Are Certain Beliefs and Desires The Same Things?

Eric Schwitzgebel makes an interesting case that in some cases believing and desiring may be the same thing, or at least close enough to each other as to be inseparable from each other:

In the usual taxonomy of mental states (usual, that is, among contemporary analytic philosophers of mind) belief is one thing, desire quite another. They play very different roles in the economy of the mind: Desires determine our goals, and beliefs determine the perceived means to achieve them, with action generally requiring the activation of a matched belief-desire pair (e.g., the belief that there is beer in the fridge plus the desire for beer). I confess I’m not much enamored of this picture.

Surely this much at least is true: The belief that P is the case (say, that my illness is gone) and the desire that P be the case are very different mental states — the possession of one without the other explaining much human dissatisfaction. Less cleanly distinct, however, are the desire that P (or for X) and the belief that P (or having X) would be good.

I don’t insist that the desires and believings-good are utterly inseparable. Maybe we sometimes believe that things are good apathetically, without desiring them; surely we sometimes desire things that we don’t believe are, all things considered, good. But I’m suspicious of the existence of utter apathy. And if believing good requires believing good all things considered, perhaps we should think genuine desiring, too, is desiring all things considered; or conversely if we allow for conflicting and competing desires that pick up on individual desirable aspects of a thing or state of affairs then perhaps also we should allow for conflicting and competing believings good that also track individual aspects – believing that the desired object has a certain good quality (the very quality in virtue of which it is desired). With these considerations in mind, there may be no clear and indisputable case in which desiring and believing good come cleanly apart.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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