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Kinds of ReasonsAn Essay in the Philosophy of Action$

Maria Alvarez

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199550005

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199550005.001.0001

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Motivation and Desires

Motivation and Desires

(p.53) 3 Motivation and Desires
Kinds of Reasons

Maria Alvarez (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 3 focuses on motivation in action with a view to answering the question what our reasons for action –what are called ‘motivating reasons’—are. After a discussion of motives, the focus moves to the relation between motivation and desires. It is argued that an adequate understanding of desires and of their relation to motivation is not possible without paying proper attention to the distinction between bodily appetites and rational desires, which stand in importantly different relations to reasons; and to the act/object ambiguity inherent in the term ‘desire’—since the term can be used to refer to my desiring something or to what I desire. These distinctions are explained and explored in preparation to answering the question at the centre of the following chapter: whether desires are motivating reasons.

Keywords:   motivation, motives, desires, direction of fit, Anscombe, Nagel, Smith, bodily appetites, rational, act/object ambiguity


The aim of this and the following two chapters is to offer an account of the concept of motivation in action, and of the relation between motivation, motivating reasons, and desires. In this chapter, I start with a brief exploration of these concepts and then move on to a detailed examination of desires.

My discussion of desires in this chapter focuses on two important distinctions concerning desires, which I explore in Sections 3.3 and 3.4. The first is the distinction between rational and non‐rational desires. The second concerns the act/object ambiguity of the term ‘desire’, mentioned in Section 2.2.1: viz., the fact that this term is sometimes used to refer to my desiring something and sometimes to what I desire. The discussion of these issues prepares the ground for the question at the heart of the following chapter, namely the relation between desires and motivating reasons.

3.1. The Concept of Motivation

In philosophical discussions of action, the concept of motivation is often associated with that of a motivating reason. However, although both the terms ‘motivation’ and ‘motivating reason’ are widely used in those discussions, neither their meanings, nor the relation between them tends to be made explicit.1 On the one hand, the meaning of the term ‘motivation’, as used in philosophical discussion, is fairly (p.54) closely connected to its meaning outside of philosophy, although there are differences I shall come to shortly. On the other hand, the term ‘motivating reason’ does not have much currency outside of philosophy and can rightly be regarded as a term of art.

The philosophical notion of motivation shares with the ordinary notion the connection with the idea of being moved or led to act, but the philosophical notion is more capacious. The etymology of ‘motive’, and of the related ‘motivation’, originates in the Latin verb movere, meaning ‘to move’, and its related particles, for instance motivus (and, post‐classical Latin, motivum). In ordinary speech, the idea of ‘being motivated’ tends to be associated either with the concept of a motive—so people are said to be motivated by greed or jealousy, which are motives; or with a particular kind of attitude of enthusiasm or drive in situations that require effort or sustained determination. In this sense, people are said to be very motivated in their jobs, or motivated to win an Olympic medal. In philosophy, by contrast, the notions of motivation and of being motivated are applied more widely to include any context where someone is inclined to act, or where they do act, intentionally or voluntarily, regardless of whether the relevant action involves effort and determination or not. In this sense, one can be motivated to walk to the kitchen, to go to a party, to wave at someone, etc. And, in this sense, one might be motivated to act and yet not act.

Although the concept of ‘being motivated to’ is applied more widely in philosophy than in ordinary use, even in philosophy its application tends to be restricted to human agency: as we saw in Chapter 1, philosophers talk about ‘motivating reasons' to refer to a person's reason for acting but not (or not typically) to refer to a person's reason for believing and wanting things. Whether this restriction in philosophical usage is rooted in any significant difference between believing and wanting, on the one hand, and acting, on the other, is not clear. The restriction may be no more than a terminological quirk for, after all, talking about being motivated to believe or want things is perhaps no more of a philosophical turn of phrase than talking about being motivated to act—at any rate when the latter is as widely used as it is in the current philosophical literature. Besides, a person's reason for wanting something, for instance for wanting to do some thing, may very well be also his reason for doing that thing. For (p.55) instance, Brian's reason for wanting to watch TV—say, that he finds it relaxing—may also be his reason for actually watching TV. And the same is true of reasons for believing. For instance, Amy's reason for believing that her boss is angry, say that he has shut his door, may be the reason that leads Amy to do something, say, to open the window; and this is a reason which philosophers tend to refer to as Amy's ‘motivating reason’ for opening the window.

Be that as it may, since my focus in this book is the relation between reasons and action, I shall confine my investigation here to the concept of motivation as it applies in contexts of action.

In this philosophical sense, someone who is motivated to perform an action is inclined to perform it, though not necessarily habitually inclined: motivation is often episodic.

Although being motivated and hence inclined to do something often involves wanting to do it, this need not be so. For someone may be inclined to perform an action without wanting to perform that action, not even in the sense of ‘wanting’ which might be called a ‘thin’ sense and which includes anything that is willed, and not just what one feels like doing, or has a liking or preference for. This thin sense of ‘want’ is the sense in which most of us might sometimes be said to ‘want’ to go to the dentist, or to have an injection, etc., even when what is so wanted is not remotely appealing and may even be repugnant. There is another common sense of ‘wanting’, associated with preference and likes, and contrasted with, for example, duty or requirement.2 In that sense, we do not always want to do the things we do, but we do those things because we (think we) must, or because (we think) they are a necessary means of achieving some other end that we want in the fuller sense.

And, to return to the connection between being inclined and wanting, it is possible to be inclined to act without wanting to act, even in the thin sense. For instance, someone who has a habit or tendency he is not aware of, or has an urge to do something which he repudiates, might be inclined to do those things but have no corresponding want. But more often, the things we are motivated to do are things that we want to do, at least in the thin sense outlined above; and in my discussion here I shall focus on the more common (p.56) case where having an inclination to act implies some degree or sense of wanting.

Some things one is motivated and wants to do, one wants to do because of a reason one takes oneself to have to so act.3 When this is so, the motivation to act arises from some perceived good or value in the prospective action. Being motivated to do something for a reason is being inclined to do that thing for a reason one (believes one) has; a reason that makes the relevant action worth doing in one's eyes. Another way of putting this point is to say that being motivated to do something for a reason is wanting (at least in the thin sense) to do that thing for a reason; that is, being inclined to do that thing on account of a reason one takes oneself to have for doing it.

So there seems to be a close connection between taking oneself to have a reason to φ and being motivated and wanting to φ. But how close is this connection? Is it so close that, if one takes oneself to have a reason to φ, then one is, thereby, motivated to φ? At first blush, the answer seems to be ‘No’, since it seems surely possible to take oneself to have a reason for doing something and yet not be motivated to do it, that is, have no inclination to do it. For example, I may take myself to have a reason to exercise or to get on with some chore but have no motivation to do so. Indeed, this is precisely what akrasia typically seems to involve.

Whether this is right would require a proper analysis of the nature of akrasia and related phenomena (for instance listlessness) and such an analysis is beyond the confines of the issues at hand. However, I should say something about this.

First, a terminological clarification. One can take oneself to have a reason to φ but not be motivated to φ all things considered because one takes oneself to have a better reason not to φ. But when I say that there is a close link between taking oneself to have a reason to φ and being motivated to φ I mean that if one takes oneself to have a (p.57) reason to φ, then one is, at least, pro tanto, motivated to φ, though one may take the reason to be defeated by reasons against φ‐ing. For the sake of simplicity, my discussion in the next few paragraphs will concern someone who takes himself to have an ‘all things considered’ reason to φ. With this clarification, let me return to the question whether there is the kind of close link I have suggested between the two concepts we are examining: taking oneself to have a reason to φ and being motivated to φ.

Consider someone who takes herself to have reason to φ but who nonetheless does not φ, even though she is not prevented from φ‐ing by any external force. Does it follow that the agent is not motivated, does not want to, or has no inclination to φ?

Different kinds of cases are possible here. On the one hand, there is the kind of case where the agent thinks that she has reason to φ and does decide to φ, or forms the intention to do so—and yet, when it comes to it, she does not φ. On the other hand, there is the kind of case where, though the agent takes herself to have reason to φ, the agent does not decide to φ nor has any intention of φ‐ing. Some cases of inveterate smokers are surely such: the smoker sees that health, financial, and social considerations, etc., speak in favour of her giving up but she does not form the intention to give up. And though sometimes such a smoker may think that she has better reason to smoke than to give up (for instance, think that the pleasure of it outweighs all other considerations), there are cases where a smoker thinks that, overall, her reasons favour giving up—and yet she does not even form the intention to try to give up. It is tempting here to think that such an agent must take herself to have better reason not to φ; in our example, not to give up, for instance, that she takes the pleasure of smoking to outweigh the benefits of health. But while some smokers may indeed reason thus, this need not be so. For it is possible that an agent should not take herself to have any reason for smoking and take herself to have every reason to give up and yet have no desire or intention to do so. Of course, such an agent is likely to find some pleasure in smoking (though even this might be outweighed by the unpleasantness of the side effects and consequences). But she may not even regard that pleasure as a reason for smoking (though no doubt the pleasure will contribute to explain why she smokes).

(p.58) So we seem to have at least two kinds of case where an agent takes herself to have reason to do something, or to stop doing something, but where she is not motivated to do it. And this seems to show that the link between taking oneself to have reason to φ and being motivated to φ is much looser than I suggested above. But is that right?

First, the fact that an agent who takes herself to have reason to φ does not φ does not imply that the agent has no motivation to φ. In the kinds of case discussed, it needn't be true that the agent doesn't want—at least in the sense outlined above—to φ; what is true is that she does not feel like φ‐ing: but feeling like doing something is not necessary for being motivated to do it. And what is often true is that the agent is motivated—only she's not sufficiently motivated. Indeed this seems to capture what is so striking about weakness of will: the motivation that the agent has, such as it is, is not translated into action, sometimes not even into decisions or intentions, even though reason and the will still point in that direction, and there is no external coercion.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that, as the gap between what an agent claims to take herself to have a reason to do, and what she's motivated (however minimally) to do widens, then, at least in many cases, the agent's claim that she takes herself to have a reason to φ will come under threat—sometimes to the point of being wholly undermined, precisely because of the connection between taking oneself to have a reason to φ and being motivated to do it. The more appropriate description of that situation may be that the agent is aware that others take her to have a reason to φ, and that she can see why they do; but this may fall short of her taking herself to have such a reason.

But though many cases may fall within the descriptions given in the above paragraphs, and hence preserve the link between reason and motivation, it would be absurd to deny that there are hard cases, where an agent's reason points in one direction but where the will does not follow, that is, where motivation and desire, in any form, fail to materialize. And these cases seem to undermine the view that there is a close connection between taking oneself to have a reason to φ and being motivated to φ. In my opinion, however, these hard cases do not undermine the view that there is a very close connection—first, (p.59) because what these cases show is that the connection, though very close, is not a ‘logical’ connection, and that it must be acknowledged to be loose enough to allow for these hard cases; and second, precisely because these are ‘hard cases', often cases in the borderline between normality and pathology.

It seems, then, that the notion of having a reason to act—or more precisely, of taking oneself, rightly or wrongly, to have a reason to act—is closely connected to the notion of being motivated to act: someone who takes herself to have a reason to do something is, therefore, typically motivated to do it. (I may, of course, regard myself as having more than one reason to do something and be therefore motivated by more than one reason; but that need not detain us here.) And the question arises: ‘What, then, are these reasons that motivate us to act’? Before attempting to answer this question, though, I need to say something about what I take it to mean.

So far, and indeed in the discussion that follows, the question has been: ‘What motivates us to act?’, asked with a view to finding an answer to the related question: ‘What kind of thing are our reasons for acting?’ But, as I said above, in ordinary usage the concept of motivation is associated with that of a motive, and so the intuitive response to the question ‘What motivates us to act?’, would seem to be, precisely, ‘Our motives!’: we are motivated to act by prudence, greed, self‐interest, pity, and other motives. This is clearly right but it is not, however, inconsistent with the idea that we are also motivated by reasons.

A motive, I shall argue, is different from a reason, even though the two are conceptually connected, and even though motives are sometimes called ‘reasons'—for instance, we often say that A's reason for killing B was revenge or compassion, which are motives, and conversely we sometimes refer to reasons as ‘motives’. This usage, however, does not show that there is no conceptual difference between reasons and motives; rather, I think what this usage shows is that these concepts are closely related to each other, a relation that I shall seek to elucidate below. So, although motives are not strictly speaking reasons, the concept of acting out of a motive is closely connected to that of acting for a reason. And, because of this close connection, both motives and reasons can be said to motivate.

(p.60) However, motives and reasons motivate in different ways. I shall say something about motives here, before returning to the question of motivating reasons. However, it is only when we have answered the question about what motivating reasons are, which will have been done by the end of Chapter 5, that we shall be in a position to understand fully how motives and reasons motivate and, hence, explain actions.

3.1.1. Motives and Motivation

The concept of motive is, I think, complex and I do not propose to provide a detailed account of it here but only to say as much as necessary to proceed with our question about motivating reasons.4

In The Concept of Mind, Ryle famously characterizes motives as dispositions whose logic, he says, is captured by law‐like generalisations: so if we say that a man boasted from vanity, Ryle suggests this should construed as:

He boasted . . . and his doing so satisfies the law‐like proposition that whenever he finds a chance of securing the admiration and envy of others, he does whatever he thinks will produce the admiration and envy of others. (1949: 89)

Anscombe (1957: 21) argues that Ryle's account cannot be right because, she says, it implies that it is not possible to act out of a motive only once, which is clearly false. A person can act out of vanity once without being a vain person, that is, a person disposed to act out of vanity. And one can be motivated by greed now and then without being a greedy person, that is, a person disposed to be motivated by greed.

But perhaps there is another way of interpreting Ryle's remark so that his claim is not that one cannot act out of vanity only once. Perhaps Ryle's point is that vanity is a character trait that involves a tendency to act in ways that fall under the kind of law‐like proposition he states, even if it is not the case that one cannot act once out of such a motive (see Wilkins 1963).

(p.61) So, although Anscombe is right that a motive for someone's action need not be a disposition of the agent's, there are nonetheless close conceptual links between motives and dispositions. First, many of the terms we have for motives—for instance, ‘jealousy’, ‘ambition’, ‘humility’, ‘greed’, ‘compassion’—have cognates used to designate character traits that describe people precisely in terms of their behavioural dispositions; so people can be said to be jealous, ambitious, humble, greedy, compassionate, etc. And, as Ryle points out, to say ‘that a certain motive is a trait in someone's character is to say that he is inclined to do certain sorts of things, make certain sorts of plans, indulge in certain sorts of daydreams’ (1949: 90). So motives are not dispositions but we might say that many character traits, which are dispositions, can provide the motive for an action, for instance, a compassionate man is someone who tends to be motivated by compassion.

Not all motives have cognates that designate character traits: hatred, anger, admiration, pity, etc. can be motives but there are no corresponding terms for character traits: being hateful is not having the disposition to act out of hatred, and being angry is not having the disposition to act out of anger, nor is being full of admiration being disposed to act out of admiration. Being angry, or full of hatred, or of admiration seem to be states rather than character traits. However, a person who is often motivated by anger is likely to be an irascible person, that is, a person who is disposed to be angry. Likewise, a person may be filled with hatred once in his life (I don't mean just an instant); however a person who is often filled with hatred is a person who is likely to be malicious, that is, disposed to being motivated by malice. And so on.

Although many motives—for example, joy, avarice, generosity, humility, love, contempt—are feelings or emotions, not all motives are. For example, punctuality, fastidiousness, tidiness, dutifulness, can be motives but they are neither feelings nor emotions.

What all motives have in common is captured by Alan White, who says that ‘to give the motive for a deed is to indicate a desire for the satisfaction of which the deed was done’ (1968: 14). And this seems right. To say that the motive for an action was, for example, avarice, is to indicate a desire of the agent's, viz. to amass money, which he pursued in acting. If the motive was pity, the desire is to help; if vanity, (p.62) to shine or to gain admiration; if revenge or hatred, the desire is to harm the other person. And so on. So the motive for an action indicates a desire (something wanted) for the sake of which the agent acted.

So motives are closely connected to desires in two ways. First, some motives (for example, revenge) are the desire itself for the satisfaction of which the agent acts. For instance, A may kill B in order to satisfy his desire for revenge, which is also his motive. Second, some motives indicate a desire. For instance, if one's motive in voting a certain way is ambition then the desire for the satisfaction of which one votes that way is, for example, to further one's career, or to increase one's power. Unlike revenge, ambition is not something the agent desires, but it gives an indication of what he desires.

Motives are also related to motivating reasons. First, since having a motive is having some desire one wants to satisfy, then, given that desire, certain facts (or apparent facts) will seem to the agent to be reasons for him to act. For example, to be motivated by avarice is to take certain facts (or apparent facts) as a reason for acting; and one takes those facts as a reason because what one desires is to amass money. These facts make the relevant action appear as a means, or as somehow contributing, to the satisfaction of a desire one has—in our example, the desire to amass money.5 Moreover, given an agent's desire, taking certain considerations to be reasons, perhaps conclusive reasons, for doing something is constitutive of acting out of a particular motive: a desire to harm might constitute a motive of revenge against the background of a (perceived) past wrong. But that same desire might result in an action performed out of malice, if the agent regards the act of inflicting harm as worth doing for its own sake; or out of sadism, if the agent regards inflicting harm as worth doing for the sake of the pleasure it gives him. This explains why motives are sometimes called ‘reasons' (and vice versa), for there is an internal connection between having a motive, having a desire, and taking certain considerations as reasons to perform an action.

As mentioned earlier, it is true that we often call reasons ‘motives'. For instance, the police or crime detectives will say that a suspect had (p.63) a motive to kill the victim, namely, that the victim had murdered the suspect's father. But it is worth noting that, while the mere fact that the victim had murdered the suspect's father implies that the suspect had a reason for killing the victim, that fact alone is not enough to make it true that the suspect had a motive. For, unless the fact that the victim had murdered his father made the suspect feel hatred, or a desire for revenge, or something like that, it is not true that the victim's actions gave the suspect a motive for killing the victim. And that seems to suggest that when we say that a reason someone had (that the suspect's father had been murdered by the victim) was his motive, what is meant is that the reason engendered a motive, for instance, a desire for revenge.

So, motives do indeed motivate our actions, and in Chapter 6 I shall explore how they can also explain them. But this fact about motives leaves open the possibility that something else also motivates, namely, reasons. And so I shall now turn to the question what these motivating reasons are.

3.2. Are Desires Motivating Reasons?

I said above that the term ‘motivating reason’ is a term of art that has gained currency in philosophical discussions in recent years. However, although the term is widely used, there is a deep disagreement about what a motivating reason is. Or rather, while all parties agree that motivating reasons are ‘the reasons for which we act’ or, as I shall also call them, ‘our reasons for acting’,6 they disagree about what kind of thing these reasons are.

Many philosophers hold the view that our reasons for acting are mental states, in particular, states of believing and desiring.7 This (p.64) view is central to what has become known as the Humean view of motivation—one of whose basic tenets is that all motivation is dependent on desires.8

In recent discussions of this topic, a minority of philosophers have presented a number of arguments against this Humean picture of motivation.9 On the one hand, some have questioned the prominence that this picture gives to desires over beliefs in motivation—for one thing, they argue, there seems to be no reason to claim, as Humeans often do, that beliefs cannot motivate. Moreover, if it is admitted that both beliefs and desires motivate, it is questionable that desires are the fundamental motivators. In addition, many have challenged the idea that our reasons for acting are mental states (whether beliefs or desires) since, they point out, our reasons for acting are, at least sometimes, things such as that I am late for a meeting, that there is famine in Africa, or that my sister is moving house. And these, they argue, whatever they are, are clearly not mental states.

My own views are decidedly on the side of this minority. The view that desires are our reasons for acting seems to me mistaken. I shall spell out my arguments in relation to this claim in the following chapter, and my discussion will engage fairly directly with the debate about motivating reasons as found in the contemporary literature. However, I am unhappy with the way some of these issues are set out in the literature because the terms in which the debates are framed seem to me often unsatisfactory. In particular, the question whether desires are motivating reasons is ambiguous and hence hopelessly unclear.10

On the one hand, there are different kinds of desire. For instance, there are desires that we share with other animals, such as hunger (p.65) and thirst; and there are desires that only creatures capable of abstract reasoning can have, such as the desire to become more generous or to buy a PlayStation. And again, there are things that one wants for their own sake—health is normally so wanted—and things that are wanted for the sake of something else—wanting a new tooth‐filling is, for most people, such a desire.

Given this variety of kinds of desire, it should not be assumed that, if desires of one kind are not motivating reasons, desires of other kinds are not either. Therefore, the question whether desires are reasons must be explored in relation to desires of each kind.

Moreover, the question whether desires are motivating reasons is further complicated by the act/object ambiguity in the term ‘desire’ already mentioned.11 The ambiguity is created by the dual use that the term is put to: to refer to someone's desiring something, on the one hand, and to what is desired, on the other. For example, ‘my desire to go on holiday’ is sometimes used to refer to my desiring to go on holiday, and sometimes to what I desire, namely to go on holiday. These are quite different: my desiring to go on holiday, but not what I desire, may be predictable, intense, uncharacteristic, etc. What I desire, but not my desiring it, may be unattainable, expensive, worthless, etc. So, in addressing the question whether desires are motivating reasons we also need to bear this ambiguity in mind.

I shall, therefore, devote the remainder of this chapter to exploring the concept of desire, the different kinds of desire and, briefly, the ambiguity inherent in the term. This will enable me to address the question whether desires are motivating reasons properly in the following chapter.

3.3. What Is a Desire?

In much contemporary philosophy, the concept of desire is introduced alongside the concept of belief, as two fundamental kinds of mental (p.66) state that are distinguished from each other in terms of the notion of ‘direction of fit’. The idea is that, while to believe something is to be in a state with a ‘mind‐to‐world’ direction of fit, to desire something is to be in a state with a ‘world‐to‐mind’ direction of fit. While I don't have any substantial objections to this metaphor in itself, I doubt it is in fact very illuminating, not least because, as I shall argue, it encourages the idea that beliefs and desires are more alike than they really are, and it fails to emphasize a crucial aspect of desires, namely their connection to behaviour.12

Attempts to unpack the metaphor of ‘direction of fit’ often involve the idea of a ‘defect’, or of the ‘onus of match’ that each state has. So, a belief is said to be a state with a propositional content, such that if is there is a mismatch between the content of the state and the way things are in the world, then the defect rests with the belief (as it is often put, ‘the onus of match is with the belief’); and contrariwise for desires: desires are said to be states with propositional content so that, when there is a mismatch here, the defect, and hence the onus of match, lies with the world. But, on examination, this way of unpacking the metaphor in terms of ‘defect’ and ‘onus of match’ does not seem to work for desires as it might work for beliefs, for two reasons. One is that the content of desires is different in kind from the content of beliefs. The other is that there is an important disanalogy between desires and beliefs.

According to the view under examination, both the contents of beliefs and those of desires can be thought of as propositions—hence both beliefs and desires are often called ‘propositional attitudes'. The idea here is that to believe something is to have an attitude to a proposition, perhaps the attitude of taking it to be true; while to desire something is to have a different attitude to a proposition, for instance, perhaps a ‘pro attitude’ to it. So, on this view, to believe that my husband is at home is to take the proposition ‘My husband is at home’ to be true; and to want my husband to be at home is to want that proposition to be true.

However, although the idea that it is possible to express what it is to believe something in terms of having an attitude to a proposition may (p.67) be fine, the same is not true of desires. First, this way of characterizing desires does not cover the desires of non‐human animals because, since it is implausible that these animals can entertain propositions, it is not possible that, for them, to desire something is for them to have a certain attitude to a proposition. One could reply that the ‘propositional attitude’ characterization was always meant to apply to human desires only, so that the fact that it does not apply to the desires of non‐human animals is not a defect of the view. The problem with this response is that some of our desires, such as hunger, thirst, etc., are desires that we share with some other animals. But if these desires consist in having attitudes to propositions in our case, while they consist in something quite different in the case of other animals, then it is not clear what grounds we have for saying that these are desires that we share with other animals. I return to desires of this kind below.

But the problems for the propositional attitude view of desires do not end here. For even if we consider desires that only humans have because they require the capacity to manipulate abstract concepts, such as the desire to become prime minister, the claim that to have such a desire is to have an attitude towards a proposition is not free from difficulties. When one tries to express what is desired by means of a proposition the results are often forced and clumsy: ‘I want that she goes to the cinema tomorrow’, ‘I want that my husband is at home’, etc., sound odd and are barely grammatical, if at all.13 It seems that, in order to express the content of a desire by means of a grammatical ‘that’‐clause, the latter needs to be in the subjunctive mood: ‘I want that she go to the cinema tomorrow’, ‘. . . that he be kinder’, ‘. . . that my horse win the Grand National’; ‘. . . that the pound rise’, etc. But it is not clear that such ‘that’‐clauses express genuine propositions—among other things, they do not seem to be capable of being true or false. Moreover, it is much more natural to express what is wanted by means of an infinitival phrase: ‘I want her to go to the cinema’, ‘I want my horse to win’, etc.14

(p.68) Consider what Michael Smith, a champion of the ‘direction of fit’ characterization of beliefs and desires, says about them:

The difference between beliefs and desires in terms of direction of fit comes down to a difference between the counterfactual dependence of a belief and a desire that p, on a perception that not p: roughly, a belief that p is a state that tends to go [out?] of existence in the presence of the perception that not p, whereas a desire that p is a state that tends to endure, disposing the subject to bring it about that p. (1987: 54)

But does this way of characterizing desires work for all desires? There seems to be a problem in specifying what I want as p—a problem that, I think, tends to be obscured by the fact that the English language does not have a specific form for the subjunctive mood.15 Let me explain.

Suppose that it is now October and I decide that I want my son to buy a house this coming December. On the ‘state with direction of fit’ view, I am in a state that is a desire that my son buy a house this December—what I desire is expressed with a clause in the subjunctive mood. But it is not clear that I could have the perception that it is not the case ‘that my son buy a house this December’ (even understanding ‘perception’ in its widest possible sense). One perception I could have that is relevant to whether my desire is satisfied or not is that December comes and goes and my son has not bought the house. Faced with that perception, I cannot, on pain of irrationality, retain the desire for him to buy a house this December—as that is, now, impossible. But, on Smith's criterion, since this would be ‘a state that tends to go [out?] of existence in the presence of the perception that (p.69) not p’ this would make my desire into a belief, which seems absurd. Moreover, the belief I would now have, that my son did not buy a house in December, does not have the same content as the desire I had that my son buy a house this December.

But suppose that we put this difficulty aside and agree, for the sake of argument, to express the content of desires by means of such ‘that’‐clauses. There is still a disanalogy between beliefs and desires that is masked by the characterization of both in terms of states with ‘direction of fit’. It is a defect of a belief that its content does not match the way things are, for it makes the content of the belief false. But it is not a defect of desires that what is desired should be something that is not the case; on the contrary, far from being a defect, it is characteristic of a formally non‐defective desire: we don't normally want what we know to be already the case (although we may want something that is the case to continue being the case, for example, I may want him to continue being happy). If a mismatch between mind and world were a defect of desires, the only non‐defective desires we could have would be desires for things we falsely believe not to be the case, such as someone's desiring to see Mount Teide, while looking at it but not being aware that what he is seeing is Mount Teide.

It might be thought that this point is not very important because the idea behind the ‘direction of fit’ metaphor is clear: if there is a mismatch between what is believed and the way the world is, then the belief ought to change; whereas if there is a mismatch between what is wanted and the way the world is, then it is the world that ought to change in order to fit with what one wants—as Smith puts it, having a desire is ‘being in a state the world must fit’ (1994: 92 and 116). But in fact there is something very odd in this thought—for whether the world ‘must fit’ one's desire surely depends on what one desires. Some desires are foolish or evil and it is wholly implausible to say that having such a desire is being in a state that the world ‘must’ fit.

Moreover, Smith's characterization of the desire that p as a state that tends to endure ‘in the presence of the perception that not p’ is itself problematic. For suppose that I want to be now driving towards Seville and believe that I am. But suppose that I see a sign that shows that I am actually driving away from Seville and towards Granada. As Schueler points out (2003: 34), there is no reason to assume that, faced with this fact (this ‘perception’), I shall not abandon my desire to drive (p.70) to Seville and adopt instead one to drive towards Granada and hence bring it about that not p. Whether the desire to drive to Seville tends to endure when faced with the fact that I'm not driving to Seville will depend on a number of issues, not least of which are my beliefs about the relative merits, in the circumstances, of going to Seville vs. going to Granada—circumstances that include the discovery that as it happens I'm now on my way to Granada.

In fact, what is distinctive about desires is not so much that the world must fit with the content of the desire but rather that if one has a desire one has an inclination to act in the way that one believes will satisfy the desire (something Smith also mentions). In other words, what is distinctive about the concept of desire is its conceptual relation to agency, for an important criterion for the attribution of a desire to a person is whether that person is inclined to act so as to satisfy the relevant desire. And the characterization of desires as states with a mind‐to‐world ‘direction of fit’ takes the focus away from the all‐important conceptual connection between desiring something and agency.

As far as I am aware, the metaphor of direction of fit originates in section 32 of Anscombe's Intention (although she doesn't use that expression), where she distinguishes between a shopping list that a man uses as an aid while doing his shopping—which can be seen as an expression of his intention to buy the things on the list—and a list of things bought by the man compiled by a detective who has been following him—which can be seen as a record and hence more akin to belief. However, when discussing the possibility of mistakes vis‐à‐vis the first list, that is, the possibility of a mismatch between the shopping list—considered as an expression of intention—and what the man actually buys—seen as the execution of the intention—Anscombe says that, if there is a mismatch, ‘the mistake is not in the list but in the man's performance’ (1957: 56, my italics). She refers to this as ‘Theophrastus' principle’, and she points out that if, on seeing a mismatch between the list and the shopping, the man thought that the way to resolve ‘the mistake’ would be to cross something off the list, this would suggest that the man does not understand the role of a shopping list (that is, the concept of intention). If he understood it properly, he'd realize that the mistake consisted in his not having bought that item, which resulted in the mismatch. And the significance of this point is that the concept of intention is tightly bound up with the (p.71) concept of acting—as is the concept of desire. And this is something that the characterization of desires as ‘states with direction of fit’ does little to bring out. Or to put the point differently, if there is a mismatch between a desire and the way the world is, any onus of match that there might be is with the agent.

Thus, the metaphor of ‘direction of fit’, even if not misleading, is certainly not illuminating and it is not an improvement on Anscombe's other idea that ‘the primitive sign of wanting is trying to get’ (1957: 68); which means that, typically, someone who wants something is inclined or disposed to act in order to satisfy that desire (according to their beliefs about how to do that, of course). To be sure, desires come in different kinds and in different degrees of intensity, and the inclination to act to satisfy them varies accordingly. Moreover, the inclination to act may be outweighed by an inclination to do something else, or by a reason not to do it. But this does nothing to undermine the point that there is a fundamental conceptual link between desiring and acting.

It may be objected that this is too narrow a conception of desire. Many desires are desires we never act upon. Moreover, we may want things that nothing we could do would count as our trying to get because they are things that we know to be beyond our control, such as wanting that the weather should be sunny tomorrow. But, first, such wants are more akin to hopes and wishes. And second, for a want whose satisfaction one knows to be beyond one's control to be rightly attributed to someone it must be true that, had the agent believed that something he could do could contribute to bring about what he wants (for instance, pray, or do a little dance), then he would be inclined to do that thing. The inclination would, of course, be proportional to how much or how seriously one wanted that thing and how firmly one held the relevant beliefs about how to achieve it, and it might be outweighed by the cost of trying to get that thing, by conflict between it and other things wanted, etc. But nonetheless, the point remains that wherever there is desire, there is the inclination to act in order to get or bring about what is desired. As Aristotle says, what is desired is ‘the realisable good’; and he adds that in order ‘to produce movement the object [of appetite] must be [. . .] good that can be brought into being by action’ (De Anima, Book I, 10; 433a, 28–30).

(p.72) Because of this, and because I do not think much is gained by conceiving of desiring as involving a propositional attitude, or as being in a state with a ‘world‐to‐mind direction of fit’, I shall not characterize desires in this way.

As well as this way of characterizing desires in general, it is also common to find in the literature several kinds of distinction concerning desires. For instance, a distinction is often made between an ‘intrinsic’ desire (something wanted for its own sake) and an extrinsic or ‘instrumental’ desire (something wanted for the sake of something else to which this is a means). Another distinction often invoked is that between ‘occurrent’ and ‘standing’ desires.16 These distinctions are more or less important and useful for different purposes. For my purposes, however, I should like to focus on another distinction, namely that between what I shall call ‘rational’ and ‘non‐rational’ desires.

The distinction I wish to focus on is related to Nagel's distinction between motivated and unmotivated desires (1970: 29 ff.), although it does not altogether coincide with it.17 Nagel characterizes the former as ‘desires arrived at by decision and after deliberation’ which, he says, is true of many beliefs also. These are contrasted with unmotivated desires: desires that ‘simply assail us', ‘like the appetites and in certain cases the emotions' (1970: 29).

Motivated desires, Nagel says, unlike unmotivated ones, can be given rational explanations. Indeed, they can be given the same explanations that would explain the relevant desire‐satisfying action. So if I go to the shop in order to buy groceries because I am hungry, this implies that I have a motivated desire, namely to buy groceries, and an unmotivated desire, namely hunger. My desire to buy groceries is motivated by hunger but my hunger is not motivated by anything. And, Nagel says, both the motivated desire to buy groceries, and the action of going to the shop to buy groceries can be explained rationally, by reference to the fact that I am hungry.

While I think Nagel is right that the appetites and in certain cases the emotions simply assail us (though I don't think that emotions are desires, even if some may be accompanied by them, and necessarily (p.73) so), I think Nagel is wrong in saying that some desires, or beliefs, for that matter, are arrived at by decision. Decisions concern possible courses of action, and neither desiring nor believing are courses of action. One cannot simply decide to want something, though one can decide to try to obtain it.18 But, although we cannot decide whether to desire something, Nagel is right that many desires (and beliefs) are arrived at after implicit or explicit deliberation—though not all desires that can be given rational explanations are arrived at by deliberation. For my desire to play the piano can be given a rational explanation, namely that I enjoy playing the piano, but my desire need not be arrived at by deliberation, whether explicit or not, even if it is an ‘occurrent’ desire.

I think that a more illuminating way of putting the kind of distinction that Nagel has in mind is in terms of rational and non‐rational desires (which are not to be equated with irrational desires. The latter are against reason, while non‐rational desires are neither irrational nor rational, just as there are actions that are neither voluntary nor involuntary—if the latter is taken to mean against one's will—but are simply non‐voluntary).19 The crucial distinction between rational and non‐rational desires is that only the first are had for reasons.

Rational desires are desires we have for reasons and therefore only a creature with the capacity to reason can have such desires. Examples of rational desires are the desire to write a novel, to go on holiday, or to paint a window. Non‐rational desires are not had for reasons, and at least some of them we share with other animals. Particularly important among non‐rational desires are the appetites, such as hunger, thirst, etc.—which I shall refer to as ‘bodily appetites', since the term ‘appetite’ alone tends to be used in either a wider sense (for any desire) or a narrower sense (for hunger alone) than I intend here.20 These (p.74) desires are typically felt, in the sense that, normally, having them involves experiencing certain characteristic bodily sensations.

There are other non‐rational desires that we share with animals but which do not have characteristic sensations associated with them. For instance, the desire to play, to do things that feel good, to avoid what is painful, or to take action to diminish pain or to remove the cause of pain, etc., can be had by creatures that are not capable of abstract reasoning. These desires are connected to pleasure and the avoidance or assuaging of pain but they do not have characteristic sensations.

These non‐rational and all rational desires may be accompanied by sensations, but those sensations need not be characteristic of the desire. So, while hunger is characterized by certain sensations, there is no bodily sensation that is characteristic of the desire to eat chalk or to go on holiday, and the having of such a desire need not be accompanied by any bodily sensation.21

Let me note briefly a point which I shall explain in detail below: what makes a desire non‐rational is not its content, that is, not what it is a desire for but, rather, the fact that it is a desire not had for reasons and that it is felt. Hence, although thirst is a felt desire to drink, it is also possible to desire to drink because drinking is healthy and not to feel any desire. That desire to drink is, therefore, a rational desire. So animals can feel thirst but they cannot want to drink because drinking is healthy.

Although the distinction between non‐rational desires, and in particular bodily appetites, and rational desires was given prominence by Aristotle and his medieval followers, it is a distinction that tends to be neglected nowadays. This neglect has been, I think, deleterious for discussions of the connection between desires and reasons, because such discussions tend to overlook the fact that desires of each kind seem to stand in a quite different relation to reasons. And this means (p.75) that sometimes generic conclusions are drawn about the connection between desires and reasons which are, in fact, true only of desires of one of those two kinds.

Both kinds of desires share many features. But there are also important differences between them. Here, I shall start by examining non‐rational desires, focusing on the bodily appetites, which include the desire for food, drink, sleep, and sex. I shall focus on them because, while much of what I say about their relation to reasons is also true of other non‐rational desires, the bodily appetites are both very important and familiar among our desires. (And, as I have done up to now, I shall follow the common practice of using the terms ‘desire’ and ‘want’ roughly as synonyms, and will not use them to mark the distinction between bodily and rational desires.)

3.3.1. Non‐Rational Desires: Bodily Appetites

The importance of the bodily appetites is nicely summarized by Thomas Reid in the following passage:

Though man knew that his life must be supported by eating, reason could not direct him when to eat, or what; how much, or how often. In all these things appetite is a much better guide than our reason. Were reason alone to direct us in this matter, its calm voice would often be drowned in the hurry of business, or the charms of amusement. But the voice of appetite rises gradually, and, at last, becomes loud enough to call off our attention from any other employment.

Every man must be convinced that, without our appetites, even supposing mankind inspired with all the knowledge requisite for answering their ends, the race of men must have perished long ago; but by their means, the race is continued from one generation to another, whether men be savage or civilised, knowing or ignorant, virtuous or vicious. (1969: 120)

In this section I shall explore the nature of bodily appetites by focusing on two distinctive features they have: one is that desires of this kind are closely associated with particular bodily sensations which have a certain duration; the other is that, unlike rational desires, these are desires we do not have for reasons and indeed having them does not require the capacity to reason.

Before elaborating on these distinctive features of bodily appetites, it is important to note that, as I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier, (p.76) for adult human beings, the desires for food, drink, sleep, etc., can actually take two distinct forms. They may take the form of a bodily appetite, such as hunger, thirst, sleepiness, etc., or they may take the form of what I called rational desires. Thus, thirst is a bodily appetite, but the desire to drink water need not be: it could be a desire that is not felt but arises from some consideration about the importance or goodness of drinking water, in which case it is a rational desire. As Reid says:

A man may eat from appetite only. So the brutes commonly do. He may eat to please his taste when he has no call of appetite. I believe a brute may do this also. He may eat for the sake of health, when neither appetite nor taste invites. This, as far as I am able to judge, brutes never do. (1969: 122)

It might be tempting to think that a desire for food or drink that is not felt should also be regarded as a bodily appetite since it is a desire whose satisfaction necessarily involves changes in one's body, unlike, say, the desire for world peace. But what makes a desire bodily is not the nature of what is desired (for instance, some bodily activity or the enjoyment of some sensation) but rather whether having that desire typically involves experiencing certain characteristic bodily sensations and whether it is had for reasons. The bodily appetites are the kinds of felt desire that we have and that are also had by creatures that cannot reason.

So one distinctive feature of bodily appetites is that they are felt, that is, that there are certain bodily sensations that are characteristic of the appetite. For example, when the desire for food is a bodily appetite, it is characterized by the feeling of certain more or less unpleasant sensations located roughly around the stomach, oesophagus, etc.; the felt desire for drink is characterized by a sensation of dryness in the mouth and throat, and so on. A desire for food characterized by these sensations is what we call hunger, and a desire for drink characterized by those sensations is thirst. I may, to be sure, feel hungry and yet not want to eat—because, for instance, I know the food to be poisoned. Nonetheless, feeling hungry is still feeling a desire to eat, even if, in spite of my feeling this desire, I do not, all things considered, want to eat.

Because of the sensations that typically accompany them, feeling these desires involves more or less intense experiences of bodily (p.77) discomfort and even pain, and they have what, following Wittgenstein, can be called ‘genuine duration’: their duration can be measured by the clock more or less precisely. Moreover, these sensations are fairly well localized in the body.

It is said that bodily appetites are characterized by their requiring ‘prompt satisfaction’ (see Kenny 1989: 36) and this feature of bodily appetites is precisely connected to the sensations that they are characterized by, because part of what is involved in satisfying the desire is assuaging the accompanying sensations.22 And it is also this feature that makes it difficult for the person who experiences the desire to attend to anything else when the desire is sufficiently acute. Indeed, the intensity of a desire is partly measured precisely by whether the person can attend to anything else if he or she tries; to quote Reid again, ‘the voice of appetite rises gradually, and, at last, becomes loud enough to call off our attention from any other employment’ (1969: 120).

Some of the desires under discussion, such as the desire for food, water, and sleep—but not sex—have the character of a need, not merely in the sense that they are desires that require immediate satisfaction (which is true of all of them when sufficiently intense, and this includes sex), but also in the sense that some of them are desires for things that are needs for the human organism, things the absence of which will harm the organism.

The connection between these sensations and the desire they characterize is not that of symptom and condition; that is, those sensations do not constitute for their owner evidence that he has the relevant desire; rather, to experience those sensations is to feel the desire, and indeed the behaviour that the desire naturally leads to, that is, the behaviour that is characteristic of that desire (for instance, seeking to drink water, moistening one's lips), is behaviour that tends to assuage the relevant, more or less uncomfortable, sensations. (But note that feeling the relevant sensations is not all that there is to having the desire, because having the desire involves also an inclination to act in certain ways; rather, experiencing the sensations is all that there is to feeling the desire.)

(p.78) Desires of this kind can be brought about by, or intensified or weakened through, stimulation of the senses, including the so‐called internal senses: memory and imagination. But these desires can also be the upshot of physiological changes and states in us whose occurrence or obtaining has little or nothing to do with the senses. To the extent that the stimulation of the senses is under the agent's control, the bringing about or modification of those desires also is, and this is something that an agent might do more or less deliberately, and perhaps for a reason. But even then, as we shall see, it does not follow that these desires are had for a reason.

This brings us to the other distinctive feature of bodily appetites I want to highlight, namely that, unlike rational desires, bodily appetites are not desires we have for reasons, though there are reasons why we have them. Thus, the question: ‘why do you feel a desire to ϕ (that is, why do you feel a desire to drink, to eat, etc.)?’ makes sense only if it means something like: ‘What is the reason that explains why you feel this desire?’ and it does not make sense if it means: ‘What is your reason for feeling this desire?’ And when it means the first, the answer won't be your reason for feeling the desire; rather it will be some fact about the physiological, chemical, etc., state of your organism, or about your history and constitution, that explains why you feel this desire. Depending on the domain of interest, the having of these desires can be explained by reasons related to biological needs; to chemical states and changes in us; to genetic factors, to evolution, etc. But these are all reasons why we have those desires and not our reasons for having them; in other words, these are reasons that explain why we have these desires but they are not the reasons that motivate us to have the desires.

Someone's having a bodily appetite may be, for example, predictable, or incomprehensible, given his or her circumstances. For instance, it is unsurprising that someone who hasn't eaten for two days should feel very hungry but odd that someone should still be hungry only two hours after a heavy meal, or thirsty having just drunk a litre of water. But the predictability or oddness of the desires, or the difficulty in understanding why these desires are present, has nothing to do with understanding the cogency or soundness of the agent's reasons for having the desires—it is, rather, related to understanding the reasons why he has them (to reasons that explain his having them), (p.79) and these might be things such as that he had a salty dinner; that he has a metabolic dysfunction, etc. Such reasons are clearly not the agent's reasons for having those desires.

However, although bodily desires are not had for reasons, they are not altogether outside of the domain of reason, that is, not outside of the domain of the normativity of reasons; and this is so whether there is an obvious reason (explanation) why one has them or not. So, there is some connection between desires of this kind and reasons for φ‐ing, which is that we generally have the capacity to reason about desires of this kind in at least two ways. First, we may reason about the appropriateness or otherwise of satisfying a bodily desire, and might decide to refrain from seeking to satisfy it—though the latter might sometimes require a huge effort and might, in some cases, have deleterious consequences for our health, particularly when the desires are linked to physiological needs. And second, we can reason, in a means‐ends manner, about how to satisfy these desires.

In order to reason about whether to satisfy a bodily desire, it is necessary to be able to have the thought that one has such a desire. It may be that, given our natures as rational creatures, the experience of a bodily appetite is often accompanied by such thoughts, regardless of whether we are reasoning about whether or how to satisfy it.23 Thus, I may feel thirsty and this feeling may be accompanied by the thought that I am. However, that does not mean that the appetite ceases to be a bodily appetite and becomes a rational desire. This is so because what makes a desire bodily is that it is felt and that it is not had for reasons, and the mere fact that the thought ‘I am very thirsty’ accompanies my feeling thirsty does not imply that I now have the desire for a reason.

We saw above that the things we desire in this bodily way, namely, to drink, to eat, to have sex, to sleep, etc., are things we can also desire rationally. And we saw that whether a desire for any of these things is bodily or rational depends on whether it is felt and whether it is had for reasons. Of course it is possible for us to have both a bodily appetite and a rational desire to drink at the same time: thus we may feel thirsty and also have a rational desire to drink—for example, (p.80) we may feel thirsty and at the same time want to drink water on the grounds that it is good for one's liver. In such a case, we have both a bodily appetite and a rational desire to do the same thing, viz. to drink.

When one reasons about whether to satisfy a bodily appetite, one may reach the conclusion that one has reason not to satisfy such a desire, for instance, because one is on hunger strike, about to have an operation, or married to someone else. Reasoning about the appropriateness of seeking to satisfy these desires can easily lead to self‐deception and akratic action. Among other things, because these desires are intimately linked to our most fundamental physiological (and psychological) needs; because they can be very intense and powerful and demand immediate satisfaction; and because there are often strict conventions, moral injunctions, social imperatives, and taboos attached to them (especially, but not exclusively, in relation to sex). These are, however, very complex issues that I cannot and need not go into here.

As well as reasoning about whether, we can reason about how, to satisfy these desires. The satisfaction of a bodily appetite might be a straightforward matter, because what will satisfy my desire is obvious and easily available (say drinking water from a fountain), and the behaviour in which a creature engages to satisfy these desires may be instinctive or learnt or a combination of both. But satisfying the desire might involve more or less complicated ways of doing so, which may in turn require careful means‐end reasoning.24 I shall discuss the relation between reasoning about whether and how to satisfy a bodily appetite and motivating reasons in the following chapter. I now turn to rational desires.

3.3.2. Rational Desires

As I said above, rational desires are desires had for reasons and hence having rational desires requires the exercise of the capacity to use abstract concepts. Rational desires are desires for things we want either in themselves, or instrumentally; while non‐rational desires are (p.81) always desires for things wanted in themselves.25 I want to become famous because fame will bring me wealth, which I want because it will allow me to pursue my passion, which is to collect Indian sculpture. My desires to become famous and wealthy are instrumental; my desire to collect Indian sculpture is not. As has often been pointed out, every instrumental desire must be eventually grounded on a desire that is not itself instrumental, on pain of vicious regress: if nothing were wanted for its own sake and everything were wanted only in so far as it is a means to something else, then we would not want anything.26

A rational desire may be accompanied by more or less intense sensations and feelings. However, those sensations are not defining of the desire: there is no sensation or feeling that characterizes the desire to redecorate one's bathroom, or the desire to park a little closer to the shops. Moreover, although the intensity of such feelings and emotions may be indicative of the strength of a rational desire, they are not the criterion for the desire's strength; rather, the latter is determined by the lengths to which one is prepared to go in order to try to satisfy the desire. Thus, one's desire to beat a rival at tennis may be accompanied by an intense feeling of excitement, but the criterion for the strength of that desire is not the intensity of that feeling (though the latter may be a good indication) but rather what one is prepared to do in order to satisfy it: train intensely, take extra lessons, sabotage one's rival's racquet, or whatever.

This relation between rational desires and sensations and feelings explains also why rational desires, unlike bodily appetites, do not have what Wittgenstein called ‘genuine duration’. I may want to go on a journey and feel very excited by the thought. But the excitement may pass and the want remain, and the want may remain even though I do not think about it at all or am in no way aware of it, indeed even while I am asleep—the same is not true of bodily appetites.

Like bodily appetites, rational desires can be brought about or intensified by stimulation of the senses: by sight, memory, imagination, etc. Desires of both kinds can be spontaneous, that is arise either ‘just like that’, or at the sight, memory, image, or thought of an object (p.82) or activity (cf. Anscombe 1957: 67). And both bodily and rational desires can be the subject of reasoning about whether and how to satisfy them. But only rational desires can be brought about through reason. This is because rational desires have a connection to reasons that bodily appetites do not have, namely that they are had for reasons: if one has a rational desire then one has some conception of what one desires that presents it as, in some respect, good. And the fact that the thing wanted is good (in that respect) is one's reason for having that desire.

The idea that some desires are had for reasons can be found in Aristotle and Aquinas, in the thought that what is wanted is always wanted sub ratione boni (‘under the aspect of the good’, Aquinas's Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 8, 1. See also Aristotle's Physics II, 3, 195a26; and Nicomachean Ethics I, 1, 1094a3). This thought has been emphasized in different ways by recent philosophers.27 For instance, in Intention, Anscombe talks about the ‘desirability characterisation’ of what is wanted: some aspect of what is wanted that captures what the good of it is in the agent's eyes. As Anscombe puts it, ‘good is the object of wanting’ as ‘truth is the object of judgment’; and she adds: ‘it does not follow from this that everything judged must be true, or that everything wanted must be good [. . .] the notion of “good” that has to be introduced in an account of wanting is not that of what is really good but of what the agent conceives to be good’ (1957: 76). And Aristotle says that the object of desire ‘may be either the real or the apparent good’ (De Anima III, 433a28). This, Anscombe says, means that the desirability characterization picks out a feature that makes it intelligible to others that the person should desire it: ‘the good (perhaps falsely) conceived by the agent to characterise the thing must really be one of the many forms of good’ (1957: 76–7); the latter being things such as health, virtue, friendship, pleasure,28 etc. (or that the thing wanted is a means to such goods).

(p.83) Thus rational desires are grounded in, that is, motivated by, the fact that we find some aspect of the thing or the activity wanted valuable because it seems good to us in some respect. The way in which it seems good is, precisely, our reason for having that desire, that is, our reason for wanting what we want.29 To be sure, what one desires through bodily appetites is also appealing to one, but the difference is that in order to feel a bodily appetite it is not necessary to have the capacity to conceive of what one wants at all and, a fortiori, not necessary to conceive of it as good or worthwhile, and to be able to want it for that reason; whereas a rational desire requires the exercise of that capacity.

It has been objected that this claim, viz. that there is a connection between having (rational) desires and conceiving the wanted thing as good, is, at best, exaggerated.30 After all, it is argued, we want to do things that we do not believe to be good, or even things that we believe, or know to be bad, even when we know or believe the bad in them to outweigh the good (see Heuer 2004). The response is that this is true, but nonetheless we always want to do them ‘under the aspect of the good’, that is, because of some good we see in them—for instance, we want to smoke, if we do want to in spite of knowing that it is extremely harmful, because we find it pleasant or relaxing. What we want, we might say, is the pleasure of smoking, not the harmful effects of it (or if someone wants the harmful effects, it will be for some ‘good’ to be derived from them).31 But surely, it will be objected, we can want what is bad because it is bad. But (p.84) again, if we want something because it is bad, this is because of some characterization that ‘its being bad’ has that makes it seem good. For example, we want to do what is morally bad for the thrill of it, or as a way of defying authority, and thus showing that we are free, or powerful, etc. As Anscombe puts it, the exhortation ‘Evil be thou my good’ is open, in order for it to be intelligible, to the question: what is the good of evil's being your good? (And she suggests that a plausible answer might be ‘the condemnation of good as impotent, slavish and inglorious' (1957: 75).)32

But, one might insist, surely this is just a stipulation, for we might want to do something without being capable of saying what the good of doing that thing is; indeed perhaps we see no good in it at all. So, although, in general, the things we want we want because of some good we see in them, it is surely possible to want to do things for no reason—one may just have the sudden desire to do certain things such as pull a face at an important interview, or do a cartwheel down a corridor. Well, first, if something is wanted in that way, that is not a rational want and hence, although there may be no connection between what is wanted and a conception of the good, this is no objection to my claim that, in all that is rationally wanted, there is such a connection. Besides, very often we might find it difficult to say why we want to do something, that is, what the good of it might be. And this could be a matter of a failure of self‐knowledge, honesty, or courage (the kind of thing for which we need siblings, friends, or, failing that, psychoanalysts). But that does not mean that the wanted thing is not regarded as somehow linked to the good, and it is perhaps arguable that many of those apparently pointless things one wants to do are things that we have some reason for wanting to do (for instance, to relieve boredom, to show to ourselves that we are still free spirits, and so on).33 Finally, to the extent that one is wholly unable to specify what the good of what one wants to do (p.85) is, it becomes questionable that one does want to do that thing, as opposed to having an urge to do that thing, having to do that thing, feeling an impulse to do it, etc.: for, to the extent that something is not wanted for a reason, that desire has more the character of an urge, an impulse, a yen, etc. Thus, the compulsive hand‐washer may see that there is no good whatsoever to be derived from his excessively frequent hand‐washing and may be incapable of saying anything in its favour.34 However, first, there is some good that he sees in washing his hands, for example, that it helps prevent infections, is a symbol of moral purification, or whatever—what he may not see any good in is the inordinate repetition of this act. But does the compulsive hand‐washer actually want to wash his hands so frequently, as opposed to, say, feeling a compulsion to do it?

So just as there seemed to be a connection between taking oneself to have a reason to do something and being motivated to do it, there seems to be a connection between taking oneself to have a reason for wanting something, and wanting that thing (as opposed to feeling a desire to do it), and the reason is something that, in the agent's eyes, picks out some feature of what is wanted as good.

As I mentioned above, a rational desire may be instrumental or it may be a desire for something wanted for its own sake. It is important to note, though, that a rational desire for something wanted for its own sake is still a desire I have for a reason. Something I want for its own sake is something that I regard as good in itself, where its goodness may be in respect to a variety of criteria: moral, prudential, aesthetic, hedonic, legal, etc. And this good that I see in what I desire (that it is pleasant, my duty, elegant, an act of friendship, etc.) is my reason for wanting it: it provides the desirability characterization of the thing wanted, and, because it is wanted for its own sake, it is something I see as, somehow, an instance of some form of the good. Because of this, when one gives a non‐instrumental reason for wanting something, as (p.86) Anscombe says, ‘Here we have arrived at a desirability characterisation which makes an end of the questions “What for?” ’(1957: 72).

When reasoning about whether and how to satisfy a rational desire, several kinds of consideration come into play. First, if a thing is wanted for its own sake, a central consideration is whether it is something that is really worth wanting. On reflection one might realize that, say, celebrity is worthless, while domestic happiness is worth pursuing. Another kind of consideration is whether the satisfaction of one desire is compatible with the satisfaction of another desire that, in the circumstances, may take precedence for the agent. Yet another kind of consideration concerns the means that are available to achieve what one wants. One might reason that one's desire is almost impossible to achieve, or conclude that achieving it is feasible but the means required to bring it about are not acceptable (morally, legally, etc.), or one may conclude that, to paraphrase Dr Johnson, a thing is worth having but not worth trying to get. And so on. In all these ways one may come to think that there is no good reason, all things considered, to (try to) satisfy a desire, or perhaps that there is good reason not to (try to) satisfy it.

This susceptibility of desires to reasons does not mean we can choose what to desire; it does, however, mean that we have some control over our rational desires: we can reflect on the reasons why we have the desires we have, and decide that the reasons (and hence perhaps the desires) are inappropriate or bad, or conclude that there is better reason to have other desires one doesn't have. Such reasoning might result in our losing some desires and acquiring others, or, if we cannot rid ourselves of a desire, we might try to ignore it, or try not to let it affect our behaviour, etc.35

Having explored the notion of a desire and the distinction between bodily and rational desires, my next task is that of examining the relation between desires and motivating reasons, and in particular (p.87) whether desires, be they bodily or rational, are motivating reasons. However, before undertaking that task, I need to return to an issue that I have mentioned several times but which, for the sake of simplicity of exposition, I have had to suppress so far in my discussion of desires, namely the ambiguity of the term ‘desire’.

3.4. The Ambiguity of ‘Desire’

As already noted, many discussions about desires and reasons have been dogged and obscured by an ambiguity that arises because the term ‘my desire’ (or ‘my want’) has two possible uses: one to mean my desiring something (or my wanting something), and the other to mean what I desire (or what I want).

The difference between my desiring something and what I desire is captured by the act/object distinction, and it can be brought out by considering, first, that there are things which are true of the one that need not be true of the other. As I said above, what I desire may be unusual, very expensive, and even very desirable, while my desiring it need not be any of those things. So, a teenage boy may desire to own a limited edition Ferrari: what he desires is rare, but his desiring it may not be, at least not among his peers. This difference is sometimes reflected grammatically, in that, when qualifying a desire, we may use an adverb if we are qualifying the act (that is, the desiring), but must use an adjective when qualifying what is desired. For instance, if I have an intense desire to see the sea, it is my desiring, not what I desire, that is intense. And this is expressed by means of an adverb that qualifies the act: ‘my intensely desiring to see the sea’ (and not my desiring to intensely see the sea). However, if I have an unattainable desire, for example, to win an Olympic medal, then it is what I desire, not my desiring it, that is unattainable, and this is expressed by means of an adjective that qualifies the ‘object’: ‘I desire something unattainable, namely to win an Olympic medal’. This could not be expressed by saying that I unattainably desire to win an Olympic medal.

This dual use of the word ‘desire’ is also relevant when considering the differences between the kinds of desire mentioned above, such as that between intrinsic and extrinsic desires, that between occurrent and standing desires, or the distinction I drew between bodily and (p.88) rational desires. These distinctions apply to one's desiring—they are distinctions about the manner in which something is desired. For instance, the distinction between bodily and rational desires is a distinction concerning desiring, for they refer to the manner of desiring: as we saw, what is desired, for example, to drink, could be the same whether the desiring is bodily or rational.

In drawing attention to the act/object ambiguity, I don't pretend that it has gone altogether unnoticed in discussions of reasons. In fact, the distinction between my wanting something and what I want is often mentioned under the headings ‘a desire’ (a state of desire) and ‘its content’—though it must be noted that if ‘a desire’ refers to what is desired, then these are the same: the content of my desire to meet the Dalai Lama is, precisely to meet the Dalai Lama, which is what I desire or ‘my desire’.36 Although the distinction is acknowledged, it is, however, seldom given much importance when articulating arguments, and both defenders and attackers of the view that desires are motivating reasons tend to use the term ‘desire’ to mean now one thing, now the other. So, the ambiguity resulting from the failure to specify whether one is focusing on a desiring, or on a thing desired, when arguing for or against the view that desires are motivating reasons, can have the effect of hopelessly compromising the conclusions of those arguments. In general, then, we must be clear whether claims and arguments about desires refer to what is desired, or to our desiring it.

Given these complexities concerning the concept of desire, it seems that the question whether desires are motivating reasons must first be disambiguated, so that the resulting questions can be addressed separately. This is what I propose to do in the following chapter.


The focus of this chapter has been the concept of motivation in action and the relation between motivation and desires.

(p.89) I acknowledge the common‐sense view that among the things that motivate us to act are, precisely, our motives. Having briefly explored the notion of a motive and its connection to desires, I noted that, although we are moved to act by our motives, that does not mean that we are not also moved to act by reasons.

I have argued that there is a close connection between being motivated to φ, taking oneself to have a reason to φ, and wanting to φ. Being motivated to φ involves having an inclination to φ. If one has such an inclination typically, though not always, one wants to φ, either because one feels an inclination to φ, or because one takes oneself to have a reason to φ. This led to the question whether desires are among the reasons that motivate us to act.

I argued that, given the complexity of the concept of desire, that question about motivating reasons requires a better understanding of what desires are, of the different kinds of desire, and of the significance of the fact that the term ‘desire’ is ambiguous.

After exploring the connection between desires and agency, I focused on the distinction between bodily appetites and rational desires which lies partly in their relation to bodily sensations, and partly in their relation to reasons: bodily appetites, unlike rational desires, are felt and are not had for reasons. I examined some of the distinctive features of desires of each kind, and argued that they stand in importantly different relations to reasons.

I then emphasized the act/object ambiguity inherent in the term ‘desire’, which serves to refer either to what is desired, or to one's desiring it (whether one desires it bodily or rationally).

With these distinctions in place, we can now turn to the question concerning the relation between motivating desires and reasons. And it becomes clear that the question: ‘Are my desires motivating reasons?’ can be construed in two ways. One construal yields the question: (1) ‘Is what I desire a motivating reason?’ On the other construal, the question is: (2) ‘Is my desiring something, whether I desire it bodily or rationally, a motivating reason?’ And these are quite different questions, each of which I shall examine in the following chapter.


(1) A recent attempt to clarify the notion of motivation can be found in Mele (2003). For an older attempt see Peters (1958).

(2) Schueler (2003: ch. 2) calls desires of this second kind ‘proper desires'.

(3) Note that my discussion here is concerned with the relation between being motivated and taking oneself to have a reason to do something. I said in Chapter 1 that I take the expressions ‘X has reason to φ’ and ‘There is a reason for X to φ’ to be equivalent. But I don't take the former to be equivalent to, or to be implied by, the expression ‘X takes herself to have a reason to φ’. While, in my view, a person has no special authority on whether she has a reason to φ, what she says does have special (though still corrigible) status concerning whether she takes herself to have a reason to φ, and on what reason she takes herself to have.

(4) In Intention Anscombe says that ‘motive‐in‐general is a difficult topic’ (1957: 20) although her discussion of motives there (1957: 18–23) is very illuminating. See also Kenny (1989: ch. 4).

(5) Whether one acts out of avarice or not depends at least partly on the extent to which the consideration that a particular action will be financially profitable is a conclusive reason for one to do it—whether, for example, it trumps other considerations that one takes to be reasons not to do that thing, for instance, that it is risky, that it will harm others, etc.

(6) But, by ‘our reasons for acting’, I do not mean the reasons there are for us to act, but rather the reasons (or apparent reasons) for which we actually act.

(7) This view is held by many philosophers and it is often thought to be enshrined in this well‐known passage of Davidson's: ‘Giving the reason why an agent did something is often a matter of naming the pro attitude (a) or the related belief (b) or both; let me call this pair the primary reason why the agent performed the action. (. . .) R is a primary reason why an agent performed the action A under description d only if R consists of a pro attitude of the agent towards actions with a certain property, and a belief of the agent that A, under the description d, has that property’ (1980: 4–5). It is worth noting, however, that Davidson is here talking about the reasons that explain an action and perhaps not about the reasons that motivated it. See Section 4.2, note 9.

(8) Audi calls it ‘the conative groundedness view’ (2001: 66). See also Mele (2003: ch. 1).

(9) Bittner (2001); Dancy (2000); Hyman (1999); McDowell (1978); Nagel (1970); Schueler (2003); Stout (1996); Stoutland (1998).

(10) In the contemporary literature on normativity there has been much discussion whether desires are normative reasons (see Raz 1999a; Korsgaard 1996, 1997; Quinn 1993; Scanlon 1998; Schroeder 2007, etc.). The arguments rehearsed in that debate are relevant to our question, which is whether desires are motivating reasons. Our question, however, needs to be addressed in its own right because it seems possible, at least prima facie, that a desire should not be a reason there is for someone to act and yet be the reason for which someone acts: the reasons for which we act are not always reasons for which we should act.

(11) As I said earlier, there is a corresponding ambiguity concerning the term ‘belief’, which I'll explore in detail in Chapter 5.

(12) See e. g. Platts (1979) and Smith (1987 and 1994). For some trenchant criticisms of this conception of desires see Zangwill (1998) and Schueler (1991).

(13) For similar criticisms see Ben‐Yami (1997).

(14) Although desires can be expressed by using the optative mood, e.g. ‘Would that I became a good tennis player’, ‘May you enjoy good health’, what is desired is typically stated by means of an infinitival clause, e.g. ‘to become a good tennis player’, ‘for you to enjoy good health’. The latter can also be stated by means of nominal expressions: ‘proficiency at tennis', ‘good health’, ‘having more money’, etc., but it is not clear that it can be also expressed in propositional form.

(15) Even native speakers of English seem unsure about how and when the subjunctive ought to be used, and tend to avoid constructions that call for it. This may have contributed to the fact that many philosophers seem happy to use the indicative form where grammar requires a subjunctive in their characterization of desires. For example, Smith writes: ‘Ascriptions of desires, unlike ascriptions of sensations, may be given in the form “A desires that p”, where “p” is a sentence. Thus, whereas A's desire to φ may be ascribed to A in the form A desires that he φ‐s, A's pain cannot be ascribed to A in the form A pains that p’. (1987: 47). But contrary to what Smith says, A's desire to become a pianist is ascribed to A as ‘A desires that he become a pianist’, that is, using the subjunctive and not the indicative form of the verb, as he suggests; and ‘he become a pianist’ is not a complete sentence, and it cannot be used alone to express a proposition.

(16) See Mele (2003: ch. 1) for an account of some of these distinctions.

(17) Another closely related distinction is Scanlon's between ‘judgment‐sensitive’ desires and those that are not (1998: ch. 1).

(18) Likewise, it is not at all clear that it is possible to decide to believe something. But, as Raz (1997) points out, this does not mean that we are passive when it comes to beliefs, among other things because which beliefs we end up with depends partly on how we deliberate; and whether we deliberate and how carefully can be up to us.

(19) An alternative term might be ‘arational’ which, for instance, Hursthouse (1991) uses to refer to some actions, as she says, on the model of ‘amoral’ and in contrast to both moral and immoral.

(20) See Kenny (1989: 35 ff.), to which my discussion is indebted. Kenny uses the term ‘desires’ where I use ‘non‐rational desires’—and in particular ‘bodily appetite’—and ‘volition’ where I use ‘rational desire’; and he points out that ‘some languages have a special word for the kind of desire which is common to humans and animals: in classical Greek philosophers called it “epithumia” and in medieval Latin the scholastics called it “concupiscentia” ’ (1989: 36).

(21) My distinction is not the same as Schueler's distinction between ‘desires proper’ and ‘pro‐attitudes', because for him a ‘desire proper’ is ‘one where it makes sense to say that someone acted even though she had no desire at all, in this sense, to do so, as I might attend what I know will be a really boring meeting even though I had no real (that is, ‘proper’) desire to go’ (2003: 24). All bodily appetites are ‘proper’ desires, in Schueler's sense, but so are some rational desires. For instance, my desire to go on holiday can be a proper desire.

(22) Thus these desires are presumably always what are called ‘occurrent desires', if the latter means desires present to consciousness, given that bodily desires are present to consciousness for as long as they are felt.

(23) Perhaps it is rare for us to feel a bodily desire without its being accompanied by such thoughts—the exceptions may be those instances when a bodily desire is extremely intense.

(24) Non‐human animals also do things in order to satisfy their bodily desires, and they use tools in these activities. But it is, at best, controversial whether their doing this involves any reasoning.

(25) Some, e.g. Mele (2003), call this distinction ‘intrinsic’ vs. ‘extrinsic’ desires.

(26) See, e.g. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I.

(27) For contemporary discussions, see Anscombe (1957); Quinn (1993); Raz (1999a); Scanlon (1998).

(28) The relation between pleasure and reasons is somewhat problematic. Someone's claim that his reason for doing something is that it is pleasurable is generally intelligible, at least to the extent that it is intelligible that he should find it pleasurable. However, if we are concerned with normativity, things are more complicated. For while the fact that something is, say, an act of friendship is obviously always a reason in its favour, even if it is defeated by another reason against it, the same does not seem to be true in relation to pleasure. For it is not obviously true that the fact that something is found to be pleasurable by someone is a reason for that person to do it (albeit a defeasible one), regardless of what it is that is pleasurable. For it seems arguable that there are things one ought not to take pleasure in, and that therefore the fact that one takes pleasure in them would not be a reason at all for doing them. Because of this, it is not clear to me whether the fact that something is pleasurable is a reason so long as the pleasure is not ‘corrupt’ (in which case it would be a reason for not doing it); or whether the truth is rather that the fact that something is pleasurable is always a reason but is often (and perhaps easily) defeated by other reasons.

(29) Dancy says: ‘To desire is to be motivated by some conception of how things are’ (2000: 91). If one restricts this to rational desires, this seems a close enough characterization of them.

(30) See Stocker (1979 and 2004); Raz (1999b); and Velleman (1992).

(31) The philosopher Francis Bacon says that ‘There is no man doth a wrong for the wrong's sake, but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honours, or the like’ (1909–14: bk IV).

(32) Velleman makes an objection to this claim of Anscombe's that seems to me to depend on implicitly thinking that the good must be some kind of ‘ethical good’, for he says: ‘Anscombe's Satan can desire evil only by judging it to be good, and so remains at heart, a lover of the good and the desirable—a rather sappy Satan’ (1992: 119). But this objection only has bite, as far as I can see, if a lover of the good must be a lover of what is morally or ethically good, which Anscombe is not committed to: her Satan loves power.

(33) For a plausible argument to this effect see e.g. Quinn (1993: 246–52).

(34) Such urges or impulses (for instance a pregnant woman's craving to eat chalk) share with bodily appetites that they are not had for reasons and that both require prompt satisfaction. But these urges and cravings differ from bodily appetites in that they do not have characteristic sensations associated with them. It is possible to characterize a sensation as the sensation felt in one's stomach when one is hungry but not as the sensation one feels when, to use Davidson's example, one feels a yen to drink a can of paint, or to eat chalk. See Hursthouse (1991) for an interesting discussion of a variety of actions, which she calls ‘arational’, some of which are respones to such impulses.

(35) Harry Frankfurt (1988) has characterized the distinction between desires that are genuinely one's own and those one repudiates in terms of first‐ and second‐order desires, where to have a desire that is genuinely one's own is to have a second‐order desire to have the first‐order desire. There is a huge literature on this topic and I cannot go into it in any detail here but, like many, I am not convinced that the idea of a second‐order desire is the most illuminating way of characterizing this phenomenon. (For persuasive criticism of Frankfurt's position, see Watson 1975).

(36) And that content is my desire rather than, say, my fear, simply because I desire rather than fear to meet the Dalai Lama.