Desire-as-Belief Revisited

Analysis 69 (1):31-37 (2009)
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On Hume’s account of motivation, beliefs and desires are very different kinds of propositional attitudes. Beliefs are cognitive attitudes, desires emotive ones. An agent’s belief in a proposition captures the weight he or she assigns to this proposition in his or her cognitive representation of the world. An agent’s desire for a proposition captures the degree to which he or she prefers its truth, motivating him or her to act accordingly. Although beliefs and desires are sometimes entangled, they play very different roles in rational agency. In two classic papers (Lewis 1988, 1996), David Lewis discusses several challenges to this Humean picture, but ultimately rejects them. We think that his discussion of a central anti-Humean alternative – the desire-as-belief thesis – is in need of refinnement. On this thesis, the desire for proposition p is given by the belief that p is desirable. Lewis claims that ‘[e]xcept in trivial cases, [this thesis] collapses into contradiction’(Lewis 1996, p. 308). The problem, he argues, is that the thesis is inconsistent with the purportedly plausible requirement that one’s desire for a proposition should not change upon learning that the proposition is true; call this the invariance requirement. In this paper, we revisit Lewis’s argument. We show that, if one carefully distinguishes between non-evaluative and evaluative propositions, the desire-asbelief thesis can be rendered consistent with the invariance requirement. Lewis’s conclusion holds only under certain conditions: the desire-as-belief thesis conflicts with the invariance requirement if and only if there are certain correlations between non-evaluative and evaluative propositions. But when there are such correlations, we suggest, the invariance requirement loses its plausibility. Thus Lewis’s argument against the desire-as-belief thesis appears to be valid only in cases in which it is unsound.

Author Profiles

Christian List
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München
Richard Bradley
London School of Economics


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