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Getting what you want


It is commonly accepted that if an agent wants p, then she has a desire that is satisfied in exactly the worlds where p is true. Call this the ‘Satisfaction-is-Truth Principle’. We argue that this principle is false: an agent may want p without having a desire that is satisfied when p obtains in any old way. For example, Millie wants to drink milk but does not have a desire that is satisfied when she drinks spoiled milk. Millie has a desire whose satisfaction conditions are what we call ways-specific. Fara (Philos Perspect 17(1):141–163, 2003, Noûs 47(2):250–272, 2013) and Lycan (Philos Perspect 26(1):201–215, 2012, In what sense is desire a propositional attitude?, Unpublished manuscript) have also argued for this conclusion, but their claims about desire satisfaction rest solely on contested intuitions about when agents get what they want. We set these intuitions to one side, instead arguing that desire satisfaction is ways-specific by appealing to the dispositional role of desire. Because agents are disposed to satisfy their desires, dispositions provide important evidence about desire satisfaction. Our argument also provides new insight on the dispositional role of desire satisfaction.

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  1. 1.

    Though widely accepted, Bach (1997) questions a principle in this vein.

  2. 2.

    See e.g. (Searle 1983, ch. 2), (Whyte 1991), (Stampe 1994), (Heathwood 2006). Condoravdi and Lauer (2016) give a contextualist take on the principle. Braun (2015) endorses a similar principle, which he calls ‘The Weak Content-Specification Version of the Relational Analysis of Desire Ascriptions’ (on which more in Sect. 10): ‘If N is a proper name and S is an infinitival phrase (with or without explicit subject), then: if \(\ulcorner\) want s S\(\urcorner\) is true, then the referent of N has a desire that is satisfied in exactly those worlds in which the proposition that S semantically expresses is true’ (p. 149).

  3. 3.

    A presupposition contested by e.g. Montague (2007) and Moltmann (2013).

  4. 4.

    Fara (2013) rejects a principle closely related to the Satisfaction-is-Truth Principle, which she calls the ‘content-specification version of the relational analysis’ (p. 254) of desire ascriptions. She gives only an instance of the principle: ‘ “Lora wants to be in London” is true just in case Lora has a desire that is satisfied in exactly those possible worlds in which she is in London’ (p. 254) (in her (2003), she rejects a similar principle). The left-to-right direction of the principle—the direction that she objects to—is an instance of the Satisfaction-is-Truth Principle if we accept, as we should, that if Lora wants to be in London, then ‘Lora wants to be in London’ is true. See more in Sect. 10. Lycan isn’t explicit about just what principles he objects to. We read him (2012, pp. 206, 207, ms, pp. 2, 3) as committed to the possibility of cases that would falsify the Satisfaction-is-Truth Principle. And in his (ms), he cites Fara’s (2013) and seems to side with her (pp. 2, 3).

  5. 5.

    van Rooij (1999) and Persson (2005, ch. 10) also discuss these intuitions.

  6. 6.

    It needn’t apply, for example, to agents incapable of action, like Strawson's (1994, ch. 10)’s Weather Watchers.

  7. 7.

    A weaker version of this principle that employs an ‘other things equal’ clause to accommodate troublesome cases would work just as well for our purposes, as we explain in Sect. 6.

  8. 8.

    The Satisfaction-is-Truth Principle says that if A wants p, then A has a desire that is satisfied in exactly the worlds where p is true. So, strictly speaking, C2 is a counterexample to the Satisfaction-is-Truth Principle just in case the proposition denoted by the complement of ‘want’ in ‘Millie wants to drink milk’ is one that’s true in exactly the worlds where Millie drinks milk (for more see Sect. 10). Of course it seems to be such a proposition that’s denoted! (It is not, for example, the proposition that Millie drinks milk or stubs her toe.) You might worry, though, that in fact it’s a different proposition. We defer here to Fara (2013), who argues extensively that the complements of desire ascriptions like ‘Millie wants to drink milk’ do denote the propositions that they seem to.

  9. 9.

    Yablo (2014, ch. 5) makes a similar point.

  10. 10.

    Heim (1992), for example, says that it doesn’t, while von Fintel (1999) says that it does (see more in footnote 27).

  11. 11.

    As we noted in the introduction, Fara (2003, 2013) and Lycan (2012, ms) also argue that seemingly true desire ascriptions, like (2), are indeed true.

  12. 12.

    As precedents for his view, Braun cites similar distinctions made by Bach (1994, 2001, 2005) on saying and implic-i-ing; Soames (2005, 2008) on semantic content and asserting; and Braun (2011) on locuting and asserting.

  13. 13.

    We should emphasize that Braun is not committed to saying that Millie’s case, as we’ve described it here in Sect. 4, is like his plausible example. More generally, we are not objecting to Braun’s views about language: we neither object to his saying–asserting distinction (as we noted), nor do we object to the argument in which he puts that distinction to use. Rather, what we object to is the argument of an imaginary interlocutor who co-opts Braun’s distinction. (See more in footnote 15 on the relationship between Braun’s argument and our own.)

  14. 14.

    This is a slight simplification. Braun suggests that Sarah may say more than one proposition in uttering (11).

  15. 15.

    Now, if we were to stipulate that Millie does not want to drink milk—Braun makes such a stipulation in an analogous case in his Sect. 8.1—then she should be under pressure to retract. But that is not what’s stipulated here in Sect. 4; rather, it’s what’s at issue.

  16. 16.

    Ashwell (2017) develops a theory on the interactions among desire-based dispositions.

  17. 17.

    Unlike Prinz, who identifies agent satisfaction with an agent feeling satisfied, Braun does not explicitly say what he means by ‘agent satisfaction’. We read him as having the same thing in mind as Prinz. Fara (2003), Persson (2005, ch.10) and Lycan (2012) also discuss something like this distinction.

  18. 18.

    Audi (1973, p. 4), Davidson (1976, p. 243) and Stalnaker (1984, p. 15), among many others, advocate principles in this spirit.

  19. 19.

    There is a further question about what the noun ‘desire’ denotes—i.e. what desires are (as opposed to wanting or desiring). This question, discussed by e.g. Schroeder (2004) and Braun (2015), is, we believe, beyond the scope of our paper.

  20. 20.

    This assumption is compatible with the thought that at the level of surface form, the complement of ‘want’ may not seem to denote a proposition—contrast e.g. ‘Millie wants to drink milk’ with ‘Millie believes that she will drink milk’.

  21. 21.

    Braun makes the same point about the one of the principles, the Weak Specification Component, which we state just below.

  22. 22.

    Stated more precisely, the principle is as follows. For all A, A, p, and p: if A denotes A and p denotes p, then if \(\ulcorner\)A wants p\(\urcorner\) is true, then A stands in the relation denoted by ‘wants’ to p.

  23. 23.

    Fara (2013) gives an instance of the principle: ‘ “Lora wants Rudy to be in London” is true just in case Lora bears the relation expressed by “wants” to the proposition that Rudy is in London’ (p. 250). Braun states the principle as follows: ‘If N is a proper name and S an infinitival phrase (with or without explicit subject), then \(\ulcorner\)N wants S\(\urcorner\) is true iff the referent of N bears the relation expressed by “wants” to the proposition that S semantically expresses’ (p. 144).

  24. 24.

    For this principle and the next, see Fara’s (2013) p. 253.

  25. 25.

    More accurately, Braun accepts the latter two principles in conjunction with a different statement of the Weak Relational Analysis (see footnote 23).

  26. 26.

    Stated more precisely, the principle is as follows. For all A, A, p, and p: if A denotes A and p denotes p, then if A wants p, then \(\ulcorner\)A wants p\(\urcorner\) is true.

  27. 27.

    Fara (2003, p. 159) advocates a similar principle: ‘A desire (or related attitude) ascription of the form “A wants C” is true just in case A has a desire (or hope, etc.) with proposition Q as its exact content for some Q that entails the proposition expressed by the embedded clause C.’ (For a related view, see what Condoravdi and Lauer (2016, p. 31) call the ‘Quine–Hintikka’ analysis of ‘want’ ascriptions.) We believe that this is on the right track, but it’s incorrect as it stands. It wrongly predicts that if \(\ulcorner\)A wants q\(\urcorner\) is true, and q entails p, then \(\ulcorner\)A wants p\(\urcorner\) is true. For example, it wrongly predicts that ‘I want to die quickly’ entails ‘I want to die’ (the example is from Anand and Hacquard (2013, p. 19)).


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We would like to thank Lauren Ashwell, David Boylan, David Braun, Alex Byrne, Nilanjan Das, Kai von Fintel, Cosmo Grant, David Gray Grant, Justin Khoo, Matthew Mandelkern, Ginger Schultheis, Kieran Setiya, Jack Spencer, Stephen Yablo, an audience at MIT, an anonymous reviewer, and each other.

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Correspondence to Milo Phillips-Brown.

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Grant, L., Phillips-Brown, M. Getting what you want. Philos Stud (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-019-01285-1

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  • Desire
  • Dispositions
  • Desire satisfaction
  • Desires
  • Ways-specificity of desire satisfaction
  • Desire ascriptions
  • Wanting
  • Underspecification
  • Fara
  • Braun
  • Lycan