Saturday, March 12, 2005


Here's a very simple view about reasons. It makes just two claims:

(O) You have (objective) reason to do that which would best fulfill your desires in actual fact.

(S) You have subjective reason to do that which is most likely to fulfill your desires, given your beliefs.

This makes it clear why true beliefs are so worthwhile. They help us to close the gap between subjective and objective reasons, allowing us to notice (and act on) the best reasons. But this benefit would accrue to any theory which made a similar distinction between objective reasons and belief-relative 'subjective' ones. So the real issue here is with the substance of (O) - that we only have reason to fulfill our desires. (See also my related post on the desire-fulfillment theory of wellbeing.)

I guess the core assumption behind this view is that a reason is necessarily something that would guide the action of an informed agent. But according to the belief-desire theory of action, all action aims at desire-fulfillment. So the agent would treat as action-guiding only information that was relevant to the fulfillment of his desires. If you presented him with a 'reason' which appealed to some end that he did not share (i.e. desire), then he would not consider it a reason to act at all.

Any objections? Could there be reasons that informed agents would not care about?


  1. The agent may also decide to re-evaluate his initial desires...

    But for the most part I think that this is an accurate portrayal of rational discourse, one man's reason is another man's irrelevance. This leaves the idea of an objectively reached conclusion utterly laughable don't you think Richard?

  2. I don't think I'd go that far! But I should clarify that in this post I was talking about practical reasons, i.e. reasons for action. Theoretical reasons (reasons for beliefs) are somewhat different. So I'm not sure that what I've written here necessarily has any implications for "rational discourse" in the theoretical sense?

  3. But I've taken it is a reason to believe in the futility of objectivity... drats. lol

  4. Hello. (Again, does anyone return to things that are six months old?)

    1) "This makes it clear why true beliefs are so worthwhile" For this argument to work, one must assume that one can know beforehand what one's desires are. At some levels, this makes perfect sense: I will go to the party because I know I will enjoy it, and while there fufill desires for excitement and companionship. One does not need to be a philosopher to exercise this kind of advantageous rationality. At other levels, it is questionable: can I know beforehand whether the girl in the green hat will be more fulfilling than the loquacious drunk in the corner?; is it not an important feature of many enjoyable experiences that they are spontaneous, accidental or unexpected (and we don't want to dismiss the drunk as a "token of a type")? One might improve ones chance of fulfilling ones desires by thinking a little more carefully, but too much thought can be superfluous, or even disadvantageous.

    2) You also assume that the fulfilled desire and the act of pursuing it are distinct. "In the end," wrote Neitschze (does anyone know how to spell it?), "we do not love the object of our desires but the desire itself", and I am inclined to agree with him. Where does the satisfaction lie: in anticipating the thirst-slaking drink, or in drinking it? Some is in the latter, but a large amount is in the former. Jane Austen also agrees: "..the anticipation of future happiness, which is happiness iself." Tolstoy also agrees: Vronsky commited "the great error of beleving that one's happiness lies in the fulfillment of ones desire." Socrates agreed with them all: "love is of a lack." The point is that one does not need to hold a true beleif in order to fulfill ones desires, but only to hold the beleif; also, to beleive that one cannot fulfill any desire except by acheiving some final object, is to neglect all of the happiness that comes from the act of desiring.

  5. Nietzsche, I think :). And I get automatic notification of all new comments, though it's unlikely many others will fall across them (unless I mention it again in a new post). Anyway, on to the substance...

    I grant that anticipating satisfaction can itself be pleasant. And sometimes we can indeed desire a mental state itself, e.g. just desiring to be happy, even if we have to be deceived in order to bring this happiness about. But that's just a special case. (And it is still realized when the desire is fulfilled in fact: it just so happens that the way to fulfill it in fact is to be happy now, by whatever means.) None of this changes the fact that the fulfillment of what we want is (by definition!) what we value. See my essay on wellbeing for more detail.


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