Quirky desires and well-being.

Author:Bruckner, Donald W.

A DESIRE-SATISFACTION THEORY OF WELL-BEING claims that the satisfaction of one's desires is what makes one's life go well. Against this it is frequently objected that some desires--such as the desire to count blades of grass or to collect a giant heap of lint--cannot be relevant to one's well-being. I argue that the satisfaction of such desires--I call them "quirky" desires--does indeed contribute to well-being, provided (and only provided) that the desirer satisfies a minimal accountability condition, a condition that is satisfied if and only if the desirer would be able, if called upon, to provide an Anscombian desirability characterization of the object of the desire. To make the case, I argue that the satisfaction of any run-of-the mill desire contributes to one's well-being if and only if one meets the minimal accountability condition. I argue by analogy with run-of-the mill desires that the satisfaction of a quirky desire contributes to one's well-being, just in case the same condition is met. After sketching this solution to the problem of quirky desires, I show that this response is better than other responses that have been given by desire theorists and further develop this solution by responding to several objections.

  1. The Desire Theory of Well-Being

    A theory of well-being provides an account of what is good for one--that is, what contributes to one's welfare. The desire-satisfaction theory of well-being claims that the satisfaction of one's desires is what contributes to one's welfare. This account has intuitive appeal. If I desire a cool glass of water on a hot summer day, I am better off if I get that glass of water than if I do not. If I desire the bucolic life but I have to live in a congested city, then the frustration of that desire is bad for me.

    The aim of this paper is to defend the desire-satisfaction theory against an objection widely thought to be devastating to the theory. Although this paper does not aim at a full development and justification of the desire theory, it is important to note one of the chief motivations and advantages of the desire theory. The desire theory satisfies the desideratum that whatever is claimed to be good for an agent by a theory of well-being must resonate with that agent. What is good for one must not be alienating to the one for whom it is good. What is good for one must not leave one cold or indifferent to the prospect of its coming about. Rather, one must positively care about, be engaged or compelled by, or have a pro-attitude toward what will enhance one's well-being. I will accept this resonance condition, leaving it largely undefended. (1) To give it a label, call this condition the necessity of resonance.

    In addition to the necessity of resonance, a desire theory is committed to a second condition. A completely unrestricted desire theory claims that resonance with something is sufficient for it to be good for one: if one has a proattitude toward something, then getting that thing is good for one. A more cautious version of the desire theory will say that having a pro-attitude toward a thing merely creates a presumption in favor of that thing being good for one. I will be defending a version of the desire theory that makes this weaker claim, that resonance with something creates a defeasible presumption in favor of its goodness for one. To give it a label, call this the resonance presumption.

    As a final piece of stage setting, it will be useful to clarify the scope of a desire theory. A desire theory of welfare is about what is good for one, or what is often described as one's prudential or personal good. It is not about what is morally good. So if one desires to push unsuspecting pedestrians into the paths of oncoming buses, then it is better for one if one satisfies that desire than if one does not. It is no objection--from the perspective of what the theory aims to accomplish--that the theory implies that the perpetration of some moral wrong could be good for one. As well, the theory is about what is intrinsically good for one, as opposed to what is good instrumentally. Suppose one desires to do something that could get one fired from one's job, say insulting the owner of the company. As far as that desire goes, one does better with it satisfied, never mind that satisfying it is instrumentally inconsistent with, say, remaining employed in order to purchase necessities. So the desire theory is a theory about intrinsic value, not about instrumental rationality or instrumental value. Finally, and now hopefully clearly enough, the desire theory is not about what is good for others, it is not about what is aesthetically good, good from the standpoint of a meaningful life or good from any other perspective. It is about what is intrinsically good for one, full stop.

  2. The Problem of Quirky Desires

    A problem arises for the desire theory upon consideration of quirky desires. A quirky desire is one that is difficult to understand or appears downright inscrutable, extremely strange, unusual or maximally idiosyncratic. Rawls' fellow who desires to count the blades of grass in park squares and welltrimmed lawns (1971: 434) is the classic example, and Anscombe's desire for a saucer of mud (1963: 70) runs a close second. Susan Wolf mentions the desire to make handwritten copies of War and Peace (2010: 16), while others cite the desire to make a giant ball of string by tying together small lengths of string. (2)

    It is difficult to believe that the satisfaction of any of these quirky desires could contribute to the well-being of those who hold them. What makes the desire to count blades of grass appear inscrutable is that it is difficult to see what the grass counter sees in the activity. That is, the object of the desire is baffling and seems unworthy of pursuit. Contrast this with the desire to go outside and watch the sunset from the deck. It is easy to believe that the satisfaction of this desire could contribute to the desirer's well-being. For this sort of desire is not at all strange or unusual. Perhaps we ourselves have had this desire or similar ones. The object of the desire seems perfectly sensible and worthy of pursuit. Counting blades of grass, by contrast, seems worthless, and essentially so. It seems like a pointless waste of time.

    This is the problem of quirky desires. (3) Whatever the desire theory has going for it, the problem of quirky desires, some allege, shows something deeply wrong with the desire theory. What it shows to be wrong is that having a desire for a thing does not even create a presumption in favor of the goodness of getting that thing, for it is implausible to suppose that counting blades of grass or having a saucer of mud could be welfare-enhancing. David Brink, for instance, presents the case of "someone devoted to collecting lint" as an illustration of the problem for the desire theory--namely that "it attaches significance to satisfying desire without in any way constraining the content of desire" (2008: 24). Similarly, Richard Kraut complains that the "main deficiency" of the desire theory is that "it is too accepting of desires as they stand" (1994: 40). Kraut considers a person with "the project of knocking down as many icicles as he can before they melt" and asserts that we "fail to see why it is worth his while to undertake this project" (1994: 42). Brink, Kraut and others (4) take the problem of quirky desires as an insurmountable objection against the desire theory, for they take it as obvious that the satisfaction of desires with such objects as collecting lint or knocking down icicles does not and could not contribute to well-being. So they take these as obvious counterexamples to what I have stated as the resonance presumption. If the resonance presumption were true, then there would be a presumption in favor of the goodness of collecting dryer lint and of knocking down icicles for the ones who desire those things. Those things are so obviously irrelevant to well-being that there is no presumption that they are good for those who desire them. So the resonance presumption is not true.

    There is an internal debate among desire theorists about how to respond to the problem of quirky desires. Some desire theorists seem to agree that quirky desires show that the resonance presumption is false. They respond by appealing to a modified desire theory that includes conditions on desires in order for their satisfaction genuinely to contribute to one's well-being, conditions on desires for them to be welfare-relevant, as I will often say. (5) In other words, some desire theorists think that there is not a presumption in favor of the goodness of satisfying just any desire. Only desires that first pass through an appropriate filter are welfare-relevant. For an example of such a filter, consider Brandt's theory, according to which the desires that count are the ones that would survive critical reflection through exposure to relevant information, a process he calls cognitive psychotherapy (1979: 11, 113, 126-29). As well, Railton advances a theory according to which "an individual's good consists in what he would want himself to want ... were he to contemplate his present situation from a standpoint fully and vividly informed about himself and his circumstances, and entirely free of cognitive error or lapses of instrumental rationality" (1986a: 16; see also 1986b). (6) Quirky desires seem to be ruled out by the tests proposed by Brandt and Railton--for, one is tempted to think, if the grass counter had full information about himself and his capacities, all of his alternative activities, and the costs and dearth of positive aspects of grass counting, his desire to count blades of grass would not survive critical reflection and he would not want himself to want to count blades of grass after getting such information. Only desires that would pass such a test or tests contribute to one's well-being. So the satisfaction...

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