Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Are Prudential Reasons Special?

Alex writes:
It seems that prudential reasons are intimately tied to what we want in some manner that moral reasons are not. I hope to show that this claim is false.

Sounds false to me. I guess the putative "tie" could go in either direction: from 'wanting' to reasons, or from appreciating reasons to 'wanting'. But in neither case does there seem anything special about prudential reasons in particular.

From 'wanting' to 'reasons': A desire theorist may think that prudential reasons are given by what we would ideally want for our own sakes, or something along those lines. But then they will presumably give a similar analysis for moral reasons, only with a different restriction (or no restriction at all). Some idealization is necessary, of course, because our actual present desires may not suffice to ground either morality or prudence -- cf. future Tuesday indifference.

From 'reasons' to 'wanting': We can imagine an 'aprudentialist' who doesn't care about his own future welfare, just as we can imagine an 'amoralist' who cares nothing for the welfare of others. Normative reasons are never guaranteed to be motivating -- agents may be irrational, after all, or simply act on desires which aren't guaranteed to align with either prudence or morality, as noted above.

Moreover, the impassioned may care more about loved ones and valued projects than they do about their own welfare, in which case (some) moral reasons may have greater motivational force than prudential reasons. In this case, the motivationally significant distinction is not between prudential and moral reasons, but between internalized and merely recognized values. The latter are experienced as 'alienating', insofar as they place demands on us that conflict with our internalized 'wants' or preferences. Now, it happens that most folks have internalized their own interests but not everyone else's, and hence it's only moral reasons that they experience as alienating. But don't forget that some moral reasons may also stem from internalized values, so not all will be alienating in this way. And even this limited connection is a merely psychological fact, of no great philosophical interest.

Overall, I'm pretty skeptical of the distinctive philosophical interest of prudential reasons, or of any similarly restricted class of practical reasons, for that matter. Any apparent interest to the prudential-moral content distinction may be better captured by the distinction between internalized and uninternalized (alienating) values.

See also: Moral Roots and Alienating Aspirations.


  1. I'm inclined to the same sort of skepticism; the distinction seems to have been developed in a very narrow context (early disputes over whether utilitarianism properly deals with moral reasons, if I understand correctly) and while people have tried to use it in other ways since then, I'm not convinced it has ever contributed much of lasting value.

  2. "Sounds false to me."

    I'm not sure if you mean to agree that prudential and moral reasons relate to desire in the same manner, or whether you meant to disagree with my suggestion that, at first glance, it seems as though the reverse is true.

    In the former case, I obviously agree. However, most of the interesting work comes in showing exactly how this is true. I don't think your suggestion (that both relate only to what we ideally would want) is the best way to go, for numerous reasons that I'll probably reprint at my place sometime.

    In the latter case, my point was simply that the average non-philosopher would probably be happy to say things like: "You ought to look after your mum whether you want to or not! That's the entire point of it being an obligation!"

  3. Overall, I'm pretty skeptical of the distinctive philosophical interest of... any similarly restricted class of practical reasons

    I do think there's something mildly interesting about reasons grounded in the satisfaction of one's current desires. These are reasons which are necessarily motivating, just because they come out of a motivational state.

  4. Alex - wouldn't the average non-philosopher be just as happy to say that it's prudent to go to the dentist whether I want to or not? (Maybe your point is just that these cases of 'aprudential' motivation are less immediately obvious to many people than cases of amoralism.)

    Neil - that's a fair point. I should have specified that by "similarly restricted" I meant "restricted in terms of their content". (I'm interested in the restriction to reasons stemming from internalized values, for example. Current-desire-based reasons could be another interesting case.)

  5. "wouldn't the average non-philosopher be just as happy to say that it's prudent to go to the dentist whether I want to or not?"

    I imagine that many people would accept that it's prudent to go to the dentist now only if it's true that you have some desire satisfied by going - to avoid pain in the future, say.


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