Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Last Post on Desires and Reasons

Okay, I promise, this is the last theory post for a while. I need to get back to real-world policy decisions.

(1) Drives aren't reasons. Consider the reluctant drug addict, compelled (against his will) to get his next fix. How is this any different from a mad scientist controlling him via remote control? We may be coerced from within, just as from without. Merely coming from a drive in your head does not suffice to make an action 'yours'.

If drives are not reasons, then no reasons exist.

I consider the reluctant drug addict. He is a person with a desire to get high and either an aversion to having a desire to get high or beliefs that the desire to get high is a desire that stands in conflict with other desires he might have such as a desire to live a long life, to pursue a career, and to avoid jail.

This is quite different from the scientist who is controlling him via remote control in that the desires we are speaking about are his – they are encoded into his brain. They are ot some external entity. The addiction is a desire he does not wish to have (that thwarts his other desires), but it is still his.

We can define a desire as ‘yours’ according to whether or not you endorse it. Using this definition (that the addiction is a desire that the agent wishes to be without) might be enough for a person to successfully disown it.

However, the claim that there is some other type of entity involved is a rather extreme hypothesis. Ultimately, my defense against these types of arguments is simply that I have no need for such entities. I see no compelling reason to adopt them.

Ultimately, my main reason for rejecting these other entities is that, when it comes to analyzing them, they turn out to be totally mysterious.

Any minimally adequate action theory must account for the difference between intentional ("free" - though of course not contracausal) action and mere behaviour. This requires differentiating value-desires (goals) from mere drives, and giving pride of place to the former.

The difference between intentional action and behavior is that intentional action is caused by intentional states – beliefs and desires. Behavior does not. An amoeba has behavior, but it does not have intentional states (beliefs and desires).

That’s it.

Our goals are defined by our desires. If an agent has a desire that P, then he has a goal to bring about a state of affairs in which P is true. If the desire that P is the further object of a desire that desire that P, or the agent has desires that Q, R, and S, that the desire that P fulfills, then the agent has reasons to endorse or embrace the desire that P.

The real question is: What evidence is there that compels us to introduce other entities into this theory? It is not sufficient to argue that ‘it seems to be the case’ that another entity is at work. There must be some set of phenomena that the current theory cannot explain. The new entity must be something that fills the gaps. The argument for the new entities have to rely on something stronger than ‘it seems to be the case’.

Some people argue for the existence of God by claiming that they can quite simply and directly ‘see’ God in a sunset or hear God in a child’s laughter. It is quite easy to dismiss these types of arguments. The agent is interpreting an event that has an explanation that does not involve God. There is no God in a sunset, only in the agent’s interpretation of a sunset. There is no ‘motivational belief’ in the badness of an addiction, only the agent’s interpretation of that addiction.

The greatest problem for these new entities is in explaining what they are, how we know about them, and how they fit into our scientific understanding of life, specifically, our evolutionary history. Without answers to these types of questions, ‘motivational beliefs’ or any other type of entity cannot actually explain anything. It does not have enough substance to serve as much of an explanation.

Let me explain the problem in another way.

Let us assume that if a person has a motivational belief that P is worthwhile that he is motivated to bring about P. Now, a belief that P is true if and only if P is true. So, a belief that snow is white is true if and only if snow is white. A belief that P is worthwhile is true if and only if P is worthwhile. So, do we have an analysis of what ‘P is worthwhile’ means? How is it that the proposition ‘P is worthwhile’ can be true? How can we know ‘P is worthwhile’ is true?

Is ‘P is worthwhile’ true if and only if I believe P is worthwhile? Assume that I have no belief that P is worthwhile – and I have no interest in making P true. You want to convince me that P is worthwhile. While I am standing here denying that P is worthwhile and having no reason to bring about P, how is it that you are going to convince me that ‘P is worthwhile’ is true? What premises support the conclusion ‘P is worthwhile’?

If the truth of ‘P is worthwhile’ depends on my believing it, we have stranger problems. Here, you are trying to convince me that P is worthwhile when, in fact, ‘P is worthwhile’ is false (because I do not believe it). However, let us assume that you succeed. Now I believe ‘P is worthwhile’? Suddenly, as soon as I accept the proposition, it becomes true.

How does that work?

This strangeness suggests argues against ‘motivational beliefs’. There are standard beliefs, and standard desires, nothing more.

(2) Weighting Desires. What dimension of 'strength' are you referring to? Felt strength? Behavioural impact (motivational force)? Degree of reflective endorsement? These are all logically distinct, though you seem to be conflating them.

The second option: behavior impact (motivational force).

Insofar as you treat desires as being revealed by behaviour, you seem to be assuming the second option. But this seems to be the least normatively relevant. (Why should a mere 'cause of behaviour' be thought to reveal what's worth doing?)

Because that is how this particular ‘cause of behavior’ works. A ‘desire that P’ in the brain takes any state of affairs in which P is true and motivates the agent to bring about P. ‘P is worth doing” is simply a piece of language that we have adopted to refer to this phenomena of an agent preferring one end over another.

Yes, we go one step further and we identify the drives towards particular ends as good, neutral, or bad. But we do not need to invent a special property of “worth doingness” to explain this phenomena. We simply need to recognize that certain drives tend to fulfill or thwart other drives, which gives us reason to promote or inhibit those drives. The language of “worth doing” is used to refer to the objects of drives we have reason to promote.

Some people are not going to like this answer. This is substantially because so many people have been raised to value a type of “worth doing” that is independent of all desire. They have a desire for desire-free value. However, in the real world, that desire will never be fulfilled. There is no desire-free value for them to fulfill. However, the fact that many people have been raised not to like this situation does not give them any reason to doubt that it is true. People who have a desire to serve God may be unhappy that no God exists, but this is not proof that God does exist.

Besides, isn’t it the case that ‘motivational beliefs’ if they exist would also just be a mere ‘cause of behavior’ that reveals what is worth doing? Or does ‘worth doingness’ have an existence independent of these beliefs? If so, what is it?

I care about the goals I endorse, not necessary just whatever moves my body. (Fortunately for me, these usually coincide! But again, there's no reason in principle why this must be so.)

I care about the goals that I endorse also. But this only means that I have second-order desires for the first-order desires that I endorse, and/or I have beliefs that the goals that I endorse are such as to fulfill my other desires (which happen to include desires that tend to fulfill the desires of other people, which other people have had reason to instill in me through certain cultural and social tools). There is no reason to believe that ‘caring about goals’ is in some fundamental way a different type of caring.

(3) Begging the question on motivation - you write: "The thesis that ‘normative reasons must always motivate us to act’ turns out, in the real world, to mean that ‘the only normative reasons that exist, when it comes to my actions, are my own desires’."

This is simply to assume what is in question, namely: whether desires/motivation can follow from evaluative beliefs (judgments about what we have normative reason to do), or if desires are only ever an input to practical reasoning, and never an output.

Actually, in an argument such as this, there is no choice but to beg the question. The question concerns how the theory I am proposing would handle certain issues, so the answer must take the form of taking the theory as an assumption and applying it to the issue. If it is true that desires are the only motivating reasons that exist, and the only motivating reasons that I have are the desires that I have, and ‘normative reasons’ must motivate, then those ‘normative reasons’ say that I should fulfill the more and stronger of my own desires.

Some might want to take this as a reduction as absurdum of my position. Yet, the challenge remains for any alternative to this theory to come up with an account of these alternative motivating reasons. A full account must show that there are some observable phenomena that this theory cannot handle that some other theory can handle better. Those observable phenomena cannot legitimately take a form like, “I see the hand of God in a sunset.” Observations like this (e.g., “I see motivational desires behind these actions.”)

(4) Whose reasons? I recall we argued about this last year some time, but "I have no reason to phi" just means "there is no reason for me to phi", which in turn entails that "it is not the case that I ought to phi." So if you have no normative reason to promote truth, then it is (by definition) false that you ought to. Similarly for morality itself.

We need a distinction between ‘reason-for-me to phi’ as opposed to ‘reason for me to phi’. The first interpretation speaks about the desires that I have to phi. The second option speaks to reasons that exist for me to phi – which may not be reasons that I currently have, but are reasons that others have reason to cause me to have.

‘There is no reason-for-me to phi” does not imply ‘There is no reason that others have reason to give me to phi’.

For other people to have reason to manipulate you into phi-ing, is not in any coherent sense the same thing as you having normative reason to phi.

Define ‘normative reasons’ as you please.

If you define ‘normative reasons narrowly’, in the ‘reasons-for-me’ sense, then the set of normative reasons is limited to the set of desires that I have, and is captured under the concept of ‘practical ought’. If you define normative reasons broadly, they include the reasons that others generally have reason to cause me to have, which means that there can be normative reasons that do not motivate me – because others were not successful in creating those reasons.

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