Me

I work primarily in ethics, primarily in meta-ethics, moral psychology, and in the philosophy of wellbeing. I have a very recent book defending desire-as-belief, the view that our desires are just beliefs - very roughly, the view says that to desire something is just to believe it is favoured in some way. The book is most centrally focused on issues in metaethics and moral psychology, but inevitably touches on questions in the philosophy of action and the philosophy of mind. I've also published articles on reasons for action, theories of value, disability, and on wellbeing. My next big project is going to be on happiness, especially questions about when it is rational to be happy. This project will allow me to pursue many of the above topics - desire, wellbeing, disability - from a distinct angle.

I sometimes get the chance to expose the wider world to a bit of philosophy. Amongst other things, I have advised an an an NHS funding priorities committee and an NHS research ethics committee, and have given numerous talks to the public on various aspects of ethics including on the value of pleasure, the ethics of genetic testing, and on human altruism. I am always happy to hear from anyone who is interested in me or my work.

A link to my CV normally lives here, but I am presently updating it.

Book

My monograph, Desire as Belief, was published with Oxford University Press in July 2021 (Amazon; Waterstones; Oxford Scholarship Online).

What is it to want something? Or, as philosophers might ask, what is a desire? The book defends “desire-as-belief”, the view that desires are just a special subset of our beliefs: normative beliefs. This view entitles us to accept orthodox models of human motivation and rationality that explain those things with reference to desire, but nonetheless to make room for our normative beliefs to play a role in those domains. And this view tells us to diverge from the orthodox view on which desires themselves can never be right or wrong. Rather, according to desire-as-belief, our desires can themselves be assessed for their accuracy, and they are wrong when they misrepresent normative features of the world. Hume says that it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of your finger, but he is wrong: it is foolish to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of your finger, and this is foolish because this preference misrepresents the relative worth of these things. The book mounts a defence of these ideas.

For a sample, you can access the whole of chapter 2 *free*, on Oxford Scholarship Online, here.

Click on the headings below to see more details on individual chapters.

Chapter 1: What is Desire-as-Belief?

This chapter describes the version of desire-as-belief that I defend. Roughly, I say that just as "disbelieves P" is shorthand for "believes not-P", "desires P" is shorthand for "believes has reason to bring about P". I explain how this view is consistent with the opposing "directions of fit" of belief and desire, and mention some broad attractions of the view and general strategies for defending it. Along the way, I explain how the view permits that it is rational to have conflicting desires.

Chapter 2: Desire and Motivation

This chapter and the next combine to provide an argument for desire-as-belief. But this chapter itself just focuses on more general questions about desire and motivation. I defend "ODM", the view that only desires can motivate us. This view is a part of the Humean orthodoxy, and a part that I accept. The chapter argues for ODM and defends it from various objections.

Chapter 3: Normative Judgement and Motivation

You might believe that you ought to exercise or that Sarah has some reason to eat more porridge. I argue that such normative beliefs have a special connection with motivation, though this connection has often misdescribed and so this kind of "judgement internalism" thereby underestimated. I then combine thoughts about this connection with the claims in the previous chapter, in order to generate an argument that seems to favour either non-cognitivism or else desire-as-belief. The remainder of the chapter explains why the argument really counts in favour of desire-as-belief, and against non-cognitivism. The basic concern is that non-cognitivism makes poor sense of our normative beliefs about other people.

Chapter 4: Desire and Rationality

This chapter develops a second argument for desire-as-belief. It is rational to respond to your desires. Why is this true? Standard dispositional accounts of desire fail to explain why. But desire-as-belief can, by appeal to a widely accepted enkratic principle, according to which it is rational to respond to your own normative beliefs. The chapter goes on to explain how this reasoning strongly favours desire-as-belief over "presentationalism", a recent rival view on which desires are more akin to perceptual states than beliefs.

Chapter 5: Irrationality

A classic objection to desire-as-belief appeals to irrationality in desire. It might seem that we can believe we have reason to do things but without desiring to do them (perhaps: giving money to charity), and that we can desire to do things without believing we have reason to do them (perhaps: eating yet another slice of cake). This chapter responds to many such objections, especially worries about desire-as-belief and akrasia.

Chapter 6: The Guise of the Normative

This chapter first contrasts desire-as-belief with the "besire" theory, arguing that the former is superior. It then discusses possible ways in which desires might be constrained by our normative beliefs. Desire-as-belief commits us to one such constraint: that you can only desire something if you believe you have reason to bring it about. I argue that this constraint is plausible, and more plausible than the idea that you can only desire something if you believe it good. Distinguishing these claims also allows us to see that desire-as-belief permits various kinds of divergence between our desires and *some* of our normative beliefs. Along the way, the chapter also discusses some related questions about variation in desire between people, and the distinction between wanting, wishing, and hoping.

Chapter 7: Desire and Feeling

This chapter discusses the ways in which our desires relate to different kinds of feelings, such as emotions, appetites, and pleasure. I explain how desire-as-belief can accommodate those connections. I argue that emotions dispose us to form certain normative beliefs, and this explains their influence on desire. Both appetites and likings should be distinguished from desires, though they often give rise to desire; I explain how desire-as-belief predicts such facts, and explain how these distinctions allow desire-as-belief to avoid some objections.

Chapter 8: Uncertainty and Reasoning

This chapter discusses two topics. First, an objection to desire-as-belief that appeals to mismatches between degrees of belief and degrees of desire. The essential problem is that we can be uncertain in our beliefs, but it is not clear that there is any equivalent feature of our desires. After discussing various bad solutions to this puzzle, I settle on one on which normative uncertainty amounts to uncertainty about what we want. The second topic the chapter addresses is reasoning with desire. I focus on the instrumentalist view that there is no such thing as rational change in ultimate desires. This might seem to be inconsistent with desire-as-belief. But I argue that instrumentalism is mistaken. The argument runs via the claim that with some desires it is indeterminate whether they are instrumental or not, and this makes space for reasoning so as to determine which they are.

Chapter 9: Representing Reasons

This chapter begins with a common objection to desire-as-belief: don't animals have desires, but no beliefs about reasons? Evaluating this objection is difficult, since it raises much wider questions about concept possession and about the mental lives of animals. I do my best: I sketch a version of conceptual role semantics and apply it to reasons beliefs, effectively arguing that a creature has the concept of a reason if they have the right dispositions. I then argue that animals have some of those dispositions to some degree, and thereby count as borderline cases of creatures with the concept of a reason, and borderline cases of creatures with desires. This last claim might seem surprising - aren't they clear-cut desirers? - but I supply some reasons for thinking it plausible.

Chapter 10: Desires and Reasons

This chapter considers the debate between objectivist views on which normative reasons are independent of our desires, and subjectivist views, on which they are almost wholly dependent on our desires. I rehearse two classic problems for subjectivism, and then explain away its appeal: subjectivism seems plausible just because it is close to a plausible claim about (structural) rationality. Finally, I discuss desire-based theories of wellbeing, and explain how desire-as-belief supports classic objections to that view.

Appendix: Lewis on Desire-As-Belief

The appendix discusses David Lewis' famous argument against desire-as-belief. Partly by appeal to claims from chapter 8, I argue that his objection fails.


Papers

Click titles for more information and downloads.

Disability as Inability

2020. The Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 18:1 pp.23-48

If we were to write down all those things that we ordinarily categorise as disabilities, the resulting list might appear to be extremely heterogeneous. What do disabilities have in common? In this paper I defend the view that disabilities should be understood as particular kinds of inability. I show how we should formulate this view, and in the process defend the view from various objections. For example, I show how the view can allow that common kinds of inability are not disabilities, can allow that minor kinds of inability are rightly not described as disabilities, and can allow that socially imposed inabilities need not be disabilities. In the second half of the paper, I show that this theory is superior to rival theories. I criticize the wellbeing theory of disability (Kahane and Savulescu 2009, Savulescu and Kahane 2011, Harris 2001) and conventionalist theories of disability (e.g. Barnes 2016). Finally, I show how the inability theory is consistent with the best versions of the social model of disability.

Disability and Well-Being

2019. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, LaFollette, H. (Ed.). Wiley-Blackwell

This entry discusses the relationship between disability and well-being. Disabilities are commonly thought to be unfortunate, but whether this is true is unclear, and, if it is true, it is unclear why it is true. The entry first explains the disability paradox, which is the apparent discrepancy between the level of well-being that disabled people self-report, and the level of well-being that nondisabled people predict disabled people to have. It then turns to an argument that says that disabilities must be bad, because it is wrong to cause them in others. Later sections discuss whether disabilities might be intrinsically bad or even bad by definition. The final section addresses the claim that disabilities are bad only because society discriminates against people with disabilities.

Why Do Desires Rationalize Actions?

2018. Ergo 5:40

I begin the paper by outlining one classic argument for the guise of the good: that we must think that desires represent their objects favourably in order to explain why they can make actions rational (Quinn 1995; Stampe 1987). But what exactly is the conclusion of this argument? Many have recently formulated the guise of the good as the view that desires are akin to perceptual appearances of the good (Stampe 1987; Oddie 2005; Tenenbaum 2007). But I argue that this view fails to capitalize on the above argument, and that the argument is better understood as favouring a view on which desires are belief-like states. I finish by addressing some countervailing claims made by Avery Archer (2016).

How Verbal Reports of Desire May Mislead

2017. Thought 6:4 pp.241-249

Ascriptions of desire can be misleading: "I don't want P" can mean "I fail to want P" or "I want not P". And sometimes desires are too obvious to be worth mentioning. I show how these two phenomena have led people to make mistakes, especially in rejecting the claim that all motivation requires desire, and in their estimations of how much divergence there is between desire and normative judgment.

Are All Normative Judgments Desire-like?

2017. The Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 12:1 pp.29-55

Normative judgments play a distinctive motivational role. This might seu like a reason to adopt non-cognitivism. But non-cognitivism is committed to the implausible claim that other-regarding (and logically non-atomic) normative judgments are desires. Desire-as-belief explains the motivational role of first-personal (atomic) normative judgments without implausibly entailing that all normative judgments play a similar motivational role.

Might Desires Be Beliefs About Normative Reasons For Action?

2017. The Nature of Desire, Deonna, J. and Lauria, F. (eds). OUP pp.201-217

I defend the view that desires just are beliefs about reasons for action from some of the most common objections. I consider objections from the notion of direction of fit, the existence of appetites, weakness of will, and addiction. I also object to nearby views that treat desires as more like perceptual states.

Reasons as Good Bases

2016. Philosophical Studies 173:9 pp.2291–2310

I offer a new theory of normative reasons: they are good instances of motivating reasons ("bases"). Just as many functional itus can be evaluated by thinking about how good they are as mubers of their kind, I suggest that a good reason to do something just is a motivating reason to do it that is a good instance of its kind. This theory has various interesting implications. This paper is a kind of follow-up to the paper on buck passing, below.

Hedonism

2016, The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Being, Fletcher, G. (Ed.). Routledge

In this entry, I explain the hedonistic theory of wellbeing, and common arguments for and against it.

A Very Good Reason To Reject The Buck Passing Account

2014. The Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92:2 pp.287-303

The buck passing account analyses values (goodness) in terms of reasons. But reasons can be better or worse than one another - indeed, this is the normal way we pick out normative reasons, as good reasons. That suggests that the buck passing account implicitly appeals to the very thing it is trying to explain. Perhaps the main complication for this argument is the distinction between predicative and attributive value: I argue that buck passers should be buck passers about both. I then sketch the theory of reasons that I defend in the paper above.

The Guise of Reasons

2013. American Philosophical Quarterly 50:1 pp.63-72

The guise of the good says that desires somehow represent goodness. The guise of reasons says that they represent normative reasons. These theories are very similar in that both say that desires are representational, and that they represent normative properties. But the difference between thu might nonetheless be significant. I show that it is and that the latter view is superior. This is independently interesting but also shows how sympathisers of this general kind of view can avoid some standard objections.

Changing Direction On Direction of Fit

2012. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15:5 pp.603-614

I argue against Smith and Humberstone's analyses of the direction of fit metaphor. Instead, I argue for a normative interpretation of the metaphor, on which beliefs ought to fit the world, and the world ought to fit our desires. Making these claims more precise and plausible occupies much of the paper.


Reviews
2015. Steve Finlay's A Confusion of Tongues in Analysis 75:4 pp.687-689
2013. Fred Feldman's What is this thing called Happiness? in Mind 122:487 pp.820-823
2012. Andrew Reisner and Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen (eds.), Reasons for Belief in NDPR.
2009. Mark Schroeder's Slaves of the Passions in Ratio 22:2 pp.250-257

Other

The Gregorian Emporium? The Gregarious Warehouse?

These assorted links are works-in-progress, and will open new pages.



Contact

Dr Alex Gregory, Department of Philosophy, University of Southampton, Avenue Campus, Southampton, SO17 1BF, United Kingdom
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