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Summary Often the term "desire" in philosophy has a fairly technical use to simply mean motivational mental state. After all, desires are often defined as mental states with a "world-to-mind" direction of fit: states that function to be efficacious (for the world to fit the mind). Beliefs, in contrast, are states whose function is "mind-to-world"---functioning to accurately represent how things are in the world outside the mind. This naturally leads to what some call "the Humean theory of motivation," which states roughly that motivation always requires desire. One incarnation of this states: whenever one intentionally performs some action, A, one must have a preceding desire to A. Two main camps have disputed such claims. First, besire theorists maintain that sometimes beliefs or other characteristically cognitive states (especially moral beliefs) can themselves be motivational states; they can have both directions of fit. Second, anti-reductionists hold that some characteristically conative or motivational states, like intentions, are not reducible to desires (or combinations of beliefs and desires). Accepting the above brand of "Humeanism" does not commit one to other versions as well. For example, various rationalists maintain that beliefs can directly produce motivation while admitting that one must always have a desire to perform the action prior to executing it intentionally. On such a view, certain beliefs (e.g. the belief that donating $200 to Oxfam is a moral obligation) can directly produce a desire to act in accordance with them (i.e. a desire to donate $200 to Oxfam) without this serving or furthering some antecedent desire (e.g. a desire to do whatever is morally required of me). In this way, we may not be "slaves of our passions" even though desires are required somewhere in the motivational chain.
Key works The seeds of the idea of two key directions of fit are in Hume 1739/2000 (2.3.3), but it is more explicitly drawn out in Anscombe 1957 (with her shopping list example, section 32) and is more recently developed in detail by Davidson 1963 and Smith 1987. For defenses of the besire theory, see Platts 1980. Some also interpret Nagel 1970 and McDowell 1978 as besire theorists. Bratman 1987 and Mele 1987 (see also Mele 1992) defend the idea that intentions are motivational states distinct from desires. Smith 1994 and  Wallace 2006 explicitly defend versions of the rationalist position described above.
Introductions The entry by Schroeder 2009 provides an excellent overview of desire; Pettit 1998 is more brief but also useful. See Schueler 2013 for an introduction to direction of fit. Mele 1995 argues that desires play a key role in motivation, but it also serves as an overview of many relevant issues; see also Mele 2003 (esp. ch. 1). Wallace 1990 provides a fairly lengthy but excellent introduction to key arguments for the role of desire in moral motivation.
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  1. Derek Baker (2010). Ambivalent Desires and the Problem with Reduction. Philosophical Studies 150 (1):37-47.
    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 (...)
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  2. Melissa Barry (2007). Realism, Rational Action, and the Humean Theory of Motivation. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10 (3):231-242.
    Realists about practical reasons agree that judgments regarding reasons are beliefs. They disagree, however, over the question of how such beliefs motivate rational action. Some adopt a Humean conception of motivation, according to which beliefs about reasons must combine with independently existing desires in order to motivate rational action; others adopt an anti-Humean view, according to which beliefs can motivate rational action in their own right, either directly or by giving rise to a new desire that in turn motivates the (...)
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  3. Peter Brian Barry, Two Dogmas of Moral Psychology.
    I contend that there are two dogmas that are still popular among philosophers of action: that agents can only desire what they think is good and that they can only intentionally pursue what they think is good. I also argue that both dogmas are false. Broadly, I argue that our best theories of action can explain the possibility of intentionally pursuing what one thinks is not at all good, that we need to allow for the possibility of intentionally pursuing what (...)
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  4. Alexandre Billon (2011). Have We Vindicated the Motivational Unconscious Yet? A Conceptual Review. Frontiers in Psychoanalysis and Neuropsychoanalysis 2.
    Motivationally unconscious (M-unconscious) states are unconscious states that can directly motivate a subject’s behavior and whose unconscious character typically results from a form of repression. The basic argument for M-unconscious states claims that they provide the best explanation to some seemingly non rational behaviors, like akrasia, impulsivity or apparent self-deception. This basic argument has been challenged on theoretical, empirical and conceptual grounds. Drawing on recent works on apparent self-deception and on the ‘cognitive unconscious’ I assess those objections. I argue that (...)
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  5. Richard Brandt, Jaegwon Kim & Sidney Morgenbesser (1963). Wants as Explanations of Actions. Journal of Philosophy 60 (15):425-435.
    Some features of the concept of a want, and of the explaining relation in which a want may stand to an action, have not received sufficient attention. In what follows we shall offer some suggestions and descriptions which may be one step toward remedy of this situationi. We shall be at pains to point out the extent to which the features we describe fit in with a conception of the explanations of actions conforming to the inferential (deductive or inductive) and (...)
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  6. Mary Clayton Coleman (2008). Directions of Fit and the Humean Theory of Motivation. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86 (1):127 – 139.
    According to the Humean theory of motivation, a person can only be motivated to act by a desire together with a relevantly related belief. More specifically, a person can only be motivated to ϕ by a desire to ψ together with a belief that ϕ-ing is a means to or a way of ψ-ing. In recent writings, Michael Smith gives what has become a very influential argument in favour of the Humean claim that desire is a necessary part of motivation, (...)
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  7. Jonathan Dancy (1995). Why There Is Really No Such Thing as the Theory of Motivation. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 95:1-18.
    To the extent, then, that we set our face against admitting the truth of Humeanism in the theory of motivation, to that extent we are probably going to feel that there is no such thing as the theory of motivation, so conceived, at all. And that will be the position that this paper is trying to defend, though not only for this reason. It might seem miraculous that so much can be extracted from the little distinction with which we started, (...)
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  8. Wayne A. Davis (1986). Two Senses of Desire. In J. Marks (ed.), The Ways of Desire. Precedent. 181-196.
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  9. Ulrich Diehl (2012). Jaspers on Drives, Wants and Volitions. Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Karl-Jaspers-Gesellschaft 25:101-125.
    In § 6 of his General Psychopathology (1st edition 1913) Jaspers distinguished between drives, wants and volitions as three different and irreducible kinds of motivational phenomena which are involved in human decision making and which may lead to successful actions. He has characterized the qualitative differences between volitions in comparison with basic vital drives and emotional wants such as being (a.) intentional, (b.) content-specific and (b.) directed towards concrete objects and actions as goals. Furthermore, Jaspers has presented and discussed three (...)
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  10. Christopher G. Framarin (2009). Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy. Routledge.
    They conclude that desireless action is action performed without certain desires; other desires are permissible.In this book, the author surveys the ...
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  11. Joshua Gert (2005). Breaking the Law of Desire. Erkenntnis 62 (3):295-319.
    This paper offers one formal reason why it may often be inappropriate to hold, of two conflicting desires, that the first must be weaker than, stronger than, or of the same strength as the second. The explanation of this fact does not rely on vagueness or epistemological problems in determining the strengths of desires. Nor does it make use of the problematic notion of incommensurability. Rather, the suggestion is that the motivational capacities of many desires might best be characterized by (...)
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  12. Alex Gregory (2012). Changing Direction on Direction of Fit. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15 (5):603-614.
    In this paper, I show that we should understand the direction of fit of beliefs and desires in normative terms. After rehearsing a standard objection to Michael Smith’s analysis of direction of fit, I raise a similar problem for Lloyd Humberstone’s analysis. I go on to offer my own account, according to which the difference between beliefs and desires is determined by the normative relations such states stand in. I argue that beliefs are states which we have reason to change (...)
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  13. Donald C. Hubin (1999). What's Special About Humeanism. Noûs 33 (1):30-45.
    One of the attractions of the Humean instrumentalist theory of practical rationality is that it appears to offer a special connection between an agent's reasons and her motivation. The assumption that Humeanism is able to assert a strong connection between reason and motivation has been challenged, most notably by Christine Korsgaard. She argues that Humeanism is not special in the connection it allows to motivation. On the contrary, Humean theories of practical rationality do connect reasons and motivation in a unique (...)
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  14. Christoph Lumer (1997). The Content of Originally Intrinsic Desires and of Intrinsic Motivation. Acta Analytica 18 (18):107-121.
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  15. Duncan MacIntosh (2003). Prudence and the Temporal Structure of Practical Reasons. In Sarah Stroud & Christine Tappolet (eds.), Weakness of Will and Practical Irrationality. Oxford. 230--250.
    I reject three theories of practical reason according to which a rational agent's ultimate reasons for acting must be unchanging: that one is rationally obliged in each choice (1) to be prudent--to advance all the desires one foresees ever having (the self-interest theory), rather than just those one has at the time of choice, or (2) to cause states of affairs that are good by some timeless, impersonal measure (Thomas Nagel), or (3) to obey permanent, universalizable deontic principles (Kant). Whether (...)
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  16. Joshua May (2013). Because I Believe It's the Right Thing to Do. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16 (4):791-808.
    Our beliefs about which actions we ought to perform clearly have an effect on what we do. But so-called “Humean” theories—holding that all motivation has its source in desire—insist on connecting such beliefs with an antecedent motive. Rationalists, on the other hand, allow normative beliefs a more independent role. I argue in favor of the rationalist view in two stages. First, I show that the Humean theory rules out some of the ways we ordinarily explain actions. This shifts the burden (...)
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  17. Peter K. McInerney (2004). Strength of Desire. American Philosophical Quarterly 41 (4):299-310.
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  18. Alfred R. Mele (2004). Action: Volitional Disorder and Addiction. In Jennifer Radden (ed.), The Philosophy of Psychiatry. Oxford University Press.
    Weakness of will has perplexed philosophers since Plato's time. This chapter places some of the literature on volitional disorders and addictions in a philosophical context dating back to Plato and Aristotle in an attempt to shed light on issues that a theorist who wishes to analyze the idea of a volitional disorder will face. Key here is the notion of the irresistability and resistability of pertinent desires, which is explored in relation to George Ainslie's work on the ability to make (...)
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  19. Alfred R. Mele (1995). Motivation: Essentially Motivation-Constituting Attitudes. Philosophical Review 104 (3):387-423.
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  20. Chris Meyers (2005). Wants and Desires: A Critique of Conativist Theory of Motivation. Journal of Philosophical Research 30:357-370.
    In this paper I will argue against the Humean theory of motivation, or “conativism” which claims that all actions are ultimately generated by desires. Conativism is supported by (1) a behavioral analysis of desire as a disposition to act in certain ways, and (2) the difference between belief and desire in terms of their different “direction of fi t” with the world. I will show that this behavioral account of desire cannot provide an adequate explanation of action. Mere disposition to (...)
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  21. Philip Pettit, Desire. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    If an agent is to be moved to action, then two requirements have to be fulfilled: first, the agent must possess beliefs about the way things actually are, about the actions possible given the way things are, and about the likely effects of those actions on how things are; and, second, the agent must have or form desires to change the way things are by resorting to this or that course of action. The beliefs tell the agent about how things (...)
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  22. Mark de Bretton Platts (1980). Moral Reality and the End of Desire. In Mark Platts (ed.), Reference, Truth, and Reality. Routledge and Kegan Paul.
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  23. Michael Ridge (1998). Humean Intentions. American Philosophical Quarterly 35 (2):157-178.
    Many hold that the differences between intentions and desires are so significant that, not only can we not identify intentions with desires simpliciter, but that intentions are irreducible to any subclass of desires. My main aim is to explain why we should reject the irreducibility thesis in both forms, thereby defending the Humean view of action explanation.
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  24. Tamar Schapiro (2009). The Nature of Inclination. Ethics 119 (2):229–256.
    There is a puzzle in the very notion of passive motivation ("passion" or "inclination"). To be motivated is not simply to be moved from the outside. Motivation is in some sense self-movement. But how can an agent be passive with respect to her own motivation? How is passive motivation possible? In this paper I defend the ancient view that inclination stems from a motivational source independent of reason, a motivational source that is both agential and nonrational.
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  25. G. F. Schueler (2011). Review of Three Faces of Desire by Timothy Schroeder. [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 82 (1):249-260.
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  26. Neil Sinhababu (2013). The Desire‐Belief Account of Intention Explains Everything. Noûs 47 (4):680-696.
    I argue that one intends that ϕ if one has a desire that ϕ and an appropriately related means-end belief. Opponents, including Setiya and Bratman, charge that this view can't explain three things. First, intentional action is accompanied by knowledge of what we are doing. Second, we can choose our reasons for action. Third, forming an intention settles a deliberative question about what to do, disposing us to cease deliberating about it. I show how the desire-belief view can explain why (...)
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  27. Neil Sinhababu (2011). The Humean Theory of Practical Irrationality. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 6 (1):1-13.
    Christine Korsgaard has argued that Humean views about action and practical rationality jointly imply the impossibility of irrational action. According to the Humean theory of action, agents do what maximizes expected desire-satisfaction. According to the Humean theory of rationality, it is rational for agents to do what maximizes expected desire-satisfaction. Thus Humeans are committed to the impossibility of practical irrationality – an unacceptable consequence. -/- I respond by developing Humean views to explain how we can act irrationally. Humeans about action (...)
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  28. Michael Smith (1988). On Humeans, Anti-Humeans, and Motivation: A Reply to Pettit. Mind 97 (388):589-595.
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  29. Michael Smith (1987). The Humean Theory of Motivation. Mind 96 (381):36-61.
  30. David Sobel (2001). Explanation, Internalism, and Reasons for Action. Social Philosophy and Policy 18 (02):218-.
    These days, just about every philosophical debate seems to generate a position labeled internalism. The debate I will be joining in this essay concerns reasons for action and their connection, or lack of connection, to motivation. The internalist position in this debate posits a certain essential connection between reasons and motivation, while the externalist position denies such a connection. This debate about internalism overlaps an older debate between Humeans and Kantians about the exclusive reason-giving power of desires. As we will (...)
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  31. David Sobel & David Copp (2001). Against Direction of Fit Accounts of Belief and Desire. Analysis 61 (1):44-53.
    We argue that beliefs and desires cannot be successfully explicated in terms of direction of fit. It is more difficult than has been realized to do so without presupposing these notions in the explication.
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  32. Chandra Sekhar Sripada (2010). Philosophical Questions About the Nature of Willpower. Philosophy Compass 5 (9):793–805.
    In this article, I survey four key questions about willpower: How is willpower possible? Why does willpower fail? How does willpower relate to other self-regulatory processes? and What are the connections between willpower and weakness of will? Empirical research into willpower is growing rapidly and yielding some fascinating new findings. This survey emphasizes areas in which empirical progress in understanding willpower helps to advance traditional philosophical debates.
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  33. Steven Swartzer (2013). Appetitive Besires and the Fuss About Fit. Philosophical Studies 165 (3):975-988.
    Some motivational cognitivists believe that there are besires—cognitive mental states (typically moral beliefs) that share the key feature of desire (typically desire’s ‘direction of fit’) in virtue of which they are capable of being directly motivational. Besires have been criticized by Humeans and cognitivists alike as philosophically extravagant, incoherent, ad hoc, and incompatible with folk psychology. I provide a response to these standard objections to besires—one motivated independently of common anti-Humean intuitions about the motivational efficacy of moral judgments. I proceed (...)
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  34. Attila Tanyi (2006). An Essay on the Desire-Based Reasons Model. Dissertation, Central European University
    The dissertation argues against the view that normative reasons for action are grounded in desires. It first works out the different versions of the Model. After this, in the next three chapters, it presents and discusses three arguments against the Model, on the basis of which, it concludes that the Model gives us the wrong account of normative practical reasons.
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  35. Christine Tappolet (2010). Emotion, Motivation and Action: The Case of Fear. In Goldie Peter (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion.
    Consider a typical fear episode. You are strolling down a lonely mountain lane when suddenly a huge wolf leaps towards you. A number of different interconnected elements are involved in the fear you experience. First, there is the visual and auditory perception of the wild animal and its movements. In addition, it is likely that given what you see, you may implicitly and inarticulately appraise the situation as acutely threatening. Then, there are a number of physiological changes, involving a variety (...)
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  36. Christine Tappolet (2009). Desires and Practical Judgments in Action: Sergio Tenenbaum's Scholastic View. Dialogue 48 (02):395-.
    In his book Appearances of the Good, Sergio Tenenbaum has offered an impressive new defence of a classical account of practical reason, which marks him as heir to a philosophical tradition going back to Aristotle and Kant or, more recently, to Anscombe and Davidson. This account has come under heavy attack in the past twenty years, and it would be no exaggeration to say that it is now a minority view. This is at least so if one counts the number (...)
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  37. Christine Tappolet (2003). Emotions and the Intelligibility of Akratic Action. In Sarah Stroud & Christine Tappolet (eds.), Weakness of Will and Practical Irrationality. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 97--120.
    After discussing de Sousa's view of emotion in akrasia, I suggest that emotions be viewed as nonconceptual perceptions of value (see Tappolet 2000). It follows that they can render intelligible actions which are contrary to one's better judgment. An emotion can make one's action intelligible even when that action is opposed by one's all-things-considered judgment. Moreover, an akratic action prompted by an emotion may be more rational than following one's better judgement, for it may be the judgement and not the (...)
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  38. Sergio Tenenbaum (2013). Guise of the Good. In Hugh LaFollette (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell.
  39. Sergio Tenenbaum (ed.) (2010). Desire, Practical Reason, and the Good. Oxford University Press.
    Most philosophers working in moral psychology and practical reason think that either the notion of "good" or the notion of "desire" have central roles to play in our understanding of intentional explanations and practical reasoning. However, philosophers disagree sharply over how we are supposed to understand the notions of "desire" and "good", how these notions relate, and whether both play a significant and independent role in practical reason. In particular, the "Guise of the Good" thesis - the view that desire (...)
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  40. John J. Tilley (2004). Desires, Reasons, and Reasons to Be Moral. American Philosophical Quarterly 41 (4):287–98.
  41. Melinda Vadas (1984). Affective and Nonaffective Desire. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 45 (December):273-80.
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  42. J. David Velleman (2013). Foundations for Moral Relativism. OpenBook Publishers.
    In Foundations for Moral Relativism, J. David Velleman shows that different communities can indeed be subject to incompatible moralities, because their local mores are rationally binding. At the same time, he explains why the mores of different communities, even when incompatible, are still variations on the same moral themes. The book thus maps out a universe of many moral worlds without, as Velleman puts it, "moral black holes”. The five self-standing chapters discuss such diverse topics as online avatars and virtual (...)
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  43. Andrew Woodfield (1982). Desire, Intentional Content and Teleological Explanation. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 82:69-88.
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