Thursday, September 1, 2011


Sergio Tenenbaum (ed.), Desire, Practical Reason, and the Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 251. ISBN 9780195382440. $65.00.

Reviewed by Robert Zaborowski, University of Warmia and Mazury (

Version at BMCR home site


The book has its origins in a workshop held at the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto and concerns the so-called "Guise of the Good" thesis positing that "desire (or perhaps intention, or intentional action) always aims at the good" (3). This must seem familiar to classicists and, indeed, the first paper deals with Socrates to whom the thesis may be attributed, though he did not put it in these words. Of the nine papers, only the first three concern ancient thought directly. Among others some refer to ancient authors more (esp. to Aristotle), some less. Matthew Evans in seven steps investigates the nature of Socratic intellectualism and especially the validity of what he calls the Knowledge Argument ("we are capable of acting incorrectly only if and only when we fail to recognize that we are acting incorrectly" (6). Without taking a personal position he looks at "the various ways in which the Knowledge Argument ... might be challenged, defended, and refined" (7). In order to do so, he reformulates the issue in a series of claims drawing on Plato's Protagoras 351b-58e. Evans makes the interesting point that it is extremely difficult to account for what a person really believes, since "each of us has an infinite number of beliefs, most of which are so complex that no mortal creature could ever succeed in expressing them" (22).

Rachel Barney discusses what she calls the Desire thesis, that "human desire is for the good" (34). Two versions of the thesis are to be distinguished: the Appearance thesis ("all desire is for the apparent good") and the Reality thesis ("human desire can only be for what, in fact, is good"). She adds a proviso that the Reality thesis is not independent of but rather "an interpretation and clarification of the Appearance thesis". After analyzing several passages from the Meno, Republic, and Gorgias, Barney concludes that desire is not different from other activities such as naming, acting, predicting and asserting in being purposeful and world-guided. In particular, it "can go well or badly for us, and we can expect it to go no better than our thinking" (55).

Jessica Moss concentrates on Aristotle's version of the 'Guise of the Good' thesis. According to Aristotle not only rational but also non-rational desire aims at some good. In Aristotle pleasure is a kind of genuine cognition and, therefore, it is subject to the same mechanisms as other faculties. If taking pleasure in the bad is possible, this is not because taking pleasure is a mistaken tendency in itself but because of a failure in the pleasure-taking apparatus. This is similar to a perceptual error. In neither case is it related to the essence of pleasure or perception — which is to be defined by its telos — but to accidents of malfunctioning.

Kieran Settiya in his approach to the 'Guise of the Good' thesis takes the issue to a larger plane. He does not investigate whether or not it is true but how to interpret the connection between agency and evaluation. His response is that this connection does not belong to the essence of intentional action.

Joseph Raz sets aside desire and touches on a following formulation of the Guise of the Good thesis: "Intentional actions are actions taken in, and because of, a belief that there is some good in them" (111). In fact, his interest is in the Guise of the Good thesis taken as a thesis about intentions. Raz focuses on substantial distinctions between 'value' and 'good' (too often used interchangeably), and underscores that we should speak of degrees of intentionality (instead of intentional or unintentional tout court), since there are cases of actions being partly intentional or, according to Raz's distinction, of embedded and independent intentions.

Sebastian Rödl looks into the intentional element of action which, for him, is nothing else but the will. As he says "good and true are a priori concepts by which the will and the intellect represent their object purely" (139). Analogously to Kant, he suggests that good signifies the formal object of the will.

Matthew Boyle and Douglas Lavin are concerned by a transformation that has occurred more recently: after centuries of approval the Aristotelian doctrine of the "desire under the guise of the good" has come under heavy fire as "not merely wrong but naive" (161). Critics have often pinpointed counterexamples but, as Boyle and Lavin say, the real source of the transformation is a shift in the understanding of justifying reasons (pertaining to the goodness of an object) and explanatory reasons (pertaining to the question why an agent is motivated to act so and so). In conclusion, this paper sides with Aristotle's view: supposing it is viable at all, the guise-of-the-good thesis cannot be treated in isolation but should be understood in the context of "teleological explanation and the relation between an individual creature and its kind" (193).

Sergio Tenenbaum takes into account the ambiguity of good itself, which can be considered either as good simpliciter or as good for the agent. First examining Rawls's argument, he searches for a satisfactory account of the distinction between good and good for. More particularly, 'conceiving it to be good' is not the same as 'judging it to be good' and should be understood in terms of appearance.

Finally, Philip Clark makes salient the difference between "guises of the good" and "the guise-of-the-good thesis". By referring to words as aspect, guise or species, philosophers try "to say that you can't pursue anything except under some description "F," such that the F is a good sort of thing" (241). He concludes that "[w]e may not need guises of the good to understand a desire, but we do need them to understand the epistemology of value" (243).

The nine papers are impressive by their elaborate analysis. They are stimulating insofar as taken together they present a broad range of approaches to the topic, and the arguments are developed in a detailed way. My impression is nevertheless that while desire and good are treated abundantly in the volume, too little attention is given to the limits of the moral psychology and, therefore, to avoiding a kind of panmoralism: not everything we do is morally relevant (this point is, happily, brought out by Raz and Clark). Yet, there is no integrating paper — so to speak a meta-paper — explaining the whole perspective which these investigations are part of as well as the differences in the viewpoints adopted. What I mean is that good, knowledge and desire are ambiguous and can be understood in several ways. Although the papers of the volume avoid a simplistic binary distinction, more stress could have been put on the ambiguity of the central notions. To start with 'good': it can be identified and often is by some people with 'useful', and with 'comfortable' by others (see a fuller list on 238). Elsewhere we deal with good vs 'good for' or good simpliciter vs 'good for the agent'. From a different angle, 'immediate good' can be distinguished from 'future good'. On yet another occasion we face a distinction between moral and aesthetic goods. These relationships and entanglements are multiple and a general overview of them would undoubtedly clarify this reflection on a human behaviour, action and motivation.

A similar problem emerges in relation to knowledge. 'To know' is a broad term and, for instance, I am not sure at all that Socrates understood it in an exclusively intellectualist meaning. Here, again, we should accept a large gamut of degrees of knowledge, ranging from a superficial one to deep knowledge including a personal involvement in what is known or, if you prefer, an opposition between a passive and an active knowledge. A patent example of such generalization are the theses of "motivational internalism". For, if I believe that x is good it does not necessarily follow that I desire it: I may well believe a bottle of whisky sold at the prize of 5000 pounds to be good whisky and yet not desire it at all. On the other hand, if I refrain from buying it, it can be for other reasons that seeing some good in doing it: I can simply lack resources. Or, as stated repeatedly by Plato, I can be too weak physically or I can be a victim of a perverse education.

I think that a number of similar generalizations can be avoided with the notion of hierarchy. To a large extent a manifold model is provided by Raz. His notion of degree of intensity and of degree of intensionality can be supplemented by degrees of importance, reason and purpose. The notion of degree and of hierarchy renders more nuanced the account of the intricacy of human desire and knowledge, as well as of good and the values which a human being faces intentionally and unintentionally. To draw on M. Evans's remark quoted above, "each of us has an infinite number of intentions and desires, most of which are so complex that no mortal creature could ever succeed in expressing them".

From the historical point of view, I find it somewhat disappointing that no mention is made of F. Brentano (esp. 68, 106, 171), since his distinction between perception, feeling and knowing could have been helpful in settling the differences between desiring and knowing what is good. It should be interesting also to consider some abnormal or pathological cases such as obsessions, since they constitute a kind of verification of what is presented as human motivation, behaviour and agency in standard situations. For example, I have doubts about classifying Stalin as a fanatic (133) — I would rather see him as an extremely intelligent psychopath and claim that his case could inform us about a purely intellectual knowledge when separated from other psychological agencies. On the other hand, considering "the case of a woman who has a sudden urge to drown her bawling child in the bath" (161-162). I think easily about Medea. But then I would like to know if for Medea the desire to kill her children was a good per se or only a way to harm her husband which was a supreme good for her at this moment. As to Oedipus (41) I would rather rule out that he desired to marry his mother in any manner whatsoever. As it seems, he did his best to avoid the doom predicted to him.

The strength of this volume lies in the fact that it varies in the approaches to whether or not desire aims at the good. In this sense it is a collection of papers important both to the history of moral psychology and to moral psychology as such. Although the question whether or not we act always under the guise of good remains still open, the volume is worth reading by anyone interested in philosophical accounts of the relation between human desire and the good. 1 More particularly, for the BMCR readers I would recommend reading it together with Socratic Moral Psychology by T. C. Brickhouse and N. D. Smith 2, published the same year, in order to better evaluate and understand the origin of the 'Guise of the Good' thesis. In the latter we are presented with a reinterpretation of Socrates' standpoint, and Plato's and Aristotle's views are also considered. Both books make it clear that ancient philosophers are essential not only for historical research but also for current investigation into human nature and its intricacy.


1.   For one thing the volume is difficult to read. Since in the main text there are references to notes at the end of each chapter and there we meet references to the bibliography, there are therefore three texts to follow simultaneously.
2.   My review of this book can be found on line in Metapsychology vol. 15, issue 21, May 24, 2011.

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