Monday, January 11, 2016

Morality and Motivating Force

According to a common view of morality, something's being morally good provides people with a motivating reason to realize that thing.

There is a question as to whether moral goodness creates an overriding reason - a reason that trumps all other interests and concerns, or whether it provides some lesser motivation that can sometimes fail to override individual concerns.

Of course, there is a third option - that morally goodness provides a person with no motivation at all. Under this option, there is nothing at all incoherent or irrational with a person declaring something to be morally obligatory even though he finds himself entirely unmotivated to bring such a thing about.

This set of distinctions is the second set that Walter Sinnott-Armstrong brings up in his article "Mackie's Internalisms" (from Joyce, Richard and Kirchin, Simon (eds), Philosophical Studies Series, World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie’s Moral Error Theory).

I discussed Sinnott-Armstrong's first set of distinctions in the previous post: Reasons: Motivating, Explanatory, and Normative.

Recall, J.L. Mackie wants to argue that intrinsic prescriptivity (what Mackie confusingly calls 'objective value') does not exist. One of his arguments is that intrinsic prescriptivity would be such an odd thing that we have reason to doubt that such a thing exists. Part of what makes intrinsic prescriptivity odd would be this power to prove agents with motivation to act.

As Sinnott-Armstrong points out, Mackie sometimes speaks as if intrinsic prescriptivity provides overriding motivational force. However, Mackie's "Argument from Queerness" works against the idea that intrinsic prescriptivity provides any motivational force. If Mackie can successfully challenge the weaker (some motivational force) thesis, then the stronger (overriding motivational force) thesis falls away as a matter of course.

Ultimately, we are talking about things in the universe that will cause physical muscles to move in the ways that they move when an agent carries out an intentional action. Intrinsic prescriptivity, if it existed, has a power to cause a person to reach into his pocket, pull out his wallet, take out a $20, and hand it to the person he had borrowed $20 from the week before.

Is there anything in the universe that has the power to do this?

The Ownership of Intentional Action

Intentional actions are generally explained in terms of beliefs and desires. Beliefs and desires are brain states. The fact that brain states can cause signals to go to the muscles and cause them to move in particular ways is not problematic. The question is: Is there something else in the universe - something we may call "intrinsic prescriptivity" - that has the power to bring about these types of movements and yet still allow them to be classified as the agent's intentional action.

If I were to plant a chip in your brain and use it to control the movement of your body, one of the implications of this is that those actions are no longer your actions. If I were to manipulate your body in such a way that you were to commit murder, the claim that you committed murder would be false. I would have been the person who committed murder - using your body as the murder weapon. An action belongs to the person whose beliefs and desires caused that action.

Somehow, intrinsic prescriptivity has to cause an intentional action (repaying a debt) without overriding the agent's ownership of that action.

Beliefs and Motivational Force

One option is that the belief that X is good provides motivating force that influences an agent's intentional action. This thesis needs to be held up to Hume's thesis that desires provide motivational force, but beliefs do not. Desires identify the ends of intentional action, and beliefs select the means.

It also raises the question of, "What does a person believe when she believes, 'X is good'?" One quick way to draw a link between belief and motivation is to equate the believe that "X is good" with the belief that "I feel motivated to realize states of affairs in which X is true". Consequently, everything the agent judges to be good is something the agent is motivated to bring about. However, this says nothing about the source of that motivation.

In particular, it does not require that the motivation come from some sort of intrinsic prescriptivity. This link would hold up even if the only thing that motivates the agent is her own desires - in which case she would say 'X is good" is true whenever "I desire that X" is true. 

If we relate motivation to the belief that "X is good", we still have to figure out some sort of relationship between "X is good" an intrinsic prescriptivity. We have not actually answered any questions.

'Correct' and 'Incorrect' Desires

Another option is to link intrinsic prescriptivity to desire.

With respect to belief, a belief that 'P' is true if and only if 'P' is true - and not merely true because it is believed. With respect to desire, we could say that a desire that 'P' is 'correct' if and only if 'P' is good - and not good because it is desired.

This model of intrinsic prescriptivity runs into problems when it confronts the theory of evolution. Evolution has molded our desires towards genetic fitness. We tend to desire those things the desiring of which propagates the species. Either we must postulate that propagating the species is intrinsically prescriptive, or we must postulate an odd coincidence between what is intrinsically prescriptive and what propagates the species.

The main problem is that we do not need to bring 'intrinsic prescriptivity' into this at all. All we need are desires molded by evolutionary forces such that we are disposed to desire that which propagates the species.

In the case of humans, we are talking about a species with a 'plastic' brain. While some desires may be hard-wired, others are molded and shaped through our interaction with the environment. Yet, even with this, there is reason to believe that desires lock onto 'intrinsic prescriptivity', or even to postulate the existence of intrinsic prescriptivity for them to lock onto. 


These, then, seem to be the three ways in which 'intrinsic prescriptivity' can motivate intentional action.

(1) Intrinsic prescriptivity can motivate intentional action in ways that bypass the agent's beliefs and desires. However, this option runs the risk of interfering with the agent's ownership of the action.

(2) Intrinsic prescriptivity can motivate intentional action by generating true motivational beliefs about the goodness of things. However, this answers no questions since we now need an explanation of what it means for the belief that 'X is good' to be true.

(3) Intrinsic prescriptivity can motivate intentional action by generating 'correct' desires. However, evolution molds our disposition to desire according to what promotes genetic replication and gives us no reason to believe we have evolved a faculty to perceive intrinsic prescriptivity.

A fourth option in this case is to hold that 'intrinsic prescriptivity' does not exist. Desires alone provide the motivating force for intentional action, and desires are neither 'correct' or 'incorrect' in this sense.

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