The significance of desire

Most of us have an under-inflated concept of desire, and an over-inflated concept of belief. We happily accept that beliefs are fairly detailed representational states — so that taken together they prompt the metaphor of an “inner world”. But we tend to think of desires as much vaguer or thinner on detail than beliefs, and perhaps not even as representational states at all. Why is this way of thinking so common? — Here are a few suggestions:

First, we tend to specify desires with reference to objects rather than states of affairs. For example, we say “I’d like some chocolate” rather than “I have a desire to be eating chocolate”, or “I need some WD-40” instead of “I want my door hinges to be lubricated with WD-40”. Being human, we can safely assume that other humans have broadly similar goals to our own, so it’s often linguistically redundant to explicitly specify these goals as states of affairs. This can give the mistaken impression that desires do not represent states of affairs at all. In other words, it leads us to overlook the fact that desires represent the same sorts of things as make beliefs true or false.

Second, in general the states of affairs desires are aimed at are not yet realised. When we believe something, or at any rate when we believe something about the past or present, if our belief is true then the state of affairs that makes it true is a “fact”, with much attendant “detail”. When we desire something, on the other hand, the state of affairs that would satisfy it is not yet a fact. So for the time being it’s a “mere idea”, something more like Pegasus than a real horse grazing in a real field at this very moment. Any attendant “detail” is more obviously “imaginary”. We probably err on the side of assuming our beliefs are more detailed than they really are, as if they inherit some of the detail of the fact that makes them true, but with desires, we err in the opposite direction.

Third, in the Western philosophical tradition from Plato through Descartes (and in other traditions too), we tend to think of mental states as conscious experiences rather than as functional representational states that direct the behaviour of agents. This is changing, of course, with the continuing influence of American pragmatism and of the later Wittgenstein, as well as with the growth of functionalism in the philosophy of mind. But it is still very common to assume that a desire is a mere “feeling” or emotion rather than an essential part of the mechanism of action. This assumption is promoted still further by the possibility of wishing (and expressing wishes) for states of affairs that as agents we can play no part in bringing about (such as “I wish it would snow!”). It all suggests that desire is something rather touchy-feely and causally unserious. Worse, it can suggest that the real “purpose” of desire is nothing more than the having of a further sort of conscious experience — pleasure, or whatever.

We must reject this assumption that desire is a “feeling” (although of course specific desires are usually accompanied by distinctive feelings). Rather, a desire is a causally efficacious and typically fairly detailed representational mental state aimed at bringing about a real state of affairs external to the mind. Desires are complementary to beliefs, which are also representational mental states. Instead of bringing about real states of affairs external to the mind via behaviour, beliefs are typically brought about by these states of affairs, often via observation. Although there is something to the claim that desires are less detailed than beliefs, I think we should take Hume’s lead in giving desires priority: a desire (or “passion” as Hume put it) is the mainspring of any act. Whenever we act, our behaviour is aimed at achieving a goal; desire is the mental state that establishes such a goal, and beliefs (or “reason”) can do no more than help us steer a course towards achieving it. Hence “reason is the slave of the passions”.

Although we do not literally have an “inner world” of belief in our minds, together our beliefs form a sort of “map of the world” — the world as we take it to be. But that’s only half the story. Together our desires form a sort of “blueprint for the world” — the world as we would like it to become. The “map” and the “blueprint” contain the two essential components of the causation of all acts.

The traditional under-inflated way of thinking about desire tends to ignore the “blueprint” and puts far too much emphasis on the “map” — it imbues it with more detail than is really there, and it gives it causal powers that it simply doesn’t have. This often emerges in the assumption that specific sorts of belief are associated with specific sorts of acts.

A classic age-old example is the thought that belief in God causes people to behave in more “moral, God-fearing” ways. But of course such belief can only cause the valued sort of behaviour in conjunction with specific desires — to do what God wants, to avoid punishment, and so on.

Nowadays, much effort is expended on promoting beliefs such as “all races are exactly alike in respect of ability” and “there are no grey areas in rape”. The hope is that simply having such beliefs will discourage racist or sexist behaviour. But as we have just seen, behaviour of any sort is caused not only by our “map” of beliefs, but crucially — and more saliently, because desires are classified according to their goals — by our “blueprint” of desires as well.

The “attenuated” understanding of desire has a couple of really nasty side-effects. One is a blurring of the distinction between beliefs and desires, and the thought that desires can be “implanted” in an agent’s mind in the same way as many beliefs can: via observation. So if we watch violence on television, we will want to be violent ourselves. If we see ads on TV, we will want what they advertise. And so on. This gives rise to the sort of puritanism that discourages or even forbids the expression of “unhelpful” ideas. Traditional religious puritanism frowned on the expression of atheistic or agnostic views, and kept Hume out of a proper academic job. No doubt there are many lesser yet still talented people who are nowadays excluded from academic jobs for having beliefs that are currently regarded as “unhelpful”.

The side-effect that really makes me queasy is not the exclusion of talent from the groves of academe and the media, but the active promotion of falsity for the sake of our general moral betterment. For example, although I don’t think there are any significant differences between races as far as abilities are concerned, the claim that there are none at all is statistically vanishingly unlikely. If there are differences between individuals — and there are— there are bound to be differences between groups of individuals. Yet we are enjoined never to utter the forbidden words of that obvious truth. This is sick-making, and anyone who cares about truth should speak out against its deliberate suppression.