Saturday, January 02, 2010

Rational Irrationality and Act/Attitude Asymmetries

In 'The Strike of the Demon: On Fitting Pro‐Attitudes and Value', Rabinowicz & Rønnow-Rasmussen respond as follows to the view that alleged cases of 'state-given reasons' are better diagnosed as cases of fortunate [rational to desire - and hence, all else equal, to bring about] irrationality.
[In standard cases of 'rational irrationality'] the action is irrational because of its harmfulness but there are reasons for being in a state that leads to the action, since being in that state has benefits. The cases we now consider are different. The reward is not tied to our wanting to have a desire for the saucer of mud or to our trying to have it. It is dependent on the desire itself. Similarly, in the paradox of hedonism, the reward is tied to favoring other things apart from pleasure, for their own sake, and not to wanting to have these pro-attitudes or to trying to have them.

It's not obvious that this is a relevant difference. In their case what's desirable is still not the object of the desire -- the saucer of mud itself -- but merely the state of desiring it. So it still seems natural and accurate to describe this as a case where it may be rational to bring it about that you possess an intrinsically irrational attitude (in this case, a perverse desire for mud). But even if one disagrees with this classification (and I can't imagine why one would), bringing up those standard cases of 'rational irrationality' at least serves to remind us that this is a perfectly coherent way to describe the situation.

R&R then offer a common (and, I'll argue, misguided) argument from analogy in favour of state-based reasons for desire:
Surely, if we are supposed to have reasons for actions when the actions have useful effects or are valuable for their own sake, why shouldn’t we have reasons for attitudes in comparable circumstances? The two cases appear to be perfectly analogous. Pace Gibbard and Parfit, it is therefore plausible to conclude that we do have reasons for beneficial attitudes, even when they are directed to objects without value. To be sure, we also have reasons to want to have such attitudes and to try to have them, but this is because we have reasons to have them, in the first place.

I think there's a natural answer we can offer to their rhetorical question. First note that, in case of attitudes, we can distinguish between the content (or object) of the attitude, and the attitude itself (i.e. the state of possessing the attitude). This explains how gaps between fittingness (object-based reasons) and fortunateness (a state-based evaluation) can arise for attitudes like belief and desire. But this distinction collapses in case of actions: there's no gap between the thing to be done, and the doing of it. Since these coincide in one case but not the other, we need to be careful when drawing analogies between actions and pro-attitudes like desire. Compared to a fortunate action, is an analogous pro-attitude one where the object is likewise fortunate, or one where the state is likewise fortunate? Each is analogous in a different way, so it seems overly hasty of R&R to just assume the latter answer.

Here's the situation. We know that we have reasons for action when (i) the thing to be done is a beneficial thing, or, equivalently, when (ii) the act itself -- the doing of it -- would be beneficial. Now we wonder when we have reasons for desire. It's uncontroversial that we have object-given reasons for desire, i.e. reason to desire things that would be beneficial. That is, it's uncontroversial that type-(i) considerations give rise to reasons. And since (i) and (ii) are necessarily coextensive in case of actions, that suffices to explain why it is that we have reasons for action whenever the act would be beneficial. We don't need to further suppose that type-ii ["state-given"] considerations themselves give rise to reasons. That would be a completely gratuitous assumption. So there's no basis here for concluding that there are state-given reasons for desire.


  1. I would distinguish between a reason for desire, and a reason for the act of desiring, of possessing a particular attitude. R&R seem to me to be referring to the latter.

    What would be a reason for action? Some beneficial end independent of the action, that the action will advance, or, as you put it, "We know that we have reasons for action when (i) the thing to be done is a beneficial thing, or, equivalently, when (ii) the act itself -- the doing of it -- would be beneficial,” or, as R&R express it, we “have reasons for actions when the actions have useful effects or are valuable for their own sake.”
    The reason for action remains some external value or beneficial quality.
    In this regard, conation, it would seem, is as much an action as any other.

    So, as one may have reason to act upon a desire (i.e. when the agent acts upon a desire because the agent desires the object and believes that desiring an object is reason to actively pursue it) and one may have reason to act upon a belief, one may have reason, as well, to engage in the acts of desiring and believing: An agent’s reason for action or inaction hinges on his desires or beliefs, and his desires and beliefs are themselves actions that can be explained by higher order desires or beliefs.
    An agent has reasons for a particular belief insofar as the belief has truth value, insofar as the belief is compatible with actual facts. But the agent has reason to engage in the act of believing, or to engage in any act, for that matter, if it will further some other beneficial or valuable purpose. By your own admission, it would seem, reasons for actions are not truth evaluable.
    It just seems unwarranted to assume that desire is an end, leaving no room to question reasons or motivations for attitudes and desires, which are actions in and of themselves. And once we consider attitudes actions, we can have reasons for them as well.

  2. Hi Miriam, I'm having trouble following you here. Who ever "assumed" that there is "no room to question reasons... for attitudes and desires"? What do you mean by saying that "reasons for action are not truth evaluable", and how does this relate to the topic of my post? Perhaps most importantly, what do you mean by an "act of believing"? Actions are voluntary, in the sense that we can perform them "at will", by intending to do so. But attitudes aren't like this; you can't believe at will. (Try believing that the world is flat.)

    You write: "An agent’s reason for action or inaction hinges on his desires or beliefs, and his desires and beliefs are themselves actions that can be explained by higher order desires or beliefs."

    The latter claim seems false. Again, if a millionaire offers to reward you for believing that the earth is flat, then you might reasonably desire to form this unreasonable belief. But you can't believe it on this basis, the way that you can act on the basis of a desire. In general, a rational agent's beliefs are explained not by their desires, but by their evidence.

    For further background, see my 'Reasons-Talk and Fitting Attitudes'.

  3. [Wlodek Rabinowicz sent in the following two comments]

    (1) With respect to your first point, I don't think we need to disagree. Since the object of the desire is undesirable (or at least not desirable) in all cases we discuss, even though the desires themselves are beneficial, there certainly is a sense in which such desires can be labelled as instances of "rational irrationality". The real issue is whether what is rational here are (i) the desires themselves (as we suggest) or (ii) merely wanting to have them them (as Parfit would suggest) or bringing them about. If one takes the latter view, the desires in question are instances of rational irrationality in the sense we were focusing on. There would then be an analogy between such desires and, say, the action of drinking toxin in Kavka's famous example: the action is irrational, but the intention to act is not. We try to undermine this analogy by pointing out to the difference between the two kinds of cases: In Kavka's example, the reward is tied to the intention to act but not to the act itself, while in our example it is the desire itself that is being rewarded and not our wanting to have it.

    (2) As to your second point, I don't think I agree with you. It does seem possible to me to distinguish between the 'object' of an act - the state of affairs that is brought about - and the act itself, i.e. the bringing about of this state of affairs. There might be cases in which the state of affairs is bad, but there are good reasons to bring it about anyway. For example, the act itself might have good effects or be of value for its own sake. So, in that respect, the analogy between acts and desires does seem to stand. (There is an important disanalogy between them, of course, which you mention in your answer to Miriam: while acts are voluntary, attitudes are not. But that's another matter.)

  4. Hi Wlodek, that's an interesting suggestion, though I'm not sure that it'll help you escape my objection. Let me put it this way: your having φ-ed is part of the state of affairs that is brought about by your φ-ing. So any value you want to attribute to the act itself, whether intrinsic or instrumental, will also be contained in the 'object' of the act. So it isn't necessary to appeal to 'state-given' reasons in case of action. Even if we accept an analogy between reasons for action and reasons for desire, we may well conclude that all of these reasons are object-given.

  5. [Wlodek responds:]

    Hi, Richard,
    Suppose that you act of φ-ing consists in bringing about that A, where A is some state of affairs. You write that "your having φ-ed is part of the state of affairs that is brought about by your φ-ing."

    Do you mean to suggest that your having φ-ed is part of A itself? This would lead to a circularity or regress in the analysis of action as consisting in bringing it about that some state of affairs exists:
    φ-ing = bringing about that A = bringing about that (A & you have brought about that A) = bringing about that (A & you have brought about that A & you have brought about that (A & you have brought about that A)) = ...

    [Or do you only mean to suggest that there is an equivalence here, but no identity? I.e.:
    you bring about that A iff you bring about that (A & you have brought about that A) iff ...
    Even such equivalence seems to me questionable. It seems quite possible that you might sometimes bring about that A without yourself having brought about that you have brought about that A. The latter state might have been brought about by someone else (by someone who made you to act), or by no one at all.]

    On the other hand, if having brought it about that A is not supposed to be part of A itself, the distinction between the object of the act and the act itself that consists in bringing about this state of affairs still stands.


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