One venerable objection against the principle that all motivation derives from desire points to the motive of duty, or practical necessity, as phenomenological evidence of its falsity. Supposedly, the experience of doing something because you have to (or, per Kant, the experience of being able to do something because you have to) is qualitatively distinct from the experience of doing something motivated by desire.
I think, however, that this phenomenological character of the motive of duty can be explained in a way fully compatible with the Motivation-by-Desire Principle. Here I’ll try to explain how. In part, what I’m looking for from this post (other than the usual insightful criticism from fellow Pea-Soupers) is a sense of whether this project is interesting enough to spend any time on.
Although I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else, I have some suspicions that my explanation is incredibly obvious. But often what seems obvious to me seems crazy to most other people! So please don’t hesitate to say simply, ‘Steve, it’s obvious’ (Or: ‘Philosopher Y said this in XXX ’). Then I can stop wasting my time on this and move on to working on deservingly perverse theses.
The strategy involves several moves, as follows. None of these is particularly original.
(1) Desire-proper involves only intrinsic motivation towards an end. Desire for an end provides us with motivation towards the believed means to that end. If Bernard desires to drink gin, and believes that the bottle he’s holding contains gin, then his desire to drink gin can motivate him to drink out of the bottle. It doesn’t follow from the fact that he is motivated by desire to drink the stuff in the bottle that he desires to drink the stuff in the bottle, strictly speaking.
CONSEQUENCE: it is compatible with the Motivation-by-Desire Principle that an agent does something intentionally that he does not desire to do. But presumably Bernard wouldn’t claim that he had to drink the stuff in the bottle…
(2) Semantically, to say that you ‘have’ to do A is to say that doing A is instrumentally necessary for some end. Clearly sometimes it means this, at least: e.g. ‘I have to go to work now, if I am to keep my job’. This is ‘practical necessity’. It’s sometimes said that obligation has the feel of a demand from outside, while desire feels like a urge from inside. But the practical necessity here is external: it is (believed to be) an objective fact that the means is necessary for the end.
(3) Given (1), it is compatible with the Principle that an agent intentionally does something that he intrinsically desires not to do. If his desire for the end is stronger than his aversion to the means, and he believes that the means is necessary for the end, then his stronger desire for the end may/will motivate him to do something that he intrinsically desires not to do.
I think this explains the phenomenon of reluctance, which I see as the most significant component of the phenomenological quality of obligation, at least with regard to distinguishing it from motivation by desire. Although Kant thought that the motive of duty need not conflict with our desires, it was the conflict cases to which he appealed to show that the motive of duty was not a motive of desire. Being reluctant to A involves preferring not to A ‘if possible’. It manifests itself in only trying to A after first looking to see if there are any other alternatives. But this is fully compatible with the Principle. e.g. I’m starving on a mountain, I want to survive, but the only available ‘food’ is the bodies of my dead companions. If I am to survive, I have to eat them. But I’m strongly averse to eating them. If I do so, it will be with great reluctance, and only after satisfying myself that there is nothing else I could do to survive.
(4) This is arguably enough, but there’s one more move we can make. It might be said that sometimes we do things because we have to, even though it conflicts with our strongest desires. There is sometimes no joy or pleasure at all in doing what we have to do, but wouldn’t there be, if we were promoting something we desired most strongly?
Here we might distinguish between desire and aversion. Desire involves motivation towards a represented state of affairs (attraction), while aversion involves motivation away from a represented state of affairs (repulsion). Their phenomenological character is arguably also reversed; satisfaction of desire brings pleasure, while ‘satisfaction’ of aversion brings only relief. I suggest that characteristically, motives of duty are ultimately aversions rather than desires. If I see a child drowning in a river, and dive in to save her ‘because I have to’, I may be motivated by my aversion to the child’s drowning, and my belief that if I don’t dive into the river she will drown. This motive has the character of aversion+practical necessity, but it is still compatible with the Principle. (Assuming that no-one is going to object, ‘Ah, but aversions aren’t desires!’ If you like, it’s the Motivation-by-Desire-or-Aversion Principle).
Is there anything about the phenomenology of obligation left to explain?
(NB: The view of desire operating here is very different from Kant’s, which is certainly inadequate. So perhaps even Kant wouldn’t disagree with the basic idea?)