Happy Bastille Day! One more post for N and M month.
Some Kantians make a lot of the fact that often, when we are being moral, we don’t feel like we want to do the right thing, but we do it. Korsgaard openly ridicules the view that a good person actually wants to do the right thing, calling it “the good dog” picture of the virtuous person. Suppose we want to say desire is the source of all worthy motivation. We then need to explain why doing the right because you desire the right can feel so damn different from drinking coffee because you desire coffee.
I’ll try and sketch an explanation, and incidentally defend both happy, doglike good-doing (sometimes) and dour good-doing (sometimes).
Desire satisfaction tends to cause pleasure. If you happen to (intrinsically) desire victory for the Red Sox, you often feel pleasure when they win and displeasure when they lose. Once you become a creature with sexual desires, their satisfaction usually causes pleasure. You can also develop a desire for the pleasure that comes with satisfying sexual desires – a second layer of motivation to have sex, but only with someone you find attractive – i.e the sort you would intrinsically desire. Such second layers are ubiquitous, which might give the mistaken impression that psychological hedonism is true.
Now, what if you have a strong intrinsic desire for the right and the good - my idea of virtue? You tend to feel pleasure when you see the right done or the good instantiated and displeasure when you, well, read the newspaper. You might even have a second layer – e.g. if feeling a bit down, you volunteer for a cause because it cheers you up.
But many things affect pleasure. For example, they say that after returning from a trip to the third world, having electricity in your home is very pleasant. I wouldn’t know, but after tapering off the lithium (and some other medications) that significantly reduced my intellectual abilities for six long years, many small things associated with philosophy became remarkably pleasant! The flip side: however much you desire, say, the benefits of electricity, they don’t please you much if you take them for granted. Ironically, a virtuous person might fail to enjoy some types of acting well because she acts that way all the time.
There are other times in which satisfying your desires does not produce tail-wagging. I strongly desire to avoid physical discomfort. Going to the dentist, I know “in theory” that I am avoiding great physical discomfort – a future toothache. “In theory”, but not viscerally! As I don’t feel next year’s potential toothache, averting it causes almost no pleasure (analogy: you can’t make yourself enjoy electricity by cancelling next year’s trip to the third world!). On the other hand, I do feel the immediate effect of going to the dentist – the frustration of my desire to avoid physical discomfort. As a result, going to the dentist is unpleasant.
Dutiful action is like going to the dentist in some ways. Here's a situation Agnes Callard made me think of. Imagine I strongly desire the right and the good, and as part of that I want to help my graduate student. To do so, I need to warn him that his current work is unsatisfactory. “In theory” I know the warning will help him “in the long run”, but what I see before me is the student about to burst into tears, literally. As far as my viscera are concerned, my desire for his wellbeing is frustrated. Thus my task is unpleasant. The “theoretical” knowledge that I am helping him overall is enough, with my desire, to motivate me to act, but it barely makes a dent in my displeasure.
Why does the intrinsic desire for the right and the good feel, in such cases, like a non-desire? Because far from producing the immediate pleasure (or relief from displeasure) at least a modicum of which often comes with satisfying an intrinsic desire, acting on this one produces immediate displeasure, and unlike the dentist, it does not even aim at future pleasure. Unlike Kantian “inclination”, this desire “presents nothing charming or insinuating”. There are salient, more pleasant alternatives (“temptations”), and still the good person is motivated. I am not yet trying to present sufficient conditions for the feeling of dutifulness, just to answer the coffee question
If someone in the above situation fails to warn her student, what went wrong? Perhaps her virtue is lacking, so she chooses pleasure over the right, or perhaps she is good but, like me when I avoid the dentist, she lacks rationality – the sort required when long-term considerations (like the student’s long-term wellbeing) trump vividly present short-term considerations (like the acute suffering she’ll cause him now).
The view of desire and pleasure used here is Timothy Schroeder’s, but as his name starts with a T, I figured it’s my turn.