Monday, August 22, 2016

Reasons, Motives, and Doing the Right Thing

372 days until the first day of classes.

I have been writing about time - that I do not have enough of it, and I waste some of it playing computer games. The playing of video games, I argued, is something that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn unproductive time-wasting activities such as this.

Yet, I do what I argue ought not to be done.

This may sound somewhat odd. Is it not the case that, merely by acknowledging that playing computer games is the wrong thing to do that I am admitting to having a reason not to do it? And if it is something I recognize that I should not do, why is it that I do it anyway?

I think that the way of thinking about ethics that leads to these problems is filled with mistakes.

It is not the case that believing that something is the wrong thing to do means that I am asserting that I have reasons not to do it. It means that there exists reasons to cause me to have reasons not to do it. It means that I acknowledge that people generally have reasons to condemn – to some extent – those (like me) who waste their time on such things rather than spending their time on something more productive. However, all of this is consistent with it being the case that I do not, in fact, have a reason to avoid playing computer games.

In fact, I believe that linking morality to what an agent has a reason to do is not only wrong, but dangerous. If we tell somebody that the claim that he ought to do X implies that he has a reason to do X, then the people we are talking to can respond, “Since I do not have a reason to do X, then it must not be the case that I ought to do X.” For example, tell a person with an obligation to keep a promise that this means that he has a reason to keep that promise, and the agent can respond, “Since I do not have a reason to keep that promise, then this must mean that I have no obligation to do so.”

However, if we say instead that the obligation to keep a promise means that an agent ought to have a reason to keep a promise – that is to say, ought to have a desire to keep promises or an aversion to breaking promises – then the agent cannot argue from the absence of such a desire or aversion that there is no obligation. “Ought to have a reason”, in turn, means that people generally have many and strong reasons to reward and praise those who keep promises and punish and condemn those who break promises. These facts remain true of promise keeping regardless of the agent’s specific desires.

Accordingly, I ought to desire to do something more productive with my time than playing computer games. This means that people generally have many and strong reasons to praise those who spend their time on something more productive and to condemn those others to the degree that they waste their time playing such games. These facts remain true no matter what I, as an agent, believe or desire. The moral facts of the matter are, at least relative to my own beliefs and desires, completely objective.

As it turns out – and as is true in my own case – having a belief that one ought not to be wasting their time playing computer games does come with some motivation to set the game aside and work on something more productive (such as this blog posting). This motivation is not built into the belief itself. Instead, it comes from two moral desires.

One of these desires is a desire to do the right thing. Insofar as I have a desire to do the right thing, and I believe that writing a blog post on moral philosophy is the right thing to do, I have a reason to work on a blog post on moral philosophy.

Please note – there is an important distinction to keep in mind that I fear I have often gotten wrong in the past. This is a distinction between having motivation to do X and a reason to do X. If an agent has a desire to do the right thing, and a belief that X is the right thing to do, the agent has motivation to do X, but may not have a reason to do X. This is because the belief that X is the right thing to do may be false. An agent has a reason to do that which actually serves his desires, but he has motivation to do anything that he believes serves his desires. People are often motivated to do things they have no reason to do.

Another of the moral desires that may motivate a person to do the right thing is the desire to be a good person.

Being a good person is a lot more work than doing the right thing. It requires going through the effort of actually changing one’s likes and dislikes – to the degree that one can do so. Typically, this involves doing something until one learns to like it – making the effort to act like a good person until “it comes naturally”.

Consequently, it is true that the belief that X is the right thing to do almost always comes with motivation to do X. However, the motivation does not come from the belief. It comes from the desires that would motivate a good person to do X. It may also come from a desire to do the right thing and a desire to be a good person. Beliefs do not motivate. Desires motivate.

This makes it possible for a person to know that they ought to be doing something else, but yet not having any motivation to do it (or being too weakly motivated by the desire to do the right thing or the desire to be a good person). This makes it possible for a person to continue to do what they know they ought not to be doing, such as wasting time on computer games when they should be writing on moral philosophy instead. (Under the perhaps rash assumption that writing the philosophy blog is actually a good use of one’s time.)

7 comments:

Shmuel Warshell said...
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Shmuel Warshell said...

I think this is one of the problems with desirism. When people refer to morality, they are referring to something that has intrinsic prescriptivity. I agree with you that intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist. However this means that when most people talk about morality they are referring to something that does not exist. Therefore I don't think desirism accurately captures what most people mean by morality.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Of course, I am going to deny that when people talk about morality they are actually talking about that which has intrinsic prescriptivity.

When people talk about morality they are talking about what people generally have reason to reward/praise or punish/condemn. They make a mistake in thinking that the reasons to reward or punish comes from the intrinsic prescriptivity of that which is being rewarded or punished. However, they cannot give even a hint of a reason as to how intrinsic prescriptivity can generate a reason to reward or punish. In fact, the reasons to reward or punish - like all reasons for action - come from desires. However, this mistake as to the source of the reasons to reward or punish is a mistake that we can eliminate. And the reasons that actually do exist to reward or punish continue to exist, even in the absence of intrinsic value.

Shmuel Warshell said...

Well this is an empirical question that can be solved by asking people what they mean by morality. Also how do I contact you, I can't seem to find your email anywhere.

Shmuel Warshell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shmuel Warshell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, it is an empirical question.

No, it is not answered by asking people what they mean. It is answered by examine its role in a language.

For example, if "moral" literally meant "having intrinsic value", then "moral relativism" would be a contradiction in terms -like "married bachelor." But it is not a contradiction. Thus, it is not the case that "moral" means "having intrinsic value."

Similarly, if "moral" means "having intrinsic value" then Hume's "Enquiry into the principles of morals" misused the term "morals" throughout. However, in 250 years of philosophical scholarly work on Hume, nobody noticed this. Either that, or "moral" does not mean "having intrinsic value." The latter seems the most plausible.

Either way, this is how to answer questions about what terms mean.