Saturday, June 24, 2006

A motivational problem.

How much motivation does one require in order to do something? Prima facie, the answer is "enough", but this is decidedly unenlightening.

As a more insightful possibility, I would suggest "enough to defeat the reasons against". This then requires an account of how one can have reasons against doing something. Presuming such an account exists, it then follows that one is sufficiently motivated to do something if and only if one has some combination of more numerous and more weighty reasons in favour of doing it than reasons against doing it.

The problem remaining, of course, is in the presumption at the head of the previous paragraph: namely, how can one unpack an account of "having reasons against doing something" that (a) doesn't squarely beg the question of having enough reasons to do something (i.e., the problem that was under consideration in the first place) and (b) doesn't just define reasons against in terms of reasons for (which would move the argument in a vicious circle).

I tend to think that one has a reason against doing something when either (and these are not meant to be exhaustive) (1) doing it is impossible, (2) doing it is imprudent, (3) doing it is illegal, (4) doing it is immoral, (5) one would prefer not to do it.

So, if one can do it, it is not a bad idea to do it, it is legal and moral (at least permissible, it not required) to do it, and one has the preference to do it -- and all these reasons sum, with weighting, to more than the reasons against -- then one would be motivated to do it.


undergroundman said...

I'd like to write a book and build a web-based store, but I don't have the energy to do it.

Also, one thing weighing heavily against my motivation is the idea that it wouldn't be good enough, and when I do get started I get distracted easily...ect.

So energy and determination are very important.

ADHR said...

Those both seem covered by (2) and (5). Aren't they?

undergroundman said...

No. I would prefer to write a book or build a website. I realize that it is prudent, and I would prefer to do it - yet I don't. Why?

Call it laziness -- nevertheless, I'm not motivated enough to do it even though I freely admit that it's possible, prudent, and preferable to what I do instead. Similarly, lots of people want to quit smoking but can't -- they would prefer to do it, but they can't.

The second point that I was making is referred to often in Notes from Underground, where the narrator loves to make the point that "ingenuous people and active figures are all active simply because they are dull are narrow-minded." He goes on to say that "perhaps I really regard myself an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I've never been able to start or finish anything." As an intelligent man of "heightened consciousness", he continually second-guesses himself -- why build that website after all if I'll make no money at it? Someone else will just do what I'd do better, and the skills that I'd gain would fade quickly. Why write a book - there are enough great books in the world. These are the sorts of excuses he would make.

ADHR said...

Now, I'd suggest that you don't really prefer to write a book or build a website. You really prefer to do something else -- which you then go and do. Or, you have some sort of conflict between preferences, with the preference to write a book or build a website losing out.

The elaboration of your second point supports that sort of analysis. You'd prefer to write a good book, or build a great website, or do something that was lasting rather than transient. So, you talk yourself out of doing things that don't satisfy those more rarefied preferences.

undergroundman said...

The weird thing about humans is that they can act in opposition to their preferences. Take admitted addicts. You can say that preferences which aren't acted on aren't really preferences, but in that case, what are they? Wishes?

It's more complicated than you think because people aren't fully in control of their actions.

ADHR said...

There's a standard distinction in the philosophy of action between second-order and first-order preferences. The second-order preferences are, of course, the preferences about the first-order preferences. That is, if I (first-order) want a coffee and a donut, but cannot afford both, I could (second-order) organize the preferences in order to figure out which one to satisfy first. Similarly, then, we can have more general second-order preferences that range of a wide variety of first-order preferences. Perhaps I would (second-order) prefer an easy life, and so I organize my first-order preferences accordingly: things that are difficult or arduous I downgrade in favour of things that are easy and provide me with luxuries. That's one thing that could be in operation.

Another important concept is weakness of the will (akrasia). That is, even though an agent may second-order prefer to satisfy some first-order preference, he may find that he cannot bring himself to do it. This is a problem for belief-desire accounts of action, because they have to invoke something else in the psychology of the agent that is blocking the satisfaction of the second-order preference. The usual move is to dump it into rationality: akrasia is thus a problem of insufficient practical rationality.

I don't like this solution, because I don't buy the underlying belief-desire picture, but also because it puts undue weight on a (non-provided) good account of practical reasoning. It seems to me to be better to say that we have a break between agency/action and animal/behaviour. Taking the example of the addict, the human agent doesn't want to take drugs any more. However, the human animal behaves in a way that involves taking drugs. The agent is not sufficiently in control of the overall human to overwhelm the animal. This would also explain why addiction can be associated with severe mood disorders. Since the agent is powerless, in this respect, to control the movements of the overall system, the agent consequently feels hopelessness and related negative emotions.

So, agents are always in control of actions, by definition. However, people (humans) do more than just act -- they also behave. Behaviour is not the same as action, and is done by different faculties. Different faculties can conflict, and sometimes the non-agentive ones win. Reflexes are another good example of this -- a reflex is certainly a movement, but it doesn't look like something we'd call an action. What's going on is that the neurobiological aspects of the human system are taking over, and the agentive aspects have (temporarily) no control.