Image Description

The Desire Argument

This lesson is a part of an audio course Free Will by Lottie Pike

Hello, and welcome back to the course 'Free Will' on Listenable. Today, we're going to be exploring the topic of desire, and how it relates to the free will argument. If you remember, at the end of the last episode, we talked about compatibilism, and how it claims that someone is free if they choose to do what they want, free from external coercion. I briefly mentioned why this creates problems, but today we're going to be looking at them in more detail. I'm going to be referring to this argument as 'the desire argument,' though the idea doesn't have a specific name in philosophy as it's quite a new and niche concept.

The desire argument basically suggests that we do not only tend to do what we want, but we can only do what we want. This argument requires a bit of brainpower and hard thinking, so I'll elaborate a bit until we can fully grasp the concept being suggested here. Let's think of an example, an everyday 'choice', for want of a better word, that we can all relate to: so, say you're at home at you want to have some lunch. Here's the first desire: the desire for food to get rid of your hunger. Here we can also bring in the argument from causation: your hunger has caused your desire for food. So, you're looking for something to eat. You have three options: toast, noodles, or last night's leftover curry. Which will you choose? Is it even up to you? Well, in a way, yes. But also, no. You see, you are always, inevitably, going to choose the option that you want the most. Okay, you might be thinking, in this case, yes, I would choose the option I want the most. But this doesn't determine all of my actions – I do things I don't want to all the time! Okay, let's unpack that then. Take, for example: going to the gym. You don't want to go to the gym, but you do it anyway to keep yourself fit. But, I urge you to look more closely. Perhaps you assert that you don't want to go to the gym – you don't have the desire to – but you do it anyway. I would beg to differ. Think of some scales: on the left-hand side, you have your dislike of the gym, your desire not to go to the gym. But take a look to the right-hand side: your desire to stay fit. If you end up going to the gym, it is because your desire to stay fit outweighs your dislike of the gym. Essentially, desire is the driving force behind action. So yes, you may not want to go to the gym, but you want to stay fit more. The latter desire outweighs the former.

Now that we've got the basic idea down, there's one more component to this argument worth addressing. Where do our desires come from? If we choose them, this argument would be rendered futile, obviously. To answer this question, though we can turn to neuroscience, it is not necessarily needed. As with much philosophy, the answer – or, at least, an answer – can be reached through introspection. So think back to the first example: what did you choose to eat for your lunch? More importantly, why? Perhaps you didn't choose the leftover curry because you wanted a change of flavour – why do you want a change of flavour? Well – you just…do. So, noodles or toast? Think: which would you choose? Now think, why did you make that decision? Because, for some reason or another, you wanted one more than the other? Why? Who knows, you just did. You will have had a preference for one over the other, but you didn't choose that preference. Hence, if we are completely controlled by our desires in a sort of internal balancing of the scales of preference, yet we cannot choose those desires – how can we, logically and justifiably, call ourselves free?

Free will is often, and misleadingly I would add, defined as 'being able to do what you want.' I say misleading because: yes, according to this definition, you would have free will; but you wouldn't be free. Alex O'Connor, owner of the philosophy YouTube channel and podcast 'The Cosmic Skeptic,' is a strong advocate for the validity of this desire argument. He summarised it in the following way: 'yes, you can do what you want, but you can't choose what it is that you want – and where's the freedom in that?'.

Thank you for listening – in the next episode, we're going to be looking at the topic of free will from the perspective of neuroscience, which should add some valuable evidence to the philosophical foundations that we've been discussing so far. See you then!

Image Description
Written by

Lottie Pike