The Myth of Morality: Practical Rationality


This post is the third in a series covering Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality, a book arguing both for error theory and fictionalism about morality.

In the last post, Joyce’s conception of moral inescapability was introduced, and moral imperatives were identified as strongly categorical. In this post, Joyce uses the insights gained to sketch an argument for a moral error theory. A theory of practical rationality is given, and used to refine the argument.

The Argument for Moral-Error Theory: First Pass

This brings us to our first sketch of Joyce’s argument:

1. If x morally ought to φ, then x ought to φ regardless of whether he cares to, regardless of whether φing satisfies any of his desires or furthers his interests.
2. If x morally ought to φ, then x has a reason for φing.
3. Therefore, if x morally ought to φ, then x has a reason for φing regardless of whether φing serves his desires or furthers his interests.
4. But there is no sense to be made of such reasons.
5. Therefore, x is never under a moral obligation.1

Premises 1,2 and 4 do the work here. 1 expresses the conclusion we arrived at earlier, that moral imperatives are categorical, rather than merely hypothetical. Joyce adds to the justification for 1 in passing, noting that once we know that a certain action has been performed, we take ourselves to have all the information we need to pass moral judgment on the perpetrator. Indeed, it is not uncommon that we purposely ignore the desires of the transgressor as both irrelevant to and distracting from our moral assessments. The point can be put more forcifully: there are no unusual facts about the desires and interests of Hitler that would falsify the claim that he ought not to have enacted the Final Solution. Premise 2 is a special case of Mackie’s Platitude (MP), mentioned in the last post. However, Joyce rather confusingly wants ‘reason’ to mean something stronger than the institutional reasons we met there, for obviously ascription of these reasons do make sense, which 4 would appear to deny. He wants ‘reason’ to mean a real reason, one which cannot legitmately be ignored, the sort of inescapable reason promised by the interpretation of moral imperatives as strongly categorical.
So we seem to have good grounds for 1 and 2, whereas 4 tells us that the kind of reasons indicated are incoherent. But are they? To decide what sorts of reasons are legitimate grounds for action, we need to settle on a theory of reasons, of practical rationality.

Practical Rationality

We begin with a commonsense distinction between two kinds of reasons:

Objective Reasons: S has an objective reason to φ if and only if φing will further S’s ends.

Subjective Reasons: S has a subjective reason to φ if and only if S is justified in believing that she has an objective reason to φ.2

So, suppose young Thomas desires to ride the rollercoaster – he knows that other people find rollercoasters fun, and wants to join in. What Thomas assuredly has is a subjective reason to ride the rollercoaster, since he is justified in believing that he will have fun, which is one of his ends. In usual run of things this will also amount to an objective reason – Thomas really will have fun and suffer no ill effects from the ride. But now suppose that Thomas has gorged himself on one too many hotdogs, and his riding will result in violent illness, spoiling his day.Here subjective and objective reasons come apart, much like justification and truth do, and so although Thomas has a subjective reason to ride, he no longer has an objective reason. Indeed, he has an objective reason against riding, since not riding would actually further his ends. This distinction suggests a proposal:

Instrumental Rationality: S is practically rational to the extent that she is guided by her subjective reasons.3

Supposing Thomas chooses to ride knowing that the ride is fun, he is practically rational, even if it should happen that his objective reasons would recommend a different course of action to this. On the other hand, someone is practically irrational when they act for no reason at all, or when the reasons for which they act are not justified reasons (reasons which have the epistemic support of one’s other beliefs). Practical irrationality is then a form of epistemic negligence, a failing of taking into account one’s evidence in deciding how to act. Various phenomena may be responsible for this failure – “rage, passion, depression, distraction, grief, physical or mental illness”4 – which can prevent agents from being motivated and/or acting as they should.
Prima facie, this Humean Instrumentalism causes trouble for the moral realist. If objective reasons are defined by their connection to an agent’s ends, then there appears to be no latitude for the idea that we have reasons to perform actions regardless of our desires or interests. The only hope here appears to identify a universal desire of some kind, perhaps self-interest, which, whilst not strictly qualifying as categorical in the Kantian sense, would be the next best thing. However, it is highly doubtful that moral prescriptions always coincide with self-interest: the very ideas of ‘what one wants to do’ and ‘what one ought to do’ are often presented as contrastive. As Joyce notes, the search for universal desire “has all the appearance of a lost program”5.

An Alternative Theory

However, the above view of rationality is subject to objection. The objection runs as follows: if all that is required for practical rationality is that the agent should be guided by their subjective reasons, then any action will count as rational so long as the agent has a relevant desire. But, it would seem, at least some of our desires are themselves irrational, and thereby indict the actions produced for their sake. In particular, the problem comes to the forefront in cases where the agent is naturally described as suffering under akrasia or ‘weakness of the will’ – a disposition to act contrary to one’s own considered judgment about what it is best to do. Since this typically occurs when one of the agent’s desires comes to briefly overpower the others, this incontinence will usually meet the condition of according with the agent’s subjective reasons. But weakness of the will is generally classified as a species of irrationality.
The phenomenon is endlessly puzzling if we continue to think of the situation as one in which the agent has two equally worthy desires, one of which happens to win out. So a helpful distinction we could bring in is between what an agent values, and what he merely desires, where valuing X may be defined in terms of a second-order desire in favour of desiring X, or alternatively the having of a belief that X is desirable. Where a value conflicts with a mere desire, and the agent is guided by the desire rather than the value, the desire is irrational, and so the agent acts irrationally.
There’s another problem with our simple view of practical rationality: it is plausible to think that what it is rational for an agent to do depends upon what he or she would do after the exercise of their faculty of reason, i.e. after adequate deliberation. But such deliberation may supply one with new values, desires, and beliefs, or eliminate some that one has. One may come to believe that a particular belief is false, for instance. Or one may come to see that some new desire or value organizes our previous desires into a coherent whole, such that it would be preferable to adopt it.
Such problems lead Joyce to concede the earlier view in favor of what he calls ‘Non-Humean Instrumentalism’. It adds to the above distinction between subjective and objective reasons a rational/irrational dimension, and seems to break down like so:

Objective Rational Reasons: S has an objective rational reason to φ if and only if φing will further the ends of S’s idealized rational counterpart S+, where S+ is a flawlessly deliberating version of S. (All other objective reasons are irrational).

Subjective Rational Reasons: S has an subjective rational reason to φ if and only if S is justified in believing that she has an objective rational reason to φ. (All other subjective reasons are irrational).

Non-Humean Instrumentalism: S is rational to the extent that S acts upon his or her subjective rational reasons.6

So, putting these distinctions to use:

“Suppose Molly has a rational desire to refrain from eating a piece of cake, but an irrational desire tugging her to eat it. I see no grounds for insisting that only one desire provides her with a reason. It seems preferable (or at least permissible) to say that she has reasons both to eat the cake and not eat the cake, but the latter is privileged – it “trumps,” if you will – in virtue of deriving from a rational desire. (Alternatively, she may not have a desire to refrain at all, but still have a trumping reason to refrain if such a desire would be created in the process of deliberation.) This distinction between rational and irrational reasons is consistent with the earlier one between subjective and objective reasons. There are those actions Molly might perform which really would satisfy her rational desires, and those that she is justified in believing would. So, for example, she may well be justified in believing that refraining from eating the cake is the action that will satisfy her rational desires (where her desiderative set includes a desire to avoid getting chubby – one which would survive deliberation – and she notes, reasonably, that her cake-eating habits have been pushing her in that undesirable direction). In that case she has a subjective rational reason to refrain from eating the cake. However, suppose that she is oblivious of the fact that tomorrow she will be marooned on a desert island, and the extra calories from the cake would put her in good stead for an extra day or two, perhaps even contributing importantly to the highly desirable end of saving her life. In such a case she has an objective rational reason to eat the cake. In sum: she has (i) an objective rational reason to eat, (ii) a subjective rational reason to refrain from eating, and (iii) a quite irrational desire (providing her with an “irrational reason,” we might say) to eat.”7

The Argument for Moral-Error Theory: Second Pass

With a theory of practical rationality in hand, we can now embark on an investigation of whether it can endorse anything like a moral reason. In order for that to happen, our Non-Humean Instrumentalism must support (i) (strong) categorical imperatives, and (ii) those categorical imperatives including paradigmatic moral prescriptions – “proscribing stealing, enjoining promise-keeping, and so forth”8. But before we get to this, Joyce has some adjustments to make to his argument:

1. If x morally ought to φ, then x ought to φ regardless of what his desires and interests are.
2. If x morally ought to φ, then x has a reason for φing.
3. Therefore, if x morally ought to φ, then x can have a reason for φing regardless of what his desires and interests are.
4. But there is no sense to be made of such reasons.
5. Therefore, x is never under a moral obligation.9

Whereas premise 1 had previously read “If x morally ought to φ, then x ought to φ regardless of whether he cares to, regardless of whether φing satisfies any of his desires or furthers his interests”, the ‘regardless’ clause now has wider scope. This reflects the expansion of our theory of rationality to include idealized rational counterparts; a necessary change since unless the entire sphere of practical rationality is covered by the ‘regardless’ clause, there is latitude for moral imperatives to be trumped by other rational considerations, which could contravene their categorical nature. Since an idealized rational counterpart is constructed from the desires and interests of the agent whom it is counterpart of, the simple “.. regardless of what his desires and interests are” substitution does the trick. Premise 3 is adjusted to match 1, and premise 4, containing a demonstrative, covertly changes with it.

That’s it for now. The next post concerns relativity of reasons, and with it, the prospects for strong categorical imperatives.

1 Joyce, p.42.
2 Joyce, p.53.
3 Joyce, p.54.
4 Joyce, p.58.
5 Joyce, p.61.
6 These are my own explications of what Joyce says on p.71-5.
7 Joyce, p.72-3.
8 Joyce, p.75.
9 Joyce, p.77.

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