Ambivalent desires and the problem with reduction


Ambivalence is most naturally characterized as a case of conflicting desires. In most cases, an agent’s intrinsic desires conflict contingently: there is some possible world in which both desires would be satisfied. This paper argues, though, that there are cases in which intrinsic desires necessarily conflict—i.e., the desires are not jointly satisfiable in any possible world. Desiring a challenge for its own sake is a paradigm case of such a desire. Ambivalence of this sort in an agent’s desires creates special problems for the project of reducing all facts about an agent’s desires to facts about his or her preferences over options. If this reductive project fails, there is reason to suspect that the Decision Theory cannot give us a complete theory of Humean rationality.

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  1. 1.

    This is not to say that how we use terms like ‘desire’ and ‘preference’ in everyday speech is uninteresting, or that it might not have consequences for philosophy of mind or moral psychology. I suspect though, that our use of these terms is too loose and fluid to support any interesting theses of reduction.

  2. 2.

    In conversation I’ve found that people frequently take ‘desire’ to mean something like the folk notion of ‘desire’, something that has both affective and behavioral components, while they take ‘preference’ to mean something like ‘revealed preference’, something purely behavioral. But one can give a behavioral-functional theory of desires (for example, Smith 1987), or give a non-behaviorist theory to preferences (see Dreier 1996). The distinction between desires and preferences is a distinction in the type of content each attitude receives, not a distinction between purely functional attitudes and attitudes with a phenomenology.

  3. 3.

    Under some versions of the instrumental principle states of affairs constitutive of the states of affairs we desire are themselves desired instrumentally; however, they are desired as necessary means to the end, and not as contingent means. On this sort of view, that one endure pain would be desired as a state instrumental to one’s participation in a challenge. But since it is a state necessary to participation in a challenge, the agent would still have directly conflicting (i.e., impossible to jointly satisfy) desires. The aversive state of affairs must be desired as a mere means to an end, and not a constituent of it, if these are really cases of indirect conflict.

  4. 4.

    Nozick’s (1974/2001) example of the Experience Machine illustrates quite well that our desires are rarely about subjective states, and more often directed at events out in the world. A runner doesn’t want to experience what it’s like to win a race; he wants to win it.


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Thanks to Lara Buchak, Arudra Burra, Corrine Gartner, Elizabeth Harman, Lloyd Humberstone, Frank Jackson, Mark Johnstone, Tristram McPherson, Alexander Nehamas, Philip Pettit, Gideon Rosen, Michael Smith, John Williams, and my anonymous referee for feedback, criticisms, and help making points more clearly.

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Correspondence to Derek Baker.

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Baker, D. Ambivalent desires and the problem with reduction. Philos Stud 150, 37–47 (2010).

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  • Ambivalence
  • Desires
  • Preferences
  • Practical rationality
  • Humeanism
  • Decision theory