Friday, September 14, 2007

The nature of reasons, as implied by the teleological model.

Edit (9/15/07, 11am): Forgot the hash mark for some of the Greek characters. Fixed now.

For those interested, the current draft of my diss. proposal is here (.pdf). Over the next few weeks, I want to tease out the last remaining threads of argument that I haven't quite developed, namely those that draw out implications from my model for reasons-explanations of action. Today I'll be talking about reasons.

As discussed previously here, here, and here, and, of course, in more depth in the proposal, a successful reasons-explanation of action has to accomplish three things:
  1. It must account for the connection between reasons and action in the agent;
  2. It must give reasons that the agent genuinely finds objectively worthy; and
  3. It must fit the action within the pattern implied by (1) and (2).
The teleological model (hereafter "T-model") I want to defend deals with (1) by invoking the connection between means and ends. A means, φ-ing, is connected to an end, ψ, if φ-ing is appropriate to ψ, which means that either φ-ing for ψ conforms with some relevant rule of practical reasoning or φ-ing for ψ is valuable, for some relevant value of practical reasoning. I also want to add in the (somewhat) radical claim that there's no relevant difference between rules of practical reasoning and values of practical reasoning. That is, to draw a parallel to ethics, there is no analogue to distinction between the right and the good at the basic level of practical reasoning.

An analysis of (2) thus comes for free as the means (action) is connected to the ends (reasons) by the former being an way of achieving the value of the latter. Thus, reasons are, always, valuable. For them to be objectively valuable, though, it has to be true that the ends are not purposes (which are subjective, in my view) but goals: that is, things in the world, such as states of affairs, which one aims one's action towards as a means.

Finally, the pattern is what I've characterized as a pseudopattern -- that is, a class of patterns -- called efficacious attainment of value (EAV). As long as the means is appropriate to the end, and the end is objectively valuable, then the pattern of the action (means) and reasons (end) counts as EAV.

The implications I want to be able to draw out of this model relate to a number of longstanding problems in various areas of philosophy. The first is the idea that reasons for action can't be psychological and must instead be real (i.e., goals, not purposes). The reason for this turns on the requirement of objective value. Approximately, some ψ is subjectively valuable if it seems objectively valuable to me; some ψ is objectively valuable if it actually is valuable. (These can, of course, coincide; I can correctly take the world to be as it seems to be.) Since a successful reasons-explanation of action has to show us that the reasons were objectively valuable, it has to be impossible that the reasons fail to exhibit objective value. (This sounds a little trite, I know. But I'm going somewhere with it.) But, psychological states can fail to exhibit objective value. This leaves us with two possibilities: either (a) the psychological states that fail to exhibit objective value are not really reasons, or (b) no psychological states are reasons. If (a), then the psychological states that are reasons are either (i) those that correctly track objective value or (ii) those that actually instantiate objective value. (ii) is a non-starter, I think, for it presumes a distinction within our psychological states that needlessly clutters the ontology, i.e., there would have to be a whole set of psychological states that actually instantive objective value, and a whole other set, just as complete, that did not. If (i), however, then there doesn't seem to be any need for the psychological states. That is, they seem to be playing a practical role analogous to the epistemological role played by good ol' sense-data, of wonderfully convenient intermediaries between the entirely separate spheres of mind and world. Since there's no good grounds to maintain this harsh separation, it follows that there's no need for these intermediaries. So, we may as well abandon (a) and go, instead, to (b).

I also want to claim that reasons are complex, not simple, and plural, i.e., that when I φ, I do so for a constellation of reasons (complex, not simple) and that any given reason can favour multiple actions, and any action can be favoured by multiple reasons (plural). I think this follows pretty straightforwardly. A given means can be appropriate to multiple ends; hence, one action can be favoured by many different reasons. Similarly, it's entirely possible that a given end can be attained efficaciously by multiple means; hence, one reason can favour multiple actions. Finally, there's no grounds to suspect that when I φ, I must do so for exactly one goal. Consider that any goal I achieve could, in principle, be part of a long series of goals (call this a "project"); thus, to achieve the first goal is to, at least in part, achieve the super-goal of the project.

Next week, I'll discuss arguments regarding the implications for agency and reasoning. (Which will be really fun, as I know almost nothing about the relevant literature. Woo-hoo!)


Anonymous said...

That is, to draw a parallel to ethics, there is no analogue to distinction between the right and the good at the basic level of practical reasoning.

I tried to follow this post, even though you didn't bring up the background of this area all that well. Is there a good introductory survey -- what are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to describe how good decisions must be made?

I don't get this section above. Are you referring to the idea of certain philosophers to consider "good" a basic, foundational concept? What is good is right? What about good qualified -- for example, stealing may be good for my pocketbook but not my conscience? Good for health, good for pleasure, good for wealth, good for others? Aren't there many kinds of good?

Thus, reasons are, always, valuable. For them to be objectively valuable, though, it has to be true that the ends are not purposes (which are subjective, in my view) but goals: that is, things in the world, such as states of affairs, which one aims one's action towards as a means.

What are you talking about here? What do you mean by objectively valuabe? You also say reasons are always valuable -- what about purely selfish reasons, i.e. I have sex for pleasure, increased self-esteem, and fun. Or I stick up gas stations for money to pay hookers, to have sex, because I, as a male animal, have a burning desire to have sex. Is that a good reason explanation?

If you used more concrete examples of what you're saying, it would be much easier to understand. Ultimately all philosophy should be rooted in abstractions of examples from the real world, shouldn't it? Otherwise you're just moving around words and symbols inside your head.

Anonymous said...

I apologize, now I'm actually your diss. draft and it is a better introduction to this "reasons-explanations" stuff. I'm only 1/4 of the way through. Still wondering about this distinction between subjective and objective value and wondering why it's relevant when we're talking abou t the subject's actions -- ultimately, all value is a subjective evaluation of objective value, but for the subject is is only the subjective value that really matters. Maybe it will become clearer as I go. You say that your value theory is "consistent with ... value relativism, and even value nihilism", but you didn't really go over how exactly your sense of value works. Let's say that I value cheap, China-made aluminum pots, and I'll do anything to get them, even murder. That's a subjective value, no? (It's not justified by supply and demand, that's for sure.) Why is that reason "invalid" for my actions? Why can't I just be goofy, as many people are? (For example, one of my roommates values bottle caps.)

ADHR said...

As you've noticed now, I'm working on the arguments that will make up my dissertation. So, I'm not giving all the detail that's in the proposal draft. ;)

I'm surprised you haven't run into the distinction between the right and the good. In moral philosophy, deontology is often defined as putting the right prior to the good, and consequentialism is defined as putting the good prior to the right. That is, for deontologists, some things are just plain right or wrong, regardless of whether they produce good or evil. For consequentialists, though, right and wrong are defined in terms of good and evil. My claim is that when we get below the level of moral reasoning, into the more basic practical reasoning, this distinction vanishes. (Which should raise questions about how tenable the distinction really is at the moral level.)

Selfish reasons do serve some value. For example, if I have sex for fun, then having fun is my reason, and having fun has value for me. (Noting that it doesn't have value for everyone.) However, saying that having fun has value for me doesn't imply that it's all that has value for me. If it were, I'd be a fairly shallow sort of person. It's the same with sticking up gas stations to get money to pay for hookers: if I have reason to do it, then the reason would be something like desire-satisfaction. That is, generally, something valuable; satisfying desires is a valuable thing. It's not all things considered or overall value, though, just an immediate, prima facie sort of value.

The objective/subjective distinction is meant to block people who want to argue that it's enough that you believe your reasons to be valuable, that this belief can allow the reasons to explain your action. I think that's just ludicrous. Very few people believe in sense-data over in epistemology any more; that is, no one thinks that you're epistemically faultless if your beliefs match the way things seem to you (rather than the way things really are). I'm arguing that the case should be the same for practical philosophy, too; you're not practically faultless if your actions match the way things seem to you (subjective value). Instead, you have to get your actions to match the way things really are (objective value).

So, your valuing of cheap, China-made aluminum pots isn't really subjective in this sense. It's not some value that exists just in your head. They really have some kind of value (such as being cheap) that you can recognize and act on. If, however, you were trying to get these pots because they're your friends, then I think we should draw two conclusions about you: (1) you're not seeking objective, but subjective, value (the pots aren't really your friends); and (2) that you're seeking subjective value suggests you're not really acting for reasons (you're being irrational if you believe the pots are your friends).

Whether or not you're a goofy person, though (as opposed to an irrational one) seems to me to depend on the way you rank values, not the values you're capable of seeing. An honourable person has a different hierarchy of values than an intellectual person or a silly person. They're not dealing with completely different values, though, in my view. The subjective value view is committed to the idea that these people all have different values; indeed, even if we're dealing with two honourable people, who always act in the same way, they're still doing it on the basis of different values.