In The Possibility of Altruism Thomas Nagel introduces a distinction between motivated and unmotivated desires that has since become standard in discussions of action theory and moral psychology. But what, exactly, are these categories? Many uses of the term, arguably including Nagel’s own, treat a desire as unmotivated if one has no reason for it. So conceived, unmotivated desires are mere urges, whims or unintelligible dispositions. It would be out of place to ask an agent to justify these states in the same way that it would be out of place to demand reasons for a headache. But Nagel introduces the idea differently, calling a desire unmotivated if one does not reason to it, that is does not engage in explicit practical reasoning resulting in the motivation to act.
Such states play an important role in human action and life, so this latter characterization makes unmotivated desires a large and interesting category. On the other hand, attractions that seize us unaccountably, the justification for which it does not even make sense to query, are unusual, and their occurrence — while perhaps curious — is of little normative interest. Maybe Nagel is right to think that you could simply become captivated with the idea of placing a sprig of parsley on the moon, gripped by the thought in an entirely whimsical way. But, if this odd thing were to happen to you it would not seem to provide or indicate a reason to do anything in particular.
I think that the ambiguity between the two ways of understanding unmotivated desires is often overlooked, and that that causes problems. It creates the possibility of toggling between the two ways of drawing the distinction, thinking of motivated desires as those to which we reason explicitly and unmotivated desires as normatively unevaluable urges. But by restricting attention to these two categories we manage to overlook nearly all of those motivational states that figure in real human action and practical thinking. For while we rarely reason explicitly to the attractions on which we act, neither do these attractions normally intrude on our consciousness unaccountably, as the Nagelian desire for herbs in space.
Normally, though we don’t arrive at our desires by reasoning, we have them for reasons. Thus, to have a desire standardly puts one in a position of having reason without yet having said, even to one’s self, what that reason is. That you haven’t yet said what the reasons are doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable of doing so. But I think that this stronger thing is often true as well. While wanting something is usually an intelligible state — one which, like a belief and unlike a headache, can be interrogated for the reasons supporting it — it doesn’t follow from the aptness of asking for reasons that the agent of the desire is or should be in a position to report them.
Desires aren’t alone here. Think of what it is like to love someone. Love for a person is almost never a state to which one explicitly reasons. That is, one usually does not, and arguably could not, come to love someone merely by considering claims ascribing admirable qualities to him, or thinking through an argument for the conclusion that one has sufficient reason to love him. Rather, one normally comes to love someone through experience of him, experience in which one appreciates directly the value that one’s love affirms. But love for another is not well understood as a brute preference or whim, unintelligible as a headache or an urge to put parsley on the moon. Even so, just as one couldn’t have arrived at love through reasoning, so one can neither bring another to share the commitment through argument, nor even fully express the reasons for one’s love, through mere report. One may have completely sufficient reasons, while yet being unable to say what these reasons are.
In fact, having reasons, perfectly adequate reasons that fully justify an attitude, without being able to say what they are appears to me to be very common. It happens with respect to belief, intention, hope, fear, and a host of other attitudes. These states are all reason responsive, or judgments sensitive. But they are often, perhaps almost always, formed without or prior to explicit reasoning, and becoming articulate about the reasons to which they respond can be extremely difficult, and may sometimes be impossible in principle.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that it’s no accident that philosophers have widely overlooked the ambiguity in Nagel’s presentation, or the more general phenomena of which it is an instance. Articulacy about our reasons is an ideal that we hold dear, an ideal that informs both our substantive views and the methods by which we purport to arrive at them. Our commitments, we think, should be based on reasons, and—here’s the move—these reasons should be expressible as claims that could figure in a philosophical argument. Our values should thus wait on the arguments supporting them. If you can’t communicate the reasons for your commitments, and aren’t willing to regard them as brute preferences or matters of taste, then you ought to revise, abandon, or at least suspend them.
But if having reasons without being able to say what they are is a normal part of the human condition, then this is a mistaken demand for unwarranted skepticism.
So, having begun with a narrow observation about an ambiguity in philosophical terminology, I end with a plea for humility and patience with others and with ourselves. It is surprisingly easy to overlook the large class of reasonable commitments for which people are faultlessly unable to articulate their reasons. When we do so we are prone to wield the tools of philosophical argument like a cudgel. We excuse ourselves from charitable engagement with the perspectives of those who lack the relevant training. We drive our students to skeptical stances that most of us don’t ourselves support. We do so while commending a misleading picture of philosophy as unrestrained discussion that leads us to truth through the inexorable force of the stronger argument.
We should, rather, expect, acknowledge, and perhaps even encourage inarticulacy. Even supposing that it is salutary to try to arrive at, or at least more nearly approach, articulacy about our reasons, it would be misguided to condition our commitments on the completion of this difficult task, or to encourage others to do so. Our relationships with others ought not be predicated on the premise that they need to support their commitments in argument before those commitments deserve to be taken seriously. For that matter, neither should our relationships with ourselves.