Friday, January 04, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0006: Rights and Reasons

Thomas Hurka argued in his book, British Ethical Theorists, that they were conceptual minimalists. They did not like all of these evaluative terms running around and sought to reduce them to a bare minimum. For the most part, this one one or two concepts.

We discussed their (failed) attempts to reduce hypothetical ought to categorical ought in my post, The British Ethical Theorists 4: Hypothetical and Categorical Ought". I argued that categorical ought is the ought that does not exist.

In The British Ethical Theorists 5: Practical Ought, we discussed their attempts to reduce practical ought to moral categorical ought. This, too, failed since moral categorical oughts also do not exist. However, the claim that practical and moral oughts are the same that they are oughts, and differ only in their subject matter, has more merit. I argued that moral ought relates actions to good desires and the absence of bad desires, while practical ought related actions to the agent's actual desires. This has more in common with recognizing the difference between a tiger and a lion than the difference between a tiger and a tiger-eye rock.


One concept that they considered was the concept of a right.

Generally, rights are already widely recognized as being associated with duties.

There are "liberty rights" - which do not obligate other people to do anything but obligates them, instead, not to interfere. The right to freedom of speech is a liberty right. It does not obligate others to provide the speaker with the platform or take any action to help him exercise this right. However, it does obligate others not to interfere or to prevent him from speaking.

Plus, there are claim rights. Claim rights create positive duties (as opposed to the negative duties of liberty rights). For example, if I borrow $50 from you with a promise to pay you back next Tuesday, then you have a claim-right to my $50 on Tuesday and I have a positive duty to pay you $50.

Note that both types of right can be expressed in terms of duties, and the duties can be expressed as ought statements. Actually, liberty-rights are associated with ought-not statements; other people ought not to interfere with the agent doing that which the agent has a liberty-right to do. Claim rights come with positive duties since the person on whom the claim is being made has an obligation to do that which the claim-right demands of him. Either way, we find nothing here that distinguishes moral rightness from moral obligation; that is, from the obligation to do or to refrain from action.


According to Hurka, the BETs did not like discussion of reasons for a number of . . . well . . . reasons. Hurka himself defends the position that there are a number of problems with any type of talk using "reasons" and, if we limit our talk to "ought" instead, then we can avoid these problems and have a much clearer conversation.

One of the problems with the term "reasons" is that it is ambiguous between motivating reasons and normative reasons. The reason that the chicken crossed the road is a motivating reason, and may be quite different from the reason why the chicken ought to have crossed the road. Note that it is the normative reason that is tied to "ought", not the motivating reason. A person may have refused to fly because he has a fear of flying. This fear of flying motivates the agent to avoid flying, but it does not provide a normative reason as to why he ought to avoid flying.

Hurka wrote, "The ambiguity of 'reason' has given false support to the view that what you ought to do depends on what you desire, as if normative reasons had to be based on motivating ones." (p. 32). He also wrote, "It can be true that you ought to do some act you do not now desire even though you will do it only if you do desire it." (p. 32).

As somebody who thinks that all normative reasons have to be based on motivating ones, I do not see this as a mistake. No other types of reasons for action exist so, if motivating reasons do not provide normative reasons, then nothing does and there are no normative reasons. If a normative reason does not refer, somehow, to a motivating reason (desire) then it does not exist.

This is quite consistent with the claim that you ought to do some act you do not now desire even though you do it only if you do desire it. Though, actually, if we wanted to be even more precise, we would have to phrase it as the act that fulfills the desires you should have may not fulfill the desires you do have, even though you would not perform the act unless it did fulfill the desires you do have. After all, there is a reason why morality is concerned with actually creating good desires and inhibiting bad desires - and this is because these are the desires that will actually be motivating behavior.

On another matter, Hurka wrote that, "The term "reason' is also silent on a key issue dividing the concepts 'ought' and 'good': whether it is a necessary condition for having a reason to do x that you be able to do x." Hurka does not explain this problem, and it is not obvious. The answer according to desirism holds that a person can have a reason to create $1,000 in her possession by snapping her fingers even though she cannot do so. It only requires that the act be such as to fulfill the desires in question, which it would be. At the same time, it may be a mistake to say that you ought (in the practical-ought sense) to snap your fingers given that it will not create $1000. So, it does seem to be the case that "ought" refers to what an agent actually can do, while "has a reason" refers to things the agent cannot do. However, this does not argue for getting rid of the term "right" and limiting conversation only to "ought", because sometimes the question we have is what a person "has a reason" to do - particularly when one person is trying to do something for somebody else that he somebody else cannot do for themselves. The recipient in the gift "has a reason" to receive the gift even though she may not make it happen.

Lastly, Hurka questioned whether 'normative reason' is an independent concept. Indeed, we can ask, what is a normative reason? As I use the term, I first distinguish between "has a reason" and "there is a reason". Agent has a normative reason to do X if and only if Agent has a desire that would be served by agent doing X. Plus, there is a reason for Agent to do X if and only if there is a desire that would be served by Agent doing X. Notice, in the second case, the reason for action is non-motivating. The reason for action may motivate the person who has it to praise Agent if Agent does x and condemn Agent if Agent does not do X. But it does not motivate Agent in the slightest. So, here is at least one use for the concept of a normative reason - to distinguish between the reasons the agent has (motivating reasons) and the reasons that there are (reasons that motivate others).


This, then, gives us a sense of the various value-laden concepts that circulate around the term "ought". In the last few posts, I have discussed categorical ought (it does not exist), hypothetical ought (the only type that does exist), prudential ought (such as to fulfill the desires of he agent), moral ought (such as to fulfill the desires of an agent who has good desires and lacks bad desires), liberty rights (a right associated by a duty on the part of others not to interfere), claim rights (a right associated by a duty on the part of others to perform a specific action, motivational reasons (the desires that the agent has, which supports the claim that the agent has a reason to do X), and normative reasons (the desires that exist, which supports the claim that there are reasons for Agent to do X).

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