Robert Audi on the Impersonality of Rational Desires

Since starting this blog, I have argued for moral realism in some form or other, but that is not to say that I have not entertained other metaethical positions before then – I used to be something of a moral nihilist that accepted morality as some type of social contract that was motivated by self-preservation. I have come to think that the facts are best explained by a rationalist account of moral realism, but all of this is to say that I think objections to moral realism based on a skepticism of human rationalizing are not without merit. Put another way, I must grant that there is something prima facie mysterious about a natural order in which reason requires us to make personal sacrifices for strangers.

Robert Audi has an answer to this mystery that I think is very plausible. The basic idea is that we have desires, which are rational in virtue of our seeing them on reflection as being the foundations of our actions. Audi’s point is that when we reflect on our desires they take a certain form in their basicness, which is roughly, “I want x”, and not “I want ME to have x”. Thus, what is rationally desirable, as a source of reason for action, is impartial as to whether that good should obtain for me or another person. Here’s Audi in his own words,

“Rational persons have, among other things, rational intrinsic desires as motivational foundations for their conduct, even if not the only foundations. There are things we (normal persons) rationally want for their own sake, not as means to something further, and on the basis of at least some of these desires we want other things. What rational persons want regarding these things is not in general that they have them, but, typically, the things themselves or something intrinsic to them. I want to read Shakespeare for the rewards of so doing; I do not want my reading him. I can want that; but such egoistic wants are not the primitive case. Similarly, when I have pain, I want it to stop. That it is my pain need not enter my mind, and I need not conceptualize the pain as mine in order to have a rational desire to be rid of it. […] The foundations of rational desire, and thereby the basic normative reasons for action, are impersonal. […] I need not favor others over myself, but I have no rational ground to favor myself over others. The impersonal foundations of practical reason require scrupulous equality. The intrinsic desirability of our pleasures, like the rationality of our wanting them, supervenes on what they are, not on whose they are” (Audi, “Moral Epistemology and the Supervenience of Ethical Concepts”, in Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, page 105-106).


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  1. #1 by bloggingisaresponsibility on April 24, 2014 - 3:25 pm

    Are these desires truly impersonal? That is, if I want X, then isn’t that simply a short-hand for saying that I want me to have X anyway? The personalization of the (otherwise impersonal) phenomena seems to be in my wanting, or in my relationship to this phenomena.

    Unless I have misunderstood. I might need to read more on this; it’s definitely interesting.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on April 24, 2014 - 4:47 pm

      I see what you’re saying, and I’m glad you asked the question.

      The idea is that desires are not cognitive, as they are not truth-functional, unlike beliefs which can be true or false because they are propositions. Audi’s point is that the brute non-cogitiveness of desires entails that the only real content of a desire is “X is desirable”; adding the concept of self to the mental state adds a layer that makes it a proposition that is truth-functional, and thus, not a desire, so it cannot be that the concept of self is included in desires themselves. Desires are certainly phenomenal, in that they are experienced by persons, but what they are about does not include the subject — they are only about the thing desired. But from ‘x is desirable’ it no more follows that I should have X than you.

      • #3 by bloggingisaresponsibility on April 29, 2014 - 12:45 pm

        Ahhhhhhh, thank you for the clarification!

        This is really interesting. Much of my interest ties in to the self and desire, so the possibility that desire is more primal than the self construction raises intriguing possibilities.

      • #4 by ausomeawestin on May 3, 2014 - 4:18 pm

        My pleasure, I’m always happy to clarify an argument, I benefit from it as well. And I see how this relates to your writings on Buddhism, always interesting to see connections between Eastern and Western philosophy.

  2. #5 by jmeqvist on April 28, 2014 - 9:15 pm

    This is an interesting point and I can certainly agree that rational desires have impersonality, but my question, which is only partially related to the entry at hand, would be how do we distinguish between irrational and rational desires? On one level one might think that all basic desires are rational because they reveal the idea that some X is desirable, and yet I do think we can want something that is not desirable. We might think that if someone pursues a desire and they find that it is not really what they wanted this shows that the desire was in some sense irrational, but I am not entirely convinced by this explanation.

    • #6 by jmeqvist on April 28, 2014 - 11:16 pm

      I just realized my comment above is a bit unclear. So, to clarify, the last sentence gestures towards a possible way of distinguishing rational from irrational desires. This approach to distinguishing rational from irrational desires would say that we can tell that a desire is irrational when we act on this desire and get what we want, but find that what we apparently wanted is not actually desirable. Yet, I am not entirely convinced by this way of thinking as I think a desire can be irrational even when we find some satisfaction in the satiating of this desire.

      • #7 by ausomeawestin on May 3, 2014 - 4:07 pm

        My apologies for taking so long to respond to this important and interesting question, the fever I had was not conducive to discussing this question with the attention it deserves.

        Admittedly I’m not sure how to qualify desires as rational or irrational in isolation from their contribution to the rationality of acts. It seems to me that rational desires are rational only insofar as they provide a reason for acting, and this reason for acting is either right or wrong in virtue of the facts of the matter. So rational desires are rational because they are a response to facts of the world. This entails a value realism which posits some things as valuable objectively. This might be an oversimplification about how desires work, but to me it seems a plausible account. I also think Audi, the philosopher who I had been discussing above, would agree with this general picture.

        I also think this fits with your point that there is more to the irrationality of desires than just the determination that if we desire x for y, and attaining x find out that y doesn’t follow from attaining x then x was irrational. The view I presented in the last paragraph, against this Humean instrumentalist account of rationality just mentioned, is an objectivist account that could allow for the desire for x to still be rational even if y doesn’t come from obtaining x, if in attaining x, an objectively valuable thing, z, is obtained. The instrumentalist account that you rightly reject as insufficient holds that the rationality of a desire is determined by whether it is a reasonable means to an end. Instrumentalist accounts don’t allow for the possibility that the desired end could itself be irrational to hold. This value subjectivism doesn’t allow for the two different layers of which desires may be irrational, so I think it safe to say that it should be dismissed, and I think from your comments that you agree with this point. Value objectivism, or what Audi calls “axiological realism” is the only alternative.

  1. Notes on Robert Audi’s Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, pt II: Ethical Concepts and Moral Realism | ausomeawestin

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