Saturday, 29 September 2012


Inevitably through the course of life our skies accrue many clouds.
Overcast, our horizon seems bleak -
Separated from the sun.
Thus you must let your clouds burst!
Let the rain fall down your cheeks
And you’ll be redeemed in the radiance
Of your own being
Once again.
But there will never be sunshine while your clouds lay dormant in the sky.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Words & Worlds

Words are bred from significance. Significance is bred from existence. Therefore words are bred from existence. Significance and understanding are the same. Existence and understanding are the same. Times and cultures change, our way of existing does not stay the same. Therefore neither does our understanding. Therefore neither does our language.

Yet it is a tendency of man to hold fast to the words which have arisen from understanding, held as it is in a time and place. Once a mode of approach has uncovered significance,* a lingual community crystallises into definite articulated worlds. From here a culture emerges. But significance speaks silently. Attachment to the definitions which have formed from this sways man away from the silent source of his words and into a world of simple words and ideas set up like a harbour to harness the tide of change.

* This means discovering something as something based on your perspective. You perceive the phone as for calling a taxi when you need to get somewhere. You perceive a lush foreign landscape as a resource if you’re chasing wealth at any cost. You perceive it as beautiful if you don’t ask anything from it.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Altruism & Cynicism

I've heard it said that no one does anything unless it benefits them in some way. I've also heard this used to justify embittered views regarding the alleged vanity of human kindness. It's the purpose of this short post to expose the mistaken direction such thinking takes.

The argument typically begins with an instance of alleged altruism, let's say the act of giving money to a homeless person. Ordinarily we might assume that giving money to a homeless person is a selfless act, as you are surrendering your own money to somebody and expecting nothing in return. Or are you? The proponents of what we'll call the "selfishness argument" argue that we do expect something in return. We would not, after all, have given them the money if we did not ourselves feel good about doing so. In effect, they believe that there is actually a kind of transaction taking place - money for a smug feeling of self-gratitude. And we will not disagree insofar as some people do exactly this, trying to appear selfless either to fool themselves or others into thinking that they are a nice person.

But what if our giving money to the homeless person did not emerge from out of a yearning to feel good about ourselves ("aren't I generous!") but rather from out of our feeling genuinely terrible for the person, and beside ourselves at their situation? We expect nothing from our act of generosity other than making the homeless feel that someone cares about them. What then? A keener proponent of the selfishness argument will nevertheless claim that we have given money to alleviate our own guilt/grief, and therefore we are still acting with selfish motives in mind.

In fact, particularly sophisticated cynics will even push the argument further. It is impossible to be altruistic, they say, because everything you do must be motivated by your own feelings and is therefore down to satisfying one's own self. And how could we possibly argue against such a strong claim?

What proponents of this argument fail to see is the soil from which such feelings grow. They take as their starting assumption (and never let it be questioned) that we are from the ground up individuals isolated from one another. But is this really true? That someone else's situation has the power to move you in the first place before any such feelings take hold of you is the true source of altruism, and a symptom of the existential condition we find ourselves in. By focusing on the particular feeling itself and not rather the ground from which the feeling emerges, the cynic finds their justification - "all people are selfish!" But is it not rather touching, astonishing perhaps, that the toil of others has the power to ellicit those feelings in us in the first place?

That we are always already moved by others (unless we suffer from certain neurological/behavioural difficulties) before we take note of ourselves and declare "I am" is the most original fact of morality, and one mercilessly concealed by our Western (and more specifically, Cartesian) mode of thinking. All we need ask is why we can feel that way in the first place. It's not up to us to choose what we feel, nor is it up to us to choose that things can ellicit such feelings in us. In this respect we are most certainly not isolated individuals.

(For more on the source of passions/reasons I invite you to take a look at my dissertation - particularly the third section).

Saturday, 7 July 2012

On The Error of Justifying Philosophy

[Taken and expanded upon an answer I gave over at r/AskPhilosophy]

The common understanding of philosophy is that it is a "subject" among other "subjects" - standing alongside art, physics, history, mechanical engineering, biology, and so on. Where all of these subjects study their corner of the world, philosophy itself is supposed to have a corner of the world which it studies - a range of specialist questions tentatively related to other fields (as certain parts of physics relate to certain parts of engineering) but otherwise in a sphere of their own. And yet the one thing we immediately notice is that philosophy seems to show up everywhere. There's a philosophy of art, of science, of psychology, of history, etc. - what accounts for the ubiquitousness of philosophy in all of our other subjects?

You might say the "philosophy of history" is only an area in the subject of history, along with other areas like medieval history, the history of medicine, Chinese history and so on. As we could get on with the business of history without studying Chinese history (though we'd perhaps be poorer for it) so we can get on with the business of history without studying the philosophy of history. But is this the correct way of coming to terms with the ubiquitousness of philosophy? How are we going to figure this out? Well, it seems to me like the most sensible way would be to see if philosophy permeates the rest of the subject, so that a "philosophy of" is not merely a possible and non-essential theme which we can study within a subject, but is rather an essential directive lying at the heart of the questioning which a given subject takes as its own.

First, a little history. Before the first academy was founded by Plato, there were no explicitly divided subjects. Thinking was free to roam, and this thinking was known as "philosophy". Just as a discussion we would have with friends can wander unimpeded along "subject lines", from ethics to politics to philosophy, so it was with the first thinkers. However, when the Academy came into being this freedom of thinking was split into three "subjects": physis, ethos, and logos. From there the phenomena uncovered by thinking, previously discovered as a whole by thinkers, were formally divided into regions. Where the first philosophy had simply thought the world in an holistic manner, now thinking had become specialised.

And indeed, we're still a part of the wave of "splitting" and "isolating" which our Western way of being fosters, and which led to Plato's tripartite scheme. So what does this have to do with justifying philosophy? Well, we have now gained an insight into the notion that philosophy as a thinking unfettered to any region of phenomena, initially, covered all phenomena now split into regions of beings along "subject lines" (which are now manifold). Thinking has thereby found itself bound to different regions of beings. Perhaps it is this common origin which accounts for the fragment of philosophy we find everywhere, a shard of that shattered first questioning which still remains in every subject now isolated from its ground in original thinking.

And what is this shard? Well, when a subject conducts its investigations it makes a variety of tacit presuppositions. Law, for example, presupposes a notion of responsibility (tied to an understanding of free will and therefore an understanding of the being of man), along with notions of good conduct, justice, etc. Where law pushes ahead on the basis of these notions, the "philosophy of law" looks backwards to clarify these fundamental concepts and assess them for soundness. But it is philosophy proper and not just "philosophy of law" which deals with these questions! These questions did not first emerge with the formally defined subject of law but have demanded attention throughout human history. How to live good lives is a question which emerges not out of a detached thinking about things, but is rather demanded of us by simple virtue of the fact that we first find ourselves having to live in some way. We did not and could not choose this way of being in which we have to choose (the way of being which makes possible moral and therefore legal responsibility) - the question of how to live blossoms like a flower from the soil of our very being. 

Now, the philosophy of law is the manifestness of law's rootedness in this original questioning which, before something like law is possible, must already be supposed. We need not explicitly presuppose these notions (indeed, as we have seen their presupposition emerges from a question posed implicitly from out of the simple fact of our existence). That we don't need to make these presuppositions the object of an explicit enquiry and can "get by without asking them" is the ground of the reason why people typically see philosophy as a non-essential subject among other subjects. However, philosophy has already taken place in the very fact of existence which summons the investigations of a subject forward. And if we are at all concerned about the nature of the investigations of these subjects, founded on implicit philosophical assumptions, we will study them and assess them. How would the legal system look, for instance, if everybody accepted that there was no free will and therefore no responsibility? How do the findings of quantum mechanics look dependent on your stand in the realism/anti-realism debate? Indeed, even the conceptualisation of neural mechanisms bear the mark of implicit philosophical assumptions. Calling the neural system dealing with detached contemplation "the default mode network" only makes sense if you begin from cognitivist assumptions about the being of man.

So any question of justifying philosophy has already come too late! Philosophy as first thinking is presupposed by all subjects - to ask for justification is to commit a category error. Philosophy is not like a subject among other subjects. Philosophy is the explicit ontological investigation of fundamental concepts necessary for the pursuit of any and all ontic investigations. As these presuppositions arise from everybody's existence, in some sense everybody is a philosopher - which is why we can all ask these questions, and how we can step into various specialist subjects on the basis of our pre-conceptual philosophical understanding.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

On Reason III: Towards the Essence of Reason


Following on from the first and second parts, we're now in a position to press on to the source of normative reasons for action. Having considered two sides of the argument, the distinction thesis of Smith and the identity thesis of Hume, we've revealed both understandings of reason to be unsatisfactory. Unable thus far to capture what is essential to reason, we're forced into a phenomenological apprehension of reasoning itself where we discover the essence of reason in our affectively articulated interests.

Originary Affectivity and the Evaluative Scheme

This brings us to the final phase of our investigation into the source of our reasons for action. In this last section we will be looking at reasons to suppose that the evaluative scheme is necessarily disclosed in advance of any possible reasons and that it is disclosed affectively. In order to do so we will take a look at the phenomenological structure of decision-making so we might get clear on what choosing on the basis of reasons specifically involves. Contrary to the Humean account where we equate normative reasons for action with customarily elicited passions we are going to seek the origins of normative reasons for action in our interests[1] which, as we’ll come to see, are the basis of eliciting passions. We will also come to see how belief, in Smith’s sense, also presupposes the pursuit of interests.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that thinking about morality begins with a question: “how should I live my life?” The sense of asking this question prior to establishing the various possible means and modes of living virtuously is questioned by some philosophers.[2] We’re going to be exploring reasons to think that an answer to Aristotle’s question (whether tacit or explicit) is a necessary requirement for any further thinking regarding our personal conduct.

(i) Consider the following - if we have decided that we want to do well at university, we not only presuppose motivation to do so but by making this resolution we pre-disclose what it makes sense for us to do. By choosing to live in a certain way (in taking on certain interests, e.g. being a sensible student) options are signified in terms of how conducive or obstructive they are to the specific way of life we’ve assumed. If we have a lecture to attend, for instance, then we should attend. But let us suppose we have woken up without enough sleep and so also desire to stay in bed. That we have in advance decided to pursue success at university gives us our answer. That we’ve made it our business to do well therefore gives us a normative reason to get up and go into university. Attending the lecture means more to us than staying in bed, no matter how much we currently want to sleep.

Now, recall how our disagreement with Smith was not his claim that desires and values can come apart but rather the notion that values are ontologically distinct from our feelings. The fact that it means something for me to do well at university gives me my normative reason to turn up. What this clash of inclinations confirms is that we can, as noted in part II, lose our motivation to do what’s best for us when we find ourselves in certain states of anxiety or exhaustion, etc. But if we began to miss university an awful lot we might worry that our project of getting a good grade had become threatened and so, given that we’re quite keen to do well, this prospect might make us fearful.

It seems like the ways of living which we spend our time pursuing bear a significant connection to our feelings. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger offers a phenomenological elucidation of such affective states, giving the example of fear. In it he discovers three structural moments: (1) the fearful thing, (2) fear itself, (3) that for which we are afraid.[3] The first, in this case, is the prospect of not accomplishing our task, the second is the feeling of fear, and the third is the possible way of living which we are pursuing (being a good student). How something (e.g. missing lectures) can take on the character of being threatening is how it stands with regard to those interests we make it our business to pursue. Does this option mean our project is no longer possible? No longer likely? How would that make us feel?

The notion upon which Heidegger proceeds is that we’re always pressing forward into some possibility or other. When going to work, for instance, it is for the sake of earning money (or if we’re lucky enough to be in a job we enjoy, for the sake of the work itself). When we come to make choices we find ourselves already in a situation, like the student who wakes up tired - and we must make that choice based upon what we want our situation to look like in future. It would make no sense to insist that this choice is based solely on one’s desires because desiring presupposes being initially directed towards things (going into university or staying in bed) on the basis of some possible way of living (being a good student). “Only a being which is concerned in its being about that being can be afraid”.[4]

Eating ice cream, for example, isn’t going to threaten our intentions and so, ceteris paribus, it’s not going to feel threatening.[5] Activities like this are pre-valued in terms of how they stand with respect to our interests. If we were not initially concerned with something, nothing could have the character of being threatening as we would have no interest which could then be threatened. This capacity to be affectively moved by something on the basis of our interests we call originary affectivity.[6]

So we see now that it is a pre-requisite to be intending upon things concernfully in order for something to be able to move us.[7] The threat of imprisonment or of starvation moves those beings which are already concerned about avoiding what imprisonment or starvation mean for them. If the foregoing is correct, the possibility of being moved emotionally in this way is thereby grounded in the fact that we primarily find ourselves pursuing some way of living. Satisfying, thwarting, or delaying what we pursue elicits our feelings, but the feelings themselves are not the fundamental explanatory basis – concern is.

(ii) It will be observed, however, that even though Aristotle’s teleological approach invokes such purposeful activities right from the very start it nevertheless remains a problem that explicitly taking over a way of living is not the only way in which we inherit normative reasons for action. If this was the case we would have no normative reasons until we explicitly took such a stand on ourselves, but this is clearly not the case. Often we take over ways of being without making a conscious decision of any sort. This way of tacitly assuming of a way of living begins early on:

“A Japanese baby seems passive […] he lies quietly […] while his mother […] does [a great deal of] lulling, carrying, and rocking of her baby. She seems to try to soothe and quiet the child, and to communicate with him physically rather than verbally. […] the American infant is more active […] and exploring of his environment and his mother […] does more looking at and chatting to her baby. […] In terms of styles of care-taking of the two mothers in the two cultures, they get what they apparently want […] A great deal of cultural learning has taken place by three to four months”.[8]

As John McDowell puts it:

“Human beings are […] initiated into […] the space of reasons by ethical upbringing, which instils the appropriate shape into their lives. The resulting habits of thought and action are second nature.”[9]

So initially, we take over ways of living our lives prescribed to us by means of imitation/upbringing. Explicitly choosing the way in which you will live your life is not the only way in which you might step into a way of living. It is often certainly the case that, in lieu of an explicit answer to Aristotle’s question, we still have an idea of how it is we should live, what we should do with ourselves, etc.

(iii) What it is important to recognise, however, is that these background interests which make up our way of living are a necessary requirement for reasoning. When we make the decision as to whether or not we’re going into university we do so on the basis of interests already taken over by us (even if not explicitly). If the things which are valuable to us are valuable in terms of how they stand in relation to those interests, and if reasoning is a matter of choosing what we’re going to do, then it’s clear that reason itself cannot produce the evaluative background. We cannot choose the basis on which we make our choices because there needs to first be that basis on which we can make a decision! This basis we’ll call our evaluative scheme. What is valuable to someone in a situation is that which is conducive to whatever it is one makes it their business to pursue in life.

So we need to already be working within an evaluative scheme in order to have options to choose between and reasons for choosing them. However, this background need not be held ‘in mind’ in order for it to prescribe normative reasons. We don’t need to be aware of all the things which it makes sense for us to do based on our interests. If we want to get fit we don’t need to know the ideal amount of cardiovascular exercise we ought to do in order to meet our weekly objectives. There could be an agent-centred normative reason for us to run three miles, three times a week based on our interests which we’re simply not aware of.

Nevertheless, existing in such a concernful manner opens the possibility of something mattering to us in the sense of appealing to our feelings, with the consequence that our evaluative scheme is articulated affectively. That we are always already intending upon interests articulated affectively is the grounds of the possibility of having normative reasons for action. We must have these interests necessarily before we have reasons. Belief in a proposition like “if I were practically rational I would do X in circumstance C” presupposes already intending upon a scheme of affectively articulated interests/projects, which vary from agent to agent. Belief cannot therefore serve as the fundamental basis of explanation either, contra Smith.

We can now see how Smith’s account makes a questionable assumption about the nature of rationality. Smith has it that “under conditions of full information and the resolution of conflicting desires all agents would converge on the same desires”.[10] But if the foregoing is correct, our passions and the reasons for action which we begin with are given through our own way of living (the interests we make it our business to pursue, and from out of which the possibility of feeling threatened, etc. emerges) and so the idea that everybody could verge on the same desires is contrary to the grounds of rationality itself. Smith’s “practically rational” agent turns out to be a difficult notion: that there is, prior to taking on interests and points of view, an objective scheme of evaluation underpinning the possible deliberation of all agents regardless of their own ways of modes of living (which, as we have seen, actually serve as the basis of what one values).

(iv) What we now have is an account of normative reasons which does justice to two plausible yet seemingly contradictory intuitions which we discovered in Hume and Smith, respectively:

(a) Reason is inseperably tied to the passions.
(b) What we desire and what is in our best interest can come apart. 

What Smith’s examples showed us was that it is possible for us to desire something which we have no normative reason to acquire. However, Smith’s interpretation of this fact in terms of the metaphysical distinction of values and desires does not necessarily follow from (b). Rather, what we have discovered is that value is affectively articulated on the basis of our interests themselves. The result of this is that even if the passions can motivate us to act in ways which run contrarily to the best of our interests, what we value must nevertheless still have some affective import.

[1] I will be using the terms “interests”, “concerns”, “projects”, and “ways of living” interchangeably. 

[2] Annas, J. “The Morality of Happiness”, Oxford University Press, 1993, Ch. 

[3] Heidegger, M., ‘Being and Time’, SUNY Press, 1927, p. 136 (2010 edition) (cited henceforth as ‘BT’)

[4] Ibid. p. 137 (emphasis added)

[5] Unless perhaps you are trying to lose weight as well, in which case, based on that way of living, you would have a normative reason not to eat the ice cream. 

[6] It is important to clarify that originary affectivity is not to be identified with any actual particular feelings that we have, but is to be understood as our capacity to be moved by things in general. 

[7] Heidegger, M., ‘BT’, pp. 81-87 

[8] Caudill, W., & Weinstein, H., ‘Maternal Care and Infant Behaviour in Japan and America’, in Dreyfus, H., ‘Being-in-the-World’, The MIT Press, 1991, p. 17 

[9] McDowell, J., ‘Mind and World’, Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 111 (emphasis added) in Dreyfus, H., ‘Overcoming the Myth of the Mental’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Nov. 2005), pp. 47-65 

[10] Finley, S. & Schroeder, M., ‘RFA’, (1.2.3)

Bibliography (Parts I-III)

Annas, J. “The Morality of Happiness”, Oxford University Press, 1993

Caudill, W., & Weinstein, H., ‘Maternal Care and Infant Behaviour in Japan and America’, in Dreyfus, H., ‘Being-in-the-World’, The MIT Press, 1991

Copp, D. ‘Belief, Reason, and Motivation: Michael Smith’s The Moral Problem’, Ethics, Vol. 108, No. 1 The University of Chicago Press, 1997

Finlay, S. & Schroeder, M., ‘Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External’ in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Heidegger, M., ‘Being and Time’, SUNY Press, 1927 (2010 edition)

Hume, D. ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, Norton, D (ed.) & Norton, M (ed.), Oxford University Press, 1739 (2009 edition)

McDowell, J., ‘Mind and World’, Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 111 (emphasis added) in Dreyfus, H., ‘Overcoming the Myth of the Mental’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Nov. 2005), pp. 47-65

McIntyre, Jane L. ‘Hume’s ‘New and Extraordinary’ Account of the Passions’ in Traiger, S (ed.), “The Blackwell Guide to Hume’s Treatise”, Blackwell Publishing, 2005

Plato. “The Republic”, Penguin Books, 1987 edition

Setiya, K. ‘Reasons without Rationalism’, Princeton University Press, 2007

Smith, M., ‘The Moral Problem’, Blackwell Publishing, 1994 (2008 edition)

Saturday, 2 June 2012

On Reason II: Reason & Value


Following on from the first part here we are going to look at some of the problems with the Humean account pointed out by Michael Smith. Smith's understanding of reason itself looks like an attempt to vindicate the metaphysical distinction of reason and the affects we considered in the first part. Our aim in this part will be to consider Smith's objections to Hume and in so doing point the way past them both towards the existential grounds of reason itself.

Desiring & Valuing

I have shown that a consequence of Hume’s analysis is that motivational and normative reasons for action are found in the desires of the agent whose emotionally pre-evaluated situation calls upon them to make a decision. What is therefore valuable and what is desirable is, in the HTR, equivalent. The HTR is what is known as an internalist view regarding normative reasons for action. Internalist views are characterised by their insistence that normative reasons are related in some significant way to one’s own motivations.[1] The HTR itself, as presented, is an actual state internalist view, which means that it claims the source of our reasons are to be found in some state the agent is presently in. In the case of the HTR this source is the agent’s current desire(s) which relate to the motivational facts by virtue of being the motivational facts.

However, in The Moral Problem, Michael Smith draws an explicit distinction between valuing and desiring in order to challenge the HTR on precisely this point. Smith notes that we can explain action in one of two ways: intentional or deliberative. On the intentional picture we explain an action teleologically in terms of the psychological states which produced it. To give an example, we could explain someone’s writing an essay for university in terms of their wanting to do well in their degree scheme and believing that the only way to do so is to write the essay (and write it well!). As such he equates the intentional picture with our motivational reasons.[2] On the deliberative picture, however, we explain an action in terms of the process of rational deliberation which either did or might have caused it. Importantly he notes that it doesn’t matter if we didn’t actually follow a chain of reasoning so long as we can give an after-the-fact reconstruction of what could have been the chain of reasoning we acted upon. The deliberative picture he equates with normative reasons (what is valuable).[3]

In order to draw a distinction between valuing and desiring Smith offers us some common sense examples of where the two seem to have come apart. The first[4] is from Harry Frankfurt, who invites us to imagine someone who is addicted to heroin and who wishes they could stop taking it but simply cannot resist their addiction. In this case the link between desiring and valuing is said to come apart because they desire to take heroin despite knowing that the best thing to do (what is valuable) is to get clean.

The second and third examples[5] are from Gary Watson who invites us to imagine a frustrated mother who drowns her crying child and a tennis player who, after losing a game, decides to hit his opponent in the face with his racquet. Watson asserts that it is simply false that the mother values the death of her child or that the tennis player values the suffering of his opponent. They desire these things, he says, “in spite of themselves.[6] As Smith points out they do these things without thinking what they’re doing is rationally justifiable. So what all of these examples show, for Smith, is that we can desire something which we don’t value – especially, as he quotes from Michael Stocker, when we’re in situations where we have difficulty concentrating, are anxious, depressed, or tired.[7]

On the basis of these examples we’re led to see that the HTR has perhaps not cast its net wide enough to account for all possible instances of human action. Desiring to do something is, in these cases, not the same as thinking that one’s actions are rationally justifiable. What one presently desires might stand in stark contrast to what they really think is best and this is a problem for an actual state account of reasons like the HTR.

But remember that what was most significant about our interpretation of Hume’s account is this notion that we inherit the basis upon which we make rational decisions from the feelings themselves. One’s passions are apprehended by reason which then leaves us to choose an option based on which we feel best about. However, Smith has argued that what we think is the best thing to do and what we in fact desire can come apart. He sees normative reasons as having a factual, propositional character over and against the psychological quality of motivational reasons – separating them ontologically.[8] Having a normative reason, for Smith, is when a ‘practically rational’ person believes the proposition that they would perform an action X if they were practically rational. But this belief and the intentional desire to do what is rational are not necessarily always found together, and so what we value and what we desire can come apart.[9] What justifies you to do X might not necessarily motivate you to do X.[10]

The first thing to notice is the fact that the addict, in expressing their wish to give up taking heroin, lets us know that desire is a factor in both options. Perhaps we can, in fact, sidestep Smith’s objection to the HTR by pursuing the possibility that in the above cases one does not choose between their current desires and what they believe they would have a reason to do if they were practically rational. It might turn out to be the case that it is rather a clash of passions.

Recall that in the scholastic solution to the problem of the weakness of will, reason pursues the ultimate good, but as it is but one part of the soul it can nevertheless find itself overwhelmed by the appetite or the spirit. Despite this, we recall that the source of reason’s own power is in that very separation which enables it to act contrary to the passions. Smith’s account, in distinguishing reason and the passions ontologically, looks like an attempt to vindicate the role of reason as a sui generis in order to rescue it from its supposed supervenience on the passions. Hume himself speaks of weakness of will at the end of Treatise 2.3.3 where he notes that:

“Beside these calm passions, which often determine the will, there are certain violent emotions of the same kind, which have likewise a great influence on that faculty. When I receive any injury from another, I often feel a violent passion of resentment, which makes me desire his evil and punishment, independent of all considerations of pleasure and advantage to myself.”[11]

So Hume is up to this point in agreement with Smith, that our desires can lead us to act in ways which abandon any concern for our own best interests. However, next Hume puts forward the view that cases like those which Smith points out are not clashes between reason and the passions but are rather clashes of contrary passions:

“Men often counter-act a violent passion in prosecution of their interests and designs: ‘Tis not therefore the present uneasiness alone, which determines them […] What we call strength of mind, implies the prevalence of the calm passions above the violent…”[12]

So there is a distinction which Hume draws between the violent passions and the calm passions, and he uses this to explain weakness of will without having to invoke the metaphysical or ontological separateness of reason and the passions. We can certainly agree that the passions sometimes lead us to perform actions which we would later come to regret, but it’s important to remember that what is valued in the above examples must be valued affectively. The notion that one ought not to hit their opponent in the face following a defeat could not emerge from out of any instance of pure reason. What such rational principles presuppose is the involvement of concernful individuals who can be affected by such violence. Providing we are also moved by preserving the feelings of others, we have normative reasons not to want to harm them based on one’s calm passions, the habitual exercise of which Hume feels we are prone to call reason.[13]

Similarly, with the heroin addict quitting taking the drug means something – getting clean means that one doesn’t have to search for money for a hit or suffer terrible withdrawals. Most importantly, though, it can mean getting on with the things one wants to do in life, things which heroin addiction can prevent a person from doing. If none of these possibilities had the power to move the addict it becomes difficult to imagine why they would value getting off the drug. It simply makes no sense to imagine that something could be valuable to an agent who had no interest which would be satisfied in attaining it, even if their present affective state covers over that yearning. The existence of contrary passions, violent passions like cravings and impulses which eclipse everything else, is not evidence of normative reasons and the passions coming apart but, on this account, simply evidence of powerful passions overcoming weaker ones.

It seems, however, that Smith’s remarks do disrupt the actual-state view outlined above. One’s violent passions can dwarf the calm and so their actual desire leads them to do something for which they don’t have a normative reason. While it might yet turn out to be true that one cannot have a normative reason to do something if they do not have a corresponding desire to do it, we cannot now say that just any desire will fit the bill. Accordingly, it is not necessarily the case that one has a normative reason to act when they presently have a desire which would be served by that action. Violent passions often force our hand against our interests, and so, if we were to follow Hume, we should perhaps say that we only have a normative reason to act when our desire is a calm one - but this seems arbitrary. Can a violent passion never be a normative reason? Perhaps anger can be called justified if it has risen to the fore in one’s best interests? So Hume’s distinction can only get us as far as indicating the affective import of options in all choices – it cannot, however, get us to the source of normative reasons for action alone.

But if the passions are a component in all normative reasons, what distinguishes evaluative passions from disruptive or violent ones, if not the intensity of the feeling itself? Hume himself has already given us the clue when he made mention of interests. What we must now do is give positive, independent grounds for believing that evaluations are affectively pre-appraised in terms of our interests. What the remainder of this paper will attempt to do is demonstrate how any normative fact or proposition presupposes a concernful agent pursuing interests pre-valued in terms of what we’ll call originary affectivity.

[1] Finlay, S. & Schroeder, M., ‘Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External’ in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, (1.3), (cited henceforth as ‘RFA’)

[2] Smith, M., ‘The Moral Problem’, Blackwell Publishing, 1994, p. 131, (2008 edition) (cited henceforth as ‘TMP’)

[3] Ibid. pp. 131-132

[4] Ibid. p. 134

[5] Ibid. p. 134

[6] Ibid. p. 134

[7] Ibid. p. 135

[8] Finley, S. & Schroeder, M., ‘RFA’, (2.1)

[9] Copp, D. ‘Belief, Reason, and Motivation: Michael Smith’s The Moral Problem’, Ethics, Vol. 108, No. 1 The University of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 36-37

[10] Ibid. p. 34

[11] Hume, D. ‘Treatise’, p. 268

[12] Ibid. p. 268 (2.3.3) (emphasis added)

[13] Ibid. p. 269 (2.3.4)