In Praise of In Praise of Desire

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  • Philosophy and Phenomenological ResearchVol. LXXXIX No. 2, September 2014doi: 10.1111/phpr.12141 2014 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, LLC

    In Praise of In Praise of Desire


    University of Chicago

    Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder develop and defend a moral psychol-ogy that champions appetite. They work at some remove from metaethicalmoral theory and normative ethicstheir interest is neither in the natureand source of morality, nor in what morality asks of us, but rather in howwe relate to morality. The morality in question in most of the many won-derful examples is the morality of contemporary liberal commonsense, butthe moral psychological account ought also to apply to the other ways peo-ple have ordered pursuit of good and avoidance of bad. Schroeder andArpaly marshal a vast array of resources in arguing for their view, drawingprimarily from contemporary mainstream Anglophone philosophy andempirical work in neuroscience and psychology. They do not rely uponscholarly work in the history of philosophytheir Aristotle seems not tobe the Aristotle who focuses on the passions in discussing virtue, the Millthey associate with utilitarianism seems much closer to Henry Sidgwickthan to John Stuart Mill,1 and the Kant at issue in their Kantian deontol-ogy is not the Kant who appears in the bold new work coming from con-temporary Kant scholars.2 Innocence of scholarship in the history ofphilosophy opens small lacunae in the treatment of ill will and the interpre-tation of the unity of the virtues thesis. But the view they develop is ele-gant, and their defense of desire-based moral psychology is genuinely newand compelling.

    1 For discussions of Mills opposition to what we now call consequentialism see CoraDiamond, Consequentialism in Modern Moral Philosophy and in Modern Moral Philos-ophy, in David S. Oderberg and Jacqueline A. Laing, editors, Human Lives: CriticalEssays on Consequentialist Bioethics, (New York: St Martins, 1997), pp. 1338; CandaceVogler, John Stuart Mills Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology, (NewYork: Routledge, 2001).

    2 See, for example, Stephen Engstrom, The Form of Practical Knowledge: A study of theCategorical Imperative, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).


    Philosophy andPhenomenological Research

  • Arpaly and Schroeder call their view Spare Conatism. Spare Conatism(SC) holds that acting for reasons is acting on plain desire, acting in away that is praiseworthy is acting on plain desire, and having virtue is hav-ing plain desire for the right things. Everything hinges on the character ofplain desire. The crucial species of plain desire at issue for Arpaly and Sch-roeder is intrinsic desire.

    The objects of intrinsic desires are desired for their own sakes rather thanas means to further ends (instrumental desires) or as specific realizations ofintrinsically desired ends (realizer desires). Intrinsic desire generates instru-mental and realizer desiresit provides the foundational basis for some ofthese (no mere whim, for example, will count as an intrinsic desire). Onecan have both an intrinsic desire for, say, health, and also desire health as ameans to some other intrinsically desired end (wealth, for example, orromance with someone who prizes health), but intrinsic desires are stable,enduring, and relatively immune to cognitive influence once they are set(they have conceptual content, but, given this, they tend not to change inthe face of new information or shifts in judgment).

    The focus on intrinsic desires allows Arpaly and Schroeder to sever thestrong tie between desire and action at issue in a lot of Anglophone workon practical reasoning and action theory. Intrinsic desires are causally effi-cacious, but the primitive signs of intrinsic desires are found in the way thatwe engage in practical deliberation (itself an action, on this view), in spe-cific patterns of attention, in experiencing various emotions and responses,in having an easier time remembering some things than others, and so on.They are sources of final ends, and so play a crucial role in rationalizingaction, but this is not their only moral psychological significance, and onecan have an intrinsic desire for something without knowing it and without itbringing about the motivational, emotional, and cognitive effects one ordi-narily might expect from an intrinsic desire of the relevant sort. Someintrinsic desires have no direct link to motivation at allour authors exam-ples are dreaming of a white Christmas and wanting ones team to win thebig game. These intrinsic desires will tend to show themselves in beinghappy if things go as one wants them to go, sad if they dont, and moregenerally in experiencing hope or disappointment (mild to crushing, depend-ing on the strength of the relevant intrinsic desire) while events play them-selves out in the world at large. The avid fan might watch the gamewearing her teams colors, emotions swinging wildly with each play of thegame, and be elated if they win, broken-hearted if they lose, but she willnot set out somehow to help her team win. Schroeder and Arpaly use thesepoints to offer a theory of love and care in which love does involve anintrinsic desire for the beloveds wellbeing, but need not give rise to a flowof acts aimed at securing the beloveds wellbeing. Intrinsic desires come invarying strengths. If I care about something, then my intrinsic desires


  • directed at the object of care will tend to be strong, giving rise to a rich sys-tem of emotions and responses to my object. Some of these may be actions(including acts of deliberation directed at, say, figuring out how to act inservice of the object of my concern), but I can love and care about someoneI rarely see, or something remote from the business of my daily life.

    Schroeder and Arpaly develop their theory of desire drawing from empir-ical research on reward-and-punishment learning systems. Intrinsic desires,they argue, are best understood as states of the reward system with variousmotivational, emotional, and cognitive effects. This focus allows them togive a genuinely new and insightful discussion of substance abuse andaddictionaddiction hijacks the reward system, bringing about exactly thesort of witches brew of cognitive and affective distortions associated withaddiction. More generally, their view of intrinsic desire may provide a basisfor various responses to situation ethics.

    Situation ethics urges that, contrary to traditional accounts of virtue, peo-ple do not have plain courage, they have courage-when-raiding-adrug-deal-ers-lair-with-their-fellow-police-officers; they are not generous, they areliberal-with-resources-when-they-are-having-a-good-day; they are not kind,they are tender-when-the-sun-is-shining, or thoughtful-when-they-found-money-in-a-forgotten-pocket-of-their-luggage. For Arpaly and Schroeder,having a good willa virtuous willconsists in having strong intrinsicdesires for what is right or good. They write:

    Typically, an intrinsic desire for the right or the good will result inimpulses to act well, feelings such as delight or relief at the thought of theright or good being done, and various cognitive effects. However, goodwill is absolutely not an impulse to act, nor is it a disposition to feeldelight (or any occurrent feeling of delight) at the prospect of doing whatis right or good. [In Praise of Desire, p. 163].

    The theory allows them to give an empirically grounded account of twocommon lines of response to situationismthe claim that virtue is a matterof character in roughly the way Aristotle thought that it was, but that excel-lent character is very rare, and is nevertheless an appropriate ideal and theclaim that virtue need not be a matter of enduring traits of character, butcan show itself in good impulses and good acts that do not have their rootsin overall foundational patterns of motivation and conduct familiar fromneo-Aristotelian accounts of virtue. The phronimos, for Arpaly and Schroe-der, will be a man with strong, coordinated intrinsic desires for the rightand the good, and strong, coordinated intrinsic aversions to what is wrongor bad (all suitably conceptualized). The rest of us will care about moralitywill have intrinsic desires for what is right and good and aversion towhat is wrong and bad (again, suitably conceptualized)but not strong


  • enough, or harmonious enough, intrinsic desires to give us entirely goodwills. To have a partially good will is, nevertheless, to have something ofmoral motivationappropriate intrinsic desires, not just agreeable impulsesand we can be deserving of some praise for our actions, reactions, andmotives as rooted in those desires.

    It matters for neo-Aristotelian accounts of virtue that virtues operate har-moniously. My perpetual willingness knowingly to offer my services as a dri-ver for bank robbers and murderers in need of getaway cars will not count asan act of generosity for most contemporary philosophers working in the Aris-totelian tradition. Proper generosity operates in tandem with justice. I take itthat, for most of us, this is the sense in which virtues are unified.3 Arpaly andSchroeder consider the unity of the virtues thesis in connection with versionsof utilitarianism and deontology. For them, the question is whether theseviews are committed to the existence of a single, master virtuein the onecase, a central intrinsic desire for the wellbeing of others that provides themoral psychological core of character, in the other very powerful intrinsicdesires that favor duty and respect for rationality and together coordinate andorder character. It may be that Platos Socrates was committed to somethinglike this version of a unity of the virtues thesisby insisting that there was asingle knowledge at work in virtue, he may have been committed to the viewthat this one knowledge functioned as a master virtue. But this is not the posi-tion at issue for most contemporary philosophers who have been concernedabout the unity of the virtues thesis. The neo-Aristotelians, like manycontemporary Kantians, maintain both a distinction between specific virtueshonesty, say, and courageand an insistence that specific virtues form acoordinated practical orientation in a person with a good will. This does notmuch matter for our authors direct targets. But it does suggest a line ofdevelopment for their work on intrinsic desires and virtue, namely, consider-ing whether and how intrinsic desires associated with justice, for example,might interact with intrinsic desires associated with courage or generosity orhonesty.

    Schroeder and Arpaly take a similar tack in their discussions of ill will,rooted in intrinsic desires for what is wrong or bad. It is not clear that thesymmetry at issue in their discussions of good and ill will can work. Manyphilosophers who take a strong interest in virtueAristotle, Aquinas, andKant among themfind an important asymmetry between virtue and vice.Although many have argued that it is plausible to hold that there is a unity

    3 For an extremely insightful discussion of both this topic and Aristotles doctrine of themean, see Anselm Winfried Muller, Aristotles Conception of Ethical and Natural Vir-tue: How the Unity Thesis sheds light on the Doctrine of the Mean, in Was ist das furden Menschen Gute?, Jan Szaif and Mattias Lutz-Bachmann, editors, (New York: Walterde Gruyter, 2004), pp. 1853.


  • of virtues, often because it is hard to imagine beneficence (for instance)operating appropriately in someone devoid of justice or temperance, there isno unity in vice. Truly spectacular feats of avarice, for example, requiresustained effort and bold acts made impossible by cowardice and sloth.Dishonesty in varying degrees and forms may be crucial in aiming atdefrauding or slandering ones fellows, but would seem to be inimical toseething, appropriately targeted envy. More generally, there are a number ofasymmetries that have been important in traditional treatments of bad andgood action and motivation. For example, many philosophers have heldthat, while there may be moral prohibitions on acts of variouskindsmurder, for example, or rape, or genocidethere may not be posi-tive moral requirements keyed to specific kinds of actsin short, there aresome things that one must not do, but there may be many different kinds ofthings that could be good to do under ones circumstances, and we cannotknow in advance that kinds of things that are usually good to do will begood to do here and now. Such a topic takes us too far into the territory ofnormative ethics or moral theory to find a home in our authors account ofmoral psychology. But ill will may well be the sort of thing that can onlybe, in our authors sense of the term, partial. Thought about a deeplydepraved will might instead look like accounts of capital vices with no sug-gestion that having one will bring in its train all of the others.4

    On the whole, however, these are minor concerns about an importantnew book, chock full of splendid examples and betraying a rare and wel-comed combination of moral sensitivity, creative flair, empirical knowledge,and plain, clear, insightful writing. Schroeder and Arpaly have written avery good book.

    4 For an extraordinarily powerful account of capital vice, see St. Thomas Aquinas, On Evil,Jean Oesterle, translator, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).