In an email, Richard Chappell, the owner and operator of the philosophy blog Philosophy et cetera (which I highly recommend), asked that I clarify my position on the relationship between morality and reasons for action.
I have broken the relevant parts of his email out into what I think are the five central claims.
C1: I am guessing that you accept what we might call "Rational Egoism", or the view that one only has reason to fulfill their own desires.
C2: But then you must agree that the amoralist (who has no desire to be moral) has no reason to be moral if he can get away with being wicked.
Then he asks,
C3: Why not say that other people's interests (which you would explicate in terms of their desires) can provide us with (normative) reasons for action, just as our own can, whether we like it or not?
Mr. Chappell also adds the following:
C4: Of course, only our own desires can be (explanatory/motivating) reasons causing our action. . .
C5: . . .but that doesn't entail anything about what normative reasons for action there might be, at least not without some extra assumptions.
Answering this question will require two fine-grained distinctions.
Having a Reason vs. There Exists a Reason
First, I want to distinguish between “having a reason” and “there exists a reason.”
There is To answer this question, I would like to propose a fine distinction that Mr. Chappell blurs in his question. It is a distinction between “having a reason” and “there exists a reason”.
The only reasons for action that are real – that exist – are desires.
However, there is a distinction between the desires that a person has, and the desires that exist. I have all sorts of desires – thus, I have all sorts of reasons for action. However, it is clearly not the case that my reasons for action – my desires – are the only desires that exist. The planet is filled with all sorts of beings, each with their own desires (reasons for action). Those desires also exist.
Therefore, the set “has a reason” for any particular agent is an extremely small subset of the “reasons that exist”.
Desires and Motivating Reason – Rephrasing C2
Second, I want to distinguish between having a desire to be moral, and having a motivating reason to do the right thing.
A desire to be moral is one specific desire out of countless possible desires. I will interpret this as a “desire that I do the right act”. A person with a desire to be moral only needs to know that a particular act is a right act, and he will have a motivating reason to do that.
Yet, an individual can lack a desire to be moral, and still have a motivating reason to do the right act. A parent’s desire “that my child is healthy” is not identical to a desire “that I do the right act.” A parent who has the first desire but not the second will be motivated to care for his child’s health, without having a desire to be moral.
From this, I infer that C2, as written is false.
C2(a): The amoralist (who has no desire to be moral) can still have a reason to be moral, even if he can get away with being wicked, but only if being moral will fulfill some other desire that the amoralist has.
“Rational Egoism” – C1 and C4
In C1, Mr. Chappell used a definition of “Rational Egoism” that is ambiguous.
One possible definition – the definition under which I would say that C1 is true, is: R1: The reasons for action that a person has are his or her own desires.
This, however, would make C1 (accepting rational egoism) and C4 (accepting that a person’s motivating reasons are his or her own desires) identical.
Mr. Chappell cannot consistently assert:
- C4 is “of course” true.
- C1 is logically equivalent to C4
- C1 implies C2
- C2 is false
If we have to break this contradiction, where do we break it at?
I would suggest that we break it at (2).
“Rational egoism” contains two parts; only one of which is contained in C4. The other is:
R2: The only desires that a (rational?) being has are those that concern his or her own welfare.
When we add R2, we can see how C1 implies C2.
The “rational egoist” has no motivating reason not to be wicked when he can get away with it – because the rational egoist has no other-regarding desires.
However, I can reject C2 because I can (and do) reject the second component of “rational egoism” – the absence of other-regarding desires.
Back to Reasons: C1 vs. C5
Now, please note the subtle shift in Mr. Chappell’s language between C1 and C5.
In C1, Mr. Chappell uses the phrase “has [a] reason”. In C5, he uses the phrase “what normative reasons for action there might be.”
This is the distinction between the reasons that a person has, and the reasons that exist.
I have already written that the reasons that a person has is a small subset of the reasons that exist. From this, I agree that the fact that only the reasons that a person has can be the immediate cause/explanation of his actions does not imply that these are the only reasons that exist. Other reasons can (and do) exist. They simply cannot be the immediate cause/explanation of any agent’s actions.
However, these other reasons that exist can be a distant cause of a person’s actions in two ways; one blunt, and one subtle.
(1) The blunt way in which other reasons can affect an action is through the fact that “being a danger to fulfilling the desires of others makes me a threat, and gives them reason to do me harm.”
That is to say, if I thwart their desires, I am at risk of suffering all sorts of harm that they may visit upon me.
(2) The subtle way in with other reasons can affect an action is that those other reasons give other people an incentive to mold my desires.
These are motivating reasons for them to cause me to have desires that will tend to fulfill their desires, and to inhibit in me desires that will thwart their desires. Thus, even though my own desires are the immediate cause of my action, what those desires are molded, in part, by what others have reason to cause my desires to be.
On these grounds, I note that when a parent scolds a child, the parent uses the statement, “You should be ashamed in yourself. The parent is talking about the desires and aversions that society has reason to cause each individual to have, not the reasons that the person being scolded actually does have. From the point of view of the person being scolded, moral claims concern the other reasons that exist, not the reasons that the agent has.
Furthermore, I argue that this roughly – very roughly – defines the difference between law and morality. There is a large degree of overlap but, roughly, law defines the threats we make against those who do wrongful actions, whereas morality concerns the desires and aversions we seek to cultivate in people that will prevent them from being a threat to others.
One significant area of overlap relates to the concept of just and unjust laws. The difference here rests on whether the laws established in (1) are those laws that a “good person” – as defined in (2) – could support. Laws can, in fact, be just or unjust.
So, here is my view.
A0: The only reasons for action that exist are embedded in desires.
A1(a): The only reasons that a person has for any action are those embedded in his or her own desires.
A1(b): The desires (or reasons) that a person has may be other-regarding; an agent can have a desire that another person be well off.
A1(c): If “rational egoism” means “A1(a) is true”, I accept “rational egoism”. If “rational egoism” means “A1(a) is true and A1(b) is false”, I reject “rational egoism.”
A2(a): The amoralist (who has no desire to be moral) can still have a reason to be moral, if the other reasons he does have are other regarding or reasons that tend to fulfill the desires of others.
A2(b): One has to assert that A1(b) is false to get to the conclusion that a person with no desire to be moral has no reason to be moral.
A3(a): The set of reasons that exist is much larger than the set of reasons that an agent has.
A3(b): Other people’s interests (desires) are (normative) reasons for action, just as our own can, but they cannot be the immediate cause of that action.
A4: Of course, only our own desires can be (explanatory/motivating) reasons causing our action. This actually simply restates A1(a).
A5: However, this does not entail that no other normative reasons for action exist, at least not without some extra assumptions. Indeed, other reasons (desires), in addition to those that are the immediate cause of an agent’s actions, certainly do exist.
A6: Moral statements are not statements about the reasons for action the agent or the person being spoken of have. They concern the reasons for action (desires) the subject should have given the reasons that exist; what others have a reason to cause the person being subject to moral praise or condemnation to have.