CPBD 081: Neil Sinhababu – The Humean Theory of Motivation

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 5, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Neil Sinhababu about David Hume’s theory of motivation and its implications for ethical theory.

Download CPBD episode 081 with Sinhababu. Total time is 59:50.

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Transcript prepared by CastingWords and paid for by Silver Bullet. If you’d like to get a transcript made for other past or future episodes, please contact me.

LUKE: Dr. Neil Sinhababu is an assistant professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore, and his recent dissertation for the University of Texas at Austin was called “A Treatise of Humean Nature”. Neil, welcome to the show.

NEIL: Thanks.

LUKE: Neil, I mostly want to talk to you about Hume, and motivation, and ethics, but first I want to read the final paragraph from your paper “Possible Girls” which was published in the “Pacific Philosophical Quarterly,” in 2008. First I should explain that your paper is about David Lewis’ defense of modal realism, the idea that all possible worlds, all ways that the world could have been, actually do exist. You argue that if he’s right, modal realists like David Lewis could fall in love with each other in different possible worlds.

NEIL: Yeah, yeah.

LUKE: Here’s the final paragraph from that paper that I loved so much. You write: “When engaging in philosophical reflection on modality, I have always rejected Lewis’ modal realism. But there were times when I wasn’t thinking about philosophy and I started to feel lonely. Then I thought of my possible girlfriend and smiled at the thought of someone out there who loved me and desired to be loved by me. In quick succession, I realized that she knew I was thinking of her: after all, she knew every temporal part of me down to a microphysical description. She knew everything I was saying and doing. I felt more motivated to act like a worthy man. My posture straightened. I came to believe that she was happy about my writing this paper, so I wrote more of it. From the functionalist perspective, it would have been reasonable to attribute a belief to me, the belief that someone merely possible, but real, who loved me was aware of what I was doing. In allowing for merely possible individuals who are as real as me, this belief presupposed modal realism and marked me as someone who had been seduced by Lewis’ theory.”

Now, first I have to say that that is delightful writing and second I have to say, what’s going on here? Are you being serious, or are you just playing?

NEIL: Well, I am serious that this sequence of events actually happened. I did come to believe, briefly, through wishful thinking, that there actually was somebody out there who felt this way about me in another universe. Lewis’ modal realism gives you that, because there are all these universes out there made of concrete individuals as real as me. Sometimes people ask me if this is a reductio ad absurdum of Lewis? And my response to that is just that I hope it isn’t that implausible that somebody could fall in love with me that that just blows up the theory. I think what they mean is, is this is such a bizarre consequence, just that people out there can have trans-world romantic relationships.

Really, I don’t think that’s a big problem. If you take Lewis’ view as a synthetic reduction of modality, not as something that is true by definition, such that we could have know it through conceptual analysis, but as synthetic reduction, then, well, when you do synthetic reductions sometimes you discover exciting new things. Nobody knew before that water was composed of three atoms, two of one kind and one of another. Nobody knew that modality, that the stuff that made our modal claims true, were concrete and that you could fall in love with. So hey, exciting news, synthetic reductions give you that.

LUKE: [laughter] It is a really funny and interesting paper.

NEIL: Thanks, I’m really proud of it.

LUKE: Yeah. I wonder if academic analytic philosophy is just maybe becoming slightly less stuffy than it often is. Because I read recently a sentence in “Philosophy and Phenomenological Research,” in an article by Bryan Frances, where very relevant to your paper, he wrote the sentence : “David Lewis could kick my ass when it comes to modality, or just about any issue in metaphysics for that matter.”

NEIL: Right.

LUKE: I really enjoyed that. Well Neil, let’s talk about Hume, and motivation, and morality. First could you explain for us what was Hume’s theory of motivation that is so much discussed?

NEIL: The classic statement of Humean Theory of Motivation from “The Treatise of Human Nature” was, “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.”

That leaves a little bit of room for how it should be spelled out. There are basically two kinds of arguments I see in Hume for this kind of claim. One is a set of a priori arguments. Actions don’t represent things, they aren’t things that are true or false. So desires, which don’t represent things which aren’t true or false, these are things that seem to fit pretty well with causing actions; beliefs which can be true or false, those aren’t the kind of things you need. There is some set of arguments like that.

Then the set of arguments that I’m more interested in, that fit my way of defending the Humean Theory of Motivation a bit better, are generally a posteriori arguments about how we explain things. That’s where we see Hume talking about what it’s like to experience passions, the way that calm and violent passions are both different kinds of passions – using that kind of stuff to explain the phenomenology of decision making and the phenomenology of motivation. That’s the side of motivation that I take after a bit more. There’s people like Michael Smith who take after the former side of Hume a bit more.

LUKE: So Neil, what is the theory of motivation that you defended in your dissertation recently, and how is it updated from the theory that Hume defended over two centuries ago?

NEIL: Well, it’s inspired by Hume’s thing about reason just being the slave of the passions. The way I spell that out is, desire is necessary for action – so you can’t just act on the basis of beliefs alone. That’s one part of it.

The second part, this is something that I’m doing that is stronger than what people like Michael Smith, who are also Humeans, do. I’ve heard it say that you can’t reason your way to having a new desire, unless you have another desire at the premises of the reasoning.

So in other words, you can’t just have a belief that something would be a good thing to do, or that you ought to do something, and on the basis of that belief form a desire through a process of reasoning, from that belief alone.

You’d also have to have, if you wanted to use that belief to form a new desire, also have to have a desire to do the good. Of course if you have the desire to do the good, you think that it’s a good thing to do. Well, you’re going to desire to do whatever that thing is that you think is good. You can do that, but you need a desire in the premise.

Why do I want to call this the Humean theory and encourage people to call this the Humean theory? Well, suppose you, with Hume, you think that reason is just the slave of the passions. If reason can just say “OK. I’m going to make a new desire now.” We’d be gone beyond the kind of thing that Hume was trying to say.

LUKE: Right.

NEIL: So I think Humeans should accept this second, stronger thing.

LUKE: Yeah. You wanted to make both of those explicit and defend both of them because you think they’re both true.

NEIL: Right.

LUKE: Now we should be clear you’re just talking about intentional action, right? So when I put my hand on a hot stove and it jerks back, that doesn’t seem to be because of any desires that I have, but just because of a built-in reflex that is not even considering the values that I have.

NEIL: Right. Yes, there are definitely going to be a bunch of things like that. Most of your breathing is not going to be desired, motivated that way. [laughter]

LUKE: One of the criticisms of Humean theories of motivation is that they don’t explain our process of deliberation very well when we deliberate about our actions. Can you explain, what are those criticisms? And then, how you would you respond?

NEIL: Right. A good example would be a criticism made by Tim Scanlon, that the desire-belief account of motivation can’t address the way that we sometimes bracket some of our reasons in decision making. Suppose you are in some kind of official position, you are a conscientious person, you have an opportunity to make a decision that you’re trying to make for the good of your organization. It turns out that it affects your personal interests in some way, but you think that it would be wrong to make this decision on the basis of your personal interests. Even though you desire one consideration more than another, as far as personal interest is concerned, you can set that aside and just consider this on the basis of the good for your organization.

How do you do that if the Humean view is right? That’s the criticism that Scanlon has. Don’t all the desires just pull on you? If reason is just the slave of the passions, how can reason say “no, don’t think about that” and then that reason goes away? That reason no longer pulls on your desires. How can that happen? Here’s the kind of story I try to tell about this.

One thing that can happen is, you can have the desire to make decisions in an above-board sort of way. Then when you have that desire, you realize that if you made a decision on the basis of pursuing personal interests, if you made a decision that way, you wouldn’t be deciding in an above-board way.

So your desire to do things in this conscientious, respectable fashion will be able to block any decision. Just in the ordinary way strong desires against something, or strong aversions to something, block you from bringing you closer to the object of your aversion. This motivational force will just block those actions.

Once you know about yourself, that you can’t act in pursuit of personal interest any more, because your strong desire that comes out of being a conscientious person is blocking you – well, now you see that that isn’t something you could do. There’s just no way you could act on that. Given that you have this strong desire. So, it sort of fades away as an option.

It’s like, I can’t walk through a wall to get what I want. I can’t walk through my own motivational structure which contains the strong desire to get what I want. So I stop actively pursuing it or weighing it in my decision making. Because I know I’m not going to act on that. I’m not going to pursue that.

So that’s how I think the desire-belief view, in a very simple way that is built up out of the basic components of desire. The basic things build up of just how desire is the most basic cases. We can build explanations of the complex cases. It’s a good simple theory in that way.

LUKE: Yeah, but I think we human beings are a lot more complex than that. We will often deliberate at length. Especially, say, in some kind of moral dilemma, where we have what we desire on one end and what we, in a vague sense, think might be the morally right things to do. It’s not like we’re blocked where the thing that might be morally wrong but fulfills our own desires is somehow completely blocked and not on the table for consideration. We struggle with these things. We go back and forth. Then in the very end, it seems like we just barely decide to do one instead of the other. Can your Humean account of motivation account for something like that?

NEIL: Sure. Actually, that’s the easier case to some extent. Because in that case, we’re feeling the pull of both things. I think if you have your desires at roughly equal strengths, then you’re going to go back and forth. By having to weigh one thing against the other. Scanlon thought that was all the Humean theory could do. That’s why I had to build this explanation of these bracketing cases. These cases where you’d silence one of the reasons, as McDowell puts it, or you just bracket one of the considerations, as Scanlon puts it.

Weighing is pretty easy. You can weigh one food against another. So you can weigh acting morally against acting in pursuit of personal interest. But how you could get one of the considerations to just not weigh on you, that’s tougher. I think the difference is that in the kind of case you’re talking about, well, your desires are roughly equal strengths.

LUKE: Right.

NEIL: So you weigh one against the other. In the case that Scanlon is thinking about, this goes on in some moral decisions. If someone offered you $10 to punch a random person on the street, you might…

LUKE: [laughing] I would laugh is what I would do.

NEIL: [laughs] Yeah.

LUKE: Neil, you mentioned a moment ago that the second premise of the Humean Theory of Motivation that you’re defending is that we can’t just reason our way towards new desires. But some philosophers have argued that we can choose the goals or aims or desires for which we act. But you disagree with that. How does that debate go?

NEIL: Yeah, so I’m trying to say here, unless you have a desire in the premise that you’re reasoning, you can’t reason your way to a new desire So let me describe the kinds of cases that my opponents are thinking about.

LUKE: Yeah.

NEIL: There is some kinds of cases where somebody has a couple of different reasons to do one action. There is selfish things pulling on them. There is more high-minded things pulling on them. Suppose you have …Let’s take an example involving medieval times. The king has proposed marriage to this poor woman. She knows she could be queen and get lots of wealth and power. She would like her reason for marrying to be love instead of money. Can she marry for love rather than marrying for the wealth and power that comes from being queen? Suppose she desires to make the decision on that basis.

Well, I think this depends. This depends a lot on the strengths of her various desires. So if it turns out that she desires him for his personal attributes and loves the king enough to marry him for that reason, she could say, “Look, even if wealth, and money, and becoming queen weren’t a factor, I’d still do this.”

In some cases, you can do that. In other cases, you can’t. In other cases you just desire… If you don’t find the king lovable enough, there’s just no way you can, honestly and with self-knowledge, say to yourself, “Yes, I would have done it for that reason.”

So whether or not you can choose your reasons, I think in some cases we can. In some cases we can do what I was doing [when] talking about the Scanlon example. Block one possible way of getting to action and the ordinary desires to block things.

In some cases you can do that, but in some cases your desire strengths are just not organized in the appropriate way with the right desires being strong enough so you can do this. And in those cases, you can’t choose your reasons. Even though you act for this reason, you might end up acting on a reason you’re not so proud of.

LUKE: Well Neil, let me raise my own example. I’ve been researching, recently, people who have made the decision to become vegetarians. And most of them grew up really loving meat, and really loving bacon, and sausage, and all this kind of thing. But I encounter quite a few of them on the Internet, anyway, who at least claim that they don’t really even desire meat anymore. That they’ve found a way to actually make it disgusting to them. And that seems like such a radical and fundamental change in the desire set.

And it looks very much like they were trying to reason themselves toward it because they adopted some kind of moral view that made it immoral to eat animals, or at least animals that are produced by factory farming. But you would say, I imagine, something like, “Well, there has to be a desire in the premise there somewhere. They didn’t just reason.”

So, maybe they had some kind of vague desire to be moral, whatever that means. Or they had a vague desire to not harm animals. There had to be a desire in there some way in order for them to change their desires concerning meat. Is that about right?

NEIL: Yes, that’s one way this could go. I guess in the particular case you bring up. Another way that, I think, would be possible would be for people to have a very strong disgust experience at some point when watching, say, a video about what goes on at factory farms. And then, if they have that strong disgust experience and associate it with a particular food, well, this can non-rationally, at least not through a process of reasoning, change your desires. There may even be ways in which you can do this without such a vivid external stimulus.

Maybe, people have such… This is to go back to the desire to be moral, or the desire to be good, or whatever. If you have that desire really strongly and you come to, through what is at first a process of reasoning, have the thought, “OK, yeah, that’s really bad.”

And have the negative emotion whenever you think of something – whenever you think of meat you have this very strong negative emotion. It’s possible that just the juxtaposition constantly of meat and this negative emotion ends up, with time, non-rationally, through these associations, causing you to feel more negative sentiments towards meat.

LUKE: Yeah. So would you say that it would be impossible for someone like me to, say, just do some study in normative ethics and applied ethics. Most people don’t do that. But let’s say I was doing that and I came to believe that capitalism was just fundamentally immoral. And let’s say that this was a change from my previous belief. But I didn’t have a disgust response, at least consciously. I didn’t encounter the vast differences in wealth that capitalism produces, and run into homeless people on the street, and have a disgust response that this was reality in the wealthiest nation on earth.

Instead, I just was sitting in my room reading philosophy papers and I came to believe that this was the position that was best defended by the arguments. You’re still saying that there is a desire somewhere in the premise for what my new desire is, and I can’t just be reasoned into new desires?

NEIL: Well, right. And I think, as a matter of psychological fact, when you look around you’re going to see this. The kind of people who will pursue normative ethics with lots of interest, this kind of study, are going to probably be people who, well, desire to do the good or care about the good. That’s why they find it interesting. So, that’s the kind of person who would, then, discover this and then think, “Wow, OK, I really should do something to bring down modern industrial capitalism,” or whatever they ended up deciding to do.

So, I think you could, actually, even without desires in the picture at all, come to form the belief that certain things are good and bad. I’m a cognitivist externalist Humean, to use Michael Smith’s way of carving up positions. I believe that moral judgments are beliefs. You can form these beliefs through just philosophical study.

Even if you didn’t care about the good… It would be a curious matter of why you got so interested in philosophy, in moral philosophy, if you didn’t care about the good. But anyway, you couldn’t form these beliefs and then just think, “Yeah, I guess that’s good. But who cares? I’m going to do evil. I don’t care about the good.” But then if you actually acted, well, that shows that you have some desire to do the good.

LUKE: Well, what you’re using here is something called… something like the Belief Desire Intention Model. Or the Belief Desire Model of Intention. Could you flesh out what that actually is? Then what are some of the major criticisms of the Belief Desire Intention Model?

NEIL: So some people think that there are beliefs, and desires, and a third thing, intention, which is irreducible to beliefs and desires. I think Michael Bratman is one of the people who defended that kind of view. I like a lot of things Bratman says. But I think that we can actually successfully reduce intention to beliefs and desires.

LUKE: Mm-hm.

NEIL: He’s actually pretty reductionist once you get above intentions. He thinks he can reduce a lot of things to intention. I think the reduction goes down even further. Intention is reduced into beliefs and desires. So that’s the difference between two kinds of people there. So what is my view here? Well, I think that an intention is composed of a desire that phi. And a belief that by doing some action, you could make it more likely that phi – by doing some action in some kind of situation.

This desire and this belief have to be put together so that if you were to believe you were in the situation, you would then have some motivation to do this action that came from this desire and belief. So what I end up doing is reducing intention to these two things. It’s just a very neatly reductive account that’s psychologically pretty simple like that.

So why do people think is right? Well, people think that there are a lot of phenomena that this account can’t explain, phenomena of intention. Bratman’s big objection to it was about whether this account could explain the way we deliberate. The kind of thing he said was, “First of all, how can this explain how we keep seeking information about how to achieve the objects of our intention?”

Suppose you have an intention to do something. You have an intention to go to a movie later today. You’re going to, at some point, start thinking about, “OK, how can I get from my house to the movie theater?”

I know my intention is I’m supposed to see a movie. Well, how do I get over there. OK. Where am I going to get the money to pay for the ticket. OK. Once you have one intention, you end up wheezing about a bunch of other things associated with it.

LUKE: Yeah.

NEIL: Bratman wondered how the Desire Belief Model could explain this. I think this is one of the big differences between me and a lot of people who have talked about the Desire Belief Model. I think desire is a lot richer as a psychological state than they do. Bratman and lots of other people only really considered desire as something that motivates action, and didn’t really think of, “OK, this is just something that motivates action. How is this going to drive reasoning?” Well, the kind of thing I’m going to say is desire also directs your attention. This is very familiar from basic cases of desire.

Suppose you’re really hungry and you walk into a room with some food and some other objects. Well, you pay attention to the food. You’re not going to notice what the wood grain is like on the floor, or whether the ceiling is spackled, or not. If you’re hungry, you look at the food.

Desire directs your attention like that. If you want to see this movie, well, you’re going to direct your attention to the things relevant to the satisfaction of your desire. That’s how desire shapes deliberation.

So take Bratman’s question. Why does having one intention – an intention to see a movie – cause you to deliberate about all those other things? Well, it’s because intention is made of desire. Your desire directs your attention. So you’re thinking about all these other things, attending to them, focusing on them. I think the way that intention causes you to focus on various considerations falls very naturally out of the Desire Belief view.

LUKE: What’s another major criticism of the Belief Desire Model of Intention?

NEIL: One of them that we got to before was the question about whether it allows you to choose your reasons for acting.

LUKE: Yeah.

NEIL: So that’s one thing. I guess, the third one is question of whether the Desire Belief view can explain this particular intention-related phenomenon that Elizabeth Anscombe found very interesting. The phenomenon being one of, if you’re phi-ing intentionally then you tend to believe that you are phi-ing. The Desire Belief View doesn’t really have anything that explains this in a direct hard-wired kind of way. All we have is this desire and the belief is a means-end belief. It’s not a belief that you’re doing something. It’s a belief that by acting, you can bring something about. Which is…

LUKE: Right.

NEIL: … for me, a means-end belief. So people sympathetic to … Or people who at least say something who could help out the Desire Belief View say, “Well, the way you do it is you know what your intentions are before hand. You know that you’re in the situation where you would act on your intentions, so you know you’re doing something.” You infer it from knowledge of your past intention, to knowledge and knowledge that you’re going to act on your intention in a particular situation. So you infer from those that you’re acting.” So there’s a big debate about this.

In this paper I have, I cooked up this really complicated scenario. Because it’s really hard to think of a scenario where you intend to phi, you act on that. Actually, your confidence that you’re fine goes down because you’re acting.

But it comes with this weird scenario involving this girl who’s been taken captive by an evil wizard who claims he cast a spell on her but really didn’t and then summons a weird demon. It’s a bit involved, but it’s in the paper.

But anyway, what happens is if you were in a sufficiently weird situation where you have the belief that intending to do something will actually make it less likely that you’re doing it, well, in those cases, intending to do something… You form this intention and you’re acting on it, but for some reason you can’t see yourself acting. You’re like, “Hey, I must not be doing it, because I formed this intention that’s going to prevent me from doing it.”

LUKE: Right.

NEIL: So yeah, that’s basically the structure of the case. So I think those cases are possible. They’re just really weird. Because our intentions are usually so close to us that nothing gets between us and them. But you can actually concoct funny situations where something gets between us and our intentions.

LUKE: Now Neil, we’ve been talking about some things and you’re a philosopher, but it looks like these are all really psychological issues. How does motivation work in homo sapiens? How do beliefs and desires work? So I’m suspecting that in the end, it will be cognitive scientists who will answer these questions with more certainty. So what is the philosopher doing when he’s butting in here and trying to predict where the science will go?

NEIL: Well, I think the way you describe the situation is exactly accurate. I think in the end the right answers to these questions about how action is motivated are going to be answered by cognitive scientists. I think eventually neuroscience will figure this stuff out. The thing is we’re a very long way away from that.

LUKE: Yeah.

NEIL: Back when I was in the fourth year of grad school, I thought, “OK, I’m going to defend the Humean Theory of Motivation by looking at empirical scientific, psychological, neuroscientific research.” Really, it was just a mess. In neuroscience, they don’t have the brain mapped out well enough to be able to say anything that’s very useful on these issues. Sometimes I’d talk to psychologists and I respected the ones… At this point, I look back very respectfully at the ones who told me, “Well, I don’t really have much for you on this.”

Because a lot of them were like, “Oh yeah, I have this paper. Read it!” I’d read the paper and be like, “You know, this doesn’t begin to answer the question.” Eventually they’ll get it. So what’s the philosopher doing right now?

LUKE: Yeah.

NEIL: Well, one thing I think I’m doing is figuring out what the consequences of various theories are. What does the Belief Desire Theory say about when we’re going to know what we’re doing? What does it say about whether we can choose our reasons? I think a lot of philosophers right now have not realized what conceptual resources are at the disposal of the Belief Desire Theory.

LUKE: Right.

NEIL: So my job right here is to just marshal all those resources and say, “Here are some predictions the Belief Desire Theory actually makes that people didn’t realize it would make.” That’s good work for a philosopher to do. Hopefully, in the end, the empirical people return the result that, “Yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on.” Maybe they’ll return the result that, “No, actually the predictions Sinhababu said the Belief Desire Theory makes are actually false.”

OK. Well, then that’s a problem. But those are… just figuring out what the consequence of a theory are, that’s philosophical, and that’s what I’m doing.

LUKE: Yeah. I have to suspect, though, that even if that is what you’re doing, it might be the case that a great number of philosophers are just motivated by, “I just want to figure this out right now before science can get around to it.” I think that would be a huge part of my own motivation in doing that kind of research. Just like, Thales didn’t have scientific instruments. So he tried to philosophize about astronomy instead of doing science about astronomy. I think a lot of philosophers today… We’re just a curious species. We want to know how this stuff works. So we’re trying to philosophize about human nature. When in the end, it will be the cognitive scientists who really figure it out.

NEIL: Right. Yes, I hope in the future when people look back at me, they don’t look back at me as like, “Oh, he was the guy who thought that everything was made of water.” [laughs]

LUKE: You might be closer to the truth than that.

NEIL: [laughs] OK yes. But, here’s one thing I think we have going for us. A lot of this ends up being phenomenological, ends up being about we feel this way at this time. That’s one big part of what’s going on in the phenomena that theories of motivation and action. What are the physiological theories that explain those things are also supposed to explain? They’re supposed to explain our emotions. And there is, as far as I can tell, always going to be a very first personal phenomenological side of explaining motivational processes, as long as we’re trying to explain the emotions that come along with them too. And that’s something that, I think, we are always going to have to do in this very introspective kind of way. I don’t see any way out of that.

So I’m doing there research that takes things, as far as I can really imagine them being taken. Of course, on the causation of action side. And on a lot of the processes that lead up to, that cause one to feel a certain emotion. Sure, there’s lots of stuff going on there that doing MRI research, or whatever, will be very helpful with.

But, what do we feel like right at this moment. I think, that’s actually something that we’re in pretty good condition to talk about right now. So, I have that data.

LUKE: Well Neil, let’s talk about something that might, just by its very nature, always remain part of philosophy and not science. And that would be Normative Theory. Let’s talk about morality. One of the major questions in Normative Theory is “What are the sources of normativity?” What is it that can provide reasons for action, or reasons for doing things? What is it that can provide oughts? If God commanded something would, that provide us with reason for action?

What about hypothetical considerations about the society that people would build if people didn’t know which lot in life they would get? Do these provide reasons for action? Or what about intrinsic value?

Could that provide reasons for action? So could you introduce us to the debate about the sources of normativity and what might provide us with oughts and reasons for action?

NEIL: I guess I can give you a very bad introduction because it’s a debate full of all sorts of interesting, complicated positions that… And I can’t really spell them all out in a few minutes. But, here’s just a few options you might have. Some people think that the facts about what one ought to believe, ought to do… There are all these different kinds of oughts. These oughts are independent, separate things that we see through the light of reason not derivable from some general rule. You look into Plato’s Heaven and then see it view, I guess, to caricature it a little bit.

There’s other people who think that “Yeah, reason plays this role.” But, they think more like Kant. That all these things are derivable from some central fact about how reason works. You can go that way too. And there is divine command people out there. But, that view is less popular in the mainstream of philosophy these days.

The view I lend myself is at least– Well, let me say this first. I think the answers might be different for different domains. So, perhaps, epistemic norms, the norms governing rational belief, go one way.

Whereas, there is a different, metanormative theory for ethics, or for practical rationality, or definitely etiquette is something that probably some relativist theory might be good for. The subjectivism is right for aesthetics. And so, you’d get different domains with different sources of normativity, as it were.

So the one thing I like for ethics, in particular is, I’m inclined towards a synthetic, reductive, naturalist view, where pleasure is good. I’m a hedonic-utilitarian, so pleasure is good, ends up being away from me. But, you can fill it in with other things other then pleasure if you’d like.

Pleasure is good, ends up being like H20 is water. And we end up discovering this… I think the way we are going to have to discover this is by looking at our processes of belief formation, of moral belief formation. Figuring out which ones reliably lead us to the truth and which ones don’t.

This is a bit tough. Because how do we know what’s leading us to the truth, or do we have to know the truth first?

LUKE: Yeah.

NEIL: Well, one thing we can do is… For one thing we can look at processes that, across different people, give contradictory judgments. Because if you see a process giving contradictory judgments across different people then it must be going wrong sometimes. So you can rule some out if they just give massively contradictory judgments across different people. There’s another way you can do it by, some processes might output both moral judgments and judgments of some other kind that we have some other kind of access to.

So if some process gave us judgments about morality and, I guess, judgments about, I don’t know, physics or math or maybe if we felt more confident about some issues in practical rationality. For example, suppose if we found out that… and I think that this actually is, given some stuff in neuroscience that I’ve seen, perhaps correct.

That discounting the future, very strongly in particularly, the ways that we think are irrational future discounting, comes out of the same psychological pathways that lead us to accept the views of the Doctrine of Double Effect. Well, I think that’s bad news for the Doctrine of Double Effect. If it ends up being…

LUKE: And what’s the Doctrine of Double Effect?

NEIL: One thing that’s fundamental to the doctrine is that intended harms are worse to generate than harms you merely foresee that don’t intend, or at least, that’s the way it’s usually put. So, you take these trolley cases where people think it’s more wrong to push the fat man over the bridge, blocking the trolley and saving the five people who, otherwise, would have been run over. The fat man is big enough that he can block the trolley so it doesn’t run over five people.

LUKE: He’s an American, basically. [laughter]

NEIL: So, yeah. You do that versus – Suppose you’re standing, as a bystander, near the switch. You see the trolley is going to run over five people. You switch the trolley. It turns the other way and runs over one guy. OK. People think, fine to switch the trolley and run over one guy. Not OK to push the fat person over the bridge so that it hits him and thus doesn’t hit the five people behind him. That difference is explained in terms of double effect. You intend the fat guy to get hit by the trolley. The one thing that I want to add here that is not usually mentioned is I don’t think you intend for the fat guy to die. You just intend him to block the trolley. But, setting that aside, people say. “Oh you intend for him to die.” Let me just run with that a little bit.

That thing is different from this thing that’s where you just turn the track and you don’t have any intention, whatsoever, involving the one guy who gets run over. What I think is going on there is… So that’s the Doctrine of Double Effect.

It is one of the things that separates the “Switching the trolley” case from the “Pushing the fat man” case. What I think is going on there is really that we more vividly imagine things that are tightly connected to our intention, than things that are just downstream future things that we merely foresee, but don’t intend.

So, of course, you have to, when you think about what you’re intending, imagine the train hitting the fat guy. And even if you don’t, actually, intend him to get killed. Even If he ends up being a superhero who can turn his body into titanium. [mimics a superhero being unaffected by the trolley] … Blocks the train and survives. OK.

Still, you have to imagine the trolley hitting him with the vividness that you imagine whatever you intended. And so, when you think about him, the gory scene where he’s probably not the superhero, dies a gruesome death. You have to imagine that much more vividly than you have to imagine the death of one guy further downstream.

Differentially vivid imagination is showing up here. And that’s not a reliable way to make decisions. I mean, this is something that paradigmatic cases of irrational behavior involve.

So, the guy cheats on his wife with the woman who’s right there in front of him. He’s not thinking about how good it would be to have a stable marriage when he’s 50 years old. He’s thinking about her and seeing attractive features of her. And his sensory experience is dominated by that rather than things he isn’t imagining so vividly that are further away.

Look, that’s irrational decision making driven by differentially vivid imagination. So what I want to say about the Doctrine of Double Effect is, we know that actions you take driven by differentially vivid imagination are unreliably made. We are not looking at the merits of the this situation properly there. We know that from ordinary cases where we say that people are irrational.

Well, suppose it turns out that the Doctrine of Double Effect is supported by the same psychological pathways, unequal vivid imagination that give rise to that irrational behavior. Well, that’s a problem for double effect. So, yeah, that’s how I think a naturalist way of going about this looks.

LUKE: So Neil, I’m not quite clear on the method that you’re using to come to some conclusions about what the sources of normativity for ethics are or which ethical theory you adopt. One way to do it is to try to look at our most certain moral conclusions, like “Rape and murder are morally wrong and giving to charity is right, ” or something like that. And then we try to infer from those particulars some grander theory about what might be right and wrong, but basically taking our basic intuitions as the data that we work with. Another way to do it would be to look at our moral discourse and try to generalize about what we typically mean by using moral terms, and then we look to see whether those terms can successfully refer to things in the world. Or you might look at the physical process of how motivation and how moral beliefs form, and try to generalize a way from that.

What’s the method that you’re using to come to your conclusions about which moral theory is right, or what sources of normativity there are in ethics?

NEIL: This method is: look at the process of belief formation that gave rise to various intuitions. If you see that some intuitions came to us through processes that are unreliable in leading us to true judgments, discount those intuitions. Work with what’s left over.

LUKE: OK. Would this mean that the sources of normativity end up being an accident of human biology, so that if we had evolved slightly differently and the processes for forming our moral beliefs were a little bit different, then the norms would be very, very different.

NEIL: No, I don’t want to say that. When we were talking about ways to implement naturalism, I got more into the epistemology of the metaphysics there. But, to return to the metaphysical issue, that methodology doesn’t commit you to anything in particular about what the sources of normativity are.

I like a synthetic, reductive, naturalist view there because it puts moral facts in a very convenient place where it’s easy to know about them, or easy to know about them once we get our unreliable processes out of the way.

LUKE: So you were speaking epistemologically.

NEIL: Exactly.

LUKE: It’s basically just like critical thinking. We’re trying to weed out incorrect types of reasoning so that we can get at the truth, in this case, just about norms, instead of about regular facts of the world, or synthetic truths, or something like that.

NEIL: Right.

LUKE: Ontologically, then, you’re saying that normative value is something that’s part of the natural world. It’s not something that’s independent in a platonic Heaven.

NEIL: Right.

LUKE: It sounds like you’re saying it’s also not something we’re just going to derive… You’re not really taking a Kantian view, are you? Where you’re saying it’s just something that we’re going to derive from the categories of how we think about things?

NEIL: No. I like the naturalist position a lot more, where you’re deriving from the categories we think about things, the way I do it as a hedonic utilitarian, is I think that we encounter goodness in pleasure. We can see the goodness of pleasure to phenomenal introspection, just like you can see the brightness of yellow. That’s how we find goodness in a reliable way, because phenomenal introspection is generally reliable. So that’s what I want to say about that. I guess to connect the epistemology and metaphysics in one more way. I think the way this methodology I’ve laid out, the way the epistemology that I’ve laid out, supports a naturalistic metaphysics, is that if it turned out that we had to respect our entire set of moral intuitions, there would be theoretical considerations there pushing us, perhaps, to some kind of non-naturalist view.

Because we wouldn’t have an adequately simple account of what moral right and wrong were, and we might be pushed in some other way. Because I end up thinking a huge number of our moral intuitions come through unreliable processes, and because that leads me to accept only what’s left over, this hedonist, “Pleasure is good” stuff, I end up with a normative ethics that is incredibly simple and that is amenable to a very straightforward, H2O, water-style reduction. You don’t have multiple realizability of the ethical going on. You just have unique realizability of the ethical in terms of the non-ethical of good in terms of pleasure.

LUKE: One reason that if we just took all of our basic moral intuitions for granted, that might push you towards non-naturalism, is that the set of intuitions that we have about morality are just insane. [laughter]

NEIL: Yeah.

LUKE: They’re so inconsistent and just all over the map and don’t fit at all. You would just have to posit a thousand different ethical truths that are just basic in a non-natural reality to account for that.

NEIL: The guy who actually thinks that’s the case, Jonathan Dancy, a big particularist. He was on my dissertation committee. He observed this very interesting opposition between me the Humean utilitarian and him the non-naturalist particularist. It was one of these things where I would make him certain kinds of concessions in terms of, “Look, I’m not going to give an apriori argument that your theory of motivation is wrong. I’m going to do this all a posteriori and give you the conceptual terrain you want.”

Surprisingly, he was just, ” All right, great. If I’ve got that, you can be… It’s OK if you’re right. It’s just that I have to not be ruled out conceptually.” It was like, “All right. Great. Nice.”


LUKE: Yeah. Well, Neil, I think what might help in becoming clear about how you’re coming to your conclusions in normative theory would be to ask how could it be that your theory could be falsified? Or is this not really the type of theory that could be falsified?

NEIL: Which, the defense of utilitarianism…?

LUKE: Yeah, let’s say the defense of hedonic utilitarianism.

NEIL: There’s a lot of steps to the argument, so there’s a lot of places where someone could inject. At one place, suppose it turned out that we were terrible at phenomenal introspection. Then we perhaps would know that pleasure is good, but that would be a little bit surprising.

LUKE: Well, it’s something that Eric Schwitzgebel would argue.

NEIL: Yeah. I’ve seen that paper. I haven’t read the paper. I don’t know if the “pleasure is good” thesis I’m defending ends up being so trivial that he’s OK with it or not. But, anyway, yeah, so that’s one way. Another way that would be good for a lot of other moral theorists, though not for the utilitarian, would be if it turned out that there was less moral disagreement than I think there is. I think we just need to do a lot more anthropology to see how much there is.

But, if it turned out there was some way that people could generally be reliable so that intuition is a generally reliable way of knowing, then you might be able to build up with more justification an ethical theory with respect to a lot of intuitions.

Part of why I’m a utilitarian is that there is a gigantic amount of moral disagreement that I think comes from processes that are not phenomenal introspection, and thus we need to cast those processes aside.

LUKE: The consequence of adopting a hedonic utilitarian approach is that these questions in applied ethics – what is the right thing to do? What is the wrong thing to do? – Turn out really to be empirical questions that you can go out and measure. I’m assuming you’ve got some view like which actions, or which desires, or which beliefs, or whatever do tend to bring about pleasure, or however you phrase it. That’s a scientific question.

NEIL: Absolutely. Right.

LUKE: And the consequences of the science might be very different than what our intuitions are.

NEIL: Right. So that’s basically what happens to applied ethics if utilitarianism is right. There’s a lot of conceptual work to be done in setting up utilitarianism, but once you accept that, the rest of the way is just answering empirical questions.

LUKE: So, Neil, if you’re adopting that view, “Pleasure is the thing that has value in the universe, that should be maximized, ” does your view depend on saying that nothing else besides pleasure has value?

NEIL: Yeah. I’m trying to hold that too. I have an argument from disagreement for that conclusion. The way the argument goes is, we have all this massive cross-cultural disagreement. It’s so much disagreement, in fact, disagreement about an objective matter, somebody has to be wrong. Some part of this disagreement has to be wrong. Since there’s so much disagreement, there’s a huge amount of error out there. If it turns out that all this error is the result of some relatively unified psychological process, well, now it’s time to declare that process unreliable, and probe out the judgments made on the basis of it.

I think the way that we usually form moral judgments is an unreliable process. The way, I think, we do this – there’s some psychological research to support this – is on the basis of having emotional responses to states of affairs in the world, seeing them through our emotions, and actually looking at them through the colors of emotion, coming to believe that they’re wrong.

So I think that’s an unreliable process, and my argument for hedonic utilitarianism is first that argumen from disagreement cause you to cast out the judgments that you make on the basis of looking at things through emotion, which gets rid of basically everything.

And the only thing I can find us believing on the basis of a different reliable process is the goodness of pleasure. So that’s how you get everything else being wrong and the positive claims of hedonism being right.

LUKE: I imagine Occam’s razor might come to your assistance as well, because a lot of the other posited sources of normativity don’t really have any evidence going for them phenomenological or otherwise. It could be the case where divine commands provide normative oughts, but there’s no evidence that divine commands exist. Would you say the same thing for categorical imperatives? I don’t know.

NEIL: Yeah, so let me say, first yes, I want to swing Occam’s razor around really aggressively here. On the categorical imperatives issue, there’s a bunch of places to argue with Kant and his deduction of the moral law. But one that I think, one that comes out of the things that we talked about before in this podcast was just the desire belief account of motivation. He assumes an account of motivation that’s very different from that where people are acting on the basis of maxims that reason has a certain amount of control over.

Now if it turns out that we aren’t creatures that are motivated in the way that Kant thinks we’re motivated. If it turns out that we’re just purely desire belief motivated creatures, well, I don’t think that Kant’s way of generating norms has any grip on us. We end up, as far as I can tell, being, well the way that Kant would have thought of animals. The moral law doesn’t apply to us, so you can get problems for Kant that way too.

LUKE: Neil, on your view then of hedonic utilitarianism, would it falsify that theory if someone could do an experiment that would show that people are motivated by something other than pleasure, or that people find some other things besides pleasure to be good? I’m not really sure how you would do that but would that be conceptually possible?

NEIL: Right. I think it is actual that people are motivated by things other than pleasure and that people find other things to be good. I don’t base my argument– It’s definitely not the old motivational argument where,” Yeah. Whatever people pursue is good and people pursue pleasure.” It’s not the old Mill argument like that. Rather, it’s that through phenomenal introspection we can detect goodness in pleasure without having, without using the emotional process. That’s the important thing there. You can detect the goodness of pleasure through phenomenal introspection without using this emotional process. Phenomenal introspection is reliable, nothing else is.

LUKE: So you don’t think that there are other things that we would introspectively look at and see to be good introspectively?

NEIL: Well, phenomenal introspection is a very specific process… This is a process by which you look inward at your experiences, your sensations, or your emotions, just internal components of your subjective experience, and you know what they’re like. You know that a certain experience you’re having right now as you listen to me talk you is a sound experience, you can identify it as such. You can look at your yellow and know that it’s a bright experience. If there’s a spicy taste on your tongue, you can tell that you’re having a taste experience.

So just that thing. If you’re the David Chalmers stuff, I ‘m going to end up saying that zombies are creatures for whom there is nothing good and bad, because they can’t have phenomenal states like pleasure. So there’s a specific process by which we know what we’re feeling at that level: feeling, sensing, seeing, whatever. That process is the one I’m saying is the reliable process.

Now that process doesn’t really tell us anything more about good. I mean you can tell like, “Yeah OK I’m having a bluish, visual experience right now as I look at my desktop background, ” or you don’t even introspect that you are looking at your desktop background. That’s a fact about the physical world outside. The range of things that phenomenal introspection gives you is very limited.

LUKE: So Neil, let’s come at this from another way. How do you think it might be possible to build up hedonic utilitarianism as a theory of morality from such a sparse ontology of sources of normativity or reasons for action as what you’re proposing. Philippa Foot argued for something like this in her paper “Morality is a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” but she later recanted from her heresy.

NEIL: Yeah.

LUKE: Would you defend something like Philippa Foot’s position, or where are you coming from?

NEIL: Absolutely. I think that “Morality is a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” is an absolutely wonderful paper. We actually taught it in my ethics class last week. Of course, I actually teach things I disagree with very strongly too. But that I taught and loved. And I agree with that view even if she recanted it. If people look at my blog, there is a cheeky song dedication to Philippa Foot where I…

LUKE: I saw that, yeah.

NEIL: Yeah. That’s a song about a woman who is somewhat less exciting now, but was having a wonderful time being naughty when she was younger, and how awesome she was. And I can also say that it’s scandalous to say these things just so recently after her death. Her being an absolutely wonderful moral philosopher, who’s writing I love to read. Yeah, that view is one that I strongly agree with, the view being that I guess, to put it the poetic way that we are all volunteers, not conscripts in the army of morality.

That we are not all given reasons by the moral rightness of some course of action or another. Those who desire to do evil will not have reasons, in the sense that we’re usually talking about when we talk about practical rationality, to do the good thing.

But I don’t think that this is really a big problem. I stand with Hume on this particular issue, that calling somebody irrational, need not be a moral criticism. That the rational and the moral are separate kinds of things. There’s an old line from Hume about how,” I am more to be lamented than blamed if I am an irrational person.” That suggests those are two separate domains that should be considered separately.

Yeah. What I want to say here is, if you’re… And I think one of the places where one of the natural kinds of evaluation that this comes up is, suppose you’re thinking about the evil person who makes a foolish decision, or an irrational decision carrying out his evil scheme. And this doesn’t do as much evil as he wants to.

Perhaps he’s about to blow up the airplane, but he’s distracted by the sight of cute, wounded cat, and tries to help the cat and then misses the chance to blow up the airplane. And he’s always cursing himself, “Darn it, ” And given how much he cared about blowing up the airplane, you could say, “He made an irrational decision, but he made a morally good decision.”

I think that’s actually a perfectly reasonable way to talk about him. So yeah, rationality and morality, I think, do come apart. And do we have a theory that’s right for one thing, and it doesn’t give us the answers that make all the moral come out of something that you have reason to do. And I think that’s fine.

LUKE: Well, Neil, I agree with you about morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives. And I think the reason a lot of people will resist that even if they just intuitively accept a roughly Humean account of motivation, is that we really want something where we can take all the evil people, all the Enron CEO’s in the world. And we can line them up, and just tell them something, and prove to them that what they’re doing is morally wrong, and then they’ll just see the light. And they’ll just change their mind, and they’ll become good. And that way we could just make the world a wonderful place to live in.

And I think that if you think that the world just isn’t that way, that there is no magic answer that will make people instantly transform into good people, then we can get on with the business of figuring out what morality really is.

NEIL: Yeah, I think that’s right. I’m inclined to have people have that as an aspiration that, “I’ll build a moral theory that will convince anybody to do the right thing.” But I certainly don’t want it to be regarded as some kind of fundamental law of moral philosophy that there is going to be such an argument. I think that is just a disastrous place to start.

LUKE: Yeah, the way I think about it is that a lot of people will think that, “Well, morality is like this law and there can’t be a law without a lawgiver. So therefore, if a God doesn’t exist, then there’s no such thing as morality.” And meanwhile, moral philosophers have been doing moral philosophy without God for a century or a millennia, depending on how you do it. And they’ll just say, “What are you talking about? You mean I’m not studying morality? What are you talking about?”


And so I think the same thing here. You start with the very unreasonable expectation that moral theory requires that you be able to provide this magic answer that will transform evil people into good people. And if you don’t have that, then you’re not talking about morality, and it’s not real morality.

I think that’s just the wrong expectation to start with. And once we shed ourselves of those limitations, we can really get out the truth about morality and normativity.

NEIL: I think that’s right.

Interviewer: Well Neil, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for coming on the show.

NEIL: OK. Yeah. It’s been great, Luke.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Thormantos December 5, 2010 at 11:08 am

Sinhababu is the man. Thanks for interviewing him!


The Atheist Missionary December 6, 2010 at 4:48 am

I really enjoyed this episode. I am grateful that you fellows keep in mind that many of your listeners enjoy academic philosophy but only have a passing knowledge of the subject.


Joe December 6, 2010 at 7:41 am

Luke, I would enjoy listening to a conversation between you and Holly Ordway. There is a recent podcast on apologetics 315 with her.


Luke Muehlhauser December 6, 2010 at 9:31 am

That’s my goal! Thanks, The Atheist Missionary.


Garren December 7, 2010 at 8:10 am

As a fan of both moral naturalism and Kate Nash (best love song), I was happy to stumble across the musical tie-in on Neil’s blog last summer.

Regarding the hedonic utilitarianism, I wonder if it might be better to approach that with the attitude: “Increasing pleasure and reducing pain is one of the main moral aims (as discovered by examining how moral language is used), and it’s the one I endorse using to the exclusion of other conventional — and sometimes conflicting — moral aims.”


Zeb December 9, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Shoot, I was really looking forward to this one because I was hoping to get an explanation of why one should subscribe to a Humean theory of motivation. Did I miss it? Oh well, just getting a description of the Humean theory and Sinhababu’s specific take on it was interesting. But I’d like to see a post from you titled, “Why I subscribe to a Humean theory of motivation” some day.


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