Is “Besire” Really Bizarre?
A few weeks ago, I posted “Is There Something More than Knowing-How and Knowing-that?,” where I promised a follow-up, and here it is.
In the previous post, I argue that Confucian moral knowledge has something more than knowing-how and knowing-that, and the extra thing is its ability to incline the knower to act according to the knowledge. From the Humean point of view, Confucians must be either confused or confusing (or both) in holding such a view of moral knowledge, since this inclination or motivation is not knowledge and does not belong to knowledge, whether it is knowledge-that or knowledge-how, but something other than knowledge: desire. According to Humeans, in order for an action to take place, both belief and desires are needed: belief tells one what to do, and desire motivates one to do it. Without desire, one’s belief will not incline a person to act; without belief, one’s desire will not tell one what action to take and how to take the action.
Although there are some contemporary philosophers of action who are not Humeans and even are claimed (either by themselves or by others) to be anti-Humeans, most of them still agree that belief and desire are separate mental states. They are anti-Humeans only in the sense that they try to provide different explanations of action than the Humean one. On the one hand, we have those anti-Humeans who, as cognitivists or rationalists, claim that knowledge or belief alone can motivate a person to act and there is no need for desire in our explanation of action (Scanlon). On the other hand, we have those anti-Humeans who, as noncognitivists or emotivists, claim that all that is involved in our action is desire or emotion (Ayer).
It is true that there are also a small number of anti-Humeans who claim that one’s action can be explained neither by belief alone (as claimed by cognitivist anti-Humeans) nor by desire alone (as claimed by emotivist anti-Humeans) but by both belief and desire, not as two separate mental states (as claimed by Humeans) but as one single mental state, a state which includes both belief and desire (McDowell, Platts, McNaught, and Dancy).
However, such a conception of the single mental state, besire, has been seriously challenged and regarded as something bizarre by Humeans. The problem for them is that belief and desire are of very different natures. Belief represents the world, and so it is either true or false depending upon how well it represents the world; if it does not fit the world, it (belief) has to be changed to fit the world. In contrast, desire does not represent the world and so is neither true nor false; when it does not fit the world, it (the desire) does not have to be changed. In contrast, we often want to change the world to fit our desires. Thus G.E.M. Anscombe uses the direction of fit to explain the difference between belief and desire. The fit between the external world and belief is obtained by changing the belief to fit the world: the direction here is from the mind to the world; in contrast, the fit between the world and desire is obtained by changing the world to fit the desire: the direction of fit here is from the world to the mind.
Now, these Humeans ask: if there is such a single mental state that includes both belief and desire, the mental state of besire, then what is the direction of fit between this mental state and the world? As a belief, we need to change the mental state to make the belief fit the world; however, as a desire, we have to change the world to fit the mental state. Yet, since besire is one single mental state that includes both belief and desire, we will be at loss about what to do to obtain the fit between this mental state and the world: to change the mental state to fit the world or to change the world to fit the mental state?
Moral knowledge in neo-Confucianism is claimed to be such a single mental state that includes both belief and desire; it is besire. However, is it bizarre? Neo-Confucians can responsd in two steps. The first is simply to show that, whether bizarre or not, the mental state of besire as a matter of fact does exist (without denying that there are mental states of belief and mental states of desire). In this respect, I think Wang Yangming has already made a convincing case in his use of the analogy between liangzhi and seeing/loving the beautiful color in the Great Learning. Our recognition of a color as beautiful and our loving it are one single mental state: it is neither that we first believe it is beautiful and then a desire arises to love it, nor that we first have a desire to love it and then we believe it is beautiful; we cannot love it if we don’t at the same time believe it is beautiful, and we cannot believe it is beautiful if we don’t at the same time love it. In the neo-Confucian view, genuine moral knowledge is a similar single mental state of belief and desire, the state of besire. We will not believe that we ought to love our parents if we don’t have the desire to love them at the same time; and we will not desire to love our parents if we don’t believe that we ought to love our parents. It is neither that we first believe that we ought to love our parents and then a desire arises to love them, nor that we first desire to love our parents and then we believe that we ought to love them. It is at one and the same time that we believe that we should love our parents and we desire to love our parents. Take away the belief, no desire is left, and take away the desire, no belief is left. So belief and desire are one and the same single mental state: the besire.
The second is to argue that, at least in some cases, besire is indeed not bizarre by showing that there are no two opposite or contradictory directions of fit between besire and the world. To do so, there is a need to distinguish between two different types of belief, one factual and one normative. Suppose I believe that the sun turns around the earth but actually sun does not turn around the earth, then it is true that my belief has to be changed to fit the world. However, if I believe that people ought to love their parents, then even if there is no single person in the world who loves his or her parent, my belief that people ought to love their parents does not necessarily turn out to be false. In other words, it does not mean that I have to change my belief into one that people ought not to love their parents to fit the world. This distinction between factual beliefs and normative beliefs is actually made by Kant, who distinguishes between reality in theoretical reason and reality in practical reason. In the former, the reality of something is the cause of our knowledge of it, and our knowledge has to fit the reality; in the latter, however, the reality of something is inseparable from our belief in it and our willingness and ability to act accordingly. Rawls explains what Kant says in a simpler way: “practical reason is concerned with the production of objects according to a conception of these objects… while theoretical reason is concerned with the knowledge of given objects.”
When Humeans claim that besire is bizarre because there are conflicting directions of fit between besire and the world, they apparently only have the factual belief in mind. The direction of fit between factual belief and the world and that between desire and the world are indeed opposite, and so it would indeed be bizarre if belief and desire exist in one single mental state. However, the direction of fit between moral belief and the world and the direction of fit between moral desire and the world can be perfectly consistent. When no one in the world loves his or her parents, my desire that people love their parents of course requires that the world should be changed to fit my desire; similarly when no one in the world loves his or her parents, my belief that people ought to love their parents shows that the world is not what it ought to be and so has to be changed to fit my belief. Here, the world has to fit both our desire and our belief: the directions of fit in these two cases are thus consistent: both are from the world to the mind.