Monday, May 26, 2008

Open-ended deliberation

As I wrote last month:
These [normative] skeptics usually presuppose a kind of naive Humeanism, according to which preferences are 'given' and automatically combine with beliefs to yield action. But that can't possibly be right, because it leaves no room for the familiar phenomenon of deliberation. We are agents with the capacity for practical reasoning, i.e. the assessment of reasons that count for or against various courses of action. This is a self-consciously normative process of decision: just as theoretical reasoning addresses the question what should I believe?, so practical reasoning addresses the question what should I do? Insofar as you think of yourself as a rational agent at all, you must be engaging with these normative questions; the alternative is to be a mere automaton, a reflexive stimulus-response machine. Most of us are more deliberative; but deliberation is inherently normative: it addresses a question for which there may be better or worse answers.

Robin Hanson responded that he has no problem reflecting on what he wants. But I think that is insufficient to capture all practical deliberation.

One way to bring this out is to note how constrained deliberation on Robin's question must be. If our 'wants' or desires are given prior to deliberation, then an answer to the question 'what do I most want?' is limited to the contents of your pre-existing desires. Your ends are already fixed; all that remains to be determined is which desires are strongest (a mechanistic process which does not seem to call for any kind of choice or decision in any case), and then the instrumental question how to fulfill them.

But as agents with fully general rational capacities, it is possible for us to engage in open-ended deliberation. Our practical conclusions are no more determined by our prior states of desire than our theoretical conclusions are determined by our prior states of belief. (Though both will be of significant influence, for sure.) Regardless of my prior ends, if you can convince me that some new end is more worth pursuing, I must -- on pain of irrationality -- come to adopt that end myself.

The desire theorist may insist that this just shows that you have come to have a new desire, and it's still this desire which is responsible for motivating your eventual action. But this is an empty claim: the desire was a product of your rational deliberation, rather than an input to it. So it is your reason which is the ultimate source of motivation in this case.


  1. Hmm... but you can be a normative skeptic while still believing in rational deliberation, the rational deliberation would just have to be about desires. I might have desires that conflict, for example, and that are incommensurable with respect to strength. In that case, deliberating might tell me which desire to keep, without referring to any kind of normative statement in the ordinary sense. (I assume here that we're talking about normativity in the thick sense, i.e., some kind of moral claim, not things like desire consistency.)

    Likewise, I might have incomplete epistemic access to my desires. So, on that account, if someone convinces me to adopt a new end, what they're really doing is revealing the desires I already have.

    (I don't think I buy any of this stuff myself, mind, but it does seem like the sort of stuff Robin could say without being obviously wrong...)

  2. To follow up Paul's comment above, I might also have desires that are uninformed, shortsighted, instrumentally mistaken, etc. There is all sorts of room for deliberation about the desires one has that is compatible with the Humean position. For instance, consider the desire to "attend" Online University in the belief that an Online degree is the best way to prepare oneself for graduate work. We could argue about whether anyone should desire to go to Online as a means to that particular goal. Or consider a desires whose etiology is some psychological trauma. We could argue that, given the etiology of the desire for X, X might not be something you would on reflection want. The Humean commitment is to there being some fundamental, fully informed, etiologically healthy desires that are otherwise not open to rational assessment. Brute desires, if you will. But then, lots of non-Humeans are committed there being some things that are valuable, full stop, in a similarly brutal, don't-you-just-see-that-gratuitous-harm-is-bad, way.

  3. Paul, how could deliberation tell a normative skeptic "which desire to keep"? If they are incommensurable with respect to strength, on what basis is the skeptic assessing them? (Others might try to assess which desire is best, but this brings us back to making normative claims.)

    Mike points to instrumental deliberation (which I mention in passing in my post), and also structured deliberation, i.e. bringing one's first-order desires into line with one's higher-order desires (about etiology and such). But what basis does the normative skeptic have for privileging higher-order desires, unless they happen to be stronger? Indeed, Robin Hanson has told me that he considers such higher-order repudiations (e.g. by reluctant addicts) to merely be another clashing desire with no special normative authority. As with any such intrapersonal conflict, the strongest desire will eventually win out. There still doesn't seem any place for deliberation here, at least on his view.

    (Mike - if the 'Humean view' is just that there are some brute desires, that is not my target in this post. I'm addressing the position according to which all motivation must be traceable to some pre-existing desire, so that reason or belief cannot ever be the ultimate source of motivation.)

    Paul - "I might have incomplete epistemic access to my desires. So, on that account, if someone convinces me to adopt a new end, what they're really doing is revealing the desires I already have."

    That's an interesting idea. I take your suggestion to be this: Given incomplete epistemic access, deliberation might seem open-ended from a first-personal perspective, even if it's psychologically impossible to actually persuade anyone to adopt ends they don't already (unknowingly) endorse. That's probably the best way for the skeptic to go here. But it seems quite a bullet to bite nonetheless: there doesn't seem any good basis for thinking that this is really psychologically impossible. I'm willing to bet you could take two physical duplicates and end up persuading them to adopt different and opposing ends. The skeptic would then have to insist that at least one of these cases was not really rational persuasion, but brainwashing and the non-rational inculcation of new desires instead. But why think that? If the skeptic is forced to make all these ad hoc claims, that seems like a good reason not to be a normative skeptic.

  4. Richard: on the incommensurables, they might be assessing the desires on the basis of, e.g., some notion of their own identity and character. (There's an interesting remark toward the end of an article of Ruth Chang's on this -- the idea that picking between incommensurables might be part of a process of Williams-esque character formation.) If I have two conflicting desires, and I can't weigh their strength, and I deny some overarching scheme of normative value with which to evaluate them, I might still be able to pick the one that is "most like me."

    I think your brainwashing case is an objection not only to the normative skeptic who thinks that preexisting desires are all, but also to the normative realist. If you could take two physical duplicates and persuade them to adopt different and opposing ends, most normative realists would be committed to thinking that one of them was brainwashed/non-rationally persuaded too, since (ex hypothesi) opposing ends can't both be normatively justified. (Unless, I guess, the normative realist is committed to strong claims about, e.g., the fragmentation of value.)

  5. Maybe I'm missing something here, but it seems like a Humean normative skeptic would simply say that any motivation resulting from practical deliberation ultimately originates in the desires you start with, just like any belief resulting from theoretical deliberation ultimately originates in the beliefs you start with. I don't see that this view has really been engaged or undermined.

    There is this: "The skeptic would then have to insist that at least one of these cases was not really rational persuasion, but brainwashing and the non-rational inculcation of new desires instead." But I would have thought a normative skeptic would make no normative discriminations among different desire-forming processes, and would therefore refuse to call one rational and another non-rational. After all, this is a normative skeptic we're talking about.

    But again, maybe I'm missing something.

  6. Sorry I didn't notice this discussion before. You seem to be assuming a time asymmetry, whereby wants are pre-existing but shoulds are not. I don't see why this must be so. As Paul and Mike said, it seems you can analyze and uncover wants just as much as shoulds. And in a deterministic universe the end result of any deliberation must be implicit in initial conditions of that deliberation. Also, I don't see why desires need be more incommensurable than normative considerations.

  7. Paul - people can rationally come to the wrong conclusion, if they are exposed to incomplete evidence or one-sided arguments, for example. That's no problem for the realist.

    Robin - right, I don't think desires are incommensurable (with respect to strength) either; that was a possibility Paul introduced in hopes of clearing room for open deliberation. Otherwise, the strengths of the input desires suffice to determinate what the output (conclusion) will be.

    Note that I have no beef with determinism. I'm happy to grant that "the end result of any deliberation must be implicit in initial conditions [broadly construed] of that deliberation." My point is simply that one's propositional attitudes (beliefs and desires) should not suffice on that count. It matters in addition what reasoning we engage in, and though this may be determined in the broadest sense, it is certainly not determined by our beliefs and desires alone.

    [Aside to God-rousing Dog Pipes: I absolutely agree that practical deliberation (about what to do) is on a par with theoretical deliberation (about what to believe). My point is precisely that nobody thinks that the outcome of theoretical deliberation is determined solely by your prior state of belief. See this linked post for more on this point.]

    On to the core objection: "You seem to be assuming a time asymmetry, whereby wants are pre-existing but shoulds are not. I don't see why this must be so."

    Wants are mental states, which presumably exist prior to deliberating. If not -- if reasoning about whether to X can create a new desire to X when before there was none -- then this is effectively to reject Humeanism, as I explain in the final paragraph of my main post.

    This doesn't really seem to be your suggestion, though. You go on: "As Paul and Mike said, it seems you can analyze and uncover wants just as much as shoulds."

    Here you seem to be suggesting that the wants are pre-existing (otherwise there would be nothing to 'uncover'); they were just implicit, not introspectively accessible, or some such. On that possibility, see the latter part of my previous response to Paul.

    Perhaps I could summarize my argument as follows:

    (P1) Two agents with initially identical propositional attitudes could nonetheless come to different conclusions, and be motivated to perform different actions, because they engage in different reasoning.

    (C1) Reason can thus be a source of (or influence on) motivation, independently of one's prior desires.

    (P2) Further, this would only make sense if the reasoning were directed at some question beyond the shared mental states themselves.

    (P3) Practical reasoning is a sensible pursuit.

    (C2) Therefore: practical reasoning addresses a question (namely: 'what should I do?') that goes beyond the merely psychological question 'what do I want?'


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