In order to refresh my understanding if the issues regarding internal and external reasons, I turned to the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - an extremely valuable online resource. I sought an article called: Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External.
There, I found myself wading into a familiar swamp.
I want to address what the author called "a Central Problem motivating much ethical theorizing since the 1940s."
This Central Problem is addressed as a tension between:
(1) The Humean Theory of Reasons:
The Humean Theory of Reasons (HTR): If there is a reason for someone to do something, then she must have some desire that would be served by her doing it.
(2) Moral Rationalism
Moral Rationalism: An action is morally wrong for an agent only if there is a reason for him not to do it.
(3) Moral Absolutism
Moral Absolutism: Some actions are morally wrong for any agent no matter what motivations and desires they have.
The tension is described as follows:
For example, presumably it was morally wrong for Hitler to order a program of genocide, even if it served some of his desires and wasn't detrimental to any of them. . . . If (as Moral Rationalism claims) an action (like ordering genocide) is morally wrong for an agent (like Hitler) only if there is a reason for him not to do it, and if (as HTR claims) there is a reason for him not to do it only if he has some desire that would be served by his not doing it, then it follows that whether an action is morally wrong for an agent depends upon what he desires. But that seems incompatible with Moral Absolutism. So it seems we must reject at least one of HTR, Moral Rationalism, and Moral Absolutism.We see in the Humean Theory of Reasons described above a deliberate conflating of "there is a reason" and "she must have" a reason. HTR explicitly states that a reason does not exist unless she (the agent) has it.
Clearly, desires can exist that the agent does not have - we have no problem with that. The question is whether the desires that exist count as reasons that exist.
Of these three, the one that I would reject is the Humean Theory of Reasons. I would substitute the following:
The Revised Humean Theory of Reasons (RHTR): If an agent has a reason to do something, then she must have some desire that would be served by her doing it; but to say that there is a reason for the agent to do something is to say that there is a desire that would be served by her doing it, but it need not be her desire, though the relevant desires need not be hers.
Later in the article the authors state:
Any Actual State version of reasons internalism says that to have a reason, an agent must have some corresponding actual motivational state. But this is precisely what makes reasons hostage to an agent's actual psychology, creating the tension with Moral Rationalism and Moral Absolutism.However, this is not the same thing. It is true that to HAVE a reason, and agent must have some corresponding actual motivational state. The problem emerges when one insists that for a reason TO EXIST - that there can be no reasons other than the reasons that the agent has. Recall, the original phrasing for HTR begins, If there is a reason for someone to do something . . ." This is not the same thing as to have a reason.
Applying this to the "tension" described above, we can see that it is morally wrong for an agent (like Hitler) to order a program of genocide because of the many and strong reasons that exist against such a program, though almost all of these reasons that exist are not reasons that Hitler has.
When it comes to the project of inventing a language we can use to talk about these things, this leaves us with a few questions to be answered. The question of whether to call desires that exist "reasons that exist" is a type of problem comparable to whether or not to call Pluto a planet. We cannot come up with a deductive proof or even a straight-forward empirical proof that other desires count as "reasons that exist". We can simply decide whether we are going to use language in this way or some other way.
I have been distinguishing moral-ought from practical-ought according to whether "reasons for the agent to do X" includes "reasons that exist" (moral ought) or excludes them (practical ought). However, this is nothing more than a linguistic decision. I think I will continue to speak of reasons in this way - at least for the time being.
So, if you are trying to decide what you should do in the practical sense of "should", you would judge each alternative according to how well it (and its consequences) fulfills your desires. Those desires, in turn, are to be evaluated according to how well they fit in with your other desires. You have reason not to promote or strengthen or even fulfill desires that will thwart your other desires. At the same time, you do have reason to promote, strengthen, and fulfill desires that tend to contribute to the fulfillment of other desires.
If you are trying to decide what to do in the moral sense of "should", you would judge each alternative according to how well it would fulfill desires that people generally have reason to praise - and thwart desires that people generally have reason to condemn. Their reasons to praise or condemn are reasons for calling the act moral or immoral. Their reasons to praise and condemn have to do with the effect of praise and condemnation on molding malleable desires.
Well . . . this is how I would handle "a Central Problem in ethics".
I have another question to look at which is relevant here.
Philosophers also distinguish between the desires (motivating reasons) the agent has from those that the agent would have if she were "fully rational" or "fully informed" or meets some other criterion. I argue that, since neither rationality nor information has any implications for what an agent "desires as an end", that there is no difference between the ends that an agent has, and those she would have if "fully rational" or "fully informed". I want to take a look at that issue in a future post. Then, I suspect we can return to discuss J.L. Mackie's theory of practical 'ought'.