Friday, April 2, 2010

Philosophers do it for reasons, but nobody's doing something for a reason is itself something they do

It's hard to find things that John Searle says that I would accept. Case in point:
"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"

(Thanks to Neil Sinhababu for pointing to this passage.)

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 in their paper where they argue that actions aren't events.)

Now, it's true (I think) that you can choose not to act for some reason by not doing the act that would be motivated by that reason. 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). Of course, I can determine that I won't act from the foody reason at all by simply refusing to sleep with this someone. But, that's another matter entirely.

Is that wrong? The problem isn't just a regress. I have no experience I'd describe as the experience in which I choose or decide to act for one reason rather than some other one. I've never thought, "Well, now that the question as to whether to do that is settled, what shall my reason be for doing it?"

4 comments:

Quibble said...

I like to sit on the beach, especially (but not only) when it's sunny.

Today is sunny.

So, I go to the beach because (a)I like to and (b)it is sunny today.

That defeats Searle, doesn't it? Unless he combines 'sub-reasons' into something like 'because-I-like-to-and-it's-sunny' type reasons?

ADHR said...

Is there something in the context of the passage which suggests he's doing something funny with the term "select"?

Here's why I ask. Davidson does seem to think (in AR&C) that you can only act for one reason, whichever reason it was that caused your action. (IIRC, he spends a little time talking about the need to distinguish which was the reason from all the possible reasons.) So, maybe Searle has something like that in mind. Perhaps the idea is that the reason for your action is selected by some process going on in you (possibly a psychological one, possibly a causal one); its status as the reason for your action is somehow conferred by something you did, possibly (probably?) unconsciously or unintentionally.

I don't have a tremendously hard time parsing the idea that sometimes we can select our reasons for action, though. There is a distinction available between the reasons for the action and my reasons for the action. My reasons are the ones amongst the possible reasons I (fill in the blank -- acknowledge, actually believe, really cause my body to move, whatever). So, extending on Quibble's case: I might sit on the beach because I like to and it's sunny today, but I also might sit on the beach because that's where the family picnic is. It seems plausible to me that, while both are reasons for my sitting on the beach, either or both could be the ones I (acknowledge, believe, etc.) as my reasons for acting.

Then again, I often find Searle congenial, so maybe it's a fools seldom differ sortathing? :P

Neil Sinhababu said...

I've posted a comment at the Soup, but here I just feel like saying: Yeah, this is the kind of Go Go Gadget Mind stuff that we Humeans are always up against.

Christine Korsgaard defends a view like this in her Locke Lectures too, but she's less clear than Searle so you can't tell what she's doing at first.

Dan said...

Reason 1: Sophie loves me and wants to sleep with me tonight.
Reason 2: I love Sophie and want to sleep with her tonight.
Reason 3: John will give me a meal if I do not sleep with Sophie tonight.
Reason 4: I have no condom, Sophie is at her most fertile time, and it would be a disaster if she became pregnant.

I choose to act on Reason 4, rather than on any of the other Reasons. If I act on Reason 4 then I will not sleep with Sophie, and John will give me a meal. But I do not act on Reason 3. Reason 3 does not influence, let alone determine, what I do.

Isn't that what Searle is getting at? Or have I missed something?