The Rational Significance of Desire

Dissertation, Columbia University (2013)
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My dissertation addresses the question "do desires provide reasons?" I present two independent lines of argument in support of the conclusion that they do not. The first line of argument emerges from the way I circumscribe the concept of a desire. Complications aside, I conceive of a desire as a member of a family of attitudes that have imperative content, understood as content that displays doability-conditions rather than truth-conditions. Moreover, I hold that an attitude may provide reasons only if it has truth-evaluable content. Insofar as desires lack truth-evaluable content, I hold that the content of a desire has the wrong kind of logical structure to provide reasons. My second line of argument claims that even if a desire did have truth-evaluable content, it would not follow that desires provide reasons. This is because a desire has no more rational significance than a guess or coin-flip. My argument relies on what I call the non-substitutability principle, the thesis that (all things being equal) one cannot substitute something that lacks rational significance, relative to some attitude, A, for something that has rational significance, relative to A, and leave the rational standing of A unchanged. For example, one cannot substitute the guess that P (i.e., something that lacks rational significance relative to the belief that P) for the perception that P (i.e., something that is rationally significant relative to the belief that P) without altering the rational standing of the belief. I argue that when the non-substitutability principle is applied to a desire that gives rise to an intention, it turns out that one can always substitute a guess or coin-flip (i.e., something that lacks rational significance relative to the intention) for the desire, without altering the rational standing of the intention. I take this to show that desires are not rationally significant relative to the intentions to which they give
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