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Desire, Practical Reason, and the GoodReview - Desire, Practical Reason, and the Good
by Sergio Tenenbaum (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Michael Larson, M.A.
Sep 20th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 38)

Desire, Practical Reason, and The Good is an edited collection of essays dealing with what the editor, Sergio Tenenbaum, refers to as "moral psychology."  The key concern is the relation of knowledge, or belief about what is "good" to human desire and motivation.  The heart of this issue goes back to the philosophy of Socrates and Plato and the earliest expressions the "Guise of the Good" thesis: "that desire (or perhaps intention, or intentional action) always aims at the good." (3)  This thesis was summed up by the Scholastic philosophers as "whatever is desired is desired under the guise of the good." (161) 

Questions regarding the relation of human desire to some idea of what is good have been a controversial point in ethical philosophy ever since the discussions of Socrates. The issue has persisted as a critical concern throughout the history of Western moral thought, most notably in the writings of major figures such as Aristotle, Kant and of course Plato.  Reflection on how these three philosophers treated the question makes up a majority of the writings in this text.  But the question is also developed in relation to more contemporary ethical thinkers such as John Rawls and connects with the writings of contemporary critics. 

Starting with Plato, Matthew Evans relates the Socratic position, which he dubs the "Knowledge Argument," "is that we are capable of acting incorrectly only if and only when we fail to recognize that we are acting incorrectly." (6)  His essay treats a host of methods to break down the implications of this position into logical form, attempting to sketch out the territory which needs to be clarified so that the disagreements between those who defend the Socratic thesis and its critics may better articulate their positions.  He concludes that "the case against the Knowledge Argument is strong," but that the work of those who wish to defend it is not "doomed." (25)

Rachel Barney also dwells on the Platonic "desire for the good," articulating what she refers to as the "Desire thesis," which has two versions: the "Appearance thesis is that all desire is for the apparent good  The other, the Reality thesis is that human desire can only be for what, in fact, is good." (35)  So, one question is whether these two versions contradict each other, or whether they are indeed consistent, and she argues that they are consistent in Platonic philosophy.  For Plato, one only desires what appears good and worthy to him, but our true desires like with what is objectively Good, in and of itself. 

Matthew Boyle and Douglas Lavin (in a co-authored piece) plus Jessica Moss and Joseph Raz each offer insight on Aristotle's version of the "guise of the good" thesis, that "Every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good." (111)  Or that "It is always the object of desire which produces movement, but this is either the good or the apparent good." (161)  Against challengers who propose such a position is naïve, but as Boyle and Lavin work to defend: "What seemed obvious" to defenders of the Aristotelian thesis, "was not that perverse desires are impossible, but that they must be understood in a certain way: as involving a kind of mutiny that results in an object's being desirable by one faculty even as others deny its desirability." (162)  In other words, desire is complex and there are many aspects to the self-experience of human beings.  We do not strictly desire from our "rational" mind.  While Plato and Kant would also, each in their way, insist that "proper" desire would be that which accords with the truths of reason regarding ethical principles, we are prone to construe our desires by what other parts of our nature take to be "good."  I believe reference to research in the psychoanalytic tradition could bring a lot of perspective on this issue, regarding how it is that humans constitute perverse or seemingly counter-intuitive desires.  For Boyle and Lavin, "the guise of the good thesis reemerges as a proposition belonging to an attractive and coherent account of what action is." (163)  It is choosing based on our beliefs, implied or explicit, regarding what is "desirable" or "good" given the constraints of possible options, insofar as we understand them.

To get a sense of the questions that center around the correlation of "Desire" and "the Good," here are some of the further questions that connect to this inquiry:

  • Is there an objective nature to what is "Good?"
  • Does the relevant nature of the "Good" connect to an idea of human nature or rational nature?
  • Can a person intend what she believes to be "bad?"
  • Can one know something to be "better" and yet desire against it?
  • Can one rationally "know" what is "best," but desire other "goods" in a non-rational, emotional or libidinous fashion? 
  • Can only that which is truly good make us truly happy?
  • Does undertaking a course of action intentionally necessarily entail representing that action as "good?"

This last question links with central concerns of French existentialism, as well and I believe some reference to works in the Continental tradition would really add a lot of perspective and depth to the discussions raised in these essays.  Indeed, Sebastian Rödl's stated aim of expounding "the meaning of the proposition Doing something intentionally is representing doing it as good" (138) is very close to the heart of Sartre's work on Existentialist Ethics.  However, even a quick scan of the index shows that no figures in the recent Continental tradition have been referenced.  Neither does research in the psychoanalytic tradition find much of a place, either.  Instead, when the works here reach into the thought of recent philosophers, they turn to the Anglo-American tradition and thinkers such as McDowell, Davidson and Moore.  Indeed, stylistically the writing here is of a more analytic nature. 

The intended audience would be professional academics who are versed to some degree in "philosophy of action" or "moral psychology," but the central questions are important for most anyone who is concerned with the ethics and the applicability of ethical philosophy.  Considering my long-standing interest in this question in the works of Plato and Kant, I found the essays here to offer much food for thought and a bit of incentive to expand the framework and consider these questions with regard to perspectives beyond the bounds of this collection, as well.

 

 

© 2011 Michael Larson

  

 

Michael Larson, M.A. Instructor at Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA. Primary interests: Continental philosophy, Foucault, Deconstruction, Social and Political thought, Modern and Contemporary art.


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