Monday, July 23, 2018


I have been reading In Praise of Desire by Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder.

The book defends a desire-centered theory of moral psychology which, at least at this general level, is quite relevant to my interests. I think that I am going to end up disagreeing with them on the role of praise and condemnation, and on what a good (or bad) desire happens to be, let alone a right and wrong action. However, in general, their claims on the psychology of desire seem to be consistent with the ideas that I have presented here.

Furthermore, they extend these ideas into areas that I have not considered.

One such area is "deliberation".

The authors raise this subject in the context of discussing the idea that, for an action to be done for a reason, it must be brought about through deliberation. The authors, instead, want to argue that reasons can cause action without deliberation being involved.

To make their case, their first premise is that deliberation itself is an action. Deliberating on an action is something we choose to do - or choose not to do - just as we choose to fix ourselves a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or to work on a philosophy blog on the nature of desire.

Evidence that deliberation itself is an action is found not only in the fact that it is something we can choose to do or not do, but also in the ways we may not have such a choice. In the same way that alcohol can impair one's ability to drive home, alcohol can impair one's ability to deliberate. In the same way that a boss can command a person to modify a website, a boss can command a person to present his ideas on the merits of a new in-house procedure for employee promotions.

If deliberation is an action, this has additional implications that Arpaly and Schroeder do not go into in detail - though they mention it in passing. We can be morally responsible for our deliberations. We can be responsible for failing to deliberate when we had an obligation to do so and, when deliberating, for deliberating well or poorly (responsibly or irresponsibly). These are welcome implications within the context of this blog which has tried to stress epistemic responsibility. (If the reader has not seen this blog as stressing epistemic responsibility, then I need to try harder, because I consider it one of the greatest moral failings of our age - a responsibility on which the very survival of humanity may depend.)

After extablishing the idea that deliberation itself is an action, this raises a problem for the thesis that an action requires deliberation. It results in an infinite regress. An action requires deliberation, which is an action, which requires deliberation, which is an action, which requires deliberation. Arpaly and Schroeder consider a number of ways in which "action requires deliberation" can avoid this infinite regress, and comes up with responses to each of them.

The consequence of this argument is that an action (or, more recisely, acting for a reason) does not require deliberation. At the very least, deliberation (which is acting for a reason) does not require deliberation. From here, the authors argue that deliberation is a paradigm type of action with no need to assume that other forms of action are somehow different. This means that other types of action (or, more precisely, other cases of acting for a reason) do not require deliberation.

Desirism has always included under its account of an intentional action any action performed in service to a desire. It doesn't require deliberation of any type. The antelope who notices movement in the brush, who gets a little nervous, and decides to wander away from the line of brush further into the open field, is not deliberating on the value of moving away from the bushes. She simply feels uncomfortable and decides to move away. A person walking into a room and turning on the light so that he can see doesn't deliberate. He turns on the light so that he can see.

Indeed, the prime example that the authors wish to bring to our attention is the act of deliberating itself.

Deliberate on whether morality can be objective.

A person will start to deliberate without first deliberating on whether he should deliberate about morality being objective. And he certainly does not need to deliberate about whether to deliberate on whether morality being objective. Instead, he simply starts the task of deliberating on whether morality is objective. This is true in the same way that he simply turns on the switch when he sees that the room is dark, or avoids the dark alley that makes him feel a little anxious and apprehensive.

Another clear example of where a failure to deliberate is not necessary for action concerns acts of negligence. A person picks up a gun, points it at another, and pulls the trigger. He fails to properly consider whether the gun might be loaded. His action is intentional - in the sense that he may be blamed for the action (even if he does not end up shooting somebody). Yet, much of the moral blame rests precisely on the fact that he failed to deliberate - he failed to consider the possibility that the gun was loaded. The thought, at least in our example, did not cross his mind. Yet, the failure of the thought to cross his mind is precisely that for which he is being condemned.

So, as far as I can tell, we should grant this . . . intentional action can have causes that are not, themselves, deliberations. They are simply interactions between desire and belief that do not require thinking about. This is not to say that we cannot think about things. This is not to say that we should not think about things. This is only to say that, when one performs an action, that the action does not have to result from deliberation. The agent can simply act, and yet the act is still intentional, deliberate, and one for which she may be held morally responsible.

And, indeed, deliberation itself, or fail to deliberate, or failure to deliberate responsibly, can be something for which an agent can be morally responsible.

So, if deliberation is an action, and it does not require deliberation, what does deliberation require? And are these the same requirements that apply to other types of action?

I will discuss these concerns shortly.

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