Wednesday, January 20, 2016

What Should I Do? What Reactive Attitudes Tell Us About Reasons for Action

First, a quick reminder regarding context and relevance.

You want to know what to do. You want to know what reasons count as legitimate reasons for doing one thing rather than another. "Is this a good reason for doing A rather than B?" "Does that reason even exist or is it just make-belief, or a rationalization?"

The posts in this series, "What Should I Do?" are examining reasons for action.

In reading through the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External  I came across a section on "reactive attitudes".

Reactive attitudes are supposed to tell us whether there are (or whether an ancient has) external reasons - reasons not grounded on desires (on the agent's own desires).

Recall, I have written that a lot of this conversation is muddled because of a failure to distinguish between the reasons (desires) that an agent has and reasons (desires) that exist - which includes the desires of other agents. Much of the formal discussion pays no attention to this distinction. Consequently, authors drift back and forth between these two concepts in ways that I find confusing.

With this context established, we note that reactive attitudes suggest that there are reasons for action (or an agent has reasons for action) independent of the agent's desires or motivational states.

Some have observed in defense of Moral Rationalism, for example, that if an agent does something we consider morally wrong, then we blame (or resent) him. But blame, these philosophers claim, involves the judgment that the agent had reasons not to do what he did. Consequently blame is unwarranted when such judgments are unwarranted (Nagel 1970, Smith 1994). Therefore, since moral wrongdoing is sufficient to warrant blame, moral obligations must entail reasons.

So, "blame" implies "the agent had reasons not to do what he did."

I disagree.

"Blame" implies "an agent should have had reasons not to do what he did (or should not have had reasons to do what he did). In other words, reasons exist for causing the agent to have reasons that are different than those the agent actually had. Please note the use of the distinction between "reasons exist" and "having reasons" in this account. The reasons that exist are the desires of other agent - which provide the reasons for blaming people like the agent.

Why blame people like the agent?

The Stanford article describes Bernard Williams - an internalist with respect to reasons - as arguing that blame has an instrumental role to play.

[For Bernard Williams, blaming] in these cases functions as a ‘proleptic mechanism’: it itself changes the situation for the agent so that she now has an internal reason that she otherwise would have lacked (Williams, 1989).

In other words, blame plays upon the fact that others have a reason to seek the respect of other people. It withholds that respect as a way of giving people a reason to do what, morally, they should do.

In Williams' sense, blame plays the same role as fines, imprisonment, and other forms of punishment. It provides an immediate disincentive against performing the wrong action. Because an agent has a need for personal liberty and cash, we can threaten to take away his liberty or fine him and take some of his money to provide an incentive not to do that which is wrong. And, according to Williams, because agents have a natural interest in the favorable opinion of others, we can use blame as a deterrence on those people who risk (or think about doing) what they should not.

I would argue that it goes further than this. Incentives and disincentives belong more to the realm of law than to morality. Insofar as blame is a moral tool, its instrumental value rests in its power to actually change the desires of others. It acts on the limbic system of the brain to mold desires - creating aversions to the types of acts that are blamed. Disincentives of the type that Williams talks about only gives a person a reason to avoid the wrongful act when that person is at risk of being caught. The molding of desires, where successful, gives people a reason to avoid the wrongful act even when the agent has not chance of being caught, because it becomes something he wishes not to do.

This goes back to the fact that blame is tied to the reasons the reasons that an agent should have, rather than the reasons that the agent actually has. Blame takes note of the fact that the reasons an agent has deviate from those the reasons the agent should have, and then acts on the limbic system to bring those reasons into alignment.

The Stanford article raises an objection to these instrumentalist accounts of blame.

This view is resisted by many who see the question of the appropriateness of a reactive attitude as primarily an issue of desert. Arguably, blame is appropriate only if it is deserved, and not if it is merely effective in influencing people's behavior.

In order for this objection to make sense, we need a suitable theory of desert. What is it about a person - or a person's action - that makes him "deserve" blame? In answering this question, we need to answer the question of "Why is it the case that it is blame that is deserved?" We cannot hold up the instrumentalist account of blame with this "desert" account until the "desert" account has been filled out enough to allow for comparison.

I suspect that when we do fill out this "desert" account, we will come up with a theory that says that a person "deserves" blame under those conditions where the instrumental value of blame is most effective. There will be little or no difference between the two theories in practice.

In fact, the question of "when do people deserve blame" will be best answered by answering the question, "Under what conditions to those who blame have the most and strongest reasons to blame?" The conditions under which those who blame have the most and strongest reasons to blame are conditions under which blame would do the most instrumental good.

But, this line of reasoning will have to be worked out in detail at another time.

No comments: