Wanting and Doing

by Daniel A. Kaufman


I do not understand my own actions.

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

–Paul, Letter to the Romans 7.15 (Revised Standard Version)


Remarks by Crispin Sartwell on addiction, during our second dialogue on my Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics, as well as several interesting conversations with a psychotherapist on habits [and breaking them] have got me thinking more about the relationship between desire and action; between wanting and doing. It is an important issue in philosophy and especially, ethics, the latter of which depends on the idea that people do things for reasons. In my own philosophy, I’ve used this idea to distinguish actions from mere events.

There is a certain line of thinking that has been part of the Western narrative since antiquity, one source of which is the Pauline letters of the Christian New Testament and especially, the Letter to the Romans, quoted above. I’ll refer to it as the “weakness of will” tradition, and it goes something like this: I can want to do something and yet wind up doing exactly the opposite; i.e. what I do not want. In Christianity, this weakness is taken as being metaphysical and endemic – a legacy of the so-called “Fall of Man” – and only resolvable via divine intervention. In contemporary addiction discourse, it is taken as being sufficiently beyond most people’s ordinary means to overcome as to require extraordinary measures, the most rigorous of which involve ascriptions of powerlessness that rival and sometimes even explicitly evoke their Christian counterpart, as in the case of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I would suggest, however, that the tradition leads nowhere and when considered in light of the subconscious and unconscious is unsustainable. I am speaking in intellectual terms, of course. That a school of thought or intellectual tradition is incoherent or lacking in warrant need not mean that it is inefficacious. The claim is not that programs like AA do not work.

On the Christian side of things, the Fall of Man is supposed to have robbed us of our capacity to control ourselves to such a complete degree that Divine Grace is the only means by which a person can overcome it. Augustine maintained that this Grace restores us to our natural, “pre-Fall” condition; one in which we are able to act as we intend. But how do we accept this Grace, prior to having received it? At this point, we are still in our compromised condition. And if we have sufficient mastery over ourselves to accept Divine Grace, why don’t we have sufficient mastery to do good in the first place, in which case Grace is entirely unnecessary? [If this all doesn’t strike you as confused enough, consider that it sets the stage for Calvinist Predestinarianism, which represents the gold standard of confused religious takes.]

The addiction version suffers from similar problems.  Everything involved in attending, sticking with, and embracing the programs and philosophies that are successful in getting people sober involves precisely the agency that the addiction version of the tradition claims addicts lack. And it would seem as if substantial numbers of those who cease drinking or drug taking or unhealthy eating do so on their own which, again, would suggest that whatever the phenomenon of addiction is, it does not involve any actual loss of agency or require extraordinary interventions, as a general matter.

My interest here is not in making some sense of the concept of addiction. Indeed, I am fast coming to the view that it is primarily a moral and even a political concept rather than a genuinely medical or psychotherapeutic one. Instead, I am interested in coming to some greater clarity regarding the intersection of desire and action. Or perhaps more accurately: coming to greater clarity with regard to why there is likely to remain a certain lack of clarity regarding it.

That people want things is undeniable. That people do things is also undeniable. That people do things because they want things is also undeniable. [Just this morning, I turned the espresso machine on, because I wanted to make – and drink – espresso.] Those who do so – i.e. deny these things – always do so in the grip of some theory or other that is inevitably less plausible than the thing it purports to deny.

One barrier to clarity on the relationship between wanting and doing is that our desires are many, complex, and operate not just at the conscious level, but also at the semi- and un-conscious ones, so we often are unaware or only vaguely aware of some of the reasons for our actions. Another difficulty is that our desires are often conflicted: we want one thing, but also want another thing that contradicts it. A third is our capacity to deceive ourselves and others as to our motives. When you combine all three – I may be aware of wanting one thing, but unaware of wanting another that contradicts it or I may be aware of both and lie to myself and to others about one of them – you can see just how bad the problem is and why claims that one did what one didn’t want to do may be glib, inaccurate, and even sometimes self-serving.

One last obstacle to clarity that I will mention is a confused conception of the relevant relata: desires and actions. I’ve written quite a bit about this, so I won’t repeat myself too much, but there is a tendency to view desires and actions as discrete material events. [Or as a discrete non-material event and a discrete material one. In this regard, the Cartesian and the Physicalist are on the same page.] Desires are said to be these chemical-electrical things in your head [or “spiritual substance” things in your head], and actions are movements of your arms, legs, mouth, etc. This makes it possible to separate the two and express the idea of doing something on a kind of autopilot in contradiction with one’s desires. The trouble, of course – and as I’ve noted on several occasions – is that actions, as opposed to mere motor movements, are intentionally “thick,” which means that there can’t be any sans representations and reasons. Your body may engage in various movements absent any representation or reason, but a person doesn’t act in their absence. My arm may shoot up, as might occur during a muscle spasm, but I only hail a cab when that set of motor movements is represented by me and by others in particular ways and within the context of various aims or purposes, with corresponding conceptions of what counts as success and failure. [1] In the absence of actual action, there is neither anything to interpret nor to engage with ethically, other than perhaps via the crudest sort of consequentialism and I doubt it even makes sense from within that framework.

I presume that those engaged in discourse having to do with addiction or morality are concerned with the things we do – i.e. with our actions – not with the involuntary movements to which our bodies are prone. That is, I take the concern with excessive and destructive drinking or drug taking or eating to be fundamentally different from the sort we might have over the kinds of involuntary movements associated with, say, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, or the like. And with regard to the former, representations, reasons, and aims cannot but be a central part of the picture.

So we are back then to the idea of doing what you don’t want. I don’t think there’s such a thing.  Rather, there are: [a] things one does when one is consciously conflicted [aware of wanting two or more things that contradict or otherwise interfere with one another] and chooses one over the other [about which one might then lie to oneself and to others]; and [b] things one does when one is conflicted and only somewhat aware or completely unaware of the conflicting desire [as when one or more conflicting desire is sub- or unconscious].

But actually doing something – acting – when one in no way wants it and in fact, wants its opposite? I don’t think so. [2]

One of the things that caused me to gain a lot of weight was eating late at night on a regular basis. Indeed, I would describe it as having become a regular habit; part of the night’s routine. And once the weight became not just dangerous but profoundly uncomfortable, I certainly wanted to stop. Yet, I didn’t, at least, not right away. Indeed, it probably was more than a year before I even began reducing the frequency with which I did it, and it took even more time after that before I was regularly sticking to a “no food after dinner” regimen.

Was I acting contrary to my desires? Was I experiencing catastrophic “weakness of will”? Was I “addicted” to late night eating? Some might want to say such things, but they wouldn’t be true. Certainly, once I was regularly entertaining the desire to stop, I was acting contrary to a desire, but it was not contrary to all desire. I wanted to stop, but I also clearly wanted to continue, and for all sorts of perfectly ordinary, comprehensible reasons.

I eventually did stop; not entirely, but sufficiently enough to begin losing serious weight [in conjunction with other lifestyle changes, including a regular exercise regimen, I’m down about 50 pounds from my heaviest]. Are these “lapses”? When I have a late-night snack, have I “fallen off the wagon”? Again, some might want to say such things, but they strike me as mischaracterizations. At some point, my desire to lose weight simply became stronger, on average, than my desire to eat late at night, but not so overwhelmingly so that there are never occasions, where the balance doesn’t tip the other way. It just doesn’t happen very often. This seems normal and unexceptional and what one would expect.

Interestingly, what I’ve found in confronting this and other well-entrenched habits is that there never really is a moment of decision, when one “decides” and forges a new course. Rather, one just finds oneself doing less of something or more of something else, and it is only at that point that it makes sense to ascribe a change in desire or in the balance of desires. This too is unsurprising given that in the case of longstanding habits, whatever desires are being served have long sunk into the obscuring mists of the sub- and unconscious and are only really discernible in the behaviors themselves. When in the grip of habits, one may have the impression, then, of being on autopilot or acting for no reason – or contrary to reason – but it is a false one that obscures rather than clarifies matters.


[1] I wrote about this cluster of issues in the following essays:




[2] In my essay on free will, I addressed scenarios in which one does things under the control of another person, and described them as ones in which the controlling person is in fact the person who acted by proxy, using the controlled person’s bodily movements.


27 responses to “Wanting and Doing”

  1. Peter Smith

    I’m down about 50 pounds from my heaviest

    Well done. that is impressive. I am sure you must be feeling much better in yourself and about yourself.

  2. Peter Smith

    Certainly, once I was regularly entertaining the desire to stop, I was acting contrary to a desire, but it was not contrary to all desire. I wanted to stop, but I also clearly wanted to continue, and for all sorts of perfectly ordinary, comprehensible reasons.

    So, it would seem that the balance of your desires changed, with the new desire dominating the old desire. But you, the inner Dan, chose to nudge your desires, changing the balance into a more useful direction.

  3. Oh yes. Absolutely. And thanks!

  4. Desires don’t really exist. And, for that matter, beliefs don’t really exist.

    People have urges, drives preferences, etc. But both “desire” and “belief” refer to things that are too specific to actually exist, except perhaps for a fleeting moment in our thoughts.

  5. All I need for my essay is the fact that people want things.

  6. Interesting, but what I miss a bit in your piece is the social context of our actions and desires. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to suggest that desires are to a large degree personal things.

    Sometimes this is true I suppose, but often we look at our desires or the consequences of our actions through the eyes of others. I don’t know the opinion of mrs. Kaufman about your body size, but I do know what my wife thinks about me when I’m gaining weight because the weather is bad and I can’t go out to ride the kilos away on my race bike.

    So I skip that second serving of spaghetti con la bottarga, although it’s my favorite dish and I’m craving that second serving.

    On one level, the desire to please my wife is my own. But the point is that the meaning of “pleasing my wife” is not in my own hands. The meanings with which I describe my desires are often *not* my own and it’s not entirely clear to me if talking about personal desires makes sense in those cases. I’m not certain my actions can be reduced to consequences of my desires, because these desires often actually can’t be reduced to something that’s entirely personal.

    Losing 50 pounds it quite impressive, by the way. It took me ages to lose 5 kgs after I graduated.

  7. Azin

    In the final analysis, we do what we want, compelled by urges, drives and preferences, as per Rickert or, as the rest of the world would say, desires. [What a loss to poetry, prose and romance to exile – desire!] Now I even have to doubt I even “believe” that.

    Anyway, in my own unsophisticated way I’ve come to the same “belief “ as you (at least I think I have.). Your example of doing something you’d rather not was eating and gaining weight. Mine was promiscuity and not being faithful. I simply found all attractive women, by my standards of course, irresistible and the objects of my “desire” ( that pesky word again) to be acted upon. All this was pre AIDS so I didn’t have that to impede my reckless ways. Even in a committed relationship I was not to be deterred and tried to ponder excuses to rationalize my behavior. I at least had the moral rigor that I would never subject a women to this in marriage.

    Was my mind not stronger than my testicles? Oh, I tried to blame it all on those little devils, I was an oversexed addict and couldn’t control myself. But, eventually I admitted I could control myself but in the final cul de sac of analysis, I admitted I really didn’t want to. I wanted as much sex with as many different women as I could get and it wasn’t the Devil making me do it.

    I’m quite older now and faithfully and happily married. I imagine age has helped temper my desires or, at least acting on them. I don’t think biology can ever be fully dismissed in our consideration of wants and behavior.
    I once read somewhere that, I think it was Socrates, or one of those other famous Greek philosophers, that said he welcomed reaching his 70’s. It finally relieved him of the tortures and distractions of lust.

  8. Rageforthemachine

    What most people don’t realize, and is quite clear if you read the first edition of the Big Book is that AA, and subsequently all 12-step based programs, are faith-based treatment programs. They were designed that way, and they never pretended to be anything else. It is only as we became a more secular culture that they approach was frowned on and had to be couches in different terms. The idea that your higher power will take away your addiction is not a metaphor. The problem is that within the philosophy of 12-step it doesn’t make a lot sense to substitute anything as your higher power. The higher power has to be something, by definition, that has the power to take away your addiction. It is almost a form of transcendental reasoning .That is essentially why I could never take to the 12-step method. It wasn’t so much the God part as that I never really understood what I was supposed to be doing in treatment because the answer is nothing, by definition you can’t to anything to help yourself.

    The first non-12 step program was Jack Trimpey’s Rational Recovery. Trimpey summed up the addiction experience in a much more succinct way that I think answers most of our questions. Why do people drink/drug/binge/gamble/sexually act out? One word, Pleasure. People do these things because they feel good. In the RR model you absolutely needed to exercise your rational mind because no one BUT you could take away your addiction. Only you could choose to forgo the immediate pleasure for longer term gain. Because of that Teimpey even dissolved the RR meetings as they didn’t fit in with that philosophy. The meetings only carried in under the new SMART Recovery organization.

  9. Rageforthemachine

    Curious, could you elaborate, I don’t think I am understanding what you mean.

  10. Charles Justice

    Dan, your approach to addiction reminds me a lot of the Philosopher Herbert Fingarette, whose work centered on accountability. He wrote “Heavy Drinking” where he criticized the disease model of addiction. This is a link to his obit: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/obituaries/herbert-fingarette-dead.html

    Herbert Fingarette, Contrarian Philosopher on Alcoholism, Dies at 97
    In “Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease” (1988), Professor Fingarette all but accused the treatment industry of conspiring to profit from the conventional theory that alcoholism is a disease. He maintained that heavy use of alcohol is a “way of life,” that many heavy drinkers can choose to reduce their drinking to moderate levels, and that most definitions of the word “alcoholic” are phony.” He also wrote a book called “Mapping Responsibility”, which I find particularly valuable.

  11. Gottlob Frege

    This is a puzzling claim. I want my dad to be in less pain, to be more patient with my mom. I believe he was born in North Dakota, saw combat in the Korean War, used to own a jewelry store, etc, etc. What would it mean for these desires and beliefs to be “too specific to actually exist”?

  12. Peter Smith

    Every day, when I feed my dogs, as they eagerly wolf down the food, they nudge their food bowls forward until they slide under the kitchen cupboard and they can no longer eat. This happens without fail. They cannot imagine a future and forecast more than the immediate consequences of their actions. And so every day, in my laboratory (my kitchen!), they demonstrate one of the most important differences between us, the humans, and them, the animals.

    When, 70,000 years ago, we acquired cognition, we acquired a remarkable facility, the ability to envision the future, which no other animal has. We gained a creative imagination while allowed us to foresee a better, created future. And imagining a better future freed us from the confines of the present, enabling us to work towards and create the imagined better future.

    The result has been utterly transormative, creating the vast gulf we see today between ourselves and the animal world.

    But it is not an easy process because the present has a magnetic attraction towards the immediate satisfaction of impulses, pleasures, needs and desires. Through many small steps of repitition, training and social conditioning we enhance our ability to subordinate these drives to our wish to create a better, imagined future. We have created a label to describe the attainment of this state and it is called self-discipline. It is a conditioning process and we call on a variety of tools to achieve this end.

    What is remarkable is that our cognition can ultimately overcome the nearly overwhelming combined force of our needs, desires, feelings, appetites, impulses and intuitions. It is a continual struggle with many reverses but also some inspiring victories. It is a conditioning process that starts with a simple intention – I want to create a better, imagined future [insert description here].

    Why do we form these intentions? Because we can imagine a future that seems, cognitively at least, to be better than the present. We could hardly fail to form such an intention. But having formed the intention we must call on all the resources at our disposal to work towards it and to suppress the stubborn insistence and siren call of the present.

    And we do, though not without some bruising defeats along the way.

  13. Peter Smith

    and why claims that one did what one didn’t want to do may be glib, inaccurate, and even sometimes self-serving.

    Actually it is often true and accurate. Some examples – I did not want to flinch when my doctor injected cortisone into my sacra-iliac joint, in order to avoid impairing the accurate needle placement that is necessary, but I did anyway. I did not want to duck when the fast bowler delivered a savage bouncer, but I did anyway. I did not want to show jubilation when I crushed my opponent at the chess board, but I did anyway. And so on. People routinely report doing things they did not want to do. So what is going on?

    We have to start by observing Miller’s First Law. Miller said:

    that in order to understand what someone is telling you, it is necessary for you to assume the person is being truthful, then imagine what could be true about it.” (Wikipedia)

    This is my attempt to imagine ‘what could be true‘ about their claims.

    First we need to clarify some concepts about the subconscious. It is not a mind. It is a fast template matching machine that takes physiological inputs, rapidly searches for matches in its large template store and then presents the content of the matching template to the conscious mind for decision making. The template contains appropriate prompts for the conscious mind. There are different kinds of prompts, some informative, some compelling and some motivating. These are, in the main,

    1) feelings – reports of physical sensations, tactile, temperature, etc
    2) desires – reports of appetites of all kinds, lust, hunger, etc
    3) needs – reports of emotional drives, fear, love, hope, anticipation, etc
    4) impulses – reports that require immediate action (whip your hand away from the flame!)
    5) intuitions – reports that convey information. For example I recognise the meaning of a word.
    These reports, when they are delivered, by the fast template matching machine, to the conscious mind, also have a strength or urgency attached to them. Thus they may be weak, strong, compelling or overwhelming.

    The conscious mind receives these reports from the fast template matching machine and evaluates them after consulting its narrative store. The narrative store contains accounts of the past and they supply context. It also contains narratives that are descriptions of an imagined and desired future.

    What follows then is an evaluative process which takes into account the nature of the template(feelings, desires, needs, impulses and intuitions), their strength and urgency, with context supplied by the narrative store, both historical and goal oriented.

    The outcome is a complex balancing process resulting finally in choices and corresponding actions. But these choices often involve tradeoffs and the resulting feelings of contradiction that leads them to report doing what they did not want to do.

    You may reply that finally, after having made the tradeoffs, they are doing what they wanted to do. And in a narrow sense that is true at the actual moment of the action. But it is not true in the sense that the tradeoffs create feelings of anxiety, regret, dismay or disatisfaction. They experience having wanted other outcomes which were sacrificed. The tradeoffs are a multidimensional experience that cannot be reduced to a single unipolar moment. That would be a simplification that does not do justice to a complex process.

    Of course you may throw that hoary old chestnut, the homunculous fallacy, at me, but that fails. And it is a whole other discussion.

  14. It’s not just that we can envisage a future better than the present but that we can envisage a future much *worse* than the present (that we want to avoid).

  15. henryharlow

    I agree that AA and other 12 Step programs are primarily, predominantly, overwhelmingly or some such word “faith based” in the sense of a “God” is involved that is how by far most members hold the spiritual aspect of the program. Many if not most all 12 Step meeting end with all rising and saying the Serenity Prayer together which is as follows:

    God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.

    The third step of AA says: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” However, the key phrase is “…as we understood Him. In AA or other 12 Step programs one can be an atheist and define God or “higher power” as the power of the group for example. Just surrendering to the notion the group (knowledge, training, beliefs, steps and traditions of the program) was how you understand “higher power” which is a common term in 12 Step circles. It is mostly about getting off one’s “ego” and surrendering to someone or something that might know better than you do about how to get off the addiction that is clearly a problem for the individual or they would likely not be in a 12 Step meeting in the first place.

    I would definitely say the 12 Step programs do expect you to do things and help yourself. In fact one of the stock recommendations to a new member is attend 90 meeting in 90 days. The 12 steps all are designed to be worked (take action) in conjunction with a “sponsor” who should be a seasoned and senior member of a the AA community who advises one along the road to recovery.

    Now having said all that I would also say Rational Recovery is a great approach as well. What research there is on AA shows AA does not work well for many or most who try the program out. AA is almost certainly not for those who know up front that they won’t be able to co-exist in a majority culture in 12 Step programs with those who are indeed holding some belief in a God.

    Now, where do I come off asserting all the above? I am a retired psychotherapist who specialized in addictions treatment. I also am a recovering food addict who lost 150 pounds and have kept it off for 50 years now. End rant he says with a smile.

  16. So you agree with me, then, that at best, the claims of powerlessness are strategic and not meant to be taken straightforwardly?

  17. Michael Krasny: “So do you believe in free will?
    Isaac Bashevis Singer: “I have no choice.”

    Sometimes we make decisions consciously, sometimes unconsciously, sometime on the spur of the moment, sometimes gradually; sometime the decision makes us.

    As I entered my 18th year, I weighed some 360 lbs. I fell in love that spring, but realized I was hopelessly repulsive. I went on the once infamous “water diet” and a strenuous exercise program. Within three months I had lost 240 lbs and had become anorexic, I was driven to see everything involving food and eating through the lens of my perceived need to be ever thinner, always thin. I think the lowest I weighed was close to 100 (at 6’2″). (I still have stringy biceps as a result.) I never did date that girl I had a crush on. Coming home from work a few months later, being exhausted and out of it all the time, the family dog’s barking was more than I could stand and I gave him a kick and broke a couple ribs. I was shocked and horrified by my own violence, and that was the end of my self-starvation. (The dog survived and healed, fortunately.)

    Nevertheless, my metabolism having changed, I could eat pretty much anything and never gain weight except by increments. For many years I weighed around 140 quite comfortably. Then 15 years ago. I got this miserable nursing job at a group home, where it was expected I was to eat with the residents. So I would wake up & eat, go to work & eat, have my allotted lunch-time and eat, go home and eat, and then, feeling miserable, eat some-more. Eventually I got back to around 280 lbs. I’ve brought it down to 255 currently, But my heart issues limit the amount of exercise I can do, and while my diet is actually quite light, the calories have nowhere to go, so here I float along…. Besides which, at my age, I’m not too worried what people think of my appearance.

    Aquinas described the process of decision making in terms we can trope by way of a roulette wheel (that’s not his metaphor, but it presents the basic idea). Our minds traverse the choices before us until they basically reach a point of exhaustion. This resting point constitutes our decision. The question of whether that decision will be a good one or a bad one, healthy or unhealthy, has to do with preparation. We build the person who will have the choices that we can live with. In effect the first choice we make is the range of choices we wish to be able to make in the future.

    Although I think much of who we are is made for us, far more than Aquinas allows, I’ve always felt there was a great deal of truth in this.

    On the other hand, William James once said, “If you want a good habit, start practicing it today!” This was no platitude for James; to whom all character was habit, even maintaining an attitude accepting the possibility of changing habits was the result of habit.

    William Burroughs once said, “everything’s an addiction;” and there’s truth in that as well. We’re a certain kind of animal, we’re addicted to sunlight, to breathing, and of course, to food. And, as I learned during my anorexia, strict refusal of any of this can prove an addiction as well.

    We’re addicted to life; no ‘higher power’ can relieve us of that. Even suicide is mere result of addiction to one’s own ego.

    Meditation helps. Sometimes it’s the only practice that can help.

  18. henryharlow

    Yes, I would agree with that assertion. The founders of AA almost certainly were meaning to take powerlessness straightforwardly though. They were more “true believers” than pragmatists. They were basing the “spirituality” of the AA program and some of the steps of the program off of the Oxford Group movement which was growing in the 1920s and 1930s. You can learn the details on that Christian movement here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_Group. Bill Wilson, one of the main founders of AA, was a “seeker” and he found the Oxford Group and folded much of their Christian based approach into AA.

    In 12 Step programs the First Step reads: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” This actually is a paradox. The first thing one has to do is admit one has no power over their addiction which paradoxically then gives the person power over their addiction. The second step reads as follows: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Well, clearly that power does not have to be a God (just to be transparent I am an agnostic). In fact, even some AA literature says one can use the “power of the group” meaning the AA group as one’s higher power. The overwhelming numbers of members of AA do believe in some sort of God but not necessarily in God of the Abrahamic traditions. You can also find 12 Step groups that have replaced the term “God” in the steps with the term “Jesus” and some that are atheist or agnostic approaches. So it is a culture or community. One of their basic sayings is: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” One does not have to necessarily buy it all hook, line and sinker to participate and benefit. Now that said one can go to https://www.smartrecovery.org/ which is SMART Recovery with SMART being an acronym for Self Management and Recovery Training which takes the “God” out of the equation if one thinks that is a better option for their particular needs.

    Eh, maybe more than you wanted to know! Hope it is useful.

  19. I can’t tell you how much time I have spent thinking along these lines without making much headway.

    I want to do what is right. I also think the best indicator of what someone “believes” is how they act. Just for example, if someone says I think everyone should go to Church on Sunday yet I see they never go to Church themselves I tend to doubt they really believe you should go to church on Sunday.

    I do not think philosophers spend enough time on what it means to believe something. Desires are a bit different than belief but when I say “I believe I should act rightly” then it sort of combines the concepts. That seems pretty close to saying “I desire to act rightly.”

    Do you want to do what is right?

    You say this:
    “So we are back then to the idea of doing what you don’t want. I don’t think there’s such a thing.”

    Now in reading that it seems to me there are at least a few options.

    1) you do not think there is a right way to act so no you do not want to do what is right.
    2) yes you want to do what is right and you always do what you believe is right – at least you believe it is right when you do it.
    3) you want to do what is right but you also want to do what is wrong and sometimes you want to do wrong more than what is right.
    4) ?

    I think Paul is saying he knows how to act rightly he wants to act rightly yet he often doesn’t do it. But then does he really believe that is the right way to act? I’m a Christian. Christ tells us we should give away everything we own to the poor. I haven’t done that. Do I really believe that? I think it is complicated. But I think it is at least in part my lack of belief/trust in Jesus that I haven’t done that. I think the same can be said of other actions I have taken which are possibly selfish. So sometimes I can say I really don’t believe I should act that way. But other times I know darn well I am acting wrongly but do it anyway.

    Addiction: we all have different degrees of desire to act a certain way. Sometimes I crave a piece of cake more than others. I think addicts just have stronger urges to act in ways they know can be destructive.

  20. Quine and Ullian say beliefs are more or less a disposition to act a certain way when a certain set of circumstances presents itself. I like his description. Here is how they describe beliefs in their book “The Web of Belief” W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian

    “Let us consider, to begin with. What we are up to when
    we believe. Just what are we doing? Nothing in particular.
    For all the liveliness of fluctuation of beliefs, believing is
    not an activity. It is not like scansion or long division. We
    may scan a verse quickly or slowly. We may perform a
    division quickly or slowly. We may even be quick or slow
    about coming to believe something, and quick or slow
    about giving a belief up. But there is nothing quick or slow
    about the believing itself; it is not a job to get on with. Nor
    is it a fit or mood, like joy or grief or astonishment. It is
    not something that we feel while it lasts. Rather, believ­
    ing is a disposition that can linger latent and unobserved.
    It is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the
    appropriate issue arises. To believe that Hannibal crossed
    the Alps is to be disposed, among other things, to say “Yes”
    when asked. To believe that frozen foods will thaw on the
    table is to be disposed, among other things, to leave such
    foods on the table only when one wants them thawed.
    Inculcating a belief is like charging a battery. The bat­
    tery is thenceforward disposed to give a spark or shock,
    when suitably approached, as long as the charge lasts.
    Similarly the believer is disposed to respond in character­
    istic ways, when suitably approached, as long as the belief
    lasts. The belief, like the charge, may last long or briefly.
    Some beliefs, like the one about Hannibal, we shall proba­
    bly retain while we live. Some, like our belief in the
    dependability of our neighborhood cobbler, we may abandon
    tomorrow in the face of adverse evidence. And some,
    like the belief that a bird chirped within earshot, will
    simply die of unimportance forthwith. The belief that the
    cobbler is dependable gives way tomorrow to a contrary
    belief, while the belief in the bird is just forgotten. A
    disposition has ceased in both cases, though in different

  21. In my earlier comment, I should have been clearer that I distinguish between the verb (believing, for example) and the noun “belief”. It’s the way that the noun is used, that I tend to question.

  22. Charles Justice

    One could say that all there are are actions, and beliefs and intentions are inseparable parts of actions. When we talk about beliefs its always a posit because we can’t experience another’s belief, except second hand when they tell you what they believe straight out. And you are right, we only experience our own beliefs for fleeting moments so it really is a kind of posit. We make observations of ourselves and of other’s behaviour and we make posits about belief based on the cumulative observations. Beliefs are not directly observable, but we posit a belief because it helps us to explain or predict human behaviour.

  23. Charles Justice

    “needs, desires, feelings, appetites, impulses and intuitions” are all parts of cognitive processes, they are not separate from cognition as you seem to be implying.

  24. I guess I am left guessing to some extent. In an earlier article you may offer some clues to your position you say:

    “By “Why do you want to be moral?” I do not mean “Why would you want to be moral, rather than immoral?” which is the way that philosophers typically frame the question. [2] My question is “Why would you want to be moral, as opposed to simply [merely] being nice, generous, sympathetic, etc.?”

    As a moral realist I would say the reason is because I understand these things are on a scale. And I tend to think that scale is not just something I make up. I think it is good to be sympathetic with someone who is upset appropriately. People get upset at each other and both sides claim to be upset for the right reasons. Sometimes people are upset for the wrong reasons and although I can be sympathetic that we all make mistakes that sort of sympathy calls for a different action on my part.

    Just saying be more sympathetic is not the answer. Be more sympathetic to whom and in what way? That is where we need to sort this out.

    “The point, then, is that we care about people caring about each other, and when we invoke morality and employ the moral conceptual framework, it is because we think that the people we are dealing with don’t care about each other enough.”


    We don’t care about each other “enough.” How much is enough? Is it whatever you decide? If you do not think the truth in these matters is part of objective reality what do you mean when you say care “enough.” Until we even know what that *means* we can’t possibly go about figuring out how to act that way.

  25. I wrote about why I think objectivity/realism about value is ultimately irrelevant here.


  26. I read that and I am currently listening to the youtube discussion with Spencer.

    I really enjoyed both.

    I certainly agree you are not alone in your views. In particular your objection to moral realism seems very similar to that made by Don Loeb who is a philosophy prof at U. of Vermont. I’m going by memory from one of his youtube videos but he essentially (not literally) says look I have no desire to kill babies by stabbing them with a bayonet. If I were to find that this is actually what moral realism requires should I change my mind? Should I suddenly be more inclined to kill babies with bayonets even though my desires are strongly against it?

    You also seem to make the point that the notion of moral realism may just add some unjustified warrant to whatever we want to have happen.

    Do you think I have that correct?

    I have a draft blog where I am trying to sort out what I think is going on with that objection. I am not saying I will convince everyone but I think I can take some of the edge off of that objection. I will let you know when it is finished if you are interested.

    I already did a blog about the role that mind independence plays in moral realism. I think for moral realism mind independence really just means the good or bad is not dependant on the belief of the person doing the judging. It is not the case that moral realists think mental states have nothing to do with morality. I don’t address the hedonist moralist. But the short answer is a person who believes pleasure or some other mental state is the end goal could be a moral realist. I do not think it is incompatible with the view as expressed generally in the philosophers I read in this area.