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)

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