Thursday, January 21, 2016

What Should I Do? A Summary of Recent Postings on Internal and External Reasons

I just finished a fine digression discussing the article Reasons for Action: Internal and External Reasons in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - and made a number of comments.

I suppose that I should start with a matter on which I apparently currently disagree with most philosophers writing on the subject today. I hold that having a desire is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for having a reason. It is the "sufficient" condition that would be at odds with most philosophers seem to believe.

In other words, to have a reason to do A is to have a desire that will be fulfilled by doing A.

Of course, the agent might also have more and stronger reasons not to do A based on more and stronger desires that would be thwarted by doing A.

In "What Should I Do? Desires Sufficient for Reasons" I responded to the reasons why philosophers reject this idea.

The main argument identifies any of a substantial list of counter-examples where a person has a desire to do A but does not have a reason to do A. These generally involve desires for senseless things such as eating saucers of mud or counting blades of grass.

In the article, I show that the desire to eat mud from a saucer is no different from the desire to eat bagels or muffins past the point where it serves a biological need. Consequently, we must assert that such desires can provide reasons, or deny that the desire to eat a second muffin or bagel has such a value.

Effectively, philosophers are taking desires they do not wish to have and dismissing the interests of those who do (or would) have them. It is no different from a person with an aversion to being a homosexual dismissing the interests of homosexuals as failing to provide a reason for action.

It is important to note that I distinguish between "has a reason" and "there is a reason". See: "What Should I Do? Having a Reason vs. There Exists a Reason"

The reasons that a person has are associated with the desires a person has, and the reasons that exist are associated with the desires that exist. The desires that a person has is a small subset of the desires that exist.

So, it is important that I explicitly said that a having a desire is a necessary (and sufficient) condition for the agent having a reason. I would reject the idea that having a desire is a necessary condition for a reason existing. There are countless reasons that exist that are not drawn from the desires an agent has - namely, those that are drawn from the other desires that other people have.

If we take this and apply it to the question of internal vs. external reasons, it turns out to be the case that I am an "internalist" with respect to "have a reason" and an "externalist" with respect to "there is a reason".

To have a reason to perform an action is to have a desire that is served by performing that action. However, there are reasons that exist for or against perform that action that to not serve (or thwart) the agent's own desires.

This gives us a way to answer what the Stanford article calls "A Central Problem in Ethics". See: "What Should I Do? A Central Problem in Ethics"

Namely, a problem with resolving the conflict between:

(1) To have a reason to do X is to have a desire that is served by doing X.

(2) An action is morally wrong for an agent to do only if there is a reason for him not to do it.

(3) Some actions are morally wrong no matter what the agent desires.

Note the shift between "to have a reason" in (1) and "there is a reason" in (2).

This simply tells us that there are reasons that exist other than the reasons that the agent has, and moral value is determined by looking at the reasons that exist.

We can also see this if we look at the role of "blame" in morality. See: "What Should I Do? What Reactive Attitudes Tell Us About Reasons"

The Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy article says that blame implies that the agent has a reason not to do what was done.

I argue that blame tells us that the people generally - the people with those external reasons - have reasons to cause the agent to have a reason not to do what was done. These external reasons are, specifically, reasons to praise or condemn. The purpose of praise and condemnation, in turn, is to mold desires so that they come into harmony with the desires that motivate the praise and condemnation.

The claim that blame implies that the agent already has a reason fails to tell us why the appropriate response to doing what ought not to have been done is blame. In contrast, the instrumentalist account provided here tells us exactly why blame is the appropriate response - because of its power to mold and shape the desires (and, thus, the reasons) agents have.  

Another distinction that I found being blurred in the article is the distinction between desires-as-ends and desires-as-means. See: "What Should I Do? Rational Motivation" 

This is a dispute over whether what reasons are provided by the desires an agent has or the desires that the agent would have if fully informed or fully aware of the alternatives or some other conditional state that improves the agents' beliefs.

Desires-as-means are combinations of desires-as-ends and beliefs. Consequently, it is true that accurate beliefs will help select more efficient means towards their ends.

Still, what has value as a means - what an agent has reason to do - depends on what will service actual desires-as-ends. Desires-as-ends are immune to reason, so there is no type of belief-therapy that will have any effect on an agent's ends. Its only effect will be to help the agent choose the most efficient means towards those ends.

It is actual desires that give a person reasons to act. If a means serves an actual desire, then a person has a reason to perform it. If not, then the agent does not have such a reason. An agent may falsely believe that they have a reason to do something they do not have. Similarly, they can fail to recognize that they have a reason to do something that they actually have reason. In both of these examples, the reason exists or does not exist based on actual desires. Beliefs do not impact the reasons a person has but, literally, his beliefs about those reasons, which may be true or false.

The linked postings contain more of the details - but I thought people could use something that sets forth in one place the ways in which the various ideas link to each other.

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