Irrationality or Gustibus?

de gustibus non disputandum
(there’s no accounting for taste)

Can Eliezer’s reasoning about lotteries be extended to something like sexuality? The goal of our sex drives is reproduction of the fittest members of the species. But today we have interrupted this process so that most sexuality does not lead to reproduction. The underlying logic of the drive is no longer functional. Does this mean that our sex desires are irrational, and that we should consider sex to be as pernicious and harmful as lotteries?

Another example is our love of sweet and fatty foods, which are harmful to our health in today’s environment. The fundamental reasons we seek these foods no longer apply today. In a sense, this kind of hunger is irrational, in that satisfying the drive is actually harmful to us.

Where do we draw the line in judging whether our desires are rational?

Most of our discussions of bias here relate to beliefs about truth. A bias gives us an incorrect view of the truth, and we seek to overcome the bias so that we can see the truth more clearly.

But there is a larger and more inclusive sense in which we can look deeper for biases in our motivations and goals. This requires us to adopt a model where different parts of our minds have their own individual goals, which may be in conflict. One part (or more parts) of our minds is the talking part, and that is who is writing here. Our discussions are primarily among the talking parts. It somewhat goes without saying that the goals we discuss as most important are the goals of our talking parts.

From this perspective, one part of our minds, the talking part, can judge the goals and methods used by other parts, by its own standards. Our talking parts favor logic and rationality. They want to see that the goals of a system are effectively being achieved by the means it employs. And by this standard, other parts of our minds fall short. Our sexuality does not achieve its goal of reproduction. Our hunger does not achieve its goal of health. Our love of risk does not achieve its goal of proportional reward.

We can identify these failures as biases and perhaps seek to overcome them. It is likely to be more difficult than mere failures to perceive truth, via logical illusions and constrained rationality. Our drives are deep and powerful, and even if they are ultimately pointless that does not take away their power. But I would suggest that it does make sense to hold our evolutionary drives up for analysis and judgment at least in the terms proposed here, whether they achieve their goals in today’s environment. If not, we should try to overcome these ultimately pointless or even harmful urges.

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  • Hal, there isn’t any part of a human body with a function other than sexual reproduction. That includes taste buds.

  • Do you think it’s rational to believe that a sex drive has a goal?

  • anonymous

    Are our sex drives irrational? Absolutely, yes.

    Should we consider sex to be as pernicious and harmful as lotteries?
    No, we should regard it as being beneficial and essential for the control/relief of our irrational sex drives.

    It is celibacy that should be regarded as pernicious and harmful (assuming celibacy is defined to include abstention from masturbation). This kind of celibacy allows our irrational sex drives to wreak havoc on our mental health, and the concomitant stress and frustration can’t be good for our cardiovascular health, making celibacy akin to having a poor diet or to smoking cigarettes in terms of its perniciousness.

    Sex drives are irrational; sexual activity protects us from their pernicious influence. It is interesting that by surrendering to the tyranny of these irrational drives, we can keep their pernicious influence at bay.

  • billswift

    Drives and desires are neither rational nor irrational. Our thoughts, and how we react with respect to our environment, including our evolved drives and desires, can be either; but it makes no more sense to call inborn desires irrational than to call a rock or dog irrational, they just are.

  • Daniel Greco

    There’s a notion of function used by philosophers of biology which runs something like this:

    A trait T has a function F if and only if T is the result of a process of change of (anatomical or behavioral) structure due to natural selection that has resulted in T being more optimal (or better adapted) for X than ancestral versions of T (partly pasted from the stanford encylopedia of philosophy article on teleological notions in biology).

    You seem to be using something like this concept of a function when you talk about the goals of our sex drive, or our hunger drive.

    My question is this, why think that the fact that many of our behavioral dispositions have functions in the sense given above has any normative force for us now? For a concrete example, why should the fact that my ancestors passed on their genes in part because they were motivated to engage in reproductive sexual intercourse motivate me, now, not to use contraception? It seems like a complete non-sequitur to me, and also pretty implausible. Is there an argument here that I’m missing?

    It’s far from obvious that the goals of our various behavioral traits (where “goal” is understood in terms of the philosophical account of biological function given above) must be our goals (where “goal” is understood as, roughly, “what we ought to pursue”).

  • To paraphrase Dawkins, our genes’ goals are not our own.

  • What Greco said.

  • I didn’t mean to suggest that our behavior dispositions (“our genes’ goals”) should be our goals or should be normative for us now. Rather, I was focusing on a smaller problem, namely whether our mechanisms for achieving such goals are effective and “rational”.

    Imagine someone who said that their goal was to be fit and healthy, and in order to achieve that they are going to eat as much fatty and sugary food as possible. Or consider someone who said his goal is to have many high-fitness children, so he is buying condoms for a one-night stand with a beautiful girl because that is the only way she will sleep with him.

    There is a disconnect between the goal and the means which we might well call irrational. My point is that we could hold our instinctive actions to the same standard.

    The question of whether we should follow our ancestral goals, or how we should choose our goals (if we can) is another topic.

  • Perhaps. Eliminating my desire for sugary and fatty foods will probably increase my health, but the elimination of that desire also eliminates the pleasure I derive from fulfilling that desire.

  • TGGP

    anonymous, could you provide some evidence for your assertion that puritanical living is unhealthy? As I noted in another thread, Kant seems to have fared pretty well with his lifestyle, no matter how odd it might seem. Isaac Newton claimed on his death-bed to be most proud of his celibacy, and he seemed similarly successful.

  • James Wetterau

    It’s “de gustibus non est disputandum”, not “de gustibus non disputandum”.

  • _Gi

    Bad example about the one night stand.
    Having sex with condoms has a higher chance of procreation than not having sex at all (and not donating to sperm banks)

  • Nick Tarleton

    TGGP, it’s a matter of personality. Most people probably couldn’t function as effectively if completely celibate.

  • TGGP

    Nick, how are we defining “function”, and what measures have been made of it? anonymous was claiming that it has the same kinds of effects as a poor diet or smoking cigarettes. The latter two have been documented as producing cardiovascular disease, as he points out, but as far as I know celibacy has not. I do not know but I am willing to believe that mental illness and less sex are correlated, as having such an illness would make it more difficult to attain sex, but I doubt that people normal in both respects who then decide to do like Dawn Eden will develop any mental illnesses.

  • de gustibus non est disputandum, there’s no dispute for taste.

  • Marcus A.

    Having sex other than for direct reproduction can be rational.

    Ex: As a male I have evolved that, in 2007, I believe care and parenting a child is most beneficial in furthering my genes not just one generation but a further generation as well. (As opposed to a shotgun approach to just getting my sperm out there with no further involvement.)

    Therefore I use sex as a tool in my reproductive toolkit to: further evaluate a partner (emotional stability, etc.), or to further increase the longevity of the relationship (they perceive it as a bond, etc.)

    Both can be two, of several, logical cases for such activity in the course of reproduction when long term offspring survival is taken in account.