Research

New Kensington philosophy professor delves into desire theory

Bruckner argues about what constitutes human well-being

Penn State New Kensington's associate professor of philosophy, Donald Bruckner, returned to the classroom full time last year after stepping down as assistant director of academic affairs. Credit: Bill Woodard / Penn StateCreative Commons

UPPER BURRELL, Pa. -- Developing and defending a version of the desire theory is the focus of recent research by Donald Bruckner, associate professor of philosophy at Penn State New Kensington.

Bruckner’s research deals with the theoretical ethics of human good, and what is the good human life. According to the desire theory of well-being, one’s life goes well to the extent that one’s desires are satisfied. (The theory does not complement hedonism theory, which argues that pleasure is the most intrinsic good.)

“My dissertation and earliest published work addressed aspects of the relation between the individually rational good and the moral good, and developed a contractarian framework for arriving at principles of prudence,” said Bruckner, a member of the campus faculty for 12 years. “More recently, I have been particularly interested in the human good, and the question of what constitutes human well-being or welfare. My research interests lie largely in value theory.”

Value theory is concerned with theoretical questions about value and goodness of people and objects. Understanding how, why and to what degree people value things is the basis of the theory.

Defending the desire theory is at the core of Bruckner’s work. The desire theory faces many challenges, including the adaptive preferences argument, which Bruckner said is akin to the “fox and the grapes fable.” Contrarians postulate that if a person prefers A to B because B is inaccessible to the person, then the satisfaction of this adaptive preference for A over B cannot contribute to this person’s well-being because B actually is the desired object.

Bruckner argues that the challenge is a genetic fallacy, that is, a conclusion based upon an assumption that the origin of a preference affects its legitimacy. The fox couldn’t reach the grapes so it determined the grapes to be sour. However, the fox never tasted them and really didn’t know the sensory perception of the grapes.

According to Bruckner, an adaptive preference is perfectly autonomous under the condition that the agent, in this case, the person choosing A, is able to justify the choice to show that it is the agent’s own. His argument, if successful, establishes that adaptive preferences are autonomous under the right conditions.

“It does not yet show that their (preference A’s) satisfaction contributes to the well-being of the agent,” Bruckner argues. “I think that satisfaction of the same condition establishes any desire or preference to be relevant to the agent’s well-being.”

Additional research by Bruckner bolsters other aspects of the desire theory. He argues that quirky desires, such as counting blades of grass (a seemingly useless endeavor), can contribute to a desirer’s well-being, if certain conditions can be met. One condition is engaging in reflective dialogue with someone who does not share the desire, and justifying it in in such a way that the desire is comprehensible to that person.

“So counting blades of grass is good for the agent who desires it, if he meets this condition,” Bruckner said. “The same line of reasoning applies to adaptive preferences.”

Bruckner’s research continues to defend challenges to the desire theory. He is particularly interested in developing a defense of the desire theory in response to other common objections – delayed benefits, unknown benefits and surprise benefits.

The author of numerous journal articles, Bruckner also wrote two book chapters and a book review. His recent article, “Present Desire Satisfaction and Past Well-Being,” was published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy in 2013 and is the basis for his current research.

Teaching

Bruckner earned his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. He holds masters’ degrees in philosophy and mathematics from Pittsburgh and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and mathematics from Bowling Green University.

The Aurora, Ohio, native joined the campus faculty in 2003 as assistant director of academic affairs and instructor in philosophy and mathematics. In his administrative post, he had a reduced teaching load with his primary duty of managing adjunct faculty. Bruckner’s duties included recruiting high-quality adjunct faculty members and reviewing their teaching and effectiveness. He relinquished the post last year to return to teaching full-time.

“My responsibilities and interests shifted away from administration and toward teaching more classes with more interaction with students,” Bruckner said. “I enjoy sharing my passion for the topics I love with students. I am very glad that I had the experience and found the exposure to many aspects of academic administration quite enriching.”

He teaches courses on ethics, logic, math and the multi-disciplines of philosophy. His favorite course is Symbolic Logic, an introductory course on the study of propositions and arguments. Class work is designed to help students improve their critical thinking and analytical skills.

“This course is an ideal mix of mathematics and philosophy,” Bruckner said. “It allows me to indulge my passion for each in a single course.”

Bruckner enjoys the benefits of interacting with students and impacting their learning. Although teaching more classes takes as much time and energy as the administrative work did, Bruckner takes advantage of the opportunity to shift his attention from engaging faculty to engaging students.

“Students come to my office hours almost every day to work on math problems or talk about philosophy,” said Bruckner. “Engaged students are what every faculty member wants.”

Bruckner was drawn to philosophy and mathematics by his high school math teacher, Walter Chenchik, a renaissance man who was educated in mathematics, philosophy and physics. According to Bruckner, “He first introduced me to the beauty in both mathematics and philosophy, especially the connection between them, and I haven’t stopped pursuing these topics since.”

Being on the faculty of Penn State New Kensington is also an added benefit for Bruckner. He takes advantage of utilizing his teaching acumen at a small campus that is a part of a large world-class University.

“I always say that one of the things I like most about my job is that it is a very nice mix between the atmosphere of a small liberal arts college, small classes and lots of interaction with students, and a large research university where I have some time to pursue my research and the University’s library resources to do it,” Bruckner said.

Family and Interests

Pedagogy runs through the Bruckner family. His wife, Lynne Dickson Bruckner, is a professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Lynne specializes in early modern literature, ecocriticism, feminism and the intersections among those fields.

When he is not teaching or researching, Bruckner is involved in dog training and dog obedience competitions. His dog, Rufus, is a certified therapy dog. The owner and “best friend” make regular visits to the Veterans Administration hospital in Butler.

The Bruckners live in Middlesex Township in Butler County with the dog, two cats, two quarter horses and 60 chickens.

For more about Bruckner, visit http://www.nk.psu.edu/aspnet/detail.aspx?f=aa&q=ACAD&u=1000610.

Donald Bruckner, associate professor of philosophy at Penn State New Kensington, shares his passion for philosophy and math with campus students. Credit: Bill Woodard / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 29, 2017

Contact