Crítica, Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Volume 26, number 76-77, abril/agosto 1994
Deseos distinguidos
Mark Platts
Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Abstract: 1. In the paper "Distinguished Desires”, Mark Platts examines
three basic, widely spread opinions about desires:

(i) Desires are not susceptible of a reasonable evaluation nor
can be a product of reason.

(ii) Desires are active powers, internal forces which prompt the
agents to act.

(iii) Desires are not propositional attitudes.

2. Adopting the first opinion has carried along several consequences
in all realms of our life, particularly in the socio-political
one. But Platts fights that conception of desire as something
immune to reasonings: he thinks that there are ways of reasonably
supporting judgements about desires. Take the desire of
power for example; we can come to notice that in order to satisfy
such a desire it is necessary to adopt a "political way of life”,
and that this in turn seems to require a lack of sensibility towards
genuine moral concerns and a disposition to give up one’s
own convictions. These considerations, Platts suggests, might be
taken as a support —and indeed a reasonable one— for some
judgement about the desire of power. A reasonable evaluation
about the desire of power can thus take place. Whether those
considerations could possibly have some bearing on the actions
of a person who has the desire is another matter.

3. In order to combat the extended view of desires as active
powers, Platts endorses Thomas Reid’s critique of several ideas
related to this conception in its philosophical expression. First,
Reid notices that one who adopts the view that every intentional
action is prompted by a desire —a motive, in Reid’s terms—,
and that when there are "contrary motives” the strongest must
be the one which determines the agent to act, is comparing
motives and actions with ordinary causes and effects. A serious
difficulty with such a comparison is that, on Reid’s own words,
"nothing is left to the agent, but to be acted upon by the motives”.
Secondly, he sees that this model of human action is
in need of some notion of the comparative intensity of desires,
in the light of which the thesis that "when there are contrary motives, the strongest must prevail” is either trivial or empirically
false. Thirdly, Reid detects a difficulty with those cases
in which there is no motive on the other side and the only one
available must dictate the action: this, he claims, would lead us
to deny "such thing as willfulness, caprice or obstinacy among

4. Platts examines the rejection of the thesis that holds that
desires are propositional attitudes. Hume is traditionally interpreted
(Kenny is the best example) as maintaining this third
conception of desires, for he writes that a passion or desire is
"an original existence” which "contains not any representative
quality”, and that this is why passions cannot be opposed by reason,
since the objects of reason are "ideas, consider’d as copies,
with those objects, which they represent”. The targets of our
desires, on the other hand, are not any "real relations of ideas”
nor "real existences”. As Platts reads Hume, this is so because
our desires are directed to the world of realities, even though
they do not purport to represent it but to modify it.

Nevertheless, Platts does not conclude, as Kenny does, that
Hume denies the propositional character of desires. Rather,
in Hume’s theory, the object of the attitude of desire shall be,
indeed, some "idea” or proposition, whereas the objective of the
state of desire shall never be some "real existence”. It may now
be inferred (although not in a straightforward way) that Hume
should agree with the thesis that desires are isolated from reason.
"Given Hume’s ideas on causal relations and rational relations
—Platts writes— Hume cannot have any coherent idea of reasonable
causation (of the relation of giving rise to).” It will
be impossible for him to reconcile the causal role of mental
states with the rationalization role of the propositional contents
of those states. Thus, Hume has to render as senseless the idea
of a process of reasoning taking place within the natural world;
consequently, for him there cannot be a process of reasoning
directed to evaluate or modify the desires, "original existences”,
one happens to have.

5. The last philosopher that Platts takes into consideration is the
Bertrand Russell of The Analysis of Mind, who does maintain a
non-propositional theory of desires. First of all, Platts considers
it convenient to take a look at Russell’s ideas on beliefs. In his analysis, a belief has three elements: the attitude of believing,
"an actual experienced feeling”; the content of the belief,
which consists in "present occurrences in the believer”; and the
objective of the belief, "the particular fact that makes a given
belief true or false”. Now, the contents of the beliefs, Russell
claims, might be identified with propositions, although from this
he does not derive that the objects of desires are not propositions.
His argument against the conception of desires as propositional
attitudes (which he supposes to be a "common sense”
opinion) is of another kind: he invokes the existence of two phenomena
which challenge that conception, to wit, the frequency
with which human beings act upon unconscious desires, on the
one hand, and, on the other, the fact that non-human animals
act from mere "impulsion[s] from behind”, not from "attraction[
s] from the future”; and if non-human animals do not have
purposes, why should we believe, in spite of Darwin, that human
beings do have them?

Russell thinks that our faith in rationality is inspired by the
fact that humans usually have beliefs about their own desires,
about which objects would satisfy such desires. He then sketches
a theory that tries to prove that attributing a desire does not
require attributing beliefs about that same desire (unconscious
desires are, by definition, desires lacking any kinds of beliefs
about them). Those beliefs are to be separated from the desire
itself, which therefore proves to be non-propositional.
Even though beliefs about desires do not seem to represent
a problem for Russell’s theory, Platts finds that practical deliberation
poses a serious difficulty for it. Take the concepts of a
reason to act and of an intentional action: if desires do not have
objects, the contents of an agent’s belief could never link with
the inexistent contents of that agent’s desires. A belief could not
give rise to an intentional action directed to satisfy some given
desire in the absence of another specific desire with some specific
content, i.e., the desire to have the first desire satisfied. Russell
is cautious and avoids the use of such problematic concepts, but
the truth is that the concept of intentional action is not so easily

[Laura Lecuona]

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