Monday, January 18, 2016

What Should I Do?: Having a Reason vs. There Exists a Reason

The next article in the series on J.L. Mackie's Ethics will concern the huge topic of "practical reason". David Phillips, 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.)) argues that Mackie presents a better theory of practical reason than Barnard Williams - the person whose theory is the most widely read and discussed.

Why should you care?

Actually, this - and a few postings to follow - involve a discussion about how to answer questions of the form, "Why should I care?" correctly. Do you want a right answer to the question, "Why should I care?" Then what follows will be useful.

I am going to start with a set of distinctions that I use in trying to understand this issue.

Note that I hold that desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional action that exist. If you are looking for a reason to do something - or to not do something - that reason is ultimately going to be found in a desire, or it does not exist. The chain of reasoning might go through a chain of means (e.g., I will take the job so that I can earn an income so that I can buy a house which I can keep at a comfortable temperature through summer and winter). But why live at a comfortable temperature? It's just something that people like.

What are these distinctions?

(1) An agent has a reason to do X vs. there exists a reason for A to do X. This corresponds to: The agent has a desire that would be fulfilled by doing X vs. there exists a desire that would be fulfilled by A's doing X. The desires that other people have are desires that exist, but are desires that the agent does not have.

(2) Motivational/explanatory vs normative reasons. The desires that an agent has are those that motivate and explain current behavior. However, we can take those desires and ask how they fit in with other desires. A person with a desire to smoke has a motivating reason to smoke, and this desire explains the fact that she does smoke. However, when we take note of the way that the desire to smoke leads to behavior that thwarts other desires. we find reason to say that the agent has no GOOD reason to smoke. Smoking is not recommended.

(3) Practical vs. moral reasons. To ask what a person should do in a practical sense is to ask what reasons an agent has for or against performing some action. These are grounded on the agent's own desires. On the other hand, to ask what a person should do in a moral sense is to ask how the action stands in relation to reasons that exist - that include the desires of other people. More specifically, it asks how the action stands in relation to desires that people generally have reason to promote (and to the absence of desires that people generally have reason to inhibit).

Note that I have listed these distinctions as I use them. Much of the discussion that follows will concern alternatives ways of dividing up this conceptual landscape and the merits of each alternative.

Here, specifically, Phillips is intending to contrast Bernard Williams' theory of practical reason with that of J.L. Mackie.

Williams' theory is expressed as follows: “A has a reason to φ if A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φing” (Williams, B. 1981, "Internal and External Reasons", In his Moral Luck, 101– 113. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

However, as Phillips points out, Mackie analyzes 'ought' (as in 'a ought to G") in terms of "There is a reason for a's Ging."

Here, we see the discussion jumping across the line between "A has a reason to G" and "There exists a reason for A to G" without even a mention that these are not the same thing.

Since I relate "A has a reason" to practical ought, and "There exists a reason" to moral ought, I see a risk of blurring the distinction between what is practical and what is moral as well.

So, let's see if we can figure out how to answer questions of the form, "What should I do?"

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