I am reviewing (our own) Mark Schroeder’s Slaves of the Passions for Ethics. As the advance praise from Michael Smith and Stephen Darwall indicates, anyone interested in reasons and rationality will profit from reading this book. In the book, Schroeder defends a novel Humean theory of reasons and maintains that his book is, “an existence proof of a viable reductive view of the normative.” (82) He also has interesting things to say about moral motivation, moral epistemology, and virtue. The book is full of thought-provoking arguments that break new theoretical ground.
I will be posting a few main worries I have about his view and would be very grateful if you would help me be charitable and assess the seriousness of my worries.
This post will focus on MS’s response to what he calls “the too many reasons problem.” Crudely put, the worry is that Humeans are committed to claiming that we have many more reasons than we actually do.
A stereotypical Humean holds a bold view about reasons: if an agent has
a desire and some action will promote the satisfaction of that desire,
then there is reason for the agent to perform the action. But, the
anti-Humean claims, there are actions that will promote the
satisfaction of our desires but which there is no reason for us to
perform. Schroeder mentions a case in which I have a desire to have
more iron in my diet – eating my car might promote the satisfaction of
this desire, but it sounds counterintuitive to say that there is reason
for me to eat my car.
To avoid this problem, many Humeans tweak the account of reasons;
they might start, for example, by claiming that only coherent desires
that would survive some reflection test generate reasons; they weaken
the bold account of reasons to avoid the counter-intuitive results.
But, with admirable resoluteness, Schroeder argues that it is (at the
least) unnecessary to retreat from bold Humeanism in any such manner.
Instead of weakening the account of reasons to avoid the purportedly
counter-intuitive consequences, Schroeder (92-97) casts doubt on the
intuitions behind the too-many-reasons worry; he argues that the
relevant “negative existential reasons intuitions” lose force under
reflective scrutiny. In the eating-the-car case, for example, he hopes
to convince us that there is some reason for me to eat my car; he hopes to do so by (i) weakening our confidence
in the intuition that I have no reason and (ii) getting us to conclude
on that basis that negative reasons intuitions are unreliable and
should not be taken as a guide in theory construction.
More specifically, Schroeder predicts that any relevant initial
intuition that A has no reason to P will weaken (twice) when you attend
to the following facts: (1) the reason for A to P and (2) the fact that
the reason for A to P is relatively weak. And, on the basis of this
general fact about how negative intuitions respond to the two-step
procedure, he maintains we should not rely on them when assessing
theories of reasons.
A sample application of the procedure: if you tell someone that
there is reason for her to eat her car, she will likely find this
reason claim very counter-intuitive. But if you then say what the
reason is – that the car has the daily recommended dose of iron in it –
the claim will not seem as counter-intuitive. And, Schroeder predicts,
if you then go on to point out that this reason is very weak and
massively outweighed by other reasons, the claim that there is reason
for her to eat her car will seem even less counter-intuitive; it might
not be destroyed, but it will be twice weakened (see 96-97).
I have two worries about this defense of bold Humeanism.
(#1) Even if we accept the claim that the two-step procedure will
regularly weaken the relevant initial intuitions (twice), I am not sure
we should accept Schroeder’s conclusion. He admits, for example,
that the intuition that there is no reason for you to eat the car might
persist in the face of the two-step procedure – he holds only that its strength will be reduced
(twice). But why conclude, from that fact, that such intuitions are
“misleading” and that we can’t rely on them “to decide between out
theories” (96)? On the contrary, an anti-Humean could argue that
insofar as the intuitions survive the double test Schroeder
introduces, we should be more confident that they are veridical and
rely on them when deciding between theories. Why, they might ask,
isn’t passing a tough test something that counts in favor of the
(#2) I am unsure that Schroeder’s two-step procedure will have the
predicted results in all relevant cases. He discusses the
eating-the-car case and a case in which his Aunt wants to build a
spaceship in her living room. I think his procedure does
reduce the strength of the intuitions in these cases; I would even be
sympathetic to his making a stronger claim, namely that the procedure
destroys the intuition in these cases. If that is right, it would
help avoid worry #1 above.
But I am worried about the general claim about negative-reasons-intuitions. Consider, for example, a case in which the agent has a
self-destructive desire: an evil hypnotist instills a desire in Billy
to eat a plate of broken glass that is spray-painted yellow. He finds
himself wondering where he could get a plate of glass…perhaps by
smashing the coffee pot in the break room? And he wonders where some
yellow spay paint might be…perhaps in the utility closet on the first
floor? Billy has a desire to eat a plate of yellow glass shards. And
his smashing the coffee pot in the break room, breaking into the
utility closet, and spray-painting the glass shards will help him
satisfy that desire. But it seems counter-intuitive to say there is
reason for him to do these things, e.g. to spray-paint the glass shards
Start with the bare claim that there is reason for Billy to spray-paint yellow a plate of glass shards that lies on his desk. Seems a bit counter-intuitive. Now let’s apply Schroeder’s test. First, imagine that I tell you
what his reason is – that spray-painting the shards will allow him to
eat a plate of yellow glass shards. In the face of that information, are you less confident that there is no
reason for Billy to spray-paint the plate of glass shards? I would not be; in fact, I think it would sound more intuitive than
it did before I attended to the purported reason. How about if I
tell you that I think that that reason is not a very weighty one? Here
I am not as sure, but I am tempted to say that the intuition at least
retains its strength in the face of this step of his test.
My worry, then, is that in some cases his test fails to reduce, and
might even increase, the strength of the relevant
negative-reason-intuitions. This suggests that some of our intuitions
will remain useful in theory construction and pose a persistent threat
to bold Humeanism, even if he is right about the cases he explicitly