By Christian Williams

Winner of the Gerrit and Edith Schipper Undergraduate Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Paper at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association

Christian Williams, University of North Florida


There has recently been a great deal of debate in philosophy concerning the cogency of Hume’s thesis that only a desire may constitute a moral motivation. Specifically, some have begun to wonder whether, in moral circumstances, a desire might take on a cognitive role, be motivated by a belief, or perhaps be identified as a desiderative belief or “besire”—that is, having elements common to a belief and a desire.1 In what follows I contribute to the sparse pro-cognitivist literature by pursuing precisely this line. The main difficulty for the anti-Humean is to develop some theoretical space for such entities as desiderative beliefs given recent plausible characterizations of mental state types and their directions of fit. My analysis will consider such an argument and show that, as an argument against belief motivation, it runs into difficulties when one begins to trace a line from a presently motivated and motivating desire to a previous desire needed to motivate the first. More specifically, I will show that a Humean cannot avoid insisting on the instantiation of some rather morbid and unlikely desires. The argument against Humeanism leads directly to a more substantive understanding of desiderative belief and provides reasons that the concept is needed for a proper account of moral action.

The paper proceeds in four sections. The first section briefly frames the implications of the debate for practical reasoning in general. Here, I discuss the concept of action as well as the difference between a moral reason and a normative reason, and how these ideas affect a practical conception of morality. The second section of this paper gives an explication of Hume’s views and how he arrives at them. With the third section comes the first main point of interest. Here I present Michael Smith’s argument against the possibility of belief motivation. I then examine a case of conflict that arises with the operation of transparent contexts in general desires for the good. This conflict leads me to develop new conclusions about moral motivation in the final section, specifically that desire is not alone in its motivational powers. Desiderative beliefs, so it is argued, do a better job of explaining how an individual’s commitment to a value plays a part in moral reasoning and moral action.

Implications of the Debate for Practical Reasoning

Consider, for a moment, what is required to act intentionally. A person walking aimlessly through a park with no goal or purpose seems to fail as an example of one who intends to be at some specific point in the park at some precise time. A man being restrained and pinned to the ground after a gas station robbery does not intend to occupy such a position. A woman who lowers her feet into a murky pool of water filled with crabs does not intend to have her feet nibbled. Contrariwise, a man who removes one hundred dollars from his wallet and hands it across a counter in exchange for a product does seem to act intentionally. What is present in the last case and not present in each of the former is a distinct belief about an outcome of an action coupled with a desire for that outcome. One might also separate the two sets of actions in terms of a presence or a lack of motivation. The man who takes the money out of his wallet and hands it across the counter is motivated to do so by his desire for the product. The woman who dangles her feet in the water may have been motivated to cool her feet and if so, she intended to do precisely that, but she was certainly not motivated to have them nibbled by the crabs. Thus we say that if a person is motivated to do A, then there is some B such that the person intends that B come about, so long as the very same person believes that by doing A, B will happen.

The man who hands his money to the clerk has a reason to do so.2 This is called a motivating reason since it is the man’s desire for a certain product that motivates his handing the money to the clerk. However, it is important to distinguish this motivating reason from another sort of reason. Suppose the clerk is really just a fellow customer of the shop who accidentally wandered behind the counter. From his perspective, the man does not have a reason to give him the money. To such a person, it might appear as if the man were just giving away his money to any random passerby. This action would be judged from the outside as irrational and done without reason. It is in this spirit that philosophers have urged a distinction between a normative reason and a motivating reason. For the man at the counter certainly does have a motivating reason for his action. He desires a product and he believes that handing one hundred dollars to the man in front of him will bring it about that he has the product. However, he is not normatively justified in his action since the man to whom he is handing the money is not the type of man who will be able to satisfy the desired state of affairs.

The implications of this distinction between normative and motivating reasons yield grave consequences for a practical morality. In the above case, the man is motivated towards an inappropriate action because of a false belief, and if that belief had been corrected, the action would have been adjusted to fit. But, in general, it would prove difficult to adjust the man’s desire for the product unless he is convinced that there is something more desirable for which he should save his money. This difficulty shows itself more fully when applied to moral situations. Consider, for instance, the man who robbed the gas station. If one were to tell the man beforehand that he would be arrested, perhaps one could dissuade him from action, assuming he found the idea of jail deplorable. But if unable to instill him with this belief, what sort of work could any other belief do to prevent the action? Shouting, “Stealing is bad!” may work if the individual has some desire to be good, but otherwise, such a declaration appears to be of a normative category, and thus cannot essentially constitute a motivating reason for the man. This motivating reason is needed for the agent to act intentionally, and given the dual composition of a motivating reason—that is, the belief- desire pair constitutive of it—there is no clear way of instilling another with a motivating reason since there is no clear way of instilling another with a desire.

The foregoing account suggests that moral action is determined, by and large, through personal taste. Some person s might have a desire for B, and thus do A, but this has little bearing on u’s doing C because she desires D. Certainly, s might suggest that B is a better way to get to D, and so coordinate the actions of the two, or perhaps convince u that she misunderstands D and its undesirable nature, but there is no way for s to motivate u directly to not C but through a highly complex network of belief, persuasion and luck. Thus, assertions such as “D is bad,” whether believed or not, will likely fall on deaf ears. This is what comes with a Humean view of moral motivation, because for the Humean, desire is constitutive of motivating reason. For the Humean, a person’s belief that B is good, and that A-ing will get one to state B, is not enough to motivate that person to A. One must also have a desire to do good things for this particular belief to motivate.

But why should a belief not carry a certain motivational force? In day-to-day experience, it certainly seems as though beliefs provide motivating reasons for action. For instance, when the poor man on the street asks for a few dollars, one does not feel smitten with a desire to give the man money or even to see him do well. Rather, it would seem that a belief is present to the effect that, “This man could get more from these few dollars than I could.” In the next section, Hume’s argument against the accuracy of this description will be reconstructed, thus showing exactly why so many have found the idea of desire as constitutive of motivating reason so plausible.

Hume’s Argument Against Motivational Beliefs

To gain a fine appreciation for the neo-Humean arguments for non-cognitivism, it will be instructive to examine the original classical Humean arguments for the position. The classical account is more robust than the contemporary argument considered in the third section, so this section will help provide a deeper understanding of just what is at issue. Also, it will be interesting to see how little has changed since Hume’s own arguments.

Hume considers the cognitive operations of the human mind as dealing with exactly two realms. Both uncover truth and falsity. What he calls relations of ideas are the cognitive processes that discover analytic a priori truths. The truths of mathematics and geometry are examples of this category under Hume’s view, since these can be discovered and conceived in pure abstraction, and all truths of the systems follow by necessity given the fundamental axioms. Matters of fact, according to Hume, are synthetic and a posteriori. The apprehension of these truths requires information from experience. Some of Hume’s own examples of truths in this category include ideas that represent relationships of contiguity, distance, identity, and causation. In the former case, that of matters of fact, the understanding is nothing more than a demonstrative tool and Hume rightly notes that “demonstration and volition seem upon that account to be totally removed from each other.”3 In the latter case, the understanding does nothing more than piece together experiences, and this quality makes it quite different from the passions, which are not truth-seeking entities. As Hume puts it:

A passion is an original existence, or, if you will, modification of existence, and contains not any representative quality, which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification. When I am angry, I am actually possessed with the passion, and in that emotion have no more a reference to any other object, than when I am thirsty, or sick, or more than five feet high. It is impossible, therefore, that this passion can be opposed by, or be contradictory to truth and reason; since this contradiction consists in the disagreement of ideas, considered as copies, with those objects which they represent.4

The above argument is intended to establish that passions cannot conflict with matter of fact reasoning and this is generally understood within the context of deliberation. When one deliberates over whether it is better to A or to B, one uses reason to determine which action will better satisfy a passion or the greatest number of passions. So, if Joe is deliberating about whether it is better to study for a test or to go out drinking with his buddies, the Humean account says that Joe will have exactly two desires—the desire to go drinking with his buddies and the desire to, say, do well in school—and Joe may reason that studying for his test will help bring it about that he does well in school, while going out to drink will do the opposite. So, it is not that Joe has, on the one hand, an inflamed passion to drink and a cognitive disapproval of it. Rather, Joe’s faculty of understanding has revealed that beer drinking before a test night is a cause of test failure, and that test failure is, at least in part, identical with doing poorly in school. Joe does not have a desire to do poorly in school.

In fact, he has the opposite desire. So, what Joe experiences in this deliberation is not the contrary motivational forces of reason and passion. What he experiences is the disagreement between his desire to do well in school and his desire to go out drinking, as reason shows the former desire to be opposed to the latter.

But how does one account for the feeling one gets in these situations? For instance, it would be quite in keeping with common life for Joe to say to his friends, “Well, I really don’t think I should since I have a big test tomorrow,” and for Joe and his friends to take this as his reason for not going out, and even explanatorily sufficient for his subsequent actions. Is it really plausible that they could be completely deceived about the cause of his action? As discussed in section one, this is a normative reason, and for the Humean, normative reasons are never explanatorily sufficient for intentional action. Hume explains the phenomenon as follows:

It is obvious that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carried to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction. It is also obvious, that this emotion rests not here, but, making us cast our view on every side, comprehends whatever objects are connected with its original one by the relation of cause and effect. Here then reasoning takes place to discover this relation; and according as our reasoning varies, our actions receive a subsequent variation. But it is evident, in this case, that the impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. It is from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises towards any object: and these emotions extend themselves to the causes and effects of that object, as they are pointed out to us by reason and experience. It can never in the least concern us to know, that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both the causes and effects be indifferent to us. Where the objects themselves do not affect us, their connection can never give them any influence; and it is plain that, as reason is nothing but the discovery of this connection, it cannot be by its means that the objects are able to affect us.5

So for the Humean, the appearance of reason as carrying some motivational force can be explained by the content of the cognitive state that reveals a certain action having, or being thought to have, a causal connection with some state of affairs that is desired by the agent. Where the content of the cognitive state would typically be regarded indifferently, the emotions expressed for the desired state of affairs “extend themselves to the causes and effects of that object.”

So, Hume’s proof for the motivational inertness of reason runs roughly as follows. Reason is representational, as it seeks to represent true states of affairs. The passions are nonrepresentational, as they are reflective impressions that stir an agent upon a perception. It is impossible for any nonrepresentational entity to conflict with any representational entity; therefore, the passions cannot conflict with reason. Aversion or propensity towards any object arises from the prospect of pain or pleasure. When an agent feels the prospect of pain or pleasure associated with any object, this is a reflective impression, and thus, a stirring of the passions. Therefore, a stirring of the passions is required for an aversion or propensity towards any object. Since this aversion or propensity is all there is to motivation, it follows that only the passions can motivate, and further, that reason cannot contradict this motivation.

However, Hume’s account is unsatisfactory insofar as he poses reason, a representational faculty, against the passions, a nonrepresentational one, while contemporary accounts consider the possible conflict of beliefs and desires—propositional attitudes that are both taken to have representational dimensions. A desire is always a desire that P, where P represents some state of affairs X. Beliefs have the same sort of representational dimension, so one must find a new way to express the disparity that prevents beliefs from carrying motivational weight. The following section considers an argument that does precisely that.

The Neo-Humean Argument

In “The Humean Theory of Motivation,” Michael Smith presents an account of beliefs and desires, showing a disparity between their direction of fit with the world, and he thereby seeks to demonstrate the motivational inertness of belief. The argument is fairly simple and powerful, but as I will show, the resulting model runs into problems when one begins to ask questions about where certain desires come from and what sorts of mental states motivate them. I argue that the best way to avoid these problems is to allow some place for desiderative beliefs in a complete account of motivation.

In Smith’s account, based on Anscombe’s6 work, the principled difference between a belief that p and a desire that p is found in their direction of fit with the world. A belief that p is said to have a mental state to world direction of fit, since beliefs are mental states that seek an accurate representation of the world. Conversely, desires have a world to mental state direction of fit, since the role of a desire is to have the world match the propositional content of the desire. This account is intuitively appealing, but remains a bit loose for a thoroughgoing theory of motivation. Smith makes the distinction more formal by showing the counterfactual dependence of these mental states on perceptions to the contrary.

For 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 of existence in the presence of a perception that not p, whereas a desire that p is a state that tends to endure, disposing the subject in that state to bring it about that p. Thus we may say, attributions of beliefs and desires require that different kinds of counterfactuals are true of the subject to whom they are attributed. We may say that this is what a difference in their directions of fit is.7

Thus one would explain the difference between Joe’s belief that he has a purple house and his desire that he have a purple house by saying that, upon seeing that he has a green house, Joe would no longer believe that he has a purple one, but he would still desire that he have a purple one. Also, we construe this desire as a disposition to bring it about that the house is purple.8

It should be clear that this account preserves the spirit of Hume’s own arguments while allowing similar representational properties for beliefs and desires. A belief and a desire can have exactly the same content, but because of the different functional roles played by each, the Humean can still argue for the motivational inertness of belief. This is easily carried out, claims Smith, because of the nature of a motivating reason. Motivating reasons share something very important with desires that threaten to establish the Humean theory of moral motivation, and eschew any hopes of a cognitive view of morality. Smith argues as follows:

. . . having a motivating reason just is, inter alia, having a goal. But what kind of state is the having of a goal? It is a state with which direction of fit? Clearly, the having of a goal is a state with which the world must fit, rather than vice versa. Thus having a goal is being in a state with the direction of fit of a desire. But since all that there is to being a desire is being a state with the appropriate direction of fit, it follows that having a goal just is desiring.9

Thus, Smith is able to conclude that having a motivating reason is having a goal and having a goal is having a mental state with the same direction of fit as a desire. Thus, since a world to mental state direction of fit is constitutive of a desire, it follows that desires are constitutive of motivating reasons. This excludes the possibility of having a belief that motivates, since as shown earlier, the direction of fit of beliefs is converse to that of goals and desires.

Smith goes on to say that it would be impossible for there to be a mental state with a bi- directional fit, since this would require that such a mental state both endure and go of existence in the presence of a perception that ~p. But consider the following account of desiderative belief, a mental state that has a bi-directional fit with the world.10

(A) Joe believes that it would be nice if his house were purple.

Or more formally,

(A’) (Bj) if (Joe has a purple house) then (there will be an additional good state of affairs) and (Joe’s purple-house-painting caused this state of affairs).

Here, (Bj) is read “Joe believes that.” It is clear that this state would satisfy the requirement of a belief through its counterfactual dependence on a contrary perception, because one could imagine that if Joe were to see a computer-generated model of his house painted purple, and were he to see this as horribly unattractive, he would cease believing that it would be nice if his house were purple. However, in the absence of such a perception, it is quite plausible that this belief could motivate Joe to go and buy a few cans of purple paint; thus, it is a disposition to bring it about that he have a purple house. Smith suggests that such a belief has not been analyzed and broken down into its constituent parts. A proper analysis would show that Joe has a belief that having a purple house is a state of affairs that he desires. Thus, if he should find out that he does not desire to have a purple house, he will cease to believe that it would be nice to do so. The desire, which is the content of the belief in this case, is what motivates Joe to paint his house purple.

It should be clear that overcoming the Humean arguments for the motivational inertness of belief will be extremely difficult. Smith’s account is highly plausible, and it does seem to capture something essential about the contrary natures of standard beliefs and desires. Here, I suggest we stick with this Humean account of motivation for a moment and see where it takes us by performing a case study.

Consider Charlie, a lonesome farmer in a distant land. Ever since Charlie was a little boy, he knew he was going to be a farmer. He did not want to be a farmer, in fact, he wanted to be a painter, but in his country occupations were government mandated and his was decided before he was strong enough to pick a carrot. Although he did not like the idea of being a farmer, Charlie believed that his government was good and that they knew what was best for him, so he did not put up a fight. Now, when it comes time for Charlie the farmer to perform his first farming action, the Humean will say that he is motivated by his desire to obey the government, and that by farming, Charlie has temporarily satisfied that desire. However, this is not a good enough explanation since the question still remains as to why Charlie desires to obey his government. According to our story, Charlie desires to obey his government because he believes that they command good actions. So far, this poses no problem for the Humean account, since one need only say that Charlie desires to do good actions. Once this is established, it is quite clear that Charlie has a motivating reason to farm in virtue of his desire, and thus his goal to do good actions, and that a relatively short chain of beliefs connects the action to the goal. But consider this link of the chain—where (Dc) is read “Charlie desires that”:

(B) (Dc) (Charlie obeys the government)
Does (B) provide the most appropriate phrasing of Charlie’s desire? The answer must be no, since it does not allow for clean syllogistic reasoning from his motivating reason of desiring to do good actions to the performance of his first farming action. To see that this is so, we need only note the difficulty in arriving at (3) below from premises (1) and (2).

(1) (Dc) (Charlie does good actions)
(2) (Bc) (government commands) is a subset of (good actions)
(3) (Dc) (Charlie obeys the government) (?)
It might appear as though what is needed here is a premise claiming that obeying one’s government and doing what one’s government commands are one and the same, and that this is obtained easily enough. However, this is not what is needed. What is needed is a premise to the effect that a desire to obey one’s government is the same as a desire to do what one’s government commands. This is not obtained so easily since the proposition, “Charlie desires that he does what his government commands,” which would supply a valid conclusion, must be read with a transparent context.

(C) (Dc) (Charlie does what his government commands)

should be read as,
(C’) Charlie desires that p, where p is determined by Charlie’s government.

By this reading, Charlie desires that p, where p could be anything from “Charlie goes fishing on Saturday, and afterwards helps Joe paint his house purple” to “Charlie throws himself from a bridge.” Who would want to ascribe these desires to Charlie? The ascription seems unavoidable so long as one assumes the Humean position that all action must eventually lead back to a desire. One says that “Charlie desires the good and believes that the government commands it,” and anything follows for Charlie’s desires. In this case,

A:{C fishes on Saturday, C jumps from a bridge} ⊂ B:{government commands} so Charlie desires everything in set A.

Unfortunately, this looks like the best way to unravel the chain of reasoning from Charlie’s action to his goal, and so (B) should be replaced with (C) as the conclusion of Charlie’s deduction. But is it really plausible to suppose that Charlie could desire his own death or even something worse? This seems to be a natural consequence of the Humean position once one begins to ask questions about desires motivated by other desires. My own opinion is that transparent contexts and desires do not mingle very well. I imagine this sort of multi-level motivation is present in nearly all moral considerations, since such deliberations typically rest on a value chain and, under the Humean view, this value chain must be undermined by a very general desire to do good or to be good. In the next section, I will propose an alternative conception that does not result in Charlie’s accidental desire for his own self-annihilation.

Suggestions for a New Model of Belief Motivation

The argument in the third section was intended to show why it might be profitable to allow room for desiderative beliefs as motivational entities in a multi-level motivational model. However, the argument is incomplete insofar as it does not offer a positive account of what desiderative beliefs can do for a theory of motivation. Rather, taken by itself, the argument might be seen as evidence for the inconsistency of human desire construction, and perhaps even for the inability for any motivational theory to account for such a random process. One might suggest, for instance, that analysis can only proceed for a limited number of levels. In what follows, I will provide a more substantive model for desiderative belief motivation.

First, I would like to clarify what I take to be Charlie’s attitude when he hears of the government’s plan. I do not think we should think of him as being unmotivated to jump off of the bridge, though I do think it would be wrong to suppose that he desires that state of affairs. That this motivation may be present should be clear if we imagine that the government has captured Charlie, and through complex surgical methods, removed all of his desires and beliefs except for his belief that the government commands only good actions. When surgery is complete, the prime minister says, “Charlie, go jump off of a bridge.” At this point, Charlie forms the belief that it would be good to jump off of a bridge, and I imagine him doing so, though nothing depends on this intuition.

However, quite a bit does depend on just how desiderative beliefs motivate, so it will be necessary to explicate this. As I argued in the third section of this paper, transparent contexts and desires about “the good” do not mix well, but insofar as people have a tendency to objectify value, it would appear that desiderative belief and transparent contexts work quite nicely together. First, consider a mundane non-moral case where Joe believes that all fish live in the water.

(Bj) (all fish) ⊂ (water-dwelling creatures)

Thus Joe also believes,

(Bj) (bass, trout, salmon) ⊂ (water-dwelling creatures)
We can say this of Joe because the bass, trout, and salmon are types of fish and the very property of “fish-ness” requires that those who have it live in the water. Joe knows this and he thereby commits himself to the belief that whatever fish we discover in the future will be water-dwelling creatures. Perhaps someday, someone will discover a tree-dwelling fish that has gills and a refillable water-sack from which to breathe. Suppose that Joe hears of this fish, without hearing of the fish that it is a fish, but he comes to believe of the fish that it is a tree-dweller. According to the popular view of metaphysical necessity regarding natural kinds11 we will have to regard Joe as temporarily holding contradictory beliefs, but once confronted with this inconsistency, we can rest assured that Joe will remedy the situation by adapting his belief about fish to the following:

(∃x) (Fx ⋅ ~Wx)

Now my proposal is that desiderative beliefs work in a similar way. Whether correct or not, when people use the word “good” in the moral sense, they mean to pick out some objective property. The fact that moral goodness might not be an objective property does not matter for this analysis. What matters is that when Charlie believes of the government’s commands that they are good, as we should say in the de re formulation, he makes a certain extensional commitment. It is interesting that the deontic notion of commitment should turn up here, since contexts in which people defer to a higher power for their moral beliefs are fairly pervasive. Consider church-goers who adopt their preacher’s interpretation of a difficult and nebulous text; or young adults who, not settled into their own political views, adopt their parents’ stance on controversial issues like abortion and argue for them outright. More positively, consider the torn individual who, being forced to make a difficult decision, says to herself “I will figure out which of these is the right thing to do.” When she finally makes the decision her criteria will be finding the property of rightness. Call this extensional commitment to the unseen moral answer procedural deontology. Now, supposing for a moment that objective value does exist, we call it “the oasis of the good,” and adopting the popular phraseology “the magnetism of the good” leads the agent to engage in procedural deontology, and this, upon discovering to what one is committed, leads to action. Supposing that objective value does not exist, we can perfectly well imagine “the mirage of the good,” and this is no less magnetic.

Thus, my understanding of a desiderative belief is not one that requires an explicit desiring or wanting of the state of affairs, but it does require some commitment on behalf of the agent to bring that state of affairs about. This personal commitment is often parallel to the normative reasons that, by the Humean account, provide no motivating reason for the agent, but with one important caveat. For a normative reason to provide motivation for the agent, the agent must believe that it expresses a moral truth. We then develop the following normative to motivating reason conversion principle:

(DP): N at t constitutes a motivating reason for S to A at t if and only if S believes at t that it would be good if X, where X is the state of affairs expressed by N, and S A-ing at t, is required to bring it about that X.

Hence we can also see that, while this account does require Charlie to have some motivation to throw himself from a bridge should he continue to believe that this is the right thing to do, we should also note that, upon perceiving that the government would like him to do this, his belief that the government commands only good actions may well go of existence—in which case Charlie would be left without motivation. This can happen when the former belief encounters, for instance, a belief that it is not good for governments to require their citizens to jump from bridges. So, we can see that by this account, desiderative beliefs are more malleable motivational entities in a broad moral system than Humean general desires for good. The Humean route leads to over-commitment on behalf of the agent, while the desiderative belief route allows for cognitive correction of false desiderative beliefs. In other words, a desiderative belief can turn out to be false and believed by the agent as such, while a desire cannot.

In conclusion, I would like to note two cases in which desiderative belief shows itself in the phenomenology of motivation. First, it is difficult to reconcile the Humean account with what happens introspectively in cases of strength of will. Desiderative beliefs, on the other hand, explain the phenomenon quite nicely. When one chooses to stay home and study rather than to go out for a drink, one feels as if she has made the right decision, not the more desired one. In retrospect, an agent in such a situation might say that what she really wanted was to go out drinking, though it would have benefited her more to stay home and study. Second, and I think this aspect is more powerful, the phenomenon of obligation squares quite well with my account of desiderative belief. When one feels that it his duty to, say, contribute some amount of money to a charity, it is very difficult to discern any desire that might constitute the underlying motivation. Even if there is some desire buried deep within the psyche, it is nearly impossible to imagine that this desire somehow outweighs desires to spend the money elsewhere. What appears to motivate in this circumstance is the belief that parallels the normative requirement. For, if this belief were motivationally inert the scales would have to be tipped in favor of the stronger desires. These considerations, in addition to the conceptual points regarding difficulties with general desires in a reasoning chain, and the more plausible results that accompany their replacement by desiderative beliefs, should show where the latter type of mental state is vital to an accurate theory of motivation. Contrary to Hume, I take it that their place is reserved quite close to the very center of our moral concerns, and that they provide a means to moral correction through rationality and reason.


Works Cited

Anscombe, G. E. M. Intention. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1957.

Collins, John. “Belief, Desire, and Revision.” Mind 97 (1988): 333-342.

Davidson, Donald. “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.” Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1961.

Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972.

Lewis, David. “Desire as Belief.” Mind 97 (1988): 323-332.

Pettit, P. and H. Price. “Bare Functional Desire.” Analysis 51 (1989): 162-169.

Pettit, Philip. “Humeans, Anti-Humeans, and Motivation.” Mind 96 (1987): 530-533.

Price, Huw. “Defending Desire-as-Belief.” Mind 98 (1989): 119-127.

Putnam, Hilary. “The Meaning of ‘Meaning.’” Mind, Language, and Reality: Philosophical Papers Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

Smith, M. “The Humean Theory of Motivation.” Mind 96 (1987): 36-61.


  1.  David Lewis and John Collins offer objections to the notion of a “besire” from the standpoint of quantitative and nonquantitative decision theory respectively. Their rejection of besires stems from a failure of the attitudes to conform to the proven models of decision theory. Huw Price offers rebuttals from within the paradigms, but my own intuition is that if these attitudes exist and can improve our theoretical model of human moral motivation, then so much the worse for decision theory. See David Lewis, “Desire as Belief,” Mind 97 (1988): 323-332; John Collins, “Belief, Desire, and Revision,” Mind 97 (1988): 333-342; and Huw Price, “Defending Desire-as-Belief,” Mind 98 (1989): 119-127.
  2.  See Donald Davidson, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes,” Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001).
  3. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Garden City: Doubleday and Co., 1961) 374.
  4. Hume 376.
  5. Hume 374-375.
  6. See G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1957).
  7. Michael Smith, “The Humean Theory of Motivation,” Mind 96 (1987): 54.
  8. For an interesting and strong objection to the notion of a desire as a functional disposition, see P. Pettit and H. Price, “Bare Functional Desire,” Analysis 49 (1989): 162-169.
  9. Smith 54.
  10. See especially Philip Pettit, “Humeans, Anti-Humeans, and Motivation,” Mind 96 (1987): 530-533.
  11. See Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972). See also Hilary Putnam, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning,’” Mind, Language, and Reality: Philosophical Papers Vol. 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979). The arguments should be familiar enough. Recall that in Putnam, the Frege- Carnap thesis that two terms cannot differ in extension without differing in intension is shown to fail through two logically possible worlds—W1, the actual world and W2, a counterfactual world— which are absolutely identical except with regard to the microstructure of water. In the actual world the microstructure of water is H2O, and in the counterfactual world it is XYZ. This affects beliefs in the above way when one accepts that extension constitutes a part of the meaning of a rigid designator term. Of course, one accepts that the extension constitutes a part of the meaning because we would not want to say that “water” in the actual world and “water” in the counterfactual world have the same meaning.

Christian Williams

Christian Williams is an undergraduate student at the University of North Florida. His primary interests in philosophy include the fields of metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of mind. He has presented a paper at the Sixth Annual Northeast Florida Student Philosophy Conference held at the University of North Florida in 2002, has attended the 2002 Colorado Summer Seminar in Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and has won the 2002 Gerrit and Edith Schipper Undergraduate Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Paper. Christian is currently writing an honors thesis on the problem of mental causation. Upon graduation, he plans to continue his philosophical development at the graduate level.