bookmark_borderDo our reasons depend on our desires?

NOTE: This post assumes an understanding of much of the terminology that I explain in my post, “On Reasons and What They Do?” In particular, this post uses the terms ‘reason,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘subjective’ in accordance with the explanations that appear in that article. Further, there are other important matters (such what it means for a reason to be pro tanto) that my discussion in this current posts assumes a familiarity with. 
I have been writing about reasons, what they are, and what they do. This is an important topic because, as I have argued, reasons play a central role in issues of morality and the meaning of life. The reason for talking about such issues in a philosophy of religion blog is that many religious apologists have argued that, if there is no god, there are no objective moral truths and that if there is no god, life is meaningless. Both of these assertions are false but understanding why they are false requires a good understanding of the nature of reasons and the connection reasons have to morality and meaning.
In a previous post, I argued that at least some reasons are objective. One consideration that is commonly relied on to argue that reasons must be subjective is that reasons are dependent on desires. David Hume famously said, “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”[1] Exactly what Hume intended to be saying here about the nature of reasons is a matter of some controversy. He has, however, been widely interpreted as claiming that reason is only a matter of selecting the best means of satisfying our ends. On such a view, reason can recommend no ends. We have our ends on the basis of our desires and passions, but these ends are not rationally evaluable. We have reasons only once we have chosen an end, and then the reasons that we have are to do the things that effectively satisfy that end. This view, regardless of whether it is Hume’s real view, is consistent with a position that I have previously called the Desire-Based Reasons Thesis (DBR):
DBR: For a person, P, to have a reason to engage in some behavior, Φ, P must have some desire (or desire-like state) d, such that Φ-ing tends to promote the satisfaction of d.
I strongly suspect that DBR is false and I want to provide some examples that serve to undermine it. First, though, I think we should acknowledge the intuitive appeal of DBR. DBR fits in very nicely with a certain conception of rationality that is often called “means-ends-rationality.” This conception can be well illustrated via the following example:
Pizza: Sue wants to have a pizza delivered to her house. Given that calling the local pizza place, Pizza Yurt, and ordering a pizza will efficiently promote the satisfaction of Sue’s desire, Sue has a reason to call Pizza Yurt to order a pizza. Further, she only has this reason given that she has this desire. A person who does not have the desire for pizza to be delivered to their home does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery.
This seems right, at least at first glance. Despite this appearance, I will later argue that the above account of why Sue has the reasons she does is completely wrong. Now, though, I want to acknowledge the way in which the account is intuitively appealing. It seems true that anyone who does not want a pizza does not have a reason to call for pizza delivery. Thus, the natural conclusion is that Sue’s reason for calling Pizza Yurt is that she wants to have a pizza delivered. Certainly, if we assume (i) that Sue wants a pizza, (ii) that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying this desire, and (iii) that Sue knows that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient (or only) means of satisfying her desire, it seems clear that if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational.
It is important to note that we now have before us two different claims: One is that Sue’s reason to call Pizza Yurt is dependent on her desire; the second is that, given this desire plus her belief that calling Pizza Yurt is the most efficient way of satisfying that desire, if Sue fails to call Pizza Yurt, she is being irrational. I think that the second claim is true, but the first is false.
It is important to distinguish claims about what reasons an agent has from claims about the agent’s rationality. These claims are different as can be revealed by a common example:
Snake/Rope: I am walking through the desert; I look down at my feet and see a snake-like object coiled in the path immediately next to where I am walking. I immediately form the judgment that there is a snake in my path. My pulse quickens, I immediately feel fear, and quickly leap away. In reality, the object is not a snake but a coiled length of rope.
Now, let’s ask whether I had any reason to fear and whether I had any reason to jump away. The natural response to such questions is that, given that it was not a snake, I had no reason to fear. Similarly, my daughter has no reason to fear the non-existence monsters under the bed even though she firmly believes in them. Further, I had no reason to jump away in fear since there was nothing to be afraid of. However, given that I believed that there was a snake on my path, my fear-response and avoidance behavior was completely rational. The Snake/Rope example shows that we can behave rationally even when we are not responding to reasons.
In this post, I will be making claims about reasons rather than rationality. In particular, I will argue that reasons are not dependent on desires. I will not be defending any view about rationality. However, the view that I find attractive is that, as Derek Parfit has put it, our reasons are provided by the facts, what is rational for us to do depends on our beliefs.
While DBR seems to make sense of Sue’s reasons in the Pizza example, I think that this appearance is deceiving and that a proper understanding of Sue’s reasons show that they are not at all dependent on her desires. To understand why, I need to explain why I doubt DBR. Let’s look at three cases that present possible counterexamples to DBR.
(1) Gin/Petrol
This example comes from Bernard Williams who is a defender of DBR [2]. Williams’ view is that the reasons that an agent has are dependent on the agent’s motivational set. Your motivational set includes your desires, intentions, positive attitudes, etc., (henceforth, I will use ‘desire’ to refer to all of these kinds of states) which have the tendency to motivate you to act. Importantly, this entails that the existence of a reason for an agent requires the presence of an appropriate desire.
Williams presents the following example as a reason to amend his view: Suppose Jim is sitting at a table on which is a bottle of clear liquid. Jim wants to have a gin and tonic and believes that the stuff in the glass on the table is gin. Suppose, though, that the stuff in the bottle is not gin but gasoline. Does Jim have a reason to mix the stuff in the bottle with tonic and consume the concoction? Williams points out that we are pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, it seems natural to say that since the stuff in the glass will make Jim sick, he does not have a reason to drink it and has a reason to not drink it. On the other hand, if Jim does drink the gasoline, there is a natural explanation for why he did so: Jim thought that the stuff in the bottle was gin.
Williams’ conclusion is that we shouldn’t think that the fact that we would have an explanation for why Jim would drink the stuff entails that Jim would have a reason to do so. In fact, according to Williams, even though he believes that the stuff is gin, Jim does not have a reason to drink it. This requires that Williams amend his view. He does so by claiming that an element, d, of an agent’s motivational set will not provide a reason to the agent if d is based on a false belief (see Williams, 293).
Williams is right, in my view, that Jim does not have a reason to drink the stuff in the bottle despite the fact that he has a desire to drink it.  However, I think that the example poses a bigger problem for his view than he realized. The problem is that it is difficult to square the claim that desires that are based on false beliefs do not generate reasons with the view that desires generate reasons.
Williams’ view seems to be that some desires generate reasons and some do not. But, having asserted that all reasons depend, for their existence, on desires, his view provides no basis for claiming that some desires do not generate reasons. Let’s call the capacity to generate reasons, which, on Williams’ view, at least some desires have, “reason-generating power” (or “rg-power” for short). On Williams’ view desires have rg-power unless those desires that are based on false beliefs. But what is it about this class of desires that makes them impotent to generate reasons? Why would a false belief interfere with a desire’s rg-power? Why does a desire lose its reason-generating capacity just because it is based on a false belief? Williams provides no answer.
This example does not refute DBR, but despite Williams response, I think it should cast some doubt on the thesis. Unless we have some basis for thinking that desires that are based on false beliefs cannot generate reasons, the Gin/Petrol example suggests that desires do not generate reasons.
(2) Agony
This example is inspired by Parfit’s Agony Argument.[3]
Suppose Sally want to experience excruciating pain. She realizes that stabbing herself in the eye with a metal fork will satisfy this desire. Does Sally therefore have a reason to stab herself in the eye with a fork? I don’t think she does. The fact that Sally will experience horrendous and needless suffering is a reason for her to not stab herself in the eye with a fork regardless of her desires.
Suppose that Ryan does not have a desire to experience excruciating pain but also does not want to avoid it. Does Ryan have a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a metal fork? On a view according to which an agent only has reasons to engage in actions that satisfy his desires, Ryan does not have such a reason. This is implausible. Ryan has a reason to avoid stabbing himself in the eye with a fork (and to avoid any activity that will cause horrible suffering) regardless of whether he has any desire to avoid pain/agony.
(3) Radio
This example is an adaptation of one originally provided by Warren Quinn in his paper, “Putting Rationality in its Place.” [4]
Suppose you have a friend, Tom, who engages in the following behavior: When Tom enters a room with a radio that is turned off, he immediately turns the radio on. He does not tune the radio to a specific station; he seems content merely to have the radio on, even if it is playing static. Tom does this consistently. When you ask him why he does this, he says that he wants radios to be turned on. He does not cite a desire to hear music or sound of any kind. He merely says that he wants that radios are turned on.
Does the presence of such a desire make Tom’s behavior reasonable?  I think it is natural to say that Tom’s answer to the question of why he is always turning on radios makes his behavior seems even more unreasonable since the desire itself is irrational. Quinn’s point, I take it, is that the mere presence of this desire cannot give Tom a reason for turning on radios. What would rationalize Tom’s behavior, according to Quinn, is Tom’s belief that by turning on radios, he is achieving something good. If Tom was turning on the radio to listen to good music or to hear the news, this would make his behavior reasonable. But the mere presence of a desire that radios be turned on does nothing to make this action reasonable.
These three examples, taken together, cast a great deal of doubt on the DBR thesis. I will not claim that they effectively refute the thesis, but merely that they strongly suggest that it is false. There are many other arguments against DBR. If you are interested, I highly recommend Jonathan Dancy’s book, Practical Reality, which mounts a sustained criticism of DBR.
Let me return, briefly, to the Pizza example. If we reject DBR, how are we to account for Sue’s reasons? More importantly, if we reject DBR, how are we to account for the fact that Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but a person who has no desire for pizza (apparently) does not have such a reason?
Here is my answer: Sue does have a reason to call Pizza Yurt, but this reason is not generated by and does not depend on her desire to have a pizza delivered to her home. What gives Sue a reason to call Pizza Yurt, I believe, is the following collection of facts: Sue is hungry, eating pizza is a good way of satisfying that hunger, Sue likes the taste of pizza, and calling Pizza Yurt is an efficient way of getting a pizza delivered to her home. What about those who lack a reason to call for delivery? For such people, it (currently) will not be good to have a pizza. Either such people are not currently hunger or do not enjoy the taste of pizza or else having a pizza delivered would in some other way be bad.
What reasons we have depends only on what is good and what is bad. It does not depend on our desires.

[1] Hume, D. A Treatise of Human Nature (
[2] Williams B., “Internal and External Reasons” reprinted in Shafer-Landau and Cuneo (eds.) Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).
[3] In Parfit, D. On What Matters, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). See pp. 73-82 for Parfit’s Agony Argument.
[4] Quinn, W. “Putting Rationality in its Place” in his Morality and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

bookmark_borderOn reasons and what they do

This post is something of a follow-up to my recent post about Sean Carroll’s views concerning meaning and purpose. As I indicated at the end of that post, I used some concepts and made some claims that require development and defense and I promised that I would provide that development and defense in a future post. The current post is part of the fulfillment of that promise. I hope that I can clarify some of the claims I made in that post, specifically claims concerning reasons. I also hope the remarks I make here can serve as a basis for a more robust discussion, about not only meaning but also rationality and morality, here at the Secular Outpost.
As I indicated, most of what I have to say concerns the nature of reasons and their role in justification. Let me start by providing the quote that I took from Volume 2 of On What Matters by Derek Parfit:

We cannot, however, make things good by commanding or willing that they be good. Though we can sometimes change people’s evaluative beliefs, that is not a way of creating new values. Nor can we make anything matter. When something matters to us, in the sense that we care about this thing, that is merely a psychological fact. Something matters only when, and in the sense that, we have object-given reasons to care about this thing. (Parfit Vol.2, 601)

I want to explain what Parfit means when he talks about object-given reasons. I would also like to defend the claims he makes about such reasons (and Parfit’s meta-normative view more generally), but the defense will have to wait for a future post. It is enough if I am able to make his view about meaning and reasons more clear.
A reason is a factor that counts in favor. There are factors that count in favor of beliefs (commonly called epistemic reasons) and factors that count in favor of decisions, desires, and actions (commonly called practical reasons). When we say of some factor, that it is a reason, we say that it tends to favor the belief, decision, desire, or etc. Importantly, for this discussion, we are talking about reasons pro tanto, i.e. factors that, taken by themselves, count in favor but which, when considered in the complete context of all relevant factors, might themselves be overridden. In other words, when we say that something is a reason, we say merely that it counts in favor, not that overall and all things considered, we should respond to this reason. Any conclusion about what we should do, want, believe, etc. depends on more complete consideration and weighing of all relevant factors. For the purposes of the present discussion, we are not engaged in drawing conclusions about what we should want (or do, etc.), i.e., what we have overall reason to want (or do, etc.), but only what counts in favor of wanting (or doing, etc.).
The above concerns normative reasons. Normative reasons are contrasted with motivating reasons (or motives). A motivating reason is a factor that serves as the basis for an agent’s decision (to act, desire, approve of, etc.). Importantly, not all factors that serve as the basis of an agent’s decision really do count in favor of that decision. In other words, it is possible for agents to get things wrong; an agent can believe, of some fact, that it counts in favor of her decision and yet it not be the case that the fact does count in favor of that decision. We can make the same point by saying that not all motivating reasons are normative reasons. Sometimes the factors that we believe count in favor of our decisions really do count in favor of them (in such cases, our motivating reasons are also normative). However, often the factors that we believe count in favor actually do not count in favor (and hence our motivating reasons are not normative). For the remainder of this essay (and in general), when I use the word ‘reason,’ I am talking about normative reasons. When I want to talk about motivating reasons in a context in which I do not want to assume that they are also normative, I will call them motives (or motivating reasons). I think that this linguistic practice is an important one that we all ought to adopt as a means of eliminating ambiguity. Discussing and thinking about reasons is notoriously difficult and fraught with potential intellectual dead ends. To facilitate a more robust and fruitful discussion, we need to be as clear as we can. So,

Reason means normative reason. A reason is a factor that counts in favor (of some act, desire, belief, reaction, emotion, etc.).

Motive means motivating reason. A motive is a factor that an agent believes counts in favor (and thus serves as the basis of action, desire, belief, etc.). When an agent has such a belief and this belief guides her decisions, the factor is a motive for her.

One of the most important things that reasons do is justify; i.e., a reason tends to provide justification for actions, beliefs, desires, etc. I am going to talk about justification in the context of practical reasons, but most of things that I say about the practical sphere transfer to the epistemic sphere. An important aspect of justification involves universalizability. When one of my actions is justified, then it is based on some reason(s). Further, if my action is justified, then if some other person acted in the same manner in appropriately similar circumstances, this person would also be equally justified (i.e., justified to the same extent that I am justified) in acting in this way. And the factor that counts in favor of my action would also count in favor of this other person’s action. This point generalizes to all persons. So, the reason(s) that justifies my behavior is universalizable in this sense: it counts in favor not just of my action but of any similar action performed by any other person who is in circumstances similar to mine. [Important: the fact that some reason justifies my action does not mean that I am obligated to engage in that action, nor does it mean that I ought to do it. Just as with the case of reasons, I am here talking about pro tanto justification rather than overall justification.]
Let’s look at a simple example to see how these concepts work in context. Suppose that I am walking down a city street and encounter a homeless person who asks for my assistance. Suppose further that I decide to give him $20 and that I do this because I believe that he needs help. My motive for giving him the money is that he needs help. Let’s grant, at least for the sake of this discussion, that he really does need help and that the fact that he needs help counts in favor of giving him $20. If so, then my motive is also a normative reason. This entails that my action is justified (at least to some extent) and that any other person who was in similar circumstances (that is, with this man or any similarly situated homeless person) would be equally justified in giving a person in need of help $20. And the factor that counts in favor of my act of giving $20 would also count in favor of any other person’s similar act.
When Parfit talks about object-given reasons, he is talking about facts about objects that count in favor. [Importantly, ‘object’ here is given a wide meaning such that states, such as the state of being in pain, or of experiencing pleasure, count as objects.] A good example is suffering. Suffering has features that provide us with reasons to want to avoid it and to engage in avoidance behavior. These features are intrinsic to the object in question, e.g., suffering in this case. Thus, the nature of suffering gives us object-given reasons to want to avoid it and to engage in actions that enable us to avoid it. [Again, this is not the same as claiming that, overall, we always should avoid suffering; only that, in all cases, there are factors that count in favor of avoiding suffering.]
Some moral philosophers believe that there are no practical object-given reasons. According to subjectivism, all practical reasons for a person are dependent on features of that person’s motivational set. Subjectivists typically hold a desire-based view of reasons (DBR). On this view (famously attributed to David Hume and defended in the twentieth century by Bernard Williams, among others), our reasons are generated by our desires. I have reason to do what is necessary for (or at least the most effective way of) satisfying my desires. More carefully, we can articulate this view as follows:
DBR: For a person, P, to have a reason to engage in some behavior, F, P must have some desire (or desire-like state) d, such that F-ing tends to promote the satisfaction of d.
If DBR is true, then there can be no (practical) object-given reasons to care about (or do, or want) anything since all (practical) reasons would be subjective. ‘Subjective’ means ‘dependent on the subject.’ To say that some feature, f, is subjective is to say that f constitutively depends on the desires, interests, attitudes, or reactions of a subject or subjects. To say that some feature, f, is objective is to say that f does NOT constitutively depend on the desires, interests, attitudes, or reactions of any subject or subjects. A subject, in this context, is a being that is a bearer of conscious states, such as beliefs, desires, emotions, and attitudes. So, if DBR is true, then all (practical) reasons are subjective since whether I have a reason constitutively depends on my desires.
I mention DBR here only to contrast it with Parfit’s view so that the most significant aspect of Parfit’s view comes to the foreground. Importantly, on Parfit’s view, all normative reasons are object-given. In addition, his view implies that desire-based reasons are not normative. Saying that a reason is object-given is another way of saying that it is not desire-based. Thus, to say that there are object-given reasons to care about something is to say that there are factors, intrinsic to the object, that count in favor of our caring about this thing and that in no way depend on our (or any other person’s) desires. If there are such object-given reasons, then they are objective and thus apply to all rational agents, regardless of our goals, interests, desires, or attitudes.