Sunday, February 27, 2005

Desire, Satisfaction, and Intrinsic Goods

Some desires are satisfied by being sated, or eliminated. Suppose I am thirsty. It would not be accurate to say that I desire water; what I desire is a drink of water. To be exact, it is the drinking of water by me that I desire. For that, water is of course required; but it is not the water itself but the drinking of the water that I desire. What this physical desire aims at is its own cessation. I desire that my thirst shall cease. I drink until my thirst (my desire for water) is quenched (eliminated). It is the same with hunger. It is not food that I desire, but the eating of food by me so that my hunger will cease. An even clearer case is heroin addiction. The junkie desires his fix not to attain a positive state of pleasure, but to get rid of the pain of the withdrawal symptoms. If he could eliminate the pain without injecting heroin, he would do so. Here then is a pure case in which desire is a desire for its own cessation. The desire does not aim at a good external to itself: it aims solely at its own elimination. In the case of a desire for shot of heroin on the part of an addict (as opposed to someone just beginning to use the stuff), there cannot be a good external to the satisfaction, by elimination, of the desire. The only good in this case is a good definable in terms of the satisfaction of desire. The water itself is good, of course, but only instrumentally in that it is a means to the end of thirst-quenching.

Some desires, then, aim at their own cessation. In such cases, a desire satisfied is a desire eliminated. There are other desires, however, that are satisfied by being fulfilled or completed rather than by being sated or eliminated. The addict simply wants to get rid of his craving by any means possible. For that he doesn’t need heroin – a total blood transfusion would do just as well. But the desire for understanding – e.g., my desire to understand the nature of desire and solve the attendant philosophical problems that are ‘tormenting’ me -- is not a desire for its own cessation. I don’t simply want to get rid of the desire – something I could achieve Hunter Thompson style by blowing my brains out – I want the fulfillment of the desire, its completion. A desire completed is not the same as a desire eliminated. A desire is fulfilled or completed when it attains a good external to the desire.

Or consider someone’s desire that a wrong be righted. (An innocent man has been convicted of a capital crime and sits on death row, and his attorney desires that this wrong be righted.) A desire for justice cannot be satisfied by the mere cessation of the desire; what is required is that the external good aimed at by the desire be attained. If the external good is attained, then two things are attained: the external good and the internal good of desire-satisfaction.

Now in the cases in which a desire is fulfilled rather than simply eliminated, what fulfills the desire is a good the goodness of which cannot be identified with its satisfying the desire. Consider again the desire for understanding. Although the satisfying of the desire to understand is itself good, understanding is good not merely because it satisfies a desire for understanding, but because it satisfies the desire in a certain way, namely, by bringing the desirer into contact with something intrinsically good. And in the case of the attorney seeking justice for his client, the righting of the wrong is not good merely because it satisfies a desire on the part of the attorney for the righting of a wrong, but because righting the wrong is an intrinsic good.

Understanding is intrinsically good. It is good in itself, and not in virtue of its relation to a desirer whose desire it satisfies. The desire for understanding is not just a desire for the satisfaction of this desire, but also a desire for something whose goodness is intrinsic to it.

If this is right, then the good cannot be reduced to the satisfaction of desire. And if the good cannot be reduced to the satisfaction of desire, then the good cannot be reduced, pace Jim Ryan, to the rationally desirable. For whether or not a thing is rationally desirable, it is desirable. And if X is not desirable because it it is intrinsically good, then X is desirable only because it can satisfy desire. But what I have shown above is that there are intrinsic goods such as understanding and justice, goods that cannot be reduced to what people desire, can desire, or would desire were they to know all the relevant facts surrouinding their desiring. These goods are good whether we desire them or not.

Note that I am not denying the truth of the biconditional, ‘X is good iff X is rationally desirable,’ for it can be interpreted in such a way that it comes out trivially true. For if the desirer is en rapport with every fact relevant to himself, his situation, and the object of this desire, then what could count as a counterexample to the biconditional? What I am saying is that the trivial truth of Ryan’s biconditional does not sanction the reduction of the good to the rationally desirable. The reduction would follow logically only in the presence of some additional premises. What could those be? And given that there are intrinsic goods, as I have argued, the reduction must fail.

Note also that if the truth (or the necessary truth) of a biconditional sanctions a reduction, why must the reduction move from right to left rather than from left to right? Why not argue that the truth of the above biconditional sanctions the reduction of the rationally desirable to the good?

Indeed, that is exactly what I would argue. The rationally desirable is rationally desirable because it is good, and not good because it is rationally desirable. Similarly with truth: what is true is warrantedly assertible (rationally justifiable at the ideal limit of inquiry, etc., pick your epistemic/doxastic catchphrase) because it is true; it is not true because it is warrantedly assertible.