Happy Bastille Day! One more post for N and M month.

Some Kantians make a lot of the fact that often, when we are being moral, we don’t feel like we want to do the right thing, but we do it. Korsgaard openly ridicules the view that a good person actually wants to do the right thing,  calling it “the good dog” picture of the virtuous person. Suppose we want to say desire is the source of all worthy motivation. We then need to explain why doing the right because you desire the right can feel so damn different from drinking coffee because you desire coffee.

I’ll try and sketch an explanation, and incidentally defend both happy, doglike good-doing (sometimes) and dour good-doing (sometimes).


Desire satisfaction tends to cause pleasure. If you happen to (intrinsically) desire victory for the Red Sox, you often feel pleasure when they win and displeasure when they lose. Once you become a creature with sexual desires, their satisfaction usually causes pleasure. You can also develop a desire for the pleasure that comes with satisfying sexual desires – a second layer of motivation to have sex, but only with someone you find attractive – i.e the sort you would intrinsically desire. Such second layers are ubiquitous, which might give the mistaken impression that psychological hedonism is true.  

Now, what if you have a strong intrinsic desire for the right and the good  - my idea of virtue? You tend to feel pleasure when you see the right done or the good instantiated and displeasure when you, well, read the newspaper. You might even have a second layer – e.g. if feeling a bit down, you volunteer for a cause because it cheers you up.

But many things affect pleasure. For example, they say that after returning from a trip to the third world, having electricity in your home is very pleasant. I wouldn’t know, but after tapering off the lithium (and some other medications) that significantly reduced my intellectual abilities for six long years, many small things associated with philosophy became remarkably pleasant! The flip side: however much you desire, say, the benefits of electricity, they don’t please you much if you take them for granted. Ironically, a virtuous person might fail to enjoy some types of acting well because she acts that way all the time.

There are other times in which satisfying your desires does not produce tail-wagging. I strongly desire to avoid physical discomfort. Going to the dentist, I know “in theory” that I am avoiding great physical discomfort – a future toothache. “In theory”,  but  not viscerally! As I don’t feel next year’s potential toothache, averting it causes almost no pleasure (analogy: you can’t make yourself enjoy electricity by cancelling next year’s trip to the third world!). On the other hand, I do feel the immediate effect of going to the dentist – the frustration of my desire to avoid physical discomfort. As a result, going to the dentist is unpleasant.  

Dutiful action is like going to the dentist in some ways. Here's a situation Agnes Callard made me think of. Imagine I strongly desire the right and the good, and as part of that I want to help my graduate student. To do so, I need to warn him that his current work is unsatisfactory. “In theory” I know the warning will help him “in the long run”, but what I see before me is the student about to burst into tears, literally.  As far as my viscera are concerned, my desire for his wellbeing is frustrated. Thus my task is unpleasant. The “theoretical” knowledge that I am helping him overall is enough, with my desire, to motivate me to act, but it barely makes a dent in my displeasure.  

Why does the intrinsic desire for the right and the good feel, in such cases, like a non-desire? Because far from producing the immediate pleasure (or relief from displeasure) at least a modicum of which often comes with satisfying an intrinsic desire, acting on this one produces immediate displeasure, and unlike the dentist, it does not even aim at future pleasure. Unlike Kantian “inclination”, this desire “presents nothing charming or insinuating”.  There are salient, more pleasant alternatives (“temptations”), and still the good person is motivated. I am not yet trying to present sufficient conditions for the feeling of dutifulness, just to answer the coffee question

If someone in the above situation fails to warn her student, what went wrong? Perhaps her virtue is lacking,  so she chooses pleasure over the right, or perhaps she is good but, like me when I avoid the dentist, she lacks rationality – the sort required when long-term considerations (like the student’s long-term wellbeing) trump vividly present short-term considerations (like the acute suffering she’ll cause him now).

The view of desire and pleasure used here is Timothy Schroeder’s,  but as his name starts with a T, I figured it’s my turn.


20 Replies to “Korsgaard’s Good Dog

  1. Hi Nomy. I think I mostly agree with you throughout here, but I’m a little puzzled as to why this is pitched as a critique of Kantians in general and Korsgaard in particular. Korsgaard does not (and Kantians should not) reject the claim that we might do what is right out of a motive of duty, and also have an inclination to do what is right at the same time. That is, she does not deny that we can sometimes really enjoy doing the right thing, and still be credited as acting with moral motivation. I think you’re referring to her stuff in “Self-Constitution.” There, I take it, she’s arguing against a virtue ethical view that holds that what it is to be virtuous is to have all of the right emotions and desires and so on in the appropriate contexts (and so, to be a person who is happily led by their inclinations to unerringly do the right thing). She argues that this picture neglects the importance of necessitation and the experience of necessitation. I don’t know if she’s right or not, but at least I don’t think that her claim there is in tension with the claim that sometimes we do the right thing and really enjoy it. (Of course, a Kantian account of virtue is still different than your account, but my point is only that both can accommodate happy do-gooding.)

  2. Pete, the view I defended here is not just that a person can enjoy acting from duty. The view I defended here is that the experience of “necessitation” that you are talking about is in a way an illusion, as it is compatible with the non-existence of a motive of duty separate from desire.

  3. Correction: I defended the view that the the sense of duty that we feel does not show conclusively that it is false that having the right desires is all there is to being virtuous, which, as you say, Korsgaard regards as false.

  4. Right. I do get that you’re offering an alternative story about the phenomenology of moral action. What threw me a little bit was the opening that led into your discussion of layers of desires, and their connection to pleasure.
    You said, “Korsgaard openly ridicules the view that a good person actually wants to do the right thing…” (which, from one point of view, she certainly does). However, there’s an ambiguity here. On the one hand, Korsgaard (and Kantians more generally) reject the idea that one must have some special inclinations in order to act rightly, and moreover to act rightly from a moral motivation. So, there can be situations where one does not have inclination to do the right thing (that is, in another way of speaking, one does not want to do the right thing) and yet one still does it, and for the right reasons etc. etc.
    On the other hand, of course one wants to do the right thing, in the very strong sense that one has chosen as one’s end the right thing, and has chosen it for the sorts of reasons for which one gets moral credit. Recognizing that one has good reasons to do something generates a kind of desire, insofar as these reasons really do have motivational force. (I’m bypassing a species of case where one says “Yup, those are good reasons to do x, but I’m not going to do x.”)
    The same ambiguity applies to the concept of desire. desires might be inclinations, or they might be the sort of morally-inflected ends-choosing-for-the-right-reasons that form the heart of a Kantian moral theory. The source and explanations are different for these two sorts of desires, but both might be considered desires – it’s the difference between what I happen to want to do and what I have reflectively chosen to do for good reason.
    So, my point is that K&K (Korsgaard and Kantians) reject the claim that virtue means having the right inclinations, but they can still say that virtue requires having the right desires, or wanting to do the virtuous thing.

  5. Hi Nomy,
    Two thoughts:
    (1) I am not seeing how to get from the grad student case to this gloss that follows: “Why does the intrinsic desire for the right and the good feel, in such cases, like a non-desire? Because far from producing the immediate pleasure (or relief from displeasure) at least a modicum of which often comes with satisfying an intrinsic desire, acting on this one produces immediate displeasure, and unlike the dentist, it does not even aim at future pleasure.”
    Why doesn’t your giving hard news to your grad student aim at future pleasure? Presumably you find the idea of having done right by the student pleasant and know you will look back on what you will have done with approval. Moreover, given the theoretical assumption about the intervention leading to the student’s long term well-being, can’t we predict that you will later take pleasure in that and knowing you helped bring it about?
    (2) Your approach might apply to cases of unpleasant means to desirable and right/good ends. But what about cases in which we have to forgo desirable ends because we could only obtain them by wrong/shameful ends? Maybe the same strategy applies, but it would be good to hear more, esp. since I suspect these may be the cases that move Kantians to make comments of the sort that you mention.

  6. Brad,
    Thanks. By hypothesis, my desire for the student’s well being in an intrinsic desire – i.e not instrumental to any other desire, including desire for pleasure. I desire the student’s welling for it’s own sake, not as means for my own pleasure. Of course, if you are a psychological hedonist, and believe that the only intrinsic desire people have is for pleasure, you’ll flat refuse to believe me that my desire is intrinsic, and argue that what I really aim at is the warm, fuzzy feeling that I’ll get when the student is helped. I think there are several famous lines of arguments that show that genuine intrinsic desire for something other then pleasure can be present in this case. I’ll only get into one of them here, as it fits into a short paragraph:
    Imagine two situations. In situation A, my student is doing well but I am certain he is doing badly, and so I feel pain. In situation B, my student is doing abysmally, but I think he’s doing well, and so I feel pleasure. If I prefer A to B, even though A is very unpleasant, than my desire for the wellbeing of my student is not a desire for my own pleasure in disguise. It’s perfectly possible that I prefer A to B. This is basically a home-brewed version of the choice presented by Nozick’s “experience machine”.
    Of course, even if a desire is intrinsic, its satisfaction can cause pleasure. All I said is that in the student case -just like in the dentist case – it does not result in any immediate pleasure, and is thus different from from a desire for the red sox to win (you feel pleasure at the moment of it’s satisfaction) or sexual desire (ditto). I think that’s all I need: I don’t need to deny that years down the road the satisfaction of the intrinsic desire might have the side-effect of pleasure. But for what it’s worth, it’s not guaranteed that I get long term pleasure either, and I might know it when I talk to the student. For instance:
    Perhaps I am the sort of person who takes her good-doing for granted they way she takes electricity for granted, and never stops to relish her actions or their results, and by the time the student is helped (or fails to be helped) I will be worried sick about another student and the whole thing will be out of my mind. Perhaps I suffer from clinical depression of the sort that promises that I will be equally miserable whether I help the student or not (the “woe is me” kind of depression, as one psychiatrist I knew called it) but doesn’t get rid of my motivation to act (that, according to the same shrink, would be the “what’s the use” kind of depression). Or perhaps the student is about to transfer to a university on Mars, and, being a childish sort, will continue to be angry at me and not update me on whether he failed to finish his PhD there or got a job at a nice, small Martian college.
    As for your second question, my answer would be deflationary. Suppose I desire to have a horse, but I realize that it’s so expensive that I won’t be able to visit the Basque Country occasionally and maintain a horse at the same time. I strongly desire to visit the Basque country every so often – so I don’t buy the horse. Quite similarly, if I have an intrinsic desire for the right and the good, and the only way to afford a horse is through cheating on my taxes, my desire for the right and the good – if it is strong enough – would trump the desire for the horse, even if the horse would be more fun. Boring, I know….

  7. Everyone: forgive me for being such a bad typist!
    Peter: you seem to suggest that we can use the word ‘desire’ to refer to “morally inflected end-choosing for reasons”. IMHO it’s a little as if, for the sake of peace, you suggested that the word ‘evolution’ can be used to refer to creation (or maybe the other way around).

  8. Hi Nomy. I don’t see why. When I think some end, some purpose, is good and worth pursuing, and I am moved to pursue it by my taking it to be good and worth pursuing, you wouldn’t say that I have a desire to pursue that end? That strikes me as a pretty natural usage of “desire,” and it’s what is going on in the Kantian story above when I adopt an end for the right reasons.
    Or take the more general usage: when I take myself to have good reasons to pursue an end, and am motivated to take it up as an end for these reasons, it seems pretty straightforward that this is a case of my wanting to pursue this end, even if I also have some inclination not to do it. As in: I don’t want to give my child the shot, because it will cause her pain, but I also DO want to give her the shot, because it will protect her health. In this story, both are kinds of wanting, or kinds of desires, but one comes from the empirical faculty of inclination, while the other comes from the faculty of practical reason.

  9. Hi Nomy,
    Intriguing post! I’m on your side, in thinking that a motivational Humean can offer a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenology of dutiful action, but I think the view I favor (and have sketched before here in a post) disagrees fundamentally with yours in the details.
    Here’s the idea. First, rather than an intrinsic desire for the right de dicto (which does strike me as a fetish), a virtuous agent has intrinsic desires for the right ends (de re), such as the wellbeing of one’s students. Second, desire-proper is restricted to intrinsic desires. These desires can motivate us to various derivative actions and ends (e.g. what is necessary for or promotive of our desired ends), but we don’t thereby desire those in a strict sense. So desire can prompt us to act in ways that we don’t desire to act. Third, sometimes we are averse to these derivative actions. In these cases, we predict the phenomenon of reluctance: an agent will perform such an action, but only if she can’t find any alternative. I think this explains the experience of necessitation (and not as any kind of illusion). Finally, notice that the action in question need not SATISFY the desire. It might merely be necessary for protecting the desired end. In that case, there’s no reason to expect any pleasure from desire-satisfaction. For example, you desire that your student become an accomplished philosopher. That requires that you tell him some hard truths. Telling him some hard truths will cause him suffering, which you are strongly averse to, hence the displeasure it causes you. But telling him those hard truths isn’t SUFFICIENT for making him an accomplished philosopher; it’s merely necessary. So you don’t experience any desire satisfaction.
    I think there’s more that can be said, but that’s enough to start. One thing I don’t think I understand about your proposal, by contrast, is the claim that you don’t feel pleasure because the viscera are not of the student’s wellbeing. If you have the belief that you’ve realized the student’s wellbeing, why isn’t that sufficient for desire-satisfaction, and thereby pleasure? (The viscera are of student unhappiness, I take it, but that’s not incompatible with his being better off.)

  10. Steve,
    Thanks. I must admit to Huebris. I was sure that every moral psychologist and her dog knew that when I say “desire for the right and the good” I mean “a desire for the right and the good de re”, what with my work and everything.
    I think it’s false that the fact that helping my student does not give me pleasure has to do with the fact that my help does not guarantee his success. I might believe that my visit to the dentist absolutely guarantees the avoidance of next year’s potential toothache and it doesn’t add a lot of pleasantness to the visit. On the other hand, when I was looking for a job, a call asking for an interview would make my day, even though I had to knock on wood due that the dizzying uncertainty of the enterprise.
    Maybe you are unique, but as a rule almost nobody looks at a reasonably cheerful young man bursting into bitter hot tears and VISCERALLY thinks “wellbeing increased”. One fast-thinks “wellbeing decreased” and then slow-thinks, possibly tells one’s self in actual words, that it is all for the best.I don’t think having a philosophical theory that tells happiness apart from wellbeing helps much with the matter.
    I think it’s quite apparent that how much pleasure or displeasure a good or bad fact causes you depends, all else equal, on how “viscerally” you know it. This is why killing 50 people through pressing a very distant button is less upsetting to a novice than stabbing or strangling one person is. This why the news of being able to get a loan at 3.4% instead of 3.5% is rarely as thrilling to the home buyer is it should be, even if she “theoretically” knows the difference is huge.
    Suppose I say “I didn’t want to fill out all these forms, but I had to because I wanted to become an American citizen more than anything else”. I agree that one way to cash it out is to say that only intrinsic desires are real desires – instrumental ones aren’t. However, when I fill out the forms, I am motivated by an intrinsic desire – the desire to become a citizen!
    True, I suffer from filling out the forms, because it conflicts with some other intrinsic desire that I have. Let’s just assume for the moment that I just intrinsically desire to avoid forms. Someone may ask, isn’t it true that your desire to become an American citizen is much stronger than your desire to avoid forms? If you are acting on your strongest desire, why are you not feeling like someone who is acting out of her strongest desire? Why is filling out the forms something that you have to “drag yourself” to do if it serves your strongest desire and only conflicts with a weaker one? And this is where I think I can supply an answer.
    Also, it is possible to satisfy an intrinsic desire without feeling pleasure (you just gave to a charity, which you do often and so take for granted. You have benefited a few starving children in Africa, which you intrinsically desire, but your knowledge that you did so is purely theoretical. On the other hand, the acute anxiety you have, at the same time, about missing your flight is very “real” to you).

  11. Pete, I have akraticaly stayed up till 8am, but I really have to ask you a rather ignorant question.
    What do you (and some other 21st century Kantians) mean by a “non-empirical” motive or a “non-empirical” faculty of practical reason? You don’t mean “part of the noumental world”. Neither, presumably, do you intend to imply that, if I were hooked up to an FMRI machine during moral deliberation, nothing would show up on the screen. So I admit – I don’t know what you mean…

  12. Hi Nomy,
    Thanks! Sorry if this is off track…
    I imagine Kantians thinking of cases in which the phenomenology supports talk of motivation by respect for the law. Take a case in which you must make a large sacrifice and do so because you feel like you owe it to someone else. They want to know how the Humean can capture the phenomenology in cases in which agents feel duty bound.
    You wrote: “Quite similarly, if I have an intrinsic desire for the right and the good, and the only way to afford a horse is through cheating on my taxes, my desire for the right and the good – if it is strong enough – would trump the desire for the horse, even if the horse would be more fun.”
    With only this much said it sounds to me like you could just find yourself functionally disposed to not cheat on her taxes. Roughly it sounds to me like the desire’s trumping is just a matter of its being the stronger functional state, so I can’t see how this sort of explanation can make sense of the feeling that you *have to* give up your dream of owning a horse.
    Maybe if you fill out what the intrinsic desire for the right and good involves here you can clear this up?
    I also suspect a better case will involve respect for a person, not the law. For example, how about a case in which you have to stand up in the face of racism knowing that this will come at great cost to you and your family, and that your protest will likely fall of deaf ears. You might feel like you owe it to the person who is being mistreated to speak up, or that you owe it to yourself. How does your account handle these cases?

  13. Hi Nomy. Well, I hope you fully enjoyed your akrasia and binge-watched some “Breaking Bad” or something like that!
    It’s a good question – thinking of it now, my use of “empirical faculty of inclination” is jargony and not helpful. The contrast, in this context, with “empirical” is “rational”. So, the noumenal/phenomenal distinction is not at issue here, and I’m going to stay well away from it in what follows. (So, no, I definitely don’t mean to imply that reasoning is some spooky process that happens only in the noumenal realm, and occurs without brains.)
    I’ll focus, instead, on the experience of having an empirical versus a rational desire. Think of smelling a delicious pizza. The pizza smells, not just good, but like something good to eat. It arrives in my consciousness with content that is a guide to action: it is a pleasurable smell that serves as an incentive to eat the pizza. This is a sub- or pre-rational process. It’s more like having a sensation than like having a thought.
    Rational desires, by contrast, don’t work the same way. They are generated by reasoning through what I ought (or want) to do. For example, if I decide to study hard for my certification exam because it is a means to the career I also desire, this desire to study hard is generated by my own practical reason: it is a means to an end I also desire. It is not presented into my consciousness as pleasurable in the way that “empirical” desires are, without my having seemingly anything to do with it. For Kant, pleasure still enters the story. Unlike empirical desires, where pleasure comes with the desire (the pizza smells good) and serves as an incentive to act in the manner contained in the desire (eating the pizza, or what have you), the pleasure of a rational desire comes with its satisfaction. I feel good about having studied, once I do it.
    There’s probably more to be said, but does that help clarify what I meant?

  14. Hi Brad,
    OK, let me explain my deflationary account of the sense of duty, and then explain a way in which I think it has an advantage over more lofty, non-Humean accounts, using the examples of a Nazi, a saint, and a baseball fan (again).
    But first, notice what you are doing with your racism example. In order to make my motivation to stand up for racism sound as little like a desire as possible, what do you do? You make sure to remove pleasure from the equation – clarify that, when I stand up to racism, I will incur suffering and not even have the pleasure of of knowing that my action helped someone. This is what I am getting at. We often confused “don’t want to do it” with “it wouldn’t please me to do it”, and thus when something doesn’t promise to please us, but we are motivated to do it anyway, it feels pretty strange.
    When a desire promises only grief then it does not feel like a pull, as a “pull” is the pull of temptation, and temptation is, almost by definition, the promise of pleasure or relief from displeasure. Instead it feels like something that arrest and constrains us – an obnoxious presence in our mind that keeps us from the things that pull us, which we chase a lot of the time, and compels us to action kicking and screaming. When that desire is moral in character – say, a desire for justice for all, or a derivative but still non-instrumental desire that a particular person be treated fairly – then we have the feeling we call a sense of duty.
    The desire is not simply a state that makes you more likely to act in a certain way, like blind habit or a tic. It is also a state that makes you more likely to feel certain things (e.g watching the person treated unfairly and failing to correct it will make you very sad or angry , while a sudden and utterly unlikely turn in which the racists apologize and go away will make you ecstatic). It even makes more likely to cognize in certain ways (you noticed the injustice happening in the first place – other people would have barely paid attention, because justice isn’t something they particularly care about). But does it only motivate you to action just because it is “the strongest functional state?” Well, it’s a bit more complicated then that, but the basic answer is “yes”. This is a deflationary account, after all!
    Such a deflationary account of the sense of duty has certain advantages over accounts that say that it somehow has an epistemic, reason-responsive content and it somehow “tracks” real moral duties. One of them is the fact that things other than real moral duties can “compel” us to do things. For example:
    1) A Nazi can find himself “compelled” to leave his comfortable house on a cold night so he can kill more children.
    2) A morally saintly person finds herself “compelled” to hide a Jew from the Nazis in very dangerous conditions. It is a supererogatory action – and in a way she knows it, because she never blames others who didn’t hide people. Nonetheless, if you ask her what motivated her, she said she “had to”.
    3) A fan of the Red Sox is asked to wear a Yankees t-shirt and offered a bribe. He want the bribe badly, and he gets as far as holding the shirt near his head, but he can’t wear it, ever.
    These three are not motivated by “real” duties, but the sense of being compelled is there just fine, because all three agents swim against the direction their more pleasant desires and the desires for the pleasures these desires bring.

  15. Pete, thank you. That’s what you think Humeans do? Watch TV? While Kantians work sooooo hard? I think I understand what you mean now, though if that’s all you mean, I think that “non-empirical” is a misleadingly melodramatic term.

  16. Hi Nomy! (Owls owls owls!)
    Speaking of dogs, this post can’t help but arouse my dogmatic hedonist sympathies. (I am terribly proud of this segue.)
    I suppose I have played the role of supplicant in the unfortunate sorts of situations described in the OP. Since I have a fairly pronounced distaste for sour grapes, I have developed an intentional feeling of resentment for any (reflexive, childish) instinctive resentment when I am confronted with a good criticism. At my best, I have a sense of delight when the criticism actually hits the mark for the right kinds of reasons. But both of these intentional second-order feelings can be given a straightforward hedonistic characterization. i.e., it makes me sad to think that I would turn out to be the sort of person who can’t respond intelligently to good criticism from persons minimally worthy of my intellectual trust. Sure, the immediate sting feels bad sometimes, but it is mitigated by the second-order preferences of all involved, and the assumption that satisfaction of those greater life-plans will lead to greater happiness for all concerned.
    The important thing in that description is the idea of ‘mitigation’. There seems to be a bridge between the detached, theoretic notion that temporary suffering is for the best, and the visceral experience of sadness and self-disapprobation in the short-term. For me, this intuitive bridge is verbalized in stubborn characterological terms: “I am not this kind of person”. I need to fix this paper, because I refuse to be second-rate by my own lights, and I (more or less) trust my supervisor to have a reasonable idea of what counts as second-rate by my own lights. It follows that psychological or social disruptions to a person’s character — e.g., clinical depression, stereotype threat — will affect the person’s ability to perform their internalized duties, of bridging what they want with what they know they need. (And that retrodiction is more or less consistent with my experience with both.)
    I cannot speak to the issue of what it is like to be a supervisor in that situation. I imagine it is in some ways much more frustrating. Students will often have undefined, poorly articulated, imperfectly motivated life projects. Without being able to bank on a student’s character, the distance between theory and viscera is going to seem quite large. Perhaps the sense of distance between the demands of duty and the realities of practice owes to a lack of epistemic access to the needs of the student in the situation, which belongs in large part to the sort of person the student thinks they are.

  17. Hi Nomy, sorry for the slow response.
    You make some very good points, let me try to respond to some of them. First, I agree that satisfying your desires needn’t lead to pleasure (which I was assuming for the sake of argument, above). But I think this is potentially a problem for your attempt to explain the phenomenology. I think most people know this fact about desire and pleasure at some level. So why would we take the lack of pleasure to indicate the lack of desire?
    Second, and relatedly: the presence or lack of pleasure seems to be something that we would experience consequent upon (or at least, not prior to) confirmation of the satisfaction of desire. If that’s right, then it’s hard to see how it could influence how we experience the pull/push toward the action. (However, perhaps this is just to ignore the “progress principle”).
    I think my idea of reluctance/necessitation is better in these respects. Let me add one more piece to the puzzle, which I omitted before: aversion is phenomenologically distinct from desire. (“Satisfying” an aversion tends to prompt relief rather than pleasure). I suggest that the experience of duty often involves what is necessary for our intrinsic aversions. E.g. someone who hides a Jew from the Nazis is fundamentally motivated by an aversion to her murder, not by a desire for any particular state of affairs.
    Regarding dentists and job interviews: (1) the former is plausibly a case of aversion (to toothache) rather than desire; (2) I find it hard to imagine thinking that a trip to the dentist is sufficient for avoiding toothache; (3) Though I deny that derivative motivation to do A entails desire to do A, it is plausible that we can come to intrinsically desire certain means and other associated actions or ends. I’d argue that this is the case with job interviews. For example, arguably we get pleasure from getting interviews even when this doesn’t meaningfully increase the probability of getting the job we desire.
    Finally, in your reply you seem(?) to assume that being motivated by a desire should be phenomenologically equivalent to doing what you desire. I’m insisting on a distinction between these. The pleasantness associated with desire has to do with its object, not with its motivational effect [but again…the progress principle?].
    I’m afraid this post has been written in haste, so I apologize if I’m making any obvious mistake. Perhaps our explanations are complementary rather than competitors.

  18. Hi Steve,
    Thanks. It might just be true that we have complementary explanations. Here are a few thoughts.
    I accept the desire/aversion distinction, but I don’t think it can always explain the sense of duty. Just like helping someone for moral reasons does not feel like drinking coffee because you want coffee, telling the truth because of an aversion to lying doesn’t feel like killing a roach because you have an aversion to roaches. Well, OK, sometimes it is – but not when the sacrifice you make for morality is so humongous that nobody can say that “not being able to live with yourself” is worse.
    Let me explain.
    Suppose I am bothered by a nagging sense of duty to go to the Israeli consulate and renounce my Israeli citizenship. I do not stand to lose much emotionally – I am an identified American – but the process promises to be a serious pain in the ass and involve things of which I have phobias. Maybe what’s going on is me being torn by a clash of aversions, and hence the “negative” second layer of motivation – avoiding displeasure rather than pursuing pleasure. What would be more unpleasant, I wonder, going through the pain-in-the-ass process or facing insomnia due to knowing I haven’t deleted my name from that population registry? So far I’m with you.
    However, imagine that the stakes became higher. A person can expect to be tortured by the Nazis if he doesn’t “name names”. He has a huge aversion to treason, and if he names names he’ll never sleep well again. But if he withstands the torture, must we really say that he would have found guilty insomnia more unpleasant than being honest-to-God tortured, or that he expects to find guilty insomnia more unpleasant than being honest-to-God tortured? That would be stretching it. It would require a strange neurology.
    You can’t imagine expecting regular dentist visits to be a certain path to avoiding toothache? Well, I do fully expect it. Even if this example does not work for you, it’s true that there can be cases where actions are decisively unpleasant even though they are expected to bring wonderful things about with all certainty. I don’t think childbirth will become more pleasant the day it becomes risk-free.
    What I can’t imagine is coming to desire job interviews – or even to desire getting job interviews – intrinsically. I completely agree that sometimes instrumental desires turn intrinsic. You start doing philosophy because you think it will improve you LAST scores and you find yourself desiring it for its own sake. Sure. But getting job interviews? I can see it becoming a matter of self esteem instead of a matter of getting a job, but I can’t imagine it desired intrinsically, the way one desires to listen to the Beatles or to play with one’s child. Furthermore, back when I was on the market, when I got those calls, I didn’t think of it in terms of ego, either. I thought of it in terms of increasing my chances to get a job, even though they offered no certainty. And that caused pleasure.
    I agree that reluctance is a lot of the phenomenology of duty. Even Kant says that a good will is not called “duty” unless there are mental obstacles to it, aka “inclinations”. God acts out of good will, but not out of “Duty” because he does not have inclinations to struggle with.
    It’s true that acting for the sake of a desire isn’t desire satisfaction, but still, the thing about dutiful action is that it does not promise any pleasure. Kant emphasizes often that Duty, unlike Inclination, never “holds forth” anything “charming or enticing”, and that’s how you can tell that it “proudly denies any kinship with the inclinations”. People who say “I don’t want to do X, but I have to do it” almost always talk about an X that is unpleasant. Philosophers who want to tell me that desire is an inferior motive for moral action always do it by bringing up paradigmatic desires that cause pleasure with their satisfaction, like thirst or a desire for pizza. Brad pressured me on cases where we take on a lot of suffering for the sake of morality. So I think, whatever people’s conscious psychological views, “desire” goes with “pleasure” and “duty” with joylessness.

  19. Ben,
    It seems to me your aversion to being second rate is not the least bit hedonistic. You are intrinsically averse to BEING second-rate, not to FEELING second-rate. You would, if you could press a button etc etc, choose being a first-rate philosopher with low self esteem over being a second-rate philosopher with high self-esteem.

  20. Nomy,
    That’s a fair interpretation. But is it obligatory for the virtuous to think there is a major difference between ‘being a person’ and ‘possessing feelings’ of a certain sort?
    On the one hand, they are not semantic equivalents. When I say, “I am averse to being second-rate by my own lights”, I am not using coded language to say, “I am averse to feeling second-rate by my own lights”. Strictly speaking, they are also not intentional equivalents, since they are two different thoughts that are about two different objects. Hence, I can safely make an intelligent choice between being in the experience machine and not, choose to be a Socrates dissatisfied instead of a …, etc.
    On the other hand, there has got to be a significant two-way relationship between thoughts about ‘being a person’ and thoughts about ‘feeling’. To borrow a point from Paul Tillich, ‘being a person’ intuitively suggests ‘feeling’, given that people are naturally anxious about perceived existential threats. And ‘feeling’ weakly suggests ‘being a person’, since it is not unreasonable to believe that reliable facts about how I feel about various projects and experiences are partly constitutive of who I am. Those are the psychological senses in which character self-ascriptions can evidently function as a bridge between perceived need and want.
    Of course, I have not tried to establish a connection between the sense of personal necessity and the sense of moral obligation in general. It may be our moral duties are sometimes quite joyless. But that seems like the right story to tell. To the extent that morality alienates us from our character (e.g., due to lack of epistemic information or commitment to full impartiality), it must be a joyless sort of thing.
    (Indeed, if our duties are Kantian, then it will take a soul very much unlike mine to find any joy at all in a moral life. According to Kant, moral pleasure is “that which must be preceded by the law in order that it may be felt”, from Meta. Elements of Ethics. Actually, pace Korsgaard, it is the Kantian moral psychology that sounds quite a lot like it is describing the delight of a trained dog. Follow the rules, then maybe you get a treat.)

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