There are sensory experiences that can be very pleasant or very unpleasant. For example, the felt pressure of a massage or the smell of recently baked bread can be quite pleasant; on the contrary, the smell of vomit or the bitter taste of lemon seeds can be quite unpleasant.
What could account for all these experiences being affective, that is, being pleasant or unpleasant? How could we explain what is happening when we have one of these experiences?
One popular account in philosophy for this question asserts that what accounts for the affectivity of these sensations is that we have a certain desire about them. More precisely, the common thing between a pleasurable tactile sensation, such as a massage, or a pleasurable smell, such as the recently baked bread, is that you desire them, that you have a certain positive attitude about them; on the contrary, what explains why the smell of vomit or the taste of lemon seeds is unpleasant is that you have a certain negative attitude about them, that you desire them not to occur, that you do not want those sensations.
This approach has often been used to account for pain and the fact that it is unpleasant. For instance, Armstrong (1964) suggests that a pain is unpleasant only because we have a negative desire about it, an unfavourable attitude towards it. However, you might think, this is not correct: sometimes we desire unpleasant things, e.g., when you want to get a medical injection even if it is unpleasant, and sometimes we do not want pleasant things, like when we don’t want to eat a delicious cake.
In order explain this, desire theorists claim that the attitude that explains why your experiences are affective is an intrinsic one. The difference between an intrinsic and an extrinsic desire is that in the former we desire things for their own sake and in the latter we desire them for something else.
If we consider the injection example again, we could explain that whereas you desire the medical injection extrinsically, that is, that you desire it because you are sick and you want to feel better, you still don’t want it intrinsically, i.e., you do not desire the injection for its own sake, which explains why it is unpleasant. Similarly, whereas you don’t want to eat the cake extrinsically, that is, that you don’t want to eat it because you are trying to lose weight, you still desire it intrinsically, which explains why eating cake is pleasant for you.
Desire theorists argue that something quite similar can be said for pain. That is, they think that pain is unpleasant because we have a negative intrinsic attitude about it. In Armstrong’s words:
It is, then, a mark of the physical pain that we do not like it for itself. We have an immediate desire that it should stop; we think of it as bad as an end, bad for its own sake, and not simply bad as a means. Consider the case where serious damage is being done to your anaesthetized leg (and not for some good reason). We would undoubtedly want this to stop, we would think it a bad thing. But would we think it bad for its own sake, would we have an immediate desire that it should stop? I do not think so. (Armstrong, 1964, p. 92)
Armstrong’s view gives us the general framework of the desire approach: what accounts for our sensory experiences being affective is that we have intrinsic desires about them. There are more constraints regarding the precise type of desire that accounts for pain and other pleasant and unpleasant sensory experiences (see Heathwood, 2007). However, these specificities are not crucial in order to understand one of the main criticisms against this approach. Namely, this desire approach entails a Euthyprho dilemma.
The well-known dilemma comes from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, where Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the nature of piety, i.e., a virtue regarding religious devotion and spirituality. In the dialogue, Euthyphro accuses his own father of murder, which leads to the discussion between Socrates and Euthyphro about which actions are pious. Discussing the definition of piety gives rise to the dilemma. The core original dilemma is whether i) pious actions are pious because they are loved by the gods or if ii) pious actions are loved by the gods because they are pious. The dilemma rests upon the fact that both horns of the dilemma seem intuitive, yet we cannot hold them simultaneously.
On the one hand, there is the idea that pious actions just are those actions that are loved by the gods: if something is loved by the gods then it must be pious because the gods can never love the impious. However, on the other hand, the gods must have a reason for loving those actions, part of why they love certain actions is because they are pious: their being pious is the reason the gods love them. The dilemma consists in both options being tenable yet exclusive.
The same type of questions can be asked of a desire approach to affective experience. Let’s focus on the case of a pain being unpleasant. That is, there is a tension between i) a pain being unpleasant because you don’t want it, as desire theories propose, and ii) you not wanting the pain because it is unpleasant on its own, as we intuitively think. Again, we have good reasons to take either option, the first one explains many cases of affective experience, as we just saw, and the second matches our common intuitions. The dilemma lies on the fact that there are good reasons to take both horns, even if they are incompatible.
How can we decide which path to take if both seem viable? One possibility is to choose one path, reject the other, and assume the consequences:
If you take the first horn regarding pain, and agree with the desire theories, then you will still have to explain why we desire not to experience pain in the first place. If you take the second more intuitive horn, you will still have to explain why pain is unpleasant.
Which path would you take?
Armstrong, D. M., (1962), Bodily sensation, London : Routledge.
Heathwood, C., (2007), “The reduction of sensory pleasure to desire”, Philosophical Studies 133: 23- 44.