Saturday, July 07, 2018

Michael Smith: Three Counterexamples to the Humean Theory of Motivation

In "The Humean Theory of Motivation", Michael Smith defends the Humean theory of motivation from three counter-examples.

(Smith, Michael (1987), "A Humean Theory of Motivation," Mind, Vol. 96, No. 381.)

I consider this defense interesting, not because Smith fails in providing a defense (he does not), but the language that he uses in that defense. It is quite different from the language that I would use.

The dispute in one sense is purely semantic, it is a dispute over the use of terms. However, semantic disputes can have one important consequence. They can make things more or less confusing. So, if I were to say, "Donald Trump is a great president," and take it to mean "Donald Trump is a lying, hypocritical bigot who is unfit to hold political office," we could call this purely a semantic dispute, but it could yield a great deal of confusion.

Case 1: The Picasso

The first case involves an individual who wishes to purchase a Picasso painting. Let's call him Alph. Alph is offered a Picasso painting at a quite reasonable price. However, he does not believe that it is a Picasso painting, so he refuses to buy it.

Does Alph want to purchase this painting?

Smith says, "No." I say, "Yes".

To explain my "yes" answer, I ask the question of whether Alph has a desire that would be fulfilled if he purchased the painting. He does. Therefore, he wants to purchase the painting.

It is no mystery on my account that Alph will say that he does not want to purchase the painting. This is what he believes, and Alph is certain to say what he believes. However, the question of what Alph would say - even what Alph would sincerely say - is not the same as the question of what is true. The question, "Does Alph want to buy the painting" is a question about what is true.

I can supply some support for this answer.

Let us say that the salesperson, instead of selling Alph the painting, offers it to Alph in the form of a lottery. He takes a white stone and black stone, puts his hands behind his back, and puts a stone in each hand. He offers Alph a choice. "Pick the white stone, and you get the painting?" He then asks Alph, "Which hand do you want?"

Alph clearly wants to choose the hand with the white stone. He does not know which hand it is, but there is a clear answer to the question, "Which hand do you want?" that is independent of Alph's beliefs on this matter. The hand with the white stone.

Smith's answer is:

[T]he reason that I have to buy the painting in front of me is a normative reason. For it suffices for the truth of the claim that I have such a reason, that there is a requirement-in this case, in the broad sense, a requirement of rationality"-that I buy the painting in front of me.

Smith is distinguishing between motivating reasons (those that cause action) from normative reasons (good reasons). Clearly, Alph does not have a motivating reason to purchase the painting. After all, he was not moved to purchase it. Still, he has a normative reason to purchase the painting. This is the reason based on the standards of rationality.

However, this introduces a potential confusion. Alph might not be the least bit irrational in believing that the Picasso is a forgery. There is no requirement of rationality that requires Smith to purchase the painting that he falsely believes is a forgery. That requirement would depend on the rationality of his belief that it is a forgery.

In the case of choosing hands, assuming that the distribution of stones was truly random, there is no "requirement of rationality" that would help Alph choose the hand with the white stone.

Remember, I am not saying that Smith is incorrect. This is a semantic dispute. The question is: Which use of terms makes the most sense. It isn't even a question of what use of the terms conforms best to standard usage, since standard usage itself may be likely to lead to confusion and error. That, at least to my mind, is: Does Alph want the painting? Yes. Does he believe that he wants the painting? No.

Case 2: Stepping On Toes.

Smith describes the second case as follows:

Suppose that I am standing on someone's foot so causing him pain, and that I know that this is what I am doing. Surely we can imagine its being appropriate for an outsider to say that I have a reason to get off his foot even though I lacked the relevant desire, and, indeed, even if I desired to cause him pain.

As an outsider, I think it is simply false to say that Smith has a reason to get off of his victim's foot. Smith SHOULD have a reason. A properly motivated person WOULD have a reason. However, neither of these truths imply that Smith DOES have a reason. If he has no desire that would be fulfilled by getting off the foot, then he has no reason to get off of the foot.

Smith, in contrast, wants to make the case for saying that he does have a reason to get off of the foot.

For it suffices for the truth of the claim that I have a reason to get off his foot that there exists a requirement-in this case moral-that I do not cause him pain, and that, in the present circumstances, in order to comply with that requirement I have to get off his foot.

That "there exists a requirement" only implies that "there exists a reason". It does not imply "Smith has a reason", in the same way that "there exists a 1969 Plymouth Valiant" implies "there exists a car". It does not imply "Smith has a car."

I would further make the claim, in the case of moral requirements, that if the moral claim was true then people generally have reasons to cause Smith to have a reason to get off of the foot. People generally can provide Smith with a reason by giving him an incentive (payment), or threatening to harm him. I would also argue - though I do not have the space to do so here - that people generally have reasons to cause people universally, including Smith, to have an aversion to causing others pain. This is another sense in which Smith should have a reason to get off of the foot. Yet, none of this implies that Smith has a reason to do so.

Here, I would attribute the habit of saying that people have a reason to do what is moral is based on a mistake that goes as far back as the ancient Greeks that says that a person always has a reason to do what is moral, because what is moral always benefits the individual in some way. One of the ways in which people always have a reason to do what is moral, according to ancient doctrines, is that good people are rewarded in the afterlife and evil people are punished. Where more recent understanding of reasons and motivation suggest that this is not the case, they also suggest that we should give up this old way of speaking.

Case 3: Drinking Petrol

Smith's third case is that of a person - let us call him James - who wants a gin and tonic and, thinking that the glass in front of him contains tonic (though it actually contains petrol), pours some tonic into it. This, according to Smith, seems to create a problem for his thesis since the agent has no reason to drink what is in the glass even though he has the relevant beliefs (that it is a gin and tonic) and desires (to drink a gin and tonic).

I would treat this case the same way as Case 1. James has no desire for what is in the glass. He thinks he does. However, just as with Case 1, there is a difference between what is true and what James believes is true. While James believes he has a reason to drink what is in the glass, his belief is mistaken. He has no reason to drink what is in the glass because it is not that which would fulfill his desires.

Again, I can find some support for this use of the term.

Assume that somebody else, Jimmy, sees what happened. Just as James is about to take a drink, Jimmie puts his and over the top of the glass and tells James, "You don't want to do that."

James statement is perfectly sensible, and true. More to the point, James' most reasonable response to Jimmy is not, "You are obviously mistaken." It is "Why not?" Again, there is a truth of the matter as to whether James wants to drink what is in the glass, James knows this, and James is asking for the evidence that will help him to determine whether what he believes to be the case is actually the case. Whether his belief that he wants to drink what is in the glass is true or false.


I think that there is a lot of confusion on these issues because people have adopted a confusing vocabulary. It is a vocabulary that clouds the distinction between what is the case and what people believe to be the case. This confusion messes up a lot of the discussion. I hope to avoid some of this confusion by using these terms in what I hope to be a clearer and more consistent way. I could be wrong. I could simply be making matters more confusing for some readers. However, I hope this is not the case.

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