Saturday, January 23, 2016

Williams vs Mackie on Practical Reasons

J.L. Mackie has a better theory of practical reasons than Bernard Williams.

This is the claim that David Phillips attempts to support in "Mackie on Practical Reason" (in Philosophical Studies Series, A World Without Values, Essays on John Mackie's Moral Error Theory, Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin (eds.))

Recall that, on the question of practical reasons, a person is looking for reasons to do or to refrain from doing some action.

What counts as a reason to perform an action and what doesn't?

Williams is an internalist. According to Williams, the only reasons you have for doing or refraining from some action come from some internal motivating state. There is no such thing as an external reason.

Or, as Williams puts it:

"A has a reason to φ if A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φing."

Insofar as we stick to "has a reason" as opposed to "there is a reason", I would agree with this. 

In drawing a distinction between Williams and Mackie, Phillips asserts:

For current purposes, the key feature of Williams' position is this: he gives a very special status to internal reasons claims. They can, he claims, be true or correct in a way that no other reasons claims can be.

By way of contrast, Mackie's theory of practical reasons (according to Phillips) does not give anything any special authority.

For Mackie, internal reasons claims have no such special status and in particular are not specially authoritative. The story about their authority is ultimately the same as the story about the authority of other normative claims: they are authoritative only when a certain background is presupposed; they lack the special authority that, Mackie the moral skeptic thinks, nothing in the world has.

As a part of the proof that Mackie provides a better theory of practical reasons than Williams, Phillips provides three arguments against Williams' theory.

Though I am sympathetic to Phillips' conclusion, I have problems with these three arguments.

Objection 1. Authority

Phillips asks, "What someone's desires are is, to a significant extent, an arbitrary, contingent fact about her. Why are her desires therefore a source, or the only source, of authority?"

In other words, Williams' theory fails because it provides desires with an authority that these arbitrary and contingent facts about a person cannot have.

My problem with this argument is that I do not know what "authority" is supposed to mean in this objection.

My best guess is that it has something to do with justifying the action. Phillips objects to the idea that "merely" having a desire that P - an arbitrary and contingent fact about a person - can give an act a genuine ought-to-be-doneness.

Ultimately, Phillips seems to argue that this type of authority actually does not exist. The merit he sees in Mackie's theory is that all ought claims are, in fact, contingent on some presupposition or another - on desires, on institutions, on standards. Nothing provides the type of authority that Williams gives to desires.

Objection 2a: Reasons, Good and Bad

In his second objection, Phillips argues that Williams' theory asserts that there are reasons where no reason exists, and denies the existence of reasons where reasons are present. He provides an example of each.

His example of a case where Williams asserts that a reason exists when it does not concerns Alice, a smoker who gets no enjoyment from smoking and is well aware of the harmful side-effects. Because she has a desire that would be served by smoking, Williams would say that she has a reason to smoke.

However, according to Phillips:

But surely the mere fact that Alice has this desire, and that procedurally rational reflection would not cause her to lose the desire, does not show that she has a good reason to smoke cigarettes.

But please note that Williams theory says that Alice has a reason to smoke, whereas Phillips is objecting to the conclusion that Alice has a good reason to smoke - a conclusion that Williams does not defend.

If a person can identify a reason as being a "good reason", then this suggests that there are other reasons that are not "good reasons" and, perhaps, some reasons that are even "bad reasons". These other reasons exist. They are just not good.

We could agree with Williams that "A has a reason to φ if A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φing."

Then, we can add to this a set of standards such that whether A's reason is a good reason, a bad reason, or neutral is determine by the degree to which it fulfills other desires, thwarts other desires, or has no effect on the fulfillment or thwarting of other desires.

On this account, it is not the case that Alice has a good reason to smoke cigarettes. In fact, given the harm that cigarette smoking does, Alice's reason for smoking cigarettes would count as a bad reason. But it is still a reason, as Williams says.

Objection 2b: Future Desires

Phillips mentions a second example drawn from Derek Parfit's case of a person who is "future-Tuesday-indifferent". This person cares equally about pains and pleasures on any future day except Tuesday. The agent does not care about future pains that fall on a Tuesday.

In this case, Williams gives us an account that says that the agent does not have a reason to avoid pain on a future Tuesday. Specifically, the agent has no desire that would be served by taking an action that would avoid pain on a future Tuesday. Therefore, he has no reason to avoid this future pain.

To start with, I am concerned with the idea of saying that a person has (present tense) a reason to perform some action based on a desire that does not exist at present. It strikes me as a bit odd - like saying that a person has $1,000 that will be handed to him next week. In such a case, it is sensible to talk about the $1,000 that the agent will have next week, but it makes no sense to say that he has the money today. Similarly, we can talk about the reasons that the agent will have for avoiding future pain, but the reasons that the agent has today depends on the desires the agent has today.

In fact, to say that the agent has a reason to avoid future pain in this way is to say that something exists (a reason to avoid future pain) that has absolutely no capacity to influence anything in the universe today. The agent will not act to avoid this future pain until the agent acquires an interest to do so. Then, it would make sense to say that the agent has also acquired a reason to do so. Until then, no motivation, and no reason, exists. At least not yet.

Still, language is an invention and there is no law of nature that prohibits us from using a present-tense verb to talk about the fulfillment or thwarting of an agent's future desires.

It seems a bit confusing.

If this is how people speak, then perhaps what we need to do is to remove some of the confusion and ambiguity from our language by adopting a more consistent and useful set of terms.

When scientists discovered large objects in the Kuiper Belt of our solar system that are like Pluto, some argued for correcting our language so that like objects were lumped with like. Pluto has more in common with these Kuiper belt objects than it has with the other planets. Consequently, these astronomers argued, our language would be more efficient if we classified Pluto as a Kuiper Belt object and not as a planet. They took a vote, and they changed the language.

Similarly, when it comes to the relationship between having a reason and the fulfillment or thwarting of future desires, perhaps we should simply adopt a new language that pays attention to this distinction. We can say that a person has a reason to φ if A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φing, and that he will have a reason to φ if A has a future desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φing.

However, I can think of a reason for using the present tense even with respect to future desires. This is because, even though the agent has no reason to avoid future Tuesday pain, anybody with an ounce of compassion and concern has a reason to try to get the agent to adopt (to create in the agent) a reason to avoid future Tuesday concern. This is because having such a reason will motivate the agent to avoid the future pain that compassionate people want to see avoided.

So, in speaking in the present tense, we may be understood as saying that the agent should acquire an interest in avoiding future Tuesday pain. In fact, we may be seen as coaxing or urging the agent to have an interest. In fact, an argument can be made that assertions of this type actually have the power, under certain circumstances, to cause the agent to acquire such an interest. It is for these reasons that we urge, plead, and try to make it the case that the agent has a reason to be concerned about this future pain.

Objection 3: Phenomenology of Deliberation

Finally, Phillips argues that Williams' account "conflicts with the phenomenology of deliberation".

When we deliberate, we typically do not take the value of the options about which we deliberate to depend on our desires. Instead, we take the desires to be responses to the value.

As I see it, to the degree that people do this, they are simply mistaken. People may not take the value of the options about which they deliberate to depend on their desires, but it does. They make take the desires to be responses to value, but there is no "value" out there for desires to respond to.

Nature has given us desires for sex, to eat high-calorie foods, and to seek out a comfortable environment because, in having those desires, we have tended to act in ways that propagated the species.

Nature has given us plastic brains, so that experience will mold our desires to some extent. This gives us the capacity to adapt to a range of environments.

Likes and dislikes molded by evolution and experience exist. A value independent of desire does not.

It will turn out that there is one way in which we can like things because of their value. This is in the sense of liking things because they are useful, and usefulness is a type of value. Likes and dislikes themselves can be useful - can tend to fulfill other desires. Consequently, even likes and dislikes themselves can be liked (and encouraged, and promoted) because of their usefulness.

Yet, being useful also depends on being such as to fulfill certain (other) desires.

Actually, the problem, according to Phillips, is that, for many people, if they come to think that the value of something depends on the fact that the agent merely desires it, then the object loses its value.

The problem is . . . that . . . a serious commitment to deliberation cannot easily coexist, in many normal agents, with acceptance of Williams' view.

We are aware of the phonemenon whereby an agent, with a desire to buy a Picasso painting, comes across a painting he believes to have been painted by Picasso. Consequently, he values the painting. However, when he learns that the painting is a forgery, and was not painted by Picasso, he loses all interest.

Similarly, a person, in believing that a child is his, can have a great deal of interest in the welfare of that child. However, upon discovering that the child is not his, he may lose interest in the child.

Accordingly, a person may value something, believing it to have intrinsic worth or to be loved by the gods. Upon discovering that there is no such thing as intrinsic worth, or that there are no gods, they may lose their interest in that thing.

If this happens - if the agent does lose interest under these circumstances, this is hardly proof that the object in question, in fact, has intrinsic worth or is loved by the gods. This would be like arguing, in the first case, if the agent would lose interest in the painting on discovering that it is a forgery means that it is not a forgery. Similarly, it would be like arguing in the second case that if the agent would lose interest in the child upon discovering that it is not his child then it must be his child.

The second of these examples is particularly telling.

If the agent truly cares about the child as a person - loves the child for her own sake - then discovering that the child is not his would not diminish the quality of his feelings for that child. It is only insofar as he loves the child as his child that the discovery that the child is not his would threaten that relationship.

Similarly, whether an interest in P will disappear if the agent discovers that it is grounded on a desire that P depends on whether the agent has a genuine desire that P (in which case the interest would not be threatened), or the agent has a desire that Q and a false belief that Q is true of P (in which case, discovering the truth will destroy the agent's interest in P).


So, even though I have some sympathy for and interest in Phillips' conclusion, I do not judge that he has proved that conclusion. His objections to Williams' internalism leaves Williams' internalism intact. Phillips needs to provide a better account of "authority" that is supposed to be present in Williams' view and absent in Mackie's. He needs to distinguish properly between "having a reason" and "having a good reason". We can accommodate the practice of saying that a person has a reason to fulfill future desires. Finally, we can explain within Williams' view why people might lose interest in things upon discovering that its value (if it has any) is grounded on desires.

What we can say about Mackie's view is that it offers a "unified oughts theory" about a range of practical oughts - those that come from desires, those that come from institutions, and those that come from standards and practices. Williams, in contrast, only gives us a theory of desire-based oughts. Though we can say, in defense of Williams, that institutions and standards are not self-motivating. "A has a reason to enter into an institution or to adopt a set of standards if A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his entering that institution or adopting those standards."

No comments: