Monday, January 25, 2016

Williams vs. Mackie on Practical Reason - A Correction

Upon reflection, I have reached my conclusion that my criticism of Phillips criticism of Williams' argument for internalism was not entirely fair.

Phillips placed his objections to Williams in the context of a dilemma.

Either Williams was offering a non-debunking theory of practical reasons, or a debunking theory of practical reason.

If it is a non-debunking theory, then the four problems discussed in the previous post obtain. Namely (1) the theory assigns an undefended authority to reasons grounded on arbitrary desire, (2) the theory suggests reasons exist where none exist in fact, (3) the theory suggests that no reason exists where a reason exists in fact, and (4) people tend to stop valuing things when they learn that the values are grounded on desire rather than that desire is grounded on value.

In responding to these criticisms of Williams' internalism, I ignored the part of the context that said, "Assume that Williams is offering a non-debunking theory." That is to say, let us begin with the assumption that Williams is attempting to explain and justify our intuitions regarding reasons, not discard them.

In the context of this dilemma, I do not have the option of saying, "Okay, Phillips may be right. People might, in fact, be doing these things, but they are wrong to do so. Williams' suggestion regarding how people should think of reasons is a better option."

I cannot claim that Williams is trying to discredit common practices if we are working under the assumption that Williams is trying to support - and not repeal - those practices.

Within the context of the discussion, I cannot legitimately respond to Phillips criticism by saying, "Okay, maybe people do treat reasons this way, but they are wrong to do so." A debunking theory would take that position that our practices need to be corrected. A non-debunking theory, on the other hand, must accept the practices as they are and not try to correct them.

When Williams is offered as a debunking theory about practical reason - one that tells us to correct our common practices or eliminate them entirely - Phillips argues that Mackie simply does a better job than Williams.

To be fair, few if any philosopher ever offers a fully non-debunking theory of anything. In all almost cases - and perhaps all - they suggest that their theory provides guidelines for improving our standard practices. Similarly, Mackie, in this case, does not offer a fully debunking theory either. He argues for eliminating the error of intrinsic prescriptivity, but we can continue to build on what is left after we correct this error.

At one point, Phillips takes his objections to be criticisms of Williams' theory independent of context.

There are two very different ways to develop the idea that hypothetical imperatives are unproblematic. One way is Williams' and Joyce's way. It is to take there to be genuine reasons grounded in agent's desires. The desires are the source, the only source, of genuine practical reasons. This line of thought faces the three problems we have already identified.
No, actually, it does not. The three problems Phillips identified disprove the thesis that this is a non-debunking way of talking about reasons. They do not prove that this is false. The three responses that I provide in my previous post aim to show that it fails here.

People make claims about all sorts of reasons other than those that are grounded on the desires - from categorical imperatives to divine commands to intrinsic prescriptivity.Williams can well be taken as saying that all of those claims are mistaken - that the only true reasons statements are those that find themselves relating action to desires.

Or, as Williams puts it:
"A has a reason to φ if A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φing." 
Again,I am going to pull out the distinction between "A has a reason to φ" and "there is a reason for A to φ," where the reasons an agent has relates to the desires that the agent has, and the reasons that exist relate to desires that exist. I need to make it a future project to read Williams on practical reasons to see if he recognizes this distinction, or of he, like many others, fails to recognize the distinction and, thus, treats the reasons an agent has as being all of the reasons that exist.

Then again, we also have to keep in mind the distinction between "practical ought" and "moral ought"  and the idea that practical ought is concerned with the reasons an agent has while moral ought concerns reasons that exist. If we are actually looking at a theory of practical ought, then we are looking at a theory where external reasons are irrelevant. It's not that external reasons do not exist. It's that external reasons sit in the sideline until we move from practical ought to moral ought.

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