desire and reasons

One commonsense view about desires, is that they provide a reason for action. In other words, if I have a desire to eat some chocolate ice cream, then I have reason to purchase a cone of chocolate ice cream or make one or whatever it takes to satisfy the desire.

But there is a lot more that needs to be said about this basic picture. One view, what I term the weaker view, is that some desires do not provide a reason for action. In other words, the fact that I desire something does not automatically give me a reason to seek to satisfy it. I may, as a matter of fact, work to satisfy the desire because my will is weak or the desire is so strong. But, here’s an example, that comes from Derek Parfit.

Pretend there is someone who is averse to pain, with one exception, pain that is felt on tuesdays. This person would prefer a greater pain on a future tuesday than a lesser pain on some other day. Parfit’s point is that this pattern of concern is irrational, and that this desire, to want to avoid pain except on tuesdays, is no reason for action. Pretend that I could act so that a smaller pain would be made greater, but moved to a tuesday. Is this a reason for action? It seems not, and so Parfit concludes that there is not necessarily a reason to fulfill a desire merely because we have the desire.

The next position, which is a stronger position, is that we have reasons for action even though we have no desire for the action in question. This is more controversial. Parfit’s original argument shows that desires do not necessarily give a reason for action, but this just shows that what we have reason to do is a smaller category than the desires we have. The stronger position asserts that what we have reason to do might be in some cases beyond what we desire to do. Some people think morality is like this. If there is some moral duty x, than I have a reason to do x even though I may feel no desire to do it.


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