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In the article Autonomy | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there is a sentence:

An agent has a preference if he or she holds a certain first level desire to be good

"First level desire" is a technical term, and can be replaced with "desire" without problem. I am wondering what does "hold a desire to be good" mean. Is it:

  • That desire (whichever it is) is good itself?
  • She desires to be good (e.g. become healthy)?

In all phrases and phrasal verbs of "hold", I can only see two phrase and phrasal verb that seem to be relevant:

But both of them don't really fit.

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It's the first option – an agent has a preference if he thinks that the desire is good.

How do we know it's not the second option? First of all, your 'healthy' doesn't help. 'Good' in that context would mean 'ethically good', 'acting according to correct ethics'. But the text is not about acting ethically – it's not about 'how to be good'. It's about a different topic (autonomy and decision making).

Therefore, we can rule out 'ethically good'. Instead, 'good' means something like 'worthwhile' here.

As for 'hold' in particular – you often see it in academic contexts. Jones holds Smith to be guilty. However, hold that is more common:

  • Jones holds that Smith is guilty.

In this context, you could say:

  • Jones holds that first-level desire x is better than first-level desire y
  • Smith holds the opposite.

If it helps, you can think of 'holds that x' as 'holds the belief that x', which may in fact be where the phrasing originally came from (via Latin), but this is just speculation.


For the linguistically interested, note that the underlying syntax of the two options given by the OP would be totally different!

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  • is it correct that all instances of "hold X" can be replaced with "hold the belief that X"?
    – Ooker
    Jan 18, 2021 at 10:27
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    @Ooker no: "Smith holds the belief that the opposite" is ungrammatical. I have editied my answer accordingly. However, it may be that you can always replace "holds that" with "holds the belief that". I can't guarantee this, though.
    – legatrix
    Jan 20, 2021 at 9:09
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    Also note that in practice, "holds that" and "holds the belief that" may have quite different meanings. For example, we might report on a debate by saying "Jones held that abortion was wrong". This is similar to saying "Jones argued that abortion was wrong". This is not the same as saying "Jones held the belief that abortion was wrong", even though both may be true (but need not be! ---for example, in a practice debate.)
    – legatrix
    Jan 20, 2021 at 9:11

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