Friday, June 15, 2018

On Desire 2018. Part 40: What Are Normative Reasons?

Alex Gregory seeks to provide us with a defense of the following thesis - which he calls DAB:

To desire to Φ is to believe that you have normative reason to Φ.

Gregory, Alex, (2017), “Might Desires Be Beliefs about Normative Reasons for Action?” In Deonna J. & Lauria F. (eds). The Nature of Desire. Oxford University Press.

I gave my general objections to theories that attempt to reduce desires to beliefs in the previous posting. This being that Gregory now owes us a theory of what "you have a normative reason to Φ" means and what it takes for this proposition to be true. Without a theory of normative reasons, his theory of desires is empty.

Gregory provides us with no theory of normative reasons.

Still, he tries to say a few things in defense of his thesis.

His first argument is:

Because DAB identifies desires and beliefs about reasons, we do not have to see these two as competitors in our motivational system. That allows us to solve a certain puzzle about moral motivation: DAB entitles us to agree that normative judgments are beliefs and to agree that such judgments have the power to motivate us to act, while also allowing us to accept the Humean claim that only desires have the power to motivate us to act. It is only if we accept DAB that these three plausible claims are consistent.

The three "plausible" claims are:

(1) Normative judgments are beliefs.

(2) Normative judgments have the power to motivate us to act.

(3) Only desires have the power to motivate us to act.

DAB allows these three claims to be consistent because desires are normative judgments (beliefs) that motivate us to act.

Here, my general objection to these types of theories steps up to the front. What does it take for a normative judgment to be true? How can this truth motivate us to act?

What does it take for the normative judgment to be true? Insofar as I have this belief that I have reasons to purchase my wife a present for a birthday. What is it that I believe, and am I right to believe it? Or do I have a false belief?

Well, I believe that buying her a present for her birthday will make her happy, and that she would be disappointed if I did not.

So what? What does it matter that buying her a present would make her happy and that she would be disappointed if I did not? What makes that important to me? That alone does not provide me with a reason to act. There must be something else - something that makes it important.

I would answer that what makes it important to me is my desire to make her happy and my aversion to disappointing her.

Question: What is this "desire to make her happy?" What is this "aversion to disappointing her?"

Answer: According to Gregory, it is a belief that I have a normative reason to make her happy and a normative reason to avoid disappointing her.

Question: What does it mean to say that I have a normative reason to make her happy? How can this be true? Do I actually have this reason, or do I just believe it? How do I check this reason out to determine if it is real or just imagined? What will I be looking for when I try to find out whether I actually have this normative reason? What would show me that my belief that I have this normative reason is false?

The answer to the question, "What does it take to have a normative reason" matters.

I hold that I have a normative reason to Φ if and only if Φ-ing would serve one or more of my "desires that P". Φ-ing serves a "desire that P" by creating or preserving a state of affairs where P is true. My desire that P makes it Φ-ing important because the desire specifically assigns an importance-value to P being true.

Gregory can't use this theory of normative reasons. This is because it explains normative reasons in terms of desires. If he uses this theory, then he has a theory of desires that reduces desires to normative reasons, and a theory of normative reasons that reduces normative reasons to desires. That would be viciously circular. So, if Gregory is going to reduce desires to beliefs about normative reasons, then he needs a non-circular theory of normative reasons, or his theory is empty.

There is simply no reason to adopt an empty theory. Tell me what a "normative reason" is and how I can truthfully believe that I can have one, and then I can tell whether "believing that I have a normative reason" can be a reasonable analysis of desire.

1 comment:

David Jacquemotte said...


I have brought up your last question many times. The answer I hear most often is that it is a "properly basic belief". This to me is a cop-out for an answer they don't want to see, which is that their model is simply wrong.