On Goodness and Desire (Talk by Boyle and Lavin @ U of T)

Boyle and Lavin are attempting to address a fairly simple question, regarding whether all desires must wear the “guise of the good”:

Can a rational being desire that which it sees as “bad”?

Or, if you prefer:

Can we want something without seeing it as “good”?

Now, Boyle and Lavin note that until recently, the idea that we must always equate the good with the desired has been largely and widely accepted without question. Recently, however, the same idea has been largely and widely rejected by philosophers. They attempt to argue that there should be a return to the original belief.

I won't go into any great detail here on picking apart their argument, as I believe the primary problem they are attempting to address resolves to definitions, and as such not a particularly interesting case. In conversation Lavin has clarified that they are indeed asking for a return to the idea that in order for a rational being to desire something, they must see it as an adjudged (rational) good. The problem is that their argument never makes the distinction between functional and adjudged (rational) good, and without addressing that issue the results simply do not hold up in supporting the strong hypothesis they are attempting to prove.

My suggestion is this; start instead with a much weaker hypothesis, one which can be universally understood and explain the situation in such a way that it is obvious what is attempting to be proved. Only then should one attempt to explore the stronger (and, I would conjecture, likely non-universally provable) hypothesis.

To do this, we will start from the perceptual and cognitive systems of humans and animals (I will leave off discussing whether plants have volition). We will take as a given this simple tenet regarding the perceptual systems:

The purpose of the perceptual system is to allow the individual to better cope with their environment.

As we have explored in the past, the word “cope” in the formulation above should be interpreted in its broadest manner, from simple physical survival through the resolution of existential questions. It should also be understood that the perceptual and cognitive systems of most, if not all, animals follow the same pattern, regardless of how developed they are.

Within the perceptual system of higher animals (I will leave off repeating “and cognitive”, but the two systems function as one) there is the impetus of “needs”, which is to say, learned patterns which suggest ways in which the individual can better cope with their environment if a given condition is met. Similarly, there are “strategies”, that is, learned patterns which suggest means of action (physical or mental) which will better allow for coping by meeting “needs”.

Now, within this context, let us examine the question at hand, namely what is desire, and is it linked necessarily with a concept of the “good”. The explanation falls out rather readily if we take “good” to mean, roughly:

That which is perceived to allow us to better cope with our environment.

Which is to say, “good” is here formulated in a functional manner, meaning “utility for the desired purpose”. This formulation allows readily for dealing with the “guise” element of the “guise of the good”, namely the need to introduce the idea of “seeming good”, rather than “being” good as the criteria by which we choose paths of action.

When we consider actions, we are making judgements, about whether the actions will allow us to better cope with our environment. Let's take a few of the examples cited in the paper (and talk):

  • The woman who has the urge drowns her bawling child is a fairly straightforward example. Faced with an overwhelming situation from which no immediate exit is available, the mind considers the possibility of eliminating the source of the overwhelming percept. From a utilitarian point of view, this (undesirable) act would be “good”, in that it would allow the mother to cope.

  • The squash player who, being defeated, feels the desire to smash the face of their opponent with the racquet, is a slightly more interesting case. Here we can see the tentative and imprecise nature of cognition poking through. In the past a violent release of anger may have helped alleviate feelings of shame or disgrace, or at least allowed vent of the frustration sufficient to allow the individual to cope. Faced with a situation rife with frustration, the mind considers this type of release again as a utilitarian good. It would (temporarily) improve the player's ability to cope with the situation.

  • The “devil”, faced with an overbearing “God” and a life of servitude decides to rebel against “God” and set up its own counter. Obviously there's no problem seeing this as an environmental adaptation allowing the “devil” to better cope with its environment.

This formulation of desire survives quite readily through even the challenges by example that Boyle and Lavin point out, but ignore as being irrelevant to their topic. It obviously rests on the initial definition that the perceptual system is intent upon improving the ability of the individual to cope with their environment, but if we are willing to grant that, to the best of our knowledge this is true of all creatures we know, then we can move forward.

Having established the soft claim that we seek that which allows us to better cope with our environment, and that we see that which we believe will help us better cope as “good” in the utilitarian sense, our task becomes exploring the relationship between adjudged (rational) good and utilitarian good. That is to say, what role does our understanding of the rational good play in moderating or altering our utilitarian model of the good.

To put this another way:

Does the rationality of the rational creature require that all which is desired by it be adjudged “good” by the rational faculty?

Looked at another way, can a perceiving, rational individual desire a utilitarian good without conflating the utilitarian good as an adjudicated good? That is, can a rational being aware of “goodness” think of itself as wanting something, without first judging that thing to be good (or without later judging it to be good)?

I don't believe Boyle and Lavin ever address this issue head-on. So I guess this is the point at which discussion can begin.


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