Is altruism inherently selfish?

Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone #1 

The Mirror of Esider shows viewers themselves and their deepest desire. It’s hidden away from Hogwarts students for that very reason. But, Harry being Harry, JK’s chosen-one eventually gets plotted towards trouble. In the Mirror’s reflective surface Harry comes face-to-face with the moving images of his parents. This is what he most desires. Ron is said to see fame and glory. Dumbledore sees socks.

When Dumbledore finds Harry gazing helplessly at the Mirror, he warns that “Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.” Had it not been for Dumbledore’s intervention, Harry might still be there, with the mere image of his fulfilled desire (himself reunited with this parents) enough to keep him. Robert Nozick once posited a philosophical thought-experiment called ‘the experience machine’. Consider a machine that can simulate whatever experience you desire. The machine is all immersive: it produces experiences that are exactly like what you desire. These experiences can be far more complex than momentary fame, such as a fulfilling life with purpose and without doubts about having opted out of reality; whatever it is you desire… that, exactly that, will be simulated indistinguishable from experiences outside of the machine.

The case of Harry and the Mirror does not map neatly onto this thought-experiment. Yes, Harry might have wasted away as if he were in an experience machine by starting at the Mirror, but Harry stumbled across this experience… he did not face the question of what he would choose for himself if faced with all the facts (Dumbledore’s warning) prior to the experience. Sure, were we already exposed to such an experience we probably would all cave and choose to keep it… but that is not the interesting question. The interesting question is whether we should choose to expose ourselves to such an experience. [1] Dumbledore tells us that the Mirror “shows us only the deepest and most desperate desires of our hearts [and] will give us neither Knowledge or Truth.” And so despite the differences, there is an underlying life lesson that links the Mirror to the experience-machine: that we should not believe in ‘experientialist theories’ – theories which argue that intrinsic value (things/experiences we value in-and-of-themselves; things which are good for us tout court) is to be found in our mental states. If we accept this, then worrying about things like ‘Knowledge’ or ‘Truth’ can quickly lose its grip. Why? Because to the extent we value these things experientially their value will bottom-out in our mental states (and a justified belief is something the experience machine can arrange for us at the flick of a switch). If this doesn’t seem right to you, doesn’t seem worthy of you, then Nozik’s thought-experiment is doing its job. Nozik was keen to prove that humans don’t only care about what they seem to engage in, they also care about what they actually engage in.

But I have a different question in mind. The question I have in mind (rather than whether our experiencing the Mirror of Esider would leave us babylike) is whether Harry – upon hearing Dumbledore’s warning, upon understanding Dumbledore’s warning – steps away from the Mirror because he now desires to do so. It seems common-sense to say that Harry steps away because his desires have changed. At first, he desired to see his parents. At second, he now desires to protect himself from what he understands to be a dangerous mirage. But is this new desire the reason he steps away from the Mirror? In other words, my different question is this: how should we understand the actions of people who are faced with the possibility of experiencing the experience-machine (rather than the value of the decision once the action is taken)?

The reason this question matters is that there are some who will say: ‘Well, understanding Harry’s decision to step away from the Mirror is quite simple. Why does Harry step away? Harry steps away because he does not wish to stare at his parents all day in the Mirror any more. Case closed.’ What exactly does Harry desire when we gesture towards this wish? Those that answer this way don’t seem overly bothered with this corollary question. Harry’s desires could be as shallow as not getting in trouble with his Headmaster, or as deep as the realisation that starting at the Mirror all day does not lead to a fulfilling life and that he desired to live such a life. Either way, some new desire is said to operate on Harry which trumps his previously dominating desire, even if it does not entirely replace it.

This is friable. It’s a terrible explanation of what human beings do when they take intentional actions. Of course there probably is something which counts as Harry’s underlying desire at any one moment, but this is a trivial matter of pure description, and if this is all we were interested in when it comes to explaining why Harry takes the action he does we would run into all sorts of problems. For example, we would have no way of distinguishing between intentional actions and all the other habitual actions Harry just so happens to take. When Harry gags at the prospect of Polyjuice potion, should we say there is no difference between this and a meaningful-decision-come-action? Are actions in which we take our ends in sight, line up our shot, really no different from any other action?

Of course not. But so far this is an ungenerous portrayal of the Desire Bro – the person who argues that all we need to understand intentional human actions are desires. There are three things which should be said about the Desire Bro in any honest portrayal. Firstly, although the Desire Bro thinks that desires always explain intentional actions, this doesn’t mean they can’t recognise that some desires are more or less complex than others, just as some desires are more or less primal than others. Secondly, the Desire Bro can rightly distinguish between a gag-reflex and the reflexive obedience to authority which might be said to cause Harry to act after hearing the headmaster’s warning. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Desire Bro needn’t make the mistake of dressing up the trivial matter of pure description by saying that what’s needed to explain Harry’s intentional action is an MRI scan – that desires can in the last analysis be explanatory in terms of neurones and brain-firings. Instead, the Desire Bro can say that although desires are what eventually explain intentional human actions, what matters is that we understand the content of those desires rather than those desires as desires. In other words, we need to find out what the content is of the reason Harry has to step away from the Mirror (not something any Muggle technology could ever discern). Why does Harry do such and such? The Desire Bro says that Harry entertains a proposition in the course of stepping away from the Mirror – a proposition such as ‘it would be good for me (Harry) to not waste away or go mad by staring at this Mirror forever’’ – and it is this, the content of his desire, that influences him to step away from the Mirror. Which all seems highly reasonable. Claps all round for the Desire Bro. [2]

This is the ‘non-naïve picture of human action’ that the non-naïve Desire Bro can fall back on. The non-naïve Desire Bro doesn’t usually start with this. Usually, in conversation, he’ll says things like “altruism is inherently selfish” or cite evolutionary law when discussing sexual relations. But flesh these positions out and they often circle back to the question of human action: these positions are defended on the assumption that what we need to explain Harry’s (or anyone’s) actions is an understanding of Harry’s (or anyone’s) attitudes towards evaluable propositions. Only once we understand these attitudes can we explain Harry’s stepping away from the mirror by way of the underlying dominant desire and its propositional content.

The story goes like this: 

Harry feels that (1) “my not wasting away in front of the Mirror would be good”Harry thinks (2) “I cannot waste away if I walk away like Dumbledore thinks I should” = so, Harry walks away from the Mirror’.

If we can pinpoint someone’s attitude towards a proposition with content (1) (the naïve Desire Bro would just say desire here), and someone’s belief about what is possible to bring about in this crazy world of ours (2), (Harry’s thought), then we’ll have the gas to get this subfusc human automaton up and running.

Now I’ll tell you what I really think about this picture of human psychology.

When my brother was a baby, he would scream and scream and scream, and it was clear when he was screaming that he wanted something but was unable to articulate what he wanted. But that he wanted something does not presuppose that his screaming was guided by some sort of ‘pleasure principle’ he held in his mind’s eye (I want this; but am denied). The truth is that he simply did not have the conceptual toolkit necessary to frame evaluable propositions such as ‘this thing is desirable to me’ (this much was abundantly clear to my Mother, who had to hold him for hours until he tired himself out). But if desires that explain intentional actions require us to think about desires in terms of attitudes towards propositions, then without the ability to conceptually frame evaluable propositions (and thus without the ability to assume an attitude towards them) we never arrive at an acted-upon desire. Therefore, on the assumption of the ‘non-naïve picture of human action’, my baby brother joins a much maligned constituency of human babies who are unable to really desire anything. Why? Because they are unable to conceptually frame what they want. Does this seem right? No, it seems wrong. Babies do desire in ways that can motivate their actions. As with babies; as with the village drunk. And, as everybody knows, although the village drunk may not remember what he did the night before (and if he did he might regret it), there are certainly desire-fuelled drunk intentional actions.

The Desire Bro cannot just dismiss these as fringe cases. We are talking about what it means to perform an intentional action, after all. [3] At this point, if our Desire Bro is savvy, I think he will admit he has been too hasty. He’ll say, okay, so it’s not the propositional content that matters – this cannot be the thing we all have access to that guides our every intentional action. When Harry makes a judgement as to whether to step away from the Mirror, it is no longer enough to talk of the attitude Harry takes up towards the proposition ‘it would be good for me go play some Quidditch instead’ because the content of that proposition is not what does the work of moving someone who has a desire to an action they take because of that desire. Instead, so claims our savvy Desire Bro, for Harry to have an explanatory desire is for Harry to have a more general attitude towards what the world is like and what the world could be like. We might call this a ‘value judgement’ – something which undergirds all desires. By saying that it is not the content of the proposition that matters – rather, it is the fact that humans have attitudes towards the world (from whatever age, and no matter the inebriation) that ask for the world to change, and that these are different from attitudes towards the world which recognise how the world happens to be – our savvy non-naïve Desire Bro can finally say with confidence that this is what explains all intentional actions. [4] The content is important of course, but it is not enough; the content really just gives us our subject matter, rather than do the recommending work needed to explain our course of action.

But once the Desire Bro makes this move, he finds himself in something of a no-mans land: because in admitting that all that matters here are value judgements, that this is what all his ‘desire-talk’ eventually comes down to, he must thereafter show that these value judgements really are exhausted by desires. For if they are not he must surrender his flag on pain of being caught in a crossfire. The problem is that it’s clear that desires, or regarding something as good for me, do not exhaust value judgements about what is of value to me. Someone can make a positive value judgements about the attractiveness of Instagram models, but the ease with which someone finds them attractive bears not one iota on whether they should act on their value judgement. Trivially, the fact that I can say Instagram models are attractive of course means I must find them desirable in some sense, and yet it does not mean I find them worthy of desire. Of course, from an impersonal objective perspective it seems perfectly fine for someone to tell their partner that they find an Instagram model attractive. But it does not help to talk about intentional actions from this impersonal objective perspective, because this impersonal objective perspective does not explain actions. The subjective personal perspective does that. All things being equal, someone who blames their partner for ‘finding Instagram models attractive’ is either confusing these two levels from which value judgements can be understood (because of course Instagram models are desirable in some sense… don’t get distracted by the semantic allure of “finding” something as ‘x’ – there need be no action-guiding value judgement yet); or else is deliberately ignoring the two levels and is just looking to start a domestic. Harry can desire to stay sat in front of the Mirror even as he moves away from the Mirror – the desire he feels to stay sat in front of the Mirror has not been trumped by some deeper desire, it is simply that that desire is not normative for him and does not move him to action.

Altruism isn’t inherently selfish. In a roundabout way, busting the Desire Bro’s balls can often help us see this. As for my own position: I think there are two forces at work that explain intentional human action. First, there are things like (but not limited to) desires, or inclinations, that take us up and put us down. To the extent that desires are explanatory of human actions, yes they can be understood as value judgements; but, to the extent that value judgements are explanatory of human actions, this counts against desires as being explanatory. Our desires are one of many inclinations which are fundamental and complex and involve nasty trade-offs. I have not argued the positive case, but I have shown why I think it is silly to explain intentional human action by way of desires alone. In fact, I think it is even worse than this for the Desire Bro, because I think there is also a second force at work which dictate human actions – the principles of choice that govern our inclinations (whether conscious or unconscious) and distinguish us from other animals. I have not argued for this either, but I think it is true.


[1] There are other differences. For example, those that taste the experience machine might well go mad if thereafter denied it, but Harry seems perfectly fine taking stock of the danger once Dumbledore alerts him to it (he isn’t carried away kicking and screaming; it becomes more of adolescent preoccupation, up there with Quidditch …). In fact – and leaving aside the obvious disanalogy that the Mirror presents Harry with an enthralling spectacle of what he most desires, and so would seem to relegate the experience machine to an IMAX cinema (a Muggle concern Mr. Weasley titters amicably at) – this Mirror is a wholly unique experience machine in that it seems capable of both inducing rapture and insanity. JK tells us that Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, but that others have been driven mad by it, not knowing if what it showed were real or even possible.

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[2] Just like Harry might have boarded the Hogwarts express because he was rationally guided by the proposition that ‘You’re a wizard, Harry.’ 

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[3] So it’s an invalid argument. These counterexamples must be explained away. To do so our Desire Bro might (1) give up the pretence of trying to talk about what it means for Harry to walk away from the Mirror. This Desire Bro quickly becomes uninteresting – the conversation devolves to semantics and a lot of tugging at the carpet. Or, (2) our Desire Bro might work additional premises into his argument so that he can account for these potential counterexamples. Perhaps, for example, he tries to account for them by walking back the claim a bit – for example, by taking a third-person perspective to the whole question of intentional actions and by saying that rather than the evaluated proposition guiding the agent’s desire, it is the the “natural expression” of this (Davidson) (or what the child would say/frame, if they only could). But then we are back at the problem of just describing something rather than explaining something (where’s the actual necessarily motivating component that will get Harry off his ass here?). So, I think at his best our Desire Bro will pump for (3): he will give up the propositional attitude. Return to above.

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[4] This is known as the difference between ‘conative attitudes’ and ‘cognitive attitudes’. Connotative attitudes entertain propositions that provide a pattern for the world to follow. Cognitive attitudes entertain propositions that are patterned after the world. To use the philosophical jargon, the essential point here is that their are different kinds of attitudes, and that different kinds have different ‘directions of fit’. This seems to at least solve something of the phenomenological deficit here, because at least it seems plausible that a crying baby does have access to such an attitude (the propositional content can remain hazy).

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