It is natural, as we have said, to think that hunger motivates us to eat in virtue of the way it feels. We will later present an account on which the motivating character of hunger is indeed inseparable from its phenomenal character. This claim might, to some, appear too strong. There are, after all, many motivational states of which this is not the case, such as one’s desire to cross the road when on the way to the station, or a parent’s long-term standing desire for their children’s success (Smith 1987, p. 48). We might conclude, with Anscombe, that while ‘desire’ can in everyday language be used for something we feel—“the prick of desire”—this sense of the word is “not of any interest in a study of action and intention” (Anscombe 1963, pp. 67–70).
We might, if moved by this line of thought, prefer a more parsimonious approach to how hunger motivates, on which the felt dimension of hunger, whilst being in itself motivationally inert, gives the hungry person a reason to eat, a reason on the basis of which they are motivated to eat. The hungry agent’s motivation to eat is, on this account, simply an exercise of practical intellect: an instance of our general capacity to be moved to act by reasons. Assuming this form of motivation is sufficiently well understood, we need only explain how hunger gives us reason to eat. A natural account suggests itself: the feeling of hunger gives one a reason to eat because being hungry involves unpleasant sensations that, as such, we have reason to alleviate. We are thus motivated to eat, when hungry, because we know that such unpleasant sensations can be alleviated or removed by means of eating. This seems to be in line with how Scanlon proposes to understand thirst:
“What does [thirst] involve? First, there is the unpleasant sensation of dryness in my mouth and throat. Also, there is the thought that a cold drink would relieve this sensation and, in general, feel good. I take this consideration, that drinking would feel good, to count in favor of drinking. It is this future good—the pleasure to be obtained by drinking—that makes it worth my while to look for water. The present dryness in my throat give[s] me a reason to believe that a drink of water in the near future will give this particular pleasure. But the motivational work seems to be done by my taking this future pleasure to count in favor of drinking.” (Scanlon 1998, p. 38, italics added).
This account fits with Scanlon’s general attempt to understand motivation in terms of the agent’s recognition of reasons for action. His attempt to fit the felt aspect of states like hunger and thirst within that framework is admirably neat, but it seems, in a number of respects, not quite right.
The first and most glaring issue with this treatment of hunger is that it seems implausibly intellectualising. Hunger, on this sort of account, essentially involves thoughts about pleasure and discomfort as such–and perhaps, in Scanlon’s version, even thought about reasons as such. An obvious challenge to this sort of account is that hunger seems perfectly capable of motivating animals to seek food and eat, including many species of animals to which we would hesitate to attribute thoughts about pleasure and discomfort, let alone thoughts about reasons. Of course, we are concerned here to account for how hunger motivates us, human agents, and we do not mean to assume that human and animal motivation are the same in every respect; nonetheless, there is something puzzling about the idea that feeling hungry is sufficient to motivate non-human animals but is motivationally inert in us unless coupled with thoughts about reasons.
Another problem with the account in question, more pertinent to the aims of this paper, is that it fails to capture a crucial aspect of the phenomenology of being hungry. The account suggests that being hungry motivates us to eat because we know that by means of eating, we can relieve ourselves of unpleasant sensations. We recognise these sensations, know that eating will bring them to an end, and so we eat. This makes the hungry agent’s motivation to eat look implausibly instrumental: we eat as a means to alleviating unpleasant sensations.
Scanlon might here point out that his account appeals not only to the alleviation of unpleasant sensations, but also to future pleasures. And he might argue, with Wilson (1972, p. 184n.), that to say that something one does for pleasure is something one does “as a means to enjoyment” is “a purely verbal manoeuvre”: doing something because you like it or enjoy it is “importantly different from doing something as a means to a further end.” However, the pleasure in question in the Scanlonian model seems to be, primarily, the pleasure of relief from present discomfort. This is a distinct pleasure from that of intrinsic enjoyment of an activity: eating gives us pleasure in Scanlon’s account not in itself but only through its effects. The problem with this is that the pleasure of relief is extrinsic to, and thus, in principle, separable from, the activity of eating.
To see this point, consider that the account makes the hungry agent’s motivation to eat structurally akin to the desire you might have, when suffering a headache, to take a painkiller. In that situation, you experience discomfort and know you can take steps to relieve it. If the painkiller works well and quickly enough, we may well characterise your relief as a pleasure. Crucially, though, the specific action you take to attain such pleasure is merely incidental: if you could achieve the same relief by other means then you would, all else being equal, be indifferent between those means and the pill. Now, being hungry does sometimes motivate us to eat in this kind of way, that is in virtue of an extrinsic connection to rational motivation. We sometimes notice that we are experiencing unpleasant or otherwise undesirable symptoms of hunger, such as pangs, fatigue, light-headedness, or getting ‘hangry’, and decide that we should eat to alleviate these symptoms. We might, being sophisticated as we are, learn that other methods—appetite suppressant drugs, perhaps—are available for removing or reducing these symptoms when we find them inconvenient, and we may, particularly if we are preoccupied with something else and not interested in eating, prefer such means to eating. Cases of this kind are clearly atypical, however, and is it striking that Scanlon’s account fits them especially well. There is a difference between, on the one hand, noticing undesirable symptoms of hunger and being rationally motivated to alleviate them, and on the other, simply feeling hungry. Hunger bears an internal relation to food-seeking and eating that Scanlon’s picture fails to capture: hunger, in its nature, directs us, compels us, specifically to seek food and eat, and not just to seek to rid ourselves of unpleasant sensations by whatever means available.
Another aspect that seems missing from Scanlon’s model is hunger’s urgency. Maybe the feeling in your stomach when you’re hungry doesn’t feel great, but except in extreme cases it is far from the level of an intense pain. Yet very often when hungry we simply cannot stop thinking about food and eating, so that we may find it very difficult or even impossible to do anything else requiring attention until we have eaten. Feeling hungry seems to constrain our attention in a way that simply being subject to an unpleasant sensation does not, and this seems to impart to our motivation to eat its distinctive felt urgency.
To be fair to Scanlon, he does acknowledge that something might be missing from his picture. He voices this worry, again discussing thirst, as follows:
“[It may seem that in] addition to the dryness in my throat, the future pleasure brought about by drinking, and my judgment that this pleasure is desirable, there is the fact that I feel an urge to drink. This, it might be said, is what my desire consists in.” (Scanlon 1998, p. 38, italics added).
An urge, whatever exactly that is, might be just the kind of thing that has the features we are looking for: a kind of felt urgency and an internal relation to a specific course of action. Scanlon, however, is not impressed by the suggested appeal to urges, as “the idea of a mere urge to act … does not fit very well with what we ordinarily mean by desire.” The desire to drink, he insists, “is not merely a matter of feeling impelled to do so; it also involves seeing drinking as desirable” (Scanlon 1998, p. 38). We do not disagree with Scanlon on this point, although we would question his appeal to thought about reasons in characterising the ‘seeing as desirable’ that’s involved. Relatedly, we want to challenge the apparent assumption that ‘mere’ urges, if they do not amount to “what we ordinarily mean by desire”, are of little or no interest in thinking about motivation. What our discussion of hunger to this point seems to suggest is precisely that felt urges may be central to how hunger ordinarily motivates. Urges such as those involved in thirst, hunger, fatigue, sexual arousal and various physical cravings, such as the cravings of addiction play a real and important motivational role that many authors interested in motivation by reasons have, we think, been too eager to dismiss.