Aristotle and Plato make the same puzzling claim: You can be mistaken about what you desire. Consider the following example: You’re looking at a delicious piece of chocolate cake. You say to your friend Aristotle, “I really want to eat that cake.” Aristotle be like: “No, you don’t.” You be like, “Dude, yes I do. Aristotle be like, “No, you only believe you want the cake. You don’t really want it. You’re mistaken.” You be like, “Dude, I think I know what goes on in my own head better than you. Inside my head right now is a little homunculus screaming ‘I want cake! I want cake!’ I know because I’m in my head, and you’re not in my head.” Aristotle be like, “Dude, like I said, you believe you want it but you’re mistaken. You don’t want it.” You be like, “Dude, how can you say I don’t know my own internal mental states? That’s…uh…mental. If you put me in an fMRI machine right now, you’d see a desire state. That’s me desiring that piece of chocolate cake!”
Anyway, eventually you eat the cake and it was delicious.
Part 1: Human Nature, Rationality, and Human Good
So, how do Plato and Aristotle argue for this seemingly puzzling view that you can be wrong about your own internal states? We’re going to have to lay a little groundwork first before we can make sense of the view. Bear with me…
First of all, everybody wants “goodness”. That is, nobody really desires bad things. We all aim our action at the good. And the good for humans is happiness. So, whenever we act, we are aiming at happiness (which is “the good” for humans). This part’s important so let me repeat. No one intentionally acts in a way to make themselves unhappy. We can be mistaken about what will make us happy but no rational person would intend to make themselves unhappy. Otherwise stated, all actions intend to aim at happiness.
You might reply by pointing to examples of self-destructive behavior. Aristotle (and Plato) would answer in two ways. First of all, people who engage in such behavior believe that it will relieve them from whatever is bothering them. They are aiming at happiness, they are just mistaken about how to achieve it. An alcoholic drinks because he thinks it will bring him closer to happiness than staying sober and thinking about his problems. An emo dresses in black and listens to emo music because they believe this will bring them closer to happiness than not doing this.
The second response would be that if a person truly aimed at unhappiness, that is, they actually deliberately tried to try to make themselves unhappy, then this person would not be rational. And so, the qualifier: No rational person would deliberately aim at unhappiness. Stated in the affirmative: All rational people aim at happiness. In short, everything humans do (so long as they’re rational) is intended to bring them happiness (or at least get us closer).
Qualification: Aristotle’s Happiness vs Psychological/Emotional Happiness
Entire libraries have been written on this topic but I’ll give you the super-duper condensed version: Aristotle doesn’t mean emotional happiness as we often mean today. His use of the word is usually translated as eudaimonia which means “flourishing”. Eudaimonia can also be thought of as “a meaningful life”. Of course, some degree of emotional happiness will be a component of a eudaimonic life–it’s hard to do a lot of the other important things if you’re chronically depressed–but it is not the ultimate end of our actions. The ultimate end is a meaningful/flourishing life. For a full post on this topic…
Note: for the rest of this post I’ll use ‘good’, ‘happiness’, ‘meaningful life’, and ‘flourishing life’ interchangeably.
Ok, where were we? You might already be beginning to see that what we’ve covered so far can give us some tools to explain why you can be mistaken about your desires. The answer will be something like: Everyone genuinely desires (eudaimonic) happiness. You believe that being famous, rich, pleasure, power, etc.. will get you there and so you desire and pursue those things. However, those things won’t actually get you a meaningful/flourishing life and so you are mistaken about what you desire. You don’t desire being famous and rich, you actually desire a (eudaimonic) life and are mistaken about what will achieve it.
Part 2: Why Are We Mistaken? Beliefs vs Knowledge
Aristotle and Plato differ in their account of how we come to know the good but they are united in that you can’t live a (eudaimonic) happy life without knowing what the good is. To know the good takes years of study and most people don’t undergo this rigorous training and so they have mistaken beliefs about what the good is. They believe it’s pleasure, fame, wealth, power, honor, etc…
There’s an important difference between belief and knowledge. Beliefs can be both true or false but knowledge is always true. You cannot attain knowledge without rigorous study and, as I said above, most people don’t undertake this training and only have beliefs about what is good. Since they only have beliefs about the good, they’re likely to be mistaken.
Part 3: Putting it All Together
Ok, so how is it possible to be mistaken about what you desire? Of course everyone who reads this blog knows what the good is. It’s all those other people who don’t read my blog that merely have beliefs about what’s good. Now, imagine you’re walking around with one of those pin-heads and they’re like “Oh! I want that shiny thing! It’ll make me sooooooooooooo happy!”
Now, as a true philosopher you know a few important things: (a) you know what is truly good and thus necessary for a meaningful human life; (b) you know that your pin-head friend’s action is intended to bring them happiness, that is, like all rational humans all actions aim at happiness; (c) you know that shiny things don’t contribute to a meaningful flourishing life (happiness); (d) it follows that your friend doesn’t really desire the shiny thing because what they really desire is happiness and the shiny thing won’t achieve that. Thus, they are mistaken about what they desire.
In short, in so far as they’re rational, they desire happiness not “shiny thing”. The fact that they skipped out on philosophy class prevented them from acquiring knowledge of the good. Thus, they only have beliefs–rather than knowledge–about the good and are consequentially mistaken about the content of the good, which in turn leads them to believe that something that doesn’t bring about happiness will bring about happiness.
Moral of the story: Don’t be a fool. Stay in philosophy school.
Objections and Replies Coming Next Post