One of my classes is looking at what the textbook calls the desire preference theory, which has me thinking again about the differences between desires and values.

Hume divided our psychological world up into two categories: beliefs, and desires. Ethical standards, he thought, are motivated by desires but directed largely by beliefs. For example, if I were against capital punishment, it might be because of a) a belief that capital punishment is murder coupled with b) a desire that leads me to oppose murder.

I can hold beliefs about my desires – I can believe that I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, for example, or in favor of it — but the beliefs are not the same as the desires. Sometimes I may even be wrong in my beliefs about my desires. I may say, “I have completely forgiven you; I want you to succeed”, and yet those who know me may realize that I am deceiving myself, that deep down I am still angry and want you to fail! (Similarly I can have desires about my beliefs: if I were afraid of making a speech, and wanted more confidence, I might say, “I wish I really believed I could do this.”)

One reason Hume makes the distinction is so that he can keep properly formed beliefs anchored in observable empirical evidence. I can verify empirically whether someone is guilty of a crime, and I can verify empirically what the consequences of executing him will be, but I cannot verify empirically whether we ought to put him to death. Decisions about what things are good or bad to do are not matters of observable fact. Therefore Hume assigns them to our ability to desire.

Some philosophers (for example, Gary Watson) argue that in addition to desires and beliefs we also have values. We can imagine a value system as a long list of numeric ratings for various actions or situations; our values are the ratings we assign to everything.

The point is that there can definitely be things I desire but do not value, as well as things that I value but do not desire. For example, an alcoholic struggling not to take another drink will desire the drink but assign it a very low value. Simultaneously he will value abstinence highly but not desire it.

Yet perhaps values are not beliefs either. At least, they cannot necessarily be empirically verified in the way that Hume wants well-formed beliefs to be.

I agree with the idea that we have values, distinct from beliefs and desires.

An interesting question is how much choice we have about our value system. Do we get to value whatever we want?

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