How Humeans Can Explain Reason-Choosing

One objection to Humean views about motivation, and to the 'Standard Model' of intention on which intentions are complexes of desire and belief, is that these views don't allow agents to choose their reasons for doing some action.  In Reasons Without Rationalism, Kieran Setiya presents the Standard Model as unable to explain how "Our reasons are in some sense 'up to us' — we decide why to do something, as well as what to do –  and we seem to recognize our reasons, as such" (39).  Similarly, in Rationality in Action John Searle objects to desire-belief views of motivation, writing that "when one has several reasons for performing an action, one may act on only one of them; one may select which reason one acts on" (65).

I can see where these objections are coming from.  On a traditional Humean picture, reason is the slave of the passions, and it doesn't have the ability to hold one desire back so that another can motivate action.  Neither can it noninstrumentally create or strengthen a desire so as to make it and not another desire decisive in motivating action.  Nevertheless, I think a traditional Humean approach on which all motivating reasons are desire-belief pairs and all practical reasoning is instrumental can explain reason-choosing.  Let me show how this works. 

The key point to keep in mind is that the desire-belief pair that motivates an action and thus gives the reasons for doing it need not be the strongest one favoring that action.  Sometimes the strongest pair in favor of A can't get me to do A because we have an even stronger pair inhibiting A-ing for those reasons. But this stronger inhibiting pair might not exert any force in opposition to a weaker pair that favors A, because acting on this weaker pair would involve A-ing for other reasons.  Then the weaker pair can motivate action and be the sole source of my reasons.

That's kind of abstract, so let's deal with a concrete example.  Here's Setiya's example:

There are many reasons for which I might decide to write a book: personal satisfaction, a fragment of immortality, professional ambition. I am not passive in the face of this: even if I believe that books give their authors a kind of immortality, and even if I think that this is a reason – a good reason – to write a book, it may not be my reason for doing so. That is up to me. (39-40)

I've never met Setiya, so I don't know his real reasons for writing Reasons Without Rationalism.  But let me make up a story.  Maybe his strongest desire to write the book was for a fragment of immortality.  But maybe he also desired even more strongly not to write the book for reasons of immortality.  Now the only way he could write the book for a fragment of immortality would involve some kind of self-deception about his own motives.  If he believed that he was about to write for immortality, his strong desire not to write for reasons of immortality would come into play and inhibit writing.

But suppose he had no similar desire not to write the book for personal satisfaction.  The desire not to write for immortality doesn't do anything to inhibit action motivated by the desire for personal satisfaction (again, barring some unfortunate self-deception where he thinks he's about to write for immortality when he's actually writing for satisfaction).  Even if the desire to write for personal satisfaction is weaker than the desire to write for immortality, it's able to be the sole motivator, because the desire to write for immortality is specifically inhibited from causing action by the desire not to write for reasons of immortality.  So the desire for personal satisfaction could motivate him by itself and be the sole source of his reasons. 

This is how reason-choosing works — desires not to act on some reason inhibit action that we recognize as being for that reason, so that we can only act out of other desires.  It requires a bit of self-knowledge, and that's something that I think the Humean view gets right. I'm sure there are plenty of well-meaning people who don't want to make decisions for racist reasons, and would be inhibited from acting if they knew they were about to act for racist reasons, but nevertheless act for racist reasons because they're unaware of the role of racist beliefs or desires in driving their actions.

Reason-choosing requires a somewhat complex motivational structure where we have multiple first-order motivational states favoring some action and a second-order motivational state to inhibit acting out of some of them.  (The second-order states against acting for D1 might themselves be derived in traditional instrumental style by a more fundamental desire to act for D2 alone.)  Often we act without having anything this complex going on. This would mean that we often act without choosing our reasons. 

And I think that's right!  For the most part, we cook and cross streets and make casual conversation without choosing our reasons for doing what we do.  Choosing reasons is something that a theory of motivation has to explain, but it's a special and complex case rather than a ubiquitous phenomenon.

26 Replies to “How Humeans Can Explain Reason-Choosing

  1. Hi Neil!
    I worry you will need to add something about identification into your account to make this plausible. What if the the person is self-aware but alienated from the higher-order desires that determine which lower level desire is efficacious? Do you think this is possible?

  2. Hi Brad! Yeah, I think alienation from a second-order desire is possible. Identification is important for free will issues where alienation makes a difference. I don’t know for sure what to think of this, but it’s plausible that nobody can freely act on a second-order desire they’re alienated from.
    I don’t yet see how it’s important for reason-choosing, though. Could one unfreely choose one’s reasons, if one acts on a second-order desire one is alienated from? I haven’t really thought about this, but I’m inclined to say yes, in whatever sense one can make other kinds of choices unfreely. Suppose I’d like to eat for the pleasure of eating, but second-order desires cultivated in my recently concluded career as a fashion model prevent me from doing so. I’m alienated from these second-order desires. So I eat for survival rather than pleasure and feel bad about my inability to eat for pleasure. The thing to say here is seems to be that I’ve unfreely chosen my reasons. I don’t know why we’d want to say that all choices of reasons must be free.
    If this is right, alienation may kill free will, but it’s compatible with (unfree) reason-choosing. So I don’t think I have to say anything about alienation and identification.

  3. This seems promising, but I’m not sure that you’ve said enough yet about how the desire not to act on a reason inhibits action based on that reason. I wonder if a plausible account could be given of this that focuses on the notion of attention. Could you say, for instance, that Setiya’s desire not to act for the reason of gaining immortality (or a fragment thereof) leads him to direct his attention away from that desire (or from the belief that writing a book would achieve this?), and that this is how it inhibits his choosing to write the book for that reason? I’m not sure that this fits every case in which we choose our reasons—maybe sometimes we ask ourselves what we would do if we didn’t have a reason, while never in fact succeeding in pushing that reason out of mind—but then perhaps not every case of reason-choosing is alike.

  4. Not sure about this worry, but here goes:
    The alienation issue is not just about free will, but also responsibility and the core worry is that if we lack responsibility in some alienation cases then talk of the decision being ours, or up to us, will be out of place. My worry is that in these cases the talk of *my* deciding will ring hollow.
    For example: if the explanation of why I choose one reason over another is that some hypnotist inculcated certain higher order desires in me, and, knowing that, I am alienated from those desires, then it would not make sense for me to say *I* decided the reason on which I act. Similarly, I would say that that “decision” was not up to me.
    And that seems to be the worry that you cited.

  5. Dale, I’m a big fan of using the way desire directs attention to explain stuff! I think it’s going to be especially useful in explaining another criticism Setiya discusses, where intentional action must involve doing something in the belief that you’re doing it. But I think I can explain the inhibition of first-order desires without bringing in attention-direction. All I need is the way that desire-belief pairs motivate.
    Suppose I have a first-order desire for immortality, and a means-end belief that I can raise the probability of immortality by an immediate act of writing. This would motivate the immediate act of writing. But I also have a desire not to write for reasons of immortality, and a (true, self-knowledge-supported) means-end belief that an immediate act of writing would raise the probability of my writing for reasons of immortality. The latter pair will oppose the same immediate act of writing that the former pair supports.
    I think there are cases of reason-choosing where we would want to bring in the way desire directs attention, though, and I think you could probably fill out Setiya’s example to make one of those.

  6. Brad, I’m thinking that I’ll just want to reapply my previous points to responsibility. The agent chose X as a reason to Y, but wasn’t responsible for choosing X as the reason.
    Similarly, you could apply them to ‘it being up to me’ — the agent chose X as a reason to Y, but choosing X as a reason wasn’t really up to him, in whatever sense unfree action is something you did that wasn’t really up to you.

  7. Ok. But if you take that line, you can’t maintain that your model explains why our reasons or choices are “up to us”. Right?
    And I thought that was the original challenge…
    You said: “In Reasons Without Rationalism, Kieran Setiya presents the Standard Model as unable to explain how “Our reasons are in some sense ‘up to us’ — we decide why to do something, as well as what to do — and we seem to recognize our reasons, as such” (39).”

  8. Well, I didn’t say they were always up to us. As I say in the last paragraph of the post, reason-choosing isn’t something we always do. All I want to explain is how we can do it in some cases. As the stuff in the second paragraph suggests, that’s enough of a challenge for Humeans.
    If alienation can prevent ordinary choices (whether to drink the whiskey or not) from really being up to us in some cases, I don’t know why reason-choices should have any special exemption. The natural thing to say is that reason-choices are up to us in the ordinary kinds of cases where choices generally are up to us, but that they aren’t up to us in the weird kinds of cases where choices generally aren’t up to us.
    It’s bedtime in Singapore, but I look forward to answering the comments I’ll see when I return!

  9. Neil,
    “Suppose I have a first-order desire for immortality, and a means-end belief that I can raise the probability of immortality by an immediate act of writing. . . . The latter pair will oppose the same immediate act of writing that the former pair supports.”
    I’ll think about this more, and I may be wrong, but my initial reaction is that think that if this is all that it going on then your “fragment of immortality” reason isn’t being inhibited so much as it is being counterbalanced. It seems to me that this means you aren’t really “choosing your reasons.” Although maybe your account explains what is really going on in cases in which it might seem to someone that she is choosing her reasons, and perhaps that is all you need.

  10. You’re right, Dale, ‘counterbalancing’ is probably a better word for this than ‘inhibiting.’
    But I don’t yet see how this interferes with the idea that one is choosing one’s reasons. The belief-desire pair that prevents action includes a desire not to act for R. One’s desire not to act for R thus is successful in motivating one’s not acting for R. Then if there’s some other R’ that I’d rather act on, and my higher-order desires don’t push against this, I can act for R’. When we act on our desires in this way, we’re choosing the things that are their objects. So I think that calling this the choosing of reasons fits naturally into our way of talking about choosing.
    (If this doesn’t work and I have to say that I just explain ‘what is really going on in cases in which it might seem to someone that she is choosing her reasons,’ as you say, that’s not terrible — I’m more interested in giving good psychological explanations here than fitting the language.)

  11. Isn’t this only a problem if you are Humean of both normative reasons and motivating reasons? I have to admit, I’m not even sure I know what the Humean view is about normative reasons.
    But, in any case, imagine I was Michael Smith, and held a Humean view of motivating reasons and a non-Humean view of normative reasons. I take it that in this case I could non-problematically say:
    “even if I believe that books give their authors a kind of immortality, and even if I think that this is a [normative] reason – a good [normative] reason – to write a book, it may not be my [motivating] reason for doing so. That is up to me.”
    Here the first two claims are about what one believes A+ would want one to do given certain considerations about immortality, the second claim is about what actually moves on to act, and the last claims is about it being up to one what moves one.
    This seems non-problematic. Of course, there might remain some worry about it being irrational not to be moved even a bit as a result of thoughts about normative reasons. This sounds right to me but this doesn’t seem like the Setiya problem. We would only need to understand his claim as a claim of it being up to him whether he is rational or irrational. That doesn’t sound too bad for me.
    And, of course if the Humean is an externalist about the normative reasons judgments, then the problem goes away completely.

  12. I think I agree with most everything you said in your last reply, Neil; I agree, for example, that our reasons are up to us in “normal” cases and that alienation cases are “abnormal”.
    I also agree you need only explain why reasons are up to us in normal cases.
    But my worry is about your ability to do just that!
    Let me try to clearly state the question I have in mind.
    My question:
    Does your higher-order desire account *explain* why things are up to us in normal cases, but not up to us in the abnormal alienation ones?
    I suspect that the answer is ‘no’ because the higher-order desires on which you focus are present in *both* normal and abnormal cases.
    Do you agree that the answer is ‘no’? If not, why not?

  13. Jussi, it’s the last part of your 3rd paragraph — “That is up to me” that would seem problematic (at least before this blog post saved us all!) As you say, you can have the normative-motivating mismatch perfectly well on a variety of views. Motivating reasons being up to me is the hard thing for the Humean to explain.

  14. Brad, it’s my turn to agree with you. The answer is ‘no’. I’m not giving that explanation. That explanation comes from elsewhere — namely, from an account of how alienation makes things not up to us.
    My job is to explain how, on a Humean picture, our reasons being up to us is possible at all. You’ll need plenty more stuff to get a full account of when there is and isn’t up-to-us-ness.

  15. “Similarly, in Rationality in Action John Searle objects to desire-belief views of motivation, writing that “when one has several reasons for performing an action, one may act on only one of them; one may select which reason one acts on” (65).”
    There must be some user manual for the mind that John Searle has that I don’t. I don’t know how someone can select which reason to act on. Acting for one reason rather than another happens, sure, but why think it something you do or choose to do?
    Suppose we say that:
    (i) What you do/choose to do has moral worth only if it is done for the right reasons; and,
    (ii) A-ing for reason R1 rather than R2 is itself something you do.
    If ‘A-ing for R1’ denotes an action, say, B-ing _it_ has moral worth only if B-ing is done for the right reason. (If it is something you do and you can select the reason, surely you could choose to do it for the wrong sort of reason (e.g., you choose to act for the moral reason rather than the prudential reason for the reason that your mind-reading girlfriend who examines only the first layer of your motivating reasons is likely to be deceived into thinking you are a good person when in fact you are a cad). Seems like a regress looms given (i). Denying (ii) looks good. (I think this is essentially an argument from W.D. Ross and I think Alvarez and Hyman run a version of it as well when they deny that actions are events.)
    Now, it’s true (I think) that you can choose not to act for some reason by not doing some act at all. So, if I choose to sleep with someone knowing both that we’re in love and that I’ll get a free lunch out of the deal, I don’t think I can choose to sleep with this someone for the lovey reason rather than the foody reason and choose not to act on the foody reason (or choose to sleep with someone from the other reason) but I can determine that I won’t act from the foody reason by simply refusing to sleep with this someone. But, that’s another matter entirely.

  16. Right. But then the objection doesn’t turn on choosing reasons at all but rather on how what we desire can be up to us at all on Humean view. And there you have a lot of work done in the Frankfurt, Watson vein that your second-order account draws from. So I’m starting to think that Setiya and Searle have not given any new worries for the Humean by the talk about choosing reasons which just sounds misleading to me.
    I have to say, personally, I’ve been always convinced by Scanlon’s arguments against the possibility of choosing reasons. It seems to me that when people talk about good reasons that are not theirs they only use ‘reasons’ in inverted commas. If they genuinely think that the consideration counts in favour of a given act that they are doing, it seems to me odd to think that they wouldn’t be moved to at all by that consideration. Of course it might be that they are thinking that that consideration wouldn’t have been sufficient for get them to act.

  17. If a desire-belief counts as a consideration, then phenomenologically speaking, it is at least a consideration that is accompanied by deliberation about what are the best means, and a likely belief of an end to be furthered by selecting the end. Normativity of the situation is given already to reasoning beforehand.
    Next, the fact that the strength/weakness of what motivates me need not be one of the many desire-belief pairs actually motivating does nothing to defeat Setiya’s main concern–that is, that rationality is required to set non-optional ends. This more than just saying that reason holds back one desire over others, or is incapable of strengthening or lessening the motivational force behind a reason. Such a conception of practical reasoning is phenomenologically indadequate to my moral experience that there are non-optional ends selected for in deliberation.

  18. Clayton, if your concern is that views allowing rampant reason-choosing will make acting for noble reasons too easy, I’m in strong agreement. I think one of the benefits of the Humean view is that it restricts reason-choosing to unusual cases where the desires are set up as I’ve set them up in the post. These are the cases where your intense aversion to doing some action for ignoble reasons can prevent you from doing so, leaving your weak noble desires to be the decisive ones.
    Jussi, it’s not exactly about “how what we desire can be up to us at all on Humean view” — it’s about how which desire motivates a given action can be up to us on the Humean view. I actually didn’t know that the Frankfurt/Watson debate had directly addressed this issue, but I’m happy to take the machinery of second-order volition and use it here.

  19. Ok. But, the question ‘how which desire motives a given action can be up to us’ seems very distant from the question of how we can choose which (normative) reason to act on. Maybe it is the question of how we can choose which (motivating) reason to act on. But that question seems non-sensical to me. There’s always only the motivating reasons we act on.
    Part of the Frankfurt/Watson debate is the idea that some of the desire we have we can externalise, i.e., rule out as our wills. On different views of Frankfurt, these are the desires we do not desire to have, desires we hold wholeheartedly, desires based on volitional necessities or love. On Watson’s view, they are the ones supported by evaluative judgments. I take it that the idea is that usually this is relevant for which desires we allow to move us to act even if in the cases of addictions and the like irrationalities we may overcome by the external desires.

  20. I am puzzled by the notion of being able to choose one’s reasons. Ruth Chang in a recent paper has a voluntarist story which would count perhaps as vindicating the idea that we can choose our reasons but she rightly sees that such a view is rather controversial. But in any case, I worry that without a clearer understanding of what needs explaining, that Neil’s sensible story will not look fully convincing. For whatever Setiya means by choosing one’s reasons, I take it it does not count as doing that that one’s reasons are determined by one’s desires. If that did count as choosing one’s reasons then there would be no initial puzzle for the Humean. But then it is not clear why the more fancy way that Neil offers of one’s desires determining why one does something should be thought to be a case where one is “choosing one’s reasons.” Things would be clearer for me if I had a better sense of what we are trying to explain. Clearly, I think, Neil’s story can explain cases where I badly want a certain outcome but strongly want to not bring it about in a certain way and so am choosy as between various means to the former desire. Our actions can affect the satisifaction of more than one desire at a time, and so there is no reason for the motivational Humean to be stuck saying that if one has a desire for X one must be motivationally indifferent between various ways of bringing about X even if one has other concerns which some of the means will thwart.

  21. Yeah, David, I really didn’t give much thought to what to call this phenomenon (as comes up a little bit in the above discussion with Jussi). Whatever Kieran is up to in his book-writing example is what I’m trying to explain. I don’t know if ‘choosing reasons’ is the right term for it. Just making the point that the motivational Humean can deal with that thing is what I’m trying to do.
    Maybe it’ll help to construe the explanandum as the fact that the strongest desire-belief pair favoring some action need not play any role in my motivating reasons for doing it, because I’m sufficiently averse to acting for those reasons. I think that seems initially puzzling enough for the Humean, and is a real phenomenon. And I think the above story explains it well.

  22. Good, I like this direction of characterizing what needs explaining better. But now, given your current characterization, much seems to hang on the difference between a desire to not be motivated in certain ways counterbalancing a first order desire vs. silencing a first order desire. I take it that if the first picture is in place then the strongest belief/desire pair still has some role to play (it had to be outweighted, after all). So that characterization seems to require the stronger silencing understanding and then I feel like I need to hear more to understand silencing on the Humean account.

  23. David’s distinction between outweighing reasons and silencing them gets at what was behind my earlier comment that what was being described here doesn’t seem to amount to choosing one’s reasons: a reason that is merely being outweighed, as opposed to silenced, still seems to be amongst one’s reasons. Neil, if David is right that that your new characterization requires the stronger notion of silencing, then I’d still suggest that you think more about whether an explanation in terms of the direction of attention might not both provide a Humean basis for this notion and be true to our psychology.

  24. I think I understand your comment better now, Dale. Now I see why I want to talk about attention direction. And I think I can fit it all within the above view.
    What’s it going to be like if your desire to not act for a bad reason is considerably stronger than the other desires involved? Since it’s your strongest desire, it’ll direct your attention. The thing most relevant to its object, while it’s occurrent, is going to be the desire motivating you to act for a bad reason, since this threatens to bring about the situation you most want to avoid. So you’re going to be looking at this desire and feeling some kind of negative emotion as you think about acting on it. Only when you know that you’re not going to act on the bad reason will the stronger desire recede from the occurrent state and cease directing attention.
    This means that the phenomenology here won’t be that of outweighing. You aren’t attending to both desires in the same way and weighing one against another. Rather, you’re directing your attention at one from the standpoint of the other. That explains the phenomenology of silencing, which I think is the desideratum here.
    You say that on my view “a reason that is merely being outweighed, as opposed to silenced, still seems to be amongst one’s reasons”. And I think that’s roughly what we ought to say. When I silence the reason to go to the movie because I told my student I’d meet with him at the same time, I still think I have more reason to go to the movie than to hide in a closet. So in keeping with the metaphor of silence, I don’t think we’d want to say that silencing totally gets rid of a reason — it just renders it incapable of affecting a particular decision.

  25. I like the idea that the thing to be explained here is phenomenological. I like grapefruit but am told to not eat it because it interacts badly with the statin I am on. I still register that I like grapefruit but I find no residual longing for it after I remind myself that it is bad for me. Surely it must be common for greatly outweighed motivating reasons to leave little or no phenomenological trace. Otherwise we would feel conflicted all the time. A creature able to resolve many motivational conflicts without much psychological drama would seem to have evolutionary advantages. Railton has an interesting recent article (“Practical Competence and Fluent Agency”) where he points to psychological data that suggests that kids that manage to be strong of will in the face of temptations are successful at distracting themselves and thinking about something else rather than the object of temptation. Healthy psychologies can take desires that they endorse and use them to shape attention and deliberation, or so I think the research that Railton points to seems to me to say. And I suppose this could happen more automatically with more predictable kinds of temptation too. And all this might well feel like one’s not-in-this-context-endorsed desire being silenced.

  26. Obviously I agree with lots of what you’re saying, David. Explaining the phenomenology of deliberation is a huge theoretical desideratum for any motivational theory. But I just wanted to comment on this:
    “A creature able to resolve many motivational conflicts without much psychological drama would seem to have evolutionary advantages.”
    I try not to think about psychological drama minimization or what would be evolutionarily advantageous when building a motivational theory. After all, people I know are full of wacky psychological drama, and I’m sure our psychology falls short of evolutionary optimality in lots of ways.
    The one evolutionary consideration that I do try to remember is that we evolved from animals, so there may be some pressure to explain how we work in the smallest number of moves away from animal psychology. (This may explain why we fall so far short of the optimal and have lots of unneeded drama.) In any case, fitting the phenomenology, behavior, and experimental psychology/neuroscience is what should guide us.

Comments are closed.