Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Beliefs and pleasures

In a class yesterday we discussed Bernard Williams’ ‘Pleasure and belief’, PAS Suppl. vol. 33 (1959), 57–92. It was pretty hard going, so this is an attempt to ‘add water’ to the opening moves on pp.57–9. This section is interesting to me because it seems to be a useful commentary on the discussion between Protarchus and Socrates in Plato’s Philebus on the question of the possibility of false please. Specifically, it seems a useful commentary on Protarchus’ reaction at 38a, that in supposed cases of ‘false pleasure’ it is some judgement or belief that is false but which gives rise to a pleasure which is itself not to be said to be false.

One of the claims early in Williams’ discussion (59) is: Beliefs in so-and-so should not be made to function as the cause of a person’s pleasure at so-and-so. Why not?


Tom is pleased because he has a winning lottery ticket.
Tim is also pleased because he has a winning lottery ticket.

Imagine also that Tom is in fact mistaken – he has misread the winning numbers (perhaps he has seen last week’s by mistake) so he has not won the lottery. But he is still pleased, at least until he realises his mistake at which point the pleasure ceases. Tim, on the other hand, has got it right.

How do we explain Tom’s and Tim’s pleasures? Tom cannot in fact be pleased at having a winning lottery ticket because he does not have a winning lottery ticket. Perhaps we’d better say that Tom is pleased because he believes (at least initially) that he has a winning lottery ticket. But what about Tim? Would we then have to say about him too that he is pleased because he too believes he has a winning lottery ticket? That seems odd: surely it would be better to say that he is pleased at having, not merely believing that he has, a winning lottery ticket. Yet saying something different about the causes of Tom’s and Tim’s pleasures is not very satisfying either; after all, at the moment they are being experienced they appear indistinguishable to the two people concerned.

The most promising move, it seems, is to hypothesise that Beliefs Cause Pleasures (BCP) since that might allow us to account for both Tim’s and Tom’s pleasures alike.

Williams gives three reasons to reject BCP (58–9). I am not entirely sure how to understand these, but this is a first attempt at filling out the first reason:

Williams refers to what he calls ‘the previous argument’, which I think is the one earlier on p.58. This goes, I think, as follows: The assertion of BCP requires us to consider cases like Tim and Tom and imagining ourselves in their respective places. This in turn requires us to think that, in Tom’s place, we would originally and sincerely have said ‘I am pleased because I have a winning lottery ticket’. But this is in fact at odds with BCP since BCP says that we really at the time were pleased because we believed we had a winning lottery ticket. We arrive at BCP only on the basis of a prior sincere assertion of something which is incompatible with it.

That’s why (I think), Williams concludes that it is ‘extremely doubtful whether I am in a position to arrive at the correct hypothesis, and distinguish it from rivals – at the very least, it seems that it would be a necessary condition of doing so that I had engaged in philosophical reflection’.

I need to think more about whether this is a good argument against BCP. Any thoughts?

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