currency” of pleasure or the literal currency of money). Why? – We did not evolve to seek internal goals but external ones. Very often, having an external goal can be explained in evolutionary terms, and requires no “justification” in terms of deeper or ulterior motives at all. We seek such goals as a brute matter of fact, whose biological causes are understood.

By habitually assuming that motivation is the hope of reward, we badly misconstrue our own urges and our political institutions. We assume that life choices are guided by whatever we hope will yield the most pleasure or the most money. We suppose that death is bad to the extent that it yields no pleasure, and that love is good to the extent that it yields plenty of pleasure. To misconstrue love and death so badly is a philosophical disaster.

These assumptions extend into the workplace and the market. We assume that in general people opt for whatever yields the largest reward. From that, we infer that the best people are those who command the biggest salaries. (The reality is the reverse of that: the best people are those who are most interested in their chosen professions, who feel compelled to explore further despite its meager monetary reward.)

Politics and international affairs do not escape the baleful influence of the idea that motivation is the hope of reward. We undertake military interventions and expect gratitude from a populace whose lives we have made “more rewarding”. We expect to “win the battle for hearts and minds” by giving people handouts. We hope to break the bonds of loyalty and ethnic identity by dangling large quantities of cash in return for betrayal. And so on.

Just a few days ago, the independent reviewer of UK anti-terrorism legislation (David Anderson QC) argued that the laws could be relaxed because more people die of bee stings than as a result of terrorist attacks. Once again it is assumed that our motivation to avoid death is a matter of its reward or lack thereof: death by terrorism amounts to the same thing as death by bee-sting, it seems, because it’s equally unrewarding. But in reality, we expose ourselves to different kinds of risk with different degrees of consent. We all undertake everyday risks willingly and knowingly by going out into the garden (where there are bees) or by using the roads (where there are cars). We do not all undertake unusual risks such as knowingly putting ourselves in the blast zone of a religious fanatic. Most of us have a much stronger aversion to the latter than the former, as would be obvious if we decouple motivation and hope of reward.

Dungarvan in the rain

The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922

by John Betjeman

Golden haired and golden hearted
I would ever have you be,
As you were when last we parted
Smiling slow and sad at me.

Oh! the fighting down of passion!
Oh! the century-seeming pain
Parting in this off-hand fashion
In Dungarvan in the rain.

Slanting eyes of blue, unweeping
Stands my Swedish beauty where
Gusts of Irish rain are sweeping
Round the statue in the square;

Corner boys against the walling
Watch us furtively in vain,
And the Angelus is calling
Through Dungarvan in the rain.

Gales along the Commeragh Mountains,
Beating sleet on creaking signs,
Iron gutters turned to fountains,
And the windscreen laced with lines,

And the evening getting later,
And the ache —  increased again,
As the distance grows the greater
From Dungarvan in the rain.

There is no one now to wonder
What eccentric sits in state
While the beech trees rock and thunder
Round his gate-lodge and his gate.

Gone —  the ornamental plaster,
Gone —  the overgrown demesne
And the car goes fast, and faster,
From Dungarvan in the rain.

Had I kissed and drawn you to me
Had you yielded warm for cold,
What a power had pounded through me
As I stroked your streaming gold!

You were right to keep us parted:
Bound and parted we remain,
Aching, if unbroken hearted — 
Oh! Dungarvan in the rain!

What am I?

Every now and again, someone expresses surprise that I don’t argue for an unregulated market, or that I do express agreement with some of the tough actions Margaret Thatcher took against trade unions, or whatever.

So in the unlikely event that anyone is interested, here is a description of “what I am” and “where I stand”: I’m a liberal like JS Mill, and I’m a conservative like Edmund Burke.

I am a liberal

A liberal is someone who thinks that freedom of the individual is the only social good. Most of us accept that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Liberals tend to think even more generally that what makes anything valuable is that someone values it. My slogan might be: “all value is in the choosing of the agent”, because what makes anything valuable is just that some agent somewhere regards it as valuable – and so chooses it in preference to other options.

When you combine that idea with the idea that freedom is being able to get what you prefer, it’s a short step to the position that what’s best for individuals is to give them as much freedom as possible, so they can pursue whatever it is they prefer for themselves.

Liberals like myself reject the idea that something (such as health) can be valuable independently of the choosing of an agent. So if someone freely chooses to drink or smoke, and so to endanger or damage their own health, they must value drinking or smoking more than they value their health. Society cannot second-guess an individual’s own values. He values what he prefers, whatever it happens to be, however “minority” his taste might seem to others. In general, the rest of society is not entitled to overrule an individual’s free choice by exercising “paternalism” – in other words, by forcing him to do what the rest of society thinks is for his own good. Only he can decide what’s good for him.

However, “freedom for the pike is death for the minnows”: each individual’s freedom tends to impinge on the freedom of other individuals. So giving individuals as much freedom as possible involves compromise – it involves limiting some freedoms when they impinge too much on the freedoms of others. Society is not entitled to force competent adults to do things for their own good, but it must sometimes force them to do things for others’ good.

So it’s a matter of compromise, and of balance, of muddling through as best we can with the limited information available to us, of working with the different tastes and conflicting opinions that different individuals inevitably hold. Some people who claim to be liberal in outlook seem to think liberalism means keeping “the state” as small as possible. I don’t agree. A badly-run state can do much harm, but properly-run institutions can also do some good by enforcing laws to protect individuals from various forces that threaten their freedoms.

Sometimes these forces are economic: a person who cannot afford to travel or to eat properly is unfree. I think the state is entitled to tax those who can afford it to provide some relief to those who can’t. This isn’t because “equality” is anything to strive for in itself, but because of diminishing marginal utility: the freedoms of the rich are diminished less than those of the poor are enhanced by some redistribution of wealth through fair taxation.

I hope it’s clear that although I’m “on the left” in favouring relatively high taxes, a socialized health service, and free education, I think the pursuit of factual equality as an end in itself is misguided, and usually a sign of petty-minded resentment if not paranoia. I regard all political correctness as stupid.

Above all, I regard thinking in terms of groups rather than the individuals who comprise groups as evil. To judge one group of people as culpable or another as blameless is the core of fascism.

I am a conservative

A conservative is a pragmatist who rejects root-and-branch reform in favour of keeping what works in practice. Conservatives think political change is often necessary, but they are mindful of the path that we have to take to get us from where we are now to “there”, where the required changes are in place. Conservatives know that political revolutions are usually bloody, and tend to deliver a “new boss, same as the old boss”. The “new boss” can abuse power with even greater abandon in a new system that hasn’t been fine-tuned through prolonged use and repeated correction. Often, the institutions of the new system have been cooked up by the intellectual equivalent of a spotty little kid – a high-minded, idealistic academic whose practical knowledge of politics is non-existent.

Conservatism isn’t just an attitude to politics. It’s the central guiding epistemological principle of all rational beings. Any creature that has a mind has a system of beliefs. That system evolves over the course of time as the mind observes new things and accommodates new facts. A rational mind adjusts and updates its system of beliefs by making as few changes as possible – in other words by being epistemologically conservative.

Political conservatives tend to see politics as a kind of practical or empirical knowledge, and understand that such knowledge has a non-foundational structure. So conservatives don’t care about whether “the system” rests on ideologically pure basic foundations. For example, a conservative might accept that even a constitutional monarchy is vaguely undemocratic, but that it provides continuity, and may help smooth the transition from one sort of society to another. Everything depends on the circumstances.

I mentioned above that politics is all about compromise, and that we must “muddle though as best we can” in imperfect circumstances. Liberal conservatives like myself think we should muddle through with caution, lest we reverse the real gains we have undoubtedly made over the centuries.

A curse and a blessing

It’s heartening to learn that fewer than ten per cent of UK doctors went on strike yesterday. Doctors earn plenty of money, and they already have very generous pensions, paid for in large part by the taxpaying public.

If we think of health care metaphorically as a commodity, in some ways it is like water – as sold by someone who controls the supply to someone who is dying of thirst. (As described in yesterday’s blog post.)

First, there is only so much the “seller” can sell and the “buyer” will buy. Most doctors work long hours and already have a full schedule, so they are not much inclined to compete with each other to get more patients. Most patients decide to “buy” a cure for a particular ailment, and if it is successful, they will not seek to “buy” any more. And many patients would say they “need” treatment – so they regard themselves as having “no choice” but to visit their doctor. They tend do so in a state of anxiety, with a compliant attitude, in no fit state to “shop around” or to haggle. This is especially true if their illness is liable to be construed as “self-inflicted” – like my own (thankfully infrequent) attacks of gout.

This makes the “exchange” involved in “buying” the service of a health care professional quite unlike the model that supporters of an unregulated market tend to promote, with competitors undercutting each other’s prices and consumers buying more of whatever is cheapest, and everything bouncing along nicely, cleverly guided by “invisible hand” feedback mechanisms.

There is really very little incentive for doctors to lower their prices. In fact most doctors just charge whatever is regarded as “the going rate” for treatment, which is just to charge the same as everyone else, which is in effect to come to an implicit agreement with each other to charge the maximum amount they can get away with. I’m wholly ignorant of economics, so being unfamiliar with the correct terminology I’m inclined to call that “price-fixing”. Unconscious, unintended price fixing is still price-fixing.

How much is the maximum amount they can get away with? I think the ceiling is set by “what begins to look ridiculous” for what describes itself as a “caring profession”. You can be seen to drive around in a Porche, but you can’t really be seen to ride around on the backs of the impoverished and ill.

Doctors are highly respected, not just for their ability to reassure and to heal, but also for their supposed moral authority. That reputation is both a curse and a blessing to the public who pay for doctors’ lavish lifestyles. It is a curse because it sets the ceiling of doctors’ pay so high. It is a blessing because it just about the only thing that can set one at all.

Unregulated markets and nature

I don’t know anyone who thinks gangsters should be allowed to run protection rackets. Even the purest libertarians committed to a wholly unregulated market would baulk at that. Yet we can imagine other practices of “exchange” that would amount to much the same thing. Suppose one person is dying of thirst, and the other controls the water supply. Then the latter can charge an “extortionate” amount for it.

Although I don’t think this situation differs much from a protection racket, I imagine many libertarians would say this second situation should be allowed, because it is in a sort of unstable equilibrium. It’s just a matter of time before another water-seller comes along and undercuts the original water-seller’s extortionate price, or so they would argue (I think).

That might happen if there were many potential water-sellers, and if the water supply were not controlled by a few of them, and if there were many potential water-buyers, and if water-buyers were prepared to buy unlimited amounts of water if it were cheap enough.

That’s quite a lot of ifs. Buts: water-buyers cannot drink or carry more than a small amount at a time, and water-sellers know it. Water-buyers must and will fork out the cash for the water they need, and water-sellers know it. Unless water-sellers are not interested in making money, they’ll cooperate with each other and make a lot of it rather than try to undercut each other’s prices. Why would they do that if they can make more money by cooperating?

I think there is only a difference of degree between this extreme situation and milder versions that we all see happening around us. There are all sorts of things that people must buy, but will only buy limited amounts of. For example, you must travel to and from work. But most people want to travel as little as possible. Even if you love travelling, you only have time to do so much of it.

Or again, unless you’re a collector, you only want one car, but you might need that car quite badly. Even if you’re a “workaholic”, you cannot have more than a couple of jobs, and if you only have one job, you need it desperately – almost as desperately as someone dying of thirst needs water.

I don’t know anything about economics, but it’s just common sense that if the supply of these things can be controlled, any self-interested parties who can control the supply will do so and raise the price rather than compete with each other.

We are a cooperative species. To put it another way, we are a price-fixing species; a species that runs cartels.

I am not a libertarian, but like many libertarians I see striking similarities between an unregulated market and “nature”. Living things thrive in nature, probably better than anything an environmentalist can organize by second-guessing nature. But the living things of value to us – as individual humans – tend to thrive much better when they are managed by farmers. When fertile land is left untended, weeds grow rather than food crops.

I’d guess many libertarians quite like the parallels between unregulated markets and nature. Maybe they have misunderstood what goes on in nature. Here’s Darwin:

What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!

And here’s JS Mill on the same theme:

In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature’s every-day performances. Killing, the most criminal act recognised by human laws, Nature does once to every being that lives; and, in a large proportion of cases, after protracted tortures such as only the greatest monsters whom we read of ever purposely inflicted on their living fellow creatures. If, by an arbitrary reservation, we refuse to account anything murder but what abridges a certain term supposed to be allotted to human life, nature also does this to all but a small percentage of lives, and does it in all the modes, violent or insidious, in which the worst human beings take the lives of one another. Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the first Christian martyr, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve, such as the ingenious cruelty of a Nabis or a Domitian never surpassed. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice, emptying her shafts upon the best and noblest indifferently with the meanest and worst; upon those who are engaged in the highest and worthiest enterprises, and often as the direct consequence of the noblest acts; and it might almost be imagined as a punishment for them. She mows down those on whose existence hangs the well-being of a whole people, perhaps the prospect of the human race for generations to come, with as little compunction as those whose death is a relief to themselves, or a blessing to those under their noxious influence. Such are Nature’s dealings with life. Even when she does not intend to kill she inflicts the same tortures in apparent wantonness. In the clumsy provision which she has made for that perpetual renewal of animal life, rendered necessary by the prompt termination she puts to it in every individual instance, no human being ever comes into the world but another human being is literally stretched on the rack for hours or days, not unfrequently issuing in death. Next to taking life (equal to it according to a high authority) is taking the means by which we live; and Nature does this too on the largest scale and with the most callous indifference. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season; a flight of locusts, or an inundation, desolates a district; a trifling chemical change in an edible root starves a million of people. The waves of the sea, like banditti, seize and appropriate the wealth of the rich and the little all of the poor with the same accompaniments of stripping, wounding, and killing as their human antitypes. Everything, in short, which the worst men commit either against life or property is perpetrated on a larger scale by natural agents.

Web of belief, tree of desire

The “many agents” view of the mind

One of the commonest images of the mind involves two “internal” agents struggling for supremacy: “reason” versus “the passions”. It is held that a wise person manages to subdue his unruly passions with his still more powerful reason. Or at least he can keep his passions in check to live a balanced sort of life.

The supposed antagonists in this struggle are reason, singular, and the passions, plural. Why this numerical imbalance? – The vague idea seems to be that reason is self-consistent, and as such it cannot come into conflict with itself, so there’s only one of it. But the passions are not constrained like that – they pull in all sorts of different directions, so there are many of them, or at least more than one of them. (There may be an element of truth in that: our desires can come into pragmatic tension with one another in a way that our beliefs cannot.)

Plato fine-tuned this simple reason-versus-the-passions model of the mind. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato likened the soul to a chariot, pulled by the horses of appetite and indignation, with reason in the driver’s seat. This tripartite model of the mind has been influential. For example, Freud’s model of the mind is at least reminiscent of Plato’s, with the conscious “ego” playing the role of reason, and the unconscious “id” and “superego” playing the lustful horse of appetite and the moralistic horse of righteous indignation respectively.

Although there may be some useful suggestions in such models, they are all misleading in that they treat components of the mind as if they were agents in their own right. But any real mind is at most a single agent.

Why do so many models of the mind commit “the homunculus fallacy” of positing internal agents with minds of their own? I think part of the explanation is that we habitually suppose that the mind is “cut off” from the outside world, with the result that motivation begins to look like a bit of a mystery. If the mind is in effect insulated from the outside world, then our primary ends can’t be to realise this or that external state of affairs, but instead to achieve more proximate internal goals – i.e. to enjoy experiences such as pleasure. Since so much of what we choose to do does not obviously bring pleasure, the question arises: what sort of experiences can we be “really aiming for” then? If what we’re “really after” are consciously-experienced feelings of one sort or another, we have to divide up our motivating urges into those that reward us with this or that type of conscious experience. Among these, we find “baser” urges to get the pleasure of sex, or to avoid the pain of hunger. Then there are “higher” urges to get the satisfaction of being factually correct or morally right. Highest of all are those motivated by the purity of reason alone, if that even makes sense. The mind begins to look as if it is populated by “thrifty housekeepers” who deal with the “home economics” of deferring this type of pleasure for that, who insist on “tightening our belts” by having us make do with a bit of pain for now, knowing that it will be offset by greater pleasure at later date. Then there is the saintly housekeeper whose sole purpose is to use reason and do right.

It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous image of the mind. It’s completely disconnected from evolutionary theory, and it ignores the obvious fact that the simplest animal minds evidently seek external goals without having to engage a complicated internal apparatus of thrifty or saintly housekeepers doing home economics of conscious pains and pleasures.

Hume on belief and desire

Let us return to the fact that any mind is part of a single agent. David Hume saw that real acts are the products of both beliefs and desires – in other words, mental states of thinking that such-and-such a state of affairs is in fact the case, and of wanting such-and-such a state of affairs to become the case. (Hume’s famous distinction between “is” and “ought” reflects this difference, since to Hume morality is a matter of “sentiment”, of wanting what others want as a result of our fellow feelings for them.) Furthermore, according to Hume “reason is the slave of the passions” – in other words, the purpose of our beliefs is to help realise our desires.

Although Hume used the metaphor of a “slave” here, and real slaves are of course agents of sorts, Hume’s understanding of action goes against models that posit further agents within the actual agent. Hume wasn’t simply reversing the roles of Plato’s horses and charioteer: for Hume, belief and desire are the two essential component mental states behind the act of any single agent. If an agent desires X, and believes that action A will achieve X, he performs action A. The point of seeing reason as an out-and-out “slave” of the passions is not to add an extra internal agent, but remove the explanatory need for one, by stressing how integral reason is to any sort of agency.

I often use the rudimentary example of a cruise missile to illustrate this idea. A cruise missile has a goal (to hit its target) and an on-board map which it uses to steer its way towards its goal. Having such a goal is its rudimentary analogue of desire, and the map marking the missile’s current position is its rudimentary analogue of belief. We can think of its “passions” as everything involved in its being directed towards its target; and we can think of its “reason” as everything involved in figuring out its actual position. Then both are essential components in its “acting” to achieve its goal. And “act” it does, in a rudimentary sort of way, because it is a rudimentary sort of agent.

Hume’s theory of action was a breakthrough. Its naturalism saw “the passions” as goal-directed states rather than as internal agents liable to lead us astray like internal will-o’-the-wisps. So it removed a sort of middleman. Without Hume, one might wonder why an agent would go for this or that external goal. The “explanation” would involve drawing a link between acting to achieve a goal and “having the motivation” to act – which involves an internal “weighing” of prospects of experiential rewards. With Hume, the internal reward looks unnecessary.

In keeping with current usage, I shall call goal-directed mental states “desires” and fact-representing mental states “beliefs”. In these terms, Hume showed that desires cannot be “mistaken”. They might lead to a miserable life, or a premature death, or worse: “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Because desires do not even purport to represent the world as it actually is, they cannot conceivably be corrected for misrepresenting it. Nowadays we might call it a “category mistake” to assume that desires can be mistaken.

Can we have “mistaken” desires?

I think the widespread sense that we can be mistaken about what we want is an example of “the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” – one that arises through an ambiguity. Suppose I report my own mental state by saying “I want some wintergreen-flavoured chewing gum”. But after actually tasting it, I seem to correct myself by reporting that “I didn’t really want that after all”. It seems to me that I have either changed my mind, or else must have originally misreported the content of my desire. In either case, the desire itself wasn’t mistaken. If I changed my mind, I ended up with a different desire, but that’s not the same as starting off with a mistaken desire. On the other hand, if I misreported the content of my desire, I had a mistaken belief. How might I misreport the content of my desire? – One obvious way is by being over-precise. Perhaps all I wanted was a “refreshing, mouth-cleansing” flavour, and mistakenly thought wintergreen would deliver it. My mistake was believing that wintergreen would deliver what I wanted, rather than having a mistaken want. I “wanted the wrong thing”, but what was wrong was my belief, not the want itself.

Yet the idea that desires can be mistaken seems to have a life of its own. It permeates the “positive” concept of liberty (as Isaiah Berlin called it) that has been mainstream in Continental European philosophy. According to this conception, being free isn’t simply a matter of being able to do what you want, whatever that may happen to be. It also involves wanting the right things, in other words having supposedly non-mistaken desires. Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Marx all treat reason as if it can determine goals, and as if some goals are “unreasonable”.

There is a sinister side to the assumption that some of our desires can be mistaken, which involves overruling “mistaken” desires, or treating them as “not really desires at all”. The former entails paternalism – forcing people to do things for “their own good”. The latter involves dismissing desires as the illegitimate products of “false consciousness”, “brainwashing”, or something similar.

This is all well-trodden ground. As old-fashioned liberals from Burke to Berlin have repeatedly argued, that way lies the gallows, the gas chamber and the Gulag. Rather than going over such familiar ground again, I’ll look at some positive results of Hume’s understanding of belief and desire.

By treating belief and desire as necessary but separate components of the causation of action, it’s much easier to see the difference between them, and to logically “isolate” each type of state from the other. We can think about how beliefs mesh with other beliefs of the same agent, and how desires mesh with other desires of the same agent.

“Systems” of belief and desire

Taken together, an agent’s beliefs form a system. WVO Quine argued that we should think about that system as a “web”. Beliefs hang together through relations of implication. If one of them must be excised from the system, because it threatens contradiction in the light of a new observation say, at least some of the others that together imply it must be excised as well. There are no “foundations”, although some are anchored more directly to the world through observation than others. By always minimizing disruption to the system as a whole, new observations can be accommodated – and as they are so accomodated, the system evolves over the course of time.

An agent’s desires also form a system, although it is less systematic than a richly-interconnected “web”, because individual desires aren’t subject to the relations of implication that exist between beliefs. (Perhaps the strongest constraint is that no agent can both desire X and desire not-X at the same time.) Like an agent’s system of beliefs, his system of desires also evolves over the course of time. As far as I know, JS Mill was the first to suggest a metaphor (in The Subjection of Women) that it grows like the branches of a tree. Infants start out with a few, coarse-grained desires for large-featured, roughly-circumscribed objects such as food, contact with parents, and warmth. As time passes, and as their powers of discrimination are more finely tuned, these desires increase in number and become focused with greater sharpness on particular types of food, particular kinds of interaction with particular people, warm water rather than hot air, and so on.

The tree metaphor is intended to capture a few salient psychological facts. First, desires don’t just spring up “out of the blue” as a result of mere exposure to some sort of stimulus. They develop from – i.e. grow out of – earlier desires for something less specific, objects of desire that were represented in the agent’s notional world in a coarser, less well-defined way. So the “growth of the tree” of an agent’s desires is the result of increasing fineness of grain and sharpening focus. The newer shoots at the tips of growing branches of a tree are independent of one another – at least to the extent that they cannot occupy the same space – but they are not independent of the older branches they grew out of. Second, the older branches don’t die away when they spawn their newer, more numerous and more finely-focused offshoots: an adult’s coarse-grained desires for food or warmth are just as real as an infant’s desires for the same things. But being longer-established and better-developed, there’s a lot more to them. This is relevant if we consider the satisfaction or thwarting of desires. The longer-established an agent’s desire is, the more it tends to qualify as an “important life interest” and the less fleeting its goal. For example, it is disappointing to get turned down for a job after an interview, or to suffer a miscarriage. But to lose a career you have spent decades carving out, or to have an adult son or daughter die are catastrophes. The passage of time turns green shoots into hoary old branches with multiple offshoots of their own. My concern for my sons isn’t just for their lives, but also for their health, careers, love lives, reputations, friendships, ambitions, and much else besides.

It seems to me that these metaphors of a “web” of belief and a “tree” of desire are well worth exploring. They help to illuminate crucial differences between belief and desire. Apart from the main functional difference noted by Hume, the systematic links between beliefs are “horizontal” while links between desires are “vertical”. That is to say, we rationally adopt new beliefs and abandon old beliefs by checking how well the current system hangs together logically. How new beliefs arise is mostly irrelevant – the context of discovery is independent of the context of justification. But we adopt new desires and abandon old desires not as a matter of rational choice, but as a matter of historical development. A belief system does not have foundations, but a desire system does, in a manner of speaking.

To see how this view differs from that of someone who has a “positive” concept of freedom and who thinks we are liable to fall victim to “mistaken desires”, consider advertising.


It is quite common to think about advertising as if it can implant a wholly new desire – a “mistaken” desire – in the mind of someone exposed to it. This thought comes from being unclear on the difference between belief and desire, and taking belief as the generic model of a mental state. It’s true that exposure to new facts often gives rise to new beliefs about those facts. But desires are different from beliefs. A desire for something can only be implanted in the “receptive, fertile soil” of a mind that wants something roughly like it already. You might not have thought of buying an iPad, say, till you see an ad for one. But an ad for an iPad won’t sway you unless you already wanted some sort of useful computer-like gadget or reading device. I would argue that all advertising can ever implant are desires of greater specificity than before. Since greater specificity is an inevitable result of the passage of time and the sharpening of the focus of desires that already guide behaviour, it is largely irrelevant that it delivers the goods for Apple rather than Amazon on this or that particular occasion.

Animals use “advertising” when they brandish ornaments of sexual selection to entice sexual partners. The classic example is the peacock’s tail. The purpose of the tail and the advertising is to attract peahens. It also happens to attract the eye of human aesthetes, and the unwanted attention of predators. In all three cases, desires that are already in place are focused more precisely on a particular peacock. The peahen must be already interested in sex with peacocks, the aesthete must be already in search of objects of beauty, and the predator must be already hungry. This animal advertising serves a “purpose” in much the same way as human advertising is deliberately aimed at attracting the attention of potential buyers. But its effects depend on whether or not it is noticed, and that is a matter of the receptivity of who or what is noticing. Whether it is purposeful, deliberate, or wholly unintended, all that happens to who or what is noticing is their range of options is narrowed rather than enlarged.

Political distaste for the “consumer society” and the supposed victims of its advertising campaigns fuels the idea that there are “hidden persuaders” at work, “brainwashing” us into wanting things we wouldn’t otherwise want at all, or shouldn’t want for moral reasons.

I would welcome an end to that way of thinking. I think it harms more people than it imagines fall victim to “false consciousness” or the “consumer society”. For example, those attitudes have done untold harm to homosexuals, who were traditionally thought to corrupt non-homosexuals. But if we were clearer about the differences between belief and desire, we would see that “radical conversion” of that sort is impossible.

Mathematics is not a science

Is mathematics a science? – I think it is misleading if not downright dangerous to think so. Mathematics is an essential tool used by most sciences, so it is unquestionably scientific. But that doesn’t make it “a” science unto itself. Likewise, a microscope is a scientific instrument, but not itself a science.

Mathematics is rigorous, of course, like all good mature sciences. But rigour is not enough for science. The main difference between mathematics and science is that typically a reason to believe a purported mathematical truth is completely different from reasons to believe a purported scientific truth.

Most of what is taken as true in mathematics can be proved as a theorem. A theorem is proved by being derived from axioms via rules of inference. Axioms are basic claims that are taken as being “true by definition”. These differ from one branch of mathematics to another, and to some extent both they and the rules of inference are “arbitrary”. You can do a different type of geometry from Euclid by dropping or adding to the standard axioms.

When a theorem has been proved, we can accept it as being true once and for all – at least relative to the system of axioms and rules of inference in which it was derived. Its truth is established with great security – arguably the greatest security of any claim made in any branch of human thought.

But a science is a different kettle of fish. Its claims consist mostly of hypotheses and observations. Hypotheses are guesses, and observations are themselves “theory-laden” in that they require a good deal of theoretical interpretation to be of any use, and they are usually made using instruments that have to be calibrated. In general, the claims of science are not derived via rules of inference. They are not based on anything like axioms – they are not even based on observations.

So there are two reasons why it is “dangerous” to think of mathematics as a science. First, doing so tends to promote the mistaken idea that scientific truths can be “proved” or established with a similar sort of security to those of mathematics. But as guesses about things that cannot be observed directly, scientific hypotheses are less secure than the deliverances of common sense, and much less secure than the deliverances of mathematics. Over the course of history, most scientific theories have come to be rejected as false, and it is quite likely that most of the theories we currently accept as true will eventually meet the same fate.

Second, even if we drop the mistaken thought that scientific hypotheses can be “proved” conclusively, we may still be tempted to think that scientific hypotheses are derived in a weaker way, following rules of a weaker sort than the deductive rules of inference used in mathematics. In my opinion that is pure poison, as these weaker rules are inevitably rules of induction. With mistaken assumptions like that in place, science begins to look like an inductivist enterprise of the sort imagined by Francis Bacon.

Either of these errors can be dangerous. If we take scientific conjecture to be more secure than common sense, we will be inclined to let science overrule common sense. Public policy decisions that affect everyone’s lives are liable to be made undemocratically by being handed over to experts in this or that field of speculation. This sort of thing has already happened in economics, where common sense has long been overruled by “experts” on both sides, at considerable cost to ordinary people.

If we accept Francis Bacon’s inductivist ideas about scientific theories being “based on observation” – a chillingly familiar and unquestioned slogan – we let a hundred pseudo-sciences blossom. Inductivism is aided and abetted by its handmaiden, the bogus statistics of extrapolation. This is the source of endless contradictory “studies” gleefully reported in newspapers, “studies” that eschew hypothesis and testing in favour of “gathering data”. They tell us what both causes and prevents cancer, why wine is both good and bad for you, when the climatic apocalypse both will and won’t occur.

The evidence for a scientific hypothesis is a much more nuanced, complicated business than the evidence for a mathematical theorem. It is a matter of passing tests, which requires prediction and actual observation of what is predicted. It is a matter of explanation, which requires the removal of mystery without adding too much additional mystery. It is a matter of intuition about simplicity, modesty, generality, and other theoretical virtues like those. It often involves “going with a hunch”, waiting for a feeling of “the key turning in the lock”.

I said above that “in general”, mathematical truths are proved rather than tested, and that scientific hypotheses are not derived via rules of inference. There are just a few exceptions to this rule. A few mathematical claims are widely accepted as being true despite never having been proved. For example, “Goldbach’s conjecture” says that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes. (And we know that some mathematical truths are unprovable, because it has been proved.) Mirroring that, a few scientific claims have been derived via deduction from “axioms” (i.e. prior, everyday assumptions too central to give up). For example, Galileo had an a priori proof for his hypothesis that in a vacuum bodies fall with uniform acceleration. This deductive “demonstration” by-passed the usual need for observational testing. Deduction is at work in science as well as mathematics – in fact much deduction in science is in its use of mathematics. But there’s much, much more to science than deduction.

So much for the main differences between mathematics and the sciences proper. You might be surprised that I did not say “the sciences are empirical, and mathematics is not empirical”. That is because mathematics is shaped by our pragmatic needs and experiences in the real world. Geometry and arithmetic emerged from human activities such as marking out land and using money. In a sense, mathematics is as “empirical” as science. And mathematicians follow hunches and use guesswork like scientists. The crucial differences in reasons for belief remain.