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Ethical Episodes

Desire: 30 Years Later

by Joel Marks

In 1982 I had my first ‘major’ philosophical publication, a journal article entitled ‘A Theory of Emotion’ (Philosophical Studies vol. 42, no. 2., pp.227-42). Robert C. Solomon, and even more explicitly, my target in the article, William Lyons, held that emotions are essentially a type of belief. This new ‘cognitivist’ view was a welcome change from the previously prevailing view of emotions as ‘brute feelings.’ But I argued that this was not enough, for one could believe, say, that one was about to be mauled by a rabid dog, and yet not be in an emotional state unless one also possessed a desire not to be mauled. So my thesis was that cognitivism about the emotions needed a supplement, namely desire. (O.H. Green had reached the same conclusion independently.)

This insight had no doubt been prompted by my dabblings in Buddhism, for the Buddha preached that all suffering comes from desire. The Buddha’s recommendation was that we should therefore cease to desire. I defended this approach in an article on ‘Dispassion and the Ethical Life’ in a volume I co-edited with Roger T. Ames on Emotions in Asian Thought (SUNY Press, 1995). But to deflect the obvious objection that eliminating desire would be throwing out the baby with the bath water – since what would be the point of living at all if we desired nothing? – I analyzed the Buddha’s notion of desire as emotion, and emotion in turn as involving strong desiring.

Subsequently I saw an opening to the study of motivation, for it seemed natural to extend the belief/desire analysis to what moves us to action. And it is not only emotions that do this but, more generally, what might be called attitudes. I analyzed these as belief/desire sets, but now without the ‘strong desire’ qualifier, since one need not feel deeply about something in order for it to produce behavior (or, for that matter, to be a ‘mental feeling’).

But now I came up against a distinction, first brought to my attention by Wayne Davis in an essay he wrote for a book I edited on The Ways of Desire (Chicago: Precedent, 1986). For it seems that ‘desire’ is ambiguous between two quite distinct psychological phenomena. On the one hand desire is simply synonymous with motivation, so to say that one was moved by desire is just to say that one was motivated. On the other hand desire is a specific type of mental state, on a par with belief, such that a particular belief and a particular desire could jointly constitute a motivation (or a feeling). The mental-state desire would be desire proper or genuine desire, since the other type of desire is only another name for motivation.

An example of desire (proper) is wanting to go for a walk for its own sake. An example of motivational desire is wanting to go for a walk because you believe it will help you lose weight and you want (desire) to lose weight. But here again the latter desire (to lose weight) is ambiguous, since you might simply wish to lose weight or you might be motivated to lose weight by some further belief/desire set, such as that you desire to date someone and you believe s/he will only date you if you lose weight. And so on. The thesis I defended in another essay in that same volume – ‘The Difference between Motivation and Desire’ – was that, even though motivation as such is not the same as genuine desire, a genuine desire is always involved in motivation, simply because the regress must stop if there is to be any action at all.

I am no longer so sure about that last thesis. Bill Lycan, on behalf of his graduate seminar a few years ago, planted a seed of doubt in my mind. But even if we could be sure that ‘genuine desire’ is an essential component of all of our motivation, we would still want an account of what it is. More specifically, it has always been a teaser to tease apart desire from belief. The best accounts I’ve seen, quite different from each other, are by Dennis Stampe (in my desire volume) and, more recently, Timothy Schroeder (in Three Faces of Desire from Oxford U.P.).

Despite my uncertainty about what I am even talking about, however, I remain a fan of desire. In fact, my interest in it has returned with a vengeance after a long hiatus. This time I am taken with desire’s role in values. In fact, I have quite given up on objective value as anything but a figment, and see all value as subjective – specifically, as a function of our desires.

I do still find room for more than one legitimate category of value, but, instead of objective and subjective values, there are intrinsic and extrinsic (or instrumental) values. The latter pair corresponds to intrinsic and extrinsic desires. So for example, to want to go for a walk for its own sake is to value walking intrinsically, while to want to do so for one’s health is to value walking instrumentally. What I no longer accept is that in addition to these there is such a thing as objective or inherent value, such that, for example, going for a walk might be ‘good in itself.’ In a word, I no longer recognize the reality of value that is independent of desire.

Therefore I now consider desire to be the key to ethics, and so it becomes incumbent on me to try once again to figure out what the hell desire is. For starters I think I will pick up a fading offprint of an article from 1982 entitled, ‘A Theory of Emotion’!

© Prof. Joel Marks 2012

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He continues the tale of desire in his book, Ethics without Morals: In Defence of Amorality, just out from Routledge.

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