Saturday, September 09, 2017

Benjamin Hale: Justificatory vs. Motivational Reasons

In Chapter 5 of The Wild and the Wicked: On Nature and Human Nature, Benjamin Hale attempted to draw some moral lessons from a distinction between two different types of reasons for action - motives and justificatory reasons.

I do not think that such a distinction exists - at least not to the degree that Hale believes it does.

Now, I do agree with Hale that some reasons are better than others. Or, more precisely, I hold that there are reasons that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally. However, I deny that these reasons have some sort of distinct ontological status, or that they work in any way like Hale seems to think that they work.

For example, Hale listed seven possible reasons that a person might give for buying peanut butter.

1. It's healthy.
2. It's more natural.
3. It's better for the earth.
4. It's tasty.
5. It's less risky.
6. It will win . . . the praise of one's neighbors.
7. It comes in an attractive package.

When I first took I described this as a list of reasons for buying peanut butter. But some of these are not even reasons. For example, the claims that organic peanut butter is healthy (or, at least, more healthy than another alternative), is tasty, is less risky, and is better for the earth are potentially subject to dispute. Where these things are false, we may say that the person thinks he has a reason for buying organic peanut butter that he does not, in fact, have.

Hale agrees that some of the alleged reasons may not be true. However, he does not go so far (as he should) to declare that if the claims are not true, then these are merely reasons that the person believes he has, not reasons that he actually does have.

Just because a person claims to have a particular reason, this does not mean that they have such a reason, in the same way that a person claiming that something is true does not mean that it is true. A person has a reason to do X if and only if the agent has a desire that P and P will be made or kept true by doing X. A person may believe that P will be made or kept true by doing X, and thus believe that he has a reason to do X, but unless this belief is true, the reason does not exist.

"Better for the earth" is a reason that I question. Desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional action - the only reason for preferring one thing over another. One state of the earth is better than another if and only if it makes or keeps true the propositions of more and stronger desires. Even then, since the Earth has no desires, the Earth can obtain no benefit. However, something can still be better for the earth in the sense that it can be better for those who have an interest in the earth, in the same way that a particular additive may be better for the car's engine in the sense that it makes or keeps propositions true that those with an interest in the car's engines have in the (use of) the engine.

Here, Hale begins to distinguish between reasons that motivate an action and reasons that justify an action.

The reasons on this list are unique because they aim at justifying the purchase of the peanut butter. Thus, they're justificatory reasons. They don't so much explain the behavior as offer a reason why we ought to engage in the behavior. They therefore stand in sharp contrast to the motivational reasons that investigators and detectives were seeking to extract in the Smith case.

"The Smith case" refers to a murder case where the police were trying to explain what motivated a man to commit murder - which is different from the motivations that explain the fact that Smith committed murder.

Here, Hale seems to want to distinguish motivational reasons from justificatory reasons in the form of "either/or" - as mutually exclusive categories - in the same way that something may be a circle or a triangle.

Whereas I hold that the difference between justificatory reasons and motivational reasons is like the distinction between squares and rectangles. All justificatory reasons are motivational reasons, but not all motivational reasons are justificatory reasons.

Hale states that "motivational reasons explain behavior, justificatory reasons can only justify behavior." But doesn't a good reason need to do both - explain AND justify? If I repay some money that I borrowed, isn't the fact that I am repaying a debt supposed to do both explain why I pulled $20 out of my pocket and give it to the person who loaned me $20 the week before, and justify that action?

How can it be possible that something can ONLY justify behavior?

The final comment I would like to make on this passage concerns Hale's statement:

Many people, some philosophers included, would like to attribute the reasons exclusively to motivations and intentions, but it takes only a little reflection to see that the two are not necessarily linked. Only once we endorse and adopt such reasons do they become motivating for us, do they move us to action. More important, it is the reasons that we endorse and adopt, not the external causes that push our bodies around, that we evaluate when we evaluate a moral situation.

I am one of those philosophers that Hale was talking about.

Hale states that a justificatory reason only becomes motivational when we endorse and adopt it.

But why . . . and how . . . do we endorse and adopt it? Does this just happen? Is it a random event in nature such as the decay of a specific uranium atom where an agent suddenly discovers as a surprise that he has adopted and endorsed a particular reason? Or does adoption and endorsement itself require its own reason? It appears that these are actions of some type - actions that must be explained. Actions that must, in some sense, be motivated.

Now, the adoption and endorsement of Reason 1 may come about because of Reason 2. And Reason 2 may be its own justificatory reason. But then the adoption and endorsement of Reason 2 would require a decision based on some Reason 3. We have three options. Justificatory reasons are, themselves, motivational reasons. We suffer an infinite regress of justificatory reasons. Or the chain of justificatory reasons continues until it reaches a motivational reason - for the sake of which all further justificatory reasons are merely means.

I go with option 3. An aversion to pain gives a person a reason to cause in others an aversion to causing pain to others. The aversion to pain is a motivational reason. The aversion to causing pain to others is what Hale might call a justificatory reason, but it is a reason that we create - that we "adopt and endorse" - because the universal adoption and endorsement makes it less likely that we will experience pain.


Doug S. said...

In desirism terms, it seems as though what Hale calls a "motivational reason" is a desire a person actually has, while a "justificatory reason" is a desire that a hypothetical virtuous person would have.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well put. Well, I'm not certain about the degree to whether Hale recognizes a distinction between a reason that actually justifies and a reason that the agent merely thinks justifies his action. However, if we take the objective (actual justification) rather than the subjective (believed justification) sense, you may well be right.