Why can’t I will a desire?

In this quick post, I’ll try to answer the question: why can’t we always form our desires at will and on command? So, for example, why is it I can’t will myself into wanting to do exercise, or wanting to grade a stack of papers, or into wanting to apply for that job at the box factory? After some brief deductive navelgazing, I’ll suggest that it might be possible to desire on command, though only if the agent has unsophisticated beliefs about their own agency.

Following the Davidsonian tradition, I’ll suppose that reasons are belief-desire pairs, and also suppose that an intention is a reason for action with an appropriate causal role in making the action. (Maybe this is a wrong account of action in general, because folk psychology sucks, etc. But for the sake of the present argument, I’ll assume it’s good enough for clear cases, and allow that a fuller account can be presented with a richer functional/causal vocabulary.) From this model, it follows that, for me to be able to will a desire, I’ll have to desire the desire, and believe I can effect the first-order desire.

Suppose we could causally effect desires in this way as a general capacity; what would the world look like if we could? Well, it would follow that akrasia would be impossible. For any time you failed to do a thing, it would always owe to your failure to want to do the thing. And that forbearance is not a weakness of will so much as a willful rejection of a live option. This is not our world, since akrasia does exist. So we do not have that general capacity.

But why not? What’s the holdup?

Assuming the Davidsonian model, there are three potential points of failure. Either (a) desires are not effective in making desires, or (b) beliefs are not effective in making desires, (c) there’s something about the relation between beliefs and desires that is not effective in making desires.

The failure to generate desire does not issue from the fact that genuine second-order desires cannot effect first-order desires. We fall in and out of love with our enthusiasms all the time, e.g., through emotion work and gratitude. It is both possible, and routine, for us to voluntarily adjust the intensity of a desire, by considering its relation to previously existing desires. And this is a special case of being able to will a desire, just in case willing is a belief-desire pair, which we assumed it is. Sometimes, a second-order desire is indeed sufficient to sustain a first-order one.

The failure to generate desire is, at least on first glance, not a function of a problem in causal effectiveness of belief-desire pairings. After all, by hypothesis, all intentions involve such pairings, and so must have the potential for action-success. There is, perhaps, something special about the case of willing a desire that prevents it from being willed. But it is unclear to me how I could better understand those limitations just by looking at the nature of reasons. If it were obvious, the question never would have come up in the first place.

So, since second-order desires sometimes do compel first-order desires, the obstacle must be found in the causal effectiveness of beliefs, either when treated as standalone mental happenings, or in their contribution to reasons.

What distinguishes belief from other representations with mind-to-world direction of fit is that it is truth-apt. And non-truth-apt representations of the world — e.g., intuitions — really do have causal efficacy in making desires. Hence, the difficulty that many of us actual humans seem to have in distinguishing the cognitive contents of intuitions from those of gut feelings.

So, one might think that the problem is that belief is oriented towards truth, as truth-directedness is not fit for ordering our sentiments. Why might that be? Well, I think truth has at least two features: it (a) indicates that the sentence has a referent, and (b) its claims are ostensibly built to last. However, (a) I see no issue in treating desires as referents. We think about desires as objects of propositions all the time. (b) So maybe the problem is in the presumption of standing. i.e., if we were able to will a desire, then it would presume that we also have a belief in our ability to effect a desire, and so, a judgment that our ability to effect a desire will be built to last. But if we ever suffer from akrasia, and remember it, then those judgments are unlikely to survive much scrutiny.

Suppose that account is correct. The upshot is that it might be generally possible to will a desire, but one has to have extremely unsophisticated (or deluded) beliefs about one’s own self-mastery to do it.

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