Friday, August 5, 2011

On 'Slaves of the Passions'

Mark Schroeder's book, Slaves of the Passions, defends the idea that all reasons are dependent on the psychological features of those to whom they are reasons.

To use his central example, picture Ronnie (who likes to dance) and Bradley (who doesn't even like to be around dancing). Both are invited to a party where dancing will definitely be going on. If you agree the fact that there will be dancing at the party is a reason for Ronnie to attend and a reason for Bradley to avoid attending, then you're on board with the intuition that at least some reasons are explained by psychological differences.

The controversial move is to try explaining all reasons in the same way. In its most general form, Schroeder characterizes this Humean Theory of Reasons1 as a "parity thesis," which only insists that whatever the difference is between Ronnie and Bradley that constitutes a difference in reasons...that's what constitutes a difference in all reasons. Specific versions of the Humean Theory of Reasons (HTR) may advance different theories about what the difference actually is.

Why make a big deal out of distinguishing general from substantive theories?
  1. Past critics of the HTR have tended to challenge some substantive theory while believing they were challenging the general theory.
  2. Schroeder offers his own substantive theory, Hypotheticalism, which supposedly dodges historical criticisms. But of course he doesn't want anyone to think discrediting Hypotheticalism would automatically discredit the HTR.
Well, Not THOSE Reasons

The HTR is concerned with normative reasons rather than explanatory reasons.

Explanatory reasons — The reason my car won't start is that it has a dead battery.
Normative reasons — Graduate school requirements are a reason to maintain a high undergrad GPA.

Schroeder makes a further distinction within normative reasons, producing what he (somewhat reluctantly) labels objective normative reasons and subjective normative reasons. This distinction is based on whether the reason applies whatever a person's beliefs may be (objective) or applies because of a person's beliefs regardless of what is actually true (subjective).

Suppose I take a pill I believe is aspirin, but is actually poison. I probably don't have an objective normative reason to take the pill, but if I have a headache it seems right to say I had a reason of some kind to do so. Subjective reasons, Schroeder suggests, are normative reasons which would be objective normative reasons if the person's relevant beliefs were true.

So the two basic kinds of reasons turn out to be explanatory reasons and objective normative reasons, with the HTR aiming at the latter category.2 It would be nice to unify these two senses, as Stephen Finlay does for normative and non-normative senses of 'ought,'3 but Schroeder points out difficulties rather than a solution for doing this.4

Winning the Intuition War

Or rather, not losing the intuition war. Slaves of the Passions is primarily about rescuing the HTR from disrepute by showing that supposedly knock-down arguments are weak or off-target. I may examine a few of these arguments in the future.

Today I want to take a step back and ask, "What makes a theory of reasons a good theory?" Avoiding incoherence is a start, but philosophers are exceptionally skilled at figuring out how things aren't necessarily incoherent. It's a low bar.

I'm tempted to say that a good theory of reasons provides the simplest possible explanation of our talk about 'reasons.' This is the sort of thing Paul Ziff did in his book Semantic Analysis when he analyzed 'good' as meaning "answering to certain interests."5 Schroeder's chapter on normative reduction makes it clear he's trying to say something about the metaphysics of reasons, not just something about English and other languages which might have similar semantic patterns. And a vital way to test the metaphysical correctness of theories about reasons is to check the intuitive data.
For to the extent that a Humean is willing to admit to accepting results that are intuitively false, other philosophers are going to legitimately infer that he has simply changed the subject, and is talking about something else entirely.6
This plays out in a pair of chapters alleging that the HTR wrongly calls things reasons which are not reasons...and wrongly denies that things are reasons which are reasons. For example, Schroeder's substantive theory generates the seemingly ridiculous result that I have a reason to eat my car. This would seem to put him in a bind. How can he make make intuitive acceptability a necessary criterion for theories of reasons, yet support a theory with such an unintuitive result?
What I will now do is explain why our negative existential intuitions about reasons are prone to be misleading in this way. The explanation comes in two steps, each of which yields a testable empirical prediction. So I'll then proceed to test these predictions.7
I was excited; empirical predictions! No need to rely on intuitions about a metaphysical issue. ...except the empirical tests turned out to be tests of intuitions.

Prediction one: When Schroeder explains that the reason for me to eat my car is that it "contains the recommended daily allowance of iron," it becomes somewhat less unintuitive.
Prediction two: When Schroeder explains that this reason is a terribly weak reason, the unintuitive level drops again.

The lesson here is that initially unintuitive results can be ok if reflecting on them can result in their looking not-so-bad after all. This is probably a good approach to take with people whose big hangup with the HTR is based on on negative intuitions. I don't think it appeals as much to people like me who have an intuitive affinity for the HTR but don't appreciate intuitive 'tests' of metaphysics. Then again, I'm not the sort of reader Schroeder needs to worry about.


I may as well sketch the substantive version of the HTR featured in Slaves of the Passions, to keep anyone curious about that from feeling completely teased by the tangent I took in this post.

Revisiting the Ronnie and Bradley scenario, the fact that there will be dancing at the party is a reason for Ronnie to go to the party because (1) Ronnie desires that he dance and (2) the truth of the proposition there will be dancing at the party helps explain why Ronnie going to the party promotes Ronnie dancing. And if (1) or (2) didn't hold, then the fact that there will be dancing at the party would not be a reason for Ronnie to go. (As is the case for Bradley.)

Reasons depend on a person's desires and external facts about the world. It's important to notice that the only reason identified above is the fact of dancing at the party. This sets Hypotheticalism against other versions of the HTR which count desires as reasons for action (except in special cases where desires fill the role of the fact of dancing in the example above).

Although Hypotheticalism is intentionally constructed as an 'existence proof' of an intuitively viable form of the HTR, Schroeder usually goes back to the dancing scenario and argues that Hypotheticalism turns out to provide a more intuitive explanation of the Ronnie/Bradley difference than other versions of the HTR which are vulnerable to historical criticisms.

I'm definitely on board with the general HTR, and think the basic Hypotheticalist template is about right. Except by 'right' I mean as a concise explanation of how 'reasons' language is actually used, or as a minimally cleaned up version to achieve coherence. Schroeder's applications of Hypotheticalism to moral theory strike me as completely off the wall, but I realize he's trying to show that the range of Hypotheticalism is broad enough to allow for surprisingly Kantian strategies. So it's probably just my usual boggling at Kantians at work there.

1. In Book 2, Section 3, Part 3 of A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume wrote: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." This passage inspired so-called Humean theories of reason and, obviously, this book's title.
2. I skipped over the category of 'motivating' reasons which Schroeder takes to be a combination of explanatory and subjective normative reasons. See p. 12.
3. See
4. Schroeder, M. (2007). Slaves of the passions. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 35-37.
5. Ziff, P. (1967). Semantic analysis. Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press.
6. Schroeder. p. 86
7. Ibid. p. 94

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