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, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasons-internal-external/

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)

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