Saturday, May 21, 2005

Motives and Reasons

Motives and (normative) reasons are clearly not the same thing. If someone behind my back (and without my knowledge) is swinging a baseball bat at my head, then I have reason to duck, though I do not realize it and so fail to be motivated to do so. Still, there seems an important connection between them. It seems that reasons are things that would motivate us, if only we knew about them. But is this necessarily so?

My earlier taxonomy effectively identifies subjective reason with free motivation - though I should be careful not to confuse recognition of a fact that is a reason with recognizing that fact as a reason. Of course we will be motivated by whatever we see as reasons, i.e. what I taxonomized as "s-reasons". But - the more important question - what about "p-reasons"? Are they possible? Might we recognize that some fact (which just so happens to be a reason) is true, yet fail to see the fact as a reason? This is not so clear.

Suppose not. Then we might seem to be committed to a desire-based theory of reasons:
the core assumption... 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.

But is this 'potential motivational force' truly essential to the concept of a reason? Must an objective reason be recognized as a reason by all factually-informed agents? If so, then it would seem the amoralist is correct. From the mere fact that the (informed) amoralist is not motivated to act morally, it would follow that the amoralist has no reason to be moral. But we might wish to deny this, and hold that the amoralist is in error: there are reasons for action that they are failing to recognize, namely, those provided by the demands of morality.

Let 'rational internalism' (not to be confused with moral reasons internalism) be the claim that reasons must potentially motivate, as above. (That is, the denial that p-reasons are possible.) Does rational internalism vindicate the amoralist? I think there are two ways this could be avoided. One would be to deny belief-desire psychology, and argue that there are intrinsically motivating beliefs ('besires'). That sounds odd to me, but some philosophers do defend this view. (I wonder what psychologists have to say about it?) The other option is to claim that new beliefs could influence our basic desires, which again I find implausible, but as it's a psychological question, we philosophers probably aren't in any position to comment.

Leaving aside those complications then, we have the two basic options: adopt rational internalism and admit that the amoralist has no reason to be good, or else reject rational internalism. Which option do we have most reason to pick? [And how would the rational internalist answer if I had no motivation to adopt his theory? ;)]


  1. In cognitive science, there are different terms for different types of desires. For the most part, desires as a whole are referred to as "goals." Biological goals (or desires), which are mostly about maintaining homeostasis, are usually referred to as "needs." Biological needs include sustenance, water, and if you're a drug addict, whatever chemicals you need to balance out your brain chemistry. After that, there are all sorts of different types of non-need goals, many of which are associated with needs (e.g., to some extent, the goal to earn money is associated with needs like obtaining sustenance, or drugs, if you're an addict).

    The interplay between our representations of the world (of which at least a large subset could be called "beliefs") and goals is very interesting. Much of the research in this area has been done with needs (e.g., the "need to eat," the "need to smoke," etc.). Our goals influence our perception of the world (in one really cool study, the perceived length of cigarettes was positively correlated with the need to smoke), as well as the value we place on objects in the world -- goal-related objects, such as food or cigarettes, are seen as more valuable when the particular need is high, and goal-unrelated objects are seen as less valuable than they would if we didn't have a strongly activated goal.

    On the other hand, our representations of the world can affect both our specific goals and the content of our goals. For the most part, our needs are not directly affected by our beliefs (we are going to need food whether we believe we do or not), but the shape they take in our interactions with the world can be. For instance, in one study, researchers looked at how people valued different food items at different times of day. Because goal-relevant items are valued, and goal-irrelevant items are devalued, looking at how much people value particular food items is a good measure of what the contents of their goals are. What they found is that, in the mornings, breakfast foods were more highly valued than non-breakfast foods (which were actually slightly, though I think non-significantly, devalued relative to a neutral condition), while in the evenings, dinner foods were more highly valued than breakfast foods (which, if I recall, i were significantly devalued). I can't think of any way to explain this other than to reference our representations (largely associations, in this case, I suspect) of what kinds of foods we should eat at different times of the day. I think it's reasonable to say that this is a case of beliefs affecting the content of our desires.

    The affects of beliefs on desires (goals) is even more apparent for non-needs. The type of car we want, or even the fact that we want a car, is largely dependent on socialization. Of course, we have a fundamental desire to be a part of society, to "fit in" to some degree and function within the boundaries of the social world, and thus many of our specific goals can be seen as offshoots of that, but the specific goals themselves are often determined by beliefs about the way the world is.

    In other words, I think the second of your options (that new beliefs can affect our basic desires) is possible, assuming that I understand what you mean by basic (I take it to mean "needs" along with, perhaps, certain innate desires that are a bit more abstract, like the desire to "fit in"), though it probably won't determine the existence of such desires. I'm not exactly sure whether p-reasons are possible, mostly because I'm not quite sure I understand what a p-reason is. It is quite possible (in fact, it happens all the time) that we have a consciously accessible belief, and that this belief serves as a reason for our behaving in a certain way, but that we do not have access to how it affects our behavior. In this case, we'd have the belief, but not know that it was a reason for acting in a certain way. I'm not sure if this is the same thing as having a p-reason, though.

  2. Chris, thanks for the helpful comment.

    "I can't think of any way to explain this other than to reference our representations (largely associations, in this case, I suspect) of what kinds of foods we should eat at different times of the day."

    Couldn't we simply say that people desire different foods at different times of the day? Or perhaps it is derivative from a desire to eat appropriate foods + a belief that cereals are appropriate at breakfast (or whatever).

    I guess the crucial question here is whether such a strict separation between belief and desire is scientifically plausible. Are they really two distinct psychological states, such that one could exist without the other? Or might we just have a single, irreducible, representation that "we should eat cereals at breakfast", and this alone (without regard to any desires, such as those mentioned above) is sufficient to motivate a person?

    As for 'basic' desires, they are ones which do not depend upon any further desires - they provide intrinsic motivation. Thus if I want money merely in order to buy food, my desire for money is not basic. As I discussed in my post on the origin of ends, though beliefs will shape our non-basic desires, it's difficult to see how they could have any influence over our ultimate, basic, desires. Why would my belief that "cereals are appropriate at breakfast" affect my actions unless I have a prior desire to "eat appropriate foods"?

    (You can probably tell that I'm deeply entrenched in the Humean belief-desire model which sees all beliefs as being motivationally inert, with the "push" being provided purely by our various desires. Beliefs merely serve to 'steer' or 'guide' this raw force. At least, that's the theory.)

    "I'm not quite sure I understand what a p-reason is."

    Yeah, that would be unclear if you haven't read my earlier post. It's important to note that by "reason" I do not mean a motivating reason (i.e. the reason behind someone's action) - I'm using the word "motive" for that instead. Rather, by "reason" I am talking about normative reasons, i.e. something that would justify an action, or count in favour of it, quite independently of whether the person is *actually* motivated by this reason. (My initial example of the baseball bat should help clarify this.)

    Now, I define a partial or "p-reason" as follows:
    1) S believes that fact F obtains.
    2) F constitutes a (normative) reason for S to do X.

    The tricky thing is when S refuses to accept that (2) is true. Thus I gave (in the earlier post) the example of an egoist libertarian (S) who saw a child drowning (fact F), but failed to recognize that this fact gave her reason to save the child (action X).

    Really this is all just a fancy way of asking whether we can have reason to do something independently of our own desires/motivations. From the fact that S doesn't care about the drowning child, does it follow that she has no reason to save him? (This question is firmly back on the philosophical side of the ballpark. But you're still welcome to answer if you want!)


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